Haphazard by Starlight – Poems for Advent

The Adoration of the Magi, by Andrea Mantegnadd – celebrate Christmas
 by reading TS Eliot’s ‘Journey of the

Being a bit of a magpie, I look at what people write about books, then steal authors and titles for my own use. Sometimes I require instant gratification, which is where the Kindle comes into its own. Or, if I’m prepared to wait a short while, I order online, or make a trip to a bookshop (here in Tamworth we only have The Works, which is nice in its way but, sadly, its way is not that of a proper bookshop). Usually, however, details of the desired volume store themselves away in my mind and get forgotten unless, by some strange serendipity, I come across the book whilst mooching around in charity shops and second-hand stores. Then snippets of hidden knowledge surface, and I pounce triumphantly on my literary treasure.

And that’s more or less what happened when I was visiting my mother last week, only I was browsing in a ‘real’ bookshop. Ledbury Books and Maps is one of the town’s two independent bookshops (I hope residents realise how lucky they are), and I’d been in there for ages, and bought ‘Poetry Please’ for Mum (more on this another day), and was on my way out when there, on a stand by the door, was the last copy Haphazard by Starlight, A poem a day from Advent to Epiphany, by Janet Morley. I certainly don’t remember seeing it as I went in, but as I looked at the beautiful cover, something clicked in my brain, because back at the beginning of the month Moira, over at Vulpes Libris, waxed lyrical about this book. It was the title as much as anything which caught my attention, because it’s from ‘BC:AD’ by UA Fanthorpe, and I’m a huge fan of her work – that’s why Moira’s review stayed in my mind. So I bought the book, because I felt I was meant to have it.  
It’s published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, which may put some people off, but it’s not preachy, and it really is a wonderful collection of poems, which will take you from December 1 all the way through to January 6, with explanatory notes and comments on each.  

Like all good anthologies, there’s a nice mix of old favourites and unknowns (unknown to me at any rate). I may not agree with all Morley’s choices – personally I think it’s incomplete without John Donne’s ‘Nocturnal Upon St Lucie’s Day’ (but then I think any poetry anthology is incomplete if it doesn’t include Donne). And I would have liked to see something really old, like a medieval carol perhaps, but you can’t have everything, and any anthology is always a very personal choice, and I can see why Morley made the selection she did.

In this book you’ll find Auden, DH Lawrence, Elizabeth Jennings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, Sylvia Plath, and TS Eliot (Journey of the Magi, one of my favourites) to name but a few. There’s also a poem by Rowan Williams (I only know him as an Archbishop, and had no idea he wrote poetry) which I enjoyed very much. There are poems about Christmas and winter, and faith, and light and dark. But many, like Ozymandias or Dover Beach are not overtly religious, or even about Christmas or the winter season. However they do contain truths about mankind and the world in the general, and the author uses them (as she uses all the poems) as a kind of meditation, giving her thoughts on the meaning, ending each piece with a question, to make you think about your own values and beliefs, and the way we live our lives. Her commentaries and questions are reflections on life which are, as Moira says, rather like Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’.  
Hendrick Avercamp’s Winter Scene on a Canal may not be quite as bleak
as Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, but it does conjure up
the chilly feel of ice and snow.
Actually, I wanted my review to be different to Moira’s but, like her, I cannot resist explaining the book’s title with some quotes from U A Fanthorpe’s BC:AD, which is the choice for Christmas Day. Here is the opening: 

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms. 

And here is the end:  

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
 

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the Kingdom of Heaven.
 

Isn’t that wonderful? It always makes me catch my breath and think about ancient kingdoms, and where the Three Wise Men may actually have come from, and how the very beginning of Christianity was about poor people and minorities, rather than wealthy VIPs and rulers. And I love the way Fanthorpe describes the Nativity as ‘the moment when Before turned into After’, and that wonderful phrase about the three members of an obscure Persian sect walking ‘haphazard by starlight’. 
Rosseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm always reminds me of Blake’s Tyger,
which features in ‘Haphazard by Starlight’.
Today’s offering is seasonal ghazal by Harry Gilonis, who I’d never heard of before. Nor did I know that a ‘ghazal’ is an ancient form of Arabic verse, dating from the 6th century and widely sung in the Arabic speaking world. According to Morley it typically consists of five or more couplets, which have the same metre, but are not necessarily linked by themes. “It is the poetic expression of the pain of loss and separation, shot through with a sense of beauty, and its normal theme is unattainable love,” She explains. “Frequently the Beloved becomes a metaphor for God, and the themes revolve around metaphysical issues.” 

This poem eschews the normal rules of grammar and punctuation, and abandons any rhyming conventions and is possibly the most ‘difficult’ in this anthology. It’s only short, but is suffused with images of Christmas from carols, songs, poems, books, the Bible, as well as touching on older, pagan traditions, challenging our perception of what a poem should be, as well as our perception of the way we celebrate Christmas. At first glance the poem seems almost like a string of unrelated words, especially the first two lines:  

the silent stars descend to us
come angel seraph sheep pear tree 

But as you read, the allusions and layers of meaning become clearer, and words and thoughts echo each other in quick succession – it’s like a painting, packed with individual symbols, which seem to be unconnected, yet nevertheless all mesh together to form a cohesive whole.  

Having given her interpretation of this poem, Morley poses the question: “What are the connections or tensions for you between Christian beliefs and the traditional pagan practices around Christmas /Yuletide?” But you could equally well consider the connections or tensions between Christian beliefs and modern consumerism. I like her commentaries, but I only read them after I’ve gathered my own thoughts on the poems. Sometimes, to my surprise, we are in accord. Sometimes I look at her views and think ‘oh, that’s what that means’, or ‘how come I didn’t see that’. And occasionally (very occasionally) I wonder if she is right. 
 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Bruegel, vital to Auden’s Musee des
Beaux Arts, which should be read on December 30.
I’m really enjoying reading this book – it’s a really nice alternative to a conventional advent calendar, and I think it’s a wonderful idea to celebrate Christmas by forgetting about the glitz and glitter for a few moments each day and reading a poem. And if you’re new to reading poetry, or not very confident about your interpretation, then the notes really do help. 

Edited: I should perhaps, make it clear that there are no illustrations in Haphazard by Moonlight. I chose paintings I like to illustrate the review, because I have this thing about breaking up blocks of print with pictures to make it more user friendly. I think it’s the result of working as a local reporter and sub-editor for so many years, and being ingrained with the theory that photos attract people’s attention!
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Spellbound by a Sparkling Story!

Happy New Year people! I’m still here – I haven’t gone anywhere, and I certainly haven’t given up blogging. But I cannot believe I haven’t posted anything since the middle of November, and I haven’t really got much of an explanation. I’ve been trying to get ‘social media’ stuff up and running for Oxfam Lichfield, and I’ve been focusing so hard on that, it seems to have squeezed everything else out – I even wrote an Advent Alphabet, highlighting things in the shops and the charity’s work. Here’s the rhyme for ‘H’ on December 8. 
For warmth when it’s cold
Or shade in the Heat
A Hat on your Head
Makes an outfit complete.

And it was the anniversary of my Father’s death, which always gets me down, and then I don’t feel like doing much. And it there was the run-up to Christmas, and New Year, and my Mother has been to stay, and my Daughters visited, with their boyfriends, and I had a lovely time over Christmas, but The Book Trunk got a bit forgotten! 

Now it’s January 1, and I’m trying to organise myself for the year ahead… Back on the diet, lots of walks planned, crochet and sewing to finish, lists to write – you know the kind of thing. Anyway, Oxfam Lichfield’s Facebook page is doing quite well after being ignored for ages because no-one had any time to do anything with it. It’s generating ‘likes’ and a few comments, and almost runs itself. I take photos, and write little bits, then schedule them to appear. Scheduling is like magic I’ve decided, because you can do masses of stuff in advance, then more or less forget about it all – I should use it more here, and it might stop me getting behind! And I wish I could use it on Oxfam Lichfield Twitter, I’m sure it would make life easier – when I’m stuck, then whatever the weather I tell people it’s ideal weather for buying books! The weather can never be too bad or too good for buying books – wouldn’t you agree?
And I’ve set up a blog for our two Oxfam shops. It’s in what can only be described as an embryonic stage, but I’ve got posts scheduled to appear, someone cleverer than me is going to work on the design and, hopefully, it will gradually acquire its own identity. So you can see, I really have been busy, and haven’t been idling my time away.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a book blog, so I shall stop wittering on about my volunteering project, and enthuse about a book – Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark. With the exception of The Mandelbaum Gate, which I wouldn’t read again even if you paid me, I just love Spark’s novels, and this is one of her best – way up there with my favourites, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and The Girls of Slender Means. 
Spark doesn’t do heroines – she doesn’t do heroes of villains either – but Fleur Talbot is as near a heroine as you’ll find in Spark’s work. Fleur takes a mysterious job as secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver, who is the director of the Autobiographical Association, a very peculiar organisation whose idiosyncratic (positively batty even) members are compiling their memoirs, but no-one has got beyond the first chapter. They’re hampered by dodgy memories and lack of talent, and it falls to Fleur to try and make sense of their efforts .
She herself is writing a novel, Warrender Chase, which Sir Oliver steals, and somehow life and fiction become strangely and inextricably mixed as things Fleur believes she has created in her story actually happen, and it becomes more and more difficult to tell what’s real, and what’s not, and you start to wonder is Fleur a reliable witness to events – or is the whole mad, chaotic story spun out of her imagination.
Actually, Fleur reminds me a little of Pompey in Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper – I know I said you are unlikely to ever read anything quite like it, but I hadn’t read this then, and quite apart from the fact that Pompey is writing a novel while she works as a secretary for publisher, there is something in these characters’ outlook on life, that is similar, and the way they stand back observing things and people.
I assume Fleur is based on Spark, and her thoughts on writing fiction and the creative process are, presumably those of the author. As in much of her other work, Spark raises issues about the nature of reality and fiction, belief in God, immortal souls, love, death, truth and lies. None of the characters ever quite connect with each other, and they all seem to have shaped their own little worlds from their own realities, but none of the realities fit together – and in any case does anyone ever know what truth really is. Loitering with Intent is darkly funny, very witty, beautifully written in classic Sparkling style, and held me spellbound from start to finish. How could anyone not like a book which opens like this:
One day in the middle of the twentieth century I sat in an old graveyard which had not yet been demolished, in the Kensington area of London, when a young policeman stepped off the path and came over to me.
And if you think that sounds gentle, then beware, because Spark is never gentle, and never safe. She’s wickedly funny, but she’s sharp and spiky and can be very unsettling indeed as she probes below the surface of polite society and turns the world upside down, and at the same time she poses those big questions about life, the universe and everything.