William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 1 – McAllen, Texas

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa Espinasa
Photo: Teresa Espinasa

Finding Blake welcomes another powerful voice to our explorations. Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction and a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. In a compelling series of posts for Finding Blake — marking the publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, in Mexico today — Adriana shares with us her remarkable journey from discovering Blake on a family trip to Texas, immersing herself in his work and her own in Mexico, the USA and London. 


When I think of where I first found Blake, the words come to me: “I found William Blake in Hell”. I like the idea.

Hell in this case was a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas, during the last holiday I spent with my family before leaving home. I must have been eighteen. I had heard of Blake before in terms so vague I can’t remember where or how, though I know I was curious.

Now, what was I doing in a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas? And, even more perplexing, what was Blake doing there?

I was born in Guadalajara, in Western Mexico, around the area where the country starts longing to become the north. There are some striking differences between north and south over there, with the north generally looking even more northwards — the ultimate goal being the USA. I’m not sure to what extent this is the case still now, but in my time certain kinds of families had this bizarre idea that going shopping in Texas could be called a holiday. The dogma was that things were so badly made in Mexico (all things: clothing, shoes, make-up, stationery, sweets, LPs, you name it… even people!) that it was necessary to cross to el otro lado (‘the other side’) to get quality stuff that was indispensable for living without sorrow. We made the expedition every year.

Hell - the shopping mall Image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Hell – the shopping mall
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Outgrowing the dogma

For years I believed in the dogma, but by the time I made that last trip I had outgrown it. At 16, after having read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own, I had decided that I didn’t only ‘like’ writing, but that I would become the real thing.

The discovery of vocation came with the side-effect of coming to thoroughly hate those shopping orgies, and on that last one — with all the drama that a teenager worth the name is capable of — I was thinking in despair of ways of saving my soul and intellect in the midst of that temple to vacuity at which my family, and many others, worshipped every day during those trips. “I don’t want clothes!”, I cried to myself in fury (though deep, deep inside I knew I did want some). “I want the things of the spirit! Where can I go in this godforsaken place to avoid contamination?”

The shopping mall had, believe it or not, a bookshop. And it was browsing its shelves in desperation that I came across the Penguin Classics edition of Blake’s Complete Poems. Maybe it was its thick spine that first called my attention, as I was yearning for pages to literally submerge myself in and swim away. I pulled it out and saw the cover.

I had never seen a Blake illustration before, and now I was suddenly confronted by Death on a Pale Horse: some irate deity, face hard as stone, riding on a white steed, seemingly torn between the powers of darkness and light… and darkness winning. It was powerful. Strange and slightly threatening, so utterly other from anything I had ever seen before. Then I read the back cover, which summarised the trajectory of an artist and poet who had been colossal: a visionary, rebellious, and misunderstood. “This is it,” I thought, and bought it.

Death on a Pale Horse Artist: William Blake c 1800
Death on a Pale Horse
Artist: William Blake c 1800
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Soon Blake would be crossing the border to Mexico with me.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Some years would pass without my seeing any more of Blake’s illustrations. Meanwhile, I endeavoured to read his complete poems. The journey started easily enough, but got more and more complicated as I moved forward. To start with, my Penguin edition displayed poetry in a way I found unnerving: with lines from alternative versions of the poems in brackets, the poems themselves divided according to a ‘plate’ number. I hadn’t understood the way Blake worked, nor in what an extraordinary manner his poems had been originally printed, and I resented the interrupted flow of words.

Then there were the words themselves. I was first drawn by the mirroring drama of the Songs of Innocence and Experience as much as by The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The latter’s prestige as an emblem of seditious poetry had reached even Guadalajara — which perhaps wasn’t that strange, it being in those times such a conservative city that poets there had truly no other choice than burning.

I was a big fan of Jim Morrison, and knowing that The Doors had taken their name from a Blakean verse (or from Aldous Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, but he had taken it from Blake in any case) put Blake among my favourites way before I could claim I understood him. I was into Rimbaud and Les Chants de Maldoror. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell seemed to me to be in that league: untamed, daring all conventional notions of good and evil to stand unshaken in the light of fierce lucidity. I was provoked too by the mystery I sensed in even what appeared to be Blake’s most straightforward poems. However, when I got to what we now call his Prophetic Poems, I was utterly baffled.

Changer of worlds 

For years too, I don’t think I understood them at all. But I wanted to. One thing I knew: that there was an energy contained in there which, though its core eluded me, had the power to change a world. I was intrigued and irritated by them in equal measure, upset at not being able to crack them open. Not even at that tender age was I so naïve as to believe that poetry could change the world — mainly because you’d first need for ‘the world’ to want to change, which is unusual — but I knew that it could certainly change worlds, and I wanted mine to be among them.

Gradually I got to see some reproductions of Blake’s illustrated poems, which brought one of the various quakes which have forced me to reformulate my appreciation of Blake throughout the decades: here was a man who, not contented with being able to change worlds, had created a whole universe himself. Through the union of word and image, that universe lacked nothing.

His pages formed so much more than a conventional poem, a conventional pictorial image or a conventional book. They were unrefutably alive, their elements woven with threads of most exquisite beauty, ignoring all common wisdom about formal rules. He was fierce like a wild beast, playful like a child. It was then that the text on the back cover of my Penguin edition took its fair dimension — William Blake was a free spirit. Freer than anyone I could think of. Maybe even freer than Rimbaud!

However, even in that discovery there was puzzlement. There were a couple of illustrations I didn’t like at all, particularly if seen against the stunning beauty of his other images, both the most ferocious and the most delicate ones. My general sense was that Blake had been a poet and artist in constant overflow, indomitable, for better or for worse. In this I was close to the truth, though I still didn’t know that much about his life, and it enticed me because I had an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art (Blake would call it exuberance).

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell William Blake (1790)
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
William Blake (1790)
Library of Congress

He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him. 


Notes

Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published today in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

 

In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana recalls her adventures in breaking into Blake’s world, translating his poems into Spanish, creating a Blakean ‘sound collage’ for a Mexican rock band, and embarking on her third novel. But the real world also breaks in, in the form of a horrific massacre in Chiapas state, and the meaning of Blake’s prophetic poems takes on a new clarity for her. 

A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song

Joseph A. ThompsonWe welcome Joseph Andrew Thompson as our latest author for Finding Blake. Joseph is a composer, musician, writer and the creative mind behind the duo Astralingua. Their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, features their adaptation of William Blake’s poem A Poison Tree. This song is released today and Finding Blake is delighted to publish this account of its development to mark its release. 


William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience immediately enthralled me upon first read. A high school friend had lent me his worn copy, and I read, amazed by its elegant simplicity. It presented itself like a children’s storybook, complete with illustrations, perfect rhyme, and steady meter. Yet, beneath this playful facade was a masterwork, rife with meaning, craft, metaphor, and vision.

When I learned of the existence of other editions, I ventured to the bookstore to pore through any I might find. I would have been very delighted at purchasing my own illustrated copy, but with only a pittance to spare that day, settled instead on a text-only pocket version by Penguin that I found amidst the larger hardcovers.

Astralingua - Blake & Guitar
Astralingua – Blake & Guitar. Photo: Astralingua © 2018

Discovering A Poison Tree

The little songbook easily fit in my coat pocket and for the first six months of possessing it, I carried it around with me, reading it in quiet moments. It was still with me in college, when on many an evening, a fellow songwriter and I stood in my humble apartment, passing it back and forth, reading aloud the poems in different voices. Always a favorite, A Poison Tree was memorized, and often read in a voice not unlike Montresor’s, from Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. In time, the book eventually made its way to a pocket of my carry bag, where still to this day it stays, like a most trusted talisman.

One evening a few years ago, while working on my band Astralingua’s coming album Safe Passage, my music partner Anne R. Thompson and I were at once struck by the idea of adapting one of Blake’s songs to music. Needing no deliberation, the obvious choice was A Poison Tree, as few among my friends had not at one time or another heard me slyly recite it. Excited by the idea, I retrieved my shoulder bag and found my little copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

As I flipped through the pages, I thought back to my college days with the book, and suddenly recalled an old song on which I had worked then. Absorbed in Romanticism, I had been writing in a Blakean mood of sorts, but dissatisfied with my lyrics, had since left the song unfinished. Now, I wondered if it might in some way fit A Poison Tree. Almost magically, with but a few changes to the original melody, it did so seamlessly, leaving me to wonder if this marriage of the two had not always been my true intent.

Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua.
Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua. Design: Astralingua © 2018

In the midst of Safe Passage

And thus our version was born and grew. That night, Anne and I giddily sang it together, myself on guitar, and her reading from my pocketbook, harmonizing the melody. In production, we tried to give it an Old World minstrel sound, to place it closer to Blake’s era. With the voice and melody, I sought to convey the revelling dark glee with which, in my imagination, I always hear it read. During the sequencing, the song was placed in the middle of the album, at a darker part of its narrative.

Safe Passage is a discussion on mortality, isolation, struggle, and the movement between worlds. A Poison Tree, with its dual realities — that of the narrator and that of his unsuspecting foe — fits right in with the other tracks. Rich in possible interpretations, it helps press further the album’s central questions: How, if at all, can safe passage be attained? Who or what provides it? Who denies it?

Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson
Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. Photo: Lisa Siciliano © 2018

I hope our adaptation brings the listener just as much joy in hearing it as I got from creating it, and more so, brings a smile to the face of a great poet in the sky.

You can hear A Poison Tree from today via our bandcamp link here: 

Additional:

And you can now also enjoy this video presentation of Astralingua’s A Poison Tree — words and images by William Blake. 


Notes

Astralingua are composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. The nomadic space-folk duo explores life’s unknowns, blending haunting vocal harmonies, radiant strings, and otherworldly soundscapes into crafted songs that fall somewhere between classical, folk and psychedelia. You can discover more of their work at astralingua.com and at bandcamp.  

Their album Safe Passage is available for pre-order now, and will be released in early March 2019:

You can find Blake’s poem A Poison Tree at Poetry Foundation and there is a short analysis of “one of English literature’s most striking explorations of the corrupting effects of anger … one of William Blake’s miniature masterpieces” at interestingliterature.com. And don’t forget that there’s more to explore in the Blakean Articles and Other Blakean Artefacts pages in A Blakean Archive!

 

Serge Arnoux, Surrealism and William Blake

Robert Campbell Henderson becomes our latest contributor, beginning a series of posts for Finding Blake with this intriguing account of an unexpected French connection with the legacy of William Blake, through an accidental discovery at a scrap yard…


Proverbs of Hell: a French connection 

It’s not so easy to find or write something new about William Blake. Hopefully, this might just be an exception. A few weeks ago I made a visit to a scrap metal yard in Sarlat, France, looking for material for my printmaking. Boy did I get lucky! I bought some copper plate destined for the furnace and it turns out I’d bought 27 etched copper plates by deceased French artist Serge Arnoux, based on some of the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from 1790.

“Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”. Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth

The plate above, and my print from it, is labelled “Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”, which in Blake’s original is: 

Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth

All the plates are in a surrealist style and from my initial research seemed to have been destined for a book. I can’t be certain at this stage but I believe they were made in the seventies. Looking at the plates, I think only around a dozen of them were actually ever printed.

La sexaphysique du texte

Arnoux often collaborated with other artists, including French poet and composer Leo Ferre and American poet M.S. Merwin, making illustrations in a similar surreal vein. He also made and published books under his own name.

‘La sexaphysique du texte’

The images above are from one of his own books, La sexaphysique du texte. Interesting title! The booklet was printed in large folio format, 23 double pages with typography and layout in the manner of the surrealists.

From plates to an exhibition

For me as a printmaker, to find etched plates by another printmaker, the late Serge Arnoux, and discover that they were based on work by poet, writer and of course printmaker William Blake seems like fate. It can only be an interesting journey of discovery! 

I am going to print all the plates, with full accreditation to the artist. I am writing a blog about the project and the ultimate goal is an exhibition of the work — hopefully in the UK, but certainly France. 

Here are a few more of the prints from my initial proofing exercise, as a taster for what is to come. The original titles in French, and what I believe to be the corresponding line from the Proverbs of Hell in English, read from left to right. Of course, I assume being from the Blakean world you already figured that out.

 

“La prudence est une vieille fille riche et laide que l’incapacité courtise.” Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by incapacity.

“Des pierres de la Loi on a fait des prisons des briques de la Religion on a fait des Bordels” Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.

“Femme nue, chef d’oeuvre de Dieu” The nakedness of woman is the work of God. 


Notes

Robert Campbell Henderson is involved in printmaking and photography, just for the fun of it. Before 2000 he never really made any art as he was, in his own words, busy with the “day job.” At the age of fifty he did an MA Photography, followed by a burst of activity participating in exhibitions and setting up an art gallery in Norwich, UK. He retired to the South of France in 2006 where he taught himself printmaking and set up his own darkroom and print studio. You can explore his work at www.photokennel.com

Robert wants to share his experience of researching, printing and hopefully exhibiting these plates over the coming months. You can read Robert’s blog at his site (which also includes more on Serge Arnoux) and we will be sharing more of his accounts of this intriguing French connection here at Finding Blake.

As the Wikipedia entry on Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell notes, “In the most famous part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell. These display a very different kind of wisdom from the Biblical Book of Proverbs. The diabolical proverbs are provocative and paradoxical. Their purpose is to energise thought.”

Several of his proverbs have become famous:

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

And another  

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead

has given the title to a recent translation of Olga Tocarczuk’s 2009 novel, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead, which the Guardian’s review describes as not just a murder mystery but “also a primer on the politics of vegetarianism, a dark feminist comedy, an existentialist fable and a paean to William Blake.” Another reminder — as with the plates of Serge Arnoux — that Blake’s importance and influence travel beyond the borders of his own place and times.