Centres of Cataclysm

Celebrating Fifty Years of Modern Poetry in Translation

/ by Matt Bryden

We’re in safe hands in the editorship of Sasha Dugdale and David and Helen Constantine. As Dugdale explained at the launch of her second issue in the Romanian embassy, helming the magazine founded by Daniel Weissbort and Ted Hughes in 1965 is a dream job, and one that people tend to hold for decades, rather than years.

 

The poems in this generous anthology contain not just a number of favorites – “The Fly” by Miroslav Holub, “The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets” by Ferenc Juhász (translated by Ted Hughes) – that in themselves justify the admission fee, but they are arranged in a series of “seams” (loosely devised as aftershocks from “centres of cataclysm,” a phrase from the first editorial). The selections often remind us of individual issues, such as the children’s focus issue in 2015, represented here by Michael Rosen’s lucid explanation of poetry’s benefits for children and teenagers; or a particularly strong four pages from the “Constellation” issue, containing an account of Bertolt Brecht’s relationship with his “friend, lover and collaborator” Margarete Steffin, an illustration of two lovers by Núria Quevedo, and a poem by Brecht and one in response by Steffin.

 

Dugdale bemoans her “poem-blindness” while compiling this anthology, but the whole thing works beautifully. We are given an introduction to some of the magazine’s staple writers – Miroslav Holub, Primo Levi, Vasko Popa – and translators – Michael Hamburger receives tribute – as well as extracts from editorials over the years. It’s a lovely mix: contemporary poets such as Paul Batchelor, Frances Leviston and Michael Donaghy appear, and there is a strong essay by Chris McCabe on Ernst Jandl – “he means business” – which does a good job of persuading me that he counts for much.

 

Engagement is the key word here – poets deliberate over how best to represent a poem and do it justice. As such, we learn a lot about poetry. Yehuda Amichai: “I want to be involved and avoid writing, and then to be detached and write.” Elaine Feinstein: “I know exactly how much I learnt from Maria Tsvetaeva technically, for instance, the use of personae…”

 

Potted biographies appear below each poem, to powerful effect. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s exuberant “Towards the Baths of Caracalla” is followed by this quotation from N.S. Thompson:

 

Pasolini was an inveterate night owl, prowling Rome’s streets and low life for sex. It is thought these dangerous exploits led to his murder. He was found battered to death on a beach.

 

Following the really-quite-harmless “Swans,” it’s a shock to read that “The poem… probably led to Draj-Kmara’s arrest and subsequent death in the Soviet penal system.” The biography for the author of one of the most beautiful poems here, “Donne Appassionate,” reads:


Cesare Pavese (1908 – 1950), poet, writer, translator, was imprisoned and, in 1935, sent into internal exile for anti-fascist activities. After the war he joined the Communist party. Depression led to his eventual suicide.

 

Does this cast a darker light on the poem than would otherwise exist? It’s hard to say.

 

                                                           *

 

Helen and David Constantine explain in the introduction that “we understood the ‘modern’ in the magazine’s title to mean any new and lively version of any poetry of any age.” It was a good call. Take the closing lines of Gabriel Levin’s “Self-Portrait in Khaki:”

 

Vanity boxes abandoned in the sedge.

Rare musical instruments, swaddled

in quilt, splash overboard in the mad

scramble to man the small vessels.

This is why even after a thousand

years, the surf riddles the shoreline

with such a melancholic sound.

 

This poem was originally published in MPT in March 1993, and the quoted lines are an adaption from the English version (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa) of Bashō’s “Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel.” Yet what could be more relevant to today’s “real, present context… namely the biggest wandering of peoples since the Second World War and the ceaseless annexation of life by the markets,” as David and Helen Constantine put it?

 

Elsewhere, it’s fascinating to find correspondences between poems of different countries and cultures. Vasko Popa’s “How the Mole Came to Be” resembles a condensed version of the myth of Erischython; Ovid comments on his own status as a poet (“one who versed with bite”) in Paul Batchelor’s excellent version from Tristia; a Tamil poem from between the first and third centuries reads like a version of Deor, one in which there is still a chance to cajole the king into re-considering; re-imaginings of the myth of Daphne come from China as well as the hands of Sujata Bhatt (“Another Daphne,” itself based on Rilke’s “O Desire Transformation”); while “Genealogy” by Eleni Vakalo takes place in the shadow of Niobe, a mother making a pact to preserve her children’s lives by sacrificing the youngest.

 

                                               *

 

As befits a medium that for most of its life was orally transmitted, a number of poems share qualities with music. Primo Levi describes the instinct to sing as being so elemental it is beyond explication:

 

We had these thoughts and others

As long as we could sing.

But it’s all hard to explain,

Being a cloudlike thing.

           

Amarjit Chaden’s Punjabi folk songs from World War One feature “the womenfolk – mothers, sisters and wives” as the protagonists, while Nikiforos Vrettakos’s “The Orange Trees of Sparta” is written from the point of view of someone of the opposite gender, a common folksong trait. Anna Kühn-Cichocka’s “Here the houses…” is taken from a pamphlet in which she describes A Little Town with a View on the River – a place she has never visited, but had heard about extensively from a friend. Another example of transmission.

 

The value of record, witness and account is a recurrent theme. In her essay “Why I do not write in my native language,” Romanian Carmen Bugan explains that after a show trial to discredit and destroy her father, “I knew that writing was important for keeping the day alive in our minds.” The anonymous “Dear Fahimeh,” which closes:

 

Your name is beautiful for young girls born in July.

 

honors a woman executed in Iran in 1982. It was memorized by a woman in solitary confinement before being translated. How altered is it?

 

Other poems are terrible records:

 

Scrawled in pencil in a sealed car

 

Here in this transport

I Eve

and Abel my son

if you should see my older son

Cain Adam’s son

tell him that I

 

The survival of these pieces seems important as a counter to people who would erase them.

 

                                               *

 

“The finding was to be in the looking,” writes Sasha Dugdale, of a visit to Ukraine. Indeed, browsing these pages, I was surprised to encounter a found-poem from Bulgaria (“My mother reads poetry” by Georgi Gospodinov), titles that are as perfect as it gets (I’m thinking Marina Boroditskaya’s “So Much Gentleness from Unknown Men…”) or first lines to die for (“Here’s a village where they don’t much die, it seems” –Jacques Réda’s “The Fête”).

 

Some poems mimic the Q and A absurdity of interrogations:

 

  • And what do you call this country?
  • My country.

 

(“Excerpt from an Inquest,” Sahih Al-Qasim)

 

or the unthinking compliance (and expiation) of citizens:

 

Did you serve even when bitches crawled under the table?

Blame it on the party.

 

                                   (“Advice for Sycophants,” Jiří Kolář)

 

Excellently, it takes Attila József to lose his temper, tiring of hearing a man despair of his lot, complaining of having been born “not a fighter.”

 

            O get him out of here, away –

            he is our enemy, he and his misty eyes –

            our problems squat right in front of us, with iron claws on the cold stove.

 

                                               (“What Should a Man Do?”)

 

Details impress with their authenticity:

 

            The Kilmichael ambush happened at the far end of the parish;

I used to fancy it was my grandfather who provided

The Volunteers’ bucket of tea the night before it.

 

                                               (“The Parlour,” Liam Ó Muirthile)

 

or, after 16 lines describing a woman’s character, finally nailing it in the last line:

 

her death will be hushed, foreign.

 

(“The Foreigner,” Gabriela Mistral)

 

 

This is an anthology that embodies its own arguments for the benefits of poetry in translation. You can disagree with the gloss – as I did with Karen Leeder’s comment that Sunjat Bhatt’s poem “Another Daphne” sounds “a melancholy note” – but the ethos of MPT is that we engage with the work, whether we agree or disagree with it. As such, this poem by Shinjiro Kurahara (1899 – 1965) seems to sum up the editors’ endeavor.

 

A Footprint

(dictated in his last illness)

 

Long ago

a fox ran along a clayey river bank.

After an interim of ten thousand years

a footprint

turned fossil

remains.

Look at it and you’ll see what the fox was thinking while running.

....
Matt Bryden

is a poet and EFL teacher, which has taken him to Tuscany, Poland and the Czech Republic. His pamphlet Night Porter, which documents life in a Yorkshire hotel, won the Templar Pamphlet and Collection award 2010. His first collection Boxing the Compass was launched at Keats House in 2013. In the same year, his translation of the Taiwanese poet Ami, The Desire to Sing after Sunset, was launched at the Taipei Literature Festival. He lives in Somerset and is a Fire River Poet. 


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