In the mediaeval form known as cancrizans, one or more parts proceed normally, while the imitating voice or voices give out the melody backwards. The name derives from cancer, the Latin term for a river-crab or sea-crab, though, as one authority observes, crabs tend to move sideways rather than backwards. This palindromic form came into use in the fourteenth century and surfaced again in the serial music of our own time.
David Munrow notes, of Guillaume de Machaut’s Ma fin est dans ma commencement, that “the words of the popular mediaeval aphorism provide less of a text than instructions for performance” and, remarking that in such a canon “the words inevitably obscure the overall symmetry”, he elected to go for a purely instrumental performance. In addition to the antecedent voice and the reversed consequent, Machaut had added a third voice which is itself compactly palindromic, moving from its opening to a point, exactly midway in the piece, from which it meticulously undoes itself, note by note, until it re-arrives at its commencement.
In the present instance, the drift having been established, the identical voices are intermeshed to weave the palindromic net. This is roughly analogous to Machaut’s canon, with the first four voices combining to produce the first line of each composite verse, the second four making the middle lines, and the final four contributing the last line of each verse. Here too, the words obscure the symmetry.
You already know that diamonds are forever, and that gold is a noble and perfect metal. I can’t recall where to find the clearest account of how ideas of order, of exact cyclical repetition, were first derived from the periodicity of the stars.
According to a citation in the Opies’ Dictionary of Superstitions, “on the East coast [of Scotland] the salmon is the red fish, the liberty fish, the foul fish, or simply the fish.” Sometimes, ‘salmon’ being a taboo word, it was called ‘The Beast’. The weather-cock on the top of St. Anne’s Church in Shandon, Cork, is a giant salmon, indicating the importance of the fishing industry of the River Lee to the citizenry of two centuries ago. The tower on which it sits summarises the neighbouring geology in its two faces of silver limestone, two of red sandstone. The turret-clock within is known locally as ‘the four-faced liar’ as each renders its own version of the time. In his paper on The Fish of Life and the Salmon of Life, the Swedish folklorist Bo Almqvist documents “the belief that the soul or principle of life manifests itself in the shape of a fish”.
The first Emperor of China standardised measure in the subjugated lands, and his successors enclosed exotic game with ‘intelligence parks’ for hunting and amazement. Sir William Petty in his seventeenth-century Survey imposed a new taxonomic order on the territories of Ireland, completing their reduction. In the final chapter of her Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas describes how “the attitude to rejected bits and pieces goes through two stages. First they are recognisably out of place, a threat to good order, and so are regarded as objectionable and vigorously brushed away … This is the stage at which they are dangerous; their half-identity still clings to them and the clarity of the scene in which they obtrude is impaired by their presence. But a long process of pulverising, dissolving and rotting awaits any physical things that have been recognised as dirt. In the end, all identity is gone … So long as identity is absent, rubbish is not dangerous. It does not even create ambiguous perceptions …”
The line “and then there is this sound the red noise of bones” is from the poem Agua Sexual in the second volume of Neruda’s Residencia en la Tierra. Sean O Boyle records, when discussing The Irish Song Tradition, the curse of an old woman, having finished a song on the wreck of a fishing-boat on its way to the off-shore grounds: “the thieving sea, the thieving sea. They say it will go into three quart jugs on the day of Judgement”. The fear that we may suffer a severe exposure was in the financial pages of some paper I’ve forgotten.