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Category Archives: Translation

Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

In these days when surrealism has become a staple of breakfast cereal adverts, it’s hard imagining the original impact of, say, Paul Éluard’s ‘la terre est bleue comme une orange’ (the earth is blue like an orange), or Robert Desnos’ ‘je suis le bûcheron de la forêt d’acier’ (I am the woodcutter in the steel forest). Vicente Huidobro never signed up officially to the programme, a mishap that’s led to his absence from most surrealist anthologies then and now, but this bilingual volume brings together two small collections from the mid-twenties, the period when he was most influenced by them. 

Reading this kind of work from a century’s distance takes some getting used to. The stuff about capital-W Woman can feel embarrassingly archaic, and the love-poems evince a paramour too scatterbrained to generate any intensity, let alone be reciprocated. Those about the seasons, the sky and nature manage better, refreshing these ultra-traditional subjects through their sheer oddity. The ocean, shipwreck and drowning feature heavily, not only as Symbolist allusions, but also perhaps because, as a Chilean in Paris, Huidobro must have spent quite a while on the Atlantic. There are openings rich in promise

Je possède la clef de l’Automne   (I possess the key to Autumn)

Maintenant écoutez le grincement des paupières   (Now listen to the eyelids creaking)

Parmi les grands figues de l’espace   (Among the great figs of space)

albeit they’re quickly overwhelmed by whimsy. Structure is, naturally, one of the things being kicked against, but there’s the perennial problem of how else the readers are to be kept engaged. Perhaps, like the compliant beloved, they have to think, Well, at least the writer’s having a good time. And how artistic his dreams are!

One interesting feature is that while most avant-garde poetry of the time embraced vers libre, these frequently use rhymes. Some are of the coeur/fleur type that is the French equivalent of breeze/trees or moon/June. But others exploit less common rhymes as a way to link unrelated lines or, as here, to tease with a sonic false-reasoning:

Le Printemps est relative comme l’arc-en-ciel

Il pourrait aussi bien être une ombrelle

(Spring is relative like the rainbow/ It might as well be a parasol)

The book also includes Huidobro’s Spanish versions, which give a glimpse into his ongoing editing:

Dans tes cheveux il y a une musique

(In your hair there’s a kind of music)

becomes

Hay una música silvestre 

En tus cabellos leves

(There’s a wild music/ in your light hair)

where the supplementary adjectives suggest a poet not yet quite certain of his effects. 

All that said, there’s a certain charm here. It might be the sheer insouciance, the sheer eccentricity, or the fresh resonance for our times of lines like le ciel est gratuit’ (the sky is free of charge). In whatever case, it’s definitely helped by a marvellously self-effacing translation which chooses the clearest word rather than showing off the translator’s verbal agility, doesn’t move lines about, and doesn’t privilege rhyme over other poetic effects, as often happens. It’s also unafraid of leaving a nonsense line as nonsense rather than killing by interpretation, a particular danger with this kind of poetry. The book’s appearance finally extends access to Huidobro’s less famous work beyond completists and specialists, which is surely a good thing. 

Guy Russell 21st October 2020

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, multilingual poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, fiction and translations from Mandy Haggith, Andrew Duncan, Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese, Charlotte Baldwin, Jeremy Reed, Lynne Wycherley, Joanna Nissel, Mandy Pannett, Sam Wood, Genevieve Carver, Sarah Acton, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Mike Duggan, Daragh Breen, Tracey Turley, Karen Downs-Burton, Barbara Ivusic, John Freeman, John Millbank, Olivia Tuck, Rowan Lyster, Sarah Watkinson, Greg Bright, Robert Vas Dias, Lucy Sheerman, Andrew Darlington, David Punter, Beth Davyson, Michael Henry, Judith Willson, John Gilmore, M.Vasalis translated by Arno Bohlmeijer, Paul Rossiter, Charles Wilkinson, Rupert M. Loydell, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Peter Hughes, Zoe Karathanasi, Lucy Hamilton, Lydia Harris, Lucy Ingrams, Mark Goodwin, Simon Collings, Aidan Semmens, Vasiliki Albedo and Ian Seed.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIV, Andrew Duncan Apocalypse: An Anthology edited by James Keery, Lily-Robert-Foley on Jennifer K. Dick’s Lilith, Clark Allison on Geoffrey Hill, Alice Entwhistle on Frances Presley, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Nadira Clare Wallace on Ella Frears, Ian Brinton on Ray Crump, Norman Jope on Menno Wigman, Oliver Sedano-Jones on Anthony Anaxagorou, Steve Spence on Gavin Selerie, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 7 and Notes on Contributors.

Manifestos by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

Manifestos by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

The 1910s and 1920s were the Golden Age of artistic manifestos. Surrealists, Suprematists, Ultraists, Unanimists, Vorticists, Dadaists, Futurists: you gathered a group, you selected a name, you started a magazine, you adopted a café or established a salon, and you published a manifesto. Or in many cases, numerous manifestos as you refined your aesthetics and politics, and responded to critics. The manifesto was a recruitment prospectus and a marketing tool. It was also a kind of genre in its own right, where, as a poet, you could show off your aptitude for startling collocation or paradox and display your commitment to daring and modernity.
Chilean poet Huidobro had already produced an Ars Poetica before his arrival in Paris in 1916:

Por qué cantáis a la rosa, ¡oh, Poetas!
Hacedla florecer en el poema:
(Why sing about the rose, poets? Make it bloom in the poem.)

Another fronts his Saisons Choisies in 1921 (he wrote in both French and Spanish). This book, four years later, is a refining and responding one. It surveys the opposition. Cocteau is worthless. Soupault ‘must be excommunicated’. Futurism is simply out-of-date: singing about war and athletes is older than Pindar, and singing about aeroplanes doesn’t make you futuristic if you do it in old-fashioned ways. Surrealism’s advocacy of automatic writing, madness and dreams makes for poor poetry and besides, jettisoning reason is impossible. On the other hand, Huidobro shares the Surrealist opposition to realism, and approves much of the poetry quoted in André Breton’s 1924 manifesto. He largely agrees with them that successful imagery is about ‘the bringing together of two distant realities’, while claiming the idea is not new.

Clearly Huidobro’s Creationism is a cousin of Surrealism. Great poems arise from the poet’s délire (euphoria) and superconscience (superconsciousness). They involve l’inhabituel (the unfamiliar), ‘humanising things’ and making the abstract concrete and the concrete abstract. Nothing must be anecdotal or descriptive, but everything should be newly created, like l’oiseau niché sur l’arc-en-ciel (the bird nestled on the rainbow). Or horizon carré (square horizon). And, of course, such work can only be produced by les gens d’un esprit vraiment supérieur (people of a really superior mind), for le poète est un moteur de haute fréquence spirituelle (the poet is an engine of high spiritual frequency). This last, rather futurist, image is rhetorically dramatic but evidently unfalsifiable as argument. It illustrates a common weakness of manifestos, whose polemical cast often entails appeals to science and philosophy while betraying that their writers are experts in neither sphere.

Despite his upper-class super-confidence (or arrogance), Huidobro’s repetitive ‘I’s and insistent name-dropping (Apollinaire, Picasso, Gris) expose a certain plaintiveness. No-one’s paying enough attention. He’s obliged to be his own critic, quoting, explaining and praising his own poems. Creationism ultimately became an art-historical also-ran and Huidobro returned to Latin America. Nowadays he’s well-known there but often overlooked in Anglophone surveys of the modernist ferment, so it’s great to see his works reappearing. This one is in a useful parallel-text edition with a contextualising introduction and makes for a fascinating read.

Guy Russell 12th August 2020

We Were Not There by Jordi Doce Translated by Lawrence Schimel (Shearsman Books)

We Were Not There by Jordi Doce Translated by Lawrence Schimel (Shearsman Books)

When Jordi Doce considered the poems of Charles Tomlinson for an Agenda International Issue some twenty-five years ago he noted the voice behind the poems as being ‘wholly unique in its ambition’ before going on to say that the English poet’s ambition and ability was ‘to match and express preoccupations which have remained largely consistent through the years, always expanding and expounding themselves through the workings of an alert, intelligent mind.’ Let me be bold enough to say that similar words may be used about the Spanish poet who wrote that and suggest that his volume We Were Not There, published last year by Shearsman Books , plots an ambitious journey of discovery in which we are challenged to examine not only our changing world but also those senses ‘the air interrogated questioned by a blank page’ (‘Guest’).

The blank page offers an invitation to the writer to pursue a horizon of discovery as in ‘Exploration’:

‘To go there where no one has ever been.
The place of all places, they said.
A fire burned me from within and there was no respite.
Wastelands, wandering clouds, some trees.
I kept on traveling toward my own borders.’

As William Blake’s Infernal Proverb had put it ‘No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings’ and to travel towards one’s own borders suggests a journey that has no predetermined conclusion. Journeys begin with the opening of doors but anticipation is more like an imaginative fiction, a glance through the glass, and as Louis Zukofsky put it ‘To see is to inform all speech’. Doce’s ‘Fiction’ opens with sight:

‘I didn’t want to open the door
nor for it to open before me:

the keyhole was all I needed
to pass through to the other side

and see the house where time
was buzzing in the kitchen

and we heard, in the distance,
the sea’s obstinacy,

the obedient crunch of the sand –’

One of the most striking elements of this collection of poems is that feeling of collaborative concern, that awareness of commonality, the record of experiences that permits us to recognise our common humanity. Doce brings into focus ‘Then’, that awareness that ‘When the world became the world / the light shone like always / upon an indifferent clock’. That world possessed an air that ‘was full of beginnings’:

‘and a thousand times in a thousand different streets
someone tripped on a stone
and this stone opened their eyes;
it was the moment we all waited for
to make the same decisions,
to again kiss the same ground,
to say the goodbyes of the day before;
and that beloved everyday face
that pretended to listen
or invited a distracted caress
once again pulled away too soon.’

Writing about Tomlinson, Jordi Doce quoted the English poet as explaining in an interview with a Spanish newspaper that ‘Europe has been built by its poets, and not by its politicians. Homer, Dante, Rilke have done more for Europe than all bureaucratic dispositions and governments.’ It seems entirely appropriate that Doce’s own ‘Una página, un jardin’ (‘A Page, A Garden’) should have as epigraph Tomlinson’s own lines:

‘A sudden blossoming of each character,
Of living letters, sprung from nowhere…’

The movement from Spanish to French in the title of Doce’s poem is given gentle force as we then read that ‘You step upon the humble tiles / and another floor gives way, neither here nor there, between two worlds that intermingle / at the tips of the toes.’

It is those toe-tips that set out on the journey in a manner not dissimilar to the way a pen’s mark on a page commences a new determination and Doce’s use of an extract from Goethe’s Diaries as an epigraph to his volume alerts the reader to the connections between movement and stillness: in a world of restricted journeying we are NOW and in a world of LOCK-DOWN we are aware of liberty:

‘Now that half of my life has passed I find that I have made but little progress, and I stand here like one who has barely escaped drowning and who is drying himself in the grateful rays of the sun’
J.W. Goethe, 1779

Ian Brinton 18th July 2020

Bitter Grass by Gëzim Hajdari Translated by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Bitter Grass by Gëzim Hajdari Translated by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

When in 1970 Isaiah Berlin delivered his Romanes Lecture on the subject of the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev he emphasised the writer’s refusal to be drawn into the world of politics:

‘Nature, personal relationships, quality of feeling – these are what he understood best, these, and their expression in art…The conscious use of art for ends extraneous to itself, ideological, didactic, or utilitarian, and especially as a deliberate weapon in the class war, as demanded by the radicals of the sixties, was detestable to him.’

Six years after Berlin had delivered his talk the young Albanian poet Gëzim Hajdari was in his last year at high school and completing his volume of poems Bitter Grass. It was not permitted to be published by the government publication house in Tirana on account of it being a text that failed to deal with the theme of the socialist village and the censor wrote that

‘…the hero of the poems is a solitary person who flees from his contemporaries, from the Youth Association, from reality; moreover, the transformations that socialism has brought to the countryside under the guidance of the Party are entirely absent…’

One might be tempted to here to catch an undertone, an echo, of Bakunin or of Bazarov, the fiercely dogmatic anarchist of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. The language is very different from what Ian Seed recognises as a main characteristic of these early poems in which he discovers ‘a compressed lyricism, a blurring of the boundaries between a geographical landscape and a visionary dreamscape, the merging of the physical with the spiritual’. Recalling what John Ashbery wrote about Ian Seed’s own poetry it seems entirely appropriate that the Albanian refugee who fled to Italy in 1992 should have found a translator of such distinction. Ashbery had recognised Seed’s ability to re-create the ‘mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street’ and ‘trains travelling through a landscape of snow’ which become ‘magical’. The metamorphic lyrical power to be found in Seed’s translation of one of Hajdari’s poems concerning the fleeting nature of reality is a case in point:

‘Perhaps tomorrow I won’t be
in these whitened fields.
Like an early morning cloud
my face will disappear.

My voice will be lost
with everyday memories,
hopes and dreams
orphaned in the woods.

Still hanging by the river
names and shadows will remain,
the one who obsessed me
dust and ash.

A hawthorn will grow
above the corpse,
my secret kept
under tender grass.

The days of May will come
with gorse and sunshine.
The nightingale and cuckoo
will be the first to sing.’

The movement of time is caught hauntingly here as the word ‘whitened’, associated perhaps with the newness of a morning, is placed against the constant shift of clouds which becomes associated in the poet’s mind with his own transience. The sense of the lost child, whose ‘hopes and dreams’ dissolve in the rejection he feels as an orphan in the woods, links the poem to what Ian Seed recognises as reminiscent of the opening canto of Dante’s Inferno where the poet finds himself lost in ‘una selva oscura’. In Hajdari’s world beyond the ‘dust and ash’ of death there are echoes which still hang in the air, a musical quality that lingers, and the lyric itself seems to take on its concrete form in the print on the page in a manner not dissimilar to the growth of the hawthorn. The physical presence of the poem suggests a shadow of awareness of a future reader and in another spring there will be a return of both the harbingers of distance and of love, the cuckoo and the nightingale.
In Ian Seed’s own ‘Composition 2’ from Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books, 2011) ‘Your face dissolves when you drop / a coin into the fountain’ and ‘The scene / may sparkle but you feel // the pull of its undertow’. In these translations from the Italian of the Balkan poet Gëzim Hajdari Ian Seed offers us a convincing sense of that pull of poetry’s undertow: a convincing refutation of Turgenev’s anarchist Bazarov who in 1862 had rejected everything that could not be established by the rational methods of natural science. One can only wonder what Turgenev would have made of the censor from Tirana!

Ian Brinton 29th June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I am
as landless as possessed’

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

Ian Brinton 8th June 2020

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

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