Grandmothers don’t wear red boots,
Tom says. Red boots and long
black skirts are what I wear,
spooning out stinking cat food,
tenderly painting brown into my hair,
swallowing vodka in the baby’s orange juice
while they are not there.
The baby is being jolted along
some minor road in Provence,
and doesn’t care if I wear
red boots or dye my hair.
Like his father before him,
my son is contemplating being unfaithful,
even though the baby will soon be seeing
blue shutters and vine leaves,
and his wife will start weaning
him from the breast at last,
and not a moment too soon.
Their mother is young and witty,
with her one hand clapping
and her creased blue workman’s blouse
and her striped cullottes.
As she goes through the farm house
she tells Tom not to say bugger just
because I do and curses me under her breath,
shifting the baby on her hip,
poised between weaning and the next pregnancy
pouting her bee-sting lips.
I take a train to the city,
abandoning the house, the cats.
I wear my red boots and share
baby juice and vodka from my thermos flask
with you. We are an absurd and ageing pair,
flirting on the District Line,
with only enough money for the fare.
The holiday is almost over,
the baby spits out his seived spinach
and screams his way through the nights;
I make up the cot, the beds, move a
jug of dead flowers, polish up my boots.
As promised in my post of 27 Dec, here is a slightly fuller look at Elizabeth Bartlett’s Two Women Dancing.
I consider it one of the best books of poetry published in the last fifty years, yet on the first page, in the second poem, we read:
People need contemporary poetry like a hole in the head.
That depends on the poet. They certainly need these poems. We’ll come back to that later though, because the next poem is one of my favourites. “My Five Gentlemen”
Prostitutes have clients, wives have husbands, Poets, you will understand, have editors …
She describes the five editors whose hands she has been in, finishing up with:
Five is dead, of course. His failing health Was a comfort to me, though not to him, Naturally. His death removed one more market For battered goods, and proved a welcome release.
Rest in peace, I thought (for I always think kindly Of the gentlemen who direct me to the pages I am to sit in). I can only hope to be recycled And end up more useful than I would appear to be.
She frequently reminds me of Dorothy Nimmo or Sylvia Platt. Consider for example “Guitars as Women”, and “With My Body”:
With your hand, like that, he said …
and “There Is a Desert Here”:
Come, little creatures, walk on me, Come, little worms, slide on me, For no man ever will again. I watched beetles and ladybirds Long before you gathered birch twigs To beat me in a field – in fun, of course, And I will watch them again, And grow old ungracefully, barefoot And sluttish in my ways.
And she is always so human. Read “Ian, Dead of Polio” and “Farewell, Gibson Square“. Unforgettable pictures of people she has known and will never forget. Nor now shall we. “Farewell, Gibson Square”, for instance, is dedicated to Dr Susan Heath who, if this poem is anything to go by, you would probably fall in love with but certainly wouldn’t want anywhere near you if you were ill. She eventually left, and now, Elizabeth tells us:
Professional boredom has settled in Again, and patients go home whole.
Or “Government Health Warning”, or “A Plea for Mercy”:
For all the poor little sods who shoot themselves off in boarding schools and dormitories, jerking into sleep, and all the prissy girls who ride their horses bareback or wet their knickers and seats at noisy pop concerts …
Or “A Straw Mat”:
I am guilty, she said to me. I didn’t know what to say. We are all guilty, I said, of something, if it’s only living when turf rests heavy on all the people cut off in their prime, or buying this old cardigan from Oxfam instead of doing something real. She said, Like what? I didn’t know. I saw my tears fall on the leper’s foot. What a nonsense. Africa is thirsty for blood and yet more blood, and we wander round the Oxfam shop …
With poems like this around, why would anybody not be reading, not be needing, contemporary poetry?
And “Consumers”, another of my very favourites – but you need to read the whole thing. (In fact, you need to read the whole book.)
Ask me if I ever liked small talk, chit-chat, the smell of a new car, the fat freezers lingering like overweight virgins in shadowy garages. I have to say no.
Ask me if I ever liked the long silence, full of thoughtful emptiness, the bruised smell of geranium leaves, the thin edges of poverty like sides to middle sheets, thin and anorexic. I have to say yes.
Standing in Trafalgar Square I was pleased the skin-heads ate our iron rations. Shouting into the dark I felt at home, the candles in jam jars, the small group of word-spinners sheltering from rain, not ashes.
Ask me if I ever think the nuclear winter will be like a giant freezer full of damaged goodies. Lord, Lord, I have to say yes. After the feast of flesh and red gravy, there will be ice cream for afters, and then, we shall wish we’d said no. Lord, Lord, I tried to say no.
Do people need poems like this? I have to say yes.
On the voyage back to Greenland, Leif ericson often had Ranald seated beside him at the helm of West Seeker. He gave Ranald instruction on navigation and the management of ships. ‘There is only one constant star in the sky, the northern star, and that star is the sailor’s friend always. But there is a great wheel of stars that swings nightly from east to west, and good sailors learn to read that map, and so they can hold a true course. There are five wandering stars that go likie tinkers or like pilgrims among the star-towns, and we become acquainted with their ways too. There is always the mystery of the moon. Does the moon touch some pulse in our blood? I have noticed that the moods of seamen alter with the changing moon. Many a sane sober man says strange things under a full moon. I have known men of few words utter poetry at such a time. I tell you this, Ranald, it is a foolish skipper who sets out on a voyage under a waning moon …’
At first glance, this book is another of those telling the life-story from boyhood to old age (if he is the narrator) or death of some lad who, when the north was torn between its “pagan” past and its “Christian” future, sails west with the Vikings and visits Iceland, Greenland and Vinland, but it is much more than that. For a start, it was, I believe, the first of the sub-genre, apart from Henry Treece’s classic Viking Saga – Viking’s Dawn, The Road to Miklagard and Viking’s Sunset. And then it is securely based in the Orkneyinga Saga, the history of the Earls of Orkney; is in fact a “dramatisation” of a section of that history, from the death in battle in 1014 of Earl Sigurd (holding the magical Raven Banner: if it was held aloft they would be victorious, but whoever held it would die; after several men had been killed, no one else would hold hold it, so he had to hold it himself) to the death of Earl Thorfinn in 1064.
Mackay Brown seems to have lived through this period of Orkney’s history, and the reader lives through it with him.
But that is not all. Our hero is Ranald Sigmundson who, after stowing away on Leif Ericson’s ship, lives for a while in Greenland and visits Vinland, then returns to Orkney worried about his old mother who must believe he has drowned, and there gets caught up in the farming life – and, briefly, politics, before becoming disillusioned with the earls and would-be earls and the factions and violence and lies – and spends the rest of his life resisting “the call of the sea” and dreaming of the voyages he made in his youth.
The word Vinland here becomes almost synonymous with Tir-nan-og, the Land of the Young, the Celtic Elysium, set out in the sea, far away beyond the sunset, “where Ossian dwelt with Niamh for three hundred years before he remembered Erin and the Fenians”.
A wonderful book. And read also, if you haven’t yet, Mackay Brown’s story of Earl Thorfinn’s grandson, Magnus, who died in 1117 as a result of more of the feuding that Ranald Sigmundson, in this book, hates so much.
The world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.
The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.
But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.
Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”
Long arms and groping fingers sly, Fine shapely shoulders, and the round Full breasts and heaving hips that fly Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound Against the place where we were bound. Above spread loins my pulsing cunt Between its gripping thighs was crowned With gardened curls across its front. […] But this is where our beauty’s sent, Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick, Crooked back and shoulders bent. My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick. My arse the same. To tempt a dick, My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick, A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.
Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”
Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution”. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.
By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family.
John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent;
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo.
John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And mony a cantie day, John,
We’ve had wi’ ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.