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Category Archives: Translations

Café By Wren’s St James-In-The Fields, Lunchtime by Anna Blasiak, photography by Lisa Kalloo (Holland House Books)

Café By Wren’s St James-In-The Fields, Lunchtime by Anna Blasiak, photography by Lisa Kalloo (Holland House Books)

This extraordinary and substantial 136 page bilingual publication in English and Polish is a collaborative work between Polish poet, Anna Blasiak, her accomplished translators, Marta Dzivrosz, Maria Jastrzębska, Danusia Stok and Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, and photographer, Lisa Kalloo. Each translator took a set of 12 or 13 poems to translate into English. The results are uniformly exquisite, pared and pointed. The book is a joy to read and a feast for the eyes thanks to Lisa Kalloo’s photography which enhance the reading and visual experience of the work.

The poems move through the isolation of the migrant condition searching for roots whilst dealing with home and family memories to the near silence of a new condition.

Amnesia, Obstinately

Every evening I learn a day
by heart.

Mornings I forget everything again.

Blasiak’s poems, pithy fragments, are almost epigrammatic and allusive in their dealings with emigration, otherness and hidden moods. Typically, a few lines long they are like fists of pressured existence.

Draught

The doors to both rooms
propped open by my shoes.

In the end
I might be
swept away.

This poem appears next to a close up image of a chain lock on a shabby door with pealing blue paint. The photograph adds depth and texture as the eye is drawn to the original wood behind the blue paint, and this in turn echoes the half hidden past beneath the surface veneer.

The narrative selves are often pressured, trying to take root and absorbed within the condition of being isolated, swinging from one mood to another, liable to stumble and be swept away at any time. One collects ‘unfinished sentences / to stubbornly piece them into / something like a whole.’ Another knows that ‘Expectations have / to be heeded. / They do overwhelm.’ The poems reminded me of Paul Celan and to some extent, Anne-Marie Albiach, in that they are sparse and coming out of silence with uncertainty and sparsity. They certainly make one think of some of the best European poetry.

I was sitting on the plane tree,
Slowly taking root.
One more branch.

Someone walked past.
Didn’t spot the difference.

Kalloo’s colour photography augments and enhances the texts serving to widen the perspective, provide additional viewpoints, which add to the whole work. The various photographs, capturing lights and shadows, interiors and street scenes, are works of art in their own right, reverberating around the stillness and isolation of the poems, providing provocative juxtapositions and new elements. I also like the way that both the poems and photography move avoid any linear chronology in recognition that the condition under review is dynamic as well as fragmentary.

I am sad that the collaborators are missing out on a book launch due to COVID-19 as this work is tremendous and put together with great care and attention to detail. I applaud everyone involved in this wonderful book.

David Caddy 8th April 2020

The Collected Poems of Robert Desnos, translated by Timothy Adès (Arc Publications, 2017), Despair Has Wings: Selected Poems of Pierre Jean Jouve (Enitharmon Press, 2007), Robert Desnos, translated by Martin Bell (Art Translated)

The Collected Poems of Robert Desnos, translated by Timothy Adès (Arc Publications, 2017), Despair Has Wings: Selected Poems of Pierre Jean Jouve (Enitharmon Press, 2007), Robert Desnos, translated by Martin Bell (Art Translated)

In the opening poem of the 1926 sequence À La Mystérieuse (To the Woman of Mystery) Robert Desnos wrote

J’ai rêvé cette nuit de paysages insensés et d’aventures
dangereuses aussi bien du point de vue de la mort que du
point de vue de la vie qui sont aussi le point de vue de l’amour.

In this ambitious new translation of Desnos, one which will I suspect remain the standard text for some years to come, Timothy Adès suggests the following as a bridge crossing two different languages:

I dreamed last night of unhinged landscapes and dangerous
adventures, as much from death’s viewpoint as from life’s,
and they are both the viewpoint of love.

The word ‘unhinged’ conveys a colloquial awareness of how one might refer to madness and indeed Martin Bell’s translation of the same line offered support for this when he rendered the line into English as ‘Tonight I dreamed of insane landscapes’. However, Adès’s use of the word ‘unhinged’ also prompts us to contemplate an idea concerning the possibility of an opening, a taking down of shutters, and this idea is taken further in the last poem of the sequence, ‘À la Faveur de la Nuit’:

Mais la fenêtre s’ouvre et le vent, le vent qui balance bizarrement
La flame et le drapeau entoure ma fuite de son manteau.

(But the window is opening and the breeze, the breeze weirdly
juggling flame and flag, wraps my retreat in its cloak.)

When the hinges of the window open in this fifth poem of the sequence the poet is compelled to recognise that the space now exposed offers no entrance to his desired lover, the night-club singer Yvonne George. Whereas only a few lines earlier Desnos had become aware of a shadow outside his window, ‘Cette ombre à la fenêtre’, and felt that the ghostly image was that of the woman whose eyes he would wish to close with his lips he is now compelled to recognise that ‘it isn’t you’ and that ‘I knew that’. The siren-like attraction of Yvonne George for the young Desnos offers an echo of a poetic heritage which must include the knight of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ who is ensnared by the lady’s ‘wild wild eyes’ as he closes them ‘with kisses four’.
Adès uses this word ‘unhinged’ in an equally intriguing way when translating a much later poem from Desnos’s 1944 sequence Contrée (Against the Grain). Timothy Adès tells us that ‘Le Paysage’ (‘The Countryside’) was the first poem by Desnos that he had ever discovered and translated; it was to be found in The Penguin Book of French Verse. The sonnet casts a backward glance at love from a different perspective and the poet is compelled to recognise that for him

Love’s not that storm whose lightning kindled high
Towers, unhorsed, unhinged, and fleetingly
Would set the parting of the ways aglow.

This later concept of love becomes something more concrete altogether, a ‘flint’ that his ‘footstep sparks at night’, a word that ‘no lexicon can render right’.
If poetry possesses the power to make the invisible visible then the earlier poem had made every attempt to give the muse form:

My laughter and joy crystallise around you, It’s your make-
up, your powder, your rouge, your snakeskin bag, your
silk stocking…it’s also that little fold between ear and
nape, where the neck is born.

Clearly the poet’s understanding of love was inextricably bound up with the language of the visual and echoed perhaps the suggestive words of André Breton: ‘les mots font l’amour’. But the later use of ‘unhinged’ suggests, however, a different awareness of love’s power and that despite not being ‘that storm’ it can remain enduring as ‘Still I love’ and the words become contained within the more defined structure of a sonnet: a more formal approach to language seems like a recognition of ‘Old age’ making ‘all things fixed and luminous.’
In March 1933 Pierre Jean Jouve wrote an astonishing essay ‘The Unconscious, Spirituality, Catastrophe’ in which ‘poetry is in possession of a number of ways of attaining to the symbol – which, no longer controlled by the intellect, rises up by itself, redoubtable and wholly real. It is like a substance discharging force. And as the sensibility becomes accustomed, through training, to proceed from the phrase to the line of verse, from the commonplace word to that of magic, the quest for formal adequacy becomes inseparable from the quest for buried treasure.’ Jouve’s own 1938 poem about interior landscapes pursued that search for what could be uncovered within the formalities of language by suggesting that ‘The mighty pillars of poetry form towns’ and that ‘Evening sinks and solidifies about men’s mortal limbs’ as ‘A mourning girl goes gathering into her aproned gown / The scattered ashes of the man she loved.’
The interweaving connection between Desnos and Jouve, those two pioneering French poets of the mid-twentieth century, might perhaps also be illustrated by the break Desnos made with the Surrealist movement in 1929. As Adès puts it in the notes he has added to his monumental edition of the poems Desnos had realised that love for Yvonne was a hopeless case and in a poem from 16th November, ‘The Poem to Florence’, he asserted that ‘The gates have been bolted on Wonderland’. As Desnos went on to proclaim in his ‘offensive and sarcastic’ Third Manifesto of Surrealism (1st March 1930): ‘Surrealism has now fallen into the public domain’.
Arc’s excellent publication of these Collected Poems, subtitled ‘Surrealist, Lover, Resistant’, goes a long way towards making that exclamatory statement an evident reality just as Enitharmon’s re-issuing of the Gascoyne translations of Jouve’s Selected Poems offers an opening, an unhinging, a suggestion that, as its subtitle affirms, ‘Despair Has Wings’.

Ian Brinton 20th January 2020

Tears in the Fence 68 is out!

Tears in the Fence 68 is out!

Tears in the Fence 68 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose, creative non-fiction and prose poetry from Ian Seed, Simon Collings, Melisande Fitzsimons, Anna Backman Rogers, Beth Davyson, Robert Sheppard, David Miller, Peter Hughes, Tracey Iceton, Jill Eulalie Dawson, Kate Noakes, Taró Naka Trans. Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei, Aidan Semmens, Mark Goodwin, Barbara Bridger, Alexandra Strnad, Daragh Breen, Andrew Darlington, Caroline Heaton, Peter J. King, Amelia Forman, Clive Gresswell, Steve Spence, Rebecca Oet, Sue Burge, Chloe Marie, Lucy Sheerman, Peter Robinson, Michael Henry, Wendy Brandmark, Abeer Ameer, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Sarah Cave, Angela Howarth, Norman Jope, John Freeman, Eoghan Walls, Jennie Byrne, Marcel Labine Trans. John Gilmore and Peter Larkin.

The critical section features Ian Brinton’s editorial, Andrew Duncan on Sean Bonney, Mark Byers on Jasper Bernes and Sean Bonney, Nancy Gaffield on Zoë Skoulding, Frances Spurrier – Poetry, resilience and the power of hope, Simon Collings on Ian Seed, Peter Larkin, Clark Allison on John Hall, Astra Papachristodoulou on Nic Stringer, Greg Bright – What Is Poetry?, Mandy Pannett on Seán Street, David Pollard on Norman Jope, Louise Buchler on New Voices in South African Poetry, Anthony Mellors on Gavin Selerie, Linda Black on Anna Reckin, Jonathan Catherall on Nicki Heinen, Richard Foreman on M. John Harrison, Morag Kiziewicz’s column Electric Blue 4, Notes on Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword.

The Books of Catullus Translated by Simon Smith (Carcanet Classics)

The Books of Catullus Translated by Simon Smith (Carcanet Classics)

When Bernard Dubourg contributed his article on translation to Grosseteste Review (Volume 12, 1979) he asserted a very important and necessary truth:

“The technique of translation, of which no one can properly define the terms, serves to conceal the fact that a good translation contains a greater number of possible senses than the original, being the result of two labours instead of one, and it’s for the reader to profit by it.”

It was Ben Jonson who wrote about the way our use of language reveals who we are when he said “Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind.” Just as no one person can read the mind of another the shark’s fin of language cuts its way through the water carrying with it the knowledge of what is held in bulk beneath: the fin of words is suggestive of a weight below the surface. The associations accumulating around words have shifted over centuries and we can only read from our own position in the NOW: we bring to bear upon our close scrutiny of language the sum of our own reading. We cannot read as Sir Philip Sidney did when in the late 1570s he became the first poet to translate Catullus into English with his four line version of poem 70 from Book III:

“UNTO no body my woman saith she had rather a wife be,
Then to my selfe, not though Jove grew a sutor of hers.
These be her words, but a woman’s words to a love that is eager,
In wind or water streame do require to be writ.”

However, it is possible that he may have read Thomas Wyatt’s version of Petrarch from some half a century earlier in which the poet’s attempt to hold tight his lady’s love is compared with the impossibility of seeking to “hold the wynde” in a “nett.” When we arrive at Simon Smith’s version of poem 70 we are firmly in a modern world in which the language bounces off the walls of everyday association:

“My woman would marry none, so she says, other
than me, not if Jupiter pressed his case.
Declares: – what a woman pledges a keen suitor
is better scripted for air and quick streams.”

The opening assertion of possessiveness (“My woman”) is followed by such confidence with the use of the word “none”; and this is so quickly followed with self-doubting humour in “so she says”. And there’s the rub of course! The lady’s words are the centre of focus and the extreme comparison with Jupiter sounds hollow. Script is air and airs are of course now streamed making them available for all! These poems by Simon Smith are bursting with sharpness and, as in the work of Frank O’Hara, whom Smith clearly reads with critical engagement, the seemingly informal or even offhand is in fact “accessory to an inner theatre”
Nine years earlier than that Dubourg article on translation the American poet, editor and translator, Cid Corman, opened the Zukofsky number of Grosseteste Review (Vol. 3, no. 4) with some comment upon Catullus:

“The question at issue is not whether Catullus would have liked these versions or not – though I might like to think so – or whether they have the same weight or speed as the original. These versions ARE originals. Related, yes, beyond any doubt. A semblance of Latin syllabics in English and English itself extended anew – as if the language itself were being renewed in our mouths.”

In his introduction to this entirely new version of the Latin poet Simon Smith points us forward to what should be immediately recognisable when he says that the poetry of Catullus “forms a significant strand of our shared poetic DNA” and that “a poet working in English must first translate Catullus in order to understand his or her own work and the work of their generation.” In Dubourg’s terms these new translations of Catullus reveal to us two poets at work and the correspondence between the two opens up a freshness of speech which is a delight to hear.

Ian Brinton, 18th April 2018

Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)

Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)

In his editorial comments at the opening of this first issue of a new magazine, Balkan Poetry Today, Tom Phillips stakes out his purpose with clarity and determination:

Balkan Poetry Today is not designed to be a comprehensive survey. Nor is it a ‘greatest hits’ package. Not every country in SE Europe, not every language spoken there is represented in this issue (although many are) and readers already familiar with those few poets from the region who have been translated into English may wonder at some of the more notable absences. This, though, is a magazine, not a representative anthology, and our policy has simply been to publish the best work which we have been sent or otherwise come across rather than to fulfil the more ambitious task of charting an entire region’s poetic output.”

This is the beginning of an adventure and it carries with it the momentum of a serious journey. That setting of keel to breakers reminds me a little of J.H. Prynne’s ‘Tips on Translating Poems (Into or Out of English)’ which he wrote in Cambridge a little over ten years ago. The last of the 24 tips pointed to the importance of recognising that no translation work is ever fully completed since there “can never be a best or a right solution”. He reminded his readers that the best kind of poetical translation of a poem is another poem, “without any didactic extras” so that the reader “will be rewarded by enjoyment of a good poem which gives a strong experience of its foreign original”. Prynne concluded that this was the aim of all poetical translation and that it allowed the efforts of the translator “to bring very real benefit in understanding between cultures”.
This last point is one which was highlighted by Ana Martinoska in her introduction to the 2011 Arc publication of an anthology of Six Macedonian Poets in which she commented that “there are no nations or literatures that are small, insignificant or culturally less important than others” and that every culture and genre “should be presented to a broader audience without hesitation or fear of marginalisation”. Prynne’s last comment in his tips was “Translation is noble work!” and Martinoska referred to the translation of poetry as being “one of the best forms of cultural representation, as mediation among languages and nations, cross-cultural and inter-cultural communication bringing the world closer together, both in time and space”.
With this last statement in mind it is refreshing and heartening to read Tom Phillips’s words:

“It is, of course, conventional for any publication with the term ‘Balkan’ in the title to attempt a definition of the region. BPT has adopted a rather loose one with blurry edges – and one which includes the various and not inconsiderable Balkan diasporas. We are, in fact, pretty much leaving it to the poets themselves to decide whether they identify themselves as Balkan or not and to define where the cultural, geographical and linguistic boundaries lie. In practice this means that in this issue you’ll find work by a Romanian poet who writes in Czech, a Bulgarian who lives in Slovakia and a Croatian who writes multilingual poems in Croatian, French and English. In future issues we hope to publish work in transnational languages like Roma and Vlach. We use the word ‘Balkan’ in the broadest possible sense and with no intention of suggesting that ‘Balkan poetry’ exists as a single, homogenous entity.”

This first issue of an exhilarating new journal is sheer delight and one of the first poems that drew my attention immediately was ‘Private lessons in May’ by Aksinia Mihaylova (translated by Roumiana Tiholova):

“I’m trying to teach you the Cyrillic alphabet of scents:
that the geranium on the balcony across the street
is more than a mere geranium,
that the linden tree in June
is more than a mere tree,
but we aren’t making progress fast enough.
Your thumb is following the candle shadow
that the wind is making tremble on the open page,
as if drafting mobile borders
between you and me,
as if to protect you,
as if you are that boy,
who once lost his watercolours
on his way home from school,
and who’s still painting
the lost sky of his childhood and the hills
in the same colour.”

In 1923 William Carlos Williams had been convinced that “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white /
chickens”. Wallace Stevens was to refer to those words as a “mobile-like arrangement” and Hugh Kenner suggested that they dangled in equidependency, “attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.” The delicate movement in Mihaylova’s poem traces the act of translation itself, the spaces between one mind and another in a world of “mobile borders”.

Balkan Poetry Today is available in a limited edition print version via the Red Hand Books website: http://www.redhandbooks.co.uk/ and an e-book version will be available soon.

In a world of narrowing confines this new journal is refreshing: it opens doors on each page.

Ian Brinton 30th July 2017

XENIA by Eugenio Montale Translated Mario Petrucci (Arc Publications)

XENIA by Eugenio Montale Translated Mario Petrucci (Arc Publications)

Montale’s sequence of twenty-eight poems written in response to the death of his wife in 1963 has, naturally enough, been compared to the Poems of 1912-13 written by Hardy after the death of Emma. Regarding those earlier responses to profound loss Mario Petrucci suggests that the Italian poet thought that the section from Satires of Circumstance was “one of the summits of modern poetry”. The comparison is interesting and F.R. Leavis referred to it in some detail in his recognition of the “direct simplicity of personal feeling” relating the two poets. In his introduction to G. Singh’s translation of Montale’s New Poems Leavis went on to question this simplicity in terms of the impersonality of art:

“Now I think that great art is necessarily impersonal, and that the true creative impersonality is what we have in the poignancy, the profound movingness, of Xenia…For a major poet such as Montale is, poetry is one’s profoundest response to experience. The theme of Xenia is as central, important and moving as any human theme can be, and the reticence it requires of the poet is not a refusal to recognise the full nature of what, intimately for him as a sufferer, it in reality portends; but the contrary.”

Leavis discusses the central idea of how can an “actual pondered sense of irrevocable loss” be defined and communicated and the derivation of that word irrevocable pushes us forward to think of how a voice of a “Woman much missed” can “call to me”. Leavis is not alone of course in recognising the appropriateness of a connection between Hardy’s poems, subtitled as Veteris vestigia flammae, and Montale’s elegiac words for his little Mosca. But he is perhaps unusual in his awareness of what Donald Davie also noted about Hardy’s Victorian diction and the quality of those elegies to the memory of Emma that took the poet beyond the world of the technician, “the laureate of engineering”:

“…a direct simplicity of personal feeling certainly relates the two poets…Montale is immensely more subtle, more supple and more diverse than Hardy. The fact is apparent at once in the texture (hardly a felicitous metaphor – but what better is there?) and the nervous life of their verse. Hardy had to fight an unending battle against Victorian ‘poetic diction’, and the evidence of it is there in the handful of his major victories…Montale, on the other hand, is, as poetic ‘practitioner’ (to use Eliot’s favoured term), clearly a master of living – that is, today’s spoken – Italian.”

Hardy’s yearning to create a bridge between the Now and the Then, to give voice to the irrevocable, leads Leavis to “recognise that she [Emma] exists only as posited by the poet’s nostalgic intensity”: she is the woman with whom he was in love forty years ago. “But Mosca in Xenia is the highly individual woman apart from whom daily life was inconceivable until the catastrophe of her loss, and is almost inconceivable now”. Almost…and yet Montale’s achievement is to make her “so compellingly actual” in the “evoked day-to-day ordinariness”.
I possess no great facility with the Italian language and my reading of translations of Montale’s work is dependent upon my sense of trust in the way in which they present themselves. Let it be clear: I think that these new poems by Mario Petrucci are remarkable in the way that they capture a profound response to experience. The translator’s introduction makes it clear to us that he knows very well indeed what is involved in this subtle and complex work:

“The familiarities of a shared life are allowed to brim but never to spill over, as they might under less dextrous or more assertive hands, into sentimentality. Those details, things as things in themselves, contain the emotion.”

William Carlos Williams would have course have recognised the centrality of this awareness of the ordinary out of which our lives are composed and Petrucci highlights for us how “Around household bric-a-brac and household oddments – a telephone bill, old books, his (as he elsewhere puts it) totem of a rusty shoehorn – Montale constructs a humble reliquary of loss”. As a translator Mario Petrucci presents a firm method of approach:

“I should add that I skirted, initially, the Matterhorn of Montale commentaries, not wishing to commence Xenia in the boa grip of academic conclusions or with that pressing sense of an author’s sanctified objectives. This might seem cavalier, even heretical, with someone as elusive and allusive as Montale can be; but it paid the language, as well as the poet, a different sort of respect. It allowed a fresh and unencumbered approach, one that (for all its dangers) facilitated a certain freedom to express and reinterpret the spirit of the verse. I was able to come to textual insights in my own way rather than second-hand.”

I find this focus upon the translator as reader and literary critic admirable and the living quality of the result is there for all to see.

“At the Saint James, Paris, I’ll request
a single room. (No love lost there
for the uncoupled client). So, too,
in the mock Byzantium of your
Venetian hotel; then quick on the scent
of those friends of yours in their
switchboard hutch; only to start
again, my clockwork charge all spent,
with that longing to have you back if
only in some gesture, or knack.”

The power of Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13 is held in the architectural magnificence of a structure such as the opening stanza of ‘The Going’:

“Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here…”

And the musical yearning, the echo, is caught then with the rhyming “Where I could not follow / With wing of swallow” before the last line draws out as the vibrant ‘g’ sounds merge into open air:

“To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!”

Petrucci’s Montale attempts a more matter-of-fact record of loss:

“No glasses, nor antennae,
poor insect – such wings
you possessed only in fantasy –
a bible broken and much less
believable, this night-blackness,
a flash, a clap and then
no – not even the squall. Perhaps
you never left so soon without
speaking? Though it’s laughable
to consider you still had lips.”

For anything equivalent to Mario Petrucci’s Xenia we must turn perhaps to Simon Marsh’s STANZE (c.f. my review from 7/3/16) to read

“you promised me Dante after supper
the circumstances no longer exist
only changes in air scent
intensely captured light
page-bound radiance of individual days
when we last scooped vacant autumn oysters
from low tide silt at Minnis Bay”

And, as if to bring some wheel round full circle, I am delighted to announce Riccardo Duranti’s translations of Marsh’s poems into Italian, a versioni italiane, published by his own Coazinzola Press which has also just produced a beautifully presented version of John Berger’s Collected Poems available from http://www.coazinzolapress.it

As this moment of the year’s turning let us raise a glass not only to the fine poets, whose sensitivity to what they read and experience makes their publications so worthwhile, but also to their publishers such as Arc (www.arcpublications.co.uk) and Coazinzola.

Ian Brinton 30th December 2016

Unknown Translations by Tom Phillips (www.scalino.eu)

Unknown Translations by Tom Phillips (www.scalino.eu)

I recall reading a poem by Tom Phillips titled ‘Wearing Thin’. It was published in a fine collection, Recreation Ground, put out in 2012 by Peter Robinson’s Two Rivers Poets and it opened with movement:

‘Going home, with decisions unmade
and threats of further paperwork,
you’re jostling for position
at a crossing point, taking
the lights’ delay as a reluctance,
the pavement for a starting grid.
As if the whole town could do its best
to hold you back.’

A similar restless journeying also leads the reader through this hauntingly beautiful new mindscape which Tom Phillips has translated from the Bulgarian originals written by Tom Phillips! When J.H. Prynne gave his speech in 2008 at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on the topic of the difficulties of translation he quoted John Keats’s comment ‘I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess’ before going on to add

‘I think that the excess he had in mind was to run past the normal bounds and limits, in making new combinations of words and thoughts that draw the reader into new kinds of pleasurable excitement. In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition.’

This placing of words together, prompting a brightness, is there within the pages of this new publication by Tom Phillips and his introductory note draws us into a world where language seems washed clean:

‘I started writing the poems in this book in Bulgarian because I wanted to practise a language that I have been studying since my first visit to Sofia in 2013. While I was learning vocabulary, noun by noun, verb by verb, adjective by adjective, I would find myself repeating seemingly unconnected series of words – “room”, “confused”, “hungry”, “flowers”, “silently” – and these sometimes came to suggest situations and images or at least to forge unexpected connections in my mind.’

Phillips continues by reminding us that it is very easy ‘to become trapped in your own voice, to repeat the things which have worked in the past, and pushing at the boundaries of your comfort zone – by, for example, attempting to write in a language whose traditions and riches you’re only just beginning to appreciate – is one way of finding an escape route’. To an extent he lets ‘language take the lead…’.
Unknown Translations, new journeys, are threaded with present participles: ‘children playing / by a war memorial’, ‘walking along the pavement, / past the market’, ‘in the park, the dogs are walking / like old men’. At the same time Phillips is fully aware of those trammels which recur and that ‘Purity / is only an instant of being’ (Olson). We carry our pasts like mollusc shells closely attached to us and ‘approach / a possible fate / under magnificent architecture / which the lightest breeze / can destroy’ (‘Old Directions’). That earlier poem from Recreation Ground concluded

‘As red turns to green,
you’ve almost reached the other side
before you’re pulled up short
by a misread fashion headline:
‘You Are What You Were’.’

The opening poem in this new collection offers ‘Sunlight in March’:

‘It’s clear to me that
in an unknown town,
I met another life
suddenly, unexpectedly,
like sunlight in March.’

Newness of both language and geography reveals a map of an unknown town and ‘then took me home’.

This is a refreshingly original little volume of poems and I recommend you to get hold of a copy before the poet melts back into Bulgaria.

2nd October 2016

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