Translations: versions and perversions

Franz von Stuck - Orpheus

Translation, often very loose, and variations on foreign-language poems – what I think of as versions and perversions – has long been part of my poetry. Trans culminated with a rewriting of the Metamorphoses, bringing Ovid to a world of virtual reality, cyborgs, cosmetic surgery and bodily modification. "Translation" (from translatus, past participle of transfero) transfers, moves something across, to another language, time or place.

"Looking Back Down the Road" appeared in Trans; "Bestiary" (below) comes from a current project French Leave, which started during on a residency in France and attempts a whistle-stop tour of French verse from Théophile Gautier (1811-72) and Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855) to Michel Houellebecq (1956-). "Wake" was the title poem of a chapbook and appeared more recently in Pilgrim Tongues.

There are more translations on my blog: Rilke (10 April); Octavio Paz (2 June); Lorca (20 March) Ruben Darío (16 and 18 March).

"Traduttore, Traditore," said Ezra Pound: translators = traitors; though he placed great faith in translation as the ultimate cultural good. Forget tariffs, this is a free-trade, free-for-all zone. Think of what Shakespeare did with Petrarchan tropes, Christopher Logue with Homer, and many others in between. So, I hope to extend the project of versions and variations, started in Strange Tongues, into a more comprehensive series of perversions under the working title of Cover Versions.

Pessoa translated himself into a panoply of heteronyms. Time also, perhaps, to try to translate myself through more biographically credible and various personae than the often satirical ones I've used in the past (as in Satyr or Hole). Here let me nod to Derek Mahon's fictitious Hindi poet Gopal Singh (in Raw Material and An Autumn Wind); Mahon's logical step after Adaptations is to let Gopal end the versions of actual poets in Echo's Grove.

For a variation on Dante's Inferno, see Hole. Cliff's three canto satirical poem in which Philip Larkin leads us throughHell (in search of Hull), is The Common online's March poetry feature:

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Looking Back Down the Road

loosely after Rimbaud's "Ma Bohème" and "Au Cabaret-Vert"

1. Taking Off

Those days, I'd split without a second's thought. Hit the road.
Just take off. At seventeen, I'd tramp for miles, hitch a ride
no place special. Leather jacket like a scarred second hide.
Signposts for sonnets, truckers' long-load tales for odes.

Service stations, greasy spoons, thumbing cars, cars, cars.
Wind finding new holes in the knees and arse of my strides.
Blacktop, humming rubber, Autobahn-piste-strada.
Crashed out dead in graveyards, dossing under skidding stars.

Sat at the roadside, under creaking trees, the huge race
of clouds. September nights, dew sparkling my face.
Swigging lager from a stolen can: clean, cold, sharp,

conjuring up visions from shadows. Hidden in secret places,
I'd twist feet up close to my heart, pluck the laces
of my wounded boots, entire body tuned to (canned music) - Harp.

2. At The Green Café, 5p.m.

A full week on back roads, dusty mountain tracks.
Old Chinese canvas shoes were shagged-out shreds.
I hobbled into this one-camel-town, back
of beyond, saw the green sign, smelled fresh baked bread.

Splashed face at the pipe, dragged fingers through hair.
Inside, this girl looked up - big tits - cracked me a smile;
flicked a rag over the green oil cloth, dusted off a chair.
I stretched my legs out, took in the shiny painted tiles.

She looked good around the eyes, not shy at any rate.
Fetched me slabs of bread, butter, thick folds
of home-smoked ham on a brightly-coloured plate.

Pink and white, delicious, garlicky. For something cold,
she foamed up this huge mug. Getting too late
for the border, a quirky ray of sun turning beer to gold.



after the French of Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). Excerpts from Apollinaire’s first book Le Bestiare ou Cortège d’Orphée (1911),which was illustrated by celebrated woodcuts by Raoul Dufy.


He cuts a powerful and fine
figure from a noble line.
He steps from the shade; he has no peer:
his voice shines Light upon the ear.



The beasts approached to hear me sing;
my sure fingers danced upon the strings.
In magic Thrace, they knew me well
loved songs I conjured up from shell.



Through the exercise of endless pains,
my formal dreams shall act as reins.
I’ll master you: my Will be done
– but we’ll save the gallop till we are one.



The days beat as fast as your little chest,
already the summer’s past its best.
You weight the corn, bend it to your paw,
pause a moment then gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.



O Lion, once such a noble king,
your mane’s now got all mangy – Poor thing!
Cat got your tongue? Where is your roar, your rage?
Cut down to size. Born in a cage.




Odd, that our flies still know
those songs they learned in Norway.
Seems French flies remain always
divinities of snow.



Medusas with your saddened heads
haloed by your ultra-violet hair,
you make the storm-tossed sea your happy bed.
Me too! I guess we make a pair.



You’ve got an eye for beauty.
God! How many women have there been?
Eve, Eurydice, Cleo. All victims of your cruelty.
The three or four I’ve known personally,
the hundreds more I’ve seen.

Cynthia and Propertius


very loosely after the Latin of Sextus Propertius IV. 7.
“Sunt aliquid manes. Letum non omnia finit”

i. The Visitation

Death’s not the end of it, this much I know
– ghosts do exist – they walk right through our walls.
Can’t keep them down under shovelled earth, the dead
watch us while we sleep, peep in at your window,
lean like a leprous moon over our beds.
I know this for a fact – and this is how:
I saw her, the other night, just after the funeral.
I woke and she was there, a pale shadow
inches from my face, almost sharing my pillow,
watching, just watching me. Her eyes burned blue,
like chips of electric ice; kohl eyeshadow.

Her skin had this weird unhealthy glow
(not surprising – we’d buried her that day).
Oh Christ – her bones shone through as if X-rayed.
I thought of some translucent, poisonous creature,
a fish – fluorescent, flattened by cold, dark pressure –
that flesh I’d loved trawled up from horrible depths.

No, death’s not the end of it. Far from it. Death’s
too good for us. Not good enough for them.
They go on, and on. Won’t let us left behind
get any sleep until we finally wake
– shit-scared, sweat-wet and shivering – to find
it’s your funeral now.
You’re guest of honour at this other wake.
Fear in your throat you solemnly swear,
under pain of god-knows-what torment, ache,
to set things right – or never sleep again.

She’s got you bang on. You get described.
Her bony finger jabs right in your face.
Those eyes, the flash of fire like burning pits,
as she ticks off the weary catalogue
of weakness, failings, faults. You are a shit.

You see the angle of her hips has grown
sharp beneath her shift, she’s little more
than recrimination, skin and bone:
a slip of that girl that once she was,
a flap of flesh where breast had been.
(Through the fear, the shadow of those tits
– magnificent in her time! Low-cut, she cut
through parties like a prow – D-cupped and proud of it).
And this is it – she’s a ghost, and you, you’re thinking this!
She’s right. You really are a Grade A Shit.
Question is: How can you lay your lover’s ghost?

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ii. Big Sleep

... not fall, more like,
two thousand years later at dawn, I stumble into sleep;
splash dry its shallows, puddles, nothing very deep.

And, when I do, I have those dreams.
You know the ones – the past crowds in:
the ones I loved, betrayed, the girl I left for dead,
they’re all there, with cocktails, smoking cigarettes;
joking, laughing, partying around my bed.
And I can’t move my limbs – I’m wedged in tight
by wood and silk. Something flickers. It’s candlelight
and, it slowly dawns on my thick skull,
what it is I’m in
is a coffin.

I am a wake. I am a wake...
... next thing, this morning,
I’ve got the Buddha speaking in my ear: I am awake.
Turns out some academic on Start The Week.
And I’m thinking it’s time to quit this job, this town
– check that quote this afternoon –
get myself back to where I was,
kneel at that crossroads,
say a prayer, bury this guilty load,
then strike on out, down that other road.

Maybe then,
given a week or two of good days’ marches,
I’ll sleep more easy.
When it comes to this world of care,
each night be good and dead.
Won’t find me there, these hungry ghosts.
Let me die in a stranger’s bed.

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from Strange Tongues:  Three after Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus.

A God Perhaps

“Ein Gott vermags”, Sonnets to Orpheus I.3

A god perhaps. But it’s not that simple
for a man to follow himself through guitar strings.
His mind is split. Contradictory strivings
are his heart’s paths. At his crossroads is no temple.

Song, you teach us, it’s not about desire,
not about asking for what can never be asked.
Song is being. For a god that’s an easy task.
But when are we live? When does he trip the wire

that turns the earth and stars towards our being?
It’s not enough, young one, that you love, that voice
bursts through, blooms upon your lips. Try remembering

to forget. It means nothing, whatever you’ve sung
so far. Real singing – the truth – is another breath.
Breath of nothing. Gust of god. The wind’s lungs.

He Needs No Gravestone

“Errichtet keinen Denkstein”, Sonnets to Orpheus I. 5

He needs no gravestone. The rose’s
yearly bloom becomes him best.
This is him. his metamorphosis
through this or that’s an endless quest

for himself: Orpheus. No other name. His song
echoes through all art. He comes, he goes
through everything. Whether he stays as long
or as briefly as the petals on this rose,

it has to be enough. He also fears
to lose this world. But he cannot stay.
His words go beyond and he disappears.

His wrists are not tied by humming strings.
You will not find him now. He, too, must obey.
And this is how – by overstepping everything.

in Be Ahead of all Parting

“Sei allem Abschied voran” Sonnets to Orpheus II.13.

Be ahead of all parting, as though it were
already behind you, like the winter just gone.
Know that, among these winters, is one
so endless that the heart, unsheltered, must out-winter.

Be forever dead in Eurydike. – Yet rise and sing.
For it is praiseworthy to be raised proud.
Here, in our entropic realms, be loud
like humming crystal that, even as it shatters, rings.

Be – and yet still know Unbeing, the void,
the empty cavern in which you first heard
yourself echo. Just this once, fill it with your shout.

To the sum of all the second-hand, tinny
and worn-out things on Nature’s inventory,
joyfully add yourself. Then wipe the total out.

"A God Perhaps" also appeared in the Forward Prize anthology 1996.

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