All 2 entries tagged Myth

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November 04, 2011

Between Two Worlds: Teacher's Notes for David Morley's 'Taken Away'

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Taken Away


Taken Away

The mother places her baby at the waterfall’s brim.

She waits for the moon’s climb.

They’d been hard at the hay with a blunt scythe between them

circling and slashing for hours under blanking sunlight

with the cradle nestled and nooked on the one hayless place.

They’d had their breakfast, porridge and milk and tea,

scones, cheese, whatever they had. Their picnic things

were scattered on the green knowe around the cradle

as if plates and pots and pans had been tossed out by the baby.

The wife shadows her husband with a wide wooden rake

weaving and whirling his handwork as he worries the hay loose.

You know how a man makes bouts of hay with a scythe

and round and round the field in close and closing spirals

he rounds on the hayless knowe and that one white cradle

with cups and greaseproof wrappings pallid with butter;

like a maze of mauve leading into a green eye and an unseen

staring gap among the eye’s blades. Some small wind shoves

the grass as if a snake were sidling.         The parents are heads down.

Their muscles move with each other as if they were making love.

Round he goes, and round she goes, a buzzard’s marriage

on a thermal. Then a cry goes up as if the soil were screaming

or the wind were wounded on nails of brittle straw. A cry

neither parent has heard and cannot stem with any known thing,

not milk or love or kiss or words or food. The young doctor

from across the glen hears the child’s call across five miles.

He rides towards it as if the cry were a fire rising in the fields

but all his knowledge’s clear water will not quench the child.

And so it goes for the fever of three thickening months

except at the wick of midnight when the baby closes down

as if his switches had been thrown, or some wires scissored

in his throat. Tethered by their child, the parents thaw into sleep

only to freeze awake at dawn as the cry bursts back alight.

Folk keep away. Folk catch that cry in their cattle’s eyes; taste

its scum in their milk and mutton.   

At summer’s flow, the postman

deaf with listening to a lifetime’s stories, strode into their cottage,

downed a dram, and drank the scene into his memory: salt water

damming a child’s throat, a cry that would not cease for love.

He stayed with him all day. The parents scrammed for provisions

and the cure of quiet. As the door slammed and their footfalls

slapped into the lane, the postman turned to the baby and the baby

sat up asking if they had gone and, if his parents had gone

would that now mean he could get up at last—and get up he did

as if he were a young man sternly sick of his own board and bed.

He could stand and speak. The child’s voice was dark and thrown

as if four corners of the room were talking with him or through him.

The child clenched the whiskey bottle and downed enough to throw

a horse. He drew a long straw and slit it to the note of a flute.

Then he played the long day through, making the postman drink

deeper and harder than he had the head or height or heart for.

A moon widened on the windows; a garden gate squeaked

cringing on its hinges; the parents poured through the door

to find their child crying in his cot like a seal left on some low ledge

of the Atlantic; and the postman pointing at him, adrift or bereft.

‘He’s not here, your child. He’s not anywhere. He’s taken away.

He told me everything, how you left him to the cloud and sky,

left him to the harebell and the grasshopper and the cow parsley,

left him in grazed gaps between grass, to skylark and to hoverfly,

while you worked, if that’s what you were doing.’       They knew

one cure, one pure matter passed from their grandmothers.

When midnight massed itself over breakers and shore,

when the tide of the day had flown, mother, father and friend

headed by torchlight up the headstream on the high moor.

The mother slides her fairy-baby towards the waterfall’s brink,

taut-shawled, his baby arms pinioned like a wrapped cat.

The child’s mewling, breathing the breath of the chilled spray

slaping up from the trout-brown pool at the fall’s foot.

The father and their friend are behind her, egging her on,

baying that it’s for the best, that their child isn’t in the child.

The moon bends a bow behind a cloud-castle then shoots

its light-arrow through a slit across the waterfall’s rim.


March 23, 2010

The Currents of Myth: the Poetry of Moniza Alvi

The Currents of Myth


A writer’s fidelity to reality can make for good art but only because our own reality is partly an art. The art of memory makes stories and myths of us all. Rereading Moniza Alvi’s first five collections of poems in Split World was a numinous experience. They make for a strong book, made more sinewy by the fact that the poems are skilfully chosen by the author. She does not elaborate any flaws by repeating them; the author scalpels them out. By doing so, Moniza Alvi makes her readers more aware of talismanic variations in her handling of language and subject, especially their binding of myth and fairytale. As I read her selection alongside the old published versions, I grew more appreciative of what I consider the most interesting aspects of Moniza Alvi’s project. The real (and unreal) country at Alvi’s shoulder is her imagination, an other-world of myth, power and strangeness all of which are considerably demonstrated by this selection and by her excellent new collection Europa.

K.K. Ruthven once tried to define myth as partaking ‘of that quality acribed to poetry in Wallace Stevens’ meticulously evasive aphorism: they appear to resist the intelligence almost successfully’. In Split World it is Moniza Alvi’s fidelity to what she does not know that gives her work power; that throws her poems open to possibility; and this aspect is most illuminating about reality and identity when Alvi engages with, and creates for herself, the currents of myth. Myth and fairytale work for Alvi as ways of knowing herself through the enticing genre that Marina Warner describes in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers as ‘promiscuous and omnivorous and anarchically heterogeneous, absorbing high and low elements, tragic and comic tones into its often simple, rondo-like structure of narrative’. These qualities came to the fore in collections such as Carrying My Wife and How the Stone Found its Voice, the latter reminiscent of fairytale strategies in the ‘Games’ and ‘Quartz Pebble’ poems of Vasco Popa:

Was it widthways or lengthways,

a quarrel with the equator?

Did the rawness of the inside sparkle?

Only this is true:

there was an arm on one side

and a hand on the other,

a thought on one side

and a hush on the other.

And a luminous tear

carried on the back of a beetle

went backwards and forwards

from one side to the other.

                       ‘How the World Split in Two’

The personal can also be mythic, as Alvi’s earlier collections showed in her writings on her Pakistani heritage: ‘Azam passes the sweetshop, / names the sugar monuments Taj Mahal. // I water the country with English rain, / cover it with English words. / Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.’ (‘The Country at My Shoulder’).

Where myth and tale coursed through Moniza Alvi’s previous books, it waterfalls into the ocean in her new volume Europa. The whelming language and whirlpool patterns of the central sequence ‘Europa and the Bull’ are remarkable for their apparent solidity. A curved wave of narrative carries the pattern. Simple, candescent images crest the fluid dynamics of its language (I admire that the ‘lie’ here is white without being named so):

She was softening, melting,

collapsing onto the sand.

And a beast was stepping towards her

dragging the sea behind him –

light in step as a dancer,

white as a boulder,

a snowy mountain,

a ship’s sail,

a lie.




not white at all.

A bull blessed with the costliest

golden horns, each gleaming

to outshine the other.

             ‘V: Europa and the Bull’

Writing this piece must have required a sea-surge of imaginative concentration, and there is a sense of the poem overflowing its pages’ shores. The poem floods across the whole book, leaving pools and traces of images in other poems; at times making whole poems that address the subject of abduction and rape from other points of view: ‘King Agenor’; ‘Europa’s Dream’; a mermaid ‘slit / down the muscular length / exposing the bone in its red canal’; or a rape victim trapped in a Volkswagen Golf in ‘The Ride’ - ‘Nothing else for company. / Just the bolting forwards - // and a neighing / heard through water.’

Writers are often told (or so they tell themselves) to write what they know, but the problem is we do not usually know enough about what we know because we do not know ourselves. Cynthia Ozick once said, ‘The point is that the self is limiting. The self—subjectivity—is narrow and bound to be repetitive…When you write about what you don’t know, this means you begin to think about the world at large. You begin to think beyond the home-thoughts. You enter dream and imagination’. This statement describes clearly what makes Moniza Alvi a fine poet and why her poetry eludes and finally escapes some of the more exploitative definitions that have been foisted upon it.

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.

Split World: Poems 1990-2005, Moniza Alvi, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 304 pp., £10.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-802-4

Europa, Moniza Alvi, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 64 pp., £7.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-803-1

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