"Cinderbiter" by Martin Shaw and Tony Hoagland - Poetry Review

in #celtic8 months ago

"Is the dirt of the fields washed clean enough here for your poet's bones?"

Cinderbiter is a unique collection of Celtic poetry with a fascinating history. The poems collected in Cinderbiter are versions (not translations) of oral tradition Celtic poetry by storyteller Martin Shaw that fearlessly combine wild epics with the romanticism that follows each human footstep across centuries and fables. Even more curious is the lurking of a culmination of folk beliefs and early Christianity, wrapped around a culture of Arthurs and Merlins and Irish heroes of old.

Beginning with a retelling of the nothern tale, "Assipattle and the Mester Stoor Worm" (yes, you read that correctly), Shaw and Hoagland collect tales that have long outlived written tradition and so clearly were born in the Celtic wildlands, long before the English sailed in and colonized everything on God's green Earth. This collection is a masterpiece of fact and fiction passed side by side in the way that storytellers so often have, with the recount of histories and fables beautifully conveyed through verse as free-spirited as the whimsy and mystery within it.

Though the style throughout this collection often utilizes modern techniques, it folds them seamlessly between the epitaphs and epic styles so familiar to the heroic tellings of such legends. Characters are larger than life, god-like, looked upon by a narrator intimate with their thoughts and fears and removed from their troubles and trifles as a mere omnicient onlooker; a bard chronicling for the sake of his occupation and for want of preservation.

"he is a god-torch, flickered on the cave wall, his haunch/rich with prophetic ochre."

As Shaw mentions in the afterword, preservation found a different meaning in pre-English Scotland and Ireland. Bardic schools provided opportunities for young men (unfortunately, still a male-driven society) to become poets, should they so chose. The poets would lie alone in the dark for a full day and a night composing and rewriting their poems entirely by memory alone, and would only commit them to paper after this period of thought and mediation, at which time they would be escourted to recite the poem to their master-laureate. In this way, much of the preservation of poetry, art, and history revolved around the internal mediation of the poets and bards.

After the system of poetry and patronage began to fall, as English began to colonize and rule and the professional caste of poets ceased to exist, poetry focused far more on the written and textual preservation, in a new language nonetheless. Composition and writing was done, for the first time in this area, almost entirely on paper. Thus, some of the mystery and magic of a folktale retold as an act from oral tradition, familiar with the Greeks as well as with the Celts, was somewhat lost.

"From the hut of the seventy doors, from the wide-open windows--/she starts a chant of knowledge./Another age begins."

Lost, that is, until Shaw and Hoagland had lunch together at a pub in Barthmouth and dreamed these retellings. This collection truly recaptures a spirit once thought lost, and serves as perhaps the best introduction to a world of oral tradition and folklore that has influenced Anglo culture ever since.

"Who never saw a door without the urge/to kick it open,

Cinderbiter is published by Greywolf Press. You can purchase a copy here

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