Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Adam Hall's Quiller Meets the Poems In My Head

In the past year, I started reading a series of books by Adam Hall (one of the pseudonyms of British author and playwright Elleston Trevor) about a spy known only as Quiller. Quiller is something of an enigma who also bares his mind's intricate workings to an uncomfortable degree: it's as though you're in his body, seeing through his eyes, and calculating the angle at which a very fast car is going to ricochet when it hits the guard rail.

The terse stream-of-consciousness poetry of Hall's writing, and the multiple layers of his central character, attracted me to this series even more than the undeniably exciting plots. A few books into the series, I read The Striker Portfolio (1968) and The Tango Briefing (1973) within a week. At this point, something both strange and familiar started to happen: the books went into my head and started talking to the other books, and poems, that I've stashed in there over the years.

In The Striker Portfolio, Quiller finds himself on the Frontier between West and East Germany, at night, following a man through a minefield. 'It was an eerie place,' he says, 'a landscape with dead figures: the posts leaning like gibbets and the web of the wire breaking the flat two-dimensional background into sections as if the whole scene were cardboard, a badly lighted stage. Perhaps it was difficult for him to believe in the unlikely: that a man was standing not far from him, thrown up from the waste of earth where armies had once passed, leaving their dead.'

When I read this, I suddenly flashed to the war poems of Keith Douglas: 'a landscape with dead figures' called up his poem 'Landscape with Figures 2':

On scrub and sand the dead men wriggle
in their dowdy clothes. They are mimes
who express silence and futile aims
enacting this prone and motionless struggle
at a queer angle to the scenery
crawling on the boards of the stage like walls
deaf to the one who opens his mouth and calls
silently. [...]

In The Tango Briefing, Quiller is sent to the Sahara (as usual, with minimal information) to investigate a plane crash. Preparing for his mission in the crumbling Auberge Yasmina, he notes 'a forecourt buried under the shade of rotting palms where I could hear rats running.' Later: 'The curved fronds of the palms hung piled against the minarets and the filigree of window-grilles, their tips burned brown by the heat of never-ending noons; in them I could hear rats rustling.' Amidst the nervous tension of these scenes, I found myself thinking of TS Eliot: 'I think we are in rats' alley/Where the dead men lost their bones' (The Waste Land), and the 'rats' feet over broken glass' of 'The Hollow Men'. Sent into the desert on a glider (an eerie voyage which made me think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's writings, particularly Vol de nuit) and isolated in an extraordinarily dangerous environment, Quiller has to seek a specific outcropping of rocks, his only point of reference...

[...] you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock) [...]

(TS Eliot, The Waste Land)

Does any of this mean anything, I wondered? Was Adam Hall reading Keith Douglas, TS Eliot or Saint-Exupéry? Was he alluding to them, consciously or otherwise? Maybe. Probably. Probably not. But what I realised as I flashed back and forth between the books I was reading and the poems I carry around with me was that this dialogue (for want of a better word) in my head was a strong indicator of how much the books were affecting me. Not all books will awaken these tenuous and uncertain echoes. I think it means that they've already entered one of my mind's inner rooms, where bits of literature meet and talk to each other. It's a compliment to all of the writers involved, and it's also a source of creativity, a catalyst, an opening into a further palace of doors.

Photo: Desert of Legend by Preston Rhea. Used under Creative Commons license 

Monday, 23 July 2018

Seamus Heaney: 'Miracle'

I was recently reading the accounts in Luke 5:17-26 and Mark 2:1-12 describing how Jesus healed a paralyzed man after he had been lowered through a gap in the roof of the house. I was reminded of the poem 'Miracle' by Seamus Heaney, inspired by these accounts, which appeared in Human Chain, Heaney's last collection in 2010. Heaney also referenced this event in 'The Skylight', part of his 'Glanmore Revisited' sequence.

'Miracle' was, I think, my favourite poem from Human Chain. It can be read from either a spiritual or a secular perspective, as it describes a miraculous occurrence, but focuses on the friends of the suffering man and all that they do to help him. Their "slight lightheadedness", caused both by their physical exertions and by the wonder of what they've witnessed, is so human. The poem is partly a tribute to Heaney's own friends who helped him after he suffered a stroke in 2006, and it reminded me that in small or large ways, we can play our own part for good and help to make things greater than ourselves come about.

Photo: Ramp up to the Rafters by Paul Sableman. Used under Creative Commons license 

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Rodin and Rilke at the British Museum

I went to the Rodin and the art of ancient Greece exhibition at the British Museum (on until 29 July). It's almost impossible to go wrong with an exhibition like this: it's Rodin, it's classical Greek art, it's Rodin's history with the British Museum...what's not to like? To my surprise, I also found that the words of Rainer Maria Rilke were everywhere.

Rilke went to Paris in 1902 to write a monograph on Rodin, and subsequently became his secretary for a time and his friend. (You can read a fascinating excerpt from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett, here.) All over the exhibition, writeups on the artwork were accompanied by Rilke's words on Rodin, often on the specific piece. Sometimes they made up the entirety of the writeup: this was especially moving where Rilke had written about the intensely emotional The Burghers of Calais. No one, it seems, has been able to improve on Rilke's words. This increased immeasurably my enjoyment of an already marvelous exhibition.

Here's what Rilke said on the figure of Pierre de Wissant in The Burghers of Calais:

He created the vague gesture of the man 'passing through life'... As he advances he turns back, not to the town, not to the weeping people, nor to those accompanying him. He turns back to himself ... his hand opens in the air and lets something go, somewhat in the way in which we set free a bird. He is taking leave of all uncertainty, of all happiness still unrealised... This figure, if placed by itself in some old shady garden, would make a monument for all who have died young. (Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902. Translator not named)

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Poem review + recent translation at the PTC

A thoughtful review of my poem 'Carousel', recently published by Strange Horizons, appeared on Charles Payseur's Quick Sip Reviews, and you can read it here:

In translation news, I joined the Poetry Translation Centre workshop a few weeks ago to help translate an Arabic prose poem, 'Savannah' by Amjad Nasser. I was really pleased that a few sixth-formers (that's high school...ish...for the North Americans) joined the workshop with their teacher, made interesting contributions, and evidently enjoyed it.

Monday, 25 June 2018

New Poem Published: 'Carousel' in Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, an American journal of speculative fiction and poetry, has published my poem 'Carousel', which I wrote a few years ago. It's always good when a poem finally finds a home.

You can read 'Carousel' here:

And here you can listen to a quick podcast about the poem:

The podcast consists of an introduction by editor Ciro Faienza, a few comments from me about the inspiration for the poem, and finally, my reading of the poem.

Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Keith Douglas: 'Aristocrats' and Unicorns, Almost

Keith Douglas died on this day in 1944.

The Welsh poet, novelist and playwright Owen Sheers wrote a one-man play based on Douglas' life, Unicorns, Almost, some years ago and it premiered last month in Hay-on-Wye. I wasn't able to get to Hay, so I'm hoping that the play will be shown in London at some point.

You can now purchase the playscript from Faber, here:

Here is the Guardian's review of the play:

And here is Keith Douglas' poem 'Aristocrats', from which the title of the play was taken. In it, Douglas takes a very cold look beyond the myths of war's glories.

ARISTOCRATS (Keith Douglas)

The noble horse with courage in his eye,
clean in the bone, looks up at a shellburst:
away fly the images of the shires
but he puts the pipe back in his mouth.

Peter was unfortunately killed by an 88;
it took his leg away, he died in the ambulance.
I saw him crawling on the sand, he said
It's most unfair, they've shot my foot off.

How can I live among this gentle
obsolescent breed of heroes, and not weep?
Unicorns, almost,
for they are fading into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry
are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal.

These plains were their cricket pitch
and in the mountains the tremendous drop fences
brought down some of the runners. Here then
under the stones and earth they dispose themselves,
I think with their famous unconcern.
It is not gunfire I hear, but a hunting horn.

                                                                         Tunisia 1943

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Keith Douglas: 'Enfidaville'

It has been a while since I've posted anything by Keith Douglas. Tonight I fell upon his poem 'Enfidaville', written in May 1943 - 75 years ago this month. It describes the aftermath of the Tunisian Campaign in the Second World War, in which Douglas took part.

Somewhat similar to his poem 'Mersa', 'Enfidaville' is, I think, less detached and more in-the-moment. Acknowledging "the pain this town holds", the speaker invests everything he sees with the aftermath of traumatic events: "the daylight coming in from the fields/like a labourer, tired and sad", "the ghosts tugging at doorhandles". When the speaker says of the town's cautiously returning inhabitants: "Who would not love them at this minute?", he seems to wryly acknowledge the uselessness of that question in the face of the destruction he has been part of. And he looks into "the blue eyes of the images in the church", perhaps sensing that they reproach him, or perhaps finding only emptiness and absence in those eyes.

ENFIDAVILLE (Keith Douglas)

In the church fallen like dancers
lie the Virgin and St Therèse
on little pillows of dust.
The detonations of the last few days
tore down the ornamental plasters
shivered the hands of Christ.

The men and women who moved like candles
in and out of the houses and the streets
are all gone. The white houses are bare
black cages. No one is left to greet
the ghosts tugging at doorhandles
opening doors that are not there.

Now the daylight coming in from the fields
like a labourer, tired and sad,
is peering about among the wreckage, goes
past some corners as though with averted head
not looking at the pain this town holds,
seeing no one move behind the windows.

But already they are coming back; to search 
like ants, poking in the débris, finding in it
a bed or a piano and carrying it out.
Who would not love them at this minute?
I seem again to meet
the blue eyes of the images in the church.

                                        [? Tunisia, May 1943]

Image: Signpost on road to Enfidaville, 1943. By M.D. Elias 

Monday, 7 May 2018

Osip Mandelstam: 'The Admiralty'

This poem, 'The Admiralty' by Osip Mandelstam, appeared a few years ago as a Guardian Poem of the Week in a translation by Yuri Drobyshev and Carol Rumens. It describes the Admiralty building in St Petersburg, Russia.

Carol Rumens' comments on her work with Yuri Drobyshev, and on the poem, are as always very much worth reading, particularly because Mandelstam is a complex poet who apparently is insanely hard to translate well (although a lot of people have tried - this always makes me, a non-Russian-speaker, a little nervous when I read his work in translation.)

What I've found in my somewhat intermittent reading of Mandelstam over the years is that his poems typically have an extremely concrete, physical focus (like a close-up, almost through a microscope) which then explodes into a constellation of observations (whether temporal or more philosophical). In this poem, Mandelstam cleverly gives the authority of a "demi-god" to human craftsmen, including the ability to transcend space and time.

I visited St Petersburg, then Leningrad, in 1985. It was summer, my family was on a side trip of a few days from Finland, and I would have been either almost six years old or just turned six. It's rather mysterious to me now to think that I visited Soviet Russia a few years before the end of the USSR (when I read the recent biography of John le Carré by Adam Sisman, I realised that I travelled there before le Carré ever did).

While I was a fairly well-informed kindergartner, I don't think I knew much about Russia or its history. It seems, though, that my parents had grasped the effect that travel can have on a growing mind. I didn't know that some day I would read Mandelstam, or that more than 30 years later I still wouldn't have returned to Russia. I don't remember if we saw the Admiralty building. What I remember are images from somewhere between dream and reality, which I have carried with me my whole life since: the customs officer at the Finland-Russia border, a young man probably no more than 20 years old, smiling down at me as my parents lifted me up; the Winter Palace, carved from an iceberg and stranded on the edge of a square the size of a planet; crowds on a street and a kvass machine; the cake-yellow Summer Palace and a trick fountain in the shape of a little dog; a white cat delicately carrying a fish along the street; an oppressive red velvet dining room at the Hotel Evropeiskaya (yes, we actually stayed there on a package tour); hockey-playing bears at the circus on ice; a city outside of darkness, sailing on the edge of a world vaster than anything I knew.

Photo: Admiralty, St Petersburg by Dominic Sayers. Used under Creative Commons license