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Rockabye by Patricia McCarthy (Worple Press)

Rockabye by Patricia McCarthy (Worple Press)

‘tapestries of sound’

The story of Philomela is of course known principally from Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and perhaps then is known widely from T.S. Eliot’s use of the tale in the second section of The Waste Land in which ‘Above the antique mantel was displayed / As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene / The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king / So rudely forced’. This remarkable new collection of poems from Patricia McCarthy is dedicated ‘For battered women, whoever and wherever they are’ and its ‘Prologue’ is titled ‘Writer’s Block’:

“Decade after decade the nib hung,
poised like a buzzard to attack the page,
but no word formed in longhand cursives.
Gagged, it seemed, by a tarred rope,
or caught in a stutter, without a tongue,
she was nervous of clearing the blockage.”

Towards the end of this multi-layered canvas of poems, they are by no means all dominated by a testimony to the resurrection of abuse, we discover ‘Philomela’:

“Was it so terrible what you underwent
that you could not recover your song
stolen by the male that did you wrong?”

The question here is of course to do with sound. When King Tereus tore out Philomela’s tongue so that she would be unable to tell of her ordeal at his hands she turns to tapestry: to sew her story in silence. The poet weaves a poem in a similar manner, word by word, revealing line by line those thoughts which would otherwise remain buried deep within us. Like a shark’s fin the printed words surge above the whiteness of the page to reveal to the reader a sense of what is lying and moving beneath the surface. The poem externalizes what is hidden:

“from the thicket where your shyness hides
your talent far surpasses what you hear,
yet stays day and night unappreciated inside?”

That opening ‘Writer’s Block’ uses an image of the pen that the poet may well have found in Arthur Golding’s late sixteenth-century translation of Ovid, a volume which was to so influence William Shakespeare:

“…..the cruell tyrant came
And with a paire of pinsons fast did catch hir by the tung
And with his sword did cut it off. The stumpe whereon it hung
Did patter still. The tip fell downe, and quivering on the ground
As though that it had murmured it made a certaine sound.”

In Patricia McCarthy’s poem the outrage done to Philomela has struggled to surface for years and the poet has been aware of that silence for far too long. The tapestry of sound which weaves its way throughout this book can be heard in the poem which echoes the title of the collection, ‘Rockabye grandfather’:

“Rockabye, rockabye, rockabye rock
I see you on Facebook cradling
a grandchild that could have been mine.

Such tenderness, care as you rockabye,
rockabye, rockabye rock.”

The rhythm of the child’s nursery rhyme which accompanies the shared delight of adult and baby, a feeling of security despite the well-known conclusion to the wind’s blowing of the rocking cradle, is thwarted. The harsh line ending of ‘rock’ brings a stony ending to what is offered initially as delight; “tenderness” and “care” are juxtaposed with that rhythmic inevitability that McCarthy has brought to the poem. This is a poem of the “broken bough” and the “baby that did fall”.
This sense of poetry rising out of the past, central to ‘Writer’s Block’, is placed alongside a quotation from Jung: “The sea is the favourite symbol for the unconscious, the mother of all that lives.” Language, like that shark’s fin piercing the waves, brings to the surface what has been long hidden. The poem ‘Childless Woman’ concludes that “Even if / you did / Shy away from hushabyes once, now you would not. / Too old to carnival into motherhood, poems are all you / can beget.” It is impossible for me to not recall that deeply moving poem by Ben Jonson ‘On my First Sonne’ who had died very young:

“Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye
BEN JONSON his best piece of poetrie.”

Ian Brinton 7th October 2018

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

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