Felix Cassiel on
How Death Came Into The World
‘Well, you stay where you are, for all I care.
You sing from there then. Walk your own path.
And you can keep your oaks. But who, tell me,
Who shall be our judge? If only Lycopas,
The herdsman, were in sight somewhere.’
Theocritus, The Idylls: V. The Goatherd Versus the Shepherd
It could be that the charge, made in a pre-juridical age, has never been adequately refuted; or, as is equally likely, that it has not been taken seriously enough to warrant rebuttal. In agreement with the majority of Western civilisation, Nancy Charley proposes that Woman did not, in fact, bring death into the world; and, in this book titled How Death Came Into the World, she produces other avenues by which death did not enter.
For the student of The Golden Bough, there is much here that will interest: upon a tapestry of folktale and ritual, of heroes and superstition, the poet has, with precision, embroidered her characters. Though it would perhaps be unfair to examine them strictly as characters; they are, primarily, dislocated persons, removed, it seems, from the narratives of their own lives: voices or bodies, but rarely both; these poems are of the lyric, not dramatic, species.
A reader of Robert Graves, too, will find items here worth his attention. In much of his work Graves advocated the theory that in the pre-Hellenic age, societies in Europe were almost uniformly matriarchal, and that it was only when the Hellenic invaders and raiders swarmed over the islands and the mainland that rule by men was made the norm. Graves argued that a great deal of mythical rape, and certainly the unbounded philandering of Zeus, had as their originals the desecration of the temples of the cults of the lunar goddess, and the institution of the worship of the solar god. The critic can find nothing to suggest that Nancy Charley has not read Graves carefully.
On his first encounter with the text, the reader will be forgiven for thinking himself in the realm of the pastoral; yet in pastoral there is so often celebration, praise and healthy contest; soon he discerns the scaffolding, and notices that the attributes of this particular landscape are, in fact, inversions of these.
Sometimes she dreams of her mother’s teat,
Imagines her yelp in the east wind’s howl
But the urge for nurture
Is being overwhelmed
By a nascent drive to devour.
And from ‘Not Your Daughter’:
She stalks the streets of St. Tropez,
Fists primed for fight, keepsakes to hawk.
The well-heeled, designated prey,
She stalls on streets of St. Tropez
To plead her need, make men purvey
Her trinkets wheedling as they walk.
The scene is stripped to its core elements, or, certain of its core elements; foremost among them is predation. Men are not properly men, and women not properly women, nor are the beasts fully themselves; the hierarchy is split through the middle: on one side is predator, on the other prey, exchanging positions as the mood demands.
He baits breath, smashes eggshells
On birch trays, patterns mosaics.
Evening sees moth sacrifice by candlelight.
She draws curtains, shuffles the tarot pack.
Faithless he waits, knowing his designs
Die or survive with her soothsaying.
Predominating over all other themes is the interplay between the sexes. In accordance with the teachings of the school of postmodernism, Charley renders the necessary reciprocation between man and woman too often as a power-play. In dramatic or narrative poetry, or in any poem which utilises personae, partisanship may be expected, and in those depicting battle, it may even be desired; torn from the significance of the event, however, its effect, at best, strikes hard upon the ceiling of polemic.
Frequently the poet produces the general tone of polemic, yet its object remains uncertain. In polemic there must be risk, a sense of something personal that is at stake for the polemicist; here, the stand taken by the poet is largely in harmony with the fashion of the age, and it is for us to guess what, if anything, is at stake.
He’d endured the wake,
It’s wailing shenanigans,
Heard how he was loved,
How messed he’ll not be.
He guessed on day,
Though God knows when,
He’d be called up
By a trumpet blast
Or the earth shaking.
But he wasn’t expecting
This recent revival,
Dragged from the ground
In the dead of night
To be gaped at by strangers,
Slit skin flapped apart,
All his innards outer.
And as for his Annie
They’ve felt more of her
Than he ever managed.
It is perhaps true that a poet writes his poem only to one person; and the poet himself may have only a hazy idea of who that person is. Even so, the reader of poetry seeks to experience the sensation of being spoken to as an individual, and a poet has no better reason for writing than to communicate directly: the readers of How Death Came Into the World, however, may find themselves not so much with the feeling of being talked to, but of being talked at.
With a song and a swagger, his dancing dagger
Sliced common sense from her brain.
He made captive her heart by that terrible art
Of blurring boundaries between crazy and sane.
How did she come to lie with him
Entranced by the stories he’d weave?
How did she come to lie with him
Forsaking all that she believed?
To no-one’s surprise as the moon hid her eyes,
They left. Her love postured, complained,
Made impotent gestures about how he’d fetch her
Till old men’s lips curled in disdain.
How did she come to rely on him
When she knew he cheated and thieved?
All she knew was she’d willingly die for him
For he thrust to the core of her need.
In the machinery there is something approximating to the folkloric strain of Yeats; and in certain pieces we hear echoes of Yeats’s preoccupation with youth and age, with the progress of the mind toward maturity, and then on to decay. Maturity is attended by new sensations, peculiar combinations of feelings that gain in intensity as maturity develops, and which arouse certain modes of thought from which the less mature are spared. Yeats knew well the dangers, and the imperative sacrifices, inherent in maturation; and he knew also that many minds go from youth to age to decay, bypassing maturity entire - a danger more awful than any enlargement of burden. As such, his human scenes are adorned with a catholicity of sentiment, and his scenes of nature with the implicit knowledge of the primacy of the supernatural.
While How Death Came Into The World wants for catholicity, there is nevertheless an awareness of the timeless; the most striking manifestations are found in Charley’s rendering of social and domestic intercourse - in one case (‘Winter’s Code’), it occurs as each sex’s tendency toward prejudice (i.e. old women are witches) - considered as a whole, this awareness seems also to provide something of a foundation.
For a week the neighbours muttered
About how the farmer wouldn’t get his crops sown.
But the horse knew on which side it’s bread was buttered
(Sorry, poor metaphor - where it’s oats we’re grown),
So returned to the farm with some pals it had made,
A herd of wild horses galloped in and stayed.
The neighbours rushed to congratulate,
Free horses! Such blessing! What bounteous good luck!
The farmer shrugged and simply said,
Good luck? Bad luck? Who can tell?
All we can do is to try to live well.
(‘As Luck Would Have It’)
For the most part, the emotion is monochrome: the poet starts at something akin to indignation, and she struggles to move beyond it. In Yeats, we delight in his suspension of judgement. In Charley’s book, there is no such suspension. The poet does not shy away from suggesting the inexplicable, yet too often the persons she gives us seem but a nebulous complex of atoms, wailing at the wall of myth and ritual; between the person and the past there is a struggle for communication, and the languages of the dead and the living are mutually unintelligible. Standards are set by the dead, and to them the living are subject; standards may be mingled with emotions, even prejudices, age-old and age-thick; but the standards that endure (which tend to be the only ones with which the living take issue) are always constituted by reason; those that are not so constituted perish prior to examination. Whereas for Yeats, ‘an aged man is but a paltry thing,/ a tattered coat upon a stick, unless/ soul clap its hands and sing’, Charley, too frequently, pulls up the horses before we reach ‘unless’.
It is in the lyric that Charley excels. The book does not want for demonstration of skill. Charley has studied rhythm, and her knowledge of the importance of music in verse is beyond question. There are times when the music gets away from itself, and other times when it dominates the content, but we readily accept these instances, delighted as we are at others.
Not enough to alter appellation,
You must transmute the traits.
So take a rabbit, pluck the scut,
Put on a rack. Resect the hop, the urge
To dig a hole, to twitch, to reproduce.
Lengthen the jaw, insert incisors,
A taste for blood and a lust for flesh.
Add padding feet, instinctual howl,
Moonshine prowls, a brandished tail.
A final test in headlight glare:
If eyes are steady and do not glaze,
If she snarls then lopes away,
Wolf shall be her name.
In the year of our Lord 1588
Brananter Stevenson fetched up,
Promising rich pickings
To tempt men to work the copperas.
In Tankerton fish were the living
But with no stomach for swell and squall,
Joe joined the gang, dug the pits,
Collected the fossil twigs,
Kept them bucked with seawater -
Four four years!
That Brabanter paid well
And when he began to sell to wool
And leather men, engravers and quacks,
He was true to his word - Joe’s money grew.
But it’s devil’s brew! Tom slid a stone
In his pocket. By the time he was home
His gabardine was burned and holed.
And Harry, the fool, fell in the trough.
They fished him fast - but that night
He breathed his last.
Aye, strange business!
The Dutchman, though, proved shrewd,
Knew the worth of biding time,
Showed living as more than hand-to-mouth.
(‘The Elizabethan Coast’).
Felix Cassiel © 2021