HIDDEN, UNCOVERED, WASHED ASHORE


Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1 and 2, translated by Ian Brinton and Michael Grant (20pp and 28pp, 5.00 each, Oystercatcher Press)
Sisters, Jennifer Copley (84pp, 7.95, Smokestack Books)
the light user scheme, Richard Skinner (86pp, 7.95, Smokestack Books)
The Elephant Tests, Matt Merritt (84pp, 8.99, Nine Arches Press)
Hide, Angela France (68pp, 8.99, Nine Arches Press)
Littoral, Patricia Debney (74pp, 8.95, Shearsman Books)


My two favourite collections of French poetry in translation in recent times have come in bilingual editions - the treasure chest that is In the Deep Street: Seven Modern French Poets 1938-2008,  edited and translated by Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer (Anvil 2009) and Susan Wicks' versions of Valerie Rouzeau's skittery, fragmentary, dazedly innovative poems of loss in Cold Spring in Winter (Arc 2009). Having the French originals present allows the poems to be sampled and admired in their original state, with the aid of the translation should you need it, while making the choices and resourcefulness of the translators apparent and acting as clarification of any imprecisions/ambiguities in the English versions.

Coming in two pamphlets, from a press famously set up as a pamphlet publisher, Ian Brinton and Michael Grant's translations of Yves Bonnefoy have no scope for inclusion of original French texts or indeed for any editorial matter, such as stated principles of selection or arrangement. The translucency of Bonnefoy's language, however, his unforced utterance and mainly uncluttered syntax in the poems I've seen in their original language, lead me to suppose that the clarity of these versions mirrors the originals effectively, though I'm not sure whether an apparent tightening of focus in the second pamphlet derives from the poet's development, the translators' increasing facility or my own getting more accustomed to Bonnefoy' poetic world. This world is one built of carefully selected and repeated elements - such as fire, stone, garden, shore, churchyard - at once physically palpable and resonantly symbolic. The 'opposite shore' glimmers, the dead surround us in our waking and sleeping, the poet sits in the middle of it all to find a depth and a numinosity on the edge of revelation. Bonnefoy is revealed as an indispensible voice.

   What is the landscape of the dead,
   Have they like us the right to roads,
   Are the words they speak more real,
   Are they the spirit of the leaves or of even higher leaves?

   Has Phoenix built them a castle,
   Prepared for them a table?
   The cry of some bird in the fire of some tree
   Is it the space where they huddle together?

   Perhaps they lie in the leaf of the ivy,
   Their words unravelled
   Into the harbour of torn leaves, where the night comes in.
         ('The Landscape of the Dead')

Smokestack continues to produce neat, well-designed, smaller-format collections. The two reviewed here make a positive statement about press aims and values, which have always been robustly resistant to the easy and the fashionable. Jennifer Copley's
Sisters, in fact, has one of the more unsettling cover photos I've seen on a poetry book - two girls facing away from the camera into a painted backdrop, an image from the Thanatos Archive of Victorian memorial photographs. Both are dead. The contents in part flesh out (probably the wrong phrase) a putative back story for this image, and in part look more widely at sisterhood and the claustrophobia, cruelties and losses of family life. The imaginative confidence with which Copley tackles these topics keeps us engaged as we enter a world of ghosts and folk tale logic, sometimes scarily explicit, sometimes allusive.

   The first sign it was going to be over
   was the wind tearing down rose branches.

   Her sister began to have a faraway look,
   a leaning away look,

   going out in secret, scuffing her footprints
   so nobody could follow.
         ('Summer')


Richard Skinner's poems of 6 and 7 lines, each presenting a compressed narrative that is never quite explicit or straightforward, remind me of Borges' remark in his essay 'The Wall And The Books' about the imminence of a revelation that never in fact takes place being 'the aesthetic fact'. Throughout, we find ourselves witnessing from odd, obscured or sidelong viewpoints a parade of vignettes. Readers will find them inescapably moreish, or a tease that can only be read in short bursts, or too clever by half. But observe Skinner's virtuosity in ringing the changes, even within this miniscule form, on the scene built up in opening lines that might go anywhere, until the twist that redirects our attention to an unexpected detail, the revelation of sideways. It's this new viewpoint that often brings the whole into focus, like standing at a slant to see the anamorphic skull in Holbein's Ambassadors. My reaction was usually to reread imediately, and I'll be reading these again.

   Driving one night in the rain, he nearly falls asleep.
   He stops for coffee, looks at his hand.

   He remembers that night together with her. When she thought him asleep,
   she got up, stretched and touched the window -
   he wondered what new weather she had divined.

   Next morning, she woke him,
   stroked his palm and told him the news.
         ('delay horizon')

Scaling up from publishing pamphlets to full collections, Nine Arches are offering some interesting work. Matt Merritt offers controlled, reflective poems, often engaged with the natural world and served with a sprinkling of melancholic cadence. It's easy to read inattentively and think that they're not exactly setting the heather on fire - some of them don't - but flashes of real imagistic brilliance and surreal humour ignite the collection and get the attention. The analogy between watching birds - waiting for one to manifest itself, display, stay or leave too soon - and writing poetry is subtly made, that living in the indefinite second-by-second of intense concentration and hope. Nor is the personal neglected:

   Our train is a clockwork toy
   in primary colours
   sent stammering
   into a sun-bright suburb.

   The blazing presentiment
   of summer all the way
   along the line is still
   only knotweed and willow-herb.

   This impossible sky
   must hide the same stars
   we've held to blame
   so many times.
        ('Second Marriage')
                                  

Angela France, in Hide, examines aspects of the concealed, its covering and uncovering, the occluded narratives whose real meanings the reader is sent to seek, the presence of the poet and the voices used to reveal or conceal that personality, the cached objects, physically there or remembered, that trigger retrieval or realisation. Some darkly atmospheric work results, with a feel of the folk tale, but France's skill for bringing back the absent person or the earlier self through inventories of diverse associated objects is employed rather too often, or perhaps just for too many poems in close proximity, though each exemplar hits the spot:

   So many small lives, pushing through
   soil before our feet; cogs within
   clocks; wintering bees; the black skin
   of polar bears; the missing screw;
   the way I still feel about you.
   How swifts live a whole life in flight;
   the words in a book when the light
   is out; squirrels' hoards; the odd sock;
   the sculpture in a rough wood block;
   what terrors wake me through the night.
         ('What is Hidden')

What specifically is happening in Patricia Debney's taut, nervy set of prose poems is spelt out on the back cover and on the acknowledgements page - the family illnesss, the subsequent writing residency in a beach hut. None of this is explicit in the text - we have hints of the personal issues, the strains and the hurt, but it is the interaction of mood and the always changing seascape and skyscape that the poems consider, the way that a cohabitation with the titanic indifference of the littoral influences an adjustment and a new balance. The lines and paragraphs of the prose poems reflect and are a counterpoint to the tidal cycles and the ever-shifting rhythms of the sea, the inexhaustible variations of sky.

   This particular wind has blown a long way over open water. Dipping down like a bird or swirling up out of sight, but mostly held tight to the tops of numerous waves, at once urging and holding on for life.

   A distance I've travelled. Between continents, across years. Land mass after land mass, hillock and cliff, shore and flowering wood - all could have stopped me. Should have, perhaps.

    Today is frighteningly brisk. It wouldn't take much to tear a sail, collapse some stones. Let go the rope. I'm so tired, now that I think about it, of keeping us afloat.
          ('The Fetch')

   Alasdair Paterson 2014