Hussey, Charlotte. Glossing the Spoils. Awen Publications: Stroud, England, 2017 (2nd edition), 72 pages.
Montréal poet and scholar Charlotte Hussey’s most recent book of poetry, published by an Irish imprint, was sparked by a quest for reconnection to the author’s root culture’s myths and legends. As she tells it in her introduction, a comment by a Cree student about why the author would want to know First People’s stories, rather than explore her own, prompted her to do just that. The result is a series of formally structured poems that explore significant passages from ancient poems and stories from the English and Celtic traditions.
While the premise may seem somewhat academic, the results are living, breathing artful poems that speak from a present context, while echoing the past.
The sources are translations by eminent authors such as Seamus Heaney and Lady Gregory of British, Irish and Welsh legends, including Beowulf, annals of English, Irish and Welsh history and other sundry sources of that ilk. These primary texts are mined for four-line passages that appear at the start of each of Hussey’s poems as epigrams to be glossed. The Glosa form grew out of the practice of Spanish monks during the Renaissance who would provide marginal comments (or glosses) on texts. This idea caught on with poets, including, in our own time P.K. Page, who published Hologram in 1994, a book of glosas on the work of poets Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas and others. Using the glosa form, Hussey’s poems expand on the “Spoils” of the original texts and bring the cultural past to life and affirm its on-going relevance.
Structurally, each poem begins with a four-line quote from the original source, with the poet including each line from the original at the end of each of four stanzas, essentially having each stanza move toward the final line, thereby threading the new composition through the eyelets of the lines of the old, as it were. The poet looks for a way into the glossed texts and the reader is taken along for the adventure.
Hussey has given herself some hurdles to leap over, as well as springboards of inspiration to her poetic compositions, where she is able to delve into the deepest folds of myth while articulating an expression of the concern of living in today’s world. This way her poems are like the Janus figure, looking to both the past and the present.
The poems contain four 10-line stanzas, making 40 lines (44 with the passages to be glossed). The prosody at work is an intricate rhyme and blank verse hybrid, with lines 6, 9 and 10 rhyming as a rule, and the effect is something reminiscent of Celtic scroll patterns of jewelry or illuminated manuscripts. Sometimes the form seems to force connections to the glosses but more often than not the connections are surprising and seem the result of profound mediation on the poet’s part. This is not just an exercise of style: it is an exercise in deep image therapy, as it were.
Then there is the great phrasing, rhythmic cells of language, rather than lines and sentences, being the matrix. This makes for terse turns of phrase that delight the ear, as they communicate their imagistic and semantic content. The resulting poems are rich in vivid, sensual, at times brutal imagery, as in “Lake of the Cauldron”:
A giant within me begins to swim
out of a wilderness lake….
Big-boned knees, vigorous,
striding the bank, he shakes me up,
The richness of the sound combined with dazzling imagery creates an opulent and entrancing effect, as the poet looks for a way into the glossed texts. In looking for these ways in, the poet places side by side the contemporary facts of her life with the ancient stories, characters and scenes, which serve as a portal into another dimension of understanding. Such is the power of myth, and it is this that the poet has tasked herself with: to find by means of the glossing interaction a link to the wisdom of the old stories, reclaiming their former power and the wisdom one can only attain via the imagination and its mysterious workings, here prodded by some intriguing narratives lost in the sands of time, or erased by colonial overlays of culture.
The poems are drenched with lore, including the figures of Merlin, Arthur, Perceval, Beowulf, Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, and Brigit, “a Tuatha Dé goddess worshipped both as a crone and as a spring maiden,” one of several notes at the end of the book tells us. Sometimes the poet gets inside the myth and explores it, or she goes off on a tangent. For example, “Raven Knowledge” is a poem about Merlin and Emily Bronte, while “Devil May Care” is a frank poem about sex with very sensuous imagery, and “Brigit” is an equally potent erotic piece, presenting a woman described as “one side of her face is ugly/but the other side is very comely” and the poem’s striking imagery conveys the double-sided nature of the mythical figure:
furrowed and black as burnt bark,
her lips cracked, her lidless eyes
stare unflinching into the king’s.
Waving her arms like raptorial wings,
she takes him under her cape, dirty,
run through with burrs and thorns.
But then we get the other side, when we see her
the hag’s mask, throwing it over
her freckled, milky shoulder.
Touched by sunlight, her golden hair
swings free, her crown’s a flame.
The king buries himself in her soft,
The range of energies here derives from dichotomies’ binary electricity as we get in dreams, and the unconscious.
In “Wyvern” there is the figure of Merlin, “His blank, sandstone eyes, worn/of their painted pupils by the longtime/ rain, stare like those of the dragon,” and a zoomorphism whereby the animal-human divide is abolished and the two worlds meet. Along with human figures who embody some of this essential energy of the natural world, we also get banshees in “Matter,” trolls in “Trolls,” fairy women in “Fand, the Fairy Queen” as well as several other passages where the human world is invested with powers of the non-human.
The old ballads of course contained echoes of many of these myths and their narrative import. “Daemon Lover” offers reflections on solitary reclusion from love’s troubles and provides links to Merlin’s forgotten mother. In “The Questing Beast” the poet juxtaposes Morte d’Arthur with “pick ups that once hauled melons and the richest 1%,” giving the ancient myth contemporary relevance. In “Naked,” it is photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his painter wife Georgia O’Keeffe who are linked to ancient myth. In “Fortuna,” a poem dedicated to Dr. Jacqueline Kirk of Montréal, an aid worker killed in Afghanistan, the fates that appear in Arthurian legend are evoked as the martyred humanitarian confronts “Fortuna, eyes nearly blinded/by the hanks of her greasy hair, hides/behind an orchard wall, deadly/its fruit of Kalashnikovs poised/amid grapevines and pomegranates.” The poet also clearly taps into the energy of myth in “Silver Branch,” wherein “The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal” is mined for meaning. The lines to be glossed from that tale are
The branch springs from Bran’s hand
So that it is in the woman’s hand
for there is not enough strength
in Bran’s hand to hold it
and the poem contrasts the silver branches, which “indicate the sovereignty of otherworldly deities,” the author’s note tells us, with the poet’s own experience:
I cut a branch from a crab apple
deep in the wood, a silver branch,
and dream all night of how to dress it;
silver ribbons of purple and blue,
seven hawk bells dangling in a row.
I am quickly made to understand
the branch possesses a potency all its own,
calling, called to those it chooses
like the silver one from fairyland;
the branch springs from Bran’s hand.
But, the poet tells us,
Mine falls prey to other hands,
my own in this age of scientific fact.
I forget my branch on a library shelf.
Dust from the streets covers it,
clouding my desires, leaving me
to starve in spite of feasting, the wealth,
deaf to the dream-makers’ approach
I imagine the Cree student who suggested Hussey look to her own past knew, herself, the power that the old stories, the stories of her ancestors contained. The wealth of material elaborated in Glossing the Spoils and the resulting mythopoetic adventure leave this reader wanting to explore the stories of his own cultural past, if only he could find out what they are. Cultural amnesia, whatever causes may be behind it, is reversible; that is one of many lessons to be learned from Hussey’s recent work.