By Peter Riley.
Judith Willson, Colour Standards.
14 cards in two packs, post free from the poet here
I’m fascinated tangentially by what I’d call an ”American pastoral” version of England and Europe. Not to do with sheep but with an isolation of moments of perception and participation in a given cultural assembly. The “guides” she adopts along the way are essentially current figures in poetical discourse: for eastern England Clare but not Crabbe, Iain Sinclair but not M.R. James; for the tension of the equilibrium throughout, Paul Celan (The Meridian) rather than Douglas Oliver; and for the progressively sectional continuity Jack Spicer rather than, say, Astrophil and Stella. These are just some of the tour guides that would occur to me for a different trip. They don’t damage the poetry, and I think the only possibly weak moments are when direct address is undertaken to denounce political harm, where the voice of poeticized perception seems too small and remote for the purpose.
COLOUR STANDARDS IS two sets of seven postcards issued at an exhibition of paintings by Heather Boxhall in Hebden Bridge, October 2018, based on the 1954 edition of The British Colour Council Dictionary of Colour Standards (found by the artist in a skip outside an abandoned textile factory) – a collection of colour silk swatches with text. The paintings are washes of one colour, the lower half showing a different texture. The postcards show 14 of the paintings, with a five-line poem by Judith Willson added to each. This is
She is eighteen and wants to be written
as a new story – a shining fiord, a ship
climbing into new minted air.
His chair clasps her in its arms. Sir,
I am not myself, you see.
£5 per pack of seven or £9 the set of 14 cards in two packs, post free. Order from the poet here.
ROBERT DESNOS WROTE a lot of poetry,2 in which very different things can happen, but there is a constancy. When he was a member of the Surrealist group he was never confined to the Surrealist ethos in his writing (and was ejected in 1930), and in the thousand-plus pages of his complete works various kinds of linguistic juggling, submersion in post-symbolist rapture and silly songs continue to share the space with what is perhaps his real trade-mark: a smooth, richly inventive, passionate line of intimate declaration in the most transparent French, which he never abandoned. They all run together, and all the jabberwockery and all the funny faces are part of the same impassioned flow. He reminds me to some degree of Lee Harwood, a kind of poet to which Martin Bell is a complete contrary.
Je t’ apport une petite algue qui se mêlait à l’écume de la mer et ce peigne
I bring you a little bit of seaweed tangled with sea spray and this comb (William Kulik, 1991)
I bring you a little seaweed mixed with sea-foam and this comb (Bell)
You can’t complain. You can’t complain about any of them. The French is not difficult, the translators don’t mess around, they are aware of the feel and flow of the line, they avoid the untranslatable, it’s before you and it works. But how glad I am that my French is still good enough to register the open-vowelled second-person-singular pathetic patter of the first words, and how the A sound modulates to É/EI through the line with that steady wave-like rhythmic movement, falling to peigne, pronounced almost as peine , a French word of very wide meaning in the area of suffering. Nor will I fret about se mélait being a mildly past tense. In the above sentence Bell comes off slightly better than Kulik, who twice interposes consonantal jerks (bit of, tangled).
Most of the English versions I’ve seen are generally in agreement with each other whether the French is plain or fancy, and Bell gets through both without mishaps. Some might find that Bell’s versions in some of their particulars suffer from a rather inflexible insistence on that “clarity” which wants to explain what it is saying as it speaks, and loses some of the rolling flow or delirium of the lines, and in the more difficult passages follows the French word for word in a teacherly mode.
THIS SELECTED POEMS and Letters is the total of Middleton’s work on Hölderlin, gathered together from various printed sources. My German doesn’t allow me to comment on the translations, which I would expect to be expert and scrupulous and, as he says, concerned especially with Hölderlin’s “inwardness”. Although he represents the scholarly side of things (compared, say, with Gascoyne) he is willing to take some liberties, in spacing but not, I think, in vocabulary, confirming his belief in a certain ancestral affinity between H. and “Ginberg to Olson”, so “projecting” the text. I’m not sure about this thesis but if it disrupts the steady pressure of the original it does so only occasionally. One of the essays is on Michael Hamburger’s translations, appreciative but demanding, and three are on particular poems Middleton has translated, concerning, inter alia, how you cannot be too careful.
Middleton’s essays, whether they’re about Hölderlin or any poetry on earth are always valuable studies, and will intermittently throw out statements not to be forgotten, such as this one: “The ensuing exploration [by Hölderlin and Goethe] of what we might call ‘positive irrationality’ marked as crucial a point in the life of the Western poetic mind as the exploration later, by such writers as Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Kafka, of negative irrationality, the bane of our own century.” Worth thinking about.
IN INCOMPREHENSIBLE LESSON, the ‘translator’, Anthony Howell, works from the author’s (Fawzi Karim) own English, and I don’t know exactly what the division of labour is, but whatever it is the results are impressive. There is a constantly satisfying sense of mixed emotions elegantly realised in sturdy English lines. It is all the exile’s lament, Baghdad and London saddening and consoling each other through human encounters and solitary wanderings. Two long poems are particularly notable for sustained pressure and invention: “The Empty Quarter”: the city as speeded-up desert, and “In the Shadow of Gilgamesh”, where a whole Mesopotamian mythology collapses into hopes and partings in the bars and beds of the empty world. The distress is unrelenting but a sense of resilience emerges through the layers of displaced languages.
IT’S USEFUL TO have a translation of (almost) all of Laforgue’s last two collections, which have a character of their own The translator obviously has a firm grip on the language and gives a good impression of the tone (a kind of dejected and bored posturing) of these texts. But however Laforgue might be thought of as responsible for vers libre one thing he didn’t abandon was end-rhyming, in fact he rhymed constantly, sometimes haphazardly and sometimes intensely, and Peter Rafferty insists on an English rhyme to match every one, and often has to be content with very rough echoes. This may not matter too much in the longer-line poems, but in the short–line poems where the rhyming is so prominent as to suggest that the whole compositional process was led by it, we end up in a different vocabulary making different and inevitably weaker gestures.
On dit : l’ Express
Des gens cosmiques!…
Train to Benares:
All aboard please!
Come to the temples!…
- Carcanet has produced two substantial books from what those who must will call the “Cambridge” and “pastoral” avant-gardes respectively. John Wilkinson, My Reef My Manifest Array. (192pp paperback. £13. $16.55) is tough ecstatic; the title in itself shows you the kind of strong verbal displacements you’ll meet. Harry Gilonis, Rough Breathing: Selected Poems. (234pp paperback. £14.08. $12.99). All sorts of things from all over the world are treated to a kind of grammatical suspension and spaced-out sound-plotting. The almost complete absence of upper case letters and lines longer then four syllables is indicative.
- Longbarrow Press has another elegantly crafted hardback: Mark Goodwin, Rock as Gloss. (184pp. £13) about rock-climbing, amply and intricately treated in prose, verse, syllables, greyed and vertical lines…a precarious route up and down the poet.
- Alan Baker, Riverrun (2019, Knives Forks and Spoons. 70pp. £9) Punctuationless but straight-talking and thoughtful 14-liners, concerning the River Trent.
As an appendix to my recent ‘Note on Prose Poems’, three relevant books arrived from Shearsman at the last minute—
- Peter Dent, A Wind-up Collider (2019, 106pp. £9.95. $17.00). These pieces are actually discussion and declaration prose which usually starts to “go wrong” after the first sentence and after threading its way through destabilized language usually ends up with something resembling, at least in tone, a lesson or concluding moral.
- Linda Black. Slant (2016, 96pp. £9.95. $10.14.) and Root (2011, 78pp. £9.95). Slant consists of lineated poems, Root of prose poems [sic] and the difference is striking. Partly querying my definitions, the verse poems are carefully poised objective meditations liable to “float” syntactically, sometimes pleasingly mock pastoral. The prose poems take a longer breath and more focussed attention, reaching a pitch of impersonal realism which I can’t see the verse poems attaining, but which are five years older than the verse and I think there is another prose poetry book which may or may not confirm this.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of prose and poetry, including Collected Poems in two volumes (Shearsman 2018) and a new book, Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls (Longbarrow Press 2019). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.
- The description “paperback” includes books bound in thin card with or without folding flaps, as most of them now are.
- See, for example, ‘Rrose Sélevy’ in a new translation by Simon Collings for the Fortnightly.