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)

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Monster's Breast: Journeying Through Dublin

One by one they dissolve. Calatrava’s Samuel Beckett is tugged back to Rotterdam; off go the O’Casey, the Talbot Memorial, the Loopline, Butt Bridge, O’Connell Bridge, The Ha’penny Bridge, the Millennium Bridge, Grattan Bridge, O’Donovan Rossa Bridge, Fr Mathew Bridge, the first of them all, great bridge, bridge of the Osmen, Dublin bridge; then Mellows Bridge, the slippery James Joyce Bridge, not to be crossed on a wet day, also by Calatrava, through whose steel wings you can see the house of ‘The Dead’, 15 Usher’s Island; the blue bridge that came from St Helen’s Foundry in Lancashire, Frank Sherwin Bridge, Heuston Bridge and so on down past Chapelizod to Lucan Bridge. The quay walls have melted away, the reclaimed land to the east has emptied itself back, and the river, the Ruirthech, ro-ritheach, the strong-running, flexes its muscles and rushes eastward to the nearer sea. And now that the bridges are gone, there is the serious problem of getting across.
Read More on Graph Magazine's site

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Lost Place: Reading Yves Bonnefoy's 'La Maison Natale'

What are we concerned with? What are we really attached to? Are we entitled to reject the contamination of the impermanent and to withdraw into the stronghold of speech, like the king in Poe’s tale, far from the plague-stricken land? Or did we love the lost object for its own sake, and do we want at all costs to recover it? (Bonnefoy, The act and the place of poetry. 102)
There is something interesting and powerful about an orchestrated series of poems – the kind of sequence or grouping that sets up conversations between the constituent parts, and where a common stock of images and verbal effects complement and reinforce each other. The frame of a sequence is really a loose kind of house, a dramatic space and a series of interconnected rooms, and those connections are important. It means the different parts can speak to each other and it also means there can be an accumulation of image and mood over the duration of the series.

For some poets, this working by accumulation and accretion is their default mode. These are poets of the architectonic imagination, the great organisers, deployers, orchestrators whose works have strong conceptual frameworks and who think very much in terms of the suite, the sequence, the series, the book.

   Yves Bonnefoy has always been this kind of poet, as I was reminded when I found myself reading ‘La maison natale’ from his 2001 collection Les planches courbes. The book is available in a dual language edition (Bonnefoy, The Curved Planks ) with translations by Hoyt Rogers, but the English translations I first read were John Naughton’s, which are available on the Poetry International website. Both are fine translations. I have been reading Bonnefoy on and off for many years, and again, as often happens when I encounter the work, I was immediately gripped by the force of the poems, and by the way they deploy an obsessive imagery of memory and loss where the real and the dreamed are fused to disturbing effect. What follows is an attempt to report on this particular encounter with Bonnefoy, and to try to register, however inadequately, some of his characteristic concerns and effects, something of what makes him one our of era’s unforgettable poets.

  Read more on Graph Magazine's new website.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Long, longer, longish

With thanks to Poetry Ireland Review (the poem appears in issue 109, edited by John F. Deane). The issue is partly devoted to long, longer and longish poems, which tend not to get much room in journals as a rule. Galway Kinnell, Harry Clifton, James Harpur, Patricia McCarthy and Robert Minhinnick also contribute longer pieces, and there's an interview with Bernard O'Donoghue.

Housed unhoused

In the dream of perfect ownership
light drenches the wood, falling
through windows long looked through.
The wine and the oil sleep in the store
and small gods have come to rest
in hearth and threshold, tile and countertop,
in doors, in handles smooth from long use.
They inhabit radios, tumbling clothes,
the silence of the winter yard, and when we’re here
they stream through us so every breath
is altar and core. Robed with home we go,
from room to room moving with grace,
lords of our little universe.


Who could forget the poet’s house, the one he made
when he ran out of money and time
and what the world couldn’t provide
he supplied himself, in verse after verse?
Remember the stonework, the avenues, the orchard?
Next came flowerbeds, the kitchen garden,
the wine cellar and the wood where every morning
he strolled for kindling. One river
led to another, a rusted gate grew meadows
where the autumn poured its aching light
and every evening he walked the boundaries
with calm affection, working the land
so hard in his mind when frost comes in April
we stumble from our beds, fearing for his vines.


This is the house that Jack lost, that packed up
and slid away, forgetting Jack and everyone else,
the faces, the photographs, breath on the mirrors,
prints on the bed, forgot hands, feet, fingertips
and so removed us not a crack in the wall or a stain
in the floor remembered anything that came before.
Our uses passed, our noise fell back to whisper, rumour,
the age before silence gripped and held.
This is the absence the house proposes,
the emptiness we rush to fill when we enter,
eyes darting from corner to corner,
until we’ve hammered ourselves into it. This is the house
that Jack retrieved, hauling it back from ice-beds, oceans,
that he voiced, echoed, ghosted, that slips through his fingers still.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dennis O'Driscoll

I was asked to talk about Dennis O'Driscoll in a tribute to him at the Barrow River Arts Festival last Sunday. His brother, Declan, read from his autobiographical essay on his home town, Thurles, and Marcella Riordan read a selection of his poems.

It's a strange experience to be here speaking about Dennis because I can still hardly fathom the fact that he's no longer with us. I still expect to bump into him, to carry on the conversation with him – the one ongoing conversation about poetry that we'd been having on and off for thirty odd years. It seems like a moment since we stood and chatted in Hodges Figgis in Dublin. He was buying presents, concentrating hard and looking a little lost in the non-poetry section of the shop, on his way to a poetry launch. He'd been to visit some of his beloved art galleries in the afternoon. Bookshop, galleries, poetry launch: a typical urban routine. The things that mattered. What did we talk about? Poetry, of course. We never really talked about anything else. What we were reading, what we were working on. I chanced an inquiry about his health but he swatted it aside, as always.

I suppose in one way I couldn't say that I knew Dennis well. He was an intensely private man, and he had a lot of charming strategies to protect that privacy. Charm and privacy went hand in hand. I knew him as a poet, an artist, I knew him as a companion on the road to the strange destination that poetry is, and as with all companions, they're so much part of the road, the journey, you think they'll always be there.

As long as I've been writing, I've been aware of Dennis. When I was about twenty I remember going to see him give a talk on eastern European poetry. In his beard and tweeds, he struck me as a distinguished, slightly Dostoyevskian figure, yet he was no more than a few years older than me. He was by then a regular critic for Hibernia, sharp, unsentimental, interested in what was going on outside this small island. A little later I became aware of the early books Kist and Hidden Damages. Later,  Dennis often dismissed his first book as callow but I've long learned never to trust poets on their own work, and Dennis' early work is full of fine things – some of which I know we'll year today.

We often say that someone has a powerful presence yet find it hard to pinpoint the focus or the pulse of that presence. In Dennis's case a number of related things came together. There was his own work: the powerful, uncompromising poems, the essays and reviews, there was the personal presence: the encouraging word or postcard, the never exhausted fund of praise, the sense that whatever poetry was produced in the world he was somehow its first audience.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hölderlin: Hälfte des Lebens

Another Hölderlin version  . . .There are many versions of this poem in English, but my favourite translation is Kathleen Jamie's Scots version.

Hälfte des Lebens

Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und trunken von Küssen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heilignüchterne Wasser.

Weh mir, wo nehm’ ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Den Sonnenschein,
Und Schatten der Erde?
Die Mauern stehn
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.


Yellow with pears
Heavy with wild roses
The land hangs in the lake
Magnificent swans
Drunk with kisses
You dip your heads
In the holy sober water

Where will I find
Flowers this winter
And where will I find
The sunshine and shade
of the earth? Speechless and cold
The walls stand, and the weathercocks
Rattle in the wind

Friday, March 22, 2013

In lovely blue

'In lieblicher Bläue…’

(After Hölderlin)

In lovely blue
the steeple flowers
the swallows cry around it
and pouring
                heartstopping blue

The metal roof
glints in the sun
and the weathercock
struts and crows in his
high silence

As in a still life
everything holds its shape
every edge
sharpens in the light

A man comes down the steps
under the clock
wearing the hour
like a sculpted coat
and the windows of the bell tower
are like gates on miracles
so close still
to the forest, and pure

The mind swings on difference
and is made serious
so simple all of this, so sacred
we would have to be saints
to describe it
or know such kindliness
to draw near

Is God unknown
or clear as the sky?
He must be clear
and this our measure
to live with our clutter
still lightly, like poets
on the earth
           doch dichterisch
           wohnet der Mensch auf dieser Erde

The dark night
templed with stars
after all
           if I can say it like this the
no purer than man
made in His image

Is there a measure on earth?
There’s none.
               For never the creator restrains
The genius of the maker
can’t prevent the thunder
Flowers astonish
in the sun
but the eye lights
on other creatures
more astonishing, more beautiful

Does it please God
if our hearts and bodies bleed
does it please Him
if we disappear?
This much I know
the soul must stay pure
or the eagle will perch on the Almighty
mouthing songs of praise
and the voices
of every bird in creation

            Du schönes Bächlein
                     du rollest so klar   
                           wie das Auge der Gottheit
                           durch die Milchstraße

The little stream
pours clearly
clear as the eye of a god
piercing the Milky Way

These tears yet
I see joy flower
in every shape created
and with good reason
I see it now in the solitariness
of two doves in the churchyard
But the laugher of men saddens me
I should like to be a comet
quick as a bird, all fiery flowers
and pure in heart, pure as a child
Who could look for more?

A serious spirit
drifts in the garden
this joyous virtue deserves her praise
There, by the columns
A beautiful girl should cover
her head in myrtle  
to show her nature
and her love

If someone looks in the mirror
           and sees his image there
Look in the mirror
the painted man
who stares back is you
A man’s image has eyes
but the moon has light
              and Oedipus has an eye too many
The sufferings of man
are beyond description
so much in this world
is unspeakable
And what do I feel now
when I think of you?

Like a continent washed away, like Asia
like Oedipus, like Hercules
To be alive under the sun is to suffer,
the sun that takes men by the hand and tempts them
          Sohn Laios, armer Fremdling in Griechenland!
          Leben ist Tod, und Tod ist auch ein Leben
Son of Laios, poor stranger in Greece
Life is death, and death too is a kind of life. . .

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