So pleased to have these 5 poems published by The Galway Review. This is another of my translation projects (working with Nancy Feng Liang, without whom none of this would be possible of course). We ‘met’ during last year’s Cambridge Poetry Festival and she was looking for an English language poet to work on Chen Xianfa’s collection ‘Poems in Nines’ (2018). The more I have done so the more I love his work. I hope you enjoy these poems.
Biographies of the three writers involved in this submission
Chen Xianfa is a prize-winning poet and journalist, born in Anhui Province, China. He has published five books of poems: Death in the Spring (1994), Past Life (2005), Engraving the Tombstone (2011), On Raising Cranes (2015; in English tr. 2017) and Poems in Nines (2018; bilingual Chinese/English, tr. Nancy Feng Liang, publ. China) which was awarded the Lu Xun Prize. A Selected Poems appeared in 2019. He has published two collections of essays, Heichiba Notes (2014 and 2021). Other awards include China’s Top Ten Influential Poets (1998-2008), the Hainan Biennial Poetry Prize (2011), Yuan Kejia Poetry Prize (2013), Tian Wen Poetry Prize (2015) and the Chenzi’ang Poetry Prize (2016).
Martyn Crucefix – recent publications are Cargo of Limbs (Hercules Editions, 2019) and The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017). These Numbered Days, translations of the poems of Peter Huchel (Shearsman, 2019) won…
A friend of mine recently asked what I thought of Alice Oswald’s poem, ‘Swan’ – in fact, what did I think it meant. It appears in her 2016 collection Falling Awake (Cape Poetry). I’m not sure I can give a direct answer to her direct question, but it linked up with two other swan poems I have read recently. Baudelaire’s poem appears in The Flowers of Evil and I have been re-reading a couple of translations of that collection because of the French poet’s influence on Rilke. Rilke’s swan poem (included in New Poems) is one of the poems I have been translating for the projected 2023 Pushkin Press book mentioned in my previous two posts. So – by way of an oblique answer to my friend’s question and because these poems and (two of) the poets relate to my current project and out of sheer curiosity – I thought I’d read these three poems alongside each other here.
Baudelaire’s ‘Swan’ is the longest of the three, divided into two parts. Written in late 1859 and dedicated to Victor Hugo, Baudelaire described the poem as an attempt to “record rapidly all that a casual occurrence, an image, can offer by way of suggestions, and how the sight of a suffering animal can urge the mind towards all those beings that we love”. His definition of those we love is remarkable broad, as we’ll see. The poem is also remarkable for the range of its components: evocations of the modern city (Paris), the creature itself, anthropomorphism, personal memory, literary references and an imaginative and empathetic ‘lift off’ towards the end. I’m looking at Anthony Mortimer’s translation published by Alma Classics in 2016. Here is an older, clunky, but openly available translation.
The reader might be taken aback by the opening exclamation: this swan poem opens with ‘Andromache, I think of you!’ In Book 3 of The Aeneid, Andromache, wife of the killed Trojan hero, Hector, is living in exile (‘we, our homeland burned, were carried over / strange seas’ – tr. Mandelbaum) and now weeps for her husband beside a little stream, a paltry reminder (Baudelaire: ‘a poor sad mirror’) of the mighty river, Simoeis, near Troy. She is an image of an abused and displaced exile, a refugee and it is the narrator’s strolling through the Place du Carrousel in Paris that prompts this literary recall. It’s because he himself feels out of place. Between 1853-1870, the Paris Baudelaire had known was in the process of being re-designed and re-built by Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Cityscapes change ‘more swiftly than a mortal heart’ says the narrator and he prefers to recall the old, ramshackle state of the area, where there was once also ‘a menagerie’. One morning, in that previous era, he caught sight of an escaped swan that ‘[d]ragged his white feathers on the dirty road’.
Rapid cutting from literary allusion to gritty realism to anthropomorphism is part of Baudelaire’s boldly making it new. The swan is ‘doomed’ in a literal sense, yet also ‘mythical’, at least for the narrator, who makes the beast speak: ‘Water, when will you rain?’ The intertextual resonances are further extended: the narrator sees the bird ‘sometimes like the man in Ovid’. This is the moment of man’s first creation: ‘given a towering head and commanded to stand / erect, with his face uplifted to gaze on the stars’ (Metamorphoses, tr. David Raeburn). But Baudelaire’s allusion is ironic, confirming the swan’s standing for itself and humankind in 19th century Paris: the swan stretches ‘his writhing neck and hungry head / Towards the cruel sky’s ironic blue’.
Part II of ‘The Swan’ reverts to the changing vista of Paris. As the new is erected, the old buildings ‘turn allegorical’, working as allusions to objects and experiences that no longer exist. The diffuseness and proliferating resonance of the swan image itself suggests that ‘symbolic’ might be a better word than allegorical. Now strolling near the Louvre, thinking still of the swan memory, the narrator reflects on ‘how / All exiles are ridiculous and sublime’. The earlier Andromache reference now makes sense and it resurfaces. It is the ‘incessant longing’ of all exiles that fascinates Baudelaire and from the (passionately felt) literary figure, he turns to a real black woman, ‘thin and consumptive, / Trudging through mud’ (in Paris, I take it) who yearns for her African homeland, obscured by a northern European ‘wall of fog’. The narrator ‘seeks’ exile we are told or, in his alienation from the modern world, he is compelled to seek it in a (mental) forest in which a ‘distant memory winds its full-breathed horn’. Imprecise as the significance of this image is, it evokes a full-throated, rather nostalgic longing for something long past; somewhat ridiculous and yet sublime in its depth of feeling. But the poem’s final lines expand to encompass thoughts of ‘castaway sailors’ and ‘captives, the defeated . . . and of many, many more’. The memory of the swan has focused (and continues to do so) the narrator’s thoughts on the ubiquity of such states of alienation, of actual and psychological exile.
By comparison, the 12 lines of Rilke’s ‘The Swan’ are astonishingly compact. But, on its smaller scale, Rilke’s poem also opens as obliquely as Baudelaire’s. There are two lines before the creature appears and when it does so it seems to be in a figurative role: as an image of human life, which is itself characterised as a ‘struggling with a task not yet complete’. The contingencies and difficulties of a life lived are compared to the awkward movements of a swan’s movements out of water, weighed down, ponderous, ‘constrained’, as if its legs could not move freely. Baudelaire kept the two sides of his comparison (the swan and the experience of exile) clearly demarcated. Rilke balances the two sides of his comparison more evenly and potentially more confusingly. Is this a poem about a swan that conjures thoughts about life and death, or is it about life and death which now remind the narrator of the movements (in and out of water) of a swan?
Certainly, the initial topic seems to be life (its difficulties) and then in the second stanza, death itself: ‘that sense of our slackening grip / on the earth where we stand every day’. What is bold about this poem is how the final seven lines take off from this introduction of death into a second series of images related to the swan entering the water. But it is a series that does not return from the swan to the probable theme of human life/death. Instead, the poem records, in exquisite detail, the process of the swan entering the water and settling and then swimming away. It has the clarity of an Imagist poem (and I am hoping for that in my translation of it):
so, tentatively, he lowers himself down
and onto the waters that welcome him
gently, already, contentedly letting slip,
retreating beneath him, a moving tide,
while he, infinitely still and assured
and ever more majestic, more mature,
is content the more placidly to glide.
The growingly anthropomorphic quality of Rilke’s description (like Baudelaire’s before) implies the swan’s representative role in reflecting human life and in this instance, human death. Or at least, the idealised image of death that Rilke wants to convey: not something to be feared, but a gradual transition, a becoming, a maturing, an integral part of a life’s ‘struggling’. The poem’s playing with our perception of the swan/life divide is part of Rilke’s intention: life, as much as death, is not something Other, detached from the world of things, but something co-existing alongside it, within it. The creature’s placid transition from land to water, life into death, represents a true death for Rilke. This is not something available to all. In an earlier poem from the Book of Hours – in a poem which shows the influence of Baudelaire – Rilke portrays the poor of Paris, ‘wan-faced and petal-white’, frightened of being admitted to the hospitals of the city, knowing death awaits them. But this is a ‘petty death’, the demise of the body with no spiritual dimension; it is not ‘their real death’ which remains ‘hanging green, not yet sweet / like a fruit within that will never ripen’. So Rilke’s swan, as it glides placidly from life into death, is an image of such an ideal transition.
It’s possible Oswald’s poem, ‘Swan’, has Rilke’s in mind as its preoccupation is also with life and death. Compared to the Parisian perambulatory of Baudelaire’s regular ABAB quatrains and the meditative, imagistic, quasi-sonnet form of Rilke, Oswald’s poem wanders freely across the page echoing the disintegration of her already dead and rotting swan. The poem is composed of two elements: narrative description and the imagined voice or thoughts of the dead swan as it rises away (soul-like) from its own corpse. The only real puzzle here is the final speech of the swan.
The opening harks back to the sound world and imagery of Ted Hughes. The harsh assonance of the curt opening phrase (‘A rotted swan’) is an example, as is the following long line with its splashing sibilance and use of a technological image applied to the natural world: the swan is ‘hurrying away from the plane-crash of her wings’. Also like Hughes, Oswald likes to use the space of the page; the phrase ‘one here’, repeated for each of the wings, is placed as if the material of the words indicated the location of the wings set awry. The plane image is picked up again with the metaphor of the swan leaving the ‘cockpit’ of her own flying machine. The dualism of mind/self/spirit/soul versus body is adopted in what seems to be a simple manner.
Baudelaire’s swan in exile cried for rain in its natural watery homeland. Oswald’s is puzzled by its sudden divorce and alienation from its own body. In its first speech, it does not recognise its wings: ‘those two white clips that connected my strength / to its floatings’. The tone is similar in the second speech: ‘strange / strange’. The swan seems aware here of its own sense of ‘yearning’, experienced in its life, that the body’s ‘fastenings’ (wings? tendons? muscles?) were never able to ‘contain’. As with all these swan poems, the bird is being co-opted to represent humanity; here, our sense of being more than merely physical. The swan sees her own black feet, now ‘poised’ but unused. The corpse is an intricate, marvellous machine, but without whatever is now departing, it appears ‘a waste of detail’. Before the third and final speech, the body and all its ‘tools’ are now abandoned, with all its ‘rusty juices trickling back to the river’.
I think that last phrase is important. This is one of Oswald’s best poems but I’m uneasy with the conventionality of the spirit/body trope. Perhaps what is leaving the body is returning to the environment (an after-life of that sort)? In the final passage, the swan wants to address its own corpse before it ‘thaws’ or rots away. This suggests a desire for some ritual. The perspective of the poem now zooms in on the head, then the eye, which is visible and into its ‘cone of twilight’, the fading gleam within it, and into the cone, almost as if looking into a snow globe. The swan sees a scene there: a bride setting out to her wedding. Is this an image of the renewal of life after death? The ‘trickling back to the river’? But this return journey seems difficult: ‘it is so cold’. I’m not clear if I should be taking this in a narrow way: this individual creature will be extinguished. Or more broadly, the natural cycle of life-death-decomposition-new-life has been compromised (by human actions?). Oswald’s final image is of tolling bells, ringing in the putative wedding venue, bells like ‘iron angels’, insistently, ‘ringing and ringing’. Oswald’s swan is marvellously physical in its demise but its projected commentary on itself feels at times naively anthropomorphic (the death I’m left thinking of is a human death), at others puzzlingly obtuse.
This is the second of Ricky Ray’s chapbooks to be published in the UK this year (2020) – the other is appearing with Broken Sleep Books under the title, Quiet, Grit, Glory. A full collection, Fealty, also appeared in the UK through Eyewear Publishing in 2018 and it is now republished in the US by Diode Editions. The biographical note from Fly on the Wall Press refers to Ray as “a disabled poet, critic, essayist and founding editor of Rascal: a Journal of Ecology, Literature and Art” – all this suggesting that Ray has several highly ‘categorizable’ aspects to his work, but from the evidence in The Sound of the Earth Singing to Herself, he manages, to the benefit of us all, to elude being pigeon-holed in any neat way. See Ricky Ray reading poetry on the completion of his MFA degree – featuring poems about “dogs, disability, waywardness, childhood, childlessness, ecological consciousness, despair, and the search for hope”.
If poems can withstand the pressure of readers drawing biographical conclusions, Ray’s upbringing was difficult. ‘Sometimes Vision Withers on the Vine’ portrays a chaotic, poverty-stricken household with erratic running water and power supply because “crack was more alluring than the bills”. The boy’s drug-using father’s drug-using friend burns candles on the palm of his hand, apparently feeling no pain. The vision seen in the light seems to be nothing more than a death’s head, a version of the future in which “nothing happens”. Another poem remembers the putting down of a pet dog: “the news // had blown out all moisture and made of my body / Oklahoma”. This is an amazing image of a sudden expansiveness of the self, or its wiping out, in a state of grief at the loss of a creature the boy regarded as closer to a brother. The father had the dog destroyed, as we say, out of kindness, and the boy/poet comments: “a kindness I never wanted, still don’t”, thereby broaching the subject of his own ‘viability’.
Ray’s physical disabilities give him relentless pain, the prospect of comfort realistically being merely “pain / that relents / from a knife-twist / to a dog gnawing / an old / bone” (‘What’s Left’). ‘Toward What’ records a good day in which he falls only once and “take[s] three / minutes to ascend six stairs”. Yet there are some days, “my body is so beautiful / I can’t believe I get to live here” (‘(Dis)ability’). It’s somewhere along this existential line, between the confines of a body in pain and the expansive, close to out of body experience, signalled by that Oklahoma image, that Ray’s poems really come into their own. He can celebrate an incarnated, ‘being in the world’, with both a sense of its pleasures and a sense of what it costs to remain here.
Such a celebration is ‘So Long as There is Light, There is Song’. The narrator and his dog, Addie, are in a field, the dog’s pleasurable ease in the world engendering similar feelings in the poet. There’s a Whitmanesque quality to the loafing in the grass, the blessing of ants, of the grass itself, the dawning sense of a life larger than any of the individuals present:
You could call it continuity.
You could call it the field itself. I like to call it what calls.
And I like to live in her song.
For want of a better label, what is sensed is the Earth, “singing her duet with the sun”, the natural world for sure, but Ray’s language implies a close to sentient being, sensed in the co-habiting of the multitude of separate living things. In considering the ravaging of ‘My Favourite Sweater’ by moths, Ray shows how the human heart might respond to such a sense of “continuity”, in the generosity of his wishing “the moths no ill”:
[I] say to myself it’s all down to pattern, a shifting
pattern, a thread of wool raveling into a thread of moth,
the moth’s wings the stitchwork of the hand that knits us all,
the hand itself a stitch along a seam my mind unravels
It’s Whitman’s long lines and levelling up of all phenomena that comes to mind as the poem goes on to “thank until I run out of things to thank”. Even in the midst of natural danger – in this case a hurricane – the poet/narrator seems to revel in the ominous signals of the storm’s approach, promising to protect his dog. Like the Oklahoma image earlier, this poem (‘On Hurricanes’) ends in mid-flight, the storm raging, the individual consciousness being smashed and scattered, “like fusion, like retribution—/ bang bang bang”. Yet the final image of peril in the face of nature is also an image of becoming one with it, of realising a kind of incarnation: “the roar of it so loud / I can hear the lion’s mouth around my head”.
If ‘On Hurricanes’ reaches apocalyptic levels, the final poem in this chapbook is calmer, more meditative. ‘A Walk in the Woods’ opens with nature and Ray’s ever-present dog, Addie, being company enough for an individual who, for a variety of alienating reasons, has never felt humanity was “a species I was given to understand”. He identifies more with trees, “which may be a function of how poorly my legs work”. The presence of trees consoles, inspires, as Ray again approaches the trailing hem of the divine: “I see a mind at work. Whose, though?” The questioning is not pursued by the rational mind; rather the experiential pleasure – a drifting in an “amniotic ocean” – is allowed to be all. Instead, of an individual walking through a wood, the poem offers us a sensation not of “one walking” but rather of “one being walked”, a moment we might think of as disembodied from the physical world but is as much incarnated within it and is perhaps the most heightened state of environmental consciousness.