Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

This is a guest review by Natalie Perman

Mary Jean Chan’s 2019 poetry collection Flèche is a cross-linguistic love poem to the queer body. A “book of love poems”, as declared in ‘Prologue’, Chan’s collection is defined by sparkling, crystallised images, often pulled from memory; such as how her mother, coming to see her fencing match, “gripped the railing until her marriage ring was folded into flesh”.

The focus on the physical is titular- ‘Fléche’ alludes phonetically to ‘flesh’ as well as denoting the technical offensive fencing move from the French word for ‘arrow’. As body and mind spar, the physical and metaphysical join unexpectedly; in ‘Flèche’ amidst the poem’s episodic jousting a blur of “entangled blades” focuses into “gleaming, smiling lips”. Within the physical fight rendered in the poem, and the physical and tactile in the collection, the potency of sexual desire brims beneath the surface.

These unique love poems- love poems to queerness, sexual and platonic love, family- are above all love poems to those who inhabit conflicting identities. Chan’s debut collection is defined by this intersection of contradictions: the sharp divide between her “mother’s Cantonese rage” versus “your soothing English”, the claim that to be queer “would be ‘ci sin’” and her own “blooms of ache”. The acceptance of the non-white queer body is a constant conflict, as Chan writes “a genuine acceptance of the self/continues to elude me”. However, the search for a space to home conflicting identities forges a beautiful exploration of past and present with the “mothers of history and/mothers of our present”. In this search for union in contradiction, Chan interweaves Confucian tales in “versions from the twenty-four filial exemplars”, her mother’s trauma and memories of political turmoil in poems such as “what my mother (a poet) might say” and the status of women, such as the ‘comfort women’ honoured in her poem “Dragon Hill Spa”.

Flèche’s power lies in its deceptive simplicity- the reader is effortlessly moved across linguistic and cultural boundaries towards the collection’s climactic act of self-awareness. This reaches its zenith in the “roots” and “blood song of your bones” which signal the realisation that “I’ve been looking everywhere / for forgiveness”. Each poem is exacting, its images unforgiving; in “an ode to boundaries” each line contains no more than 5 words, in another poem Chan recalls how “Once, during a bedtime storytelling, she sobbed until I cried for help, but father was asleep”. Only a few of Flèche’s poems seem to not realise their own emotional profundity as their language slips into the recognisable jargon of the love poem with its amorous tropes, such as of heartache, as one poem ends “that ache right there”. Despite this, these poems are still striking in their careful, precise verse.

This debut collection is striking, and Chen’s poems are urgent, armed and bared at the same time, and demand to be heard. Flèche is the highlight of what Mary Jean Chan can deftly achieve: to slip in and out of different tongues, confuse and enrich language, bare the vulnerable whilst charging it to be en garde.

Natalie Perman is an undergraduate at St John’s studying English and German. She is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2017, commended in 2018, and winner of the Forward Student Critics’ Competition in 2017. Contact her on Twitter with any burning poetry questions, passions or inquiries.

Newly discovered Du Maurier poems shed light on a talented writer honing her craft


File 20190419 28106 nkdeg4.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
For decades, Du Maurier poems were hidden behind this picture.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

by Laura Varnam, University of Oxford

Daphne du Maurier remains one of the 20th century’s most popular and enigmatic writers, her life captivating readers as much as her works, as the most recent biography, Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay, has shown. Her literary reputation is also finally on the rise and, although her most popular novel Rebecca has often overshadowed her wide-ranging achievements as a writer, the celebration of its 80th anniversary last year reinforced Du Maurier’s place in the canon of English Literature as a serious and influential author.

This will be aided by the recent discovery of unknown poems, written early in her writing career, hidden behind a stunning photograph of the young Du Maurier in a bathing costume on the rocks, poised to take flight into the sea that was such an inspiration to her work.

The poems were discovered by auctioneer Roddy Lloyd of Rowley’s auction house, Ely, as he prepared the archive of Du Maurier materials belonging to the late Maureen Baker-Munton for auction on April 27. Baker-Munton was PA to Daphne’s husband, Lt Gen Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning and she became a close and important friend to the Du Maurier Browning family, as expert Ann Willmore explains on the Du Maurier website.

Du Maurier with her husband Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning in 1956.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

Du Maurier is still primarily known as a novelist – as well as the bestseller Rebecca she is also rightly revered for the great Cornish novels, Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and My Cousin Rachel (1951). But, as I argue in the book I am writing on Du Maurier, she was a far more versatile, wide-ranging, and experimental writer than is currently recognised. Du Maurier wrote plays, short stories and biographies throughout her career but she was also a poet, as her son Kits Browning explained to me when we spoke over the telephone recently.

Read more:
Du Maurier’s Rebecca at 80: why we will always return to Manderley

Honing her craft

The newly discovered poems were written when Du Maurier was honing her craft as a writer in the late 1920s. At that stage she was primarily writing short stories but, as Browning told me: “My mother wrote poetry throughout her life and career.” Indeed Du Maurier often used poetry as a way of exploring an experience or emotion or testing out a character before then expanding on her ideas in a short story or novel. One of the newly discovered poems focuses on loneliness:

When I was ten, I thought the greatest bliss,
would be to rest all day upon hot sand under a burning sun…
time has slipped by, and finally I’ve known,
The lure of beaches under exotic skies,
and find my dreams to be misguided lies,
For God! How dull it is to rest alone.

Du Maurier’s work is preoccupied by the difference between fantasy and reality – and the dangers of dreaming – and her work repeatedly returns to the tension between the desire for independence and the need for companionship and human contact.

Gender and sexuality

Another poem: Song of the Happy Prostitute, portrays a woman who is frustrated with the way her profession is represented.

Why do they picture me as tired and old…
selling myself with sorrow,
just to gain a few dull pence to shield me from the rain.

Song of the Happy Prostitute.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

What on first sight might seem an unusual, even controversial, topic for the young writer in fact reflects the dominant themes of her early work, as Ann Willmore, of Bookends of Fowey, explained to me recently. Willmore discovered the unpublished Du Maurier short story The Doll in which a young woman, suggestively named Rebecca, protects her personal independence by keeping a sex doll. “The Happy Prostitute poem fits in with Daphne’s interests in gender and sexuality, especially in her early work, and she did seem to want to shock her readers”, Willmore told me.

The poem also, in my view, relates to two early short stories from the same period of Du Maurier’s life in which she created the character of a prostitute called Mazie who boldly claimed that her work enabled her to be independent. “I’m free, I don’t owe anything to no one, I belong to myself”, Mazie declares in the short story Piccadilly. Growing up in the 1920s, when the freedom and autonomy of women was increasingly a topic for public debate, Du Maurier’s choice of subject matter reflects the concerns of her day.

Du Maurier and her children at Menabilly, the house near Fowey in Cornwall in which she and her family lived for many years. The house was the inspiration for the novel Rebecca.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

Du Maurier was a very privileged young woman, growing up in the grandeur of Cannon Hall in Hampstead – but her background was theatrical and Bohemian, as the daughter of celebrated actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier and stage actress Muriel Beaumont. And, as her son Kits Browning stressed, she was an avid reader and gained much imaginative experience of the world from the books she devoured as a teenager.

As to why the poems were hidden behind the photograph – either by Du Maurier herself or someone else – we are unlikely ever to find out. Browning told the Daily Telegraph that perhaps she did not want her parents to read them. Perhaps the Happy Prostitute found fuller expression in the Mazie short stories.

These newly discovered poems shed important light on Du Maurier’s early work and writing practice. Still often dogged by the incorrect label of “romantic novelist”, these poems highlight the important themes of independence, gender, and sexuality that were to fascinate Du Maurier throughout her career, in both prose and poetry. They show her boldness, spirit, and strength, just like the photograph behind which they were concealed for all these years.The Conversation

Laura Varnam, Lecturer in English Literature, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chaucer was more than English: he was a great European poet

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

by. Dr Marion Turner

In 2013, a Prospect magazine profile of the UKIP leader Nigel Farage described the Brexiteer’s party in Chaucerian terms:

UKIP is indeed a rag-tag bag … of cussed, contrary, wilful, protesting, obstreperous, bantering Englishmen and women, the like of which have been with us all the way back to The Canterbury Tales … the descendants of the brazen and garrulous Wife of Bath and the boisterous but genial Harry Bailey, Chaucer’s Inn Keeper. These are very English archetypes …

This notion of the quintessential ‘Englishness’ of The Canterbury Tales (1387), authored by the ‘Father of English Literature’, has a long history. In 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey simply because he lived in its precincts; but 150 years later, he was reburied in a grand new tomb as the founder member of Poets’ Corner, becoming, almost literally, the cornerstone of English literature. Poets such as John Dryden claimed him as the ‘father of English poetry’, adding that his most famous poem, The Canterbury Tales, represented ‘the whole English nation’.

Victorian writers, wedded to the essential Englishness of Chaucer, asked: ‘Who is an Englishman more English than Chaucer?’ His genius, they agreed, was ‘English to the core.’ In the 20th century, G K Chesterton took Chaucer’s vaunted Englishness to new levels, claiming that: ‘Chaucer was the Father of his Country, rather in the style of George Washington.’ More recently, the blurb of Peter Ackroyd’s Chaucer: Brief Lives (2004) describes The Canterbury Tales as ‘an epic of Englishness’, while Ackroyd calls Chaucer ‘the genial and smiling emblem of Englishness’.

This mantle of patriarchal Englishness would have seemed distinctly odd to Chaucer himself. Chaucer was able to transform English poetry the way he did precisely because of his internationalism, not his nationalism. Like all educated men of his day, he was multilingual. He devoured late-antique philosophy, Latin translations of Arabic scientific treatises, and French love poems. His unusually good knowledge of Italian – and his travels to Italy – allowed him to access the latest poetry of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. Indeed, Chaucer’s very fascination with vernacularity was a European phenomenon: Dante and Boccaccio’s championing of Tuscan vernacular inspired Chaucer to see what he could do with his own.

The influence of these Italian poets changed what English poetry could do. Chaucer’s development of the pentameter, for instance, the 10-syllable, five-stress line that became the building block of English poetry, was inspired by an Italian poetic line (the endecasillabo). And it was Chaucer who first translated a Petrarchan sonnet into English.

This internationalism belies the idea of the ‘English archetypes’ of the Canterbury pilgrims that has seeped into the popular imagination. Far from being a UKIP-member prototype, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is based mainly on a figure called La Vieille from the French Roman de la Rose, and on stereotypes from Jerome’s Latin Adversus Jovinian. And the idea of a group of people telling stories has multiple sources, notably Boccaccio’s Decameron. Most of The Canterbury Tales doesn’t even take place in England: the settings range from central Asia to Syria to northern Italy to Flanders. And very few have any English sources.

Chaucer’s earliest trip to mainland Europe was in 1359, when, as a teenager, he fought in the Hundred Years’ War and was taken prisoner near Reims. In later years, he visited Navarre, now in northern Spain but an independent country in the 14th century – a multicultural community where Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existed relatively peacefully. He made two trips to Italy on diplomatic missions, visiting Lombardy, Florence and Genoa. And he frequently went to France, negotiating treaties and marriage alliances. Indeed, parts of modern-day France – including Calais and Aquitaine – were under English rule at this time, and the borders between the countries were constantly changing.

But Chaucer did not need to go abroad to have an international outlook, since English mercantile and aristocratic culture was profoundly European. Chaucer came from a wine-merchant family whose wealth was dependent on the traffic between France and England. Born in Vintry Ward, London – the area of the city with more immigrants than any other – the young Chaucer was brought up seeing the ships come and go on the Thames. Spices from Indonesia, furs from Russia, glass and paper from Italy, timber, grain and metal from Baltic lands, were all available in the markets and shops of late-14th-century London. The world trade system was advanced and complex, and land and sea traders crisscrossed Asia, Africa and Europe. As a child, Chaucer would have been aware of a vast global economy.

When Chaucer worked for the king’s sons and later the king, he slid easily into the internationalism of court life. Queen Philippa of Hainault and Queen Anne of Bohemia had extensive retinues from their homelands in tow, including poets who mainly wrote in French, and Chaucer himself married a woman whose family came from Hainault (a country now subsumed into France and Belgium): Philippa de Roet.

In political life, whenever issues of English national identity flared, filtered through monopolist ambition and xenophobia, Chaucer was always on the side of internationalism – we might even say globalisation. In the 1370s, London merchants, outraged that Italian merchants were gaining advantages in the lucrative wool trade, sought an English monopoly. In the so-called Good Parliament of 1376, MPs denounced these Italians as sodomites, secret Jews and Saracens, as they attempted to push them out of the wool trade. Earlier in the decade, Chaucer had travelled in company with Italians to Genoa, precisely to try to negotiate a trade deal that would have allowed the Genoans to circumvent the monopoly and have their own trading base on the south coast. He was working for John of Gaunt, a firm opponent of the London monopolists.

Chaucer’s own version of Englishness certainly did not mean driving out or excluding other Europeans: he spent his life negotiating and working with them. From 1374, Chaucer served as comptroller for the wool custom, at the heart of England’s international trading system. He regularly associated with men such as Matthew Janyn, an Italian who gave huge loans to the king; Richard Lyons, the part Fleming controller of the petty custom and an old friend of his father’s; and Jacobi Provan and John de Mari, Genoans in whose company Chaucer rode to Italy. Appropriately, from 1374 until 1385-6, he lived and worked on physical thresholds – his home above a gate on the city walls, his office on the riverbank – looking into London and then out to the rest of the world.

Chaucer bore very little resemblance to the dull patriarch depicted on the covers of so many books about him. He was a child in the seething streets of London, a young man crossing the mountain passes of the Pyrenees, a maturing diplomat avid for Italian poetry in Pavia and Giotto’s frescoes in Florence, a courtier to a Bohemian queen, a husband going home to his Hainuyer wife. He was also a poet who wrote about the markets of Paris and Bruges, the tyrants of Lombardy and the court of Chinggis Khan, even the dream of travelling to outer space. Nurtured by the writings of Ovid, Boethius, Dante, Machaut and Boccaccio, his imagination soared beyond borders. To call Chaucer the father of English literature not only misrepresents him, but also sells him short. He should be celebrated as one of the great European poets.



Gods in exile: resurrecting Dionysus

by Alexandra Turney

Apollo as a shepherd in Austria; Dionysus as a priest in medieval France; Aphrodite as a child washed up on the coast of Italy. While the Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote of the glory of their gods, some 19th century writers were more inspired by the idea of their fall from glory, and descent into obscurity. What kind of life would a pagan god live in modern, Christian Europe? How would they cope with their anonymous existence? And there’s another question, which I’ve recently been asking myself – why are so we fascinated by the idea of the gods in exile?

The German poet Heinrich Heine was one of the first to imagine the reincarnated gods, writing about them with mingled emotions of awe and pity (and a touch of irony) in his essay ‘Gods in Exile’:

The [Church] by no means declared the ancient gods to be myths, inventions of falsehood and error, as did the philosophers, but held them to be evil spirits, who, through the victory of Christ, had been hurled from the summit of their power, and now dragged along their miserable existences in the obscurity of dismantled temples or in enchanted groves, and by their diabolic arts, through lust and beauty, particularly through dancing and singing, lured to apostasy unsteadfast Christians who had lost their way in the forest….

Heine recounts various medieval legends about the gods, from Hermes living as a humble tradesman to an elderly Zeus weeping and shivering on a frozen island. “Decay is secretly undermining all that is great in the universe”, writes Heine, and rather than enjoying the spectacle, he advises that we should have some compassion for the fallen gods.

The idea of exiled gods was not a new one, but for some reason it captured the imagination of 19th century writers. In Swinburne’s poem ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ the speaker mourns his “Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day”, while Walter Pater and Vernon Lee used short stories to explore the ideas from Heine’s essay in greater depth and psychological complexity.


Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, 1866, from the EFL Rare Books Room

Walter Pater has been remembered primarily for his art criticism – his meditations on the Mona Lisa and his famous line “To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” His fiction, which includes the short stories of Imaginary Portraits, has been almost forgotten, but it contains some evocative contributions to the ‘gods in exile’ genre. ‘Apollo in Picardy’ and ‘Denys L’Auxerrois’ imagine Apollo and Dionysus in a medieval French context. In both stories, the gods are out of place in their Christian communities, and their conflict with their surroundings leads to tragedy.

Vernon Lee, whom Pater acknowledged as his “disciple”, saw connections between gods in exile and ghosts. In her essay ‘Dionysus in the Euganean Hills’ she suggests that the exile of the gods is “a kind of haunting; the gods who had it partaking of the nature of ghosts even more than all gods do, revenants as they are from other ages.” Her interest in the gods in exile was therefore an extension not only of her Hellenism and love of Italy, but also of her fascination with all things supernatural.

One of Lee’s best known short stories from Hauntings, ‘Dionea’, took direct inspiration from Heine. Venus (Aphrodite) is re-born in late 19th century Italy as a young girl of mysterious origins, who has an increasingly malignant influence on her surroundings. Male attempts to portray her or understand her are futile, leading only to disappointment, or even madness and death. Dionea may not be evil, but her influence is, and Lee suggests that this is a result of her alienation, and her incompatibility with the modern Christian world. The story ends with Dionea sailing away, “singing words in an unknown tongue”, unknowable to the last.

Just as the gods fell from glory, so the ‘gods in exile’ genre has faded into obscurity. I doubt I would have ever discovered these fascinating texts if I had not studied English Literature at Oxford, and attended lectures by Dr Stefano Evangelista in my first year as an undergraduate. I fell in love with the language of Swinburne, the ideas of Pater, the atmosphere of Lee.

Despite its strange, detached tone, one of the texts that made the greatest impression on me was Pater’s story ‘Denys L’Auxerrois’, a macabre tale about Dionysus’s unlikely career as a village priest in medieval France; it ends with ‘Denys’ being torn apart by the villagers in an act of sparagmos (ritual dismemberment). Ever since I studied The Bacchae at school I’d been fascinated by the figure of Dionysus – god of wine, divine ecstasy and ritual madness – and Pater’s tale of resurrection/destruction added an intriguing new chapter to the god’s mythology.

Several years later, living in Rome and daydreaming on the metro on the way to work, I found myself thinking of ‘Denys L’Auxerrois’ and Dionysus. What would happen if the god were re-born in modern Rome, a city where he has no believers? I imagined him waking up in the Protestant Cemetery and gazing uncomprehendingly at the Pyramid of Cestius. As he slowly comes to consciousness he realises, to his disappointment, that he is alive again.

My metro daydream eventually became my debut novel, In Exile. I like to think of it as a resurrection not only of Dionysus, but also of the ‘gods in exile’ genre. While I’m aware that other writers have imagined the Greek gods in modern settings (such as Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels or Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips), I was interested in exploring the melancholy, malevolent side of the gods, and the idea of exile. It seems to me such a fascinating concept, and a rich source of inspiration.

Aside from the glamour of the gods – centuries of art and literature are a testament to their continual fascination – I think there are two main explanations for the allure of the gods in exile. Pater and Lee are just two of many writers (and readers) who are obsessed with the past. It’s not so much a disdain for modernity as a fascination with the imaginative potential of the past, and the awareness that the past is at once unknowable and unavoidable. For Lee it is a continual, physical presence, a “borderland” that overlaps with the present. When we imagine a pagan god walking among us, we have the tantalising illusion of being able to understand these “revenants” from the ancient world.

But I think the ‘gods in exile’ genre has even wider appeal. Even more common and relatable than the obsession with the past is the interest in isolation and alienation. It’s a theme that can be found in practically every text ever written, from Beowulf to Twilight. Writers love to write stories about characters who feel out of place in their surroundings, and readers love to read about them.

At a glance, the ‘gods in exile’ genre might seem obscure and inaccessible. Why would the average modern reader, with only the vaguest notions of ancient religion and mythology, care about Dionysus’s reluctant resurrection? By writing In Exile, I hope I’ve answered the question. On some level Dionysus is not just a pagan god, but also Heathcliff or Holden Caulfield, or even the reader. In other words, god or human, author or reader, we have all felt like outsiders at some point in our lives. Exile can be a place or a time, but it’s also a state of mind.

Alexandra Turney is a graduate of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and her novel In Exile was published in January 2019.