Notes on writing ‘Bess of Hardwick’s Account Book’, ‘My Familiar’ and ‘The Linguist’s Mute Children’.
There seems to be only a distant relationship between my fiction and poetry, which may be evident in the work in terms of themes and so on, but importantly I often feel as if the two are written from different parts of myself. Or more precisely different parts of my brain. I half mistrust the part that writes poetry, she is vulnerable and dangerous at the same time. She has been around for a long time – since earliest childhood and she is a dreamer, a romantic. I can’t help but wonder if this is just me absorbing an almost clichéd view of a poet but nonetheless fiction and poetry each seem to demand a unique approach. Perhaps it is this that creates the effect of it being the product of a separate entity. The subconscious has a role too and like a child it can be vulnerable, unpredictable and at times deceptive. She / it is always struggling to find meaning and part of that struggle, if not meaning itself, emerges in poetry.
The poem about Bess of Hardwick was directly inspired by A Material Girl: Bess of Hardwick 1527-1608 by Kate Hubbard. Bess, who married four times, was noteworthy as a shrewd businesswoman who held and built property in her own right and prospered to eventually become the second richest woman in England – only Queen Elizabeth was wealthier. During a nine year span she gave birth to eight children, two of whom, as was common then, died young.
Some of the metaphors in ‘Bess’ seem to contradict each other; her children are jewels that are important to her function as a wife and mother, but they are also maggots; live squirming creatures. I had in mind the painting of The Cholmondeley Sisters when I wrote about the swaddling; the babies in that picture are such strange stiff little packages, their bodies transformed into worm-like tubes.
The poem plays with the idea of an accounting book as a place to tally gains and losses, something Bess was adroit at, but transposes money for children. I was struck by the nature of the children’s names, those that survived possessed what might be thought of as solid English names that had either Teutonic or Hebrew roots five of which were also the names of British monarchs. By comparison the two unlucky daughters who did not live to maturity had names that differed from this group; Bess’s second born child was called Temperance after one of the seven heavenly virtues, while the last born was Lucrece or Lucretia – from the Latin word ‘profit’.
In one way children represent a legacy of a sort, so her account book in this poem is a summing up of Bess of Hardwick’s life as a wife and mother. While there was much she could and did do to master her destiny, the mortality of her children was in the hands of fate. From this idea I took the leap into imagining how with hindsight she might have judged her choice of names for the children. This verse was written over ten years ago and I’ve always liked it as both a woman’s poem and a history poem, and it relates to a handful of other poems that sprang from my reading and research. There has always been superstition about the naming of children; a character in Edna O’Brien’s ‘The Little Red Chairs’ explains that he is known as ‘Vuk’ which means ‘wolf’ and says that this name is given in order to scare off the witches who might otherwise eat the child. So her thinking at the end is a reflection of how things might have been different if only the child’s name was more simple.
‘My Familiar’ is a more sprawling account of history and reverses the subject of a witch’s ‘familiar’ back onto an array of men and male attitudes to women. The first verse introduces a sort of Edwardian roué; for him a cigar is more than a cigar. Here the cigar is a phallic symbol and the man relishes the myth about how cigars are made, asserting his colonialism, sexual appetite and power.
Next, going back in time, the familiar is a devil gambolling on stage in a medieval mystery play. The smell of sulphur wakes the old women who sit in the front row knitting. These are the women who sat by the side of guillotine enjoying the spectacle of execution. The ties they knit jump forward in time to the mid-twentieth century to those seemingly benign men; ‘uncles’ and teachers who sometimes misuse their power and privilege. Some women are complicit in their evil choosing not to see or acting as spectators.
Finally the poem arrives at the witch hunts of the seventeenth century when any marks found on a woman’s body condemned her to a terrible death. It is only in the last two lines that the various familiars are finally understood not as supernatural agents but just ordinary men. However by then it is too late.
‘The Linguist’s Mute Children’ is about the failure of language as a signifier of civilisation. If language is what defines us and is unique about us as humans then it has also failed us. We are mute in the face of violence. The forest is therefore corrupted and no longer a mere place of nature. On rotten tree trunks fungi emerges which, while these growths look like lips they cannot speak. The crows’ calls sound anguished but they cannot really communicate anything they see. The forest may have no desire compared to mankind; it may only want to be itself unaffected by war and pollution and other damage done by man. A linguist can speak multiple languages, but when violence is committed it ultimately causes the shock reaction of speechlessness.
Jo Mazelis is a prize winning novelist, short story writer, poet, photographer and essayist. Her first collection of stories Diving Girls was short-listed for Commonwealth Best First Book and Welsh Book of the Year. Previously she worked as a freelance photographer in London. Her photographs have appeared on the jackets of many books and in a variety of publications. Her debut novel Significance (Seren, 2014) won The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2015. Her latest book is Ritual, 1969 (Seren, 2016).
You can read the three poems discussed here in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased from our online shop.
Words & images © Jo Mazelis, 2016.