Shifts Across Language

Advance Payment. Selected Poems, Nachoem M.Wijnberg,
translated by David Colmer (109pp, 9.95, Anvil)
& Silk & Love & Flame, Birhan Keskin, translated by George Messo
(113 pp, NP, Arc Visible Poets)
She Inserts the Key, Marianne Burton, (64pp, 8.99, Seren)
God Loves You,  Kathryn Maris (59pp, 8.99, Seren)

Forgive this too broad an opening statement, it comes from wondering about these four books and what I'm calling 'talking poems'. Of course for centuries poets have versed their thing, woe'd their lives, longed their love, so much so the break now from prose has become all but definitive: the 'I' of poetry is taken to be 'my truth', 'my life', whereas 'prose fiction' is honoured for precisely its fantasising, its invention, plot-making. The clue to the difference is 'versed'. For whereas the personal of poetry remains, the 'I' of it once woven into musical lines, with metric and rhyme, now is more often than not, in variable lines running on, and appears as a talker, as might speak not very differently in prose.

These four books are interesting in this respect for being two in translation and two originally languaged. The translator wants (I assume) to catch into a voice Englished the intention, the mood and matter, as if. Translators are various, and to a degree, of course, are doing their
own thing.

Of Nachoem M.Wijnberg (b.Amsterdam 1961) we have here only the translations, of which this is the long captalised title and the opening lines:


   I hope you don't mind my talking to you like this, if you'd
   known how I felt before I started, you would have walked off
   at once.
   Oh, you want something for nothing, my apologies, I hadn't

(Whether these line breaks are the poet's own or are dictated by the book's margins is not clear, I guess the latter.) Another opens:


   I feel happy, sad,
   but happy and sad belong to a man in the mountains

The introduction by the translator is helpful and I recommend it both as a way into the poems - although they need no disentangling - and as a broader statement of poetry as a way of doing philosophy. The whole book might be read as a deceptively casual talking through the task, one, of, making poems, two, of a sober revel in philosophy, and, three, of incident, the everydayness of how life turns out to be.

If, then, poems are to come to us as talk, directly to us as reader or that, as reader, we overhear the poet talking to themselves, what makes such a book worth having? One response to my asking might well be, 'Mind your own business, reading is personal, don't make generalised assumptions.' My wish to puruse the question comes not least because, while poets in their writing cross all sorts of boundaries, how much of this is heard or taken seriously by people whose expertise is beyond those boundaries, and who never think a poet might bring anything interesting to bear? What's a poet for?

Here is a whole poem translated from Birhan Keskin (b.1963), Turkish, almost all of her poems, as are many of Nachoem M.Wijnberg's, in the first person directly as 'I':


   For the sake of a cool dream
   I've suffered the world's pain.

   Me, I came from a dream,
   I gave a dream to you,
   a blue-green memory: here, my soul, the world,
   blow hard on the plain, be silent to the hillside,
   weep in the stream.

   here, the world's door; here, the world's grief
   stay in your mountain's shadow, or
   be part of the fig's joy
   pain yourself and be fulfilled.

If there is in her poems what one might call a trail of self-therapy, even (do we think?) that the poet suffers on our behalf, the poems for the most part stark, where might her book belong in therapeutic studies, in counselling rooms? I can't answer this, only to ask further how is it we individual people socially, politically, become what we are alone and together? Where is poetry in this whole scene now?

Another of her poems, 'Cactus and Texas' opens, 'I never once mentioned/ to you / the twilight of this room,/ the ocean, the waves drowning me,' and I ask, does she mean someone in particular, might she mean me, no, not me, but yet what, who? I shall arrive at some further thoughts on all of this, below.

I'm not sure where the generalised 'we' is in our understanding of the stronger presence of women's voices in poetry; whether there is often a greater boldness and openness than is found in poetry by men, both in subject and means, in the 'it' and in the ways of saying. Here is the opening of a page and a half length poem, 'I Told No-one for as Long as Possible', by Kathryn Maris,:

   I had a terrible dream
   my daughter was dead.
   In a refrigerator.
   At the morgue.

   My daughter was dead.
   I told no-one.
   She was at the morgue.
   It couldn't be true.

And here, in this very different mode while still talking
, ('3.Atonement', of a three part sequence, 'Variations on Melissanthi's Atonement), opening,

   Though we may imagine Angels to be beautiful, there is evidence
   to the contrary. For example, the Angel who wielded his fiery
   sword when he chased our Parents out of Eden would have been

Are we seeing across cultures of poetry an increasing directness (plain everyday or allegorised), from women more than from men, more of what I'm naming a talking, less laterally pondered thought process? Have the freer forms invited a more openly emotional communication? Marianne Burton's 'Sparrowhawk' opens:

   As we came from the back door, an arrow
   - of thrush, or blackbird, or bullfinch - shot

   from quince tree to thorn bush, tight-training,
   as a child's kite draws its paper tail, a hawk,

   which slammed, clawed feet first, into the spikes,
   while lunch wriggled through a hole to freedom.

This is more stabilised, more plain narrative. But also in this book a poem, 'Meditations on the Hours', part one, '6am: University College Hospital Maternity', gets going like this:

   There were some good moments.

   OK, not pacing the corridors at 2am,
   not calling security on the two lads
   shooting up in the Ladies,
   nor you saying, 'You're too old for this'
   as I crossed over into Stage Three,

which if it was more than a page I would say is a page-turner.

Still I want to ask why tell and why tell in this way
? What is it that matters that is both personal, also is set down as 'poetry', and is put into the wider culture as if it matters?

I am glad to hear these Seren voices, lively and relishing their lives and the lives of others, and although the modes are freewheeling in comparison with inherited forms, the poems curiously do still sing. It is a public and - even when painful - a celebratory mode.

I feel the same about the poets here in translation, although I wonder if, even when, as here, the shift across languages seems fluent and compelling, there isn't a missing link: the poet in his or her own voice is not speaking (or asking us to overhear) what they actually spoke.

    David Hart 2013