As a continuation of my blog about the translations of Peter Huchel’s poetry I want now to draw attention to a very different piece of translation work by Martyn Crucefix as he transports lines from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid in order to draw together associations between the Trojan hero’s journey to the land of the Dead and the plight of refugees seeking escape from war-torn countries such as Syria.
In the Afterword Crucefix tells of listening on his headphones to Ian McKellen’s reading from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI and says
‘The timing is crucial. I’m listening to these powerful words in March 2016 and, rather than the banks of the Acheron and the spirits of the dead, they conjure up the distant Mediterranean coastline I’m seeing every day on my TV screen: desperate people fleeing their war-torn countries.’
Crucefix then goes on to bring our focus to bear upon the drowned corpse of Alan Kurdi found on a beach near Bodrum, Turkey:
‘In the summer of 2015, this three-year old Syrian boy of Kurdish origins and his family had fled the war engulfing Syria. They hoped to join relatives in the safety of Canada and were part of the historic movement of refugees from the Middle East to Europe at that time. In the early hours of September 2nd, the family crowded onto a small inflatable boat on a Turkish beach. After only a few minutes, the dinghy capsized. Alan, his older brother, Ghalib, and his mother, Rihanna, were all drowned. They joined more than 3,600 other refugees who died in the eastern Mediterranean that year.’
As the train sped across the southern counties and the fields of England ‘swept past’ Crucefix found that ‘Virgil’s poem continued to evoke the journeys of refugees such as the Kurdi family’.
In Book VI of Aeneid Virgil pleads with the Gods to lend him strength so that he can report back what he witnesses and this in turn is what leads Crucefix to use the narrative voice of a witnessing photojournalist in Cargo of Limbs. The narrator tries to bring into perspective a sense of ‘the blue-black seethe / of the Mediterranean / the longed-for the far-off / those sun-lit harbours / beyond risky nights / a body washed to the beach –’ In Martyn Crucefix’s lines Charon, the boatman ferrying the souls of the dead, is seen as a people smuggler
‘standing rich in rags
right hand out-stretched
for help as well as coin
the shadows of a beard
on his chin have not seen
a blunt razor in days’
The words ‘rich in rags’ seem to offer an image of one of the perks traditionally associated with a public executioner: the acquisition of artefacts belonging to those who are about to lose their lives. The refugees clamour to be taken aboard as they ‘plead and proffer / what little they possess’ and ‘grab his hand’ as though to seek support from the concerned ferryman. With a seeming concern for the safety of his cargo this Charon assists his passengers as they enter into the ‘dinghy’s wet mouth / the oil-stinking holds’
‘where shuttered waters
pool and the need to bale
this blue-black water
slapping on all sides
slaps across the way ahead’
In his deeply moving and disturbing account of such a present-day reality Crucefix is aware that he may run a risk of that tension between a focus upon suffering and its exploitation. He tells us of Christopher Büchel’s ‘rusty hull of a fishing boat’ that ‘was installed’ at the Venice Biennale in June 2019:
‘The vessel had foundered off the Italian island of Lampedusa in April 2015 with 700 refugees aboard. Only 28 survived. When the Italian authorities recovered the vessel in 2016 there were 300 bodies trapped inside. Büchel called his work Barca Nostra (Our Boat) and there is little doubting his (and the Biennale’s) good intentions to raise public awareness of the plight of refugees.’
Commenting upon Büchel’s work an article in The Observer suggested that the exhibition diminished, even exploited, the suffering of those who died ‘losing any sense of political denunciation, transforming it into a piece [of art] in which provocation prevails over the goal of sensitising the viewer’s mind.’ As a response to this it might be of some purpose to think carefully of the role of the translator and in his introduction to David Hadbawnik’s Aeneid Books I-VI (Shearsman Books, 2015, reviewed on this blog soon after it came out) Chris Piuma referred to translation as ‘a carrying across, from one language to another, from one culture to another, from one time and place to another.’ Translation is itself a crossing of borders, a transforming of what is there to be registered. Piuma went on to suggest that other cultures use other metaphors to talk about translation, such as ‘turning’ and he introduced Hadbawnik’s work in these terms:
‘There are enough other translations of this poem for the nervous. There is something in the original text that can only be reached by turning it. Turn the syntax of a phrase, turn the layout of a line, turn up or down the register of a speech. Turn some scenes into images…and let the reader turn to the image, to rest and reconsider.’
In Hadbawnik’s version the crowding of those refugees seeking a place on Charon’s boat is seen ‘like foliage swept up in the autumn wind’ or ‘sea birds flocking the land in winter chill.’ In Dryden’s version from 1697 the lines were brought across the border from Latin to English in a way that is still echoed in our more modern versions:
‘Thick as the Leaves in Autumn strow the Woods:
Or Fowls, by Winter forc’d, forsake the Floods,
And wing their hasty flight to happier Lands:
Such, and so thick, the shiv’ring Army stands:
And press for passage with extended hands.’
In the deeply moving and angry tones of Martyn Crucefix’s Cargo of Limbs he can raise a camera to carry us, as readers, across a border into a world of which we should be aware.
Ian Brinton 24th March 2020
Reblogged this on Martyn Crucefix and commented:
Ian Brinton has also reviewed my second autumn 2019 publication from Hercules Editions.