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Fragments of Vulgar Things

This book is composed of three linked sequences of poems, and a lump of prose. It started from a visit while on holiday to La-Fontaine-de-Vaucluse — famed as the most well-known residence of Petrarch, and also the type of the hydrological marvel that is a Vauclusean spring. It's a funny little French tourist trap, with the pretty little river Sorgue rising and running through it, even in the unusually dry August we visited, when the mighty fountain resembled more a giant toilet bowl with blue water at the bottom than an inspiring and throbbing wellspring.

The Petrarch I bore with me was both some knowledge of the "Sonnets" etc and of his life, but more the joyous contemporary versioning by Tim Atkins (and also Peter Hughes' version — though I was aware of Tim's work first). "Fragments of Vulgar Things" started off by trying to write something coming off from the versioned Petrarch (yer actual P being long dead & pretty inaccessible to anyone except a scholarly expert on the origins of humanism, who might well in fact miss the point); and also feeding in the facticities of the place and some facts (?) known/not known of his life and work. I wanted both Atkins' & Hughes' tone, but also something more.

So, Laura — a laurel bush, The Laurel, a future Mme de Sade with her eleven children, his actual sexual partner/s (or at least the anonymous mothers of his children), or just a fantasy or literary convention, copying that Dante fellow? We ought to know. And how does it fit in with this slightly ridiculous place? And does it matter there isn't a throbbing and poetic wellspring? The text ventriloquizes, acquires various voices, moves into this stuff, while, I hope, holding onto that gorgeous and humane O'Hara tone Atkins & Hughes employ, which also represents the vital present upsurge of the stream Old Franco set going. And some exposure to raw language itself — a poem that is composed totally of phrases garnered from inscriptions and notices I photographed on the visit.

Seventeen poems. Fourteen would have been corny — twenty too many, too organised. No one writes things in units of seventeen. Well . . . .

Action in the Play Zone

The joy of writing this sequence was followed immediately by a heavily infected toe, and my first hospitalisation and operation since I had my appendix out as a teenager. Then winter. But I wanted more! More but different! None of this easy jokiness I'm splurging into here in this piece often enough. Too easy!

So I wrote another sequence, matching the first with seventeen more or less sonnetty things, some picking up of language from the first sequence, and including a poem where language's sheer brutishness was confronted. I wanted something that would match the epigraph I chose, while yet at the same time being colder, purer, chaster. No names, no Franks or Lauras: just the basics of what we are: pronouns. Something goes on in "Action in the Play Zone" I can't quite pin down. It is wonderfully wintery. It is full of emotion which is abstract, yet raw, yet also humanely sentimental. It's where I thought of the overall dedication. Jane Ravenscroft was a colleague from Harlow College, also teaching Media — in her case desk top publishing. As a teaching colleague, she was sometimes a nightmare, liable to get obsessions over students, over other staff members, god! anything. Sometimes she was right; problematically, sometimes not. Difficult in a period when I was her immediate line manager. But her whole personal life and personality were difficult — she had gone through some crises/experiences she wouldn't talk about, had horrifying personal (as opposed to professional) lack of confidence, may have had issues over eating, over abusive relationships, over her whole past. She was not going to let on or explain — steely, wintry personal integrity, but also enormously honest and direct on occasion. She may have been exasperating sometimes, but she was never fake. A very useful comrade when I was Branch Secretary — if she approved of a decision, I felt it was probably the right one. When everything collapsed in a year-long conflict with a new Principal, campaigning for Excellence in The League Table, we would be left, at the end of another fucked up day when our positions were overrun again, cheering ourselves up with the best quality gallows humour. She died of breast cancer in the autumn, after so many of us were made redundant, refusing treatment (it was a very aggressive strain, and she may well have made a rational decision here), alone in her flat, destroying all evidence of her past and her identity. Of all my colleagues, and I was lucky to have been part of what had been a stable and creative teaching community, I have found myself, curiously, missing her most. I feel privileged to have known her, and to have had her friendship and support to the extent I did.

So the book's for Jane Ravenscroft. The increasing political line is for her, and for everyone — but she helped teach me the importance of committed and honest action. As, also, and continually, my wife, Ginie, also teaching me always emotionally. I never know what love is, am I capable of it? what is it? Maybe it is what I feel everyday, simple little pronoun that I am.

Hedge of Utterance & Not a Note on Some Matters with Britain

Enough! I couldn't carry on writing those poems! Too frozen. What next? Ahh, the old Dark Ages. They had crept into the two long sequences I wrote at the beginning of the decade — Offa Duxbach, Artognou fecit etc. (Enter Within These Latter Days and A Second Life for all this). The period betwen the collapse of Imperial Roman rule and the formation of strong and stable states fascinates me. It has the same relationship to the rest of British History as Quantum Theory has to Newtonian physics. It's where the rational explanations are broken down by the inexplicable and anomalous evidence that has always lurked underneath. The fairytale universe we live in — true Brits, full English: crap. So I decided to pick up my snarkier voice, bring in lots of real (huhh?) voices (real as any "voice" in any poem), and started by addressing Cerdic, old chum. Rather as if he were some little pussycat like dear old Franco. So — "Hedge of Utterance" is full of stuff dealing with origins, in all their splendid inadequacy and messiness. Not a philological chase through for True Meanings or Essential Truths. Just improvising on the spot, as they all did then. The detail is probably over rich, but I hope it works on a level of immediacy, and I'll claim the jokes are real. I then had the pleasure of writing a longish piece of prose, "Not a Note on Some Matters with Britain" dealing with the details in the poems, and what led me to see and voice these characters ("names" may be more accurate) as I did, and bring in material, too, related to where I live, Bishops Stortford. It is not the centre of the universe, not the Secret Centre of Eternal England. Just a typically crummy little town, like where you live, maybe. No more to say on that. But you can take anywhere, and there demonstrate the processes which created where we live and which are now operative within where we live. "The formation of new high status elites", and all that entailed, and again entails now.

There is a full, annotated bibliography for "Not a Note" available online.

Telling the Beads

The final point I want to make is that the Ye Olde Darke Agey impulse has remained in the sequence I have been working on since July 2016, Telling the Beads. This is kind of devotional calendar, a series of readings, based on the Anglo-Saxon calendar as outlined by Bede in his work De temporum ratione. It is a structured and constrained repetition of poems and prose, from a rather cod Dark Age viewpoint, especially the prose. This is a series of short pieces, that seem to deal with the experiences of some bunch of mercenaries during the Fifth or early Sixth Centuries — Cerdic and Hengist get mentioned and we're very afraid of the Attacotti. Why have we forgotten the Attacotti? And why have we forgotten the ancient Unwine, the "non-friend", a hero once as famous as Wade and Wayland, now even more obscure? To discover more, you'll have to read it.

Don't worry about this being some really serious, ie fake, neo-paganism — Wodenism!! Help! Who'd want to deal with that trickster? The religious viewpoint is that of polytheistic agnosticism. There may be forces beyond us (and we will always feel we need such forces): but, never, oh never, just The One. That way nightmare lurks. Bede, interestingly, refers mostly to goddesses when discussing calendrical rituals, so these are encountered in my text. I suspect the classic Asgardy "Gods of the North" were a combination of high status elite ancestor cults, legitimising their rule (and power and patriarchy generally), and extravagant stories beloved by poets (then I suspect a male preserve). What may have happened in the fields and the ordinary homes will have been different from what is now described as Anglo-Saxon (or Norse, or Celtic) religion, and likewise who the Anglo-Saxons kept offering their cakes to. Yes: home baking, a crucial core component of genuine Anglo-Saxon religion. Perhaps if there is an essence of Englishness it may be this. They've kept that from you, I expect.

More information on Telling the Beads will be issued in June, so check back then. It is likely to be released online, with emails monthly, and also on the specific holy days I have invented or discovered.