Caliban, Gregory Leadbetter
Dare-Gale Press, 2023 £7.00
‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises’
This is one of the strangest poetry experiments I have read. Five poems, dramatic monologues, in the voice of Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. They are rendered phonetically in Shakespearean OP (original pronunciation). Read aloud, they should sound like a person in the south of England speaking four centuries ago (although English is not his first language).
The first challenge is whether your ‘listening eye’ can pick up the sound patterns correctly. You can get a bit of help by listening to the author performing them, beautifully, on the Dare-Gale website. It’s a good idea to do that, I think, unless your ear is already attuned to OP. If the worst comes to the worst (‘the worst is not so long as we can say…’), the pamphlet includes a second version of the five poems in contemporary mode.
In the author’s preface, we learn that the poet also discovered ‘an other-tongue active within the more familiar language — an English hidden within English’. So there is something mysterious going on here, something that can’t easily be pinned down.
Caliban is also, of course, telling a story. Prospero has sent him back to the island on a mission — but no spoilers here. The compelling interest is the strange voice talking, and the unique way it communicates. Although the OP is Shakespearean, to me the rhythms don’t feel typically Elizabethan, though iambic pentameter recurs and underpins things. The way enjambment functions feels modern to me too, as does the recurring present tense so typical of today’s poetry (‘I prick muy fingerr and flick the blood’; ‘I weep: quyet as tearrs, Setebos laffs’; ‘I catch and spit a marmoset’; ‘Forgive me, motherr: I begin to dig.’)
But altogether this set of poems is deliciously odd, a collector’s item. I’ll leave you with a taster:
I fuynd the book in a cruwn
uv coral, fed buy its birr as mushrumps
feed on rot: I snatch it as it sleeps
and kick to eaven till I sahrfis, bahrrst through
the cairve’s flohrr: the book is as druy as a skull
in the deserrt