Past Present at The Pottery Press

September 19, 2017

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The Pottery Press is proud to announce the publication of a new title, the first in a new series of Pottery Press Pamphlets.

Past Present: Piers Plowless and Sir Orfeo

by Maureen Duffy

(From the Forward by Frances Bingham)

In Past Present the coupling of two long poems by Maureen Duffy makes a weird and powerful statement about England on the edge; a land with an imagined mythic past, a millennial present and perhaps apocalyptic future. For the past: her catchy, robust translation of Sir Orfeo, a medieval narrative lay which migrates the Orpheus myth to the England of a folk tale and gives it a happy ending; the classical Underworld becomes Elfland under a green hill, the Arcadian landscape an English orchard.

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Duffy’s skilful translation catches the energy and rhythm of the original, its narrative immediacy and sturdy language, so that the reader experiences it as a bardic re-telling in that truly folk idiom.

And as for the present:

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The New Vision of Piers Plowless is Duffy’s contemporary riff on the visionary medieval poem Piers Plowman – an inspired evocation of everyman Piers and his creator Will Langland with Blake and the protesting Muses in a dark satirical vision of 21st Century austerity Britain.

And where is our Piers who can set all to rights?

Where should we search for him?

Who’ll build us Jerusalem?

Blake’s vision of London as the new Jerusalem, a place of visions and nightmares, is ever-present in Duffy’s London trilogy of novels and her poetry, and in this long poem it inspires her to a magnificent rant, addressed to fellow-author Will Langland who wrote his protest song for everyman Piers and the ‘fair field of folk’ so many centuries ago.

Her protest against a so-called austerity which causes suffering to the poorest in society while sparing the richest, and tries to silence the arts and deplete learning and libraries, has never been more relevant.  But crucially, like her medieval model, there’s robust humour here too – and a breath of hope, a call to arms.

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                                         … I see them stream

as in Blake’s darkest dream over London Bridge…

‘Blake’s darkest dream’, the cover image, is by lettering artist Liz Mathews who has worked with Maureen Duffy’s poetry before, notably in Paper Wings (also published by The Pottery Press).  Liz has also lettered titled pages and painted 9 full-page colour images for Sir Orfeo; atmospheric colour studies rather than illustrations, they accompany the text, dreamlike and evocative.

Frances Bingham, London 2017 (from her Forward)

Past Present: Sir Orfeo & Piers Plowless  (The Pottery Press 2017) £5

contact thepotterypress(at)pottersyard.co.uk

Past Present and Sir Orfeo

Sir Orfeo, an artist’s book

I’ve also made an artist’s book inspired by Sir Orfeo, setting lines from Maureen Duffy’s translation into a work made from a huge single sheet of handmade paper – 2 metres long by 70cm high – torn and folded into a sequence of pages, but readily restored to the unifying whole image, the hero’s name writ large across the sheet like a medieval banner for Suleiman the Magnificent.

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In July the banner was hung as a stage backdrop at the launch event for Past Present at Burgh House in Hampstead, where a capacity crowd heard a spirited reading of Piers Plowless from Maureen Duffy, followed by the premiere performance of Songs for Sir Orfeo, a work in progress: celebrated jazz pianist Dorian Ford is composing a jazz opera setting Maureen Duffy’s translation, and some of the first songs were performed by award-winning world music singer Vimala Rowe. (This exciting event was filmed and will shortly be available on dvd.)

Here is my artist’s book, page-by-page. Each double-page spread is followed by close-up details so that you can read the poem:

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Sir Orfeo is a one-off signed original on handmade paper 2m x 70cm, in a slipcase. £700

 

 

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