Reitha Pattison’s Some Fables

The above is available from Grasp Press for a mere six of your finest English pounds (including p and p). I know it may seem that I am gradually making my way through the entire Grasp catalogue but that is primarily because it contains the best of this year’s stuff (thus far). ‘Some Fables’ contains twenty fables each of which manages to be quietly unsettling and delightful at the same time.

The (by now) entirely predictable digression.

In my head fables occupy two distinct places, the first relates to Aesop and using animals and other ‘natural’ phenomena to make some kind of moral point. This is the standard or default place and is these days thought primarily as material for children. The second place is a bit more esoteric and relates to emblem books which flourished in Renaissance Europe and used images alongside text to make a moral point – this is a gross simplification but the point that I want to make is that, for me, the visual component is an important part of a fable.

The next point contains personal taste. Whilst considering my own reaction to ‘Some Fables’ it occurred to me that my taste for the odd or unusual may not be universally shared and that this particular collection may only appeal to those who share my delight in the out of the ordinary. I then threw this anxiety around in more abstract terms and decided that any attempt to reconstruct this incredibly ancient form has to be of wider interest because of what it says about fables and their often occluded place in contemporary culture.

Fables, politics and askesis.

Let’s start with the hare and the tortoise, one of Aesop’s better known tales in which the stolid and persistent tortoise triumphs over the flashy and arrogant hare. This simple tale may seem a million miles removed from modern politics but for thirty years a socially democratic Europe was able to represent itself as the more reliable and stable counterpart to it’s unfettered American cousin. It can be argued that in the last thirty years that we have all been sold on the flashy and unpredictable model because there is no viable alternative- the tortoise is seen as slow and inefficient rather than depndable.

The tortoise and the hare can also be applied to the process of moulding ourselves as individuals. As a manic depressive I am painfully aware of the pitfalls of the flashy brilliance involved in periods of mania and need at all times to try and instill some tortoise-like persistence and dependability.

Some Fables for Our Times?

Given all the above preconceptions, I think I had a bit of an idea what contemporary fables should set out to do, they should be angry self-righteous denunciations of what passes for the current economic and political consensus, they should attack in an Orwellian fashion the current disregard for notions of equity and justice and they should also poke a thumb in the eye of poetic complacency wherever it occurs.

Some Fables is more subtle and accomplished that the above, in fact I’m now a little bit ashamed of my own rather crass assumptions. Pattison has produced a series of twenty deeply intelligent and entirely relevant fables for our times and I want to set out why we should give them close attention.

Fable IV

Mistaken for fame, notoriety clings
tourniqueted in the height of guise.
Tis tumble in armour from the talons
of greed or want is highly instructive.
Some caress away the indelible mark
written broadside on the itching pelt.
In alien furs words reveal the pitcher
empty. Deceit in a dust bath there
on the lane often floors the moralist,
tricks the carrion’s rapt onlooker.

There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on in these 10 lines but I’ll try and pick out what seems to me to be important. First of all there’s this notoriety which is subject to a tourniquet (although we’re not told whether this is from clinical necessity or due to intravenous drug use) and is hanging on (to what isn’t entirely clear) in some extreme disguise. To most of us, notoriety is a sub-type of fame in that the word implies that a person is well known for having done a bad thing. It is therefore not easy to see the nature of the notorious/famous mistake. The next two lines also sound as if they are going to be pithy but end up describing the tumble as ‘quite instructive’ without giving any further detail unless the fall from greed or want is in itself an educational experience and there fore a good thing per se. The rest of Fable IV is a series of statements/observations ending with the defeat of the moralist (who I’m taking to be the maker of these fables) and the deception of a lover of carrion. Crows feature in several of the fables and I’m trying not to make the Hughes connection. This fable manages to be both direct and mysterious at the same time, I like the fact that this is achieved using reasonably plain language and yet manages to say a number of complex things about the power of appearances and our readiness to be fooled. I’m still working on the ‘itching pelt’ and ‘alien furs’ but I’ll enjoy getting there.

Fable XV

Inevitably, there is an apple tree
and a pomegranate: read falling
and rising both; but the bramble’s
interjection of vanity, that incision
cuts another way. Thorns truly
prick a tragic boast of a carpel
which is not one’s own, a coronet
of spite, and foment is its capitulation.
Like Knights in panther skins, mineral
Queens are lauded to pieces epically.

As part of the Bebrowed Reader Service, carpel is defined as “One of the divisions or cells of a compound pistil or fruit; or the single cell of which a simple pistil or fruit consists.” and foment as a noun is equivalent to fomentation- “The application to the surface of the body either of flannels, etc. soaked in hot water, whether simple or medicated, or of any other warm, soft, medicinal substance.” I have no idea what Fable XV amounts to, nor is it readily apparent where this ‘fits’ with the rest of the sequence but I love the way the whole thing is paced and I would draw your attention to:

  • the bramble’s / interjection of vanity;
  • a tragic boast;
  • a coronet / of spite;
  • mineral / Queens are lauded to pieces epically.

All of these are startling, sense-defying and utterly glorious. It shows an incredible amount of talent to have all of these carefully placed within a mere ten lines. What I particularly admire about the sequence as a whole is the way in which Pattison has managed to maintain a considered and wry ‘voice’ throughout without sliding into parody.

I’ll be writing about this sequence again but I think I need to reiterate that ‘Some Fables’ is unique and one step removed from all the various labels that we apply to contemporary verse. Read it.

2 responses to “Reitha Pattison’s Some Fables

  1. This has nothing to do with what you’ve written, really, but it seems a good place to annotate the last lines of Fable XIV:

    bereft, the pain is phantasmal or
    in the pocket, coffered in the grove
    in locked land of external goodness
    for: “who dothe enuy at the treasury?”

    The last bit is a misquote of Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s De Remediis Fortuitorum (or rather, a sixteenth-century trranslation presumably) :
    “Thou iuges the man riche, it is the coffer: who dothe enuy at that treasury?”

    And how do I know this superbly obscure info? Why, from Google referring me to Pattison’s own leisurely ramble around Prynne’s “Corn burned by Syrius”.

    • Thank you for this, I had puzzled over this and other quotes but I hadn’t ‘done’ google. It is both obscure and satisfyingly oblique. I wonder if the other quotes are as obscure…

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