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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A Winter Landscape

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson is darker than either ‘The Summer Book’ or ‘A Winter Book’ (although ‘The Squirrel’, one of the short stories in the collection, is a little peculiar). But it is every bit as wonderful. With Jansson, little things mean a lot, and her writing is so deceptively simple it’s almost hypnotic, drawing you into a strange world word by word, rhythm by rhythm. In ‘The True Deceivers’ you find yourself in an alien world of snow and ice that’s bleaker and far more bitter than Narnia or the land of the Snow Queen.

“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light,” writes Jansson. And you wonder, because the scene seems so extraordinary.

It had been snowing along the coast for a month. As far back as anyone could remember, there hadn’t been this much snow, this steady snow piling up against doors and windows, and never stopping, not even for an hour. Paths filled with snow as quickly as they were shovelled out. The cold made work in the boat sheds impossible. People woke up late because there was no longer any morning. The village lay soundless under untouched snow until the children were let out and dug tunnels and caves and shieked an were left to themselves.

The residents of Vasterby are as cold and unemotional as the landscape in which they live. There is friendless loner Katri Kling, with her shaggy fur coat, and her eyes as yellow as the unnamed, wolfish dog which accompanies her everywhere. There is her younger brother Mats, who is slow and silent but dreams of designing and building his own boat. And there is elderly artist Anna Aemelin, who looks like a rabbit, and lives on her own in a big, old house (which also looks like a rabbit), and paints beautiful detailed pictures of the forest floor – then peoples them with unnatural, flowery rabbits.

Katri, regarded with suspicion by residents in the tiny Swedish village, is a mathematical wizard, who wants things to be clean and pure. She distrusts people and wants to make money so she never has to worry about it again, and her brother can have his boat, and somewhere safe to live. She befriends Ann, fakes a burglary at the old woman’s home – then moves in, with her brother, and takes over Anna’s life. She writes letters to the children who buy Anna’s picture books, and examines her finances, claiming back ‘missing’ money and insisting on fees being increased. She keeps an account of everything in a little notebook, but extra money is set aside for Mats. And, most of all, Katri destroys destroys Anna’s faith in humanity, telling her that everyone is cheating her.

Anna and Katri seem to have an almost symbiotic relationship, and each seems to supply something the other lacks, quite apart from companionship. They are opposites, in their nature and their view of the world, but by the end each has changed.

Anna never paints in the winter, but when spring comes, and the weather thaws, and the forest floor can be seen again, she finds she can no longer work, until Katri recants her earlier allegations about cheating, claiming she lied. Like much else in the novel, there is no way of telling whether this story is true, or whether Katri tells Anna what she thinks she needs to hear. At any rate, Anna is now able to pick up her brushes and paints, and begins to produce her best work, without the rabbits, which she no longer needs.

The novel raises questions about truth in relation to art, the way others see us, and the way we see ourselves. Truth and lies are not always easy to separate, and self-deception can be dangerous, and we need to be true to ourselves – but it can be hard to know what that truth is.

I love Jansson’s writing, and can’t understand why anyone would give her books away, but it’s worked to my advantage, because I’ve found three of them, all published by Sort Of Books, and all in tip-top condition, looking as if they’ve never been read. So now I’ve got my eyes open for ‘Travelling Light’, ‘Fair Play’, and ‘Art in Nature’, which are also produced by Sort Of.

Edited: Oops, forgot the title!