Friday, October 31, 2008

Cossacks and Bandits

Katia Kapovich's latest collection - Cossacks and Bandits (Salt Publishing, 2008) - continues the appealing lyrical narrative style of her earlier Gogol in Rome. The two collections trace a shifting focus, from émigré to immigrant, from memories of Russia to observations of the United States. There's more of the present in the new book, and not only in the references to JPEGs and, but in the reservoir of experience from which the poems are drawn. The juxtaposition of two narratives in the poem 'The Bells' where the sequiturs aren't quite clear achieves a stronger effect than some of the simpler more direct pieces; but the simpler lyrical pieces are very appealing and have something of the affable clarity that you might find in the work of, say, Hugo Williams, although the content is quite different. There are the slight dislocations of language: "now you must rebuild the whole structure / out of the rabble in your mind" ... should that 'rabble' perhaps be 'rubble'? A blending of words possibly stemming from the absence of a short u sound in Russian? Or the odd strange article: "An obnoxious driver of the orange Porsche / changing lanes like a pigeon hops branches" ... here a pleasant enough insight is cut through by what seems like a wrong article, giving a strange electrostatic charge to the lines. But of course Kapovich is deeply aware of the ambiguities around the linguistic position of the immigrant, and the possible advantages its outsider status can confer upon a poet. In the poem 'Tutor' she recounts a story of teaching a Russian kid with some language and learning difficulties some basic English, managing to go as far as basic statements such as 'The sky is blue. The grass is green. The paper is white.' The poem ends with what could be a metaphor for the language trick of poetry:

The next thing I knew, he was dating an American girl.
"Anton, my goodness, how did that happen?"
He looked at me seriously. "I told her, 'Look! The sky is blue!
The grass is green! The paper is white! What is your name?'"

Monday, October 13, 2008

Baedeker poetry?

Kris Hemensley in a recent post looking at an essay by Petra White zeroes in on her use of term 'Baedeker poetry' - specifically in the context of her question "Can we write about the effect a place has on us, avoiding Baedecker poetry?". The derogatory import here of the term 'baedeker poetry' would perhaps seek to invalidate one of the occasions for poetry; and it is tempting to see all poetry as occasional. Laurie Duggan in a diary entry from August 2003 wrote "I’d mentioned to Kris that I’ve started to see myself as a kind of ‘occasional’ poet – no less a seriousness about poetry, just an awareness of its contingency". Duggan's recent poem on Milan and those poems John Forbes wrote while in Rome seem Baedekerish, but they are good poems. To disparage poems written in response to travel seems 'occasionalist'. Although of course the occasion of travel, like the occasions of love or love-gone-wrong, might inspire a lot of third-rate work, but that's another matter. Petra White has described "a dreary parade of random otherness" and this might locate the problem - poems should simply not be dreary. But if this is the crux of the objection, why the term 'baedeker poetry'?

The term was used in a 1969 paper by Vladimir Markov which was a 'reappraisal' of Konstantin Dmitriyevich Balmont (1867 - 1942), poet & translator of Poe and Shelley and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Markov described Balmont's sequence Аккорды (Akkordy - Chords) as 'baedeker poetry': it contains short lyric pieces such as Пред картиной Греко В музее Прадо, в Мадриде (Before a picture of El Greco in the Prado Museum, Madrid), Английский пейзаж (English countryside), В Оксфорде (In Oxford), and Крымская картинка (Crimean picture). This is work in the same line as Wordsworth's "Memorials of a Tour in the Continent, 1820' and 'Memorials of a Tour in Italy, 1837'.

Taking a broader view we could even see the origins of pastoral being cityfolks' nostalgic descriptions of a distant country life: Theocritus scribbling his idylls amid the clamour and stench of Alexandria. And of course the nostalgia for a lost bucolic life is rendered also in the classical Laments for Adonis - elegy and pastoral meet. Here is Theocritus rendered by Barbara Hughes Fowler:

Bear violets now, O brambles, bear violets, thorns, and let
the lovely narcissus bloom on juniper trees. Let all
be opposite of all, and let the pine bear pears
since Daphnis is dying. Let the stag drag the hounds.
From mountain tops let owls sing to nightingales.

Which sets the tone of deploration for poetic grief for the next couple of thousand years:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!

Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death!

Anyhow, as a reader who has been known to enjoy books by Bruce Chatwin or Bill Bryson or H. V. Morton, I think there's definitely a place for the undreary baedeker poem and its parade of details.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cioran's tatters

#6 of Kris Hemensley's The Merri Creek is out, or rather up. A poem by David Wheatley caught my eye; it's called 'Emil Cioran in Tatters' - an interesting title in that Cioran - the Romanian writer whose 1820 page Œuvres (Quarto Gallimard) & the 999 page Cahiers 1957 - 1972 (nrf Gallimard) are almost entirely composed of fragments and aphorisms, gnomes and apothegms - could be seen to have always been in tatters - pre-tattered, as it were. Tatters - torn scraps - was his considered approach. Wheatley's poem displays an appealing clarity in the language, and its dance of thought is engaging. The poem reads like a jazz improvisation over a selection of Cioran's remarks, and this brings with it something of Empson's 'puzzle-interest' or Elgar's Enigma, a game of 'spot the reference', so the twelve numbered stanzas (ordered in reverse like a NASA countdown or a microwave's metronomic progress) can seem like a quick quiz from the pages a popular magazine: 'Are YOU a real Cioran buff?'. I scored maybe 3 out of 12. Wheatley writes: 'I'd rather have been a plant, you bet,/ and spent my life guarding a piece of shit" which reminds me of Cioran's ' "One is in paradise only as a plant". A risk of the approach is that the underlying theme may strike some readers as more potent than the variation: to Wheatley's "Approach each day as a Rubicon / not to cross but to jump in and drown" I prefer Cioran's "Chaque jour est un Rubicon où j'aspire à me noyer" ("Each day is a Rubicon in which I aspire to be drowned"): that word 'aspire' hits and holds a high note in the sentence's melody, and packs much force into its punch. Similarly we may compare Wheatley's "Never to sleep, the insomniac's curse:" with Cioran's "Le paradis et l'enfer ne présentent d'autre différence que celle-ci: on peut dormir, au paradis, tout son soûl; en enfer, on ne dort jamais." (transl. André Vornic) ("The only difference between paradise and hell: you can sleep in paradise, never in hell.") Cioran died in 1995 at the age of 84 - in his youth he had been an active supporter of Nazi ideas - I wonder if he's sleeping.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Typo Brides

Tucked in the back of his A&R New and Selected - a copy once borrowed by the poet in haste before a reading and returned many months later inscribed as a gift, if memory serves - I recently found a letter from John Forbes. It is dated 27 October 1993 - he was in the Australia Council Rome apartment at the time. In it he seems to make a typing error - instead of 'Harbour Bridge' he writes 'Harbour Bride'. Peter Porter records a similar typo in his poem 'Brides come to the Poet's Window' whose first line explains "Birds, it should have been, but pleasure quickens." Forbes jokes about a MONUMENTAL STATUE of John Tranter "to be erected over the south pylons of the Harbour Bride like? The Harbour Bride? che cosa?" and then follows a draft of the poem which was later published as 'The Harbour Bride'. I'll leave it to the scholars to determine if this is the first draft.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Which verb for a scrutiny?

And as I scrutinised the down-turned face
With that pointed narrowness of observation
We bear upon the first-met stranger at dawn

Sound familiar? That's Eliot In the second typed draft of 'Little Gidding', perhaps unconsciously echoing Milton's "narrower scrutiny" in Paradise Regained. Eliot reworked this in the third typed draft:

And as I bent upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the first faint light

John Hayward - with whom Eliot corresponded at length during the process of revision - wrote in the margin 'scrutinised / bend a scrutiny?'. Perhaps it was an idiom with which Hayward was not familiar. I found an old page from the Palmyra Democrat (New York) of the 1890s with the phrase "He bent a scrutiny". "He would bend intent scrutiny to the dial" appears in Louis Joseph Vance's first in a series of novels about a jewel-thief turned detective - "The Lone Wolf" (1914), and Mrs Woodrow Wilson uses the figure in her 1917 book 'The Hornet's Nest' (a title which was incidentally used by former President Jimmy Carter for his novel about the Revolutionary War).

The phrase appears again in Vernon Watkins' poem 'Swedenborg's Skull'

Caught up from the waters of change by a traveller who bends
His piercing scrutiny

In the end Eliot decided on fixing a scrutiny rather than bending one.

As I fixed upon that down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Unpacking the Boxes

Donald Hall's latest book - Unpacking the Boxes - is a memoir covering various periods in the poet's life: school, Harvard, & Oxford are dealt with in turn; the first marriage is skipped over, so too the years with Jane Kenyon which were covered in his earlier The Best Day The Worst Day. Some of the childhood and family background material goes back over ground already explored in his earlier Life Work. The large gaps for both marriages give the book a strange feel - like what is left over from a piece of card when shapes have been cut from it. The last chapter deals largely with the blow-by-blow difficulties and indignities of health problems he suffered immediately preceding his appointment as U.S. poet laureate; the chapter opens with a wonderful paragraph: "When you are three years old and your socks are falling down, somebody says, "Pull up your socks, Donnie." Then you are twelve, solitary, reading books all day, then twenty-five and a new father, burping your son at two A.M. When you turn forty, divorced, your life is a passage among disasters. Then you marry again, you are happy, you turn sixty, your wife dies. Then you are eighty and your socks fall down again. No one tells you to pull them up."