Northangerland, (re)versions of the poetry of Branwell Brontë, Andrew Taylor (Leafe Press, 2022): To the Hitchhiking Dead, Khaled Nurul Hakim (Shearsman Books, 2022)
Reviewed by Ian Brinton
There can be few more haunting images of a lost world intruding into the present, like an emerging palimpsest, than Patrick Branwell Brontë having returned home from school to live in the Haworth parsonage and hearing, from his room at the back of the house with its window overlooking the moors, the cries of his dead sister Maria begging to be let in from the darkness. The eleven year old girl had died in May 1825 and according to Winifred Gérin all Branwell’s earliest recollections were bound up with images of this elder sister who had taken care of him with both tenderness and grave authority after the death of their mother in 1821 when he was four. As he wrote later in March 1836:
There was a light – but it is gone.
There was a hope – but all is o’er,
Where, Maria, where art thou!
Within eighteen months of moving from the Bradford parish of Thornton to Haworth, some eight miles away, the curate Patrick Brontë had been left alone to care for the six children. After his wife had died in agonizing pain from uterine cancer her sister, Elizabeth, moved up from Penzance to the bleak Yorkshire moors of Haworth to live the rest of her life in the black stone parsonage with its adjacent graveyard. Isolated as they were, and intimidated by the coldness of both their aunt and their father, the six children had only each other to cling to; having been made aware of death very young they learned an incurable emotional helplessness and in spite of having two adults to see after their physical and educational needs, they seemed to become permanent orphans. The second child, Elizabeth, also died in 1825 at the age of ten. Both Branwell and Emily died in 1848 at the ages of thirty-one and thirty respectively and Anne Brontë survived one more year before dying at the age of twenty-nine leaving a desolate Charlotte who, according to Mrs Gaskell, spent her last few years listening ‘for echoing steps that never came’ and hearing ‘the wind sobbing at the windows, with an almost articulate sound.’
Given the image of a palimpsest, the past emerging from a gone-world to the surface of the now, there is something highly appropriate in Andrew Taylor revisiting Branwell’s insufficiently-known poems to bring their haunting voice to life in the present. In a short introduction to this volume of nearly fifty poems he offers us a glimpse of the sort of work he became involved with in order to bring this haunting urgency of a long-gone past to fresh life:
There has been a recent uplift in the number of poets engaging with poems that have gone before. I’m thinking here of Peter Hughes’ versions of Petrarch’s Sonnets: Quite Frankly: After Petrarch’s Sonnets, Philip Terry’s rewriting of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Robert Sheppard’s transposing of Wordsworth’s Sonnets.
Taylor goes on to add that he sees his new poems as ‘collaborations with a silent partner’ and suggests that there is ‘an unwritten contract between collaborative writers as the collaboration advances’. He goes on to make clear that his aim is to revitalise the work for the modern reader:
‘I like the notion of creating ‘re-versions’ of the poems and taking that which has gone before and engaging with previously extant work, to produce new poems.’
In these new poems Andrew Taylor ‘was determined to only use Branwell’s words and not add mine to the poetry’ and as an example he offers us the text of Branwell’s original poem ‘The Emigrant I’, from May 1845, and places it beside his own re-version. The undoubted success of what he has achieved brings to my mind an unpublished script of ‘Some Aspects of Poems and Translations’ which J.H. Prynne put together in April 2007:
Translation is for sure a noble art, making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world; and yet a material bridge is passive and inert, without any life of its own, whereas a poetic translator must try to make a living construction with its own energy and powers of expression, to convey the active experience of a foreign original text.
Branwell’s poems were written in English and therefore do not constitute a ‘foreign original text’ as such but the movement of language that Taylor has achieved acts as a type of translation from one world to another: a bridge of language has been created.
In his version of ‘The Emigrant I’ Taylor presents us with an ‘exchange’ of ‘past time / for time to come’ and the chilled isolation of the Haworth parsonage in ‘Misery Part II’, originally written in March 1836, finds its new voice in his own poem written in March 2022:
Wild winds sighing
dark its evening ray
drives past cold
of sleety spray (p.60)
As a grief-stricken mind can seek for relief from ‘such a present’ Taylor’s new poem offers the reader ‘strained thoughts / to reach its strand.’ The understanding of Branwell Brontë which Andrew Taylor achieves is perhaps most felt in the echoes of William Cowper’s 1799 poem ‘The Castaway’ which were re-versioned by Branwell in his own 1846 poem ‘Juan Fernandez’. Branwell had been dismissed from his post as tutor in the household of a family at Thorp Green when he wrote his own version of the Cowper poem that had haunted him since childhood:
I’d long been tossed like withered leaf
That eddying blasts whirl round and round,
And born through many a gust of grief
While to the port of pleasure bound.
Feeling himself ‘Tossed overboard’ his ‘Hopes and Joys sink, one by one’ and we hear of course the lament of Cowper’s castaway who was ‘Wash’d headlong from on board’ and whose isolation was registered in his permanent exclusion from ‘His floating home’. In Andrew Taylor’s re-version the yearning for the reappearance of the long-lost is caught with anguished exactness:
happiness unnoticed drift us
toward despair bane
of our distress
flowered scents the sailor loves
salt wind from the Main
sweet wind from the healing shore
grains to them worth more than gold (p.62)
Those flowered scents of memory echo of course Andrew Taylor’s own earlier poetry and the volume March (Shearsman, 2017) springs to mind:
Capturing moments of sounds
and noises before they escape
through the ceiling
The poet’s purpose in seeking out Branwell Brontë’s ‘port of pleasure’ is similar to his shell collecting in ‘Honesty Box’ from that Shearsman volume:
Shell collecting a rippled shore
wash the finds in pools
Follow tracks in soft sands
keep the notes
focus on the corner chair
And Taylor’s capturing of moments of sound hint at the eerie crying of Branwell’s dead sister seeking to be let back in.
The re-emergence of the past and sense of re-versioning a poetry which offered responses to a world long gone is central also to the recent Shearsman volume To the Hitchhiking Dead by Khaled Nurul Hakim. Hakim’s introduction to the sequence of poems sets the scene of a world ‘culled from notebooks made between 1986-1988 when hitchhiking in Europe and England or otherwise doing nothing.’ As the poet then puts it the notebook sketches ‘were towards an epical rhapsody that never got written.’ Similar to the world of the palimpsest already referred to in the earlier pages of this review, the reader is now permitted to see the past dawning into the present:
‘Returning to recover the project after 35 years sees a rapprochement between the two poet-selves. I am writing into the fragments of the past and the notebooks are writing into my occluded present.’
Fragments of the past pierce the surface of the white pages of this sequence like a shark’s fin carving its passage and freighted with danger. In ‘DOLDRUMS 2020’ a motorway lift presents us with the seemingly unstoppable journey of the hitchhiker:
A motorway suth east suth west – I got a lift by
three hells anjels or goths driving a pickup van, &
ϸey tole me to get in the open bak. & th wind is beating
me upsids, I think I ta kth ships cap off & hair flayling
& I get an overwhelming funk dese Gothik redneck types ar
driving me to my plase of tortchur. & da miles go by I see hem
læᴣhing thruᴣ th bak window, & Im thinking I haf to stop dis truck
As we move through different language conventions with their echoes of different cultures the poet presents us with the inevitable question of ‘How did we get heere’ before presenting an answer which is central to the surging past’s movement into the present:
A self that’s stitch from fragments. A self dats blank
to itself. (p.14)
The fragments of the past echo not only the famous lines from the end of Eliot’s The Waste Land but, perhaps more pertinently, the opening line of Pound’s first Malatesta Canto in which the Lord of Rimini, soldier and patron of the Arts, attempts to spread order around him: ‘These fragments you have shelved (shored).’ (‘Canto VIII’)
On the back cover of this remarkable sequence of poems haunted by movement and the upsurge of what had been noted down so long before, Kelvin Corcoran notes that the ‘verve and fully engaged wit’ of Khaled Hakim’s poetry is presented to the reader ‘graced with adept transitions of mood and tone for the bright spectrum of tenderness, anger, reverence and regret.’ The authentication of such past thoughts is preserved in the orthography of the present publication and the poet has kept the scribal trace of each notebook entry. As he puts it in the introduction:
‘I spelled conventionally before 1990 or so, and afterward determined on the course of unconventionalized spelling that has become signature to my work; so contemporary sections have deformed spelling but the original notebook writing is undeformed.’
As with Andrew Taylor, these are remembered strains presenting to the reader ‘collaborations with a silent partner’.