Particular Kinds of Quest


Thaw
, Victor Rodriguez Núñez, translated by Katherine M.Hedeen (Arc)
Red Devon
, Hilary Menos (64pp, 8.99, Seren)
Air Histories
, Christopher Meredith (63pp, 8.99, Seren)


Happenstance brings books for review, and these three in their different ways couldn't be more demonstrative of what would be missing if there were no poets. Poetry doesn't appear in News bulletins - a famous poet might appear for having died, and I don't recall any poetry scandals - nor is it obvious day by day, year by year who cares. The language of public discourse has deteriorated, is often clichéd, often superficial, often it seems banality of expression is thought to be apposite, while here without fuss are poets whose necessity and pleasure language is. They show, not least, that language can never be used up.

Having been lucky enough to review many books of poetry in translation, while the carrying over into English has in quality been variable, what is shown essentially is the otherness of poetry: the everyday language more deeply, strangely and freshly used, worldwide.

Having set these poets up for a demonstration, I need to quote from them. Victor Rodriguez Núñez is here by a complex route. Born in Havana in 1955,  we are told he divides his time between Cuba and Ohio, where he is Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College. Ohio is the location for the sequence. The translator is also a Professor at Kenyon College and one can only guess which language or from one to the other they use in conversation. I have noted before how many translated poets are said to be themselves fluent in English, which has led me to question why they need a translator rather than someone - a poet preferably - who will discuss with them their own work on it.
          
The poems in Spanish and English on facing pages come off the page sounding, even without speaking them aloud, so different, I wonder if anything like an adequate bringing over is possible. And it is interesting to find several YouTube instances of Núñez reading, how he varies it: strenuously 'with atmosphere' to a large audience, more plainly to what seems a more academic audience and on another occasion privately sitting on a sofa.
    
The sequence of two-to-a-page poems all (apart from proper nouns) lower case without punctuation, a one hundred sequence, is made of snap-shots, is not a continuous narrative. Here is number 48:

   in the nocturnal frost
   beauty and hunger  
                                  arranged to meet once more
   deer confirming
   Bloom's notions of influence
   grazing on the cherry blossoms
                                                      in the yard
   only with blood you can amend
   on an ordinary night
                                     the folded page.

   In Spanish the opening has this:

   en la escarcha nocturna
   se citaron de nuevo
                                  la belleza y el hambre


In very obvious contrast, Hilary Menos (b.1964) is a narrative teller, a finely observant poet living and working on a scaled-back farm - 'the organic market in decline', which I didn't know - with her family in rural Devon. What seems to be her one brief YouTube appearance, speaking a poem not in this book, she reads in a measured, caring way, boldly-quietly, which is the tone of her written word, in the book's three sections variously grounded in everyday experience and having fun with a 32-part sequence titled 'The Ballad of Grunt Garvey and Jo Tucker'. This could be a once-read-soon-forgotten fun and games but it is at heart more serious than that and I find I care what's going on there. No few lines get into it properly, but here's the opening of 'Badger Season',

   Grunt has Dad's old Webley & Scott twelve bore
   with the dinged end and the open scroll chasing on the stock,
   the right barrel choked by three quarters,
   the left chocked by a half, for close work.

And on through ten and a half more stanzas, and every poem in the sequence a surprise. The other sequences have what are, I assume, a more everyday for real 'I' and 'we' and 'you' and 'your', more personal and locally observant. Throughout the book the poems are in regular stanza forms as work best for narrative. There is throughout a liveliness of spirit, and an orginal imagination. She is at heart, it seems, a chronicler. These lines open a poem called Milk Fever, from a sequence called, 'UK 364195:

   There's a downer cow in the yard next door,
   legs akimbo, black and white body slack.
   she's sinking by degrees into the dirt floor.
   her calf hungry, her calcium reserves sapped.


The forms in Christopher Meredith's 'Air Histories' are more various, his imagination and language more scatty; if he's a poet of the everyday - and I think he is - it comes from being manic perhaps or he's having fun or his everyday at heart is perceived differently, or all three. A few poems are in Welsh and English - translated which way round he doesn't say (the paging suggests the Welsh first). He was born in 1954 in South Wales. His poems are harder to select for a typical purpose and matter and even voice and, as with many an offbeat maker, there is passion there, in his case for the good of the earth, for people.
   
If there is a drivenness it is the quest, the going out there to find out, and with such poetry it isn't obvious whether it is driven first of all by language or by visual image or by an intellectual idea. It seems right to say by all three and more, but I imagine there's a particular kind of quest here: in the ache, in the dream; one senses of course in Hilary Menos's poems a vocation, and it's here, too, differently. One if his shorter poems, titled 'Earth air':

   This piece of earth's a billowing pavilion
   you never quite peg down.
   Odd corners have a stone church hammered in -
   Patricio, Cwmiou, Cwmdu, Capel y Fin.
   But their grip's uncertain.

     One day the earth will wake and stretch and sigh
   and each church will pop its button
                                                              and she'll fly.

He makes more extreme verbal experiments - not essentially new but newly to be worked with - such as 'At Colonus', Variations on a line by Dorothy Edwards
', three pages beginning with,

   N           a
              m                   e
              m  y      t        est
                 A       t       r           y

To quote two lines from a page-long poem called 'Daniel's piano' -

   Daniel's piano stands next to the table.
   Its keyboard is open. It's smile is yellow.

might stand for what is more traditionally surprising here: seems strange because everyday talk and reporting is often tedious, but this is
language, this is human being.


            David Hart 2013