Categories
poetry

Freedom Day

Freedom Day!

Sweat at the club

against all the other

unvaccinated or semi-vaccinated youths,

but don’t go to France

unless you have ten days to spare afterwards,

because the Beta variant

that makes up three percent of cases

will get you

(including those islands

in the middle of the Indian Ocean

that we’d never even heard of

until last week).

Maybe we’d never even heard of them

because they’re not as troubled as Madagascar-

maybe they have roads

but no lemurs to film.

Maybe they’re not as rich as the Seychelles

or the Maldives

the island paradise(s)

oases

full of tiki huts

and smiling locals

grateful for your money

oh, so grateful-

as they pile the debris

of your single-use plastic

water bottles and sun cream

onto an island in the middle of the sea

to burn

out of sight, out of mind.

No, the Beta variant is dangerous,

oh, so dangerous,

we say

with no hint of irony

that we gifted the world Alpha

incubated Delta

then unleashed it on Europe

harbingers of doom

from our rocky little isle.

Maybe nobody looked at those figures-

Reunion Island is an insignificant speck, after all.

A speck that nobody checked.

Are we still supposed to believe

that any one of them knows

or has ever known

what they were doing?

Doesn’t it all feel like politics to you?

Point-scoring like Eurovision,

dick-swinging like Brexit

with a touch of European Championship machismo:

“You’re high-risk”

“You’re higher-risk”

“No, YOU’RE higher risk”

UK-vaccinated passengers avoid quarantine.

Yes, you heard that right, UK-vaccinated

even though it’s the same stuff.

Our airports would be overwhelmed, they say,

we wouldn’t be able to cope

we’re actively working on a solution

but we expect that Brits can

go off to Benidorm and Kos

and cook themselves

a fetching shade of lobster pink

while we turn our nose up at

EU QR codes

and airlines are gasping

absolutely gasping

for footfall.

Categories
poetry

Sticky

Take a step back,

a long, sticky summer on hold,

not much of a summer at all,

like a hot day

when it’s cloudy and 90% humidity

you feel cheated.

It’s the kind of sticky that

clings to your skin after a shower

back to square one

hit the reset button

like waiting for rain on the forecast,

that keeps getting pushed back,

ruining plans

but not clearing the sticky.

Categories
poetry

Editing

Grey skies,

a mist of rain

as I rework my words-

open new tabs

close them again,

like re-rolling biscuit dough

when it splits in the middle.

Categories
poetry

Transit

In transit

Shuddering, shaking

Balancing my laptop on one knee

In transit

at a crossroads

as the summer refuses to warm up

and my words stilt themselves on the screen

What chance do I have?

Half-Romani

no family money

Brexit, COVID

torn from the continent

stuck between two worlds

in this green and pleasant land.

Categories
poetry

Penryn

A brisk breeze lifts the salt from the sea,
And whistles down the narrow, winding streets;
A welcome retreat.

Categories
poetry

Blood Moon Eclipse in the Black Forest

Rising, red and shining

Tree-tops like the teeth of a saw

but dull, not glinting,

matte black against the sky strewn with stars

like the holes in an old blanket

thrown over a lamp.

A rustle,

movement through trees,

the air sharp,

each breath a short stab

that flows in, out.

You lick your lips.

They are cracked and dry

as you sit

perched on your rock

like the songbird that lay crushed in her palm,

waiting.

A blood moon eclipse,

a great, glowing orb in the sky throwing wintry light.

You look at your hands,

bleached pale like the branches of

skeleton trees

in the desert

that perished while waiting for rain

but cannot decay.

A red-orange tinge,

like blood in the bathtub

that curls and then fades

diluting itself

like pain over time.

She approaches,

her gaze not on you

but transfixed by the pool

that reflects all the stars in the sky

then her face.

You clutch your arms to yourself,

suck a breath,

as her feet sink into moss

and then crunch across pebbles

before falling silent,

as they slip softly into the water

and the silty sand,

ankles, then knees, then hips.

A fish darts, surprised,

a small splash sent whispering

and you flinch.

The waterlilies are pushed aside

and snap back

anchored by roots.

She closes her eyes

as the surface closes over her forehead

and her black curls spread

a halo of inky kelp.

Your knees crack as you stand,

clutching the stone with the snake.

Categories
poetry Translations

A Small Nonsense Poem- Ein Kleines Unsinnsgedicht

Composed of the most difficult words to learn in German.

Besteht aus der schwierigsten Wörter, die man lernt, wenn man Deutsch lernt.


Eine höhere,

überraschende,

rücksichtsvolle Maßnahme wird eingeführt,

gegen das Hünehuhn

mit Eichhörnchen in

seinen Streichholzschächtelchen.

A great,

surprising,

considerate measure will be taken,

against the giant chicken

with squirrels in its

little matchboxes.

Categories
Book Reviews poetry

Book Review: John Burnside’s ‘Black Cat Bone’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I didn’t think I liked poetry, but I was wrong.

Black Cat Bone: Amazon.co.uk: Burnside, John: 9780224093859: Books

If you’d have asked me one year ago whether I would like to sit down an read a single poem, let alone an entire poetry collection in one sitting, I would have laughed in your face. I’ve always loved novels, and the odd non-fiction history book, but I’d never read poems. Not for pleasure. Granted, this was under seventy pages so I tackled it in less than an hour, but I’ve gone from actively avoiding poetry to actively reading it and writing my own in the space of eight months. Reading Black Cat Bone proved to myself how far I’ve come, and what I can get from poetry. I always thought that poetry was something people never really read, but too many people wrote themselves, even if they profess to be a literature fan. But I’m already thinking about which collection to buy next.

Burnside’s poems don’t rhyme, and they don’t often follow a particular metre, but they don’t have to. There were a few moments when I felt the rhythm was stilted or too erratic and I would rather he had cut down some lines than leaving me breathless, but I enjoyed every poem all the same. Burnside’s poetry possesses a rare lyricism, smattered with neologisms, which somehow never comes off as too conceited. He certainly isn’t afraid of using odd images, words or collocations. He often draws vocabulary from other languages – Dutch, German, Latin and ones I don’t recognise. As a linguist, this opened up some tantalising possibilities for me.

I love how Burnside documents his sources here. He’s open about the inspiration for his poems, often putting a quote or a bible reference at the top of each. He uses words from the quotes and weaves them into his own writing. He doesn’t pretend to be an ‘original’ author, struck by pure, divine inspiration. No writing is original anyway. We should all be more open about our sources, about where our inspiration comes from. Most of this happens subconsciously, but if we actively think about them, we can draw them out and give other writers the credit they deserve- at the same time as giving our writing a greater depth through acknowledging that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. As Rob Pope once wrote, the view of the artist which has solidified over the last few centuries – one of the single poet slaving away in beautiful or despairing isolation – is completely outdated, and reflects Romantic notions of art rather than the actual process of making it.

Making art is never truly an original process. No poem, painting or prose is created in a vacuum. A highly intelligent person kept in isolation from childhood would never write a poem any kind of form we recognise, nor any prose either. Why do we persist in the belief that the ‘best’ art is original? A case in point: in a recent historical fiction workshop I was in, where it was my turn for my prose to be critiqued, I was warned several times about basing my fiction on a Suffragette’s autobiography. Apparently, I risked ‘plagiarism’, it would make my writing too ‘derivative’. Nobody asked me how I’d used it, that sometimes I blew up a single sentence into an entire chapter. And why should I refrain from using snippets of their language, of working in unusual words which Kitty herself wrote down almost a hundred years ago? Why shouldn’t I breathe life back into her story? But this time, in close third, with description, action and pace?

I wondered what their sources were. I wondered what made their writing less ‘derivative’ than mine. As Rosemarie Waldrop wrote: “The blank page is never blank. No text has one single author.”

There was a cognitive dissonance between their critique of my work as ‘derivative’ and a lack of recognition of their own sources, despite being historical fiction writers (with arguably the heaviest weight of research of any creative writer). Writing is determined by constraints at every turn. We write in pre-determined forms: journalistic, free verse, sonnet, haiku, historical fiction, thriller, close-third, prose poem etc. etc.

As long as we acknowledge our sources, no source should be off-limits to the writer. Nobody owns words. I appreciate Burnside for acknowledging his own sources. As a high-profile poet, he has a platform.

Categories
poetry Translations

Finding Voice: Eimear MacBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

Another writing exercise to do with finding the voice in a text (and making it our own) came in two stages. The first was to copy out a section of the page with no punctuation at all. Then, we had to take ourselves away from the original text completely and read it to ourselves, looking for the natural breaks and patterns our mind would reorganise the text into. Then, we rewrote the text in free verse with our own punctuation and line breaks. I’ve added or taken away a few words and phrases in the process to streamline my poem.

The original, taken from the first page of MacBride’s highly experimental novel:

I wrote out the first two paragraphs completely without punctuation:

For you you’ll soon you’ll give her name in the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say mammy me yes you bounce the bed I’d say I’d say that’s what you did then lay you down they cut you round wait hour and day walking up corridors and stairs are you alright will you sit he says no I want she says I want to see my son smell from Dettol through her skin mops diamond floor tiles all as strong all the burn your eyes out if you had some her heart going pat going dum dum dum don’t mind me she’s going to your room see the Jesus what have they done Jesus bile for tidals burn shhhh all over mother she cries oh no oh no no no

And turned it into a free verse poem:

For you,

you’ll soon,

soon give her name in the stitches

and folds of her skin.

She’ll wear them,

and you’ll say:

“Mammy, me?”

and I’ll say:

“Yes, you.”

“Bounce the bed,” I’d say.

I’d say that’s what you did

when you laid down

and they cut you round.

I waited hour and day,

walking up corridors and stairs.

“Are you alright? Will you sit?,” he says.

“No, I want,” she says,

“I want to see my son.”

The smell from the Dettol leaking through her skin

mops diamond floor tiles,

as strong as the burning in your eyes.

If you had some-

her heart going

pat

going

dum dum dum.

“Don’t mind me.”

She’s going into your room

she sees the Jesus.

“What have they done?”

Jesus, bile

for the tidal’s burn

which creeps softly

like Dettol down the throat-

shhhhh.

“It’s all over, Mother,” she cries,

“Oh, no. Oh no no no…”

Categories
Translations

Translating from the Visual

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference, or lack of difference, between the visual and the written arts. Lessing theorizes that poetry or prose exists in time, and the visual arts in space: e.g that you can only experience a poem or piece of prose in one direction- linearly through time, usually from start to finish, but in a painting, the whole and parts coexist simultaneously rather than consecutively. You may ‘read’ a painting, but you still experience it as a whole. People often forget to experience poetry or prose as a ‘whole’, as the whole can only be reflected on afterwards the reader has read the final page. However, although the mediums are so different, the viewer and reader responses to visual and textual art can be the same.

Borges has questioned whether we experience reality successively or simultaneously in his short story ‘the Aleph’, whereas Joyce attempted to convey everything in language in his Ulysses. Borges believed it was only possible to capture the temporality of experience- and therefore any attempt to convey the totality of human experience in language would fail.

We experience paintings spatially. The paint, the brushstrokes, the canvas literally take up space and exist for the viewer as a whole composed of complementary parts. Although we usually experience text temporally rather than spatially, there are ways of creating a spatial experience of a text. Imagine, as an author, visually plotting out character arcs and events in a novel using Post-it notes and string, like detectives in a movie. And what is a graphic novel if not simultaneously spatial and temporal? they exist as both art objects and literature. There are also incredibly visual poems, where the shape reminds the reader of the imagery contained in their words. Some novels are also arranged visually in this way. And while the process of reading may be temporal, the evaluation of said reading is often spatial. Our experience of a work builds up an image in our minds. Zooming out of a book after having read it- making connections, seeing patterns, getting an overview of the totality of the work: these are all spatial experiences of a book or poem. As a translation theorist, Berman places emphasis on the whole, deploring translators who get too caught up in the minute linguistic details of a text.

An interesting example of a spatially-organised text would be Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In a letter to a friend, she drew a diagram of the plot for her text which looks like the capital letter H. There was a part one and a part two, joined by a narrow bridge in between. The bridge is where a time period of 10 years is skipped over in a single page. Woolf didn’t want to explore death as a process, she wanted to explore death as a state of not being, of the effect that death has on those you leave behind. The poet Pizarnik used to draw a picture to capture her mood and feelings before she wrote the poem. The visual and textural are irrevocably linked. Art, whether visual or written, is a way of conceptualizing and expressing the gaps which open between the perceptions and emotions.

The way that literary theory and literary history organises itself is also responsible for our linear understandings of text. Why do we put text in a chronological order, why do we separate them into different eras and epochs? Borges claims that every writer creates his own precursors. We are obsessed with uncovering the influences on individual writers from what came before. Literary theorists are interested in the connections between the ideas of Borges and Benjamin, but there’s no evidence that Borges ever even read Benjamin.

So how does photography fit in with these definitions ? Should we treat photographs in the

same way as we treat paintings? I don’t think so. It’s possible to put things in a painting which do not coexist with each other: think of surrealism. However, it’s much more difficult to fit disparate elements into a photograph. Photographs can be taken in an instant and tend to portray things which are closer to reality. Because photographs can be so quickly and readily taken, yet it takes up to two years to complete a painting, I believe that photographs, or series of photographs, can more easily tell a story. There’s also the issue of space with a single painting compared with a series of photographs or a novel. The amount of scenes in photographs or novels are almost endless, yet it would be difficult to tell a story in as much depth with a single painting.

There’s an interesting parallel here between photographs and translations. Photography captures an exact moment which will never repeat itself, whereas literature is immortal and unreal: it always portrays a fantasy world which never really existed. With photography, there’s the idea of inevitable loss, just like with translation. The moment that a photograph captures is already lost by the time it has been captured. In the same vein, translation documents a text, but many say that something is always lost in the process, that the original can never truly be captured in the words of a new language. 

Ekphrasis is the process of translating an object or a visual piece of art into literature. Ideas about ekphrasis are similar to Roman Jakobson’s ideas on translation: he separated translation into three distinct forms-  interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic. According to Jakobson, intersemiotic translation involves the changing of form- for example, from text to picture, or from poetry to play. But for Jakobson, ekphrasis did not count as intersemiotic translation because, for him, intersemiotic translation had to start with a text. Ekphrasis starts with a work of art and ends with the text. An everyday example of this would be audio description for the visually impaired on the television. 

I have been using the idea of ekphrasis this week to create poetry and prose inspired by three paintings of my choice. I have chosen ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ by Van Gogh, ‘The Sick Child’    by Edvard Munch,  and ‘A View on the River Stour Near Dedham’ by John Constable. I remember writing an assignment on Van Gogh for art at A-Level, and although he has become one of the best known painters in the world since his death, his works still speak to me on an extremely personal level. In some ways he was the archetypal tortured artist, and in other ways he was so much more than that. His free, expressionist style is similar to the style in which I also paint landscapes, no doubt both consciously and unconsciously due to his influence. I have chosen to work from one of his later paintings, one I have copied before,  and one which speaks to his worsening mental state in the same year ear as his suicide. The painting, a landscape, is simple enough, yet laden with emotion and the creeping sense of foreboding. 

I also chose to work from a painting by Edvard Munch because I regret that his talent has been reduced to a single painting since his death: The Scream. Munch’s works go far beyond that. I wanted to include at least one portrait in my trio of chosen paintings, and this scene is laden with such tender emotion that I could immediately visualise it. And finally, I chose a work from John Constable. I wanted to work from one of his sketches rather than one of his finished paintings because I find his sketches so much more lively and vibrant- his finished paintings often look flat and overworked to me. This became my most personal poem. To me, constable is inextricably linked with my childhood experience growing up in Suffolk. Nobody from Suffolk with an interest in art is unaware of Constable’s great legacy, and my grandfather was no exception. My grandfather is a wildlife artist with a deep appreciation for Constable and Gainsborough. This painting reminded me both of going to view these landscapes at galleries and of experiencing these landscapes first-hand on enforced family day trips out in the countryside, which I only became grateful for much later in life.