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

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Terrance Hayes: American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin

American poet Terrance Hayes has been one of my favourite discoveries of recent years. His poetry explores themes of masculinity, parenthood, black and American identity, in verse that is warm, energetic and intensely interested in form. For the centenary of Gwendolyn Brooks, he devised a new poetic form, the Golden Shovel, which resulted in an anthology of the same name dedicated to Brooks and using the form.

Hayes' next collection will be American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, to be released in June. A number of these poems - all bearing the same title, 'American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin' - have appeared over the past year in online journals, and I have felt a thrill of excitement every time I have seen a new one. I was at the London launch of The Golden Shovel anthology, where many of the contributors and editors appeared, including Patricia Smith, Malika Booker and others.  Terrance Hayes read some of the 'American Sonnets', and the atmosphere was electrifying (this time the cliché is definitely appropriate).

Here are just a few of the 'American Sonnets', which are even more varied than this selection suggests. I'm pretty sure this is going to be one of the best collections of 2018, if not the decade.

Terrance Hayes photo courtesy of Blue Flower Arts

Saturday, 21 April 2018

London Book Fair 2018

In the spirit of non-posts after a long time without posting at all, I hereby bring you a bunch of photos from London Book Fair 2018, at Olympia, which was last week. As always, it was a very fun work day.

The regional focus this year was on the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I didn't get a chance to do much that was poetry-related, but it's good to see what is happening in book-world.

The last picture is indeed me, and the picture just before it...well, that's kind of me too.

I promise that actual poetry entries will resume very soon.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Helen Dunmore: 'Convolvulus'

Helen Dunmore (left), 2014. Photo by summonedbyfells. Used under Creative Common license

Helen Dunmore, the British poet and novelist who died last year at the age of 64, recently won not only the 2017 Costa Poetry award for her final poetry collection Inside the Wave, but also the overall Costa Book of the Year award.

So far I've read relatively few poems from Inside the Wave or her other works, which probably makes this post a little premature. From what I have read, though, her poems seem to me balanced, spare but vivid, a personal voice aware of the wider world. I was somewhat reminded of the poetry of Sarah Maguire, who also died last year at around the same age. I'm also looking forward to reading Dunmore's novel Exposure and perhaps others.

Dunmore's poem 'Convolvulus', published in 2004, is one that I read recently and have often thought of since. In the symbology of flowers, the convolvulus can represent extinguished hopes and death. It is also a plant which can act as a weed and choke out others. The poem thus becomes a thought-provoking and disturbing meditation on hope (a flower that continues to bloom), but also the permanence of death and the repeated dashing of hopes throughout human history. The flower is resilient: this is both a source of optimism and despair. "Crushed, they breathe out their honey, and slowly/come back to themselves in the balm of the night". Humans cannot regain life or hope so easily, certainly not in the face of violence.

It is very telling that the speaker first says "where we say bombs, there will be nothing/until we turn to reconstruction" (the war will stop, the ceasefire will hold) but later acknowledges "Where we say bombs, there will be bombs". The poem ends with the recurring threat of violence in "the shadow of planes" over the sea, which reminded me irresistibly of how I felt when I saw the first plane after 9/11, days later, over a beach near my home on Vancouver Island.

'Convolvulus' reminded me of 'Desert Flowers' by Keith Douglas, a favourite poem: these two poems share the themes of war and the ambiguity of the flower imagery. I also thought that both Douglas and Dunmore seem curiously outside of time. Douglas has dated relatively little considering that he was writing in the 1930s and '40s, and Dunmore seems unlikely to become dated in any kind of hurry.

Neil Astley of Bloodaxe has just written a touching tribute to Helen Dunmore which you can read here:

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Philip Levine: 'The Second Going'

On the list of poems which have haunted me and refuse to leave, this is a recent addition: 'The Second Going' by Philip Levine.

Philip Levine, who was the US Poet Laureate in 2011-2012, died in 2015 at the age of 87. This poem appeared in 2017 in The Golden Shovel, an anthology in honour of Gwendolyn Brooks (who was also a US Poet Laureate, and the first African-American woman to receive that honour.) The "golden shovel" poetic form was devised by Terrance Hayes and it uses each word of a line of poetry, in order, to form the last word of each line in the new poem. The line which inspired 'The Second Going', "The only sanity is a cup of tea", appears in Gwendolyn Brooks' poem 'Boy Breaking Glass'.

'The Second Going' is a beautiful example of one of my own favourite poetic "forms" (if it can be called that): the very short poem. In just eight lines, this poem says so much.

My own reading of it is rather dark. I see this as an end-of-life poem, which it may literally have been for Philip Levine, as he died in 2015 and the poem must have been commissioned for the 2017 anthology. Even the poem's shape, appearing as a descending staircase, suggests an ending. The poem's opening, "Again the/day begins", has a weariness about it, and "mercy" (in the final line) is a word I identify with assisted death or, at least, death after an exhausting illness. A sad poem, then, but also an illuminating one, like the strange clarity that can come after being awake for "long nights & absent dawns".

Photo: 'night' by Steve Johnson. Used under Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

In memory of Ursula Le Guin, 1929-2018

The novelist, essayist and poet Ursula Le Guin died a few days ago, on 22 January. She was 88.

There are so many things I could say about Le Guin. I remember seeing A Wizard of Earthsea in the library when I was young, and being a little frightened by the cover art. Later, I remember reading it on a long train trip in Finland, perhaps at the age of nine or ten. I also remember a certain remote, awed feeling about her name. Ursula Le Guin: it was like one of the characters in her books, perhaps a powerful and beautiful queen, and I think I suspected for a long time that it was a pen name.

Unlike with Watership Down, or even to a certain extent with Tolkien, I don't remember any coup de foudre moment with Le Guin's writing. My brother and I loved the first two Earthsea books - I think for some time we were especially keen on The Tombs of Atuan - but we found The Farthest Shore dull. Much later, I've realised it's one of her most beautiful and profound books. That says something about my relationship with Le Guin's writing: her books have been a part of my life for a very long time, indeed for most of it, but it was more of a slow burn.

It would be incorrect to say that I loved everything I ever read by Le Guin (and I haven't read all of her work, which gives me some relief now that she is gone). I love much of it, and admire all of it. She has been around for most of my artistic/literary/life development, but my awareness of her work has expanded gradually over the years. I enjoyed fantasy literature in childhood, so Earthsea was the logical place to begin. I'm not sure when I became aware that she was probably even more famous as a science fiction writer, author of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, among others. I suspect that for a long time, I was guilty of doing what she eventually taught me not to do: I pigeonholed her as a sci-fi/fantasy writer, as good as I knew her to be. In recent years I have realised that she was one of the greatest writers of our time - full stop. I now think of her as having left us one of the finest bodies of work from the 20th and 21st centuries. She was the author of magnificent literature, who happened to be working mainly in speculative fiction, and who was so often marginalised for it (and often for her gender, too) when her genius should have been shouted from the rooftops.

Genre fiction often gets shoved aside as mere entertainment. Le Guin's work was entertaining, but I never went to her other worlds merely to be entertained. I went to Earthsea or Anarres or the Western Shore or Orsinia in order to think, to meditate, to explore, to shake things loose in my mind. Her sense of humour is underrated and frequently present, but really, a profound seriousness runs through her writing and it demands that readers approach it seriously. In the days following her death, I've read many superb articles by people who knew her and/or were deeply influenced by her work. Many people have, one way or another, claimed her ideas on feminism, gender, politics and so forth. I have no desire to claim her ideas; in fact, I know that she and I would have disagreed on many things. But although she was a writer whose convictions shine through strongly, even overtly at times, in all of her writing, I found a freedom within her books as well. Her books didn't try to force agreement, which many less subtle and powerful writers have done, especially in recent years. They did, however, call on me to engage deeply with the text and to use my mind, to think about agreement, disagreement, compromise, changing one's mind or holding fast to one's convictions. She also treasured love and the small things which make up a life and its relationships.

As otherworldly as her writing is, there's also something extremely tangible and tactile about it. Even in her prose, her craft held many lessons for poets, in its spareness and meticulous choice of every word. She is not a writer for whom I would use the word "effortless". The craftwork in her writing is extremely evident, as it would be when looking at a beautiful piece of pottery, or a painstakingly worked statue. Many of her characters do such work, or jobs which are seemingly humble. She showed respect for all of it. Some years ago I visited Okinawa, and my friends bought me a stunningly beautiful pottery mug, dark-glazed, depicting a fish. It is pure Le Guin (and so was that world of Okinawa, its little islands, grey winds, bright waves and dark palms). When I still lived in my hometown of Victoria, Canada, I would sometimes see the work of sculptor Maarten Schaddelee, who carved flowing dolphins, sea creatures and waves, often out of highly polished wood. These too were "Le Guin" works of art to me. And it's appropriate that they came from either side of the Pacific Rim, because Le Guin lived in Portland, Oregon for much of her life, after growing up in California. There is a definite Pacific Northwest and West Coast air to so much of her work, which also brought me closer to it.

I have sometimes been known to say that I'm a bit under-read when it comes to the Great American Novel. Well, Ursula Le Guin was the great American novelist. It doesn't have to be a man or the author of Gravity's Rainbow or Portnoy's Complaint. When the writing is this good, when the thoughts are this expansive, the great American novelist can and should be a woman writing science fiction and fantasy. Like so many of her readers, I am deeply sad that she is gone, but slightly comforted that I haven't read all of her work yet - including much of her poetry, which many consider underrated. She could no longer work on another novel in the last few years, but she still had poetry. In one of the many articles written in the last few days, Zoë Carpenter, who had known her, wrote: "She told me it was important that I read her poems in order to understand her current preoccupations, her attempt to 'report from the frontier' of old age." I'll reread her novels and will move on gratefully to the poetry while I remember this extraordinary woman.

Photo of Ursula Le Guin by Marian Wood Kolisch (Oregon State University). Used under Creative Commons License