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Sunday 28 November 2010

The Meat Tree

The Meat Tree

She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting. – Alan Garner, The Owl Service

I have never written any science fiction. I love the genre – everything from Douglas Adams to J G Ballard and in between – but every idea I’ve ever had I’ve quashed because it was derivative. I have a first chapter of a novel lying around somewhere and that’s my lot. There really is nothing new under the sun. Everything derives from something else and Gwyneth Lewis’s novel The Meat Tree is no different. It derives from The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, Math, son of Mathonwy, a work that is itself highly derivative. Derivative is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends how the elements are combined. A good example would be the TV series Firefly which literally was cowboys in outer space but it worked. The idea was not new; in fact that’s how Gene Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek to the studio, as a “Wagon Train to the stars” and actual Wild West storylines appear in the original series (‘Spectre of the Gun’), The Next Generation (‘A Fistful of Datas’) and Enterprise (‘North Star’).

Lewis’s attempt at combining mythology and future technology is an interesting approach as was her decision to write the entire novel in dialogue. If we’re going to be pedantic the log entries are monologues but the fact is that the whole book is spoken or thought. Of course that’s not new – The Generals by Per Wahlöö is a novel entirely in dialogue, presented as the transcript of the sixteen days of a court martial (though including much of the incidental chitchat as well as the official proceedings) – and it does create its own problems but it also makes the book a quicker read than you think it’s going to be; I read it in a day over three sittings.

The Mabinogi of Math is one of the best known of the eleven tales. It is also one of the more complex. Very briefly, here’s the story:

Math is the king of Gwynedd, served by his footholder Goewin, and his nephews Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, and Euyd. Gilfaethwy and Gwydion contrive to start a war with the southern kingdom of Dyfed so that Gilfaethwy can rape Goewin, and fool Math into leaving the kingdom to lead the army. While gone, Gilfaethwy has his way, and Gwydion steals the pigs of Pryderi. Math, upon learning of the deceptions, punishes the two brothers by using his magic wand to turn them into a series of animals and forcing them to mate with each other. He then takes their offspring to raise them himself. He also seeks for a new footholder, and Gwydion suggests his sister Aranrhod; Math tests her virginity by having her step over his magic wand, at which point she gives birth to Lleu and Dylan. Math then works with Gwydion to counteract Aranrhod's curse laid upon Lleu by creating a wife for the boy out of flowers. Math then drops out of the story, but Lleu becomes the new king of Gwynedd; as Lleu is the son of Gwydion's sister, and Gwydion is the son of Math's sister, and Gwydion is an unsuitable king of Gwynedd, it is logical that Lleu is then made king of Gwynedd. – Jones Celtic Encyclopaedia

Confused? Yeah, me too and I’ve read the book. It’s the names more than anything. Anyway this was Lewis’s starting point but not ours. We only have two characters to worry about: Campion, the outgoing Inspector of Wrecks and his young, female Apprentice, Nona. This is the first time the two have worked together. (Nona: the Fate who spins the thread of life; Campion: a wildflower – not sure how much to read into these.)

Whereas Starfleet captains had to dictate their logs in this future they get to think them:

Synapse Log 28 Jan 2210, 09:00

Inspector of Wrecks

Is that working no, I wonder? I hate these thought recorders. They’re good in very confined spaces, where you don’t want to overhear the idiotic things your colleagues say to their families back on Mars, but I think they’re overrated. But, there we are, I’m Old School. The trick is to keep the unconscious out of it as much as possible and pretend like you’re talking to yourself.



We’re not one day in and I’m already tired of hearing about the Department of Wrecks in the Good Old Days. When flotsam came in from as far as the Sculptor galaxy or the Microscopium Void. When he had a full team and they got to work on really interesting cultures. Not like this speck from God knows where, just me and him – the one man in the service who has absolutely no imagination.

One of the big problems with all science fiction – and Star Trek: Voyager is especially guilty in this regard – is the amount of exposition and technobabble the writers feel they need to include to help you feel comfortable in the particular universe they’ve created. Thankfully Lewis doesn’t lay it on thick. She treats her readers with a bit of respect and doesn’t feel the need to explain more than she absolutely has to. The grizzled-veteran/rookie-master/apprentice trope is as old as the hills especially where the veteran is on his last mission (think Se7en, Chasing Ghosts, Spy Game or even Men in Black if it comes to that) but that’s fine. (The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Sarek’ would probably qualify here, Picard Sarek - Picardplaying the rookie for once.) The question is: is the novice going to become the master or is that far too predictable?

Okay, so we know this is going to be a two-hander (as in DS9’s ‘The Ascent’) set in the confines of a derelict spacecraft (so many but Enterprise: ‘Oasis’ is a good one) in other words a crucible, a contained space in which the two protagonists are going to be tested (e.g. Star Trek’s ‘The Galileo Seven’). What they find is a ghost ship: no crew, not even little piles of white dust where the crewmembers used to be as in the Star Trek episode ‘The Omega Glory’. In other words, the classic locked room mystery, the staple of shows like Jonathan Creek. (The DS9 episode ‘A Man Alone’ is a locked room mystery.)

Synapse Log 29 Jan 2210, 20:30

Inspector of Works

I never expected to see one of these early Earth exploration vessels and in such a perfect state of preservation. It’s like something in a museum. Even the hammocks are intact, as if someone just got up out of them and left them warm.

Missie’s been moaning about having to decipher the ship’s log, it’s a history lesson for her. It’ll do her good to see how space travellers in the past had to work, how uncomfortable it was.

Something’s not right, though. It’s all too perfect.


My print reading’s crap but I managed to decipher that the vessel had a crew of three. One woman, two men. That must have been challenging in the days before phero-dampeners. Hard enough working with a man when we’re both shielded from each other’s body chemistry. Two men and one woman, must have been a recipe for disaster. What did they get up to?


Where are the bodies? Not even three piles of dust for us to analyse. No sign of forced exit, no breach in the spacecraft’s hull. Nothing for us to go on.

Well, not exactly nothing. There are the VR couches:

Joint Thought Channel 29 Jan 2210, 09:00



Inspector of Wrecks

Virtual Reality. Before you swallowed the nano-synaptic dream tablets for training and recreation.

Campion decides since the logs contain nothing significant their only option is to explore the virtual world the crew inhabited to try to learn what they can. He explains how it will work to the girl:

Joint Thought Channel 30 Jan 2210, 09:00

Inspector of Wrecks

These old VR helmets can be quite uncomfortable. But it’s more than that. We’re used to VR forming itself automatically to our frontal-lobe profiles, so that it responds to our particular fantasy life. But when the technology started, they still had one person author the programme, so that being inside you’re more a witness than co-creator. You have to take one of the available roles, but the parameters are set by the Mastermind. So the progression of the plot can feel very uncomfortable, especially if you’re not used to it. And until we find out what kind of author we’re dealing with it’s hard to know what it will be like.

Instinctively they go for gender-specific roles: she assumes the role of Goewin, the footholder to King Math, and Campion chooses Gwydion, a magician. But why of all things are they in a Celtic fantasy world? Campion says that they were once all the rage that it was once fashionable to imagine oneself as a Welsh wizard or a Celtic maiden. This I found a bit hard to swallow but then if you’d told me in the mid-nineties that Caribbean pirates and boy wizards would be all the rage in a few years’ time I wouldn’t have believed you so why not a sudden interest in all things Celtic? Still I would have preferred if she’d simplified the names.

From here on in the couple spend more and more time in the virtual world. They don’t stay with the same roles in fact for most of the time Nona prefers to inhabit male personæ. This is quite different from the holonovels in Star Trek. In this virtual environment they have very little leeway. If a character has to go from A to B that’s what they have to do. They can go by the scenic route but they nevertheless have to go.

There is no way even taking into account the space I allow for a review that I can explain this plot – nor would you thank me for it – but let me explain how the tale starts off in more detail than Jones Celtic Encyclopaedia does. Why does Math need a footholder? Are his feet cold? (I’m thinking here about King David and Abishag – see 1 King 1:1-4.) No, that’s not it. He needs to rest his feet in the lap of a virgin or he will die. Presumably he has been cursed but it’s never explained. That is simply how it is. There is a loophole, however, he can walk about normally only during a time of war.

So what do you do if you’re in love with a woman who spends her days with an old guy’s feet in her lap? It’s sure to make courting her a bit awkward. That’s the problem facing Math's nephew Gilfaethwy who has fallen in love with Goewin. The solution is a simple enough one: start a war. That’s where his brother, Gwydion, comes into the picture. Gwydion tells his uncle about animals that were new to Wales called pigs and how he could get them from their owner, Pryderi of Dyfed. Long story short – they end up going to war over them. This leaves Goewin’s lap unattended and, if I can draw another biblical comparison, Gilfaethwy does to Goewin what David’s son Amnon did to Tamar: he rapes her. Which means that Nona gets to experience the whole thing.

TroiTo say she’s unhappy about it is an understatement. That said she bounces back remarkably quickly. I’m putting it down to her being a 23rd century woman: think about how easily Counsellor Troi dealt with Shinzon's telepathic rape of her in Star Trek: Nemesis. (Much the same also happened to her in the regular episode ‘Violations’.) The next day after a talking to by Campion Nona’s quite willing to go back into the VR world; her only condition is that she inhabits the role of a male, which Campion agrees to which means that, on occasion, he has to inhabit a female character. (Again Star Trek was there first: the episode ‘Turnabout Intruder’ sees Kirk trapped inside the body of Dr Janice Lester.)

When they return this time they both take male roles, the two brothers, Gilfaethwy and Gwydion, to see what Math’s punishment will be when he returns to find out that his footholder is no longer a virgin. As punishment he banishes his nephews, turning them into a breeding pair of deer for a year, then a pair of wild boars for the next year and wolves the year after that. In each of the three instances Campion is transformed into the female of the species and ends up being impregnated by Nona who is the male:


Forget about weirdness. This feels so right. I'm swimming a stream which goes through her back, into her body and I feel inside…

Inspector of Wrecks

Mind of a man in a stinking animal…


Mind of the body, as the lichen lays in the moss and the tree sucks sweet water up, like a tide…

Inspector of Wrecks

Passive, like soil, no will of my own…


Till it explodes. And I’m falling, light-liquid, falling back down from a red doe’s haunches.

Inspector of Wrecks

Oh, the shame.


To be complete as an animal, nothing is better. To smell of come.

Inspector of Wrecks

With my brother!


What have I done?

When the calf is born Math transforms it into a boy and the same happens the next two times so by the end of three virtual years the two brothers have produced three children, Hyddwn, Hychddwn, and Bleiddwn. Much to Campion’s surprise he finds he quite enjoys experiencing life as a female even if that female is an animal:


What’s amazing … in all this, is that the sensations of being a mother were so much more sophisticated than they should be, given the primitive VR equipment we were wearing. I can’t understand it. How did I know to lick the fawn’s faeces and urine in order to hide his scent? It’s as if instinct was wired into the game in a way I can’t explain.


I was horrified when Math turned the boy into a human child. That made it real, somehow. While we were in the forest, we were just animals. I was glad when Math sent the boy away to be baptised and fostered.

I wanted nothing to do with the creature.

In Deep Space 9 security chief Odo, of course, transforms often into a whole menagerie of animals.

Campion and Nona continue to play the game and, as they do, they begin to lose themselves to the various roles they inhabit. Day after day goes by and they still seem no closer to finding out what happened to the original crew. Little by little things start to change and the truth becomes clearer. Are they both too far gone by this point to save themselves?

Of course there’s plenty of instances in Star Trek where people have become possessed and/or obsessed (‘The Game’ for example) but the episode that closest to this book is ‘Masks’:

MasakaThrough Data, Picard learns that a being called Masaka is waking, and that the only one that can control her is one called Korgano. One of Data's personalities states that Masaka will only appear once her temple has been built, and provides Picard with a pictogram that can create that temple. Inside the temple, they find the symbols that refer to Masaka and Korgano. Data shortly arrives … wearing a mask he had created earlier with Masaka's symbol on it, and refers to himself as Masaka. Picard has the crew search the database from the structure to recreate a mask representing Korgano, and Picard wears it to confront Data. – Wikipedia

That is basically what’s happening to Campion and Nona although in their case they inhabit ever-changing roles. This reminded me very strongly of Alan Garner’s novel The Owl Service (or at least the TV dramatisation) which was also based on this same branch of the Mabinogi although he concentrates on a later section. In that book three children find a set of plates with an owl pattern on it and begin to take on three of the key roles: Blodeuwedd, a woman created from flowers, her husband, Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Pebr with whom she has an affair. These personæ are also the last that Campion and Nona inhabit and it’s at this stage in the story they realise what’s going on and it turns out that Campion does have an imagination after all, just maybe not quite as vivid a one as Nona’s and that’s all I’m saying about that.

The big question is: Does Lewis manage to pull it off?

On the whole, yes. For a lot of the time they sound like a couple of TV presenters explaining things for the benefit of the audience at home (which is exactly what they are doing) and it inevitably suffers from being too talky – Lewis has no choice to tell rather than show – but I still got caught up in what was happening and wanted to know how things were going to be resolved. It does take a while to get to where it needs to go which is where the version by Garner wins out because he skips all the stuff at the beginning and cuts to the chase. The two books actually will probably be about the same length. Lewis’s feels longer but a good chunk of those 240 pages is taken up by white space. Garner uses the extra space to beef up on character development.

As a standalone science fiction novel (measured up against something like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris) it’s not a classic; it feels like a novelisation of an episode of The Outer Limits and I’m talking about the nineties relaunch not the sixties originals: perfectly watchable, reasonably high production values, ties everything up neatly at the end but missing something.

As an adaptation of the source material and an introduction to it the book does a pretty decent job and I would think those who have to study the original text would find this a most pleasant way to start to get to grips with the text because that’s what Campion especially is trying to do and he takes us along with him.


Gwyneth-Lewis_credit-Tony-RinaldoLewis was born in Cardiff in 1959, attended Ysgol Gyfun Rhydfelen, a bilingual school in Pontypridd and studied English at Cambridge University, and later Harvard and Columbia. She writes in both Welsh, her first language, and in English. Her first collection in English, Parables & Faxes, won the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize for best first collection. Her second collection, Zero Gravity, was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize for best poetry collection of the year. Y Llofrudd Iaith (2000) won the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year Award.

In 2002 she published her first non-fiction book, Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book on Depression, which chronicles her ongoing battle with depression and alcoholism. This is also the subject of collection of poems Keeping Mum - Voices from Therapy. Having agreed to change their lifestyles for their own good, Lewis and her husband bought the small yacht Jameeleh, and having taught themselves to sail set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Africa. The journey inspired her 2005 book Two in a Boat – The True Story of a Marital Rite of Passage.

Lewis composed the poetry that adorns the front of the Wales Millennium Centre in huge lettering: Creu Gwir fel Gwydr o Ffwrnais Awen / In these Stones Horizons Sing. Lewis became the inaugural National Poet of Wales in 2005, handing the mantle over to Gwyn Thomas in 2006. She is also a librettist, and has written two chamber operas for children and an oratorio, The Most Beautiful Man from the Sea.

In 2010 Lewis was given a Society of Authors Cholmondeley Award recognizing a body of work and achievement of distinction. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Vice President of the Poetry Society and an Honorary Fellow of Cardiff University.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Defacing the world

grafitti I don’t like to be thought of as an angry person. I’ve always regarded anger, quite rightly, as a negative emotion, something to be avoided, but I believe my assessment of what anger is has been clouded by how I’ve seen anger expressed by others. It’s not a word I use and I’d like to think it would take a lot to make me angry but what I mean when I say that is, of course, to make me express my anger – there is a difference.

I’m a writer and, as I’ve said many times, I define a writer as someone whose natural response to life is to write about it, so when I’m in love I’ve written love poems and when I’ve lost love ones I’ve written elegies. When I read over my poems one thing I don’t see any immediate evidence of is anger. After thirty years of writing don’t you find that a bit strange?

I went to see a psychotherapist a while back when I was sick and not for the first time. This particular lady brought up anger quite a bit but I always resisted going there. I would admit to often being frustrated but not angry. Allowing myself to be angry felt like a losing of self-control. The fact of the matter is I was angry. But what is anger? Potted definition time:

Anger is a negative feeling which often happens when a person thinks that someone or something has done something wrong, bad or which puts them in danger, and they want to stop the risk, or punish the person for what they have done. – Wikipedia

In the olden days ‘danger’ was probably at the top of that list. Wild animals would attack you without any provocation and try to kill you. I guess that’s a decent enough reason for feeling angry. Although even there I still struggle with anger as a natural response to a threat like that. Why? Because the animal is not doing anything bad per se. It has no concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and is working purely on its instincts. It’s hungry, I’m food – where’s the problem? Yes, by all means I want to stop it killing me and I would go as far as killing it if I had to but I’m not sure being angry with the beast would do any good. Of course there are physiological effects that come into play when one is angry making defending oneself against a wild animal – or fleeing one – that bit easier but I find equating the survival instinct with anger a bit hard to swallow.

Now, if a foreign power decided to send men over here to hurt or kill me then that might get my dander up. What right have they? But that doesn’t happen very often. I don’t think anyone has ever seriously threatened my life. They’ve said the words but I would expect you’d know when someone meant, “I’m going to kill you,” and when it was just words especially if they say something like, “I’m going to absolutely kill you.” I mean, what’s the difference between killing someone and absolutely killing them?

So what threats do we have to face in the real world that might make us angry? On the Cambridge University Counselling Site they put it very simply:

For 'life threatening', substitute 'identity threatening'. In today's society some of the things that make people feel angry and stimulate aggressive thoughts are:

  • Perceived disrespectful treatment: Of thoughts, beliefs, feelings and needs
  • Perceived threat: To the continuation, or success of something to which we are strongly committed, e.g. one's partner, university course, lifestyle
  • Perceived unfairness
  • Perceived provocation or suspicion and hostility: "They" did that on purpose, just to "wind me up". The best form of defence is to attack before they do.

For example: Peter says, “My anger came from a frontal assault on my concept of myself as a teacher;” Kathy says, “My anger came from a false belief;” Eli says “My anger came from my preferring to blame the world for my dislike of myself” and Ruth says “My anger came from everyday injustice.” There are a lot of things out there ready to make us angry. It’s a wonder we’re not all fizzing all the time.

AAHN001229 What prompted me to start thinking about anger was a comment made by Joan Didion. She argued that writing by its nature is…

…an aggressive, even a hostile act [that] the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind…setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the readers most private space.

What is interesting is that I wrote up to this point without having double-checked that quote. In my head she was talking about “anger” and, as you can see, she doesn’t mention it at all.

So what is aggression? Aggression is predatory behaviour. Lions are aggressive. But are they angry? Probably not since anger is a response whereas aggression can just as easily be proactive or reactive. Anger often results in aggression but it can also be passive and I think that’s where I get confused over anger. Because I don’t express my anger through hostility I talk myself into thinking it’s not there. I don’t want it to be there. I don’t want to live in a house, a society or a world where things or people exist that might make me angry – like that’s going to happen soon.

Since I can’t change the world or society nor can I do much to change my house as I’m a writer would it not be natural to attack the issues that trouble me – by that I mean the things that make me angry – through my writing? Well, here is, I think, a good example:


I took sick this morning
but I was not surprised.

When I saw you there so ill
I knew then I was helpless
and there being no one to punish
I turned on myself in frustration
dragging my love with me
screaming, "This is not the way!
This is not constructive."

And I said, "No,
but it is something."

(For B.)

17 October 1989

The B. in question was a young woman I had a terrible crush on. I was married at the time and did nothing about it although I think at the end she’d added two and two together. I know my wife had despite my protestations. I don’t remember the exact details behind the poem but I know what the illness would have been. B. suffered from terrible migraines. If she was with us and felt one coming on she’d up and leave and take to her bed. They would knock her out for days on end. She couldn’t hold down a job or anything because of them either. I was angry. I was angry that she was ill. I was angry that I couldn’t do anything to help. I was angry that I couldn’t at least be with her. And so I did what I do. I internalised my anger and grew an ulcer wrote a poem.

Of course I didn’t feel as if I felt angry. There was no one to be angry with apart from God who I was trying to believe in at the time and failing badly. I felt frustrated. If there was anyone I should have been angry with it should actually have been me for losing perspective.

When I look objectively at the body of my writing a lot of the time I’m responding to a feeling of powerlessness, the inability to do something, change something, understand something. I suppose my poems are often the voodoo dolls I stick my pins in. It bothers me . . . no, it actually embarrasses me to write something like that because no matter how much justification I might have I still believe that expressing anger, even in a poem, is bad. No one taught me that. My parents were often given cause by us kids to be angry and they always rose to that challenge. So it’s not as if I grew up in an overly passive environment because I didn’t. My brother I have to tell you was a very angry young man, always just under the boil.

Writing a poem is something to do when there is nothing to do. This is especially true in the case of ‘The Empath’ but I think that’s the case more often than it’s not. Writing is not living. I write often because I can’t live. I didn’t want to write about B. I wrote because I couldn’t be with her. This is only one of a great many poems I wrote for her. I wrote this one three weeks before ‘The Empath’:


Love is not a thing you fall into
but an experience you go through
like a long tunnel.

Sometimes I just like to sit
in the dark in ours and pretend
I don't see the light at the end.

26 September 1989

Think Cover small It’s one of the poems in my collection This Is Not About What You Think but I can’t honestly remember now if the love in question was the love I felt for my wife or the love I felt for B. not that it matters. You could read it either way. Am I lashing out in this poem? If I am it’s very half-hearted clawing at air, a gesture, nothing more.

Poems can’t change my world. But they can deface it. The writing is on the wall.

I’m not the only one who has come round to this way of thinking. On her blog Nicole Fuentes wrote this:

When I wrote Keeping Her in the Light, I was in a state of confusion, followed by a state of anger. It was either self-destruct or do something useful with that powerful yet dangerous anger. The result of my decision was Keeping Her in the Light. Just like the darkness Hector speaks of, anger can be bent too into something that won’t hurt us. I’ve done push-ups and sit ups when frustrated, because of the restless energy. It’s like converting that energy into something more useful–something productive. Some would tell us not to do anything when angry or else we might do something we’ll regret later on. With writing, it can be similar, but if you can mask that anger through analogies and allegories, why not vent through writing, through dialogue, through characters, through a story?

I’ve always acknowledged how I’m affected by negative emotions like sadness but I’ve shied away from admitting that one of those negative emotions might be anger. I’d use any other synonym under the sun rather that admitting to the a-word but ‘frustration’ would be my first choice I think. The poet John Trudell had this to say about how he coped with the loss of his family:

The poetry, the writing kept me alive. Anger kept me alive. Anger is a healthy thing, although we live in a society that tells us to manage our anger, to suppress it. If you accept your anger, if you understand that it's OK to be angry, you won't go mad. The madness would have destroyed me. There's no coherency to madness.

It’s semantics I know but I think what he did and what I did are actually forms of anger management. Anger is a directionless force racing around inside you looking for release. It’s looking for a crack. The trick is to use that force constructively, productively. It surprises me I don’t write more poetry that I do to be honest. But it also probably explains the dearth of ‘happy’ poetry in my collection.

I found this interesting article called The Four Faces of Anger which I have to say has made me think. In it Mark Gorkin proposes a broader definition of anger:

Is your anger expression "purposeful" or "spontaneous"? Is your anger expression "constructive" or "destructive"? Let me briefly and loosely define my terms:

  • "Purposeful" - when anger expression is intentional, with a significant degree of consideration or calculation; there is also a significant degree of self-control
  • "Spontaneous" - when anger expression is immediate with little premeditation or planning; there is little-moderate self-control
  • "Constructive" - when anger expression affirms and acknowledges one's integrity and boundary without objectively intending to threaten or violate another's integrity or appropriate boundary
  • "Destructive" - when anger expression defensively projects and rigidly fortifies one's vulnerable identity and boundary by intending to threaten or violate another's integrity and appropriate boundary (whether the intention is conscious or not)

This he says can be summarised as:

Purposeful and
Constructive Anger

Purposeful and
Destructive Anger

Spontaneous and
Constructive Anger

Spontaneous and
Destructive Anger

which he argues can be reduced to:









all of which makes me realise that perhaps I’m a lot angrier person that I have been willing to admit. I’ve just managed to avoid expressing it in destructive ways. It still bothers me that there are things that can make me angry but we don’t live in a perfect world. It would actually be unnatural not to be angry a lot of the time. I’m still more comfortable to say that something had offended or upset or frustrated me but they’re just words and words may be quite good at capturing meanings but they don’t do so well with feelings. And that makes me…

Sunday 21 November 2010

The Dreams of Max and Ronnie

The Dreams of Max and RonnieThe Mabinogion

The Mabinogion is the title given to a collection of eleven prose stories collated from medieval Welsh manuscripts. These are:

Four Branches of the Mabinogi

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed
Branwen, Daughter of LlŷrManawydan, son of Llŷr
Manawydan, son of Llŷr
Math, son of Mathonwy

Native Tales

The Dream of Macsen Wledig
Lludd and Llefelys
Culhwch and Olwen
The Dream of Rhonabwy


Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain
Peredur, son of Efrawg
Geraint and Enid

These folk tales first came to general literary prominence in the mid 19th century, when Lady Charlotte Guest published her translation under the title The Mabinogion. The word mabinogion, which she assumed was the plural form of mabinogi, appears only once in the manuscripts she translated and is commonly dismissed as a transcription error. The word mabinogi itself is something of a puzzle, although it is ultimately related to the Welsh mab, which means "son, boy". Over the year the term came to mean 'tale of a hero's boyhood' and eventually, simply, 'a tale'.

Strictly speaking, Mabinogi applies only to the Four Branches, which are speculated to have derived from older tradition and all end with a colophon meaning "thus ends this branch of the Mabinogi." Needless to say the stories are not well known in their original form but there will be few people who have never heard of King Arthur and Merlin and this is where they originated. In the earliest mentions of Arthur in these Welsh texts, he is never given the title of king. He is referred to as ameraudur (emperor or war leader) instead. The Arthur we all know is a product of romantic embellishments during the Renaissance and beyond.

Seren Books have commissioned a number of authors to update these eleven tales in much the same way as the BBC did with The Canterbury Tales a few years back. They have sent me two books so far and the first I’m going to review is The Dreams of Max and Ronnie by Niall Griffiths which comprises of a novella, Ronnie’s Dream (a reworking of The Dream of Rhonabwy) and a novelette, The Dream of Max the Emperor (based on The Dream of Macsen Wledig).


Ronnie’s Dream

When I wrote my review of Bulgakov’s Diaboliad a few weeks back I included the following quote which I make no apologies for including again:

When George S. Kaufman proclaimed that "satire is what closes on Saturday night," he was referring to its ephemeral quality: satire dates quickly. I would add that political satire dates twice as quickly. Probably because the painful realities it mocks are all too immediate, political satire seems particularly funny while it is fresh. But the intensity of satiric humour is often inversely proportional to its durability. Try looking at the opening monologue from last year's Tonight Show. We don't even get the jokes. Or look at any reruns of Saturday Night Live that bash then-current presidents. For every political satire that remains funny, there are a dozen that could be called Saturday Night Dead. – Elisabeth Weis, ‘M*A*S*H Notes’, Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, p.311

I found it hard to get worked up over Bulgakov’s Russia because so much time has passed and I have no doubt that in time people will look back on Ronnie’s Dream and think much the same. But not today. Today what Griffiths is satirising is the world I live in. Of course it’s already out of date – Tony Blair is no longer the Prime Minister – but we all remember who he was and what he did.

On March 20th 2003, following the United States’ lead, British troops invaded Iraq. It was to prove an unpopular war. At the time it sounded like a good idea I’m sure, however, on June 15th 2009 the Prime Minister, then Gordon Brown, announced that an Inquiry would be conducted to identify lessons that could be learned from the Iraq conflict. The cost in human lives was always an issue and in particular how many deaths which might be directly attributed to the lack of, or state of, the equipment being issued to our troops was a hot topic, but, especially following the banking crisis of 2007 and subsequent recession, the financial cost is now something everyone is aware of and people are wondering just when the fighting will end.

Ronnie’s Dream
is clearly set sometime into the conflict. The initial excitement has died down and now people are more interested in the consequences as opposed to the ethics of the situation. Most people. Welsh squaddies, Ronnie, Robert and Rhys, who have been selected for active duty and are due to be posted overseas in five days or so are only interested in getting wasted. They’ve been doing a fairly decent job too, popping pills and downing drinks, anything to distract themselves from the inevitable. Of course they’re soldiers and they’re not going to admit that they’re scared. If you asked them their response would be unanimous:

Christ I’m in the mood to kill some fucking ragheads. I can’t wait to slot some fucking ragheads.

Slot: Verb. Hurt, injure, stab, shoot. E.g. "I slotted that bastard last year, and he spent 3 weeks in hospital." [Mainly Army use]

It’s all bravado, machismo, braggadocio. Hell, you’d think they were three mutant ninja turtles rather than three mabs from the valleys.

This night they are off to see Red Helen:

― Why’s she called Red Helen?

― Cos she’s got red hair, says Ronnie. ― Bright red. Not joking, I mean she dyes it, like. Has done since she was a kid. Always bright red.

None of them look “like the heroes they have been told that they are.”

In the skin and eyes of heroes there shines a kind of tragic light; but here, in these three skins, there crackles only the exhaustion that comes from excess and indulgence sought to stave off fear.

Red Helen’s terraced house is in a sad state of repair and much the same could be said for Helen herself. The house stinks of “cat piss and baby sick and cheap fried food gone rancid and fag smoke and sherry and sweat.” Helen is a “woman made of dough” packed into grey jogging bottoms and an ill-fitting t-shirt. All in all it’s a sad state of affairs. They’re there to take advantage of her pharmaceutical acumen not her skills as a housewife and mother.

― Where’s the baby, Hel?

― At her granny’s. What d’you want?

― Something to knock us out. Temazzies or something. Been on one for days and we’re fucking wired.

Trebor MintsMoney is handed over. Pills are distributed: “big, white, coin-sized pills like Trebor mints.”

Robert examines his with a close and pink-rimmed eye. ― What is it?

― Powerful, Red Helen says.

Ronnie is the only one who actually swallows the pill and it knocks him out for six, seven and the rest. The others when they can’t wake him assume it’s a horse tranquiliser he’s taken and leave him to sleep while they drink themselves unconscious.

The bulk of the novella from here on comprises Ronnie’s dream and it’s a dream sequence that Bulgakov would have been proud of. The nice thing is that this book won’t be banned; worse has been said in the papers but not with such panache. In the original Rhonabwy decides to sleep on a yellow calfskin stretched out on the floor. In the modern version Ronnie nods off on a blanket with “a black-and-white moo-cow on a yellow field. Lucky blanket he thinks. Bring me luck. And there he sleeps.”

What follows, page after page of it, is a disturbing picture of modern Britain. But first Ronnie has to meet his guide. In the original this is one of Arthur's followers, Iddawg, the Churn of Britain, but in the update it’s a young horseman with a red beard, “a tangled yellow mop of hair” wearing a tunic with FCUK embroidered in it calling himself “the Beast of Britain.” (I wonder if this is a pun on ‘Best of British’?) As a warrior and messenger for King Arthur, Iddawg deliberately caused the Battle of Camlann when he delivered a peace message from Arthur to Mordred in rude and insulting tones. As far as I can see, and especially because he’s not named, the Beast of Britain is a composite character, the common man, the British common man, who goes on holiday to ‘Beefa [Ibiza] and generally runs riot, probably a man not too far removed from Ronnie himself.

There are real individuals though in this dream. When “the dream flips as dreams do” Ronnie sees “a sad fat man in a top hat and with a cigar the size of a baby’s arm between his teeth” regarding an assembled multitude; beside him is a man in a cassock and a third man wearing the insignia of the Desert Rats. The Beast Grinning Blairaddresses the fat man as “Winston” although it was pretty obvious who he was. When Blair arrives (in the role of Arthur) he’s simply referred to as “the grinner” which reminded me of how Blair was often caricatured in the press.

In the original Iddawg reveals that Arthur's men are assembled to meet the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, however, Arthur is more concerned with a game of gwyddbwyll (a chess-like board game) he is playing against his follower Owain mab Urien (Ywain). Chess is a wargame and so what would the modern equivalent of that be? Killzone 2 obviously.

Not all of the criticism comes via the dream. A lot is said in between the lines in the real world. When Rhys and Robert wake they turn on the tele and see a news report showing tanks being stationed outside the UK’s major airports. Three times spokesmen question the Prime Minister’s leadership decisions – a Scot, a Welshman and someone with a southern English accent – but the only answer they get is:

We will not surrender to terrorism … The terrorists must not win.

In the dream, however, he is answered. A tank rider says to him:

― Aye, I know … The time has come for an end to talking, right? Hird it aw befaw, man. Meant fuck aw then and it means fuck aw noo. Thanks fir fuckin nuttin.

Ronnie asks who the men who rode the tanks were:

― Unhappy men, the Beast says. ― Men who are unhappy at the loss of their countries. Sons of those who were blown to atoms at Mametz Wood, Passchendaele, the Somme, Dunkirk, all over Europe, the world. … Sons of men who died too young and in terrible pain so that their offspring could live in a country which is free from signs everywhere telling them DON’T DON’T DON’T DON’T DON’T.

So the country’s leadership past and present is called into question but what about those being led?

― Don’t be fooled by them, the Beast says. ―They appear united, and calm in their unity, but they are attached to each other mainly by wires of mutual loathing. Few of them visibly declare their allegiances or their hatreds but I know who they are and I know of the abhorrences that burn within their breasts. Those with money hate those without, and vice versa. The Red Rose hates the White Rose. Both Roses hate the Dragons and the Thistles. The Bluebirds hate the Swans. The Magpies hate the Black Cats. The Liver Birds hate the Red Devils and the Toffees hate the Liver Birds. The Canaries hate the Tractor Boys. The Gunners hate the Spurs. I could go on. In some instances ‘hate’ might be too strong a word but ‘distrust’ or ‘dislike’ would do.

As the crowd passes Ronnie notices something:

david-beckham-tattoos-2[T]attoos, everywhere there are tattoos, although … only a few designs shared amongst the crowd; many thousands of arms bear tiger stripes with pointed ends; many shoulders bear figures that look vaguely Celtic or Maori in origin; many people have big crucifixes on their backs because they once saw David Beckham bearing that mark and thought it looked cool and original; many upper arms bear smaller crucifixes too because their owners saw Wayne Rooney wearing one and thought it looked cool and original; the insides of many arms bear Sanskrit lettering because their owners saw Craig Bellamy or any one of a hundred footballers bearing that mark and thought it looked cool and individual; many women, on the fleshy outsides of their palms, bear a little black squiggle because they once saw Cheryl Cole bearing that mark and thought it looked cool and individual… This must be the most tattooed nation on the planet, thinks Ronnie, with so few different designs; in any thousand people, 800 of them will be tattooed with any one of only five or so patterns. … The hive mind hums. The hive mind drones.


― These are your people, soldier boy, says the Beast. ― Defenders of freedom. Keepers of the values of democracy and fair play. Do you see yourself fighting for these people? Killing for them? Dying for them?

There is more – there is a lot more – but eventually Ronnie wakes and the three buddies head off to war. It was only a dream after all.

The Dream of Max the Emperor

Macsen Wledig appears to have been a real person, the legionary warlord Magnus Maximus, who was proclaimed Emperor by the army in Britain in 383 AD.

At some stage he seems to have become a well-established presence in Britain, and by 380 appears to have been in overall charge of the military operations of the island, probably holding one of the two key imperial positions of Dux Brittanniae or Comes Litoris Saxonici. In 381 he successfully held back a significant Pictish raid, and it was perhaps on the basis of this that he was ‘raised to the purple’ by his troops (and perhaps also the grateful citizens of the province).


He was not the first of the ‘Emperor Generals’, and certainly not the last. The province of Britannia produced three such figures in the first decade of the fifth century alone, no doubt contributing to the final decision on the part of Honorius to withdraw troops from the island altogether and leave the ‘breeding ground of tyrants’ to its own devices. – http://www.mabinogion

Magnus_MaximusSo he was a significant, though by no means an exceptional historical figure; a bit like Robin Hood, until the storytellers got their hands on him, although some of the blame of the inaccuracies can also be laid at the historians’ doors. Macsen is transformed into the heroic leader of British hosts against the might of Rome, consort of a British princess.

In this story the dream is only a small part of the story. In his dream Macsen travels to the fairest island in the world where he encounters a maiden so beautiful that he finds it hard to even look at her; she is like the sun. When he awakes he sends his messengers to track her down, which they do. He follows, conquering all that stands in his way, and marries her. Because he is absent from Rome for so long, after seven years his place as Emperor is forfeit and a new Emperor takes his place so he has to return and lay siege to the city before getting his throne back.

In The Dream of Max the Emperor, Max is a gangster:

Our man Max lives and works in the capital city which is to say that he sells illicit drugs and stolen goods to the section of the conurbation’s populace which is forever hungry for such things. He has a retinue of men who are willing, eager even, to use violence and intimidation in order to protect his business interests; sometimes, and out of Max’s hearing, they will refer to him as ‘the Emperor’, in reference half-fond, half-mocking to his aristocratic carriage and mien.

While out on “a pussy-hunt” (to use Max’s vernacular) he falls asleep in a nightclub called – you’ve guessed it – Rome. And there he has his dream and gets to meet the woman of his dreams:

And the dream-Max thought: Jesus fucking Christ. She … dazzled his eyes like the gold had done, like the sun would have done if he ever gazed directly at it. She was the sexiest thing he’d ever seen. She was Beyoncé, Alisha Dixon, Lisa Maffia. She was the kind of woman he deserved to have on his arm, the kind of woman whom the papers should carry photos of hanging off his arm and caught in a flash as they both exited a white limo.

Max knows the woman of his dreams doesn’t exist in the real world but he also comes to believe that he’d never be complete without a woman like her. And this makes him sad. And that is unusual because his sadness usually transmogrifies “into rage, or contempt, or a mixture of the two,” which he ends up taking out on someone’s face and body. But not this time. No. He just wants to go home.

For a week he remains isolate in his flat, visiting Rome with the boys at night, peddling his wares and scanning the strobed crowd for the face that was in his dream. … All is funless to Max. During [the] days, in fact, Max does little but sleep; he knocks himself out with temazepam and he lies in a still heap on the sofa as the sun sinks across the bay. … As he sleeps, the woman of his dreams re-visits him…

There is only one answer. He sends his men out to find her, first in the city and then northward. Eventually one is found and she wants to meet him but this is the real world, not a folktale, and that meeting does not go as well as planned. Put it this way, the last words in this story are not, “And they all lived happily ever after.”


Cheryl-Cole-Tattoos-Cheryl-I thought these were well done on the whole. The best, and my favourite, was Ronnie’s Dream. It’s the hardest read and depends on a fair understanding of recent British events. I watch the news and so I knew what Griffiths was on about most e but not all of the time. Even some of the names – David Beckham and Cheryl Cole I know but I had to look up the others. In that respect I wish, as with the Bulgakov, there were endnotes. Who was the man in the cassock for example? There’s an article in The Telegraph which says, “It would have been better if Tony Blair had been more straightforward about his Christian faith.” The reporter felt that:

…he was reinventing his past again, just as he did in the old days when he said that, as a boy, he watched Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle United, had stowed away on a flight to the West Indies and had been kidnapped by the Mysterons during the invasion of Iraq (I made one of those up; see if you can spot which one). – George Pitcher, ‘It's too late to reinvent yourself, Tony Blair’, The Telegraph, 14th December 2009

Is that the case or is Griffiths simply including him as a representative of religion in that unholy triumvirate made up of politics, religion and the military? I don’t know. Graham Dow was Tony Blair’s chaplain. In July 2007, following widespread storms over parts of England, Dow stated that he believed the resulting flooding (in which several people were killed) was the result of God's "strong and definite judgment" on the "moral degradation" of British society.

Skipping over one or two minor irritations like this all I can say is that this is one hell of a diatribe. He could have gone further but he wisely keeps to his central issue, the Iraq war and how it was handled. Because of where he stops, he has more questions than answers but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Who says your story needs to end with a neat moral?

The story begins with some affected narrative though:

In the first, infant years of the second millennium since the Saviour’s martyrdom there appeared two great warriors in two great lands, separated by a huge water.

And it continues like that for the next three pages building up to what is basically a very funny punch line but since he can’t keep it up for the whole story I would have rather he’d toned it down but that’s about the only real criticism I have and it’s not a big one because what he does he does well.

I was not so crazy about The Dream of Max the Emperor. It doesn’t feel contemporary. All the action in the real world in Ronnie’s Dream is believable (and in a dream you can get away with just about anything) but the second story has the feel of an adaptation. I just didn’t buy it. It’s also a little on the long side. That said I did like how he chose to end it.

At the end of the book there are synopses of both original stories, about three pages for each. Part of me wished that I’d read them beforehand, I have to say, but if you choose to wait you’ll certainly want to read the adaptations a second time to see how well Griffiths did.

As a complete body of work The Dreams of Max and Ronnie has probably one other flaw: its Britishness, but then I’m sure, for the Brits reading this, that will be a definite plus. But don’t wait too long. Satire goes cold quick.

These are the four books that are currently available:



niall-griffiths_01_446Niall Griffiths was born in Liverpool in 1966, studied English, and now lives and works in Aberystwyth.

His first four novels are: Grits (2000); a tale of addicts and drifters in rural Wales; Sheepshagger (2001); which tells the story of Ianto, a feral mountain boy; Kelly & Victor (2002); and Stump (2003), which won two Book of the Year awards. Grits was made into a film for television, and Kelly & Victor and Stump are also being made into films. He has also written travel pieces, restaurant and book reviews, and radio plays. His last novel was Runt (2006). You can read a short profile by him on the BBC Wales site, here.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Chew your poems properly

Chewing There are a number of different schools of poetry. One I’ve been wondering about for a while has been the School of Quietude but I’ve never been able to find a decent definition until now. In his blog, Seth Abramson writes extensively about the subject before trying to present a potted definition. This is what he came up with:

In short, the School of Quietude is simply this:

The belief, as exhibited in and by certain contemporary poems, that the near-totality of words in an individual poem should be employed in such a way as to utilize exclusively their transcendent rather than immanent meaning.

To the extent this proclivity, as to word usage, commonly generates a poem whose individual on-the-page "marks" constitute merely an "echo" of the visualisable universe of matter the poem evokes, the actual words of the poem may be considered Quiet.

They are Quiet in the sense that they are not permitted their full expression as "words-qua-words," but instead remain merely signifiers of a series of referents whose acknowledgment, comprehension, and internalization is the most important work of the poem.

This article is not really about the School of Quietude, but that is not what has piqued my interest so much as something Abramson says in attempting to define it. The guy’s a lawyer and so that’s why the definition is a bit on the convoluted side. Assuming his definition is accurate – which I am going to do – then I find I have a problem with it: I’m not sure I agree with anyone who suggests that you can only expect someone to read a work transcendentally. Well, you can expect them to. I’m just not sure it’s possible.

Before we go on we need to understand two words: immanent and transcendent. In the same article, Abramson says:

The greatest divide in poetry, by far, of the past hundred years has been between poets who treat language as a locus for imminent meaning and those who treat it as a locus for transcendent meaning.

It’s a typo but one that caused me (and others) a lot of confusion because ‘imminent’ is not the same as ‘immanent’:

Imminence: The quality or condition of being about to occur

immanence, 1. Existing or remaining within; inherent: believed in a God immanent in humans. 2. Restricted entirely to the mind; subjective.

The two terms are actually religious expressions. According to Wikipedia:

Immanence, derived from the Latin in manere – "to remain within" – refers to philosophical and metaphysical theories of divine presence, which hold that some divine being or essence manifests in and through all aspects of the material world. It is usually applied in monotheistic, pantheistic, or panentheistic faiths to suggest that the spiritual world permeates the non-spiritual, and often contrasts the idea of transcendence.

In religion, transcendence is a condition or state of being that surpasses physical existence and in one form is also independent of it. Although transcendence is defined as the opposite of immanence, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive

The way I understand them is in music terms. If you go to a piano and hit the A above middle C you expect to hear a single note. Let’s call it a monotone. Early synthesisers were monophonic. They could only produce one note at a time. A piano is polyphonic – you can play chords. The fact is that if you hit the A above Sine wave_440Hz middle C the sound that you hear is not as simple as you think it is. It contains overtones. The pitch of the A above middle C is 440Hz, i.e. 440 vibrations per second. At the same time you’ll also hear the 1st overtone (880Hz), the 2nd (1320Hz), the 3rd (1760Hz) and so on. Sound is more complex than it first . . . er, sounds.

I don’t ‘hear’ the overtones . . . well, I do hear some of them but not on a conscious level . . . but I can do the maths and work them out. I may not be able to perceive them but I can conceive them. The way I understand “immanent meaning” is that it’s the first thing we are hit with, the fundamental note; the “transcendent meanings” are like overtones. So we have a sound, a basic meaning, and then we have overtones which not everyone hears and those are the hidden meanings starting with simple metaphors and moving through personal connections.

For example, it’s not that uncommon an expression in Scotland to say that someone’s “away the Crow Road” meaning that he’s died. Residents of Partick, Broomlands, Jordanhill, Anniesland and those who’ve read the book or watched the television dramatisation of Iain Banks’ novel The Crow Road will also know there’s an actual Crow Road in the west end of Glasgow. Only I know that my dad and I walked up it when I returned to Glasgow about fifteen years ago. So anyone reading my poem ‘A Drink Up the Crow Road’ which I wrote on the anniversary of my father’s death will probably get some of the “true meaning” of the piece but I doubt anyone would see the irony in the piece: my dad and I never went for a drink together, despite living in Scotland where it would be an everyday occurrence for a father to take his son for a pint, we never did. In fact the only time we ever had a drink together was when I made some homebrew and he tried some. Lethal stuff it was too. More importantly there are no pubs on that stretch of Crow Road.

Crow Road

Crow Road viewed from Partick

What though is the immanent meaning of “Crow Road”? What about the people who live on or near Crow Road in North Walsham or the Crow Road in Spittal or Keswick or the one in San Antonio even? Meaning is like energy. Words on a page have potential meaning. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a more accurate way of putting it than ‘immanent’ but I find it easier to understand. Once the words get into our heads they become kinetic, alive; they react with and respond to the environment in which they find themselves. But no matter where they end up, unless it’s in the mind of someone who doesn’t speak English, the first obstacle the reader will have to get over is what the words ‘crow’ and ‘road’ mean: a crow is a big black bird and a road is, generally speaking, a public way. They might think that I’m talking about a straight road because that’s how crows fly and the fact is that Glasgow’s Crow Road is quite straight apart from the section my dad and I walked up.

So what’s the difference between perception and conception? In poetic terms we see a word like ‘crow’ and we think ‘big black bird’ because that’s what it is. Ask a kid what a crow is and that’s what they’ll tell you. It’s a big black bird. That’s what we see. We don’t seeCorvidae’ or ‘passerine’ but what we have learned and experienced forms our conception of what it means to be a crow. A member of the Crow Nation will view the bird quite differently to me. As would a Buddhist. Or a Korean. Language is reductive. It reduces an object to its basic elements.

In his book The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Mark Johnson uses the terms “embodied meaning and immanent meaning to emphasis those deep-seated bodily sources of human meaning that go beyond the merely conceptual and propositional.” He says:

If we reduce meaning to words and sentences (or concepts and propositions), we miss or leave out where meaning really comes from. We end up intellectualising human experience, understanding and thinking and we turn processes into static entities or properties. (p.11)

I learn things through my body. Crow Road is not simple the name of a rather long road in Glasgow. I have experienced Crow Road over many years. I have travelled up and down it in cars, in vans and on public transport. I have walked much of the length of it, mostly alone but not always. In addition to my father I’ve walked along it with my wife and my daughter but not my mother. I’ve written poems on it. I’ve carried shopping up it. I found a photo of a woman on it that I still keep in my wallet. I’ve had an asthma attack on it. When my mother died Carrie and I took a mirror into an antique shop there to see if it was worth anything and ended up leaving it there and forgetting about it. I’ve lived in flats on both sides of it. Crow Road means something to me and that meaning is built up of more than simple facts. I can feel Crow Road under my feet. I have a physical and emotional and intellectual connection with Crow Road.

The Crow Road in the poem is an imaginary place though. It’s where the conversation my dad and I ought to have had before he died happens; the poem was written a year after his death. A pragmatist would quite rightly jump on that point:

(for my dad who died a year ago today)

Come on in lad, come in.
You'll take a drink won't you?
It's an unusual brand of truth –
I think you'll like it.
imperial-pint-glass Mind, it's an acquired taste,
a bit on the bitter side.

Just sip it to start with
or it'll give you the heartburn.
That's my boy!

Happy anniversary son.

Wednesday, 11 December, 1996

The father in the poem is also imaginary. That’s not how my dad talked, not his phraseology at all. I don’t think he ever called me ‘my boy’ or ‘lad’ in his life; he called me his son but ‘son’ as an endearment was not one of his either. He did suffer from heartburn quite badly. It was years before I experienced it myself which took a bit of the romance out of the expression.

For me the meaning in this poem is one that transcends the actual marks on the page. They don’t contain my meaning. They evoke it. They are a record of something that never happened. There is nothing to perceive. That said I do superimpose the feeling of sitting in a pub but no specific pub just a common-or-garden working man’s pub. Imagination is a projection of experience.

When I ask most people what my poems mean I’m generally met with an awkward silence. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In his book Mark Johnson makes this point about meaning:

One of the greatest impediments to an appreciation of the full scope of embodied meaning is the way philosophers of language focus almost exclusively on language (i.e. spoken and written words and sentences) as the bearer of meaning. Anything that doesn’t conform to this linguistic model is defined, by fiat, as not part of meaning proper. This language-centred prejudice leads many philosophers to overlook the deepest roots of meaning. (p.209)

I’m a writer. I work exclusively with words. And one of the first things I look for in any poem is meaning. What I have to recognise is that the resultant meaning that a piece of steam kettle writing produces in me is not something that can quickly be reconverted into words. Water can be turned into vapour with ease but try getting that vapour back into the kettle afterwards. It’s everywhere, on the outside of the kettle, on the walls, the windows, even inside you. But it’s still H2O.

I gave a collection of poems to a family friend once and she handed it back to me with very little comment other than the fact she’d kept one of the poems because it meant something to her. She didn’t tell me what. Not because she was keeping anything from me. She simply didn’t have the words to express what the poem meant to her.

Question: Is a text there to be understood or interpreted? He’s a good example:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel. (Genesis 3:15).

Most Christians accept that verse as a prophecy, the first mention of the Messiah. It’s not what it says but it is what it means. Do you think Adam and Eve realised that? Who knows. Was God even talking to them? (Actually if you read verse 14 he’s addressing the serpent.) And even if they did have an inkling do you think they imagined he was talking about thousands of years in the future?

1. (tr) to clarify or explain the meaning of; elucidate
2. (tr) to construe the significance or intention of to interpret a smile as an invitation
3. (tr) to convey or represent the spirit or meaning of (a poem, song, etc.) in performance

The thing about Biblical prophecies is that they are open to interpretation. Some even have multiple interpretations having minor and major fulfilments. I think poetry is like that, an obvious or at least fairly obvious meaning, something you can take away from a superficial read, and then there’s the deeper meaning that only comes after you’ve fully assimilated the piece.

This is perhaps one of the reasons I’ve struggled with . . . let’s just call it hard poetry. I’ve not allowed myself time to live with it. Meaning is not a constant. Anything can take on new meanings. I remember a song called ‘Drive’ by The Cars. It was famously used as part of the Live Aid concert in 1985, as the background music to a montage of clips showing poverty-stricken Africa. Now, when most people my age hear that song that is what we associate it with. The song’s original meaning has been subverted. This was a very melancholy song written from the perspective of a guy who's watching a woman (who he presumably used to date) "going down the tubes," trying to get her to take a hard look at what's going on in her life. It’s nothing to do with starving kids. Or is this a case of transcendent meaning? I don’t think so. It’s just what Pavlov did to his dogs: they heard a bell and got food, we heard ‘Drive’ and got images of starving kids. But someone somewhere thought to pair up the video and the song. That someone saw more in the song than was there. For him (or her) the meaning transcended to another level. Or they might have just thought it was a cool song to go over that film and just the right length too.

As a writer I can’t say it doesn’t concern me how people read my poems although I suspect I’m more concerned by how we all read poetry. Or that might be read in general. I am continually bombarded by information. It’s not always text-based but much of it is. Most of the poetry I read these days is online and I wonder how much time I give to these pieces because that’s probably how much time others devote to my poems. They read ’em and move on. Do any of us live with poems? This is where I believe the Internet does us no favours because we don’t go back to stuff. We read ’em and move on, read ’em and move on. That’s one of the reasons I wish people would buy my book of poetry, not to make me rich – you all know I’m never going to be rich – but because I think if people have my poetry around for more than the few seconds it takes to read one online they might start to see beyond the words on the page. Whether they’ll have a transcendent experience, well…

stockphotopro_4352997LWG_ My mum was fond of saying, “You are what you eat,” which means when she died she was probably 55% water and 45% microwave chips. I don’t recall she ever told me to chew my food properly but she probably did. She certainly told me to eat my greens. I think what I’m saying here is that to get the most meaning out of our poems we need to chew them properly. Picking good poems to nibble on in the first place is important too but I think that’s probably a topic for discussion another time.

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