14 Mar 2014 - 11:55:34 am
A POETIC MOMENT IN A BRETON MANOR
So what is a poetic moment to you? I am assuming that you are a poet, though you may not be. The question is tantamount to asking what provides your inspiration. But it's more than that, too. Is there an incident in your life which made you more aware that you could see things in a poetic way? Or that you had what I'll call a poetic responsibility?
Many years ago, when The Irish Times newspaper published such things, I wrote a piece detailing how, after a poetry reading in Galway, an elderly country man had approached me and asked whether I might cure an ague in his arm. Astounded when I recommended a qualified doctor, he retorted that I was a poet and should be able to effect such cures. The tradition of the poet-magus had long vanished, but nonetheless he expected something of me which I could not provide and suddenly I felt a fraud. Words, he was suggesting, are not enough for a poet, he must also have healing powers.
On another occasion, I was crossing a Galway bridge, when a swan lazily flung itself up from the river Corrib on one side of the bridge and tried to wing his way across to the other. He failed, lighting, with wings full spread, on the top of a baby-carriage. The mother screamed, the infant was unhurt and bemused. But in another time and with the regalia of another tradition, this moment woulod have been declared highly significant and sacred and the child anointed, perhaps for kingship. But in the iPod world, such things are not permissable. I produced a fairly unremarkable poem about this.
One moment stands out, however. Roaming around Brittany some years back, looking for somewhere interesting to fetch up and it falling into a warm evening, I spotted, on a country road, a poster attached to a tree which invited those interesting to attend a concert of mediaeval music. Up a boreen, then, a road rarely used if the raised centre ridge of grass was anything to go. The road suddenly ended in a very ancient cobblestones, the beginning of a path somewhat more substantial. In front of me opened up the vista of a very old castellated manor. The air was still, the trees did not sway. Parking, I proceeded on foot through a stone gateway in the manor house walls. The house itself seemed at a glance to be of mediaeval structure, with windows of diamond-shaped glass inserts.
But across the grassy courtyard, at a distance of several hundred yards, was framed in a stone doorway the tiny figure of a very young girl dressed in conical hat, train and the overall colourful garb of a child of the Middle Ages. She beckoned, an unworldy gesture, and behind her appeared a woman, possibly her mother, also dressed in very early costume, complete with buckled belt and head-dress. I understood at once that together they constituted an image that no photograph might properly do justice. I felt, believe it if you will, that I had entered for a swift moment through a portal into something at great odds with the modern world; I could seem to exaggerate here, but in the still air the beckoning child did not belong to the world from which I had emerged. Upstairs in the manor, a maze of stone staircases and solid walls of cold stone, musicians dressed in similar costumes, or costumes of a similar time, began to play on very ancient instruments. At an interval, I walked about the room, finally pushing back a thick and venerable curtain behind which tyhere was a tiny room with a simple berceau or wooden crib, a small wooden bed, a table, all lighted by a tiny window. On a raised dais lay a large and illuminated book, open at a centre page. A few questions here and there revealed that the fortified manor had once been the residence of Anne de Bretagne, Anna Vreizh, who died in 1517 and was reputed at one time to be the ricxhest woman in Europe.
Now it may justifiably be argued that those in charge of organising the concert had gone to some lengths to create a sense of what a mediaeval evening's entertainment might have been like and if so, they had succeeded marvellously. But bit seemed to me that, this being the case, they had created something more, something poetically recognisable and strange. They had managed, to my imagination's eye, to create the appropriate atmosphere all too perfectly and had managed somehow to bring the mediaeval Breton world to life. I need hardly add that when I developed photos I did manage to take of the young girl and her mother, the end prints were blurred and unfocused and no facial or, indeed, any other details came through.
It may be said that my imagination ran away with me. I am inclined to believe that a poetic incident had occurred, that which is unexplainable in rational terms and perhaps even unrecordable. It was what it was. Something existed within the walls of that manor, however fleetingly, which was out of my time, and probably out of the reach of direct poetic expression. Yet at the same time it was a moment of poetry itself to which the poetic imagination had little choice but to react at a deeper level. This was neither an unsettling nor a ghostly experience; far from it, the people within the manor were flesh and blood. But not for the first time it was impressed upon me that there are times, moments, incidents that can only properly be perceived through a poetic lens; that no mundane or concrete interpretations can open to us. Anne de Bretagne, who was later to become Queen of Sicily and 'titular Queen of Jerusalem,' was also a patron of the arts, of music and of poetry. So perhaps something of her lingered still in that walled manor, encouraging the atmosphere of that evening.
Poets, we should always be open to the moment, the magic if you will, of that which poetry is intended to do. It is not merely anchored to the everyday, but absorbs its substance from that which is not seen and yet lives always at the corner of imagination's eye. Sometimes, if we are lucky, it beckons to us, stands in the doorway of our conscious mind, innocent as a child, inviting us to participate in the true poetry of creative perception. Poetry, I think, is grounded ultimately in a child-like innocence, no matter its subject or the darkness of its theme. It is dressed in strange clothes. It is not meant merely comfortably to reflect, but to illuminate.
I say no more of the visit to that enchanting manor, nor do I cite or seek explanations for what it offered me. As a poet, I saw it as a blessing, a benevolence. But the little rough-made cradle, lying in the dusty twilight of an ancient room beneath ancient books, remains for me a symbol of how poetry must be cherished, nurtured and maintained in a rhythm which does not always coincide with the strident rhythms of the world, but is yet vital to it; is waiting in a manor of the mind, and requires only to be set in motion.
Anne de Bretagne -