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Sur(rendering) by Mario Martín Gijón Translated by Terence Dooley (Shearsman Books)

Sur(rendering) by Mario Martín Gijón  Translated by Terence Dooley (Shearsman Books)

In an attempt to show that ‘absence’ is more important than ‘presence’ the Elizabethan poet Fulke Greville suggested that ‘like dainty clouds, / On glorious bright’ absence can protect Nature’s ‘weak senses’ from ‘harming light’. However, by the end of ‘Absence and Presence’ the realisation that absence and loss cannot be discussed in these terms compels the poet to say

‘The absence which you glory,
Is that which makes you sorry,
And burn in vain:
For thought is not the weapon,
Wherewith thought’s ease men cheapen,
Absence is pain.’

Threading its path through this deeply moving sequence of lyrics by the Spanish poet Mario Martín Gijón there is what Terence Dooley, the translator, calls ‘a love lost and found’:

‘This might sound like nothing new in the history of poetry, but the poet immerses us in his story by a complex process of linguistic recreation: recreation in the sense of re-invention and recreation also as play, or playfulness.’

These poems are remarkable in the way that they offer the reader a tangible sense of the abstract. Words, fleeting sounds, do not possess the concrete presence of physical reality but in the mouth of a sophisticated poet and brought to our attention by the sympathetic and imaginative skills of the translator they convey the very presence of that which is no longer there. In an introduction provided for us by Dooley and given the title ‘Love Games’ we are offered Eduardo Moga’s words concerning the way in which Gijón works:

‘Words become lexical clay in the hands of the poet, or articulated entities into which other words may be telescoped. Words break, unscrew, crumble onto the page like sand.’

And perhaps a little like sand in an hourglass words pour from mind to page so that the reader can reflect upon what has been sifted and in an early poem in the sequence, ‘the promise of (as)saying you’, we can see the articulation at work:

‘s(u/e)rv(ey)ing you gave
me hope and strength to
cont(ai)n(yo)ue
giving my word ploughed
ground
following the furrows
of your abs(c)ent
body
sowing seed
on barren land’

The idea of casting an overall glance or survey over the barren land of loss is merged with the anger of possibly suing the lost one and eyeing her absence. Hope, as a seed that might promote future presence, is given to the mourner in terms of both containing and continuing and the scent of loss itself retains the presence of the body. This may feel like ‘sowing seed / on barren land’ but the subtle movement of the poem, brought to life in this admirable translation, allows the vividness of ‘furrows’ to retain a sense of what is lying below the surface.
That tangible sense of presence at the time of absence is presented to us with a meditative tone in the poem ‘burnt offering’:

‘terrified by terrain untrodden
by you I
wandered through the suburbs
of your name’

That inability of one person to inhabit the world of another, that awareness that the other possesses a different landscape, is subtly transfixed in the use of the word ‘suburbs’ for the Spanish word ‘afueras’. The sense of having lost someone, their movement from a centre into an outskirt, is caught with the subterranean echo of what might rest in a furrow, a ‘sub/urb’.
This short review is not an essay about this important Spanish poet but is offered as a ‘taster’ of what readers might expect within these pages. Gijón dives ever deeper into ‘the memory of your / eyes’ and concludes with the enduring reality of absence:

‘I am
as landless as possessed’

Having started these brief comments with a reference to an Elizabethan poet it will not perhaps be inappropriate to conclude with some words from another, albeit written in a play from the Jacobean age. As Leontes confronts what appears to be the irredeemable loss of his wife and child in The Winter’s Tale he vows to spend time at their grave in the hope that ‘tears shed there / Shall be my re/creation.’

Ian Brinton 8th June 2020

Atha by Sally-Shakti Willow (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Atha by Sally-Shakti Willow (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Atha is part of Sally-Shakti Willow’s PhD in Utopian Poetics, and indeed reads more like a practical experiment than a poetry collection. The volume begins with some explanatory pages which could have been taken out of a literary theory textbook, explaining Utopian Poetics. The idea is that Utopian Poetics is a medium of meditation ‘in which one encounters one’s embodied and intersubjective self’, which I understand as experiencing oneself, as in a mindfulness or yoga routine. Willow calls this ‘non-alienation’, and the poem ‘performs and anticipates the possibility of non-alienation, whilst operating within the alienation of this world’. This thesis itself rests on more familiar territory for the post-structuralist: ‘Poems need readers to live. Poems need writers to give them form’, essentially a ‘Death of the Author’-esque reader-response theory about the sovereign control of the reader.

The poems, sometimes stimulated by an image, wind in and around the theme of the body, branching out to the external matters that surround the body and penetrate through the mind. The poems resemble a yoga routine in that they attempt to ground their musings in the body, in an attempt to process and then expel or internalize broader topics. One poem repeats the question ‘how to metabolise this’, foregrounding the idea of a bodily digestion, a literal stomaching of the outer world. This conceit works well, and matches the theme of meditation, questioning the possibility of how we live, thrive off, and in that sense ingest the outer world when its iniquities might otherwise poison or corrupt.

Unfortunately, often these poems swiftly turned into the author’s personal tract against specific, perceived evils of the world, singled out with strange selectiveness. War, or violence, or the manifold crookedness that we see in ourselves and individuals as much as in the world around us, does not get a hearing. Meanwhile, fracking, immigration (and Brexit, of course) are presented as universal evils and goods. It is ironic that a poetic mode whose purpose is be a ‘non-violent’ place of ‘non-oppression’, supposedly a ‘function of openness and multiplicity’ ends up being heavily contrived, controlled and didactic. This descent to a sugar-coated attempt to aggrandize one’s own narrow political interpretation certainly sticks in the throat. The result is that, unless you are perfectly aligned with the poet on what is good and bad in our immediate socio-political climate, you will probably struggle to reach Willow’s utopia, which rather undermines what is meant to be a poetry of inclusiveness. Moreover, despite borrowing techniques and concepts from the East, the poems ended up being very Western-centric. The multiplicity and openness of the poetics is thus let down by these spasms of self-righteousness. It is a shame that the arts world has come to expect, and accept, such pompous tunnel-vision.

The general conceit showed promise of an interesting and refreshing insight into the way subjects interact with the world, reconciling mind with body and then mind and body to the outer world. That this collection frequently resembled a confused and inaccessible train of thought, and failed to fulfil its own ethical criteria, makes one question whether Utopian poetics, let alone utopia, is ever attainable. It is perhaps true that both will remain a theory, at best partially embodied in created forms.

Yvette Dell 5th June 2020

Chords by Raymond Crump (SSEA Press / Face Press)

Chords by Raymond Crump (SSEA Press / Face Press)

In a letter dated 14th March 1968 written to Ray Crump and published in Series 3 of The English Intelligencer the Cambridge poet J.H. Prynne asserted something which threads its way through Crump’s poetry:

“Rhyme is the public truth of language, sound paced out in the shared places, the echoes are no-one’s private property or achievement; thus any grace (truly achieved) of sound is political, part of the world of motion and place in which language is like weather, the air we breathe.”

The rhythmic movement revealed in ‘Melancholy’ reminds one a little of the weighing of echoes and tones in Louis Zukofsky’s first poem in ‘Songs of Degrees’. Crump’s poem from the late 1960s first appeared in Series 3 of Intelligencer:

“As pale still
you little
say but look
and careless play your
careful tune
to life that dies or is grown
slow as
waving pines. There we
sat, eating summer
in a melon
on the mossy lip
of a great hole”

The movement forward from “say”, echoing “pale”, and “little”, echoing “still”, takes the reader to a moment of Blakean ease as “careless” and “careful” possess a wistful tone of meditation. However, that slight shift of the second syllable in each of those last two words promotes a heaviness and the less becomes the full, a thickening out of perception which slows down the movement to the rhyme of “grown” and “slow”. The punning sound of the former (groan) prepares us for a gesture of farewell in “waving pines”. It is as though the focus has meticulously been brought to bear upon the actual and we are “There” in a world of the domestic which teeters on the edge of the Fall. As we read this progression of forty-one words over twelve lines we might be witnessing what Prynne referred to as a “pivot of great beauty” which “is brought lightly off”.
In Zukofsky’s ‘A 6’ he had written of “The melody! the rest is accessory” and when Charles Tomlinson received a copy of the Jonathan Williams edition of Some Time he noted the visual precision as well as the aural meticulousness of the American poet:

“Hear, her
Clear
Mirror,
Care
His error.
In her
Care
Is clear”

In his ‘Commentary and Memoir’ on Ray Crump, appearing ten years ago in Cambridge Literary Review, his fellow student at the University of Kent, Chris Hardy, referred to the poems as appearing to be made effortlessly. He also referred to the way in which they resembled music:

“Though they can be dissected into units of language and image, so that their effects can in part be explained, the poems, when read straight through, create a response in the reader that includes a sort of non-verbal understanding.”

Both Crump and Hardy were taught by Michael Grant, another contributor to The English Intelligencer, and in some recollections of those days of the late 60s Crump recalled how Grant “would take the blue pencil to my ingenuous efforts at versifying, cutting the poem at point to its essence”. He thanked Michael Grant for this “because although love of poetry has sometimes slept in the years since, it was dreaming in the shades of Orpheus and reawakens to feel that melancholic yearning for an Ode which I still desire to fulfil.” It is testimony to this debt that Crump should have written to Grant in February 1974 enclosing “a few worthless poems” including ‘Night into Day’ which has never been published before:

“it is dark
in the room
but the patterns
of the rug find
light to dance
time sleeps
her treasure
displayed
at ashen dawn”

Chords is divided into two sections and as Boris Jardine points out in his bibliographical note at the end of the volume all the poems in Part 1 were written prior to 1970. That which had been dreaming in the shades of Orpheus for some years now stretches into the light of Part 2 where the nineteen poems have all been written since 2010. The last one, ‘Late Friends’, and echoing Thomas Hardy’s ‘Exeunt Omnes’, plays upon an Orphic lyre:

“How they leave us here
like islands in their lost future
and we cast a downward glance
into still water, less like Narcissus
than melancholy piping Pan.”

I shall be writing an article about the mysterious figure of Raymond Crump for the forthcoming issue of Tears in the Fence 72.

(http://face-press.org/crump.html / https://ssea.press/chords-new-and-selected-poems-by-raymond-crump/ )

Ian Brinton, 1st June 2020

Moveable Type by Jo Clement (New Writing North)

Moveable Type by Jo Clement (New Writing North)

Already established as an editor, poet, workshop leader and researcher, Jo Clement published her first collaborative pamphlet with fellow writer and Traveller, Damian Le Bas, and printmaker W. John Hewitt in the weathered poems of Outlandish (NWN 2019). Together, the artists used St Cuthbert’s Way on Holy Island as a starting point for poetry and art inspired by the edgelands of the North East. Several of those poems touched on her Gypsy heritage. But it is in Moveable Type, Clement’s solo debut pamphlet, where the poet examines the poetics and politics of her Traveller ethnicity in depth through the engravings of printmaker Thomas Bewick (1753-1828).
These contemporary and lyrical poems evolve from family and childhood, and culminate in a homecoming at Appleby Horse Fair, the largest annual gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe. On pulling back the eye of a cob the skillful rhythms of ‘The Impression of Water’ resonate:

How fast the water flows in lines
against the Traveller’s face, her clothes,
the supplementary weight.

In this multi-layered poem we feel the pressure on both the Traveller and on the wood carver’s images. This ekphrastic practice continues as Clement assigns artwork with titles, juxtaposing an 18th Century man pole-vaulting across a river with the poem ‘Vault’. This poem teems with imagery from the northern council estate, Lascelles:

til his fists scream
on the glass
and they flush out
like so many bees
or game, back to the Moor,
where porn pulps open crotches

a powerful combination of the musical and the visceral. The final stanza in this poem is a reminder of how her own journey as Traveller, academic and poet has involved a certain ‘kicking back’ inside mainstream society: ‘His sloe arm moves her still, / lifts ‘til vaulting, she stamps the air.’
Two revealing poems then face each other, both corralled and blown free, first in ‘Teesdale Erratics’, and then ‘Market’:

The photographer says
turn a cartwheel, girls

but they shy away
pinch petunias

from pub planters
push stalks behind ears.

Here, the subtle imagery exposes the exploitive media succinctly.
We come across enviable terms such as ‘King Faa’, a poem smattered with delightful kennings like ‘fiddlescrape’ and ‘kettleflute’, as well as the Romani patrins: signposts for fellow Travellers made from twigs. Clement beautifully illustrates the horse dealer’s traditional haggle: ‘let horse dealer hands / take wing in soft claps / that swoop and slap / themselves away’. Meanwhile, Bewick’s tail-piece engraving of a powerless father and son next to the sign: KEEP ON THIS SIDE, reminds us of centuries of land-grabbing Enclosure Laws, and their impact on not only Travellers but on the rural community as a whole.
Clement certainly doesn’t shirk the uncomfortable. In ‘Knots’, Wordsworth is held to account in his poem ‘Gipsies’: ‘He saw us as spot, a spectacle, knots’. ‘Playing Cards’ also delivers a palpable shudder as the speaker falters when asked to tick a box pertaining to ethnicity as either ‘White or Gypsy’:

Black triangles
Needled to our chests like stars, badges of shame
That marked us work-shy Zigeuner.
The death camps devoured us

a reminder of how 200,000 Roma and Sinti Gypsies were put to death during World War II. But it is the pride in her heritage that defines Clement’s writing. ‘Homecoming’, in which the poet takes us to Appleby Fair, is sensuously charged:

In black-wet denim
all teeth and chest shining
half-boy
half-hoss
all bray

Walk alongside a young woman through the joys and frustrations of modern Traveller life inside poems of blood, politics and honesty, and you will see how ‘Gypsiness’ is inextricably linked to heritage and ethnicity, regardless of whether home is house or road. Moveable Type is an anthem, a celebration, and a timely reminder of all our histories.

Notes:

Traveller – the contemporary collective term for Gypsy/Roma/Traveller (GRT).
Zigeuner – the German noun that described Gypsies.

Sarah Wimbush 29th May 2020

Café By Wren’s St James-In-The Fields, Lunchtime by Anna Blasiak, photography by Lisa Kalloo (Holland House Books)

Café By Wren’s St James-In-The Fields, Lunchtime by Anna Blasiak, photography by Lisa Kalloo (Holland House Books)

This extraordinary and substantial 136 page bilingual publication in English and Polish is a collaborative work between Polish poet, Anna Blasiak, her accomplished translators, Marta Dzivrosz, Maria Jastrzębska, Danusia Stok and Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, and photographer, Lisa Kalloo. Each translator took a set of 12 or 13 poems to translate into English. The results are uniformly exquisite, pared and pointed. The book is a joy to read and a feast for the eyes thanks to Lisa Kalloo’s photography which enhance the reading and visual experience of the work.

The poems move through the isolation of the migrant condition searching for roots whilst dealing with home and family memories to the near silence of a new condition.

Amnesia, Obstinately

Every evening I learn a day
by heart.

Mornings I forget everything again.

Blasiak’s poems, pithy fragments, are almost epigrammatic and allusive in their dealings with emigration, otherness and hidden moods. Typically, a few lines long they are like fists of pressured existence.

Draught

The doors to both rooms
propped open by my shoes.

In the end
I might be
swept away.

This poem appears next to a close up image of a chain lock on a shabby door with pealing blue paint. The photograph adds depth and texture as the eye is drawn to the original wood behind the blue paint, and this in turn echoes the half hidden past beneath the surface veneer.

The narrative selves are often pressured, trying to take root and absorbed within the condition of being isolated, swinging from one mood to another, liable to stumble and be swept away at any time. One collects ‘unfinished sentences / to stubbornly piece them into / something like a whole.’ Another knows that ‘Expectations have / to be heeded. / They do overwhelm.’ The poems reminded me of Paul Celan and to some extent, Anne-Marie Albiach, in that they are sparse and coming out of silence with uncertainty and sparsity. They certainly make one think of some of the best European poetry.

I was sitting on the plane tree,
Slowly taking root.
One more branch.

Someone walked past.
Didn’t spot the difference.

Kalloo’s colour photography augments and enhances the texts serving to widen the perspective, provide additional viewpoints, which add to the whole work. The various photographs, capturing lights and shadows, interiors and street scenes, are works of art in their own right, reverberating around the stillness and isolation of the poems, providing provocative juxtapositions and new elements. I also like the way that both the poems and photography move avoid any linear chronology in recognition that the condition under review is dynamic as well as fragmentary.

I am sad that the collaborators are missing out on a book launch due to COVID-19 as this work is tremendous and put together with great care and attention to detail. I applaud everyone involved in this wonderful book.

David Caddy 8th April 2020

Kalimba by Petero Kalulé (Guillemot Press)

Kalimba by Petero Kalulé (Guillemot Press)

A kalimba is an African instrument consisting of a wooden box and fingerlike metal tines which are plucked by thumbs, and an acoustic hole, which can also be used to make a sound, by hovering one’s thumbs over the hole. Watching it being played, I was struck by the handiness of the instrument, held in two hands like a mobile phone, the tines plucked as though the player is sending a text message.
It is easy to see the appeal of this instrument to a poet, particularly a poet deeply interested in music, like Petero Kalulé. The collection’s dedication reads ‘for all my friends: that these notations may vibrate close in y/our hands’. The physical book is shaped like a kalimba, and the cover is designed as one. The conceit is that, as we read Kalulé’s poetry, aloud or in our heads, we are playing an instrument. Whether Kalulé wants us to play his music or use his poems like notes with which to make our own music, is unclear. The difference is that either the poetry book is a music book, with pieces with notes to be read and obeyed, or it is like the instrument itself, simply to be played with.

As the instrument conceit suggests, Kalulé’s principal focus in his poems is sound. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Kalulé’s poems indulge in the rich sounds that words strung together make, alongside directions of dashed and parentheses which are not unlike musical notations. Words are split and divided, by line breaks or using letters which, when spoken, sound like a syllable. This excerpt is from ‘Sahara’:

sun, ocean, islets cowries, manatee, manity, scope, memory, glee
vision s, minarets, spires
language, b
-orders, planets, poems, music, spells, serpents, shells, piss,
Blood
[….]
It un does tXture

The typography, like the verses, is a law unto its own. One word becomes another; Kalulé draws out surprising links between words, either semantically related or seemingly unrelated, purely by the way they sound. Words are manipulated in this way such that the poems, more like music than poetry, are sequences of sound with a tone and a mood, but no other direction.

In a certain mood a reader can allow the sounds and words to roll over their tongue and mind in a pleasing way, meaning almost whatever one wants it to mean.

Kalulé’s aesthetic, his structure-breaking structure, feels rigid by virtue of its forcefulness. A word can mean a myriad of things, but strangely, Kalulé’s attempts to push and pull words, to familiarize and then defamiliarize, rather seems to be an attempt to imprison or pin down words. For example, the word ‘borders’ is almost forced into meaning borders as in the border of a country, by the very fact it is forcibly divided, and the word ‘order’ within the word, is attenuated. Almost only, because it is of course impossible to force words to do anything. It is like Kalulé wants his words to have more than one meaning, but no more than the three he is thinking of. His unconventional, aesthetic approach to the practice of poeticizing, rather than being liberating, felt like a harness. Words in chains, and their chains were these erratic, driven, structures. This quotation from Cecil Taylor is included as foreword to the collection: “Part of what this music is about is not to be delineated exactly. It’s about magic, & capturing spirits.” There is tension here, in the freedom of escape from restrictive ‘delineating’, and the desire for ‘capturing’. Experimental structures and manipulation of lyric traditions, by calling attention to the way they can be formed, seem to do exactly this: delineate. These structures, to me, felt less playful than paranoid.

I enjoyed the rush of sound which Kalulé releases into the world, delicious and intriguing, signs and significations that rear their heads like fish between the waves before vanishing or transfiguring. Nevertheless, after reading these poems, I was left with the resounding sound of the futility and frustration of a poet, who finds his words less like an instrument to be played and more like a horse to be reined in. Whether by accident or on purpose, Kalulé’s musical conceit impressed on me the realisation that words are not like musical notes. They are neither consistent in their sound, nor played and silenced by the touch, or untouch, of a thumb.

Yvette Dell 3rd April 2020

Gathering Grounds 2011-2019 by Harriet Tarlo images by Judith Tucker (Shearsman Books)

Gathering Grounds 2011-2019 by Harriet Tarlo images by Judith Tucker (Shearsman Books)

In her introduction to The Ground Aslant, An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Shearsman Books, 2011), Harriet Tarlo had suggested that the word “landscape” was itself a compound of both the land and its scape, its shaping. The importance of this note was in its acknowledgement of the interventionist human engagement with land. The title of her new collection of poems, accompanied by the powerful evocations of place contained within the drawings of Judith Tucker, contains a similar acknowledgement. “Grounds” are themselves the foundations upon which something is built up, suggesting an underlying principle of growth, and it is entirely appropriate that the opening section of some fifty pages (poems written between 2011 and 2014) should be titled ‘Tributaries’, those streams of water which lead into larger rivers. In his copy of A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality Charles Olson made a note alongside the philosopher’s statement that “the term many presupposes the term one, and the term one presupposes the term many” registering his awareness of what the cook at Black Mountain College, Cornelia Williams, had meant in 1953 when she said “All my life I’ve heard / one makes many”. The statement became the epigraph for The Maximus Poems and Olson called it “the dominating paradox on which Max complete ought to stand.”
Tarlo’s opening poem is dedicated to Judith Tucker and it stands in stark black lines on the white page:

“in place, drawing
where things
start, where to
cut landscape off
seam or folded
. lead
turning at an
imagined centre, it
begins with a
line in space

Almost in echo of Zoe Skoulding’s poem ‘In the forest where they fell’ where “Time spirals out of seed” and “Specific histories / don’t fade but circle in a constant outward movement”, the opening poem to ‘Tributaries’ begins with “place…begins with a / line in space.” As Harriet Tarlo had also pointed out in her introduction to that other handsome volume from Shearsman Books, that anthology of radical landscape poetry:

“These diverse poems speak to each other across the space, allowing readers to enter the poem and speculate over their relationship to each other.”

The tributaries that lead to the larger more recognisable movements of water contain a world of submerged etymologies and the first record of this image is in Cymbeline in 1611 where the “poor tributary rivers” provide “sweet fish”. Printed lines on a white page, the lines of drawing “where things / start”, confront us with a language in which the relationship between ourselves and the world around us can come alive, human engagement. As Hopkins’s stones ring “in roundy wells” Tarlo’s opening poem turns “at an / imagined centre” and one might think about Thomas Nagel’s conception of reality as “a set of concentric spheres, progressively revealed as we detach gradually from the contingencies of self.” Or one might also bring to mind Wordsworth’s Fenwick note to his early poem ‘An Evening Walk’ in which the seventy-three year old poet recalled that moment from his youth when he had become aware of “the infinite variety of natural appearances.”
Judith Tucker’s drawing that sits on its own page alongside that first poem of ‘Tributaries’ may of course begin “with a / line in space” but it is to the eye a complex and beautifully dense account of a wood beside a stream and it suggests that whereas the act of expression may well have to commence with a line it soon interweaves into a complexity of thought. As if in decided rejection of that Whitehead/Olson dictat Harriet Tarlo goes on to write that “there isn’t a way / there isn’t a way to go / off-path, counter-path”. In ‘March: Wessenden Head Moor to Reap Hill Clough’ she recognises that “working up to where / they spring, unseen / their several sources / not anything comes from / one.”

This is a remarkable book of poems and drawings and by following those tributary streams one will arrive at Tetney Lock Bridge, the first of the ‘Past Winter’s Sonnets’ sequence from 2017-2018:

“….turnstone flies over flood
gates, under pipe siphoning sweet oil from sea line,
then out & out all gathered rivers, becks & drains
under winter-flocking geese, swirling starlings
through whimbrel marshes into wide tide mouth.”

Ian Brinton 30th March 2020

Cargo of Limbs by Martyn Crucefix Introduction by Choman Hardi & photographed by Amel Alzakout (Hercules Editions)

Cargo of Limbs by Martyn Crucefix  Introduction by Choman Hardi & photographed by Amel Alzakout (Hercules Editions)

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

These Numbered Days by Peter Huchel translation Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Books)

These Numbered Days by Peter Huchel translation Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Books)

In the Editorial to the current issue (71) of Tears in the Fence I have quoted from Michael Heller’s autobiographical account of his early years, Living Root, A Memoir (S.U.N.Y. 2000) and as I look at the elegiac exactness of Peter Huchel’s poems as translated by Martyn Crucefix I am struck again by what I had read from the American poet’s concern for the “ritual forms and objects” associated with his Jewishness:

“As a child in the early nineteen forties, six or seven years old in Miami Beach, even as I sat, sunk deep in the velvet plush seats of Temple Emmanuel on Washington Avenue, feeling the rapture of the ritual occasions, I sensed I was climbing a cliff face, the very physiognomy of otherness, the pathways of memory by which I skirted the fragile edging of the present.”

Remembering his grandfather, a rabbi and teacher, he recalled how “all ceremonies were woven into one continuous chant, a swift, impelled, if muffled, music”. Heller then went on to recall his father’s more secular concern for the seriousness of each word as though he “tried to feel its exactness, like a solid object held in his mouth”.
The reason for my recalling the focus upon that exactness of particular observation was Karen Leeder’s introduction to these fine and moving new translations of Huchel’s poetry in which she refers to the German poet as being committed to the “particularity of things”:

“…he is a poet for whom every word seems to be wrested from and threatened by silence.”

Huchel’s poetry has resonances of “voices, / sent on ahead through sun and wind” and in the title poem ‘These Numbered Days’, a title taken from the Book of Isaiah, he offers us a sense of measured loss:

“and the rattling wake of leaves,
before the river
stows fog among the reeds.”

Peter Huchel is a poet “for whom every word seems to be wrested from and threatened by silence” (Leeder) and among the numbered days of an irretrievable past we are urged to put aside the very particularity which the poet’s lyric skill can magically create:

“So forget the town,
where under hibiscus trees
the mule is saddled in the morning,
its girth tightened, saddlebags full,
women gathering round the kitchen stove,
where wells slumber still in rain.
Forget the path,
stunned by the odour of philadelphus,
the narrow doorway,
where the key lies under a mat.”

Commenting upon the poem ‘The Dipper’, that water-bird which seeks its food below the surface of the pond, Karen Leeder draws our attention to the poet’s reaching down to the roots that connect the natural world with a “darker realm, of earth, death, and memory”. She salutes the translator’s powerful ability to communicate to us the fetching back of something “that will counter the misery of the moment.”
This retrieval of particularity from beneath the surface, the seeking of what is below the water, is haunted throughout these poems by the image of drowning. It is no mere chance that a poem ‘On the Death of V.W.’ (Virginia Woolf) should appear so close to one which is titled ‘Ophelia’ and that the deeply moving elegy addressed to ‘M.V.’ (the poet’s father) should open with a vanishing beneath the waves:

“He vanished—
the room is empty,
the oven cold,
the bottles crane their necks.
He left nothing behind
as if a footprint in sand,
a spill of ice in winter.”

In the introduction we are alerted to some biographical details of Peter Huchel’s life and the way in which he fell victim to the division of Germany after 1945:

“As a consequence, his writing life was pitched against the twin threats of silence and political dogma, notably during the years he spent in the former GDR, or East Germany.”

It might also be pertinent here to recall that other great writer from East Germany, Christa Wolf, whose Model Childhood brings to the surface the alarming thought that “an unused memory gets lost, ceases to exist, dissolves into nothing”. And as if to echo these words we have what Leeder heralds as one of the significant qualities of Martyn Crucefix’s abilities as a translator:

“The exquisite sound echoes in Martyn Crucefix’s translation (dipper, flowing, pick, fish, relinquish) seem to ripple through the poem like the dipper through water. Then there is the sleek reaching down through darkness, undergrowth, roots, water, stones, to the core of things to fetch up something perfect, a word.”

Ian Brinton, 16th March 2020

Bonjour Mr Inshaw poetry by Peter Robinson & paintings by David Inshaw (Two Rivers Press)

Bonjour Mr Inshaw poetry by Peter Robinson & paintings by David Inshaw (Two Rivers Press)

Writing about his paintings from the 1970s which had been influenced by the landscape of Wiltshire and the poetry of Thomas Hardy, David Inshaw suggested that his main aim “was to produce a picture that held a moment in time, but unlike a photograph, which only records an event.” Comparing the world of a painting with that of the camera he went on to point out “a painting could give a more universal, deeper meaning to that moment by composing one instant from lots of different unrelated moments.” And so ‘The Badminton Game’, originally given a title from the early Hardy poem ‘She, To Him’,
holds a stillness which is quite remarkable and it interestingly graced a wall in Number 10 in 1997!

This new publication from Two Rivers Press is extremely attractive and the stillness of Inshaw’s focus upon more than the moment is complimented by the way in which Peter Robinson’s poems note the depth of the present’s conversation with the past. In another painting from 1972 which retained its title from one of Hardy’s ‘1912-13’ poems written after the death of his wife, ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’ (‘After a Journey’), a haunting awareness of how the past and the present can be caught in a stillness of reflection is complimented by Robinson’s poem ‘Haunting Landscapes’:

“But time you stop won’t go away.
Perpetually present, it has to stay
replete with others’ meanings
from gallery walls, gone into the world
of chiaroscuro, image, reputation,
not knowing how or why,”

The precision in the painting holds the attention. A woman in black stands to stare behind her with hands on hips as though to address what is no longer there. The context of the loss is given a permanency by the way that Inshaw has painted the geometrically exact gravestones, some of which lean slightly in the direction of the woman’s gaze, and the carefully tended hedge and grass that occupy the foreground:

“Each blade of grass, brick course and ripple,
whether through water, leafage or sky
dryly individuated stills its still point
into a distanced reminiscence…”

In the Preface to this beautifully designed book Peter Robinson gives an account of his meetings with Inshaw when they were both at Trinity College, Cambridge, the poet working for a PhD on Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts and the latter on a two-year stint as Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts. When his first collection of poems, Overdrawn Account, appeared from the Many Press in November 1980 it included a short prose piece which of course was not reissued in the Shearsman Collected Poems. The piece was dedicated to Inshaw and given the title ‘A Woman A Picture and a Poem’. Opening with ‘The flattened cumulus darker than slate’ it goes on to refer to the ‘deepening presence of…what if she leaves him?’. It is perhaps that deepening presence which pervades this new poem of haunting landscapes and it is worth noting Adam Piette’s comment on the book’s back cover:

“Robinson is the finest poet alive when it comes to the probing of shifts in atmosphere, momentary changes in the weather of the mind, each poem an astonishingly fine-tuned gauge for recording the pressures and processes that generate lived occasions.”

The collection of poems in this new publication reflect Robinson’s thoughts after visiting Inshaw’s studio early last year and those shifts of atmosphere can be seen weaving their paths through the poem ‘After Courbet’, written as a response to Inshaw’s 1977 painting ‘The Orchard’:

“You were working on The Orchard.
We talked about its foreground ladder,
the feet secured, it seemed, nowhere
on that unresponsive canvas
with tension problem, sunken paint
where one girl’s reaching, as for apples,
the other stares, oh distant women—”

The presence of Thomas Hardy is felt in the distant gaze and one is tempted to recall the opening of the second section of that 1866 publication of ‘She, To Him’:

“Perhaps, long hence, when I have passed away,
Some other’s feature, accent, thought like mine,
Will carry you back to what I used to say,
And bring some memory of your love’s decline.”

One might also think of James Joyce’s Mr. Duffy in ‘A Painful Case’ who now gazes out of his window “on the cheerless evening landscape” after learning of the death of a woman to whom he used to be close. Or, perhaps more pertinently, one might want to look back at the deeply moving late tale by Henry James, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’:

“It was in the way the autumn day looked into the high windows as it waned; in the way the red light, breaking at the close from under a low, sombre sky, reached out in a long shaft and played over old wainscots, old tapestry, old gold, old colour.”

Bonjour Mr Inshaw is a beautifully produced book and I urge readers to get hold of a copy immediately.

Ian Brinton 9th March 2020