Sunday, March 28, 2021

the quiet island

Last year Carcanet published The Threadbare Coat: Selected Poems by Thomas A. Clark, a writer I have often referred to on this blog. There is an introduction by Matthew Welton that briefly discusses the poems' language and formal properties. He notes, for example, the repetition of words from poem to poem: 'the hills, clouds and water give us a sense of where we are in the landscape. And the mentions of nothingness, aloneness and longing, say something of what we can expect from territory of this kind.' He suggests that the 'reuse of a limited vocabulary across a range of poems feels appropriate to the landscapes that are the focus of these poems.' These places are only occasionally identified but it is clear that we are reading about the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Perhaps some of the poems are about the idea of this landscape rather than anything more specific - 'the quiet island', for example, is like a parable where the narrator finds peace but misses the melody of events, and so one morning, quietly leaves.

I could mention several of the book's landscape poem sequences but will just highlight one here. 'a walk in a water meadow' suggests that we will be given a series of ambulatory observations, but in the first stanza, a gentle mist closes in. This mist dampens sound and detaches objects from their context. The walker attends to the world in a different way: as places disclose themselves, vision is both impaired and repaired. The water meadow takes on the forms of mist: fine webs, cotton-grass and cuckoo-spit, alders wrapped in wool and skeins of mist snagged on larch. A walk in mist, he concludes, 'makes no progress / history is suspended / resolve dissolves.' History feels suspended in almost all of these poems, which offer the chance to concentrate on timeless phenomena: dusk and dawn, wind and waves, raindrops in a pool, light falling on a leaf, water flowing over roots and stones.

There is a YouTube clip where Tom introduces the book and reads 'the quiet island'. I have embedded it below and transcribed here what he says about the Highlands and Islands:

'These are landscapes of great clarity and resilience; they often have a surprising gentleness - all qualities that I want to percolate into the poetry.  But this is not where I live. I live on the east coast, above Edinburgh. So I'm always at some distance from the landscapes I write about. No doubt this distance sharpens desire. I always want to head out into the Highlands. Somehow I feel more relaxed there than anywhere else. I seem to be more responsive and resourceful than anywhere else. It's as if a whole set of cultural accretions has fallen away, or more likely, blown away. And this is one sense of The Threadbare Coat, the title of this new book from Carcanet Press. It's an image of poverty and exposure, as if there could be only the lightest membrane between you and the landscape.'

Friday, March 12, 2021

The Mummelsee, a supposedly bottomless lake

I have been looking back at some books I read before starting this blog and have never got round to mentioning. One of these is Simplicissimus, the picaresque novel by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, written in 1668 and translated for Dedalus by Mike Mitchell. Near the end of the book, its hero Simplicius hears various tales told about 'the Mummelsee, a supposedly bottomless lake on one of the highest mountains in the neighbourhood.' (Wikipedia's entry on this Black Forest lake begins, disappointingly: 'the Mummelsee is a 17-metre-deep lake...') The stories told to Simplicius concern disappearing animals and sightings of water sprites. On one occasion, he learns, a Duke of Württemberg tried to measure the depth of the lake with a length of twine but his boat started to sink and he had to abandon the attempt. Curious about this strange place, Simplicius decides to set off to see it for himself.

When he arrives with his companion after a walk of less than six hours, the two of them polish of the food and drink they brought and then proceed with some scientific observations, drawing a map and tasting the water to see if it would explain why some trout that had been introduced on one occasion all died. They then locate a spot 'where the water, otherwise as clear as crystal, seems to be pitch black on account of its awesome depth'. Ignoring his companion's advice, Simplicius throws stones into the lake. Storm clouds begin to gather and, looking into the water, he sees creatures swimming up from the depths, bringing back the stones. One of them, the Prince of Mummelsee, comes to the surface and takes Simplicius back down with him. Eventually they reach the centre of the earth where they discuss politics, religion and geography. He doesn't spend long there before returning to the surface, but he does give a memorable short description of the way this land of the sylphs is lit by the lakes of the world.

'While I was there I observed how the sun shone on each lake in turn and sent its rays down to these awesome depths, making it as bright in this abyss as on the surface and even casting shadows. The lakes were like windows for the sylphs through which they received both light and warmth. Even if they didn't always come directly, because the sides of some lakes were twisted, they were transmitted by reflection because nature had set whole slabs of crystal, diamonds and rubies where necessary in the angles of the cliffs.'

The Mummelsee
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The magical lake of Mummelsee also appears in a poem by Eduard Mörike, who I wrote about here last month. 'The Ghosts of Mummelsee' is one of his poems later set to music by Hugo Wolf. There is a New York Festival of Song blog post on this Lied, which gives an English translation by Charles L. Cingolani. The narrator, hiding in some bushes, sees a funeral procession for the king of the lake. The ghosts walk over the water and then enter it through a sparkling gate. However, there is a twist at the end when they realise they have been watched...

How lovely the fires glow on the water! 
They flare and then turn green;
Fog moves in clusters along the shore,
The pond is turning into a sea—
Be still!
Is there something stirring out there?

In the middle a twitching—For heaven’s sake! Help!
They come back again, they are coming!
A bellowing in the reeds, a crunching in the rushes;
Make haste, take flight!
They sense trouble, they are on my tracks!