THE LILY-POND (by James Munro)

There were goldfish in the pond where I grew up,
shubunkins and huge golden carp, newts
of course, and tadpoles, and in spring great skeins
of frogspawn. Concealed among the water lilies,
I would watch as dry, clothed people
strolled past or sat upon the wooden bench
and chatted or kissed or simply rested awhile
and gazed at the pond, the water lilies, me,
without seeing.

But time goes by and life,
and the world we knew goes with it:
one day, the officers of the law –
a social worker, a teacher,
a policeman – came and fished me out
and sent me away to school.

Now I sit on that bench and gaze and dream
and see great golden carp glide into
the sunlight then with a silent flick of a fin
slip back under the lily leaves and out of sight.
Watch a frog swim up to breathe, climb out,
look round. Put out my hand. It hops away.

Tadpoles have gills, frogs don’t.
Which is unfair. Children too,
though most don’t care, don’t
understand that for them there’s still
an option to living on land.

A fly on my arm crawls and tickles. Another
joins it. I move, they buzz, zip, return.
I lower my hand into the water, close
my eyes and dream I never went to school,
never learnt to be a person, clothed and dry.

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MORALITY PLAY by Barry Unsworth (Review)

As is so often the case with Barry Unsworth’s novels, the reader finds himself living the life of an outsider, in this case a whole gallery of typically medieval outsiders: a young priest on the road, outside his diocese and therefore outside the law; a troupe of impoverished strolling players struggling to survive in the middle of winter; a whore,down on her luck, travelling with the players; a group of religious dissenters, the Brethren of the Spirit … And all involved in what can only be described as a very literary medieval mystery.

It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on. The first was of the man called Brendan and I saw the moment of it. I saw them gather round and crouch over him in the bitter cold, then start back to give the soul passage. It was as if they played his death for me and this was a strange thing, as they did not know I watched, and I did not then know what they were.

Thus the story opens. The young priest, Nicholas Barber, freezing cold (having lost his cloak in a narrow escape from an irate husband who returned unexpectedly) and starving hungry, happens upon a death scene being performed by a company of players; only the death is real and because of the death the players are one man short: Nicholas is co-opted.

He travels north towards Durham with them (they have been ordered to perform at Durham Castle on Christmas Day) but before they can get there they are caught up in the death of a child – a boy, Thomas Wells – and the story of the young woman accused of murdering him.

It is not, though, your typical “medieval mystery”. The players simply need money to continue their journey north and the only way they can lay hands on any is to perform a play that will attract an audience. Martin, their leader, decides to perform a “true play”, the play of this local murder; but to perform a play based on such a thing is quite unheard of. “Who plays things that are done in the world?” demands one of the shocked players when Martin suggests it.

Then, when they perform it, they find it is false: it does not work.

The whole first half of the book builds up to the performance of the first Play of Thomas Wells (which they subsequently rename The False Play of Thomas Wells) and its follow-up, The True Play of Thomas Wells; the second half of the book is the traumatic if not finally tragic sequel to these performances.

As a player, Nicholas sees everything, from medieval life in the raw –

I saw the beggar who had come to our fire and spoken of lost children. An egg had fallen and smashed below the stall, where the snow was trodden. The yolk of the egg made a yellow smear on the snow and a raw-boned dog saw it at the same time as the beggar did and both made for it and the beggar kicked the dog, which yelped and held back but did not run, hunger making him bold. The beggar cupped his hands and scooped up the egg in the snow and took it into his mouth and ate all together, the egg and the fragments of shell and the snow

– to a great joust. Nicholas, imprisoned in a castle tower, watches the joust taking place in the lists below and realises that the knights and nobles too are performing in their own play; and later sees a dying knight, mortally wounded in the joust, with “no role left to play but this last one of dying, that comes to all.”

Fine writing and a fine story with some great characters and a vivid reconstruction of the life of those particular outsiders known as players whom we now think of as central to the culture of an age and place and people.

SPEAKING OF SIVA by A. K. Ramanujan (Review)

SPEAKING OF SIVA is a book of vacanas, religious lyrics written in Kanada free verse by medieval Virasaivas. As the translator, A.K.Ramanujan, says, “They all speak of Siva and speak to Siva: hence the title.”

Kanada is a Dravidian language spoken today by about twenty million people in the South Indian state of Mysore. The vacana poetry, written between the 10th and 12th, centuries represented a breaking away from the rigidity of classical Sanscrit tradition. It is spontaneous free verse written by ordinary men or women – yes, women – of various castes, some even outcaste, some illiterate.

Their leader was Basavanna, whose poems exemplify both the protesting (“protestant”) stance of the movement and its bhakti devotion to one god, in this case Siva. A perfect example, perfectly translated, is:

The rich
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
do?

My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
of gold.

Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.

The second poet represented in this collection is Dasimayya. Whereas Basavanna always addresses Siva “O lord of the meeting rivers”, Dasimayya calls him “Ramanatha”. When he says that to the true Virasaiva

his front yard
is the true Benares,
O Ramanatha

we hear again the voice of the best of the Old Testament prophets, the truly spiritual man.

But for me the star of the movement, and of this collection, is Mahadeviyakka.

Mahadeviyakka, or Akka Mahadevi, was initiated into the worship of Siva at the age of ten and from then on considered herself his bride; however, she was a very beautiful girl and men clamoured for her hand in marriage. When the king spotted her, her fate was sealed, and she became one of his wives. Eventually, though, she ran away from the palace (probably to the King’s great relief!) throwing off, according to legend, not just marriage but all the conventions (including her clothes) and spent the rest of her life as an itinerant poet and ascetic.

You can confiscate
money in hand;
can you confiscate
the body’s glory?

Or peel away every strip
you wear,
but can you peel
the Nothing, the Nakedness
that covers and veils?

To the shameless girl
wearing the White Jasmine Lord’s
light of morning,
you fool, where’s the need for cover and jewel?

Or here is another favourite of mine by Mahadeviyakka:

Who cares
who strips a tree of leaf
once the fruit is plucked?

Who cares
who lies with the woman
you have left?

Who cares
who ploughs the land
you have abandoned?

After this body has known my lord
who cares if it feeds
a dog
or soaks up water?

Akka Mahadevi in samadhi, nude but draped in her flowing hair.

Do, please, read more of these perfect translations of her poems and those of other great Virasaiva poets by the late Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan, a great poet and scholar.

A Glance at the Poetry of EMILY DICKINSON

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

This “nobody”, this voluntary recluse, who chose loneliness (perhaps after her one love, a married protestant minister, moved thousands of miles away, to San Francisco), preferred to avoid people who “talk of hallowed things aloud, and embarrass my dog“.

It might be lonelier
Without the loneliness …

It probably would. Though perhaps at times she regretted it:

This is my letter to the world
That never wrote to me …

In Hunger, she speaks of “persons at the windows“, seeing herself as an outsider, hungry, looking in – but preferring hunger, although sometimes she may dream of going back:

My business? Just a life I led …

But who can go back? Mostly now she looks beyond the present. In an early poem, she writes:

Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above …

Did she find heaven below? Perhaps not in her immediate surroundings, but she shows the mystical, pantheistic tendencies (we find the same in Blake, for instance, and Wordsworth) of one who does indeed find heaven here in this universe.

My river runs to thee:
Blue sea, wilt welcome me?

But when I think of Emily Dickinson, the first thing that comes to my mind is the odd, outstanding, perfect line, the sort of line that truly does make one sigh and say “That is poetry”. Lines such as:

I like a look of agony,
Because I know it’s true …

Or this two-line description of a man:

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face …

Or this, on the scientific doubting Thomas:

Split the lark, and you’ll find the music …

Or these, on Death:

I heard a fly buzz when I died

The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me …

Or this, from the poem Charlotte Bronte’s Grave:

Oh, what an afternoon for heaven,
When ‘Bronte’ entered there! …

Oh, what an afternoon for heaven when ‘Dickinson’ entered there!

 

THE SILVER WOLF by Alice Borchardt (Review)

Alice Borchardt’s The Silver Wolf is set in Rome in the time of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, the latter half of the eighth century AD. But the great city is not now what it once was: Regeane didn’t know what she’d expected of the once-proud mistress of the world when she’d come to Rome. Certainly not what she found.

The inhabitants, descendants of a race of conquerors, lived like rats squabbling and polluting the ruins of an abandoned palace. Oblivious to the evidence of grandeur all around them, they fought viciously among themselves for what wealth remained. Indeed, little was left of the once-vast river of gold that flowed into the eternal city. The gold that could be found gilded the palms of papal officials and the altars of the many churches.

And this is true. Life in the Rome of the Dark Ages was squalid and sordid in almost every respect, though as the celebrated courtesan Lucilla points out, it was in some ways an improvement over the past: for instance, the hypocaust that heated the baths of the villa at the end of the first century AD “was fired by slaves who never saw the sun from one end of the year to the other“, whereas now, her men “are paid extra to fire the hypocaust and are always happy to do so. … This world is better than that of the ancients.” Maybe. She should know. You will decide for yourself after you have entered it.

The book is full of magic and mystery: shape-shifting and werewolves; ghosts, and other spirits, good and evil; involuntary psychometry; astral travel; a miraculous healing – and full, too, of the kind of medieval outsiders I always identify with immediately, for instance Lucilla, the new Pope’s mistress, who is accused of witchcraft by his enemies; a female werewolf named Matrona, who has been alive “since the beginning of time”; and a one-time leading intellectual beauty and arbiter of fashion, now with no nose and living in a convent in Rome.

Regeane is a werewolf, as was her father before her. When the book opens, she is being held prisoner (a steel collar and chain in a locked room with a barred window) by her sadistic uncle, who is of course aware of her “affliction” but wants her to go through with the marriage anyway then kill, or help him kill, her husband, who is very rich. He will pocket the proceeds and continue to “supervise” (his word) his niece. Thanks to Lucilla, she manages to avoid this fate, but as the Queen of the Dead later tells Regeane, “Woman Wolf, the road to paradise is through the gates of hell,” and Regeane does indeed go through these gates and through hell (and we with her) before she achieves happiness.

The writing is superb, and some of the lines unforgetable. I could quote all night, but how about this?I have often thought if one could impart the doings of humankind to a rose, the only thing it would understand would be the sweet, drawn-out lovemaking of a drowsy afternoon.”

Nevertheless, it is in describing the relationship between the woman and the wolf that the book most distinguishes itself. For understand that this is not one person shape-shifting, it is two distinct personalities – two utterly different personalities, one a woman, one a wolf – both occupying the same two, interchangeable, bodies. It is, so far as I know, absolutely original and quite unique. Normally the shape-shifter is the villain of the piece, but here the wolf is no creature of horror, she is something natural and marvellous, while the woman, Regeane, is the heroine. We feel everything she feels – and everything the wolf feels – experience everything they experience; and from the first page, and right till the end, identify with her – with them – completely.

VINLAND by George MacKay Brown (Review)

Orkney, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Vinland, 1014-64

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 SagaViking’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.

MAGNUS by George Mackay Brown (Review)

[ I am reposting this review. I posted the original a while back and when I looked for it recently I found that for some strange reason it had disappeared. There was just a blank page with only the comments still intact.]

This is the story of Magnus Erlendson, Earl of Orkney in the Twelfth Century; or rather (as it says in the book) “half-earl”, for there were two heirs, Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson; the story of Magnus, the mystic, who cares for the seal injured by hunters, who sits in the prow of a ship reading a book during a great sea battle, and was born to be a saint.

But he was also born to be Earl of Orkney, and half the islands support him. There is civil war, during which the islanders are reduced to poverty and despair. In the end, after three years of fighting, Magnus is killed by treachery when he agrees to meet his cousin for peace talks.

George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, was primarily a poet, and this is his most poetic novel, a long prose poem. He was also a superb short story writer and, like his wonderful first novel, “Greenvoe“, and the Booker-shortlisted “Beside the Ocean of Time“, this book reads like a series of short stories. Yet the same characters appear and reappear throughout, some (like the tinker couple, Jock and Mary, and Magnus’ boyhood companions) growing older along with Magnus, others (like the peasants Mans and Hild, and Bishop William) archetypes who are always there unchanging like a chorus in the background.

One of its most unconventional features (considered as Historical Fiction) is that it occasionally slips out of its twelfth-century setting. During the war between the two earls, we are suddenly presented with a news bulletin in modern radio idiom. Then Magnus foresees how it might be, how “in an evil time, when all the furrows are disordered, a chosen man might have to mingle himself with the dust […] Two images came unbidden into his mind. He saw himself in the mask of a beast being dragged to a primitive stone. A more desolate image followed, from some far reach of time: he saw a man walking the length of a bare white ringing corridor to a small cube-shaped interior full of hard light; in that hideous clarity the man would die.”

And in the end it is not the death of Magnus at the primitive sacrificial stone that we witness at all, it is death at the end of the white corridor, the death of the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis. And Hakon Paulson’s foreign cook, whom he orders to ‘perform the sacrifice’ is called Lifolf – as is the officers’ chef at Flossenberg, who is called upon to hang Bonhoeffer in a special ceremony on April 9th 1945, one of the last executions of the war and performed at the express orders of Hitler himself.

Unconventional yes, and in fact one of the best examples I know of the novel as an all-encompassing work of art, but not a difficult read. On the contrary, it is easy reading, and at times un-put-downable. There are moments and scenes which engrave themselves on your memory (like when Hild tells Mans to give the tinkers food and drink, and says “We’re only as rich as the poorest one among us”) and when you finish the book you feel you understand a little more of the nature of religion and of sacrifice, and of man’s place on the earth – and indeed in the universe.

George Mackay Brown returned to Earl Magnus in the short story The Feast at Papay, which, for those – like me – left thirsting for more, forms a delightful postscript to the novel. It is included in his short story collection Andrina, and is also highly recommended.