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Monthly Archives: August 2019

Maldon – A Version by Michael Smith (Shearsman Library)

Maldon – A Version by Michael Smith (Shearsman Library)

I think that this is a startlingly powerful version of the Anglo-Saxon poem from 991 in which the fragmented narrative of the battle between invading Vikings and the East-Saxon earl, Byrhtnoth is given to us with an immediacy that is recognisably modern. Michael Smith’s note to his translation recognises the powerful influence of both Ezra Pound and Basil Bunting and in this way echoes the words of David Slavitt whose version of the Old English poem was published in The Word Exchange, Anglo-Saxon poems in translation (Norton 2011). Slavitt had suggested that his willingness to undertake the task of translation “was informed…by the echoes of Ezra Pound’s rendition of The Seafarer…in which the weird mannerisms of much of his own poetry look to be normalized and functional”:

“To a considerable degree, The Seafarer opens the door, then, to the rest of his work and illuminates it. The effort seems to be to depart as far as possible from normative English and still be intelligible. And what comes of that is a freshness, a response to his own imperative to Make it new.”

Michael Smith’s version of The Battle of Maldon is dramatically alive:

“…it was sundered.

He said to his soldiers

to set free their horses,

to drive them far off,

and on foot to fare forth,

to think of their hands

and boldness of bravery.

Then the kinsman of Offa

first found out

that the earl was unwilling

to countenance cowardice.

From his hands he let fly

his falcon, his fair one,

toward the wood in the distance,

and he went to the battle.

In his introduction to this lovely addition to the Shearsman Library, Smith tells us that he consciously retained the fragmentary nature of the piece because he felt that it added a sense of authenticity and realism. In terms of this ‘realism’ he then points us to a statement made by Borges about that small moment of the releasing of the falcon in which the Argentinian writer asserted that “Given the epic harshness of the poem, the phrase lêofne…hafoc (literally, ‘his beloved hawk’) moves us extraordinarily”.

In January 2016 I reviewed Kat Peddie’s Spaces for Sappho (Oystercatcher Press) and referred to Hugh Kenner’s fourth chapter of The Pound Era in which the American critic had focussed on one of Sappho’s fragments. Pound had written to Iris Barry in 1916 to complain about the “soft mushy edges” of British poetry and concluded with the suggestion that concision, “saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words” was essential to the stirring of the reader. I go back to Kat Peddie’s poems to see once more those spaces on the page and those clearest of words which she leaves as stone markers.
And where else do I go? Well, to Christopher Logue’s version of extracts from Homer’s Illiad in War Music (Cape 1981):

“Consider planes at touchdown – how they poise;
Or palms beneath a numbered hurricane;
Or birds wheeled sideways over windswept heights;
Or burly salmon challenging a weir;
Right-angled, dreamy fliers, as they ride
The instep of a dying wave, or trace
Diagonals on snowslopes”

Michael Smith makes it clear from the start that he is not attempting “to replicate slavishly the original metre” of the Ango-Saxon but that he is instead making a new poem. It is with this in mind that one should recall the words Samuel Johnson used when asked about a newly published translation of Aeschylus:

“We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation.”

Michael Smith’s Maldon is a fine poem and I encourage all budding poets to read it!

Ian Brinton, 17th August 2019

Casket by Andy Brown, 2019 the vase in pieces by Rod Mengham

Casket by Andy Brown, 2019 the vase in pieces by Rod Mengham

As I have mentioned before there is something powerfully elegiac threading its sinuous path through Andy Brown’s poetry and “the bloodlines that flow through our bodies are those veins and arteries that pump our sense of immediacy: they keep the here and now moving” (Review of Bloodlines, Worple Press 2018). Reading the recent Shearsman Chapbook by Brown I am struck yet again by the poet’s haunting use of language as he traces the runic symbols upon the lid of an 8th century Anglo-Saxon treasure chest:

“In all these figures, filigree and knots –
In all this yielding bone that’s swum across
Sea-lanes and history to a monk’s refuge –
The ghosts we see, of course, are no such thing,
But simply what remembrance makes of them;
The laden look we witness on a stranger’s face
That houses recollections of our dead.”

According to Ralph of Coggeshall in his Chronicon Anglicanum a merman was caught at Orford in Suffolk during the reign of Henry II in the 12th century. When Kevin Crossley-Holland produced his version of this event he added a note to say that the merman “was imprisoned in the newly-built castle, did not recognise the Cross, did not talk despite torture, returned voluntarily into captivity having eluded three rows of nets, and then disappeared never to be seen again.” And so a tale is told and the world of the long-gone reappears on the page not only of folk-lore but also of imaginative reconstruction: one might well look at Conrad’s short story of ‘Amy Foster’!

The Franks Casket, housed in the British Museum, is made of whalebone and is decorated with runic inscriptions, some Latin text and images from various religious and mythical traditions. Like all tale-tellers Andy Brown attempts “to capture something of the layered histories, from ancient times to present”. As a lyric poet of distinction he also gives voice to an attempt at translation “of the place where I now live: the river Teign and its surrounding area”.
The poem is in five sections and it opens with an account of the casket’s front panel:

“From the river’s curved calligraphy
We haul up a trawl-net of treasures
And tip the shells out on the sorting rack…
Dark mussels fall in clattering cascades.”

The second section opens with an Olsonian sense of istorin, as the lines echo the words offered by Olson to Dorn in his ‘Bibliography on America’ where he suggested that the young poet should absorb himself intensely and entirely in his subject, “to dig one thing” in a “saturation job” that might require a “lifetime of assiduity”,

“To reach the present day, dig deep
Through the level berm that runs above
The ditch and counterscarp of Castle Dyke”

It was in a workshop session given in Vancouver in 1963 that Olson said the great back door is not only Hesiod but also Beowulf and the poems of Casket open up a gateway through which we can peer at a past.

AND as if from a past the Oystercatcher’s beak pulls up a new treasure: seven substantial poems by Rod Mengham two of which are dedicated to other poets, Peter Hughes and Jeremy Prynne. As if to emphasise the emergence of a distant past the opening poem of this little volume is deeply unsettling:

“those are not the colours of the dawn
but the painted breasts of Iceni women
as fierce and stubborn as sap”

As the past feeds the present a shimmering light of the long-gone acts as a mirage but this can only emphasise the unsettling awareness of isolation. With its quiet nod in the direction of ‘The Waste Land’ it must be clear that “there is no spirit who walks beside you / only a coincidence and its shadow”. In the Preface to ‘Inhabiting Art’, the second section of Grimspound (reviewed on Tears blog, a month ago) Mengham expressed his interest in different types of history:

“Although I have a personal interest in natural history, these essays are about cultural history in relation to landscape and cityscape, cultural history viewed episodically or in the form of a palimpsest, where the present state of the habitat both reveals and conceals its own prehistory, the record of its own formation and transformations.”

‘As It Is’ (to J.H.P.) opens with “Memory is recast from the ground up” and closes with fishes that swim down “under five crushing fathoms”. Ariel’s song to Ferdinand’s ears sinks deep to discover that “the bottom of all the land is this stone”.
Andy Brown’s conclusion to the opening of the casket, to the lifting of the lid, is to demand that “These fragments” are given “back to the machinery / Of the world…this shared and ever constant now.”

Ian Brinton 9th August 2019

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Poetry of any real importance was never going to be the same after T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility” (‘The Metaphysical Poets’). In that essay from 1921 he continued in the manner often quoted as an example of Modernism:

“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

It was one year earlier than this statement that Paul Valéry composed his ‘Le Cimetière Marin’ and only a few years later that he wrote some comments upon the composition of that startling account of a peaceful roof in Sète “trodden solely by the doves” and quivering “between the pines, between the tombs” (Tr. Brinton & Grant):

“…the memory of my attempts, my gropings, inner decipherings, those imperious verbal illuminations which suddenly impose a particular combination of words – as though a certain group possessed some kind of intrinsic power…I nearly said: some kind of will to live, quite the opposite of the freedom or chaos of the mind, a will that can sometimes force the mind to deviate from its plan and the poem to become quite other than what it was going to be and something one did not dream it could be.”

From mind to words on a page a transformation is in action and perhaps this is what most of all in-forms Kelvin Corcoran’s deeply moving lyric sequence recounting his experience of prostate cancer; its diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

The sequence of fourteen poems and a letter opens with a sonnet titled ‘What the Birds Said’:

“I sit by the window and read the poetry received.
I can smell smoke from a neighbour’s garden,
hear a collared dove coo, a buried piano, a distant aircraft.
I can understand these things but in my reading
I lose track of the world in the would-be samizdat.”

Four of these lines from the opening stanza assert the focus upon self but it is a self in motion as sitting moves towards losing track. Awareness and memory are alert to senses of scent and sound but the increasing distance from the opening stasis is felt through “buried” noise becoming “distant” and “understanding” moves in the direction of an underground movement of forbidden publication: one should not talk about these naked feelings!
It is no surprise then that the second stanza should open with a repeated apology: the first being to the poet whose work Corcoran is occupied in reading, the second registering the awareness that “light is draining from the sky” so that “affective meaning has gone in darkness”. Any attempt at distracting the mind by focussing on names (“Rue des Hiboux and Zaventem”) is thwarted by the approaching white-out of snow being forecast. The sonnet closes with the most understandable of returns, to that of childhood when the mother’s song of “To bed, to bed…” concludes with the wise old rook suggesting opening a book so that “we’ll have prayers before we go”:

“a return to first things is forecast – I like that, said the rook,
I can pick at that, I might eat it and then take off into the sky.”

Proximity becomes distance and the act of reading merges with “a distant aircraft”.
Kelvin Corcoran’s poems are deeply moving and they are composed of lyric poetry of the highest order. Prufrock-like he wonders if the mermaids which sing “each to each” (transposed in ‘Oitgang, provisional’ to “Two older nurses” who “work the nightshift”) can be heard “singing in the night / on kitchen chairs in the hospital garden”. And just as Prufrock reflects that “I do not think that they will sing to me”, Corcoran knows the almost overwhelming power of imaginative association:

“Of course there is no garden,
and there is a garden where apophenia blooms” .

This is a major work written by a master and copies should be sought immediately from Tony Frazer at Shearsman Books at http://www.shearsman.com

Ian Brinton 5th August 2019

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