Seasonal Interlude for an Arthurian epic: from Autumn

RAHUL GUPTA holds a PhD from the University of York for a thesis on Old English and Norse poetry and the 19th-20th century mediævalist alliterative revival. His poems, prose, and translations have been published in Agenda, Acumen, Eborakon, Equinox, Molly Bloom, Spectral Realms, and Wiðowinde, among other journals, and online by British Intelligence, and The Society of Classical Poets. His main enterprise is a reinterpretation of the Arthurian legends retold as an epic in ‘the most accomplished, imaginative and technically-correct alliterative verse in Modern English since Tolkien’ (Tom Shippey), from which two excerpts have appeared hitherto, in The Long Poem Magazine, Issue 15, May 2016, and, ‘one of the truly great mythic works of our time’ (John Matthews) in The Temenos Academy Review, Issue 21, 2018. Forthcoming publications include a volume of metrically-imitative verse-translations from Old English and Norse, seeking faithfully to retain the style and versification of the originals whilst being accurate and performable aloud, from Reaktion Books

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[…] Zigzagging tines, zed-shaped lightning’s

pronged weapon probes  the primy soil:      

and we follow the flash, foining groundward

in his points’ pathway, to pierce the turf.

Let the earth open. We enter within.            Follow the lightning into the earth

Here levels below  living daylights

an under-earthen, otherworldly

landscape layered  below the surface

nests beneath us.

                          This unknown domain,

her roofs writhing  with roots of trees,

is the nameless netherdepth, benighted regions

of an occult kingdom:                                                   Katabasis: the Underworld


of catacombs;


decayed in crypts,

                           caves inhuming

putrid matter;                                                                                                              


enwombed in warrens,

                           winding myriad                                                         Tombs


                           chimneys linking    

fœtid fogous,

                           foul souterrains,         

deep-delved dungeons:

                           dusky vaultage

—heaped-up deathsheads—

                            —hoards of longbones—

of grave-galleries;

                           groping steeply,

tombpassages twist                                       

                          through turnagains                                                                       

to undercrofts,

                          while oubliettes

fold fathoms downwards,

                          to Filth’s Mansion.

Pell-mell we plunge:


horizons range

                         as we reach deeper:

like tumbledown,


sunken cities,

                         a sewerscape

of terraced wards,

                         tiers and platforms,                                                       Sewerage

doors downfallen,                              

                         to dark culverts

with grille-gratings, 

                         green slime-curtained;

canted causeways

                         on the chasms’ brink:

skewed screwthreading


leaning, looming;


the abyss beckons,

                           the bowels of the Earth.

It yawns beyond; a yearning maw.

Here tribes of rats  get trapped by cave-ins,

wriggling rodents  whose runs are thwarted:

dead-ends their doom; dens are shrinking,

their nests narrowing  as numbers grow

in blind alleys  and blocked cisterns   

to a mangy mass  of mating bodies.

Like their neighbour vermin, knotting reptiles

—keystones crushing— they kitten yet;

till the chamber chokes  to chink and cranny

with tangled tails.   Teeth start to gnaw.

From the maze of tombs, the morgue-ullage

bleeds to these bilges; their black vomits

emulge and merge, commingled blend

of what seeps from cellars, with sordors leaching

to earthy entrails. For from all the jakes—

from countless catchments, through clogged spillways,

dreckcrusted drains, downspout scuppers,   

from every addlepool  and each latrine,

ripe reredorter, reasty midden,        

siegehouse, cesspit —of our sunlit world,

the gong-farmings  of garderobe soil,

loose cack of lasks, and laystall-slops,

helter-skelter, the whole system’s

sickly surfeit  of sewage-waste,

in a swilling swelchie, is swallowed down    

through intestine-tunnels, and tewel-pipes

from the upper echelons  to the enclaves beneath:

engulfed by gulches. The gurge of sludge

empties ordures  to the uttermost sump

where lurks waiting, in a lake of slime,

a prodigious dungheap.                                                                          Excrements

                                     Dirts steam. Dritt of foxes,   

                                     deer-turds. Merd and fewmet,

                                     scat, spraint; fiants, scumbered

                                     skite of otter-crottels;

                                     brock-muck. Brown waggyings

                                     brew, mix: sharn of vixen,

                                     critters’ crap, hare-buttons,

                                     crudded spoor, boars’ lesses           

in a cradling crucible.

                                 The crawling lees  

amalgamate, transmute fusing:

the realm of rottenness is rich with life.  

From clouds to clods, cleaving lightning

wracks with raptures  rainsodden loam,   

and by split seconds  the span between             

the high Heavens and humble Earth                                           

is bridged in brightness: embracing partners  

space sprung apart  espouse again.

Once twins entwined, that twain sundered:

the husband halved  from the whole forebear;                  

now sibling-father, and sister-wife                                              Autumn Equinox

marry for a moment, to mate powers                                                         

high, dry and hot —with the humid deep.

Attraction triggers  the trident-bolt,

the warm wedding  to wet and cold,

the air to fire; earth to water:                                                                 

as when Burn-the-Wind, at his blade-forging,        

that the redshort rod  be wrought to temper            

steeps it in wetness —the steel is slaked                       

amid sputtering fumes  sparks set alight

in quenching oils, to quell its ardour

(and the venoms unveil  viper-chevroned,

woven-welded, worm’s-tongue markings)

—so the glowing glaive, in glutting thrusts         

shooting downward, ensheathes his length.

Ground engulfs him. In her gravid lap

the charge is channelled; for change kindles

where his liquid lightnings  enliven dust.         Lightning fecundates the earth

Behold the happenings  of the hidden places;

witness wonders —from the worms’ vantage.

Shocks shaking her, he sheds darting,

fork-formed currents, forces spending

virile virtue.

                     Pervading the clays

are pores pooling  with pregnant fluids.                                 

Through dropsied ducts, drenched syrinx-glands

in coral clusters, course her issues,

unctions oozing, by ebbs and swells:

what subtle liquors  seep and filter,

yeast-yielding brines, yolky syrups

and saps surging, sifted lispings

in fistule-fissures? Fecund venters                                  

congest with juices  like the jellied slutch

that showers downward  from shooting stars

estranged to earth; sticky chrisms

spill through spiracles; from sponge-bladders,

limbeck-tinctures; elixirs stilling

hoarded honeydews, as harvests culled

from bread of bees, brood-comb drizzlings    

—moist motherlode  milch with nectars.         

The stagnant gulfs  stretch out for leagues

under fen-fastness, fog-bound marshes,

mould-mildewed tarns, and misty fells:

like troves of ore, treasure-laden

rills running through  the rankling dung;             

mine-wealthy malm. The Moon shines down,

her beams bathing  foreboding depths,

the lodes ripening  in lunar rays

and the mire is rife: minims thriving,

krill-creaturely  kinds of plankton,

embryonic  animalcules

at their feast of filth, feed and batten;

its sweats swelter: the swamp-mosses

hum with humours, heats are brooding

in queachy quags, bequickening 

eggs underground. An urgent drive,

for a spell, spurs them. Spores are stirring

awake to sprout  in their weird springtide;

pollen pullulates, to the pulse of the Moon:

cells in seedbeds.  These seminal motes,

cocooned kernels, like chrysalids

shog in their swaddlings: shoot spicules forth,

chaffhusks chinking  as chits are hatching   

from bulging pods, with bat-squeakings,         

in throbbing throes. Threadlets burgeon

to knosplike nebs, whose nippled spires

unfurl feelers  with fanning strands

and barbs burrow  from the umbilical stalk;    

spikes spawn outwards, spider talons

sneaking snakewise.

                                Snail-horn probings

now creep, recoil; then crawl anew,

reaching runners, ramifying

twig-antennæ, that tillow again:

look how the likeness  of the levin-flash

imprints and repeats  in the pattern figured,

as izzard emblems, by the angled forking

of vein-branches, against the varves’ blackness,

pairing, parting; puny scions                                        

like marbling maggots, the murky clods  

riddled with roothairs, wriggling vivers;

weevils delving  worm-farm layers                             

and rifted vugs.    Ravelled suckers                                           

flex flossing wide, in flower-whorling

topdownward trees, their tufted plumes

of glairy gauzes, like gossamer skeins

of squirming thongs.

                                 Squirreltail, thistledown,

filigree fibres  frond their tassels,

twisting, twining; the twirling bines

will splay and split, then splice oscules,  

reticulate   tentacular

chenille nervures.   Thus the net-weaving   

germs engender  a giant ganglion,                

mercurial cobweb, catscradlewise;

node knits to lobe, as a loom shuttles          

a weft-texture, the wiry members

tendril-tissued: a teeming polyp,

quarl of quicksilver. By quetch and spasm

the molten mass  is mapped in darkness,



it inhales and heaves: a heart panting

or brain beating, or as breathing lungs

work in entrails; and wavering sobs

retch restlessly. With rippling surges    

the sprawling globe  spreads yet farther

by ceaseless seethings, circulating

lymphs and ichors; till in labour-pangs   

its ballooning shape  dilates warping.

The morphing mesh  transmogrifies

and with thrilling shudders  it thrusts aloft,

climbs in corkscrews up  to the crust overhead:

fat fruitbodies,  forcing through turves.

From shadowed taths, shapes come pricking,

grope above the grass. Growths are stirring,

bald and gibbous; bulbs are swollen,

puffball-like orbs, whose pimpled membranes

are groined with gills, glabrous-wattled

blanched blubberflesh, bloated organs,

limbs lazarlike; leprous-hided,

sepulchral-pale, they poke upward

from cadaverous depths —dead men’s fingers;

bearded bellyache;

                                 bug agarick, 

webbedpate, skullcap;

                                 witches’ button,

the lewd stinkhorn

                                 and livid earthshank;

skewbald hoodwink,

                                 scurfy funnel;

dwarvish dwalecup,





                                 chilly waxglove,


                                 sickly milkgall.

Squame-warted squabs  squeeze in sending

stems striking out. Staves like truncheons

unsheathe their shafts, to show helmets,

raise round targes  with rimmed umbos:

espy these spears —a spectral levy

of midnight-mustering  homunculi,

wan weaponedmen, in worm-eaten

carrion-coloured  accoutrements

of clammy coifs  and clinging veils,

by rank on rank, or in rancid circles,

lifts its lances, locks the shieldwall:

earthen armies. From under the ground

—the reek of decay —rotting scarecrows—

they advance in onslaught, an invading horde,

wraiths risen again, arrayed for battle

in dim dreamings  dawn breaks shivering

their feinted front; falter, melt blurring                                 

to stipes like straw …the stuff of shadows

that dwindle to dust. The day broadens

till wilting culms, and caps withering,

return as toadstools.                                                                    Autumn toadstools

                                It is the time of Samhain’s

Cross-Quarter feast, calends of Winter

and a season’s end […]                                                                              

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