Kinds of Quest
Victor Rodriguez Núñez, translated by Katherine M.Hedeen (Arc)
Hilary Menos (64pp, £8.99, Seren)
Christopher Meredith (63pp, £8.99, Seren)
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
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
Bloom's notions of
grazing on the cherry
in the yard
only with blood you can
on an ordinary night
the folded page.
In Spanish the opening
en la escarcha nocturna
se citaron de nuevo
la belleza y el hambre
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
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
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,
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
This piece of earth's a
you never quite peg down.
Odd corners have a stone
church hammered in -
Patricio, Cwmiou, Cwmdu,
Capel y Fin.
But their grip's
One day the
earth will wake and stretch and sigh
and each church will pop
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
three pages beginning with,
m y t
A t r
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
© David Hart 2013