Home Up

ISSUE 23

A VISIT TO THE CLOCKMAKER by Kirstin Dimitrova translated by Gregory O'Donoghue

ISBN 1-905002-4)3-3 Soulhword,84 Douglas St, Cork, Ireland  

An excellent undertaking by Southword Editions, these recent translations of a bevy of European poets. The old insularity of British poetry is breaking down. No longer do we cry with Larkin: "Abroad! But don't you miss the cricket scores!" Poetry matters more than cricket and its values are universal. Today we should exclaim: "Cricket scores! But wouldn't you rather be reading Dimitrova?”

Kirstin Dimitrova was born in Sofia in 1963. She has published six collections before this one. Her style is simple and low-key, in keeping with the contemporary mode. In the same way, she views the world from the perspective of a somewhat beleaguered subjectivity:  

When the time comes to pulldown the world order
John will be pulling from Stockholm and I from Sofia
 

she observes in All Power to the Hands of the Anarchists, a poem acknowledging the impotence of anarchism. The pronoun I occurs just short of 150 times in this collection. Dimitrova isn't unusual in that But why? Mind is social I is social Without society there is no self. Yet, the most sensitive and intelligent minds of modernity seem to be shy of the selfhood their societies propose. They retreat into an outsider's I, an I resistant by being unimplicated except on its own terms. Perhaps I appears so many times in Dimitrova's work, as in that of most her contemporaries, because the self is under such threat from social atomization All the same, Dimitrova is adept. She handles language with supreme dexterity and can startle an insight from its cover in very few words. In The Train whose surface is so seeming banal and insignificant sparks up the terror of a lire whose destiny has died. According to a Specialist's Opinion takes eight lines to switch on the horrible loneliness of a life shared with a stranger. Brilliant.

 

A STAY IN A SANATORIUM by Zbynek Hejda ISBN 1-9050Q2-05-X

Zbynek Hejda is a Czech poet born in 1930 and banned under the Communists. He joined Charter 77 and lost his job in a publishing house having to work as a caretaker.  

I am full of cheerfulness;
I find everything absurd
 

he writes in The Spring Will Be Over. That could stand as his poetic manifesto. Hejda is one of the most memorable of this batch of writers because of that division in his work, the radical separation of world and self. His style is simple, straightforward, conversational. A modern style. But his sensibility is ancient. He is disillusioned, impersonal, objective. The final short poem captures the essential tone:  

Where on earth
have I wandered into as if into
some joyful painting?
Frightened, I’ve at once
turned back.
 

There's a sense of that turning back throughout the collection. Hejda encounters reality and is wary. Yet his wariness doesn't stand in the way of his curiosity or his joy or horror or sense of humour, especially absurd humour.  

And still we feel happy, sometimes.  

Lovely comma. It's the confidence to admit that something is badly wrong, the world terribly awry which gives birth to the strength of the sensibility which underpins these poems. Much in his style is similar to that of most of the foreign writers in this series, but there is a remarkable difference of tone. Tone in writing is like the emotional tenor of voice in speech yet words on the page alone must convey it.  

Some evening we’ll all sit down together
around thirty bottles,
me, you and Bob,
 

Something in these lines, their combination of ease, familiarity and yet uncertainty, foreboding and the need for escape, the sense of togetherness postponed, summarizes Hejda's tone. He embraces the ancient sense that selfhood requires dislocation, that in order to glimpse the truth we must be separated from the world. I appears in this collection as often as in Dimitrova's, yet it's a very different I. Hejda is acutely aware of the insubstantiality of self. He is alive to the way circumstance can throw selfhood out of kilter and in the modern world circumstances change extraordinarily rapidly. It's in the creation of confidence from the perception of a constant threat, not to mere belief systems, but to the very sense of identity that the low-key, modest grandeur of these poems is grounded.  

So you see it's day again, you see: by good fortune
we 've weathered yet another night
 

There is an irony of defeat in the way those lines are constructed, the hint of controlled archness characteristic of the disillusion and disappointment that must pick themselves off the floor each morning to get through another day. It's the tone of the genius who has had to earn a living as a caretaker and is therefore very rare in writers from the rich western democracies, most of whom are middle-class, comfortable, successful, accepted. Poetry written to please competition judges, to appeal to ex-public-school, Oxbridge or Harvard editors is very different from poetry written by writers who have seen not only their work but their very lives hang by a thread. Hejda, a victim of totalitarian viciousness, has nothing in common with that glib, self-celebratory, look-at-me tone so common in writers in the west, high on the drug of their own talent He comes from a small country whose existence has been many times in question. He has survived as a man and a writer against all the odds. There has been no opportunity for arrogance or egotism. No possibility of a Calvinistic sense of election. It shows.

 

POCKET APOCALYPSE by Katarzyna Borun-Jagodzinska ISBN 1-905002-11-4  

Borun-Jagodzinska was born in Warsaw in 1956. She is highly accomplished in her understated, somewhat oblique style. She likes a poem which tempts but which sometimes reveals its meaning only a great cost. The title poem is, nevertheless, clear enough in its brevity. Though all the poems here are short, they have a way of taking off into little byways or sometimes at tangents. Even when she's very straightforward, as in Night, the poems exhibit a restraint which is like a withdrawal into a maze. In City Poets she writes:  

It would be easier for us
if we stopped saying it straight,
if we hid our meaning in metaphor,
if we dealt solely in obscurity.
 

Perhaps this collection is her attempt to make things easier. The city, of course, makes it simpler to say things straight. It could be that the stripped-bare aspect of city life, the possibility of anonymity which ironically grants the terrain of multiple identities which must learn to rub along, is what Borun is shying from. Perhaps she is looking for safety in a little, judicious obscurity.

 

FLYING BLIND by Guntars Godins ISBN1-905002-12-2  

Godins is a Latvian poet born in 1958. The poems here are all short, unexpansive. He writes about string theory or the end of a relationship with the same curtailed expressiveness which makes the meaning of each poem fall like the drip from a leaking tap. Being short, the architecture of these pieces doesn't permit for a sense of development through time. Each poem is like a little nugget hard won from the tough rock of experience. Sometimes, he goes for a banality:  

The sea has two faces.
One minutes it's a cub
with a ball of string.
Next minute it's a tiger
unsheathing its claws
.  

Nothing surprising in what the poem says, but an attempt to say it in a surprising way. Nor do the poems interconnect. Godins gives the impression of being a poet in search of a subject. When he finds one, like a fisherman with a catch, he wants to dispatch it swiftly.

 

SONGS OF EARTH AND LIGHT by Barbara Korun ISBN 1-905002-06-8  

Barbara Korun is a Slovenian writer born in 1963. Her style is lucid, driving and tremendously energetic. She writes wonderful erotic poems which valorize female desire, longing and fulfilment in a way which shows up the tawdriness of our present culture of sleaze and raunch. She is courageous and brimming with love of life which is communicated poignantly, delicately and also with refreshing gusto. It is much to the good that a woman should write of her erotic and emotional experience with such confidence, honesty and clarity for it not only undermines the crassness of male pornimagery and the female compliance which permits it, but also grants men the liberating responsibility of attending seriously to feminine needs.  

O I am heavy with sorrows
torn bare from the dream,
my skin bright with sweat,
my emptiness
throbbing and thirsting for you,
for your manhood,
 

There are several examples of this kind of superbly written expression of gorgeous, painful desire in this book. Korun also makes fascinating imaginative use of animals in her imagery:  

I wake to a warm stag's tongue between my legs  

Korun's celebration of erotic love is neither apologetic nor the slightly shrewish posture sometimes found in self-consciously ideological feminists. Korun needs no ideology, she has the confidence of her true and honest feelings. Not by any means are all the poems here about erotic experience but they all carry the Korun hallmark of vivid imagination beautifully and bravely expressed There is a lovely prose poem called To Sleep In The Light whose first paragraph evokes through acute small accumulations the delight of giving in to welcome sleep even in the middle of the day. ft is full of Koran's remarkable control and brilliant ability to capture complex experience in simple words as well as her customary and thoroughly heartening delight in the joys of life available to all Both her sensibility and her means of expression are thoroughly unique. A truly extraordinary poet who ought to have a high international reputation.

 

MOOSE BEETLE SWALLOW by Andres Ehin ISBN 1-905002-13-0  

Andres Ehin was born in Estonia in 1940. His poems often employ the devices of surrealism., and to delightful and amusing effect, in a way sometimes reminiscent of Prevert There is a cheerful irreverence at work in his poetry which battles gloom even when he's treating the most serious or depressing subjects:  

I'm a Moscow schoolboy
Sitting an the soft upholstery of a theatre stall
A Chechen aims his submachine gun at me
Two others one cutting a hole in the wall
To plant a mine there.
My eyes are on stalks
My piss is staining my pants.
 

The final two lines are almost comic. They giant humanity to the victim of crazed self-righteousness and they remind us of the infinitely small distance between self-exceeding, easy-going joie de vivre and vicious, self-obsessed hatred. Some of the poems simply take off into surrealistic fantasy to remind us of the incontrovertible nature of our universe. Such is Dog Apartment:  

Imagine an apartment made of dog
three rooms of bark, a bathroom of snout
 

There have been attempts to introduce this kind of far-gone humorousness into British poetry (burning donkeys and so on) but it usually comes across as too self-conscious and stand-up. There's none of that in Ehin. He's a master of the dead-pan surrealistic technique. A three and a half page poem called Dusk In The Snowfields brilliantly employs the stuff of surrealism to mock bureaucratic officiousness, inter alia. Ehin's artistic control is beyond question. He never gets a word out of place which is especially difficult when toying with language so freely. There is one typo in the book, lightning spelled lightening, but it doesn't detract at all from the pleasure. Few poets have the ability to extract genuine laughter, not the snigger of the immature or me joyless howl of the unpleasant, but Ehin can. He is a poet to cherish, a wise and pleasant sensibility in the guise of a knockabout clown. A real artist

 

SELECTED POEMS by Kynakos Charalambides ISBN 1-905002-09-2  

Charalambides is a Cypriot who writes in Greek and one of his country's most respected poets. He is technically very assured writing in a deceptively simple style to hit a tone which has a somewhat throwaway, demotic , devil-may-care edge but always in poems full of suggestion and allusion which side-step glibness and rhetoric to arrive at a form of utterance whose denotative meaning may be coy but whose enduring connotations are rich:  

Each time there’s an injustice on earth
the rumpus in heaven is something else  

There is a longish poem called The Tyranny of Words born out of Sir Ian Gilmour's statement about Cyprus in 1980, which contained the remarkable line which makes up part of the poem's epigraph: Invasion means different things to different people. It's a memorable and powerful piece which applies, of course, to all political distortion of language Charalambides is himself a distorter but in the interest of beauty and truth. There is a pervading sense in this collection of narrow survival, as in Hejda. The references to ancient history, myth and wisdom sit uneasily alongside the half-slang of street language, the apparently easy-going, confident cliches of the up-to-date, the man or woman in the street The uneasiness makes us aware of how flimsy the confidence is, how at once reassuring but undermining the cliches by which we live.  

I paid a trip to my own place
to see who I am
 

begins Spoon Sweet. The gorgeous conflict between the assurance and comfort of my own place and the immediate sense of an identity in search of itself is typical of the collection. Charalambides has a genius for this poetic sleight-of-hand. He is a subtle cartographer of the shifting landscape of identity who sculpts poems to stand against all attempts to reduce them to statements that can be distorted by the tendentious. One of the rare poets whose work will endure for centuries.  

 

CONFIDENTIAL REPORTS by Immanuel Mifsud ISBN 1-905002-08-4  

Immanuel Mifsud was born in Malta in 1967. He teaches at the University of Malta and is considered one of his country’s most original writers. His work is full of references which may be drawn, partly, from island life: wafer, sea, sky, rain, dust, grit, wind, blood:  

I realised from the rough water in your dark eyes,
from your hesitation in the presence of flowers,
from the crash of the sea whispering in your mouth...
that you are one more sweet child of the wind.
 

Clear from these lines that Mifsud knows how to put a poem together. He writes mainly here about private experience, sometimes of loss, sometimes of love, sometimes of the erotic. His poems work by suggestion and allusion and they place human experience, even the most intimate or distressing, at the heart of an impersonal physical world which provides the sensual ground of our imagining of reality. He seems to want to recall the reader always to this human status as part of physical world which existed long before us, gave rise to us, and will see us disappear. The impersonality of this world is a foil to the personal nature of human life. By juxtaposing the two Mifsud reveals the personal in sharp relief. And there is one poem which takes us into the urban-modern.

In the electronic age every nutcase
with a laptop is writing a masterpiece.
They spend their nights locked up in chat rooms
and emerge with red eyes and love poems.

 

THE TOWERS TURN RED by Sigitas Parulskis ISBN 1-905002-07-6  

Sigitas Parulskis is a Lithuanian born in 1965 His technique is essentially gnomic, even in his longer pieces. In the centre of this collection is a series of headstone engravings which cast bitter, witty and ironic light on how we live our lives, how we expect them to be seen, what we think we have been, and what posterity makes of us (other than clay!):  

I prayed fervently, wore a path to the church.
Painting a cross on the spire I foil to my death

Parulskis is acutely aware here of how death defines human life. As individuals we disappear but the human adventure goes on Posterity casts a stunningly bright light on our individual contribution to the human comedy. All Parulskis's pieces in this collection show the same reduced, tight, held-back form. His poems have something of a sharp intake of breath about them, as if he is surprised or shocked by experience. They create vivid and often disturbing images, questioning of the commonplaces by which we order our experience Very much in control of his material, he is an original voice, even if he sometimes leaves you wondering just what the relationship ts between these reflective poetic jewels and everyday experience

 

WE'RE GOING ON The Collected Poems of Tom Wintringham ISBN 0-9551061-0-9 £6.99  

Tom Wintringham was born in 1898 into a well-heeled, Liberal Lincolnshire family and educated at a public school, Gresham's, one of those places whose very name is supposed to conjure up an atmosphere but which actually means noming to the majority for whom the private schools are as remote as Samarkand. Apparently it was very liberal and turned out lots of artists. It's interesting that liberal education is reserved almost exclusively for those who can pay for it If you've got the money, your kids can grow in freedom at Summerhill. If you haven't, they'll be processed at the local comp. No accident of course. Imagine the social consequences of all our children being educated in democratic schools.

Hugh Purcell’s introduction provides a potted biography of Wintringham. He was baffled by the state of the world till he discovered Marx. He joined the Communist Party but was expelled in 1938 due to his relationship with Kitty Bowler who was falsely accused of being a Trotskyist spy. He fought in Spain and eventually ended up in the Labour Party. His poetry was written in the interstices of an activist's life and has about it something of the mark of the dilettante. His early work is very archaic and contains stilted lines:  

Why wakest thou the world  

this written in March 1914. If you think what Apollinaire had done for poetry by then, the stunning modernity of Zone, plainly Wintringham wasn't in touch with the artistic avant-garde. And Eliot, for all his social conservatism, was also taking poetry away from such retrospective usages. Art and society move at different speeds. As for political discourse, it's too tied to the moment's need for advantage to reach where art can go. All the same, there are some poems here where Wintringham gets in touch with his modern sensibility and writes straight out of it: A Fat Man, To Margaret, in Her Fifth Summer, Margaret, Balliol College, Oxford, Granien-British Medical Unit, Be To Your Lover, These are the real thing and show that Wintringham was a true poet. The poems collected here, just over fifty, are the whole of his poetic output, though he was quite prolific in other forms of writing. A pity. What might he have done had he made more space for poetry? Both literature and the struggle for social betterment are long games. Sometimes the most radical thing to do is to retreat to the study. In his introduction, Purcell quotes Freud's remark: "When we can see the anvil of fact, then we can use the hammer of will" Intellectuals and artists do the indispensable work of making apparent the anvil of fact, Wintringham, of course, thought Marx had pulled aside the veils and ail that was needed was for the hammer to strike. His activism, though noble and availing to some degree, nevertheless ended pretty well in defeat. But the best poems here are an enduring success. They will speak to posterity so long as there are those willing to read them. They are his most effective activism.

 

LIGHTNING OF YOUR EYES by Chris Searle ISBN 0-9551061-1-7 £6.99  

Chris Searle was famously sacked for publishing a pamphlet of poems by his pupils in 1971, the kind of neurotic over-reaction typical of a system more concerned with control than education. He was rescued by the NUT and the support of his colleagues and charges. Recently, David Blunkett used a negative OFSTED report as a means of trying to close Summerhill. This is the vicious pusillanimity of the fascist. The place is tiny. It keeps alive the hope that someday we will stop treating children as units to be measured and start attending to their imaginations. Why close it? If Searle had been educated at a public school and Oxbridge and had bitten his lip a little he'd be known as Christopher and would be published by Faber. But he has about him what typified Lawrence: the vertical invader's chutzpah. The middle-classes call this having a chip on your shoulder, by which they mean if you criticize their values, you’re just jealous. But Searle is genuine in his revolt against injustice. It makes him an outsider. He refuses to compromise. All this comes across in these poems. His strengths are his heartfelt concerns and his simple, direct, taut style. His weakness is that he sometimes relies on the abstractions of political discourse when vivid sensual detail is what is needed. There is a long poem called A Dream of Alfred Linnell. Linnell was killed during an unemployment demonstration in 1887. As he dies, he dreams of a transformed world and rehearses the great events which evoke the great names of the struggle of those who work, against the power of money. The benefit of a long poem is that its architecture permits a spacious sense of time. Time is the most commonly used noun in English. Our insertion in space-time defines our condition. So this poem works whether you share its politics or otherwise. Even the most far-gone conservative would have to admire its scope, its evocation of the energy and excitement of the labour movement, its sense of tragic setback and its hypnotic repetitions and recapitulations. This is Searle at his best. There is a poem called Maurice and Samoa at Seamoon which is full of Searle's fine qualities:  

Through a gap in the coconut trees
I saw the waves
rearing up
and bursting in their frenzy
as if they too
were straining to see
to tell their brothers and sisters
 

what makes this work is the physical, sensual detail and the simple, robust language. It's being able to conjure the figure looking though the trees at the surging waves that is exciting. And that vivid visual capturing of experience is far more telling and memorable than political point-making. Searle sometimes undermines his own best lines by a over-abstract reference:  

I want our words to be solid
like     ....
,.. an organised factory
... .under workers' control

however good an idea workers' control may be, it's abstract and used without irony in a poem distracts from the work of poetry. We think in images. Always before the word comes the picture. Literature is reverse engineering: it uses words to summon up the pictures that summoned up the words. That's why the writer's watchword must be: think of the reader. By putting the reader first the writer becomes as objective as a physicist. Fred Voss fills his poems with images drawn from the factory floor. Without a hint of ideology, he makes clear what a mad world a modern factory is and in so doing makes us wonder how we've gone wrong. Neruda’s anger at injustice always rides on vivid detail. Searle can write beautifully. He should just leave the political terminology in the tracts and the books of theory and let us see the man between the coconut trees.

 

SURFACING byWilliamPark Spike ISBN 09518978 7 X £5.99  

Why surfacing? It's the tide of one of the poems which is made up of a set of fairly disparate images. The epigraph to the book is from Tarkovsky: The image is not a certain meaning...but an entire world reflected as in a drop of water," Perhaps that gives us a clue: Park isn't after meaning but images which are worlds in themselves. The problem with this is that they are images created out of language and meaning will stick to words. So the original question teases out all the possibilities to do with "surfacing": coming up for air, skimming, layering a thin covering over something and so on. There are a couple of moments in this collection when the poems give you something to go on: Three In The House and The Bedside are poems of unhappy childhood. Whether this is the poet's or otherwise isn't clear. In both, the sense of latching onto something recognisable as a theme is strong. In most of the other poems, themes seem to be resisted. The technique appears to be a means of seeking to hook the reader by providing few clues. The poems are well structured. They don't wobble or lapse. But nor do they connect to recognisable experience in any consistent way. On the contrary, they tend to pull away into a private landscape. Park says that in these poems he's trying to identify and overcome "the fragmentary and mutable nature of experience." What strikes me as problematic about his practice is that experience is always socially mediated. Or perhaps that's too weak: experience is social experience. There is nothing else for it to be. The facts are we are creatures of evolution like everything else living on the planet and we evolved to be social. If fish could speak, their most common noun would be water. Ours, as previously mentioned is, at least in English, time. Time is what we live in. We have no choice about this. It's a law of physics. The same is true of society. Our brains are so constituted that we have to be social. Our individual sense of fragmentary experience is, in fact, social. A couple of the poems here are about mental disturbance (The Fragmenting., Mirror-Talk) but even madness is social.  

I suppose we could argue that autistic experience is non-social, but that's the point. Autism is precisely having a brain that can't read the social signals. All this is to make clear the tone and atmosphere of the collection. There's no doubt that Park knows how to put a poem together Here, he is using his painstakingly developed skills to lead the reader away from the recognisable. Perhaps this is a potent means of rendering the sense of isolation on which many of the poems seem to be predicated. My reading of the book is that this is what the poet is after. I may be wide of the mark.  

But father’s not forthcoming.
The boy copies silence
retreats inside cunning,
his sophisticated masks
 

Add exile and you've got a Joycean recipe. If this (from Three In The House) is about the poet's own family then maybe the copying and the retreat are what form the basis of his work. Maybe silence and cunning, and perhaps a little exile, are the stuff of Park's art. Discover for yourself.

 

BERLIN MOSAIC by Eva Tucker Starhaven 42 Frognal, London NW3 6AG  

Eva Tucker published two novels with John Calder. Hers was the first translation of The Radetzky March into English, Born in Berlin she moved to London during childhood. This short novel sets the intimacies of a bourgeois family against the events in Europe between 1891 and 1939 (though the final chapter , a prologue, brings us to 1990). Tucker can paint in a character quickly and has the knack of narrating events vividly. She focuses interest on the family history and the stories are compelling. Novelist enough to know that nothing interests a reader like the fate of a character they find interesting, she leads us along some dark paths of seediness and tragedy. Much of this is accomplished very well.

Tucker has a simple and clear style and avoids over-statement and false effects. The one question about the book is the how the family events are matched to the historical canvas. Her technique is clever. She doesn't want to write an overtly political book but she wishes to alert us to the relationship between our private lives and public events. Perhaps the book is a little short for such a huge historical panorama? It may be that readers have enough historical knowledge to fill in the gaps, but at times I found myself wanting a little more detail. Perhaps too the sense of the hugeness of the historical backdrop and the enormity of its events makes the personal histories seem a little hurried. Yet in spite of these caveats, this is a novel whose skills are above the level of the majority of fiction published in Britain. All credit to Starhaven, may they prosper.