Hole: Philip Larkin meets Dante
Wednesday, 30 March 2016 at 17:31
Big Phil at Paragon Station, Hull
I’ve long been fascinated by the opening of Dante’s Inferno: how he finds himself, half-way through his journey through life, lost in a wild wood, and his subsequent descent into Hell led by his guide Virgil, and I’d used the theme, or variations on the lines, in several poems; my most recent collection Pilgrim Tongues concludes with “Andante”, a poem about getting lost on a hike. I’m also fascinated by satire and the grotesque, shifting worlds it conjures. I wrote my doctoral thesis on John Marston’s verse satires voiced through his psychopathic and hypocritical “barking Satyrist” persona W. Kinsayder, and, in various sequences, I’ve tried to summon up the ghost of the Elizabethan malcontent to see what he’d say about our world. These sequences seem like vacations from my normal lyric or elegiac mode – holidays of the sort that critics, following Bakhtin, might dignify with notions of the “carnivalesque” – but essentially they’re jeux d’esprit.
A figure you can’t avoid if you live in Hull is Philip Larkin, probably best known for the line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Attitudes to Larkin and his work are sharply divided. I have mixed feelings myself, but I’ve had some good mileage out of him: the part of the university I work in calls itself “The Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing”; the Larkin Society commissioned my anthology, film and exhibition project Under Travelling Skies in which contemporary poets and painters associated with Hull responded to Larkin’s landscapes and work; I’ve written a poem sequence exploring Larkin’s life and attitudes, and exhibited various paintings in which Larkin, pushing his bike, is confronted by the various mythological figures he had no time for. The shade of Larkin seemed a good guide to the Underworld.
I started "Hole" as a sort of diversion from a project translating French poems, and working variations on their themes. This is obviously more perversion than version of Dante and, as it has rumbled on, other elements have found their way into the mix: medieval Complaint and, hanging round the Larkin figure, an incongruous whiff of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger. “Difficile est satyram non scribere” wrote Juvenal, and it often does seem difficult not to write satire; or as John Marston’s alter ego W. Kinsayder put it: “Let Custards quake, my rage must freely runne!”
Hole is the March 2016 poetry feature of The Common online:
Lorca: Death and Duende
Sunday, 20 March 2016 at 20:02
My trip to Nicaragua has made me realise just how much I've missed the language and its culture. I've not done much with Spanish since I lived in Spain and Mexico in the late seventies, early eighties, but maybe that's something to remedy. I have, though, done the odd version. Here's a poem from my latest collection Pilgrim Tongues.
In his lecture “The Theory and Function of the Duende”, Lorca quotes Manuel Torres: “All that has dark sounds has duende.” This poem, the third of the four which make up Lorca’s lament for a dead bullfighter friend, seems to exemplify duende and its relationship to death, form and improvisation. The “Lament” combines the traditional elements of elegy with surreal imagery: sudden associative shifts mimic both the transitory nature of life and the mind’s response to grief as it flits from one image to another trying to make sense of loss and the absurdity of death.
Lorca’s strange, dreamlike imagery is a challenge. Timid fidelity seems pointless: I introduce Rorschach blots, usherettes, hard shoulders and radio aerials. English typically needs fewer syllables to express an idea than Spanish. I knit quatrains together with rhymes and half-rhymes to echo the repetitive vowel-music inherent in even unrhymed Spanish. Just once, Lorca breaks his quatrain: a little past the mid-point, a five-line unit rattles the lid of the coffin-like stanza. (Oddly, Dario does exactly the same in "Symphony in White Major" ... see previous blog). In what I hope is a similar improvisatory duende-summoning spirit, I break the last stanza into two short-lined unequal fragments.
On The Slab
after Federico García Lorca
"Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías: 3. Cuerpo Presente"
No curving stream, no frozen cypresses,
this slab’s the brow where all dreams groan
into planets, ribbons caught up in tears and trees.
It’s just a shoulder to bear off time, this stone.
Hard shoulders. You’ve seen how those grey rains
throw up their arms, then pit the running waves
to flee the stalking, outstretched stone?
Nothing soaks through this slab. The blood still runs.
This stone gathers seed and cloud, a Rorschach:
one half at least, the other’s in our mind
with the shadowy wolf and the bones of larks,
and all that’s left of bull-rings is the boundless sand.
No applause, no suit of lights, he’s dead:
just so many kilos cooling on the slab.
His body turns to meat, weird sulphurs,
masked by that dark minotaur’s head.
All done with now. Rain gargles in his mouth.
The crazed air wheezes from his unlocked
chest, and love, drenched with creaking snows,
warms itself in crags above the flocks.
Silence creeps around us like a stench.
We’re keeping vigil with a once-bright form,
one familiar with nightingales who now melts.
He’s filling up with holes. We stare into a trench.
Who has wrinkled this shroud? Let no one sing,
weep in the corner, tear hair, or frighten off the snake.
Here I need only my own wide-open eyes
to see this forever restless body in stiff repose.
Bring them in, those strong-voiced men:
breakers of horses, tamers of rivers, the skint
but rattling skeletons who dance and sing
with mouths full of sun, skins full of wine and flint.
Bring them all before this stage of stone;
before this corpse with its broken reins.
Let usherettes shine torches down the aisles,
towards the illumination of the Exit sign.
Give me dirge. I want lament. Cry me a river,
with steep banks, vague mists to bear this body off.
Hire wailing women to mourn him gone.
Let him disappear where no bulls snort.
In the moon’s arena, let him lose himself
between the calf’s sad horns; let him sleep
with the fishes, with coral, tuning the white
aerials of smoke into their songless night.
Don’t cover his face.
It’s better that he gets
used to staring up at death;
all that bellowing hot breath.
Let him sleep open-eyed.
Even the sea dies…
La piedra es una frente donde los sueños gimen
sin tener agua curva ni cipreses helados.
La piedra es una espalda para llevar al tiempo
con árboles de lágrimas y cintas y planetas.
Yo he visto lluvias grises correr hacia las olas
levantando sus tiernos brazos acribillados,
para no ser cazadas por la piedra tendida
que desata sus miembros sin empapar la sangre.
Porque la piedra coge simientes y nublados,
esqueletos de alondras y lobos de penumbra;
pero no da sonidos, ni cristales, ni fuego,
sino plazas y plazas y otras plazas sin muros.
Ya está sobre la piedra Ignacio el bien nacido.
Ya se acabó; ¿qué pasa? Contemplad su figura:
la muerte le ha cubierto de pálidos azufres
y le ha puesto cabeza de oscuro minotauro.
Ya se acabó. La lluvia penetra por su boca.
El aire como loco deja su pecho hundido,
y el Amor, empapado con lágrimas de nieve
se calienta en la cumbre de las ganaderías.
¿Qué dicen? Un silencio con hedores reposa.
Estamos con un cuerpo presente que se esfuma,
con una forma clara que tuvo ruiseñores
y la vemos llenarse de agujeros sin fondo.
¿Quién arruga el sudario? ¡No es verdad lo que dice!
Aquí no canta nadie, ni llora en el rincón,
ni pica las espuelas, ni espanta la serpiente:
aquí no quiero más que los ojos redondos
para ver ese cuerpo sin posible descanso.
Yo quiero ver aquí los hombres de voz dura.
Los que doman caballos y dominan los ríos;
los hombres que les suena el esqueleto y cantan
con una boca llena de sol y pedernales.
Aquí quiero yo verlos. Delante de la piedra.
Delante de este cuerpo con las riendas quebradas.
Yo quiero que me enseñen dónde está la salida
para este capitán atado por la muerte.
Yo quiero que me enseñen un llanto como un río
que tenga dulces nieblas y profundas orillas,
para llevar el cuerpo de Ignacio y que se pierda
sin escuchar el doble resuello de los toros.
Que se pierda en la plaza redonda de la luna
que finge cuando niña doliente res inmóvil;
que se pierda en la noche sin canto de los peces
y en la maleza blanca del humo congelado.
No quiero que le tapen la cara con pañuelos
para que se acostumbre con la muerte que lleva.
Vete, Ignacio: No sientas el caliente bramido.
Duerme, vuela, reposa: ¡También se muere el mar!
Another helping of Ruben Dario
Friday, 18 March 2016 at 11:49
The ghost of Rubén Darío is still hanging around (as the poster says we are all sons of Darío and Sandino), so here's another version. He's in high symbolist mode here, borrowing the title from Gautier's "Symphony in White Major" (first pub 1849). Gautier's poem is about a very different water creature, and is quite literally a swan-song. Musical titles, hinting at synaesthesia, became fashionable among nineteenth-century writers and painters. Whistler painted several variations on "Symphony in White" (1851-62). Larkin later worked a quite different version on the theme in his own "Sympathy in White Major". Like Larkin I've allowed myself a pun in the title. I've also been quite free in bringing the maritime elements to the fore, playing with the form, and moving Darío's tropical siesta to something snoozing closer to home. I've included the original, and a literal translation.
Symphony in Sea Major
very loosely after “Symphony in Grey Major” by Rubén Darío (1867-1916)
The sea, like a vast quicksilver mirror,
reflects the sky’s grey sheet. Far away,
birds flock – I’m thinking stains on the dull
sheen of the quayside bar’s long zinc.
Opaque porthole. The sun toils up
to the crow’s nest, like he did as a kid.
Wind off the sea collapses in the shade,
head down, exhausted, on tarpaulin.
This sea-dog’s grizzled, grey. Doldrum
suns have leathered his skin; he’s drunk gin,
weathered out Beaufort 12, while typhoons
shattered freighters, junks on the South China Sea.
The waves now roil their bellies of lead,
groaning beneath the pier where he sits
on a capstan smoking Navy Cut.
He is untipped, spits out what sticks to lip,
an old tar peering through the haar.
That saltpetre-y iodine sniff lives up
his raspberry nose. It’s steeped his deckhand
wrists, tattoos, blue-grey beard, his old salt’s
sea-boots, sun-faded first-mate’s cap.
Off watch. The sea-dog snoozes. The glint
of scattered fish-scales fades to grey
as if sea-mist has worn the horizon, washed
all that lies beyond it, far away.
The old bull-frog tries the mouth-organ out,
hornpiped on to the wheezing shanty
of squeeze-box lungs:
somewhere a grasshopper rasps
his one-string solo on a plywood violin.
"Sinfonía en grís mayor" by Rubén Darío
El mar como un vasto cristal azogado
refleja la lámina de un cielo de zinc;
lejanas bandadas de pájaros manchan
el fondo bruñido de pálido gris.
El sol como un vidrio redondo y opaco
con paso de enfermo camina al cenit;
el viento marino descansa en la sombra
teniendo de almohada su negro clarín.
Las ondas que mueven su vientre de plomo
debajo del muelle parecen gemir.
Sentado en un cable, fumando su pipa,
está un marinero pensando en las playas
de un vago, lejano, brumoso país.
Es viejo ese lobo. Tostaron su cara
los rayos de fuego del sol del Brasil;
los recios tifones del mar de la China
le han visto bebiendo su frasco de gin.
La espuma impregnada de yodo y salitre
ha tiempo conoce su roja nariz,
sus crespos cabellos, sus biceps de atleta,
su gorra de lona, su blusa de dril.
En medio del humo que forma el tabaco
ve el viejo el lejano, brumoso país,
adonde una tarde caliente y dorada
tendidas las velas partió el bergantín ...
La siesta del trópico. El lobo se duerme.
Ya todo lo envuelve la gama del gris.
Parece que un suave y enorme esfumino
del curvo horizonte borrara el confín.
La siesta del trópico. La vieja cigarra
ensaya su ronca guitarra senil,
y el grillo preludia un solo monótono
en la única cuerda que está en su violín.
Symphony in Grey Major (literal translation)
The sea like a vast silvered mirror
reflects the sky like a sheet of zinc;
distant flocks of birds make stains
on the burnished pale grey background.
The sun, like a round, opaque window
with an invalid's steps climbs to the zenith;
the sea wind relaxes in the shade
using its black trumpet as a pillow.
The waves that move their leaden bellies
seem to moan beneath the pier.
Sitting on a cable, smoking his pipe,
is a sailor thinking of the beaches
of a vague, distant, misty land.
This sea-dog is old. The fiery beams
of Brazilian sun have tanned his face;
the wild typhoons of the China sea
have seen him drinking his bottle of gin.
The iodine and saltpetre foam
long has known his ruddy nose,
his curly hair, athletic biceps,
his canvas cap, his blouse of drill.
Surrounded by tobacco smoke
the old man sees the far off misty land
for which one hot and golden evening
his brig set out with all sails set ...
The siesta of the tropics. The sea-dog sleeps.
Now the shades of grey enfold him.
It is as if an enormous soft charcoal
rubbed out the lines of the horizon's arc.
The siesta of the tropics. The old cicada
tries out his senile, raucous guitar
and the cricket strikes up a monotonous solo
on the single string of his violin.
Wednesday, 16 March 2016 at 11:25
Vagabundage, or the Errant Song
very loosely after “El Canto Errante” by Rubén Darío (1867-1916)
The poet travels the whole wide earth;
and reckons what it’s really worth.
He sees the rich, he sees the poor,
in the white of peace, the red of war.
He sways through India (and this is relevant)
hallucinating on the back of an elephant.
In a palanquin – you’ve seen non finer –
he slides through the silky heart of China.
High on a ship of the desert’s back,
he sways into port from a Saharan track.
He’s in a Venetian gondola, black and sleek,
or a Deux Chevaux on the Périférique,
A Chevrolet’s not the only way
to cruise the highways of the USA;
he parks at Avis or Hertz Car Rental,
drives off in a Lincoln Continental.
He rides the subway under Harlem;
skis down the Alps, can schuss, plough, slalom.
He bumps on the pampas on a skittish colt,
or a nervous mustang prone to bolt.
He sails across Lake Nicaragua,
fails to find downtown Managua.
In León, he dances con molto brio,
prances up to the house of Rubén Darío,
(taking in the vista with an ex-Sandinista,
who’d given it all up for a Starbucks’ barista).
Of course he’s seen the aurora borealis
– but from a bendy bus in Crystal Palace?
He’s twinkling at night on a Jumbo Jet,
above the snowy wrinkles of Tibet.
Our poet’s been seen: during the Intifada,
crossing the Green Line in a second-hand Lada;
in a bathyscope on the ocean bed;
skimming the tundra on a Shaman’s sled.
We’ve caught him at stations, catching trains:
at Waterloo he was changing for Staines;
at the Gare du Nord in the Eurostar;
in the Trans-Siberian dining car.
On rails, or wheels, by ship or wing,
he’s on the move, he notes down things.
His Routemaster waits. The conductor rings
the bell. Once more they’re off. The poet sings
–well, he hums to himself his Errant Song.
On the road again. Ding Dong! Ding Dong!
El cantor va por todo el mundo
sonriente o meditabundo.
El cantor va sobre la tierra
en blanca paz o en roja guerra.
Sobre el lomo del elefante
por la enorme India alucinante.
En palanquín y en seda fina
por el corazón de la China;
en automóvil en Lutecia;
en negra góndola en Venecia;
sobre las pampas y los llanos
en los potros americanos;
por el río va en la canoa,
o se le ve sobre la proa
de un steamer sobre el vasto mar,
o en un vagón de sleeping-car.
El dromedario del desierto,
barco vivo, le lleva a un puerto.
Sobre el raudo trineo trepa
en la blancura de la estepa.
O en el silencio de cristal
que ama la aurora boreal.
El cantor va a pie por los prados,
entre las siembras y ganados.
Y entra en su Londres en el tren,
y en asno a su Jerusalén.
Con estafetas y con malas,
va el cantor por la humanidad.
En canto vuela, con sus alas:
Armonía y Eternidad.
Bienvenidos Poetas del Mundo
Monday, 7 March 2016 at 07:44
Bienvenidos Poetas del Mundo:
Welcomed and fast-tracked through the formalities of the airport. First thought: this is a great land for poets. Last thought similar: at Managua, as I’m checking in to fly home, an official says he enjoyed my performance in Granada. He probably says that to all the poets. (I notice a couple of others leaving on this flight.)
Managua, after a couple of hours’ sleep, reminds me of the outskirts of Mexico City: lots of talleres, workshops, cut by big busy roads, but we seem to keep missing the centre. Much walking in the heat looking for a shady bar and cold beer. Find way back to hotel, and the bar is fine and is inevitably El Café de los Poetas. All the good stuff here seems to claim some poetic connection.
In Granada, the carnival dances down to the lake under huge signs proclaiming: Bienvenidos Poetas del Mundo. School children collect the autographs of poets reading at the carnival. (Apart from signing a book or two, I’ve never been asked for an autograph before.) Music, noise, dancing. Poetry is partying! Getting down and shaking its backside to the rhythm, if not the metre.
We arrive. The poets are seated on the stage, as colourfully folkloric groups dance past. Nicaraguan ladies laureate us with crowns of paper flowers and honour us with baskets of biscuits and sweets. This is an unexpectedly touching event. It’s been hot, hot, hot. Cold cans of beers are handed out: Toña, the Nicaraguan brewery, is one of the sponsors. Oddly one of the big donors is the European Union. I see their stars on the programme and elsewhere. Nicaragua has got this together. Granada is aiming to be a world culture heritage site, as a city of poetry. On this showing, it deserves it.
The festival celebrates the centenary of Darío’s “passing into immortality” and the poet’s ghost is everywhere. The Sandino monument at the top of Tiscapa volcano may dominate the city and be the obvious Managua landmark, but Darío’s image is both more ubiquitous and varied than Sandino’s black cut-out silhouette (hastily erected by the Sandinistas as they prepared to leave power): there's RD the serious journalist and intellectual; there’s RD the ambassador in his ambassadorial suit of lights, with ornate ambassadorial sword and plumed ambassadorial hat; there’s RD the hirsute symboliste with his upswept waxed moustaches which, antennae-like, seem to be trying to get into heaven before him. There are so many more images. He is clearly a god, one straight out of Ovid.
In Léon, we visit Darío’s house. When we arrive in Granada, traditional adversary of Léon, our very fine hotel is called the Darío. There is a letter for me, inside the envelope there’s a very nice stiff invitation, illustrated by a picture of RD at his most ambassadorial, inviting me to a gala dinner celebrating “El primer Centenario del paso a la Inmortalidad de nuestra Gran Poeta Rubén Darío”. He is clearly a very great god.
At the open mike events, Nicaraguans line up to share their poems. On the first day, the initial half-a-dozen poets all eulogise the great poet. There is much riffing on his passing into immortality. We are celebrating the centenary of his being taken up into Heaven, of his becoming a god.
I give a reading at a high school. (I'm not quite expecting this and quickly censor my poems.) On stage half-a-dozen girls, perhaps one from each year, dressed in white, recite Darío’s poems and are quizzed on the details of his life. They are all word and fact perfect. Other students act out scenes from his narrative verse. He is, (and I think the upper case is now required) like God, omnipresent.
I get into conversation with a Nicaraguan. I want to speak Spanish, he English. I mention something about thinking about doing a version of Darío’s “El Canto Errante”. By this I mean the poem that begins the book of the same name. He turns out to have translated RD and begins to recite his own version of “El Canto Errante”, in full. I wonder if he will stop at the end of the poem or, as I begin to fear, the end of the book. One of the many events is about to start. I make my excuses and head in that direction.
Poetry, Politics and Translation.
In Latin America politics comes with the territory. The Chileans Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, the Mexican Octavio Paz, and the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias were all diplomats. Most have been on the left, at least to start with, and often suffered for their trouble: Neruda was an advisor to Allende – and there is some doubt as to the cause of his death when Pinochet came to power; Paz resigned after the massacre of student demonstrators in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, just before the 1968 Olympics, though he later opposed the Sandinistas and supported Mexican government’s attempts to put down various left-wing uprisings by force.
In Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal managed to combine poetry with politics and the priesthood. He was appointed Minister for Culture by the Sandinista government in 1979, a position he retained until 1987. He was famously scolded by Pope John Paul II in 1983, and defrocked a year later for his socialist “liberation theology” stance. Cardenal was welcomed back into the fold by Pope Francis (another Latin American) in 2014.
Gioconda Belli joined the Sandinistas aged 20, and was involved in clandestine operations. She was forced into exile in Mexico in 1975, returning in 1979 just before the Sandinista victory. She held various posts under the FSLN, including international press officer.
At the Darío hotel, I see Ernesto Cardenal. He’s in his 90s now and frail, but I recognise the beret and beard and feel I should introduce myself. I see Gioconda and her husband Charles Castaldi at the Darío and around town. Castaldi has an interesting history as journalist, film producer and more. She is, as I overhear Castaldi say, “a force of nature”. She reads at the carnival, an impassioned piece before the home crowd. I manage to exchange a few words with her at a restaurant after the carnival, but only to get her to state the obvious: the food's good here. On the final night I’m reading in the last group with her and a few others. I’m not entirely sure of my Spanish translations. It’s been a long while since I spoke Spanish day to day, and, if I was writing these poems in Spanish, I would have written something entirely different. The non-Hispanoparlantes have had their verses translated for them. I wonder, if it was hubris to do this. And now I’m going to read them, in English, and then in Spanish, to a packed square. This is the biggest audience I've ever had. I think this is also on TV.
The audience seem to warm to my introduction: these are bad translations but my own. Reading them out, I’m aware that I’m pumping it up, trilling my “r”s and it’s probably way too dramatic. I stumble over an odd word. For some reason, I’ve started to speak French. Why did I do that? I recover and it’s all OK, I relax and then come across the phrase “Big Bang”. My old Spanish-English dictionary hadn’t had an equivalent. I think I’d done a quick Google translate, meaning to check it later, and got “Big Bang”. I’d forgotten to check later.
So, I read my translation of “Megiddo Junction” (from Pilgrim Tongues). The English goes:
It all began round here, you think: Big Bang,
the One True... and then that other thing...
The Spanish has it:
Todo comenzó por aquí, piensas: Big Bang,
el único y verdadero... y luego lo otro...
Well, I’m worried that this doesn’t make much sense in Spanish, and maybe not in English anyway; but what are these people going to make of “Big Bang”? I turn to the table of poets and ask the only Nicaraguan at the table: "¿Big Bang? ¿Es una frase? ¿Se dice eso en Español?"
Gioconda Belli says “Sí” and smiles, and I know everything is going right.
Later that night, at the end-of-festival party she gives me a signed copy of her book Fuego Soy, Apartado y Espada Puesta Lejos . I think about how to translate this: I am Fire, Isolated (Exiled? Separated? Alienated?) and My Sword is Left Far from My Hand (I've left my sword a long way off? Long put down? Forgotten ?). Big Bang. I resolve to get back into the language I stopped speaking daily, now thirty-odd years ago.
Festival website: http://www.festivalpoesianicaragua.com/
Festival images: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=poesia+nicaragua&biw=1093&bih=538&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiKy46lja7LAhUGtRoKHY42BVQQ_AUIBigB
XII International Poetry Festival, Granada, Nicaragua
Thursday, 3 March 2016 at 20:23
Cliff was invited to read at the XII International Festival of Poetry in Granada, Nicaragua 14-20 February 2016.
This year the festival, which is the largest event of its type in the world, invited 114 poets from 67 countries. Cliff was one of only two from the UK, the other being Gerrie Fellows from Scotland. Cliff performed his poems in English, with his own Spanish translations, at several events, including the carnival, at a school, and at the final event in the main square. Excellent and generous hospitality from Nicaraguan hosts. Huge and enthusiastic audiences. Great fun and lots of poetry.... but also music, food and dance in a beautiful city on a spectacular lake under the shadow of volcanos.
This year was the centenary of Rubén Darí's "passing into immortality"*. If you look at most bilingual anthologies of Spanish verse, there's a curious hiatus. The Penguin Book, for example, after hitting the heights in 16th/17th century with Góngora and Quevedo, ends its Golden Age with the fabulously quirky (and in some ways Emily Dickenson-like) Mexican nun Sor Juana de la Cruz (1651-1695) and doesn't really get going again until the mid-19th century, with a couple more Mexicans (Salvador Díaz Mirón; Manuel Jose Othón) and the great Nicaraguan modernista Rubén Darío (1867-1916).