Screaming bloody murder

Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey – Macbeth, Macbeth (Beyond Criticism, 2016)

This is the shit that things grow out of. This is the shit that things were already growing out of before the ink was dry in messrs. Fernie and Palfrey’s notebooks.

No mysticism, it’s because they are steeped. Up to their waists in the loam, the historical and psychological doo-doo.

Their stated ambition is to reach inside Macbeth’s torture chamber, a place all the bloodier in Shakespeare because of the curtains drawn around it. A place all the bloodier because of the lack of blood.

In Fernie and Palfrey’s version there is comedy, sheer amoral brutality, rape.

In each and every era civilisation appears to be finally completed before we are disabused of the illusion. Good riddance, I say.

I was in top set for English at school and our hippy teacher – an excellent teacher, to be fair – showed us Threads, which traumatised me for life. She also showed us Polanski’s Macbeth. Crackling VHS images captured on YouTube have come with an evil hiss ever since.

A scene was going on in Macbeth as the white static snow strafed the screen, and there was some screaming down the corridor. The hippy teacher flatly explained ‘of course, all the women would be raped when a siege broke.’

Even at this distance I can still access the shock I felt in my body as it sunk in. Like ice in the veins and then anti-freeze. My face burning red. This teacher opened my eyes to the brutality of humans. Fernie and Palfrey have done this all over again.

Then we all had to shuffle out of the classroom, by girls, girls in skirts, girls who suddenly – after seeming so scarily, shapeshiftingly advanced in comparison to us puny boys – looked vulnerable.

Fernie and Palfrey’s writing is incredible. They can conjure something greener than the greenest green without the colour ever appearing. I still cannot remember or find again the sentence they connived to do this but the image remains.

But what Fernie and Palfrey have really done here – the very big thing they have done – is to explore the psychology of humans all over again. They have also re-created human history, in which the glorious lineages of the present are lies that hide absurd accidents, smashed apart continuums – here the arrival of industrial bread factories – and fake heritage, all underpinned by murder, rape and more rape.

The filth and the lies are then scraped together into a dark, sweet confection and served to a glad-hearted population. How very now.

Everyone should read this book, academics, adults, children. It is not an academic experiment, the tone they have found makes it far wider in appeal.

Fernie and Palfrey’s book, emerging in 2016 and written before the current mess showed its full shape, has stood its own test of time already by re-lighting 2019, a place almost impossible to see from, say, 2014.

In this it stands up to their ultimate subject, to Shakespeare himself, and there isn’t a higher compliment than that.

– Steve Hanson

Not the Same Old Old

Gaius Valerius Catullus – The Book of Catullus (Carcanet, trans., Simon Smith)
Sextus Propertius – Poems (Carcanet, trans., Patrick Worsnip)

This Catullus translation, by Simon Smith, is incredible. It moves the material right out of the romanticised eroticism of the Roman love poets and into the real, colourful but dirty world of the Romans.

Catullus bangs on about who he’s fucking, animal, vegetable, mineral. It is very direct and the translation amplifies that directness by making it scan for our own time.

Here we have a world where for some the post- of gender was never a question, as long as they could get up it like a rat in a lead Roman bath house pipe.

But the raw sex is often a metaphor for swindling, monetarily, or in terms of reputation:

Oh Memmius, you really fucked me over,
buggered me completely and without concern.
So, the pair of you are stuck, as I see it,
long suffering a similar giant prick,
shafted.

Propertius rubbed up against Octavian – later Caesar Augustus – for rejecting marriage in verse. Ovid would be exiled by Augustus later.

Augustus switched to the old ‘family values’ rhetoric to try to make Rome respectable again. Propertius celebrated Cleopatra, where Augustus wanted that episode to be as over as Anthony: The Tories are much older than the Tories, you know.

A band I admire greatly, Bablicon, recorded a track called ‘Augustus Syphilis’, it plays in my head now.

I have no idea why I feel the need to leave that incidental thought in this review, but I do. And there it is. You could translate it as ‘AIDS to Family Values’.

The Catullus in this translation comes on as just as punk as that:

Nob of Knobs fucks. Fucking nob of knobs? That’s for sure
  the saying goes: If the roof fits, pot it.

Congratulations are due to Simon Smith. But despite surface similarities and a shared epoch, Catullus and Propertius are like oil and vinegar. The former accessible, the latter completely hidden under multiple masks.

Propertius provided a surface that has a very strange relationship with the self of the poet, and the audience – in any time – and rhetoric. It is now viewed as an almost ironic postmodern discourse, but that’s far too facile a reading.

Most people will know the name of Propertius via Ezra Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, after which come a thousand thoroughly overcooked debates.

I’m not going to get into whether Pound’s translation is sloppy or modernist genius again, but this volume of Propertius shows how appropriate it was for Pound to pick Propertius, and not, say, Catullus.

The ‘I’ in Propertius is already completely unstable, it only takes a little push for it to crumble and slide down the hill. Pound was not just freely daubing the substance of an old masterpiece, he targeted that substance – honed in on it – and amplified it.

I would recommend getting both these books and reading them simultaneously. Together they provide a great lesson in different modes of poetical discourse, different approaches to translation, and a rich meditation on what it is to be – or not to be – contemporary.

But I have long held the opinion that today’s polite litt√©rateurs are so inappropriate in their mode of discourse that they could be considered mentally unstable.

In these two poets – and in Smith’s translation – we might find two opposing rhetorical strategies via which we might begin all over again, in 2018. I believe it is possible to fuse them together proceed.

– Steve Hanson