Re-imagining & the Man Booker Shortlist

Somewhere, the other day, I read a quote which went something like you can’t turn back time but you can look at the past in ways that make it better. Could be a misquote and my thanks to whoever said it. Tonight at the wonderful Man Booker celebration event (10th one) at the Downpatrick Library, this quote kept going through my mind.

I haven’t read any of the books that were on the shortlist. I tend to use this annual event as a marker for the ones worth reading. Kevin Quinn, as MC, always invites the sort of people who have a strong literary background and strong, well argued opinions. This is always best when the opinions are diametrically opposed and in the crossfire one poor work of literary fiction.

Tonight I was struck by the sheer weight of historical research that had gone into the books on this year’s shortlist. Even the Coetzee is a take on the past (but is it historically accurate, a revisioning or all done with smoke and mirrors).  After the reviewers had finished eleborating the historical context that the novels were set in, it seemed, to me to be difficult to get a measure of the novel’s in their own right. Of course, all novels have a setting – was it my imagination or was re-imagining the greater part of the works here.

I have a love of historical fiction and, even more, archaeology which seems to rely even more on imaginative implying of circumstances to create a picture of how-it-might-have-been until more evidence has been found to prove further or disprove.

 But I was left asking myself – and not for the first time – about the function of fiction – or, maybe, more accurately of the author as maker or remaker of history, through re-imagining it through the eyes of the current time. Will this always ultimately be the voice of the unreliable narrator – and do we have to approach such things with eagerness and wonder but also with the ‘let-the-buyer-beware’ caution.

I don’t have the answer. The reading world will be drawn in the direction of Tudor England, and I am about to open the first pages of The Children’s Book by AS Bryant, because I like the sound of it.

We stand on the shoulders of giants

Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size. (John of Salisbury)

Bear with me. I’m finding this daily discipline difficult. But it’s just an experiment – ends 31st of October.  It’s been a strange sort of day and this post will match its mood. Having finished yesterday’s letter, I ended up searching for Donagh McDonagh’s poem ‘A Warning to Conquerors’. It was a favourite of mine as a teenager and I wondered whether I would still like it – particularly as I’m now living in Northern Ireland.  I did – but maybe not as much. I also found a translation of the Líadan & Cuirithir poem by him and went on a hunt for more information about those 9th Century poets as I hadn’t heard of them; and then ended up at a University College Cork site which I remembered friends working on when it started up – at least fifteen years ago, if not more. Having gotten there, though, I couldn’t make understand the original(?) Líadan poem as it is in 9th Century Irish; I found a tract about St Declan of Ardmore which was wonderful to read so resplendent was it in miracles and wonder. No mention at all of the Pattern – although I’m squirrelling away both references to his black bell (which brought about many miracles); and the Líadan and Cuirithir dilemna of the heart versus art.

All day, I’ve been thinking about a poem I wrote last Christmas that needs to be edited – it doesn’t have any reference to a literary or cultural past. But there are things that I want to write about where Declan’s Black Bell or Líadan’s dilemna will give me a point of departure, or a framework – and it feels good to make that connection.

Rodin: and a world ignorant of the Inferno

It said in the literature that he always carried a battered copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy in his pocket. I love Rodin’s sculptures – particularly the dancers. But in the garden of the Rodin Museum, we looked at the sculpture of Ugolino devouring his children and we asked ‘what’s that about?’. Why is it that tonight, this has come back to me?

My education – fine and broad as it was – did not include Dante. So in my formation as one who writes poetry, what was the effect of not being learned in this uber-influence on the world of European & english language art. Discuss.

I like the thought of all art having a landscape and a history – where the personal meets the wider artistic world that it inhabits –  but I think just now that the core of my world is not hell – or it might be and I am unknowingly a haunting in one of the less interesting parts.  It’s clear that very many artists, in very many contexts and languages have reached for the handle of the highly ornate Port d’Enfer – passed through it, finding there – like water – their own level. And having found it, have brought back images of it, which might (if you didn’t know about the Inferno) be reflections of their own condition on a highly polished surface. I am standing, in my imagination, in the mirror gallery at the palace of the Sun King.

What I’m trying to work out is where is my place with a door. Is it the door of a Japanese temple where a woman by virtue of her royal birth gets to preside in place of a local goddess for a small while, gathering shells on the banks of the nearby river, reciting tanka – afterwards returning to the city to resume life as normal. Or, perhaps I am well versed in being drawn to the door of sorrow, and the summerlands that lie behind it.

Siúl a Rúin

Much and all as it might be a good idea to post every day, I am wondering whether it might be more interesting for you if I hold back until I’m really intrigued by something. It’s been busy here but the kind of business that isn’t stimulating for my muse.

The idea of this was to record somehow the poetic landscape behind the actual poems. This evening and at odd times during the week I have been chasing down words from an old song a friend of my grandmother – and very many others – used to sing.  It was a favourite of mine as a child but then there were a lot of very fancified versions and I lost patience. The last time I heard it sung was about two years ago in Downpatrick’s St Patrick’s Centre. A girl from Dingle sang it. Her version was so stylised that I recognised it only by the words of the chorus.

I thought that it was time to return it to its passionate, kind simplicity and I thought that I’d learn it again because I have my suspicions it might be a Munster tune and there just  might be one good trad song that isn’t from Co Down.

There are reams written about it within the threads of the mudcat forums. Siúl a Rún (Go, my love) is macaronic – actually most of it is in English. Things are so much more fluid with oral transmission. I imagine someone somewhere having heard the spare tune, having grasped the tender sentiment in the Irish chorus and having a passionate lyric themselves that they wanted to share about the heartbreak of war – had spliced all of those things together to make what we think of that song today (or permutations and combinations thereof).

I’d include a version but I haven’t found the right one. But the chorus as I remember Grandma’s friend singing it was (in English)  

‘Go, beloved, go safely, go quietly / move to the door and leaving me / May God keep you.’ 

And, in the way small children size up adults for their parental-potential, I thought that she must have made a very good mother to wish her loved one such safe passage to the world beyond. Another professional singer afterwards said that she suspected the original Irish version was a love song of the lullaby-for-children variety.

What I am thinking about is not translation but transmission – and what happens when you have a piece of art, a melody, a framework that may be 400 years old and how people inhabit it, refresh it, give it permission to move on to an entirely new way of being – when the underlying bone structure is there.

In a way that chorus is a love song for a poem – Go, my love:  be well.

A hiatus, haiku & the siren blackbird

I’ve been planning for a while to do a month of short posts just to get the feel of it rather than letting the thoughts gather into a big heap. So October – starting with All-Ireland Poetry Day – is LettersfromLadyN month.

It’s been haiku season since my last entry. I now know a lot about what is not a haiku, and am greatly encouraged by a textbook which tells me that Basho, Buson, Issa had their bad days; and their disciplies were simply struggling… and let’s not mention Western haiku.

The time came to produce a haiku-on-demand (new season at the Writers’ Group) and I was hit by an aural image from earlier in the year.  The songbirds came back in force this late spring, now that my lovely Mew is no longer here to bother them (though mice seemed to be more her thing, I’d always thought). Perhaps they were re-claiming their territory but lauds and vespers seemed to be brought directly to me by massed thrush choirs. One particularly loud member of the blackbird family clearly got its riff from the local ambulance service because I was woken each morning after five by an ambulance tearing through Church street and up onto Irish Street.. followed by contented chirping. It was almost impossible to tell the ambulance siren  and the blackbird apart, but in the evening I’d just say – most likely the blackbird. In the early hours I woke up startled – every time. I wondered what the other thrushes thought? Now I’m wondering for the first time – what happens to the songbirds? So quiet now and it isn’t such a long time ago.

The other thing that struck me while reading up on haiku was the similarity in landscape – the moon, the cherry blossom, cranes, blackbirds – could so easily be here. But then, of course, there is the wash of the translator. Would that we were able to carry the tune flawlessly like the siren blackbird.

Wuthering Heights to Screen

I’ve just been to the BBC site to see if there is anywhere I could write the below but couldn’t find a place to provide feedback and so I’m hijacking my blog. And this piece is about translation: in this instance from book to screen.

Last night I watched the first bit of the ITV adaptation of Wuthering Heights. With fear and trepidation. This is my favourite book and I’ve never understood why such a visual tale should be so difficult to translate to screen. I had thought that it was because somebody else’s Heathcliff would always be disappointing. However having watched the beginning of this new adaptation, I’ve changed my mind.

The thing is that I liked it. Sarah Lancaster is a superb choice for Nellie Dean, the actress who plays young Cathy does a very good job. Heathcliff did not disappoint. If I hadn’t been a fan of the book, I think I would have found the telling of the story gripping. The fault for me was in its adaptation.

At the point where Heathcliff bludgeons the Linton’s dog (having bitten Cathy) I stopped watching. Then, of course, I became agitated as to what the problem was – the story telling was though, not accurate, good and the screenwriter must translate for the screen. This morning I think I came up with why WH was so difficult to adapt and some working solutions. I think there are three very necessary ingredients to any adaptation:

  • Some device which gives the same effect to the viewer as Emily Bronte’s extraordinary dual narratation gives to the reader. I often wonder whether Emily Bronte added Lockwood as a kind of salve to her christian conscience – as a kind of bridge between ‘you and I’ and the world that she has created. Whether or which, he has a fascinating other effect of wanting us to distance ourselves from silly notions of goodness and romance. Nellie Dean on the other hand is far too connected to her charges to provide an unbiased account. So between the two the reader is left to simply allow the story wind out as it will, unpicked from the opinions of the dual narrative. In the ITV version where the writer opts to ignore Lockwood and to absorb Nellie as a character – he  is then left with a kind of embedded moral judgement, and that takes a great deal of the power out of the story. We get caught up with right and wrong, and social morality rather than just flowing with the story.


  • Good casting. Heathcliff isn’t as much a problem as I thought. I think the really difficult part is Edgar Linton. For me the Lintons are the baddies of the piece (in the end EB has removed all trace of them so clearly she isn’t all that invested in us feeling sorry for them).  It is again to EB’s complete credit that she creates a character that is fair, good-natured, genial,  the target of extreme vengefulness – and we don’t sympathize with him. It must be possible to recreate this on screen. And the final, difficult thing is that Heathcliff isn’t the centrepiece of this – Cathy is. I often wonder about which character EB saw herself as and I think she felt closest to Nellie Dean but would have liked to have been Cathy. Early Cathy is not hugely fleshed out but without a steady working of her charachter when we come to the Cathy being bitten scene (where I stopped watching last night) we won’t understand the huge implications of her small error in judgement, ie being seduced by the genteel living of the Linton’s, which leads to the drama and horror of the second part of the novel.


  • Time. This is a love story – the backdrop, the tragic elements have to do with social context, religion, location, gender etc etc but nonetheless it is a love story. In order to adapt this successfully I’d love if the writer would imagine for a moment WH coming to the public for the first time. Before there was any Greatest Love Story press built around it. Again EB is at pains through our dislike of Lockwood and through the sturdy loving nature of Nellie Dean to remove us from silly romantic notions (a la Isabella and Heathcliff) and bring to us an intense bond. The bond here is not about mad sexual attraction between a good girl and a bad boy, it is rather demonstrated through the fact that when Cathy has a choice – she chooses with her heart – to be with Heathcliff. She chooses him above her brother, the social anxieties of her class, the dire warnings of Joseph. And he returns her love with a massive loyalty. They are constant companions in every sense of the word. I think to be fully successful we have to either be in Cathy’s shoes ie when faced with a choice, we reaffirm our love to our beloved; or Heathcliff’s vulnerable shoes ie when our beloved is put to the test of them or us then we choose to steadfastly believe that the choice will be in our favour. To develop this connection is something that takes time and there is enough momentum, I think, in every part of the novel to produce a serialised version every bit as wildly compelling as the novel. But any attempt to rush seems to happen at the expense of the love story and the viewer is thinking aha a Great Love Story but errr I’m not sure why.  Without the huge bond between Cathy and Heathcliff as a basis for the story, the whole thing just seems like a series of bizarre, at times horrific moments.

Yes, I am a bit obsessed with the novel. When I got to the scene where Heathcliff hit the dog with a stone I stopped watching. It wasn’t just because there is nothing in the novel to suggest that Heathcliff at that stage was anything other than the recipient of violent behaviour but also because it is so important that Heathcliff doesn’t approach the Linton entourage at all (he wouldn’t have been welcome) – watching, at first, from a distance to see that Cathy is alright (she would have been accepted) and then rushing home to tell Nellie Dean. I couldn’t imagine how the writer could continue the tale without setting up that dynamic; and demonstrating brutality on Heathcliff’s behalf simply works against the premise in the novel that the actual cruelty lies with the Lintons’ scoring out anything unpalatable to their entitled situation.

So I had wanted to send an email, text, whatever to ask those wonderful commissioners at BBC who had made the amazing adaptation Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice etc to see whether they would take on WH as a project.

Enough, good night 🙂

Cupcakes and a Ton of Tea

We visited the United Technologies exhibition at Lismore Castle’s art gallery.  I’m thinking now about Ai Weiwei’s Ton of Tea. The blurb says it was ‘made from compressed black tea and sits proudly on base of a shipping crate’. It’s a comment on how cubism is a Western art style and the colonial associations with tea. It looks good but stand close to it and, even better, you can smell the gorgeous scent of tea leaf. I associate it with my grandmother and her lacquered tin of loose leaves. A time before tea bags. For me the scent outlasted the concept. And my associations are beyond the artist’s concept, I imagine, maybe wrongly, and despite being Western belong to a previously colonised world. No doubt that wasn’t what he was aiming at.

I’m thinking about it because on Wednesday I’m hoping to hear chinese poet Yang Lian read at the John Hewitt Summer School (Armagh) and I’ve been doing some background reading. One dialogue on his website particularly looks at the discomfort of translation where.. there.. is… a… disparity of power between the languages. This has to be the most difficult kind of thing to express. Maybe more a perceived disparity of power, even that is much too simplistic.

I’d done one of those strange Facebook quizzes and apparently I’m a Langston Hughes type of poet,  apparently, so I took the time to read some of his poems, some interviews. Again language as a political proposition takes centre stage – sometimes ahead of the poem.  The poet ‘is turned into a piece of material evidence’  if I understand that quote from the Yang Lian / Adonis discussion correctly.  I’ve always had great admiration for poets who continue to write solidly, clearly, through the worst regimes where people are required to distance themselves from their own truth, disappear even, to support the system. And there is no way to put that that doesn’t sound patronising or trite.

Still when I hear Yang Lian read – I’m hoping it’s the scent that will linger, will carry across from his world which I don’t know, into mine which he doesn’t know.

After visiting the exhibition we went to a lovely cafe in the middle of Lismore and I bought re-usable cupcake cases and the following blog – cupcakes – is much more useful than this one. I envy it’s straightforwardness of purpose.