Thursday, August 17, 2017

pre-van-trip gallimaufry

Autumn Hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis) again

Apparently the word "gallimaufry" meant (or perhaps still means) "an unappetising dish" in French.

Today's unappetising dish, in preparation and forewarning of three weeks off-grid in Europe, is just a hasty flutter through some books in my backpack.

Let's begin with a book I bought last time I was on the road, and have now picked up again, thinking to take it with me.

Un cœur girondin

Le soleil de septembre inonde d'une lumière dorée le jardin de mon presbytère. J'hésite à me priver de ces rayons en fermant les volets pour conserver un peu de fraîcheur dans la maison. J'habite une véritable chartreuse girondine, bâtiment de pierre tout en longueur, surmonté dúne seule fenêtre selon les usages de lárchitecture de la région. De mon logis, les rues coulent en pente douce vers la Garonne, contournant au passage les hectares de vignobles.

Ici, on produit du loupiac, un délicieux vin blanc liquoreux, dont les vendanges sont tardives. Pluie et chaleur ont alterné cet été; les viticulteurs pressentent que la récolte sera bonne.

(from Mémoires d'un curé de France by René Negré)

The September sun floods the garden of my presbytery with golden light. I hesitate to deprive myself of those rays by closing the shutters to conserve a little of the freshness in the house. I live in a true Girondine charterhouse, a stone building throughout, surmounted with a single window according to the architectural usage of the region. From my lodging the streets run in slow descent towards the Garonne past acres of vineyard.

Hereabouts they produce Loupiac, a delicious sweet white wine, harvested late in the year. Rain and heat have alternated this past summer; the winegrowers predict a good vintage.

(Loupiac, on the north bank of the Garonne about 30km SE of Bordeaux, where frequent mists encourage the botrytis; Sauternes and Barsac are grown on the southern side.)

Negré, from a fairly wealthy family (his surname, he wryly notes, probably indicates former slave-owning interests), discovered his vocation partly in dismay at the Saucats massacre in 1944 (when French military police and the Gestapo destroyed the farm of Richemont and all its young inhabitants) and partly from his own veneration for St Vincent de Paul.

Autumn Hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis) being visited by bee

Ken Edwards,


On Wednesday the corona
On Thursday a strange & hilarious day
On Friday my green gardens are blooming
On Saturday the sky was fresh

O braid my
             light-brown braid
I plaited you mechanically
             with the words of consolation.

One braid
becomes two,
             the army
of mechanicals
              attacca subita

(from eight + six, 2003)

The six sonnets titled "A Wedding" make reference to Stravinsky's Les noces (1923). "O braid / my light-brown braid" is part of the libretto; The bride-to-be Nastasia in the opening tableau is having her hair done. (Stravinsky wrote it in Russian, based on traditional Russian wedding-songs.) "Mechanical" refers to Stravinsky's percussive instrumentation, which he delighted in as "totally homogenous, totally impersonal and totally mechanical". Attacca subita  is the musical direction in Stravinsky's score, meaning to proceed to the next tableau without any pause in between.

I guess the sonnets also celebrate Ken and Elaine's wedding in 1999. "Corona" refers, Ken tells us, to the solar eclipse partially visible in London on 11th August 1999. (I remember watching it lying in a field in Somerset.) The "army of mechnicals" probably means cars for the church and has nothing to do with Snug the Joiner. The typically unsettled August weather ends, in the sixth sonnet, with light breezes and a sort of open contemplation of the future's constant changefulness; at the same time with a strong sense of the permanent transformation effected by marriage.

(Pondering on Ken Edwards' sonnets in relation to the Stravinsky of Les noces, on the cusp between modernism and neoclassicism, is a surprisingly fertile line of thought...)

Autumn Hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis) with the clock in focus

I'm slowly following Napoleon through Scott's epic Live of Buonaparte, which I downloaded to my phone a few months back. There was no vein of cruelty in Napoleon, but he could be ruthless, and once out of Europe and in the Middle East he committed an undoubted war crime following the taking of Jaffa in Palestine: some twelve hundred Turkish and Albanian defenders who surrendered and were given quarter, were later led out into the desert and shot, their bodies piled in heaps.* Napoleon never denied it. Apparently he wanted the story to get around. It was part of a comparatively crude programme of manipulating eastern hearts and minds. Napoleon had also taken every measure to respect Islam and to reject the imputation of leading a  crusade; the French Republic was determinedly secular. So far so good, but he also claimed wildly that in liberating Egypt from the tyranny of the Mamelouks he was acting as the instrument of Allah and in fact his arrival in Egypt had been several times prophesied in the Koran. His Moslem interlocutors kept their thoughts to themselves and remained politely silent when he spoke in this vein.

(The sacking of cities such as Jaffa, with consequent looting, murders of citizens, rapes of women, slaughter of babies at the breast etc, was not considered a war crime in Napoleon's time, but an inevitable concession to the soldiery that no general could do much to control.)

*Scott's conservative estimate. Higher figures (2,400, or 4,100) are often quoted.

Autumn Hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis), Swindon, 15th August 2017

A couple of 2017 poetry books to see me through the autumn: Andrea Brady's The Strong Room (which I've unfortunately left at home) and Laurie Duggan's no particular place to go, a remarkable mesh of annotations. In keeping with the vaguely French theme of this post, let's return to the banks of the Garonne, but a bit further upstream, at Toulouse.

The last city defences
demolished 1820,

red brick channels
the Garonne's rapids,

trees snagged on rocks
from a recent flood.

Movement of wind through plane leaves
is pointillisme.

In the riverside bar a student reads
One Dimensional Man.

(second half of "A short history of France".)

*One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society by Herbert Marcuse, 1964. Influential sixties bible delineating the pervasive dehumanizations of capitalism and the need for negative (critical) thinking.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 14, 2017

waves of our native soil

Summer weather forecast for Vaasa, Finland


The oarsman's bronze face
looks timelessly at the summer day.
A sculpture consists of darkness
that reflects the light. Accordingly
it is invisible. Really
only its existence exists, not
it itself. I know the oarsman
well; yet his face is
nameless. When a mountain breaks
among the clouds we turn homeward.
The black sound overwhelms
like the mother's booming pulsebeat
in the foetus. There is no defence
against defencelessness. Through the rain
we see the church towering above the
They punish their unbelief with belief,
says the oarsman. They believe
in what does not exist:
a life after this
and death.

(Gösta Ågren, from Jär (1988), translated by David McDuff as Standing Here (Kindle Book))


Jär's epigraph is these famous lines from "The Prisoner" by Emily Brontë: 

Oh! dreadful is the check, intense the agony
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.

"A Day at Sea" subscribes to Brontë's argument against heaven: life is only meaningful in connection with our world. Brontë uses the word "earth" to express the latter concept. For Ågren, the boat rowing across the low waves of the gulf of Bothnia (Östersjön) does as well, the thunderstorm a mother's heartbeat. This being the life without which there is nothing for us, we are both as secure as the unborn, and as defenceless.

And the oarsman's face, holding still as the boat glides, with the sun shining on it... this face is a sculpture, because it is timeless and because it is immanent in the world, it doesn't belong entirely to Ågren's friend, who after all does have a name. 

(Ågren has also mentioned that he is an admirer of R.S. Thomas, which seems like a good excuse for a Thomas poem with a sea theme.)



It is a matter of a black cat
On a bare cliff top in March
Whose eyes anticipate
The gorse petals;

The formal equation of
A domestic purr
With the cold interiors
Of the sea's mirror.         

(R.S. Thomas)


Neither of these poems mentions waves directly. But this is sophisticated poetry. In poems of national pride and patriotism waves are somehow important.

           Britannia rules the waves!

Partly this is something to do with the increased visibility or thereness of a land when you are at its border ("White Cliffs of Dover"...).  A coast makes an unmovable topographical argument for the unique identity of a place and its people.  And then, ever since the Athenians and probably long before. the coherence of local identity often begins with the exploitation of the sea as highway, harvest and battlefield.

With my English-speaking head on, I deplore patriotism and I see states as mere systems of coercion, discrimination and injustice... And in fact I agree with Gösta Ågren's tart aphorism, "If states really existed, there would be no need for borders".

But with my childish Swedish-speaking head on, I'm a helpless sentimentalist and patriot. Which is why, earlier today, I was reading the traditional county songs that appear in Sjung Svenska Folk! And the waves danced and glittered, visibly testifying to the inherent living spirit of each place. 

Känner du landet (SÖDERMANLAND)

Minns du den stranden, där Mälarens bölja
Suckar av kärlek och dansar av lust?

Do you remember the shore where Mälaren's waves
Sigh with love and dance for joy?

Ostgötasång (ÖSTERGÖTLAND)

Så grant står Östergyllen i sommarfager prakt,
Och skördarna, de gyllene, de bölja.
Väl hundra vita kyrktorn på slätten håla vakt
Längs insjöstrand, som glittervågor skölja.

So fair stands Östergyllen in summer beauty's splendour,
And its harvest of gold that swells up.
And a hundred white church-towers keep watch across the plain,
Beside the lakeshore where the glittering waves lap.

Bohusvisan (BOHUSLÄN)

I Bohuslän det gamla
Drog viking över våg
Att segerbyte samla
På dråpligt draketåg.

In ancient Bohuslän
Sailed the Vikings o'er the wave
To win victory
For the mighty dragon fleet

Hallandsången (HALLAND)

Vår kust nu ligger fager
Vid Västerhavets våg
I tidig sommardager
Med böljors glittertåg.
Jag älskar böljesången
Med dur och moll uti
Och doften ifrån tången
Där vindar dansar fri.

Our shore extends so fair
beside the Western Sea's* waves
In days of early summer
With the glittering of the waves.
How I love the waves' song
Its major and minor melodies
And the smell of the bladderwrack
Where the winds dance free.

*i.e. the North Sea, as opposed to the Baltic.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

autumn hawkbit

Autumn Hawkbit on a dry day (Frome, 5th August 2017)

Autumn Hawkbit, Scorzoneroides autumnalis, formerly Leontodon autumnalis. Sw: Höstfibbla.


    in the individual case
a starched confection shirt
             That was us!

That was the old rolling sea with its gold and mottoes

No-one has done wonders here

Who broke the steady branch that rests

respective situations

my eye, your eye

it was just that we started late

the tissues that are soaked with sea

and to sustain
falling with such relieving force
as to bear all that

so you would cloak your mirth

and I still believe it


Autumn Hawkbit has now been banished from the large genus Leontodon and, along with a dozen other species worldwide,  placed in a new genus Scorzoneroides. (Peter Sell and Gina Murrell comment that Scorzoneroides appears to have at least as much in common with Hypochaeris as with Leontodon.)  Our other common hawkbits (Rough Hawkbit and Lesser Hawkbit) remain in Leontodon.

Autumn Hawkbit is one of the most commonplace of flowers in lowland Britain (though nevertheless very welcome because of its fresh appearance in late summer at a time when so much other floral colour is becoming rather scrappy). The flowers look like dandelions but a bit smaller, the stems are branched, and the "clocks" are brown rather than white.

However, it does have a number of varieties that grow in rather more exciting places than Swindon.

According to Den virtuella floran:

Huvudvarieteten vanlig höstfibbla (var. autumnalis) har gleshåriga eller nästan kala holkfjäll och djupt flikiga blad. Svart höstfibbla (var. taraxaci (L.) Hartm.) har svarthåriga holkfjäll och nästan hela blad. Gulbrun höstfibbla (var. asperior Wahlenb.) är grovt byggd med glesflikiga blad och   brunhåriga holkfjäll. Kal höstfibbla (var. salinus (Aspegren) Lange) har kala holkfjäll, vanligen ogrenad stjälk och grunt flikade blad.     ... Varieteten svart höstfibbla (var. taraxaci) är nordlig och växer på snölegemark, stränder och dryashedar i fjälltrakterna. Gulbrun höstfibbla (var. asperior) är också nordlig och växer i videsnår och ängsmarker i fjällen.

Translation: The main variety, Common Höstfibbla (var. autumnalis) has sparsely-hairy or nearly hairless involucre-bracts and deeply lobed leaves. Black Höstfibbla (var. taraxaci (L.) Hartm.) has black-hairy involucre-bracts with the leaves almost entire. Golden-brown Höstfibbla (var. asperior Wahlenb.) is a coarser variety with sparsely-lobed leaves and brown-hairy involucre-bracts. Bald Höstfibbla (var. salinus (Aspegren) Lange) has glabrous involucre-bracts, a usually unbranched stem and shallowly-lobed leaves.    ... The variety Black Höstfibbla (var. taraxaci) is northern and grows in the fells in snow-layers. lake-shores and Dryas-heath.  Golden-brown Höstfibbla (var. asperior) is also northern and grows in willow-scrub and grassy places in the fell region.

Sell and Murrell (Flora of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 4) describe eleven varieties. Here's a summary list:

1. Var. salina . Grows in salt-marshes. (see above)
2. Var. simplex.  Leaves deeply divided almost to midrib with narrow lateral lobes. Grows on heaths, moors, dunes, shingle.
3. Var. nigrolanata. Dense long greyish-blackish hairs on involucre-bracts and upper stem. Coastal in N. Scotland and islands.
4. Var. alpina. Formerly treated as ssp. borealis.  Leaves nearly glabrous, teeth curved down, capitula solitary. Mountain cliff-ledges.
5. Var. pratensis (= taraxaci, see above)
6. Var. autumnalis . Stems slender, usually few, and see above. 6,7 and 8 are common plants of lowland roadsides and grassy places.
7. Var. pinnatifida . Stems slender,  often very numerous. Leaves divided to midrib with linear lateral lobes. Capitula 3-merous per stem.
8. Var. coronopifolia. Stems slender, often very numerous. Leaves divided to midrib with very long  narrow linear segments.
9. Var. cinerascens. Robust stems, large flowers and dense yellowish hair on involucre-bracts. Very rare (perhaps only introduced) in UK.
10. Var. dentata. Leaves erect with short, broad teeth. A few places in Wales and Co. Cork.
11. Var. latifolia. Leaves Broad-leaved in undivided part, with widely spaced long teeth. Roadsides, in occasional clumps.

Autumn Hawkbit on a rainy day (Swindon, 9th August, 2017)

Labels: ,

Monday, August 07, 2017

The water

Grisselören, on the E. Baltic coast near Nykarleby, Ostrobothnia (Österbotten), Finland

[Image source: . Photo by Marcus Soininen.]

June night

The motionless sea
is waiting for the rock to go.
This is not the answer
but the silence

28. If states existed there would be no need of borders.

(from Aphorisms)

Gösta Ågren, translated by David McDuff (In the 1992 Bloodaxe selection, A Valley in the Midst of Violence)

Leo, hans liv
Det var svårt att vara, inte
för människan i honom, men för
djuret, som inte orkade bära
medvetandets bly. Vetskapen om,
att han levde, hindrade honom
från att leva. Den utgjorde
ett sömnlöst ansikte, som såg
på hans känslor tills de smög
sig bort som skådespelare
från en dålig föreställning
och som tänkte, att han tänkte,
tills varje tanke djupnade till
intet i detta kalla ljus. Han
var själv fienden, och skrev
böcker för att besegra sig,
men i en sådan kamp är den enda
möjliga segern alltför stor.
Han segrade. I tystnaden
efteråt hördes några
sista, trevande ord.

Poem, from Jär (1988), about the novelist Leo Ågren, Gösta's elder brother, who died in 1984. (Source:


It was difficult to be, not
for the the human in him, but for
the animal, which had not the strength to carry
the leaden weight of consciousness. The knowledge
the he was alive prevented him
from living. It formed
a sleepless face that looked
at his emotions until they crept
away like actors
from a bad performance
and that thought that he thought,
until each thopught deepened to
nothing in this cold light. He
was himself the enemy, and wrote
books in order to defeat himself,
but in such a battle the only
possible victory is too great.
He won. In the silence
afterwards came a few
last fumbling words.

(Translation by David McDuff, from Standing Here, now available on Kindle.)


Gösta Ågren has been a supporter of "Ostrobothnian separatism". The small coastal county of Österbotten is (along with the Åland islands) the only part of Finland where Swedish remains the majority language, and it is linked to Sweden by a daily ferry across the Baltic between Vaasa and Umeå. Ostrobothnian separatism, however, is not about reunification with Sweden. The region's culture of independence from the state goes back much further than Finnish independence in 1917 and the rising status of the Finnish language during the 1920s. Already in the early eighteenth century, Pietist movements in Österbotten were seeking independence from Sweden and its "Grand Duchy" (i.e. modern Finland). As with other quiescent separatist movements in Scandinavia (Tornedalen, Jämtland, Åland), an outsider doesn't always know how seriously to take it. But Ågren's poetry is absolutely serious.

Background: (Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Vol 2: 1520-1870))
Background: (David Kirby, "Nationalism and National Identity in the New States of Europe: the examples of Austria, Finland and Ireland" in Peter M. R. Sirk, ed., European Unity in Context: The Interwar Period)

[As usual, I've labelled Finland-Swedish literature as both Finnish and Swedish (on the basis that its  readership straddles both sides of the Baltic).]

Labels: , ,

Friday, August 04, 2017

I'd (and She'd, He'd, We'd They'd...)

This post isn't so much a post - at least not yet - as a construction site. It aims to collate, investigate, speculate, pontificate and posture about an observation that I made many years ago but first mentioned on the Britsh-poets forum a year or so back.

The observation, in very crude terms, is this:

"I'd" (and other related words such as "she'd", "we'd" and "they'd") are very popular words in modern mainstream poetry in English. Contrariwise, these words almost never appear in experimental/avant-garde/alternative poetry in English.

This appears to be the case even though few if any practitioners are aware of it. So I see this as to some extent a matter of sociolinguistics.

Response on the forum was muted or hostile, perhaps because few poets like to think their diction is unconsciously determined, or perhaps because of ideological resistance to the idea that there are different poetries, or because the word mainstream is deemed to be always pejorative.

[On this last point, I will only assert here that both these poetic camps have existed for over half a century and there is a formidable tradition of important poets in each camp (as well as plenty of poets that nobody has ever taken much notice of). The claim that one camp is as a whole better than the other camp is not easy to defend convincingly.]

Anyway, here's the middle part of Andrew McMillan's "Dancer", which was the Friday Poem on Radio 3 (in this case it was also aligned with Radio 3's Gay Britannia celebration). I'm not sure where McMillan's line breaks occur (the poem won't be published until next year) so I've just cut the text into lengths.


Even after rehearsal when I invite him
back to the flat to shower before the night's performance
he moves through the rooms so carefully
as though deciding a way to best inhabit them

I'd imagined he would be too beautiful to be curious but
each shelf and photo receives his audience of wet hair
tight body where each part's connection to another part is visible
his battered feet leaving their notations on the false wood floor


"I'd" is there, and it reveals the mainstream tradition in which this poem functions; that is, it's more Mark Doty than John Riley  (to name a couple of poets that have been reported as McMillan faves).


So, why? 

There are three elements to our collocation: Pronoun, contraction, and verb/tense.

The combination is more important than the individual elements. A pronoun, an idiomatic contraction, and even a past perfect might all crop up in experimental poetry, but the presence of all of them together tends to go with a stable narrative frame: a frame in which "I" ("She", He"...) has a certain definite identitiy, including a previous history (promoting such tenses as the past perfect "I had + PP" or past continuous "I had been + vb + ING" or past habitual "I would + INF", all of which can be contracted to "I'd".) Contrariwise the "I" ("She", "He"...) of experimental poetry often exists only in the now, as an experiencing entity; as often as not, we have no idea who I/she/he is.

"I'd", then, is a collocation that appears in anecdotes. But not just any sort of anecdote. A dramatic or extraordinary event may not need a carefully constructed backstory. Unliterary narrators, sticking to the strict sequence of events or speech-acts, would see it as a failure of art to have to slot in achronological information in the past perfect. The collocation comes into its own in unsensational stories in which the significance resides more in an accumulation of psychology and individual experience than in the event itself; even more so when the narration deviates artfully from the timeline in a Conradian manner; more so still when the past is conceived as a realm of greater significance and interest than the now (though this is obviously not a factor in McMillan's poem).

The act of contraction itself is a less important element. Nevertheless, it can be associated with a conversational, idiomatic, informal diction, such as is usual in mainstream poetry. (On my TEFL course we're encouraged always to teach our students to use the contracted form -- though not when "had" is the simple past tense of  "to have", as in the Heaney quote below.) Experimental poetry tends to be informal too, but it's far less committed to seeking the most idiomatic and natural ways of saying something.

These more or less relevant generalizations arise from the observation, but they don't fully explain it. To go further is to note the poetic diction that exists as much now as in the eighteenth century; both the mainstream poet and (perhaps more damagingly) the experimental poet have each an unconscious poetic diction, which is a selection of vocabulary and syntactic forms that comes to hand when making up the next line. The choice is not as free as it seems. This individual poetic diction is what the "source text" of Mac Low's diastic verse is intended to replace. In fact it's a kind of source text already; that is, it is limited though ample, and it is not, for the most part, unique to the individual who writes, but is shared with other poets who write the same kind of poetry.


"I'll have been working here for eight years, come the end of November..."

Poetry in English, no doubt, has always favoured a straitened selection of verb forms. Tenses such as the future perfect continuous (as above) are part of the standard English toolkit but they are not particularly common in any form of discourse, and they deter poets in particular because they use so many syllables.

Nevertheless experimental poetry stands out for its excessively narrow range of verb forms. It avoids nearly all the standard tenses, except the simple present, in favour of floating forms (in particular, present participles). This is because of of its willed indefinition of agency and chronology. Experimental poetry tends to be about the general state of things. From this perspective the verb tends to be a suspect device. It appears as an anthropomorphic piece of publicity about what someone thinks they are doing, or even worse, what they want other people to think they are doing. Experimental poetry believes that the social processes at work outrun this human language of verbs in much the same way that particle physics outruns the common language of time and identity.



William Wordsworth, "The World is Too Much With Us"
.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn  ( I would)

Edward Thomas, "Up in the Wind"

But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I'd have it blowing that I might go with it (I would)

Siegfried Sassoon, "Base Details"
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base (I would)

Philip Larkin, "Church Going"
Mounting the lectern I peruse a few
hectoring large-scale verses and pronounce
Here endeth much more loudly than I'd meant... (I had)

Dannie Abse, "Return to Cardiff"
No sooner than I'd arrived the other Cardiff had gone,
smoke in the memory, those but tinned resemblances,
where the boy I was not and the man I am not
met, hesitated, left double footsteps, then walked on. (I had)

Derek Walcott, "The Fortunate Traveller"
I'd light the gas and see a tiger's tongue. (I would)

Derek Mahon, "Afterlives"
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home. (I had)

Mark Doty, "Source"
I'd been traveling all day, driving north
—smaller and smaller roads, clapboard houses
startled awake by the new green around them—  (I had)
I'd pulled over onto the grassy shoulder
of the highway—   (I had)

Ted Hughes, "Epiphany" (from Birthday Letters)
I glanced at him for the first time as I passed him
Because I noticed (I couldn't believe it)
What I'd been ignoring.           
Not the bulge of a small animal
Buttoned into the top of his jacket
The way colliers used to wear their whippets –
But its actual face. (I had)

Peter Porter, "Afterburner"
I'd been raised an Anglican. 'In the Name of the Larder,
the Bun and the Mouldy Toast. (I had)

Moniza Alvi, "I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro"
I’d survey the beauty of the linescape (I would)

Seamus Heaney, "Two Lorries"
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes...
After that happened, I'd a vision of my mother,  (I had)

Christopher Reid, "Late"
Of course, I’d forgotten she’d died.
Adjusting my arm for the usual
cuddle and caress (I had)

Carol Ann Duffy, "Salome"
I'd done it before (and doubtless I'll do it again, sooner or later)
woke up with a head on the pillow beside me (I had)

Jo Shapcott, "Mrs Noah: Taken After the Flood"
Now the real sea beats inside me, here, where I'd press fur and feathers if I could. (I would)

Kathleen Jamie, "Glamourie"
When I found I'd lost you -
not beside me, nor ahead,  (I had)

Owen Sheers, "Late Spring"

one-handed, like a man milking,

two soaped beans into a delicate purse,
while gesturing with his other
for the tool, a pliers in reverse

which I’d pass to him then stand and stare
as he let his clenched fist open
to crown them. (I would)

Daljit Nagra, "In a White Town"

That's why
I'd bin the letters about Parents' Evenings,

why I'd police the noise of her holy songs (I would)

Simon Armitage, "Privet"
Because I'd done wrong I was sent to hell (I had)

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Cold clear and blue

"Cold clear and blue", "Will the day be bright", "Tell me tell me smiling child" and "The inspiring music's thrilling sound",  from a manuscript in Brontë Parsonage Museum Library

[Image source: Janet Gezari's Last Things: Emily Brontë's Poems (OUP, 2007; browse it in Google Books)

Despite living in the the most literary of households we know extraordinarily little about Emily Brontë, except through her writings. She rivals Ann Radcliffe in the inscrutability of her biography, and you might well apply to Emily what Martin Mueller, talking about sources, says about Shakespeare:

The "person" Shakespeare, irretrievable for all practical purposes from either direct utterances or third-party accounts, exists only through a multiplicity of readerly or writerly choices that we can trace with varying degrees of confidence.

("Shakespeare's Sleeping Beauties: The Sources of Much Ado About Nothing and the Play of their Repetitions", Modern Philology Vol 91 No 3 (Feb 1994), p. 293)

And yet, there's a feeling of incongruity, thinking of this in connection with Emily. When do we ever feel we're sharing her readerly choices? Her kind of writing doesn't sit very well with the idea of sources. It seems quite aloof from the literary world. If we ask, frivolously enough, who was Emily's favourite author, don't we feel a dissonance in the terms of the question? We know that Scott, Byron and Shelley were enthusiastically read in the Brontë household, but what did Emily think of them? Did she have favourites?


The question arises with what is thought to be Emily's earliest poem:

Cold clear and blue the morning heaven
Expands its arch on high
Cold clear and blue Lake Werna's water
Reflects that winter's sky
The moon has set but Venus shines
A silent silvery star

(Taken from The Complete Poems, ed. Janet Gezari. The date is conjectured to be 12th July 1836 or earlier -- in the MS it precedes another poem with that date. The author was not yet 18. )

According to Lawrence Lipking, "The moon is set" is an allusion to Sappho, well-known in Emily's time as author of the line "The silver moon is set". That is a quotation from J.H. Merivale's (1779-1844) translation of Fragment 48 (in the best-known numbering), published in Collections from the Greek Anthology in 1833.

The silver moon is set;
The Pleiades are gone;
Half the long night is spent,-- and yet --
I lie alone.

Whether the Sappho allusion was intended I don't really know. But if it was, Emily's poem decisively turns away from sexual longing and towards a celestial ecstasy.  Also, Sappho's poem (her authorship has been disputed) is a midnight poem.

Emily's takes place around sunrise, though the sun is not mentioned. Venus would be hovering near the eastern horizon. The moon, evidently a waxing moon some way short of the full, would have set in the west at some point during the night. So the poem has a 360 degree view, it is turning its head both to east and west to see what night-time objects are still in the sky, and the answer is, just the one, the planet Venus. 

The form suggests an unfinished poem: the word "star" hangs there, expecting a rhyme that never arrives.  But as the MS shows, the poem is as finished as it's going to be. (Emily did this again in dated poem 26 in Gezari's edition; her poems often resist closure.) You could call it a conscious fragment.

The poem celebrates a thrill of the present. Dawn is a time of rapid change in appearance.  Lake Werna will cease to reflect, the sky's blue will change, Venus will soon disappear from view.

And yet the poem fixes the moment.

The cloudless blue sky recurs in her next two poems, too. (Both on the MS page shown at the top of this post).



    Will the day be bright or cloudy?
    Sweetly has its dawn begun
    But the heaven may shake with thunder
    Ere the setting of the sun

    Lady watch Apollo's journey
    Thus they first born's course shall be --
    If his beams through summer vapours
    Warm the earth all placidly
Her days shall pass like a pleasant dream in sweet tranquillity

    If it darken if a shadow
    Quench his rays and summon rain
    Flowers may open buds may blossom
    Bud and flower alike are vain
Her days shall pass like a mournful story in care and tears and pain

    If the wind be fresh and free
    The wide skies clear and cloudless blue
    The woods and fields and golden flowers
    Sparkling in sunchine and in dew
Her days shall pass in Glory's light the world's drear desert through



Tell me tell me smiling child
What the past is like to thee?
And Autumn evening soft and mild
With a wind that sighs mournfully

Tell me what is the present hour?
A green and flowery spray
Where a young bird sits gathering its power
To mount and fly away

And what is the future happy one?
A sea beneath a cloudless sun
A mighty glorious dazzling sea
Stretching into infinity


Emily would write poems for the next ten years or so, slackening off when she came to write Wuthering Heights (Oct 1845-June 1846). (Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was published at the end of May 1846.) Only ten poems are dated 1845,  then "No Coward Soul is Mine" on 2nd Jan 1846 and the rough draft "Why Ask to Know the Date" on 14th Sep 1846. This last was partially revisited in May 1848.

With that minor exception the final two years of Emily's active life are a complete blank, so far as any literary remains go.  Work may have been destroyed, by Emily herself or another. It's surprising that nobody in the family mentions anything that Emily was writing, but nor do they mention her conspicuous lack of writing... For more on this, see:

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

a few steps in the forest

During last week's visit to the New Forest, we made a couple of ventures into the woods. Here are some plants I saw --- all common ones in acid habitats, but interesting to us visitors from the limestone scarplands.

Scutellaria minor and Potentilla erecta

Lesser Skullcap (Scutellaria minor), growing alongside Tormentil (Potentilla erecta), ever-present in acid habitats.

Scutellaria minor

S. minor is a diminutive, slender plant, with fresh green untoothed leaves. The flowers are pretty if you get close up to them. When the flowers fall, the calyces resemble pillboxes with round lids.

Scutellaria minor

Juncus articulatus

Jointed Rush (Juncus articulatus).  It likes woodland rides, which is what the New Forest is all about. This was quite a small specimen, but rather eye-catching.

Juncus articulatus

Stachys palustris

Marsh Woundwort (Stachys palustris) growing beside a lane. (Actually I've seen this in Swindon, too, but in Swindon I was not inspired to photograph it. Call it the holiday effect...)

Gnaphalium uliginosum

Marsh Cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum). The genus always appeals to me, because it reminds me of the far north.  Although this particular species (Sw: Sumpnoppa) is mostly a plant of S. and C. Sweden rather than northern Sweden.

Seen here growing with Broad-leaved Plantain (Plantago major), looking rather more exotic than usual in these surroundings.

Gnaphalium uliginosum

Usnea ceratina

I know very little about lichens but could not  ignore this one, a magnificent tree-lichen that I discovered in a tangled heap on the forest floor (vaguely recalling computer rooms in the pre-wireless era).

(Thanks to Mary Breeds for the ID -- on the Facebook group for "non-flowering" plants.)

The FSBI site has this to say about the habitat of Usnea ceratina

On acid-barked old trees, particularly Quercus and Fagus, in relict woodlands and parklands where it is characteristic of well-lit sites on trunks of ancient trees particularly along waysides and in glades, also often on inclined or horizontal trunks and boughs in thin tree canopies; locally frequent in the south and west. []

Which exactly fits the glade where I saw it, near Brockenhurst.


Friday, July 28, 2017

the Whig's Vault

The Whig's Vault, Dunnotar Castle

[Image source: . Photo by Jason Hayes.]

I've spent the past few days at a family gathering in a hotel in the New Forest. My dad and I immediately zoomed in on the old-fashioned-looking books in the rooms and lounges, and they turned out to be just the kind of thing I like to read: volumes of the Waverley novels, Ellen marriage's translations of the Human Comedy, Dickens of course, and a miscellaneous assortment of volumes in Danish.  And so I treated myself, not to hydrotherapy or the hot tub, but to a reading, for the umpteenth time, of Scott's introductory material to Old Mortality (1816) -- breaking off with the popinjay contest still undecided.

Much of this material revolves around the sombre figure of Old Mortality himself, variously refracted via Peter Pattieson (the imaginary compiler of the novel) and the 1830 Introduction, which describes Scott's own meeting with Old Mortality, along with much information from Scott's later informants.


Where this man was born, or what was his real name, I have never been able to learn; nor are the motives which made him desert his home, and adopt the erratic mode of life which he pursued, known to me except very generally. According to the belief of most people, he was a native of either the county of Dumfries or Galloway, and lineally descended from some of those champions of the Covenant, whose deeds and sufferings were his favourite theme. He is said to have held, at one period of his life, a small moorland farm; but, whether from pecuniary losses, or domestic misfortune, he had long renounced that and every other gainful calling. In the language of Scripture, he left his house, his home, and his kindred, and wandered about until the day of his death, a period of nearly thirty years.

(Peter Pattieson on Old Mortality, from Vol I Ch 1


Old Mortality's mission was to repair the graves of the Whig Martyrs, or Covenanters, to remove moss and "deer-hair", and to recarve names that the weather was smoothing away.


It was in 1685, when Argyle was threatening a descent upon Scotland, and Monmouth was preparing to invade the west of England, that the Privy Council of Scotland, with cruel precaution, made a general arrest of more than a hundred persons in the southern and western provinces, supposed, from their religious principles, to be inimical to Government, together with many women and children. These captives were driven northward like a flock of bullocks, but with less precaution to provide for their wants, and finally penned up in a subterranean dungeon in the Castle of Dunnottar, having a window opening to the front of a precipice which overhangs the German Ocean. They had suffered not a little on the journey, and were much hurt both at the scoffs of the northern prelatists, and the mocks, gibes, and contemptuous tunes played by the fiddlers and pipers who had come from every quarter as they passed, to triumph over the revilers of their calling. The repose which the melancholy dungeon afforded them, was anything but undisturbed. The guards made them pay for every indulgence, even that of water; and when some of the prisoners resisted a demand so unreasonable, and insisted on their right to have this necessary of life untaxed, their keepers emptied the water on the prison floor, saying, “If they were obliged to bring water for the canting whigs, they were not bound to afford them the use of bowls or pitchers gratis.”
In this prison, which is still termed the Whig’s Vault, several died of the diseases incidental to such a situation; and others broke their limbs, and incurred fatal injury, in desperate attempts to escape from their stern prison-house. Over the graves of these unhappy persons, their friends, after the Revolution, erected a monument with a suitable inscription.
This peculiar shrine of the Whig martyrs is very much honoured by their descendants, though residing at a great distance from the land of their captivity and death.

(Old Mortality, 1830 introduction)


It was at Dunnotar that Scott met Old Mortality. No profound dialogue occurred, however:

"It was whilst I was listening to this story, and looking at the monument referred to, that I saw Old Mortality engaged in his daily task of cleaning and repairing the ornaments and epitaphs upon the tomb. His appearance and equipment were exactly as described in the Novel. I was very desirous to see something of a person so singular, and expected to have done so, as he took up his quarters with the hospitable and liberal-spirited minister. But though Mr. Walker invited him up after dinner to partake of a glass of spirits and water, to which he was supposed not to be very averse, yet he would not speak frankly upon the subject of his occupation. He was in bad humour, and had, according to his phrase, no freedom for conversation with us.
His spirit had been sorely vexed by hearing, in a certain Aberdonian kirk, the psalmody directed by a pitch-pipe, or some similar instrument, which was to Old Mortality the abomination of abominations. Perhaps, after all, he did not feel himself at ease with his company; he might suspect the questions asked by a north-country minister and a young barrister to savour more of idle curiosity than profit. At any rate, in the phrase of John Bunyan, Old Mortality went on his way, and I saw him no more. "


Brilliant as the ensuing novel is, there are depths in these introductory pages that it never addresses; perhaps the adventure romance could not do so. As Scott's encounter with Old Mortality showed,  there was an incompatibility of discourse between the "idle curiosity" of the novelist and the profitable speech of the sect.

Peter Pattieson tells us that he heard the stories from Old Mortality's own lips. Scott makes Pattieson a gentle schoolmaster of delicate health; Old Mortality promises to tend his grave, should Pattieson die first. But in fact, Old Mortality died first. " It is now some years since he has been missed in all his usual haunts, while moss, lichen, and deer-hair, are fast covering those stones, to cleanse which had been the business of his life."

[Jedediah Cleishbotham, in turn, reports Pattieson's death.]

The past, then, is buried, and buried, and thrice buried. But remembered, and not at peace.



The OED tells us, "The common name in Scotland and north of England of a small moorland species of club-rush, Scirpus cæspitosus." That is, the plant now reclassified as Trichophorum germanicum, commonly called Deer-grass.

[Image source:]

My earlier post on Old Mortality:


Friday, July 21, 2017

Prussian doves

Dancing forest on the Curonian Spit

[Image source:
. Photo by Anton Agarkov /]

This post jumps off from a poem in Alistair Noon's collection The Kerosene Singing (Nine Arches Press, 2015). The poem begins:


The wagtail's plumage a woodcut,
the sandbank a log
traffic balances along
between lagoon and Baltic
and into Lithuanian mists.

"Oblast" means province or region and is an administrative unit used in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but the topography leaves no doubt which oblast we are talking about in this case. This is Kaliningrad, the Russian semi-exclave between Poland and Lithuania. The sandbank is the Curonian Spit, and the lagoon is the Curonian Lagoon.


Here's the second stanza of Noon's poem:

The bricks cohere to a Kirche,
squat and ziggurat-roofed.
The Word seconded to Slavic:
nave hung with fresh icons
now the interregnum
as a barn has passed.

The stanza alludes to the forcible dispersion of the German-speaking population at the end of WWII, and their replacement by Russian-speakers . The "interregnum" is the era of Soviet atheism before the church came back into use.

The church in question is in Rybachy, the largest settlement in the Russian part of the Spit. Wikipedia notes:  "The red brick former Lutheran church was built in 1873 when the village was still part of Germany. It is one of the oldest remaining buildings in Rybachy. After the Second World War it was used for wheat storage. Only in 1992 was the church handed to the Russian Orthodox Church to be renovated. It is named after St Sergey of Radonezh and is in use once more as a church, now catering to the Orthodox community." (,_Kaliningrad_Oblast)

Describing the church as "ziggurat-roofed" is a bit impressionistic, but I  do see what he means:

Church of St Sergey, Rybachy

[Image source:,_Kaliningrad_Oblast]

Reconstructed facade of the great Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq

[Image source:]

With scrupulous sequence, the final stanza of the poem moves SW down the spit to the National Park exit near Zelenogradsk. Here the spit is at its narrowest. (The National Park is Kurshskaya Kosa, the smallest in Russia.)

They sow the alders
to halt the dance of the dunes,
the lagoon smooth as a salt plain.
Cattle gaze from the tarmac,
and a pig is loose in the village.
The coach will take us
under the turnpike
and out of the National Park.

{The village with the pig might be Lesnoy.]

The poem opens up progressively to the emptiness and space in the landscape. By the time of that deadpan last sentence, it's hard to say what was ideal, what real; what kind of threshold had been crossed here, and as the poem ends is it now un-crossed?

Sandbank: Curonian Spit

[Image source:
. Photo by Anton Agarkov /]

Found anecdote:

“I love fishing here. We used to come here for flounders when I was just a kid,” says Vitya, a young red-nosed fisherman. “Back then we didn't just catch fish, we used to bake crows! Nah, honestly! We'd lay our fishing net out on the ground and bait it with fish. We could catch more than a hundred crows a day.

Then we'd pluck them, chop the heads and legs off and sell them at the market. Of course, the buyers didn't know they were buying crows! We even made up a special name for them — we called them ‘Prussian Doves!’”

(from an article by Daria Gonzalez here:]

Curonian Spit - Dancing Forest

[Image source:]

The strange forms of the mysterious Dancing Forest - a pine forest that grew up  on a former Nazi air-strip - are naturally associated by many with the dancing sand dunes among which the forest grows. A less romantic but still unproven theory is that the unusual bases of these pine trees reflect contortions of the young shoots due to infestation by caterpillars of the Pine Shoot Moth Rhyacionia buoliana . Or the fungus Melampsora pinitorqua . Or maybe there was human interference at an early stage, perhaps with the intention of growing timber with a natural curve (though pine is not a suitable timber for boat-building).

A similar mystery surrounds the Crooked Forest at Nowe Czarnowo, a village near Gryfino, West Pomerania, Poland. This is another pine plantation, thought to have been planted around 1930.

The Crooked Forest at Nowe Czarowo

[Image source:]


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jeffrey Archer: A Twist in the Tale (1988)

Anyone familiar with the dire literary reputation of Jeffrey Archer’s books will understand why, in the end, I decided to go for a collection of short stories. The actual desire to read him, scarcely (I admit) very urgent, originated in a hotel foyer in Malta in January, 2000.


I supposed then that some of the obloquy that came his way must be undeserved. He had been a prominent member of a government that was universally detested by intellectuals; so I expected some prejudice. And then, the plot of his first novel (idly leafed through in the foyer) suggested more than a hint of John Buchan, another Conservative politician some seventy years earlier; a popular author whose books I happened to like. I could well imagine, however, that any modern follower in that line would be exposed to critical condemnation.


Alas, I was disappointed in my anticipation, and the book really is bad –- so bad that even those who themselves would hardly class as sophisticated readers could make great play with it. This makes it difficult to write about (I have written, and deleted, numerous paragraphs at this point).


What does “bad” mean? It means that the composition does not accept my values; and that I hardly understand what values it lives by.  It means that I am experiencing an instinct to kill it, perhaps with elegant dispatch or, probably more effective, by not writing about it at all.


The style of the book is unadorned and by most standards barely competent.


“Certainly,” said Christopher, and began the task of undoing the larger package while Margaret worked on the smaller one.


“I shall need to have these looked at by an expert,” said the official once the parcels were unwrapped.


Any author wedded to conventional standards of good writing would put a line through all that, replacing the “clumsy” or “laboured” presentation with something swift like “They unpacked the carpets”. But, of course, a radically different standard is at work here; one will only be able to grasp it when one finally sees that the original text is in fact “just right”.

The important thing, for instance, is not speed, but the relishing of certain conventions, the staler the better. The reader enjoys Christopher's polite but crisp "Certainly", and the companion-like, cheerful, unspoken compliance of his wife/pal. Hush, Middle England values are being promulgated. And then there is the joy of those awe-inspiring words "I shall need to have these looked at by an expert", words that the thrilled reader has waited all their lives to hear, the promise of some kind of official recognition, like possessing a really interesting illness.

I quite like this story, in which Christopher and Margaret represent the readers’ view of themselves, a worthy pair who are appalled by vulgar ostentation (reminiscent, in that respect, of any bonding pair in any Mills & Boon book). Christopher and Margaret are a childless couple who work hard, “pore over maps” before their holidays, are devoted to each other, and hope to land an authentic bargain that is strictly within their means. The story, such as it is, contrasts their own behaviour with that of Ray and Melody Kendall-Hume, a dreadful couple; vain, insensitive luxury-yacht-owners who are deservedly ripped off by an astute Turkish carpet dealer. Then the dealer (I fear, somewhat improbably) gives up a slice of his profit in order to reward Christopher and Margaret for their genuine appreciation of first-class carpets with what amounts to a fabulous gift. But my paraphrase is already starting to mislead and to seek relief in a certain irony; the improbability would not be noticed by Archer’s true audience. 


Here is a summary of the other stories; in the circumstances, much the most useful and eloquent thing I can supply.  1. A man punches his unfaithful mistress, accidentally killing her, but gets his rival put away for murder (TWIST: he withholds from us until the last page that he is the foreman of the jury). 2. An upright Nigerian, investigating corruption, tries to persuade a Swiss banker to betray the names of his account-holders (TWIST: he has stolen money himself and wants to open an account). 3. A young man is prevented by his authoritarian father from working at the car factory; he is forced to take a job at the Savoy and becomes one of the world’s leading chefs, thanks to the father whose firmness he now appreciates. 4. A man receives a foreign decoration (3rd Class); the quality of the decoration is poor, mere brass and glass, and because of a rivalry going back to childhood he is induced to pay Aspreys a fantastic sum to make a superior copy of the original; the foreign ruler spots this and adroitly grabs his fabulous copy by honouring him with an upgrade to 2nd Class – then he presents the purloined copy to the Queen (as 1st Class). 5. A female narrator describes how she ended up with a man called Roger (TWIST: we are “led up the garden path” because she is actually a cat). 6. After the war a former POW sticks up for the nicer of his Japanese camp officials and saves them from execution. They end up running an electronics empire and, when he becomes a Dean, shower his cathedral with donations. (TWIST: the ex-Major is only in charge of a factory, but the ex-Corporal turns out to be the company President). 7. A chess-player asks a gorgeous but apparently not very skilled newcomer back to his flat for games of double-or-quits chess – money on his side against stripping on hers. She thrashes him in the last game; she’s in fact a chess champion. 8. The President of the Wine Society is challenged by a sneering rich type to name some wines from his cellar; he gets them all wrong, but only because the butler has been swapping the wines with inferior stuff and passing on the originals to the local inn, whose winelist has a deservedly high reputation. 9. A man decides to kill another man who he thinks has seduced his wife (by faking a skiing accident). The attempt falls short of murder, but it turns out that his wife didn’t give in anyway (TWIST: at the ski resort she knew all along what her husband was up to). 10. Two men have a violent public quarrel at the golf club, and one sues the other for slander. It ends in an out-of-court settlement (TWIST: they are in league; it’s a tax fiddle.) 11. A Rabbi’s son tells in a letter how he fell in love with a woman who once mocked him; they are kept apart by their families; the woman dies in childbirth, her daughter soon after, and the man kills himself (TWIST: his father the rabbi is not reading the letter for the first time; he has read it every day for ten years.)   



[I have now read one of his full-length books, A Matter of Honour (1997). This is a much “better” book, that is to say a book I feel easier about admitting, because it conforms to a finely-honed popular genre, in this case the thriller/spy novel. The author of such a work is relatively insignificant, since most of its power is generated by tried and tested mythical images (for example, the amateur on the run who is unable to put his trust in his own side, only in complete strangers). The values in this book are identical to those embodied in Christopher and Margaret – surprisingly domestic, and reminiscent of the Daily Mail group of newspapers, who seem almost single-handedly responsible for the admiring blurbs produced by the publishers. If I wanted to explore the Archer world more closely, I think I’d begin (though of course I couldn’t end) with his writing about the arts. In the short story we learnt that the secret of a first-class Turkish carpet is the number of knots per square inch. In the novel, the genuine icon can be known by the tsar’s silver seal on the reverse. So aesthetic values can be recognized, as long as they have an objective bottom line, like a bank balance. In another scene we learn that expertise in Shakespeare means being able to recite the names of his 37 plays (while being tortured in the Russian embassy –- you make your escape uttering a triumphant crack about the Two Noble Kinsmen). But Archer (or his audience) is impatient with the intangibles of art. One of the novel’s characters, Robin Beresford, is a (female) double-bass player. A hefty woman, and the most impressive thing about her technique is that she knows how to carry the instrument. Robin is the most winning personality in the book, and we almost begin to think that "the RPO", like the British cycling team, are something to cheer for. But Archer can’t resist making a reassuring joke to remind us that, after all, the men in the orchestra are all nancy boys. Elsewhere, a professor Brunweld is resigned to spending three days in the Pentagon, away from his demanding family: “He would never have a better opportunity to settle down and read the collected works of Proust”. This is a joke against both academics and Proust (supposed a monumentally prolix bore who would take fully three days to read).]




Friday, July 14, 2017

Karleen Koen: Through a Glass Darkly (1986)

My comments on this sweeping historical romance (“the grandest love story ever told”) connect with what I wrote elsewhere about Katherine McMahon (2000). But anachronism is by no means so prominent a feature of Koen's method; you might say that Karleen Koen’s sense of the present is indistinguishable from her sense of the eighteenth century.


It is a vast book, and towards the end is plainly preparing for its sequel. The end of the grand love story is not the end. As it happens that accords with our persistent troubled idea that the love story is after all not quite grand, but qualified in manifold ways, its hero inappropriately old, an inconstant bisexual whose love for Barbara may not after all be his deepest (that may have been his love for her grandfather). There is no pretence that Barbara’s hopeful sketches play any part in his subsequent beginnings of Devane House – his gigantic dream, which she allowed herself to think of as “their dream”. He dies, it seems, hardly aware of her –- there is no sugary concord here. He is ruined and disgraced. Barbara’s happiness coincides with, but does not redeem, a profoundly corrupt Parisian milieu and the death of all her younger brothers and sisters from smallpox. These are not flaws. In Barbara’s tumultuous day-to-day experience everything co-exists, as in life.


You know what kind of a book this is, of course. Which almost blinds you to its unpredictability: to Philippe, Harry, Mary, Thérèse, the smallpox, the sodden father, the duel, the Bubble. No story goes the way it should. Everyone is a victim. The characters are effortlessly maintained, but the tie between character and destiny is intangible. Diana (Barbara’s whorish, mercenary mother) is an arbitrary exception – her stupid resilience pleases us in the end. She begins to assume, when nothing else can, the halo of comedy; a surprising discovery, the kind of thing that may happen when you write without bother about critics, knowing you will attract none (I don't count).


The story is well-laden with goods (Roger is very rich). One of Karleen Koen’s characteristic sentence-forms is the rushed list, separated by “and”s:


It was Christmas Eve. Saylor House was bustling with servants cleaning floors, polishing furniture and silver. Delicious smells of roasting capon and goose and turkey wafted from the kitchen. Various sets of small tables were being moved into the great parlour and the hall and set with heavy damask trimmed in lace and china plates and silver forks and spoons and knives and cups and salt cellars. It would be a late supper, at eight, and then the adults would stay up toasting the evening and watching the yule log burn...



This is 1715. Lest you doubt, turkey had been a popular Christmas dish in England since  around 1650. The author’s research throughout is fairly impeccable but the syntax proclaims that anyway all the detail is to be flown through in pursuit of the elusive tissue of a life that won’t stop going on. The other characteristic sentence-form is the one-word sentence, usually a name. Roger. Barbara. These sentences are like stabs, their meaning comprising whole passages of experience that are signposted as adequately though of course as drastically as we name a dot on a map as :-- London.


Her grandmother had saved the letter, giving it silently back to her; she read it and reread it until it tore along its creases. I am not a fool, he wrote, I know there is much to be explained between us. Philippe. Who smiled at her under the great dome of Roger’s pavilion of the arts. If Roger thought she would pack her trunks and rush headlong to London tohis waiting arms, he had another thought coming. (Besides, she had rushed headlong once, already, in the spring, and he had not even realized it. Rushed headlong into Philippe’s smile. Like running into a wall.) She would wait. She would let her heart tell her what to do, and she would not make one move from Tamworth until she was certain. Roger could wait  . . . as she had waited. She still had much to deal with. There were dark dreams of her father and of Jemmy. Of Charles and Richelieu, who opened their arms to her, but somehow she could never reach them. She had to understand it all. And herself. Roger, wait. As I have waited. Ah, Roger, the girl who loved you in Paris does not exist, and the heart of the one who does is so hard . . . it needs to soften. I need time to heal, to forgive and forget . . . 


It doesn’t much matter what Barbara’s heart tells her; unknown to her, Roger is already dying. Yet because we share Barbara’s experience we will continue to feel that what the heart tells matters totally. What other people may tell is nothing, it’s of no consequence unless the heart accords with it and absorbs it into its own telling.

This is what Roger says to Barbara in the last few months of his life, the last thirty pages of his life.

            ‘Behind,’ he whispered. ‘The French are massed behind . . .’



            ‘Barbara.’ He croaked out her name. ‘H-hurts.’



(After her performance in the Christmas play) Roger stared at her, his mouth compressed. ‘I hurt . . .’



            ‘I . . . love . . . you . . .’


This was Karleen Koen's first book, and at the time it set some kind of record for a publisher's advance to a new author. She has now written four books, all ,I think, set in the eighteenth century.


Powered by Blogger

Nature Blog Network