A warhorse of a revival at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Terence Rattigan, a Royal Air Force base in Lincolnshire, nighttime bombing raids over Nazi Germany. Mark Dexter playing a Polish count, a bomber pilot. The Poles in the RAF were fearless, said my English brother-in-law some twenty years ago. They hated the Nazis.
What is it about speaking through a difficult accent that can liberate an actor into character? The freedom of impediment. The Polish bomber has only the rudiments of English; his elementary mistakes are the source of recurrent comic relief; he has suffered a radical class demotion in the course of exile from a brutally occupied country. And what we feel, every time he speaks, in the gap behind his broken English, is the wealth of intelligence and unspoilt feeling that make him the most compelling character on stage. The most unprejudiced heart.
Can one do this in a poem without condescending? Is the effect of riches-beneath-impediment a phenomenon belonging exclusively to character? Or are there other ways of registering the purling effect when one mode of consciousness passes through the gates of an alien vocabulary? No jargon-dropping: it would have to be a patient working-through, a kind of submission.
William Strachey, Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania: They have a Plomb which they call Pessemmins like to a Meddeler in England, they grow on a most high tree, when they are not fully ripe they are Choakye, they furre a Mans mouth like Allam, howbeit being taken ripe a reasonable pleasant fruit. I have seen our people put them into their baked and sodden puddings.
Sweet the wood (dulce lignum)
Sweet the nails (dulces clavos)
Sweet the weight (dulces pondus sustinet) they bear
Where a meaner mind might see only the degraded landscape of American tract housing, D. J. Waldie, in his beautiful book, sees Holy Land. People live here (Muriel Rukeyser).
The Ghent Altarpiece, Jan and Hubert Van Eyck. Annunciation, Panel of the Virgin. Mary’s answer to the angel is printed in golden letters upside down and backward, so as to be legible from heaven. Ecce ancilla domini. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”
The letters not quite full color, not quite mimicking inscription in stone, but something in between, some medium not invented yet, like sepia photography. And the open book at her side.
Whereas the real mother of God . . . I expect she couldn’t read at all. Or could she? Among the people of the book. The wife of a carpenter. The pregnant betrothed of a carpenter. And the medieval women who prayed to her? The carpenters’ wives and the pregnant bretrotheds? Could they make out the letters?
Like Ginger Rogers in her high-heeled shoes.
Neptun, Mangalia. Romanian resort town once reserved for party functionaries. My view is of the fuel tanks and broken cement. Marigolds. Petunias. A cedar-and-pressboard pavilion strung with speaker wire, rusting where it’s stapled to the overhang. And flags of the tourist-contributing nations: the Russian Federation, Austria, Poland, Serbia, and Montenegro, Belarus.
“Nothing in nature says no.” Charles Wright.
To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.