Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Milkwoman Will Cut Our Throats

One of those brilliant sharp clear cold winter’s days. Off to Dún Laoghaire for a meeting. Brisk walk to Tara street, so long since I’ve been on a Dart I can’t find the ticket office. What’s that line of Durcan’s about the apex of happiness being ‘on a Dart to Dún Laoghaire’? That’s what it feels like today. The first glimpse of sea and something lifts. Even the canal basin gladdens, flat stretch of urban water surrounded by old stone buildings, warehouses now turned into offices and apartments. Water should be compulsory in cities. The soul is hard-wired to respond to water and stone. Two tiny kids opposite me, staring at me. Hey mister, what’s your name? Ma, where’s me dooough----nu’? My nan’s friend has that name. Are you going to the beach? Only in spirit, alas. For company I’ve brought along Continued, a selection of poems by the Polish poet Piotr Sommer, translated by various hands. I’ve coveted this book since I read Mark Ford’s review of it in The Guardian last September. In that review he quotes the late DJ Enright, one of his translators here, who characterised the work as ‘low-key and terse. Irony there is, but it keeps its head down, while the occasional uncertain joke raises an uncertain smile. Obliquity is the rule.’ Excellent, I thought. I can’t get enough uncertain jokes and obliquity. So I immediately amazoned it and waited patiently. And finally, last week, it arrived.

What I like about the work so far is that it seems to be calculatedly incidental; it’s interested in the tiny things that are happening to one side of events, and these things become the event, as in ‘A Small Treatise on Non Contradiction’, for instance:

From the kitchen window I watch the boys kick a ball.
The door opens, and while the door’s open
you can hear that the lift works today,
clicks shut and moves on, to be useful

or in the poem beside it, ‘A Maple Leaf’:

A maple leaf with the sun shining through it
at the end of summer is beautiful, but
not excessively so, and even an ordinary
electric train passing by
nearly three hundred yards away
makes music, light and unobtrusive,
and yet to be remembered, for its own sort of
usefulness perhaps....

I like the cool appraising intelligence of this, and the sense of the importance of the small human interventions, the humble quotidian machinery about its business. The poems play with inconsequentiality in order to establish a true sense of what is of consequence. That is, in their way, in their apparent casualness, they are very sure of themselves. Part of their attractiveness is precisely this indirection, the sense of the gaze being withheld from the obvious. Maybe this is a function of our perception of work from a country like Poland, where we’re schooled to expect the large gesture, the public responsibility, the speaking on behalf of...

August Kleinzahler, in his introduction, puts it well: ‘The art of the poetry – and its art is considerable, singular and memorable – is in the way it matter-of-factly transforms ordinary incident, character, landscape, object and the assorted interactions thereof, into tiny metaphysical and epistemological essays: investigations into the subjects of language, imagination, impermanence, memory, identity.’

The book also seems to me a model of how poetry translation makes available a range of utterance that is memorable and distinctive even if it necessarily involves the loss of many elements essential to the total impact of poetry. Kleinzahler talks about the musicality of Sommer in Polish, based on hearing him read aloud (though not on an understanding of Polish) and clearly much would have been lost in the transition to English. Much more interesting is what has been gained by the team of translators that includes John Ashbery, Douglas Dunn and D.J. Enright. A hard-edge worldly wit, the stamp of a distinctive poetic personality and vision.

You’re not going to find a better place
for these cosmetics, even if eventually
we wind up with some sort of bathroom cabinet and
you stop knocking them over with your towel --
there’ll still be a thousand reasons to complain
and a thousand pieces of glass on the floor
and a thousand new worries,
and we’ll still have to get up early.

(‘Believe me’, translated by D.J. Enright)

Piotr himself is a noted translator of poetry by American, British and Irish poets into Polish, and his sense of the shifting landscape of translation, of being ‘between, that is, nowhere’, informs the poetry – his earlier Bloodaxe selection was called Things to Translate :

words stay behind the doors
of strangers’ mouths, gestures
get written in the air
by strange hands, and the child
asked at school
for his father’s occupation
answers shyly ‘transportist’.


The book is hugely quotable, itself a tribute to the quality of the translations, and here, to end with, is ‘Don’t Sleep, Take Notes’, translated by Halina Janod and D.J. Enright:

Don’t Sleep, Take Notes

At four in the morning
the milkwoman was knocking
in plain clothes, threatening
she wouldn’t leave us anything,
at most remove the empties,
if I didn’t produce the receipt.

It was somewhere in my jacket,
but in any case I knew
what the outcome would be:
she’d take away yesterday’s curds,
she’d take the cheese and the eggs,
she’d take our flat away,
she’d take away the child.

If I don’t produce the receipt,
if I don’t find the receipt,
the milkwoman will cut our throats.

Continued. Poems. By Piotr Sommer. Foreword by August Kleinzahler.Bloodaxe Books, 2005.

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