We went to see The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover in The Landmark Theatre in Greenway Plaza in Houston. That was in 1989 and the Greenway Plaza was then the home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. The cinema was more arthouse than mainstream which explains how we saw a Greenaway movie in a Greenway cinema in a place then better known for basketball. Romantic crime drama with cannibalism – just the thing for a brief respite from parenting when we parked our kids with the 5Es for a few hours (a great family with five kids whose names started with E).
The string of words in that movie title always brings a bit of tinker, tailor, soldier, spy to mind. Which may be why I’m ready to write about the rugrat, the bookworm and the treehugger before the getting to the fat cat in the skyscraper. Or not.
These are kennings. The landline, the showstopper and the gas guzzler, all composed of two words that lead you to a third item that you readily comprehend without much thought. I had a brother-in-law who used kennings regularly and I never knew a term to describe his cancer sticks or the shitehawks that often spoiled his car.
I read somewhere that Seamus Heaney was drawn to Beowulf by metalepses and that he enjoyed transumptions. I had no knowledge of periphrasis and no more clue than you now as to what the reviewer was talking about until I had dinner in Wellington. We sat out on the street at the Leuven Cafe eating bowls of Green Lipped Mussels. An American colleague started to quote from The Mabinogion, the great Welsh epics.
It will be easy for me to compass this, although thou mayest think that it will not be easy.
A few more mussels followed by an oyster or two and he progressed to Heaney, quoting from Digging.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
And then he went on to Heaneys’ translation of Beowulf.
My flesh was not for feasting on, there would be no monsters gnawing and gloating over their banquet at the bottom of the sea. Instead, in the morning, mangled and sleeping the sleep of the sword, they slopped and floated like the ocean’s leavings
I almost forgot, the full name of the restaurant was Leuven Belgian Beer Cafe and we’d just come from the other side of the world so perhaps seafood wasn’t the only thing fuelling the poetry recital.
But kennings, where are the kennings in Beowulf that Heaney was said to have loved?
Any search of the internet will turn up a heap of kennings attributed to Beowulf but there is no sword-sweat (blood) in Heaney’s translation. Heaven’s candle I can find but Heaney doesn’t use a sky-candle to represent the sun. Nor does he refer to corpses as raven-harvest.
… the swept harp won’t waken warriors, but the raven winging darkly over the doomed will have news, tidings for the eagle of how he hoked and ate, how the wolf and he made short work of the dead.
And yet kennings are Nordic tradition in so called skaldic rhymes. An elitist tradition perhaps. It is writ that ‘Norse poets evidently took great delight in phrasing their poems in such a way that they could only be fully understood by those who were as steeped in traditional lore as they were.’
Bone-house as a kenning for body is the one that I recall from the streetside cafe in Wellington. I’m not a mind-reader but I suspect that this journal is a bit of an academic hot-potato and I’m just an unqualified head-spinner.