Poem as MRI Scan: Lieke Marsman’s ‘The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes’

downloadLieke Marsman’s The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press, 2019) is an unlikely little gem of a book about cancer, language, poetry, Dutch politics, philosophy, the environment, the art of translation and friendship – all bound together by a burning desire (in both original author and her translator, Sophie Collins) to advocate the virtues of empathy. The PBS have chosen it as their Summer 2019 Recommended Translation.

It’s Audre Lord who is the presiding spirit here, the woman with whom Marsman is in most frequent conversation. Lord’s The Cancer Journals (1985) recorded her response to the disease: a sharpened realisation – an underlining – of life’s transience and, consequently, a more acute sense of “act[ing] out of it”. She also refused to allow her response to the disease to “fossilise into yet another silence, nor to rob me of whatever strength can lie at the core of this experience”. Marsman (and her translator Sophie Collins) takes up this challenging baton to produce a busy, intelligent, funny, chatty and touching sequence of poems, an autobiographical essay and 10 concluding letters from Collins, the whole text responding to Marsman’s own diagnosis of chondrosarcoma at the age of 27.

download (1)The sort of silence Lord fears is evoked in the monitory opening poem. Its unusual, impersonal narration is acutely aware of the lure of sinking away into the “morphinesweet unreality of the everyday”, of the allure of self-imposed isolation (“unplugg[ing] your router”) in the face of the diagnosis of disease. What the voice advises is the recognition that freedom consists not in denial, in being free of pain or need, but in being able to recognise our needs and satisfy them: “to be able to get up and go outside”. It’s this continuing self-awareness and the drive to try to achieve it that Marsman hopes for and (happily) comes to embody. But it was never going to be easy and towards the end of the poem sequence, these needs are honed to the bone:

 

There is nothing I need to see

Except, again and again,

A new day with you

 

Marsman’s poems are usually very free in form, sparsely punctuated and (unlike the opening poem) give the impression of an intimate address by a sensitive, self-aware, curious and well-educated woman. This makes the moments of frank disclosure even more powerful: “I am just so scared of disappearing [. . .] I desperately need to hear / from other sufferers”. The vitality in the poems belies the exhaustion of the ill person who lacks the energy even to sort her recycling, who watches “Eurosport replays / of alpine skiing” all afternoon and for whom tying her own shoelaces becomes “the stuff of poetry!” Such rapid shifts of tone are important in conveying the resilience of the patient – more than that they suggest the true nature of the individual who is (this is Marsman’s point) more than a mere patient.

It’s this restless interest in the world that accumulates slowly to portray the individual and – against all the odds – makes this book such a pleasurable read. The poems are only partly about cancer or rather cancer is only part of what the poems are interested in. We hear fragments of conversations (‘Identity Politics Are a Fad, You Say’), then meditations on irrationality and evolution and luck. ‘Treats’ ends with thoughts about Wittgenstein’s ideas concerning language games (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”) but ends with Marsman’s characteristic blend of intelligence, self-awareness, humour and pathos:

 

Whereof one cannot speak,

Thereof one forms silent gestures

Or bursts into tears.

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Lieke Marsman

Elsewhere, the individual’s interest is swept up into gender politics, multiculturalism, reality TV shows, upscale housing developments and the political hypocrisy of the Dutch state. In the autobiographical essay that follows the poems, Marsman explains: “I had to write about politics in order not to be totally subsumed by the cancer”. This also meant she was continuing to preoccupy herself with things that interested her before the diagnosis. It also had the effect of taking her out of herself (cancer, she says, “hurls you into yourself”). Such an interest in the multiplicity and variousness of the Other proves a beneficial way out of “a very lonely experience”.

This is the point about empathy made more systematically in the prose section which is pointedly titled ‘How Are You Feeling?’ In the final lines, Marsman puts it plainly: “What I do know is that the suffering of others is not something to be judged, ever, and that the right question to ask someone who is going through something difficult [. . .] is not ‘What’s in this for me?’ but ‘How are you feeling?’” This might seem to have the air of obviousness about it, but the preceding pages have documented depressing numbers of counter examples. The initial prose sections provide a pretty straight account of a young successful woman who sees the only likely danger for her as stress and “burn-out”. It makes her – and many of the medical practitioners she initially sees about a painful shoulder – fail to see there is a serious problem. On re-reading, I began to see this also as a failure of empathy, a failure to listen in to one’s own body. And there are certainly signs that Marsman (and Collins in her later letters) see the medical profession’s slow up-take as partly due to a lack of true empathy: “not only your age but your gender had an impact on the way you were perceived and treated”.

9780141187129Marsman tells us she read Audre Lord and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor after her operation and discharge from hospital. It’s Sontag who draws attention to the role of language in the way patients themselves and other people respond to cancer. Marsman asks herself: “Am I experiencing this cancer as an Actual Hell [. . .] or because that is the common perception of cancer?” The implied failure to achieve truly empathetic perception of the role and nature of the disease is echoed horribly in the empathetic failures and hypocrisies of Dutch politicians (UK readers will find this stuff all too familiar in our own politics). Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, blithely allocates billions of euros to multinationals like Shell and Unilever (on no valid basis) while overseeing cuts in health services. Marsman reads this as a failure to empathise with the ill. Another politician, Klaas Dijkhoff, reduces benefits on the basis that people encountering “bad luck” need to get themselves back on their own two feet. Bad luck here includes illness, disability, being born into poverty or abusive families, being compelled to flee your own country. Marsman’s own encounter with such ‘bad luck’ makes her rage all the more incandescent.

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Sophie Collins

Marsman’s texts are about 35 pages long in this Pavilion Poetry edition. The remainder of the book consists of Sophie Collins’ letters. This might look like padding but the letters not only raise interesting points (particularly about the practice of translation) but are at one with Marsman’s pleas for a social fabric that enables “mutual, consensual and willing exchange[s]” between its citizens and its power structures. The epistolary form has this sort of open, empathetic exchange at its heart. In fact, the phrase I’ve just quoted is from Collins’ discussion of translation. She argues against the idea of ‘fidelity’ in translation because of the implied power relationship in such a word: “‘fidelity’; implies the presence of a primary source of power”. Traditionally, this would be located in the source text or source author; a power to which the (secondary) translator must defer. Collins wants to propose a more equal partnership, one she wants to call ‘intimacy’: “a mutual, consensual and willing exchange between two or more subjects without referencing (an) authority at all”.

Translation as an act of intimacy seems right to me, though it might appear easier to achieve this with a living source author than a dead one. But Collins really means “developing a sincere engagement with the source text, author and culture”, a ‘getting close’, so – quoting Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – the translator actually “speak[s] from inside”. This is a timely re-statement of a view of translation that, in these days where versioning and textual appropriation is so common, can be lost sight of. Collins goes even further here than the great Michael Hamburger, who was in the habit of saying the translator puts herself at the service of the source text. Collins sees the practical reality, that any translator herself is always going to be “fixed in a particular moment [. . .] will never, ever be a neutral entity” so however much we serve our source, the translator must always be bringing something of herself too: translation is an intimate engagement, a series of negotiations, an on-going drama of the most complex empathies.

Collins points out that this view of translation is one particularly fitting for the kind of work presented in this book. Marsman’s voice has the marvellous accessibility and liveliness of a conversation: “there is a deep intimacy in the way you seek to connect with your audience [. . .] the amount of credit you give your readers”. Her writing is both “accessible and smart”, says Collins, and this is just right. I might also add ‘uplifting’ – not only because Marsman’s personal prognosis looks good but because between them these two authors have produced a remarkable hybrid sort of book, grown from the astonishingly rich soil of empathetic response to others, expressive of a range of human intimacies as well as a variety of angers at the way individuals – and society – too easily succumb to blinkered self-interest and self-immuration.

#WADOD – Day 10: March 10th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

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Sunday 10.03.2019

‘when I say’

 

when I say I smell mud

under your uncut fingernails

the stench of mud in your mouth

the sweet rot rising from the understairs cupboard

smelling becomes a veil

 

the moment I tell you I hear the car alarm

beneath the announcer’s voice

I hear ice cracking in a blue crevasse

the drilling in a neighbour’s wall

hearing becomes a veil

 

if I say I have tasted

the remnants of salt on the rim of a glass

taste salt in the small of your back

licking honey from the thumb

of a clover floret taste becomes a veil

 

if I say I touch the most recent bruise

on my mother’s forehead

blue in the light of the late ambulance

or the raised rash of eczema on her arm

touch becomes a veil

 

when I set it down here that I see

a mother and child that I find webs and traps

beset the late-flowering roses

I see the slug’s gluttonous moneyed trail

even sight becomes a veil

 

and I snatch up the salt shaker from the table

I start babbling of corruption

all the bridges down

 

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Tearing Up Grass: on Holderlin’s Life and Madness

Hesperus Press are just about to publish Will Stone’s eminently readable and wonderfully grounded translation of a contemporary account of Friedrich Holderlin’s madness. This is a long essay by Wilhelm Waiblinger, written in Rome during the winter of 1827/8. It’s an astonishing and very moving document for those interested in German Romantic and Modern poetry or in early accounts of mental illness or – as I am aware is my own case – for those who will instantly recognise, in these brilliant and detailed observations, some of the behavioural elements of what we now loosely refer to as dementia.

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Holderlinturm

The essay first appeared in 1831, ironically only a year after its author’s death, though still a dozen years before its subject’s demise. Stone’s excellent introduction tells us that Waiblinger was an up-and-coming poet of the 1820s, “a rebel, a wayward fellow and a liberal maverick”. He studied at the same Protestant seminary (the ‘Tubinger Stift’) where Holderlin had studied from 1788 with Schelling and Hegel (imagine that team on University Challenge). But by 1806, the older poet had been confined to his tower in Tubingen (the ‘Holderlinturm’) because considered incurably mad. Waiblinger began visiting him in the summer of 1822. For four years, he saw Holderlin close-up, walking with him, trying to talk with him and enduring some pretty wild-sounding piano playing too.

41+WrUaV5pL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Waiblinger was a real Holderlin fan. The older poet’s novel, Hyperion, had appeared in 1822 (I review a recent translation of it here) and the younger man found it “saturated with spirit: a fervent fully glowing soul swells there” He was swept away: “Holderlin shakes me to the core. I find in him an eternally rich form of sustenance”. The mad poet in his tower was not often amenable to being visited, but Waiblinger, for some reason, proved an exception: “This lunatic, sitting at the window [. . .] is far closer to me”, the young man wrote, “than the thousands out there who are said to be sane”. Stone makes it clear that Waiblinger not only admired Hyperion but voiced the need for Holderlin’s other poetry to be re-published. Gradually, having fallen into obscurity, “his special hymnic style, fusing Greek myth and Romantic mysticism” eventually started to attract new admirers including Nietzsche, Schumann, Brahms, Rilke, Hesse, Trakl, Benjamin and Celan.

Initially, Waiblinger seems to have intended to document: “It is not my place to offer some profound psychological insight, but rather to limit the quest to simple observation, a modest character sketch”. Filling in Holderlin’s earlier years he notes the uniqueness of his work in his “enthusiasm for Greek antiquity” which “left [its] mark on the tonality of his own creations” and led to a sense “of discontentment with the land of his birth”. This kind of sentiment dominates Hyperion and Waiblinger (sounding a bit prissily patriotic here) finds it elicits in him “a certain repugnance”. Waiblinger also reminds us of Holderlin’s doomed affair with the already-married Susette Gontard (the model for the Diotima figure in the poems and Hyperion). He sees the termination of the affair as the main contributory factor in Holderlin’s decline: “The coddled youth, lulled by the sweet intoxication of this love entanglement, was suddenly pitched back into bitter reality”. From here on, Holderlin was to carry “a fracture in his heart”, a wound barely transformed in Hyperion which Waiblinger reads as documenting “an unnatural struggle against destiny, a wounded mawkishness, a black melancholy and an ill-fated perverseness [that] cleaves a path into madness”.

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Wilhelm Waiblinger

No doubt the end of the affair did deeply affect Holderlin, but Waiblinger’s drawing a direct line from it to the ‘Holderlinturm’ is probably a bit simplistic. Sheltered from the “bitter reality” outside the tower, Holderlin continued to write letters in prose and verse. Given the period, it’s not surprising to hear Waiblinger describe the mockery of locals who caught Holderlin out walking – and good to hear that the old poet responded with mud and stones thrown at his attackers. Yet his behaviour was often like that of a small child: “When he leaves the house, they have to remind him in advance to wash and groom himself, for his hands are habitually soiled from spending half the day tearing up grass”. This tearing up grass seems to have been a common occupation as does, while out walking, flapping his handkerchief against fence posts. All the while, “he talks incessantly to himself, questioning and responding, sometimes yes sometimes no, and often both at the same time”.

One of Holderlin’s other occupations in his madness was re-reading his own Hyperion. He would read aloud, exclaiming “Wonderful, wonderful!” then go on, pausing only to remark, “You see gracious sir, a comma!” In true Romantic style, Waiblinger notices that the mad poet is more calm and more lucid in the open air: “he spoke to himself less [. . .] I was convinced this unceasing monologue with himself was nothing more than the disequilibrium of thought and his inability to gain significant purchase on any object”. For those who have witnessed a relative or friend suffering from dementia, this is a familiar thought and familiar also, perhaps, is the recourse to the phrase “It’s of no consequence to me” which Waiblinger heard repeatedly from the chattering Holderlin.

Playing a piano still gave him some pleasure it seems, beginning in childish simplicity, playing the same theme over and over hundreds of times. On other occasions, almost in spasmodic fits, he’d race across the keyboard, his long, uncut fingernails making an “unpleasant clattering sound”! He would also sing with great pathos – though not in any identifiable language. Holderlin’s family had completely abandoned him in his madness, but Waiblinger records him writing to his mother in the style of a child, “who cannot write in a fully developed way or sustain a thought”.

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Friedrich Holderlin

In fact, Waiblinger suggests that Holderlin’s difficulties lay in mental weakness rather than full-blown insanity. He is “incapable of holding a thought, of giving it clarity, of following it and linking it to another by way of analogy and thus to articulate a distant idea in a regular consistent sequence”. He has another go at describing what he imagines must be going on: “He wishes to affirm something, but since reality [. . .] does not concern him, he refuses it at the same moment, for his spirit is a realm which sustains only fog and what is feigned”. This is partly evident because of Holderlin’s habit (in his madness) of thinking out loud, so Waiblinger believes he can hear a thought being consumed even in the moment of its conception. In the grip of such fluidity and terrifying fog, Holderlin then would shake his head and cry out ‘No, no!’ and begin “firing out words without meaning or any signification, as if his spirit, in a sense overstretched by such a drawn-out thought, could restore itself only by having his mouth issue words which bore no relation to any of it”. Holderlin retreats from his own incoherence into the comfort of sheer random association.

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Will Stone

The results are inevitable for the patient and (again recognisably) yield up a fierce, walled-in, self-involvement. Waiblinger describes a “complete lack of participation in and interest for any events outside himself”, and this, alongside an “incapacity to wish to grasp, recognise, understand, to allow in another individuality other than his own”, means there is no possibility of rational communication with the patient. And such solitude – experienced from the inside – results in such boredom that “he needs to speak to himself”, though lacking the ability to follow one thing with anything coherent, the result is “diabolical confusion” and mere “gibberish”. So it’s with some surprise that we find Waiblinger ending his essay with any thought at all of Holderlin’s recovery. He admits it’s unlikely – but does allow himself (surely consoling himself) with imagining an occasional “momentary restoration”, though even this might only be brief, perhaps no more than a fleeting prelude to the moment of death.

But perhaps such imagined lucid moments are less than consoling to those who spend time observing such distress. Leafing through his papers, Waiblinger says he discovered a quite terrifying phrase. Holderlin at one moment had scrawled down, “Now for the first time I understand humankind, because I dwell far from it and in solitude”. It is almost unbearably moving to imagine such flashes of conscious insight coming to the old poet in the midst of so much mental confusion and perceptual fragmentation. What Waiblinger here describes feels bang up to date and yet must be as old as the hills. Will Stone has done an important job in bringing this essay into English.

A new translation of Brecht’s ‘Of poor B.B.’

Having posted last week about Brecht’s poem ‘Of poor B.B.’ it felt pretty inevitable that I should have a go at translating it myself. Though it can’t always be the case, most translations are like this – undertaken as a tribute to the original poet and poem, a public declaration that this fascinated me, an attempt to really work out how the text functions and achieves its ends. Disseminating the text to the target language’s reading public is also an aspect of this tribute paid.

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David Constantine, writing in Modern Poetry in Translation (No. 2 2015) about Derek Mahon’s recently published translations (Echo’s Grove (Gallery Press, 2013)) considers the “liberties” Mahon tends to take with such work to produce “almost” original poems in English while allowing their sources to remain audible. Mahon does this by working from “cribs of one kind or another” and Constantine suggests that this has become a very common practice. Indeed, “Mahon practices the belief that you don’t actually need to know well or even at all the languages you translate out of; even – a possible sub-text – that knowing them might be a disadvantage” (MPT, No. pp.111-113). As someone who was remarkably poor at languages at school, this is something I have found myself saying in recent years since going public with a few translations (for example, see post on translating Rilke). I like to think of the source poem as a series of gestures – like a dance performed by the original author – so the translator must try to achieve similar effects but with his/her own body (of language). A crib will guide me to the main movements, even to much of the details, but tone, emotional colour, shades of irony are harder to trans-late and cannot merely be copied. This gesture made by this body, if repeated precisely by my body, will more likely look awkward, or meaningless, or comic when it was intended as serious. I have to achieve the end (as far as I see it and understand its intended impact – you have to rely on the translator for that certainly) by using the resources at my disposal, my physique, my body of language.

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In practice, what this means is that once the basic outline and incontrovertible details are in place in a translation, I have to close the source book and try to pump some life into the target text. Ted Hughes imagined a poem without true life in it as limping (Poetry in the Making, p.15); a translation without true life in it is only going to be a halting performance you’d rather not witness, worrying about whether such a gesture was intended or not, ironic or not, you fear the whole is not coherent, a mere series of movements, not a dance at all. I’ve always liked Charles Tomlinson’s formulation of the translation task: in introducing his now 50-year-old translations of Fyodor Tyutchev, he claimed ‘The aim of these translations has been to preserve not the metre, but the movement of each poem – its flight, or track through the mind’ (Versions from Fyodor Tyutchev 1803-1873 (Oxford: OUP, 1960)).

Happily, ‘Of poor B.B.’ is not a text of great complexity. Brecht is usually concerned to communicate clearly and he says in ‘On Rhymeless Verse with Irregular Rhythms’ (Poems 1913-1956, pp. 463-471)) “what was needed was the tone of direct and spontaneous speech”. He mostly wanted to use “everyday speech” and “sobriety of expression” which he felt was “by no means irreconcilable with poetry”. So Brecht is not exactly Rilke or Mallarme for the translator. Looking at Hofmann and Hamburger’s translations (as referred to in last week’s post), most of Brecht’s dance is clearly conveyed with little variation between the two versions. Though Brecht’s lines are pretty irregular he does keep a ballad-like rhyme in lines 2 and 4 of each quatrain and I miss this in Hofmann’s version. Hoffman also (to my mind) overelaborates in a few of his English choices. “Sterbsakrament” (Hamburger has “last sacrament”) becomes “every sacramental perquisite”. Hofmann’s narrator looks at the two women in quatrain 4 “insouciantly” and his pine trees “micturate” (when the point of the contrast with the city asks for something more downright like Hamburger’s “piss”). I don’t think lexical adventures here are quite right for this poem. Also in quatrain 7, Hofmann’s antennae “underwire” the Atlantic. Brecht is referring to transatlantic cables but the allusion to supportive bras seems distracting and gives mankind’s efforts too much power. I read the point as suggesting our technology is dwarfed by the ocean in the remarkable image that our best advances merely entertain (“unterhalten”) or “amuse” (Hamburger) the Atlantic.

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Regarding the hat donned by the narrator to fit in with city folk, Hofmann’s “top hat” seems a little too up-market, while Hamburger’s “hard hat” conjures up a building site. I have gone for “bowler hat” of a clerk or business man. The sound of the birds in quatrain 6 is important. Hofmann’s “bawl” catches the anti-pastoral tone of the poem but Hamburger is forced by the needs of form to go for “twitter and cheep” (to rhyme with “sleep”). There is also some ambiguity in the final stanza where the narrator hopes to keep his “Virginia” alight in the coming earthquakes of social disruption. The German suggests the cigar will hopefully not go out (“nicht ausgeher”) and the cause: “lassen durch Bitterkeit”. Hofmann renders this as hoping the cigar will not “go bitter on me” whereas Hamburger (again in part for the sake of form) hopes to keep the cigar alight “embittered or no”. Hofmann’s phrase feels too narrowly concerned with the smoking experience but Hamburger’s rather awkward phrase does successfully suggest what I see in the final lines – the narrator’s hope (if not altogether sincerely) that he himself may avoid becoming bitter. My solution tries to hold both literal and transferred metaphorical senses of the bitter cigar equally within the line. I’ve come to think of this as important to the poem as the narrator is blessed with a degree of self awareness as much as he is cursed with a cynical, dismissive hedonism.

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Of poor B.B.

I, Bertolt Brecht, came from the black forests.
My mother bore me into the city
while I was in her womb. And till my dying day
the chill of the woods will lie there inside me.

In the asphalt city I’m at home. From the beginning
supplied with every last sacrament:
with newspapers – and tobacco – and with brandy.
To the end, suspicious, lazy, content.

I’m amicable with the people I meet. I don
a bowler hat in just the way they do.
I say: they’re animals with a quite peculiar smell.
And I say: so what – I am too.

In the morning, in my vacant rocking chairs,
I sometimes set for myself a couple of women
and carelessly gaze at them and converse with them:
in me you have one here you can’t rely on.

When night falls, I gather men around me;
we address each other as ‘gentlemen’.
They swing their feet onto my table tops.
They say: things will improve for us. I don’t ask when.

Come morning, in dawn’s grey light, pine trees piss
and their vermin, the birds, start to shriek.
At that hour, in the city, I drain a glass and fling
my cigar butt away and, troubled, fall asleep.

We have settled, a superficial crew,
in houses that to our minds will never fall derelict
(we’ve built tower blocks over Manhattan Island
and spindly antennae that tickle the Atlantic).

What will last of cities is what blows through them: wind!
Houses make happy eaters: wolfed in a moment.
We know it – we are temporary
and after us comes nothing really worthy of comment.

In the earthquakes that are to come, I hope I’ll keep
my Virginia lit, not doused, grown bitter.
I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities
long ago from the black forests inside my mother.

tr. Martyn Crucefix

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Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Of Poor B.B.’

I have taken too little heed of BB, the poet. The chances are that you have too. This would certainly have been the case in 1976 when John Willett and Ralph Mannheim published Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 (Eyre Methuen) with its stellar cast of translators. The Introduction to that selection pointed out that, until well after his death in 1956, “Brecht the poet remained like an unsuspected time-bomb ticking” under world literature. It’s our desperate bad luck that most of us have only ever been encouraged to approach Brecht through his dramatic theories, then his plays, “only coming to the poems as a by-product of his theatre work”.

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Things may have changed more quickly on mainland Europe, but only 10 years ago Michael Hofmann could still argue that the “prevailing British view of [Brecht was] as an arid theorist of drama [. . .] and  the author of a few baffling but conniving plays” (Introduction to The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems). In fact, Hofmann thinks of Brecht as the writer who took “poetry into the twentieth century”, its single most crucial figure. Against the claims of Eliot, Valery or Lorca this may seem a bold statement but Hofmann is thinking of poetry as “a living counter-force in socio-political reality [. . .] poetry of dissent and fear and protest and rebuke and pleasure”, an art that is “heartening and inspiring”. There is some risk of this drifting back towards BB the purveyor of proletarian political messages, but Hofmann’s contrast of Brecht with “his great counter-pole” in German poetry, Gottfried Benn, a poet of more familiar “private griefs and musics, of monologue, of fascination”, makes Brecht’s distinctive contribution clearer.

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In beginning to explore Brecht’s poetry I’ve been looking at poems from 1925-1928 and, like plenty before me, I’ve become intrigued by ‘Of Poor B.B.’ (German original and Michael Hamburger’s translation here; Hofman’s translation read here). Apparently the poem derives from lines jotted down on a speeding express train at 9.30pm in April 1922, when Brecht was travelling home to Augsburg after spending a difficult first winter in Berlin. The impact of the Great War is still visible here but Brecht is also very interested in exploring the impact of big city life. ‘A Reader for Those who Live in Cities’ was the title of a projected group of poems from around 1926.

Bertolt-Brecht

From the notes in Poems 1913-1956 it’s possible to reconstruct Brecht’s early draft which, compared to the final published version, demarcates town and countryside more simplictically: “I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.” Paradoxically, the use of his own initials in the title and the bold use of his full name in the opening line, actually distances the poem from the straightforwardly autobiographical. BB is a representative figure and his move from countryside to town (is this the Industrial Revolution?) was wholly passive, beyond his control, as he moved while still in his pregnant mother’s body. In fact Brecht’s mother had died before he began visiting Munich and Berlin and the poem claims that the “coldness” of the forests remains inside BB and will do so till his “dying day”. Quatrains 3, 4 and half of 5 of this ballad-like ABCB poem-draft also characterize the cold, unrestful, uncomfortable woods, even to the extent that the pine trees “piss” with rain and the birds are “vermin”.

The early draft’s modernist anti-pastoral seems to be confirmed by the opening of the second quatrain: “In the asphalt city I’m at home” and quatrain 5 follows the noise of the bird-vermin in the trees with the seemingly-content city-dwelling BB: “At that hour in the city I drain my glass”. But there is clearly trouble in the urban paradise. Quatrain 2 portrays BB at ease (with a dig at religion in describing newspapers, tobacco and brandy as ‘sacraments’) yet there is something unsettling in the three adjectives that follow: BB is mistrustful, lazy content. Having drained his glass and stubbed his cigar he “worriedly” goes to sleep. In quatrain 6 of the draft the reasons for this worry are clarified (one of the changes in the final version is to remove some of these more logical connections) as BB plays a guitar to an uncomprehending audience and has “difficulty understanding” himself as the city dwellers seem “different animals”. Quatrain 7 wonders whether this is because he has been “carried off to paper and women” (which I take to mean the ‘pleasures’ of the city) from the black forests which still thrive “in me” along with the “roar of pines”. So the early draft suggests BB’s displacement to the city has not achieved an escape from the darkness and coldness of the black forests of his birth and he seems therefore ill-equipped to live truly contentedly in the modern city.

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Michael Hofmann

Brecht’s revisions of the poem between 1924 and 1925 make it both more modern and more mysterious. Hofmann has described the result as “strange and pitiless”. The most clear change is in the final version’s quatrain 3 where BB makes efforts to fit into city life (being friendly, polite, wearing a hat), finding other inhabitants “animals with a quite peculiar smell” (I’m now quoting Michael Hamburger’s rhymed translation). But then BB admits “does it matter? I am too”. The draft’s more ‘easy’ theme of the outsider is being dismissed. Two new stanzas follow in which BB seems ever-more at home in the city, with both its women and men. With the former he is “untroubled”, boastfully suggesting he is “someone on whom you can’t rely”. With the men he heartily hails them, feet up on a table as they say “things will get better for us” but he knows not to “ask when”. BB is now wholly complicit in the urban insincerities, the lies and pretence that make life bearable.

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Michael Hamburger

So the changes show neither city nor the black forest offers any real contentment or fulfillment and it’s this profound sense of alienation that Hofmann links to the Modernist pessimism of an Eliot: “nature and culture, friendship and love, are all travestied and diminished”. This is why BB still falls asleep “worriedly”. In the new stanzas (7, 8 and 9) this pessimism becomes positively apocalyptic as the poem becomes about a cultural moment, a whole culture. Quatrain 7 uses the first person plural significantly; we are “an easy generation” (Hamburger) or “a whimsical tribe” (Hofmann) living in great cities that we hubristically believe are “indestructible” (Brecht refers to Manhattan here, a place he had yet to visit in 1924). In reality, of our cities only the “wind” will survive and we are (in our hearts and as we fall asleep perhaps) dimly aware that “we’re only tenants, provisional ones / And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about”.

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Had the poem ended here the comparison with Eliot’s 1922 wasteland pessimism would be more apt but, in the apocalyptic “earthquakes to come”, BB hopes to keep his Virginia cigar alight and whether we read this as a perky priapic image, a gesture of New World hope, or insouciant resilience to prevailing socio-political conditions, it’s here that we find something heartening and inspiring, even if the tone is mostly pyrrhic. The concluding balladic repetition (“I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities”) now reads like a more determined declaration of identity, a will to life, to a better world. This is despite the whole poem’s extraordinarily thoroughgoing portrait of alienation and cultural decadence. There’s life in poor BB yet.

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Translating Transtromer: Fulton v Robertson

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

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

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Tomas Transtromer, an early photograph

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

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

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

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

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

tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.

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

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

extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.

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

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

They stand close up in a throng, waiting,

a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

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

They crowd in close, attentive:

this audience of cancelled faces.

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

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

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

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

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

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