Recent Collections of Poetry in Translation

*****

The Barbarians Arrive Today: Poems and Prose by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Evan
reviewed by Edmund Prestwich

The Barbarians Arrive Today: Poems and Prose by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Evan Jones. £19.99. Carcanet. ISBN 978 1 78410 994-3 3

‘Traditore traduttore.’ All translations involve distortion, dilution or both, and good translations of great poetry tease us with the desire to get closer to the original than any one version can bring us. Evan Jones’s The Barbarians Arrive Today gives all the canonical poems and a large number of unpublished ones (Jones calls them ‘hidden’) in English translation only, together with nine prose pieces. It’s a valuable supplement to existing translations, for those who already know Cavafy, and a good point of entry for those who don’t. There are masterstrokes in it that throw a brighter light on particular poems than any other versions I’ve seen. There are inevitably disappointments, but a number of his versions will become my ‘go to’ poetic translations. Unfortunately you have to read quite far into the book before reaching these.

It’s in the poems with (for Cavafy) contemporary settings that Jones most fully comes into his own. ‘He Planned to Read’, ‘He Asked About the Quality’, ‘Two Young Men, Aged 23 or 24’ ‘The Street’ and others give brief, thrillingly vivid glimpses of moments of overwhelming sexual desire or dazed fulfilment. They share an extreme sense of transience, even if the moment of loss that implicitly haunts them lies in an unimagined future. One where Jones scores a particular triumph is ‘The Bandage’. In this, the speaker recalls a visit by a man with a bandaged shoulder. He says that when this visitor reached for a photograph on a high shelf the bandage came loose, and the wound bled. The speaker retied the bandage, taking his time because he liked the sight of the blood. After the visitor had left, the speaker found a bit of bloody dressing on the floor and pressed it to his lips for a long time. Meticulously, almost pedantically detailing these actions and the visitor’s apparent lie about how he came by the injury, Cavafy builds up a powerful sense of actively suppressed feelings which demand poetic release. Jones’s masterstroke comes in the final line. Keeley and Sherrard translate this tamely and vaguely as ‘the blood of love against my lips’, Mendelsohn as ‘the blood of love upon my lips’ but Jones as ‘the blood of longing on my lips’. With the word ‘longing’ the poem’s implicit drama comes into sharper focus and finds explosive release. The last line resonates and lingers in the mind, and – as a great last line should – makes us replay the whole poem in our imaginations again and again.

Against transience we have memory. At its most basic, there’s the involuntary memory of the body, described in ‘Return’. Jones’s translation of this beautifully intertwines lyrical symmetries with the more irregular cadences of urgent speech:

Return often and take me, the loveliest
sensations return and take me –
when memory of another’s body awakens
and an aging passion runs through the blood;
when lips and skin remember,
and hands feel as if they touch again.

Return often and take me in the night,
when lips and skin remember …

In its very nature as a prayer for and evocation of involuntary memory, this poem goes beyond such memory, becoming an instance of that memorializing power of art that meant so much to Cavafy.

Jones’s book is less useful as a way in to the historical poems than to the contemporary ones. This is partly because of the lack of notes. Cavafy was steeped in Greek history and wrote about it in a way that assumes knowledge few non-Greek readers will have. One example is the poem titled ‘Aemilianos Monae, Alexandrian, 628 – 655 A. D.’ Aemilianos speaks the first eight lines, telling us he’ll craft ‘an impressive suit of armour’ out of words and body language, hiding his weakness, fear, traumas and vulnerability from ‘vile men’. Four lines by another speaker call this bluster, tell us that Aemilianos died in Sicily at twenty-seven and wonder whether he ever did craft that armour. We don’t need to know more than the poem tells us for a certain pathos to come through, or to see the typical Cavafian preoccupation with vain intentions. However, we probably wonder why Cavafy specified that Aemilianos was Alexandrian and died in Sicily. The answer is in his dates. The Arabs conquered Alexandria and the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Middle East in 642 AD, when Aemilianos was fourteen. Knowing this sharpens the poignancy of his boast and fate. We see him as an exile or refugee whose fear of humiliation leads him to cultivate a self-protective image, and we see the irony of his choosing the metaphor of ‘armour’ to describe it. We also see his representative function: his poem marks the end of the Hellenistic world in the Middle East. Jones places it in a section called ‘Portraits and Memorials’, which ignores this representative function, but the lack of historical background also stops us seeing clearly the kind of person it portrays.

Lack of contextual knowledge also limits understanding of the much more important ‘In 200 B.C.’ This begins with a quotation, printed as an epigraph by Jones: ‘Alexander, son of Philip and all the Greeks excluding the Lakedaimonians…’ The quotation is from a phrase that Plutarch tells us Alexander the Great caused to be inscribed on booty from his conquests when he sent it back to Greece. The Lakedaimonians – the Spartans – had refused to accompany his great expedition because, as Jones puts it,

A countrywide
campaign without a Spartan in command –
who would fear that?

The longish first stanza considers the Spartan point of view, at first seeming to embrace it as a natural one for the foremost military power of the classical Greek world. Then two shorter stanzas draw the consequences. Pride in past supremacy has led the Spartans to become a backwater in the next phase of Greek history, not participating in Alexander’s crushing defeat of Persia at Granicus, Issus and Erbil or the creation of the great new world of Hellenistic culture with its Greek-ruled kingdoms in Egypt, Syria and Persia:

Exclude the Lakedaimonians from Granicus;
and from Issus; and the final
battle, where the fearsome Persian army
at Erbil was swept away.

The first level of irony in the poem is easy to grasp: it’s directed against the Spartans by the speaker, looking back from a high point of Hellenistic culture 134 years after the battle of the Granicus. Already there’s a subtle balance between such irony and a sense of pathos at what the Spartans have done to themselves. But the key to the poem – the point of its title – is a further irony at the expense of the speaker. In the year 200 BC the Hellenistic world was itself on the brink of defeat by Rome. The speaker reveals his own blindness even as he mocks that of the Spartans. This doubling of the irony expresses Cavafy’s profound pessimism about how the course of events, the processes of history and time, expose illusions and make a mockery of aspirations. That puts it too simply though. This isn’t the kind of crude, simple irony where A really means B. Nor is its gaze at human aspiration simply destructive. The interplay of mutually undercutting but equally partial perspectives releases complex ripples of reflection. However pig-headed it was and however much it’s been wrong-footed by events, the attitude of the Spartans has an integrity that gives it a kind of dignity when compared with the frivolous-sounding complacency of the speaker in 200 BC. This dignity is more fully suggested in the outstanding ‘In Sparta’ (which unfortunately isn’t one of Jones’s better translations). However, the speaker isn’t treated to simple ridicule either. When he celebrates

Our influence, our ability
to adapt, a common language, Greek,
carried forth to Bactriana, to the Indians

he’s celebrating a colossal cultural achievement, one that far outlasted Alexander’s or the Romans’ military power. Greek was the language of the Byzantine Empire – the part of the Roman empire that survived into the fifteenth century – and of course the language in which Cavafy wrote his poems. From this point of view, the date in the title suggests how long the inheritance has endured.

Some of the best historical poems are essentially freestanding, of course, in a way that allows Jones the poet-translator to come into his own. One such is the exquisite ‘Caesarion’. In this, the speaker tells us he was idly reading a book of Ptolemaic inscriptions when he came on a brief mention of the supposed son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, murdered by Augustus. There follows a haunting reverie about this almost unknown youth, who becomes for Cavafy an incarnation and symbol of vulnerable, defeated beauty. The power of the poem depends on a shift between two styles, one detached and mildly cynical, the other lyrically rapt. Despite one or two jarring notes, Jones captures the shift effectively, sometimes departing from literal detail for the sake of a deeper truth to feeling:

I would have put the book down but for a brief
and minor entry on King Caesarion
which caught my attention …

Fleshed out in the depth of night,
my lamp flickering –
how I wanted it to flicker –
you came into my room
and stood before me – as you stood
in conquered Alexandria,
pale and tired, in complete sorrow –
hoping those wicked men might pity you,
they who hissed, ‘One Caesar too many.’

Even more successful is his version of the great ‘Myris, Alexandreia 340 AD’, which also needs no more information than the poem itself holds. Here, the centre of interest is psychological. Set in a time of transition between paganism and Christianity, it gives a young pagan’s account of attending the wake of his Christian beloved, the Myris of the title. Myris had belonged to a band of pleasure-loving young men, all pagans except for him, and had seemed completely in harmony with them except in a couple of trivial-seeming incidents. Now the speaker’s presence causes hostility and embarrassment to Myris’s Christian relatives. He himself is ill at ease. Grief at the loss of Myris in the present and future gradually gives way to a terror that he’s also losing him in the past – the feeling that he never really knew Myris and therefore never really loved him or had his love. An abyss opens in the memory that is the last refuge against loss. The narrative arc brilliantly divides our attention between what the speaker feels and what he sees without really understanding it:

A strange
Feeling came over me. Somehow
I could feel Myris leaving my side;
I could feel that he was a Christian,
Entirely at home with his people

The reader’s contact with the speaker’s emotion is piercingly direct, creating a shudder of sympathetic horror, but the intensity of his feelings blinds him to half of what we immediately understand. It’s plainly not true that Myris was ‘entirely at home with his people’. Conceivably they actually knew nothing of his other life. More probably the fact that they did know something of it explains both their hostility to the speaker and the strenuousness of the efforts they are making now. The point is that neither side really had or knew Myris and now both have lost him, or, to put it differently, the divisions within Myris himself meant that he wasn’t ‘entirely at home’ with either. Jones vividly transmits these tensions and shifts, making the poem live in our minds with great power, though his translation of the last three lines doesn’t match the violent intensity of Cavafy’s Greek.

Like ‘Myris’, many of the historical poems deal with homosexual love but what more importantly links all the historical poems with the contemporary ones is their shared obsession with time and transience, the perishable nature of beauty, the volatility of feeling, the way time and event expose the illusions on which our emotional lives, decisions and actions are based. In the various conventional orderings of Cavafy’s poems the interweaving of contemporary poems with historical ones creates a rich imaginative interplay between the two perspectives, of transience as lived in and transience as looked back on. I value this interplay of voices and experiences across time so I’m uncertain about Jones’s thematic reordering of the poems, but it does bring poems into new associations and perhaps therefore help one look at Cavafy in a slightly different way, as he suggests in his Afterward. For me, though, the essential and very real value of the book lies in its versions of individual poems, some of which are outstanding, and the way they make one see the individual poems in a new light.

Edmund Prestwich studied English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and Merton
College, Oxford. He is  a regular reviewer for The High Window.

*****

Ten Contemporary Spanish Women Poets edited and translated by Terence Dooley. Reviewed by Caroline Maldonado

Ten Contemporary Spanish Women Poets edited and translated by Terence Dooley. £12,95. Shearsman ISBN 978-1-84861-722-3

It’s still not easy to find publishers willing to take on poetry in translation in the UK and translators require a good dose of determination and faith in the original work to spend the years required for its identification, translation and promotion. So Tony Frazer of Shearsman, who already includes many Spanish translations both classical and modern in his list, and Terence Dooley, the editor and translator, are to be welcomed for introducing us to this selection of contemporary Spanish women poets. The collection is deservedly a Poetry Book Society recommendation.

In his Afterword, Dooley provides a brief cultural context and informs us that works by women in Spain have only been published in any number in the last 25 years and still account for merely 15% of poetry books published. He also describes some of the effort being made to redress the balance, such as women setting up their own publishing houses (including by Elena Medel, represented in this collection). To counter the absence of Spanish women’s poetry in English was one of Dooley’s motives in his collection but more, ‘to bring their musical, lucid, forthright poems to English readers is its principal intent’. In that he has been successful. As translator he has remained close enough to the original text to preserve each poet’s voice while occasionally shifting line and stanza breaks to ensure that the end result loses none of its lyricism and power in English.

The ten poets, who are all in mid-career and have won prestigious prizes, are responsive to world literature (epigraphs to poems are drawn from Ingeborg Bachman, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery and others) and several have been translated into many languages. Yet their poems are rooted in Spanish culture, where the trauma of Franco’s legacy still exists as well as the disappointment with what followed and the 2008 global recession and subsequent austerity. Disillusion with the politics of neo-liberalism and consumerism runs throughout the collection. Questions are raised, about the role of women in contemporary society in relation to politics and to personal relationships, and about memory and forgetting, hope, truth and lies. In a long sequence of prose poems taken from a full-length book Chronicles of Olvido by Graciela Baquero, Olvido is the name of a homeless woman who claims to be the poet’s sister but the dictionary definition Baquero gives reverberates through many of the other poems:

Failure to remember something
Numbing of an emotion once felt
Omission or neglect of a duty
Woman’s name.

In a few poems the past history of mothers and grand-mothers feature in relation to the present, such as in Erika Martínez’s ‘The House falls down’ :

So many mothers scrubbing its flagstones,
giving birth on its flagstones,
hiding shit under the flagstones
that their drunken sons
and their sober husbands trod in
who worked and fucked
for a country they had no faith in.

So many years that I,
of a generation surplus to requirements,
lose my belief in emancipation,
gaze at my bedroom ceiling
and the house falls down around my ears.

The themes are various. With irony and anger as well as lyricism these poems confound the stereotypical expectations of women writing about relationships and the body. Hope, disappointment and despair are expressed but whether frustrated desire is sexual or political can be ambiguous. Sexual, matrimonial and domestic interweave with political and global. The false attractions of consumerism and globalisation are evident in Elena Medel’s three explorations of the hydrangea viewed in its domestic/ matrimonial and global context, as well as in Mercedes Cebrían’s poem about the history of migration of the exotic kiwi from New Zealand. For Julieta Valero, political ideals have been replaced by the drug of consumerism:

‘Here they reward the end of youth with a studio flat’

And in her poem, ‘Siddhartha on Google’:

People with children have access to lucid despair

People from the Southern hemisphere don’t have a problem with the abstract,
but they do fear tornados.

As I started to write this review I soon realised that it would be impossible to do justice to the variety of theme, mood and writing style of ten disparate poets but I have now come across this video produced by the Instituto Cervantes in Manchester that zoomed the launch of the book and I strongly recommend it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_leg09jCF4 Each of the ten poets reads two poems in Spanish and the translations are read by English women poets. It is a joy to hear, for example, the drama and musicality of the verse as Mariá Eloy-García reads her humorous, philosophical exploration of a soup bowl in ‘Tureen’. The Youtube video offers an extra dimension to this exciting collection.

Caroline Maldonado’s recent most translations from Italian include Isabella (2019) with poems by Renaissance poet, Isabella Morra, and Liminal, poems by Laura Fusco (2020) both published by Smokestack Books. This year she will be  editing a supplement of Italian poetry for The High Window.

*****

Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems by Makoto Ōoka translated by Janine Beichman and reviewed by Andrew Houwen

Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems by Makoto Ōoka. Translated by Janine Beichman. Kurodahan. $16. ISBN: 978-4-902075-95-3

Since its publication, this selection of the poems of Makoto Ōoka (1931-2017) has been awarded the 2019-2020 Japan-United States Friendship Commission Prize. This is a welcome development, but it deserves even broader recognition: all too often, modern Japanese poetry is still presumed to be derivative of Western poetry and ignored in favour of haiku and tanka. When I introduced Nishiwaki Junzaburō’s poem ‘Ame’ (‘Rain’), one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, to two distinguished American poetry critics, they were astounded even to find out that there was Japanese poetry not written in these traditional forms. Modern Japanese poetry has developed a distinctive combination of contemporary poetic techniques with Japan’s rich literary tradition.

Ōoka’s oeuvre embodies this combination of the modern and the traditional. As the poet Tanikawa Shuntarō’s preface observes, ‘Ōoka was never a blind worshipper of anything imported’ because of his ‘thorough knowledge of classical Japanese literature’ (ix). This knowledge was famously demonstrated in his daily poetry column in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Oriori no uta (‘Poems for All Seasons’), which he kept up for twenty years, seven days a week. These columns, though, were usually brief, encyclopaedic entries on particular poems and poets; it is in his own prodigious output of critical works on poetry and, as is evident from this collection, especially in his own poems that this knowledge was optimally put to use.

His poetic career began in the aftermath of World War II, with his first published poems dated to 1947. In 1954, he joined the Kai (‘Oars’) magazine, founded by Ibaragi Noriko and Kawasaki Hiroshi the year before, and in 1955 he demonstrated his growing interest in surrealism by joining the Surrealist Study Group with poets such as Iijima Kōichi. This led to his founding of Wani (‘Crocodile’) with Iijima and Yoshioka Minoru in 1959. By 1972, Ōoka had achieved international recognition with the inclusion of his work in Penguin’s Post-War Japanese Poetry and Thomas Fitzsimmons’s Japanese Poetry Now. This collection, however, only includes poems from his 1972 collection Tōshizuhō—natsu no tame no (‘A Perspective Diagram of Summer’) onwards.

The first quarter of a century of Ōoka’s oeuvre is thus excluded. Of course, poets, translators and editors are free to select poems as they please, but a brief explanation might have helped the unfamiliar reader with an understanding of how Ōoka’s career developed up to when this collection begins, especially if it is to be called a Selected Poems. The translator Janine Beichman’s surprise at hearing of Ōoka’s writing of ‘chinkon’ (‘requiems’), because she ‘had only heard it applied to the elegies of Kakinomoto Hitomaro, the great court poet of the eighth century’ (xiv), might also have been tempered by knowledge of Japanese post-war poetry collections such as Ibaragi’s Chinkonka (1965) or Irisawa Yasuo’s Waga Izumo waga chinkon (1968).

The translations themselves, though, stand out as beautiful poems in English. They tend towards the more liberal end of the spectrum, but this approach makes them all the more successful in their poetic effects. It makes Ōoka’s poetry appear more playful and less formally rigid than the originals can often be. ‘Chōfu I’ (a reference to the Tokyo suburb where he then lived), for instance, is a sonnet, a form popular with Kai poets such as Ibaragi and Tanikawa, as the latter’s 62 no sonneto (’62 Sonnets’) suggests. In Beichman’s translation, however, it is turned into a seventeen-line poem that cleverly foregrounds the dramatic emphasis on the ‘me’ (boku) at its conclusion. One need not know Japanese to appreciate Beichman’s decision in comparison with the original’s final tercet:

kumoma ni yuragu machi no tō ni yoromeitari shinagara
itsuka, betsu no kūki ni uzumaku, betsu no machi e
dete shimau boku (150)

so there, stumbling back from a tower that sways among clouds
then arriving, somehow, in another town, one
xxxxxx wreathed in a separate air
xxxxxxxxxxxxx is
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx me (29)

This playfulness with form is especially noticeable in Beichman’s use of space on the page in ‘Chōfu IV’. The ending of Ōoka’s original reads:

sono ue ni
hana ga chitte. (149)

This is the final image in a poem on the ‘noisy, cheerful cries’ of frogs in summer, louder even than ‘all you Mick Jaggers’, for ‘Four or five days running’ before they ‘reenter the earth’, ‘Their duties fulfilled’ (30). Their evanescent life is compared to the blossoms of the ‘cherry trees’ falling over them (30). A literal rendering would simply give these lines as ‘Above them / petals scattering’. But Beichman’s translation enlivens this conclusion with a wonderfully evocative mimicking of the petals’ scattering on the page:

Above them
petals
s
xc
xxa
xxt
xt
e
r
xi
xxn
xxg (31)

Ōoka’s work is at its most successful when it is most profoundly informed by his ‘knowledge of classical Japanese literature’. The best example of this, perhaps, is ‘Raifu Sutōrii’ (‘Life Story’). The original is a haiku in one line (as haiku are usually printed in Japanese) followed by three units of seven Japanese syllables in its second line:

ichiwa demo uchū wo mitasu tori no koe

niwa demo uchū ni jūman suru tori no seijaku (137)

In the first line, though there is only one bird, its cry fills the universe; in the second, though there are only two, their silence inundates (jūman suru, a near-synonym, yet greater, for the first line’s mitasu) the universe. When read in the context of the collection as a whole, it brings to mind the affection between Ōoka and his wife, the playwright Fusake Saki, which permeates his poetry.
Beichman’s innovative version is remarkably apt in capturing the two moments of perception that come together in one universe:

The cry of a single bird fills up
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx: the universe
The silence of two birds overflows (48)

The two lines thus dovetail into ‘the universe’ they share. In this way, the translation beautifully imitates in its layout the sense of unspoken connection between the two birds in the second line. It is this poem that most fittingly represents Ōoka’s foremost preoccupation in his poems: ‘To talk about love and nothing but love’, as Beichman puts it in her introduction, ‘and yet rarely use the word: that may be what we remember him for best’ (xvi). As these examples clearly show, Beichman’s own love for Ōoka’s poetry brings out the best in his work.

Andrew Houwen (1985-) is a translator of Dutch and Japanese poetry. His translation, with Chikako Nihei, of the prize-winning post-war Japanese poet Tarō Naka’s Music: Selected Poems was published with Isobar Press in 2018 after some of its poems had appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Shearsman, Tokyo Poetry Journal, Cha, Tears in the Fence, and Poetry Salzburg. His co-translation with Yosuke Tanaka of Paul Hetherington and Shane Strange’s poems into Japanese was brought out in Gendaishitechō. In September 10, 2017 he edited a supplement of Japanese poetry for The High Window

*****

Heaven by Manuel Vilas translated by James Womack and reviewed by Terence Dooley

Heaven by Manuel Vilas translated by James Womack. 12.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 1784108863

I was once at a poetry reading by a Welsh poet in the Festival Hall. He chewed gum all the way through his reading and I was rather impressed by this. Afterwards, I thought I had been rather childish to be impressed. Manuel Vilas, too, in these poems is 95% pose, cool and swagger: sex and booze and rock and roll, with a good dash of the poète maudit thrown in. The saving grace is the sheer energy of his writing and its voluminousness, and the flickering hope that he is sending himself up, at least some of the time.

Vilas has just had a huge success in Spain with his novel Ordesa, soon also to appear in English. It’s a Knaussgardian autofiction, about his parents and his divorce, with hints of the unreliable narrator and a dirty realistic depiction of down-to-earth Spanish life. These two earlier poetry collections, Heaven and Heat, collected in one volume and expertly translated by James Womack, also rely heavily on first person narration, sometimes switching to third person with Manuel Vilas as the subject. (You have to love the title of a subsequent collection: Gran Vilas/Vilas the Great).

Many of the poems are extended anecdotes about one-night stands or gin-soaked all-nighters. They can also be almost biblically lyrical in the Whitman or Bukowski manner: ‘I kiss the ones who have nothing. / I kiss the ones who have lost it all. / I kiss those who no-one will kiss. // I kiss the light.’ (Or perhaps that’s more like Leonard Cohen at his most Paolo Coelho.) There’s something faintly old-fashioned about all of this, like the songs he quotes from the’60s or’70s.

James Womack has said that his first encounter with these poems was like being struck by lightning. Well, in the sense of being overwhelmed, dazed, and feeling a little queasy, I can see what he means.

Terence Dooley has published poems and translations in Ambit, Acumen, Agenda, The Compass, Envoi, The London Magazine, Long Poem Magazine, Poetry London, New Walk, POEM, Brittle Star, Envoi, MPT, Shearsman, Tears in the Fence, Dream Catcher, Ink Sweat & Tears, and in el cuaderno and Quimera (Spain). In May 4, 2020 he edited a supplement of Spanish poetry.

*****