REVIEW by Jacqui Kenton24/07/2012
by Meirion Jordan
Meirion Jordan is an Oxford educated mathematician with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Born in Swansea, he was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection for Moonrise and has received numerous plaudits for his work.
is a work based on Llyfr Coch Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch along with the Tales of Arthur and his court as recounted by Mallory. This is not, however, a mere re-working of the Mabinogi or of Mallory. Instead, Jordan is at pains to show how the big stories inform our present lives. All great stories are – because of their very universality – also particular to every individual. Like Narcissus looking into the pool, we see our own selves reflected back at us:
Like a mirror : full of your best ideas
Jordan interlaces his use of the big story with comments – in footnotes – about his own family, and especially his grandfather who passed away in 2008. They provide a running stitch throughout the narrative. As he writes in the beautiful ‘Brycheiniog’:
My dream of wearing a coat of my ancestors...
Such a close fit. Shot through
With unexpected thread: red
For Padarn Beisrugg, green
For Davieses of Cantref....
The narrative also moves through time – it has Ulverton
moments (Adam Thorpe’s first and best novel) where the layers of memory poke out into the present. A once and future time where Arthur steps through history to rejoin us”
I was his agent,
Arthur grows in ivy-coils, setting his roots
deep in the holes of every hero since
drawing them into his own orbit.
And – from footnote 52:
Who were they? Who were these people who are so alive in my memory and in my imagination. And is this their country as well as mine, this patchwork land that is forever slipping in and out of time and place?
As the footnotes go on, the comments become more personal as if Meirion Jordan/the narrator is working out his own path through memory and grief. In one footnote he says poignantly: ‘I hold this space for them.’ This is a memorial to those seemingly lost. He gives them form.
So how to approach the book? There are two ways in and it is our choice. The book is tête-bêche, with the White Book and Red Book at each end and upside down. Seren does not help us choose either as they have used two title pages, sets of notes, prices and barcodes etc. In his preface to the Red Book, Jordan writes :
Poetry is concerned most fundamentally with meaning and interpretation and that implies in turn that this book is in some way turned towards those present in this imprecise, difficult dialogue: you reading, and myself....
And so in choosing how to enter this labyrinth we are already having an effect on the texts. How would the meaning alter if we chose another path? And having chosen a way in, the structure is still not easy. It is laid out in an archaic style reflecting that of the old texts with Books or Parts. Jordan’s footnotes interrupt the narrative – often within a sentence and yet the footnote voice is so insistent one has to break off and read it. It is often hard to see why the note is placed just so – it feels as if it is a voice in another room shouting to be heard, or a radio whose tuning slips between stations. One is constantly aware of the heft of the structure and its problems. In fact, the presence and solidity of books, words and meaning is a theme throughout. In ‘Rhiannon’s Gossips’, the ‘girl’ whose nuptials have just taken place is a book:
among hound’s head and serpent,
Pages guttered with blood, Her spine
Creaks with the weight : her days
Uncanonical, she pleads innocence
By subtext. And this is her voice beginning
To tear from its bindings, look
These are the hands that carry you….
But the work rewards the effort. Just as in the poem ‘Culhwch’ we excavate meaning:
Deep under autumn, ten
Spadefuls down I found him
The red king: bloody….
As in footnote 55 in the White Book, ‘Sometimes, though, we are lucky... and we may find the lost, the marginal, the disappeared waiting for us in the past’s house.’
is very rewarding, though not an easy read. It requires a real contract between the reader and writer to extract all the meaning available, especially if the former is unfamiliar with the touchstone texts of Malory or the Red and White books. But do not be put off, as many of the poems – ‘Goewin’, ‘Olwen’, ‘Bryncheiniog’, ‘Galahad’, for example, – are achingly lovely and work without high scholarship. And both the Red and The White Book meld together in a patchwork of thought, feeling and meaning. But for me the most touching is ‘Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig’. And why? It reminds me of my own Arthur reflected back at me.
Soon he must ride back. Out
Of the otherworld’s dark he moves,
Fumbling : and the land changes.
Buy this book at gwales.com
previous review: Jonah Jones, An Artist’s Life
next review: Conquest