For Tessa at Seventy
One Christmas Eve I switched on the radio – it must have been near midnight – and I heard lines from an unattributed poem followed almost immediately by a choir singing to orchestral accompaniment an unattributed piece of music. I recognised the poem at once for it had always been a favourite of mine: ‘Trees in winter sunlight’ by Tessa Ransford with the telling line: ‘shadow more real than substance’. This poem – so appropriate for winter and indeed for Christmas – conjured up ice and snow and the unattributed piece of music which followed did the same, for I had recognised it as Elgar’s ‘Snow Music’. If the first had seemed to me to epitomise a kind of perpendicular crossroads with hints of things absent colouring a stark present, the second had, in its stark beauty, conjured up the intense poignancy of contingency wrestling with a near forlorn hope and yearning for the eternal: ‘not thus my soul, not thus; oh sow thy gifts to fade like snow, thy gifts to fade like snow’.
The poet Tagore had given up the struggle in his lines: ‘I cannot keep your waves/ said the bank to the ocean;/ Let me keep your footsteps in my heart’. For some poets memory is not enough. memoriam is inextricably linked with ratio and amor and this has always been the case with Tessa Ransford.
Many trees have been sacrificed for many books and so many pages on the subject of the freedom and emancipation of woman. The psychoanalyst Jung identified four aspects of woman which, when realised, made for her completion as a person. It seems that the hardest nut to crack was that aspect concerned with the priestly, the intuitive aspect in its positive manifestation rather than its negative, magical, witch-like sphere.
In Scotland there has always been a particular fear of the witch.
Even churchmen who happily recognise the priestly role of woman have a healthy fear and suspicion of the magical, whether it manifest itself in the male or the female. The priestly aspect in a sense redeems the negative, intuitive sphere in both sexes. But just as astronomers hail the discovery of a new star whose existence has to be proved in the face of wholesome scepticism, so a hidden aspect of woman, lying in a secret room, an annex if you like, rises to offer depth in addition to wholeness in respect of the nature of woman.
Jung dealt more than adequately with intellect, emotion, sensation and intuition, but something is missing, a something that has been part of the male prerogative in the best literature and in the best of men in life. I refer to man as Quixote, Gentleman and glorious Fool. This aspect of man, which has ever been in the open, has a powerful energy, a capacity to transform, renew and remake life itself. It may seem to work like alchemy, but it is completely devoid of any mercenary objectives and is ‘foolishly’ pure.
The poet Robert Frost in one of his poems speaks of a pony who has never before encountered snow. He is seen ‘against a curtain of falling snowflakes
… fleeing wildly’, so the poet tells us, but the reader can’t help raising a sceptical eyebrow. Has Frost really got it right? Is it fear or playfulness that causes the colt to act so strangely at the experience of this new phenomenon? But whether Frost is right or wrong about the reason for the pony’s behaviour, one thing he has got right: the colt is not ‘winter-broken’. Now the Quixote is similar to the colt in many ways, but in one in particular: he has never been ‘prose-broken’.
Too many women writers, and that includes women poets, have been prose-broken with a vengeance. In the nineteenth century, when the teaching of the classics was de rigueur at universities and schools, one of the worst insults that could be levelled at a Greek scholar was that he had ‘come to Greek through Latin’. The true classicist approached the two languages separately, letting each be itself, thus preserving the separate beauties of each. The delight of reading Virgil’s description of a boat race is profound and aesthetically pleasing without the use of ‘but it is quite unlike the Homeric unfolding of the wrath of Achilles and the death of Hector’. While the beauties of Virgil are grounded in forms that seem to belong to the earth, the delight of Homer is more winged, like the flight of the swift which never lands. Virgil glorifies limits while Homer celebrates the limitless. Which brings us to the Quixote: the Quixote is on a heroic quest; he or she is also absorbed and engaged in an eternal rescue mission. The Quixote can be found in fairy tales in the shape of the gentle third son who stops and listens to the funny little man or the strange animal, scorned by worldly-wise brothers who dismiss their messages as nonsense. The Quixote takes the foolishness on board and the strange becomes assimilated, breeding a wisdom and discernment that leads to vision.
The Quixote stands ever between the whips of form and order, in their inflexible manifestations, and the tremulous vulnerability of nature; and this vulnerability is most evident when nature is at her most colourful and savage. Tessa Ransford has never been prose-broken. She is a Quixote. She would not like the term ‘female Quixote’ because she is a poet of persons. Her poetic world is filled with fools. The title of one of her collections, Fools and Angels, gives a clue to her preoccupations. Some of her poems specifically mention the word ‘fool’; others deal with a kind of sane poetic madness or fervour.
Typically Quixotic, she moves between city and wilderness, the domains of Apollo and Dionysus, leaping on and off her beast of burden full to the brim with poetry in which nature and art are never allowed to break one another. The ‘I’s of the poems are never to be confused with the poet, who is as an impresario presiding over the dual Quixotic agon between I – Thou, I – You and I – It. There are many instances of parts of these poems being, as it were, cordoned off like little non-intersecting circles; the reader is at liberty to come to his or her own conclusions as to the relationship between the cordons. Tessa Ransford, to echo Wordsworth,’has her unruly times’, poet, gentle creature that she is. But she is always surely in control, like a charioteer who lives in a Quixotic annex to the poem itself. This Quixotic annex allows her to meditate and communicate in subtle and intimate ways. Sometimes we overhear her, like a soliloquy in a Shakespeare play, and there is a sharing of her meditations. This sharing draws her readers into ‘the internal difference where the meanings are’, as Emily Dickinson put it.
But the annex also gives her the freedom to bring weather, colour and light to her readers, in a subtle, protean shifting mood music. One lovely example of this is a phrase of hers, ‘water-colour skies’, from her collection Shadows from the Greater Hill. It is not often that one person comprises in large measure within himself or herself a twin or dual metaphysical pathos. The phrase ‘metaphysical pathos’ was
coined by Arthur Lovejoy and came to light in his book The Great Chain of Being. It was used to connote the kind of empathy, or indeed recoil in a negative sense, which one feels when contemplating certain ideas.
Lovejoy concentrates on such concepts as immutability and the incomprehensible – omne ignotum pro minifico – the ordered and the wild. But other concepts, such as freedom in the sense of limits versus the limitless, have an interesting pathos vis-à-vis the Apollonian or Dionysian responses of different types of people. Some find the idea of freedom exhilarating, others daunting. The author George Macdonald gave a mood-music taste of how such a kind of pathos operates in one of his stories for children, ‘Day Boy and Night Girl’. I shall return to this later.
Away from the world of fairy tale for the moment, I have never yet heard Tessa Ransford compared or contrasted with John Buchan, but there are one or two interesting parallels and differences relevant to our themes. For a start, both wrote fondly of Tweeddale but that is only of only secondary interest. More significantly, both made a dual contribution to the world, on the one hand through service to poetry and on the other hand in the exercise of civic responsibilities. Buchan’s anthology of Scottish Poetry, The Northern Muse, was hailed by the Scotsman when it first appeared as ‘a feast fit for the gods’. His own poetry is of interest when read along with such works as The Moon Endureth and The Dancing Floor, in respect of what it reveals about his attitudes to the feminine. Jung would have noted that he is much drawn to the Amazon and Priestess aspect of woman yet, for Buchan, a large part of the feminine remained unconsecrated. He never knew woman as Quixote. Buchan wrote in his poem ‘Wood Magic’: ‘and once in an April gloaming / I met a maid on the sward / All marble-white and gleaming / and tender and wild of eye’. In the same poem he talks of seeing ‘in the dusk of the beeches / the shapes of the lords that ride’.
Apollo and Dionysus figure largely in the work of Buchan and Tessa Ransford, as well as in their lines.
Buchan’s Leithen stories, most but not all, were reprinted by Canongate with an interesting introduction by Christopher Harvie, in which he compares Buchan with MacDiarmid. He speaks of ‘echoes of a flyting between MacDiarmid’s pitiless mysticism or the material in On a Raised Beach and Buchan’s own theism going on behind his post-imperial project of creating a common Canadian culture’. Harvie was considering at the time Buchan’s Sick Heart River. This is interesting because he is really considering – though not everyone would agree – the best of MacDiarmid’s writing and the best of Buchan.
All this is a matter of dispute. What is not a matter of dispute is that Harvie reveals here his own metaphysical pathos. What Harvie described in the world of ‘On a Raised Beach’ as ‘pitiless’, I find exhilarating, enriching and beautiful, rather as I have felt when contemplating the solitary trials of a Humboldt faced with the inhospitable wilderness. As for Buchan, a re-reading of his stories only confirms that there was a vast continent in the feminine that was for him unrecognised. What would he have made of Tessa’s poem ‘The poet as woman’? The Quixotic woman is much more likely to be found among ‘the lords that ride’ than with the maid ‘tender and wild of eye’.
There is landscape – Neil Gunn called it ‘the other landscape’ – which is eternal and beautiful, quite unlike an atlas, more like Tessa’ orchard of trees, a fulgurating, springing, vital and dynamic ground of action and, in terms of words, gerund-like activity. As poet/Quixote/impresario, Tessa Ransford offers us access to her ‘orchard’. She describes herself in this guise as a ‘tree on fire’. The Quixote knows very well the distinction between fruitfulness and usefulness, as well as the glory of simply being. In Whitman’s poems trees ‘utter’ green leaves. Time and again in Tessa’ poems trees do not advertise, but act out their being nature. Trees are often a clue to the poet’s deepest feelings, as in Shadows from the Greater Hill, where they are ‘staked in their nursery of pain’. Apollo and Dionysus are both important in her poems, city and wilderness not at war, but part of a continuum, just as the Scottish self and the Indian self of the poet are inextricably linked.
There are many poems which link the Apollonian and Dionysian but one in particular demonstrates the dynamic double helix of life itself.
I refer to ‘Craighouse Hill above Edinburgh’, published in Akros Vol X, no. 29, December 1975. We note at once the information the title offers: the hill is above the city. Within the poem itself there are a whole range of compartments, contrasts, Apollonian and Dionysian energies. There is much weather and there is freedom and rootedness. The poem itself is like a pegged tent, so tethered is it to the earth. Rootbound trees are contrasted with rootless minds. There is madness explored, but the mind which explores it is free and wondering, as it contemplates the staid City Halls of Edinburgh and incredulously considers the bellowing trees in the gale – all this at one and the same time. This woman, one remembers, has built a library in the same city as the one mentioned in the poem and has fulfilled her poetic destiny like a ‘tree on fire’.
To return for a moment to metaphysical pathos in relation to opposites, whether these be Apollonion/Dionysian, the world of boundaries/the limitless, or city versus wilderness, the person who carries within her or himself a dual pathos is continually at risk of being burdened by the negative projection of those whose lines are dominated by one of these to the almost total exclusion of the other.
Sometimes an encounter can rouse such intense allergy that the individual who carries both sets of pathos is almost forced to close down half of himself or herself, like a house with half of the building without light or fire.
One suspects that it is as a result of experiences such as these that Tessa wrote such poems as ‘My Indian Self’. As I indicated earlier, I promised to return to George Macdonald’s ‘Day Boy and Night Girl’. For Photogen in the story, the Apollonian daytime is a delight and rapture, the night a source of terror. As for Nycteris, the Dionysian night-time is like home and the day a source of horror. The worlds of each are not conducive to love and conspire to force departure, a departure which, to echo Blake, is accompanied by ‘trembling, cold and ghastly fear’.
Photogen speaks of his world of daylight and the sun, ‘It is the soul, the life, the heart, the glory of the universe’. For Nycteris the night is not to be feared: ‘you must know’, she tells Photogen, ‘how gentle and sweet the darkness is, how kind and friendly, how soft and velvety’. The relationship between the two is difficult, but all ends with Nycteris stating, ‘We must learn to be strong in the dark as well as in the day, else you will be only half brave. I have begun already, not to fight your sun, but to try to get at peace with him and understand what he really is and what he means with me, whether to hurt me or to make the best of me. You must do the same with my darkness’.
On the title page of Tessa Ransford’s Indian Selection, published by Akros (2000), there is a quotation from Tessa’s writing: ‘India and Scotland are entwined like a Kashmir shawl / round my life. The knot cannot be unravelled but / can uncoil like a snake, start up like the brain /-fever bird that disturbs any chance of rest’. In Medusa Dozen and other poems there is a poem entitled ‘The wall and the tree’, prefaced by a quotation from Kathleen Raine’s India Seen Afar: ‘in India when a tree is growing through a wall it is the wall that must come down’. For Tessa both tree and wall matter. She is often forced to occupy her Quixotic invisible annex to her poems as she drops subtle hints to readers who share her twin pathos – that the content of a particular poem is not always meant to be taken at face value. Again in Medusa Dozen there is a poem entitled ‘Parable’ about a tree which longed for the day when she would cease bearing fruit. In autumn the tree shed a profusion of brilliant ideas, but in the end the farmer, who the poet tells us was ‘no fool’, felled the tree because it was ‘useless’.
One looks at the word ‘fool’ and wonders, sharing a secret with the poet in her annex. Time and again trees share the poet’s secrets, like transferred epithets, with her readers. For all that she has written, Tessa Ransford is an extremely private person and one must come to love her trees before one can find her heart.
As a poet Tessa Ransford has much in common with Gerard Manley Hopkins and Hugh MacDiarmid. Both Hopkins and MacDiarmid shared a delight in particularity. MacDiarmid owned a copy of Thomas Gilby’s Poetic Experience, (now in special collections in Edinburgh University Library). In this book Gilby wrote, ‘The very particularity of a thing is not just the lack of being, the cutting off from more perfection, but a certain being, the intrinsic and positive perfection by which a thing is nothing less than its own excellent self… and so it is the object not only of practical knowledge but of contemplation as well’. What this means is that a poet’s house need not have any rooms shut down. Hopkins’ destruction of part of himself in the putting away of his poems (for God) is for Tessa a kind of mutilation. Her feelings about ‘his yield like the trees’ being been burned are recorded in her poem ‘Not in a garden’ (Medusa Dozen).
As Tessa has made clear, her fever bird gives no chance of rest. I began by quoting from ‘Trees in winter sunlight’. I shall end by quoting in full from another favourite, ‘Icy Swimmers’, and let the poem speak for itself.
Not Just Moonshine: New and Selected Poems by Tessa Ransford Luath Press (9781-90630777-6) will be launched at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 24 August.
Article ©Eileen Crerar-Gilbert
© Tessa Ransford
Photograph of Tessa Ransford
Not Just Moonshine by Tessa Ransford: an appreciation by Hazel B. Cameron
I thoroughly enjoyed Not Just Moonshine and am delighted to comment on a couple of my favourite poems.
At Christmas Tessa Ransford sends out a poem instead of a Christmas card. One of these poems, ‘In my bones’, was inspired by the revelation that scientists could determine the diet of pre-ice-age people by examining dust extracted from the bones; the poet considers the idea of a future scientist revealing her diet and observes: ‘Drill my bones, shake the dust/ nothing shows how I am fed/ by poetry, music, children, friends’.
The poem authenticates itself – without art we cannot be wholly nourished and unless we consider the art of other cultures, we cannot truly understand them. It suggests that art is not only our spiritual food but becomes our cultural bones.
Another powerful poem is ‘Had they but deigned’. This poem was inspired by a tenth century Anglo Saxon poem from The Exeter Book, from which it takes its title and opening phrase, then suggests a different but equally powerful continuation: ‘Had they but deigned, Adam and Eve,/ what common weal might have sustained/ life on earth, what blood unshed,/ the tooth, the eye, the claw, the red;/ pride might have died,/ with losing face, with shame, disgrace.’
The strong questioning tone carries through until the final stanza which brings us back to consider that first line again: ‘Men and women might have retained/ that word in their breasts: illumined love -/ had they but deigned, Adam and Eve’.
There is a great deal in these poems, and a great deal of poems in the book, which in 300 pages distils the themes and concerns that run through work of four decades.
Not Just Moonshine by Tessa Ransford is published by Luath Press £12.99