Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

‘I am not a fish’

My T.S. Eliot Prize-nominated collection of poetry I am not a fish is still available direct from the publisher, though I suspect that they might be about to take it out of stock. So if you don’t have a copy right now might be your last opportunity to get one!

I have to say that I’m proud of the collection, written specially for the publisher after their having selected me from a competitive field and published nowhere else. None of the poems are online, none are blogged, tweeted, Facebooked, whatever. If you want to read them, you’re going to have to get them in print.

Let a few reviewers and readers blow a trumpet for me:

“A highly unusual book, with a rich collection of characters…”

“Marie Marshall is a poet of substance. Relatively speaking, I would place her at the level of the late Sylvia Plath…”

“… her poetry is poignant and of a rare beauty.”

“… I am smitten…”

“… a great read…”

“…Marie uses words that intrigue, make you want to know more and draw you into a world of surprising thoughts…”

I am not a fish

Poetics: Difficulty 2

When I posted a short article on ‘difficult poetry’ a while back – and here I jump in and admit that I tend to shy away from explaining my own poetics – I didn’t realise that another poet, one whose work I admire, was going to pick up the ball and run with it. Daniel Paul Marshall (no relation) has thought long and hard about the subject, gone deeper into the issues, and written more on the subject than I could hope to. I commend his article to you.

Dylan Thomas

Daniel mentions Dylan Thomas. Thomas is a poet who had a great influence on my writing at one time. I didn’t try to write like him, but rather I felt myself drifted along on the flotsam of his words, his transferred epithets, his god-knows-what. So I thought I would celebrate him today with one of my ‘easy’ poems from the past. This is a straight-down-the-line sonnet I wrote in 2008, and it uses some of Thomas’s words, as quoted by Daniel.

Closing time at Laugharne

I miss you – yes I do, you boozy Celt!
I’ve half a mind to hear you spin a yarn
While you, with pints of stout beneath your belt,
Traipse homewards through the rainy streets of Laugharne,
From Brown’s Hotel, where we propped up the bar
Till closing time. What’s closing time to me
Or you? Come on – the Boathouse isn’t far –
Down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack sea!
There’s pen and paper ready for your muse,
A bottle, and some glasses for a toast,
We’ll sit, and laugh, and rhyme a while, and booze –
But, Duw, dear lad, you’re nothing but a ghost!
Can such as you go, gentle, into night,
Or did you rage against that dying light?

The Bodyguard

As this year marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, here is a story set in the years leading up to it.
__________

The Bodyguard

You ask me if I was his bodyguard? Or rather you tell me I was his bodyguard and hardly wait for me to confirm it. So why do you want to know, comrade? I can tell you nothing worth hearing. There must be other records somewhere more use to you, if you want to find things out. Why not go to the top and ask comrade Khrushchev? He’ll know, if anyone will. He says there were ‘mistakes’ made, he has denounced the ‘cult of personality’, so it beats me why you are so curious about all this anyway?

young-lenin

‘The Old Man’

All I know is this. In nineteen-oh-six or thereabouts, I was in London for the great Social Democratic conference. I wasn’t a delegate or anything like that – I was young and I had come along for the adventure. I loved the adventure. All the ducking and diving in the shadows, all the drinking, the cursing, the toasts – down with capitalism, down with autocracy, down with the Tsar – all the disguises, the robberies, the swindles. All that was back in Russia. It was so much more exciting than the politics, and I don’t care if that is a shocking thing to say. But the politics was good too, for all that. During the conference, and the days on either side while we were in England, people would sit late into the night, arguing over a bottle of London spirits, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were drinking buddies but hated people in their own party, Internationalists and Jewish Bundists got pie-eyed together and sung the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘Internationale’, and then screamed denunciations at each other in the conference room. The girls who came along for the ride… well… had come along for the ride. I guess some of the strong personalities there had seduced them, in one sense or another. People like the ‘Old Man’ – that’s what we called comrade Ulyanov, even though he was young enough then.

No, I wasn’t there for that kind of ride! I was one of ‘Comrade Soso’s Dykes’ – does that shock you? Look, I was just a country girl, daughter of a wagonner and a half-Chuvash seamstress. A runaway, if you like. I got in with the revolutionary crowd in provincial towns, and earned my keep as a lookout during armed robberies – that’s how the revolution was financed, don’t look so damn shocked. Then it was on to Moscow. Oh it all seems to have happened within the space of a week, when I look back, but I must have bummed around for a good couple of years. Then I got the chance to help smuggle delegates out of Russia for the conference. They needed a woman or two to pretend to be someone’s respectable, bourgeois wife, and so I became an actress for the Party. In fact I made two trips – Moscow, Petrograd (yes all right Leningrad, but it was Petrograd then, or Sankt Petersburg to keep the Tsarina happy), Helsingfors in the Grand Duchy, and Copenhagen, and then back again to pick up a second husband. The conference was due to be in Copenhagen but some petty bureaucrat or spook knackered that for us, and we went right into the belly of London, right into the heart of another capitalist empire – “Oh be thankful for those idiots in liberal democracies,” we all used to say.

The meetings were almost farcical. There were uniformed police – British ‘Bobbies’ – taking notes, taking the names of anyone and everyone who went in or out. I gave at least six different ones. They were more interested in the English people who came in there of course. They couldn’t have cared less about what happened thousands of miles away in Moscow. I doubt if any of them even knew where Moscow was. Then the Old Man took me aside, and my friend – she always insisted in going by a boy’s name, Ilya, even though If anything I was the more butch of the two of us – and told us he wanted a guard put on someone. He wanted him kept safe at all costs, because he was vital to the revolution and he was always getting up to mischief. We wondered whether the old man thought he was a spook. The Old Man picked us because we weren’t about to get seduced by anyone, and because we were tough, and dedicated Bolsheviks. He knew we had seen the gendarmes and Cossacks at work back home; we knew how cheap human life was and we weren’t sentimental about squashing a few insects if necessary.

Soso

‘Soso’

This man, the one we had to guard, I’ll never forget meeting him. Actually I had already seen him around and wondered who he was. He was going by the name of Ivanov, but everyone called him Soso. That was his nickname. Right from the start he told me to use it. That’s how the Old Man introduced him to my and Ilya too.

“I want you to meet comrade Soso,” he said. “Look after him. Don’t let him stub his toe.”

Soso pretended to scowl at the Old Man for saying that, but his eyes were twinkling. He looked to me like he came from the Kavkaz Mountains, maybe an Ossetian, but then how would I know what an Ossetian looks like anyway. His hair was bushy and swept back. He was unshaven, he had a moustache and a beard, and a bad complexion. He wasn’t big, and he walked with a bit of a limp, and I think his left arm was paralysed, or half-paralysed, some unhealed injury maybe, but he wasn’t weak. In one of the drinking bouts I saw him put his arms round the waist of a man four centimetres taller and several kilos heavier, and just lift him right off the ground.

Ilya and I used to work eight hour shifts babysitting Soso. When he slept, at his lodgings, one of us would have a bedroll and sleep across his doorway. At the time we didn’t know whether we were keeping him in or keeping folk out. We weren’t allowed to leave his door; we even had our own pot there on the landing, if we needed to piss. Ilya used to come and bed down with me, and keep me warm, and kiss me, and we’d make love… very quietly… and you can wipe that leer off your face, comrade. It was a tender thing. It was good. And how would you know different anyway!

You can stop stamping your foot. I’ll tell you all about comrade Soso – it’s my story and I’ll tell it exactly how I want to.

Soso liked to go wandering at night. Some of the delegates went up to the music halls and restaurants in their spare time, pretending to spy on bourgeois society, but really they were green with envy and enjoying being celebrities amongst London’s radical artists and writers. Middle class intellectuals the lot of them, who would run a mile from a real revolution. I have squashed better bugs. Soso used to like to go down into the streets where the fog was, where the crime was, where the prostitutes and the cheap pubs were. He loved all that, down in the East End. He loved to see all the low-lifes, all the thugs, and he wasn’t scared. I went with him, and I got to like all that too, in my own way. Maybe I liked it because he liked it. Anyhow, it was during my shift that he went out most of all. I was dressed in man’s clothes, and carried a revolver, and I went with him.

“Tania Petrova,” he would say – or did he simply call me Tania? I can’t remember… “Tania Petrova, these are the kind of people I mixed with in Baku, in Gori, in Tiflis. They’re essential. Forget radicalising the thinkers, forget preaching propaganda; get the scum of the streets on your side, recruit the psychopaths, the knife-men, the racketeers. That’s the way to run a revolution. Rob and ransack to pay for more guns, use the guns to mow down the gendarmes and the Cossacks, recruit more and more thugs, bring them on-side. Rob more banks, trains, coaches – for more money to buy more guns, and explosives too. Otherwise when the big revolution comes, you’ll have this corrupt underworld out of control. Get it under control first, use it, make them your eyes and ears, make them your teeth and nails. It’s the only way. The bourgeois are too squeamish for the job.”

He said all this to me as we walked through those dark streets, breathing in fog and soot and coughing it out again. He would spit on the pavement, and I would spit too. A spit for a spit. He talked in Russian to me, but he had an accent.

“But Soso,” I remember saying. “Won’t that bring corruption into the revolution? We are Communists, Bolsheviks, people with ideals and principles.”

He laughed. “I would punch your face if you weren’t my friend! The revolution is corrupt and corrupting. It is corruption taken to the extreme. No, it’s above corruption, beyond it, it transcends it. Haven’t you read Machiavelli? The Prince is far less boring than Marx. I read Marx, interpret it by Machiavelli, and preach the Gospel according to Ivanov. Did you know I once trained for the priesthood? In order to be true revolutionaries, we must be corrupt beyond anything that has ever been before; this is because we are going to overturn everything, smash everything, start from the ruins and build on top of them. It is going to be glorious. And do you know what, Tania, it’s going to be such fun!”

“But isn’t it capitalism that is corrupt?” I asked.

“Capitalism? Of course capitalism is corrupt, but it is stupid too. We must never allow capitalism to get smart, Tania. No, we must destroy it for good, and soon. While it is still stupid. You realise that when we hang the last capitalists they will have sold us the rope with which we do it!”

Once he showed me he had a pistol in his belt. I showed him mine, and he beamed at me. He liked me. He really liked me. He said so. No, no, no I wasn’t one of his women. You just don’t get this, do you! But I liked him back. I really liked him too. He was… good to be with.

I learned more about politics from the two or three nights he and I escaped together into London’s back streets than I did from any political lecturing. We talked about spies, and the Tsar’s secret police. He reckoned our ranks were riddled with informers, and I was shocked by this. To me it seemed ridiculous that anyone could mouth revolutionary slogans without total belief in them. Surely they would choke. Surely there were no spooks amongst us.

“Don’t be so damn dense!” he said to me. “If the Okhrana hasn’t got at least half a dozen agents amongst the delegates in the conference… no, a dozen… then it isn’t doing the job the Tsar pays for! I admire the bastards, you know. They’re devious, clever, two-faced. They are right in our midst. You know of course that we have people in the gendarmes working for us, and people in the ministries in Moscow. But our penetration is nothing compared to theirs. They are so professional. They have us by the balls, and most of us don’t realise it, or don’t want to realise it. We can’t have a meeting to make plans without the plans going straight to the Okhrana, yet we don’t know who half of them are!”

You have heard of the Okhrana, comrade, the Tsar’s secret police? Yes it’s true they were everywhere, more than most of us realised, and they were pretty clever; but they were never quite as clever as Soso thought. Time and again they let Soso and the Old Man slip through their fingers. But Soso was convinced, and when he was convinced of something, that was that.

“I’d let my boys off the street deal with traitors,” he said. “And it’s better to wipe out two or three people too many than to risk letting one get away. I’d rather lose a couple of mice than miss one rat.”

I told him I thought that was unkind, but I remember he spun me round to face him, and began to talk quietly and vehemently.

“You can’t run an empire on kindness, Tania. And believe me we are going to run a whole empire. We are going to take it right out of the lifeless hands of the ones who are currently running it. There is a war going on. No one has declared it, but it is raging. And in wars people get hurt, people die, wives lose husbands, mothers lose sons, children lose fathers. But the war goes on. It’s like amputating a leg. If you cut close to the gangrene then you might leave rot on the stump. You have to cut away good flesh with bad. And another thing, the more people die, the harder things get; the harder things get, the madder people get; the madder people get the more politicised they get. It doesn’t matter whether they’re politicised our way or our enemies’ way, it matters that they are politicised. The whole thing feeds on itself. And in the end, so long as more of them die than us, who cares? Wars are about killing more of the enemy than they kill of you. But you can’t be sentimental about your own people. You don’t win a revolution by counting the cost. Everyone is expendable, except perhaps the Old Man.”

“And perhaps you, comrade Soso.”

He chuckled. “Yes, perhaps me too. Because I know things, I understand how things must be, and it’s like I said – you can’t run an empire on kindness.”

I have never forgotten that phrase.

Hey – here’s something you won’t believe, if Soso is who you think he is. He was a poet. He dragged me into his room a couple of times to recite to me. And he would do the same as we walked those streets. I think he had written them in his own language when he was younger, but these were Russian versions he recited to me. I can remember one…

When the lantern of the full moon swings and drifts
across the heavenly ceiling above me
and its light shining out traces pale fingers
on blue horizons

when the clear trilling of the nightingale’s song
starts the leaves softly fluttering in the air
and the pan-pipe’s notes away in the mountains
sing of sad yearning

when snows melt and rains break the cluttering dam
and the spring breaks free to wash away the tracks
and there is a rustling as the breeze wakes
tossing the trees’ heads

when the patriot who was driven away
by the enemy becomes worthy again
and when the sick man who lives in the darkness
sees the sun and moon

(How did it go? How did it go?)

Then I who have been oppressed begin to feel
the mist of sadness break and lift and recede
and up rises hope for a good life to come
in my grieving heart

As I am borne up and away by this hope
my soul rejoices and my heart beats softly
but is there a small doubt dragging at hope’s heels
is this not the time?

Yes, he was telling me that one – I think I got it right, it’s not wonderful but it has something – he was reciting that very one as we walked along through the fog. I remember hearing the slight scrape of a footfall somewhere behind us, and then I realised I had been hearing it all that evening but it hadn’t registered.

“Soso, we’re being followed!”

“Didn’t you know?” He looked a little startled. “He hasn’t exactly been concealing himself. Isn’t he your back-up? Isn’t this part of the Old Man’s arrangements? He’s been following us for the past two nights.”

“No it isn’t. And I had no idea he had been with us that long.”

“A damn fine bodyguard you are, comrade Tania Petrova!” Soso hissed to me, and we started to walk a little faster.

We turned into an alleyway, but found it blocked at the far end by three or four men. We looked back into the dim street we had just left, and saw several more converging on the mouth of the alley. We were trapped. And lagging at the rear of the gang was the man who must have been following us, a man I recognised from the conference. No I don’t know his name… it might have been Pavlov or Popov or Pachenko for all I know… don’t interrupt, this is my story and we’re getting to a good bit. We were trapped in this alley, and one of the men at the far end spoke to me in English.

“You slip away young feller, and pretend you ‘aven’t seen nothin’. We want a word with Ivan Skavinsky Skavar ‘ere.”

“Less of the young feller!” I said, reaching inside my coat and pulling out my revolver. Soso did the same, moving round so we were back to back. The men on each side of us had already rushed in to attack us, and realised their mistake to late, as my first shot caught one of them in the chest. He fell, and two of them tripped over him. I shot the fourth as he skidded to a halt, before he could turn back and run, and then I shot the other two before they could get up. I think I was lucky. All my shots were killing shots, shootingand if they hadn’t been I believe they would have rushed me. I turned round and fired my remaining two shots over Soso’s shoulder. I don’t know whether any of the men who attacked from that direction had already run off, but three were motionless on the ground, and the man from the conference had only just turned tail. Soso levelled his gun and fired. The man dropped. Soso turned to me.

“Thanks for deafening me,” he said. And as we went over to where the man from the conference lay, he added “Did you know I was a hunter as well as a poet and a seminarian?”

The man from the conference was lying on the ground, groaning. Soso turned him over with his foot, and looked down at him. Then he checked the chamber of his revolver, and patted his pockets.

“Well, Pasha,” he said to his fallen enemy, whose name he seemed to know. “Who would have thought it of you – an arselicker of the autocratic system. Who are you working for? Who are your accomplices? I don’t have time to beat it out of you.”

The man said nothing, just shook his head and made a face because of the pain. I could hear running feet somewhere, but I couldn’t tell whether they were running towards us or away from us. I remember tugging at Soso’s sleeve, and that he looked at me, nodded, and shrugged his shoulders. Then he levelled his revolver and calmly executed the man on the ground.

Looking round he said, “Damn, we’ve made a mess. This could have been ignored in Batumi, but not in London. Let’s go… young feller!”

So we went, as quickly as we could without looking like two murderers on the run, back to his lodgings. Before, it had felt like we had been wandering for hours, zigging and zagging through a maze. But Soso seemed to know a route back to our starting point with hardly a corner of a kink in it. On the way we threw the revolvers into a culvert. We didn’t want to get caught with them. That was the last night-time walk with Soso. The conference broke up, the Old Man relieved us of our babysitting duties, and I hardly saw Soso from that moment until he left. He did say good bye to me, though. I’m sure he did. Ilya and I travelled back together with false passports which said we were sisters. We even got a cabin together thanks to a donation from one of the Old Man’s bourgeois British admirers. Oh how bureaucrats will believe pieces of paper! Ilya was Polish, and yet they took us for sisters at every border we crossed. But she and I got to sleep together all the way home. Sleep was what we did too. Mostly.

No, I never saw Soso again. I never saw Ilya either. She disappeared years after that in one of the first party purges I’m sure. After the revolution I drove a tractor. And I have done my duty as a Soviet citizen. Dyke or no dyke, I was already a grandmother by the time I drove one of the last ammunition trucks to reach Stalingrad during the siege. And no, I am not going to say Soso was Stalin, and I am not going to say he wasn’t. This is my story, and I have told you all I am going to tell you. Ask me again tomorrow and I will deny it all. I am a good Soviet citizen, a good Communist. I am old. I am tired. Piss off. Leave me alone!

Poetics: difficulty

But the fact of modern poetry’s being “hard to read” can be extolled as a virtue in and of itself […]. In writing that is propelled by sonic associations, for example, what one might call musicality, the result may, paradoxically, be a form of realism, giving the poem’s language material reality, palpability, presence, and worldliness. Such difficulty, even when it doesn’t produce conventional sense, may be engaging in its own right; or, from another point of view, it may be disengaging. It may be emblematic of resistance, elaborating a rejection and even a defiance of the production of totalizing and normalizing meanings, in resisting dogmatism, it may create spaces for ambiguity, provisionality, and difference. […] it may serve to roughen the surface of the work, so that it catches one’s attention, impedes one’s reading, wakes one up to reality. (Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry, p330)

I am grateful to a friend of mine for pointing me in the direction of the above quotation. It comes from a book of collected essays by one of the late 20c’s most challenging and fascinating poets, and one for whom I have a great regard. I say 20c, but of course Lyn Hejinian is still with us, and long may she remain. My reference was to the fact that it was in the 1970s that she, along with the likes of Barrett Watten, came to write a type of poetry that attempted to put the reader and the reader’s interpretation at the forefront of the creative process.

RolandBarthesI have often, in conversation and on line, mentioned Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’. These days it has become fashionable to scoff at Barthes, but for me he will always remain someone who forced home the important lesson that it is impossible to isolate The Great Poet-Goddess and Her Great Work from what came before and what comes after, that this Great Work is a work of a moment’s completion, after which it is totally free of the further influence of the Great Poet-Goddess, and is the property of all of us.

And that last phrase – ‘the property of all of us’ – is a principle that drives much of my poetry these days. I write for everybody. I write my poetry to turn it over to you. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to read. ‘Accessibility’ isn’t the point. Everything is inaccessible until you access it, and to access something doesn’t necessarily means you’ll instantly ‘get’ it.

People seem to think that it’s all right to be really into, say, Wagner, and yet also listen to Country & Western, and Trance. But not the other way round, for some reason. That’s where class and intellectual snobbery rear their ugly heads, and conversely intellectual reverse-snobbery too – yes, it works both ways. And all of this makes people feel that they can’t pick up something outside their comfort zone. We fear the facile and we fear the difficult.

HejinianBut my message today is that difficulty belongs to all of us. Lyn Hejinian’s words at the head of this blog post seem, at first sight, not to offer much satisfaction. They are not a key to interpreting the intentions of a ‘difficult’ poet’s work, they seem to leave all that up in the air – it might be this, it might be that, it might be the other. But that is nothing more nor less than openness. It is an invitation to take a piece of ‘difficult’ poetry (or art, or music, or whatever) and run with it. If you don’t ‘get’ all of it, so what? Get what you can, make something out of it, play with the words and with the associations they spark in your own mind.

My poetry, at least some of it, resides here. Pick it up and run with it. It’s yours.

‘the zen space’ – latest Showcase

In case you missed it elsewhere, the latest (Summer 2017) Showcase at the zen space is now published.

the zen space is an e-zine for haiku and related in-the-moment words, and I have been the editor since it started six years ago. Yes, with this issue the zen space celebrates its sixth birthday! The latest Showcase includes not only haiku and other recognisable Japanese-inspired forms in English, but also some poetry it’s hard to categorise. It also features some beautiful mandalas from our most ‘quoted’ artist Marie Taylor.

Although I say it myself, it’s a good ‘un this time. Check it out for yourselves – click on the Mandala below and follow the links.

MM.

9

Sergeant Cuff names a rose ‘Catherine Earnshaw’

I had a CRAFT moment and clean forgot about the April issue of Jersey Devil Press (the May issue’s already out, as you would imagine!). I have a poem in that April issue, with the title Sergeant Cuff names a rose ‘Catherine Earnshaw’. It was originally intended for their ‘Victorian Mash-up’ issue, but the editors slipped it in ahead of that. Jersey Devil Press is notoriously difficult to get something accepted by, unless you hit precisely the right note for them, so I’m belatedly proud. This is the first time I have submitted a poem to a journal for about five years (I stopped while I was writing my collection I am not a fish and I never got started again), so I’m doubly pleased.

Check out the April issue here, and maybe keep an eye on JDP as a whole, as there’s always some good stuff in there.

1

‘The Golden Casement’ – a new version of an old tale

In a town not far from here there lived a beautiful young woman. One day there was a knock at her door, and when she opened it she found a man standing there holding the frame of a casement. He was a swindler, but she did not know this.

“Good morning, Miss,” he said, “I have here the unique and wonderful Golden Casement, and I offer it exclusively to you for the bargain price of fifty coins.”

The young woman reached over and tapped the casement.

“It’s wood, not gold,” she said.

“Ah, Miss, its name is ‘Golden Casement’, and though its apparent nature is wooden it is golden in its magical qualities. It has the property of being able to discern the difference between some one who is wise and someone who is a fool. A wise person looking through it will see beauty, a fool only ugliness. Yes? I see you are interested, and it can be yours for fifty coins. For a further fifty coins I will set it in the wall of your house, and for a further fifty I will make its properties known to the whole town!”

The young woman was indeed interested, because as well as being beautiful she was a little vain. She paid the swindler his hundred-and-fifty coins, and he set the casement in the wall of her house. Then, while the young woman sat at her window, he ran round the town telling everyone about the wonderful properties of the Golden Casement. Everyone 1flocked to see it and to gaze at the young woman, and because she was young and beautiful, everyone was glad to feel inside that they were wise and not foolish. The swindler, of course, slipped away from the town and was never seen again.

Thereafter the young woman spent all her time sitting at her window, enjoying very much being admired and told how beautiful she was. The townspeople never tired of coming to see her, and indeed the news spread to neighbouring towns and villages, and people came from far and wide to look at her through the famous Golden Casement, going away relieved to know that they were wise and not foolish. But as time went by she grew older and her beauty began to fade. Still the townspeople and visitors came, and still they said how beautiful she was, because none of them wanted to admit to being the slightest bit foolish.

Age and vanity and a lifetime of doing nothing but sitting behind a window being gazed at eventually took its price. Her former beauty was lost, the wreck of age untempered by kindness or modesty set in. Still townspeople and visitors declared that she was beautiful, because none of them wanted to appear to be a fool.

One day a little boy joined the crowd outside her house. He hadn’t heard the reputation of the Golden Casement, and when he looked in at the window all he saw was a mean, old woman.

“How ugly she is!” he cried. Someone put a hand over his mouth and hurried him away.

Eventually the woman died. Perhaps the handful of people who put her in her coffin realised the truth of the matter, but they said nothing, and when the townspeople buried her they raised a monument to her as the most beautiful woman who had ever lived.

The little boy who had spoken the truth out loud spent the rest of his life in an asylum. The swindler went into another country, where he taught two apprentices the mastery of swindling. Those two taught another two, each of whom taught another two, each of whom taught another two, and so on. That is why the world today is full of swindlers. And storytellers.

The Two Magicians (Child 44)

12I have returned, once again, to the Child Ballads. This is my reworking of the song we know in Scotland as ‘The Twa Magicians’; it concerns a woman whose virginity is tried by a persistent suitor, the magical lengths to which she will go to preserve it, and the magical lengths to which he will go to take it. It exists in many versions, but in most the woman is a high-born lady and the suitor is a blacksmith. With this one I can ‘hear’ a tune not dissimilar to Ralph Stanley’s version of ‘Matty Groves’, but paced up and with a picked banjo accompaniment. I love the phrasing of folk songs, I love the patterning and balance, I love the peculiar syntax and the way that narrative connections often get lost in the transmission from singer to singer, and this is what I try to capture in my adaptations.

It’s of a lady highly born
and silken soft her skin,
And to her door a blacksmith came
to beg her let him in.

You lusty, dusty, coal-black smith,
sing me no lying song.
You’ll never have my maidenhead
that I have kept so long
.
No lusty, dusty, coal-black smith
will share my marriage bed,
I’d rather lose my young life
than lose my maidenhead.

It’s she with skin as white as silk,
and he with coal-black hair
Says marry me my darling one
and be my lady fair.

It’s she’s become an old oak tree
all standing in the wood,
And he’s become a woodman bold
to fell her where she stood.

It’s she’s become a salmon grey
all swimming in the book,
And he’s become a fisherman
to catch her with his hook.

It’s she’s become a silver star
all shining in the night,
And he’s become a thundercloud
to hide her out of sight.

It’s she’s become a tiny fly
all buzzing in the air,
And he’s become a spider bug
to catch her to his lair.

It’s she’s become a corpse so grey
all in her coffin bound,
And he’s become the cold, cold clay
to cover her around.

It’s she’s become a hare so swift
all running on the plain,
And he’s become a greyhound tall
to fetch her back again.

It’s she’s become a praying nun
all dressed in grey and white,
And he’s become a canting priest
to preach to her all night.

It’s she’s become a barquentine
all mizzen, main, and fore,
And he’s become a captain bold
to steer her back to shore.

It’s every step that she has took
there’s he took two as well,
And where they both have vanished to
no tongue can ever tell.

You lusty, dusty, coal-black smith,
sing me no lying song.
You’ll never have my maidenhead
that I have kept so long
.
No lusty, dusty, coal-black smith
will share my marriage bed,
I’d rather lose my young life
than lose my maidenhead.

‘Westward’

In 1924, at Port an Eilean Mhoir on Ardnamurchan, the remains of a Viking ship burial were found.
__________

1

We buried Hoskuld, our captain, on the north coast of that ness the Gaels call Àird nam Murchan – the Ness of the Great Seas – on a day when axe-blades of sunlight cleaved the heavy clouds, and arrowheads of rain spattered us as though shot by the defenders of some dark and forbidding broch. We sacrificed the smaller skiff for his funeral, being fewer than when our expedition set oar to water in the little fjord where the River Stjør licks the lips of the sea. We used our axes and ship-mending tools to scratch a narrow trench in which to sink it, and we placed Hoskuld’s corpse in it, with his spear, sword, and axe laid beside him, and a shield over him, all as befits a Jarl; for although our little home-village and the outlying farms nestling at the foot of the tall, steep mountains that narrow the arms of the sea was a poor one, Hoskuld, our leader and captain-adventurer could fairly be called its Jarl.

As well as his weaponry we left him a knife and a whetstone from our native Norway, a drinking horn, some meagre dishes of porridge, and the bronze cloak-pin he had seized from a slain Ulsterman during a raid on Donegal. Then we filled the bows and stern with stones as is our custom, and piled the earth in a mound over him. Thorvald, our singer with the high voice, chanted of Baldr, the god slain by a spear of mistletoe, and we stood for a while, all trying to remember Hoskuld’s face as it used to be, before it had become little more than a bleached skull with a mouth set in a grin – a mouth from which few recognisable words had come, but much keening – and with eyes that stared past us to some horror only he could see.

Hoskuld’s dog, whom he called ‘Hopp’, would not come back to the longship with us, but stayed ranging round the mound, whining, occasionally scratching at the raw, brown earth. I tried whistling to him, slapping my thigh, and calling “Come on, Hopp! Good dog, come on!” but he only yelped at me and went back to his ranging and whining.

“Leave him, Skorri,” said someone. “We can’t stay here. Ours are not the only ships in the Minches – Mac Somerled is Lord of these waters, and no doubt the Gaels will already be sending word from clachan to clachan that we are in their sea, and he’ll be readying his galleys.”

So leave him we did. Even so he came for us as we pulled away from the shore, barking, howling, skipping round in mad circles with foam flecking his jaw. Mad he must have become, and none of us would now risk taking him in the longship. Even when we had pulled so far out that we could no longer see him, we could hear his howls, until one was cut short and we heard no more. We shivered and looked at one another. I do not know how many of us were thinking that it would be a clean and honourable end for us if Mac Somerled’s galleys did catch us, for there was a doom upon us, perhaps as great a one there than had been on the dead, buried Hoskuld.

When we had set out – a larger boat and a smaller skiff – from the Stjør village, Hoskuld had insisted on taking Hopp. One or two men grumbled that there was little enough in the way of provisions for our crews, but Hoskuld silenced them with a glance. Indeed we had had two years when harvests had been bad, and salmon and herring scarce. It is only such things that drive us out to range the seas around the kingdoms of the English, the Gaels, and the Irish, looking for food to carry home, or gold, or a couple of Gaelic slaves to barter at the river-mouths of the Baltic. Once or twice we have come looking for better land to farm, maybe thinking of sending back for our wives and children; but these lands are spoken for, being by-and-large claimed by this king or that, and the clans and tribes seemingly owing allegiance now to something greater than themselves. Some of those clans have names that are as Norse as ours – Thirkell, Gunnr, even Somerled – though their Jarls now speak the outlandish Gaelic and have forgotten their old kin from the fjords. The land they call Alba, though it is still wild, is changing – and with it, our own lives.

2.pngAs Hopp’s howling and barking died, so suddenly died the daylight. Someone struck a flint to his axe-head and kindled the iron-banded torches fore and aft. They guttered in the wind. I had been chosen as Captain in Hoskuld’s place, though I could tell that the others thought there was little to choose between myself and anyone else. I am no Jarl, and all wished Hoskuld had lived, or if not Hoskuld then his younger brother Solmund who had died in the Donegal raid, or one of the wheat-haired sons of Eyvind lost to great ocean rollers when one dived overboard to save the other, or even one of our axe-brothers who fell during the last day of slaughter at that Gaelic clachan. How long ago was that now? Any of those would have made a better captain than I for such a desperate band as we now were. We had stood out a little to westward from Port an Eilean Mhòir – the harbor of Mikill-Ey as we called it – where Hoskuld’s corpse now lay. No light from any Gaelish peat-fire could be seen through the gloom, but we needed to be at sea, as though we now feared the land.

“What orders, Captain Skorri?” asked Thorvald eventually, as the strengthening easterly wind drove us aimlessly away from the ness. I could almost hear resentment in the way he had said ‘Captain’, and gladly would have cursed him and said “I do not care – let us drift, choose another captain, let us sink – I do not care!” But instead I gave us a heading.

“Set the sail,” I said. “Haul it as close as you can and keep the wind to our steer-board. We’ll round the great Winged Island these Gaels call Eilean a Cheo, then North-East to Hvarf-ness. There, if the wind veers, we’ll sail for home, by the Orkneys.”

“If it’s against us?” queried Thorvald.

“We have oars. We row.” I said. “For now, let’s set that sail as I have ordered.”

On board a Viking longship, a captain, even a Jarl, does not simply give out orders and stand back to watch. I seized a halyard with the others and did my share of the hauling, and that seemed to settle their mood a little. It was either that – my establishing myself again as one of them – or the thought of home. We had left our fjord in mist and drizzle, and our village in poverty and hunger, but as my own thoughts turned to my wife Gudrid, and to the barefooted, noisy children who ran in and out of the bustling boatyard, I saw them only in sunshine, their cheeks fat and pink with good health. I wondered whether the others shared this vision, each seeing his woman and his children, happy under a blue sky.

We were foolish of course to be out at sea on a night like this and I had been foolish to order it – we should have been safe in some inlet until morning – but there was that fear. Where had it come from?

It had come, of course, as a consequence of the clachan raid. None of us had expected resistance at the little settlement. Each village we had come across had been poorer than the last, and this one was the poorest. In each place the Gaels had fled, giving us the freedom to take what little they had. We didn’t even bother to pursue and take as slaves the handful we saw scrambling up the hillsides. This time, however, it seemed as though desperation had bred a madness in this particular flock of ragged Gaels; farmers had found wicked little swords somewhere, boys and old men had armed themselves with hoes and reaping-hooks, women had taken up flails or kitchen-knives, and perhaps there were even a couple of wild and well-armed warriors there who had stopped on the way to some Gaelic chief’s hall. For whatever reason, they flew at us, and though we hacked many down they did not back away. Even little children buzzed around us like wasps, throwing stones, jabbing with sticks.

Then a strange figure came out of one of the hovels, and as it did so the sound of the fighting muted, sword- and axe-blows seemed to cease, our eyes as well as the Gaels’ seemed drawn to it. Bent at first, the figure straightened. Long, grey-white hair, as long and as grey-white as Langfoss, fell from its head, over its face, over its shoulders, over its earth-brown clothes. It leaned on a staff, as wandering Odin does, and its face was lean and pale, almost the same colour as its hair. I paused in belabouring a villager – and he paused also – to watch her. Her? To me the figure looked like a woman but more, I thought, more like a Dark-Elf from Alfheim, or a corpse from Hel, the land of the dead, nothing that could be called ‘him’ or ‘her’. A breeze sprang up from nowhere, and the sweat on my body grew cold, I couldn’t tell whether that was from fear or from the chill of the wind, but I saw others shiver as I now did. The breeze blew back some of the hair from the figure’s face, and we saw the eyes. They were milk-white and blind.

And yet they saw! How else could the figure have moved slowly and deliberately, through those locked in combat but now pausing as it passed, unerringly towards Jarl Hoskuld? How else could the figure have stopped a blade-length from the Jarl and turned its face directly to his? But this it did. More, it raised its right arm. From the loose, falling sleeve a slender, white forearm rose, scarce more than skin on bone it seemed. The fingers spread wide, seemed to direct themselves at Hoskuld’s forehead. The figure opened its mouth, said a few words in the Gaelic tongue. Everyone – everything – else was silent.

Then it spoke again, very clearly, but only a handful of strangely-accented words in our own language.

“No home,” it said. “Never home.”

For a few long seconds Hoskuld stared. Then, breaking free of his immobility, he swung back his axe, and brought it in an arc as wide as the rainbow bridge to Asgard must be, up and then down in a killing blow. It struck the figure upon its skull. The figure fell. It crumpled, rather, or dissolved, so that its form on the ground was little more than a mound of earth over which rainwater flowed. Hoskuld stared at it, then around him, and filled his lungs with air.

“Blood!” he cried in a great voice. “Blood!”

And the fighting continued, but with each of us Vikings suddenly berserk. My pulse thundering in my ears like Thor’s hammer on its mountain-anvil, I clubbed down the villager in front of me with the back of my axe-head, then hacked at his neck with the blade, until his head rolled away. All around me, my axe-brothers and shipmates were swinging and jabbing with sword, and shield-edge, and fist, and knife, and heavy blade. The villagers were giving way, throwing aside their weapons, beginning to run. We took up Hoskuld’s cry of “Blood!” and cut them all down, every single one, every man, every woman, every child. We spared no one. Even then, even when that slaughter was over, Hoskuld, his helmet, face, and mail sark the bloodied colour of the sunset, still gave his terrible cry, and we set about butchering every beast in the clachan. That was not enough for our Jarl, as he – then we at his example – began to cut and tear down every hovel, every byre, every beast-pen. It was as though the simple curse laid upon Hoskuld by the brown-clad, white-haired figure was so terrible to him, that he had to obliterate every trace of anything connected to it.

Afterwards we stood around. I think we were shocked at the utter devastation we had made in laying waste to this little, poor, community. We took nothing from it. There was nothing to take. But when we looked at Jarl Hoskuld, already we saw the stare and grimace of a cursed man, a mask instead of the face of the captain-adventurer we knew and had followed. To a Viking, a curse is a serious thing, often working unseen; this was the first time I had ever seen the evidence of a man’s doom with my own eyes. If the Norns truly twine the thread of a man’s fate, then Hoskuld’s was severed, sheered apart from his life, its ends fraying in the wind.

As we walked by the corpses, pulling turf roofs and stone walls down upon them, or throwing them along with their meagre possessions into the midden-pit, or piling logs upon them and setting fire to the pile, no one could swear that there wasn’t one corpse with long, grey-white hair. But equally, no one could swear that there was. Perhaps that’s why, later, as we sat around our camp fire, no one dared to look up, for fear of seeing an extra person in our number, next to the muttering, keening Jarl Hoskuld, its hand on his shoulder. And perhaps that’s why no one stared into the darkness for too long, for fear of seeing an eldritch walker stride into the firelight. And perhaps that’s why no one spoke during daylight, if they thought they saw, out of the corner of their eye, the shape of someone sitting on a rock, or walking across the narrows of one of Alba’s fjords without either disturbing the waters or sinking. And perhaps that’s why no one mentioned a still shadow that turned into a tree, or a running shadow that turned into a fox, or a mist that swirled, gathered, and faded. At least… I never spoke of such things. Hardly anyone else spoke at all, except of everyday necessity – hauling a rope, foraging for food, digging a grave.

So, all the night after we had buried Hoskuld and abandoned mad Hopp, we fought the wind. When dawn came – grey, cold, dull – we found ourselves no further north, simply stuck there in the Minches, going nowhere, making no headway, no matter how close-hauled we were, no matter how we pulled on the oars. I heard several of our crew groan, and one curse. I saw little light in anyone’s eye, as I looked from one man to the next. When I spoke to them it was with a kind of mildness.

“Come on, friends, brothers,” I said. “One more try, eh?”

And they gave one more try, but with only half a heart, and we slipped, drifted, looked desperately at the shapes of the islands and the mainland never seeming to vary. Hope died in us. Doom came over us. By the end of the day, when sunlight died, a thin rain soaked us, and the fore and aft torches barely gave any illumination at all. I was glad that they didn’t, because I now hated to see my shipmates’ faces. I scarcely recognised them now. There was no more Thorvald, no Ottar, no Frodi Hard-head, no Frodi the Small, no Ulf, no Magnus, no Isleif. There were only bare, white skulls, hair wisping back from them in the wind, to reveal mirthless grins and staring eyes. There was only doom. There was only madness. And I was glad there was nothing shiny to see my own face in, because I knew that if I had looked, I would have seen the same thing. So, when one man took his knife and slit his own throat where he sat, and another clasped his axe and sword to him and stepped overboard, I could not have named either of them.

The Gaels tell of one of their Dark Elves – they call her the Bean Sith, the Fairy Woman – and they say she walks amongst the dead, the dying, and the soon-to-die, lamenting. Others say that she can be seen washing the bloody clothes and armour of slain warriors, like one of the Valkyrja. Others still that she is a bringer of curses, and it is not she who keens, but those she has doomed. On our longship now, that is the only voice that can be heard. I do not dare open my own mouth, for if I were to hear my own voice, I would lose the last fingerhold I have on life, and fall into madness. I long to call my wife’s name, but I dare not even try that.

I know madness will come, nonetheless, or maybe death before it – much better death before than after. My last actions while in my right mind have been gestures of surrender to the East wind. I have lashed the steering-blade amidships, I have set the sail square, I have headed the ship between the outer islands of Uist and Barra. We shall sail westward. We shall go into the black ocean where the waters boil and there is no daylight, from which no ship returns. We shall go to death, to the cold of Hel or Niflheim – for us there shall be no Valhöll – we shall go to where dead Hoskuld waits for us, but without cheer or greeting. Westward, westward, driven by the merciless, murdering wind. Wordless, wordless and keening, men doomed and nameless. And we shall never go home. Never, never home.

3.png

__________

© Marie Marshall

Farewell Iain Rossouw

I learned this morning of the death by violence of Iain Rossouw. Iain headed Honeymead Books, sister-house of my publisher P’kaboo. More can be read here on his wife Lyz’s blog. I don’t really know what to say – this is awful news.

ir