The Sorry Tale of the Mignonette, Angela Gardner, Shearsman Books (2021) My Father, Eduardo Moga, translated by Terence Dooley, Shearsman Books (2021)
Reviewed by Josephine Balmer
‘Cannibalism,’ notes Rebecca Solnit in a dedicatory quote to Angela Gardner’s mesmerising verse narrative, The Sorry Tale of the Mignonette, ‘is both a terrible transgression and a strange communion.’ From this first moment, a sense of dread and fearful anticipation holds the reader in its relentless grip. With no explanatory cover blurb beyond two of Gardener’s own artworks, The Sorry Tale of the Mignonette unfolds as if in real time, from the decision of shipyard worker Richard Parker to sign up as a cabin boy on the yacht in 1884 through the Mignonette’s fateful attempt to sail to Sydney to its wreck in the South Atlantic and the dreadful consequences for its crew left drifting on open seas for nineteen days in an open lifeboat.
Gardener’s evocative – and eclectic – poetic style propels her account from the first. She has an artist’s eye for detail and, as in her previous collections, Views of the Hudson and The Told World, a readiness to experiment with form and texture. In its opening scene-setting section, Richard and his beloved cousin Sarah exchange views of their River Itchen hamlet:
And what do I have? From Fay’s Yard
past Millstone Point, between the Moulding Loft
and the Galvanising Works.
Shards and discards, the make-dos and
the re-makes. On a dead-end broken road
strewn with the rotting and rusting.
Later, the owner of the Mignonette, Sydney businessman John Henry (Jack) Want, introduces his ship which, in Gardner’s dynamic verse, appears to speak for herself:
Port line gleaming
Her, upon delight, soft waves.
Her. Shelter of line gleaming. Her.
Mignonette. Lifting foam to the ! water !
and her pull on, thrusting
upon bright work.
The language here recalls that of Welsh Australian Gardner’s other dedicatory quote, a few lines from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Thomas’s presence is felt throughout, not just in The Sorry Tale of the Mignonette’s narrative form but in its musicality, especially its representations of the sea:
The rain swell night very growling.
Unsettled squalls full scud
that tear at eyes in gusts.
We smash through trough and crest.
To drive her narrative, Gardner intersperses such poetry with an italic meta-text to act as a commentary, a chorus for the unfolding tragedy:
The boat drifts upon the endless ocean
more than a thousand miles from land.
In addition, she calls on her experience as an interdisciplinary print and collage maker to use an inventive variety of source material as inspiration for the poems, all detailed in her extensive reference endnotes: a teaching box from the V&A Museum of Childhood, contemporary ballads, national archives, semaphore sentences, even cut-ups from old books on wrecks, as in ‘Running Before the Storm’:
The world turns black upon us
by horror and fear overrun
our ears are laid open with cries
that works upon each one.
As the tension intensifies, so does Gardener’s inventiveness. When the shipwrecked crew are left with only a few cans of vegetables for sustenance, her poetry responds in playful, concrete form:
for the boredom of days counting down to what?
for two tins of turnips that were all we had
for the shark that hungrily circled us
for not enough to live for a weevil
for the sea-birds out of reach
for our diminishing hope
our hunger and thirst
a blank horizon
or fading light
And as the crew circle their stricken cabin boy Richard to reach their chilling solution, the inspiration for the shipmate’s speech, her notes reveal, is Edgar Allan Poe:
We fell upon the blood with brutal ferocity
but the sun hastened the tender decomposition
so we must wash the meat in brine to cleanse it.
Gardner’s story has plenty of twists to come. Rescued by a German ship, the surviving crew return to England to stand trial for Richard Parker’s murder, first in Exeter and then, when the jury fail to reach a verdict, at the Old Bailey in London. In these procedural accounts, Gardner crafts some of her most powerful poetry by the skilful juxtaposition of original sources – legal depositions, lists of Crown Exhibits, newspaper accounts, plus an advertisement for viewing the Mignonette’s battered lifeboat (‘They say you can even see the bloodstains’). Even the Lord Chief Justice’s sentence of death has its own stark beauty:
all regrets and possibilities dip
his words an iron grating
closing the eye of the mind
darkening, the sun behind a cloud.
Later pardoned, the Mignonette’s captain, Tom Dudley, finds a new life with his family in Sydney as a ship’s chandler. But in Gardner’s unforgiving verse, survivor’s guilt is never far away:
are in their beds asleep
candle light flickers at their windows.
His flesh and bone
their young skin pale as milk.
Eventually Dudley succumbs to bubonic plague although his ghost is still consumed by his past. ‘What have you given me to devour? Flesh and bones and sinew’, it demands in ‘Incantation’, a poem based, slightly strangely, on ancient Assyrian chants. Meanwhile, back in England, Able Seaman Ned Brooks, now an exhibit in a travelling circus (‘The Man who Ate Human Flesh’), is haunted by his own guilt:
We are all still shipwrecked.
No rescue. It goes on and on.
There is no closing his flesh.
His eyes are inside my body
trying to break me open.
Gardner still has one last shock in store. As the final page of the volume reveals, the murdered and then devoured cabin boy Richard Parker is part of her own family history; his cousin Sarah is her great-grandmother and ‘Postscript’ contains personal reminiscences passed down from her mother:
. . . Her cousin Richard, in her memory, is forever young . . . in her mind’s eye she is standing on Pear Tree Green again, just above the village of Itchen Ferry. She has her back to the school and is looking at the Churchyard of the Jesus Chapel where Richard’s memorial stone lies . . .
It’s a suitably spine-tingling end to an exhilarating, white-knuckle ride of a collection that lurches from revelation to revelation like the pitch of the stormy Atlantic seas. Gardner viscerally captures the crew’s plight in all its terror and strangeness. But what lingers above all is her lyrical empathy for the desperation of those pushed to the brink by circumstances beyond their control.
Eduardo Moga’s My Father stays with family history, if here more recent – and far more intimate. In a series of a hundred or so concise prose poems, many only a line long, the Spanish poet and translator evokes the spirit of his father thirty years after his sudden death. Moga’s sequence leaps back and forwards through time, starting with his father in old age (‘My father had white hair. I have white hair too. / Hair goes white from oxidative stress.’) to end at the beginning, with the simple statement: ‘My father’s name was Abel.’ In between Moga drip feeds us details of his father’s life; his own childhood in Barcelona during the Civil War, his various jobs (‘He sold things’), his lack of friends, his love of boxing and bullfights. Gradually, through tiny details and small moments, a sense of an entire life is expertly evoked in all its contradictions. Moga’s father, we learn, was an atheist who was married in church and sent his son to Catholic school. A Republican who didn’t ‘crack open the champagne’ when Franco died. A man who hated cars which ‘cost most than a foolish son’, but loved being driven in them by that son.
But as in The Sorry Tale of the Mignonette, timing is crucial to Moga’s poetic tension. For example, an early piece describes a bird-watching trip with his father as a child:
. . . I couldn’t tell one from the
other, but he identified buzzards, eagles, hawks,
kites, ospreys, sparrowhawks. Or so he said.
Here, the child’s awe is deftly punctured by the adult’s scepticism. With a surgical eye, Moga skewers the delusions of his parent’s ambitions:
My father told me ‘You have to be the best, always
the best’ [. . .] Then
he rearranged his underpants and went back to his
game of patience.
My father considered himself an intellectual.
Sometimes he said so when chomping on a slice of
or a rasher of bacon with his mouth open.
Moga’s acute observations are heightened by an adept use of juxtaposition. For instance, a description of how his father beat Moga ‘so hard I banged my head on the wall’ is followed by an account of how this same parent once complained about a teacher who had hit his son at school. Later on, two brief, contiguous pieces read simply:
My father wore bow-ties.
My father farted round the house.
There are affecting moments here too. The time Moga’s father carried him in his arms to A&E when he had split his lip (‘I bled and bled; he ran and ran’). Or his pride in his son’s first pay cheque which saw him ‘radiant with satisfaction’. The revelation that Moga had never seen his father cry or heard him say that he loved him, except once, declaring that if anything happened to his son ‘he’d lose his reason’. It was, Moga concludes, ‘what anyone with children would feel it their duty to say.’ Moga also can’t resist noting that the speech-bubbles in the comic strips his father drew for him as a child ‘were riddled with spelling mistakes’.
Dropped among these reminiscences of his living father are the milestones in Moga’s grief and loss, as if too terrible to detail in depth. He recalls visiting his father’s corpse after his death (‘I kissed him on his forehead. It was ice-cold.’) or the moment of his death when ‘he said ‘I don’t feel well’ and collapsed onto the bed’. We learn the place of his father’s burial, Castelldefels cemetery, where ‘his niche was on the fifth floor’. And, finally, the cause of his death (‘the artery split and the haemorrhage was fatal’).
Clear-eyed, relentlessly honest, often coruscating, My Father is nevertheless still affectionate and empathetic. The volume summons the ghost not just of Moga’s own father and his generation of Catalan Republicans but of all our families, breathing back life like a necromancer into their foibles, aspirations and self-delusions, the quiet sadness of being unable to express affection, however deeply-felt (having lost my own father a few weeks before reading it, I can vouch for its raw honesty and impact). Here due credit must be given to Terence Dooley’s flawless translation, rightly a Poetry Book Society Choice, which confidently captures Moga’s perfect timing and deceptive simplicity. On the other hand, Dooley is not afraid to take risks. For instance he translates ‘muy señorito’ (‘too high and mighty’) as ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ yet retains the rare English ‘cretonne’, an upholstery material, for Spanish ‘cretona’. The editorial decision to place Dooley’s English above, rather than side by side with, Moga’s Spanish also pays off, retaining the integrity of printing one piece per page. As a result, Moga’s father remains very definitely his own person, with his own idiosyncratic faults and habits; a universal portrait of the gulf between generations, their misunderstandings and their fleeting tenderness.
Like The Sorry Tale of the Mignonette, My Father explores unflinchingly the deep, long pull of family history. Both volumes resonate with the regret of decisions taken and paths not trodden, major and minor, and the salvation gained by retelling such stories, familiar and unfamiliar. Above all, both illustrate admirably the multi-faceted ways in which poetry can engage with narrative, experimenting with form and style as well as a variety of source material. Through reading them both, all of our histories are enriched.