130 Poems
, Jean Follain, chosen and translated by Christopher Middleton,
(176pp, 11.95, Anvil)
Before the Invention of Paradise,
Ludwig Steinherr, translated by Richard Dove
(154p, Arc Visible Poets)

I wonder yet again what it is about some words on a page that have immediately an effect on the metabolism (or how to name it?) of the reader. Words inanimate, the pulse organic. Is it a legitimate critical assessment to say that one of these books had this effect on me and the other didn't? I am saying it anyway.

So immediate and consistent was this effect on me of Jean Follain's poems, I had to ask myself whether they were really his, or are they Christopher Middleton's? Or put it this way, if I were French or a fluent French speaker, would the effect have been of this same kind? The originals are not here, and my hazy schoolboy French would anyway have been able to hear only something of the music.

Jean Follain (1903-1971) was born in Normandy; from 1951 he was an Assize Judge and he died in a street accident in Paris. The poems are almost all short, from ten collections between 1933 and 1971. There is some consistency in origination, as if considered thought, unexpected whimsy, observation (and who can know which it is?) was almost always his way in, his opening lines suggest it.

                  They brought the farmer's son back

                  The taxidermist sat/ face to face with his sparrows

                  He was born a child/ in wide open countryside
                  When evening shakes/ its mass of cloud

                  In an uncertain century/ close to an English fireplace

These are opening lines from 1931, 1947, 1953, 1967, 1971, the first and last are the book's first and last, and although they seem to suggest fragments of life story, personal and observed or reported, the drift (as it seems, drift, or perhaps compulsion) of a whole poem usually gives the lie to it.

                   Death           [1953]

                   From animal bones the factory
                   made these buttons that closed
                   the blouse over the bust
                   of a dazzling worker girl
                   when at night she fell
                   one button came off
                   and the stream in a gutter
                   went and deposited it
                   in a private garden
                   where a plaster Pomona
                   laughing and naked
                   was crumbling away.

When transcribing this I typed 'the
gutter' - the specific fell into place in my own thought - whereas 'a' is less specific, more thrown away, any gutter would take it; and an aspect of his poems may well be to do with their appearing as stray thoughts, while yet only then and there would they have been composed. Their effect, for me, is to take me aside, to whisper, to say,  'A word in your ear,' then it's a few lines and done, gone.

It isn't fair to contrast Ludwig Steinherr for not being Jean Follain, so I shall try to present him in a similar way. The poems in 'Before the Invention of Paradise' are from eight German collections between 1985 (when he was 23) and 2005. The originals are here on facing pages. Here are five openings:

                  Suddenly/ sodden/ with tepid drops
                  In the courtyard/ two fifteen year olds

                  Please take a look at/ this flintlock pistol

                  This privilege/ of being here

                  The white-tiled room/ is windowless

It seems less easy to date these (the book has eight sections of poems from ten books), but they are chronologically selected. This book's poems, too, are mostly short; here is a whole poem from near the middle:


                 This summer which
                 only consisted of your
                 absence -

                 I felt you everywhere
                 even in the fur
                 of a cat that had strayed far from home
                 even in the draught coming from
                 the metro shaft

                 All those endearments,
                 embraces between us -

                 I'll never be able
                 to make you feel them.

In so far as I can measure the German but not translate it, this equates, and although I can read the original superficially, I wonder how exactly it would sound
. My sense of the translations is of a poetry of letter-writing, of everyday speech, of impressionist recall. Towards the end, the energy toughens and has to be contained, just: das Leben ist eine (wow! I think, he's on a roll), and I am brought down again by the translation, life is a, and perhaps there is more energy in the German, which becomes in English (all lower case),

                  life is a
                  rotten suspension bridge
                  across which drunk
                  you must push a piano
                  while from the other side

                  a furious gorilla
                  is lumbering towards you

and so on, step by step, no oomph. Yet wild in intent (and in the German so?). Or I'm the wrong reader. Maybe I am.

I've been wondering - or wondering yet again - what it is essentially poetry is, and is for, that is not voiced in any other way. Because of the impossibility of absolute translation, while yet how important it is that the attempt is made, perhaps key questions are most begged by it. In a curious way translation might take us closer to why poetry seems hard-wired in human life. Tell me true, tell me!

          David Hart 2010