Sunday, 31 July 2022

The book of the mind

One of my favourite portions of The Blue Planet shows what life is like a kelp forest. The camera slowly descends into the ocean, and although most of the earth is water, the deep looks like an alien world. Gillian Clarke's poem "Insomnia" reminds me of everything I love about that shot in her description of falling soundly asleep. And then there is the delight of the language of wakefulness--imagine saying "I cannot let fall the book of my mind" rather than "my mind is racing, I can't sleep."


Afternoon sleeping is best. The fallen book;
sunlight on walls; green leaves
on white curtains are emblematic woods.
The stone-deep drop from consciousness
into cold darkness, till the rope jerks.
The fronded upper reaches are passed,
to a leafless, sunless, soundless dark.

At night I listen to clocks, could walk
the streets, too excited by night 
sounds for sleep, cannot let fall
the book of the mind.

~ Gillian Clark, Letter from a Far Country (Manchester, 2006)

Clarke's work is taught as part of GCSE and A Level examinations in the United Kingdom, and she has a wonderful website of her work, including recordings and text of many of her poems, which can be found here.

Sunday, 24 July 2022

The Wreckage of Empires

Stretching my definition of 'modern poems about late antiquity and the Middle Ages' here to include the poem 'Mutatis Mutandis' by Sean O'Brien, a magnificent response to the Aeneid. Virgil bookends the poem, with mention of the sorrowing queen waiting for news that never comes at the beginning, and the references to Troy and Carthage at the end. But the stories of the end of the world in the middle of the poem echo other Classical and late antique stories of the apocalypse, and the image of the stones of the world splitting apart reminds me of the tenth-century historian Adam of Bremen. 
With its short, sharp lines with their self-contained stories--new seas arise from the wreckage of empires, and settle, and still; this reads like a poem that could inspire an epic fantasy novel. I for one, would want to read a novel that began with the epigraph, The gods never speak of us. Wouldn't you?


The steersman is lost and the hole he has made
In the water has swallowed his cry and healed over.
The curious fishes must make what they can
From his bones, or the great whale may vomit him up
On the shore, at the feet of a queen who stands
Waiting and waiting through moon after moon
With no news and no rumours but only her sorrow
For company. Maritime cities are burned
To the waterline, plague passes north
Like an army of phantoms by night, and volcanoes
Roar out from Pole to equator, while the stones of the world
Break open and swallow each other, and darkness
Closes over the face of the water, and new seas arise
From the wreckage of empires, and settle, and still.

At the third stroke the time will be nothing at all,
The time of un-dreaming, when rivers and language
Are locked in the ice, when the eye and the ear have grown
Weary of seeing and hearing. The play and the music are over.
The desert gives way to the desert and heaven’s high quarrels
Have found a new venue. The gods never speak of us.
We must wake into this poisoned sleep and gather
Our rag-and-bone birthright about us and wait
Until somebody hears herself talking and says it again
And somebody beats on a drum with the bone of an auroch
And finds that the rhythm becomes an opinion
And then with the same bone sketches a line in the sand
As the blizzards melt back to the poles and a fire is lit
That all men will know of, and worship, or fear.

So many waves of desire, dynasties, fetishes,
Novel barbarians out of the inexhaustible East.
Inquisitors are always on their way, and at one time
All this was just fields, where the cemeteries grow
From the bones of the infantry, forests of marble
In which we may seek after wisdom, pursuing
The fugitive spirit of things as it slips through the silent
Ranks of those King Death conscripted for a host
The like of which has not been seen by men or gods –
And in whose vanguard, Goddess, you and I both ride
With fire and sword, because it must be so:
The ocean and the mountain and the fire at the core
Demand it. Why else do we lay siege once more to Troy
Or Carthage, or whatever this place will be called?

~ Sean O'Brien, The Beautiful Librarians (London, 2015)

Monday, 18 July 2022

#AHAReads 1: Theodora by Stella Duffy

My list of books to read for the #AHAReads summer reading challenge contains no novels. However, one of the items of the challenge checklist is:

Read a piece of historical fiction (novel, story, poem, play) set in the time or place you study.

Man plans, God laughs, and the first book I have finished is a work of historical fiction, Stella Duffy's Theodora. The novel is set in the sixth century; I study the sixth century. Tick!

Let me introduce it to you by means of the blurb:

Justinian took a wife: and the manner she was born and bred, and wedded to this man, tore up the Roman Empire by the very roots. ~ Procopius

Charming, charismatic, heroic - Theodora of Constantinople rose from nothing to become the most powerful woman in the history of Byzantine Rome. In Stella Duffy's breathtaking new novel, she comes to life again - a fascinating, controversial and seductive woman. Some called her a saint. Others were not so kind...

When her father is killed, the young Theodora is forced into near slavery to survive. But just as she learns to control her body as a dancer, and for the men who can afford her, so she is determined to shape a very different fate for herself. From the vibrant streets and erotic stage shows of sixth century Constantinople to the holy desert retreats of Alexandria, Theodora is an extraordinary imaginative achievement from one of our finest writers.
The beautiful cover of the British hardback

I have had Theodora checked out from the library since before Christmas, so it has been in my to-be-read pile for awhile. Now, my eyes are usually much bigger than my stomach when it comes to helping myself to books, so the fact that it sat around for so long before I began reading it is not immediately damning. And although I study the sixth century, I am not an expert on Byzantium, so I was free to read from a position of relative ignorance, without the attention to historical accuracy that I would bring to a period I know better.

Enough hedging: I found this an uneven and baffling but ultimately very readable book. As a character, Theodora is gripping and believable. My favourite part of the novel featured her as a child and teenager, where she reminded me of that alleged quote of Marilyn Monroe's, 'I wasn't the prettiest. I wasn't the most talented. I simply wanted it more than anyone else.' The young Theodora's determination and ambition make her a compelling character. Duffy herself is an actress and director, and the parts of the book that feel most alive are those in which Theodora is learning her trade as a performer, performing onstage, or reflecting on performances she has given.

The lengthy middle of the novel addresses Theodora's religious conversion and sets up an unconvincing narrative of a trans-regional east Mediterranean network of Monophysite espionage and the attempts of its members and leader to become the power behind the east Roman throne. I wanted so much to like this portion of the book. Historical fiction authors often don't take religion seriously, either pushing belief to the background or making their characters spirited freethinkers who challenge the hidebound conventions of their time. In an odd way, Duffy's depiction of sixth-century monastic life and the experience of religious conversion feels like the most historically accurate portion of the book: it is well-developed and given significant space in the story; it contains some of the book's best writing; it is grippingly physical in its descriptions of emotional experiences. But on a character level, I struggled to reconcile the ambitious, iron-willed performer we were introduced to in the first third of the book with the Monophysite operative she became in the middle third of the book. In other words, I had trouble understanding Theodora's motives for conversion while also being drawn in by Duffy's depiction of what a conversion experience was like.

The final third of the book, in which Theodora meets Justinian and they marry, was the least satisfying portion of the book. While reading, I often found myself wondering what someone who knows Procopius' Secret Histories very well would make of this book--from my partial knowledge, Duffy often seemed to be in dialogue with Procopius' stories, either to expand them or contradict them. This seemed particularly true of her portrait of Justinian, who comes across as a baffling cipher. What motivates this character? Why does he do what he does? Who knows--certainly not this reader, who found the plot twist of a celibate Justinian displaying astonishing sexual prowess particularly bewildering. Theodora's feelings towards Justinian, and relationship with him (bedding aside) are a bit more convincing and believable, though it felt like Duffy tried and failed to transcend Procopius' astonished horror at the marriage of an emperor and a former actress. Her explanation that Justinian's staff brought in Theodora as an expert on performance, her advice succeeded, cue a relationship of mutual respect, felt overly tidy. Procopius, in telling a better story, gets the last word on this one.

However, the book ends on a high note, with Theodora and Justinian's imperial coronation. After the disappointments of the previous two-thirds of the book, Duffy returns to her strengths, describing how Theodora approaches being empress as the most demanding and rewarding performance of her lifetime.

All in all, the history in this book worked better for me than the fiction. It has been well-received by other readers; try it yourself and see what you think!

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Once-candescent bones

Medieval saints are magnificently wild: often irascible, inflexible, severe, yet also inspiring in their relentless pursuit of transcendence. When I read 'The Self-Illuminated' by Don Paterson, I was sure the saint in the poem must be made up--but no, St Filian is a real early medieval saint, who was born in Ireland in the late seventh century and followed a call to missionary work and monasticism in Scotland. You can see pictures of his bell and his crozier on the National Museum of Scotland website. The story of his life can be found in the Aberdeen Breviary, a sixteenth century collection of lives of Scottish saints and liturgical texts that is one of the earliest books to have been printed in Scotland. You can read it on the National Library of Scotland website here or in a nineteenth-century facsimile here.

The phrase 'once-candescent bones' has lingered in my mind since I first read the poem a few weeks ago. What a lovely find--a new poem about the Middle Ages to add to my collection. Enjoy.

Fife Coastal Path, August 2018

The Self-Illuminated

i.m. Peter Porter
As your hand turns white upon the book
we'd biked across so you might see it done,
only you could--at a time like this--
put me in mind of that rum business
with St Fillan of Glen Dochart, whose brief entry
in the Breviarum Aberdonense
tells of the stone he spat when he was born,
and how, denied a candle in his cell,
he found his left arm light up from within
so he could read, till sleep turned out his skin.
His relics are five: the carved head of his crook;
his once-candescent bones; his flying bell;
and two long lost--one, perhaps his psalter,
the other a manuscript or a portable altar.

~ Don Paterson, 40 Sonnets (London, 2015)

Monday, 27 June 2022

The Destruction of Sennacherib

the sun rises in a golden sky over a large open body of water
"Sea of Galilee" by is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

~ Lord Byron (1788-1824), anthologized in Poetry by Heart

Sunday, 19 June 2022

No Such Thing as Too Many Books

As the t-shirt I used to wear all the time as a teenager said, 'so many books, so little time.' (I had another one which said 'there's no such thing as too many books.') What books have caught your eye these days?

Sunday, 12 June 2022

A Diptych on Affairs

One of my favourite types of posts I write on this blog are the diptychs and triptychs. In art, a diptych is a piece created on two panels--often a painting on wood, but sometimes a carving on ivory--joined together by a hinge. With the artwork inside, it opens and closes like a book. Triptychs are the same, but done in threes--they have a very large centre panel with two smaller wings, connecting to the centre panel by hinges and folding in to protect it. Both diptychs and triptychs are an important genre in medieval European religious painting, where they were used to tell stories of the Scriptures and the saints.

Originally, diptychs were a writing tablet made of two panels joined together, the standard notebook of the ancient Mediterranean. For my own purposes, I use diptych and triptych to refer to a pair or trio of poems which tell a story when read together. As homage to the diptych as a form of visual art, I like to use a photograph as a hinge between the poems. If I have taken, or can find, other photographs that continue the story, these serve as the outer panels.
Previous diptychs and triptychs have featured: hope, snow, snowdrops, love, the class of 2021, and negative people. Here is one on affairs.

A Note on Intellectuals

To the man-in-the-street, who, I'm sorry to say
    Is a keen observer of life,
The word Intellectual suggests straight away
    A man who's untrue to his wife.

~ W.H. Auden, reprinted in Essential Poems for the Way We Live Now, edited by Daisy Goodwin (London, 2003) 

Walking away
"Walking away" by Braiu is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

'I, being born a woman and distressed'

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body's weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity,--let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.
~ Edna St Vincent Millay, reprinted in Poetry by Heart ed. Andrew Motion (London, 2016)