On the Importance of Considering Nothing #2

Last week I blogged the first part of a longer essay first published in the Spring 2017 issue of Poetry London. What follows is the second half of it. The whole piece starts and ends with thoughts prompted by my experiences with my father and his growing dementia. Dad has since suffered a series of heart attacks and died on May 24th. I am re-producing the essay unchanged in the hope that it still says something of value about types of ‘confusion’ and in memory of a man who would have had little time for such morbid reflections. Thanks to Tim Dooley who commissioned the essay for Poetry London and published it under the original title: A Straining Eye Catches no Glimpse.

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In Part 1, I linked my father’s forgetfulness and confusion with recurrent references to “nothing” in King Lear and to Anne Carson’s concept of “the dementia of the real”. I suggested this was also a correlative of Yves Bonnefoy’s interest in the “state of indifferentiation” he often refers to as “Presence”. For Bonnefoy, Presence contrasts the conceptual/linguistic world through which we most often move and we take to be real.

Part 2

Yves Bonnefoy’s poem ‘Wind and Smoke’ (from The Wandering Life (1993)) has the abduction of Helen as its nominal subject. But he allows the poem to be taken over by dissenting voices, irritably seeking to “explain, to justify, ten years of war”. Such an expense of men, ships and spirit (argues one such “commentator”) must have been for the sake of something more permanent than the merely human figure of Helen. The poem entertains the suggestion that she herself was never abducted, “only an image: a statue”, something of great beauty to be displayed on the terraces of Troy, a fixed image of Helen, blessed with permanence, “always [. . .] this smile”. The poem is concerned then with the limitedness of the conceptual view which finds worth only in things of assured, definable permanence. In contrast, Part One of the poem ends with a proliferation of images of “spilling”, lovers as “clouds” or “lightning” on an “earthly bed”, so fully involved with time that their pleasures in the moment are “already empty, still full”. [i]

 

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Helen of Troy (Red Figure Vase)

 

There’s that paradox again and Bonnefoy’s versions of it articulate the impossibility of capturing Presence because it encompasses and exists in time (and language wishes to stop time):

 

Every time that a poem,

A statue, even a painted image,

Prefers itself as form, breaks away

From the cloud’s sudden jolts of sparkling light,

Helen vanishes [. . . ][ii]

 

The “jolts” here are akin to Lily Briscoe’s “jar on the nerves” as our paradigms and preconceptions are challenged. The figure of Helen has become that visionary experience – for Bonnefoy usually of beauty, for Carson more often a violent disturbance – that we intuit exists just beyond the range of our usual instruments. Helen, the poem argues, “was only / That intuition which led Homer to bend / Over sounds that come from lower than his strings / In the clumsy lyre of earthly words”.

Part Two of ‘Wind and Smoke’ concludes with a child, an image of the poet, the last person to see the figure of Helen as Troy burns:

 

singing,

He had taken in his hands a little water,

The fire came to drink there, but the water

Leaked out from the imperfect cup, just as time

Ruins dreams and yet redeems them.[iii]

 

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Traditional image of Laozi

 

This same image of water slipping from our human grasp is recurrent in the Ancient Chinese writings that make up Laozi’s 4th/5th century BCE text, the Daodejing. Since they were published earlier this year, I have been reading my versions of these texts up and down the country and the one thing audiences want to say about them is they contain “wisdom”.[iv] It’s an old-fashioned word but it’s also bound up with the nothing that is really a fuller something we seldom manage to grasp. The Daodejing texts use water as an image of the ineffable One, the plenitude that lies behind all things. They employ water metaphors in such a way that the vehicles are clear and recurrent (ocean, pool, river, stream) but the tenor remains an empty set, never defined. So Chapter 1 deploys water imagery but is clear about the short-comings of all language: “the path I can put a name to / cannot take me the whole way”. Even what can be named can only be grasped through further metaphors: the “nursery where ten thousand things / are raised each in their own way”. What lies behind the phenomenal world can only be gestured towards through figures such as “mould”, “source”, “mystery”. Even then it’s “a riddle set adrift on a mystery”. The original Chinese text shifts its metaphors rapidly in just this way and this is what gives this opening Chapter the peculiar sensation of telling a clear truth that remains beyond our grasp. Chapter 14 puts it this way:

 

because a straining eye catches no glimpse

it is called elusive

 

as the ear attends but latches onto nothing

it is called rarefied

 

since a hand reaches but clasps only thin air

it is called infinitesimal

 

and these are resistant to further analysis

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The difficulty of grasping this something that seems nothing is revisited in Chapter 4. There, the tenor of the metaphor is reduced to “it”, the context indicating this refers to the Dao itself, the One, that state of wholeness and plenitude towards which the path of the Dao leads. The opening formulation emphasises the Dao’s infinite nature, its resource as “a vessel to be drawn from / one that never needs to be re-filled // the bottomless source of all things”. But the image is revised a few lines later in the form of a question: “is it rather a pool that never runs dry”, yet this follows four other metaphorical formulations of the Dao’s beneficial effects: “fretted edges are smoothed within it / knots untangled all dazzle eased / all blinding clouds of dust slowly cleared”. The poem calmly declares its own ineffectiveness: “we cannot know it as a bodiless image / it must pre-date every beginning”. Even the concept of origin or beginning is not adequate to convey the nature of the Dao. But the fluidity of water – impossible to grasp, capable of taking any shape, a life-giving source – comes close.

That there is wisdom to be gained from such visionary encounters with the mystery of nothing is clear in Chapter 66. It’s no coincidence that these lines can serve as a commentary on Lear, his suffering bringing him low till he realises he has paid too little attention to the “looped and ragged” nature of his own nation:

 

—how do rivers and seas secure mastery

over the hundreds of lesser streams

through lying lower than they do

 

so to govern or teach you must stand

and acknowledge you are beneath the people

to guide them put yourself at the rear

 

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But as Auden suggested and Chinese tradition affirms, such visionary insight cannot be actively sought or taught. This is one of the points of the traditional narrative trope in Chinese poetry of ‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’. Don Paterson turned this into a good joke in a poem called ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’.[v] The reader’s eye descends from this lengthy title only to look in vain – it’s a blank page. Perhaps Paterson had been reading the Penguin Classics selection of Li Po and Tu Fu.[vi]  The Li Po selection opens with the poem ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. But such poems were never just an excuse for descriptive nature poetry but related to the frequent ‘spirit-journeys’ that Li Po was fond of writing. We are all like that student in Li Po’s poem, seeking out certainties and facts, a something to depend on when true wisdom gently (or violently) deflects us away from shelter towards a world where we glimpse a more full-blooded, full-bodied, open-minded encounter with what really is.

 

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Iain McGilchrist

 

I have really been talking about two attitudes to knowledge or to put it more carefully, two contrasting “ways of being”.  This is how Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary (Yale, 2009) expresses it.[vii] McGilchrist argues parts of the human brain deliver quite different kinds of attention to the world. The left brain perceives the world as “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented [. . .] grouped into classes”.[viii] This is the attitude to knowledge and education the anxious student of Li Po’s poem possesses as well as the place where most of us live amongst Carson’s clichés and Bonnefoy’s conceptual language. In contrast, McGilchrist associates the right brain with the perception of “the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected”[ix] yet one at risk of being perceived or judged as a mere confusion, a seeming nothing.

This is the view of the Daoist master whose teaching evokes the as-yet-uncarved block of wood, who teaches best without words. Ordinary language usage, dependent as it is on conceptual thought, is left-brain work – ordering, categorising, re-presenting the minute particulars of the world as they are perceived by the right brain. Li Po’s teacher is surely hiding somewhere beyond the cherry blossom – and this is part of the student’s lesson. Don Paterson’s blank page represents a rather glib, post-modern joke, a scepticism about language in danger of throwing out the interconnected but bewildering “dementia” of the real world along with the suspect tokens and counters of left-brain language: “To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth [. . .] or much worse, that there is no such thing as truth”[x]. Bonnefoy, engaging in his own battles with the early stirrings of French post-modernism, declared: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us.”[xi] The right brain knows this and it’s from there we want to write poems; the left brain serves to fragment it, utilise it, get it under control, disappear it. And yet . . . there’s no much here suitable for a chat with a forgetful father. His visions are more frightening and may get worse; here, for a while, his son has been imagining ways of seeing that need not be so.

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Notes

[i] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, pp. 197-203.

[ii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 201.

[iii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 203.

[iv] Laozi, Daodejing, versions by Martyn Crucefix (Enitharmon, 2016). All quotations are from this version.

[v] Don Paterson, God’s Gift to Women (Faber, 1997).

[vi] Li Po and Tu Fu, selected and translated by Arthur Cooper (Penguin Classics, 1973).

[vii] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (Yale UP, 2009), p. 25.

[viii] McGilchrist, p. 31.

[ix] McGilchrist, p. 31.

[x] McGilchrist, p. 6.

[xi] Yves Bonnefoy, The Tombs of Ravenna, tr. John Naughton (1953; PN Review (No. 226, Nov-Dec 2015), p. 62).

The Bow-Wow Shop’s Aspects of Orpheus

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Last week I was pleased to be involved in the first of the on-line journal Bow-Wow Shop’s evening events in Clapham. Its focus was the figure of Orpheus: What is it about the story of Orpheus and his pursuit of his dead wife, Eurydice, into the underworld that has so inspired generations of artists, writers and composers?

Editor of The Bow-Wow Shop, poet and Independent arts and culture journalist, Michael Glover organises and he programmed a terrific mix of material. Ann Wroe’s 2011 book, Orpheus: the song of life (Cape), explores the roots of the Orphic story and traces its many manifestations through Classical to modern times. I was lucky enough to read with her at an event at Lauderdale House a couple of years ago. In Clapham she was in conversation with Marius Kociejowski. I was there on the strength of my 2012 translations of Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus (Enitharmon Press). Providing musical illustrations of the power of the Orpheus story were mezzo-soprano Lita Manners and guitarist Paul Thomas. There was also an exhibition of prints by Tom de Freston, creator of OE, a graphic novel on the Orpheus material.

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Lita and Paul performed extracts for Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), songs by Vaughn-Williams and from the 1959 film Black Orpheus. Marius interviewed Ann though she needed little prompting to discuss several aspects of what is a wonderfully original book. Rilke’s inspired writing of the Sonnets to Orpheus (1922) form a thread through the book but she steered clear of that and concentrated more on the first evidence of the myth in the 6th BCE: a painting in black figure on a Greek vase, pictured with a huge lyre that almost seems part of him. Already at that early stage he is called ‘famous’. A 13th century BCE Cretan vase perhaps images him, again with the super-sized lyre (denoting divine powers, his music powerful even over inanimate objects birds, trees). Elsewhere he seems imaged as a bird himself – the power of song and music so strong that he must take on the attributes of a bird-god.

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Perhaps even further back, Ann suggested, the figure is based on fertility myths, perhaps of Indian origin. His wife Eurydice likewise is linked to the figure of Persephone, the whole narrative in its original forms reflecting ideas of the seasons, death and re-birth of the earth, the crops. But there remains something irresolvable about the Orpheus myth – this polyvalent quality is one of the reasons for its productive quality in terms of inspiring artists. We kept recurring to the question: why must Orpheus turn as he is leading Eurydice out of the Underworld? The story contains its own tragedy. Ann suggested one interpretation might be to do with the fact the Eurydice represents the mystery of the natural world, or perhaps of knowledge/speech about the natural world, and that must necessarily remain hidden. Such a thing is the remit of the Gods alone. Orpheus must leave the Underworld empty-handed.

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I spoke about Rilke in 1921, settling into the Château de Muzot in the Swiss Valais. How he liked to walk in the garden with its orchards and roses in full bloom, a landscape often evoked in the sonnet sequence which eventually arrived. He later declared that in the month of February 1922, he ‘could do nothing but submit, purely and obediently, to the dictation of [an] inner impulse’. In an extraordinary inspirational period, between the 2nd and 5th of that month, most of the 26 sonnets of Part One of Sonnets to Orpheus were written. He then polished off the ten year old sequence of the Duino Elegies. Between the 15th and the 23rd, Rilke went on to complete the 29 poems of Part Two.

Perrcy Bysshe Shelley wrote a longish fragment on the myth in 1820:

 

His [song]

Is clothed in sweetest sounds and varying words

Of poesy. Unlike all human works,

It never slackens, and through every change

Wisdom and beauty and the power divine

Of mighty poesy together dwell,

Mingling in sweet accord.

 

Here, as often, Orpheus is an image of the (male) artist/poet as well as being an image of our desire to find or create order or harmony in the world about us.

Rilke’s inspired poems brim with optimism and confidence about the role of poetry. In contrast, but more typical of the growing 20th century gloom, perhaps with intimations of a second world war, 15 years later – Auden’s brief 1937 poem ‘Orpheus’ is mired in uncertainty, asking “What does the song hope for?” Is it to be “bewildered and happy” – a sort of ecstatic but unthinking bliss? Or is it to discover “the knowledge of life”? No answer is given. The poem ends: “What will the wish, what will the dance do?” This is the Auden who doubts the power of poetry – it makes nothing happen – in his Elegy to Yeats.

And more like Auden than Rilke, the 20th century tended to take a more sceptical view of the myth – giving a more powerful voice to the traditionally passive Eurydice – more critical of Orpheus as careless, self-centred, weak. For example, in 1917 – 4 years before Rilke arrived in his chateau, H.D.’s Eurydice was condemning Orpheus:

 

for your arrogance

and your ruthlessness

I have lost the earth

and the flowers of the earth

 

Such radical revisions come also from more explicitly feminist poets like the American, Alta:

 

all the male poets write of orpheus

as if they look back & expect

to find me walking patiently

behind them, they claim I fell into hell

damn them, I say.

I stand in my own pain

& sing my own song

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Carol Ann Duffy’s revision (in her 1999 book The World’s Wife) gives Eurydice both poem title and narrative perspective. Her Orpheus is:

 

the kind of a man

who follows her round

writing poems, hovers about

while she reads them,

calls her his Muse,

and once sulked for a night and a day

because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns.

 

She saves herself from having to accompany Orpheus back to the upper world by offering to listen to his poem again. Orpheus, seduced and flattered, turns. “I waved once and was gone” she comments.

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In this context Rilke’s take on the myth is (not surprisingly) very traditional and brimming with confidence in the role of the poet and patriarchal sidelining of Eurydice. So Rilke’s interest lies with the world and the underworld, life and death. He is more like Shelley who set his fragmentary poem after the loss of E and it’s coming through that experience that seems to add power to his song. Rilke is interested in the idea of transition. Orpheus tries to recover Eurydice; he moves from life, into death and then back again. This fluidity, the courage and a readiness to renew ourselves, to be risked in the absorption with something other, to be translated from one realm to another, to come and go, to be and not to be is what draws Rilke to the myth.

This is also Don Paterson’s thinking behind his versions of the Sonnets in Orpheus (Faber, 2006). He argues Man is unique in having foreknowledge of his own death, meaning we act as if we are already dead, or historical. This means that we construct life as an authentic and intelligible narrative, a life with meaning, but it is death that drives the plot of our life. This is one of Paterson’s key ideas and he refers to it as our ‘ghost-hood’. So we are like Orpheus: we too have descended to the land of the shades and then returned to the present moment – our condition is therefore existentially transgressive, riven, divided.

It’s the singing of the Orphic artist that addresses and bridges such divisions. This explains Rilke’s interest in the Orpheus myth: its narrative is a metaphor for the longed-for transit or communion between the realms of life and death. He possesses the desired ability to inspire the renovation of human perception that can initiate a more comprehensive, joyful and celebratory experience of life. One of the things most people know of Rilke is his exhortation to praise. Praise is a form of secular prayer for Rilke and it demands a renovation of conventional language through Orpheus’ song – as also noted by Shelley in Prometheus Unbound:

 

Language is a perpetual Orphic song,

Which rules with Daedal harmony a throng

Of thoughts and forms, which else senseless and shapeless were

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Orpheus’ singing as a way to think about the language of poetry can clearly be seen in Rilke’s celebratory sonnets about the garden at Muzot. Here’s my translation of sonnet I  13:

 

Pear and plump apple and gooseberry,

banana . . . all of these have something to say

of life and death to the tongue . . . I guess . . .

Read it in the expression on a child’s face

 

as she tastes them. It comes from far off.

Slowly, does speechlessness fill your mouth?

In place of words, a flood of discovery

from the flesh of fruit, astonished, free.

 

Try to express what it is we call ‘apple’.

This sweet one with its gathering intensity

rising so quietly – even as you taste it –

 

becomes transparent, wakeful, ready,

ambiguous, sunny, earthy, native.

O experience, touch, pleasure, prodigal!

 

Rilke’s vigorous and self-conscious mutations of the sonnet form create a variety of rhyme schemes, line lengths, iambic and dactylic pulses. David Constantine has described this as suitably fitting forms for the figure of Orpheus because he is himself a figure of transition, fluency and mystery.

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Forthcoming Bow-Wow Shop events in Clapham will focus on the work of Edward Lear and Gabriel Garcia Lorca.

2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3: Ruby Robinson

This is the third in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press) – click here for my review of this book
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press for providing a copy of Ruby Robinson’s book for review purposes.

It wasn’t until his second book that Don Paterson was inviting his reader into the “little church” of the poem. Ruby Robinson’s first book’s opening poem ushers us in through “the trap / door of a modern barn conversion” and though full of apparent comforts (paintings, chairs for guests, soup, bread, socks, duvet) it’s really a decidedly unnerving place. The walls are explicitly said not to have eyes, but the narrative voice surely knows too much about us: our loneliness, right down to our “deepest thread, like a baked-in hair”. And even if the walls do not watch, they are full of the “shadows of stags [. . .] cast like stalking giants”. There’s a lot in Robinson’s book which reminds me of another debut collection from way back in 1983 where the lovers describe themselves as “fascinated by our own anaesthesia, / our inability to function”, the TV buzzes half-watched in a corner, emotions grow ever more dysfunctional, “shorter and faster now”, and there is talk of separation in halting, heavily punctuated non sequiturs.

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That was Michael Hofmann’s Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983) and Robinson’s book shares an interest in disconnected scientific facts to express the troubling gulf between thought and feeling. One of Hofmann’s characters moves “the fifty-seven muscles it takes to smile” and Robinson’s ‘Time’ sets out from the knowledge that with a stethoscope a rodent’s heart murmur can be divided into “constituent beats”, spurring the lovers to analyse themselves as closely, as if that might reveal something important about their emotional lives. Stethoscope and heart-beats recur in ‘Love’ where again the biological processes of nerve impulse and ventricles are searched for something resembling meaning. ‘Breathe Deep’ does the same with the stomata on the undersides of leaves and this close observation (of a certain type) lies behind the collection’s title. The process of ‘internal gain’ occurs when we are under threat and is an increase in our perception (of sound especially) so that we hear Every Little Sound. As with Hofmann, Robinson’s attention to detail – a sort of hyper-perception – is really a symptom of a soul in trouble. Reading these poems is often like watching a fragment of material caught on a barbed fence, trembling and thrilling hopelessly in the wind.

The world of Every Little Sound is a thoroughly deracinated one – most everything has been torn up by the roots. Amongst snow, bluebottles, the word ‘thanks’, the remains of a kebab, ‘Hope’ notes “one IKEA bag like a dead bird whose wings won’t die”. All these items, hardly more than listed, seem to be thrown “overboard” into uprooted, meaningless chaos yet the human mind still despatches its uncertain “search party”. The emotional impact of many poems in the book lies in this: the continuing desire to make some sense in the face of chaos. In the midst of a discussion of romantic feelings, a narrator reflects, “I am // in touch with my feelings” but the line-break subverts the truth of the statement and the poem ends in disconnects of feeling, a brusqueness of tone, the brutal chopping of punctuation: “I could tell he felt like crying / and I didn’t mind. We finished our beer, shook hands, went home”.

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Another poem’s narrator talks of her “nerve endings in exile (‘Love II’) and in ‘This Night’ (which might be a distant parody of Lorenzo and Jessica’s “In such a night” speeches from Act 5 of The Merchant of Venice) the narrator confesses she is “more in love tonight, with ideas / and arbitrary things, / than I am with you”. Even in the throes of sexual ecstasy, there remain “two glazed eyes, observing it” (‘Orgasm’). ‘Winter’ uses both right and left justified lines to create an unnaturally evenly-spaced robot-toned prose passage about keeping a tortoise in the fridge through winter. This is where the real originality of these poems is to be found alongside several pieces which evoke the inevitable consequence of such deracinated perception – the fragmentation of the sense of self. Robinson has named Ted Hughes as one of her influences and, in one of the best poems here, ‘Unlocatable’, we hear him in the representation of psychic fragmentation through the physical. The narrator records her dismemberment at her own hands; at one point “a crow on a hard shoulder / delicately inspect[s] the entrails”. Her head is sawn off until the self lies in fragments, “half-witted, unpicked, flaked / out, half a leg, a spewing mouth, brittle hair, / scooped-out heart”.

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There are moments in the book when this sort of Hughesian shrillness and hyperbole-ramped-past-10 is reached for too easily. But ‘Unlocatable’ also  hints at the real life grounding for the edge-of-panic, urgent, deadly serious nature of Robinson’s shattered vision. In the poem’s penultimate stanza we are told:

 

My mother, somewhere,

like a drowned fish on the very end of some

fucker’s very long line

smashing herself against the floor

to an unnatural beat

 

To her great credit Robinson does not use past dislocations in her childhood and family relationships to pursue poetic confessionalism or misery memoir. This potentially gossipy backdrop is aptly sketched only in a fragmentary manner across several poems (the reader left to piece things together as must the family).

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‘Truth’ seems to be an ars poetica of sorts and it is the finding of the mother’s voice “behind the sofa”, the gathering up of this “small voice” and handing it round (as poems?) that spurs the writer on. In particular, the mother’s experiences seem to find echoes in other people, in the media, in the family. A reference to the “death of a violinist” seems obscure but is surely to Frances Andrade whose history of sexual abuse by a music teacher led to her suicide. As I’ve said, the exact events of the mother’s life are left unclear but there is no doubt that men have played a destructive role. One of the more explicit poems, ‘My Mother’, records tragically self-destructive attitudes in her belief that men “cannot be blamed” and that a woman must “know her place, should wait”. Robinson is more clear elsewhere that comments made by her mother have yielded material for poems (including the book title). The images of men are seldom appealing or sympathetic: both ‘Undress’ and ‘Ire’ suggest manipulative and coercive figures, more often than not treating women as sex objects: “He peeled the duvet away // slowly, dragging heat from the flesh / just as you’d freeze-dry meat or fresh fruit”. Robinson mostly treats these issues on a personal level though in ‘Flashback’ the wider context of sexual abuse and domestic violence comes into view with allusions to Radio 1 DJs, another woman’s suicide, courtroom scenes and the earlier image of the fisherman reappears: “He keeps her on a line like a fish / against a rip current”.

All these elements feed into the major poem in this book, ‘Apology’. This seems more explicit about the relationship between mother and daughter and is a howl of survivor guilt, regret, anger, apologising to her mother that things in their lives have turned out as they have. The book’s jacket blurb talks about the poems’ expressions of connectedness and a capacity to love but it has to be said there is precious little of these themes and most of what there is comes in ‘Apology’. Written in spilling, rolling 3/4 line sections (like Ginsberg’s Howl perhaps) the narrator obsessively apologises (mostly for things beyond her control, of course): “I’m sorry you’ve had to withstand such torrents of knowledgeless advice and legal toxification”. More than anywhere else in this painful book, this poem manages to ask, “Is it too ambitious to hope?” The answer given is not reassuring or confident: “We learn to accept the clouds for what they are and wait, patiently”. For the end of a major poem this is undramatic and anticlimactic but Robinson’s aim throughout is more concerned with telling the truths as she and her family have experienced them than with crafting something more consolatory. The final poem is addressed ‘To My Family’ and enacts an interesting withdrawal from such painfully personal material. Robinson retains/regains an artistic distance that augurs well for future collections which will have to draw inspiration from other materials. There is a quiet, deserved, hard-won confidence here: “I’m just words. And you have not the tenacity / to smother me, so I’ll wait here, written, biding my time”.

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What Have I Been Reading: July – September 2015

Up-dated September 2015

Don Paterson’s 101 Sonnets is certainly a varied selection of the form (it strikes me it would be a good, coherent text for students to study). The editor is never short of an opinion, ranging from the good sense of “Academics, in particular, have talked an awful lot of rubbish on the subject of rhyme” to the much more questionable “the whole point of [a] poem – that it should lodge itself permanently in our brains”

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That the novelist Ursula K Le Guin should be a fan and translator of Lao Tzu’s 81 ancient poems/chapters known as the Tao Te Ching is perhaps less surprising than the fact that her translation is one of the most enjoyable around (and I’ve been reading plenty of them in preparation for my version’s appearance next Spring).

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Two chunky collecteds have been pre-occupying me in the last month or so. Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems is – by the nature of his aesthetic perhaps – uneven, but almost every page turns up new ways of writing and reading poetry: an invigorating pleasure.

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I have blogged on Bertolt Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 before – in more recent weeks I have been tracking him out of Germany, to Denmark and hence to the USA. Extraordinary how contemporary most of these poems feel, though already 60 plus years old.

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Updated August 2015

John Greening’s anthology of poems about music, Accompanied Voices (Boydell & Brewer),  is a lovely thing, full of variety, full of poems to be re-acquainted with from Hill, Hughes, Longley and Porter and brand new contemporary work including Stainer, Allnutt, O’Donoghue, Reid, Rumens, Shuttle and Greening’s own little gem on John Field (being walked all over by Chopin).

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I tweeted a couple of weeks ago that I found Carolyn Forche’s second collection, The Country Between Us (HarperPerennial, 1982) in a Highgate secondhand bookshop and having raced through the poems before going away I’m now keen to get back to them for a more reflective read.

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Tim Liardet’s poem-sequence of self-portraits, The World before Snow (Carcanet) is actually motivated and (to some degree evokes) an illicit trans-Atlantic affair. The poems have the density and intensity of Liardet’s previous work with an even greater fertility and fluency of imagination.

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On Narrowness, Claire Crowther’s third collection from Shearsman is a chewy, twisting, sometimes vertiginous read; that’s another way of saying I don’t know what’s going on half the time. But the poems are confident in themselves and leap boldly from one image to another.

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Up-dated July 2015

I find Yves Bonnefoy’s writing unfailingly nutritious though sometimes wonder if his ideas are at least as exciting as the classically restrained lexis of his verse. Beverley Bie Brahic’s 2013 translation of The Present Hour (2011) has Bonnefoy in sonnet-shaped Wordsworthian mood recalling his childhood, writing enigmatic prose pieces and a thought-provoking (because not always easy to follow) essay, ‘In a Piece of Broken Mirror’, once again discussing image, dream, reality and language.

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Perhaps is Alan Murray’s Acumen chapbook from 2013 and it quotes Nietzsche’s observation that the word ‘I’ is the point at which our ignorance begins and several poems do press at the boundaries and mysteries of the self. Murray is a philosopher as well as poet and his colloquial, skilfully turned verse sounds Larkinesque in its precision and equivocations. Great to read poems unafraid of complex ideas.

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Sheenagh Pugh’s 12th book leaves Cardiff and Wales for the Shetland Islands. Wide skies, rough oceans, bright stars. But I share her obsession with the passage of time and there are some powerful poems here, though I find her historical delvings less enjoyable.

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Collette Bryce’s ultra-brief outing (from 2014) into her childhood growing up in Derry during the Troubles is an object lesson in how to focus a collection (just 30 poems). She writes plain, rather withdrawn poems, but this seems right for the material which is therefore allowed to speak for itself.

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Where’s My Master Gone – Don Paterson v Li Po

Don Paterson’s 1997 book, God’s Gift to Women (Faber) includes a poem sporting the title ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’. The reader’s eye hops off the perch of this lengthy title only to flutter down, looking in vain for a foothold, for a line, even a word – it’s a completely blank page. In a collection that includes a poem called ‘Postmodern’ and another on ‘The Alexandrian Library’, the joke is obvious enough. Any search for ‘masterly’ advice in the Kyushu Mountains or closer to home in a post-modern, relativist world in which language hides as much as it might reveal, must draw a blank. I remember seeing the poem – probably heard Paterson ‘read’ it too – the long title building expectation, a too-long pause, the announcement of the next poem (cue laughter) – and something bothered me. I think now I know what it was.

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I wondered if Paterson had been reading the Penguin Classics selection of Li Po and Tu Fu (tr. Arthur Cooper, 1973). The Li Po selection opens with the poem ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. Cooper’s note tells us that ‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’ is actually a very common theme in Chinese poetry. Such a poem (we are told) is not just an excuse for a “nature poem” but relates to the frequent “spirit-journeys” that Li Po was fond of writing. Here is Cooper’s translation:

 

Where the dogs bark

by roaring waters,

whose spray darkens

the petals’ colours,

deep in the woods

deer at times are seen;

 

the valley noon:

one can hear no bell,

but wild bamboos

cut across bright clouds,

flying cascades

hang from jasper peaks;

 

no one here knows

which way you have gone:

two, now three pines

I have leant against!

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I had come across this poem while compiling my first book, Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990). I liked it for reasons I didn’t then understand and, in a very simple form of translation, I wrote an up-dated version:

 

Looking for an Old Man

 

Where red dogs bark

on the sodium ring-road

and traffic noise

blackens adjacent houses,

I’ve come to seek you.

 

In each garden I pass,

pale heads of bindweed.

The night is undistinguished.

The savour of coalsmoke

flattens across the kerb.

 

No-one here knows

which way you have gone:

two, now three lampposts

I’ve leant against.

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Li Po is the more Daoist of the two poets presented as a complementary pair in this Penguin book. Now, with a bit more understanding of this tradition, I’m sure that 26 years ago I was responding to something at the heart of the poem. The fact that the Daoist master cannot be found by the searching student is precisely the point since the Daoist teacher teaches “in the absence of words” (Chapter 43, ‘Best Teaching’) as I translated it in my version of the Daodejing (Enitharmon, 2016).

Interestingly, Li Po’s poem expresses this not with a blank page but (as Cooper says) through further encounters with “nature” (petals, woods, deer, valley, bamboo, clouds) or, in my version, the natural and urban world (ring-road, traffic, houses, garden, bindweed, coalsmoke, kerb). Whether we designate this a ‘spiritual’ journey or not, the point remains that the student’s search for knowledge in the form of a direct download from some master must be denied. The student’s anxious search for guidance is reflected in the number of pines/lampposts he leans against as well as the geographical over-specificity of the titles of such poems. The student’s dependency and naïve optimism is the satirical butt of the poem as he is directed back to the source of all knowledge (the world surrounding him) even as he wanders in search of his master. So Paterson’s 1997 version achieves three things: it misrepresents the spirit of the original, it’s more dramatic (comic), it’s more superficial.

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When I first read Li Po’s poem I was coming off the back of doctoral work on the Romantics, especially Shelley whose ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821) argues that the “poetry in [our] systems of thought is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes [. . .] we want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know”. This is succinctly put in Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, defined as a passive openness to the fullest range of human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. The student in Li Po’s poem seeks just such certainties and facts and is gently deflected back into the world of observation where (I take it) he is encouraged to pursue a more full-blooded, full-bodied, open-minded encounter with the 10,000 things which (in Daoism) constitute the One, ‘what is’.

The two attitudes to knowledge here are really two ‘ways of being’ as Iain McGilchrist’s fascinating book, The Master and his Emissary (Yale, 2009) phrases it. McGilchrist argues that right and left human brain hemispheres deliver quite different kinds of attention to the world. The left perceives the world as “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented [. . .] grouped into classes”. Shelley described this in 1821 and linked it to the processes of Reason and this is the attitude to knowledge and education that the anxious student of Li Po’s poem possesses. In contrast, what Shelley calls Poetry or the Imagination is what McGilchrist associates with the right brain. It tends to perceive “the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected”.

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Without doubt, this is also the viewpoint of the Daoist master whose teaching evokes the uncarved block, the One, and who teaches best without words. Ordinary language usage is dependent on conceptual thought which is left-brain work – ordering, categorising, re-presenting the minute particulars of the world as they are perceived by the right brain. I imagine that Li Po’s master-teacher and sage is deliberately hiding somewhere beyond the bamboo canes – and this is part of the student’s lesson.

So Don Paterson’s blank page bothers me because – as McGilchrist expresses it – it represents a rather glib, post-modern position, a scepticism about language which is in danger of throwing out the interconnected real world along with the suspect tokens and counters of left-brain language: “To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth [. . .] or much worse, that there is no such thing as truth” (McGilchrist, p. 6). I’m also reminded of Yves Bonnefoy, engaging in his own battle with the early stirrings of French post-modernism. He writes: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us. In what can be felt and sensed”. In The Tombs of Ravenna (1953), he names this underlying truth, not as existence, but as “presence”. The right brain knows this; the left brain sets about fragmenting it, making use of it, disappearing it.

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Yves Bonnefoy

Two Great Days at StAnza Poetry

Writing is always a rough translation from wordlessness into words – Charles Simic

I arrived at about 8pm on the Friday evening. Leuchars station is not close to St Andrews itself and (it made me feel at home) there were roadworks disrupting the usual route so instead of 5 miles it was a 10 mile trip. Actually, it was dark and I had no idea where I was so I’m just quoting the chatty taxi driver here – who also lamented the decline in business in recent years. Lack of local money generally he said and the changing habits of students who go out less, pre-drink more and choose to stumble home rather than call his cab. We waited a few minutes for Pascale Petit’s train to arrive. She’d been travelling for 12 hours (from Cornwall) which made my 5 hour train ride feel like nothing much. Unpacking, I reflected north is a very long way north.

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I was staying at the Greyfriars Hotel but walked up to the Byre Theatre on Abbey Street, the main Festival venue. The headline reading for the evening was Lemn Sissay (who I’d just missed) followed by Don Paterson. I arrived at the interval and the talk at the bar was of a local heckler interrupting Sissay. I never got to hear how he dealt with it but it seemed to say something about the tone of this festival that there was as much talk about inclusion as there was annoyance at the interruption. The auditorium was sold out (typical of this StAnza while I was there – you needed to book your event fast). I had no ticket but Jim Carruth took me to the studio theatre to a live relay of what remained of the event. Paterson read mostly from 40 Sonnets including ‘Here’, ‘Wave’, ‘A Powercut’, ‘Little Aster’ and the curiously moving death-of-a-dog poem ‘Mercies’. He also read aphorisms from an iPad and I remember ‘Poetry is not a vocation but a diagnosis’. And (one for his students, he said) ‘If a poem is read slowly enough we begin to hear things – which – are – not – there’.

I was woken by seagulls in the grey dawn and through a gap in the Greyfriars curtains I could make out a CCTV camera on its right-angled gantry across the road, white and intent and about the size of a large gull. Perhaps I was dreaming. I was reading next morning with Tracey Herd in St John’s Undercroft, a long brick-arched room, with a great acoustic and atmospherically lit. Andrew Jackson generously introduced us and I read most of my A Hatfield Mass sequence which I think of as celebratory poetry about nature, perception, growing up/older, the body. Tracey’s book Not In This World was a PBS Choice and shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize this year and is her first collection for 14 years. She did not read those poems about film stars or racehorses for which she’s justly renowned but powerful, recent poems of loss: “Somewhere, someone much loved is leaving”.

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I was also reading in the afternoon at a ‘Past and Present’ event – where poets talk on writers from the past. This was the first occasion (in the Council Chamber of St Andrews’ Town Hall – where marriages are performed we were told) at which I could read some of my new, just-off-the-press versions of the Daodejing. Pascale Petit was also appearing and she talked about her enthusiasm for Tomas Transtromer, in particular the way in which his poems often use an aerial perspective; from his first published poem: “Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams”. I’m sure she said she’d consulted a Swedish friend who said his surname meant something like crane-over-water – ornithological crane obviously.

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Later in the afternoon, at the Parliament Hall, Fiona Benson and Andrew McMillan read. Benson was nervous in front of the large crowd (and who can blame her) but she was soon absorbed in the poetry itself and her demeanour was not at odds with the work. Sections of ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ (Van Gogh) were read with great intensity. Other poems of pregnancy, miscarriage, birth and motherhood were more moving and (as Dave Coates has suggested) her book’s up-beat title, Bright Travellers, misleads. The contrast with McMillan was not to either poet’s detriment. I reviewed physical on this blog back in July 2015 and his (in various senses) naked poems, even when sad, manage to stir great pleasure in the audience. In person, he adds to this a wise-cracking, witty style of introduction and between-poem chat. Given his marvellous success this year I wasn’t sure why he wanted to discuss some of the negative criticisms he’s had but even that does not prevent me wanting to use that old Hollywood term ‘star’ in listening to McMillan perform.

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Nora Gomringer

It was another sell-out in the Byre Theatre on Saturday evening with an event indicative of the Director, Eleanor Livingstone’s innovative approach to programming (and part of the German poetry emphasis to this year). Nora Gomringer performed work (with percussionist Philipp Scholz) which reminded me at moments of Laurie Anderson, at others of the much-missed Bob Cobbing (who I saw read/sing in London in the 1980s), at all times evoking a jazz-like improvised feel. Quite brilliant. Jo Shapcott had the tricky job of following this and chose to read a number of ‘The Roses’ poems from Tender Taxes, her responses to Rilke’s poems in French. These are a bit delicate and brief to come over very strongly in a live reading and other new poems on pain (but without mentioning the word) I found not easy to appreciate. But the brilliant prose poem ‘Scorpion’, the touching ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ and the finisher, ‘Piss Flower’ ended the evening in style.

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I had a train to catch next day but managed to get to stride along the Chariots of Fire beach early in the morning plus take a peek at St Andrews Old Course before the Poetry Breakfast discussion on translation. Diplomatically and informally chaired by Annie Rutherford, the theme emerged that we ought to think more loosely, more liberally about the idea of translation.  Aurelia Maurin suggested we should think of it more  as we do cover versions of songs. Claudia Daventry opened the field up by quoting Charles Simic’s idea that all poems are translations from silence. Nora Gomringer remembered a professor urging her to find ‘the game’ of any poem she intended to translate not merely to work line by line. She’d been asked to translate Yoko Ono’s poems into German but felt unable to and the importance of the rightness of a translator to a source text was demonstrated when, on another occasion, she’d translated from Russian (I think) and had actually been spat at by a disapproving reader. I was struck – as before – by what powerful emotions the idea of translation stirs up, involved as it is with ideas of truth, honesty and fidelity. I especially liked Daniela Seel’s take on the process, stressing the almost chance meeting of suitable translator with appropriate source text and the way in which the linguistic and emotional ‘body’ of the translator (his/her resources) need to be matched to the varied demands of the source text.

But I had to catch my train and, though exhausted, I spent some of the six hours back re-reading Montale’s loving lament and memorial to his wife, Drusilla Tanzi, here translated by G. Singh:

With my arm in yours I have descended at least a million stairs,

And now that you aren’t here, a void opens at each step.

Even so our long journey has been brief.

Mine continues still [. . . ]

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Montale and Drusilla