Chaucer: Movie Stills or Slam Remix

Lavinia Greenlaw
A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde
Faber £16.99

Patience Agbabi
Telling Tales
Canongate £14.99

Both A Double Sorrow and Telling Tales borrow their basic frame from works by Chaucer. But compared with other, closer translations of medieval texts that have appeared in recent years, from Simon Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Jane Draycott’s Pearl, each of these books is a different sort of beast.

A Double Sorrow is less a retelling of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde than a distillation – as if Greenlaw had reduced the movie to a succession of stills, lingering in the details we might have reeled on past. Chaucer’s tragic poem of love and betrayal had inspired several reworkings before Shakespeare’s pox-ridden mongrel of a play, Troilus and Cressida. The imagistic spareness of Greenlaw’s version pitches it somewhere between medieval lyric and early Pound. Her emphasis on the luminous simile – ‘like a pair of birds / Who flit from spot to spot of sun / And chirp of each green landing’ – has much in common with Alice Oswald’s treatment of Homer in her recent Memorial, which stripped away most of the Iliad’s conventional narrative to focus on the ‘bullet time’ of its digressive, dreamlike similes. A Double Sorrow has a similar feel, unfolding in the moments of description or reflection between normal events.

It’s an approach that is not unsympathetic to Chaucer’s own way of playing with his sources. For Troilus and Criseyde, he took a relatively simple story from Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato (‘Boy meets girl, they fall in love, fate intervenes’, runs Greenlaw’s summary). He then filled out that skeleton with psychological observation, philosophical meditation, and exquisite lyric lament (Troilus sings an agonized love song that happens to be one of the earliest translations of a Petrarch sonnet into English). Troilus and Criseyde takes place in the wings of the Trojan War’s more familiar stories. Central Homeric figures like Hector make cameos: quiet reminders that, this being Troy, things aren’t going to end well.

Greenlaw largely hives off Chaucer’s plot into her poems’ titles, or the footnotes that orient the reader within the story: ‘Criseyde tries to ask’, ‘Troilus collapses’. The poems themselves tend not so much to progress as to reach out to others through leitmotifs. The word ‘outline’ first appears in the opening poem, where it points self-consciously to the challenge of reinventing another author’s tale: ‘so the shadow lifts / Leaving an outline that could be anyone’s. / Take it or make it mine’. After that the word reappears at key turns: when Criseyde seals her love for Troilus with a brooch ‘set with a ruby heart… In outline’; when exile is imminent and she wishes ‘her spirit to stay here with him / As she departs – in outline’. Like the phrase itself, that brooch becomes a kind of haunting. When it finally returns, pinned to another man’s shirt, it is the mute token of Criseyde’s betrayal of Troilus.

A Double Sorrow does interesting things with form. Greenlaw’s introduction talks perceptively about the rime royal stanza Chaucer invented (ababbcc), noting how ‘that fascinating fifth line’ acts like ‘a spanner in the works’ or ‘a glance in the rear-view mirror’. Greenlaw works with Troilus and Criseyde’s stanza structure, but loosens it to the point where rhymes and half-rhymes swim in and out of prominence: a line of inheritance to be heightened or toned down as needed. Like half-sonnets, her discrete, seven-line poems hang at the centre of each page, the surrounding white space calling (unlike Chaucer’s on-rushing stanzas) for meditative stasis.

Greenlaw’s choice of language feels deliberately unanchored in time, mingling archaic-sounding phraseology and diction (‘Some say the Greek carried a pennant on his spear’) with very contemporary turns of phrase (‘Who’s counting?’). A Double Sorrow tends to steer away from conspicuous anachronisms, but Greenlaw does fascinating things with them when she chooses:

 

Listening in sleep to the swallow’s song

He hears small wheels in a vast machine

Something’s got caught. It spins and slaps.

He opens the back

And out comes spool after spool…              (‘Imperative’)

 

What Greenlaw is up to here can only really be appreciated by tracking the supplied line numbers back to the relevant Chaucerian passage. The dream belongs to Pandarus, Criseyde’s uncle, whose larger-than-life role in brokering the lovers’ trysts comes uncomfortably close to pimping his niece. Half-asleep, Chaucer’s Pandarus hears the ‘sorrowful lay’ of the swallow Procne, like a whisper from his subconscious, lamenting her sister Philomela’s rape. The medieval Pandarus’s dream points to his mysterious motivations; is there already guilt at his planned coercions? But Greenlaw’s simile of the chewed-up cassette tape – with its glimpse of a future as obsolete for us as pennants or halberds – hints at a larger malaise, detonating other strands in the poem’s imagery: Fortune’s wheel, the spinning Fates, the walls within walls of the doomed city.

Can such ‘versions’ ever stand entirely independent of the works that inspired them? Greenlaw’s aim seems less to create a modernized substitute than to engage the original in a dialogue. Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, on the other hand, follows the contours of the Canterbury Tales while managing to create poems that have an exuberant life all of their own. Her book will win over readers with no knowledge of Chaucer, thanks to the eclectic cast of voices it so vividly evokes. From rude boyz to schizophrenic prisoners, henpecked cabbies to drugged-up crims, their accents and idioms are of a sort too often absent from contemporary poetry – or at least that written primarily for the page.

Nevertheless, there is also much pleasure to be found in tracing Agbabi’s witty updatings back to their medieval roots. With laugh-out-loud ingenuity, she discovers modern equivalents for the fixtures of Chaucer’s world, beginning with recasting his medieval storytelling contest as a twenty-first-century poetry slam. On a bus en route from the Old Kent Road to Canterbury, Agbabi’s competing poets deliver their pieces in turn. The transformation is an inspired one, not least because oral performance was, we think, an important element of Chaucer’s own poetry; an illumination in one early manuscript depicts him reciting (unassisted by a book) his poems to a courtly audience.

In Agbabi’s version, the portraits of the pilgrims, which Chaucer’s General Prologue leads us to expect, find their new place in the hilarious set of fictional contributors’ notes at the back of the volume. Harry ‘Bells’ Bailey, a former bouncer and the host of the Tabard Inn’s monthly spoken word night (‘High-brow meets Hi-tech’ The Guardian), opens and closes proceedings:

 

On this Routemaster bus, get cerebral,

Tabard Inn to Canterbury Cathedral,

poet pilgrims competing for free picks,

Chaucer Tales, track by track, here’s the remix

(‘Prologue [Grime Mix]’)

 

Bailey’s couplets are more full-on, more chiming, than at most other points in Telling Tales, deliberately so; though this character’s killer rhymes also include ‘wordsick’ / ‘allergic’ and ‘cheap side’ / ‘peeps wide’. In a formal tour-de-force, Agbabi makes her pilgrims talk in sestinas and sonnets, txt spk and rap. The Tale of Melibee’s philosophical meditation on violence becomes a mirror poem, spooling its debate about revenge first forward then back. Agbabi even makes use of Troilus and Criseyde’s signature rime royal, but this time in the mouth of a laid-off, drug-addled sniffer dog.

Chaucer’s tales range in genre from high-minded romance, to moral fable, to filthy fabliau. Their eclecticism reflects the social jumble of the pilgrimage route to Canterbury, which brought together knights and millers, high and low. Agbabi is especially good at bringing out the riotous, lowlife end of this societal mix. Her Robyn Miller and Ozymandia Reeves produce tales that almost outdo their bed-hopping medieval precursors in smut: ‘but draw the line at this French farce, / bon appétit – French-kiss my arse!’.

Honed by the dramatic monologues of Bloodshoot Monochrome, Agbabi’s ear for speech is pitch-perfect:

 

My name is Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa,

I come from Nigeria.

I’m very fine, isn’t it?        (‘What Do Women Like Be’s?’)

 

Given that the fourteenth century saw vocabulary pouring into English from French and Latin – English was the third language of a courtier like Chaucer – it makes sense that today’s multicultural Englishes should enrich the texture of Telling Tales. The Chaucers of Agbabi and Greenlaw couldn’t be further from each other in tone or temperament, but each is an inventive tribute to the grandfather of poetry in English.

 

– Sarah Howe