There was a time not so very long ago, before the depredations of Facebook and Instagram, when this blog, amongst many, had a wide following. Each post would draw at least as many comments as any trenchant, topical or comic status update on Facebook might provoke today. The difference was that whilst that Facebook status, however well-received, will plummet down the fast-moving escallator of contributions within minutes, overtaken, eclipsed and submerged by the sheer weight and variety of material rising in its wake, the blog post would sit four-square, maybe for days or a week at a time, marinading in the mixture of reflective, carefully-considered comments that would appear.
The days of the personal blog have passed. I remain in contact via Facebook and email with nearly all of my closest blogging friends from those days, but with a handful of noble exceptions, our blogs are now lonely houses along a largely deserted highway. We continue to live here because a house is a home and we love the view. And in my case the Patteran Pages (founded in 2003) now acts as a gallery for occasional poems posted to a couple of prompt sites so there is still welcome traffic from time to time.
So the mammoth post below is very unlikely to be seen by more than a handful of old pals and the occasional wanderer who has got lost along this neglected highway. And of those who stop by there may be few who will persevere all the way to the end! But after 12 years I'm going nowhere so I'll post away as if nothing had changed. And if through the windows the road in both directions remains empty, I'll slip over to Facebook for a little company!
And so to the post...
In 2007 I completed the fourth draft of a long poem entitled 'The Famous Flower'.
The original intention had been to select a group of traditional songs from Scottish/Irish/English sources and expand them into fuller narratives, extrapolating from the main storyline and developing some of the more allusive aspects. They would then be presented as a sort of suite of poems, sharing some reflection of the style and idiom of the original ballads, but embodying elements of a more contemporary concern with character and motivation.
I wrote up a version of the Anglo-Irish song, The Dark-Eyed Sailor, but subsequently failed to find anything else that seemed to lend itself to similar treatment. Until I rediscovered Martin Carthy's version of a 17th century ballad, The Famous Flower of Serving Men originally written by one Laurence Price and subsequently augmented anonymously over the centuries by the good old folk process. A wonderfully dark and sinuous tale, it provided all sorts of possibilities for exploration and extension. What I didn't intend at the outset was to end up with a piece running to over 4,000 words!
Here it is in its mighty entirety with the narrative shared between Fair Eleanor, her King and the voice of the invisible Chorus. But first, listen to Martin Carthy's exquisite rendition of the song...
This is how it was. So long a journey from that place of blood to this whitethorn fire; from the scattering of the may blossom to the blowing of these hag-tree ashes amongst the bones.
This is how it was. It is a spring night. A hunter’s moon is trimming back the clouds. A vixen cries in the coppice. My baby suckles, eyes closed against the pulse of milk. My lover lifts an apple bough into the fire and turns to reach for another.
And, noiseless from the steep stair, unbidden, unheralded, five men are in my chamber like wraiths who find their form only in firelight. One has drawn his sword; the others bear knives. Unhindered by passion, free of guilt, they work like men harvesting in advance of a storm, brisk and thorough, tight-lipped and breathing hard.
My lover barely rises to his knees and they cut him down, his mouth in a gargoyle grin, lipless and wrapped around his jawline. Two more strokes and his right hand goes spinning down into the hearth like a shed glove.
And a silence thickens the air. A light, green and glaucous, like through deep water, traps us between one moment and the next. The men pause, breathing heavy still, like cattle who have run the length of a field. I am a dreamer, motionless, looking beyond the instant. (I am a child wrapped in white furs, sleigh-bound across deep snow. I am a lover bearing the blessed weight of a lover on a bed of moss under pines). But my baby moves in my arms; he shifts his warm body inside the plaid shawl that wraps him, cranes his head to see our visitors so as to smile his two small pearly teeth at them, so as to fix his round sea-blue eyes on them, so as to welcome them to our hearth with his precious early words.
And one cuts him down. With skill. It must be said, with skill for his black blade passes my face in a whisper, a thing half seen, half-imagined – the swift parabola of a bird glanced between two clouds, or a leaf blown in a hard wind. I feel its dangerous breath; I feel its voice deep within my cage of bones (as now I hear it; as I shall hear it ever).
And my milky babe makes no sound as he passes swiftly from this place. Was present, is absent with no sense of the journey made. (And this small grain of mercy, dropped from the store whose bounty it is God’s to grant or to withhold, is what I have hoarded through the long years).
They turn to go, their black cloaks gathered like Dominican shrouds, save for the sword-bearer, the baby-slayer. He throws back his cowl and bares his face to show a lattice-work of scars, as if one has some time seized his hair behind and pushed his face against a blacksmith’s grate or a burning prison’s bars. My stepmother’s man. Now all’s as clear as a chain of falling water: my mother’s man, her seneschal, and this disfigurement her work, her hand in his hair in sudden anger. And yet still he does her will – this, all this, to forestall the white dove’s prophecy that, my father slain, the bastard son shall rise and rule.
And now he casts the sullied sword away from him, towards the hearth, for man may not sheath a sword that bears a baby’s blood and he fears for his immortal soul. Hilt and blade sing off the stone they fall upon. He turns and follows his companions down the winding stair, the scuff of their falling feet the only whispered valediction on that night.
The earth at the moat’s edge is soft with the night’s rain. It yields to the broken sword, its hilt and tongue of blade. The winding sheet must be the plaid shawl that wound me through the winter by the fire as I gave breast and crooned the songs he took with him into his moonlit dreams. The sword, its hilt and bloody blade are the cross of Christ to raise above my boy. The bell that tolls him through Eden’s gate is the blade struck hard against the mounting block (that block from which I would ride, laughing, to hunt the hind). His marker is this hawthorn spray. And the psalm is wound into the wordless sounds that, like some beast, its tongue ripped out by the root, I cry into the night.
And as dawn arises - curds and whey in a heartless sky – I hack away my sunset locks, the hue of brass and gold that once my lord would comb and plait so that I would slumber, weightless, timeless and wave-borne. And the bone-white face, bound in a corolla of ragged flame, that shivers back at me from the morning water weeps for the last time. A man’s face now, drawn and grim, with sea-grey eyes that always must look back towards where the hills encircle the birthing place, the bower, the hearth, the fire that died.
Clad in his hauberk and helmet and with his surcoat stained to black, I ride astride my dead lord’s destrier. I cross bridges numberless, pass over waters that roar like oblivion or slumber, unseen, unheard, until the marches fall away and the long, sad, flat reaches of the fens lift towards gentle hills and valleys and the questing loops and curls of hearthside fires rising. But pacing me like a woven skein I see the forest edge, now close with elm and larch and beech and oak, plaited against the light, now rimming the horizon become as the faintest memory of trees.
Thus it is, as commonplace as such arrivals are: a horseman comes alone out of the north, wearing the threads and hide of a week’s desperate weather. I watch him from above, the slow, unguided pricking steps towards the gate that he senses more than sees. Only a child or a woman should so embrace a horse’s neck, I note, as I turn toward the narrow stair and so descend to greet my fate.
It is said that all may know the road from its first few stones. Yes, and so it is. The courser stands at my bridgehead, blowing, his great head hanging. His rider lifts a bone-white face. Two sea-grey eyes look down. They neither ask, nor do they demand, nor do they plead. And as I wave away my two gatemen and step onto the bridge; and as I take up in my right hand the hanging reins; and as I brace against the heft of that slim body sliding down the horse’s sweating flank, I know of my heart’s turning; I know that now no moon will ever tug my tides again; I know in this instance that I am a king in thrall.
‘My famous flower’, I dub him, my Sweet William, and I bind him to me as my chamberlain, as chatelain, the hoops of keys that chime like muffled bells within the flowing robes he wears. Moons come and go; leaves form and fall and ever he moves down passages, through doorways, under arches cowled like a fragrant, pastel-drawn Dominican, his voice, so rarely heard, a grass-blown whisper. Some deep and distant sorrow hoods his eyes. He sees amongst the blazing logs and branches late at night swift phantoms, shifting spectres. From my chair I watch him, turning and turning his empty flagon, fire blooding the marble of his cheeks. And if I speak of this, my fingers on his wrist as one might seek to still the pulse of a sickly child, he leans away towards the dark beyond the fire and I’m alone inside the light. And yet come dawn he pours my water - lifts the ewer like an offering, fills the bowl, watching the water fall as if in benediction. All is ceremony: the cloth across his arm, the opening of the casement, the tipping of the ewer, the turning with the heavy bowl. And as at the heart of all such sacrament, there is, I know, I know, across the reaches of the passing days, the flame incarnadine of love. Not worship, fear or fealty, but love.
And from the tail of an eye I can spy them smirking like children, even those who wear my favours in their caps, those who hold demesnes at my good behest, those who have my love as won in battle. Loyalty is mere duty. To know the lineaments of my soul so as to read my true intent – there’s no one here can see beyond the radiance of my crown, behind the lion’s golden face. No one save, perhaps, my silver son, my close and bounden one, my Sweet William, famous flower of serving men.
With the owl still calling from the oak and only a rim of red above the hills, my lord goes riding. Even before I have risen and slipped into my robe and tried the door between our chambers, he is gone. Although he keeps his unstrung bow and quivered arrows in with his tack below, I know he’s off to the hunt for his jerkin’s out of its press and his water’s poured. Whenever he rises as the stars fade, he goes alone. His bright hair coiled within his hood, the cloak that wraps him fashioned from darkness itself, he sets his saddle while the grooms sleep on. By dawn he’s cleared the brakes and dykes and he’s reining in at the forest’s edge. He knows where the hind drinks and where the boar roots, but he would as soon bring down with a single shaft the one who follows with officious sword and shield to guard his king as chase his chosen prey through copse and thicket.
The wind rolls gentle from the west and as the sun’s wheel turns the day, the boys run down to the river where a ship with an azure sail docks and unloads spices, bolts of cloth and three caged falcons. And then, running from the sudden shower, tossing between them a painted leather ball, four-and-twenty of my lady the mother queen’s maidens. Now, joined by their lords and suitors, they scatter like crying seaside birds about the empty hall, chasing the arcing ball through fading sunbeam and gathering shade. Alone beneath the great mantle beam, before the unlit grate, I watch and yearn as the brace and girdle of tyrant memory hold me fast. And here, most alone, I close my eyes and cross my arms across my breast as one in the fastest sleep, a replica of death.
And through the whoop and halloo of those scampering fools, I hear as a deep enfolding echo the boom of doors flung wide and the iron-shod clamour of a horse’s hooves on flagstones. As I drop my arms and open my eyes to the dusty gloom, my lord is high above me, wrenching his skittish courser sideways so the better to lean and gather me up before his pommel, half across the horse’s neck and half in his encircling arms. And before the stilled and unbelieving crowd, he kisses me cheek and chin and eyes and hair and weeps as one distracted. Holding me hard with one tight shuddering arm as if I were to drown, with his free arm he flails the air and cries to the company within to quit this hall on pain of slaughter. And as they tumble in a moiling flight of legs and turning heads through the open doorway, we must tumble too, out of the saddle and into the ashes of the empty hearth. Face to face we kneel like marble saints, his hands amongst my cropped inglorious curls, his eyes defying mine to spurn his gaze, begging that I should read some diamond-hard effulgent truth within and so believe far beyond the call of simple hollow words.
But I am in retreat as all refracts and shivers into a halo of tears and all that’s true and palpable are his two hands around my face and his breath against my lips. Rising, he lifts me and I’m guided gently pacing over rushes to a settle flush against the wall. We sit and with crooked finger, knuckle raised, he draws my tear back to its source and sighing deep and long just once, he tells his tale.
In at the day’s birth as I strap the girth beneath his belly. I hug his great head to still the hooves treading the straw, kicking the stable door. I want no bleary grooms fresh out of their dunghill dreams to reach down bridle and harness half asleep, or a watchman, fresh on his rounds, eager to jump step and dance attendance on his king. I long for the dew to rise at my gallop; for the black air to part against my speed. I need, oh need, to bleach the livid phantoms that visit me by night to tug intangible at my sheets, that would have me cast off my garments and cross those twenty paces to your door and through to unleash havoc. So as I rein in at the forest’s edge and stand high in my stirrups, I rejoice in my solitude and breathe in lime and leaf-mould. Here, where the sudden trees crowd deep, I am one and one alone. And now as I edge us in between the mighty boles to find the ancient tracks laid down before (so long before) our hubris had us call each other king or commoner, I’m in my peace. My eyes are honed on the dark: I read the arcane script engrained in trunk of oak and sycamore; I watch the ooze of silver sap from the birch and golden from the maple. My ears are sifting every tiny sound – the fall of a single leaf through buttresses of branches high above; the switch and turn of a weasel deep inside the forest floor; the clap of the pigeon’s wings in a clearing half a league away. I urge my hunter forward. He picks and steps across and around the twisted roots and down the mossy banks. I stoop low in my saddle, my face along the horse’s neck and branches plucking at the bow across my back. One clearing and another and the bramble and the bracken yield to a pathway laid through thickets fettle-deep. I crane down low, half hanging, stirrup-free so as to seek for scats, or broken stems, or the trace of cloven hoof. I straighten and my yellow hair is laced with the rust of ferns and tiny flames of gorse.
And I rise into stillness; all is still and clear, as if the forest should slumber on the instant. I sit, ear tilted to the breeze, like a rabbit on a stump. And even as I sit the last breath of air subsides and all there is to hear is the blood-beat of man and beast, hunter and steed, two hearts that cross and chime. Light arrests and shadows freeze. I close my eyes against the mass of silence, here on the cusp of old familiar day and something just beyond, something half-familiar from the hinterland of dreams and the dawn of just awakening. I open my eyes and there in three long shafts of light shining through the drooping canopy of a mighty beech, a hart of purest white stands motionless on a catafalque of woven fern and purest moss. His perfect neck is yielded as an offering, a steady pulse embossed like a silver cord from jaw to scapula. As one in the honey weight of sleep, I slide my yew bow from back to hand and lift an arrow to the nocking point and draw the bowstring back to where my knuckle for a heartbeat touches the lobe of my right ear and I let the arrow fly.
Even as I lower the bow and grasp the pommel as my horse goes turning, turning in a gyre of sudden fear, I twist to see the ash-wood arrow run the fifty paces from this patch of loam to where the milk-white hart awaits, still as a patient lover. And that nave of air between us turns into a chamber charged with some strange humour, thick yet aqueous and my arrow passes like a cautious fish that noses forward, straight but circumspect. I watch the fletching ripple in the current; see the nock engraved like the cross of Christ; and I note the kissing moment of the head against that silver corded pulse to loose a plait of blood go twisting, purest red against the ivory. Then so lifts the caul, the draping veil and my horse, my brave Bellerophon, his nostrils drinking in the air like a swimmer risen, hacks back a step or two. He staggers and his haunches drop so that when I turn to spy the star-white hart, he’s gone. There’s blood upon the leaf and branch and fallen like ruby tears on the forest floor, but never a broken twig nor trampled covert, never a parted thicket nor spray upon the sand.
As if she flew thus trackless, the blood-trail tugs me spellbound through that dappled day, winds me into coiling nets of brambles, under the grappling arms of beeches, down through root-bound tunnels plunging, up the ferny sides of valleys, scattering pebbles crossing runnels, racing the long beams of the setting sun across the sudden swards, chasing the bloody pearls that shine like buboes in the dying light until at last the trail ends in a sanguine cross laid like a marker at the forest’s edge and we spin and turn and sink, winded and blown, beneath the tresses and against the bole of a mighty oak.
Great shadows cloak the spreading moss beneath. Foxglove, heather, bluebell gleam within the gold and copper pools. And before us, laid like a mighty green and velvet cloth amongst the cautious trees that dare not tap the sacred earth beyond, a smooth and grassy glade. And in the centre, fixed like a boss, a tomb aligned from east to west, a single basalt box, the length of a man who would be blessed either head or foot by the long walk of the sun. And even as we catch our breath beneath the hanging branches, all the forest stills once more like a great settling of wings. Light withdraws; shadows blacken the turf like water rising from beneath its roots. No bird lifts or settles; no creature scatters the leaf-mould, troubles the canopies of leaves. Horse and man as one in battle, bold Bellerophon and I hold hard to the shade. He snickers once and tilts a hoof. I rise up in the saddle, shift a hand from pommel to sword hilt, watch unblinking as for a glint of dying light from a blade, or a thread of smoke.
Then, even as I gaze into the far treeline, a spectral form like a grounded cloud bleeds into the gap between two trees. In motion yet somehow glacial, standing clear as if forever fixed in place and time, the white hart, head turned back, the arrow proud and a bright chain of blood from neck to flank to earth that seems to tether him for the taking. I draw my sword (for arrows seem to pierce this beast in vain) and blade before I heel my charger forward.
From the touch of frog on clover, a hoof parting the paper bells, the song begins. Full-throated but so far away, as if it were blown like vapour through the crowded trees; so many voices pitched from keening trebles out of the thinnest air down to rich profundo rolling out of thunder, wordless, or in some tongue unspoken since the first footers made their mark on sand or parted grass. As if these tussocks were spikes of mist that rose from the skin of some enchanted lake, we glide, unsailed and rudderless, onto the sward.
As the pagan introit melts back into the trees, so fades like a fume the stilly hart, once chalk- white pelt, now smoke, now dream. Again, I close my eyes and shake the fancy out of seeing; open them and in wonder watch a dove - fashioned surely from the very salt and snow of my errant hart – go soaring high from that self-same place, into the dusky blue, now pocked with early stars. Then, like one such star, the dove comes falling, wheels and turns and alights upon the northern head of the sable tomb. I sheath my sword as we tread the carpet grass. Against the flawless black, the dove is silver, tipped and still like a crescent moon. And as we draw beside the tomb, it seems that through some silken valance, rippling like water, first a sleeping face and then the couchant form, full and clear, of an armoured knight reveals within, shield arm across a naked sword, sword arm severed from the wrist, his feet upon a serpent, coiled and striking. And as I slip to earth and make to kneel in some obeisance to this marvel, a voice as deep as the fastest clay, yet as close as two lips pursed in secret discourse at my ear begins at once to speak.
And the tale is your tale from the apple bough fire to the murdered babe, to the sword cast down by the hoodless penitent, your stepmother’s thrall. I feel the slicing of the air by silent blades; I hear the breath in the throats and mouths of labouring men; I smell the blood that gouts and eddies over the flags; I see your grey eyes in my own contorted face, hanging over the moat-water. And your grief, red-raw, laid open to the briny air, beats inside my own heart’s pulse and stills my very breath.
Oh, the bee’s-wing brush of fingers on my lips, the tender tug of fingers in my hair, the dry leaves of a voice falling to silence through dust and dark. For a lifetime moment in the wake of the tale, there is the sound only of the wind in the chimney breast and a pigeon’s wings as she passes from one high window to the next. And then he rises, rises as one so weary of the darkest transports of this world, and he stands half shadowed, half illumined and all about us in that empty hall the strands and tresses of the two tales, his and mine, settle amongst the leaves and dust and dark.
But he is a king and bred into the warp and weft of pledges, oaths and fealties. His sword is dinged and dented from a hundred battles fought to break or build within his realm of mountains, meads and rivers and beyond. And now as he slowly turns as one out of late dreaming and into this time and place of honour, debt and obligation, fire rises behind his eyes, bone and sinew realign and his sword hand strays to the hilt. I am looking up at a man who will reach for his bridle, who will climb into his saddle and set his eyes on one dark mark upon a long horizon. And he will ride as straight and true as a multitude of roads and passes will allow, untroubled by reflection, guided by the lodestar retribution and the love entire and boundless in whose radiance I am standing now.
THE BLOOMING OF THE MAY
He takes a cohort of his finest – each man strange to mercy in the service of his king. And beneath a new device – a dove upon a sable field – in three days they are clear of our gentle lands; in four they cross the fens; and in a further six they reach the same hills that encircle the birthing place, the bower, the hearth where the fire died.
And on a lambent dawn fashioned more for the properties of love, they burn her gatehouse, breach her mighty gates and sack her citadel. In a corner of her hall, she crouches like a shitting beast behind her seneschal. He swings his mace right-handed; in his left he wields a sword. He knows that he shall die and as he turns and turns about, he sings out loud a wordless song. My lord ensures within the circling of his blade that, with a stroke, he severs the seneschal’s right hand and with another he guts his man and then steps back so both may watch him die amongst his liver and his lights, unsinging and unsung. And she my stepmother, her eyes crazed white and spittle on her chin like some trapped and fevered dog, attempts to rise, but falls back into her own rank juices.
So then her taking from that place and down through all the broad lands to our hearth and home. For upwards of a year she languishes in irons bound, awaiting the blooming of the may again so that she might be brought into the spring fields for the reckoning. And now the may is blooming and dressed in a verdant gown and crowned with plaited quickthorn, she is queen of the pyre. Some dance at her foot, circling and circling the maypole’s axis mundi, singing the catches of the season. Others grim with purpose lift and heave and stack the thorny bundles high.
I sit upon a white mare. Now my hair falls down my back, held at my nape by a twisted silken cord. Mounted close, my lord’s right hand covers my left. His middle finger turns my ring. We are still; we are silent. There is no triumph in the directing of these engines of redress. All must submit to the greater will that binds us in the dark. And so he tips his head the once to his watching chamberlain and the burning brands are thrust deep into the bowels of the stack. The fire cracks and spits. Inside the flames, leaves curl and cat-haws pop. Yet from our shading beech a throstle sings, a silver chain of falling notes as if to purify the air. And then, like the sound of the tearing of some mighty tree by hurricane from the rocky bonds of earth, my lady cries abroad from her eyrie, swathed in smoke and licked by tongues of fire: Alas the day that she became the famous flower of serving men! And in my belly like a dancer turns the boy conceived in love alone, he who as the dove foretold shall take the orb, the sceptre and the sword to rule the land in peace and plenitude. My lord, he leans from his saddle low and plucks a sprig of hokey green to tuck into my hair. I pick a single leaf. I lift it to my lips. This shall be a sacrament to be held in a locket of gold against the dark winds of the world and for the love that might slumber through the heart’s long winter but shall rise exultant with the blooming of the may.
I am the sculptor, the weaver, the giver of breath, binding the dripping forms, these homunculi, to the wires. I wrestle legless tubes and armless torsos into shapes, disnatured, thwart, then stand away to contemplate creation.
Satisfied, I turn to go and cracking like flags of liberation in the sudden April breeze, the garments dance revolution, disembodied, boneless, free.