The Bitter Oleander Press have already published two books by Franca Mancinelli, a book of prose poetry and another of poetry, both translated into English by John Taylor, and this paperback of prose, poetic prose and poetics will only add to the evidence of Mancinelli as a major contemporary Italian writer.
The short prose which makes up the first section of the book is a surprising mix of the romantic, personal and gently shocking. Childhood memories and fairy stories turn into stories with corpses, frozen tears which form stalactites in the eyes, blood and portentous signs. Yet these are deftly written, engaging and lucid tales, written with an accomplishment and flair that does not linger on the darkness but works to produce worlds of magic and light, and of promise, even when things seem grim. Here’s the end of ‘Walls, Rubble’, a story of claustrophobia, paranoia and ‘not feeling at home’: ‘I believe this space will collapse: a cataclysm will fall on this apartment. I will live under the rubble in an air gap, until I reemerge, come back out free.’
If there’s a problem with this I might challenge the vague use of the word ‘free’, which is in sharp contrast to the physical and emotional realities Mancinelli uses elsewhere in this piece. It’s a problem I have later on in the book when she addresses the topic of poetry, but first there is a selection of what I take to be non-fiction pieces.
There are descriptive yet still personal responses to the hills, cities, the beach, Milan Central Station, along with a meditation on her given name Maria, which the author has deleted from her writing name. Physical description, memories, geography and the imaginary coalesce into vivid moments and portraits of place, with a final, lengthier piece, ‘Living in the Ideal City: Fragments in the Form of a Vision’, emerging from contemplation of an unsigned painting in the Ducal Palace of Urbino. Again, there are some vague phrases I would question, such as ‘unstitched by wide rips of emptiness’ as part of a response to having her backpack stolen at the station. The same story, early on, also uses the phrase ‘[t]he law was to go, to follow the train timetable, the platform’, which I wonder might work better as ‘the rule’ rather than the (I assume) literal translation of ‘law’?
As I get older I am more and more fascinated by how others write poetry, and their creative process. Mancinelli’s ideas are no exception, although at times I almost shouted aloud at some of her romantic notions of what poetry is! (I accept I tend to have a reductionist approach that starts from the notion of text and language as something to build, remix and collage with/from, rather than any initial desire of self-expression or shared emotion.)
Yet, we share many traits. I have never been taken for a traffic warden, but I too stop and make notes in the street (and elsewhere), just as Mancinelli does in ‘Keeping Watch’; and I like her down to earth summary here: ‘I am making a report, and delivering it.’ I also understand the confusion and sense of being lost as one composes, shapes and edits a poem, but I reject the idea that ‘poetry is a voice that passes through us’ or the idea that she has ‘caught something’, both of which seem like a refusal to take responsibility for what has been written. Neither, for me, is poetry rooted in my sense of bodily self or ‘a practice of daily salvation’; and I do not believe that ‘[i]t is the forceful truth of an experience that generates poetic language.’ I like it, however, when she writes of ‘broken sentences’, ‘fragments’, ‘disorientation’ and ‘other meanings’, although I do not believe poetry is anything to do with ‘salvation’ or ‘transcendence’: we experience and describe the world through language, and it is language we use to make poetry (and other writing) from. It’s good, however, to be challenged and engage with what other authors think.
Taylor, in an intriguing ‘Postface’, considers Mancinelli’s writing with regard to ‘dualities of flux and the search for stability, using ideas of home and homelessness, place/space and elsewhere, highlighting the biographical, the physical body and notions of a more spiritual or metaphysical self’, but also a more ‘existential dilemma’ and ‘ontological resonance’ dependent upon the invisible. He also unpicks the idea of the book’s title, quoting the author, who explains that it ‘is a place steeped in the memory of childhood, whose boundaries have blurred over time, and at the same time it is the space of writing […]’. The butterflies of childhood have long faded and turned to dust, but Mancinelli’s desire to make words live and fly again, informs her strange and original writing that evidence traces of both her and our being.
Rupert Loydell 7th September 2022
Category Archives: Translation
The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose by Franca Mancinelli Translated by John Taylor (Bitter Oleander)
The Bitter Oleander Press have already published two books by Franca Mancinelli, a book of prose poetry and another of poetry, both translated into English by John Taylor, and this paperback of prose, poetic prose and poetics will only add to the evidence of Mancinelli as a major contemporary Italian writer.
In We Build A City the Hungarian poet Kinga Toth reassembles, almost as an architect /builder, both language and genre: she is a ‘(sound) poet illustrator, translator, frontwoman, performer, songwriter’ who writes in Hungarian, German and English, living now between Hungary and Germany. Her work has won several important prizes. This book was originally published in Germany in 2019 and has been co-translated by the poet herself into English: the edition is sleek and elegant with a grey industrial landscape as its cover, however the dominant image, a rounded breast-shaped silo, hints at the deep gender concerns raised within.
Originally a philologist, her work signals a deep fascination with language per se ,
and she is not afraid to mould and transform it , experimentally stress its materials to breaking-point in order to create new structures. This is an ambitious collection: the poems and graphics are collective in their range, remind us of plans and maps of unrecognisable sites, slash vertically and horizontally, and imagine strange and provoking structural relationships between the (obliquely gendered female) body as metaphor for a city in both biomorphic and mechanistic terms. Toth regards the poet as part machine and language as self-generating: meaning is always fluid, elusive, and words run together as hybrids – ‘newdeed’, ‘foldstool’, ‘tormentbelts’. The effect is powerful and sometimes menacing. Here is the beginning of the poem ‘WOMAN’ :
the woman is the container’s part
on her head a yellow snapped helmet
the channels crackle outside
squirming as a maze
not every one of them
gets back inside the body
In a breakthrough poem ‘Ballerina’ from her collection All Machine, 2014, Toth evokes a rotating, robotic figure, a model dancer activated on the top of a music box by a key, and We Build A City would appear to explore this trope further. Poems here evoke the perplexing realities of being seen as a performer, a female receiver of the public gaze, while at the same time imagining ways in which linguistic imagery can evoke consciousness as a mechanistic system, partly human and partly human-made (as we all are to some extent now in the 21st century due to contemporary surgical and technological interventions within the body). Toth’s work also considers how bodies (and consciousness) are impacted by disability and illness. In contrast with the architectural project to create a perfected whole, this perhaps more compelling sub-text offers glimpses of the fragmented/broken, incomplete / unfinished in constant process. The graphics consist of images and patterns made from faded and sometimes smudged letters from vintage typewriter keys: there is a disjoint between the modern and the anachronistic but without any trace of nostalgia. By the end of the book, language as text disappears almost entirely and we have only smudged and disjointed single letters within these eerie diagrams.
Pippa Little 31st August 2022
The collection is composed of seven short parts each with incantatory titles that together could create a poem of their own:
within the whirlpool of your loss
run away, leave the poem
one instant – you’re gone
I will not be able to lift you
the one with no name
the purple rose of Tel Aviv
Poems in ‘but first I call your name’ are elusive and ambiguous and based on paradox. Loss hovers between the binaries of beauty and pain: ‘apart from everything/nothing has changed’ says the epigraph on the opening page. The spirit of the lost ‘you’ wanders along ‘in the opposite direction/to laughter’. There are motifs of silence, birds, roses, music and dreams but pain is ‘nailed’, one title is ‘lacerations from an unsent letter’ and there is reference to ‘the crimson bond of blood’ while angels are warned to ‘take caution/with a slaughtering knife’. ‘Silence’ is a key word in these poems but, in the nightmarish ‘finito la commedia’, Pierrot cackles ‘A bird will scream tonight’.
Poems about loss – but the reader is offered no further information. There are references to motherhood with ‘nipples and honey’ and to a child, ‘a girl running in a field’, to a ‘morning star and a girl’ falling, ‘scattering through the air’, but details are not intended for the reader, loss is conveyed through images, there is no name and the lost one is always referred to as ‘you’ or, symbolically, as ‘beauty’.
Poems in this collection are filled with yearning. One is titled ‘how much yearning does time weigh’ and begins ‘You yearn from within me/passing a shadow over my words, pushing/towards the source of light.’ We have the description of ‘running along stone platforms/ chasing you’ (‘Crumbs’). In ‘leave these words’ the narrator runs ‘like a broom through the city streets’ asking ‘Was it my yearning that created the rose you gave me/in a dream or was it yours –‘. In the poem ‘baby, you’ve got a snow-white coat with blue-red stripes’, yearning is described as ‘wafting like a wind,/whirling’. ‘Hold, let me hold you’ is the plea, ‘don’t slip away’.
This is a deeply philosophical collection. Time, as the instigator of grief, is interrogated throughout. The ‘you’ has been ‘emptied of clocks yet time happens’. In the poem ‘silence’ Time is personified when he hears his own words and looks up ‘startled’ only to repeat the dreadful word ‘Nevermore’. In ‘twist’ we are offered this:
there’s no death, she said.
the spirit doesn’t die, is not born.
the sternum, a cage
of ribs, life before and after, all is one.’
Earlier I mentioned paradoxes and binaries and an essential one exists in the swing between the sublime and the void. In ‘but first I call your name’ the void is ‘emptiness/filled with itself’. The lost voice jingles in a bell ‘polished by the void’ (‘that’s that’). ‘o g-d’ begins ‘imagine voiding yourself: visibly absent./no present no sign. nothing. all shuttered … white recedes into darkness.’ The most chilling line, or fragment of a line, ends the wintry scene in ‘silence’:
‘Rain lashing a willow branch will be the only tune,
the world tethered to these words: you are no’
And the sublime? The poem ‘guesstimate’ offers some consolation perhaps, or at least a slight movement towards resignation:
they say your loosened curls are the wings of the bird of fate
that you were already who you would be
that you wouldn’t have been eternal
if you hadn’t been transient
This is an outstanding collection of poems, exquisitely written by Hadassa Tal and translated with empathy and delicacy by Joanna Chen. The book is haunting, in every sense, lyrical and innovative, both enchanting and painful.
The poems end with a promise: ‘at daybreak I’ll release you to dawn’ and with an image of ‘the purple rose of tel aviv’ which the narrator, with pain holding her hand, will ‘dream into being’.
Mandy Pannett 23rd June 2022
Controlled nostalgia suffuses the fourteen poems of Ariadne Radi Cor’s new collection. She moved from Trento in northern Italy to London in 2009 to pursue her new job’s projects. In this journey towards a new life in a big city, the author expresses the disquieting sensations of the duality of language, landscape and weather in the interweaving of past memories and present reality. The two worlds are in conversation but never merge completely, leaving the self in an uncertain suspended dimension. The book is bilingual; not only are the poems translated into English by the author with the help of translators, but also the blurb, the foreword and the afterword are presented with an English counterpart.
The future is a faraway entity that is unknowable and unpredictable. Therefore, the focus of the poems is on the present in relation to the past which is unforgettable and is surrounded by an aura of extraordinariness:
Per noi solo l’indimenticabile, così non lo dimenticheremo
e comunque solo fuori casa
E papà diceva che non serviva andare a Parigi
dal momento che ero già straordinaria
For us only the unforgettable, so we’ll never forget it
and in any case always outdoors
And dad used to say I didn’t need to go to Paris
since I was already marvellous
It is a dreamlike atmosphere evoked in the reference to La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini that connects the poem to the Italian cultural context of the time and to the illusions of memories. London, instead, is her everyday reality, which is mysterious and contingent at the same time. It is ‘a skeleton, an attendant – a skeleton […] a bowl of sugar in the rain’. She is unsettled by the absence of sunshine but eventually she learns to love London. A sense of displacement lingers in the allusion to Mary Poppins, whose bag is stolen leaving her deprived of her powers. Similarly to the heroine, the poet seems to be powerless when facing her double life between the present and the past, between London and Italy. Life goes on in London, the ‘unstoppable city’ where she finds her place but also wanders in search of meaning, in its vague ‘scent, a scent: whose, from when – whose?’ that questions her certainties:
e mi chiedo come sia possibile
se io stia occupando il posto di un’altra di proposito o per errore
e se questo fosse un mio errore
o l’errore di un’altra.
and I wonder, how did this happen
and I taking the place of another intentionally or by error
and is this my error
or someone else’s.
It is an adventure, a journey towards a more complex identity that challenges her origins and enriches them too in a progression that is not always easy. She wishes to rewind, to go back to the past, to her ‘Tyrolean dress’, but she also wants to face the opportunities that London offers. The city is ‘a kind of Olympus, of dream of the century/an emission of our youth’, the embodiment of vitality.
Four pictures comment on the poems; they are reminders of fragmented memories, apparently simple things but meaningful for the poet’s search, such as a newspaper clipping, a ticket for a sunbed session and a picture of a TV screen with William and Kate’s wedding showing on it. They are metaphors that help the reader understand and give a sense of deep connection to the author’s new life in London; it is an incessant movement that goes forwards and backwards between Italy and London.
Radi Cor’s poems are skilfully crafted, similarly to the works of major Italian women poets such as Alda Merini and Maria Luisa Spaziani. Her lines express deeply felt emotions in imageries and sounds both in Italian and in the elegant and competent English translations. She recalls memories that shaped her personality in language. It is a shape-shifting identity which is enriched by two cultures and two realities. The reader is involved in this moving and ambivalent reality in which ‘by the Thames […] you sense Venice’ in an illusion of truth.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio 7th January 2022
Forms of Exile: Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva Translated by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)
Marina Tsvetaeva is one of those poets whose biography (privilege, revolution, poverty, exile, return, suicide) tends to generate more word-count than their work. Presumably that’s not merely because of her life’s drama and passion, and because the distance between the lived and written personae appears so small, but because the work is so difficult. Nonetheless, translators do love a challenge and there are nowadays plenty of options in English – Feinstein, Alvi/Krasnova, White, Whyte, Naydam/Yastremski, Kneller, Kossman, McDuff, just for starters – giving us Tsvetaeva’s who are fatalist, formalist, bourgeois, Orthodox, faithless, feminist, tsarist, unstable, ironic, bisexual, cool, or all of these. As for this book, most of the translations in its second half – from After Russia and the Thirties – are already available in Belinda Cooke’s praised 2008 selection from Worple Press with only minor amendments here. (And many of those look like typos, of which this book has rather a few.) The new ones come from 1917-8 and the early Twenties. This means we get less of the joyously passionate Tsvetaeva and more of the grief, anger and despair:
O, from the open drop
to fall below – to become dust and jet-black.
This Tsvetaeva often has a contemporary demotic feel (‘I’ve had it with obsessing’), though she can equally (‘That which is called death’) be grammatically traditionalist. Like most of her anglophone incarnations, she’s cut down on the abundant exclamation marks, so that for example, ‘– увы!’ (lit: alas!) becomes the much more English ‘Sadly, […]’. Some insistent anaphora is also softened, lines are occasionally moved about, and there’s no attempt to imitate the original’s rhyme-schemes. Visually, these versions (mostly) preserve stanza-lengths and indentations but indulge greater variance in the line-lengths. They also keep many of the dashes and ellipses attendant on Tsvetaeva’s compulsive aposiopesis, but don’t fetishize doing so; so that this, for instance (to a now far-distant Pasternak):
Не рассорили — рассорили,
(lit: not fallen out — fallen out,/ stratified…)
they didn’t make us quarrel
but they dropped us like litter,
they lay us apart, put us in separate layers of cake,
The repeated ‘they’s replace the original ‘ras-’ head-rhymes. The liquids and sibilants are reordered but still detectable. And the translation explicates (or interprets) the concisions, albeit at some length. As a good Modernist, Tsvetaeva gives the underinformed reader no quarter, so it’s similarly useful to have, for instance, ‘the Twelve Apostles’ glossed as ‘Prague’s/ […] clock of the Twelve Apostles’. Often, however, the sonics are quite untranslatable. ‘Poem of the Mountain’ relies on the ‘gor-’ head-rhymes in the Russian words for ‘mountain’ and ‘grief’/’grieved’, and subsequently for ‘city’, ‘hump’, ‘spoke’, ‘Gordian knot’ and so on, so that the speaker like a weighed-down Atlas keeps emitting ‘gor’s as groan-sounds themselves. Feinstein tried ‘the mountain mourned’, but are those ‘m’s just too soothing a noise? Cooke, whether sensibly or despairingly, just doesn’t go there.
Plenty remains, in whatever event, for the British reader to enjoy (or ‘enjoy’). This is a book packed with love and death, Classical and Biblical allusion, poems about how important poets are (we all like those), monologues on the model of the Heroides, lips, sin, the ‘milky call’ of the Russian language, ‘roses of blood’, ‘God in a brothel’ and ‘this most fairytale of orphanhoods’. What more do we ask of the world’s famous poets?
Guy Russell 8th October 2021
This melancholy book-length poem, first published in Norway in 2014, begins with a motionless drama:
THERE IS A YOUNG MAN inside me
I see him standing
by a dark wall
somewhere in the forest
which sets the timbre straight off. ‘Inside’, in a way, means ‘outside’. We’re not going to be able to trust even the simplest language. Adjectives will cancel each other out: ‘the beautiful, ugly buildings/ the rich, poor rooms’. Line-breaks are deployed to leave you rudderless:
Quietly I passed into that area of darkness
which does not exist.
Mother fell and moved around in a circle
which was impossible
and expected emotional reactions are denied: ‘I am not happy to see him/ nor do I mourn him’. Soon sets of spiralling metaphors are in play: the red place is the heart, which is the piano, which is the lover and the coffin, which is the forest which is the realm of the dead which is the red place. In a way. Meanwhile images of violation pervade: ‘I opened my memory/ all the way down to my heart’s floor’. ‘He is running into himself, through the small holes/ he once drilled.’ ‘Peace had eaten its way into her’. [A pianist] ‘plugs himself into the great, black body’.
There’s no conventional narrative, but a picture starts to build: this is a middle-aged or elderly man from a rural background, who was once a concert pianist (as Vaage himself was). His memory has become so intense that he’s having visions. There’s his childhood self, perennially at the piano. His youthful and professional selves, uncommunicative and inner-directed. And his now-deceased parents. His mum, who left with ‘the other man’, is always travelling or absent. His dad is always on the farm, working – he ‘empties work of work’. I found the narrator’s regrets at not communicating with them, especially with his father, more affecting at every rereading. The straightforward vocabulary and minimal punctuation make the book a speedy read, and that, along with the refusal of the normally expected sentiments, means the emotional surge only impacts belatedly. The narrator’s is not an unremitting loneliness; he mentions a friend (albeit a dead one) and twice addresses a presumed former partner. Nonetheless the piano, with ‘its kisses/ inside the canals of the ear’, becomes the meagre surrogate to romance: ‘The piano opened the door/ […] we emptied into each other/ But emptiness/ is a poor gift between lovers’.
The translation looks welcomely unmeddled. Language geeks (unsurprisingly common among poetry fans) will find the original downloadable as an epub from ebok.no or similar, where they can check, for example, whether the glum puns on ‘play’ (the child plays only the piano, not with other children) or ‘autist’ (for ‘artist’) are also there in the Nynorsk. Spotify can let them hear the cadences; a selection has been recorded accompanied by appropriately spooky music. ‘The poems are constantly trying to take us through a door into another world’, wrote Michael Peverett of Vaage’s earlier Outside the Institution. And there are plenty of ghosts and doors here, among ‘sheep and cows so startled/ they had forgotten all they knew’, and the human costs of artistic practice. Certainly this is remarkably distinctive and special writing, which I guess is what we ask from translations: to deliver us stuff that no-one in our own language has done.
Guy Russell 24th September 2021
Poet and novelist, Anant Joshi’s contemporary novel, translated by Jayashree Naidu from Marathi into English, concerns the exploitation of subsistence workers by a coal mafia in the Jharkland state situated along the banks of the Damodar river. The narrative revolves around the practice by government workers of hiring impoverished people to ‘impersonate’ them and work in the mines at considerably lower rates than their salary. Some of the government workers meanwhile have other jobs during their duty hours or work on their own farms. The novel exposes the coal mafia and the ways they control illegal businesses selling off coal to other dependent businesses and delineates the elaborate systems of payments used to cover up the corruption.
Marathi is India’s third most spoken language after Hindi and Bengali and is centred around the Maharashtra and Goa states of western India. It is an Indo-Aryan language with three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. The primary word order of Marathi is subject-object-verb and there is a lot of Sanskrit derived words in the language. The Marathi word for impersonators, ‘Baniharees’, appears to have no official English translation. This may be because it is a dialect word or because the practice of sub-hiring workers to work in your place is not officially recognised.
Written quite formally without ostentation, the narrative is more splayed than linear, outlining a chronology which explores the extent of municipal corruption and exposes the workings of the social structure. The novel has two strong female characters, Renuka, the senior police officer, and Kirti, a welfare office, and a sub-story around whether it is acceptable for a woman to provide for a man. The novel is very good at depicting male aggression, sexual harassment and the social situation of both female protagonists. The translation has formalised dialogue, occasionally over-written, includes some Bengali and untranslated Marathi words. I would have liked more of a multilingual approach to further illustrate the way access to and knowledge of key words impact on the various social relations under review.
The double narrative of municipal corruption, of good versus evil, and the condition of women in a patriarchal society where incidence of reported rape has increased this century makes this a fascinating read. Indian novels are written and structured quite differently to the conventional English novel. I am pleased to have spent time with this one.
David Caddy 26th December 2020
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)
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 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.
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