In and around Peter Philpott's Wound Scar Memories

by Michael Peverett



















No beginning




From A Second Life (you can read the whole marvellous lot online):




Look we haven’t come through: the boat
took us back home, of course, how silly not
to realise these truths: only here, only now
this misty island marred first by glaciers then people
why didn’t we realise we’re free of gods but not trouble
no one left to save us but our selves, each soul
bargaining in vain not to be taken home, Ukanian Ingerlund
where the longest dead control the language & the mind
why didn’t we realise we’d be wading thru this brutish mud?




http://a2ndlife.org.uk/blog/archives/454




Last week, coincidentally, I had a work experience student alongside. Turned out that Jake hailed from Bishop's Stortford, and at the name something stirred in my mind, connected as I thought with early morning flights to Sweden, or visits to nearby backwoods in deep Hertfordshire.


What I didn't recall, until, at the end of the day,  I picked up Wound Scar Memories, is Peter Philpott being a long-term Stortford resident. Wound Scar Memories ends with a hefty discursive dazzler about the Dark Ages; Stortford's history plays quite a big part in it, along with the Germanized Brythonic name Cerdic, later the basis of Scott's invented name Cedric in Ivanhoe. (I think Scott would have been delighted to learn of a British element in the Anglo-Saxon founder-patriarch, but that's by the by.)


The quotation I started with  exemplifies a few things about PP's praxis. His poems are fast reads and probably quite rapidly written. There's usually a couple of things to consult the notes about, but the pace is important, the switching of the thought; because dynamics is part of the whole-body expression by which we come to know each other. And in this case we soon get acquainted. The Peter of the poems, though not perhaps quite all of the man himself, is a person we know. I feel I would rather talk of a person than an instrument. And yet the years of inhabiting this praxis have had cumulative value, like someone learning to play an instrument: his latest poems are usually his best.


*


Here's another extract from the same collection (poem 73):


Laughter, though, sustaining
all this miraculous disorderliness
nostalgia of the non-human
– it glitters! somehow slippery as
oh, bêche-de-mer – what allows this?
joy, skipping through our mongrel lives
to the horizon, that buffet of possibilities


Here it definitely helps to read up a little about "bêche-de-mer " (Sea Cucumbers).
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_cucumber_as_food


Not just to learn that the food has a notably slippery texture, but to more fully appreciate the poem's probing away from all angles at anthropomorphism, at heroism, at ideal human shape: at Michaelangelo's David, you might say.


*


... said it did not matter if no one ever read the poem, nor even if the poet forgot the poem before it was written, or if the poet was not even aware of the poem, but dreamt it and then forgot the dream. The poem had existed, and had influence upon the world. A true reader would discover it, read it from its consequences in the world. Such readers, unfortunately, were rare; but, then, so too, were poems.


From: The fragments.  A poem based on classical lyrical fragments, apparently.
http://www.greatworks.org.uk/poems/fragments.html




Gareth Prior writing about The Ianthe Poems :
http://garethprior.org/the-world-and-the-child-peter-philpott/


About Peter Philpott:
http://a2ndlife.org.uk/about-peter-philpott


About A Second Life (and its predecessor Within These Latter Days)
http://a2ndlife.org.uk/about-a-second-age
(So far as I can make out, neither of the more recent books The Ianthe Poems and Wound Scar Memories constitutes the potential third part of this magnum opus.



Within These Latter Days
http://withinthese.blogspot.co.uk/




*


An extract from The Ianthe Poems hand-copied (under mild protest) from Blart 2 (https://issuu.com/apotheosis/docs/peter_philpot_-_dubbadea__short_). (I do think online poetry really deserves to be electronically copyable.)






oh the singing of those free children


their noses are disgusting


                        facing us and


                        gnomish like






unthanked


their own visas to here


in art


                asparagus


                soluble


                            bitter






                            outside this tight circles


                             justice is people


                             as wooden clogs






                             bears are burnt


                             unseen


                             in these streets






                             the catch?


                             great mulligatawny mops


                             strangled to live






                              bitter!


                              moving into wobbles to


                              where it's busy


                              uneasily






at last


terrible reptiles


typed up forms


don't eat




*****


Something that doesn't come across in these extracts, but is a feature of all these recent poem sequences, is what I'll term "phrase transformation".  (I'm sort of basing that on the analogy of "theme transformation" in Liszt's music.)


What this means is that while each poem stands on its own (if not quite so securely as the reader may wish), some of its words and phrases are usually transmutations of words and phrases in preceding poems. Likewise, its own phrases turn up, transmuted, in the poems that follow it.  (To give a single example, "asparagus" turns into "Asperger's".)


Without going very deeply into this, there seems to be a clear connection with Peter's perception that identity is never really unitary, that origins are never origins (there's always something that comes before them), that impurity and mongrelism are the basis of life, that we all depend on each other and can't ultimately be prised apart.




*




Wound Scar Memories is, to a certain extent concerned with Petrarch, and it openly references those two recent Petrarchiasts Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, poets in whose work we perhaps breathe a comparable atmosphere, relish a comparable zip and humour as in PP's writings, though in other respects all three are doing very different things.









*


A Divagation on Gildas













When I was writing about St Martin of Tours recently, it occurred to me that these early saints exist, not quite but almost, entirely in the hyperrealis. We don't know much about the real person or their world. We don't know their character or personality. Most of the stories about them are not designed as biography in any modern sense but to convey pious messages. Management of the hyperreal, that sphere that feeds no-one but has an addictive effect on people's imaginations, --- this management was already being skilfully exercised by the medieval church.  Though today we are swamped by the hyperreal (so that, for example, nearly all news and public debate is about mainly unreal topics) it's nothing new.


The saint can be pictured as a very small stick-figure (representing what is concretely known about the person) who is dwarfed by a loosely attached but very large, billowing nebula of hyperreality; that is, the saint's myths and legends, traditions, associations, iconography, feasts and customs, patronage and so forth.


This large hyperreal element, projecting far into the future, touches the lives of millions of people across the millennia. As the saint's hyperreal nebula grows, it absorbs more and more material, and this material derives not from the original saint but from the lives of others, so that in the end the hyperreal nebula is not only an influential control on larger communities, but is also itself a communal creation.


Shakespeare understood the mechanism of it well. With reference to today's feast:


This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;




[Quoted this morning on Radio 3, which I was listening to on the way to work. By the way, there was also mention of the prominence of St Crispin, as patron saint of cobblers, in Wagner's Die Meistersinger ..]


*


Peter Philpott, re Arthur (in Wound Scar Memories):


Probably, if he existed (ie a dude called something Artorial doing some important stuff against the "Anglo-Saxons"), a little earlier than Cerdic. Probably, too, also not a king, but a warband leader, a dux. OK -- so Gildas doesn't mention him: his On the Ruin of Britain (De Excidio Britanniae), written early or mid Sixth Century, is the only British/Welsh contemporary narrative of the post-colonial period dealing with the early "Welsh" kingdoms. It is a splenetic sermon, a rant addressed to those who know what he's talking about, in which actual leaders are transformed into political cartoon monsters. It is like trying to obtain historical information from the cartoons of Steve Bell or Martin Rowson.



("Not a Note on Some Matters with Britain", Wound Scar Memory p. 68).


PP's casual language is the perfect vehicle for engaging with and just about emerging from the stew of hyperrealism that passes for Dark-Age history. The language tacitly acknowledges, too, that any statement about a hyperrealized topic tends to become meta-statement, ie it is apt to be only about the hyperreal component that it feeds, while the core matter slips away. (That's why nearly all media stories are about media stories.)  PP recognizes that we live in "circulating words".  Cue for more seasonal verse.


1. wound scar memory

OK, then, it's dying down into winter now so
turn on the fairy lanterns to light our way
ignore this darkness, spike it all with glow
the day shrivels so we can transform our nights


that's it; that something may resist, survive
hold our lives awhile in something like delight
even if only in our most common struggle
holding off our end for what we choose as life


here, this is us as people, all of us to enjoy
circulating words, bodies & our food
that we have made together as we wish: night
with all its force awaits; we don't but
hesitant at first, then rushing, reach out & share
human solace over fate, all our delight in the air


(from the sequence "Action in the Play Zone", in Wound Scar Memory)


Let's have some sentences from Gildas, or at any rate the Englished version of Gildas.


http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/gildas_02_ruin_of_britain.htm


"It is protected by the wide, and if I may so say, impassable circle of the sea on all sides, with the exception of the straits on the south coast where ships sail to Belgic Gaul."


Not so very well protected, if Gildas himself is to be believed. Here is Gildas's influential account of the Saxon incomers' rapacity and deceit.


"Then there breaks forth a brood of whelps from the lair of the savage lioness, in three cyulae (keels), as it is expressed in their language, but in ours, in ships of war under full sail, with omens and divinations. In these it was foretold, there being a prophecy firmly relied upon among them, that they should occupy the country to which the bows of their ships were turned, for three hundred years; for one hundred and fifty----that is for half the time----they should make frequent devastations. They sailed out, and at the directions of the unlucky tyrant, first fixed their dreadful talons in the eastern part of the island, as men intending to fight for the country, but more truly to assail it."


Happily, this rascally crew of foreigners were utterly routed at Mount Badon. But...


"The recollection of so hopeless a ruin of the island, and of the unlooked-for help, has been fixed in the memory of those who have survived as witnesses of both marvels. Owing to this (aid) kings, magistrates, private persons, priests, ecclesiastics, severally preserved their own rank. As they died away, when an age had succeeded ignorant of that storm, and having experience only of the present quiet, all the controlling influences of truth and justice were so shaken and overturned that, not to speak of traces, not even the remembrance of them is to be found among the ranks named above..."


Gildas' address to one of the five evil rulers, "Aurelius Caninus":


"Thou also, lion whelp, as the prophet says, what doest thou, Aurelius Caninus? Art thou not swallowed up in the same, if not more destructive, filth, as the man previously mentioned, the filth of murders, fornications, adulteries, like sea-waves rushing fatally upon thee? Hast thou not by thy hatred of thy country's peace, as if it were a deadly serpent, or by thy iniquitous thirst for civil wars and repeated spoils, closed the doors of heavenly peace and repose for thy soul? Left alone now, like a dry tree in the midst of a field, remember, I pray thee, the pride of thy fathers and brothers, with their early and untimely death. Wilt thou, because of pious deserts, an exception to almost all thy family, survive for a hundred years, or be of the years of Methuselah? No. But unless, as the Psalmist says, thou be very speedily converted to the Lord, that King will soon brandish his sword against thee; who says by the prophet: I will kill and I will make alive: I shall wound and I shall heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. Wherefore shake thyself from thy filthy dust, and turn unto Him with thy whole heart, unto Him who created thee, so that when His anger quickly kindles, thou mayest be blest, hoping in Him. But if not so, eternal pains await thee, who shalt be always tormented, without being consumed, in the dread jaws of hell."






Gildas' idealism, disappointed by the clergy of his time:


"But let us also see the following words: Ruling his own house well, having his children in subjection with all chastity. The chastity of the fathers is therefore imperfect, if that of the children is not added to it. But what shall be where neither father nor son (depraved by the example of a wicked parent) is found to be chaste? But if a man knoweth not how to rule his own house, how shall he show care of the church of God? Here are words that are proved by effects that admit of no doubt. Deacons in like manner must be chaste, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not following after filthy lucre, holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. But let these first be proved, and thus let them serve if they are without reproach. With a shudder, indeed, at having to linger long at these things, I can with truth make one statement, that is, all these are changed into the contrary deeds, so that the clergy are (a confession I make not without sorrow of heart) unchaste, double-tongued, drunk, greedy of filthy lucre, having the faith, and, to speak with more truth, the want of faith, in an impure conscience, ministering not as men proved good in work, but as known beforehand in evil work, and, though with innumerable charges of crime, admitted to the sacred ministry."






*




Vauclusian wellspring








Pine needles and drinks can on a step



There's some typically searching thoughts about Peter Philpott's Wound Scar Memories by Peter Riley in the course of a long essay in the Fortnightly Review from last July.


http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2017/07/mellors-philpott-rebels/


[This is rather a challenge to my attempt to move away from using anaphoric surnames. In this case I'll use PR for the reviewer, reserving Peter for the author.]




The essay as a whole is, I think, PR's most persuasive and elaborate attempt to articulate his longstanding rejection of the alternative/mainstream binary, and is full of detail and insight. But where I found myself most in demurral was on the topic of Wound Scar Memories, in which he finds a diehard Cantabrigian rejection of society, language and subject, which isn't the way I read it at all.  His review makes the book sound impenetrable, which it isn't; and he's oddly impervious to the drift of the argument, apparently ignoring such straightforward help as appears e.g. on the back cover of the book.  All poetry is difficult, no doubt; but here the difficulty lies far more in realizing the implications of what's being said than in the rebarbativeness of the saying.











I was, as you can see, already thinking about this poem:






13. what & who are we asking questions about here?


can we imagine this as spring now?
slow bubbling up of green &
the birds definitely pairing for their futures


what will it be like when we live different
can we be other than what we are
-- except we aren't, we're doing & changing
                           brisk, not yet decay


who'd believe we might win out against the rich
                       their armed thugs & their lawyers
                       tame poets, politicians, publicists
                       their planners & all their aspirants
                       -- not to is what is unbelievable & crushes
                       condemns to fantasy & bestial rage
                       not to believe in our future condemns
                                                                   unmakes us
                                                                   unravels the texts
                                                                   of all our lives


                       we are what we're becoming aren't we?


-- or not
               drowned & calcifying
               in the deep blue green
               the arid eye of pity






(Hedge of utterance, 13)


Hedge of utterance is the third sequence in the book, and by this stage we've moved quite a long way from the more regular sonnet-like appearance of the early poems in the first sequence Fragments of vulgar things.  Nevertheless, a hint of sonnetry (that most clinging of perfumes) remains, even here.


PR quotes the four lines beginning "who'd believe we might win out" as one of his examples of "familiar.. outbursts of rage against the 'ruling elite'..." and comments:


Not that these passages might not be an entirely inaccurate account of what’s happening in this kingdom at present, but everything about the tone is “the same old stuff”, the same hyperbolic rhetoric, after 50 years of poetical rant to no effect.





But that pays no attention to what these lines are doing in a poem that, characteristically, switches direction several times. Beginning with spring, the meditation moves on to other transformations and to life as a process of becoming.  The political wish is chiefly here for its sense of the odds being stacked against us; a political wish that has all the hallmarks of the unbelievable; preparing for the poet's paradoxical claim that "not to [sc. believe] is what is unbelievable". Hope, at this euphoric moment in the poem, is seen as intrinsic to our existence. But this euphoria switches suddenly to the contemplation of failure, recalling (from the book's opening sequence) the image of the dry Vaucluse well-head and its arid eye of pity.  This rapid sequence of thought and emotion is much more a philosophical poem than a political poem; though of course the poet would rather live in a world that isn't commandeered by the unprincipled, as we all would. But actually I feel "philosophical poem" is wrong too, because it suggests a heaviness quite at odds with this realtime bubble in language.




As for the rich, their armed thugs, etc., there's generality here; because the point isn't the specific targets or situations but to evince -- precisely -- the familiar , that is, shared, rage and desire -- the same old stuff.


*


That calcified wellspring is a key element in the book, and it points two ways (or perhaps more). In the introduction to the first sequence, Peter tells us:  "When we visited, at the conclusion of an unusually hot & dry summer for Provence, there was no lively watersource, but a rockbound turquoise pool marking the deep sump ... But the river ran merrily on out of the rocky drift through its gorge, regardless of its lack of a climactic wellspring ..."  


I get the impression, though, that the quietness of the source is usual in winter and summer, contrasting with turbulence in autumn and spring.
http://www.oti-delasorgue.co.uk/en-ot-delasorgue/en-principal/discover/land-heritage/our-villages/fontaine-de-vaucluse ]


No matter. For author and reader, the important thing is the mystery, the sense of contradiction. The wellspring looks inactive, a deathly dry image, yet somehow the river is still flowing.  Ultimately there's a connection with the deep scepticism about origins in Peter's closing essay about Dark Age history. We may promote a myth of pure origin, but the process of becoming is continuous and mysterious.


The image lurks in all three of the book's sequences. In the poem I've quoted, it's half-hidden in the opening lines about spring -- or a spring in spring? Then it emerges more starkly at the end of the poem: as that "arid eye of pity", perhaps impotent, or mocking, or monastic...










The source of the Sorgue at Vaucluse, at low level in summer


[Image source: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fontaine_de_Vaucluse#/media/File:Fontainedev.jpg . Photo by Philipp Hertzog. ]




*


PR continued to worry parenthetically at Wound Scar Memories in this later article about versioning classic authors, with particular reference to the Petrarchs of Hughes, Atkins and Sheppard: http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2018/03/translation-expanded/


A couple of other short pieces I found helpful:


Ian Brinton's review : https://tearsinthefence.com/2017/07/02/wound-scar-memories-by-peter-philpott-great-works-editions/


Billy Mills' review: https://ellipticalmovements.wordpress.com/2017/07/27/recent-reading-six-more-short-reviews/



















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