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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.

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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

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

John Berger’s fictional account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean, Dr Sassall in A Fortunate Man, presents the reader with that reality pointed to by Charles Tomlinson in his poem ‘A Meditation on John Constable’:

“…The artist lies
For the improvement of truth.”

Berger’s country doctor “exaggerates when he tells stories about himself. In these stories he is nearly always in an absurd position: trying to take a film on deck when the waves break over him; getting lost in a city he doesn’t know; letting a pneumatic drill run away with him. He stresses the disenchantment and deliberately makes himself a comic little man. Disguised in this way and forearmed against disappointment, he can then re-approach reality once more with the entirely un-comic purposes of mastering it, of understanding further.” Anna Crowe’s Preface to her convincing translations of the contemporary Mallorcan poet Aguiló highlights some similar ideas concerning the imagination of this tale-weaving poet:

“Already there is a sense that the reader may expect the unexpected. Reading these poems, what is striking is the power of the imagination at work, and the multiplicity of voices that speak through the poems. The power of the imagination might be said to be the underlying argument or leitmotif of Aguiló’s poetry.”

Aguiló creates worlds which can be visited secretly and we can begin “to search for the truth / by finding where the ink is hidden that tattoos us / in the world”. This is a poetry of doors and as they open, one by one, they invite the reader into the next stanza:

“The first stanza is the one that welcomes
you and drags you inside,
grabbing you by the arm and frowning at you;
the one that speaks to you with warmth and trust
while it makes you sit down in the armchair of the second stanza.”

These are magical poems which create a magical world of Mallorca in which “green and yellow words”, written by a botanical god, can be deciphered “every day on the pages of / the thicket of writing”.
This is a Mallorca known to the Americans of the 1950s from which Robert Creeley published his Divers Press books and Black Mountain Review and from which Robert Duncan could write to Denise Levertov in June 1955 about “the desire to have imagination freed again”. This is a world which exists with a perception of exact detail and an understanding that ouvertures are created through which we see another world:

“You had to walk stealthily. Every footstep echoed,
disturbing emptiness and time. The smells of food
from the kitchen did not reach this high and I scrabbled
among lumber and old clothes, savouring the smells
of chicken bran and the dung and damp walls
of this corner of Santanyí and bad Mallorcan cement.”

The importance of Tomlinson’s assertion about imagination and truth informs this whole collection and the emphasis noted in Anna Crowe’s introduction stands sentinel to a landscape which invites further exploration:

“There is a sense of a poet pushing the boundaries of the possible further and further out, of exploring what it means to live on the edge of whatever world he has invented, as well as, at the same time, going further and further in, exploring what it means to be human.”

Ian Brinton 23rd January 2017

The Thief of Talant: Pierre Reverdy translated by Ian Seed (Wakefield Press)

The Thief of Talant: Pierre Reverdy translated by Ian Seed (Wakefield Press)

When Philippe Jaccottet wrote a short account of the central importance of Reverdy in an essay from 1960, reproduced by Gallimard in 1968 as part of a collection of essays titled L’Entretien des Muses, he highlighted the way in which the poetry is to be found “dans chaque mot qui éclate sur la page sèche, avide, éblouissante”. This is not, he continued, the large noble architecture of Claudel or Saint-John Perse but instead it focuses upon the “moindre bonheur, les voiles de la pluie, la fuite des nuées, les lueurs des vitres”. It is this sharp awareness of the accumulation of detail in the world that makes his work so important to two later poets, Frank O’Hara and Simon Smith. O’Hara’s lunch hour walk around the city concludes with the lines

“…My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”

The poetry in O’Hara is in each word which bursts onto the empty space of the page, “avide”, asserting its right to be there.

“There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock.”

The fragility of the everyday is caught melting between the Puerto Ricans who make the day “beautiful and warm” and the end-of-line word “First” which heralds the references to the death of three close friends. The poet seems to be not only a step away from the dead but also from the fast movement of the day, as sensations disappear almost as soon as they are presented. Simon Smith’s volume from 2003, Reverdy Road (Salt Books), pays nodding homage to both the French and American poets as his poems, whilst appearing to present a quality of the random, are in fact highly-wrought and careful vignettes of modern urban and suburban life. The 2011 sequence, Gravesend (Veer Books), offers reflections of a train journey between Charing Cross and Chatham and what Jaccottet referred to as “lueurs des vitres” stabilize themselves with a desire for permanence within a shifting landscape: the poems themselves attempt to halt the sense of vertigo prompted by a world of captions and key-words presenting themselves as mirrors of everyday narrowness.

Ian Seed’s translation of Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan, the first time that it has been translated into English, brings us a world of a hundred years ago. The First World War is being fought, Cubism bisects reality and Reverdy’s friends are Picasso, Braque, Apollinaire. In his clear and informative introduction Ian Seed recreates a sense of that time:

“Up until the outbreak of the First World War, Reverdy also frequently met up with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire at the Café de Flore. Their discussions would often revolve around the use of punctuation in poetry and the shape of the text on the page. Reverdy, like Apollinaire, was uneasy with the way punctuation could interfere with the flow of a poem. They also questioned the poem’s abandonment of the right side of the page to blank space. What they were searching for was syntax and visual arrangement of text that would allow a poem to achieve its full expression.”

It is worth bearing in mind here of course that Mallarmé’s ‘Un Coup de Dès’ had appeared in 1897 shimmering and weaving its way across the pages of Cosmopolis.
Seed’s translation captures that “fuite des nuées” talked about by Jaccottet and he presents the reader with what he refers to as “a hauntingly beautiful long poem” which contains at its heart “Reverdy’s growing sense of dislocation and loss of self”. We read details as “Lights ran between doors / Soft sounds brushed / the partitions and some women went by / singing” and distance them as “Paler than old memories”. We seek a world of Orpheus as “We often turn our / heads and behind us / something flees much / faster than us” but the poet wants “to go / up once more after I / had descended forever.”

“Outside the closed door people passed by
slowly looking at the ground

They were looking for traces of my footsteps”

The traces are in the printer’s marks on the white page and we are now able to follow them in English thanks to the quality of Ian Seed’s own poetry: he brought something back to life.

Ian Brinton 8th January 2017

Pages from the Biography of an Exile by Adnan Al-Sayegh Trans: Stephen Watts & Marga Burgui-Artajo Arc Publications

Pages from the Biography of an Exile by Adnan Al-Sayegh Trans: Stephen Watts & Marga Burgui-Artajo Arc Publications

The introduction to this selection of one of the most important poets to have been involved in the Eighties Movement in Iraq is written in a way that is both directly informative and suggestive of much wider issues relating to the central role of poetry. Stephen Watts, himself of course a serious poet (see my review of Ancient Sunlight on the Tears Blog, August 2014), refers to Al-sayegh’s youthful visits to Baghdad as becoming ‘suffused with language’ and inspiring ‘his sense of poetry as journey and of the physicality of words’. Watts traces the years of exile endured by the Iraqi poet and offers us a picture of the restlessness of making a home in Sweden after he had been placed on a public death-list by Uday Hussein, before he finally settled in London in 2004. Throughout the search for somewhere to carve out some sense of home the importance of the poet has been a constant:

‘Poetry is a way of life, a breathing existence for al-Sayegh in ways not true of every poet; he has at times wanted to say that poetry is his religion, but for the delusion of language in such a form of words. He would want it said that religion is far less important an expression of the human spirit than is poetry…’

The magnum opus of this remarkable poet is surely the 500-page Uruk’s Anthem, published in Beirut in 1996, and Stephen Watts refers to it as summing up ‘his poetry’s essence, the fractured and fratricidal struggles of modern Iraq, and his own life’s trajectory’. This Arc publication contains two fairly short fragments of this major work, the main body of which still awaits translation, but one can feel the palpable nature of life’s enduring within a world of war-torn cities:

‘Bravo, for the turning of the Earth
for me, the rotation of ink
Bravo for the one they injected with life’s serum
so he can live on
to shout out
Vi-i-i-i-i-i-i-VA’

Or, with its elegiac grace:

‘(Everyone sings in their dark hours…
And I was singing in the prison block for all that was gone)
Until dawn puts forth leaves
on the branches of the benches
You bade me farewell…
and went off alone
to your exile
Singing, shattered in the wind
like a strange flute’

There is of course a haunting presence behind many of these fine poems and it is that of Gilgamesh ‘who scoured the world ever searching for life’ (Tablet 1 in the Andrew George translation, Penguin 1999):

‘After roaming, wandering all through the wild,
When I enter the netherworld will rest be scarce?
I shall lie there sleeping all down the years’ (Tablet IX)

It is worth making a comparison here with Abdulkareem Kasid who escaped from Iraq in 1978 and who also now lives in London. His fine collection, Sarabad, appeared from Shearsman Books last year introduced by John Welch:

‘In the distance I saw a train
Speeding along the track
But still in the same place.
I got on
And off I went.

***

How slowly the years of my life go by.
I leave them behind
And I sleep.

***

O my years. So many times
I have stood like a beggar before you.

The Long Poem Magazine, issue 15 published earlier this year, opens with a further extract from Adnan al-Sayegh’s Uruk’s Anthem and the poet writes by way of introduction that the poem

‘is one of the longest ever written in Arabic literature (549 pages) and gives voice to the profound despair of the Iraqi experience…It took twelve years to write (1984-1996). During eight years of that time I was forced to fight in the Iran-Iraq War. Many of my friends were killed and I spent eighteen months in an army detention centre close to the border with Iran.’

These extracts are translated by Jenny Lewis, Ruba Abughaida and Dr. Elias Khamis and I very much recommend that readers of this review get hold of a copy of the magazine. This is deeply moving writing of a most serious nature and it is heart-warming to read Stephen Watts’s comments upon translating the poetry published in the Arc selection (also a collaborative effort) in which he refers to the text emerging ‘from one language into the other in the physical presence of those involved’.

The achievement of all these translators is to produce a language of ‘a living breath’. If at the close of The Epic of Gilgamesh the serpent consumes the plant of rejuvenation and Gilgamesh recognises that he has lost eternal life the last tablet records the stone buildings of Uruk:

‘A square mile is city, a square mile date-grove, a square mile is
clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar:
three square miles and a half is Uruk’s expanse’.

Art outlives the transient.

Ian Brinton, 18th December 2016

Crimean Sonnets: Adam Mickiewicz A new version translated by Kevin Kackson (Worple Press)

Crimean Sonnets: Adam Mickiewicz A new version translated by Kevin Kackson (Worple Press)

In his introductory essay to this handsome little volume from Peter and Amanda Carpenter’s Worple Press, Kevin Jackson makes his credentials as a translator absolutely clear:

‘In my “imitations” of these short poems—they are by no means true translations, as my Polish is still at the toddler stage—I hope to have conveyed at least the substance of Mickiewicz’s intellectual range, though probably none of his lyrical grace’.

I have mentioned the Keynote Speech given by J.H. Prynne at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in Shijazhuang in April 2008 on a previous occasion and I go back now to that intricate talk about the difficulties of translating poetry. In terms of a translation the problems are first of all lexical, the tracing of semantic equivalences, idioms, registers:

‘If the vocabulary is rich in shades of alternative meaning, sometimes bringing in different fields of specialised usage and also historical or textual allusion in several different directions, the reader/translator pauses to consider the choice to be made. Which of the many pathways to follow?’

By terming his version of the Crimean Sonnets ‘imitations’ Kevin Jackson has released himself from a close study of the original Polish and has produced something new. It is on that ground that these eighteen sonnets stand or fall and, for me as a reader, they certainly stand. It is here that the short introductory essay is also of great value since we are given the background to Mickiewicz’s exile in Russia between 1824 and 1829. It was not a term of physical hardship and we are not looking at the world of Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn; however much the young Polish poet’s ‘soul might have been racked with unappeasable nostalgia and melancholy’ he had little to complain about ‘in material terms’. The food was good and the company seductive leading Jackson to suggest that ‘Mickiewicz’s exile was probably the cushiest and sexiest in literary history’. There is, of course, a wide range of poetry written in exile and Ovid’s enforced residence on the edge of the Black Sea in A.D. 8 was one of the most celebrated. As with the nineteenth-century Polish poet’s exile storms at sea, whether real or metaphoric, are central and the fourth section of Book I of Ovid’s Tristia opens with the poet ‘constrained, not by my will, to plough the Adriatic’ whilst facing waves which are ‘mountain-high, on prow and curving stern-post’. In 1825 when Mickiewicz travelled to the Crimea he seems to have revelled in voyaging through a massive storm and Kevin Jackson tells us ‘he had himself lashed to the mast like Ulysses to relish the spectacle while his shipmates languished below deck.’ The image is, of course, an interesting one for a poet and the Odyssean ability to be privileged to hear what the Sirens sing is perhaps part of what prompted Prynne, in his role as Late-Modernist poet, not only to title one of his poems from The White Stones ‘Lashed to the Mast’ but also to paste into the opening page of his copy of Ezra Pound’s Cantos a reproduction of a third-century B.C. Greek vase showing the exile on his way home listening to words that are for his ears only.
The first of the Crimean Sonnets opens on a landscape which reaches back to the traditional picture of the exile’s voyage by sea:

‘This steppe is like an ocean that’s run dry,
My wagon’s like a ship that ploughs the sea,
The flowers and the grasses seem to me
Like brightly-coloured waves as I pass by.
Night’s falling.’

I like the way that these opening lines move from the inherited image of the sea voyage to the more resisting flatlands of monotony. The simile of the first line rolls off the tongue so easily while the second has a sense of clog: the simile seems to move slower and slower with the repetition of ‘p’ sounds between ‘ship’ and ‘plough’. The sense of isolation and loss is finely caught with the image of flowers and grasses being associated with the pun on the word ‘waves’: we are no longer in the Romantic inheritance of exile but are confronted with a gesture of loss that will culminate in the falling of night.
One of the significant qualities of these ‘imitations’ is their simplicity and this could not be made clearer than by looking at the closing lines of the fourteenth sonnet, ‘The Pilgrim’:

‘O Lithuania! I throb with pain!
I miss your marshes where I used to roam,
I love them more than all this fertile loam
Which teems with luscious fruit and ripened grain.
I am so far away from my dear land!
So far away from her, my one sweetheart –
We’d walk all night together, hand in hand:
I broke my promise that we’d never part.
Does she still pace the paths we used to tread?
Does she still think of me, in her soft bed?’

There is a tone here of that late-Medieval song ‘Western Wind’:

‘Westron wynde when wyll thow blow,
The smalle rayne downe can rayne –
Cryst, yf my love were in my armys
And I yn my bed agayne!’

The simplicity of Kevin Jackson’s new poem goes some way towards giving an account of those concluding lines to Fulke Greville’s ‘Absence and Presence’:

‘For thought is not the weapon,
Wherewith thought’s ease men cheapen,
Absence is pain.’

Ian Brinton 2nd April 2016

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