Sunday, 20 September 2015

Guy Goffette's 'Elegy for a Friend': A Long Journey

Nicolas Vigier, Rain in Paris. Public domain

When I first read 'Elegy for a Friend', a sequence of thirteen-line poems by Guy Goffette written for his friend Paul de Roux, I was left overwhelmed and in tears. This reaction came from the pure beautiful power of the poem and its wonderful translation from French by Marilyn Hacker. It probably also had something to do with the fact that elegy has unfortunately been quite relevant in the lives of my family and friends in the past twelve months (not to speak of most of my life, it seems.) But when I started thinking about how I could write about the poem, it took me on a long and revealing journey of its own.

'Elegy for a Friend' has a certain focus on the cumulative effect of words, of events, and of simply living a life, which is perhaps also why it hit me so hard (a couple of years ago, a close friend and I were discussing the fact that 'cumulative' was one of the words of the year, and not in a good way.) Looking back on his relationship with his friend, the poet wishes that certain patterns could have been broken.

          Always, still, tomorrow, these paltry
          words, thrown off in passing, overflow us. 


          if we had known
          that, would we have stayed
          sitting so long in our afflicted bedrooms?


          It’s the same story always and we blame ourselves
          afterwards for having in the heat of words
          and wine allowed dark clouds to rise
          on the friend’s brow

Beyond this, on further readings I found myself quickly associating this poem with Ecclesiastes and re-reading it through that filter. The final stanza is, to me, overwhelmingly reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 12: "One day we must depart, no longer knowing/anything of what was at the source/of the fire...", alongside the vivid description of the decline of a human being with age: "before the silver cord is removed, and the golden bowl is crushed, and the jar at the spring is broken..." The conclusions are different: Ecclesiastes 12:13 says "Fear the true God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole obligation of man," whereas the poem is secular and contemplates the meaning of life and art ("written, read and reread/by a blind man dancing in the fire"), but it seems to me that both arise from a similar line of questioning.

I first read 'Elegy for a Friend' some months ago and have been thinking about it - and thinking about writing about it - for some time, whether actively or subconsciously. Recently, in relation to the Goffette poem, these lines by another poet came back to me: 

Do you know how it is when one wakes
at night suddenly and asks,
listening to the pounding heart: what more do you want,

I was so convinced that these lines were from Rilke that I leafed through my entire volume of his collected German poems and finally realised they weren't. The lines hadn't come back to me in an exact enough form to Google them accurately, but eventually I remembered enough key words to find them - in this poem by Czeslaw Milosz, 'Farewell' (scroll down to find it).

The connection isn't entirely clear to me: I think there are some stylistic similarities (although the fact that one poem is originally French and the other originally Polish may cloud this somewhat, in translation.) There are echoes of imagery across the poems: the suddenly beating heart, the self-questioning about life, meaning and desire. Milosz also asks: "From life, from the apple cut by the flaming knife,/what grain will be saved", which seems to echo the final lines of Goffette's poem. (Very starkly, Milosz concludes: "Nothing remains.") Milosz's poem is, too, a kind of elegy, though it seems to me to mourn the loss of places, groups of people and moments in time, than a single person.

In the past week, when I re-read the first stanza of Goffette's poem, something started nagging at me, and I had a feeling it had to do with TS Eliot. Granted, when things nag at me and they involve poetry, it's not that uncommon for them to have something to do with TS Eliot. (Also, I had just been listening to Viggo Mortensen read The Waste Land at the British Library, and I met him afterwards, and it's safe to say all of that had a lasting effect.) But eventually, after digging around for a while in a) my mind, and b) the Internet, I finally figured it out. It wasn't The Waste Land: it was a poem I have never loved quite as much, 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock'.

'Prufrock' opens with an epigraph from Dante's Inferno, which translates as:

If I but thought that my response were made
to one perhaps returning to the world,
this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.
But since, up from these depths, no one has yet
returned alive, if what I hear is true,
I answer without fear of being shamed.

I suppose I was reminded of this for two reasons, both of which are found in the first poem/stanza of 'Elegy for a Friend'. This section refers to the friends "slipping from the métro to Dante’s/hell without changing faces or/pace", and then moves on to imagery of flame and finally "that shadow/that burns all shadows while it waits for us". I don't know whether or not Goffette intended a direct reference. But I do know that by the time I had tracked down the 'Prufrock' epigraph, I felt as though I had travelled a long journey.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Dublin and Yeats: 'The Municipal Gallery Revisited'

Sarah Purser, WB Yeats, c. 1904. Hugh Lane gallery, Dublin

I was in Dublin for a few days last week. I used to live there - ten years ago and more - as readers of this blog may already know, but I hadn't even been back for a visit for several years.

This felt like my most successful visit back to Dublin so far. I had an informal to-do list - seeing friends, catching up with family, the seaside, galleries, the theatre (Brian Friel's version of Turgenev's A Month in the Country, at the lovely Gate Theatre), the pub. And I got through everything on that list. Notably, my relationship with Dublin felt happier than for a long time. Dublin still lives in me, in the way that a city where you spent some of your formative years (my early twenties) will do that. I stared at the dank Liffey and the springy Ha'penny Bridge, thought about history in front of the General Post Office, sheltered from the rain in the Winding Stair bookshop, and on Grafton Street I realised that someone there is always playing Hallelujah. I also remembered the time a bus driver flirted with me by paraphrasing Yeats's 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven'. (Quoting poetry will always get you points for effort, boys.)

On my last day I went to the Hugh Lane gallery. They were featuring an exhibition based on the Yeats poem 'The Municipal Gallery Revisited', where Yeats revisited friends - Synge, Lady Gregory and others - and great figures of the time, by gazing on their paintings at the gallery. They had pulled out those very paintings he gazed upon and put them together, with the full poem reproduced on the wall and then the specific lines next to each painting. It was extremely moving. Yeats had a way of transfiguring people - of course, he knew some of the strongest and most influential personalities of his time, but through his eyes they became sort of super-cinematic, in the most profound way. So many things inspire me about Yeats's poetry, but perhaps more than anything, no one else can retain and glorify the personal, the public and the symbolic so powerfully. The people in his poems are living breathing friends, enemies and lovers, but they are also archetypes.



Around me the images of thirty years:
An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side;
Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars,
Guarded; Griffith staring in hysterical pride;
Kevin O'Higgins' countenance that wears
A gentle questioning look that cannot hide
A soul incapable of remorse or rest;
A revolutionary soldier kneeling to be blessed;


An Abbot or Archbishop with an upraised hand
Blessing the Tricolour. 'This is not,' I say,
'The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland
The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.'
Before a woman's portrait suddenly I stand,
Beautiful and gentle in her Venetian way.
I met her all but fifty years ago
For twenty minutes in some studio.


Heart-smitten with emotion I sink down,
My heart recovering with covered eyes;
Wherever I had looked I had looked upon
My permanent or impermanent images:
Augusta Gregory's son; her sister's son,
Hugh Lane, 'onlie begetter' of all these;
Hazel Lavery living and dying, that tale
As though some ballad-singer had sung it all;


Mancini's portrait of Augusta Gregory,
'Greatest since Rembrandt,' according to John Synge;
A great ebullient portrait certainly;
But where is the brush that could show anything
Of all that pride and that humility?
And I am in despair that time may bring
Approved patterns of women or of men
But not that selfsame excellence again.


My mediaeval knees lack health until they bend,
But in that woman, in that household where
Honour had lived so long, all lacking found.
Childless I thought, 'My children may find here
Deep-rooted things,' but never foresaw its end,
And now that end has come I have not wept;
No fox can foul the lair the badger swept --


(An image out of Spenser and the common tongue).
John Synge, I and Augusta Gregory, thought
All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.
We three alone in modern times had brought
Everything down to that sole test again,
Dream of the noble and the beggar-man.


And here's John Synge himself, that rooted man,
'Forgetting human words,' a grave deep face.
You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends' portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland's history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Missing Slate: Cambridge to Berlin

First, mea culpa, I haven't been writing in here much. My best excuse is that by my standards I have lately been writing poetry quite prolifically. Given that for the past four years I've often wondered if the blog is simply a giant, elaborate, elegant avoidance technique to keep me from writing actual poems - writing more poetry and less blog is A Good Thing. Also, there's just summer (such as it is) and busyness and all that.

On 29 July I spent the afternoon and evening in Cambridge, where I was one of the readers at the Judith E Wilson Drama Studio for The Missing Slate's anthology launch evening. This extraordinarily international journal - based in Pakistan and with staff and contributors from all over the world - has now published a few of my poems and an essay I wrote on poetry in translation. It was a real honour to be asked to be part of the evening, and in such good company. (Also, we all enjoyed the food and literary cocktails, including The Master and a Margarita and Go Set a Scotch Dram.)

The other writers who were reading included Karen Leeder, Martyn Crucefix, Vahni Capildeo, Hubert Moore, Sarah Fletcher, Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, Fiona Inglis, and Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik. There were translations from German and Polish (and readings in the original languages), poems on everything from the Santiago de Compostela train disaster to the Lampedusa refugee crisis, and much more. Literature editor Jacob Silkstone also reminded us sensitively of the challenges faced in Pakistan by those working in areas such as literature, and paid tribute to Sabeen Mahmud, who was assassinated in Karachi earlier this year. 

Before the evening, it was also lovely to spend a few hours walking around Cambridge. It helped that it was a day of summer sunshine, or at least enough of it. As I was sitting on a wall of the river terrace at Trinity Hall, a punter drew up near me, pointed at me and said to his passengers "See that girl sitting on the wall? Her great-grandmother was the first female Nobel Prize winner. Very impressive." I decided to take this as a compliment. Cambridge feels so peaceful and beautiful, it's hard not to be swept away by it. I also found a public piano in a shopping centre and as there was music on the stand, I was able to spend a few minutes picking my way through a Bach Invention I used to play years ago.

The week of the launch, The Missing Slate published another of my poems, 'Berlin'. This one goes back several years - I think I visited the city in 2008 and I'm sure I wrote the poem not too long after that, although I also revised it a few years later. Berlin fascinated me in an unusual way. I think I've travelled quite widely, but I have never been to a city which I could compare to Berlin. It is unique and it's haunted by all that happened there.

Cambridge, July 2015. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

Friday, 31 July 2015

Keith Douglas: 'This Is the Dream'

 Edgar Degas, Rehearsal on Stage, 1874. Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Keith Douglas quite often used imagery of dance and theatre in his poems, as in this mysterious and deliberately fragmentary piece, 'This Is the Dream'. The nature of performance can, I think, be both a distancing technique, and an approach toward another kind of intimacy.

THIS IS THE DREAM (Keith Douglas)

The shadows of leaves falling like minutes.
Seascapes. Discoveries of sea creatures
and voices, out of the extreme distance, reach us
like conjured sounds.      Faces that are spirits,

cruise across the backward glance of the brain.
In the bowl of the mind is pot pourri.
Such shapes and hues become a lurid
decor to The Adventures. These are a cycle. When 

I play dancer's choreographer's critic's role
I see myself dance happiness and pain
(each illusory as rain)
in silence. Silence.      Break it with the small

tinkle;      apathetic buzz buzz
pirouetting into a crescendo, BANG.      Until
as each scene closes hush the stage is still,
everything is where it was.

The finale if it should come is

the moment my love and I meet
our hands move out across a room of strangers
certain they hold the rose of love.

                                           [? Cairo, October 1943]

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night: Choose Your Own Adventure

No Direction by Mark Dries. Used under Creative Commons license

One of the most intriguing new collections of poetry that I have read in quite some time is American poet Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night.

I have been a fan of Louise Glück ever since I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Wild Iris, perhaps fifteen years ago. Despite having added to the genre myself recently, I'd say that the garden poem is one of the most overdone tropes in literature (or at least English-language literature), and if you are going to do it, you had better do it well. The Wild Iris, a series of garden poems, reaches great philosophical and sensual heights and it contains lines of poetry that I can never forget ("from the center of my life came a fountain, deep blue shadows on azure sea water"). It also performs the feat of multiple/shifting perspectives with especial effectiveness.

This latter technique - that of multiple and/or shifting perspectives - is key to Faithful and Virtuous Night. I might as well confess that it reminded me of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. My brother and I loved these when we were children - if you were a child of the 70s and/or 80s you may well remember these. The Cave of Time, By Balloon to the Sahara, Survival at Sea and many others... These books had something in common with the text-adventure computer games of the 80s, and they allowed you to step into the world of different characters and situations and to choose the path of your story. We read them over and over again, because some storylines seemed particularly difficult to choose, and we wanted to find and experience them all.

Faithful and Virtuous Night has the curious effect of seeming to tell a story - that of an artist who has been orphaned - or perhaps several stories, but at the same time, the poems don't really seem to be chronological. While I think they should be read together or in each other's light, they could be read in different sequences. It makes me think of the expression "the fall of the cards", which seemingly could refer either to luck (or lack of luck) in a card game, or the cards used in fortune-telling. But is there a main character, and is it Glück or someone else? Is the child in some of the poems a vision (or metaphor) representing aspects of her life, or is it another character, or...? It sometimes seems as though in each poem, the same core persona enters and leaves by a different set of doors, wearing different masks. In 'The Melancholy Assistant', watching snow fall, the speaker says:

The street was white, the various trees were white -
Changes of the surface, but is that not really
all we ever see?

I think this has to be one of the most intriguing and unique poetry collections I have ever read. It is quite beautiful and quite haunting, and you should read it if you want something contemporary but different.

Here are links to a couple of poems from Faithful and Virtuous Night:


AFTERWORD (Louise Glück)

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Lost People: Derek Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford'

We are closed (and do not open tomorrow) by Sten Dueland. Used under Creative Commons license.

The 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, which took place in July 1995 during the Bosnian war, has made me think of the poem 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' by Derek Mahon.


'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' has always seemed to me to be a totally unique work of art, and one of the greatest poems of the last century. Recently it was on the shortlist for the RTE-sponsored A Poem for Ireland competition, and although it lost out to Seamus Heaney's 'When All the Others Were Away at Mass', I think it would have been a worthy winner.

This is the ultimate microcosm poem; millenia of hardworking, suffering and lost human beings are drawn down to a sad little colony of mushrooms in a quiet corner of a small Irish county. The construction of the poem is extremely subtle, I think. It opens with a broader view - "Even now there are places where a thought might grow" and glimpses of a "Peruvian mine" and "Indian compounds". But then the view narrows to such an extent that it's as though you are in the shed with the mushrooms.

A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.

Ominously, the shed is actually part of a "burnt-out hotel". Is this a glimpse of some post-apocalyptic near future, or at least some local catastrophe?

As I read the poem there is a sense of advancing down a path, increasing clues as to the true nature of the poem. Words such as 'civil war', 'deaths', 'nightmares', 'regime' and 'firing-squad' multiply. The poignancy of the scene is immense, even before the last stanza, when the nature of its message becomes plain.

'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' is not just about genocide or man's inhumanity to man; it is more generally about the sadness of human loss and the fact that most human accomplishments, and most individuals, are utterly forgotten. I thought of the poem today, though, because of the line in the last stanza: "Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!" This is a terrible cry, wrenched painfully from the speaker, and seeming to sum up so much of the pain of Europe and the world. It's what echoes in my mind as this extraordinary poem draws to a close.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Poetry and Beyond in the Czech Republic

Prague, May 2015. All photos by Clarissa Aykroyd

A little over a month ago I was in Prague with my brother - we had almost a week together and also visited the nearby towns of Kutna Hora and Plzeň. It was my first time back in the Czech Republic after eleven years. In 2004 my brother was there working with the World Hockey Championships (er, that's 'ice hockey') and we were there for the same reasons again this year. So hockey was on the menu (including Canada slaughtering Russia 6-1 for the gold medal), as well as fairy-tale-like castles and Art Nouveau buildings, all the meat and dumplings I could eat, and even beer (which normally I never touch because I don't like the taste.)

Poetry is never off the menu, and that's especially so in a country like the Czech Republic. We had a tour one day with a man named Milos Curik, who turned out to be absolutely one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He showed us some beautiful and fascinating hidden corners of Prague, which was a good thing because as lovely as Wenceslas Square and Charles Bridge are, they are insanely rammed with tourists. Milos was part of the Beat generation and knew the American poetic icon Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as having met Allen Ginsberg and many others. He'd done everything in his life from organising Velvet Underground concerts in Czechoslovakia to studying funerary art - interspersed with many run-ins with the police during Prague's complex history - and he had evidently done it all with panache. Milos showed us a street where Ginsberg had stayed in Prague and told us about how Ginsberg had written the poem 'King of May' after being honoured as such by Czech students in 1965. (He wrote the poem on his flight from Prague to London.) Milos specialises in arts and music tours of Prague, and told us that later this year he will be showing around some poets on a tour of Prague taking in sights related to Seamus Heaney's visits to the city. (Heaney had very strong connections to Central and Eastern European poetry, and I came across this interesting article:

Here are a couple of photos from that tour. The first is of that street where Ginsberg stayed, a semi-hidden but lovely area near the castle:

This is a table and chairs, attached to a tree, featuring a quotation from Vaclav Havel. There are a number of these in different cities now, known as 'Havel's Place'. Of course, Havel was one of the architects of the Velvet Revolution and was the first president after the fall of Communism, but he was also a playwright and, less famously, a poet.

In Kutna Hora, we saw a cathedral with a very unusual 'tent' roof, went down a silver mine, and emerged subdued from the eerily strange Sedlec Ossuary, or bone church. Over the years, Kutna Hora has attracted many poets, writers and artists because of its spooky, romantic atmosphere, and it now has a poetry festival in September. The poet-author of the Czech national anthem was born in this town. Here's a photo of the cathedral:

Plzeň was a real working town with a very interesting depth of history. I was pretty much forced to drink beer there, because of the Pilsner brewery, in whose icy depths we spent some time. We also saw this remarkable mural featuring many famous figures associated with the town's history. In this detail, the young man on the left in the cape is Josef Kajetan Tyl, who lived in the first half of the 19th century. He was another playwright who was also a poet. (Rather wonderfully, it often seems in the Czech Republic as though everyone is also a poet.) Rainer Maria Rilke apparently acknowledged Tyl's influence.

In Plzeň I was also very happy to see this set of characters in the wonderful Puppet Museum (puppetry is very important to the culture of Bohemia.) They were for a Hound of the Baskervilles puppet show, and yes, that's Holmes and Watson at the top!

With thanks to Czech Tourism

Thursday, 25 June 2015

New Poem Published: 'Sherlock Holmes in Red Cross Garden'

Sherlock Holmes, from The Naval Treaty, by Sidney Paget

The Pakistan-based literary and arts journal/website The Missing Slate, who have previously published my work, have just published my poem 'Sherlock Holmes in Red Cross Garden' .

This poem is, of course, one of the four that I wrote for my recent residency with Red Cross Garden, organised by the Poetry School and the London Open Garden Squares Weekend. It was the first poem that I wrote, since Holmes walked into the garden in a very definite way not long after I first visited it and started reading and thinking about it.

I would call this quite a personal poem, though it's hard to explain how exactly. Sherlock Holmes has accompanied me for so much of my life (since I was seven years old, I think) that he has become a part of me in a way I wouldn't say any other fictional character has (and where Holmes is, there Watson is as well, usually). He's led me down so many literary, figurative and real pathways that whenever he shows up, he remains both familiar and fascinating - and also, a kind of mirror for myself.

When I had written the poem I realised that there was an undertone of anxiety in it which surprised me a little. This is not a Holmes in the best frame of mind, I think. He may be preoccupied with the details of an unspecified case, but Watson isn't wrong when he suspects Holmes's preoccupation goes beyond that. I think he is awaiting a confrontation, to come sooner or later, and he is looking for solace amongst the flowers. "What a lovely thing a rose is" is directly from the story The Naval Treaty, in which Holmes speaks unexpectedly and passionately about the beauty and significance of flowers. It is also a passage which indicates that Holmes was no atheist, which in modern times he is often popularly supposed to be. "There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion," he says. "Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers."