Wednesday 29 January 2014

Khaled Mattawa's 'Echo and Elixir 2': Remembering Cairo

Cairo, 2010. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd

Ever since I visited Cairo in August 2010 there has been no way I could ever forget it. Cairo felt like a drug of a city - intense, exhilarating, destructive, terrifying and then addictive. Less than six months after I was there - three years ago - the Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution happened and I couldn't look away as snipers shot their own people on the streets where we'd raced around in the astonishing heat. It's always been difficult to look away.

ECHO AND ELIXIR 2 (Khaled Mattawa)

When I think of Cairo's taxi drivers, who seem to take centre stage in this poem by Libyan/American poet Khaled Mattawa, the first thing I think of is staring death in the eye, but in fairness, I think most of them were quite competent; just driving a million miles an hour in a place which laughs at road safety or seatbelts. And some of them will talk, though I found out that if you're a woman accompanied by a man or men, they'll probably address all their remarks away from you and to your companion(s).

So this is a poem about Cairo in the dizzy rushing quality of its images, the overload, and the sense - while you're in it - that the whole world is Cairo. But like the few other poems from the Echo and Elixir sequence that I've read, 'Echo and Elixir 2' is about trying to synthesize the strands of a complicated and multicultural world (and personal experience), about colonial atrocities and economic realities, about how harsh historical truths will never leave us. Mattawa grew up in Libya and moved to the United States as a teenager. He translates great Arabic-language poets such as Adonis and Saadi Youssef, and when I went to Poetry Parnassus in 2012 I hoped to hear him read, but he couldn't make it in the end - I think because he was in Libya, where he was very involved in the post-Gaddafi artistic movements. He was recently appointed to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, a great honour. He is well placed to write this kind of poetry, of dislocation and a multiplicity of experiences.

"I'm sad and tired of truth,/and as usual I'm never believed," says the speaker. The poem has both the excitement and the harshness of Cairo, and it cloaks real frustration in wryness. The taxi drivers and the speaker arrive, but where? They speak "all the languages/of the world" - but they argue. This is what we have to work with, the speaker seems to be saying, but to what end will it lead? Egypt and the Arab world are still asking these questions.

Thursday 23 January 2014

Echoes: Lawrence Durrell's 'Sarajevo'

Sarajevo by Lazhar Neftien. Used under Creative Commons license

After I wrote about Miklós Radnóti and 'Letter to my wife' a couple of months ago, I thought of the poem 'Sarajevo' by Lawrence Durrell, and kept thinking about it for several days at least. Then I forgot to write about it, but tonight it came back to me.

SARAJEVO (Lawrence Durrell)

This was one of my "these poems feel linked, but I'm not sure why" moments. There seem to be echoes between the poems, anyway. Most obviously, it could be the Balkan settings; the war settings, whether death march, or start of war, or aftermath. There is something in the opening lines of both poems that is both soaring and tragically grounded, too: "the mountain roads/Earthbound..." and the distances that just can't be crossed in Radnóti's 'Letter to my wife'.

In any case, that "echo of a pistol-shot" went around the world one hundred years ago and it is still echoing.

Sunday 19 January 2014

James Wright's 'A Blessing': Breaking Into Blossom

Paulus Potter, The Spotted Horse, 1653.

A BLESSING (James Wright)

I realised that what I was looking for tonight was simply a beautiful, optimistic poem which would speak for itself. This was one which quickly came to mind, perhaps based on its final lines, above all. Of course, I also love the fact that it is about horses (or ponies).

"Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom."

Tuesday 14 January 2014

"Oh Sherlock, Sherlock, He's In Town Again": Sherlock Holmes in Poetry

Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson as portrayed by Sidney Paget

If you have any interest in detective/spy stories and shows, television, modern updates of old stories, popular culture, or just a famous character named Sherlock Holmes, you may have heard that the latest series of the BBC's Sherlock series has just wrapped up. As Sherlock's big brother Mycroft once said to Watson, "I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler": the current Watson's chronicles appear in blog form, not in the Strand magazine, but not a lot has really changed. Sherlock Holmes is once again the talk of the town, but for me he never really goes away; he and Watson are always around, just a little more in or out of focus at different times. While Jeremy Brett, along with his Watsons David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, will probably always be my favourite screen Holmes and Watsons, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are superb and entertaining and the modern update is incredibly clever. (And yes, in case you're wondering - I totally heart Benedict.) 

I have devoted quite a few conscious and subconscious hours to the mystery of why Sherlock Holmes is so important to me and I have essentially concluded that I am a bit too close to him to ever be able to really puzzle it out. I suppose we have some early influences that become so deeply woven into our lives that there's no way to really discern their exact nature, and in my case some of those influences were always going to be literary. I think I was seven when Holmes entered my life, both in the original stories and in Jeremy Brett's version. I was particularly obsessed through my teens, and it's all returned full force with years of living in London and with his recent upsurge in popularity; it's kind of nice that more of my friends "get it" at the moment. I know that when I was younger I both identified with Holmes (perhaps the fate of a few angsty misfit teenagers with a love of English literature) and had a crush on him; later on I realised that I actually identified more with Watson - less hyper-intelligent, emotionally locked up and rude; more loyal, anxious and both down-to-earth and adventurous. However, I think even now I probably alternate between identifying with Holmes and identifying with Watson, depending how I'm feeling. (Watson is the healthier option.) They could represent two sides of one personality, I suppose.

I do know that my Holmes is very much the guardian spirit of a place, London. Even when he goes out to the countryside, which he often does, he somehow represents London. I suspect that the intensity with which Holmes has remained in my life has a lot to do with place, perhaps more than anything else. The success of the current series, set very firmly in our modern day but also in London, tells me that place is more important for Holmes and Watson as convincing characters, than time. "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside," Holmes comments one lovely morning as they head out to the countryside to investigate the sinister Copper Beeches (thus totally ruining Watson's fun day out on the train.) Spoken like a true Londoner, is all I can say.

Rather to my surprise, I've gradually realised that although there is a fair amount of cute-but-painful Holmes-related doggerel out there, there is also some genuinely beautiful and thought-provoking poetry inspired by the great detective, as well as some that is really funny and clever. I wrote some time ago about T S Eliot's 'Macavity, the Mystery Cat', which is a real classic and based on Holmes's arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. A less-known but also extremely funny work, written for Holmes's original miraculous return from the dead more than 100 years ago, is P G Wodehouse's 'Back to His Native Strand' (1903):

Oh Sherlock, Sherlock, he's in town again,
That prince of perspicacity, that monument of brain.
It seems he wasn't hurt at all
By tumbling down the waterfall.
That sort of thing is fun to Sherlock.

(from 'Back to His Native Strand', P G Wodehouse)

As a relative latecomer to the delights (if that's the right word) of Sylvia Plath, I was astonished to discover not that long ago that one of her poems, 'The Detective', refers to Holmes and Watson. I read it as a poem about metaphorical death, perhaps due to emotional cruelty by someone close to the victim. Ominously, it concludes:

Then the dry wood, the gates,
The brown motherly furrows, the whole estate.
We walk on air, Watson.
There is only the moon, embalmed in phosphorus.
There is only a crow in a tree. Make notes.

(from 'The Detective', Sylvia Plath)

Much more recently, I found out that Jorge Luis Borges wrote his own absolutely amazing 'Sherlock Holmes', a meditation on the relationship between the creator and the created, among other things. In this translation by Willis Barnstone, it opens:

Not of a mother born, no elders known,
he was like Adam and Quijano. He
is made of chance. Near or immediately
the whim of varied readers guide his tone.

It isn't wrong to think that he was born
a moment when the Other One may tell
his story, and he dies with each farewell
of memory in us who dream him.

(from 'Sherlock Holmes', Jorge Luis Borges, translated from Spanish by Willis Barnstone)

And I also discovered this beautiful poem by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, 'Sherlock Holmes', where the poet uses the figure of Holmes to meditate on certainty versus uncertainty and ambiguity.

SHERLOCK HOLMES (Susan Fromberg Schaeffer)

I wanted to conclude with this most famous of Holmes poems, Vincent Starrett's '221B'. Although it isn't poetically quite in the class of the above works, it is beloved of Holmes fans and it represents a lot of what we love about the stories and the characters. (I've been advised that copyright in Vincent Starrett's estate is sufficiently murky that I shouldn't worry about reproducing the poem, but if anyone wants to hunt me down with an air gun like Moriarty's henchman Colonel Sebastian Moran, please think about just dropping me a line, first.)

221B (Vincent Starrett)

Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game's afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears -
Only those things the heart believes are true.

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

Friday 3 January 2014

'The Snow' by Sidney Keyes: "The Earth Not Crying Any More..."

Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1914. 

I wanted to start out 2014 on the blog by paying tribute to Sidney Keyes, who I have written about once before, here. He died in World War II at the age of 20, in 1943. This year his work is out of copyright, it being more than 70 years since his death. If he had not been killed at such a young age he could potentially still be alive today. It is very likely that you'll see him more than once on the blog this year.

THE SNOW (Sidney Keyes)

They said, It will be like snow falling - 
Tonight a hollow wind beating the laurels,
And in the morning quiet, the laurels quiet,
The soft sky resting on the treetops and 
The earth not crying any more.

I read it would be safe, like snow lying
Locked in a secret promise with the ground.
And the clear distances, the friendly hills
Would whisper, It is easy, easy as sleep
To the lost traveller frozen in the field.

But now it's come, how different without
Those reassuring voices. Now I face
The bright white glare of January, naked
Among the clashing laurels, while the earth
Stumbles and cries like any lonely lover.

                                                    January 1942.