Four of the best
Bloodaxe has recently started publishing a new series of slim anthologies, each of which features generous selections from four poets. Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions 2, published in June, brings together four major European poets: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Miroslav Holub, Marin Sorescu and Tomas Tranströrmer. Each selection is prefaced by introductory materials – essays, interviews, profiles and commentaries by the poets. Below, as a sampler, is one poem from each of the selections.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Optimistic Little Poem
Now and then it happens
that somebody shouts for help
and somebody else jumps in at once
and absolutely gratis.
Here in the thick of the grossest capitalism
round the corner comes the shining fire brigade
and extinguishes, or suddenly
there’s silver in the beggar’s hat.
Mornings the streets are full
of people hurrying here and there without
daggers in their hands, quite equably
after milk or radishes.
As though in a time of deepest peace.
A splendid sight.
 translated by David Constantine
At last we were masters of our heads,
masters of the city,
masters of our shadows
and our equinox.
Someone fired a shot to celebrate,
but only the kind with a cork
tied to a string.
And then we opened the cages
and ferrets ran out.
Out of the skull ran brown and white
Out of the heart flew
Out of the lungs
a condor rose, croaking with rage
because of the way his plumes had been squashed
in the bronchi.
Even a panther showed up,
on the loose from an obsolete circus,
starved, ready to eat
even the Emperor Claudius.
You could hear squeaks in the streets –
the groans and shouts
of expiring fiends.
And at last we were masters
of our new moon.
But we couldn’t step out
of our doorways;
someone might cast
a spell on us.
We might even
 translated by Mirolsav Holub and David Young.
Just the usual lion-fodder, no one
whose name will ever make the calendar,
anonymously rattling into death.
Fed to bestial mud, your bodies are
frail as flowers. The life that you enjoy
will have to be the next one.
To carry off a crucifixion, talent
is required. It takes skill, as well, to plunge a trident
deep in someone’s throat. The goggling
crowd awaits the miracle to follow,
which won’t, of course, take place.
There’s just am ugly pool of blood
where the ripped-to-pieces die. That’s it.
Matinees on Tuesday. Bring a friend.
translated by John Hartley Williams and Hilde Ottschofski (2001)
April and Silence
Spring lies desolate.
The velvet-dark ditch
crawls by my side
The only thing that shines
is yellow flowers.
I am carried in my shadow
like a violin
in its black case.
The only thing I want to say
glitters out of reach
like the silver
in a pawnbroker’s.
Translated by Robin Fulton.
In one of the pieces republished here, Tomas Tranströrmer’s acceptance speech of his Neustadt prize, the poet talk about the importance of poetry translation:
Let me sketch two ways of looking at a poem. You can perceive a poem as an expression of the life of the language itself, something organically grown out of the very language in which it is written – in my case, Swedish. A poem written by the Swedish language through me. Impossible to carry over into another language.
Another, and contrary, view is this: the poem as it is presented is a manifestation of another, invisible poem, written in a language behind the common languages. Thus, even the original version is a translation. A transfer into English or Malayalam is merely the invisible poem’s new attempt to come into being. The important thing is what happens between the text and the reader. Does a really committed reader ask if the written version he reads is the original or a translation?
Probably not, is the answer to that question. The reader consumes the text and doesn’t worry about its origins. But the consumption will be greatly aided by the quality of the text – that is, the quality of the translation. How well the translators gathered in this volume have pulled the invisible poems into the light is something you can judge for yourselves as you make your way through this interesting book.
Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions 2, edited by Neil Astley, 96 pp. £7.95 in UK.