You know, just in case you missed my retweets or Facebook updates or weren’t within earshot when I found out or thought that odd, prolonged squealing sound was the teakettle boiling dry.
I decided this past weekend that I was a poetry lover in need of nonsense, so I went hunting.
And among the Lear and Carroll and Katz and Nesbitt and so no, this guy Mervyn Peake popped up. His stuff was exactly what I needed,and I wondered why I hadn’t heard of him before.
Turned out I had—this is the same guy who wrote Gormenghast.
Gormenghast, for those of you not in the know, is possibly the most densely-written fantasy series ever written. The first book—I never managed to get any farther than that—is about the weight of a culture that hasn’t evolved so much as added centuries of traditions, so that its people have become trapped in the gravity of rituals so ancient that no one knows why they started, only that they Must Continue.*
You know how Tolkein could write ruins into the background of his settings with a few throwaway sentences that made you feel their history and remember that even the greatest of kingdoms still fall in time? Mervyn Peake’s ruins still have people in them. And they’re having tea in the green cups and wearing purple socks on their left feet and also straw tiaras because it’s the third Tuesday after the three-fourths gibbous moon (Don’t ask them why; they don’t know).
But Mr. Peake also wrote poems. Really, really good poems.
Much of his poetry is as serious and weighty and perhaps as darkly odd as one might assume—“If Trees Gushed Blood” comes disturbingly to mind**—but one or two of those really resonated for me,*** and if I were in that kind of mood, I’d explore it.
But I’m not.
Luckily, Mr. Peake also wrote poems as whimsical as I could wish.
Of Pygmies, Palms and Pirates
Of pygmies, palms and pirates,
Of islands and lagoons,
Of blood-bespotted frigates,
Of crags and octoroons,
Of whales and broken bottles,
Of quicksands cold and grey,
Of ullages and dottles,
I have no more to say.
Of barley, corn and furrows,
Of farms and turf that heaves
Above such ghostly burrows
As twitch on summer eves
Of fallow-land and pasture,
Of skies both pink and grey,
I made my statement last year
And have no more to say.
You think Shel Silverstein knew about Mervyn Peake? ‘Cause I do:
The Trouble with Geraniums
The trouble with geraniums
is that they’re much too red!
The trouble with my toast is that
it’s far too full of bread.
The troubles with the stars I see
lies in the way they fly.
The trouble with myself is all
self-centred in the eye.
The trouble with my looking-glass
is that it shows me, me;
there’s trouble in all sorts of things
where it should never be.
It’s not just me: I read “Geranium” to my kids at breakfast this morning and the older one asked me if Mr. Silverstein wrote it.^ “Because it’s so weird.”
I Have My Price
I have my price – it’s rather high
(about the level of your eye)
but if you’re nice to me I’ll try
to lower it for you –
To lower it!
To lower it!
Upon the rope they knit
from yellow grass in Paraguay
where knitting is taboo.
Some knit them purl, some knit them plain
some knit their brows of pearl in vain.
Some are so plain, they try again
to tease the wool of love!
O felony in Paraguay
there’s not a soul in Paraguay who’s worth the dreaming of.
who’s worth the dreaming of.
I read on his official website, which is almost as vast and thorough as Gormenghast itself, though far more user friendly, that Mr. Peake’s darkest writing holds at least a touch of humor, and his humor often hints of graver moods.
And while Gormenghast isn’t my particular green cup of tea—or orange, rather, since it’s Wednesday—I remember the humor of it, too and the times when the story seemed to poke fun at itself.
I suspect that was part of Mr. Peake’s point.
I Cannot Give the Reasons
I cannot give the reasons,
I only sing the tunes:
the sadness of the seasons
the madness of the moons.
I cannot be didactic
or lucid, but I can
be quite obscure and practic-
In gorgery and gushness
and all that’s squishified.
My voice has all the lushness
of what I can’t abide
And yet it has a beauty
most proud and terrible
denied to those whose duty
is to be cerebral.
Among the antlered mountains
I make my viscous way
and watch the sepia mountains
throw up their lime-green spray.
No wonder I like his poems so much.
Not enough to start up with Gormenghast again . . . but I’ll definitely be looking for more of his gorgery and gushness and cosmic shades.
*Unlike the series itself, which was left unfinished when Mr. Peake died of complications from Parkinson’s at the age of 57. I’m being serious when I say that I’m sorry about this—I may not care for the story myself, but many, many readers adore Mr. Peake’s world and I know what it feels like to lose not only a beloved author but all his or her characters as well.
When they were felled
By meddling man,
And crimson welledFrom every gash
His axe can give,
Would he forbear,
And let them live?
**To Live is Miracle Enough
To live at all is miracle enough.
The doom of nations is another thing.
Here in my hammering blood-pulse is my proof.
Let every painter paint and poet sing
And all the sons of music ply their trade;
Machines are weaker than a beetle’s wing.
Swung out of sunlight into cosmic shade,
Come what come may the imagination’s heart
Is constellation high and can’t be weighed.
Nor greed nor fear can tear our faith apart
When every heart-beat hammers out the proof
That life itself is miracle enough.
***Okay, I lie. She asked me if that “one sidewalk guy” wrote it. But she did remember him.
Image of “Aboriginal Genesis” used by permission of Sunny Wesson.