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January 12, 2011

Unravelling the title poem of The Secret.

Some students at Cardiff High School are currently reading my first collection The Secret and their teacher, Samantha Williams, has asked me if I could talk a bit more about my use of intertextuality in the title poem of The Secret published in 2007.

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The Secret

A peculiar symptom in those poisoned by Belladonna is the complete loss of voice.
— Medical Dictionary

Dyma’r Wyddfa a’i chriw; dyma lymder, a moelni’r tir.
They said: Why do you want to go to that place? There is nothing
to see. And I said: But I like its name. It means “snow” and “death”.
It has something to do with the colours of red and green. So,

they were talking about the war, the table still uncleared
in front of them. Centuries of hate divide the Severn channel
from the Welsh. Far away, dark before the shining exit gates,
some place was waiting, its features unrecognizable.

I was born in the place on a slope few see that falls westwardly
like the feel of a pulse in the dark when I stay up all night.
Its name – how impossible! A piece of grass on the tongue
kidneys slipped from silk or striding the night for speckled eggs.

_But me your work is not the best for–nor your love the best,
nor able to commend the kind of work for love’s sake._
I am a settler East of the River, but back I have come
wintering in a dark without window at the heart of the house.

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‘The Secret’ was essentially a poem about Wales, based on T.H. Parry Williams’s poem ‘Hon’. ‘The Secret’ begins with a line from ‘Hon’ written in Cymraeg, the Welsh language; it personifies Mount Snowden (Yr Wyddfa), but compares the mountain’s power with the poverty and bareness of the land below. Parry Williams asks whether it matters that he was born in Wales. Isn’t it just accident or chance that causes one to be born in a particular place? Why does it matter? Why feel any affiliation to that place?

‘The Secret’ is not only an exploration of feelings about place, however. It’s also a manifesto that refers to a number of poets who were important for my poetics when I was writing this poem.

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Jon Ash
When I was writing this poem, I was very influenced by Jon Ash, an expatriate British poet and writer. Ash lives in Istanbul in Turkey, a city where I spent a formative summer as a student. He is a surreal, idiosyncratic and witty writer, and in ‘The Secret’, I refer to his book The Anatolikon, a book exploring place and history (see this review).

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Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou is an American poet who tends to write about what it is to be black and female. When I was a teenager, she really influenced me, simply because she had such a powerful voice. She wasn’t passive but active, not meek but angry and defiant. In ‘The Secret’, I reference her poem ‘London’, in which she describes how

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Centuries of hate divide St. George’s
channel and the Gaels

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I remember liking the idea in this poem that the English channel is a site of contest between the English and their others: the foreigners in Europe. I related this idea to the Welsh and English and the Severn Channel between them, but I thought too, that for certain kinds of nationalists, it isn’t enough merely to be on the right side of the border. Just living near the border can make you suspect or not Welsh enough. Consequently, the Welsh are not only divided from the English but recoil from the border itself in ‘The Secret’.

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Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry is simply some of the most beautiful to ever have been translated into the English language. He was originally from Prague and he led a tumultuous life. Following the philosophies of the German dramatist Henrich von Kleist, Rilke believed that there were three ways of being in the world: superconsciousness (gods, angels, higher powers), having no sense of consciousness (e.g. inanimate objects, animals), or being self-conscious (human beings). Being self-conscious was the most difficult, according to Rilke, because it meant always having doubts and anxieties about one’s life.

In ‘The Secret’, I refer to Rilke’s poem ‘Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes’, which tells the story of Orpheus’s journey into the underworld to save his lost love Eurydice. You can read the story from Greek myth here if you don’t know it. The key moment of the story is when, in order for Eurydice to follow Orpheus out of the underworld, Orpheus is instructed that he must never look back. He has to trust that Eurydice is behind him following. Orpheus can’t resist the temptation to look back, however, and when he does, Eurydice disappears. In his version of the tale, Rilke lingers on this moment:

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And when suddenly
the god stopped her and, with anguish in his cry,
uttered the words: ‘He has turned round’ –
she comprehended nothing and said softly: ‘Who?’

But far off, darkly before the bright exit,
stood someone or other, whose features
were unrecognisable. Who stood and saw
how on the strip of path between meadows,
with mournful look, the god of messages
turned, silently, to follow the figure
already walking back by that same path,
her steps confined by the long grave-cloths,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

(Read the full poem at this link ).

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I reference this moment in ‘The Secret’, but instead of a person being unreachable, a place is out of reach.

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Thomas Hardy
The novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy have been a huge influence on me. I studied The Return of the Native as a school student, and went on to read Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure, as well as Hardy’s poems. Hardy is wonderful at writing about losses and disappointments. He also gives place, landscape and nature a huge significance, so that the background of the heroes and heroines is like a character itself. ‘The Secret’ references his moving poem, ‘I Found Her Out There’:

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I found her out there
On a slope few see,
That falls westwardly
To the salt-edged air,
Where the ocean breaks
On the purple strand,
And the hurricane shakes
The solid land.

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The poem was written for Hardy’s wife, Emma, after she had died. It is a moving poem, which the place described again becomes a larger-than-life character witnessing the sombre reflections.

By referencing Hardy, I am admitting my indebtedness to him, but I am also identifying the narrator as one of Hardy’s women. In his novels, Hardy’s female characters (e.g. Tess, Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native, Bathsheba Everdine in Far from the Madding Crowd) are often temperamental, capricious, and emotional. The narrator of ‘The Secret’ is one of Hardy’s women speaking back.

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John Burnside
Burnside is a Scottish poet and novelist and I admire his work very much for its intricate description of place and feeling. I reference his poem ‘The Myth of the Twin’, in which he describes how, at night, he has the feeling that someone is awake in his grandfather’s house. The poem is dream-like and surreal like a waking nightmare, and he describes at one point ‘a feel of a pulse in the dark’: someone or something is out there in the darkness. I used this line to describe the narrator’s quest to discover home or place: a sense that something is there waiting if only she could find it.

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Marina Tsvetaeva
I have written about the Russian poet Tsvetaeva quite a bit on this blog (see here ), because I admire her work greatly. Tsvetaeva lived through some tumultuous times in Russia in the early twentieth century, but she produced some beautiful love poems including a favourite of mine: the sequence ‘Poem for Blok’, a tribute to the other great Russian poet, Alexander Blok. In the first poem of this sequence, Tsvetaeva tries to define Blok’s name using a display of startling images:

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A bird in the hand is your name,
An icicle on the tongue is your name,
One movement of your lips is your name,
Five letters is your name.
A ball caught in the flight it is,
A silver tambourine between the lips,
(Read the full poem here at this link)

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I similarly try to define the name of my home country.

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Gillian Clarke
The image of kidneys in ‘The Secret’ is a reference to the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke. Clarke often writes about the harshness of farm life in Wales: the slaughtering of animals and the cycles of life. She has been a huge influence on my writing, simply because she writes so clearly and so powerfully about what it is to be a woman and Welsh.

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David Morley
David Morley was my tutor at Warwick University and supervised my PhD on Welsh women’s poetry. He is also an acute and sensitive observer of nature and place, and though he is a poet, he began life as a zoologist. The reference to searching for speckled eggs is from Morley’s poetry, especially the way that he negotiates the relationship between the life processes of nature and the needs of human beings.

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Elizabeth Barrett-Browning
During the period when I was writing this poem, I had been reading poems by the nineteenth-century English poet, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. The nineteenth century was by no means easy for women in terms of gaining the same opportunities as male writers, but there is some incredible poetry by women like Barett-Browning and Christina Rossetti.

‘The Secret’ refers to Barrett-Browning’s novel-in-verse, Aurora Leigh, which tells of the trials and tribulations of a young woman who wants to be a poet. A key moment is when Aurora rejects a marriage proposal from her suitor Romney; he wants her to give up her poetry and go with him to be a missionary. Aurora refuses and pities women who give up their work for love:

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I do not blame such women, though, for love,
They pick much oakum; earth’s fanatics make
Too frequently heaven’s saints. But me your work
Is not the best for,-nor your love the best,
Nor able to commend the kind of work
For love’s sake merely. Ah, you force me, sir,
To be over-bold in speaking of myself,-
I, too, have my vocation,-work to do

(Read the full poem on Google Books )


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Li Po
Referencing the Chinese “wandering poet” Li Po seemed important for this poem about seeking home and belonging. The line about being a settler east of the river refers to his poems, but it was also appropriate because at that time I was living east of the Severn in England.

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Sylvia Plath
The final line is a reference to Plath’s poem ‘Wintering’ (read it here ).


September 30, 2009

Polanski, Tess and the Phenomenon of the Rapist

How to solve the problem of Roman Polanski and his recent arrest for the rape of a thirteen year old girl? A director of numerous wonderful films: Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist, Chinatown, Macbeth , and Death and the Maiden, Polanski also directed and co-wrote the script for a film that has rape at its heart: his exquisite adaptation of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. There are many sets of debates raging, questioning whether Polanski is guilty, whether the testimony of the thirteen year old girl involved can be trusted, whether the corrupt dealings in the US legal system mean that Polanski should be acquitted, what it means that the 13 year old girl (now mother and wife) can’t bear to have the case re-opened etc. For my own part, whilst I can see that Polanski’s court case was not exactly fair and that the judge was rather suspect, a fair punishment does not seem to have been meted out for what appears from the evidence to have been the rape and anal rape of a minor. But this is not what I want to discuss here.[1] What I would like to do is rethink how Polanski’s case is narrativised using, as a point of comparison, Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Polanski’s film version of it: Tess. [1]

The great irony is that Polanski so carefully portrayed the agony of Tess, a woman convinced that her true lover, Angel Clare, would reject her when he knows that she is soiled by a rape in her early life. In the script for Polanski’s Tess, she writes to Angel how “My youth, my simplicity and the strangeness of my situation may perhaps lessen my fault. But since I committed it, I am guilty”, words that now seem eerily prescient: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mezs1kCTML0.

Hardy never actually tells us what Tess writes in her letter; instead when she does confess to Angel after their marriage she tells him, “I was a child—a child when it happened! I knew nothing of men”, words that are repeated in Polanski’s script. This is no defence in Angel’s view, and is also no defence in the eyes of many commentators offering their take on Polanski’s act of rape and the thirteen year old girl, whose testimony makes shocking reading. There are in fact sinister parallels between that testimony and Hardy’s representation of Tess’ rape by the rich and powerful Alec D’Urberville.

Q. What did you do when he said, ‘Let’s go into the other room’?
A. I was going ‘No, I think I better go home’, because I was afraid. So I just went and I sat down on the couch.
Q. What were you afraid of?
A. Him…. He sat down beside me and asked if I was OK. I said ‘No’.
Q. What did he say?
A. He goes ‘Well, you’ll be better’. And I go, ‘No I won’t. I have to go home. He said ‘I’ll take you home soon’.
Q. Then what happened?
A. Then he went down and he started performing cuddliness… I was kind of dizzy, you know, like things were kind of blurry sometimes. I was having trouble with my coordination… I wasn’t fighting really because I, you know, there was no one else there and I had no place to go.”
Q. Did he ask you about being on the pill?
A. He asked, he goes, ‘Are you on the pill?’ and I went, ‘No’ and he goes ‘When did you have your period?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know. A week or two. I’m not sure’... He goes, ‘Come on. You have to remember’. And I told him I didn’t…. and right after I said I was not on the pill… and he goes… and then he put me – wait. Then he lifted my legs up farther and he went in through my anus.
Q. Did you resist at that time?
A. A little bit, but not really, because…
Q. Because what?
A. Because I was afraid of him.

(Source: Dominic Lawson’s article ‘Let’s not forget what Polanski did’: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/dominic-lawson/dominic-lawson-lets-not-forget-what-polanski-did-1794717.html)

There is even the fact that, as in the case of Tess who was sent to the D’Urberville household by her ambitious mother, it is claimed that this 13 year old girl was given to Polanski by her own mother as a delicacy, as if that lessens the criminality of the act committed. Of course, Polanski is like Alec too, in that he is accused of raping (and anally-raping) a teenage girl from a position of power and money and with little regard for the consequences. [3]

There is a difference, however, between Alec and Polanski; while Alec remains a shadowy figure [4], we know a great deal about Polanski’s life: especially about his tragic early life in Poland during World War Two and the death of his wife, Sharon Tate. Many commentators use Polanski’s past to argue that his terrible life experiences explain the act of raping a 13 year old girl. The French minister Frédéric Mitterrand recently said he was ‘dumbfounded’ by Polanski’s arrest, adding that he ‘strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them’. But does Polanski’s past really explain his actions?

Shouldn’t the real question be, why did Polanski still have sex and anal sex with a thirteen year old girl despite his intimate knowledge of pain, suffering and humiliation? Prof. Joanna Bourke’s commentary at the end of Rape: A history from 1860 to the present is particularly relevant to this kind of questioning, because she concludes that rape must be reframed as a male political issue rather than a female one. Following Bourke’s recommendation, the painful hounding of the 13-year-old-girl-now-mother should cease and instead we should be asking what made Polanski rape in the first place. Does violence create violence? Do we honestly believe that all rapists are totally evil like the “baddies” from some children’s TV show?
Do we really think that rape is a glitch in society, that it is just an unaccountable phenomenon committed by evil outcasts who were never part of our community to begin with? Or is there, as Bourke contends, something brutal and sinister in certain modes or parts of modern masculinity? [5]

Even great directors like Polanski rape, hence Whoopi Goldberg’s desperately lame comment ‘It wasn’t rape-rape. It was something else but I don’t believe it was rape-rape.’ (Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/sep/29/roman-polanski-whoopi-goldberg). Goldberg finds it hard to reconcile the Polanski she knows with Polanski the rapist, just as anyone would find it difficult to believe that a friend or colleague had committed an act of rape. What I am really saying here, to use Bourke’s words, is that understanding rape ‘exclusively through rape victims is wrong: it lets men off the hook’ (Rape, p. 116) [6]. Why a man like Polanski committed this crime is a crucial question and one from which cultural commentary is too easily diverted. As Hardy would put it, ‘The woman pays’.

Notes
[1] Polanski’s Tess was in fact made only two years after Polanski was tried for rape, posing a few questions about his intentions in making the film.
[2] I would direct you to Kate Smurthwaite’s blog for a great piece of writing that deflates some of the more ridiculous arguments for Polanski’s release: http://cruellablog.blogspot.com/2009/09/roman-roads.html Also see Amanda Hess’ blog: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist/2009/09/28/common-roman-polanski-defenses-refuted/#comment-17499
[3] Polanski’s “position of power and money” is not sufficient to explain this case of rape. Money is related to power though (see Bourke’s comments in Rape about the sexual exploitation of working class women), but obviously it is not the main factor in every case and it is not only wealthy men who rape.
[4] We know that Alec D’Urberville has an invalid mother, that his family bought the D’Urberville name with their new money and later in the book, we see him working as a lay preacher to try to atone for his sins. Otherwise he is merely seductive, dangerous, brutal, sensuous and self-serving.
[5] I am far from saying that these issues surrounding masculinity are a new or modern phenomenon, but merely want to suggest that we need to look at masculinity in its modern context. Bourke’s study Rape, however, does cover the period from 1860 to the present day, so there certainly are lessons to be learned from history.
[6] I want to highlight that when Bourke calls for a focus on masculinity, she is not saying like Marilyn French that “All men are rapists.” Rapists, however, are not always male. She explains her argument in ‘Women, men and rape’, when she explains that

sexual aggression is not innate to masculine identity. There is nothing “natural” about men’s violence. Sexually aggressive men in modern western societies don’t bolster manliness but actually enervate male power regimes. Rapists are not patriarchy’s “stormtroopers”, but its inadequate spawn. Rape is a crisis of manliness; its eradication is a matter for men – for a radically different conception of agency and masculinity. (http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/democracy_power/5050/tackling_rape)

Bourke suggests that rape is not innate to masculinity, but is characteristic of a particular type of masculinity, and I would argue prevalent in a specific masculine mode.


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