E. Powys Mathers

For a crossword compiler to have called himself after the Spanish Grand Inquisitor may seem natural enough to those of us who have a sado-masochistic relationship with cryptic clues and you might imagine that  “Torquemada” himself was a rather austere and ascetic man. In fact, E. Powys Mathers, inventor of the cryptic crossword and the first of only three setters since 1926 of the difficult puzzle in The Observer, was described by one of the people who knew him as being the most benevolent man he’d ever met, although it seems that much of the beaming benevolence was due to drink. Mathers was an alcoholic. He was also bisexual.

In my post about the current Observer setter, Azed, I noted that Mathers was also a poet and that Carcanet had published Black Marigolds & Coloured Stars, a pairing of his first two books. It was, in fact, published by the Anvil Press, which merged with Carcanet when Anvil’s founder, Peter Jay, retired in 2015. Although the book is out of print, I was able to borrow a copy from the (excellent) National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre. It has an introduction by Tony Harrison, no less, who has been a fan of Black Marigolds since he first read it in the 1950’s and buys up books by Mathers whenever he can. One can see the attraction. Despite their exoticism and occasional tendency towards hyperventilation, Mathers’ translations do have a freshness and directness that gives them a timeless feel.

Black Marigolds — his first book, though printed here after Coloured Stars which appeared in the same year (1919) — is a version of the Chaurapanchasika. There are apparently different sources for this, but Mathers says in his introduction that it is a two thousand year old Sanskrit poem, written by Chauras, while he was awaiting execution in Kanchinpur for his illicit relationship with King Sundava’s daughter, Vidya.

Mathers had only a smattering of Sanskrit and all his Eastern poetry was translated “at second hand”. The original was said to have been composed in the last few hours of Chauras’s life and Mathers claimed “my rendering was finished in 1915, in two or three sessions on a box by the stove in hutments” where he was billeted. Each of the fifty stanzas begins, “Even now”, a phrase which Harrison says Mathers took either from a translation by Sir Edwin Arnold, although Arnold varies the phrase, or from A History of Sanskrit Literature by Arthur A Macdonell. Whichever is the case, it provides a very effective, quasi-hypnotic framework, which Mathers described as “a recurring monotone of retrospection”. It’s a poem that works very much by its cumulative effect, as the poet looks back at the illicit love which has brought him to this fate:

Even now
I call to mind her weariness in the morning
Close lying in my arms, and tiredly smiling
At my disjointed prayer for her small sake.
Now in my morning the weariness of death
Sends me to sleep. Had I made coffins
I might have live singing to three score. 

Coloured Stars, on the other hand, is an anthology of “fifty Asiatic love poems” from a wide variety of sources — linguistic and geographical. The problem is with the reliability of the sources. At least two of the poets whom Mathers “translates” are invented personae: J. Wing, said to be an American-born, Chinese valet; and John Duncan, a lowland Scot, who left Edinburgh after a disastrous love-affair to live the rest of his life with a tribe of nomadic Arabs. Yeats included one of Mathers’ Wing poems, “English Girl”, in his Oxford Book of English Verse. As Mathers was not a linguist, but had “a scholar’s knowledge” of French, his sources for the Eastern poems — other than those he wrote himself — were apparently collections in French translation.

The theme that links the poems in Coloured Stars is love, although there are some good hate poems here as well:

Oh! Leila!
In your heart are three things,

All the yellow cobras of Burma,
All the deadly fungi of Bengal,
All Nepal's poison flowers;

and the Altai warriors in “War Song” seem to be more in love with the accoutrements of war than the charms of their women:

To bodies yielding under the struggle of love
And rearing under the red fire of kisses,
We prefer our horses tricked with silver and gold,
Our horses that yield not beneath us
And bound only at the sight of the blood of battles.

Knowing that Mathers was such a trickster, a non-expert begins to doubt the authenticity even of the poems not written by his alter egos. Take one of the six poems called “Song”, for instance. However highly prized goats may have been in Tibet, did the people there really write love songs comparing the beloved to a goat or goats? It seems a little too much like a cultural stereotype.

Although Mathers went on to “translate” more Asiatic love poems and a version of One Thousand and One Nights, he was disappointed that he did not achieve as much as he wanted to as a writer, something for which his fame as Torquemada failed to compensate him. Anyone interested in crosswords would probably regard it as fame enough, but there is a case for the poems to be better known. Harrison’s own assessment is that: “Mathers, erotic aesthete, cocktail-shaking Chinese-American, honorary Arab nomad, bhang-chewer, Turkish bisexual, tormenting puzzle-setter, was a true if minor poet whose assimilation of Eastern modes should rank with Arthur Waley or Ezra Pound, and whose name and achievements should be much better known than they are.”

Poem: “Armistice Day 1918”

This is a revised (and shortened) version of a poem I had published in the online supplement to the “Requiem: The Great War” edition of Agenda (Autumn/Winter 2014). I am posting it today, a hundred years after the signing of the Armistice. The epigraph is from Sassoon’s poem, “Everyone Sang”. Agenda have used quotations from the same poem for the cover of their recently-published “1918” double issue.

Armistice Day 1918

“the singing will never be done.”
— Siegfried Sassoon

Everywhere people are singing;
dead people are singing.
They sing in black-and-white photos.
They sing in newsreels silent as the grave.
They sing in old letters and diaries.
They sang in memories once.
They’re singing because the war’s over.
They’re singing because the Armistice has been signed.
They’re cheering, waving, singing.
They sing the songs everyone knows —
“Jerusalem”, “Britannia”, “The King”.
They sing music-hall songs.
They sing trench songs the soldiers sang.
They’re here because they’re here.
They’re here because they’ve come through.
It isn’t the war dead singing.
It isn’t the war dead dancing in the streets.
There are strangers dancing with strangers.
They dance together in pairs.
They dance in a line, arms linked.
They skip along, holding hands,
as they do in the Dance of Death.
Light passes through them;
they flicker across the screen.
Listen! There’s nothing to hear —
the sound of dead people singing.

“Cuba” Revisited

Writing in my previous post about the two version’s of Zaffar Kunial’s poem, “Stamping Grounds”, reminded me of an interview that Paul Muldoon gave a couple of years ago to The Poetry Review (Winter 2016). It included a discussion of the poem, “Cuba”, from Why Brownlee Left, which had appeared in an earlier magazine version as “Cuba 1962”. The interviewer, Maurice Riordan, the Review’s co-editor at the time, was sufficiently intrigued by the revisions to have handed a Muldoon a copy of “Cuba 1962” for comment. Both versions were appended to the interview.

In the poem, set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Muldoon’s sister arrives home “In her white muslin evening dress”, having stayed out all night at a party. Their father, angered by this and worried about the threat of war, tells her she should make her peace with God. In the confessional, the best (or worst) she can come up with — apart from lying once and being disobedient once — is that a boy touched her. The poems ends:

‘Tell me, child. Was this touch immodest?
Did he touch your breast, for example?’
‘He brushed against me, Father. Very gently.’

The differences between the two versions are seemingly slight. The final version excludes the following lines from the girl’s return home:

She had limped into the kitchen
Holding one sandal at arm’s length
And dropping it into the bucket,
‘I’m sorry, Da. I’ve broken a heel.’
‘That’s not the half of it, I’ll warrant.’

and these from the subsequent confession:

‘How long is it since your last confession?’
‘I’m not right sure. A month maybe.’
‘A queue a mile long to the chapel
And you can’t remember so small a thing?’

Asked about this killing of his “darlings”, Muldoon says he doesn’t know why the changes were made. Riordan sees the them as positive (“There’s a ruthless pursuit of the form.” “Some people would have rested on that first version…”) However, apart from the removal of the unnecessary date from the title, Muldoon himself is less sure (“I’m looking at this first version, thinking it’s not too bad at all.” “It’s not absolutely deplorable. Not in a way that you can see why that was cut ‘because it’s crap’.”) Riordan puts these second thoughts down to the move away from stanzaic forms in his later poetry. But Muldoon, seemingly unable to shake off the question, returns to it later in the interview: “Now I’m looking again at this other version of ‘Cuba’, I’m thinking — it wasn’t that terribly bad. Or maybe my standards are slipping.” “Or changing,” Riordan suggests.

Muldoon ends by saying:

“… As with ‘Cuba’, I’ve always edited things. I could probably do with editing more. In those days, in the late 70s, there were a lot of people around who were reading my poems, and who were helping me with them — which is a fabulous thing to have. The various people in Belfast, and God knows they may have said that’s rubbish, that’s extraneous, cut that. So I think if one can’t edit oneself, one really needs an editor. My wife is an editor and she’s very good. You have to take advice. One can’t trust oneself — it’s just a fact. Once you start thinking that you know what you’re doing and nobody else knows what you’re doing, you’re probably in trouble.”

In spite of this, one can see Muldoon’s point about the original version of “Cuba”. It isn’t at all bad and, in fact, for me the first version reads more naturally than the final, tidied-up poem, the first stanza of which seems a little staged. Given that it is supposedly an anecdotal poem, that counts for a lot, even though in his book on Muldoon, Tim Kendall points out that: “The poem only masquerades as autobiography — Muldoon’s sister is called Maureen, not May, and she is his only, and younger, sister, not his ‘eldest’.” The queue for the confessional is, on the other hand, an actual memory.

Kendall says that the lines about the confessional queue were dropped, because otherwise the priest bullies her so much that he personally, rather than what he represents, appears repugnant. “Cuba”, he says, is a parable of innocence destroyed, rather than preserved, by the sanctimonious codes of suspicious-minded authority-figures. In the same way, you could say that focusing the father’s objections on his daughter’s dress by excluding the more vividly suggestive image of the broken heel also evokes a more repressive society, the objection being as flimsy as the dress itself.

In this reading, the Cuban crisis simply provides the background. However, it is possible to read it as a symbolic parallel to the events in the poem. In the end, the Soviet ships carrying the missiles turned back and war was averted, just as fears about the loss of May’s virginity turn out to have been a false alarm. However, the threat of war was real and for the parallel to work properly the father’s concerns about his daughter need to be real as well. The original version, I think, makes this clearer, the dishevelment suggested by the broken shoe and the father’s “That’s not the half of it, I’ll warrant” giving greater substance to the possibility that more than a heel has been ruptured. In the same way, the detail of the mile-long queue to the confessional emphasises the reality of the nuclear threat.

The poem isn’t written by an omniscient narrator, but by the poet supposedly recalling events from his childhood. Muldoon has to make his sister older than himself, if she is to be able to go to dances in 1962, but this also serves to emphasise his own youth as a witness to scenes which though clear in his mind may at the time have been only partly understood. It is the boy’s innocence rather than May’s that is being lost and the detail of the first version seems to me closer to the sharpness of a child’s recollections.

As far as I know, “Cuba 1962” hasn’t been restored to the Muldoon canon, but reading it helps provide an insight into the final version, “Cuba”.