Discourses of the Severed Head

Severed Head
The Severed Head: by Luke Sewell

So. It’s Hallowe’en, which seems an appropriate time to post a poem featuring a severed head.

A bit of background. The collection of mediaeval Welsh myths know as the Mabinogion includes the story of Branwen daughter of Llyr (that ‘y’ should have a circumflex, but my Mac can’t seem to manage that today). To trim the story, Brân, high king of Britain – the island of the mighty – ends up fighting a war in Ireland to rescue his sister, Branwen. It is a bloody war which results in the destruction of both war bands and Brân himself

 

Brân had been wounded in the foot with a poisoned spear. He commanded them to cut off his head. ‘Take my head,’ he said, ‘and carry it to the White Hill in London and bury it there with the head turned towards Gaul. You will be a long time on the road; you will spend seven years feasting at Harlech and the head will be as good a companion as ever it was.

That is the starting point for the sequence of poems which deals with Brân’s burial, his rediscovery by archaeologists in the 21st century, and his views on modern Britain. Each poem is a discourses addressed by the head to a different audience. Here’s the first one:

First Discourse: To His Followers

Be gentle my good lads: as table’s head
And conversation piece give me your care.
One clumsy touch will have me land

among the filth and rushes of the floor,
a meaty chunk for all the hounds
who gnaw their lives beside my chair.

Stand still. I want to count and see who’s here.
No one behind me? No? Is this what’s left?
Just seven, from all of Prydain’s glossy host?

And if the ravens grow not fat enough
my sister’s chilling slow beneath her cairn,
her fractured heart the end of all her grief.

Beyond the sea’s grey rim’s an empty land,
no Irish man alive on bog or hill:
as they would do to us, so have we done.

You have survived to nurse your wounds, recall
how in the bitter press our honour held,
a matter more than life, while comrades fell,

but think no further than the happy hour
when stomachs will be brimmed with flesh and mead.
You do not ask the when, the why, the how,

or what will be when we all sink to mould,
when this great hall, all timbers rotted, thieved,
is nothing more than grizzled stones, a mound

of grass, yet still the only sign we lived.
The ripples in the tussocked turf will say
that you have died, but I will not be marked

with cist or cairn or simple mound of soil.
The fraying walls of London will enclose
the little hill which is my journey’s stop.

But even underground my work won’t cease:
my life will fence about this wasted land
to keep off death and plague and bring you peace.

Don’t try to think it out, just wrap your hand
about your mug and drink till you can’t stand.

The other five discourses are available in my collection Minor Monuments, which is available on-line from (UK) Amazon.co.uk, Blackwells, Book Depository Ltd, Waterstones; (USA) Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble; (AUS/NZ) Booktopia.

Or, if you are in the UK, we can cut out the middleman and you can buy directly from me, so I get more of the sale price. I am happy to ship copies to anywhere in the UK for £7.99 (that includes P&P).

Buy Now Button with Credit Cards

 

Angela Carter – Three Things I Learned

BBC_iPlayer_-_Angela_Carter__Of_Wolves___Women
Not actually Angela Carter

So. The BBC have just shown a cracking documentary about Angela Carter (available on iPlayer until early September 2018). There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, but three things stood out for me.

1. She wrote a lot, consistently, over a twenty-five year writing career. That may seem a strange thing to take away from her life, but I am impressed that she discovered what it was she ought to be doing and got on with it, despite (possibly because of) the crap that was happening in her life. ‘Getting on with it’ or ‘turning up’ at the desk to write books, stories and articles, without worrying that many people don’t appreciate them, is an emblem of a real writer.

2. She didn’t have much time for the constipated middle-class novels of the 1960s and 1970s. There’s a lovely clip of her dissing the Booker Prize winning Hotel du Lac. I know the feeling. Here’s a little doggerel fragment I jotted down a few years ago under the title ‘why I have given up reading modern novels’:

… with kind and beastly people
having largely beastly lives;
and all the beastly people
are cheating on their wives
(or husbands …)

Carter wrote the novels she wanted to write which, for all their ‘fantasy’ were still deeply political. Sometimes, the best way to write about something is to write about something else.

3. She held the view that the writer and reader create a contract, and so long as what happens within the writing sticks to that contract the reader is content to read. That is a very different test from ‘could that happen’ or ‘is it real’, and should be liberating for both the writer and the reader. If I apply that test to my current work in progress (Fortune’s Favourite – a story set in the eighteenth century english theatre world) it tells me to turn the volume up, not down.

Thank you, Angela. 

I Bet I Can Make You Laugh

IMG_3675

So. This turned up in the post yesterday: I Bet I Can Make You Laugh, poems by Joshua Seigal and friends. Turns out I must be one of Joshua’s friends, as my poem Things Could Be Worse is in there (page 103, in case your looking). The book is available from 9th August from all good bookshops (as they used to say), and on-line from Bloomsbury.

I’m grateful to Joshua Seigal for including the poem in the anthology and I am, inevitably, slightly smug. (Just for today though: don’t worry, I’ll be back to normal writer’s despair tomorrow.)

Things Could Be Worse is part of a growing collection of (mainly) animal poems which needs to see the light of day at some point soon. But I have another children’s poetry book finished, ready and needing a publisher: The Night Elephant, a story told through poems.

Sophie is an eight-year old girl with a knack for mending things and a backpack full of tools. She is taken by her friend the Night Elephant to a jungle, where the animals are in trouble because the Old Thing has stolen the water from their drinking fountain. Sophie, together with the Night Elephant and seven enthusiastic monkeys, sets off to bring the water back. But the Old Thing is just as determined to keep the water.

The poems in ‘The Night Elephant’ use a range of forms: yes, there are rhyming couplets, but there are also haiku, shape poems, free verse and alliterative verse, as well as traditional forms such as sonnets, triolets and villanelles.

In my wonderful wife’s unbiased opinion The Night Elephant is ‘perfect’. Here’s the first poem. If you want to read more, get in touch, or petition your local publisher.

Here’s Sophie – Our Hero

Here’s Sophie. What is there to say?
She’s eight years old and loves to play
with boxes, bottles, tins and jars,
with bolts and bits from bikes and cars.
There’s nothing makes her quite as glad
as when she gets a box from dad
containing nameless bits of junk
which had been rusting in a trunk
discarded in a basement store
with ‘Danger’ written on the door.
She takes the box into the shed
then tips it up so she can spread
her metal treasures on the bench.
She works at them with brush and wrench
and scrubs off rust and oil and slime
until each piece is free from grime.
And when a bolt or bracket’s bright
she studies it with touch and sight
until she thinks she knows its name
or character (that’s much the same).
So then she knows the part it plays
within the metal art displays
that line all four walls of the shed
and even hang above her bed.

On weekdays, when she goes to school,
her backpack’s stuffed with every tool
she thinks she’ll need while she’s away:
two screw-drivers, one red, one grey,
a hammer, torch, a pair of pliers
(which has a notch for cutting wires),
a drill, a set of allen keys,
a brush, a special spray that frees
up rusting hinges, bolts and locks,
a little key for winding clocks.
The bag’s so full it cannot take
her school things, so she has to make
her mother carry them, while she
clanks with her tools, triumphantly.

(© Huw Evans 2018. No reproduction without permission – but you are free to link to this page.)

 

Launching Minor Monuments

Cover image of Minor Monuments
Minor Monuments – Huw Evans

So. I have written enough poems to gather as a collection; and I have published the collection as Minor Monuments. You can find all the details – including how to buy it – on its own page.

Every new creation needs a welcome, so there will be a launch event for Minor Monuments on 5th July 2018, 7 pm – 9 pm at The Holy Biscuit, 1 Clarence Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE2 1YH.

As well as readings from Minor Monuments there will be a video, as well as drinks and nibbles.

If you do intend to come – and please do – it would be helpful if you could RSVP so we have some idea of numbers.

On bees and republicanism

The Feminine Monarchie
Illustration from Charles Butler’s ‘The Feminine Monarchie’

We have let poetry down.

That’s a big claim when there are probably more people writing poetry now than at any other time in human history. I am not talking about quality – I do not have the data to assess whether there is proportionally more bad poetry than there used to be – but about scope, subject, ambition.

Maybe it is fairer for me to say that I have let poetry down. How so? By making it too small, by accepting it is only ever going to be a personal thing about me any feelings, by not expecting it to make a difference to myself or anyone else, by making it about capturing the minutiae of one life with little reference to anything else. So, could my poetry do more than just chronicle my young adult whinings about women? (If you go to The Vault you can read some of those terrible poems in Poems Volume Minus Two.)

Yes, I think it can. And I have an example. It’s called The Republic of Bees.

I have been coming back to the works of Sir Thomas Browne, a seventeenth century doctor and writer, for many years. I finally decided I was ready to engage him in a conversation through reflections on his writings. I also wanted to write a poem about insects that live in colonies, bees, wasps, termites, ants; I didn’t really mind. Reading Browne’s Garden of Cyrus – a fantasia on the quincunx (the shape you get when you plant four apple trees in a square with a fifth in the middle) – I came upon this:

… much there is not of wonder in the confused Houses of Pismires [ants], though much in their busie life and actions, more in the eidificial Palaces of Bees and Monarchical spirits; who make their combs six-cornered 

Bees, I thought. Why not bees. Then, with a little more poking about, I learned that the paramount bee of the hive had only been identified as female in the early years of the seventeenth century: Charles Butler published his book The Feminine Monarchie in 1609. Even during Browne’s lifetime there were those who still defended the views of ancient writers such as Aristotle, that the chief bee was a king, not a queen, and using that view to defend the divine right of kings. There was the subject of my poem.

I began to write, weighing up the human and apian monarchies. The human monarchs came out of the comparison quite badly. I remember that when I started writing the poem I would have classified myself as a lukewarm monarchist: we have monarchs, but they don’t do too much harm now. But by the time I had finished the poem (which took a few months), I realised I had moved to a position of at least theoretical republicanism: there is no justification for monarchy and we would be better off without them. I still hold the position: probably more strongly.

The change came through the process of writing the poem. It was a big subject, worthy of poetry. We need big poetry. So as someone who writes poetry, I think I have an obligation to go bigger. There are plenty of subjects to address, the monarchy being only one of them.

***

The Republic of Bees will appear in Minor Monuments, a collection of poetry that I am publishing in the next week or so. In the meantime, here are the first two verses.

The hive sits snug along the orchard’s bounds;
wall-sheltered from the North wind, it receives
the gaze of the austral sun which drives off damp
and lifts the spirits of its folk in spring.
The wooden walls define a waxen realm,
ruled by a monarch absolute and firm,
who bids the deft, obedient subjects range
the airy streets, and in their gathering play
procurer to the vegetable lusts
of plum and apple, cherry, quince and sloe.

Their city gate in form’s a busy quay
where all the goods of industry and trade
are garnered for the service of the hive,
as in the constant fluxing of the tide
each homing vessel, ready to discharge
its dusty cargo, rides the counter-wake
of other barques with course American.
The tribute of their Indies and Levant
is celled to form the winter sustenance
of all their ruler chooses to preserve.

An herb?

IMG_3417So. A last (for now) comment starting from Stephen Sondheim. I was reading his book Finishing the Hat when I come across a line which includes an herb. Well now, that brings me up short. Sondheim’s pretty hot on grammar, so I know it’s not a mistake. A few moments of reflection and I remember that in American English herb has a silent h. Nonetheless, it’s disquieting, in the same way as hearing Paul Simon on Rhythm of the Saints sing about drinking an erbal brew, rather than a herbal brew.

(I think at one point Sondheim rhymes scone with throne. I’m going to presume that is the standard American English pronunciation. Personally, I would rhyme scone with gone, but poking at that would get us into discussions of language and class in the UK. I really don’t want to start that now.)

Now, don’t hear what I am not saying. I am not saying erbal brew or an herb are wrong. They are normal for American English. That’s fine. It’s just that I notice them because they are not normal in British English (at least my RP version of it).

But then I’m left wondering why the h is silent. Is it one of these things where pre-modern English had a silent h and the British have started pronouncing it, while the Thirteen Colonies (and the successor states) have stuck with the original? (The same sort of process which makes the American English use of gotten seem quaint and archaic to British ears) Or is it because of the Italian influence on American English (what are zucchini?) with the silent h of Italian slipping into the pronunciation?

I don’t know. But it reminds me once again that whenever you come to a new language you have to leave behind the sounds of your language which you have come to associate with some of the shapes of the alphabet. It’s not that the Italians pronounce z as ts. Rather, there is a letter shape which English associates with the sound z, but Italian associates with the sound ts. (I know, even in writing that, I have ended up using the English associations to reflect the Italian ones – without using the international phonetic alphabet I can’t think of another way of expressing it.)

I suspect this is something which those brought-up with two languages (which includes me) understand better than monoglots. Letters are woozy signposts at best. Any attempt to make them more than that is delusion.

Looking like what it looks like

So. I have been thinking about visual art, mainly as a result of a blog post by a friend who is a conceptual artist. He was thinking about the apparent chasm of understanding between conceptual art and what we may, for lack of a better term, call ‘the public’. His thoughts prodded me into thinking about the root of the problem which goes much further back than conceptual art. It seems to me, as a non-visual-arts-practitioner, that part of this issue with the visual arts stems from the origins of the discipline in representation. Now, I am not saying that representation is the core of visual art, but for many centuries the practice of visual art has been based around representation. Broadly, people have judged visual art on whether it looks like what it is meant to be, so when works of visual art cease to be about ‘looking like something’ people turn away from them as they are unable to engage.

Of course, visual art has always been about more than ‘looking like something’: much renaissance art is based around allegory and symbols, which viewers at the time would have recognised, but which most of us, now, do not recognise. ‘Reading’ such a painting is more than seeing what it looks like. Unfortunately, recognition of the need for ‘reading’ among the broader audience has been weak, so when we get into the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century the gap between practitioners and audience gets broader. Until we get to the stage we are now, with a divide between popular art which ‘looks like something’ (e.g. Jack Vettriano) and unpopular art which does not.

That was as far as I had got until a recent trip to Paris which took in the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay, both of which have collections of late 19th and early 20th century paintings and sculpture. Looking at those collections it was clear that the ‘problem’, or better, the ‘divergence’ really kicks in with the Impressionists who have a different approach to ‘what it looks like’, resulting in works thst would have had them laughed out of the eighteenth-century academy. Not that they couldn’t have produced works of academy style and standard, but they chose a different way of looking (and, not that the academicians thought they were only dealing ‘what it looks like’).

Once that different way has started there’s no going back: ‘looking like what it looks like’ in the academy way is no longer the path: that get us to post-impressionism, cubism and all the rest. And that’s fine. There is no requirement for works of visual art to resemble anything: but there are, I suggest, requirements of competence and good faith.

Good faith: that’s a bit of a strange one, isn’t it? Maybe, but it came to me as I was looking at the Matisses in the Orangerie and comparing them to the Derains on the opposite wall. The heads of Matisse’s people looked wrong. Not grotesquely wrong, or ‘I-can’t-do-any-better wrong’ (which is what we excuse in Rousseau), but very deliberately not quite right. He chose to do that, even though he could have painted them ‘right’. That faux naïf approach from a man who clearly could draw annoyed me, like a good musician deliberately playing out of tune.

Of course, he had a reason for doing that (at least, I hope he did), a reason which overrode the need to ‘look like’. Unfortunately, I’m not able to get past the naiveté to connect with that reason.

But opposite that was Derain’s Table de cuisine (Kitchen Table) a painting that ‘looks like’ something, a lot of things, but also does more than that. I find it difficult to describe exactly what that ‘more’ is, but I think it lies in the arrangement of the items and their emphasised edges. We have more than just an image of a kitchen table and some kitchen objects. Derain has given us the table and some.

I don’t have a snappy conclusion to these thoughts: I am still thinking and happy to listen to the views of the better informed.

Overtaken by events

Temporarily used for contact details: Historic England, Archive Services, The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon, SN2 2EH, United Kingdom, Tel: 01793 414600, Email: archive@HistoricEngland.org.uk, Website: http://www.HistoricEngland.org.ukSo. Recently I have been reading a few of my early short stories (there aren’t many later ones as I gave up writing them) with a view to making some of them available in The Vault (the collection is called The Platonic Egg and Other Stories). I’m happy to put most of them up there, but there are two I have not. One because it is an embarrassing reminder of my younger self, in an exercise in wish-fulfilment no one else needs to read. The other, because it has been overtaken by events in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

I don’t think my story merits much more consideration, but I think there is an interesting question of how we treat stories and other works of art that sit on the far side of a gulf of events. Let me use a rather better work than mine as an example.

Back in the mid-nineteen eighties the BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation of the Saki short story The Unrest Cure. In the original story, Clovis overhears a fellow passenger on a train discussing the dullness of his life and decides to provide a stimulus, a more exciting life; the opposite of the conventional ‘rest cure’. Clovis diverts himself to the man’s house and announces that he has been sent by the local bishop to organise a massacre of all the Jews in the district. There is panic, alarm, distress, but, in the end, no massacre as Clovis vanishes as mysteriously as he arrived. Yet, in the broadcast version, the object of the massacre was changed from the local Jews to the local Irish.

Now, there is enough in history to see why the Irish were chosen as the replacement victims; centuries of colonial rule and oppression made them suitable understudies. Despite that, when I heard the broadcast something didn’t sit right, because, for all the troubles that Ireland suffered, at the time Saki was writing, there were not massacres of the Irish taking place. Yet there were pogroms against Jews in Russia and anti-semitism was widespread across Europe: a massacre of Jews had a horrible plausibility, and would not have been the first in England.

So why the change? The adapters of the story found themselves reading it across the nearly incomprehensible chasm of the Holocaust and decided that, out of respect for, and recognition of, the suffering in that terrible persecution of Jews and other groups, they could not broadcast it as it was written. (I do wonder what would have happened if they had gone ahead and broadcast it leaving Jews as the intended victims: it would have been ghastly to listen to, and our knowledge of later events might have overwhelmed the story, but we might have glimpsed something of the on-going evil that is anti-semitism.)

The change from the Jews to the Irish was understandable, but also misguided. I would have rather they had left the story unbroadcast. This is not censorship: the story is still in print and readers who want to understand something of the perception of Jews and jewishness in Edwardian England can still read it (alongside at least one other Saki story that victimises Jews). Rather, it is an acknowledgement that some fractures in history are so deep they cannot be obliterated with a coat of green paint.

The sleeping bard

Gweledigaethau'r Bardd Cwsg D.S.Evans (ed.) 4th ed
So. I have been trapped down one of the research mines I wrote about earlier. This time, a reprint of an archaeological report from the 1980s led to a Welsh writer of the eighteenth century and his visions of the ills of society.

Ellis Wynne was a clergyman in North-West Wales, whose reputation today rests on his book Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg (Visions of the Sleeping Bard), first published in 1703. I’d be surprised if you’d come across it: for all its status as a classic of Welsh literature, moralising visions of hell and destruction are not widely read these days. (If you want to have a read, the text is available on Project Gutenberg in both the original Welsh and George Borrow’s 1860 translation.)

Wynne’s targets in the book are for the most part commonplace (the proud, lawyers, the Pope: eighteenth century Protestants were not very ecumenical), but there were a couple that pleasantly surprised me. Here’s my first extract: the narrator is asking why the devils in Hell regard rulers and nobles as worse than common thieves.

“Pray, my lord,” said I, “how can you call those illustrious people greater thieves than robbers on the highway?”

“You are but a dupe,” said he; “is not the villain who goes over the world with his sword in his hand and his plunderers behind him, burning and slaying, wresting kingdoms from their right owners, and looking forward to be adored as a conqueror, worse than the rogue who takes a purse upon the highway?  What is the tailor who cabbages a piece of cloth, to the great man who takes a piece out of the parish common?  Ought not the latter to be called a thief of the first water, or ten times more a rogue than the other?—the tailor merely takes snips of cloth from his customer, whilst the other takes from the poor man the sustenance of his beast, and by so doing the sustenance of himself and his little one.”

Conquerors and those who enclose common land; worse than highwaymen and cheating tailors. Yup, I’ll go with that.

And a second extract: here a knight is trying to excuse himself from damnation on the grounds that he comes from a noble family; the devils are having none of it.

“If your ancestors and your ancient house be all that you can bring in your defence, you may go the same road as he,” said one of the devils, “because we can scarcely remember one ancient house, of which some oppressor, murderer, or strong thief did not lay the foundation, and which he did not transmit to people as froward as himself, or to lazy drones, or drunken swine, to maintain whose extravagant magnificence, the vassals and the tenantry must be squeezed to death, whilst every handsome colt or pretty cow in the neighbourhood must be parted with for the pleasure of the mistress, and every lass or married woman, may consider herself fortunate, if she escape the pleasure of the master.”

Almost every noble house has been founded by an oppressor, murderer or strong thief (that is, a violent one) and their continued existence is a financial burden and moral risk to all around them.

Wynne may be laying it on thick – the visions are extreme – but too often we to go after the little crimes, ignoring the big ones because their size deceives us into thinking they can’t be in the same category.

I think Ellis Wynne may end up featuring in my poetry.

Where a million diamonds shine

mapsectionSo. Recently, I have spent a lot of time down a number of deep dark holes. On occasion, they have been wonderful, packed with shiny, interesting things, with little gems and nuggets there for the taking. And once down one of the holes I often find side passages that lead off into other caverns and caves, all with their surfaces glistening, all offering attractive trinkets. I can spend all day down there: which means the work of the day doesn’t get done.

I have, of course, been doing research.

Research is a respectable word for loafing around on google trying to find stuff out for my latest writing project. Fortune’s Favourite is set in the mid-eighteenth century: a period I know a fair bit about, but not quite enough. That means, when I want to refer to a stretch of the Thames by the appropriate name, I need to go hunting for it.

That afternoon I read a lot about navigation on the Thames, I learned something about working the slack, which may come in useful later, but I also now have vestigial memories of having briefly known something about rules for coxes and the dead key which coaches must always use (if they fall out of the launch the key will be pulled out and the launch engine will cut out, preventing accidents). Just to be clear, I don’t know that, I only remember that I read it.

I also read a lot about the building of Westminster Bridge – the original one – with all its subsidence problems. (That, later on, made me doubt an episode of Dr Who, because the Thames wouldn’t have been deep enough to hide the size of monster they put in it.) Unfortunately, none of that helped with the original question. I spent a good hour down a dark hole full of shiny things and wrote nothing.

Another hole is the 1749 map of London that I have on CD (that’s the image at the top of this post). It is absolutely fascinating and has helped me work out the route the main character took on his arrival in London, but it is so easy to vanish into it, looking for places I don’t need to know about, or zooming in on an alley with an interesting name. Research is a curse for this sort of project: there is so much that I could do with knowing, but I still need to do the actual writing, particularly as I am still hacking together a first draft (a very good first draft, but still a first).

However, I am pleased to announce I have come up with a plan which will keep me out of the research mines when I should be writing, but will also let me log all my queries so I can come back to answer them, if I find I need to. The system works in Scrivener, which is where I have written for nearly ten years now, so some parts are Scrivener specific, but I am sure it would be possible to do something similar in W*rd.

I have never used Scrivener’s Status metadata, preferring to colour code labels for progress, so I have set one status as text query. When I come across something I think I need to know (it might be a query about make-up, or whether there still were Jacobite heads on pikes on Temple Bar in 1750 (yes, is the answer)) I highlight the words or phrase in a bold burgundy, then set the status for that document from N/A to text query. If needs be I can make a short note in the document note field.

I then keep writing.

Later, I can identify those documents with queries in the Outline view and easily see what needs to be resolved. Even later, I could save a search as a collection to pull them all into one place.

I haven’t got to that stage yet, as I’m still enjoying the novelty of staying in the sunlight and writing, instead of disappearing down the research mines. I’m going to run with this for a while: I may let you now how I get on.