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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Caddy 22nd October 2019

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antony John 30th June 2019

The Mummiad: New Selected Poems by Richard Livermore (Bibliotheca Universalis)

The Mummiad: New Selected Poems by Richard Livermore (Bibliotheca Universalis)

As with Ted Hughes’ animal poems that go beyond animal nature toward ourselves, so it is with Richard Livermore’s animal poems. There are several in his latest collection, The Mummiad: New Selected Poems, his second book from Bibliotheca Universalis, where one feels uncomfortably closer to the true nature of some of our fellow humans, or even to ourselves. In ‘Jaguar’, the big cat could equally be a too-young man dared by the gang, lurking in the shadows of a city nightscape, ‘a tiptoeing/ shadow of death, jam-packed/ with muscle and power’ who lies in wait to kill his prey ‘with a single bound;/ black flowers adorn him,/help him hide in the dappled/ half-lit undergrowth/ he is in his element in.’ The feeling of being under threat is stirred up from our collective unconscious in part by his mastery of echoes aural and visual of Paul Celan, news items, as well as memories perhaps we all have of walking down city streets or secluded country lanes at night, of ‘being what he can see/ in the dark. . . .’ In ‘Lioness’, this point that we have more than a little in common with the behaviour of animals and wild animals at that, is made clear when the poet brings us up close to those for whom ‘you are nothing but the next meal, the next occasion she can feed.’ Then there are the wildebeests, the tiger, lion and ‘the serpent in the garden,’ the ‘dragon in the armadillo,’ the gecko carrying on as normal in a war-ravaged land. Yes, it’s animal behaviour being described, we are animals, thus through the poet’s alchemy of imagery, Jungian allusion and the poems’ padding, four-legged rhythm we hear also our human behaviour being described. We face up to it on these pages. The poet reminds us we face up to it nightly on the news, too, as in the violence of the state recalled in ‘Black Wind’: ‘Arrest that wind,/hands up, don’t shoot,/I cannot breathe.’

As one might expect from a collection titled The Mummiad, the vulnerability of the body, birth and death, time, fate and rather than the intervention of the gods, more likely their absence, are recurring themes. In ‘The Body in Question’, the body of younger years is missed, but not without appreciation for the benefits of getting older in terms of experience and understanding. One of the many things I admire about Richard Livermore’s poetry is he never overdoes things – he knows just when to stop. Through technical skill he manages to articulate complex feelings and subtle ideas for us all, concisely, leaving plenty of space around each poem for our own reflection. In ‘Daisy, Daisy’, he explores his own birth both through its historical circumstance and its innocent, everyday occurrences – we are indeed born into both and this poet’s attention to both brought this reader, for one, up short with the realisation that the philosopher’s dictum ‘know thyself’ begins with this examination of all aspects of our moment of entry into the world. Life, give me your answer, do, each poem pleads. The leavening in it all is the poet’s characteristic play with words, his calling upon our shared inherited gift of language with all its idioms, rhythms and mythology, so that, for instance, when he writes, ‘-time has me by/the late and earlies’ there’s recognition and delight.

The only niggling disappointment about this book is that the quality of Richard Livermore’s writing has not been matched by the copy editing, where each poem’s translation by Roxana Doncu into the Romanian is printed not on the facing page but overleaf. Seekers of lexical similarity will have to flip back and forth – no great hardship since there’s plenty to detain one on every page.

Beth Junor 25th September 2018

Music, Selected Poems of Tarō Naka Translated by Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei (Isobar Press)

Music,  Selected Poems of Tarō Naka  Translated by Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei (Isobar Press)

In his introduction to this long-overdue translation of one of Japan’s most significant post-war poets Andrew Houwen draws attention to the importance of Buddhism and transience. He suggests that Naka came to realise the importance of the impermanence of all things when he was “confronted with the war’s destruction” and points us towards the 1954 poem ‘Scene II’ with its italicised epigram ‘summer 1945’:

“scabs of black memory tear off
the guillotine river cuts up
the city’s torn skin

pushed along in the flow
countless burnt eyes
eyes
eyes”

An echo here points us of course to Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ with its focus upon both the river and the burning and to that poet’s use of Henry Clarke Warren’s Buddhism in Translations:

“All things, O priests, are on fire. And what, O priests, are all these things which are on fire?
The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, that also is on fire.”

It was a year after the publication of The Waste Land that William Carlos Williams published Spring and All with its emphasis on the “universality of things” and this later fed that central phrase from the first book of Paterson:

“Say it! No ideas but in things”

The impermanence of things haunts the poetry that Naka wrote after he had returned to Hakata at the end of the war, after Hiroshima, to find that his home and his hometown had been devastated. This was a world where “in the distance burnt shrivelled trees / no longer / have any trace of life”. What remains are the “skeletons of apartments // where the smell of the rocky shore drifts / a cavern – / time’s insides / gone”.
Naka’s first mature collection of poems was composed between 1957 and 1964 before being published in 1965 as Ongaku (Music). Introducing the collection with a Note the poet writes

“Mu is not ‘nothing’. It is the mu of existing things, breathing mu, the mu of writhing waves. It is because music sounds in these things, or perhaps in order to make music sound, that people produce words.”

Words, like music, possess an independence from their creator and this in Naka’s words “allows the creation to exist on its own”. Poems, like music, exist in their own world and the last section of this immensely important new book from Isobar Press is given over to Naka’s 1966 prose ‘Notes for a Poetics’:

“The activity of writing is itself, of course, a visible activity. One holds a pen, faces the paper, and in everyday time moves one’s own hand. However, what one’s consciousness works to indicate certainly does not take place in the visible world, but in a separate, unreal one. In this unreal space, through using those unreal ‘things’, words, one acts in order to reach (an indefinable) something.
The activity of creating poetry is always an escape to this unreal space.”

The 1975 collection of poems, Hakata, possesses a haunting sense of unseen tracks:

“the autumn woman’s skin has a trembling lily’s scent
walking through withered leaves in the distance”

and the poet registers “time’s / footfall” and “the thirst for the far shore of the futureless blue sky”. As Houwen puts it in his highly valuable introduction

“A poem, as a product of the combination of words, depends on the words’ interaction with each other, which is something that, as Naka observes in ‘Notes for a Poetics’, ‘always surpasses the writer” (Naka’s emphasis) and, as words’ associations continually shift with new readings, the poem, like all entities, is in constant flux.

To return to William Carlos Williams and 1923:

“Here is a shutter, a bunch of grapes, a sheet of music, a picture of sea and mountains…One thing laps over on the other.”

This first book-length collection of Tarō Naka’s work in English provides an essential addition to the book-shelves of all readers of serious poetry. Thanks again to Paul Rossiter’s fine Isobar Press (http://isobarpress.com).

Ian Brinton 17th August 2018

Memorial to the Future: Volker von Törne translated by Jean Boase-Beier with Anthony Vivis (Arc)

Memorial to the Future: Volker von Törne translated by Jean Boase-Beier with Anthony Vivis (Arc)

The translator’s Preface to this new Arc edition of the poems of Volker von Törne strikes an immediate note that compels one to read on:

“What first struck me about von Törne’s poems, and made me want to translate them, was their intensity…”

This intensity comes perhaps from the “weight of guilt and anger” in the poems:

“He felt personally guilty that his father had been in the SS and that he had, as a small child in the late 1930s, repeated the phrases he heard about German Nationalism, about the need for racial purity and the desire to conquer others.”

In a 1965 essay on Bertolt Brecht, ‘Commitment’, Adorno asserted that “The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting” and he went on to suggest that Pascal’s theological saying, On ne doit plus dormer, must be secularized. Adorno is often quoted as saying that it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz and as if plagued by the way his work seems to have become defined by that statement the essay on Brecht opens with the clear statement:

“I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature…When genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature, it becomes easier to continue to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.”

What makes von Törne’s work so different from any artistic reconstruction of the Holocaust is that alongside any guilt and anger there is a strong sense of longing and nostalgia – “longing for a world in which people would be able to face the evils of the past and offer atonement, and nostalgia for a time when he did not know what he knows now, at the time of writing.”
Many of these poems deal with disappearance, an irreversible emptiness, and rather than offering a nostalgic desire for return they record vanishings: smoke or dreams melted:

“Which way have the music-makers gone
And the tinkers? On what bank
Are their horses grazing now? Beneath what moon
Their violins singing?

No-one has seen them. Without a trace
Smoke in the clouds
They have gone
Away”

In a world of political reconstruction von Törne’s voice is important as not that of hands held up in guilt and shrinking horror; it is one of awareness that there is no turning back and “Not every ending is also a beginning / Colossal bridges carry streets that lead nowhere”.
In his perceptive introduction to these remarkable poems, David Wheatley raises the figure of Samuel Beckett. In a quotation from Endgame’s “anti-reconstructive response to the war” Hamm says “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on”. As Wheatley puts it “Beckett was well versed in the opening presented by the brick wall and it was Hamm who had said, earlier in Beckett’s play, “Nature has forgotten us”. The nostalgic echoes of a gone world reverberate in this empty air and ‘Summer in the Masurian Lakes’ concludes with an image that could have come from Beckett’s Play, itself an echo of Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest, itself a distant echo of Dante’s Inferno:

“Our boat
Drifts to the bank. Stay, summer,
I shout, hand
That
Holds me.”

David Wheatley also points us towards Schubert’s hauntingly famous song cycle of journeying through the cold: “With their lowering crows and wayside farmers, von Törne’s poems pursue that Germanic variant on the via dolorosa, the Winterreise.” As readers we move forwards through landscapes that are stripped-down in the manner of the Objectivist poets, “The leaves / Flood / Over the paths” and we can wonder, in Eliot’s words, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

It is these resonances that thread their path through von Törne’s ‘Thoughts in May’ as the poet recalls drinking the milk “Denied to the starving”, wearing the clothes “Stolen from my brother” and reading the books “Justifying the theft”:

“And mine was the guilt
For the loss of every life, breathing in innocence
Under the gallows-branches
Of the sweet-smelling limes”

This book was published just over a week ago and it is something to order immediately.

Ian Brinton 24th October 2017.

The Sunken Keep, A version of Ungaretti’s Il Porto Sepolto Andrew Fitzsimons (Isobar Press http://isobarpress.com)

The Sunken Keep,  A version of Ungaretti’s Il Porto Sepolto Andrew Fitzsimons (Isobar Press http://isobarpress.com)

On September 1st 1918 William Carlos Williams wrote the Prologue to his Kora in Hell: Improvisations which was later to be published by The Four Seas Company in 1920:

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.”

Nearly a century on, David Shields published his ‘Manifesto’, Reality Hunger, in which he expressed interest in collage as “an evolution beyond narrative”. In terms of Art, and this includes poetry:

“Momentum derives not from narrative but from the subtle buildup of thematic resonances”

When Williams wrote his autobiographical account of I Wanted to Write a Poem he gave an account of that earlier time when the First World War was still raging throughout Europe:

“When I was halfway through the Prologue, ‘Prufrock’ appeared. I had a violent feeling that Eliot had betrayed what I believed in. He was looking backward; I was looking forward. He was a conformist, with wit, learning which I did not possess.”

In his introduction to this beautifully produced new volume from Isobar Press the translator, Andrew Fitzsimons, directs us to recognise the connection between what Williams was trying to do in 1918 and what Giuseppe Ungaretti was achieving in the trenches of the Carso plateau in Friuli in 1916:

“…these thirty poems are central to Ungaretti’s revitalizing of Italian poetic language; a renovation of rhythm, syntax, punctuation and diction…comparable also to the work of William Carlos Williams, given the resemblance between how both poets set about reconfiguring the parameters of the poetic line in their respective traditions, as well as their commitment to particulars.”

There is a haunting immediacy to these new versions of Ungaretti’s poems and they look at loss in terms of time passing rather than confining themselves to the nightmare presence of the trench warfare which he volunteered for in 1915 having only moved from Paris to Italy at the outbreak of war. The opening poem stands as a memorial stone dedicated to the friend of his youth, Mohammed Sceab:

“In memory
of
Mohammed Sceab
descendant
of nomad emirs
a suicide
for loss of
a homeland”

The words weep down the page as if engraved upon a tombstone and the fractured narrative of what follows in the second stanza accords with that buildup of thematic resonances:

“A lover of France
who became
Marcel
but not French
who no longer knew how
to dwell
in the tent of his kin
to listen to the chant
of the Koran
over coffee”

The ‘s’ sound in the seventh line allows an image of dwelling to move almost invisibly between the semi-desert world of the young man’s past to the power of belonging not only to family but also to an existence within his own skin. The short next piece offers a brief account of isolation and limitation:

“Who could not
give voice
to the song
of his own desolation”

And then in a manner that Samuel Beckett would have applauded there is a precision, a placing, which gives visibility to the actuality of the person. It reminds me of Beckett as I think of the respect he held for the clarity of Dante’s Inferno in which the spirits of the dead have only a few lines to give a portrait of themselves before they merge back into the anonymity of eternal damnation.

“I escorted him
with the landlady of the place
where we lodged
in Paris
from 5 Rue des Carmes
a rundown sloping alley”

The term “escorted” brings the world of Dante again to the fore and it is worth just comparing it with two other translations. Kevin Hart’s suggestion is quite literal in terms of the Italian (The Buried Harbour, The Leros Press, 1990):

“With the woman
who owned our hotel
at 5 Rue Carmes
that faded, sloping alley
I went with him”

Patrick Creagh’s version for the Penguin Modern European Poets (1971) becomes more detailed as if spelling things out for the reader:

“I followed his coffin
I and the manageress of the hotel
where we lived
in Paris
number 5 rue des Carmes
steep decrepit alleyway”

The word used by Fitzsimons, “escorted”, manages to retain a sense of friendship and familiarity as he accompanies the body to the burial ground and the word “lodged” has a temporality to it which emphasises the fragility of a life.

“He rests
in the cemetery at Ivry
a suburb locked
forever
in the day a fair
packs up and leaves

Maybe I alone
still know he
lived

And I will
until my turn
to die”

“Rests”, “locked / forever”, “fair / packs up and leaves”; it has the sound of Thomas Hardy’s verse, ‘Exeunt Omnes’ or ‘During Wind and Rain’.

This is a book to keep close to hand. Not only are the translations very powerful but the drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni have a resonance which complement the poems. Congratulations to Paul Rossiter and Isobar Press!

Ian Brinton, 13th October 2017

Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

On the back cover of this new Isobar publication Eric Selland registers the delight and importance of this translation of poems by the Japanese poet Sarashina:

“Such a rare treat – one of the few examples of Japanese proletarian poetry to appear in English. Sarashina’s work, like that of the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff, is a poetry of testimony, one in which he documents the lives of those living in pre-war Hokkaido, often in their own words.”

The comparison with Reznikoff brings to mind of course the four parts of TESTIMONY: THE UNITED STATES, that extraordinary poetic narrative which recorded the social, economic, cultural and legal history of the United States. Robert Creeley commented on the first volume TESTIMONY describing the collection as “an extraordinary document of human event – terrifying, comic, and deeply, deeply moving.” Creeley went on to suggest his admiration for Reznikoff’s ability to locate given instances “sans distortion” and to place his narratives “in the intense particularity of time and place.” In 1977 Milton Hindus published his monograph on Reznikoff emphasising the important role of history in the American poet’s recitative:

“We all belong to history, but we do not all know it…Coming into contact with what one recognizes to be history in the high sense of the term can be an unnerving experience, which inspires to expression those who might otherwise be counted among the voiceless tribes”.

That word “expression” appears in the superb introduction which the translator has added to this selection of Sarashina’s poems. Connecting the Japanese poet with his proletarian peers, Nadine Willems writes

“As Sarashina’s work demonstrates so well, they remained sharp and sympathetic observers of the everyday life of the lower strata of the population in all its mundanity and desperation. The focus was less on engineering an ideal future society than on the expression of real life struggles in a changing and unfair world.”

Between 1930 and 1931 Sarashina acted as a substitute teacher in a primary school near Kussharo Lake and he identified closely with the seventeen pupils, most of whom were Ainu (an increasingly displaced people). It was from these children and the other residents of the kotan (village-community) that he learned the stories which he then re-formed into poetry. In one of the ‘Kotan School Poems’ he acknowledges this debt:

“Fourth-grader Sekko knows what’s not in any textbook
The deep-down layers of life”

The substitute teacher records his own humility and merges it with a sense of LIFE as his pupils ask him those questions to which there are answers before moving their thoughts outwards to ask questions to which there are none:

—What would you like to do?
—Go outside and play!
—OK. Let’s go
—Wow. Really?

—Sensei, what’s this?
—A spring gentian whose flowers are the colour of the sky
—Sensei, and this?
—That’s a dandelion bud
—Sensei, why does the sun shine?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why does it rain?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why are you alive?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why do you get angry?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why is the world here?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Why are we alive, sensei?
—So that you can all get along
—Sensei, who did you learn this from?
—From all you lot

—Sensei, Tā-chan thumped me

Nadine Willems’s introduction is a delight to read on account of its direct simplicity as she tells us of the political background to these poems. She points us to central issues concerning the Ainu people and highlights the close connection “between people and nature” which “mirrors the connection that exists between the physical and intangible worlds.” These poems take me back not so much to Reznikoff as to Tolstoy whose 1861 essay on ‘Schoolboys and Art’ makes such a fine comparison with Sarashina’s experience as a primary-school teacher. Tolstoy has taken a group of boys out after school and as they walk through a white darkness which seemed to sway before their eyes one little boy, Fédka, asks the teacher to tell them, again, about the murder of Tolstoy’s aunt:

“I again told them that terrible story of the murder of Countess Tolstoy, and they stood silently about me watching my face.
‘The fellow got caught!’ said Sëmka.
‘He was afraid to go away in the night while she was lying with her throat cut! Said Fédka; ‘I should have run away!’ and he gathered my two fingers yet more closely in his hand.
We stopped in the thicket beyond the threshing-floor at the very end of the village. Sëmka picked up a dry stick from the snow and began striking it against the frosty trunk of a lime tree. Hoar frost fell from the branches onto our caps, and the noise of the blows resounded in the stillness of the wood.
‘Lev Nikolaevich,’ said Fédka to me (I thought he was again going to speak about the Countess), ‘why does one learn singing? I often think, why, really, does one?’
What made him jump from the terror of the murder to this question, heaven only knows; yet by the tone of his voice, the seriousness with which he demanded an answer, and the attentive silence of the other two, one felt that there was some vital and legitimate connection between this question and our preceding talk.”

Kotan Chronicles is another wonderful production from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press and I urge you all to put the date September 20th in your diaries for the launch:
Isobar Press will be launching Kotan Chronicles: Selected by Poems 1928-1943 by the Japanese pre-war proletarian poet, anarchist, and ethnographer Genzo Sarashina at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on 20 September with a talk and reading by Nadine Willems (translator) and Paul Rossiter.

Date: Wednesday 20 September, 6-8 pm.

Place: Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle (entrance facing Regent’s Park), London NW1 4QP. The event is free, but a reservation is required.

Ian Brinton 4th September 2017.

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