An instinct for voice

A Sure Star in a Moonless Night
, Sirkka Turkka, translated by Emily Jeremiah
(95pp, £10, Waterloo)
A Flight Over the Black Sea
, Ihor Pavlyuk, translated by Steve Komarnyckyj
(126pp, £10, Waterloo)

These are handsome books, somewhere between paperback and hardback with strikingly bold and subtle covers. One is bilingual, the other not, one has brief and the other relatively extensive introductory material.

Reviewing translated poets has, whether accurately or not, given me what seems an instinct for voice. A trick of sight and sound, of course, that I sense I am or I am not hearing the poet's voice. It doesn't work if it seems I am hearing the translator, especially not if the English is coming across as awkward poetry, notably when one is being told the poet has a big reputation in their own country, has won prizes.

Sirkka Turkka (b.1939), Finnish, reaches my ears - another curious idea, her voice
in English from the page - as 'real, 'alive'with language, and in her case as if telling, as if she is present: there's a voice.

   I never answer letters, let alone start
   an independent correspponedence.
   It's not worth the bother, it just uses up energy.
   Even an ordinary postcard wilts in my hand like a begonia
   leaf in its dry pot.

I take lines 4 and 5 here to be one line, if the book's page would accomodate it, and the poem continues for a page and a little over. And it is worth bringing in those last lines to see (hear) the shift in mood,

   In the country, during hot summers, the goats, in any case
   lie on their ledges and decisive me
   on the grass, and further away the horses turn their
   round backsides to the passer-by.
   A contented solar system on a sunny hill,
   fully in myself, I am a gulf about to implode.
   I am Kleinod und Trost
, a hand on which balcony and railing lean,
   dusty joy that
   suffocates fatigue and wind.

The poems are on a roll, some in this breathless free poem form, others written as, mostly brief (variably up to - and a few over - about half a page), prose. A reviewer becomes used to poems lacking all punctuation, or in lower case throughout, but here the form in that sense is traditional, in the tradition of talk.

Of these two books this is the one with the minimal - and helpful - introduction, unsigned, plus from the translator no mote than a thankyou note. No more seems required, these poems can speak for themselves. They are not new, but come from collections or sequences, 1973 to 1993. The back cover has what I take to the publisher's blurb, telling us that Sirkka Turkka's 'work .... is dottily profound: loopy, playful, mournful and piercing, all at once.' I wonder which poet(s) writing in English would call forth this flavour of acolade; I reckon, though,that the book is more interesting than this, to do with the subjective within the objective, the self surprised by the everydayness of wonder. And this toying with the mundane is riskier than, say, deliberate raids on the profound. Not least pleasing is the line by line fluency.

Not that all the poems here succeed equally - if I know what that
means: one can imagine her scribbling or typing these daily, six times a day even, it's a routine; but I don't know that, and how many of us, anyway, do something as interesting as that? Apart from the very earliest, the poems have no titles; this is a whole prose poem:

   In the end I fall for an old trick, I grab the insect repellant
   and begin spraying haphazardly around me until my eyes
   sting and my throat feels rough. The evening's ruined, peace
   of mind gone, useless to carry on reading. The wisdom of
   the East collapses, the good old philosopher and his
   teachings. And the mosquito it just drifts, joyfully singing
   the evening away.

The book of Ihor Pavlyuk's poems has a dedication 'to the authors and artists of Ukraine's Execued Renaissance who died or were repressed by the Soviet State'. This sets the scene for the poet's life while not, it seems, directly for his poems, which one might better describe as personal and metaphysical. Not that history is invisible: lines such as, 'For so much/ Slavonic blood was spilled here./ Roksolana. The Stars. Cossacks.'
Biographical information is given as relevant: He was born in the Volyn region of Ukraine in 1967. His mother died ten days after giving birth to him. He was raised at the home of his grandfather and grandmother on his motherÕs side - migrants from the Helm region. He studied at the St. Petersbur Military University, which he left in order to pursue his career as a writer. As a result he was sentenced to a period of hard labour in the Taiga, working on what was a road to nowhere, but regained his liberty in the chaos accompanying the fall of the Soviet Union. He lives now in Kiev.
The introduction by the translator sets out the translation process, the poet having English, their collaboration being worked through then by S.J.Speight 'bringing her editorial skills and extensive knowledge of English literature,...'
The additional essay by Dmytro Drozdovskyi, entitled 'The Fecundity of Spring and Fire: Ihor Pavlyuk's Metamodernism,' seems to me, as this title may suggest, to offer indigestable material of which the poems are not culpable.

The translator tells us Ukrainian is a highly complex language and that if translated word for word the result would have been poems that would read 'as if written by a Martian.' But how does this read? It is the opening of a poem titled 'Springtime in Polissya',

   As salt in the blood,
   Young stars glitter hazily,
   Reflected sunlight sleeps,
   The lunar moon howls in the deep
   And solitary trees

   Sprout with green flame
   And gilded snow
   Dies theatrically for the spring.

I'm not sure the following has real voice in it either, and there is what seems a forced rhyme (losing the rhythm in the process), but one can perhaps see the different problems raised by introspection , less so by objective description (from 'Overnight Trains'),

   I have spent six years of my life on the overnight train,
   I even have my own place, 45, by the aisle,
   The window where the stars, the faces of ancient prophets, shine,
   My legs lay in front of me as I listen for a while.

Impossible for me to check the facing page original text, except that it has four stanzas to the translation's five. And to give the poems a chance to answer back, these final stanzas (of seven in translation from the original eight), of 'Meditation',

   Sugar or salt
   In the waters of my Clepsydra...
   Either way
   The silence of the cemetery
   This sly, sweet death...
   Eternity is just a wingbeat.

   All that I loved, kissed, cherished,
   I do not regret this world
   And wonder when it will be?
   When I am the guest
   Beyond the blue enamel of the sky?

(Dot-dot-dot as printed). Seems to me a draft still; other readers may respond differently.

    ©David Hart 2014