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872 AD : Colga mcConnagann abbot of Kynnetty, the best and elegantest Poet in the kingdome, and their cheefest chronicler, died.
The Annals of Clonmacnoise

Poetry, that distillation of the human experience thro’ the saga & symphony of words, has been the chief pursuit & soul-motor of my life, thus far. In the final months of my twenty-first year, upon the 1997 ‘Day of Fools’, I left forever my student accomodation at 66 Sackville Street, Barnsley, clutching a yellow suitcase full of poetry books. A romantic, but rather a cumberous moment, I had decided I was to be a poet, & a poet, since then, I have become. A decade after my embarkation, when settled into my Wordsworthien temple in East Lothian, Heather Lodge, I began to realise that I was in fact slam-dunk in the middle of a twenty year course of training as a bardic druid, i.e. a Pendragon. Indeed, this very book & others I have been recently publishing mark the end of my studies, so to speak.

‘In their schools they are said to learn by heart,’ wrote Julius Ceasar about the Celtic bards of Gaul, ‘an extraordinary number of lines, and in consequence sometimes to remain under instruction for as many as twenty years.’ My own ‘twenty years’ instruction commenced about the 20th May 1997, when in a small thin notebook I wrote my first brief ‘Philosophy of Poetry’ as a lily-eyed, 20-year-old initiate into the artform which would soon come to dominate my life. Early edicts contained in that juvenile essay include;

Poetry is the poet’s psychotherapy

Poets are sublimely arrogant beasts of Divine Inspiration

Poems can be worked on, like a gardener tending his roses, & often sprout seeds which lead to other poems

Poetry is my bastion, my own safe haven from the world

Since etching down those wee ditiches I have lived thro’ significant periods when I have turn’d away from the paths of composition & exercise, surveying instead with some intensity the mechanics of my chosen art. This book is an assemblage of three of these periods, in which I felt intellectually obliged to make a serious attempt at a poetical thesis.

Me Before My Travels.jpg

The first led to a final assembly & edit of essays upon the gorgeous Sicilian island of Marettimo between December 2006 & January 2007. The second period arose just I was beginning to approach the close of my ‘twenty years’ training; over the span of a couple of months in early 2015, I created a number of Pendragon Lectures at my base back home in Burnley, Lancashire, a delightfully authentic weaver’s cottage on Laithe Street. The third essay period – something of a Pendragon dissertation – was undertaken while on a family holiday in Crete, July 2017, a little over two decades since I had departed Barnsley with that soft leather suitcase as golden as the sun!

The fourth & final set of essays were written as part of my Mumble Words editorship, 2018-2021, concluding in the same time & space as did my epic poem, Axis & Allies, the northern Greek island of Samothraki.

THE SYLVER HARVEST

2017-20


Two Slices Of Stanza

The Madness Of Merlin

Jericho Brown’s ‘The Tradition’

Lee Ann Roripaugh’s ‘Tsunami Vs. The Fukushima 50’

Desert Poets Of The 51st Highland Division

The Poetry Of Muhammad Ali

Love, Wine & Nature In The Ever-Living China

The Brunanburh Poem & Egil Skallagrimsson

The Tomb Of Achilles

Reconstructing The Samothrakian Mysteries

Two Slices Of Stanza

MARCH 2ND, 2017

It has long been mooted, out East Lothian way, to restore the ancient ferry route across the Firth of Forth to Fife. Still lost in idle burearocratic musings, I had to instead spin all the way west to the Queensferry Bridges, zip high over the waters, & hang a right into Glenrothes. From here, the modern road system tapered into something from the 50s, as the one-lane roads wound me to the ancient & most reverend ecclesiastical capital of the Scots. Fife was as lovely as ever, a maroon landscape of recently ploughed fields under a crisp, blue sky. Crisp would also be an understatement – as would brisk – for the infernal furnace of cold which bit into my face & through my clothes as I arrived in Saint Andrews. Still things were hotting up in the poetry festival, I found, as I arrived at the towns refined town hall for my first sampling of this year’s StAnza festival. Like bees to the first crocuses of the year, poets & poetry lovers from Scotland & beyond were flocking to the fragrant blooms planted over the winter by Madame Eleanor Livingstone, including Harry Giles, who the Mumble had recently interviewed.

The first hour was to be filled under the monicker of Past & Present, two talks on members of the pantheon within living memory & long since ceased. We began with Neil McLennan – not a poet per se, but historian & historical detective with an ambitious passion to discover as much as he could about Wilfred Owen, admitting that this noble war poet had become almost a part of his family. For me, a poet’s life is just as vital to the account as their works. Poets are like ornate fountains, out of whose mouths gurgles the spiritus of an age – & it was quite an age in which Wilfred Owen found himself.

2017 sees the anniversary of Owen’s 6 months stay in Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart, which during WW1 had been transformed into a hospital for officers who’d been turned crazy by the horrors of the trenches. ‘Craiglockhart is my Oxford,’ wrote Owen, who loved to roam the nearby Pentland Hills, the routes of which have been traced by McLennan & shall be revisited with a party of keen Owenites later this year. Mclennan also described his international search for information, including finding Owen’s poems scribbled down on the back of Edinburgh Café company bills, & delighted in telling us how he believed Owen made the near-final draft of Anthem for Doomed Youth a few hours after he had taught English Literature to 39 boys at the Tynecastle School: a remarkable rumination. He also left us with a cliffhanger, saying that yes, Graves, Owen & Sassoon all met on a golf course in Edinburgh that year, but not on the course everyone thinks they did. He has actually discovered the true belt of blasted green & will be revealed in his book on Owen in Edinburgh later this year. I, for one, was not that bothered beforehand, but after witnessing McLennan’s infectious banter I cannot wait for the answer.

Following McLennan was the reputable Alice Oswald, a contemporary poet with a classical mind, she is the creator of some of our own epoch’s truest poetry. A few years ago she produced an amazing condensing of the Iliad called Memorial, & so was perfectly placed to sing her love of Homer to us. Her introduction in that book reads; ‘Matthew Arnold praised the Iliad for its ‘nobility’, as has everyone ever since — but ancient critics praised it for its enargeia, its ‘bright unbearable reality’ (the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.

Oswald’s patter was purely poetic, abstract in places, keen as a Danaan spear in others, flowing through her talk as breathlessly as the wind she described in both Santarini’s Minoan frescoes & the works of Homer himself. Her dreamlike, metaphysical mind conjured up phrases such as, ‘the Beautiful silence of the Minoans,‘ while at the same time she made a pleasant attack on the stuffy cloisters of classical academe. A Classics student herself, one found as she went on that Oswald had found her own paths through Homer, & was delighted to share them, pouring great disdain on the monotone & sterile translations of Homer – including the one by her hero, Ted Hughes – which had turned the Grecian Swan-words into flightless Dodos. I especially enjoyed her vivisection of Homer’s use of colour, which he had presented in a more intensely descriptive than factual fashion. Dark blue, for example, was used to describe a crowd helmets in battle. She even took time at the end of the talk to point my own studies in the direction of Gladstone, who made the first formal accounts of Homer’s colours.

A couple of frothy coffees later, among the students with faces as fresh as St Andrews in early March, I took my seat in the local parliament, where just like in Estonia one steps in off the street. It was time for the day’s ‘Five O’Clock Verses,’ where from oak-paneled wall provosts from the past looked down on our proceedings painted in their military garb or haughty civilian regalia. Two Bloodaxe Poets were the order of the day, AB Jackson & the highly esteemed Catalan poet, Joan Margarit. First up was Jackson, who read at first from his new book on St Brendan’s voyage across the Atlantic in a little coracle boat, a vividly crafted cycle full of devious literary allusions – ‘Godless cynocephali’ springs to mind – & portrayals of sea-sick priests. Listening to the rest of his poetry it seemed as if puff clouds of description were floating across the mind’s canvas, such as golf balls being truffles waiting to be picked up on St Andrews golf course.

First Love (Primer Amor)

In the dreary Girona of my seven-year-old self,
where postwar shop-windows
wore the greyish hue of scarcity,
the knife-shop was a glitter
of light in small steel mirrors.
Pressing my forehead against the glass,
I gazed at a long, slender clasp-knife,
beautiful as a marble statue.
Since no one at home approved of weapons,
I bought it secretly, and, as I walked along,
I felt the heavy weight of it, inside my pocket.
From time to time I would open it slowly,
and the blade would spring out, slim and straight,
with the convent chill that a weapon has.
Hushed presence of danger:
I hid it, the first thirty years,
behind books of poetry and, later,
inside a drawer, in amongst your knickers
and amongst your stockings.
Now, almost fifty-four,
I look at it again, lying open in my palm,
just as dangerous as when I was a child.
Sensual, cold. Nearer my neck.


Following Jackson, my final slice of StAnza for the day was served up in tandem, with Juan taking to the altar with his translator, Anna Crowe. This was interesting to witness, for as Alice Oswald had so perfectly demonstrated earlier on, poetry almost always becomes impoverished through translation. Yes, Juan’s words were good & noble, but it was only when he read them himself in his native tongue after Anna, clenching his fists, face lit up with truth & spitting his passion, that they truly came to life. Returning to the words, they simply ripped at the loose veil between reality & conformity, & it came as no surprise that he had been awarded Spain’s top poetry prize twice in his lifetime. He was even reading in English by the end, & took the time to thank his ‘one & only Joan’ for all her help. A moving moment.

MARCH 6TH, 2017

Like some dandified arriviste in the throes of burgeoning womanhood, StAnza retains a sprightly ebullience every year. I think this is down to the policy of not asking poets back to perform or lecture until five years had passed. This helps keep the festival al fresco fresh, & tho’ the faces may seem familiar, one is always guaranteed a certain newness to the bill. So a second slice of StAnza for me this time round would be rather like sampling one of the splendid Taster Menus at the Castle Terrace in Edinburgh, where plate after delectable plate is served up full of aesthetic glory & supreme tastes. Rather like a very good poem.

It was the weekend & so the wife was free, & off we pottered on the Saturday night, a thick haar covering both East Lothian & Eastern Fife. Inbetween, of course lay the clearer Forth Bridges, but it wasn’t a long drive at all, arriving just in time for the slam in the main auditorium of the modernistic Byre’s Theatre. Ten poets had two minutes each to impress the judges, all ushered into place & eventual silence by the brilliant Paula Varjack, a young, internationalist poet, who set the scene & dictated both pace & rules with the elegance of Virginia Wolfe at some High Tea soiree. ‘This is how it works, & we’re gonna have fun doing it,’ was her mantra, & we were all hooked from the off. The winner was Kevin McLean, one of Edinburgh’s famous ‘Loud Poets,’ who’d saved his best piece for the final, blowing away the opposition with his speed of thought, his philosophical realities & intrinsically musical wordplay. A close second was Jill Abrams , who chose something with more pathos for her final piece, at which end an ‘O My God,’ from the audience reflected how deeply she moved us.

It was midnight by now, & me & the wife parked our car up a few miles down the coast by the sea. We’d taken the seats out of the back & stuffed the car with duvets, & it was comfy enough for a pleasant night’s sleep. On waking, we parked up at the local leisure centre for a jacuzzi, swim & sauna, & when we found ourselves upstairs at the Byre’s Theatre at 10AM drinking coffee & nibbling on some fruity pastries for the morning’s breakfast lectures, our B&B in St Andrews had cost us £7 each. The sixteen-year-old Rimbaud would have been proud. There then followed a delightfully informal, but highly informative talk from four translators on the nuances of their chosen aspect of poetrology.

Asterixesque Jean Portante & the well-preened Zoe Skoulding are bosom-buddies. Jean is from Luxemburg, whose native language is Italian, & whose chosen linguamedia is French. He explained how he was importing the smooth-flowing Italian river-phoneticism into his French verses, with Zoe explaining how her English presentation of his poems were trilingual, having to accommodate Italian rhythms & French vocabulary into the register of her own native speech. Equally fascinating was Aurelia Lassaque, a speaker of the rare Occitan tongue, who spontaneously creates her own poetry in both French & the language of her mother, writing a single poem in tandem between the two languages, letting them flow into & bounce off one another.


Finally, we had the most erudite Jacques Darras, who could have talked for hours, & indeed wanted to, but instead gave us an anecdotal sweep through his time with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, finishing with a moving pilgrimage to Pound’s secretary, Basil Bunting, living in a shed near a pub, a couple of months before he passed away. “Translation, basically,” said Jacques, “is an act of love… you have to love, you have to be in love, with a poem you happen to chance upon,” a statement which perfectly captured the essence of the hour.

It was now potter time; a meaty cappuccino at Costa Coffee, photo-ops with the wife in the time-capsule streets, before buying a translation of all of the Gawain Poet’s works (if indeed he did write them all). Then it was back to the Byre’s for a pie, a pint & Mr Steve Pottinger, a gentle though political soul, who glided through his lunchtime recital with a perfect rectitude to his muse. The West Midland accent never sounded so good, as the breeze of Parnassus blew through his poems, all of which ended with an epithetical flourish & an almost Elizabethan bow. Yes, Mr Pottinger was good, very good. Both before & after his performance, I’d noticed the morning’s translator posse were sat in the Byre’s, pontificating & all that, & I am sure that on our exit from Mr Pottinger’s pearly sphere, Jaques was telling the same story I heard him begin when we first went upstairs for our pies.

Our final port of call was in the cellar-like confines of the intimate Undercroft at St John’s House, where two ‘Border Crossings’ poets would read through their work. The first was Tess Taylor, a Fulbright scholar & direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Reading with poise, posture, & the occasional touch of humour, she delivered excellent renditions from her folklore-laden, landscape-littered work, especially the long poem which had her exploring her ancestors house, peering into his copy of Virgil, & displaying an oboe-pitched sentiment which tweaked & twanged with effortless grace on the listening sensibilities. Finally, we had Michelle Cahill, a young Australian of Indian heritage in love with Scotland, who eked out the vibrancy of the land in her recently acclaimed book, The Herring Lass. I especially liked her sonnet to the heroine Black Agnes, defender of Dunbar Castle a long time ago, & a place we headed in the direction of at the climax of her deliciously engaging readings.

StAnza… fino alla prossima volta

The Madness Of Merlin

Those whom the gods destroy, they first make mad
Euripides

***

In recent years, in other places, I have demonstrated that King Arthur really did once exist, when from the obscure seed that was his life sprung up the legion of legends that constitute the Arthurian myth. If our great king existed, then, is it not also possible that the other members of his pantheon are also real? This leads us to Merlin, the spell-singing court sorcerer of Camelot, whose vitality supported by a wide array of sources. The Welsh chronicle known as the Annales Cambraie tells us.

573 AD: The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffert and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad.

A medieval Welsh triad sums up the battle perfectly;

The three frivolous causes of battle in the Isle of Britain…The second was the action of Arderydd, caused by a bird’s nest, in which 80,000 Cambrians were slain…

The battle of Arfderydd & Merlin are tied together in a number of old Welsh poems. They tell the story of a great civil war among the native Britons, climaxing at the battle of Arferydd. After the battle Merlin lost his mind then ran off to be a hermit in the Caledonian Wood. A sterling effort in finding the battle site was made by the great nineteenth century Scottish antiquarian, William Forbes Skene. His ‘Notice of the site of the Battle of Ardderyd or Arderyth‘ in the PSAS of 1864-65 shows this often brilliant scholar at his very best.

Where, then, was this battle fought? We ought, in the first place, to look for it in one of the great passes into the country; & a curious passage in Fordun gave me a clue to the probable situation. In his notice of Saint Kentigern, he describes, evidently from some older authority, his meeting in the desert a wild man, who informs him that his name was Merlin, & that he had lost his reason, & roamed in these solitudes because he had been the cause of the slaughter of so many men : ‘qui interfecti sunt in bello, cunctis in hac patria constitutis satis moto, quod erat in campo inter Lidel et Carwanalow situato. The last part of the Latin means, ‘fought on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok.’ Liddel, as is well known, is the name of the river which flows westward through Liddesdale, & joins the Esk about nine miles north of Carlisle. Near the junction is the border between England & Scotland, & from thence the flat & mossy district, called the Debateable Lands, bounded on the east by the Esk, extends to the Solway Firth

This nugget of information was the catalyst for Skene, who now begins to hone in on the battlefield, near Longtown in Cumbria, where a small settlement called Athuret immediately raised his heckles. Taking the train down from Edinburgh, Skene found a place to stay in Longtown, whose landlady was quite shocked to see anybody staying in the area at all. Skene continued;

About half a mile from Longtown is the church & rectory of Arthuret, situated on a raised platform on the west side of the River Esk, which flows past them on a lower level; & south of the church & parsonage there rise from this platform two small hills covered with woods, called the Arthuret Knowes. The top of the highest, which overhangs the river, is fortified by a small earthen rampart, enclosing a space nearly square, & measuring about 16 yards square. On returning to Longtown, I asked the old guard whether he knew of any place called Carwandlow. He said that Carwinelaw was the name of a stream which flowed into the Esk from the west about three miles north of Longtown, & also of a mill situated on it, & that beyond it was a place called the Roman Camp.

At this point Skene visited the ‘camp,’ which is today known as the Moat of Liddle. He thought it a magnificent native strength, & was taken aback by its splendid views, including the knowes at Athuret in the distance. He went on;

Between the fort & Carwhinelaw is a field extending to the ridge along Carwhinelaw, which is about half a mile off… The old farmer of the Upper Moat, who accompanied us, informed me that the tradition of the country was that a great battle was fought here between the Romans; & the Picts held the camp, in which the Romans were victorious; that the camp was defended by 300 men, who surrendered it, & were all put to the sword & buried in the orchard of the Upper Moat, at a place he showed me. This part of the tradition is curious, as the Triads mention the Gosgord of Drywon-ap-Nudd at Arderyth which consisted of 300 men. The name of Erydon, which Merlin attaches to it as a name for the battle, probably remains in Ridding at the foot of the fort, & I have no doubt at all that the name Carwhinelaw is a corruption of Caerwenddolowe, the caer or city of Gwenddolowe, & thus the topography supports the tradition.

This is all breathless work, & leaves us moderns with a few scanty crumbs to discover. The only object of interest I could scrape up myself concerned another fortification, a mile or so to the North of the Moat of Liddel, where; ‘there is a slight eminence called Battle Knowe by Prioryhill farm near Canonbie. It feels like a burial mound & tradition says that a battle was fought here & human bones have frequently been dug up but no authentic information can be obtained to confirm the supposition. (Ordnance Survey Name Book 1858).’

Having discovered battlefield where Merlin went mad, let us now practice the very modern art of Psychoanalysis on his mind. By studying the old poems & stories surrounding Merlin, it is clear he had paranoid schizophrenia, the modern terminology of a condition as old as humanity itself. Joan of Arc heard voices & in the first Book of Samuel, Saul shows all the classic symptoms of a lunatic. The following are extracts from a report by the World Health Organisation in 1992.

Paranoid schizophrenia is the most common type of schizophrenia in most parts of the world. The clinical picture is dominated by relatively stable, often paranoid, delusions, usually accompanied by hallucinations, particularly of the auditory variety, and perceptual disturbances. Examples of the most common paranoid symptoms are:

Delusions of persecution, reference, exalted birth, special mission, bodily change, or jealousy; Hallucinatory voices that threaten the patient or give commands, or auditory hallucinations without verbal form, such as whistling, humming, or laughing;
Hallucinations of smell or taste, or of sexual or other bodily sensations; visual hallucinations may occur but are rarely predominant. Thought disorder may be obvious in acute states, but if so it does not prevent the typical delusions or hallucinations from being described clearly. Affect is usually less blunted than in other varieties of schizophrenia, but a minor degree of incongruity is common, as are mood disturbances such as irritability, sudden anger, fearfulness, and suspicion.

Merlin appears in the medieval tale Lailoken and Kentigern, which states: “…some say {Lailoken} was called Merlynum.” This name change leads us to the 9th Century Historia Brittonum of Nennius, which states that in the late 6th century, ‘Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.’ Nobody has ever established the further identity of Bluchbard, but the ‘Luch’ embedded in the name links it to the ‘Lok’ within Lailoken. Thus Lailoken the Bard easily becomes Luch the Bard, then Bluchbard. Perhaps, perhaps not, but there’s enough in there to believe it so.

Moving on from digressive conjecture, in the tale of Lailoken & Kentigern, Merlin is depicted as seeing visions & hearing voices, the classic symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. On one occasion a voice from heaven says; ‘because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan & you will have communion with the creatures of the wood.‘ We probably all have experienced a moment in public when a person of obvious insanity wanders around screaming wildly & talking to themselves. Lailoken and Kentigern reports the same thing of Merlin, who used to interrupt the services of his clergy by shouting out prophecies. It also has Merlin seeing bright visions of ‘martial battalions’ lighting up the sky shaking their lances ‘most fiercely’ at him, & then dragged off into the woods by an evil spirit. In another text, the Itinerarium Kambriae of Giraldus Cambrensis, he is said to have lost his mind just before the battle of Arferydd when he saw a monster in the sky.

On Thursday 11th September 2008 The Independent ran a fascinating story about the son of Patrick Cockburn, a foreign correspondent. His name was Henry, who told the paper; ‘do I have schizophrenia? My mother and father and the dreaded psychiatrist definitely believe I am schizophrenic. They have grounds for their belief, such as my being found naked and talking to trees in woods. Yet I think I just see the world differently from other people.’ Patrick added, ‘Jan and I soon became familiar with the distorted landscape of the strange world in which Henry was now living. The visions and voices, though the most dramatic part, were infrequent. He spoke vaguely of religious and mystical forces and was extremely ascetic, adopting a vegan diet and not wearing shoes or underpants.’

Henry certainly sounds like a modern day Merlin. When the mind is being bombarded by extra-sensory stimuli, there is only one true way to ‘let off the steam,’ & that was summed up nicely by Henry; ‘my main strength was art, and it was through art that I understood my world.‘ Among the all the arts poetry is perhaps the oldest, yet its beauty is that anyone can write a poem. The writing of them is seen by modern psychology as a therapeutic tool to aid schizophrenia. In the Journal of Poetry Therapy (June 2010), Noel Shafi writes; ‘a patient exhibited negative symptoms including social withdrawal. Under clinical observation she successfully wrote renkus describing her everyday life & seasonal feelings. After 13 months of renku therapy the therapist observed improved social functioning &decreased negative symptoms in the patient.’

This brings us neatly to the ‘therapeutic’ poetry of Merlin himself. While he was in the woods, fuelled by the typical poetic salve that is insanity, Merlin composed a number beautiful poems, of which 6 still survive. In them solid traces of schizophrenia can be found. They also show the skill of an accomplished bard, the first step on the ladder to becoming a Druid. Inbetween is the Ovates, the title given to a bard after twelve years of intense poetic training. On attaining this second rank, the bard will develop visionary powers, being able to see into the future & commune with long dead ancestors. It must have been a total nightmare experience for Merlin once he lost control of his visionary mind. He was not the bearded wise-man of Arthurian mythology, but a man in need of series help.

Throughout his poetry we can detect the possible reason behind Merlin’s madness, the catalyst that sent him over the edge. It begins with the tradition of Gwendydd being his twin sister, which is given in the aptly titled, ‘The Dialogue Between Myrddin and His Sister Gwenddydd’ from the Red Book of Hergest.

Myrddin
Since the action at Arderydd and Erydon
Gwendydd, and all that happened to me,
Dull of understanding I am–
Where shall I go for delight?

Gwenddydd
I will speak to my twin brother Myrddin,
wiseman and diviner,
Since he is used to making disclosures
When a girl goes to him.

The tone of the first stanza is sullen & reflective, as is the following stanza from the Black Book of Carmarthen;

Sweet appletree that grows in the glade!
Their vehemence will conceal it from the lords of Rydderch,
Trodden it is around its base, and men are about it.
Terrible to them were heroic forms.
Gwendydd loves me not, greets me not;
I am hated by the firmest minister of Rydderch;
I have ruined his son and his daughter.
Death takes all away, why does he not visit me?
For after Gwenddoleu no princes honour me;
I am not soothed with diversion, I am not visited by the fair;
Yet in the battle of Ardderyd golden was my torques,
Though I am now despised by her who is of the colour of swans.

So here we have Merlin talking to the tree & his sister ‘loves him not!’ The emptiness of the last few lines portray a soul in dejected reclusion. His lord Gwenddoleu is dead & his mind is full memories of when he was wearing the ‘golden torques.’ The pathos of the piece gives us an excellent insight into Merlin’s mind at the time of his madness. He is obviously suicidal, a thread which the Dialogue poem expands on;

Myrddin
Great affliction has fallen upon me,
And I am sick of life–

I feel heavy affliction.
Dead is Morgenau, dead is Mordav,
Dead is Moryen, I wish to die!

Could Merlin, by surrounding himself with nature & solitude, be seeking reaffirmation with a forgiving god in the woods. Not wanting to disturb him too much, I think we should leave Merlin in the soft, safe confines of his Caledonian Woods. We find him talking to a little piglet & bidding him hide from the ‘dogs of Rhydderch,’– who were out to get them both – that classic delusion persecution, where conspiracies are found at every turn.

Listen, O little pig! happy little pig,
Do not go rooting on top of the mountain.
But stay here, secluded in the wood.
Hidden from the dogs of Rhydderch the Faithful.
I will prophecy–it will be truth!

There has always been a certain sense of the insane about the poet. John Clare spent years in an asylum churning out new cantos of Don Juan. TS Elliot composed his seminal Wasteland while undergoing psychological treatment at a clinic in Switzerland, while William Blake was blatantly as mad as a hatter. Of Baudelair, Jeremy Reed, in his Madness- the Price of Poetry (1989) wrote; ‘Baudelair was a prey to neurosis, his life is the record of an individual seeking to interpret incipient madness through the refinement of an aesthetic sensibility.’ So, I guess Merlin & his madness are in pretty esteemed company, & I suppose you do have to be a bit mad to be a poet in the first place!

POEMS BY MERLIN

The first three are found in the thirteenth-century Black Book of Carmarthen, with the others appearing in manuscripts from later centuries.

Yr afallennau – The Apple Trees
Yr Oianau – The Greetings
Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin – The Dialogue between Merlin & Taleisin
Cyfoesi myrddin a gwenddydd ei chwaer – The Dialogue between Merlin & his Sister
Gwasgargerdd fyrddin yn y bedd – The diffused song of Myrddin in his grave
Peirian Faban – Commanding Youth

November13th, 2019

Jericho Brown’s ‘The Tradition’

The poetry of Jericho Brown is like a magnet. It always pulls you in. His third collection is firmly upholding the tradition.
I love Copper Canyon’s books; soft & gentle pages carress’d by a lip-gloss cover lending a certain bubble-bath quality to the reading of one of their poets. But ultimately it is what is on the page that counts. First things first, Jericho Brown is a poet, a real, poet, he has the elixir in his veins. He also possesses a curious voice, like a multi-sharded cylinder standing steadfast in a storm. That storm is America, its culture & its questionable past.

His first two volumes were received with high praise & deep respect across the English-speaking world, the second of which, New Testament (2014) won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. The Tradition is eagerly awaited, then, & does not disappoint. In places it even exceeds expectations; the lyrical jaundice of Flower, the killer jibes of truth within Bullet Points & numerous moments of the highest pathos & beauty, as in the closing couplet of The Microscopes;

A region I imagine you imagine when you see
A white women walking with a speck like me

The chief pillars of Jericho’s creative temple are his colour, his family & his sexuality. His mother, grandmother, brother & kids all have cameos & something important to contribute to both the poet’s life & our understanding of the world. These very personal takes are full of raw remembrance temper’d by a supreme sense of post-Millennium reality.

……………………………….They remind
Me of black people who see the movie
About slaves and exit saying how they would
Have fought to whip Legree with his own whip
And walked away from the plantation,
Their eyes raised to the sun, without going blind.

On a number of occasions I was very much reminded of a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, Negro Hero; the pitch & balance of the wordplay are almost identical – is he her spiritual inheritor, perhaps? Jericho’s art presents the Apollonian & the Dionysical extremes of poetic composition; from technical stanza formation full of control’d & order’d musings, to solid blocks of Wolfean streams of consciousness. The latter sort are often triggered by the smallest things, such as the two copulating rabbits on his lawn, providing the catalyst for an introspective journey into the failings of his own love life. Then, with his title poem, Jericho proves he can turn not just a good sonnet, but an absolutely bangin’ one.

Also a sonnet of sorts are his five Duplex poems, seven couplets where the second line is the same as the first line in the following couplet. From innovation comes mastery, and Jericho is growing into his role as both a teacher in his tactile environment, & a clear-cadenced, beautiful poet-teacher for the planet. Indeed, his academic background – studying at Harvard, teaching at Emery – seems to be a fertile field for inspiring such embedded nuances as his use of Homeric simile in the opening to As a Human Being;

There is the happiness you have
And the happiness you deserve.
They sit apart from each other
The way you and your mother
Sat on opposite ends of the sofa
After an ambulance came to take
Your father away.

Jericho Brown is a philosopher-poet, stood on a crag overlooking the humanity of America, striking the rocks, drawing lightning into his penstaff & tossing electrical ejecta onto his page. The Tradition delights on first reading & invites further study. Each poem contains a different beam of inspiration wassailing from Jericho’s kaleidoscopic soul, altho’ the colors aren’t garish, its too moody a piece for that. This is an extremely intelligent collection, filled with both unpretentious flair & flashes of Faustian confidence. Roll on Brown’s 4th book.

March 7th, 2019

Lee Ann Roripaugh’s ‘Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50’

I thoroughly enjoy a themed collection of poetry, the Vishnu Upanishads, Ted Hughes’ Crow, even John Maserfield’s Salt-Water Poems & Ballads; so went into the reading of Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 with an appreciative bias. There is a certain nuance to the form which I enjoy when done well – it is not easy to make a themed collection hold a reader’s attention, for oftentimes a poet will get lost in the cul-de-sac housing schemes of their inspirations. However, ‘Tsunami’ actually transcends the form, a thought-splintered foray into the plosive destruction & pitiless aftermath of the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake & tsunami, which led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

pulverized cities flung back
to water like sprinkled furikake

her radio-waved wake
an awful flower blossoming

Roripaugh tells the story through a personified tsunami, its effect on nature, & the human fall-out of tragic events both water-slaughtery & wrought by the radioactive chaos after Fukushima. As a poet, her wordplay is practically phenomenal, combining mimesi in startling combinations, like a talented skald getting drunk in a European court, coining exciting new kennings from the play-stuff of their exotic surrounds. In her opening poem, for example, we see the ‘annihilatrix’ ‘Mechatsunami’ described as ‘shellacked wings unclung / from stacticky black elytra.‘ I mean that is just a stunning couplet.

I’ve seen many terrible things:
cages filled with withered songbirds,
horses left to starve in their stalls,
an abandoned puppy that grew
too big for the chain around its neck

As the collection unfolds we are treated to a delicate diaspora of delights; lovely lists explore subjects like the Goblin Market of Rossetti; a soul captivated by nature paints what it sees with a vivid serenity; the terrible aspects of human loss rip thro’ our mentalities with a single spin of a shuriken-phrase. The following passage is a perfect example of Rosipaugh’s ability to weave the epic waste of life & liberty into her visionary free verse;

at first, I concentrated very hard
on trying to see my feet, to know
if I was a ghost or not, but when
sneakers filled with foot bones
began to surface in the Pacific,
I stopped thinking these thoughts

My favourite poem in the collection was ‘Hulk Smash’ a cinematic & pathosean dirge thro’ a father’s pathetic quest to find his missing daughter in ‘a toxic garbage dump’ where he searched for her ‘every month / in the five-hour increments / allowed by radiation guidelines.‘ In the age of Netflix, this is what modern poetry should really be doing, making us all mind movies, & Roripaugh activates the mental mechanisms sublimely. When the collection is knitted together, the overall effect is rather like the Lusiads of Luís Vaz de Camões, an epyllionic journey full of constant stimuli, where at one point we may lament ‘the gwa gwa gaw of frogs / stopped from invisible ponds‘ & at another hear a young lassie called Hisako declare;

it’s not like I ever asked
to come here and live
in this drafty prefab box
of corrugated metal
with my silent old granny

By the end of the book, I felt I had just been the weightless passenger on Roripaugh’s precious back as she free-soloed one of the minor slopes of Parnassus. Will she attempt one of the trickier faces? I do hope so, because her talent is unique. I cannot think of a poet since that of the anonymous composer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s ‘Brunanburh’ entry for 937 that has been able to condense so much of the aforementioned kenning quality into their lines. Roripaugh is also a master of moods, whose multiple shades spiral with voluminous variety as the story & stories are told. This is a book of high innovation on a level that you’re not quite sure where, but you know its happening – an excellent, excellent piece.

May 5th, 2019

Desert Poets of the 51st Highland Division

On the 75th anniversary of the death of John Jarmain, let us celebrate the immortal voices of two of our most cerebally gritty War Poets;

O send me great opponents! Day by day
The precious hours like vacant windows passed,
The petty vision & the soft delay.
These bring defeat & rust the sword we bear,
Diminish each bright purpose, till at last
All’s wasted, & the heart’s too dull to care.

John Jarmain

On the 26th of this month it shall be seventy-five years exactly since the death of Major John Jarmain, killed-in-action in Normandy during the Allied reconquista of France. The major was a poet, & his death took place at Ste Honorine in Chardonnerette, a commune celebrated before the war as the most beautiful in the Calvados. His second-in-command at the time, John Paul Kaestlin, described the shared loss of one of English poetry’s succinctly sublime stars, at the tender age of 33.

I was awakened at 5 in the morning by his batman in a state of obvious agitation. The major had been hurt; he thought seriously. They had left together at 4 o’clock in his jeep. All was perfectly quiet as they drove over the crest & down the long incline to Honorine; but, as luck would have it, on arrival at the village they found the tanks still moving out into position. The noise had attracted the Hun & a mortar concentration had come over as they reached & were held up at the cross-roads. Jarmain, walking, had dived for a slit-trench by the roadside. He never got there. I got down to Honorine as fast as I could make it. By now, however, it was fully light, & I had to walk most of the way. When I got there he had been dead for some time, & there had evidently been no hope. A piece of shrapnel had entered the base of the skull & he had died, while being evacuated, without regaining consciousness.

Jarmain was buried in the 6th Airborne Cemetery at Ranville. He has been remembered since as a leader, a hero & also a poet of the purest calibre. He left the world a desperately slender collection, among which stand poems that should rank alongside those of Owen & Sassoon among those memorials from the front-line that present an unmisted eyeglass into what it was like to actually fight in those terrible two World Wars of the early 20th Century. For the Great War Poets, especially after 1917, war poetry was all about recording the awful bloodshed & senseless loss of life; when death flew over a battlefield in a thousand & one ways to ravage & maim- the sonic boom of a shrapnel shell was one, turning insides to jelly just before they are pierced by hundred slices of jagged iron hurtling through them at 7000 miles an hour. Asphyxiation is another, gripped by the throat by the fierce hands of an enemy soldier whose bullets had all been spent, & whose bayonet had snapped. By Jarmain’s poetry, the blood and guts had been replaced by a pathos even more effective at touching the reader’s spirit.

Men prove their purpose, in the dangerous hour,
Their brief excelling brilliance is disclosed:
When threatened most the soul puts forth its flower

John Jarmain

Jarmain’s poetry flourished in the North African desert, distilling his experiences in the gaps between battle to the light of a doover’s candle. These magical lines were then sent back to England in numbered airmail letters to his wife. He served in the Eighth Army, with the 51st Highland Division, in whose ranks was a Scottish intelligence officer called Hamish Henderson. Jarmain would have attended Henderson’s lectures & briefings, but what they talked about together is unknown to us. We possess no Edward Trelawney here, jotting down the conversations of Byron & Shelley in Pisa, but what we do know is that Jarmain & Henderson are two supremely talented poets, whose works concerning the Desert War are priceless gems in the treasury of English poetry.

In John Jarmain’s work, the mud of the Somme is replaced by desert landscape. Jarmain becomes a connoisseur of sand as he studies its shapes and shifting colours under different climatic conditions
Professor Tim Kendall

Poetically, one can really feel the Italian influence in the anima of Jarmain – he had visited the country many times & spoke near fluent Italian. He also produced one novel in his brief lifetime, Priddy Barrows, published by Collins in the year of his death. If novels are an oblique window into an author’s mind, then the following passage could tell us all we need to know about Jarmain’s personality.

I don’t think he could explain himself, in fact I’m sure he couldn’t. I don’t believe he knows himself why he does as he does. But I’m perfectly sure that once he’s said he’ll do a thing he’ll do it, & no one on earth will stop him. He’s queer.

The best way to appreciate Jarmain is through James Crowden’s 2012 book, Flowers in the Minefields, which places a delicious biograph alongside the poems, with the whole being perfectly embellished by photographs, commentaries & contemporaneous biographical material. The overall experience of the book is like finding the body of a dead soldier blown apart by a land-mine, & putting the pieces back together in the most human – well Frankenstinian – way possible.

Among Jarmain’s poetical offerings, twelve poems in particular stand out as a momentous record of the soldier’s experience. Henderson is different, he survived the war & lived a long life, but it is in his war poetry that his best writings lie. There are two streams flowing from Henderson’s craft; his ballads were on the lips of every soldiers’ singing, especially one composed for the Christmas celebrations in Cairo, 1942, a skit on the ruling house of Egypt & the corrupt British colonial administration that supported it. Sung to the national anthem of Egypt, the Allied soldiers picked it up with fervent enthusiasm, & despite the phraseology appearing wildly ridiculous (&unprintable) to we 21st centuryites, it retains for erudite posterity the vernacular of the time, of how the soldiers communicated with words. Another ballad was the indignantly brilliant ‘Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers,’ composed in response to a condescending remark by Lady Astor about troops on the Mediterranean front. In an insane speech, she had suggested that those soldiers who were bogged down by the mountain fighting in Italy were in some way avoiding the invasion of Normandy.

We’re the D-Day Dodgers, out in Italy –
Always on the vino, always on the spree.
8th Army scroungers and their tanks
We live in Rome – among the yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy…

Naple and Cassino were taken in our stride,
We didn’t go to fight there – we went there for the ride.
Anzio and Sango were just names
We only went there to look for dames –
The artful D Day-Dodgers, way out in Italy

Henderson’s ‘Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica,’ begun fragmentedly in Autumn 1942 & published in 1947, was his tribute to the war in North Africa. Composed in gluts within such recollective moments as when pole-axed by dysentery, the Eelgies are full of compassion for the victimisation of ordinary soldiers, constantly bubbling with an unvisceral, yet emotional truth. When the Elegies are lain beside Jarmain’s poetry, the comblended whole forms a concise reflection of what it was truly like to fight in the desert, a colourful diaspora of experiences to colour in the gaps on those grainy black & white cinereels from the 1940s. By cherry-picking the best of these – sometimes in passages, sometimes whole poems – & laying them by Jarmain’s sublime dozen, we may create the most valuable of poetical testaments to war, composed by the last of those to experience men murdering men on an industrial scale.

I’ve walked this brazen clanging path
In flesh’s brittle arrogance
To chance the simple hazard, death,
Regretting only this, my rash
Ambitious wish in verse to write
A true & valued testament.

Hamish Henderson

Among Henderson’s Elegies, his 7th, Seven Good Germans discusses the backgrounds of enemy soldiers, those ‘seven poor bastards,‘ buried in the desert. The title bounces with deepest irony off the shadowy barrack-proverb, ‘the only good German is a dead one,‘ & Henderson yanks the humanity out of the indifferences of slaughter with such awesome poetry as;

The third had been a farm-hand in the March of Silesia
& had come to the desert as fresh fodder for machine guns
His dates are inscribed on the files, & on the cross-piece

Henderson had found it hard to get this particular poem published in the stuffy literary environs of the ‘Cairo Cage’ & the Salamander Oasis magazine. ‘My Elegy for the German Dead,’ he wrote in a letter to John Spiers, Spring 1943, ‘has been turned down by the Cairo censor – so I hear – from the editors of Orientations, because such morbid writings have a depressing effect on troops! What a laugh. However, it may be more expedient in every way to publish it after the war.’ That Henderson was kept out of the magazines shows how much his work really matters – for the truth suppressed is the greatest truth of all. Of his refusal to bend to the literary conventions of the day, Henderson scribbled a cutting paragraph is his personal copy of Orientations for May 1942.

When I gave them poetry that was neither Audenry nor Spenderish but coarse, sensual, numinous & song-like, acknowledging as influences Lorca, Heine, Clare, Dunbar & Burns & drawing much vigour from my association with Scots & Irish working class people, they squealed & scooted

Towards the end of the summer of 1942, General Bernard Montgomery arrived in North Africa to take command of the Eighth Army. Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox,’ had been running rampant all over the desert, but would be finally stopped in late October by the British & Commonwealth troops in a furious, world-hinging battle named after an obscure train station 40 miles from Cairo – El Alamein. The 51st Highland Division fought in the battle, & it is in the terrifying white heat of its slaughter that the English poet Jarmain & the Scottish makar Henderson became, one would say, true poets of war.

There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.
Hamish Henderson

Jarmain was certainly ready to compose war poetry, for he had gone to school in Shrewsbury Owenlike Wilfred twenty years before him. A deep part of Jarmain’s spirit was aware of both his ability & sensibility to match that genius-bard of the Great War. Time, it seemed, had randomly chosen the period of his poetry’s burgeoning in which to enact a new great slaughter. Time had called him to be a witness poet, whose moral responsibility to speak for the dead would transpose into words, with articulate beauty, the brutality & discordance of war. He – & Hamish Henderson of course – now had a dual duty; to fight for the country & to sing for its dead!

I have read the poems with real interest & mounting admiration
Professor Jon Stallworthy

“If I must die, forget these hands of mine / That touched your body into tiny flames,” were two staggeringly authentic lines composed by Jarmain to his second wife, Beryl, in early 1939. In them we have this poet’s encapsulation – he would wear the tradition (Brooke’s ‘If I should die, think only this of me’) of the art, while carving his own beauties in the rock.

Let us now look focus on one moment in the historiography of the two poets; at certain poems, passages of poems & the odd bit of prose which tell a small sliver of the story of that famous battle at Alamein, fought in furnace heat, which prevented the Nazi flag being draped over the pyramids.

INTERLUDE

Opening of an Offensive

(a) the waiting

Armour has foregathered, snuffling
through tourbillions of fine dust.
The crews don’t speak much. They’ve had
last brew-up before battle. The tawny
deadland lies in silence
not yet smashed by salvoes.
No sound reaches us
from the African constellations.
The low ridge is too quiet.
But no fear we’re sleeping,
no need to remind us
that the nervous fingers of the searchlights
are nearly meeting & time is flickering
& this I think in a few minutes
while the whole power crouches for the spring.
X-20 in thirty seconds. Then begin

(b) the barrage

Henderson describes the intense bombardment of the German lines which marked the opening of the battle, an epic moment in which minute details would embed themselves into his receptive psyche. For Henderson, the sight of two searchlights crossing in the skies at the start of the battle evoked the saltire of Saint Andrew, & gave the 51st an almost hallowed role in the battle. Henderson would actually be wounded, leaping into a slit trench to avoid a stuka attack, a momentary dashing which damaged ligaments & vertebrae to plague him through the rest of his life. Another Scottish poet was also wounded at Alamein, Sorley Maclean, blown 30 feet through the air by a landmine going off in his vicinity. He was wounded in the leg and broke several bones in his feet, but would survive to become one of Scotland’s greatest 20th century poets.

Whatever his desire of mishap,
his innocence or malignity,
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.

Sorley MacLean

A bombadier during the battle, F.E. Hughes, submitted the following piece to a title called ‘Poems from the Desert,’ a World War II anthology of Eighth Army poems of which Monty introduced as compsed, ‘at the very time that the Desert Army was wholly engaged in hitting Rommel & all his forces “Right out of Africa for Six.”

There’s a Devil in the dawn –
Horrific spawn of last night’s hideous moon,
That hung above the gun’s inferno
And smiled on men who died too soon.

There’s a Devil in the dawn –
See him fawn on those who served him well,
Who, blinded, deafened, breathed the cordite reek,
Fed the ravening guns, and swore that it was hell.

The Devil will demand his pay
In blood to-day; but those who pass in sunlight will
not see the Moon
Serenely light a desert hell for men who live
And smile on those who die too soon.

The next brief masterpiece of a poem, ‘At a War Grave,’ was composed by Jarmain towards the very end of the battle, after visiting the grave of his good friend Ebenezer Ell, slain by an 88 shell.

No grave is rich, the dust that herein lies
Beneath this white cross mixing with the sand
Was vital once, with skill of eye and hand
And speed of brain. These will not re-arise
These riches, nor will they be replaced;
They are lost and nothing now, and here is left
Only a worthless corpse of sense bereft,
Symbol of death, and sacrifice and waste.

An even greater friend of Ebenezer Lee was Harry Garrett, a sergeant in the 51st Highland Division, who experienced the horror of seeing Ebenezer blown to bits beside during the battle. This near-miss was one of many which earned him the nickname, ‘Lucky Harry,’ among whose charming, grounded verses we may read;

I knew that death is but a door.
I knew what we were fighting for:
Peace for the kids, our brothers freed,
A kinder world, a cleaner breed.

I’m but the son my mother bore,
A simple man, and nothing more.
But – God of strength and gentleness,
Be pleased to make me nothing less.

Help me, O God, when Death is near
To mock the haggard face of fear,
That when I fall – if fall I must –
My soul may triumph in the Dust.

From the general wastings of life through war, the emotional explosions of Jarmain & Henderson have flown from the desert into eternity. Among them stands Jarmain’s rightfully widely-anthologized poem, El Alamein. It was composed 5 months after the events described, during a different battle, the mauling at Mareth in Tunisia. In an essay contained in Crowden’s book, by a battery captian called Joe Dean, we can see the poem being composed.

I remember an evening during the battle of Mareth when by the light of his parrafin lamp he was struggling with a poem on the battle of Alamein

One expects that the shock of Alamein had subsided, leaving fresh memories encrusting in his creative storehouses. It would only take the sounds of battle to shake them from their beds.

El Alamein

There are flowers now, they say, at Alamein;
Yes, flowers in the minefields now.
So those that come to view that vacant scene,
Where death remains and agony has been
Will find the lilies grow –
Flowers, and nothing that we know.

So they rang the bells for us and Alamein,
Bells which we could not hear:
And to those that heard the bells what could it mean,
That name of loss and pride, El Alamein?
– Not the murk and harm of war,
But their hope, their own warm prayer.

It will become a staid historic name,
That crazy sea of sand!
Like Troy or Agincourt its single fame
Will be the garland for our brow, our claim,
On us a fleck of glory to the end:
And there our dead will keep their holy ground.

But this is not the place that we recall,
The crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks,
The one blotched building, lacking half a wall,
The grey-faced men, sand powdered over all;
The tanks, the guns, the trucks,
The black, dark-smoking wrecks.

So be it: none but us has known that land:
El Alamein will still be only ours
And those ten days of chaos in the sand.
Others will come who cannot understand,
Will halt beside the rusty minefield wires
And find there – flowers.

I shall leave this essay with one final poem, which blew anonymously into a slit trench at El Afhelia during a heavy bombardment. It was only a couple of weeks after El Alamein, the Desert Fox & his Afrika Korps were still visciously snarling like a freshly wounded lion. It appeared as the closing piece in the ‘Poems from the Desert’ anthology.

A Soldier—His Prayer

Stay with me, God. The night is dark,
The night is cold: my little spark
Of courage dies. The night is long;
Be with me God, and make me strong.

I love a game; I love a fight.
I hate the dark; I love the light.
I love my child; I love my wife.
I am no coward. I love Life,

Life with its change of mood and shade.
I want to live. I’m not afraid,
But me and mine are hard to part;
Oh, unknown God, lift up my heart.

You stilled the waters at Dunkirk
And saved Your servants. All Your work
Is wonderful, dear God. You strode
Before us down that dreadful road.

We were alone, and hope had fled;
We loved our country and our dead.
And could not shame them; so we stayed
The course and were not much afraid.

Dear God that nightmare road! And then
That sea! We got there—we were men.
My eyes were blind, my feet were torn,
My soul sang like a bird at dawn.

I knew that death is but a door.
I knew what we were fighting for:
Peace for the kids, our brothers freed,
A kinder world, a cleaner breed.

I’m but the son my mother bore,
A simple man, and nothing more.
But—God of strength and gentleness,
Be pleased to make me nothing less.

Help me, O God, when Death is near
to mock the haggard face of fear,
That when I fall—if fall I must—
My soul may triumph in the Dust.

John Jarmaine & Hamish Henderson are two blooms of the same plant, a sweet-smelling desert asphodel whose wafting fragrance touches the souls of all who near it. Away from the sands, Henderson lived a long & fruitful life, reinigorating the Scottish folk music tradition & embellishing his nation’s striving for independence with his poetical insight. Jarmaine was not so lucky, but it in his posthomous life that still speaks to us all. In 2013, a cache of 150 letters written by Jarmain to Beryl hwas discovered in a family bureau. In them we see the originals of his poems, & also his voice as a man, who described his situation in the desert as being one with, “everything liberally sprinkled and intermixed with sand. Can you picture it all?” These letters can only serve to give the future a much wider insight to the one that we have to hand. James Crowden’s book is an excellent start, but I am sure as the decades & centuries flow by, that every word written by Jarmain’s hand will take on some form of quasi-religious status as we look back on one of the last true poets of the ‘archaic’ human dispensity for mass, murderous warfare.

June 15th 2019

The Poetry of Muhammad Ali

ali-liston_ce2b2d2917366a74628a579e283ad146.fit-760w
Clay standing over the defeated Sonny Liston

The warrior poet is one of the more remarkable figures in history. In the English-speaking world, their zenith came with the horrors of World War One, when Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen & others veered away from patronising the soldier’s noble death with high-blown lyricism, & got down to expositing the true danger & desperation of combat. Fifty years later the world encountered a different kind of warrior poet, the boxer called Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali who like a high-ranked bardic-trained Gaulish druid passed judgement on the age of Civil Rights.

I am America.
I am the part you won’t recognize.
But get used to me:
Black, confident, cocky.
My name, not yours.
My religion, not yours.
My goals, my own.
Get used to me.
Muhammad Ali


download.jpg

LAST NIGHT I HAD A DREAM

Last night I had a dream, When I got to Africa,
I had one hell of a rumble.
I had to beat Tarzan’s behind first,
For claiming to be King of the Jungle.
For this fight, I’ve wrestled with alligators,
I’ve tussled with a whale.
I done handcuffed lightning
And throw thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad.
just last week, I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone, Hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
I’m so fast, man,
I can run through a hurricane and don’t get wet.
When George Foreman meets me,
He’ll pay his debt.
I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree.
Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.
Written by Muhammad Ali | Create an image from this poem
There live a great man named Joe
There live a great man named Joe
who was belittled by a loudmouth foe.
While his rival would taunt and tease
Joe silently bore the stings.
And then fought like gladiator in the ring.


CLAY COMES OUT TO MEET LISTON

Clay comes out to meet Liston
and Liston starts to retreat,
if Liston goes back an inch farther
he’ll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with his left,
Clay swings with his right,
Look at young Cassius
carry the fight
Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room,
It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.
Now Clay lands with a right,
What a beautiful swing,
and the punch raises the Bear
clean out of the ring.
Liston is still rising and the ref wears a frown,
For he can’t start counting
till Sonny goes down.
Now Liston is disappearing from view,
The crowd is going frantic,
But radar stations have picked him up,
Somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought
when they came to the fight?
That they’d witness the launching
of a human satellite.
Yes the crowd did not dream,
when they put up the money,
That they would see
a total eclipse of the Sonny.


The boy could fight too – sheer poetry in the ring, but he actually created a great deal of interesting, funny verse. Inspired by the barber-shop banter he heard in his youth, & driven through a supra-arrogant ‘I’m the greatest’ persona based upon a wrestler called Gorgeous George, the world became hooked on every word the young Cassius said – & he knew it, touching an entire planet thro’ his simple lyricism enabled by his global persona. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”


ALI V JOE FRAZIER

Ding! Ali comes out to meet Frazier
But Frazier starts to retreat
If Frazier goes back any further
He’ll wind up in a ringside seat

Ali swings to the left
Ali swings to the right
Look at the kid
Carry the fight

Frazier keeps backing
But there’s not enough room
It’s a matter of time
Then Ali lowers the boom

Now Ali lands to the right
What a beautiful swing!
And deposits Frazier
Clean out of the ring

Frazier’s still rising
But the referee wears a frown
For he can’t start counting
Till Frazier comes down

Now Frazier disappears from view
The crowd is getting frantic
But our radar stations have picked him up
He’s somewhere over the Atlantic

Who would have thought that
When they came to the fight
That they would have witnessed
The launching of a coloured satellite!


After becoming involved with the controversial ‘Nation of Islam’ group in the 60s, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, which will stick unto eternity. His legacy is being forgotten by the millennial generation, unfortunately, as is his poetry. But there is a clear case that for while he was at the peak of his powers, more people heard, were touched by, & recited back his poetry than other individual on the planet before or since. Maybe not a better poet than Shakespeare, but definitely, during his hey-days, bigger!


ON THE ATTICA PRISON RIOTS OF 1971

He said breedom – Better Now

Better far— from all I see—
To die fighting to be free
What more fitting end could be?

Better surely than in some bed
Where in broken health I’m led
Lingering until I’m dead

Better than with prayers and pleas
Or in the clutch of some disease
Wasting slowly by degrees

Better than a heart attack
or some dose of drug I lack
Let me die by being Black

Better far that I should go
Standing here against the foe
Is the sweeter death to know

Better than the bloody stain
On some highway where I’m lain
Torn by flying glass and pane

Better calling death to come
Than to die another dumb
Muted victim in the slum

Better than of this prison rot
If there’s any choice I’ve got
Kill me here on the spot

Better far my fight to wage
Now while my blood boils with rage
Lest it cool with ancient age

Better vowing for us to die
Than to Uncle Tom and try
Making peace just to live a lie

Better now that I say my sooth
I’m gonna die demanding truth
While I’m still akin to youth

Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn.

This poem was recited on air while in Ireland & depicts a hostage protest for better conditions which led to 29 prisoners being shot by soldiers. After reading the poem, Muhammad Ali related the struggle of the Afro-Americans for freedom and justice to the struggle of the Irish against British imperialism


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THE LEGEND OF MUHAMMAD ALI

This is the legend of Muhammad Ali,
The greatest fighter that ever will be.
He talks a great deal and brags, indeed.
Of a powerful punch and blinding speed.
Ali fights great, he’s got speed and endurance.
If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right;
If he hits you once, you’re asleep for the night
To make America the greatest is my goal
To make America the greatest is my goal,
So I beat the Russians, and I beat the Pole,
and for the USA won the medal of gold.
Italians said: “You’re Greater than the Cassius of old´´.
We like your name, we like your game,
So make Rome your home if you will.
I said I appreciate your kind hospitality,
But the USA is my country still,
‘Cause they’re waiting to welcome me in Louisville.


In the following interview, the controversial 1975 one with Playboy Magazine, Ali talks about his poetry & his newfound love of ‘sayings’

PLAYBOY:
Since a lot of people are wondering about this, level with us. Do you write all the poetry you pass off as your own?

ALI:
Sure I do. Hey, man, I’m so good I got offered a professorship at Oxford. I write late at night, after the phones stop ringin’ and it’s quiet and nobody’s around—all great writers do better at night. I take at least one nap during the day, and then I get up at two in the morning and do my thing. You know, I’m a worldly man who likes people and action and I always like cities, but now when I find myself in a city, I can’t wait to get back to my training camp. Neon signs, traffic, noise and people—all that can get you crazy. It’s funny, because I was supposed to be torturing myself by building a training camp out in the middle of no where in northern Pennsylvania, but this is good livin’—fresh air, well water, quiet and country views. I thought I wouldn’t like it at all but that at least I’d work a lot instead of being in the city, where maybe I wouldn’t train hard enough. Well, now I like it better than being in any city. This is a real good setting for writin’ poetry and I write all the time, even when I’m in training. In fact, I wrote one up here that’s better than any poem in the world.

PLAYBOY:
How do you know that?

ALI:
My poem explains truth, so what could be better? That’s the name of it, too,

Truth:
The face of Truth is open, the eyes
of Truth are bright
The lips of Truth are ever closed,
the head of Truth is upright
The breast of Truth stands forward,
the gaze of Truth is straight
Truth has neither fear nor doubt,
Truth has patience to wait.
The words of Truth are touching,
the voice of Truth is deep
The law of Truth is simple: All you
sow, you reap.
The soul of Truth is flaming, the
heart of Truth is warm
The mind of Truth is clear and
firm through rain and storm.
Facts are only its shadow, Truth
stands above all sin.
Great be the battle of life—Truth
in the end shall win.
The image of Truth is the Honorable
Elijah Muhammad, wisdom’s message is his rod
The sign of Truth is the crescent
and the soul of Truth is God.
Life of Truth is eternal
Immortal is its past
Power of Truth shall endure
Truth shall hold to the last.
It’s a masterpiece, if I say so myself.

But poems aren’t the only thing I’ve been writing. I’ve also been setting my mind to sayings. You want to hear some?

PLAYBOY:
Do we have a choice?

ALI:
You listen up and maybe I’ll make you as famous as I made Howard Cosell. “Wars on nations are fought to change maps, but wars on poverty are fought to map change.” Good, huh? “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” These are words of wisdom, so pay attention, Mr. Playboy. “The man who has no imagination stands on the earth he has no wings, he cannot fly.” Catch this: “When we are right, no one remembers, but when we are wrong, no one forgets. Watergate!” I really like the next one: “Where is man’s wealth? His wealth is in his knowledge. If his wealth was in the bank and not in his knowledge, then he don’t possess it—because it’s in the bank!” You got all that?

PLAYBOY:
Got it, Muhammad.

ALI:
Well, there’s more. “The warden of a prison is in a worse condition than the prisoner himself. While the body of the prisoner is in captivity, the mind of the warden is in prison!” Words of wisdom by Muhammad Ali. This is about beauty: “It is those who have touched the inner beauty that appreciate beauty in all its forms.” I’m even going to explain that to you. Some people will look at a sister and say, “She sure is ugly.” Another man will see the same sister and say, “That’s the most beautiful woman I ever did see.” How do you like this one: “Love is a net where hearts are caught like fish”?

PLAYBOY:
Isn’t that a little corny?

ALI:
I knew you wasn’t smart as soon as I laid eyes on you. But I know you’re gonna like this one, which is called Riding on My Horse of Hope: “Holding in my hands the reins of courage, dressed in the armor of patience, the helmet of endurance on my head, I started on my journey to the land of love.” Whew! Muhammad Ali sure goes deeper than boxing.


Ali ‘the poet’ must also go down on record as the author of the shortest poem in the language. According to  Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, the shortest poem in the English language was Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes by Strickland Gillilan, which went, ‘Adam / Had’em.’ Ali beat this hands down with his sexy & supercilious, ‘Me / We.’ Yes, Muhammad Ali, you truly were the greatest.


 

1-11-2019

Love, Wine & Nature in the Ever-Living China

With the Coronavirus kicking in the global lock-down, its time for everyone to reflect & maybe look at projects that have been lying gathering dust for a while. In my case its the compilation of the very best of a certain William Dolby’s translations of ancient Chinese poetry. A brilliant, extremely prolofic man, Dolby has unfortunately passed away, leaving his son as the custodian of his works. Last year I contacted said son, Ieuan, who very kindly sent me a few books – about 8 in total.

I am now in the process of diving into those 8 books & digging out the nuggets, all of which I am collating under the umbrella term, LOVE, WINE & NATURE IN THE EVER-LIVING CHINA. The idea is to provide a poetic hotline to a most wonderful time of humanity – millennia before the technocracies in which we dwell. I hope the readers of Mumble Words will delight as much as I have in Dolby’s genius – I will be changing the word of two here & there, & scribble out stanzas as well, leading to a final result which I believe will benefit the world a great deal.

The first selection of poems are being made from the ‘SHI-CHING,‘ (tr. songs-lyric-warp/weave), China’s earliest poetry anthology. It was compiled c.500 BC in the age of Confucious, who many scholars believe composed new music for the songs. Drawn from all the regions of ancient China, the oldest material goes back to the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) & are a mixture of court songs, war songs, & of course romantic numbers. The names under the titles, by the way, are the region from where the song was drawn.


CURLY EARS
Chou South

Cull & cull the Curly Ears – cerastium,
Don’t fill my lopsided shallow-fronted basket;
Sighing for the one I’m yearning for in my breast,
I put it aside, leave it on the Chou Road.

I go up into the rock-strewn hills,
Till my horses are ill with exhaustion;
For a while I pour wine from the rhinoceros-horn jar,
To stop myself from grieving on & on.

I go up onto the rocky earth-hill summit,
Till my horses are sick with the effort;
My charioteer is poorly now,
&, oh, how I’m sighing now.


GATHERING THE WHITE DAISIES
Shao South

Where is she going to gather the fecund white daisy?
She’s going to the pools & the islets;
Where is she going to employ them?
In the sacrificial services of her lord.

Where is she going to gather the fecund white daisy?
She’s going in among the mountain brooks’
Where is she going to employ them?
In the palace of her lord.

She has an abundance of hair-jewels,
In the pre-dawn she’s with her lord;
She has such a luxuriance of hair-jewels,
As she turns back & goes home.


THE WIND
Pei

There’s wind, & its violent, moreover,
When you look around at me, you smile,
Your jokes are wild & your laughter scorching,
& deep in my heart I lament over that!

There’s wind & its flying dusrt filling the air, moreover,
Its a favour when you agree to come to me!
If you don’t come & go with me,
I long for you endlessly.

There’s wind, & its overcast, moreover,
No sun, & overcast.
When I go to bed, I stay awake, don’t sleep,
Longing for you, I keep on sneezing.

The cloud-covered skies are dark overcast,
The thunder rumbles loud.


LIFE-GIVING EASTERN BREEZE
Pei

The life-giving eastern breeze gently shushes,
Bringing overcast skies & rain;
I strove to be your soul-mate,
You shouldn’t have got angry with me.
When you pick radishes & turnips,
Don’t you include their roots!
If you hadn’t gone against the love between us,
I’d have died together with you at the same time as you die.

I travel the road slowly tarrying,
Deep inside my heart unwilling;
Not a long way, indeed a short onw,
You only saw me off to the threshold of your door!
Who says that the sow-thistle is bitter!
Its as sweet as shepherd’s purse;
You rejoice in your new bride,
As if she were your elder or younger brother!

Alas you didn’t have affection for me,
But on the contrary treated me as an enemy;
Since you warded off my goodwill,
What I was selling wouldn’t sell.
In the old days, I lived in nervousness & at the end of my resources
When you tumbl’d into calamity;
When we’d survived that & flourish’d,
You liken’d me to poison.

I had some fine dried vegetables in store,
Which, to be sure, were to guard against the winter,
You rejoice in your new bride,
& used me to gaurd against hard times.
You were rough, you were wildly enraged,
& you had me hard toil;
You didn’t recall the old days,
When you & I were in love!


I BEG YOU, SIR SECOND SON (Cheng)

I beg you, Sir Second Son, oh,
Don’t jump over into our village,
Don’t snap the wolf-berry shrubs we’ve planted;
How would I dare to grudge them! –
But it’s out of awed respect for my father & mother!
You’re worth my yearning, Sir Second Son,
But my father & mother’s words
Are also deserving of respect.

I beg you, Sir Second Son, oh,
Don’t jump over our wall,
Don’t snap the mulberry-trees we’ve planted;
How would I dare to grudge them! –
But it’s out of awed respect for my elder brothers!
You’re worth my yearning, Sir Second Son,
But my elder brothers’ words
Are also deserving of respect.

I beg you, Sir Second Son, oh,
Don’t jump over into our village,
Don’t snap the sandalwood-trees we’ve planted;
How would I dare to grudge them! –
But I’m afraid of people’s talking a lot!
You’re worth my yearning, Sir Second Son,
But people’s talking a lot
Are also deserving of respect.


SHU’S OUT HUNTING (Cheng)

Shu’s out hunting,
& in our lane there’s no man left
No, of course there are some men left,
Just that none of them’s up to Shu,
So truly handsome & gentle.

Shu’s out chasing with the hounds,
& in our lane there’s no man drinking wine.
No, of course there are some men drinking wine!
Just that none of them’s up to Shu,
So truly handsome & good.

Shu’s gone off into the wild countryside,
& in our lane there’s no man breaking-in horses.
No, of course there are some men breaking-in horses,
Just that none of them’s up to Shu,
So truly handsome & warrior-like.


PUPPY-WILY LAD (Cheng)

Yon puppy-wily lad,
Won’t talk with me.
All your fault I can’t tough my food

Yon puppy-wily lad,
Won’t sup with me.
All your fault, I can’t sleep a wink.


LIFTING HER SKIRTS (Cheng)

If you’ll yearn for me with kindly love,
I’ll lift my skirts & wade even the River Chen to you.
And if you won’t love me,
Do you think there’s none other will –
Oh silliest of fickle lads!

If you’ll yearn for me with kindly love,
I’ll lift my skirts & wade even the River Wei to you.
And if you won’t love me,
Do you think there’s no other gentleman will –
Oh silliest of fickle lads!


WOMAN SAYS, “COCKS ARE CROWING” (Cheng)

Knight says, “It’s still only pre-dawn gloaming.”;
“Get up & look at the knight”, she says,
“The Morning Star, Venus, is still somewhat freshly shining,” he says
“They’re about to flap their wings, about to glide the air,
Shoot the ducks & wild-geese with line-attached arrow!” she says.

“If you shoot & hit them with line-attached arrow,” she says,
“I’ll prepare them nicely for you,
& when I’ve prepar’d them nicely, we’ll drink some wine.
I’ll be with you through old age, the two of us together,
a dulcimer & zither being played together,
Everything without exception will be tranquil & fine.”


GOING OUT THROUGH THE EAST GATE (Cheng)

Going out through the East Gate,
Saw there were girls as many as the clouds;
But even though there were as many as the clouds,
They weren’t what my longings were dwelling on.
Plain white-silk dress & pale grey maiden’s head-cloth, –
She’ll make me merry for the while.

Going out through the city-gate terrace watch-tower of the curved city-wall,
Saw there were girls as many as the bulrush flowers;
But even though there were as many as the bulrush flowers,
They weren’t what my longings were dwelling on.
Plain white-silk dress & madder-dyed maiden’s cloth, –
I can divert myself with her for the while.


HUNTING DOGS
Ch’i

His hunting dogs’ bells jingle
He himself is handsome & moreover gentle

His hunting dogs have double rings,
He himself is handsome & moreover has good-looking hair;

His hunting dogs have big doubke chains,
He himself is handsome & moreover strong in ability


RIVER FEN STAGNATED INTO MARSH
Wei

Where yon River Fen has stagnated into swamp
Oh, I pick the flaxen plant
That young gentleman there is immearsurably handsome
Immeasurably handsome
Quite different from the minister’s bastard-sons in charge of the duke’s carriages

In one area by yon River Fen,
Oh, I pick the mulberry-leaves.
That young gentleman there is as handsome as amethyst
He’s as handsome as amethyst
Quite different from the men in charge of the duke’s war chariots


DAWN BREEZE FALCON
Ch’in

Swift-flying is yon Dawn Breeze Falcon
& luxuriant is yon North Forest;
I haven’t met my young lord, my beau
And my troubl’d heart frets unable to forget him
What can I do? What can I do?
You’re truly so very forgetful of me.

On the mountain there are lush-bushy ioaks
In the damp hollow there are mottl’d camphor trees,
I haven’t yet met my young lord, my beau,
& my troubl’d heart is joyless.
What can I do? What can I do?
You’re truly so very forgetful of me.

On the mountain there are lush-bushy Prunus-Japanica trees
In the damp hollow there are sui-trees
I haven’t yet met my young lord, my beau,
& my troubl’d heart is as if drunk
What can I do? What can I do?
You’re truly so very forgetful of me.


WHITE ELMS AT THE EAST GATE
Ch’en

White elms at the East Gate
Oaks upon hill-on-hill Hill
The young gentlemen of the Tzu-chung clan,
Whirl around in dance at the foot of the helm

They’re choosing a fine morning;
On the plain of the southern region;
They’re not twisting their hemp thread,
They’re whirling in dance in the market-place

They’re going off on a fine morning,
Ah, they stride along together;
“We regard you as high-mallow flowers,”
They give us gifts of a fistful of pepper-plants


WILLOW BY THE EAST GATE
Ch’en

The willow by the east gate
Its leaves are so sleek & lush
We fixed the date for dusk
But now the dawn star, Venus, is dazzling shimmering

The willow by the east gate
Its leaves are sio luxuriant
We fixed a date for dusk
But now the dawn star, Venus, is sparkling splendid


SLOPING SIDE OF THE MARSH EMBANKMENT
Ch’en

By the sloping side of that marsh’s embankment
There are cattails & lotus-plants;
There’s a certain handsome man,
In my grief what can I do about him?
Waking or sleeping abed, I can’t do anything about it,
My sobs & snivel pour down like heavy rain

By the sloping side of that marsh’s embankment
There are cattails & fragrant thoroughworts;
There’s a certain handsome man,
Mighty big & moreover lissome fair