A piece written for the new Dark Mountain Issue 10 on Uncivilised Poetics about Ariadne and her Labyrinth and how poetry can lead us out of history into deep time.
‘Women are imprisoned in the image masculine society has imposed on them; therefore if they attempt a free choice it must be a kind of gaolbreak.’
– Octavio Paz (Labyrinth of Solitude)
1962, London, England. Give me my scallop-shell of quiet, / My staff of faith to walk upon, / My scrip of joy
‘Tell us about Raleigh!’ we plead. We are in a history class, heathens all, in a dancing school in Knightsbridge. Lady Lisle takes off her pale blue glasses and flicks them in an agitated manner. She takes us to the Tower where the poet and New World adventurer is imprisoned for treason and recites the poem he writes before his execution. A tear falls down her wrinkled cheek.
Tell me the line of poetry you first remember and I will tell you about destiny.
The story of the Minotaur you know. Probably. Half-man, half-beast, he is kept in the centre of the Cretan Labyrinth, a prison system so complex it has even trapped its architect, Daedalus. No one who is sent into his Labyrinth gets out. The beast feeds on the flesh of young Athenians sent to him every seven years. Except for the hero Theseus, who has encountered the King of Crete’s daughter, Ariadne. She has given him a thread, so that once he has vanquished the bull-man, he can find his way out again.
Ariadne will flee with Theseus to the island of Naxos and there the story ends. Usually. But in other versions it continues: Ariadne is abandoned by her lover on the shore, or her husband the half-god Dionysus reclaims her, or she hangs herself from a tree, or is killed by Artemis or Perseus, or is rescued from Hades by Dionysus, along with his mother Semele, or there are in fact two Ariadnes, one who dies and one who is immortal, and so on. However you tell the story, Ariadne is a secondary player. She only knows the way out because she is the king’s daughter. The red thread was bequeathed to her by Daedalus. She waits for the hero to do his heroic task and then disappears from view, leaving confusion in her wake.
But this is not the original version, where Ariadne commands the Labyrinth which is not a prison, but a map, named after her butterfly-shaped axe the labrys. To find that map, you would have to ask a poet. Because Ariadne’s ur-story is not a story at all.
This is a short piece about poetry and its ‘true function’, which the poet Robert Graves famously described as religious invocation of the Muse, and a warning to man
‘ … that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house.’
It is about the function of modern human beings, caught in the web of time, who try to find their way back home on Earth, out of the labyrinthine mind of civilisation, and what this has most urgently to do with the work and lives of poets. It’s an instruction of sorts – though you might not read it that way.
THE MISTRESS OF THE LABYRINTH
She holds two snakes in her raised hands and wears a cat on her head like a bonnet. Discovered amongst the rubble at Knossos in 1904, the faience figurine was found in several pieces, and it was not clear whether the cat really belonged on her head. Still the Edwardian archaeologist placed it there instinctively, perhaps associating cats and female deities, as the well-catalogued civilisations along the Nile had shown him. He called this civilisation he unearthed ‘Minoan’ after Ariadne’s father, King Minos.
Alongside the murals of dancing women and acrobatic men, red bulls and blue dolphins, she displays an elegance and fluidity unlike any found in later classical times. Sir Arthur Watts called her the Snake Priestess and sometimes Snake Goddess, though the highly organised culture she embodied left no evidence of temples, male hierarchy or stamp of war. It remains mysterious, its system of writing undeciphered to this day.
There is a fragment of a later script however that gives a clue:
To the Mistress of the Labyrinth, honey
This is a piece made of fragments. Of lines that pull you in different directions, flashes of memory and warning, threads poets leave behind to remind us that this world is not as it is made to appear.
When the world fell, the yoginis in the meditation chambers spoke to me in lines by Rilke and Rumi.
We shall not cease from exploration, they said.
When the world fell, the intellectuals in the libraries quoted lines to me by Blake and Brecht.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, they said.
When the world fell, I fell with it. I was without lines for a long time. And then out of nowhere I began to remember:
My mother laughs. She comes bearing branches of hips and haws and a whiff of turpentine; parties follow in her wake, music and bright dresses.
There was once a path through the woods, she says.
My father sighs. He is writing into the night, stacking reams of legal papers, bound by pink ribbon, on his study floor:
I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky
‘Every time I pass through that prison gate, I shudder,’ he tells me.
My teacher weeps. She laments the death of the Elizabethan poet, even more than the death of Jesus.
I don’t trust those tears. I do not write Tread softly for you tread on my dreams on my rough book like my fellow pupils. I scorn romantics who worship queen and god and country, and love all dissenters and metaphysicians. The first poem I print with my own hands is in the shape of a butterfly:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
When you fall you don’t find a new story or drama to live by. There are no tales when you are already at the ending. You grasp the thread because the line glints in that moment of darkness, like a coil of copper wire. It cuts you but still you take hold of it. Because it is the only thing that makes sense, as the world cracks you open. The line was written from the place of cracking – from the mad house and the gulag, from the dying rooms.
Eyeless in Gaza.
Only poetry speaks from this metaphysical realm. Novels with their worldly characters and clever entertaining plots, plays with their tragic and comedic turns: none of these serve you. In times of falling you won’t remember those masterly passages that once gripped your attention. You can only a grab a line, and that line is no longer the literature that you once studied. It is not a comfort in a moment of self-pity or remorse.
It is something else.
THE CROSSING PLACE
1987, London, England. Tonight I can write the saddest lines. I am in your attic room under a mosquito net and the storm is rocking the capital. You are visiting a glamorous place, dressed in your black armour and war paint by Chanel.
Outside the wind is lashing the plane trees and the floor is covered in their leaves. My face is wet with rain. I don’t know at this point that I will leave you and this city behind and never return. I don’t know that years from now you will walk into the sea and not come back.
I have picked up a book by your bed but there is something hollow about these lines we used to read to each other. The poet will also put them away. I don’t know that yet.
‘My poetry stopped dead like a ghost in the streets of human anguish and a rush of roots and blood surged up through it,’ he will write from war-torn Spain. ‘From then on, my road meets everyman’s road.’
One bright morning, I followed the path through the woods that led away from the temple, and a man emerged naked from a pool. He said: a queen swam here once and gave me a jar of honey.
That night the forest came to our door and a jaguar lay down beside me. He watched an ancient civilisation rise and fall on the ceiling of our hotel room. I flew out on his eagle wings. I had to let everything go. There was nothing in the howling darkness that could take away the pain, or the poison that racked my body. I am going, he said, but I am always here. Remember that. I felt every bar that had shut down tight, pressed hard against my body, separating us. I realised I was trapped. Even my own name trapped me.
You realise everything up to that point was a rehearsal. That the real task was not finding the path you longed for, but the way out of the prison, where the gaoler lives inside you, and everyone else you meet.
1991, Antigua, Guatemala. Pero yo ya no soy yo / Ni mi casa es ya mi casa.
I am in another white room, only this time the storm is crashing through me. This time I am calling on it to do its ferocious work. Outside the world is coloured parrot green and pink. The volcanoes are snowy. The women laugh as they wash their clothes in the fountain.
There is a crisis point. You could call it 'the Theseus moment'. You were on your way to the Minotaur with your companions, brave Athenians all. You meet someone unexpected who hands you a red thread. When you stumble, you realise that thread you now hold to steady you does not come from any story you know.
There are no words to describe the feeling, as the forgotten files your education hid away, your culture hid away, stack up upon the cement floor. You cry out as you encounter this sunless place where your spirit has been locked up for aeons, where you have been kept in a small drawer, taken out occasionally to shine like a genie in a lamp. Where you pace like a creature in a trap, trying to find a way out.
The crossing lasts for days in the bare room, as you name every unkind thing that binds you. You are not the same person when you emerge finally into the sunlight. Your history is broken. The people who kept you captive are no longer with you.
You imagine that this is the end, when it is only the beginning.
Love is not servitude. This is what I learned in these encounters. It is neither obeisance to a moon goddess, nor enthrallment to a cruel queen. I knew that at eight years old. And yet to fall under your spell and break it was the way I could escape my own sacrifice. You were terrifying and captivating. You made everyone matter. You exuded the archetypal power of the Muse that Graves once wrote about: magnetic, intoxicated, sea-foamed, desirous of worship by poets and the hip bones of kings. But this power devoured you. In the end you wrote you were defeated by the struggle to stay alive. I looked back across time and saw you. You were like a lioness in a cage, maddened by captivity. The sea was your only escape.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines. But I am not going to. This is an instruction. This is not all there is.
For a long time now I have wanted to write about the Nostoi, those who return to their homelands after the Trojan War. Return is not what you think it is, a glorious heroic odyssey full of wondrous islands, but the time when you know that we have all had our finest hour and we can no longer do to each other what spring does to the cherry trees. When the question becomes how to endure our fall as a people, how to keep our dignity, our sense of beauty, our capacity for intelligence and the strength and grace of our bodies, as the world crashes and the story we once believed in no longer makes sense.
What everyone avoids is feeling how that endless siege crippled us and trapped us in these thoughts. The terror comes when you sense the bars and know you no longer carry a sword. When you face the beast you will have nothing, except the very thing he wishes to devour.
If you hold fast this is the moment she appears in his blazing eye. Here she is with her laughter and her companions. Here they are in the alder grove, dancing in their beehive-shaped skirts, panels overlapping, with their bare feet on the earth.
Welcome, she says, to my dancing floor. The hard walls of the Labyrinth vanish and in its place are lines that loop around in an intricate pattern. They are of all colours and intersect in ways you can feel but cannot articulate. There is a hum you cannot tell whether is on the inside of you or the outside of you, it burns like a slow fire through your chest, and the scent of a thousand small flowers…
‘Focus,’ she says, ‘for this time is limited.’
‘Oh, you are a bee!’ I exclaim, ‘And the bull is a star...’
‘This is your task,’ she says. ‘Find your way back.’
Because I am with you in Rockland
Because Beloved be the one who sits down
Because Some people know what it is like to be called a cunt in front of their children
Because You took away all the oceans and all the room
Because Girls you are valuable, and you, Panther, you are valuable
Because The darkness around us is deep
You think the Labyrinth is something you get free from, so you can live in the bright spaces. But that’s not how it works. The volcano of Thera erupted and a tidal wave destroyed Europe’s first civilisation, and it disappeared from view. Or so the archaeologists have told us. The Greek hero myths turned the great triple goddess of the matriarchal age into a foolish princess and started to straighten her looping songs and dances into linear, rational storylines.
The Labyrinth hid Ariadne’s intricate dancing floor and her once-beloved bull became a child-eating monster. The patriarchal maze clung like a varroa mite on the back of a honeybee and infected the colonies of the Western world. Born configured still to dance and give honey, to love light and space and sea, we were confused by the dark place we now found ourselves in. Few of us remembered our way home.
And yet some of us cannot but attempt otherwise. The thread was put into our hands at the start.
The Minotaur waits in the Labyrinth, like Moloch, greedy for the flesh of young men and woman, sucking the minds and hearts of all who sacrifice their youth, their brilliance, their sacred groves, their own offspring. This place is powered by his appetite.
How do I know this? I am my Mother’s daughter, a child of space and air, who loved to dance, to go for a picnic on a summer’s day. Who still goes for a picnic on a summer’s day, with the sound of the sea in the distance. But I am my Father’s daughter first, indentured, duty-bound, to live another kind of life. While my playmates listened to children’s stories, he instructed me: on how the Bastille was liberated, how to decipher a brief, how to look for the detail in everything and outwit everyone in the court, cleverly with words.
At night I would hear him tap-tap-tapping into the small hours, fighting to keep a man or woman out of the prison he feared. Only writers know this kind of deal: you get to glimpse the paradise in everything and you get to feel the hell of everything. You work to bring back Ariadne’s dancing floor by deconstructing the Labyrinth. It is the deal that drives poets crazy on the top of mountains, and sometimes costs them their lives, their sanity and their liberty.
For prose writers ‘poetic’ is an insult word. It means you are foolish and flowery and none of your arguments stand up in the witness box. But it is hard not to write about the beauty of the house. Even now I am trying to find a way to not get beautiful, not tell you about the colours of the garden; these roses that will become my mother’s hips in September, and the bees that cluster about the clover leys, the sound of the wren singing, the way the wind moves through the barley and wild grasses in late June.
The poet loves beauty but is condemned to write about the Labyrinth and shake all who read his lines. Here he comes with his window of blue sky, with his words that break down the door, between the city and the forest, between politeness and reality. Here she is tapping a code that you work hard to decipher in your solitary cell, scraping a tunnel underneath your feet, leaving graffiti in her wake on the stony wall.
Here they are with their access to realms you cannot see but sometimes sense, swinging between history and myth, between life and death, only listened to, like gods, in moments of fall and destruction.
I am not a poet. I am condemned to write prose, urgent pleas to reverse your sentence.
A Daedalus daughter, unwinged.
2004, Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Times are bad. I take an oath of loyalty to the table / coated with white Formica.
‘No one wants to know about the Wall, Charlotte,’ said Aharon Shabtai, as we stood balancing glasses of wine and plates of salad at the festival reception. That afternoon the Israeli poet had thrown down his poems mid-sentence, smashing the wall that separated him from the audience. He spoke about the wall that is being built to separate the Arabs and the Jews of his country. ‘You have to hear this!’ he cried.
Everyone clapped politely: ‘How dreadful!’ they agreed, as they sat in their neatly pressed clothes, as the wind screamed past the church hall and over the bay, where 200 years ago one of the most anguished figures of English poetry pointed his fishing boat towards the horizon.
I live in George Crabbe country now, a flat, salty place where I have learned to wear a shabby coat and live among the lowly and dispossessed, the small weeds crushed underfoot he once catalogued in his unfashionable heroic style. I know we can’t afford to be romantic anymore. To get out of the Labyrinth is our most urgent task.
2016, Ipswich, Suffolk. Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; / Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end
There are soldiers everywhere on the platform, dressed in wool khaki. ‘What are you doing here?’ I ask one of them. The boy gazes into my eyes and something like terror and grief jolts through me. He hands me a card that reads: Rifleman R.G. Cole. London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles).
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘you cannot speak!’ I don’t know it yet but this is a performance being acted out in railway stations all over Britain to mark the Battle of the Somme. It is a show, except it does not feel like it.
In the carriage the ghost riflemen sit silently among the passengers. Opposite me the poet Luke Wright, famous for his rollicking political satire, looks up from his computer screen and watches them.
A hundred years ago on this day 19,240 young men died in a war that is remembered as much for its poetry as for its bloody sacrifice. Thousands from the small villages of Suffolk boarded the trains to France and did not return. You can still feel their absence in the fields when you go walking. Loss is not a personal matter anymore. I have learned that too in these sandy waterlands, where time becomes unmoored.
I look at the card in my hands and shudder: we are here, it says.
This is an instruction. The way back is hard. It is populated by the dead, the ones you know and the ones you don’t, and you cannot be afraid of them. You cannot be afraid of the unconscious that craves to devour the heart and the light that lives inside you. Your journey liberates them, as much as it liberates you.
Return does not mean back in time as you understand it, along the linear lines of story. It means we return to a place of feeling and spirit, untrammelled by war and hierarchy, even if it takes us aeons to get there. Poets hold the fragments of that place inside them, as they have always held the line, a long line that stretches back to a time where there were no fortresses or prisons, when the bull was not a beast.
The Labyrinth traps us in history, and keeps us from the dancing floor. We have to remember that as Western people, as people born in captivity. We have to know we were not abandoned.
Her threads are everywhere.
All images from Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics cover by Nick Hayes; Mantle by Caroline Dear; Inside The Green Backyard (Opportunity Area) by Jessie Brennan; Limatour 1, Point Reyes Beach by Katie Eberle; Creatures Carrying Humans by Kate Wallters; Home by Lucy Rose Kerr. The mantle, made from dandelion stems and bog cotton, was inspired by the archeological site, High Pasture Cave or Uamh An Ard Achaidh on Skye. This site has a record of human use since the mesolithic, 5000BC, and it is where the body of an Iron Age woman was ceremonially buried. She was laid on a bier with a mass of willow flowers and small amounts of red campion, white lily and holly flowers.