Posts Tagged ‘european literature’

Full title: Kanteletar taikka Suomen Kansan Wanhoja Lauluja ja Wirsia

(The Kanteletar, Being Some Old Songs and Ballads of the Finnish People)

Published in 1840/1, the Kanteletar is considered the sister book to the Finnish national epic Kalevela. The name Kanteletar is paraphrased to mean ‘zither-daughter’, from the name of the zither, kantele, and feminine participle ‘tar’.

Both works were the collection and selection of scholar-physician Elias Lonnrot. And both were collected from the eastern Finnish Karelia region of lakes and forest.

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The Kanteletar comprises three books of songs, ballads and lyrics.
Their subject matter can be startling.

The Kantelatar is published in English in the World’s Classics series, translated and Introduced by Keith Bosley. He also provides very useful Notes, and indicates all parallels between several ballads and episodes in The Kalevala.

The first book of the collection is concerned with lyrics sung by both sexes;
– the second book is in four sections and covers Girl’s Songs, Women’s Songs, Boy’s Songs and Men’s Songs.
– the last book contains a small selection of ballads, some of which are quite long. The oldest recorded, Bishop Henry, is dated by inclusion in the oldest collected manuscript of 1671, and deals with the (attempted) introduction of Christianity into the region.  Amusingly Bishop Henry was a missionary from ‘Cabbage-land’; you may think this is Germany with its traditional sauerkrauts, but no, it is England!

The songs are, the Introduction states, ‘alliterative, astrophic trochaic tetramemeter‘, sung to simple tunes ‘built… on five basic notes, corresponding to the five strings of the earliest kantele‘, a ‘five-beat bar of six short and two long notes’. This is the rhythm Sibelius copied in the last section of his Rakastava, Op 14 based on several of the songs.

There is an extraordinary song called Paying For The Milk. There are both girl’s and boy’s versions of this. The girl’s version begins:

How to pay for mamma’s milk
make up for mamma’s torment
for the pains of my parent?

Then follows a series of possible payments, none of which are found anywhere near suitable or sufficient. The last verse gives us:

Jesus, pay for mamma’s milk
make up for mamma’s torments
Lord, pay for mamma’s pains
all the cares of her who carried me!

Which is as much as saying no price on earth can pay.

The boy’s version is much longer, five verses of which the first and last are long, and the central one is where the mother replies to his questions of ‘what will pay?’.
It begins:

Lauri, an excellent lad
fair husband-to-be
thought this in his mind
put this into words:
‘The happy, the lucky pay
for their mother’s milk
for their mother’s blood with cloth
for her labour with velvet
.…………………………………………….

Keith Bosley notes that the boy’s version has a happier ending, ‘but is less convincing’. How happier is it? He has to look after and tend for her up till and after her death, on top of all the feats he has already done for her.
A mother’s labour is literally her ‘sauna-path’, a kenning: the sauna was amongst other uses the place for giving birth.
The girl’s song convinces more because it deals with the ‘debt’ without deflection; the Notes state the singer, the girl, is leaving her mother for her husband’s household. This then, is one of the marriage songs which feature strongly in the book.

.The marriage songs are all paralleled in the Kalevala text. The Kalevala is particularly memorable for its unstintingly dour attitude to marriage: the girl is to live in the husband’s house-hold, to be the lowest in status until she has proven herself – by having children probably. But in this between-time she must work twice as hard as the others to prove her worthiness.

The girl’s songs have a poignancy all of their own:

The Birch and the Bird Cherry

I was a bough on a tree
fostered by a lowly birch
in a naked glade
on land with no strawberries.

Next door  a fair bird cherry
grew, a proud tree rose
on turf as thick as honey
on land the hue of liver.

   With its bushy boughs
and its spreading foliage
it blocked the sun from shining
it hid the moon from gleaming.

In short, everyone admired the bird cherries and no one noticed the other. The bird cherry, however, succumbed to rot, and

The bird cherry felt a pain
and filled it with care:
I remained standing
with my small future.

Note that ‘fostered’ in line two: what a wonderfully economical way of positioning status, vulnerability and demeanor! The descriptions are glorious: ‘turf as thick as honey’ etc, and then the ending, ‘small future’ so full of implication.

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There is a group of poems in the girl’s section under the heading of The Victim. These deal head-on with a rape and its consequences. The girl falls asleep whilst tending sheep and ‘a stranger/ from the birches a bounder/ came and took what was my own….
Another form of this is ‘… a dog came from the army/ a frog from Savo’s border/ a bastard from Kuopio/ some war-scum from Helsinki…
And the result?
no refuge in the cabin/ no mercy under the roofs…. I’ll find refuge in the wind/ mercy among the billows…’. The temptation is to drown herself, to be a sister to the whitefish; then, though, her mother would have to carefully check the water she put in her dough for her daughter’s tresses.

There an interesting ballad that replies to this, the man getting away free whilst the maid suffered the consequences of his actions: The Thoughtful Dragon. The imagery here is also quite wonderful:

Let us go to the vale, young ones
us grasshoppers to the cliff

They strip the bast from a lime tree to make ropes to tie up a young man, and leave him where the king walks by. The king asks Why have they done this to him?
The response is:

This is why he is bound
the woman’s son held:
he laid a young maid –
a young maid, a bride.
The poor maid was doomed
to the dragon’s (literally ‘salmon-serpent’) jaws;
but the dragon sighed –
it sighed and it gasped:
“I’ll sooner swallow a young
man, a young man with a sword….’.

And then there is the shocking Instructions to a Bridegroom:

Bridegroom, dear youngster
fair husband-to-be
don’t hurt our maiden
don’t you ill-treat her
with lashes don’t make her squeal
with leather whips make her mew!
…………………………………………………….

And goes on to say if you must do then do where no one will hear; and do it where it will not show when she goes out.
This song is meant as a marriage jest, a wedding night tongue-in-cheek ribaldry, to scare the girl.

How I Was, a woman’s song, plays with change, deception and age:

I was once as barley-land –
as barley-land, as oat-land
as fair cabbage-land
as the best bean-field; but I’ve
ended up as mixed-crop land
……………………………………………
I’ve become grassland
turned to a mossy hummock.

……………………………………………….

But the ending is depressing: old age is a curse because, as we saw implied in the boy’s version of Mother’s Milk, there is no one to look after the old – other than the unmarried daughter, and all the pejoratives that go with that.
In the Lyrics by Both Sexes there a similar bleak song on ageing, A Plank of Flesh:

Whoever created me
whoever fashioned this wretch
………………………………………………………..

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One remarkable work is the six-part  Ballad of the Virgin Mary.
This would require quite a feat of memory to recite.
Mary is introduced as a farm girl dressed in her finery, a:

She looks out into the farmyard/ listened out at the lane’s end./ A berry called from the ground/ a cowberry from the heath:/ ‘Come, maid, and pluck me/ red-cheek, and pick me…. Ere the slug eats me/ the black worm scoffs me!

The berry became the means of conception. Of course, when her mother noticed her pregnancy at last she spurned her; and a serving maid ran to tell Herod.
The whole piece tells the Christ story to the end. It is a remarkable feat of song writing. The imagery as in all the songs is rich and wonderful.

We cannot end without obeisance to Sibelius, his Karelia Suite and Tapiola.
the lyrics he used are here reproduced. The Herding Songs are set in the First Movement of  Rakastava. Some of his Nine Part-Songs are also in this collection .
In a number of the ballads and songs we encounter pagan forest god Tapio. The Christian God is usually ‘Old Man’. The two co-existed in relative peace – in the songs.

This a book to savour and enjoy: bitter-sweet, surprising, and very life enhancing.

Sur(rendering), by Mario Martin Gijon. Published by Shearsman Books, 2020. Translated from the Spanish by Terence Dooley.
ISBN 978 1 84861 704 9.

Every writer will know the difficulties of their craft, finding the right word, the one with the nuances, cadences, sound, and syntactical relatedness to the whole.
How do you express many variations of an experience in, say, one word? 
The Spanish poet Mario Martin Gijon, in this new dual-language book, Sur(rendering) (originally published in Spanish in 2013), gives an example:

compusimos 

And so, how does a translator then convey just what the writer means? Translation theory attempts the conclusion that there can only ever be a rendering of the work, if you like, a work based on the original. Look at that ‘rendering’ word, with its breakdown into rend, render….

Terence Dooley, renders the Spanish term ‘compusimos’, with its roots similar to English ‘compose’, as in write, as

(w)ri(gh)ting

And so, look at that term, with its wright, write, and also the contextual sense of right-ness of two people together. And that is the ‘write’ of the author’s presence in the work.

The whole poem in Spanish is seven short lines, and this degree of concentration/consideration could only work in short pieces:

Contra viento y marea (recuerdo comun)

siempre unidos

di

   vertidos

del mun

                do

                     loor

compusimos

The translation:
into the wind, against the tide (shared memory)

always one

two

a(muse)d

in(fuse)d

in the hurt

            earth

             we t(w/o)o

(p)raise

            (w)ri(gh)ting

The book, Sur(rendering), consists of four sections of such concentrated poems that respond to the breakdown, loss, rediscovery, celebration and re-establishment of a relationship. The form and meaning-concentration portray the switch-back emotions, momentary doubts, self-doubts, feelings of unworthiness, of regressive anger, in a phrase the whole gamut of the whirlwind emotions that can occur in such an experience.
The form and meaning are one.
This is the aim, and rare success, of poetry to attain this level of reciprocity.

padecir la espera is rendered as hearing the w(a/e)i(gh)t, and it is surprising how the mind tunes into the usages, reads their equivocations and shuttling meanings. They do not encumber but enhance.
Another short poem: five lines –

enardecerme
para enardecirte
en al ard(ol)or
que me (re)ce
tu aus(es)encia

is Englished as:

(h)ard(ou/e)r
to (ki/ca)ndle
in you the cand(i/e)d
fire fanned
by your incandescent
(ab/es)sence

We get a sense of the music of the piece in the Spanish original, the careful rhythm, the silence and space in and around the piece that is full to brimming with potential expression.

So, how does this use of words differ from, say, punning on a word? There is a more elaborate system in use, for one. For two, the intent in use of words yoking together/bringing forward meanings, has far greater semantic range.

The last section poems incorporate lines, phrases from the poems of Paul Celan, in the original German. The translator has kept that, but added A short note on quotes at the end of the book, citing sources.
I had first thought he had used these refererals to Paul Celan because of that author’s technique and skill in ‘coining’ (Terence Dooley’s phrase) new words. In Paul Celan’s case he was purportedly making a usable German language, that is, remaking an oppressor’s and destroyer’s vocabulary into one laden with conscience and responsibility.

One excerpt is from Paul Celan’s early poem Corona, translated as ‘It is time’; it is used because it illustrates his referral-use, though. Corona is from the period of Paul Celan’s full relationship with Ingeborg Bachmann, and the line comes at the end of the poem, that is, the defining emotive stance that the development of Corona achieves: a statement of readiness, stating the need for grounded fulfillment i.e. commitment.
It is apposite and entirely appropriate to the usage by Mario Martin Gijon.

Recent translations by Terence Dooley:
10 Contemporary Spanish Women Poets, translated by Terence Dooley, Shearsman

Malina, by Ingeborg Bachmann. Published by Penguin Modern Classics, 2019.
ISBN 978 0 241 36624 0.

The novel, Malina, published in German in 1971, is considered by many to be a seminal work in the oeuvre of Austrian writer, Ingeborg Bachmann.
She is mostly now known for three volumes of post-War poetry. She has also written radio works, essays, short stories, two operas, a ballet. She was also very close to Paul Celan, and associated with major German post-War writers.

The novel is part one of a projected three-part trilogy, temporarily entitled Ways of Dying. The other two parts were incomplete on her death, but have since been published from notebooks and papers.

Oh yes, she is also known for her death. 
Since 1951 she had mostly listed her residence as Rome. It was here in 1973 that she died, alone, due to an apartment fire. The official cause was given as being due to smoking in bed. 
Readers atuned to her works have long wondered about that given cause.

Malina is not a comfortable read.
It is a novel in three sections – well four, if we accept the Cast prefix. They are:
Happy with Ivan; The Third Man; Last Things.

It is uncomfortable because as the book opens we meet the narrator, who incidentally shares many attributes with the author, in a period of withdrawal, leading to crisis. She refuses all invitations out to address talks, ceremonies, awards. Even the letters she dictates or attempts to write herself are unravellings rather than explanations.

Is the narrator happy with Ivan? It is a toxic relationship, and yet she is fixated on him; her every action and thought is centred on him. And yet he abuses her verbally, is dismissive of her personality, abilities. And she seems quite accepting of this, and dotes on this.
This is a deep exploration of toxic relations.

And it gets worse in Section Two, The Third Man. Here, Malina the character, is cool, objective, says little. The whole section is a deep exploration of the character’s relationship with her father. It is given in a wide and varied series of abusive vignettes. The narrator approaches the term ‘Incest’ early on. Yes, she writes, There was incest
And there was also the game of jealousy, of gaming for affection, playing off each other. With Ivan. With Malina. With the sister Melanie, whose father flaunts as his new source of affection. And there are the violent outbursts, breaking furniture, throwing of household objects to hurt by the act, rather than contact.
And yet, as the section works through its nightmare scenarios, we see the narrator gain self mobility again, the strength to fight back. To leave.

But what of Malina?
Published in 1971, we see here the period’s reliance on therapy as cure-all, the psychiatrist as psychopomp walking the therapee through traumas.
Malina has that about him: cool, rational, reasonable; not dismissive but gently easing the narrator back to the centre of the problems. Walking through the battlefields together.

Ivan, in turn, in retrospect, comes to assume something of the mantle of the abusive father: that relationship being played out again. And the narrator is the willing, indeed, even eager, participant.

Did Ivan want that? Did he fall into a toxic hole? Was he also incapable of climbing out? We do not know.
Was it, possibly, a post-war psychic turmoil that wrapped them all in its coils? Was this the fall-out , the further play-out, of the War?

Or is that serpent with all in its coils the Nazism of past experience, or Western post-War capitalism, or, further, patriarchy itself?

There are no discernible big Politics in the novel. The father-figure as authoritarian, and, by extension, as leader, is written out clearly.
And Ivan, the name? The character is married, with children. He is Hungarian. Is he suggestive of Soviet-model authoritarianism? 
As the novel was being written Leonid Brezhnev was Soviet leader. The Hungarian Uprising had been bloodily crushed (as had the Prague Spring).

This Soviet period is what is now known as the Era of Stagnation.

How does this help? Other than as re-emphasising the intial A in authoritarianism?
The Cold War was dropping down further degrees on the thermometer, and any youthful hopes of a glorious turn to the red – in Germany in particular – were becoming ossified. After 1968’s disintegration of hopes and revolutionary fervour, all was played out.
Later, of course, the extreme groups emerged out of the frustrated hopes: The Red Brigade etc.

A static situation, under authoritarian power; loss of hopes of change; and the unresolved foment of psychic horrors from the war. Ingeborg Bachmann’s own father had been an early and willing Nazi Party member.

Why is the second section called ‘The Third Man’? Is there a connection with the Carol Reed film of 1949?
Both book and film are set in Vienna. Ok.
Both have one of the central characters – Harry Lime, The Father – as betrayers, morally repugnant, and who degrade all who they come into contact. And yet, they also have devoted friends/relations who seek them out. The outcome, in each case, is disillusion and broken relationships.

It may be that the setting of Vienna has a meaning I cannot as yet ascertain. The narrator is insistent on this setting; Ungargasse in particular acquires an importance. It maybe the importance of groundedness, that is, of a specific that she clings to for safety, security.

There are two forms of conversation exchanges in the book. One consists of fulsome and developed sentences, and is the ME:, (other): form. The other form is of truncated conversations, fragmented and half said things the reader must fill out.
In light of Ingeborg Bachmann’s great interest in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s works, I was wondering whether this latter form was an approach to the ‘private language’ that Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested was an impossibility.

If a language was private to oneself, then communication would be impossible. In the novel we see innumerable attempts to communicate inner turmoil, to move from private language/world experiences, to common speech communication with others. Ivan’s responses tend to be evasive, colluding. Malina remains objective, he companions the narrator through her difficulties, but does not judge, control, nor direct her.

Is he the ideal therapist, or philospher? For Ludwig Wittgenstein the philosopher must become a therapist in order to untangle the knots of reasoning that hamper philosophical discourse.
The Ungargasse in Vienna is in part very close to the Wittgenstein family home, between Parkgasse and Kundmanngasse, on the Geusaugasse corner.

The book opens with letters that cannot be written, and ends, in Last Things, with a postman who cannot deliver letters. He stores them up, unread, unopened. Communication, with one self, and with others, as social glue, as life-saving, is paramount here.
The book opens with the narrator fully taken up with Ivan, and by Last Things has turned against men altogether, finding their limited range of romantic and sexual responses ridiculous, a symptom of men’s ‘sickness’. She admits an interest in men, oh yes, and cites examples, but in the telling it becomes a matter of observation, as of another species.

We find in her telling of post-War Vienna Sigmund Freud’s case-studies incorporated into the text; we find direct reference to Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. Is there Robert Musil here as well? Does the desultory interest in chess reference Stefan Zweig’s short story? Interestingly Stefan Zweig’s Post Office Girl novel’s title has a different meaning in the German: The Intoxication of Transformation. Is this intoxication what we find played out in Last Things?
Does the change in the narrator, then, play with bildungsroman formats?
It is also possible that the general tone of the book, of enervated and denigrating references the works of Thomas Bernhard.

The narrator’s character has developed in Last Things, she is more outward-looking, out-going, extrovert, even. And so has that of Malina; he is no longer the objective, cool character, but rather limited in response, outlook.
At one point in this last section the narrator makes some rather strong comments.
Ooo-kay.
So she’s provoking, challenging, confronting. But to what purpose?
This is part of the piece where she takes on Freudian case-study.
Shortly after this section Malina slapped her face. Was she furious? No. Was she distressed? No. Was he? No.
Both carried on as normal – she looked for a suitable blusher to hide the marks so she could go to a meeting; he suggested a shade.

The toxic-relationship is still being played out, on another level.

Does Ivan appreciate how difficult to is for a woman to have integrity, autonomy? Does Malina? Each time the answer is No.
How can a woman exist as a whole person in that world? The narrator approaches the dilemma of the options available: to be a ‘part-ner’, or to try to be a whole person. There seems little to possibility of the two being one.

The crack in the plaster – is it an indication of demise/complete collapse? Or a way out of an enclosed space?

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One other thing struck me – the father-vignettes in Section Two of Malina remind me of the extensive father-vignettes that make up a huge section of Hungarian writer, Peter Esterhazy’s Celestial Harmonies, published in 2000. Here the novel fictionally negotiates the true-life Esterhazy patriarchal family line. In particular, and colouring the vignettes, is the discovery of the author’s own father’s role as secret police agent: betrayer and smiling State accomplice. Or entrapped, caught in the coils of State security machinations?

Why do I find the book so difficult to read? The subject matter, obviously. But there is also that, as readers, we unable to help with the distress. We are held as helpless witnesses to partially seen scenarios, and experience some degrees of the suffering of the narrator.
The writer also had periods of hospitalization due to psychological states.

We become party to degrees of that, and those states of distress. We are unable to help or assist, and so the narrator’s inability to cope becomes ours, by our empathetic reading.

This is part of the power, and responsibility, of a work of fiction.

Publishers Weekly, noted, on the book’s publication:
Part of the problem derives from the veiled yet critical references to Austrian history, which are satisfactorily explained only in the excellent afterword.

We no longer have that ‘excellent afterword.’ A pity.

Alfred Giraud’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’, translated by Gregory C Richter. Published by Truman State University Press, Kirksville, Missouri, 2001.
ISBN  1931112029

This is the first full translation into English of this seminal book of poems, originally published in France, in 1884.
The translation, ‘renderings’ he terms them, is by Gregory C Richter, professor of linguistics at Truman state University, Missouri.
He presents here a bilingual, at times trilingual publication of the complete book, Pierrot Lunaire.
He gives the original French text with English ‘render’ per poem per page. As a selection of the poems were early-on translated into German, he also publishes the German version of the poems selected. The German translator Otto Erich Hartleben, he points out, did not stick to straight translation but gave ‘versions’ that at times vary from the the originals.
For those readers with German, this is a special for you. There are translations of several poems by other German writers here also.

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Alfred Giraud was a Belgian writer. Alfred Giraud was the pen name of Alfred Kayenbergh, from Louvain, Belgium. He was born in 1860, and died in 1929.

Originally a law student, literature was his obsession, and he happily embraced the role of Decadent writer, after Baudelaire, and owned influences by contemporary Symbolists such as Paul Verlaine, Stephen Mallarme, Leconte de Lisle.

Pierrot Lunaire was, surprisingly, his first major publication, in 1884, when he was aged 24. It was a success, and continued to attract attention and influence the European art scene for decades.
He continued to write poetry, plays and critical articles throughout his life.

The German writer Otto Erich Hartleben translated a selection from the work not long after publication, in 1893. He translated the whole book eventually, but it was the selection that became the main source for other artists.

And, yes, I am thinking of Arnold Schoenberg, here. He used Otto Hartleben’s translation of twenty one selected verses for his magnificent sprechstimme Pierrot Lunaire Op21, in 1912. 

Alfred Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire is based on characters from the traditional Italian commedia dell’arte. As well as Pierrot himself, we find here also arch-rival Harlequin. Columbine, though, plays a minor role. We find another, unfamiliar character, the elderly Cassander.

The commedia was experiencing one of its periodic returns to popularity: witness Pablo Picasso’s use of the troupe in his Rose period (1904-6) paintings. Of course, connected with this is Rainer Maria Rilke basing one of his Duino Elegies on the painting, circa 1912-22.
Paul Verlaine’s Claire de Lune, after Theodore de Banville (1842), captures some of the essence of the period, and, of course, Claude Debussy made the essence more concrete, so to speak with his Pierrot song (1881) and the Suite bergamesque.

The commedia was a key cultural element throughout the period.

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The poems were written in a very strict rhyme pattern, adapting the French syllabic basis of a strict syllabic line of seven syllables.
The rhyme scheme with one or two variations only, is as follows:

A
B
b
a

a
b
A
B

a
b
b
a
A

A thirteen-line poem.

Within this scheme, though, there are other disciplines: the first line is repeated in line seven, and line thirteen. Lines one and two of the poem are repeated in lines seven and eight.

The structure is like that of a Rondel. In poem 50, Bohemian Crystal, the poem’s narrator speaks of rhyming in roundelays/rondels.

Le serenade de Pierrot (poem 6)

D’un grotesque archet dissonant
Agacant sa viole plate,
A la heron, sur une patte.
Il pince un air inconvenant.

Soudain Cassandre, intervevant,
Blame ce nocturne acrobate,
D’un grotesque archet dissonant
Agacant sa viole platte.

Pierrot la rejette, et presenant
D’un poigne tres delicate
Le vieux par sa roide cravate.
Zebre le bedon du genant
D’un grotesque archet dissonant.

(I give the repeating lines in bold.)

Gregory C Richter’s ‘rendering’ is as follows:

Tormenting his viol
With grotesque, discordant bow –
Like a heron standing on one claw –
He pinches out a painful air.

Suddenly Cassander intervenes
And scolds the nightly acrobat
Tormenting his viol
With grotesque, discordant bow.

Throwing aside the viol,
With ultradelicate grace
Pierrot now takes him by his tie
And zebra-stripes the oldster’s paunch
With grotesque, discordant bow.

Rhyme scheme nor syllabic count could be saved, but sense and intent have been. Whatever you think of these translations/renderings they do convey theme and line-sense throughout.
It is also interesting to see this Pierrot not averse to taking the upper hand.

The Introduction notes how the book divides into three parts. The opening poems and last poems are more peaceful in mood, whilst the central section, poems 17-30, veer into the grotesque. Think of Belioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Here we find poems on Absinthe, Suicide, Decapitation.
Poem 23, Begging for Heads has some wonderfully grotesque imagery:

A bucket, red and full of sawdust
Lies within your clenched embrace,
O Guillotine, mad escapee,
Wandering before the prison!

Could we say of the form, that the first stanza establishes the scene, the second one examines the scene, and the third one explores it further?

3

I was so looking forward to this book; it has been prohibitively expensive.

You could say the tone, rather than the characters, capture that period when Romanticism blended into Aestheticism. There is also the influence of more classical attitudes here, the Parnassian writing the younger Alfred Girauld admired.
Pierrot, himself, although quite a ‘dandy’, does not have the effete quality that later works delimit for him.

How would you characterise the work?
It is not a psychodrama, except in the most basic sense: the author plays lightly with personal themes, but more robustly with cultural elements and atmospheres of his place and period.
There is no main narrative, or through-line as such; each poem encapsulates the ‘mood’ of the theme. Some veer off into different directions: there are several boat-based poems.
The Ménage à trois of the commedia story: Pierrot-Columbine-Harlequin, is alluded to (poem 11) but not central to the book.
In its way it is a very Roman Catholic book: Pierrot’s suicide, whether real or emotional appears in poem 18, but this is followed by the increasingly diabolical poems of the central section.
Poem 31 returns to images – decor – of the opening poems, and the chance to begin anew, but not necessarily changed by the experience: we still have Cruel Pierrot, poem 45, a mocking moon, poem 43. In poem 50, Bohemian Crystal the author has done with the character Pierrot, and steps forward; or another narrator does.
The image of the Bohemian crystal – symbol, he calls it – is an interesting re-take on the crystal flagons of poem 3’s Dandy from Bergamo.

There is a suggested circling of structure, but it is unproductive to look for paralleling as in chiasmic structures. Although poem 6, Pierrot’s Serenade (above) where Pierrot thrashes Cassender, does hold a close position in the structure of the book to poem 45, Cruel Pierrot, where once again Cassender is pummelled.

Tacitly acknowledging the classic commedia storylines, Alfred Giraud here produces an original work.

I place the book with Federico Garcia Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads, in that they both create their own landscapes out of the known world, and fictionally explore characters and events occurring there. These landscapes are part based on known, ‘real’ times and places, just as, say, Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, was a created place based on a number of Border Ballads, and his real environment, including his time’s current themes and attitudes.

And yet, I find myself disappointed by the book.
I expected, that is, wanted, something harder, something more realised and concrete, like in the Gypsy Ballads, the moon glinting like tin, perhaps.
Pierrot’s moon is of another kind: Moonstruck is translated

The wine we drink with our eyes
Flows from the Moon in green waves…

an absinthe moon perhaps – but there is not the passion of Green, how I want you green of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Somnabular Ballad.

Pierrot The Dandy, poem 3, begins:
A fantastic Moonbeam
Lights up the crystal flagons

Of the sandalwood washstand
Of the pale dandy from Bergamo.

And I have to admit, I love the detail.


But perhaps it is the cumulative effect of the verse form, that it is limiting the emotional and imaginative ranges possible.

There are very welcome footnotes throughout – many references are no longer current. The opening poems refer to Breughel, but it is Jan, Breughel The Younger, known as Paradise Breughel, more famed for his flower and landscape pantings.

Alfred Giraud’s images are literary, whereas Federico Garcia Lorca’s are more tactile, drawn from oral sources and then transposed through surrealist techniques married to his own idiosyncratic responses.

There are many gems to be found in Pierrot Lunaire, make no mistake. It is a book to keep going back to again and again.

4

And now here’s my challenge to readers: have a go at the verse form, see how it works for you.

Here’s mine, one for the present times:

A Man From Wuhan

A man stands at his window
I wave, he does not wave back.
We chatted a day back;
He stands at his window.

The street is quiet down below
only TVs answer back.
The man is at his window,
I wave. He does not wave back.

That lull after they all go;
They cleared our block an hour back.
My wife, he‘d said… bad attack.
None come, one by one they go.
A man stands at his window.

There is a lot to be learned through imitation: compare the effects of my use of static verb-structures and tenses, and Alfred Giraud’s active, moving ones, for example.
Try it.

Keep well, my friends, and stay safe.

Combray

Posted: February 8, 2020 in Chat
Tags: , , ,

On the church steeple of Saint-Hilare, Combray:
And in the evening, when I was coming home from a walk…it was… so soft, in the close of day, that it looked as if it had been set down and crushed like a cushion of brown velvet against the pale sky which had yielded under its pressure, hollowing slightly to give it room and flowing back over its edges; and the cries of the birds that wheeled around it seemed to increase its silence, lift its spire to a greater height and endow it with something ineffable.

And later:

A little tap against the window-pane, as though something had struck it, followed by a copious light spill, as of grains of sand dropping from a window above, then the spill extending, growing, regular, finding a rhythm, turning fluid, resonant, musical, immeasurable, universal: it was the rain.

Yes, I’m spending my late evenings in Combray.
At last I’ve got around to reading Proust., In Search of Lost Time, rather than the older Remembrance of Things Past.
This is a newish translation: Lydia Davis, for Penguin Modern Classics. And instead of the evocative Swann’s Way, she translates Volume 1 as The Way by Swann’s.

Different weightings of a phrase tell so much of a time period, the dynamics of the time. This, I was tempted to write conjugating of the phrase, denotes our moment in time as one of reappraisal, sitting back and looking around at what is, what we have carried with us, as opposed to a time of movement. That itself is revealing; we may think this is a moment of change, and yet what we actually do suggests one of reappraisal.

The contrasts of image in that second passage: sand – fluid; close-by – far away; immediate moments – immeasurable, universal.
And the similar images, developed from one another: window pane – window above; rhythm – musical; copious (light) spill – extending (sound); a little tap – resonant.

There are also the uses of polysyllabic set within monosyllabic structures, skilfully deployed.

What fine writing, though. It is solace for these testing times.

But then the writer followed that up with a ludicrously stretched joke on the difference of the Saturday routine at Combray.
Then Francois chased around and messily slaughtered a chicken for their meal.
Ok, time to skip-read, perhaps.

OAMENI ŞI MARIONETE/ MEN & PUPPETS by DANIEL DRAGOMIRESCU. Orizant Literar Contemporan, Bibliotheca Universalis, 2017

 This is a dual-language publication, produced by the excellent and indefatiguable Contemporary and Literary Horizon, of Romania. For their background, see:

https://revistamulticulturala.wordpress.com/

http://contemporaryhorizon.blogspot.co.uk/

Every so often a book comes along that makes you feel good to be alive. This is one of those.

The best books broaden and deepen our sense and understanding of the world. I was going to go on and write ‘and add destinations to our bucket list.’ But no, these best books have already taken us there; we feel we know the places, the people, with our hearts. The place? North-eastern and central Romania.

I feel privileged to have a copy of Men and Puppets, by Daniel Dragomirescu. The book is a collection of reminiscences, autobiographical snippets, and is well worth the time and effort in getting hold of. Elegantly presented, and on the whole, well translated, this is part of a series of books by Orizant Contemporan Literar. All are dual-language, and by writers from many countries.

Daniel Dragomirescu grew up in the north-eastern Vaslui region of Romania, in the 1950s and 60s. He writes of life from the inside; the autobiographical angle gives a necessarily limited view of the times, limited to one’s interests, activities, and to the villages and small towns of the time.

Big Politics, the State, the Eastern Bloc, are not words or concepts of everyday life. He does come up against them (A Meeting with Cerebrus); they are also, on another level, a basic part of that life. Yet they are everywhere, especially for the generations from before the War, his parents’ and grandparent’s generations. It is they who have to watch what they say.
We see the unquestioned fate of pre-War bourgeois families, in their disgrace (Sandals). All is accepted as a part of life. The State restrictions have their circumnavigations, but they can be suddenly enforced due to the arbitrariness and fickleness of officials (At the Nadovari Camp). But they are not ‘officials’, they are people one’s father might know from school, from ‘before’ – their fickleness is the fickleness of everybody, everywhere.
We read also a first-hand account of a devastating earthquake hitting Bucharest. People at their most vulnerable; we read also the hidden threats by people.

One of my favourite stories, Marilena, has its own ways of handling the hopes, passions and lost opportunities that are always with us. And this is one of the heartening aspects of the stories: how love, hope of love, arranged love that could grow into itself, are always a part of our lives, our world. These things are instantly recognisable, and they go to the core of who we are.

In the new Romania religion once again plays a major role.
This may surprise us, and yet, as Fish Borscht makes clear (to my mind the only story that doesn’t gel), religion never really went away. Even this story is full of the riches of the lived life, the times, the mind-set of the period.
The role of religion is a curious one; there are many expostulations to God, in the stories. These are post-Communist.
I wonder do they read as a little self-consciously apparent?
Are the stories part of the new movement to re-establish a continuous Romanian identity, that had just been interrupted for a time?

What becomes clear through the reading is the seamless identity we all wear and are part of: here we all are, with all our hopes, woes and lapses of understanding. The details may differ, but the responses are so very recognisable. And because we can identify, our hearts are also in these stories, as we respond to the same things they did.

The last chapter, Typewriter, brings the whole book into focus. I had begun to wonder at the book’s title, Men and Puppets. Well, here it was, spelled out.
I wrote, above, how the fickleness of officials is the fickleness of man; there is the fickleness of officials themselves, though. I also wrote of the State being just the background to people’s lives. So it was, but as they took on more responsibility, became adults, the State became a major interference in their lives. Take Ceausescu’s decree that all typewriters should be officially registered.
It smacks of a Nazi-era dictat, and it is little surprise we find a militia chief admiring Nazi-era tactics.
After the Fall of Ceausescu, the militia excuse themselves as puppets of the regime. Officials, militia, puppets, anything rather than just ordinary people.

Daniel Dragomirescu has a masterful technique. The use of the motif of his meeting with a stray dog in a cemetery, in A Meeting with Cerebrus, becomes the key for opening up the whole part of his life at that period. It is this mastery that is the secret, it works behind the scenes to bring the chapters to life.

A most enjoyable book, full of the fears, hopes, loves and doubts of lives.

from my kindle book, Parameters:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Parameters-Michael-Murray-ebook/dp/B07893LB8Z/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1513428648&sr=1-1&keywords=parameters

 

A World Beyond Myself, Enitharmon, 1991

Memories of the Unknown, Harvill Press, 2001

RK1

Part 1: Beginnings

In 1996, New York’s Vintage Press brought out ‘The Vintage Book of World Poetry’; the book settled many reputations, but also introduced many more.

The Dutch writer Rutger Kopland woke up one morning to find himself a world-class poet. Ok, he was already a top-selling author in his own country. But that is the point, as Martinus Nijhoff lamented in 1936, it is a country whose literary appreciation is limited to a small range by its language.

We are very lucky to have the masterful translations of the late James Brockway. He preferred the description of ‘collaborations’, it reflected more the close work with the author to render as near a syllabic and tonal copy as possible.

“…what I am presenting,” he wrote, “…is a Dutch poem by a Dutch mind, but now in the English language”.

James Brockway was made ‘Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands’ in 1997, for his services to Dutch literature. He died in 2000.

‘Rutger Kopland’ is the pen name of Professor of Psychiatry (retired) Rudi H van den Hoofdakker. He was born in 1934, and has won many prestigious prizes, one of which is the Dutch highest award for literary achievement, the P C Hooft Prize.

Kopland’s first book, Among Cattle, appeared in 1966. The date is important in a number of ways.

In the nineteen fifties Dutch art and literature woke up to experiment; it was a time of cataclysmic experiment in all forms, only paralleled in Dutch poetry by the exuberance of the medieval Rederijker rhetorical guilds.

Of course, as with many such movements, they also carry and help generate the seeds of their successors. Out of the foment of imagistic, lexical experiment a strong realistic note was beginning to be detectable.

Kopland, along with Judith Herzberg are now readily identified as the best representatives of this tone: of a sane, nonrhetorical, everyday language and subject matter.

In this first book are to be found all the tonal keys of his later work. An instant favourite was the first poem of the book, now a much anthologised piece

A PSALM

                     The green pastures the still waters
on the wallpaper in my room –
                     as a frightened child I believed
in wall paper

                   ……………………………………………………………………….

 

The first thing to notice here is the almost total lack of punctuation. In the original there is only the final full stop, even the commas, lines 8 and 14 of the translatioon, do not appear.

We catch the tone of slow, almost ruminative, can we call it, ‘thinking aloud’? Are we overhearing a sotto voce between intimate friends? Husband and wife, perhaps, or is it between father and child, as maybe becomes apparent in the last stanza? I wonder, does it matter: the drama of a listening audience is of less importance, than the manner and intent of the narration.

Also notice the slow accumulation of details that reveal-but-not-reveal the narration: what was it he had, or had been, forgiven? The biblical references (note lowercase ‘god’) and Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) set a tone, particularly in the traditionally Calvinist/Lutheran Netherlands, for solitary meditative discourse, whose  heavy and responsible purpose: to converse with God, without intercessors, is offset by the witty, chatty aside: ‘as a … child I believed in wall paper…’.

Psalm 23 becomes a constant reference point in his writing.

The setting of the poem: the home, night, childhood, segue into the author’s own fatherhood; the meditative tone; the rural setting : an image of continuity, perhaps.

This may seem a little dated to those only familiar with the great urban sweep from Rotterdam, east and south; it is, however, deeply ingrained in the Dutch cultural model.

Kopland has lived all his working life in a village outside Groningen. This is where many still refer to as the real ‘rural’ Netherlands. These are the heartlands of the Dutch, the green ore that runs through the urban stonework.

What we read with Rutger Kopland, especially with these earlier books, are the books of the Dutch interior: the soul-lands. The irony is, Kopland is the least metaphysical of men; his insights are, I suspect, very much coloured by his profession as clinical neuroscientist.

Kopland was born in 1934; by the time of that terrible winter of German reprisals 1944/5, he would have 10 years old. 10, 1000 died that winter.

Consider the following poem in the book:

UNDER THE APPLE TREE

 

                                         I came home, it was about
                                         eight and remarkable
                                         close for the time of year,

                                        ……………………………………

                                         under the apple tree

                                        ……………………………………………..

                                         watching how my neighbour
                                         was still digging in his garden,

                                         …………………………………………………………….

                                         then slowly it once again became
                                         too beautiful to be true, …………

…………………………………………………………………………………………..

                                         and later I heard the wings
                                         of wild geese in the sky
                                         heard how still and empty
it was becoming

                 …………………………………………………………

                                         under the apple tree,
remarkably close

for our time of life.

Masterly; we scarcely even notice the ‘literaryness’: the ballad-like repetitions of key phrases, the manipulation of mood-buttons. He earns our trust, and the trust of the ordinary reader by foisting no great ideas of redemption on us, by insinuating no Political awkwardness. We get the ‘feel’: the surburbanism of life lived by the ordinary person, with a job, family… in fact, do we recognise in ourselves: nostalgia for the past? This is a claim that plagued Kopland from these early books.

See how he builds the tension from stanza two: the juxtaposing of details of the neighbour (for which read, everyman/the identifier of self as ordinary: the classic Dutch sense of communalness), the change in light: the dark that identifies colours, blues…. Having keyed up the emotions at this point: the ‘…too beautiful to be true…’ (those last three qualifying words communicate so much, particularly in combination with preceding, ‘…once again…’), he immediately disengages and redirects; the emotional response is channelled via the toys in the grass to the house, the laughter of children. The emotions are stirred but not settled, their direction may have been channelled but the mind is made open, the imagination engaged by this “mental event”, so that when the geese fly they are identified immediately as ‘wild’, the sky is emptied by their presence, a sense of immanence is apparent. Once again this keying-up of emotions is channelled to the ‘…precisely you…’. An anchoring, grounding in the here and now.

Kopland displays here a willingness to be honest about feelings, a willingness to be open about his experience of them, of their place in his life and world.

And yes, he is privileged: he has a satisfying though demanding job, he has happy children, he has a close relationship with his partner. Is it Kopland, here? Or is it the ‘ordinary person’? Is it the person glad to be alive, having survived that last terrible winter of the War; like his neighbour he goes through the daily affirmation of survival.

RK2

Following a sequence of poems on his father’s death, we have:

                             MISS A

                            On September 19, a misty

                            nineteenth, Miss A ………….

………………………………………………………………………………..

                           …………………………………………….

……………………………………………. God and the

                            DHSS seemed out of reach.

                            She disembarked.

An altogether different piece. We have here, I think, irony used as a stylistic device; there is no longer the personalizing, intimate nature of the experience, but a distancing. A tragic event; but almost, in this retailing, a news item; the details of particulars: date, boat name, area of mooring.

The domestic details are all laid out for us to see, like the effects of a dead person, to be collected by relatives (us: readers-as-community?), or the unknowns who will come later when our attention is caught by other news. Whichever way it is read we, the reader, or, shall I qualify that: we, the ones amongst the readers who actually care what happened to her – are involved: her fate impinges upon us. We may not be responsible, but we are made witnesses. To be able to remain open, to witness, and not close-off is maybe one of the things makes a workable community.

This poem appeared in print in 1968. This is significant: 1968, and The Netherlands were as much caught up in social upheaval as we were in England. It may be this poem can be read as a response to the student protests, the extreme political factions.

Another, more significant poem of his poems of the period was :

                           YOUNG LETTUCE                        

                           I can stand anything,
the shrivelling of beans

                         …………………………………………………………….

                            But young lettuce in September,
                            just planted, still tender,
in moist little beds, no.                                         

Literary friends would repeat this poem when latest news came through of some new social upheaval, or political upset. Why? It is the understatement; the masterly irony; it is also a poem of great benevolence. The weary retort to old problems presenting themselves in new clothes, of seemingly insurmountable social problems… and yet the response is of a wry gentleness.

Maybe this poem can be read as an attempt at affirming communal responsibilities.

The ironic yet engaged tone of the times, the response of an older generation.

Kopland’s sharper mode was prompted to some extent by what he saw as misreadings of his work. After the anecdotal style a greater dissatisfaction with accepted things became apparent. There emerged a ‘stern’ period of disillusionment.

 Reposted from 2012

from my kindle book, Parameters:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Parameters-Michael-Murray-ebook/dp/B07893LB8Z/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1513428648&sr=1-1&keywords=parameters

 

Bachmann_222Darkness Spoken: the Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachmann    Zephyr Press      2006

1

Born in 1926 in southern Austria, Bachmann died, after a rollercoaster ride of fame and withdrawal, in somewhat mysterious circumstances, in 1973 at her Rome apartment.

Mysterious? Well, it is still undecided if she died through an unattended cigarette, smoking in bed; or was it a suicide attempt?

Why should we still read her? Obvious answer is: because she was one of the best of her time. So, is she time-specific? You are the judge. But allow me to say that Charles Simic, American laureate, values and continues to value her poetry; enough to write a generous Foreword to this book: What is it that makes certain poems memorable? Obviously, it could be the sheer mastery of form and originality of the imagination… Tastes change, newness wears out… (however) I have here in mind that elusive property known as the poet’s voice… it is her voice that one always remembers.

I would go as far to suggest she inhabits that place between modern and contemporary; like Alban Berg in music she looks back to earlier sensibilities, and forward to new ones.

Her tragedy was the in-between bit, the War, and the horrors of the War.

Some commentators have found in her the War-amnesia of many German writers of the period. She herself writes:

The unspeakable passes, barely spoken, over the land:

 already it is noon.

: Early Noon

And noon, of course, casts no shadows.

A necessary amnesia, maybe: no single person can possibly hope to find in oneself the capacity to take on, never mind overcome, all that. Consequently she is a haunted writer: restless, uneasy, unsettled.

Her rise could not have been more auspicious: introduced to the Gruppe 47 (Boll, Grass etc) meetings by no less than Paul Celan; her two poetry books of 1953 and 1956 helped her win the George Buchner Prize, The Berlin Critics Prize, the Bremen Award. And yet after these two books there were no more.

Already proficient in short stories, plays, libretti, radio drama, and ballet libretto, she later accepted the Frankfurt Poetry Chair. In 1953 she first made Rome her residential centre.

Her later published writing consisted entirely of prose and drama pieces. Her most famous book was Malina, part of the large ‘Todesarten’ cycle. In 1968 she was awarded the Austrian State Prize for literature.

She had a long and productive liaison with Henze Werner Henze, writing libretto for several of his pieces: Der Prinz von Homberg etc, some of which is included in this collection. Her later breakup with Swiss writer Max Frisch was long and painful.

2

But were there no more poems? Here collected are the two best selling books as well as poems written throughout the rest of her life, in five time-sections: 1945 to 56; 1957 to 61; 1962 to 63; 1963 to 64, and 1964 to 67. As you can see some of these sections are fuller than others. As you can also see the last five to six years of her life are not covered. The translator Peter Filkins points out, that although the quality of this unpublished work maybe does not hit the high mark of the earlier pieces; it can still own its right as poetry.

Starting out she had to find a language of expression within her native German, As Christa Wolf notes, Ingeborg Bachmann knows that “literature cannot be composed outside the historical situation.” (The Writer’s Dimension). The ‘historical situation’ here implies both contemporaneous, as well as past time.

One of her main influences was Wittgenstein, of the Tractatus period: that end comment: What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence must have chimed deeply with her. Wolf also comments, The historical situation is such that all literature must have at its heart the question of man’s possible moral existence. (ibid).

Yet, how to express whilst under the enormous pressure of a past that was all around her? The pressures of history have the tendency to reduce the individual to a statistic, a number in a listing somewhere.

The images of her first book Borrowed Time are of movement away, onward, from:

Smoke rises from the land.

Remember the tiny fishing huts,

because the sun will sink

before you’ve set ten miles behind you.

The dark water, thousand-eyed,

opens its white-foamed lashes,

studying you, deep and long,

thirty days long

……………………….

from  Journeying Out

Harder days are coming.

The loan of borrowed time

will be due on the horizon

…………………………

from Borrowed Time

It would be so easy to read the smoke rising from the land as referencing a broken Europe; to go is to perhaps go towards: there are always horrors waiting for us, unpaid dues, worse things. These poems were published within the immediate post-War period of German restructuring and hope. Their great impact was due perhaps to their tapping into the doubt and darkness behind the confidence.

She can also hit a fuller tone:

Wherever we turn in the storm of roses,

the night is lit up by thorns, and the thunder

of leaves, once so quiet within the bushes,

rumbling at our heels.

In the Storm of Roses

Roses have as illustrious a symbolism as poppies, maybe more so. The lurid brightness of their colour here (can you feel Giorgione’s ‘Tempest’?) maybe borrowing, or reflecting forward to, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’ (as her later poetry forward-echoes some of the tone of the ‘confessional’ poetry of Ginsberg, Sexton etc). It is the unease of this piece, how not even the standard pastoral held any escape, that is memorable.

The theme of leaving, moving away from, a past she was inevitably embroiled in, that coloured, toned and muddied every thing around her: to leave, then; but can one possibly leave it behind? Compare the above piece with:

Under an alien sky

shadows roses

shadow

on an alien earth

between roses and shadows

in alien waters

my shadow

Shadows Roses Shadow, from Invocation of the Great Bear

The self jostles for place amongst the shadows, and almost succeeds. It is that ‘almost’ she is most adept at expressing.

She has a Symbolist tone at times in those earlier poems:

As sorrow warms him, the glassblower steps towards us

…………………………………………………………..

……………………………………………………………

              

…. He boils the lead in the kettle of tears,

making for you a glass – meaning a toast to what’s lost –

for me a shard of smoke…………………..

from: Twilight

: the brittle delicacy of emotional states on the nerves; and the dull lumpeness of grief.

Her Great Landscape Near Vienna is, it has been suggested, in part influenced by Carol Reed’s iconic scenes of the shattered (Hapsburg) empire, and moral ambiguity, in his iconic film, The Third Man:

… two thousand years gone, and nothing of us will remain

……………………………………..

only in the square, in midday light, chained to

the column’s base………..

the nave is empty, the stone is blind,

no one is saved, many are stricken,

the oil will not burn, we have all

drunk from it………….

 

Her second book Invocation of the Great Bear has a more confident tone, allowing her to go more deeply into the unease, as well as her natural wish to rise, to allow the spirit’s movement. Where earlier she had suggested immanence, now she can weigh spirit and flesh, or earth: the Shadows Roses Shadow above, in its complete lack of punctuation, displays a greater confidence in form and tone. But also we have:

Now the journey is ending,

the wind is losing heart.

Into your hands it’s falling,

a rickety house of cards.

 

The cards are backed with pictures

displaying all the world.

You’ve stacked up all the images

and shuffled them with words.

 

…………………………..

From: Stay

The poem can be read as self-referential, as well as addressed to her peers. The image of the journey now turns its dis-ease inward onto the self, and language. What is the relationship between a word and its meaning? Do nouns claim a world for us; and with verbs do we manipulate that world, make it active? Wittgenstein’s idea of picture-language may read to us now as anachronistic, maybe a little clumsy, but we must remember in 1956 it still held its fascination and appeal. So how does this piece end, what has she to say?

And how profound the playing

that once again begins!

Stay, the card you’re drawing

is the only world you’ll win

(ibid)

The only way out – action linked to the real processes of society – seems barred by a hopelessness which feeds non-stop off the alienation she feels when she observes real events. (Christa Wolf, ibid).

This is very much an existential impasse.

It is also an impasse created by language; the concept of the ‘language game’ of the later Wittgenstein is echoed in the above extract. We need to ask, Where does the ‘I’ stand in relation to our language, to what we express?

What is the point of writing… for whom to express one’s thoughts, and what is there to say to people? (Christa Wolf, ibid). Another commentator has noted: The fuse that runs through these powerful poems is the powerlessness of language, its continual failure to measure up: “Between a word and a thing / you only encounter yourself, / lying between each as if next to someone ill, / never able to get to either.”

In her poetry… she reveals a person who… is willing and able to endure the conflicts of our own time.” Christa Wolf had noted earlier. That ‘able’ worries me; it should worry us all. It is like a gong, sounding out presumption, over-confidence.

And so, in order to continue at all, the language use must change; the need to express continues, but the form is felt to be no longer adequate:

The oar dips at the sound of a gong, the black waltz starts,

with thick dull stitches, shadows string guitars.

 

Beneath the threshold, in a mirror, my dark house floats,

the flaring points of light now softly radiate out.

 

…………………………………………………

always the surface shifts towards another destination.

                  

………………………………………………………..

The Black Waltz

The search for a language: she approaches Surrealism, its sudden clinching and clanging of images that reveal meaning, as it were, by accident:

……………………………………………………..

a flywheel starts spinning, the derricks pump

spring from the fields, erected forests macerate

the degraded torso of greenness, and an iris of oil

watches over the wells of the land………

…………………………………………….

The Ferris wheel drags the coat that covered our love.

from: Great Landscape near Vienna

The second book makes great use of Grimm’s stories: Snow White and Rose Red, The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff etc

……………………………………………….

the seven stones turned into seven loaves;

he plunged into the meadows; fragrant air

scattering crumbs for the lost in forest groves

……………………………………….

from: Of a Land, A River and Lakes

As such, these excerpts are all of techniques of narrative. That last named poem has ten sections of strict rhyming quatrains, on domestic rural scenes. The quotidian: all that we can be sure of. The piece is unflinching perhaps in its depictions of slaughter days, and how closely they run to War’s sanctioned excesses. Nevertheless these are landscapes closely guarded by form and metre.

She often uses the first person singular as a way of exploring, through identifying basic traits, a universal.

Each poem is the uncovering of a host of images that cluster around a central concern, often obliquely approached. In Advertisement she blends the bland hopes of advertisers with the syntax of lives full of very real broken hopes:

But where are we going

carefree be carefree

…………………..

…………………..

but what happens

best of all

when dead silence

 

sets in

 

This attention to syntax prepares us for the concern with pure language systems that we saw in Stay, the language-game, where truth is textural.

3

What happened next was the meeting of emotional break-up and existential impasse; what happened next was hospitalisation: depression; slow recovery.

The Gloriastrasse poems convey something of that time:

The blessing of morphine, but not the blessing of a letter

 

and

In a bed

in which many have died

odourlessly, fitted out

in a white smock

…………………..

…………………….

Lost in a haze of morphine

Confessional in mood, shut-off and half-aware at times, these poems are painful reading. Perhaps the hospital poems of Elizabeth Jennings in English poetry come the closest.

With recovery, even if only partial, came the success of the novels; a success based in part on their innovative techniques.

For a writer there is only language: intent, expression, ability, vocabulary, wide reading, and accident. And the contexts, and the meta-narratives that language-use brings with it.

These translations are not always at their best, fighting to retain the metre and rhyme schemes of the original German in lines padded out with redundant terms, phrases, to make up the metre. Overall, however, the standard is high. This is a big book, a dual-language volume. If one compares these translations with others available on the net one sees how generally successful this book is.

It is always best to let the writer have the last word.

Nach dieser Sintflut

[After this deluge]

After this deluge

 I wish to see the dove

 saved,

 nothing but the dove.

 

…………………………………………….

 

 Grabstätte_von_Ingeborg_Bachmann

 

In my piece on Henrik Nordbrandt I mentioned the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelof as one reference point. Pia Tafdrup has also spoken out in favour of Ekelof’s work. She comes in from a completely different direction. Much of her poetic sensibility is based on the feminist critiques and theories of Kristeva and Cixous; her body-centred explorations of the here and now utilise the rhythms and languages of desire.

For Pia Tafdrup writing the body is very much that of the ‘Écriture feminine’ of Cixous, and of Showalter who writes, “… the inscription of the feminine body and female difference in language and text.”. Écriture feminine places “experience before language, and privileges non-linear, cyclic writing that evades the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system.”

The book Spring Tide, translated by Ann Born, Tafdrup describes as just one aspect of her writing: ”Spring Tide and White Fever constitute two parts, while The Bridge of Sounds became a third quantity, which could not have been thought of without the preceding ones. Seen like this the three works are related to one another as thesis-antitheses-synthesis… A continuous, dynamic praxis.’ (Walking Over the Water. 1991).

It has been noted by some that Tafdrup set out from the beginning to be one of the top Danish writers; something like Auden’s career plan in English. And yet she has not been so beholden to the Danish canon. Her earlier works have been controversial, foregrounding the body, sensual experience, women’s perspectives. Her travelling companion in this was Marianne Larsen, whose writing, “analyse(s) sexual repression, class struggles and imperialism…”. Tafdrup’s  previous book, The Innermost Zone, 1983 “sets out to explore unknown regions of the body and mind…” that is, unknown in literature. Tafdrup’s assault on the canon has always been from a radical perspective. Her concerns echo Rosemarie Tong’s comment on Cixous: “Cixous urged women to… the unthinkable/unthought… in words”.

Tafdrup’s two major volumes are Spring Tide (1985) and Queen’s Gate (2001). There is detectable a move from “short lines… mounting impatient rhythm… ‘(Horace Engdahl) to “a many-voiced, multi-layered…” (Bloodaxe) style. In between we have the Arkpoem (1994); a very different experiment in form, it opens:

I was writing this long and labyrinthine poem in which I opened up

 and at the same time stepped into that openness, stillness, with a white voice

 as word after word drank from its stream, and the further the poem extended

 the more difficult it became, its syntax gradually transforming underway…

Her structure here is the cyclic exploration of self and the world as outlined by Elaine Showalter in her writings on feminist theory.

In 1991 she published Walking Over the Water. Outline of a Poetics. (part-translated by David MacDuff), a long series of meditations examining and elaborating upon her working methods. A key part of her strategy for major recognition. At every point it can seen her intent has been to situate the feminist perspective within the Danish canon.

The great appeal of Spring Tide lies in its sensuous, breathless lines: “…to write the syntax of desire…to a great degree demonstrate it…” (The Syntax of Desire, author’s foreword). The book is based around the first recognition, enjoyment, waning, and loss of desire “in all its manifestations…”:

Spring Tide

                 I lie down

                 bare myself

                I’ll be your animal

                  for a moment

                 with senses stretched out

                 between neck and heel

spring tide

           ……………………………………………………..

Spring Tide is a book honed on public performance. The incantatory effect, the feel of transgression, the building rhythmic force of these lines all must have been electrifying.

In the structure of this poem, its paralleling of clauses, we have something of kin with perhaps, a rhapsodic, biblical style.

It is not all pleasure and sunshine, however. As Engdahl comments: “Her poetry has a shadow side… the prevailing season… is actually winter, the harsh, windy Danish winter with its endless wet snow.” And it is. The reader does not notice at first, but predominantly it is very much desire in warm places.

This darker side makes itself more known in the later book of aphoristic four-liners The Thousandborn:

                            Don’t look for poetry’s black box,

                            it hasn’t recorded any answers,

                            ……………………………………………………………….. 

 It is perhaps she is indeed “demonstrating …all its manifestations..”, even the desire for the dark, the cold, that is a part of all our make-ups.

Queens Gate (translated by David MacDuff) at times achieves a great elegance of line and phrase:

                             Clear is the water, blue as in a flame,

                            like a sky that floats,

                          ………………………………………………………

from The Shining River)

and

                            Here an undercurrent gathers,

                            here is a well with water

                            ……………………………………………………….

                            and the creatures still cry.

from The Acacia Valley

There is the kind of almost classical reticence here, and a tone that the Scottish Gaelic writers often achieved.

As can be seen, the two poems are water-based in their imagery; the whole book with its nine sections gestates a mythology of origins:

From water you have come.

                                                          The Shining River

The “white voice” of the ‘Ark’ poem echoes the ‘white ink’ of Écriture feminine.