Sunday, 30 December 2012

Orchid Dog, and flu

Orchid Dog swells at dusk,
claiming the clapboard moor,
its chambered cairns and basalt topknots.

The dog from Jen Hadfield’s eponymous poem appeared in my sleep the other night. Or did he?  I’ve got flu, and don’t know anything any more.  It’s a great first line / idea, both vividly realistic and dreamlike.  The poem is from Hadfield’s first collection Almanacs, published (Bloodaxe) in 2005, which I got hold of because someone claimed it was better than its TS Eliot prize-winning successor.  I’m not sure about that, but it’s good. 

She describes light and landscape very well, and the experience of being there, how thoughts come out of it.  ‘Thrimilce – Isbister’ is only nine lines long, it could be an act of vandalism to quote part of it but the whole poem is here.

Cheddared, the light sealed
in rind of dry road;
bloom and sheen of the ditches
I’ve been dreaming all this life;

There’s plenty else going on in the book, though I didn’t get the Tarot references until I’d read the blurb on the back (put it down to the flu).  The language is the most interesting aspect of all – Hadfield’s use of language is brilliant and original.  Both those quotes give a sense of how she uses simple, though not necessarily common, words to make something new.  I think she uses very few Latinate words.  (Somewhere, someone must have invented a computer programme to analyse this.)   This suits her adopted landscape of the far north, untouched by Roman boots or weather.

Other reading while in bed: William Letford’s Bevel, which is very enjoyable; see also the Carcanet New Poetries V anthology, which I think contains most of the best poems in this collection.  Coleridge.  A novel called Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, written in a sort of British magic realism.  One bit of possibly undeliberate unrealism is that one of the central characters is a London-based poet, who lives more than comfortably off his royalties.  Is that what novelists (and their editors) think poets do? 

I’ve been musing on the absence of flu from poetry.  All that physical and psychological misery, unexploited!  But who would be well enough to write it, and who would want to read it?  It feels as though my breath doesn’t belong to me any more – instead it belongs to the Bank, who regularly threaten to foreclose. 

OK, all breath is on loan… now we’re talking poetry.  Anyway, I googled ‘poetry about flu’ and it was all comic.  But at least the subjects Google offers when one types in ‘poetry about’ are what they should be.  In order:

death, love, music, women, beauty, war, nature, autumn, dreams, time.

Shame about the absence of men – a by-product of the male canon?  And the absence of cities – perhaps a by-product of what people think poetry should be about, but also what they would go to it for.  ‘Music’ seems a strange entry, so high up.  In my current state I appreciate it that death comes before love.  Now I’m going back to Jen Hadfield’s Orchid Dog for consolation.

He raises a field-full of white gulls,
shadow bruising a bloated sheep. 
He jerks and swings a mouthful of rank ribbons. 
PS: someone's pointed out that Michael Donaghy wrote a poem called ‘My Flu’. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

‘Ashes and Diamonds’ - following a quotation

Poster by Wojciech Fangor
Andrzej Wajda made Ashes and Diamonds in 1958, in  post-Stalinist Poland. It is after a novel of the same name by  Jerzy Andrzejewski, written in 1948, whose action took place  on 8-9 May 1945, as the second world war was ending.  Peace  arrived with civil war in its arms.  I saw the film in a Polish  cinema in the 1980s.  It had escaped significant censorship,  probably because Polish censors tended to concentrate on  words rather than visuals. Bureaucrats need to be able to  produce reasons, however spurious. As Wajda said (in his  unpublished autobiography, according to some old BFI film  notes I’ve got), there’s “something ungraspable, between  sound and picture, that constitutes the soul of film”.    
The novel was published too, though.  My Polish state publishing company edition had to be thrown out a few years ago because something was eating it (censoring bookworms?  too small to see, but whatever it was had a taste for 80’s East European glue).  
Like most Polish films about the war, Ashes and Diamonds ends tragically.  There's a good account of it by Derek Malcolm of the Guardian, here. I used to watch old films on my black-and-white, crackly Polish TV.  Not at all like British films about the war.  One should not assume that heroes, or hope, will survive. That would be unrealistic, from a Polish perspective, given what happened there during the war.  Also because of afterwards; dying, loss of hope, were the outcomes that made sense.  It felt like that in the mid-80s, after the suppression of Solidarity. 

The title that film and novel share comes from a play ‘Za Kulisami’ (‘Backstage’) by the mid-19th century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid.  There's more about him here.  I think it’s from a verse prologue to a play-within-a-play.  There’s a scene near the end of the film where the hero Maciej (played by the charismatic Zbigniew Cybulski, known as the Polish James Dean) and the girl he’s just fallen for, Christina (Ewa Krzyżanowska), take shelter in a bombed-out church.  She deciphers a memorial inscription on the wall; the writing gets fainter but Maciej knows it by heart, tells her it’s by Norwid and finishes it for her.  Listening, we understand that Maciej IS the person being addressed in the poem.  In Polish history, one century can often speak for another.  The scene’s on YouTube, here.  I did try to embed it but lost the whole post and had to start again...

The words they read, being from a play, are not in my Norwid Selected, which I also bought when living in Poland – probably after seeing the film.  I’d never seen them written down until a couple of weeks ago, the first time in this age of the internet that I’d thought of looking.  

Coraz to z ciebie, jako z drzazgi smolnej,        
Wokoło lecą szmaty zapalone;              
Gorejąc, nie wiesz, czy stawasz się wolny,
Czy to, co twoje, ma być zatracone?

Czy popiół tylko zostanie i zamęt,             
Co idzie w przepaść z burzą? – czy zostanie
Na dnie popiołu gwiaździsty dyjament,
Wiekuistego zwycięstwa zaranie!...

I can’t find it in English, apart from the subtitles on the film clip, so have done a version, still work in progress, for a translation night at the Torriano this Sunday.  Do come if you're within range, and bring a translated poem to read.  

Time and again you flare up, firebrand
with blazing embers flying here and there;
you burn, not knowing whether you’ll gain freedom
or lose everything that you hold dear.

What will be left, only ashes, and chaos
hurling you into the void? – or will there be
a diamond underneath the ashes – starlike,
first dawn of everlasting victory!...

The torch is 19th-century, if not medieval – a length of wood dipped in pitch – I can’t make that work.  I have turned a simile at the beginning into a metaphor and taken other liberties.  I had remain / dawn as the end-rhymes in the second verse, but changed it; ‘or will there remain’ was clumsy, and if the emotion is in the sounds, then the poem prefers full rhyme.  I can’t do abab, as in the original.  Maybe I could if I were on a desert island.  Should one aim to replicate the feminine line-endings, which the Polish has throughout, in English?  I don’t think it has the same effect.  But I’ve changed ‘like a star’ to ‘starlike’ to add another one.

Norwid lived his adult life as an exile in Paris, usually impoverished, often lonely and ill.  Poet, painter, sculptor, novelist, playwright, he wasn’t much appreciated during his lifetime.  He has been compared to Emily Dickinson, whose contemporary he was – not that either of them would have known.  One thing they have in common is punctuation.  They also share a sort of gnomic mix of simplicity and complexity.  Norwid’s work was set much more in the wider world.  I’ve been translating a couple of other poems by him – apart from the generic problem of turning something 150 years old into English, they are difficult because they are odd, and it’s hard to gauge oddity in a foreign language. 

I’ve just had another look at the film clip, and there’s something odd about the inscription on the church wall that Christina reads from.  It doesn’t have line breaks, and seems to miss some of the text out and have extra bits.  Like Christina, I can’t make it all out…