Monday, 30 December 2013

A New Translation of Osip Mandelstam's 'Tristia'

Osip Mandelstam at the time of his arrest in 1934

On 27 December, it was 75 years since the untimely death of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938). This previously unpublished translation of Mandelstam's 'Tristia' has been kindly contributed by Mark L Mosher, a California-based translator with whom I occasionally correspond about poetry and especially poetry in translation. He has already appeared on the blog as Leif Hendrik, with his translation of Georg Trakl's 'Decline', and he blogs at Nordic Mountain. You can read his translation of 'Tristia' below, as well as the original Russian poem, and Mark's biography.

'Tristia' is a complex, subtle poem beloved of many poets and readers. With its meditation on "the science of parting", it feels very personal, but it is suffused with the uncertainty following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Through its title and subject matter, it also references the Tristia of the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote a series of laments while in exile. The poem contains allusions to traditional Russian divination practices, which took place particularly around New Year's Eve, such as the attempt to see shapes in wax or the future in a mirror. The cockerel, too, could be a reference to such practices, or to the dawning of a new day and life - but the poem is constantly ringed round with uncertainty, like the women's attempts to see the future.

This poem made me think of a comment by poet and critic Ilya Kaminsky: "I don’t think there exists a poet on this planet without a duality. Duality is a mother of metaphors." 'Tristia' is all about duality, which makes me it particularly appropriate for the end of one year and the beginning of another, a time when people naturally look both forwards and back. (January is named after Janus, the Roman god with two faces, who looks ahead and behind.) It reads like a palimpsest - past, present and future overlaid, the ancient Roman setting visible through the contemporary reality of 20th-century Russian political and personal upheaval. All of its times, settings and themes are both ghostly, and real. Science and superstition, women and men, literal and metaphorical death - all are present. "All happened long ago, all will happen again,/Only recognition of the moment is sweet", says Mandelstam. Paradoxically, in the fusion of prophecy and contemplation which comes naturally to poetry, such moments of pure being can emerge. 'Tristia' feels like a moment both peaceful and unsettling, in the eye of the storm.

TRISTIA (Osip Mandelstam, translated from the Russian by Mark L Mosher)

I have learned the science of parting
In bare-headed laments of night.
The oxen graze, the waiting goes on - 
The final hour of vigils in town,
And I honor the rituals of cockerel night,
When, bearing the weight of a journey endured,
Tear-stained eyes gazed into the void
And a woman's cry mixed with singing of the muse.

Who can know, with the word 'farewell',
What kind of separation awaits?
What promise for us in the cockerel's cry,
When fire in the acropolis burns,
And at the dawn of some new life,
When the ox chews lazily in its stall,
Why does the cockerel, herald of new life,
Beat its wings upon the city wall?

And I love the habits of weaving:
The shuttle twists, the spindle hums.
Look, like swan's down,
Barefooted Delia already runs forth!
O, meagre foundation of our life,
How pitiful the language of joy!
All happened long ago, all will happen again,
Only recognition of the moment is sweet.

Thus will it be: a transparent shape
On a clean porcelain plate,
And, like a squirrel's spread-out pelt,
A girl leans over the wax and gazes in.
The Greek Erebus is not for us to divine,
Wax is to woman what bronze is to man.
Our lot falls only in battle,
While for them divination is the death. 

Я изучил науку расставанья 
В простоволосых жалобах ночных. 
Жуют волы, и длится ожиданье — 
Последний час вигилий городских, 
И чту обряд той петушиной ночи, 
Когда, подняв дорожной скорби груз, 
Глядели вдаль заплаканные очи 
И женский плач мешался с пеньем муз. 

Кто может знать при слове «расставанье» 
Какая нам разлука предстоит, 
Что нам сулит петушье восклицанье, 
Когда огонь в акрополе горит, 
И на заре какой-то новой жизни, 
Когда в сенях лениво вол жуёт, 
Зачем петух, глашатай новой жизни, 
На городской стене крылами бьёт? 

И я люблю обыкновенье пряжи: 
Снуёт челнок, веретено жужжит. 
Смотри, навстречу, словно пух лебяжий, 
Уже босая Делия летит! 
О, нашей жизни скудная основа, 
Куда как беден радости язык! 
Всё было встарь, всё повторится снова, 
И сладок нам лишь узнаванья миг. 

Да будет так: прозрачная фигурка 
На чистом блюде глиняном лежит, 
Как беличья распластанная шкурка, 
Склонясь над воском, девушка глядит. 
Не нам гадать о греческом Эребе, 
Для женщин воск, что для мужчины медь. 
Нам только в битвах выпадает жребий, 
А им дано гадая умереть. 


Mark L Mosher is a freelance translator. Beginning with Two Brothers, his translation of a play by Mikhail Lermontov (California State University, 1996), he has published translations from Russian, German, Spanish and Danish. His translation of excerpts from the memoirs of Mikhail Nesterov was published by Atlantis Magazine in 2004. He has participated as a translator in three exhibitions sponsored by the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation (Washington and Moscow, 1999-2009). His poem 'Doña Alba on the Ranch' recently appeared in 200 New Mexico Poems, an official project of the New Mexico Centennial Commission in cooperation with the University of New Mexico Press. He is currently working on an English translation of Johannes Vilhelm Jensen's Himmerland Stories. He lives in San Francisco, California and writes on topics literary, cultural and personal at

Translation © Mark L Mosher, 2013.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Translating Emile Nelligan's 'Winter Night' (Soir d'hiver)

Emile Nelligan photo: Laprés & Lavergne

This is my translation from French of 'Soir d'hiver' by Emile Nelligan (1879-1941), one of Quebec's great poets. You can also find the original poem below.

The story of Emile Nelligan is tragic in the extreme. The son of an Irishman and a Quebecois woman, he was influenced by the Symbolist poets such as Verlaine and Baudelaire, and published some of his poems in Montreal when he was only 16. He had already produced a considerable and impressive body of work by the time he was 19, when the sensitive poet suffered a massive mental breakdown from which he never recovered. Nelligan lived into his sixties, but was never able to write any more new poetry. Despite this, he is considered a great French-Canadian poet and romantic figure.

I found this poem quite challenging: that said, it's probably one of Nelligan's most straightforward and accessible poems, and certainly one of the most famous. I attempted to preserve a similar rhyme scheme, but I admit that in places it is a loose or free translation, in terms of wording. I hope I captured some of the spirit of the poem, at least.

(I have titled my translation 'Winter Night', though it may be that 'Winter Evening' is actually more accurate. The imagery is just so dark...) 

WINTER NIGHT (Emile Nelligan, translated from the French by Clarissa Aykroyd)

It has snowed, oh, how it has snowed!
My window's blooming, a garden of frost.
It has snowed and it has snowed...
The spur of life seems all but lost
To this agony in me, in me...

Every lake is gripped by ice. Where am I,
And which way, through my soul's black night?
All my hopes are cold, bled dry:
I am the new North, the Arctic heights
From which the midnight sun has fled.

Weep, birds of winter,
For the deadly chill through all.
Wail, February birds - 
Tears must fall like roses fall
Through the sharp juniper branches.

It has snowed, oh, how it has snowed!
My window's blooming, a garden of frost.
It has snowed and it has snowed...
The stab of life seems almost lost
To all the dread in me, in me...

SOIR D'HIVER (Emile Nelligan)

Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.
Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre
A la douleur que j’ai, que j’ai !

Tous les étangs gisent gelés,
Mon âme est noire : Où vis-je ? où vais-je ?
Tous ses espoirs gisent gelés;
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège
D’où les blonds ciels s’en sont allés.

Pleurez, oiseaux de février,
Au sinistre frisson des choses,
Pleurez, oiseaux de février,
Pleurez mes pleurs, pleurez mes roses,
Aux branches du genévrier.

Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.
Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre
A tout l’ennui que j’ai, que j’ai !...

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

My Favourite Poems Of the Last Few Years...More Or Less

I'm not really one for end-of-year lists. The timing of this list-oriented entry may seem suspicious, but it's (more or less) coincidental; at any rate, it's not a "best of 2013".

While I've often written about classic poems on this blog, I particularly wanted to highlight some of the new (or new-ish) poems that I've discovered and loved since I started The Stone and the Star - or at least, that I've discovered in recent years.

Vague enough? Well, let's say the list that follows includes ten of my favourite poems of the last few years, or at least not too long ago (so if something is five or ten years old, don't write to me in protest). Some of them I've written about already, and where links are provided they should either take you directly to the poem, or to an entry I've written about them (which should contain either the poem, or a link to the poem). Where I haven't yet written about these poets, you may see more of them in 2014 on the blog. The main thing to know is that these poems are a good way to spend some time.

Travel Papers (Carolyn Forché)
Fast Is the Century (Nikola Madzirov)
At Roane Head (Robin Robertson)
Man Praying, King's Cross, 34° (Toby Martinez de las Rivas)
Hennecker's Ditch (Kate Kilalea)
Vita Contemplativa (Adam Zagajewski)
Migration (Karen Solie)
How To Build Your Dream Garden (Kapka Kassabova)
Author's Prayer (Ilya Kaminsky)
Garden Statues (Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi)

The countries represented include the United States, Macedonia, Scotland, England, South Africa, Poland, Canada, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, and Sudan, and three (four?) of the poems are in translation from other languages. This international range was not at all deliberate, by the way, but I think it's pretty interesting. It certainly highlights the fact that my exciting poetic discoveries of recent years have often been international and/or in translation.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Theodore Roethke: "In a Dark Time, the Eye Begins to See..."

Gustave Doré, 1857, from Dante's Inferno
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;   
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,   
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
-Theodore Roethke, from 'In a Dark Time'

Roethke's 'In a Dark Time' walks the reader through some of the most fundamental images of the subconscious/unconscious; it's at one and the same time highly immersive (I feel like Dante heading into the dark wood, in those opening lines), and extremely self-aware, even self-observing.

I appreciate this poem, and Roethke's poems generally, for their keen psychological insights. Above all, this poem tells me that we can make use of the dark times. It reminds me of Rumi's famous words: "Don't turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That is where the light enters you." The dark time is when the eye begins to see.

IN A DARK TIME (Theodore Roethke)

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach'...On Dover Beach

Dover Beach, photo © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

About a month ago I went to Dover with a friend who was visiting London and wanted to see the White Cliffs. I warned her that Dover might not be everything she had always hoped for, but we went, and we had fun, despite getting rained on quite a bit.

This picture was, of course, taken on Dover Beach. Dover is quite industrial, and the cliffs were a bit distant. But you stand there, and you think of all that Dover has seen, in history. And then you think of Matthew Arnold - and that's never a bad thing.

DOVER BEACH (Matthew Arnold)

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Nomination for the 2015 Pushcart Prize!

To my great surprise and delight, I learned this weekend that Muse-Pie Press has nominated my poem 'Battersea Park, December' for a Pushcart Prize. The poem appeared earlier this year in Shot Glass Journal.

I will save the champagne until I actually win something, but in any case this is a very nice vote of confidence, and further inspiration to get writing and send out some more poems.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Miklós Radnóti: 'Letter To My Wife' - Poetry of Witness From the Grave

The poetry of Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944) is so beautiful, so pure and devastating, that it could take the breath from your lungs or break your heart. The poems and the story behind them are, in terms of "poetry of witness", the ultimate voice of the voiceless and murdered, crying from the ground.

He was a Hungarian Jewish poet who during his life struggled against the obstacles placed in his way due to his ethnic background. Radnóti worked as a translator and tutor, and wrote poetry which received little attention in his lifetime. His passion for his wife Fanni is evident from his poems. In 1943 he converted to Catholicism, but this of course made no difference to how he was viewed as a Jew.

Radnóti was made to serve hard labour in the 1940s, until he was eventually shot on a forced march, already in a weakened condition. After the war, his body and those of others were exhumed from a mass grave. In his overcoat, there was a small notebook which contained his final poems. They are now considered some of the finest Hungarian poetry, and world poetry, ever written. Only someone quite remarkable, both in talent and in spirit, could have written such poems in very extreme circumstances, knowing that he was probably facing death.

It is a good time to read Radnóti's poems, if "good" is the right word. In the past ten days or so, a photo appeared on the internet which showed his poems being burned by neo-fascist extremists in Hungary. A statue commemorating the place of his death was also driven into and destroyed. The latter incident may have been an accident, though the circumstances are unclear, but the book-burning certainly wasn't.

I think it's important for these incidents not to go unnoticed, and such happenings in Hungary and elsewhere are not receiving a great deal of media attention. You can read other articles at Melville House and at The Missing Slate. I first heard about this from Hungarian-born British poet and translator George Szirtes, whose excellent blog often draws attention to Hungarian issues.

Here, finally, is one of the poems, 'Letter to my wife' - one of those final poems and beloved by many. It is impossible to read this without being deeply moved. It is incredible on a purely aesthetic basis, as poetry, and it is a testimony which should be listened to.

LETTER TO MY WIFE (Miklós Radnóti, translated by Stephen Capus)

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Saison Poetry Library Open Day: Poetry in Performance

With permission of The Saison Poetry Library

A week ago I went to this year's Open Day for the Saison Poetry Library at London's Southbank.

The theme was Poetry in Performance, and the organisers brought together some fascinating strands of that theme: not just the concept of poetry readings, but permutations such as poetry as music (focusing on the work of Leonard Cohen), historic recordings of Tennyson and Browning (here referred to as "The Victorians: Those Gods of Slam"), automatic writing, books and poetry as art, actors reading poems...the list goes on.

The displays made a great space for browsing, leafing, listening and enjoying. I signed the Seamus Heaney book of condolences, pored over a wonderful-looking long poem from 1981 called Fox Running by Ken Smith, and marvelled at the very crackly recording of Tennyson reading 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. Although no recordings of Gerard Manley Hopkins were ever made, librarian Chris McCabe pointed out in his writeup: "Hopkins' art was led by his instinct and an inversely atavistic desire to listen to what poetry from the future might sound like. Through listening to himself he was expressing all that he strongly felt that poetry could be." In the section on Comedian Poets, digital co-ordinator Chrissy Williams noted: "It's often prompted by deliberately boisterous or comical performers, but we've heard distinguished poet Geoffrey Hill's banter between poems drawing hearty laughter in the past."

There was also a very interesting section on the ghazal, the great Persian/Arabic/Indian form, which has arrived in the West through writers such as Adrienne Rich, W S Merwin, Marilyn Hacker and Mimi Khalvati, and stayed closer to its origins in the work of the great twentieth-century Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Finally, I saw collections and books which pushed the poetry-as-visual-art to its utmost limits, bringing in daring reflections on censorship and design.

In the evening, there were readings by Claire Crowther, Charlotte Higgins and Linus Slug: Insect Librarian, all of which were adventurous with the poetry-in-performance concept, whether sonically, or in terms of theme or style.

I'm already looking forward to next year's Open Day. Here are a few photos:


Ron King, ‘Alphabeta Concertina’ (Circle Press, 2007), with permission of The Saison Poetry Library

Mette-Sofie D. Ambeck, ‘Dust to Dust’ (Ambeck, 2012), with permission of The Saison Poetry Library

With permission of The Saison Poetry Library

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Arabic Literature (in English): Translating Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi

Last week I went to one of the Poetry Translation Centre's collaborative translation workshops, where we translated one of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's mesmerizing, labyrinthine poems - with the poet himself present.

I wrote about the experience for M Lynx Qualey's blog Arabic Literature (in English), which is known to be an absolutely essential resource for people interested in just that. If you click on the "poetry" tag, it will bring up a wealth of interesting stories about the translation of Arabic-language poetry.

You can read my writeup about the workshop here:

Here's a excerpt:

"The translator who had produced the literal English version, Samuel Wilder, had selected a sequence of poems from which Saddiq had deduced that he was a) a bit of a romantic and b) possibly interested in Sufism, which is a huge influence on Sudanese poetry and was especially evident in these poems. The other poems were shorter, had charming details about butterflies, and while also complex were probably a little more straightforward. So, naturally, the group chose to go for the long, extremely difficult poem…"

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Elizabeth Bishop's 'The Moose': Nature, Childhood and Memory

Cow Moose Drinking From Pond, Alaska. Used under Creative Commons license

By most reckonings, Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet (and a great one), but she spent some of her early childhood in New Scotia and described her ancestry as "three-quarters Canadian and one quarter New Englander". The influence of such early memories can be enormous. This poem, 'The Moose', seems to me an especially strong evocation of Canada and the natural world, and of certain aspects of childhood.

THE MOOSE (Elizabeth Bishop)

I have never been to Canada's Maritime provinces, including those described in this poem, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The farthest east I have been is, I think, the town of Montmagny in Quebec, on the Saint Lawrence River east of Quebec City. Strangely, some of the poem's initial details seem more reminiscent of the Nordic countries, to me: the herring, the "clapboard farmhouses" and "twin silver birches". The "impenetrable wood" of New Brunswick is more familiar - there's a lot of that, all over Canada.

The coach-trip nature of the poem is quintessentially North American. The lines are quite short and there is a flick/flick/flick effect to many of the images:

One stop at Bass River.   
Then the Economies—
Lower, Middle, Upper;  
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth  
out after supper.

I have remembered, since childhood, catching glimpses of certain people and places on car, bus or train journeys and thinking: what is their life like, what is that place like? That person who I've just flicked past has a life and thoughts as full and complex as mine. These thoughts have always been a bit overwhelming, and usually not to be clung to for too long.

There is a blurring of place here which is both reassuring and disorienting. The child overhears her grandparents "talking the way they talked/in the old featherbed", which has a lulling effect (she doesn't fully understand the seriousness of the conversation, so it remains reassuring): she could be back at home, not on the bus. But the sudden appearance of the moose, while beautiful, is also jarring.

The moose is a reminder that nature will intrude anywhere it wants to; so far, the passengers have been cocooned in the bus, observing the natural world but not participating it, even able to imagine, half-asleep, that they're at home. The moose is enormous, ugly and beautiful at the same time, and it stops the bus. This poem is certainly a tribute to the animal world and to the Maritime provinces, but it seems to me that the moose could also represent the anarchic nature of artistic inspiration - or more broadly, it is the kind of event which is uncontrollable and which sets more things in motion than are evident at the time.

Bishop reportedly said that it took her 20 years to finish this poem. Childhood memories can sometimes be incomprehensibly enormous - like the moose. You never know what you will remember, and what you will forget. I have memories from the age of five, at least, which are extremely vivid, and it is not unusual for them to involve animals and the natural world. Other memories - which, when reminded of, I think I should have remembered - seem to have gotten lost, or at least buried.

In an unrelated-yet-related way, I realised the other day that I still remembered the Finnish word for moose - hirvi. Why I should remember this, when I either never knew or have long forgotten other (probably more useful) words, is beyond me. It's certainly true that a lot of my meager Finnish is child-Finnish - a lot of animal words, and food words. There's more there than I give credit for, I suppose.

The moose/hirvi thought may have been triggered by looking at some photos of the animal sculptures of Jussi Mäntynen, which for some other inexplicable reason I was doing recently. They are as beautiful and touching as I remembered. The art gallery in Turku features a small room containing many of his pieces. There was always something magical about it, for me. It was like an animal treasure house.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

John Peck's 'A Twenty-Fourth Poem About Horses': "Ambassador From the Eldest Kingdom..."

Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Escuestre, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

Horses are one of my long/longer/longest obsessions, one which sometimes goes nearly dormant, but which has been with me more than twenty-five years and will certainly never go away entirely. It's certainly in resurgence at the moment - I've done particularly well in the last few years, with visits to the Royal School of Equestrian Art in Jerez, Spain; Royal Ascot, and both Olympic and Paralympic dressage last year; a long overdue visit to the famous Olympia show coming up in December (where I will see my friends from Jerez again), and so on.


I came across this lovely and powerful horse poem very recently. The title and epigraph make reference to the ninth/tenth-century Chinese poet Li Ho, whose twenty-three poems on horses I have yet to read.

Curiously, 'A Twenty-fourth Poem About Horses' reminded me of Archibald MacLeish's 'You, Andrew Marvell'. This has something to do with the forward momentum and rush of the poem, along with references to the rise and fall of great empires. Here, the horse is a physical presence both calm and violent, a metaphor for human endeavour, for accomplishments and atrocities. I think that there is a realisation that the role of the horse in history has not been fully acknowledged or explained, and that people make unwise assumptions about the survival of species both animal and human, and about what they should do with the powers that they so blithely and unthinkingly harness.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

"Twittering World": The Stone and the Star Joins Twitter

"Not here/Not here the darkness, in this twittering world" wrote T S Eliot in 'Burnt Norton'. Even Keats, a long long time ago, had "gathering swallows twitter in the skies" (ok...I admit that's a stretch.)

In that spirit, The Stone and the Star has caved in and joined Twitter. You can find me under TheStoneAndTheStar or under username @stoneandthestar.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Spain and Poetry 4: Federico García Lorca: "Green, How I Want You Green..."

Bodega Sandeman, Jerez de la Frontera

In the bitter green
a hard playing-card light
carves out furious horses
and profiles of riders.

-Federico García Lorca, from 'The Quarrel', translated by Jane Duran and Gloria García Lorca

The day in Granada when I visited Huerta de San Vicente - one of Federico García Lorca's homes , now a museum - it rained pretty hard for much of the day. It was a nuisance, as it is anywhere, and I found out that it made the sidewalks desperately slippery. After my tour of the house, I bought a bilingual edition of Romancero gitano (Gypsy Ballads), and also a postcard with one of Lorca's own pieces of art - a spidery drawing of the Alhambra - and a letter. I'm not sure who the letter was addressed to but it must have been a friend or a family member. When I later tried to read the writing, I saw that the opening lines said: "All day it has rained... Autumn has come." I didn't mind the rain any more, suddenly. It was as though Lorca was waving at me across 80 years or more.

Lorca is an enormous topic and I am really just starting out on that journey, so these are more or less initial thoughts. It does seem as though he has been converging on my life lately, gradually - as these things often happen. A reader of The Stone and the Star in New York, who works at the New York Public Library, very kindly sent me a copy of the wonderful program for the recent Poet In New York exhibition held at the NYPL. I've also been reading various poems more or less inspired by him (more about that to come, I think). Meanwhile, as I prepared to go to Spain, the section on Andalucia in my Lonely Planet guide noted: "It is debatable whether you can truly understand modern Andalucia without at least an inkling of Spain's greatest poet and playwright, Federico García Lorca. Lorca epitomised many of Andalucia's potent hallmarks - passion, ambiguity, exuberance and innovation."

Then I went and saw for myself. I had been to this part of Spain before, of course, but I went with more of an eye to Lorca and poetry this time, and was rewarded. (Although I know the titles of his famous plays, I have not yet engaged with those at all.) Lorca's poetry seems to embody the dichotomies and tensions of Andalucia - beauty and violence, concrete details and fairytale-like images. He moves between the real and the fantastic worlds with ease, evoking the blinding light and extreme darkness of Moorish Spain, Gypsy Spain, pre-Civil War Spain. In the midst of a poem with edges as sharp as stained glass or the blue-stained ceramic tiles of the region, I would find moments of description so true to the spirit of what I had observed or experienced that it took my breath away.

Carriages the Guadalquivir
lays down on its ancient glass
between sheets of flowers
and resonances of dark clouds.
[...] But Córdoba does not tremble
under the confused mystery,
for even if the shadow raises
its architecture of smoke,
a marble foot affirms
its chaste, gaunt radiance.

(from 'San Rafael', translated by Jane Duran and Gloria García Lorca)

If I could write like Lorca and I had that intensity of vision, I would describe Cordoba something very much like that; that's how true to life his words feel to the spirit of the place, despite (or perhaps because of) the fantastic and grotesque lurking in the background of the poems.

On a tour of Huerta de San Vicente, I was part of a group of twelve or fifteen, all of whom were Spanish except me, I think. I found some of it hard to follow, but did my best. Huerta de San Vicente was the García Lorca family's summer home from 1926 to 1936. In those days it was in the countryside outside Granada, although now it feels very close to the centre of the city, and is surrounded by a lovely park dedicated to the poet.

The house had been maintained almost just as it always had been. I was struck by the photograph of Lorca's sister Concha, whose beautiful laughing face was incredibly vivid. There were some of his drawings, and the piano on which Lorca played and composed. It was possible to imagine that he and his family members would soon return, which I found a little hard to take. As well as writing some of his important works in Huerta de San Vicente, Lorca also stayed there shortly before his arrest and murder.

If I were Spanish, I would probably understand a little better what Lorca means to them. Some of the tour group was made up of an enthusiastic collection of ladies in their fifties or thereabouts, who ignored the guide's request not to touch anything, and exclaimed over everything (in the kitchen, when the guide explained a few of the details of the facilities: "How useful! Look at that! My sister has one almost like it! Oh my, was I not supposed to touch that?" etc.) Later, one of the ladies asked: "Do they know which house Federico lived in, in Granada?" (The exact location is lost, if I understood right.) I thought it was telling that he was "Federico", not "Lorca" or "García Lorca" - perhaps this was to differentiate him from his family, but I would have thought it was clear enough. To these visitors, he was Federico.

I will be making my way through the spotlit, bloody and gorgeous landscapes of his poems for some time, I think, especially comparing the originals and the translations, with my so-so Spanish. Meanwhile, I will point you in the direction of the following poems which seem to me especially amazing, or representative, or just so worth reading.

ROMANCE SONAMBULO (Federico García Lorca)

THE GUITAR (Federico García Lorca)

RIDER'S SONG (Federico García Lorca)

All photos © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

Friday, 18 October 2013

Adam Zagajewski's 'Autumn': "Blue Knives Glinting In Her Glance"

Victor Westerholm, Landscape From Rath, 1880. Ateneum, Helsinki

Although the weather is remarkably warm here in London at the moment, the autumn darkness is closing in. In that spirit, here's a grim, fierce poem on the subject by the wonderful Polish poet Adam Zagajewski.

AUTUMN (Adam Zagajewski, translated by Renata Gorczynski)

The painting above is by Finnish landscape painter Victor Westerholm. He was the director of the Turku Art Gallery, in my mother's hometown of Turku - a gallery which had a very powerful effect on me as a child. Westerholm was fond of painting cows, and this painting's lack of bovine presences seems ominous indeed.

This blog entry is mainly to tide you over while I prepare what is hopefully a stunning-to-reasonably-good post on Lorca. I had hoped to perhaps produce the Lorca post tonight, but I'm not quite there yet.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Karen Solie's 'Migration': "Snow Is Falling..."


Snow at Lake Oesa, J E H MacDonald, c .1930

Canadian literature has been much in the news these last several days, because Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize. I actually let out a tiny shriek of joy when I saw the news, which is probably a Nobel first for me. She's been a favourite writer of mine for quite a few years, probably my favourite short story writer of all time, and a lot of us thought she deserved it but would probably never actually get it. The fact that she's a Canadian woman (both uncommon factors in a Nobel Literature win) is a bonus. She has spent some of her life in my hometown of Victoria, BC, and in Comox, also on Vancouver Island, and was actually in Victoria when the news was announced. Years ago I applied to work at Munro's Books, which she founded with her ex-husband Jim Munro, and I met Mr Munro himself, which is cool in a six-degrees-of-separation way. Apparently they get along quite well these days, and obviously Munro's has had a lot of good days since the award was announced.

Speaking of Canadian literature, I have been enjoying the work of poet Karen Solie, who is originally from Saskatchewan and now lives in Ontario. Her deceptively conversational poetry often focuses on industrial wastelands and peculiarly Canadian details. I wish I'd seen her at Poetry Parnassus last year, but there was too much going on and I really missed a lot (though I also experienced a lot). My parents brought me a copy of her collection Pigeon when they visited me in London recently. It includes this poem, 'Migration'.

MIGRATION (Karen Solie)

I think that 'Migration' is one of my favourite contemporary poems that I have read in the last few years. It shifts from wry but nostalgic details - the idling cars, the old-fashioned neighbourhoods, the "tax collector" - to elegy and a kind of agnosticism about life, with great elegance. What I really love about it, though, is the expansiveness and the sense of distance and space. Sometimes I really can't figure out if I'm Canadian or not; a Vancouver Islander is surely a bit different. I occasionally doubt whether I have ever really lived in Canada, because I never lived in places where the temperature goes to 20 or 30 below every winter. In Victoria, much as in London, residents freak out when there is an inch of snow. (They brag unreasonably about the climate, though, which a Londoner would never do.)

But one indication of my Canadian-ness - I think - is the fact that I understand how big the country is. It is really, really big, and Europeans just don't get this, unless they are among those who have not only been to North America but also travelled some distance around it. (In a similar way, a lot of North Americans don't get how close most things are in Europe, and how you can be in Paris in a few hours.) The opening lines of 'Migration' seem like a vast weather map; snow falling all over the country, the lightning over Lake Ontario, a giddy zoom in to "debt accumulating along baseboards/like hair", the "frozen fields and wheels/of wind" on the Prairies, the northern frost. The Arctic tern, too, flying bravely on to Antarctica, brings us back to the vast distances, even while the speaker stays earthbound in bewilderment. It's a fantastic poem.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Spain and Poetry 3: Cosmopoética: Almost Attending Cordoba's International Poetry Festival

This post is something of an addendum to the previous post.

While the poets of past decades and centuries make for wonderful encounters while travelling, it's good to know that contemporary poetry is also alive and dynamic. This happened to me quite unexpectedly in Cordoba.

M and I were crossing the Roman Bridge in Cordoba, and looking back at the wonderful views of the Mezquita and city, when we came across this:

Imagine my delight when it turned out that this lovely man with an umbrella was advertising Cosmopoética - "Poets of the World in Cordoba". The next day, we found this at what I think may have been one of the festival's venues:

Our time in Cordoba was quite short (and we were distracted by things like unexpected horse shows and The Street of the Handsome Waiters), and sadly I didn't have time to actually check out the festival. It started in 2004 and has not only featured outstanding Spanish poets, but also the likes of Dario Fo and Seamus Heaney. The festival focuses on poetry, but also features a great deal of music, theatre, flamenco, and other artistic disciplines. It sounds great, and I'm both happy that I stumbled across the man with the umbrella, and sad that I couldn't take part.

When I returned to England and checked out Cosmopoética's Facebook page, the festival was in its last few days. Right at the end, I noted that at least one event had been held in the Hall of the Mosaics, in the city's Alcazar, which we had visited. Seeing poetry enthusiasts in a room where we'd marvelled at ancient Roman mosaics a short time previously gave me the feeling of belonging to an international poetry community.

All photos © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

Spain and Poetry 2: "My Thought Goes Back to the Land..."

  My thought goes back to the land,
- the olive groves at sunrise -
outlined sharply in the white
or golden or yellow moonlight,
that look forward to the coming back
of those humans who are neither its slaves nor its masters,
but who love it anyway...

-Juan Ramón Jiménez, from 'Night Piece'

Having now spent a few weeks in total in Andalucia, and keeping my eyes and ears open for poetry, my impression is that a good number of the greatest Spanish poets have been Andalucian; certainly a number of those who make up the famed Generation of '27. These authors came together in 1927 to celebrate Luis de Góngora (1561-1627). He was an extremely influential Spanish Baroque poet, and the Generation of '27 celebrated the three hundred years since his death. In Cordoba, his city of origin, I crossed paths with this poet.

This is one of his poems to Cordoba, on a plaque erected in 1927, near the Roman Bridge in Cordoba:

In the Mezquita, the great mosque of Cordoba which was converted into a cathedral, I found his tomb:

The Generation of '27 seem to have been a somewhat disparate lot, but amongst a variety of subjects, emotional and intellectual approaches, they strove for excellence. Juan Ramón Jiménez, who I came across at the Alhambra, is thought of more as a teacher or mentor for the Generation of '27 than a member of the group. Here is the full text of his wonderful (and very Andalucian) poem 'Night Piece', and another which particularly struck me, 'Road' (this poem made me wonder if Paul Celan was influenced by Jiménez).

In Cadiz, I came across more traces. Cadiz is wonderful itself, a city which is not just "seaside" but almost surrounded by the sea. Columbus left on some of his voyages from here, and it may be the oldest settlement in Europe. I found this plaque dedicated to and quoting another Generation of '27 poet, Rafael Alberti. While I'm not sure any translation I can provide would be accurate, the quote expresses a love for Cadiz:

Here you can read a translation of Alberti's 'If my voice should die on land...'.

In Cadiz I also found this monument to the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. You can read some of his poems here. This monument appears to have been donated by the Nicaraguan government - I'm not sure if he had specific ties to Cadiz, but his connections to Spain were close and influential.

My next post, or one soon, will be about the great and oh-so-Andalucian Lorca, the most famous member of the Generation of '27.

All photos © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013