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Cargo of Limbs by Martyn Crucefix Introduction by Choman Hardi & photographed by Amel Alzakout (Hercules Editions)

Cargo of Limbs by Martyn Crucefix  Introduction by Choman Hardi & photographed by Amel Alzakout (Hercules Editions)

As a continuation of my blog about the translations of Peter Huchel’s poetry I want now to draw attention to a very different piece of translation work by Martyn Crucefix as he transports lines from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid in order to draw together associations between the Trojan hero’s journey to the land of the Dead and the plight of refugees seeking escape from war-torn countries such as Syria.
In the Afterword Crucefix tells of listening on his headphones to Ian McKellen’s reading from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI and says

‘The timing is crucial. I’m listening to these powerful words in March 2016 and, rather than the banks of the Acheron and the spirits of the dead, they conjure up the distant Mediterranean coastline I’m seeing every day on my TV screen: desperate people fleeing their war-torn countries.’

Crucefix then goes on to bring our focus to bear upon the drowned corpse of Alan Kurdi found on a beach near Bodrum, Turkey:

‘In the summer of 2015, this three-year old Syrian boy of Kurdish origins and his family had fled the war engulfing Syria. They hoped to join relatives in the safety of Canada and were part of the historic movement of refugees from the Middle East to Europe at that time. In the early hours of September 2nd, the family crowded onto a small inflatable boat on a Turkish beach. After only a few minutes, the dinghy capsized. Alan, his older brother, Ghalib, and his mother, Rihanna, were all drowned. They joined more than 3,600 other refugees who died in the eastern Mediterranean that year.’

As the train sped across the southern counties and the fields of England ‘swept past’ Crucefix found that ‘Virgil’s poem continued to evoke the journeys of refugees such as the Kurdi family’.

In Book VI of Aeneid Virgil pleads with the Gods to lend him strength so that he can report back what he witnesses and this in turn is what leads Crucefix to use the narrative voice of a witnessing photojournalist in Cargo of Limbs. The narrator tries to bring into perspective a sense of ‘the blue-black seethe / of the Mediterranean / the longed-for the far-off / those sun-lit harbours / beyond risky nights / a body washed to the beach –’ In Martyn Crucefix’s lines Charon, the boatman ferrying the souls of the dead, is seen as a people smuggler

‘standing rich in rags
right hand out-stretched
for help as well as coin
the shadows of a beard
on his chin have not seen
a blunt razor in days’

The words ‘rich in rags’ seem to offer an image of one of the perks traditionally associated with a public executioner: the acquisition of artefacts belonging to those who are about to lose their lives. The refugees clamour to be taken aboard as they ‘plead and proffer / what little they possess’ and ‘grab his hand’ as though to seek support from the concerned ferryman. With a seeming concern for the safety of his cargo this Charon assists his passengers as they enter into the ‘dinghy’s wet mouth / the oil-stinking holds’

‘where shuttered waters
pool and the need to bale

this blue-black water
slapping on all sides
slaps across the way ahead’

In his deeply moving and disturbing account of such a present-day reality Crucefix is aware that he may run a risk of that tension between a focus upon suffering and its exploitation. He tells us of Christopher Büchel’s ‘rusty hull of a fishing boat’ that ‘was installed’ at the Venice Biennale in June 2019:

‘The vessel had foundered off the Italian island of Lampedusa in April 2015 with 700 refugees aboard. Only 28 survived. When the Italian authorities recovered the vessel in 2016 there were 300 bodies trapped inside. Büchel called his work Barca Nostra (Our Boat) and there is little doubting his (and the Biennale’s) good intentions to raise public awareness of the plight of refugees.’

Commenting upon Büchel’s work an article in The Observer suggested that the exhibition diminished, even exploited, the suffering of those who died ‘losing any sense of political denunciation, transforming it into a piece [of art] in which provocation prevails over the goal of sensitising the viewer’s mind.’ As a response to this it might be of some purpose to think carefully of the role of the translator and in his introduction to David Hadbawnik’s Aeneid Books I-VI (Shearsman Books, 2015, reviewed on this blog soon after it came out) Chris Piuma referred to translation as ‘a carrying across, from one language to another, from one culture to another, from one time and place to another.’ Translation is itself a crossing of borders, a transforming of what is there to be registered. Piuma went on to suggest that other cultures use other metaphors to talk about translation, such as ‘turning’ and he introduced Hadbawnik’s work in these terms:

‘There are enough other translations of this poem for the nervous. There is something in the original text that can only be reached by turning it. Turn the syntax of a phrase, turn the layout of a line, turn up or down the register of a speech. Turn some scenes into images…and let the reader turn to the image, to rest and reconsider.’

In Hadbawnik’s version the crowding of those refugees seeking a place on Charon’s boat is seen ‘like foliage swept up in the autumn wind’ or ‘sea birds flocking the land in winter chill.’ In Dryden’s version from 1697 the lines were brought across the border from Latin to English in a way that is still echoed in our more modern versions:

‘Thick as the Leaves in Autumn strow the Woods:
Or Fowls, by Winter forc’d, forsake the Floods,
And wing their hasty flight to happier Lands:
Such, and so thick, the shiv’ring Army stands:
And press for passage with extended hands.’

In the deeply moving and angry tones of Martyn Crucefix’s Cargo of Limbs he can raise a camera to carry us, as readers, across a border into a world of which we should be aware.

Ian Brinton 24th March 2020

Virgil, Aeneid Books I-VI Translated by David Hadbawnik Illustrations by Carrie Kaser Shearsman Books

Virgil, Aeneid Books I-VI Translated by David Hadbawnik Illustrations by Carrie Kaser Shearsman Books

When Christopher Logue published his 20 Poems based on Pablo Neruda’s Los Cantos d’Amores in 1958 he added a note at the end to say ‘these are not translations strictly speaking, but adaptations, and several of the poems are entirely new, although taking their theme from the original Neruda poem’. One year later Donald Carne-Ross suggested that Logue might contribute to a new version of Homer’s Iliad which he was about to commission for the B.B.C. When Jonathan Cape issued an edition of Logue’s Homeric work in 1981, titled War Music, the poet wrote an introduction which gave some background to the whole enterprise:

‘As the work progressed beyond its original limitation I paid less attention to my guides. Carne-Ross would provide me with a literal translation that retained the Greek word order; I would concoct a storyline based on its main incident; and then, knowing the gist of what this or that character said, would try to make their voices come alive and to keep the action on the move.’

Nine years before Logue’s work on Homer got going the magazine Poetry New York, A Magazine of Verse and Criticism, published a piece of prose, now become very famous indeed, which included the statement:

‘…get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen.’

It is surely no mere coincidence that the blurb on the back of this vibrant and page-turning Virgil should say ‘These translations are not only full of light, but also speed…’ (Joe Milutis, Jacket 2)

This book is terrific! Once start the adventure as ‘Clouds snatch sun from the sky’ and you will be hooked.

Example

As the serpents from Tenedos rear up to destroy Laocoön and his sons:

‘New horrors awaited us—Laocoön,
priest of Apollo, happened
to be leading a bull to the altar
when two snakes shot
from the sea (awful to think about)
half-in
half-out of the water, blood-red scales
rising ghastly above the waves
tails thrashing around in the foam.
There was a crash as they made land
eyes burning with blood and fire
hissing tongues hanging from open mouths—
we lit out at the sight of them.’

The dramatic juxtaposition of the leisurely manner in which the priest is preparing a bull for slaughter and the explosive ‘shot’; the past tense that becomes present participle, ‘rising’, ‘thrashing’, ‘hissing’; the merging of past and present in the panic to escape as ‘we lit out…’. This version of the well-known narrative comes rearing off the page.

The violence of the destruction of Troy is shocking in a visceral manner as the Trojans drag the wooden horse within the walls:

‘So we split the walls
and opened the city up wide….
Meanwhile the world turned and night
rushed in—covering with darkness
the tricks of the Greeks—and all through Troy
sleep took tired souls.’

Carrie Kaser’s illustration to this moment combines a haunting quality of movement with an eerie sense of farewell. It is quite typical of the 23 illustrations which appear at regular intervals throughout the text.
The Cantos of Ezra Pound provide a lurking presence behind Hadbawnik’s translation: ‘Canto IV’s ‘Palace in smoky light’ becomes ‘left Troy smoking in ruins’ and ‘Canto I’ is referred to more directly in the second section of Book III, ‘Wandering’, gives us ‘set keel to breakers / once more’.

This is the most lively piece of translation from Latin that I have come across in a long while and it certainly stands up well by comparison with Logue’s Greek epic.

Ian Brinton, 15th October 2015

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