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.
(Thanks to Bloodaxe Books for a review copy of this collection)
The return alluded to in Heidi Williamson’s Return by Minor Road (Bloodaxe Books, 2020) is partly physical, but predominantly one of memory and yet, the book argues, it is an almost redundant journey in that we carry important events with us anyway. In confronting a particular tragic event from the past, these poems strike me as offering routes through our current experiences – of pandemic, grief, lockdown – in particular an appreciation of the ‘minor roads’ along which we might recover a sense and shapeliness in what now strikes us as chaotic and closer to a deletion of meaning.
The event at the centre of this collection occurred at Dunblane Primary School, north of Stirling, Scotland, on 13 March 1996, when Thomas Hamilton shot 16 children and one teacher dead, injuring 15 others, before killing himself. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history. What Williamson is not doing here is exploring the nature of evil, the damaged personality of the perpetrator, or the wider political/social fallout of such terrible events. She was living in the area at the time (I think as a student) and this retrospective collection is divided into three parts: the haunting of memories (but Williamson has more powerful ways of articulating this than the ‘ghostly’ metaphor), the re-examining of the actual event, and a physical re-visiting of the location.
The personal nature of the response offered by these poems is flagged in an epigraph from Jane Hirshfield: “our fleeting lives do not simply ‘happen’ and vanish – they take place”. She means that events do not slip away into the past, but take or carve out a place in our historical and present selves and it is this geographical/topographical idea that Williamson pursues so effectively in many of the poems. The particular, the creaturely and the personal predominate. A mother settles her child back to sleep at night – the troubled sleep patterns of the innocent in this context have immediate resonance – and returning to her own bed she finds how awkwardly the bedspread rucks up, “how hard it is to settle”. Uneasiness at night recurs in ‘Thrawn’, images of Allan Water (the river running through Dunblane) surfacing years after the event. ‘Loch Occasional’ again uses a local geographical reference to suggest the sudden flooding of memories, when “the silt of what happened rises” and – echoing Hirshfield’s comment – the “occasional”, which one might expect to have its moment and vanish, is said to “endure”. The rise and fall of Allan Water is the primary image for the persistence of memory in so many of these poems. Rain falling, “insistently / with its own unnameable scent”, is an image chosen elsewhere and (rather more conventionally, à la Henry James) ‘Fugitive dust’ is literally haunted by the figure of a child.
What such resurfacings mean in personal, day-to-day terms is clear in the prose poem, ‘It’s twenty-two years ago and it’s today’. Besides the form, this is a different style of writing: shorthand, a journalese of plain statement, brief jottings of a day spent with husband and child. The ordinary is tilted out of true by unwanted remembrance, manifesting as unusual quietude, the papers left unread, the phone disconnected: “Neither of us says why”. Halfway through this poem, the narrator manages to write, she says, “[s]mall hard coughs on the page”. Perhaps this alludes to the (again) quite different style of verse in ‘Cold Spring #1’ which is the key section recounting the events of the 13 March 1996, though the massacre itself is reduced to a single word, “incident”. Covering 4 pages in total, we are given dislocated fragments only – speech, visual images – as an ordinary day turns into an historical event. This works really well and, without pause, the poems move off again to explore the aftermath: phone calls from worried relatives and friends, hesitant visits to the local pub, encounters with news journalists, memorial flowers already beginning to fade.
What the book offers as healing counterweight to the massacre – and there’s no doubt that Williamson wants to offer something despite the troubled days and nights, despite quoting from Hopkins’ ‘terrible sonnet’, ‘No worst there is none, pitched past pitch of grief’, despite allusions to the “uncontrollable heart” – what the poems offer is the natural world’s existence and persistence and the innocence of the child. Williamson’s response to nature is always powerful and detailed, carrying a lode of emotional implications. As has become a commonplace idea in these ‘lockdown’ times, the loss or expansion of our narrow selves in the world of nature is redemptive. ‘Dumyat’ opens:
Some days we cried ourselves out,
packed our coats and climbed
the soggy rock to its small summit.
There was something about stepping
one by one, beside each other
without speaking, without the need.
Elsewhere, striding up into the nearby Ochil Hills was a way to “clear us of ourselves”. Another poem celebrates the “Reliability of rain. / Durability of rain” and in another the (relative) unchanging nature of the nearby Trossachs offers a consolation of sorts; I guess a longer perspective in which even such human-scale horrors must be found to shrink.
It is also the presence of – and the need to provide for and protect – her own child that offers a path beyond tragedy. The title poem offers a straightforward account of Williamson’s return to the landscape of Dunblane, but she and her husband visit with their child who carries nothing of what the place means to his parents, hence he is innocent, complaining, distracted, playful … The poem ends with the child playing a horse racing game, taken down from the hotel bookshelf, in a wonderful image of the onward propulsion of youthfulness, its greed for the future, the as-yet unburdened nature of its vitality: “He gallops his horses forwards, forwards”.
I don’t mean to give the impression that Williamson’s book offers anything like an ‘easy’ response to the horrors of Dunblane. The ‘minor roads’ by which people mostly manage to pick up their old lives – here nature and family – remain shadowed and troubled in two late poems. ‘Self’ offers a liturgical series of questions to which the poet can only ever answer “I don’t know” and the concluding poem also makes use of repetition, recording the landscapes around Dunblane once again with the repeats playing variations on the idea that all this was left behind when the poet moved away and yet all this was also carried away too. It’s the paradox of the book as expressed to perfection in the poem ‘Culvert’. More typically in this poem, Williamson observes her “unassuming heart” and the water images recur with the heart becoming a valley collecting waters and debris after a downfall (the traumatising event). But the event does not merely pass through the heart:
it was the heart,
rent in the same way
a clearing is made
by great and incremental
Experiences make the heart what it is, carving our selves, finding a permanent place within them, shaping them for the future, always flowing through them, even if unseen for the most part:
its pulse ebbs in culverts
below neat estates,
a furtive love trickling
deeper and deeper.
Love of the natural world and love of family – especially youth – resonates through this quietly convincing collection which manages to take on its daunting subject matter and emerge, not victorious of course, but having argued on behalf of resilience, on the side of hope.
This is how reviews are supposed to work. I recently read James Harpur’s comments on Bonjour Mr Inshaw, published by Two Rivers Press (poems by Peter Robinson, paintings by David Inshaw) in the Spring 2020 issue of Agenda, ‘Pound Reconsidered’. I went out and bought the book.
I’ve long thought of writing poems about David Inshaw’s paintings, drawn to what Harpur calls his ability to “invest landscapes with spiritual light and energy, balancing realism with a sense of the mythic, of penetrating a noumenal sphere”. The other personal draw to his work has been that Inshaw’s home (and home ground as an artist) is that part of Wiltshire to the west of where I grew up. Inshaw’s home is in Devizes and many of his paintings are of the landscape just a bit further west, of Silbury Hill, Avebury, the barrows and downs of that area. The drive from the M4 turn-off at Hungerford, on the Bath Road, through Marlborough and the A361 to Devizes has long figured in my personal list of favourite drives (not wholly because it was for years the route to my childhood home in Hilperton, Wiltshire). And now Peter Robinson has beaten me to it with this beautiful book of full colour images and 19 poems, though his approach is not simply ekphrastic (merely descriptive of the images) but often launches out from the pictures into concerns shared by the two artists.
Robinson and Inshaw in fact met at Cambridge in the 1970s. That moment is uncertainly recalled in the poem ‘In the Seventies’ (a title borrowed from Thomas Hardy’s poem in Moments of Vision – a sub-theme of this whole book is how both poet and artist respond to Hardy’s work). Various chance meetings over 50 years then occurred including a visit to Devizes in January 2019 during which the project of this book was agreed upon.
The word ‘haunted’ seems to have been designed to be applied to Inshaw’s landscapes. There is a hyper-real quality to the painting which makes the viewer re-see our own surroundings but also takes us through the surface. Harpur’s Agenda review suggested a “Platonic vision” but I’d object to losing the surface of the real so readily. Inshaw was a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists (here is an old BBC documentary on them – a brilliant example of ‘slow’ TV before it had been thought of) and his landscapes are usually peopled and the trees and downs and ancient memorials are therefore always ‘seen’. Inshaw’s work is about time and memory (Hardy again) and the way moments of vision or perception can feel heightened. The poem ‘Haunting Landscapes’ alludes to Inshaw’s ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’ (another quote from Hardy, his poem ‘After a Journey’). A woman in black stands in a graveyard but has turned as if being called to from beyond the frame (by a memory, a ghost).
As in so many memories, there is a heightened particularity to Inshaw’s paintings. There is a Rilkean focus on what ‘The Kennet’ calls “being here”. Look at Inshaw’s ‘Tree and Moon’, for example, and Robinson’s accompanying poem, ‘At Slader’s Yard’, associates the two artists (and their art forms) in the quality of their ‘noticing’: “I’m a counter of clouds / come over the hills like this one / ‘salmoning’ in a ‘deepening blue’”. Hardy’s poem ‘Afterwards’ describes himself as a “man who . . . noticed things”. Robinson’s concluding poem, ‘After a Visit’, suggests how Inshaw’s precision of observation (“the starkness of those winter branches’ / black against a glowing skyline”) manages to inculcate a sense of something other than mere perception of colour and shape: “it brings back the sense of some design, / and a meaning to this scene”. The root and pattern of design is unclear. The value of such a comprehending vision is heightened by the precise historical context in which many of these poems were written. The divisions and confusions of Brexit and the world of Covid infection and lockdowns keeps breaking through the surface of this book. The parliamentary “palaver”, hypocritically urging us to “come together as a nation” and a certain politician, “pre-disgraced”, indicate that neither poet nor painter look upon the landscape of southern England with their heads in the clouds, nor with any narrowly nostalgic gaze.
Last week I attended the launch of Tamar Yoseloff’s new collection, published by Seren Books. Tammy and I have known each other for a long while, are both published by Seren and, in her role at Hercules Editions, she has just published my own recent chapbook, Cargo of Limbs. So – in the small world of British poetry – I’m hardly an unconnected critic, but I have the benefit of having followed her work over the years, reviewing her most recent New and Selected, A Formula for Night (2015) here.
In an earlier blog post, I spoke – in rather tabloid-y terms – of the tension in Yoseloff’s poems between the “sassy and the sepulchral”. In 2007’s Fetch (Salt), there were “racy, blunt narratives” which in their exploration of female freedom, restraint and taboo made for vivid, exciting reading. The other side of her gift inclines to an “apocalyptic darkness”, a preoccupation with time, loss, the inability to hold the moment. In A Formula for Night, the poem ‘Ruin’ invented a form in which a text was gradually shot to pieces as phrases, even letters, were gradually edited out, displaying the very process of ruination. Interestingly, The Black Place develops this technique in 3 ‘redaction’ poems in which most of a text has been blacked out (cut out – see Yoko Ono later), leaving only a few telling words. A note indicates the source text in all three cases was the booklet Understanding Kidney Cancer and the author’s recent experience of illness is an important element in this new collection.
But unlike, for example, Lieke Marsman’s recent The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry, 2019 – discussed here), Yoseloff’s book is not dominated by the experience of illness (and one feels this is a deliberated choice). The book opens with ‘The C Word’ which considers the phonetic parts of the word ‘cancer’, as well as its appearance: “looks like carer but isn’t”. But – within its 12 lines – Yoseloff also considers the other C word, “detonated in hate / murmured in love”. The poem is really about how an individual can contain such divergent elements, “sites of birth / and death”. So unanticipated personal experience is here being filtered through the matrix of this writer’s naturally ambivalent gift.
Illness re-emerges explicitly later in the collection, but for much of it there is a business as usual quality and I, for one, am inclined to admire this:
I refuse the confessional splurge,
the Facebook post, the hospital selfie.
I’m just another body, a statistic,
nothing special. Everyone dies –
get over yourself.
So Yoseloff gives us a marvellous send-up of Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’ in ‘Sheeple’, a central place on the darker side of Yoseloff-country: “The heartland. Lower Slaughter”. There is urbanite humour in ‘Holiday Cottage’ with its “stygian kitchen”, bad weather, boredom and kitsch:
We stare at the knock-off Hay Wain
hung crooked over the hearth
and dream of England: the shire bells,
the box set, the M&S biscuit tin
‘The Wayfarer’ is one of many ekphrastic poems here – this one based on a Bosch painting – but the “sunless land” is patently an England on which “God looked down / and spat”. These are poems written in the last 3 years or so and, inevitably, Brexit impinges, most obviously in ‘Islanders’ (“We put seas between ourselves, / we won’t be rescued”) but the cityscape equally offers little in the way of hope. There is a caricaturing quality to the life lived there: everything “pixilates, disneyfies” (‘Emoji’) and gender relationships seem warped by inequitable power, by self-destructive urges and illness: “I’d super-shrink my dimensions, / wasting is a form of perfection” (‘Walk All Over Me’).
Perhaps ‘Girl’ shows us the figure of a survivor in such a hostile environment, her energy reflecting those female figures in Fetch – “a slip, a trick, a single polka dot” – but the darkness seems thicker now, the lack of lyricism, the impossibility of a happy ending more resolved:
She’s good for nothing because nothing’s
good: sirens drown out violins
and crows swoop to carnage in the street.
As the blurb says, the book boldly eschews the sentimental sop, the capitalist hype, for truths that are hard, not to say brutal. ‘Little Black Dress’ takes both the archetypal ‘girl’ and the author herself from teen years to widowhood in a dizzyingly rapid sonnet-length poem:
drunk and disorderly, dropping off bar stools one
by one, until the time arrives for widow’s weeds
and weeping veils, Ray-Bans darkening the sun.
And it is – unsurprisingly – mortality (the sepulchral) that eventually comes to the fore. A notable absence is the author’s mother, who has often been a powerful presence in previous books. Here she re-appears briefly in ‘Jade’. The stone is reputed to be efficacious in curing ailments of the kidneys and a jade necklace inherited from Yoseloff’s mother leads her to wonder about the inheritance of disease too: “a slow / release in her body, passed down, // down”. Both parents put in a fleeting appearance in the powerful sequence ‘Darklight’, the third part of which opens with the narrator standing in a pool of streetlight, “holding the dark / at bay”. She supposes, rather hopelessly, that “this must be what it’s like to have a god”. Not an option available to her; the dark holds monsters both within and without and not just for the child:
my parents would sing me to sleep;
now they’re ash and bone. Our lives are brief
like the banks of candles in cathedrals,
each a flame for someone loved;
It’s these thoughts that further the careful structuring of this collection and return it to the experience of a life-threatening illness. ‘Nephritic Sonnet’ is an interrupted or cut off – 13 line – sonnet that takes us to the hospital ward, the I.V. tubes and – as she once said of the city – the poet finds “no poetry in the hospital gown”. Except, of course, that’s exactly what we get. The determination or need to write about even the bleakest of experiences is the defiant light being held up. Yoseloff does not rage; her style is quieter and involves a steady, undeceived gaze and also – in the sequence ‘Cuts’ – the powerful sense that (as quoted above) “I’m just another body, a statistic, / nothing special. Everyone dies”.
It’s this sense of being “nothing special” that enables ‘Cuts’ dispassionately to record very personal experiences of hospital procedures alongside the contemporaneous facts of the Grenfell Tower fire and (another ekphrastic element) a 1960s performance piece by Yoko Ono called ‘Cut Piece’. These elements are ‘leaned’ against each other in a series of 13 dismembered sonnets, each broken up into sections of 6/3/4/1 lines. The fragmentary, diaristic style works well though there are risks in equating personal illness with the catastrophic accident and vital political questions surrounding Grenfell. Ono’s performance piece offers a further example of victimhood, one more chosen and controllable perhaps. What’s impressive is how Yoseloff avoids the magnetic pull of the ego, displaying – if anything – a salutary empathy for others in the midst of her own fears.
The book is titled after a Georgia O’Keefe picture, reproduced on the cover. O’Keefe’s steady gaze into the darkness created by the jagged relief of the Navajo country is something to which Yoseloff aspires, though it “chills me / just to think it into being”. It is the ultimate reality – a nothing, le néant – though like the ultimate presence of other writers (Yves Bonnefoy’s le presence, for example), can at best only be gestured towards:
We’ll never find it; as soon as we arrive,
the distance shifts to somewhere else,
we remain in foreground, everything moving
around us, even when we’re still.
Along such a difficult path, Yoseloff insists, O’Keefe’s art found “the bellow in a skull, / the swagger in a flower”. And, even in the most frightening brush with her own mortality, the poet will follow and does so in a way that is consistent with her own nature and work over many years.
A few weeks back, I was asked to contribute to an afternoon event in Palmers Green Library, north London, with the title – from Robert Frost’s poem – ‘The Road Not Taken’. It was introduced by Maggie Butt, with readings of their own poetry around the theme by Mark Holihan and Denise Saul. I was also asked to deliver a few thoughts on the work of Robert Frost. What follows is an edited transcript of what I said then and I think of it as a basic introduction for the general reader to Frost’s work and some of the ideas which I see recurring in it. As previous posts have mentioned, I’ve been teaching Frost for a few years recently – thanks to all those students who made me go back and read the poems again!
Despite the apparent simplicity of many of his poems, the real identity of Robert Frost (1874-1963) is hard to pin down. Though raised in late 19th century America, his first book was published in England. Though on the brink of the Modern, a year before the First World War, these poems used plain language and traditional forms. He loved Europe, befriending Edward Thomas – stirring him from prose into poetry – yet Frost sailed back to the US, to farming, north of Boston. By all accounts he was never a very successful farmer, though he often presented himself as talking downright farmer-like common sense. Some find his work consolatory; but he was famously called a ‘terrifying’ poet, a bleak Modernist.
If all this sounds slippery, then Frost took it into his poetics too. He said that, while writing a poem, he was conscious of saying two things at once. But he always wanted to say the first thing so well that any reader who liked that part of the poem might feel able to rest there. Yet, he implies, for those interested in going further, beyond the particular, overt or explicit meaning – say, two farmers re-building a wall between their properties, a man stopping to watch snow fall in a wood, a mower and a butterfly – there is always an ulterior meaning (at least one) that might also be opened up.
At all levels, such defining walls, barriers and boundaries – physical, mental, spiritual – proliferate in Frost’s work. But his view of them is complex. These walls are often porous. But sometimes they can seem impenetrable. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his biological knowledge, but here is something else Frost repeatedly jotted down in his Notebooks: “All life is cellular. No living particle of matter however small has yet been found without a skin – without a wall.”
On one side, these secure boundaries seem necessary for a successful life – like the wall round all cellular organisms. He would say: “I want to be a person. And I want you to be a person”. But the dangers are obvious. The cellular wall of identity becomes more than a means of self-definition and grows to become an exclusion zone, a solitary place, a state of solipsism. Many of Frost’s figures and narrators are found to be struggling with this state. Yet Frost’s comments about identity, wanting to be a person, wanting you to be a person, in fact continue: “then we can be as interpersonal as you please. We can pull each other’s noses – do all sorts of things”.
So the presence of these cellular walls do not necessarily hold us back. They are as often porous or permeable. Yet they seem also to offer a firm foundation from which we may reach out, we can humanly interact. We can pull each other’s noses. And there is indeed much pulling of noses in Frost’s poems. In particular, he liked to pull the nose of the person he chose to narrate many of his poems. There is very often an irony at work against the speaker. His poems are often more dramatic than lyric.
We might ask why is Frost so concerned about being a person, about the relative security of identity? Because, in other moods, he knows the dangers posed by the absence of any functioning cellular membrane: the leaking out of personality into the surrounding world, of identity dissipating to become nothing, the risk – as it were – of personal extinction.
There is a little poem called ‘The Cow in Apple Time’ which (on the face of it) is about a cow who is driven by an unspecified desire to disregard the walls about her pasture. The wall is no more than an open gate to her. She charges through and greedily eats fallen apples, growing intoxicated, her face splattered with apple juice. But in this kind of gluttonous state she grows sick, in pain:
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.
It’s a perfectly satisfying poem about a rural incident – perhaps Farmer Frost, had once witnessed it himself. But there is Frost’s ulteriority too. The cow is consistently described using terms which anthropomorphise her. The wall breaker is perhaps on one level really human, a rebel, a sinner – written in 1914, some have even suggested the cow is an invasive force. However we see her, she is punished for her disregard of, her undervaluing of, those walls and boundaries which perhaps ought to serve to define her life.
Remember this is the same Robert Frost who disparaged the writing of free verse, by many of his more obviously Modernist contemporaries, as trying to play tennis with the net down. The same Robert Frost who disparaged the, then fashionable, interest in Surrealism with its wild leaps over convention, its dislocation of the senses, the shock value of the illogical. For Frost such practices could lead only “to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper”.
The cow with the aching stomach is paralleled by a dying peach tree in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’. The narrator has moved “far north” and has transplanted a peach tree and now the northern winter is threatening it. He sits indoors and frets about it, trying to blame the weather rather than himself. But self-criticism arises all the same and it is human “ambition” that gets the blame, that “limitless trait in the hearts of men”. More precisely:
[. . .] though there is no fixed line between right and wrong,
There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.
I love the messy pragmatism implied by “roughly zones”. One of his recurring concerns, Frost said, was with “the impossibility of drawing sharp lines and making exact distinctions” – no red lines, lines in the sand, defined boundaries, but zones of negotiation, places calling for compromise, no fundamental clarity, rather a feeling-out, a region requiring a dialogue.
As in a poem like ‘The Tuft of Flowers’. A man comes to a mown field to turn the cut grass, the hay, to help its drying. He looks about for the man who had earlier mowed the grass:
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been, – alone,
‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart
The hermetically cellular, or as we would now say, atomised nature of society seems to be assumed by the narrator. It looks like there is going to be no breaking of boundaries here. But a “[be]wildered” butterfly passes him, looking for flowers that grew there yesterday, now cut down. The butterfly leads him to a “leaping tongue of bloom” left deliberately, out of “sheer morning gladness” by the mower. The narrator hears the message from this “tongue of bloom” which speaks of each man as a “spirit kindred” to the other. It’s as if they now enter into a dialogue, revising the earlier solipsistic observation. Now:
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
There is a rosy-edged hint of sentimentality here perhaps. But the fanciful dialogue between the two men (who actually never meet) represents a successful negotiation into that rough zone between individuals, the cellular membrane is actually permeable, and the result here is consolatory.
In ‘Mending Wall’, two farmers meet to patrol on either side of a dry-stone wall marking the boundary between their farms. Parts of it are always falling down. They build it back up. But the paradox is that the action of building up what separates them, brings them together each year to perform the task. The wall does not prevent or act as a brake on their relationship – rather it facilitates it – it perhaps is their relationship, what links them. From their respective sides – from their respective identities or persons – they are free to become ‘interpersonal’. But the mischievous, sceptical, modern-minded narrator expresses doubts about the importance of walls, particularly when “He is all pine and I am apple orchard”. His neighbour is a more traditional, unquestioning man, who likes to repeat his father’s advice: “Good fences make good neighbours”. The narrator mocks him (though in silence, in his head) as “an old-stone savage”, lost in actual and intellectual “darkness”. But it is significant that the wall-believer has the last word. For me, it is the moderniser is the one being ironised. If he was a versifier, he’d be trying to write poems with the net down.
Why Frost’s concern with the importance of walls? Because – in still other moods – he has looked into the abyss of experience without them. One example is given in the 16 terrifying lines of ‘Desert Places’. The narrator here seems to have taken the more modern, sceptical wall-mender’s view to heart. It seems there are no bounds here – all have vanished under “Snow falling and night falling fast oh fast”. That note of fear there adds to the nightmare feeling and when the outward-looking eye turns to look within – to find himself – he finds nothing: “I am too absent-spirited to count”. That phrase is an echo of ‘absent-minded’. There is a vacancy within and without – no mind, spirit, self, identity. There is only the concluding, devastating rhymes of “empty spaces . . . where no human race is . . . my own desert places”.
And if ‘Desert Places’ evokes the desolation of a world viewed in the absence of a relatively secure cell-walled self, then ‘The Most of It’ shows us the horrifying effects of being walled in. In this poem, the narrator “thought he kept the universe alone”. There seems nothing else but him, only a “mocking echo of his own [voice]”. Yet he does remotely feel a desire for dialogue – perhaps just in being human – and does express a desire not for “copy speech. / But counter-love, original response”. But when the universe does eventually break into his consciousness, it arrives not in the form of dialogue or a negotiated relationship but as an utterly alien thing.
It emerges only as a strange, vague “embodiment” that “crashed” and “splashed” towards him and is recognised only by means of a simile. Perhaps it is an elk.
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.
There, Frost captures the egoist’s struggle to comprehend what is other than him; followed by the arrogance of his dismissal of it. And perhaps this is a particularly masculine thing. Yet there is no need to attribute these feelings to Frost himself. The speaker is best read as a dramatic representation of one extreme of Frost’s concern for borders and boundaries that are vital for our own selfhood yet must be porous enough to allow for knowledge and experience.
So in ‘Birches’ the narrator remembers – as a boy – climbing slender birch trees, to the top, only to leap out and bend them down with his weight. This swinging of birches can be seen – ulteriorly – as representing Frost’s belief in those negotiated rough zones of a life. We climb up, out of our element, but not too far:
It’s when I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs Broken across it, and one eye is weeping From a twig’s having lashed across it open. I’d like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate wilfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
And if we find this frustratingly ambivalent – Frost sitting carefully on the fence – then he often rubs our noses in it. ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ famously concludes with two lines which are identical. For me, the repetition introduces greater ambiguity into the moment. Does the narrator stop, perhaps to die, entranced by the snowfall? Or does he shake himself up, turn back to his life in the village, his roles and responsibilities?
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Frost throws the question back to the reader. What Frost knows is that we do not keep the universe alone. We are parts of a whole – but the borderlands are uncertain – sometimes we cross them and lose touch with ourselves, at other times we too easily accept them and fall into egotistical isolation. There maybe be a happy medium – but Frost’s dynamic poems suggest the truth is we can never find and hold to that; we are always involved in the complicated fraught business of negotiation, of swinging birches, of chasing butterflies, of building walls that will promptly fall down again.
Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)
Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other cuts incisively and deliciously against several fashionable poetic grains in being committed yet dispassionate, quietly concise not shrill, impersonal rather than nakedly biographical. In Carcanet’s blurb, Rachael Boast praises the book for its “simplicity, empathy and sheer Blakean joy”; in truth, it needs to be praised for far tougher virtues such as its probing intelligence, its metaphorical brilliance, its lover’s relational sense of angst. Galleymore certainly possesses an astounding gift for figurative language. It’s tempting to allude to Craig Raine’s Martianism in this context, though Galleymore interrogates the metaphorical process in far more important and interesting ways.
Her main subject is the natural world and our relationship with it and the book is studded with a number of bravura pieces which – as Ted Hughes put it in Poetry in the Making (Faber, 1967) – manage to ‘capture’ something of creaturely lives. But rather than foxes and hawks, Galleymore writes about starfish, mussels, slipper limpets, goose barnacles, seahorses, whelks, frogs, spiny cockles and crabs. As Hughes’ versions of the natural world – even a harebell or snowdrop – tended towards violence, Galleymore’s creatures tend toward sensuality and – even when the behaviour is predatory – the descriptions have a sexual quality to them. So the starfish’s attack on a mussel rises to a climax when
[. . . ] the mussel’s jaw
drops a single millimetre. Into this cleft
she’ll press the shopping bag of her stomach
and turn the mollusc into broth.
There is indeed a sort of empathy here but, at its best, this kind of metaphorical language – the shopping bag, the broth – is accurately based on precise observation of actual behaviours.
But Galleymore also sees dangers. In her 2014 Worple Press pamphlet, Dazzle Ship, the poem ‘Forest’ sought to limit such likening of one thing to another: “It shouldn’t go further / than this flirt and rumour”. The consequence of this failure of (for want of a better word) tact is itself imaged in the sloth that mistakes her own limb for “an algae-furred branch” and plummets “through the tangle / of the forest canopy // holding only onto herself”. ‘Forest’ is not included in Significant Other, but a closely related image occurs in ‘Once’. This little poem tracks human relations with nature from our early fears of “being eaten”, through the beginnings of farming, the awakening of metaphors comparing ourselves to Nature, towards the Romantic notion of being “at one”. Yet often there is a bullying, colonising quality to such a sense of oneness – we co-opt Nature into our world on our own terms. In ‘Once’, we are “at one and lost / as the woman wrapped in her lover’s arms / who accidentally kisses herself”. Such ludicrous, solipsistic love-making echoes the sloth’s mistake and downfall.
Several commentators have picked out ‘Choosing’ as a significant poem in this book, most seem to take its statement about loving all “eight million differently constructed hearts” (the number of species currently living on earth) as a genuine example of environmental good practice. But there is irony at work here when the poem goes on to indicate the difficulty of achieving such a multiplicity of loves, using incomplete statements, awkward repetitions and – as Galleymore often does – the language of human lovers to express it. So:
To say nothing will come between us,
to stay benignly intimate was –
sometimes not calling was easier –
sometimes I’d forget to touch you
and you, and you [. . .]”
And these inevitable failures to live up to such ideally multivalent webs of relationships lead to “breakups” (in the lover’s parlance) which I take to mean extinctions (biologically speaking):
like the others it seemed you’d just popped out
for a pint of milk and now
nothing’s conjured hearing your name
So Galleymore sees figurative language not only in poetic terms, but also as its shapes all human knowledge. ‘Uprising’ (also in Dazzle Ship only) compares the fluffy seed-head of a dandelion to a microphone, ready to transmit “a hundred / smaller scaffoldings // of a thought or an idea”. But such likening of one thing to another (when taken beyond flirt and rumour) like any human relationship is at risk of an unbalanced power dynamic. ‘Seahorse’ is unusual in this collection, opening as it does in the human world, in a restaurant, a man speaking for the woman he’s with, his presumption described as “shocking”. Yet the narrator seems complicit in such a relationship too:
like a hand shaping itself inside another’s
the way my hand tucks into his
like a difference pretending it’s not.
Like two separate identities, one pretending not to be really separate at all. Or not being allowed to regard itself as separate at all. This is close to metaphor as a form of gaslighting.
In several poems, Nature is the exploited, submissive partner but in ‘No Inclination’ it is shown fighting back. The metaphors we have long used to domesticate and describe the natural world are shown to be breaking down:
[. . .] a surprising number of gales
didn’t know what it was to howl.
The woebegone voice of the willow
confirmed it had no reason to weep.
It is our presumptuous, mansplaining tendency not to see Nature for what it is – but only in our own invented metaphors for it – that contributes to our planet’s endangerment. Our assumption of the benign, life-giving smile of the sun (Telly Tubbies anyone?) is not something we can rely on for much longer (record UK temperatures anyone?):
It couldn’t be denied: that fiery mass
possessed no inclination to smile.
Household after household poured
whiskey-cokes to toast the news,
the ice melting fast in their drinks.
In ‘Significant Other’ itself, a cloud may be likened to a tortoise but the cocktail of power and presumption is complex; the relationship is not reciprocal. As the tortoise owner once erroneously anthropomorphised her pet, so in later life she mistook her lover’s sexual fidelity. The truth is not always as we wish it or as our metaphors construct it. At the close of the poem, the tortoise continues in its own “tortoisey” way, resisting any further efforts to colonise it, to humanise it. It is and remains significantly Other. And in this cool-toned, often fascinating book, Galleymore knows the Other needs to be allowed its distance, allowed its dynamic, changeable difference, its wealth of richness in being different, whether that Other is a lover or the natural world itself:
I was taken by surprise last week when BBC Radio Three contacted me to let me know that a line of poetry from a piece I’d published in Beneath Tremendous Rain back in 1990 has been used as the starting point for a Slow Radio programme, broadcast on the 17th May 2019, but available here for a month or so.
The connection was radio producer, Julian May, who I have worked with on several BBC radio programmes over the years. If you follow the link above, you’ll see Julian was responding to the opening two lines of the sequence of four poems which I will post in full below. His aim was to create a piece – ‘The Water’s Music’ – from recordings of the natural world.
Do listen to the programme – it’s just 30 minutes in length and the first half of it consists of Julian and the sound artist and musician, Tim Shaw, splashing about in a Northumbrian burn to record the astonishing variety of sounds produced by it. This is all a little bit bonkers, of course, but the sense of the great outdoors, the evocation of the water’s flow – beside, across, above and below – is marvellous, and does what Slow Radio often does, opening out the listeners’ sensibility in a playful, vivid and open-ended fashion.
The final, edited piece begins at 15.30 if you wanted to listen to that bit alone. I found it curiously moving that a thought – and a form of words I had in mind so many years back – has now been given aural form. The ‘music’ is also brilliantly in keeping with the poem. As you’ll see below, the epigraph is a quote from Marc Chagall, putting a premium on fluidity as opposed to precision and the idea that the artist/writer’s role is to approach something which is really inexpressible is a core belief that has remained with me over the years. The culmination of this view of art (I can now see) is my version of the great Ancient Chinese classic text the Daodejingwhich I published with Enitharmon in 2016.
As expressed in the poem, water still remains a god for me – I can never pass a fishmonger’s stall without stopping to gaze at the “wealth of silver”. The interesting graveyard inscription in the second poem (“Your ship, my love, is now mored / hed and starn for a fuldiew”) seems to be there to represent the fixity that all the images of water are in contrast to. Its words still affect me greatly: the lover’s desire for the permanence of what is quintessentially human being gradually eroded by the rain and the years. I will have had Thomas Hardy partly in mind, I’m sure, although the inscription I think is probably one I saw in Ireland many years ago.
The third poem contains memories of the Canary Islands – the island of Gomera, much more of a tourist haunt now than it was back then – and of the English Lakes in the fictional waterfall of Swirl Force, surely a version of the (again much-visited) Aira Force, beside Ullswater Lake (the same lake that recently featured in the concluding poems of my blog-posted but as yet unpublished sequence ‘Works and Days of Division).
I’m now amazed at how ‘Daoist’ the fourth and closing poem seems. It is a shock – largely in the sense that perhaps one keeps on re-writing the same poem for a lifetime. The concluding lines certainly express a great deal about how I’ve viewed poetry in the ensuing years – a grasping towards something which I know will always remain elusive; but achieved only through language – that monument to the human wish for and effort to achieve greater control and precision – can something of the fluidity of what is real be evoked: “I carry something of water / that in my hands must leak away – see / its silver threads ceaselessly falling.”
Here’s the poem in full:
Divine fluidity, now that is truly precise – Marc Chagall
Lieke Marsman’s The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press, 2019) is an unlikely little gem of a book about cancer, language, poetry, Dutch politics, philosophy, the environment, the art of translation and friendship – all bound together by a burning desire (in both original author and her translator, Sophie Collins) to advocate the virtues of empathy. The PBS have chosen it as their Summer 2019 Recommended Translation.
It’s Audre Lorde who is the presiding spirit here, the woman with whom Marsman is in most frequent conversation. Lorde’s The Cancer Journals (1985) recorded her response to the disease: a sharpened realisation – an underlining – of life’s transience and, consequently, a more acute sense of “act[ing] out of it”. She also refused to allow her response to the disease to “fossilise into yet another silence, nor to rob me of whatever strength can lie at the core of this experience”. Marsman (and her translator Sophie Collins) takes up this challenging baton to produce a busy, intelligent, funny, chatty and touching sequence of poems, an autobiographical essay and 10 concluding letters from Collins, the whole text responding to Marsman’s own diagnosis of chondrosarcoma at the age of 27.
The sort of silence Lorde fears is evoked in the monitory opening poem. Its unusual, impersonal narration is acutely aware of the lure of sinking away into the “morphinesweet unreality of the everyday”, of the allure of self-imposed isolation (“unplugg[ing] your router”) in the face of the diagnosis of disease. What the voice advises is the recognition that freedom consists not in denial, in being free of pain or need, but in being able to recognise our needs and satisfy them: “to be able to get up and go outside”. It’s this continuing self-awareness and the drive to try to achieve it that Marsman hopes for and (happily) comes to embody. But it was never going to be easy and towards the end of the poem sequence, these needs are honed to the bone:
There is nothing I need to see
Except, again and again,
A new day with you
Marsman’s poems are usually very free in form, sparsely punctuated and (unlike the opening poem) give the impression of an intimate address by a sensitive, self-aware, curious and well-educated woman. This makes the moments of frank disclosure even more powerful: “I am just so scared of disappearing [. . .] I desperately need to hear / from other sufferers”. The vitality in the poems belies the exhaustion of the ill person who lacks the energy even to sort her recycling, who watches “Eurosport replays / of alpine skiing” all afternoon and for whom tying her own shoelaces becomes “the stuff of poetry!” Such rapid shifts of tone are important in conveying the resilience of the patient – more than that they suggest the true nature of the individual who is (this is Marsman’s point) more than a mere patient.
It’s this restless interest in the world that accumulates slowly to portray the individual and – against all the odds – makes this book such a pleasurable read. The poems are only partly about cancer or rather cancer is only part of what the poems are interested in. We hear fragments of conversations (‘Identity Politics Are a Fad, You Say’), then meditations on irrationality and evolution and luck. ‘Treats’ ends with thoughts about Wittgenstein’s ideas concerning language games (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”) but ends with Marsman’s characteristic blend of intelligence, self-awareness, humour and pathos:
Whereof one cannot speak,
Thereof one forms silent gestures
Or bursts into tears.
Elsewhere, the individual’s interest is swept up into gender politics, multiculturalism, reality TV shows, upscale housing developments and the political hypocrisy of the Dutch state. In the autobiographical essay that follows the poems, Marsman explains: “I had to write about politics in order not to be totally subsumed by the cancer”. This also meant she was continuing to preoccupy herself with things that interested her before the diagnosis. It also had the effect of taking her out of herself (cancer, she says, “hurls you into yourself”). Such an interest in the multiplicity and variousness of the Other proves a beneficial way out of “a very lonely experience”.
This is the point about empathy made more systematically in the prose section which is pointedly titled ‘How Are You Feeling?’ In the final lines, Marsman puts it plainly: “What I do know is that the suffering of others is not something to be judged, ever, and that the right question to ask someone who is going through something difficult [. . .] is not ‘What’s in this for me?’ but ‘How are you feeling?’” This might seem to have the air of obviousness about it, but the preceding pages have documented depressing numbers of counter examples. The initial prose sections provide a pretty straight account of a young successful woman who sees the only likely danger for her as stress and “burn-out”. It makes her – and many of the medical practitioners she initially sees about a painful shoulder – fail to see there is a serious problem. On re-reading, I began to see this also as a failure of empathy, a failure to listen in to one’s own body. And there are certainly signs that Marsman (and Collins in her later letters) see the medical profession’s slow up-take as partly due to a lack of true empathy: “not only your age but your gender had an impact on the way you were perceived and treated”.
Marsman tells us she read Audre Lorde and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor after her operation and discharge from hospital. It’s Sontag who draws attention to the role of language in the way patients themselves and other people respond to cancer. Marsman asks herself: “Am I experiencing this cancer as an Actual Hell [. . .] or because that is the common perception of cancer?” The implied failure to achieve truly empathetic perception of the role and nature of the disease is echoed horribly in the empathetic failures and hypocrisies of Dutch politicians (UK readers will find this stuff all too familiar in our own politics). Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, blithely allocates billions of euros to multinationals like Shell and Unilever (on no valid basis) while overseeing cuts in health services. Marsman reads this as a failure to empathise with the ill. Another politician, Klaas Dijkhoff, reduces benefits on the basis that people encountering “bad luck” need to get themselves back on their own two feet. Bad luck here includes illness, disability, being born into poverty or abusive families, being compelled to flee your own country. Marsman’s own encounter with such ‘bad luck’ makes her rage all the more incandescent.
Marsman’s texts are about 35 pages long in this Pavilion Poetry edition. The remainder of the book consists of Sophie Collins’ letters. This might look like padding but the letters not only raise interesting points (particularly about the practice of translation) but are at one with Marsman’s pleas for a social fabric that enables “mutual, consensual and willing exchange[s]” between its citizens and its power structures. The epistolary form has this sort of open, empathetic exchange at its heart. In fact, the phrase I’ve just quoted is from Collins’ discussion of translation. She argues against the idea of ‘fidelity’ in translation because of the implied power relationship in such a word: “‘fidelity’; implies the presence of a primary source of power”. Traditionally, this would be located in the source text or source author; a power to which the (secondary) translator must defer. Collins wants to propose a more equal partnership, one she wants to call ‘intimacy’: “a mutual, consensual and willing exchange between two or more subjects without referencing (an) authority at all”.
Translation as an act of intimacy seems right to me, though it might appear easier to achieve this with a living source author than a dead one. But Collins really means “developing a sincere engagement with the source text, author and culture”, a ‘getting close’, so – quoting Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – the translator actually “speak[s] from inside”. This is a timely re-statement of a view of translation that, in these days where versioning and textual appropriation is so common, can be lost sight of. Collins goes even further here than the great Michael Hamburger, who was in the habit of saying the translator puts herself at the service of the source text. Collins sees the practical reality, that any translator herself is always going to be “fixed in a particular moment [. . .] will never, ever be a neutral entity” so however much we serve our source, the translator must always be bringing something of herself too: translation is an intimate engagement, a series of negotiations, an on-going drama of the most complex empathies.
Collins points out that this view of translation is one particularly fitting for the kind of work presented in this book. Marsman’s voice has the marvellous accessibility and liveliness of a conversation: “there is a deep intimacy in the way you seek to connect with your audience [. . .] the amount of credit you give your readers”. Her writing is both “accessible and smart”, says Collins, and this is just right. I might also add ‘uplifting’ – not only because Marsman’s personal prognosis looks good but because between them these two authors have produced a remarkable hybrid sort of book, grown from the astonishingly rich soil of empathetic response to others, expressive of a range of human intimacies as well as a variety of angers at the way individuals – and society – too easily succumb to blinkered self-interest and self-immuration.