TEXT review


Stepping through time and space

review by Pablo Muslera

 

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Rod Mengham
Grimspound and Inhabiting Art
Carcanet Press, Manchester UK 2018
ISBN: 9781784105907
Pb 256pp AUD 29.95

 

Mengham’s book is partitioned into two main sections, with an overriding theme of natural and manufactured structures acting as cultural conduits connecting past and present. Through a blend of descriptive writing, essay, poetry and literary analysis, he demonstrates how modern lived spaces access a form of time travel, where their historical origins are recontextualised. The first section, ‘Grimspound’(a Dartmoor settlement dating from the late Bronze Age), begins slowly with a detailed description of some of the flora and topographical features of the area. The narrative lifts when it finds some poignancy within the mundane, such as a bucolic view termed ‘the ovine sublime’ (18), and ‘a dead yellow and black striped caterpillar wearing a funereal ruff of rainwater spheres on its furred back’ (19), phrases which reflect Mengham’s poetic sensibilities. Mengham appears to be feeling his way in the introduction, and the tone switches from observational to personal when he admits that he has grown possessive of the space, and that, ‘certain timbres of voice make [him] nervous’ (19). This early shift from objective to dramatic register is characteristic of Mengham’s voice.

Mengham uses a combination of historical and literary analysis to argue that Grimspound is a place where time is in flux. He names the ‘collapsing of timeframes’ (33) facilitated by the ancient setting as a crucial element in the plot of Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Watson imagines the Bronze Age huts of the area alternately housing ‘prehistoric man and the modern convict’ (32). The temporal uncertainty of the real-life Grimspound is highlighted by wealthy amateur archeologist Baring-Gould’s 1894 excavations of the site, and his privileging of modern aesthetics over historical accuracy (55). Conan Doyle visited Grimspound’s restored huts years before he wrote the story, and Baring-Gould may have inspired the character of Henry Baskerville, whose thirst for untrammelled renovation of his ancestral home awakens an atavistic evil (38).

Mengham caps this literary discussion with a poetic meditation, where ancient setting provides inspiration for modern verse. Grimspound is projected back to its Bronze Age history: ‘men pile up charcoal in the pit / and fashion prayers / to peel the shadow from the sun / to free the mist from the moon’ (60). He addresses the importance of place in identity: ‘there is a saying / that those without land / will be left with nothing but the scabs on their wounds’ (65). The poem’s conclusion links physical with cultural displacement: ‘…but I remember / everything that remains behind / now the clan is not even a rumour / now our tongue has shrivelled up… / our words are no more than wax in the ear’ (68).

In the second main section, ‘Inhabiting Art’, Mengham codifies his poetic musings in the concept of habitus, ‘the everyday activities of a group whose shared ways of perceiving the world are the very ground of … individual sensibility’ (73). He makes the point that habitus is often linked with habitat (my emphasis): ‘familiar territory seen in relation to familiar ways of making it work’ (73), and exemplifies this through his description of a Bronze Age knife, which after three millennia of ‘dumb neglect’ is ‘attuned, responsive, prompt to its ancient cue’ (74). In his analysis of another Bronze Age site in the UK, Flag Fen, Mengham strengthens his argument on the interdependency of habitus and habitat, showing how the fen environment shapes the culture of its people, as they in turn influence their natural surrounds, noting the ‘soluble culture’ which facilitates votive offerings bequeathed to the bog through an underwater ‘religious recycling centre’ (76).

Mengham returns to ‘Grimspound’’s theme of restoration as violation when he describes Flag Fen’s visitors centre as a ‘Bronze Age Housing estate’, where ‘simulacra of prehistoric sheep’ graze, while an ancient Roman road degrades into ‘Swiss cheese’ (80). The fifty posts and central altar trunk of ‘Seahenge’, transported to Flag Fen for archaeological study, deteriorate in their new home, and Mengham argues that the price for the historical secrets they have yielded is too high (82). The tension between a site’s original purpose, and how that is betrayed through the modern need to know it further, is beautifully articulated here, as well as in Mengham’s trek along the Bibbulmun track in Western Australia.  His search for an authentic connection with the land, and its custodians the Nyoongar people, ends in him meeting only ‘white and urban’ (173) tourists like himself (many fellow Brits); Mengham is unable to escape the ‘bubble of [his] own language, and its cultural carry-on’ (174). He addresses the irony of the oldest surviving continuous culture leaving less impression on him than the more recent prehistory of his home continent, simply because he is unable to read the Nyoongar’s ancient signs, whose seamless blending into the landscape is a greater proof of their persistence within it than the Bronze Age artefacts with whom he is more familiar.

This is a stark juxtaposition against ‘Inhabiting Art’’s final entry, ‘The eighth hill of Rome’, in which highly visible artefacts take on conflicted meanings. A mountain of ancient oil amphorae pottery shards in the Testaccio district is a sign of modern dissent, a metaphor for EU tensions; pilgrims risk climbing the cordoned mound (formerly used by drug dealers), while the broader district is the site of violent protests against European free trade. Thus evidence of ancient Roman unity, a monument to its ubiquitous olive oil, has evolved into a symbol of disunity, outlasting the Empire which spawned it (250-254). The remainder of ‘Inhabiting Art’ describes a series of site visits which continue the theme of the cultural evolution of historical spaces and artefacts. These subsections cover a broad geographical area from the UK, mainland Europe, Australia and the United States, and the accounts span 2003 to 2017. The work is most successful in its longer pieces, which undertake a deeper analysis of the cultural significance of place and materiality. For example, the Victoria and Albert museum’s copy of Michelangelo’s David is apprehended differently to that in Florence’s Piazza Signora (the original statue’s first location), while the original statue re-homed in the Academia in Florence fulfils a different function again: the first embeds classical art in the age of mechanical reproduction, the second locates David square in the centre of daily commerce, while the third places the original statue in a solitary chamber, where its status as (high) Art is emphasised (119). Mengham makes a similar point about the ‘evasive symbolism’ (222) of the Statue of Liberty, from its French origins as a symbol of anti-slavery (224), to its more modern association with an ‘open arms immigration policy’ (224), and how that meaning is challenged by artists such as the writer Hart Crane, who imagines that the Statue finds itself ‘stayed’, its desires ‘arrested, in a condition in which freedom can only ever be qualified’ (228). Mengham argues that such ‘universal’ symbols never have a static meaning, relying on the kaleidoscope through which their visitors view them, as much as the statue's physical structure relies on a network of scaffolds and mixed materials to keep it whole.

Overall, Mengham’s book is itself a mix of materials: each main section comprises a febrile network of subsections which somehow maintain a loose cohesion with the whole. Poetry is informed by archaeology and literary analysis, and these conspire in a dramatic form of essay which lays bare its individual inspirations.

 

 

 

Dr Pablo Muslera teaches Shakespeare studies and professional and creative writing at the University of South Australia. He co-edits the reviews section of TEXT journal, and is interested in the intersection of Shakespeare and popular culture, and intertextuality as a creative and educational tool.

 

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TEXT
Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker
textreviews@unisa.edu.au