Positive Blossoming

Blossom

A large bumble bee, having perhaps misread the calendar, veers about in our small garden. The plump, intellectually challenged grey cat, perched on a stone pillar, dabs in its general direction with an ineffectual paw. The grey cat is still in recovery mode, having all but fallen from the fence just now, scrabbling frantically, clutching and scraping, hauling itself back only to be plunged into embarrassment by finding me watching its antics from the kitchen table, where I sat over a fat volume.

‘“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,” I recall James Taylor singing over and over on the news radio station between updates on the 1978 Mandeville and Kanan fires, both of which started on October 23 of that year and could be seen burning toward each other, systematically wiping out large parts of Malibu and Pacific Palisades, from an upstairs window of my house in Brentwood.’[1]

Oddly, I’d been thinking of James Taylor myself the previous day, when I passed trees in the park already in blossom. I say ‘already’ but, if they were autumn cherry, they’d be blossoming fitfully from November to March. Almond blossom? Not sure.

Blossom, anyway. Meteorologically, spring has started, psychologically not so much, though, when the breeze quickens and becomes something else, the Romantics among us murmur: ‘O, Wind,/ If Winter comes/ Can Spring be far behind?’[2]

Sweet-baby-James

James Taylor’s ‘Blossom’ was the second track on the second side of his second album, Sweet Baby James, melodic and, as they say, reassuringly unthreatening, though not without its darker tints. It’s one of two tracks on the album—the other was ‘Country Road’—on which Randy Meisner, founder member of The Eagles, played bass.

The word ‘blossom’ is one of those whose syllables seem to act out the actions and qualities associated with it. Ivor Gurney wrote of his beloved Gloucestershire, ‘where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as soft as the kind airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home?’ Though he added—he was writing to Marion Scott from near Tidworth in March 1916—‘And yet were I there the canker in my soul would taint all these.’[3]

Blossom fits with sweet reasonableness into contexts of ironic undercurrent and ambiguity, say, the final stanza of Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’:

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.[4]

And here is the narrator of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, blossom a part of his learning to read the English landscape and its complicated history:

‘When I grew to see the wild roses and hawthorn on my walk, I didn’t see the windbreak they grew beside as a sign of the big landowners who had left their mark on the solitude, had preserved it, had planted the woods in certain places (in imitation, it was said, of the positions at the battle of Trafalgar – or was it Waterloo?), I didn’t think of the landowners. My mood was purer: I thought of these single-petalled roses and sweet-smelling blossom at the side of the road as wild and natural growths.’[5]

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie, 1883-1977; D. H. Lawrence

Dorothy Brett, D. H. Lawrence
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

For D. H. Lawrence, it seems a symbol of a stage on the road to moral growth: ‘You have to suffer before you blossom in this life’, Lettie tells George in The White Peacock. ‘When death is just touching a plant, it forces it into a passion of flowering.’[6] His short story, ‘The Last Laugh’, centring on an encounter with Pan ends with a faint scent of almond blossom in the air[7]—and Pan is not only a recurrent element in Lawrence’s work but crops up all over the place at that time: from E. M. Forster to The Wind in the Willows. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what Lawrence sees as our separation from the natural world finds blossom on the casualty list as he gets into his stride in the last year of his life:

‘Sex is the balance of male and female in the universe, the attraction, the repulsion, the transit of neutrality, the new attraction, the new repulsion, always different, always new. The long neuter spell of Lent, when the blood is low, and the delight of the Easter kiss, the sexual revel of spring, the passion of midsummer, the slow recoil, revolt, and grief of autumn, greyness again, then the sharp stimulus of winter, of the long nights. Sex goes through the rhythm of the year, in man and woman, ceaselessly changing: the rhythm of the sun in his relation to the earth.’ [ . . . ] This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table.’[8]

Cherry-Blossom-Japan-Guide

(Via www.japan-guide.com )

When it comes to national obsessions, some Western countries might do better to look to Japan: ‘Residents of Kochi Prefecture in the Shikoku region will be the first to see cherry blossoms of the Somei-Yoshino tree this year, as early as March 18, according to a forecast by an Osaka-based meteorological company that predicts Japan’s iconic sakura may bloom earlier than usual’, the Japan Times reported:
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/01/15/national/cherry-blossoms-across-japan-forecast-arrive-earlier-usual-2019/#.XH-WyFP7RQM

I don’t pitch my own interest and enthusiasm quite that high but I’ll still lean towards the positive side: new growth, new life, new beauty. Some news as good news. ‘The positive side’—here, now, England, March 2019.

Remarkable.

 
References

[1] Joan Didion, ‘Fire Season’, in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), 656.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ode to the West Wind’, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 574.

[3] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 75.

[4] Henry Reed, ‘Naming of Parts’, in Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007), 49.

[5] V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections (1987; London: Pan McMillan, 2002), 20.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, The White Peacock (1911; Cambridge University Press, edited by Andrew Robertson, Cambridge 1983), 28.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Last Laugh’, in The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (London: William Heinemann, 1974), 587-602.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, ‘A Propos of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, in Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence, Collected and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (London: William Heinemann, 1968), 504.

 

Lesbia’s lively guest

hokusai-sparrows

(Hokusai, Sparrows)

Snow still on the ground from the falls of Thursday night, which produced enough to satisfy the Librarian’s appetite for such things and to allow for taking impressive photographs of a crow in the park. Nothing much since but the temperature hasn’t climbed enough to clear it. And still no sign of the robin – which, I gather, doesn’t do well in cold weather. I clear the water dish each morning of its solid disc of ice and refill it, and have scraped off the hillocks of snow from the seed tray and feeder, but I’ve noticed only one pigeon and one sparrow turn up so far.

The sparrow has been the more persistent: two visits on Friday and three on Saturday. Long ones too, perched in the seed tray for up to ten minutes. Apart from their inherent attractiveness, I’ve always felt particularly sympathetic towards sparrows since reading about how they were regarded as unusually lustful by earlier ages. Apparently, the Greek strouthos (sparrow) could mean ‘lewd fellow’ or ‘lecher’.[1] Sappho had Aphrodite’s chariot pulled by them:

In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth[2]

More famous is Catullus, first detailing the interaction between Lesbia — Clodia Metelli – and her pet sparrow. In Walter Savage Landor’s version:

Sparrow! Lesbia’s lively guest,
Cherish’d ever in her breast!
Whom with tantalizing jokes
Oft to peck her she provokes:
Thus in pretty playful wiles
Love and absence she beguiles.

Oft, like her, to ease my pain,
I thy little fondness gain.
Dear to me as, bards have told,
Was the apple’s orb of gold
To the Nymph whose long-tied zone
That could loose, and that alone.[3]

Bewick-Dunnock

(Thomas Bewick’s Dunnock, or Hedgesparrow)

In the following poem, Catullus responds to the sparrow’s death. It has ‘now hopped solitarily/ down that dark alleyway of no returns’, its loss ‘swelling my girl’s veiled eyes/ which redden with tears.’[4]

There’s a remarkable Scots version of Catullus 3 by G. S. Davies (1912):

Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all,
And ilka Man o’ decent feelin’:
My lassie’s lost her wee, wee bird,
And that’s a loss, ye’ll ken, past healin’.

The lassie lo’ed him like her een:
The darling wee thing lo’ed the ither,
And knew and nestled to her breast,
As only bairnie to her mither.

Her bosom was his dear, dear haunt—
So dear, he cared na lang to leave it;
He’d nae but gang his ain sma’ jaunt,
And flutter piping back bereavit.

The wee thing’s gane the shadowy road
That’s never traveled back by ony:
Out on ye, Shades! Ye’re greedy aye
To grab at aught that’s brave and bonny.

Puir, foolish, fondling, bonnie bird,
Ye little ken what wark ye’re leavin’:
Ye’ve bar’d my lassie’s een grow red,
Those bonnie een grow red wi’ grieving.[5]

I’ve just found it quoted too in a post by the poet and translator A. E. Stallings on the Poetry Foundation website, where she discusses several version of Catullus, including those of Louis and Celia Zukofsky:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/09/miss-her-catullus

Then again, there’s this post by Katherine Langrish:

http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2018/04/lesbias-sparrow-katherine-langrish.html

In short, once again, a small bird (or its equivalent in other contexts) expands into flocks, squadrons, gigantic murmurations, up and out into limitless stretches of space and light.

I’m still keeping an eye open for the robin.

 

References

[1] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 198.

[2] Sappho 1, in Guy Davenport, Seven Greeks (New York: New Directions, 1995), 69.

[3] Walter Savage Landor, ‘To the Sparrow of Lesbia’, in Charles Tomlinson, editor, Eros English’d: Classical Erotic Poetry in Translation: from Golding to Hardy (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992), 203.

[4] The Poems of Catullus, translated with an introduction by Peter Whigham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966), 52.

[5] The Oxford Book of Classical Verse, edited by Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 265-266.

 

The hunter hunted, or: hounded by Diana

Rubens-Diana-and-Actaeon

(Peter Paul Rubens, Diana and Actaeon)

Over two days at the home of the Librarian’s parents in Somerset, I find I don’t read much at all, the time slipping pleasantly away in a great deal of conversation, some eating, drinking, the odd quiz, a couple of games – not even much walking this year. Still, we return home on Boxing Day with as many books as we set out with.

Among my new acquisitions are two volumes of poetry, Like by A. E. Stallings and Michael Hofmann’s One Lark, One Horse, poets and translators linked in my mind by Ovid. Stallings is one of the many poets—I hadn’t realised until recently just how many—to have translated, recast or reimagined Ovid’s telling of the story of Actaeon, the hunter who came by chance upon the goddess Diana bathing naked. Outraged, she transformed him into a stag and he was torn to pieces by his own hounds. Stallings’ poem begins:

The hounds, you know them all by name.
You fostered them from purblind whelps
At their dam’s teats, and you have come
To know the music of their yelps[1]

There have been numerous translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses since the sixteenth-century version by Arthur Golding, ‘the most beautiful book in the language’, Ezra Pound called it, ‘from which Shakespeare learned so much of his trade’.[2] Golding’s translation has the goddess conjuring antlers onto Actaeon’s head. Then:

She sharpes his ears, she makes his necke both slender, long and lanke.
She turns his fingers into feete, his arms to spindle shanke.
She wrappes him in a hairie hyde beset with speckled spottes,
And planteth in him fearfulnesse.[3]

Golding-Metamorphoses

Michael Hofmann was one of the editors – with James Lasdun – of the celebrated anthology, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, which included four pieces (more than fifty pages in total) by Ted Hughes, a milestone on the road to Hughes’ later Tales from Ovid.[4] His ‘Actaeon’ begins:

Destiny, not guilt, was enough
For Actaeon. It is no crime
To lose your way in a dark wood.[5]

Absolving Actaeon of blame (and apparently absolving Dante too in passing, perhaps all of us, come to think of it) aligns Hughes with several other translators and commentators. A. D. Melville’s version, after stating that Actaeon’s hounds were ‘sated with their master’s blood’, goes on:

Though, if you ponder wisely, you will find
The fault was fortune’s and no guilt that day.
For what guilt can it be to lose one’s way?[6]

No crime, no guilt ­ – but was he not at fault at all? There’s a moment in Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry when Amar tells his girlfriend Maddie a story as they skirt around the question of religious belief and she says ‘something about how, once we know the end of an unfortunate story, it’s tempting to ask why its protagonist did not do better to swerve his fate.’[7] It’s certainly easier to ask such questions if it’s not us in the story – or if we believe that we are, unaided, writing our own.

fontainebleau-diana

(Diana the Huntress: École de Fontainebleau, c. 1550-1560)

In Ford Madox Ford’s The Young Lovell, after the battle of Kenchie’s Burn, Lovell is pursuing the Scots and is lost in a great valley between moors where he sleeps on the heather. ‘There he heard many strange sounds, such as a great cry of dogs hunting overhead, which was said by those who had read in books to be the goddess Diana chasing still through the night the miserable shade of the foolish Actaeon.’[8]

Heartless fellow. Ten years after that novel was published, Ford was in Paris, feeling the mounting pressure of people’s expectations upon him to launch what became the transatlantic review: ‘not even Diana herself would preserve me from their fury if I did not provide harbourage for their compositions. I should be torn to pieces as was Actaeon by the hounds of that Goddess’.[9]

A little more sympathy from Ford than from his fictional creation – or at least no disparagement here of the unfortunate Actaeon.

Actaeon also figures in poems by writers as varied as Seamus Heaney, George Szirtes, Wendy Cope, Robin Robertson and Simon Armitage. In March 1915, Poetry published six poems by Ezra Pound, among them ‘The Coming of War: Actaeon’:

An image of Lethe,
and the fields
Full of faint light
but golden,
Gray cliffs,
and beneath them
A sea
Harsher than granite,
unstill, never ceasing;
High forms
with the movement of gods,
Perilous aspect;
And one said:
“This is Actaeon.”
Actaeon of golden greaves!
Over fair meadows,
Over the cool face of that field,
Unstill, ever moving,
Host of an ancient people,
The silent cortège.[10]

It’s not immediately obvious what Actaeon is doing here; or rather, why it’s Actaeon as opposed to any other of the illustrious dead who have crossed into Hades. (He appears in Pound’s Canto IV but in his familiar context of pool, goddess, stag and hounds.) James Longenbach comments that here Pound ‘was able to pull his experience of the war into the private world of the Image’ but points out that ‘the sacrifice was a large one’ since the poem ‘addresses the war only by mythologizing it out of its place in history and ignoring the brutality of the actual experience.’[11]

Titian, c.1488-1576; Diana and Actaeon

(Titian, Diana and Actaeon, National Galleries of Scotland)

The story that Ovid tells is, in any case, a wonderfully suggestive one, presumably accounting for its strong attraction for poets and translators. The hunt is itself a potent idea, especially the sexual politics of the hunter become the hunted, the mortal man doomed by the arbitrary act of the divine woman. Or is it arbitrary, since the intrusion may be seen as not merely a social solecism but a sacrilegious blunder, a subversion of the natural order? As for the metamorphosis, the transformation, every translation – perhaps every work of art – can be seen as a metamorphic act. But another attraction is surely the tumultuous unfurling in Actaeon’s mind, the dizzying terror, the internal screaming as the words come to his lips, the things he would utter ­ – but his power of speech is gone, his human faculties fled.

Here’s a favourite recent telling of the tale, by Lavinia Greenlaw:

He walks his mind as a forest
and sends of himself into dark places
to which he cannot tell the way.
The hunt comes on and he in his nerves
streams ahead – hounds flung after
a scent so violent no matter the path
or what’s let fall.
A burst of clearing.
Water beads and feathers her presence
as she thickens and curves.
He says words to himself not to look
but his eyes are of their own
and she at their centre a dark star
contracted to itself discarding
wave on wave on flare on fountain.
His skull erupting, branching . . .
And his blood is shaken down.
And he is all fours.
And his noise.
And his hounds.[12]

 

References

[1] A. E. Stallings, ‘Actaeon’, published in Poetry (May 2003).

[2] Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 127; How to Read (London: Desmond Harmsworth, 1931), 45.

[3] Confucius to Cummings: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann (New York: New Directions, 1964), 37, 40-41.

[4] After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 3-20, 94-109, 114-117, 245-258.

[5] Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), 937.

[6] Ovid, Metamorphoses, III, 140-142, translated by A. D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 55. In a note (392), Melville suggests that Ovid had his own case in mind here, having insisted that the offence for which he was exiled was an error rather than a crime.

[7] Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry (London: Granta Books, 2018), 188.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, The Young Lovell: A Romance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), 27. On Actaeon’s connection to Peire Vidal in The Good Soldier, see my ‘“Speak Up, Fordie!”: How Some People Want to Go to Carcassonne’, in Ford Madox Ford and the City: International Ford Madox Ford Studies 4, edited by Sara Haslam (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 204.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 262.

[10] Ezra Pound, ‘Actaeon: The Coming of War’, Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 285.

[11] James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 124.

[12] Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘Actaeon’, The Casual Perfect (London: Faber & Faber, 2011), 13.

 

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.