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Æcerbot.

By STEVE ELY.

‘His heart will be living in splendour and fire,
and marvellous music will exalt him. He will
pay no respect to any one, though he be thought
a bumpkin. In depths of his being there is praise
of God and jubilant song, and his praise bursts
out aloud; his sweet voice rises to heaven, and
the Divine Majesty delights to hear it.’

Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love

 

………………………..I.

Richard, rude-raptured from Heaven
to haloed Hampole, hoist by indigent
dreaming. Dorter derelict, annihilate
ashlar, arcades and arches, fell.
Field-folk faithless, vicious,
vexatious, venal with violence of lucre
and lies. Leys laid waste
and woodland withered, wildcat banished
with beaver and bristle-backed boar.
Brook bereft of barbel and grayling,
gravels greased green with Elmsall’s
excreta, exudate of effluent plough.
Plucked of pear and peccant pippin,
pardes purged to ponied-pasture, wrecked
of wryneck, rakish redstart, wrested
to the west. And whither the women? Mary,
Marjery, Margaret — morte — cloistered
in Cromwell’s clay. And Richard said:

………..Barnsdale is fallen, fallen to wolf
………..altars stripped, daughters dumped nude.
………..In roofless precincts, dogs humping and howling
………..licking blood from foot of the rood.

………..Barnsdale dismembered, Priory sacked
………..and reft to Dudley’s chests —
………..under the walnut, by banks of sweet Ea,
………..lips upon Marjery’s breasts.

………..Barnsdale desarted, blighted by drought,
………..dry-well where once rang five springs.
………..Lucy aflighted, Bella bereft,
………..no more the nightingale sings.

………..Barnsdale is swallowed, alchemical wyrmes
………..eating earth, squirting-out gold.
………..Swine butchered from pannage and cattle
………..cut-off, sheep dragged-down in the fold.

………..Barnsdale racked on rood like our Lord
………..in England’s broken land.
………..Yet body and blood, field, common and wood —
………..must stand.

………..So ride I will the Great North Road
………..from York to Canterbury,
………..our land and people to assize
………..in this bleak posterity.

 

………..………………II.

Alien archpriests, accultured to Moloch,
missioned to manored and mannered. Mildness
masking mastery, mock-meek militants,
manoeuvring for Mammon, murmuring for World.
Who walks in Wulstan’s way,
with Wilgils and Wilfrid, Oswald white-blade,
wilful, warlike, wise in lectionary
and lore? Who lists for law and jousts
for justice — Judgement for jobbers, jubilee
for Jack and Johanna? Journeyman saint
and simple sinner, from Sorbonne saved
by Saviour’s soft and rinsing blood,
bull-bellowing from Barnsdale: from Bedale
to Bawtry, to Barnet and Blue Bell’s sarsened
slopes, the soil is sick, fields
infertile, fouled of farming, reduced
to rental, real-estate. Emporious England,
embezzled, ectrotic — empery ebbing
away. And Richard said:

………..England is fallen, fallen to worms,
………..Elizabeth’s writhing gut;
………..distended and swollen from touchscreen’s troughs,
………..fly-blown head-to-foot.

………..Kent is cankered, cankered from Wen,
………..plagued of capital’s city;
………..buboes of broker, gangrene of banker,
………..chancre of planning committee.

………..Wessex is wasted, to tractor and tank,
………..to spray and shell and flail;
………..Masters, squires and colonels prosper,
………..evicted farmhands ail.

………..Cumberland cumbered by clinker and slag,
………..iodine 131;
………..Blencathra’s tooth-pulled Patterdales,
………..rust-bit father’s gun.

………..Northumberland, fire-damp, cold with stone
………..Cuthbert and collier dead;
………..the cobles of the herring fleet, sunk
………..off Longstone head.

………..England ails, her fair field sick;
………..thus Æcerbot I prepare;
………..for increase of commonwealth and yield
………..I make this healing prayer.

 

………………………..III.

On walnut warth, by waste of wimpled
wenches, did wonder-working Richard
altar raise from rape-field brash.
Shire’s justice for snakes, swindlers
snatched from Skelbrooke’s mansions
and slaughtered on the stone. Spurt sluiced
to simmering basins, where phantoms feast and fume
to form in fair and familiar habit —four maids
of Mary’s mansworn house, Margaret, Maud
and Margery, mistress Ysabel — mensal virgins,
vivid in valley, vested to England
and England’s God. And Richard said:

………..Called from death by rude-redeemer
………..in holy name of Lady’s Son,
………..accept the call of Hampole’s dreamer
………..and work for England’s remission.

………..Fly from Barnsdale’s wounded leys
………..to the cardinal corners of the land
………..where blood was spilled in rough melee
………..of Anglian armies and Vik war-band.

………..………..Stainmoor’s slopes aflame with gorse
………..………..wet with English blood and Norse.

………..………..Maldon’s cockled creeks and shoals
………..………..Brythnoth’s head on Olaf’s pole.

………..Fulford fledged in flag and flax
………..ribbed in broadsword, battle-ax.

………..Ethandun, sun swells the grain
………..from English blood, mud-mixed with Dane.

………..Journey hence and from sacred sod
………..cut turve and gather worts of power,
………..bloods of beasts from field and wood
………..and baste the sward with blended flower.

………..To Barnsdale bring your pagan blot
………..that I may perform Æcerbot.

 

………..………………IV.

To Frickley-in-the-fields, reformed to racked
All Saints, did Rolle repair for remedy.
First broke he boughs of burgeoned quick,
them coopering to rood, crossed-cudgels of Christ’s
kerygmatists — armed, awaiting acre.
Then resorted to rood-rail, kneeling noon
into none, gnats knotting nets in the golden
grave-garth, grizzled under gean.
Garlick, goosegog, Good King Henry,
hawfinch husht in haws; grith’s
grassed ground broken, grail
of black-muck bone-hoard bare, opened
earth’s omphalos; Oswald’s ossuary, of Olaf
and Offa, England’s ostent dead.
Slit-light splayed in shafts cross
chancel, limed-walls lucent, linen bright.
Bated-breath of bell and Bible,
bat-flit dust-mote, transepts still.
Mansuete masspriest, meditating on missal,
on Mary’s meek and militant maids —
Skögul, Skeggjöld, Sigrún, Skuld —
sanguined sod-bearers, sudden in sanctuary,
presenting sacred sward. And Ysabel said:

………..Sod of Stainmoor screes I bring
………..from Westmorland’s high chase,
………..blood of Erik, Northern kings
………..asperged there on the waste.

………..At daybreak, honey, oil and yeast
………..cream from drystone field,
………..I tipped on turf to seek increase
………..and augment England’s yield.

………..Spirits of nine herbs I smoked
………..in aromatic peat,
………..with beast-bloods gashed from pulsing throats
………..the ritual to complete.

………..Waybread, barley, bonewort, rye
………..mugwort, wheat and knap,
………..all-heal and agrimony
………..bear and boar and stag.

………..At Fulford, Maldon, Ethandune
………..these maids made similar rite,
………..at the rising of the Sun
………..to purge Englaland of blight.

………..So break bread, Richard, pour out wine
………..on Mary’s sweet-tuft sod
………..and leaven land with love divine
………..come of the Son of God.

Trimmed altar, upturned turves;
Richard muck-Mass making. Wine and wafer,
wattered on wrang-root; worts
wounded, clutching rubble:

………..Wexe and gemænigfealda and gefylle þas eorðan,
………..in Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, sit benedicte.

Sod-sired and soil-infused
with Spirit, slung in surpliced loam, did Dick
and damsels ere dusk-dark gather
by graveyard’s grafted earth. By grace
of God and gramarye, good Richard
raised each rowan-wrought rood
and rammed them roughly in gaping ground:

………..Crux Matthaeus, crux Marcus,
………..crux Lucas, crux sanctus Iohannes.

Then laid our ladies on Jesse’s branch
the burgeoning baize of England’s balm,
bred of battlefield’s blood.
Gemænigfealda and gefylle, in nomine Patris,
thrice three-times chanted
God’s sod-soiled shield-maids,
mooning sunset, singing:

………..Sun of the East, burn blood in my face
………..light this land with life
………..in Jesu’s name, inflame increase,
………..Mary, womb and wife.

………..Let wheat-field bloom with leavened loaves
………..and bere-field belch with beer
………..foam of wold-sheep clot the droves
………..at table, kine-milk, beef of steer.

………..Let orchards bow, infest with fruit
………..swine swarm across the pannage
………..let virgins’ bellies rise with loot
………..of Mayday’s stolen marriage.

………..Bring bounty’s blessing to our land
………..and rinse the shires of dearth
………..swill of mighty, proud and grand
………..manuring England’s earth.

 

………………………..V.

Damsels dancing like fitches in dusky fire-glow,
in lithe and limber litany to Lord.
Night-crow’s Kyrie, rawping from rag-flagged
bell-tower, toppling tombstones, raising dead.
Dog-star darkness, dimmed the dreaming welkin;
wenches withered from Word to wyrd,
dying to the light. Lantern longshanks
stubblefield-striding, ghostly Shire-team
priested to plough. Plague-pit paupers,
proud of parish, parading behind him,
pockets exploding with seed. Brace-bit
plough-beam, bored above mouldboard —
Patris, Filii, Spiritus Sancti — slaked
sheep-salve, salt and fecund fennel,
fragrant frankincense. Freighted stallions
thrusting forward, unfurling furrow; almseed
slathered in share-sharked sod,
gushed of gape in plough-beam’s glistening wood.
Nine times did Richard’s phantomed plough
circle All Saint’s earth, saying:

………..Erce, Erce, Erce,….. eorþan modor,
………..geunne þe se alwalda….. ece drihten,
………..æcera wexendra….. and wridendra,
………..eacniendra….. and elniendra,

………..sceafta hehra,….. scirra wæstma,
………..and þæra bradan….. berewæstma
………..and þæra hwitan….. hwætewæstma,
………..and ealra….. eorþan wæstma.

Beggars barney in plough-wake, bestial
with beer; seed spurting from split-lips,
splayed cheekbones and shiners; horseshit
housel, broadcast body and blood. Leavened
to loam-loaf and folded in furrow,
four flours of Frickley’s fields, yeasting
yokel and yeoman, future’s flea-bit fyrd:

………..Let salmon surge in Went and Skel
………..hart leap in Hampull wood
………..boars rip the brake at Holywell
………..bull-bellow brawl from Stubbs.

………..Cow-cream gush like thunder-hole
………..sheep-fleece shed like snake
………..every mare be twinned of foal
………..with piglets sow-wombs quake.

………..Autumn apples fall like rain
………..cobnuts crunch like snails
………..bean-pods swell and snap the cane
………..tankards froth with ales.

………..Barley spike like wolfhide
………..wheat stand straight as spear
………..oat-heads hiss like Humber tide
………..rye bend with burthened ear.

………..God of England’s life and land
………..hear her restless dead.
………..On blood and muck we make our stand,
………..her soft-soil’s blooming redd.

………..……………* * *

Bronze horizon, mist-rag tilth. Heron
on headland, rat-hung gullet. Hound-voice,
distant. Hare sits up from earth. And cleans
her ears. Spitting rain. Sky folds
like a black-back’s wing. Rain.


Notes:

THE OLD ENGLISH charm ‘Æcerbot’ (‘Field Remedy’) is an ancient and elaborate rite designed to restore fertility to a field. A version of the original can be found on page 399 of Volume 1 of Cockayne’s Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England. In this re-imagining, Richard Rolle redivivus is imagined conducting the rite ‘for the nation’ in the graveyard of All Saint’s Church, Frickley, in the southern West Riding of Yorkshire. Several quotations from the rite are embedded in the poem.

Richard Rolle (1300-1349) was a mystic and hermit attached to the Cistercian nunnery at Hampole (a hamlet close to Frickley) where he seems to have functioned as spiritual director of the nuns. His writings (including The Fire of Love, Ego Dormio, and The Form of Living) evidence a powerfully carnal spirituality. ‘Æcerbot’ is the penultimate poem of a larger work, Incendium Amoris, the poems of which arise from Rolle’s life, writings and landscape.

Æcerbot is written in a bespoke form adapted from the qasida. The qasida  is a pre-Islamic Arabic form that developed in the sixth century C.E.  The seven most famous examples hung (painted in gold on huge tapestries) in the pre-Islamic Ka’abah at Makkah — and were known as the Mu’allaqat or ‘Hanging Poems’.  In English they are sometimes known as the ‘Golden Odes’ — the ‘ode’ was regarded as the closest European form to the qasida.

Qasidas follow a conventional fourfold structure, based on a trope from Bedouin culture:

  • Nasib: the poet (narrator) weeps over the abandoned camp site (of a lost beloved, tribe or patron – or all three), expressing a sense of loss, despair, nostalgia or alienation.
  • Rahil (a): the poet embarks on a journey — trek/quest — to find his tribe, patron or beloved – to seek reconciliation or reunion.
  • Rahil (b): within the context of the journey, the notable deeds the poet performs to overcome his alienation are narrated
  • Madih: the poem ends in praise and celebration as the poet is reunited with his beloved, tribe or patron.  The madih may include praise of the tribe (fakhr), satirical comments about other tribes (hija) or express a moral, philosophical, theological or political message (hikam).

Beyond this, Qasidas are highly stylised and governed by strict rules.  For example they open with a rhyming couplet (bait) in which each line is made up of two hemistichs divided by a syntactic caesura (misra). They sustain a mono-rhyme throughout.  Although the rhyme is sustained, the metre may be selected from a wide range — rajaz, tawil, basit, kamil, wafir, khafif, ramal – and may change.

Æcerbot uses the fourfold qasida structure (partially obscured by its subdivision of the second part of the ‘rahil’ into two sections) and approximates to the complexity and stylisation of the Arabic form by creating a version of Old English alliterative verse for the narrative sections.  A simple ballad form is deployed for the sections in direct speech.  The pagan origin of the pre-Islamic qasida is reflected in the fact that Æcerbot is a not merely a poem, but a spell …


Steve Ely has published three books of poetry, most recently Englaland (2015 – Smokestack UK; US edition) and Werewolf (2016 – Calder Valley Poetry). A fourth book of poems, Incendium Amoris will be published by Smokestack in June of this year.  His biographical work, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015, and is also available in the US.

He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield.

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