Tag Archives: An East Anglian Diptych

David Jones Week: Homage and Heresy

I was going to post recordings of The Anathemata today but then changed my mind because there’s something else I’ve been meaning to do for the past couple of months. One of the things that I’ve wondered out loud about is the absence of Jones’ successors, worrying that he may suffer the fate of John Skelton and have no successors.

Vested interest time, Earlier this year I was invited by Carlo Parcelli to write something for Flashpoint which I duly did. Carlo then drew my attention to Flashpoint’s special on Jones and sent me a copy of his remarkable The Canaanite Gospel, A Meditation on Empire. In addition, John Matthias sent me a copy of his A Gathering of Ways and his Selected Works of David Jones when we started corresponding in 2010. End of vested interested disclaimer.

The Homage.

I’ll start with John’s An East Anglian Dyptych which is written in memory of David Jones and Robert Duncan. The poems is dived into two parts, Ley Lines and Rivers and encapsulates some of John’s writing about the English cultural past. I’m of the view that John is currently the best poet that we have on England’s many layers which is odd because he’s American. Perhaps British poets have a kind of bashful ambivalence about England (I include G Hill ) and this produces an odd kind of queasiness in the work. Anyone who is in doubt of this claim should read both the Diptych and Kedging in Time and then come back and argue with me.

The OED defines a homage as ” A work of art or entertainment which incorporates elements of style or content characteristic of another work, artist, or genre, as a means of paying affectionate tribute” and also a declaration of allegiance and I’d like to use both of these to think about the Diptych. The first ‘panel’ uses the ley line as its framing reference point. a ley line is a straightish line/track in the landscape between specific vantage points. The identification of these lines was first made and developed by Alfred Watkins in the 1920s. It has to be pointed out that the existence of these is denied by most of academia but the idea of these lines has embodied itself quite deep in our current popular culture.

Jones work is knee deep in myth and in his cultural past and these form a rich vein running through his work. In his notes John describes the Diptych as a ‘poem of place’ but it is much more than that. As with Jones, the lines are packed with proper nouns and both poems track to and fro through time. This is very difficult to carry off, only Olson springs to mind but he had to use many, many pages and years to do it. In terms of homage, the poms carry Jones within but John has made this spatio-temporality his own. This is the first half of the third part of Ley Lines:

Past Tom Paine's house behind the pudding stone
and castle there aligned
strategically along the Icknield Way

Beyond the Gallows Hill
beside the Thetford tracks to Brandon
down the Harling Drove

Across the Brickkiln Farm to Bromehill Cottage
& below the tumuli before
the rabbit warrens and top hats...

Some burials, some dead,
and here their flinted offerings.
Seven antler picks,

A phallus made of chalk, 
a Venus (did they call her yet Epona?)
and a tallow lamp...

Beltane fire line forty miles long?
Conflagration's law where energy's electric
down the herepath 
                         if belus is spelled Bel...

In terms of the temporal ‘shift’, there is also a poignant description of Edward Thomas who wrote about the Icknield Way which is one of England’s major tracks.

This seems written as an ‘affectionate tribute’ but also a declaration of allegiance of John pinning his colours to the Jones mast, a statement about the worth and strength of Jones’ work at a time when this had all but disappeared from view.

Rivers is equally remarkable and moves from prehistory to John Constable and the 19th century:

Or with a ship, a Syren or a Terpsichore. And if a giant, then a giant
metamorphosed over time. The man who'll six years later paint The Hay 
Wain may not know his river rises as a tiny Brook east of the Chilterns 
in the Gogmagogs. And yet he feels the giant in it, yet he knows its
gods. Today he finishes his sketch of Flatford Mill--the mill itself, the
locks, the barge and bargemen, and the small distracted barefoot boy on
his horse. He'll work it up in 1817 for the Academy and no one will
complain that it lacks finish. The sketch itself is rough he add an 
ash--his favourite tree--some elms a broken oak. He shades in clouds
he's come to study with a meteorologist's precision. Then he shuts the 
sketch book and trudges off toward Denham, marking in his mind
the river's fringe of willow herb and reed, the rising heron and the darting
snipe and redshank in the sky...

Before we get to the heretic, I’d be grateful if anyone knows of similar homages to Jones could let me know.

The Heresy

Before we go any further I must warn those of a sensitive disposition that this isn’t in any way comfortable material and that there will be film.

Carlo’s Gospel is a collection of 88 poetic monologues spoken by a range of characters at the time of the Passion. The heresy works in two directions, the first being the absence of reverence and the second being defiant irreverence in the face of critical sobriety. Needless to say I’m all in favour of the second of these traits and not at all offended by the first. Before we get to the extract I think I should mention that Carlo is of the view that the Romans should speak with a cockney twang. This is the first part of Orianus 1 which is subtitled “a Roman principalis protests his confinement to quarters adamantly denying the frumentari Gatian’s accusation that he and his detail killed Ezekial and several members of his gang after questioning them in the fortress Antonia”:

And you can tell that Capuan shite Gatian
     Me proper animus a any bangers
         What's slinging stones at me detail,
Special when posted bounties for these body snatches, and a fuckin'
         80 denarii donatio for any nasty bits a the Nazarene.
If these Jew mommas can't keep their little Davids
    Out the road I'll bring Hephaistos down on 'em to leave a mark.
Lucky I didn't request me ordo send a writ to the speculatores.
      A mock drownin' and a broken chalk's a bargain
What these whinin' women better be gracious
      Or next it'll be bread and the house what goes missin'.

Before we go any further, the good news is that youtube has a video of Carlo reading this monologue and seven or eight others of an equally scabrous and gnarly nature. I do appreciated that some may wish to denigrate this kind of material but there’s much to be admired about one who appears so single minded in moving the demotic on to a different plane. The po-faced historian in me would also like to point out that this kind of language and these attitudes are probably a much more accurate portrayal of the average Roman NCO than the description(s) that Jones gives. Of course, the heresy is counterbalanced by the affectionate nod in Jone’s direction. I also wish that more poets would provide reasonably produced videos of themselves reading their work because poetry should be read out loud.

The other important point to note is that the monologues tell provide an interlinked narrative on several levels, one which challenges most of our stereotypes and assumptions. Reading this through in sequence I have gained a much clearer impression of the place and the time. It’s a fascinating piece of iconoclasm and one that I thoroughly recommend, currently available on amazon and from County Valley Press.


John Matthias and cultural geography

A short while ago I wrote a piece on poetry and map-making which was both ill-conceived and poorly expressed.  I’ve now had the opportunity to think this through some more and will attempt a second stab.

The first premise is that space is constructed by us as individuals and that the spaces that we create in our heads are far more important than the physical dimensions/aspects of a physical space that actually exists.

The second premise is that poetry is particularly good at creating the idea of a particular place, that verse can best express how it is (or was) to be in a particular location.

The third premise is that our cultural background is tied in with how we put space together in our heads and that this is intricately linked with our sense of time.

Some of John Matthias’ work is a prime example of the above. I don’t normally pay much attention to blurbs on the back of books but I think Guy Davenport gets it about right when he says- “Objective and clear, his poetry is a splendid fusion of engaging subjects and masterful technique. He has refined the narrative and speculative poem, giving it a lyric integrity of great strength and beauty.” I’d also like to add that Matthias is the best ‘poet of place’ that we currently have. The ‘A Gathering of Ways’ collection contains poems about East Anglia, the American Midwest and a remarkable long poem about the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.

“She maps Iraq” is a brilliant, eloquent poem about the nature of political power and gender relations and the making of space whilst the ‘Trigons’ collection takes us from 1939 to the present and includes the Greek Isles, London, Paris, Moscow and California.

I’ll try and give an example of why this stuff is important, when we think of London during the Blitz, we think of London in flames, of many thousands dead, of the physical destruction of the East End but Matthias writes of a series of concerts given during the Blitz by Myra Hess in the basement of the National Portrait Gallery and does so in such a moving and evocative way that my cognitive map of that time and place has changed.

His ‘East Anglian Diptych’ has had a similar effect- in the past I’ve always thought of East Anglia a rather damp backwater but reading this has made me aware not only of the vibrancy of the place but also how that particular place has been created and re-created through time. The inclusion of Edward Thomas and John Constable also add to the cultural component in space creation. I’ve said before that Matthias is a very intelligent and skilled poet, he is able to do difficult things whilst making them seem easy and I wish I had this gift.

So, poets make place and some poets do this with a great deal of care. John Milton went to enormous lengths to ensure that the spatial relationship between heaven, hell and earth was feasible. Dante creates specific geographies for each of his various levels whilst Spenser’s spaces in the Faerie Queen are a weird (but considered) blend of the real and the imaginary.

My own current attempts to write something reasonable about the Saville Inquiry are currently floundering on the space issue. The place itself is contested because it has two names (Derry and Londonderry) and the places where trauma occurred during that Sunday afternoon continue to be constructed in equally different ways both culturally and politically (with a large religious dimension thrown in) and I know that I should reflect this but can’t yet do it with ease.

One final thought, Matthias’ description of gendarmes using their clubs like swords has changed irrevocably my mental image of the barricades from 1830 onwards- is this what the strength of poetry (in a few lines) can do?