Monday, 22 May 2017

Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker: Poetry Takes Flight

There are times when I'm not reading a great deal of poetry (or, less than at some other times) but it still finds its way into my life. (It always does that.) A recent example was when I read the book Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker.

Flying isn't particularly my favourite subject to read about. I fly at least a couple of times a year, usually more, but have struggled with it for years to the extent that each flight is anywhere from uncomfortable to a major ordeal. Oddly enough, this was partly what impelled me to read Skyfaring. The description attracted me: an experienced pilot evokes the perspective shifts, the emotional challenges and rewards, the friendships and unusual messages, and the pure beauty of flying.

I really wasn't disappointed with the book and I would certainly recommend it for a nervous flyer, at least one who can bear the thought of reading about the experience they dread. There is such an air of wonder and serenity about it that it had a noticeably calming effect on me (and yes, I did read parts of it on long plane flights a few weeks ago, between London and the west coast of Canada.) The writing is exquisite. I particularly enjoyed some of Vanhoenacker's descriptions of night flying (not my favourite time to be flying, due to a weird psychological cocktail of reasons.) Such as this:

In the high night...are many phenomena we cannot see so clearly, if we see them at all, when the sun is up. There are nameless ships of cloud that seem to sail best under a bright moon. There are vast lobes of lightning, flashbulbing out from deep within the grey matter of distant equatorial thunderstorms, while on the windowpanes St Elmo's fire, a kind of static that appears in startling bursts of flat blue veins, flickers like Prufrock's 'nerves in patterns on a screen'.

And...there's the other reason why I enjoyed Skyfaring. It opens with, as epigraph, the latter half of one of the poems in Derek Walcott's Midsummer sequence, a poem that actually is about flying (and landing):

It comes too fast, this shelving sense of home -
canes rushing the wing, a fence; a world that stands still as
the trundling tires keep shaking and shaking the heart.

Vanhoenacker obviously has a rich appreciation for literature: as well as Walcott and TS Eliot, Philip Levine, Robert Frost, 'Dark Night of the Soul' by St John of the Cross, all appear along with other poems and poets. A book well worth reading, then; but it did make me think that to enjoy flying, you really have to be a pilot - or at least sitting in business class.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Benjamin Fondane: My Translation of 'Fallen Snow'

My latest poetic obsession is Benjamin Fondane, and it looks as though it could be a serious one. Here's the story - followed by my translation of his poem 'Fallen Snow'.

In March, I went to London Book Fair for about a day and a half. It was for work, and I attended talks on digital advancements, browsed the full-colour book publishers, and met work contacts. I also had a bit of time to just wander round. One of the things that fascinates me about book trade fairs - and it's something you get to experience if you're there as a visitor with a certain amount of freedom, rather than working as an exhibitor - is the sheer breadth of what falls under "book". These days there's a lot of talk about "content" (which is kind of fascinating and annoying at the same time), but even beyond digital media, exhibitors at LBF range from the immense trade publishers (Penguin Random House, etc) all the way to publishers in the most niche areas imaginable (someone had a stand dedicated exclusively to a book about a certain financial establishment's fraudulent acts. It was giving off a bit of a creepy vibe and a lot of people were eyeing it nervously.)

Poland was the market focus this year, and generally I love wandering around the international publishers. While I was doing so, this caught my eye over at Romania's stand:

A few thoughts went through my mind: "Beautiful lines", "Presumably a poet", and "What a wonderful face he has." I looked at the name: Benjamin Fondane (or Fundoianu in Romanian), which told me nothing, not that I could recall. I only had a minute to spare, so I took this photo as an aide-memoire and then moved on.

I looked up Benjamin Fondane later. It turned out that the Romanians at LBF were focusing their exhibition on Fondane in 2017, and I wished I'd asked someone there about him. As far as Fondane's life, I recommend the Wikipedia entry, which has to be one of the most comprehensive I have ever read about anybody (or about a non-English-language poet, certainly).

The barest essentials of his life are this: He was born in Romanian Moldavia in 1898, a Jewish Romanian poet, critic and philosopher who eventually moved to Paris and who also worked in film and theatre. His philosophy was strongly influenced by the Russian existential philosopher Lev Shestov, and although he was associated with the Surrealists, he later distanced himself from them. He was an accomplished poet, writing in both Romanian and French. Fondane's wide circle of friends and associates included philosopher Emil Cioran and sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. In 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz where, along with so many others, he was murdered in a gas chamber.

The impression I received from his biography was one of great vitality, energy and curiosity - in fact, one of those lives that seem impossible to snuff out. When I started looking up his French poems, I had an experience which is rarer to me than you might think. I have read quite a few poets who send me off into raptures (and a lot more who don't, at all). But it's rare for me to read even poetry in English where I have a "love at first sight" experience. It usually takes a little longer. Fondane wrote in French, and while I am fluent in French and have read a lot of French literature, I have to work harder (and listen harder) with it. The "love at first sight" seldom, if ever, happens to me with French literature. And yet, pretty much the second I started reading Fondane's poetry - in French, not in translation - it happened. I knew right away that I had to try translating his poems.

Fondane hasn't been very widely translated into English. He is much more famous in France. The New York Review of Books has recently released a couple of volumes with English translations of some of his poems, and of some of his philosophical essays (the latter under the wonderful title Existential Monday). But I expect, in the next while, to be doing some work on his poems. When I started reading them, I heard his voice so powerfully that I knew I could translate his work. The hearing of the voice (so to speak) is, to me, the strongest indication that I should try to translate a certain poet.

Here's my translation of 'Fallen Snow' ('Neige tombée'), followed by the original poem. And, please watch this space.


Fallen snow, fallen snow in the century
far, far from me, in the night of my sixteenth year.
Have I forgotten you, strange and savage youth –
hardly more real than the sixteenth century?

Sweet twilight! Are you there in the corner of my room?
Clear wood fire, is that you burnishing my skin?
Yes, the seasons have passed; ah yes, the Decembers
roll their hollow wheels on the cobblestones.

Fallen snow! Remember! You were travelling in a book.
Bright young girls came in, tasting of salt –
dead since then, since my desire was drunk!
Who would have thought that only it would last?

Sweet twilight! Later on the quays, the piers,
so many times we wept our farewells!
Yes, you still rest on those young shoulders,
stubborn heart, like wine turned old.

Fallen snow! In the hearth, now, other kindling
is burning! But it’s still the same song.
Truly – I wished in vain, for a kiss from your mouths,
to go down to Hell and pay the cruel ransom.

Sweet twilight! The snow has fallen. This is the century,
the wind, time and savage blood.
Far, far from me: where are you, my sixteenth year,
hardly more real than the sixteenth century?

Benjamin Fondane, 1943 (translated by Clarissa Aykroyd)

Neige tombée

Neige tombée, neige tombée dans le siècle
loin, loin de moi,dans la nuit de ma seizième année.
T'ai-je oubliée, jeunesse étrange et mutinée -
à peine plus réelle que le seizième siècle?

Doux crépuscule! Es-tu là dans un coin de ma chambre?
Clair feu de bois, est-ce toi qui ambres ma peau?
Oui, les saisons ont passés; eh oui, les Décembres
roulent sur les pavés le creux de leurs cerceaux.

Neige tombée! Souviens-toi! Tu voyageais dans un livre.
Vives, des jeunes filles entraient, au goût de sel
- mortes depuis que mon désir était ivre!
Qu'il eût pensé que lui seul resterait éternel?

Doux crépuscule! Plus tard sur les quais, les môles,
tant de fois ont sangloté nos adieux !
Oui, tu t'appuies encore sur ces fraîches épaules
coeur têtu pareil au vin devenu vieux.

Neige tombée! Dans l'âtre, à présent, d'autres bûches
flambent! Mais c'est la même chanson.
Vrai!, j'ai voulu en vain pour un baiser de vos bouches
descendre aux Enfers et payer la dure rançon.

Doux crépuscule! La neige est tombée. C'est le siècle,
c'est le vent, c'est le temps et le sang mutiné.
Loin, loin de moi: où es-tu ma seizième année -
à peine plus réelle que le seizième siècle?

Translation  © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2017

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Mandelstam and Tchaikovsky at Pushkin House

Last week I went to an event at Pushkin House, the Russian cultural centre on Bloomsbury Square, not far from the British Museum. I've seen some very interesting events advertised there but it was the first time I'd managed to go. I couldn't miss an event combining the talents of Tchaikovsky and Osip Mandelstam.

I'm a big fan of Mandelstam's poetry, but as a non-Russian-speaker I can only enjoy it in translation, and I have heard that his poetry is actually very difficult to translate. I've certainly noticed that translations of his work can vary so widely that it makes me a little worried about accuracy (insofar as accuracy has to balance with other factors when translating poetry.) I thought this would be a good opportunity to have a sonic Mandelstam experience, hearing the poems in their original language. And I love Tchaikovsky.

The carefully curated program consisted of readings of poems, often corresponding to a certain time of year, alternating with Tchaikovsky piano pieces reflecting the seasons. Famous poems such as 'Alone, I look into the face of the frost' and 'Silentium' alternated with equally beautiful poems I wasn't yet familiar with. The program included English translations, which was perfect. Alla Gelich recited passionately and Nadia Giliova played beautifully.

Mandelstam's poems are very sensual and often playful, also extraordinarily intense. They often zoom in on details almost insignificant to the naked eye - the drops of sea spray, the glow of a wine jug - and invest them with hyper-significance. The poems went very well with the works of Tchaikovsky, who was an inspiration to the poet and whose music is passionate and story-telling.

For this time of year, I loved these lines:

Against a sky of pale-blue enamel,
The shade that only April can bring,
The branches of the birch-trees swayed
And, imperceptibly, it was evening.

(translation by David Brummell)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Poetry lately: Sherlock Holmes, Gardens, Coffee...

I tried to imagine what my own presence in the poetry world would look like if it were a place. The image that came to mind was one of the stone benches carved into the wall by the river in Battersea Park. So, here's an update from my stone bench by the Thames in Battersea Park.

To accompany their latest poets-in-residence-in-gardens program, Mixed Borders, the Poetry School released an e-pamphlet of poems from the 2016 program, in which I took part. A couple of my poems are in this pamphlet and you can find it here.

Josephine Corcoran's lovely online poetry journal And Other Poems has published two of my Sherlock Holmes poems, 'Holmes in Florence' and 'Sherlock Holmes in Antarctica'. You can read them here.

Finally, I wanted to mention what I did on World Poetry Day, which was on 21 March. It's a UNESCO event which doesn't get a lot of attention in the UK compared to National Poetry Day later in the year. However, as they've done in other years, the Austrian coffee company Julius Meinl was running their own World Poetry Day endeavour, Pay with a Poem. A lot of cafes and restaurants in continental Europe were participating, but only a few in London. To my great pleasure, though, one of the cafes where I sometimes go for lunch at work, Manna Dew, was taking part. So I got my free coffee, and this is what I came up with (click on the photo to enlarge):

In the evening on World Poetry Day I also went to the launch of the latest issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, including wonderful readings by Denise Riley and Don Mee Choi. You can listen to a podcast of the event here: 

Monday, 27 March 2017

Rilke's French Rose Poems in Translation: XIX and XX

Pilgrim in the Garden, or The Heart of the Rose - Edward Burne-Jones 

Here are my two latest Rilke 'Rose' poem translations from French. Only seven to go in the sequence... I can do this.

The French originals are below the translations.

THE ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from French by Clarissa Aykroyd)


Do you offer your own example?
Can we be sated like the roses,
increasing our subtle substance
just to let time go as it goes?

Because you might say it’s no trouble
to be a rose.
God, while looking out the window,
cares for the house.


Tell me, rose, from whence comes
that which you enclose,
your slow essence imposing
on this space of prose
all these airy transports?

How many times does this air
act as though it’s cut,
or, with a pout,
look bitterly about.
Meanwhile, around your flower,
it plays ring-a-rose.



Est-ce en exemple que tu te proposes?
Peut-on se remplire comme les roses,
en multipliant sa subtile matière
qu’on avait faite pour ne rien faire?

Car ce n’est pas travailler que d’être
une rose, dirait-on.
Dieu, en regardant par la fenêtre,
fait la maison.


Dis-moi, rose, d’où vient
qu’en toi-même enclose,
ta lente essence impose
à cet espace en prose
tous ces transports aériens?

Combien de fois cet air
prétend que les choses le trouent,
ou, avec une moue,
il se montre amer.
Tandis qu’autour de ta chair,
rose, il fait la roue.

 Translations  © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2017

Sunday, 26 March 2017

In memory of Derek Walcott, 1930-2017

Derek Walcott, poet and playwright of Saint Lucia, died on 17 March at the age of 87.

I think I recall my first Derek Walcott poem. It was 'The Season of Phantasmal Peace' and I encountered it in a literary criticism class at university. I would have been 18 or 19. I don't remember what we said about this poem, or which angle we approached it from, but I do remember how it looked in my mind and I have some recollection of the sensation. It was a vision of a murmuration of starlings - those strange, almost supernatural flock movements - and the poem came with a sensation of power and lift-off that I found unusual and exhilarating.

I've read Derek Walcott on and off since then. I was at the 2010 TS Eliot Prize readings when he won for White Egrets, but sadly he wasn't present to read (Seamus Heaney was there to read from his own nominated collection, though. How amazing would it have been to see them on the same stage...). I correctly picked him as the winner out of an especially strong field, though. Amongst 20th century poetry, his work just might be the most outstanding example of how to unite far-flung influences. Walcott was mixed-race and as with his background, his writing brought together Caribbean culture, classical literary influences, and the various legacies of colonialism. I think of his poems as being like Rembrandt's paintings, or a seemingly effortless and flawless work of architecture. The craftsmanship is almost too good to be grasped. You just experience something of exceptional depth, beauty and clarity - which also stands up to extremely close analysis, if you want to go there.

Walcott was every bit as good as TS Eliot or Elizabeth Bishop or Seamus Heaney; often better, I think. He is the poet who reminds us that constant attention to craft and openness to the world's variety are powerful things.

Here are a handful of poems to start with, or to go back to.


Photo: Derek Walcott, VIII Festival Internacional, 1992. By Jorge Mejia Peralta. Used under Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Poems for International Women's Day

Anna Akhmatova, portrait by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. 1922

People are writing all sorts of interesting things for International Women's Day. I thought, belatedly, that I would simply share a few poems that seem appropriate.

I COULD NOT TELL (Sharon Olds)

LADY LAZARUS (Sylvia Plath)

WILLOW (Anna Akhmatova, translated from Russian by Jennifer Reeser)

Thursday, 16 February 2017

TE Hulme: Images at Play

I sometimes wonder why I don't come across more appreciation of and commentary on the Imagist poet TE Hulme (1883-1917). The answer is probably that he wrote only a small number of poems (around 25), and just a few were published during his lifetime. He is probably better known as a literary critic and a philosopher.

He established the Poets' Club and the School of Images (the latter including Ezra Pound), both of which explored new directions in English poetry. Hulme had a colourful life and was known as a strong (not always appreciated) personality. He died in World War I, in West Flanders, blown up by a shell he didn't see coming (those around him did, and threw themselves to the ground.) He was 34.

TE Hulme isn't exactly a household name. He has always seemed to me to occupy a particular niche. It is thought that if he had lived, he could have become one of the most influential literary figures of the century, but he didn't have a chance beyond what he accomplished before his death. I just love his poems.

Most of Hulme's poems were only a few lines long. I love short poetry (my own poems average about 10-14 lines - more than 20 lines is a long poem for me) and I don't think it gets enough credit. A poem leaving a lasting impression in six or twelve lines may stay with a reader forever. Hulme's poems are clear-eyed, balanced between warmth and dispassion, wistfully playful and very precise. I can't ask for much more in a poem.


A touch of cold in the Autumn night - 
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

'Autumn' reminds me a little of Tolkien, to the extent that I wonder if the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings might have been influenced by it. Perhaps because of that, it makes me think of much of the writing I enjoyed as a child: a mix of comfort, adventure and a slight eeriness.


(The Fantasia of a Fallen Gentleman on a Cold, Bitter Night)

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth's the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

'The Embankment' is especially evocative to me as it's a part of London I know well. The 'flash of gold heels' seems to spark, an irony considering the man's search for warmth. It's a whimsical, sad and (again) faintly eerie poem, and it always makes me think of how there are still so many homeless people looking for shelter around Waterloo and Embankment.

Hulme isn't really known as a "war poet", despite his dates and his death. But he left this poem on a return to England from the front. It was probably transcribed (edited?) by Ezra Pound, but there seems little doubt as to its authorship. The final lines leave me stunned. Indeed, the 'mind is a corridor' under trauma. He said it perfectly.


(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)

Over the flat slopes of St Eloi

A wide wall of sand bags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess-tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian's belly.

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.

Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.

Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.