Friday 8 June 2018

Contextual Notes to 'Smoke & Mirrors'

'Smoke & Mirrors', (A New Ulster).

Some notes were omitted from the book About Time: Poems & Adaptations 1993 - 2012 due to the length of the ones that were included.  They are published here now in full.

'Learning me how Mir was moonstruck for Mah': Mīr Taqī Mīr, (1723 – 1810) was the leading Urdu court poet of eighteenth century India under the Mughals; mah is moon.  Perhaps also the name of his beloved. 

'You dancing widdershins naked in the snow, prancing': Widdershins is to take a course opposite the apparent motion of the sun, left-hand-wise, unlucky.  The circumambulations in many a sacred ritual are performed counter-clockwise such as those around the Kaaba seven times during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. 

'They laugh at me that sometime did me seek,': Sir Thomas Wyatt. ‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’.  The Complete Poems. Edited by R. A.Rebholz. (Penguin Classics). 116.

'But once at a party I overheard two fictionary beaux mondes': Fictionary is a word game in which players try to guess the meaning of obscure words.  Beaux mondes pertain to high fashion.

'I laughed like there's no tomorrow':
Asham'd to own they gave delight before,
Reduc'd to feign it, when they give no more:
As Hags hold Sabbaths, less for joy than spight,
So these their merry, miserable Night;
Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide,
And haunt the places where their Honour dy'd.
        See how the World its Veterans rewards!
A Youth of frolicks, an old Age of Cards,
Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,
Young without Lovers, old without a Friend,
A Fop their Passion, but their Prize a Sot,
Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot!

And in short, I was afraid.   T. S. Eliot. ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.  Collected Poems 1909 –1962. (Faber & Faber, 1963).

'The drowned belle de la Seine humming': La belle de la Seine was an unidentified young woman whose body was pulled out of the Seine river in the 1880s; her supposed death mask became a popular fixture on the walls of artists' homes in the early twentieth century and her visage was the fashion paradigm for German and Russian girls; it inspired many writers, including Vladimir Nabokov’s 1934 poem ‘L'Inconnue de la Seine’. In 1958, Norwegian toymaker Asmund Laerdal and Austro-Czech physician Peter Safar used it as the basis for ‘Rescue Anne’, the first CPR training model. In 2015 Anne-Gaelle Saliot published The Drowned Muse, a full length book on her social and cultural influence, (Oxford).

'To have but not to keep':
It seems to me that the chief thing about a woman - who is much of a woman - is that in the long run she is not to be had. A man may bring her his laurel wreaths and songs and what not, but if that man doesn't satisfy her, in some undeniable physical fashion - then in one way or other she takes him in her mouth and shakes him like a cat a mouse, and throws him away. She is not to be caught by any of the catch-words, love, beauty, honour, duty, worth, work, salvation - none of them - not in the long run. In the long run she only says 'Am I satisfied, or is there some beastly unsatisfaction gnawing and gnawing inside me.’ And if there is some unsatisfaction, it is physical at least as much as psychic, sex as much as soul. She goes for man, or men, after her own fashion, and so is called a Sphinx, and her riddle is that the man wasn't able to satisfy her - riddle enough for him: And an artist - a poet - is like a woman in that he too must have this satisfaction. There is that much life in him, more than in other people, which will not let him beii
'So these are the roots that grasp at the fly in aspic': Aspic is a savory jelly made with meat stock that contains pieces of meat, seafood, or eggs and is set in a mold; and used to contain pieces of meat, seafood, or eggs; its name derives from its colour, resembling that of the small, venomous snake called an asp (which Cleopatra used to commit suicide). Flies have been preserved in amber, but the expression ‘flies in aspic’ has become widespread as a simile for an anachronism.

'Love answers all the ogress' grave questions': The ogress is the ogress in Ted Hughes' Crow who asks the seven questions, not all of which Hughes allowed Crow to answer. Also the questions such as those in Gwion’s riddle in Graves' The White Goddess and many others scattered throughout the classical world literature which are too numerous to mention. 
         Afagddu's ugliness is prerogative to his success and high intelligence (to recompense). He achieves this by quaffing a cauldron of the Triple Muse that has simmered for a year and a day from below by mephitic jets of chewed toadstools and warmed from above from the breaths of the nine Muses (season by season with a brew of the sacred magical herbs ivy, hellebore and laurel, in accordance with the planetary motions). The cauldron itself contained a mash of barley, acorns, honey and bull's blood. 
               Afagddu eventually grows up to be swineherd royale to King Guaire of Connaught. His rival is Gwion who accidentally tasted the elixir when a drop bubbled onto his finger and Cerridwen tries to destroy him, adopting many guises - But thereon hangs another tale. In his poem 'Kadweir Taliesin' he mentions the cauldron 'of the five Trees.’ Taliesin himself was a Second Coming of Gwion. 
          Cerridwen is also the White Goddess of Life-in-Death and Death-in-Life. The Welsh bards described her as a Grain Goddess. Robert Graves in The White Goddess explicates upon the etymology of her name (and speculates that Arianrhod is another one of her many aspects). Graves points out Cerridwen's close connection with the witch Sycorax in Shakespeare's The Tempest in the chapter 'Hercules on the Lotus.' J. A. MacCullock in The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911), equates her with the Sow Demeter (who is succeeded by Rhiannon). She had a cast in her left eye that has been recorded in the Romance of Taliesin. Sir James George Frazer records her existence in parts of Germany and France as spirit-of-the-corn and Cat Goddess. 
       In Christianity from as early as the thirteenth century the Virgin Mary herself becomes the cauldron or source of inspiration. Long before this she had already been reinvented by the Saxons, Angles and the Danes who brought very similar versions of her over to England with them: 
Cerridwen abides. Poetry began in the matriarchal age, and derives its magic from the moon, not from the sun. No poet can hope to understand the nature of poetry unless he has had a vision of the Naked King crucified to the lopped oak, and watched the dancers, red- eyed from the acrid smoke of the sacrificial fires, stamping out the measure of the dance, their bodies bent uncouthly forward, with a monotonous chant of: 'Kill! kill! kill!' and 'Blood! Blood! blood!’iii
In Hughes' unfinished Crow the eponymous hero is forced to cross a river carrying an ogress on his shoulders, but she gains weight en route until he cannot move; to decrease her weight he had to answer her riddles. His answers to her questions, were wrong to begin with but progressively better, until finally he was able to answer her seventh question correctly – The poem ‘Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days’: 
So, gasping with joy, with cries of wonderment
Like two gods of mud
Sprawling in the dirt, but with infinite care
                   They bring each other to perfection.
'Offering even as counter-question (a salve), itself in a frisson': 
The effect on readers of Muse poetry, with its opposite poles of ecstacy and melancholia, is what the French call a frisson, and the Scots call a ‘grue’ – meaning the shudder provoked by fearful or supernatural experiences.iv
There is more but this is the passage in mind.

'Lives, the Life-in-Death, an antevasin': Antevasin is Sanskrit for ‘One who lives on the border’.  Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love (2006), discovered the world when she was living in an ashram.  In her words ‘It indicated a person who had left the bustling centre of worldly life to go live at the edge of the forest where the spiritual masters dwelled.  The antevasin was not one of the villagers anymore – not a householder with a conventional life.  But neither was he yet a transcendent – not one of those sages who live deep in the unexplored woods, fully realized.  The antevasin was an in-betweener.  He was a border-dweller.  He lived in sight of both worlds, but looked toward the unknown.  And he was a scholar.’
              Also referencing the Prophet Tiresias’ lines from Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ that are boomed out by megaphone by Anthony Blanche from the balcony’s venetian arches in the Evelyn Waugh novel Brideshead Revisited.

'When the tongues of flame are in-folded': T. S. Eliot.  ‘Four Quartets: Little Gidding’. Collected.

'Of your ‘Jour-Nuit'French for ‘day/night’. See poem of same name by Hollace M. Metzger in the book Transcriptions of Time. (MiDEA, 2009). 137.

'Because I am already there.'  W. H. Auden. ‘The Maze’. Collected Poems. Edited by Edward Mendelson. (Faber & Faber, 1976, 1991).

Love is you
You and meJohn Lennon. ‘Love’. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band . (1970).

'And our first meeting.'  Auden, ‘A Bride in the 30’s’. Collected.

© Rehan Qayoom, 2012, 2018.

i Alexander Pope. ‘Epistle To a Lady: Of the Characters of Women’, 1735.
ii D. H. Lawrence. To Henry Savage, 31 October 1913. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence ii: June 1913 – October 1916
   Edited by George J. Zyfrank & James T. Boulton. (Cambridge University Press 1981). 94, 95.
iii Robert Graves. The White Goddess. (Faber & Faber, 1948, 1952, 1961).
iv Graves, ‘The Dedicated Poet’, Oxford Addresses on Poetry, (1962). Collected Writings on Poetry. Edited by Paul 
    O’Prey. (Carcanet, 1995). 308.