No 8 - Autumn 2005
Jean Boase-Beier, Alexandra & Fiona Sampson, eds.: A Fine Line: New Poetry from Eastern & Central Europe. 2004. 268 pp. ISBN 1 900072 97 1, £11.95 pb.
Yannis Kondos: Absurd Athlete, transl. David Connolly, introd. David Constantine. Arc Visible Poets 11. 2003. 108 pp. ISBN 1 900072 76 9, £8.95 pb.
Ernst Meister: Between Nothing and Nothing, transl. Jean Boase-Beier, introd. John Hartley Williams. Arc Visible Poets 10. 2003. 127 pp. ISBN 1 900072 38 6, £8.95 pb.
All published by Arc Publications, Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Road, Todmorden, Lancs OL14 6DA, GB.
Anselm Hollo, ed. & transl.: Five from Finland. London: Reality Street Editions, 2004. 112 pp. ISBN 1 874400 21 0, £7.50 pb.
Tessa Ransford, ed. & transl.: The Nightingale Question: 5 Poets from Saxony. Exeter: Shearsman, 2004. 106 pp. ISBN 0 907562 52 3, £8.95/ US$13.95 pb.
Four years ago, I walked into a bookshop in the Slovakian city of Žilina, in search of a street map and shelter from the rain. Although my knowledge of Slovak is effectively non-existent, I decided to check the poetry shelves, in an attempt to get a (very!) general sense of what was being published and at what price. The work displayed was predominantly Slovak, as one might expect, but there were also translated volumes. Three of these were by contemporary English language writers – the writers, amusingly and intriguingly, were Seamus Heaney, David Antin and Billy Childish.
What could a school student in that city make of the state of contemporary English language poetry, if anything, on the basis of these three volumes alone? I deserve this question, because it can also be asked in terms of my own practice since I started to read poetry in the late Seventies, and began my attempts – known to be quixotic, even then – to attempt to map what had been produced, within 'modern' poetry, not only in the English-speaking world but also beyond.
Like most of my fellow islanders, my linguistic skills are negligible and I have been almost wholly dependent, therefore, on what is translated – even if I knew several languages, of course, there would be all the others I didn't know. My knowledge has been conditioned, accordingly, by a series of decisions I have not taken – by translators, publishers (including web-based publishers, of course) and bookshops – as well as by the levels of free time and income I have at my disposal. And, inevitably, the results are absurdly incomplete – a patchwork of strong zones, weak zones, known and unknown zones (and, of course, the 'unknown unknown' zones, areas I don't even know I don't know anything about), dependent upon fashions of attention and exposure to an overwhelming extent, and reliant, above all, upon a long-term act of faith (not universally shared, I know) in the possibility of translating poetry.
My motives, throughout this process of investigation, have been mixed. On the one hand, I've wanted to expand my knowledge of what other writers have been doing as individuals. On the other hand, because I tend to think in geographical/historical terms – and, in particular, because I've always had a strong, instinctive sense of 'European' identity – I've also tended to place the writers I've encountered within these contexts.
The result of this process of 'placing' can seem, admittedly, like one of those educational jigsaws in which whole counties, or countries, are 'represented' by symbols – Devon by a Dartmoor pony or a Tudor sailing ship, Hungary by a violin or perhaps a pepper, France by the Eiffel Tower and so on – except that, instead of these symbols, I have poems, names and sometimes faces. My map is distorted, because I know more about some literatures than others – Hungary is a lot larger than Spain, for example. Outside Europe, the dimensions go berserk, as on a Surrealist map – whole swathes of the globe, such as Indonesia, are terrae incognitae, inhabited by poets who, like the characters at the edge of the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral, carry their heads in their hands or tuck them under their non-existent chins.
So what is going on here, and – after all this time and effort – what do I do when I encounter new poets? Am I able to read them afresh or, with the best will in the world, am I simply inclined to shoehorn them into a narrative, like extra pieces I can somehow add to an evolving jigsaw? Is it even fair to consider poets from a particular time and place as 'exemplars' of what is going on within that context – or possible not to do so at all?
The task this review has set me raises these questions once again. For example – turning to the work of Ernst Meister (1911-1979), as collected in Between Nothing and Nothing – there are contentious issues to do with resemblance. On encountering his work, the names that came to my mind immediately are those of other, previously encountered German writers – namely Celan, Huchel and Brobowski. Indeed, John Hartley Williams, in his excellent introduction, argues that “of all poets I can think of (Paul Celan is perhaps another who comes to mind) Meister seems the one most bitterly alive to that extinction of consciousness which constitutes all human fate”. Like the aforementioned names – and predecessors such as Rilke, Trakl and Hölderlin – Meister can certainly be placed within a lineage of poetic alchemists, practitioners of a hermetic European modernist poetry that, perhaps, has been taken farthest in the German language but is certainly not confined to that context.
Apparently, Meister's 'recognised' work – unusually, perhaps (Jabès and Sisson also spring to mind) – dates primarily from the second half of his life. And this may well account for the way in which his poems obsess around a focus of personal mortality – expressing Heidegger's notion of 'being-towards-death', the concept that one's death is not only one's ultimate destination but also one's ultimate possession, a fleck of grit around which the pearl of authentic consciousness may form. Meister, indeed, is almost Jacobean in his fixation on the 'skull beneath the skin'. In one poem, “In Sète”, he writes –
The skulls beneath
I saw like this: you could
spoon the clay out
and, whereas a different cultural and ethnic context has spared him the horror that animates so much of Celan's output, there is also the lack of a shared cultural cure, with the effect that he appears, in his poems, to 'brood' over death like the 'strong bird' of Geoffrey Hill's early poem “In Memory of Jane Fraser”. Some readers will find his work powerful, in its capacity to focus their attention on their own mortality, and others will regard much of it as a depressing statement of the obvious – but, even if the latter applies, the precision and focus of Meister's language leads to a curiously optimistic counter-statement, which is to do with the role of language as a intra-personal defier of death, a kind of love that survives us. As he puts it, explicitly:
between nothing and nothing
I say love.
The apparent relationship between that hermetic lineage, and contemporary German poetry, is an interesting one – the rhetoric of 'elevated speech' having been called into question by the collective German experience during the previous century. Here, the tensions on the east side of the former border have, of course, been of a different order to those on the west side, in so far as the permitted rhetorics of the GDR drew, to some extent, upon the radical messianism of earlier German culture as well as the imported tropes of the Soviet Union. Five writers active at the tail end of this experiment, in the city of Leipzig, are featured in The Nightingale Question and – turning to my concerns regarding the 'placing' of writers – this anthology is couched very much in terms of its geographical and historical context. Indeed, editor and translator Tessa Ransford contributes some strongly referential (and sometimes formally quaint) material, pointing the reader towards a conception of these writers as 'representative' of a particular context (although worth reading for wider reasons too).
It's hard to get a sense of what a poet is trying to do without a sufficient sample of their work. Here, although The Nightingale Question totals 106 pages, the key material amounts to around half that – a quarter if one has no knowledge of German. The rest consists of Tessa Ransford's poems and anecdotes, line drawings of the poets (to add to the photographs on the front cover) and plenty of white space. So I'm not sure what conclusions I can draw – except that one of the five contributors, Elmar Schenkel (1953-) comes across most impressively. Schenkel, who has translated Hughes and Bunting (and who has lived for much of his life, as it happens, on the western side of the former border) writes an understated poetry of explicit reference and constructive irony – in “The School of Forgetting”, he develops the theme of forgetting, so pertinent to 'Ostiland', and “The Invisible Passage” draws effectively upon the distinct urban landscape of Leipzig, a “City of Passages” in which, allegedly, “the new City Hall (is) much older than the old one”. The innumerable, invisible passages he writes about in this text appear to mirror the post-Wende possibilities, each leading to a future city in a Borgesian multiverse.
Schenkel appears to be an accomplished writer on the strength of the four poems included, but I'm struggling to form a conclusive judgement on the other four: Wulf Kirsten (1934-), Uta Mauersberger (1952-), Andreas Reimann (1946-) and Thomas Rosenlöcher (1947-). There's a shared concern with history and with the German Romantic tradition (as mediated through Ulbricht-era pedagogy), but I suppose if I was as taken with their work as I was with Schenkel's I'd be able to say more. This is a just-about-a-book, and an expanded version – perhaps including some of Tony Frazers own accomplished translations – would be worth considering.
Preconceptions of 'national identity', as well as literary factors, can clearly affect our reading of new writers. In the case of a Greek writer like Yannis Kondos (1943-), for example, the expectation pattern may involve both a perception of how the writer reacts/relates to earlier 'names' – principally Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis and Ritsos – and a sense of what 'Greek' identity consists of. That risks banal simplifications, of course, that border on racial stereotyping – readings that see 'Greece' (as if it were possible to 'glance' at an entire country) in terms of brochure-launching words such as antiquity, folklore and sunlight.
Kondos defies this pattern of stereotyping in Absurd Athlete – in fact, he is almost an anti-Elytis, in that, whilst Elytis' poetry revels in its sun-drenched Aegean landscapes and pagan-surrealist profusion, Kondos' preferred climatic backdrops are laden with damp. For example, there's a poem entitled “Shoes in the rain” and another entitled “The forgotten raincoat” – we also encounter individual lines such as “My raincoat collar (is) a razorblade” (“The blind man and the body”) in a number of poems, building up an image of the poet as bedraggled private detective. There's sleet and snow too, as in “Distracted by love”
All night I was hewing wood, hewing words
in my sleep. I fashioned monologues,
and the sleet from the poem
pierced my bones and I froze.
Kondos, one of the so-called 'Generation of the Seventies' or 'Generation of Contention', may not be reacting deliberately against the tradition of Elytis and other self-consciously 'Hellenic' writers such as Sikelianos and Gatsos, but we certainly get a very different kind of poetry, a poetry that is close to Ritsos' in its amplification of everyday reality (as well as its privileging of questions over solutions) but tempered by contemporary experiences denied to his predecessor. In some ways, he's even like the Greek equivalent of still younger, socalled 'Northern School' writers in the UK such as Mark Robinson, Tim Cumming and David Crystal, and one could almost imagine his work coming out of a Northern European city in winter.
Whilst this defiance of expectations is refreshing, however, it's arguable that much of his poetry is constrained by its epiphanic character, more so than that of Ritsos which unexpectedly opens up into all sorts of territories – the poem that convinced the most, “Mosaic on the floor of a Byzantine house”, is perhaps least typical in its historical focus, and I'm quite prepared to accept that this says more about me than about him. Kondos is, apparently, a celebrated literary presence in Greece – thus more widely read, I suspect, than any of his contemporaries in the UK – and the humanism and care these poems exhibit suggest why.
There's often an element of risk involved in publishing poetry in translation, of course, in that the poets are often, inevitably, unknown in the recipient market – if things go badly, therefore, the result can be a heap of unsold books. This, I understand, is what has happened with Five from Finland, which was put out in 2001 by Reality Street Editions – hence the inclusion of this excellent (and well-presented) anthology here. The five poets therein – Mirkka Rekola (1931-), Kai Nieminen (1950-), Lauri Ontonkoski (1959-), Tomi Kontio (1966-) and Riina Katajavouri (1968-) are all prominent in what appears to be a poetry scene of some vigour – a terrain previously covered in a fine anthology edited by Herbert Lomas, Contemporary Finnish Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1991).
Whether or not it makes any sense to take these five poets as 'representative' of that scene, or of 'Finland' as an entity, is another matter. Kai Nieminen focuses on the familiar depiction of Finland as a small, prosperous, harmless country, to a degree, in his aphoristic sequences – Mirkka Rekola presents a maritime (presumably Baltic) landscape of boats, ships, docks and lighthouses in her delicate pieces that, as translator and editor Anselm Hollo puts it, work “on the edges of whereof we can, and whereof we cannot speak”. But Nieminen's pieces could be about any other such country, and Rekola's landscapes could be those of other maritime terrains (one writer she suggests, for example, is Lee Harwood). Lauri Ontonkoski and Riina Katajauvori, moreover, operate in a recognisably international realm of collapsing narratives, producing work that exhibits an interesting combination of curiosity and post-modernist detachment.
If there is a recognisably 'Finnish' poet here, in geographical terms, at all it would be Tomi Kontio – although Kontio's work might be read more convincingly as part of an emerging Arctic literature documented, for example, on the excellent Ice-Floe website. Kontio's contribution – principally a series of eight poems on the theme of the constellations, and texts in which themes of winter, ice and night also predominate – is remarkable, even shamanistic, in its sensitivity to a realm beyond human control. Exhibiting a remarkable openness to that realm, Kontio offers a way of writing about the “sound from the universe” (as he puts it) that is in no way inadequate to twenty-first century conditions, a series of breakthroughs that deny the cynical tendencies of contemporary culture and have the power to render that denial convincing. This is one complete poem, “Lyra”, presented as an argument to that effect –
Under the bark a seer lies hidden,
beginning and end and everything inbetween.
Space has sealed itself.
At night, a woman turned inside out,
seeds burst into stars,
in the belly of a thrush, a scroll for flowers is written.
The stars' pods are deep inside,
time wakes up with a start, is it Orpheus playing
to make one surmise how dark it is, how black the holes,
how space is our insides turned out.
It's nonsense, of course, to pin down writing with this degree of universality to any particular location, but it's also (even more dangerous?) nonsense to deny our experience of climate, topography, or the night sky. From Kontio's work, it's clear that that sky is a presence in his life, in the same way as some of the work of Léopold Sédar Senghor 'contains' the tropical skies of Senegal – and he has the sophistication to do it justice, in work that leaves me hungry to track down more.
Finland as it might have been – on the 'other' side of the Iron Curtain between the late Forties and 1989 – could have given rise to two very different anthologies to those edited by Lomas and Hollo. As the title of A Fine Line: New Poetry from Eastern & Central Europe suggests, a fine line divided Europe over that period and, in masseconomic terms, it still hasn't quite faded away. On the other hand, the opportunities for advancement that exist, and have existed, for the educated young seem considerable – one thing that comes across from the biographies of the twenty writers represented in the anthology, none of whom are over the age of forty, is the scale and diversity of their achievements beyond, as well as within, the field of poetry. It's a generation that appears to have hit the ground running, a generation with a greater sense of confidence and possibility than they may realise.
The anthology brings together work from ten countries – the eight post-Communist entrants to the EU (the three Baltic states, Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary and Slovenia) and the two next in line (Romania and Bulgaria) – each country being represented by two poets. The national entries are ordered, as far as possible, in a geographical sequence, with the proviso that we proceed, as if by way of a George Bush-like slip of the tongue, direct from Slovakia to Slovenia – the alternative, I suppose, would have been either to split the Hungarian contingent, give it a double weighting or invent a new country stretching in another 'fine line' from Mosonmagyarórvár down to Lenti.
Editor Fiona Sampson, in her introduction, is keen to emphasise that “these poets, in their enormous diversity, do not represent their cultures … (they) represent only themselves, presenting us with a series of dazzling snapshots of contemporary poetic practices rather than a textual map of their region” and contends that “to think otherwise … is to play cultural voyeur”. And, certainly, it would be absurd to try and guess anything about the 'national' literatures concerned from the examples herein. For example, in the case of Slovakia, the two writers included – Katarína Kucbelová (1979-) and Martin Solotruk (1970-) – contribute some of the most 'linguistically innovative' work in the collection, with Kucbelová for example, coming across as a kind of Carpathian Caroline Bergvall. But is that indicative of a poetic culture that thrives on experimentalism – on Antin, rather than Heaney or Childish to return to the Žilina bookshop – or just chance? There's no way a sample of this size can tell us.
However, Sampson then goes on to relate their work to another terrain, to that of Europe as a whole – suggesting that “a trope called 'Europe', refigured in a dozen languages, haunts this anthology”. Attracted as I am to this proposition, this work suggested a distinct terrain within Europe to me, rather than 'Europe' as a whole – a terrain in which, to simplify a complex picture, contemporary global consumerism pits itself against a particular set of cultural traces (from those left by Communism through to continuing folk traditions and the remains of past empires) in a multiple dialectic. The mix isn't quite the same elsewhere, and that's possibly why – particularly given the effect of all this upon an already-compelling set of landscapes – these lands compel so many outsiders to closer study.
That having been said, most of these writers appear to exhibit a relatively low degree of 'civic' consciousness in comparison with their generational predecessors. This is hardly surprising, however, given the extent to which writers of the previous generation in the region such as Barañczak or Petri were formed by their dissident experiences, and the great generation of 'survivor poets', born mainly in the Twenties, by the overwhelming experience of the Second World War. Nor does it mean that this work lacks outreach – this is generally accomplished, not by an appeal to shared citizenship, but by a sophisticated use of narrative which reconciles the mythic, the social and the textual.
Out of the twenty, only a couple of writers failed to convince and it's quite possible that the translations, or the choice of material, was responsible – so I won't single them out. The four Estonian and Latvian writers – Kristiina Ehin (1977-), Asko Künnap (1971-), Karlis Verdinš (1979-) and Sergej Timofeyev (1970-) all impressed, with Ehin contributing a raw-nerved, hyper-awake poetry that reminded me of that of Ulrike Draesner (as in the poem “my child was born with a cellphone in its handnnap lending a global reach to native folk elements, Timofeyev taking on consumer culture and Verdinš contributing a vivid, filmic poetry with hints of Ginsberg and Rimbaud. A maverick in her choice of 'religious' themes, the Polish poet Agnieszka Kuciak (1970-) also impressed with her deceptively simple, intelligent poems, as in the piece “Playing truant on Sunday”– and the Slovene Primož Cucnik (1971-) comes up, in “Perception”, with the line of the book – “poetry has turned me into a trail”. However, I found myself focussing on a quartet of four particularly strong writers, who demanded to be read, somehow, not only in their own right but in relation to each other – Petr Borkovec (1970-) from the Czech Republic, Emilian Galaicu-Paun (1964-) from Romania, Kucbelová(as already mentioned) and Taja Kramberger (also born in the poetic annus mirabilis 1970).
Why these writers? Well, in three cases I reacted strongly and positively to their work – not quite so in the case of Kucbelová, but the analytic, hyper-composed nature of her writing would have defied such a reaction as if with icy scorn. Borkovec, perhaps the most 'traditional' writer of all those included, is reminiscent of John Burnside in his handling of landscape and his attempts at capturing the stillness within human experience. His poems realise themselves in their considered groping towards realisation, as in 'Ode' –
beautiful and distinct, a moment measurable
only by other shining things,
made out by gleam alone, taking the measure
of rhythms and dark ratios, the spillages
of interval and edge – their likeness
knocking you back almost to the icy sill.
It could be described as a poetry of low resistance – due to the transparency of its style – and narrow reference, in that it makes much of seemingly little. As such, it contrasts with the poetry of Kucbelová,whichhomes in on generalised zones of contact but by way of language which is deliberately resistant to 'sympathetic' reading (thus also exhibiting narrow reference, but in combination with high resistance) –
:essential in the whole:
:clasped in the surface:
:presence limited by touch:
:surface touches surface:
:created by me: created by you:
The work of Galaicu-Paun offers a different kind of resistance, the resistance that derives from multiple registers and discontinuity. This combines with ecstatic data overload to produce the effect of a hyperactive Andrew Duncan, or even a West Coast Surrealist like Dan Raphael. He is also one of the most politicised writers in the book, an ex-dissident from the last days of Ceauscesu's Romania, as this excerpt from the long poem “VACCA~” indicates –
a poem is – exactly the same as an empire. what is
an empire? exactly the same as the stomach of a bovine – sing
along with us the cow grazes
the grass so green … – with two larders: the bigger one is like
where grass lies down in its green nightshirt and night
wakes up in coarse striped twill in the little
larder, which in fact sustains digestion. 'don't
be sad,' father said, 'you're leaving
a larger prison for a narrower one') I built
a fifth of the country – sing
along with us the flowers
flourish in the fields …
and I see his contribution, therefore, as one that exhibits broad reference along with high resistance.
An intensity of reference is also evident in Kramberger's long poem, “Mobilizations”. This sets out to mediate the experiences of her father, particularly during World War Two, and does so with compelling conviction and elegance. The clarity of Kramberger's style suggests the fourth angle of the quadrant, a poetry of broad reference and low resistance –
Vienna – Belgrade – Pancevo.
Where did your railway signal flash:
the red conductor's cap? What did your eyes take in, rushing
along the tracks, along the metal crossbeams of the world? Where are
the switches on which you diverted trains
onto other tracks, until
life itself pulled you along them?
Ladendorf – Frättingsdorf - Wättzleinsdorf.
vanished even before
the coming of the body.
In each of these four cases, I'm simplifying the picture but that's how anthologies are read – we look, instinctively, for points of comparison and contrast, whether with other writers represented, writers of a particular age group (a contrast between these twenty writers, and their contemporaries now progressing along the belt-feeds of the British Poetry Machine, might be illuminating) and so on. In particular, if an anthology has an explicit geographical focus, it's understandable if we relate the writers to what we already know of that context.
However, no sophisticated writer can be seen solely as an exemplar or a specimen of anything. So it may be wiser, instead, to say that, by studying these five volumes in total, I've added thirty-two more poets to my list of 'knowns'. Some – particularly Kontio, Borkovec, Galaicu-Paun, Kramberger and Meister – have convinced me to seek out more of their work, and others may do so at a later point. On one level, the 'jigsaw' has become more densely inscribed, and (to extend the metaphor, as it deserves, to the point of destruction) new pieces have been slotted in, but that's a means to an end – a way towards the appreciation of other writers, and of an infinitesimally-less-tiny part of the many-million-strong community of living and dead writers whose work persists at varying degrees of distance from me.
What emerges from these books, then, is a further range of possibilities, beyond those (I believe) I would have derived from the literature of my native language alone – received in translation, admittedly, with unknowable originals, but worth grabbing no matter how incomplete the jigsaw. Others, I know, believe differently but this review is not intended to convince them – all I can say is that the poems included in these five volumes, almost without exception, worked as viable poems in English and, in particular, the poems presented 'on behalf' of the writers I've singled out. The risks I take, in trusting the process of translation into English, and in taking the work produced thereby at face value, appear – as they have always done – to be of a lower magnitude than the risks of doing otherwise.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The