Poetry Reviews by Josephine Balmer

                                      Recent Poetry Reviews by Josephine Balmer

Night Sky with Exit Wounds/Ocean Vuong (Cape Poetry)
Agenda, Vol 51, Nos 1-2, Summer 2017

Every now and again a writer bursts onto the literary world with a voice that is so individual, so of its own kind, yet at the same time so instantly recognisable, that it feels as if it has been in existence for ever. This year the debut collection by Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, has been heralded on both sides of the Atlantic as a major new work from a poet who will assuredly leave a lasting mark. Vuong’s own extraordinary story, as a refugee who arrived in the US from Vietnam at the age of two, and who did not read proficiently until the age of eleven – the first member of his family to be literate – but has since been showered with poetry awards and honours, as well as being nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, all adds to the sense of marvel.

Given Vuong’s intriguing backstory, the collection could have risked becoming biographically reductive. Yet there are several Oceans here: the refugee haunted by his homeland in ‘Aubade With Burning City’, deftly – and powerfully – juxtapositioning scenes of horror from the fall of Saigon with lines from Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’. Or the street-smart New York City resident who in ‘Notebook Fragments’ records ‘I’m gonna lose it when Whitney Houston dies’. He is both the confident lover of ‘Thanksgiving 2006’ (‘I am ready to be every animal/you leave behind’) and the hesitant boy exploring his gay sexuality in ‘Because It’s Summer’ (‘you say thank you thank you thank you). In ‘The Gift’, he is the loving son teaching his mother the English abc as a strand of her black hair becomes the fourth letter, D, ‘written /on her cheek’. In ‘In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’, he is the son troubled by his father’s violence and desertions (‘I am chasing my father/the way the dead chase after/days’). Perhaps tellingly, in a 2016 interview with The New Yorker’s Daniel Wenger, Vuong revealed how his forename is, in itself, a construct (his birth name was Vinh Quoc), deriving from a conversation his mother had with a customer at the nail salon where she works. This weaving of poetic persona and lyric first person, playfully underscored in ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’, reminds us how, in the most reflective poetry, the weaving of ‘I’ and ‘you’ is always complex, an intricate pattern of art and life.

The multiplicity of voices is echoed in the diversity of poetic forms Vuong employs. The couplets of ‘Self Portrait as Exit Wounds’ and ‘Homewrecker’ give way to the free, discursive lines of poems such as ‘Trojan’ or ‘Aubade With Burning City’ and then the split lines of ‘Of Thee I Sing’. These, in turn, disintegrate in to the line-spaced prose of ‘My Father Writes From Prison’ (‘there are things/I can only say in the dark’) and then the full prose poem of ‘Immigrant Haibun’. ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ mixes all forms in its various sections, from the prose narration of an encounter with a stranger (‘He was divorced’) to the heady, lush urgency of:

Say surrender. Say alabaster. Switchblade.
Honeysuckle. Goldenrod. Say autumn.
(‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’)

Most affecting of all is the ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’, based on a 2011 newspaper report detailing the murder of a gay couple ‘by immolation in their home in Dallas, Texas’. Here the poem is a blank space, punctured by footnote numbers which lead to the lines themselves, buried beneath, a chilling, reduced font metatext to the silence above:

  1. refuse me. / Our faces blackening / in the photographs along the wall. / Don’t laugh. Just tell me the story / again, / of the sparrows who flew from falling Rome, / their blazed wings. / How ruin nested inside each thimble throat / & made it sing               (‘Seventh Circle of Earth’)

Such variety might stem from the poet’s youthful exploration of his craft. Certainly there is a sense of exuberance throughout; ‘Yikes’ he writes (twice) in ‘Notebook Fragments’ while ‘Ode to Masturbation’, with its celebration of ‘being human…the briefest form/of forever’, speaks for itself.

Yet the reader is never left in any doubt of who ‘Ocean Vuong’ might be as a poet and as a poetic voice. In addition, his presence is so strong, as many reviewers have mentioned, that we are left wanting more. For instance, how did his family respond to his sexuality? Or to the way they are portrayed in the poems? In a conversation with Andrew McMillan, published in the Summer 2017 issue of Poetry London, Vuong explains how his family’s illiteracy gives him a freedom from ‘repercussion’ to which many poets would not have access. Yet, at the same time, as he notes wistfully, the fact that they cannot read his books also means that they are excluded from that large and hugely significant part of his life. Interestingly, a new prose poem, ‘A Letter To My Mother That She Will Never Read’, just published in The New Yorker, explores his mother’s physical abuse during his childhood with gut-wrenching precision and honesty, detailing the bruises the poet would lie about to his teachers or the ‘time you threw the box of Legos at my head. The hardwood dotted with blood.’

These incidents are not addressed directly in Night Sky with Exit Wounds where the poet’s mother is a fierce but more benign figure: ‘When they ask you/where you’re from,’ she reminds in ‘Headfirst’, ‘tell them your name/was fleshed from the toothless mouth/of a war-woman’. Instead the collection, like its apparent anchor text, Homer’s Odyssey, appears father-haunted, veined with the void of paternal absence, from the ghosted dedication ‘to my mother [& father]’ to the poem ironically named for his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song ‘Always & Forever’. As ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’ reminds: ‘Your father is only your father/until one of you forgets’. Similarly, in the dream-like sequence of ‘Telemachus’, the poet pulls his father’s body out of the water:

the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched.
(‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’)

And in ‘Odysseus Redux’, the apparition returns:

Back from the wind, he called to me
with a mouthful of crickets –

smoke & jasmine rising
from his hair.
(‘Odysseus Redux’)

Here the wild strangeness of the imagery, not to mention the otherness of the classical setting – especially for a writer whose engagement with western language started so late – all add memorably to the sense of another, recovered world shimmering through the mist. As ‘To My Father / To My Future Son’ urges of the written book:

Use it to prove how the stars
were always what we knew

they were: the exit wounds
of every
misfired word.

(‘To My Father / To My Future Son’)

Whether writing of tangled family relationships or celebrating the healing metamorphoses of erotic love (‘The way a field turns/its secrets/into peonies’), here is inventive, mesmerizing poetry, both playful and intensely personal. A poetry that hovers on the edge of meaning like consciousness at the moment of waking yet still remains accessible, inclusive. As ‘Devotion’ explains:

the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,
suddenly, snow
no longer.


The Unaccompanied, Simon Armitage (Faber & Faber)
New Statesman, 22 April, 2017

“The centuries crawl past,” notes Simon Armitage in his new collection The Unaccompanied, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. The Unaccompanied sees him return, refreshed from his sojourn in the past, bringing the classics with him; in the collection’s dystopian present, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display” of ‘Poundland’, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of ‘Prometheus’, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, retrieves not fire but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his1989 debut Zoom to the ‘Merrie England’ of 2006’s Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid. ‘Tiny’, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and ‘The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party’ makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in ‘Gravity’, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Sara’ that plays on the sixth-form common room stereo. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from ‘The Ice Age’, to whom the poet offers a spurned coat “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

In addition, The Unaccompanied articulates a new, more personal anger, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In ‘The Present’, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:


a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world
being pinned in place by a diamond-like cold
at each pole, but I open my hand
and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare, winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”, while in ‘Privet’ a pair of garden shears close “with an executioner’s lisp”. And in ‘Poor Old Soul’ an elderly man sits “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”.

This is the measured poetry of late middle age, where only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages” of ‘Miniatures’. In ‘Kitchen Window’, Armitage’s mother taps the smeared glass with her “hummingbird” finger before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. ‘Emergency’ could almost be Armitage’s audition for Grumpy Old Men: “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, “the store-cum-off-licence” or pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W.G. Hoskins’ gentle topological classic is referenced in ‘The Making of the English Landscape’ although, in one of the collection’s most striking images, a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a sea-crane’s hook,
nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In this skeletal land, the snow angels from ‘A Glory’ in 1997’s CloudCuckooLand are now a sad ‘Last Snowman’, sporting “a mouth/that was pure stroke victim”. More poignantly, in ‘Harmonium’, the poet’s father who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, memorably berated his son for having his ear pierced, is now helping him lug an unwanted organ from their local church, with the reminder “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. His family feels like all our families. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in ‘The Empire’. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of ‘The Cinderella of Ferndale’ who leaves her own footprints of disappointment and defeat. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in ‘Tractors’, a slight incident on a morning stroll bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast.” [keep italics] Philip Larkin is often cited as an influence but Armitage’s highly-tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting over and over again across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and above all empathetic work, Armitage is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years.


Aeneid Book VI, Seamus Heaney (Faber & Faber)
New Statesman, 6 April 2016

Anglophone poetry has long been transfixed by ancient epic; Christopher Logue, Derek Walcott, Simon Armitage and Alice Oswald have all produced creative reimaginings of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. As Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney’s fellow north of Ireland poet, has confessed: “I have been Homer-haunted for fifty years”. And yet Virgil’s Aeneid, a Latin rewrite of Homer’s Greek, has often been overlooked as raw material for such complete transformations. Instead, Virgil’s bucolic Georgics provide the bedrock for Carol Ann Duffy’s 2011 collection, The Bees, while his younger contemporary Ovid has become the Latin source of choice for a variety of poets from Ted Hughes to Jo Shapcott.

Yet slowly but surely the Aeneid is re-emerging as a text to be tampered with. Crucial to this renaissance are Seamus Heaney’s own previous engagements with the Latin epic and, in particular, Book VI, in which the Roman hero Aeneas, like Odysseus before him, journeys down to the Underworld to meet the ghosts of family, lovers and companions past. Heaney’s entanglement with the work began as far back as his 1991 poem ‘The Golden Bough’, from Seeing Things, a response to the death of his father through the opening section of Aeneid VI. And, until recently, it was thought to have ended with ‘Route 110’ from his final collection Human Chain (2010), an incandescent central sequence ghosting episodes from Virgil’s account.

Now Heaney’s new, posthumous complete translation version of Aeneid VI has appeared, neither a version nor a crib, he tells us in the surviving draft of his ‘Translator’s Note’, but “more like classics homework”, inspired by another ghost, that of his school Latin teacher, Father Michael McGlinchey. And yet despite such protestations, it soon becomes clear that Aeneid VI is not just a poignant but a fitting end to Heaney’s life’s work, both concerned with excavation, exhumations of the dead, as the poet walks, living, among them in his own specific, sacred “opened ground”. As Heaney noted in ‘The Riverbank Field’, an earlier Virgilian poem from Human Chain: “Ask me to translate…And I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola.”

Heaney retains that same sense of Derry earthiness in Aeneid Book VI; his Sibyl prophesises that Aeneas, who later marries the Italian princess Lavinia, will become “an outlander groom” . And his account of the funeral of Misenus, one of Aeneas’ companions, echoes that of a Celtic warrior, his bones collected “in a bronze urn”:

…And under a high airy hill
Aeneas reared a magnificent tomb
Hung with the dead man’s equipment…

Heaney is also unafraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. Compared, for example, to Cecil Day Lewis’ slightly fey “wan reeds on a dreary mud flat”, Heaney’s Styx is “slithery mud, knee-deep/In grey-green sedge”. He also throws in a few sharp modernisms; Helen’s monumenta or “marks” on her mutilated Trojan paramour Deiphobus here become “love bites”. He gives an equally unflinching eye to the visceral punishments meted out to wrongdoers in Tartarus, the vulture which “puddles forever with hooked beak” at Tityos’ liver as “the gnawed-at/Gut and gutstrings keep renewing”.

At the same time, Heaney’s account of Aeneas’ encounters with the dead is even more powerful for its restraint. This is most compelling as Aeneas’ father Anchises catches sight of his son, the reunion that forms the emotional heart of the work:

In eager joy, his eyes filled up with tears
And he gave a cry: ‘At last! Are you here at last?’
I always trusted that your sense of right
Would prevail and keep you going to the end.

As Heaney himself admits, keeping going to the end of Book VI can be almost as difficult a task as descending to the Underworld. Anchises shows Aeneas a seemingly endless line of Roman militarists waiting to be born – “something of a test for reader and translator alike,” as Heaney wryly comments. There is also the problem of how to follow the inspired stroke of ‘Route 110’, placing his new-born granddaughter among those about to enter the world, delicately perverting Virgil’s colonial vision. Yet what fascinates here are precisely the differences between previous poetic versions and this translation. For instance, in Heaney’s 1991 poem ‘The Golden Bough’, the plucked branch grows back with “the same metal sheen”. In Aeneid Book VI, it is “golden again, emanating/That same sheen and shimmer”. Throughout, Heaney’s exquisite line placement never misses a beat, turning on its head the traditional hierarchy of translation, with creative version at the top and literal at the bottom; “homework” maybe, but always poetry as taut, as elegant and as lucid as Virgil’s own.

In this masterly and near-flawless transformation of Virgil’s original, Heaney could be characterized as Orpheus, the bard whose verse ensures safe passage back from the Underworld; one of “those who were dedicated poets/And made songs fit for Apollo”. Unfortunately for us, Heaney could not cheat death so we might settle instead for his typically unassuming vision of Charon, the ferryman who, in the original Latin meaning of translation, carries us all across:

Old but still a god, and in a god old age
Is green and hardy.


Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, Daisy Dunn (William Collins)
The Poems of Catullus: A New Translation, Daisy Dunn (William Collins)
New Statesman, February 18th 2016

‘Studying ancient Rome,’ wrote the Catullan scholar T.P. Wiseman, ‘should be like visiting some teeming capital in a dangerous and ill-governed foreign country; nothing can be relied on, most of what you see is squalid, sinister or unintelligible…’ The problem for today’s classicists, supplying a burgeoning demand for popular histories, is how to square such obscure and often unknowable material with a reader-friendly approach.

Daisy Dunn’s answer in Catullus’ Bedspread, her new ‘biography’ of the first century BCE Roman poet, is to marry a breathy, vivid narrative voice with knowledgeable digressions about the peculiarities of Roman life. And so she describes the early days of Catullus’ affair with the women he called ‘Lesbia’ in his poems, sometimes identified as the infamous Clodia Metelli: ‘Catullus made himself look the fool for having missed the warning signs. But love, as he knew, renders one deaf and blind…’ This is followed by an eye-watering exploration of Roman methods of contraception; the spider parasites that could be inserted in to a deer skin and then attached to a woman’s body to ward off pregnancy or a concoction of herbs and berries that ‘Catullus might smear on his penis’.

The difficulty here is that Catullus is perhaps one of Rome’s most shadowy figures. All we really know is that his poetry mentions a posting as a junior official to Bithynia in 57/6BCE, but no date later than Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BCE. Latin poetic tradition had it that he died young at the age of 30, and so his birth is often backdated to around 84BCE. But even this is a matter of debate.

That said, Dunn clearly knows Catullus’s work inside out and skilfully interweaves an impressive number of Catullus’ surviving 117 poems into her text. The hapless Arrius’ habit of aspirating his speech from poem 84, for instance, leads on to a discussion of the inverted snobbery fashionable in republican Rome. She also proves an expert guide through Roman political manoeuvring, unravelling the machinations of Caesar, Cicero, Crassus, Pompey and a whole host of minor characters, which might swivel the head of even the most experienced Westminster analyst. Exhaustive endnotes also provide relevant source references alongside fascinating additional material, ranging from ancient fragmentary Latin poetry to a controversial decision to include some of Catullus’ more sexual poems in an 1989 Latin A-Level syllabus (it was later agreed that no questions would be set on them).

Such scholarship, however, can sit uneasily with the romantic flights of Dunn’s main text; ‘only the stone of the deserted Ponte Pietra,’ she writes of the (imagined) night Catullus learns of his brother’s death, ‘gleamed with the whiteness of babies’ teeth’. And, with so little certain about Catullus’ life, the ‘facts’ presented by Dunn’s main narrative could be described more accurately as conjecture. She takes as read that Catullus’ Lesbia is Clodia Metelli, known to us from Cicero and other contemporary sources, and then rearranges his poetry to form an ordered story of their doomed affair. Yet Lesbia’s name occurs only 16 times in the poems (the less specific puella or ‘girl’ is found almost as many) and her identification with this particular Clodia was first made as late as 1554. Nevertheless, the fascination with Catullus as lover, which began with Ludwig Schwabe’s reconstruction of Catullus’ biography in 1862, has since become a staple of historical fiction as in Helen Dunmore’s 2008 novel Counting the Stars.

In contrast, classical scholars such as Charles Martin have suggested that Lesbia should be considered not as a real person but rather as ‘an emblem, abstracted and idealised’. At the same time, Catullus’ poetic voice is extremely fluid, moving easily between learned reference and gutter humour, a blank page on to which we project our own readings, whether Tennyson’s ‘tender’ poet or Swinburne’s priapic idol – a character Harold Nicolson declared ‘vindictive, venomous and full of obscene malice’, and whom Dorothy Parker, adopting Lesbia’s female gaze, found pathetic: ‘He’s always hymning that or wailing this:/ Myself, I much prefer the business type.’

Ironically, where Dunn makes free with the poet’s biography, her accompanying translations, The Poems of Catullus, offer rather less risky readings of his text. Here are sound, traditional versions, perfect for the student or general reader looking for accuracy and precision. At the same time, Dunn is not afraid to call a spade a spade (or, in the case of poem 80, a blow job, a blow job). Yet Catullus’ intricate and slippery verse cries out for transgression, with the most successful renderings often the most innovative (Henry Stead’s recent collaborative audiovisual version of poem 63  for London Poetry Systems springs to mind). In their correctness, Dunn’s translations sometimes sacrifice the musicality and verve of Catullus’ originals so that the full force of his jokes becomes muted. For example, poem 32’s teasing sexual innuendo rather loses its force; the play on ne quis liminis obseret (in English something like ‘don’t block your passage’) becomes the more literal, if more tame, ‘let no one bolt the door’. And Catullus’ mock-learned obscenity fututiones, or ‘fuckoffiscatings’, is here the less complex ‘fucks’.

That said, Catullus is a notoriously tricky subject for any translator. As Ezra Pound confessed: ‘I have failed forty times myself so do know the matter’. And The Poems of Catullus provides a fine foundation for the future. With Catullus’ Bedspread, both books represent a rollicking good read for all – so long as, like Catullus’ glittering, playful poetry, the reader doesn’t take them too much at face value.


Michael Longley: The Stairwell, (Cape Poetry)
Agenda, Vol 48, Winter 2014

‘I have been thinking about the music for my funeral,’ announces Michael Longley in the opening, eponymous poem to his entrancing new collection, The Stairwell. Such musings on mortality will come as no surprise to readers of Longley’s previous nine volumes which have long rattled with the skeletons of the dead; Homeric warriors and doomed Ovidian shape-shifters jostling for position amongst the poet’s lost friends, colleagues and family. But as in Longley’s previous, acclaimed volume, 2011’s A Hundred Doors, The Stairwell finds the now seventy-five year old poet increasingly contemplating his own demise. So where ‘The New Window’, from A Hundred Doors, saw Longley ‘sitting up in bed with binoculars’ to ‘scan/ My final resting place at Dooaghtry’, here ‘Ashes’:

Takes me along the perimeter fencing
To where I want my ashes wind-scattered.

There are other echoes of Longley’s previous work here too. As in A Hundred Doors or The Weather in Japan (2000) and Snow Water (2004), a sequence of poems, exquisitely introduced by the contemplation that returning Tommies introduced the lizard orchid to Britain (‘ribbons/ For widow hats’), celebrates his own father’s active service in the Great War, the firsthand accounts passed on to Longley which have enriched his poetry since ‘In Memoriam’ from his 1969 debut collection, No Continuing City (see Longley’s own discussion of such poems elsewhere in this issue). In The Stairwell, Longley senior remembers Passchendaele ‘where men and horses drowned in mud’(‘Mud Turf’) or in ‘Ronald Colman’ laughs at his fellow soldier’s ‘daydream of Hollywood stardom’ (if later going to see all his films). Longley’s mentor war poets, Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney, the former a Longley regular since 1976’s Man Lying On A Wall, also make a brief but compelling reappearance in ‘Insomnia’. Here, in one of his trademark lightning-bright imaginative leaps between past and present, a sleepless Longley, mind-walking through his beloved County Mayo tracks, thinks of Edward’s widow Helen who:

took Ivor Gurney’s hand
When he was miles away from Gloucestershire
And sanity, and on Edward’s county map
Guided his lonely finger down the lanes.
You are like Helen Thomas. Take my hand.

Such poems, in turn, usher in another recurring Longley trope, his always outstanding use of ancient epic to underscore the universal horror of total war. But in The Stairwell he moves away from Homer’s warrior heroes to the lesser-known foot soldiers who flit like ghosts through the Iliad. For example, there is Euphorbus in the perfect sonnet of ‘Boy-Soldier’ whose:

armour clatters as it hits the ground.
Blood soaks his hair, bonny as the Graces’,
Braids held in place by gold and silver bands….
A boy-soldier – the London Scottish, say,
The Inniskillings, the Duke of Wellington’s –
Was killed and despoiled by Menelaus.

Elsewhere Idomeneus, from A Hundred Doors’ ‘Old Soldiers’, returns, yet now Longley’s surgical eye homes in on one of the Cretan warrior’s victims, the otherwise unknown Trojan Erymas, as:

the spear penetrates the brain
And splits the white bones, and the teeth
Blow out and from the eye-sockets
Blood squirts…

Homer, Longley complains, ‘gets no nearer than this/ To the anonymous Tommy’. But as in Alice Oswald’s 2011 Memorial, Longley’s own deft manipulation of Homer’s original gives these grey shades substance. In ‘Boy-Soldier’, he urges us to think of Euphorbus as ‘a smallholder’:

who rears a sapling
In a beauty spot a burn burbles through
(You can hear its music close to your home)

This final unassuming parenthesis lies at the core of Longley’s poetic method, revealing the skill – almost casual in its inclusivity – with which he connects us to the ancient world. And so in ‘Grasshoppers’ the Homeric armies become ‘The old fellas/ Above Troy’s gate / Demobbed by age’. In ‘The Tin Noses Shop’, Longley transforms, like an alchemist, the dull metal of the soldiers’ crude prosthetics into Agammenon’s mask, ‘eyebrow and eyelids/ Hammered out of gold.’ In doing so, he peels back the layers of dust and scholarly convention to lay bear the universality of Homer’s ancient archetypes. At the same time Longley offers the poet’s new penetrating readings of classic works, as incisive as any professor’s monograph. As he explains in his illuminating 2009 essay ‘Lapsed Classicist’, ‘I have been Homer-haunted for fifty years’.

Above all, though, Longley is a poet not just of war and death but grief. More than any, he understands the full fury of its chaotic force which renders even the great warrior Achilles like ‘a lion, heartbroken when he finds/ His neglected cubs snatched from their thicket’ (‘The Lion’). Part Two of The Stairwell presents a superb series of elegies for what must be one of the hardest losses to bear, that of the poet’s twin, his brother Peter. Here, again, Homer provides a means to ‘wail in excruciating lamentation’, as Longley recasts himself as Achilles mourning his beloved Patroclus (‘a double, a twin’), while the process of grieving becomes Patroclus’ funeral games from Iliad Book 23. Now the sibling quarrels of the Longleys’ boyhood become entwined with epic conflict:

We were combatants from the start. Our dad
Bought us boxing gloves when we were ten –
Champions like Euryalus, say, or Epeius
Of wooden-horse fame….
(‘The Boxers’)

These intertexual shifts might at first glance seem distancing to those who, like Peter, as we discover in ‘The Alphabet’, prefer practical metalwork to learning the Greek alphabet. Yet, as the sequence progresses, the boys’ childhood acquires its own mythical, equally epic status. For instance, Homer’s lion simile for Achilles is transmuted into ‘the lion at Bellevue Zoo…Paws crossed, gazing out over Belfast Lough’ (‘The Lion’). And the slightly sad stallion manoeuvres of returning GIs, which the boys watch from behind a hawthorn in Bristow Park, are in their turn transformed into Achilles’ ‘wind-swift/ Horses’(‘The Stallion’). By the time the two are characterised as ‘the twin Moliones/ Kteatos and Eurytos, Aktor’s sons’ in ‘The Twins’, it barely matters who these fairly minor mythical characters might have been; this is the universal language of loss, of those as close as:

Siamese twins, joined below the waist,
One grasping the reins for dear life,
The other whipping the horses to win,
Two souls, one well-balanced charioteer
Taking the trophy and this epitaph.
(‘The Twins’)

As the reader arrives at ‘The Birthday’, and its bald opening statement – ‘This is our first birthday without you’ – the pain of mourning becomes almost unbearable. But, as ever, Longley’s lightness of touch brings us back to earth in a matter of lines: ‘Have you been skinny-dipping at Allaran’ he enquires of his brother’s ghost. And then, mentioning the organic beetroots cooking for supper, he wonders: ‘Will your pee be pink in heaven?’. Elsewhere the disappearance of one of Peter’s cats just before his death leads, via a translation from French of Gwen John’s sweet but slight evocation of a straying cat, to the revelation that:

The day of your funeral
In October sunshine
Milly, not the friendliest
Tabby, came back home.
(‘The Stray’)

For in the middle of death, it seems, we are always in life. Even Longley’s own ‘unassuming nunc dimittis’ is contained within the poem ‘Birth-Bed’, as he wakes in the bed in which his baby granddaughter has only recently been born (this in turn counterbalances ‘Deathbed’ which the poet characterises as a playground for swooping robins, his ‘soul-birds’). Throughout The Stairwell, grandchildren dance in and out of the lines – new-born Amelia or toddler Maisie wondering during a power-cut ‘Where is me?/ I have disappeared’ (‘Haiku’) or chattering to herself, ‘her speech-melody/ A waterlily budding’ in ‘Maisie at Dawn’. These births are offset by the deaths not just of Longley’s twin but of old friends and, poignantly, the children of old friends, for whom Longley leaves ‘unpicked/ One fragrant orchid for her to kneel and sniff’ (‘Fragrant Orchid’). There are short elegies, too, for Longley’s ‘fellow voyager’ Seamus Heaney and his family. For like Yeats, whom Longley considers the greatest poet of the English language bar Shakespeare, Longley has become the supreme poet of old age, growing in stature as he contemplates the ever-renewing cycles of decay and rebirth, moving forward into the inevitable shadow of death.

At the centre of Longley’s affirming poetry, is the solid earth of his own much-trodden patch of Mayo, the townland of Carrigskeewaun. Every inch of this, it seems, has been celebrated in his delicate verse until his readers come to feel that they, too, walk across it with the step of a local; its herons and otters, lakes and salt marsh, anemones and helleborines, the stoat ‘Sucking oxygen through/ A hole in the throat, the lapwings that ‘flap away over Lackakeely’. In ‘The Birthday’ it is this landscape that comforts the poet on his day without his twin – ‘the sandpipers eyeing Dooaghtry / For a nesting place among the pebbles’ or the choughs that flock ‘high above their acrobatic/ Cliff face’ – as he imagines Peter’s ghost flitting across his own much-loved landscape (‘Thank you for visiting Carrigskeewaun/ Don’t twist your ankle in a rabbit hole’). And in ‘The Duckboards’, he movingly follows, with Peter, his father’s ghost across the marshes, as past and present again elide:

as though at Passchendaele
Teetering on walkways that disappear
As we follow behind him in the rain.
(‘The Duckboards’)

Back in ‘The Stairwell’ , Longley is shaken from his reverie on his own demise by similar acts of remembrance. As his hostess takes him to inspect the lobby of her apartment building, suitably decorated for Halloween with ‘cobwebby/ Skulls, dancing skeletons’, he tests ‘the perfect acoustic’ of the poem’s (and the collection’s) title stairwell by whistling Great War songs – ‘Over There’, ‘It’s a Long, Long Way’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires burning’ – ‘as though for my father’. In return, he is rewarded by the reverberating sound of ‘songbirds circling high up’, instantly bringing to mind the birdsong of Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’. These echoes typify the soaring humanity of Longley’s work as it reaches back into the far distant as well as the recent past with equal clarity, yet at the same time resonates within its own meticulously constructed present. As such, Longley becomes not just a poet of old age but of any age, all ages – the best poet currently writing in the English language, bar none.


Dante: The Divine Comedy,  translated by Clive James (Picador)
The Times
, 13th July 2013

‘It is better,’ T.S. Eliot observed, ‘to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.’ Nevertheless, as Clive James notes in the introduction to his new translation of The Divine Comedy, Dante ‘had barely finished the poem’ before learned commentaries began to appear. Even in medieval Italy, it seems, readers could be perplexed by the epic’s complex web of reference, from classical mythology through Biblical allegory to the politics of fourteenth-century Florence. Yet here is one of the thorniest dilemmas for translators: should classic works of Western literature be accompanied by detailed notes to clarify obscurities? Or should readers be left to approach them on their own terms?

Clive James, whose wife Prue Shaw is a renowned Dante scholar, favours Eliot’s position. Perhaps best known in Britain as a sharp-tongued TV critic, famously deriding Agamemnon’s ‘gamma-fronts’ in a BBC adaptation of the Oresteia, he views textual footnotes as a ‘burden’. Instead he prefers to ‘upload salient facts’ into the translation itself, a time-honoured strategy for historic texts which James works well. And so in Inferno Canto 12, Dante’s ‘l’infamia di Creti’ becomes: ‘The infamy of Crete, by whom I mean/The Minotaur’. Similarly, among the souls punished for suicide in Inferno Canto 13, an originally unidentified speaker now tells us succinctly: ‘Know me for Piero della Vigne, who/kept both the keys to the Emperor Frederick’s heart’. This certainly assists modern readers who could not be expected to recognise, as Dante’s contemporaries might, a local statesman, poet and legislator. But those without a background in medieval political history might still be left groping for the wider context. And even if scholarship is perceived to have no place in poetry, there might still be poetry to be found in scholarship, as the work of Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson exemplifies.

James buys space for such interpolations through his innovative approach to Dante’s terza rima, the other pressing issue facing any translator of the Divine Comedy. As James concurs, such a strict rhyming scheme can sound forced or archaic in non-inflected Anglo-Saxon. His solution is quatrains, often augmented by extra rhyming lines, which, he argues, allows the ‘ideal combination of strictness and ease’. More importantly, perhaps, it is also a form in which he himself feels at ease as a poet (by contrast, in his excellent 1994 version of Inferno, Steve Ellis eschews rhyme because, as he confesses, he found it difficult in his own poetry). And if the mysticism of Dante’s triad patternings are missed, James’ quatrains steer the narrative deftly, like the aged Ulysses in Inferno Canto 26:

Once more I set out on the open sea,
With just one ship, crewed by my loyal men,
The stalwart who had not deserted me.
As far as Spain I saw both shores, and then

This expansive form also proves invaluable in the almost impossible task of renewing the original force and vigour of Dante’s best known terzas, so iconic now that they have become cliché – and even Mad Men’s Don Draper takes a copy of Inferno to the beach.  For example, in James’ sure hands, Dante’s famous inscription above Hell’s Gates becomes:

From now on, every day feels like your last
Forever. Let that be your greatest fear.
Your future now is to regret the past.
Forget your hopes. They were what brought you here.

James’ recent serious illness, alongside well-publicised marriage difficulties, lend an added poignancy. Like most successful translations, there is a sense of the personal throughout; his gargantuan labour appears to offer a gift of love to his scholar wife, an act of contrition leading to acceptance and resignation, the final ‘refuge in muteness’ George Steiner found in Paradiso. As James translates from Canto 33, here are ‘my own desires in their last phase/Where steady craving finally abates’. And if the lack of scholarly apparatus can, on occasion, prove more face-furrowing than page-turning, the poetry is certainly here, spurring the reader to learn more. Like the erudite Brunetto in Inferno 15, James’ often outstanding verse runs ‘as if the race were his/To win, not lose. As his life was, and is.’


Ovid’s Heroines, Clare Pollard (Bloodaxe Books)
The Times, 22 June 2013

‘Wit out of season’, concluded John Dryden of Ovid’s Heroides, the Latin poet’s verse epistles from mythical women to their faithless male lovers. Since Dryden, translators have long struggled with Ovid’s tricky mix of humour and pathos, which might have tickled Roman audiences but can fall flat on modern ears. There is also the complex issue of authorial voice, the mirrors within mirrors of the male poet voicing female protagonists, who themselves exist only in the literary imaginations of other men; how far do the women speak as themselves or for their revisionist male recreator? The poet Clare Pollard has no doubt: in the chatty and enthusiastic introduction to her new version, Ovid’s Heroines, she berates those who see Ovid ‘showing his face through the mask’, as the work’s true narrator. ‘Because, obviously’, she notes, ‘women are never ironic’.

In many ways Pollard, a wunderkind who wrote her first poetry collection while still at school, is a good match for the equally precocious Ovid. In volumes, such as The Heavy-Petting Zoo and Bedtime, she revealed an aptitude for mixing high and low cultural references, from Caravaggio to Tracey Emin, Proust to Big Brother. And if, as she explains, her state school in Bolton did not offer Classics, she has done her homework, consulting Loeb dual texts and previous translations of Heroides, alongside scholarly commentaries whose critical judgements often exasperate: ‘This is OVID,’ she shouts, ‘Have some respect!’

Her research pays off. She rises to the challenge of Ovid’s teasing, laying her stamp with Penelope’s opening lines in Heroides 1: ‘Dear Ulysses,/you’re late’. There is pathos, too, as Ariadne slowly realises she has been abandoned by Theseus on Naxos in poem 10 (‘Fear slapped me awake: I lurched up,/tumbled headlong from the empty bed.’). Elsewhere Hypsipyle’s description of her sorceress love-rival Medea raises hairs on the neck: ‘she haunts graveyards, plucks/still-warm skeletons from ash…’ By framing each poem with short introductions, Pollard also attempts to solve the problem of how, as obscure classical myth falls out of cultural currency, Ovid’s dramatic irony can still be retained.

The most successful versions here are those in which Pollard lets loose, engaging with the knotty issue of authorial voice, providing a new filter, as a woman versioner, for Ovid’s own transgendered poems. In poem 9, Pollard’s Deianira– whose  husband Hercules has turned transvestite in a rather more literal way – headlines her own story: ‘Hercules Horror: Wicked Wife Still Lives’. It would have been fascinating to see such subversive techniques developed even further, for instance as Oenone adopts the age-old male defence that women such as Helen of Troy are ‘asking for it’ or Dido moons after Aeneas like a lovesick teenager (‘I call him cheat, but love him so’). For despite Pollard’s spirited defence of Ovid, he is the ultimate trickster, whose self-penned epitaph in Tristia declares himself a lusor, a player: reason, perhaps, to have some disrespect. Overall, though, these are lively versions, freshly seasoned with both agony and irony, reanimating Ovid’s originals.


Go Giants, Nick Laird (Faber)
The Times, February 2nd 2013

‘Go one better,’ exhorts the title poem of Go Giants, Nick Laird’s third collection, ‘Go great guns’. Following his much-lauded 2005 debut To a Fault  and the sophomore, On Purpose (2007), Laird’s new work again displays an almost child-like wonder in the variety and slippage of language, alongside an adult sensibility of both its boundless possibilities and its dangers (‘Go into detail. Go for the throat’). Similarly, ‘Annals of Alan’, collects Manhattan graffiti about the eponymous hero (‘Alan has the best weed.’), its various fonts and typographies playfully representing the source’s multiplicity of voice and stance. But if the poem’s off-the-cuff frivolity is typical of Laird’s method, it also masks a deeper concern over self-identity, another Laird trademark: ‘Who the heck is Alan?’, queries one inscription, to be answered by ‘Alan is a dream most likely’.

Throughout the collection, Laird debates whether identity derives from birthplace, such as his native Ulster, or whether it is accumulated by a passage through the wider world. As ‘House Beautiful’, the collection’s final piece, debates:

What if you felt nothing more walking down
the streets of Cookstown than you ever felt
walking in New York or Rome or London

Laird’s quest for answers encompasses Greek myth, Roman satire, Anglo-Saxon verse, Celtic ballad, Renaissance astronomy, Irish rebels and Irish rugby. Despite a lightness of touch, the collection’s lack of notes requires its readers to do their homework, particularly in the collection’s closing sequence, based around John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is worth the effort; here are some of Laird’s most successful and mature poems to date, as his poetic telescope closes in on both new and familiar landscapes, real and metaphysical, interconnected by public and personal history. In Rome, Laird fears he might view Papal treasures with a ‘Covenanter’s eye’, yet still finds a link back to Ulster through Hugh O’Neill, the sixteenth-century Irish nationalist who died in a Roman prison and whose ruined County Tyrone seat Laird and his friends had later ‘annexed’ for ‘menthol cigarettes and adolescent sex’.

As in Bunyan’s originals, this is a topography of home, for Laird a childhood divided by sectarianism where, in the ‘monotony of always being on a side’, language could indeed prove dangerous; the wrong name, the wrong school, ‘the wrong uniform’ as ‘Mr Enmity’ confirms. Yet the more deeply personal their subjects, the more engagingly universal the poems become. In ‘Valley of the Shadow’, a lament for a childhood friend lost to the Troubles, the violence occurs off-stage as in Greek tragedy; ‘Our windows pulsed once, twice, but didn’t break,’ Laird remembers, the crack of glass reverberating long afterwards.

Go Giants considers how to establish – and maintain – a sense of self in a shifting world, whether as husband, father, lover, friend or compatriot. For Laird, whose New York alarm is apparently still tuned to Radio Ulster, this is a wryly complex business. As ‘Tuesday’ confesses: ‘When I’m alone/I swear this whole thing’s touch and go.’ That may be, but on balance Go Giants still manages to go one better.


The Customs House, Andrew Motion (Faber)
The Times, October 6th, 2012

The relationship between creativity and research is never easy. In 2001, Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement was criticised for drawing on memoirs by Second World War nurses; such work, it was implied, was somehow cheating. Undaunted, Andrew Motion’s The Customs House, his first full-length volume of poetry since stepping down as Poet Laureate in 2009, lists about 14 written sources for its poems. ‘To this degree’, as Motion notes of his sonnet sequence ‘An Equal Voice’, based on Ben Shephard’s 2002 study of war psychiatry, ‘the matter of the poem is in the public domain’. To Motion, such poems are ‘found’ but the process of transformation is far from casual; a Google Books search will reveal that the arresting phrase ‘titubating shell-shockers’ in the fifth poem from ‘An Equal Voice’, derives from Shephard’s original. But it takes Motion’s calm, forensic eye to find the poetry in the categories of traumatised patients: ‘their stammers and tremors, their nightmares/and hallucinations, their unstoppable fits and shaking.

In this use of sourced material, The Customs House echoes Motion’s previous collection, The Cinder Path (2009). Both offer title poems in the form of ekphrasis, a poetic exploration of a painting, here the mysterious tangle of Henri Rousseau’s seemingly calm pastoral scene where yet ‘dangerous animals might well live’. In addition, The Cinder Path’s moving laments on the death of Motion’s father are now augmented by poems exploring the later stages of grief; a graveside visit in ‘Passing’, and the dreamlike remembrance of  a childhood game now turned horror story in ‘Are You There?’:

I can tell from his stillness,
and the chill and stiffness of his fingers,
he has been dead for a good time already.

Such moments of epiphany – a turning point between the everyday and the sudden chaos of destruction and loss  – characterise the collection’s finely-held poetic balance. Like the glimpse of Mount Fuji in ‘The Korean Memorial at Hiroshima’, here is:

a handkerchief
draped over a tumbler of water
in the moment of suspense
before the magician taps his hand
and the tumbler disappears.

But as in The Cinder Path, it is in his opening section of war poetry, ‘Laurels and Donkeys’, first published in 2010 by Clutag Press, that Motion’s art unflexes and excels. Here the pivotal images are even more startling; the hare in ‘Setting the Scene’, advancing through a ruined French village during the First World War ‘with the sun shining bright red through his ears’. Or the dead cattle encountered after the Normandy landings in ‘Beyond All Calculation’, ‘their legs up stiff like toys’. Always a master of narrative voice, Motion is able to mirror the taut, colloquial tone of soldiers’ testimonies, their trauma contained just beneath the surface. In ‘Changi’, a Japanese prisoner of war concludes of a wildflower found in the camp: ‘I thought it must be an iris and have since confirmed that’. Similarly, in ‘The Vallon Men’, a young soldier reports how, during his unit’s tour of Afghanistan, ‘we have seen a lot of things that are not ideal’.

Motion’s long, prose-style lines in poems, such as ‘The Golden Hour’ or ‘After the War’, add to this tension. The full terror here, Motion suggests, is not only that the humdrum lies amongst the horror but that, in reverse, a never-ending cycle of bloodshed and destruction becomes mundane, as the lessons of the past are never learnt. The Customs House leads us through this blighted landscape with a non-flinching, yet always compassionate, precision. As Motion notes of a riverside bird in ‘Dipper’, it is ‘as if a living soul had found/ a way to haunt the dead’


Antigonick, Anne Carson, (Bloodaxe)
The Times, 2 June, 2012

For Anne Carson, an acclaimed classics scholar as well as poet, the act of translation is like ‘a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch’. Like her last work Nox, Carson’s new version of Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone looks beyond the written word for illumination. But whereas Nox, a series of reimaginings of Catullus poem 101, was presented as a conceptual art work, a book-in-a-box encompassing sketches, collage, fragments of diaries and letters as well as scraps of written versions, Antigonick interweaves Carson’s complete translation with Bianca Stone’s occasional illustrations on transparent paper; as the reader turns the page, Stone’s desolate landscapes, ghostly, nightmarish figures and unsettling domestic scenes are overlaid over Carson’s hand-inked text like a visual palimpsest.

As ever in Carson’s playful, paradoxical verse, such devices offer as many questions as answers. How far are the images meant to correlate with the written text? Should they be viewed as potential stage backdrops? Or do they present a second meta-text, a commentary running alongside the translation? Carson, who worked as a commercial artist while completing her classical studies, understands the power of the non-literal. As she once commented wryly of her radical versions of Catullus ‘[they] bear about the same relation to translation as Francis Bacon’s paintings do to mug shots’. Yet as well as her trademark intertexuality ( Brecht, Hegel and Virginia Woolf all flit through Antigonick) and deliberately jarring modernisms, Carson is also a powerful interpreter of the lost and mysterious archaic world. In particular, her renderings of Sophocles’s complex choruses seem to rise out of an ancient primeval consciousness to crystallise in the present:


Again, as so often in her poetry, Carson’s version represents both a reading and a writing; it enacts not only the text itself but its reception, its resonances. For instance, the central conflict between Antigone and Kreon, between state and family, as Antigone wants to bury her traitor brother and Kreon, as King, forbids it, is reduced to single phrases scattered across the page; Kreon’s ‘verbs for today’ are  ‘adjudicate’, ‘ legislate’ or ‘capitalize’ whereas Antigone’s nouns include ‘autonomous’, ‘autarchic’, and ‘autoempathic’. And as Kreon exhorts an impatient Antigone ‘let’s split/ hairs a while longer’, Carson encapsulates the entire thrust of Greek tragedy in six words.

Carson’s modernising might seem discordant and her multi-dimensional framing impenetrable. But if sometimes wilfully obscure, such transformations  derive from a deep knowledge of and empathy with her source. For example, the black block capitals and lack of punctuation Carson employs in Antigonick echo the appearance of Greek text on papyrus. At the same time, her use of internal rhyme harks back to the archaising ‘Wardour Street’ approach of earlier translators such as Gilbert Murray, yet still sounds fresh and musical – a quality any future performance could only enhance.

Above all, Antigonick questions what it means to translate Greek drama, an art form so mysterious, so primordial, that it can seem more like sacrificial rite than literary text. Should such versions be approached as a work of theatre or as lines on the page? Is it possible to add the dynamic of performance on to a static text? For Carson her uncompromising solutions are ‘little kidnaps in the dark’, a long trail of softly glowing lamps that mark the way through the centuries and out of the shadows.


The Perfect Order: Selected Poems 1974-2010, Nasos Vayenas, edited by Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou (Anvil)
Selected Poems, Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Cecilia Rossi (Waterloo Press)
Agenda, Vol. 46.3, April 2012

‘In translating poetry,’ comments Greek poet Nasos Vayenas in his luminous piece, ‘Eight Positions on the Translation of Poetry’, ‘the original is the experience, and the process of translation is the poetic art’.  Certainly every once in a while, a translation of a perhaps previously less known foreign language poet appears in English which not only becomes a modern classic in its own right, but also changes the face of English poetry. For example, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s translation of C.P. Cavafy’s Greek poetry, first published in Britain in 1972, has since become so much a part of  both British and American literary culture that it has informed the way in which all subsequent generations have read Cavafy in English, through the filter of Keeley and Sherrard’s versions, often as if these were Cavafy. In addition, Cavafy’s demotic, unadorned style, as well as his trademark poetic historicism and dramatic irony, has proved hugely influential to later English language poets.

The Perfect Order, Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou’s new edition of Nasos Vayenas, one of the most distinguished of the contemporary Greek poets who can be considered Cavafy’s direct heirs, looks set to prove another such classic. Despite the fact that Vayenas is a leading member of the ‘Generation of the Seventies’ and a winner of the Greek National Poetry Prize in 2005, as well as an esteemed academic, translator and essayist, this is the first full edition of his laconic yet luminous work in English. It includes selections from each of his ten Greek volumes, including his highly-acclaimed 1974 debut collection Field of Mars, the innovative Flyer’s Fall (1989) and Flyer’s Fall II (1997),in which original poems are interspersed with translations, and 2004’s prize-winning Garland, his playful faux epitaphs for fictional poets. In addition, a short but extremely welcome selection of Vayenas’s critical essays are included, their elegance and clarity highlighting Vayenas’s own interest in the work of  Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot.

Most satisfying of all, perhaps, are the poems from Vayenas’s mature masterpiece, On the Isle of the Blest (2010). This exemplifies his debt to his Greek poetic heritage alongside his connections to a wider European literary tradition. And so his ‘Cavafy’ is characterised as a chameleon performer:

The multicoloured paper masks you donned
and year in, year out, changed afresh each day,
had wrinkles, ironed their evidence away,
saved you from scorn within your demi-monde.

Meanwhile ‘George Seferis Among the Statues’ foregrounds the ironic intertextuality of Vayenas’s work, recalling not only lines of his own Greek mentor (Vayenas’s 1979 doctoral thesis was on the elder Greek poet), but also the high modernism of  Eliot’s Prufrock:
You measured out your life with coffee spoons
looking out over sluggish city rivers
from behind your consulate’s grey window
as evening fell upon the green
like a bird with a broken wing.
(‘George Seferis Among the Statues’)

As David Ricks points out in his fascinating introduction, Vayenas is ‘par excellence, a poet-critic’, widely-read and hugely discriminating, whose own verse, in its readings of others’, as well as in its own precise craft, is always revelatory. Like Vayenas’s vision of the iconic Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, the subject of another poem from On the Isle of the Blest (and also another subject of Vayenas’s studies, this time for his M.A. in literary translation at the University of Essex), the poet sees through to the soul of his theme:
Living meanings, you plucked things’ cores and forms –
leaf-veins, afternoon-hues – light’s own strings,
while others caught no more than shades of things.

Such informed – and delicate – textual layers require a very deft hand in their translation. Here Vayenas is wonderfully served by the many distinguished translators whose work is included in the volume, such as David Ricks, Kimon Friar and Roderick Beaton, as well as its editors Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou. Together they capture the multiplicity of Vayenas’s poetic voices, ensuring that, through their skilful versions, his work, like that of his literary ancestor Cavafy, ‘speaks Greek with a slight British accent’. It will surely not be long before British poets, inspired by this exemplary edition, are returning the compliment.

Across the other side of the world, Borges was also an important figure to his young compatriot, the cult Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, who died from an overdose of barbiturates in 1972 at the tragically early age of thirty-six; so much so, recounts Cecilia Rossi in her fascinating introduction to Pizarnik’s Selected Poems, that, on a visit to the elder writer’s house with a fellow poet to interview him for a Buenos Aires literary magazine, Pizarnik curled up in an armchair ‘like a hypnotised cat’, leaving her colleague to ask all their carefully-prepared questions. These days Pizarnik’s own eerie and incandescent verse, if little-known in Britain, is capable of inspiring similar reverence, not only in her native Argentina but also in the US where her archive is held at Princeton University. In her short life, Pizarnik was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship. From 1960- 64 she also lived in Paris where Octavio Paz wrote the prologue for her influential 1962 collection Diana’s Tree, whose tiny yet succinct poetic pieces seem like fleeting snatches of a lost, parallel world:

I have taken the leap from myself to dawn.
I have left my body beside the light
and have sung the sadness of what is born.
(Diana’s Tree ‘1’)

Rossi’s new volume includes selections from each of Pizarnik’s six main published volumes, from 1956’s Last Innocence to 1971’s A Musical Hell, as well as from her uncollected poems, even the lines found on her writing-room chalkboard after her untimely death. Rossi’s assured and highly-skilled versions, which have already won awards in both the John Dryden and the Stephen Spender Prizes for translation, now look set to bring Pizarnik’s work to a wider audience here in Britain as well, capturing the poems’ otherworldliness and mysticism, an enduring sense of how:

the young woman finds the mask of infinity
and cracks the wall of poetry.

As Rossi notes, citing the influence of Lewis Carroll on Pizarnik’s verse, there is a sense of the child’s fairy tale about much of this poetry, if more the dangerous, threatening visions of the Brothers Grimm than the reassuring whimsy of Hans Christian Anderson:

The poem I do not say,
the one I do not deserve.
Fear of being two
the way of a mirror:
someone asleep inside me
eats me and drinks me.
(Diana’s Tree ‘14’)

Here are the words a figure in a Paula Rego painting might speak, the poems they might write; beautiful, disturbing, compelling, the view from the other side of the looking glass:

You make the silence of lilacs which shake
in the tragedy of the wind of my heart.
You made of my life a children’s story
where shipwrecks and deaths
are excuses for adorable ceremonies.

Working on such brief pieces is far more difficult that it might at first appear, calling for the sureness and accuracy of a surgeon’s hand. ‘What does it mean to translate oneself into words?’ asks Pizarnik in ‘The Cure of Folly’. As her introduction reveals, Rossi has clearly spent a great deal of careful thought and study on answering such a question, citing, as example, her six drafts of a single line from Pizarnik’s enigmatic uncollected poem ‘[…] Of Silence’. Rossi’s meticulous approach is well worth the effort as she settles on her final, suitably gnomic form: ‘I was the impossible and also riven by the impossible’.

For Nasos Vayenas, in Paschalis Nikolaou’s crystal clear English version of ‘Eight Positions on the Translation of Poetry’, ‘if the translation of poetry is impossible, then the translation of poetry is a genuine art.’ These two important new volumes, both set to become modern translation classics, are proof of such art at the highest level. As Vayenas’s own ‘Cavafy’ concludes:

Your word lays bare the ways
that the soul is what a poem’s lines reveal…


Poetry Books of the Year 2011
The Times, 3 December, 2011

At first glance 2011 may appear to have been a conventional, if not conservative, year in poetry. Certainly the “grey male” shortlist for the Forward Prize was much criticised, although its eventual winner, John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone (Jonathan Cape, £9), which referenced sizzling Delta blues alongside wintry Brueghel landscapes, was as vibrant and compelling as any; the eerie dream-like poetry of “some black road/ you thought was yours alone,/ made bright and universal, as you listen”.

Fellow nominee Michael Longley’s luminous A Hundred Doors (Jonathan Cape, £9) was also his best collection yet, revisiting his always exquisite pastoral lyricism with renewed urgency as he contemplates mortality in his beloved Carrigskeewaun, “soul-space/For my promontory, high and dry”. The T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist (the winner will be announced in January) is more eclectic and includes the superb The Bees (Picador, £13.49), the first collection by Carol Ann Duffy, above, since becoming Poet Laureate and a masterclass in how public poetry can reanimate the personal.

Also shortlisted, Alice Oswald’s Memorial (Faber and Faber, £10.99) presents an uncompromising rewriting of The Iliad, stripping away its epic narrative to foreground its fallen foot-soldiers. Overlooked here, Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s mesmeric and enthralling Heavenly Questions (Bloodaxe, £8.50), was a deserving winner of the international Griffin Prize. In six meditative poems, encompassing Ancient Greek science, classical Chinese riddles, Turkish fable and Sanskrit epic, Schnackenberg mourns her husband with extraordinary intelligence and compassion: “Still his wife./ But couldn’t draw one breath on his behalf/ Nor add a single heartbeat to his life.”

Christopher Reid’s Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, £13.49) includes some of his own remarkable elegies for his wife from A Scattering (2009), as well as poems from his earlier collections, such as the playful faux translations of imaginary poet Katerina Brac; the ‘colossal rearrangements/ somewhere at the back of the mind’ which characterise Reid’s innovative and always engaging verse, both in humour and in grief. . Meanwhile, The Perfect Order(Anvil, £11.66), Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou’s edition of the leading Greek poet Nasos Vayenas, looks set to become a modern translation classic. Shortlisted for the Criticos Prize, it brings Vayenas’s elegant, cultured work to English readers for the first time: ‘Your word lays bare the ways,’ as he notes in ‘Cavafy’, ‘that the soul is what a poem’s lines reveal’.

Equally beguiling is Vesna Goldsworthy’s The Angel of Salonika (Salt, £11.69), winner of this year’s Crashaw Prize for new poets. Her accomplished first collection explores the journeys of exile, geographical, spiritual and linguistic, as she travels from the Balkans to “The Heart of England, wherever that may be”, with an intense precision. The Times’s Derwent May’s Wondering About Many Women(Greenwich Exchange, £7.59) is another assured debut whose delicately crafted poems explore familial, parental and romantic relationships, the ‘fear that comes always with love’s disarming’.

Finally, to prove that poetry is alive and kicking its billowing trouser legs on a washing-line near you, Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught’s anthology Washing Lines (Lautus,£9) collects a surprising number of poems on laundry, from Homer’s Odyssey to Jane Holland’s Spin-Cycle, via Seamus Heaney, Fernando Pessoa and Moniza Alvi, illustrated by woodcuts from leading printmakers such as Clifford Harper. “The peg becomes a pen,” as Maura Dooley concludes in The Line. Radical transformations indeed.


The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy (Faber)
The Times
, 8 October, 2011

In ancient mythology and literature bees have a diverse, sometimes contradictory symbolism; in Homeric epic they are the Greek leaders streaming in to war council at Troy, or the warriors swarming over the shore to destroy the city; in Virgil’s Georgics they are the symbols of industry and good husbandry. In Sappho and early lyric they are the bitter sting that comes after the honey sweetness of love and, in later epigram, they become poets themselves, more precisely woman poets, bringing home their honeyed words.

Carol Ann Duffy’s outstanding new collection, The Bees, her first since she was appointed Poet Laureate in 2009, summons both explicitly and implicitly these shared references, which hum like a distant echo in our collective unconscious: the politics of war in Big Ask, or of governance in Politics (with its own “hiss hiss hiss”); the threatened bucolic of Ariel and the long love turned sour of New Vows (“all my worldly goods to unendow . . .”). Meanwhile Homer’s warrior hero has a poem of his own in Achilles (originally written for David Beckham’s game-changing heel injury), as do Virgil’s Bees, now “lover-stunned,/ strumming on fragrance, smitten”.

Such images are woven through the volume like the delicate illustrations of illuminated manuscripts. It opens with the poet’s own words in Bees — “brazen, blurs on paper,/ besotted; buzzwords, dancing/their flawless, airy maps” — and closes with A Rare Bee, whose honey makes the poet profound. In between, Duffy tells the life story of The Human Bee and celebrates the “winter cluster” of The Bee Carol or the never-ending industry of Hive, which, for the poet, symbolises:

what we serve, preserve, avowed in Latin murmurs
as we come and go, skydive, freighted
with light, to where we thrive, us, in time’s hum,
on history’s breath,
industrious, identical…

But there is also much here that previous readers will find familiar. The revisionist myth-making of The Woman in the Moon, for instance, recalls Duffy’s 1999 collection The World’s Wife, while Mrs Schofield’s GCSE echoes the childhood reminiscences of The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team from Mean Time (1993). In Water, a tender elegy for her mother, Duffy captures the heart-eroding role reversal of caring for a terminally ill parent; the terrible loss of a mother for a daughter — and the cycle that will be repeated by the next generation:

A good last word.
Nights since I’ve cried, but gone
to my own child’s side with a drink, watched
her gulp it down then sleep. Water.
What a mother brings
through darkness still
to her parched daughter.

As well as being deeply personal, much of the poetry in The Bees also has (or has derived from) a public function. For instance, Rings celebrated the royal wedding, while The Shirt commiserated with England’s dismal showing in last year’s World Cup, even if, curiously, no acknowledgements are provided as to such poems’ origins. Given some of her predecessors’ struggle with the official verse required as laureate, Duffy’s achievement here is even more exceptional. For instance Snow, written in response to the blizzards of winter last year, remains poignant long after the thaw:

Tighter and tighter, the beautiful snow
holds the land in its fierce embrace.
It is like death, but it is not death; lovelier.
Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now
with the gift of your left life?

In particular, the collection’s celebration of British pastoral, encompassing the Scottishness of Drams and Moniack Mhor as well as The English Elms and John Barleycorn, provides a new focus and gravitas, not only in its subject matter but also in its structure, recalling Eliot’s Four Quartets by its apparent loose patterning around the seasons. In Last Post, written to commemorate the last surviving British soldiers of the First World War, Duffy muses how it might be if “poetry could truly tell it backwards”.

Such reversals inform the movement of the book. In the collection’s penultimate poem, Premonitions, an elegy for U. A. Fanthorpe, the elder poet’s life is seen in inverted order as “a bee swooned backwards out of a rose”. And if in A Rare Bee, the collection’s closing poem, the poet’s art is won at the cost of the bee itself, stinging her lips to confer “rhyme, poetry, song” before dying “on the bier of a leaf”, this then takes us back full circle to Duffy’s opening poet bees: “gilded, glad, golden”. The bees might be disappearing and birdsong falling silent, but if any poetry can turn back the world to its lost pastoral idyll, this is it.


A Hundred Doors, Michael Longley (Cape)
The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems, edited by Terence Brown and Michael Longley (Bloodaxe Books)
New Collected Poems, Derek Mahon (The Gallery Press)
Agenda, Vol 46. 2, September 2011

‘A day here represents a life-time,’ asserts Michael Longley of his beloved Mayo home in ‘The Wren’, a poem from his latest collection A Hundred Doors. Certainly for the last half-century or so it has seemed that we have lived that day – and its life-time – alongside a group of leading Irish poets which includes Derek Mahon, Brendan Kennelly and Longley himself, dedicating poems to each other, celebrating their mutual milestones, mourning the death of mutual friends. We feel we know every inch of Longley’s Carrigskeewaun or Mahon’s Kinsale or Kenelley’s Dublin and Kerry. It seems, too, as if we have travelled with them through the course of their now long literary and personal lives as their poetry charts a progress from youthful promise to the rigours of old age. This impression is highlighted by a cross-referencing between the poets’ work; for instance Mahon’s early poem ‘An UnBorn Child’ is dedicated to the young Michael and Edna Longley. Many years later, A Hundred Doors finds a much older Longley, now a grand-father several times over, contemplating an old photograph of his then-pregnant wife:

Six months gone in your purple polo-neck
And blue smock, and laughing, I remember,
Because I have decorated with sea pinks
Your black abundant hair…
( ‘Foxgloves’)

A Hundred Doors, Longley’s ninth volume overall – and the fifth since he reignited his career with 1991’s incandescent Gorse Fires – is an excellent place to start this day-in-a-life journey. As ‘The Wren’ exemplifies, its exquisite summoning of Longley’s beloved Carrigskeewaun for his family’s latest arrivals should continue to delight familiar readers, as well as draw in new:

…bird’s foot trefoil
Among wild thyme, dawn and dusk muddled on the ground,
The crescent moon fading above Mweelrea’s shoulder
As hares sip brackish water at the stepping stones…
(‘The Wren’)

There are shadows here too as old age’s inevitable mourning for lost friends interrupts Longley’s idyll: Dorothy Molloy, who had just published her first volume of poetry (‘the poets you loved are your consorts now’) or former childhood companions alongside the landlord of a favourite pub in which Longley had imagined his own perfect death and for whom, in memory, he now launches ‘The toy lifeboat at my elbow with a penny’ so that, in a moment, we are all transported back there with him. Longley’s renowned and inspirational reimagining of ancient epic also makes a welcome return in ‘Old Soldiers’ and ‘Cygnus’, the latter an absorbing version of Ovid Metamorphoses 12.

But most importantly, there are new destinations here too, both geographical and poetic: the Shetlands, where Longley summons the ghost of Hugh MacDiarmid, the island of Paros, where he finds an echo of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, or the New York Public Library in which he deciphers Edward Thomas’s handwriting for Edna and recollects how the shell blast that killed Thomas ‘still riffles the pages in the library’. The mention of Thomas ushers in a sequence of poems exploring Longley’s own family members’ experiences in the first World War, from an unknown namesake (‘My wealden-distant cousin’) chanced upon in a naval cemetery on Hoy to his father’s citation for a Military Cross (‘It is like a poem. It is better than a poem’.). These short, pungent poems form the emotional heart of the collection and maintain, in fresh and rewarding new directions, Longley’s continuing engagement with the still-reverberating past, to him the essential business of poetry:

We need more angels, cloud-treaders, cherubic
Instrumentalists, bomb-disposal experts.
The sky is a minefield. We shall all get hurt.

These poems, in their turn, give way to a return to Longley’s renowned and inspirational reimagining of ancient epic, which has so elegantly distinguished his volumes since Gorse Fires. In ‘Old Soldiers’, for instance, Longley characterises both his father and himself as the renowned veterans of ancient literature; Socrates ‘stalking the battlefield at Delion’ or Idomeneus at Troy, still just about able to throw and retrieve his spear, while the ghost of Priam ‘who loved his dogs/As my father his red setters and spaniels’ recalls Longley’s now iconic 1994 poem ‘Cease Fire’, the horrors of grief and old age still to come, when his former pet dogs will chew ‘at his pathetic corpse’s/White head and white beard and bleeding genitals.’

Such work strikes to the heart of Longley’s art – lyrical, moving, compassionate but above all connecting past and present, both distant and recent, in an urgent, common chain of humanity, looking unflinchingly into the abyss. Here he finds the perfect lyrical image or literary echo to enrich the readers such as the ‘white swan that flies above the bloody battlefield’, as the metamorphosis of ‘Cygnus’ concludes. ‘Would I add to the inventory?’ asks Longley of his uncorrected Collected Poems in ‘Proofs’, tentatively answering himself with a typical list of found objects: ‘A razor shell,/A mermaid’s purse, some relic of this windless/Sea-roar-surrounded February quietude?’. For this yet again almost perfect collection one might want for nothing more.

Longley appears again as joint editor, with academic Terence Brown, of Bloodaxe’s new selected edition of Brendan Kennelly, The Essential Brendan Kennelly, a volume published to mark the poet’s 75th birthday and including a welcome bonus CD of his own beautifully sonorous readings (his was apparently voted ‘the most attractive voice in Ireland’ in a radio poll). It opens with a selection of poems from Kennelly’s earlier works including the mythic title poem of 1964’s acclaimed My Dark Fathers and the nightmarish child’s-eye views of ‘The Kiss’, ‘The Smell’ and ‘The Horse’s Head’ alongside the typically visceral ‘The Pig Killer’ (‘he raises a knife/begins to trace a line along the throat./Slowly the line turns red’).

Things move up another gear with 1983’s Cromwell, a world away from the rural childhood reminiscence which has often characterised recent Irish poetry and, even in the deft hands of poets such as Kennelly, can begin to appear well-trodden. In Cromwell’s vast mythic sequence, the country’s arch-enemy appears in many guises, most traditionally as the chilling historical figure:

Men die their different ways
And girls eat cherries
In the Christblessed fields of England.
Some weep. Some have cause. Let weep who will.
Whole floods of brine are at their beck and call.
I have work to do in Ireland.
(‘Oliver to his Brother’)

But he is also a modern-day companion, a daemon, a blooded conscience, for the poet’s persona Buffún who has summoned him (‘The butcher walked out of the door of my emptiness, straight into me.’), existing in a parallel present, demanding our attention and controversially, in places, our sympathy: ‘ I’m a friend of these ghosts, ’as ‘A Running Battle’ concludes. ‘They’re mine’ . Here Kennelly also begins to exercise ownership over more traditional English verse forms, in particular that of another, earlier Irish oppressor, Edmund Spencer, who himself appears in the sequence ‘up to my bollox in sonnets’. As Longley and Brown note of Kennelly’s art, the sequence operates in a ‘perpetual now’ in which Cromwell’s evil is ever at our shoulder, underscoring not only its immortality but also its banality:

…I’m worn out from intrigue and work.
I’d like a little estate down in Kerry,
A spot of salmon-fishing, riding to hounds…
Being a sporting chap, I’d really love to
Get behind some of the best sides in the land.
Manager, perhaps, of Drogheda United?’
(‘Manager, Perhaps’)

Kennelly repeats this device, also to great effect, in 1991’s influential The Book of Judas where, on the point of betraying Christ, his eponymous anti-hero has a vision of ‘a bungalow two miles the Dublin side/Of Clonmel’(‘No Exit’.). Here Kennelly widens his canvas out from Cromwell as Judas’s sin echoes throughout history and culture: ‘Wars before and after/Howl through the last moments of my silver laughter’, declares ‘Last Moment’. The anthology also includes selections from 1995’s Poetry My Arse as Kennelly turns his withering gaze on the world of contemporary Irish letters (‘a map of that bashed old place/all the voices of the articulate dead’) although, disappointingly, there is only one selection from 1998’s superb The Man Made of Rain in which the poet squared up to a far more personal crisis, a triple heart by-pass.

Like Judas in ‘I Never’ – and so many of his own Irish poetic contemporaries – Kennelly also has ‘ a taste for Latin’ and it is no surprise that he was drawn to the chaotic scabrous satire of Martial in which Martial Art (2003) finds not just the wit but the lyricism, handling the Latin poet’s tricky changes of tone with characteristic bravura, underscoring with both precision and wit how ‘Poems are drifters. A mind is an ocean’. So successful is Kennelly’s engagement with the Latin poet that the latter’s short lyrical forms later become infused with Kennelly’s own work in his subsequent collection Now (2006), composed of pithy, three line poems. This is followed by 2009’s Reservoir Voices, both represented in the volume by a rather inadequate single page, leaving the reader urgently required to search out more. Nevertheless the volume represents an admirable overview to this hugely gifted, original and influential poet. As Longley and Brown note in their Introduction, Kennelly’s wide-ranging and ever-changing corpus can also lead to a ‘varied’ critical response but his poetic skill, its sui generis, is located precisely in the ease with which he can move between subject and especially tone – shifts that can confuse casual critics. As Reservoir Voices’s ‘Poem’ concludes: ‘Words are wild creatures. Fly them home.’ This excellent introduction should ensure a new generation of readers can do just that.

For Longley and Brown, the sheer volume of Kennelly’s exceptional body of work could also ‘pose a challenge to the bibliographer’. Derek Mahon’s New Collected Poems might prove an equal problem for the textual critic as Mahon replaces the revisions of his earlier 1999 Collected Poems with a second definitive edition. This latest volume, published to celebrate Mahon’s 70th birthday, now covers over fifty years of his poetry from 1968’s Night Crossing to 2010’s radiant An Autumn Wind, alongside a handful of new, uncollected poems. It opens with the youthful angst of ‘Spring in Belfast’, already exhibiting Mahon’s deftness with traditional poetic forms, as well as his trademark displaced or disappointed romanticism as the young man resumes an already ‘old conspiracy with the wet/Stone and the unwieldy images of the squinting heart’. It ends with the discursive ‘Dreams of a Summer Night’ in which the older Mahon listens to a Mozart concerto in Kinsale in mid-June. ‘Can we relax now and get on with life?’ he asks:

Can we turn now to the important things
like visible scents, how even silence sings?
How we grew frolicsome one sunny June
some sixty years ago at Cushendun
in our young lives of clover, clock and cloud…
(‘Dreams of a Summer Night’)

In between, all the early lyrics are here including the much-anthologised and still-compelling ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ from 1975’s The Snow Party and ‘Courtyards in Delft’, the eponymous poem from his 1981 collection, both, like all great poetry, continuing to offer up new secrets on each renewed reading. There are also the more expansive epistles of Mahon’s middle period sojourns in New York and London before the renewed lyricism of his return to Ireland and Kinsale. Throughout, Mahon’s irascibility at the distractions and inanities of the modern world – traffic noise, CNN, celebrity culture or ‘the unreal world of cash and babble/ipod and car alarm’ – is tempered, as ever, by his almost religious devotion to the belief that art in its widest sense is what will see us through, that ‘poetry is the real mirage’. As he claims of Georges Braque’s iconic images:

Blurring the moon, they glide down tracts of time;
abstracted from the facts and lost to sight,
they save for us something of the creative dream.’

Above all Mahon’s poetry is that of allusion – and inclusion – not just through references to his fellow Irish poets such as Desmond O’Grady, Seamus Heaney or Paul Durcan alongside Longley, but also to the wider European canon, from Sappho, Ovid and Heraclitus to Camus, Malcolm Lowry or Montale, as well as the French poets Mahon has translated so successfully such as Gérard de Nerval or Phillipe Jaccottet. But there are also mentions of old black and white films, U2, Guns N’ Roses and a perhaps surprising ‘Ode to Björk’, characterising the Icelandic singer as ‘the dark swan of ice/and secrecy’. In particular Mahon is the supreme poet of ekphrasis, here the skill of reshaping the visual arts in to word, from Uccello’s fifteenth century Gothic ‘The Hunt by Night’ through to the twentieth century abstractions of William Scott’s ‘Shapes and Shadows’ or Howard Hodgkin’s ‘RAIN’. Throughout there is always the hope and humanity that has made him one of the ten most popular poets in Ireland as well as a worthy recipient of the prestigious David Cohen Prize. And so the volume concludes:

I await the daylight we were born to love:
birds at a window, boats on a rising wave,
light dancing on dawn water, the lives we live.
(‘Dreams of a Summer Night’)

As Mahon, Longley and Kennelly all move on into their eighth decades, their poetry – delicate, dissonant or discursive – seems always to move with us, whether for a day or, as has so often been the case, for a lifetime; to have become the lives we all live. ‘There’s no stranger,’ Brendan Kennelly notes in ‘Shaper’ from his 2001 collection Glimpses, ‘like the stranger/shaping the self’.


The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present , edited by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley and Karen van Dyck (Norton)
Ancient Greek Lyrics, Willis Barnstone, (Indiana University Press)
The Times Literary Supplement, 1 October, 2010

For Odysseus Elytis, the task of the Greek poet is to ‘express the things he loves most in words that were once used by Sappho and Pindar’. More than any other European literature, Greek poetry not only walks in the footsteps of its illustrious classical forebears but also speaks with their tongues. Contemporary British poets approaching the Anglo-Saxon of Beowulf or the Middle English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight must first interpret and translate what is essentially a different language, affording them a sense of distance from their source. For their Greek counterparts, whose language, as Elytis suggests, is closer to that of Homeric epic or Aeolic lyric, the burden of their literary past weighs more heavily.

The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present, Norton’s extensive new anthology of Greek verse, proves that such burdens also have their benefits. The volume starts with the Iliad in the eighth century B.C. and ends, 30 centuries later, with Jenny Mastoraki’s retired, reclusive Trojan Horse in the 21st century A.D. ( ‘no, I refuse to see the Press’). In 650 pages in between, its four distinguished editors, renowned for their work in Greek verse scholarship and translation, sweep through ancient lyric, choral ode, Attic tragedy, Old and New Comedy, epigram, idyll, satire, folk song, Christian hymn and sixth-century Byzantine epic. As the poet Robert Hass points out in his short but incisive introduction, one of the volume’s most impressive achievements is to bridge the gap between the end of the Byzantine era and the resurgence of Greek poetry in the early 20th century, filling ‘the silence of those two thousand years between Callimachus and Cavafy’. While Chaucer was writing his comic Canterbury Tales in medieval London, for instance, Stefanos Sachlikis was composing his satirical Strange Tale on Crete, then part of the Venetian Empire, introducing rhyme into modern Greek verse. From here the volumes proceeds to Kaisarios Dapontes’s spirtual hymns, composed on Mount Athos in the 1760s and Dionysios Solomos’s nationalist ‘Hymn to Liberty’ (translated, fittingly, by Rudyard Kipling) and then on to the searing familiarity of C.P. Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos and Elytis himself. It concludes with a plethora of urgent ‘younger’ voices (if none born after 1950 – time here is relative) such as Nasos Vayenas, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke as well as Jenny Mastoraki, all now beginning to appear in English versions (Vayenas will be particularly well-served by a forthcoming edition from Anvil edited by Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou).

Each poet somehow manages to find a way of engaging with the past, recreating it afresh for each new generation; the Renaissance Greek-Italian poet Angelo Poliziano describes the incandescent performance of a young girl playing Sophocles’ Electra, presumably at the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici whose children he tutored. Centuries later, George Seferis deconstructs ‘Euripides the Athenian’, the ‘sour man’ who, in Keeley & Sherarrd’s translation, ‘saw the veins of men/as a net the gods made to catch us in like wild beasts’. Alternatively, many of the contemporary poets articulate the continuing struggle with their long tradition: ‘ I send a postcard to the future,’ explains Lefteris Poulios’s Tiresias in ‘Epilogue’, ‘written in blood with a trembling hand/with this ancient age of ours for postage stamp.’ Nevertheless, one of the pleasures of the volume is to trace the ebb and flow of theme across the ages; Sappho and Ibycus’s incandescent lyric eroticism melts into Rufinus’s scurrilous late classical epigrams and Vitsentzos Kornaros’s Renaissance epic Erotokritos. It comes back full circle to lyric with Cavafy’s ‘Desires’ and Anghelaki-Rooke’s ‘Translating Life’s End into Love’ which imagines the very act of writing, or to be precise, its translation, as an erotic act (itself translated with elegant precision by Karen van Dyke):

Because I cannot touch you
With my tongue
I transliterate my passion

Given the editors’ own prominence in the field, it is hardly surprising to find translation forgerounded throughout the anthology, marking it out from previous volumes such as Constantine A. Trypanis’s 1975 Penguin Book of Greek Verse. As Hass’s introduction notes ‘there is no setting out without the revisioning in the act of translation’. So gone are Trypanis’s Greek texts, with their literal prose translations tucked away in the small print beneath, to be replaced by verse versions from some of the best known practitioners in the field. Homeric translation, for example, is represented by the imposing triumvirate of Robert Fagles, Robert Fitzgerald and Richard Lattimore, if one perhaps misses more radical versionings from Derek Walcott, Christopher Logue or Michael Longley to shake up the mix.

But there are numerous delights to compensate. In a volume packed with eminent poet/translators – Tony Harrrison, Peter Green, Peter Whigham, Fleur Adcock, Seamus Heaney, Ann Carson, Ezra Pound – it is hard to chose highlights but C.K .Williams’s free verse is an inspired partner for Eurpides’s Bacchae while Paul Muldoon’s deft wit and sly half-rhyme chimes perfectly with Aristophanes’s Birds. Editor Edmund Keeley’s collaborations with Philip Sherrard on their now-iconic versions of Cavafy are always welcome but poet James Merrill’s version of ‘On an Italian Shore’ also beguiles. As the sensualist Kimos watches treasures being unloaded in southern Italy from conquering Roman ships – ‘Greek booty. Spoils of Corinth’ in Cavafy’s italic typography – he becomes, through Merrill’s inspired semantics, not the ‘Italiotes’ or ‘Greek-Italian’ of the text but ‘Italicized’, an apt metaphor for the poem’s understated irony. Uncovering a new version which turns the original upside down, changing it for ever, is one of the great pleasures of translation. The Greek Poets provides many such moments.

In his Ancient Greek Lyrics, almost continually in print since 1962 and now available in a fine new edition – its fourth – for Indiana University Press, Willis Barnstone also celebrates the restorative power of translation, an opportunity, as he argues, ‘for languages to interact upon each another, for one tongue to alter and enrich the possibilities of expression in another’. Another alumni of The Greek Poets, Barnstone’s volume covers some of the same ground from the archaic lyric of Archilochus, Semonides and Alcaeus to the late classical epigrams of the Palatine Anthology. As in The Greek Poets, it is good to see lesser known names among the more renowned, especially those of the few extant Greek women poets; Telesilla appears alongside Alcman, Corinna and Praxilla alongside Pindar and Anyte with Callimachus (although, sadly, Erinna and Nossis are missing). Barnstone’s delicate and considered versions of Sappho, in particular, have long been inspirational to all her subsequent translators, underlining how, as Ezra Pound and H.D. first discovered, the ‘very poverty of the lacunae-ridden text contributes a poignancy and quality of modernity which the reconstructed text lacks’. Here they are once again accompanied by Barnstone’s excellent introductory essays, accompanied by ancient and modern testimonials as well as extensive notes.

Barnstone’s strategy of adding poem titles, recontextualising the ancient fragment on the modern page, not only avoids the need for lengthier footnotes, as he explains, but also replicates the effect of their ancient frame – late classical writings that quote single lines or even words of the older text, often with explicatory comments. And so Sappho fragment 24a is transformed into ‘Time of Youth’:

You will
we did these things
in our youth

‘Without love and esteem,’ Barnstone muses, ‘a work drifts away to nowhere’. Thanks to these two admirable and essential volumes, the legacy of Greek verse, ancient and modern, remains firmly anchored.

Josephine Balmer

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