A late Modernist discovery.
Arc Publications 2021. 42pp pamphlet, £7.00
Arc Publications 2005. 102pp paperback. £9.00
By PETER RILEY.
THE CURRENT POETRY market in UK, apart from having expanded far beyond its productive and distributive capacity, has responded to the realization of historical distortion by favouring young or novice poets, and other categories which have long been disregarded or excluded. This, combined with the new technology of book production, has meant floods of new poetry books, most of them the poet’s first or second book. The opening of a big field of opportunity like this, can only be a welcome thing, though doubts may be raised about conformism and the reliability of the mostly older officials and prize-givers.
So a new book arrives hoping to get reviewed. It’s glossy and embellished with superlative recommendations, as they all are. I’ve never heard of the author, and I immediately think “here comes another…” But the interesting part of this story is that if, on opening the book to get some idea of the kind of writing it holds, I immediately have the impression of modernity, I automatically think it’s probably by an older poet. And so it is.
Michelene Wandor’s first book of poetry was published by Writers’ Forum in 1973, which was a late start for her, since she belongs in the generation first publishing in the 1960s. Her career has mainly been in drama, especially radio adaptations,1but she has also been involved in touring agit-prop groups like The Red Ladder and written books on radical dramatic and literary history. It is relevant to her poetry that she is a musician in Renaissance and Baroque music, and that she identifies herself as “a good atheist Jew”.
There’s nothing startlingly modernistic technically about Musica Transalpina – it’s the whole focus of attention which places her poetry alongside an older achievement in Anglophone poetry from Eliot and Pound to Thomas and Graham and those who have survived the so-called “revival” in the 1960s. These poets were not willing to accept the singular view of human experience; however particular the scenario, there is a restless searching extension towards greater boundaries, a multiplication of significance at any point, and a release from the chains of rational explicative discourse, allowing units of meaning to “float” off towards glimpsed affinities. This does not make for any great degree of difficulty once you have accepted that her narratives are built up as a series of mentionings leading the sequence onwards but retaining the substantive presence of each step.
Musica Transalpina is strongly involved in her work as an early-music practitioner, but more as a meditative than a hands-on experience. It extends to the period of the music’s creation (mainly fifteenth century to the seventeenth) and the places it comes from (mainly Italy).2It is involved through these focuses with life and death, art and politics, and especially the possibility of a condition of creativity in the work of the human spirit in music, poetry, and justice.
Each poem has its own zone of attention, which is frequently musical, but spoken from the inside. So you may get passages such as this—
remember, I say, that some of us
those of us who are three
a perfect circle
three steps to perfection
others of us are a broken circle
a smashed stone
we are imperfection
the perfect O
set against the imperfect C
the common time
truth was that in the
of music, severe and rare,
the incomplete C
curls as confident as its
nothing common about either.3
The voice here is neither authorial nor historical, because “the musician has no name”, but is identified as “she” and as playing the psaltery, a kind of zither at least a century out of date, given the renaissance context of the poem. The musician figure is oppositional as a woman and as a Jew–“she is not allowed to perform / but she is allowed to teach”. But she does play, and her playing through this three-part sequence (“Courtly Love”) is realised as the act of love, and as a radical political statement. The playing continues through the collapse of the world order –
smashed them during
the celestial washing up
For this kind of reach in the poetry, units of meaning (lines, phrases, short passages) need to be able to stand alone, contributing to the continuing address but separable and retained as things of worth in themselves. The realisation of the strength and elegance of the music is spoken at the very moment it was sounded, in its dialect, and pinned to that particularity by interjected technicalities: foreign vocabulary, names, quotation, temporal disjunction, and there are places where the language becomes almost entirely a recital of names.
There are many stories in Musica Transalpina but the present simple tense is used almost exclusively. Everything is happening now. This does more than add a sense of immediacy; it casts the narratives as a completed sequence which has passed its apogee and is fixed, and can be invoked in the present. And there is a kind of paradox at work by which the more the language is localised in time and place the more it is before us as immediate experience. Hence the habit of interjecting details of the food being eaten at the time (always deliciously Italian), one of several methods of keeping the elegance of the discourse anchored on real time and place. There is a musicality in the details of the writing, especially on the principal thematic story on the left, and which is emphasised by the repetition of units, within a poem or across poems.
The weight of the book rests on some half dozen long poems in which she launches into stories (accounts, histories etc.) which increase in size as the book progresses: Salamone Rossi (a Jewish musician a contemporary of Monteverdi), a “rewriting” of the Book of Esther, Benvenuto Cellini, and the longest, at 22 pages, follows the career of the Elizabethan poet Emilia Lanier — including the possibility that she was the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. These headings do not come near summarising the poems, which are liable to shoot off in other directions under their own impetus.
There are also short and more personal poems which I’d happily call “lyrical” but that the long poems have lyricism built into their entire conception. The book begins with a poem, “Lila, at dawn”, which is a duet between the self and an angel on the subject of dying as a process of forgetting, quite distinct from the rest of the book except for the remarkable sustained and purposeful sublimity of the writing.
and the angel touches you on the forehead with one wing
and you smile
because you have forgotten everything
except that your case is packed
and it’s time to go
when you get there
you make little mewing sounds
like a tiny kitten
and you don’t even know
what a kitten
TURNING TO TRAVELLERS, it is obvious that there have been developments. The major “subjects” which are sources of the more substantial poems now include John Harrison (an eighteenth-century clock-maker) —4
the clock of heaven paints numbers
on the stars
turn and turn about
Chagall’s grandfather clock reaches up to the sun
Gertrude Bell and T.H. Lawrence in the annexation of Palestine–
he has lived among the Arabs
he has quitted his English self
in England she is just a woman, an empty jar
sometimes she wears blue-green velvet in her hair
The political and aesthetic force of Renaissance Mantua through the women of the governing families–
Lucrezia will marry into the Sforza family
from Milan …………………….says the pope
they will help the papacy
to capture Naples
a battle plan, not a love match, thinks Lucrezia
a Palestinian Christian poet and an American Jewish poet—
the nightingale nourishes the red rose with his heart
A Balfour letter of declaration, says Alter
is not an internationally approved document, says Khalil
the strip of herbage divides the desert from the sewn
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba—
graven images, forbidden women arousing something
deep, imagining muscles moving, tendons flexing
bronze roundness glowing a ruby danger, far away
from Solomon’s red and purple passion
Sheba pulls her robe close round her
The other significant change in Travellers is the augmented repertoire of devices available to apportion the text. There are now three or more insets, which may be right, left or centred, different sizes of type, Roman, Italic and sans-serif typefaces. These all have distinct functions within narratives.
“San Miniato”, the first poem of Travellers, which, like the first poem of Musica Transalpina, is probably conceived as preludial, can be read here in The Fortnightly Review. It’s clear here how the poetical substance or narrative as well as the atmosphere of place are given in the lineated text on the left. The story is that she is bitten on the arm by a mosquito during the night while working at a drama course at a monastery in a small Italian village between Pisa and Florence. She is treated by the local pharmacist and the course ends. A second set of short prose texts inset to the right fills in the circumstances especially concerning one Andrea, another teacher, who “flirts with the young women”. There is a suggestion of jealousy here. A third set of texts in italics set further to the right states briefly what her status or condition is at three points of the narrative, from “I am a poet I sit alone” to “we are artisti”.5 It is interesting that two listings of Italian food are part of the primary narrative rather than the prosaic circumstantial set to the right. Whether this (for her) small-scale story has a happy ending or not I’m not sure, but it does have point. The invasive mosquito sting is characterised at the start as “something out of nothing” and at the end when the young women (“slippy straps on shoulder-bare camisole tops”) have departed leaving the two professionals together the final terms are: “the mosquitos buzz / we are artisti / we make something out of nothing”. We could also follow the word “streaked” through the poem from the younger man checking that his hair is not yet streaked with grey, to the poet noting that hers is, to the following paragraph, an act of reconciliation which summates the whole poem as a colour and image complex—
I wear my new black leather jacket,
my dark hair streaked with grey.
Drama and poetry. There is a buzz
in the monastery room. Listeners
look out across a green valley
streaked with houses.
The modernity which I sensed on first opening one of her books, was probably American, thinking of the break-up of the traditional line in Pound, Williams and others. There might be some connections but I’d rather think of European poetical usages in which bracketed clusters of language are placed into the text grammatically complete, avoiding a reliance on fracture as the poem’s source of energy, like Pierre Reverdy or David Jones.
Or better still, let’s say that this is a modernistic writing not founded on sneering contempt for educated society, poets, artists, politicians economist or anybody, nor on dreams of a symbolic paradise, nor on vernacular geniality radiated from the self.
The problems and the rewards are both real, and are carefully transported intact from remote distances into the present tense.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s Collected Poems, containing work from 1962 to 2017, was published in two volumes by Shearsman in 2018, followed by Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls from Longbarrow Press in 2019. An earlier book, Due North, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.
- See the note for her BBC adaptation of Mrs Dalloway here in The Fortnightly.
- Musica Transalpina was a collection of Italian madrigals with English lyrics, published in London in 1588, signaling a new music reaching England from Italy, as with Wyatt’s and Surrey’s Italianate poems and imitations of about the same time, viewed sometimes as amounting to the rather tardy arrival of the Renaissance in England. Wandor’s book is not a musical history or survey, but that sense of an original creative impulsion grounded in a particular locality is engaged through the poet’s own knowledge and actual history. The eponymous poem does not refer to that period but is mostly set about a hundred years later, with the great violin-maker Jakob Stainer in Venice, in relation to the north Italian mountain landscape.
- From what I can see, Wandor’s use of musical terms is always accurate. Around 1500 (the poem specifically refers to Columbus in 1492), the signature O: tempum perfectum, meant three semibreves to a breve, and C: tempum imperfectum, meant two semibreves to a breve. This was devised as an answer to the problem of achieving accurate synchronization in polyphony. Both measures later became known as “common time”.
- In the textual samples given here the lay-out and typography are simplified.
- In the on-screen text these italicised tags are set more to the left and become the second inset column instead of the third, but retain their sense of conclusion. The on-screen text is useful in making it clear that the anecdotal and circumstantial texts of the (normally) second set, are in prose, rather then small poems floated out towards the right margin.