Miriam Nash’s new, 180 line poem is fascinating in the transformation of its sources in Norse myth, its quiet yet firm challenging of racial and gender hierarchies and in its exquisite presentation by Hercules Editions, accompanied as it is by an essay from Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir and textiles imagery created by Christina Edlund-Plater (in fact, Nash’s mother).
Friðriksdóttir gives those of us not up to speed with the Norse sagas some explanation. It seems the gods were actually not primary but descended from the race of giants. Yet since gaining supremacy, the gods have excluded and denigrated the giants. Generated from a hegemonic point of view (the top people in medieval Icelandic society), these Norse myths (as do most) tend to “justify and naturalise the status quo”, as Friðriksdóttir puts it, and what is being naturalised is a particular view of history, ancestry and masculinity. The anxiety of the Norse myths is a familiar one, tied up with patriarchy and the male control of women. There is a scene of ‘original sin’ in these stories in which the gods, Odin and his brothers, kill Ymir, the first and oldest giant. Out of Ymir’s dismembered body parts, the gods create the earth. This is a Fall from a primordial unitary state; Friðriksdóttir again: “at this juncture, one group becomes two” and conflict becomes the condition of life on earth.
So much for the birth of conflict and violence. The sagas are also notable for the relative absence of the feminine. An exception can be found in obscure references to the god Heimdallr who was born from nine giant mothers (possibly sisters) and it is through ‘writing on’ from these few suggestions that Miriam Nash’s poem develops a richly female addition to the Norse sagas. She challenges the old tales’ defensiveness about race (giant and gods) and gender and offers the modern reader a narrative of nurture, warmth and closeness in contrast to violence and conflict. The battle lines as they are drawn up are pretty obvious and will surprise no-one but Nash’s use of balladic form, of spoken voices and her re-scripting of details from the traditional stories conveys something vital and moving, a new myth for the age of Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement with its original purpose of empowering women through empathy.
Nash’s poem opens at the heart of an unorthodox family with one of Heimdallr’s mothers speaking tenderly. The whole family have gathered round a campfire, a hearth, in various states of sleep and wakefulness, cooking, sword-sharpening, comforting and acting as a seer. She tells Heimdallr the story of his remote origins in the primordial time when division was not known: “a tale of giants, a tale of gods / in early time, in frost-fire time”. A time of community and peace: “we lived snore-close, heart-close”. Also a time before language (or at least, language as we now have it) and Nash makes Ymir – the representative figure of this lost age – a “mother-father”, represented by the possessive determiner “their”. As in the traditional stories, Ymir creates/finds Buri in a glacier and Odin is Buri’s grandson. It is Odin who first declares division:
Odin said he was a God
Odin said the Gods were old
older than Ymir or giants
older than the ice-fire world.
This is an example of Nash’s form – loose quatrains of usually 4-beat lines, often part-rhymed at lines 2 and 4. And Odin’s declaration – his myth creation, his propaganda, his re-writing of history, his self-aggrandisement – is at the heart of the world’s troubles. Heimdallr asks who made the gods and the answer is that “They made themselves / with stories”. The poem goes on to recount Odin’s slaying of Ymir and the word “blood” recurs over and over again in the following quatrains.
But it is a blood ocean across which the nine mothers of Heimdallr have protectively carried their child. The child instinctively sees the roots of division and does not want to be “a half”, does not want to be merely “a god”. The comforting mother’s voice offers a startling solution (if we live in the fallen world); “Ymir was mother-father, child / Both might be your path”. The possibility is raised of a mode of living in which opposites may be once again reconciled, male/female, god/giant, fire/ice and the passage towards such a life is evidently through the tenderness and supportiveness of the mothers who advise Heimdallr to: “dream of ice-lands and of flame / sleep, snore-close, heart-close to me”.
To mark the shortlisting – for the Society of Authors’ Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize 2020 – of my Peter Huchel translations, published by Shearsman Books, I’m posting here a piece I wrote about Huchel’s poetry which first appeared in Acumen 98 (September 2020). Peter Huchel’s work has its place in the tradition of the greats of twentieth-century German poetry – Rilke, Trakl, Brecht, Benn and Celan – but he is also, as Karen Leeder has argued, a “one off”.[i] Iain Galbraith also lists Huchel among a “handful of essential post-war poets” in German, but his poetry is far less well known than it deserves to be. His presence in English at all is thanks to Michael Hamburger’s 1983 translations published by Anvil[ii]. I came across isolated examples of his work a few years ago and was immediately drawn to his startling observations of the natural world which function often as “metaphors [to] take us deep into the social and historical landscape” of his era (Galbraith again). I believe he is a poet with important things to say to us in our own conflicted times and my translation of Huchel’s best collection, These Numbered Days (1972), was published last year by Shearsman Books. Here, I put Huchel’s work into the context of the great events in Europe in the twentieth century.
Huchel’s description of Pe-Lo-Thien, the poet, social critic and sometime exile from the Tang Dynasty, is intended also as a portrait of the poet himself – a dissident figure, an “outlaw, / who lives beyond the wall / with his cranes and cats” (‘Pe-Lo-Thien’). It’s no surprise that the spare, impersonal, often lapidary quality of the poems in These Numbered Days was remarked on by Karl Alfred Wolken as offering the reader something of a Chinese book in German.[iii] The poet himself, carefully scrutinising the natural world – the perception of which constitutes the substance of so many of his poems – tries to descry “Signs, / written by the hand / of a Mandarin” (‘No Answer’). If such allusions suggest a minimalist and tight-lipped quality to Huchel’s poems, this is precisely what might be expected from an artist forced to play, as he did for so many years, the role of inner émigré.
For readers of British and Irish poetry, the term ‘inner émigré’ will be familiar from Seamus Heaney’s use of it in his 1975 poem ‘Exposure’. Discussing the idea, Heaney acknowledged the term’s specific meaning in the 1920/30s in Soviet Russia as referring to a dissident who had not actually gone into exile but remained at home, disaffected from and under the surveillance of the authorities. Heaney saw himself in this light in relation to Northern Ireland. He also associated the idea with the position of George Seferis, concluding that “poetry secures some final place in your being, some little redoubt in your consciousness that will not be taken over by history or the world or disaster”.[iv] This same sense of confinement, wrestling with conscience and the frequent resort to codification which results from such a compromised position is the best way into Huchel’s work as a writer whose life and historical circumstances astonishingly led him to play the role of inner émigré twice over.
He was born Hellmut Huchel in 1903 in Alt-Lichterfelde, now part of Berlin. Due to his mother’s chronic illness, the boy was taken from the city to be raised on his grandfather’s farm at Alt-Langewisch, in the Brandenburg countryside near Potsdam. As an adult, Huchel was fond of quoting St. Augustine on the importance of memory as a “great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds”.[v] Huchel argued that it is “the experiences of childhood, roughly between the ages of five and ten, that exercise a decisive influence in later years”.[vi] But if this period seems to have had something of the idyll about it for the 11 year old boy, it was dramatically shattered by the death of his beloved grandfather and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.
After his country’s defeat, the 17 year old Huchel took part in the conservative Kapp-Putsch against the Weimar Republic in 1920 which was fuelled by a resentment of the German government’s agreeing to the punishing conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. Huchel was wounded in the fighting associated with this failed coup but it was during his recovery in hospital that his sympathies for socialism and Marxism fully developed. His very early poems can be linked to the sort of art fostered by the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers. He has said: “What did I care about in those days? I wanted to make visible in the poem a deliberately ignored, suppressed class, the class of the people, the maidservants and coachmen”.[vii]
By 1932 he was working as an editorial assistant for Die Literarische Welt. His first collection of poems was accepted for publication under the title Der Knabenteich (‘The Boy’s Pond’). But with the rise of Hitler, Die Literarische Welt had to cease publication and it is at this moment that Huchel developed the strategy of the ‘inner émigré’. He published very little, eventually deciding to withhold Der Knabenteich. He was deeply troubled that the Nazis liked his work, reading into it as they did a version of the blood and soil nationalism they hoped to foster. So, by 1936 he was refusing permission for any publication and he did not publish any new poems during the rest of Hitler’s rule. Rather, he withdrew to the Brandenburg countryside. His response to tyranny was silence and non-cooperation, though he was eventually drafted in 1941 and ended the war in a Russian prisoner of war camp.
With the fall of the Third Reich, Huchel enthusiastically shared the democratic and socialist optimism of many of his compatriots for the reconstruction of East Germany. His short-lived faith in land reform in the immediate Soviet-Occupied post-war years is consistent with his earlier social concerns. He now began working for East German radio and in 1948 at last published his first collection, Gedichte (‘Poems’). In 1949 he became editor of the influential literary magazine Sinn und Form (‘Sense and Form’). Though Huchel’s poems were applauded both for their craft and socialist undercurrents, they did not satisfy those who were soon demanding much more explicit support for the German Democratic experiment. Huchel’s dark rural landscapes offered equivocal support at best for the governing regime and his instinctively conservative harking back to childhood and the natural world (rather than a modern revolutionary transformation of human society) were judged to fall short of the expected unquestioning celebration of the GDR’s project.
With the poet’s increasing sense of disaffection from the direction of GDR society, Huchel was once more forced to adopt the role of ‘inner émigré’. The tone of his work becomes increasingly sombre and melancholy, his poetic diction grows more clipped and cryptic, his palette narrowing. In his work at the journal Sinn und Form, he was determined to maintain editorial freedom and the publication flaunted an international outlook with contributions from Aragon, Bloch, Brecht (two special issues), Camus, Eluard, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Neruda, Sartre, Yevtushenko and Zweig. Increasingly, he came into conflict with the authorities and was put under immense pressure to conform. He resisted for 13 years – in large part because of the determined support of Brecht. Brecht’s death in 1956 left Huchel exposed and he was asked to resign his editorship. He refused and so compelled the East German government publicly to force his resignation.
A year after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Huchel was banished at the age of 59 to effective house arrest in Wilhelmshorst. It was at this moment that his second collection of poems, Chausseen, Chausseen (‘Roads, Roads’), appeared. He published it – in bold defiance of the GDR authorities – in the West. It was much praised in the author’s absence. Henry Beissel describes the leanness and density of these new free verse poems: “images are more insistent on turning concreteness into a code; sadness emanates from a sense of the inevitability of loss and from a world bent on self-destruction”.[viii] Huchel’s images from nature are left to speak for themselves; his is often an impersonal poetry of a particularly haunted and pessimistic kind. Yet there is stoical survival too; the poems remain marvellous acts of observation.
The poem ‘Hubertusweg’ vividly portrays this period of his life, from 1962 to 1971, living in isolation, under Stasi surveillance. Gezählte Tage (‘These Numbered Days’) appeared in 1972, the title suggesting the counted days of Huchel’s time under house arrest, his poems recording them, marking them, but also a residual sense of them actually counting towards something, his legacy as a poet, his hoped-for release. Huchel repeatedly applied for an exit visa for himself, his wife and son and in this he was supported by PEN in an internationally orchestrated campaign.
Eventually, in 1971, the Ulbricht government granted his release and he lived first in Rome, then in a borrowed house near Freiburg in West Germany. But like many GDR artists who moved to the West, Huchel was equivocal – to put it mildly – about what he found here. Because the GDR had failed to bring about a truly democratic and socialist society did not mean that he had given up his ideals and the West’s materialism, egotism and faithless profiteering were repellent to him. There is a spiritual emptiness everywhere as in ‘Subiaco’, set in Italy, where Pilate’s bowl stands emptied of water so the taint of guilt cannot be washed away. Huchel’s gloom is partly determined by his own nature, partly by his background, by political persecution and by his divorce from his Brandenburg homeland. The poet bears witness to the inadequate present.
In Huchel’s few remaining years he was lauded in the West but perhaps this was just another form of exile, though one in which he was able to speak and publish. Even so, his final collection, Die Neunte Stunde (‘The Ninth Hour’) which appeared in 1979, is a book almost exclusively of elegy and lament. The ninth hour is the hour of despair, the hour in which Christ died on the Cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Huchel himself died in 1981, aged 78. Contemporary readers can hear something of his more personal voice – so finely attuned to the natural world, but gifted only a tragically powerless place in history, yet driven to labour and bear witness against the odds – in the words of the unnamed peasant who narrates ‘Middleham Castle’, one of Huchel’s more explicit and terrifying portraits of tyranny:
Familiar with the ways of great forests –
the year streaked with the jays’ colours,
painful brightness of frosted boughs,
the winter hair of deer stuck to bark,
fawns huddled together at evening,
warming themselves in the cloud of their breathing –
up the gorse-clad hill with rope and horses
I haul tree trunks to Middleham Castle.
London July 2020
[i] Karen Leeder, Introduction to These Numbered Days, Peter Huchel, tr. Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman, 2019).
[ii]The Garden of Theophrastus and other poems, tr. Michael Hamburger (Anvil Press, 2004).
After her Gregory Award in 2014 and two chapbook publications since, Martha Sprackland has long been pondering those decisions about constructing a first full collection. (She talks briefly about that process here). Ought it to be a Rattle Bag of the best poems to date, or a more coherently shaped and organised ‘concept album’? Citadel is evidently being presented to readers as the latter – but with equivocal results. The first reference of the book’s blurb is to Juana of Castile, commonly referred to as Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad), a 16th century Queen of Spain. She was daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, instigators of the Spanish Inquisition, but was conspired against, declared mad, imprisoned and tortured by her father, husband and her son, leaving almost no written record of her own. Sprackland – having studied Spanish and spent time in Madrid – presents herself as becoming fixated on this earlier woman, engaged in conversations with her to such a degree that (according to the blurb again) the poems in Citadel are written by a “composite ‘I’ – part Reformation-era monarch, part twenty-first century poet”.
While happy to accept the desire of the poet to maintain a distance between the lyric/dramatic ‘I’ and her autobiographical self, I find the idea, the ‘as if’, of this composite authorship hard to take. There is even something disproportionate about the claim of identity between the two women, given the extremity of Juana’s life-long suffering. I’m reminded of Caroline Maldonado’s 2019 book, Isabella (Smokestack Books) in which she translates and writes poems to Isabella Morra, an Italian aristocrat of the 16th century who also suffered appalling hardship (and likely murder) at the hands of her male relations. But Maldonado’s interest in the historical figure is never claimed as an identity. (I reviewed this book here).
The awkwardness of the leap of faith in this alignment between Sprackland and Juana gives rise to several of the opening poems which seem to want to ‘explain’ empirically the (perfectly legitimately) imagined connection. ‘Beautiful Game’ is a family-holiday-in-Spain poem, in which the Martha figure (the collection does use its author’s name on several occasions) is hit on the head with a pool ball. The next but one poem takes this up. ‘A Blow to the Head’ takes the injury as a moment of profound psychological importance. The narrator is “cracked open” and in the same moment retreats into a psychological “citadel”. The protection this offers her becomes “habit-forming, I was fortified”. The latter pun is good and the poem suggests that it is in this state of defensive retreat, perhaps of ‘imprisonment’, that she passes through a portal, making first contact with “her”, Juana. One of the tortures that Juana faced, for her religious unorthodoxy, was la cuerda, being strung up with cord/rope, weights attached to her feet. In this poem, Martha loosens “the cord from her wrists”.
It’s the poem placed between these two that perhaps provides a further clue to the undoubtedly powerful link felt by Sprackland to Juana, the link between the personal and the historical. Much is left unsaid in ‘A Room in London’; the reluctance to reveal is part of the fortified ‘citadel’. In a vaguely defined medical environment there are several young women, one of them being given misoprostol (a drug used to induce abortion). Such a moment of profound emotional, physical and psychological experience must be the origins of the identification between two individuals so remote in time and Sprackland catches the paralleled shift of innocence to pained maturity in the brilliant final line: “Our little beds, bars of autumnal light falling through the curtains”.
The fact is that this identification of the two women does then give rise to several excellent (I’d describe them as uncanny) poems – though their existence does not need anything more by way of justification than a belief in language and the poetic imagination. In ‘They Admit Each Other to the Inquisitor’, the two women are bound together by the first-person plural pronouns: “We were eighteen and pregnant and mad”. The force and flow of the poem takes the reader quickly beyond questions of likelihood:
When we undid the cord that tied our wrists
it bound us; something in that blow
knocked through the city walls
and through it we are talking, still.
We can’t explain this.
The same device is used in ‘Juana and Martha in Therapy’; this time it’s the third person plural. They are as one and yet at the same time they are communicating down a cup-and-string telephone, made from a cord and two tins of cocido (chick-pea and meat stew). There is great humour here besides the serious experiment in imaginative identification: “Time is complicated, especially at these distances”. But also, Time can be collapsed into magically anachronistic moments of intimacy: “They are in the bland room / above the Pret in Bishopsgate, trying to understand. / The walls of the mind are deep and moated”. The final poem in Citadel is ‘Transcript’ which is a verbatim record of a conversation between the two women:
i’ll sing you something, and you’ll sleep, tomorrow I will go falconing –
and I will go to work and try to hold the yolk of myself together, try not to spill –
I wish there were more poems in the book in which this sort of unashamed, ludicrous, heartfelt and imaginatively suggestive communication was portrayed. There are a few other occasions where poems approach it, but the leap of faith required seems even too much for the poet and the results feel more willed than wholly convinced. Juana alone (though in the third person) appears to good effect in ‘Falconry’, an excellent poem that hovers, alongside the hunting bird, over the landscape of the Alhambra. The bird’s searching out of its prey represents the young Queen’s curiosity, her challenge to authority (that will soon get her into so much trouble), and its tearing up of a lark seems to foreshadow Juana’s own suffering.
Otherwise, Citadel contains plenty of poems more directly connected to what we might tactfully designate the author’s biography, poems which might have constituted a Rattle-Bag-style first collection. The five sections of ‘Melr’ read very autobiographically, a childhood in a village north of Liverpool: “I grew up coastal with the land to my back”. It’s portrayed as a place of shifting sands and, as teenage years advance, that sense of novelty-seeking (like Juana and deploying similar bird imagery) grows: “villagers heard / the clatter of the entire migratory flock / lifting off under cover of darkness”. Youthful experimentation, unpredictability and the allure of travel are all expressed in the excellent ‘Pimientos de Padron’. One imagines language students in Madrid, “lovesick, shamed or fleeing / or brisant and in shock”, then heading to the airport for “the first flight anywhere but home”.
There is a motif in the book of those brought up on sand finding it hard to settle. ‘Anti-metre’ suggest this even reaches the menstrual cycle which shifts, “mutable as a dune” and one recalls the clinical environment of ‘A Room in London’ when ‘Hunterian Triptych’ concludes with the narrator and her boyfriend running out in alarm at the sight of preserved foetuses in a museum, “ranged by month and weight”. I sense the Catholicism of Spain in general (and Juana’s wrestling with it, in particular) haunting Citadel. So a visit to an orthognathic surgeon is portrayed in terms of the confessional and a poem like ‘Charca’ is underscored by a baptismal or redemptive sense. A charka is a pool, here a natural bathing pool in a valley. The narrator and her friends go there and, beyond the hedonism and holiday pleasures, she finds something more profound shifting, beginning to lift and heal into freedom:
and distant starts to thaw in me
and to carve these deeper channels
into which we jump, again and again,
looked over by nothing but the mountains,
the overhanging leaves,
the lifted winter lived through and unbound.
This might suggest ‘Martha’ already outgrowing the need to speak to Juana. Another poem like ‘Still Life Moving’ – for me one of the best in the book – suggests the poet’s concern for Time as a theme, that “complicated” thing, here matched with Art (a still life, perhaps in the Prado) and, as time the destroyer creeps into the frame, rotting the lilies and spilling the apples, she utters a cry for some form of redemptive salvation, whether from God or Juana or elsewhere:
Last week I was invited to take part in an on-line discussion about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, written to a young would-be poet in the early 1900s.This event was organised by the Kings Place group, Chamberstudio, and the panel included two other poets, Martha Kapos and Denise Riley, musicians Mark Padmore, Amarins Weirdsma and Sini Simonen and composer Sally Beamish. We had such a fascinating discussion on Rilke’s advice to young artists (though perhaps we hardly scratched the surface) that I wanted to re-visit it and re-organise my own thoughts about the letters; hence this blog post. Though warm in tone and supportive, the letters are a way of Rilke talking to himself, developing coherent ideas that can be traced through the New Poems (1907/8), Requiem to a Friend (1909), even to the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheusof 1922. I am quoting throughout from Stephen Cohn’s translation of the letters, included in his translation of Sonnets to Orpheus (Carcanet, 2000).
Rilke’s advice to Franz Kappus was evidently received with gratitude as the correspondence between them continued (if sporadically) from early 1903 to December 1908. We don’t have Kappus’ side of things, but from Rilke’s comments it’s clear the younger, aspiring poet’s letters were remarkably open, even confessional in substance, as suggested by the published letters’ recurring observations about sexual relations. But as for practical advice to a young poet, Rilke offers little, opening with, “I am really not able to discuss the nature of your poems” to “You ask if your poems are good poems . . . You doubtless send your poems out to magazines and you are distressed each time the editors reject your efforts . . . my advice is that you should give all that up”. Probably not what Kappus hoped to hear, though he will have quickly understood that Rilke has more profound points to make. But it means these letters ought to be read less as advice to aspiring writers and more as advice on the best ways to ripen (Rilke’s metaphor) the inner self, a consequence of which might be the conviction that creative work was a necessity for the individual. Peter Porter once suggested a better title for the sequence would have been, ‘Letters to a Young Idealist’ (Introduction to Cohn’s Carcanet translation).
The advice given is carefully positive – what to seek – and fulsomely negative – what ought to be avoided. Friendly and remarkably sympathetic as his tone is through the series of letters, what Rilke asks, in truth, is extraordinarily demanding for mere ordinary mortals. Rilke urges a priest-like devotion to his High Romantic, Godless programme. In brief, what is to be sought is a clear, honest and open relationship with one’s own inner life and that demands a corresponding avoidance of everything that might distance us from it, especially the pernicious influence of social and cultural conventions, what has been thought, said, written or done before. Rilke makes no bones about how difficult the former is and how frightening the latter is going to feel.
The only way, Letter 1 insists, is to “goinside yourself”. And in Letter 3, we need to “allow each thing its own evolution, each impression and each grain of feeling buried in the self, in the darkness, unsayable, unknowable, and with infinite humility and patience to await the birth of a new illumination”. For reasons discussed later, there has to be a degree of passivity about this process: we must “await with deep humility and patience the moment of birth”. In his reply, Kappus must have enumerated the pain and suffering he was experiencing as a young man because Letter 8 spins this positively: “did not these sorrows go right through you – and not merely past you? Has there not been a great deal in you that has changed? Were you not somewhere . . . transformed while you were so sorrowful?” These often rough inner weathers of our emotional lives are precisely what is required. Only then, “something unfamiliar enters into us, something unknown; our senses, inhibited, and shy, fall silent; everything within us shrinks back, there is silence, and at its centre this new thing, strange to us all, stands mutely there”. In one of several memorable images, Rilke explains, through such emotional experience (the pains as much as, or even more than, the pleasures) “we have been changed as a house changes when a guest enters it”.
Those familiar with Keats’ ideas (expressed in his 1819 Letters) about the world as a ‘vale of soul-making’ will find something very familiar here. But Rilke’s take on the process of ‘spirit creation’ lays far heavier emphasis on the need for solitude to achieve it. Letter 5 tells Kappus, “win yourself back from the insistence of the talk and the chatter of the multitude (and how it chatters!)”. The chattering world is a distraction from what ought to be the subject of our study (our inner selves): “What is required is this: solitariness, great inner solitariness. The going-into oneself and the hours on end spent without encountering anyone else: it is this we must be able to achieve” (Letter 6). Such solitude enables greater concentration but also more true (uninfluenced) perception of our inner life. Yet to turn away from so much that is familiar will be frightening. In Letter 8, Rilke compares this to someone “plucked from the safety of his own small room and, unprepared and almost instantaneously, set down upon the heights of some great mountain-range”. What must then be experienced is “a never-to-be-equalled sense of insecurity, of having fallen into the power of something nameless [and this] would virtually destroy him”.
The negative influences of those (us, the timid majority) who have pulled back from such a state of perception is explained. Rilke’s basic tenet is that we are all “solitary”. But the uncertainty of a ‘true’ perception of this is too much for most people: “mankind has been pusillanimous in this respect [and] has done endless harm to life itself: all phenomena we call ‘apparitions’, all the so-called ‘spirit-world’, death, all these things so closely akin to us have been fended off . . . and so thoroughly purged from our lives that the senses by which we might have grasped them have atrophied. To say nothing at all of God”. What Rilke describes here are a number of the conventional ideas – pure figments about the truth of spirituality, death and a deity – that people have populated their world with in seeking greater security. Kappus is told, “a perilous uncertainty is so very much more human” and the truly human, let alone the ambitious poet, must accept the principle that “we arrange our lives in accordance with the precept that teaches us always to hold to what is difficult – then everything that still appears most alien will become all that is best-trusted, most dependable”. Rilke’s chosen metaphor here is the folkloric/mythic image of the terrifying dragon that turns into a rewarding princess at the last moment.
Herein lies also the wisdom of passivity. As Keats argued in parallel, with his idea of negative capability (the knack of remaining “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”), so Rilke’s fourth Letter advises Kappus not to seek out answers now but to “love the very questions, just as if they were locked-up rooms or books in an utterly unknown language”. The key is to “live them” by which Rilke (like Keats) means to examine and attend to them as fully as possible. He goes so far as to advise a child-like incomprehension (which is at least based on an openness to the questions asked) over a cowardly defensiveness or contempt (which falls back on a distancing from those questions). This is why, in Letter 2, he sharply advises Kappus to avoid irony. There are, says Rilke, “great and serious subjects before which irony stands helpless and diminished” because irony is, by definition, a standing outside of a question or topic. For the same reason, Rilke distrusts engagement with literary or aesthetic criticism (precisely what Kappus has asked of him in relation to his own poems). Letter 3 argues such critical discussions are “received opinions, opinions grown petrified and meaningless, insensitive . . . clever word games”, hence far distant from life itself. The same Letter suggests the artist needs to retain an innocence, even a lack of awareness of his/her creative powers, lest self-consciousness diminish freedom and “purity”. Indeed language itself – the common method of exchange between people – is suspect in representing, in its unexamined use, conventional thought and feeling: “it is so often on the name of a transgression that a life is shipwrecked, and not on the individual, nameless act-in-itself”.
Even these letters, Rilke says in Letter 9, need to be treated with caution and patience: “receive them quietly and with not too many thanks, and let us, please, wait and see what may come of them”. This is a warning not enough heeded by subsequent generations of readers, but Rilke’s real humility is re-emphasised at the end of the preceding Letter. Perhaps feeling he has been delivering advice from ‘on high’, Rilke warns Kappus, “do not believe that he who seeks to console you dwells effortlessly among the quiet and simple words which sometimes content you. His own life holds much trouble and sorrow, and it falls far short of them”. Surely Rilke is not merely alluding here to the life of the creative artist. Prompted, as I have said, by Kappus’ own openness about what we might call ‘romantic’ aspects of his own life, Rilke devotes a lot of space to interpersonal relationships in these letters. His point in Letter 7 is that this area of human life too is poisoned (“well-furnished” – this topic brings out Rilke’s satirical side) with conventional thinking and language: “here are life belts of the most varied invention, boats and buoyancy packs . . . safety aids of all conceivable kinds”. Such ‘safety’ features are more fictions designed to forestall a true encounter with the kinds of questions that human relationships inevitably throw up. Letter 3 particularly criticises male sexual attitudes (lustful, drunken, restless, arrogant, prejudiced) and Letter 7 anticipates a “new and individual flowering” of female sexuality which will lead to relationships not defined as male/female but as “one person and another person”.
Such a renovation of individuals, from the inside out, is the urgent call of this series of letters. As to advice to Kappus the wannabe writer, Rilke offers very little, but what he does suggest is wholly in keeping with his other ideas. Letter 1 urges close observation as the only viable method. As I have made clear, this is especially close observation of our inner lives. But one’s whole life needs to be built around this principle, so “you must approach the world of Nature… try to tell of what you see and experience”. Rilke says don’t try to write love poems or on other common subjects of poetry. This is because they will be infected with those conventions of thought and expression I have discussed above. Rather, “favour the subjects which your own day-to-day experience can offer you”. The poet’s approach to such everyday subjects needs to be “quiet, humble, [with] passionate sincerity” to avoid clichés of thought and feeling, hand-me-down solutions or worn out, petrified language. These are the methods Rilke learned from watching Rodin sketching in Paris. Pre-empting likely objections that such an approach would produce work of little importance, Rilke goes on: “If your daily life seems mean to you – do not find fault with it; rather chide yourself that you are not poet enough to evoke its riches” (Letter 1).
The everyday is rich and complex enough for Rilke without any irritable searching after more conventionally dramatic, sensational, controversial subjects to address. The images that Letter 3 associates with this humble creative process is of gestation (“to carry, come to term, give birth”) and the slow growth of trees (“letting the sap flow at its own pace”). In Letter 6 he compares it to bees gathering honey (“drawing what is sweetest from all that there is”). Whether focusing within or without, the artist must begin from what is “unremarkable” and we become better acquainted “with things” and if this is too frightening a prospect – with no off-the-shelf solutions to human fears and insecurities, no God above all – Rilke has few comforts to offer the young poet. As regards God (or, as letter 6 refers to him, the “one who never was”), Rilke allows the idea of God only as the ideal or terminus towards which we travel, a state of full comprehension – through knowing humble things: “Does he not have to be the last, if everything is to be comprehended in him? And what meaning would there be in us, if the one we crave had already been there?”. God, for Rilke, does not pre-date us as an origin. He is the goal towards which we travel, aspire, build, create – ‘he’ is no more nor less than our fullest comprehension of life and death, hence our fullest sense of being in the world.
That the young Franz Kappus, after all this, decided to pursue a military career rather than a creative one is perhaps hardly surprising. It may be that the former presented the least frightening option! Rilke asks such a lot. His poem Requiem to a Friend of 1909 (the year after his correspondence with Kappus came to an end), dwells on the “old enmity / between life lived and great work to be done” (tr. Crucefix). The tragic lament of that particular poem arises from his conviction that the subject of its in memoriam, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, had proved herself strong enough to carry forward the huge burden of being an artist and that, therefore, her untimely death (just after the birth of her first child) was an irreparable loss to a world that needs all the true artists it can nurture.
I am very grateful to Ian Brinton’s and Michael Grant’s recent translation of a selected Mallarmé (Muscaliet, 2019) for sending me back to a poet who has always proved problematic for me. My natural inclination draws me more to Louis MacNeice’s sense of the “drunkenness of things being various” (‘Snow’) – his emphasis on poetry’s engagement with “things” – and his desire to communicate pretty directly with his fellow wo/man, than with what Elizabeth McCombie bluntly calls “the exceptional difficulty” of Mallarmé’s work. I appreciate that such a dichotomy seems to shove the French poet into an ivory tower (albeit of glittering and sensuous language) while casting the Irish one as too narrowly engagé, but I’m also aware that Sartre praised Mallarmé as a “committed” writer and that, despite some evident remoteness from the ‘tribe’, the French poet’s political views were both radical and democratic.
Yet the question of difficulty remains. Proust is said to have berated Mallarmé for using “a language that we do not know” and Paul Valéry’s first encounter with the poems was also troubled: “There were certain sonnets that reduced me to a state of stupor . . . associations that were impossible to solve, a syntax that was sometimes strange, thought itself arrested at each stanza”. Yet Valéry also notes the tension between Mallarmé’s fierce semantic difficulties and his deployment of traditional form, rhyme and rich phonetic patterning; the latter inevitably suggesting that there is (or ought to be) some semantic completion in the poem. But (as J.H. Prynne comments in his Preface to Brinton’s Muscaliet translations) Mallarmé’s “flamboyant boldness, by leaps and pauses and leaps again” serves to disrupt such conventional expectations of interpretative transparency, a resolution of the many puzzles. McCombie again, writing in the Oxford World’s Classics Mallarmé: Collected Poems and Other Verses: “criticism has been dogged by an erroneous belief that such completion is recoverable”.
So, if we must give up on such ‘understanding’, what was Mallarmé – writing in the 1880-90s – doing? Something recognisably very modern, it turns out. Contra Wordsworth (and MacNeice, I guess), Mallarmé and his Symbolist peers, held ordinary language in suspicious contempt as too ‘journalistic’, too wedded to a world of facts. Poetry was to be more a communication, or evocation, of emotion, of a detachment from the (merely) everyday and a recovery of the mystery of existence which rote and routine has served to bury. Such a role demanded linguistic innovation as suggested in ‘The Tomb of Edgar Poe’ in which the American writer is praised for giving “purer meaning to the words of the tribe” (tr. Brinton/Grant). Writing about Edouard Manet’s work, Mallarmé saw the need to “loose the restraint of education” which – in linguistic terms – would mean freeing language from its contingent relations to the facticity of things (and the tedium and ennui that results from our long confinement to them) and hence moving language nearer to what he called the “Idea” and the paradoxical term Nothingness (as Brinton/Grant translate “le Neant”).
This latter term is a key to Mallarmé’s work. Nothingness is non-meaning, but not as “an absence of meaning but a potentiality of meaning that no specific meaning can exhaust” (McCombie, p. xii). There are Platonic, Hegelian elements here, but I’d like to understand this as alluding to what Yves Bonnefoy terms (more obviously positively) Presence. In considering both ideas, we are likely to feel some anxiety or even terror (again Mallarmé tends to accentuate the dislocation involved), simply because we are being taken beyond what is familiar. And what is familiar (both French poets understand) is largely contrasted from language use, as language is a conceptual vehicle. So the poet must re-make language and Mallarmé is much more thorough-going about this and looks, in part, to music as a non-referential model. Language must be freed from a narrowly denotative function, revelling in reflections, connections, silences and hermeneutic lacunae which simultaneously allude to, but knowingly fall short of, articulating Nothingness. Mallarmé’s use of form suggests but fails to deliver resolution in this same way, what Henry Weinfield has called a “tragic duality” at the heart of Mallarmé ‘s project.
For these reasons, Mallarmé “cede[s] the initiative to words” (‘Crise de Vers’), to language’s material aspects as much as to its referential functions. Carrying over the material aspects of his French verse into English is then, to say the least, difficult. I’m inclined to agree with Weinfield (Introduction to Stephane Mallarmé Collected Poems (Uni. Of California Press, 1994) that it is “essential to work in rhyme and metre, regardless of the semantic accommodations and technical problems this entail[s]. If we take rhyme from Mallarmé, we take away the poetry”. But is that even possible? The accommodations and problems that arise are huge! Mallarmé placed the sonnet, ‘Salut’, at the start of his Poésies as a toast, salutation and mission statement. Weinfield gives the sestet as follows:
A lovely drunkenness enlists
Me to raise, though the vessel lists,
This toast on high and without fear
Solitude, rocky shoal, bright star
To whatsoever may be worth
Our sheet’s white care in setting forth.
A concern for form and musicality throws up problems like the near-identical rhyme (enlists/lists), the choice of ‘lists’ which underplays the dangers envisaged, the adjectival filling out of the toast line itself and the final line’s inversion and convolution. I prefer Brinton/Grant’s more flexible approach, lowered register (with some humour) and half rhymes:
A beautiful intoxication urges me
With no fear of keeling over
To stand and raise a glass
To solitude, rocky shore and star
And whatever else was worth
Hoisting our white sail for.
Mallarmé’s sonnet, ‘The Tomb of Edgar Poe’ opens roundly and clearly in Brinton/Grant’s translation: “As if eternity at last transfigured him into himself’ where Weinfield again inverts and clogs the line: As to himself at last eternity changes him”. The poem ends with the wish that Poe’s granite tomb might mark an end to the disparagement (blasphemy in Mallarmé’s mind – the many attacks on Poe himself) of poets by the generality, “the tribe”. Though Brinton/Grant’s translation is a bit rhythmically inert, both Weinfield’s and E.H. and A.M. Blackmore’s Oxford World Classics translations groan under the constraints of rhyme and metre. Here are all three:
Let this same granite at least mark out a limit for all time
To the black flights of blasphemy scattered through the future. (Brinton/Grant)
Let this granite at least mark the boundaries evermore
To the dark flights of Blasphemy hurled to the future. (Weinfield)
.. this calm granite, may limit all the glum
Blasphemy-flights dispersed in days to come (Blackmore)
Famously, Mallarmé took his concern for the material aspects of language (hence to the placing of words, the white spaces between them) to stunning extremes. He gradually dropped most punctuation and ‘Un Coup de Dés (‘A Roll of the Dice’ tr. Brinton/Grant) spread the text across two pages with variations in both font and size, to create something more akin to a musical score (see image below). In his own Preface, he explains how the white spaces of paper “take on some importance . . . The paper asserts its presence every time that an image comes to a halt and vanishes before accepting the presence of its successors” (tr. Brinton/Grant). The result is that the “fictive reality” of language is endlessly sinking and surfacing into/out of the white of Nothingness. We read a musical score evoking the struggle (imaged as another sea voyage) between our efforts to make conceptual sense and our glimpses and intuited (?) accesses to “a potentiality of meaning that no specific meaning can exhaust”.
As words reach for meaning, so it slips away and so we are intended to experience both the attempt and the plenitude of what is lost . . . I think. I don’t know that I DO experience anything like this in reading Mallarmé – my limitations too often leave me with something more like Valéry’s “state of stupor”, a sort of numbness (and a headache), a sense of my own falling short. My French is not really good enough to ‘enjoy’ the original poems, so I must depend on translation and, happily, those by Ian Brinton and Michael Grant have helped me move a notch or two along the road towards appreciating Mallarmé’s still extraordinary work.
In lieu of a new blog post, here is a link to the Hercules Editions webpage on which I have formulated a few thoughts about the current lockdown, photography and the (forgotten?) refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. It is a piece in part related to the Hercules publication of my longer poem, Cargo of Limbs.
Rilke in Paris, Rainer Maria Rilke & Maurice Betz, tr. Will Stone (French original 1941; Pushkin Press, 2019).
The argument of Maurice Betz’s memoir on Rilke’s various residencies in Paris between 1902 and 1914 is that the young poet’s experience of the French capital is what turned him into a great poet. Betz worked closely with Rilke on French translations of his work (particularly his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)). Will Stone’s excellent translation of Betz’s 1941 book, Rilke a Paris, elegantly encompasses its wide range of tones from biographical precision, to gossipy excitement and critical analysis. The book particularly focuses on Rilke’s struggle over a period of eight years to complete the novel which is autobiographical in so many ways, as Betz puts it “in effect a transcription of his own private journal or of certain letters”.
Rilke first arrived in Paris from Worpswede in northern Germany, a community of artists where he had met and married Clara Westhoff. But never one to truly reconcile himself either to community or intimacy, he had already left his wife to travel to Paris. Yet the anonymity, bustling energy and inequalities of the French capital appalled him. In letters to his wife and many others, it became clear that, as Stone’s Introduction argues, Paris had “unceremoniously torn Rilke out of his safe, somewhat fey nineteenth-century draped musings”. In ways reminiscent of Keats’ observations about feeling himself extinguished on entering a room full of people, Rilke would later recall how the city’s “grandeur, its near infinity” would annihilate his own sense of himself. Living at No.11, Rue Touillier, these initial impressions form the opening pages of The Notebooks.
But there were also more positive Parisian experiences, particularly in his meetings with Rodin who he was soon addressing as his “most revered master”. Famously, Rodin advised the young poet, “You must work. You must have patience. Look neither right nor left. Lead your whole life in this cycle and look for nothing beyond this life”. In terms of his patience and willingness to play such a long game, not only with his novel but also with the slow completion of Duino Elegies (1922), Rilke clearly took on this advice. Interestingly, Betz characterises Rilke’s methods of working on the novel, creating letters, notes, journal pages over a number of years, as “like sketches, studies of hands or torsos which the sculptor uses to prefigure a group work”.
Rilke was even employed briefly by Rodin as “a sort of private secretary”. Betz suggests Rilke simply offered to help out for a couple of hours a day with the famous sculptor’s correspondence. But this quickly expanded to fill the whole day and Rilke was soon confessing to Karl von der Heydt that “I must get back to a time for myself where I can be alone with my experience”. A break was inevitable though in later visits to Paris the two artists patched up any quarrel. In terms of his location during this period, Rilke had moved on to the Hotel Biron at 77 Rue de Varenne on the recommendation of Clara. Rilke in turn suggested it as a suitable studio base for Rodin who also settled there and over a number of years gradually took over more and more of the rooms. It is this building that, in 1919, was converted to the now much-visited Musee Rodin.
Betz suggests that the traumatic impact of Paris was the making of Rilke as an artist. Between 1899 and 1903, Rilke had been working on The Book of Hours, representing a “religious and mystical phase”. In contrast, Paris presented the poet with an often brutal but also more “human landscape”. He also discovered this was reflected in the French capital’s painters and poets. Baudelaire in particular was important. In personal letters (as well as in his finished novel) Rilke identifies the poem ‘Une Charogne’ (‘A Carcass’) as critical in “the whole development of ‘objective’ language, such as we now think to see in the works of Cezanne”. Baudelaire’s portrayal of a rotting body seems to have taught Rilke that “the creator has no more right to turn away from any existence [. . .] if he refuses life in a certain object, he loses in one blow a state of grace”.
But it took Rilke a while to arrive at this sort of inclusivity of vision. One of his earliest impressions of the city was that there were invalids, broken human bodies everywhere. “You see them appear at the windows of the Hotel-Dieu in their strange attire, the pale and mournful uniform of the invalid. You suddenly sense that in this vast city there are legions of the sick, armies of the dying, whole populations of the dead”. As Betz points out, this is one of the important observations made by the hero of The Notebooks. It is the “multiform face of death” that Brigge (and Rilke) confronts in Paris. And the irony is not lost on either of them because Paris, of course, at this time was renowned for its social and cultural vitality. Here, Rilke is being forced to make critical distinctions which he then worked on for the rest of his life: “Vital impulse, is that life then? No. Life is calm, immense, elemental. The craving to live is haste, pursuit. There is an impatience to possess life in its entirety, straight away. Paris is bloated with this desire and that’s why it is so close to death”. Years later, near the end of the fifth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke expresses something very similar (tr. Crucefix):
Squares, oh, the squares of that infinite showplace –
Paris – where Madame Lamort, the milliner,
twists and winds the unquiet ways of the world,
those endless ribbons from which she makes
these loops and ruches, rosettes and flowers and artificial fruits
all dyed with no eye for truth,
but to daub the cheap winter hats of fate.
But unlike Brigge, Rilke escapes Paris. Reflecting later, he feared that people might read his novel as seeming “to suggest that life was impossible”. Betz – who had many discussions with Rilke during the process of translating the novel – reports that the poet, accepted that the book contained “bitter reproaches [yet] it is not to life which they are addressed, on the contrary, it is the continual recognition of the following: through lack of strength, through distraction and hereditary blunders we lose practically all the innumerable riches which were destined for us on earth”. Though the Duino Elegies opens with the despairing existential cry (“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks / of the angels?”), by the seventh poem of the sequence Rilke expresses his affirmative view: “Just being here is glorious!”. In Rilke in Paris, Betz records some of Rilke’s conversations: “Instead of perpetually hesitating between action and renunciation, we fundamentally only ‘have to be there, to exist, that’s all”.
Betz’s admiration for Rilke is palpable throughout this fascinating little book. In its concluding pages, he sums up: “In seeking to express in his own way the world we thought we knew, Rilke helps us to hear more clearly what already belongs to us and permits us access to the most sinuous and iridescent forms, to profound emotive states and to that strange melody of the interior life”. This is marvellously put (and translated). Will Stone also includes a translation of a little know early sequence of prose poems by Rilke, ‘Notes on the Melody of Things’. In it, the poet reflects – through thoughts on theatrical experience and on fine art – on the relationship between background and figures in the foreground. Something of the personal angst and despair of The Notebooks can be heard in section XXXVII where we are told that “All discord and error comes when people seek to find their element in themselves, instead of seeking it behind them, in the light, in landscape at the beginning and in death”. The vastness and reality of what lies behind the solitary figure – and the negotiated relationships between the two – suggests to me that Yves Bonnefoy may well have been thinking of these pieces when he was writing L’Arriere-Pays (1972). Betz is right to conclude Rilke in Paris by praising Rilke as a poet who matured through “solitude and lucid contemplation of the loftiest problems of life”, but also one who never failed in patience or effort to express “in poetic terms the fruit of that inner quest”.
Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Matthew Barton (Shoestring Press, 2019).
Matthew Barton himself raises the question as to whether anything could “possibly justify yet another English version” of Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1922). As someone who has contributed his own translation of the work (published by Enitharmon Press in 2006), I know the feeling of throwing a pebble into a landslide. But – as Barton also argues – it is at least our own pebble and Rilke’s work both allows and demands further translation and discussion; it is without doubt complex, profound and obscure enough. Perhaps the question for the would-be translator is more about the time and energy spent on such a widely available text when other works by other poets languish untranslated. But for Barton – as I guess it was for me – it is a personal issue and we are assuredly thankful to those who consider the results worthy of publication because there remains a hunger for Rilke’s work.
So Barton has now produced a lively, English version which reads well (one of his aims). Apart from a brief Introduction and a few end notes on translation issues, the poems stand on their own here – there is no parallel German text, for instance. To see the German facing Barton’s text would be interesting for most readers, even without much facility in the source language, because he does make changes to the form of the poems. It’s true Rilke’s original plays pretty fast and loose with formal metre but the changes he rings are significant and Barton has a tendency to flatten out these differences by making firm (modern-looking) stanza breaks where Rilke often continues the flow of his argument. Rilke’s form is significantly much freer in the fifth Elegy, for example. This issue of the flow of the poems – and indeed through the whole sequence of 10 poems – is one of the difficulties in translating the work. It seems to me there is a clear progression across the poems and within each individual piece. To call this an ‘argument’ may seem too logical and abstract, of course, but any translator needs to try to follow it. To declare ‘it’s poetry’ and not try to see why one image or passage follows another is giving up too easily.
To be fair, Barton often does unfold the sequential argument. He’s well aware of the issue as he talks in the Introduction of coming across “knots” in the grain of the work which do not easily yield up there meaning. His solution was “not to translate them literally and hope for the best, but to live with them until I found a way through them that seemed, at least, to resonate with their larger context”. To translation purists this may sound a bit ‘version-y’ and Barton does indeed declare this book a series of “versions”, thanking Don Paterson for his thoughts on translation v versioning in his Orpheus (Faber, 2006). But, to my mind, Barton’s approach here is rather like Paterson’s in his version of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, in that the results mostly read as translation, but with the English granting itself the occasional liberty to paraphrase, extend or even substitute for the original. For me, a version would depart much further from the original than Barton does; so I’d call these translations because Barton is approaching the original with great respect – there is the sense of a service to the original being provided here and the point is that such a service must (without the need for too much arguing about it) include the re-ordering of syntax, an Englishing of rhythms, an aiming at contemporary accessibility without denaturing the flavour of Rilke’s original distinctiveness.
And as I’ve said, Barton’s English poems are good. Rilke is really communing with himself through the course of these poems, so he does tends to use the impersonal ‘you’. Barton often converts this to ‘I’ which skews the impact of many lines to the lyric. This fits contemporary taste perhaps – it deflates the rhetorical feel of these poems – but can be risky. In the opening lines of the sequence, Rilke acknowledges that crying out to angels for help in our existential darkness is largely futile (they’d not listen) but also dangerous because if an angel did approach us we’d be fried by the intensity of their existence. The opening paragraph ends abruptly with, “Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich”. Stephen Mitchell rendered this as “Every angel is terrifying”. Barton has “I dread every angel”. This seems wrong, making a psychological point from an individual perspective when Rilke’s line is more about the different natures of humans and angels (if the latter existed, which they don’t).
The argument at the start of the fourth Elegy also gets a bit garbled here. The whole of this section argues that human self-consciousness divorces us from a primal sense of oneness with life which the natural world (in Rilke’s view) retains (named in the eighth Elegy as “das Offene”, the Open (tr. Mitchell)). Barton seems to read this as suggesting that we are not “in accord with ourselves”. So he loses the distinction between ourselves and lions (at the end of this opening stanza). Barton has the lions walking in “sheer potency while their glory lasts” (my italics). But Rilke’s contrast is with human consciousness of transience against the animal’s absence of that consciousness. Mitchell’s clearer version runs: “And somewhere lions still roam and never know, / in their majestic power, of any weakness” (my italics).
These are small points in some ways but – as I’ve said – I think Rilke is pursuing a close-grained argument in these poems (albeit via poetic utterance rather than rational discourse). Barton is also liable on occasions to shift into an overly contemporary register (Rilke tends not to 1920s speech patterns but rather a Classically influence idiolect of his own). He replaces Rilke’s “wehe” which really is ‘alas’ with phrases like “god help me” or “heaven help us” which again propel the tone towards the personal (a rather English, bourgeois personal). In the ninth Elegy, Rilke is disparaging about the thin gruel of conventional human happiness in the face of death: “dieser voreilige Vorteil eines nahen Verlusts”. Mitchell translates this as “that too-hasty profit snatched from impending loss”. Barton tries a bit too hard with, “[this] is merely / easy credit with a looming payback date”. The same happens in the tenth Elegy, where Rilke is describing contemporary society’s shallow distractions from the fact of death. He describes; “die Kirche begrenzt, ihre fertig gekaufte: / reinlich und zu und enttäuscht wie ein Postamt am Sonntag”. Mitchell again: “bounded by the church with its ready-made consolations: / clean and disenchanted and shut as a post-office on Sunday”. Barton changes, up-dates, Americanises and so loses some of the irony: “the flatpack church, all safe and clean and shut / and dreary as an empty parking lot”.
But Barton’s rendering of Rilke’s satirical portrait of the “City of Hurt” (“der Leid-Stadt”) is enjoyably lively. Another infamously tricky moment is presented in this final poem by its personification of a tribe of people who have a far closer relationship with death and grief than Rilke sees is the case in modern Western culture. The German word “Klage” is used here and needs to work as the name of a young woman, the name of her tribe and her ancestors and her country. The word has to reflect the harshness of the grief felt, while at the same time suggesting a dignity in the powerful emotion. For Rilke, the role of this personification and her whole tribe is a consistently heroic one. But Barton chooses not to translate the word consistently, using “Elegia” for the young woman’s name, then variously “grief”, “woe”, “heartache” and “Lament” elsewhere. These are all individually sufficient to the word, but – as on other occasions in these otherwise admirable translations – there is a risk that in leaning on the freedoms of a ‘version’, the critical linguistic consistencies which are essential aspects of the argument in Rilke’s original, can get a bit lost in translation.
While travelling in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy – in effect, the arch of the ‘foot’ of that country – researching her earlier translations of the little known twentieth century male poet, Rocco Scotellaro (1923-1953), Caroline Maldonado heard of the much earlier, even less known poetry of Isabella Morra. Born around 1520, Morra was one of eight children. Her father, Giovan Michele fled into exile in France when Isabella was about eight years old. A cultured woman – knowledgeable in science, music, literature and the classics – her life prospects were utterly curtailed by her father’s absence and she was left in the care of her brothers.
Her resulting frustrations may be imagined – and astonishingly they are also vividly portrayed in her poems – but her violent death, aged 26, is not clearly understood. There were rumours of an affair between Isabella and a Spanish count and poet, Don Diego Sandoval de Castro, though he was also the husband of a friend of Isabella’s and almost certainly admired by her as much as a writer as a man. But her brothers believed the rumours and seem to have killed her – an honour killing to protect the family name. Maldonado’s book, Isabella, published by Smokestack Books, contains – in parallel text – all of Isabella’s known work, just ten sonnets and three canzoni. The book also includes Maldonado’s own introduction to Morra and 17 original poems by her, inspired by Morra’s work and her “strange, pitiful tale”.
Given the period in which she wrote, it is the raw, personal nature of many of Morra’s poems, their direct style of address, that is so surprising. Maldonado’s decision to make the work as “accessible as possible to a contemporary reader” accentuates this as does her choice not to re-create closely the rhyming of the originals. Morra creates a strong sense of an actual place. It is a place of imprisonment, one she loathes, the village of Favale: “this vile, odious hamlet”. She looks favourably on neither the place nor its people:
Here once again, O hell-like wasted valley,
O Alpine river, shattered heaps of stone,
spirits stripped bare of all goodness or pity,
you will hear the voice of my endless pain.
An unsympathetic ear might sense something brattishly self-regarding here and, given her youth and sheltered upbringing, that would not be surprising. But it is partly this sense of a little girl lost that is so moving. There are several sonnets concerned with her father’s absence. Sonnet III addresses him directly:
I, your daughter Isabella, often look out
hoping for a wooden ship to appear,
Father, that will bring me back news of you.
The first line’s poignant allusion to their relationship reminds the reader that he has been absent from her life for many years. As she gazes out hopefully, she and the dismal locale seem to merge, “so abandoned, so alone!” In sonnet VIII, ominously anticipating the end of her life, she imagines her father’s too-late return: “Tell him how, by my death, I appease / my bitter fortune and the misery of my fate”. It is the capricious – even vengeful – Goddess ‘Fortuna’ that Morra often rails against. In Sonnet I, she is assaulted by “cruel Fortune”. Sonnet VI is a tirade against her mistreatment, initially from a literary standpoint (Morra had hoped to make a name for herself “with the sweet Muses”):
You have promoted every minor talent,
Fortuna, rewarded every sordid heart,
you now compel my own, long past all tears,
to face still more hardship, feel more desolate.
Fortune is also berated for bringing down King Francis I (defeated in battle in 1544), the French monarch who she hoped might protect her father and even bring about a reconciliation between them. Fortuna’s femininity leads Isabella into the awkward position of maligning all women in saying that Fortuna is an “enemy to every noble heart”.
Given such a small body of work and uncertainties about its editing and arrangement, it’s hard to be certain of any sense of development. But over the ten sonnets Maldonado gives us, Morra’s complaints about her lot do seem to modulate into something more resigned and accepting. This is more the tone of Sonnet IX, in which “unholy Death or cruel Fortune” are again the enemies of her “rising hopes” but there are signs of greater resilience: “worn down as I am it will do me no harm”. The final Sonnet also takes up a more distanced perspective:
You know, in those days, how bitterly I wrote,
with what anger and pain I denounced Fortune.
No woman under the moon ever complained
with greater passion than me about her fate.
What has given Morra greater strength is her religious faith: “Neither time nor death, nor some violent, / rapacious hand will snatch away the eternal, / beautiful treasure before the King of Heaven.
A similar progression shows itself in the three canzoni too. A modern reader is likely to find her early passionate rebelliousness most engaging, the lines in which she says she will use her “rough, unpolished tongue” to rail against her dismal fate. It’s Fortuna again who is identified as the culprit, plaguing her “ever since the days of milk and the cradle”. One of her complaints is that she has never had the opportunity to hear her own beauty praised and the loneliness and frustration of this young woman is perhaps transformed into the passionate address of the second canzoni. It takes its place in that tradition of religious poems which express a spiritual fervour through language that can be hard to distinguish from the words of a more fleshly lover. Morra appeals to Christ: “I will love only you”. She will use her skill in words to “sculpt [his] heavenly body” and she proceeds to describe his forehead, eyes, hair, neck, lips, hands and feet. The canzoni’s traditional five-line envoi on this occasion is a sort of breathless admission of the impossibility of her task, though even here, the passionate feelings are unmistakable:
Canzone, how crazy you are,
to think that you could enter the sea
of God’s beauty with such burning desire!
The third canzoni – as did the final Sonnet – takes up a longer perspective in which the landscape of her actual imprisonment has become a more symbolic location: “To be in these dark / and lonely woods in days gone by / used to burden my heavy body”. It’s impossible not to think of Dante’s much earlier journey through the “dark wood” of despair. Morra also suggests she has emerged from its dangers, walking now “along solitary roads / far from human intrigue”. We sense a new humility; whether metaphorically or not, she presents herself as “dressing my frail body in rough clothes”. How distant in time we’ll never know, but Morra has evidently travelled a long way from those earlier complaints at her unjust treatment. Especially in the third canzoni, her delight in the natural world rings genuinely true and through that natural world she sees God – or rather “God’s great Mother”, Mary, the female figure who has now ousted the hated Fortuna.
Morra’s own few works end on such a note of resolve and hard-won redemption. That she faced a brutal and unjust murder at the hand of her own family is brought out more clearly by Maldonado’s own poems. She is partly interested in the contrast between the more contemporary (and male) poet, Scotellaro and the fate of Morra. As she has surely done in producing this fascinating little book, Maldonado intends to give Morra a voice in many of these new poems and, in ‘Scirocco’, we hear this imprisoned young woman poignantly repeating, “Who will ever hear me?” Both translator and publisher are to be congratulated in this recovering of an almost lost female voice from Renaissance Italy.
Apologies for the relative silence from my blog. I have been busy preparing and working to propel into the world two new books of poetry. The first out has been These Numbered Days, my new translations of the GDR poet, Peter Huchel, published by Shearsman Books.
The second book will be published by Hercules Editions, It’s called Cargo of Limbs – more details of it can be found here. I’ll also post the launch event details below – it’s an open and free event and I would be delighted to see you there.