A Serf’s Sustenance: Sleeve Catching Fire At Dawn – Madeleine Wurzburger
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
The writing of persuasive poetry in the social context of a distant historical time can be no easy task. A bit like learning Russian, where a knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet is a primary precondition of understanding before the student is able to move on to phonemes and translation, making the task doubly, even trebly, difficult. Madeleine Wurzburger’s inhabitation of the mindset and language of the remote past in her new, award-winning pamphlet, is convincing as much in terms of mood and tone as in her evocation of the petty barbarities, the essential horizon-stopped limits of the simple agrarian purview, and the ethical parity of the interdependency of relationships.
The means by which the poet conveys such interdependency lies in the deft interplay of daily objects, objects of utility and survival. The culturally remote universe she renders is poetic in execution by virtue of the natural conflation of ideas which encourage the building of metaphors. The affiliation that defines, for example, the relationship between man and the domestic animal which is central to his continued existence, yields a symbiotic sense.
There can be no complacency where, to paraphrase one of her poem’s subtitles, ‘serfs own nothing but their own bellies’. The fieldworker’s instinct to hymn – if only in words - an animal which provides both sustenance and clothing is measured in a harmonising of the spheres from whose ecological benefaction rapinous and relentlessly destructive modern land (ab)use techniques might take heed:
‘Sheep, you trade us wool
to build our churches whole.
We trade you love, tufty grass
and tend you on the pass.’ (‘Trade’)
There is an ironic sense of balance and propriety beneath the yoke of baronial tyranny. Which might be Wurzburger’s point: subsistent necessity encourages respect for that which feeds it; only surfeit encourages decadence. ‘It’s tit for tat’, as the narrator says, ‘you give us this, we give you that.’ Even unto death, or perhaps always unto death; a dying man’s panegyric to the endurance of his animals becomes a metaphor for natural humility:
‘Here are apples, sweet to you, sour to me.
Small pig, I ask little.
A snuffle under the oak. A twig.
I do not want to croak.’ (‘Dying Man Considers the Animals’)
The extraordinary ‘An Apology to the Crickets Which Sing in the Field’ is a prosaic apologia to the insect realm, conceived in the humble wisdom of one John Gaddesden, whose crushing of their body parts to make a rheumatic balm is repaid in sacrificial gratefulness. Such sensitivity to the bounty of Gaia recalls the hyper-awareness of Swinburne as it renders the cricket’s two-edged blessing:
‘Within three days the pain disappeared from my limbs. Even so, the field is very still when I wander from my gate, I am sad for the crickets which do not sing there and it seems that God is holding the field as still as possible, or it is holding its breath’.
The feel for balance, the unlikely impulse for reciprocation in a brutally unequal society shapes Wurzburger’s poetics. Reliance is transactional, yielding a rudimentary ethical code which warms her narrative. The touchingly tentative opening of a dialogue between English and German miners of the sixteenth century prefigures the pan-European Socialism which characterised international fellow-feeling before the onset of the First World War, and to some extent beyond. Except that here the miners exchange knowledge as though exchanging symbols. The received effect is of innocence and of the needfulness of light in a consanguinity of darkness:
‘ Like you
we work in the dark. Christ’s cross is our light,
brighter than metal.
Our forests are black bread.
Our mines are black bread.’ (‘German Miners Reply to the English Miners, 1561’)
And very moving it is. The brotherhood of shared darkness is mitigated by beer, by the emergence of dirty faces into the blinking sunlight, as each gropes around the edge of language to vouchsafe an understanding of the strange, but fraternal, other, whose remote culture is as steroidally preposterous as an Alpine landscape:
‘ Tin mines
have a dull glint. We are looking for fire.
Your mountains are spectacular.’ (‘English Miners Request the Help of German Miners, 1561’)
You sense Wurzburger’s need to honour the forgotten voices of the past throughout this impressive collection. She convinces by encouraging the reader to, as it were, eavesdrop on the social mores and idiosyncrasies of a world which is lost to us. The formal measures she harnesses somehow support the contemporary lingua franca, giving the impression that symbolic frames of reference – she frequently uses ‘light’ as allegory, as metaphor and as a utopian alternative to the ‘darkness’ of daily endurance – were naturally worn by the peasant classes. Wurzburger’s audience find themselves amongst the shadowy purlieus as effortlessly as if they had fetched up in a Hilary Mantel novel.
A cleaving towards redemptive light animates the simple, beautifully-realised diptych ‘Two Women’, whose distilled intensity harmonises the relationship between a cell-bound ‘anchoress’ and a field-worker, rendered contiguous in spirit in the beneficence of a numinous sun. We are present, qua Mantel again, in a distant landscape’s canvas, and it would be wrong, here, to reproduce anything less than the complete poem:
under nail of light
to the weeping of gold kings
to the reaping of gold corn
under a church of light
poor woman in the sown field.’
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The indenturing of work and matrimony are drawn together like disparate threads in the powerfully-worked concrete poem, ‘Marriage’, whose central image of a distaff is a metaphor for the plane on which the warping and wefting of human bonding unfolds. The distaff may be a spindle upon which wool is spun, or, by happy alternative, a term which means, ‘of, or concerning women’, according to the OED. The female narrator’s pragmatic extrapolation of marriage’s bind enjoins a weave that is as purposefully creative as it is an indicator of perpetually (r)evolving bondage:
‘ what colours we dye together
in softness lie together, husband
marriage is bile and gall
pull in the same direction as I
I will pull in the same direction as you
single strands pulled by a
Madeleine Wurzburger’s vision is uncommonly human, and uncommonly fragile; her quiet but fervent wisdom steers the ship of the remote past into clearer waters of recognition, where the enchained continue to sing, in spite of everything.
Sleeve Catching Fire at Dawn is published by smith ǀ doorstop
For more information: http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/982/sleeve-catching-fire
A Serf’s Sustenance: Sleeve Catching Fire At Dawn – Madeleine Wurzburger, 8th October 2018, 21:29 PM