#MondayBlogs Poet Becky Cullen on Miriam Leivers

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Sons and Lovers has been a massive influence on poet Becky Cullen ever since she came across it at college in 1983-5. But she’s never been happy with the way that Lawrence drew Miriam Leivers. In this guest blog Becky explains how a Creative Writing exercise gave her the chance to tell Miriam’s side of the story

 

Miriam

For Stephen

 

My brothers whooped like savages when they saw you coming up the hill:

romping round the farm with sticks and snares, you boys had a grand time.

I set the tea and waited; later, in our almost private minutes,

you went too far, pushing the swing too high, leaving too late for the train.

 

Which you knew would drive your mother to distraction, bristling,

what’s that Leivers girl got that’s so fascinating? Well, for a start,

I had you, my own exotic mushroom, watching you paint, stopping

myself from smoothing the loose lock of hair behind your pretty ear.

 

I know your mother quaintly warned you not to spoon and do,

but it wasn’t me you took bare-faced, bare-shouldered to the theatre.

In the end, the red carnations you spat out did me a favour.

Now you’re galavanting somewhere hot with someone’s wife called Frieda.

 

This poem was written during my MA in Creative Writing at NTU – our task was to write something using quatrains, a stanza or 4 lines. So it is interesting to me that in trying to produce something with a shape I fell back on Sons and Lovers, a book that shaped my experience of reading so much that it has filtered into my writing.

I read Sons and Lovers for ‘A’ level at Bilborough College in 1983-5, taught by the formidable English and Drama specialist Gilly Archer. It’s no surprise then that my recollections of Sons and Lovers are of the drama of the novel, the tensions between the characters, and Lawrence’s attempts to let the reader know exactly what is simmering under the surface.

This poem deals with the figure of Miriam Leivers, and her relationship with Paul Morel, the novel’s protagonist. Paul visits the family farm I draw into the poem, playing with Miriam’s sturdy brothers. Alone, Paul instigates intense conversations about their relationship, in which Paul criticises Miriam for being too spiritual in her approach. They have an on-off relationship for 7 years, in which time Paul becomes friends with Clara Dawes, taking her out to the theatre, and eventually having a physical relationship with her. Neither of these women please Mrs Morel, Paul’s greatest love, who is disgusted that Paul might ‘spoon and do’ with anyone. So there are details from the novel I’ve drawn on in this poem.

Sons and Lovers is a semi-autobiographical novel, which is another way of saying it’s based on Lawrence’s relationship with Jessie Chambers, a girl from a local farming family who first submitted his work for publication. Fiction is fiction, but tensions still run so high about the representation of Miriam/Jessie, that the Chambers family have allowed no access to their land for Lawrence-related filming and so on. This poem finishes with a similar blend of fictional and factual detail in the final line, a reference to Lawrence’s elopement with Frieda von Richthofen, the wife of his university lecturer.

I always felt that the character of Miriam was drawn rather unfairly. She comes across as being a bit drippy, and Paul is quite cruel to her on occasions – I suppose this poem is an attempt to allow her to voice her side of the story. I recently re-read the novel, which was fascinating, developing a new empathy, as mother of a son myself now, for Mrs. Morel.

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Image from http://www.dawnoftheunread.com

Sons and Lovers is so enmeshed in my literary influences that I cannot smell flowers in moonlight without thinking ‘the beauty of the night made her want to shout’, or look down on the lights of Goose Fair without thinking of Paul Morel doing exactly the same thing in the final paragraphs of Sons and Lovers. The novel feels like part of my writing heritage.

Finally, this poem is dedicated to Stephen Lowe, the Nottingham playwright whose play Empty Bed Blues draws on Lawrence’s life and work. Stephen encouraged me to do a Creative Writing MA, and to write every day. His encouragement has been a great gift, so it was appropriate to send him this poem as a birthday present one year. I like the idea that the poem brings together three Nottingham writers in this way, so there is a continuing dialogue in the present, between writers both on and off the page.

Further Reading 

REVIEW: In Conversation with Amit Chaudhuri

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The award winning author was in Nottingham as part of the Festival of Literature, where he discussed D.H. Lawrence, his love of music, and read from some of his novels.

Amit Chaudhuri’s work spans poetry, fiction, literary criticism, short stories and non-fiction. He’s won loads of awards, including the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award, Indian government’s highest literary honour, in 2002 for his novel A New World. But there was only one thing on my mind, D.H. Lawrence.

In 2003 Chaudhuri published his Oxford doctoral thesis D. H. Lawrence and ‘difference’ : postcoloniality and the poetry of the present. It’s surprisingly poetic for a piece of academic work, and weaves together the ideas of Derrida, Genette, Foucault and Levi Strauss to position Lawrence as a radical risk-taking poet who defies definition. He puts forward an intriguing argument that to understand and appreciate Lawrence is to accept him at his very best and worst. To look at one piece of work and ignore another is to miss the point. It is his very incompleteness which completes him. Therefore his work is best understood intertexually – the way his poems relate to and reference each other.

In his book Chaudhuri argues that Lawrence constructs poetry much like Picasso’s sculpture The She-Goat which is woven together with a wide variety of materials, ranging from wicker basket to palm leaves. Lawrence’s constant revisions, the structural flaws, the irrelevant adjectives, forces the reader to confront the creative process, “the peculiar pathos and joy of gradual creation,” rather than just marvel at the finished product.

These are complex ideas, particularly for those outside academia. But Chaudhuri was able to articulate them in an accessible manner for the attentive audience. He started off by telling us he had been given a tour of Lawrence’s old stomping ground in Eastwood by Andrew Harrison, and visited the Birthplace Museum. He was clearly excited by this literary pilgrimage and eager to share how it felt to pay homage to one of his idols. Given his fondness for connections, there was even more significance for his visit. Enid Goodband, who passed away this month aged 91, persuaded the council to buy 8a Victoria Street and create the museum. Without her intervention it would have been flattened along with the other miner’s terraces.

Chaudhuri first came across Lawrence as an undergraduate. He was given a list of six books he must read, one of which was Sons and Lovers. It ‘opened things up’ for him and so he enthused at his excitement at visiting Nottinghamshire for the first time.

When discussing his own life, Chaudhuri explained his fascination with the ‘unseen noises’ of the streets. His home in India is alive with distant noises. From his window he consumes incomplete conversations, overheard shouts and screams, a city of individuals who blur into one. No wonder he argues Lawrence should be understood as an uncomplete whole, warts and all, when his own mind is so readily connected to his immediate environment.

When Chaudhuri discussed his novels, we found a man of patience. Odysseus Abroad has been bouncing about in his head for ten years, patiently scratching away before finally falling into place thanks to a chance conversation with his Uncle about a piece of art. At first he thought the book would be a memoir but instead it became a Joycean journey that unfolds over the course of a single day on Warren Street, London in 1985. The book is littered with extra meaning, with references to Joyce, Homer and Odysseus. But, he reassured us, you don’t need to get these references to enjoy the novel.

In terms of narrative, he enjoys ‘writing about nothing’. But don’t be fooled by his plotless novels. Silence is deafening. There was also time to talk about his love of music, and his 2004 album This is not Fusion. Chaudhuri is a trained and critically acclaimed singer in the North Indian classical tradition. His music, like his writing, has been praised for its experimentation. Like Lawrence, it’s hard to pin him down.

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In the Q&A I wanted to pin him down to his favourite Lawrence poem. These intertexual references are all very good, but surely there must be one that stands out more than the others. Once more he reiterated the importance of seeing Lawrence’s work as a whole but eventually spoke about Man and Bat whereby a bat suddenly appears through a window and begins “flying round the room in insane circles”. He discussed how both view each other with oddness, and that this alienation, wonder and difference epitomises Lawrence’s approach to life, and clearly his own.

It was at this point I realised Chaudhuri was right about intertextuality. All this bat talk had got me thinking about another Lawrence poem, Snake and how this caused equal bemusement and wonder when man and serpent confronted each other. And then I began to think about Chaudhuri’s Joycean novel Odysseus Abroad again. It’s set on Warren Street. Could this be an unconscious reference to the Warren Gallery where Lawrence’s painting were ‘arrested’ for obscenity? Or am I looking too deeply into things, finding connections that aren’t really there? Trying to put faces to the “unseen noises” instead of listening to them speak…

The following day Chaudhuri visited the Nottingham Writers’ Studio and held a networking session whereby writers could approach him directly to discuss their work or seek general advice on the publishing industry. And what is the first thing you see when you walk in the Writers’ Studio? The beautiful portrait of Lawrence by Nick Humphryes that features on the Rebel Writers banner outside the train station. You just can’t escape him.

An Evening with Amit Chaudhuri, 12 November 2016, Galleries of Justice, as part of the Festival of Literature. This review was originally published in LeftLion.

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