Just before the Christmas break, I was pleased to be asked by Kathleen McPhilemy to contribute to the January 2023 edition of her on-going series of podcasts, Poetry Worth Hearing.
Kathleen’s own introductory remarks about what the podcast includes are as follows:
Jessica Mookherjee reading from two recent collections, Tigress and Notes from a Shipwreck (both published by Nine Arches Press), and Martyn Crucefix talking about the poetry he thinks worth reading. We also have new poems from Beth Davyson, Stephen Paul Wren, Pat Winslow, Suzannah Houston and Chris Beckett. To learn more about the poets and the publications mentioned as well as to see the texts of new poems, go to https://www.poetryworthhearing.biz.
I was especially pleased to hear Pat Winslow’s poem ‘As for the owl’ which carries a dedication to the late, much-missed Helen Kidd. By a strange coincidence, Helen was one of the members of the Old Fire Station Poetry Workshop (led by Tom Rawling by in the 1980s) ) about which I talk in my piece.
I also talk about growing up in rural Wiltshire in a house with few books. My years spent pursuing science – beginning to study medicine at Guys Hospital in London – then my drastic shift to studying Philosophy and English at Lancaster University, where I worked with the Scottish poet, David Craig, on one of the first Creative Writing courses in the UK. At Worcester College, Oxford, in the 1980s I was writing a DPhil thesis on the poet Shelley while also attending poetry workshops with WN Herbert, Peter Forbes, Pauline Stainer, Keith Jebb, Anne Born (and Tom and Helen).
Kathleen also asked me to say something about the poets I go back to and I talk a little (and read from) Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and WS Merwin. Trying to pick contemporary poets to highlight is an impossible task but, on this occasion at least, I speak about Marvin Thompson, Nancy Campbell and John McCullough.
One of the joys of social media (and there are plenty of aspects of them that are less than joyful) is that occasionally a notification pops up from an unexpected source and when you check it out there is something really worthwhile to be found. This happened the other day – via Instagram. Someone called Matt McGettrick had tagged me. I don’t know Matt, but he is a student on the BA course in TV and Radio Production at the University of Salford.
Matt’s instapost said he had recently created a soundscape based on a poem I published in 1990, in my first book from Enitharmon Press, called Beneath Tremendous Rain. It’s unlikely that the poem was found in that book itself, but I remember it was selected more than 10 years later by Sean Street to appear in an anthology called Radio Waves: poems celebrating the wireless (Entharmon, 2004). There, I was happily rubbing shoulders with the likes of Auden, Brecht, MacNeice, Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. Sean – whose is a poet, broadcaster and recently retired Professor of Radio at Bournemouth University – had divided the anthology up into sections variously titled, Music Radio, Talk Radio, Weather, Listeners and Signals. My piece was in the section called ‘In the Car’.
Here’s that original poem. It’s voiced by a persona – I had no children at this point and had not moved out of the ‘dark’ streets of Manchester to the countryside.
As I slowed up and shifted downgear,
a dance song thumping from the car radio
was stretched out and smashed to pieces.
But we barely noticed that first time –
all eager to see the house, where it stood
beneath the surfing crackle of the pylons.
The girls loved the sight of so much sky.
They slipped into new schools with ease
though Sue and I made it home more slowly.
And by then, there was Stephen, almost four,
suddenly ill, his rush of growing gone awry,
and the doctor’s face, closed up and dark
as the Manchester streets we had left behind.
He could tell me nothing. Inexplicable,
the pattern of disease. A year – maybe two.
Driving back across the hills, roadside wires
loop down, are yanked back to the blunted head
of each telegraph pole – and further off,
the pylons, hitching up skeins of darkness,
striding up country to a house where this car
and their sheaf of hot wires will converge,
where a young man’s voice on the radio
will melt down in a surge of boiling static
as I slow up, shift gear, and stop.
I remember a great deal of concern – this will have been in the late 1980s – about the possible harmful effects of living too close to the electrical fields generated by pylons. There was a particular study in 1979 that did conclude there might be a link between electromagnetic fields and childhood cancer (and this is the kind of scenario I am thinking of in the poem). However, other studies in the 2000s did not find an association or found an association only in homes with very high levels of magnetic forces, which is rare, according to the National Cancer Institute.
There was a personal connection, I remember, as my in-laws lived in a house which nestled in beneath a line of high voltage cables and pylons. But perhaps concerns about cancer-inducing lines of pylons have now gone the way of those early concerns about the dangers of mobile phones. Or has it even been consigned to the slightly cranky end of health concerns along with those people who sabotage 5G masts in the name of suspected links to the on-going pandemic? Even so, though it has dated a little, I’d like to think of the poem as one of my earliest expressions of environmental concern: if the electromagnetic fields do turn out to be perfectly safe, they are here acting as a metaphor for the kind of degradation of the lived-in environment caused by human action for which there is an indisputable and growing body of evidence.
Anyway – all this is simply by way of introducing Matt McGettrick’s excellent piece of work. The reader is Matthew Green. As the author of the original piece, it seems to me that both reading and soundscape engineering do a really fine job of responding sensitively to the text’s meaning, its structure and its rhythms. Have a listen – Matt suggests headphones are a good way to hear his work. It’s just over 5 minutes long.
Wishing all my blog readers this season’s greetings.
Quite unseasonally perhaps, here is an image of a gazelle – gazella dorcas – the kind of one Rilke is writing about in my translation below, with that ‘listening, alert’ look. The other extraordinary image that Rilke imcludes here is of the hind legs: ‘as if each shapely leg / were a shotgun, loaded with leap after leap’. This is one of the New Poems, written by Rilke under the influence of the sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Rilke learned from Rodin’s insistence on ‘looking’ closely at a subject, as well as his impressive work ethic!
Enchanted one: how could the harmony of two chosen words ever match the rhyme that comes and goes within you? The way branch and lyre start from your brow like a sign
and every part of you is like a lover’s song, the words falling tenderly as the rose lets drop petals on one who does not read on, but, shutting his eyes, lets the book close
to gaze at you: as if each shapely leg were a shotgun, loaded with leap after leap, undischarged, while your head tilts on your neck,
listening, alert: a girl who has ventured deep into a wood, startled by sounds as she bathes, the glint of forest pool on her upturned face.
This is one of five new translations which have just been posted at The Fortnightly Review. Click the link below to see the others – ‘Departure of the Prodigal Son’, ‘Pieta’, ‘God in the Middle Ages’ and ‘Saint Sebastian’.
I have been invited to give a 10 minute reading – on Zoom – this coming Friday 25th November @ 1pm alongside Hilary Watson and Sudeep Sen. The event is free to all but you will need to register for a ‘ticket’ (and Zoom link) here. I hope you can make it.
Details about the other two readers are as follows:
Poet, translator, artist, and editor Sudeep Sen studied English literature at the University of Delhi and was an Inlaks Scholar at Columbia University. Sen has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, including The Lunar Visitations (1990), Postmarked India: New and Selected Poems (1997), Lines of Desire (2000), Distracted Geographies (2003), Rain (2005), and Aria (2011), winner of the A.K. Ramanujan Translation Award. Two volumes of new and selected poems and translations were published as Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1978-2013 (2013) and Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (2015). Recent collections of poetry include Incarnat | Incarnadine (2017) and, with Setsuko Klossowska de Rola and Homa Arzhangi, Path to Inspiration (2017). The Government of India Ministry of Culture’s awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture.” Sen divides his time between New Delhi, London, and New York.
Hilary Watson grew up in and around Cardiff. She graduated from the University of Warwick Writers’ Programme with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing and an MA in Writing. She was a Jerwood/Arvon Mentee 2015/16 with mentor Caroline Bird alongside fellow poets Rachel Long and Emma Simon. She was shortlisted for the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2019 and the Live Canon Prize in 2015, and has recently been published in a number of UK and Irish magazine such as the Butcher’s Dog, Interpreter’s House, and Impossible Archetype. She works in the third sector and is currently writing her first collection.
I have not quite finalised what I will be reading but probably a couple of poems from my last full collection, The Lovely Disciplines and some more recent poems. No doubt I will plug the recent Christmas poetry anthology that I have co-edited with Michael Glover – also plugged in a recent blog post here. You might be interested to hear that we are planning a London launch for the anthology on Sunday December 4th @ 7pm at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham. More details (and booking) can be found here. Readers will include Rowan Williams, Nancy Campbell, Hilary Davies and Denise Saul – and there will be plenty of music of a festive variety too.
If I have time in the Live Canon reading, I’ll read this poem included in the Christmas anthology which I wrote in repsonse to Breughel’s fascinating painting of the same name (see above). It might be worth knowing that I imagine the voice of the poem to be that of the (blind? short-sighted?) man in the upper right corner of the image. He’s the one wearing the large blue-tinted spectacles:
Perhaps it was in response to – really I mean a way of avoiding – the Tory party leadership campaign over the long hot summer of 2022 (and look how that turned out – and then again turned out…) that Michael Glover and I spent much of our time reading for, researching, inviting and selecting poems for a brand new poetry anthology with a focus on Christmas and the winter solstice. I know this is a bit obvious but – hey! – this might well be the solution to your up-coming Christmas gift buying deliberations – elegant, stimulating, moving, clever and very easy to wrap. That’s this new anthology. What’s not to like?
In fact, it was Michael’s original, bright idea and I was delighted to be asked to collaborate with him. It is the first anthology I have had a hand in editing and the book, in its final form, has two main sections – his bit and mine.
I found it daunting at first – where do you begin? Well, I don’t think I’m giving away any anthology-making secrets by mentioning that this Christmas collection is not the first on the market. I had a couple on my shelves already and the internet provides ready-made selections of possibilities and then less familiar collections like Enitharmon’s excellent Light Unlocked: Christmas Card Poems, eds. Kevin Crossley-Holland & Lawrence Sail (Enitharmon Press, 2005) and the rich seams of Seren’s Christmas in Wales, ed. Dewi Lewis (Seren Books, 1997) provoked thoughts and – with due acknowledgement – suggested some definite items. It was exciting when other contemporary poets were kind enough to agree to offer as yet unpublished work for the anthology – my thanks to Neil Curry, John Greening, Jeremy Hooker, Denise Saul, Joan Michelson, Penelope Shuttle and Marvin Thompson.
For my own part, I pondered aspects of the ‘Christmas’ experience and came up with four loose categories: Mother and Child, Hearth and Home, Far and Near, Light and Sound.
Mother and Child was a fairly obvious place to start, and I was pleased to discover the 15th century poem ‘I syng of a mayden’ with its traditional take on the Nativity but its archaic and hence distanced and defamiliarized language. In contrast, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s plainly beautiful poem, ‘The Heart-in-Waiting’, revises the nativity story into more figurative terms for a contemporary audience: Christ is destined to be born into the human ‘heart-in-waiting’. WB Yeats’ take on the birth of Christ sees it from a quite different point of view: the pregnant mother’s sense of a divine love that ‘strikes a sudden chill into my bones / And bids my hair stand up’
The thought of Hearth and Home, around the time of the winter solstice, was probably a more personal choice, partly a recollection of my own childhood but also of later Christmases with my own two children. In both cases I am lucky enough for these to be happy memories though this section is perhaps also about the great weight of expectation of happiness that the season brings with it. My own background is in West Country – people claim to still hear my old Wiltshire accent sometimes – so William Barnes’ boisterous ‘Chris’mas Invitation’ was a great find:
An’ ev’ry woone shall tell his teale,
An’ ev’ry woone shall zing his zong,
An’ ev’ry woone wull drink his eale
To love an’ frien’ship all night long.
To follow this with Thomas Hardy’s more melancholic ‘The House of Hospitalities’ seemed right – with the latter’s reminiscing of warm logs on the fire, the food and songs of Christmas past, though now (this is Hardy after all) these are little more than ‘forms of old time’. I was very pleased to be able to include Joan Michelson’s touching evocation of Christmas under the 2020 Covid lockdown and Marvin Thompson’s densely allusive poem, ‘That’s the Art Deco Odeon on London’s Holloway Road’ neatly updates the memories of those of us of a certain background and vintage of watching Morecombe and Wise at Christmas with his more recent remembering of the family laughing at Lenny Henry’s character, Deakus.
The cluster of poems around Far and Near probably sprung out of the previous section – those expectations of the season are not fulfilled for all – loved ones, the rosy-cheeked messages of the time of year or indeed happiness itself may remain at a distance. So Edward Thomas’ gypsy plays ‘Over the hills and far away’ in a darkly troubling and less than traditionally Christian style, as something more ancient, ‘a rascally Bacchanal dance’. Kate Bingham’s, ‘Cento’, cleverly re-deploys phrases so familiar from Christmas hymns and songs and manages to be both questioningly ironic and touchingly empathetic. Beyond the tired commercial and religious cliches, the darkest time of the year, its turning point, makes us think of past and present, but also about other modes of being. Jeremy Hooker’s new poem sequence praises and reflects on the season’s natural world, the blackbird and owl, the snow falling and ‘bringing up / deeper silence / from some place one dreamed of / that was always there’
The carolling, the candles, the Christmas tree lights: the grouping of Light and Sound also seemed to be very appropriate. Everybody, I’m sure, will feel the shock of recognition in John Mole’s brilliant poem about digging out the old Christmas tree lights from last year’s box of decorations: ‘dear tangled friends / With your plaited emerald flex / And familiar chime of chip-chink / Tumbling over my wrist’. The dancing, visionary lights described by the old Wiltshire man, John Bryant (huddled in his bed against the cold ‘like a marmot in its nest’), in a diary entry of 1874 by Francis Kilvert, are, he believes, the souls of ‘just men’. These ‘rhymed’ for me with the chilly stars in Nancy Campbell’s enigmatic new piece, ‘Lights’ as a desire, felt by some people, perhaps more of us in the depths of midwinter, ‘to lose themselves in beauty’. And what better way to end than with Tennyson’s poem from In Memoriam: having fought through grief and loss to come to some more noisily belling, optimistic, celebratory vision for the coming new year:
As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was on ‘Writing and Technology’ which I posted (as text and audio file) on this blog a few weeks ago. Another commision was to respond to the intriguing invitation to write a ‘Letter to My Younger Self’. The recording of that piece is still in the RLF pipeline, but the third of these short pieces has now been made available as an audio file on the RLF’s VOX site. The given topic of this newly published piece is ‘How I Write’ – not an easy subject on which to be clear and succinct but with a little help from WH Auden and Louise Gluck I hope I have said something here that might be of help to all kinds of writers – poets, novelists and (the target audience of the RLF project) those writing at the varied levels of academe.
Alternatively – or both at the same time if you’d like – you can read it below.
How I Write
Always I have to commit something to paper as soon as possible after the initial inkling of a poem. Most writers use notebooks. Some use audio recorders, others their phones. Though first drafts are always terrible, what I’m doing is laying a path back towards the first emotional impulse, a way for myself to return there. You’ll often find me re-reading notebooks to pick up such trails among barely readable, fragmentary scribbles.
These scraps are what may develop into poems. I like W. H. Auden’s view of the poem as a “verbal contraption”. It reminds me a poem (actually, any piece of writing you are doing) is a purposeful device. It needs to be an effective device and poems look to impact a reader’s feelings. This view downplays one of the commonest stumbling blocks about creative writing, which is that what poets try to do is express their own inner moods. If that’s all I focus on, I’ll pay too little attention to the writing’s receiver, my reader.
Anyway, what I want ‘to express’ is seldom fixed at this stage. It’s important I’m willing to add on – simply write more connected material – even beyond the point at which I might think the job done. That tempting voice claiming early completion may be a lazy demon or a censoring one. It’s my practice at this stage to draft loosely, with as much energy and freedom as possible. If I watch children playing, I see them enjoying an excess of energy, movement, voice, and it’s out of this that real creativity arises – new moves, ideas, developments, reformed, revised, played again, played better. So in writing, spinning off new phrases or metaphors leads not only to decorative grace-notes but often to the still-hidden, true heart of the poem. This is why poets often talk of writing as a process of discovery.
For me, most of these stages still take place using pen and paper. The shift to a screen, a keyboard remains a critical transition. On screen, or on a phone, typed lines acquire an inertial resistance to being changed. On screen, I find my eye starts to narrow down to look at the poem’s physical shape and appearance on a would-be page. Such aspects are important in the long run, but they can prematurely cool the fluidity of the molten drafting process if they dominate too early. Beware the linearity of the screen!
But once it’s there, now I’m thinking ‘economy’. A linguistic cosmetic surgeon, I cut off verbal flab, repetition, redundancy. Crossing out is my most familiar activity. The American poet, Louise Gluck, says that a writer’s only real exercise of will “is negative: we have toward what we write the power of veto”. One of the keys to this is reading aloud. I go the whole hog: standing as if to deliver to an audience. Loud. And. Clear. This helps me listen to rhythm and line breaks. Actually, for any writer of poetry, prose, essays for your course, reading aloud highlights stumbling blocks of all kinds. My sense of the ebb and flow of a poem is always clarified because I distract myself in the physical act of standing and speaking. I experience my words more objectively, more as my potential reader would. Try it. It’s a revelation!
As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was a ‘Letter to My Younger Self’ and another piece was entitled ‘How I Write’. These two recordings are still in the RLF pipeline, but the third of these has now been made available as an audio file on the RLF’s VOX site. The given topic of this published piece is ‘The Writer and Technology’ – a subject about which I have some experience in relation to the former and not a huge competence in relation to the latter. Nevertheless, I’m not one to duck a challenge.
Alternatively – or both at the same time if you’d like – you can read it below.
Writing and Technology
It frightens me: she gives with one hand and takes away with the other. I become too monogamous. I don’t look up. I google recipes using oregano or the name of the drummer in Coltrane’s 1960s quartet. I love her library of reference all within clicking distance. I email friends, family, writers, publishers (I remember stamps and letterboxes with no fondness). Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime make it a breeze to stay in touch, offer advice, give poetry readings to people around the globe. I’m never lost; I use Google maps. I post and follow on Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook. All this she gives me.
And most days I crave her distractions, her sensational sweep of sights and sounds, her informational vistas at the swipe or dab of a fingertip. I substitute longer, slower satisfactions with a preference for her novelties. Though I’ve read about how our cultural (and fiscal) economies promote such transitory stabs at contentment in the absence of other satisfactions, still – I can seldom resist. I do glimpse vicious cycles – her short-lived pleasures liable to collapse, disappointing anticipation – yet I play her perfect subject, eyes flicking without rest from screen to screen. I do not look up. Her multitudinousness spawns my passive respect for numbers, speed, spectacle, calculation, all of which barely disguises the non-event. I attend with others – but spend as much time watching a screen as the performance. I still tell my friends: I was there, it was huge, so many people . . .
She makes me fear something’s missing. Addicted to her click bait, I love her machines in their elegant black and silver. They seem to promise to breach the ancient laws of time and space. Yet having acquired the newest devices with which I calculate, communicate, translate, find millions of pages of information, actually, I can’t remember what it was I hoped to do with them.
Sometimes I remember. What she interrupts – with her shows of pleasure, power, riches, praise – is the creative impulse to look up, observe (look out!). Once this ceases – prophetically, the poet Shelley said this back in 1821 – new imagery stops being generated, language withers and dies. Only in my relations with the world (not with her) am I truly warmed. Then I’m the matrix through which the world steps – as the world becomes the matrix through which I step – to rediscover myself not ‘me’ (an atom in an empty universe), but ‘mine’ (living in relation to others, other things).
When I leave her, often there’s the startling beauty or strangeness of scenes that draw me away from my ‘self’. Perhaps for a moment, I’m lost for words. It’s not enough to take a picture, post it up, surround it with talk, comments, likes, shares. Poetry expresses such sensations as record, reminder, model and vicarious experience for its readers. Using form, figurative and musical language, I write to re-present such ineffable, inexpressible moments. The French poet and philosopher, Yves Bonnefoy, says: poetry is not about something but it restores the self to the lucid intensity of the truth of relational experiences.
For a writer who has published over 30 books of poetry and prose in his native Germany, we have had too little of Durs Grünbein in English. Michael Hofmann‘s Ashes for Breakfast (Faber, 2005) introduced some of the earlier work and described Grünbein as possessed of melancholia, amplitude, a love of Brodsky, a love of the Classics, plus wide-ranging interests in medicine, neuroscience, contemporary art and metaphysics. John Ashbery praised Grünbein, identifying his subject as “this life, so useless, so rich” and the challenge to any translator is precisely this breadth and ambition. Happily, Karen Leeder is proving to be a really fine conduit for Grünbein’s work and here she triumphantly tackles his 2005 sequence of poems about the firebombing of his hometown, Dresden, by American and British planes in February 1945.
Porcelain is a sequence of 49 poems, 10 lines each, rhymed and grounded in Classical metre and given an air of Classical elegy by its subtitle, ‘Poem on the Downfall of My City’ (‘Poem vom Untergang meiner Stadt’). But if resolution, consolation or summing-up might be expected, this is, definitively, not what we get. The title, of course, refers to the Meissen pottery which, from the eighteenth century on, brought Dresden its great wealth and fame. But it is also a pun on the poet to whom the sequence is dedicated: Paul Celan. In Celan’s poem ‘Your eyes embraced’ there is an effort to swallow the ashes of genocide but they return to the throat as ‘Ash- / hiccups’, an image repeated in Grünbein’s opening poem: “It comes back like hiccups: elegy”. The sequence does indeed hiccup in the sense of its jerky shifts of tone, its multi-faceted images of Grunbein himself and in its close to choking articulation of the horrors of the Dresden bombing.
A self-conscious awkwardness or self-questioning is clear from the start: “Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone / when your little light first appeared”. Grünbein was born seventeen years after the bombing and accepts he cannot ‘witness’ the event in any simple way. But personal details do surface in the sequence such as in poem 8 where the young boy grows familiar with the still evident urban destruction: “proud and mute . . . the ravaged city”. He senses something of “that glory passed away” but can hardly know “the things [his] mother saw, / scarcely five years old” (poem 10). Later poems remember moments when his mother’s doll was in danger of the flames (“Flames as high as houses sucked the air along the streets”), but was rescued, unscathed, “or that is what they say” (poems 40/41). Leeder explains in her Introduction that Grünbein has been criticised in part for a sentimentality and this is perhaps such a moment. But the indication that this is reportage (family reportage at that) gives permission for sentiment and Grünbein is fully conscious of (and in control of) the massive swings in tone through the whole sequence. Poem 48 is one that might also lay itself open to charges of sentiment, focussing on a pair of lovers (Martha and Heinrich) seemingly caught up in the devastation: “Kids, the pair of you, first kisses in the thick of war, / until you met that night you’d grown up in uniform”. But Grünbein works repeatedly through allusiveness and intertextuality, so this Romeo and Juliet trope is hardened and complicated when we hear that, not only was the German air defence’s grid reference for Dresden code-named ‘Martha-Heinrich 8’, but also that both names recall characters in Goethe’s Faust.
In poem 38, Grünbein seems equally aware that some of his images of Dresden after the bombing might be open to the same criticism of a hyper-emotional tone. “Five long weeks upon the Altmarkt square, the horses / scratched the straw and watched the griddled corpses / burn. Mawkish? Ach, give over, late-born soul”. As this example shows, the sequence does confront the horrors unleashed on the city as in poem 22: “Are those people popping like chestnuts between / the gutted trams?” But looked at more carefully, even this grisly observation is nominally from the perspective of a stone angel on the cathedral roof. It is this continual innovation and manipulation of perspective that is important to the poems’ purpose and how we should read them. One important perspective Grünbein explores is the victim-narrative that predominated in thinking about the event in post-war East Germany and more recently. One aspect of this is the placing of the Dresden bombing in the historical context of German bombing of Warsaw in 1944 and the German’s systematic persecution of the Jews. Dresden’s fate did not rise ex nihilo. This latter myth, Grünbein embodies in the eroticisation of the bombing – the city as defenceless virgin – as in poem 45’s image of the city and the Elbe: “River like a sash of silver draped round her hips / enticing in the moonlight”.
From such examples, it’s easy to see why Grünbein’s own position on the bombing has been vociferously discussed and questioned. But he warns against using the destruction of the city as any kind of exemplum: “Let Dresden be. You won’t find what you are looking for” (poem 6). The reader understands he is also advising himself here, while, at the same time, acknowledging the human drive to interpret, to search for meaning, even in the most appalling events. The sequence’s treatment of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the RAF Commander-in-Chief during the bombing of Dresden, is interestingly equivocal. Poem 4 alludes almost invisibly to Harris’ comment on the Dresden bombing, when he suggested that objections to it were based on a sentimental image of the city as full of “German bands and Dresden shepherdesses” when, in reality, it was a Nazi munitions and transportation centre. In fact, Harris was carrying out orders from Winston Churchill: “No sweat, Arthur, you only did what you had to do” (poem 13). And in poem 23, Grünbein also notes that some more recent left-wingers in Germany have chanted ‘Thank you, Harris!’ in their efforts to question and counter more simplistic, victim-narrative commemorations of the event.
In such ways, Porcelain revels in its own pluralities while acknowledging and itself attempting to make some sense of an epitome of senseless destruction. The final line of the book plainly states the human need to avoid finality, the fall into fixity, yet accepts the compulsion to explain, to create meaning: “Changing places, times, dimensions as he goes—goes on—creating”. And behind all this stand those exquisite china objects, the ‘white gold’ that made the city rich and famous:
Falconers are there, vintners, nymphs with conch-shell horns,
frog-faced putti, figures riding seahorses and swans.
Groups of shepherdesses, lovely gardeners, beasts of lore . . .
Porcelain—most fragile thing”
The collision of Allied bombs and Dresden’s fragile porcelain lies at the heart of Grünbein’s poems. There was no contest, of course, though some pieces and many fragments remained and were perhaps repaired. Grünbein’s poems enact this process, collecting perspectives, often incongruous, even contradictory, but bringing them into relation with each other, not to make any definitive statement, but to hold up a mirror to us, to the recurrent tension between our need to create and our drive to destroy.
On any criteria, it is a poor photograph. The primary subject – the three young boys in the foreground – are out of focus. The youngest one’s head is just too low for the dated camera’s pre-set focus to find it. Instead, there in the background, but far more sharply defined, is a woman’s bicycle, the chain ring and two slanting elements of the metal frame reflecting the sun brightly. I know the orientation of this house. If the sun is falling this way, the time must be nearing mid-afternoon, the sun is falling on the garden and over back of the house, over the photographer’s right shoulder, into the eyes of the children, each of whom is squinting slightly. Look beneath the large pram under the window, to the left: the shadows of its four spoked wheels and their pale tyres confirm the angle. The black bulk of the pram and the mass of shadow behind and beneath it almost take over the image. It too is in sharper focus than the children.
Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida suggests our viewing of a photographic image has two aspects. What he termed the studium is associated with any viewer’s knowledge and cultural experience, with a body of information and a general interest: ‘a very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste’ (tr. Richard Howard, Vintage Books). It is a mere question of liking, not liking. Here, the studium of the image is open to anyone with a decent knowledge of England in the mid-20th century. The corner of a recently built house (the garden as yet untended, only wire fencing between this and the next house on what looks like a raw housing estate) and the style of bicycle and pram, the clothes the three boys are wearing (what look like home-knitted jumpers – the youngest wrapped up with a knitted hat, buttoning under the chin – so the weather is not warm) are all suggestive of the late 1950s or early 1960s. The youngest boy is also sat in a toy pedal vehicle – the long-nosed bonnet indicative of a racing car – the sun’s angle perhaps catching brightly again what might be headlights at the very bottom of the image.
The outline of this lawn in the back garden remained unchanged throughout my childhood. Its corner – in the image, its apex – falls neatly behind the youngest boy’s head. Perhaps there is some composition here? I’d guess it was my father pressing the white button on the black plastic box of a Kodak camera. Taking such a picture was more the father’s job in those days. His clumsiness in framing the image ought not to be judged too harshly (these were still relatively early days for mass photography) but it stirs in me the thought that he was always a man more at home with objects than words or people. I wish he’d taken the picture again, a little lower, filling the chosen frame with his three children. Forty years later, setting the scene behind the large window in the image, sat around the dining table that (for fully 50 years) looked out onto the back garden, I wrote of him when forgetfulness and confusion troubled him more and more:
Past ninety and still no books to read
your knuckles rap the laid table
gestures beside a stumble of words
so much aware of their inadequacy
it hurts us both in different ways
since a man without language is no man
finding too late the absence of words
builds a prison you’re no longer able
to dominate objects as once you did
the world turns in your loosening grip
So, it may be the general studium of this image stirs some mild interest in you – the period, the clothes, the main objects a little like museum pieces. Barthes’ second element in a viewer’s response to a photo, he termed the punctum, some detail (usually only one) that pierces the viewer, that wounds us, a powerful emotional response. The punctum is often not intended by the photographer – some random detail that for a particular viewer has a disproportionate and very personal impact. It is what moves us.
The fact that this is an image from my own past means there are a number of candidates here for a punctum. Most likely surely is the face of the boy on the left. Under a thick head of hair, a rough-cut fringe, he squints more than the others. His eyes cannot be seen, hidden away in the dark slits beneath the eyebrows. The firm lines on his face slant down from nose to half-opened mouth in a grin that lifts his cheekbones, that might even be the shaping of a word. The long vowel in the word ‘cheese’ perhaps? A version of that face greets me in the mirror even now. In these infant and junior years, my jumpers were knitted by my mother. I seem to be wearing a girlish collar beneath. My right hand is lost beyond the lower edge of the image. My right rests on the racing car, not quite clasping my younger brother’s hand which looks set back a little on the edge of the car. I am the middle child. My younger brother must be little more than a year or two old (born in 1959). My older brother is the one full of animation: right arm around the car, around his little brother, he seems to be exploding into a fit of giggles. But oddly, none of these details quite wounds me…
The bicycle? My mother’s of course. A large wicker basket on the front. Look closely and there on the back is the folding child’s seat I remember sitting in as she pedaled the 2 or 3 miles into town. The vast contraption of the black pram? I don’t have memories of it – even of my brother in it. It remains part of the studium – I remember later discussions about the way pram and child would be left outside for hours on end (sometimes in the front garden of the house where the sun’s absence kept it cool in summer). I think a general thought: such a thing would never be countenanced these days. Even far older children are seldom let out of their parents’ sight.
The house itself? A little tugging of nostalgia here (we eventually sold the house after my parents’ deaths just a few years ago) but mostly I sense information welling up. An estate of 40 such houses on the edge of a Wiltshire town. One of the first ever post-war self-build projects – the 40 men built them with their own hands over 3-4 years in the mid- to late-50s. I have other photos of the house being built. Each dwelling had a little outhouse (ours is middle top of the image; next door’s filling the top right corner). There’s a non-standard coal bunker: it’s what Mum’s bike is propped against. If I remember rightly my paternal grandfather helped build it. I have a vague physical memory of being held by him (over the bunker?). Nothing more, since he died suddenly, I think, before this image was taken.
Oddly – and this is in the nature of the Barthsian punctum – the detail that has particular poignancy (like a dagger, Barthes says) is the shapeless peg bag hanging (where it always hung, it hung there forever) on the bracket attaching the guttering downpipe to the wall. The camera simply records what lies before it. After 100 pages of discussion, Barthes arrives at, what even he confesses is, a less-than-earth-shattering conclusion that a photo’s potency lies in its declaration of ‘this-has-been’, its evidential power. Yet it’s also the case that an image’s power can be contained in what is absent from it or is implied by small details within it. I am pierced by the peg bag because it represents (more than that – it is, it manifests, the touch of) my mother. The only member of the family nowhere here (neither behind nor in front of the lens), she is there in her bicycle, there in the pram (possibly there in the waste bin beside the coal bunker – has it just been washed out? there is a darkening patch of water running on the path?). But most of all in the peg bag. Almost certainly she made it herself. A coat hanger. A few lengths of spare cloth. Some wooden pegs. The washing line ran down the length of the back garden path. There was a long wooden prop with a V cut in the top. In a very early poem, I would see her ‘struggling / to peg out snapping shirtfuls of wind’.
In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, she writes ‘[w]hen we are afraid, we shoot’. She means when we fear losing what-is-here we preserve it in the museum of the recorded image. Did my father fear losing this moment? He preserved it badly. But he managed to preserve the children (though the ones in this image are now passed on into something quite other; Barthes would say they have died). Nowadays, a father would turn his camera and include himself in it too. What does that say about fear? The peg bag would still be hanging there though. In the image. On my desk here. Scanned to the screen. In my mind, the peg bag continues to hang in its place on the downpipe though other people’s children play on the lawn, other parents sit gazing out of (what we always called) the dining room’s picture window.
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…