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Category Archives: Translation

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

Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg trans. Minna Zallman Proctor (Daunt Books)

Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg trans. Minna Zallman Proctor (Daunt Books)

This is the fourth book by Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) to be published by Daunt Books, following on from Family Lexicon, The Little Virtues and Voices in the Evening. Essayist and novelist, Sicilian-born, Ginzburg was an extraordinary writer, being able to get under the skin of family life, public and private connections, in a deceptively simple prose style marked by clarity, precision and humour. Her unmistakable style emerges regardless of the translator. Ginzburg wrote Family Lexicon in London in the early 1960s, and pointedly about the English and their ways in The Little Virtues at the same time. With that other Sicilian writer, Andrea Camilleri, known for his Montalbano novels, their near contemporary, Cesare Pavese, and the younger Elena Ferrante, Ginzburg has a growing readership in the UK. An anti-fascist, member of the Italian Communist Party, Ginzburg worked for the publisher, Einaudi, in Turin in the Forties, published early and continued to develop her style over the years. She was elected to the Italian parliament as an Independent in 1983.

Happiness, as Such is partly an epistolary novel, in the tradition of Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), where comedy arises from the differences in descriptions and understanding of events and places from letters sent home by Squire Bramble and members of his entourage as they tour the country. Here the letters sent arise from an absent son, Michele, who has left Rome for London to escape the dangers of his radical political connections, and the comedy arises from the characters observations and one-liners and, as in Camilleri’s novels, in the fringe characters and action elsewhere. Michele belongs to a large, dysfunctional family, and his absence somehow manages to link his dispersed relatives, friends and lover into complicated web of events revealing how they cope in adversity.

Minna Zallman Proctor has translated Caro Michele (1973) into Happiness, as Such and the English title works brilliantly as it addresses Ginzburg’s attempt to reveal the diverse ways in which people cope with disappointments and mistakes. Deborah Levy’s back cover observation on the effect of reading Ginzburg as both calming and thrilling is spot on. The writing is profoundly alive from the short sentenced opening page into Adriana’s first letter to her son. The reader immediately hears and gets the character, a bossy, melancholic woman with a pithy turn of phrase and the origins of much humour and perception. Here she is in full flow:

‘When you go to see him, don’t take your usual twenty-five pairs of dirty
socks. The butler, I can’t remember if his name is Enrico or Federico,
isn’t up to the extra burden of managing your dirty laundry right now.
He’s exhausted and overwhelmed. He doesn’t sleep at night because your
Father keeps calling him. And it’s the first time he’s ever been a butler.
He was a mechanic before. Plus, he’s an idiot.’

This is essentially a letter of complaint and Ginzburg draws in a great deal of social detail into her characterisation and subsequent action. The reader is carried along by the narrative force and almost misses the relentless candour and deft one-liners, such as her observation on Osvaldo, Michele’s friend, that ‘He’s polite. It’s the kind of politeness that makes you feel full, as if you’ve eaten too much jam.’ Whilst Adriana’s letters are startling, and full of life, Michele’s are brief, evasive and can be read for what they don’t say. His mother in contrast has much to say.

Gradually the complexity of Michele’s life and habits emerge. The absent centre is diffused throughout a set of connections laid bare before and after his death. Ginzburg uses this platform to evaluate what it is to be happy and the various states of happiness, as such, and is never short of new revelation and comic insight.

The exchange between Michele’s sister Angelica and his ex-girlfriend, Mara, who is an unpleasant deceiver and on the make shows how generosity can elicit honesty from a scoundrel. Angelica writes ‘I think that we should care about your baby and not worry about whether or not it’s his baby, by us I mean me and my mother and sisters, and I don’t know why I feel that way, but not everything a person feels has to have an explanation, and to be perfectly honest I don’t believe that obligations should have explanations.’ Mara responds that although she is broken and unreliable, she must tell her that the baby is not Michele’s. She writes: ‘I don’t want to deceive you. You said it so well: we don’t need reasons for what we feel we need to do or not do.’ She then proceeds with her tale of disaster, bored but happy, to emphasise her need for assistance in the face of uncertainty.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the narrative and spoil what is a great read. I shall end by stating that Ginzburg is adept at the gradual filtering of salient detail and, like Chekhov and Carver, at the unsaid, as well as like Ferrante at the full and rounded revelation. This extraordinarily tender and life-affirming novel, by one of the great Italian writers, repays rereading.

David Caddy 22nd October 2019

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus wrote some very rude poems. And Roz Kaveney has made some very rude translations of them.

The Rome of Catullus and Kaveney is not one of colonnaded arcade and pomerium, of lush gardens fringing the Tiber and aqueducts delivering sparkling water to mansions on the Palatine. It’s a place of back alleys with ‘come-smeared walls’, where a lover ‘fucks / three hundred men queued up’, ‘sorry dregs’ who wash their teeth with urine in a time of ‘filth, love and death’.

Unlike some earlier translators, Kaveney does not beat around the bush of euphemism. Take for example what is presumably the gold standard, the Penguin Classics Poems of Catullus. Where Penguin has ‘remove yourselves’ (poem 33), Kaveney has ‘fuck off’. Where Penguin coyly refers to ‘services’ (41), Kaveney explains these are ‘fuck[ing] her scraggy arse’. In poem 42, Penguin’s ‘indelicate syllables’ are spelled out by Kaveney as ‘Fuck, felch, quim, rim’.

To be fair, though, sometimes even euphemism shrinks before Catullus’s meaning, as in Penguin’s poem 28: ‘Yes, Memmius, once / you filled me truly / slowly – daily – / with the length of your great beam’. (Kaveney renders this as: ‘My dear commander, Memmius, without oil // to smooth things, fucked me in the mouth and arse’.)

Would you like some more? Here is Kaveney’s translation of poem 16 in full:

Eat out my pussy while I fuck you hard
my hands up both your arses. Silly boys,
you prissy queens, because my verse enjoys
making hot love, that doesn’t mean I’m tarred

with the same filthy brush. I might be chaste
as anything. A poem might say “fuck,”
dabble its fingers in all kinds of muck,
turn people on perhaps, if they’ve a taste

for all that sort of thing. Old men with piles
don’t get hard otherwise; bored wives are wet
reading my verses. But you still don’t get
to think I’m a slut or virgin. Snarky smiles

will get you hurt. Oh, I will make you shout,
fistfuck your arses while you eat me out.

Catullus was a great innovator, one of the ‘new poets’ of the late Republic, who experimented with verse forms inherited from the Greeks. His mark can be seen on the work of Ovid, Tibullus, Sextus Propertius, Milton, Yeats and Pound. Kaveney’s translations are skilfully and unobtrusively rhymed in iambic pentameter; almost a third of them are sonnets, a form received from our own past, of course. Poems 63 and 64 are two of the longer poems that Catullus is famous for. The first tells the story of Attis who castrates himself (‘new girled’ ‘She plucks the last / bits of her former flesh / out by the chords’) to please the mother goddess Cybele who sets a lion on her. Poem 64 is another short epic about the marriage of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and sea nymph Thetis (part of which Virgil appropriated for the Aeneid).

The first century BCE was a time of scandal, chaos and civil war and Catullus’s poetry is ripe with intrigue and politics. Caesar and his lieutenant Mamurrus ‘are twins in sleaze / … You know it’s true. / They’ve fucked each other and they’ll fuck Rome too’ (57). There is bitterness, despair – but also love. For one lover, he wrote (48):

Juventius, to kiss your eyes is sweet,
as honey. I will not be satisfied
with thirty million kisses – so complete
is my devotion, I’ve not even tried
to cease from kissing. In a field of wheat,
harvest the grain and put each grain beside
the kisses I will give you. We’ll defeat
comparison, then kiss once more in pride.

Catullus also translated Sappho’s poem 31 for his great lost love, Lesbia (probably Clodia Metelli) (51):

He’s like a god, I think, or maybe more
than gods, the man who’s sitting next to you,
he gets to watch you. It is almost too
much that he hears your sweet laugh. I am poor

in spirit, Lesbia, because that sound
robs me of sense. It leaves me blind and dumb,
Soon deafness and paralysis will come.
I moan, and stagger, lie there on the ground,

and that’s just when you laugh. I cannot bear
to think of him, or you. And worse by far,
I know the truth, that all my problems are
trivial and silly, lighter than the air

and yet great kingdoms fall through such as this,
an idle dreamer, longing for a kiss.

Catullus, the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus: some English versions by Roz Kaveney is available from Sad Press https://sadpresspoetry.com/catullus/

Antony John 30th June 2019

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.

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