I first heard of Chaucer from my mum. When she studied one of her favourite parts of literature were the mysterious and boisterous lyrics from the dark ages; whether it be Old Norse Vikings or the Green Knight and Sir Gawain in Arthurian lands. I had never read any old medieval literature myself until university, but I must admit I was dreading it. I thought it would be gobbedly gook; too hard to read with ease, old, musty and gruesomely boring. But I was wrong, marvellously so. Perhaps it’s because I had a teacher who really, really loved what she taught, but reading Chaucer’s Canterbury tales really did grip me. They were profound, bawdy, hilarious and sad- sometimes all at once. I found myself seeing so many parallels between the dung heaped and bejewelled carnage of middle England, against the fibre-optic entangled and petrol dowsed world of today. Who knew that a good fart gag would be funny for people who lived hundreds of years ago the same as it is now?
This brings me to today’s Tomboy recommendation… a 21st century reworking of the world famous Canterbury Tales: ‘Telling Tales’ by Patience Agbabi. It is ambitious, riotous and enchanting in what it seeks to do. Taking Chaucer’s tried and tested lyrics, and exploding them outwards to give old stories new life in a variety of forms, from sonnet sequences to long skinny poems ricocheting their rhymes page after page.
Chaucer wrote for the sound and performance of language. Not many people could read back in day- what a surprise– and Chaucer wrote in English at a time when most ‘upper-class’ writers would have written in French; he was a proto-slam poet rebel me thinks, endorsing a language which normal people could hear and enjoy, instead of keeping all the literature in a language exclusive to nobility. And this attention to pleasing crowds with the tonal beauty of language is a tradition that Agbabi has mastered perfectly. Whether you’re reading in muted breaths on the train, or muttering the words to yourself in bed each poem has a different cadence that not only entertains, but helps reflect the story of the tale she is reworking. The lewd hilarity of the Miller’s Tale comes out with a freshness that nods to the past whilst still being perfect in reflecting how we speak and keep ourselves amused today: ‘Get me a pint of Southwark piss!/ It all took place in a pub like this.’
Not only has Agbabi reworked The Canterbury Tales in a whole host of different forms to access different paces of rhyme (not all carry ordered meter, some poems use looser arrangements, fractured and sparse, more tender handlings), she has also given the pilgrims themselves a make-over. No longer are they travelling to pray at Canterbury Cathedral, competing with each other for a meal with their stories. Agbabi has them touring a poetry show, performing their poetries for each other on the way to their final destination. The characters are poets, writers- all unique, and often Kooky. The wife of Bath is now Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa, a Nigerian business woman out for money, men and laughs. The Reeve is no longer Oswald- entrepreneurial landowning sour-puss- but ‘Ozymandia’: ‘expelled from school before she learnt to hate poetry. Taught herself Anglo-Saxon… now lives in Leeds.’
One of my favourite re-tellings is that of Ozymandia Reeves’, ‘Tit for Tat’. In the original (to summarize very briefly), two clerks try to get revenge against a dastardly miller, Sympkin who lets loose the clerks’ horse and steals their grain. Vengeance is had by fucking Sympkin’s daughter and his wife, then stealing back their bread and running away after Sympkin’s wife hits him on the head with a pan (bit mad, but that’s why Chaucer is great). In Agbabi’s version, the clerks are not Cambridge scholars, but Butch Al and Fem Gen- two dykes in need of weed with a pet dog instead of a horse. The poem is told through the view of the dog (named Little Weed) and it is hilarious: ‘me, sniffer dog/ laid off, Bad dog, for sniffing drugs’. Sympkin is Psycho, a dodgy dealer who tries to sell Butch Al and Fem Jen dried lawn as purple haze. Their retaliation is based of Chaucer, and I don’t want to spoil the funniness of the poem, but I shall say this- it’s a tale of two dykes and their dog swindling a dealer with the end result of ‘free food, free dope, free cakes, free love’ (what’s not to get gassed about there?).
Ultimately, I think Chaucer would be proud of Agbabi. She takes universal themes, concerns like farting and death and fidelity and love, that were all as important back then as they are today, but re-energizes them in a way so that it doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the original (though I do recommend). She gives our multi-cultural society today a glimpse of itself through time, showing that we don’t just progress and leave what’s past behind. Humans are humans, we will always be heroic and gross and romantic- and united. I like to imagine Patience and Geoffrey together: a bi-black woman of the 21st century and a middle aged white male scholar from a time where the world was flat, both believing in the power of language to entertain and inspire, to reflect and celebrate the chaos we will always live in.
“Chaucer Tales, track by track, here’s the remix
from below-the-belt base to the topnotch;
I wont stop all the clocks with a stopwatch
when the tales overrun, run offensive,
or run clean out of steam, they’re authentic
cos we’re keeping it real, reminisce this:
Chaucer Tales were an unfinished business…”