Visiting Torbay Poetry Festival 2017

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The 11am train out of Paddington is so packed that I expect to see Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the floor between carriages – disgruntled at the discomfort of his position, if more gruntled at the clear evidence of the underfunding of public transport. I usually choose the Quiet Carriage to varying degrees of success and on this occasion, from Reading to Swindon, I have the pleasure of eavesdropping on a phone conversation in a language I do not know. A contemporary version of Frost’s the sound of sense – though I’m not sure I make much sense of the sounds themselves, half of it murmuring like love-talk, the other staccato as a list of shopping. Maybe that’s just what it is!

Anyway, I have work to do – correcting replies I’m giving to an email interview to be published by South Bank Poetry in the next couple of weeks. I’ve already prepared the reading I’m giving on the Saturday night, so I don’t bother thinking about that. Getting off the train 3½ hours later, I meet up with Maggie Butt who is still recovering from running the recent Poem-a-Thon in support of the Enfield Refugee Fund. Possibly, I think, she’s reeling less from the sheer effort involved as from the whole event’s astonishing success, raising something like £14000 in one day. We walk along the breezy promenade at Torquay to the Livermead Cliff Hotel which is the focus of the Torbay Poetry Festival. It turns out they are not expecting me until the following day but with some juggling of rooms I’m soon ensconced and ready for some poetry.

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I had arrived in time to hear Myra Schneider and Alasdair Paterson reading. But Myra was unwell and absent, so her poems and little emailed introductions were beautifully read by Mimi Khalvati and Danielle Hope. I know Myra’s work well and it is often very location specific, so it was a strange feeling having north London brought so vividly before me when, just outside the expansive windows, the English Channel was rolling in towards the beach. Alasdair (amongst many other things) runs the Uncut Poetry series in Exeter, so he is both in-comer and relative local to the south west. With the kind of Scottish burr that in itself draws attention to the sound of any poem it is applied to, he read in a quiet, level voice. Especially memorable was a poem with a surrealist and Chinese slant, presenting a kind of bureaucratic Confucianism, managing to convey both a satirical edge and a rather joyful sense of freedom.

Early evening on the Friday, Kathy Miles read her poems layered with myth, history and personal experience. And Matthew Barnard, who is published by Eyewear, read several poems about visits – or maybe residence – on the Isle of Skye. One of the great recommendations of this little poetry festival (run by Patricia Oxley, who also edits Acumen, and her committee) is indeed its small scale. It means guests and readers are always in touching and chatting distance of each other. Someone who is a regular attendee described it to me as more like a house party and it certainly has that sense of a bunch of people meeting up in an endless, delightful carousel of combinations and re-combinations. Maybe all I mean is that it is very friendly!

 

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Duncan Forbes

The first half of Friday evening’s reading was given by the urbane, witty and clever Duncan Forbes. One of his poems expressed the concern, shared by so many of us who work with language, about the number of words that seem to be dropping out of common usage. So many of these are associated with the natural world, the weather, earth and landscape. Duncan was smart and engaging on the subject but interestingly a number of his more recent poems seem to tone down the wit and word-play in order to focus on landscape – in one instance a gloriously evoked Portuguese setting. Mimi Khalvati’s work is well known and tends to provoke praise such as ‘lush’ and ‘graceful’ which is true enough though she also has a quiet almost metaphysical wit of her own. She read a poem from the just published Hippocrates Society anthology of the heart:

 

Old tramping grounds are bruises to the heart.

Go visit them at dusk when belisha beacons,

reflected in dark windows, flash and dart

like fireflies [. . .]

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We were expecting Storm Brian on the Saturday and being just metres from the water’s edge it was awaited with some trepidation. But living up to its rather un-tempestlike name, Brian blew only in brief gusts, ruffling Torbay into rather poetic white horses rather than anything more dangerous. It seemed appropriate that the main event of the morning was a celebration of Cornish poet Charles Causley. This was coordinated by John Miles and included members of The Causely Trust and the poet’s biographer, Laurence Green. We heard about Causley’s childhood, the early death of his father, his war experiences in the navy, then his years teaching at the same school he attended. A curious life of great rootedness and sense of locale, combined with his sense of the ocean always at his doorstep and the possibility of travel. Perhaps the highlight of the session was an unaccompanied singing of Causley’s ‘Timothy Winters’ by Roy Cameron. I’ve known some of the poems for ages, but the event made me want to go back and reread them. I always remember something Causley wrote, echoing Frost’s ideas about ulteriority, that poems are always about something else and that’s why they are so hard to write.

 

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Charles Causely

If Patrica Oxley sets the organisational tone for the Festival, it is her husband William who sets the sociability quotient. This is also reflected in his most recent publication, On and Off Parnassus (Rockingham Press), a collection of anecdotes, or Oxley-dotes, which has been described as giving readers “a finely judged mixture of anecdote and nuanced memoir”. William’s encounter with a much larger-than-expected tiger cub proved entertaining. Alongside him Maggie Butt read from her recent collection, Degrees of Twilight, taking us from a trip to Cuba to her very moving response to Dylan Thomas:

 

Why not go gentle into that good night

like drifting into sleep from sun-soaked day,

remembering the brightness of the light?

 

Penelope Shuttle had judged the Festival poetry competition this year and she announced the winners at an event later on Saturday afternoon. The winner was Cheryl Pearson with the poem, ‘The Fishwife’. My reading was before the dinner and the wine began to flow. I read almost wholly from my new book. I veered off plan by including a poem included in the new Hippocrates anthology. It seemed appropriate to place it after another poem about my daughter a few years ago – the first was about visiting a church and extinguishing somebody else’s candle and the heart poem about watching her, for the first time, riding a fairground carousel alone: anxious moments that yielded up thoughts for this father at least about the paradoxes of closeness and distance as children become more and more themselves:

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Regretfully I could not hang around long on the Sunday morning as I had to get back into London for a reading with Tim Ades and Caroline Maldonado (dear reader, my life is not usually so literarily busy, far from it). Sadly then, I had to miss Penny Shuttle’s main reading as well as work from Alwyn Marriage, Shanta Acharya and Isabel Bermudez. On the return train, I read and loved Penny’s most recent book, Will You Walk a Little Faster? (Bloodaxe Books). And – in the light of the TS Eliot shortlist which had been released over the weekend – I was left wondering why she was not on it. Her work is always so sharp, surprising, endlessly experimenting, touching, visionary, down to earth, above all immensely human. These are not things I could say about all the shortlisted books. Ah, literary prizes, the delight of the few chosen publishers everywhere. And while I’m busy complaining, why is Nick Makoha’s powerful book not on the list? But enough bitching – the Torbay Poetry Festival is remarkable for a number of things, but especially its inclusive and friendly tone. Stay with that.

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Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’

I have been thinking about the role of metre in poetry in preparation for 3 evening sessions I have been asked to teach for the Poetry School in London. The sessions are part of a wide-ranging course on some of the basics of poetry (other parts of it will be taught by Tim Dooley, Judy Brown, Claire Crowther and Matthew Caley). Also, last Saturday I attended the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in Red Lion Square, London. There – apart from spending too much money on poetry books and chatting with people who had come from all over the country – I listened to a discussion about the role of poetry in relation to politics. Fiona Moore chaired a discussion involving Choman Hardi, Bill Herbert, Sophie Mayer and R A Villanueva. Ideas put forward included the delicate issue of ‘using’ the experience of others in political poetry as well as the need to work polyvalently or collaboratively to combat the influence of unquestioned language and form. Herbert quoted W S Graham’s line: “What is the language using us for?” At the confluence of these two biographical moments I found myself thinking of Tony Harrison’s solutions to the poetry/politics issue – in part through his use of formal metre. The following discussion of Harrison’s Iraq War poem, ‘A Cold Coming’, originally appeared in book form in Tony Harrison: Loiner (Clarendon Press, 1997), edited by Sandie Byrne.

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Harrison has declared his commitment to metrical verse because “it’s associated with the heart beat, with the sexual instinct, with all those physical rhythms which go on despite the moments when you feel suicidal”. In conversation with Richard Hoggart, he explains that without the rhythmical formality of poetry he would be less able to confront, without losing hope, his favoured themes of death, time and social injustice. “That rhythmical thing is like a life-support system. It means I feel I can go closer to the fire, deeper into the darkness . . . I know I have this rhythm to carry me to the other side”.

There are few of Harrison’s poems that go closer to the fire than the second of his Gulf War poems, ‘A Cold Coming’. Its initial stimulus, reproduced on the cover of the original Bloodaxe pamphlet, was a photograph by Kenneth Jarecke in The Observer. The picture graphically showed the charred head of an Iraqi soldier leaning through the windscreen of his burned-out truck which had been hit by Allied Forces in the infamous ‘turkey-shoot’ as Saddam’s forces retreated from Kuwait City. In the poem, Harrison makes the Iraqi himself speak both with a brutal self-recognition (“a skull half roast, half bone”) as well as a scornful envy of three American soldiers who were reported to have banked their sperm for posterity before the war began (hence, with a scatological nod to Eliot, the title of the poem). There are undoubtedly echoes in the Iraqi’s speech of the hooligan alter ego in the poemV’, yet Harrison worries little over any narrow authenticity of voice in this case, and he does triumphantly pull off the balancing act between the reader’s emotional engagement with this fierce personal voice and a more universalising portrayal of  a victim of modern warfare. Furthermore, it is Harrison’s establishment and then variation of the poem’s metrical “life-support system” that enables him to achieve this balance, to complete a poem which weighs in against Adorno’s view that lyric poetry has become an impossibility in the shadow of this century’s brutality.

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The poem’s form – rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets – seems in itself chosen with restraint in mind, as if the photographic evidence of the horror lying in front of him led Harrison to opt for a particularly firm rhythmical base “to carry [him] to the other side”. Indeed, the opening five stanzas are remarkable in their regularity with only a brief reversed foot in the fourth line foreshadowing the more erratic energies soon to be released by the Iraqi soldier’s speech:

 

I saw the charred Iraqi lean

towards me from bomb-blasted screen,

 

his windscreen wiper like a pen

ready to write down thoughts for men.

 

The instant the Iraqi’s voice breaks in, the metre is under threat. Each of his first four stanzas opens with trochaic imperatives or questions and at one point he asks if the “gadget” Harrison has (apparently a tape-recorder but a transparent image of poetry itself) has the power to record “words from such scorched vocal chords”. Apart from the drumming of stresses in lines such as this, Harrison deploys sibilance, the alliteration of g’s and d’s, followed by an horrific mumbling of m’s to suggest the charred figure’s effortful speech in the first moments of the encounter. Regularity is re-established the moment the tape-recorder’s mike is held “closer to the crumbling bone” and there is a strong sense of release from the dead man’s initial aggressive button-holing as his voice (and the verse) now speeds away:

 

I read the news of three wise men

who left their sperm in nitrogen,

 

three foes of ours, three wise Marines,

with sample flasks and magazines . . .

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In the stanzas that follow the dead man’s angry, envious sarcasm is controlled within the bounds of the form and it is rather Harrison’s rhymes which provide much of the kick: God/wad, Kuwait/procreate, fate/ejaculate, high tech’s/sex. It is only when the man demands that Harrison/the reader imagines him in a sexual embrace with his wife back home in Baghdad that the metrical propulsion again begins to fail. It is in moments such as this that the difficult emotional work in the poem is to be done. This is our identification with these ghastly remains, with the enemy, and it is as if the difficulty of it brings the verse juddering and gasping to an incomplete line with “the image of me beside my wife / closely clasped creating life . . .”

The difficulty of this moment is further attested to by the way the whole poem turns its back upon it. Harrison inserts a parenthetical section, preoccupied not with the empathic effort the dead Iraqi has asked for but with chilly, ironic deliberations on “the sperm in one ejaculation”. Yet all is not well, since this section stumbles and hesitates metrically as if Harrison himself (or rather the persona he has adopted in the poem) is half-conscious of retreating into safe, calculative and ratiocinative processes. Eventually, a conclusion yields itself up, but it is once again the metrical change of gear into smooth regularity (my italics below) that suggests this is a false, defensive even cynical avoidance of the difficult issues raised by the charred body in the photograph:

 

Whichever way Death seems outflanked

by one tube of cold bloblings banked.

 

Poor bloblings, maybe you’ve been blessed

with, of all fates possible, the best

 

according to Sophocles i.e.

‘the best of fates is not to be’

 

a philosophy that’s maybe bleak

for any but an ancient Greek . . .

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That this is the way to read this passage is confirmed by the renewed aggression of the Iraqi soldier who hears these thoughts and stops the recorder with a thundering of alliterative stresses: “I never thought life futile, fool! // Though all Hell began to drop / I never wanted life to stop”. What follows is the Iraqi soldier’s longest and most impassioned speech, by turns a plea for attention and a sarcastic commentary on the collusion of the media whose behaviour will not “help peace in future ages”. Particular mention is given to the “true to bold-type-setting Sun” and, as can be seen from such a phrase, Harrison once more allows particular moments of anger and high emotion to burst through the fluid metrical surface like jagged rocks. There is also a sudden increase in feminine rhyme endings in this section which serves to give a barely-caged impression, as if the voice is trembling on the verge of bursting its metrical limits and racing across the page. This impression is further reinforced in the series of imperatives – again in the form of snapping trochees at the opening of several stanzas – that form the climax to this section of the poem:

 

Lie that you saw me and I smiled

to see the soldier hug his child.

 

Lie and pretend that I excuse

my bombing by B52s.

 

The final ten stanzas culminate in a fine example of the way in which Harrison manipulates metrical form to good effect. In a kind of atheistic religious insight, the “cold spunk” so carefully preserved becomes a promise, or perhaps an eternal teasing reminder, of the moment when “the World renounces War”. However, emphasis falls far more heavily on the seemingly insatiable hunger of the present for destruction because of the way Harrison rhythmically clogs the penultimate stanza, bringing it almost to a complete halt. The frozen semen is “a bottled Bethlehem of this come- /curdling Cruise/Scud-cursed millennium”. Yet, as we have seen, Harrison understands the need to come through “to the other side” of such horrors and the final stanza does shakily re-establish the form (though the final line opens with two weak stresses and does not close). However, any naive understanding of the poet’s comments about coming through the fire can be firmly dismissed. This is not the place for any sentimental or rational synthetic solution. Simply, we are returned to the charred face whose painful, personal testament this poem has managed to encompass and movingly dramatise but without losing its form, thus ensuring a simultaneous sense of the universality of its art and message:

 

I went. I pressed REWIND and PLAY

and I heard the charred man say:

 

What Have I Been Reading: January – March 2016

Up-dated March 2016

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Tony Hoagland’s new collection from Bloodaxe introduces me to a poet I want to read more of (having missed him so far). Laugh-out-loud funny in the same breath as touching while being satirical and vividly descriptive of urban USA. Like Billy Collins, you relish the poem – then wonder how he managed to achieve it so apparently effortlessly.

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I read with Tracey Herd recently at the StAnza Festival (see this post) and was impressed with the emotional honesty of her writing. This is her first book in almost 15 years and was short-listed for the Forward as well as being a PBS Choice.

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In reviewing Choman Hardi’s recent Considering the Women for Poetry London, I also went back to re-read her first book, Life for Us (both published by Bloodaxe). Her unsparing exploration of the plight and flight of the Iraqi-Kurdish people in the 1980s is poetry of witness of a high order. This is a body of work which is unique and deserves as much notice as we can give it.

Up-dated January/February 2016

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Macfarlane’s take on the significance of the loss of rural vocabulary and the danger that we will narrow our human experience as a result makes for powerful reading. Actually I found the word lists a bit dull (which I’m sure I shouldn’t as a poet) but perhaps most important of all he directs readers to previously little known writers about landscape like Nan Shepherd, J A Baker and Peter Davidson.

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Popa’s unpunctuated, economical, elusive poems, many of them drawing on Serbo-Croat myth and legends, can be hard going. There is little sentiment or surface detail to hold on to. But reading them you hear where Ted Hughes found the idioms of Crow. Poems like little hard pebbles giving lessons  to the more windy and verbose among us (I include myself of course).

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Addonizio can be verbose but what she evokes is a speaking voice, a chatting voice, driven on to revelation after revelation as if across a bar table littered with empties. She is a voice in your ear with all that implies about thrilling intimacy though on occasions I felt ‘give me a break’.

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Stephen Payne’s poems emerge partly from his job as a Professor of Human-Centric Systems. He observes what people do and he wants to discuss it. He’s looking for the patterns which present themselves ‘beyond chance’. If that sounds a bit cool there is something of that here but the book overall is delicate, always thoughtful and often very moving.

Choman Hardi: Review of ‘Considering the Women’

In the Recent Reading section of my website I observed that Choman Hardi’s “unsparing exploration of the plight and flight of the Iraqi-Kurdish people in the 1980s is poetry of witness of a high order. This is a body of work which is unique and deserves as much notice as we can give it”. I also blogged about her second collection, Considering the Women, where I drew comparisons between her poem ‘Gas Attack’ and Wilfred Owen’s well-known anti-war poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. My thoughts were in part a spin-off from a review I was asked to do of the book (alongside collections by Tony Hoagland and Jan Wagner). That review has been published in Poetry London. But Hardi’s book has just appeared on the Forward Prize Best Collection Shortlist and the post that now follows is the discussion of the whole book from my original review. The “delicate deliberations” alluded to in the opening line refer to Jan Wagner’s work – in which I discussed his explorations of the self, definitions and re-definitions of it, through our honest encounter with the world.

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The kind of horrific experiences and seismic changes to human lives that Choman Hardi writes about make some of these more delicate deliberations seem inappropriate luxuries. Hardi does not write much about herself yet the locus of her life is critical to the work. Born in Sulaimani, she lived in Iraqi-Kurdistan and Iran before seeking asylum in the UK in 1993.  She has since researched women survivors of Saddam’s chemical warfare against the Kurds in the late 1980s and has recently moved back to Sulaimani. Her first book (in English) Life for Us (Bloodaxe, 2004) was remarkable for its evocations of a childhood shattered by war, persecution and exile. Her new collection also contains timely poems about exile, warfare, ethnic cleansing, but goes on to reflect on the pull back to the homeland.

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Hardi writes devastatingly about the Iraqi state’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds, drawing directly on her research in the central ‘Anfal’ sequence. ‘Gas Attack’ offers a mother’s account of “a chalky-yellow powder” settling on exposed skin, her own and her son’s. The boy dies, groaning “like a calf”, the mother still blinded, unable to see him or “say goodbye”. Hardi’s language is always sufficient to the task – plain, direct, rising to the occasional metaphor, natural enough to suggest a witnessing voice. In ‘Dibs Camp, the Women’s Prison’, another mother who has already lost husband and daughter, holds her son in her arms as he dies suckling on a green slipper because he has asked for a cucumber and “is beyond // knowing the difference”. ‘The Angry Survivor’ introduces a different perspective as yet another mother rails against the intrusion of journalists, officials, activists who want to probe her story, or as she puts it, “pick my wounds”.

The position of the researcher is a vexed one openly considered in this collection. The ‘Anfal’ sequence is begun by the researcher’s voice, earnest, naïve and well-meaning. It concludes with ‘Researcher’s Blues’ in which she is now haunted permanently by the women’s voices so that “all I can do is / pour with grief which has no beginning and no end”. Such hyperbolic language is carefully measured to the devastating subject but the impact of such traumatic events on a non-participant is perhaps better dealt with elsewhere in the collection in more autobiographical pieces. In ‘My English Years’ the narrator sketches the story of a mixed marriage in decline. One of the points of contention is her research which leaves her feeling “dispossessed”. The husband tires of what he sees as her obsession with “victimhood”, then he also grows “fed up with me” (‘Our Different Worlds’).

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The irony of a poem like ‘Before You Leave’ – flinging out imperatives demanding that language, landscape, neighbours, parents must not be forgotten in exile – is that it is precisely these things that are never really abandoned. ‘Blackout’ records a more ordinary scene, a woman lying on a flat roof on a hot summer night. As the electricity is cut, her husband stumbles around in the dark below in yet another of those “ruptures” that seem to be the condition

 

[of] life going wrong –

a house disappearing after a bomb,

a loved one not waking up from sleep,

villages being erased from a map

 

That such occasionally generalized images stand for a universality validated by lived and carefully researched experience means Hardi’s readers may lower their critical defences. It’s brave and right of her to reflect her own life’s travails in these poems as it is always the individual’s experience that is trampled by state power and any re-statement of its importance is a political act.

Everything Burning: Review of Maitreyabandhu’s ‘Yarn’

I love to follow the development of a poet’s work. This is often imaged as the finding of a voice but is really a process in which the poet brings into focus what centrally concerns them and sheds what is extraneous. A recognisable voice may be a secondary consequence of this but it is achieved through technical advances and deep thought about poetic predecessors and possible role models. Maitreyabandhu’s second collection, Yarn (Bloodaxe, 2015) is fascinating from this perspective.

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Born Ian Johnson in Warwickshire, Maitreyabandhu was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1990. I once started a review of James Harpur’s  Angels and Harvesters (Anvil, 2012) by saying that I wanted contemporary poetry to address spiritual matters, so I was obviously excited to get hold of Maitreyabandhu’s first book, The Crumb Road, when it appeared in 2013. Given my rather narrow line of expectation, I suppose was a bit disappointed. But the book is full of vivid colloquial detail, many poems about childhood and a moving account of a homoerotic relationship between two young boys which ends with the death of one of them. The crumb road of the title is the Hansel and Gretel trail back to the past rather than a trail of stations towards spiritual enlightenment, though ‘Visitation’ is an awed encounter with something like that: “I saw you, in the mess of things, / [. . .] as a slant of grey”. The book was a PBS Recommendation, rightly praised for its melancholy modesty, quiet expression, its alert and attentive qualities, its models evidently Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy.

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Yarn develops similar materials. Maitreyabandhu’s poetic technique is even more evident in the range of forms – free verse, rhyme, prose poem, blank verse – employed to great effect. The Warwickshire childhood features again in a section called ‘The yard’ with the father’s wine-making – damson, raison and berry – and his war service, the mother’s involvement in the coach driving business, school, various distant relations. The first book’s portrayal of young love cut tragically short is echoed here in an elegiac sequence to a Buddhist friend, Mahananda. This man’s longer life (his mother’s flight from the Gestapo, his conversion to Buddhism, living in Primrose Hill, his friendships) is touchingly evoked and it is a thoroughly grief-stricken sequence: “what can I conclude on your departure? / that nothing came of it, with everything, / everything undone” (‘Souls’).

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There is a curious echo of this latter phrase in a poem about the Zen Buddhist monk/poet Ryokan for whom the temple bell and old books seem to say “how everything is burning”. Such a sense of the ultimate insignificance of earthly things arises elsewhere in this book and Maitreyabandhu explores such spiritual issues more explicitly here than in The Crumb Road. Though there is often a strong response and pleasure in the natural world, ‘These Days’ suggests “our human calculus precedes / the given world” to negative effect. There is a fearful recognition that what we contribute amounts to no more than “error bred in the bone, the daily rancour / of the mind, / our clever ways to be unkind”. But the erasure of those things that we cling too can be almost as frightening. Nietzsche’s ‘The Parable of the Madman’ (1882) is alluded to, a sponge wiping away the “entire horizon”, yet the consolation (as in the death of a valued friend) can be hard to access: “I strained to see Vajra Guru’s face”. Perhaps the character in ‘The Postulant’ has “closed his eyes on this world” more successfully:

 

When night fell, the space between two worlds

Was all the shape he made, an empty dark [. . . ]

What he thought to be himself he didn’t know:

His pain was all that stopped the worlds unite.

 

But inevitably, what is ultimately not graspable in words is hard to write about and Maitreyabandhu’s often chosen model (the rhyming, song-like lyric voice) can lead to a mellifluousness that over-sweetens a poem, especially when trying to evoke more successful intuitions of “the Lotus Born” and the “illumined image” (‘The World of Senses’).

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But Yarn contains three long yarns or stories in which the voice of the teller plays at least as much part as the narrative of events. This is what is new and particularly exciting in this book and reveals the influence of Robert Frost (not Edward Thomas who tried this early on with ‘Up in the Wind’ (1914) and then dropped it as not fit for his own purposes). Frost’s eclogues (especially in North of Boston (1914)) manage to convey a bleak, anti-pastoral, godless, modern world of death and often inexplicable suffering. One similarity is that ‘The Cattle Farmer’s Tale’ is spoken by a proprietorial, rather self-satisfied farmer (read Maitreyabandhu on the influence of Frost here). Like Frost, Maitreyabandhu immediately catches character and voice brilliantly. He encounters a mysterious figure: “his not pretending / to be meek or grateful to set me at my ease / and, funny thing, it stopped me in my tracks / so for a moment I stumbled on my words”. This is so like Frost’s ‘Death of the Hired Man’ – the enigmatic visitor, the farmer and his wife, the carefully sketched context, the skilful handling of dialogue in blank verse. Maitreyabandhu adds a few songs too but this is in no way a pastiche but a development of a neglected form for different purposes. The visitor is in fact Buddha and though he talks in cryptic terms, the farmer’s rootedness in the land, his evident pride in his worldly achievements, his bossiness followed by regret in dealing with his wife serve to make the Buddha’s pronouncements palatable in the poem’s world:

 

There are two thoughts, Dhaniya [. . .]

one leads to suffering, the other to joy.

The first is yoked to yearning like a calf,

a suckling calf that’s yoked unto it’s mother,

the other’s like a shadow that never parts.

 

So this really is the cattle farmer’s tale – his response to his encounter with a wholly different set of values (he and his wife are in fact deeply impressed by the visitor who stays for a month). The form of the poem allows the reader room to be sceptical in our modern fashion but also to be moved by the insights and wisdom (old fashioned word) being offered.

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The second yarn, ‘The Travellers from Orissa’, is even more ambitious. Bhallika (the narrator) and Tapussa are again farmers, cattle men, who encounter Buddha in their younger days. Bhallika is again a sceptical voice (“I’m not a fool”) but is nevertheless impressed by the Master, who “spoke in a funny way with gaps / between the words as if he’d just been woken [. . .] his smile, / I shan’t forget, was like gazing at the sea”. But this is not an experience he can easily share with others and he resolves to “keep it to myself”. Tapussa’s response is quite different. The poem makes it clear Tapussa’s character inclines him to “yarns” and in the telling they grow “more fantastical each time”. His response to the meeting with Buddha is to cast himself as the rather attention-seeking disciple, who succeeds in becoming something of a cult figure: “his nodding head, how he held his finger up / each time he spoke to emphasise each word”.

But Tapussa dies, as does Bhallika’s wife and the widower lives on quietly, distantly aware of the Master’s growing fame and influence. At last he meets him again: “I said ‘Master’ before I knew I spoke”. Only now does Bhallika share the details of the original meeting with his son. In fact Tapussa had failed to understand, turning “the whole thing upside-down” to make it all “about himself”. What is moving in this yarn is the fact that Bhallika evidently understood the Buddha’s message (“There is a thorn buried / in the heart of man”) but with his commitment to wife and family and land he “walked back into [his] own life and tried to take it up”. Even years later, he understands “I’d betrayed my life” on that day and with that decision.

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Coleridge’s Mariner and Wedding Guest

Such false and true followers feature in the third yarn too though the human situation is even more finely drawn and prevents any simplistic response to the questions it raises. In a still sketchy but more Westernised context (Sunday morning church) it is ‘Aaron’s Brother’ who narrates. Like Tapussa, it is Aaron who is the more overtly spiritual figure, famously suffering visitations and visions. But there is again a self-regarding quality in the way he readies himself for church before the mirror, “combing his hair”. The story is told to an unnamed guest – there’s much of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner here – who is eager to speak to Aaron and not much interested in his brother. But the brother is in fact adopted and has further secrets to disclose of a homoerotic love between himself and Aaron and (he implies) this partly fuels Aaron’s interest in his young male acolytes.

The treatment of these ingredients of a far grander and dramatic tale than Maitreyabandhu wants to develop suggests a powerfully imaginative act by the poet, the kind of thing Keats admired in Shakespeare. In this third yarn in particular, there is no irritable reaching after facts and clarity; it is a poem which explores the perhaps irresolvable tensions  between the spiritual and the sensual life, the spiritual and materialism and fame, the spiritual and our mundane earthly loves and commitments. I’m interested that Maitreyabandhu has not yet attempted such renovations of the Frostian form in a more overtly contemporary setting. His skills with form and his brilliant capture of colloquial speech, his obviously profound engagement with Buddhist thought and his commitment to poetry as a form of expression make him a unique figure in the UK literary landscape and I really look forward to discovering the direction and innovations of his next collection.

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Maitreyabanhu

The Abecedary Form / Carolyn Forche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translating Transtromer: Fulton v Robertson

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

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

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Tomas Transtromer, an early photograph

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

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

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

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

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

tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.

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

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

extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.

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

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

They stand close up in a throng, waiting,

a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

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

They crowd in close, attentive:

this audience of cancelled faces.

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

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

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

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

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

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