Sunday, 26 August 2012

Wendell Berry's 'The Peace of Wild Things': Leave Your Anxieties and Have a Cup of Tea With the Wolf in the Field of Flowers

Wolf photo by Fremlin. Used under Creative Commons license

Everyone seems to be very stressed out for one reason or another, which I in turn find stressful. Hermitry beckons, or else 'The Peace of Wild Things'. Wolves are one of my favourite wild creatures, if not my favourite, and this fellow looks rather peaceful in a field of flowers.


The Emergency Poet prescribed this poem to me at Poetry Parnassus, and I was already familiar with it, but I loved it as a choice. I think I had talked about anxiety a fair bit in those few minutes. (I also started thinking about tea therapy tonight; I think we need to get some kind of poetry/tea therapy going.) The wild animals in this poem have the advantage that they "do not tax their lives with forethought/of grief"; a pretty good description of anxiety, I'd say.

The Sermon on the Mount has some of the most practical and comforting words about anxiety ever spoken or written. It comes in different guises, of course, but the illustration of "the lilies of the field" (Matthew 6:25-32) who remain loved and cared for although "they do not toil, nor do they spin" is worth calling to mind in so many situations (particularly as it's possible to feel anxiety and a lack of security both practically and emotionally.) Finally, Jesus said: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his [God's] righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you. So, never be anxious about the next day, for the next day will have its own anxieties. Sufficient for each day is its own badness." (Matthew 6:33, 34, New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures).

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Ilya Kaminsky's 'Author's Prayer': "The Darkest Days Must I Praise"

I saw/heard Ilya Kaminsky read at Poetry Parnassus and it was definitely one of the outstanding moments of the festival for me. Here is a picture from his reading (as usual, apologies for the unimpressive quality - I promise I'll get a new camera one of these days):

I had only just bought his collection Dancing In Odessa when I realised that he was taking the stage in the Clore Ballroom - the timing could not have been more perfect. He apologised for his strong Russian accent, then launched into his poems. I don't remember for certain which other ones he read, but one of them was definitely 'Envoi':

What ties me to this earth? In Massachusetts,
the birds force themselves into my lines -
the sea repeats itself, repeats, repeats.

(from 'Envoi')

His voice was as though a wave had crashed into the audience; my impression was that people first looked a bit shocked, then amused, then moved. "Passionate" doesn't entirely describe it. Kaminsky, just a couple of years older than I am, lost most of his hearing after an illness at the age of four, and I had a strange sense that this had partially trapped his voice in amber and preserved it in a way that might not otherwise have happened. He has written a long series of poems, Deaf Republic, in part about the experience of deafness.

Kaminsky is originally from Odessa, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. His family came to the United States when he was a teenager and he started writing poetry in English when he hardly knew the language. His work was soon championed by an incredible array of poets - in the Acknowledgements to Dancing In Odessa, he gives thanks to the likes of Carolyn Forché, John Felstiner, Louise Glück and Robert Pinsky. Dancing In Odessa is an amazingly impressive and passionate collection, with a flow which suggests that it was written almost as a continuous sequence of poems. Kaminsky explores his family's history and identity, immigrant and refugee experience, and the voices of great Russian and Jewish poets. He sees Paul Celan as he might have been: "His face had an imprint of laughter on it, as if no other emotion ever touched his skin." In 'Elegy for Joseph Brodsky', he writes:

We come back to where we have committed a crime,
we don't come back to where we loved, you said;
your poems are wolves nourishing us with their milk.

(from 'Elegy for Joseph Brodsky')

The poem I particularly wanted to write about was 'Author's Prayer', which stands on its own and has become famous:

AUTHOR'S PRAYER (Ilya Kaminsky)

This secular-spiritual prayer immediately made me think of 'poetry of witness', which Carolyn Forché has explored so intensively. The opening lines invoke Yeats:

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body

In 'Sailing to Byzantium', Yeats wrote of his heart being "fastened to a dying animal". Yeats, with his interest in mysticism, wrote in the Byzantium poems about immortality, the supremacy of art and made things outliving humans, so he may have meant this in a fairly literal manner. However, both Yeats and Kaminsky seem to be touching on a crucial and sensitive area in poetry and art; the negation of self, or at least the diminishing of its importance. Yeats, an incredibly personal poet who constantly drew on his own life experiences in the most explicit way, still created something far more universal than the details of one man's life. His ego and life history became subsumed into something greater and more lasting.

Kaminsky, who writes about speaking for the dead so that "the white flag of their surrender" will not be raised, also explores details of his own life and his family's; but again, this seems to be more about bearing witness than about personal testimony, although there is an element of that, as well. He lives "as a blind man/who runs through rooms without/touching the furniture", and speaks "in a language not mine". All of this entails sacrifice, with the idea that it will allow a breakthrough to something greater, for the author and for the readers, and for all who need witness borne to their experiences.

I met Kaminsky very briefly after his reading and he signed the book for me. There was something very friendly and very warm about his demeanour and I've also had that impression from interviews which I have subsequently read. He seems to appreciate the benefits he has gained from the very difficult experiences he has undergone in his life, especially at a young age. In a Maintenant series interview about a year ago, he said: "I don’t think there exists a poet on this planet without a duality. Duality is a mother of metaphors. And, if coming into a different reality by stepping on a different shore, propels a poet into more duality, a poet should only be grateful."

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Rilke's French 'Rose' Poems and My Excursions Into Translation-Land

With my relatively recent interest in translated poetry in full flower, I decided that I'd like to try translating Rilke's French poems on roses (see what I did there?). I've only recently become aware that Rilke wrote in French at all. These sequences of poems, which also include Les Quatrains Valaisans and Saltimbanques, are considered minor compared to his great German poems, but my initial impression is that they are beautiful. And I can translate from French, whereas I can't from German...

It has been about fifteen years since I have tried to translate poems. Then, it was mainly Baudelaire, I think, and at university. I admire Baudelaire but find him unpleasant, much as I admire Salvador Dali but find him unpleasant. So I am quite glad that Rilke wrote some French poems, too. Here I have translated the first two short poems in the sequence, which has more than twenty.

I have included both my English translations and the French originals, and constructive criticism is very welcome.

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


If your freshness sometimes startles,
joyful rose,
it's because within, deep inside,
petal on petal, you're in repose.

Awakened entity, whose centre
sleeps, while countless tendernesses lie
in touching layers, reaching out
from that silent heart, opening to the sky.


I see you, rose, half-open book,
holding so many pages
of so many happinesses
never read. Book of magic images,

opened by the wind, legible
with eyes closed...,
from which butterflies dart, confused
that their ideas are one with the rose.



Si ta fraîcheur parfois nous étonne tant,
heureuse rose,
c'est qu'en toi-même, en dedans,
pétale contre pétale, tu te reposes.

Ensemble tout éveillé, dont le milieu
dort, pendant qu'innombrables, se touchent
les tendresses de ce coeur silencieux
qui aboutissent à l'extrême bouche.


Je te vois, rose, livre entrebâillé,
qui contient tant de pages
de bonheur détaillé
qu'on ne lira jamais. Livre-mage,

qui s'ouvre au vent et qui peut être lu
les yeux fermés...,
dont les papillons sortent confus
d'avoir eu les mêmes idées.

Translations © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2012. Not to be reproduced without permission

Thursday, 16 August 2012

'Perdita' and Louis MacNeice's Incorrigible Plurality

I have just ordered Incorrigibly Plural, a collection of essays and reminiscences about Louis MacNeice - along with two or three other poetry books; how incorrigibly plural of me. I am not sure I really need to plunge into any other poets, given that there are too many with whom I'm still skating around on the surface, but I'm quite eager to look at all of these books.

One of the things that amazes me about MacNeice is the sheer variety of his work. I think that 'Bagpipe Music' was probably one of the first of his poems that I read, and though I know for a fact that around age 18-19 it wasn't really my cup of tea, it's impossible not to get swept up:

The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

(from 'Bagpipe Music')

I have a feeling that MacNeice started to mean a lot to me at some point after I read 'Snow', but I am not sure. 'Sunlight on the Garden' and 'Wolves' definitely played a role, too. I have a colleague who loves 'Prayer Before Birth' and it has become one of my favourite poems - it is one of a few which could rank as MacNeice's greatest and I think it is one of the finest poems of the twentieth century. I have now read all of Autumn Journal and it is extraordinary in its evocation of the atmosphere and personal experience at the start of World War II. His bitter and loving poems about Ireland are amazing as well.

If I were a dog of sunlight I would bound
From Phoenix Park to Achill Sound,
Picking up the scent of a hundred fugitives
That have broken the mesh of ordinary lives,
But being ordinary too I must in course discuss
What we mean to Ireland or Ireland to us;

(from 'Valediction')

With a stone on the cairn, with a word on the wind, with a prayer in the flesh let me honour this country.

(from 'Western Landscape')

The range and rush and vitality of his poems are so exciting; funny, moving, resonant and rhythmic, journalistic, so often with that odd streak of practicality which I find so alluring.

I do know that it was a long slow process for MacNeice to become one of my favourite poets. He was more like a valued acquaintance until perhaps a few years ago. Some of my best friendships have been like that - always with respect and liking, but closeness has come very gradually. They are often the friendships that I end up valuing the most.

'Perdita' has become one of my favourite of MacNeice's poems. This short, evocative work is about memories and missed opportunities, things which sometimes (often) cause me a great deal of anxiety.

PERDITA (Louis MacNeice)

The painting is Monet's depiction of Gare Saint-Lazare, which seemed to go well with the train station image in the poem.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke's 'Autumn Day': "Lord, It Is Time"

I'm too tired after a busy weekend to write anything of much consequence, but I wanted to post something. It feels as though autumn is already drawing near and this famous poem by Rilke, 'Autumn Day', is all too appropriate. It also has something to say about certain qualities of solitude and loneliness.

As a side note, P K Page wrote a glosa based on the final stanza of the poem, called 'Autumn'. I think it was probably my first encounter with 'Autumn Day' and certainly one of my first with Rilke.

This translation is by A Z Foreman from his Poems Found In Translation blog. I've also included the original for anyone who reads German.

AUTUMN DAY (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from German by A Z Foreman)

Lord: It is time. The summer days were grand.
Now set your shadows out across the sun-dials
And set the winds loose on the meadowland.

Bid the last fruits grow full upon the vine,
allow them two more days of southern heat,
thrust them to their fulfillment and secrete
the final sweetness into bodied wine.

Whoever has no house yet will have none,
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will stay up, write long letters out, and go
On aimless walks through alleys on his own
Uneasily when leaves begin to blow.


Herr: Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Aleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Translation from German © A Z Foreman

Sunday, 5 August 2012

P K Page's 'Stories of Snow': "Where Silent, Unrefractive Whiteness Lies"

A non-definitive list of the ten poems which have been particularly significant in inviting me into the world of modern, almost-modern, post-modern and contemporary poetry would likely include the following:

Byzantium (W B Yeats)
The Waste Land (T S Eliot)
Foal (Vernon Watkins)
The Convergence of the Twain (Thomas Hardy)
Homecoming (Paul Celan)
At the Quinte Hotel (Al Purdy)
The Tollund Man (Seamus Heaney)
Bagpipe Music (Louis MacNeice)
The Shadow of Cain (Edith Sitwell)
Stories of Snow (P K Page)

I've written about some of these before, and they could probably all be an essay in themselves. To use one of my favourite over-used words, it is a pretty random list. Poems discovered by chance, poems studied in high school or university, poems which I wasn't sure I liked at the time but which ultimately took on greater meaning, poems I heard read by the poet themself (T S Eliot, I wish! In this case, Al Purdy), poems which led me on to poems I preferred by the same poet...and so on.

I've written before about the modern Canadian poetry class which I took in university and which turned out to be very pivotal in my literary life. Among other significant moments, I discovered P K Page in this class, and that was hugely important for me. 'Stories of Snow' can lay claim to being one of the greatest Canadian poems of all time, and simply a great poem, and you can read it here. (Due to the way the poem is reproduced, be prepared to page over a couple of times - it's a long-ish poem.)


The Canadian landscape, the landscape of the West Coast rainforest I grew up in, the tropics, Northern Europe - all of these are invoked. More than this, these are emotional and metaphoric landscapes, snowy and blossoming worlds of poetry.

In that forwards/backwards/memory/premonition way which I've come to recognise, it seems as though this poem ties in with my Antarctic fascination (although that came a little later than my first reading of this poem). In the end, the reader is invited to "unlock/the colour with its complement and go/through to the area behind the eyes/where silent, unrefractive whiteness lies." P K Page was also a talented artist, and her poems are often powerfully visual, so there is an element of artistic curiosity and exploration here.

I feel, though, that these are mainly emotional landscapes and that this has something to do with my metaphoric/semi-realistic desire to escape the twittering and the human difficulty of the modern world and to go to Antarctica - somewhere more peaceful, where access to what is truly important becomes more direct and less encumbered. "Souvenir of some never nether land": this could be ancestral memory, too, or something that I'd pass on if I ever had descendants; again, forwards/backwards/memory/premonition. I'm just waiting to find out that I had an ancestor who went to Antarctica, though I would likely have heard about it by now.

The painting is by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, the magnificent Finnish artist.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Lost In Translation, Japan and Poetry of Place

I first watched Lost In Translation shortly before visiting Japan in 2004. Although I've seen it several times since then, I watched it for the first time in years about six or eight months ago, and it hit me rather hard. I realised that it reminded me of a lot of things from the past ten years, one way or another. The middle-aged actor Bob (Bill Murray) is there to promote Suntory whiskey when he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). On my first visit, in 2004, I brought back some Suntory whiskey for the friends in Dublin who had made me sit down and watch Lost In Translation before I left - that went down rather well. On my second visit, in 2010, I bought a miniature bottle of Suntory for someone in London who, in the end, I never gave it to.

Lost In Translation is definitely a film which polarises people - almost everyone I know who has seen it either cites it as one of their favourite films (that's me), or says it was bland or insipid or boring or words to that effect. I just found it incredibly realistic and rather moving, in terms of the characters in their interactions. I wouldn't say that it offered a lot of insight into Japanese culture, though the glimpses are entertaining and fascinating - the main characters don't make that much effort to really engage with the culture around them, so they remain outsiders. Not that it is a culture where it is particularly easy to become an insider.

But Japan is one of my favourite countries, after two visits to see one of my (Western) friends and her (Japanese) husband. It is a country where you can have so much fun, exploring the old and beautiful history, art and architecture, or running through the modern playgrounds of the cities and the futuristic technology. And everything works smoothly and everyone is so polite... My shining memories tend to surround the time I spent with my friend, and with her delightful friends, and marveling at the beauty of the castles, like the airy Himeji, and the gardens of Kyoto, and the otherworldly Ursula Le Guin archipelago of Okinawa. Oh yes...and shopping a lot, and sampling all of the amazing food that I possibly could. (Japan is my number one culinary destination.)

Returning to Lost In Translation, I see this above all as a movie about dislocation and feeling isolated (which can happen anywhere - even at home) and about the place where you are reflecting your state of mind. The latter is particularly interesting, and relates to poetry. I've consistently found that when I write poems about places - which I often do - the place (usually a city) ends up acting as a mirror and as an excavator; it reflects my state of mind and my preoccupations, and uncovers more. Every city reveals something different, of course. With other human beings, you have a different chemistry (in any kind of relationship) and thus a different way of relating to everyone; cities are like this as well because they all have a differing energy. I know sometimes that my experience of a city could have been quite different if I had visited in different company; or alone; or happier; or sadder. I remember that Tokyo, which I only visited in 2004, struck me as fascinating, but cold. I was living in Ireland and having a hard time when I took that trip, and while in Tokyo I was either alone, or with people I didn't know that well. I am not sure if I would have found Tokyo exactly warm under different circumstances, but it would not have been the same, I'm sure.

I thought of this in relation to poetry partly because of the workshop I took with Kapka Kassabova at Poetry Parnassus, which was about poetry of place and travel. One way to approach this is by allowing the place to tell a story about your state of mind, or a process you are going through in your life, or something similar. This is often where I turn out to be coming from when I write these poems, although it can be an unexpected result. Among others, we looked at the poem 'Finisterre' by Sylvia Plath, and Kassabova's own wonderful poem 'How to build your dream garden'; these are great examples. In 'Finisterre', Plath's lonely and morbid state of mind surges overwhelmingly out of the poem's imagery:

The cliffs are edged with trefoils, stars and bells
Such as fingers might embroider, close to death,
Almost too small for the mists to bother with.

(from 'Finisterre', Sylvia Plath)

I feel like I should revisit some of the places I've been to but have not yet written about, and explore them again through poetry.

Japanese poetry is a largely unknown world to me as yet, but I found this beautiful translation of a Kobayashi Issa haiku, by Robert Hass. It also strikes a poignant note as it involuntarily brings up thoughts of the 2011 tsunami.

The snow is melting (Kobayashi Issa, translated by Robert Hass)