D M Black

Long narrative

With fatal inevitability, the narrative poems I wrote in the 1960s and 70s became longer and longer. They changed from surreal to more psychologically aware, and I thought they got better as they got longer – but it was a frustrating development, because they were hard work to write, and who on earth wanted to read long poems? 'The Hands of Felicity' dates from 1976. It's about thirty pages long and was based on a traditional fairy-tale, rearranged into five sections or chapters, long, short, long, short, long. The metre is hendecasyllabic. I present here the first section.

                                 The Hands of Felicity
                                 (after Grimm)

                                 I.  The Mill

                                 When the narrative demon sits astride my
                                 cerebrum and compels with yells and jeers these a-
                                 ppetitive cattle along some grassless track, I
                                 find no pleasure in feeling bit and spurs! No,
                                 surely nothing rewards these vehement labours
                                 unless out of the wreck of sweat and flowers I
                                 glimpse that body, the intangible and lovely
                                 woman's body again for whom I wayfare.
                                 And when that is the case indeed how could I
                                 ask for more? – Yet without conviction, rather with
                                 apprehension I don the demon's mask, I
                                 whistle and shout to the dogs, I heave at the rein, I
                                 wheel my horse.

                                                             There are few defined beginnings
                                 in the tissue of history though the text be-
                                 fore me starts with a miller and his mill, his
                                 wife, his appletree, and his only daughter.
                                 But what years of hard work are thus passed over!
                                 From his youth he has fought the idle peasantry
                                 and the greed of the merchants bringing lies of
                                 flour more cheap in some pen-adjacent village,
                                 and by marrying late his worried, capable,
                                 sanctimonious wife he has built by the age of
                                 fifty a good-enough working miller's business.
                                 He himself has become a forceful, absolute man. Not
                                 tall, but stocky, with solid chest and shoulders,
                                 black hair jutting from every plausible lo-
                                 cation, nostrils, and eyebrows, thick forearms, his
                                 blunt and powerful hands.

                                                                            Yet to have controlled the
                                 human variables need not imply a
                                 treaty adequate with the natural.  One
                                 season almost before the spring was out the
                                 fields lay scorched in a parody of harvest,
                                 and such grain as the sun permitted threshed out
                                 grey and wizened.  That winter was near-famine.
                                 Prices rose, men went hungry, and the miller
                                 drew – and even then sparingly! – upon the
                                 hoarded stocks he had stored so cunningly that
                                 scarcely Peggy herself (who baked the flour) had
                                 any inkling about them.  "One more year like
                                 that," he said, "and our lives will be in jeopardy."
                                 But the pattern repeated both the following
                                 year and the one that succeeded; by that autumn
                                 riot and famine possessed the local villages.

                                 And the miller had neither corn to mill nor
                                 stocks to set up for sale nor even water to
                                 race on the boards of his channel.  Massive chains of
                                 panic dragged in the lake of heat and silence.
                                 He refused both to eat and to speak and strode (said
                                 Peggy: "eating his heart") strode up and down his
                                 burnt land, brooding and furious.  And in that
                                 blind mood stalking the earth at noon he came to
                                 the cool shade of a plane-tree.  There beneath it a
                                 boyish, elderly man was leaning gracefully.

                                 "You look hot," said the elderly man.  "I am in-
                                 deed," the miller replied; "so too would you be,
                                 with my worries."  And thereupon the taciturn
                                 forceful miller undammed his bulk of thoughts in
                                 quite a freshet of raging and distress! sur-
                                 prised, but drawn by the twinkling mobile face and
                                 various postures that bent the man before him.

                                 When he came to an end the smiling man said
                                 pensively: "What would you give to terminate this
                                 painful tension?  For nothing is so bad that
                                 by a resolute twist one cannot buck it!" – He
                                 bent his body like plasticine as if in
                                 demonstration! The miller stood bewildered.
                                 "For example: if I prevailed upon the
                                 local meteorology to lull us
                                 with cool mists, with agreeable warm showers and
                                 gentle sun, as delightful to the cornfields
                                 as a bath and a pint to the exhausted reaper –
                                 would you, say, for example, let me take, in
                                 three years time, what is there behind your mill?" "You
                                 make no sense." "On the contrary, old son, I
                                 make most excellent sense.  I am saying, would you
                                 for a lifetime of pleasant autumns and a-
                                 bundant grain, for that guaranteed security,
                                 let me take what is there behind your mill?" "You
                                 mean the appletree." "I have said what I in-
                                 tend to say." "And suppose I answer Yes?" "Then,"
                                 said the flexible man, "how could you not be
                                 happy, you and your wife?" And to support his
                                 words there muttered a genial, sympathetic
                                 thunder out of the secrecy of the clouds.

                                                                                                   And the
                                 foolish miller assented. Signed awkwardly in
                                 sticky scarlet the crumpled rag of paper the
                                 smiling (really surprisingly elegant) gentle-
                                 man unpicked for him, then (decidedly), yes, baffled
                                 and unable exactly to remember (or
                                 give due weight to the memory of) that bargain,
                                 he came out of the plane-tree's shade and somewhat
                                 dazzled strode on the sun-dried hardened roadway.
                                 The first drops of a storm began to fleck the
                                 dust about him before he had gained the house. There
                                 on the doorstep he all-but collided with his
                                 good wife Peggy.  "Come in at once," she cried, "in-
                                 to the dry. For myself I am just taking
                                 this old coat to Felicity; she went to
                                 hang out clothes in the yard behind the mill." – The
                                 miller shrank like the trout that grabs the fly and
                                 the unsuckable hook enters his cheek! –
                                 blinded amazement precedes the clutch of panic.
                                 "You can hop out of that," said Peggy briskly.
                                 "Look! it's raining!"


                                                                        So lovely were the twelve en-
                                 suing seasons, springs bright, the summers long, the
                                 autumns golden, the
                                 winters mantled with snow and dripping icicles,
                                 that anxiety slept in swathings of contentment.
                                 Not slept. Better: it all-but slept. Sometimes it
                                 dreamed horrifically and the miller woke, eyes
                                 bursting out of their beds with his refusal
                                 to see that which the dream rehearsed before him.
                                 Sometimes, governed by what?, his gaze would fasten
                                 upon Felicity, and from who knows how great
                                 depths of violence or of love distorted
                                 she would summon him back by her uneasy
                                 question, "What is it, Father?" – He would answer,
                                 startled, "Nothing. It's nothing," and by then it
                                 would be nothing, dissolved, a warp in the light, a
                                 quiver veiling its face behind solidities.

                                 For she also, of course, Felicity, like the
                                 seasons ripened. First plumping of prospective
                                 rounding fruit. You'd have thought my lecherous pen would
                                 leap to limning her portrait, but some inhi-
                                 bition has tardied me: it is perhaps her piety
                                 holds me back from unstinting admiration.
                                 For my text is emphatic: though fourteen and
                                 indeed pretty-as-a-picture, golden-haired, with
                                 star-blue eyes and a smile like the April sunshine, some
                                 hearty devilment that completes the character
                                 seems not present: she is all white gauze, and buds, and
                                 First Communion. And so in pleasant slumber – who
                                 could be critical? – days and years went by. And
                                 you, large-breasted Pomona, rocked their sleep.

                                 has a talent for not remembering when
                                 Doom has jotted his name down in the calendar;
                                 and it's almost an air of righteous grievance
                                 one assumes when one hears the bell and goes to
                                 the front door, and behold, he has kept his appointment.
                                 He is courteous, always; does not show any
                                 pain one's own lack of courtesy may cause him;
                                 does not even require that one invite him
                                 into the living-room, saying "Come in, come in, you must
                                 meet my spouse, yes, and these are my dear children,
                                 Charlotte! Maria! please! say good-day to the gentleman!"
                                 None of this he requires; he stays on the doorstep,
                                 shifty, obsequious, fawning, shrinking, enlarging –
                                 how one plasters with adjectives that odious
                                 undertaker's demeanour! yet the fact of
                                 his being there is what counts, however qualified.
                                 And suffusions of dread well throbbing time and
                                 time again through one's gut as if to match the
                                 echoing chime of the clock.  For it is mid-day....

                                 And it was, when the angry miller answered
                                 the loud crash on the door, precisely mid-day.
                                 He had forgotten (of course) he had this assig-
                                 nation, and with unblemished outrage opened
                                 the bright door with its panes of crystal glass.  The
                                 pure calm sunlight receded timelessly be-
                                 yond the harvested hills, and the hedgerows gleamed with
                                 lovely luminous tints of wax and amber.
                                 A man stood on the doorstep wearing black and
                                 saying: "You will as a business-man admire my
                                 punctuality."  "Who in hell are you?" the
                                 miller said, for he had at once remembered
                                 and he fought to forget again.  The chap was
                                 all apology. "Yes, of course, dear me, with
                                 such a trifling appointment made with someone
                                 of such stature, how most unreasonable I
                                 am to suppose it might stay in your recollection.
                                 But you see this exasperating scrap of
                                 paper? yes, and this signature? and this mere
                                 fiddling date? as it happens, marking out to-
                                 day exactly of all the unnumberable
                                 possible options?  I am quite embarrassed! to bring
                                 down your lofty attention to such pettiness!
                                 But you see how it is.  The bargain made three
                                 years ago has now reached fruition and (just
                                 look around you!) I think you will not quibble I
                                 failed to honour my part in it."  And thus he
                                 wittered on, as the miller stood in torment.

                                 There are those who I think would claim that such a
                                 bargain cannot cohere with talk of honour;
                                 that a monstrous engagement virtuously pro-
                                 ceeded with is a moral broth or shambles
                                 to be neither approached nor admired.  The miller
                                 lacked the freedom bestowed by such distinctions:
                                 what he had said he had said and it determined him.
                                 So the outcome of this bemusing confron-
                                 tation is not in doubt: his understanding
                                 stabilised: there was no alternative; he
                                 called Felicity.

                                                          For Felicity is
                                 what the fellow has won by his contriving.
                                 Yet she had (we are not surprised! yet neither
                                 gent nor miller appeared to have considered it)
                                 her own views on the prospect of abduction:
                                 she was not to be found.  At last they found her:
                                 once more standing behind the mill, beneath the
                                 laden appletree; she has drawn a circle
                                 with a spade in the grass around her, and she
                                 stands there weeping and trembling, all in white, to
                                 wait their coming.  The gentleman was angry.
                                 "Haul her out of that!" he commanded. "Now, then,"
                                 said the miller in some uncertainty. "No," she
                                 cried, "I never will go with him!" She wept and
                                 wept.  Because of that circle and such purity
                                 neither man could approach her. "Cunning bitch!" the
                                 gentleman commented. Then he gave his orders:
                                 to exclude her from water and entrap her
                                 in her circle; she would not be able then to
                                 keep so clean; and tomorrow morning early
                                 he would return.

                                                            –You can bust your brains attempting  
                                 to understand how the miller could obey him.
                                 Is it fear of the bending man's mysterious
                                 magic powers that can control the seasons?
                                 for he might reinstate the famine, or kill
                                 off the miller himself, although no whisper of
                                 that has yet got abroad?  Or is a magic
                                 operating already to transfix the
                                 miller's freedom, an as-it-were hypnosis?
                                 Or (perhaps we should ask) what does he feel a-
                                 bout his daughter?  For can it be that somehow,
                                 by violating the canons of paternity,
                                 he discovers an unreportable satis-
                                 faction? But, with that stolid bulk of chest and
                                 muscle, as with the honest author of my
                                 text, no answers (indeed no questions) mar the
                                 forward march of the facts.  We know so little!

                                 But I think for myself she stayed the night en-
                                 circled, there in the open, not because of
                                 some disgusting machinery but because (if
                                 she had come out) the bending man was present
                                 like a gas or a tangle of gaseous claws to
                                 clutch and bear her away; though other authors
                                 speak of guard-dogs, patrols, and razoring search-lights.

                                 In the morning the men were back.  Felicity
                                 still stood, tearful, exhausted.  She had cried so
                                 freely that she had washed in tears and was as
                                 clean this morning as on the previous day.  The
                                 bending man was enraged.  He danced about in
                                 spasm and yelled at the miller: "She is foiling
                                 our important arrangement!  You must see she
                                 keeps our bargain!  In order to prevent this
                                 washing, cut off her hands!"  The miller, poor docile
                                 fool, he wanted to obey, yet could not quite per-
                                 suade his limbs to approach her; she shrank up like
                                 a hurt bird.  But he did.  Took out his razor
                                 and then quickly and with a gaze determinedly
                                 bent down, severed her yielding hands from their a-
                                 stonished wrists.  And she squatted down, and sobbed.  The
                                 bending man in the energy of his rage strode
                                 away shouting: "I shall return to fetch you
                                 at dawn!"  Then left alone, unwatched, the miller
                                 found in his powerful hand two trusting hands.

                                 dawn the following day, miller and bending
                                 man are back.  With impatience now the bending
                                 man strides up to Felicity, as a glutton might
                                 snatch indifferently some fruit he has al-
                                 ready gorged from.  She is squatting still, and weeping
                                 quietly onto her stumps, and her white dress and
                                 golden hair, though dishevelled, still are clean, are
                                 more than clean, are ablaze with radiance!  And when she
                                 looks up, tearful blue eyes and rightful anger
                                 (like an angel at bay!) what can he do but
                                 stop bewildered?  He cannot penetrate the
                                 space about her.  And I think in fury he di-
                                 ssolves, exclaims and dissolves in fumes like some black
                                 lump of sickening liquid in a belljar.
                                 It diffuses itself into transparency.

                                 And the miller comes to!  He is all remorse.  He
                                 weeps and pleads for Felicity's forgiveness,
                                 and whatever she wishes he will gladly
                                 do, or give her.  He begs that she will now ac-
                                 cept to live all her days at home and he will
                                 count it honour to serve her like a princess, to
                                 dance attendance upon her ruined stumps.  But
                                 she is not much concerned with all this ardour.
                                 In a daze, or as if bemused, she steps from
                                 the worn circle and turns her head about and
                                 her wrists dither in front of her.  As if such crying had
                                 washed the sight from her sockets!  But she says: "I
                                 must not stay," with a sort of desperation
                                 or a sort of conviction, and then, focussing
                                 and ignoring her father, on his knees in
                                 agony to the back of her, she squares her
                                 head and shoulders and with determined, wading
                                 steps goes off through the long-grown, tangled garden.
                                 The gate closes behind her.