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…

Friday, 30 November 2012

Yeats and Amichai: the best, the worst and trampling the garden

Like many other atheists, I was following the Church of England’s vote on women bishops with appalled fascination.  The motion in favour failed in the house of laity partly because the conservative evangelical wing of the church had organised to get its representatives elected, with such a vote in mind.  This is one of those news stories for which these two lines from Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ seem especially appropriate:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I love the tone of half-disengaged, half-horrified distaste.  Maybe, in the case of the CofE, the best will now acquire some intensity.  Why does the Church spend so much time agonising on gender issues, rather than concentrating on what’s happening to the world? I sometimes ask an Anglican friend of mine. Ah we do all that, she says, but it doesn’t get reported in the media!

In fact, I love the whole poem, which is 93 years old.  1919: the mindset behind this poem is post-First World War, post-Russian Revolution, and not least, in Ireland, post-Easter Rising.  One interesting aspect is its apparent ambiguity about revolution. But the main thing is that the poem refuses to be interpreted too easily, despite the forthrightness of many of its statements, and so it opens rather than closes the mind.  Here it is (hand-typed from Yeats’ Collected, not copied-and-pasted off the internet, in case you’re wondering).

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The only newspaper I buy regularly is the Guardian on Saturdays, and (like many other atheists) I enjoy Giles Fraser’s column. Recently – in the context of Israel/Palestine – he quoted from a poem new to me but immediately unforgettable. Here are the first few lines of Yehuda Amichai’s short poem, translated by Stephen Mitchell, ‘The Place Where We Are Right’:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

This makes me think: yes, I need to remember that sometimes.  And then: but extremists are always ready to trample the ground (see Yeats, above, and organised religion) which makes it hard for anyone to stop them without doing the same.

I have just been mentally trampling the ground over this: Cameron prevents climate change expert from heading the Department of Energy and Climate Change.  (One can register to read 8 FT articles a month for free; I tend to forget to read mine, which is a waste – the FT isn’t wholly given over to Mammon, though it has less space for high quality political analysis than it used to.) 

Oh, for the poetry equivalent of Steve Bell & co to capture such crass, devious stupidity, concentrate our fury and make us laugh at the same time… And where is Yeats when we need him?
And had he been visiting the British Museum's Assyrian galleries?