Saturday, January 28, 2012

see in the walnut

I'm going to put Spenser down for a minute because Fay over at the Read, Ramble blog wondered if I would look at a written item of Les Murray's, so I will. It's one of the poems from his latest book, Taller When Prone, a short riddle of a thing, only seven lines long. The first line is a question but that's not where the poem starts; it starts with the title, which is Manuscript Roundel, and this is where things get interesting, because it wasn't Manuscript Roundel when Prone was first published; in fact it was Medallion in the Australian version of the book (which was brought out in the April of 2010 by Melbourne's Black Inc) and then when it was published again two months later in a Christian magazine called First Things it was Knotwork Medallion. The Manuscript Roundel title didn't exist until the following year. Fay I believe is consulting the US Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition, published initially on March 15th, 2011, and by this time it has made its final change.

Knotwork Medallion is available online here. (I'm not going to copy and paste in case there are copyright issues.) There are three differences between this and Roundel besides the title. The word "in" has been added after "egg" in the fifth line, and the horse's straps in lines two and seven are now "red." "Horses all harnessed" in line two becomes "Horses red-harnessed," and "the horse-straps" in line seven becomes "red straps" with no reiteration of "horse."

When you stack the three titles up in chronological order I think you can see Murray's mind move in a clarifying direction, from a general idea of a circular picture-space to a more specialised one; the object described by the specialised one is probably what he had in mind all along. A manuscript roundel is a feature of illuminated manuscripts, a fenced-in area marshalling a discrete image. The word knotwork in the second title might point to the kind of illuminated manuscripts Murray had in mind, old Anglo-Celtic ones, decorated with knot-patterns of twining lines, animals, plants, and figures. The most famous example is the Book of Kells. These manuscripts are religious, written and drawn by monks, and Murray is a Catholic so devout that he dedicates each new book "To the glory of God," so it makes sense that these illuminated gospels are documents he would know and think about; this is a logical avenue for his mind to take.

(A roundel is also a form of poetry invented by Swinburne from the French rondeau, but Manuscript Roundel is blatantly not a roundel: it's too short and it doesn't have a refrain, so the word here has to be a coincidence, not a guide.)

It's easy to see in my mind's eye a relationship between the enclosed typically-circularesque pattern-space of a manuscript roundel and the enclosed ovoid nut-space of the walnut shell in line one with the crenellated wriggle-patterned meat nesting inside. Murray is magicking the walnut; with line one he opens it, "What did you see in the walnut?" the shell is lifted, I'm looking inside, and I know that the poet must be seeing it too because he completes the poem by answering his own question. He's already collapsed the nut together with an art object, an object with history, the manuscript roundel. There is significance in this walnut he suggests, it is more than just a present physical object, it contains pictures; it is an illustration.

That "egg" in line five has to be the seed itself, inside the walnut shell (which is curved and brown as eggs are curved and brown), waiting to grow into a tree. "Held ... aloft" in line six becomes the tree, holding up its branches and supporting this "buttery" at the end of line five. What is a buttery? It can be any of a few different things, but I think the definition that matters here is the medieval buttery, a room that used to be set aside in prosperous English households so that the family had a place to store its beer. (Pricy booze was kept in the cellar.) The beer was held in wooden casks or butts, therefore buttery, the room of butts. Those hand-branches in line six are holding up a collection of butts, that is, brown hard enclosed objects, that is, also, in the compressive language of Murray's poetry, walnuts. And the "egg" is both the holding-aloft and the butts and the buttery because all of these tree-components will come from this one nut, they're all coiled up inside, unified for now but preparing to spring apart.

Now, looking at the egg in line five, I thought, all right, we've described the physical qualities of this particular nut that the poet is holding in our hands, so lines two, three, and four are probably talking about something else. They're a separate sentence, they're not part of this egg-and-growth. They come before. What comes before an individual nut? The history of nuts. What's in this history? We have criss-cross harnesses, we have horses, and we have soldiers who are appearing in movies, we have actors pretending to be soldiers; there's no battlefield glory for this body of soldiers any more, only media fame. Celtic knotwork is made of criss-crossings; possibly Murray's criss-cross came from that, but what else? What about Celtic horses? There is the White Horse, there is Epona the Celtic horse goddess, who ruled, among other things, fertility, seeds -- nuts -- and she was rare among Celtic gods because the Romans worshipped her too. Now look at the etymology of the word walnut which in Old English was wealh-hnutu, meaning foreign-nut, and why? Because walnuts came from the continent, from Rome and Gaul, they were currency in the cultural exchange of an invaded British Isles.

What if the soldiers were Roman soldiers, and the "red" in the American version of line two is not only a response to the red pigment on the criss-crossings in the illuminated manuscripts but also a suggestion of blood, fire, and war; those criss-crossed harnesses are war harnesses, those vexed Xs are the mess of an invasion? I asked M. what he thought of that idea and he pointed out that Roman centurions wore red too. The Ancient Roman war machine has vanished, its exploits are movies, it's Russell Crowe in Gladiator, it's a rushing mob in Ben Hur, a centurion is an actor "wearing the credits / of his movie like medal ribbons." As far as soldiering goes the Roman legions have evaporated. But a large cast of historians and, popularisers, writers, and so on, teachers, poets, have kept the memory of the soldiers lively for centuries and today they can still be imagined, this is their current glory; and this line of people devoted to their memory, stretching back for centuries, might be their equivalent of movie credits. (M. came up with this as well.)

If I'm right then these three lines are there to describe the history of the walnut, the invasion that introduced them to the country where the manuscript roundels appear to be located. Other cultures used manuscript roundels too, but that "knotwork" in the second version of the title seems to connect the poem to the British Isles. As for the straps in the last line "pulling the nut shut" I suspect that they were conjured up from the butts in the buttery. Straps hold casks together, and Murray's usual poetic strategy is to mash several ideas into juxtaposition, making them coexist, a sort of hallucinatory multilayered effect, bringing the universe of notions around one object into correspondence with the universe of ideas around another, so why not take the harness straps of the horses, put them together with the straps of the barrels, and use them to close the poem by closing the nut? The poet pushes the two halves back together, click, the vision fades, the poem ends.

So, Fay, that's my shot at Manuscript Roundel, and thank you for that: that was a pretty fabulous crossword puzzle.

(I haven't even gone into the musicality of the poem, but it might be worth noticing how Murray kicks himself along on a regular s-s-s like a kid with a skateboard: orses, nessed, criss-cross, soldier, edits, eases into yawny vowels, movie, aloft, gives himself a relishable pop-pop with building a buttery and ends with the double-final click of nut shut: the sound itself is an ending, the same door being slammed twice.)

Here is an example of red criss-cross knotwork in the Book of Kells. I'm more sure of a link between this poem and Kells now ("now" is a few days after I made this post originally) that I've looked up one of Murray's poems from the 1970s, The Figures in Quoniam, and noticed that, one, it is directly inspired by the Book, that, two, it associates the word "knotwork" with the Book ("This orphidian knotwork around us, this gold on the I, / surely this is the art of barbarians" he imagines one figure saying), that, three, he also thinks about red lines crossing through whiteness ("You say the High One used Time / and Chance to knit the red veins through the white sinews? / Now this is complexity compounded, and druidical entirely --"), that, four, it's a poem about people and things contained inside shapes on a Kells manuscript page, and that, five, other poems in the same book (Ethnic Radio, 1977) suggest that he has, or had, an interest in Celtic and Gaelic-British history.

It might also be useful to think of Roundel as a modern version of those ancient British, Anglo-Saxon riddles, the ones that present the object, whatever it is, as a series of mysterious objects and actions, not obviously related to the answer. A riddle like that, writes S.A.J. Bradley in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, "challenges the mind by paradox and by signalled ambivalence to seek a correct solution veiled in ambiguous statement, and thus to seek the truth veiled in the metaphor and the spiritual and eternal veiled in the corporal and temporal." If you think of the way Murray's positioned this walnut in time, space, and history (it's here now, but it's also a tree in the future, giving birth to new itselfs and new futures, and it's part of a religious manuscript as well -- rebirth a theme here -- and connected to events so far gone they're practically mythical -- etc) then describing Roundel as an exercise that wants to veil the spiritual and eternal in the corporal and temporal isn't a bad summary.

Here's a translation of an Exeter Book riddle whose answer is rake

I saw a thing | in the dwellings of men
that feeds the cattle; | has many teeth.
The beak is useful to it; | it goes downwards,
ravages faithfully; | pulls homewards;
hunts along walls; | reaches for roots.
Always it finds them, | those which are not fast;
lets them, the beautiful, | when they are fast,
stand in quiet | in their proper places,
brightly shining, | growing, blooming.

(Englished by Paull Franklin Baum)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

their owne perfection so

Pastorella, Spenser says, is the name of one character, a shepherdess (she's pastoral, you see, like me, down in the country last week, housed in high chaparral, looking at horses and grass) and it makes her sound like a brand of butter, I thought (farm maiden holding out a yellow brick), or noodles (Pastarella), and then I began to wonder where the difference sat between this and any other marketed identity. A man on a lion is named Wrath, a brand of boxed-up cake mix is called perhaps D'Lish, and the chopped lettuce I see in our last delivery of supermarket junk mail is named Ready-Pac, which tells me two things, one, that the lettuce is inside a pac or packet and two, that it is always, always ready to be removed from the packet and eaten, which puts it in defiance of rot, decay, death, and passing time, the principles that govern all our days, flesh and vegetable alike; these laws are personalised by Spenser and named Mutabilitie. Mutabilitie in the final cantos of the Faerie Queene tells grandmother Nature that the "greatest part" of everything should be acknowledged hers because everything changes, every part of the world is "incontinent," she is the dominant principle, but Nature thinks about it and refutes her, agreeing that "all things stedfastnes doe hate," and yet, she says, these changing things do not alter utterly and permanently, instead they come back to themselves again.

  They are not changed from their first estate;
  But by their change their being doe dilate:
  And turning to themselues at length againe,
  Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
  Then ouer them Change doth not rule and raigne;
But they raigne ouer change, and doe their states maintaine.

So there is some steady quality in everything, declares dame Nature, some self that recurs and recurs, defying change, which in the case of Wrath must be his wrathfulness, in the case of the imaginary cake mix its deliciousness, and in the case of Mutabilitie, her mutability. She is a state of affairs as well as a woman; she can stand arguing with Nature while at the same time she is happening, she occurs, she is a condition: the moon is "now bright, now brown & gray," "euery Riuer still doth ebbe and flowe," fires become ash, lightning flashes and vanishes, people grow old, buds bloom, and seasons pass. And she doesn't say, "I do this," but "I am this."

Mutabilitie's quality is innate, Wrath's condition is innate, it is utterly inner and outer, it permeates them, meanwhile the cake mix called D'lish is named from the outside, for qualities that it might have, or it might not, but the important part is that the customer should believe, just briefly, or just foggily, or even tiredly or cynically (but somehow going along with the idea because why not, it sounds good enough, it'll do, and even though they know that, "It's just marketing" they still wouldn't buy a cake mix called Crap or Chewy Socks) that the name, D'Lish, is also innate, that the cake really will be delicious, even just a little bit delicious, even just slightly more delicious than the cake mix in the box next door; and the picture on the front of the box plays a role too, but the name holds the impression together.

Yet the name is not a heart but a hat. The product is labelled; the allegorical person is exposed.

It's the growth of detail around D'lish that gives the game away, the fact that the customer can take the box home, make the cake, and decide that the taste doesn't suit them. Not delicious, this cake, not firm but soggy, and the filling tastes like water. Considering, it occurs to me that most of the characters with the decisive names in Spenser are occupying minor roles, those parts that don't ask them to do much more than appear with their qualities on show. The characters who go through extended periods of action, however -- the ones the reader can judge, weigh, and test by watching their behaviour -- their names are less blatant and less restricting.

So Spenser doesn't want a purely wrathful person doing nothing but show wrath, wrath, wrath for pages of adventures, falling in love wrathfully, holding conversations wrathfully, accepting quests wrathfully, never having any other emotion but wrathfulness, and never getting off his angry lion. As the actions began to pile up we'd be able to look at them and triangulate some response more complicated than "He's wrathful" -- and we would do that, I'll bet you, we would move off along the pathways of our own opinions, even if Spenser kept telling us to our faces that the character was nothing but wrathful and angry. People don't always go along with these lecturing tactics, people develop sympathy for villains, people refuse to laugh at the comic relief, people dislike the hero, a thing I've seen on more than one occasion, and a thing I've seen myself do more than once -- hating good King Arthur in Idylls of the King, for instance, that dehydrate prim prissy CEO boofhead, patting himself on the back. I'd run off with Launcelot too.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

a faithfull mate

If Swann has a right to envy Bill Sykes, then those characters who fight for their emotional specifics in a prose universe of vague "odds" and "infinites" have a right to envy the characters in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, because Spenser wants his people to fit their world so well that he names most of them after their personalities, which are also their employments and their actions and their roles. In other words they're allegories. The universe doesn't tug at them, it cleaves to them. They're sometimes evil but they're never lost. (Characters in the other book are always lost and never evil.) The one who devotes her life to impatience is named Impatience, the glorious queen is named Gloriana, the "fierce reuenging" one who rides a lion is named Wrath, and Care (toil-and-care, the poet means, not friendly caring) is a blacksmith

That neither day nor night from working spared,
But to small purpose yron wedges made;
Those be vnquiet thoughts, that carefull minds inuade.

The landscape in the poem isn't infinite or puzzling, instead it fits them perfectly, growing new antechambers when they need a place to go, and shrinking back to scale when they're done. The world is synonymous with their adventures. A lady loses her knight, she decides to travel in search of him, and so the poet hands her an appropriate wilderness. "In wildernesse and wastfull deserts strayd, / To seeke her knight." Then she's tired and wants to lie down, so he gives her a sward. "One day nigh wearie of the yrkesome way, / From her vnhastie beast she did alight, / And on the grasse her daintie limbes did lay." She is unprotected; he sends a lion to assist.

The Lyon would not leaue her desolate,
   But with her went along, as a strong gard
   Of her chast person, and a faithfull mate
   Of her sad troubles and misfortunes hard

Spenser's approach to landscape is a jazz approach. He bulks it out with a riff and sinks back when the solo is over. The characters finish with a forest, they turn their backs, away it goes like a used serviette, and a new one pops out of the box in front of them. The stuff of their world is neverending and absolutely malleable. A knight needs to be rescued from a dragon and so the poet shoves him over backwards into a magically consecrated swamp, explaining that the swamp is a gift from God, but this is even more blatant than the Norse saga-tellers who squirrelled invisibility rings onto their heroes' fingers through the hands of convenient dwarves. Last week in the library, coming across Ivy Compton-Burnett, I found a god in her books too, and the god was her. There she was (and me standing by the shelf with the book in front) writing Chapter Two of Masters and Pastors, and a woman-character says words to a group of men in a room, then half a page goes by, and then the woman does something completely strange -- stranger than any of Spenser's monsters, even the one with the exploding cannibal babies -- she walks into the room. We never saw her leave. There is a line there that the author never wrote: and then she got up and walked out of the room. The rest of the page tells you that this line should exist, it needs to exist; it doesn't exist. It is prominently absent.

I can redact at any time, says Ivy Compton-Burnett. I can redact anything. Or I can add. Every line of dialogue in Chapter One comes with a physical description of the speaker, more elaborate than it needs to be, straightfaced, and casual: a running gag that, through sheer stubborn weirdness, ends up pulling attention away from the element of the scene that, normally, would be the most important -- the dialogue -- and putting it on the incidental grimaces of imaginary faces. To act is to betray yourself -- Proust describes it, Compton-Burnett makes it a feature of her prose for a few pages, then stops. It wasn't important after all. Nothing is more important than the exercise of power. Nathalie Sarraute called her Great. Ha ha ha, says Ivy Compton-Burnett, in this paper world I am Gloriana, I am power, I am queene.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

beyond them he could see into the room

A few months ago as we were walking along a main road I asked M. if the rodeo finals were still in town, and, Look at the taxis, he replied. Are they still advertising country music? Most of what I know I deduce; I see nothing, I hear nothing, or no primary thing, I see the shadows of what once was, I hear its footsteps, seldom witness the thing itself. Two Tuesdays ago we went to a panel discussion called Mob Wives and our compere asked the former wife of a dead hitman when she had begun to wonder what her husband did for a living. When I walked into the room and he was seeing ghosts, she said. Bill Sykes throws a rug over Nancy's corpse, pulls it off again, secondhand information goes up from the flesh like a smoke signal and the news of her murder manifests, manifests, manifests. "He washed himself, and rubbed his clothes; there were spots that would not be removed, but he cut the pieces out, and burnt them. How those stains were dispersed about the room! The very feet of the dog were bloody." But he's a lucky man, say Proust's Swann and the Narrator, both suspicious of their girlfriends -- we'd pay time and money for evidence that solid. Instead they ask other men to spy for them, they concoct stories, they imagine lesbian orgies, they read seduction in a glance, and Swann frustrated stands in Odette's street at night staring at the light seeping through the slats of her closed window shutters -- she's in there, she's with another man -- he knocks -- it's not her window.

Two old gentlemen stood facing him, in the window, one of them with a lamp in his hand; and beyond them he could see into the room, a room that he had never seen before.

He apologises to the men for disturbing them and goes home, feeling glad, not only because his love of Odette is still intact, but also because she will never have to know about that knock on the shutters, which is the physical evidence of his emotions. He's afraid that if she knew he was jealous she might take him for granted. "[H]aving feigned for so long, when in Odette’s company, a sort of indifference, he had not now, by a demonstration of jealousy, given her that proof of the excess of his own passion which, in a pair of lovers, fully and finally dispenses the recipient from the obligation to love the other enough." Behaviour is exposure. The inner predisposition puts on flesh; now people can spot it and make deductions. Proust's jealous Narrator spends months struggling unsuccessfully to uncover the same evidence that he receives, years later, suddenly, completely, with absolutely no trouble, from someone who believes that exposure doesn't matter any more, and the experience of jealousy, and the fading of his jealousy, and his later understanding of that jealousy, his reflections on that jealousy, all feed the philosophy that makes him arc up rejuvenated at the end of the book. Pain comes first, followed by an illumination that goes beyond the pain itself, more solution than he'd dreamed or hoped for, and you remember that Proust was raised Catholic.

The promise of writing is that we can have everything we want but only if we take it second hand. This is literature, says Proust, this is meaning, in fact this is reality. Reality is not understood directly but only through reflection and metaphor, secondarily, away from the thing itself.

What we call reality is a relation between those sensations and those memories which simultaneously encircle us [...] that unique relation which the writer must discover in order that he may link two different states of being together for ever in a phrase. In describing objects one can make those which figure in a particular place succeed each other indefinitely; the truth will only begin to emerge from the moment that the writer takes two different objects, posits their relationship, the analogue in the world of art to the only relationship of causal law in the world of science, and encloses it within the circle of fine style. In this, as in life, he fuses a quality common to two sensations, extracts their essence and in order to withdraw them from the contingencies of time, unites them in a metaphor, thus chaining them together with the indefinable bond of a verbal alliance.

But it's a curse, exclaims Fernando Pessoa through a heteronym named Alberto Caeiro (a pastoral poet), it's too much, this connecting, concluding, fishnet intelligence, this brain-made reality, it's exhausting, and it distorts, it's nothing but us, us, us all the time, and why can't we be free of ourselves? Proust was sociable, Pessoa was antisocial, their lifetimes overlapped, Proust was born in 1871 and died in 1922, Pessoa was born in 1888 and died in 1935. "[A] true and real ensemble / Is a disease of our own ideas," he writes, and "thinking is not understanding" and

To see the trees and flowers
It isn't enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas
There is only each one of us, like a cave
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened

So if we were ideally Caeiro-wise in front of a flower we'd see nothing but the flower, in front of a tree we'd absorb nothing but the tree, a tall object that would become inexpressible since we wouldn't be satisfied with the word "tree," which is an idea, or a trigger that creates one, and so, there, then, maybe we're doing the next best thing -- or another thing anyway -- when we detach the tree-thing from the word tree by making metaphors about it. A rose meaning also romance is not only a rose, but also love and pain and Valentine's Day, and, imagine this -- this is all imaginary, but I fantasise it -- the word "rose" actively lifts away from the thing itself on a mattress of metaphor and the thing itself is left there like a pea, waiting to be detected in some inhuman way that's not deduction.

The first two Proust quotes come from Swann's Way (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff), and "What we call reality ..." comes from Time Regained (translated by Stephen Hudson). Bill Sykes comes from Oliver Twist, which is Dickens, and you can find the rest of the Caeiro poems in The Keeper of Sheep, or in Fernando Pessoa and Co.: Selected Poems, translated by Richard Zenith, which is the version I've used here. Anyone who's been thinking of reading Pessoa's Book of Disquiet might want to know that Wuthering Expectations is holding a Disquiet read-along.

Jane Anne Morrison at the Las Vegas Review-Journal published an opinion piece about that Mob Wives panel. In another article she says that she saw the hitman husband giving evidence at a trial in 1979, before Thanksgiving, and she went away on her Thanksgiving break telling people that he wasn't as sick as he looked on the stand, a fake, she said, he's putting it on -- he didn't live to Christmas.

The hitman's wife, whose name is Wendy Mazaros, recently co-wrote a memoir.

Monday, January 9, 2012

for soþe

I was walking back from the mailboxes when I overheard a woman on the other side of a tree say, "You had your hair cut off!" and I knew that she was talking to S., even though I couldn't see either of them, her or S.; and in fact I haven't seen S. for weeks. But M. had spotted him earlier that morning and came to me afterwards saying, "S. has had a haircut, his hair is as short as mine." I didn't see a single physical sign of S., nor did I hear him reply, but if you asked me who was behind that tree with the woman, I would tell you that it was S. Walking up the street I went past a man who had surrounded himself with a fleece of yellow and white string (unwound from ball or cylinder, it was all in curls), and he was holding part of it in one hand and making gestures with the other, cutting the string with a knife, I thought, and not for at least a minute did I ask myself if I had actually seen a knife, to which the answer was no, not a knife, not even the faintest glitter of metal, absolutely nothing that would establish the actual presence of a knife except the tugging action he was making over the string, which seemed to be the kind of tug you would make if you were trying to cut string with a knife.

Deductions! The teenage narrator in Fleur Jaeggi's Sweet Days of Discipline has a friend who looks at her shrivelled chilly palms and says, "You've got an old woman's hands." The narrator tells us then, "I knew that she was attracted to me." She adds: "I can hardly describe how proud I was." Marguerite Young in Miss MacIntosh My Darling creates her characters like this: first she plants them in a location, like a model in a diorama box -- the mother is lying in her bed, and Miss MacIntosh herself, the narrator's nurse, will walk along the beach -- and then she'll extrapolate their characteristics, getting more and more extravagant -- it's as if she's placed a dot on a bare page and then begun to draw circles around it until the page is full. The dot is the core. But the bulk of the book is made of circles. I wonder if it would have been possible to erase the dot and leave the reader to work it out for themselves. What is walking along the beach?

Miss MacIntosh turns out to be less honest than she seemed; she is also the lord's castle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is not what it seemed to be either, although, like Miss MacIntosh it both was and wasn't. The two childlike leads in their different books encounter the castle and the woman and they come away perplexed, sorrier, and aware that the world can be more complicated than they'd imagined. Gawain draws back into a mood of adolescent shame. "Now am I fawty and falce and ferde." He groans with misery and anger, the blood runs into his face. "He groned for gref and grame / þe blod in his face con melle." He can't stand this mixed state, he blames other people, he wants to be fixed. What can he do? he asks the Green Knight. Give him a solution! Give him a challenge and he'll beat it! The knight laughs and invites him home to dinner. (Doing it in Middle English which means that he doesn't laugh, he loȝe, and þe ryche fest is in his wonez. Come to my wonez, Gawain, he says but Gawain quod Nay for soþe.)

The castle and Miss MacIntosh deliver invisible wounds, they cut, they're invisible knives -- they gesture, their actions gesture, their falseness is a gesture and a knife, but a necessary knife; the wound is the story; the blood muddles out into the cheeks. Gawain wants to be whole and sole again but everyone else treats him as though nothing serious has happened. His friends at Arthur's court offer to show how much they sympathise by putting on sashes to match his sash -- they'll all be in the same club -- but how is this going to satisfy a man who thinks he's a sinner because he was fooled and scared?

Now he's aware of the goulash-world where quests (which are like games, because they have rules), can be manipulated, and people can't be taken at their word, where there are hints -- and there was a book I read last year that had hints built into the prose itself, written by an author who kept using adjectives like oddly and infinitely so that the world of his language would seem to have more depth than it was possible for him to explain: characters were "oddly close" and "oddly troubled" they felt an "odd comfort" though they were "oddly cold" and caught up in "odd tumult" suffering from "odd vertigo" and hearing an "odd sound" or a "sound of infinite dread," yet they had "infinite patience" and things seemed "infinitely simpler" and "infinitely better" in spite of "an infinite darkness beckoning."

And in defiance of that atmosphere of anti-exactitude they kept trying to pinpoint their emotions and discipline them, "resolv[ing] not to let such feelings frighten" them they "refuse[d] to open [themselves] up to such morbid sensations" and instead they were "Determined to banish these loathsome thoughts from [their minds]" and "suppress the dangerous, undisciplined thought." Breathing a grey smudge of odds and infinitelys they were trying to wrestle control of their own selves from the air and earth of their planet -- that was the story it seemed to me I was reading, though it was not the story the author was trying to tell on the surface of the book; on the surface it was a historical drama with thoughts about the nature of love.

They were holding themselves together or trying to; they wanted to fix themselves in place as Gawain wants to do, stubbornly, against the mass of unspecificness that forces itself in on them -- they want to be themselves, under their own control, defined, exact, revealed, not wafted around with odd feelings, infinite longings -- these blurry hints frightened them, or alarmed them, or made them dig their heels in like children -- and by the end I was backing them against the author, who wanted them to open their hearts lovingly and unrepress, but what did he give them to unrepress into, bar this mush of foggy oddlys? You're a con man sir, they could have said to their creator. I think that bridge you're trying to sell me just doesn't exist.

Fleur Jaeggi's book was translated by Tim Parks. Come to think of it the narrator is not a teenager -- she's telling a story about the time when she was a teenager but she's not one now.

Sir Gawain is available online in several versions. Here it is in Middle English with a modern prose translation.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

false whispers, breeding hidden

In 1811 Charles Lamb is talking to a friend about the poet Spenser when he discovers that he isn't, and in fact the Spenser his friend is referring to is a different Spenser, and not Spenser but Spencer, and not the Elizabethan author of The Faerie Queene and the Epithalamion (which Lamb had brought out to show him, wondering why the friend didn't know the poem already when he'd said that Spenser was "an author with whose writing he thought himself particularly conversant"), but the Honourable William Robert Spencer, third son of a Lady and a Lord, friend to Byron, popular author of Beth Gêlert, or the Grave of a Greyhound, a man who had been born in 1769 and who was still completely alive as they were having their conversation, not buried and inert like a Spenser but walking around on viable legs like a Spencer and maybe even writing a fresh poem: productive, warm, soft, still growing hair and nails, smiling, wearing shoes.

He was not Spenser:

Let no lamenting cryes, nor dolefull teares, 
Be heard all night within, nor yet without: 
Ne let false whispers, breeding hidden feares, 
Breake gentle sleepe with misconceivèd dout. 
Let no deluding dreames, nor dreadfull sights, 
Make sudden sad affrights; 
Ne let house-fyres, nor lightnings helpelesse harmes, 
Ne let the Pouke, nor other evill sprights, 
Ne let mischivous witches with theyr charmes, 
Ne let hob Goblins, names whose sence we see not, 
Fray us with things that be not: 
Let not the shriech Oule nor the Storke be heard, 
Nor the night Raven, that still deadly yels; 
Nor damnèd ghosts, cald up with mighty spels, 
Nor griesly vultures, make us once affeard: 
Ne let th' unpleasant Quyre of Frogs still croking 
Make us to wish theyr choking. 
Let none of these theyr drery accents sing; 
Ne let the woods them answer, nor theyr eccho ring.

He was Spencer:

And now a gallant tomb they raise,
  With costly sculpture decked;
And marbles, storied with his praise,
  Poor Gêlert's bones protect.

Here never could the spearman pass,
  Or forester, unmoved;
Here oft the tear-besprinkled grass
  Llewellyn's sorrow proved.

And here he hung his horn and spear;
  And oft, as evening fell,
In fancy's piercing sounds would hear
  Poor Gêlert's dying yell!

"How oddly it happens that the same sound shall suggest to the minds of two people hearing it ideas the most opposite," writes Lamb. Later in one of his letters he will recommend William Blake to a friend and refer to the poet as Robert, which was the name of Blake's younger brother who died at the age of twenty-four, and whose spirit was seen by Blake leaving his body through the ceiling "clapping its hands for joy." William said that Robert came to him in dreams afterwards and gave him advice about printing. Last week I was in a secondhand bookshop buying a paperback compendium of Samuel Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable, when the man behind the counter started talking to me about Beckett's face -- Samuel Beckett had a distinctive face, he said, and we get people all the time bringing in copies of this one specific Beckett biography and they all have the same photograph on the front -- it's true, I agreed: he had that lined face, that weathered well-lived face, it's serendipity, Samuel Beckett looked like the man who wrote the books that Samuel Beckett wrote. And always a cigarette, said the man. In every single photograph a cigarette, even when he was young.

The photograph of Beckett I knew best was the one on the front of Anthony Cronin's Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist and I couldn't remember a cigarette. They must be film students, said the man. It must be one of the set texts for the film studies course at the university.

"There was something in the tone with which he spoke these words that struck me not a little," remarked Lamb in 1811 and now I was struck too, because I couldn't think of any reason why you would see a student come into your shop with a biography of Samuel Beckett and assume that they were studying film. I was a snail that had been running forward with confidence and now one of my eyes had hit a barrier, it curled back, I hung fascinated, I was searching for a route and the route I'd thought we had was gone: we were not talking about the same Beckett. Who was his Beckett? Who was smoking cigarettes in every picture? Lamb's friend, what was he thinking as he read the Elizabethan Epithalamion, how did he reconcile it with the Spencer he knew, "with whose writing he thought himself particularly conversant"? How was he able to go on talking about Spencer as though Spenser was Spencer when Spencer didn't write like Spenser?

And the copy that Lamb showed him was a first folio, and the first folio edition of Spenser's collected works was printed in 1611, so how did the friend in 1811 reconcile the age of the book with the recentness of Spencer? Somehow he did. For a little while the two poets were not flesh and blood they were syllables, spen and ser, they were noises, and those noises bridged or fogged the difference between Elizabethan and contemporary poetry, they fogged the wear and tear in the folio paper, the unity of sound made them convincing, the ideas roused by those sounds dominated the room, the material world was less important, and Lamb's friend detached himself and flew into a world of impressions, taking spen and ser and cobbling together a universe in which the author of Beth Gêlert wrote faux-Elizabethan poetry and publishing houses issued him in a replica.

He assembled this world out of the tools that had been presented to him, his memory of Spencer, plus this new evidence and the apparent conviction of the other man in the room, Lamb, who was older and well-read -- muddling these items together into a shape and not examining it closely yet, just trusting that it would make sense, that the world would fall into coherence once he stopped and looked: assuming.

I can't read his mind. But no matter what he was thinking, he continued the conversation with Lamb as if he believed that the two poets were the same man, an assumption is the shortest distance between two points, and what conversation is not made up of assumptions?

It's possible that he suspected something and didn't show it. He stood on the surfboard of those two syllables and coasted over the waves. Perhaps he was afraid of looking ignorant if he asked, "Is this the same person?" and maybe he was wondering, as I wondered too, in that bookshop, if the ultimate useful clue would come along in the conversation naturally, by accident, and maybe that's why he let Lamb hear him mutter, "Poor Spenser" as he looked at the folio -- he wanted to help things along, he wanted a small crisis, boom, precipitation, unuttered question answered, everything clear, and that was why he said his "Poor Spenser" in "the accent with which a man bemoans some recent calamity that has happened to a friend, [rather] than that tone of sober grief with which we lament the sorrows of a person, however excellent, and however grievous his afflictions may have been, who has been dead more than two centuries." That tone was the giveaway. "I had the curiosity to enquire into the reasons of so uncommon an ejaculation," writes Lamb. Shortly the mystery was solved.

I asked the man in the bookshop if he knew who had written the biography. I have one at home, I said, and I'm wondering if it's the same author. Privately I was thinking that if we had the biography in our hands he would see that my Beckett was not his Beckett. It would be our turning point. Poor Spenser. He took me to the Biographies shelf in the Movie section of the bookshop and there was Scorsese but no Beckett, Spielberg but no Beckett, -- I stared at the shelf seriously as if I expected to find Beckett there, knowing that I wouldn't. He h'm'd, and I wondered: now what? We were in a mystery and the mystery was mine, I was the only one who saw it, it was my mystery, and if I never mentioned it then no one else would ever know it had existed.

A name is not a person, people mistake names, people play with names, names are not as sacred as their owners wish they were, even parents can be playful with names -- one of Lamb's friends was the barrister and judge Barron Field, author of the first book of poetry published in Australia. Baron Field? asked M. No, I said: barren field. But the choice of name was not as whimsical as it looks. Barron was his mother's maiden name. Kim Jong-il hadn't been dead on the internet for twenty minutes before I saw different people make variations on the same joke. Kim Jong dead? I didn't even know he was il. Kim Jong-il is dead, I told M., and everybody in North Korea is compelled to mourn, the way the Zulus had to when Shaka Zulu's mother died. Shaka was bereft; everybody had to be bereft.

(Everybody had to have his feelings, everybody was the child of his mother Nandi, all of North Korea was the child of Kim Jong-il: vast imaginary families, execution if you don't comply, and the grieving child is surrounded by grieving children but he is the real one and they are not, and all the rest are by definition, acting; and the act can be detected and exposed at any time, if the real child likes. A parent dies and moves are made to see that the child is surrounded with objects whose minds he can read, in short: toys.)

Of course, said M., she was the Queen Mum, and everybody loves the Queen Mum.

The Queen Mum, I mused -- with her kraal full of corgis -- and pictured them there, sand-coloured, like lions.

Here is Lamb's essay: On the Ambiguities arising from Proper Names.

Also the poetry of William Spencer.

And the poetry of Edmund Spenser.