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Monthly Archives: January 2020

The Collected Poems of Robert Desnos, translated by Timothy Adès (Arc Publications, 2017), Despair Has Wings: Selected Poems of Pierre Jean Jouve (Enitharmon Press, 2007), Robert Desnos, translated by Martin Bell (Art Translated)

The Collected Poems of Robert Desnos, translated by Timothy Adès (Arc Publications, 2017), Despair Has Wings: Selected Poems of Pierre Jean Jouve (Enitharmon Press, 2007), Robert Desnos, translated by Martin Bell (Art Translated)

In the opening poem of the 1926 sequence À La Mystérieuse (To the Woman of Mystery) Robert Desnos wrote

J’ai rêvé cette nuit de paysages insensés et d’aventures
dangereuses aussi bien du point de vue de la mort que du
point de vue de la vie qui sont aussi le point de vue de l’amour.

In this ambitious new translation of Desnos, one which will I suspect remain the standard text for some years to come, Timothy Adès suggests the following as a bridge crossing two different languages:

I dreamed last night of unhinged landscapes and dangerous
adventures, as much from death’s viewpoint as from life’s,
and they are both the viewpoint of love.

The word ‘unhinged’ conveys a colloquial awareness of how one might refer to madness and indeed Martin Bell’s translation of the same line offered support for this when he rendered the line into English as ‘Tonight I dreamed of insane landscapes’. However, Adès’s use of the word ‘unhinged’ also prompts us to contemplate an idea concerning the possibility of an opening, a taking down of shutters, and this idea is taken further in the last poem of the sequence, ‘À la Faveur de la Nuit’:

Mais la fenêtre s’ouvre et le vent, le vent qui balance bizarrement
La flame et le drapeau entoure ma fuite de son manteau.

(But the window is opening and the breeze, the breeze weirdly
juggling flame and flag, wraps my retreat in its cloak.)

When the hinges of the window open in this fifth poem of the sequence the poet is compelled to recognise that the space now exposed offers no entrance to his desired lover, the night-club singer Yvonne George. Whereas only a few lines earlier Desnos had become aware of a shadow outside his window, ‘Cette ombre à la fenêtre’, and felt that the ghostly image was that of the woman whose eyes he would wish to close with his lips he is now compelled to recognise that ‘it isn’t you’ and that ‘I knew that’. The siren-like attraction of Yvonne George for the young Desnos offers an echo of a poetic heritage which must include the knight of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ who is ensnared by the lady’s ‘wild wild eyes’ as he closes them ‘with kisses four’.
Adès uses this word ‘unhinged’ in an equally intriguing way when translating a much later poem from Desnos’s 1944 sequence Contrée (Against the Grain). Timothy Adès tells us that ‘Le Paysage’ (‘The Countryside’) was the first poem by Desnos that he had ever discovered and translated; it was to be found in The Penguin Book of French Verse. The sonnet casts a backward glance at love from a different perspective and the poet is compelled to recognise that for him

Love’s not that storm whose lightning kindled high
Towers, unhorsed, unhinged, and fleetingly
Would set the parting of the ways aglow.

This later concept of love becomes something more concrete altogether, a ‘flint’ that his ‘footstep sparks at night’, a word that ‘no lexicon can render right’.
If poetry possesses the power to make the invisible visible then the earlier poem had made every attempt to give the muse form:

My laughter and joy crystallise around you, It’s your make-
up, your powder, your rouge, your snakeskin bag, your
silk stocking…it’s also that little fold between ear and
nape, where the neck is born.

Clearly the poet’s understanding of love was inextricably bound up with the language of the visual and echoed perhaps the suggestive words of André Breton: ‘les mots font l’amour’. But the later use of ‘unhinged’ suggests, however, a different awareness of love’s power and that despite not being ‘that storm’ it can remain enduring as ‘Still I love’ and the words become contained within the more defined structure of a sonnet: a more formal approach to language seems like a recognition of ‘Old age’ making ‘all things fixed and luminous.’
In March 1933 Pierre Jean Jouve wrote an astonishing essay ‘The Unconscious, Spirituality, Catastrophe’ in which ‘poetry is in possession of a number of ways of attaining to the symbol – which, no longer controlled by the intellect, rises up by itself, redoubtable and wholly real. It is like a substance discharging force. And as the sensibility becomes accustomed, through training, to proceed from the phrase to the line of verse, from the commonplace word to that of magic, the quest for formal adequacy becomes inseparable from the quest for buried treasure.’ Jouve’s own 1938 poem about interior landscapes pursued that search for what could be uncovered within the formalities of language by suggesting that ‘The mighty pillars of poetry form towns’ and that ‘Evening sinks and solidifies about men’s mortal limbs’ as ‘A mourning girl goes gathering into her aproned gown / The scattered ashes of the man she loved.’
The interweaving connection between Desnos and Jouve, those two pioneering French poets of the mid-twentieth century, might perhaps also be illustrated by the break Desnos made with the Surrealist movement in 1929. As Adès puts it in the notes he has added to his monumental edition of the poems Desnos had realised that love for Yvonne was a hopeless case and in a poem from 16th November, ‘The Poem to Florence’, he asserted that ‘The gates have been bolted on Wonderland’. As Desnos went on to proclaim in his ‘offensive and sarcastic’ Third Manifesto of Surrealism (1st March 1930): ‘Surrealism has now fallen into the public domain’.
Arc’s excellent publication of these Collected Poems, subtitled ‘Surrealist, Lover, Resistant’, goes a long way towards making that exclamatory statement an evident reality just as Enitharmon’s re-issuing of the Gascoyne translations of Jouve’s Selected Poems offers an opening, an unhinging, a suggestion that, as its subtitle affirms, ‘Despair Has Wings’.

Ian Brinton 20th January 2020

Aliens, angels & annunciations: Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell in conversation

Aliens, angels & annunciations: Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell in conversation

Rupert Loydell: So, A Confusion of Marys is finally out. A couple of people have asked about the process, the research, and motive for writing it. I can talk about trips to Italy and being mesmerised by a couple of Fra Angelica paintings, and then following through by looking at lots more annunciations and art and photography about angels, about deliberately [mis]reading works of art and events as annunciations, and a vague idea of something from elsewhere intruding into the human realm, but what’s your perception of coming on board as it were? I honestly can’t recall how we ended up doing those Joyful Mysteries pamphlets and then the Impossible Songs pamphlet.

Sarah Cave: I grew up a Christian and have been mentally dealing with what that means for the best part of three decades. My long poem in A Confusion of Marys was really my way of trying to understand Mary – a figure of grace – and to draw her for myself; beyond the annunciation, beyond liturgy. I think our conversations about the annunciation and John F Deane’s beautiful sequence of poems about Lydia in Give Dust a Tongue – the woman Jesus meets at Jacob’s well – helped frame how I wanted Mary to emerge in her own right. Also, when Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk Prayer’ was released in a softer form by the Norwegian singer Moddi, I was struck by their pleas, ‘Mary, our hands are tied in prayer / Help us if you’re there!’ and ‘O Holy Mary, be a feminist!’. I was also struck by the way that Maria Alyokhina talked about faith in interviews; faith wasn’t something that belonged to the church but to the individual. ‘Punk Prayer’ isn’t irreligious, it’s rather an intercession begging Mary to dissolve the kyriarchy and free women from society’s oppressive expectations.

I think the two pamphlets we did were a combination of this and some very silly poems about ducks. I’m certain there was an element of irreverent one-upmanship going on there too.

RL: So, what’s an autophagy then? And what’s it got to do with Mary or the annunciation? Explain yourself!

SC: Autophagy literally means self-eating.

It’s a biological process of cell regeneration – clearing out old cells to encourage regrowth – and I’m interested in the idea of regenerative theology. I was a cradle Anglican and within that tradition Mary is more of a backseat figure – usually appearing in knitted form at crib services – no intercessions etc. I wanted to bring her to the forefront and to understand how, in her all pervasive way, she has shaped my life and the expectations people place on my life – gender, sexuality, politics, mysticism – and the lives of the women around me, and of course, how those expectations must have affected Mary’s own life.

I like that the title, A Confusion of Marys, evokes a sense of the process of writing and re-writing, the Marian annunciation scene as palimpsest. Was this deliberate?

RL: Very much so. I thought of it as a series of variations, accumulations and versions of the same event – including, as you say, some very silly and jokey ideas. I wanted to get away from any idea of theological certainty, I’m much more interested in doubt and myth, symbolism and tangential ideas than anything fixed or final. I like stories that get retold throughout culture, and the annunciation certainly seems to be one that has. I guess the long prose poem that opens the book is an attempt to pile up versions of the story: it could be this, or this, or like that, or what about this?

I confess I’m quite interested in being slightly irreverent, too. I’m not very good at po-faced religion in any shape or form, although I quite like some traditional liturgy. But I abhor those who use their certainty as an excuse for censorship, racism, hatred and abuse.

I enjoyed finding some of the images of angels and annunciations I did. There’s a surprising amount of angel imagery, for instance, in contemporary photography, and many abstract paintings use ‘Annunciation’ as a title. I don’t think these tie in to any version of the traditional Mary and angel story, but I was happy to make the link for myself, just as I did with other ideas such as a magician and his assistant, or boys at a fancy dress party.

From what you’ve said, I’m guessing that your work is actually much more personal to you, and less ideas-driven, than mine is? I’m not suggesting it’s autobiography, but more concerned with ideas that are really important to you, whereas mine could be seen as a bit of an intellectual joke?

SC: Yes, they’re ideas that are important to me because I feel part of those stories. I see their patterns in my own life and the books that I read; a kind of cultural pareidolia, the culture I am simultaneously absorbing and rejecting, honouring and dishonouring. But, of course, the sequence isn’t autobiographical, no more than any other post-confessional poetry.

I think humour, play and irreverence are important when talking about theology. Human spirituality is such a beautifully absurd thing and, as you say, there’s nothing worse than po-faced believers, who sit in judgement. It’s the first step to exclusion and ‘theological certainty’ is what makes heretics and heresy is merely an historical excuse for killing people who don’t agree with you. There’s no way either of us would have survived the inquisition!

You don’t have to look much further than the bible for the sense of versioning, which you’re talking about. I love that this weird and supposedly holy text is the best sense the Council of Nicaea could make of the disparate strands of accounts, prophesy and scripture, and gloriously, it still doesn’t make much sense.

Did you have a personal sense of Mary? Where did your interest in her start?

RL: I’ve always been very resistant to any sense of Marian theology. Saints weren’t a thing in the church I was brought up in, and Mary was simply a human being chosen by God. I think I’m mostly interested in the painting and the way people do turn Mary into something else, almost non-human: it’s very strange to me. I keep coming back to that moment as the idea of worlds colliding; it’s not just me being silly when I wrote about the annunciation as an alien encounter.

Having said that, a lot of the contemporary art I looked at, such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation and the book of it, is very concerned with female human experience, with exploring the story through Mary’s eyes. And of course I’ve reversioned the story from both the male and female gaze, from lustful angels and desirous Mary, with the idea of the angel turning up via an online dating agency, to Joseph’s point-of-view, feeling resentful and sidelined in both the original event and the ensuing art.

It’s strange how once an idea starts – and originally my sense of the annunciation was very much to do with Renaissance art and Italy, as well as colour and ekphrasis – one can interpret almost anything through the lens of a particular story or event. At times it feels like an endless and somewhat ridiculous shaggy dog story, but it’s become a real way to think about all sorts of stories and encounters in the world, a way of understanding human beings. So, I guess my ‘sense of Mary’ is not very specific, it’s about bewildered, frightened, confused and perhaps empowered humans caught up in strange encounters and activities, sometimes aware they are within a painting, sculpture, film or story.

I can’t help thinking about a text I use to teach the first years with, where Gabriel Josipovici talks about how stories die unless they are changed, reinvented, argued over and made new. He also questions the idea of ownership of stories, or even being able to ‘ring-fence’ them. Perhaps we are just part of a religious and artistic dialogue?

SC: Gosh, yes. The book is undoubtedly part of a wider dialogue. Even in Christianity there are so many different interpretations, the same story manifesting through art, literature and performance; from fish and crosses scratched in caves, renaissance frescoes, Sunday school cartoons, those strange graphics in religious pamphlets and school plays. I love the version of the nativity in the Quran, which has Mary give birth to the prophet, while clinging to a palm tree.

I don’t know about you, but one of the first things I was asked to do at Sunday school was to draw Jesus, which started off abstract and developed over the years into crayon stick people with palm leaves, poster paint crucifixions and pasta shaped ascensions. We’ve come an awful long way in two thousand years with this particular story, considering only half a century ago re-versions by writers such as Robert Graves, Nikos Kazantzakis et al were met with horror and derision; it’s only forty years since The Life of Brian upset Malcolm Muggeridge and the Archbishop of York. I find Michael Palin’s visible pain at being told the film is irreligious during that debate very identifiable. For me, a sense of irreverence is its own reverie.

In ‘Autophagy’, I’ve tried to create my own Marian theology, based on tracing a matriarchal line of caregiving. By looking at the other women in the bible, such as Sarah and Hagar, allowed me to draw lines of comparison between different aspects of female experience. Sarah had her own miraculous conception, and, like Elizabeth’s, it went beyond biological expectation. God blesses Sarah but he also causes a rupture between her and her handmaiden Hagar. Women’s relationships are footnotes in the bible and the more we think about them the less clear cut the stories are and the less suitable for the simplistic moral guidance deployed by some believers.

© Sarah Cave & Rupert Loydell 2020
14th January 2020

Mentoring Services

Mentoring Services

If you have a troubling collection or are uncertain about your literary work and the way forward, why not use the Tears in the Fence Mentoring and Critical Appraisal services? The editors, Louise Buchler and David Caddy offer a range of services in poetry, fiction, drama, performance, scriptwriting and voice work.

Playwright, Performance Studies Lecturer, actress and poet, Louise Buchler is offering Mentoring in Scriptwriting and Verse Drama under the same scheme. She has more than twelve years of experience lecturing in Writing for both Stage and Screen. She made the shortlist for the National Theatre London’s Africa Playwriting Competition recognising her as one of the top twenty playwrights on the African continent. Her plays have been widely performed. Her poetry has been published in Tears in the Fence and various publications in South Africa. Louise is also available for Performance and Voice coaching. Please email Louise at tearsinthefence@gmail.com

Poet, essayist and editor, David Caddy offers critical appraisals and mentoring in Poetry, Flash Fiction and Publication for other literary genres and projects. This involves taking a manuscript from first draft to publication, advising on where to send your work and the range of available options for a prospective poet and author.

Recent comments on their mentoring include:

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‘The appraisals from David and Louise were thoughtful and precise. Their feedback ranged from specific matters of craft to the broader question of how I might take my writing forward. They responded to the work on its own terms and even picked up on recurring motifs and concerns I hadn’t been aware of myself.’ Phil Baber

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Matrix I & Matrix II by David Miller (Guillemot Press)

Matrix I & Matrix II by David Miller (Guillemot Press)

‘the green edge of yesterday’

In 1958 William Carlos Williams wrote his ‘autobiography of the works of a poet’ in conversation with Edith Heal. The title of the book was unflinchingly clear: I Wanted to Write a Poem. In the early pages Williams talked about the writing of his 1920 publication Kora in Hell: Improvisations and gave an account of its inception:

“For a year I used to come home and no matter how late it was before I went to bed I would write something. And I kept writing, writing, even if it were only a few words, and at the end of the year there were 365 entries. Even if I had nothing in my mind at all I put something down…They were a reflection of the day’s happenings more or less, and what I had had to do with them.”

Realising that he would need to “interpret” these thoughts Williams found a book that Ezra Pound had left in his house, Varie Poesie dell’ Abate Pietro Metastasio, Venice, 1795 and he took the method used by the Abbot of drawing a line between his improvisations (“those more or less incomprehensible statements”) and his interpretations of them. Williams chose the frontispiece to his volume from a drawing done by a young artist from Gloucester, Stuart Davis: “It was, graphically, exactly what I was trying to do in words, put the Improvisations down as a unit on the page. You must remember I had a strong inclination all my life to be a painter. Under different circumstances I would rather have been a painter than to bother with these god-damn words. I never actually thought of myself as a poet but I knew I had to be an artist in some way. Anyhow, Floss and I went to Gloucester and got permission from Stuart Davis to use his art – an impressionistic view of the simultaneous.” And it is that impressionistic view of what happens in the present that seems to haunt David Miller’s deeply moving new volumes, heralding in a new year, a New decade: moments of memory appearing sharply in focus before the merging together of movements. An “arcade in memory or dream” precedes the “pianist forced to dig hard earth with his fingers” but one who “played no more”.
Threading its path through the twenty lyrical pieces of Matrix I there is “calligraphy entwined with drawing” as “my words entwined her art”. Personal recollections are given the exactness of place and Miller’s musical rhythms sound drawn by the “ink & Chinese brushes / bought in a Chinese supermarket // in Gerrard Street / c. 1973”. Descending “the chines / in darkness // & in wind” the poet remembers “how I phoned you one evening / in despair” and the quietness of personal recollection borrows movement from a reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’ in which the ending of the first section (“Despair, despair, despair, despair”) is followed by the echo which is golden:

“Spare!
There is one, yes I have one (Hush there!),
Only not within seeing of the sun.
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
Ońe.”

Miller’s movement is from “despair” to an impressionistic reconstruction which merges the domestic and the ubiquitous:

“30 years later we met again
& soon after we married

so many wasted years
amongst fickle & false friends

along with the few
who truly counted

– in dream
a tiny being sylph-like

wings useless
clogged with mud

stranded in a gutter
crying for help”

In late Latin the word ‘matrix’ refers to the womb: that dark place in which new growth commences and, as we stand upon the bones of the past, we can glimpse both who and where we are. It is with this movement forward that Matrix II opens with “a bent tree by / the water’s edge” and “now in Dorset // an old farmhouse / & converted outbuilding”.

David Miller’s impressionistic world of sight and sound, of memory and desire, is an unforgettable realisation of the movement of age:

“heavy rain
all night

nonsequences
no

but going back
& forth

I slept little that night
dreaming of friends…dead

who had no desire
to protest or complain

nor to stay

These two lyrical sequences are a moving tribute to a poet’s awareness of the past. Like the fifth ‘Improvisation’ from Williams’s Kora there is a “beautiful white corpse of night” and voices are “restfully babbling of how, where, why and night is done and the green edge of yesterday has said all it could.”

Ian Brinton, January 1st 2020

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