Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Monk, step further off

Went to see Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Bill Manhire and Adam Zagajewski reading at the Poetry Now festival in Dún Laoghaire. Ní Dhomhnaill gave an undertstated but quietly powerful reading, which included her versions in modern Irish of the poems of Gormfhlaith (died 947), the medieval Irish woman poet to whom twenty or so poems are attributed, and even though some of them are dated after her own life, there is a strong tradition of Gormfhlaith as a poet. She was the daughter of the Uí Néill king Flann Sinna and was married to three men, all of whom she outlived: Cormac Mac Cuilenneáin the king-bishop of Cashel, Cerball mac Muireacáin and the Uí Néill king Niall Glúndubh who was killed in battle and for whom she wrote the poem below, ‘Beir a mhanaigh leat an chois’. It’s published in Osborn Bergin’s Irish Bardic Poetry and Thomas Kinsella provides a translation in The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, 1986), which I also give below. I’m not sure if Nuala’s versions have been published but I’m looking forward to reading them. What I heard in Dún Laoghaire was powerful.

Beir a mhanaigh leat an chois,
tóccaibh anos do tháobh Néill:
as rothrom chuireas tú an chré
ar an tú re luighinn féain.

Fada a mhanaigh atáoi thíar,
acc cúr na críadh ar Níall nár;
fada liom é a ccomhraidh dhuinn,
‘snach roichid a bhuinn an clár.

Mac Aodha Finnléith an óil,
ní dom dhéaon atá fa chrois;
sín ar a leabaidh an leac,
beir a mhanaigh leat an chois.

Fa Chloinn Uisnigh dob fearr clú
do bhí Deirdre mur tú anois,
a croidhe ina cliaph gur att -
beir a manaigh leat a ccois.

As me Gormlaith chumas rainn,
deaghinghean Floinn ó Dhúin Rois;
trúagh nach orom atá an leac -
beir a mhanaigh leat an ccois.

‘Monk, step further off.
Move away from Niall’s side.
You settle the clay to heavy
on him with whom I have lain.

You linger here so long
settling the clay on noble Niall:
he seems a long while in the coffin
where his soles don’t reach the boards.

‘Aed Finnliath’s son, of the drinking feasts,
under a cross – it is not my will.
Stretch the slab upon his bed.
Monk, step further off.

Over Uisnech’s famous family
Deirdre stood as I do now,
till her heart swelled in her side.
Monk, step further off.

‘I am Gormfhlaith, maker of verses,
Flann’s noble daughter from Dún Rois.
My grief that slab is not above me!
Monk, step further off.’

I love the proud imperiousness of that ‘beir a mhanaigh leat an chois’ or ‘beir do chos leat, a mhanaigh’ as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has it in Modern Irish (mura bhfuil dul amú orm).

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Rain and the Glass


Listening silence in the glass
The listening rain against.
All in the silent house asleep,
The rain and the glass awake;
All night they listen for a noise
No one is there to make.

All in the silent house asleep,
The rain and the glass awake;
Listening silence in the glass
The listening rain against.
All night they listen for a noise
Their silence cannot break.

These lines were written by Robert Nye at the age of thirteen one afternoon in 1952 after he fell asleep ‘by a window in the front room of the house in an Essex resort where I was living with my parents’. The poem came to him in a dream; ‘It was after this dream that I knew what I had to do for the rest of my life’. The poem is published in The Rain and the Glass which contains all the poems Nye has written since his Collected Poems in 1995 together with his own selection from that volume, and his piece about the book is published in the January 2006 edition of Acumen. Many poets will sympathise with Nye’s sense that ‘the writing of poems is based on a trust in inspiration – it happens – tempered by mistrust for the actual poem when it has been written down.’ For Nye, the poet needs to be ‘a kind of secretary to something more than his or her own little self’.

I’ve quoted the earliest of the poems in the volume; here’s one of the latest, after a sixth century Greek neo-Platonist cited ‘mostly because I like his name':

After Simplicius

Time is a dream and all we do
Will be the same again.
I’ll sit like this and talk with you,
Between my hands this cane.
And we shall kiss again, like this,
Again, and then again.

Again, and then again, like this
We’ll sit, I’ll have this cane
Between my hands, and we shall kiss
And talk, like this, again.
Dear, what I tell you now is true:
Time is a dream and all we do
Will be the same again.

And a final word from Nye, which should also strike a chord with poets: ‘I have spent my life trying to write poems , but the poems gathered in The Rain and the Glass came mostly when I was not.

The Rain and the Glass is published by Greenwich Exchange (8 Balmoral Close, Billericay, Essex, CM11 2LL) and costs £9.95 sterling.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Bacchae of Baghdad

How do you deal with the literature of the distant past? How do you make Greek tragedy comprehensible to a contemporary audience? How do you make the language of Greek drama performable? How distant is the distant past in any case? Is Beowulf nearer to or farther from us than Catullus? Is Homer more or less alien than Táin Bó Cuailgne or the Fiannaíocht? The sensibility shift between our slice of time and the many pasts doesn’t run in a nice vertical line, but loops and veers, sometimes intersecting with our world, sometimes sheering back and sometimes running in parallel. Other than the fact that your car might be more fuel efficient and your software more bloated, there’s no linear progression from era to era in anything that matters. Some art forms, though, don’t travel as easily as others. We might enjoy a jar in The Front Lounge with Catullus but baulk at extended conversation with the author of The Seafarer. We love Sappho now because all those intriguing fragments that constitute our version of her chime with our post-modernist fragmentary sensibility, but that doesn’t mean we’d enjoy dinner with Aeschylus or Euripides. In spite of the fact that Greek drama is regularly adapted for the contemporary stage, we don’t necessarily get it. We haven’t trooped out of Athens on a spring evening for a communal bonding ritual, we have the dimmest notion of the social, political, religious, let alone the literary or dramatic contexts of these plays. Their central concerns are, in many respects, very different from ours. We don’t inhabit the mindscape of fifth century BC Greece and have to work hard for a foothold in it. Ernst Gombrich has the great image of history as a lighted paper falling down a well shaft, and Euripides’s world is pretty far down that shaft.

True, there are fundamental human desires, fundamental ways of ordering civilisations, fundamental conflicts, but I’m not not sure how useful it is marshal contemporary events as parallels for the events in a play like The Bacchae. So what is the play about? It’s a conflict between two irreconcilable positions, neither of which holds much appeal, and neither of which, maybe, we really comprehend. Resentful Dionysus arrives in Thebes with his female Bacchantes, angered that he is not recognised as a god and that Pentheus has been installed as king. Pentheus forbids all Dionysian rites, seeing it as his duty to repel this new and barbaric Asian invasion that threatens Theban order. So, a conflict between a fanatical religious intensity and a ‘rational’ autocracy; between male and female, masculine and feminine. The play carries a heavy sexual charge. Pentheus seems to lust after Dionysus for all that he condemns and scorns him, and his desire to observe the Bacchic rites while dressed as a woman seems to imply a battery of unresolved sexual issues, as we might see it. But if Pentheus doesn’t offer much for an audience to sympathise with or get excited about, what’s so attractive about Dionysus? Licence, freedom, drink, craic, mayhem, but also murder, intolerance, mutilation, general monstrosity. We get to hear a detailed account of the Bacchic rites when the Messenger describes them to Pentheus early on in the play; at first it’s all bucolic sweetness and gushing fountains of wine, but pretty soon the blood’s up and the heifers are being dismembered with bare hands.

In Conall Morrison’s version in the Abbey, the Bacchantes are equated with suicide bombers, and Dionsyus comes on like an Islamic fanatic . Pentheus for his part is got up like an American general and we’re apparently in The Green Zone, ‘a little America embedded in the heart of Baghdad’. The publicity makes it even clearer: ‘Here set in the contemporary surrounds of Baghdad’s Green Zone, The Bacchae of Baghdad is a compelling investigation of the lethal force of political and religious fundamentalism.’ And this is where I begin to stumble. Tempting as it might be to overlay a contemporary parallel on the bones of the play, there is no sense in which either the original or this version applied any kind of analysis to the brutal succession of events presented. Things happen, and then more things happen. The royal house is destroyed, the Dionysian rage prevails. When Cadmus remonstrates with Dionysus at the end, suggesting that gods shouldn’t merely ape the destructive anger of men, Dionysus’s reply is that Zeus willed all this long ago – and that, more or less, is that. The bleak resolution is that everything was foreordained, and one kind of tyranny has supplanted another. Seen like this the play offers a nightmare vision of a world without the possibility of any escape from horror, in which human will plays no part. And that would be one way to play it. But if you’re going to namecheck Guantanamo and Baghdad, if you’re going to particularise the context to that extent, you have to have something meaningful to say about them, you have to engage with their particular realities – otherwise the contemporary reality is merely decorative, a frisson of danger to persuade the audience of the play’s relevance, or to provide something to look during the long speeches. As it is I don’t have the sense that Morrison is that interested in his own chosen context, beyond the opportunity it affords for visual spectacle. And besides, the realities of occupied Iraq are not actually transferable to the conflict between Pentheus and Bacchus. Conflicts don’t necessarily operate on the level of that kind of mythic struggle.

The difficulties of this version, though, go beyond the Iraq references.You have the sense that the bulk of the thinking has gone into the visual spectacle; into costume and choreography: how to deploy the music, how to lower Dionysus from the sky, what to do with the chorus, and so on. The words are secondary – it’s as if The Bacchae was an opera and the words a libretto half taken in. This version is ‘written and directed’ by Conall Morrison, with ‘written’ appearing to mean adapted from previously existing English translations. It would be interesting to know what exactly the relationship is, how this particular version was arrived at. It sounded like a conventional translation: stilted couplets, curiously old fashioned diction [what are you prating of?], the kind of prosaic yet simultaneously self-conscious poetry into which the classics frequently get translated. That is, you felt at all times as if you were, with all the dutifulness that that implies, watching a Greek tragedy. And yet huge chunks of the play consist of long speeches and reports of off-stage events. The language is the prime mover of the play – all the action is in the account of the action. If the language doesn’t grip us from the outset, we’re immediately distanced from the events of the play, we immediately begin to filter them through a literary haze, we become aware of the play as a reading of an ancient classic. The challenge for the adapter is to find a way to release the text from itself, to let it slip free of the long burden of its past.

As I write this I hear the radio advertise The Bacchae of Baghdad as ‘a powerful play for today’ but this is advertiser speak; if it’s to speak to us now, it needs a radical re-visioning. Its central conflict needs to made to speak to our own lives rather to our historical awareness, and dressing it in contemporary allusions isn’t the answer. The language itself needs to be reconstructed to speak to us: it needs to be vigorous, muscular, as dramatically powerful as the original was in its time, in the Tony Harrison’s adaptations of Aeschylus are. It needs, maybe, to be less faithful to the lineaments of the original since that fidelity ends up more often than not translating as piety. The staging of it needs to be re-thought. Our attention begins to wander almost from beginning, from Dionysus’ long opening speech – again, we need to be made forget that we’re watching a two thousand five hundred year old play, we need to be brought right into it before it disappears from us behind a veil of translationese and exoticism. Otherwise we end up in the drama museum.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Sailor's Home

How long is it since poetry became public property? Today, poets write with the idea of publishing in our minds, and poetry books are published with the idea of sales in the publisher’s minds (however few!). Even poetry events seem to be organised according to the numbers of tickets that can be sold. The public has become an invisible hand, playing with and controlling the standards of the poetry world, and as such has transformed it into just as dull a field as any other directly commercial endeavour.

The above is from the preface to Sailor’s Home, a miscellany of poetry by Arjen Duinker, W.N. Herbert, Uwe Kolbe, Peter Laugesen, Karine Martel and Yang Lian, published by Shearsman Books . I suppose it’s true that poets write with the idea of publishing, though I’m not sure how primary a concern that is. Most poetry publishing is pretty fugitive. The tiny numbers involved mean that the act of publication is, in a sense, symbolic rather than real, or a kind of virtual reality, and I can think of few publishers whose decisions are influenced by the likelihood of sales, since whether a book will sell eighty copies or two hundred copies is unlikely to have much bearing on the economics of the operation. And again, having organised many myself, I can’t think of any poetry events that are organised on the basis of ticket sales, and can’t see either how the dire invisible hand of the public has any effect on ‘the poetry world’. If poetry is dull it’s because poets are dull; and if it’s brilliant, exciting, captivating it’s the poets are all of those things as they write it.

Still, it’s not hard to see why poets might want to remove themselves from the public domain from time to time, even as they fool themselves into thinking they entered it in the first place. They are after all poorly socialised creatures, and sometimes it’s just plain fun to talk to other oddballs like yourself. Such, crudely summarised, is the thinking behind Sailor’s Wardrobe, which took the form of a private poetry festival held last October in London. Each of the participating poets had to respond to the title, and the results are published in the book. Again from the preface:

The poems in the book do not 'respond' to each other in a narrow sense:each poet has explored his or her own understanding of the title ‘Sailor’s Home’, and arranged their individual forms accordingly. So here there are at least six boats setting sail on different waterways, rivers, lakes – and all seven seas....

Here are two samples:

Mare Silentium
is whaur aa sowels at last dae come
whas life wiz spent upon
thi silent craft o song
tae sail away sae dumb
(Mare Silentium)
we sail awa sae dumb

Layin thi keels o phrase
or sailin skeely through the waves
that waassh ower in crazy praise
until oor time is duin
and we sail tae kingdom come
(Mare Silentium)
we sail tae kingdom come...

(from ‘Shanty of the Sailor’s Moon’ by W.N. Herbert)

Uwe Kolbe
Sailor’s Love

Mit ruhigen Schnitten löste sie
die Reste vom Kerngehäuse
aus jedem der Schnitze
des saftigen Apfels.

Ich legte mich in Ihre Hand
und legte mich in ihre Ruhe.
Ich legte mich fast
in Ihr Leben.

Dann stand sie wieder auf
und griff nach den Klinke
und ging zurück
in die Küchen der Welt.

Sailor’s Love

With calm snips she removed
remnants of the core
from every slice
of the juice-filled apple.

I laid myself down in her hand
laid myself in her calm,
laid myself more or less
in her life.

But then she arose
and reached for the doorknob
and went back out
into the world’s kitchens

(translated by Mick Standen and Joe Tudor)

Friday, March 10, 2006

The rustling of the silk

Back after a long absence with three versions of a poem from the Chinese, for our edification, followed by a moral quandary.

The first is Ezra Pound’s.

Liu Ch’e

The rustling of the silk is discontinued,
Dust drifts over the court-yard,
There is no sound of footfall, and the leaves
Scurry into heaps and lie still,
And she the rejoicer of the heart is beneath them:

A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.

Much has been written about Pound as a translator or mediator of Chinese poetry into English. He didn’t speak Chinese, so his versions don’t have scholarly pretensions. In the Cathay poems he relied on the notes that Ernest Fenollosa compiled in Tokyo, and was quite happy to use the Japanese designation Rihaku for the Chinese poet Li Po. Arthur Waley, whose own translations of Chinese poetry were hugely influential, objected to many of Pound’s versions, though it’s hard to see how his version of, say, ‘The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ improves on Pound’s. Pound’s great gift as a poetic mediator was his superb ear. Compare, for instance, the poem above with Waley’s version below.

Li Fu-Jen
by Arthur Waley

The sound of her silk skirt has stopped.
On the marble pavement dust grows.
Her empty room is cold and still,
Fallen leaves are piled against the doors.
Longing for that lovely lady
How can I bring my aching heart to rest?

Waley’s is undoubtedly truer to the original. It doesn’t have Pound’s imagistic addition (‘A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.’) but as a poem in English Pound’s seems to me far superior. ‘The rustling of the silk is discontinued’ is infinitely more suggestive than ‘The sound of her silk skirt has stopped.’ And it’s also stranger, less like a poem in English, less like an English-language locution, a typical canny Poundian ‘foreignisation’. Pound’s prowess as an interpreter is, though, complicated by the fact that many of his translations are less relationships with an original than with other translations. He was a pretty ruthless cannibaliser of previous translations, which he rarely acknowledged, and often went to trouble to conceal. Have a look at the poem below, by the Chinese scholar Herbert Giles, published some year’s before Pound’s version. I’ve marked up the similarities with Pound’s version:

by Herbert A. Giles

The sound of rustling silk is stilled,
With dust the marble courtyard filled;
No footfalls echo on the floor,
Fallen leaves in heaps block up the door...
For she, my pride, my lovely one, is lost,
And I am left, in hopeless anguish tossed.

The use of the passive construction, the lexical similarities, indicate that Pound essentially based his translation on Giles’ version. It adapts it freely and, it must be said, improves it substantially as an effective English poem. Do his methods matter then? Should we we fling the book down in disgust at his theft or applaud his resourcefulness? A very large amount of Pound’s translations contain the corpses of other translations, as any detective work will show. There’s a very good account here which shows that his celebrated ‘Seafarer’ came straight from Cook and Tinker’s Translations from Old English Poetry, published by Ginn & Co in 1902. All’s fair in love and modernism, maybe, though this kind of intertextuality isn’t usually what people have in mind. But why should the magpie plundering and pillaging which was so much part of Pound’s aesthetic and genius baulk at delicately re-arranging and re-orchestrating the work of others? To expect anything else is to expect Pound to be a different kind of poet. Everything he did proceeded from the same impulses, and whether texts are presented as originals or translations or a fusion of the two, they are all fictions, they’re all charged with the same transformative energy. The appropriative genius is all in the difference between ‘The sound of rustling silk is stilled’ and ‘The rustling of the silk is discontinued’.

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