Saturday, 13 July 2019
New Zealand poet David Howard, who lives in the South Island city of Dunedin, has held residencies as close to home as the University of Otago and as far away as Prague; his next residency will be in Ulyanovsk, Russia. His most recent collection, The Ones Who Keep Quiet (2017, Otago University Press), is equally connected to New Zealand, the South Pacific and cities of the Northern Hemisphere, through the shifting figures of Auckland businessmen, alleged spies, and others.
It's an ambitious comparison, but The Ones Who Keep Quiet has something in common with TS Eliot's Four Quartets in that its poems are typically grounded in real-world places, with an almost overwhelming level of historical detail (a couple of the poems have end notes to rival Eliot's The Waste Land), but they feel internal, intellectual, mystical. If anything, they seem to depict the movement of the human mind, with its blend of the abstract and the concrete, and often under great pressure. In some cases, the pressure takes the most final form, death.
The first piece in the book is a long poem written in sestains, 'The Ghost of James Williamson 1814-2014' is about the Belfast businessman's youth on his father's ships and his eventual existence in New Zealand - both before and after his death on 22 March 1888. Appropriately, the sestains flow down the page in shapes suggesting waves, or brainwaves. There are also the tides of belief, their ebb and flow:
...Our fall into Paradise shows
God is an ironist
who gives the knife another twist -
pointed refusal to disclose
proof He's the first cause.
There is, perhaps, also an echo of the famous ship appearing at Clonmacnoise in Seamus Heaney's 'Lightenings' (viii), when "stunned under the Gothic/arch of a monstrous swell", James Williamson declares: "the unreal becomes our last port of call". As with most poems in The Ones Who Keep Quiet, the writing is very dense and allusive, with occasional leaps which seem almost random but are carefully calculated. This poem concludes on a very odd and ironic note of "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll", which at first seemed entirely incongruous to me based on its protagonist's life in the 19th century: however, it succeeds in giving the impression that the ghost is floating freely in time, but also trapped.
Throughout, and with rare exceptions, I was more enthralled by the collection's long poems than by the shorter lyrics, as Howard's work seems to excel when it has more leisure to establish a voice and to sink into a story or a train of thought. 'The Speak House' is another centrepiece of the book, a dive into the mind of Robert Louis Stevenson in the last few hours of his life. The poem is full of very specific references to Stevenson's life and work and had a slightly overwhelming level of end notes, but the most rewarding moments are often those of sudden clarity: "Starlight strikes the dead and the living/with equal intensity, flesh being what it always was" and "breathless/running after my shadow: that is what writing is." After the demands of 'The Speak House' I turned with some relief to one of the best shorter poems (well, two pages), 'The Vanishing Line', a self-scrutinizing poem with an unfolding/enfolding structure and echoes of Paul Celan: "Between, that is where the poem grows/between the visible, the invisible."
Howard touches on family history, on love, and dedicates a beautiful poem ('L'Histoire du Soldat') to Russian poet Tatiana Shcherbina. Particularly intriguing, though, is the long poem 'Prague Casebook' which, as Howard says in the end notes, "circles the character of the New Zealander and alleged spy Ian Milner (1911-1991)". A Rhodes scholar and friend of Miroslav Holub, Milner was eventually identified as a spy who passed information to the Soviets while working for the Australian Department of External Affairs in the Post-Hostilities Division during the 1940s. He defected to Czechoslovakia, but denied having been a spy. Milner's case is still controversial. His voice in 'Prague Casebook' is ironic and elusive, sliding away, providing excuses or perhaps simple facts: "Poetry's half a meal. Don't go hungry." Milner seeks kinship with Russian poets Mayakovsky and Mandelstam - "Sing/Vladimir, sing Osip, to show we are still men among men", but no doubt also recalls their troubled or fatal relationships with the Soviet authorities. Addressing God in the closing lines of the poem, Milner could be admitting to guilt, or defining himself as a victim, or both: "Your paradise was a short ride in a fast car, I got out/on the wrong side, that's clear as ice on the highway at first light."
The Ones Who Keep Quiet isn't a perfect collection: I found that its self-consciousness could occasionally be stifling, and Howard succeeds noticeably better with male voices and characters than with female perspectives. However, it is an exceptionally skilled and ambitious work which will reward rereading, as it offers so many layers to explore. Readers who appreciate psychology, flair and challenge in their poetry will enjoy The Ones Who Keep Quiet.
Review copy courtesy of Otago University Press
Sunday, 16 June 2019
Recently, my poem 'Canada' appeared in the new Wales-based micropoem publication Black Bough Poetry (publishing poems of up to 10 lines). You can download the whole publication as a PDF here (it's Issue 1, Summer 2019): https://smithmatt1.wixsite.com/blackbough/publications
There's a fine variety of poems, by new and more established poets, in the first issue of Black Bough Poetry, and I recommend having a good browse through.
'Canada' is, in part, a poem about imagining how other people imagine. Being Canadian and having spent the first 23 years of my life there, I have a particularly intimate connection to the concept of Canada, and I know that often when others ask me about my country, they're picturing something quite different from what I see in my mind, and feel. I have to say that the poem is also partly about how big Canada is geographically, and how that adds to its "bigness" as a concept. I think it's too big to be understood, in a way that is different from most other countries. (I probably would think that, being Canadian...) So of course, I wrote a very short poem about it. The poem is also partly about night flying - something I find nerve-wracking, but sometimes beautiful in an elemental way. How this all came together, I am really not sure.
My other recent publication came a few days ago - a review of Gallop by Alison Brackenbury, for Magma Poetry. It's an excellent new collection (a Selected Poems from her whole career, actually) and I highly recommend it. You can read the review here: https://magmapoetry.com/review-clarissa-ackroyd-reviews-gallop-by-alison-brackenbury/
Photo by Robert Nelson. Used under Creative Commons license
Tuesday, 28 May 2019
Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose at the Royal Opera House, London (1911)
This past weekend I went to the Barbican's presentation of a dance version of TS Eliot's Four Quartets, choreographed by the American choreographer Pam Tanowitz and first performed last year in the United States. Alastair Macauley, who was the chief dance critic for the New York Times until 2018, called this adaptation "the greatest creation of dance theatre so far this century".
I wanted to see Four Quartets because it combined a few of my interests and passions: TS Eliot's poetry, dance, and being Finnish (ok, the latter is a stretch, but the soundtrack featured music by the well-known contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho). My love for Eliot's poetry probably needs no explanation, but dance as one of my interests/passions might. I always had some interest in ballet, based on having seen The Nutcracker at a young age, loving Tchaikovsky's music generally, and reading some of the classic children's books about ballet, such as Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes. However, I never learned ballet myself, and I always thought of dance as a beautiful and intriguing art form, but one which I was far more ignorant of than literature, music and visual art. Rather to my surprise, a few years ago I then found myself in a new job as a publisher for the Royal Academy of Dance, and I'm still there. I love the company but occasionally I am still a bit nonplussed that I'm working in dance education. Fortunately, the job required expertise in publishing rather than in dance (although having a bit of a music background helped.) And I have, of course, learned so much about dance.
However, it would probably be a stretch to say that my experience at the RAD helped me a great deal with the dance experience presented to me by Four Quartets. The RAD's main (though by no means exclusive) focus is on classical ballet, and the extent of my dance knowledge for my whole life has mostly resided in that area. I've mostly found modern dance to be a bit of a mystery. I am sure, though, that most of the audience members were there either mainly for the dancing, or mainly because of TS Eliot, and my way in was always going to be the words of Four Quartets. In fact, this show was truly multidisciplinary because the accompanying sets and artworks were by the American visual artist Brice Marsden. Four Quartets was read in its entirety by the US actor Kathleen Chalfant, and the dancers accompanied the words.
The dancers didn't, in fact, try to illustrate the words, which was both challenging and fascinating. As they leapt, rolled, and circled against the delicate but powerful greens, reds and whites of the set, I found myself sometimes confused and irritated, sometimes enthralled, and I think this may have been the idea. This was not a literal interpretation, but one which set up all kinds of tensions, and Four Quartets generates tensions and juxtapositions in almost every line, starting from the opening of 'Burnt Norton': "Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past." At times I thought that the dancers were trying to do the opposite of what the text was saying, and I wondered: is this escape, or a source of power? This performance helped to remind me that (and this makes it quite the opposite of much poetry, particularly now) Four Quartets is a sequence often inspired by very concrete places and things, but frequently presented in very abstract terms. Visitors to the real places of the poems - Burnt Norton, East Coker, the Dry Salvages and Little Gidding - are often surprised that the places are not only real but described with great accuracy. And yet, their explorations feel more mental and emotional than "real-world", at least to me. (I must say that the "rose garden", the "box circle" and the "drained pool" of 'Burnt Norton' feel to me like part of the disturbing, preternaturally silent landscapes of a 1970s/1980s text adventure computer game such as Zork, which is probably both blasphemy and highly accurate, and another area of opposition and tension. What is a computer game, anyway - abstraction or "reality"?)
Saariaho's sparse music accompanied the performance's visual impressions, and the words, beautifully. I may have been confused and challenged by much of the dancing, but I think that it helped to open the poems to me in a different way. Art exerts pressures on our minds, and watching the dancers, listening to the music and to the poetry all at the same time undoubtedly shifted that pressure so that I experienced Four Quartets in a new way.
The Four Quartets program has an excellent essay by Dana Mills about 'TS Eliot and the dance of writing', from which I learned a lot about Eliot's interest in dance; again, he seems to have transformed real people and artistic references into metaphysical concepts. Eliot saw the great dancer Isadora Duncan, as well as Nijinsky dancing in Le Spectre de la rose, which he specifically mentions in 'Little Gidding' ("Nor is it an incantation/To summon the spectre of a Rose"). Later, the groundbreaking dancer and choreographer Martha Graham was influenced by Four Quartets. Famously, in 'Burnt Norton' Eliot wrote "...at the still point, there the dance is"; more tension and contradiction resolved into a strange unity. Mills writes: "Four Quartets dances on the boundaries between the human and the inhuman; bodiless and visceral; past, present and future; the emotive and the emotionless. The poems are verse that transcends its sum of words. The words have body and transcend their flesh; they are, like dance, both still and shifting."
This page on the Barbican website (which I hope will stay for a little while, as I believe the performances are over) has images from the production and more interesting information about its conception and development: http://sites.barbican.org.uk/fourquartets/
Saturday, 27 April 2019
An exhibition about the work of Stanley Kubrick has just opened at the Design Museum in London and is getting rave reviews. I'm relatively unlikely to see this exhibition, given that I'm a Kubrick ignoramus (I do have an ambition to finally see 2001: A Space Odyssey from start to finish...). However, the opening of the exhibition reminded me that I've wanted to write about the poem 'My God, It's Full of Stars' by Tracy K Smith, for a while. (The phrase 'My God, it's full of stars!' appears in the book 2001 rather than in the film - and I actually have read the book!)
'My God, It's Full of Stars' appears in the 2011 collection Life on Mars, for which Tracy K Smith won the Pulitzer Prize. Smith has recently and deservedly become even more famous as the current US Poet Laureate, and her latest collection Wade in the Water was nominated in the UK for both the Forward Prize and the TS Eliot Prize. Having read both excellent collections, I have to say that I preferred Life on Mars, which is extraordinarily personal and expansive at one and the same time. I know that's a bit of a cliché, but it really applies here as the collection is partly an elegy for her father, who was a scientist and worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. So the collection looks from earth and to earth, at God and at humans, and features beautiful poems about David Bowie ("thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being"), about relationships, about cathedrals and space.
There's a funny and strange section in 'My God, It's Full of Stars' where Charlton Heston makes a cameo appearance ("Charlton Heston is waiting to be let in"). Heston wasn't in 2001, of course, so maybe he's stepped over from Planet of the Apes. But perhaps this is just another cameo; there's a sense in the poem of walking on and off stage, Smith's father lighting his pipe at the end of a section describing the enormity and complexity of space. Elsewhere, the final scenes of 2001 are shot and then "the costumes go back on their racks".
I find Tracy K Smith's work exceptionally well-written and moving, and a reader new to her work could do much worse than to start with Life on Mars, and perhaps with this poem in particular.
Photo: Nasa Unveils Celestial Fireworks as Official Hubble 25th Anniversary Image - Westerlund 2. Public domain - created by NASA and ESA (2015)
Saturday, 20 April 2019
A couple of days ago I went to an event at the British Library, 'Poet in the Archives: Michael Hamburger', with discussions between Karen Leeder, Jen Calleja and Iain Galbraith.
I will immediately admit that my interest in Michael Hamburger is (so far) almost entirely related to his translations of Paul Celan's poems: in fact, for me, he is the voice of Paul Celan in English. I have also been impressed by others' translations (Felstiner, Joris, etc) but I first encountered Celan through the English words of Michael Hamburger when I was only about 18 years old, and that was inevitably a more powerful experience than I was even able to comprehend at the time. In a way, it was good that this event didn't involve a lot of discussion of the Celan translations - it was more about his own poetry, his criticism, his correspondence, and his general approaches to translation (he also worked on Rilke and Hölderin among others), and so it broadened my horizons.
Karen Leeder said: "He wrote his criticism with the voice of a poet" and that Hamburger was interested in translation as a mirror image rather than as an imitation - "he only translated what he felt he could understand." There was discussion of the peculiar musicality of his translations, and his love of letter-writing - he sometimes kept up intense correspondences with people he'd only met once or who had simply written to him with a question or observation. Iain Galbraith, who had known him personally, quoted Hamburger as having said "The poems that don't embarrass me are the ones that surprise me." Jen Calleja, who had been working on Hamburger's material in the British Library archives, read poems based on this exploration, some of them wittily based on subjects like disgruntled readers' corrections of his English equivalents.
On a different but related note, I have just read this Asymptote article by Jen Calleja and Sophie Collins about translation: https://www.asymptotejournal.com/special-feature/jen-calleja-sophie-collins-she-knows-too-much/
I wanted to share it because I have occasionally thought of writing something along the same lines on this blog, but this is much more informed and thorough than anything I could have written. In essence, while there's an obviously growing interest in poetry translation and that's fundamentally a good thing, it's also quite obvious that some potential or even tangible problems have arisen, along the lines of poets who are only fluent in English superseding the actual translators in collaborative translation, and related issues. This article is essential reading for anyone interested in current developments in the translation of international poetry into English.
Friday, 15 March 2019
WS Merwin, one of the great American poets of our time, has just died at the age of 91. I have always found his poems to be deceptively, effortlessly beautiful.
This may be a slightly strange observation, but in his photos you can see that Merwin had brilliant, light-filled eyes. His eyes looked very much the way his poems feel, to me.
Here are a few of my favourite Merwin poems.
Photo: Tree by Martin Svedén. Used under Creative Commons license
Thursday, 14 March 2019
Everyone with an interest in American poetry, or just poetry, seems to know the beautiful poem 'A Blessing' by James Wright. 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota' is another which I often see discussed, largely due to its mysterious conclusion. But a particular favourite of mine, though slightly less well known, is 'The Journey'.
The poem opens expansively, the Tuscan town of Anghiari "suddenly sweeping out" and stranding the speaker and his companion in the hills. The sudden revelation that "everything was now graying gold/With dust" is a little disquieting, or at least odd - normally we think of wind and heights blowing the dust away.
Everything shifts in the third stanza to the extreme focus on the spiderweb. And there's a continuing strangeness here, because the speaker describes the spider almost as though she is a beautiful woman - "the golden hair/Of daylight along her shoulders". (It is noteworthy that the speaker mentioned "we" earlier in the poem, possibly a spouse or lover, but after the turning point of the spiderweb, the poem rests on a very intimate first-person viewpoint.)
This poem is about life being surrounded by death. The spider, so alive - "poised" and "Free of the dust" - hangs at "the heart of the light", but surrounded by "cemeteries" of dust, and the debris of her own prey. It turns out that earlier in the poem, the dust - which remains ever-present for the rest of the poem - is a clue, because this is all about mortality and living with it. The speaker accepts the wind blowing the dust all over his body, and the ruins which surround him, and us. A bit like Wright's 'Lying in a Hammock...' poem, this ends on an ambiguous, perhaps faintly bitter note, calling into question the earlier sense of acceptance.
Photo: Tuscany by Carlos "Granchius" Bonini. Used under Creative Commons license
Sunday, 3 March 2019
Back in November I went to an event at the British Library where Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan was interviewed and read some of his poems. I actually went to several interesting poetry events between about September and December - a talk by the great Syrian poet Adonis, also at the British Library; a live reading with actors of Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey, at Southbank; a couple of events remembering Ted Hughes and his ties to Modern Poetry In Translation and the poetry translation world in general; and others. But I was also in the midst of a very stressful time at work (not out of the woods for a while yet, I'm afraid) and so didn't write about these at the time.
What reminded me of Serhiy Zhadan this week was that I was reading Timothy Snyder's new book The Road to Unfreedom, which is largely about the incalculable effect that Russia has had on world events during the 2010s, and Zhadan is mentioned in this book. The incident he was involved in took place in 2014 during the Maidan protests around the country and the Ukrainian revolution, and can be read about here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2014/03/ukraines-best-known-poet-injured-in-protests
The other thing that reminded me was reading this remarkable interview with Zhadan which has just appeared: https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/11022/everything-changed-ukraines-literary-star-serhiy-zhadan-on-5-years-since-euromaidan
In this interview he talks about how the war in Donbass has changed the country, how he feels about Russia and Russian literature, and so on. It's a good summation of his perceptive, strong but compassionate views. I thought his comments on whether writers should be seen as moral authorities were especially interesting: certainly a contrast to a lot of the claims I see on social media and elsewhere.
When I saw Zhadan at the British Library in November, I think I was one of the few people in the audience who wasn't a Ukrainian or Russian speaker (though I did recognise a few words). There was, of course, a translator. I took a few notes. Zhadan spoke about the importance of poetry in a country like Ukraine and how thousands might come to a poetry reading (I thought to myself: eat your heart out, poets in English-speaking countries, at least most of the time...). In Ukraine, he said, poetry is part of politics, civic life, and history. However, he also said that at times, writers speak about things they don't know enough about! "Writing about war goes deeper than politics," he said. "The war is setting the tone in Ukrainian literature, and war changes the intonation of literature." Zhadan is something of a rock star in Ukraine, and not just for his poetry: he's been involved in theatre and music and is currently a member of the ska band Zhadan and the Dogs.
I've been reading Zhadan's poetry, at least occasionally, for a few years, and it's always a delight for me to come to his poems. You can read his poems 'Stones' and 'A city where she ended up hiding', translated by Valzhyna Mort, here: https://pionline.wordpress.com/2016/12/17/two-poems-by-serhiy-zhadan-translated-by-valzhyna-mort/
And this poem, 'History of Culture at the Turn of This Century', is a favourite of mine: https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poem/5646/auto/0/0/Serhiy-Zhadan/History-of-Culture-at-the-Turn-of-This-Century/en/tile
Photo: Serhiy Zhadan, 2015, by Rafał Komorowski. Used under Creative Commons license