A Presentment of Englishry by Liam Guilar (Shearsman Books, 2019)
Reviewed by Ian Brinton
The deconstructionist view of there being no single attainable truth about the past is worth bearing in mind as we become immersed in Liam Guilar’s moving reconstruction of the land called Britain in the long-gone world of the 11th and 12th centuries: there are merely the histories which people tell to empower themselves in the present. This is of course applicable both to history and to memory since everything we see is filtered through our present-day mental lenses and we interpret the past in the light of what we have now become.
In Guilar’s liquid narrative the Red Queen addresses the merchant in search of the tin-mines of Albion and tells him that he may not come this way again.
‘We’ve made you rich enough to spend your life in comfort.
No need to risk the sea God’s wrath or gamble on the wind.’
As the adventurer replies with flattering words of untruth concerning his return, ‘knowing he could not’, the Queen asserts a truth about Heraclitean movement:
‘It will never be the place you left:
the purest water can only be polluted.
A place of dreams that validates the risks you took
and measured what you are?
Once found, this is the place that you must leave.
The memory that will measure every other day
cannot itself be measured.’
Recognising the inevitable truth of this the merchant, like the poet, patiently ‘sifts the stories’ and we read of the tin-trade as the poem of a journey that calls to mind the opening of T.S. Eliot’s 1927 ‘Journey of the Magi’:
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
Eliot had adapted those opening lines from Lancelot Andrewes’ 1622 ‘Sermon on the Nativity’ and as Andrewes had written ‘It was no summer progress’ with ‘the days short’ and ‘the sun farthest off’. The concrete immediacy of that seventeenth century Anglican intellectual tradition sits vividly beside the opening lines of Guilar’s twenty-first century reconstruction of a lost world:
Where the morning light slabs off the water
a broken, blinding dazzle,
along the wharves the empty wooden ships
tug at their moorings on the tide,
like sleepy dogs testing their chains.
Preparing for a long journey whose only prize is ‘a flicker on the border’ and where the daylight world ‘blurs into myth and nightmare’ Guilar’s venturing merchantmen feel that it is ‘Better to go down on the long voyage out / than grow old at home.’ One can hear the voice of an Odysseus who has found little profit in being an idle king and one can recognise the role of the poet who sets himself out with keel to breakers ‘forth on the godly sea’.
In his notes to his text Guilar brings into focus the importance of the priestly Lacamon whose early Middle English text, Brut, was composed sometime between 1155 and 1275. He goes on to point out that the 16000 line Brut is itself a translation of the Anglo-Norman poem of the Jerseyman Wace which in turn is a translation of the Latin prose of Geoffrey of Monmouth:
The Brut tells the Legendary History of Britain, from its founding by Brutus, who gives the country its name, to the reign of Athelstan. It contains amongst many other things the earliest surviving English version of the King Arthur story, as well as the story of King Lear and his daughters. It would not be too mischievous to claim that what starts for us as legend ends by moving into a form of history, but the distinction, like the distinction between poetry and prose, is ours, not his.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a great believer in circumstantial detail, that basic ingredient of poetry, and one might bear in mind the closing words of Umberto Eco’s narrator in The Name of the Rose where he evokes the image of a vast monastic book collection as ‘a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books’. Narratives. Memories. Stories that might appear on walls like ‘other withered stumps of time’. Guilar’s poetic wand recreates for the reader a world of the past which stands vividly in the here-and-now:
So tell us stories.
A dream of heroes, as if history
could pivot on the sword arm of one man
or a single woman’s beauty alter everything.
Does anyone believe Troy risked destruction
so a princeling could retain his stolen bride?
Reduce the mess that’s history to fireside tales.
In Guilar’s afterword he offers a note to the Red Queen’s advice to the merchant-venturer. Affirming that this specific story did not occur in the Brut he explains its powerful presence in A Presentment of Englishry by telling us that the ‘Matter of Britain’ was old when Lacamon was writing:
It had already exerted a gravitational pull on stories that were even older than itself. In each retelling the stories became a palimpsest, created by repetition, addition, misunderstanding and forgetting. Brutus and Locrin are legendary figures but historical tin traders had been visiting Britain regularly since the Bronze Age. Buried in the foundations of the stories about the last Trojans finding a home in Britain may be a dim memory of those Mediterranean Bronze Age traders.
That scraping of a surface to reveal what lies beneath the current manuscript allows us to recognise the continuity of our histories and the Coda with which Guilar brings this extraordinarily powerful sequence of poems to a conclusion is worth reflecting upon as we contemplate a future:
We stood our ground at Ethendun, Stamford Bridge and Senlac Hill
then bartered, buggered, battered ground into the soil
from Agincourt to Waterloo; we fell in well-drilled rows
in Somme slime screaming there is a corner of some foreign
field that is forever foreign. Smashed scorched and sunk
for Drake to Jellicoe. Hatred handed down amongst the people
we defeated, and we reviled by those we did the fighting for.
And in the world of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era that is how the past exists, stray words and random things recorded:
The imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it has to feed on, such scraps.
Liam Guilar’s reconstruction of the foundations of our past is a convincing sift of details that offers the reader a ‘morning familiar as cold stone’ with ‘Rain drifting through the smoke hole in the roof.’