Tag Archives: Poetry Wales

Facts about Things

18 Feb

 

omnesia-remixOmnesia, W.N. Herbert’s new collection of poetry, comes in two volumes, subversively titled Alternative Text and Remix, so as to disabuse the reader of any notion of an ‘original’. The word ‘omnesia’ is a conflation of omniscience and amnesia, the latter quality bringing into question the actuality of everything we know – especially, perhaps, our omniscience.

Herbert’s oeuvre is already varied and profuse, and this new collection is expansive in every way. The two volumes mirror and reflect upon each other, so that the airborne squid on the cover of ‘Alternative Text’ is flying towards the reader while the one on ‘Remix’ travels laterally – just as the author in the photo gazes amusedly to the right on the one book, and bemusedly to the left on the other. As an epigraph from Juan Calzadilla, tells us: ‘I have transformed myself into another / and the role is going well for me’. The concept of non-identical twin texts embodies, as the poet reminds us in his Preface, a rejection of ‘or’ in favour of ‘and’. A core of poems appears in both volumes, and the title poem opens ‘Alternative Text’ and closes ‘Remix’. But this sequencing does not signify a preferred reading order. Instead, we are warned off any kind of systemic coherence in the poem’s opening lines: ‘I left my bunnet on a train / Glenmorangie upon the plane, / I dropped my notebook down a drain; /I failed to try or to explain, / I lost my gang but kept your chain – / say, shall these summers come again, / Omnesia?’

Almost anything is a cue to Herbert, setting him off on one of his preferred riffs, especially our inescapable doubleness, exemplified by the two books – themselves containing other books which scurry off at tangents – and the frequent collusion of the narrative ‘I’ with other selves. In ‘Paskha’, the narrator sees a dead scorpion ‘in silhouetted crux’ and is ‘troubled by the brain’s chimeric quoins / its both-at-onceness, how the memory’s / assembled with our present self for parts . . .’ And it is this very both-at-onceness that has me riffling through the pages of ‘Alternative Text’ while reading ‘Remix’, following the demands of a connectivity which the poet’s Preface planted at the outset.

The poems take place in and meditate upon the poet’s journeys from Crete to the north of Britain, from Mongolia to Albania, from Finland to Israel, from Venezuela to Siberia, and among the poet’s several antecedents I was pleased to meet the shadow of Byron, especially in the ‘Pilgrim’ sequence. There is also a fine selection of poems in Scots.omnesia-alt-text

The choice of epigraph usually serves as a pointer towards the poet’s intended direction. We are warned, in a quotation from Patricia Storace, that ‘In Greece, when you hear a story, you must expect to hear its shadow, the simultaneous counterstory.’ And not just in Greece. In ‘News from Hargeisa’, for instance, the counterstory of Somalia’s troubled history lies beneath every line, evoking local parable in the story of a lion, a hyena and a fox (animal imagery predominates in many of Herbert’s poems), as well as in the poet’s mourning of his friend Maxamed Xaasi Dhamac, known as ‘Gaarriye’, the late great Somali poet to whom both volumes are dedicated.

I am sure I missed subtle allusions and even whole thematic directions, and yet still enjoyed the poems I didn’t get. I did wonder how many people – outside of those who have lived on Crete – would ‘get’ ‘The Palikari Scale of Cretan Driving Scales’, a poem in which the driver’s recklessness is measured in direct relation to the magnificence of his moustache.

One might complain that there is simply too much in these books: not in the sense that they are lacking in editorial discretion, but that they demand a readerly imagination as febrile as Herbert’s in order to keep up. Is W.N. Herbert one person? I suspect not: and in any case he seems quite comfortable swapping costumes with his multiple others. I suspect also that Omnesia is a work one needs to live with for a while before appreciating all the shifts and mirrorings, puns and doublings, but even on a first acquaintance it offers richly rewarding reading.

Review published in Poetry Wales, Summer 2013 49 vol 1.

And nearly a year having passed since writing the above review, I can assure you that Omnesia repays revisiting. In so many ways.

 

Facts about Things

Things are tired.

Things like to lie down.

Things are happiest when,

for no reason, they collapse.

 

That French plastic bottle, still half-full,

that soft-back book, just leaning on

another book, drowsily:

soon they will want to go outside,

 

soon you will find them in the grass

with the empty bleaching cans and that part

of an estate agent’s sign

that’s covered in a fine grime like mascara.

 

That plastic bag you’ve folded up

feels constrained by you and wants

to hang from bushes, looking like a spirit,

sprawled and thumbing a lift.

 

Things are bums, tramps, transitories:

they prefer it when it’s raining.

Lightbulbs like to lie in that same

long, uncut, casual grass

 

and watch the funnel effect: the way

on looking up the rain all seems

to bend towards you,

the way the rain seems to like you.

 

Things which do not decay

like it best in shrubbery, they like

to be partly buried.

They like the coolness of the grass.

 

Most of all, they like it

when it rains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ernesto Cardenal’s Prayer for Marilyn Monroe

16 Feb

 

Yesterday I was introduced to one of the great poets of the 20th century, Ernesto Cardenal, on the fragile grounds that I have translated some of his poems, two of which appeared in Poetry Wales last year. There follows a translation of one of his most well-known poems, along with the original Spanish.

 

 

Prayer for Marilyn Monroe

Lord
receive this young woman known around the world as Marilyn Monroe
although that wasn’t her real name
(but You know her real name, the name of the orphan raped at the age of 6
and the shopgirl who at 16 had tried to kill herself)
who now comes before You without any makeup
without her Press Agent
without photographers and without autograph hounds,
alone like an astronaut facing night in space.

She dreamed when she was little that she was naked in a church
(according to the Time account)
before a prostrated crowd of people, their heads on the floor
and she had to walk on tiptoe so as not to step on their heads.
You know our dreams better than the psychiatrists.
Church, home, cave, all represent the security of the womb
but something else too …
The heads are her fans, that’s clear
(the mass of heads in the dark under the beam of light).
But the temple isn’t the studios of 20th Century-Fox.
The temple—of marble and gold—is the temple of her body
in which the Son of Man stands whip in hand
driving out the studio bosses of 20th Century-Fox
who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.

Lord
in this world polluted with sin and radioactivity
You won’t blame it all on a shopgirl
who, like any other shopgirl, dreamed of being a star.
Her dream just became a reality (but like Technicolor’s reality).
She only acted according to the script we gave her
—the story of our own lives. And it was an absurd script.
Forgive her, Lord, and forgive us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production on which we all have worked.
She hungered for love and we offered her tranquilizers.
For her despair, because we’re not saints
psychoanalysis was recommended to her.
Remember, Lord, her growing fear of the camera
and her hatred of makeup—insisting on fresh makeup for each scene—
and how the terror kept building up in her
and making her late to the studios.

Like any other shopgirl
she dreamed of being a star.
And her life was unreal like a dream that a psychiatrist interprets and files.

Her romances were a kiss with closed eyes
and when she opened them
she realized she had been under floodlights
as they killed the floodlights!
and they took down the two walls of the room (it was a movie set)
while the Director left with his scriptbook
because the scene had been shot.
Or like a cruise on a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception at the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
all viewed in a poor apartment’s tiny living room.

The film ended without the final kiss.
She was found dead in her bed with her hand on the phone.
And the detectives never learned who she was going to call.
She was
like someone who had dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and only heard the voice of a recording that says: WRONG NUMBER.
Or like someone who had been wounded by gangsters
reaching for a disconnected phone.

Lord
whoever it might have been that she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one
or Someone whose number isn’t in the Los Angeles phonebook)
You answer that telephone!

(Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Cohen)

 

 

ORACIÓN POR MARILYN MONROE

Señor
recibe a esta muchacha conocida en toda la Tierra con el nombre de Marilyn Monroe,
aunque ése no era su verdadero nombre
(pero Tú conoces su verdadero nombre, el de la huerfanita violada a los 9 años
y la empleadita de tienda que a los 16 se había querido matar)
y que ahora se presenta ante Ti sin ningún maquillaje
sin su Agente de Prensa
sin fotógrafos y sin firmar autógrafos
sola como un astronauta frente a la noche espacial.
Ella soñó cuando niña que estaba desnuda en una iglesia (según cuenta el Times)
ante una multitud postrada, con las cabezas en el suelo
y tenía que caminar en puntillas para no pisar las cabezas.
Tú conoces nuestros sueños mejor que los psiquiatras.
Iglesia, casa, cueva, son la seguridad del seno materno
pero también algo más que eso…

Las cabezas son los admiradores, es claro
(la masa de cabezas en la oscuridad bajo el chorro de luz).
Pero el templo no son los estudios de la 20th Century-Fox.
El templo —de mármol y oro— es el templo de su cuerpo
en el que está el hijo de Hombre con un látigo en la mano
expulsando a los mercaderes de la 20th Century-Fox
que hicieron de Tu casa de oración una cueva de ladrones.
Señor
en este mundo contaminado de pecados y de radiactividad,
Tú no culparás tan sólo a una empleadita de tienda
que como toda empleadita de tienda soñó con ser estrella de cine.
Y su sueño fue realidad (pero como la realidad del tecnicolor).
Ella no hizo sino actuar según el script que le dimos,
el de nuestras propias vidas, y era un script absurdo.
Perdónala, Señor, y perdónanos a nosotros
por nuestra 20th Century
por esa Colosal Super-Producción en la que todos hemos trabajado.
Ella tenía hambre de amor y le ofrecimos tranquilizantes.
Para la tristeza de no ser santos
se le recomendó el Psicoanálisis.
Recuerda Señor su creciente pavor a la cámara
y el odio al maquillaje insistiendo en maquillarse en cada escena
y cómo se fue haciendo mayor el horror
y mayor la impuntualidad a los estudios.

Como toda empleadita de tienda
soñó ser estrella de cine.
Y su vida fue irreal como un sueño que un psiquiatra interpreta y archiva.

Sus romances fueron un beso con los ojos cerrados
que cuando se abren los ojos
se descubre que fue bajo reflectores
¡y se apagan los reflectores!
Y desmontan las dos paredes del aposento (era un set cinematográfico)
mientras el Director se aleja con su libreta
porque la escena ya fue tomada.
O como un viaje en yate, un beso en Singapur, un baile en Río
la recepción en la mansión del Duque y la Duquesa de Windsor
vistos en la salita del apartamento miserable.
La película terminó sin el beso final.
La hallaron muerta en su cama con la mano en el teléfono.
Y los detectives no supieron a quién iba a llamar.
Fue
como alguien que ha marcado el número de la única voz amiga
y oye tan solo la voz de un disco que le dice: WRONG NUMBER
O como alguien que herido por los gangsters
alarga la mano a un teléfono desconectado.

Señor:
quienquiera que haya sido el que ella iba a llamar
y no llamó (y tal vez no era nadie
o era Alguien cuyo número no está en el Directorio de los Ángeles)
¡contesta Tú al teléfono!

 

 

 

 

Cretins

25 Oct

I am listening to a Chopin nocturne here in my attic, as the rain falls on the city. It is evening and it is autumn. Tomorrow I am going into hospital where someone will poke around in my liver with a sharp instrument. This combination of factors could make for quite a melancholy mood, but instead I am reasonably jolly because I have just confirmed a longstanding suspicion: according to my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the word ‘cretin’ is derived from the French Alpine dialect crétin meaning a ‘kind of dwarfed and deformed idiot  . . . from Latin christianus CHRISTIAN.’ It goes on to inform me that ‘In many Romance languages the equivalents of Christian have the general meaning of human being, but as a euphemism carry the sense of poor fellow. A parallel sense of development is found in French benêt simpleton, from Old French benoit blessed . . .’

Well, well.

I was also interested to discover there is a French video game called Les Lapins Crétins (the cretinous rabbits), surely one of the more outstanding Gallic contributions to world culture.

The Argentinian poet Jorge Fondebrider, playing with the familiar writerly notion that worldly success is almost entirely a matter of luck, has a poem on the subject, which I reproduce below, as a spin-off from my reflections on cretinism, followed by another of Jorge’s pensées on literary matters.

 


Outburst

 

While translating a biography of Gershwin

and reading again of his successes,

the many testimonies of his contemporaries,

I realise that I too know illustrious people

and a few who are genuinely talented,

who bear the load of the world’s debts and bitterness.

But later I go back to work.

What I really want to say is that talent is not enough,

is never sufficient

that you have to be born in the right place, at the right time,

you have to be lucky and be noticed.

And whoever claims otherwise is a cretin.

 

 

Poets

 

Like Plato, chuck them out,

send them packing with a kick in the arse.

Worse still are novelists who don’t read poetry.

Illiterates.

 

 

Translations from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol 47 No 1, Summer 2011.

 

 

 

Two poems by Wendy Guerra

12 Oct

David Hockney, Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool, 1964

Wendy Guerra (b. 1970, Cienfuegos, Cuba) is part of a younger generation of Cuban writers and artists who express themselves in a mix of genres and across media. She came to fame with the publication of a non-fiction novel based on her diaries, Todo se van (Everyone’s leaving) in 2006. The poems below are both from her poetry collection Ropa Interior (2008), many of them centring on what she describes as the ‘circular coherence’ of life in contemporary Cuba, and reflecting the influence on her writing of the visual arts. In this highly entertaining video, she explains a little about her work and ideas.

 

REVERSE JOURNEY

 

I pack and unpack my bag

I pack and unpack everything with the intention of leaving

I call my friends     tell them I’m escaping

and later descend surreptitiously to the pool

to absorb the sorcery of the sun in peace

A wedding ring lost in the stomach of a fish

And again the luggage for my long overdue journey

I keep seeing that unmoving piece of marble

that are the boots of my personal memorial

Look how my tears course down the suitcase

you track them with your index finger

and you will arrive at the centre of my doubts

I fish in the same sea into which flows the water from my eyes

I see how my half-packed suitcase reveals

my tormented compass

and the child’s drawing of a map of Cuba

I trace the thousand forms of an exploratory circumnavigation

Dip a foot in     to test the exact temperature of the waters

withdraw a little    and then leave

for the interminable and conclusive regatta

Someone pushes me for a laugh and I almost fall and drown

but I sustain an amazing state of equilibrium

make the journey to the interior

realizing that what I announce

illuminates the borderline of my ideas

 

 

A FACE IN THE CROWD  (GRAFFITI)

 

My parents got it right one time

They met in a packed square singing in a choir

They loved each other in a sea of ten bunks silenced by

the command to “be silent”

They brought me into the world in a room of beds tidied

into shared emotions

We swam at beaches packed with bathers confused

by their identical swimsuits and communal trucks

Saturday nights we watched the same films

crying in the same way as a subtitled country cries

in black and white

Sundays we said our goodbyes

hazy in the uniform     blue that separated us

My parents   when at last they were left alone

Lost their minds.

 

 

Translations by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales Vol 47, No 1, Summer 2011

 

 

 

 

The Empty House

11 Oct

 

 

 

The Empty House

 

Invite no one

into our house,

for they will repair

the doors, windows, staircase

and windows,

they will see the moths

in the corners,

the rusty locks,

the blind, ruined lamps.

 

Don’t bring anyone to our house

for they would only anguish

on account of your table,

your bed, the tablecloth,

the furniture, laugh pitifully

at the cups, pretend to

endure nostalgia for my name,

make fun, what is more, of our hammock.

 

Don’t bring people to our house any more

for they would write you songs,

enervate your soul,

whisper mischievously,

plant a flower at your window.

 

That’s why – I beg you – you must

not bring people to our house,

for they would turn pink,

greenish, reddish, blueish,

on discovering broken walls

and withered plants.

 

They would want to sweep out the corners

open our blinds,

and find, tucked away among my books

the perverse excuses they are searching for.

 

Don’t bring anyone to our house any more,

for they would discover our ridiculous things

carry you off to faraway beaches

tell you tales of shipwrecks

drag you from our house.

 

 

Siomara España (b. 1976 Guayaquil, Ecuador)

 

English translation by Richard Gwyn, of ‘La casa vacia’, first published in Poetry Wales Vol 47 No 1, Summer 2011.

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,662 other followers