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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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The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe Books)

The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe Books)

A new edition of Jeremy Prynne’s long poem which had been originally published privately in an edition of 600 copies in December 1983 is due to be published on 29th March this year. It is the third separate publication of this major poem since the second one appeared in Brisbane in 2002 edited by the Australian artist Ian Friend. On the cover of the first edition there was a photograph showing a window-like opening in the wall of a ruined ‘shield’, or shieling, a rough stone hut built by medieval farmers to house themselves and their families during the summer transhumance. The photograph is one of many taken by Prynne himself at Tinkler Crags, on Askerton North Moor, a desolate area near the village of Gilsland in Cumbria and twenty more pages of these photographs are now included in this new edition.

This finely produced new edition is edited by Neil Reeve and Richard Kerridge whose work on The Oval Window goes back to an article ‘Deaf to Meaning: on J.H. Prynne’s The Oval Window‘ published in issue 3 of Parataxis in 1993. They also wrote a chapter of fifty pages on the poem for their major publication on Prynne, Nearly Too Much (Liverpool University Press, 1995). The new Bloodaxe edition contains two new substantial essays on the poem and some fifty pages of notes. It is a must! This is merely a quick advert for the book to alert our readers in advance and I shall be writing a full review of the new edition in Tears in the Fence 68 later this year.

Ian Brinton 9th February 2018

Composition in White by S.J. Litherland (Smokestack Books)

Composition in White by S.J. Litherland (Smokestack Books)

According to some recent Facebook comments a review written by Martin Stannard is shortly to appear on Alan Baker’s excellent Litter site (leafepress.com/litter). The review contains the following paragraph:

“I have what can best be described as an ambivalent relationship with innovative poetry and poetics (I’m getting fed up of that phrase) which boils down pretty much to my approach to reading any kind of poetry: is it an enjoyable and maybe even an unforgettable experience, or the opposite of that, whatever it might be. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not put off by not getting it, or not understanding it – but I am put off by reading experiences that fall short of the pleasurable – bearing in mind that pleasure can come in any number of guises. I’m definitely put off when I don’t feel welcome.”

When reading this paragraph I was put in mind of the comment made by J.H. Prynne in his Keynote Speech given ten years ago at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China at Shijiazhuang when he focused upon the difference between obscurity and difficulty in poetry:

“When poetry is obscure this is chiefly because information necessary for comprehension is not part of reader’s knowledge. The missing information may be specific (a personal name, say, or some tacit allusion), or general (an aspect of religious belief, say); and finding out this information may dispel much of the obscurity. When poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response-patterns that challenge the reader’s powers of recognition. In such cases, extra information may not give much help.”

Prynne suggests that Pope’s The Dunciad is now obscure but not especially difficult whereas Stevens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ is difficult “but mostly not obscure”. I would add William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ to the list of difficult poems which are not obscure.
Jackie Litherland’s ‘Springtime of the Nations’ was commended in the 2011 National Poetry Competition and as I read this opening poem in last year’s publication of her seventh collection I was struck by the way its power in no way relied upon any awareness of the 1848 revolutionary world or of Hungary: its power is in the way it brings sound and place to experience that is not historically dependent.

“The lilacs were in flower, heavy, drowsy,
boulevards suddenly pleasant. And
I suspect the sun was out. You must
understand there was nothing we could
do. In the square hung the conspirators,
dangling effigies – the partying over –
how they caroused our masters,
the hubbub was like the explosions
of military battle to deafened soldiers,
we the defeated drank deeply while
the victors were clinking glasses.”

A reader of poetry may well find that the reference T.S. Eliot makes to “lilacs” in ‘Portrait of a Lady’ crosses the mind unbidden and, indeed, may well recall Walt Whitman’s elegy to Abraham Lincoln in which “lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” as he mourns an individual murder “and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring”. But this cross-referencing is not necessary for us to share the sense of peace haunting Litherland’s square in which the hanging bodies are “dangling effigies”. That peace is held with the words “heavy” and “drowsy” and a social sense of life’s continuance is caught with the geographical fixture of “boulevards” and the word “pleasant”. A feeling of helplessness in the face of horror is evoked with the matter-of-fact assertion that we must understand that “there was nothing we could / do”. The celebration associated with carousing, cheers that explode making the square into a battle-field, is present to us with the sharp “clinking” of glasses and “All

we could hear was the chink, chink,
like raindrops in gutters, of their toasts”

The poet (in the epigraph “A sympathiser advises a friend”) remains with a heavy and ominous silence recognising that for them the haunting memory will ensure that “glasses / will never chime” and that “All through the night

they were pushing the boat out, the oars
of a thousand hurrahs dipped into water,
chink, chink, chink, chink, chink,
came the replies of the tiny waves.”

There is a determined tone of resolution in the final lines which are Brechtian in their simplicity:

“…The twelve hung in the sun.
You must understand there was nothing
we could do but shun the moment,
to turn our backs on all that merriment.”

This is a poem which resonates off the page addressing the reader with clarity and leaving echoes of historical reconstruction which can be felt in our NOW.
As Jo Colley states on the back cover of this fine collection of poems Litherland’s poet’s eye is “as diamond sharp and unsentimental as ever”.

Ian Brinton 10th January 2018.

A Lawnmower In The Loft by Bruce McLean (21 Publishing)

A Lawnmower In The Loft by Bruce McLean (21 Publishing)

This collection of anecdotal vignettes by celebrated Scottish action sculptor and painter, Bruce McLean, offers a compelling lop-sided account of his artistic life. It is full of a louche bon vivant’s interest in food and drink stretching from the food parcel that his parents posted from Glasgow in 1963 when he was studying sculpture at Saint Martin’s School of Art to the day he ate five steak and kidney pies during his tenure as head of painting at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Here we have the usual elements of autobiographical memoir arranged alphabetically to create a deeper impression and unorthodox tone. A bit like Daniel Farson’s memoir, Never A Normal Man, only funnier and more reliable. It was Bruce’s eccentric father that kept a lawnmower in his loft, which gives the book its title. McLean also employs some beguiling list poems of menus, the informal and formal names of his mother’s neighbours, orders at the Bull’s Head, Barnes, and other quirky lists.

The focus on sustenance and bodily functions offer opportunities throughout to debunk conceptions of the artistic life as impractical and outside of social relations. Thus, the reader learns that horse urine was once used to etch plates and that Bruce spent a day at Covent Garden Market waiting to collect horse urine in order to make some not very good etchings of a horse peeing in a bucket.

Much of the material has a wit that partially serves to camouflage the wider purposes of the stories. Humour always serves a social purpose and here the reader is immediately drawn in to savour the fun and joy of a man intoxicated by food, drink and storytelling. The back cover features one of his plinth pictures from Pose Work For Plinths (1971), originally created as an ironic joke in performance in 1970 around the use of plinths in sculpture with the artist bending his body to fit on and around three plinths.

Inevitably, reader’s will seek out celebrated artists that appear in the stories. I must admit to noting references to Kathy Acker, Joseph Beuys and John James, who wrote ‘Poem For Bruce McLean’, which appeared in Bruce McLean: Berlin/London (1983) rewriting McLean’s colourful linear paintings as a series of images. James’s poetry engages with the visual, phenomenology and visual art, in many ways and he has written on artists, Barry Flanagan and Richard Long, who also feature in stories. His latest collaboration with McLean is On Reading J.H. Prynne’s Sub Songs (QoD Press, 2016) where McLean provided original lino cuts to poems written in response to J.H. Prynne’s poems, in a book designed and hand printed by Bridget Heal using a Hopkins letterpress in a limited edition. McLean recounts the occasion when John James was invited to read a new work before for the opening of The Masterwork: The Award Winning Fish Knife at the Riverside Studios in 1979. After some pre-show drinking the performers were miked up ready to start. James goes for a nervous pee. The lights go down, audience silent in expectation, suddenly there is the sound of someone’s zip being undone, followed by an enormous fart, and what ‘sounded like a fire hose wazzing and skooshing on the porcelain’ and finally James appearing to tumultuous applause and cheering. Never, writes McLean, had a poet had such a welcome, and a great fart to this mediocre work.

McLean is eminently recognisable in these stories with their self-deprecating non-conformism and debunking of assumptions around what sculpture is and should be. There is a strong sense that he has ploughed his own furrow making his way by single-mindedness and continual probing. Moreover, he allows other figures to emerge in their full glory. Leonard Swartz, for example, who despite disliking McLean’s lecture at Maidstone School of Art nevertheless gave him a day’s teaching job. The stories are distinctly noteworthy and great fun rather like his self-interviews and refusal to be constrained by pre-set conceptions. This is a memoir that I shall re-visit with pleasure.

David Caddy 19th October 2017

Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’

Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’

In 2004 ‘Refuse Collection’, a poem written in response to the allegations of the torture of prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq, appeared in the Barque Press magazine, Quid 13 edited by Keston Sutherland.
In 2007 Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in which he suggested that Jeremy Prynne’s recently published chapbook To Pollen (Barque Press) was ‘directly concerned with the “war on terror” and its vicious circles’, quoting the lines

“Afflicted purpose they hail we cut them they in
turn line the route denied, holding it most.”

In 2013 Noel-Tod went on to edit the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in which he commented on Prynne’s concentration upon the etymological source of words and the extent to which the language is used by those in financial or political social power to control and command the thoughts of others. He suggested that the “presiding discipline of the oeuvre, however, is philology” and here he took over from Donald Davie who had commented back in the 1970s that “The structuring principle of this poetry, which makes it difficult (sometimes too difficult), is the unemphasized but radical demands it makes upon English etymologies.” Noel-Tod again alerted us to what has been for many years the fascination of Prynne as a poet:

“What has drawn readers to the demands it makes is the intellectual urgency and aesthetic intensity that animates Prynne’s reinvention of traditional lyric subjectivity in a world governed by market forces and scientific empiricism.”

That stratified field of rich linguistic construction is exemplified in ‘Refuse Collection’ written on May 8th 2004 in response to the allegations of torture at Abu Ghraib.

“To a light led sole in pit of, this by slap-up
barter of an arm rest cap, on stirrup trade in
crawled to many bodies, uncounted. Talon up
crude oil-for-food, incarnadine incarcerate, get
foremost a track rocket, rapacious in heavy
investment insert tool this way up.”

The brutality of the language here with its bitter puns crushing together idiomatic phrases with both slang and Shakespearian reference makes for difficult and uncomfortable reading. However, there is a clear difference between difficulty and obscurity: obscurity is to do with a range of references, in the manner that Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad is now an obscure poem which needs a considerable number of footnotes so that local and contemporary references can be recognised. Difficulty is where the language is not complicated in itself but its layers of meaning require the reader to be especially vigilant and alert to nuance. The controlled violence of those opening lines to ‘Refuse Collection’ is intricately bound up with some of the following ideas: the prison-like geography of a light leading to a pit in line one. The human outrage emphasised by the pun on sole/soul, is followed by the phrase ‘slap-up’, a term often used in reference to a festive meal but here tinged with the brutality of beating. In line two the reference to ‘barter’ presents us with the financial dealings involved with trade where the roots of that word of commerce are to be found in the Middle Dutch or Middle Low German trade and Old Saxon trada, footstep. The word ‘stirrup’ casts not only a glance back to the festivity of consumption (a stirrup-cup) but also presents us with the theme of dominance which appeared in one of the photographs taken of Iraqui prisoners being piled on top of each other as if to be ridden. The reference to ‘crude’ in line four is not only echoing the scientific term for unprocessed oil but also suggests a deeply embedded feeling of the uncivilised given a further emphasis with the word ‘incarnadine’ immediately recognisable as part of Macbeth’s vision of wading through a sea of blood. The final reference which merges finance (‘investment’) with technology (‘insert tool this way up’) is made grotesque as we recognise the well-known euphemism for a penis.
In his unpublished notes on ‘Some Aspects of Poems and Translations’, April 2007 Prynne commented upon language in a manner that is pertinent to a reading of his own later work:

Individual words are placed in close relation in a new way, so that it is
not easy to guess how the meaning of one relates to the meaning of the
other. Sometimes a whole string of words seems to be making uncertain or
doubtful connections, so that when the reader or translator consults a full,
inclusive dictionary the different meanings for each word all seem at least
partly possible, because the guidelines of sense and idiom seem to point in
so many different directions at once.

Ian Brinton 27th August 2017

Jargon Busters by Clive Gresswell (KFS Press)

Jargon Busters by Clive Gresswell (KFS Press)

In this remarkably powerful first collection of poems Clive Gresswell combines what Timothy Jarvis refers to on the back as “language experiments, raw humour, obscenity, keen-eyed observation” with a compelling lyricism. Jarvis connects this uncompromising world of language with that of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze quoting him as describing how the writer of potent literature will return “from what he has seen and heard with bloodshot eyes and pierced eardrums”. In an excellent book on Deleuze, Sensation, Contemporary Poetry and Deleuze, Continuum, (I reviewed this book in The Use of English, Vol. 62, Number 1,soon after it appeared in 2010) Jon Clay referred to Prynne’s 1994 sequence Her Weasels Wild Returning. Quoting from the opening poem, ‘The Stony Heart of Her’, Clay wrote about “a material force that can be felt in the mouth and in the body”:

“This is obscurely connected to the vitality of the poetry; so, too, is the fact that both the dynamism and the material feel of the language are intensified by the undeniable difficulty of understanding what the lines might be supposed to represent. This material and aesthetic prominence in the poetry causes it to stand forwards, to exist in the way that a table or a mountain exist, rather than signalling away from itself towards, or signifying, the existence of something else. This urgent, material existence impinges upon a reader’s experience.”

There are sixty-six poems packed into Gresswell’s explosive new production from Alec Newman’s The Knives Forks And Spoons Press and number 39 reflects the tone of authority which threads its way throughout the sequence:

“where plagued soldiers ovulate & sing-song
abashed among weeds infamy
to tell stranger stories inherited
dust books dishevelled plumage frightening
new regulars distance overhanging vowels
thumb & forefinger trace elopements
a trigger-happy resolution bursts out
ripples circumnavigate
stars squashed into night dust
hunted tinsel sounds a tiny
belonging questions
where this arrow fell
quivering into your habit
fresh on the ground
a flower-study of you grew chased away bitter dregs
a woman’s flesh betrayed”

Writing about Prynne, Jon Clay had asserted that the sense of authority in Weasels “is the result of an aesthetic force that is not so much accessible as undeniable”. This is authority which avoids “truth faithfully represented” but which asserts its importance in the world “forcefully claiming its own absolute”. In Gresswell’s poem the focus upon “trigger-happy” is presented visually with “thumb & forefinger” and the violence connecting shooting with sexual activity is merged as the world of soldiers and ovulation moves inexorably forward to an arrow’s destination which finds itself quivering in the dress of an innocent “fresh on the ground”. This “sing-song” recitation of “stranger stories” concludes with “a woman’s flesh betrayed”.
In the 2003 book What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari asserted that Art did not have opinions:

“Art undoes the triple organization of perceptions, affections, and opinions in order to substitute a monument composed of percepts, affects, and blocks of sensations that take the place of language. The writer uses words, but by creating a syntax that makes them pass into sensation that makes the standard language stammer, tremble, cry, or even sing: this is the style, the tone, the language of sensations, or the foreign language within language that summons forth a people yet to come…The writer twists language, makes it vibrate, seizes hold of it, and rends it in order to wrest the percept from perceptions, the affect from affections, the sensation from opinion – in view, one hopes, of that still-missing people.”

Jon Clay referred to Prynne’s 1994 sequence in terms of its doing something aesthetically that was very powerful and recognised the significance of that aesthetic force. One little element of that aesthetic web in the Prynne sequence is the titles given to individual poems echoing those in the sequence by Ben Jonson, ‘A Celebration of CHARIS in ten Lyrick Peeces’. Jonson’s sequence of ten poems opened with ‘His Excuse for loving’, ‘How he saw her’ and ‘What hee suffered’. Prynne’s Weasels, a sequence in seven pieces, opens with ‘The Stony Heart of Her’, ‘What She Saw There’ and ‘Then So Much She Did’. Similarly in Clive Gresswell’s poem number 40 there is a sly echo perhaps of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Chalk Cross’ from Poems of The First Years of Exile. Gresswell’s world of violence and betrayal is anger spat from “scabbard” and “trapeze” that becomes “footprints meshed / in circular / nazi regalia”. This is a world in which “faces implode / meld into re-workings” and “tears of silent mothers / draw flesh/ flattering thorn”. It concludes with un trahison de putain:

“walk into my path
turn away
i mark your back
a huge red cross in lipstick”

In Brecht’s poem from those early years of Nazi betrayals a maidservant has an affair with a man from the SA who shows her how they go about catching grumblers:

“With a stump of chalk from his tunic pocket
He drew a small cross on the palm of his hand.
He told me, with that and in civvies
He’d go to the labour exchanges
Where the unemployed queue up and curse
And would curse with the rest and doing so
As a token of his approval and solidarity
Would pat anyone who cursed on the shoulder-blade,
Whereupon the marked man
White cross on his back, would be caught by the SA.”

Clive Gresswell’s first collection of poems concludes with a reference to “offshore companies” and “distinguished crowns”. In the aftermath of Grenfell Tower and housing shortages his is a voice not to be ignored. He may give the last line as

“a jester turns his back on the world”

but we would be short-sighted if we forgot the role of the “all-licensed fool”.

Ian Brinton, 7th August 2017

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

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