Steve Van-Hagen reviews
by Meirion Jordan
Meirion Jordan, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection for Regeneration’s preceding volume, Moonrise, is from an intellectually eclectic background – he won the Newdigate Prize while studying for his first degree in Mathematics at Somerville College, Oxford, before moving to UEA to complete a Masters, and then a PhD, in Creative Writing. It is unsurprising, therefore, that he has produced an eclectic, undeniably unusual and rewarding second collection of poetry.
Regeneration (2012) is immediately striking for its material appearance and organisation. As one reviewer (Jacqui Kenton at New Welsh Review – see http://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=292) has already observed, Regeneration is ‘tête-bêche, with the White Book and Red Book at each end and upside down.’ These two-collections-in-one which meet in the middle reference two medieval (fourteenth-century) manuscripts, Llyfr Coch Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest) and Llyfr Gwynn Rhydderch (The White Book of Rhydderch), important sources for the tales of the Mabinogion. As Jordan argues in suggestive prefaces to both Books, the collection aims not at retelling the tales of the fourteenth century, but at exploring how they establish a dialogue with our own culture. The collection seeks, therefore, to address the ways in which the (sometimes distant) past continues to erupt problematically and polemically into our present. As Jordan argues in the preface to The Red Book, he does not ‘seek to unravel the difficulties of [the eleven stories of the Mabinogi’s] composition, transmission and literary context’ but rather contends that:
Poetry is concerned most fundamentally with meaning and interpretation, and that implies in turn that this book is in some way turned towards those present in this imprecise, difficult dialogue: you, reading, and myself, shepherding this writing to your senses as best I can … These poems are an attempt to strike up a personal conversation with those worlds, whose vitality remains tangible … just as the tales themselves were an attempt to find conversation with other people and their perplexing, marvellous lives. The Red and White Books themselves have come to rest, in archives, well guarded and away from the mainstream of culture; these poems are nonetheless a reminder that their presence is still felt, and that like all other secondhand or discarded books they were once participatory acts.’ (p.8)
The prefaces are lengthy, and one wonders if they do not risk contradiction; by insisting so explicitly that the text seeks to avoid imprisoning us in meaning, we are inevitably left wondering why we are not allowed just to read the poems and so establish this for ourselves. Nonetheless, The Red Book tells us – invites us to participate in – tales of Arawn, the God of the Underworld (in the poem ‘Arawn, lord of Annwn’); Rhiannon, daughter of Hefaidd Hen, Lord of the Underworld, who was cruelly tricked into thinking that she had killed and eaten her only son Pryderi (in ‘Rhiannon’s gossips’, ‘Rhiannon in old age’ and ‘The birds of Rhiannon’); Branwen (in ‘Branwen’s Starling’), daughter of Llyr / Lear, sister of Bran and half-sister of Efnis(s)ien, who was married to Matholwch, King of Ireland, and tamed a starling to send a message to Bran in Britain to come and fetch her when she was struck by the cook while serving in Matholwch’s kitchens as a punishment for insulting the Irish people; Efnis(s)ien the Unpeaceful, Branwen’s afore-mentioned half brother, who mutilated the Irish horses in retaliation for not being consulted about Branwen’s marriage, causing Bran to offer the cauldron of rebirth to the Irish in compensation (in the poem ‘Efnisien’); Heilyn, the son of the Lord of the Dead, Gwynn ap Nudd (in ‘Heilyn, son of Gwynn’); Manawyddan, Rhiannon’s second husband (in ‘Manawydan in Lloegr’); Olwen, daughter of Yspaddaden the Giant, and Culhwch, her suitor (the son of Celydodon Wledia, and nephew of Arthur), whose completion of the thirty nine impossible tasks necessary to win Olwen will cause the death of Yspaddaden (in ‘Olwen’ and ‘Culhwch’ respectively); Gereint, who refuses to listen to his wife Enid’s warnings because he wrongly thinks she weeps for the loss of another lover (in Gereint ac Enid’); and Blodeuwedd, the flower bride of Llew, who falls in love with the hunter Granw Pebr and plots her husband’s death, for which she is turned into an owl (in ‘Blodeudd’).
As even this brief introduction suggests, much of The Red Book is concerned with sadness, mourning, longing and regret, with the passing of time and the processes of memory and reflection, and yet with the paradoxically life-affirming effects of reading about this subject matter. Appropriately enough for a collection about the recurrence of myths and their continuing ability to speak, even centuries – millennia – after their inception, the penultimate poem of The Red Book, ‘The birds of Rhiannon’, refers to the harbingers of otherworldly bliss who render their dead auditors unaware of the passing of time. ‘For the myth moves in cycles’, we are told at the start of the second stanza,
But you will not. Your lungs
echo the forward motion
of time, shaking the heart’s seconds
beat upon beat. If the small space
that is forever this now,
or this, or this, in the god’s eye
is precious; how more so
in yours. You will not return
unless they call, to take and give.
For the living, however, time does pass. Unlike the beheaded Bran and others who hear the birds of Rhiannon beyond death, outside time, as we hear the myths we make and remake their meanings anew, signalling that we, and the stories, continue to move chronologically forwards. As the final poem of the Book, ‘Blodeuedd’, tells us:
But after the story
the loose ends
must spill, flapping
into the dark:
the legend stands
white as a hornbeam
under the moon,
the fields and shadows
thickening with voices.
The spillage of loose ends continues, ceaselessly; by reading these poems and remaking the legends for ourselves we too take our places as part of this spillage, as part of the clamouring throng of voices.
The White Book deals with the Arthurian legends which may be more familiar for many readers than the legends in The Red Book. Jordan’s Preface this time links the themes of Mallory’s version of the Arthurian legend with those of the Mabinogi from which the material of The Red Book derives. They are linked, Jordan argues, by ‘the same concerns of issue and generation’ (p.7). In The White Book, however, Jordan hits on a personal and (for the reader) challenging means of entering into modern dialogue with his source material. A textual conversation is struck up by means of footnotes between the tales of Arthurian legend of The White Book of Rhydderch and the biographies of Jordan’s own family, the events of the life of Jordan’s recently-deceased grandfather (re)read through Arthurian precedents.
Like its Red twin, therefore, the White Book deals with the elegiac, although here we have the Arthurian story related by each in turn of the surviving actors in Arthur’s drama. Each defines the departed Arthur, thereby defining and positioning themselves in relation to his fall in ways that compel us to think about the possibilities and the limitations of the perspectival. Part I begins with the first dramatic monologue, an elegy / lament for the dead Arthur, from Merlin. Next up is Cei (also known as Kay or Cai), Arthur’s foster brother, who is eager to justify himself: ‘I tell you, I was the first, / and gave my all for Arthur.’ He speaks of Arthur’s childhood and, famously irascible, makes repeated requests for forgiveness. Bedwyr (also known as Bedivere), Arthur’s butler, comes next, eager to speak of Arthur’s ‘years of ... great triumph’, and yet concluding with discussion of the ‘Poor child. Poor Arthur’, who ‘return[s] and yet do[es] not return’.
Another knight, Owain (son of Urien Far and brother of Gwalchmei and Gaheris) is next, who ‘had my part / in Arthur’s ruin.’ Confession is the keynote here:
was our lord, and true,
in our quarrels, our timely murders;
we who loved Arthur
were his end and ruin.
The final confession of the monologue is one of betrayal. Owain’s brother, Gwalchmei / Gawain delivers the next monologue.
One of the two most eagerly awaited perspectives for any reader already familiar with the Arthurian narrative, is Gwenhwyfar / Guinevere’s (her name translates as ‘the White One’). She delivers an anguished, tortured tale of adultery:
was the one man
I couldn’t bear to hurt, and whose deep
cauldron of a body
I could not love.
Hence, for any reader already familiar with the narratives of The Red Book, we are reminded of the cauldron of rebirth gifted to the Irish by Bran (which Efnis(s)ien eventually sacrificed his life to break). Arthur’s body therefore becomes the means by which those dead (Arthurian tales?) might be revivified anew.
Further monologues follow, from Drystan (also known as Tristan, the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, who was second only to Lancelot for strength), Dinadan, Esyllt (also known as Isolt, the daughter of the King of Ireland who died of a broken heart because she was too late to save Drystan / Tristan from a poisoned wound), Elen (also known as Elaine, who rivalled Guinevere for Lancelot’s affections), Galaad / Galahad (i.e. the son of Lancelot, who eventually found the grail that his father could not) and Melwas (the other-world King who abducted Guinevere). Only then, in ‘Le chevalier mal fet’ – ‘the knight ill-made’, a pseudonym later adopted by Lancelot – do we finally hear from the latter:
was that knight, the ugly,
the ill-made. It is hard
that I was there, wearing his skin. Hard
to admit I loved my king
and Guinevere both, and in my love
I ruined Britain, man and realm.
Jordan captures poignantly Lancelot’s conflict, his continuing wish, even as he feels guilt and remorse for what he has done, that there might be an alternative, if only in his dreams, to a life of social constraints in which he and Guinevere can never be together:
Arthur, I will not ask;
nor could you give.
But if there is
some make-believe country –
maybe named Logris –
where two people
who are older
than they dare recall
can live, outside of love
or fellowship, or time,
close only to each other
and the sea:
let them be there,
she turning her head
to a fair wind,
he holding her hand.
Let them go, Arthur,
as cleanly as Adam through Eden.
The final poems – the speakers are Medraut (i.e. Mordred) and, in an epilogue, Morgana – carry the story to its inevitable conclusion, narrating the battle of Camlan(n) and Mordred’s slaying by Arthur as the former nonetheless deals an equally fatal blow to the latter. Finally, Arthur makes his final boat journey to Avalon, tended by Morgana.
Poignant as Jordan’s reinterpretation of the Arthurian legend is, the tale will be familiar enough to many. It is invariably the intriguing, enigmatic relation to the modern double narrative that particularly fascinates. The links between the Arthurian narrative and Jordan’s personal / family tale are not always easy to decipher, arguably necessarily so given the positions he adopts in his prefaces. He claims,
These links between the overlapping worlds of the text – the personal margin and the entangling ground of literary tradition – are vital in the process of interrogation ... and although by refusing to make the precise nature of this contact apparent I have left some of this interrogation to the reader, I suspect that too much precision would risk obscuring the reader’s relation to Arthur in favour of my own. (p.8)
The ‘second’ narrative (co-narrative?) of Jordan’s grandparents is so personal that one often feels as if one’s intrusion upon it is voyeuristic and illicit. The footnotes divide broadly into two kinds, the (reasonably) factual, and the reflective. Linking his deceased grandfather with Arthur straight away by positioning a first footnote after the word ‘Arthur’ in the ‘Prologue: Merlin’, this first footnote reads:
1. My grandfather died on the 18th of February, 2008, not quite 96 years old. It was not a sudden or an unexpected death; he had been seriously ill for some time before that, and by the end he was entirely bedridden. His brother had dies a few years before – who, with the possible exception of my grandmother – was closer to him than anyone. By the end he had suffered several strokes and his recollection of most things was poor. The only conversation he could make during the last years of his life mostly concerned his early life at Pant, above Merthyr, in what must have been (by my reckoning) the 1920s. (p.13)
The footnotes slowly disclose more information about Douglas Jones’ life and the narrator’s relation to him and his legacy. They seemingly become more ponderous, more cryptic and enigmatic, the tone more discursive; hence, in the final poem, ‘Medraut’, footnote 54 begins, ‘Sometimes the noise deafens us. Our memories become a small flicker against the white noise that is thousands of years of wishful, brilliant, heartbroken people straining to make themselves heard’ (p.76). Footnote 55 begins: ‘Sometimes, though, we are lucky, and the small voice that is the very real world finds us’ (p.79). Finally, as Arthur is conveyed off to Avalon in Morgana’s ‘Epilogue’, the final footnote has the final word on the author’s grandfather also:
56. As I say, my grandfather died on the 18th of February, 2008; but he was born in April, 1914, on the very edge of the First World War – by which I mean, the root that grows through him to me there meets other roots, which meet other roots beyond – by which I mean too, that he still flourishes forwards, into the newest instant of time. Requiescat in Pace, old boy, you father, grandfather. And be thou with me. (p.84)
Despite this, the text is not nearly so crude as to suggest that Douglas Jones was a latter-day Arthur reborn – or at least not in any literal, clumsy way (at one point, for instance, we learn that Douglas was a conscientious objector). The two co-narratives flicker into greater significance as a result of their intertwining, sometimes illuminating one another in a way that seems overt, sometimes leaving us none the wiser as to their enigmatic relation. What is repeatedly suggested to us, however, is that the roots of the narrative of Douglas Jones’ life were indeed found in Arthur’s. The text’s unusual and inventive revelation of this discloses surely its greatest aim, which is to prompt us to reflect in a wider sense on our own cultural roots and on the ways we enter into continual dialogue with them, endlessly making and remaking the meaning of our own narratives.
Steve Van-Hagen is the editor of James Woodhouse’s The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus: A Selection (Cheltenham: The Cyder Press, 2005) and the author of The Poetry of Mary Leapor and The Poetry of Jonathan Swift (both London: Greenwich Exchange, 2011). His pamphlet collection Echoes, Ghosts and Others with Futures Ahead of Them (2012) is available from holdfire press.