The Epic of Askia Mohammed by Nouhou Malio, trans. Thomas A. Hale

This is an interesting one: a piece of oral poetry, transcribed from a performance by a griot*, Nouhou Malio, in Niger. To quote the introduction:

The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounts the life of the most famous ruler of the Songhay empire, a man who reigned in Gao, an old city in present-day eastern Mali, from 1493 to 1528.

Although to be strictly accurate, it recounts the life of Askia Mohammed and some of his descendants. I was interested to learn that the events were recorded in contemporary written chronicles, so we have some sense of how the stories have changed over the centuries: the genealogies have been compressed a bit, and some historical events seem to have been conflated, but the people and events are clearly identifiable.

The griot speaks

The subject matter fits comfortably into what you might expect of epic poetry: kings, conquest, revenge, wrangling over succession. But of course it also has cultural specifics; for example, Askia Mohammed is remembered for spreading Islam in West Africa, and one of his notable achievements was a pilgrimage to Mecca. Similarly, some of the second half of the poem is the story of Amar Zoumbani, one of Askia Mohammed’s descendants, and his ambivalent social position as the son of a king and a slave woman.

It’s enjoyable as a story — if you skip over some genealogies of the Bob begat Fred begat Kevin variety — but it doesn’t seem particularly remarkable as a piece of literature. It seems to be fairly plain, direct storytelling; there’s some interesting use of repetition for emphasis, but otherwise the way the language is used seems straightforward; with the inevitable caveat that some amount has been lost in translation. Most notably, the original switched occasionally from Songhay to a version of Soninké used as an ‘occult language’ by Songhay griots, healers and sorcerers, a language which is apparently sufficiently obscure that many lines are just marked as ‘undecipherable’. There’s also some suggestion in the introduction that Malio switched between dialects of Songhay, though I may be misunderstanding; what effect any of this code-switching might have is left unclear.

I kind of feel I should be drawing comparisons with other oral/epic poetry: Greek, Haida, Norse, or Anglo-Saxon, which is the only one I’ve actually studied. But nothing insightful is coming to mind, tbh.

Anyway. The Epic of Askia Mohammed is my book from Niger for the Read The World challenge.

* The local word in Niger is actually jeseré, apparently, but it’s the same kind of poet/storyteller/musician/historian role.

» The griot speaks is © Julien Harneis and used under a CC by-sa licence. It was taken in Guinea, but that will have to be close enough.

The Wanderer by Jane Holland

This, according to the blurb, is a ‘controversial reworking’ of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name*. ‘Controversial’ and ‘famous’ are both relative terms here, of course.

Flying in the same direction

I assume the controversy mainly arose because the poem is given a female narrator. To quote the introduction:

I also transformed the male ‘Wanderer’ of the poem’s title into a female figure and focused on that narrator alone, even though the original poem seems occasionally to suggest two distinct speakers. (A point on which some academics disagree.) This rather drastic change was made for two reasons. Firstly, the traditional male-male relationship of the lord and his faithful retainer takes on a strongly homoerotic charge when read with a modern sensibility and, writing as a female poet, this posited relationship lacked authenticity in my early drafts. Secondly, I originally undertook this translation to provide a centrepiece to my third poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, which is itself themed around the concept of a lone female traveller.

I think the change works well. The themes of exile and loss take on a slightly different flavour but work just as well with a female narrator. It makes it a different poem, but it’s not as radical a change as you might imagine.

There are two other notable tweaks to the poem. The first is to strip out the Christian imagery. Holland reads The Wanderer as an essentially secular poem with ‘artificially imposed religious overtones’, which is certainly an entirely plausible reading; others have found it to be deeply infused with a Christian sensibility.

The third change, which I thought was perhaps more striking than either of those, was the inclusion of a few modern references. Not that many of them, but for example in the description of men lost in battle, she writes [every other line is supposed to be indented]:

Some fell there in the line of duty,
caught off-guard in the crossfire; others
were blasted to bits at the roadside
or picked off by snipers

The Wanderer deals with that essential Anglo-Saxon theme of a world in decline, and living among the evidence former glory. Taking that idea and setting it in a modern world gives the poem a remarkable post-apocalyptic feel. I’d never made that connection before, between Anglo-Saxon poetry and, say, Mad Max; but actually it’s surprisingly apt.

Anyway, I’m generally in favour of people doing interesting reinterpretations of the classics, and I think this is completely successful. It does bring something new, but it also captures the gloomy beauty of the original.

* My awful pedantic soul (it’s a terrible affliction) requires me to point out: I’m pretty sure the title is a modern addition, like all the titles we give Anglo-Saxon poems.

» The photo is Flying in the same direction, © Susanne Nilsson and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Exotic Territory: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Paraguayan Poetry, ed. & trans. Ronald Haladyna

This is my book from Paraguay for the Read The World challenge. I previously bought a copy of I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, but that’s a fat dense modernist novel and it defeated me.

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I always find it frustrating reading poetry in translation. I mean, even with English-language poetry I often find myself uncertain, not knowing what to think; with translations you get the added bonus that you know that something will be missing, but you never know what.

And with a selection of different poets but only one translator, there’s the added worry that the influence of the translator will make them all sound alike.

In other words: nothing here grabbed me the way that poetry sometimes can. But there were certainly things to enjoy. And in fact I’ve been enjoying dipping in and out for this post more than I did on the first read-through.

Much of the poetry is political; Paraguay has been under some variety of dictatorship for most of its history, most notably under Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-89, and there are poems about repression and violence; here’s a short one about Stroessner, by Jacobo Rauskin:

Alfredo Ages

The effigy sustained
by a thousand standard bearers
loses its force and colour.

The years attenuate
the militant rictus
and the great bully
looks old in the sun.

But there is poetry on a variety of themes, including the usuals: poetry, love, death, nature. Rain seems to be a recurrent image. Here’s one by Joaquín Morales, picked semi-randomly because I quite like it and it’s short enough to type out:

Still Life, 1

It’s not the partridges with their eyes
probably bursting out,
nor the bouquet of their legs
mingled with aromatic herbs;
nor the clay vase
that clearly shows
the prints of the fingers that molded it;
not even the dark,
irregular boards of the table,
whose veins and nodules still retain
the aroma of the forest:

not the old theme of appearance and reality,
nor the one of time briefly detained in brush strokes
that memory vivifies and recomposes:

perhaps — though certainty is almost impossible —
perhaps it’s the complete apprehension
of a yellow reflection in a small dark beak.

A bit of a mixed bag, then, which perhaps is what anthologies should be; but certainly quite a lot of things I liked.

» I got the photo from Flickr; it shows the confluence of the Río Paraguay and the Río Paraná. The two rivers mark the border between Argentina (to the south and west) and Paraguay. So the photo is mostly Argentina; but it’s a nice image. It is © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and used under a CC-by licence (although actually I think NASA photos are in the public domain automatically?).

Para Vasco: poemas da Guiné-Bissau / For Vasco: poems from Guinea-Bissau

This is my book from Guinea-Bissau for the Read The World challenge. Although ‘book’ is almost overselling it; it’s a pamphlet really. A total of twelve poems by nine poets, and even with an introduction, acknowledgements and the poems in both English and Portuguese, it’s only 44 pages.

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But the choices were limited; the only real alternative was a book of the collected speeches and writings of Amílcar Cabral, the politician and guerrilla leader who campaigned for independence for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Which probably would have been interesting, but I took the cheaper, lazier option and bought this instead.

There are some strong thematic threads running through the poems: the forest, freedom fighters, saudade, eroticised women, slavery, nationalism. If I had been told they were all written by the same poet over a long period, that wouldn’t surprise me; although there may be stylistic differences that are flattened out in translation.

Presumably that thematic similarity is at least partially an artefact of the selection process. But apparently the country’s intellectual tradition grew out of politics: the book is dedicated to Vasco Cabral* ‘who has been called the first Guinean intellectual’ and who, as well as being a poet, was freedom fighter, political prisoner and then government minister of the independent Guinea-Bissau. And in the forty years since independence (almost exactly: the anniversary is the Tuesday after next) there has been a civil war, so the theme of political violence hasn’t lost its relevance.

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As always with parallel texts, it was interesting to see some of the translation decisions, even without knowing any Portuguese. For example, one poem was broken up at different points in the English from the original — i.e. the white space appeared a couple of lines later in the translation — which seems weirdly arbitrary, but it would be fascinating to hear the reasoning behind it.

Anyway, it was worth reading, I think; some of the poems worked better than others, in translation at least, with Hélder Proença the pick of the bunch.

*no relation to Amílcar, as far as I can tell.

» The top image is of the Buba river in Guinea-Bissau. It’s from the US Geological Survey and therefore public domain. The second is of Vasco Cabral at the UN-OAU Oslo conference on Southern Africa (i.e. on apartheid), in his role as Administrative Secretary of the African Party for the Liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), six months before independence in 1973. It is © the UN and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

My Urohs by Emelihter Kihleng

This is my book from Micronesia* for the Read The World challenge. It is apparently the first collection of poetry by a Pohnpeian poet. I have to admit, I didn’t pick it up with a great deal of enthusiasm; my main reaction when it arrived in the post was oh well, at least it’s short. Because picking books for this exercise is always a bit of a lottery, but the smaller the country, the worse the odds. And the track record for slim volumes of poetry is not great either.

However, I was pleasantly surprised. The poems have the local focus suggested by the title — an urohs is a Pohnpeian skirt decorated in appliqué — but it’s a contemporary version of it, with Facebook and ramen and Destiny’s Child as well as breadfruit and paramount chiefs. It’s built up with simple effective details and the English is interspersed with phrases of Pohnpeian, some of it footnoted and some of it not. The poems touch in various ways on the issues of globalisation, identity, modernity and so on, but usually without being too heavy-handed.

I don’t want to oversell it — it’s good rather than amazing — but I did genuinely enjoy it and in the end would have been happy for it to be longer.

* Strictly speaking, the Federated States of Micronesia, or FSM, which I just find confusing because it makes me think of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Songs Of Love by Konai Helu Thaman

Full title: Songs Of Love: New And Selected Poems (1974-1999). This was going to be my book for Kiribati for the Read The World challenge, but it turns out I misread the listing: the illustrator is from Kiribati, the poet is from Tonga. But I didn’t have a book for Tonga, so that’s fine.

I’ve read some underwhelming books from the Pacific for this exercise — which is no surprise, really. Tonga has a population of just 104,000, so picking a book from Tonga is like picking a book from Colchester — if Colchester* was a fairly poor country in the middle of nowhere with little literary tradition and English as a second language [ESSEX JOKE].

I would love to be able to say that this was one of those unexpected treats that make the whole exercise worthwhile… but it’s not. Sorry. It’s OK, I’ve read far worse poetry, but I couldn’t get very excited about it. Here’s a short poem that I quite liked:

EARLY MORNING SUN

the early morning sun steals
through the tightly closed windows
touching last night’s leftovers
leaning low against the light

there is the kettle boiling
and still you will not come

It’s all lower-case, btw, even place names and ‘i’. Which is a stylistic choice I personally find a bit irritating, but hey-ho.

* or pick your local equivalent: Langley, British Columbia; Launceston, Tasmania; Burbank, California; Nancy in France; Siegen in Germany, Bolzano in Italy, etc.

» The photo of Tongan rugby fans is © Nick Thompson and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. There is no rugby in this book of poetry.

Translations From The Night by Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

Rabearivelo was a poet writing in Madagascar in the 20s and 30s — he killed himself in 1937 at the age of 36. He wrote in French; some of his later poems claimed to be translated from Malagasy, but according to this anthology’s introduction, the evidence suggests it was the other way round: that he wrote them in French, produced Malagasy versions, and then lied about it.

Initially at least he wrote squarely in the mainstream of French poetry at the time — again this is according to the introduction, I don’t know enough about early C20th French poetry to judge — but later he took more influence from local traditions, as evidenced by the way he pretended his poems had been translated from Malagasy.

This anthology includes a few examples of his early work but is mainly selected from three later books: shortish free verse lyrics from Presque-Songes (‘Near-Dreams’) and Traduit de la Nuit (‘Translated from the Night’); and short prose pieces from Vieilles Chansons des Pays d’Imerina [‘Old Imerinan Songs’].

The Madagascan influence is not especially obvious, to me at least, in the lyrics; there are a few references to lianas, cassava, coral, and so on, but most of the imagery seems to be very universal: twilight, stars, birds, flowers, bulls, the sun, the moon. I’m sure I’m missing things, since the book is blissfully free of footnotes; which is nice, because footnotes can feel a bit naggy and joyless, but on the other hand, when it says something like

What invisible rat
out of the walls of the night
is gnawing at the milk-cake of the moon?

it could for all I know be a reference to some Malagasy folk-story, or it might just be a ‘normal’ poetic image. And ‘gateau lacté‘ might be some kind of local dish, or it might just mean that the moon is round and white (if it is a real dish, a quick googling provides no evidence for it).

The local influence seems more obvious in the prose, which not only has more local colour but has something of the flavour of traditional story-telling to it. Here’s an example (this is the entire piece):

 – Who is there? Is the Woman-whose-footsteps-echo-the-livelong-days? Is it the Woman-who-is-hard-to-question?
– It is not the Woman-whose-footsteps-echo-the-livelong-days nor the Woman-who-is-hard-to-question! But I am the wife of another, and the livelong days I must know my place. Besides I am the wife of another, and when someone tells me our secrets I am not at all pleased. So plant one root of a fig-tree: perhaps its shadow would make me come. Plant a few roots of castor-oil tree: perhaps then you might be able to hold me. I would rather walk a long way to get my pitcher filled than take away a half empty pitcher with no waiting!
– Offer me green fruits and I will offer you bitter ones.

Questions of ethnology and influence aside, I quite enjoyed it as poetry, although I always struggle with poetry in translation: I assume I’m missing something and try to give everything the benefit of the doubt, but it does feel like watching TV through smoked glass sometimes.

At least in this case I had the French parallel text, but my long-withered schoolboy French was never good enough to assess poetry. It is good enough to find a few spots where the translation seemed a bit odd: repetition in the French which wasn’t reproduced in the English, long sentences in French which were broken up in translation, slangy dialogue in English which seemed less slangy in the original. Small things, really, but they just undermine your confidence a bit.

Still, it was interesting and enjoyable enough to be worth reading.

Translations From The Night: Selected Poems Of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo is my book from Madagascar for the Read The World challenge.

» Because it’s a book from Madagascar, I decided to use a picture of a lemur. There are no lemurs featured in Rabearivelo’s poetry. More’s the pity.

Funny Lemur is © Tambako The Jaguar and used under a CC by-nd licence.

Mama Lily and the Dead by Nicolette Bethel

Mama Lily and the Dead is my book from the Bahamas for the Read The World challenge. It’s a collection of poems which tell Lily’s life story, running from ‘The Scotsman Gives Lily Her Name (1904)’ to ‘The Granddaughter Sings Lily Home (1994)’. I know Nico a bit via the world of internet poetry, and I’d read some of the poems before, or earlier drafts of them, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but it’s still rather different to have them in actual printed paper form and read the whole lot in order.

Incidentally, if you’ll excuse a slight detour, it still seems weird to me to say I ‘know’ someone when I’ve never met or talked to them. Even if I have interacted with them online over a period of years. I feel like we need a new verb for it. Like: “Do you know Bob?” “Well, I knowontheinternet him.” Or: “I’ve had a couple of Twitter exchanges with George Michael, but I wouldn’t say I knowontheinternet him.

Anyway. As I was saying, I’d never read the whole sequence of Lily poems together before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At their best they have a sharp in-the-moment-ness, a vivid sense of being a particular point in time. And that brings with it a sense of place, emphasised by the use of Caribbean-inflected grammar.

One thing which struck me as interesting, reading them, is as much a point about me as about the poems. Nico* has a particular stylistic quirk of using neologistic compounds — like, for example, using ‘bonechill’ as a verb — which just slightly makes my critical self uneasy; not because I object to neologising, but precisely the opposite: I have exactly the same tendency myself when I write poetry [perhaps I should say when I wrote poetry]. All the times I have come up with compounds and then cast a jaundiced eye on them trying to decide if I was being self-indulgent have apparently programmed a warning flag into my brain which pings up whenever I see them.

I was going to type out an extract but actually there’s no need, because various of the poems have been published in internet poetry journals; so if you want to read some, just put Nicolette Bethel Lily into Google and it will offer you a variety to choose from. You could start with ‘The Preacher Man Saves Lily’s Soul (1914)’, for example.

And a quick note on the actual physical book, which is rather lovely. It’s a numbered edition; my copy is 35 of 200. As you can see above, the cover is letterpress printed† on handmade Indian paper with bits of flowers in it. What you can’t see above is that it has endpapers, also handmade paper, in a sort of translucent acid yellow with thready bits running through it; or that the pages themselves are printed on high quality cotton paper.

It struck me, when I opened the parcel and saw the book for the first time, that this is one future for printed books in a world of e-readers: to celebrate the physicality of them, to make them into covetable objects in their own right. Although, nice as it is to imagine a flowering of artisanal, boutique publishers producing books which are exquisitely designed and made, I guess it’s a red herring really. The point of books is the words, not the packaging. Any defence of printed books purely on the basis of their appearance is straying into the territory of interior designers who buy leather-bound books by the metre because they make a room look cosy.

And actually I don’t think small publishers would be the winners in a world where books were bought for their beauty. I’ve read a lot of books from all kinds of small presses as part of the Read The World challenge, and Poinciana Paper Press is an admirable exception; much more often the books are rather badly designed. Which is understandable; a small press on a shoestring budget has to focus on what they’re good at, which is hopefully choosing, translating and editing texts.

* And this is where the fact I knowontheinternet her comes in again, combined with the generally informal tone of blogging: ‘Nico’ sounds a bit offhand and casual, in the circumstances, but ‘Bethel’ would sound weirdly formal. Especially since I have actually mostly known her over the years by an internet pseudonym. Ah, netiquette.

† Letterpress printed in, of all places, Camberwell. Not that I have anything against Camberwell; my sister lives there. And I think I had some art classes there as a child, though I don’t remember much about them except making some kind of collage out of bits of magazines, and eating pear drops. It’s just a long way from the Bahamas.

The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison and Skipping Without Ropes by Jack Mapanje

I was searching around for a book from Malawi for the Read The World challenge, and found very cheap second-hand copies for sale of these two books of poetry by Jack Mapanje. And since poetry books are generally very short by nature, I thought I might as well buy both. Since I’ve read some fairly dreadful poetry as part of this challenge, it was especially encouraging that Skipping Without Ropes was published by a major poetry publisher, Bloodaxe Books. And I was drawn to The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison because it had birds in the title. Yes, I really am that predictable. Also, if you want me to buy your wine, put a picture of a bird on the label.

And on the subject of birds, the ones in question were almost certainly the species pictured above, African Pied Wagtail. Attractive little beastie, isn’t it. Apparently, they form large communal roosts, one of which was on the wire mesh over the courtyard of Mikuyu prison when Mapanje was locked up there for three years, without charge, for writing poetry which annoyed the regime. Quite a lot of his time in prison was apparently spent mopping up wagtail shit. He was released in 1991 after pressure from writers and human rights activists and moved to the UK; he currently teaches creative writing at Newcastle University.

And he writes well. His poetry is dense, allusive, with telling details and attention to the sounds and rhythms of the language. I wouldn’t say he was suddenly my new favourite writer but he is, as I hoped, a proper poet; in a completely different class to some of the writers I’ve read for the Read The World challenge. You can read, and hear him read, some of his poetry at the Poetry Archive; ‘Scrubbing the Furious Walls of Mikuyu’ seems like an obvious place to start.

I actually read the books in reverse order, because his later book, Skipping Without Ropes, arrived first. His later poems seemed to me to be more relaxed, both emotionally and stylistically. I think on the whole I preferred the earlier stuff: angrier, more tightly wound and densely written. The later poems are probably smoother and more polished, but sometimes wander a bit too close to prose for my tastes. But there’s plenty of good stuff in both.

» The photo, African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla aguimp), is © Arno Meintjes and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Who Needs a Story? — Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic

Who Needs a Story? is my book from Eritrea for the Read The World challenge. Given that the country only gained independence in 1993 after a 30 year war, it’s not really surprising that the anthology is dominated by patriotic poems about the Eritrean struggle.

Unfortunately, most of them read as very generic examples of the type: you would at most have to change a few place names for them to work equally well for any national conflict of the past 100 years. Which is ironic because the entire purpose of the anthology is, pretty explicitly, to demonstrate a distinctively Eritrean literature to the world and to help a new country to take its place among the literary community of nations.

It’s possible, of course, that the original poems had more literary merit, and a more distinctively Eritrean flavour, which went missing in translation. But it’s not obvious.

However, in among the boring patriotic poems were some more interesting bits and pieces. There are some poems on other subjects: love, parenthood, salt. And one or two poets managed to find interesting thing to say about the war, or at least more interesting ways to say them. I thought this was one of the better ones, by Mohammed Mahmoud El-Sheikh (Madani):

Letter from Aliet

My dear friends,
I’ve been fighting so long here
That all the birds have died
And my gun has grown into my shoulder.
I sing for all of us denied
Our basic rights and a decent wage.
I won’t beg for freedom or stop singing.

We’re taking Barentu tonight
And meeting like a groom and bride —
Not with the usual ceremony
But with guns
Singing, bullets for kisses
And shrapnel to caress us
All over our beautiful bodies

Come to the end of brutality
By exploding on top of the enemy.

My dear friends —
No more rooms of our dreams gone up
In the smoke of self-perpetuating
Politicians pretending
They will back our cause.

We’ll make it
On our land and for our land:
Sunlight aglow in good work’s sweat,
Farmers who wed the art of peace,
The wounded under their triumphal arch
And the trigger locked
In the revolution’s palm.

» The photo ‘tanks destroyed in the war’ is © Carsten ten Brink and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 2: Japanese Bush-warbler

while I’m gone
you and the nightingale are in charge
my snail

uguisu torusu wo shite orekatatsuburi

Except that the uguisu is not actually a nightingale; it’s the Japanese Bush Warbler, Cettia diphone. It has often been translated as ‘nightingale’ because it has similar poetic associations; it is famous in Japan for its song (YouTube) which announces the arrival of spring.

Similarly, the ‘nightingale floors’ found in some Japanese castles, which are designed to squeak so that intruders can be heard, are actually uguisubari — named after the bush warbler.

Bashō has a poem about the uguisu designed to undercut its poetic image:

uguisu ya mochi ni funsuru en no saki

A bush warbler
crapped on the rice cakes
on the veranda.

» The snail poem is by Kobayashi Issa, 1807; trans. David G. Lanoue and found on his enormous archive of Issa’s haiku. The photo is © a.koto and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. I found the Bashō poem in the World Kigo Database, where there is lots more interesting stuff about the uguisu; including the traditional use of their droppings in cosmetics (!)

Links

Equal to the Earth by Jee Leong Koh

I know Jee on the internet — originally via PFFA, the online poetry forum, but also now through his blog, Song of a Reformed Headhunter — so I already knew I liked his poems. And as a bonus, Equal to the Earth serves as my book from Singapore for the Read The World challenge.

Jee is, to quote the blurb on Lulu, ‘a gay poet born and bred in Singapore, educated at Oxford, now living and teaching in New York.’ Which gives you an idea of some of the major themes: ethnicity, sexuality, the immigrant experience and so on. But that list of topics sounds worryingly like the poems might be painfully earnest, which they are not; they have a delicacy of touch, both in handling the material and the verse.

I’ve read quite a lot of them before, sometimes I think in earlier versions, but it was a pleasure to sit down and revisit them.

The Golden Boat by Srečko Kosovel

According to the dust jacket, Srečko Kosovel is ‘often called the Slovene Rimbaud’.* Mainly, as far as I can gather, because he wrote all his poetry very young; not, like Rimbaud, because he decided to run off and do something else, but because he died at 22.

I found The Golden Boat: Selected Poems of Srečko Kosovel while I was browsing through the Salt website, looking for something I could buy to support their ‘Just One Book’ campaign. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and buy it as my book from Slovenia for the Read The World challenge. As a point of geographical and historical pedantry, Kosovel wasn’t actually born in Slovenia. As far as I can gather from the Wikipedia article, Slovenia never existed as an independent nation before June 1991, so anyone born in Slovenia is still under 18 today. Kosovel was born in 1904 in Austria-Hungary and died in 1926 in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which became Yugoslavia three years later).

EDIT — Just to add to the historico-geographical confusion: Tom points out in the comments that Kosovel’s home town was in the part of modern Slovenia that was annexed by Italy after WWI. So he actually died in Italy.

Kosovel wrote in free verse from the start, and if I’ve understood the introduction correctly, he was the first person to do so in Slovenian. But in subject matter and language, as far as one can tell in translation, the early poems are fairly conventional: low-key, atmospheric lyrics which are rooted in the Slovenian landscape, and particularly the Karst,† a rugged limestone plateau where a wind called the burja blows down from the Alps. I rather liked this early work, but I can see that if he had died even younger and these were the only poems that survived, he might not seem to be a particularly significant poet.

On a Grey Morning

On a grey morning
I walk the streets downtown,
the fog cuts into my burning eyes,
it cuts into my throat,
and is cold around my heart.

Then, from the bakeries,
the smell of fresh rye bread,
but the bakeries are still dark,
the street silent, nobody yet around
and I feel tight in my soul.

It is the memory of the Karst:
a village strewn among the rocks
that this black bread reminds me of,
this healthy scent from the bakeries
that smells so much like a caress.

Later his poetry became more avant-garde. He called himself a Constructivist, although apparently the connection with Russian Constructivism is not especially close.‡ Whatever the terminology, he is certainly part of the broader movement of European modernism, of Dada and Surrealism and Futurism and God knows what else. The poems become more fragmented, more opaque, more aggressive, there are sprinklings of mathematical symbols and typographical experimentation with different sized text and vertical text. There is some continuity of theme; the night and moonlight which are such a feature of the Karst poems are still constantly present, the Karst landscape and the burja still appear from time to time. But the poems become wider-ranging, more political. The death of Europe becomes a recurring theme, no doubt a response to having lived through the First World War: Kosovel was too young to fight, but he didn’t have to go war because the war came to him, or the town where he lived as a teenager.

Delirium

A martyrdom of thoughts.
Blue sea.
Grey prison.
A soldier is impaling
hopeless thoughts
on his bayonet
in front of the window

Pardon me. ‘O, nothing.’
Sigaretta.
Eine Edison.

I hear the blue sea
butting monotonously
into my skull

And another example:

The Red Rocket

—–I am a red rocket, I ignite
myself and burn and fade out.
—–Yes, I in the red vestments!
—–I with the red heart!
—–I with the red blood!
—–I am escaping tirelessly, as if
I alone must reach fulfilment.
—–And the more I escape, the more I burn.
—–And the more I burn, the more I suffer.
—–And the more I suffer, the faster I fade out.
—–O, I, who want to live forever. And
I go, a red man, over a green field;
above me, over the azure lake of silence,
clouds of iron, o, but I go,
I go, a red man!
—–Everywhere is silence: in the fields, in the sky,
in the clouds, I’m the only one escaping, burning
with my scalding fire and
I can’t reach the silence.

I enjoyed the poems enough, and found them interesting enough, to be glad I bought the book, though I don’t know that many of them will really stay with me. As ever with poetry in translation, you never quite know what you’re missing, although at least with free verse you don’t have the added complication of the translator having to produce some kind of rhyme and metre in the English. Not that I have any reason to doubt the merits of this translation, by Bert Pribac and David Brooks ‘with the assistance of Teja Brooks Pribac’; I just have doubts about the whole exercise of translating poetry. But perhaps that’s a subject for another day.

*Not, as I keep hearing inside my head, the Slitheen Rambo. Though poetry written by the Slitheen Rambo might be quite interesting, as a piece of xenoanthropology if nothing else.

† Or indeed Kras. Rather like the book about Cyprus I was reading the other day, this is one of those regions where everywhere has several different names in different languages. The translators use Karst, the Germanised form of the name, perhaps for its associations with the kind of geological landscape that is named after it.

‡ I’m just repeating what it says in the introduction at this point. I don’t know enough about Constructivism or its relationship with the many other isms of the time to make that judgement.

» The photo is Škocjan, © inyucho and used under a CC attribution licence. inyucho says: ‘A large collapsed doline, typical for the Kras region from which the term “karst” is derived.’

Poem

The whitethroat on the gorse bush knows 
the opposite of cold is song;
the beetle on the burnet rose
knows the whitethroat to be wrong.

The Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish

The Butterfly’s Burden is a translation of three books by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died earlier this year: The Stranger’s Bed (1998), A State of Siege (2002) and Don’t Apologise for What You’ve Done (2003). It’s a parallel text edition, which always makes me feel terribly learned, but in practice is just a waste of trees since I can’t even read Arabic script.

I am writing this post without having read the whole thing, which may be an admission of defeat. I’ve been having some difficulty connecting to it. I’m not inclined to blame Darwish for that: I imagine it’s partially the basic awkwardness of reading poetry in translation which is, as they say, like eating a Mars bar with the wrapper on; partially a lack of contextual knowledge on my part; and perhaps partially down to the translation by Fady Joudah, although I’m not in a position to judge it as a translation. And of course, very likely because of my own biases as a reader.

I initially picked it up and dipped in at random, which wasn’t a success, so I sat down and read A State of Siege straight through from beginning to end, and actually I did quite get into it and enjoy it. So, heartened by that, I tried the same thing with The Stranger’s Bed, but despite a few moments where I thought I was getting somewhere, I found it a bit of a chore. There were images or passages or moments that I thought were striking or effective, but I felt that on some basic level I just wasn’t getting it; the whole wasn’t cohering into more than the sum of the parts, and I found it all a bit frustrating.

I will make an attempt on Don’t Apologise for What You’ve Done as well, but whether or not I finish it I’m still going to claim Darwish as my writer from Palestine for the Read The World challenge, because I read two of the three books, and I think that’s good enough.

For an extract I’m going to pick something from A State of Siege, since that was the book I enjoyed most; in a sense, though, it’s a more difficult piece to pick extracts from because it isn’t divided into separate poems. Instead, it’s a thirty-page poem built up of short lyrical fragments, separated on the page by a little typographical squiggle. They work together cumulatively, and the poem has a kind of reflective tone; they could be the journal entries of a slightly gnomic diarist, or the contents of a notebook. The poem was written during the Second Intifada, and the conflict is the central subject, but the poem circles around it, sometimes explicitly talking about politics and violence, sometimes about poetry or love.

The mother said:
I did not see him walking in his blood
I did not see the purple flower on his foot
he was leaning against the wall
and in his hand
a cup of hot chamomile
he was thinking of his tomorrow …

The mother said: In the beginning of the matter I didn’t
comprehend the matter. they said: He just got married
a little while ago. So I let out my zaghareed, then danced and sang
until the last fraction of the night, when
the sleepless were gone and only baskets of purple flowers
remained around me. Then I asked: Where are the newlyweds?
Someone said: There, above the sky, two angels
are consummating their marriage … So I let out my zaghareed,
then danced and sang until I was struck
with a stroke.
When then, my beloved, will this honeymoon end?

This siege will extend until
the besieger feels, like the besieged,
that boredom
is a human trait

O you sleepless! have you not tired
from watching the light in our salt?
And from the incandescence of roses in our wounds
have you not tired, O sleepless?

We stand here. Sit here. Remain here. Immortal here.
And we have only one goal:
to be. Then we’ll disagree over everything:
over the design of the national flag
(you would do well my living people
if you choose the symbol of the simpleton donkey)
and we’ll disagree over the new anthem
(you would do well if you choose a song about the marriage of doves)
and we’ll disagree over women’s duties
(you would do well if you choose a woman to preside over security)
we’ll disagree over the percentage, the private and the public,
we’ll disagree over everything. And we’ll have one goal:
to be …
After that one finds room to choose other goals

» The photograph is of Mahmoud Darwish’s funeral in Ramallah and is © activestills.org.

Pulp Beowulf

A link from C. Dale Young sent me to this article which is rather unflattering about a scheme to promote poetry in Seattle. What got me going, though, was this, from someone defending the scheme in the comments:

On comprehending poetry: you say “Poetry, by its very definition, is a difficult thing to write and to comprehend.” Certainly you can’t mean this, or perhaps you are simply uninformed. Since Mallarmé and especially since TS Eliot, perhaps, poetry’s hallmark is to be difficult, but again this is recent history given the history of bards: the Odyssey was the equivalent of a pulp fiction bestseller or action-adventure flick, ditto Beowulf and the Eddas. The Canterbury Tales, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost were intended to be blockbusters, not PhD theses. Shakespeare was not looking to mystify the objects of his love sonnets, nor is the work of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Ntozake Shange, Sharon Olds, Saul Williams, Li-Young Lee or in fact most poets worth their salt supposed to be incomprehensible or even that difficult.

Now I agree with the basic point that difficulty is not an essential quality of poetry. But as someone with an interest in Anglo-Saxon poetry, I notice references in the media, so I have encountered this idea before, that Beowulf ‘was the equivalent of a pulp fiction bestseller or action-adventure flick’.

It is a fucking ridiculous comparison.

One version of it is based, as far as I can tell, simply on the kind of story it is: Beowulf is about a buff warrior-hero type who goes out and fights monsters, so it must be the Dark Ages version of Die Hard or Independence Day.  Now I happen to believe this is a profound misreading of the poem, at least until someone makes a version of Die Hard which concerns itself deeply with the fragility, briefness and futility of human existence, or a version of Independence Day where the aliens win at the end.

But to properly try to refute that argument would be a difficult exercise, hedged around with qualifiers and uncertainty, because anyone who claims to know why Beowulf was written, who it was written for, how it was received or what kind of place it had in the culture is talking out of their arse.

Do you know how many surviving copies there are of long narrative Anglo-Saxon poems on non-Christian mythological themes? One. Beowulf. We assume that it is the only survivor from a rich oral culture of similar poems that were either never written down or have been lost — but we don’t know. And we certainly don’t know if Beowulf is a typical example, or how much it was changed when it was written down… or anything much at all, really.

And as for the statement that ‘the Canterbury Tales, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost were intended to be blockbusters, not PhD theses’: Jesus wept.

I mean Chaucer, maybe sorta kinda; Dante I don’t know much about, although even in C14th Florence there must have been more populist options available than the theological epic; but Milton? Seriously? He’s your example of poetry not having to be difficult? There aren’t many poems in English more self-consciously literary, less populist and more stubbornly unwilling to make life easy for the reader than Paradise Lost.

I think what annoys me so much isn’t the inaccuracy of these comparisons: it’s the fact that anyone wants to make them at all. I understand the wish to resist the ghettoisation of poetry as an recondite and überliterary artform. And it’s true that there is a long and valuable tradition of popular, accessible poetry, much of it ephemeral but some of real merit. But to compare Homer and Beowulf to action movies, or call the Divine Comedy a blockbuster, and think you’re doing them a favour… I just don’t get it.

Links

  • 'It’s good to see the authorities finally getting to the root of the problem of street violence. For years it’s been obvious that studious poetry-reading youths have been terrorising our streets, and how it’s taken so long for the authorities to make the connection between poetry readers and knife crime is beyond me.'
    (del.icio.us tags: poetry crime )

Black Stone by Grace Mera Molisa

One for the Read The World challenge. Wikipedia only mentions one writer from Vanuatu: Grace Mera Molisa. There was a copy of Black Stone, her first book of poems, for sale on AbeBooks, so I thought I’d give it a punt.

This is political poetry: Black Stone was published in 1983, just three years after Vanuatu gained independence, and the main dynamics of the book are anti-colonialism and feminism.

If the aim of the challenge is to get some sense of different places around the world, then this book isn’t ideal. It largely deals with politics in the abstract, and aside from a few place-names it would be difficult to guess where it was written. I have no more idea of the landscape or everyday life of Vanuatu than I did before I read it. But then I don’t think I’m the target audience.

I’m not terribly excited by it as poetry either; most of it reads as political prose broken up rather arbitrarily into short  lines. This is from a poem called Newspaper Mania:

The medium
of Newsprint
can make
and break
Governments
and men
in dictating
and shaping
public opinion
by subtle
and invisible
Dictatorship. 

There are occasionally hints of something more interesting, though; from the same poem, I think this has a fine acid touch to it:

Metropolitan
journalists
flock to Port Vila
crawling the bars
sniffing the farts
of other
transient scavengers
and go away
experts
on Vanuatu politics. 

Despite  few good moments, the book mainly reads to me as social activism rather than poetry. Not that I have anything against social activism.

Links

‘Breaking the Rules’ at the British Library

I realised that Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900 – 1937 was about to close, so I popped in today for a quick gander. As ever at the BL, the range of material was impressive: they really do own a lot of stuff. Eliot, Bretton, Man Ray, Lorca, Mayakovsky, Ernst, Rodchenko… you name it, they’ve got it.

I started out carefully reading all the labels and conscientiously looking at each item, because I thought it was probably the kind of exhibition where background information and context would make all the difference. And it was interesting, but I still started to speed up fairly soon. There were some items that were nice pieces of design in their own right and had an immediate appeal even for the non-specialist; but rather more that didn’t. Particularly as they were all in languages I don’t read.

Mayakovsky's For The Voice

The material was mainly grouped by city; Paris and Moscow/St Petersburg had the biggest displays, but 30 cities were included, from all over Europe — Milan, Belgrade, Vienna, Barcelona, Brussels, Warsaw, Kiev, and so on — which did give a strong sense of this as a genuinely widespread movement. Or group of movements. Mind you, I didn’t pay that much attention to the dates, but they weren’t all active simultaneously. The exhibition covered a 37 year period, which is plenty of time for artistic fashions to sweep from one side of Europe and back again several times over.

They even made a case for London as an avant garde city, but it wasn’t completely convincing, somehow. For example, there were successful exhibitions of the Surrealists and the Futurists in London: but that’s not the same as producing the stuff ourselves. Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps I just find it easier to take all these Frenchmen and Russians seriously because they’re French and Russian. Still, there was a good gag from Wyndham Lewis: apparently he supported his application for a British Army commission by saying that he had masterminded the Cubist invasion of Britain ‘without losing a single cube’.

» The picture is the cover of Для голоса (‘For the Voice’) by Mayakovsky, designed by El Lissitzky.

More modernism and art

One obvious point to make in passing: even if there is some kind of profound connection between someone’s political leanings and the form they choose when they write a poem*, that connection is not stable over time.

It meant something different to be writing sonnets in 1520 than to be writing them in 1820 or 1920. And something different again in 2008.

Or at least, if anyone wanted to suggest otherwise, I’d need to hear some pretty convincing arguments.

* Or paint a picture, or build a house…

Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Today is William Blake’s 250th birthday. Happy birthday, William.

The Chimney-Sweeper

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying ‘weep, weep’ in notes of woe!
‘Where are thy father and mother? Say!’
‘They are both gone up to the church to pray.

‘Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

‘And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.’

I always think of Blake as one of a triumvirate of great London writers, along with Dickens and Pepys. There are plenty of other poets with impeccable London connections: Chaucer, Donne, Pope, Keats and Browning, just to pick some of the obvious ones. Hell, you could throw in Shakespeare at a pinch.

A poet

And you could hardly claim Blake as a typical Londoner. I mean, the revolutionary politics was common enough at the time; as a matter of fact, in his day job as an engraver/printer, Blake did one of the illustrations for a book by another C18th poet and radical I wrote about recently, Erasmus Darwin. And London has had its fair share of esoteric and peculiar religions, so that’s not too unusual. But Blake saw visions; as a child, he saw the head of God outside an upper-storey window in Soho, and a tree full of angels on Peckham Rye.

angels

It is that combination, though, which is the point: Blake walked the filthy, stinking, noisy streets of London, and found the transcendent. He saw it as a place of poverty, tyranny and oppression, of mind-forged manacles, but he also saw it as something more and stranger.

Hampstead, Highgate, Finchley, Hendon, Muswell Hill rage loud
Before Bromion’s iron tongs and glowing poker reddening fierce.
Hertfordshire glows with fierce vegetation; in the forests
The oak frowns terrible; the beech and ash and elm enroot
Among the spiritual fires. Loud the cornfields thunder along
The soldier’s fife, the harlot’s shriek, the virgin’s dismal groan,
The parent’s fear, the brother’s jealousy, the sister’s curse,
Beneath the storms of Theotormon; and the thund’ring bellows
Heaves in the hand of Palamabron, who in London’s darkness
Before the anvil watches the bellowing flames. Thundering
The hammer loud rages in Rintrah’s strong grasp, swinging loud
Round from heaven to earth, down falling with heavy blow
Dead on the anvil, where the red-hot wedge groans in pain.
He quenches it in the black trough of his forge. London’s river
Feeds the dread forge, trembling and shuddering along the valleys.

Three giants

That passage, and the illustration, are from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. It’s hard to know what to make of these long prophetic poems. I can only take them in small doses, although they contain some brilliant moments. Is their strangeness best understood as a radical artistic statement, which would make them comparable to, say, Walt Whitman; or do they reflect Blake’s weakening grip on reality? Was he insane? Does it matter?

It is an odd thought that Blake published the first of his prophetic poems, The Book of Thel, in the year of the Regency Crisis, while George III was being confined in a strait-waistcoat and kept away from sharp objects a few miles up the river at Kew. Considering how the King was treated in his illness, Blake did well to keep out of the hands of the doctors.

King on lily flower

There is a famous story that one of his friends once arrived at Blake’s house in Lambeth to find him and his wife sitting naked in the garden reading Paradise Lost aloud to each other. The friend was embarrassed, but Blake called out, ‘Come in! It’s only Adam and Eve, you know!’ Perhaps the King would have envied such freedom.

» all the pictures are by Blake and are taken from the extraordinarily comprehensive William Blake Archive.

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