Bathing in the Olt #2 and #3

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installment: #1

Bathing in the Olt

2.

Dawning on Benedict

*

deeply

delightful entertainment during the long, hot summer days, bathing in the Olt

*

did not shout

did not threaten, did not say a word

drowning in the whirlpool of the Olt

.

3.

Elegant, young, attractive

even Benedict seemed to have lost his confidence

forests of osiers, of dense, hollow willow trees and huge sand bars that gave the impression of tremendous disturbance in the landscape

for her these were dreadful moments

*

given the opportunity to sneak back she swiftly dressed herself

*

going to bed that night they abandoned themselves to passionate embraces

he would not be able to keep the promise he had made when he’d left his girlfriend, Violetta

her eternal threat never left his mind

her misfortune was not something Violetta thought greatly about

hidden under the shaggy willow trees on the fine, dry sand, beneath the melancholy rays of twilight

his athletic body and complete absence of hair

his body found where the current had brought it to the river bank

his was unexpected

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(Next installment posted tomorrow)

Bathing in the Olt #1

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Bathing in the Olt

1.

A modest apartment

a swimsuit which on a famous beach last year in high season caused quite a stir

a well-lit house on a quiet street of the Capital

all part of the performance

*

an absence that had been longer than expected but through no fault of his own

as all miserable people

as they tried to hide

as you might after a funeral, having stood for hours, the welter of powerful emotion

at that very moment Violetta exacting her revenge

*

aware of his girlfriend’s fierce jealousy

Benedict had been adamant

both reproach and bitter disappointment

bringing the conversation skilfully round to bathing

cheat on me – on the very same day you cheat on me – I’ll cheat on you

*

children were taking cows to the pasture

*

close by he saw their naked bodies vanishing among the shade of the willow trees

crushed by the incident, imagining her happiness in ruins, her soul flared

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(#2 posted tomorrow)

Bathing in the Olt #4

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installments: #1 / #2 and #3

Bathing in the Olt

4.

I am miserable. I am very miserable . . .

I knew you would want to save me

if it was achieved without much effort on her part

*

important business would keep Benedict in Craiova for two more days

in contrast she appeared flawless

in his every action he could leave no room for any suspicion

in the horse-drawn carriage on the way they talked little

in vain she pleaded to accompany him

*

just some beautiful hotel waitress

*

keenly looking for the dining car waiting to catch sight of

left at home alone, spawned a host of suspicions

lovingly aroused by desire, the thought that she belonged to him

*

Milcoveni to take tea, served according to the rules of a fine house

more than once Mr. and Mrs. Virgil Trancu had been invited to join them bathing in the Olt

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(Next installment posted tomorrow)

The Abecedary Form / Carolyn Forche

The Form: I wanted to share here some thoughts on my experiments with the form of the abecedary. An abecedarium (or abecedary) is originally an inscription consisting of the letters of an alphabet, listed in order. Abecedaries were often practice exercises, teaching aids, but also developed as an ancient poetic form guided by strict alphabetical order. The earliest examples are Semitic, found in religious Hebrew poetry and the form has been used in various cultures for prayers, hymns, and psalms. Psalm 118 (or 119 by King James numbering) consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chaucer’s An ABC is a medieval example of the form. Some abecedaries found in the Athenian Agora appear to have been left deliberately incomplete and the imperfection of these examples may have had a magical or ritual significance.

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For those who have come across this form in contemporary poetry at all, it was probably (as in my case) through the poem called ‘On Earth’ in Carolyn Forche’s Blue Hour (Bloodaxe, 2003). I reviewed the book in some bewilderment at the time (see below) but have since come to see it more favourably. Forche herself says: “Gnostic abecedarian hymns date from the 3rd century AD. Along with Christian and Buddhist texts, they were recovered from small towns on the northern fringe of the Taklamakan Desert, early in the 20th century”. She also links the form with the idea of the pleroma, defined as the totality or fullness of God’s creation, the One. Over the 46 pages of ‘On Earth’, she adheres rigorously to the form in which alphabetical order guides not only the stanzas, but also the words opening every single line:

languid at the edge of the sea
lays itself open to immensity
leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers along the road
left everything left all usual worlds behind
library, lilac, linens, litany

Poets.org says that abecedaries are now more commonly used as mnemonic devices and word games for children such as those written by Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey. A derivative form is the much more familiar acrostic.

From my 2003 ReviewThe book contains 11 pieces in 65 pages, 46 of which are taken up with the long poem ‘On Earth’ and phrases do echo throughout the poems so there is a sense of unity to the whole. For the most part, Forche writes by assembling fragments and images, often without clear syntactical or narrative connections to surrounding lines. The reader experiences the verse as successive waves (lines stretch across the page and usually come in twos or threes), or as threads floating disconnectedly, but creating a striking impression of beauty. Forche’s obscurity comes more from an unshakeable confidence in her project, in her voice, in her idiosyncratic style and in her subject, largely concerned with the significance or recovery of the past in the present moment.

My difficulty with what Forche does is that all kinds of experience seem to be subjected to the same treatment, so that in the end the reader swims through an undeniably glittering, but rather gloopy, phenomenological soup in which “a city a thousand years” has the same weight as “a field of birds roasted by the heavens”, which has an equivalence to “a sudden reticence that seizes the heart”. All of the material – several deaths, the madness of a grandmother, a mother’s life, early years with a child, Chernobyl, some war-torn territories – is recorded with a swooning sensitivity, a recurring softness of diction and a penchant for grammatical inversion which seems to strain after the poetic: “In the blue silo of dawn, in earth-smoke and birch copse, / where the river of hands meets the Elbe.”

These doubts are brought to a head in the ambitious ‘On Earth’ which is (to quote the blurb) “a transcription of mind passing from life into death, in the form of an abecedary, modelled on ancient gnostic hymns”. The form is an alphabetical sequence and this additional random factor only increases this reader’s sense of a steamrollering of experience to ensure a smooth poetic passage. There is no doubt that Forche can produce some stunning images and when she strings them together in more conventional ways and the reader can hold on to her coat-tails, you can see why her reputation is so high in the U.S.

My interest in abecedaries: Has grown with my interest in looser forms of verse (I have given up on punctuation in most of my own poems these days) alongside a more-than-philosophical sense of the truth of the wholeness of being, reflecting Forche’s idea of the pleroma. This – see Rilke, see the Daodejing – is a condition impossible to be caught in the net of more conventional language and poetic form. Abecedaries encompass the whole alphabet (at least in theory – though I like the idea of the deliberate imperfection; perfection belonging only to God). An abecedary can therefore be seen as an appropriate poetic gesture (futile for sure) towards a unified field, an encompassing of everything, the only true state.

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The Material: But the unified field, for an individual human being, must be regarded with some perspective; if this was not the case we would indeed be seeing with the eye of God, with his/her distance and utter impersonality. I wanted to write affective texts. I wanted my abecedary to be (paradoxically) limited. I wanted people in it; even a narrative of events. But all still subject to the demands of the form. I realised I did indeed have some suitable materials to hand. I had been asked by Professor Lidia Vianu, of University of Bucharest, to assist with the translation into English of several short stories by the relatively unknown Modernist Romanian author, Mihail C Vladescu. He published a collection of eight stories, In Retreat, almost 100 years ago. These are stories written in war-torn Eastern Europe but more significantly, Vladescu forensically portrays the sense of corruption in his society, with materialistic motives and adulterous behaviour most prominent. It seemed to me, and not merely because the centenary of the First World War is still in process around us, that this was material worth working on. I thought Vladescu’s relative obscurity to an English-speaking readership was also an advantage in such an experiment.

The Process: I selected phrases as far as possible randomly from the prose translation. These were then ordered alphabetically (via Excel spreadsheets) and subjected to as little editing as possible, though I have sectioned and created stanzas where it seemed best. Not surprisingly, my abecedaries are incomplete (x and z are more often than not the Persian flaws in the poetic carpet).

The results? Over the next 6 days I will post up the full 7 sections of my abecedary ‘Bathing in the Olt’ (from Vladescu’s original story called ‘Bathing’) and any observations would be welcomed. The text has already appeared in full in Shearsman magazine, 103/4, April 2015.

Click here to see each section posted: #1 / #2 and #3 / #4 / #5 / #6

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Translating Transtromer: Fulton v Robertson

With his death a few weeks ago, I have been re-reading Tomas Transtromer’s work and the first place to go (after the poet’s own website and video) is, of course, Robin Fulton’s comprehensive collection from Bloodaxe. But I have been comparing Fulton’s translations, which seem very faithful if a bit unexciting, to several done by Robin Robertson as published by Enitharmon in 2006.

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Robertson bills his 14 pieces (presented usefully as a parallel text with the original Swedish) as ‘versions’ or, in the acknowledgements as “imitations”. There seems to me a good deal more vigour and poetic heft to Robertson’s versions, but it’s not immediately clear how many liberties he is taking with the originals and it’s interesting that Fiona Sampson suggests the Swedish writer has been an important influence on Robertson. In what follows I’m looking closely at just one  poem from both translators (by the way, I don’t have any Swedish except what a dictionary can give me; nor have I ever made any academic study of Transtromer’s work).

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Tomas Transtromer, an early photograph

‘The Couple’ first appeared in Transtromer’s collection The Half-Finished Heaven (1962). It’s a distanced study of love (over three quatrains) as a couple turn out the light in a hotel room and, after making love, they sleep. In the third quatrain, darkness and unilluminated houses gather about them as if to watch or bear witness or threaten. Fulton’s opening is very plain and factual: ‘They switch off the light and its white shade / glimmers’. Robertson’s version feels more vivid though it does have a stagey-ness about it, the light becoming the slightly archaic ‘lamplight’ and the plain shade elevated to a ‘globe’. This theatricality is developed in Robertson’s version and is to some degree justified by the final image of the poem where the outer night transmutes to watchers, almost to an audience. But as far as I can tell, this trope is not made much of in the original until that last image.

Transtromer develops the fading of the extinguished light in a striking image of it as a dissolving pill or ‘tablet in a glass of darkness’ (Fulton). In the original, the simile is clearly marked and plainly given but Robertson adds a colon and allows the metaphor a good deal more space: ‘an aspirin rising and falling / then dissolving in a glass of darkness’. This is again vivid, visual, though perhaps the dissolving pill image takes over too much from the idea of the fading out of the electric lamp. The original has nothing of this energetic dissolving of the pill with its up and down movement (and does Transtromer’s tablet carry more weight of darkness than Robertson’s headache-curing ‘aspirin’?). The rising and falling image may have come from Transtromer’s next phrase: ‘Then up’ (Fulton). Turning the line ending, this becomes clearly linked with the rising up of the hotel walls (presumably in the couple’s perception, as the light fades and darkness asserts itself). This brief, even curt phrase is isolated between full stops and Fulton follows this and seems to be responding to the signals of the original in terms of the couple’s alienated, isolated experience, with language itself fragmenting to reflect that. Robertson differs again, lengthening and making more elegant the end to quatrain 1. He also introduces another theatrical reference not present in Transtromer’s original: ‘Around them, / the hotel walls slide like a back-drop up into the night sky’. Against Transtromer/Fulton’s jagged, uncomfortable process, Robertson’s walls rise more smoothly, the logic of his image suggesting they more fully establish a scene, rather than imprison. Again Robertson’s version is visually more pleasurable but on second or third thought, how many back-drops have you seen rise from the floor, going upwards?

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Quatrain 2 opens apparently after the couple have made love. Fulton again seems to follow the plainness of the original with ‘The movements of love have settled’. ‘Subsided’ might have been a better word but it’s hard to judge whether the strangeness of this is in the translation or the original which does seem to want to describe  the couple’s intimacy from a frightening distance. Robertson’s theatrical imagery recurs with ‘Love’s drama has died down’ which also distances the intimacy, though in a different way, gesturing towards the hollowness of romantic cliché rather than Fulton’s ‘movements’ which suggests a more completely meaningless activity. There’s not a lot to choose between the two versions in the remainder of quatrain 2 as the couple’s ‘dreams’ (Robertson) or ‘most secret thoughts’ (Fulton – this is pretty literal) are said to meet (Transtromer repeats the word ‘meets’ here) like colours blurring in a child’s painting. For Robertson, the colours ‘meet and bleed’ whereas for Fulton they ‘meet and flow’. ‘Bleed’ is a powerful word choice of Robertson’s here but again I wonder how right it is as the evocation of a wound in this middle quatrain where (if anywhere in this tough little poem) there seems to be some suggestion of communion, some sort of meeting of human lives.

The end of the poem is fascinating. Transtromer’s original has 5 brief, buttoned-down sentences, again reflecting the fragmentation I spoke of earlier. All is dark. The city draws close. Windows are unlit. The houses approach. They crowd in close, waiting, expressionless. Fulton – as we have come to expect, follows this faithfully but at the expense (for me) of some sensitivity to the ebb and flow of line endings, to the sonic dimensions of a poem (which in being brought over into English from Swedish have to be re-made, re-heard):

It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer

tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.

‘Quenched’ windows? In contrast, Robertson, again smoothes and unroughens, but like a good jazz band, his words are listening to each other better than Fulton’s are:

All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,

extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.

Robertson’s vivid animation of the city-scape is more thorough and convincing at this point and, in the poem, that is important.

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The final lines bring the houses even closer to the couple with faces expressionless (Transtromer’s word here is ‘uttryckslösa’ = expressionless or deadpan) and in an attitude of waiting (‘vantan’ = to wait or anticipate). Fulton again conveys the meaning well enough, though there is some sense of redundancy with both ‘throng’ and ‘crowd’. The problem for me is that it is hard to catch the significance of the ‘expressionless’ faces here:

They stand close up in a throng, waiting,

a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

To ‘have no expression’ is a profoundly neutral way of saying ‘expressionless’ and Fulton often goes for something like this, not quite daring to leap towards a more focused (I suppose I mean interpretative) word choice. This is not something Robertson ever seems reluctant to do – perhaps behind the defence of his poems as ‘versions’, gifting him greater freedom (a little less responsibility?) than if he’d declared the full ‘t’ word, translation. Robertson goes:

They crowd in close, attentive:

this audience of cancelled faces.

This is wonderfully economical, with a good play of vowel and consonant music, although ‘attentive’ is more neutral than waiting or anticipatory. Both ‘audience’ and ‘cancelled faces’ are dramatic choices. In one sense they complete the decision Robertson makes to bring the theatrical imagery far higher in the mix than in Transtromer’s original; the couple’s lives are performances though the only audience they have is the featureless and expressionless city about them. But ‘cancelled’ is also a surely over-dramatic in suggesting the faces have suffered (see ‘bleed earlier’) some mysterious trauma whereas in Fulton (and I think in Transtromer) the waiting a faces are merely empty, indeed, perhaps waiting to be filled.

Transtromer’s poem has a poignancy derived from the fact that the couple’s love-making, though distanced and close to meaningless in the great scheme of things, is perhaps the only possible source of meaning/expression in a largely unresponsive world. Robertson’s version manages to turn the dramatic volume several notches but in doing so pushes out to the extremes. His poem suggests an even bleaker diagnosis in which human activity is nothing but theatricality, stage sets, drama, while any potential audience or act of witness that might be possible involves only those whose faces and identities have already been wiped.

The Verdict: actually I set out preferring Robertson’s version because it garnered a more immediate response from me with its obvious sense of drama. On reflection – and looking more closely (as far as I’m able) at the original Swedish – I think Fulton is closer to the source (and therefore his poem reads more strangely, less easily, than Robertson’s). It’s this kind of frustratingly equivocal conclusion that makes those who fancy themselves as translators think it’s worth having yet another go at bringing a poem across into English. Just to throw a curved ball in right here at the end, here is Robert Bly’s translation of the same poem . . . declare your preference!!

They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then arising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.

Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.

Ted Hughes’ ‘Swifts’

Our swifts returned two days ago – the 10th of May – now they are now installed, screaming around the terrace row, occupying the air over this little patch of north London. No better tribute to their speed, power, heroic journeying and the pleasure given by their return than Ted Hughes’ poem from Season Songs (Faber, 1976):

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Swifts

Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialize at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come —
And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror. Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters —

A bolas of three or four wire screams
Jockeying across each other
On their switchback wheel of death.
They swat past, hard-fletched

Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
And are gone again. Their mole-dark labouring,
Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades

Sparkle out into blue —
Not ours any more.
Rats ransacked their nests so now they shun us.
Round luckier houses now
They crowd their evening dirt-track meetings,

Racing their discords, screaming as if speed-burned,
Head-height, clipping the doorway
With their leaden velocity and their butterfly lightness,
Their too much power, their arrow-thwack into the eaves.

Every year a first-fling, nearly flying
Misfit flopped in our yard,
Groggily somersaulting to get airborne.
He bat-crawled on his tiny useless feet, tangling his flails

Like a broken toy, and shrieking thinly
Till I tossed him up — then suddenly he flowed away under
His bowed shoulders of enormous swimming power,
Slid away along levels wobbling

On the fine wire they have reduced life to,
And crashed among the raspberries.
Then followed fiery hospital hours
In a kitchen. The moustached goblin savage

Nested in a scarf. The bright blank
Blind, like an angel, to my meat-crumbs and flies.
Then eyelids resting. Wasted clingers curled.
The inevitable balsa death.
Finally burial
For the husk
Of my little Apollo —

The charred scream
Folded in its huge power.

A bundle of 50 sticks for William and Juliet

Last Saturday I travelled down to Chepstow to read at an event organized by William Ayot who, with his wife Juliet, runs the On the Border series of readings. They tend to bill a Welsh poet with A. N. Other; I was the latter and Richard Gwyn the former. Richard runs the Creative Writing MA at Cardiff University and is a brilliant poet and translator from the Spanish (especially South American poetry). He read some heart-stoppingly powerful new work from three Mexican poets recently published in Poetry Wales and some of his own prose poems from Sad Giraffe Café (Arc Publications). I read from my translations of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and also extracts from The Time We Turned.

Richard Gwyn

On the train down I was again reading Lee Harwood’s work (see my last blog post) and came across ‘Days and Night: Accidental Sightings – a bundle of 50 sticks for Joseph Cornell and others’. I’ve put together my own loose bundle of sticks as a modest thank you to William and Juliet for their hospitality in their extraordinary house, their passion for poetry in its widest sense, and that marvellous coronation chicken!

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A bundle of 50 sticks for William and Juliet

At the track side willow belts always unkempt trunks leaning some broken

*

luminous blue sky in early May

*

On a diversionary loop the train slows as if to allow the doe standing knee deep in meadow grass to watch us as we pass we watch her

*

She wears muddy walking boots and has brought out a flask of something hot

*

clipping tickets he is careful to be polite though from those upgrading to First Class he has had money already

*

‘why do you do this’ the effect is never quite the same twice

*

In a faded green t-shirt a man walking with arms folded across his chest as if he had breasts he hoped to steady

*

mud-brown canal waters held eight of nine feet high behind a lock gate

*

An upturned wheelbarrow on a long houseboat its purple paint job a statement of optimistic intent

*

Words carve out sense as tractor tyres embrown the field’s new growth each year their lines down the hillside conclude at an iron gate

*

I feel with each mile nearer home I mean nearing the place I grew up in

*

Hills like the scarp edge of Salisbury Plain wait O this is not a likeness this is ‘the actual place’

*

a diversion to a chalk white horse full of memories

*

the Tory heartlands a tractor slowly turning over the ground

*

I ring home and wake my sleeping parents

*

‘Let’s make flying fun again’

*

a basket of split logs waits for the fire

*

On a wooden writing desk three animal skulls

*

‘quietude not inquietude’

*

Nine owl feathers in a china mug a sort of chalice

*

A glazed bowl with an assortment of matte pebbles from the beach

*

His son spoke out but the police were in bed with the FARC who saw to it he and his friends were tortured and killed can you believe it

*

I like to work I prefer to work with those who want to want to stop

*

a tall poplar tree like an exclamation mark he wrote as if to say this is it

*

One skull another skull then another skull beside another skull

*

rose gardens and orchards

*

If they haven’t killed enough by their early 20s they’re losers whose life expectancy is anyway no more than 24

*

Down to the underworld but returns if somewhat empty-handed he does return

*

mausoleums for themselves a cult of death

*

Bluebells in the hedgerows on either side of the road

*

left hand short by two digits his wife’s wrist broken by a fall

*

shut-eyed Blake above the flat-screen TV seems to offer the room a challenge

*

the watercourse way

*

Everything is a fiction the novel in your shoulder bag is the bank statement you use as a bookmark inside it that too

*

The narrative of the oh-eight crash there are other ways for it to be recounted that’s not a joke

*

Oppositional to a large degree I guess we are not pebbles from the same beach but it’s more than just rubbing along

*

A chimney balloon

*

On-line so many ‘friends’ devastated by the surprise results

*

It’s staying in places like this makes me feel a Londoner

*

He waves his paddle to let the train go then flips it up inside the back of his orange hi-viz jacket and pushing the handle into his back pocket it’s safely stowed

*

A speck of thistledown drifting up the aisle

*

attentiveness

*

banked blue rectangles squat in meadows to scoop the sunlight

*

Dirt is matter out of place but this is not dirt it is marvelously out of place

*

Red kite above the monkey puzzle

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on an elevated hillside ahead yellow rape now level with me receding away behind

*

In tunnels my ears close as if valved

*

either that or everything is a metaphor I see myself turning socks inside out little involved packages

*

What will Rose and Richard be doing this morning

*

Wishing Iolo courage for his father’s passing

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