Versions of Masculinity 2: Paul Muldoon

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I have just read Muldoon’s Selected Poems 1968-2014.This has been a revelatory experience of a body of work that I had previously found so intimidating that I had avoided it as post-modernist whimsicality. Not that it has got any easier, and the poet continues to change shape and evade capture like the trickster Gallogly, or like the poet of negative capability it seems that he aspires to be. I don’t have the ability or years left in my life to offer any kind of sustained reading of Muldoon, but I have found it interesting to explore different versions of masculinity he offers, starting from the eponymous poem ‘Quoof’. When I first read Quoof, both the book and the title poem, I was struck by Muldoon’s exploitation of the sonnet. I even used the poem in teaching as a contemporary example of the form. A colleague (male) to whom I showed the poem objected to its attitude to women. This had made me a little uncomfortable but as a woman reading and teaching love poetry mostly written by men, this was a familiar feeling .

hotwaterbottle

Here is the poem:

 

How often have I carried our family word

for the hot water bottle

to a strange bed,

as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick

in an old sock

to his childhood settle.

I have taken it into so many lovely heads

or laid it between us like a sword.

 

An hotel room in New York City

with a girl who spoke hardly any English,

my hand on her breast

like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti

or some other shy beast

that has yet to enter the language.[1]

 

There are two male figures in this poem: the first is presented as perhaps innocent, the speaker’s father as a child preparing an old-fashioned substitute for a hot water bottle to take to his child-hood settle. The second, the speaker, a liberated post-sexual liberation male is boasting of the number of women he has slept with. In the sestet, we are given a specific example; the cosmopolitan speaker in ‘New York City’ is with a woman he barely knows, and certainly cannot communicate with as she ‘spoke hardly any English’. Perhaps this is all about sex; if so, there isn’t much of it, or what there is is unsatisfactory. Back in the octave, the father’s behaviour may be interpreted as a lonely act of adolescent masturbation, as he juggles his ‘red-hot half-brick’, while the Don Juan son must have a strange love-life if it so frequently necessitates a hot-water bottle. Even if we consider the ‘quoof’ to be a phallic substitution just as the sword so often is, we might recognize it as anti-erotic and question the appearance of the ‘sword’ simile in line 8. In traditional romance, the sword between a man and woman in a bed was to prevent sex, as in the case of Tristram and Isolde.

 

Moreover, the presentation of the male lover in the sestet is also problematic; his hand seems to have become the ‘quoof’ as it is ‘smouldering’ , but though its presence –‘spoor’ – on the woman’s breast might seem proprietorial and animal-like, it doesn’t get very far, particularly as it is juxtaposed with words and phrases like ‘one-off’, ‘shy’ and ‘yet to enter’. Since the poem resists its superficial interpretation, the reader is forced to explore other dimensions. It is impossible to avoid the echo of Yeats’ ‘rough beast’ in “The Second Coming.’ However, whereas Yeats’ speaker dreads the coming of the beast, Muldoon’s speaker is the beast or identifies with the beast in an incident of non-communication which conveys not only failure both sexually and in terms of colonization, but also the inadequacy of the domestic or private upbringing as preparation for life in the wider public sphere. ‘Quoof’ was never going to be widely disseminated as a household word. Therefore, in this poem, we see not the assertion of predatory masculinity but an interrogation and subversion of it.

 

“The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” is the long poem which comes at the end of the same volume. For me, it reads as Muldoon’s take on the Troubles presented as an arena where different events, ideas, emotions can play off each other. Muldoon is sometimes described as apolitical, disengaged, even amoral. His work, on the contrary, seems to me extremely political although I think he leaves moral judgement to the reader who must ingest and sift the multifarious elements he has patterned into the poem. How can you not react morally to the description of the councillor blown up by a car bomb:

Once they collect his smithereens

he doesn’t quite add up.

They’re shy of a foot, and a calf

which stems

from his left shoe like a severely

pruned-back shrub.

 

The tone and black (gallows/ gallowglass)humour of the poem remind me of Adrian McKinty’s crime thrillers featuring a Catholic RUC officer based in Carrickfergus, a set-up unlikely enough in itself to fit a Muldoon poem. Muldoon has two protagonists, both shape shifters, apparently enemies but who eventually seem to merge in a final catastrophic explosion at a garage. Gallogly, who is on the run, is identified as a gallowglass, a type of mercenary soldier which had its origins in the Norse-Gaelic clans of Scotland although the name came to be used for any Irish mercenary. Gallogly’s identity is not simple; he can be both the son of the King of the Moy which brings him closer to Muldoon himself or he can be

Gallogly, or Gollogly,

otherwise known as Golightly,

otherwise known as Ingoldsby,

otherwise known as English…

The series of pseudonyms or noms de guerre not only reflect the figure of the trickster but also represents the murky world of double and triple agents in the Northern Ireland conflict. Gallogly is presented as the epitome of the male desperado: tough, cunning and as ready to exploit opportunities for sex as for vehicle theft. In the opening sections of the poem, women appear only as sexual metonyms: ‘a froth of bra and panties’, ‘your still-warm wife’s damp tuft’ and again, a ‘lovely head’ this time ‘chopped and changed’. This image of brutal transformation through tarring and feathering suggests women as victims, while the male protagonist powers nonchalantly on his way; however, there are increasing contra-indications. First of all, the language: the woman changes from being ‘The scum of the Seine/and the Farset’[2] to ‘her ladyship’ albeit this phrase is generally ironic. However, her social status increases as we are told her ‘fathers/knew Louis Quinze’ and that she was first encountered on the ‘Roxborough estate’ saying ‘Noblesse oblige’. Admittedly, this could be any kind of estate, from a housing estate to a stately home to a plantation on a Caribbean island. She even becomes a milkmaid –goddess in the allusion to Leto and the frogs. The female figure becomes increasingly literary, given the names Beatrice and Alice and associated with texts and writers as various as Dante, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Gertrude Stein. The sighting of the child on the Roxborough estate parallels Dante’s first encounter with the child Beatrice and signals the role of the woman as muse. Alice is both Alice in Wonderland (Alice A?) and associated with Alice B Toklas who has had tea with Beatrice’s grand-mère, thus arguably providing an independent female literary tradition of foremothers.

Her grand-mère was once asked to tea

by Gertrude Stein,

and her grand-mère and Gertrude

and Alice B., chère Alice B.

with her hook-nose

Alice also links to the Aer Lingus check-in girl at Logan who wears an embroidered A in an allusion, I suppose, to The Scarlet Letter. For the most part, however, these women, who morph into each other as frequently as the male characters, are shown to have power over the men. Beatrice/Alice seems to hold the key to hallucinogenic drugs. At the beginning, it is suggested she is growing cannabis in her garden though that may be the least of her offences as she is wearing a ‘bomber jacket’. She is punished by being tarred and feathered, traditionally the punishment for sleeping with the enemy so that the message pinned to her jacket ‘Keep off the Grass’ is ambiguous. She is also associated with magic mushrooms, both at Queen’s University and perhaps in a dream vision where she appears to Gallogly asleep: ‘I am gathering musheroons/to make my mammy ketchup’.

 

Women have an increasingly symbolic function in the poem and become increasingly unreal except perhaps for the UDR man’s wife who blasts Gallogly away with a shotgun:

 

She was standing at the picture window

with a glass of water

and a Valium

when she caught your man

in the reflection of her face.

He came

shaping past the milking parlour

as if he owned the place.

Such is the integrity

of their quarrel

that she immediately took down

the legally held shotgun

and let him have both barrels.

She had wanted only to clear the air.

 

This sonnet is a perfect vignette of sectarianism. The Protestant farmer’s wife lives in a ‘hacienda-style/farmhouse’ which underlines the idea that she does not belong although the architectural style referred to is, unfortunately, a feature of the rural landscape north and south of the Irish border. Gallogly ‘comes shaping past’ perhaps a reference to his trickster shape-shifting, ‘as if he owned the place’. This suggestion of the Nationalist claim to the land is backed up the Churchillian quotation about the ‘integrity of their quarrel’. However, when we examine the section more closely, the situation and the quarrel become more complicated. This woman too is in the grip of mind-altering substances and inhabiting two worlds. I feel there must be a reference to Lacan in the description of her reflection in the window, as the woman sees herself and through herself to the figure beyond. She is associated with milk, picking up on the references to the milkman, the milkmaid and the breast milk implicated in Alice/Beatrice’s mushroom magic on the university lawn.

 

Women in the poem are sometimes tutelary, sometimes dangerous but to an extent remote, remembered from the past, just departed or seen through a window, a peep-hole or a drug-induced vision. Ian Gregson has compared Heaney and Muldoon in terms of how they represent gender, a comparison in which Heaney comes off worse as he is accused of adhering to traditional archetypal imagery of male and female. However, in this poem we can again see women reduced to traditional roles – muse, goddess, whore, femme fatale though interestingly there is no reference to mothers unless it be through the imagery of milk. Nevertheless, women are ancillary to the main drive of the poem which is to do with heroic action.

 

The version of masculinity Muldoon offers here is that of a (literally) deconstructed epic hero, mediated through myth, legend, film noir, cartoon and tall tale and the apparatus of the Troubles. Gallogly can be seen as a figure of Odysseus[3] who is making his way homewards to the Moy[4] in an action which involves his shadowy alter ego or arch-enemy, Mangas Jones Esquire ‘who is, as it turns out, Apache’.   It is often difficult to make out whether the protagonist of any particular section of the poem is the Apache or Gallogly, particularly as the action moves confusingly between the US and Northern Ireland. Whether or not Mangas Jones is also the Oglala Sioux who may be seeking revenge for the Massacre of Wounded Knee is also unclear. Gallogly and the Apache are united at the end of the poem at the moment when they are both most thoroughly fragmented in the garage explosion. His/their last words are those attributed to Henry Thoreau: ‘Moose…Indian’ and the hand which could belong to either or both of them is still clutching the pebble of quartz or mescal button, perhaps even, given some of Muldoon’s other references, an obol for the ferryman.

 

‘At the Sign of the Black Horse’ is the long poem which concludes Moy Sand and Gravel, Muldoon’s ninth collection. Unlike ‘The More a Man has the More a Man Wants’, this poem is written in propria persona, or at least makes use of the persona of father of a fairly new son. At one level, the poem appears to be exploring an identity crisis on behalf of this half-Jewish half-Irish baby:

I was awestruck to see in Asher’s glabrous

face a slew of interlopers

not from Maghery, as I might have expected, or Maghera, or         Magherafelt

(though my connections there are now few and far between)

but the likes of that kale-eating child on whom the peaked cap, Verboten,

would shortly pin a star of yellow felt.

 

 

Muldoon has been criticised for treating the topic of the Holocaust in this poem[5], but it seems to me that he would have been more at fault to have turned his back on it. The poem works to confront and accommodate his children’s dual heritage, which becomes, at one remove, his own. It is interesting, though, that this poem arises from the birth of his son, not of his first child, a daughter. He has written a number of poems about her, but not this one. Thus, inheritance, lineage and history are appropriated as masculine concerns.

 

Several critics have identified one of the sources of the poem as Yeats’ ‘Prayer for My Daughter’ June 1919 and there are a number of quotations from the earlier poem in Muldoon’s text. The device, like the title which alludes to W.H. Auden’s ‘September, 1939’, is used to place the poem within poetic tradition. (I am not sure what the ‘sign of the black horse’ refers to, apart from what seems to be a private connection mentioned in another poem, ‘As’, in the same volume:

and the rough-shod give way to the Black Horse avern

that still rings true

despite that ‘T’ being missing from its sign

where a little nook gives way to a little nookie

when I give way to you.[6])

Similarly,the poem’s task is to place the child in his tradition, by teasing out the Irish and Jewish threads of his American heritage.

 

In the phantasmagorical drama which arises out of an actual flood caused by Hurricane Floyd near Canal Road in New Jersey which is where Muldoon actually lives, the Irish parts are mainly nameless extras, identified as the ‘ground-breaking Irish navvies’ or ‘Irish schlemiels’ who laboured to build the canals and much of the rest of the physical infrastructure of the US. The name parts are given to patriarchal Jewish figures from the child’s mother’s family, the most significant being ‘great-grandfather, Sam Korelitz’ ,who is presented as an authority figure and custodian of Judaic practice, and ‘Uncle Arnie’ who is portrayed as a bootlegger, semi-criminal figure but well-connected, particularly to members of the demi-monde. These two are Jewish American male stereotypes. The women who appear in the poem seem much less central or confined to traditional roles: Helene Hanff, ‘Jean’s distant cousin’ spends the whole poem preparing the ‘white-lipped peccary’ for cooking by rubbing ‘a mix of cumin and baby talc’ into it. The peccary is simultaneously an impure food source according to Jewish rules as it has a cloven foot but also a miscarried or aborted foetus whose loss is an undercurrent throughout the poem: ‘the kebab-babby we had lost a year or two back’, which then becomes a metonym for all the lost ‘child-kin’ of the Holocaust. It seems that the pain of this loss can only be confronted through outrageous images and associations. “The red stain on the lint/ that covered whatever it was in the autoclave’ is associated with the crematorium at Auschwitz and the astrakhan hats worn by both Helene and Fanny Brice, the other main female character, hats said to be made from the wool of still-born lambs. Fanny Brice is the stage name for Fania Borach who was the model and star of stage and screen on whom the Barbara Streisand film, Funny Girl, was based. In the poem she is a friend of Uncle Arnie and also, for some reason, of Bulwer Lytton. Helene Hanff is famous for the book, 84 Charing Cross Road, a connection which allows Muldoon to circle back to the British connection with references to the threat of the pram in the hall which he attributes to ‘whichever Waugh’ although the phrase comes from Cyril Connolly.

 

Uncle Arnie, Arnold Rothstein, is into:

Racketeering, maybe. Extortion, maybe.

Maybe vice.

 

But not throwing games.

 

Despite this unconvincing denial, Uncle Arnie represents the unacceptable face of Jewish America, but he is nevertheless active, a doer, a successful entrepreneur. Sam Korelitz, on the other hand, berates the poet-father for his failure to offer his son a bris (the Jewish rite of circumcision) and cites scripture in his support. The ‘Goy from the Moy’ seems to quiver between these two powerful figures, overwhelmed by the tragedy, weight and multifariousness of his child’s Jewish inheritance. The history on the other side of the family is equally problematic, derived from the Irish immigrants who fled repression and hunger in their own country to labour in America, to become the victims of Uncle Arnie who was ‘running rum/ to those thousands of Irish schlemiels/ who dug the canal.’ Different images create an equation between these Irish masses and the victims of the Holocaust: ‘as the creel carters piled more and more clay, hay, hair, spectacle frames, Willkommen’; ‘that little gore, that little gusset/of ground into which my cast/of thousands of Irish schmucks have been herded, Halt.’ The poem reels with the inability to absorb the flood of history and the reference to Yeats becomes bitterly ironic:

 

Asher sleeps on, attended by two teddy bears

his soul less likely than ever to recover radical innocence and learn at last

that it is self-delighting.

 

This is a tremendous poem in which Muldoon addresses the agonies of the Holocaust in a way which is non-exploitative because he allows himself to be the vehicle through which the poem is created. Muldoon’s frequently expressed view that the poem works through the poet, as if the poet is some sort of Shelleyan Aeolian harp, may seem startlingly Romantic in a writer so strongly associated with post-modernism, but it does allow an escape from self-consciousness which enables the saying of the unsayable. The concern with masculinity is of secondary importance, although it is clearly present as the father broods

with a dink and a dink

and a dinky dick

over the failure to circumcise his son or provide him with a mohel.

 

The third poem I wish to consider is ‘The Humours of Hakone’ from Maggot, 2010. The voice in the poem is first person, but this time the persona is of a detective or forensic scientist in Japan. I think the central premise of the poem, or metaphor, is the equivalence between a dead girl and a failed poem, or even the failure of THE POEM.[7] Along the way (the ‘corduroy over a quag’)corduroy

there are references to St Columbanus of Bobbio, lepers and various Japanese places and cultural customs, not to mention the humours (wet or dry) and puzzling allusions to a ‘great world at which this one may merely hint’ or ‘that great world of which this one is a sulphur cast.’[8] This may chime with Muldoon’s rather tentative argument in The End of the Poem:

 

‘I want to go further than [Robert] Lowell and propose (1) that the “poetic translation” is itself an “original poem,” (2) that the “original poem” on which it’s based is itself a “translation” and (3) that both “original poem” and “poetic translation” are manifestations of some ur-poem. I shy away from this last idea, of course, since it smacks of a Platonism I can’t quite stomach.’

-Chapter 8, L’Anguilla /The Eel, Eugenio Montale

 

The poem, made up of nine sections, each with five alternately rhymed quatrains is full of ideas which the reader, and maybe even the writer, can’t quite stomach or digest, including some fairly revolting images of decay and decomposition consonant with the collection as a whole. Be that as it may, I want to focus on the presentation of the ‘male gaze’ in the poem and how it dissects and dehumanises the female. She appears first as a stomach, then as a clog, a hair and shreds of panty-hose. The poem continues with references to a breast implant, an eyeball, belly, foot-soles, ‘fancy-freighted skull’, purge fluids. This process of dissecting a woman in a poem is very traditional, going back through Marvell and Donne[9] to the courtly love blazon. However, in this poem the gaze is acknowledged and foregrounded by its presentation as the forensic and analytical stare of the scientist, yet nevertheless a scientist who is passionately involved with the object of his study. I have assumed the scientist speaker is male, partly because of the sometimes salacious tone of his comments: ‘By day four the skin would have peeled from her thigh like a fine –mesh stocking’ ; it is not clear if the voice is Japanese as sometimes the tone is that of an outsider, or even a tourist:

‘I’d read somewhere…’. It is also difficult to tell whether the girl is saintly or secular:

It was far too late to reconstruct the train station bento box

she bought at Kyoto-eki the night before the night she took her vows

and threw up in the hollyhocks.

Too late to figure out if the Tokugawa clan would refuse

 

a plainclothes escort

to a less than fully-fledged geisha.

Too late to insist that the body of a poem is no less sacred

than a temple with its banner gash

 

though both stink to high heaven.

 

‘Gash’ could be a cut or wound, but it is more obviously a disparaging reference to female genitalia usually employed by men. In this extract from Section VI, the girl is again identified with the poem and whether she is taking vows to become a nun or a geisha is deliberately obscured. Noticeable is the speaker’s repeated lament that it is ‘too late’: too late to recover the girl or her body or to find out the truth about her death; too late to recover the poem or reconstruct it from its fragments. Perhaps both ‘stink to high heaven’ because of their corporeality, their mundane transitoriness, identified in the poem by Columbanus, cited earlier, De Transitu Mundi.

 

The idea of the female as the poem, rather than the muse or inspiration for the poem is unusual. It allows Muldoon to set up a set of correspondences which are no less successful for being forced. At the opening of the poem, the dead woman/poem is ‘decomposing around what looked like an arrow./Her stomach contents ink.’ Later the arrow becomes a quill, synonym for pen, so that it requires limited acquaintance with Freudian symbolism to recognise who bears responsibility for the crime and how the writing of the poem is equated to a sexual act. Similarly, ink becomes a noxious fluid, purge fluids given off by a decomposing body or the poisonous toxin secreted by the globefish or fugu. If the girl is the globefish, whom the speaker has failed to find, it explains why he is absolved from his abjuration of his ‘right to eat globefish later that night in Santora’. This suggests, in a confusion of double negatives, that he is now free to dice with death again, but why? Perhaps to continue the tricky task of negotiating a pathway over the quag, a metaphor for writing poetry. At the end of the poem, all the speaker has left, or all he has found as forensic evidence is ‘a single maggot puparium’, the shell of a maggot egg. Is this also a figure of the purikuru or sticker-photo booth image which again the speaker has only known at second-hand, ‘the impression left on a sticker-photo-booth wall’? And is this again an image of the ‘ur-poem’ the poet has failed to achieve, but succeeded along the way in creating a different poem.

In the same chapter of The End of the Poem, Muldoon explores the idea that the poet gives himself over to the poem,

‘going with and, insofar as it’s possible, going against the flow. The “helmsman” is acutely aware of having given himself over to a force of nature which is likely, from moment to moment, to overwhelm him. However much he might imagine himself to be its master, he is at the mercy of that force…

…all texts might properly be thought of as “translations of translations of translations” often to an extent which is shocking to the conscious mind of the writer who has given him- or herself over to the unconscious.’

p.201

 

This is clearly an intimation of Muldoon’s writing process, a giving of himself over to the force of the poem, which he controls through formal constraints. It is hardly surprising therefore that the reader finds it so difficult to work out what the poem is doing or what it is about. However, as far as I understand Muldoon, this does not allow us to relapse into the comfortable notion that any interpretation by the reader can be equally valid. Muldoon demands recognition of authorial intention and it would seem that the best close reading and the best translation will apprehend the ur-poem of which the poet him- or herself is in pursuit. As I have remarked before, this seems to be a view closer to the Romantics than to post-modernism, despite the poet’s eclectic and fragmented style.

 

In the past, Muldoon was met with baffled incomprehension and often accused of being merely whimsical. More recently, critics have continued to acknowledge his unfathomability, but recognised the seriousness of his project. For Muldoon, the confusion and difficulty of his verse reflects the difficulties and contradictions of the world we live in. This is apparent in his presentation of aspects of gender and masculinity in the poems discussed above. By allowing his poems to include a range of gender images and stereotypes but then manipulating and challenging them, he creates a radical uncertainty typical of his work and appropriate to our times.

[1] Despite Muldoon’s apparent insistence that there is a ‘correct’ reading for the poem, intended by the author, I have read at least three not entirely contradictory interpretations of this one.

[2] I’m not quite sure if this means the girl is half-French half-Belfast, or if she is fully French and it is the male who is from Belfast.

[3] It could be argued that the UDR man’s wife is an alternative version of Penelope who has grown fed up of waiting for Odysseus and has married one of the suitors.

[4] He is referred to as ‘the son of the King of the Moy’ but there may be an allusion to local hero , John King, who was lost in the Australian outback and almost starved to death, an image of the theme of hunger and food which recurs through the poem and reflects the struggle of the hunger strikers in the Maze. It is also an allusion to a traditional song or poem, collected by Myles Dillon.

[5] Unavowed Engagement: Paul Muldoon as War Poet

Warman, April

2009 | Oxford University Press

The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, Chapter 38

[6] Whether or not, there is a link to Lloyd’s Bank, or banking generally, or even goldsmiths, I have no idea. The sign of a black horse was used in medieval times as a street sign to indicate a goldsmith’s shop, and goldsmiths were the predecessors of bankers.

 

[7] The End of the Poem (2006) is Muldoon’s title for his Oxford lectures. The title is a multilayered pun, but as in this poem, poetry seems to be alive and kicking.

[8] Sulphur casts are used to conserve images made in snow. This is one of a number of forensic practices mentioned in the poem.

[9] Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Donne’s Elegy to His Mistress Going to Bed

Is Steve Ely like Geoffrey Hill or Basil Bunting?

incendium amoris

When I read a poem by Steve Ely in The London Review of Books, I was intrigued and sought out more of his work. Ely, who lives in Yorkshire, has produced three books: Oswald’s Book of Hours (2013), Englalaland, (2015) and Incendium Amoris (2017), all from Smokestack. The blurbs for these collections compare the poet’s work to Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. I thought it would be interesting to consider how far these comparisons can be sustained.

 

The three most obvious characteristics that come to mind are the autobiographical element, the strong sense of place experienced through time and the fact that all three poets are men. The work of Ely and Hill is also informed by a strong commitment to Christianity, whilst Bunting, reared within Quakerism, though less obviously Christian, arguably has a religious vision. For the purposes of this essay, I shall concentrate mainly on Incendium Amoris, Mercian Hymns and Briggflatts.

 

Incendium Amoris is inspired by the work of the same name by Richard Rolle, a fourteenth century and mystic. Ely uses the life and writings of Rolle to build connections between his own time and the past, in a manner which is “unapologetically inauthentic”, a phrase used by Umberto Eco to describe neomedievalism in its many manifestations from computer games to Dan Brown.[1]

Ely’s collection opens with the section, ‘Officium’, which may refer to the daily prayers or duties of the Catholic Church. It is made up of thirteen 13 line poems, with recurrent phrases and themes. The first poem establishes the link between past and present: ‘Catweazle in cuccula,somehow it’s me’. Catweazle, the poet’s note tells us, was a ‘time-travelling 11th century wizard in the eponymous 1970 LWT children’s TV programme.’ ‘Cuccula’ is a cowl, or monk’s hood, probably signalling the poet’s connection to Rolle, the hermit, and his own commitment to Catholicism. Again in the first poem, Ely refers to ‘Timeslip gleaners on Love Balk stubbles’; Love Balk is a place in the poet’s locality and the gleaners are apparitions in a dream or vision. However, the phrase also suggests the poet’s technique-gleaning fragments of local history over the centuries, perhaps redeeming the stories of the poor and the outsiders of the Yorkshire region where the poem is set. Contemporary characters the poet refers to as his ‘moochers’, Yommer, Joey Bach and Malc Spencer, seem like him, to have set their face against modernity –‘dynamiting windfarms, ‘chopping barbed wire’, deploring the ‘glyphosate sterility’ of commercial agriculture. These characters, like the speaker of the poems, exist on the borders of legality, poaching drinking and engaging in illicit sex, activities which bring them closer to Richard Rolle, who, though long regarded locally as a saint, never had this status ratified by the Church, possibly because of his scandalous relationship with the female nun, and later, anchoress, Margaret of Kirkby. This relationship, ‘Richard and Margret, couchant in bushes’ is celebrated in the sequence, particularly in the poem, ‘Pastoral’:

Dick pats her dry

with her untressed hair and orders her habit.

Her gret papys yet tremble and lift to his touch.

Ely’s identification with Rolle is suggested repeatedly: ‘somehow it’s me…She lay on me like brock-pelt, greasy as weasel./Lips found her nipples, familiar.’

By the end of the sequence, the voice is predominantly Rolle, perhaps a mystic but flawed and conflicted, ‘torrid and incontinent’. In his forest retreat he wakes ‘to the Beast, horned like Cernunnos, and flee[s] to the Name of Jesus.’ He preaches turning ‘your back/on this world’ but himself backslides repeatedly: ‘Seduced, we embrace,/ over and over, heat and sweetness, song.’ The penultimate poem quotes from and justifies Rolle as it reflects the title of the hermit’s treatise and Ely’s poems: ‘The fire of love incinerates sin:/in fullness of flame I am blent in bliss’. In the final poem of the sequence, the writer distances himself from the hermit using a third person perspective, but manages to make his allegiances clear. Sounding quixotic and almost forlorn, he is on the side of the poor, the uncouth, the enlisted men, lining up with the Pilgrimage of Grace, William Blake and the ‘Scrubbers at the lists on horsemeat ponies,/tilting at Zetors,[2] nephilim[3], windmills.’

 

Ely describes himself as a Socialist, a Catholic and a hunter. He is also an expert on Ted Hughes and the Director of the Ted Hughes Network in the English Literature & Creative Writing Subject Area at the University of Huddersfield. The blurb for Incendium Amoris describes the work as ‘peasant’s revolt against the accelerating cultural, social and environmental devastations of globalizing capital, a guerilla-pastoral prophecy of a yeoman-anarchist utopia.’ Ely, like Hughes, has been accused, despite his socialist protestations, of giving succour to the far right. Certainly, the survivalist references to ‘Baikal’ (a type of shotgun) and Realtree (camouflage wear), along with the neo-medieval nostalgia and the clinging to Catholic ritual and terminology have an effect which seems backward- looking and reactionary rather than seriously prophetic. It is hard not to hear Brexit in these poems.[4]

Briggflatts

How accurate, then, is it to compare Ely to Basil Bunting? Certainly, they share some of the same influences. Ely alludes to Pound and Yeats in his first poem, while Bunting was a friend and colleague of Pound, living close to him in Rapallo.

Bunting sees the past as existing still in the present, ‘Then is diffused in Now.’ They share some of the same texts, including the Song of Solomon and they have a shared northernness, Yorkshire for Ely, Cumbria for Bunting. They both like dogs:

I have a yong whippet

            off Baz from Brierley

            much is the mete

            she has brought to me.

                                                Ely

 

fell-born men of precise instep

leading demure dogs

from Tweed and Till and Teviotdale,

with hair combed back from the muzzle,

dogs from Redesdale and Coquetdale

taught by Wilson or Telfer.

Their teeth are white as birch,

slow under black fringe

of silent, accurate lips.

 

Bunting

This is an instructive comparison. Both writers place their poems with exact reference to people and places: ‘Baz from Brierley’, ‘Tweed and Till and Teviotdale’, ‘Wilson and Telfer’. In both there is an element of regional celebration. Both poems make use of alliteration, but for Ely this is a conscious archaism, part of his neo-medieval project where he mimics the poetic forms of middle English and the alliterative lines of pre-Chaucerian verse. In Bunting’s writing, the alliteration is part of the music of the poem which is in free verse, but relies on the sounds of vowels, consonants and syllables as well as the patterning of phrase to build up its complex effect. Moreover, Ely’s dogs are hunting dogs; Bunting’s are sheepdogs. Both writers are very male in their perspectives; both recognise violence as an aspect of masculinity. Bunting, despite his early pacifism, writes

I hear Aneurin number the dead and rejoice,

being adult male of a merciless species

Ely’s poems also refer to ancient battles and atrocities –‘Je te plumerai’, ‘Little Saint Hugh’ and there is a lot of killing, often of animals. The most violent aspect of his poetry is the language; there area lot of taboo words, often, I suppose, of Anglo-Saxon origins and plenty of references to sex and defecation. ‘Wesyll’ is an egregious example:

Stick your fucking wedding ring up your arse.

Sucked a cat’s brain through its orbital socket.

splunk pikejaws of viper, squirmed millipede

ribcage; et out via vulva, the unhinged head.

 

Shit in the hole. See them fall: Chaz, Lou,

Nick, Reza Pahlavi. They never sin

no one like me; stynkand, shrieking: curling

to sleep between hot breasts cold by morning.

With the references to executed kings, this may be the raw voice of the resisting common man, but it is definitely a male voice. It seems to me that Ely is exploring, or perhaps trying to preserve, a particular version of masculinity. He sets his face against modernity in all its forms. Women play a very secondary part to the role of the male; even the presentation of the relationship between Richard Rolle and Margaret Kirkby has a conventionally male perspective. The exceptions are perhaps the love sonnets in the section called ‘Flame’, but even here the male is shown as a hapless ‘man behaving badly’: ‘puking sweet purple/over her shoulder’ in the pub car park. Perhaps we can identify the same sense of guilt and betrayal in the two poets. Ely writes in his second sonnet,’Jacket’:

Gallant I gave her my envied jacket,

a red leather from X-Clothes in Leeds.

I cloaked it over her flowery shoulders

in a rite of debt and devotion. I would have

given her the world and everything in it –

my love, my honey, my harp. I gave her away.

 

The structure of Bunting’s Briggflatts depends on the betrayal of a lost love who is returned to at the end of the poem. “Fifty years a letter unanswered;/a visit postponed for fifty years.//She has been with me fifty years.” Like Ely, he makes use of traditional, almost courtly love language (here, an aubade):

We have eaten and loved and the sun is up,

we have only to sing before parting:

Goodbye, dear love.

Incidentally, in Bunting’s lines, the lovers sing together; in Ely’s, the woman has become a possession, something edible, an instrument.

 

Bunting’s poem starts from and returns to Peggy Greenbank and the hamlet of Brigflatts, but along the way it takes in not only his life and travels through Europe and Asia but the history and culture of the places he has seen. Ely, on the other hand, gives the impression that he would prefer to turn the history of civilization back to a period before the Reformation. His attacks on modernity include a concern for the environment but his ecopolitical view seems indiscriminate, rejecting windfarms along with weedkiller. His poems abound in Church Latin titles, but despite the central character of Richard Rolle, I find more religious reference than religious vision.. There is no overt religion in Briggflatts which could be described as a personal odyssey which offers no answers; in fact, the poem ends with a question mark. We might bear in mind Bunting’s upbringing as a Quaker, an approach to religion antithetical to Ely’s Catholicism; we might also remember Bunting’s own note to the poem:

In silence, having swept dust and litter from our minds, we can detect the pulse of God’s blood in our veins, more persuasive than words, more demonstrative than a diagram. That is what a Quaker meeting tries to be, and that is why the poem is called Briggflatts[5].

Although I imagine Ely is writing in the wake of Bunting and is familiar with his work, it seems to me too glib to consider the poets as similar. Bunting is a modernist, whose writing is located in high culture and a formalist in that he puts the poem before the message; Ely is post-modern, selecting and fabricating from the past, he is overtly political and he seeks to excavate and support his own rather strange notion of the proletarian and the peasant. With every word I write, I am conscious that I am probably being unfair to Ely, but I am put off by his relentless blokishness.

mercian hymns

When we come to consider links between Ely and Geoffrey Hill, some are immediately obvious.

Asiotic[6] night screams horned like Cernunnos-

we like that kind of noise.

These are the last two lines in the first poem of Incendium Amoris, and they seem to echo the last line in the first poem of Mercian Hymns: ‘”I liked that,” said Offa, “sing it again.’ That, along with the reference to Cernunnos, a version of the Green Man, who also appears in Hill’s collection, suggests an acknowledgement of a poetic influence or debt. Both poets are interested in the ancient past of England, before the Reformation, before even the country was a single kingdom. In Mercian Hymns, there is a fusion of past and present, of Geoffrey and Offa, a sort of palimpsest of two different times in the same place. The identification of the poet with the king is indicated in the second poem, where the two names are brought together in a sequence of half-buried puns; ‘curt graffiti’ = eff (Geoff) off (Offa).[7] The poems clearly rely on autobiographical material, although they are no more straightforward autobiography than Briggflatts or Incendium Amoris. Interestingly, the personal details which are worked into Mercian Hymns are mostly episodes from boyhood rather than adolescence and young manhood in the case of Ely and the whole life ‘fifty years’ of Briggflatts. It is not always clear whether Geoffrey or Offa is speaking and it seems to me that the poet makes use of the ancient king to create a figure of selfhood, who develops from the lonely but ‘staggeringly gifted’ boy drawing strength from his natural environment “I was invested in mother-earth, the crypt of roots and endings” to the arrogant adult capable of self-centred brutality. Hilary Davies notes Hill’s insistence ‘upon how much the ignorant egotism of the child lives on in the knowing malice of the adult man.’[8] The casual cruelty of the child who ‘battered a ditchful’ of frogs turns into something more horrifying in the flaying of Ceolred, the friend who lost his toy plane. This mythologised incident which forms poem VII and is titled ‘The Kingdom of Offa’ reverberates with meanings, not least in the appropriation of the name Albion for ‘his private derelict sandlorry’ –now more derelict than ever. The poem acknowledges cruelty and violence, in a way which is different and more horrifying than that in Bunting or Ely. This is violence which is gratuitous and selfish but which is owned by the complex persona of the poem. Offa was a king operating within the paradigm of Christianity and I think Hill is showing us sin and evil as part of man’s unregenerate nature. Later, on Offa’s journey to Rome, callous indifference to the torture of Boethius at Pavia fuses with a modern tourist’s journey:

He wiped his lips and hands. He strolled back to the

car, with discreet souvenirs for consolation and

philosophy.

Although I find the allusion to Boethius’ work rather flippant, it could be argued that this is part of the persona Hill is creating. The acceptance and even indulgence in cruelty is presented to us as a facet of human behaviour, just as Bunting refers to the ‘merciless species’ and Ely shows us violence through the centuries. Bunting clearly stands outside the violence he shows; Hill, and perhaps Ely after him, inhabit the context in which the violence is produced. This is the argument of Andrew Michael Roberts in his study of Geoffrey Hill:

…the poet writes from within the subject matter, inhabiting it and being inhabited by it, using its language to varying degrees, exploring the attitudes, mood and preoccupations of a particular ideology, tradition or historical period. The poem is less the utterance of the poet than something which the poet shapes out of the linguistic and cultural material found to hand within a particular cultural field….Hill sees himself as diagnosing elements of culture, not primarily as expressing his own feelings or views.[9]

 

This begs all sorts of questions. The poet is exculpated, the heresy Offa denounces in VIII, in an abnegation of responsibility which ignores the fact that the writer has chosen and selected the linguistic and cultural elements of which he writes. Moreover, the language Hill has chosen is clearly his own; no matter what the influences, his voice in these poems is distinctive. Ely, on the other hand, is writing in the parallel universe of neo-medievalism, often in an invented language that combines Northern dialects with middle or old English vocabulary, spelling and alliterative phrase-making. Hill has been accused, as Ely could be, of hankering after a ‘traditional, religious England’, in Tom Paulin’s phrase, of being a ‘chthonic nationalist.’ Both would reject charges of being apologists for right wing politics, but as we have seen with Brexit, radical right and radical left can meet up at the back of the hall.

 

It would be true to say that Bunting, Hill and Ely all concern themselves with English landscapes through time, bringing the past into the present or seeing it as co-existing with the present. This is a recurrent theme in English literature and an earlier version can be found in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Bunting, although he starts and ends his poem in Briggflatts, ranges much more widely than the other two poets. All three present a particularly male view of the world and this is linked to the way in which they deal with cruelty and violence, in all three writers shown as an attribute of masculinity. While Ely’s work is undoubtedly written in the shadow of Bunting and Hill, it is unhelpful to conflate the three poets. In writing this post, I have come to have a profound admiration for Briggflatts, for its range, for its generosity of spirit and for its fluid and beautiful language. I have always found Geoffrey Hill’s work difficult and difficult to like and my feelings have not changed. Steve Ely’s poems are still surprising me although I hope he will tone down the made-up medievalism which sometimes obscures rather than promotes his message.

[1] ‘Postmodern (re)constructions of the Middle Ages in contemporary poetry? Neomedievalism in Simon Armitage, Jacob Polley and Steve Ely.’ By Claire Hélie. Études britanniques contemporaines. No. 54/2018

[2] A type of tractor

[3] giants

[4] To be fair to Ely, his range is greater than this suggests and he has challenged racism, Islamophobia and global global capitalism in other work.

[5] Brigflatts was the site of a Quaker meeting house.

[6] ‘Pertaining,’ Ely tells us, ‘to the long-eared owl.’

[7] I find this sort of obscurity annoying rather than instructive, but then I have always found Hill’s poetry inaccessible and rebarbative, although I recognize the passion and level of seriousness which informs his work.

[8] ‘The Castaway of drowned remorse, the world’s atonement on the hill’ History, Language and Theopoetics: Geoffrey Hill’s dialogue with David Jones in Mercian Hymns and Tenebrae, (Revue Études Anglaises,2/2018)

[9] Geoffrey Hill by Andrew Michael Roberts (2004) p.55-56.