Poetry we need


Tokonoma
, José Kozer, translated by Peter Boyle (241pp, Shearsman)
A landscape blossoms within me
, Eeva Kilpi,
   translated by Dinald Adamson (117pp, Arc)
Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance
, Wioletta Greg,
   translated by Marek Kazmierski (123pp, Arc)



Sometimes the effect of a book is immediate, even before proper consideration of what it is one is reading. Indeed, 'proper consideration', where the effect is joyful, may even lose it. Reading is a curious activity, it interrupts, and is interruped by, whatever other activity precedes and follows. 'What a relief and pleasure' or 'don't have the time for this'.
           
Another way of saying this is is to wonder what in the making of poetry can be falsified, play-acted, put on as a show, and what can only be (a shifty word even so) genuine. Not least in this - as it were - bargaining, is (between one activity and another) what one brings to
the reading.
           
I was intrigued to enter José Kozer's Tokonoma
, knowing nothing of his writing previously, and to find myself reading down his columns of short lines (mirror of the Spanish on the preceding page) that seemed at once ro rush me on and want me to slow down.
      
The only biographical information is on the back cover; it confuses cultural identity immediately: that he was born in 1940 in Havana of Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland and Czechoslovakia; much of his later life then university teaching (Spanish and Latin American Literature) in New York, retired now and living in Florida.
     
The book is (seems) something else again: sections of 'Concentration', of 'Meditation' and of 'Satori'. Even knowing his (compressed) biography, who really is the man who has written these, as seem, solitary sequences?
     
So, to begin again, the effect on me was to be led into this solitariness. A section of 'Contemplation' starting on page 97 reaches this on page 99:

   Such are the mental formations of one who
               without being a
                contemplative
                contemplates from
                a large bed through
                a double window
                a sycamore's crown,
                the change of seasons,
                the new century's
                (permanent) evils:
                he hears galloping
                (four horsemen) sees
                snow fall, turns his
                back to the window,
                continues listening:
                buds are sprouting:
                cicadas singing:
                sap dries: a leaf
                breaks loose: spinning

and so on to page 100, by which time and place Chuang Tzu is again present (out of his sleep, or that all of this has emerged from his sleep) and (to lose the thread here and find it again), the final lines,

               look how
   they're sharing out two
   changes of bed
   clothes, how they're
   burning papes
   at the entrance.

In a Satori sequence towards the end of the book:

   He lies down, fourth person, at the foot of a stupa,
              Buddha's face, slimy
              skin, boxwood flakes:
              the ears (a part of the
   pillar of the Universe)
   reach to his knees
   (much laughter) (the
   monks split their
   sides pointing at
   him): he's lying at
   the entrance to the
   Meditation Hut, the
   morning sun flays
   him, the pre-dawn moon
   has stripped him of all
   the images he's had
   and his joy knows
   no limit) will have.

It is not unknown to Buddhism that it's all a big joke. While yet in order to arrive at this big joke is either luck or hard meditational work or both.
           
There are 230 pages of such columns, halve that for the translations, and there is no guide because (I suppose) the work is its own coming into being out of itself.
        
The translator is Australian with several books of his own poems in print; you are lucky (as I am not, other than to sense the sound and flow) if you can read the Spanish. As to the English, in a country where the language is being degraded into thoughtless cliché, there is here a freshness and a delight, itself an essential of playful wisdom. 
           

The Arc website says Eeva Kilpi is one of Finland's best-loved writers, a Wikipedia entry says she is better known abroad than in her own country, but there are lots of web sites referring to and quoting her poems. This book is her first full-length to be translated into English. She was born in February 1928. Curious that this is the first English translation, but then translation whimsically depends on there being a willing or desiring translator, on who will pay, and who will publish.
    
She is known, I learn now, as a light-hearted writer and as a feminist. My reading of the book tells me she is a fluent talker and that the lightness has a solemn edge to it, especially in the later poems. It is more rare than might be superfically supposed to find such a poet: she talks well, or one has to say the translation talks well and I trust this to be true to her own writing voice. The poems date from collections between 1972 and 2000, and I would reckon this to be an excellent book for a writing or reading group.
           
Most of the poems are brief, often two to a page; none is titled. Here are two poems, one from early and one from late in the chronological order:

   Will you fuck for a grand? he said
   at the bus-stop at half past midnight.
   Frost lay on the empty streets all around.
   At first I shook my head, but then I said;
   Not for money, but if you will do the vacuuming and the washing up.
   Then he was the one who shook his head
   and he turned to go, dejected and forlorn.
                            -------------
   In this moment I own all those I have loved,
   it's that kind of day:
  so old have I become,
   so old are they -
   except for you my dear, my late-born one.
   In you they have all been waiting for me
   and thus, at last, I fall into their arms
   unconditionally,
   thus at last I forgive
   and beg forgiveness.
   That's the power of love.
   I return them to their boyhood
   as if I had never hurt them.
   But you, my dear, I command
   to desire me
   like knowledge,
   insatiably.


Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance is something else again, from the Polish poet Wioletta Greg, (born 1974) who lives now, since 2006, on the Isle of Wight.
                                                                                                                   
The book is in two parts, the first poems, the second, 'Notes from an island', a prose journal. All of the second and some of the first date from her time now in England. All are in Polish, with translations.
      
As translation becomes more common and as poets move around the world, for a while or permanently, the pasts of writing will become more shared, a catching up with each other, and will come fresh also from each other's presents. In the present tense perhaps and as gifts.
                                                                                                                   
A poem, 'Sleepless in Ryde', towards the end of the poems, has a quoted subtitle from Kafka from his diaries 1910-1923, in Polish, translated into English, 'A void separates me from everything/ and so I don't even go near the edge'
. This is rich enough already: Kafka quoted in Polish on the Isle of Wight, and the short poem opens this up to,

   A speckled iris - a ginger cat on the window sill,
   shiny fur on the edge of air
   jumping out of itself
   just to catch a puff-ball.

   An Englishwoman released by a Victorian tenement.
   Let the walls forgive her daily cursing.
   At night, the void opens up, cracking the temples,
   full of a child's cries and whistling ferries.

I wish I knew whether 'temple' has a double meaning in Polish.
                                                                                                                   
I write this on the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the first world war, and I wonder the extent to which British poets in recent decades have been reckoning still with that war, with what it meant and still may mean now. A three stanza poem in this book, 'Grandfather on a bridge July 1914', opens with this,

   Crowds rushing the bridge, the boy barely seven
   out of breath and running, forced to abandon
   his basket of hatchlings. His lolly slips into
   the river, while mother, so late for the market,
   haggles over roubles with an old babushka.

What is this word 'lolly' here? If I recall rightly, this was a word in use for money. The translator must have a reason to choose it and the poet to accept it.  And we are in tricky territory here, the translation of the past into either a researched equivalent or into the language of the present.
                                                                                                                   
Other poems summon up the past and there is throughout the book a starkness of image, an engagement with life where it hurts. The journal part of the book, about a third of it, moves from a line such as 'I feel closer to ghosts than to the living' to a more laidback anecdote:

   I go into a shop with old furniture and in the corner spot a beautiful, antique dressing-table.
       "Is it art nouveau?" I ask in English.
   The young shopkeeper shrugs, shaking his head.
       "Nope, think it's oak."

The more intense past never disappears, though, from the present, and this is a book, its poems especially, that, with the others here, I hope will circulate widely. We need such poetry.

      David Hart 2015