Doubtful

 

Solitudes and other early poems, Antonio Machado, translated by Michael Smith and Luis Ingelmo, (165pp,, Shearsman)

Quantum Poetics, Gwyneth Lewis
(62pp, £9.95, Newscastle Centre for the Literary Arts/Bloodaxe)

 

 

The Spanish language is so different from English I wonder if reading a Spanish poet's poetry is really possible in translation. In this sense, it's an aside to say find some of these poems in the earlier Selected Poems (translated by Alan S Trueblood, Harvard UP 1982/2003) and you will find different English 'translations'; an aside, too, my experiment of putting lines of the Spanish into the online translator and, to my mind, finding something more fluent. A very small sample, of course, I wouldn't bank on 150 pages coming back to me, even with small rearrangements of grammar, as an authentic carrying over.

 

For the harsher reality is that the two languages - the two climates and cultures? - arise from different sounds of being human. As far as I can see, Machado (1875-1939) left no sound recordings, none on YouTube anyway, which does have other people reading his poems, and their voices - as Machado's would have been - have a radically other presence.

 

Just a few examples of variable translation in the book under review. In poem XXV111, Michael Smith has 'the pallor in our visages', which seemed to me awkward in the extreme; the web translator gave me 'our faces pale' which might better be 'our pale faces'; the Spanish has: 'de nuestroa rostos pálidos'.

 

A more curious instance: the opening line of XLVII (The gallows), for which Smith has: 'Dawn was breaking'. This seemed to be ordinary, obvious; the online transaltor gave me 'Dawn pecked', which I rather like. The Spanish: 'La aurora asomaba'. (Neither poem appeared in the Selected Poems).

 

I do find much of the translation awkward, and in part because it seems to lack voice; of course it lacks Machado's and there's no avoiding the difference. But I mean I cannot hear an original translating voice, Machado's is lost and there isn't the living thing in its place. Perhaps these 'early poems' are heard also by Spanish readers as apprentice works. Here is the whole of XXV ( ... in the original):

 

   Delicate rustle of tunics

   over the barren earth ...

   And the sonorous weeping

   of the old bells.

 

   The dying embers

   of the horizon smoulder ...

   White household spectres

   kindling stars.

 

   'Open the balcony window.

   The hour of rapture approaches ...

   The evening is fast asleep

   and the bells are dreaming.'

 

 

A niggle about Gwyneth Lewis's Quantum Poetics is that it has not been well copy-edited: small moments where it seems a sentence has been changed in typescript or by hand and not corrected before printing. A more central cavil I have is the assumption that 'we' are all in this as to understanding and practice, in the making of poems. On page 36, speaking - these chapters do come across as publically spoken - on the work of Anne Carson she says, 'Carson's collage engages us sufficiently....' I object to that 'us', which is assumed throughout. And I'm not sure that the lectures' title means more than an intelligent talk about poetry. She does speak of quantum physics specifically, but to what different end?

 

Another - and confessional - way of saying this is that I read straight through the book slowly and it hasn't stayed with me. Very likely my fault,

 

Anyway, returning to it now, to pages I have marked, I am again doubtful, for instance about how the third lecture begins: 'Every poem is a cosmology'. Is it? She brings in Skaldic poetry, the Exeter Book, Dafydd ap Gwilym, Paul Muldoon, and so on, all of which or whom I was glad to be reminded, and on to cynghanedd - interesting and reminding me how daunting - on to David Bohm, theoretical physicist (new to me) and mental processes and (the final page) to Hugh of Saint Victor on exile.

 

No bad thing for these connections to be made to a wider reading public, not least of Welsh literary history, and to seek to connect in Bohm and Einstein, to discuss time-space and to wonder about the truths of poetry, and here is Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas and not to forget Taliesin's shape-shifting and (p.20) the question whether poetry 'can be a health-giving activity'or have 'injurious effects' - Yes, the book is different and I have talked myself into re-reading it fragmentarily.

 

Whether or not 'quantum' carries particular and enlightening meaning here, the book as cross-referencing is worth, as one might say, hearing.

 

        © David Hart 2015