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but first i call your name by Hadassa Tal Translated by Joanna Chen (Shearsman Books)

but first i call your name by Hadassa Tal Translated by Joanna Chen (Shearsman Books)

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

torso

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

L’Italie London by Ariadne Radi Cor (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

L’Italie London by Ariadne Radi Cor (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

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)

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,
Расслоили…

(lit: not fallen out — fallen out,/ stratified…)

becomes

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

The Red Place by Lars Amund Vaage translated by Anna Reckin & Hanne Bramness (Shearsman Books)

The Red Place by Lars Amund Vaage translated by Anna Reckin & Hanne Bramness (Shearsman Books)

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

On the Banks of Damodar by Anant Joshi Translated Jayashree Naidu (Kalpaz Publications)

On the Banks of Damodar by Anant Joshi Translated Jayashree Naidu (Kalpaz Publications)

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)

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

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