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Rough Breathing by Harry Gilonis (Carcanet)

Rough Breathing by Harry Gilonis (Carcanet)

I first came across the work of Harry Gilonis in a 1991 issue of EONTA, an Arts Quarterly of which he was Associate Editor. This particular issue was subtitled ‘Dante issue’ and was dedicated in memoriam Frank Samperi who had died in Tucson, Arizona, in June that year. The contribution Gilonis wrote for that issue was titled ‘Rocked on a Lake’ in which he concluded that Dante was bewitched by detail, the matter of memory:

“Purgatorio XXVI has him, following Vergil, seeing ants talking to one another. How long did we wait for someone else to notice? There are moments out of time, when infected perception of a sudden clears. Proust trips on an uneven cobble in the Guermantes courtyard, is instantly in the baptistery of St. Mark’s.”

That clarity of perception noted above is one of the central features of this remarkable selection of poems by Harry Gilonis, the poet whose interest in poetry began as a reader when, according to Philip Terry’s introduction, “he went to school (like others before him including Basil Bunting) with Ezra Pound”. Terry goes on to point out that Gilonis “spent a year reading the Cantos on the dole – an apprenticeship no longer available – using a university library ticket to access source books, from Provençal and Chinese dictionaries to books on art and architecture”. Given this careful engagement with reading it can come as no surprise that I was both honoured and delighted by Gilonis’s contribution to the festschrift for J.H. Prynne, For the Future, which Shearsman published in 2016. The focus of his contribution was on Prynne’s ‘Stone Lake’ poem, the poem written in Chinese as No. 22 of Peter Riley’s Poetical Histories, and in an email to me early in 2015 Harry Gilonis had outlined the sort of scrutiny he wished to bring to bear upon that poem:

“I propose a character-by-character gloss of the poem and its title; notes on some character-combinations which act to ‘steer’ a reader towards certain reading-conclusions; some glosses on the poem’s geographical setting (a lake in Suzhou); some remarks on the poem’s style, in traditional Chinese terms”.

Rough Breathing contains about two-hundred pages of closely-wrought poems and amongst the rich variety offered to us there is a selection of 30 short poems from a much larger group of “faithless translations from old Chinese originals” titled ‘North Hills’. One can see how much care has been put into understanding the original texts so that approximations can be presented which themselves possess the vitality of refracted light. Each of the fifteen poems chosen for this selection presents the reader with two versions and I refer below to just one of the pair titled ‘old friend’:

autumn pours us full
night levels towns cities
chanced meeting beyond geography
flitting about time time
wind moves magpie / words
Spider-web flutters clear night
travellers with wine constant
kept mutual in looped days

One of the compellingly attractive aspects of this poem for me is the juxtaposition of qualities of movement in lines 5 and 6. Words appear on a page and when they do they possess a sense of the static, being placed there either by brush or print; the movement of that magpie thief and hoarder can shift a word from one context to another like an object. The delicacy of the fluttering of a spider’s web is, however, different in that the softness of movement does not remove the web from one place to another: it returns to its original position. These two different qualities of movement are given further definition in their accidental record of “chanced meeting” and the very noun used there is opened up to offer suggestiveness concerning its meaning. A meeting which is “beyond geography” may lack a physical presence but can be a meeting none the less. This is poetry of a very high quality and I am inevitably reminded of the world of Pound’s World War I poetry publication, Cathay.
In contrast to this reflective lyric grace we can turn to the bitterly assured tone of the political poems which present us with a language that might well be used by the self-promoting innocence of the world’s arms-dealers:

“fully field programmable
with in-flight re-targeting
to cover the whole kill chain

with sensor-to-shooter capability
for effects-based engagement
and an integral good-faith report

and a situational awareness
of integrity and trust
to achieve the desired lethal effects”

It was appropriate that the Dante issue of EONTA from 1991had contained an obituary of Frank Samperi (written by David Miller) and when John Martone edited Spiritual Necessity (Barrytown/Station Hill), a useful selection of the Brooklyn poet, he pointed out that Samperi had discovered Dante in a Brooklyn institution and had taught himself Aquinas in Latin as well as studying the Indian philosopher Sankara, non-Euclidean geometry, and astrology. Samperi’s attention to moments reflected an active engagement which echoed perhaps the world referred to in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Notebook entry for March 1871:

“What you look hard at seems to look hard at you, hence the true and false instress of nature. One day early in March when long streamers were rising from over Kemble End one large flake loop-shaped, not a streamer but belonging to the string, moving too slowly to be seen, seemed to cap and fill the zenith with a white shire of cloud. I looked long up at it till the tall height and the beauty of the scaping—regularly curled knots springing if I remember from fine stems, like foliation in wood or stone—had strongly grown on me. It changed beautiful changes, growing more into ribs and one stretch of running into branching like coral. Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is.”

In the introduction to this new Carcanet publication Philip Terry places Gilonis “at the head of a long line of innovative contemporary poets, from Tim Atkins to Peter Hughes and Caroline Bergvall, who have been engaged in renewing poetry with experimental, prismatic, forms of translation”. I think I would add to that list as I recognise that there is indeed a sense of the renewal of language throughout Rough Breathing as I turn from page to page, or maybe it might be more appropriate to say from leaf to leaf: Harry Gilonis’s poetry consists of words made new.

Ian Brinton, 24th April 2018

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

Crimean Sonnets: Adam Mickiewicz A new version translated by Kevin Kackson (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

Spaces for Sappho by Kat Peddie (Oystercatcher Press)

Spaces for Sappho by Kat Peddie (Oystercatcher Press)

Post-Poundian-Ppppsappoppo

The fourth chapter of Hugh Kenner’s masterful The Pound Era is titled ‘The Muse in Tatters’ and it focuses on fragments of Sappho as presented through the mid-Victorian bluster of Swinburne, the Georgian tushery of Richard Aldington (via Prof. Edmonds) and the Poundian engraving of ‘Papyrus’:

‘Spring………
Too long……
Gongula……’

When Pound wrote to Iris Barry in the summer of 1916 he complained of the ‘soft mushy edges’ of British poetry (‘We’ve been flooded with sham Celticism’) and suggested that the whole art could be divided into:

a. concision, or style, or saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words.
b. the actual necessity for creating or constructing something; of presenting an image, or enough images of concrete things arranged to stir the reader.

Kat Peddie’s poems leave spaces on the page and only the clearest of words are left as stone markers, memorials, echoing the words that Walter Pater (former pupil of King’s School, Canterbury) wrote about lyricism and loss:

‘Who, in some such perfect moment…has not felt the desire to perpetuate all that, just so, to suspend it in every particular circumstance, with the portrait of just that one spray of leaves lifted just so high against the sky, above the well, forever?’

In Peddie’s ‘105a [for Page duBois]’ this idea becomes ‘The poem is the absence of an apple / anakatoria’.

To place greater emphasis upon this fragmentary world of concision one might turn up Swinburne’s early poem ‘Anactoria’ with its epigraph of lines from Sappho. My copy of this poem covers ten pages and the opening lines sound hollow some twenty years after Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’:

‘My life is bitter with thy love; thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.
I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;
Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.’

Lines from Kat Peddie’s fragment ‘6’ are worth considering here:

‘Consider Helen [whose beauty outshone all]
sailed from country
husband
parents
children to
follow hers

some men say
without a thought I think
of Anaktoria gone
her walk
her face outshines armour’

The echo of Eliot’s echo of Dante is there immediately with the dramatic command ‘Consider’. Eliot used the word to remind the reader of Phlebas ‘who was once handsome and tall as you’ while Odysseus, in Inferno XXVI, used the word ‘Considerate’ as a reminder to his ill-fated crew that they owed it to themselves and their heritage to pursue the paths across the ocean. Kat Peddie’s Spaces for Sappho are dedicated ‘for & from Anne Carson’ and the Canadian poet’s rendering of the Sappho fragment reads

‘For she who overcame everyone
in beauty (Helen)
left her fine husband

behind and went sailing to Troy.’

Peddie’s Helen ‘outshone’ all others rather than ‘overcame’ them and this is woven seamlessly into the reference to Anaktoria whose ‘face outshines armour’ as amor vincit omnia. The sense of loss in Peddie’s poem is held, for a moment, with that pause between ‘I think’ and the new line’s opening ‘of Anaktoria gone’. Swinburne wouldn’t have been able to resist a capital letter for that little word ‘of’. With a recall of the absent figure of Anaktoria what is remembered first is ‘her walk’ (after all that is what takes her away) and then her face, presumably turned away, which ‘outshines’ the clothing she wears, leaving a glimmering behind her for the reader to ‘Consider’.
At the beginning of this handsome new Oystercatcher Peddie gives a short lesson on pronunciation:

‘Today, in English, she [is] all soft sibilants and faded f’s, but in fact she is ‘Psappho’. In ancient Greek—and indeed in modern Greek—if you hear a native speaker say her name, she comes across spitting and popping hard p’s. Ppppsappoppo. We have eased off her name, made her docile and sliding, where she is really difficult, diffuse, many-syllabled, many-minded, vigorous and hard’.

Kat Peddie’s versions of Sappho are both hard-edged and personal; they are full of meetings, as are Eliot’s poems, and partings as both poet and reader ‘seem to our / selves in two / minds’.

Ian Brinton 6th 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

Beneath by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

Beneath  by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

In the notes at the end of his earlier volume of poems linked to the lyricism of Archilochus, Archilochus on the Moon (Shearsman 2013), Simon Perril referred to the Greek poet’s ‘nuanced voice, full of many tones and timbres’. The poet’s voice, he suggested, ‘tastes of brine, sweat and handled coins; it has the viscosity of semen’:

‘Viscosity is caused by friction; it is a measure of its resistance to gradual deformation. Archilochus crafted an intimate yell seven centuries before Christ, and a good many before Mayakovsky and Frank O’Hara.’

These words echo Peter Riley’s comments made when he was interviewed by Kelvin Corcoran in 1986 for Reality Studios 8; talking about ‘the condition of poetry’, Riley bemoaned ‘the neglect of someone like John James’ which struck him as particularly reprehensible since ‘his poetry is actually a popular poetry in some ways, it refers to people like Mayakovsky and O’Hara, the self in it is a popular self: a brash, open, aggressive, stylish, perky sort of self…it speaks of public places, and should be heard in them, literally.’ It is no mere accident that this quotation should appear in Simon Perril’s introduction to his Salt Companion to John James, which appeared in 2010, since Perril’s own poetry possesses some of those same qualities displayed in James’s ‘The Conversation’ in which the poet refers to Jeremy Prynne’s leafing through pages and giving ‘some new sense of strengthening regard for common things’. In the Companion we can also find Perril’s statement which points us towards his own poetry, ‘He shares with the New York School poets a willingness to view everyday objects not simply as degraded commodities, but as potential talismans that might be invested with hopes and desires.’

The background to Beneath is made clear on the back cover: ‘A nekyia is an underworld story preserving a rite from classical antiquity wherein the living call up the dead, and are questioned about the future.’ In 1935 Pound thought that the Nekuia episode of The Odyssey was the oldest part. In the words of Hugh Kenner, ‘foretime: a remembering of rites already ancient when the tale came to Homer’. And in the early 16th century the Nekuia was transposed by one Andreas Divus Justinopolitanus (‘Et postquam ad navem descendimus, et mare…’). And from thence to the opening of Canto I: ‘And then went down to the ship, / Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea…’ (incorporated into Canto III in Quia Pauper Amavi, 1919, just after the end of the first Great War, before being chosen to open the Draft of XVI Cantos in 1925).

In Simon Perril’s exploration of what lies beneath the surface, the voice of Neobulé, the bride-to-be of the first lyric poet, Archilochus, who committed suicide after her father had called off the wedding, gropes towards an understanding of her shadehood:

‘Hermes took me down
each step
decreased in sound’

As absence causes presence to fade into what will become the unrealisable ‘Lethe dyed my thoughts / white’

‘and I wore them
anew, so fresh

they barely contained
you’

The visceral sense of dissolution is traced from different angles throughout these eighty poems:

‘Dionysus
god in the tree

whose limbs of ivy
curled ’cross Thracian seas

will come for me
and plant a wet kiss

reclaim his daughter
as a body

of dancing water’

As the solidity of ‘tree’ and ‘limbs’ move through an abbreviated verb of transport the physicality of consonantal ‘daughter’ melts to its rhymed counterpart in the lightness of the last line.
Dissolution, a presence of process, is evident in poem after poem in this magical sequence and we become aware of how ‘constant leaving’ is a ‘leaking’. Persephone, the ‘dark abductee’ gathers the speaker

‘for I soften
lose shape

find kin
amongst the wet things

palpitate
like a fountain tip.’

Elly Clapinson’s cover photograph explores a glimpse of the journey.

Ian Brinton 27th December 2015

The Draft Will by Peter Robinson (Isobar Press)

The Draft Will by Peter Robinson (Isobar Press)

In ‘A Performing Art’, one of the short pieces of discursive writing from the last section of this collection of anecdotes, reminiscences and prose poems, Peter Robinson quotes from a postcard written in February 1934 by Ezra Pound to Mary Barnard:

‘Thing is to cut a shape in time. Sounds that stop the flow, and durations either of the syllables, or implied between them, “forced onto the voice” of the reader by nature of the “verse”’

The context for Robinson’s quotation is the world of the ‘Poetry Reading’ and he highlights the Cambridge International Poetry Festival which was held every two years between 1975 and 1985. He cuts his own shapes in time by giving us clarity, sharp outlines:

‘I can still quite clearly picture Hans Magnus Enzensberger at the third festival in June 1979 on stage in the darkened Corn Exchange at Cambridge. He was reading from his poem The Sinking of the Titanic in German and his own English translation. Enzensberger’s face was extremely mobile: ingenuousness, sarcasm, disgust and pity passed across his features as he read. He had been in Italy and was wearing a white summer suit that seemed slightly luminous under the spotlights. When he reached the end of the poem where imaginary and symbolic passengers are swimming away from the ship, Enzensberger seemed to have turned the darkness of the Corn Exchange into an Atlantic Ocean.’

Timing and presentation! Atmosphere and an awareness of the power of what you are reading! Shades of Basil Bunting’s ‘Villon’:

‘precision clarifying vagueness;
boundary to a wilderness
of detail; chisel voice
smoothing the flanks of noise’

In the previously unpublished autobiographical sketch, ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ (composed for the centenary of Linacre Infants and Junior School), there is a moving sense of attempting to give formal boundaries to a past long gone. The formality of the reconstruction is there in the precision:

‘There were two playgrounds, divided by a wall. The one on the left, if you were facing towards the Mersey, was for the Infants; the larger one on the right, for the Juniors.’

With the introduction of a class photograph, ‘a black and white class photo that lay around unconsidered in my parents’ house for years and years’, the past tense becomes the present tense as a long-gone world is brought back into focus. This is the way with photographs: they can make you realise that there are things you know that you didn’t know you knew! Names of people unmet for sixty years emerge out of a darkness:

‘On my immediate left in the photograph is Barbara Penny. On the other side of her is Colin Wells. On the back row, three from the left is Billy Morrison. When the school’s centenary was announced in Liverpool, with a call for memories and memorabilia, Billy heard about it from his family, found me on the Internet, and sent a message from British Columbia, in which he added some more names to the faces.’

Prompted by the catalyst, the photograph, ‘It comes back to me as I write that we learned how to tell the time in this class’ and Ray Charles’ song ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ emerges from being a US number one and a UK number 6 hit in 1961 to the fore of the author’s mind:

‘I can recall clearly standing on the asphalt of the playground of the Junior School at about home time thinking it would certainly hurt if you hit the road, and wondering why Jack would want to do it anyway.’

A few days ago Jeremy Prynne said to me ‘You know, Ian, I borrowed a line from Tim Longville’s last poem in his collection Familiarities for one of my poems.’ The words borrowed, ‘then back’, come from Longville’s ‘Back Out’ (1967) and they emerge, repeated, in one of the poems from Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994). When I mentioned this to Longville he replied ‘at Spartylea, I encouraged and led group-chantings of that little piece, in an exaggeratedly rhythmic cod-Northern-style—chantings in which, improbable though it may seem, Jeremy was an enthusiastic participant. Those occasions, and hence that poem, may well have stuck in his mind. So much, after all, does.’ In Peter Robinson’s delightful little vignette Jack may well ‘hit the road’ but he most certainly does come back.

This book of thoughts and recollections is another of those most handsome publications given to us by Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press (available from London Review Bookshop) and, needless to add, it is well-worth getting hold of. Not least for the deeply moving account of the events surrounding the author’s discovery he was suffering from a brain tumour, and how after its removal he was able to return to his teaching in Japan.

An earlier quotation from that Pound postcard reads ‘Precision in KNOWING how long the different notes take in a given place’. Peter Robinson’s delicate care in his writing gives us that precision in KNOWING.

Ian Brinton 29th November 2015

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

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