Before Silence, a year’s haiku: on translating Michel Onfray

The High Window Press

At the start of spring 2013, the French public intellectual and philosopher, Michel Onfray, started to write haiku. Before Silence draws on his childhood fascination with classical haiku and contains many elements found in that tradition: the seasons, natural images, a minimalist encounter with the specificity of concrete reality. Through a microscopic attention to detail, he draws on personal memories and experiences, reaching through them to universal topics. Employing the pared-down speech of the common man, Onfray’s haiku enact an exercise in immediacy, focusing on and notating fleeting events as they occur. In so doing, he considers widely-shared, significant issues, evokes apposite philosophical insights and expresses deep emotional intelligence. When his partner of twenty-seven years, Marie-Claude, dies of cancer, Onfray finds in his haiku journaling a way to notate his sense of loss, and to record his stark sense of being and nothingness pertinent to us all. Normally a fluent and prolific author, here Onfray chooses a poetic utterance a heart-beat away from silence. As a philosopher, Michel Onfray has argued that philosophical discourse is always personal and autobiographical. Usually so prolix with words, now as a poet he explores and expresses his individual human sensibility in the minimalist form of westernised haiku.

I believe that Onfray sees his haiku as personal in nature, revealing the private emotional life of a public intellectual. (In an email exchange, he described his poetry as ‘un jardin secret,’ a secret garden.) In the world of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, there is no longer anything unusual in individuals expressing deeply personal feelings to a public audience. But, arguably since the inception of lyric poetry, that is precisely what poets working in both the oriental and the occidental tradition have been doing. As poetic utterance, these haiku enter the house of literature and of necessity leave the rules of philosophy at the front door. From now on, the rules of literature become relevant; including the caveat regarding the intentional fallacy. These haiku don’t necessarily ‘mean’ what Onfray thought they meant or intended them to mean as he composed them; published for the world to read, their meanings depend on each reader’s act of interpretation.

I translated these haiku because I felt compelled to; the clarity and integrity of Onfray’s poetic voice demanded that I attend to them in a considered fashion. And since French is not my first language, the best means of attention I could bring to them was the act of translation. Inevitably, translation involves interpretation; even from a source text whose language, French, is so closely related to the English target text. However, my endeavour was to stay as ‘true’ to the original haiku as I could manage. Sometimes a simple literal translation produced a poem in English that bore the same resonances and gravitas as the French that Onfray wrote. For example:

7

Brin d’herbe

Jamais plus que lui

Jamais moins que lui.

Jeudi 4 avril, 8.50

Dans le train

7

Blade of grass

Never more than itself

Never less than itself.

Thursday, 4th April, 8.50 a.m.

In the train

Sometimes, French word play — or poetic devices of repetition etc. — was essential to the meaning of Onfray’s poem, and a literal translation would have destroyed the essence of the poem rather than faithfully reproduced it. In those cases, I searched for an English equivalent, again trying not to introduce any extraneous poetic devices or effects that built on the original rather than expressed the original’s meaning and sensibility. For example:

118

Blanc sans iris

Comme un œil

L’œillet.

 

118

Bloodless white

Translucence incarnate

Carnation.

Onfray is well-read in the French and European philosophical tradition. ‘Nul en anglais’, his work still resonates with the British philosophical tradition in terms of returning to a bedrock of common sense to counter European idealism. He treats his own experiences of bereavement and grief with honesty and lucidity; he can be razor-sharp about his own grief. And yet by digging deep into the intensely personal he transmutes individual suffering into a compelling meditation on how twenty-first century man lives one of the quintessential life experiences.

Traditionally, haiku should contain a reference to nature and to the seasons. We know what time of day and of year it is through these concrete images. Onfray introduces the precisions of clock time to register the same. Some readers may find this notation of time and place after each haiku a disruption that interrupts the flow of the lyric voice. Yet, these notations constitute part of the poem’s effect. The private man may be having nightmares, lying awake through grief, recalling his childhood or wondering what the future might bring within the confines of the ‘secret garden’ of his soul, but he is still functioning as an efficient man of letters , almost always remembering to note down date, time and place — unless he is exceptionally distressed and distracted. The notation of time and place reminds us of the omnipresence of clock time within which we undertake our contemporary, existential journey. Basho travelled around Japan on foot; Onfray travels the world by train, car and plane. The book begins with a train journey from Caen to Paris, on the early morning commuter train, in a state of heightened sensibility. This beginning could well be fortuitous in terms of the genesis of the volume, but it establishes a context that mirrors the lives of many western readers.

Onfray defines himself as a man of the people, but he is also a prominent public intellectual. His haiku record his experiences of, for example, jetting in to San Francisco to deliver a public lecture then returning home again to catch up on the gardening. The sequence of haiku constructs a larger series of rhythms that chart his movements to and fro: from France to California, from Caen to Paris, from his paternal family home to Marie-Clare’s house, from her house to the hospital and back. They illustrate the restlessness of contemporary existence, even for someone grounded in a tradition of rural Normandy life.

Most of Onfray’s haiku are less than 17 syllables long. At one stage, English translators believed that haiku in English should always be 5 / 7 / 5 syllables in form, mimicking the structure of the Japanese ideogram. Now it is recognised that 11 or 12 syllables in English or French might correspond more closely to the length and weight of a typical Japanese haiku. Onfray’s are mostly closer to this model; the notation of time and place then adds a further dimension to the pure poetic utterance of the haiku that, in my experience, sends the reader back to contemplate the haiku again. The effect is to restrain the foreword moving rush, without entirely stopping the impetus of the larger drama that unfolds. Haiku purists may want to question whether these are haiku at all. Onfray’s haiku follow the contemporary approach of composing compressed, three-line poems. In my translation, I have employed a similar, minimalist form of westernised haiku.

Many other themes emerge here including: the counterpoint between memories of childhood, still embedded in the world of his father, and the present realities of post-modernity; between the pure registration of natural image and the well-nigh simultaneous correspondences and associations drawn from the world of philosophical thought; and between solitude and society.

These are not necessarily themes and preoccupations that Onfray intended to describe when he commenced writing, but they are the themes that the writing encapsulates. Least of all did he expect this project to become a record of the last illness and death of his partner, Marie-Claire, and subsequently a journal of grief, mourning and meditation on death, dying and ephemerality and transience. What is fleeting, what is perdurable? What is the relation between the two? Haiku traditionally have explored this territory; the art of the haiku lies is expressing the perdurable through the most fleeting of momentary impressions. Onfray writes this poetic tradition anew in twenty-first century Normandy with translucent agony.

Michel Onfray translated by Helen May Williams. Before Silence: a year’s haiku. The High Window. April 2020. (Paperback, 84pp, £10. ISBN 9781913201197.)

For a copy of the book please visit https://thehighwindowpress.com/the-high-window-press/

Lee Harwood Interviewed in Leamington Spa, on 29th November, 1980

The poet, Lee Harwood, died five years ago today.  I interviewed him when he came to Warwick to give a poetry reading and workshop. He was staying with Tony, a friend of his and a doctoral candidate in the English Department at the time. So, I interviewed him in Tony’s flat, not far from where I lived. Due to this quirk of location, the interview didn’t fall under University of Warwick copyright, as did the other interviews with poets that I conducted between 1980 and 1984. They were collected as the Contemporary Poetry Archive, which I curated. Many years later, they were retrieved from oblivion to form part of the Clive Bush Digital Collection held by the University of Warwick Library. If you have access to that collection, you will see and hear me interviewing a number of British and American contemporary poets.
Here’s what I looked like in 1980:

Helen ca 1980 _ 1

(Tape starts mid-conversation after breakfast)

L.H.        Yeah, with Pound, you can read him without having any knowledge of the Classics or anything; because if you read more than a few Cantos, you know what that name represents for him; it’s a quality of behaviour, or whatever, and so there’s no need for explanation. Equally, if you do know a little bit, it makes it even richer.

H.M.W.                Right.

L.H.        I wouldn’t have that same pretension for my own work, because I don’t interlace that sort of learning with it.

H.M.W.                You said last night (during your reading) that you didn’t make a distinction between poetry and prose; that you sometimes wrote words which went right to the margin, and sometimes you wrote shorter lines. So how do you decide if the words are going to go right to the margin or not?

L.H.        Well, it’s all to do with notation. What I said was, I see myself as a writer who is making texts — not in the French sense, the new idea of pure language — but a piece of language, writing; and within that text you’re going to want to have various tones of voice, various speeds. And so, the way you can convey this to a reader, as opposed to a listener, is by putting it down on the page in a certain way that will suggest that. You see this in other writing: there’s someone like Robert Creeley, with his little, short, two or three words to a line, and very short three or four line stanzas, which accurately conveys the very tense, abrupt way he reads those texts. And the opposite line would be someone like John Ashbery, who has these very long lines that have almost like an anti-ending. Each line isn’t a unit; it makes you go on to the following one. So, in fact, the poem could be written on one long strip of paper. And that again accurately conveys his tone of voice when he reads, and the tone of voice, presumably, he’s trying to make in the poem, which is that of a slightly monotonous, story-telling, which goes on and on and on. Of course, it isn’t that simple story; but it’s that sort of tone he’s trying to get. And with myself, in say, things like the Wish You Were Here pieces: the top parts were often set as what people call ‘poetry’, with certain, short lines, and space around, to convey the way they’re meant to sound; and the bottom bits, which were like comments on the top, were set as ‘prose’, which of course goes from margin to margin; and the voice changes from the top to the bottom, and it becomes just a straight narrative.[1]

I think the distinction between poetry and prose, say for me, and I think for most of my contemporaries, is an unreal division. It’s no longer meaningful. I mean, are Borges’ short stories poems or are they fiction? And equally, are not some of the long poems you get today really sort of novels? They’re no camps anymore, thank God! I’m very happy working like that.

H.M.W.                The short line: you say Creeley uses it to get a certain terseness, and tension. Do you sometimes use it to actually make that blank space, after the words have ceased, be a significant silence? Often, you say something, you notate something, and then you don’t complete the sentence.

L.H.        ‘Significant silence’! I don’t mean to be that awesome! But I know what you mean. I have written various texts which are very bare; I like a few words scattered around the page. The idea is that you should just say the few words that are a block, and then a silence, and then the next block. And hopefully, the way you lay it out on the page will suggest the length of silence and so on. One can never notate completely accurately; you can try to hint at it. But the thing about leaving off a sentence half way through — either, on the page, it just stops here; or, I may use the technique of just three dots after the word — that’s not just to do with silence, that’s more pushing the listener to complete it. It’s hoping that the listener, or the reader, is going along with you, and suddenly you step back, and they have to keep going. So you are forcing them into collaborating in the poem. A corny example is a poem of mine called, ‘Linen’, in The Sinking Colony, [2] where at the end, the voice, the narrator in the poem, is saying: ‘The feel of skin, the touch, and it’s like …’, and then there’s a very full stop. And it’s like — so and so, and it’s like … The idea, crudely is that each of us has our vivid symbol, idea, of what that particular sensual experience is like. You know: soft as silk, soft as velvet, soft as a flower, soft as a cat’s fur, or whatever. And so, if the person puts in their own personal symbols, or whatever, the text becomes a shared text much more. You make the poem together. Without being doctrinaire, it ties in with an idea I’ve always had in my work; well, not always, but certainly for the last ten or fifteen years: the idea of basic insistence on respect for other people, for one’s reader, and a refusal to move towards that thing of the poet as guru, poet as preacher, which I find completely obnoxious. It was one of the sad sides of the ‘Beats’.

The ‘Beats’ opened so many doors, and started things. But there’s a quality of the ‘ranter’ in the beat poets; which got the listener by the lapels, and said: ‘Listen! I’m going to tell you where it’s at, man!’ And nobody can tell you where it’s at, because we’re all in the same boat. So I’m counter-acting that. I think I learnt the trick from Ashbery. He did that. Well, it was close to that; using disjointed, broken-off sentences, which again in another sense connect; which of course is a far more accurate notation of thought. Because we don’t think in grammatical sentences or straight lines. We sort of jump around, which is just as in English conversation. People in England, when talking about a thing, go round and round and round; and suggest various qualities; and it’s a way of communicating, which isn’t obvious. Whereas, I’m thinking of say in America, where, because of this big stress in the schools on — what’s the word for it? — being able to express yourself well, clearly, ‘verbal skills’ or whatever…

H.M.W.                Communication Studies?

L.H.        Yeah! And so you have a conversation — I’m thinking of Creeley and various other people I know — where one person says something, and says: ‘Right!’, and so we all agree on this point. Bang! Nailed in there! Next step: so and so or so and so. ‘Right!’ ‘Yes!’ And so there’s an incredibly rigid thing goes on. And then suddenly, after a while — if you’re following someone, you’re very impressed by this, because they seem so self-confident, and it’s very refreshing if you live in a complex, muddled society, to come across this straight simple discourse — but then you suddenly say, ‘Well, but…’. And you find you’ve been totally carried along, and you think: ‘I shouldn’t be here; I don’t agree with that; it’s being absurdly crude!’ Which echoes that lovely quote by E.M. Forster on Gide’s death, in The Long Black Veil, about Book Six.[3] It’s where after Gide died Forster wrote a piece in some magazine, and talked about Gide’s joy in the complexity of life, and the importance of registering this complexity; because that’s what made us human, that’s what the pleasure was.

H.M.W.                How do you combine the art of telling a story, just keeping the audience hanging on to some kind of narrative line, with what you’ve said about trying to register complexities? Is there a tension there?

L.H.        There can be. I’m not sure how much it’s to do with the actual text. I’d love to be a fiction writer, a prose writer, a novelist. And I feel very frustrated that I don’t have that skill. Mind you, it’s always ‘the grass is greener on the other side’; because successful novel writers — think of science fiction writer, Tom Dish, think of my friend Tony Lopez, who had quite a successful career as writing hack novels, and chucked it all up — always wanted to write poetry. And certainly myself, I would love to be able to write novels. I’d love to be able to write something like a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, to have written Treasure Island; I mean to write a book that grips you, that you don’t put down, that you just read on and on and on. You’re not reading ‘culture’, you’re not reading ‘literature’; you’re completely absorbed in this thing. Every so often a book like that comes your way, and transcends all self conscious ideas of, ‘I’d better read this, because I must keep up!’ — Absurd! I think pleasure is essential with books. Pleasure must be essential in literature.

I would love to be able to write clear, direct stories; but I can’t. But what I do write is much more like a collage. And I realise, that, especially for someone listening to it, it’s difficult to take in sometimes, even if you are very attentive. Though, it’s encouraging to know: you may read sometimes, and get these rather confused looks from people listening; and if by chance you meet somebody a couple of days later, they say, ‘Right, yes, got it!’ They’ve thought about something you’ve said, which they weren’t clear about; and then it was like a chemical dropped into a substance, that had gradually come to the surface, and hit them in that very indirect way; instead of the direct way of saying, ‘Listen! I’m going to tell you where it’s at!’ (‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…’[4]) I can’t do anything about that. I know it’s difficult at times; I know at other times it isn’t difficult. I’m certainly never intentionally obscure; but there are various things that you just cannot put in a straight narrative way, that you have to do by jumping from one thing to the other, and hoping that the sum of these is the story itself.

H.M.W.                You’ve just mentioned Ginsberg. What did you learn from the Beats?

L.H.        I think about 1960 I came across Kerouac and Ginsberg books, and they were an incredible release. Before that I’d read and liked poetry, I’d written bad poetry, bad verse. But you had this idea that anything that could be good must be by somebody that’s dead. Like I was very interested in Tristan Tzara, and started translating his work, and thought, ‘He must be dead!’ And then I found a French Who’s Who, and I found he was alive! Incredible, you know! So I went to see him at once. But it’s sociology really, isn’t it? The Beats, for so many people in England, opened the door; they said: ‘You too can write’. It was like giving you self confidence. But that’s not the real thing to it: it was reading On the Road, reading ‘Howl’, and for the first time in your life picking up a printed book, where people were talking about the world you knew, that you lived in, and were expressing what you felt were your feelings, confused and gauche as they may have been at the time. And so this immense surge of confidence came from this: in your own feelings, in your own worth, and in your own powers to make things. And so you have a whole mass of people like, Jim Burns, Dave Cunliffe, Chris Torrance, and others, in this country, writing these apocalyptic poems, pouring stuff out; and printing their own magazines, and distributing them; and a big thing of an interchange with the U.S. magazines: sending them to one another, going and visiting one another, and so on. And none of these people ever had gone to university. It was very different from the Americans, because in fact nearly all the Beat poets were graduates. Whereas here, certainly then, I was the only person of that whole network — other than Horovitz — who had been to university; and I certainly hid it very much! It was the time of C.N.D. (Jeff Nuttall’s book, Bomb Culture, catches quite a bit of that). It was political, it was a class thing; it was a working class thing: I suppose finally the secondary education which started up in the 1940s with the Labour government bore its fruits. Those people would never before have dreamed that they’d be allowed to write. And of course, in 1960, 61, and 62, and a bit later, not only did you know that if you sent our work to publishers like Fabers, or the literary magazines that were accepted then, they wouldn’t want to know at all; you wouldn’t even think of sending it to them, because you wouldn’t want to be associated with them. It was a completely new thing.

H.M.W.                You said that one of the major things is learning to have confidence in expressing your own feelings, but that later the Beats became rather ‘ranters’, telling people how to live. Do you think one of the important things for you is actually finding a poetry which can respect the individual’s feelings?

L.H.        Yes; and the individual’s intelligence. I mean, one of the other things which was annoying, when you thought more about what happened with the Beats, was, one: the totally phoney premise they established, which was, ‘sincerity = quality’; which isn’t true. (Calvin was sincere, and he was a monster. Hitler was sincere). If you felt it, then it was great literature. This was crazy. At the time it served its purpose to get people going. The other thing: the sad thing I felt about the Beats, after the great ‘opening of doors’, like Bakunin used, you’d raze the ground, then you’d build again. Instead of living in the open at last, which was so exciting, with all the windows open, they immediately grabbed new orthodoxies to replace the old orthodoxies. So you knocked down the buttoned-down American Baptist thing, and you became an ‘Indian’ religious freak, or some other orthodoxy. It was very depressing.

H.M.W.               I don’t know if it directly relates, but somehow I’ve an intuitive feeling it ought to: the fact that a lot of your poetry, perhaps some of the recent stuff especially, is what one might call, in the best sense ‘occasional’ verse — like the post cards with Tony Lopez, and now writing posters; does that fact have behind it a sense of the importance of the ‘commonplace’ in people’s lives? This is what our lives are constructed of, as opposed to some moral principle? This is the texture of our lives?

L.H.        I don’t think it’s that self conscious. I don’t think of my work, of those particular poems as being ‘occasional’. I always associate occasional verse with being poems written for specific occasions: the birth of someone; or, to celebrate a particular event — which I have written, say in Boston-Brighton there’s quite a number of poems like that for example ‘A Visit to Walden Pond’.[5] But those, especially Wish You Were Here had a year or more’s work on that, and the actual texts are not about specific occasions, they’re fictions.

H.M.W.                Yes, they’re fictions. But in that case I’d say the postcards were the ‘occasion’.

L.H.        Yeah, you mean the thing of collaborating?

H.M.W.                Or the thing of having a, what might it be, a woodprint, or a sepia postcard, or something, to which the text is somehow related, even though rather loosely, fictionally.

L.H.        I know there’s a principle. It’s just the way that I work now. It’s as though in one’s career as a writer — I don’t mean it in a pompous way, but you’ve written for so many years, you’ve got so many books under your belt, that there comes a point when you’ve really written out all the material which you’ve based on memory and so on, and feelings (and of course you can continue writing that sort of material, but it becomes rather like faded carbon copies) — it’s as though at that point you must get off and move beyond that into being a maker and at that point you are making fictions, which for me is very exciting. I think Ashbery has this too, whereby he gives you a text which has not obviously got his thumb print at the bottom. You can recognize it’s John Ashbery work but on the other hand, it’s not saying: ‘This is about John Ashbery’. It’s as though he’s giving you this lovely puzzle, which you can read, and turn over, and use, and then you can pass it on to somebody else. And that’s what I’d like to do: to make texts that give people that pleasure, and also deal with subjects that concern me; rather than using poetry as self-expression, which we were talking about earlier: how you begin writing, almost like purely for reasons of self expression, and then move more and more towards being a maker.

H.M.W.                Going with being a maker for people, earlier on you were talking about the ‘listener’, rather than the ‘reader’. Is it actually important to you to come and give poetry readings, as opposed to simply throw the thing out into the air-waves and see what happens, or never know what happens?

L.H.        Not too many readings! But I think readings are very important as the final way to test a work. If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t right. If it is notation, it is primarily to be spoken; therefore the text must be read aloud to be realized. Not that that can be the only way to approach it. You also want people to go back, in the quiet of their own homes, to read the texts as well. But they are both very important.  The only thing about collaborating, for example the post cards: it’s a lovely way of pushing you into areas where you might not have gone otherwise. You’ve got to pick very carefully with whom you work. I tried collaborations with people that didn’t work. I tried working with Allen Fisher, whom I like very much as a person, but we just didn’t have the same temperament. Whereas Tony and I share a lot. And so, he’d send me a card, and I’d just look at the card, and put it on my desk, and start imagining a story. The story would be my story, but equally it would be sparked off by seeing a scene I would never have otherwise seen. Like the cover of Wish You Were Here, the hotel balcony near Grimsel: suddenly you can imagine all sorts of wonderful things happening on that balcony. So I find that collaborating with people that are of the right temperament is immensely useful for me. And why not?

H.M.W.                It breaks down that whole notion of the artist as the solitary.

L.H.        Oh yes. And of course he isn’t. If an artist can be defined as anything, he’s a thief! You’re continually begging and borrowing and stealing from other people, other texts. The idea of originality is just one of the most absurd ideas; it’s just not true, not true for anybody. I mean, look what food you like; all your favourite dishes are associated with one person who introduced you to them. And music’s the same. I mean my whole musical library is associated with people.

(Tape switched off, conversation continued in desultory fashion).

Lee Harwood Tree Sign

Photo courtesy of Dave Puddy

[1] Lee Harwood & Antony Lopez, Wish You Were Here, Transgravity Press, 1979.

[2] Lee Harwood, The Sinking Colony, Fulcrum Press, 1971.

[3] H M S Little Fox, Oasis Books, 1975, p.17.

[4] Allen Ginsberg, Howl, San Francisco, (City Lights Books), 1956, p.9.

[5] Lee Harwood, Boston-Brighton, Oasis Books, 1977, p.9.

 

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

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.  

IMGP4306 (2)

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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!

Jean Giraudoux. Combat avec l’ange. Paris: S.E.P.E. (Bibliothèque de lectures de Paris). 1946. (First Published éditions Grasset, 1934.)

Here is my mother’s diary entry for Boxing Day 1947. I reproduce it verbatim. It is handwritten in blue fountain pen in a personal diary, which she kept secret all her adult life. She wrote as she thought and since she had no intention of publishing it, she didn’t go back and proof-read it! What is remarkable, is how excellent an account it is of a highly perplexing novel, by a young woman whose wartime, Glasgow university training was in Modern History (Major) and Geology (Minor).

‘ 26 . .12 . 47

Combat avec l’ange — Giraudoux.

There is the strange comfort of complete unreality about this novel. Not that the characters lack veracity — it is just that they belong to a strata of society as out of touch with everyday life — or rather the life of the ordinary person bourgeois or working-class — that one might just as well be reading a fairy tale.

No fairy tale, however, would concern itself with the multiple workings of these complicated mind of Maléna, altho’ the restoration of her original life & habits after her struggle with poverty & sordidity is true to form.

It is difficult to understand what is the main theme of this story. The title, the action is surely Maléna’s effort to make herself into a being worthy of her lover — a being who understands & supports life in all its cruelty & deceptions — & her failure to be anything but the delightful, charming creature that nature & money had intended her to be. As the author-lover tells us she is delightful & charming we assume that she is so; in actual fact to the reader she has no character at all. She is not a living human being who we come to know as chapter follows chapter. From time to time a few indications are thrown out as to indicate ways in which she passed the time or personal idiosincracies [sic] in which she had indulged but Maléna is more a vehicle for abstract thought than a pulsating human being. What is more everything everybody with whom she comes in contact is similarly an abstraction whether it be the solitary, poverty-stricken human man with the spectacles without which he was helpless or her friends & acquaintances at the race-course — not of them are individuals; they are symbols of a strata of society like the crucifixion of some early Flemish primitive which is so divorced from the people we see in every far from human flesh & blood that is pure expression of agony. In both cases the wonder of it is that one’s emotions are touched. A human being who has the wonder of living is scarcely ever completely tragic but when instead one is faced with a personified tragic quality the sorrow of it is almost too much to bear. The tragic little figure of the man without his spectacles, quite alone & at the mercy of an attacking humanity is quite desperate.

The only human being in this peculiar description of mental activity is Brossard. & he has nothing to do with the current of the story at all nor have the people who have anything to do with them. He happens to be the ‘chef’ of the ‘raconteur’ & that is all — if the references to him were removed and collected to make an article it would be an extremely interesting account but in the novel it is merely a rather worrying interruption which one feels should be explained away.

In other words the power of this book lies completely in the expression of a mental struggle going on in the mind of a being whom we [k]no[w] little or nothing of. We see her at this moment of her life which comes to most of us at one time or other but which usually has to be dealt with in the frame of a normal working existence. Maléna a charming nonentity undergoes it detached from human society. She may walk & talk with her friends & acquaintances but there is an almost invisible test tube surrounding her so that when she does go out to contact humanity she cannot even begin to get near it. She is so busy trying to consciously save her soul that she almost loses the minute quantity of it which she already had in her possession.

Giraudoux’s style emphasises this juxtaposition with separation of the real & the unreal. The moment an ordinary activity — such as that of the small boy taking the bottle of milk home — comes within Maléna’s orbit it ceases to be ordinary & takes on a dream, or rather nightmare quality. It is no longer a normal human action full of latent excitement — it has become a process whose effect on Maléna is like a science room experiment.

As a novel does all this lead us anywhere. Does one learn anymore of humanity — its thoughts & actions? Does one leave the book with an understanding of a new character, a new way of life, the interpretation of an old way or the feeling that a person, a situation has been set before one & explained away as far as it is possible. Je crois que non! Personally, I finished the book with the same sort of feeling as I do on awaking from a particularly lucid dream when I ask myself ‘now why did that particularly vivid scene arise before my eyes & for what reason did those distinctly spoken words follow each other in that sequence[?]’ Life & its more pressing problems always prevent the enquiry being pursued. It is always pleasant to see human beings in love being brought together so the end of the story is quite satisfactory but for Maléna & her lover never would I give another thought — they mean even less than those hectic, dream like sophisticates who crossed one’s vision at the first cocktail party — creatures without character, without vision & without purpose.’

________________________________

 

Giraudoux’s novel draws on conventions of surrealism and the absurd, while narrating a slice of social reality. He destabilises the reader by having a first person narrator, Jacques, who writes an intradiegetic narrative, increasingly about the beautiful, exotic, wealthy, Latin American Maléna, her domestic life, her social encounters and her private agonies as the novel progresses, as if he were a third person narrator. All vraisemblance is lost when our narrator tells a story that in reality he has had no access to. As a feminist literary critic, I would also say that this destabilising narrative device confers authority on both the male author and the male protagonist-narrator, while taking agency away from the female protagonist, whose story my mother quite rightly identified as being central to the novel.

So why is Jacques there at all? Well, sexual politics in that society were unequal. From internal evidence I would say that the novel is set during the inter-war years between the Great War and World War II. Men have all the political power; woman’s role, especially a woman of the rich leisure class such as Maléna, is to be cultured, decorative and pleasing to men. And this is in fact Maléna’s dilemma. It leads to her breakdown in reason, which condition is named at the end of the novel as neurasthenia. Post second-wave feminism, we have a much clearer understanding of the gender politics surrounding the feminine condition named neurasthenia that male medical practitioners diagnosed and treated from around the fin de siècle well into the twentieth century.

My mother didn’t see the point of the narrative interludes away from Maléna, when Jacques is at work as private secretary to le Président du Conseil Brossard. (The depiction of Brossard is a barely disguised portrait of Aristide Briand, as the brief introduction to the 1946 edition makes clear.) Yet, the study of a ‘great man’ wrestling with the international politics of a world on the brink of war and desperately trying to maintain peace, shows us the other side of neurasthenia, as male anxiety in the face of modernity. Brossard’s health is severely compromised by the unequal struggle and he eventually dies. On his death bed, Maléna is summoned to be the ‘angelic’ presence that will console him in his finally moments. And by this stage in the novel, Maléna has come to her senses, so to speak, and resigned herself to this feminine role.

It should also be noted, that the comic sub-plot around Maléna’s domestic arrangements, where she is ruled by her ex-nurse, Amparo and her family, mirrors this state of malaise even further, when Amparo’s husband takes to his sickbed to be pronounced near death, only to be miraculously restored to health. Amparao’s daughter, Baba, adds a further note of absurdity with her fixation on an imaginary world of exotic creatures, especially elephants that Maléna is obliged to collude with. Baba is of course very distressed when she reads in a magazine that such imaginary creatures actually exist. The real is stranger than the imaginary, as Maléna’s wandering around Paris and the Bois de Boulogne demonstrate.

So, despite its narrative quirks, combat avec l’Ange presents a compelling analysis of the inter-relation between sexual politics and national and international politics. Through narrative metonymy, Maléna’s emotional confusion and temporary psychosis stands in a contiguous and intertwined relationship with the turbulence and instability of international diplomatic relations and the dehumanising effects of poverty and the class system. She illustrates the ways in which human judgement can be knocked off kilter and become worryingly fallible. The ways in which a person (and by analogy a nation) can misdiagnose her sense of malaise and then seek solutions, which only confound the original problem even further.

The choice of ‘Jacques’ as the narrator’s name alludes to the participants in the French Revolution, who used this appellation to identify themselves to one another. Jacques is inevitably a political being and Giraudoux shows how the personal and the political are inextricable. He conducts his private life in the interstices of his work commitments, dividing his allegiances between affairs of state in the company of a great statesman and affairs of a sexual nature in the house of a great Madame. His morality is neither than of traditional Catholicism nor of a pure revolutionary egalitarianism; by the 1930s a whole series of moral muddles and compromises have become the norm. Maléna is more disturbed by this than Jacques, but being a woman and therefore powerless, apart from through the powers of female beauty and persuasion, her sensitivity to the failure of the original ideals of égalité, fraternité & liberté can only result in psychological breakdown.

Her choice at the end of the novel is to descend into irreparable madness or to resume her normality, as if it were an item of clothing to be kept in her wardrobe and put on every day before facing the world. The novel ends with the following conclusion: ‘ce qu’il convient de dire c’est que la Providence sait tenir la balance parfaitement égale entre l’être et le néant…’ In 1943, Jean Paul Sartre published L’être et le néant: Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. The philosophical argument of that existentialist text and the narrative exploration of Giraudoux’s 1934 novel agree fundamentally on the state of the human condition in twentieth-century Europe.

My mother commented that: It is difficult to understand what is the main theme of this story.’ She concluded that:

The title, the action is surely Maléna’s effort to make herself into a being worthy of her lover — a being who understands & supports life in all its cruelty & deceptions — & her failure to be anything but the delightful, charming creature that nature & money had intended her to be.

In 1947, did she too worry what role as an adult woman she might carve out for herself in post-war Europe?