Thursday, 22 January 2015

'The Marvel' by Keith Douglas: Ways of Seeing

Wave Curl by Simon Turkas. Used under Creative Commons license

THE MARVEL (Keith Douglas)

A baron of the sea, the great tropic
swordfish, spreadeagled on the thirsty deck
where sailors killed him, in the bright Pacific

yielded to the sharp enquiring blade
the eye which guided him and found his prey
in the dim country where he was a lord;

which is an instrument forged in semi-darkness
yet taken from the corpse of this strong traveller
becomes a powerful enlarging glass

reflecting the unusual sun's heat.
With it a sailor writes on the hot wood
the name of a harlot in his last port.

For it is one most curious device
of many, kept by the interesting waves - 
and I suppose the querulous soft voice

of mariners who rotted into ghosts
digested by the gluttonous tides
could recount many. Let them be your hosts

and take you where their forgotten ships lie
with fishes going over the tall masts - 
all this emerges from the burning eye.

And to engrave that word the sun goes through
with the power of the sea,
writing her name and a marvel too.

                             Linney Head, Wales, [May] 1941

 In 1991, Seamus Heaney gave a lecture on Keith Douglas at Poets House in New York. Not only that, but you can listen to a full recording of the lecture here. I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that I nearly fell over when I discovered this recording - one of my most beloved poets speaking about one of my other most beloved (and much less famous) poets...

Early in the lecture, Heaney reads 'The Marvel' and calls it a poem "which seems to arrive from nowhere". After reading it he says "It has a certain Noli me tangere stride to it... It just walks in." I love that, and what a compliment! He also comments on the tension in the poem between the intellectual and the visceral, between aristocracy and brutality, which is very Douglas. The whole lecture is wonderful and if you appreciate Heaney, or Douglas, or especially both, you must listen to it.

My own take on this poem is that it's another riff on Douglas's obsession with seeing. I suppose that ways of seeing are the currency of poets. A poet is always looking for an alternative angle. But the array of angles and perspectives in 'The Marvel' is dizzying. In the space of a few lines, Douglas sees (most literally) through the eye of the great fish hunting its prey; through the written word and the implications of the sailor using the eye as a magnifying glass to write the "harlot's" name on the deck; through the eye of the sun itself and the power of the natural world; through the gaze of the drowned at "fishes going over the tall masts"... There is something hallucinatory but also very concrete about it.

This may be a strange comparison but when I re-read the poem this time I was suddenly reminded of Las Meninas, the painting by the great Diego Velázquez. The subjects of the poem and the painting may have nothing in common, but they are both masterpieces about physical and spiritual angles on vision, and the relationships between the viewer and the viewed. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

'My Father Carries Me Across a Field' by George Szirtes: Journey of Memory

The Darkening Sky of the First Night - Gustave Doré, for Dante's Divine Comedy

I have come to think that all poetry, and I suppose all art, is about memory. I don't see how it can be otherwise.

The Hungarian-British poet George Szirtes wrote the poem 'My father carries me across a field' as part of a sequence called 'My Fathers' in the collection Reel, which won the 2005 TS Eliot Prize. Much of Reel, the title of which deals with the film-reel of memory, is bound up with recollections of childhood. 'My Fathers', the title of the sequence, signals the brokenness, multiplicity and (in some respects) inconsistency of memory.

You can read 'My father carries me across a field' on the link below, from the Poetry International website. I also recommend that you watch the accompanying video, where Szirtes discusses the experiences which gave rise to the poem and then reads it.


In its most literal sense, this poem is about Szirtes's family leaving Hungary at the time of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, when he was a child. Written in terza rima, one of the poet's favourite forms, the poem seems to me to evoke Dante not only in form but in content ("Spirits everywhere are drifting over blasted/Terrain"). It is many years since I read the Divine Comedy, but the whole poem and this image in particular reminded me of Dante; I am not sure if this is a general impression, or a specific reference (conscious or unconscious).

Besides Dante, in my opinion, the real poetic presence in this poem is Theodore Roethke. "We go where we have to go", says the narrator looking back on his child-self, and this seems a direct reference to 'The Waking': "I learn by going where I have to go." I also felt that there was something of Roethke's 'In a Dark Time', although this is less clear to me.

Certainly, 'My father carries me across a field' feels like an account of a psychological journey as well as a physical one, and this is very Roethke-esque. "My instinct about memory is that it is half imagination," says Szirtes in the video interview, and this is a poem where an adult narrator with an enormous knowledge of literature and a whole life's experience looks back on a very intense, disorienting moment in childhood. The poem is a snapshot which also becomes a palimpsest - adult knowledge and emotion placed over childhood knowledge (for example, the books of A A Milne, the only English literature which he had read up until that time) and emotion. It feels true, and it is true, but it is not necessarily an entirely accurate (in the strictest sense) account of what happened.

While the poem is a revisiting of what must have been a fairly traumatic childhood experience, it is clearly also a way of accommodating and dealing with the experience. Art is a space in which we can deal with trauma. I found the final lines particularly telling in this regard:

[...] We have no function

In this place but keep moving, without sound,
Lost figures who leave only a blank page
Behind them, and the dark and frozen ground

They pass across as they might cross a stage.

This is the moment when the camera pans away, and quite sharply. The moment is both dramatised intensely, and depersonalised, in a sense. The narrator suddenly moves from "we" to "them" and "they", both placing the figures of the poem on a dramatic world stage, and moving away towards the person he has become.

This is a poem which I find both unsettling and beautiful and which seems to evoke so much of the turmoil of Europe - and the world - in decades past, and now.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

'Prayer Before Birth' by Louis MacNeice: "I Am Not Yet Born..."

Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) on Barbed Wire by See-ming Lee. Used under Creative Commons license

In another dark week for the world, I was thinking of Louis MacNeice's 'Prayer Before Birth', which you can read on the link below - or even listen to MacNeice himself reading it to you, in the rather stentorian tones of the time.

This was, among other things, an anti-fascism poem reflecting the fears of the 1930s and 40s, but I think MacNeice would have recognised that in the future, old horrors might take on only somewhat new faces.


Friday, 2 January 2015

'Words' by Keith Douglas: "Turning in the Lightest of Cages"

The Axis retreat and the Tunisian campaign 1942-1943: A goatherd tending his flock watches the arrival of the Eighth Army transport at Wadi Zem Zem after an Axis attempt to make a stand there had been defeated. Image used under IWM Non Commercial Licence.

The fact that the work of World War II poet Keith Douglas is now out of copyright (he died in 1944) represents something of a milestone for me personally. I started this blog in late 2011 and I developed a passion for Douglas's work around early 2012. At that point it occurred to me that it would be another three years until his work would be out of copyright and I could freely reproduce it without permission. Early on I did inquire of Faber as to whether I could reproduce one of his poems, but they told me that the copyright was controlled by Douglas's friend JC Hall. Shortly after that I learned that JC Hall had died, and it all seemed a bit too complicated to pursue. I have occasionally linked to his poems online but there are not many places I can do that.

What I'm trying to say is that I didn't know if the blog would last long enough for me to post Douglas's poems - but here we are. I suppose that this is both happy and sad for me. I'm giving readers fair warning that you will read plenty of poems by Douglas in the near future - but he shouldn't have died in 1944. He was only 24 and he could have still been alive today. How many poets, and people, could we say that of who died senselessly in the 20th century?

In the summer, I wrote at some length here about Douglas, on the anniversary of his death. As you can probably tell, I'm quite fond of him. The diamond edges of his poems contrast sharply with the scattered, fickle young man he seemed to be in his life, but I think that particularly in the last couple of years he was digging deep, reaching toward self-knowledge. I also think that he was always a perfectionist.

This poem, 'Words', was written after Douglas was wounded at Wadi Zem Zem and while he was recuperating. It shows a keener degree of humility than we might expect from Douglas. Not that it's a false humility - he knows that words are "instruments" which for the most part he uses skilfully, but "sometimes they escape forever". To me it feels more abstract than many of his poems, but still concrete, although with a lightness. The metaphorical web of this poem is very beautiful, and it really is a web. Douglas builds something airy, with "hollow birds' bones" and "the lightest of cages": the poem, in fact, is the cage and at the ending we are uncertain whether the words have escaped or whether they remain before us. Both, perhaps.

WORDS (Keith Douglas)

Words are my instruments but not my servants;
by the white pillar of a prince I lie in wait
for them. In what the hour or the minute invents,
in a web formally meshed or inchoate,
these fritillaries are come upon, trapped:
hot-coloured, or the cold scarabs a thousand years
old, found in cerements and unwrapped.
The catch and the ways of catching are diverse.
For instance this stooping man, the bones of whose face are
like the hollow birds' bones, is a trap for words.
And the pockmarked house bleached by the glare
whose insides war has dried out like gourds
attracts words. There are those who capture them
in hundreds, keep them prisoners in black
bottles, release them at exercise and clap them back.
But I keep words only a breath of time
turning in the lightest of cages - uncover
and let them go: sometimes they escape for ever.

                                             El Ballah [General Hospital] 1943

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

'North Sea' by Sidney Keyes: Looking Eastward

Spiekeroog XXVII by daniel.stark. Used under Creative Commons license

Here, as the end of the year approaches, is a chilly poem about Germany - or, quite possibly, looking across into Germany from England - by Sidney Keyes. I will soon be heading for Germany, and it seemed a wintry poem anyway.

I am sure that in 2015 I will continue to post poems by Sidney Keyes, but you may expect to see a lot by Keith Douglas. He will, rather sadly, be out of copyright then.

NORTH SEA (Sidney Keyes)

The evening thickens. Figures like a frieze
Cross the sea's face, their cold unlifted heads
Disdainful of the wind that pulls their hair.
The brown light lies across the harbour wall.

And eastward looking, eastward wondering
I meet the eyes of Heine's ghost, who saw
His failure in the grey forsaken waves
At Rulenstein one autumn. And between
Rises the shape in more than memory
Of Düsseldorf, the ringing, the river-enfolding
City that brought such sorrow on us both.

                                                           October 1942.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Nomination for the 2016 Pushcart Prize

It was great to hear recently from Muse-Pie Press that they had nominated my poem 'Wicklow Mountains After Rain' (which appeared in their short-poem publication Shot Glass Journal) for a 2016 Pushcart Prize.

This follows their nomination, last year, of one of my poems for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. I'm very flattered, and obviously it's once again motivation to get working...

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Anselm Kiefer and Paul Celan at the Royal Academy

In recent weeks I've been reading Paul Celan again. I move in and out of the Celanian moments in my life (when I say "moments", these can last for weeks or months). I don't find it possible to read Celan all the time - I get tired and sad if I go on for too long, though his work can also be very clarifying in the right proportion. I have never been able to forget the comment by Michael Hamburger, one of Celan's most dedicated translators: "From the first my engagement with the work of Celan had been difficult and sporadic. Had it become a full-time occupation and specialisation, it could have driven me into suicide, as it did his friend and interpreter Peter Szondi."

Anyway, I have been reading John Felstiner's wonderful translations, and I have also finally started reading Felstiner's biography Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. I'm also about to dip (or dive) into Pierre Joris's new translations of Celan's later works, Breathturn into Timestead. But I came back to Celan this time most notably through the Anselm Kiefer exhibition currently showing at the Royal Academy in London, which will end in a few days.

For someone (me) who is mostly drawn to art created one hundred years ago or more, Kiefer's work seemed a bit alien and intimidating. In a post-World War II Germany he created controversial works touching provocatively on Nazi symbolism, and has otherwise explored the threads of German history, its influences, and its own influence on the world. Many of his works are massive in size, overwhelming. My way in, and my main reason for going to the exhibition, was the influence of Paul Celan's works.

Kiefer has many artworks directly inspired by Celan's poems and several of them were in the exhibition. The paintings Margarete and Sulamith, directly inspired by 'Deathfugue', appeared side by side. Next to them, on the wall, was John Felstiner's translation in full of 'Deathfugue' - this translation is particularly famous for how it daringly and effectively weaves lines of the original German in with the English translation. I was glad to see other people reading the poem attentively.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

I really loved For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night, among others. One of the "lead book" works, Black Flakes, I also found especially striking:

Anselm Kiefer, Black Flakes. Private collection, c/o Museum Kuppersmuhle fur Moderne Kunst. Photo Privatbesitz Famille Grothe/copyright Anselm Kiefer

This painting is embedded with an enormous lead book and it features lines from the poem 'Black Flakes', a particularly heart-wrenching poem Celan wrote after the loss of his mother, from which he never recovered.

Autumn bled all away, Mother, snow burned me through:
I sought out my heart so it might weep, I found - oh the summer's breath,
it was like you.
Then came my tears. I wove the shawl.

(translation by John Felstiner)

I find it difficult to write about visual art, and you will find far more thorough reviews of the exhibition elsewhere. But there were a couple of things I thought particularly worth noting.

The size of many of these works is such that it has a very immersive effect. With works such as Black Flakes, I had a feeling that Kiefer had directly transferred the broken, scratchy, beautiful images in his mind directly onto the canvas. I find it very interesting to think about the pictures in others' minds, and I have sometimes asked people to describe how they "see" their consciousness, the mind's eye, the film inside your head, however you want to describe it. Mine is a mix of constant palimpsest film-reels, often with music or with words faintly (or clearly) heard, sometimes with the written words themselves. Perhaps nothing unusual, but I have a feeling that this is different for everyone. These works were so enveloping that I seemed to be seeing behind the artist's eyes. This was an especially fascinating impression because of my feeling that Celan's poems are transferring the images in his mind directly onto the page, in a way that few other poems achieve.

The other thing is that some of Kiefer's works produced a strange aural impression on me. The gallery wasn't empty and it was far from silent in there, but when I looked at some of the canvases, including the Celan works, I seemed to hear a rustling. I don't know why and I wouldn't say it necessarily represented anything, but it is very unusual for me to have aural impressions when I look at works of art. I had a confused feeling that the rustling I "heard" was something to do with the sounds of silence.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

"Blaze Like Meteors": Interstellar and Dylan Thomas

Star Trails Over NASA by Zach Dischner. Used under Creative Commons license

A few days ago I went to see the new film Interstellar. I'm an enthusiast of Christopher Nolan's films (those that I've seen, which isn't all of them - but Inception is one of my favourite films and The Prestige is wonderful).  

Interstellar is a great big space epic with many nods to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey but with a gentle approach to the human stories within it, which keeps it intimate. Matthew McConaughey was particularly good. I have to admit that the last half-hour lost me a bit. I'm all for metaphysical Hollywood with a philosophical side, but it just got a bit too weird for me in the final stages. I am still not sure if I ever saw 2001 in its entirety; I remember my family watching it on TV many, many years ago when the ending would have been past my bedtime. And although I was partly beguiled and partly horrified by HAL the computer ("I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going"...and then he sings 'Daisy') I don't think the rest of the film fascinated me that much. Anyway, I later asked my parents what actually happened at the end of the film and as I recall, the answer was "Oh, they just sort of go on out into the universe". I have my doubts as to how well anyone in my family handles space films, arty films, or generally films with weird endings.

Interstellar has made it onto this poetry blog because of Dylan Thomas's 'Do not go gentle into that good night', which features prominently in the film.


On several occasions in the course of the film, the enigmatic Professor Brand of NASA recites lines from this great poem, and it makes another appearance very near the end. I'm not going to give anything away, but depending on the context, the poem becomes either inspiring or rather ominous. To me, Interstellar was in large part about survival - the survival (or not) of the human race, of course, but also: what makes life worth living? What happens to people when they are forced to survive (as in 'outlive') someone they love? Just how far (morally and/or physically) will humans go to survive?

The onward rush of the poem has always seemed to me both joyful and catastrophic, and at the same time, the villanelle form gives it a circling/returning quality. Rather mysteriously, and along with some of the language of the poem, these qualities make it remarkably suited to the theme of space travel - a hurtling rush to the stars, and a sense of being caught in orbit.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.