Rereadings II: Norman Talbot: Son of a Female Universe

Fivedock, NSW: South Head Press, 1971, 73pp.

(This review is the second in a annual series of rereadings of works which have been important to me but which, for one reason or another, I have never written about.)

Son of a Female Universe is the central panel of the triptych that makes up the first phase of Norman Talbot’s poetic career. The others are Poems for a Female Universe (1968) and Find the Lady: a Female Universe Rides Again (1977) – the titles containing a kind of whimsical humour that few poets would allow into something as significant as the titles of their books. The acknowledgements pages of each of these three books refers to the E.C. Gregory Memorial Poetry Award given to Talbot in 1965. This award, sponsored by the English Society of Authors has some decidedly impressive alumni. In 1965 (the award’s fifth year) Talbot shared it with John Fuller, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, and in the following year Seamus Heaney was one of the recipients. The acknowledgements of this award are significant because they claim that the three books were planned together and that many of the poems date from the same period.

Each of the three books has a detached prefatory poem. The first begins with an extended villanelle whose title, “Self-Justifying Apostrophe”, gives a fair sense of its content (it is dedicated to “the Reader”) and the last begins with “A Year & a Day in her Landscape”, dedicated to Australia and being very much a poem about the country and the exiles who make up her population. It might be a gloss on Lawson’s “Middleton’s Rouseabout” except that the success is not marked materially but poetically:

. . . . . 
Some lucky hick or greenhorn
will beat peers and pierglasses,
hit Her town in his riddling frame,
waltz Her waste of There in thentime.
We’re as near eternity as usual

& Hers no more tangled a now couch.

It’s a cryptic conclusion (fitting for someone with a “riddling frame”) and gives some sort of insight into some of the features of Talbot’s distinctive poetry, but it’s not too difficult if read carefully.

I can’t say that about the opening poem of Son of a Female Universe which I have known, admired and puzzled over since the book first appeared forty-six years ago. I’ll quote it in full:

Ring of Red Gold Away:
                                                  to the language

The other lovers were lost in Mirkwood - 
          not that the trees cared,
          ravens, leafstrown marshes there -
the swangirls, ringmaids were away . . .

The black brow glimmered in Wolfdale,
          glowered. Salt rimed his cheek
          & loveshot eye still looked
for the goldring girl he used to lay.

                    The shortswords crept down Mirkwood - 
                              fortytwo – each of them
                              had strode autumn to autumn
                    to take one ring away.

                    The free man hunted in Mirkwood
                              when the two dark brothers came.
                              He was out, the halls were dumb
                    & they took one red ring away.

                    Their fortytwo hid in Wolfdale -
                              he counted his hallrings right
                              through the peopled night.
                    One ring of red gold was away.

                    Hatred took them down Mirkwood -
                              tortured him by this strange thing - 
                              out of ten thousand rings
                    took that red ring away.

                    Her ring, who had flown over Mirkwood.
                              He dreamt of her all his sleep
                              woke with shackles on his feet -
                    his wits with one red ring away.

                                        Winter is icelocked in Wolfdale.
                                                  Hamstrung, he limps into his fate -
                                                  smithgod, avenger, absolute,
                                         with one red gold ring to pay:

                                         a hundred miles from Mirkwood
                                                  & years beyond, he wheels the sky
                                                  man no more, but only
                                         one ring of red gold away.

A reader isn’t going to make much sense of this – which is elliptical in the ballad tradition – unless he or she knows the poem that lies behind it: what the theories of intertextuality call the hypotext. It is Völundarkviða, the “Lay of Volund” (I’ll spare readers Old Norse spellings from here on and normalise everything), the story of a “god” better known in English as Weyland the Smith. The “Lay of Volund” is one of the greatest of the poems of the Elder or Poetic Edda, a collection – the only collection – of Old Norse poems most of which were written before the turn of the first millennium of the common era. Part of the magic of this poem is that, unlike those built around the Volsung or Baldur legends, it is the only one of its kind. It’s a small window that looks into a complex landscape where we are never confident that we would be able to walk surefootedly.

To summarise the story: three brothers living in the forest called Mirkwood come across three swan maidens who have temporarily put aside their plumage and are acting as mortal women. Each of the three brothers takes one as a bride but after seven years the women get restless – either their animal nature or a divine nature (they are often thought to be Valkyries) asserts itself. In the ninth year they leave. Two of the brothers go off to search for them but the third, Volund, remains behind trusting that his wife, Hervor, will return. The eddic style is just as elliptical as the ballad style and, like all Old Norse literature, demands that the reader think about the situation and “read between the lines”. Why should Volund be so trusting? The answer, probably, is that, unlike his brothers he is a smith (an occupation which, in the Iron Age is always surrounded with intimations of magic) and has made a ring which will, in some way, bind Hervor to him. While waiting for Hervor he makes another seven hundred rings and stores them by threading them on rope. Nidud, the king of a nearby country, hearing that Volund is alone in Wolfdale and that he is out hunting sends warriors who enter his hall and take the one, crucial ring away. Volund returns, counts his rings and, seeing that one is missing, thinks that Hervor must have returned and claimed her ring. He falls into a daze and wakes to find himself fettered by the warriors and a prisoner of Nidud who, at the prompting of his wife, has him hamstrung (an operation performed by cutting the tendons behind the knees) and taken to an island where he is forced to work at a forge making swords and precious metalwork for the king. Again, reading between the lines, it seems that the ring, now owned by Nidud, is what causes Volund’s strange, otherwise unexplained trancelike state and is also what gives Nidud a binding power over him as his smith. Nidud gives the ring to his daughter Bodvild and himself wears one of Volund’s swords. The crippled Volund works at his forge meditating a revenge which, in true Germanic heroic tradition, is going to be very bloody.

His opportunity occurs when Nidud’s two sons, driven by greed, arrive secretly on the island to see Volund’s wealth for themselves. He shows them one of his caskets of gems and offers it to them on the condition that they come back the next day having told no-one where they were going. When they return he cuts off their heads, makes goblets out of their skulls (which he presents to Nidud), gems out of their eyes (which he gives to Nidud’s wife – who is always, interestingly, unnamed) and a brooch out of their teeth (which he gives to Bodvild). He buries their bodies under his forge, an act which seems symbolically significant but whose meaning is only conjectural. No-one at the court knows what is behind these gifts: Nidud knows only that his sons are missing. Next, Bodvild comes to Volund in secret because her ring has been damaged and only he can repair it. He gets Bodvild drunk and rapes her making her pregnant. She flees. (It is hard not to make a connection between Bodvild being in a kind of helpless stupor and Volund’s being in a daze before his capture in Wolfdale – the ring has a role of some sort to play and now, of course, has been transferred to Volund.) In one of those miraculous disjunctions that you can get in this elliptical style, Volund suddenly launches himself into the air and flies to Nidud’s court. How he can fly is never explained and since for most readers the connections with Daedalus, another imprisoned artificer, are so strong, it’s hard not to imagine some sort of winged apparatus. This, in miniature, is perhaps a case of another text wrongly influencing our reading. It’s most likely that listeners to this poem in the ninth century (or whenever) would have connected the ability to fly with the swan shapes of the women at the beginning and assumed that Volund has learned something of the secret of shapeshifting from his wife and sisters-in-law.

The end of the poem is spectacular in the literal sense. Nidud asks Volund, who is hovering just out of arrow range, what has happened to his sons. Volund makes Nidud swear an oath – “By ship’s-keel, by shield’s rim / By stallion’s shoulder, by steel’s edge” – that no-one will harm Volund’s wife bringing up her child in the hall. Nidud agrees and is told the fate of his sons. Volund flies off and the poem finishes with Nidud asking his daughter if the story of her rape is true. She confirms it: “Against his wiles I had no wit to struggle / Against his will I did not want to struggle”. In Patricia Terry’s Poems of the Vikings, an otherwise excellent set of translations of the poems of the Poetic Edda, she comments in a note, “Volund’s courtesy to Bodvild is remarkable; he hardly seemed to think of her as his ‘wife’. One is also surprised to find, at the end of the poem, that Nidud apparently honours this oath.” This seems to me an excellent example of a critic not reading carefully enough between the lines. In my reading, the impregnation of Bodvild, not the rape itself, is the climax of Volund’s revenge. He is called an elf (in fact “king of the elves”) probably since elves were associated with magic creations. So Bodvild’s child will be part elf, part conventional human. Elves and humans aren’t exactly different species but they are certainly to be seen as strongly opposed variants. I think Volund is putting into Nidud’s court a creature who will eventually grow up to destroy his grandfather and thus avenge his father. This is not an uncommon trope in medieval heroic literature and examples can be found as far afield as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (interestingly, written not much later than the “Lay of Volund”) where it is, for example, the basis of the Sohrab and Rostam story. Of course Volund has to ensure that Nidud doesn’t foresee this and kill Bodvild while she is pregnant. Hence the carefully phrased but strictly binding oath. It’s a trick of the sort that occurs in other eddic poems. Nidud thinks that Volund’s reference to “my wife” refers to Hervor whom he has no interest in at all. But, of course, it refers to Bodvild and so Nidud is forced to protect the very child that will grow up to kill him – a fitting climax to a great narrative poem.

As is often the case with a hypotext, uncovering its identity solves a lot of the problems of the work under consideration but it also creates a lot of new ones. At the most general level there is the issue of whether the power of the original is somehow tapped into by the later text. Can this happen? If the answer is yes then it’s an admission that at least some of the strength of a poem lies in its core content rather than any of its specific, poetic incarnations. Even more crudely, does the reader use the later text as merely a nostalgic way of remembering the power of the original: so an early twentieth century classical scholar, coming across Joyce’s Ulysses, might barely see that text and look straight through it to The Odyssey.

At the textual level there is a lot that needs saying about “Ring of Red Gold Away”. Firstly there is the issue of the dedication – “to the language” – which I have never been able to understand. In an interview with Alan Lawson in a 1975 issue of Makar, Talbot says of it, “The one [ie the introductory poem] in the second book is dedicated to the language: there’s no mention of me in it at all. It’s a narrative but it’s the verbal textures, the sounds, that are intriguing”: an explanation that doesn’t really explain anything. Secondly, “Ring of Red Gold Away” is not a pastiche of eddic style but is closer to the border ballads. Having said that, it needs to be pointed out that there are a lot of narrative similarities between the eddic poems and the ballads, especially in the way they configure the narrative, focussing on the moments of high drama and leaving out much of what comes between. But the ballads are formally done in simple rhyming patterns, a long way from the alliterative metres of the heroic poems. “Ring of Red Gold Away” isn’t exactly a copy of the ballad style (Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” is a much closer imitation of that style) but it is in quatrains (the middle lines are half-rhymes) with some added structural complexities: the first line of each stanza includes one of two place names arranged in an interesting pattern, all the last lines are either a variation of “one ring away” or rhyme with “away”, and so on. Weirdly enough, the result recalls, if anything, the villanelle which is the first poem of the first book, “Self-Justifying Apostrophe” – the counterpart to “Ring of Red Gold Away” – because both share the need to alter syntax so that repeated lines can be sustained. It’s a standard skill of villanelle writers and in Talbot’s earlier poem the line “I am your business & (like truth) I must / be told” is continually modified so that “like”, for example, can go from being a preposition to a verb: “you must be shown / I am your business & like truth. I must . . .” The climax of “Ring of Red Gold Away” involves moving “away” from meaning “gone” to measuring a distance so that Volund is one ring of red gold “away” from being human.

Another issue raised by comparing this poem to its original is the matter of numbers. Why do the seven hundred rings become the even more unlikely ten thousand and why are the unspecified number of warriors sent out by Nidud made specifically “fortytwo”, a number used twice? There can’t be a practical writerly reason for this since the second appearance in the line “Their fortytwo hid in Wolfdale” could perfectly easily be replaced by “The warriors hid in Wolfdale”. What is the meaning of the lines “The free man hunted in Mirkwood / when the two dark brothers came”? Nidud’s sons are not, as far as I can tell, part of the initial attack on Volund, although they could be imagined to be, a tactic which would introduce them into the narrative at an early stage. Of course any reference to two brothers early in the narrative makes one think of Volund’s two brothers off searching for their lost wives. It’s possible that some sort of Freudian, dream-like reading might be intended whereby Nidud’s two sons become conflated with Volund’s brothers and the act of killing them is part of some family psychodrama, the real issue being between the two who actively search for their wives and the one who trusts to magic to summon her. Actually this kind of reading, which I introduced in mockery, has a certain appeal. Why not see Bodvild in terms of Hervor: both wives of Volund? Why not see “fortytwo” as six times the magical number, seven? But at this point we begin to lose touch with what the author’s intentions might have been.

And, as usual, the best guide to authorial intentions when it comes to meaning are the author’s other poems. Each of the first three books contains a section of “Tristan” poems exploring the great, perhaps the central, myth of the later middle ages. These poems look at parts of the story from different points of view and are a kind of free-flowing inhabiting of a legend. I suspect that “Ring of Red Gold Away” might best be interpreted in a similar way. This would make the poem out essentially to be about love and loss, just as the Tristan narrative is. The ring is a kind of equivalent to the love-potion of Tristan and Isolde, giving love but also controlling by determining the lovers’ fates. Volund, without his beloved Hervor, is prey to the viciousnesses of the world (the family and court of Nidud) and his only escape is to rise above the human by transforming himself not into a swan but into a god. What in the “Lay of Volund” is a triumphal achievement of revenge – the great heroic desire – is, in “Ring of Red Gold Away”, a sad failure. Hence the word, “hamstrung”, is used not to describe Volund’s situation at his lowest ebb before his revenge, but his situation at the end: “Hamstrung, he limps into his fate – / smithgod, avenger, absolute, / with one red gold ring to pay”.

This lengthy attempt at analysis makes a convenient segue to the central section of Son of a Female Universe, “Tristan in the Distance”, a group of seven poems deriving from the legend of Tristan and Isolde. Generally these poems see the love from the male perspective not, as Talbot noted a number of times, in any sort of assertion of male pre-eminence, but as a matter of perspective. Since he is male, his conception of love will involve the potential expansion of the female into a cosmic principle. For a female poet, the position might be reversed. At any rate, Isolde can be expanded into the conventional threefold incarnation of mother, lover and hag, she can be the principle of the sea and, at its most extreme, the universe itself: hence here in these three books, it is a female universe. In the first of the Tristan poems, “He Drinks to Isolde on the Liner”, from Poems for a Female Universe, these multiple levels of the female are all compressed. At its most basic it might refer to the drinking of the potion on the boat ferrying the couple from Ireland to Cornwall; at another level it might well refer to the poet and his wife being ferried from England to Australia and having a celebratory scotch; but at all points the wider expansion of Isolde into the sea itself is present:

“Your eyes drink darkly in the ebb of stars
(the compliant scotch & I are not immune). 
This harmony - & then the tune untunes,
your voice clouds over – oh, you go too far
when you spread out your black hair like a storm
& wind puts down the lights along the bar! . . .”

That first line cleverly exploits a syntactic ambiguity: depending on whether the verb is “drink” or “drink in” it can be read as saying that Isolde (ie her eyes) drink the potion on the deck of the ship, under the ebbing stars, or that she imbibes the stars themselves, thus nicely embodying her dual existence as earthly woman and as cosmic principle.

Intriguingly Four Zoas of Australia, published in 1992 and really representing a later stage of Talbot’s poetic output, has a valedictory Tristan section called, fittingly, “Tristan’s Last Voyage”. Here only the expanded Isolde is present. Each of the ten poems is set on a different beach in Newcastle, “this castled City”, and the prologue finds Tristan, in age, on the wrong side of the world “this Mundane Egg”, begging for a message from his lover/muse/goddess. She responds in the following poems, but only in her incarnation as the sea: “I love her sway, her sweep of tide, / her foamwhite laugh, her breaker-ride”.

In general, the relation between Son of a Female Universe and its predecessor is that the later book should be a little less ego-centred than the earlier. Many of the Poems for a Female Universe present a theatrical, intense, male self, balanced by various degrees of irony and throwaway humour. Son of A Female Universe, aiming to be a little less male-lover-focussed, has in its Tristan section (significantly called “Tristan in the Distance”) poems that are, essentially, about the three Isoldes that the legend, remarkably, contains for, apart from the Isolde who is Tristan’s true love and fellow-drinker of the potion, there is her mother, also called Isolde and an Isolde of the White Hands whom Tristan marries (though the marriage is not consummated) while estranged from his real Isolde. There are two poems about Isolde’s mother, presiding at the moment when Tristan is cured and unmasked as the killer of Morold, her brother, when the sliver of steel embedded in his thigh is matched against the corresponding broken edge of Morold’s sword. Both poems are written in an individual, highly complex, ballad-like form that has something in common with “Ring of Red Gold Away”, especially in its repetitions:

. . . . . 
                    Isolde’s mother, old for her brother,
                    healed through her magic her daughter’s lover.
                    Hating with one mind, ached with another –

The steel chip clanked into the basin. She
fitted the little delta to the edge
of the marred sword. The aching gap

          in her spoke steeply to these ironies.
          The whole sword lifted in her hollow hand:
          His pale cock sleeping on his sleeping thigh.

                    Isolde’s mother, lacking her brother,
                    healed with magic her daughter’s future lover.
                    Past tears at one mind, future at the other.

“A Poem About 3 True Lovers” works away at the complicated issue of the relationship between Tristan and his two Isolde-lovers (Isolde of Ireland and Isolde of Brittany). It is the central poem of this little group and the only one which is not a dramatic monologue. As such it raises the issues of this complicated narrative and discusses them from what is almost a philologist’s perspective:

. . . . . 
They explain it variously,
blaming her famous hands,
politics, more love potions - 
nobody understands –

but he gave Isolde the love
already given
(the only lover in the history of earth
to be so riven!)
. . . . . 
They knew he would go back
to his true orient,
that love would not hold
that lived on love’s impediment –

yes, leaving out the wilder rumours
& transposing a few vows
we can see what must have happened
as well as such an old version allows –

but why were they both Isoldes?
What ironies rule over
the many deaths & many reputations
of the ambidextrous lover . . .? 

Finally there are three poems about the jealousy felt by Isolde (of Ireland) towards her rival. And, true to form of an Irish princess, no holds are barred. The second poem is in the form of a spell which will drive Isolde of Brittany to the far north where she will be withered and abraded to almost nothing, “pale as your nailclip / small a jerking inchmite’s hip / cold & dry & nothing left”. The most relevant to the approach I have been taking to Talbot’s Tristan poems is perhaps the first of these where Isolde’s hectic fantasies about Tristan’s life with the second Isolde produce an image of the woman spreading white wings over the man (an extension of her name, “Isolde of the White Hands”:

. . . . . 
Her white strokes fluttering over
gloating steeply on

his coast . . . my old printing . . .

Here Isolde herself uses the image of sea and land for woman and man.

The other poems of Son of a Female Universe are separated into two groups. The first of them contains some of Talbot’s most appealing poems, partly, perhaps, because they are free of the hectic love-myth of Tristan and Isolde and partly because they tend to focus on poetry itself. The first of them, “Reading My Poetry” deliberately presents a new, de-centred conception of the self in that it has three parts in which the section about the self – the middle part – is the shortest and presents the poet as no more than a neutral figure – “I pour & feel no lighter / pour & pour & get no warmer” – between the more extended sections devoted to the audience and to the words of the poems. Many of these poems invoke silence as the ground of poetry itself and a number – “Quaker Meeting”, “Silence” – specifically refer to Talbot’s Quaker origins. A particularly complex one is “Retreat with Ghosts” which (I think) records a decision to abandon the silent world, probably of a dream, inhabited by loving creatures and objects and return to the daylight world as a writer (or “righter” – the poem is full of puns). It probably has its conception in any of the myths in which a man visits the underworld (in search of mermaids, fairy queens, the dead, elixirs of immortality) and finds that readjusting to the overworld is very difficult:

What mind of love
will I need for this slideways
journey back from silence?
. . . . . 
Out in the sunlight a small country
lies between the ground & the top of the grass,
between the sun’s clangour & the damp reach.

In the lucid water fish have learned
how to design themselves. As in a sleep
my face wavers downwards. I return.

& return righting. I was a lie
to myself to founder in their worlds
though they loved me & were glad. . .

The last poem of this first section, “Steppingstones, Linton-in-Craven”, is a complex but essentially traditional piece (what might be called a set-piece, symbolic landscape poem). But it’s also an explicit poem-poem – the stepping-stones over the river symbolise Talbot’s poems, their upper side dry and turned to the sun but the underside bearing the damp of the underworld of dreams and of the home of the ghosts of “Retreat with Ghosts”. The stepping-stones are made to parallel the inscribed gravestones of the nearby church and the river is both the flow of reality and the process of thoughts through the brain:

. . . . . 
The rainstones will whiten in the sun
to a dry heart with a wet heart under.
Always the streams halfcircle
in their currents & break
round the tongueslidden side.

Between stones & grass I write
buried in flow & resisting.
A stone is two stones
a clingweed darkness & a leaping light.
From poem to poem there is nothing to hold.

The subtitle of the third section, “One of My Changes of Garments”, is taken from Whitman and alerts us to the fact that these poems will neither be about the self, or the self refracted through the Tristan myth but will be explorations of quite different personalities. Of course the quote from Whitman – “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, / I myself become the wounded person” – tells us that these will not be poems of simple, external observation: empathy will be involved. Mind you there is not much empathy – more a sort of repelled analysis – in poems like “American Fragments” – an anthology of portraits in itself – “’Those Little, Nameless, Unremembered Acts’” – a portrait of the commandant of Auschwitz and his hobby of making wooden models, and “The Anarchist’s Villanelle” – “’You just don’t think that can break the bars / having once used your prosperous idioms – / you don’t know I can step upon the stars . . .” Many of the poems are clouded by the backdrop of the violence of the war in Vietnam and there are those, like “Alabama by Radio” and “To Muhammed Ali” which engage the American trauma of black-white relations but my favourite among them, “A Poem for Guy-Fawkes’-Night”, is entirely English in its setting (the tower of Durham Cathedral) and its concerns. Again, in a symbolic scene, the children look upwards to follow the fireworks while their fathers mine below ground:

. . . . . 
Over the village fires the light
of rockets bursting dazzles the smooth sky
& tilts kids’ faces – just for a moment – high.
Their downshift fathers bend beneath the night

& patiently hew eighty feet below the path.
Lungs like pavements lift, check, slide,
& the sons watch flares & bright rockets ride
the alien air like strokes of faith,

drive for a moment up at the old night.
The boys sign up like this each Guy-Fawkes’-Day
until they go down, grown-up, the only way
out of the reach of light.

In a sense it’s more conventional than most of Talbot’s poetry but the context of the other poems of the book prevents it being seen as no more than a comment on the fate of the industrial workers in an English mining town because a poem like the earlier “Retreat with Ghosts” focussed on the way poems must have a dry upper surface and a moist, earth-impregnated lower one. Crossing this with “A Poem for Guy-Fawkes’-Night” complicates the issue of the over- and under-world a little and there may well be a touch of regret and even guilt in Talbot’s comment early in the poem that the poet’s point of view (from the Cathedral tower) is “high up and safe”.

Norman Talbot died in 2004 aged sixty-seven. He has never been well-served by Australian literary history and appears in very few anthologies. You can find him in Shapcott’s Australian Poetry Now, Les Murray’s The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (where he is represented by a single shrewdly chosen but atypical poem), and John Kinsella’s Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry. But you won’t find him in anthologies like the Mead and Tranter The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry or the Lehmann and Gray Australian Poetry Since 1788. I think that is a shame: his poetic output already looks more worth the keeping than those of many poets who are widely anthologised. It may have something to do with his origins as an English poet though mixed origins don’t usually damage reputations in Australia. He is a vivid and frequent presence in Gwen Harwood’s letters (collected in Greg Kratzmann’s A Steady Storm Of Correspondence) which shows that at least one slightly older contemporary had a lot of respect for him both as man and poet.