Poppies and Poetry

The 11th of the 11th is not far off. The Australian War Memorial here in Canberra is demonstrating the community’s sorrow over all those who died in World War 1, the war to end all wars. Not. Crocheted and knitted poppies have been planted in the lawn, 62,000 of them, one for each of the dead, forming a sea of red spilling out in front of our beautiful war memorial building.

Poppy posts and photos are appearing all around the country. I’ve read that 62,000 poppies was the goal for the project, but the women (mostly women) contributed many many more. The extras have been used in a display in Parliament House and in towns around Australia. I made 12, and I taught my Japanese student to crochet and then she made 12. Our 24 poppies are there in the crowd somewhere.

All this talk about the centenary of the armistice reminded me of a poem I read in my father’s poetry book that he brought back from World War 2. He recorded poems he wanted to remember, and re-reading this one leaves me wondering what it meant to him, especially the final verse. The poet was Rev. G. A. Studdert Kennedy who allowed it to be circulated among the soldiers. It speaks of a death by gassing and may have comforted some of those who had lost mates to this horrific weapon. My father’s father was gassed in 1916, but survived. Perhaps Dad had him in mind when he recorded this poem in 1942. Here’s his first page:

‘Thy Will Be Done’ by WW1 poet G.A. Studdert Kennedy, in my father’s poetry collection from WW2

Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was a volunteer British chaplain to the army on the western front, and was also known as Woodbine Willie for the Woodbines he smoked and handed out to the wounded and dying. He was a great anti-war poet.

Here’s the whole poem written in 1917 in soldier-dialect :

Thy Will Be Done
A Sermon in a Hospital

by Rev. G. A. Studdert Kennedy, from Rough Rhymes of a Padre, 1918

I WERE puzzled about this prayin’ stunt,
And all as the parsons say,
For they kep’ on sayin’, and sayin’,
And yet it weren’t plain no way.
For they told us never to worry,
But simply to trust in the Lord,
“Ask and ye shall receive,” they said,
And it sounds orlright, but, Gawd!
It’s a mighty puzzling business,
For it don’t allus work that way,
Ye may ask like mad, and ye don’t receive.
As I found out t’other day.
I were sittin’ me down on my ‘unkers,
And ‘avin’ a pull at my pipe,
And larfin’ like fun at a blind old ‘Un,
What were ‘avin’ a try to snipe.
For ‘e couldn’t shoot for monkey nuts,
The blinkin’ blear-eyed ass,
So I sits, and I spits, and I ‘ums a tune;
And I never thought o’ the gas.
Then all of a suddint I jumps to my feet,
For I ‘eard the strombos sound,
And I pops up my ‘ead a bit over the bags
To ‘ave a good look all round.
And there I seed it, comin’ across,
Like a girt big yaller cloud,
Then I ‘olds my breath, i’ the fear o’ death,
Till I bust, then I prayed aloud.

 

I prayed to the Lord Almighty above,
For to shift that blinkin’ wind,
But it kep’ on blowin’ the same old way,
And the chap next me, ‘e grinned.
“It’s no use prayin’,” ‘e said, “let’s run,”
And we fairly took to our ‘eels,
But the gas ran faster nor we could run,
And, Gawd, you know ‘ow it feels
Like a thousand rats and a million chats,
All tearin’ away at your chest,
And your legs won’t run, and you’re fairly done,
And you’ve got to give up and rest.
Then the darkness comes, and ye knows no more
Till ye wakes in an ‘orspital bed.
And some never knows nothin’ more at all,
Like my pal Bill–‘e’s dead.
Now, ‘ow was it ‘E didn’t shift that wind,
When I axed in the name o’ the Lord?
With the ‘orror of death in every breath,
Still I prayed every breath I drawed.
That beat me clean, and I thought and I thought
Till I came near bustin’ my ‘ead.
It weren’t for me I were grieved, ye see,
It were my pal Bill–‘e’s dead.
For me, I’m a single man, but Bill
‘As kiddies at ‘ome and a wife.
And why ever the Lord didn’t shift that wind
I just couldn’t see for my life.
But I’ve just bin readin’ a story ‘ere,
Of the night afore Jesus died,
And of ‘ow ‘E prayed in Gethsemane,
‘Ow ‘E fell on ‘Is face and cried.
Cried to the Lord Almighty above
Till ‘E broke in a bloody sweat,
And ‘E were the Son of the Lord, ‘E were,
And ‘E prayed to ‘Im ‘ard; and yet,

 

And yet ‘E ‘ad to go through wiv it, boys,
Just same as pore Bill what died.
‘E prayed to the Lord, and ‘E sweated blood,
And yet ‘E were crucified.
But ‘Is prayer were answered, I sees it now,
For though ‘E were sorely tried,
Still ‘E went wiv ‘Is trust in the Lord unbroke,
And ‘Is soul it were satisfied.
For ‘E felt ‘E were doin’ God’s Will, ye see,
What ‘E came on the earth to do,
And the answer what came to the prayers ‘E prayed
Were ‘Is power to see it through;
To see it through to the bitter end,
And to die like a Gawd at the last,
In a glory of light that were dawning bright
Wi’ the sorrow of death all past.
And the Christ who was ‘ung on the Cross is Gawd,
True Gawd for me and you,
For the only Gawd that a true man trusts
Is the Gawd what sees it through.
And Bill, ‘e were doin’ ‘is duty, boys,
What ‘e came on the earth to do,
And the answer what came to the prayers I prayed
Were ‘is power to see it through;
To see it through to the very end,
And to die as my old pal died,
Wi’ a thought for ‘is pal and a prayer for ‘is gal,
And ‘is brave ‘eart satisfied.

*

20

Six degrees of separation: The Outsiders to Sweet Water – Stolen Land

For the challenge by Booksaremyfavouriteandbest to find six degrees of separation between books, this month’s starting point is The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.

1. At first I thought it was The Outsider (singular), one of the English titles given  to Albert Camus’ L’Étranger. But reading the author’s name made me look again. I noticed the plural in Hinton’s title and recalled my sons reading this book at high school and then reading it myself. However, I had immediately thought of Camus’ book and its opening line, ‘Aujourd’hui maman est morte’, much discussed by translators. In Stuart Gilbert’s translation, The Outsider,  it becomes ‘Mother died today’.

2. This led me to think of another opening line disputed and revised by translators, the first line of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff: ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early.’ So many ways to say this.

3. And the first line of Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, translated by Constance Garnett: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

4. And from there my mind went to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, currently showing as a TV serial. I have the book, a gift from my daughter-in-law who works in a bookshop, but I haven’t tackled it.

5. However, I have decided to tackle another hefty Russian novel, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, only because I found a pocket-size edition in a 2nd-hand shop.

6. I took a break from Crime and Punishment after a few chapters and picked up a shorter novel, Sweet Water – Stolen Land by Philip McLaren. What surprised me after reading a description of a gruesome murder in Dostoevsky’s novel was to read a number of such scenes in McLaren’s.

Of these six books I’ve read three wholly and three in part, but enough to remember them.

*

40

The Wolf as Illustration

Soon a story written by Marcel Aymé, Le Loup, translated into English as The Wolf (by me) will be out in an illustrated edition of Delos Journal. The editor’s decision to illustrate it really blew me away. Life for me is much easier to bear when I’m reading an illustrated book.

Now, in anticipation of the Delos wolf, I’m wondering whether he’ll be fierce or deceptively gentle. In my tall piles of books about fairies and fantasy there are many wolfish images from the 19th and 20th centuries that leave me dreaming about ideal illustrations for my translated tales. Today I pondered over a few of the images that have taken my fancy.

Illustrated fairy tale collections published for children since the 19th century are usually delicate, refined, unreal and rarely violent despite the brutal stories they represent. Take, for example, Arthur Rackham’s fine drawing in which the wolf doesn’t look particularly threatening:

When she got to the wood, she met a wolf. Arthur Rackham, ‘The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm’, 1909

Aymé was clearly inspired by that guilty wolf we’ve all met in fables and fairy tales if not in real life. In his little story (which I hope you’ll read when it comes out later this year…) two little blonde girls remind their visitor, the wolf, that he’s never been good, he’s always been bad, and as an example they evoke La Fontaine’s fable about the wolf and the lamb, depicted here by Gustave Moreau, where the wolf appears a little hungrier than Rackham’s:

Gustave Moreau, Le Loup et l’agneau, in Les Lettres et les arts, 1889

Aymé’s wolf claims to have changed his ways, he denies he ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother though we’ve been led to believe otherwise by this illustration by another French Gustave.  Gustave Doré depicts the moment just before the wolf is about to take his first bite, his long tongue lolling as Grandma realises her terrible fate.

Gustave Doré, illustration for Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, courtesy Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale de France

While Doré’s image would be a wee bit scary for a child, a stretch of the imagination might be needed to associate animal instincts with Shaun Tan’s little sculpture. Today I discovered his illustration for a very abbreviated version of ‘Little Red Cap’ by the Brothers Grimm. It has none of the pretty trees and tendrils of Rackham’s image, but neither does it have the drooling wolves of Moreau’s and Doré’s sketches. It’s composed of two tiny solid characters crafted from clay with the simplest features.

Little Red Cap, Shaun Tan, 2015, in ‘The Singing Bones’

My favourite wolf image this week is one which depicts the kind of wolf you’ll find at the end of Aymé’s story. It’s by Rackham but it’s a far scarier drawing than we saw above. Here, Becfola, of an Irish fairy tale, is perched on branches just out of reach of hungry mouths. It instils in me exactly the kind of fear I’d have if a wolf had chased me up a tree.

“She looked with angry woe at the straining and snarling horde below, seeing many a white fang in those grinning jowls, and the smouldering, red blink of those leaping and prowling eyes.” The Wooing of Becfola, Irish fairy tale by James Stephens, illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1920

I’m anxiously awaiting the appearance of Aymé’s The Wolf. You can be sure I’ll be blogging about it the moment I hear it’s out.

*

40

Six degrees of separation: ‘Where am I now?’ to ‘The Collector’

The blog Booksaremyfavouriteandbest asks once a month if we can find links between books in six moves. I like this kind of challenge. My thoughts often drift irrationally from one thing to another and I curse myself for not being able to stay on one brain path. But analysing my links between the following books helps me see there are indeed connections, be they gossamer-thin. September’s starting point, as suggested by Kate from the blog above, is Where am I now? by Mara Wilson.

I ended up at The Collector. Let me take you there:

1. I haven’t read ‘Where am I Now?’ but I immediately knew the little girl on the cover. It’s Matilda, from the movie of the book by Roald Dahl. Of all the movies Mara Wilson was in as a child actor, the name Matilda stuck with me because I wanted her to be Australian, but of course she was American.

2. And that was because Matilda made me think of Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson and a book that includes some of his songs and stories called Bush Songs, Ballads and Other Verse that I picked up at a garage sale.

3. It came with a matching volume, Best Stories by Henry Lawson. ‘The Drover’s Wife’ is the opening story which I use when tutoring to help new Australians get a taste of our history and the harsh life for women who were left alone on the land to raise children and fend off snakes.

4. As I sat in sadness over drovers’ wives, I thought of another fictional woman who had to go it alone with her child, the protagonist of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Agnes Brontë. I’ve read it twice.

5. And another book I’ve read twice with a theme not unlike The Tenant, is The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. The movie with Meryl Streep is one of my favourites.

6. This brought to mind The Collector, also by John Fowles, a book about a creepy guy who collects butterflies and enjoys pinning them into display cases to admire them. But then he collects a young woman and traps her like a butterfly. I listened to this book in the car on a long trip and at a particularly disturbing part I stopped at a café for a break where on the wall were multiple pictures of individual butterflies.

I had fun doing this! No doubt I’ll do it again in October when the starting point is The Outsiders.

*

20

Excerpts of literary hope

In the past few months I’ve had four translated stories accepted by journals. In my last post I lamented the silence of two of those journals, but, good news!, one has announced the story will be published in September. And two more have promised to publish another couple of stories, so I’m hoping that all will go well for those journals.

As a lover of Great Opening Lines, I thought I’d include their first lines here as excerpts from the three forthcoming stories.

First:

Hiding behind the hedge, the wolf was patiently watching the house.

Opening line, ‘The Wolf’, Marcel Aymé, translated by me, forthcoming in ‘Delos Journal’

A story for children and adults about a wolf that wants to be good and kind but deep down he’s still an animal …

Cover, Le Loup, Marcel Aymé, illus Roland & Claudine Sabatier, pub. Gallimard

Second:

Not long ago and not far away, a sculptor in love with his statue as in the days of Pygmalion the King of Cyprus, reproduced the same miracle and brought her to life, transforming the marble into living flesh through which glorious blood flowed by his will and the force of his overpowering desire.

Opening line, ‘The Lydian’, Théodore de Banville, translated by me, forthcoming in ‘Black Sun Lit’

The Lydian is the mythological Queen Omphale who was given Hercules as her slave for a year (his punishment for a murder). She wore the skin of the lion he had killed, and carried his club. Banville’s story tells of a sculptor who produced a statue of Omphale that came to life. He thought his dreams had come true…

Omphale statue, Schlosspark Schönbrunn, Austria, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Third:

Once when the valiant knight Roland was returning from fighting the Moriscos, he was letting his horse catch its breath in a Pyrenean pass when he heard a shepherd tell of an enchanter, not far from there, who was making himself odious to the whole country by his tyranny and cruelty.

Opening line, ‘Tears on the Sword’, Catulle Mendès, translated by me, forthcoming in ‘The Clarion Call’ anthology

A fantasy about the French medieval hero, Roland, who revels in fights with lances and swords but now must defend his country against a sorcerer who has invented a diabolical weapon that allows cowards to kill from afar.

Roland and his loyal sword, illustration by Charles Copeland in ‘Page Esquire and Knight’, Marion Lansing

Keep checking back to this blog to hear news of the stories making it into print.

*

 

30

46 Great Opening Lines: 45

The thousand arms of the forest were grey, and its million fingers silver.

First line, ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’, G.K. Chesterton, 1911

G.K. Chesterton wrote 53 stories about a very short priest with ‘a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling’. Many of them have intriguing opening lines, but I particularly like this one for its imagery, the inspired words of Chesterton, the formally trained artist.

G K Chesterton and dog, 1919

It’s the beginning of a story about a hero, a soldier, for whom a monument was placed in the highest position in a church yard. Beside the recumbent sculpted soldier lay a sword, its tip broken off. The story reveals how it broke, and how a myth was born and believed.

Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown is self-effacing and enigmatic with no need of a magnifying glass or fingerprint powder. His interventions in crime cases, appearing at first bumbling and irrelevant, are intentional, based on his intuition and his sensitivity to evil. Chesterton is well known for paradoxes in his writing – even Father Brown’s offsider is a reformed criminal, as tall as the priest is short. Read ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’ and see if your intuition leads you to pick the paradox.

*

20

46 Great Opening Lines: 44

The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended.

Opening line, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, 1968

I’ve seen the movie, and have read Part One of the six parts of the book. The opening line was nothing like I expected. So earthy.

It’s the kind of opener that makes me read on, and indeed the first chapters were compelling. I enjoyed reading Clarke’s depiction of early man and the many uses he found for rocks and bones as tools. But I probably won’t read any more. From Part Two we’re into the space odyssey, and if it’s like the movie…

The movie was not compelling, at least, not for me, particularly after “Intermission”. I struggled to stay awake. 2001 A Space Odyssey was made in 1968, 50 years ago, and according to a recent article in The New Yorker it may have been hippies that saved the film, since ‘stoned audiences’ flocked to it. It was described as ‘somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring’.

While Arthur C. Clarke was writing the novel, he and Stanley Kubrick, the film producer, were also preparing the script for the screenplay, derived from the novel. In the end Clarke was writing them both simultaneously. The movie came out several months before the book.

But this blog post is about stories and their opening lines, and this story has a good one. Perhaps the word ‘drought’ right at the start got my attention, since it’s such a familiar weather event where I live. I even like the mention of lizards in the first sentence. Two words, drought and lizards, and I’m hooked.

Arthur C. Clarke, 1965, with the EVA pod from ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’, photo Wikimedia Commons

*

40

46 Great Opening Lines: 43

It was a pleasure to burn.

First line, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1954

I’ve been reading it for the past few days, and just finished.

In case you’re wondering about the title, Bradbury offers an explanatory epigraph:

FAHRENHEIT 451: the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns

As for the first line of the first chapter, it took me aback. As I read on, I started to lose interest, not being into dystopian societies, but when it came to the pages about a book-burning by ‘firemen’ I couldn’t put it down.

My favourite lines are not the first ones, but a short paragraph that comes almost midway through this three-part novel. The protagonist’s wife has been sucked into the ways of their commercialised bookless world. But though he is a book-burner by profession, he keeps a secret stash of books and when he establishes friendship with a girl with a ‘tireless curiosity’, a quality he has rarely seen, he quotes what seems to come from one of his books:

We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over, so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.

These two sentences were a compensation for the violence of the story against literature and its readers.

Ray Bradbury’s opening line was so catching it was used again as the title of a collection of 16 of his short stories, A Pleasure to Burn, about book-lovers and book-burners.

*

Today, for me, was a day of fiery fiction cooled by fluffy snow as I visited Corin Forest, not far from Canberra, and walked through a snowfall just because it was so novel… (I haven’t seen snow for a decade or so.)

Fire and ice: reading Fahrenheit 451 this afternoon in a wintry Corin Forest

*

 

 

40

46 Great Opening Lines: 39

What was known of Captain Hagberd in the little seaport of Colebrook was not exactly in his favour.

First line of To-morrow, Joseph Conrad, 1902

The story of a man who is quietly going mad waiting for his son to return, convinced he will turn up tomorrow, has an opening line promising an unsavoury old English sea captain whose ship had never gone far from home.

Reading this little book I learnt a few things about writing well, surprising really, since Conrad was born in Ukraine, was educated in Poland, and learnt English as an adult. His words had me feeling a particular pity for the poor girl who lived next door to Captain Hagberd. The two of them talked over the fence each day:

“You wait till you get married, my dear,’ said her only friend, drawing closer to the fence. […]
But she only said in self-mockery, and speaking to him as though he had been sane, ‘Why, Captain Hagberd, your son may not even want to look at me.'”

To-morrow is no. 64 in the collection of little Penguin classics, but is available online at Gutenberg and is one of the freely available e-books produced by the University of Adelaide.

*

40

46 Great Opening Lines: 38

Had it not been for a murder and robbery on Sunday, 26 March 1848, the University of Queensland would not be sited at St Lucia.

The Mayne Inheritance, Rosamond Siemon, 1997

The first line of this book contains the beginning and end of the story. A great way to start. Especially in a book about a real murder and a real university.

But the reader finds in the preface that the author “has taken a little licence”.

I discovered Siemon’s book in a relative’s personal library this week in Brisbane. My interest was piqued by the discovery that Patrick Mayne, the protagonist, lived very close to my great great great-grandfather, Joseph Burley, in the new streets of the new town of Brisbane. Mayne, as an alderman, helped Burley solve the problem of drays flinging mud up against his door. For the streets were then nothing but rutted tracks of dirt, turning to mud on rainy days.

Rosamond Siemon wrote the story of the successful businessman Patrick Mayne who died in 1865 and left an inheritance to his wife and children. Patrick’s son and daughter, James and Mary, made a number of philanthropic donations with their inheritance, including the acreage on which the University of Queensland has been built.

University of Queensland, St Lucia, 1948

The topic of the book is the inherited money and its possibly dark origin: Patrick Mayne may have gruesomely butchered a cedar woodcutter in order to rob him of a substantial sum. Another man hanged for it. However, though the credibility of the story is a deathbed confession by Mayne, no actual confession has been found by anyone but the author…  Until we can all have access to this proof, the book must remain a mythical murder mystery.

*

 

 

30