The persistence of gulls

Herring-Gull

A crisp, cold morning and, walking up through the park, I see two sets each of four magpies but mainly wonder at the unusual number of common gulls, black-headed gulls and herring gulls. I recall, though, a day last year when the Librarian and I saw almost a hundred gulls scattered across the grass on either side of the park. Towards the centre of one large group of them on the left-hand side, a gathering of sparrows; towards the rear and again to one side, two loose groups of wood pigeons. All of them feeding, grazing, pecking, circling. Wet weather, the grass recently cut and still rich green. The upshot: a bad day to be a worm. That note to be scrawled in countless earthy diaries and gardening journals against the date of 16th November: Bad Worm Day.

Yes, we may outnumber the rats by six to one in this country – but there are always the gulls. . . Just a few weeks ago, walking along the front at Lyme Regis, holding tightly shut the box containing fish and chips, I was dive-bombed by a gull, its beak thumping against the lid. At Lyme these days the fish and chips stallholders routinely warn you about the gulls as they hand over your order but I’d naively thought that holding the box closed was a reasonable response to that warning.

Years ago, in my room at the top of an eighteenth-century townhouse in Bath, I would hear the gulls circling and crying outside the window. Later, living in a seaside town where gulls were, unsurprisingly, common, I would be reminded of Bath. Moving again, years later, I would recall the seaside town as a place in which I heard gulls and was reminded of Bath. And so on. On a day when their flight paths seem higher than usual, their calls still sometimes bring back a long ago holiday in Wales, in a cottage set back from the cliff edge above the beach, where gulls would ride the currents of air and be flung high up above the wall at the end of the thin garden, laughing like maniacs.

So immediately and unmistakeably evoking the sea; yet now perhaps even more familiar in urban settings, certainly in parks and on rubbish tips. As a child when I asked about seagulls spotted on pavements or rooftops, I was told: ‘It’s rough at sea.’ That was the assumption: seagulls unable to find food at sea had been driven inland, to try their luck in the cities. Now, of course, there’s so much rubbish in the streets, smeared with sugar and salt and sauces, with chunks of rotting meat and fish, why would they bother to do an honest day’s work out at sea?

Always the gulls. Certainly with the poets, through whose work they wheel and wail endlessly. Jack Bevan’s translations of the Sicilian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, who won the 1959 Nobel Prize for Literature, were published in the Penguin European Poets series in the mid-1960s (my copy’s worn but dourly resilient). Here’s ‘Again I Hear The Sea’

Quasimodo

(Salvatore Quasimodo)

Many nights now I have heard the sound of the sea
once more, lightly rising and falling on smooth beaches.
A voice’s echo shut away in the mind,
rising from time; and, too, this persistent
crying of gulls; perhaps of
tower birds that April
is tempting onto the plains. Once
you, with that voice, were near me;
and I wish now that there could come to you
also an echo memory of me,
like that dark ocean murmur.[1]

There was a period in bookselling when a certain kind of reader would buy a sort of starter pack: this would include Gibran’s The Prophet and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Then, as their reading muscles toughened, they’d move on to Trout Fishing in America and Siddhartha. And then – did they all train to be therapists or did it only seem so? Perhaps only the more disturbed ones.

Elizabeth-Smart

(Elizabeth Smart)

The poet George Barker published a novel, described somewhere as ‘tortuously symbolic’, called The Dead Seagull, which drew heavily on his relationship with the novelist and poet Elizabeth Smart. A paperback, published by Panther, I believe, with heavier perhaps silk coated paper and line drawings but this could be invention. I lent it to the poet Tony Lopez decades ago and didn’t see it again. That much is not invention. These poets…

A Roman amphitheatre
crumbling in bright sunlight

no christians or lions
only the brittle dried
body of a cat

He sits, halfway up the stalls
listening to the gulls
resting his eyes

listening to the sea, so sleepy
this damned heat and the flies

startled
by the fast train to Figueras
crashing through the arches[2]

William Carlos Williams observed, conscripted or devised some symbolically peaceable gulls:

And the next thing I say is this:
I saw an eagle once circling against the clouds
over one of our principal churches—
Easter, it was—a beautiful day!
three gulls came from above the river
and crossed slowly seaward!
Oh, I know you have your own hymns, I have heard them—
and because I knew they invoked some great protector
I could not be angry with you, no matter
how much they outraged true music—

You see, it is not necessary for us to leap at each other,
and, as I told you, in the end
the gulls moved seaward very quietly.[3]

John Masefield’s Billy had his own notions about them:

‘Goneys an’ gullies an’ all o’ the birds o’ the sea
They ain’t no birds, not really,’ said Billy the Dane.
‘Not mollies, nor gullies, nor goneys at all,’ said he,
‘But simply the sperrits of mariners livin’ again.’

[Goneys: albatrosses.
Gullies: seagulls.
Mollies: mollyhawks or fulmar petrels.][4]

Mariners living again. Some poetic sailors stay dead: like T. S. Eliot’s Phlebas, whose lapse of memory seems entirely reasonable in these circumstances, death having intervened:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.

Eliot wrote a little gloomily to Ezra Pound, who was editing what began as ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ and ended as The Waste Land, cutting out long passages of Eliot’s draft, ‘Perhaps better omit Phlebas also???’ Pound replied: ‘I DO advise keeping Phlebas. In fact I more’n advise. Phlebas is an integral part of the poem; the card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen. sailor. And he is needed ABSOlootly where he is. Must stay in.’[5]

Phlebas stayed in, ten lines salvaged from a great many more. And the forgotten gulls stayed in too. Hardly forgotten now, though, neither gulls nor Phlebas.
References

[1] Quasimodo: Selected Poems, translated with an introduction by Jack Bevan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 80.

[2] Antony Lopez, Snapshots (London: Oasis Books, 1976), 22.

[3] William Carlos Williams, ‘Gulls’, The Collected Poems, Volume 1: 1900-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987), 67.

[4] John Masefield, ‘Sea-Change’, in The Puffin Book of Salt-Sea Verse, compiled by Charles Causley (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), 172.

[5] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: a facsimile and transcript of the original drafts including the annotations of Ezra Pound, edited by Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 143, 129.

Plumbing metaphysics

THE-CONVERSION-OF-AN-OLD-FASHIONED-SCULLERY-TO-A-BATHROOM-1-CP0362

Heath Robinson (Via https://www.chrisbeetles.com/ )

‘Above all’, Lawrence Durrell once wrote, ‘the French recognize that love is a form of metaphysical enquiry. The English imagine it has something to do with the plumbing.’[1]

Durrell was centrally concerned with love—and with France and the French—while I, though always also concerned with love, have lately had plumbing forced peremptorily on my attention. Such things as angle seat wrenches, drain seal gaskets, flue baffles, flush balls, tailpieces, ball valves and stopcocks, are all mysterious to me. Sometimes I seem to know what I’m looking at but the familiarity is elusive and recedes as I approach. I see a faint parallel with our visit the other day to the marvellous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.[2]

Anglo-Saxon-K

Apart from a lot of contextual information in different media, the main focus is on surviving artefacts: jewellery, weaponry, utensils but, above all, texts (its Latin root, ‘weaving’ very visible): exquisitely beautiful decorated manuscript pages of gospels, psalters, charters, letters, herbals, treatises, glossaries, of Boethius, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, Alfred’s translations. All these in a profusion of languages: particularly Old English and Latin, Greek and Hebrew; and runic as well as Roman alphabets; but mention is also made along the way of Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Irish and Scots-Gaelic. Some of these pages arouse a strange sensation as if seeing something through bodies of water, a flickering instability, outlines familiar enough to have you straining to make out details which – once made out – only baffle or disorientate again.

Apart from the installation of a new radiator, the other plumbing issue of past days manifested itself in a wet sock. Walking from the kitchen to the stairs, I felt a wetness underfoot. We currently own no pets. ‘The floor’s wet at the bottom of the stairs’, I remarked. ‘Oh no’, the Librarian replied, with the audible sense of impending doom that I thought I’d reserved to myself. Above my head, the ceiling was stained and seemed to bulge a little. Just the light, or lack of it, I thought, as drops landed on my upturned face. British Gas, bless them, run a 24-hour service. I called, around seven that morning, was advised to turn off the water at the mains (post-showers, post-filling jugs and saucepans) and an engineer was with me by half-past nine.

As it happened, I’d been reading Sarah Perry’s first – and very distinctive – novel, After Me Comes the Flood, its unsettling nature signalled at the outset by that ambiguous ‘after’, both in the sense of temporal sequence and in that of pursuit. ‘Après nous le déluge’, Madame de Pompadour, influential mistress and confidante of Louis XV, apparently said, Louis himself being the alleged author of the alternative, more regal version (‘après moi’). James Joyce’s limerick for his friend Eugene Jolas concluded: ‘Après mot, le déluge.’[3] Revolution of the word, indeed.

Pompadour
(François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour, Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Reminded by all this of Charles Tomlinson’s 1981 collection, The Flood, I glance down the list of contents in his New Collected Poems and notice just how many of those poems concern – or connect to – water. The title poem begins:

It was the night of the flood first took away
My trust in stone. Perfectly reconciled it lay
Together with water – and does so still –
In the hill-top conduits that feed into
Cisterns of stone, cisterns echoing
With a married murmur, as either finds
Its own true note in such a unison.
It rained for thirty days. Down chimneys
And through doors, the house filled up
With the roar of waters. The trees were bare,
With nothing to keep in the threat
And music of that climbing, chiming din
Now rivers ran where the streams once were.[4]

‘The Flood’ is placed near the end of the volume, followed only by ‘Severnside’, ‘In the Estuary’ and ‘The Epilogue’ – ‘a fugue of water/ Startled the ear and air with distances/ Around and under us, as if a flood/ Came pouring in from every quarter’. ‘The Flood’ is preceded by ‘The Littleton Whale’, written in memory of Charles Olson and unsurprisingly including canal, river, sea, wave, mariner, tide, sloop ­ and whale. Before that, ‘Barque Nomen’ (‘tides reshape the terrain’), ‘Instead of an Essay’, written for Donald Davie (‘bay’, ‘coast’, ‘island’, ‘sea’, ‘stream’, ‘tide’) and ‘On a May Night’ (after the prose of Leopardi’s journal), a coachman’s daughter ‘washing a platter’ and predicting rain, which falls towards the end of the poem – so I stop there to remark that, quite apart from the mastery displayed in the individual poems, Tomlinson, like Yeats and like Pound (his recent biographer, David Moody, pays this aspect of Pound’s work a good deal of attention), was an accomplished architect of volumes, a builder of books.

Swimming-Chenango-Lake

David Morley’s new selection of Charles Tomlinson’s poems is called Swimming Chenango Lake (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018) and opens with the poem that gives the volume its title (the same poem opened The Way of a World, published in 1969).

Winter will bar the swimmer soon.
He reads the water’s autumnal hesitations
A wealth of ways: it is jarred,
It is astir already despite its steadiness,
Where the first leaves at the first
Tremor of the morning air have dropped
Anticipating him,
launching their imprints
Outwards in eccentric, overlapping circles.

Tomlinson’s next volume was entitled Written on Water (1972). It begins, reasonably enough, with a poem called ‘On Water’.

‘On’, not ‘in’. ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ was the sentence that John Keats asked Joseph Severn to have inscribed on his gravestone. ‘On’, two letters, carries at least two meanings. Alluding to the familiar notion of ships’ keels ploughing the waves, the poem suggests rather that:

‘Furrow’ is inexact:
no ship could be
converted to a plough
travelling this vitreous ebony:

seal it in sea-caves and
you cannot still it:
image on image bends
where half-lights fill it

with illegible depths
and lucid passages,
bestiary of stones,
book without pages:

and yet it confers
as much as it denies:
we are orphaned and fathered
by such solid vacancies:

I hear again the quiet eloquence of that colon (Pound’s Canto 1 ends ‘So that:’ and Canto 17 seems to continue this by beginning ‘So that the vines burst from my fingers’) and, come to think of it, the others in this short poem, functioning as more than line-endings. Incitements to thought, perhaps. Two exact rhymes, then two sight-rhymes (‘passages’/’pages’, ‘denies’, ‘vacancies’) and, again, the dialogue of stone and water. And other dialogues: ‘confers’ and ‘denies’, ‘orphaned’ and ‘fathered’ – finally, that ‘solid vacancies’, wonderful.

 
References

[1] ‘Letting the Book Breathe by Itself’, quoted by Ian MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 508.

[2] The catalogue is as impressive as you’d expect: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story (London: The British Library, 2018).

[3] Quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 587.

[4] Charles Tomlinson, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), 361. All other poems quoted are from this edition. Tomlinson was thoroughly familiar with the writings of Adrian Stokes, ‘Part One’ of whose Stones of Rimini is called ‘Stone and Water’: water Stokes terms ‘the dominant natural carving force’: The Quattro Cento and The Stones of Rimini (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 31.

Blood, ghosts, Ezra Pound’s birthday

EP2

Sitting at the kitchen table, I try to remember exactly when I first realised that one of the characters and situations in the novel by Sarah Moss that I’m reading recurs in another of her books that I read a few months ago: it wasn’t the name of the island that triggered the memory but the surname of a character sending letters home: Moberley.[1]

Outside, a magpie on the bird table is jabbing at a fat ball with rapid strokes of its lethal-looking beak. This reminds me of the recollection, in an essay by Guy Davenport, of a remark by Ezra Pound, breaking ‘hours and hours’ of the silence common to his public persona in the later years of his life: ‘“There’s a magpie in China can turn a hedgehog over and kill it.”’ Decoding this, Davenport recognises it as an acknowledgement that Pound has read the translation of Archilochos given to him by Davenport three days earlier, the fragment about the Hedgehog and the Fox.[2]

Ezra Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho, one hundred and thirty-three years ago today, and died in Venice on 1st November 1972. He wrote a great deal: Richard Sieburth’s Library of America edition of the Poems and Translations exceeds 1350 pages; The Cantos fill another 800, contributions of poetry and prose to periodicals almost a dozen volumes. I’ve lost track of the secondary literature over the years but it must amount to at least two hundred books and probably thousands of articles, reviews and theses by now.

Pound_Ezra_library

I sit down to read or reread Pound less often than I used to but I doubt if a day goes by without my coming across some mention or connection or quotation from his work in something I’m reading or looking at. Anything – a picture, a phrase overheard, a name – can remind me of a line of Pound’s poetry or prose. It’s hardly surprising since he’s become so much a part of my landscape, in a way that very few others have. But then I’ve been reading in and around his work, on and off, for forty years; and lines of communication and connection run to and fro between Pound and almost every writer that interests me in the modernist period. Apart from his own writing, I must have read around seventy books devoted wholly or largely to Pound, several of them more than once – but, again, not a fantastic number given such a length of time and the fact that I wrote a thesis largely about that writing.

Half the books on my desk at any one time suggest some affinity or family resemblance. Here are two translations of The Odyssey and a book about archaeology and modernism; the first volume of the Davenport-Kenner letters; and The Art of Language: Selected Essays by Kenneth Cox, recommended to me by Greg Gerke — I can recommend in turn his own fine recent piece on reading The Cantos: https://bigother.com/2018/09/24/reading-the-cantos/

Beginnings are tricky, both to negotiate and to recall. I know I read Noel Stock’s biography and Kenner’s The Pound Era pretty early on. But Pound himself? I have no recollection of learning about any modern poetry whatsoever at school – and I must have come across Pound’s own writing first in The Faber Book of Modern Verse, the 1965 Donald Hall revision. This anthology begins with Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Wreck of the Deutschland, just as Charles Tomlinson, a great admirer of Hopkins, used to begin the modern period with his students. Then Yeats – and every one of those twelve poems became lodged, partially or wholly, between my ears. Then T. E. Hulme, five poems, 33 lines in all. Then turn the page and find this:

You’d have men’s hearts up from the dust
And tell their secrets, Messire Cino,
Right enough? Then read between the lines of Uc St. Circ,
Solve me the riddle, for you know the tale.

The tale, the riddle. That crowding sense of a story behind all this that you need and want to know. The names, foreign and unfamiliar. The dash of colloquialism – ‘You’d’, ‘Right enough?’ The directness. A poem containing a speaker who advises someone else (‘Messire Cino’) to ‘read between the lines’ – of another text or another life. Then all the questions, the litany of more names – and the irresistible ‘End fact. Try fiction.’ Following this: ‘The Exile’s Letter’, a bit of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, a section of Homage to Sextus Propertius and two careful Cantos. Canto XIII has Kung (Confucius) walking with his disciples by the dynastic temple and out by the river; then ‘From Canto CXV’ is, apart perhaps from one or two words or names not immediately familiar, perfectly comprehensible to any casual passer-by (I find I still have this by heart).

Faber_Bk-Mod-V

I owe a large debt to Donald Hall then (and am surely not alone in that): apart from the Thomases –Dylan and Edward – my acquaintance with practically every modern poet begins there, from The Waste Land to The Dream Songs.

In Pisa, Pound wrote (80/506):

before the world was given over to wars
Quand vous serez bien vieille
remember that I have remembered

This has always been one of the most resonant lines for me. It became the title of an essay on Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End by Hugh Kenner and, in the closing lines of The Pound Era, he wrote of Pound shouldering ‘the weariness of 85 years, his resource memory within memory within memory.’[3]

EP-Pisa-viaWallStJournal

(Pound in the Dispensary at the DTC, Pisa: via Wall Street Journal)

That last phrase neatly encapsulates, if not the effect of reading Pound, then perhaps the effect of having read him, especially if you take in much of the related literature as well. Pound, certainly in The Cantos, refers to so much, so many historical and contemporary figures (often obscure, often out of his own personal memories), as well as literature in several languages. The Cantos ‘refer but they do not present’, as Basil Bunting apparently told Pound.[4] Some books on The Cantos will foreground a particular aspect or avenue of approach: Pound’s use of time, the occult, particular images or motifs, the relation to Dante or Confucius or the epic tradition. But even they will often go over some of the same ground as more general surveys and recycle much of the same material. Then too, unsurprisingly, Pound himself will touch on the matter of The Cantos constantly, in essays and letters. How could he not? The net result is that, eventually, the ability to state with confidence precisely where one first came across this or that fact or allusion or echo recedes beyond recall, beyond recovery.

As to whom Pound’s ‘remember that I have remembered’ is directed – perhaps the reader but more, I think, the ghosts of that lost world, his ‘jeunesse’, London, 1908-1920. By the end of the First World War, Gaudier-Brzeska and T. E. Hulme were gone; by the end of the Second, all the ‘lordly men’ named in Canto 74 were gone too: Ford, Yeats, Joyce, Victor Plarr, Edgar Jepson, Maurice Hewlett and Henry Newbolt, all dead, and others from that era, if alive, often estranged from him.

‘Memory within memory within memory’. In the essay quoted earlier, Guy Davenport relates how, a few years after his return to Italy, despondent and fatigued though he had been, Pound sat down at his typewriter and began writing letters, the first for a while, ‘He mailed the letters himself. Within a week, they began to return. They were addressed to James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, William B. Yeats.’[5]

In what eventually became Pound’s ‘Canto I’, behind which stands the eleventh book of Homer’s Odyssey, a sheep is sacrificed to Tiresias in Hades, as instructed by Circe, and ‘dark blood’ flows in the fosse, blood for the ghosts. Tiresias comes, and prophesies that ‘Odysseus / Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas, / Lose all companions.’ So he does. ‘Blood for the ghosts’ – this enabled Pound to give voice to the many writers he translated, from Provençal, Greek, Latin, Chinese, French and Italian. But perhaps it runs both ways and ghosts—from Homer through Sigismondo Malatesta to Jefferson and Adams—provide the blood that runs in the fosse of The Cantos.

and for that Christmas at Maurie Hewlett’s
Going out from Southampton
they passed the car by the dozen
who would not have shown weight on a scale     (80/515)

 

References

[1] Sarah Moss, Night Walking (2011), set in the present day, incorporates material from the Victorian era in the form of letters home from May Moberley, one of the sisters in Bodies of Light (2014).

[2] Guy Davenport, ‘Ezra Pound 1885-1972’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 170; Archilochos, ‘Fragment 183’, in Seven Greeks (New York: New Directions, 1995), 54.

[3] Hugh Kenner, ‘Remember That I Have Remembered’, in Gnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1958), 144-161; The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 561.

[4] Kenneth Cox discusses this in ’Ezra Pound: The Composition of The Cantos’, The Art of Language: Selected Essays, edited by Jenny Penberthy (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2016), 51-52.

[5] Davenport, ‘Ezra Pound 1885-1972’, 175.

Among the trees

Trees-VP

‘This house looks out on a great rampart of trees; all day they are motionless in the strong sun’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to Llewellyn Powys in the summer of 1933, from Frankfort Manor, Sloley, Norwich. ‘But at dusk they seem to creep silently across the lawn, until looking from my window I seem to see their enormous foreheads pressed to the pane. I have never lived with trees before. They take some mastering; but I think I shall be on good terms with them even before I see them naked.’[1]

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Ents are a race of huge tree-like beings who stride across the country to take part in the battle against Saruman. But the image of trees walking is an old one. In St Mark’s gospel, the blind man, his sight only partially restored when touched once by Christ, ‘looked up, and said, I see men as trees walking.’ His sight will be fully restored when touched for a second time, so that he sees ‘every man clearly’ (Mark 8:24-25). This is explicitly echoed in Elizabeth Bowen’s description of a young woman called Emmeline, at a party, looking down the hall. ‘There she saw men as trees walking, her mind already at home in the dusk of her white room outside the lamplight.’[2]

ent_Tolkien

(Tolkien’s Ents: from The Two Towers)

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told that he’ll never be defeated until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane to oppose him, says with understandable confidence: ‘That will never be./ Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/ Unfix his earthbound root?’ But every soldier in the approaching army carries a bough cut from the trees of Birnam Wood, to ‘shadow/ The numbers of our host, and make discovery/ Err in report of us’, as Malcolm says. Very much men as trees walking.

Trees are miracles of growth, sometimes reaching enormous heights from tiny beginnings. They bear fruit, shed leaves, are cut down and die, take on other forms. Unsurprisingly, they’re everywhere in the world’s religions and mythologies: Yggdrasil, the tree of life that connects the nine worlds of Norse cosmology; the Bo tree under which the Buddha sat and attained enlightenment; sacred fig trees in Jainism and Hinduism; the Christian tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the tree of life in the Kabbalah; many more.

They’re everywhere in literature too: oak, willow, laurel, olive, cypress, yew. The elm alone traces a path from Homer and Virgil through Chaucer and Milton to Thomas Gray and Tennyson.

‘I love the fitful gust that shakes/ The casement all the day’, John Clare declared:

And from the mossy elm tree takes
The faded leaves away,
Twirling them by the window-pane
With thousand others down the lane. (‘Autumn’)

Not everyone is, or remains, enamoured. ‘On the way’, William Carlos Williams wrote:

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.[3]

‘I wrapped my tears in an ellum leaf/ And left them under a stone’, Ezra Pound wrote in an early poem.[4] In a what leaf? Is that an Idaho thing – or Philadelphia, or New York? But then here’s Mr Faulkner of Mississippi: ‘The buggy was drawn by a white horse, his feet clopping in the thin dust; spidery wheels chattering thin and dry, moving uphill beneath a rippling shawl of leaves. Elm. No: ellum. Ellum.’[5]

Ah, these Americans. Perhaps one more. ‘“They come down like ellum-branches in still weather. No warnin’ at all.”’ This is in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘An Habitation Enforced’, an early example of his ‘healing’ stories, this one involving a very rosy picture of Edwardian England, where the death of Mr Iggulden prompts Mrs Betts to make that observation to Sophie Chapin (who has found the old man dead in his fireside chair).[6] The Chapins are American—her family there comes from Connecticut—but this is Mrs Betts speaking, a local woman, long resident here. So: Idaho, Mississippi —Sussex.

Swallowdale

At this time of year, walking on a slowly thickening carpet of leaves, with the odd branch fallen in an occasionally fiercer wind, the trees in my local park impress themselves even more closely than usual on my attention. They certainly have a positive effect on people—some people, most people?—and there’s something curiously heartening in the sight of newly-planted saplings. New growth but also a distinctive kind of latent energies, a gathering of strength.

‘“Sleep like young trees and get up like young horses, as my old nanny in Australia used to say”, their mother tells the Walker children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale.[7]

 

References

[1] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 25.

[2] Elizabeth Bowen, To the North ([1932] Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1945), 26. In Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928; edited by John Greening, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 58, ‘Willow-trees seemed moving men.’

[3] William Carlos Williams, ‘The Last Words of My English Grandmother’, in The Collected Poems, Volume 1: 1900-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987), 465.

[4] ‘La Fraisne’, in Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 23.

[5] William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), in Novels 1926-1929, edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk (New York: Library of America, 2006), 972.

[6] Rudyard Kipling, Actions and Reactions (London: Macmillan and Co., 1909), 20.

[7] Arthur Ransome, Swallowdale (1931; London: Jonathan Cape, 1985), 30.

Not turning away for solace

dhw_flyer

https://www.bristolferry.com/trips/DHW/

 I was thinking, as you do, about solace – to comfort in distress, to console or allay. Not really a word you bump up against on a daily basis, though individuals working with the bereaved or the clinically depressed may meet it or send it out into the world rather more frequently. I tend to connect it with the poem by Delmore Schwartz—‘All of us always turning away for solace/ From the lonely room where the self must be honest,/ All of us turning from being alone’—though in truth I always liked the title more than the poem itself. In his introduction to Schwartz’s work, Douglas Dunn quotes John Berryman’s Dream Song #150; and I’d forgotten that there is not one but a sequence of more than a dozen consecutive Dream Songs which are elegies for Schwartz, who died alone in a New York hotel room in 1966. [1]

Delmore-Schwartz

(Delmore Schwartz)

Solace as consolation, then, which I’ve found in two contrasting situations just lately. This in the midst of national and international news which continues dark and darker. Along with millions of other people, we watched in horrified fascination the spectacle of the Senate judiciary committee hearing, admiring Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s courage while wondering aloud and often how a man who was behaving like that could ever have been considered a suitable candidate for the highest court in the land. O America!

But quickly to the solace—although, briefly detained by the thought of pessimism (Latin, pessimus, worst) and his sibling, optimism, I find a note from a William Gerhardie novel: ‘Our spacious pessimism, what is it? The squeal of a puppy. Life hurts, and then the night is starless, the world a desolating void where the wind groans and mutters and complains in our echo. But we go on, amazed, a little puzzled, inert, day-dreaming and unquestioning.’[2] I recall reading, more recently, a note to one of Patrick White’s letters which mentioned, admiringly, Charles Manning Clark, author of the standard history of Australia (in six volumes). Introduced to White about 1960, Manning Clark later told David Marr, the editor of White’s letters (also his biographer) that he was struck by the hunger on White’s face, ‘a hunger for forgiveness in a man who places himself, through his pride and pessimism, beyond the reach of forgiveness.’[3]

guildofhandicraft-silk-mill

(Guild of Handicraft at the Silk Mill)

http://www.chippingcampdenhistory.org.uk/content/new-contributions/c_r_ashbee

William Faulkner succinctly defined optimism by running a track through its supposed opposite: ‘Miss Jenny, being a true optimist—that is, expecting the worst at all times and so being daily agreeably surprised’.[4] More poignantly, looking back to the early years of the twentieth century and the removal of the Guild of Handicraft from the East End of London to a small market town in Gloucestershire, which thus became a centre of Arts and Crafts activity, Fiona MacCarthy writes: ‘The years of the Guild of Handicraft in Chipping Campden were something unique in the life of England. There had been experimental communities before but very few as large and as coherent as this one. It was an episode of unusual conviction, in its emphasis on aesthetic excellence and in its creation of a special kind of life-style, and in many ways it was a swan-song: such extraordinary optimism never came again.’[5]

The simple life—connects, in a way, with one of those positives. ‘I booked us on this’, the Librarian emailed me, briefly and to the point. ‘This’ was part of the Docks Heritage Weekend, a tour of the floating harbour aboard a Bristol ferry. There was ‘an authentic soundscape’, created from interviews with former dock workers, part of an oral history project, run by Amy King of the University of Bristol, and the audio was presented in conjunction with a superb shadow puppet show. The place was packed with both children and adults who, without benefit of box sets, flashing lights, virtual reality goggles or state of the art electronic devices, were thoroughly engaged—and many of them transfixed—by some recorded voices and puppets moving behind a screen, augmented by a pause at the pub for drinks and sea shanties.

River-2

The day before that, I spent three hours in a busy emergency department—a precautionary visit, as it turned out—and, perhaps paradoxically, my time there was also restorative and curiously therapeutic. I had the advantage of the Librarian’s company together with the knowledge that my symptoms had receded very quickly: so I was at liberty to lie on the bed and watch and listen until the blood test results came back. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the patients there were very ill; a couple of those wheeled past were pretty obviously homeless people, who may have collapsed in the street or been referred by a concerned passer-by, while a morbidly obese woman, in evident pain, required the attentions of eight staff at one stage. Yet they all—doctors, nurses, porters, the man filling the paper towel dispenser and emptying the bins—went about their business so professionally, so composedly and efficiently, and with such good humour where appropriate, that it was curiously calming. Solace, yes.

It is in fact in Dream Song #150 that the word occurs, in the stanza that Dunn quotes:

I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved
but it is not so. He painfully removed
himself from the ordinary contacts
and shook with resentment. What final thought
solaced his fall to the hotel carpet, if any,
& the New York Times’s facts?[6]

 

References

[1] Delmore Schwartz, ‘All of Us Always Turning Away for Solace’, What Is To Be Given: Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1976), 28; Douglas Dunn, ‘Introduction’, viii.

[2] William Gerhardie, The Polyglots (1925; revised edition, London: MacDonald, 1970), 172.

[3] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 262fn.

[4] William Faulkner Flags in the Dust (1929), in Novels 1926-1929, edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk (New York: Library of America, 2006), 716.

[5] Fiona MacCarthy, The Simple Life: C. R. Ashbee in the Cotswolds (London: Lund Humphries, 1981), 90.

[6] John Berryman, The Dream Songs, collected edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 169.

 

Pound Punning on Talbot

CloisterWalkLacock-NT
(Lacock Abbey cloisters: National Trust)

On 30 September 1920, in a letter to his father Homer, Ezra Pound reported that he and his wife Dorothy had spent four days at Lacock Abbey, ‘14th century cloisters , charter of Henry III left there in 1225 still in the tower room, etc. Family name Talbot, vide works of Wm. Shx. et al. Got a little tennis, etc.’[1]

Talbot-2

In October 1945, Pound sent two extracts from the Pisan Cantos to Dorothy, one of them from ‘To watch a while from the tower’ to ‘attic rafters’.[2] ‘“My aunt took me there a couple of times”, Dorothy told Hugh Kenner in 1965, “and once Ezra and I crawled over the roof to a turret to see a copy of the Magna Charta, kept there in a glass case. Cousin Charles left the place to his niece, a Scotswoman named Maud Gilchrist-Clark on condition she take the name Maud Talbot.”’

The emblem of the Talbot family was a dog: Kenner mentioned that Omar Pound possessed ‘a beautiful gold seal of the Talbots’, once owned by Dorothy’s father, ‘their dog emblem both as handle and in imprint.’[3]

Maud Gilchrist-Clark needed to sell some valuable possessions to raise the funds necessary to maintain the property (‘more pictures gone to pay taxes’ and, in 1944, she presented the Lacock copy of the Magna Charta to the British Museum. She gave the abbey to the National Trust in the same year.

Talbot

Canto 80 is always, for me, the English canto, certainly in its last two-thirds. Of the lines just quoted, Donald Davie writes that here is part of what Pound loved in Dorothy, and that his ‘feelings for and about England were, right to the end, not much less tormented than any English reader’s can be.’ He adds that, ‘the English reader who does not understand that the punning on “Talbot” is painful and all but hysterical, like the punning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, does not understand Pound at all.’[4]

‘All but hysterical’? Yes, perhaps, it’s like the riff on similar-sounding words that we play with just a little too long; and, certainly, some of those rhymes, almost doggerel-like, are unusual for Pound in the context of the Cantos. Yet, rhyme, particularly simple, declarative monosyllables, often serves as a mnemonic device. Rhymed poetry is generally easier to recall than unrhymed. And here? Out and doubt, nation’s and patience, slide and hide, the tangle of Talbots and tall butts, left it and cleft it. But then the whole canto is ‘about’ memory, as is the whole Pisan sequence (to pause at that boundary).

Pound had lived through an extraordinary twenty years, more, since he left England, first for Paris, then Rapallo. Yet England, his time in England, was ineradicable, inescapable. He arrived in 1908, young, derivative, inexperienced; he left as the author of Cathay, Homage to Sextus Propertius, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and the early Cantos. He had met and married Dorothy Shakespear in London. He was centrally involved in Imagism and Vorticism. He had known, encouraged or learned from almost every writer of importance then at work there, spending three winters in Ashdown Forest with Yeats, consulting with Ford over the latter’s Collected Poems and his book on Henry James, close to Wyndham Lewis and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. How could England not have lodged in his body and mind, impossible of removal?

In early 1946, Dorothy wrote to him from Rapallo and mentioned a book by Douglas Goldring – this was South Lodge: Reminiscences of Violet Hunt, Ford Madox Ford and the English Review Circle (1943). His biography of Ford would not emerge for a couple more years. In April, Pound wrote to Eileen Lane Kinney from St Elizabeths: ‘Weeping over Goldring’s memoir “South Lodge.”’ He said it brought back his ‘jeunesse, 1908-1920 à Londres. An honest book in a flurried world.’[5] And Charles Olson recorded: ‘Goldring’s SOUTH LODGE, on Yeats, Pound, Ford. P: “It was the high period of my life . . . . (or something like that, a sort of apology for his sentimentality about it, as he is reading it).’[6]

The copy of the Magna Charta given by Maud Talbot to the British Museum was sent to Washington as part of an exhibition while both Pound and Dorothy were there. It was not then ‘still there if you climb over attic rafters’. Its still being there was, perhaps, the crucial point: continuity, a fixed point, however specific or even personal, in a world—quite literally, to a considerable extent—blown to pieces: ‘and God knows what is left of our London/ my London, your London’. Earlier in the sequence, the poet identified himself ‘As a lone ant from a broken ant-hill/ from the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor’ (76/458) and in the same canto, asked: ‘and who’s dead, and who isn’t/ and will the world ever take up its course again?’ (76/453).

Unanswerable questions – or answers that won’t keep still for the space of a single heartbeat. Pound’s own final answer was, essentially, silence.

 

References

[1] Ezra Pound to His Parents: Letters 1895–1929, edited by Mary de Rachewiltz, David Moody and Joanna Moody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 471. Pound must be referring to Henry VI, Part I, which features Lord Talbot, afterwards Earl of Shrewsbury, and his son, John.

[2] Omar Pound and Robert Spoo, editors, Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity, 1945-1946 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)101, 100-101fn.2.

[3] Hugh Kenner, ‘D. P. Remembered’ (1973), reprinted in Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 292-293. The essay mentions ‘a magnificent old abbey in Yorkshire’, when Wiltshire is meant. I assume this error was also in the original Paideuma piece but can’t lay hands on my copy just now to check that. The Talbot Magna Charta was not the original 1215 version but that of 1225, technically ‘An Exemplification of Henry III’s reissue of Magna Carta, 1225’, as Carroll F. Terrell explains: see A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound, one-volume edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 447.

[4] Donald Davie, ‘Ezra Pound Abandons the English’, reprinted in Studies in Ezra Pound (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991), 234.

[5] Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity, 243, 242n.

[6] Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths , edited by Catherine Seeley (1975; New York: Paragon House, 1991), 86.

 

Making space, taking space

Parking

The round trip to the baker—one of the bakers—takes around an hour. I walk on the long back road, on the shaded side if the weather’s warm. The black and green boxes are out on the pavement, which triggers an odd memory. In 2011 there was a referendum on the alternative vote, following what one commentator termed a ‘bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate’.[1] The vote went not as I’d hoped but more or less as I’d expected. At some point, walking along a pavement crowded with recycling boxes and looking at the state of them, I remember thinking that, if so many people had such problems sorting out their rubbish, they were not that likely to explore the intricacies of competing voting systems.

Skip forward five years and you might say that the phrase ‘bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate’ was still serviceable, though barely. Skip forward two more and I’m edging my way through parts of the city, thinking of the word ‘space’, ‘the final frontier’ as the first speech of every episode of Star Trek had it, recalling too how Charles Olson begins Part One of Call Me Ishmael: ‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.’[2]

By way of contrast, space is mercilessly shrinking here as local government, starved of funding and agency, falls and fails. Private intrusion into public spaces; not only roads but pavements too now given over to cars, which block pedestrian pathways; neglected bushes and hedges jutting out onto pavements already littered with bins and boxes. No room for an Olson.

PNR

Opening the latest issue of PN Review, I see a review by Ian Brinton—reviews editor of Tears in the Fence (https://tearsinthefence.com/blog/ )—of Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door and Brinton begins by quoting precisely those words from Call Me Ishmael: ‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America . . .’ They are, he writes, ‘central to an understanding of the wide-ranging poetry written by Chris Torrance, British poet who was born in Edinburgh, raised in Surrey and who moved to an isolated cottage in the Upper Neath Valley in South Wales nearly fifty years ago’. The names cited in the course of his review include Iain Sinclair, Lee Harwood, Roy Fisher and Barry MacSweeney, and Brinton closes by quoting a letter from Torrance, who recalls how he ‘grabbed onto Olson mid-60s’ and concludes: ‘I’ve kept at Olson ever since. I love to take the big books outside in the summer, read those wide poems out in the open where they belong.’[3]

torrance_citrinas1

I’d quite lost track of Torrance yet, without moving from my desk, I can just reach a tall, slim volume, Citrinas, published in an edition of 300, ‘of which 15 are casebound and contain additional holograph material.’ In fact, I see it’s signed, with a personal inscription – though not to me.

the birds are lost, out of sight
though the food goes, mysteriously,
invisibly, except when the imperious jay,
flashing electric blue & snowy white,
with immense black mustachios
over his olive-smoked sheath
picks up crushed oats[4]

Remembered impressions I have are of landscape, place, the natural world, the mystery of things, prompting the thought of Pound writing—in an essay first published in Quest, edited by G. R. S. Mead, leading Theosophist and founder of the Quest Society—‘We have about us the universe of fluid force, and below us the germinal universe of wood alive, of stone alive.’[5]

In fact I have a little more Torrance in-house, a dozen pages in the anthology edited by Iain Sinclair:

straight from sleep
to chase sheep from the garden
a bloody, dead blackbird on the doormat
’mid thousands of feathers & catspew
the world jumps
from this to that
to break the ennui
of my own tense control
all goes into the melting pot of acid
over the hill kicking a dead lambskin
what to do with all this energy, lambent, unreconciled
an atmosphere almost of terror
the planet helpless with mirth
gold coins rolling in the streets
the skylark’s interminable raga
borne aloft on shivering wings[6]

These are early poems, several dated 1970-1971, at the beginning of the poet’s time in Wales. When this anthology appeared (1996), five books of The Magic Door had appeared. The recently published volume that Brinton is reviewing apparently represents eight books in all, reaching back over forty years.

A launch event for The Magic Door is announced on the Test Centre website: Wednesday 4 October, 7 pm, Swedenborg House, where Torrance will be joined by Iain Sinclair and Allen Fisher. The author’s afterword to this edition, quoted on the website, includes the statement that, ‘With this collected volume, I am only halfway through.’

A life’s work, then. At least. . .

See: (https://testcentre.org.uk/magic-door/ )

 

 

References

[1] Iain McLean, ‘“England Does Not Love Coalitions”: The Most Misused Political Quotation in the Book’, Government and Opposition: An International Journal of Comparative Politics, 47, 1 (2012), 10.

[2] Call Me Ishmael, in Charles Olson, The Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 17. As in Moby Dick itself, this ‘beginning’ is preceded by a prologue, here ‘First Fact’.

[3] Ian Brinton. ‘Reading in the Open Air’, PN Review 243 (September-October 2018), 78, 79.

[4] Chris Torrance, Citrinas: The Magic Door, Book II (London: Albion Village Press, 1977), unpaginated: this is ‘Retreat’, from the book’s first section.

[5] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 92. The essay, ‘Psychology and Troubadours’ became Chapter V of this book.

[6] Chris Torrance, ‘Straight from Sleep’, in Iain Sinclair, editor, Conductors of Chaos: A Poetry Anthology (London: Picador, 1996), 453.