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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

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Fifty Six: a poem sequence Carol Watts & George Szirtes (Arc Publications)

Fifty Six: a poem sequence Carol Watts & George Szirtes (Arc Publications)

The author’s note at the beginning of this wonderful adventure into a world of language and imagination weaves its charm:

‘Collaboration at its best is a magical form of encounter, a curious listening and discovery.’

This statement immediately recalled to my mind one made by Octavio Paz at the opening of his collaborative work with Charles Tomlinson published in 1981 as Airborn / Hijos Del Aire:

‘Since its origin poetry has been the art of joining together the echoes of words: chains of air, impalpable but unbreakable’.

Tomlinson’s account of the collaboration gave a precise point of origin:

‘These collaborative poems were the result of a meeting, early one summer in Gloucestershire, when, out of the many words we had thought and spoken, we chose “house” and “day” as the words for a future postal meditation in sonnet form. “House” arose because the stone cottage in which Octavio Paz and his wife were our guests was a place we all felt affection for, and also because at that time the Pazes had no settled house of their own. “Day” was our last day together, when the sky took on a Constable-like activity, the breeze moving clouds swiftly through the blue and involving the landscape in a rapid succession of changes. I think time was at the back of all our minds, and that “day” (time passing) thus came into a natural relationship with “house” (time measured by place).’

The echoing music of language in these recently published 56 poems by George Szirtes and Carol Watts is there from the outset: ‘words are outflung birds’ soon calls up a response of ‘wings, winds, blinds, pinks, mornings…’. As the growth of the sequence focuses on ‘coming in to speech’ and a ‘complicity with / what is out of reach & nonetheless a naming’ so it prompts an echoing call of ‘All else is translation’. The ‘Dead skin’ of language moves and stays still:

‘…out of the core
into its own marginalia, its reimagining
into the perpetual hover between desire
and its objects, into its own remaining’.

The poets tell us of an exchange which became much more than ‘a collaborative game for both of us’. In the process of a chant from one to the other, ‘speaking-singing’, other voices rise: ‘Chaucer surfaced, a whaling song, fragments of overheard conversation, the thickness of paint’. As the sequence glides forward

‘We became involved less in the mechanism, more in the rich ground that kept opening. The exchange is littered with fractures and hints, with associations that leap off in both linguistic and narrative directions.’

This litter, (‘Loved Litter of Time Spent’ as Andrew Crozier would have put it), contains tiny echoes of the song of the Rhine-daughters (‘la la’), of Pound’s Pisan Cantos with its rain-space and those small cries ‘you hear in the far distance / settling in the gaps’. The first poem consists of 28 lines and its responding poem has 27; the movement forward is decisive as a tide. Poem 28 has one line only ‘You took the words out of my mouth’ and the following poem endorses this point of change by simply saying ‘But the struggle to begin, neap tongue’. And with that the movement flows forward again page by page as ‘The tide that sweeps in draws back’. As we arrive at 27 lines (poem 55)

‘…Skin takes over the task
of telling, its folds & scrimping.’

The 28 lines of the 56th poem gives us a final literary echo of Auden’s ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ and the sequence concludes with

‘…It’s late
and the wind is caught in the mouth of the clock.
Bare branches. Clarities. The clear cold night.’

Having opened this short review with an eye cast back to the 1980s I will close it by referring to another collaboration between poets of distinction. In 2011 Shearsman Books published The Pistol Tree Poems of Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh. At the time Nathan Thompson wrote that this collaboration was ‘wide-ranging’ and ‘deceptively deep-thinking’ and that the poetry was ‘disguised as imaginative twitches at the mind’s eye-corners’. These glimpses of presence and loss prompted Marsh to write from Varzi in April 2010, a few days after the death of his partner Emanuela:

‘tiles of
primary brightness
cast in
muntin shadow
a tattered map
fallen
at my feet
whenever
we were lost
we held
each other’s breath’

His contribution closes with a single line taken from Emanuela’s prints, ‘& swap love for light’.
In Fifty-Six the concluding poem by Carol Watts leaves us ‘In light, / the action of. Continual beginning.’ This collaboration which is in front of us now is poetry of a very serious order; once read you will return to it time and time again.

Ian Brinton 11th August 2016

STANZE by Simon Marsh (Oystercatcher Press)

STANZE by Simon Marsh (Oystercatcher Press)

In an interview with Jane Davies, published by Shearsman in Talk about Poetry (2007), Peter Robinson focused upon one of the most damaging aspects of poetry-writing since the world of The Movement. The interviewer made a short and clear point when in suggesting that Robinson’s poems ‘seem to address lived experience in recognizable forms of human expression’ to which the reply came:

‘You’ve put your finger on something that absolutely baffles me about the contemporary poetry scene. I thought this was what poetry did or does, and it often doesn’t seem to, strangely enough, because most poetry now isn’t much like this’

Robinson went on to quote the Italian poet Franco Fortini who had addressed him at a Cambridge poetry festival with the disarming question ‘Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?’ It is as though being scared to be seen as serious we have to adopt layers of thick-skinned irony.

When I read Simon Marsh’s sixteen sonnets, each placed in its own stanza, its little room of memory, clouds lifted: here was a deeply moving poetry of lyricism and grace. Shafts of light break through cloud as memories and hopes surface in such a manner as to remind us of a world of love that has been central to poetry since the earliest writing. This is an uplifting and wonderful book!

In a short essay about the poetry of Peter Hughes (‘Pulling on the Feathered Leggings’) Simon Marsh quoted Gene Tanta saying that ‘writers who use language as a fluid artefact of the commons help to dislodge static notions of selves’. He also referred to Peter Hughes’s ‘attentive crafting’ and ‘uncommonly complete freeing up of the powers of observation.’ This precision, an awareness of the moment, filters its light through the joint volume Hughes and Marsh did for Shearsman five years ago, The Pistol Tree Poems. The last section of that remarkable book was written the year before publication and after the death of Simon Marsh’s partner Manuela Selvatico to whose memory these Oystercatcher STANZE are dedicated. In number 86 of The Pistol Tree Poems we read

‘tiles of
primary brightness
cast in
muntin shadow
a tattered map
fallen
at my feet
whenever
we were lost
we held
each other’s breath’

That ‘tattered map’, with its seventeenth-century sense inherited from Donne, is a future fractured and in number 102 we are confronted with an Odyssean figure ‘tied to the mast’ who may ‘settle back alone’ but whose awareness of life is so strong that ‘kelp shadow stuns the air’. The muntin strips which divide up a pane of glass provide a frame, a structure, within which the glass can remain as filter for the light of prospects now dissolved. A map may be tattered but as with Donne’s experience on the shortest day of the year the poet can be ‘re-begot /Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.’ This sense of presence within absence is hauntingly caught on the cover of this compelling Oystercatcher: lines which could be empty musical staves, horizons, skylines are also the strings of a guitar which is there poised to play again. And so in the third of these little rooms, fourteen-lined STANZE, we hear a voice

‘you gave me back the poetry
the will to breathe in tunes
unravelled the strings of years
& tied light bows to my tail’

The escaping from past imprisonment, the unravelling of those netting strings woven by the years, brings to my mind Charles Olson’s urgent plea in his poem ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’, ‘disentangle the nets of being’. The opposite of the entanglement is graceful movement as a kite lifts in the air and streams its ‘light bows’ out behind it.
Serious Art allows the fleeting a place to rest; it also looks far forward as well as back; it is movement which does not just atrophy:

‘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’

Dante’s ‘lucerna del mondo’ is of such brightness and human reality is not easily put aside. As Simon Marsh puts it ‘sentiment as fluid / can cross oceans due to light’. This is not ending a poem with ‘a little laugh’; it is coming to terms with the individual ache of loss and the common grounds of human thought which we share.

I don’t think that I can make it much clearer: GET A COPY OF THIS BOOK NOW. Copies are available from Peter Hughes at Oystercatcher Press, 4 Coastguard Cottages, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk PE36 6EL.

Ian Brinton 7th March 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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