Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Buccaneers of Buzz

I can't pretend to be a huge fan of these increasingly humid English summers, whose oppressive stuffiness tires me all day and keeps me from sleeping most of the night, but the regularity of heavy rain and sun have injected a vigorous colour into the flora of the valley, which has evidently been good news for bees, and it is certainly a joy to watch the abundances of bees bouncing from flower to flower, who, to quote Emily Dickinson, Ride abroad in ostentation / And subsist on Fuzz.

 

There are around 20,000 species of bees worldwide, though in Britain the name primarily conjures images of just two varieties: bumble bees and honey bees, and in particular the garden bumble bee (Bombus hortorum) and the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera).  I feel it is clear from her descriptions that Emily Dickinson's fantastic short poem Bees Are Black... was inspired by bees of the Bombus, bumble bee, genus:

Bees are Black, with Gilt Surcingles -
Buccaneers of Buzz.
Ride abroad in ostentation
And subsist on Fuzz.

Fuzz ordained - not Fuzz contingent -
Marrows of the Hill.
Jugs - a Universe's fractures
Could not jar or spill.



In Virgil's Georgics, bees are described in accordance with the various roles and tasks in which they are observed by the author:

These drudge in fields abroad, and those at home
Lay deep foundations for the labour'd comb,
With dew, narcissus leaves, and clammy gum.
To pitch the waxen flooring some contrive;
Some nurse the future nation of the hive;

 

                                                                                       while almost two centuries later, the great American transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson would ascribe to bees a rather more celestial nature, while nonetheless reverting to a language of Classical metaphor which Virgil would have well understood:

Insect lover of the sun,
Joy of thy dominion!
Sailor of the atmosphere;
Swimmer through the waves of air;
Voyager of light and noon;
Epicurean of June

 

 Emerson credits the insects with a certain godly detachment from worldly rubbish, and in citing their situation among beautiful flowers, paints a mirror image of bees almost as flying flowers themselves:

Aught unsavoury or unclean
Hath my insect never seen;
But violets and bilberry bells,
Maple sap and daffodels,
Grass with green flag half-mast high,
Succory to match the sky,
Columbine with horn of honey,
Scented fern, and agrimony,
Clover, catch fly, adders-tongue,
And brier-roses dwelt among;


 

 Another great American poet, Sylvia Plath, was to paint slightly different pictures of bees, having taken up bee-keeping in Devon in June 1962, in her series of poems written in later that same year.  Plath's father, a professor of Entomology, was an authority on bees, and his 1934 book Bumblebees and Their Ways remains highly regarded to this day, and, having moved to the Devon village of North Tawton, with her husband, Ted Hughes, and their daughter in September 1961, Sylvia herself was to capture the behaviour of bees with characteristic eye for detail:


The white hive is snug as a virgin
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.



For her descriptions of the practicalities of beekeeping, Plath is commended by Mary Montaut of The Dublin Beekeepers' Association, who writes on the group's website:


As a good beginner, Plath has obviously read the right books and knows about queens killing off rivals:

“While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins
Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight…”

and for her perfect linguistic responses to the bees' behaviour:

She calls the angry sound of the bee box, “furious Latin”, which somehow catches the feeling I always have when the bees are cross, of their high-pitched communication of outrage.
Or how about this for a description of stings?



“The bees found him out,
Molding onto his lips like lies,
Complicating his features.”

Elsewhere, Mary observes:

And the final poem of the sequence, Wintering, brings into sharp focus the anxiety I suppose all beekeepers feel as they close the hives for the winter:


“Will the hive survive?”
a poignancy made all the more troubling when we know of Plath’s own failure to survive that winter.  But the end of the poem is not pessimistic –


“The bees are flying.  They taste the spring.”



In our own times, growing attention has been paid to the plight of  bees and to maintaining their vital but endangered presence in the eco-system.  In her debut collection Bee Purple (Oversteps, 2002), Mandy Pannett evokes a sense of bees and their instincts as desegregated from a world continually threatened, in the context of their own peculiar powers and environmental perception, and the metaphorical implications this may hold for the wider Universe:

... there is purple, bee 
purple, a vegetable shade for the bees' eyes only,
an insect world of the ultra violet that we
can't see.

So the ancient gods have shot up to the stars
and there's no space in the macrocosm
for man at the centre controlling the threads;

just an apian myth, maybe 




Never a day goes by that I am not immensely grateful to the part played by bees in sustaining our eco-system and supporting my own life in the process.  Like most people, I have been unavoidably aware of these flashy, striped symbols of summer for as long as I can remember, and it is perhaps their ubiquity that has delayed my impulse to write of them - though their visibility is largely confined to the warmer months, bees are so familiar as to be somewhat part of the furniture, and, despite having authored a collection of poems entirely inspired by "Little Creatures", it was only recently that I found myself committing to paper any concrete observations of the wonderful world of bees.  This is what I came up with - short and simple, and focusing on just one group of bees, but, I hope, going some way to conveying the impressive presence of the brilliant bee.

HONEY BEES

Slotting in and out of borders,
jazzy flashes,
neon-banded black-jacks,
jet-jewelled amber sparks
dive and jive 
among Astrantia, garden mint and chives,

paint wobbly dots in beds of borage,
setting feverfew alight,
freckle waves of rain
in beads of fire-opal,
zircon wisps,
stripey stars
igniting galaxies of nectar.

 



Monday, 24 July 2017

Circling in the Mist - Poetry of Swallows

 We are lucky in the Valley to see swallows fairly often, gliding through the skies above the River Calder, swooshing over the moors, or dotting the telegraph wires like lucky charms, their navy-blue faces and blade-like wings shining in the sunshine.  Sometimes they even swoop right past my window, disappearing over the roof or arcing back like circus knives to vanish among the treetops.  They are exciting birds, enticingly low flying and apparently unafraid of people,  yet their quicksilver flight gives them a transient, elusive edge, and and air of mystery.


Hirundo rustica, the so-called "Barn Swallow", is the most frequent member of the Hirundinidae (swallow) family, and has featured frequently in poetry, often in the context of its northward migration, as a motif of summer.  Perhaps the earliest literary reference to the swallow comes from Aristotle - his famous advisory dictum "For as one swallow or one day does not make a spring, so one day or a short time does not make a fortunate or happy man" - and yet, despite this statement's air of caution, the appearance of these Blue-dark knots of glittering voltage, to coin Ted Hughes's phrase, has long symbolized the coming of warmer times, and Shakespeare refers to this in The Winter's Tale, when introducing Daffodils, That come before the swallow dares. Elsewhere, the bird is remarked on for its speed of flight, as in Richard the Third, when Richmond reflects that True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings, and in Titus Andronicus: I have horse will follow where the game Makes way, and run like swallows o'er the plain.
While Keats was to illustrate the coming of autumn with gathering swallows twitter(ing) in the skies, thus inverting the typical poetic metaphor, John Clare maintained a traditional perspective in his meditation on the birds.  An otherwise rather twee account turns heart-warmingly pictorial and domestic in this concluding segment of his poem The Swallow:

 Whewing by the ladslove tree
For something only seen by thee;
Pearls that on the red rose hing
Fall off shaken by thy wing.

On that low thatched cottage stop,
In the sooty chimney pop,
Where thy wife and family
Every evening wait for thee. 




Unsurprisingly, swallows appear regularly in haiku, far too numerously to do credit to here, but in the recent Wingbeats - British Birds in Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2008) I noticed several beautiful haiku which seemed to crystallize the swallow's unique beauty and simultaneously evocative and calming presence:

solitary swallow
warmth lingers in the wind
that blusters the moor
(Keith Coleman)

tin mine
a pair of swallows dart
between the chimneys
(Alison Williams) 

Above a ton of firewood
the last of our swallows
circling in the mist
(Ken Jones)






My own first sighting of  swallow was not here amid the moors of post-industrial chimneys of the North, but in the sunlit glow of a Cornish dawn, as I waded the margin of the sea at Kynance Cove in early September, 2006.  Warming my bare feet in the almost-tropical waters, which seemed to gently bubble above the pebbly sands, I looked out at a pristine sweep of turquoise sea, rolling slowly in marbly waves, the horizon glittering in the soft mists of sunrise. About thirty metres ahead I could see a slab of rocks, as if piled upon each other like some disjointed totem pole erected for the worship of aquatic gods.  Swallows swooped round it, tiny planets in orbit, two, four, six, maybe half a dozen of them, gliding in circles, tilting towards the beckoning spire of stone, before swerving back towards the bay,  meandering the crannies of the cliffs.  My poem came drifting into flight that morning on the sands, and was almost fully formed by the time I scribbled it that evening, in my room overlooking the vast embrace of the English Channel, to the intermittent hoot of the Lizard Lighthouse, echoing against the sound of swelling waves.

SWALLOWS

In pairs they shoot
cliff bound
skating mists
which sheathe the seas
in silk

like gems upon a pebbled shore,
smooth sandy shapes
   emerging from
       the early morning clouds

see them thread the mangled crags,
glide above an island's edge,

split, converge

and tuck themselves inside
the nooks of cliffs,
tiny atoms camouflaged
in eternities of stone. 


Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Poppies in July

Sylvia Plath's poem Poppies in July, written in July 1962, and published posthumously in her famous 1965 collection Ariel.  I have been thinking of the poem a lot this month, as my walks and wanders through the Calder Valley have revealed them, Plath's Little hell flames, burning by the canal-side towpaths, or flickering in the wind among the foxgloves and foliage of parks.  Like the scarlet lamps of clandestine woodland tribes, they glow almost fluorescently, redolent of summers past and of bygone wars, of beating hearts and blood.  For Sylvia Plath, they seem emblematic of something simultaneously breathing with the fires of violence, and the gentle lulling of oblivion.

  


 

Do you do no harm?  She asks, curious of fumes that I cannot touch, and asking Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?  while conscious of the barrier between the flowers' enticing, drugging power, and her predicament in the corporeal world.

And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that,
wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a 
mouth.

A mouth just bloodied.

 

When most poets write of summer flowers, we write of their beauty, we celebrate their life-affirming colours and cycles, we speak of love and vitality or of meditative peace.  Plath writes of hell and fire, of opiates and of "Little bloody skirts!" with all the shadowy implications such an image conjures.  She employs two exclamation marks - If I could bleed, or sleep! - and yet the poem assumes a sad, slow, almost soporific rhythm, and frames two questions within the poem, and repeats her complaint that I cannot touch the flowers - for all the poem's Trans-Atlantic confessionalism,she is curiously, rather Englishly, detached, from the flames of liberation offered by the burning petals of the lulling poppies, and unable to transcend her sense of isolation.

I put my hands among the fames.
Nothing burns.

 









Sylvia Plath's poem was composed during the breakup of her marriage, and is a clear break from the immersive, organic perception of earlier works concerned with growth and nature, such as Mushrooms, or the secretive but life-affirming Blue Moles, whose evidence of subterranean argy-bargy nonetheless a striving for survival, or the melancholic Frog Autumn, in which even the imminence of death is set out amid poetry as precise and deftly observed as the best nature writing.  Yet in Poppies in July, this kinship with the wild world is stricken by depletion, newly distanced negative capability, and a longing for escape rather than communion:

If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!

Poets have always been drawn to the poppy.  Like Coleridge or Wordsworth, De Quincey, Shelley, Branwell Bronte, Byron, Sylvia Plath is drawn to the bloody flames of Papaver rhoeas. Unlike those decadent, flawed or tragic figures, she remained at odds with its intoxicating, demonic charms and powers, but left us with an utterly unique meditation on the poppy's presence on our summer landscape, bringing to the fore her own desires and fears. It is one of Sylvia Plath's finest poems, and a memorable, chilling reflection of a mysterious, enticing plant rich in myth and meaning, both Universal and acutely personal.

POPPIES IN JULY, by Sylvia Plath

Little poppies, little hell flames,
Do you do no harm?


You flicker. I cannot touch you.
I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns.


And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.


A mouth just bloodied.
Little bloody skirts!


There are fumes I cannot touch.
Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?


If I could bleed, or sleep!
If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!


Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule,
Dulling and stilling.


But colorless. Colorless.


True Faith at Manchester Art Gallery

 

Every time I enter the palazzo-style wonderland of Manchester Art Gallery, tucked off the throng of the city centre on the unassuming Moseley Street, I know I am about to encounter something special, and my visit earlier this week to see the exhibition True Faith ("exploring the ongoing significance and legacy of New Order and Joy Division through the wealth of visual art their music has inspired") is no exception, and is an experience that prompts me to complete a poem I had begun nearly ten years ago.

 

Curated by Matthew Higgs, Director of White Columns, New York, writer Jon Savage, and archivist Johan Kugelberg, True Faith brings together a range of visual responses to the two groups' work, by artists including Julian Schnabel, Jeremy Deller, Liam Gillick, Mark Leckey, Glenn Brown and Slater Bradley, as well as featuring a wall-length display of the bands' record sleeves, created by legendary graphic designer Peter Saville.

Entering, I am greeted by a hangar-like room streaked with strip lights slanting from the ceiling, casting cold electric glows across the pale wood floors. According to Fiona Corridan, the gallery's Curator of Contemporary Art, this installation, Martin Boyce’s Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours, turns the gallery into an urban park at night*, though with the band's names, and those of some of their songs, printed in template-like letters upon enormous white blocks, and the stray minimalist metal structures laying seemingly at random, could equally be said to lend the environment a look of those iconic photos of the Hacienda, c. 1989 which always look most atmospheric in black-and-white, an impression made only stronger by the presence of faceless mannequins drape on chairs in loose-fitting hoodies.  But now, I am magnetized to the luminescent psychedelia of Glenn Schnabel's Dark Angel, subtitled "Echoes of Ian Curtis." 


Like many others who will visit this stunning exhibition, I am an almost lifelong fan of  New Order and their earlier, tragic incantation.  In those pre-web days, when discovering bands could be an adventure several years long, scouring the shelves of HMV or Woolworths and picking up the trail in fits and starts, often a single at a time, it was New Order I found first. The addictive synths, iconic bass, the cool, stabbed Salfordian vocals of Bernard Sumner, the dark dance melodies of Blue Monday and Perfect Kiss piercing my suburban adolescence like poison darts, the blissful sunshine of Bizarre Love Triangle and the bright, chart-bound pop of later albums sounding to my sixteen year old ears almost impossible to acquaint with the violent post-punk of Joy Division, whose music and lyrics would bleed indelibly into my subconscious, and whose doomed and beautiful lead singer Ian Curtis would be, that long hot summer between leaving school and starting college, a poet close to my heart before I had ever read Keats or Coleridge, De Quincey, Eliot or Baudelaire.

       

Entering a darkened, hut-like room, I am aware of people perched on benches before a large screen blurred with static. Upon this fuzzy jumble, shapes slowly form, half-defined dark patches and willowy lines waving like a photograph from outer space.  From the speakers come the melancholy waves of Joy Division's Decades, the understated, mumbly vocal drifting like rain across the cold metallic, post industrial backstreets of '70's Lancashire. My initial thought is that this semi-visible display seems a tad pretentious, and stretching the theme. Then, the wiggling shape of wobbly dots on the big, looming screen starts forming into something recognizable, and although the scene is still a haze of fuzz,  it is becoming gradually clear that it is Curtis, his unmistakable rhythm and arresting presence captured at some late gig or studio recording, swaying slightly and with slowly flowing arms, as if reaching out at us, or else drawing further back, looking out from beyond the gauze of a netherworld of introspection, like a face staring up at us from underwater.
The aesthetics of such an exhibit may be endlessly debated, but it moves me greatly, and as the song peters out to its pained, echoic fade, I see middle-aged men, watching beside me, with tears in their eyes.
 
 

Through the arch into the next enclosure, I am caught by another of these small cinema-like rooms, and am truly startled now by what I see.  A life size recording of a concert, beams from the screen, the guitars savage and angry, the vocals raw and gritty, the spit-and-sawdust venue dark in Dickensian dinginess, as familiar melodies razor their way from the rough, rioting, strike-sapped 70's to our own age of turbulence and social unrest. It is the closest I will come to seeing Joy Division live, and a moment to embrace.


Returning to the light, I am hooked into a booming, brightened hub of a room, from which enticing disco beats are emanating.  The scenes on this screen are of a different nature - the arty, life-affirming or at times just purely pop-driven videos of New Order singles, most of which I'm watching for the first time, and which together with the incessantly uplifting music pack a Prozac-style punch of euphoria into this echoic little room. All we need is a strobe light and some bottled water, and we could be transformed, here in the middle of a weekday afternoon, into something very different. I feel so extraordinary, something's got a hold of me, and as the urge to move comes over me, my backpack nudging back and forth into the hard stone wall behind me, I can't quite understand why my fellow gallery-goers are not dancing for all their lives are worth.

Bernard Sumner has spoken of how much of the intensity of Joy Division (both musically and lyrically) can be understood as a reaction to the increasingly post-industrialized environments of the region, in which terraced neighbourhoods were demolished in favour of alienating tower blocks, in which the city's canals, once the life blood if its industries, were left to decay, and in which the remnants of war were left unremarked upon:

Thee were underground shelters at the back of the street where we used to play ... It was unfashionable to talk about it (WW2) ... you had to drop the subject... but I didn't think it should be dropped and I think that was where our interest came from...It had been a decade before we were born, not that long ago.*
 
 The themes of New Order's songs encompass a vast variety of serious subjects, from love to war, Presidential assassinations, child abuse, drugs and death - and, of course, football - but for me there is always something joyous about their music - specifically the singles and especially from the late 80's onwards.  They thrill and delight, and embody an essence at once eclectic and sheer pop.  But I would come to their brooding beginnings, their regeneration in the ashes of Joy Division, last of all, the hard, at times eerie, album Movement buzzing through my ears and captivating me like a not altogether pleasant yet weirdly enlivening drug.  It is an odd chapter in the group's history, in ways a continuation of the gloom of their prehistory, at others hinting at the immersion in technology which would see them cleave a newly defined path in the decade following, and has a wobbly reputation even among band members. "We were happy with the songs, not all happy with the production," bassist Peter Hook would later reveal, "We were confused musically ... Our songwriting wasn't coming together."  And yet, I find this record, released the year I was born, to be a charged release, a kick of  defiance.  Amid the tortured claustrophobia, I hear, in its mazy rhythms, in Gillian Gilbert's ethereal, unexpected vocal, and in those fast, frenetic opening bars and strident first words, a nervous but determined starting gun, a leap of faith, a gateway, a hope.





"Please Do Not Photograph This Exhibit" is printed beside the small glass cabinet, beneath the watchful gaze of an ever-present guard.  Behind the glass, on a sheet of faded paper, black ink is swirled into three blocked stanzas, an almost-scrawl which has the look of hasty inspiration, but is spelt out in big, confident capitals.

WHEN ROUTINE BITES HARD, AND
AMBITION IS LOW

I've seen Ian Curtis' handwriting before, reproduced photographically between the pages of a book, but nothing could come close to this, the close-up, smudgy reality, the larger prominence of individual words ("RESENTMENT", "CHANGING,") and the sheer aliveness of this slice of history, plain before my eyes.  But it is the crossings-out which move me most - a couple of words scribbled out, which have me peering close to make out the omissions - which seem to authenticate this groundbreaking document, and transpose it from the stuff of legends to the everyday.  It seems strange that the multitudinous appeal of this wonderful exhibition should be summed up in this one small item, yet distilled within its brief tale of dark black ink is a bridge from another time, to ours, a grasping for life, a golden spark of humanity.  It is a thing of raw sincerity, and after I have looked at it for some moments, re-read the lines, and stopped to take in once again their unaffected, honest beauty, there is nothing left to do but to walk away, in silence.


NEW ORDER'S MOVEMENT, 1981


Punk-drunk, late Seventies, sobering up
in a rainy Eighties dawn, a furious
tragic echo
factory horns whistle 
over ice-maned moors.

It is the sound of demolished back-to-backs
the sound of lonely tower blocks
shivering in sleet,
canals gummed up with toxic froth,
bomb shelters rotting in back gardens,

It is the sound of violence and dark streets,
fear,
the sound of Manchester 
before Manchester was fashionable,
the sound of past wars nobody will speak of,
the working class stiff-upper-lip.
It is the sound of England screaming.

Like muffled cries of long-forgotten inmates
huddled in Victorian asylums
or stalking the corridors of cobwebbed hospitals,
narrowing Hells,
of hollow nothingness,
a pre-pop, pre-e, pre daybreak sound,
the sound of hesitant new starts,
nervously, defiantly, 
stubbornly
gritting teeth and getting on with it. 



1. thechromologist.com
2. Source: Deborah Curtis - Touching From a Distance, Faber, 1995
3. Mark Johnson, An Ideal For Living, Bobcat Books, 1984.


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Sun Capsizes - Madagascan Poet Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo (1901-1937)


My last post focused on the sad life and premature death of Branwell Bronte, whose poetic skills are only now, two centuries after his birth, being brought to public attention, but another troubled poet, who like Branwell became addicted to drugs and died in his thirties, was Madagascan  Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo. Unlike Branwell, Rabearivelo, who died eighty years ago this year, was widely popular as a poet in his lifetime, and helped to pioneer a number of poetic schools of thought. 


The black glassmaker, writes Rabearivelo in Traduits de la Nuit (Translations From the Night), whose countless eyeballs none has ever seen ... that slave all clothed in pearls of glass / who is strong as Atlas / and who carries the seven skies on his head
Such is the folkloric essence of the poet's worldview, a mythical world dominated equally by the legends of his native Madagascar, and the imagery and surrealism of the great 19th Century French Symbolist poets.  In its depiction of the spirits of creation, or the planetary atmosphere, or simply the starry concave of the night sky, the piece might also be said to capture something of the tragic Rabearivolo himself:

... one would think that the vast river of clouds might carry him away.

 
The mythical world Rabearivelo creates, says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is an intensely personal one dominated by visions of death, catastrophe, and alienation, mitigated only occasionally by hope of salvation or resurrection. Indeed, Rabearivolo's reading of the sky is of struggle and suffering:

And you are witness of his daily suffering
and of his endless task;
you watch his thunder-riddled agony
until the battlements of the East re-echo
the conches of the sea

Through the medium of sound, the muscular realities of the man-made world are united with the aquatic and mysterious, but in clashing and violent ways. There is something cyclical and symbiotic in the way he sees the world and its elements:


A thousand particles of glass
fall from his hands
but rebound towards his brow
shattered by the mountains 
where the winds are born.

Yet, in most of his poems, Rabearivolo presents an aspect of the natural world in some sort of conflict, or depicted as a series of losses and shifts.  At times, he feminizes the elements, and celebrates the mythical forces underpinning the beauty of rocks, stones, and the sea - an almost constant metaphor in the visions of this island poet:


She
whose eyes are prisms of sleep
and whose lids are heavy with dreams,
she whose feet are planted in the sea
and whose shiny hands appear
full of corals and blocks of shining salt.

She will put them in little heaps beside a misty gulf
and sell them to naked sailors
whose tongues have been cut out,
until the rain begins to fall.

Nature as self-creating, self-realising, benign deity is an image sharply offset by the stanza immediately succeeding the lines above:


Then she will disappear
and we shall only see
her hair spread by the wind
like a bunch of seaweed unravelling,
and perhaps some tasteless grains of salt.

The "perhaps" adds a dry, ironic twist to this bathetic rejoinder, but the image that stays panted in the mind is that of the goddess' hair spread by the wind, like unravelling seaweed, and in this respect Rabearivelo imbues something organic and beautiful into the world's bounties, with her human recipients like hungover revelers following a night of splendid ecstasies, now dimly recalled.  Elsewhere, the world's provisions are seen as miraculous and  fantastical, even invisibly so, as in his poem Cactus, from the 1934 collection Presques-Songes (Nearly Dreams):

 That multitude of moulded hands
holding out flowers to the azure sky
that multitude of fingerless hands
unshaken by the wind
they say that a hidden source
wells from their untainted palms
they say that this inner source
refreshes thousands of cattle
and numberless tribes, wandering tribes
in the frontiers of the South.

Further on, the cacti, still as green / as moonbeams glancing from the forest, are personified, as lepers sprouting flowers.  In an apparently unique setting, Rabearivelo casts the plants as the remnants of the hands of lepers buried beneath the sand, with Ressurectional overtones:

The blood of the earth, the sweat of the stone,
and the sperm of the wind,
which flow together in these palms
have melted their fingers
and replaced them with golden flowers.



Leprosy has long been a common scourge in Madagascar, and Rabearivelo would have been well used to encountering those subjected to it.  Known for his attachment to social outsiders, attracted to poets whose work placed them on the margins of the literary world, Rabearivelo makes an obvious and sympathetic defender of lepers, and it is unsurprising that he should have emerged as one of the chief proponents of the Fantaisite poetic movement - a trend which emphasized the futility of life in melancholy language and style.  Rabearivelo's own life could easily be seen as a series of trials and disappointments, even from his earliest days.

Hailing from an impoverished family newly stripped of privileges due to French colonization, the only son of an unmarried mother, he grew up in the north of Madagascar and attended various schools and colleges - expelled from one for poor discipline and, revealingly, a refusal to submit to religious observance.  His early jobs ranged from errand boy and lace maker, to secretary and interpreter - demonstrating the versatility of his skills, and his capacity for languages: Rebearivelo, already fluent in French, taught himself English, Hebrew and Spanish all within his late teens.

Eventually, after a stint as a librarian, entering the world of proof-reading, the young Jean-Joseph appeared to have settled on a steady job, and his progress in life appeared solidified in 1926, when Rabearivelo married Mary Razafitrimo, the daughter of a local photographer, with whom he had five children.

Its taste will be sweeter,
because it was pregnant with desire
And with fearful love and scented blossoms -
Pregnant by the love sun.
(From Pomegranate) 



Rabearivelo's prose works were often historical in theme, but his poetry might be said to exist in a time frame and environment somewhere between the mythic and the poet's own subconscious with the images and associations sometimes intriguingly contradictory:

A purple star 
evolves in the depths of sky - 
what a flower of blood that blooms in the prairie of the night

and almost everywhere, the sky and sea are blended together:

Ebb of the oceanic light.
The octopi
blacken the sand
with their thick ink;
but countless little fish
which resemble shells of silver
unable to escape,
struggle:
taken with nets
stiffened by dark seaweed 
that become lianas
and invade the cliffs of heaven.

Rabearivelo may have felt that he, like the seaweed struggling up to heaven, were somehow trying to wrongfully inhabit a happy state where he did not belong.  As his financial debts racked up, he seems to have grown more pessimistic, and when we look at the poetry of these difficult years, themes of darkness and regret appear with increasing frequency.  The moon is gnawed at by an invisible rat, its absence juxtaposed by the hungover presence of gamblers after a night of debauch:

Tomorrow morning
those who have drunk all night
and those who have abandoned their cards,
blinking at the moon
will stammer out:
"Whose is that sixpence
that rolls over the green table?"
"Ah! One of them will add,
our friend has lost everything
and killed himself!"

And all will snigger
and, staggering, will fall.
The moon will no longer be there:
the rat will have carried her into his hole.


Rabearivelo's problems may have introduced a darker strain into the style of his work, but he began to enjoy some degree of literary success, publishing a novel, writing Madagascar's first and only opera, several books of poems, and enjoying the company of other Malagasy writers.  Rabearivelo corresponded with a diverse range of international poets, amassed a large amount of books, and developed good relationships among senior French colonial officials, including Pierre Camo, founder of Madagascar's literary journal 18° Latitude Sud.  All of this helped to expedite his elevation to literary repute.

 

The confidence with which Rabeariveo was writing was emphasized by, as remarked by academic Arnaud Sabatier, the rediscovery and embrace of the sound and images of traditional Malagasy poetry, from which he had previously distanced himself or which he had subjected to the colonial language and culture.  Rabearivelo's poems of the early to mid 1930's are described by academic Claire Riffard as his strangest, evoking rural and commonplace images alongside unexpected dreamlike visions, superimposing the new and the forgotten.



As earlier suggested, Rabearivelo's chief influences, poetically, were French poets like Baudelaire, whose themes of dissolution, ennui and urban squalor might be traced in some of Rabearivelo's less ethereal poetry, and he was deeply drawn to the Surrealists.  Rabearivelo's translator, Robert Ziller of the University of Florida, has observed how With remarkable originality, he synthesized Europe's prevailing urban surrealism with his own comparatively bucolic surroundings.
For Ziller, Rabearivelo's work provides the wildly innovative imagery of modern realism, permeated with the essence of traditional oral poetry,  and unlike many other Surrealist-influenced modern poets, we never feel that we've been given a superfluous display of linguistic dexterity devoid of meaning. Here, we know, there is something of relevance being poetically manifested by a man isolated on an island, who wishes to communicate his thoughts to the rest of the world. His poems are often deceptively simple, uniquely surreal yet logical, both sensual and abstract — yet they always bear the distinction of being infused with undeniable sincerity.

Where are the songsters of the sun?
The glow is springing from their eye
dead with sleep 
within the springs of their lianas,
they revive their dreams
and their echoes
in this evanescence of fireflies,
which become a cohort of stars

And so we have, once more,  Rabearivelo's recurring image of lianas - an image deliciously rooted in his tropical environment, yet in its way as Universal as any metaphor in poetry.  Through the prism of the dreaming birds, the echoed dreams and the evanescent fireflies, we are given an insight into the mind of a man permanently searching and reaching for something beyond, something above. But also something that has attached its self to the strength and security of others, like Rabearivelo the distiller of native folklore and stories, Rabearivelo the assimilationist, Rabearivelo the loyal courtier, making friendly relations with Colonial authorities. To what extent these loyalties would be returned would be sore point for Rabearivelo in later life.

In the early days the Colonial powers highlighted Rabearivelo's role as an assimilated native writer as evidence of French policy and the benefits of Empire.  But, having been appointed to a clerical role with the Malagasy Academy, Rabearivelo fell behind with his taxes and was imprisoned for three days in 1937. Believing that his ears of service to the government ought to have got him off the hook, Rabearivelo grew bitter, and took on an increasingly anti-Imperialist outlook.  Used to being snubbed by the high society on account of his unconventional views, he wrote of feeling "used" by the authorities, and interpreting his own struggle as a kind of microcosm of his country's predicament.

Rabearivelo's poetry of the late 1930's expresses a kind of Eden in reverse, a rolling back of light and creation into a dark, deathly sleep:

The hide of the black cow is stretched,
stretched but not  set out to dry,
stretched in the sevenfold shadow.

But who has killed the black cow,
dead without having lowed, dead without having roared,
dead without having once been chased
over that prairie flowered with stars?

And yet, his bovine depiction of the nocturnal firmament flows into the promise of rebirth:

She who calves in the far half of the sky.

Stretched is the hide
on the sounding-box of the wind 
sculptured by the spirits of sleep.

And the drum is ready
when the new-born calf ,
her horns crowned with spear grass
leaps
and grazes the grass of the hills.

It reverberates there 
and its incantations will become dreams
until the moment when the black cow lives again,
white and pink
before a river of light.




 All of the problems of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo might seem trivial, when seen in the context of his greatest misfortune - the death of his daughter Voahangy, at at the age of 3, in 1932.  Preceding his financial downfall, and precipitating his decline into drug addiction, it is highly likely that this traumatic event was a catalyst for all that subsequently went wrong in Rabearivelo's life.  The death came to dominate his poetry and journals, and indeed his life - when his last daughter was born in 1936, he chose to name her Velomboahangy ("Voahangy Alive").

Though still holding down a job, Rabearivelo digressed into debts and opium addiction, and largely turned his back on marriage in favour of womanising.  Shunned by both the French authorities and his own Malagasy peers for his former willingness to embrace a Francophile lifestyle, he endured a period of restlessness and self doubt, contemplating death and pondering in his journal: "Perhaps one needs to die to be found sincere."

At the onset of this essay, I looked at one of Rabearivelo's poems about the sky, in which the trials of "the black glassmaker"  are compared to slavery.  It ends with the poet nihilistically observing how:

...you pity him no more
and do not even remember that his sufferings begin again
each time the sun capsizes

Was Rabearivelo that black glassmaker, bowed down by years of relentlessly attempting to negotiate the struggle to survive within a system ultimately designed to trap him?



In May 1837, a beleaguered  Rabearivelo held out the hope of a leading part representing Madagascar at the 1937 Exposition in Paris - a duty he had been promised by the government.  It a promise which was revoked.  With his life and career in apparent disarray, Rabearivelo did not cut a figure to be admired by the authorities, and his dream of visiting the land of so many of his idolized poets, and meeting with his French contemporaries amid the bohemian quarters and concert halls of Paris, was cruelly scunnered. Then, on the 19th June, he was informed that his lack of official qualifications would bar him from his last remaining aim, of progressing to a high ranking governmental job.  This was the final straw for Rabearivelo.

On the morning of Tuesday, June the 22nd, 1937, the poet set about the completion of several of his unfinished works of poetry.  Then, according to his journal, at the precise time of 1.53 that afternoon, Rabearivelo, who was suffering, just as Branwell Bronte had, with tuberculosis, took four quinine tablets, and set about burning the first five volumes of his previous journals.  At 2.37, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo swallowed ten grams of potassium cyanide, and died some time after 3 that afternoon, at the age of 36.

As in his troubled life, Rabearivelo's posthumous reputation has been subject to ebbs and flows - upheld by some as the Father of Madagascan Poetry, by others as an African literary hero.  Some have levered Rabearivelo to the role of a martyr of Empire, seeing the refusal of the colonial authorities to enable his visit to the Paris Exposition as a death knell dealt by colonial France; others deny this martyrdom with a nod to his, at least partly, assimilated status.  But undoubtedly, among poets and readers, the legacy has endured, and in 1960 the newly independent state of Madagascar pronounced Rabearivelo as the country's first National Poet.  A school has been named after him, as has a room in the National Library of Madagascar.  This is all a far cry from the deprivations of his childhood, the seemingly intractable poverty of his adult days, and the ignominy in which the poet died.  Like many famous poets, Rabearivelo will be taken on by different movements, his poetic output co-opted to suit the causes of the day, but as a body of work, the poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo stands as a testament to a truly unique, wonderful mind.  It is surely for this that he should chiefly, and with most profound appreciation, be remembered.

The secret hives are arranged
near the lianas of heaven,
among the luminous nests

 Gather nectar there, bees of my thoughts,
little bees winged with sound
within the pregnant cloud of silence;
laden yourself with resin
perfumed with stars and wind:
we will seal all the gaps
communicating with the tumult of life.

Laden yourself also with stellar pollen
for the prairies of the earth;
and tomorrow, when there will be wreathed
the wild roses of my poems



Thursday, 29 June 2017

Reflections on Branwell Bronte


Monday just gone was the bicentenary of Branwell Bronte, brother of of the famous Bronte sisters.
Those who know me, know that for most of the last two years, and for a not inconsiderable part of the years immediately preceding,  my life has been largely taken up by Branwell and his work - both his creative work, and his professional endeavours, including the years spent on the railways at Sowerby Bridge and Luddenden Foot, which formed the inspiration for my film, A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years http://www.humblestation.co.uk/


Themed around Juliet Barker's acclaimed biography The Brontes, the film brings together contemporary Calder Valley artists, writers and residents to celebrate his local, and wider, legacy. I have written of the film elsewhere on this site, but suffice to say for here that its completion has been the summit of two tremendously industrious years on behalf of myself and my co-filmmaker Alan Wrigley, who filmed and edited A Humble Station?, and who wrote an original suite of majestic music for the film, as well as a beautiful song performed by Sowerby Bridge based singer and musician Amy-Rose Atkinson.  While Branwell's reputation as a heavy drinking black sheep of the family, and the tragedy of his early death, are well known, we wanted to re-focus public eyes on some of the lesser known aspects of his life, such as his poetry and paintings - and the film also centrally features railways and their significance to Branwell 




 

And interviews and poetry from Juliet Barker, Ann Dinsdale of The Bronte Parsonage, and artists such as actor and writer Caroline Lamb:


 and award winning poet Steve Nash, author of the Caterpillar Poetry collection The Calder Valley Codex:


...as well as taking in interviews with other local people, such as at Luddenden's Lord Nelson, the 18th Century inn which Branwell frequented (and where he enjoyed the company of poets and musicians, taking advantage of the library which shared the premises, and was the first lending library in the Ridings area)


 ...while being, we hope, an apt tribute to the valley, its history and landscapes.


Branwell was born in Thornton, now part of Bradford, and, having launched the film in Halifax, it was here in the town of his birth that I brought it on the eve of his bicentenary.


The film was broadcast at St James Church, opposite the site of the original Bell Chapel, at which Branwell's father Patrick ministered from 1815 to 1820.



 




On the Branwell's bicentenary its self, we took the film to Haworth, where of course Branwell and his family lived for most of their lives.  I called in to raise a birthday drink for Branwell at his former haunt, The Black Bull:


...though I have no doubt he would have been disappointed in me for it was only a black coffee.


 
     

 

 The attractively patterned carpet at The Black Bull:




 And the carpet as Branwell would have known it:


Unexpectedly, at the top of a staircase in the Bull, can be found Branwell's old chair,  which - to quote poet Genevieve L Walsh in the film - "has a real shipwreck-like quality about it."





Tourists come in all shapes and sizes to Haworth:


 From the Black Bull, the Parsonage is only a short walk through the churchyard, and was a pefect location for the screening of A Humble Station? on Branwell Bronte's birthday.


 It is always a joy to visit the Parsonage, and to take a look at one of my favourites of Branwell's paintings - a copy of a picture by American painter Washington Allston, Jacob's Dream.

The original:



Branwell's version, in the Parsonage:


The Parsonage is currently host to a wonderful exhibition featuring clothes and props from Sally Wainwright's recent BBC Bronte drama To Walk Invisible, and Branwell's old room - featured in my film - is set out as it might have been when he was there.







But what was especially touching about the day, was that the Parsonage had arranged for staff and volunteers to plant a rose bush specially chosen for Branwell:



 I will be taking A Humble Station? on the road throughout summer and autumn, with our next screenings due to be listed on this site and http://www.humblestation.co.uk/  very soon.  A dvd will be available by the end of the year.  There are also continued activities planned here and further afield to continue the celebrations of Branwell's legacy.  But for my part, I think I will leave it for Branwell himself to have the final say, in one of my favourites of his poems.

Amid the world's wide din around
I hear from far a solemn sound
that says Remember Me

I when I heard it sat amid
The bustle of a town like room
Neath skies with smoke-stained vapours hid,
By windows made to show their gloom-
The desk that held my ledger book
Beneath the thundering rattle shook
Of engines passing by
The bustle of the approaching train
Was all I hoped to rouse the brain
Or startle apathy.