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 #5: Harry Giles

This is the fifth and final installment in the series of reviews I have been posting of the 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 Campbell – Disko Bay (Enitharmon Press) – click here for my review of this book

Ron Carey – Distance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book

Harry Giles – Tonguit (Freight Books)

Ruby Robinson – Every Little Sound (Liverpool University Press) – click here for my review of this book

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife (Peepal Tree Press) – click here for my review of this book

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Thanks to Freight Books for providing a copy of Harry Giles’ book for review purposes.

I’d only come across Harry Giles’ work as a Guardian featured poem in June in response to his Forward short-listing. The chosen poem was ‘Piercings’ and suggested Giles was working the same area that Andrew McMillan did so successfully last year. What might be an autobiographical masculine narrative voice recognises a passer-by as an old encounter: “four years since / he hauled me into a lift with / Want to make out?” But the man had then been sporting various body piercings which have since been removed in order to become “employable, less obvious” whereas the narrator has continued making “more holes”, continued to accumulate the badges of a rebelliousness the other has given up on. The final question, “So what do you do now?” is therefore made poignantly redundant, each, surely, reading the tell-tale signs of the other’s body.

But ‘Piercings’ is by far the most conventional poem in Tonguit and Giles is no McMillan, nor does he want to be. On the facing page is a poem made from extracts from One Direction’s Harry Styles’ fanfiction. The title, ‘Slash poem in which Harry Giles meets Harry Styles’, gives a feel for its playfulness though the poem itself does not seem to amount to much. Perhaps it amounts to more if read in the context of Giles’ other manipulations of texts and discourses which have a more obviously seditious intent. The last poem in the collection offers ‘Further Drafts’ of a phrase often used by Alistair Gray: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. Giles works various rhyming turns on the first and last words of this phrase eventually to arrive at “lurk as if you live in the early days of a better sedition”. It’s ‘Harry Styles’, manufactured pop idol and X Factor/Simon Cowell cash cow, that is the real target of Giles’ poem (though it lurks with some seditious intent, it’s still not among his best).

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Giles is interested in the processing of texts, sampling from George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, or creating cut-up texts from information associated with Abu Dhabi’s artificial island and cultural centre, ‘Saadiyat’.  The satirical effects are delivered through simple repetition and disjunction, questioning the original source’s coherence and integrity, where ecological sustainability becomes “a core value integrated into the design approach / in terms of throughout the the the concept design” [sic]. ‘You Don’t Ever Have to Lose’ does something similar with advertising text from IT services company Atos. ‘Your Strengths’ is a more powerful text in its own right, this time using source material from the Department of Work and Pensions Capability Assessment, the UK Citizenship Test and other psychometric tests to make a thunderous barrage of questions ranging from the invasive, absurd, profound, squirm-inducing and piddling to the politically loaded. Giles also works textual legerdemain in ‘Sermon’, based on a speech by David Cameron in which the word “terrorism” is replaced by the word “love”:

 

We must make it impossible

for lovers to succeed. We need to argue

that love is wrong. To belong here

is to believe in these things.

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This processing of texts, often randomly, often derived from the internet or Google searches, sometimes with editorial influence in the final result is presented as politically subversive. As the Tonguit blurb suggests, it derives from the belief that we are all warped and changed by the language/s that surround us and inhabit us. The hope of the lyric poet working towards his/her own truth is devalued, considered delusional, impossibly bound up in Blake’s socio-psycho-political “mind-forged manacles”. We liberate ourselves by breaking these, unpicking or smashing the dominating discourses around us. And if our deliberate intention is already suspect then we must achieve it randomly, perhaps via a machine. It’s a form of surrealism which profoundly questions our use of language and owes a lot to the Oulipian experiments of Raymond Queneau. Giles’ collection title, Tonguit, productively seems to hover between an urgent imperative to individual vocalisation – tongue it! – and more passive implications about the way other people’s language/s oppress the individual – we have been tongued!

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The more imperative mood is obvious in ‘Curriculum’ which takes aim at normative education and gives it both barrels:

 

Mix me a metaphor of noble gases,

economic engines and avant-garde

taxonomies, with Kingdom Phylum Order

gone to bloody Dada. Get down and dirty

 

with transects, quadrants.

 

There is a Wildean element to this sort of systematic over-turning though there is no doubt about Giles’ seriousness beneath the often funny, ludic quality of these poems and there is none of Wilde’s self-regarding quality. Harry Giles himself – as a recognisable, recurring, coherent, autobiographical figure – is curiously absent from most of these poems though I don’t doubt the sincerity of a poem like ‘Waffle House Crush’:

 

I’ll have you smothered n covered

diced n peppered n

capped n lathered n

lustred n smoothed n

spread

 

Giles’ various linguistic masks don’t hide so much as free him into more liberated forms of expression. I’ve deliberately not yet mentioned his most obvious, deliberately chosen mode of expression: what he calls his own “mongrel and magpie” form of Scots. Dave Coates has pointed out that, as in Kathleen Jamie’s The Bonniest Companie, Giles provides no glosses in the book on his particular Scots, “an implicit assertion of the language’s place within the broader spectrum of Englishes”. Giles’ Scots sets itself deliberately against discourses like those of the DWP and Atos as a declaration of variousness. Nor is he averse to something like a declaration of war:

 

Let’s be arsonists. Let’s birn the year.

[. . .]

Let’s mak like airtists

n birn the leebrars [libraries] acause we shoudna, n birn

Pairlament acause we shoud.

 

What follows is an apocalyptic conflagration of all things, down to the “thocht o fire”.

But the sheer vigour of Giles’ intent means his Scots is a lot harder to follow than Jamie’s. In fact, he does provide his readers with a full gloss/translation on his website. I needed this to be honest to deal with a lot of the Scots text, though the ‘translations’ then read as somewhat awkward, watered down versions of a quite different language (rather than a form of English). But it is worth the effort to really appreciate the tour de force of national- and self-assertion that is ‘Brave’. Like some Highland Whitman, making himself and his nation through singing (I’m losing some of the lay-out here):

 

A sing o google Scotland

o laptop Scotland,

o a Scotland sae dowf on [dulled by] bit-torrentit HBO

drama series n DLC packs fer

paistapocalyptic RPGs

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But also the Scotland “whit chacks the date o Bannockburn on Wikipaedia” and fears “o wan day findin oot / juist hou parochial aw hits cultural references mey be”. ‘The Hairdest Man in Govanhill’ takes all the clichés that phrase might suggest and instead describes a man who “has thay lang white scairs on / baith sides o his mooth fae smiling that damn wide” (my italics). This is of a piece with the Cameron subversion as we hear that the man is “that bluidy haird he’s a hairt tattoed wi Dulux on his bicep n aw hit says is A LUV YE”. There’s a risk of this getting as caricatured as the cliché it intends to subvert but Giles’ Scots is put to terrific seditious intent in ‘Tae a Cooncillor’ – a kind of one-sided flyting in which the local councillor who wants to close down a swimming pool is mocked mercilessly:

 

Wee glaikit, skybald, fashious bastart,

whit unco warld maks ye wir maister?

Whit glamour has ye risin fest as

projectile boak?

Hit’s time tae gie yer feechie fouster [nasty fester]

an honest soak.

 

This is committed, bolshie, rebel-script done with great skill and immense energy but Harry Giles is too interested in too much to settle merely for this. I was interested in his Scots (or rather specifically Orcadian) versions of a few chapters of the Laozi’s Daodejing. He astutely titles these ‘Aald rede fir biggin a kintra’ [Old advice for building a country] again recalling Alistair Gray’s dictum. The opacity of the language makes Giles’ versions a hard read but (if I may) here’s his boldly economical version of chapter 53 (some indentations lost here again) followed by my own recently published version:

 

53

a bit wittins

whan waakan the wey

are a rod tae dree

 

the wey is snod

an fock cheust fancy the ramse

 

govrenment divided

sheens growen-up

kists empie

but heidyins’ claes are braa

thay’ve barrie blads

are stecht wi maet

gey rowthie

 

caa this the darg o reivers

an no the wey

 

Crooked avenue

chapter 53

 

—perhaps you have begun well

one step after another along the way

 

yet you walk in fear of side-tracks

the great way running level and plain

 

still who can resist those side-tracks

soon as good governance is in place

 

we’re liable to neglect our business

too soon the tall barns lie empty

 

sooner wear fashionable clothes heels

daggers for glances glut on food and booze

 

have more than we can sensibly use—

dawn breaks on some crooked avenue

 

what was it happened to the way

 

Tonguit is a bubbling cauldron of a book, willing to take risks that don’t always come off, but guided by a belief in the need to challenge the assumptions and languages of the status quo. Harry Giles is a fascinating figure (go to his website here ) and his characterisation of his Scots as “magpie” is as much applicable to his multifaceted work in theatre, software, twitterbots and visual arts, all forms of “art about protest and protest about art”. Whether contemporary poetry, as in books like this one, will prove sufficiently interesting and flexible for his creativity remains to be seen.

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i.m. Yves Bonnefoy: love the bouquet for its hour

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The death of Yves Bonnefoy (on 1st July 2016) was marked last week by The Guardian and The New York Times and many others. Anybody who has followed this blog for a while will know that I have found considerable inspiration in Bonnefoy’s poetry and writing about poetry. John Naughton in The Guardian obit sums up the nub of Bonnefoy’s thought: “we tend to replace the reality of things and other people with an image or concept, which deprives us of a more direct and immediate experience he called the experience of “presence”, in which one has a fleeting apprehension of the essential oneness of all being”. That latter phrase will explain how I have stumbled my way in recent years from translating Rilke to versioning the texts of the Daodejing.

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The NYT obit suggests Bonnefoy’s poetry has often been found “highly abstract and often obscure” and to counter this misleading impression I thought I’d post four sonnets from his 2011 collection L’heure presente (The Present Hour) in Beverley Bie Brahic’s pellucid translations. Bonnefoy is thinking of his own father here (who died when the poet was young) but the valedictory tone seemed right for the occasion. Bonnefoy translated a great deal of Shakespeare and (in part – he’s also arguing with Mallarme) the fourth of Bonnefoy’s sonnets is in dialogue with the ideas of Sonnet 63 (“His beauty shall in these black lines be seen, / And they shall live, and he in them still green”). It’s a mark of Bonnefoy’s achievement that even in such an emotional, personal context, he can still articulate ideas about language (“words cut”) and the way in which “the real flower becomes metaphor” by bleeding the temporal and in doing so yields up a great deal of what it means to be real. Instead, we must “love the bouquet for its hour. / Only at this price is beauty an offering”.

 

A Photograph

This photograph—what a paltry thing!

Crude colour disfigures

The mouth, the eyes. Back then

They used colour to mock life.

 

But I knew the man whose face

Is caught in this mesh. I see him

Climbing down to the boat. Obol

Already in his hand, as if for death.

 

Let the wind rise in the image, driving rain

Drench it, deface it! Show us

Under the colour the stairs streaming water!

 

Who was he? What were his hopes? I hear

Only his footsteps descending in the night,

Clumsily, no one to give him a hand.

 

 

Another Photograph

Who is he, astonished, wondering

Whether he should recognise himself in this picture?

Summer, it seems, and a garden

Where five or six people gather.

 

And when was it, and where, and after what?

What did these people mean to one another?

Did they even care? Indifferent

As their death already required of them.

 

But this person, who looks at—this other,

Intimidated all the same! Strange flower

This debris of a photograph!

 

Being crops up here and there. A weed

Struggling between house fronts and the sidewalk.

And some passers-by, already shadows.

 

 

A Memory

He seemed very old, almost a child;

He walked slowly, hand clutching

A remnant of muddied fabric.

Eyes closed, though. Oh—isn’t believing

 

You remember the worst kind of lure,

The hand that takes ours to lead us on?

Still, it struck me he was smiling

When, soon, night enveloped him.

 

It struck me? No, I must be wrong.

Memory is a broken voice,

We hardly hear it, even from up close.

 

Yet we listen, and for so long

That sometimes life goes by. And death

Already says no to any metaphor.

 

 

I Give You These Lines . . .

I give you these lines, not that your name

Might ever flourish, in this poor soil,

But because trying to remember—

This is cut flowers, which makes some sense.

 

Some, lost in their dream, say ‘a flower’,

But it’s not knowing how words cut

If they think they denote it in what they name,

Transmuting flower into its idea.

 

Snipped, the real flower becomes a metaphor,

This sap that trickles out is time

Relinquishing what remains of its dream.

 

Who wants now and then to have visits

Must love the bouquet for its hour.

Only at this price is beauty an offering.

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Here There Now Then – A Touch on the Remote

There are occasions when events from the past seem to become so fully present in the moment as we live it that it’s as if a gulf has been bridged between them. It’s a sort of redemption – though the events themselves may need no redeeming. What is salved is the permanent vanishing of the earlier through the intensity of attention accorded it by the later, perhaps especially so if our attention is manifested in language, a poem. There is an aspect here of Seamus Heaney’s idea of the redress of poetry which I ought to figure out more clearly.

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But I was left with thoughts such as these last week, having read for Dawn Gorman’s Words and Ears series of poetry readings in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. We’d set it up many months ago and I had been looking forward to it especially as this is close to my home town, Trowbridge, and my mother’s childhood and adolescence were spent in Bradford. I was also delighted to be reading with Linda Saunders who has just published a new collection with Worple Press, A Touch on the Remote. I’d had a few meetings with Linda many years ago (in the 1980s) when she would go up to Oxford to visit my old friend and mentor, Tom Rawling. There were several workshops at his house, I think, in that peculiarly intense summer sunshine of the past, full of hope and literary expectation. Like much of Rawling’s work, the opening sequence of Saunder’s new collection is composed of poems concerned with acutely observed landscape – in several cases observed with an almost visionary sense of history . . .

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Linda Saunders

My mother was christened Bernice, first child of Graham and Elsie Hale in 1922. Her sister, Gwen, quickly followed. There was no immediate prospect of their leaving the White Hill house which was a one-up, one-down with attic. The two girls had to share the middle room with ‘Gran’ (as they called Elsie’s mother, Rhoda). They walked up White Hill to school at Christ Church. They skipped down to the sweet shop, to the ‘bake house’, to the centre of town. On Sundays they climbed Coppice Hill to the Methodist church and Sunday School.  In good weather, the two girls hooked their arms over the iron railings outside the house with Elsie in the doorway warning them not to stray far. They jumped up and down the high kerb stones, played whips and tops on the steep, quiet street. On wet days, they stared through the front window, across the roofs of the town below to the spire of Holy Trinity. Bernice was badly ill with scarlet fever when she was eight years old and for a long while afterwards was so weakened that she had to be helped everywhere in an old pushchair.

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Saunders’ own strong sense of history can be seen in ‘Washing the Horses’ where the narrator watches people who “sleek soap-lather” on their horses’ wet hides. A bit later, the horses dry off on the bankside, “bays, pintos, strawberry roans, a shetland / with a foal no taller than an Eohippus. // This has been happening forever”. In ‘The Bridge at Iford’, a couple kneel as if in a ritual act, “like pilgrims” to watch the water flow under the bridge, themselves being watched by statues of “Greco-Roman deities”. Then the arrival of a newly-betrothed couple for photographs at the picturesque scene leads to thoughts of the future too – “Live happily. I think to them in passing, / ever after – the wish as ultrasonic as / the pipistrelle’s twitter”.

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The Bridge at Iford Manor

The narrator’s image of the pipistrelle bat’s piercing signal could serve as one of the key images in Saunders’ work. Elsewhere she jokes about the onset of deafness: “Something I say, something she said / flies past us into the wood” (‘Hidden Valley’). It’s these forms of strained/successful communications across time and across distance (with a son living in the USA) that also provide material for a later sequence of poems: “I see him stepping over the door sill / across a crack of time” (‘Into the Blue’).

We would squeeze into the Standard 10 to visit my grandparents on Winsley Road, Bradford. It was a dark, terraced house which had an immense front garden with a pleasingly straight path from the front gate to the door in the centre of the facade. This path was lined with planted borders, the earth heaping up from the lower level of the path and there were roses and vegetables elsewhere and I am sure an allotment somewhere. At the back of the house was a tiny yard containing the outdoor toilet, a fascinatingly musty dark cramped garden shed, a sweltering little green house which seemed always full of tomato plants. There was also a raised piece of grass – you could not call it a lawn – where we tried to play football or cricket but the risk of the low walls was really too great. Instead, we often played on that long front path; Corgi cars pushed to and fro as we breathed in the acrid-sweet smell of lush cushions of blooming white alyssum.

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Saunders’ background is in History of Art as well as literature. You can see this in ‘Reserve’ where she describes the processes of a painter preparing the ground for an object on the canvas, in this case an apple. The poet is interested in the absence, the vast potentiality before the object appears: “There are moments I sense // the inter-touch of me with everything – / this unselving reach”. During the Words and Ears evening, I read a number of poems from my Daodejing versions which also suggest that such an “unselving” might prove a happier and more fulfilling line to take in life. With our own “unselving”, the more aware we become of our surroundings, our context in both space and time.

It is Saturday tea – laid out on the living room table. There is a second front room hardly ever used which, if you open the door and peer in, feels chilled, dark, a little musty and formal and a baffling waste of space. We sit round the table and eat sandwiches, perhaps crumpets, malt loaf, Victoria sponge or the pink and yellow check of Battenberg cake which I loathe because of the marzipan covering. Nan or Mum often slice the rounded ribbed milk loaf that I have never seen anywhere else, turning it on its end and slicing horizontally, perilously.

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In ‘Love Portrait’, Saunders describes a window on another canvas as yet “unpainted”. She wonders “could this be the light that slips / past time”. Because the artist has yet to define it, perhaps this is also the light that communicates between times.

We wore short trousers, of course, and I still can feel the way the thick dark tablecloth with its tasselled edges brushed my thighs making me want to scratch them. Elsie’s husband, Graham, was a quiet mild man, always limping because of a shrapnel wound in the leg from the battle of the Somme. He sang in a local choir, had worked all his life at Nestle in Staverton, gardened keenly and seemed a loving husband and father though to us he was a rather remote, taciturn grandfather. Just once he exploded at us for something I have now forgotten – perhaps just making too much noise or not clearing the table of toys or drawing books quickly enough when he wanted to swing the heavy cloth across it in readiness for the meal. Given his generally gentle demeanour, his blazing, brutal anger astonished and appalled us.

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The final poem of Saunders collection is ‘Stepping Stones’. Another artist, a sculptor this time, makes “foot-shapes of stone”: “The child found them one at a time, / spotting the next from where she stood on the last / up to her thighs in seedheads and buttercups. / Where will they go? she asked the sculptor”. They lead onwards inevitably into the next moment, then the next – but to live wholly in the present, only in a language composed of present participles, is a form of dementia, a quite different and destructive form of “unselving”. Our making sense of things requires our awareness and exploration of the temporal.

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.

A bundle of 50 sticks for William and Juliet

Last Saturday I travelled down to Chepstow to read at an event organized by William Ayot who, with his wife Juliet, runs the On the Border series of readings. They tend to bill a Welsh poet with A. N. Other; I was the latter and Richard Gwyn the former. Richard runs the Creative Writing MA at Cardiff University and is a brilliant poet and translator from the Spanish (especially South American poetry). He read some heart-stoppingly powerful new work from three Mexican poets recently published in Poetry Wales and some of his own prose poems from Sad Giraffe Café (Arc Publications). I read from my translations of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and also extracts from The Time We Turned.

Richard Gwyn

On the train down I was again reading Lee Harwood’s work (see my last blog post) and came across ‘Days and Night: Accidental Sightings – a bundle of 50 sticks for Joseph Cornell and others’. I’ve put together my own loose bundle of sticks as a modest thank you to William and Juliet for their hospitality in their extraordinary house, their passion for poetry in its widest sense, and that marvellous coronation chicken!

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A bundle of 50 sticks for William and Juliet

At the track side willow belts always unkempt trunks leaning some broken

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luminous blue sky in early May

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On a diversionary loop the train slows as if to allow the doe standing knee deep in meadow grass to watch us as we pass we watch her

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She wears muddy walking boots and has brought out a flask of something hot

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clipping tickets he is careful to be polite though from those upgrading to First Class he has had money already

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‘why do you do this’ the effect is never quite the same twice

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In a faded green t-shirt a man walking with arms folded across his chest as if he had breasts he hoped to steady

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mud-brown canal waters held eight of nine feet high behind a lock gate

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An upturned wheelbarrow on a long houseboat its purple paint job a statement of optimistic intent

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Words carve out sense as tractor tyres embrown the field’s new growth each year their lines down the hillside conclude at an iron gate

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I feel with each mile nearer home I mean nearing the place I grew up in

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Hills like the scarp edge of Salisbury Plain wait O this is not a likeness this is ‘the actual place’

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a diversion to a chalk white horse full of memories

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the Tory heartlands a tractor slowly turning over the ground

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I ring home and wake my sleeping parents

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‘Let’s make flying fun again’

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a basket of split logs waits for the fire

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On a wooden writing desk three animal skulls

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‘quietude not inquietude’

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Nine owl feathers in a china mug a sort of chalice

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A glazed bowl with an assortment of matte pebbles from the beach

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His son spoke out but the police were in bed with the FARC who saw to it he and his friends were tortured and killed can you believe it

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I like to work I prefer to work with those who want to want to stop

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a tall poplar tree like an exclamation mark he wrote as if to say this is it

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One skull another skull then another skull beside another skull

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rose gardens and orchards

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If they haven’t killed enough by their early 20s they’re losers whose life expectancy is anyway no more than 24

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Down to the underworld but returns if somewhat empty-handed he does return

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mausoleums for themselves a cult of death

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Bluebells in the hedgerows on either side of the road

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left hand short by two digits his wife’s wrist broken by a fall

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shut-eyed Blake above the flat-screen TV seems to offer the room a challenge

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the watercourse way

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Everything is a fiction the novel in your shoulder bag is the bank statement you use as a bookmark inside it that too

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The narrative of the oh-eight crash there are other ways for it to be recounted that’s not a joke

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Oppositional to a large degree I guess we are not pebbles from the same beach but it’s more than just rubbing along

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A chimney balloon

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On-line so many ‘friends’ devastated by the surprise results

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It’s staying in places like this makes me feel a Londoner

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He waves his paddle to let the train go then flips it up inside the back of his orange hi-viz jacket and pushing the handle into his back pocket it’s safely stowed

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A speck of thistledown drifting up the aisle

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attentiveness

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banked blue rectangles squat in meadows to scoop the sunlight

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Dirt is matter out of place but this is not dirt it is marvelously out of place

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Red kite above the monkey puzzle

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on an elevated hillside ahead yellow rape now level with me receding away behind

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In tunnels my ears close as if valved

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either that or everything is a metaphor I see myself turning socks inside out little involved packages

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What will Rose and Richard be doing this morning

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Wishing Iolo courage for his father’s passing

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Lee Harwood’s ‘The Orchid Boat’ reviewed

I’m ashamed to confess I’ve read little of Lee Harwood’s work before, though I’m sure my old friend and poet Keith Jebb has been telling me to do so for years. Since finding this book, I’ve rushed on to the Shearsman Selected Poems with great excitement. Lee Harwood was born in 1939 and grew up in Surrey. He has spent the majority of the past 35 years living in Brighton. In a writing career that began in the early 1960s, he has published over 20 volumes of poetry and prose, as well as translations of Tristan Tzara. His work has been widely anthologised and his Collected Poems (also Shearsman) appeared in 2004.

Exterior shots in The Orchid Boat (published by Enitharmon) are full of sketchy paths, remote horizons, fogs and mists; similarly, interiors sway, hide or semi-reveal with fabrics, curtains, drapes, dresses, veils. Come to think of it, these latter images are exactly right for much of Harwood’s work as the reader seems often to be moving through lucid, well-lit spaces that are partially obscured by hangings, veils impossible to identify with any clarity, suspended above, but from what and to what end is unclear. On the other hand, I don’t want to suggest that your reading of these fantastic poems will be a disembodied or disembodying experience: Harwood is a very sensual writer and I can feel the stones on his paths beneath my feet, the heft of his furniture, the texture of a dress. If veils do fall about me they are always specific, as tactile as they should be, silken, velvet, embroidered, studded with glass and jewels. There is so much to enjoy on the journey.

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One of the more subtle, ironising veils Harwood deploys is his habit of enclosing lines in inverted commas. Here’s the opening of ‘Ornithology’: “A wall of dense fog ahead / – blocked, all knowledge denied. / ‘The flying bird brings the message.’” In some writers, such a device would read as an abstracted and overly-intellectual exercise in confronting one discourse with another, but Harwood’s use of it is always far more human. There is a dialogue implied, a companionship, or at least an internal conversation occurring. The intended effect is achieved but is something as much felt as understood: a destabilising of the objective view and, of course, this is what all the fog and mist is about. World is hard to know. But Harwood’s birds, to take one example, though they may be remote and elusive, are definitely there: “As the mist shifts you see swallows set on a wire, / a wagtail bobbing on a rock”.

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Uncertainties in The Orchid Boat are temporal as well as spatial. In ‘New Zealand Playback’ voices are cross-cutting again: “‘I don’t want to be here’ // stumbling around in and out of history. // No answers to that one. // ‘You should get out more.’” The latter phrase also suggests one of the things I really like about Harwood’s work: it never wanders far from the spoken, colloquial voice, however complexly layered the over-arching arrangement of phrases may be. The poems explore what can be known and what cannot and the resulting movement is to “Zig-zag around, as usual” as ‘Sailing Westwards’ expresses it. The voyage, the far horizon, appears to be one way of putting it; the mountain path with its uncertain fog-shrouded cairns, is another. Either way, the one certainty is that “We just don’t know the full story”.

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The orchid boat itself is brought into view in the beautiful poem ‘Departures’. A summer night, the sound of rain, swaying curtains, a female voice, an implied intimacy between a man and a woman, but perhaps all this was “years ago”. Yet even if a memory, it is vivid as in a mirror. But such reflections are already one step away from the thing itself and there rises the lure of fixing such experiences, our human need to do so. It’s in this context that the orchid boat appears to represent the workings of our desire to protect the provisional nature of what we know and feel. “How to imagine an orchid boat? / It gets harder. But days come and go”. The boat, always boarded without “thinking” over much, carries us “beyond all mirrors”. Though age seems to increase the allure of fixity (we grow more frightened as we grow old), Harwood believes both age and childishness are states of mind rather than temporally-defined cell blocks. So ‘Childish’ presents a free-running phantasmagoria of Wordsworth-worth cleansed perceptions, concluding: “the red handrail of the pagoda / glistens with raindrops”. There goes the ghost of Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow too.

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Indeed, Williams is a better comparison than Wordsworth. Harwood is often associated with the New York School, with Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. Personally, I’ve always found Ashbery’s work hard to like much because (actually more like Wordsworth) there is too much of the egotistical, of the centripetal force, too much pressure from within, too little from without, too much abstraction. I prefer the way Harwood’s poems float more centifugally. They travel outwards spatially, to and fro temporally: “I’ll stamp my foot / and, checking the rear-view mirror, / head for the frontier” (‘The Books’).

There is in Harwood always the desire (and it is partly erotic) to tune in to the fullness of experience, its full presence and contradictoriness: “To stand back from the bare times – alive and alert” (‘Palaeontology’). The adjective “bare” here probably means that slimmed-down, rationalised, processed version of human experience we glide absent-mindedly though every day (a processing done in large part through the magical powers of language). In the same vein, ‘A Steady Light’ evokes the dusty orderliness of a museum with its “robes and rituals and attempts at clarity [. . . ] all copied, copied again, amended, copied again”. In the face of such suffocating restriction, to be “alive and alert” is an aspiration for Harwood, a daily hope, an occasional thrill, an anticipation of the drawing of the veil:

A curtain stirs in the tired room

while the same breeze slowly shifts

the hangings in the nearby hospital.

Distant sounds from the streets below.

Get up from the couch or chair.

Walk across the room to stop by the window.

The air heavy with the heat of summer.

Much more of Harwood’s work is available through Shearman who publish his Selected as well as a Collected 1964-2004.

Another review of The Orchid Boat, by Robert Sheppard, is available here