Authentic Victorian Mermaid revisited
Wednesday, 8 May 2019 at 20:46
I recently discovered that "Authentic Victorian Mermaid" was Yorkshire Times Poem Of The Week, posted online 18th November 2018. The poem originally appreared in the collaboration Drift (book and film, HumberMouth Literature Festival, 2008) and my collection Pilgrim Tongues (Wrecking Ball, 2015).
Here's the poem, together with a commentary.
For further Yorkshire Times poems of the week and much else besides: https://yorkshiretimes.co.uk/arts
Poem Of The Week: ‘Authentic Victorian Mermaid’ By Cliff Forshaw
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Authentic Victorian Mermaid
They fetch up here, scuttled to ledges, beached
on pediments, among scrimshaw, harpoons,
a whaler’s bow, a carved baleen seat.
Bony Leviathans ghost hugely through
tall ships, sails; this gallery’s a tail-flick,
the next’s speared by a narwhal’s horn.
Your thoughts turn krill: the floor’s a humpback,
the stairwell spirals up inside a blowhole’s spout;
you’re Jonah in the belly of the beast.
Then boked back up to shore. Strange creatures.
You can’t hear – no sirens sweetly singing – but see
the black nightmare-maid’s screech.
(Check spatulate fishtail, witchy fingers, stitched sealskin.)
You’re face to face with a scary Victorian freak
- snarked on that gob of tiny fish-hooky teeth.
Cliff Forshaw’s extended metaphor is not unpersuasive.
Anyone who’s ever visited Hull’s Maritime Museum will recognise the cavernously organic interiors, the intestinal passages and ribbed staircases.
The reference to Jonah and the belly of the whale is apposite: extruded through the labyrinthine tracts like the krill to which Forshaw also alludes, our traction is more vital than any anodyne one-way shuffle round IKEA, and the floors really do bow and flex like a ‘humpback’, sprung as though in readiness for a ballroom dancing competition.
The museum, and the poem, are extraordinarily diverting.
The poet’s inventory of sea-associated flotsam might be the contents of Moby Dick’s capacious stomach, or it could be a precise summation of Hull’s history, of its municipally-defining maritime endeavours.
The cluttering of nouns and the stuttering metre dividing them, mimic an amble frequently interrupted by the strange visitations bound in cases or ‘beached on pediments’.
The rooms are so dominated by Leviathan presence as to be shaped by them: ‘this gallery’s a tail flick, / the next’s speared by a narwhal’s horn’.
But the details observed on route are the thing, before the hapless narrator is ‘boked’ - in that fine Glaswegian vernacular for vomited - back up to the mundane reality of Queen Victoria Square.
And we can share in Forshaw’s characteristic insouciance as he revels in, and half disdains, the objects before him.
His final triplet is a masterful clotting of metaphors which pull the rug from under an ersatz mermaid.
That the mermaid would have occasioned much jaw-dropping in more credulous times need not entirely obstruct the narrator’s fascinated gawp, here conceived in a demotic which another poet, Tony Harrison, might recognise:
‘You’re face to face with a scary Victorian freak
snarked on that gob of tiny fish-hooky teeth’
Coming and Going
Wednesday, 8 May 2019 at 19:30
One of my poems "Road Kill" has just appeared in Coming and Going, an anthology of poems for journeys by 103 HappenStance poets, drawn from 14 years of HappenStance Press publications. It's a very handsome production; the editor Helena Nelson writes:
This is a small, fat book, the right size for a bag or a large pocket. A nice gift that will travel well.
Poems for reading on the train
or tram or bus or aeroplane
or barge. Or hovercraft. Or boat.
Poems to help you stay afloat.
You can order it and many other fine publications at:
"Road Kill" originally appeared as part of a sequence in Tiger (HappenStance, 2011) and in Vandemonian (Arc, 2013). There are some other poems from that sequence on the Vandemonian pages in the poetry portfolio section.
What is this stuff with tails? This slump of fur
that mimes the body’s weight, intimates
the slow tug of earth that gets us all. You swerve
to miss these weird speed bumps, glimpse
a forested ridge in the marginalia of the road,
a premonition of mountains in that spine’s hump.
Each is a map to what still lies, lies still
– yet moves – now like a wave, now flat-out:
roadstone’s quake, asphalt fever, that tremor
shivering towards you through the heat-haze,
visions of angels skating on the shimmer.
Blind bend. Horn. The dopplered blare
through ears and car and ribs. Road train.
Chained logs, knee-trembled, hovering on compressed air.
Paragon: a station getting above its station
Wednesday, 13 March 2019 at 17:26
I've done a couple of little adjustments to the painting of Paragon. I think it's now done and have started on a new painting of passengers at KIng's Cross - yes, staring up at departure boards as the last trains back to Hull are cancelled; small untidy humans in an architect's fantasy. I love the great monumental station with its makeover shell-like roof playing against the older brick-forms; pity the trains can't match the mathematical perfection of the construction. But meanwhile, here's the Paragon of stations, boasting its perfection on a small scale....
Sunday, 17 February 2019 at 19:57
Here's the latest version of the painting of Paragon Station. It's the same size as the other large cityscapes, 40" x 50" (102 x 127 cm.)
I'm thinking of doing another railway station painting or two: probably King's Cross with stranded travellers staring up at the departure boards as trains are being cancelled.
The Ballad of William Lanne
Friday, 1 February 2019 at 16:08
Here's another poem from Vandemonian (Arc, 2013). The collection came out of a period as International Writer-in-Residence at the Tasmanian Writers' Centre, Hobart. I can't reproduce the exact layout of the Vandemonian poems as the appreared in the book here, but have aproximated the format. They all look much better in the book, still available from Arc, or drop me a line.
The Ballad of William Lanne
Or, “The Blackfella’s Skeleton”
Now there’s a funny kind of Ballad,
Penned by your Boneyard Bards,
Of what happened down in Hobart
When the Surgeons came to Town.
The Coroner’s Paper’s white as Bone
And the ink’s as black as skin
And the Seal upon the Parchment’s
Red as Blood, but not so thin.
Trucanini’s final Husband,
A Bloke called Billy Lanne,
Died in 1869,
The last Full-Blood Tassie Man.
If this was Terra Nullius,
Then William was No-One.
No Diggers could ever count or name
All the Species that are gone.
Old Darwin, when he studied
Where Nature had gone wrong,
Found Dead-Ends merely croaked
And sang no great Swan-Song.
But the Dinosaurs have left
Fossilized Rosetta Stones,
So the Doctors licked their Chops
At the thought of Billy’s Bones.
One Night old Saw-Bones Crowther
Sneaked on Tip-Toes to the Morgue;
The Lamplight glints on his Case of Knives
Beside that laid-out Corpse.
Now the Surgeon’s filthy Cuffs
Are rolled back for Steel & Skill:
His Scalpel skims the Cadaver’s scalp,
Peels back that sad black Skin.
Now William’s Face falls like a Mask
– Crestfallen, sloughed-off Skin –
As Crowther teases out the skull
And slips a White Bloke’s in.
Now a new Head fills that Death Mask,
Sewn into the Blackfella’s Grin;
The Bastard wraps the Brain-Pain up
In a Piece of old Sealskin.
He’ll send it off to London
To the Royal bloody Surgeons there,
So he tip-toes from the Morgue,
sniffs Reward in the dawn-fresh Air.
Skullduggery’s soon discovered
(reports our Hobart hack):
Examining Our Cadaver’s Head,
“The Face turned round,” the M.O. said
and this new Saw-Bones “saw Bones
were sticking out the Back.”
So, to stop the Pommie Surgeons,
Getting their bloody filthy Hands
On the Rest of that last Tasmanian
they chopped off its Feet,
and they chopped off its Hands,
and they slung them in the Dunny.
The Cadaver was buried,
But secretly next Night
Royal Society Gentlemen
Dug it up by their lamplight.
Time waits for no Tasmanian:
The Quick must be quick with the Dead.
They dissected William’s Skeleton
(sans Feet, sans Hands, sans Head).
Did grave Doctors cast their Lots
To perform their Funeral Rites?
They cut away Black Flesh that rots,
Redeemed the White Bone into Light.
Meanwhile, bobbing off to London,
Seal-Skin begins to stink.
Sailors got shot of it Overboard,
Flung Billy’s Skull in the Drink.
It’s a very sorry end,
To what became of William Lanne:
The butchers lost his feet and hands,
His head went bobbing far from land
– Do you think one day they’ll find those bones?
Will his skull wash up on Tassie’s sands?
Can he be buried whole again?
… Yeah, yeah,
but from Darwin down to Melbourne,
the learned doctors said:
“Let the weak fall by the wayside,
for the strong live off the dead.
To stay alive is to survive
against the bleakest odds.
Embrace your Fate. Know your Place.
Accept the Will of God.
His cards were always marked,
just like the thylacine’s:
written into defunct genes.”
Course, it’s a sad, sad end, this dead dead-end,
but, when all is said and done,
can’t stand in the way of Progress
– Thank Christ they’re bleedin’ gawn.
We gave them a good shake,
but they just could not wake,
the Dreamtime had crusted their eyes.
So we left them for dead,
and strode on ahead,
and were blessed with this golden sunrise.
Our shadows are shortening behind us.
Our dead are all dead and all gone.
They couldn’t come with us, they couldn’t adapt,
their bones lie bleached by the sun.
It’s dawn in the Lucky Country
and it’s time, it’s time to move on.
Let the women and the crocs shed tears,
these fellas had been just hanging on
these last four thousand years.
Long time dreamed of falling,
Down through seaweed, silver shoal.
Up above the light was fading,
Waves tumbled, roiled and boiled.
Night presses down so heavy.
Down here’s just salty sea-bed.
Empty sockets see nothing, nothing.
I need eyes like I need holes in my head.
Teeth shiver-shiver my jaw.
No flesh left to pad them all in.
The world has ripped up all its Laws,
Left us dismembered,
Dismembered and bearing white grins.
Friday, 25 January 2019 at 09:48
I'll put up some poems from Vandemonian (Arc, 2013) and add them to the portfolio pages for that collection.
Trucanini, the last of the full-blood Tasmanian Aborigines, was born on Bruny Island around 1812. After many of her family and tribe were killed or sold into slavery she joined builder-turned-evangelist George Augustus Robinson and his guide the Aboriginal chief Woorady on his journeys of exploration and “conciliation.” During the early 1830s Robinson made contact with every remaining group of Tasmanian natives and carried out rudimentary anthropological inquiries into their customs and rituals, as well as compiling basic vocabularies of their languages. After the failure of The Black Line (1829) to pen the Aborigines in the Tasman Peninsula, in 1834 Robinson led the remaining natives to Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, where he attempted to Christianize them. The “National Picture” showing Robinson and Trucanini “bringing in” the remaining Aborigines is Benjamin Duttereau’s The Conciliation (1840). By 1845 there were 150 Aborigines left. Robinson had left Flinders to return to the mainland in 1839; his successors treated the remaining aborigines in their concentration camp appallingly. In 1846 the survivors were settled at Oyster Cove on the d’Entrecasteaux Channel near Hobart where their keepers provided them with insanitary huts and rum. By 1855 there were only sixteen left, including Trucanini. The last man, William Lanne, died in 1869. Trucanini died in 1876. There is of course a big problem about the concept of “the last of the Aborigines”; many Tasmanians are mixedrace descendents of Aborigines and immigrants.
Last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine (1812? – 1876)
Trucanini, Truganner, I’m not sure what to call you,
your name has grown vague and lost as Trowenna.
Trucanini, Truganner, last full-blood born here,
raped by whitefella convicts, sterile with gonorrhoea.
Trucanini, Truganner, still hanging round their woodsmoke,
you sell yourself to sealers for a handful of tea or sugar.
Trucanini, Truganner, they murdered your mother;
come again, a little later, killed your new step-mother.
Trucanini, Truganner, whitemen murdered your intended,
convict mutineers stole your blood-sister Moorina.
Trucanini, Truganner, there’ll soon be no one left now,
so many sold to slavers just like your tribal sisters.
Comes another whiteman: comes George Augustus Robinson,
together with Wooraddy, loyal guide and his Good Friday.
This whitefella Robinson’s a missionary unlike any other:
cockney builder become explorer, The Great Conciliator.
Trucanini, Truganner, help-meet and translator:
interpret, make word-lists, catalogue their customs.
Trucanini, Truganner – tiny, tiny, tiny –
married Wooraddy, also full-blood out of Bruny.
Trucanini, Truganner, with Robinson you both wander,
so long since you left your home on Bruny Island.
You go gathering them in now, most-trusted Trucanini.
Orphan-mother to the whitefella’s blackface piccaninny.
Interpreter, translator, Truganner, Trucanini,
in your story I hear echoes of Pocahontas, La Malinche.
Traduttori sono traditori: I heard an Italian say in Sydney.
And, for a long time, I thought, Trucanini, Truganner,
how lives fork when we live in a stranger’s tongue.
My Lord’s a Cockney Shepherd
who’s bringing in His Flock
and we’re singing Ba Ba Black Sheep
as we huddle in His Fold.
Some say I’m rounding up the black sheep,
like the shepherd’s faithful dog,
but there’s nothing left but pasture,
and my forest’s turned to logs.
Now there’s a bounty on the Tiger,
there’s a fence across the land,
and they’re grazing fluffy white sheep
while the Shepherd sings the hymns.
He leads us to the Promised Land
where we will all be safe,
and our Pen is Flinders Island,
though there’s not many still alive.
But the Master’s gone and left us,
least what was left of that last Fold.
Shipped us back from Flinders Island
to slums and rum in Oyster Cove.
Trucanini, Truganner, now you’re dying on your own,
the doctors pick your bones like ghostly thylacines.
Trucanini, Truganner, your flesh and blood all gone,
your people dead as Dodos and they’ve stolen what remains,
You star in that National Picture high up on the Museum wall,
but though your bones are still raked in a big glass case,
you saved No One after all.
Paragon Station.. Inside now
Friday, 7 December 2018 at 19:16
It was time for a break from the cityscapes. Still looking at the city, but my new project's about how people inhabit its spaces. I've done Paragon several times from up and above outside. Let's look at it from another angle.
Here's something in progress: I think's it's about half-way to being there. Let's see. I'm now thinking about gesture and how that relates to public space.