A mode of mind


The Night Fountain, Selected Early poems
, Salvatore Quasimodo
   Translated by Marco Sonzogni & Gerald Dawe (86pp, Arc)
The Sum Total of Violations
, Regina Derieva
   Translated by Daniel Weissbort (161pp, Arc)
The Flights of Zarza
, Fernando Kofman
   Translated by Ian Taylor (94pp, Arc VISIBLE POETS 22)
The the Edge of Night, Anise Koltz
   Translated by Anne-Marie Glasheen (152pp, Arc VISIBLE POETS 24)
Prague With Fingers Of Rain
, Vitezslav Nezval
   Translated by Ewald Osers (64pp, £8.95, Bloodaxe)


It puzzles me why some of the Arc translated poets are 'visible', and what that implies about the others. The series editor, Jean Boase-Beier, has a note in the visibles, to say that the 'prevailing view of translated poetry, especially in England,... maintains that it should read as though it had originally been written in English. The books in the 'Visible Poets' series aim to challenge that view.' To challenge it by carrying over what is alive and worth the name of poetry in the original.
   
What then of the Arc non-visibles? Have their translators slipped through this net, is Arc not so pleased with them?
    
It's not a big issue, only a curious one. And whatever the reasoning, the whole list is an impressive and welcome achievement.
    
Yet again, a set of books leaves me thinking it's impossible to convey or evaluate them, and yet it is apparent that poetry has come into my room, and I'm thinking, without judgement, I can wonder again what poetry is. Here are extracts, which I like to think are representative. If so, they represent a mode of mind, an imaginative reach.
   
From the Czech Nezval (died 1958) comes a collection published in 1936. Labelled Surrealist, there is a lot of simile and a lot of plain strange statements. This of Prague, unpunctuated:

      I see her as a great ship whose mast is the Castle
      Like the enchanted cities of my visions
      Like the great ship of the Golden Corsair
      Like the dream of delicious architects

and after several more 'Like',

     Like a bracelet dangling before mirrors

The Sicilian Quasimodo, from these early poems (from between 1915 and the 1930s):

     My love wasn't enough for your desert;
     it wasn't, as you said when you were falling asleep,
     humble like the sandal of a hermit.

The Italian seems to say 'of an ascetic' (d'asceta
). I am not taking issue with it (I am not competent), only seeing what decisions have to be made in the 'bringing over'.
   
These extracts - more plausibly these whole books - make me wonder again about the continuum of language from street or domestic talk to - but to what? - along which poetry is made.
   
Here is a whole section of a long poem from Anise Koltze, Luxemborg poet, writing here in French (having begun making poems in German) - poems here from the early 2000s, in her 60s, and without punctuation:

     My memory is heavy
     like a sinking ship

     I have wandered
     all over the world
     the gods slit my throat
     I slit theirs

     Writing in their mouths
     in their entrails
     I forgot poetry -

     I became a poet

What happens when such lines are collected into our brains?  If she came to tea she wouldn't (I suppose) talk like this; but yet her voice is here, a person has 'said' this.
  

Related questions are sometimes asked within the poem itself. Here, from Kofman, Argentinian:

    And the bell in the wooden chapel
    rung by a crippled boy,
    how exactly does it bring back to me
    that stream where a gang of savages
    stole a young girl's innocence?

And is the poet the poem's voice or is there a fiction, is all poetry selective, shaped as a kind of fiction? In Kofman's case (published 1992), there's a character Zarza with a shifting gender.
  
As I was reading Regina Derieva I found myself thinking, 'This is a blog'.

    Can it be that the brain, too, is all tectonic folds?
    Most certainly it is.
    Like Sinai in chaos and confusion,
    mind buried within itself.

I can't see that her dates are given anywhere here. I have found them on the web (her own site): born in the Ukraine in 1949 and still very much alive and writing. The book's introduction describes her as 'a Christian poet .... a worthy heir' to the metaphysicals. The above extract continues:

    An absurd philosopher, it is still thinking,
    utterly alone. It puts
    billions of questions to itself,
    awaiting messages from heaven.

    Something clicks, like joints in the knee.
    Or, like a relay, it must unify
    the sequence of generations,
    remember His Name in the dark.

Do we return to a poem (or a poet's works) for its thought (if we met the poet, would we be interested in their thought?); or for the tunes, for an attitude, for kinship, for cultural solidarity,... ?
   

These are all books worth having, and it's too complicated to begin to wonder with any subtlety why. You might yourself be a translator, you might be a poet, a teacher, a voracious reader, an historian, you may be curious, you may have a birthright or instinctive sense of connection with one of these poets.
   
I have been looking again at David Gascoyne's bringing into English from Jouve, PŽret and so on, his having been there in Paris in Surrealist circles. There are culturally significant moments. Michael Hamburger, David Constantine and others have brought German poets into English: Celan, Hšlderlin and so on. So I am beginning to speak personally as well as, I imagine, for many others. It was a significant moment for me, most of my life ago, when (the kind of thing I suppose young poets are inclined to do) I sent a few poems for advice to Robert Nye, who replied kindly and recommended I read Zbigniev Herbert (one of the Penguin European Poets), possible only in translation.
   
One of the translators here, Daniel Weissbort, did an extraordinary thing, with Ted Hughes, in founding Modern Poertry in Translation, continuing now in interesting new ways by David and Helen Constantine.
   
After two World Wars and the Cold War, we have the United Nations, the European Union, and whatever else has happened (not least many more people travelling), what might be said now about internationalist poetry? Or is it more of a secret, those poets we discover for ourselves privately?
    
I am not keeping up with what is being published in Britain; my sense of it is that these and previous translations I've noted on this site are different: sensibility, image, voice, wit and so on are unlike what is published here: they bring a slant to us.
    
It is too big a generalisation, especially when Britishness in poets is itself not uniform. Still, reading these books, I do, as in a dream, hear voices.

       © David Hart 2009