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)
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 TRY TO TALK TO YOU AS
IF I'M SAYING THIS
FOR THE FIRST TIME AND
THOUGHT OF IT
WHEN I SAW YOU
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
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:
MAN IN THE MOUNTAINS
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
For the sake of a cool
I've suffered the world's
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
be part of the fig's joy
pain yourself and be
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
As we came from the back
door, an arrow
- of thrush, or
blackbird, or bullfinch - shot
from quince tree to thorn
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
OK, not pacing the
corridors at 2am,
not calling security on
the two lads
shooting up in the
nor you saying, 'You're
too old for this'
as I crossed over into
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