Monday, 6 July 2015

the muddy crust

This is a recorded message: I'm currently out in the forest guiding a wilderness vigil. Here's a dish I prepared earlier.

..I will be up at the Edinburgh books festival on Sat august 22nd, collaborating with Mark Rylance and Paul Kingsnorth on an event called LOST GODS. I wish I could suggest you get a ticket but they've all gone i'm afraid. Our time together will circle around the relationship between imagination and the old gods of England, Paul's novel THE WAKE, some readings from it by Mark, and an unearthing i've made of a strange english fen story that is clearly the swampy twin to the old Grimms tale Iron Hans. In some lively manner we will weave readings, tellings and opinions between us and see just what arrives in the room.

You will probably know Robert Blys book, Iron John (a telling of the Hans story). You will be sympathetic to my surprise as I realised there was this muddy, seemingly east-anglian telling of the same story, with just enough exquisite changes of emphasis that it's rehydrated that wonderful old tale for me. Remember that feared place in the forest where a hunters dog gets pulled under the water? Pleasingly, no mutts were harmed, or even occurred in this telling.

Swamps are not forests, especially to the english, and the notion that we require an education under the immensity of mud, silt and slow moving water has been deeply moving to me. The story has something of Beowulf in it too. Seeing a story through the monsters eyes. It's the very same ground where Finn MacColl over in Ireland learns to swim with a dagger in his teeth - but this tale goes even deeper, under the swamp. It's this place of underlings, under-speech, under-thought that I think gives Kingsnorths book its power, and Marks fragile and eerie readings from it. There's something down there. Edinburgh will be my first proper unveiling, though students at the school may get more than a rumour at our next gathering. Having told the Grimms variant alongside Bly and with Daniel Deardorff for the 20th anniversary of the book, this is a lovely little gift to be curating.

So for all of us on our sunken ships, or hunkered down and wrapped round breaking timbers glimpsing a new, tender possibility of life, here's a few moments that may hint at what could be below the muddy crusts of grief.


(the arrival of the swamp-being, and his invitation to us)

As if out of the ground,
a great shuddering lump
sloughed with water
the source of all rivers
the tears in every eye
the mighty current,
the true drop.

Come get up on my back

He runs,
the ruddy bear,
fire-spark under moon
till at dawn he slowly
places the lad down
on firm soil.

little hands find ruddy cords of hair
like rope or binding vine, to keep him
secure as the beast-man starts
to lope further and further
into the ward

deeper stranger darker
till of a sudden the two sink
beneath the waters, the silt,
the mud, the rough grasses.

A crows wing
is wrapped around
the boy

mouth ears nose
fill with black sound and dark water
a churning sound a hundred wild geese
amok loose over ocean

And then he can breath again,
behold again.

Down below is a kingdom.

Below the waters
is a mead-hall:
kegs, storytellers, servants,
meadows, wild horses,
intricate walled gardens.

This is the residence of
the one-eyed-man.


(the boy receives an almost renaissance education under the salt marsh, and then finally begins a life on the surface. He experiences all the un-witnessing, betrayals, occasional malice and divine complexities that comes along with lifes passport. He's finally beaten and dumped in the swamp by a couple of high borns, not realising that they've actually dropped him in his ground of true psychic sustenance. Not the grand forest of the nobles, but the slow shifting waters, flicker-lights, and moisty fog of the swamp. It, in the end, is that energy that saves the east-people from the Norseman. Something truly marginal, something wyrd, not typically heroic by any shot, though this has a taste of it:)


He alone with the cattle of his fists
reaches into sullen northern waters
by sheer will
tips the dragon-boats back down
the whale road they come from
in his vast spasm
the norse-bandits flee they flee
into the seas foaming cum

Holy christ. The chief has never seen such a victory.

He is carried on the backs of the men
to the mead-hall.

They sing low
through the rising light,
a gentle scattering of rain

To this day their feast continues,
in the hill inside the hill.

We see this

as through a dark glass

but we see it


So here's to you and your swamp times and your victories and all the blessed rest.
Don't go easy. See you soon, wanderer.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015


Martin said...

Failing a national tour is there any chance that 'Lost Gods' might be captured for posterity on YouTube, please?
( On the strength of this article I bought a copy of 'The Wake'. What an amazing book. Wonderful stuff!)

Unknown said...

I second Jack!