Linda Black on Anne Ryland  & Lucy Hamilton on Timothy Adès

The Unmothering Class, Anne Ryland (Arrowhead Press 2011)

In her note preceding the sequence 'Haunting my Daughter', Anne Ryland states her desire to give voice to those hard-working, working-class women of the early 19th Century who had 'neither a spoken or written voice' - women who were her ancestors. A ' dearth of information' allowed her to invent versions of their lives, stories emerging from 'silences and absences': of Ann, Sarah, Ellen, Bessie, Sarah Ann, Rebecca, Ann, Sarah Elizabeth, Eliza Emily, Mary Alice, Mabel Grace and Annie ( a family tree is included) ; some were merely bairns when they died - of typhoid, whooping cough, or other fatal illness.

These are heartfelt poems, reflecting on the probable lives of women granted neither status or education, nor the vote, whose occupations inside and outside the home, in fields or mills, as washerwomen, seamstresses and the like, were deemed not worthy of recording on any kind of register, including the census.  In her review of Nicola Verdon's book concerning 19th Century women workers (1) the academic Karen Sayer notes, ' the comfort, even the survival, of working class families often rested on women's ability to manage the home, their participation in the shifting worlds of 'making do' and 'muddling through'. These women, often sad, often longing for freedom, got on with it - they had no choice, suffering many losses along the way.                                                                                                                                                                  The Unmothering Class is divided into three sections, 'Haunting my Daughter', well-placed in middle, being the one I came to first, reading one and three subsequently and finding them all the richer for it, each part informing the other, casting light and shadow back and forth. The opening poem in the book, 'The Ruin Withholds it's Secrets', foreshadows the sequence, bringing past into present, as the poet 'immerses [myself] in brokenness', loving 'the silences of the ruin's story', a ruin that, as with the sequence, 'dares to be an outline', and so with 'Rebekah' (poem two) who 'composed her own map for each land'.

On first reading the sequence, I was immediately reminded of those women forced to abandon their babies to the Foundling Hospital, their plight - the leaving of scraps of fabric for identification in the hope they may one day reclaim their child - only to come, towards the end of the collection, to a strong poem 'Go Gentle', inspired by a note left by one such mother; Go gentle and all thy life be happiness and love:

Every time I dropped my daughter like a foundling,

       I ran back to reclaim her, to bring her home.

             Her soft name.

'Dropped', we are told in the end notes, became the term used for the act of leaving a child in the care of the hospital.

 

Theirs was a hard lot, to say the very least. From 'Baptising One Day, Burying the Next':

[...]

Picture me, already bark-tanned and tallowed,

spiking holes with my awl, stitching tongues to uppers.

Loud, hard, cold.

 

Until Andrew my firstborn.

My, softest work, made in a place I didn't know

he was my satin skin

                                But then I left a son

in every parish...

  

Ellen Wright (born 1847) was only 5 days old when she died, her mother Sarah planting in the fields, ' Still bleeding', bemoans her loss, taking the blame:

[...]

I should've carried her on my back,

resting her below a hedge.

[...]

I did not need God to scold me that I lost my daughter

                                                  because of the potatoes.

(Stone-picking in a Mist)

 

Ellen too is given a voice:

 ... Before I was here

 I was gone

 [...]

I was forever

the splinter

under her skin...

(A Splinter)

 

Some remained childless. Rebecca Wright (1853 - 1941) laments, 'I sewed a rag doll for every niece...'

The consolation being:

while I dragged along the babies we couldn't have,

... I never had to worry

about them or bury them in white boxes

with lily-of-the valley sprinkled on top

(Spinning Cobwebs)

 

Mabel Grace Wright (1895-1897), imagines the life she could have led:

... I might have boarded the trams as a clippie...

 [...]

I would've gone to France, jolted the well-sprung Wolsely,

(Jolting the Well-sprung Wolsely)


The theme of infertility recurs in the more personal final section, along with that of genetic inheritance. In 'Motherland', 'The baby is no more than a cobweb / It brushes off as I flurry past...'  'Our Letters' speaks of 'Neither son nor daughter, not even a niece/ to pass them on to...'

Embracing, befriending, imagining the past, The Unmothering Class is a well-crafted and elegiac collection, with several poems in the last section about the fading of the poet's own mother. An overall cohesion binds the poems together, each finding its own form. The language is plain, measured, empathetic and unstrained, infused with gentle imagery:

I watched you struggling to pluck

the daisies printed on your skirt

(Your Hand)

 

I breathed lace over windows

 (Snegurochka)

 

The longest poem in the 'Haunting my Daughter' sequence, 'Thrashing the Holy Linens', has five stanzas and is in the voice of Bessie Trought (1850-1895) looking back on her life as she moves towards her death, from marriage as a young woman of twenty, through disappointment:

How was I to guess I'd ride on a train just once?

Northwards to his home town, Hull. To Rose Terrace -

not a petal in sight...

 

to hardship:

 

By Thursday it was bread and treacle. I sometimes

went without. We kept off poor relief, I saw to that ...

 

and finally, death. Short clipped sentences emphasis reality. Her husband suffering 'Heart-rot.' drunk, slips into the river: 'Gasps and shrieks.' A schoolteacher son, 'my pride, my eldest..' succumbs to typhoid: 'He died'. Bessie herself 'lifted [me] at last to the sanatorium', welcomes death: 'I sighed the taste of a delicious mist. I smiled.'

'Exploring the undertow' of her life, Anne Ryland writes strong sad women, strong sad poems.

 

Linda Black

 

[1] Rural Women Workers in Nineteenth-Century England: Gender, Work and Wages (Boydell Press; 2002)




Victor Hugo's How to be a Grandfather (L'Art d'être Grand-Père) trans. Timothy Adès (Hearing Eye, 2012)

 

My own introduction to Victor Hugo's work was learning a poem by heart for discussion in an oral examination. Fortunately it was a short poem and one that made a lasting impression. 'Demain dès l'aube' ('Tomorrow at Dawn') is a heart-wrenching elegy to Hugo's nineteen year-old daughter Léopaldine, who had drowned in a sailing accident with her unborn child and husband. The poignancy of Hugo's grief and the beauty of his expression were overwhelming. Fortunately, the great man went on to have more children and his son Charles's wife gave him the two grandchildren, Georges and Jeanne, who were to become the focus of L'Art dêtre Grand-Père, the last book of Hugo's vast oeuvre.

 

Timothy Adès's translation How to be a Grandfather (Hearing Eye, 2012) is a welcome complete edition of his 2002 shorter version. The book is organised into eighteen sections, of which some titles hint of delights within: 'On Guernsey', 'Jean Asleep ― I', 'The Moon', 'Poem of the Zoo' 'Old Age and Youth Together' and 'Grandpa's Childhood Frolics (1811)', to name a few.

 

While the poems are beautiful and touching in themselves, much of the poignancy derives from the knowledge that Hugo was a great statesman with enormous influence in the France and Europe of the day. He was twice a Deputy and twice a Senator of France. Initially a staunch supporter of Napoleon, self-interest never took precedence over integrity.  Just as Beethoven had retracted the dedication of his Eroica symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte when the latter declared himself Emperor, so Hugo withdrew his support for Napoleon III when he (the elected President) made himself Emperor. He was exiled for his resistance and to this day remains a worldwide symbol of liberty. When you read these poems with a sense of that political back-drop, you gain some measure of the man as a human being. So how does Timothy Adès convey all this in his translation? First by a lively and informative introduction to Victor Hugo, secondly by his seemingly effortless translations into rhymed poems in English, along with notes at the back of the book. Here in its entirety is how he deals with Hugo's introduction of his baby grand-daughter to the world:

 

Jean Makes Her Entry

 

Jean talks: she burbles, sweet and low;

Tells nature things she doesn't know,

Tells groaning waves and moaning woods,

Flowers and nests, all heaven, the clouds,

Offering insights, by a smile,

From shimmering dream and roving soul:

A formless murmur, blurred and hazed.

Old grandpa God gives ear, amazed.

 

Hugo is clearly besotted. The previous year had seen the death of his wife and birth of his first grandchild, Georges. It's easy to workout from the summary of Hugo's life that he was 67 years old when Jean was born. Here, Adès achieves the verbal equivalence and the rhyming couplets of the original. Where Hugo uses Alexandrines, Adès's poem is metred with shorter lines of four stresses. We can see how he has changed the word order and /or split up lines to render a similar aesthetic and emotional affect to that of the French: Jean parle; elle dit des choses qu'elle ignore; /Elle enovie à la mer qui grond, au bois sonore, .... The second clause of Adès's first line appears in the fourth line of the original: A l'immense nature un doux gazouillement.

 

The poems read beautifully as English poems and indeed, if it weren't for some of the subject matter, you might forget that you're reading a translation; not because they are so 'perfect' that the original is stifled inside them, but because they effortlessly bring to life aspects of Hugo's tumultuous life as well as his larger-than-life personality. Here are the final seven lines of a twenty-eight line poem written during exile in Guernsey - with its playful oxymoron in the title:

 

I've faced the giants of brute force, that swell

And rear erect on heaped-up nothingness:

Caesars and autocrats and princes, yes,

All those whom mortals worship, loathe, adore:

I've faced the Jupiters of total power

For forty years, victorious, running wild!

Look now: I'm vanquished by a little child. ('Victor Vanquished')

 

In our current trend of youth worship and tolerance, it's important to realise how different attitudes were in Hugo's era. Children were 'seen and not heard' - a far cry from the breakdown of boundaries sometimes berated today. Even grandparents, traditionally a 'softer touch', were expected to toe the line in Hugo's day:

 

Seeing the young have little dread of me,

A dreamer at their joy and jollity,

A rogue grandfather! ― pious brows grow dark,

Frowning because I overstep the mark.  (Spoilt Children) 

 

Hugo endowed early childhood with an innocence he perceived inherent in nature. Evident in both is a sense of the God he believed in - as distinct from the Church. In fact some of the poems sing with an almost pantheistic ardour:

 

And the rout has hushed the higher

Tiers of trees, alarmed them too:

Girls who dance on earth inspire

Nests to chirrup in the blue.   (The Spoilsport)

 
Here, Adès facilitates his rhyme by changing 'sky' or 'heavens' (cieux) to 'blue'. This is a familiar substitute in English and typifies the kind of unobtrusive adaptation Adès employs. It's an alternative that does nothing to diminish the charm of the original, resonant as it is with notions of childhood and nursery-rhyme. However, his decision to render Jeanne (clearly a girl's name) as Jean throughout, caused me some confusion. By the end of the book I was still reading 'Jean' as the French boy's name Jean !

Victor Hugo's life was never pure sunshine and blue skies. In 1871, while he was living in Brussels, the Paris Commune was crushed and Belgium refused asylum to its fleeing Communards. When Hugo offered them shelter, his house was stoned by a mob and little Jean was grazed. Her assailant was: ...So young to be/almost a murderer. Almost a child! .. Hugo's indignation is coloured with sadness at the frailty of man: both perpetrator and victim ― the perpetrator an instrument of the Church and Authority he abhorred: How quickly human hearts are emptied of /Warmth, when a priest misleads! Sly men can soon/create a villain from a sad buffoon... We can hear Hugo's compassion for the underdog. He ends the poem with an inversion: ..May his heart with truth be fired:/Less by the priest, more by the Lord inspired. (Stones Thrown at Jean). The decision to retain the inversion of the original succeeds in preserving the tone of a past era, without overdoing it. And indeed, in his introduction, Adès points up poems that are remarkably impressionistic and modern for the time. 

The aim of this brief review is to whet the appetite. It can't do justice to the breadth and scope, the larger-than-life ― the sheer pleasure and fascination of the book. Timothy Adès is a bilingual Francophile. He is also the grandfather of two small children. I unreservedly recommend his new translation.

 

Lucy Hamilton