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Photo/painting by Teun Hocks (Untitled, 1995, Torch Gallery, Amsterdam)

This sequence of four sonnets is an instance of rifacimento, i.e. the rewriting, recasting or adapting of a literary work.

The title refers to Albert Camus’ work of the same name, from 1951. It is often translated as The Rebel, which disregards the fact that “révolté” means not only “in revolt” but also “revolted”, i.e. “appalled”.

The sequence is dedicated to my uncle, David A. Liddell, who was my mother’s only brother. He had a wonderfully dry sense of humour, was friendly to me, and took an interest in my poetry. He and I wandered similar paths in life. He won a scholarship in Classics to Oxford, was heading for a First, and all set for a brilliant academic career. Unfortunately, up to the exams he had trouble sleeping, and after being prescribed tranquillisers he had difficulty staying awake during the exams. So the First eluded him. He subsequently taught himself French and went to live in France, where he studied and taught English at the University of Toulouse.

Inspired by the Teun Hocks’ photo/painting , I started writing the last sonnet, “Teacher”, the day my uncle died, which was also my mother’s birthday.

The heptameter is my favourite metre. It can often be divided into two lines, where the first line is tetrameter and the second trimeter, and this is called ballad metre. Not so here, as many words would then have to be hyphenated. It is certainly an unusual metre for a sonnet. The rhythm of the lines allows for both ponderous and light touches, a tragicomic effect which I found matched the tone and content of the sonnet. This sonnet is also unusual in that it is divided into two stanzas of seven lines each.

Some sonnets come rather quickly. “Horror Vacui” is the most extreme case of this. I composed what was very nearly the final version in less than three hours one early morning, only changing two words two days later. “Teacher” is an extreme case of the opposite. I have spent well over 100 hours on this. I’ve kept a copy of my drafts, so here they are:

15.03.03:

Penelope’s gone sailing single-handed round the world.

17.03.03:

The Angry One

Penelope went sailing single-handed round the world
and disappeared ten years ago without a single word.
Odysseus has promised he’ll forget he’s ever heard
of miracle recoveries. As soon as he has purled
this woollen sock’s concluding stitch he’ll leave his open cage,
and Penny’s Dad can face old age in comfort, smartly dressed.

Odysseus is cunning. That’s no ordinary rest
that’s standing on the table and taking centre stage.

21.03.03:

Odysseus unwound

Just sitting here as usual knitting socks for Penny’s Dad.
She disappeared ten years ago, and since then not a word.
I’ve promised all the ladies I’ll forget I’ve ever heard
of miracles and prophecies, forget that I’m still sad,
forget those pangs of conscience; they’re misguided and absurd.
I’ll feel a fool for having scorned the offers that I’ve had
the minute that I’ve finished with these socks for Penny’s Dad.

It’s funny how it happens at the end of every day.
Though not perhaps surprising: I’ve been prone to bouts of rage.
I can’t keep on pretending that I’m keen to see my cage
thrown open to the lions, that there’ll be no price to pay
for licensing my ego to go waltzing centre stage.
I look at my achievement, and I watch the Fates as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

24.03.03:

The Odyssey 1995

He’s sitting there as usual knitting socks for Penny’s Dad.
She disappeared ten years ago, and nobody has heard
a single thing about her since. He’s given us his word
he’ll cast aside the foolish dream we fear will drive him mad:
the hope that Penny’s still alive and well. Yet how absurd
to publicise he’ll choose between the offers that he’s had
the minute that he’s finished knitting socks for Penny’s Dad.

Just what our hero’s thinking at the end of every day
we can’t explain. Perhaps he feels an existential rage
at having been alone so long. Then when he sees his cage
thrown open to the lions, burning pride won’t let him pay
for licensing his ego to go waltzing centre stage.
He does what must be done to give the Fates a hand as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

25.03.03:

The Odyssey 1995

Odysseus is knitting – woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.
She disappeared ten years ago, and though we haven’t heard
as much as one shy whisper since, he’s given us his word
he’s managed to discard the dream we thought would drive him mad:
that Penny’s still alive and well. And yet it was absurd
to tell the world he’d choose from all the offers that he’s had
as soon as he has knitted woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.

Just what our hero’s thinking at the end of every day
God only knows. Perhaps he’s in an existential rage
from having been alone so long. Then when he sees his cage
forced open by a lioness, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing his ego to go waltzing centre stage.
He’ll stare at his achievement, and he’ll watch the Fates as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

26.03.03:

The Odyssey 1995

Odysseus is knitting, woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.
She disappeared ten years ago, and though no kinsman’s heard
as much as one shy whisper since, he’s given them his word
he’s come to terms with what they feared would slowly drive him mad,
the hope that Penny’s still alive, by now of course absurd.
He’s told the world he’ll choose from all the offers that he’s had,
but first he wants to knit some woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.

Just what our hero’s thinking at the end of every day
God only knows. Perhaps he’s prone to schizophrenic rage
from having been alone so long, and when he finds his cage
thrown open to a lioness, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing her ego to go waltzing centre stage.
He feels the Fates have cursed him, but they smile in fact as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

27.03.03:

The Odyssey 1995

Odysseus is knitting, woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.
She disappeared eight years ago, and since then no one’s heard
a whisper. So Odysseus – at last – has given word.
He says he’s come to terms with it. Although he still feels sad,
the notion that she’s still alive is clearly quite absurd.
He means to choose a bride from all the offers that he’s had,
but first he needs to knit some woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.

Just what our hero’s thinking at the end of every day
God only knows. Perhaps he’s prone to schizophrenic rage
from having been alone so long, and when he finds his cage
thrown open to a lioness, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing her ego to go waltzing centre stage.
The Fates may seem to mock him, but they’re one big smile as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

28.03.03:

The Odyssey 1995

Odysseus is knitting, woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.
She disappeared eight years ago, and since then no one’s heard
what’s happened to the lovely lass. We have our hero’s word
that now he’s come to terms with it. (Although he still feels sad,
the notion that she’s still alive is patently absurd.)
He means to choose a bride from all the offers that he’s had,
but first he has to knit some woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.

Just what goes through his mind at the end of every day
God only knows. Perhaps he’s prone to schizophrenic rage
from having been alone so long, and when he finds his cage
thrown open to a lioness, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing her ego to go waltzing centre stage.
The Fates may seem to mock him, but they’re one big smile as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

29.03.03:

The Odyssey 1995

Odysseus is knitting woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.
She quit the scene eight years ago, and since then no one’s heard
what’s happened to our leading lady, bar our hero’s word
that now he’s come to terms with it. He says it makes him sad,
but acting like she’s still alive would simply be absurd.
He means to choose a bride from all the offers that he’s had,
but first he has to knit some woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.

Just what goes through his mind at the end of every day
no tongue can tell. Perhaps he’s prone to schizophrenic rage
from having been alone so long, and when he finds his cage
thrown open to a lioness, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing her ego to go waltzing centre stage.
The Fates may seem to mock him, but they’re one big smile as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

30.03.03:

The Odyssey 1995

Odysseus is knitting, woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.
She quit the scene eight years ago, and since then no one’s heard
what’s happened to their leading lady, bar our hero’s word
that now he’s come to terms with it. He says that he’s still sad,
but all the songs that forecast she’d come home now seem absurd.
He means to choose a partner from the offers that he’s had,
but first he has to knit some woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.

Just what our hero’s thinking at the end of every day
must be divined. Perhaps he’s prone to schizophrenic rage
from having been alone too long, and when he finds his cage
thrown open to a lioness, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing her ego to go waltzing centre stage.
The Fates again bewitch him, and they’re one big smile as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

31.03.03:

The Odyssey 1995

Odysseus is knitting, woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.
She disappeared eight years ago, and oddly he’s deferred
remarrying, relying on one utterly absurd
prediction that she’ll come home safe. Enough to drive him mad
unless he came to terms with things. So now he’s pledged his word
he’ll choose a wife from out of all the offers that he’s had.
But first, he says, he’s got to knit some socks for Penny’s Dad.

Just what inspires his actions at the end of every day
must be divined. Perhaps he’s prone to schizophrenic rage
from living on his own too long, and when he finds his cage
thrown open to a lioness, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing her ego to go waltzing centre stage.
Or else the Fates that smile on him conduct his hands as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

01.04.03:

The Odyssey 1995

Odysseus is knitting, woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.
She disappeared eight years ago, and oddly he’s deferred
remarrying, relying on a prophecy he’s heard
that one day she’ll return. The Ithacans all think he’s mad
and want to have him certified. So now he’s given word
his new wife will be chosen from the offers that he’s had,
but first he’ll need to knit some woollen socks for Penny’s Dad.

No wonder then his actions at the end of every day
must be concealed. Perhaps he’s prone to schizophrenic rage
from living on his own too long, and when he finds his cage
thrown open to a lioness, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing her ego to go waltzing centre stage.
Or else the Fates that smile on him conduct his hands as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

02.04.03:

The Odyssey 1995

Odysseus is knitting, woollen socks for Penny’s dad.
She vanished seven years ago, and since then he’s deferred
remarrying, relying on a prophecy he’s heard
about her safe return. The islanders all say he’s mad
and want him certified, so now he’s given them his word
he’ll choose a second wife from all the offers that he’s had.
But first, he says, he’ll knit some woollen socks for Penny’s dad.

Just what our hero’s thinking at the end of every day
God only knows. Perhaps he’s prone to schizophrenic rage
from having been alone too long, and when he finds his cage
thrown open to a lioness, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing their egos to go waltzing centre stage.
Or else the Fates that smile on him conduct his hands as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

15.04.03:

The Odyssey rehashed

Odysseus is knitting, woollen socks for Penny’s dad.
She vanished seven years ago, and since then he’s preferred
to live alone, quite adamant she’s given him her word
that one day she’ll come back to him. We told him he was mad
and begged him to forget her, until finally we heard
him promising to choose between the offers that he’s had
the minute that he’d finished knitting socks for Penny’s dad.

We can’t see what deflects him at the end of every day.
Perhaps he’s still in such a state of existential rage
from having courted solitude that when he finds his cage
thrown open to a lioness, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing their egos to go waltzing centre stage.
Or else the Fates that smile on him conduct his hands as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

21.06.04:

Self-sacrifice

Odysseus is knitting, woollen socks for Penny’s dad.
She vanished seven years ago, and since then he’s preferred
to live alone, quite adamant she’s given him her word
that one day she’ll come back to him. We told him he was mad
and begged him to forget her, until finally we heard
him promising to choose between the offers that he’s had
the minute that he’d finished knitting socks for Penny’s dad.

You’ll never guess what happens at the end of every day.
Perhaps he’s still in such a state of existential rage
from having courted solitude that when he finds his cage
thrown open to the whole wide world, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing his ego to go waltzing centre-stage.
Or else the Fates that smile on him conduct his hands as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

I didn’t begin on the other three sonnets until two years later. And the first drafts of all three were written in the space of four days. I had the template already, and I’d done the apprentice work in the form.

Late summer, 2005:

Purgatory

Prometheus is drinking hard – malt whisky all day long.
He used to be a genius at the service of mankind,
but now he seeks oblivion; there’s nothing on his mind
except the next malt whisky and the same old feeble song
about how no one understands. Come morning and you’ll find
him lying in his usual place, but looking fit and strong.
You wouldn’t think he’d spent three decades drinking all day long.

His story is he’s been bewitched – by someone he calls Zeus –
for copying the patent for an energy device.
And ask him where this wizard lives, the answer’s “Paradise”.
It’s so far-fetched; you’d think he’d forge a less bizarre excuse.
He’s absolutely adamant: “I’ve made this sacrifice
to make the world a better place!” But still he can’t produce
a single piece of evidence for anyone called Zeus.

Curiosity

My daddy takes these little sticks – the tops are painted blue –
and scratches them on paper sand until they go on flame.
He says I’m not to play with them, but watching’s not the same
as scratching them myself. I want to do what he does too.
He says they’re very dangerous; it’s not a children’s game.
But I don’t think the stories Daddy tells are always true.
I only have to hit the bit of stick that’s painted blue.

So Icarus, with this in mind, sees Daedalus go out.
He finds the box of matches, and he soon gets one alight.
But when it burns his fingers, he releases it in fright,
and no one sees him standing frozen; no one hears him shout
in horror as he watches all the furniture ignite.
There’s nobody to help him now; there’s no one else about.
His mother is a live-in maid; his father has gone out.

Soul

Narcissus is in love again – he’s fallen for himself.
For once the feeling’s mutual. At last he’s put to shame
his parents’ expectations – they always liked to claim
his face was so repulsive that he’d wind up on the shelf.
They never guessed he’d find a mate whose background was the same.
He knelt beside a mountain loch and saw a water-elf
was smiling at him cheekily. He’d fallen for himself.

He gazed upon the mirror – it was like a dream come true:
those bloodshot eyes, that greasy hair, that fold of double chin,
those twisted lips, that single tooth, that ghastly yellow skin.
He felt a thrill of empathy for suddenly he knew
a sympathetic character resided deep within.
Then, when he recognised the face, his fascination grew.
He kissed his mirror image. It was like a dream come true.

I also revised “Teacher” again:

Patience

Odysseus is knitting – woollen socks for Penny’s dad.
She vanished seven years ago, and since then he’s preferred
to live alone, quite adamant she’s given him her word
that one day she’ll return to him. We told him he was mad
and begged him to forget her, until finally we heard
him promising to choose between the offers that he’s had,
as soon as he’s discharged his debt to Penny’s crippled dad.

He cheats our expectations at the end of every day.
Perhaps he just resents the fact he’s living in an age
that frowns upon his solitude, and when he finds his cage
thrown open to the whole wide world his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing his ego to go waltzing centre-stage.
Or else the Fates that smile on him conduct his hands as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

At the end of 2005 I workshopped all four sonnets on the online poetry workshop, Eratosphere. No one liked the repetends, so I resolved to eliminate these. Initially I only partially succeeded. It was A.E. Stallings who gave me the idea of replacing Daedalus and Icarus with Helios and Pháëthon.

Although I spent a fair bit of time revising the three new sonnets, I can safely say I have spent more time on “Teacher” than I have on the other three all together.

In view of the contemporary elements in the three later sonnets I realised it would be fitting to add some contemporary elements to “Teacher”. I also saw they could be assembled as a sequence.

May 2006:

L’Homme Révolté

i) Child

My father has this box of matches he won’t let me hold.
He says they’re very dangerous; the power of the sun
resides in them; it’s not a game a child should play for fun.
I’ve answered back I’m not a child; I’ll soon be eight years old.
But he just laughed unpleasantly in front of everyone.
Though normally I try to do exactly as I’m told,
it’s different with that box of matches labelled TORDENSKJOLD.

So Pháëthon, with this in mind, sees everyone go out.
He finds the box of matches, and he scratches one alight:
but when it burns his fingers, he releases it in fright.
He’s terrified by what he’s done. Can no one hear him shout
in horror as the drapes and wooden furniture ignite?
Won’t anybody help him? No, there’s nobody about.
He had to choose his moment when the others had gone out.

ii) Teenager

Narcissus is in ecstasy, his world turned upside-down.
For once the one he loves loves him; for once it’s not the case
that Echo comes to comfort him. No longer is his face
a message of disaster; he no longer wears a frown.
He’d been out jogging in the woods, grown weary of the chase,
and lain beside a shady pond, in which he saw a clown
regarding him so cheekily his world turned upside-down.

He stared in blank amazement; there was nothing to commend
those muddy eyes, that greasy hair, that corrugated chin,
those twisted lips, those crooked teeth, that acne-riddled skin.
He felt a strange affinity and yearned to comprehend
the alienated genius lying buried deep within.
And when he saw it was himself, he couldn’t help but bend
to kiss his spitting image. Now, at last, he’d found a friend.

iii) Torch-bearer

Prometheus is drinking hard – neat vodka all day long.
He used to be devoted to the service of mankind,
but now he seeks oblivion, with nothing on his mind
except the next delivery of vodka. And a song,
“Why was he born so beautiful?” Come morning and you’ll find
him squatting on the same old bench. But wait, there’s something wrong!
He’s not the wreck you might expect; he’s looking fit and strong.

And then, cold sober, he’ll complain: “My fate’s been sealed by Zeus
as punishment for harnessing a natural supply
of raging fire.” He’ll flash a smile, look up into the sky,
and point a finger at the sun. It isn’t any use
appealing to his reason; he’s convinced his alibi
is watertight. His lighter works. An item he’ll produce
by way of concrete evidence his fate’s been sealed by Zeus.

iv) Teacher

Odysseus is knitting – woollen socks for Penny’s dad.
She disappeared ten years ago, and since then he’s preferred
to live alone, quite adamant she’s given him her word
that one day she’ll return to him. We told him he was mad
and begged him to forget her, until finally we heard
him saying he’ll be sending in a marriage bureau ad
as soon as he’s completed these two socks for Penny’s dad.

It’s been three years, and still no sign of any fiancée.
Perhaps he’s sensed defeat, a little baffled by an age
that hero-worships winners, so that when he finds his cage
thrown open to the World Wide Web, his wounded pride won’t pay
for licensing his ego to go waltzing centre-stage.
Or else the Fates that smile on him conduct his hands as they
unravel all the stitches at the end of every day.

Since its publication two years ago I haven’t changed a word.

If I publish a collection, this sequence will close it.

Here’s a sung version. The “haunted” I sing instead of “drinking” at the end of “Torch-bearer” is due to a failure to update the version of the text with the chords written on.

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