Thursday, April 17, 2014

with a waving trail

To melt and yet to be rescued, such is his fantasy, to “plunge, dive, sink into the whole great mass of universal matter” and still maintain a personality as your inalienable right. All of his dissimilarities are written in a mode of rescue (I further submit), the rescuement of the human spirit and soul as he sees it, in a battle that is still going on, a battle so important to him that it will appear in places where it is not otherwise necessary; a battle that Geoffrey Hill enters when he tells the audience during his Keble College lecture Legal Fictions and Legal Fiction that he does not condemn the British poet and critic William Empson for being the third son of a squire while he, Hill, was the son of a man who left school at thirteen to get a job sticking labels on large tins of jam, but rather "I am more inclined to rejoice in his ability to have his way with the language of proprietorship as one of several available possibilities in aid of a richly variegated poetic and critical verbal range."

It doesn't take a lot in Powys, it takes nothing more than a word: “no sooner was the word 'devil' uttered than the men thought of the Garden of Eden, and the women, including the General's lady, thought of God,” in All or Nothing. The General prefers Greek to Latin and the General's lady prefers Latin to Greek. A worm-man is named Wug and a slug-woman is named Zug. A sister is named Ting and a brother is named Ring. Those two names are touching but not utterly mingled. It's a shame incest is illegal, sighs another brother and sister in the same book. Then the brother in that couple marries Ting and the sister marries Ring, and one marriage has a daughter and the other marriage has a son and the son's nickname is a contraction of the first part of his name, “Malcolm or Mal,“ and the daughter's nickname is a contraction of the end of hers, “Leonora or Nora.“

One of the grandfathers, Lord Urk Cad, is another Powys character who gets his head smashed in and comes back as an apparition though this is not a significant part of the story. One of the mothers says they should throw the urine of Zug on this undead headless man “with a waving trail of blood-coloured smoke issuing from his neck,“ and the other mother says they should throw the urine of Wug, although both urines will have an identical effect: “they had discovered by experience that both the urine of Wug and the urine of Zug had a very deadly effect upon whatever plant they were squirted upon.“ It is possible to write endless hairsplitting differences about anything.

They found themselves in a large square chamber, with a fire burning in a big hearth; but, save for the fire, everything in the room was black, not so much “black as coal,” but “black as ink,” as “black as night.”

(Now that I am thinking of teasing differences I am going to say that I see it again in “large“ and “big,“ those two words also “touching but not utterly mingled.“)

You could write entire books in this mode, bringing up a leaf or a brick or a cherry in the first sentence and never getting away from it, so that hundreds of pages later you are still wondering if the cherry is as red as a ruby or as red as a fire engine, and how the reds change geographically across the surface as the cherry curves, and then there is the red where it approaches the plug-end of the cherry stalk, and the red where the cherry is bruised. There is no reason to stay with comparisons to objects that are actually red, so the red on the bruise could be as deep as the belch of a toad in an underground cavern, which is a comparison that Powys draws with something in The Brazen Head. I don't have my copy here or I'd look it up.

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