Timesong: searching for Doggerland

Just treated myself to a copy of Julia Blackburn’s latest book, Timesong, Searching for Doggerland.

In the introduction she says,

I wonder if it makes sense to imagine infinity going backwards in time rather than forwards. When you look at it that way round, you no longer have the vague dread of what the future holds, instead there is the intimation of the enormity of everything that has gone before: a solemn procession of life in all its myriad forms moving steadily towards this present moment. You can almost hear the songs they are singing.

There is something else. My husband died a few years ago. He has vanished and yet he remains close, beneath the surface as it were, so perhaps I am also trying to catch a glimpse of him within the great jumble of everything else that has been lost from our sight.’

As an epigraph she quotes the last few lines of a poem by Charles Causley, called Eden Rock. I thought it was worth sharing the whole:

They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:
My father, twenty-five, in the same suit
Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack
Still two years old and trembling at his feet.

My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress
Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,
Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.
Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight
From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw
Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out
The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,

They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, ‘See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’

I had not thought that it would be like this.
Charles Causley

Timesong: searching for Doggerland

Kiss me again

Extraordinary that the writer – Louise Labé – died in 1566 (From Modern Poetry in Translations Advent calendar ):

Kiss me again, kiss me, kiss me more:
Give me one of your most mouth-watering ones
Give me one of your most smouldering ones
I’ll repay it with four, hotter than any embers.

Weary, you say? Here, let me find a cure:
I’ll give you ten, all different, of rare softness.
Then as we mix up happiness and kisses
We two will please each other at our pleasure.
Now you and I will live our lives twice over
Once inside our self; once in our lover, and
Love, if I dare think this thought aloud,

Living in reserve makes me impatient:
How will I ever satisfy my ache,
Unless I rouse myself to seek, astride.

Who could resist the sonnets of Louise Labé? The tone of voice is immediately compelling, weighing face-to-face directness with fully rounded wit. These are poems which speak to everyone – candidly assertive, warmly human – as if five hundred years were nothing.

Louise Labé’s life – like the lives of so many women of talent – has frequently received more attention than her work. It has been shaped into a scandal (she was a courtesan), a legend (she rode to war), and most recently, a sham (she was a man). But perhaps she was just born in the right place at the right time: to an enlightened father who gave her access to the same education (fencing, riding, poetry, other languages) as her brothers; in Lyon, thriving cultural crossroads of the Renaissance.

The importance and pleasure of the work, notably the 24 Petrarchan sonnets she published alongside her Débat de folie et d ’amour, in 1555, seem indisputable, at least. Labé’s language is limpid, uncluttered; each line often a unit of sense, a clear foil for the aural underpinning of the logic, or argument, of its sonnet: rhyme, alliteration and assonance chime and fuse with unmistakable authority.

It seemed to me that I needed to hold onto, or recreate, that clarity, and cohesion, if I was to have any chance of capturing the bravado and enterprise of the sequence as a whole. These twenty four sonnets explore the way the imagination unlocks sensual pleasure; they enact, through form, an elusive reciprocity; they reclaim ringfenced areas of language and culture.

In short, Louise Labé rewrites the male Petrarchan tradition, giving it a blast of positive, debunking energy, a strong female voice and an intelligent physicality.

Kiss me again

Warning

I’m sure I heard that dogs can smell cancer in us – they just don’t know that the information might be useful to us.

There is  a tradition, though, when disaster looms, of warnings given by animals – who will even speak at times. C S Lewis drew on it in That Hideous Strength when, before an impending earthquake he writes:

One had heard his donkey, another her cat, say “as clear as clear”: “Go away. ” 

Paul Farley speculates that the disappearance of sparrows – once so familiar, ubiquitous, companionable – is a conscious withdrawal, as these old friends leave us to rattle off to hell in our handcarts all by ourselves. Of course, if we were still woken by dawn choruses, the unwonted quiet in the mornings, outside our bedroom windows, would be as clear an alarm as you could imagine. 

The poem is, For the House Sparrow, in Decline:

Your numbers fall and it’s tempting to think
you’re deserting our suburbs and estates
like your cousins at Pompeii; that when you return
to bathe in dust and build your nests again
in a roofless world where no one hears your cheeps,
only a starling’s modem mimicry
will remind you of how you once supplied
the incidental music of our lives.

Warning