Monday, 7 August 2017

‘Dark flies at our back’: the unsettling language in Pippa Little’s Twist (Arc Publications, 2017)

Jennifer Wong reviews a new book by Pippa Little.

Through her nuanced, free-spirited and metaphorical language, Pippa Little’s latest collection, Twist, conveys the intricate interplay between knowledge and imagination, and meditations on the intimacy and bond of sisterhood. Born in Tanzania, raised in Scotland and who now living in Northumberland, Little’s poetry captures glimpses of the human imagination and one’s hidden knowledge about life.

From history, ancient myths, wildlife, to vexed relationships, Little’s poetry is marked by her perceptiveness and unsettling language. In ‘I Think of You When I Think of Skin’, she unravels the impenetrability of human thoughts deftly between contemplation on the ‘late summer of my life’ and her forbidden thoughts being the ‘flawed, outlawed script’ of a lover. In ‘Flower of Maryam’, a poem named after a desert flower used during childbirth, the poet confesses:

It’s hard for an old woman to
keep herself alive: some days are
so twisted-small and brittle. Yet
even with the dying, something

greens in me, delicately strong,
ephemerals in a desert.

By offering the reader two contrasting mythical visions of life—a fertile body in childbirth labour and a dying body waiting for closure—she suggests the many twists and complexities of human experiences. Moreover, in many of her poems, the poet complicates the poetic text with unsettling language and the surreal. For example, in ‘Night Drive’, a very beautiful poem named after Seamus Heaney’s poem with the same title, Little interweaves the real with the surreal, showing us the ordinariness of a night drive punctuated by strange thoughts on the glittering stares of cattle (‘The eyes of cattle, starting open at the night, glitter and flare’) and the ‘momentary leap of the heart’ in dodging a badger that slips under the ditch.

Little’s poems are powerful in questioning the unnameable. In ‘Sister’, she portrays her endearing and at the same time almost stifling closeness with her sister, hinting at the unspoken secrets and anxieties that underlie their relationship (‘Years you talked for me, /coping, coping. //I am sorry for all of it.’). The poet imagines the sister as her other self ‘who I could never be’, filled with other imperfections and new possibilities. ‘Suitcase Baby’ is a dark, powerful poem in which the poet traces her earliest memories and articulates the sense of muted pain when imagining the nameless mother who leaves her baby behind (‘I was born on a black-hearted day / by a railway line and a silver lava road.’)

Altogether, this is a sophisticated and adventurous collection from an assured poet, one that questions one’s everyday beliefs and ways of seeing, while pushing the boundaries of poetic voice, syntax and form.

Born and raised in Hong Kong and currently in the UK, Jennifer Wong is a writer, researcher, and translator. She is soon to complete her critical/creative PhD at Oxford Brookes.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

‘botching the punch line’: Michael Augustin’s A Certain Koslowski: The Director's Cut (Arc Publications, 2016)

Alex Wortley reviews a new edition of Michael Augustin's book, twenty-four years after the original was published.

Michael Augustin’s A Certain Koslowski: The Director's Cut is translated by his wife, Sujata Bhatt, and Margitt Lehbert, a Swiss-German who has translated the likes of Paul Muldoon and Carol Ann Duffy into German. Here they translate from German into English. The most obvious adaptation the duo make is to the collection’s title: they prefix the original with the English-sounding formation ‘a certain’. This signals a poetic picaresque mode, where we are invited to follow the eponymous hero through life. Augustin chooses prose-poetry for each humorous episode filled with incidence, surrealism, and strangeness. Laugh-out-loud stuff, one would think.

And it is, largely, if you’re a fan of glib episodic flights into the realm of the absurd with no discernible purpose. The bizarre opening poem ‘Immaculatus’ is fantastically blasphemous, detailing how the immaculately conceived (meaning virgin-born?) Kowlowski ‘slept with his natural mother’ and found her to be, ‘without a doubt, still a virgin’. Augustin then lewdly concludes how ‘afterwards, something like that is pretty hard to prove’. A slightly off-colour opening, perhaps, but this is tempered by the second poem, ‘Birth Pains’. Here Augustin indulges in the surreal, purposely contradicting the biographical details revealed in the previous poem. After his being born, ‘two of [Koslowski’s] fathers reportedly staged a bitter shootout’. The surviving father of the virgin-born Koslowski is then impelled to drunkenness. It’s hard to see what the intended effect of all this is, and perhaps that’s the point, to baffle and amuse the reader.

The word-play in this collection has just such an effect. ‘A Misunderstanding’ riffs on the definition of ‘beheading’, and ‘An Experiment on Himself’ describes how the adolescent Koslowski discovers the inebriating effects of alcohol. Wanting ‘to make public his discovery’, he finds that everyone he encounters is already thoroughly au fait with drink. Learning this, and ‘sobered forever’, Koslowski gets drunk ‘a second time’. Not quite laugh-out-loud, but slightly humorous. Likewise, the poem ‘Question and Answer’ is quoted on the blurb of the collection, so it must be a highlight, and in a way it is. Koslowski’s interlocutor asks: ‘Regardless of what one asks you, one always receives a wrong answer?’. Koslowski replies, ‘That’s right!’ Quite funny, but it all seems a bit sub-Flann O’Brien.

Weak humour, with the occasional interruption, is often met with bad taste. After the off-colour opening poem, we have, about mid-way through the collection, two poems about suicide. The first, ‘A Suicide Attempt’, details how Koslowski is prevented from killing himself on the Paris underground by another man who jumps in front of his intended train before him. Koslowski slopes off ‘red faced and deeply insulted’. So, are we to infer from this that people who attempt suicide are attention-seekers? In the following poem, ‘Another Suicide Attempt’, Koslowski halts before the act on hearing news of a neighbour who, ‘during a suicide attempt’, had a serious accident and ‘died as a result’. I simply don’t see how this is funny, or in any way illuminating. I’m sure the subject can be tackled sympathetically, and in an amusing or satirical way, but Augustin utterly fails to do so here.

There is a revealing line in the aptly-titled ‘Jokes’ which reads: ‘Koslowski is blessed with the singular talent of botching the punch line of virtually every joke he tells’. Maybe this is Augustin slyly disclosing his strategy in this collection: to be purposefully unfunny. ‘Jokes’ concludes how Koslowski, on ‘faithfully botch[ing]’ the punchline of his jokes, provokes uncontrollable mirth among his friends (as ‘the whole room rocks with laughter’). Perhaps this was Augustin’s desired effect, but, for me at least, this collection largely succeeded in producing the inverse reaction.

The Bright Rose: Early German Verse, 800-1280, edited and translated by Philip Wilson (Arc Publications, 2015)

Inigo Purcell reviews translations of some of the earliest known German poetry.



Philip Wilson accomplishes two things in The Bright Rose, the first of which is translating early and middle High German verse in a way which both reads as fresh and hews close to the original texts: Arc’s parallel texts here give a clear idea of the sound patterns within the original text, and in some cases vocabulary, which Wilson has rendered as close as possible to the original. As Early and Middle High German is quite a niche field (and, Wilson notes, very few Early High German texts survive), managing to convey to the general reader how this translation captures the original text is an impressive feat.

The second accomplishment is choosing a selection texts which establish the character of German verse in the 480-year period in which he is working; a blurb makes clear that Wilson is interested in conveying how ‘human nature may not have changed as much as the German language has’, and he succeeds in this. He does this via a selection of texts which offer snapshots of different styles: a fragment of the earliest surviving Old High German poem, the Hildesbrandlied, in which a father and son face each other on the battlefield, initially unaware of the other’s identity; a set of charming invocations against threats such as bees, imps, and your horses getting ill; and when he reaches the middle High German period, a series of love lyrics on the returning theme of lover’s being parted by the dawn.

Perhaps one of the most resonant of these is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem in which the watchman who has smuggled in the male lover arrives to warn the pair that dawn is approaching, and he should leave. As in the Hildesbrandlied, the story is incomplete, but whereas in the earlier poem it is a fragment in von Eschenbach’s poem it speaks to the developing narrative sophistication of medieval German verse. The previous poems have made clear how ‘lovers being parted by the dawn’ is a narrative trope within the verse of the period, so the reader can see how Eschenbach is playing with this form.

The final poem Wilson choses to include also plays with this form: Steinmar’s ‘Love outside the court’ also features some lovers parted by the dawn, but unlike the ladies and knights in the earlier poems, they are a servant and a maid in a cowshed.

All in all, Wilson manages to create both an impressive translation, and, through his careful curation of the verse he has chosen to translate, illuminate the reader about an area of poetry they have probably not encountered before, and leave them curious as to what else exists in early German poetry.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

‘The Edge of Empire’: Michelle Cahill’s The Herring Lass (Arc Publications, 2016)

Alex Wortley reviews Michelle Cahill's new book, The Herring Lass.

Michelle Cahill’s latest collection is a wide-ranging volume that moves through history, time, and geographical space: her poems roam from present day Afghanistan to Fourteenth-century England. Along her journey, Cahill ventriloquises man, woman, and beast alike, from the title poem’s working-class ‘herring lass’ to a woman housekeeper, to a stranded polar bear. What unites the diversity of voices in Cahill’s poems is a shared sense of isolation. These figures are often marginal, and through them Cahill examines the experiences of colonialism for the colonised people.

Many of the poems display a lyrically muscular style, and Cahill’s tone, cold but not callous, seems be born of the trauma, isolation, and loss that she describes. Her best poems contain rich allusion and description which belie a simmering emotional intensity. The collection’s initial poem ‘The Herring Lass’ serves as an introduction to Cahill’s poetic mode. The poem allegorises colonial displacement and exile. The herring lass ‘tramps from port to port’. The subject is feminised as the position of women is analogous with the position of colonised people: she is similarly subjugated and marginalised within society. Her life is hard, and while ‘the day unfinishing’, she stands in the ‘dark, guttering cold’, the men around her ‘have all prospered’. She is marginal among men, those blacksmiths and fishermen who ‘bustle in the courtyard […] no word exchanged’. She is seemingly chained to the unchanging cycle, as the herring ships ‘drift with shoals of migrant herring’, but we see a glimpse of potential violent resistance when ‘[h]er knife flashes’ as she works.

Cahill assumes the voices of animals, such as a polar bear in ‘Bear’ or a hunted seal in ‘Day of a Seal, 1820’. In ‘Twofold Bay, 1930’, Cahill describes the hunt of a whale in visceral detail, stressing the human violence. A ‘stalked’ calf is harpooned and the speaker ‘feel[s] his gums sting’. Whale hunting finally becomes an allegory for imperialist expansion: ‘I see his country, fin keel and genitalia, the sharks / descend’. This is the same technique signalled by ‘The Herring Lass’, the act of allegorising colonialism through the lives of outsiders or animals in distress.

Cahill herself is Kenyan-born, ethnically Goan-Anglo-Indian, and lives in Australia. Her poems here seem to reflect her rich cultural background. ‘Harbour’ and ‘The Edge of Empire’ delve more into the complexities of identity of colonised peoples. From the fishing town of ‘Harbour’, with its ‘curved gables’, the speaker dredges up a ‘drowned’ colonial memory of ‘Zambia’s swamps’. The traveller retrieves the expunged subaltern history. Similarly, ‘The Edge of Empire’ speaks for anticolonial resistance to divisive imperial endeavour, a process that is both linguistic and geographical. The Roman desire to demarcate and map the Orkney Islands is likened to the Stalinist division of Berlin (and Germany as a whole) and the Zionist apartheid in Israel. This is a familiar process of divide and conquer, then, but it fails: ‘there was no caesura, no straight lines / at the edge of Empire’. Cahill’s ‘caesura’ puns on the name of Rome’s primary expansionist ruler, Caesar, and alludes to the ‘straight lines’ of Roman roads. Cartography and standardisation are colonial tools for exerting authority over colonial subjects, as is language: Cahill’s ‘caesura’ – a way of signalling a strong pause in a line of verse – gestures to the forcible imposition of language as an imperialist strategy.

In the latter half of the collection, Cahill’s cold lyricism often thaws into a more colloquial voice on a more quotidian theme. Take the aptly titled ‘Real Life’, for example. The speaker wakes, and habitually spools through apps on their IPhone: ‘windows live mail, FB, site stats, country / by country’. The usual third person pronouns are replaced with the personal ‘I’, which signals a more confessional mode, a stance exemplified in such lines as, ‘I expose my fragility to the blue / lit-LED monitor with full H-res’. But despite the tonal disparity between this poem and the opening poems of the collection (such as the title poem) the theme of loss or isolation persists. As the speaker remarks in ‘Real Life’: ‘Cup my face in my hands. Felt the river of grief / wash through’. But what has bereaved the speaker we are left to ponder.

The Herring Lass is a fine collection of poems. It is assured and adventurous, with a pluralistic quality; Cahill is at home describing animal or people in sometimes wholly different registers. This confidence in a number of different voices and subjects speaks of a poet with great natural gifts. Overall, this is a collection of striking thematic unity, and Cahill boldly executes her vision.

Monday, 12 October 2015

A Review of Six Estonian Poets, ed. by Doris Kareva (Arc Publications, 2015)

Alexander Jacoby reviews an anthology of modern Estonian verse, edited by Doris Kareva



“Cannot the language of this land / Rising to the heavens / in the wind of song / seek eternity for itself?” asked the pioneering Estonian-language poet Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801-1822). At the time, Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, while its major city, Reval (now Tallinn) was populated by a German-speaking elite, as was its university at Dorpat (today’s Tartu). For Peterson, a student at that university, the decision to write in Estonian was a revolutionary one. But in the two centuries since, despite having barely a million native speakers, the Estonian language has evolved a remarkably rich literary culture, which survived even the active promotion of Russian during half a century of Soviet occupation. As editor Doris Kareva, who is herself one of Estonia’s leading modern poets, writes: “For Estonians poetry has always been more than just poetry, not so much a form of entertainment as a way of keeping their language alive.”

A reasonably broad selection of Estonian prose literature has appeared in English, most notably the work of one of the masters of modern historical fiction, Jaan Kross. Anthologies of Estonian poetry in translation appeared as early as the 1950s. But this new selection of modern Estonian verse brings us up to date, gathering poems by one major writer of the late Soviet period, Juhan Viiding, and five younger poets active mainly in the years since 1991, when Estonia regained its independence.

The poets represented are highly diverse. Juhan Viiding writes on existential themes, with a keen sense of the baffling quality of life: “So much is given to us, and still we are perplexed.” This poet, who could write, “Truly, above all, I dread death,” ironically took his own life in 1995. His daughter, Elo Viiding, addresses political themes, and women's issues in particular, in a voice of biting irony. Hasso Krull is a fine descriptive poet, but also another existentialist, for whom our knowledge of mortality is reminiscent of our anticipation of the end of a period of warm weather, something known intellectually that cannot be accepted emotionally. Triin Soomets' verse has a sensuality which is at ease with carnal and romantic subject matter, but which is also apparent in her tribute to the distinctive textures of the “seething wheeling / whirlpool weaving / rampant romping / seesaw seeking / breathless tending” Estonian language itself. The youngest poet represented here, Jürgen Rooste (b.1979), produces what editor Kareva aptly describes as “dionysian poetry […] an effervescent mix of raging rock, blues and beat, howl and prayer, lucidity and delirium”. Alongside these five poets writing in standard Estonian, the anthology includes the work of a leading regional poet, Kauksi Ülle, who writes in the Võro language of Southern Estonia, and draws on the homely imagery of rural life as well as on aspects of local legend.

The diversity of subject matter is reflected in a formal variety. Most of the poets represented in this volume write primarily in free verse. But several of Juhan Viiding's poems are in regular metrical forms with fixed rhyme schemes; while Kareva claims that he “revolutioned the language of Estonian poetry”, this technical discipline also links him back to older poetic traditions. Some of the younger writers too, such as Triin Soomets, make intermittent, irregular use of rhyme and more frequent use of assonance.

The poems are presented in parallel text. While non-native readers of Estonian are few, even the reader who knows no Estonian, or who recognises only a few words, may find the original text useful, since it clarifies some of the formal intricacies which are necessarily lost in translation. Thus, reading the literal rendering of a haunting twelve-line poem by Soomets (first line “Only darkness in shadows” in English), one is able at the same time to note the alliteration in the Estonian on the letter “v”, the direct verbal correspondence between “sõrm” (“finger”) and “sõrmus” (“ring”), and the shared initial syllable of “horisonti” (“horizon”) and “hommik” (“morning”).

The parallel-text format would seem to encourage literal translation, but the poems, which have been put into English by various hands, display a variety of approaches. Juhan Viiding's rhyming poems sometimes emerge in unrhymed form, but in other cases, a presumably less literal translation finds equivalents for the original rhymes; in one example, the Rubaiyat-like rhyme scheme of a poem entitled “Morning” is preserved exactly in the first stanza of the translation, as if to exemplify the form, before being abandoned in subsequent stanzas. The diverse practices on show represent a wide-ranging set of responses to the perennial problem of how best to recapture what is lost in translation.

Editor Kareva provides an enlightening and informative introduction to this valuable anthology, which opens up new perspectives on Estonian literature and the modern Estonian experience to English-speaking readers. In one poem, Juhan Viiding speaks of “a tiny regret that not every notion translates to another tongue.” It is a mark of the excellence of this collection that the reader's regrets about this are no more than tiny.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

A review of Self Portrait with a Swarm of Bees by Jan Wagner (Arc Publications, 2015)

Inigo Purcell reviews Jan Wagner's new book, translated by Iain Galbraith.

If asked to describe the main theme of Jan Wagner’s collection, my first response would be 'nature', then I would hastily correct myself, saying that the poems don’t so much focus on nature as on the physical world, and the unexpected similarities between physical experiences. In 'Steinway' (p.99) for example a glimpse of a grand piano becomes 'my childhood’s frozen lake', and aside from a pun on the make of the piano in the final stanza (which is alluded to but less present in the original German), the focus of the poem becomes solely the lake and the poet’s memories of it.

This kind of unexpected turn in a poem is characteristic of the collection. 'The Catkin' begins:

what caused auntie mia to stick a catkin
up her nose, and when exactly she did
our story cannot relate (p.117).

It is not until the third stanza when the aunt is described as a 'wailing girl' that it becomes quite apparent that this event happened long before the poet’s birth, in his aunt’s childhood in Germany during the Second World War, and that the anecdote has passed into family legend. The comic image of the adult aunt sticking a catkin up her nose lingers throughout, however, almost incongruous with the other theme of wartime bombing and the difference between being participants in an historical event, and being 'mere witnesses or extras' to it; how it is impossible to distinguish in an experience between the major 'our town has fallen and stands ablaze' and the personal 'the favourite carpet ruined' when both are part of the same event.

Another thematic migration takes place in the two stanza poem 'earthworms' (p. 49): the poet starts by reflecting on luring earthworms out of the earth during a summer drought in his childhood, perhaps with a degree of regret, then decades later sees 'their shadows drifting by/in sombre clouds' and distrusts the rain and overcast weather waiting for some kind of cruel fate to trap him the way his callous child-self tricked earthworms.

It would be remiss in a review of this collection not to mention the formatting of the Arc Visible poets series: Wagner writes in German, and the original text of his poems is placed parallel to Ian Galbraith’s excellent translations. My German is shamefully rusty, but it is fascinating to compare the two texts and observe where a piece of alliteration has been kept, where one has been discarded and where (as described in 'Steinway' above) a play on words which is hinted at in the German is used more fully in English. The foreword and introduction both stress that the parallel text is not solely intended for bilingual readers, but to allow a greater understanding of the poems and nature of translation in the curious, and for this Arc is to be commended: the presentation is accessible and likely to encourage people to explore or improve their language skills.

This collection is charming, interesting and surprising in the choice of topics (many of which I have had to neglect for the sake of word count in the review): through a choice of extremely specific details it manages to create a sense of a common experience and wonder at being alive.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Introducing a new review blog featuring books published by Arc Publications, reviewed by Brookes staff and students

Today we are launching a new Poetry Centre venture: a review blog. Already regular contributors to the Weekly Poem initiative, Arc Publications have now kindly supplied us with some of their most recent books for our staff and students to review.

This is a wonderful opportunity for us to engage with exciting contemporary poetry from around the world (one particularly impressive strand of Arc's catalogue is work in translation), and to hone our critical skills.

We look forward to developing this relationship with Arc, and encourage you to seek out the works being reviewed on the Arc website, where the reviews will also appear.