Transfigurations

Roger Garfitt

  • The Weddings at Nether Powers by Peter Redgrove
    Routledge, 166 pp, £2.95, July 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0255 6

One of the tropes of Classical rhetoric, which surfaced again in the Jacobean fascination with death, was that of the relentless mutability of matter – Alexander the Great could be turned in his clay to the bung in a wine barrel. It is a trope that recurs repeatedly in Peter Redgrove’s recent work,

You take turns to be food,
Before you can grind wheat you have to be wheat,
Before you can eat bread you are a nice new crust
Eaten by Mary, who chooses a crust-you here,
A mouthful of Shakespeare’s breath there, a glass
Of transparent Genghis Khan there,

but in a very different spirit from the Classical original. The horror of mutability has gone: instead, mutability is taken to be reassuring evidence of the unity of matter. But matter does not rest there, in a mechanical cycle of process and reprocess. The perception of unity leads Redgrove into another, deeper insight, and here the nature of the ground changes under his feet: he steps from the perceptible and the verifiable into the realm of the visionary. The movement can be seen most clearly in ‘Swinishness’, which begins with the household pig of the old cottage economy,

The ghost in the cottage of all the refuse that they throw out
Which sinks in the wallow and then walks in
            again on the pig’s bones,

and moves on round the cycle,

And I take apple sauce with her younger
           daughter, and that gummer
Enters me and causes a mild ecstasy because she
                is truly delicious
And my underworld reduces her to Persephone
            who will haunt the mud

Until her mother meets her in her mouth again
       and makes use of what I could not
And may appear on my plate next year in a
            castrated form as a rasher;

until, via a reference to the role of pigs in the Eleusinian mysteries, the transition is made to the visionary:

             In the butcher’s window
The pig’s head sits on its neck with its heavy eyes dreaming
Of splashing me with her blood as a token of good faith,
A sealed compact, and an earnest that when the
            Goddess appears to me
Wearing just such a pig’s head, then that is her
               choice of energy,
And a matter of theology, and a covenant of
            resurrection in the flesh;
And she looks at me with Eve’s eyes in the pig’s
                 head to test me
And since I am not afraid, not this time round,
And have left flinching, drops her, and my, disguise.

One should note the tonal skill with which that transition is anticipated, the line ‘And my underworld reduces her to Persephone who will haunt the mud’ enacting a small-scale transfiguration that prepares for the greater transfiguration to come.

By an original, not so say idiosyncratic, route, Peter Redgrove has arrived back at a very ancient place: or at any rate, a place that Robert Graves unearthed in The White Goddess and would have us believe is ancient. Graves is probably right: but it is best to approach enchanted ground, as he himself does, doubly armed, with red thread around a rowan twig and a pinch of scepticism. What is certain is that Redgrove has found his way to a cluster of beliefs that have sustained him as a poet of great power and of great humour and generosity.

Partly it’s a matter of, to use the modish phrase, personal liberation, of escaping from a puritan upbringing into ‘the country of the skin’. In ‘For All the Saints’ Redgrove looks back to a time when

My schoolmarm recommended saints
With a tone of sexual secrecy
Like eating something very nice
And I thought of a pallid fellow
Of blancmange curded of mummy’s milk
Moulded by acceptance
In vesture saintly suitable
And as we talked of him in sips
Little bites would slipper down ...

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