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Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

When I reviewed Will Stone’s translation of Stefan Zweig’s Messages from a Lost World for The London Magazine (October/November 2016) I stressed the “clarity and insight” of his introduction. The substantial twelve page introduction to this attractively produced bi-lingual edition of Rodenbach’s selected poems is a clear reminder yet again of how the translator and literary critic/historian treads a path to the reader: Stone brings the world of Rodenbach’s eerie white shades to the fore and we can recognise the ways in which Baudelaire, Rilke and even the early Eliot can be seen within an urban landscape.
The introduction opens with the picture of a man, “half-framed by an open window” standing in front of a background which seems to be of Bruges:

“He is a spectral figure drifting across the canal’s greenish-black waters, his dark jacket blending naturally with its opaque surface, suggesting an area of confusion where dream and reality converge.”

Rodenbach’s treatment of Bruges, the Venice of the North, presents us with a supernatural landscape; a world where, as Will Stone puts it, “what is seemingly dead speaks, where the worn-away stone, even the grass and moss growing up through the cobblestones, have a voice detected only by those who are endowed with the sensibility to receive the true soul of the town”:

“It is this treatment of Bruges as a poetic vehicle for a mood, one of supreme melancholy, which forms the backbone of not only these poems but Rodenbach’s entire oeuvre.”

The melancholy atmosphere of the town and the haunted sense of the poet trapped within a chain of noises is vividly there for the reader from the very first poem chosen by the translator, ‘Dimanches/Sundays’. The “Mournful Sunday afternoons in winter” are made more vivid as “some inconsolable weather cock creaks / alone on a roof-top like a bird of iron!”. As if to emphasise the living death of this world where a long-gone Medieval history seeks refuge within the “vieux hôtels” and lanterns seem “to burn for the cortege of some deity”, the sudden clashing of bells intrudes to offer a complement to a funeral:

“And now of a sudden the restless bells
disturb the belfry planted in its pride,
and their sound, heavy with bronze, slowly falls
on the coffin of the town as if in spadefuls.”

As readers we are inevitably reminded of those bells of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ which “tout à coup sautent avec furie” bringing with them not only the “esprits errants et sans patrie” but also the funeral cortege which files its way slowly through the poet’s mind.
There are four poems from the 1896 publication Les Vies Encloses (The Enclosed Lives) included in this selection and two of them, ‘Aquarium Mental / Mental Aquarium’ are particularly striking to my mind.

“Aquarium water, drear night, half-light,
where thought passes in brief appearances
like shadows of a great tree over a wall.”

Or again:

“Yet in the water, from time to time, something strays,
circles, opens out or obliquely shifts;
luminous shivers tense this water that drifts
– like spasms of light from a diamond! –
a murky fish undulates, a weed in mourning stirs,
the soft sand scree of the bed collapses as if
sand in time’s hourglass upended;
and sometimes too, on the transfixed crystal,
a flaccid monster, blurred image, shows on the surface,
while the water suffers, seeming to drowse,
and senses, in her morose lethargy, a thousand shadows
giving her ceaseless shivers as they pass
making her surface one great spreading wound.”

Without suggesting for one moment that there is a direct influence here I am drawn from this poetry to the ‘afterword’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote for his edition of Parataxis Number 7, Spring 1995, in which he introduced the reader to the Chinese Language-Poetry Group that had been based at Suzhou University in the summer of 1991:

“Within the great aquarium of language the light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations nor previously observed. Some of the codes will unfold with merely adept connivance, others will swim vigorously into and by circulation inside their own medium.”

These thoughts may well have developed from a letter Prynne wrote in April 1992 to one of the Chinese poets represented in the Parataxis anthology, Zhou Ya-Ping:

“Language is an instrument of symbolic performance and representation that also has no independently direct connection to ‘a real world’: it belongs to men and to their sense of the possible just as much as of the actual…If the level and method of representation are shifted strongly into the language-world it may seem like fantasy; but it is a way of thinking about potential experience, liberating the mind from clumsy and doctrinaire ‘realism’ while keeping a complex connection with its components.”

In Rodenbach’s aquarium world “underwater dreams are ceaselessly voyaging” leading to an unending “buried life”.
Yet again Arc Publications, in this guest-edited volume by Olivia Hanks, has revealed itself to be one of the most important poetry presses working in this country. Long may it continue!

Ian Brinton, 8th May 2017

The Sleepwalkers by Will Stone (Shearsman Books)

The Sleepwalkers by Will Stone (Shearsman Books)

The detail of Medieval stained glass from Long Melford Church in Suffolk is disturbingly appropriate as I stare at what reminds me of John Webster’s famous lines concerning ‘A dead man’s skull beneath the roots of flowers’ from The White Devil. The stained glass head is more likely to be female but the principle remains: beneath the surface of humanity there is death. Or, as Zoe Brigley puts it on the back of this striking new collection of poems, ‘Bleak and beautiful, the poems elegize and bear witness, lamenting the emptiness at the heart of Western society.’
The sense of inevitability about man’s turning his back upon the light in order to indulge himself in darkness is there in the epigraph Will Stone uses for the second section of these poems:

‘Posterity will not be able to understand that we had to fall back into the same darkness after having known the light…’

The second poem in the section focuses upon a photograph in the ‘Karl Höcker Album’ which is owned by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. As Stone’s low-key and essential notes tell us: ‘This remarkable album of 116 photographs, discovered in 2006, had belonged to Höcker’, an SS officer at the camp. Whilst the photograph reveals a gathering of the important officers taking a well-earned break from duty at a rural retreat named Solahütte the poem also ‘refers to other images, notably one showing a line of young female SS auxiliary staff, known as Helferinnen, perched on a rustic balcony gleefully tucking into bowls of blueberries’:

‘Karl Höcker himself presides over the fun, egging the girls on for the camera. The second image shows them holding their bowls upside down with mock sadness; now all the delicious blueberries are gone. Meanwhile, thirty kilometres away, thousands of human beings are being gassed, shot, or, when numbers of arrivals exceed capacity, thrown alive into firepits. Höcker faced justice after the war, but denied any wrongdoing, even though witnesses testified to his presence on the ramp during Selections. He made the following statement in court: “I only learned about the events in Birkenau…in the course of the time I was there…and I had nothing to do with that. I had no ability to influence these events in any way…neither did I want them, not carry them out. I didn’t hurt anybody…and neither did anyone die at Auschwitz because of me.”’

The poem is powerful in the way it captures what Auden was to refer to as the great artists never being wrong about understanding how human suffering takes place ‘While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’ (‘Musée des Beaux Arts’). In Will Stone’s vivid recreation of horror

‘Giggling typists and telephonists
look flirtatiously on from a sunny glade.
Some whistle, some wave, they are
just doing what comes naturally,
for they are young people with dreams
riding their float through the carnival,
lips stained with the blood
of blueberries.’

What gives this image such power is the combination of the word ‘giggling’, a slightly uncontrollable form of laughter associated with childishness, with an awareness of the position they are adopting ‘flirtatiously’. The ordinariness of the scene is captured with a Larkinesque matter-of-fact quality since, after all, they are ‘just doing what comes naturally’. And there’s the rub! As the reader places these lines next to those carefully chosen words of Stone’s notes there is a deeply disturbing jolt. Ah yes, gassing people, shooting them, throwing them into fire-pits, ‘just doing what comes naturally’.
Equally powerful is the first poem in this second section of The Sleepwalkers, ‘Reading Reck’ written in memory of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen who was shot in Dachau in February 1945. Reck had met Hitler in 1920 and had noted that ‘There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic.’ Stone’s notes are again absolutely right in their precision and unfussiness. He quotes Reck, whose diary detailing life under a dictatorship was never unearthed by the Nazis, as describing a ‘feeling of oppression’ remaining after the young Hitler had preached at length:

‘It was not that an unclean body had been in the room, but something else: the unclean essence of a monstrosity.’

The poem focuses on Reck hiding his diary, like hiding his mind, ‘in the wood / glancing around him, a silhouette / with his hands in the earth, digging…’. We are given a picture of Reck ‘who found a fawn torn by a dog’ and who ‘cradled it as it died’ with, according to the diary, ‘tears in its eyes’. Walt Disney had released his film about a deer and loss / tears, Bambi, in 1942 and yet you will have to work out for yourselves whether the tears of sentimentality hinted at in Will Stone’s poem cast a glance at that world or the world of the later tears shed by a survivor from William Golding’s post-war landscape:

‘Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy’

In these wise and disturbing poems Will Stone compels us to stare unflinchingly at the skull beneath the skin.
I shall be reviewing Stone’s translation of Stefan Zweig’s Messages from a Lost World (Pushkin Press) for The London Magazine.

Ian Brinton 1st May 2016

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