Lyonesse, Penelope Shuttle, Lyonesse (Bloodaxe); Stranger in the Mask of a Deer
Richard Skelton, (Penned in the Margins)
Here are two excellent and timely collections. They are timely because published in a period of climate emergency, when rising sea-waters and retreating ice-caps make the threat to our current pattern of life increasingly clear. This immediacy is refracted through a much deeper and farther pre-historical context, however. In Lyonnesse Penelope Shuttle explores the legendary kingdom of western Cornwall, thought to have been lost in a cataclysmic Bronze Age inundation, with only the Isles of Scilly and St Michael’s Mount left visible above the waves; and Richard Skelton enacts the life and mind of a Late-Upper Paleolithic hunter, following the animals that have followed the melting ice-sheets northwards on a British peninsula still part of northern Europe. Their excellence as collections derives not only from such visionary perspectives but from the poets’ creative skills in mimesis, their enactment through rhythm, metaphor and line of ways of life which are at once deeply other and uncannily familiar. Such psychological exploration of the historical continuities of human existence from past epochs to our own is remarkably done, and is enhanced by the typographical skills of the publishers. Every aspect of this poetry signals significance, and I already fear that my brief prose will fail to do them justice.
Lyonesse is in two parts, the first dealing with the drowned kingdom of Lyonesse, and the second, ‘New Lamps for Old’, describing a slow recovery from trauma. These exist in necessary continuity, and it emerges that their composition overlapped. This structure reminded me of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, where the actual shipwreck and loss of life in Part the Second is delayed until we have shared a more personal wreck in Part the First: the breaking down of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s personality under an astonished recognition of the unstoppable force of the divine. And we are meant to read the second wreck through the first. It is only through such a progress that the nun’s final cry of fearful acceptance makes sense. In Shuttle’s collection, it becomes clear that the cataclysm evokes grief and loss, not so much its first shock as the underwater world which follows upon that, in a dream-like experience, as if sleep-swimming while time and tides pass by.
The loss was of her life-partner, Peter Redgrove (1932¬2003), a fellow poet and her co-author of poetry and novels as well as works on alchemy, dreams and the female cycle. She has written of him before, notably in Redgrove’s Wife, shortlisted for the Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2006. They had lived in Cornwall since 1970. Now personal loss and loss of landscape combine, with the ocean carrying both destruction and the possibility of recovery over the years. Thus patterns of time recur throughout, in underwater church bells and traditional songs, in sea shanty refrains and children’s games. And yet this is also a dream landscape cut free of time, discoverable only in the imagination and wit of the poet:
There’s all the time in the world
in these sea-cold gardens raked to a Zen precision. (p. 81)
The couple’s decades together come unbidden through the imagination in bright and witty detail. Grief becomes a mythic journey of glimpses, then, with unpredictable metaphors and memories suddenly emerging from seemingly empty hours of predictable days. The Lyonesse of romance comes filtered through an underwater light and is opened up to new exploration through an impressive diversity of layout and form. Human loss and the human potential for renewal are both touchingly present. Mystery and clarity of vision co-exit too, as scientific investigation of a Bronze Age inundation and the archaeological record of other sunken cities meet the oral remnants of a lost place in its other French, Breton and Cornish manifestations: Leonnoys, Léonois, Loonois, Lethostow, Lyonaise. (Endnotes provide interesting detail and a different discourse.) The role of poetry itself is therapeutic, as is the support of writers’ workshop members and friends who stimulated and then responded to the emergent work. Ancient poets add another kind of support, as Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, Marianne Moore and, perhaps especially, David Jones contribute lines and echoes into the weave of the text.
The detritus of an ocean bed of artifacts is a stark representation of grief: ‘down here / no one cares / if you’re honest or a liar / rich or poor / the only virtue here / is how much / you’ve forgotten / of that blood-boltered world / above the shiver / and pound / of the waves […] (‘Inscribed on a Stela found on the seabed’, p. 27). Where Lyonesse was once a city of lovers, now ‘lovers / are plentiful bone on the seabed’ (‘Sentimental Customs’, p. 28). This may be the emotional low point of the poem, though irrepressible verbal play soon adds lift:
The lions of Lyonesse
in their own raw lifetime
those golden guys with manes
and gaping slavering jaws
the piss-backwards lords of Lyonesse
(‘Legends’, p. 33)
Unsurprisingly, lions recur in this place, powerful yet cautious, as in their refrain:
Around Cape Horn there’s ice and snow
but lions know where not to go
(‘Holy Father Lions’, p. 46)
On the opposite page, words from an unpublished notebook of Peter Redgrove give a clue to his continued lordly presence, with whom his wife still speaks: ‘I’ll be your partner in fainting / I’ll fly out of the storm’s eye / be your sword blade / in the hard school of blood / […] I’ll bring you my bird-in-the-hand / pitch you the swansong of Lyonesse’ (‘O Shake That Girl with the Blue Dress On’, p. 47). That blue dress might suggest that this love poem is a mirror of Thomas Hardy’s haunted poem of lost love, ‘The Voice’, recalling his future wife whom he met in her ‘air-blue gown’ on his journey as a young architect into Cornwall, which he called Lyonesse.
The spectrum of tones is remarkable. These range from the stark prose poem ‘An Account of the Submergence’ (‘Our conclusion is that the seas will go on rising. That cities not yet destroyed will turn blind eye and deaf ear to Lyonesse the wiser’ pp. 54-56) to the wild beatitudes of the ‘Sermon of the Crayfish Christ, or The Latitudes’ (pp. 86-87). The Holy Ghost and The Devil face each other across pages 70 and 71. But within the book as a whole, the major shift of tone comes in Part Two: New Lamps For Old. This reference to the fairytale motif of Aladdin and the genie signals a mysterious transition of tone and state of mind:
shall we go out
into the long-ago summer evening
you my dear Duke Orsino
me my usual self
and drink our fill of the evening
as we always did
from Falmouth held out to us
applewood cup filled to the brim
‘cup of evenings’, p. 99)
These are all poems written, as the poet says, ‘when I came up for air from the watery depths of Lyonesse […] an account of finding ways to begin again, to find meaning in life after bereavement […] a transit from sadness, moving via reflection in language to (it is my hope) poems possessing energised repose’ (p. 13). So there are light and delicacy here, as in that brimming applewood cup, rainwater instead of salt, a Japanese feeling for nature that is the opposite of a Zen precision raked by the tides:
only the moon abroad in her finery
saw the lost one go
down where the valley brims with hawthorn
came so close the lost
but slipped away star-ripple in the river
(‘fly-by-night’, p. 106)
The long sequence ‘Swarthmoor Hall, Ulverston’ (pp. 108-116) is particularly moving. In this Quaker retreat house, something of an atmosphere of silent contemplation leading to illumination pervades the poems composed there: ‘prune the appletrees / seal their wounds with wax’ […] ‘carry a handful of ash / from the fire pit // scatter it in the beck flowing / between shadow and sunlight / under the oaks’ (p. 109). The movement towards the moment when ‘things decide to continue’ is beautifully caught:
the hills all the flowers known and unknown to me
every blade of grass all decide to continue
Sad memories recur, of course, of fraught hospital visits and empty rooms. There is also the honest recognition of memories passing like glances over a shoulder: ‘as you fade away / gleam by gleam / like a small lovely morning / only you and I can see / and now it’s gone’ (‘glance’, p. 129). New Lamps For Old ends by magically countering the refracted world of Lyonesse, as loved cityscapes are caught in passing within a mirror ‘smaller than a tear or the curve / of the earth’ (p. 149). The intimate and the vast are held in remarkable balance here. It takes a bold and lithe poet to manage that. And it occurred to me that the fine cover page might be altered to read Penelope Shuttle: Lioness.
Where her particular excellence is found in creativity, Richard Skelton’s is discovered in a visionary intensity which is complex yet clear, local yet cosmic. Stranger in the Mask of a Deer is a truly remarkable long poem, unlike any other I know. Of course it has resonance with present concerns about rising sea levels and retreating ice, but it covers such tracts of time and culture as to set these within a new perspective, while also touching on current philosophical issues of animal rights, consciousness, alterity, and the recovery of a sustainable relationship with the natural world. Its setting within the hunting environment of the late paleolithic human re-occupation of the British peninsula (linked to Europe by the Dogger land bridge) is an imaginative tour de force. The hunt provides clarity of focus as we move through this newly emergent post-glacial terrain. The beauty of the book’s design and typography also guides us surely and steadily, though the way is fraught with strange discoveries.
The style combines meditation and chant. Cosmic reach is combined with moment by moment detailing. Casting about as a reader for familiar handholds, I sometimes imagined that Walt Whitman had merged with poets of the Objectivist movement, William Carlos Williams, say, or Lorine Niedecker; or with the bleak but lyrical refrains of Samuel Beckett’s prose. The verse is underpinned by findings in anthropology, climatology, botany and archaeology, discoverable in the fascinating endnotes. Thus the shaman-like journey is held close to the scientific ‘reality’ which this poetry seeks to extend. Through Skelton’s previous artistic work in music, landscape, eco-poetics and esoteric literature, he has learned the skills to create a score for exploring a new unknown.
His own description of the poem as ‘call and response’ signals its origins in ancient music and culture. This is appropriate to the setting in time, about 18000 years ago when the sheet ice withdrew and northern Britain re-emerged from its long hibernation below. At the beginning of the poem the land is seen as the little bear, sheltered by the fearsome yet somehow caring ice-mother bear of the Arctic cold above it. The two-part musical form is appropriate also to the central experience of a mysterious Other, glimpsed alongside the hunting party, and seeming to be both human and animal, hunter and hunted. The choral nature of such music means that it is difficult for me to convey its power by select quotation, since so much depends upon aspects of continuity and performance, and a cumulative rhetorical effect. But the impact is extraordinary and, to me, irresistible, with a prophetic pulse to the verse that demands to be heard, even as it explores great silences of time and space, and the inner mysteries of identity and death.
A strong binary structure is also evident below the surface music. Like ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, this long poem gains from the balance of its two main parts. There are twenty subdivisions, a Foreword and Afterword plus eighteen sections of varying length and with single-word titles, such as Sorrow, Stranger, Land, Teacher. Of these, perhaps the most crucial are Dream (pp. 35ff) and Hunt (pp. 123ff). All contribute to the whole, but the over-arching movement can be divided into what comes before ‘Dream’ and what comes after. The dream is a vision or series of visions, ‘a consequence of taking an infusion of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). The Artemisia genus itself is attested in the Late-glacial pollen record for the north-west of England’ (Note 40, p. 160).
Combined with medication for chronic pain, the mugwort induced ‘visions in the darkness at the edge of sleep / a kind of phosphorescence hovering in the room above me / faint at first but unfurling growing in detail / alive’ (p. 39). Additional longer term effects included headache, disorientation, hallucinations, dream and sleep disturbances and uncontrolled shaking. This almost seems akin to male rite of passage practices in some cultures, but undertaken accidentally and with the unforeseen consequences of an induction into the mysterious continuities within time (the lack of conventional punctuation throughout endorses this) and within nature. In particular there is ‘a figure in those trees wearing strange skins glimpsed through / the branches / looking looking’ (p. 42):
& moving through those trees the shapes of deer
the shapes of deer & the curve of the earth & the light low
& they scatter the deer but one holds its ground looks at me
stares me down
& it is a deer and not a deer something other we both know it
but i can say no more
& i am already running
running down the light low shimmering dusk
Another moment of encounter occurs when the speaker, out on the road before sunrise, finds ‘a hare newly dead but not / quite gone its corpse still warm its blood pooled around a / great scar at its back’ (p. 69). A dream vision of an ancestral father with a similar scar had introduced this motif earlier. Again he sensed a watching figure through the branches:
& I picked up the body and I laid it in the heather
thinking of the long low embrace of soil
the many hands of grasses
& as I stood there I felt its lifehood fade
The watching figure has disappeared, ‘away through the branches & not looking back / & the sun just coming up / just passing the horizon’ (p. 70). This sensation of being observed at his respectful care of the dying animal is preliminary to being taught by animal life itself in the Teacher section: ‘was there one of your group who was not of your own / one who walks on all fours & with teeth for a name // & did such a one teach you to be with animals / to be with yourselves (p. 101). There is substantial archaeological and genetic evidence for the domestication of dogs around the Late Upper Paleolithic setting of the poem. There are also lessons to be learned from art, particularly the carving of a masked human figure on a fragment of woolly rhinoceros bone, discovered in a Derbyshire cave. It must, Skelton thinks, have been carried to Britain from continental Europe, ‘its face pointed as if wearing a mask / a face pointed like that of a bear’ (p. 105). This local link to ancient mark-making and cave paintings of animal life leads on to reflection on the different mark-making of his own poem, and who it is that is ‘ speaking us / writing us’ in words:
…for I have felt them gather me like pollen
or collect on my surfaces like dew
move through me like mist or wildfire
After such physical and mystical preparation comes the Hunt (pp. 123ff). I do not intend to attempt to sum up its revelations here, beyond pointing to the reciprocal cost of taking an animal’s life. The spear that leaves the hand, ‘a blade so sharp it could cleave the world’, returns to meet the thrower. Archaeological evidence is again used to bring our focus upon an actual beast, a real kill.
This is a rich, dense and forceful work, enhanced by its stark beauty on the page and also by its hinterland of research. Produced as part of doctoral studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, it is a reminder that university scholarships can provide a basic sort of patronage, providing for bed and board and an audience, if not the lavish palaces of church or state in other ages. But the ages which Richard Skelton deals with are aeons and epochs, and the ancestral voices which he has caught and held were never heard before this timely and visionary poem.
James McGonigal is a poet, editor and biographer based in Glasgow. Recent publications include Edwin Morgan: In Touch With Language. A New Prose Collection 1950–2005 (ASLS, 2020) and a poetry collection, In Good Time (Red Squirrel Press, 2020).