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Sheenagh Pugh

Rarely has a poet been in a better position to answer the hackneyed question "Where do you get your ideas from?" Suppose for a moment that your great-grandfather had been James Fraser, official artist at 24 to the Austin Expedition which explored the Murchison region of Western Australia in 1854 and very nearly came to grief in the hostile terrain. Suppose further that quite apart from the watercolours he painted, you also had the journal of the expedition's leader, and that while on the expedition, your ancestor had been constantly thinking of  Helena, a young Irish immigrant girl in service in Fremantle with whom he'd fallen in love and who would become your great-grandmother.

This material would be a gift to any poet, but it still needs an interpreter who can handle it well. Geraldine Paine has already shown, in her first collection The Go-Away Bird, how sympathetically she can put flesh on the bones of historical texts, with her sequence "Tokens", based on the messages left behind for families by semi-literate convicts on their way to transportation. She does it again here, bringing alive both the English gentleman and the Irish housemaid in their own voices. Both are out of their comfort zone, partly because their unexpected feelings for each other are liable to meet family opposition given that he is Protestant and she Catholic, and partly because of the new environment they are in.

This brings us to the third character in the drama; the pitiless, demanding Murchison landscape itself. The poet researched this via travel as well as via books, and we see James, in his diaries, progress from making the sort of notes any tourist might jot down, "the view of the lake most attractive", through observing it properly and in detail,
Hopping mice and porcupines
burrow in sand under our feet, feral cattle

disappear into scrub
to, finally, feeling it from inside, becoming a part of it as he very nearly literally does:

With each day now, I'm quick to notice signs,
the woven wattle boughs –

a trap laid above a dried-up stream,
figures scored on gum trees, a stony grave

disturbed by dogs, the bones of horses
left to die. The land speaks.

I shudder, knowing men such as we
have passed this place before.

Tracks disappear in the soupy red loam.
Will we too become part of this land,

our dying marked by rocks
James's voice is that of an educated man becoming aware of how much he does not know; it is characterised by wonder, fear, intense curiosity. Helena, who has had less education and more hardship to cope with, is in some ways tougher and more worldly-wise, but she is made vulnerable both by how little control she has over her situation, as a domestic servant, and by the strength of her feelings for James, her only possible way out of it, who may not return from the interior and if he does, may still be beyond her reach. When her consumptive fellow-servant is turned off, we can sense, as she does, how easily this could be her fate:
Going, and no more than a week's wages paid to her.
Sure, she'll not survive, knows nothing but skivvying –
plenty off the ships will fight for that, and not be coughing.
The subtitle of this collection is "A Story in Verse", and that it is; we become attached to these characters and involved with their narrative, but it is the poet's eye that brings both them and the beautiful, forbidding landscape alive. The best material in the world won't help without that, and we may be glad that this little goldmine of a story came into the right hands.
Sheenagh Pugh
Review of Between Quran and Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities, Navid Kermani, trs. Tony Crawford, English edition Polity Press, 2016

This is a collection of essays, speeches and articles by a German writer and scholar of Iranian extraction. The texts do have connections, notably his standpoint of looking for affinities and influences between Western and Eastern literature, but not all are about literature and they certainly don't add up to a single text with chapters. This is important to note, because neither the back-cover blurb nor the preface makes it clear, and since the two first texts, from the same series of lectures, can in fact be read as if they were the two first chapters of a book, this is confusing. The first appendix, "About the Text", makes it clear, but I don't know about you, I tend to read a book before its appendices.

Apart from the influence of Eastern (mainly Islamic) thought on German literature, which was my main reason for reading the book, other essays deal with terrorism, the refugee crisis, the death of an Iranian friend, the future of Europe and the performance of opera at Bayreuth. Most of them, though, do tend to reference an author somewhere, eg the chapter on refugees (one of the best argued and most telling), which is headed "Towards Europe: Zweig and the Borders". In truth Zweig didn't strike me as vital to the argument, but the text was a speech given at the Burgtheater of Vienna, so I suppose an Austrian author had to come in somewhere. Also it might indicate that Kermani is coming at matters primarily from the standpoint of a literary critic, though his interests are clearly wider and his view, like that of all who own two different cultures, that of a partial outsider.

This can often be an advantage: his reportage in "Towards Europe" is incisive and gripping:
Every night, from my hotel overlooking the port, I heard the dogs of the Moroccan border patrol waiting to catch the children. And yet once in a while a child makes it on board one of the ships, people say; sometimes they just try to hold on to the hull of a ship, in the water. I have no idea how that is supposed to work, but I wouldn't put it past these children to try it. Soon the European Union will be providing Morocco with sensors that detect a heartbeat or body heat. Then the children will have to stop breathing to get to Europe. They would probably try that too.
Among other chapters I found impressive,"Kafka and Germany" addresses the way in which Germany has been shaped less by its ever-changing borders than by language and literature. I don't think he argues it quite as cogently or readably as Neil MacGregor's "Germany", also published this year and reviewed here, but then MacGregor is one of the most readable of writers and doesn't labour the same point over and over as I find Kermani sometimes seems to, just in case the reader has missed it – perhaps this is a habit teachers and lecturers get into. Oh, and the remark (about Thomas Mann lecturing at the Library of Congress) "at the close of the war in the capital of the nation that has conquered Germany" might raise eyebrows, not to say hackles, in Britain and Russia, for two: the USA did it all on their own, did they, despite not actually having entered the war for its first three years? I also found "Revolt Against God" and "Hedayat and Kafka" fascinating, largely because they introduced me to two writers, Fariduddin Attar and Sadeq Hedayat, who were new to me and sound rather like my sort of thing – Attar in particular, a sort of cosmic Persian Eeyore whose The Book of Suffering I must look for.

But as one might expect from a book of disparate texts, I found the quality varied. I have no expertise in dramaturgy, which is perhaps why I can't follow what he is getting at in "Liberate Bayreuth!" As near as I can fathom, he thinks it impossible to act naturalistically while singing, so proposes instead that opera should be performed like oratorio, with the singers making no pretence to "be" whom they represent. I don't think this would actually hold an audience's attention (not a lot of oratorios seem to get staged these days) and I also think he underestimates the audience's capacity to suspend disbelief. As for his further demand that the orchestra be brought out of the pit and up on stage, he's going to need a bigger stage.

I could be doing him an injustice but I think one problem is that he lacks a sense of humour. When he speaks of modern poets, both Arabic and German: "many younger poets seem not to care about the rules and phonetic diversity of literary Arabic […] their recitation is as expressionless and interchangeable as the poetry readings we are familiar with here in Germany", he sounds exactly like a fusty Oxford don harrumphing that these modern chaps have no idea of prosody, and when he asserts that modern German university students "are introduced to longer, more complex works at best in abridged form" because they "have never learned the cultural techniques to comprehend nested sentence structures, rhythmic language, unfamiliar metaphors, intentional ambiguity", I'm not at all sure I believe him. I know this is not the case in British universities; students may be less sophisticated readers than their predecessors from the pre-TV age, but that can be, and is, addressed at university if it hasn't been at school; it doesn’t mean that Eng Lit students are presented with The Guinea-Pig Pride & Prejudice and I doubt it happens much in Germany.

The main place where a sense of humour would have helped is when, discussing King Lear, he quotes Gloucester's speech to Kent on his, Gloucester's, illegitimate son, who's present at the time:
Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for; yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making and the whoreson must be acknowledged.
This sparks off an explosion of tutting in Kermani: "when the father has no qualms about speaking his contempt openly to a third party, this explains and almost justifies the son's feelings of inadequacy that set the crime in motion and seal the father's doom." To my ear, Gloucester clearly speaks these words in a tone of bantering affection, probably while ruffling Edmund's hair (even "whoreson" is surely an Elizabethan version of the modern Geordie endearment "y'bugger"). Granted, the humour is darker than we are used to, but then Elizabethan humour often was. Walter Ralegh could write for his small son ("my pretty knave") a tenderly joshing sonnet about the possibility of naughty little boys ending up on the gallows ("The Wood, The Weed, The Wag"). Lord knows what Kermani makes of that; presumably he'd have had Tudor social services round at Sir Walter's door first thing in the morning, if only they'd been invented.

It is this misunderstanding not of words, but of tone, that sometimes makes me distrust his literary conclusions about works I do not know well, though to be fair, when he discusses Kleist's Penthesilea, which I do know, I wouldn't dissent at all. There is much to interest the reader in these essays; I would avoid the Preface, subtitled A Personal Note, which struck me as self-absorbed and slightly pompous, and get straight into the texts.
Sheenagh Pugh
05 November 2016 @ 02:16 pm
Like what?
"[In his poems] there was an exuberance of metaphor and simile entirely original, and not in the least borrowed from any resemblance in the things compared." (George Eliot: Scenes of Clerical Life)

The whole idea of likening A to B is to provide the reader with a new angle on A, a way of looking at A that illuminates it via its partial likeness to B. This can be immensely helpful to the reader, but only, I suggest, if it is possible to visualise B clearly. Otherwise the comparison hinders rather than aids the vision. The writer needs to know exactly what he is looking at, or the reader will not, and this requirement exists no less in poetry than in any other form of writing.

This all derives from a debate I've been trying to have on twitter (you try debating in 140 characters, which is why I'm blogging instead) about an image of Ashbery's that someone had tweeted:
with a trace of tears like re-embroidered lace"

When I asked the tweeter "what's re-embroidered lace?" it was of course a genuine question, because to me this is very much one of those similes that obstructs vision. I have no trouble visualising the traces of tears on a woman's face. I have immense trouble visualising what Ashbery means by re-embroidered lace, possibly because I suffer from having done, albeit unwillingly, a bit more needlework than him.

To begin with basics: embroidery is decoration executed on fabric, usually in thread or yarn but it can also involve sequins, beads, jewels and much else. Lace is itself a fabric, made of yarn or thread in an open, netlike pattern. While it would be theoretically possible to embroider with thread on lace, it wouldn't be easy and would probably end up like a dog's breakfast, because lace just isn't a ground that takes embroidery well. Another possibility, perhaps likelier, is that he is thinking of "lace embroidery", which is itself a metaphorical usage in that it means applying lace to another fabric in a decorative pattern that mimics real embroidery. It would be possible to visualise the tracks of tears as lace applied decoratively to the women's faces.

But in that case, what's with this "re-embroidered"? What am I meant to see there? Lace is a delicate fabric; its threads can break easily, but then you mend it; you don't "re-embroider" it, for it was never embroidered in the first place. If you applied decorative lace to a dress, you could remove the lace and "re-embroider" the dress – not the lace – by applying new lace. But why should the tracks of tears look "re-embroidered" as opposed to just embroidered?

What I think happened is that Ashbery liked the idea of tear-tracks as lace, partly at least because of the vowel echo with "trace", but he also liked the idea of embroidery and wanted both. Why, in that case, he didn't write "a trace of tears like lace embroidery", I've no idea, nor what he wanted to convey by "re-embroidered lace". I do know that as an image, it did nothing but confuse my vision.

I also know that I can't go along with the tweeter's suggestions that one should "accept images in poems on their own terms" and that "what makes perfect sense in a poem is not the same as what makes perfect sense outside of one". True, poets do sometimes leave out the odd logical step that the reader must fill in – Donne and Rilke are good examples. But this "accept the poem on its own terms" philosophy comes uncomfortably close to Humpty Dumpty. Words, for a writer, cannot mean just what we want them to, neither more nor less, because they also carry the meaning the reader sees in them. And said reader cannot un-know what she knows. If our readers happen to be familiar with the topography of a real place, or the habits of gulls, or the terminology of needlework, any errors or inconsistencies of fact in those areas can scupper a poem for them by destroying their trust in the authorial voice.

This is not to say that poets can't fictionalise, go beyond reality – embroider it, indeed. But if there's one place where this works less well, it would be imagery. If we want to help the reader see something more clearly, or in a new way, by means of a comparison object, then that object must surely be drawn –and drawn accurately - from the reader's own real world, which means the writer must himself be very sure what he is observing. And there needs to be some immediacy about how it works; the reader has to read it and at once think "yes! That's what A is like…" If you leave her scratching her head, I reckon you might as well just have described A in the first place.
Sheenagh Pugh
05 November 2016 @ 12:19 pm

Not normally my thing, but the composer has set a couple of my translations of the German Thirty Years War poets Andreas Gryphius and Paul Fleming. St Albans, 19 November.

"Born in Flight, a new cantata by leading young composer Alexander Flood, will receive its world premiere as part of the concert by Radlett Choral Society at 7.30pm on Saturday 19 November in St Saviour's church, Sandpit Lane, St Albans. It sets three poems dating back to one of the most horrific conflicts in European history, the Thirty Years' War. That conflict was fought for complex reasons both political and religious four hundred years ago between all the great powers of the time. It laid waste to vast areas of what is now Germany. Imagine a war lasting from the start of WW1 to the end of WW2 in which proportionally twice as many people died as both world wars combined and we get a sense of the carnage that scarred the psyche of the German people for centuries.
The poetry of Born in Flight, in translations by the Welsh poet and novelist Sheenagh Pugh, reflects the typically matter-of-fact response of people of the time to the uncertainty and transience of life. The final section of the cantata sets a lament for a baby born as a refugee who died only a few days old. There are clear parallels between that time in Europe and today in the Middle East, and the rich sounds of the cantata combine elements of music from both time periods.
Composer Alexander Flood, who will also be conducting the performance, says ‘Serious composers today sometimes find it difficult to write music that can connect with and move an audience. I hope that Born in Flight can spark across from the performers to the listeners and provide a memorable and dramatic expression of poetry that is as relevant to our lives today as when it was written’.
The concert also includes two profound compositions by Gabriel Fauré, and J.S. Bach’s exquisite Cantata 18. Fauré’s Requiem is his best known works, described by the composer as ‘dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest’. At the age of nineteen, Fauré composed the music for Racine’s text in his ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’ for a competition at the school of church music he attended in Paris, which won him first prize.
Radlett Choral Society and the Mariana Ensemble, with Soprano Sarah Gabriel and Bass Samuel Evans, will be conducted by Alexander Flood.
Tickets at £12, accompanied children under 16 free, are available from RCS Box Office 01923 226836/243545, or on the door."
Sheenagh Pugh

Another anthology. This is an edited version of a website of the same name, a collection of poems which came into being because of the 2015 general election. The swing to the right, against the predictions of opinion polls, surprised most poets, who, like nearly everyone else, live in an online bubble where we come across few world-views that do not mirror our own. Two poets, the editors of this anthology, decided to publish a poem a day for 100 days in response to the election (it turned into 138 days, but poets aren't usually big on maths). Some were commissioned from poets the editors knew or knew of, others came from open submission. Disclosure: I have a poem in it myself but am taking my usual stance that one poem doesn't disqualify me from reviewing a whole anthology.

It might be argued that commissioning poems from the editors' own online acquaintance would produce homogeneity of views, but apparently the open submissions were no less homogenous (as I know was the case in a later project on poems about Brexit: not a single pro-Brexit poem was submitted). Why there should be this political consensus among poets is a puzzle many have raised. If one accepts that the role of poets in society, rather than to be unacknowledged legislators, is to be gadflies, it seems natural that they should be anti-whatever government is in power, and indeed anti-establishment. But that doesn't wholly explain the leftist consensus. Either right-wing poets, these days, don't exist, or they don't write about politics, or if they do, they avoid projects like this. The introduction, if I've understood it correctly, suggests that right-wingers, being more pragmatic, may not bother with the lyric form as a way of influencing or persuading others, ie for political purposes, because its reach is too small. I'm not sure about this, but then neither am I sure I have the hang of its argument elsewhere, eg "By dividing the work according to the four ministries […] in Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are not just having a dig at the attitudes of the political class […] but also indicating that the opinions expressed in these pages are not without their own ideologies". I don't really see how the second follows from the first (though I thought the idea of the four sections quite a witty way to organise the book) and overall the intro reminds me of an old North Wales man's reply when asked his opinion of the sermons preached by his local vicar, the poet R S Thomas. He said, "He do pitch the hay too high in the crach", meaning the sermons went over his head. Some of this intro's hay is out of my reach, too.

If the poems are largely homogenous in their political stance, they are, thankfully, not at all so in their technique. They range from overtly polemical to very oblique, from free verse to complicated and elaborate forms (both classical and invented), from contemporary to historical parallel, from persona to personal. Some of the form poems particularly impressed me, because the technique turned out, in this instance, to be a way of making the reader think more carefully about the words and their import. I would cite as outstanding Hannah Lowe's use of bold type to create a poem-within-a-poem in "The Garden Is Not For Everyone", Ian McMillan's similar use of italicised unspoken thought in "News From't Northern Province" and Paul McGrane's variant villanelle "The Government" – I seldom warm to villanelles, but this is a perfect example of how to turn the form's repetition and inevitability to account, stressing over and over the unpalatable fact that "somebody voted for the government". There are many other forms represented: sonnets, ballads, ghazal, terza rima, sestina. I'm still trying to work out why Ben Wilkinson, in his lively sestina "Building a Brighter, More Secure Future" chose the indefinite article "a" as one of his keywords. He must have had some purpose in deliberately choosing so weak a word in so strong a place, but so far I'm not getting it; more reading needed…

Another technique that worked very well in some of these poems was mythologizing, which gives a universality and timelessness to what might otherwise be bounded by its own particular time and place. Jon Stone's "Incentivampire" is a splendid, memorable example, as is Tony Williams's terza rima "The Promised Land" (another happy marriage of form and theme, a form and journey both potentially without an end).

I don't think all these poems can have been written specifically for the project, or during the hundred days; some must have been to hand already and simply fitted the brief. For instance, Steve Ely's "Inyenzi", one of the most powerful poems I've read in recent years, was in his pamphlet Werewolf (Calder Valley Poetry, 2016, reviewed here) and though the timing would allow for it to have been written for this project, it seems so integral to the pamphlet, so much part of its pattern, that I can't believe it evolved outside it. Not that this matters, because his transfer of the rhetoric used in Rwanda, to dehumanise the Tutsi and justify their killing, to a persona in this country speaking of what's sometimes called the underclass is chilling, masterly and fits the brief perfectly.

they seemed to find each other attractive
mating continually and without compunction,
Even the juveniles were fertile

There are some poems that seem more tangential to the theme than this. In some cases, like Josephine Dickinson's "Go Not, Gentle", they are less a reaction to a specific event than a way of seeing the world, but still capable of being seen as a response to the theme. It's also possible that many poets preferred to approach the theme in an oblique way rather than risk being overtly polemical. There were a few poems that made me feel preached at, and correspondingly resentful, but not many. Overall, it's an anthology with much energy and passion, as is natural with political poetry, but also with more nuance and subtlety than might have been expected.
Sheenagh Pugh

Disclaimer: I have a poem in this, but have decided that one poem does not constitute a reason not to review the rest of the anthology.

Well, this is interesting. Last year, I reviewed two individual poetry collections whose main focus was ageing (Philip Gross's Love Songs of Carbon and Tamar Yoseloff's A Formula for Night) and one anthology of poems about ageing – also Scottish, Second Wind: new poems by Douglas Dunn, Vicki Feaver and Diana Hendry, pub. The Saltire Society. Indeed, a few poems from that anthology also cropped up in this one…. So there would seem to be a current fashion for poems on this topic.

Second Wind's remit was specifically to be "creative" about ageing, and judging by Sally Magnusson's foreword to Whatever the Sea, I wouldn't be surprised if this one too had been determined from the start to be basically upbeat rather than depress the customers. Magnusson describes the general tone as "pleasingly bracing". Even in the section entitled "Old Age Blues", the poems rarely get darker than wistful, and there isn't that much Timor Mortis in the final section, entitled "As Time Draws Near". Those who know my Eeyoreish tendencies will not be surprised to learn that the two bleak exceptions in these sections, Helena Nelson's "Blight" and Edwin Muir's "The Way" were among my favourites in the book.

The title, as many will recall, comes from one of the wonderful late poems of Edwin Morgan, "At Eighty", from his last collection Cathures:
Push the boat out, compañeros,
push the boat out, whatever the sea.

Other gems include Elma Mitchell, one of the several mature women poets so encouraged by the much-lamented Harry Chambers of Peterloo Poets. In "Good Old Days", having forensically dissected her body's failings, she ends:
But up here, at the top of the spine, behind the eyes,
Curtained a little but not blind,
Sits a young and laughing mind
Wondering which part of me is telling lies.

This disconnect between physical fact and mental self-image also cries out of Nelson's "Blight", which I can't resist quoting in full:
Each of us is old
and our brave silks begin
to fall from us. Draw close
in the chapterhouse of skin.

How shall we be glad?
We were young, young – we knew
it would happen as it happens
but not like this. Not to

us, not to the silk-sellers,
the bearers of spice and gold.
Our tales were bright in the telling
but this was not foretold.

There are poems in the anthology which are cosier, and which please me less, because they can get perilously close to cheery homespun philosophy. Mostly this consists of the odd clichéd line or phrase in an otherwise interesting poem, but a few poems, like Helen Cruickshank's "Autumn Compensations", seem to be pretty much made up of cottage gardens, slippered feet and irredeemable cosiness. Cruickshank, who could write much better than this, seems to have been left out of the author biogs at the end, which is a shame as hers would have been one of the more interesting ones.

But there is some fine work in here – apart from those I've already mentioned, there is Iain Crichton Smith, always a reflective, thought-provoking joy, Vicki Feaver and Alastair Reid among many others. Plus that chilling, exact Muir poem, which I didn't know before and now can't forget:
Stay here, for ever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh places I have passed!
That journey's done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.

I'm wondering now when the next anthology on this topic will come up, and what the trend means…
Sheenagh Pugh
30 September 2016 @ 07:52 am

The exercise in the page photographed above (photo by C J Southworth) comes from a book called The Practice of Creative Writing: a Guide for Students by Heather Sellers, pub. Bedford Books 2007. Basically it quotes a poem by Bob Hicok about his home town and then suggests the students make substitutes of their own for certain key words and phrases (like "Michigan"). They will thus "build their own poem in between the lines". The helpful advice continues… "After you write lines of your own built from Hickok's lines copy out just your poem, on a new sheet of paper. As you copy, tinker with your lines. Delete and add words to make them connect to each other. […] If you decide to submit the piece to a literary magazine or a class anthology, you can simply put 'After Bob Hicok's 'A Primer'" under the title if you feel it is still very closely related to the original. Poets and writers often talk to each other in this contemporary fashion; it's not unusual at all. Imitation is, after all, the highest form of flattery."

I used to teach creative writing. This isn't it. There is a world of difference between this and the process whereby one reads a poem, thinks "wow, that's just how I felt when X happened" and then goes off to write a poem about X. That is identifying what was universal in the poet's experience and how it was manifested in yours. I have used that as an exercise, and blogged about it here. This, on the other hand, is pretending to have had the experience someone else had in the poem. Hicok wrote about Michigan because it meant something to him. You're writing about Halifax, or whatever else you substituted for Michigan, because your tutor told you to. And it will show in the writing – there's a name for this barren, tick-box process, "ghosting", which strikes me as most appropriate for a pallid, insubstantial imitation of someone else's reality.

And it goes further. You are not just appropriating Mr Hicok's experience, you are copying the mechanics of how he chose to write about it – the syntax, the rhythms, the use of images. "Another image for how your place looks – comparison that spills over onto next line" advises the book helpfully, in case you should have accidentally done something original. The implication of "if you feel it is still very closely related to the original" is that it might not be; the student might somehow, out of this sterile parroting, create an actual new poem. But even Ms Sellers seems to recognise the danger that it will indeed still be very closely related to the original, in everything save originality, hence the advice to include the epigraph "After Bob Hicok". Here's my advice: putting "After Fred Bloggs" on a flagrant imitation of that gentleman's work will not stop Mr Bloggs objecting, and if he happens to be an irritable man, books or noses may get pulped as a result. The term "after" in an epigraph properly means that one has been inspired by a poet's work to produce something somehow related, but of one's own. It might be a parody; it might be a whole different take on his material; what it is not is a reproduction of his poem with some of his words crossed out and replaced by yours.

Some people who use this technique, of course, omit the stage of "tinker with your lines". They also omit the attribution "after" and publish their ghosts of others' efforts as their own original work. We call them plagiarists, and rightly scorn them, but being taught in this lazy way is arguably one reason they think such conduct acceptable.

Here's some alternative advice:

1. Imitate (or better, emulate) the how, not the what. This means working out not just what it is you admire in a poem but also how the poet achieved it. Thomas Wyatt, in the line "That now are wild, and do not remember", heightens the emotion of the word "remember" by throwing enormous stress on it. He does this by means of tinkering with his rhythms: leaving out a stressed syllable before the word in a basically iambic line. Don't waste time trying to do this exact same thing with a different set of words: just note for future reference that stress rules, like most others, can be broken to great effect.

2. Work out what you want to write, not what somebody else wanted to write. This is the heart of the exercise I've linked to above: the students had first to identify an experience of their own and only then look at how others might have used similar material. Then they wrote about their material; all they had brought from the poets we read was how that might be done by identifying what it was about this material that stuck in their minds.

3. Don't be constantly looking for lazy short cuts. That's all "ghosting" is – letting someone else have the experience, process it in his mind, work out the best techniques for expressing it…

4. If you honestly can't think of anything you want to write about, or any way of doing it, without borrowing from others, consider that maybe you're not cut out to be any kind of a writer. Being handy with words doesn't matter if you've nothing of your own to say.
Sheenagh Pugh

The most important thing about this novella - and it is one in length, rather than a novel - is its narrative voice. Bjarni is an old man, a widowed sheep farmer in a very isolated rural part of Iceland, writing a letter to the woman he loved many years ago but did not marry, and who moved to Reykjavik. A lot of the time he talks in proverbs, anecdotes and quotations from, or references to, Icelandic literature, and his imagery and vocabulary are drawn from the landscape and culture about him, so that it's natural enough for him to liken his lover's breasts to two nearby tussocks, or remark that his late wife was "tremendously good at distinguishing sheep, meaning she knew which heads belonged to which lambs even after they'd been singed and boiled". These are the things that matter to him, and since, like many Icelanders, he is also steeped in classical Icelandic literature and folklore. these references come naturally to his voice as well. There is a glossary at the back, for those not acquainted with the sagas. I'm not sure how this aspect of his voice will play with them, but for those of us who do know that marvellous branch of literature, it's a bonus that deepens and colours the old man's voice.

Having said this, he is in some ways a limited narrator: his feeling for the culture and landscape around him is acute but his views on town life and the modern world in general are little more than uninformed prejudice. His author is well aware of this, I'm sure; we are not meant to see purely through Bjarni's eyes. His reason for not following his lover Helga to town was not love for his wife but love for the landscape and culture in which he was brought up. It is made clear that this was in some ways almost literally a dead-end choice; his marriage is sterile, his way of life dying on its feet and the future - his future - looking at him from Reykjavik via a TV screen. Nevertheless, as Quentin Crisp once said, most of us end up doing, if not what we like, at least what we prefer, and so did he.

The translation, in US English, reads well enough in the prose but very awkwardly in the verses the old man quotes, If these were all amateur verses, it might be deliberate, but those by noted poets read just as stilted. It is, I suspect, simply that the translator normally works only in prose and is not himself a poet; it's really a different kind of translation, where one must often sacrifice literal accuracy of meaning for the sound the man wanted to make. One other thing - reviewing this via Vine, I have a proof copy which does not give the name of whoever was responsible for the beautiful illustrations, looking like woodcuts, which head each chapter. I trust this has been rectified in the pukka version, because they are outstanding, as you can see in the one I've headed this review with.

The author's afterword mentions that he grew up surrounded by storytellers, and there are indeed some marvellous anecdotes woven into this book, my favourite perhaps being that of the old man whose wife dies in a hard winter when her corpse can't be moved from her remote farmhouse. In his practical way, the widower preserves her body (for a spring burial) where he preserves everything else, in the smokehouse.

We helped him take her down off the crossbeam, and the entire time we were busy with this, Gisli spoke to Sigridur as if she were still alive and kicking. 'Well, my dear, they've finally come to get you. Now you're going to go for a little boat trip, my good woman.' That's how he spoke to this woman, whose dead body he'd so affectionately prepared for burial. Gunnar of Hjardarnes couldn't refrain from saying something that we were were naturally all thinking, as we lifted her carefully from the cage and over into the coffin, her skin rosy brown, smelling like the best smoked lamb meat. I swear she had a smile on her face. Gunnar said, 'Well, mate, I don't know what you say, but I think Sigridur has never looked better!'"

Not all the writing works that well, and I do think the obligatory sheep-shagging incident contrived and predictable. But overall this is an unusual and engaging novella, about a man whose inner life is more expansive than his outward circumstances. In his own words, he has "big dreams on small pillows"
Sheenagh Pugh
08 September 2016 @ 10:33 am
Back to plagiarism… sorry to the non-writers for whom this isn't necessarily a Big Thing in their lives, but it's a debate that doesn't go away in the poetry world, principally because it's become clear in recent years that it happens far more often than we have cared to admit. We're not talking of influences, parodies, hommages here, but of Poet B shamelessly nicking Poet A's actual lines and phrases and not crediting them.

You wouldn't think this would divide the poetry world much, or only along fairly obvious lines – all the honest folk on one side and all the thieves on the other, surely. But in fact there are a few writers and publishers who insist that there can be no ownership of words, no "originality", on the ground that we all use the same dictionary, and that if you, as Poet A, happen to have written a heartfelt lament for your father, you shouldn't make a fuss when Poet B appropriates it with some trifling changes and makes it about his mother; if anything you should take it for a compliment. (That example actually happened, and Poet B won a competition with it, until it was sussed.)

The interesting thing is that both sides of the debate sometimes cite the practice of creative writing courses and workshops in support. I've seen it so often asserted that in these forums, students are taught to "sample", imitate, cut and paste, "ghost" (a particularly pernicious practice, in my view, whereby someone uses another's ideas and structure as a template for a new poem). Those who approve point out that there are ways of crediting, like an epigraph that makes it clear the poem is "after" so-and-so. But what gets me is the notion that all such courses use these shortcuts – sorry, I mean techniques, of course. I can only say I didn't, nor did any of my colleagues on the CW degree where I taught. Of course I used the writing of others as models, just not that way. Just by way of illustration, this is an exercise I used.

Stage 1. Think of someone you know well, probably family or close friend, who is known in their circle for doing some particular physical activity. It could be sport, painting, music, housework, cooking, gardening: anything from setting a fire or putting clothes on a line to playing an accordion or fencing, as long as it involves some physical activity, not just sitting thinking with a pen in one's hand. (Though calligraphy would be fine.) Write a very full, detailed description, not a poem but a prose paragraph or two, or even notes, about this person doing this thing – how they do it, how they look when doing it, how they seem to others, what the result is. These notes in this form will not get shown to anyone.

Stage 2. We read several poems in which the way someone does something becomes emblematic for something about them, or a way into some other knowledge. These were some I used:
Michael Laskey: "Laying the Fire". A divorced woman finds herself having to relight the Parkray, which had always been her husband's job. He made a complicated mystery out of it; she does it more haphazardly but it works perfectly well and in the process she begins to see that she can manage without him.
River Wolton: "Running". River writes a lot about physical exercise and sport; this was an early piece that conveyed, to me, not just her feelings when running, but something about persistence, the mental need to persevere with something not because it was fun but to prove something to oneself.
A D Mackie: "The Mole-Catcher". We had to do a quick bit of byroning for this: in Mackie's poem the pitiless mole-killer is compared to the Angel of Death who sweeps down on the Assyrian host in Byron's poem "The Destruction of Sennacherib". In the Byron poem, the Assyrians are the baddies, threatening the Lord's people. But in Mackie's, by the end we are firmly on the side of the moles, the "sma' black tramorts [corpses] wi' gruntles grey", and having to reassess, in the light of the comparison, how we feel about the Lord and his angels.

I used other similar poems in which physical activity became emblematic of more than itself, just never Heaney's "Digging", which struck me as way too bleedin' obvious.

Stage 3: Go back to those notes from Stage I. Now try to work out what it was about this person doing this thing that stuck in your mind. What did it say about them, or their relationships with others, or how others saw them? What was special, for them, about this thing and how they did it? Whatever it was, that's where the poem is, so now write the first draft of it.

I got some fascinating poems this way, full of physicality as one might expect, and often quite insightful. One I especially recall was by a young widow; her husband had been a plasterer and the argot of his trade included a surprising number of bird-related words like hawk, swoop, hop up. He'd been a small, active, delicate man, and in the poem, busy at his job, he comes over so quick and birdlike, he could have been there in the room.

What I never got was straight imitation of the poems we had read. That wasn't possible, because they'd been sent back to their own experience, not that of the poets in front of them. All they had gleaned from those was how personal experience might be transmuted into something more than itself, and how they, using their own experience rather than piggybacking on someone else's, might do likewise.
Sheenagh Pugh
I really, really like the way Neil MacGregor illuminates history by focusing on individual objects. He has of course done it twice: once creating A History of the World in 100 Objects (all in the British Museum where he was then director) and then in Shakespeare's Restless World, where he brought the plays alive, again via objects the man would have known and seen. In the process he shines a light on things you just might not normally think about, like the fact that the theatre name "Globe" was cutting-edge at a time when Drake had not long circumnavigated the world.

In his latest, he does again use objects, like coins, machines, Peter Keler's Bauhaus cradle (designed in 1922, still in production today), but also focuses on towns, motifs from folk tale, paintings and individual humans. But the method is the same: to zoom in on what may look like a detail and use it to illuminate something far wider. In the chapter "Snow White vs Napoleon", he examines the role of the forest in the German imagination and self-image, from Hermann's epic victory over the Roman legions in the Teutoburger Wald (AD 9), through the sinister forests of the Grimm folk tales and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, to the modern preoccupation with conservation which results in a third of the country, no less, being protected forest land, and has made the Greens stronger in Germany than anywhere else in Europe.

Sometimes too, the individual objects of his focus interact revealingly and movingly, as when we realise that Ernst Barlach's sculpture "Hovering Angel", created in 1926 as a Great War memorial, melted down by the Nazis for war material and recreated post-war from the original plaster mould, has the face of Käthe Kollwitz, whose "Grieving Parents", commemorating her own son's death in the Great War, we have already seen.

From the Europeanism of Goethe to the federal individuality of sausages, from Martin Luther reinventing a language to a handcart used by refugees after World War 2 but which, as he points out, is of so timeless a rural design that it could easily have been used for the exact same purpose during the Thirty Years War, this is as many-sided and illuminating a portrait of a nation and its history as I can imagine. It's also, like everything of his that I have read, immensely readable.
Sheenagh Pugh
29 August 2016 @ 07:45 pm
Here's an interview I did for Poetry Spotlight, with a poem from my last visit to Canada. Oh, and while we're at it, a photo of a mother bear and cub near Jasper.
Sheenagh Pugh

Will MacReady, on his first day with Cardiff CID, joins a team already stretched by a policeman's murder. Now a divorced man out for visiting time with his son has found something in the docks that oughtn't to be there…

Cornelius – yet another MOP who seemed desperate to tell their life story to a complete stranger – had been arguing with his new girlfriend on the phone while Lucas threw stones into the water. Calling for his daddy to come look. Pointing out through the railings, at the mouth of the dry dock. When |Cornelius ended the call and went to his son, he saw what Lucas was looking at.[…]

MacReady checked across the dock at Davidson. He was bent over at the waist, laughing as the kid skittered around his legs, dropping F-bombs every couple of steps.

"My ex is going to murder me." Cornelius moaned.

"I truly hope not," MacReady said.

"There's none of us left to investigate if she does," Lee offered.

This little vignette demonstrates a number of the characteristics of this, Mike Thomas's third novel drawing on his background as a long-serving South Wales policeman. The way the police, like the fire and ambulance service, necessarily harden themselves with brittle jocularity to what they see. The way their patience with members of the public – MOPs – wears thin. The way Thomas, as always, does not make the error of explaining this kind of trade argot but leaves you to pick up on it as you go, so that it always sounds completely natural. And the presence, absence and importance of children, a pivotal factor in this novel.

Thomas's last two novels were not about crime but rather about being a policeman and what that might do to people. This one is too, but it is also about the actual solving of a crime. The protagonists in Pocket Notebook and Ugly Bus didn't spend a whole lot of their novels doing that; they were too busy working through their own problems and the minutiae of police procedure, as well as, in some cases, actually committing crimes. I loved both books, by the way, and was worried, before I read this one, that the "crime novel" aspect might get in the way of the character development and interaction which he has been so good at.

But it doesn't. We are at two ends of a crime which moves between Nigeria and the UK by way of Portugal, and while for most of the time we are with the Cardiff police who only know about their end of things, sometimes the narration shifts so that we see what is happening elsewhere and can make a partial guess at what might be going on. This ratchets up the tension considerably, because where we suspect the narrative may be going is where we desperately don't want it to go, and by the end it is as unputdownable for that reason as any crime novel should be. For me, though, it was already gripping for other reasons: the host of rich and believable minor characters, the cross-talk between the policemen which was such a feature of the first two novels, the unexpected but perfectly feasible compunction that begins to develop in some of the villains about what they are doing and makes you realise, unwillingly, that nobody is all of a piece.

Then there's the personal story of MacReady. His back-story resembles that of Jacob in Pocket Notebook, while his character, doggedly fighting off the cynicism that goes with the job, bears some likeness to Martin from Ugly Bus. But unlike them, he is envisaged as a character developing over several novels, rather than just one. So far, I'd say he definitely has the necessary depth and possibility to sustain reader interest over a series, and I'm glad to note from the author's recent blog tour that MacReady's next adventures are already written.
Sheenagh Pugh
03 August 2016 @ 01:45 pm
Green mwold on zummer bars do show
That they’ve a-dripp’d in winter wet;
The hoof-worn ring o’ groun’ below
The tree, do tell o’ storms or het; […]
An’ where the vurrow-marks do stripe
The down, the wheat woonce rustled ripe.
Each mark ov things a-gone vrom view—
To eyezight’s woone, to soulzight two.

- William Barnes, "Tokens"

The above is as good a definition as I know of a writing technique that fascinates me because it's almost, but not quite, imagery. As I understand it, imagery is fetching Object B out of its context in order to compare it with Object A, and by so doing, to shed a new light on Object A. For the purpose is not just to show A more clearly, it is rather to slant the reader's view of it in the author's own chosen direction by means of the comparison object, because Object B does not come out of its former context alone; it brings with it a whole trail of associations. As Martin Opitz observed in the 17th century, to write that a girl has hair like corn and eyes like forget-me-nots says "farmgirl" whereas hair like gold and eyes like sapphires says "queen" – but, as he went on to point out, once you have the rule you can subvert it; describing a queen in farmgirl similes might be a subtle way of indicating that she was ill at ease with her rank and secretly yearned for the simple life.

But what Barnes was doing above is not comparison exactly. The iron bars, the furrows, are themselves; they are not being likened to any other object, but what he is doing is seeing beyond their present state to the past contained within it. It is human deduction, knowledge and above all memory that make green mould emblematic of a wet winter. His wonderful coinage "soulsight", as opposed to eyesight, is what the Welsh poet J T Jones of Llangernyw was using, and making his readers use, in his englyn "Now that I am old and unsteady on my feet, I feel an urge to go back to where I was brought up, to walk in the places where I used to run". In any other place on earth, an old man doddering along is just that, but in the one place where his mind's eye (and ours) cannot help but see the boy running ahead of him, the figure of the old man contains that of the boy, the memory of all he once was.

Cavafy, who almost never uses actual metaphor or simile, constantly uses this technique whereby things or acts become more than themselves, emblems of everything an individual's experience and memory has added to them. In his poem "The Afternoon Sun", what would be, to anyone else, a space where furniture once stood is transmuted by memory and association:
This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, merchants, companies.

This room, how familiar it is.

Here, near the door, was the couch,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window was the bed
where we made love so many times.

I think what pleases me most about this technique is its sense of the power and importance of things, both the solid reality of their present and the depth of association and memory they carry with them, which transcends and transmutes that reality. In the poem above, Cavafy pretty much does this twice; first his memory can fill the now empty office with the furniture it once held, but then the conjured-up furniture itself, because of its associations, becomes emblematic of the relationship so firmly in the past. William Barnes does something eerily similar in "The Wife A-Lost", one of the many poems in which his uncanny skill at creating empty spaces comes in handy. The widower who speaks this poem is spending all his time in a grove of beech trees, precisely because his late wife disliked it and never went there: it is the only place in the neighbourhood where he doesn't constantly expect to see her and miss her presence. Again here, the beech grove is not precisely being used as an image for the man's bereaved state, any more than the bed absent from Cavafy's former room is an "image" of his lost relationship. They are real: objects in their own right which belong where they are seen or recalled, not imagined Object Bs dragged out of some other context solely to furnish comparisons for Object A. But by making us conscious not only of what they are but of what they have been, the writer can invest them with an unsuspected depth of meaning.

None of this is intended to deny the efficacy of metaphor and simile, with their ability to slant and direct the reader's view via the complication of associations and value systems which any comparison object drags at its tail. What could be more heartrending, for all manner of reasons, than the metaphor in an old Irish Gaelic folk song Frank O'Connor quotes: "Rise up and put a fence about the field you spoiled last night" (ie, "marry the girl you seduced")? Yet, for all it tells us about the kind of society those two people live in, I think we are still, as readers, using our eyesight here: we are seeing a field and a fence on one side, a woman and a man on the other, and superimposing one picture on the other, to great effect.

Cavafy's lost furniture re-imagined back into the room, the old man who walks where he used to run, Barnes's "tokens" and powerful empty spaces (like the arms of the turnstile, gaping empty and still, where the narrator's memory sees the lost child who used to set it spinning) are something else. It is eyesight that shows us these real, solid objects in their normal setting (and you may be assured, there is nothing as solid as a Barnes empty space). But it is another kind of perception, reliant on memory and imagination, that adds the emotional depth to it, that makes it "to eyesight one, to soulsight two".
Sheenagh Pugh
Considering how long most of us (and I mean poets, who tend to be non-drivers) spend waiting for and travelling on public transport, it's a wonder it doesn't generate more poems, at least in the UK. I suppose there are a few train poems, though nowhere near as many as in the US, where trains seem to be regarded as romantic rather than utilitarian, but buses are woefully under-represented; the only well-known poet I can call to mind offhand who wrote interestingly on and about buses is Louis MacNeice.

His buses (and trains) tended to be urban. The ones in this pamphlet (another pleasingly designed, well-produced publication from Calder Valley Poetry) are rural, set in the Calder Valley that gives said press its name. Not all the 24 poems are specifically set on, or waiting for, transport, but a lot are, and this does two things to the collection. It emphasises the sense of transience in a collection already haunted by mortality – "returning to our rest we remain in transmission" - and it affects the poet's and reader's way of seeing. This is a poetry of moments: things and people glimpsed in passing or experienced for a set period of time, and about which we can speculate but never be certain. Even the form, each poem confined to 12 lines, suggests a limited, though intense, experience in a confined space.

The eye (and the I) in these poems is forever looking in from outside; lights are seen in windows but we can only guess, rather than know exactly, what goes on behind them:
behind rows of small windows take tablets,
set the clock, do what they usually do.

The imprecision of that " do what they usually do" is entirely deliberate, a refusal to invent. Right from the start, these poems, undefined by titles, tantalise the reader with ambiguities, infinite possibilities that will never become certainties, things we think we have seen but are not sure or must then reassess. The opening of the first:
Red flicker through the trees. The last minibus
leaves from the station
takes us off-balance from the first two words. It is natural to read them as noun-verb, but then their number would not agree; we read "red flicker" expecting "red flickers" and must then go back and see adjective-noun rather than noun-verb. And hardly have we got our head round that, when the innocent-looking real verb "leaves", in the next sentence, returns our minds inevitably to the trees and turns verb into noun, singular into plural, the red flicker of the lights into autumn leaves falling…

This sort of ambiguity and uncertainty can in fact only be got via great sureness and precision in the use of language, a feature of the whole pamphlet. The way, on a journey, an unrecognised bit of landscape turns into a familiar one is beautifully captured:
Bits of fence and house-front left and right telling us
where we are, which is increasingly not a nowhere.
The metaphorical aspect of the "journey" is always mercifully understated, and we are never allowed to forget that whatever figurative connotations a "bright chariot" may have, it is also a bus lit up at night-time.

Because of the perspective of these poems, features which might normally irritate the reader need instead to be accepted, notably the partial communication of personal information. When "Michael/gets off at his cancelled pub", any reader except perhaps Michael and his friends will be baffled: in what sense cancelled? Licence revoked? Change of use? Is it an event that's been cancelled (but then why alight there?). We cannot know exactly what "cancelled" means, nor indeed whether it matters to an understanding of this poem, and normally that might be a problem, the kind of insiderish non-communication that excludes the general reader. But in a way, this is the whole point of these poems: the universe we are passing through is full of just such information and we are not given anywhere near long enough to fathom it, rather like the goods trains in these memorable lines:
To arrive, to stay, to become old, to learn
the details, the stone paths strung over the hills,
the football fields below. Goods trains passing through.
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a 25-poem pamphlet (nicely produced by Calder Valley Poetry) with a definite scheme running beneath it. Though it becomes fairly evident as you read (and there are notes to help where it doesn't), I think an explanation is needed before I review it, because poems that are part of a narrative can't entirely be considered as stand-alones.

The first poem, "Zwillinge", sets up a myth; an Ur-woman bears twins, which are brought up apart in a sort of experiment, one with love and care and the other in neglect and abuse, with the results that might be expected: one grows up idealistic and well-intentioned, the other violent and depraved. Through the rest of the cycle, some poems concentrate on the "good" twin, some on the evil one, while others are more general commentaries on the history and nature of violence in the human condition. In the last poem the twins come together in an enterprise, at least so the notes say, for I don't think anyone could deduce it from the poem; we'll come back to that presently.

The idea of experiments on twins of course has Nazi echoes, but the cycle is careful throughout not to tie its mythology down to any one historical event, and the whole idea of twinhood is more archetypal than that. It is clear that in some sense the twins are always one, representations of the different sides of man's nature, at once reaching for the light and haunted by darkness, animal in nature yet striving with some success for rationality. It's also of course true in a literal sense that children brought up with bad role models and few opportunities are very liable to replicate the faults of those who acted as their parents. In Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, Ernest Pontifex gives up his children for adoption precisely because he fears he will be as bad a parent as his father and grandfather and wants to break the cycle. In more recent times, during the furore over the murdered child Peter Connelly ("Baby P"), who figures in this book, some pundit or other was criticised for saying that had the angelic-looking toddler lived and grown up in that environment, he would have become as violent as the adults who were his role models. This was self-evidently true; indeed these adults themselves were the product of just such homes, but nobody wanted to believe that smiling blond toddlers can turn into monsters (or, rather, that monsters were once blond toddlers capable of being saved).

It will be seen, then, that this poem cycle has some very interesting, thought-provoking ideas at the back of it. And its technique of never tying itself down to events, of assimilating specific events from different times and places in history, serves it well. In "The Death Dealer of Kovno", the Lithuanians who carried out an anti-semitic atrocity in 1941 are likened to a group of schoolchildren who carry out a bullying attack on a classmate in 1978, while in "Inyenzi" the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 is invoked in a poem about how what's sometimes termed the underclass in Britain is regarded by the media and society. It might seem at first that the larger atrocities are being devalued by comparison with the smaller, but this would be to miss the point, which is that the one can lead on to the other. "Inyenzi" means cockroaches, and is one of the terms used to dehumanise the Tutsi and make it easier for their killers to act as they did: they were deliberately turned into the "other". In this context, the language used of our own citizens in the poem is intentionally disturbing, because we see it doing essentially the same thing:
They were repulsive
some grotesquely corpulent
others skeletal on crack;
Special Brew faces shrunk reptilian,
They were toothless and hairless,
pimpled in blackheads and shiny with pus.

they seemed to find each other attractive
and they mated continually and without compunction.
"Inyenzi" is a very powerful poem, one that could stand alone provided the reference in the title is not missed, and uncomfortably reminiscent of some of the language used in certain sections of print and online media. It is also one of the poems that might go to justify the contention in the notes that "the central argument of Werewolf is that state power can relatively easily induce and coerce humans into participating in violence, murder and genocide".

It is certainly the central argument of the "non-twin" poems, ie those that don't deal with the myth of the good and evil twins. I'm not sure, myself, that it is the central theme of the "twin" poems. These seem to me to deal far more with man's intrinsic nature than with his reaction to any political or any other circumstance. The "evil twin" poems, as one would expect, harp on the vein of violence that is inborn in man as in any naturally predatory animal. Both these and the peripheral poems mostly work, like "Inyenzi", by blending instances and peoples from different times and places – in "Spurn", the possibility of a death camp on the Humber estuary is envisaged, with sardonically observed and all too credible results:
In towns and cities, where once was blight,
now were parks and orchards.

Income tax was slashed.

The accounts were audited
and nothing was found amiss.
The ones, like "Fayasil", that do confine themselves to one historical time and place, without this constant cross-referencing, seem to me the less effective for it (though the unspoken reference to Adlestrop in the first line of "Fayasil" was pointed). And this, I think is why some of the "good twin" poems dissatisfy me a bit. The best of them is "Righteous Among the Nations", which does use the technique of cross-cutting between various folk who risk their lives for others. The last sentence, in a poem that celebrates great heroism, is a deliberate volte-face, reminding us that love for those we know can also make us fight the "other":
Greater love hath no man than this,
that he lay down his life for his friends. Strangers,
perhaps, enemies even. Maybe he'll kill for them.

But in at least three of the "good twin" poems, the idealist is confined to one context: he is a teacher. Now, if the main thing causing a child to go wrong is the home in which he's being brought up, there is a limit to what any teacher, however well-intentioned, can do to help, and these poems are indeed bleakly pessimistic, as also is "Every Child Matters", in which our idealist fosters a pair of children, but apparently too late to save them from the effects of the environment they were in before. At best, in these poems, there are tiny, temporary advances which are soon negated – a child learns to say thank you, but a few years later is joining in race riots in borstal: a girl makes some progress in class but then falls pregnant. Possibly we are meant to read the idealist's persistence as hopeful, but it would be just as easy to read this continual tale of disappointment and think, "why bother?"

I doubt if that was the intention, but the possibility is there, and made more likely by the final poem, the only one that doesn't work at all for me. In "Columblane", the note tells us, "the blessed twin's altruism and idealism leads him to join his monstrous brother in a school shooting". I'm glad the note was there, because I would never have guessed from the poem that the idealist twin was even present; there are clearly two people involved, but then there were at Columbine and neither of them was any sort of idealist. The conundrum of idealists who kill is a fascinating one; I have always wondered how doctors, in particular, can end up killing for Hitler or chucking bombs for ISIL, as they sometimes have. But I think he chose the wrong context in which to examine it. All the school shooters I have heard of have been archetypal losers, people who had a grudge against society because they weren't very good at dealing with it; certainly the Columbine shooters and Hamilton would seem to fall into that category. Of course motives are usually mixed, and there are losers who think themselves idealists; Anders Breivik probably thinks of himself as a right-wing hero, whereas to most of us he looks like a Billy No-Mates who never got over his mother's divorce. At all events, this poem doesn't convince me; the vision of suited middle-class men embracing their inner werewolf is bizarrely interesting but I could never see in it the figure of the ineffectual but well-meaning idealist he had built up from the earlier poems.

It's a pity, in a schematic collection like this, that the final poem in the narrative doesn't, for me, succeed in merging the twins as it was presumably meant to do. And I think it's also a pity that it causes the narrative to end on such an unredeemed, bleak note, which could easily be taken to be saying, "men are violent by nature and there's nothing to be done about it". Because there are, of course, idealists who make odds; for every Breivik there is, fortunately, a Nicholas Winton, but the thrust of this narrative seems to show idealists as essentially ineffectual, often hypocritical wafflers. Which no doubt some of them are, but it would be the greatest pity of all if readers reacted to the "good twin" poems with "why bother, then?"

Nevertheless, the poems in this collection which discuss individuals' propensity to violence, how they control it and how it can be exploited by the state are extremely thought-provoking and memorable, and mostly not because of their often harrowing subject matter but because of the skill with which it is handled. The jackdaw approach to history, assimilating different peoples, events and eras, brings home, as nothing else could, our essential likeness to each other, and viewing our own thoughts, words and actions through the glass of the "other" is as instructive now as it was when Euripides used the prism of the Trojan War to condemn the Athenian invasion of Melos. I don't think anyone could read "Inyengi" and not be, at least temporarily, more careful in their language, or "Spurn" and not wonder "could it happen here?"
Sheenagh Pugh

Caz had a fragmented view of something impossible. Caught in the light of the torch was a huge body like a snail, boneless, fluidly rippling. Rust-orange marks striped its sides. Its flesh was an almost-transparent brown. Two pinpoint black eyes swivelled on long, slow muscles.

She swallowed a scream.

The huge moving mass streamed towards her, clogging the tunnel.

This is the sequel to At the World's End, also a Barrington Stoke book. The whole Barrington Stoke list is designed for children who have reading difficulties, to tempt them with books whose reading age is adapted to their ability but whose level of interest is suited to their actual age (this particular one is aimed at reading age 8, interest level teen). The label's remit includes the physical difficulties of dyslexia, hence the font and the off-white, non-see-through paper, but also the problems of "those who haven’t built up the reading stamina yet to manage complex language structures and non-linear plots."

Obviously this imposes constraints. It isn't just that you can't be too linguistically fancy: you can't make your plots and characters too convoluted either. These are not the kind of readers who will willingly look back and check on what they might have missed or mistaken, so you can't do much flipping between plot strands and time zones, nor play around with unreliable narration or morally complex characters who might be goodies, baddies or both by turns.

Since these are all formidable weapons in Fisher's normal armoury, you might expect her to have trouble doing without them. In fact, though, she simply gets down to it and deploys others. Linear narratives can be great page-turners, and this one is extremely pacy, culminating in what's basically a straight but very exciting race and duel. If the baddie must be unequivocally evil, he can also be very scary, and the unnamed white-haired man is all of that. And, being Fisher, she can still create surprises, as with the Giant Mutant Slugs… these monsters out of many a person's nightmare are first seen through the eyes of the protagonist Caz, who has every reason to react as she does to them, but when later we hear from a character who knows more about them… well, it would be wrong to get into spoiler territory.

Suffice it to say that this surely fulfils the remit; I can't imagine the child, reluctant reader or not, who wouldn't want to know "what happens next". When I reviewed this book's predecessor At the World's End, I hazarded a guess that there'd be a sequel, because everything seemed to point to Caz's journey not being complete. It is more so by the end of this one, but there is still a lot of narrative possibility in this ruined future world and when one of the characters says, near the end, "This is not over", I did wonder… At all events, it's great that these sort of books, by acclaimed authors, exist for children with reading problems and I'd certainly recommend them to anyone with such a child.
Sheenagh Pugh
"When I reached home on the last day of my accustomed life, the life I wanted, I spotted in the V of the mountains a ship newly anchored in the roads, with a few lumpy store ships I had seen the day before around it. This new ship was a sloop, fast and sleek."

The ship is the Icarus, which has arrived at St Helena in 1815, ahead of the main squadron which is bringing Napoleon Bonaparte to imprisonment there. The speaker is thirteen-year-old Betsy Balcombe, daughter of the Superintendent of Public Sales for the East India Company, who has lived most of her life on the island and will be as much a fish out of water away from it as Napoleon is on it. Betsy is based on a real person who left her memoirs, as did several other characters in the novel.

While the authorities are building the house at Longwood which will become his prison-compound, the great man lives in the Pavilion, a sort of rental cottage-cum-summerhouse in the Balcombes' garden, and Betsy becomes his friend. She is a spiky, intelligent, opinionated girl who chafes against the constraints of gender and propriety and is often her own worst enemy. The ex-Emperor, his own world shrinking around him, finds in her both a sparring partner and kindred spirit. She in turn is not immune to his personal charm, even though she can see its workings, as it were, and while she never does quite come to terms with his habit of cheating at whist, she dislikes it far less than she does the petty-minded, bureaucratic obsession with rules and regulations that characterises the island's governor, Hudson Lowe.

There are two remarkable achievements in this novel, and the first is the character of Betsy. Keneally has done singularly well to get so far inside a teenage girl's head and make her so believable. Whether she is provoking Napoleon with awkward questions, getting involved in pointless arguments with her family and obstinately refusing to get out of them, or locking a loathed rival in the lavatory, she is very real and, even at her worst, oddly sympathetic. It is only too credible that Napoleon, a man who seems to have missed out on childhood, should be so eager to join her in child's play and develop a sense of mischief which hitherto has had less harmless outlets.

The other achievement is the realisation of St Helena. On a human level it is a tiny place with a small, closed society, yet one with defined strata – European incomers, those born on the island, known as yamstocks, and imported slaves. Geographically it looks forbidding to Betsy at first: looming inhospitable rock as if, to quote one character, God hated bays. Yet when they penetrate to the interior she finds her new home "a vale of orchards and roses", and even among the steep escarpments waterfalls fall into heart-shaped bowls of rock. This outwardly forbidding landscape with hidden possibilities resembles Betsy's own character in some ways, and her sense of loss on leaving it is very easy to identify with.

In fact, this brings me to my only doubt about the novel: I am not sure it starts and ends in the right places; certainly it is far more alive on St Helena than in England and Australia. The first chapter, "After the Island", one of those prologues set after the story's events, is a really slow start; I struggled to feel at all involved with it. What it does in the way of introducing the family, and relating Napoleon's death, could be done elsewhere and I think myself the story would be the better for beginning with the family's move to St Helena. As for the end, I can see why he wanted to follow the family to Australia, which is after all where he and his audience live, but again I am not sure the Australian scenes add much. It's one of those novels that don't so much end as come to a stop, at what feels like a fairly random point. Its true end, it seems to me, is when Betsy leaves St Helena, which is both the home of her spirit and the place where the most momentous encounter of her life occurred.
Sheenagh Pugh
26 April 2016 @ 11:19 am
Here's a question on which I'd appreciate the views of my hist fic-writing friends. What do you think of anachronism or near-anachronism used as a deliberate technique to lessen the reader's distance from the material? I'm re-reading The Last English King by Julian Rathbone and in the author's note he points out that "occasionally characters, and even the narrator, let slip quotations or near quotations of later writers or make oblique reference to later times. Some will find this irritating. For reasons I find difficult to explain, it amuses me and may amuse others. But it also serves a more serious purpose - to place the few years spanned by this book in a continuum which leads forward as well as back." Nothing new under the sun, in other words. This is an example of what he means: the year is 1069 or thereabouts and his protagonist, a Saxon Englishman called Walt, has just arrived at the town of Nicaea with his companion, a Frisian ex-monk called Quint:
There was a small crowd near the gate happy to be entertained by a couple of mountebanks, one who ate flames and spewed them back again, another who twanged away at a tuneless lute and wailed nasally above the noise he extracted from it. A sad ditty about how the answer to everything was blowing in the breeze. None of this was to Quint's liking.
Now in the first place he was right about being amused: I nearly had a coffee moment. But it did sort of work the other way too; I could see what he meant about the continuum and for a moment I was very much there with Quint (and sharing his musical tastes).

I had a somewhat similar reaction on reading Andrew Drummond's hilarious novel Volapük, set at the end of the 19th century, when I came across the character of Sir Thomas Urquhart, a real person who, were he still living at the time of the novel, would have been some 200 years old. Volapük is about the creation, use and misuse of language, and the impossible Sir Thomas merely emphasises the timelessness of its theme.

I haven't noticed this very much in historical fiction, but maybe I haven't been reading enough of the right stuff. Is it a more common technique than I thought? And do my hist fic friends use it themselves?
Sheenagh Pugh

Generally I choose new books to review on the blog. This time I'm reviewing a book published 18 years ago, quite simply because it's still one of the ones I read most often.

Stevie Davies is a noted novelist, but this is a history book, dealing indeed with the same period that inspired one of her best novels, Impassioned Clay. It is fascinating for a writer to see how she transmutes fact into fiction, but you don't need to be a writer to find this particular period of history absorbing. The subtitle is "Women of the English Revolution: 1640-1660". That twenty years, in fact, when the world turned upside down, when kings could be unkinged, and indeed un-headed, when a country was trying to find a different way to function, and when for a glorious couple of decades, before England relapsed into forelock-tugging mode, nobody knew his or her place.

His or her, for though Cromwell's government was no less inimical to women's rights than Charles's had been, it was a time when the voiceless in general found their voice, and no section of society was more voiceless than women. A married woman, feme coverte in law, had no legal existence, her identity being "covered" by her husband's. Even fewer women could vote than men, and a man without a vote could at least make his voice heard in other ways without much risk of some of the penalties that attended women's speaking. When the Leveller women petitioned Parliament in the 1640s and 50s, their petitions were refused simply on the ground that they were women, and politics was not their concern; they had best, the Serjeant-at-Arms advised, "return to your own business, your housewifery".

But these women were the likes of Katharine Chidley, pamphleteer and disputant, who was not about to be silenced or sidelined so easily:
"Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men?"
There are many glorious voices in this book, and they aren't all female, for this is not a men-versus-women sort of book, and many men are praised in it. Men in advance of the time, like Daniel Rogers and George Fox, were encouraging women to speak out, even to preach. Daniel Rogers's marriage manual, Matrimonial Honour, would have looked radical centuries later:
"She is always in grief & that for thee, & by thy means; what day, week, month is she free through the year, breeding, bearing, watching her babes. […] She had need to be eased of all that is easable, because she cannot be eased of the rest. Get her asleep, if thou can, but awake her not, till she please."
Less radical men, like the diarist Ralph Josselin, were doing their best to be decent husbands in a society which they dimly perceived was very unequal and in many ways unfair to their partners. There are some moving stories of marriages: the Josselins, growing apart as they lose child after child, John and Elizabeth Lilburne becoming embittered not only with Parliament but with each other.

Some of the women who found their voices most powerfully at this time were Quakers, and their fortitude and daring are both inspiring and terrifying. Barbara Blaugdone, schoolteacher, forsakes her middle-class comforts and sleeps in ditches, an itinerant preacher. Mary Fisher travels to Turkey to convert the Sultan – he was bemused but civil, unlike the privileged but ungentlemanly students of Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, who threw stones at her. Mary Dyer, reprieved at the last moment on a scaffold in Massachusetts, promptly returns to the job and is executed.

And there's Anna Trapnel, Fifth Monarchist prophetess, writer of execrable poetry and blessed with a voice that can out-sing and out-shout any heckler. Anna arguably has kangaroos in the top paddock, but listen to her answering the magistrate who questions her motives in travelling from London to Cornwall (an enterprise that could easily get one labelled a vagabond or troublemaker; governments have always liked to limit movement):
"But why did you come into this country?"
"Why might not I come here, as well as into another country?"
"But you have no lands, nor livings, nor acquaintance to come to in this country."
"What though I had not? I am a single person, and why may I not be with my friends anywhere?"
"I understand you are not married."
"Then, having no hindrance, why may not I go where I please, if the Lord so will?"
It is almost impossible not to cheer. It's a sensation that is repeated many times in the course of this book. Though there are sadnesses in it, in the end one is left inspired by these women who simply would not keep quiet. The book can still be found, and I'd urge anyone, not only those interested in history or feminism, to get hold of it.
Sheenagh Pugh
07 April 2016 @ 10:41 am
This interesting article on Emma Darwin's blog about psychic distance reminded me how often I used to use other media - like film - to get some writing technique over to students. One such technique was cutting from scene to scene. It can be enormously difficult for new writers to extricate themselves from a scene before it comes to a "natural" end, but it's something we need to be able to do if we're not to risk boring readers. TV shows, with their short timespan, do it ruthlessly (look at how The Big Bang Theory moves on straight after the laugh-line).

But this is by no means a technique that was invented yesterday. "St Stephen and King Herod" is a very old ballad, and its 14th-century author certainly had not seen any films or TV shows. Yet the poem is a beautiful example of how to control pace and drama by dwelling on what really matters, moving swiftly on from what matters less and leaving much out altogether.

After the scene-setting first verse:
Stephen was a servitor
In King Herod's hall,
And served him with honour
As every king befall.
we are plunged into the middle of the action; Stephen coming from the kitchen with food for the hall. He is crossing a courtyard, which wouldn't have been uncommon at the time; kitchens smell and were kept away from the gentry's noses. Not that this is explained: we simply know it is so because otherwise this couldn't happen:
Stephen came from kitchen
With boar's head in hand.
He saw a star was fair and bright
Above Bethlem stand.
At this point we might have been treated to some sort of analysis of his feelings, but our author is more economical than that:
He cast adown the boar's head
And went into the hall.
"I forsake thee, King Herod,
And thy works all."
Now at this point I should say that it has always seemed to me that Herod, who is feasting, is certainly in a good mood and possibly slightly merry. I don't think this is over-interpretation, because his words and actions for some time are unexpectedly tolerant for a king who has just been spoken to so rudely by the kitchen-boy. Indeed his first reaction is concern for the lad's welfare:
What aileth thee, Stephen,
What is thee befall?
Lacketh anything to thee
In King Herod's hall?
Model employer, really... But Stephen, a stranger to tact, readily gets to the nub of the matter:
"Ne lacketh me nothing
In King Herod's hall,
There is one born in Bethlem
Is king of us all".
One can imagine - indeed one must, for it will not be shown - the aghast faces round the board. But the mellow Herod is still inclined to treat the whole thing as a joke: one can almost hear the guffaw in his voice.
"That is all so true, Stephen,
All so true, I know,
As the capon on this platter
Should come to life and crow."
Now for the first time we shall see a couple of lines that aren't strictly necessary to the narrative, a piece of repetition that slows the action right down for a crucial moment - the equivalent, if you like, of the filmic pause before the heroine opens the door of the locked room:
That word was not so soon said,
That word in that hall
If you're reading this aloud to an audience and pause just long enough, I promise you can have them spellbound at this point, just before you shout:
The capon crew "Christus natus est"
Among the lords all.
Mellow drunks can turn nasty in a moment, and Herod is about to do so:
"Rise up, my true tormentors,
By two and by one.
Lead Stephen forth of this town
And stone him with stone."
The final verse pans out from close-up and goes back to the dispassionate, straight narrative with which it opened:
They led out Stephen
And stoned him on the way,
And therefore is his even
On Christ's own day.
. One does, at this point, have to explain, to English students at least, that 26th December was St Stephen's Day before ever "Boxing Day" was invented. But what is hopefully self-explanatory is the way this spare, dramatic ballad chooses its details, its perspective and its cuts in the way a film might: dwelling on a scene just exactly as long as it needs, zooming into close-up on Stephen and Herod and then out again to the world they affect so much without knowing it, leaving out just about everything to do with motive and mood (we can judge what mood Herod is in at various points from what he says and does), pausing where pause can make an effect but dropping a scene when it's over with as little hesitation as Stephen drops that dish with the boar's head.