Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Songs by or about goats; a full explanation

Not really, but I mentioned the other day the odd fact that the word ‘Tragedy’ derives from the Greek for ‘Goat Song’, and that I could explain, if anyone cared. Only one person apart from myself does, so I shan’t, but I had a vague memory of having talked about this elsewhere and trawled through my hard disc. Years ago, when it was an intelligent Literary Periodical, I used to review books, especially poetry, for the London Magazine, and that was where I had mentioned it; it occurs in a book of Alexis Lykiard’s poetry. Here’s the review, with a bonus of a review of one of Ursula Fanthorpe’s books. She is no longer with us: she would have made a far better Poet Laureate than the one we’ve got now.
U.A. Fanthorpe, Queueing for the Sun, Peterloo 2003, 92pp, £7.95.
Alexis Lykiard, Skeleton Keys, Redbeck Press 2003, 52pp, £6.95.
Now that Dives is God and Literature Lazarus the survival of the small presses is more important and more difficult. What every small press needs is at least one poet who doesn’t dash off to Fabers at the first whiff of success, and this Peterloo has in Ursula Fanthorpe, whose ‘Queueing for the Sun’ is her tenth volume with them. Peterloo has a reputation for publishing the ‘accessible’, and Fanthorpe has been called ‘Engaging…one of the delights of the age…a national treasure.’ This might lead one to expect the bland, the sentimental, the reassuring, rather than poetry at the cutting edge, but Fanthorpe shows it possible — and therefore surely desirable — to be disturbing and original without being rebarbative.
Some of the poems here are explicitly or recognizably about ‘real’ people or events from the past — Boethius is discussed by his gaoler; dog-walkers and bird-watchers traverse Boudicca’s battlefield. More mysterious and obscure characters appear, who will perhaps be known to those lucky enough to have had history teachers with Fanthorpe’s gift for the unexpected, credible, enlivening view — Monte Cassino described by a soldier’s widow in a Venetian café; Mallory’s deep-frozen corpse discovered two generations later by Chinese and American mountaineers. This obliquity of illumination — like aerial photographs taken with the sun low — is sustained throughout the collection. We are given a G.P.’s character from the ‘point of view’ of his waiting room, and a poet’s (perhaps) from that of the crew of the starship Enterprise. Sometimes the reader has to turn the picture upside down to puzzle out its subject.
Bossy attempts to say what poetry ‘should’ be or do are impertinent and restricting, but if we can say that good poetry stretches the language, says things that couldn’t be said before, or not so well, then Fanthorpe’s work is indeed good.
Alexis Lykiard, too, has things to say that couldn’t be said before, but for different reasons: oddly, under Turkish rule the Greeks were discouraged from having cupboards in their houses — the very word in Greek is a Turkish one — perhaps because they’d only keep skeletons in them; skeletons Lykiard lets out in this short collection from Redbeck Press.
The oriental curse ‘May you live in interesting times’ fell on Lykiard: He was born in Athens in 1940, when Greece was still a dictatorship, as it was to become again only twenty seven years later. Between the two came the terrible civil war that forced him, as a child with his parents, out of his country to Egypt and then England. So plenty of skeletons in his cupboard: family members, (‘My fascist father…’ one poem starts), poets, dictators, singers, (both of Rebetika and opera), composers, German soldiers, all now put into poems full of ‘Ton Kaimo tis  Romiosinis’ — an untranslatable phrase for an untranslatable feeling, very roughly ‘The anguish of being Greek’. Twentieth century Greek political and cultural history is strange and tortured and arouses such fierce passions that there can be no ‘objective’ account; works such as ‘Skeleton Keys’ must do instead, and very well they do too. Formally, there is nothing remarkable about these poems; there are no technical tours de force and few new ways of using words, nor need there be: Lykiard’s concern here is to tell us something important; like Wilfred Owen he is ‘Not concerned with poetry’.
But then, when he was writing the poems for which we remember him, Owen could be forgiven for thinking poetry unimportant; he could not have known and might not have cared that nearly a century later we would value his work not just for what it says but for how it says it. Here and there in Lykiard’s book, too, the poetry shows through the passion, especially in those poems that are not obviously or directly about people and politics. One poem in particular: etymologically, ‘Tragedy’ takes us back to ‘Goatsong’, and half-way through the book is a poem with this title. Slight-seeming at first glance, it is ‘about’ three goats on a hillside above the sea. It is ‘really’ about what survives: what continues, is still there, unperturbed, after earthquake or civil war. It is the best poem in the book.
Simon Darragh.


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