Wednesday, 31 July 2013

"London Original, Wolf-Wrapped": D H Lawrence's 'Town in 1917'

An October Night Raid on London, 1917: Seen from the Royal College of Science by Norman G Arnold, 1918. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1071)

I was coming home late from drinks at Canary Wharf a few nights ago, and the startling round dial of Big Ben caught me by surprise as I took the train from Waterloo to Vauxhall - for a moment I thought it was a very round, very low full moon. It reminded me of the below poem, 'Town in 1917' by D H Lawrence - a little inappropriately, because although the poem refers to Big Ben, it is about a blackout during the bombing raids of 1917.

D H Lawrence tends to be a bit too drama for me, and this poem occasionally borders on that, but the way in which it reveals London as a place of darkness is original and powerful. I like what it has to say about continuity, how the tendencies of its early history are not gone. London is a city whose spirit is not subservient to those who populate it. Someone recently said to me that all the building that is happening around the city - skyscrapers, and too many of them - is changing it forever. On the surface, yes, a lot is changing, but I think it would be a big mistake to believe that a few buildings (even if they're very tall and very Dubai-esque) are going to alter the essence of a very ancient and determined city.

TOWN IN 1917 (D H Lawrence)

Used to wear her lights splendidly,
Flinging her shawl-fringe over the River,
Tassels in abandon.

And up in the sky
A two-eyed clock, like an owl
Solemnly used to approve, chime, chiming
Approval, goggle-eyed fowl!

There are no gleams on the River,
No goggling clock;
No sound from St Stephen's;
No lamp-fringed frock.

Darkness, and skin-wrapped
Fleet, hurrying limbs,
Soft-footed dead.

Original, wolf-wrapped
In pelts of wolves, all her luminous
Garments gone.

London, with hair
Like a forest darkness, like a marsh
Of rushes, ere the Romans
Broke in her lair.

It is well
That London, lair of sudden
Male and female darknesses,
Has broken her spell.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Rilke's Rose Poems In Translation, VIII

J W Waterhouse, The Soul of the Rose, 1908.

This painting by Waterhouse, The Soul of the Rose, is itself apparently inspired by a line in a poem, 'Come Into the Garden, Maud' by Tennyson - "And the soul of the rose went into my blood". You can read the whole poem here.

Here's the latest of my translation of Rilke's French Roses poems. I'm really not sure about this one (although I couldn't see to improve it) and am wondering if I should just go to sleep and give up translation, at least for tonight.

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


From within a crowded dream
where you were one of many flowers,
soaked as though by tears
you reach towards the dawn.

With uncertain desire
your gentle, sleeping powers
develop tender forms
resembling cheeks, or breasts.



De ton rêve trop plein,
fleur en dedans nombreuse,
mouillée comme une pleureuse,
tu te penches sur le matin.

Tes douces forces qui dorment,
dans un désir incertain,
développent ces tendres formes
entre joues et seins.

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013.  

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Wallace Stevens's 'A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts': When Rabbits Freak You Out

Watchful Rabbit, Hackney Road. London. Photo by Ewan Munro. Used under Creative Commons license

Anyone who doubts that rabbits can be scary need only watch Donnie Darko or read parts of Watership Down. Then there's Michael Sowa's painting Happy Easter. And also, this poem:


My faithful blog readers may not be entirely surprised to hear of my ongoing astonishment that there is no epigraph from 'A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts' in Richard Adams's Watership Down. It seems so perfect a fit, in so many ways, that I can't understand how Richard Adams overlooked it. I can only assume that he couldn't fit it in, or that he was not aware of the poem when he wrote his famous novel.

The two Watership Down characters which this poem immediately reminds me of are the sinister Black Rabbit of Inlé, who is a sort of grim reaper in the rabbit cosmos, and also the megalomaniac General Woundwort. (In one passage, Bigwig dreams about Woundwort: "And over all, as big as a horse in a field, aware of all that passed from one end of the world to the other, brooded the gigantic figure of General Woundwort.") This comparison may be a bit simplistic, though. The rabbit in the poem is not necessarily a scary rabbit, or at least not an evil rabbit. It is Rabbit: primal and animal.

The poem has an edge of surreal humour which is not unfamiliar from reading Stevens's other poems. Why does the rabbit see itself growing bigger and bigger, "humped higher and higher, black as stone"? Why the vision of the cat slipping away like an insect - "the little green cat is a bug in the grass"? The imagery of red and green seem to me to suggest a prism, the breaking of light into component colours. This could be a reference to the differences between animal sight and human sight; also, perhaps, the shifting mood of the rabbit picking up on the subtle natural shifts around it.

Mainly the impression I carry away from this poem is that of another dimension which wild animals inhabit. This is a human viewer trying to describe a state of mind which humans do not experience. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to observe wild animals will know that through their trancelike, indifferent gaze they inhabit a world very different from our own. Perhaps, in a rabbit's mind and through its senses, there are moments when it feels itself becoming "a self that fills the four corners of night". Once again, Wallace Stevens is playing with shifts in perception.

On this link, you can find a video of actor Bill Murray reading another Stevens poem, 'The Planet on the Table', and 'A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts':

Monday, 22 July 2013

A Sort of Homecoming: An Essay on Poetry In Translation

The Missing Slate, a Pakistan-based online magazine of culture and literature, has published my essay called 'A Sort of Homecoming: Poetry In Translation'. Here's an excerpt:

"Paul Celan stayed in my life, and I read him on and off, but only occasionally and with difficulty. Almost fifteen years after the first encounter, when I started reading Celan more seriously, I realised that there had been many good reasons to keep him in my life. As it turned out, Celan was probably also my major entry point into the world of translated poetry, and the act of translating poetry.
I mistrusted translated poetry for a long time. As recently as a few years ago, I still felt that it basically couldn’t be done, or could only be a pale shadow of the original."

You can read the whole essay here.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Christina Rossetti's 'Colour': "Clouds Are Violet In the Summer Twilight"

Alphonse Mucha, Summer, 1896.

I wanted a summery poem without a dark subtext, so here is Christina Rossetti's 'Colour'.

(By the way, if my posts are a little thin on commentary or analysis for the moment...blame the heat.)

COLOUR (Christina Rossetti)

What is pink? a rose is pink
By a fountain's brink.
What is red? a poppy's red
In its barley bed.
What is blue? the sky is blue
Where the clouds float thro'.
What is white? a swan is white
Sailing in the light.
What is yellow? pears are yellow,
Rich and ripe and mellow.
What is green? the grass is green,
With small flowers between.
What is violet? clouds are violet
In the summer twilight.
What is orange? Why, an orange,
Just an orange!

Monday, 15 July 2013

Dark Summer Poetry: Dylan Thomas's 'Fern Hill' and Celan's 'Night Ray'

It is hot, hot, hot in London and many of us feel as though this is our first real summer in years. Of course, it has come at a price like hayfever, Dante-esque Underground conditions and air conditioning breaking in selected public buildings just when you need it the most - but it's still pretty wonderful, all in all.

Two poems have come to mind tonight which are somehow appropriate to the weather and my frame of mind (relaxed and nostalgic, essentially.) The first is more obviously a summer poem than the second.

FERN HILL (Dylan Thomas)

'Fern Hill' speaks for itself: its vision of a rural childhood is ecstatic and specific, and sensually intense, as Thomas's poems are. Speaking for myself, I find it odd sometimes that I have so many childhood memories which are specific to the five physical senses. They are often so intense that I can remember textures as though I still felt them beneath my hands or feet. Perhaps this is normal, but for such an in-my-head person as myself, you wouldn't think so. I certainly know that I have more sensory memories of childhood - reams of them - than some other people I've compared notes with. (On the other hand, I often can't remember someone's name after I've been introduced to them three times, so on the whole my memory is nothing to brag of.) 'Fern Hill' also reminds me of idyllic summers in Finland as a child, perhaps made more idyllic by memory, but also coloured by loss after my grandmother died. It is in the end a poem about mortality.

The second poem is perhaps less suited to this season, but seems to fit. (There is an ad in the middle of the page which breaks the poem in half, so make sure you scroll down.)

NIGHT RAY (Paul Celan)

'Night Ray' is a dark, dark love poem. Not untypically for Celan, it is unclear whether this early poem is more a love poem, or an elegy. I suspect that more than being a summer poem, 'Night Ray' came to mind after I thought of 'Fern Hill' because each poem seems to faintly echo the other in the choice of imagery, and just possibly in some of the conclusions. Perhaps it's just me, but try reading 'Night Ray' and the last stanza of 'Fern Hill' alongside each other.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Notes from the Celanworld

Pont Mirabeau, Paris. Photo by Gérard Delafond. Used under Creative Commons license

I haven't been reading Paul Celan quite as much in 2013 as in the previous couple of years. I have already internalised many of his poems, and frankly, sometimes I just do not want to go to that dark place. However, at any given moment I may have read an article about Celan, or work inspired by him, or something - there is always something. And of course, I do intend to keep reading him actively. Here is a little roundup of Celania that I have come across or been thinking about lately.

This video is a lecture and multimedia presentation on Celan by Pierre Joris, from 2012, which I recently watched. Joris is a poet, a translator and a major Celan expert, and his insights into Celan and the role of Celan's poetry in his own life are fascinating.

Courtney Druz, an American-Israeli poet, recently published a book-length poem called The Light and the Light, which I have been reading. Subtitles within the poem refer to poems from Celan's collection Die Niemandsrose (The No-One's Rose). This very interesting work draws upon not only Celan, but also the Biblical book of Ezekiel. The title is taken from Celan's 'Hut Window':

Beth, - this is
the house where the table stands with

the light and the light.

You can purchase The Light and the Light or find more information about Courtney Druz's work at her website:

This last is not recent, but I wanted to highlight this post on the Arty Semite blog (awesome blog name) which reproduces C K Williams's poem 'Jew on Bridge'. I have read a number of poems which were in some way inspired by Celan, but this is probably the best. Celan committed suicide by jumping off the Pont Mirabeau in Paris, and 'Jew on Bridge' circles around this image, confronting issues of Jewish identity. It's very much worth reading.

Finally, I recently came to the strange realisation that while I don't speak German (beyond a few words), I have reached the point where I can recognise a number of Celan's poems in their German original. While reading the facing translations, and trying to refer to the German, the shape and sound of the originals must have gone into me. I still would like to learn German, in part inspired by Celan and Rilke.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Rilke's Rose Poems In Translation, VII

Rose photo © Christina Kosaki, 2013.

Here is the latest of my translations from French of Rilke's Roses poems, VII, with the original as well. This one was a bit tricky.

(I have all sorts of other blog posts that I should be writing, but am finding it a bit difficult to collect my thoughts these days, plus I'm a little bit sick this weekend. Excuses, excuses. For some reason, translation seems ok.)

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


Fresh clear rose, resting
upon my closed eye - ,
you'd think a thousand
eyelids lie

on mine that's warm.
A thousand slumbers press against
my mimic under which I roam
in a maze of sweet scents.



T'appuyant, fraîche claire
rose, contre mon oeil fermé - ,
on dirait mille paupières

contre la mienne chaude.
Mille sommeils contre ma feinte
sous laquelle je rôde
dans l'odorant labyrinthe.

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013.