Friday, March 23, 2012

M.J. Duggan's "Avalon"


It is the island most associated with the legend of King Arthur, largely due to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in The History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey wrote that the sword Excalibur was forged here, and it was to Avalon that Arthur was taken to recover from wounds he received in the Battle of Camlann – his last battle and the one against his nephew Mordred. It is also the island associated with Morgan le Fay and others of similar mystical bent.

A few years after Geoffrey, Avalon became associated with the town of Glastonbury in Somerset (which is not an island but was surrounded by marshlands at one time). In 1190, the monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have found the bones of Arthur and his queen, and so the legend stuck and grew. The town today is small (fewer than 9,000 people) but partially because of the Arthurian connection it is known for New Age and neo-pagan practices.

Avalon is also the name for a series of 11 poems, recently published by M.J. Duggan as the second of three poetic works. The first was The Modern Orpheus, published in 2111 (and which I reviewed at TweetSpeak Poetry); and the third is Scenes From the Big Society, published on March 11.

Avalon begins as almost a dirge to the excesses of industrialization overwhelming the earth, and the earth turning its fury back upon man via the seas. As the storm of destruction pours forth, Duggan uses a line as a kind of calm, yet haunting refrain as he describes the terrible effects unleashed: I remember the day when the sea changed. The seas seem to burn and flood simultaneously:

View of unfathomed kerosene seas
under snake-charmed clouds of indolent red,
where sea angles feed off old rustic mines
layered beneath the Lune of Atlantis.

Swimming on the tips of Mosques and Churches
gaze at a world beneath our feet

our dead Metropolis like a lunar landscape
a lung-less city of sea green.

Nature, in an act of massive vengeance has “scorned her citizens” and brought death. Yet what is seen in the moonlight is the emergence in the covering water of an olive branch – the symbol of peace, and then the place from which the olive branch and tree derive – the island of Avalon. And what Avalon offers and symbolizes is hope and survival.

Avalon is largely a dark story, but it is a dark story Duggan has to tell. And he tells it well, with vivid language, memorable lines, a passion for the earth – and a hope that humanity won’t repeat its history.

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