Poetry Reviews (Newspapers)
Recently Published Poetry Reviews by Josephine Balmer: Newspapers
The Unaccompanied, Simon Armitage, Faber & Faber, 88pp, £14.99
“The centuries crawl past,” notes Simon Armitage in his new collection The Unaccompanied, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. The Unaccompanied sees him return, refreshed from his sojourn in the past, bringing the classics with him; in the collection’s dystopian present, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display” of ‘Poundland’, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of ‘Prometheus’, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, retrieves not fire but a Champion spark plug.
To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his1989 debut Zoom to the ‘Merrie England’ of 2006’s Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid. ‘Tiny’, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and ‘The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party’ makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in ‘Gravity’, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Sara’ that plays on the sixth-form common room stereo. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from ‘The Ice Age’, to whom the poet offers a spurned coat “brother to brother” – burns unabated.
In addition, The Unaccompanied articulates a new, more personal anger, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In ‘The Present’, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:
a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world
being pinned in place by a diamond-like cold
at each pole, but I open my hand
and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.
Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare, winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”, while in ‘Privet’ a pair of garden shears close “with an executioner’s lisp”. And in ‘Poor Old Soul’ an elderly man sits “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”.
This is the measured poetry of late middle age, where only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages” of ‘Miniatures’. In ‘Kitchen Window’, Armitage’s mother taps the smeared glass with her “hummingbird” finger before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. ‘Emergency’ could almost be Armitage’s audition for Grumpy Old Men: “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, “the store-cum-off-licence” or pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W.G. Hoskins’ gentle topological classic is referenced in ‘The Making of the English Landscape’ although, in one of the collection’s most striking images, a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:
like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a sea-crane’s hook,
nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.
In this skeletal land, the snow angels from ‘A Glory’ in 1997’s CloudCuckooLand are now a sad ‘Last Snowman’, sporting “a mouth/that was pure stroke victim”. More poignantly, in ‘Harmonium’, the poet’s father who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, memorably berated his son for having his ear pierced, is now helping him lug an unwanted organ from their local church, with the reminder “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.
Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. His family feels like all our families. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in ‘The Empire’. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of ‘The Cinderella of Ferndale’ who leaves her own footprints of disappointment and defeat. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in ‘Tractors’, a slight incident on a morning stroll bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast.” [keep italics] Philip Larkin is often cited as an influence but Armitage’s highly-tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting over and over again across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and above all empathetic work, Armitage is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years.
Aeneid Book VI, Seamus Heaney, Faber & Faber, pp53, £14.99
New Statesman, 6 April 2016
Anglophone poetry has long been transfixed by ancient epic; Christopher Logue, Derek Walcott, Simon Armitage and Alice Oswald have all produced creative reimaginings of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. As Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney’s fellow north of Ireland poet, has confessed: “I have been Homer-haunted for fifty years”. And yet Virgil’s Aeneid, a Latin rewrite of Homer’s Greek, has often been overlooked as raw material for such complete transformations. Instead, Virgil’s bucolic Georgics provide the bedrock for Carol Ann Duffy’s 2011 collection, The Bees, while his younger contemporary Ovid has become the Latin source of choice for a variety of poets from Ted Hughes to Jo Shapcott.
Yet slowly but surely the Aeneid is re-emerging as a text to be tampered with. Crucial to this renaissance are Seamus Heaney’s own previous engagements with the Latin epic and, in particular, Book VI, in which the Roman hero Aeneas, like Odysseus before him, journeys down to the Underworld to meet the ghosts of family, lovers and companions past. Heaney’s entanglement with the work began as far back as his 1991 poem ‘The Golden Bough’, from Seeing Things, a response to the death of his father through the opening section of Aeneid VI. And, until recently, it was thought to have ended with ‘Route 110’ from his final collection Human Chain (2010), an incandescent central sequence ghosting episodes from Virgil’s account.
Now Heaney’s new, posthumous complete translation version of Aeneid VI has appeared, neither a version nor a crib, he tells us in the surviving draft of his ‘Translator’s Note’, but “more like classics homework”, inspired by another ghost, that of his school Latin teacher, Father Michael McGlinchey. And yet despite such protestations, it soon becomes clear that Aeneid VI is not just a poignant but a fitting end to Heaney’s life’s work, both concerned with excavation, exhumations of the dead, as the poet walks, living, among them in his own specific, sacred “opened ground”. As Heaney noted in ‘The Riverbank Field’, an earlier Virgilian poem from Human Chain: “Ask me to translate…And I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola.”
Heaney retains that same sense of Derry earthiness in Aeneid Book VI; his Sibyl prophesises that Aeneas, who later marries the Italian princess Lavinia, will become “an outlander groom” . And his account of the funeral of Misenus, one of Aeneas’ companions, echoes that of a Celtic warrior, his bones collected “in a bronze urn”:
…And under a high airy hill
Aeneas reared a magnificent tomb
Hung with the dead man’s equipment…
Heaney is also unafraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. Compared, for example, to Cecil Day Lewis’ slightly fey “wan reeds on a dreary mud flat”, Heaney’s Styx is “slithery mud, knee-deep/In grey-green sedge”. He also throws in a few sharp modernisms; Helen’s monumenta or “marks” on her mutilated Trojan paramour Deiphobus here become “love bites”. He gives an equally unflinching eye to the visceral punishments meted out to wrongdoers in Tartarus, the vulture which “puddles forever with hooked beak” at Tityos’ liver as “the gnawed-at/Gut and gutstrings keep renewing”.
At the same time, Heaney’s account of Aeneas’ encounters with the dead is even more powerful for its restraint. This is most compelling as Aeneas’ father Anchises catches sight of his son, the reunion that forms the emotional heart of the work:
In eager joy, his eyes filled up with tears
And he gave a cry: ‘At last! Are you here at last?’
I always trusted that your sense of right
Would prevail and keep you going to the end.
As Heaney himself admits, keeping going to the end of Book VI can be almost as difficult a task as descending to the Underworld. Anchises shows Aeneas a seemingly endless line of Roman militarists waiting to be born – “something of a test for reader and translator alike,” as Heaney wryly comments. There is also the problem of how to follow the inspired stroke of ‘Route 110’, placing his new-born granddaughter among those about to enter the world, delicately perverting Virgil’s colonial vision. Yet what fascinates here are precisely the differences between previous poetic versions and this translation. For instance, in Heaney’s 1991 poem ‘The Golden Bough’, the plucked branch grows back with “the same metal sheen”. In Aeneid Book VI, it is “golden again, emanating/That same sheen and shimmer”. Throughout, Heaney’s exquisite line placement never misses a beat, turning on its head the traditional hierarchy of translation, with creative version at the top and literal at the bottom; “homework” maybe, but always poetry as taut, as elegant and as lucid as Virgil’s own.
In this masterly and near-flawless transformation of Virgil’s original, Heaney could be characterized as Orpheus, the bard whose verse ensures safe passage back from the Underworld; one of “those who were dedicated poets/And made songs fit for Apollo”. Unfortunately for us, Heaney could not cheat death so we might settle instead for his typically unassuming vision of Charon, the ferryman who, in the original Latin meaning of translation, carries us all across:
Old but still a god, and in a god old age
Is green and hardy.
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Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, Daisy Dunn, William Collins, £16.99′
The Poems of Catullus: A New Translation, Daisy Dunn, William Collins, £8.99.
New Statesman, February 18th 2016
‘Studying ancient Rome,’ wrote the Catullan scholar T.P. Wiseman, ‘should be like visiting some teeming capital in a dangerous and ill-governed foreign country; nothing can be relied on, most of what you see is squalid, sinister or unintelligible…’ The problem for today’s classicists, supplying a burgeoning demand for popular histories, is how to square such obscure and often unknowable material with a reader-friendly approach.
Daisy Dunn’s answer in Catullus’ Bedspread, her new ‘biography’ of the first century BCE Roman poet, is to marry a breathy, vivid narrative voice with knowledgeable digressions about the peculiarities of Roman life. And so she describes the early days of Catullus’ affair with the women he called ‘Lesbia’ in his poems, sometimes identified as the infamous Clodia Metelli: ‘Catullus made himself look the fool for having missed the warning signs. But love, as he knew, renders one deaf and blind…’ This is followed by an eye-watering exploration of Roman methods of contraception; the spider parasites that could be inserted in to a deer skin and then attached to a woman’s body to ward off pregnancy or a concoction of herbs and berries that ‘Catullus might smear on his penis’.
The difficulty here is that Catullus is perhaps one of Rome’s most shadowy figures. All we really know is that his poetry mentions a posting as a junior official to Bithynia in 57/6BCE, but no date later than Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BCE. Latin poetic tradition had it that he died young at the age of 30, and so his birth is often backdated to around 84BCE. But even this is a matter of debate.
That said, Dunn clearly knows Catullus’s work inside out and skilfully interweaves an impressive number of Catullus’ surviving 117 poems into her text. The hapless Arrius’ habit of aspirating his speech from poem 84, for instance, leads on to a discussion of the inverted snobbery fashionable in republican Rome. She also proves an expert guide through Roman political manoeuvring, unravelling the machinations of Caesar, Cicero, Crassus, Pompey and a whole host of minor characters, which might swivel the head of even the most experienced Westminster analyst. Exhaustive endnotes also provide relevant source references alongside fascinating additional material, ranging from ancient fragmentary Latin poetry to a controversial decision to include some of Catullus’ more sexual poems in an 1989 Latin A-Level syllabus (it was later agreed that no questions would be set on them).
Such scholarship, however, can sit uneasily with the romantic flights of Dunn’s main text; ‘only the stone of the deserted Ponte Pietra,’ she writes of the (imagined) night Catullus learns of his brother’s death, ‘gleamed with the whiteness of babies’ teeth’. And, with so little certain about Catullus’ life, the ‘facts’ presented by Dunn’s main narrative could be described more accurately as conjecture. She takes as read that Catullus’ Lesbia is Clodia Metelli, known to us from Cicero and other contemporary sources, and then rearranges his poetry to form an ordered story of their doomed affair. Yet Lesbia’s name occurs only 16 times in the poems (the less specific puella or ‘girl’ is found almost as many) and her identification with this particular Clodia was first made as late as 1554. Nevertheless, the fascination with Catullus as lover, which began with Ludwig Schwabe’s reconstruction of Catullus’ biography in 1862, has since become a staple of historical fiction as in Helen Dunmore’s 2008 novel Counting the Stars.
In contrast, classical scholars such as Charles Martin have suggested that Lesbia should be considered not as a real person but rather as ‘an emblem, abstracted and idealised’. At the same time, Catullus’ poetic voice is extremely fluid, moving easily between learned reference and gutter humour, a blank page on to which we project our own readings, whether Tennyson’s ‘tender’ poet or Swinburne’s priapic idol – a character Harold Nicolson declared ‘vindictive, venomous and full of obscene malice’, and whom Dorothy Parker, adopting Lesbia’s female gaze, found pathetic: ‘He’s always hymning that or wailing this:/ Myself, I much prefer the business type.’
Ironically, where Dunn makes free with the poet’s biography, her accompanying translations, The Poems of Catullus, offer rather less risky readings of his text. Here are sound, traditional versions, perfect for the student or general reader looking for accuracy and precision. At the same time, Dunn is not afraid to call a spade a spade (or, in the case of poem 80, a blow job, a blow job). Yet Catullus’ intricate and slippery verse cries out for transgression, with the most successful renderings often the most innovative (Henry Stead’s recent collaborative audiovisual version of poem 63 for London Poetry Systems springs to mind). In their correctness, Dunn’s translations sometimes sacrifice the musicality and verve of Catullus’ originals so that the full force of his jokes becomes muted. For example, poem 32’s teasing sexual innuendo rather loses its force; the play on ne quis liminis obseret (in English something like ‘don’t block your passage’) becomes the more literal, if more tame, ‘let no one bolt the door’. And Catullus’ mock-learned obscenity fututiones, or ‘fuckoffiscatings’, is here the less complex ‘fucks’.
That said, Catullus is a notoriously tricky subject for any translator. As Ezra Pound confessed: ‘I have failed forty times myself so do know the matter’. And The Poems of Catullus provides a fine foundation for the future. With Catullus’ Bedspread, both books represent a rollicking good read for all – so long as, like Catullus’ glittering, playful poetry, the reader doesn’t take them too much at face value.
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Dante: The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James (Picador), The Times, 13th July 2013
‘It is better,’ T.S. Eliot observed, ‘to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.’ Nevertheless, as Clive James notes in the introduction to his new translation of The Divine Comedy, Dante ‘had barely finished the poem’ before learned commentaries began to appear. Even in medieval Italy, it seems, readers could be perplexed by the epic’s complex web of reference, from classical mythology through Biblical allegory to the politics of fourteenth-century Florence. Yet here is one of the thorniest dilemmas for translators: should classic works of Western literature be accompanied by detailed notes to clarify obscurities? Or should readers be left to approach them on their own terms?
Clive James, whose wife Prue Shaw is a renowned Dante scholar, favours Eliot’s position. Perhaps best known in Britain as a sharp-tongued TV critic, famously deriding Agamemnon’s ‘gamma-fronts’ in a BBC adaptation of the Oresteia, he views textual footnotes as a ‘burden’. Instead he prefers to ‘upload salient facts’ into the translation itself, a time-honoured strategy for historic texts which James works well. And so in Inferno Canto 12, Dante’s ‘l’infamia di Creti’ becomes: ‘The infamy of Crete, by whom I mean/The Minotaur’. Similarly, among the souls punished for suicide in Inferno Canto 13, an originally unidentified speaker now tells us succinctly: ‘Know me for Piero della Vigne, who/kept both the keys to the Emperor Frederick’s heart’. This certainly assists modern readers who could not be expected to recognise, as Dante’s contemporaries might, a local statesman, poet and legislator. But those without a background in medieval political history might still be left groping for the wider context. And even if scholarship is perceived to have no place in poetry, there might still be poetry to be found in scholarship, as the work of Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson exemplifies.
James buys space for such interpolations through his innovative approach to Dante’s terza rima, the other pressing issue facing any translator of the Divine Comedy. As James concurs, such a strict rhyming scheme can sound forced or archaic in non-inflected Anglo-Saxon. His solution is quatrains, often augmented by extra rhyming lines, which, he argues, allows the ‘ideal combination of strictness and ease’. More importantly, perhaps, it is also a form in which he himself feels at ease as a poet (by contrast, in his excellent 1994 version of Inferno, Steve Ellis eschews rhyme because, as he confesses, he found it difficult in his own poetry). And if the mysticism of Dante’s triad patternings are missed, James’ quatrains steer the narrative deftly, like the aged Ulysses in Inferno Canto 26:
Once more I set out on the open sea,
With just one ship, crewed by my loyal men,
The stalwart who had not deserted me.
As far as Spain I saw both shores, and then
This expansive form also proves invaluable in the almost impossible task of renewing the original force and vigour of Dante’s best known terzas, so iconic now that they have become cliché – and even Mad Men’s Don Draper takes a copy of Inferno to the beach. For example, in James’ sure hands, Dante’s famous inscription above Hell’s Gates becomes:
From now on, every day feels like your last
Forever. Let that be your greatest fear.
Your future now is to regret the past.
Forget your hopes. They were what brought you here.
James’ recent serious illness, alongside well-publicised marriage difficulties, lend an added poignancy. Like most successful translations, there is a sense of the personal throughout; his gargantuan labour appears to offer a gift of love to his scholar wife, an act of contrition leading to acceptance and resignation, the final ‘refuge in muteness’ George Steiner found in Paradiso. As James translates from Canto 33, here are ‘my own desires in their last phase/Where steady craving finally abates’. And if the lack of scholarly apparatus can, on occasion, prove more face-furrowing than page-turning, the poetry is certainly here, spurring the reader to learn more. Like the erudite Brunetto in Inferno 15, James’ often outstanding verse runs ‘as if the race were his/To win, not lose. As his life was, and is.’
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Ovid’s Heroines, Clare Pollard (Bloodaxe Books), The Times, 22 June 2013
‘Wit out of season’, concluded John Dryden of Ovid’s Heroides, the Latin poet’s verse epistles from mythical women to their faithless male lovers. Since Dryden, translators have long struggled with Ovid’s tricky mix of humour and pathos, which might have tickled Roman audiences but can fall flat on modern ears. There is also the complex issue of authorial voice, the mirrors within mirrors of the male poet voicing female protagonists, who themselves exist only in the literary imaginations of other men; how far do the women speak as themselves or for their revisionist male recreator? The poet Clare Pollard has no doubt: in the chatty and enthusiastic introduction to her new version, Ovid’s Heroines, she berates those who see Ovid ‘showing his face through the mask’, as the work’s true narrator. ‘Because, obviously’, she notes, ‘women are never ironic’.
In many ways Pollard, a wunderkind who wrote her first poetry collection while still at school, is a good match for the equally precocious Ovid. In volumes, such as The Heavy-Petting Zoo and Bedtime, she revealed an aptitude for mixing high and low cultural references, from Caravaggio to Tracey Emin, Proust to Big Brother. And if, as she explains, her state school in Bolton did not offer Classics, she has done her homework, consulting Loeb dual texts and previous translations of Heroides, alongside scholarly commentaries whose critical judgements often exasperate: ‘This is OVID,’ she shouts, ‘Have some respect!’
Her research pays off. She rises to the challenge of Ovid’s teasing, laying her stamp with Penelope’s opening lines in Heroides 1: ‘Dear Ulysses,/you’re late’. There is pathos, too, as Ariadne slowly realises she has been abandoned by Theseus on Naxos in poem 10 (‘Fear slapped me awake: I lurched up,/tumbled headlong from the empty bed.’). Elsewhere Hypsipyle’s description of her sorceress love-rival Medea raises hairs on the neck: ‘she haunts graveyards, plucks/still-warm skeletons from ash…’ By framing each poem with short introductions, Pollard also attempts to solve the problem of how, as obscure classical myth falls out of cultural currency, Ovid’s dramatic irony can still be retained.
The most successful versions here are those in which Pollard lets loose, engaging with the knotty issue of authorial voice, providing a new filter, as a woman versioner, for Ovid’s own transgendered poems. In poem 9, Pollard’s Deianira– whose husband Hercules has turned transvestite in a rather more literal way – headlines her own story: ‘Hercules Horror: Wicked Wife Still Lives’. It would have been fascinating to see such subversive techniques developed even further, for instance as Oenone adopts the age-old male defence that women such as Helen of Troy are ‘asking for it’ or Dido moons after Aeneas like a lovesick teenager (‘I call him cheat, but love him so’). For despite Pollard’s spirited defence of Ovid, he is the ultimate trickster, whose self-penned epitaph in Tristia declares himself a lusor, a player: reason, perhaps, to have some disrespect. Overall, though, these are lively versions, freshly seasoned with both agony and irony, reanimating Ovid’s originals.
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Go Giants, Nick Laird (Faber), The Times, February 2nd 2013
‘Go one better,’ exhorts the title poem of Go Giants, Nick Laird’s third collection, ‘Go great guns’. Following his much-lauded 2005 debut To a Fault and the sophomore, On Purpose (2007), Laird’s new work again displays an almost child-like wonder in the variety and slippage of language, alongside an adult sensibility of both its boundless possibilities and its dangers (‘Go into detail. Go for the throat’). Similarly, ‘Annals of Alan’, collects Manhattan graffiti about the eponymous hero (‘Alan has the best weed.’), its various fonts and typographies playfully representing the source’s multiplicity of voice and stance. But if the poem’s off-the-cuff frivolity is typical of Laird’s method, it also masks a deeper concern over self-identity, another Laird trademark: ‘Who the heck is Alan?’, queries one inscription, to be answered by ‘Alan is a dream most likely’.
Throughout the collection, Laird debates whether identity derives from birthplace, such as his native Ulster, or whether it is accumulated by a passage through the wider world. As ‘House Beautiful’, the collection’s final piece, debates:
What if you felt nothing more walking down
the streets of Cookstown than you ever felt
walking in New York or Rome or London
Laird’s quest for answers encompasses Greek myth, Roman satire, Anglo-Saxon verse, Celtic ballad, Renaissance astronomy, Irish rebels and Irish rugby. Despite a lightness of touch, the collection’s lack of notes requires its readers to do their homework, particularly in the collection’s closing sequence, based around John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is worth the effort; here are some of Laird’s most successful and mature poems to date, as his poetic telescope closes in on both new and familiar landscapes, real and metaphysical, interconnected by public and personal history. In Rome, Laird fears he might view Papal treasures with a ‘Covenanter’s eye’, yet still finds a link back to Ulster through Hugh O’Neill, the sixteenth-century Irish nationalist who died in a Roman prison and whose ruined County Tyrone seat Laird and his friends had later ‘annexed’ for ‘menthol cigarettes and adolescent sex’.
As in Bunyan’s originals, this is a topography of home, for Laird a childhood divided by sectarianism where, in the ‘monotony of always being on a side’, language could indeed prove dangerous; the wrong name, the wrong school, ‘the wrong uniform’ as ‘Mr Enmity’ confirms. Yet the more deeply personal their subjects, the more engagingly universal the poems become. In ‘Valley of the Shadow’, a lament for a childhood friend lost to the Troubles, the violence occurs off-stage as in Greek tragedy; ‘Our windows pulsed once, twice, but didn’t break,’ Laird remembers, the crack of glass reverberating long afterwards.
Go Giants considers how to establish – and maintain – a sense of self in a shifting world, whether as husband, father, lover, friend or compatriot. For Laird, whose New York alarm is apparently still tuned to Radio Ulster, this is a wryly complex business. As ‘Tuesday’ confesses: ‘When I’m alone/I swear this whole thing’s touch and go.’ That may be, but on balance Go Giants still manages to go one better.
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The Customs House, Andrew Motion (Faber), The Times, October 6th, 2012
The relationship between creativity and research is never easy. In 2001, Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement was criticised for drawing on memoirs by Second World War nurses; such work, it was implied, was somehow cheating. Undaunted, Andrew Motion’s The Customs House, his first full-length volume of poetry since stepping down as Poet Laureate in 2009, lists about 14 written sources for its poems. ‘To this degree’, as Motion notes of his sonnet sequence ‘An Equal Voice’, based on Ben Shephard’s 2002 study of war psychiatry, ‘the matter of the poem is in the public domain’. To Motion, such poems are ‘found’ but the process of transformation is far from casual; a Google Books search will reveal that the arresting phrase ‘titubating shell-shockers’ in the fifth poem from ‘An Equal Voice’, derives from Shephard’s original. But it takes Motion’s calm, forensic eye to find the poetry in the categories of traumatised patients: ‘their stammers and tremors, their nightmares/and hallucinations, their unstoppable fits and shaking.
In this use of sourced material, The Customs House echoes Motion’s previous collection, The Cinder Path (2009). Both offer title poems in the form of ekphrasis, a poetic exploration of a painting, here the mysterious tangle of Henri Rousseau’s seemingly calm pastoral scene where yet ‘dangerous animals might well live’. In addition, The Cinder Path’s moving laments on the death of Motion’s father are now augmented by poems exploring the later stages of grief; a graveside visit in ‘Passing’, and the dreamlike remembrance of a childhood game now turned horror story in ‘Are You There?’:
I can tell from his stillness,
and the chill and stiffness of his fingers,
he has been dead for a good time already.
Such moments of epiphany – a turning point between the everyday and the sudden chaos of destruction and loss – characterise the collection’s finely-held poetic balance. Like the glimpse of Mount Fuji in ‘The Korean Memorial at Hiroshima’, here is:
draped over a tumbler of water
in the moment of suspense
before the magician taps his hand
and the tumbler disappears.
But as in The Cinder Path, it is in his opening section of war poetry, ‘Laurels and Donkeys’, first published in 2010 by Clutag Press, that Motion’s art unflexes and excels. Here the pivotal images are even more startling; the hare in ‘Setting the Scene’, advancing through a ruined French village during the First World War ‘with the sun shining bright red through his ears’. Or the dead cattle encountered after the Normandy landings in ‘Beyond All Calculation’, ‘their legs up stiff like toys’. Always a master of narrative voice, Motion is able to mirror the taut, colloquial tone of soldiers’ testimonies, their trauma contained just beneath the surface. In ‘Changi’, a Japanese prisoner of war concludes of a wildflower found in the camp: ‘I thought it must be an iris and have since confirmed that’. Similarly, in ‘The Vallon Men’, a young soldier reports how, during his unit’s tour of Afghanistan, ‘we have seen a lot of things that are not ideal’.
Motion’s long, prose-style lines in poems, such as ‘The Golden Hour’ or ‘After the War’, add to this tension. The full terror here, Motion suggests, is not only that the humdrum lies amongst the horror but that, in reverse, a never-ending cycle of bloodshed and destruction becomes mundane, as the lessons of the past are never learnt. The Customs House leads us through this blighted landscape with a non-flinching, yet always compassionate, precision. As Motion notes of a riverside bird in ‘Dipper’, it is ‘as if a living soul had found/ a way to haunt the dead’
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Antigonick, Anne Carson, (Bloodaxe), The Times, 2 June, 2012
For Anne Carson, an acclaimed classics scholar as well as poet, the act of translation is like ‘a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch’. Like her last work Nox, Carson’s new version of Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone looks beyond the written word for illumination. But whereas Nox, a series of reimaginings of Catullus poem 101, was presented as a conceptual art work, a book-in-a-box encompassing sketches, collage, fragments of diaries and letters as well as scraps of written versions, Antigonick interweaves Carson’s complete translation with Bianca Stone’s occasional illustrations on transparent paper; as the reader turns the page, Stone’s desolate landscapes, ghostly, nightmarish figures and unsettling domestic scenes are overlaid over Carson’s hand-inked text like a visual palimpsest.
As ever in Carson’s playful, paradoxical verse, such devices offer as many questions as answers. How far are the images meant to correlate with the written text? Should they be viewed as potential stage backdrops? Or do they present a second meta-text, a commentary running alongside the translation? Carson, who worked as a commercial artist while completing her classical studies, understands the power of the non-literal. As she once commented wryly of her radical versions of Catullus ‘[they] bear about the same relation to translation as Francis Bacon’s paintings do to mug shots’. Yet as well as her trademark intertexuality ( Brecht, Hegel and Virginia Woolf all flit through Antigonick) and deliberately jarring modernisms, Carson is also a powerful interpreter of the lost and mysterious archaic world. In particular, her renderings of Sophocles’s complex choruses seem to rise out of an ancient primeval consciousness to crystallise in the present:
MANY TERRIBLY QUIET CUSTOMERS EXIST BUT NONE MORE
TERRIBLY QUIET THAN MAN
HIS FOOTSTEPS PASS SO PERILOUSLY SOFT ACROSS THE SEA
IN MARBLE WINTER
UP THE STIFF BLUE WAVES AND EVERY TUESDAY
DOWN HE GRINDS THE UNASTONISHABLE EARTH
WITH HORSE AND SHATTER
Again, as so often in her poetry, Carson’s version represents both a reading and a writing; it enacts not only the text itself but its reception, its resonances. For instance, the central conflict between Antigone and Kreon, between state and family, as Antigone wants to bury her traitor brother and Kreon, as King, forbids it, is reduced to single phrases scattered across the page; Kreon’s ‘verbs for today’ are ‘adjudicate’, ‘ legislate’ or ‘capitalize’ whereas Antigone’s nouns include ‘autonomous’, ‘autarchic’, and ‘autoempathic’. And as Kreon exhorts an impatient Antigone ‘let’s split/ hairs a while longer’, Carson encapsulates the entire thrust of Greek tragedy in six words.
Carson’s modernising might seem discordant and her multi-dimensional framing impenetrable. But if sometimes wilfully obscure, such transformations derive from a deep knowledge of and empathy with her source. For example, the black block capitals and lack of punctuation Carson employs in Antigonick echo the appearance of Greek text on papyrus. At the same time, her use of internal rhyme harks back to the archaising ‘Wardour Street’ approach of earlier translators such as Gilbert Murray, yet still sounds fresh and musical – a quality any future performance could only enhance.
Above all, Antigonick questions what it means to translate Greek drama, an art form so mysterious, so primordial, that it can seem more like sacrificial rite than literary text. Should such versions be approached as a work of theatre or as lines on the page? Is it possible to add the dynamic of performance on to a static text? For Carson her uncompromising solutions are ‘little kidnaps in the dark’, a long trail of softly glowing lamps that mark the way through the centuries and out of the shadows.
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Poetry Books of the Year, The Times, 3 December, 2011
At first glance 2011 may appear to have been a conventional, if not conservative, year in poetry. Certainly the “grey male” shortlist for the Forward Prize was much criticised, although its eventual winner, John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone (Jonathan Cape, £9), which referenced sizzling Delta blues alongside wintry Brueghel landscapes, was as vibrant and compelling as any; the eerie dream-like poetry of “some black road/ you thought was yours alone,/ made bright and universal, as you listen”.
Fellow nominee Michael Longley’s luminous A Hundred Doors (Jonathan Cape, £9) was also his best collection yet, revisiting his always exquisite pastoral lyricism with renewed urgency as he contemplates mortality in his beloved Carrigskeewaun, “soul-space/For my promontory, high and dry”. The T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist (the winner will be announced in January) is more eclectic and includes the superb The Bees (Picador, £13.49), the first collection by Carol Ann Duffy, above, since becoming Poet Laureate and a masterclass in how public poetry can reanimate the personal.
Also shortlisted, Alice Oswald’s Memorial (Faber and Faber, £10.99) presents an uncompromising rewriting of The Iliad, stripping away its epic narrative to foreground its fallen foot-soldiers. Overlooked here, Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s mesmeric and enthralling Heavenly Questions (Bloodaxe, £8.50), was a deserving winner of the international Griffin Prize. In six meditative poems, encompassing Ancient Greek science, classical Chinese riddles, Turkish fable and Sanskrit epic, Schnackenberg mourns her husband with extraordinary intelligence and compassion: “Still his wife./ But couldn’t draw one breath on his behalf/ Nor add a single heartbeat to his life.”
Christopher Reid’s Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, £13.49) includes some of his own remarkable elegies for his wife from A Scattering (2009), as well as poems from his earlier collections, such as the playful faux translations of imaginary poet Katerina Brac; the ‘colossal rearrangements/ somewhere at the back of the mind’ which characterise Reid’s innovative and always engaging verse, both in humour and in grief. . Meanwhile, The Perfect Order(Anvil, £11.66), Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou’s edition of the leading Greek poet Nasos Vayenas, looks set to become a modern translation classic. Shortlisted for the Criticos Prize, it brings Vayenas’s elegant, cultured work to English readers for the first time: ‘Your word lays bare the ways,’ as he notes in ‘Cavafy’, ‘that the soul is what a poem’s lines reveal’.
Equally beguiling is Vesna Goldsworthy’s The Angel of Salonika (Salt, £11.69), winner of this year’s Crashaw Prize for new poets. Her accomplished first collection explores the journeys of exile, geographical, spiritual and linguistic, as she travels from the Balkans to “The Heart of England, wherever that may be”, with an intense precision. The Times’s Derwent May’s Wondering About Many Women(Greenwich Exchange, £7.59) is another assured debut whose delicately crafted poems explore familial, parental and romantic relationships, the ‘fear that comes always with love’s disarming’.
Finally, to prove that poetry is alive and kicking its billowing trouser legs on a washing-line near you, Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught’s anthology Washing Lines (Lautus,£9) collects a surprising number of poems on laundry, from Homer’s Odyssey to Jane Holland’s Spin-Cycle, via Seamus Heaney, Fernando Pessoa and Moniza Alvi, illustrated by woodcuts from leading printmakers such as Clifford Harper. “The peg becomes a pen,” as Maura Dooley concludes in The Line. Radical transformations indeed.
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The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy (Faber), The Times, 8 October, 2011
In ancient mythology and literature bees have a diverse, sometimes contradictory symbolism; in Homeric epic they are the Greek leaders streaming in to war council at Troy, or the warriors swarming over the shore to destroy the city; in Virgil’s Georgics they are the symbols of industry and good husbandry. In Sappho and early lyric they are the bitter sting that comes after the honey sweetness of love and, in later epigram, they become poets themselves, more precisely woman poets, bringing home their honeyed words.
Carol Ann Duffy’s outstanding new collection, The Bees, her first since she was appointed Poet Laureate in 2009, summons both explicitly and implicitly these shared references, which hum like a distant echo in our collective unconscious: the politics of war in Big Ask, or of governance in Politics (with its own “hiss hiss hiss”); the threatened bucolic of Ariel and the long love turned sour of New Vows (“all my worldly goods to unendow . . .”). Meanwhile Homer’s warrior hero has a poem of his own in Achilles (originally written for David Beckham’s game-changing heel injury), as do Virgil’s Bees, now “lover-stunned,/ strumming on fragrance, smitten”.
Such images are woven through the volume like the delicate illustrations of illuminated manuscripts. It opens with the poet’s own words in Bees — “brazen, blurs on paper,/ besotted; buzzwords, dancing/their flawless, airy maps” — and closes with A Rare Bee, whose honey makes the poet profound. In between, Duffy tells the life story of The Human Bee and celebrates the “winter cluster” of The Bee Carol or the never-ending industry of Hive, which, for the poet, symbolises:
what we serve, preserve, avowed in Latin murmurs
as we come and go, skydive, freighted
with light, to where we thrive, us, in time’s hum,
on history’s breath,
But there is also much here that previous readers will find familiar. The revisionist myth-making of The Woman in the Moon, for instance, recalls Duffy’s 1999 collection The World’s Wife, while Mrs Schofield’s GCSE echoes the childhood reminiscences of The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team from Mean Time (1993). In Water, a tender elegy for her mother, Duffy captures the heart-eroding role reversal of caring for a terminally ill parent; the terrible loss of a mother for a daughter — and the cycle that will be repeated by the next generation:
A good last word.
Nights since I’ve cried, but gone
to my own child’s side with a drink, watched
her gulp it down then sleep. Water.
What a mother brings
through darkness still
to her parched daughter.
As well as being deeply personal, much of the poetry in The Bees also has (or has derived from) a public function. For instance, Rings celebrated the royal wedding, while The Shirt commiserated with England’s dismal showing in last year’s World Cup, even if, curiously, no acknowledgements are provided as to such poems’ origins. Given some of her predecessors’ struggle with the official verse required as laureate, Duffy’s achievement here is even more exceptional. For instance Snow, written in response to the blizzards of winter last year, remains poignant long after the thaw:
Tighter and tighter, the beautiful snow
holds the land in its fierce embrace.
It is like death, but it is not death; lovelier.
Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now
with the gift of your left life?
In particular, the collection’s celebration of British pastoral, encompassing the Scottishness of Drams and Moniack Mhor as well as The English Elms and John Barleycorn, provides a new focus and gravitas, not only in its subject matter but also in its structure, recalling Eliot’s Four Quartets by its apparent loose patterning around the seasons. In Last Post, written to commemorate the last surviving British soldiers of the First World War, Duffy muses how it might be if “poetry could truly tell it backwards”.
Such reversals inform the movement of the book. In the collection’s penultimate poem, Premonitions, an elegy for U. A. Fanthorpe, the elder poet’s life is seen in inverted order as “a bee swooned backwards out of a rose”. And if in A Rare Bee, the collection’s closing poem, the poet’s art is won at the cost of the bee itself, stinging her lips to confer “rhyme, poetry, song” before dying “on the bier of a leaf”, this then takes us back full circle to Duffy’s opening poet bees: “gilded, glad, golden”. The bees might be disappearing and birdsong falling silent, but if any poetry can turn back the world to its lost pastoral idyll, this is it.
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The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present , edited by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley and Karen van Dyck (Norton)
Ancient Greek Lyrics, Willis Barnstone, (Indiana University Press)
The Times Literary Supplement, 1 October, 2010
For Odysseus Elytis, the task of the Greek poet is to ‘express the things he loves most in words that were once used by Sappho and Pindar’. More than any other European literature, Greek poetry not only walks in the footsteps of its illustrious classical forebears but also speaks with their tongues. Contemporary British poets approaching the Anglo-Saxon of Beowulf or the Middle English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight must first interpret and translate what is essentially a different language, affording them a sense of distance from their source. For their Greek counterparts, whose language, as Elytis suggests, is closer to that of Homeric epic or Aeolic lyric, the burden of their literary past weighs more heavily.
The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present, Norton’s extensive new anthology of Greek verse, proves that such burdens also have their benefits. The volume starts with the Iliad in the eighth century B.C. and ends, 30 centuries later, with Jenny Mastoraki’s retired, reclusive Trojan Horse in the 21st century A.D. ( ‘no, I refuse to see the Press’). In 650 pages in between, its four distinguished editors, renowned for their work in Greek verse scholarship and translation, sweep through ancient lyric, choral ode, Attic tragedy, Old and New Comedy, epigram, idyll, satire, folk song, Christian hymn and sixth-century Byzantine epic. As the poet Robert Hass points out in his short but incisive introduction, one of the volume’s most impressive achievements is to bridge the gap between the end of the Byzantine era and the resurgence of Greek poetry in the early 20th century, filling ‘the silence of those two thousand years between Callimachus and Cavafy’. While Chaucer was writing his comic Canterbury Tales in medieval London, for instance, Stefanos Sachlikis was composing his satirical Strange Tale on Crete, then part of the Venetian Empire, introducing rhyme into modern Greek verse. From here the volumes proceeds to Kaisarios Dapontes’s spirtual hymns, composed on Mount Athos in the 1760s and Dionysios Solomos’s nationalist ‘Hymn to Liberty’ (translated, fittingly, by Rudyard Kipling) and then on to the searing familiarity of C.P. Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos and Elytis himself. It concludes with a plethora of urgent ‘younger’ voices (if none born after 1950 – time here is relative) such as Nasos Vayenas, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke as well as Jenny Mastoraki, all now beginning to appear in English versions (Vayenas will be particularly well-served by a forthcoming edition from Anvil edited by Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou).
Each poet somehow manages to find a way of engaging with the past, recreating it afresh for each new generation; the Renaissance Greek-Italian poet Angelo Poliziano describes the incandescent performance of a young girl playing Sophocles’ Electra, presumably at the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici whose children he tutored. Centuries later, George Seferis deconstructs ‘Euripides the Athenian’, the ‘sour man’ who, in Keeley & Sherarrd’s translation, ‘saw the veins of men/as a net the gods made to catch us in like wild beasts’. Alternatively, many of the contemporary poets articulate the continuing struggle with their long tradition: ‘ I send a postcard to the future,’ explains Lefteris Poulios’s Tiresias in ‘Epilogue’, ‘written in blood with a trembling hand/with this ancient age of ours for postage stamp.’ Nevertheless, one of the pleasures of the volume is to trace the ebb and flow of theme across the ages; Sappho and Ibycus’s incandescent lyric eroticism melts into Rufinus’s scurrilous late classical epigrams and Vitsentzos Kornaros’s Renaissance epic Erotokritos. It comes back full circle to lyric with Cavafy’s ‘Desires’ and Anghelaki-Rooke’s ‘Translating Life’s End into Love’ which imagines the very act of writing, or to be precise, its translation, as an erotic act (itself translated with elegant precision by Karen van Dyke):
Because I cannot touch you
With my tongue
I transliterate my passion
Given the editors’ own prominence in the field, it is hardly surprising to find translation forgerounded throughout the anthology, marking it out from previous volumes such as Constantine A. Trypanis’s 1975 Penguin Book of Greek Verse. As Hass’s introduction notes ‘there is no setting out without the revisioning in the act of translation’. So gone are Trypanis’s Greek texts, with their literal prose translations tucked away in the small print beneath, to be replaced by verse versions from some of the best known practitioners in the field. Homeric translation, for example, is represented by the imposing triumvirate of Robert Fagles, Robert Fitzgerald and Richard Lattimore, if one perhaps misses more radical versionings from Derek Walcott, Christopher Logue or Michael Longley to shake up the mix.
But there are numerous delights to compensate. In a volume packed with eminent poet/translators – Tony Harrrison, Peter Green, Peter Whigham, Fleur Adcock, Seamus Heaney, Ann Carson, Ezra Pound – it is hard to chose highlights but C.K .Williams’s free verse is an inspired partner for Eurpides’s Bacchae while Paul Muldoon’s deft wit and sly half-rhyme chimes perfectly with Aristophanes’s Birds. Editor Edmund Keeley’s collaborations with Philip Sherrard on their now-iconic versions of Cavafy are always welcome but poet James Merrill’s version of ‘On an Italian Shore’ also beguiles. As the sensualist Kimos watches treasures being unloaded in southern Italy from conquering Roman ships – ‘Greek booty. Spoils of Corinth’ in Cavafy’s italic typography – he becomes, through Merrill’s inspired semantics, not the ‘Italiotes’ or ‘Greek-Italian’ of the text but ‘Italicized’, an apt metaphor for the poem’s understated irony. Uncovering a new version which turns the original upside down, changing it for ever, is one of the great pleasures of translation. The Greek Poets provides many such moments.
In his Ancient Greek Lyrics, almost continually in print since 1962 and now available in a fine new edition – its fourth – for Indiana University Press, Willis Barnstone also celebrates the restorative power of translation, an opportunity, as he argues, ‘for languages to interact upon each another, for one tongue to alter and enrich the possibilities of expression in another’. Another alumni of The Greek Poets, Barnstone’s volume covers some of the same ground from the archaic lyric of Archilochus, Semonides and Alcaeus to the late classical epigrams of the Palatine Anthology. As in The Greek Poets, it is good to see lesser known names among the more renowned, especially those of the few extant Greek women poets; Telesilla appears alongside Alcman, Corinna and Praxilla alongside Pindar and Anyte with Callimachus (although, sadly, Erinna and Nossis are missing). Barnstone’s delicate and considered versions of Sappho, in particular, have long been inspirational to all her subsequent translators, underlining how, as Ezra Pound and H.D. first discovered, the ‘very poverty of the lacunae-ridden text contributes a poignancy and quality of modernity which the reconstructed text lacks’. Here they are once again accompanied by Barnstone’s excellent introductory essays, accompanied by ancient and modern testimonials as well as extensive notes.
Barnstone’s strategy of adding poem titles, recontextualising the ancient fragment on the modern page, not only avoids the need for lengthier footnotes, as he explains, but also replicates the effect of their ancient frame – late classical writings that quote single lines or even words of the older text, often with explicatory comments. And so Sappho fragment 24a is transformed into ‘Time of Youth’:
we did these things
in our youth
‘Without love and esteem,’ Barnstone muses, ‘a work drifts away to nowhere’. Thanks to these two admirable and essential volumes, the legacy of Greek verse, ancient and modern, remains firmly anchored.
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