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Showing posts from 2009

The Metaphysical Tramdriver: Reading Luciano Erba

The Greener Meadow: Selected Poems. Luciano Erba, translated by Peter Robinson. Princeton University Press, 2007. 288 pp. $17.95 / £12.50

with thanks to Poetry Ireland Review, where this piece first appeared.

The poetry traditions of different cultures intersect pretty randomly at the best of times. Poets will, if they can, peer over the fence of language to see what the neighbours are up to, or rely on the services of translators to bring them the news. Sheer happenstance often determines what gets translated: what happens to interest a given translator at a given time, what publisher is prepared to publish the result. Italian poetry has, in fact, been pretty well served in English. Of twentieth century poets, Montale, Ungaretti, Saba, Pavese, Zanzotto, Bertolucci, Luzi are all available in fine recent translations. Catherine O’Brien’s anthology The Green Flame is still an excellent starting point for an exploration of contemporary Italian poetry, as is Jamie McKendrick’s monolingua…

The Thing Is

Shameless self-promotion

The launch will take place in Waterstone's Dublin on Thursday, 15 October, 6 pm, along with Vona Groarke, Tom French , Kerry Hardie and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.

Any excuse to get a viol on the cover. The particular excuse in this case is provided by Captain Tobias Hume, mercenary soldier and composer for the viol.

Music for Viols
(Tobias Hume’s Good Againe)

Good again
this night, this late
to hear that tune and fall
again, the slow dark drag,
of thickly branched trees
swaying above water,
of sound moving
from the farthest pit
to pour down.
God and the devil
must play the viol.
The door of the world
swings open
on Hume’s excited figure.
After sadness, hunger,
royal blindness
to the great shame of this land
and those that do not help me
after a bellyful of snails
and the sniping of lutenists
good again to stand
with the night
in Jordi’s hands
and listen
and walk in
as far as the tune will go.

Writing the bare bones

Collected Poems, by Michael Smith, Shearsman Books, 242pp, £12.95

MICHAEL SMITH has a well-deserved reputation as a prolific and engaging translator of poetry, with versions of Vallejo, Hernandez, Claudio Rodriguez, Lorca and many others to his name.

He is also well known for his work as a publisher with the influential New Writers’ Press and as an advocate of the Irish modernist tradition.

Prolific translators can often find their own work overshadowed by the work they negotiate across the linguistic borders, so it’s good to be reminded of what Smith has achieved in his own right. The poems gathered here cover all the work Smith wants to preserve from seven previous collections, but what’s striking is how much of a piece they are. The essential elements of both style and subject matter were set in place at an early stage and he has stuck pretty consistently to them.

The poetry is spare, avoiding any kind of formal or rhetorical flourish; it’s a bare-bones aesthetic and it suits the c…

Walking into Poetry

I’ve always liked the idea of walking into a poem. Certain kinds of poets walk their way into their poems. They take walks and compose poems out of what they see, as in the case of Charles Reznikoff in his walks around New York, or they use walks to work out a poem, finding in the physical rhythm of the walk an inner rhythm that releases the imagination. I think of Jacques Réda out for his daily fix of asphalt in the vingtième, whose whole aesthetic is constructed out of his explorations of the spaces around him, or of a poet like Thomas A Clark who also walks very deliberately into poetry, whose daily practice of walking is the reason and impetus for the work. And this is where the notion becomes interesting. It's not simply that a poet engages in an activity, goes hill-climbing or flyfishing or haunting second hand bookshops, but that there's a synthesis between the activity and the deepest intentions of the poetry. What follows is in part an exploration of what it means to…

Putting a price on culture

ON ST PATRICK’S DAY this year the Taoiseach presented US president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden with limited editions of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf and The Cure at Troy with inscriptions by the poet. In his dedication to Obama, Seamus Heaney quotes from the poem’s introduction of the character of Beowulf as “a man who comes in an hour of need . . . there was no one else like him alive”. The first lady Michelle Obama was presented with a collection of Eavan Boland’s poems, and her daughters Sasha and Malia were each given a copy of Bairbre McCarthy’s The Keeper of the Crock of Gold. The reception that evening included a reading by poet Paul Muldoon and music by the Shannon Rovers pipe band.

What does this tell us? It indicates, surely, that songs, music and poetry are a valuable currency. Out of the many possible gifts he could have given, the Taoiseach chose to present the president and his family with works of creative imagination, the kind of imagination that is in fact rea…


In the house
a great silence, the roped-off tables and chairs,
the shirt and hat still on their hook as if at any second
he might come in and reach for them. I’ll be down
at the water’s edge, looking out. . . We were the ghosts
beyond the ropes, peering in
to breathe tunes into a wind-up gramophone,
work the hand-press into the night, infuse
the flags with the tang of bread and oil.
But that clarity, how everything blazed
in the undaunted light of itself. A typewriter
nailed down for all eternity, drafts a whisper from ink
flourishing their imperfections.
In the museum room a looped film of the artist shaving,
shelves of his books; ‘I breed pedigree dogs to feed my cats’.
The place held its breath. In this readiness what could resist?
Touch nothing but listen for the lift-off, the print
of the house on its own waiting, the lucky lope
of the sleek black cat through the ropes, and out.

Luciano Erba


alle piccole
Francesca e Caterina
ma come può un coniglio
fare il prato più verde
una strada ferrata
una stazione di mattoni rossi
nascondersi fra colline di robinie
per farle più spinose e più robinie
sopratutto questo odore di foglie nuove
ma come può?
come è possibile
che tutto un mondo si colori di mattino
se vi tengo per mano


to the little ones
Francesca and Caterina

but how can a rabbit
make the meadow greener
a railway line
a red brick station
hide themselves among hills of robinia
to make them more thorny and the more robinia
above all this smell of new leaves
but how can it?
how is it possible
that a whole world grow colored with morning
if I hold you two by the hand

from The Greener Meadow: Selected Poems, Luciano Erba, Translated by Peter Robinson, Princeton University Press, 2006

Heaney at 70

RTE's Heaney at 70 site

My own introduction to the box set of the Collected Poems

Irish Times special feature

Excellent review by Barra O Seaghdha of Stepping Stones

Thin-skinned dreams: Reading Friederike Mayröcker

(with thanks to Poetry Ireland Review, where this first appeared)

Friederike Mayröcker, Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946-2006. Translated by Richard Dove. Carcanet, 2007.

Some facts first: Friederike Mayröcker was born in Vienna in 1924, worked as an English teacher from 1946 until 1969, since when she has lived as a freelance writer. She began writing in her teens and was first published in the Viennese avant-garde magazine Plan. From her beginnings as a writer she has been associated with the Wiener Gruppe, figures such as Hans Weigel, Andreas Okopenko, H.C. Artmann and her companion Ernst Jandl, whom she met in 1954. Since giving up her teaching job she has lived, in Jeremy Over’s words in a recent (Autumn 2008) issue of New Books in German, ‘an almost hermetical existence surrounded by unruly mountains of books, papers and notes in a tiny flat in the Zentagasse district of Vienna. . .’ where she ‘started to produce the main body of her extraordinary avant-garde literary wor…

Sandalwood comes to my mind

Carl Rakosi
from Excercises in Scriptural Writing

Sandalwood comes to my mind
when I think of you
and the triumph of your shoulders.
Greek chorus girls came to me
in the course of the day
and from a distance
Celtic vestals too,
but you bring me the Holy Land
and the sound of deep themes
in the inner chamber.

I give you praise
in the language
of wells and vineyards.

Your hand recalls
the salty heat of barbarism.
Your mouth is a pouch
for the accents of queens.
Your eyes flow over
with a gentle psalm
like the fawn eyes
of the woodland.

Your black hair
plucks my strings.

In the foggy wilderness
is not your heart
a hermit thrush?