Week 209: From ‘The Aimer Gate’, by Alan Garner

In my opinion Alan Garner, though still perhaps best known for his early children’s books, is one of the most interesting English writers of the last century in any genre (and happily still going). True, he needs working at and his books do not give up their secrets easily: I see them as a kind of elf-shot, slowly working their way under the skin to lodge in the heart. For me his most perfect achievement is ‘The Stone Book Quartet’, written in a spare prose with a layered concentration of meaning that any poet might be proud of, and of that quartet ‘The Aimer Gate’ is the most haunting and beautifully realised, with its rural First World War setting, seen through the eyes of boy whose uncle is home on leave from the trenches. In this scene, where rabbits are scared out of the last square of corn at the end of harvest, we realise what the benign Uncle Charlie’s trade is, and get a hint of what it costs him. 

Uncle Charlie didn’t answer. He was on his heel, chewing a straw of stubble and looking at the standing corn. His face had gone different. It was thinner, and Robert couldn’t tell what was in the eyes. He spat the straw out and drank from a flask he carried in his pocket, enough to wet his mouth, no more.

Uncle Charlie stood up. He took the rifle. ‘Get aback of me’, he said

. ….

‘Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o! ‘Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o!’ The men and boys yelled the cry. They yelled and yelled and clapped their hands and waved their caps and banged sticks together. ‘Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o!’ The noise was tremendous.

Uncle Charlie didn’t move. But through the noise came another, a scream, a squeal, and, in terror, rabbits broke out of the last standing corn. All day they had worked inwards from the scythes, and now they ran. Uncle Charlie watched. Over the field, between the kivvers, dodging, driven by noise, the rabbits went, and their screaming pierced all noise.

Uncle Charlie swung the rifle to his shoulder, turning on his hips. He fired. The sound of the rifle deadened Robert’s ears. Left. Left. Right. Left. ‘Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o!’ Right.

One rabbit was going up hill, in line with the men. Uncle Charlie watched it go until it climbed above them. The rabbit was at the top cornerpost of the field when he shot it.

The others got away. Their squealing stopped when they reached the bracken of the wood.

And Saint Philip’s church was still black, and there were no shadows.

Ozzie Leah shouted ‘Good lad, Sniper!’

Robert looked at Uncle Charlie. The face was no different. ‘When there’s too many’, said Uncle Charlie’, ‘you can’t tell them from poppies.. They’re all alike the same, you see’

. ……

They sat by the heap of road flint stone and gutted the rabbits. Uncle Charlie lifted his eyes to look at the work he had done, at the harvest got.

‘That’s my trade, Dick-Richard’, said Uncle Charlie. ‘I stop rabbits skriking. There’s me craft, and there’s my masterness’

Alan Garner

Note: a kivver is six sheaves of corn in a stack.

Week 208: From ‘Lament for Art O’Leary’ by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, tr. John Montague

These are just the closing lines of a remarkable eighteenth-century Irish elegy, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, written by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill to lament the death of her husband Art, murdered in County Cork in 1773 at the hands of a British official with whom he had quarrelled. Much of the poem takes the form of a debate between wife and sister in which Art’s vitality and generosity of spirit are celebrated, producing a sense of loss that reminds me of Lorca’s great lament for the bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías: there is also the same sense of a sophisticated literary intellect harnessing the power of a great oral tradition.

From ‘Lament for Art O’Leary’

Until Art O’Leary comes again
This sorrow won’t lift
That lies across my heart
Like a tightly-locked trunk
With rust on the hasps
And the key thrown away.

So stop your weeping now
Women of the soft wet eyes
And drink to Art O’Leary
Before he enters the grave school
Not to study wisdom and song
But to carry earth and stone.

Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill  (tr. John Montague)

Week 207: The End of the Owls, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

This poem by the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger (born 1929) may seem very much of its time with its Cold War imagery, but is surely just as relevant today: if the natural world appears to have become less threatened now by swift execution in the form of a nuclear Armageddon, it is only to face instead the slow death of a thousand cuts. I suppose you can call it progress.

I give the poem in its exceptionally fine English translation by Jerome Rothenberg.

The End Of The Owls

I speak for none of your kind,
I speak for the end of the owls.
I speak for the flounder and whale
in their unlighted house,
for the seven cornered sea,
for the glaciers
they will have calved too soon,
raven and dove, feathery witnesses,
for all those that dwell in the sky
and the woods, and the lichen in gravel,
for those without paths, for the colorless bog
and the desolate mountains.
Glaring on radar screens,
interpreted one final time
around the briefing table, fingered
to death by antennas, Florida’s swamps
and the Siberian ice, beast
and bush and basalt strangled
by early bird, ringed
by the latest maneuvers, helpless
under the hovering fireballs,
in the ticking of crises.
We’re as good as forgotten.
Don’t fuss with the orphans,
just empty your mind
of its longing for nest eggs,
glory or psalms that won’t rust.
I speak for none of you now,
all you plotters of perfect crimes,
not for me, not for anyone.
I speak for those who can’t speak,
for the deaf and dumb witnesses
for otters and seals,
for the ancient owls of the earth.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger (translated By Jerome Rothenberg)

Week 206: Hurt Hawks(ii) by Robinson Jeffers

Apologies for lateness this week; just got back from holiday. Too tired after long drive to muster up anything approaching a perspicacious preamble, but am trusting that this fine piece by the American poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) will speak for itself anyway.

Hurt Hawks (ii)

I’d sooner, except for the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left him but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under the talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

Robinson Jeffers