Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Dylan Thomas: 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'



Grenfell Tributes by ChiralJon. Used under Creative Commons license


The overwhelming tragedy of the Grenfell Tower disaster in west London on 14 June has made me think of Dylan Thomas's famous poem of the Blitz, 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'.

I hesitated a lot before posting this. Grenfell Tower is a massive human tragedy, where at least some of those who lost their lives were children. It is not like one of my more usual "something made me think of this poem" situations. I also hesitated because 'A Refusal to Mourn...' has always unsettled me. It's in the title, and certain lines. Thomas is plainly mourning, in his own way, and the title is paradoxical, but it unsettles. When I thought about it, though, I realised that this disturbed feeling was probably conjured deliberately by the writer and that in some ways it is the only normal reaction. After all, the violent death of a child (in particular) should be disorienting, disturbing and unsettling.

I have read various analyses of this poem over the years, and there is no consensus. 'A Refusal to Mourn...' is oblique, open to interpretation and mysterious. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, many of my thoughts about it come from this moment and this shocking event. But a great poem can do this. So here are a few thoughts:

The poem's structure reflects the confusion of grief. The first two stanzas, in particular, contain beautiful phrases, but they tumble over each other at a velocity suggesting desperation. There is something here, of the flurry of thoughts and the attempt to draw them into a clearer picture, which is reflective of shock. In the final two stanzas the speaker seems to try to gather his ideas into a slightly more straightfoward, elegiac conclusion.

The speaker's thoughts are of both life and death. "Fathering", "the last light breaking", "the round/Zion of the water bead" (this sounds like an image of the womb), "sow my salt seed/In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn"... Some of these images could be of life and death at the same time.

The speaker is commenting on the equality of all human beings. There can be no doubt that Grenfell, a disaster which occurred in a poor subsection of one of the richest areas in the country, was a tragedy arising at least in part out of inequality and its terrible effects. During the Blitz in World War II, which this poem remembers, many if not most of the children who died were from poor families, as they had fewer options in terms of evacuating to safer areas.

My interpretation might therefore be very much of this moment in time, but it seems to me that by keeping the child's identity indefinite, the interpretation is open for her to represent all human beings from all backgrounds, or at least all children who die violently. There are references to a variety of religious traditions (Judaism with "Zion" and "synagogue", "the stations of the breath" as a variation on the Catholic Stations of the Cross, "London's daughter...the dark veins of her mother" perhaps a reference to some pagan tradition.) "The mankind of her going" also opens this elegy up beyond a single human being.

The final line "After the first death, there is no other" has also inspired much analysis. Some think it's a reference to the resurrection, while others think it denies this possibility. I have always (even before recent events) had a sense that the child's death is meant to represent all deaths, and thus it is "the first death". I was reminded of the famous John Donne quotation from Meditation 17: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." When the equal importance of all human lives is forgotten, as it so often is, the conditions for various kinds of horror and disaster are far more likely to arise

Here are a few of the reputable funds to which you could donate if you want to assist victims of the Grenfell disaster:

British Red Cross - London Fire Relief Fund

The Kensington & Chelsea Foundation

The Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Poets and Spies at London's City Lit


City Lit, London, 1940


Earlier this year, I took an InDesign course for my work. It was at City Lit college in central London, near Holborn station. I hadn't thought much about the type of institution where I'd be brushing up my InDesign skills for a few weeks - but when I arrived for my first class, I was impressed at the range of classes taking place at the same time as mine, and also a little jealous of the people who were taking Basic Danish or Biblical Hebrew. The floor where my classroom was located seemed to have a good deal of painting and sculpture going on.

When I looked up further details about City Lit (mainly in the history section of their website) I discovered that they had originally been established in 1919 by the London County Council as a "literary institute", along with several others around the city. Essentially, these were non-vocational colleges (but not universities) where students could take humanities courses and the like, without committing to something like a degree program.

The website provides more details about the fascinating history of this institution, but I was very taken with the fact that their teachers and lecturers included the likes of Edith Sitwell, TS Eliot, Cecil Day-Lewis and Dylan Thomas, among others. When their new building opened in 1939, John Masefield (then Poet Laureate) did the honours.

The moral of the story is that in London, if you scratch just the tiniest bit beneath the surface, you'll probably receive disproportionate rewards, and they might include poetry. I also ran into a bit of synchronicity at this point. Around when I was taking the InDesign course, I was reading A Colder War, the second volume of a trilogy by spy novelist Charles Cumming. The trilogy features disgraced spy Thomas Kell, who desperately wants to "get back in the game" but has found himself with some time to kill. At one point, he thinks "of the long afternoons he had spent brushing up his Arabic at SOAS, the solo holidays in Lisbon and Beirut, the course he had taken at City Lit in twentieth-century Irish poetry." In other words, when all you think you're doing is taking a desktop publishing course, there are probably some bored spies just around the corner in the same building who hope that poetry might help to fill the slow hours. It also turns out that Thomas Kell enjoys reading Seamus Heaney's The Spirit Level and that he especially likes the poem 'Postscript' (so do I).


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

John Drinkwater's 'Moonlit Apples'


Harald Sohlberg, From Værvågen (1921)


MOONLIT APPLES (John Drinkwater)


At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
   A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no sound at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
   Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams;
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams,
   And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
   On moon-washed apples of wonder.


I rediscovered this poem the other day, in part thanks to the serene First Known When Lost blog. More than just a simple poem of nature or pastoral beauty, 'Moonlit Apples' seems to me a kind of ode to interconnectedness, almost a microcosm of environmentalism. The apples are at the top of the house, the moonlight touches them, they now resemble "deep-sea apples of green". The apples, mysteriously, partake of the moon, and thus also partake of the sea. Everything affects everything else.

The swaying rhythm of the poem, and the countdown of syllables per line in each stanza, also evoke the "deep-sea light" on the apples, the stillness that is never entirely still. There's a silver-green peace about it which belies the fact that it shows a hyper-real vision of the apples. It's sort of hallucinogenic and soothing at the same time.


Sunday, 28 May 2017

In Paris with Paul Celan (and the usual suspects)


A couple of weeks ago - only a few days after returning from a three-week visit to Canada - I went to Paris for the weekend. This year the IIHF World Championship (ie. ice hockey) was in Paris and Cologne, and I was there to meet up with my brother Lucas, who writes articles for the IIHF website.

Paris is one of my adored cities, and every visit there is different. It was strange to be going to a couple of hockey games while there (this time I got to see Slovenia-Belarus and Canada-Switzerland. Canada managed to lose to Switzerland!). At the same time, there always seem to be some common threads, often involving food, art and books. It is Paris, after all.

Besides spending time with my brother, my mission on this particular trip was to go to the Gibert Jeune bookshop on Place St-Michel and to find a few French poetry books. I was looking for Benjamin Fondane's Le mal des fantômes in particular, and possibly something by Yves Bonnefoy and Guy Goffette. This mission was accomplished in a matter of minutes when I found all of the above, but then I also ended up buying a French Sherlock Holmes pastiche (Einstein et Sherlock Holmes) by Alexis Lecaye. These things happen.

On the Sunday, my brother and were walking in the Marais (and, incidentally, avoiding the passation de pouvoir of the new president Emmanuel Macron, which would no doubt have been interesting to see but all the security was a bit off-putting.) On Rue Rambuteau, we stopped in at Les Cahiers de Colette (Colette's Notebooks), a lovely and distinctly intellectual bookshop. I'd say intellectual even by French standards - I find that in France there tends to be an underlying assumption of a certain intellectual level, which is perhaps one reason why some publishers tend not to include blurbs on their books. Editions Gallimard, who published a couple of my poetry purchases, is one of these. They just know you want to buy Yves Bonnefoy and Guy Goffette.

Anyway, in Les Cahiers de Colette I also saw these:





The second photo shows a reproduction of one of Paul Celan's letters. In the montage of faces, his jumped out at me right away. (Of course I recognised Beckett and Kafka, and found that Paul Eluard and André Breton were there too. There are others I feel sure I should know - feel free to identify them!)

I always feel close to Celan, somehow, even when I'm not actively reading him. It is about 20 years since I first read his work, and the writers I encountered in my teenage years have tended to have a particularly strong effect on me. I started reading him more actively about seven years ago, when I was also undergoing some particularly intense moments, so I think that Celan was really sealed into my life. But in Paris, I feel a little closer to him. As well as the knowledge that he walked those streets, there's a feeling that he is more remembered there.

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, 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: http://www.mptmagazine.com/article/podcast-denise-riley-and-don-mee-choi-read-at-the-launch-of-mpt-the-blue-vein-88/ 

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)



XIX

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.


XX

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.


LES ROSES



XIX

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.


XX

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.

THE SEA IS HISTORY
THE FIST
SEA CANES
SEA GRAPES


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.


AUTUMN (TE Hulme)


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 EMBANKMENT (TE Hulme)

(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.



TRENCHES: ST ELOI (TE Hulme)


(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)



Over the flat slopes of St Eloi

A wide wall of sand bags.
Night, 
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.


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Ivan Lalić: The Spaces of Hope



Croatia - photo by Kamil Porembiński. Used under Creative Commons license


Somehow, although I have been enjoying his work a great deal over the last couple of years, I have failed to write anything about the Yugoslavian poet Ivan Lalić.

Lalić's years were 1931 to 1996, which means that at the start and finish of his life he lived through some of the most tragic times in his region's history. He was from Belgrade, his wife was Croatian and he wrote in Serbo-Croat. His main English translator was Francis R Jones, and Charles Simic has also translated him.

Lalić's poems are so beautiful - even when taken out of their original language - that they make me wonder, helplessly, why all poetry can't be like this. It seems as though he achieves a perfect balance of formal beauty and meaning, of memory and presentness in the senses. He saw himself as a Mediterranean, more than a Balkan, poet, and his works often touches Byzantine themes, Greece and Italy. And there is a shadow over his work of the losses he experienced as a child in World War II. 

I haven't spent quite enough time with Lalić's work to engage with it really deeply, but having read quite a few of his poems, so far I have loved 'The Spaces of Hope' more than any other. You can read it here:




This is a poem whose images are obviously informed in a painfully intimate way by personal memory. The image of "wind in a wild vine" at Kanfanar is particularly piercing. But there is a generosity to the poem that leaves it wide, wide open, like a window onto the sea. The spaces of hope, Lalić says, aren't patterned into "a system of miracles". But whatever our life experiences, our beliefs or worldview, the poem invites us to find comfort in our own spaces of hope. I recognise the feelings conjured up by this poem.

You can read more of Lalić's work on the new Modern Poetry in Translation microsite, set up to commemorate the first issue of this great journal: http://modernpoetryintranslation.com/poet/ivan-lalic/

Also on this site, you can read this wonderful poem, 'Renderings', by Ian Duhig, in tribute to Lalić's work: http://modernpoetryintranslation.com/response/renderings/



Saturday, 21 January 2017

The Dreamed Ones: Filming the Celan-Bachmann Letters



Anja Plaschg, Laurence Rupp
© Ruth Beckermann 
Filmproduktion



Last week I went to see The Dreamed Ones (2016, directed by Ruth Beckermann) at Institut Français in South Kensington. I walked for over half an hour in a sleetstorm to get there - it's only been showing for a few nights here and there in the UK, so I was determined to see it.

The Ingeborg Bachmann-Paul Celan letters were first published in German in 2008, and a few years later in English translation. Prior to the publication of the letters, not much was known about the relationship between two of the greatest German-language poets of the 20th century (Bachmann was Austrian and Celan was a Romanian/Bukovinian German-speaking Jew. He is the very definition of 'hard to label'.) Celan and Bachmann met in Vienna in 1948 when he was 27 and she was 21. He wrote the poem 'In Egypt' for her 22nd birthday. They had an on-off affair/friendship, and correspondence, for 20 years, during most of which time they didn't see each other or only occasionally. Celan was married to artist Gisèle Lestrange when the affair resumed in the 1950s.

The Dreamed Ones (in German, with English subtitles) dramatises the letters by placing the audience in a studio with the young Austrian actors Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp, as they make a sound recording of the correspondence. That's all that happens. We see them recording some of the letters and bits of poetry; in between takes, they smoke, chat, flirt, and discuss the events and emotions behind the letters (for instance, why Bachmann chose not to send certain letters.) 

That's all that happens, but the film was beautiful. The letters themselves are almost indescribable; passionate, tender, thoughtful, wistful, paranoid, hurt... 

In mid-August I will be in Paris for just a few days. Don't ask me why or what for, but be there for me, for one evening, or two or three... Take me to the Seine, let us gaze into it until we become little fishes and recognise each other again. (Ingeborg Bachmann to Paul Celan)

How far away or close are you, Ingeborg? Tell me, so that I know whether your eyes will be closed if I kiss you now. (Paul Celan to Ingeborg Bachmann)

It does seem as though the passion and the darkness of the letters could be spilling over into the interactions between the actors, although this isn't explored too far. The playfulness and the silences between them illustrate something about how flesh-and-blood people interact or even fall in love, beyond the words. But this film is really about the words. There is something about the studio, and the faces (especially the eyes) of the actors, which create a space in which these letters can really breathe and live. I don't know how better to put it than that. The letters, beyond the pain and misunderstandings and imperfection, and the paranoia that Celan especially fell into, seem to achieve a spiritual-sensual level that I can't imagine many correspondences reaching, especially today. I just know that nothing really happened in this film but I didn't want it to end.


Saturday, 7 January 2017

Anselm Kiefer's Walhalla and Paul Celan Encounters


A few weeks ago I went to the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, near London Bridge. This new exhibition, called Walhalla, runs until 12 February and it's free.

Anselm Kiefer, the German artist who was born just as World War II ended, produces art which is in a continual dialogue with Germany's history, with poets and philosophers, and with the times of rupture that we are living through. I went to his retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago and was blown away - which is a rare occurrence for me with contemporary art. You can read my thoughts about that exhibition here.

Kiefer's work feels shocking in the way that visiting the site of a concentration camp shocks. It's not so much what you see before your eyes as what seems to be in the air. It's a feeling of living in aftermath. The first thing I saw at White Cube was a long, dark hallway of hospital beds dressed with lead sheets. There was a warning not to touch the installations, as the lead could be dangerous.

Huge paintings of burning, crumbling towers - a spiral staircase draped with robes - a library-cum-apothecary bleeding film reels and pages... I found, as with the previous exhibition, that I was having an almost physical reaction to Kiefer's work. It seemed as though the world around me was going in and out of focus in a very unsettling way.

I went to that 2014 exhibition at the Royal Academy mainly because I had read that Kiefer was strongly influenced by Paul Celan. I wasn't disappointed, because there were works specifically inspired by Celan's poems. In Walhalla, the influence wasn't signalled quite so clearly. But then, in the cluttered room of giant drawers and film reels, I saw this:


Mohn und Gedächtnis (written on the bottom drawer) means Poppy and Memory, and it is the title of Celan's second book of poetry. In an installation which reminded me very much of some crazed, broken apothecary, and in an artist's work which continually tries to deal with the worst of memory, it seemed very appropriate.

Later, on another work, I saw this:


I had an eerie feeling when I saw this piece of writing. I don't actually speak German, but I was sure I recognised the words. I was sure I knew the poem and the exact lines it referred to. And when I checked later, I found I was right:

bone-Hebrew
ground into sperm
ran through the hourglass
through which we swam, two dreams now, chiming
against time, in the squares.

(from 'In Prague', translated by Michael Hamburger)

This happens to be one of my favourite poems by Celan, and the shock of recognising lines from it on the side of a work of art, in the original German, was considerable. I have to read his poems in translation, but usually I do so with the original on the facing page, and I do try to read and compare both. I was of course looking out for references to poetry and particularly to Celan, but it was a moment which brought home to me the intensity of my relationship with Celan's work.

You can read another review of Walhalla and find some good photos here: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/nov/21/anselm-kiefer-review-walhalla-white-cube-bermondsey