Monday 7 May 2012

Canterbury Tales above the Thames

You have to walk the plank, over mudflats or river water seething with currents.  To the sound of halyards clanging, and background noise of conveyor belts at the aggregate factory.  Then - one night a year - you arrive at Greenwich’s stellar poetry destination, a building of glass, wood and steel, on wooden stilts over the river.  From outside, Greenwich Yacht Club has an extra-terrestrial, just landed look.  From inside, there are river views all round.  No sunset over the Thames on Friday night but a misty, damp riverscape, with acres of low-tide mud. 

The modernist/late-90’s architecture somehow blends with boat club paraphernalia such as trophies, photos, rosters and signing-in books.  Get a drink at the bar and you might notice No Mooring written on the sill, just below where you lean your elbows. 

There was standing room only in the large glass space on Friday.  People had come to hear each other, but most of all to hear Patience Agbabi read.  While she did I could hear the river, the room was so quiet. 

She read some of the literary problem page sonnets from Bloodshot Monochrome, bringing them alive; and ‘Chains’, a crown of sonnets from a residency at Chatham dockyard which can be downloaded here.  Watch for the great segue from the sixth poem to the last one. 
Patience reading, photo Liz Devereaux
And then, after the interval, when it had got dark, she read from her new project, a reworking of the Canterbury Tales.  Post-watershed as she put it: appropriate for the Miller’s Tale, a bawdy sex farce worthy of the original that got us laughing.  

She started with the Prologue, in the voice of the - rapping - Landlord (he’s the one who sets the Tales going).  Such speed, wit and rhyming, the rhymes increasing the speed, as if going round corners too fast, and the speed seeming to give birth to the rhymes and the wit.  Great puns too, some of them with a literary angle.  There were small gasps and chuckles from the audience, in between silence. 

My favourite was the last, the Franklin’s Tale, which Patience was reading for the first time.  It’s written in rime royale.  The love-and-magic story follows the original but is set in Christiania and Edinburgh.  What disappears is not rocks, but a castle.  There’s an epigraph, this quote from Thoreau:

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Here’s one-and-a-bit verses - torn out of the poem.  Deirdre, the heroine, has just said she’ll sleep with Arild if he can make the castle vanish (guess which castle):

not knowing at that instant Arild texts
The Artist in his hammock out in Freetown
who knows, this master artist-architect,
both how to build things up and pull things down;
how the right words, verb, adjective and noun,
in the right order, uttered in the air
can turn a limestone castle to thin air

for the small sum of a thousand euros           
which isn’t much when love feels more like death

On my table, there was a communal spellbound feeling while Patience was reading the Franklin’s Tale.  The poem draws its power from various places. I think these include its form; the way it responds to its own epigraph; the skeleton of the old story underneath; the two locations to which listeners or readers will add their own memories; and the tone that’s visionary, precise, deft, driven...  And the ending is wonderful.   How it was read mattered too: intensely, out of a kind of stillness. The tale is not quite finalised.  I hope it appears in a magazine with a lot of white page around the verses.  It seems to demand space, to allow the mind to roam alongside it.  

Patience Agbabi has been (re)writing the Tales for a couple of years.  It’s the perfect project: recreating/performing stories that were originally told aloud, the scope for dramatic monologues which she excels at, the literary history angle.  There’s some interesting discussion of the creative process on her blog.  She’s nearly finished.  Book publication date to be announced.  There had better be a lot of readings…

When we walked back down the gangplank, mudflats had given way to deep water and the clouds were clearing to reveal a nearly full moon, lovely, very bright, but no supermoon.  How did it get so much larger by the following night?  Are all those photos online real? 

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