Monday 22 December 2014

Chaucer, the remix: Telling Tales by Patience Agbabi

How many poets get a review/interview in the News Shopper, the long-standing free newspaper known and read from Greenwich to Gravesend?  "I studied some of Chaucer at school and it blew me on to another planet”, says Patience Agbabi.  (Declaration: I know her a little.)    

Telling Tales, an act of homage, celebration and reinvention, contains a version of every Canterbury Tale –    

Chaucer Tales, track by track, here’s the remix

says landlord Harry Bailey in the Prologue (see here).  April, month of the pilgrims’ setting-out and so beautifully described in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales, here becomes his muse, with a hint of “cruellest month”:

how she pierces my heart to the fond root
till I bleed sweet cherry blossoms en route
to our bliss trip; there’s days she goes off me,
April loves me not, April loves me

Anapaests (expertly varied) + rhyming couplets: the Prologue’s speed, energy, skill, wit and wordplay set the scene for what’s to come.  Then there’s the tales’ content, from gangland murder and child abuse to door-to-door salesmen, drugs and all kinds of sex.  Lust, true love, hate, jealousy, greed, cowardice, regret, repentance, deceitfulness, doubt, more lust…  Not much different from Chaucer. 

The linking device for the tales is still a pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral, but it’s by Routemaster bus down the Old Kent Road and out via Dartford, Gravesend etc, and all the passengers are poet-performers.  There are local references in the text, for example in the Parson’s Tale, Chaucer’s extended sermon on penance and the seven deadly sins, here compressed into a rollicking story – ‘The Gospel Truth’ told by Rap, The Son aka ‘The Parson’.  The speaker tells us:

   So it flows – Seven Sins was my crew, you can ask them,
   use to be ‘The Pimp’ but now I’m ‘The Parson’.
   Parental advisory, listen to the lesson,
   this be no sermon, this be my confession …

Two roads diverged from the A2 –
one went to Heaven, the other Hey, you!
Fancy some fun, brotha, won’t you park n ride?
I paid a heavy price an I puckered up to PRIDE.
Her lips were wide, painted to a botox smile
and her scent more expensive than the square mile,

We learn about each of the performers not in the Prologue but in their send-up poetry-magazine style biographies, at the back of the book – from ex-bouncer to Oxbridge graduate, from dark cabaret performer to personal trainer (who “resides in Kent and writes a poem a day”) and Nigerian child bride (who tells the Wife of Bafa’s tale).

It’s not just the poets who are on show.  This book’s a display of the diversity of English poetry in forms both old and modern.  There are plenty of iambic rhyming couplets and some rime royal, both appropriate for Chaucer, but also a sestina, syllabics, a specular poem, those anapaests, a poem made up of 100-character texts, and various permutations of rhythm and rhyme.  As Harry Bailey puts it in what could be an Agbabi manifesto:

I got ink in my veins more than Caxton
and it flows hand to mouth, here’s a mouthfeast,
verbal feats from the streets of the South-East
but my April, she blooms every shire’s end,
fit or vint, rich or skint, she inspires them
from the grime to the clean-cut iambic,
rime royale, rant or rap, get your slam kick.   

The forms aren’t just for their own sake but work with the content.  The Man of Law’s Tale is told in a sonnet crown, in the voice of the possessive mother.  She’s lonely in old age, “There’s dust on the computer screen. God knows, / I’m fast forgetting how to switch it on”, meditating aloud to a home help, telling the story of how her deceit and jealousy of her daughter-in-law drove her son far away. 

She wasn’t bonny, always overdressed,
I’d never understand her when she spoke.
Not that I’m prejudiced, some of my best
friends are foreign.

The burbling Cook’s Tale, unfinished by Chaucer, becomes ‘Roving Mic’, a load of entertaining, rhyme-led nonsense:

Here’s what I’m spitting
out of my kitchen
hot and hard-hitting
none of it written.
Rhymes rough and raw
weeping like a sore
bruised and ruptured
rude, interrupted,

The long debate and doubts of the Tale of Melibee (here stemming from a Gravesend shooting) are reflected in a specular poem… having tried and so far failed to write one of these I know how hard it is, and this one is in rhyming couplets.  How did Agbabi do it?

Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale retells many tales in one, all about the mighty who are fallen (until the other pilgrims get fed up) and Agbabi reproduces its flattening effect in 100-character texts:

he wz no tragic hero hitN glasses W d
bosses til hs tragic flaw or f8 md him
free-fall frm a hi plce

The Franklin’s Tale is in rime royal, which suits its intensity and seriousness.  It’s relocated to Edinburgh – read it for the lovely lyrical passages and to find out what impossible vanishing trick Dorigen/Deirdre asks Aurelius/Arild to perform.  In the last verse, broken-hearted Arild decides

to reinvent himself again, a makar:
to make a poem; hone it, room by room,
stanza by stanza; form, on one blank acre
from bricks and mortar, breath and metre, home;
to mount the spiral staircase of his poem,
take a battered volume off the shelf,
open a random page, and read himself…

The most enjoyable thing of all for me about Telling Tales is its relationship with Chaucer’s work.  I read and enjoyed the book very much on its own, then some months later went back to read (or skim, I admit, in a few cases) the Canterbury Tales, re-reading each Telling Tales version afterwards.  Seeing how Agbabi had decided to treat each one and what essence she’d extracted from each story enhanced the experience (and, dare I say it, the Chaucer tales too). 

This also gave me the key to some tales whose retelling had puzzled me: several are compressed and/or somewhat cryptic.  I’d forgotten the Reeve’s Tale, a riotous mixture of theft and sexual shenanigans.  The two Cambridge students (male, of course) and their horse are replaced by two lesbians with a drug-sniffing dog.  The nasty miller is a dealer called Psycho, who lets the dog off its chain so he can substitute meadow grass for the dog-rated “top notch” grass.  The dog’s the speaker:

                                 I’m off, Bad Dog
seeks Dirty Bitch for fun blind date
but don’t let cat out of the bag
to dykes. I’ve not come out as straight…

I was baffled by the Squire’s Tale, ‘Fine Lines’, until I went back to Chaucer for the weird brass horse with the pin in its ear, “so horsly, and so quyk of ye”.

Fire Horse
   wild steed I rode bareback
held your hair for reins as you bolted like a stud
   each strange steel stud
      on your right ear gleaming in the true-black

All Agbabi’s poems work in their own right, but knowledge of the original adds more to some.  That doesn’t apply to ‘I Go Back to May 1967’, the painful Clerk’s Tale about Griselda’s trials – set in Lagos, an effortless, uncannily accurate echo of Sharon Olds’ famous poem about her parents and the harm they will do.  It starts, heart-sinkingly for anyone who knows the Olds poem, “I see them standing outside their family compounds”. 

Chaucer took his stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron and many other sources.  The Riverside Chaucer comments tale by tale on origins.  Agbabi is retelling both Chaucer and today’s tales.  On the day I read her interview on the News Shopper’s website, the headlines in the links could have been straight out of Telling Tales, or inspired a parallel version:

*Police 'told pupil having affair with Bexleyheath Academy teacher year before action taken'
*Is this Britain's worst family? Deptford killer's drunk sister smashes car into bus
*Lewisham floods as River Ravensbourne burst its banks
*Bromley Council Leader "cannot ignore a gentleman with a £500 million cheque"

Sheer enjoyability in poetry has been rewarded this year, with Kei Miller’s and Liz Berry’s wins at the Forward Prizes – both so well deserved, but why hasn’t Agbabi’s inventive, delightful, highly accomplished and also deeply literary book received as much attention? 

Telling Tales would be such fun to read and laugh over, with reference to Chaucer, plenty of wine and ideally round a fire, over the holiday.  I hope it gets read in schools with the Canterbury Tales – a perfect way to get teenagers interested in late medieval life, high and (mostly) low… and in contemporary poetry. 

Telling Tales is published by Canongate.  (Is that one reason the book’s had less attention in the poetry world? Because it’s come out from a mainstream publisher that doesn’t have a poetry list?) 

Sunday 30 November 2014

How to make the Greenwich traffic problem worse. John Clare’s November

It was a fine day on the South Downs yesterday, the opposite of November, one of those days which could be early spring.  Misty air shone above the hills’ green humps, and on one side of our faces the sun was almost warm.  Even there it wasn’t possible to escape traffic – the roar of an A road floated up from the valley.  

Here in South East London, traffic sound is constant: on summer nights with window open, the Blackwall Tunnel (under the Thames) road half a mile away sounds busy at 3am.  During the day it is often congested as are the main east/west roads, Trafalgar Road parallel with the river and the A2 further south.  

The air’s polluted: up to 2.5 times the EU limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the worst spots – which are mostly in the poorer areas.  From the GLA’s website: “At high concentrations, NO2 causes inflammation of the airways.  Long-term exposure can affect lung function and respiratory symptoms – it can also increase asthma symptoms.”

But all this may soon get worse.  Here are two reasons why, one a large-scale project, one local.  

The powers that be, including the GLA itself and TfL plus Greenwich and Newham Councils, want to build a new Thames tunnel – a sort of relief road for the Blackwall Tunnel.  It would be called the Silverton Tunnel.  Haven’t they learned that more roads lead to more cars?  How about spending the £750m they say this would cost on public transport instead, reducing congestion and pollution and allowing necessary vehicles a clearer road? 

There’s a well-organised campaign with an excellent website: No to Silvertown Tunnel.  It provides arguments, advice on taking part in the TfL consultation (which runs until 19 December) and NO2 data, see above for the results.  

Blackwall jam. From No to Silvertown website
Another traffic-breeding threat is smaller scale, more local and immediate. IKEA has outline planning consent for a large store on the site of the Sainsburys in Greenwich Peninsula and the eco-park behind it. 

In some inner urban areas IKEA have had to plan car-free stores, but not here.  Greenwich Council rolled over.  IKEA claim that the store will reduce traffic: but who’s going to take flat-pack furniture home on the bus (or more likely three buses)?  A lack of parking spaces and nearness to… guess what… the Blackwall Tunnel will also add to congestion.  
Eco-park. From No IKEA website

IKEA would bury the eco-park plus a community orchard – rare green spaces and scarce, pollution-filtering trees.  It would replace Sainsburys’ pioneering eco-store with the usual box. 

There’s a glimmer of hope.  Local group No IKEA Greenwich has just been given legal advice by an experienced planning barrister that, contrary to what some councillors have been saying, the plans could still be changed. 

Demo: next Saturday afternoon 6 December, starting in the eco-park.  See No IKEA (another good campaign website) for details.

As an antidote to all that, here are the first three verses of ‘November’ from John Clare’s long poem ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’.  The rest is here. 

The landscape sleeps in mist from morn till noon;
And, if the sun looks through, 'tis with a face
Beamless and pale and round, as if the moon,
When done the journey of her nightly race,
Had found him sleeping, and supplied his place.
For days the shepherds in the fields may be,
Nor mark a patch of sky — blindfold they trace,
The plains, that seem without a bush or tree,
Whistling aloud by guess, to flocks they cannot see.

The timid hare seems half its fears to lose,
Crouching and sleeping 'neath its grassy lair,
And scarcely startles, tho' the shepherd goes
Close by its home, and dogs are barking there;
The wild colt only turns around to stare
At passer by, then knaps his hide again;
And moody crows beside the road, forbear
To fly, tho' pelted by the passing swain;
Thus day seems turn'd to night, and tries to wake in vain.

The owlet leaves her hiding-place at noon,
And flaps her grey wings in the doubling light;
The hoarse jay screams to see her out so soon,
And small birds chirp and startle with affright;
Much doth it scare the superstitious wight,
Who dreams of sorry luck, and sore dismay;
While cow-boys think the day a dream of night,
And oft grow fearful on their lonely way,
Fancying that ghosts may wake, and leave their graves by day.

Monday 17 November 2014

Aldeburgh: Rubble Flora, double nostalgia

After Aldeburgh, its tangle of events and impressions, the impossibility of going to everything, there are always threads to follow – and at least one obsession.  This year mine was the festival’s absent centre, [East] German poet Volker Braun who was unable to come, and in particular one poem of twelve end-stopped lines. ‘Property’ was written at and stands for a turning-point in history, after the fall of the Berlin Wall while Germany was moving towards reunification.  I’m going to type it out, for the pleasure of doing so.  I wouldn’t normally do that (copyright) but this poem, originally published widely in the German press in 1990, now appears to be the best sort of common property.  Hope someone will tell me if not.

Das Eigentum

Da bin ich noch: mein Land geht in den Westen.
Ich selber habe ihm den Tritt versetzt.
Es wirft sich weg und seine magre Zierde.
Dem Winter folgt der Sommer der Begierde.
Und ich kann bleiben wo der Pfeffer wächst.
Und unverständlich wird mein ganzer Text
Was ich niemals besaß wird mir entrissen.
Was ich nicht lebte, werd ich ewig missen.
Die Hoffnung lag im Weg wie eine Falle.
Mein Eigentum, jetzt habt ihrs auf der Kralle.
Wann sag ich wieder mein und meine alle. 

Here are the first few lines of Karen Leeder’s translation.  It captures the poem’s bitter stateliness. 

That’s me still here. My country’s going West.
I helped it out the door with all the rest.
What paltry charms it has it gives away.
After winter comes the summer of excess. 

The full translation is here.  And here is Braun himself, reading the poem.  The Aldeburgh Poetry Paper has an excellent piece by Leeder on Braun and the poem’s context.  As she points out, Braun did not want to prolong the “winter” of the GDR – “I helped it out the door”.  He wished for a third way between that and the excesses of the West, a democratic, independent country with socialist ideals.  A utopian spring perhaps.  “Property” means not only individual replacing collective ownership (including the theft that went on in former Warsaw Pact countries) but also a sense of identity and the very meaning and purpose of Braun’s own poetry – my whole text becomes incomprehensible, he says.  To succeed, poetry has to find and fill an empty space; a crucial role when political repression multiplies such spaces, but who needs it in times of excess? 

How many poems both say and stand for so much, in twelve lines?  More of Braun’s are here at Modern Poetry in Translation.

In a talk on bearing witness, which deserves a whole post to itself, Leeder said Braun had asked her to tone down her translations to the simplest language. 

Idea for next year, which I hadn’t thought of when I filled in the festival survey: if Volker Braun’s health still prevents him from coming (I’m assuming/hoping they’ll reinvite him), maybe the Poetry Trust could commission some recordings? 

There’s a new selected poems, Rubble Flora, out from Seagull Press, translated by Karen Leeder and David Constantine.  Unfortunately it’s only in English.  The best German volume to buy alongside it is Lustgarten, Preußen. I know that thanks to a downpour at Snape one night, which led to a brief conversation in an archway with Leeder and her fellow German specialist Ian Galbraith who stood in for Braun at the reading.

Galbraith also did a Close Reading of the poem Braun had chosen, ‘Tränen des Vaterlandes’ (Tears of the Fatherland) by Andreas Gryphius, who grew up during the Thirty Years’ War.  The poem is stuffed full of war horrors, including a river choked with corpses:

Dreimal sind schon sechs Jahr, als unser Ströme Flut
Von Leichen fast verstopft, sich langsam fort gedrungen.

Contemporary sources, said Galbraith, confirm that Gryphius was not exaggerating.
***   ***   ***

Kathleen Jamie gave a fabulously good reading – she has a clear, strong, confident voice to fill out and inhabit her spare and lyrical poems.  Some of these were from a new sequence reflecting the months up to the Scottish referendum. 

It was good to meet (just before the final bus) Dan O’Brien who read from last year’s Aldeburgh first collection prize winner, War Reporter.  Again, hearing the poet’s voice was a treat – how did he manage not to run out of breath reading these urgent, horrific and often long poems?  Of which there are two new ones in the new Rialto. 

Another reading that stood out: Karen McCarthy Woolf from her new book, An Aviary of Small Birds, very moving.  Other people really liked her talk on Poetry and Disobedience, which I missed – am hoping the Poetry Trust will podcast it and everything else on that festival theme which was hexed for me, I missed the lot.  For once, people said, the opening Saturday panel discussion lived up to its promise... and I was still in Aldeburgh, having a swim and eating porridge.  Festival blogger Anthony Wilson wrote about it here.

More readings: New Poets Chrissy Williams and Kayo Chingonyi, both strong readers and very brainy writers.  I especially like her surrealism and his syntax.  (I was told recently that ‘surreal’ is sometimes used as a put-down for female poets.  It is emphatically not that here.)  Helena Nelson, last-minute stand-in for storm-bound Jen Hadfield, filling the hall with her presence.  Togara Muzanenhamo (born in Zambia, lives in Zimbabwe) reading from his new collection Gumiguru, a calendar for the farming year.  When I met him in London recently he said that from his farm’s study he has a view of fields and cows.    

Thomas Lux did a Close Reading of Hart Crane’s ‘The Air Plant’, written in wonderfully irregular yet perfect iambic pentameter.  It could have been written to illustrate Lux’s quote from Emerson:

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,— a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.

(This works for Volker Braun’s ‘Property’, too.)  A few of Lux’s metrical readings were debatable… afterwards people were going around saying to each other, “he thinks ‘balloon’ is a trochee!

Lux read with panache to close the festival.  At the end, two huge bouquets of white flowers with legs appeared on stage, to thank outgoing festival director Naomi Jaffa for 22 years of her life.  Of course we gave her a long and standing ovation.  The legs turned out to belong to the other members of the Aldeburgh triumvirate, Michael Laskey and Dean Parkin.  Naomi welcomed her successor, Ellen McAteer, who has written about the weekend on her own website.       

There’s plenty I haven’t written about: Brazilian poet Adelia Prado, Karen Leeder’s talk on the poet in old age, South African poet Beverly Rycroft discussing poetry and illness with Anthony Wilson, the wit of another South African, Finuala Dowling, Hannah Silva’s Schlock! – I think someone else is going to write about Schlock!, will post a link if so.  Now, one more thing.

***   ***   ***
Friday afternoon, ten days ago.  Michael Laskey was ending his launch with the last and title poem from his new collection, Weighing the Present, (smith|doorstop) in the Peter Pears gallery, one of the old Aldeburgh venues.  It’s off the High Street up an iron outside staircase, which somehow makes it seem as provisional as the wooden fish shacks on the beach.  Naomi Jaffa had told the crowd that festival founder Michael wouldn’t take full festival honours, so no Main Reading slot. 

Nostalgic for the present moment as well as the past, his poems unwind themselves around something simple in daily life – going for a bike ride, digging potatoes.  Mostly the nostalgia is pure tone.  It surfaces in ‘Together’, which is set in bed:

even then, so close to her all
but inaudible sigh of wellbeing,
I miss her, I grieve for her, ache
for the small of her back I’m actually
making much of, stroking – better
pull yourself together, mgl.

Those who know Michael can hear him in the U-turn of that last line and a bit. 

Anyway, he was almost at the end of the last poem when the fire alarm went off.  Loudly, to startled but gentle laughter.  Perhaps someone set it off on purpose, so that he would have to read the poem again.  It’s one of several in which the dead appear in dreams.      

For an instant he was alive
or I had died, though I knew
neither could be true and pressed on

to the post office past my friend
with the present that needed weighing,
more or less knowing nothing
was impossible, even heaven.

The alarm was silenced, ‘Weighing the Present’ re-read.  Will Michael write a poem about this non-incident?   

Afterwards there was time for a quick walk along the Martello tower path, to watch a just-past-full moon rise over the sea: tarnished but very bright, part-hidden by black clouds blowing up in dramatic shapes, moonlight reflecting on thinner cloud below and on wind-ruffled waves.   

Gales and the moon, on and off all week – I stayed up there.  Only the weekend mornings were swimmable.  No fish at the fish shacks.  And now I’m feeling nostalgic for it all.  Double or triple nostalgia?  So many layers…