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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

Stanze by Simon Marsh STILL LIFE by Ian Patterson (Oystercatcher Press)

Stanze by Simon Marsh  STILL LIFE by Ian Patterson (Oystercatcher Press)

Elegies have various narratives buried within them. Some, like Thomas Gray’s famous reflections in an eighteenth-century country churchyard, have incomplete ones: what might have been rather than what was. There are ironies underlying Gray’s use of the word ‘waste’ in the couplet

‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.’

Blushing suggests a social awareness, a young girl perhaps entertaining her earliest encounters with the opposite sex, and ‘waste’ records with a touch of wistful sorrow how those imagined ambitions of youth are lost to the inexorable marches of Time.
Simon Marsh’s sixteen short elegiac poems present the reader with narratives which accrue to become a ‘life’. The opening poem, ‘Notte’, registers the continuance of one narrative (‘nature’s circuitry’) acting its part as background to another narrative which has now reached conclusion. The inevitable new growth of seed ‘is soldered to / a board of silence’. The grief of personal loss cannot be contained within a narrative framework of magic and belief. When Leontes lost his wife in A Winter’s Tale he became the man who dwelt by a churchyard until the new statue of Hermione stirred from its pedestal and stepped down to greet him sixteen years after her death. Marsh’s sequence closes with another poem titled ‘Notte’ and here the ‘masonry bit / lodged in / our hearts’ causes memories to crumble as day breaks up night:

‘if you’re looking
for rubble
you’ve come
to the right place
night crumples
& is gone’

These sonnets are filled with moments of narrative: ‘caffeine stunned we breakfasted on cakes the size of runes’; ‘there was something wayward / in the way you searched / for last night’s embers / in the hearth’; ‘you kept me waiting often enough / but never quite like this’; scooping ‘vacant autumn oysters / from low tide silt’ near Margate.
When I edited a collection of essays about the work of Peter Hughes for Shearsman two years ago (An intuition of the particular), Simon Marsh opened his piece with such clarity of narrative that it comes as no surprise now to read his recollections ‘for Manuela Selvatico 1960-2010’ and have a past become a present:

‘In the middle of the night, after dinner in a trattoria on the Tuscolana outskirts of Rome, Hughes suggested we drive to Gran Sasso to watch the sunrise. We took a sizeable piece of pecorino cheese, a bottle of Jameson’s, the dog Peg, and set off.’

These stanzas, little rooms, that make up this fine Oystercatcher publication are reconstructed journeys that give a nod of recognition perhaps to Thomas Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’. Where Hardy opened ‘After a Journey’ with the assertive comment ‘Hereto I come to interview a ghost’ Simon Marsh opens ‘Ritorno’ with a sense of the risk involved in all Orphic ventures:

‘I return to the sea at my risk & in the end
decide to leave the beach alone
after all you filled the house with stones
I’ve numbered them for smoothness & taped
small flecks of rock wave here and thither
perhaps for later use…’

The risk involved in all backward glances is there immediately in the second of the two volumes dropped from the oystercatcher’s beak yesterday, STILL LIFE. Dedicated ‘to whom it may concern’, with an increasing feeling as we leaf through these carefully inscribed pages that it in fact concerns us all since absence and presence dominate our lives, the collection of poems opens with thorny difficulty: ‘NO WAY’:

‘No way to compare the very place
this sense felt before with pure breast
or self by adhesion among cranesbills

but at risk to restate or stage the world
of difference between the most difficult thing
and a life to imagine taking place between

one black bird and an other whole way’

Of course all life is individual and all sense of loss is personal. The limitation of language is that it cannot be the very thing it evokes and there is ‘no way to compare’ the particularity of ‘very place’. Every venture at contemplation of absence is a risk because nothing can be restated or staged again; language, symbolic gestures that arrive after the event, is imagination and the poet juxtaposes this limitation with the separated division of singularity in ‘one black bird’ (not even blackbird) and ‘an other’ (not even another).
When I wrote earlier this month about Peter Makin’s profoundly moving collection of poems from Isobar Press, Neck of the Woods, I referred to Fulke Greville’s poem ‘Absence and Presence’. Having spent some time weighing up the advantages of absence the Elizabethan poet concludes

‘But thoughts be not so brave,
With absent joy;
For you with that you have
Yourself destroy:
The absence which you glory,
Is that which makes you sorry,
And burn in vain:
For thought is not the weapon,
Wherewith thought’s ease men cheapen,
Absence is pain.’

This sequence of poems by Ian Patterson has a tone of quiet solemnity. There is a contemplative awareness of the fragility of humanity as ‘Unconnected with each other we meet / quiet and thoughtful and rock a little // regretfully round a building’. The titles of the poems offer us warnings: ‘NO WAY’; ‘WARNING IGNORED’; ‘THE MODE THAT WILL NOT BE WRITTEN’; ‘A SEEDY BOX’; ‘NIGHT VIEW’; ‘ONE’; ‘IMAGE DAMAGE’; ‘BROWN PAPER’; ‘FOOTSTEPS’; ‘EMPTY SPACE’; ‘COLD AGAIN’; ‘REBUKE’. They also offer us a serious reflective stance as the poet concludes his ‘REBUKE’ with the assertion that ‘It can be uncertain as whatever it was / received by the eye to disturb a power in my brain events / will be voyaging to trap the work of words shaped as if it still remains.’ Language may have its limitations but gaze carefully on what is after all STILL LIFE.
Tomorrow I shall be sending off my cheque for £25 to Oystercatcher Press renewing my subscription to a powerful and distinctive voice in contemporary British poetry. (www.oystercatcherpress.com)

Ian Brinton 25th October 2015.

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