Monday, September 26, 2016

Contemporary Poems in a Shakespearean Soundscape: An Experiment with 'Original Pronunciation'

This year I have had the pleasure of being poet in residence at Anne Hathaway's Cottage (pictured), as part of Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival.

In some of the new poems that I've been working on, I conducted an experiment that, as far as I know, has never been tried before. Inspired by David Crystal's research on the sound-system (or phonology) of Shakespearean English - known as Original Pronunciation (or OP) - I have composed new poems in OP, rendered on the page phonetically, in the manner of dialect verse.

Why? For a number of reasons. The phonology or sound-system of any language has operative effects akin to music - and the attempt to invoke and direct the energies of those effects is fundamental to my practice as a poet. I wanted to release and make more vivid through OP some of the more latent qualities in the English that I use every day. And the peculiar quality of OP itself, in which people from all parts of Britain and the Anglophone world hear something of their own voice blended in strange yet familiar patterns, transcending the false borders bred into us, has a political appeal for me, too.

Elizabethan literary taste valued fresh imaginings of familiar tales: as we know, Shakespeare took up well-known plots and made them something more than the stories they told. I decided to do the same with my experiment in OP - and I knew who I wanted to hear speaking this language.

I present below the first two parts of a five-part OP sequence with this working title: 'Caliban Retaurrns to the Uylund'.

After the events of The Tempest, Caliban is taken to Milan, to live as part of Prospero's household ('This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine') - but twelve years on, Caliban has been sent back to the island, entrusted by Prospero with a secret task.

Caliban Retaurrns to the Uylund

I. Landfahl

I duyve from the ship hwen I suyt ’err:
the crew cry ‘hwairle!’ but I knohw betterr:
it is muy motherr uyle and I swim
through cloth o’ gohld and sinkin rohbz
until muy skin is ahl a gill agaihn:
muy guarrdians soon a daih beyuynd.

I beach on a waihve and laff in the wash:
I wearr the jelluyfish I caught for a cruwn
with ahl its stings aluyve, still pulsin
luyk the pinches uv ’is spirits did:
such is muy kingship, and I embraihce it.

I listen for the worrms in the sand:
their music mixes with the sea’s breathin
and glints through thought luyk sunluyt: theh hear
muy tears and knohw oo has retaurrned to weep
agaihn, and watch the sandbahrdz blohw luyk smohke
abeut muy earrz, blue as the shark is hwuyt:

that’s a riddle that he tohld, hwen fahrrst
he cahld muy muynd to his, as nou I knohw:
I wonderrd at him, and that, his daughterr.
Hwen she taught me speech luyk theirrs, I asked him:

‘Hwerr is muy motherr?’ Hou pairle he lookid then.

II. The Graihve uv Sycorax

I foller a seed afloaht on the wyind
and fuynd the tree hwerr he feund herr,
led by me: I knew nohtin uv death
soh hwen she stilled I took ’err, sleepin
as I thought, to hwerr she hwisperd
at the moon, hwich listened, crairdld eerr,
at rest in the bohnz uv branches ohld
as she: and I, a chuyld, would earr ’err
anserr, and silverr ohverr in that seund.

I remember hou muy motherr’s boduy
did not staih as I ’ad left ’err, but kyled
up and reund the tree, and scairlid luyk a snairk:
this was hou he met ’er. His uyes
wer wuyld: not with terrorr: something moorr
than uyes should ohld: I guess he spuyd not just
a witch, but the tip and mirror uv his ohwn
moorrtalituy, moorr than natrul
as it was. For the fahrrst tuyme I saw him
in full pohwrr: his cloahk a deeperr nuyt
than ahl the darrkness I had knohwn, aluyve
with its ohn constellairsiuns as he cast
his vise in shairps that muvd along muy flesh:
his staff with its invisible ’and
ohpend muy motherr’s meuth: his earr ahl uye
to what ’er dead tong tohld. I kept his daughterr
wahrrm till dawn insuyde a wolfskin coaht:
she had cruyd to see ’err făthrr soh
unfixed through thohz cohld ohrrz, soh unluyk
the self she knew. I saw muy motherr
shrivel to a blackened thread uv skin:
watched him buruy her spent forrm in emptuy luyt
pegged buy the roots uv that hwuyt tree
in a suylence I have not aird since.
He was tenderr with her in his waih
and seemed to moorrn her as his ohn lairt wuyfe
for ahl he lairterr rairvd uv soorrseruy.

I saw him come eerr ohn last tuyme bifoorr
we sairled for his dukedom and Milan
and nou I knohw the raihzen. Twelve yeerrz on
he tohld me that the arrth hwerr he had buruyd
his brohken staff would be bohth bahrd and bahrrk:
I fuynd the tree is featherrd rairven black.
Forgive me, motherr: I begin to dig.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Poem: 'White Horse Hill'

White Horse Hill

Snowed with ghosts
and the freezing glow
of the sky lowering
its hushing light

the pastures close
cool and cotton
over England’s
buried names.

A grey witness
goes into the land,
inhumes the day
inside its clues.

The trees stretch,
tell the time,
stow the trace
of a distant gun.

In memory of those who fell at the Battle of the Somme, which began 100 years ago today.

'White Horse Hill' was first published in The North 52. It will be included in my forthcoming collection, The Fetch (Nine Arches Press), published October 2016.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

'Translation': A Poem for Refugees, Migrants, Exiles, Humans


Take away the hands that held me,
the eyes in which I first saw
love, the mouths from which I learned
to speak.

Take away the house I played in,
the bed I slept in, knowing
they were near. Take their footsteps
from the earth.

Take the city and the sky with it,
the streets I walked looking
for them, take the plane from around me
in mid-air.

See how I land with what they gave me.

Hands that are ready to hold,
eyes in which you will see
love, a mouth that is learning
to speak.

A note on this poem:

In 2008-09 I was part of a poetry project run by Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, and supported by Arts Council England, Asylum Welcome and Refugee Resource.

The project brought together fourteen poets and fourteen refugees and asylum seekers to work collaboratively on new poetry.

The collection of poems arising from these collaborations - See How I Land: Oxford Poets and Exiled Writers (Heaventree Press, 2009) - features a Foreword by Shami Chakrabarti, and work by the following writers:

Sadia Abdu, Filda Abelkec-Lukonyomoi, Afam Akeh, Carole Angier, Ali Askari, Annemarie Austin, Amina Benturki, Anne Berkeley, Carmen Bugan, Vahni Capildeo, Normalisa Chasokela, Abraham Conneh, David Dabydeen, Dawood, Dheere, John Fuller, Eden Habtemichael, Siân Hughes, Maria Jastrzębska, Gregory Leadbetter, Jamie McKendrick, Lucy Newlyn, Nazra Niygena, Jean Louis N’Tadi, Chuma Nwokolo, Bernard O’Donoghue, Deji Ogundimu, Adepeju Olopade, Yousif Qasmiyeh.

It probably goes without saying that the ethos of the book and the project from which it grew remains as vital as ever. Bigots have been temporarily emboldened in their distorted views by the recent referendum on the European Union in the United Kingdom, as a result of elements in the 'Leave' campaign that stoked up division, anxiety and fear.
I hope that 'Translation' - my contribution to the project - speaks for itself.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

My Father's Orrery

My father was a keen amateur cosmologist. For years, the New Scientist (and somewhat less frequently, Nature) would accumulate by his favoured armchair in the family lounge, grist to the mill of his own theorising about the universe.

After taking early retirement from his job at British Telecom, he began a degree in Physics and Computing, so that he could conduct his own experiments - often questioning received orthodoxies, such as the Michelson-Morley experiment on the existence of the Aether - or working on his own idea for a gyroscopic space drive. He was fascinated by the work of Brian Josephson, of Trinity College, Cambridge, on the Mind-Matter Unification Project. I still don't know what may lie waiting to be discovered among his papers.

Some time in 2010, he ordered and started to build an orrery. These are beautiful things: animated models that illustrate the relative motion of the planets in our solar system.

By January 2011, however, after only getting as far as Mercury - i.e. the first planet from the sun - he stopped building it. It was around this time that he showed me the full set of planets and gears that he had acquired - but it was also implicit, in the way he spoke and handled them, that putting the rest of the orrery together was indefinitely deferred.

Eventually, we realised that he had stopped building the orrery because he no longer could. Although it would be some time before the diagnosis came, he was suffering from vascular dementia. The loss of his ability to construct the orrery - in a man who used to build his own computers - was a symptom of the disease.

My father died in October 2013. The unfinished orrery passed to me.

In December 2015, I at last took it upon myself to finish building it - a bridge from his days before the disease to the present, and a kind of afterlife for something of his, and of him. I finished it on Christmas Eve 2015. And it is indeed a beautiful thing.

So, to mark the completion of my father's orrery, which he began and I finished, I'm posting here a poem about its incompletion, which was first published in The Poetry Review in Spring 2014. It will be included in my forthcoming collection with Nine Arches Press, The Fetch, which will be published in October 2016.

My Father’s Orrery

                              is without end.
The solar system on the fireplace
spins only one planet around its sun –
Mercury, as if now the limit
of what we know, hints at the missing
planets to come: the ache in the equation
their absence makes, the skewed gravity
at work in the hand that hoped to build
a thing of beauty, week by week,
as the advert said, adding to the stock
of wonder. Just a con, they are.
Hasn’t he got better things to spend
his money on? But I shared the secret
of his joy in those spheres, his maths
by intuition, the theatre of their relative
motion. He showed me the unopened packets,
the grub screws, nuts and pinions of it all,
and there, the planets themselves:
Jupiter, heavy as antique gold,
the ball bearing Earth, Saturn with its halo.
A look of recognition crossed his eyes –
yes, that’s them – but out of orbit,
no force to order and bind them
to the weave of their ellipses,
to turn the key of the space between
and spring them in the cradle of their star,
without which, they rattle and fall.
With the planets in his hands, he felt
the weight of his loss, knew he had forgotten
how to put the universe together.