Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for the ‘Collaboration’ Category

‘Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1’ (trans. by Ian Brinton & Michael Grant)

In Collaboration, Pamphlets, Translation on September 9, 2013 at 9:30 am

 

-Reviewed by Hayden Westfield-Bell

 

Ian Brinton and Michael Grant team up to translate the poems of Yves Bonnefoy in the aptly named Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1, a new chapbook published by Oystercatcher Press. The authors capture Bonnefoy’s delicate, stark environments and present them through a characteristically minimal style; mimicking Bonnefoy’s efficient yet powerfully effective use of vocabulary and accentuating the sensual nature of his poems. Though unsteady in places, Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1 is a finely crafted collection of probing poetry.

In an article on Arcadia Review, Hoyt Rogers describes the difficult process of translating Bonnefoy’s poems, he begins with the word ‘boat’, which Bonnefoy describes as ‘“a fundamental metaphor” of his work’. Yet Bonnefoy rejects the French word bateau, the generic word for boat, opting instead for barque, which indicates a smaller or rowing boat. Hoyt examines barque; ‘it parallels bateau; the problem lies in the subtler realm of tone, of connotation’, but, unable to find an alternative in English he turns to Bonnefoy for clarification, who argues that barque is particularly evocative because “between the consonants the vowel forms the same dark hollow we see in a boat between the curved planks of the prow and stern”. Nevertheless, ‘lacking an identical twin for barque, [Hoyt has] to settle for boat’. The difficulty of translating Bonnefoy is thus made apparent; every word must be felt, sounded, considered, tasted and tested before an adequate replacement can even be considered, yet also (in Bonnefoy’s own words); ‘while language is a system, the speech of poetry is presence […] the ontological rightness of our [the translator’s] new-found images matters more much more than whether they match term by term, in skin-deep resemblance, those of the original’. The act of translating is ‘an onerous task’, one that I don’t envy…

Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1 opens with ‘The Lizard in Place’; where a startled lizard ‘freezes / And feigns death’ whilst the observing narrator muses on its paralysis. The reptiles’ defensive inaction is ‘the first step of consciousness in stone […] A great fire infused’ that excites the observer; ‘I love its grip on silence […] its pause before the hour of victory’. The poem as a whole is a valuable introduction to Bonnefoy’s work: while deconstructing the lizard’s action the narrator uncovers a number of core concepts, that of the spirit, of the eternal, and of silence. The relationships between these concepts are then explored, enjoyed, and finally understood as a whole, emphasised by the closing line ‘holding its grip on the earth’. We find solidity, definition, we fully understand the lizard and its action. We will see similar movements in later poems, though their shifts occur rapidly and with greater complexity.

‘Siren Song’ marks the beginning of the more melancholic poems, ‘You are alone, enclosed by dark boats’ with ‘grey water’ and ‘fatal shores’. We find another ‘heart’ in the poem, and are introduced to a number of objects that make an appearance later. The long lines and large amount of commas add to the melancholic tone, softening the poem into a dark stillness which resurfaces in ‘Medusa’, ‘The Iron Bridge’ and ‘The Ordeal’. Though a powerful poem, ‘Siren Song’ is dwarfed by the intense lines ‘shrouds itself in the nights wound’ and ‘its sliced throat an absence that the blood devours’ of ‘Shore of another Death’ on the opposing page. Gripping again at the core items of ‘heart’, ‘oil’, ‘death’ and ‘sword’, ‘Shore of another Death’ grapples with a bird’s mortality through minimal surreal imagery. Each line bristles with connotations; ‘the boat, pulled back riding the movement of the tide’ and the suggestion of an ‘other shore of darkness’ summons visions of the Styx, whereas ‘to die in the severed light’ appears religious, suggesting sanctity. Though dense with visions and description, the poem reads well and can be enjoyed quickly, though the thick nature of the lines rewards the more persistent reader. Nevertheless, I found the lack of question marks at the end of some lines a little disorientating, we see this in ‘Siren Song’ (‘Are you walking upon this earth that moves’), and in ‘Shore of another Death’ (‘What was it more than a voice that desires not to lie’).

There are several odd moments in the chapbook where the syntax appears unsettled, such as the opening to ‘The Ordeal’ (‘I was the one who walks / With care for a last muddied water’) and from ‘Shore of another Death’, (‘As the boat, pulled back riding’). The poems continue as if the lines slotted in perfectly with the others, though they stand out awkwardly. These oddities are, however, few and are easily forgotten when reading the more intricately carved poems, ‘I often hear’, ‘You will make your bed’, ‘To the Voice of Kathleen Ferrier’ and the poems towards the rear of the book, such as ‘The Ravine’, ‘The Eternity of Fire’ et al. In these later poems – reading them with the knowledge of the items and concepts explored in the earlier poems – we become aware of the bold strokes of the authors, the sure-but-not-certain approach to his subject that gradually becomes apparent as they plays with his pieces from poem to poem. ‘The Iron Bridge’ is particularly skilful.

Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1 is an accomplished collection of translations that touches on the delicate nature of existence through mystical, spiritual landscapes, probing the philosophy of language and pulling the reader into the desperate depths of Bonnefoy’s poetry.

 

 

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‘Metamorphosis of Woman/ Realms of Man’ by Leilanie Stewart and Joseph Robert

In Collaboration, Pamphlets on August 24, 2013 at 9:24 am

-Reviewed by Jenna Clake

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Metamorphosis of Woman/ Realms of Man is written by husband and wife Joseph Robert and Leilanie Stewart. The pamphlet is quirky, experimental and full of personality, and the reader is prepared for this by the chapbook’s reversible format:  on one side sits Stewart’s Metamorphosis of Woman; on the other is Robert’s Realms of Man. In the middle you will find the poets’ biographies, which are charmingly vague and self-irreverent, accompanied by photographs of inanimate objects (clothes for Stewart, a screwed-up piece of paper and monochrome squares for Robert).

Metamorphosis of Woman contains fourteen pages of self-published poems. Stewart employs distinctive voices in each poem, creating speakers that are honest, blunt and cynical; this creates a tone that is not dissimilar to Jennifer L Knox’s A Gringo Like Me. ‘Enlightenment’, the pamphlet’s second poem, begins with cynicism:

‘I got stuck
in the hole of enlightenment
my ass was too big to fit through’

‘Enlightenment’ questions the validity of religion, throwing Stewart’s work immediately into a contentious realm. However, the speaker’s candour is so irresistible, that one finds it difficult to be offended. That is not to say that Stewart is running away from controversy; she is able to present contentious issues in a way that invite consideration, therefore encouraging the reader to engage with her work and point of view. However, one gets the impression that even if the reader were offended, the forthright speaker wouldn’t really care.

Stewart’s ability to create voice in poetry is her talent. Her speakers are clearly envisioned, communicating Stewart’s opinions of her own writing: she half-heartedly laments her inability to write ‘nice, neat poems/ about winter, or cats’ in ‘Voodoo’. This should not be mistaken for self-deprecation, however. Stewart’s exuberant personality is in every poem, and it is ultimately refreshing.

Joseph Robert’s Realms of Man likewise contains fourteen pages of poems, which are quite distinct from Stewart’s. While Robert focuses on voice too, his interest is in the sounds these voices make, recreating their idiosyncrasies in a series of monologues and conversations.

Robert’s pamphlet is far more concerned with form and linguistic play than Stewart’s. Realms of Man includes acrostics and miniature crosswords, and experiments with grammar (or a lack thereof).   A personal favourite, ‘Oi! Nope. Oh? Wine Dark’ dissects the meaning of each word in its first line to divulge the protagonist’s lack of confidence and success in an interesting and original way.

The difference in the types of personae that Stewart and Robert write is also interesting. Robert’s are less cynical than Stewart’s, and perhaps more emotionally wrought at times. ‘Deli-Sliced’ implements one of Zeno’s paradoxes, Achilles and the Tortoise, to communicate the speaker’s inability to inhabit the same emotional space as the addressee. The paradox is as follows: ‘In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.’ The poem is surreal, with the speaker describing cutting a room into ‘ten-thousand samey cubes’. The persona’s train of thought is also difficult to follow, with each line ending with a dash, creating a stream-of-conscious narrative. However, the final line of ‘Deli-Sliced’, ‘You ever visited, and never stayed’ creates poignancy and direction, by finally revealing the speaker’s failure to maintain a relationship with another person.

Throughout both collections there are references to ancient history, usually in relation to language, which most likely stem from Stewart’s background in archaeology. Robert writes about ‘Hittite grammars’ in ‘Solar’, while Stewart devotes a whole poem, ‘Stoichedon’ to the ancient Greek practice of engraving, to discuss our inability to communicate effectively; this is a recurring theme in both collections.

It is evident why the poets have chosen to self-publish collaboratively: their work shares enough similarities to make the pamphlet seem unified, without one over-shadowing the other or the work blending into one undefinable collection. Metamorphosis of Woman/ Realms of Man is a largely successful pamphlet, and it is entertaining at the very least.

‘Whitehall Jackals’ by Chris McCabe and Jeremy Reed

In All of the Above, Collaboration, Conversation, Play of Voices on July 23, 2013 at 9:34 am

-Reviewed by Billy Mills

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Whitehall Jackals is a collaborative poem sequence written by Chris McCabe, a Liverpool-born, London-based poet whose work is new to me, and long-standing British avant garde poetry landmark  Jeremy Reed. The work is a kind of psychogeographic plunge into London in alternating voices, a tangled weave of intersecting, parallel and divergent lines through and across the actual and imagined city, a pattern woven in the shadow of Blair’s war on Iraq and the City’s war on probity and community as the poets swap perceptions and realities with something approaching what might once have been called gay abandon.

Reed’s introduction lists a number of antecedents: Black Mountain, the New York School, the British Revival poets Barry MacSweeney, Tom Raworth, Iain Sinclair and J.H. Prynne; though I have to say I just don’t get Prynne’s presence here at all. The poems themselves reference more, among whom Blake and David Jones and T.S. Eliot are the most visibly present. The result, allowing for the differences in style between the two men, is a recognisably late 20th/early 21st century ‘experimental’ idiom in which the relatively high proportion of stressed syllables in the average line creates an insistent, almost relentless verse dynamic with sentences that are rich in nouns. Adjectives are piled one upon another in hieratic visionary utterances laced with verbs that serve to move us from one gesture to the next.

White static runs to the reaches of ceramics & wires
as the river chants its outtakes.

(CM)

The tattooed boozed-up brawler on Hog Lane,
knuckles slashed to ketchup dollops,
fighting at knife-point in rain’s
persistent steamy shattering

(JR)

There are strong echoes of Sinclair’s 1970s poetry, specifically the two key books Ludd Heat and Suicide Bridge and of Blake’s prophetic books, but not the lyric voice of the Songs of Innocence/Songs of Experience, with consequences that I will return to later.

In many respects, I found it useful to think of this book in terms of the visual arts. Reed is a self-confessed plein air poet, writing a public life in public places, his words saturated in the here and now of their genesis, but also in his inner visionary not here, not now, as if Blake had painted after Monet.

Sea-green Starbucks cardboard wrapper
as hot finger stops on a paper cup
sipped on a street chair facing Heron Tower’s
47 storeys – clear reflective glass
like a hologrammed vertical coffin –

McCabe is something more of a studio-based collage artist, carefully integrating bits of found language from text-bearing street furniture, product labelling and the like into his poems.

THE RIVER HOUSE, flagged by a lamp-post’s tag –
Do not dig within two metres of this mast.
Every view of Chelsea is a vista of weathercocks.

The jackals of the title are equally Blair and his WMD advisors and the Tory politicians who connived with their wealthy patrons in the yuppification of the city (the last quote above, for example, is from a poem called ‘The Chelsea of Wilde and Thatcher’ and there are other sections on the Docklands development). However it would be misleading to suggest that the focus is narrowly capital P political; there is a good deal of observation of the everyday life of the city and its residents and the geography they inhabit, as well as ruminations on its myth and history. As Reed says in one of his poems when writing about some wild poppies, ‘Like everything I see, they’re poetry’.

The inclusion of this less overtly political matter into the book provides much welcome light and shade and it is a pity that this range of content is not reflected in the formal aspects of the writing. The intensity of the versification works well for the most part, and as texts bounce back and forth between Reed and McCabe you can see them feeding off each other’s energies. However, it can become a little relentless, and this reader at least would have welcomed some more varied verbal music. In the absence of this more lyrical element, the reader can begin to feel that they on the receiving end of a magnificent but somewhat overwhelming harangue.

I also felt that the righteous anger directed at potentially criminal government actions and rampant consumer capitalism was somewhat undermined by the celebrations of the equally illegal illicit drugs trade and of the hardly uncommercial Rolling Stones, David Bowie and the likes. The conflation of drugs, rock and roll and rebellion seems somehow a little too easy, and more than a little dated.

These criticisms aside, Whitehall Jackals is a very interesting and worthwhile read. You can sense that the poets enjoyed doing the work and learned a good deal from each other in the process. Despite the reservations I have expressed in this review, their enthusiasm is infectious and you can’t help but be carried along by it. Anyone interested in the poetry of London will find it an important addition to the genre.