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John Mingay
 

Something Like a Ghost

'Archilochus on the Moon' by Simon Perril, Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2013, 96pp, ISBN 978-1-84861-306-5, 8.95.

I purposely completed a first reading of Simon Perril’s Archilochus on the Moon without stopping in advance to pick up the baggage of myth and lore surrounding the hero of the title, Archilochus, so as to have enjoyed it simply for its poetics. However, the first thing that struck me, sticking out like a sore thumb, was the frequent and consistent use of profanities and references to the many and varied bodily functions (and, of course, body components) throughout its eighty parts.

Zeus, a fucking sign
would be welcome
(p14)

expelled,
I act in kind
and spew
(p23)

Now, I’m not generally so prudishly Victorian, sort of head-up-my-arse, about such things, but I have always (with perhaps the exception of John Cooper Clarke’s Evidently Chicken Town) drawn a line when it comes to poetry. To my mind, with the thorough richness and breadth of the English language and its many syntactical possibilities, why need we resort to employing Mr Effward and his widely extended family? Surely part of the joy of writing poetry is in the actual drawing on and combining of language that’s as far from the hum-drum of the quotidian as it is possible to get, language from which to create and layer metaphor and symbol?

Glaucus, who’d have thought us
moon-mates on perpetual watch
for vital signs.

My own dwindle:
skin furrows and folds;
keeps moving with licence

that ill-becomes the young
- though I’m not yet fit
for a clay garment
(p76)

And, as if to top it all, there was something I found distracting in the contextual incongruence of this Ancient Greek soldier cursing and swearing, in a conspicuously modern parlance, amidst the poems’ classical iambic scansion.

and the poor fuck
whose luck it is
to receive the outcome
(p57)

But suddenly, in my head, the penny dropped, That was it! He was a soldier he was meant to be swearing like a trooper! Of course, this then meant the language wasn’t so much contextually incongruent as contextually crucial and utterly functional. And so, in fact, rather than a laziness of diction, it was a particularly clever move by Perril in his quest for characterisation. A masterly stroke!

my foul mouth
(p23)

So, as I squirm, somewhat mortified, having put myself in my place, no less, and now standing corrected, it’s probably a good time (in order to understand the book all the better) for the quickest of reconnoitring skites through the historical and mythological baggage that underpins the substance of this work and is the essence of the man himself Archilochus!

In a nutshell, he was a poet-soldier, son of Telesicles who, before setting off on the first colonising mission from Paros to Thasos, consulted the oracle at Delphi, travelling there with fellow-Parian, Lycambes. As a mark of his friendship with Telesicles, Lycambes promised the hand of his eldest daughter, Neobul, to Telesicles’ son, Archilochus. He then, for some long-forgotten reason, reneged on the agreement made by “salt and table” (1). without considering the likely consequences of such an action, of taking this cricket, one of the greatest of iambic poets who was “unique in being the first Greek author to compose almost entirely based on his own emotions and experiences.” (2). and who, like his namesake, “chatter[ed] naturally without compulsion, but shout[ed] louder when taken by the wing.” (3).

Now, where the iambus may, nowadays, be sneered at as old hat and childishly simplistic, it was, we’re told, at that time, all the rage and used largely as, “a vehicle for ritual invective, obscenity, abuse and blame.” (4). In the words of Archilochus, quoted by Theophilus, “One great thing I know, how to recompense with evil reproaches him that does me evil.” (5). Another later example of this form of vengeance can be found in Plutarch who records Cato the Younger, being in a similar situation, having been “baulked of his bride betook himself in a storm of anger to the writing of iambic verse, in which he showered insults upon him, employing the venom of Archilochus.” (6). And, similarly, when Ovid threatens with, “someday, if you stay not your hand, my outspoken iambic will furnish me against you with arrows dipped in Lycambean blood.” (7).

The difference, however, was in the outcome. The “slanderous tongue” (8). the venerable Aristotle accused Archilochus of having was so severe, so “terse and vigorous” (9). according to Cicero, as to cause Lycambes, Neobul and at least one other daughter to commit suicide. “Partly as punishment for the havoc his poems ha[d] wreaked,” (10). but also under the guise of continuing Parian colonisation, Archilochus was sent into exile. This banishment, for the purposes of Perril’s interpretation, was to establish a new colony on the moon. As Perril says, “What better impossible site upon which to locate the ageing poet’s dissection of hope and desire, and his meditation upon the body that barely houses them.” (11).

Bolstered by this background information and the author’s statement of intent, a second reading from a different, informed perspective, I could feel in my bones, was going to be a distinctly fruitful possibility.

“The dissection of hope and desire, and his meditation upon the body” Just how far had Perril gone in satisfying his aims? How far in exploring Pindar’s view from afar of “the scolding Archilochus with many desires, with nothing to fatten him but heavy-worded hatreds.” (12).

In dissecting hope, Perril fills the piece with references to the loss of hope, hopelessness, itself, and even despair and death, all in preparation for an eventual epiphany.

So, for example, early on we get the despondency of

but for what else
do we roost in craters,
rot on this lunar perch?
(p13)

and

I speak ill, as
we’ve had our fill of Zeus-born kings
and Spartan heroes.
(p15)

which then takes on a cynical edge with

this business
we do with the Gods
grows strange

in this department
of calamity and punishment;
this lunar penalty

may yet see a holocaust
of pigs, if
swine can be found
(p20)

and finally descends into despair

They tell how close
the most distant hope is
to dereliction
(p38)

drawn all the deeper with

this prolonged
death at sea
(p52)

and his thoughts turning to death and his subservience to Zeus

Zeus has a trick,
for once I saw it,
where he places the sun
in his pocket

and the light snuffs
like life can
(p68)

Until, despite all the chipping away at “hope’s quarry” (13)., Archilochus’ realisation hits him, square on

O guest-God, Zeus
finally I get it: when hope
loosens like ill-fitting cloth
you take it off, it itches
(p81)

Thus stripped of hope, he can give up on the notion of returning to an earthly life spent in the company of Neobul under “blue silk skies” (14)., and accept his new life on the moon surrounded by “black space” (15). In other words, Perril dissects hope by showing it as a process of problem and resolution from Archilochus’ perspective. What begins as bad becomes worse before missing out good on its way to sorted. This, to my way of thinking, is a pretty satisfactory dissection, describing, as it does, the evolution of a thought.

So, how about desire? What does Perril do about dissecting this? Obviously, much of Archilochus’ desire is related to his dead fiance, Neobul. Much of it comes in the form of symbolic eroticism.

O Neobul
were you here

we’d lay
play botany

amongst the craters
I’d part petals

wet
your other mouth
(p21)

Neobul, how
I have dreamed my sleep
away, drained

each drowsy drop.
hoping you’re the source
of such moisture
(p47)

This, along with his self-criticism of having a “barbed tongue” (16)., would point to him being desirous of a second chance, of turning back time to less tragic days, of chasing away the regrets he has amassed, of reawakening the many ghosts that litter his life.

Lycambes’ ghost
visits most amongst
Mnemosyne’s folk
(p29)

my would-have-been
wife, at the end
of last night you left me
a word
in my waking ear
(p34)

a ghost is something
like a wife’s dowry:
it follows her
though she’ll never hold it
(p35)

A poet is something
like a ghost; gone
from this world,
granted special leave
(p35)

plant the seed of a whim,
harvest these hopes

so they live among us
ghosts of what we could be
(p85)

Yet, of all the ghosts, it’s Neobul who he continues to desire the most; whose passing he regrets the most; still imagining what could have been had he not pushed her to an all too early a death with his scathing verses; still entranced by the real, and not so real, memories of time spent together in the throes of love.

Neobul, may
the absent sea, still
bring you to me
on a skiff
(p50)

Neobul, in the heat
of your imaginary thighs

under the administrations
of your damp palms

all three of my eyes
stream
(p59)

These marks
are the colonies I value,
where you landed

finger-tips, tongue
travelled
‘cross rough brush,

wrinkled inclines, up
that raised area not climbed
in some time
(p77)

So, from all of this, it’s hardly a surprise to find that his desires reach a resolution in recognition and acceptance of what has been and what is.

when I clear a path

through the brush
of my regrets
and accept that a man

can hate with a hope
for things
to be otherwise
(p89)

Therefore, with desire dissected and found virtually wholly to be concerned with righting the wrongs of his past and regaining what he imagines to have been lost, this last quote leads me onto the third part of Perril’s statement of intent, namely a meditation upon the body.

I began by stating, above, that one of the first things that struck me were the frequent references to the many and varied bodily functions and body components throughout the piece’s eighty parts. It’s only now that I can see these as being much more than simply language stylistics used for the sake of characterisation. What they are, rather, is central to the piece in bringing together his hopes, regrets and desires; of providing a scaffolding to support the cadavers of his thoughts during dissection.

for hope

scares easy,
like white horses
upon a wave;

retreats
like my cock
in the cold
(p22)

the things I’ve lost
lust after me,
their former colony

tilt their tongues
to my ear-crater
and talk
(p38)

Dionysus of the quickening
pulse, and pealing brain,
I remain your servant:

for you I’d do
the impossible, reinstate
the tyranny
of the lower body
(p65)

All in all then, what Perril set out to do has, on the whole, been done, and done well with an appropriate level of subtle allusion and linguistic manipulation. But, what gives the piece its edge and helps it skip along (and, thereby, saves it from becoming a heavy, classics-laden, name-dropping drudgery of a piece) are the uses Perril makes of the poetic basics of alliteration and rhyme. The piece literally brims with them, though not to the point of overload that would come so easily to a lesser-skilled poet. Rather, he has managed to be inventive with them, something that keeps the reader’s mind sharp, interested and involved.

dropped at my feet
under the butter-beams,
a lyre,

and my father’s ire and doubt
at this outcome
saw him run the island out
in pursuit of cow
(p43)

And I couldn’t give a fucking fig
for there are none.
(p13)

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

if not to protect
all prospects, sound
them in sinew and strum
(p64)

Of course, if you’re looking for some sort of a moral, no doubt there’s one in here too. But I didn’t set out expecting, nor even wanting, Perril to be Aesop and, so, didn’t go looking for one. That’s a job I’ll leave for you when you come to sit there, purchased copy in hand, making all the right connections, drawing out the life-asserting associations, those bizarre similarities between Archilochus’ ruminations whilst on the moon and your own hopes, regrets and desires here on planet earth.

References.

  1. Archilochus Handbook, Frank Redmond, M�nin Web & Print Publishing, 2013, p937.
  2. Frank Redmond, ibid, p17.
  3. Frank Redmond, ibid, p1146.
  4. Simon Perril, Shearsman Books, 2013, p92.
  5. Frank Redmond, ibid, p705.
  6. Frank Redmond, ibid, p205.
  7. Frank Redmond, ibid, p277.
  8. Frank Redmond, ibid, p159.
  9. Frank Redmond, ibid, p159.
  10. Simon Perril, ibid, p92.
  11. Simon Perril, ibid, p92.
  12. Frank Redmond, ibid, p102.
  13. Simon Perril, ibid, p75.
  14. Simon Perril, ibid, p81.
  15. Simon Perril, ibid, p81.
  16. Simon Perril, ibid, p20.

 

 

 

�Copyright � John Mingay, 2014.