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)


  1. -What comes before an individual nut?-

    Beautiful, beautiful. I can see it. Maybe I am not ready for Murray and should return to him later after doing some poetry catch-up. Reading Mary Oliver now and it is going well. Thank you for taking the time to find the poem and to give it serious thought. - Fay

  2. My pleasure. He's a great physical poet, Les Murray, he's a writer who likes his five senses, and I think that's one of the pleasures of him, that sensual meatiness, the people in the "Eucalypt" poem grabbing the hands of trees and smelling them, or the nut as a reality that has to be dragged shut with straps. He has a Dickensian way of staring at an object and seeing five other objects throwing themselves into it like Venn diagrams. I've never really looked at Mary Oliver. (A poem here, a poem there, nothing concentrated.) Do you have any recommendations?

  3. So frustrating. I wrote a response to this this morning and the system said "you don't own that identity" and then wouldn't come back to this page so I could try again. You've therefore lost my words of wisdom. So, I'll just say thanks for this DKS. A wonderful exposition. I've noticed that poets sometimes do that - change poems over time. I liked the way you used knowledge of earlier titles to tease out the meanings. How much impact do you think it would have to not have those additional hints? (I did a bit of a look for an online version when Fay wrote her post but didn't come up with Knotwork Medallion. I bow to your superior searching!)

  4. My apologies for Blogger. It's not the brightest lightbulb on the planet. I had trouble finding the poem online too, until I dropped 'les murray manuscript roundel' and tried 'les murray walnut.' "Medallion" and "Knotwork medallion" came up immediately. And my brain go Boom, as Missy Elliot says of her ass. Different tiles? Interesting! If I hadn't had that "knotwork" I think I would have been more tentative about the connection to Anglo-Celtic manuscripts, specifically, and it would have been harder to reach those conclusions about the horses, because it was the idea of the Celts that put me onto the mythological white horse and Epona, and then invasions, history, historic warfare, etc. Before that I was scratching through pictures of illuminated manuscripts, checking them for horse drawings and getting nowhere. Lines two to four would have been more of a challenge. The leap to the Romans really was a leap, but I'm not sure I'm wrong, if wrong's the word.

    The connection between old gospel manuscripts and red criss-cross over a white Celtic horse started looking even clearer this morning when I found a copy of his "Figures in Quonium," a poem written "on a detail in the Book of Kells," and the last lines run like this:

    "[...] 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 --"

    Earlier in the poem he mentions knotwork: "This orphidian knotwork around us." That was back in 1977. (I might go back into the post and add this.)

  5. Well said zmkc. I would too.
    BTW I clicked Post a comment from the email and got the mo "normal" looking blogger comment page. Different to the one you get when you comment on your actual page. Will it work better?

  6. In the meantime, you might find this interesting, if you haven't already seen it:

  7. That article is madness. Here are these dense, learned, intelligent talks, available online for all the world to listen to, with thoughtful remarks about John Suckling and slight disparagement of Edmund Spenser (I was in the middle of listening to the series when they posted that article, and as Hill started to talk about the Faerie Queene, which, I think, was in Talk No. 2, I perked up, saying to myself, "The Faerie Queene!") so what happens to this nice bounty? It gets mined for outrage bait.

  8. WG -- I couldn't say, but I hope so, since my actual page seems determined to erect moats and drawbridges and lock you out.