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Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

In these days when surrealism has become a staple of breakfast cereal adverts, it’s hard imagining the original impact of, say, Paul Éluard’s ‘la terre est bleue comme une orange’ (the earth is blue like an orange), or Robert Desnos’ ‘je suis le bûcheron de la forêt d’acier’ (I am the woodcutter in the steel forest). Vicente Huidobro never signed up officially to the programme, a mishap that’s led to his absence from most surrealist anthologies then and now, but this bilingual volume brings together two small collections from the mid-twenties, the period when he was most influenced by them. 

Reading this kind of work from a century’s distance takes some getting used to. The stuff about capital-W Woman can feel embarrassingly archaic, and the love-poems evince a paramour too scatterbrained to generate any intensity, let alone be reciprocated. Those about the seasons, the sky and nature manage better, refreshing these ultra-traditional subjects through their sheer oddity. The ocean, shipwreck and drowning feature heavily, not only as Symbolist allusions, but also perhaps because, as a Chilean in Paris, Huidobro must have spent quite a while on the Atlantic. There are openings rich in promise

Je possède la clef de l’Automne   (I possess the key to Autumn)

Maintenant écoutez le grincement des paupières   (Now listen to the eyelids creaking)

Parmi les grands figues de l’espace   (Among the great figs of space)

albeit they’re quickly overwhelmed by whimsy. Structure is, naturally, one of the things being kicked against, but there’s the perennial problem of how else the readers are to be kept engaged. Perhaps, like the compliant beloved, they have to think, Well, at least the writer’s having a good time. And how artistic his dreams are!

One interesting feature is that while most avant-garde poetry of the time embraced vers libre, these frequently use rhymes. Some are of the coeur/fleur type that is the French equivalent of breeze/trees or moon/June. But others exploit less common rhymes as a way to link unrelated lines or, as here, to tease with a sonic false-reasoning:

Le Printemps est relative comme l’arc-en-ciel

Il pourrait aussi bien être une ombrelle

(Spring is relative like the rainbow/ It might as well be a parasol)

The book also includes Huidobro’s Spanish versions, which give a glimpse into his ongoing editing:

Dans tes cheveux il y a une musique

(In your hair there’s a kind of music)

becomes

Hay una música silvestre 

En tus cabellos leves

(There’s a wild music/ in your light hair)

where the supplementary adjectives suggest a poet not yet quite certain of his effects. 

All that said, there’s a certain charm here. It might be the sheer insouciance, the sheer eccentricity, or the fresh resonance for our times of lines like le ciel est gratuit’ (the sky is free of charge). In whatever case, it’s definitely helped by a marvellously self-effacing translation which chooses the clearest word rather than showing off the translator’s verbal agility, doesn’t move lines about, and doesn’t privilege rhyme over other poetic effects, as often happens. It’s also unafraid of leaving a nonsense line as nonsense rather than killing by interpretation, a particular danger with this kind of poetry. The book’s appearance finally extends access to Huidobro’s less famous work beyond completists and specialists, which is surely a good thing. 

Guy Russell 21st October 2020

Manifestos by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

Manifestos by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

The 1910s and 1920s were the Golden Age of artistic manifestos. Surrealists, Suprematists, Ultraists, Unanimists, Vorticists, Dadaists, Futurists: you gathered a group, you selected a name, you started a magazine, you adopted a café or established a salon, and you published a manifesto. Or in many cases, numerous manifestos as you refined your aesthetics and politics, and responded to critics. The manifesto was a recruitment prospectus and a marketing tool. It was also a kind of genre in its own right, where, as a poet, you could show off your aptitude for startling collocation or paradox and display your commitment to daring and modernity.
Chilean poet Huidobro had already produced an Ars Poetica before his arrival in Paris in 1916:

Por qué cantáis a la rosa, ¡oh, Poetas!
Hacedla florecer en el poema:
(Why sing about the rose, poets? Make it bloom in the poem.)

Another fronts his Saisons Choisies in 1921 (he wrote in both French and Spanish). This book, four years later, is a refining and responding one. It surveys the opposition. Cocteau is worthless. Soupault ‘must be excommunicated’. Futurism is simply out-of-date: singing about war and athletes is older than Pindar, and singing about aeroplanes doesn’t make you futuristic if you do it in old-fashioned ways. Surrealism’s advocacy of automatic writing, madness and dreams makes for poor poetry and besides, jettisoning reason is impossible. On the other hand, Huidobro shares the Surrealist opposition to realism, and approves much of the poetry quoted in André Breton’s 1924 manifesto. He largely agrees with them that successful imagery is about ‘the bringing together of two distant realities’, while claiming the idea is not new.

Clearly Huidobro’s Creationism is a cousin of Surrealism. Great poems arise from the poet’s délire (euphoria) and superconscience (superconsciousness). They involve l’inhabituel (the unfamiliar), ‘humanising things’ and making the abstract concrete and the concrete abstract. Nothing must be anecdotal or descriptive, but everything should be newly created, like l’oiseau niché sur l’arc-en-ciel (the bird nestled on the rainbow). Or horizon carré (square horizon). And, of course, such work can only be produced by les gens d’un esprit vraiment supérieur (people of a really superior mind), for le poète est un moteur de haute fréquence spirituelle (the poet is an engine of high spiritual frequency). This last, rather futurist, image is rhetorically dramatic but evidently unfalsifiable as argument. It illustrates a common weakness of manifestos, whose polemical cast often entails appeals to science and philosophy while betraying that their writers are experts in neither sphere.

Despite his upper-class super-confidence (or arrogance), Huidobro’s repetitive ‘I’s and insistent name-dropping (Apollinaire, Picasso, Gris) expose a certain plaintiveness. No-one’s paying enough attention. He’s obliged to be his own critic, quoting, explaining and praising his own poems. Creationism ultimately became an art-historical also-ran and Huidobro returned to Latin America. Nowadays he’s well-known there but often overlooked in Anglophone surveys of the modernist ferment, so it’s great to see his works reappearing. This one is in a useful parallel-text edition with a contextualising introduction and makes for a fascinating read.

Guy Russell 12th August 2020

In Folly’s Shade by John Welch (Shearsman Books)

In Folly’s Shade by John Welch (Shearsman Books)

Tony Frazer’s opening comment on the back cover of this new collection of poems by John Welch raises a central point that is immediately felt when one opens this new volume:

“…there is throughout the book a recurring preoccupation with the ambiguities involved in the business of being a poet and above all the sheer oddness of us as a species inveigled into language and unable to get out of it.”

The opening poem is titled ‘Carpenter Build Me a House’ and it confronts the reader immediately with the difficulties of writing:

“As if in translation eating the bread of existence
In here is a creaking voice, turning the handle
And it does so happen sometimes just before sleep
With that slight awkwardness of language
When it takes you to another voice
As if inhabiting a seizure.”

That difficulty felt by the poet who wishes to communicate a thought but who is also constrained by the language in which the thought can be communicated is there in the “creaking” of a wheel which needs to be moved into smooth action by use. As the handle is turned the intrusive nature of self-doubt is set in motion: the “slight awkwardness” of language raises the question of words that have been used before. The poet translates and perhaps seizes the voice of another to bring his thoughts to the surface and is left wondering “Is it all done in imitation?” Each step the poet takes, word by word, or rock by rock as Gary Snyder might have said sixty years ago in ‘Riprap’, requires there to be “some purchase” and the pun on the word combines not only that acquisition from the language of others but also the firmness that permits one to move tentatively forward. In the second poem of this collection, ‘A Provision’ we are privy to the poet’s isolation:

“Sitting in an upstairs room he is trying to arrive some-
where, making his own silence on behalf of something he
can almost remember. In those odd corners of being where
still he waits for himself, a fountain playing in the desert. He
watches the water fade, dissembling, into the ground.

‘The words’, he said ‘were to gain me a purchase on it,
their empty grip on the page like a bird’s claws’ – and how
neat the whole thing’s workings, like the insides of an old-
fashioned watch.”

Samuel Beckett confronted the difficulties of artistic expression when he was in conversation with Georges Duthuit:

“The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

Duthuit relied that this was “a violently extreme and personal point of view” to which Beckett did not reply. The rest as it were is silence. Except of course that it isn’t and that Beckett knew well when he came to write Worstward Ho:

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

John Welch recognizes the profound truth of what Beckett was saying and the humanity, care and civilized concern for the need of the artist to express himself can be felt throughout these pages of In Folly’s Shade. He recognizes that “The paper was an invitation” even though the “book I take with me…is everywhere unread”. In the poem ‘Translated’ he is “a man with his words stranded hallway over a bridge” but as ‘A Provision’ provides

“Over to here is where it now comes, nearer by far, a
language, something that empties itself full. In the end
there are only the words to smooth the thing.”

This is a very important volume of poems and as the everyday devaluing of words seems to be confronting us we would do wisely to take heed of that cautious and careful voice of concern: I trust the voice in these poems.

Ian Brinton, 28th October 2018

Jon Thompson’s Landscape with Light (Shearsman Books)

Jon Thompson’s Landscape with Light (Shearsman Books)

This is a remarkable collection of poems and I recommend all our readers to order a copy immediately from Tony Frazer in the hope that it may arrive for the New Year. In moments of Spicerian click and snap the word happens and a reader ‘would not choose to blink and go blind /After the instant’. The camera’s focus is on landscapes of mood, cinematic realisations, and the results are some of the most rewarding and accurate film criticism I have read.
‘Fragment of an Unpublished Memoir by a Cinematographer’s Assistant’ gives us a glimpse of that landscape of the Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 film of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country For Old Men:

“…the riches of the world receding.
The desert was a landscape of mutability in a world of
immutability…”

Those receding riches do not merely refer to chance wealth acquired by a man who stumbles upon a drug exchange gone wrong but also include that throaty voice-over of the sheriff talking about ‘past-times’ and comparisons with the ‘oldtimers’. Within the eleven lines of the poem we hear that same nostalgic quietness in ‘I remember’ and ‘Mostly, I remember / the wide-open emptiness’.

With a similar sense of acute observation incorporating comment the Coen’s Fargo is presented to us initially as ‘Desire’:

In the flat uninhabited spaces, snow falls from an empty
sky. Here and there, the bare branches of an oak are
black against the steadily-falling flakes.

This blanketing of snow ‘accumulates like / loneliness’ with one snowfall ‘covering the last one, layering into / snowdrifts that become the landscape’. The plaintive musical score by Carter Burwell echoes behind Thompson’s lines as we recognise that everyone is ‘forced to forge new paths of exile through an unknown land.’

Walter Hill’s 1979 film of The Warriors is caught by the poet as we glimpse the ‘wheel purple against / the nothingness / behind it’ and yet feel the ‘awful urgency’ of that pace as the gangs of the city converge upon Pelham Bay Park.

Martin Scorsese’s Travis Bickle is the taxi-driver from the 1976 film whose monotony can be heard behind the lines

The days go on & on.
Night goes on & on.

Red neon signs
shimmer on wet streets.

Nightmare and surreal fantasy merge with the urban glare as you look in the film’s closing scene to see ‘your face with someone else’s eyes / in the mirror’.

As a last example of this tour-de-force of language moving at the speed of film we confront a whiteness different from that of the opening sequence of Fargo: a whiteness which is the ‘administration of days / which / will not suffer a whit of deviation / or allow more than a rectangle of sky’. This is the medication-time horror of Big Nurse’s ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

When I first started reading this book of poems I kept thinking of another book which hovered on the edge of my mind, just out of reach of both hand and eye. I now remember it: Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy with its starkly evocative landscape acting as a backdrop to ‘The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan’:

An image of the desert wilds of Arizona, first and foremost, an image of the desert wilds of Arizona and New Mexico—a country famous for its silver and gold camps, a country of breathtaking open spaces, a country of monumental mesas and soft colours, a country of bleached skeletons picked clean by buzzards.

Ian Brinton 20th December 2014

Gael Turnbull on Poets & Poetry

Gael Turnbull on Poets & Poetry

This new publication from Shearsman is a long overdue collection of reviews, essays, memoirs and journal pieces by Gael Turnbull, a figure who is central to the world of 1960s Anglo-American poetry.

There is a section on Basil Bunting which includes an account of how Turnbull helped to bring about a meeting between Bunting and Peggy (she of ‘Fifty years a letter unanswered; / a visit postponed for fifty years’) as well as his own account of his visit to the poet of Wylam in the Winter of 1965.

There are essays/articles on Carlos Williams, Corman, Robert Duncan, Ginsberg, Burroughs and an excellent short piece on the publication of the Stuttgart edition of Olson’s Maximus Poems 1-10. Charles Tomlinson obtained his copies of the two Jonathan Williams volumes from Gael Turnbull as he records in his autobiographical sketches reprinted by Carcanet as American Essays: Making It New.

There is a section on British poets which includes essential work on Roy Fisher whose major poem, City, was first published by Turnbull’s Migrant Press in May 1961.

To register the Anglo-American connection within Turnbull’s work it is worth looking at issue 8, the last of his Migrant journals. It contains work by Edwin Morgan, Charles Olson, Anselm Hollo, Michael Shayer, Larry Eigner, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Roy Fisher.

As Jill Turnbull makes clear in her introductory comments Tony Frazer is responsible for the footnotes in the volume and they are absolutely spot on: unobtrusive but highly informative.

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