Astralingua: A Poison Tree

Friday 6 December saw the release of a new musical adaptation of William Blake’s song of experience, “A Poison Tree”, by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. Based in Denver, Colorado, their music features mandolins, cello and ghostly harmonies in a mixture of classical, folk and psychedelic sounds. The track, which you can hear below (and see the accompanying video), is from their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019.

Here they tell Zoamorphosis some of the ways in which Blake has influenced them and their music.

Joseph:

I’ve been interested in Blake’s work since I was about 16 years old. A friend lent me a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience and it amazed me. At first glance, it reminded me of the illustrated rhyme and story books I’d read as a child, which endeared it to me. It then became quickly apparent how rich it was in poetry, metaphor, craft, and vision. I bought a pocket copy by Penguin books and carried it around with me for quite some time. I would also go to the local bookstore and pore through whatever Blake collections they had, trying to find the best prints of his artwork.

His artwork was strange, anachronistic, and singular. I saw so many different genres of modern-day art reflected in his works from 200 years earlier – fantasy paintings, storybook illustrations, comic books, and animation. Blake exaggerated proportions, movement, and faces to create effects that I saw in all sorts of pop culture’s artwork. Figures sometimes seemed detached from their surroundings (Nebuchadnezzar), or as if leaping from the canvas. In many, there were layers upon layers of images, blended together like psychedelic paintings. Those were just my first impressions – the exciting things that grabbed my adolescent attention. As time went on, and I came to better understand and appreciate the fine arts, I realized what a master painter Blake was, how capable and detailed, and began to admire him even more.

They say Blake was considered “mad” in his time. I must be “mad” too, as I speak his language and he speaks mine. I imagine I like Blake for the same reason that a lot of artists do. His works weren’t popular in his age but it did not deter him. He didn’t change his style to suit the day. He painted and wrote his truth and vision. Because of that, there’s such pureness and honesty in his creations. His paintings and prints are filled with excitement, passion, and exuberance, and one senses in them the desire to communicate. When looking at his illustrations or reading his poems, you feel Blake’s earnestness. And when you take all this together, you get a sense of his likely isolation and loneliness, his reaching out for someone with whom to connect. In the end, you take his work personally, even though he’s communicating Universal Truths. Plus, his poetry makes you smile.

Rhymed and metered poetry takes work. You have to be more selective with what you say. No word or line can be wasted and you have fewer words from which to choose. A lot of poets have great command of rhyme, but their poetry is lacking. Other poets have beautiful ways of describing unique insights, but all without rhyme. Blake was a master of both. He was so joyfully playful. In his craft, more than just rhyming, he uses alliteration, plays with syntax, mixes and matches lines and schemes. There is such wealth offered to the reader.

Anne:

One thing that stands out to me about Blake, especially in his artwork, is how pure and defined his subjects are, both in emotion and physique. Looking at anyone he depicts, you see beauty, grace, grief, horror, shame, pity, strength, longing, and weakness all expressed – whatever characteristic it is, it is abundantly clear and undeniable.It makes his works so striking and evocative, and I think that’s often missing in modern art, music and media. Our culture now seems to embrace a nebulous, almost non-committal attitude, and characters are often aloof, vague, and undefined. Much the same with our emotions, where there is a prevalence of numbness, disaffection, and distraction. We’re overstimulated to the point of boredom. Maybe that’s why people fall for Blake the way they do when they discover him finally – they see the human experience expressed with such richness and in such volume, much louder and stronger than we are encouraged to experience it. Everything is full of passion and energy. He reminds us of our human capacity for real feeling.

 

“A Poison Tree” is available on Bandcamp, with Safe Passage also available for pre-order.

You can also see Astralingua’s video using Blake’s art on YouTube.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, November 2018

The main event of November was the anniversary of Blake’s birth, with at least one celebration taking place at the Theodore Bullfrog in London, where members of the Blake Society gathered to sing, play music and recite the poet’s words for an evening of entertainment. Elsewhere, plenty of Blake’s poetry appeared online, as with an article dedicated to his best poems in The Week. The magazine Town Topics also ran a piece on encountering Blake through Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg as a meditation on the Romantic’s birthday.

On a sadder note, the artist and writer Æthelred Eldridge passed away at the age of 88. Æthelred, born James Edward Leonard Eldridge, had served as associate professor of painting at Ohio University from 1957 to 2014, and was directly influenced by Blake. His most recognisable work, the Siegfried Hall Arch, was first completed in 1966 but then redesigned in 1987 and, according to WOUB, restored in 2015 (illustrated above). Eldridge, who ran the site Albion Awake, referred to Blake constantly in his art and was even the founder of a Church of William Blake (which, as Roger Whitson tells in his article on Zoamorphosis, burned down in 2001).

Among the visual arts, November saw the opening of Extreme Nature! at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Largely dealing with excessive visions of landscapes and the natural world, this would appear unfamiliar territory in which to encounter Blake, but the curator Michael Hartman has the Times Union newspaper, taken a fantastical view of the world that allows him to include the Romantic artist’s illustration of Behemoth and Leviathan from the Book of Job to be included. The exhibition runs at the Institute until February 24, 2019.

A delightful artistic detail was the launch of a collection of plates designed by Richard Ginori and Ippolita Rostagno (the latter more famous for jewellery design). Called “The Road to Heaven is Paved with Excess”. According to Rostagno:

The collection ‘The Road to Heaven is Paved with Excess’ is inspired by the poet William Blake. The concept is that you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough. I love this idea because it wraps up exuberance and restraint into a constant dynamic, which is perfect for this moment in which maximalism reigns.

With each plate starting at £85, the collection is not cheap – perhaps fitting for the excess of maximalism. You can purchase the collection at Artemest.

On a more serious note, The Japan Times included a short but very welcome piece on Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel Prize winner for literature whose novel Rouse Up O Young Men explores how the writer engages with his profoundly disabled son through the work of William Blake. The Romantic is quoted extensively throughout the novel which, as Damian Flanagan observes, provides a means to “probe the hinterland of the unknown not merely by rational analysis”. Along with Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth and the recently translated novel by Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead (reviewed here), Oe’s book is a work that is deeply indebted to Blake.

Review: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

I travel’d through a Land of Men,
A land of Men & Women too,
And heard & saw such dreadful things
As cold Earth wanderers never knew.

These lines, from William Blake’s “The Mental Traveller”, offer a motif for the most recently translated book by Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk. In her novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the narrator and central character, anina Duszejko (who dislikes her own name even more than those of other people), discusses possible translations of Blake’s English into Polish with a friend, “Dizzie”. Blake’s poem is an often grim vision of the spiritual history of individuals and civilisations, how hope and liberty are often crushed by Urizenic forces. It is against such forces that Janina and her friends – idiosyncratically named by her as Oddball and Good News, as well as an entomologist, Boros – strive throughout a novel which is a deep, sometimes despairing, often intensely funny, meditation on ecology and mankind’s relations with the animal kingdom, the “dreadful things” which most of us choose not to know.

Drive Your Plow is one of the most Blakean novels ever written, and I would number it among a small handful, including Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, Kenzaburo Oe’s Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! and J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, that are suffused throughout with Blake’s ideas and words. Not only does each chapter of Drive Your Plow begin with an aphorism from Blake’s works, but Janina constantly refers to the poet in order to navigate and ground her life and actions, with Auguries of Innocence being the key to her understanding of the cold Earth in which she finds herself. With one important exception that I will go on to at the end of this review – and which necessarily involves an important spoiler to discuss fully – Janina’s actions are constantly guided by the spirit of Blake.

Olga Tokarczuk has become more widely known in the Anglophone world following the Man Booker award given to the translation of her “constellation novel”, Flights, earlier this year, which also won the Nike award in Poland when it was first published in 2007. Trained as a psychologist, her work often deals with parables and mythic elements, and she has been attacked by members of the ruling Law and Justice Party and other “patriots” as a traitor for tarnishing the reputation of Poland with her criticism of xenophobia in the country (it will come as no surprise that Tokarczuk considers herself the true patriot, precisely because she delivers such criticisms). A powerful and intelligent voice in her home country, Tokarczuk’s increasing international reputation means that her latest novel, originally published as Prowad? swój p?ug przez ko?ci umar?ych in 2009, will also receive a much wider audience.

In contrast to the fragmented, nonlinear narrative of FlightsDrive Your Plow ostensibly is a slightly more conventional – if still decidedly offbeat – book that follows Janina as she is caught up in the investigation of a series of deaths in her home town near the border with the Czech Republic. At least one reviewer has compared her to Miss Marple (a foolish and, for reasons that become clear with the novel’s conclusion, impossible comparison), but to me here character, if not her actions, are more reminiscent of Gulley Jimson, the protagonist of Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Like Jimson she is odd and eccentric to most of humanity, though with the ability to form very deep and intimate relations with a few human beings, and, like him, William Blake is always at hand to provide an aphorism to explain the complexities of life. Indeed, the title of Tokarczuk’s novel is taken from one of Blake’s famous proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Unlike Gulley Jimson, however, Janina is filled with a profound anger of the world.

That anger arises from the fact that her town is filled with hunters who make it their business to commit murder against the living creatures of the wilderness that surrounds them. When it was released as the film Pokot (“Spoor”) in 2017, director Agnieszka Holland caught the intense beauty of the Polish landscape in winter and summer, a beauty that made the massacre of innocents even more brutal. As one character observes in the film, the town is one of many sites of holocausts that take place across the world every day: while some critics have observed that the cryptic title of Tokarczuk’s novel could refer to the bones of murdered victims whose bodies Janina finds, a reading that makes sense if it is viewed as a more conventional crime novel, my own temptation is to see these bones as belonging to more innocent victims – the deer, boar and even Janina’s dogs who are mercilessly slaughtered if they get in the way of the amusement of men.

The amusement of men is very much a theme of the novel, which also reveals a deep feminist anger: the attitude that allows men to kill animals with impunity also enables them to treat other women as mistresses and whores when young and with contempt when, as with Janina, they inevitably grow old. That the hero of the novel was once an engineer counts for nothing: now she is seen as nothing more than a crank obsessed with astrology and animal rights, getting in the way of the real business of the town, a business that is threatened as the corpses of a hunter, the police chief, a rich entrepreneur, the mayor of the town, and eventually its priest are discovered. When Janina informs the police of her belief that the animals are taking their revenge she is treated with derision, while her complaints to the authorities that living creatures are constantly being murdered are ignored.

That it is Janina who sees herself as the angel of these creatures’ vengeance is, strictly speaking, the least Blakean aspect of the novel, a submission to corporeal assault rather than mental fight. Yet even this stems from a deeply considered misreading (if misreading it is) of Blake’s Auguries. Most people will know the poem from its famous opening invocation to “see a world in a grain of sand”, and some will also recognise lines such as “A Robin Redbreast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage”, but I suspect that few would understand just how profound the anger of Blake’s poem is. While Auguries of Innocence is a celebration of the innocence of living creatures, it is also motivated by rage against those men who abuse such animals and, through their abuse, become inured to the poverty and injustice inflicted upon their fellow human beings. For Blake, ecological justice does not operate in isolation from social justice, and this is a vision that is shared by Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. When Janina is told that she is crazy for telling one of the villagers not to kill animals, she responds with a Rintrah-like rage:

At that point I felt a surge of Anger, genuine, not to say Divine Anger. It flooded me from inside in a burning hot wave. This energy made me feel great, as if it were lifting off the ground, a mini Big Bang within the universe of my body. There was fire burning within me, like a neutron star. I sprang forward and pushed the Man in the silly hat so hard that he fell onto the snow, completely taken by surprise. And when Moustachio rushed to his aid, I attacked him too, hitting him on the shoulder with all my might. He groaned with pain. I am not a feeble girl. (p.72)

Like Rintrah, like Orc, like one of the devils with whom Blake converses in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Janina follows a morality that is askance, skewed from that of her fellow men. It would be more than possible to read the violence that she commits as profoundly immoral, operating against other men, but for me that ignores the deep rejection of a false society that she is forced into by men who do not care for all the blood on their hands, nor for the damage they wantonly inflict on the world around them. In a remarkable scene towards the end of the novel, Janina is forcibly expelled from a church for railing against the priest who blesses the hunters. This priest corrupts the story of Saint Hubert, a murderer of animals who is converted to Christianity when he feels compassion towards his prey, into a panacea for those who wish to kill. The church, like the police and the school in which Janina occasionally works, are symbols of a mundane, deep-rooted repression that is sanctioned by church and state. When such daily violence is blessed by angels, Janina believes that she has no choice but to cast her lot in with devils.

 

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018. RRP: £12.99.

William Blake: the man and the music

For the past couple of months I have been recording a series of radio programmes for Siren Radio, the community radio station housed at the University of Lincoln. The first three of these are now online and will be followed up next month by a programme dedicated to David Axelrod, the Los Angeles-based composer whose first two albums were based on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

The aim for each programme is to take either a work by Blake and discuss how it has been adapted to music by various later composers and songwriters, or to concentrate on a single artist who set a number of Blake’s works to music. The first one (on the hymn “Jerusalem”) has a few glitches as I get used to the format, but those are starting to be ironed out by the second (on “The Tyger”) and the third (“Holy Thursday”).

Click on the images below to listen to each episode.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, September and October 2018

The big event in August was the unveiling of a new grave stone to mark the actual resting place of William Blake in the cemetery at Bunhill Fields, and which was covered on Zoamorphosis at the time. While most news stories about the new stone appeared by the end of August, in the Church Times, Lucy Winkett, the Rector of Blake’s parish church, St James’s, Piccadilly and who spoke at the ceremony, offered a reflective essay on what William Blake would have to say to us today as a prophet for both his times and ours.

Mid September saw a return of the three-day celebration of Blakean inspiration, Blakefest, which took place on 14th-16th in Bognor Regis, the town next to Felpham where Blake lived from 1800 to 1803 and where he wrote his famous poem, “And did those feet…” Blakefest has become a regular cultural and artistic festival, with Lene Lovich and a tribute to George Harrison headlining at this year’s event. Organiser, Olivia Stevens, told the Chichester Observer that Blake “was the inspiration for so much that has happened since” and that the festival would bring “a lot of great art and music and culture to Bognor”.

One extremely significant release in October was a translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Taking its title from one of Blake’s proverbs of hell, the novel was originally written in 2009 and is now available in English, following the success of her 2007 novel, Flights, which was translated last year and won the Mann Booker prize for best translation. The novel, described by Sarah Perry at The Guardian as “an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature”, is quite simply one of the most Blakean novels ever to have been written. An offbeat whodunnit centred on Janina Duszejko, it is extremely funny, suffused with references to Blake’s works, and we’ll be carrying a review of it here soon.

Art shows during September and October included an exhibition at the Levy Gorky gallery in New York, featuring a selection of works by Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecu and Jaspar Johns. Entitled “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey”, the full show included work by 27 artists and unfolds over three floors in a pattern that was inspired by Blake’s Auguries of Innocence. As Gorvy told Robb Report, the aim of the exhibition which ran from September 14 to October 24, was “to look intensely at each grain of sand and find within it a whole universe”. The end of October also saw the publication of forty-three pencil sketches by Blake on the Blake Archive, showing his “early debt to academic standards of precise copying and to the neoclassical emphasis on outline” according to the blog of the Archive.

Elsewhere, Blake made a brief appearance via his poem “The Tyger” in Joe Martin’s Us and Them, although that film will probably disappear without trace. There were also some musical interludes: “Jerusalem” was, as ever, a staple of Last Night of the Proms in September and U2’s tour of eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour wound to a close at the O2 stadium in London. More significantly, during October, the passing of Winston McGarland Bailey, better known via his stage-name, Shadow, saw a celebration of his life during which he was called “the William Blake of Calypso“. Bailey was a musician and songwriter who was born in Tobago and won numerous awards for his music, and was awarded a doctorate by the University of the West Indies for his music. Harriet Stubbs released a new album, Heaven and Hell: The Doors of Perception, which we’ll be reviewing soon,  and there was a great profile of Martha Redbone, who set many of Blake’s poems to music on The Garden of Love, in LexGo magazine.

Review: Visions of the Daughters of Urizon – What Should Be Wild, Julia Fine

Upon opening Julia Fine’s debut novel, What Should Be Wild, the reader is confronted by a dark ink blot of a family tree, a gothic sprawl upon the page that lists in fine, white text the lineage of the novel’s central character, Maisie Cothay, whose father, Peter, had married into the Blakelys. That family name is one of several shifting allusions to William Blake that are contained within the book. That ancestry descends from an unknown, white blankness at the top of the page (which, as is later hinted at, precedes some variant of the Ango-Saxon age) to a solid entry in black text that reads: Maisie B. 1990.

What Should Be Wild, then, is set in a time approximating the current age, although there are subtle hints that it is not our world but rather its dream image. The location, Coeurs Crossing, is somewhere that really belongs in a tale by Charles Perrault or the Grimm brothers, and this uncertainty allows Fine enough freedom to play with the atmosphere of this strange space without being tied to all-too familiar places. It is most similar, perhaps, to the Oxford of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, an author whose influence Fine has acknowledge in an interview with Qwillery magazine. The link to Pullman also allows her to subtly allude to another source, William Blake, and the key to the Blakely family does indeed include William, the father of Helen, born in 1660, one of seven daughters who is trapped near the house and whose story slowly unfolds throughout the novel.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the story of What Should Be Wild centres on Maisie, interwoven with the tales of her seven ancestors, all of whom have grown up in a strange house (a gloomy Manderley) named Urizon that was built by William Blakely. Maisie, as we discover in the opening pages, is one of a line of cursed women and is herself a literal marriage of life and death, able to kill and revive creatures with her touch. It is this morbid power that led to her mother’s death while she was still in the womb, and Maisie has grown up in Urizon alone with her father, Peter, an introverted, academic figure who married into the Blakely family and, for much of the novel, occupies an ambiguous position. When Peter disappears into the woods surrounding Urizon, into which it seems no man can venture and remain sane, and from which the daughters of Urizon cannot escape once they have entered, Maisie sets out in search of him accompanied by two companions, Matthew and Rafe. As the novel slowly progresses, so we learn more about Urizon, the seven women and the strange, black-eyed girl who spontaneously generated within the forest after the birth of Maisie.

Some reviewers appear to have had problems with What Should Be Wild in terms of its genre: although the novel seems to have appealed greatly to many readers, for others its uneasy classification as fantasy or horror or thriller has affected how they have approached it, especially in terms of pace or plotting. The dreamlike quality of the book certainly works against it as a piece of detective fiction, and attempts to construct it as a feminist version of Pushing Daisies also seem a little wide of the mark to me. In the interview mentioned previously, Fine indicates that some of her other influences include Karen Russell, Doris Lessing (whose The Golden Notebook is cited at the beginning of the novel), Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter, and Audrey Niffenegger has also warmly praised the book. If there is a genre to which this book belongs, it is perhaps Carter’s feminist retellings of fairy tales, and as such another critical comment by some readers and reviewers – that the seven women do not really work as characters – was less important to me when set against a backdrop of zoas, emanations and spectres.

There are various subtle reminders of William Blake throughout the novel – one location is Urthon Hill, for example, while a chapter on “Symmetry and balance” invokes the tyger and notions of contraries – but it is Urizon that most clearly links him to What Should Be Wild. The house is a literary emblem, part Rebecca’s Manderley, part Miss Havisham’s Satis House, also reminiscent of Poe’s House of Usher: its name is almost certainly intended to invoke the notion of Urizenic reason, the masculine imposition of which imprisons all the women of the novel, but Fine’s characterisation of the place is more sophisticated than that. Urizon is also a home, a haven, and its final destruction also represents the shock of uncertainty that freedom brings as well as its pleasures. That ambivalence also extends to the relationship between Maisie and her father, Peter: I kept expecting him to become more clearly malign but he is perhaps closer to a (rather less dynamic) Lord Asriel in Pullman’s trilogy. The relations between the two do appear to evoke a Blakean spirit, however: as in “The Little Girl Lost”, Maisie wanders like Lyca through the “desert wild” until she is found by her parents among the tigers and lions, asleep. The beast of prey here is the silent, malevolent black eyed girl:

What is this girl? All of the Blakely women wonder. Is she a demon, biding her time? Some sort of savior? The dark twin of the girl at Urizon? One of their own, unborn daughters made flesh? The girl was born within the wood, not taken later, like the rest of them. There is nothing of the outside world upon her. Nothing broken. No scarred flesh. (P.65)

This silent girl is as evil as the woods, but it is a wild evil outside the place of men that exists upon its own terms (and, as each of the Blakely women recall their experiences, less brutal than the evils of men, though perhaps ultimately more fatal). It is a marriage of sorts between Maisie and this girl that the novel aspires to. A more mundane struggle between good and evil angels takes place between Matthew and Rafe, Maisie’s male companions. In the case of Maisie at least, overt sexual awakenings are dealt with more subtly, although the literal bleeding that takes place is a violation as sickening as any rape (and resolved in as satisfying a manner as would occur in one of Angela Carter’s stories). Rather than a marriage of good and evil, the figures of Matthew and Rafe are perhaps best viewed as Maisie’s emanation and spectre, one who will fulfil her, the other a negation of her desires, one of the many feminist twists of Fine’s book that subverts Blake’s masculine model of the human psyche.

The conclusion of the novel, where Maisie meets her dark alter ego, reminds me somewhat of Blake’s Milton a Poem, where Milton confronts and reclaims his spectre, Satan. If that is the case (and not simply me reading too much into the book), then Fine once more teases and twists that conclusion, creating a true marriage of what has been inhibited and what should be wild, a union of heaven and hell. A text that may be closer to the author’s intentions is Visions of the Daughters of Albion, not only for its accounts of Oothoon’s brutal treatment at the hands of Bromion and Theotormon, but also for the determination of the hero and the clarity of her perceptions:

Ask the wild ass why he refuses burdens: and the meek camel
Why he loves man: is it because of eye ear mouth or skin
Or breathing nostrils? No. for these the wolf and tyger have.
Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why her spires
Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the rav’nous snake
Where she gets poison: & the wing’d eagle why he loves the sun
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old. (3.8-14, E47)

Oothoon’s understanding of the extra-sensory elements of the natural world seems to be a suitable model for the awakening of Maisie. Visions is also Blake’s early work that introduces Urizen as “Creator of men! Mistaken Demon of heaven” one whose “joys are tears! thy labour vain, to form men to thine image.” (5.3-4, E48). Although nowhere near as malevolent as Urizen, Peter has mistakenly tried to make his daughter into his own image, to protect her as much as to conform her, and if the house of Urizon is a haven it is also clearly a prison. The daughters of Urizon have frequently sought escape from its confines only to become trapped in turn in the woods beyond the house of men: Maisie’s union with the wild child of that forest is what finally liberates her.

What Should Be Wild is wonderfully written, and Julia Fine’s style is frequently beautiful and poetic without being laboured, as when she describes the end of the house which William Blakely built:

The forest spools and gathers, holds its breath until evening. In the dark it protracts to take a fuller span of William Blakely’s masterpiece, Urizon, Helen’s home. Mary’s home. Emma’s and Lucy’s. The ivy moves quickest, sneaking in through the cracks in the stone, under the doors, forcing them wider. The roots of the yard oaks crack like cramped legs and extend themselves, sighing as they stretch against the floorboards, popping them loose. Tree branches tap windows. Wild roses, sharp-edged and hideously sweet, thorn through and scent the parlors. The outside comes in. Centuries of stagnation have exploded into action; eternal life, an eternal inertia, releasing all the force it’s held at bay. (P.291)

Some readers appear to have been confounded by the pacing and plotting of the novel, and, in this respect, for her first novel Fine might have been better served by the more compact visions of Angela Carter, whose relative brevity made her easier for many to digest. This is the difficulty of literary fantasy, a genre that operates outside many of the restrictions of typical genre expectations. For those, such as myself, interested in how William Blake can be taken up and transmuted into a feminist tale of awakening and transformation, it is a thoroughly fascinating and beautifully poetic novel.

 

Julia Fine, What Should Be Wild, Harper, 2018. RRP, hardback: £20.99.

Apocalypse: The unveiling of William Blake’s new gravestone

191 years after his death, a new gravestone was unveiled on the spot where William Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields. At an event promoted by the Blake Society as an apocalypse (or revelation of Blake’s final resting place), crowds far larger than those expected by the organisers gathered to hear Blake enthusiasts offer a celebration of his life and work and to pay their respects to the memory of one of London’s most famous sons.

Blake had been buried at Bunhill Fields after his death on 12 August, 1827 in an unmarked grave, one of eight bodies to occupy the plot, with three corpses below him and another four above him. A gravestone was placed 20 metres away marking that the remains of William and Catherine lay “nearby”. It was Carol and Luis Garrido who discovered the precise location of Blake’s grave in 2006, using records of co-ordinates to find the spot and leading the Blake Society to begin an appeal to gather the funds for another, more accurate marker. The gravestone, carved by Lida Cardozo, was then unveiled on the anniversary of Blake’s death.

The ceremony itself began at 3.00 pm, with a crowd that reports were estimating at between 400 and 800 people and certainly a much larger number than the Blake Society had estimated. Blake Society trustee, Gareth Sturdy, told the BBC that “more and more people are beginning to realise how central Blake is to the national culture”, and certainly the celebrations on Sunday demonstrated the great affection in which Blake is held.

Among those who spoke at the event were the poet, singer-songwriter, priest, and academic Malcolm Guite, who argued forcefully for the church to recognise Blake as a prophet who spoke to the nation’s deepest spiritual concerns, the poet and convener of the William Blake Congregation (and former contributor to Sniffin’ Glue) Stephen Micalef, Lucy Winkett, the rector of St James in Piccadilly, the church where Blake was baptised, and comedian Will Franken, who gave a rousing speech intended to shake the attentive crowd from their slumbers in true Blakean style. The star turn, however, was provided by Bruce Dickinson, who demonstrated that his love of Blake ran much deeper than his 1998 album The Chemical Wedding, offering a vision of how the spirit of the Romantic had touched and transformed his own music. Like most speakers there, when standing before the mortal (or, as Blake would have it, vegetable) remains of the artist, Dickinson refused to accept that he was anything other than very much alive, declaring him “one of the greatest living English poets”. For anyone else, this would have been a mistake, but not for the man who once wrote of himself: “William Blake, one who is very much delighted with being in good Company. Born 28 Nov’ 1757 in London and has died several times since.” Philip Pullman, who had also intended to speak to the assembly, had unfortunately been taken ill the previous night in Edinburgh.

Musical accompaniment was provided by the band Blake, who sang their namesake’s most famous hymn, “Jerusalem”, while a new composition came from Chris Williams: drawing its inspiration from the lines carved on the gravestone – “I give you the end of a golden string; Only wind it into a ball, It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate, Built in Jerusalem’s wall” – the very beautiful piece of music was sung by Sansara, although Williams himself was not able to be there due to visa difficulties.

The end of the ceremony included people laying flowers beside the new stone, along with a further opportunity to pay respects through the placing of 191 candles to represent one of each of the years since Blake’s death. While other inhabitants such as Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan have been commemorated much more visibly at Bunhill than Blake, it is more than fitting that, as Gareth Sturdy has also remarked, his final resting place is now marked in a spot of green grass where children will be able to play in the summer.

 

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, July 2018

July was a fairly quiet month for Blake news, although towards the end a few pieces began to appear about an event that will be covered here soon: the plans to unveil a new gravestone marking the final resting place of William Blake. As Florence Snead reported for iNews, members of the Blake Society discovered the location in 2006 and the new stone will be unveiled in a ceremony on the anniversary of his death on August 12. The Telegraph sought to inject a little drama into the event by suggesting conflict over the choice of quotation to be included, but in truth the new gravestone seems to be one that will bring Blake aficionados together.

One of the most fascinating events for July was the announcement of a new piece of choreography and music inspired by Blake at the Art Centro de Arte UNLP in Buenos Aires. Entitled Apolión and directed by Jerónimo Búffalo, with additional performances by Santiago Culacciati and Esteban Trindade, the piece includes the music of Julia Gala and José Gómez Vega. In an interview with El Dia, Búffalo explained that the link to Blake came from the poet’s depiction of Apollyon, the Fiend, for his illustrations to Bunyan, that showed a world being torn apart by gods who do not give answers to our questions.

The South African carried a review of Wirework, the play by Daleen Kruger that explores the Owl House, Helen Martin’s collection of outsider art in Eastern Cape that includes pieces inspired by Blake, and currently being performed at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London. Michael Popham argued it was well worth seeing despite the good weather and attractions of Wimbledon, although perhaps he was writing from memories of having seen the Afrikaans original. As mentioned last month, performances of William Blake in Hollywood also continued through the month in Utah.

One of the best visual arts pieces for the month was a profile of the internationally acclaimed artist Jaume Plensa in BlouinArtInfo, who has returned to Blake many times. Although not directly addressing pieces such as “One Thought Fills Immensity” or his Blake in Gateshead light installation, he offers the following Proverb of Hell as the ideal model for his own sculptural practice: “in springtime learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” Elsewhere in Vancouver, the Burnaby Art Gallery had a series of illustrations by Jeff Ladouceur, an artist whose sources include Blake and Mad magazine. According to a review in Straight magazine, Ladouceur who was born in New York gives an insight through his show into “the slow path through life”. Similarly, an exhibition in Gratz, Philadelphia, reviewed by the Jewish Exponent, explored the meaning of Job through the ages, including Blake’s famous illustrations.

Something spotted online for July should really have been included much earlier in the year: Isao Yukisada’s River’s Edge was released in February, but I only knew of its existence because of a review in The Real Bits that was published in July. The story details the relations between Haruna and her homosexual friend, Ichiro, who is often beaten and alienated: when they discover a corpse by the river’s edge (hence the title) so things become even darker, but the reason for the Blake connection is that apparently Ichiro demonstrates his life experiences to Haruna by reading her the poetry of William Blake. One that I shall follow up in future.

Finally, there were a number of references to the Romantic poet in relation to the anniversary of the death of Jim Morrison on July 3, such as this one at EuropaFM and this at Il Malilio, most of them noting Blake as the source of The Doors’ name. One of the more interesting to read (though not necessarily with much to say about Blake) is this personal reflection by Sanjin Dumišic.

 

Blakespotting: A Daughter of Albion and the Limehouse Golem

With the release of The Limehouse Golem on Netflix, I’ve had a chance to catch up on the 2016 film directed by Juan Carlos Medina which I missed on its first release. This is by no means a review – I recommend Christopher Pittard’s excellent piece “Sex, secrets and murder most foul” at The Conversation – and also my discussion of Blakean connections involves giving away the ending, so stop reading now if you wish to watch it without my huge spoiler in place.

The film (which came out at the same time as the opera, Elizabeth Cree, which I haven’t seen), is entertaining enough, and certainly much better than the terrible 2001 movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell, another Jack-the-Ripper inspired tale that has a direct influence on The Limehouse Golem. There are some decent if not spectacular performances by Bill Nighy (inspector John Kildare), Douglas Booth (Dan Leno) and Olivia Cooke (Lizzie Cree), but at times the melodrama on screen made me snigger (or was that just the preposterous beard and accent of Henry Goodman as Karl Marx). In truth, I found the original novel by Peter Ackroyd, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (published in 1994) a little preposterous, dealing with a series of murders from the early 1880s, less so for the actual plot and some truly wonderful details about the criminal underbelly of music hall (which was greatly sanitised going forward into the twentieth century) than Ackroyd’s preponderance for shoehorning everything he knows into somewhat turgid passages of prose. The following, where George Gissing compares William Blake to Charles Babbage is a case in point:

“It is a very ingenious contrivance.” Gissing hardly understood what he was being told but it already seemed to him, as to his contemporaries, some eccentric monstrosity; he had just been reading Swinburne’s study of William Blake for an article he had proposed to the Westminster Review, and the parallel that occurred to him was with Blake’s Prophetic Books. These works – the Analytical Engine and Blake’s mad verses – seemed equally the work of curious and obsessive men who laboured in the production of designs which only they themselves could fully comprehend. (Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1998, p.118)

Ackroyd’s point is clever here, and I think there is some genuine insight into the comparison between Charles Babbage and Blake, but in this instance the author is trying a little too hard to demonstrate his cleverness: I write about Swinburne as an academic happily dealing with texts one or two centuries old (or older as required), but Gissing as a Grub Street hack would have been unlikely to get much mileage from a book that was already twelve years out of date (Swinburne’s William Blake, a Critical Essay, having been published in 1868). I am being pedantic, I know, but I sometimes felt when reading his novel that had Ackroyd tried to be just a little less showy with his knowledge, I’d have enjoyed the truly wonderful details of music hall life much more.

The more important point here, however, is that Blake has a role to play in Ackroyd’s novel. It is a very minor one, but actually in an earlier discussion of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, notorious as the poisoner who was suspected of multiple murders and was transported for fraud and who was friends with Blake at one point, entirely appropriate. The Limehouse Golem strips out such minute particulars but replaces them with an innovation that cannot be ignored: the eponymous Limehouse Golem is no figment of Jewish folklore, but actually William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea.

Before discussing this connection to Blake, I must first note that it commits an atrocity on Ackroyd’s fiction which, although I enjoyed, is completely preposterous. One of the important aspects of Limehouse was its cosmopolitan nature as part of the Jewish East End. This is by no means thoroughly erased in the film – there is one very funny scene in which Lizzie unwittingly insults a Jewish audience – but the legend of the automaton Golem makes no sense if its model is instead the truly horrific, awe-inspiring vision of Blake.

That observation aside, I must admit my thrill when the image of Blake’s painting appeared in the first few minutes of the movie, dominating the backdrop of the stage for a performance telling the fate of Lizzie Cree. Blake’s painting, The Ghost of a Flea, painted in tempera and gold on mahogany in 1819-20 and now on show in Tate Britain, is the kind of spectacular depiction of evil that, once seen, can not be forgotten. Its origins lie in a series of so-called “visionary heads” that Blake drew in the notebooks of fellow artist, John Varley, from 1818 onwards, and according to Blake, “fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood thirsty to excess.” When I first wrote about the painting, I remarked that it appeared a diabolical self-portrait, as though of Blake’s druidic spectre, a projection of his own sins as Satan was the projection of Milton’s. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed it in relation to Alan Moore’s From Hell, where the scenario with Varley is transformed into a commentary on Matthew Gull, who Moore portrays as Jack the Ripper.

It is this connection that Medina draws upon for The Limehouse Golem, and it’s not a surprising one – although to me it remains false for a number of reasons, most notably that while the Ghost of a Flea has frequently been used to symbolise serial killers, for me this ignores Blake’s satirical and political point, that the most bloodthirsty souls of any age have always been the kings, popes and ministers who have waged war for their own depraved ends. This aside, my reading may be (in my opinion) more true to Blake but it remains much less effective in the popular imagination which is happier to consider the more self-evident evils of serial killers. Thus the depiction of the Flea serves as an immediate visual metaphor for the Limehouse murderer, a point reinforced by the killer’s written confession in a copy of Thomas de Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” that includes a hand drawn rendition of the Ghost.

The film skips a little over “Lambeth Marsh Lizzie” Cree’s ascent from poverty in the homelands of Blake (due more to the demands of compressing the narrative into its running time than any overt act of violence on the part of the director and screenwriter), but in concluding with her as the figure behind the Golem it does make the Blakean connection more poignant even if, as I suspect, it is unintentional. It is Lizzie who is the Ghost of a Flea, carrying her bowl of blood through Limehouse and as such – and here I am certain it is my reading as an imposition on the text rather than something intended by the film’s makers – she becomes emblematic as a Daughter of Albion. By this, I do not mean that she is one of the weeping figures who surrounds Oothoon in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, rather she is one of the bloodthirsty goddesses of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, invocations of which haunt Moore’s From Hell and the early, psychogeographic poetry of Iain Sinclair.

The film’s strength (as indeed the novel’s) is to build up a considerable degree of sympathy for Lizzie. Born into grinding poverty and raped as a child by a dockworker – for which she is punished with hot iron by her mother while her attacker walks away – the later re-enactment of that primal rape by her husband (whose charade as a knight in white armour has always been that – a charade) leads her into a solipsistic and miserable world of internal anguish. Christopher Pittard observes that the movie draws (anachronistically) on W.T. Stead’s investigative reporting into child prostitution in London in 1885, and this abominable situation is the ultimate driver for the murders which pulsate through the film. As Blake wrote in “London” a century before, it is the “youthful Harlots curse” that “Blasts with tears the Marriage Hearse”. I do draw back a little from too overt a feminist reading of The Limehouse Golem, however: Lizzie suffers atrocities, and yet her response is to cause other prostitutes – other women – to suffer more. Lizzie is both daughter of Albion and Spectre, divided as Los’s Spectre is in Jerusalem.

His Spectre divides & Los in fury compells it to divide:
To labour in the fire, in the water, in the earth, in the air,
To follow the Daughters of Albion as the hound follows the scent
Of the wild inhabitant of the forest, to drive them from his own  (Jerusalem, 17.1-4)

Reviews: John Yau – The Wild Children of William Blake; Eric G. Wilson – Polaris Ghost

The first of these reviews, John Yau’s The Wild Children of William Blake, brings together a series of essays, articles and reviews, most from the past decade but with a few stretching back much further into the 1980s. Yau is a poet and critic who lives in New York City, whose collections of poetry include Forbidden Entries (1996) and Further Adventures in Monochrome (2012). Wild Children was published at the end of 2017 and comprises a series of pieces on the role of art, with articles that originally appeared mostly in Hyperallergic Weekend, which he co-edits as art critic.

The title of the book is taken from the final essay in the collection, a review of Raymond Foye’s Dark Star: Abstraction and Cosmos that was published in Hyperallergic Weekend in 2016. Foye had brought brought together eight artists – some historical, such as Jordan Belson and Harry Smith – others contemporaries working in a variety of media. The link between them all was a re-examination of “non-objectivism” through the media of mysticism, psychedelics and meditation, and it was “strain of occult thinking” that, according to Yau, made them Blake’s wild children. The contemporary artists, including Tamara Gonzales and Sally Webster, were more immediately linked by their interest in Smith and Belson, and behind those two figures the abstract, non-representational art of painters such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian.

The only explicit reference to Blake in the article is contained in the final paragraph:

Harry Smith’s “Untitled Drawing, October 19, 1951” (1951), which was done in ink, watercolor and tempera on a sheet of paper measuring 24 ½ x 18 ¾ inches, reminds me of a map of both earth’s inner core as well as an early version of the solar system. It brought to mind George Baxter’s prints of the cosmos that were specially made for the religious sect, the Muggletonians, of which the poet-artist William Blake was a member. The Muggletonians believed Copernicus, Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton had it all wrong. I don’t think you would be wrong if you get the feeling that some of the artists in this exhibition agree with Blake.

This shows off the strength of Yau’s work (his knowledge of contemporary art) and his weakness (a relative lack of understanding of the historical contexts – Blake was no Muggletonian). Indeed, the book as a whole feels a little like a bait and switch in terms of its title: Blake is often no more than an interesting meme to riff along with. Perhaps the exception is the essay on “William Tillyer’s Clouds”, a revision of the original essay published alongside Tillyer’s work in the catalogue William Tillyer: Against Nature. Although Blake is not directly invoked (unlike Constable), Tillyer did title one of his earlier exhibitions Fearful Symmetries in 1993. Overall, Yau’s book is an excellent read on some of the most interesting contemporary art that strives against easy classification, although it offers little insight into the reception of Blake among those new artists.

The second piece reviewed here, Eric G. Wilson’s Polaris Ghost, is much more profoundly Blakean. Essentially an extended short story or novella, it offers itself as a combination of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Blue Velvet. One of Outpost19’s “Short-ish” series, Wilson’s previous works are non-fiction pieces that include Coleridge’s Melancholia and My Business is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing.  The influence of Blake is strong from the very first page, beginning with an epigraph to James Basire, to whom Blake was presented. The story, told as a series of fragments, deals with Polaris who splits into two entities known as Otto and Ella, echoing Blake’s vision of emanation and spectre. The flat, affectless style of the early chapters in particular evokes Lynch’s work, as with the girl who will become Ella seeing a vision of a grey man threatening her while she bathes which her father later tells her was the smoke from a fire that had threatened to destroy them all.

Throughout most of Polaris Ghost, the pseudo-anonymous characters – husband, girl, boy – function as archetypes dissociated from the backgrounds of the worlds in which they live, and work almost as sinister fairy tales. In the final book (Book VIII), Wilson’s prose almost reads as a retelling of “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Boy Lost” from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. As a husband has night terrors that he is a boar, so it is only by becoming a boy again that he can master those fears:

He heard the sound again. It was a grunting sound. He saw a huge figure in his path. The creature was on all fours. He saw its eyes. They were blue. Under the eyes were two giant tusks. This was a boar. Its head was tilted towards the ground. It made the sound again. This was not a grunting sound. It was a whimpering sound. This boar was sick.

The husband as a boy was no longer afraid. The boar needed help. He stepped towards the boar, and saw that in the boar’s mouth was his doll. The boar reached for the doll. The boar opened its mouth, and the doll fell out and hit the ground. The boy reached down to pick the doll up.

In between such deceptively simple psycho-dramas are meditations on Elvis and Bowie or Godzilla in the nuclear age. The whole is delightful – a kind of adult Maurice Sendak story (which, on one level, would be an apt description for some of David Lynch’s movies). Polaris Ghost was my first encounter with Wilson’s work, but demonstrates a subtle engagement with Blake that provides a series of sometimes troubling reflections on marriage, family relations and growing up that will certainly make me look out for more of his writing.

 

John Yau, The Wild Children of William Blake, Autonomedia, 2017. $15.00
Eric G. Wilson, Polaris Ghost, Outpost19, 2018. $14.00.