Monday, 25 May 2015

Alun Lewis: 'Indian Day'




Birds over Gateway of India by Swaminathan. Used under Creative Commons license


INDIAN DAY (Alun Lewis)


I

Dawn's cold imperative compels
Bazaars and gutters to disturb
Famine's casual ugly tableaux.
Lazarus is lifted from the kerb.

The supple sweeper girl goes by
Brushing the dung of camels from the street
The daylight's silver bangles
Glitter on her naked feet.

II

Yellow ramtilla stiffens in the noon,
Jackals skulk among the screes,
In skinny fields the oxen shiver,
The gods have prophesied disease.

Hedges of spike and rubber, hedges of cactus,
Lawns of bougainvillea, jasmine, zinnia
Terraces of privilege and loathing,
The masterly shadows of a nightmare

Harden and grow lengthy in the drought.
The moneyed antipathetic faces
Converse in courts of pride and fountains
With ermined sleek injustices.
Gods and dacoits haunt the mountains.

III

The sun the thunder and the hunger grow
Extending stupidly the helds of pain
Ploughing the peasant under with his crop
Denying the great mercy of the rain

Denying what each flowering pear and lime
And every child and each embrace imply - 
The love that is imprisoned in each heart
By the famines and fortunes of the century.

IV

Night bibles India in her wilderness
The Frontier Mail screams blazing with such terror
The russet tribesman lays aside his flute
Rigid with Time's hypnotic surging error.

The kindness of the heart lies mute
Caught in the impotence of dreams
Yet all night long the boulders sing
The timeless songs of mountain streams.


In 2015, it is one hundred years since the birth of Alun Lewis, one of the Big Three of British World War II poetry along with Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes. Like Keith Douglas, Lewis died in 1944, while Sidney Keyes died in 1943. All were young, but at 28, Lewis lived the longest by a few years. I have written a little more about him here.

Out of the Lewis/Douglas/Keyes trio (none of whom knew each other, although Douglas and Keyes may have crossed paths), Douglas is - to me - by far the most contemporary. He wrote cold, cutting poetry which in most particulars could have been written in recent years. Lewis and Keyes were more in a backwards-looking Romantic tradition, although Keyes was so young when he died that I hesitate to say which direction he would ultimately have taken with his work.

'Indian Day' is taken from Lewis's collection Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, the title of which refers to the description of a war horse in the Biblical book of Job. It was published posthumously in 1945. Lewis was posted to India in 1942 and was deeply moved by the striking sights and violent poverty of the country. This was one of the poems which resulted.

'Indian Day' doesn't exactly escape cliches about the subcontinent, especially those that would have been implicated in the colonial gaze of the time. The view of the "supple sweeper girl" is a bit voyeuristic (without being particularly perceptive) and the conclusion that "love...is imprisoned in each heart" isn't that exciting. But this is still a hugely evocative poem with unforgettable lines - "The sun the thunder and the hunger grow" and "Night bibles India in her wilderness" (the latter made me think of another Welshman, Dylan Thomas, who a few years later wrote the words "starless and bible black" in his play Under Milk Wood. The seriousness of the black-covered Bibles seems to me very evocative of nonconformist Wales.)


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Mixed Borders (2): Visiting Red Cross Garden


I visited Red Cross Garden to properly start my poetry residency just over a week ago, on an evening when the weather was only somewhat less unpleasant than it is today. Fortunately, it cleared up for most of the time I spent visiting.

Mary O'Connell, who is the Volunteering and Education Facilitator at Bankside Open Spaces Trust (which administers this garden and other green spaces around the Bankside area), gave me a thorough and interesting tour, pointing out the botany of the garden, its features past and present, and some details about the restoration. Red Cross Garden was first laid out in 1887, and along with its cottages and community hall, it was part of Octavia Hill's social housing work. She believed strongly in the importance of decent housing, access to nature and exposure to culture for disadvantaged people. The cottages are still in use as social housing, and they are charming to look at. The community hall was used for concerts and poetry readings. After the garden fell into disrepair during World War II, it was restored by Bankside Open Spaces Trust in 2005-2006, with many of its original features such as the small bandstand and wildlife pond.

I took a number of photos, some of which you can see below. There are certainly a number of possible angles for poetry - history of the garden and the area, Octavia Hill herself, the work to restore the garden, the botany, and so on. I've written one poem so far, but it is under wraps for the moment. Suffice it to say that a fictional character who has played a major role in my life walked into the garden (as it appeared in my mind after visiting), and it made sense to write about him there as I could see him so clearly.

I'm off on holiday in a couple of days, for about a week, but I will certainly be visiting the garden again soon after that, and writing some more.







Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Mixed Borders (1): Poet In a Garden


Alhambra gardens, Granada, Spain. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd


I'm very pleased to say that I will be taking part in Mixed Borders, a collaboration between the Poetry School and the London Parks and Gardens Trust, where a number of the gardens taking part in the London Open Garden Squares weekend (13-14 June 2015) will be hosting poets-in-residence. You can read more about the scheme in this blog post from the Poetry School.

I've been assigned the Red Cross Garden in Southwark for my residency, which has a great depth of Victorian and social history, and just looks to be a lovely little garden in a fascinating area - I am about to go and visit it for the first time.

What will I actually be doing for my residency? Writing poetry, of course. Our opening workshop included some exercises which proved fruitful, and various inchoate garden-poem ideas are circling in my head already. I'd like to explore different angles, such as the history, the associated people (particularly the founder Octavia Hill, also one of the National Trust founders), and the interaction with the Southwark area. Botany is far, far from being an area of expertise for me, but I want to have a look, at least. On the weekend itself I should be in the garden for at least a few hours on one or both days - watch this space. I might read, I might hand out poems, I might just sit there looking moody and trying to write. All shall be revealed in time (when I figure it out.) In a somewhat-related way, I might even get back to those translations from French of Rilke's 'Rose' poems which I've been neglecting so badly.

And obviously, I have been reading poetry of the garden, including selections from Flora Poetica: The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse, edited by Sarah Maguire, who herself worked as a gardener for some years.

Further blog posts should follow soon - about the garden, the poetry and more...

Here are a couple of garden poems worth reading, from either side of the pond, by Sarah Maguire (Britain) and Louise Glück (US).


ROSEMARY (Sarah Maguire)

THE SILVER LILY (Louise Glück)


Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Nikola Madzirov: 'The One Who Writes'


Nikola Madzirov. Photo © Thomas Kierok (Blue Flower Arts)


I met the Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov at Poetry International, on London's Southbank, last July. He was reading a few times during the festival and I saw him alongside other incredible poets such as Carolyn Forché, Anne Michaels and Robert Hass. We also spoke a few times - I had briefly been in touch with him on social media before, although some time previously, and he still remembered me, which was great but not that surprising. He seems to have a widespread reputation as not only one of the best poets out there, but one of the nicest.

In the course of one of these conversations I asked him if I could reproduce one of his poems (or one of the translations, anyway) in my blog, and he said yes, of course. This blog post is therefore something like nine months late, which I can only put down to procrastination, not being sure which poem to choose, and feeling slightly daunted.

Madzirov seems to be one of the hardest-working poets out there - every time I've googled him or looked him up on Twitter, he seems to be appearing at yet another poetry festival on yet another continent. His poems, on the other hand - which have appeared in English translation in Remnants of Another Age (Bloodaxe Books, 2013 in the UK; BOA Editions, 2011 in the US; translations by Peggy Reid, Graham Reid, Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed) - are hard-working pieces which feel effortless. They seem like spiritual-secular prayers spoken inside the head, like the mind whispering of the most personal, trivial and essential things and weaving all the connections into a haunting whole.

These poems are very often about doubt, inbetween states, statelessness, travel, and a sort of forwards-and-backwards nostalgia. Madzirov was a descendant of refugees and he was coming of age around when the Balkans descended into war - unsurprisingly, the images of body and identity in these poems are often fragmented, beautiful but also broken. They are poems which, lightly but sometimes painfully, seem to be constantly moving, sometimes groping toward something, somewhere or someone.


We'll meet one day,
like a paper boat and
a watermelon that's been cooling in the river.
The anxiety of the world will
be with us. Our palms
will eclipse the sun and we'll
approach each other holding lanterns.

(from 'Shadows Pass Us By')


I had a hard time choosing a poem for this post, but decided my choice was 'The One Who Writes'. When Madzirov read this at Southbank, he said "People ask me if I am a poet. I say, 'I am the one who writes.'"


THE ONE WHO WRITES (Nikola Madzirov - trans. P Reid, G Reid, M Horvat and A Reed)


You write. About the things that already exist.
And they say you fantasize.

You keep quiet. Like the sunken nets
of poachers. Like an angel
who knows what the night may bring.

And you travel. You forget,
so that you can come back.

You write and you don't want to remember
the stone, the sea, the believers
sleeping with their hands apart.


I liked this poem partly because of a certain familiarity to the opening lines. Madzirov's poems, even when dark, usually have a considerable gentleness, but there is a kind of snap to "And they say you fantasize" which as a writer I recognised.

The final lines are both frightening and peaceful - to me, it seems an image of death, possibly violent death, and possibly with implications of trauma. If the one who writes can't forget, he might not be able to come back.



Poem  © Nikola Madzirov, 2011 and 2013. Used by permission.

Monday, 20 April 2015

London Book Fair: Poetry, Mexico and Tequila



The Mexico pavilion at the London Book Fair, Olympia, April 2015.



After several years of working in and around publishing in London, I finally made it to the 2015 London Book Fair (now at Olympia) last week. I spent a full day there on Tuesday and also returned near the end of the day on Wednesday. I was there for work purposes, but given that my publishing work involves a bit of everything from editing to sales to permissions to literacy issues, I had a pretty open remit, which obviously suited me quite nicely. In practice it meant that I traipsed happily around the entire LBF at least two or three times, went to several fascinating and relevant seminars and meetings, and also had some time for poetry matters.

I caught up briefly with George Szirtes, who was part of a very interesting panel on 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing and Reading in the Digital Age', along with Julio Trujillo, James Knight and Mauricio Montiel Figuieras - these writers are known for their Twitter-based literary explorations. Later on, I finally met Jo Bell, who I knew from online mainly through her inspiring 52 project and who was releasing her new collection, Kith. She talked about her Canal Poet Laureateship and her reading from Kith was bold and bright, which was much needed because we were in a very loud environment with no amplification... (perhaps something for LBF to think about if they do another Poetry Pavilion again?)

The country focus for LBF this year was Mexico, which was of particular interest to me as I have a growing interest in Latin America and have been working on my Spanish in the last couple of years - and I have also been to Mexico, although it was a long time ago and very much as a tourist. The country focus meant that many publishers from Mexico exhibited and I browsed through many interesting poetry collections and other books.

On my full day I also went to 'An Insight into Contemporary Mexican Poetry', which featured the poets Pedro Serrano and Tedi López Mills, reading their work and in discussion with poet and novelist Adam Foulds. Pedro Serrano read poems such as 'Serpiente' (Serpent) and 'Regents Canal', while Tedi López Mills read from her novel in poem form, Death on Rua Augusta. López Mills called poetry "a very significant way of being insignificant", while Serrano spoke of how there are "different ways of touching poetry, but at the same time with connections". In terms of influence, López Mills mentioned that Mexican poetry is very influenced by the French poetic tradition. Serrano pointed out that in Latin American terms, Colombia is generally more artistically conservative and Argentina is more adventurous, while Mexico finds itself somewhere in the middle. It was a very illuminating discussion and the poetry was great. 

On Wednesday, when I returned late in the day, I went to the launch party for Carcanet's re-release of the Collected Poems of Octavio Paz. I have been reading and admiring Paz increasingly in recent months, and there was also tequila and good conversation (one no doubt assisted by another). Also, I discovered that if the tequila has been flowing, publishers will probably start to just give you books.


 The deadly combination of tequila and Octavio Paz - London Book Fair 2015.


My final LBF event was on the Thursday at the Saison Poetry Library, where I attended another reading by Tedi López Mills organised by Modern Poetry in Translation and the British Council. López Mills gave some more insights into the incredibly intriguing Death on Rua Augusta, which I just had to buy. It is not just poetry but a perspective-shifting film noir-type narrative, set in Fullerton, California - according to López Mills, "a place where no one would pay to go." "Poetry is always on the defensive, always encased in barbed wire, afraid of getting hurt," she commented. Whatever the case may be, this poetry is taking a bold stance, and I can't wait to read more of it.


London Book Fair, Olympia, April 2015.



All photos by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2015. 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Keith Douglas: 'Caravan'


In a rather tired state, but still wanting to post something tonight, I thought I would share this poem written by Keith Douglas at the age of fifteen. It made an impression on me surpassed only by his much later work.

'Caravan' reminds me of the following: the song 'Secret Journey' by The Police, the poem 'The Disappearing Island' by Seamus Heaney, and some of the more allegorical work of Ursula Le Guin. 


CARAVAN (Keith Douglas)


Going beyond the gate they found these men
Sitting in the last light and regarding the great sun
With understanding. And one spoke to them presently,
Saying he had discovered the soul of music
At one time. And another said, that when 
The birds flow southwards, heading across the continent,

Then the wild sea, under the always rhythmic
Shutter of wingtips, only suggests to spent
Eyes slanting, the slope of green and mountainous moving
Country; familiar, only no priests in the cities
Handling the cold bronze, counting. The stones in panic
Chilled, the bright dust reflecting the heavens' faces.

Thus he revealed the perfect sources, the lost
Wisdom, seeing only the loved existent;
The clouds flying, Earth stretching in silence
Chameleon, the colours limited, dyes all lost.
All this he told them, speaking the tongue of the swallows.

But they not knowing the words, nor in his hands
Seeing the meaning, went thence over the sands.

                                                                                                1935

 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Keith Douglas: 'Tel Aviv' and 'Jerusalem'


Tel Aviv near Haifa, 1948 by Willem van de Pol


The two Keith Douglas poems below, 'Tel Aviv' and 'Jerusalem', could seem from their titles to be companion poems written around when Douglas was on leave in Tel Aviv and Alexandria, in April 1943. More accurately, though, 'Tel Aviv' is a draft for (or earlier version of) 'Jerusalem', and the two were preceded by an even earlier draft called 'Saturday Evening in Jerusalem'. The notes he left suggest that Douglas viewed 'Jerusalem' as the only finished one of the three. 'Saturday Evening in Jerusalem' is definitely less interesting, but I like to look at 'Tel Aviv' and 'Jerusalem' together.

It appears that 'Tel Aviv' was written about Olga Meiersons, a Latvian-Jewish woman who Douglas became friends with in that city, and to whom he wrote some very interesting letters. The introduction to his Letters, by Desmond Graham, calls Olga "a great and important friend...rather than a lover", but the poems and even the letters suggest there was a bit more to it than that. Olga found her way into the late poem 'To Kristin, Yingcheng, Olga, Milena' - the other three women were definitely ex-girlfriends - and in one letter to Olga, Douglas wrote: "When we meet it'll be good for us both if we do more kissing than talking." This meeting apparently led to those poems, which also speak for themselves. Keith Douglas did love girls and ambiguous situations, that much is certain.

The final poem, 'Jerusalem', opens with a wonderful and very Imagist stanza to set the scene ("the cat moonlight leaps out/between the dark hotels upon/the river of people"), and then becomes more openly romantic, with its references to Ophelia. I particularly love the line "our hands meet like strangers in a city". The image of war as a many-headed hydra (or some other mythic creature) is also very vivid.

'Jerusalem' is more streamlined and you can see the editing work that has taken place, although much was carried over from the previous version. I wish, though, that he had kept the final lines of 'Tel Aviv', which though not subtle are bold and sensual: "If/I had said this to you then, BANG will/have gone our walls of indifference in flame."


TEL AVIV (Keith Douglas)


Like Ophelia in a lake of shadow lies
your face, a whiteness that draws down my lips
our hands meet like strangers in a city
among the glasses on the table tops
impervious to envy or pity
we whose drug is a meeting of the eyes.

In your locked mind your news from Russia is
and if I think, there is waiting Libya,
Tripoli, the many heads of war
are watching us. We are not unaware
but are this evening finding heavier
than war the scents of youth, youth's subtleties.

We who can't put out a single hand
to help our balance, who can never lean
on an old building in the past
or a new building in the future, must
balance tiptoe on a pin,
could teach an angel how to stand.

Do not laugh because I made a poem
it is to use what then we couldn't handle - 
words of which we know the explosive
or poisonous tendency when we are too close. If
I had said this to you then, BANG will 
have gone our walls of indifference in flame.

                                                 [? April 1943-1944]



JERUSALEM (Keith Douglas) 


Tonight there is a movement of things
the cat moonlight leaps out
between the dark hotels upon
the river of people; is gone
and in the dark words fall about.
In the dome of stars the moon sings.

Ophelia, in a pool of shadow lies
your face, flower that draws down my lips
our hands meet like strangers in a city
among the glasses on the table-top
impervious to envy or pity
we two lost in the country of our eyes.

We two, and other twos.
Stalingrad, Pacific, Tunis,
Tripoli, the many heads of war
are watching us. But now, and here
is night's short forgiveness
that all lovers use.

Now the dark theatre of the sky
encloses the conversation of the whole city
islanded, we sit under
the vault of it, and wonder
to hear such music in the petty
laughter and talk of passers-by.

                                                             [? 1944] 



Saturday, 21 March 2015

Poetry Is Everywhere (Like Spies and Sherlock Holmes)


Portrait of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget


Amidst being sick on and off in February and early March, a welcome trip to Barcelona, and all the vicissitudes of life which have contributed to not writing in here much lately, I've started reading novels again. Not that I ever stopped. I seriously doubt I'll ever hit the several-books-a-week levels of my childhood again, but I don't read as much as I used to, and that's particularly true when it comes to novels. Poetry takes up a lot of my headspace, and besides that, I haven't lately come across a lot of novels that I badly want to read. (Often, when I read prose these days, it's non-fiction about travel or current affairs, and often far more interesting than the average contemporary novel.)

Having immersed myself in a few novels recently, I was reminded that they can have a kind of calming effect on me that poems don't necessarily have. Of course, individual poems can be reassuring and uplifting, if that is their aim. But poetry has a couple of attributes which make it rather more stimulating than calming: it tends to be emotionally high-keyed, and in any case, reading various poems requires a constant sort of changing of emotional gears. Even a thrilling novel, with many twists and turns, is more like floating down the same river for a long period of time, rather than leaping from the river to the ocean to the mountaintop.

I couldn't get away from poets while immersing myself in various novels, even if I'd wanted to. Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, a superb novel about the French Revolution, accompanied me for a few weeks. One of its hundreds of characters was Louis de Saint-Just, a leader of the Revolution, who fell along with Robespierre. He was also the author of the epic poem Organt and the novel often makes reference to his status as a poet.

I have also been catching up on Laurie R King's series about Mary Russell and her partner, Sherlock Holmes - yes, you read that correctly. These rather wonderful books (although they vary considerably in quality, as series fiction often does) constitute my favourite Holmes stories by someone other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although it's fair to say that in Holmesian terms they are rather iconoclastic. I was three books behind, although one of the three has just been released. Pirate King, a rather silly episode in Holmes and Russell's careers based on The Pirates of Penzance, rose in my estimation when I realised that it featured the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa as a major character. Russell comments on Pessoa, in a letter to Holmes: "He carries about him an air of distinction, as if his mind is on Greater Things than translating for a moving picture crew. (He is a poet, which you might have guessed.)" Garment of Shadows, which follows on directly from Pirate King, didn't contain much about poets in the story, but the title is taken from the work of a Persian-Arabic poet, Ebn El Roumi (who, as far as I can tell, isn't the same as the much more famous Rumi who wrote a few hundred years later):

...the breath of Chitane
Blows the sands in smoky whirls
And blinds my steed.
And I, blinded as I ride,
Long for the night to come,
The night with its garment of shadows
And eyes of stars.

Finally I have moved on to the new novel, Dreaming Spies, which I haven't finished yet. Poetry features very prominently here. The title is a pun on Matthew Arnold's "city of dreaming spires" (Oxford), and there are other references to Arnold's work. The chapters have epigraphs in haiku form, and above all, a priceless book of poetry by the great Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho plays a key role in the novel. I'd really recommend that anyone interested in this series starts with the first and best book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, but all the poetic references in these three latest have added a lot to my enjoyment.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, I finally went to the wonderful exhibition at Museum of London which has been on for some months, and also attended a discussion by the curators. This week, the title of that Laurie King novel about Sherlock Holmes, Dreaming Spies, was a keyhole opening which my mind's eye peered through to see that poetry (and poets), Sherlock Holmes and spies have something in common: they're everywhere. Holmes, to me, is something in the way of a guardian spirit of London, always somewhere in the back of my mind as I move through the city. While travelling on the Underground, I sometimes try to guess who in my vicinity might be working as a spy. And then I remembered two favourite quotations. One is from the great American poet Anne Sexton: "A writer is essentially a spy./Dear love, I am that girl." The other is from Polish poet Wojciech Bonowicz, who was in part quoting a Polish critic: "The poet...is one who opposes the fossilization of language, one who attends to its fissures. In this way the poet remains a secret agent of elusive sense."