Catstrawe

The poems in Catstrawe were predominantly written during 2015. On January 1st of that year, I commenced a year-long project. The challenge I set myself: to write at least one haiku a day. Each day I had to write 17 syllables before midnight. I soon found that the daily act of attention required to write one haiku often led to many more than 17 syllables being composed. I wrote tanka, or renga, or longer sequences composed of roughly three-line syllabic verse. The challenge forced me to catch the arresting, momentary combination of perception, image, and emotion at any time of day or night.

In the course of a year and in the course of this volume, I touched on many themes and preoccupations including: family and family histories, grandmother / mother / daughter / granddaughter connections, stimulation from travel, inspiration from one’s immediate home locale, terrorism, the migrant crisis, and running through it all, the experience of living with cancer.

Cancer with a little ‘c’ /Makes you aware of your mortality

That’s 17 syllables. But is it a haiku?

And is this a haiku?

yearling sheep shed their wool

Narcissus poeticus

white bubbles on green

You won’t find either of these 17-syllable poems in Catstrawe. It took a further two years of revising, editing, cutting out all but the most vital poetry to produce this collection. The making of poetry must always be, I believe, a combination of the original manuscript, — jotted, on the back of a till receipt or scrap of a napkin, scribbled on a notepad in the middle of the night, word-processed first thing on waking or last thing before sleeping — with the patient work of self-editing and imagining what the poem might signify to a reader other than oneself. So, I am deeply indebted to Jan Fortune, editor at Cinnamon Press, for assisting me in the act of letting go.catstrawe cover image

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In memoriam Harold Noel Dennis 06 April 1914 — 26 September 2005

 torquay-september-1960.jpg

Remember you used to make rugs. I say

as his fingers stray towards the dry itch of eczema.

Don’t scratch. Just rub. I say, then

take his fingers in my hand and gently file the nails.

It always calms him, so I leave one hand for later.

A month later his ashes scratch and dry my cupped hands.

 

I wrote this thirteen years ago. On the anniversary of his birth we opened a bottle of his favourite wine: Châteauneuf-du-Pape (2015). The previous week, I had walked around my childhood haunts, past the corner where once was an off-licence in an otherwise residential area. It was always our last ritual stop on the Saturday morning shopping expedition. He would carefully choose the one bottle of wine to be shared with June over the weekend. Their life was provincial, routine and comforting after the trauma they’d lived through. They spoke little about the past and even less about their experiences during the war: Bletchley Park for my mother, Africa, D-Day, Burma for my father. But, each time I sip that dark, spicy, brambly wine, I feel closer to them, appreciate the hardships they endured, and belatedly understand why they chose the life they did in the aftermath of World War 2.

The Princess of Vix

vix kore

 

 

 

I find it difficult to talk about my own poetry.  If I talk about the research I did and the academic sources I read before I could write it, it makes it sound scholarly.  If I talk about the very deep, personal and interpersonal feelings it expresses, it makes it sound confessional.  If I emphasize the facilitating function of the PENfro Poets workshop I was attending while I wrote this sequence, it makes it sound like just another set of poems generated by good prompts.  I suppose it’s all of these things; but for me it feels like a set of poems that could only be written after a lifetime of woman’s experiences.  I hope and I believe that these poems reach beyond the academic, the confessional and the current fashion of workshop production to stand as objective correlatives to the experiences of many daughters, mothers and grandmothers.  I’ll be interested to know what my readers think!

Here are the responses from two readers:

The past has never been less past than in these sensuous poems by Helen May Williams. The mysteries and rituals of two and a half millennia ago take on flesh and blood and move through her pages in a seamless marriage of the mythic and the all-too-real. Ecstatic, cruel, and deeply literate in human longings and frailties, these poems constitute a profound act of imagination.

Michael Hulse co-editor of the best-selling anthology The Twentieth Century in Poetry, and author of Empires and Holy Lands, The Secret History and, most recently, Half-Life.

In The Princess of Vix, Helen May Williams evokes a world in which blood, libation and the heady opiate of poppy-seeds lead the reader to the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient times. Based on the discovery of the Vix Burial in Burgundy, this is a rich and tightly-wrought sequence of poems. Chthonic deities intertwine with Celtic legend, myth with archaeology, in precise language that never loses its way. Steeped in ritual and ceremony, this intriguing little chapbook is also about the power of women.  We are reminded of the blood-vengeance of the Erinyes, of shamans, of the importance of the female role in pagan worship. Complex, fascinating and vividly descriptive, this is a tiny jewel of a collection, a chapbook to delight, inform, and make you think.

Kathy Miles. Author of The Shadow House and Gardening with Deer

Here is an extract from a recent interview, where I tried to introduced the poems for the first time.

Judith Barrow: Could you tell us a bit about your most recent book and why it is a must-read?

HMW: The Celtic Princess of Vix, whose burial chamber was discovered at Vix, a small village close to Châtillon-sur-Seine in Burgundy, was crippled due to injuries sustained in child-birth. This sequence dramatizes poetic identification with the female, Iron Age shaman, whose distorted, pained figure marked her out as different. I delve into the strong emotions associated with motherhood, evoking a series of feminine archetypes associated with Greek, Etruscan and Celtic culture. The Vix Princess officiates at an autumn ritual that synthesizes elements of Greek, Etruscan and Celtic culture. Her daughter, the Kore, is at the heart of the ceremony, which thus becomes a rite of passage. The third major figure in this drama is an Etruscan foot soldier, who has migrated to Vix, without having yet had experience of battle. And the fourth major figure is the Hecate or Hag; thus, completing the triple aspect of the Goddess and of women’s lives, from Virgin to mother to old woman, who has seen and experienced it all before and is now a spectator of the continuing, female drama. I would say it is a must read for anyone who wants to think about what it is to be a daughter, a mother, or a grandmother. And it’s not just for women; anyone who is fascinated by Greek and Celtic myth will find a new perspective on some fundamental myths here.

Judith Barrow: What was the inspiration behind The Princess of Vix?

HMW: Complex, varied and deeply personal.

Judith Barrow: How long did it take you to write The Princess of Vix?

HMW: I wrote the first draft of the sequence over an autumn and winter. Each time I completed one poem, the next one would start to emerge. The drama gradually unfolded for me, as it does for the reader.

The Princess of Vix is available for sale from Lulu: http://www.lulu.com/shop/helen-may-williams/the-princess-of-vix/paperback/product-23263439.html

Princess of Vix front cover

 

Cock Pheasant

His neck feathers

ruffle indigo   then

he tilts his head &

they flicker bottle-green.

 

His eye make-up

is cardinal-red

his beak is white

that pecks the whiter bread.

 

He clucks his thanks

stuffs his gullet

struts towards

his sole stippled mate.

 

Yesterday there were

two moiré hens.

Side by side they warily 

eyed his perplexed yen. 

 

Today we swerved

to avoid last night’s road-kill

marbled brown & ferrous red

a startled puzzlement,

 

then accelerated

past discarded

Kentucky Fried Chicken:

jointed, seasoned and charred.

18/03/2017 – 19/03/2017

We have a new resident in our garden this spring. We’ve named him Phil the Pheasant. He is very tame and very stupid, but quite gorgeous. He arrived with two shy hens, both with exquisite patterning on their feathers. Unfortunately, one hen became roadkill on a Friday night. We suspect the driver was the same one who threw unfinished KFC and its packaging out of his window onto the roadside.  

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Ignazio Silone. Bread and Wine. Tr. Eric Mosbacher. (With an afterword by Barry Menikoff.) New York: Signet Classics. 2005.

Writing in her diary in Paris  in  11 . 5 . 47, while she was working for E.C.I.T.O., my mother concluded her entry on Bread and Wine with these reflections.

‘His return to religion stripped of its furs & furbelows seems to indicate that he is becoming a Liberal — the poor unfortunate who wants to introduce a new way of living & not a new way of organising life.

Perhaps it is right that the only possible way to evolve a happy social system is the ‘happiness by product’ one again. Live honestly so that it helps others to do likewise & sooner or later the perfect democracy will spring from this good soil without plan or forethought but merely because it can’t help himself. — After all that is Ghandi’s power over India — the strength & altruism of his own personal life.’

My mother would have read the original unrevised version of the novel, first published in 1936 in a German language edition in Switzerland as Brot und Wein, and in an English translation in London later the same year, which the author himself critiqued and thoroughly revised later. This revised version can plausibly be described as a modern classic, despite its political even ‘agit-prop’ characteristics. It contains many of the qualities of classical tragedy, focussing on the interiority of a main protagonist and representative hero, striving to reconcile two aspects of his character: secular, revolutionary fervour and a spiritual/existential quest for significance and justice. Other main characters include Don Benedetto, the protagonist’s teacher and mentor, and the two women who reflect the two aspects of Don Paolo/Pietro Spina’s personality: Cristina and Bianchina. It is worth remarking that all these names have symbolic significance: the protagonist is both a St Paul and a Peter figure, Cristina portrays a Christ-like type who would prefer to renounce the world, and Bianchina is the more worldly character, who despite her demonstrable sexuality and sensuality chooses to leave personal gratification behind and work for the cause. Secondary characters include revolutionary comrades of Pietro and vignette sketches of other women and Italian peasants. So we are presented with something close to main actors and a chorus of characters, and yet each member of the ‘chorus’ is a detailed, differentiated vignette, depicting the variety of human figures in this political-realist drama. One could also say that the action is divided into five parts, according to the classical tragedy model: 1, Pietro’s initial covert return from exile to his birthplace, 2, his donning a priestly disguise and move into a safer hiding place up in the Abruzzi mountain village, 3, a brief interlude in Rome when he meets up with comrades, challenges the pressure to conform to Soviet dictat and encounters disaffected former party members, 4, his return to the mountain village, and the final denouement, when he flees further into the mountains to escape arrest. Through these five ‘acts,’ the argument of the novel centres on his own character development and struggles, but these only make complete sense because of the scenarios, debates and actions that take place around him. Like the author, the protagonist is full of revolutionary fervour but cannot vow obedience to a revolutionary international communist party that he perceives as transforming into a totalitarian state and transnational regime. Nor can he remain quiet confronted by the totalitarian nature of the Fascist government. No more can he espouse the Catholicism of his upbringing. Yet, his ‘spiritual’ journey towards reconciliation of opposites and his realisation that the individual man must continue to work out an existential ethics that serves common humanity rather than any institution, is comprised of the best of the two traditions he is unable to pay lip-service to: Marxism and Christianity. At times bleak, the novel is not without moments of redemption. The ‘saintly’ Cristina dies a martyr’s death in the final scene of the novel; this comments on the difficulties women faced in 1930s Italy, constrained by traditional family values and a Catholic church that has lost touch with the spirit of radical Christianity. In a comic interlude, the three daughters of the ex-socialist lawyer all give themselves sexually to the first three enlisted soldiers they can find, but other young female characters overcome both Church and family pressures and the temptation to selfish gratification to work in the cause of humanity whatever way they can. (The older women peasants are depicted as part of the problem of peasant ignorance, superstition and resignation.) The older male peasants depict various responses to their situation and lack of hope, from despair, drunkenness and violence, through to sly, undermining of authority. The younger male characters also represent a whole series of different responses to the socio-economic and political status quo, ranging from reckless egotism, pragmatic obedience to the totalitarian regime, undisciplined revolutionary fervour, naïve idealism, total despair. One issue that the novel highlights is that of a student party member acting as ‘double agent,’ becoming a police informer as a result of intense police pressure and extreme poverty. After Silone’s death it emerged that he had been a police informer, although many contemporaries refused to believe the verity of this report. While the novel can be accused of not fully developing all the characters, as my mother rather harshly did, my considered opinion is that in a relatively short novel, Silone implies a large canvas, as if the breadth of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky has been married to the symbolic intensity of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Despite the unresolved questions that now hang over the author, one can still accept the novel’s premise that ‘He is saved who overcomes his individual, family, class selfishness and frees himself of the idea of resignation to the existing evil.’ (257). this sentiment is expressed both through ‘showing’ in plot and action, and through ‘telling’ in the conversations that constitute an important part of the novel’s discourse. For example, having carefully written revolutionary graffiti all around the mountain village on the same day as the war in Abyssinia is declared, Don Paolo/Pietro Spina states: ‘The dictatorship is based on unanimity […] It’s sufficient for one person to say no and the spell is broken.’ (207).

My mother, trained in Modern History rather than English Literary Criticism, reads the novel more literally than I do. In particular, she focusses on the lack of positive outcomes for the young female characters. In doing this, she pinpoints a highly significant issue for herself and for her generation of young women, anxiously wondering what (if any) fulfilling and significant roles will be available for them post war. Her other main act of interpretation tells us much about her own political beliefs, already firmly embedded: rather than read Don Paolo /Pietro Spino as a representative modern, existential hero, she concludes that the novel’s ultimate message, and as she expresses it the author’s own intentional message, is that the only solution is Liberal individualism. Silone was not a Liberal. He was a founding member of the breakaway Communist Party of Italy in 1921. Because of his opposition to Stalin, he was expelled from the Communist Party of Italy during the 1930s while he was in exile. He returned to Italy in 1944, and in 1946 he was elected as an Italian Socialist Party deputy. However, my mother’s reading of the text is a plausible and valid one, given its emphasis on the significance of individual action; moreover, it reveals her deep-seated commitment both to liberal politics and to liberal humanism.

Dorothy Evelyn Smith. O, the Brave Music. New York: E. P. Dutton. 1951. (First published 1943)

Here is a diary entry from my mother’s Bletchley Diary for 13.10.43:

‘Retired to my parlour to finish ‘O, The Brave Music’ which I have thoroughly enjoyed. Dorothy Evelyn Smith, whoever she is, [can] certainly get over to me the mingling of nature & love relationships which is at its most potent when youth is appreciative. She writes well, her metaphors true, occasionally striking but it’s the identification of love with pace which made me feel her strength & appreciations 0f human feelings. I love to read about people who feel & have well-described their feelings & how they feel. Then I am glad for the things — however seemingly ridiculous — which make this child feel & become hopeful for reciprocation from some person or place.’

 

Dorothy Evelyn Smith appears to be a popular fiction writer of the mid-twentieth century, who has been neglected entirely by scholars. There are a few brief reviews on various bibliophile websites and blogs, otherwise precious little. And yet, O, the Brave Music reads like a classic, female Bildungsroman, capturing that all-important time between the ages of seven and fifteen; a time that Willa Cather famously stated is when a writer stores up the materials that will be transformed in adult fiction. While the novel might not bear too searching a comparison with the artistic achievement of My Antonia, it is a well-crafted work that somehow seems to capture the deep sympathy of many of its readers. Like many a nineteenth-century, female-authored heroine, Ruan is cast into the world early, having been ‘orphaned’ by the elopement of her mother and her subsequent death in a riding accident, and by her father’s decision to become a missionary in Africa. Her formation derives from the number of different worlds and contrasting characters that she encounters, and the ways in which she negotiates these, learning from them and developing as a consequence. Not only does she lose her father and mother, she also suffers the loss of a surrogate grandfather figure, Joshua, the grandmotherly Mrs Abbey, and her scholarly maternal uncle Alaric, who becomes her guardian upon her father ‘s decision to leave for Africa. Yet through it all the reluctantly nouvelle riche Rosie and her ward, David remain steadfast, as does the Yorkshire moorland in which they live. In the writing of this novel, one senses the influence of the Brontës and of Mrs Gaskell, and within the text the strong influence of English poetry, including Tennyson and Rudyard Kipling is acknowledged and used as a trope of continuity in change.

Time and place are inferred, not explicitly revealed, but through prolepsis the author indicates that The Great War will happen in the near future. Through prolepsis, we also learn that Ruan and David will eventually face the world together, hand in hand and side by side as they have always been. Yet, this novel doesn’t quite end in happily ever after wedding bells. It merely states that Ruan will find the strength of character to face the world, with David, when the time comes.

Several elements make this a Bildungsroman. Firstly, the repeated transitions between contrasting situations, scenarios and characters. Secondly, the constant search for an adequate mentor figure. Thirdly, the extent to which Ruan grows in understanding of the world, and in self-understanding as she develops into a mature and congruent personality, absorbing aspects from the good influences she encounters and learning to deal with the troublesome, immoral or salubrious to which she is exposed at a young age.

I can imagine that this novel might have appealed to my mother, given her own less than perfect upbringing, with its shocks and transitions and sometimes abrupt changes. Without the benefit of a degree in literary studies and prior to the feminist revision of literary history, she would not have been in a position to articulate fully why this novel is so appealing; but she must have responded to the descriptions of the cramped life of a non-conformist minister’s family, to their poverty and the various interdictions the sisters suffer. she would also have felt empathy for a heroine who loved books and for one who wasn’t a classic ‘beauty.’ She would most certainly have felt sympathy for a heroine who had to move between worlds at an early age, just as my mother had been moved from Stranraer to Crosby, from Scottish mixed state schooling to English single-sex direct grant school, then forcibly removed from it by her step-father to work in a department store, before being sent to step-relatives in Lausanne, only to be summoned home at the outbreak of world War 2, to return to Merchant Taylors’ School for Girls, doubly different from her peers, given her different life-experiences. Other similarities would be the fact that June saw her mother as pretty but uneducated and lacking in judgement. that she came from a poor background but at university found herself, through her friend Ann, moving in the elite artistic circles of Glasgow and later being appointed to an important job in E.C.I.T.O. That a heroine could find and be herself, eventually find a loving surrogate mother in the childless Rosie and a willing tutor and mentor In the Anglican priest, Mr Lord, and a faithful companion for life in the beloved David, that a heroine could achieve all that in pre-World War 1 Britain must have instilled some hope that she too would find happiness once World War 2 was over.

The novel was first published in the UK in 1943, the date my mother read it while working at Bletchley Park, and noted it in her diary. To me this reads like a classic, female Bildungsroman, which ought to be better known and reprinted with a proper, scholarly introduction. A perfect Ph.D. project for an enterprising researcher!