Posts Tagged ‘european literature’

Combray

Posted: February 8, 2020 in Chat
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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.