Recent Reading May 2021

Unknown Soldier, Osip Mandelstam, translated by Keith Sands, Equipage, 2020, £4.50

Tropospheric Clouds, Michael Begnal, Adjunct Press, 2020, $8.00

Μηδέν | Oὐδέν, Dimitra Xidous, Doire Press, 2020, ISBN: 978-1-907682-79-7, €12.00

The Underground Cabaret, Ian Seed, Shearsman Books, 2020, ISBN 9781848617230, £10.95

Imagined Invited, ed. David Greenslade, artwork Mark Sanders, Hafan Books, 2020, ISBN 9781916044241, €28.39

Keith Sands’ Unknown Soldier pamphlet is, we’re told, part of an ongoing project to translate all of Mandelstam’s 1930-37 poetry, essentially the poems for the Moscow and Voronezh notebooks. As with my recent review of Eric Selland’s versions of Kiwao Nomura, reviewing this book has me in the position of discussing translations from a language I do not know, and this, in turn, has me pondering the subject of translation again.

It’s tempting to think of translation approaches as a binary, on the one hand you have faithful rendition of the sense of the original in the target language, on the other you have attempts to make poems in the target language that approximate what the poet would have written if they were working in, say, English rather than Russian. In his translator’s note, Sands notes that his versions ‘are attempts to translate, rather than to create entirely new texts rooted in Mandelstam’, thus apparently placing himself on one side of that binary. However, he adds that ‘in a few places I have ventures versions of lines and phrases that are speculative – at the outer edges of what might be justified by the original’. This qualification reminds the reader that approaches to translation are not binary choices but sit on, and move along, a spectrum with literalism at one end and new creation at the other.

Of course, it is not really possible to either know what the poet intended or what they might have written in the target language, and so we also have to accommodate the truism that every act of translation is an act of interpretation. And this is, I think, where Sands’ versions work. He presents Mandelstam’s work as a poetry of endurance and survival, at multiple levels and in spite of everything:

In the kitchen, there we’ll sit –

white kerosene smells so sweet,

 

a sharp knife and a loaf of white,

pump up the primus if you like,

 

or else pack a basket, tie it up tight

to keep us going till early light,

 

down to the station we’ll take a ride –

that’s where we’ll hide.

This sense of imminent threat naturally suffuses much of the work translated here, unsurprising given the circumstance under which it was written. Mandelstam was in fear for his life and his sanity, with due cause, and all too aware of the degree of surveillance and control under which he was working, and yet his will to make poems survived, as the poems he made survived thanks to an extraordinary act of remembering by his wife Nadezhda, who both memorised his work and preserved his notebooks, at considerable risk to herself. Part of his achievement is to remind us that the survival of poetry, of art, is intrinsic to the survival of the human in the face of the barbarous.

This will to endure is captured best in the longest piece translated here, the well-known ‘Lines on an Unknown Soldier’:

And a cripple befriends a man:

they’ll both find work,

and tapping along the century’s fence

is a family of wooden crutches:

and that’s comradeship, this ball we live on!

Here, as throughout the pamphlet, the very plainness of Sands’ choices becomes a strength; the language is at once familiar and slightly disconcerting, a reminder of the fact that this is a translation, and that we should expect something other than the expected. In that same translator’s note, he says that the poems here are part of a project to translate all Mandelstam’s late poems; I look forward to seeing more.

The opening sequence in Michael Begnal’s tropospheric clouds ‘In the Composing Halls’ imagines poetry as a kind of monastic vocation, with cloistered poets working away in silence:

the composing halls,

dark tunnels

peopled

by poets

on the beds that line the walls

It’s an appealing image that, I can’t but think, owes something to Begnal’s knowledge of Early Irish poetry, which was created by just such people, anonymous monks writing literally in the margins of their day-job illuminated manuscripts. A little later in the same sequence, there’s a short piece that echoes one of the poems so preserved, ‘Pangur Bán’, the erasure also echoing some of what we might expect to see in manuscript transmission of any text:

short poem

jewels of thought

 

ink paw prints

in space

This modest, quiet approach to poetry is balanced, near the end of this short pamphlet, by a more ‘modern’ view of poetry as commodity:

he was surrealist and obscure

paratactic

in fact his argument, though sometimes

pitched at people

 

and if a press

had not recovered him

is all it takes,

a press of

the (o) mind –

 

it is a great thing

having a book of poems out

Which is to say that Begnal is, amongst other things, meditating on the ethics of poetry, balancing the essentially private nature of composition against the necessary conditions of distribution. Of course, there’s more to the poem(s) than that. Like the eponymous clouds, there are many kinds of weather gathered here, not least of which is what might loosely be called ‘nature poetry’:

appear down below the bluff

the river’s green

flecked sharp with

       points of light

 

                two dark deer cross the street

                in wet fur atrot,

                o woods still viable

 

                o puffballs of pain

                a colony of ticks

                                lain on the forest floor

It’s worth remembering that nature was the favourite subject of the monk poets, with both deer and forests aplenty appearing in their work. In the monastery, the relationship between nature, God’s handiwork, and religion was clear, but it’s one that Begnal calls into question here:

what system underpins?

  nature worship,

      how worship?

if worship,

in strange moments of thought

a scraped calf,

dying in the grass

sun blurs the way

down the road,

spiderette

   on the windshield

   

(what system decries,

should there be decrying)

Again, the ethical dimension is evident, for instance in the image of the scraped calf, that folds into two words an image of sacrifice to a possibly false god and the preparation of the vellum on which poems were preserved. This expansive economy is typical of Begnal at his best, and he is at his best here.

The title of Dimitra Xidous’ latest collection consists of two words for ‘nothing’, one Modern, the other ancient, past and present no thing separated and connected by a pipe (|), a pipe being a punctuation mark, a mode of transfer and an O extended in space and time. The effect of is of a double negative: nothing | nothing = something. And the resultant something is materiality, the materiality of language, of double interest to the poet who is bilingual, and exemplified by the word ‘zero’, and of the body as evinced in fucking and dying.

Smell is a zero, an agreed upon point.

Can’t we just agree, then, that there is a point to

 

remembering: expanding out, from zero, to another

point, in time. Imagine time as a curve: from

a point, spiralling out.

[from ‘Naranja (A New Zero)’]

Zero, the not nothing, is the agreed point from which these poems gain leverage, an agreed upon point from which an infinite curve of points curve out in both directions, time and space curving to form the great O or 0.

in the best poems here, Xidous’ concerns come to a single focus, as in the poem ‘A Constant’, where, as happens in other poems, the ‘O’ takes on something of the quality of Molly Blooms ‘yes’:

Somewhere, there is always a circle:

a woman contemplating the afterlife.

In this language I say the letter O;

in another, O takes possession –

mouth becomes O; O becomes mouth.

In this state of becoming, woman is

a portal, an opening.

Here the material nature of language and body overlap, become the same thing, the receding lines of points from the agreed zero curving to close the circle. In a sense what we are witnessing in this book is the emergence of a world view built on the idea of circularity, of the line that bounds nothing, making it something:

A sound, a twig, a nest, a bird;

a bird, a nest, a twig, a sound.

 

Round & round – water rushes down

& the beginning is the end

is the beginning again:

 

tub like belly like mother –

a sound, a twig, a nest, a bird,

& bird to egg to bird again.

[from ‘a sound, a twig, a nest, a bird’]

The echoes of the folk song ‘Rattlin’ Bog’ and of Eliot’s’ East Coker’ serve to reinforce the permanence of the cycle Xidous is exploring. Fittingly, the book ends with a page that is blank but for the text O,O placed at its centre. The two nothings balanced visually, a face staring out at the reader in interrogation, a glyph that represents the book in its entirety and brings us, so to speak, full circle.

The latest, and apparently last, volume of Ian Seed’s prose poem quartet covers much the same ground as the earlier ones (see my review of New York Hotel here). In that review I talked about the element of the non-real in Seed’s work, and reading this most recent volume has prompted me to go back and think some more about what I meant.

In general, I tend to think of surrealist poetry as being grounded in a kind of contorted analogy, incongruent images welded together to create a kind of irrational logic, But Seed more or less eschews analogy. He shows us the world as it is, but it’s not quite this world. All the elements seem quite familiar: parents, houses, streets, hotels, tourist attractions, partners and ex-partners, workplaces. However, they act and interact in ways that are disconcerting, just slightly off centre. As he writes in ‘Corridor’:

This door opens into a room containing a replica of life exactly as it is. Except here everything has a limit to make us feel safe.

But safe is not quite what we end up feeling.

Seed’s writing is so translucent that there is little for the reviewer to say. A bit like John Ashbery, everything you need to understand is right there, on the surface, hiding in plain sight. The incidents related are, to quote a quoted wife ‘hardly a story worth telling’, but that’s the point. Seeds stories turn the commonplace ever so gently on its head, to make us look at it afresh; if surrealism deals in extraordinary dreamscapes, Seed is presenting us with dreams of the ordinary, filled with commonplace anxieties.

Given the difficulty inherent in talking about Seed’s writing, the simplest way of seeing what’s going on is to look at one complete text:

Division

They were going to cut the huge park in Rome in half. They would push the southern part out to sea to cut if off from the richer north. I found myself in the park as it was happening. Luckily I was just in the right half, but a friend I was meeting up with for the first time in ages had his feet on the other side. All I had wanted was to explore the eternal city, or at least its shadows on the hills.

It is possible to unpack this shore poem along multiple axes. There’s a socio-political dimension implicit in the word ‘richer’; the psychological dimension around the concept of a split reality; the question of friendship, never far away in this book, is interrogated, gently; the relationship between tourist and place visited is another line to follow. The great strength of Seed’s writing is that its apparent simplicity can encompass such multiple dimensions of reading. Another example would be how concerns with aging and death fold into instances of job interview anxiety and fear of redundancy. But as I’ve already said, talking about these pieces is fruitless, you need to go read them.

The Imagine Invited anthology does invite us into a surrealist world, to quote the publishers: ‘David Greenslade invited 18 international Surrealist poets to play a game inspired by André Breton: compose a poem where they welcome anyone from time and space, with at least one visitor associated with Wales.’ Each poem has a facing page collage by Mark Sanders, and the identity of the individual poets is withheld until you reach an index at the back. There are, however, two poems that are not listed and that remain truly anonymous.

Right from the start, we see the surrealist mode of analogy in operation:

She was invited to my private beach

where honey and sushi

stare at ever happy bees

[from ‘Wire’ by Neil Coombs]

 However, the technical range on display here is impressive, from Rhea Seren Philips’ villanelle through prose poetry by Steven Hitchens to Rhys Trimble’s characteristically exploded open field composition. Interestingly, the famous forger and founder of the pseudo-bardic Gorsedd Cymru, Iolo Morgannwg is the perhaps most popular invitee, which seems apt as his activities make him a suitable surrealist grandfather, I suppose.

I’d invite Duncan Idaho

Tycho Brahe and Iolo Morgannwg.

Iolo is always welcome and

once again I’d ask him

how he got away with it. (Of course

he never says).

[from ‘Imagined Invited’ which is named ‘Tarns’ in the index, by David Greenslade]

Morgannwg and Dylan Thomas, another who is invited frequently, serve as totems to place this volume in a tradition of Welsh surrealism, despite the international range of writers represented. As such, the value of the book is that it invites us to reconsider surrealism both as an international ‘movement’ and as one that is adapted to a specifically Welsh literary context. It’s an interesting project, and, to quote the unattributed ‘Sonnet for Surreal Cricket: ‘”Exactly,” scribbled Iolo, “that’s the point.”’