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Category Archives: Translation

The Mummiad: New Selected Poems by Richard Livermore (Bibliotheca Universalis)

The Mummiad: New Selected Poems by Richard Livermore (Bibliotheca Universalis)

As with Ted Hughes’ animal poems that go beyond animal nature toward ourselves, so it is with Richard Livermore’s animal poems. There are several in his latest collection, The Mummiad: New Selected Poems, his second book from Bibliotheca Universalis, where one feels uncomfortably closer to the true nature of some of our fellow humans, or even to ourselves. In ‘Jaguar’, the big cat could equally be a too-young man dared by the gang, lurking in the shadows of a city nightscape, ‘a tiptoeing/ shadow of death, jam-packed/ with muscle and power’ who lies in wait to kill his prey ‘with a single bound;/ black flowers adorn him,/help him hide in the dappled/ half-lit undergrowth/ he is in his element in.’ The feeling of being under threat is stirred up from our collective unconscious in part by his mastery of echoes aural and visual of Paul Celan, news items, as well as memories perhaps we all have of walking down city streets or secluded country lanes at night, of ‘being what he can see/ in the dark. . . .’ In ‘Lioness’, this point that we have more than a little in common with the behaviour of animals and wild animals at that, is made clear when the poet brings us up close to those for whom ‘you are nothing but the next meal, the next occasion she can feed.’ Then there are the wildebeests, the tiger, lion and ‘the serpent in the garden,’ the ‘dragon in the armadillo,’ the gecko carrying on as normal in a war-ravaged land. Yes, it’s animal behaviour being described, we are animals, thus through the poet’s alchemy of imagery, Jungian allusion and the poems’ padding, four-legged rhythm we hear also our human behaviour being described. We face up to it on these pages. The poet reminds us we face up to it nightly on the news, too, as in the violence of the state recalled in ‘Black Wind’: ‘Arrest that wind,/hands up, don’t shoot,/I cannot breathe.’

As one might expect from a collection titled The Mummiad, the vulnerability of the body, birth and death, time, fate and rather than the intervention of the gods, more likely their absence, are recurring themes. In ‘The Body in Question’, the body of younger years is missed, but not without appreciation for the benefits of getting older in terms of experience and understanding. One of the many things I admire about Richard Livermore’s poetry is he never overdoes things – he knows just when to stop. Through technical skill he manages to articulate complex feelings and subtle ideas for us all, concisely, leaving plenty of space around each poem for our own reflection. In ‘Daisy, Daisy’, he explores his own birth both through its historical circumstance and its innocent, everyday occurrences – we are indeed born into both and this poet’s attention to both brought this reader, for one, up short with the realisation that the philosopher’s dictum ‘know thyself’ begins with this examination of all aspects of our moment of entry into the world. Life, give me your answer, do, each poem pleads. The leavening in it all is the poet’s characteristic play with words, his calling upon our shared inherited gift of language with all its idioms, rhythms and mythology, so that, for instance, when he writes, ‘-time has me by/the late and earlies’ there’s recognition and delight.

The only niggling disappointment about this book is that the quality of Richard Livermore’s writing has not been matched by the copy editing, where each poem’s translation by Roxana Doncu into the Romanian is printed not on the facing page but overleaf. Seekers of lexical similarity will have to flip back and forth – no great hardship since there’s plenty to detain one on every page.

Beth Junor 25th September 2018

Music, Selected Poems of Tarō Naka Translated by Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei (Isobar Press)

Music,  Selected Poems of Tarō Naka  Translated by Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei (Isobar Press)

In his introduction to this long-overdue translation of one of Japan’s most significant post-war poets Andrew Houwen draws attention to the importance of Buddhism and transience. He suggests that Naka came to realise the importance of the impermanence of all things when he was “confronted with the war’s destruction” and points us towards the 1954 poem ‘Scene II’ with its italicised epigram ‘summer 1945’:

“scabs of black memory tear off
the guillotine river cuts up
the city’s torn skin

pushed along in the flow
countless burnt eyes
eyes
eyes”

An echo here points us of course to Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ with its focus upon both the river and the burning and to that poet’s use of Henry Clarke Warren’s Buddhism in Translations:

“All things, O priests, are on fire. And what, O priests, are all these things which are on fire?
The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, that also is on fire.”

It was a year after the publication of The Waste Land that William Carlos Williams published Spring and All with its emphasis on the “universality of things” and this later fed that central phrase from the first book of Paterson:

“Say it! No ideas but in things”

The impermanence of things haunts the poetry that Naka wrote after he had returned to Hakata at the end of the war, after Hiroshima, to find that his home and his hometown had been devastated. This was a world where “in the distance burnt shrivelled trees / no longer / have any trace of life”. What remains are the “skeletons of apartments // where the smell of the rocky shore drifts / a cavern – / time’s insides / gone”.
Naka’s first mature collection of poems was composed between 1957 and 1964 before being published in 1965 as Ongaku (Music). Introducing the collection with a Note the poet writes

“Mu is not ‘nothing’. It is the mu of existing things, breathing mu, the mu of writhing waves. It is because music sounds in these things, or perhaps in order to make music sound, that people produce words.”

Words, like music, possess an independence from their creator and this in Naka’s words “allows the creation to exist on its own”. Poems, like music, exist in their own world and the last section of this immensely important new book from Isobar Press is given over to Naka’s 1966 prose ‘Notes for a Poetics’:

“The activity of writing is itself, of course, a visible activity. One holds a pen, faces the paper, and in everyday time moves one’s own hand. However, what one’s consciousness works to indicate certainly does not take place in the visible world, but in a separate, unreal one. In this unreal space, through using those unreal ‘things’, words, one acts in order to reach (an indefinable) something.
The activity of creating poetry is always an escape to this unreal space.”

The 1975 collection of poems, Hakata, possesses a haunting sense of unseen tracks:

“the autumn woman’s skin has a trembling lily’s scent
walking through withered leaves in the distance”

and the poet registers “time’s / footfall” and “the thirst for the far shore of the futureless blue sky”. As Houwen puts it in his highly valuable introduction

“A poem, as a product of the combination of words, depends on the words’ interaction with each other, which is something that, as Naka observes in ‘Notes for a Poetics’, ‘always surpasses the writer” (Naka’s emphasis) and, as words’ associations continually shift with new readings, the poem, like all entities, is in constant flux.

To return to William Carlos Williams and 1923:

“Here is a shutter, a bunch of grapes, a sheet of music, a picture of sea and mountains…One thing laps over on the other.”

This first book-length collection of Tarō Naka’s work in English provides an essential addition to the book-shelves of all readers of serious poetry. Thanks again to Paul Rossiter’s fine Isobar Press (http://isobarpress.com).

Ian Brinton 17th August 2018

Memorial to the Future: Volker von Törne translated by Jean Boase-Beier with Anthony Vivis (Arc)

Memorial to the Future: Volker von Törne translated by Jean Boase-Beier with Anthony Vivis (Arc)

The translator’s Preface to this new Arc edition of the poems of Volker von Törne strikes an immediate note that compels one to read on:

“What first struck me about von Törne’s poems, and made me want to translate them, was their intensity…”

This intensity comes perhaps from the “weight of guilt and anger” in the poems:

“He felt personally guilty that his father had been in the SS and that he had, as a small child in the late 1930s, repeated the phrases he heard about German Nationalism, about the need for racial purity and the desire to conquer others.”

In a 1965 essay on Bertolt Brecht, ‘Commitment’, Adorno asserted that “The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting” and he went on to suggest that Pascal’s theological saying, On ne doit plus dormer, must be secularized. Adorno is often quoted as saying that it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz and as if plagued by the way his work seems to have become defined by that statement the essay on Brecht opens with the clear statement:

“I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature…When genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature, it becomes easier to continue to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.”

What makes von Törne’s work so different from any artistic reconstruction of the Holocaust is that alongside any guilt and anger there is a strong sense of longing and nostalgia – “longing for a world in which people would be able to face the evils of the past and offer atonement, and nostalgia for a time when he did not know what he knows now, at the time of writing.”
Many of these poems deal with disappearance, an irreversible emptiness, and rather than offering a nostalgic desire for return they record vanishings: smoke or dreams melted:

“Which way have the music-makers gone
And the tinkers? On what bank
Are their horses grazing now? Beneath what moon
Their violins singing?

No-one has seen them. Without a trace
Smoke in the clouds
They have gone
Away”

In a world of political reconstruction von Törne’s voice is important as not that of hands held up in guilt and shrinking horror; it is one of awareness that there is no turning back and “Not every ending is also a beginning / Colossal bridges carry streets that lead nowhere”.
In his perceptive introduction to these remarkable poems, David Wheatley raises the figure of Samuel Beckett. In a quotation from Endgame’s “anti-reconstructive response to the war” Hamm says “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on”. As Wheatley puts it “Beckett was well versed in the opening presented by the brick wall and it was Hamm who had said, earlier in Beckett’s play, “Nature has forgotten us”. The nostalgic echoes of a gone world reverberate in this empty air and ‘Summer in the Masurian Lakes’ concludes with an image that could have come from Beckett’s Play, itself an echo of Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest, itself a distant echo of Dante’s Inferno:

“Our boat
Drifts to the bank. Stay, summer,
I shout, hand
That
Holds me.”

David Wheatley also points us towards Schubert’s hauntingly famous song cycle of journeying through the cold: “With their lowering crows and wayside farmers, von Törne’s poems pursue that Germanic variant on the via dolorosa, the Winterreise.” As readers we move forwards through landscapes that are stripped-down in the manner of the Objectivist poets, “The leaves / Flood / Over the paths” and we can wonder, in Eliot’s words, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

It is these resonances that thread their path through von Törne’s ‘Thoughts in May’ as the poet recalls drinking the milk “Denied to the starving”, wearing the clothes “Stolen from my brother” and reading the books “Justifying the theft”:

“And mine was the guilt
For the loss of every life, breathing in innocence
Under the gallows-branches
Of the sweet-smelling limes”

This book was published just over a week ago and it is something to order immediately.

Ian Brinton 24th October 2017.

The Sunken Keep, A version of Ungaretti’s Il Porto Sepolto Andrew Fitzsimons (Isobar Press http://isobarpress.com)

The Sunken Keep,  A version of Ungaretti’s Il Porto Sepolto Andrew Fitzsimons (Isobar Press http://isobarpress.com)

On September 1st 1918 William Carlos Williams wrote the Prologue to his Kora in Hell: Improvisations which was later to be published by The Four Seas Company in 1920:

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.”

Nearly a century on, David Shields published his ‘Manifesto’, Reality Hunger, in which he expressed interest in collage as “an evolution beyond narrative”. In terms of Art, and this includes poetry:

“Momentum derives not from narrative but from the subtle buildup of thematic resonances”

When Williams wrote his autobiographical account of I Wanted to Write a Poem he gave an account of that earlier time when the First World War was still raging throughout Europe:

“When I was halfway through the Prologue, ‘Prufrock’ appeared. I had a violent feeling that Eliot had betrayed what I believed in. He was looking backward; I was looking forward. He was a conformist, with wit, learning which I did not possess.”

In his introduction to this beautifully produced new volume from Isobar Press the translator, Andrew Fitzsimons, directs us to recognise the connection between what Williams was trying to do in 1918 and what Giuseppe Ungaretti was achieving in the trenches of the Carso plateau in Friuli in 1916:

“…these thirty poems are central to Ungaretti’s revitalizing of Italian poetic language; a renovation of rhythm, syntax, punctuation and diction…comparable also to the work of William Carlos Williams, given the resemblance between how both poets set about reconfiguring the parameters of the poetic line in their respective traditions, as well as their commitment to particulars.”

There is a haunting immediacy to these new versions of Ungaretti’s poems and they look at loss in terms of time passing rather than confining themselves to the nightmare presence of the trench warfare which he volunteered for in 1915 having only moved from Paris to Italy at the outbreak of war. The opening poem stands as a memorial stone dedicated to the friend of his youth, Mohammed Sceab:

“In memory
of
Mohammed Sceab
descendant
of nomad emirs
a suicide
for loss of
a homeland”

The words weep down the page as if engraved upon a tombstone and the fractured narrative of what follows in the second stanza accords with that buildup of thematic resonances:

“A lover of France
who became
Marcel
but not French
who no longer knew how
to dwell
in the tent of his kin
to listen to the chant
of the Koran
over coffee”

The ‘s’ sound in the seventh line allows an image of dwelling to move almost invisibly between the semi-desert world of the young man’s past to the power of belonging not only to family but also to an existence within his own skin. The short next piece offers a brief account of isolation and limitation:

“Who could not
give voice
to the song
of his own desolation”

And then in a manner that Samuel Beckett would have applauded there is a precision, a placing, which gives visibility to the actuality of the person. It reminds me of Beckett as I think of the respect he held for the clarity of Dante’s Inferno in which the spirits of the dead have only a few lines to give a portrait of themselves before they merge back into the anonymity of eternal damnation.

“I escorted him
with the landlady of the place
where we lodged
in Paris
from 5 Rue des Carmes
a rundown sloping alley”

The term “escorted” brings the world of Dante again to the fore and it is worth just comparing it with two other translations. Kevin Hart’s suggestion is quite literal in terms of the Italian (The Buried Harbour, The Leros Press, 1990):

“With the woman
who owned our hotel
at 5 Rue Carmes
that faded, sloping alley
I went with him”

Patrick Creagh’s version for the Penguin Modern European Poets (1971) becomes more detailed as if spelling things out for the reader:

“I followed his coffin
I and the manageress of the hotel
where we lived
in Paris
number 5 rue des Carmes
steep decrepit alleyway”

The word used by Fitzsimons, “escorted”, manages to retain a sense of friendship and familiarity as he accompanies the body to the burial ground and the word “lodged” has a temporality to it which emphasises the fragility of a life.

“He rests
in the cemetery at Ivry
a suburb locked
forever
in the day a fair
packs up and leaves

Maybe I alone
still know he
lived

And I will
until my turn
to die”

“Rests”, “locked / forever”, “fair / packs up and leaves”; it has the sound of Thomas Hardy’s verse, ‘Exeunt Omnes’ or ‘During Wind and Rain’.

This is a book to keep close to hand. Not only are the translations very powerful but the drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni have a resonance which complement the poems. Congratulations to Paul Rossiter and Isobar Press!

Ian Brinton, 13th October 2017

Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

On the back cover of this new Isobar publication Eric Selland registers the delight and importance of this translation of poems by the Japanese poet Sarashina:

“Such a rare treat – one of the few examples of Japanese proletarian poetry to appear in English. Sarashina’s work, like that of the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff, is a poetry of testimony, one in which he documents the lives of those living in pre-war Hokkaido, often in their own words.”

The comparison with Reznikoff brings to mind of course the four parts of TESTIMONY: THE UNITED STATES, that extraordinary poetic narrative which recorded the social, economic, cultural and legal history of the United States. Robert Creeley commented on the first volume TESTIMONY describing the collection as “an extraordinary document of human event – terrifying, comic, and deeply, deeply moving.” Creeley went on to suggest his admiration for Reznikoff’s ability to locate given instances “sans distortion” and to place his narratives “in the intense particularity of time and place.” In 1977 Milton Hindus published his monograph on Reznikoff emphasising the important role of history in the American poet’s recitative:

“We all belong to history, but we do not all know it…Coming into contact with what one recognizes to be history in the high sense of the term can be an unnerving experience, which inspires to expression those who might otherwise be counted among the voiceless tribes”.

That word “expression” appears in the superb introduction which the translator has added to this selection of Sarashina’s poems. Connecting the Japanese poet with his proletarian peers, Nadine Willems writes

“As Sarashina’s work demonstrates so well, they remained sharp and sympathetic observers of the everyday life of the lower strata of the population in all its mundanity and desperation. The focus was less on engineering an ideal future society than on the expression of real life struggles in a changing and unfair world.”

Between 1930 and 1931 Sarashina acted as a substitute teacher in a primary school near Kussharo Lake and he identified closely with the seventeen pupils, most of whom were Ainu (an increasingly displaced people). It was from these children and the other residents of the kotan (village-community) that he learned the stories which he then re-formed into poetry. In one of the ‘Kotan School Poems’ he acknowledges this debt:

“Fourth-grader Sekko knows what’s not in any textbook
The deep-down layers of life”

The substitute teacher records his own humility and merges it with a sense of LIFE as his pupils ask him those questions to which there are answers before moving their thoughts outwards to ask questions to which there are none:

—What would you like to do?
—Go outside and play!
—OK. Let’s go
—Wow. Really?

—Sensei, what’s this?
—A spring gentian whose flowers are the colour of the sky
—Sensei, and this?
—That’s a dandelion bud
—Sensei, why does the sun shine?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why does it rain?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why are you alive?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why do you get angry?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why is the world here?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Why are we alive, sensei?
—So that you can all get along
—Sensei, who did you learn this from?
—From all you lot

—Sensei, Tā-chan thumped me

Nadine Willems’s introduction is a delight to read on account of its direct simplicity as she tells us of the political background to these poems. She points us to central issues concerning the Ainu people and highlights the close connection “between people and nature” which “mirrors the connection that exists between the physical and intangible worlds.” These poems take me back not so much to Reznikoff as to Tolstoy whose 1861 essay on ‘Schoolboys and Art’ makes such a fine comparison with Sarashina’s experience as a primary-school teacher. Tolstoy has taken a group of boys out after school and as they walk through a white darkness which seemed to sway before their eyes one little boy, Fédka, asks the teacher to tell them, again, about the murder of Tolstoy’s aunt:

“I again told them that terrible story of the murder of Countess Tolstoy, and they stood silently about me watching my face.
‘The fellow got caught!’ said Sëmka.
‘He was afraid to go away in the night while she was lying with her throat cut! Said Fédka; ‘I should have run away!’ and he gathered my two fingers yet more closely in his hand.
We stopped in the thicket beyond the threshing-floor at the very end of the village. Sëmka picked up a dry stick from the snow and began striking it against the frosty trunk of a lime tree. Hoar frost fell from the branches onto our caps, and the noise of the blows resounded in the stillness of the wood.
‘Lev Nikolaevich,’ said Fédka to me (I thought he was again going to speak about the Countess), ‘why does one learn singing? I often think, why, really, does one?’
What made him jump from the terror of the murder to this question, heaven only knows; yet by the tone of his voice, the seriousness with which he demanded an answer, and the attentive silence of the other two, one felt that there was some vital and legitimate connection between this question and our preceding talk.”

Kotan Chronicles is another wonderful production from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press and I urge you all to put the date September 20th in your diaries for the launch:
Isobar Press will be launching Kotan Chronicles: Selected by Poems 1928-1943 by the Japanese pre-war proletarian poet, anarchist, and ethnographer Genzo Sarashina at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on 20 September with a talk and reading by Nadine Willems (translator) and Paul Rossiter.

Date: Wednesday 20 September, 6-8 pm.

Place: Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle (entrance facing Regent’s Park), London NW1 4QP. The event is free, but a reservation is required.

Ian Brinton 4th September 2017.

EACH TO EACH, J.H. Prynne (Equipage, 2017) NINE DRUGS, Ulf Stolterfoht, translated by Lisa Jeschke (Face Press, Cambridge, 2016) OF . THE . ABYSS, J.H. Prynne (Materials, Cambridge, 2017)

In Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno the voice of Odysseus issues from a flame as he speaks to Virgil of his last voyage which led him to the abyss. He had spoken rousing words to his men concluding with the injunction “Take thought of the seed from which you spring. You were not born to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge”. [trans. Sinclair]. Prynne’s interest in Odysseus has been there from that early poem ‘Lashed to the Mast’, written in Charles Olson’s house in Fort Square and first published in Andrew Crozier’s Wivenhoe Park Review; it was there also in the photograph of an early design on a piece of pottery, depicting the figure of Odysseus tied to the mast by his sailors as they rowed past the island of the Sirens, which Prynne pasted into the opening leaf of his edition of Pound’s Cantos, poems which themselves open with a journey of outwards:

“And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship…”

The opening poem in this latest sequence of ten pieces by Prynne seems to set us outwards again upon a voyage:

“Billow under below known sat follow, happen so
to make thwart leaden fine to fasten up as
yes taken back, given to yield or space hold
to later denounce grave enough smiling in
turn the face back now, derelict ecstatic fee
advance never clear rack, the inclination pack
mouth breath wide, slight gasp for air what is
known here found all down, all child eyes
wide too, prow stove in cold leading outward
flake to glitter certain and sure, all ever
known down and reach to ready for gone shine
far out ported beyond, rate and known.”

When the Jargon/Corinth edition of Olson’s The Maximus Poems appeared in 1960 it bore the dedication for Robert Creeley, “The Figure of Outward” and when Ed Dorn’s poem about Olson appeared in 1964, designed and printed by Tom Raworth, it concluded with the “whispers of the most flung shores / from Gloucester out”. The last words became the title of the book.
Prynne’s poetry is known for the way in which quotations and references lie buried within the text and the 6th poem in this remarkable sequence is no exception. The lines move between a reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape on a boat to the Isle of Skye after his failed bid for power in 1745/6 and Charles I arriving in the House of Parliament some hundred years before to arrest the Five Members who had encouraged the Scots to invade England only to discover that the birds have flown. The movement shifts between a traditional narrow-boat and “A flute” which brings together music and a vessel of war:

“Oh strike the light, float the boat, for
sake of common peril they are fallen away
as gathered up in sight of lamentable in-
difference and will go down against us, the
birds have flown, break speed this blithe
boat fled, weapon unwilling guard the sure
place radiant with possession save up go
down ignore, in such wide eyes. A flute
drifted in darkness as engulfed without
pleat over plaint ever pitch no bird on
no wing we are the wing broken as to see
waves of longing rise and turn face up
o’er brim their clammy cells out from
the shelf undertow and follow…”

Keats’s autumnal richness takes its place within the voyaging and gives credence to those words that Nigel Wheale used in an article written about The White Stones and published in Grosseteste Review 12 in 1979:

“the purity of the wandering stranger is not ‘The Scholar Gypsy’, but a completely responsive lyricism.”

This important publication of a sequence of 10 poems is attributable to David Grundy and Lisa Jeschke and it follows the Equipage presentation of EACH TO EACH earlier this year. The two epigraphs to that collection of 23 poems are from Boethius (“All fortune is good”) and W.R. Bion (“All thinking and all thoughts are true when there is no thinker”) and the lyric grace of movement is caught in line after line:

“…..The notes slide to come
home deserved by succession ready to be glad, if
able to steer to hidden shore early after plain.”

Lisa Jeschke’s own translation of poems by the German Ulf Stolterfoht, handsomely produced in an edition of 200 copies by Face Press, is accompanied by a short introductory statement by Prynne:

“Ulf is one of the great poets of the German language…Ulf knows that he can make this language do new kinds of expression under the pressure of poetic vision and originality.”

That pressure of poetic vision has an alchemical touch to it and I am reminded of how Marguerite Yourcenar helped in the translation of her own 1968 novel about alchemy, L’Oeuvre au Noir, so that it became in English The Abyss.

Ian Brinton, 17th May 2017

Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

When I reviewed Will Stone’s translation of Stefan Zweig’s Messages from a Lost World for The London Magazine (October/November 2016) I stressed the “clarity and insight” of his introduction. The substantial twelve page introduction to this attractively produced bi-lingual edition of Rodenbach’s selected poems is a clear reminder yet again of how the translator and literary critic/historian treads a path to the reader: Stone brings the world of Rodenbach’s eerie white shades to the fore and we can recognise the ways in which Baudelaire, Rilke and even the early Eliot can be seen within an urban landscape.
The introduction opens with the picture of a man, “half-framed by an open window” standing in front of a background which seems to be of Bruges:

“He is a spectral figure drifting across the canal’s greenish-black waters, his dark jacket blending naturally with its opaque surface, suggesting an area of confusion where dream and reality converge.”

Rodenbach’s treatment of Bruges, the Venice of the North, presents us with a supernatural landscape; a world where, as Will Stone puts it, “what is seemingly dead speaks, where the worn-away stone, even the grass and moss growing up through the cobblestones, have a voice detected only by those who are endowed with the sensibility to receive the true soul of the town”:

“It is this treatment of Bruges as a poetic vehicle for a mood, one of supreme melancholy, which forms the backbone of not only these poems but Rodenbach’s entire oeuvre.”

The melancholy atmosphere of the town and the haunted sense of the poet trapped within a chain of noises is vividly there for the reader from the very first poem chosen by the translator, ‘Dimanches/Sundays’. The “Mournful Sunday afternoons in winter” are made more vivid as “some inconsolable weather cock creaks / alone on a roof-top like a bird of iron!”. As if to emphasise the living death of this world where a long-gone Medieval history seeks refuge within the “vieux hôtels” and lanterns seem “to burn for the cortege of some deity”, the sudden clashing of bells intrudes to offer a complement to a funeral:

“And now of a sudden the restless bells
disturb the belfry planted in its pride,
and their sound, heavy with bronze, slowly falls
on the coffin of the town as if in spadefuls.”

As readers we are inevitably reminded of those bells of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ which “tout à coup sautent avec furie” bringing with them not only the “esprits errants et sans patrie” but also the funeral cortege which files its way slowly through the poet’s mind.
There are four poems from the 1896 publication Les Vies Encloses (The Enclosed Lives) included in this selection and two of them, ‘Aquarium Mental / Mental Aquarium’ are particularly striking to my mind.

“Aquarium water, drear night, half-light,
where thought passes in brief appearances
like shadows of a great tree over a wall.”

Or again:

“Yet in the water, from time to time, something strays,
circles, opens out or obliquely shifts;
luminous shivers tense this water that drifts
– like spasms of light from a diamond! –
a murky fish undulates, a weed in mourning stirs,
the soft sand scree of the bed collapses as if
sand in time’s hourglass upended;
and sometimes too, on the transfixed crystal,
a flaccid monster, blurred image, shows on the surface,
while the water suffers, seeming to drowse,
and senses, in her morose lethargy, a thousand shadows
giving her ceaseless shivers as they pass
making her surface one great spreading wound.”

Without suggesting for one moment that there is a direct influence here I am drawn from this poetry to the ‘afterword’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote for his edition of Parataxis Number 7, Spring 1995, in which he introduced the reader to the Chinese Language-Poetry Group that had been based at Suzhou University in the summer of 1991:

“Within the great aquarium of language the light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations nor previously observed. Some of the codes will unfold with merely adept connivance, others will swim vigorously into and by circulation inside their own medium.”

These thoughts may well have developed from a letter Prynne wrote in April 1992 to one of the Chinese poets represented in the Parataxis anthology, Zhou Ya-Ping:

“Language is an instrument of symbolic performance and representation that also has no independently direct connection to ‘a real world’: it belongs to men and to their sense of the possible just as much as of the actual…If the level and method of representation are shifted strongly into the language-world it may seem like fantasy; but it is a way of thinking about potential experience, liberating the mind from clumsy and doctrinaire ‘realism’ while keeping a complex connection with its components.”

In Rodenbach’s aquarium world “underwater dreams are ceaselessly voyaging” leading to an unending “buried life”.
Yet again Arc Publications, in this guest-edited volume by Olivia Hanks, has revealed itself to be one of the most important poetry presses working in this country. Long may it continue!

Ian Brinton, 8th May 2017

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