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Category Archives: Translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, with its elegiac grace:

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art outlives the transient.

Ian Brinton, 18th December 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Brinton 2nd April 2016

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Translated by Leon De Kock & Karin Schimke (Umizi 2015)

Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, spoken by some seven million speakers and widely recognised by the leadership of the African National Congress for its contribution to dissident literature has produced a number of writers of global significance. It remains a vibrant literary culture as the writing of J.M Coetzee, Marlene van Niekerk, and others testify. The love letters of novelist, André Brink and poet, Ingrid Jonker, written between April 1963 and April 1965, return to the reader to a time of protest against censorship when no criticism of South Africa’s race policy was tolerated, and is perhaps a timely reminder for South Africans.

Brink, at the beginning of his career as a novelist, teaching at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and Jonker, writing her second poetry collection, whilst working as a proofreader in Cape Town, fell head over heels at first sight. Brink, already married, and Jonker, separated from her husband and daughter at the beginning of their relationship, found as much time as possible for rampant sex. The letters, exquisitely written, combine intimacy with candid exploration, responses to their publications and gossip about friends and fellow writers. They show frustration at the insufficiency of words, religion and the post Sharpeville political situation.

Here is Brink on 28 June 1963:

It’s cold here; and here in my little circle of light in the bedroom – all the others are sitting around the fireplace – it’s lonely too. This, however, is no pure, austere kind of cold that clarifies things, down to the bone; it’s miserable and muddy; and my heart feels much the same. …

This afternoon I was with Dekker, but he’s a hard nut to crack. He did, however, indicate he’s not unsympathetic to Labola. Meanwhile, other people’s reactions are typical of Potchefstroom: the head of the Afrikaans Department said straight out he had read the book up to page 42 and then thrown it away. Immoral. Confused. And (isn’t this strange!) uncalvinistic. These are the people who guide our students. …

More pleasant: I found an interesting, though often naïve The Psychology of Sex (Oswald Schwarz) – thus not the one you showed me at Windell’s place. He offers the following insights, among others, that seem more philosophical than psychological (and are therefore perhaps true?) “Sex love means insatiable participation in the existence of the beloved. Love is not a state which can be reached and in which longing comes to rest: love is perpetual striving, unending uncertainty, an everlasting act of creation.”

In his autobiography, A Fork in the Road (2009), Brink explained that his life was never the same again after meeting Jonker. Reading Flame in the Snow one has a sense that he is in the process of being transformed into a more energised and combative writer. His letters are fuller and longer, whereas Jonker’s are more succinct and somehow being what Brink aspires. He had studied in Paris a few years earlier and was full of the existentialism that Jonker seems to embody in her poetry and life. Their literary quotations come from Afrikaans, Dutch, English, and French, Italian, German and other foreign language poets and writers. Brink lets Pound speak his emotions; later Jonker sends her translation of an E.E. Cummings poem. They read all the new American and English poetry anthologies.

It is Jonker’s personae, beauty and poetry that clearly hold Brink in thrall. She attracts other lovers and yet Brink continues to yearn. He kept the carbon copies of his correspondence as if he knew that their relationship held significance. We sadly are not privy to their telephone conversations or the tapes that they sent each other. The relationship is deep, turbulent and, for Brink, liberating. Flame in the Snow reads like a novel and the reader has to fill in the gaps between letters. There is a sense in which Jonker chides and goads Brink to become more oppositional in his every day life and writing. In her second letter she chastises him for accepting the Eugene Marais Encouragement for Drama award, refuses to offer congratulations, and insists that he must be more confrontational. She knows that there can be no compromise with such a regime. After her suicide Brink became more radicalised and oppositional. The letters reveal Jonker as an uncompromising woman struggling to survive. Her financial and physical struggles to write and exist as a single mother allow her access to the world of deprivation experienced more diversely by other South Africans.

Flame in the Snow will surely join the pantheon of great literary love letters and be well scrutinized for its information on both writers. It makes compulsive reading.

David Caddy 9th January 2016

Cavalcanty by Peter Hughes (Equipage)

Cavalcanty by Peter Hughes (Equipage)

In a letter from late 1831to Julius Charles Hare of the Philological Museum William Wordsworth made a comment concerning his experiments in translation:

‘Having been displeased, in modern translations, with the additions of incongruous matter, I began to translate with a resolve to keep clear of that fault, by adding nothing; but I became convinced that a spirited translation can scarcely be accomplished in the English language without admitting a principle of compensation.’

The translation work that Wordsworth was engaged upon was from Virgil’s Aeneid and one poet laureate commented upon another as C. Day Lewis referred to this passage in 1969 in his Jackson Knight Memorial Lecture on ‘Translating Poetry’:

‘By this principle we presumably mean putting things in which are not there, to compensate for leaving things out which cannot be adequately rendered.’

Day Lewis went on to suggest that ‘much greater liberties can justifiably be taken with lyric verse than with narrative or didactic’ and that very word ‘liberties’ suggests a hint of danger, revolution, turning a world upside down. When Pound wrote about Cavalcanti he suggested that the canzone, Donna mi Prega, ‘may have appeared about as soothing to the Florentine of A.D. 1290 as conversation about Tom Paine, Marx, Lenin and Bucharin would to-day in a Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis, Tenn.’ Pound then goes on to suggest that Cavalcanti may well have read Grosseteste on Light, De Luce, and a reading of the opening lines of the canzone supports this idea. Grosseteste considered light to be ‘a very subtle corporeal substance, whose exceeding thinness and rarity approaches the incorporeal, and which of its own nature perpetually generates itself and is at once spherically diffused around a given point.’ As another reader of Grosseteste, the poet John Riley, recognized Light is the active principle of all things and the Bishop of Lincoln’s opening statement in Riedl’s translation reads ‘For light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way.’ I can imagine that Pound might have regarded that Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis as an opaque object.
Pound’s translation of Donna me prega opens:

‘Because a lady asks me, I would tell
Of an affect that comes often and is fell
And is so overweening: Love by name.

E’en its deniers can now hear the truth,
I for the nonce to them that know it call,
Having no hope at all
that man who is base in heart
Can bear his part of wit
into the light of it,

And save they know’t aright from nature’s source
I have no will to prove Love’s course
or say
Where he takes rest; who maketh him to be;
Or what his active virtu is, or what his force;

Nay, nor his very essence or his mode;
What his placation; why he is in verb,
Or if a man have might
To show him visible to men’s sight.

In the Preface to his own collected poems, published in 1936, Ford Madox Ford, to whom Pound had shown his canzone many years before, wrote that aureate diction was a civic menace because ‘the business of poetry is not sentimentalism so much as the putting of certain realities in certain aspects,’ and ‘poetry, like everything else, to be valid and valuable, must reflect the circumstances and psychology of its own day. Otherwise it can be nothing but a pastiche.’
Turning to Peter Hughes’s version of ‘Donna me prega – per ch’eo voglio dire’ in this new Equipage delight we can see what might halt that Memphis bankers’ board meeting in Memphis in its tracks:

‘now the lady makes me think about love’s
pit-bull attacks on the soul’s soft tissues
& those fatal core-reactor meltdowns
& deep immunity to metaphor
it’s tricky thinking through these things in ink
as love demands we loosen up our grip
on pre-existing modes of consciousness
affiliation & self-confidence
otherwise we stand no chance of melting
flowing into fresh configurations
in response to love’s accommodations
of feral power rerouted through refined
reformulations of specific lips
in actual laps tomorrow evening

The energy of these lines gives off a heat which confronts us with a social and political sense of ‘in yer face’ and that ‘deep immunity to metaphor’ ensures that any prevailing post-Movement, post-Martian, post-Mush world is left completely behind in the dusty cupboard of dead poetry anthologies. This is a world of Love which is made ‘of nothing yet feels like marble knuckles / kneading your most vulnerable hollows / articles & raw protuberances’. The energy of childhood’s games of marbles (no feeling of butterflies here!) merges with the pun on knead/need and the empty cries from empty places within. It’s superb!
This short flagging-up of Peter Hughes’s tremendously powerful evocations of Love in Cavalcanti is merely to whet your appetite and, with that in mind, take a warning about how ‘beauty’

‘finds its finest incarnation in her
being out of touch around the corner

we’ve never been quite bright enough to take
the subtle hints & reassurances
the goddess always hovers round the bend’

Ian Brinton 4th January 2016

Virgil, Aeneid Books I-VI Translated by David Hadbawnik Illustrations by Carrie Kaser Shearsman Books

Virgil, Aeneid Books I-VI Translated by David Hadbawnik Illustrations by Carrie Kaser Shearsman Books

When Christopher Logue published his 20 Poems based on Pablo Neruda’s Los Cantos d’Amores in 1958 he added a note at the end to say ‘these are not translations strictly speaking, but adaptations, and several of the poems are entirely new, although taking their theme from the original Neruda poem’. One year later Donald Carne-Ross suggested that Logue might contribute to a new version of Homer’s Iliad which he was about to commission for the B.B.C. When Jonathan Cape issued an edition of Logue’s Homeric work in 1981, titled War Music, the poet wrote an introduction which gave some background to the whole enterprise:

‘As the work progressed beyond its original limitation I paid less attention to my guides. Carne-Ross would provide me with a literal translation that retained the Greek word order; I would concoct a storyline based on its main incident; and then, knowing the gist of what this or that character said, would try to make their voices come alive and to keep the action on the move.’

Nine years before Logue’s work on Homer got going the magazine Poetry New York, A Magazine of Verse and Criticism, published a piece of prose, now become very famous indeed, which included the statement:

‘…get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen.’

It is surely no mere coincidence that the blurb on the back of this vibrant and page-turning Virgil should say ‘These translations are not only full of light, but also speed…’ (Joe Milutis, Jacket 2)

This book is terrific! Once start the adventure as ‘Clouds snatch sun from the sky’ and you will be hooked.

Example

As the serpents from Tenedos rear up to destroy Laocoön and his sons:

‘New horrors awaited us—Laocoön,
priest of Apollo, happened
to be leading a bull to the altar
when two snakes shot
from the sea (awful to think about)
half-in
half-out of the water, blood-red scales
rising ghastly above the waves
tails thrashing around in the foam.
There was a crash as they made land
eyes burning with blood and fire
hissing tongues hanging from open mouths—
we lit out at the sight of them.’

The dramatic juxtaposition of the leisurely manner in which the priest is preparing a bull for slaughter and the explosive ‘shot’; the past tense that becomes present participle, ‘rising’, ‘thrashing’, ‘hissing’; the merging of past and present in the panic to escape as ‘we lit out…’. This version of the well-known narrative comes rearing off the page.

The violence of the destruction of Troy is shocking in a visceral manner as the Trojans drag the wooden horse within the walls:

‘So we split the walls
and opened the city up wide….
Meanwhile the world turned and night
rushed in—covering with darkness
the tricks of the Greeks—and all through Troy
sleep took tired souls.’

Carrie Kaser’s illustration to this moment combines a haunting quality of movement with an eerie sense of farewell. It is quite typical of the 23 illustrations which appear at regular intervals throughout the text.
The Cantos of Ezra Pound provide a lurking presence behind Hadbawnik’s translation: ‘Canto IV’s ‘Palace in smoky light’ becomes ‘left Troy smoking in ruins’ and ‘Canto I’ is referred to more directly in the second section of Book III, ‘Wandering’, gives us ‘set keel to breakers / once more’.

This is the most lively piece of translation from Latin that I have come across in a long while and it certainly stands up well by comparison with Logue’s Greek epic.

Ian Brinton, 15th October 2015

Versions of Martial by Alan Halsey (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

Versions of Martial by Alan Halsey (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

This whole collection brims over with outrageous delight. Of course there are the smutty sexual innuendos, the more direct insults, and the bitter spitting from carious teeth. But there is much, much more and it is a tonic to be able to recognise the satirical sharpness of some of these versions of Martial’s ‘Epigrams’ given the mixture of crocodile tears in today’s world: a child’s body is washed up on the shores of a Greek island; the International Arms Fair opens in London where DSEI ‘will host around 300 seminar sessions and keynotes across seven theatres…facilitating knowledge sharing and networking around key topics and technical areas’. Give me an ounce of civet good apothecary…Or, a page or two of Alan Halsey’s Versions of Martial:

Book III: XXXVII

‘How explain why the conspicuously rich
are so easy to offend? Ask their accountant.
He probably won’t tell you but he’ll know.’

Book V: LXXXI

‘In the Big Society the poor stay poor
and cabinet ministers stay millionaires: it’s a law.’

Book VII: LXXIII

‘I know all about the houses you own,
you’ve described them so often
in such detail—I know the views from
their every window—but, Maximus,
you’ve never told me your address.’

When Laurie Duggan’s Pressed Wafer edition of The Epigrams of Martial appeared five years ago he introduced the little bombshell by saying that ‘faithful translations of satires, while possibly of use to historians, tended to lose the satirical element altogether. For satire to bite as it ought to its objects should be at least generically recognizable and as so much of Martial’s work is ad hominem a good dose of the particular was essential.’ This approach is very much in the style of Charles Tomlinson whose review of the Loeb Classics 1994 edition of Martial praised the unpretentiously accurate approach of the translator by suggesting that ‘it helps the reader to the mental possession of the original’. I am also reminded of the preface Tomlinson wrote for his Faber edition of John Dryden’s poems in which he suggested that the Augustan poet’s Fables Ancient and Modern (1700) ‘made it new (in Pound’s phrase) especially for poets themselves’. August Kleinzahler wrote a brief afterword to Duggan’s Martial giving an account of how these pieces had originally been published in the Melbourne journal, Scripsi: ‘This Martial bit then. It bites still.’
For satire to ‘bite’ we have to be able to recognise the scale of values that has been so debased by the object of the satire. Urbanity and friendship, directness and honesty: it is in their absence that we recognise the power of their presence. Many of Alan Halsey’s poems give us the self-portrait of a man who is saddened by rudeness and contemptuous of arrogance:

Book II: V

‘I don’t mind the two-hour walk
it takes me to see you, Decianus.
I do mind the two hours it takes
To walk home when for reasons
Of your own you haven’t seen me.’

The tone captured here is reminiscent of that biting edge Ben Jonson put into his ‘Epigrammes’ when he damns ‘The Townes Honest Man’ or confronts ‘Captayne Hungry’:

‘ Doe what you come for, Captayne, with your newes;
That’s, sit, and eate: doe not my eares abuse.
I oft looke on false coyne, to know’t from true:
Not that I love it, more, than I will you.’

Halsey’s updated version of this type of barb will sound familiar to quite enough ears, I suspect:

Book III: XLIV

‘Myself I like to lounge on my sofa,
take a stroll, a shit, a bath and a nap
in peace and quiet. Who doesn’t?
You, Ligurinus. That’s why we feel suicidal
when we meet you. What you call life
is a solo nonstop poetry recital.’

Buy this book from http://www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk and carry it around in your pocket like an orange pierced with cloves in a plague-ridden city.

Ian Brinton 25th September 2015.

And

Half-light by Yevgeny Baratynsky (translated by Peter France) Arc Publications

Half-light by Yevgeny Baratynsky (translated by Peter France) Arc Publications

Pointing to the similarities to be found between the poetry of Leopardi and that of Baratynsky the editor of this fine new translation of the early nineteenth century Russian poet suggests that these might include a ‘clear-sighted, bleak vision of man and society’ and an ‘awareness of human fragility and ephemerality’. The sequence ‘Half-Light’ was published in 1842, two years before the poet’s death, and it contained ‘a gathering of poems written since 1834 and presented as a unified whole’; the title is significant since by then the poets of the Golden Age, such as Pushkin, ‘had largely gone out of fashion’. At the same time, however, 1842 saw an imperial decree which seemed to promise a reform, or even an end, of serfdom: ‘timid and abortive though this was, it was greeted at first with enthusiasm’.

There is a haunting seriousness in this Russian poet’s gaze; his ‘sculptor’ sees Galatea buried in stone:

‘Plunging his gaze into the stone,
the artist sees the nymph within,
an ardent flame runs through his veins,
and his heart longs to touch her then.

His desire for her is infinite,
but the sculptor holds himself in check,
unhurrying, deliberate, quiet,
he strips off all the veils that hide
the goddess deep within the rock.’

And, in return for such careful homage, such unfaltering concentration and focus, the spirit within the rock recognises the ‘passion beneath the cool caress’ and responds by leading the artist (‘sage’) ‘to the triumph of voluptuousness’. In Henry James’s late novel, The Tragic Muse, about an aspiring painter who eschews politics for the quiet concentration of the artist, Nick Dormer turns from the lady who has been seeking his love/success and looks round his studio:

‘It was certainly singular, in the light of other matters, that on sitting down in his studio after she had left town Nick should not, as regards the effort to project plastically some beautiful form, have felt more chilled by the absence of a friend who was such an embodiment of beauty. She was away and he missed her and longed for her, and yet without her the place was more filled with what he wanted to find in it. He turned into it with confused feelings, the strongest of which was a sense of release and recreation. It looked blighted and lonely and dusty, and his old studies, as he rummaged them out, struck him even as less inspired than the last time he had ventured to face them. But amid this neglected litter, in the colourless and obstructed light of a high north window which needed washing, he came nearer tasting the possibility of positive happiness: it appeared to him that, as he had said to Julia, he was more in possession of his soul.’

Baratynsky’s artist spends ‘Hours and days and years’…‘in his delicious, dim travail’ as he works carefully to tear the final veil from the ‘guessed-at, wished-for shape’.
The solitude of the artist who works with quiet intensity at full engagement with the outside world is brought into focus in another of these contemplative poems, ‘The Goblet’.

‘Goblet of solitude! You never
give new credence to the cheap
impressions of everyday existence
like some common loving cup;
nobler, richer, you awaken
with a wonder-working might
heavenly dreams or revelations
of regions hidden from our sight.’

Baratynsky recognises the value in removal away from the ‘old sterile distractions, / common passions, social lies’ and heralds the ‘solitary intoxication’ which ‘clears the mist that clouds our eyes.’

The translations read so well. As Peter France puts it in his introduction, ‘I have tried to convey the details of Baratynsky’s meaning, the meaning his poems had for his contemporaries’ and he succeeds in what Yves Bonnefoy asserted when he pointed out that although you cannot translate a poem you can translate poetry.

Ian Brinton 20th September 2015.

A Quick Note on César Vallejo

A Quick Note on César Vallejo

Selected Writings of César Vallejo, ed. Joseph Mulligan, various trans. (Wesleyan University Press, 2015) is a badly formulated publication, in contrast, for example, to the same publisher’s magnificent handling of Victor Segalen’s Stèles (2007). It has to be said that it is not infrequent that seemingly all-embracing selected volumes make uncomfortable reading. The Selected Poetry and Prose of Andrea Zanzotto (University of Chicago Press, 2007) is another case in point. This is not to say that one should not buy this Vallejo. Probably one should because some eighty percent of its contents have never been translated into English before. The problem is that the wonderful wealth of decently translated and annotated prose, extracted from a great deal more: articles, chronicles, stories, plays, letters, has, interspersed among it, selections from Vallejo’s poetry, some in previously published translations, all anyway previously translated many times. This makes for irritating intrusion, not the helpful context the editor or publisher presumably intended. And that space could have been taken up with more of the prose. Two other points, just for example. Firstly, the earliest Vallejo prose includes quotations from poems by two other poets, which are not translated. Why? This book is offered as a translation. Doubtless many of its readers will be unable to read Spanish well or at all. So why is it assumed that these quotations do not also need to be translated? Secondly, that part of the bibliography, while described as selected, devoted to “Works by Vallejo in English Translation”, is nevertheless grossly negligent in important omissions, including Shearsman’s The Complete Poems, Allardyce Book’s The Black Heralds, and others.

Anthony Barnett 15th July 2015

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

The arrival of a new translation of Baudelaire is always a moment of real interest and this recent publication which appeared last month is no exception. The Australian poet Jan Owen introduces her translations by highlighting what it was that drew her to Baudelaire’s work in the first place:

‘I was drawn to Baudelaire not through any intrinsic resemblance but by his ‘sorcellerie évocatoire’: the distilled power and daring images, the combination of intensity and grace, and the unpredictable mix of formality and intimacy. Those memorable first lines and resonant last lines, that shifting emotional terrain between!’

This is a fine introductory comment and I turned to one of my favourite ‘Spleen’ poems to see how the power and unpredictability came over. The poem, ‘Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle’ always seems to be to be a good test of a translator’s sensitivity. It is the poem written about by the great Erich Auerbach in an essay titled ‘The Aesthetic Dignity of the Fleurs du Mal’ where he talks of the temporal clauses describing a rainy day with low, heavy hanging clouds; a sky like a heavy lid closing off the horizon ‘leaving us without prospect in the darkness’.

The opening of Jan Owen’s version is very effective:

‘When the long low sky weighs down like a lid
on the spirit groaning with disgust and doubt,
and in at the far horizon rim is poured
a day that’s sadder than the darkest night;

when earth is changed to a narrow, fetid jail
where Hope, a frantic bat, twitching and reeling,
scrapes her timid wings on every wall
and knocks her head against the rotted ceiling’

I like this much more than the Richard Howard poem I have become used to from 1982:

‘When skies are low and heavy as a lid
over the mind tormented by disgust,
and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down
on us a daylight dingier than the dark;

when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
beating tentative wings along the walls
and bumping its head against the rotten beams’

The alexandrine metre of the original French makes it clear that this is a solemn poem, to be spoken in grave tones. It includes allegorical figures written with capital letters and the reader is trapped between the lofty tone of the exclamation and the indignity of the emotional imprisonment. Reading Jan Owen’s version I like the drawn out lines with their beat of emphasis, nails in a spiritual coffin, and I like the merging of ‘disgust’ with ‘doubt’. The second two lines of that first stanza provide an interesting image of the day being poured in as if from a jug to a dish whilst the Howard version lacks that visual precision. In the second stanza Jan Owen’s bat (Hope) twitches and reels with a sense of the frantic prisoner trapped inside the cell of a room as opposed to Howard’s more nightmare-like noise of the bat ‘bumping its head’.

In his 2007 notes on ‘Some aspects of poems and translations’ Jeremy Prynne suggested that ‘Teachers of a foreign language often say to their students, if you can read and understand poems written in the foreign language, then you will have insights into the very heart of another culture; but the tasks are often very hard, and also frustrating, because it is mostly not possible to know whether an attempted understanding of a poem has been successful or not.’
He also suggested that translation is a noble art’ making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world.’

Jan Owen’s translation of Baudelaire is a noble attempt and it is already becoming for me the version which I want to recommend to others.

Ian Brinton 10th July 2015

What the Sky Arranges Poems made from the TSUREZUREGUSA of KENKŌ by Andrew Fitzsimons, with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, Isobar Press

What the Sky Arranges  Poems made from the TSUREZUREGUSA of KENKŌ  by Andrew Fitzsimons, with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, Isobar Press

The forthcoming launch of Paul Rossiter’s 2015 programme of books from Isobar Press, details of which can be found at the foot of this blog, has prompted me to recall an Isobar production from last year: the meditative, witty and long-lasting short poems by Andrew Fitzsimons gathered from a reading of Kenkō.

‘Travel. Wherever you go
the world you bring with you
is washed by the world you see.’

There is a refreshing sense of whole attention in these poems and a quietness of reflection that glimmers long after the little book is closed. There is a merging of closely observed detail with a background that offers years of support:

‘What is bad taste?
too many knick-knacks about the place
too many brushes in the ink box
too many Buddhas
too many shrubs and plants in a garden
too many rooms in a house
too many words on meeting someone
a ledger all plus and no minus?

Myths, tales, stories tell us something about who we are and the American poet, Robert Duncan’s autobiographical essay, The Truth & Life of Myth (House of Books Ltd. New York, 1968), referred to a sense of ‘universal humanity’ which is open to being discovered in the ‘mixing-ground of man’s commonality in myth’:

The meaning and intent of what it is to be a man and, among men, to be a poet, I owe to the workings of myth in my spirit, both the increment of associations gathered in my continuing study of mythological lore and my own apprehension of what my life is at work there. The earliest stories heard, nursery rimes and animal tales from childhood, remain today alive in my apprehensions, for there is a ground of man’s imaginations of what he is in which my own nature as a man is planted and grows.

Duncan’s book was subtitled ‘An essay in Essential Autobiography’ and the poet recalled sitting with his sister, ‘my mother between us’, looking at pictures in a book ‘as my mother reads aloud’:

‘The picture I am looking at is of three young men sleeping on a mat. One of them, the poet Basho, has awakened. Their naked feet are uncovered where they have pulled the blankets up around their necks in the cold. There is a poem that goes with that picture on the page. But this is not the poem that comes to mind even as I see the picture. For as I remember that moment, there is another scene superimposed, a double exposure, in which the very plash of a frog jumping into an old pond appears as if from actual life itself, but this vivid impression belongs to one of the most famous of all Japanese hokkus

In the poem ‘WORLDS’ by Fitzsimons the old world is washed by the new as if the lenses of the eye were being cleansed by focussed attention upon the new moment. When J.H. Prynne, at that time Director of Studies at Gonville and Caius, put together some ‘Tips on Practical Criticism for Students of English, 2006’ he associated close and broad reading skills in a way not dissimilar to this image of one world washed by another:

‘In fact, and in practice, however, close and broad reading skills reciprocally energise and complement each other. Regular exercises in close reading both sharpen and deepen accurate response to local texture and also feed into enhanced perception of larger-scale structure, to make us all-round better readers. One hand washes the other. Principles and foundations of a distinctive personal judgement begin to appear, together with increased range of response and cogency of evaluative judgement, supported by explorative argument within awareness of differing views and opinions. Step by step, as a reader, you begin to tune in and wake up.’
Read What the Sky Arranges and dwell for a moment upon ‘DATES:

‘Don’t wait till dotage for your goodness to begin.
Look at the dates on those gravestones.’

Isobar books are published to a very high standard and it would be worth going to this launch just to buy a copy of Andrew Fitzsimons’ poems let alone the new publications which include Peter Robinson’s poems from his time in Japan.
The London launch of Isobar Books takes place this Friday, 3rd July upstairs in the Rugby Tavern, Gt. James St. WC1N 3ES at 7.00.
Ian Brinton 29th June 2015

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