Hearing Voices

, Meta Kusar, translated by Anna Jelnikar and Stephen Watts
(114p, £8.99, Arc )
Mexican Poetry Today
, edited by Brandel France de Bravo
(239pp, £12.95, Shearsman)
the straw which comes apart
, Ivano Fermini, translated by Ian Seed
(21pp, Oystercatcher)
Hesiod's Calendar
(A Version of Theogony and Works and Days),
Robert Saxton (92pp, £9.95, Carcanet)

The timeline for Meta Kusar's Ljubljana, written 1999-2002, published 2004, and the translation worked on since 2002, indicates close collaboration even pre-publication of the original. The Translators' Preface makes a crucial difference to the reading of the book, where process, means of collaboration, an intimacy of shared work, breathes 'from life' into the translations themselves. Francis R.Jones, an old hand at this business, adds an Introduction which, while helpful in its way, is bland in comparison. Not his fault, he's not really in on the act.

The poems themselves (facing page originals and translations), mostly two to a page, have an abrupt urgency, as if she is saying, 'Now I'll tell you this. Now I want to say what happened when. Listen, here's a thought.' Mostly in the present tense, she mixes observation with concept. Here is the whole of number 22 (none have titles, it's a whole thing),

     It is warm today. The robin's not singing.
     On the oak it listens to the chaffinch.
     Its beak is crumbling the fate of histiry.
     I cannot make out all of the script.
     Nor the images yet to come.
     In the house of god it is cold.
     Only when there's a trace of violet
     on the white scarves  of respect
                   does the robin fly.

There is reflection on poetry itself, (number 66), 'How do I know that words will carve out my story/ with precision?' And number 45 opens in translation with a curiosity, 'Landscape has tremendous meaning!' where in the Slovenian there is no exclamation mark. It's a powerfully immediate book, they got together, author and translators and I can all but hear the conversation: 'That's not it,' 'This then', 'No', 'This?' Got it!

Mexican Poetry Today has an editor's introduction that says not very much; too generalised and promotional; there is nothing about process, nor in the sections of poems by the twenty poets of the more or less latest generation, 'over 40s, post-Paz'. Ah to hear from those in their 20s.

This book, too, has facing page originals and translations. One quirky inclusion is Jennifer Clement, who writes in, let's say, American, from where she lives, her poems here translated into

The only clue to translation process is where either one or two people are credited with the process: direct translation or via a go-between.

One doesn't need Spanish to see how different the flow of the languages. On one side of the page lines ending with vowels, on the right with consonants. How can translation get close to that voice? Perhaps at least by having the originals staring one in the ears, difference is heard.

There is not a sameness about the poets here, in fact a fascinating variety, and it is clear there is no one possible translation, Mexican sensibility comes through (I imagine), sometimes into an Englishness, more often into American. It isn't possible in a short review to begin to do justice to twenty poets; some seem to me relatively pedantic with their little life moments, some are excited into an expansiveness stimulating to read, if there's a predominant mode it is perhaps conversational, in widely differing voices.

The book took me back to Samuel Beckett's translations of Spanish poets (Thames & Hudson 1959/Calder & Boyers 1970). They seemed lame, stilted, back then, and seem so on re-aquaintance now. Beckett is so crucial to the 20thC and beyond, I wouldn't decry anything he did, and I mention that book because this latest one in comparison is lively, the poems read and sound very well in English, they seem, in so far as they can be, the real thing.

There's a curious moment where in a poem titled 'Zoo' (by Francisco Henrnández), the opening lines of the original, 'Grrrrrrrrrrrrr.../ TÚeres una mona desunda', are translated as, 'Rrrroooooaaarrr ... /You are a naked she-monkey'. I can't make out the process here, but would like to be at a seminar that discusses it. A list of the poets can be found at the Shearsman web site: http://www.shearsman.com/pages/books/catalog/2010/20mexican.html

Ivano Fermini's the straw which comes apart, bilingual, with Ian Seed's translation, seems almost a mere handout at the door in comparison. A brief note by way of introduction tells us Fermini (1948-2004) published two books of poetry (1985, 1990), and 'remains relatively unknown, both inside and outside Italy.'

The poems have no punctuation, no capital letters, are short and, I imagine,
either very easy or very hard to translate. They are a corrective, in this review at least, and into the poetry scene generally, I'd say, by declining the conversational, there's no easy scene-setting or emotional blood-letting. Here is 'great fragment',

     it's sky long ago it had some
     who can turn their back
     now if I look at the river which sleep
     has told me not knowing how to strike
     of an unexpected tear

And whereas from the Mexican book I could reasonably fairly have brought a section of a poem, quoted a few lines, to represent the means, the way of it, I'm wary of doing it to represent Fermini/Seed. How to dislocate any part of these poems without losing the whole? So, another whole ('suffocating'):

     what are you looking for
     you speak of a tomb
     the title of the world festival
     stones in acute suspension
     responded a woman from soluble distances
     when more than anything
     the hawk comes to cook the feet
     these are the pistols of ice which explode
    the shadow to cut me.

And, finally, Hesiod. I have never got a hold on this time scale. It's about OK, if one is not too casual about it, to place Chaucer 'a long time ago' and after him but still 'centuries ago, Donne, Wyatt', but 'Hesiod 7th century BC?'! When quite was that? And then in translation, well, he wrote like us!

This is a delightful book, a personal project that Robert Saxton conveys  with fluid and delighted prose - introduction, notes, sample prose translations - and a version of Hesiod in sonnet form that leads me happily to believe Hesiod really did live and write.

Not a lot is known about him, and it's not surprising what is known is a matter of dispute. What I want to know and Robert Saxton doesn't tell, has to do with Hesiod's writing materials - how physically he did it - and by what routes and means his poems have reached us. 

Saxton makes the case for Englishing by way of a version of sonnet form, giving himself leniencies, although on the page clearly there they are, LXV of them,  albeit with the line structure 4, 4, 3, 3.

Although lines like this (opening 'Theogony XII')

     Now in the ascendant, Zeus prepared for war.
     Prophetically on the night sky blazed a comet.

might seem to demand a crash course in the gods, the voice carries through as if effortlessly, I am pleased to be caught up in the telling and, in this curious way, to (let's say) hear his voice.

     Turn out your hired man, and instead install
     a loyal serving girl who'll cater for all
     your needs in the home- someone who isn't tied

     to a child who'd get under your feet all the time.  
         ('Works XLIV')

Well, there we were and are. I must return to 'blazed a comet', as anyone reading this would be querying it, I'm sure. The construction rhymes 'comet' with 'vomit' two lines later. Is that awkwardness worth it for the rhyme? I want to imagine Hesiod would have said no.

It is possible for me to make one translation comparison, with reference to Dorothea Wender's (Penguin1973/76). 'The metre' (she writes) 'of both the Theogony
and the Works and Days is dactylic hexameter, the metre of Homer and of most long works in Greek and Latin.' Which reminds me I do have an LP somewhere of readings of ancient Greek poetry, although I no longer have an LP-player. She continues, 'I have done my translation in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) because I think that, in feeling, it is the closest English equivalent.'

So here is a comparison of Wender's and Saxton's final lines of 'Works and Days':

     These days are blessings to the men on earth;
     The rest are fickle, bland, and bring no luck.
     Everyone has his favourite days, but few
     Have knowledge that is sure. Sometimes a day
     Will be a stepmother, and then she'll change
     And be a mother. He is truly blest
     And rich who knows these things and does his work,
     Guiltless before the gods, and scrupulous,
     Observing omens and avoiding wrong.

     Such days are a tainted blessing. Others make
     no sense at all - for one of those random days
     might give like a mother or grab like a mother-in-law.

     Happy are those who know all this, and take
     care not to upset the gods, but sing their praise,
     work hard, and try to be just. Who can do more?

These are not quite an even comparison, the latter being sliced out of Saxton's final sonnet (LXV), the former from Wender's final page of flow. I mean, anyway, to commend Hesiod as adoptable as a 21st century poet.

         © David Hart 2010