Friday, March 14, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Simon Perril’s Archilochus on the Moon

Simon Perril is the author of several books, including his investigation of early film Nitrate. (See here for one of those poems on Pages when it was more strictly a blogzine, a condition to which it might return in time, I hope.) He is also an astute critic, with one of the finest pieces on Iain Sinclair tucked away in an academic journal, and (more publicly) the necessary and well-edited Salt Companion to John James to his name.

And here comes Archilochus on the Moon, published in 2013 by Shearsman Books. It is an excellent book, as I hope to show.

First Archilochus. Archilochus is the first named classical Greek lyric poet, so this exploration could be regarded as a return to a poetic origin (as, in its analogous way, could Erin Moure’s exploration of the troubadour archives). But it doesn’t feel like that, since he is invented anew and the epigraph of the book takes (whether the prophecy is Perril’s fanciful invention or not) the words of the Delphic Oracle (an instrument of much Greek colonial expansionism, either as permission or excuse) quite literally: ‘Announce to the Parians, Archilochus, that I bid you found a conspicuous city on the moon.’ (Perril 2013: 6) This book shows Archilochus – the lyrics hint at the absent epic beyond – doing just that, though it feels immediately more like exile (the mood reminds me of the Tristia of Ovid, texts I used, or rather my fictional poet, René Van Valckenborch, used, in A Translated Man, in a way I recognise here). However, the little that is know about the historical Archilochus is summed up neatly in Perril’s ‘Grapsing a Nettle Tongue: An Afterward(s)’: ‘He was a soldier, part slave part aristocrat, who took part in the earliest colonial expeditions. His father, Telesicles, after consulting the oracle at Delphi, led the first colonising mission from Paros to Thasos…. His companion was Lycambes, who later agreed to the engagement of Archilochus and his eldest daughter Neobulé – and later, for reasons unknown, broke that arrangement.’ (Perril 2013: 91)

What attracted Perril was (apart from qualities of the verse itself, though received in translation) ‘this ancient foundational moment of conjunction between lyric and colonization’, and that is as fascinating to him as Moure’s discovery of the troubadours, a work he refers to. (Perrril 2013: 91) ‘Lyric is territorial,’ Perril argues: ‘it desires to occupy, it forms an erotics of coercion.’ (Perril 2013: 91) However, Perril provides Archilochus with an Ovidian exile: ‘The exile I have established for this soldier-poet is steeped in the myths that surround him,’ we are told, and chief among these is that ‘when Lycambes broke off the poet’s engagement to Neobulé … Archilochus wrote such scurrilous poems about the affair, that the entire family committed suicide’. (Perril 2013: 92) Perril weaves another legend from this: ‘The basic premise of this book,’ he explains, ‘is that Archilocus has been sent – partly as punishment for the havoc his poems have wreaked upon Lycambes’ family – into exile to colonise the moon’. (Perril 2013: 92) There is some historical evidence that – unlike the later case of Ovid – colonisation followed exile, so we can surmise that Archilochus was ‘sent’ ‘partly’ also to colonise (in reality Thasos). Carol Dougherty, in a book Perril footnotes, deals with what she describes as ‘how the Greeks “emplotted” their memory of archaic colonization’. She notes: ‘The basic narrative pattern that emerges can be summarized as follows: crisis, Delphic consultation, colonial foundation, resolution’. (Dougherty 1993: 8). Perril’s book balances upon the indeterminacies of the third stage. ‘The foundation of a new city’, which Dougherty calls ‘the solution to the civic crisis’ is deferred. (Dougherty 1993: 9) Resolution feels as though it is unattainable; indeed, dissolution is its, or Archilochus’, final state. However she does note that in his poetry, Archilochus ‘overlooks the prosperous and fruitful nature of Thasos and describes the island, the site of Paros’ colonial expedition, as the bare back of an ass.’(Dougherty 1993: 22). Specifically, uncultivated timber is compared to the bristles on an ass’s back.

                                    Here the island stands
            stiff with wild timber like a donkey’s bristling back.
            This is no place of beauty, nor desirable
            nor lovely like the plains where the River Siris runs. (Lattimore 1960: 4)

The moon is even less fruitful for its new ‘selenite citizens’: (Perril 2013: 57)

before sailing
for lunar seas,
these moon-bound men

signed an oath
will bind them
to ashen coasts, (Perril 2013: 22)

the assonance of the word ‘oath’ binding them to such ‘coasts’. Archilochus bemoans his lack of fecundity. The civic crisis of antiquity is partly translated into the sexual anxieties of the twenty-first century by Perril, the rhyme of ‘bit’ and ‘it’ indicating the penis without naming it:

For my bit,
I have planted seed
and watered it
with the same instrument (Perril 2013: 40)

Doughtery reminds us of the original anxiety underlying Archilochus’ disparaging description of Thasos: ‘Archilochus’ poetry reveals what might lie behind this rhetorical strategy – concerns about settling foreign territory, questions about the nature of the land and of the people who live there.’ (Dougherty 1993: 22) Perril’s man has no problems concerning the latter, though ‘salt mines/ on the moon’ suggests not natural resources but imprisonment. (Perril 2013: 82)

The other legend about Archilochus is poetic, his formal preference for the iambic, which was not just a metrical choice, conventionally speaking, but a preference for verse ‘for ritual invective, obscenity, abuse and blame’, as Perril puts it in his ‘Afterward(s)’,(Perril 2013: 92) (or more bluntly in the poems themselves: ‘iambic stock:/ the broth of blame’), which is revealed in the image of the ass’s back and is reflected in the excerpts from Perril above. (Perril 2013: 71) As another poem has it:

I act in kind
and spew (Perril 2013: 23)

The fragmented nature of the sequence is appropriate formally to the condition of the poems handed down to us. No Archilochus poem survives intact. Nevertheless, Perril isolates qualities in the translations he has received (chiefly Guy Davenport’s). ‘His is a nuanced voice, full of many tones and timbres…; it has the viscosity of semen. It can argue and cajole, it can caress and curse’. (Perril 2013: 91)

I only have to hand, as yet, Greek Lyrics translated by Richmond Lattimore, an anthology that opens, naturally enough, with Archilochus. One fragment runs: ‘If it only were my fortune just to touch Neoboule’s hand’, longingly, caressingly, as it were; (Lattimore 1960: 5) another is directed at her father; this, in Perril’s words, curses:

            Father Lykámbes, whatever were you thinking of?
            And who seduced the common sense
            in which you were once so secure? How things are changed!
            Your neighbours giggle in your face. (Lattimore 1960: 6)

Our lunar poet invokes Neobulé in one poem which reads, complete:

Neobulé, somehow
your space was deeper

as the promise of moisture

on the moon (Perril 2013: 86)

The colonial space is clearly associated with corporeal space, and is a source of disappointment (both promises proving false). In another poem addressed to Neobulé, he laments:

I … found my body
a parchment map. Territory
of all you ever touched.

These marks
are the colonies I value
where you landed’ . (Perril 2013: 77)

He figures himself as occupied territory at this point, ‘an ex-citizen recast/ as a bastard’. (Perril 2013: 77) Lycambes is also addressed post-mortem by Perril’s Archilochus:

Lycambes’ ghost
visits most amongst
Mnemosyne’s folk [;]

that is to say, around those who are devotees of the muses, the offspring or ‘folk’ of the Titan goddess, but this is not a respectful memorialization, given Perril’s Archilochus’ complicity in the familial suicide:

and the self-righteous prick
has a point
to accompany the ruff of weals
a noose makes; (Perril 2013: 29)

Archilochus does not pause to link this suicide by hanging with poetry. (It is linked: Archilochus’ poems caused the family to self-slaughter, though in some versions of the legend it is only the shamed daughters): ‘but he misunderstands/the crux of song’. (Perril 2014: 29) Poetry, this poem seems to suggest, is not about shame but guilt, by formally patterning (‘assembled, reassembled’) ‘the wrong’:

this riot-rhythm
is what I bottle
and the poems flutter and buzz
with the life-scuzz (Perril 2013: 29)

‘Bottle’ suggests the bottling up of repressive content, but it also suggests the distillation provided by form and acts of forming. ‘Life-scuzz’ is transmuted into the rhythmic and sonic ‘flutter and buzz’ of poetry (the rhyme almost demonstrating this relation, while holding them apart; the scuzz is not buzz). (Perril 2013: 29)

Perril translates the whole legend of Archilochus and his fragmented oeuvre into his own fragmented (lyric) epic, although perhaps it is best to think of Perril’s poems as narrative nodes from an incomplete colonial narrative. (Indeed, Richmond Lattimore speculates whether some of Archilochus’ own ‘fragments’ are not, in fact, complete epigrams.) (Lattimore 1960: 1)  He ‘occupies’ the ‘foundational moment’ of lyric and its colonial ambitions (thwarted by Delphic diversion to the moon). Perril says, quite clearly: ‘These poems are not translations… They are occupations,’ which is yet another territorial metaphor, of course. (Perril 2103: 92) Archilochus on the Moon is a book-length sequence of 80 short-lined lyrics; like those above, few of them reach a second page, and they employ frequent but light rhyme, some end-stopped, but quite often internal, a device which lifts the otherwise demotic, even earthy, language and content into a register we recognise as lyrical. Unlike his previous work, which has eschewed the lyrical (in this sense), this sequence wishes to embrace that possibility (or fate) openly, recognising the power of tradition and effects of ‘lyric resistance’, as Perril calls it. (Perril 2013: 92) One poem, number 56, addresses this resistance, announces a formal (and ethical) question:

for what manner of shield
is a lyre: to what office
does it aspire

it opens, neatly and internally rhyming ‘lyre’ (the instrument of lyric) with hope, while semantically rhyming lyre with a shield, an appropriate pairing for this soldier-poet, and one dictated by the resemblance of curves in their physical designs and in their aspiration, which is

to protect
all prospects, sound
them in sinew and strum;

Both instrument and weapon are held, one to the muscles of war, the lyre to the gentle rhythmic harmony accompanying the poet in recitation. Both instruments are again equated in an elaborate metaphor (which, slightly clumsily, as though to offset the neatness of the poem’s identifications, requires the reading of ‘bags’ as a verb). Shield (made of animal skin?) and lyre (strung with animal gut?) ‘bag’ in a fashion that is emphatically, if not disgustingly, corporeal (as a reader might expect by now):

handle them
as a body bags jellied goods
in its skin-pouch

then wastes
through its holes what
it cannot keep

This image of digestion and excretion is also an image of poetic excess (the shield seems less important, though it may leak a soldier’s blood through the knife stabs and sword thrusts through it). There something lyric cannot keep. Or keep hold of, contain, long enough. The poem is syntactically ambiguous around the double but elusive use of the word ‘it’. So that on a second reading, the poem re-forms, the isolated ‘what’ holding the ‘it’ to the hostage of conclusion: ‘What/ it cannot keep

sings it out:
for song is a form
of passing (Perril 2013: 64)

‘Passing’ is wonderfully ambiguous. It is another word for excretion, the process described, but lyric is also a ‘form’ for requiem and remembrance, ‘passing’ being one of the oddest euphemisms for dying (often in battle, to return to the martial associations of the shield). This is one reading, of course, but the poem is insistent, the sentence re-lineated in prose by me simply to emphasise its teasing oddness: ‘What it cannot keep sings it out’. What escapes in lyric is not the interiority. This is not even a parodic image of fecundity of seeding and watering. This process ‘wastes’ (another word that can connote dying in other contexts) into song (into actual form and content) something it would otherwise prefer to retain. The best parts of the ‘jellied goods’ of lyric are transformed into exterior existence, passing, passing over, as transformed. The ‘waste’ of lyric is what the poet cannot keep, his essence spilling like a soldier’s vital blood. The ‘yelp/ and yearn’ of Archilochus’ poetry leaves him neither outburst nor passion. (Perril 2013: 87) By the end of the sequence, ‘my songs fall old’, he declares, ‘mind-dark’, the poet a husk, emptied of what must be surrendered beyond himself.  (Perril 2013: 88) The ‘erotics of coercion’ are at an end. (Perril 2013: 91)

Works Cited

Dougherty, Carol. The Poetics of Colonization: From City to Text in Archaic Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Lattimore, Richmond. Tr. Greek Lyrics. Chicago and London: Phoenix Books, The University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Perril, Simon. Archilochus on the Moon. Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2013.

See here for links to all further parts of my The Meaning of Form project. And there is mention of the sequence to Archilochus on the Moon, Beneath here.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places