24 January 2012

The Unknown Lady: Part 2 of a 3 part series on poems at The Story Boat.

Tanja Velma is going to be telling us the story of “The Unknown Lady” by Aleksandr Blok at the Story Boat this Friday. I’ll be reciting an English / Scots version of the poem – so the audience can find a way into the story – as a prelude to Tanja’s recitation of the indescribable sounds of the original Russian verse. (For those Russian readers out there in Hamburg & elsewhere, here's the Russian text.) I’ll also be discussing the poem right here & now on this blog – why should we listen to the Russian & the Scots? - , but before that the work itself:

Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Unknown Lady”    Willie MacFarlane’s “Unknown Lady”

At darknin’ hings abune the howff                            At darkening high above the inn            
A weet and wild and eisenin’ air.                                A wet and wild and yearning air.
Spring’s spirit wi’ its waesome sough                         Spring’s spirit with it’s woesome sigh
Rules owre the drucken stramash there.                      Rules o’er the drunken uproar there.

And heich abune the vennel’s pokiness,                     And high above the city’s fringes
Whaur a’ the white-weshed cottons lie,                       Where all the white-washed cottons lie
The Inn’s sign blinters in the mochiness,                    The inn’s sign gleams in moochiness
And lood and shrill the bairnies cry.                           And loud and shrill the wee kids cry.
The hauflins ’yont the burgh boonds                         The hoodlums past the burgh bounds
Gang ilka nicht, and a’ the same,                                Go out each night and each the same
Their bonnets cocked; their bluid that stounds           Their caps cocked up, their blood that pounds   
Is playin’ at a fine auld game.                                     Is playing at a fine old game.

And on the lochan there, hauf-herted                        And on that lochan there half-hearted
Wee screams and creakin’ oar-locks soon’.                 The squeaks and creaks of oar-locks sound.
And in the lift, heich, hauf-averted,                            And sky-high up now half-averted
The mune looks owre the yirdly roon’.                       The moon looks o’er the earthly round.

And ilka evenin’, derf and serious                        And each same evening, silent, serious               
(Jean ettles nocht o’ this, puir lass),                            (Though Jean knows nought of this, poor lass)
In liquor, raw yet still mysterious,                               In liquour, raw yet still mysterious,
A’e freend’s aye mirrored in my glass.                        A friend is mirrored in my glass.

Ahint the sheenin’ coonter gruff                                Behind the shining counter, gruff          
Thrang barmen ding the tumblers doun;                   Barmen slam the tumblers down;
‘In vino veritas’ cry rough                                          ‘In vino veritas’ cry rough
And reid-een’d fules that in it droon.                         And red eyed fools that in it drown.

But ilka evenin’ fey and fremt                                    But each same night, fated, lonely,
(Is it a dream nae wauk’nin’ proves?)                          (Is it a dream no waking proves?)
As to a trystin’-place undreamt,                                  As to a trysting-place undreamt,
A silken leddy darkly moves.                                     A silken lady darkly moves.

Slow gangs she by the drunken anes,                         Slow goes she by the drunken ones,
And lanely by the winnock sits;                                  And lonely by the window sits;
Frae’r robes, atour the sunken anes,                           From her robes, above the sunken ones,
A rooky dwamin’ perfume flits.                                A musky, pungent, perfume flits.

Her gleamin’ silks, the taperin’                                   Her gleaming silks, the tapering
O’ her ringed fingers, and her feathers                       Of her ringed fingers, and her feathers
Move dimly like a dream wi’in,                                   Move dimly like a dream within,
While endless faith aboot them gethers.                     While endless faith about them gathers.

I seek, in this captivity,                                              I seek, in this captivity,
To pierce the veils that darklin fa’                               To pierce the veils that darkly fall
– See white clints slidin’ to the sea,                             - See white cliffs sliding to the sea,
And hear the horns o’ Elfland blaw.                          And hear the horns of Elfland blow.

I ha’e dark secrets’ turns and twists,                           I have dark secrets turns and twists,
A sun is gi’en me to haud,                                         A sun is pushed into my hand,
The whisky in my bluid insists,                                  The whisky in my blood insists
And spiers my benmaist history, lad.                          On questioning my soul, my lad.

And owre my brain the flitterin’                                 And o’er my brain the flittering
O’ the dim feathers gang aince mair,                          Of those dim feathers goes once more,
And, faddomless, the dark blue glitterin’                     And fathomless through dark blue glittering
O’ twa een in the ocean there.                                    Two eyes upon a distant shore.

My soul stores up this wealth unspent,                       My soul stores ups this wealth unspent,
The key is safe and nane’s but mine.                          The key is safe and none but mine.
You’re richt, auld drunk impenitent,                           You’re right, old drunk impenitent,
I ken it tae – the truth’s in wine.                                 I know it too, the truth’s in wine.

(Hugh MacDiarmid’s version of the poem is taken from lines 169-220 of his epic, “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”,best read in a good edition – for example the Penguin 20th C. Classics series.) More about the poem shortly, in the next post .....

16 January 2012

Seditious: A three part series on poems at The Story Boat

Angus Calder’s “Ye are na Mary Morrison!” (pub. 2003) is one of the poems I’ll be reciting at The Story Boat  at the Alter Schlachthof in Hamburg on Fri., 27th January. First the poem; then I’ll be discussing why it matters –
         “Ye are na Mary Morrison!”                                                not

There wis a kinda plainness                                                                           was
(and, tae be frank, plookiness) tae Mary.                                                      to, spottiness
She stood short and square
like the dream of a nation
in which truths wid happen – not scary,                                                      would
not altogether ruled by vainness –
and very definitely there.
I appreciated the whiff of her knickers
wafting towards me above the heather
eftir we’d done the business thegither.                                                         after, together
Her fingernails were strong, but nae vicious.                                               no
There wis a tang of parsley in her hair.                                                         was
When she peed and flushed it wis like an avalanche,                                   was
and somehow her every utterance was seditious.

(Published in Chapman Magazine, Nr. 102-3, Edinburgh: 2003.)

Who’s this Mary & which seditious things may she be saying to us? And why should a reader in Germany – or, tae be frank, anywhere outside Scotland – bother with a poem that they may mistakenly take to be written in dialect?
A mistake, because this here isn’t a dialect, but rather a text written in Scottish English, with some Scots included. A lexis accessible to any reader who’s familiar with Standard English and who’s ready to stretch out a little into the pleasurable unknown;  I’ve attached a gloss down the right-hand margin in any case.
            Calder wrote in Scottish English and in Scots for two vital reasons. Firstly it was the language he went on hearing throughout his life (c. 1948 – 2008), particularly when back home in Edinbra, on the buses, on the streets and in the pubs. Secondly he had an acute historical awareness – exemplified in his book length studies on colonialism & his work as the co-editor of the Journal of Commonwealth Literature in the 80s – that writing in minority, endangered languages was a welcome duty, an act of sedition in itself.
            Which the poem is full of, from the hissing, sibilant “ss” sound in “plainness” in the first line, right through to the susurrus  in “seditious”. In the susurration – the whispering & rustling “s” sounds running through the poem – plainness / plookiness / short /scary / viscious / utterance / seditious – to name but a few words in which these sound occur – we hear the voice of the poem consistently enjoying saying that which is not meant to be said, just like the snake talking to Eve in the Garden of Eden. You’re not meant to start a love poem by talking with unsentimental honesty about the beloved’s limitations – about her “plainness, and, to be frank, plookiness”. If those who new Calder can be sure that the poem is partly about an actual lover that Calder had, I wonder how this lover took to being described as plain & plooky in public. Yet if this poem is about one of Calder’s actual lovers, it’s also about another real man’s relationship perception of another real woman, and here again, Calder is enjoying the transgression in his unique take on this relationship.
 The clue to this other couple comes from the title, Ye are na Mary Morrison! On first reading, this title sticks out like a sore plook; the “na” in it is anachronistic, not recognisable as part of the late 20th C. Scots and Scottish English that Calder uses in the poem itself, or at least not from the limited Edinbra / east of Scotland context as I knew it. I first thought it could only be a scrap of language picked up in a school playground, two girls fighting as part of a game, one girl claiming the right to pretend to be an older girl of some reputation, Mary Morrison, the other girl refuting that right with scorn: “Ye are na Mary Morrison!” Sadly, the facts that the internet offer so nakedly dismiss this fancy: “Ye are na Mary Morrison.” is a line taken from the song Mary Morison written by Robert Burns in 1784-85. (The full text of which plus decent critique is available here. Joann Gilmartin’s singing of the song makes me want to hear more Burns sung live, & to facilitate in this happening.)
So Calder’s poem takes the key line from Burns’ song as it’s starting point. In this line of the song the poem’s narrator is sat at a fine dance, the fiddle’s “trembling string” stirring up gaiety amongst the fair looking-guests assembled, but he’s looking at all these bonnie ladies & thinking of his true love, saying inwardly to all of them, “ye are na Mary Morison.” In writing a poem with this title which goes on to give Calder’s imagination of how Mary actually could be, he’s subverting the cult of good-looking, sexual physicality that all Robert Burns’ work is steeped in. No writer’s portraits – aside, perhaps, from the portraits of Goethe – have been so fetishised as Burns’ have been, with always the same image or two to be found on ten-thousand tea towels & pieces of kitsch, pseudo-modern art in ten-thousand Scottish tourist traps. There can be no doubt from the evidence of the portraits that Burns was a handsome man. But to derive from that – as Scots do – that the sex Burns had was a frivolous, light-hearted thing with women whose beauty matched his own is to suppress the sexual desperation that comes through Burns’ work: that of a man intensly into “doing the business” and ideologically committed to it, living in a society where rigid class division & the iron-hand of a calvanistic church prevented him enacting many of his sexual-romantic visions. Burns’ sex must often have been a matter of taking what he could get, a matter of plainness, plookiness even, lice, gonorrhoea, damp & diry bedclothes.
            Calder gives us the Mary Morison beyond where Burns’ song stops, filling in the naturalistic, novelistic detail which is utterly absent in the song. His major sedition – agitating against the Scottish residing elements of the UK state, who, for almost two hundred years were happy to see Burns kept wearing the strait-jacket of a depoliticised romantic – is built on a number of minor seditions, of breaches of public order. Which other public intellectual - & that’s who Calder was in Edinbra, albeit in quite small circles – will write a poem in which it’s ambiguous whether it is he, or Burns, or both, who, “appreciated the whiff of her knickers” after scratchy, itchy, open-air sex on the heather? A tad embarrassing, isn’t it? – Where’s the cleverness, the get-out clause, the irony? Where else is the closeness in sound & sense between “sedition” and “seduction”, between “seditious” and “seductive”, more evident than in this poem? Despite, or maybe even because, of this Mary’s plainness & plookiness, she manages to seduce the reader, taking them into her fantastic, revolutionary world, where every thing she says – her every utterance – was seditious. What, every one?  Pass the milk. Are you taking that book back to Davie. I’m off out. All said in a seditious fashion? Glorious. Makes me want to meet Mary & makes me regret that I never experienced Angus Calder live. Who knew that knowledge of your cultural tradition is essential, in order to agitate against authorities who house themselves, parasitical, on the backs of traditions. 

10 January 2012

A question of belief.

     A huge practical problem of political debate is that especially unpleasant facts used to illuminate a particular subject will often be rejected outright; those you are talking to will refuse to believe you. So it was when the conversation turned last week, in the course of one of my group conversation English lessons, to the topic of how Hamburg treats its asylum seekers. Our SPD government has just announced its reneging on a previous promise, and will continue to farm 180 of its asylum seekers out to the back of beyond in Mecklenburg, rather than house them within the bounds of its own state. (See article in die Taz from 30.1.2011.) (Go here for the free tool to translate German websites into English).

    And what then? There, out there in the sticks, the kids have no school - although Hamburg state law stipulates that all children of asylum seekers must attend school, in the same way as German kids. This was the point that some participants in my lessons simply would not believe. And after the disbelief, comes the defence: being in a refugee camp anywhere in the world is a horrible experience. Many older Germans who make this statement are talking from the heart: they may have experienced life in a refugee camp in Hamburg as a child, after coming as part of the movement of displaced persons after WW2. After that there were later refugee camps in Hamburg to house the influx of refugees - often fleeing with few possessions - from East Germany in the 1950s. Might personal experience of life as a refugee - however brief - increase ones sympathy for refugees in your state today? Why should it - distancing yourself from them by denying the details of their daily lives must be the most efficient way of dealing with the unpleasantness. Better to belief that a journalist in a renowned newspaper got a key fact of her article wrong, perhaps willfully.

     Which perhaps prooves that politics is not about facts, but rather about belief-systems which contradict each other so strongly, that in the clash of steel on steel it's near impossible to hear what the other side is shouting. You're back with James I of the UK, not wanting to hear the Catholic's say, but rather wanting to drive a Protestant wedge, in the form of Ulster & the Ulster Scots, between the Catholic south of Ireland & the Catholics in Scotland's western Isles. For James I, for those who choose to be interested in asylum-seekers and for those who cling hard to the rock of disinterest, the facts were & are a side-show: talking politics is a question of belief.