Monday, April 28, 2014

Writing the city

I was asked to give a talk for the UCD Scholarcast series on 'If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song', the anthology of poems about Dublin which is this year's choice for 'One City, One Book'.

Here's the opening of the talk. The podcast and pdf are here


Peter Sirr

Writing the City

How do you write about a city? How do you even define a city? A place, a history, geography, sociology, centres and peripheries, monuments and wastelands. A map of possibilities, an elusive map, coming in and out of focus, full of gaps and smudges. City is an abstract word like world or nation or country. You write from your particular apprehension of it, out of your own particular moment. Maybe you don’t write about it at all. From it, out of it. . . I’ve always liked what Roy Fisher said about Birmingham – Birmingham’s what I write with. The city as instrument, mode of exploration, investigation.

‘All cities are geological,’ Ivan Chtcheglov, tells us.

You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of fairy tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, mammoth caverns, casino mirrors.’ (Formulary for a New Urbanism)

If Ever You Go, an anthology of Dublin poems is a brave attempt to map the geology and psychogeography of a city.  It’s necessarily a challenging and contradictory kind of project because for all its apparent coherence the vision has to remain fragmentary, lodged in the subjective imaginings of the poets and song writers the city has somehow impinged on.

The editors reach for the idea of a map to organise the material – this is, the book says, a map of Dublin in poetry and song and the book is organised geographically, to emphasise that idea, with its Northside, Liffeyside and Southside sections. Maps imply exhaustiveness, a comprehensive overview, a definitive charting of the territory. I think of John Rocque’s great 1756 map with its 11,645 houses, every single building in Dublin according to the man himself. George II was so impressed with it that he hung it in his apartments, maybe because it offered a tantalising image of completeness.

Poets, though, aren’t cartographers and their collective responses can’t really create a decipherable map. Precisely because of the complexity of responses – or indeed non-responses – a literary map is always a pretty notional idea.
I think for instance of  Patrick Kavanagh who provides the title for this anthology. Dublin was many things for him – refuge, shark pond, village, a place of spiritual redemption. But it’s his ghost that stalks the city in ‘If Ever You Go to Dublin Town’, the city viewed from the grave, where the print of his own past might linger, a dishevelled shade ‘Playing through the railings with little children/Whose children have long since died.’ Dublin for Kavanagh was the place he happened to be, an anyplace for the spirit to grow if it can. He leaves us his print, his map with its named streets, Baggot Street, Pembroke Road, Raglan Road, enough for us to make a Kavanagh-land out of, but he knows the place doesn’t matter:

He knew that posterity had no use
For anything but the soul,
The lines that speak the passionate heart,

The spirit that lives alone.
O he was a lone one,
Fol do the di do
O he was a lone one,
And I tell you

Kavanagh’s relationship is with his spirit, what he cultivates is the vagabond and uncategorisable life of the spirit: the city is where that cultivation happens, which is why it’s both a private and universal place. What we see of the city in the poems is the urban village that was his stamping ground, a micro city, a city of the overlooked and under appreciated: canal water, barges

                                the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins - an art lover’s woe,
    (‘The Hospital’)

all of these the sites of the deepest kind of celebration, of loafing and soul-inviting.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Calvino's letters





The letters of Italo Calvino? Surely not, we might think, given this writer’s famous guardedness and privacy, his distrust of the biographical, of the cult of the individual writer as opposed to the collective enterprise. As he says in a 1968 letter to a correspondent suggesting a monograph: “I’m afraid I don’t think I really have a life on which something can be written. All I have is a series of works that form part of a general context of literary works . . .”. Asked in another letter whether he thinks that writers should be interviewed, he answers unhesitatingly: “No, I believe that there must be no interview.” To focus on the physical being who happened to be the writer would be “the death knell for literature as a relationship between a written text and its reader”.

The rest of the review is on the Irish Times site

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Astonished at everything

Homesick for the Earth, poems by Jules Supervielle with versions by Moniza Alvi, Bloodaxe, 112 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1852249205

Jules Supervielle is in heaven; or, at least, in the heavens, sprawled in the depths of space, alone with his bones, when out of the blue a familiar street appears with all its earthly accoutrements:

Boulevard Lannes, que fais-tu si haut dans l’espace
Et les tombereaux que tirent des percherons l’un derrière l’autre,
Les naseaux dans l’éternité
Et la queue balayant l’aurore?
(“47 Boulevard Lannes”)

Boulevard Lannes, what are you doing so high up in space
with your horse-drawn dustcarts,
nostrils in eternity,
tails brushing against the dawn?
(Translated by Moniza Alvi)

The vast spaces, the realisation of the earthly, the sense of a world apprehended through a prism of nostalgia, the loose but restless prosody are all typical. Those spaces are often lonely, occupied by a solitary consciousness human or divine. God considers his creation from the vastness of a great inner silence; a voice cries from the depths of the ocean; the intense affection for the things and places of the world is expanded out from the reach of the particular.


See more at The Dublin Review of Books

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The pleasure of small streets




The drawings show, in great detail, the junction of Goldsmith Street and Geraldine Street. They are architectural drawings, designed to pull us in to observe the specific details of the chosen scene. In the first we see a recessed doorway with a generous fanlight and the brickwork of the narrow porch ranged fan-like on the arch. There is a narrow garden outside and spiked, wrought-iron railings in front. Across the junction a row of similar red-bricked houses continues, a terrace made up of symmetrical pairs of houses, each with its elaborate door and single large front window. The houses are low, with a double pitched roof like two pleats of an accordion, each with its own chimney stack. The spiked railings continue around the end terrace, enclosing an area no more than a step wide. If you jumped up in the air a little you could see over the roof, or at least it feels like that. The tower of St Joseph’s Church on Berkeley Road with its four turrets completes the view of the terrace.
Read more on Graph Magazine’s site 

Saturday, June 01, 2013

A new Cavafy




'It was Cavafy's habit to set down a few lines on a sheet of paper and then place the sheet in an envelope for future inspection. He stored these envelopes in his cluttered apartment, opening them when he felt capable of bringing the half-poems they contained to a satisfactory end. This was his lifelong method. Whenever a poem was finished, he showed it to a discerning friend, not an editor or a publisher. What seems so spontaneous, on the page is the result of years of rewriting and rethinking.'

– Paul Bailey in today's Guardian on a new translation of Cavafy

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

National Gallery reading















Am reading tomorrow (29 May) at 1.05 pm in the Lecture Room of the National Gallery as part of a series of readings organised by Poetry Ireland and the Gallery. The series marks the Irish presidency of the EU which will be an excuse to include a lot of translations. Here's the latest, this time a poem I couldn't resist by André Frénaud (1907-1993).


House for sale
(André Frénaud)

So many have lived here, who loved
to love, to wake, dust, sweep the floor.
The moon’s in the well and can’t be seen,
the previous owners have disappeared,
taking nothing with them.
The ivy swells in yesterday’s sun,
the coffee stains and soot are staying put.
I fasten myself to mouldy dreams
and embrace the grime of others' souls,
that mix of lace and plans gone wrong.
Concierge of failure, I’ll buy the dump –
if it poisons me so be it, but never fear:
open the windows, put the sign on the lawn,
someone else will come in, sniff the air, begin again.

Here's the original:


Maison à vendre

Tant de gens ont vécu là, qui aimaient
l'amour, le réveil et enlever la poussière.
Le puits est sans fond et sans lune,
les anciens sont partis et n'ont rien emporté.
Bouffe le lierre sous le soleil d'hier,
reste la suie, leur marc de café.
Je m'attelle aux rêves éraillés.
J'aime la crasse de l’âme des autres,
mêlée à ces franges de grenat,
le suint des entreprises manquées.
Concierge, j'achète, j'achète la baraque.
Si elle m'empoisonne, je m'y flambe.
On ouvrira les fenêtres... Remets la plaque.
Un homme entre, il flaire, il recommence.



André Frénaud, Les Rois Mages, Poésie/Gallimard 1987, p.60.

Monday, May 27, 2013

From the Fortress of Upper Bergamo

















Had a go at this today. You can find the original, Dalla rocca di Bergamo alta, here

From the Fortress of Upper Bergamo 
(Salvatore Quasimodo)

You heard the cock crowing
from the other side of the walls, beyond the towers
chilled with a light alien to you –
lightning bolt, primal cry, the murmuring
of voices from the cells and the call
of the bird patrolling the dawn.
In a circle of briefest sun
you uttered no words for yourself.
Talismans of a new born world,
lost in malignant smoke,
the antelope and the heron held their tongues.
The February moon passed over 
a remembered earth, lit
in its own silence.  And you too
move among the cypresses of the fortress
without a sound, where anger
founders on the green of the young dead
and pity once distant is almost joy.

(Giorno dopo giorno, 1947)