Posts Tagged ‘modern poetry’

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:


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


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



del mun




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

always one




in the hurt


             we t(w/o)o



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 –

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

is Englished as:

to (ki/ca)ndle
in you the cand(i/e)d
fire fanned
by your incandescent

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

after the dance-theatre performance of the Pina Bausch company

‘We must talk’ you say, ‘sit here, listen’.
The moment is a revolving door
I do not know how to stop, or close;
our table a sun on a scorching planet —
we have wandered there naked, burnt,
and lost amongst its crumbs, metal.

French windows gape like dark wings draped
over the city; and louvred windows hold aloof
their fragile, distant aches.
In their assimilation there is no longer place
for us. Your words are hot —
and the night grows colder. I long for you
but taste only ashes
not peaches, gingered melon.

We have died here before — the waiter
wraps us warm in the embrace
of a thousand passing presumptions,
asks us to chose; I can take none.
We are what we civilise of the wildness in us;
I have blood in my mouth
and the melancholy of pain, like hunger.
Who is this other? She is giddy with the possibility
the naked and the tabletop offer equally;
an ostentation of preparations.
We are deficient, and the menu lessens us further.

Who is waiting at the door? Window? Wall?
Why are we all here? So sit and sit and sit.
Relationships break here, wives
leave, and husbands stand at the flung open
french windows: an offering to the sky.
The night detonates: they stare back, burnt out;
and all the candles flare, then fail.

Our pain is a mirror — the clock’s tells
and its reckless readings circle the words
‘Leave’ and ‘me’; its chime
muffles the smothered ’Never’.
The room always empty, but populated,
a carved-out place of space,
served up on fine platters
— listen
can you hear the rustle of moments
coalescing? A fine meal we make of this.

She said this ring is a broken tone
the wall-clock has forgotten, and won’t take back.
He twists it around and around his finger, wishing,
for this is the day of the continuous lie — a tall tale:
what was once broken, is twice unmended;
— what was once said, is twice unremedied.

And the child’s hand slips from hers, the baby’s cry
unheard in the bustle and hub of the hall;
her nerves wire the walls,  flare the light
as the current flickers again. To be left alone,
empty, as a coat left, hung on the wall….

To be caught is to be in the cup that drips
then is wiped away with a serviette;
to be lost is to be forever going and not going
at the same time, in the same place
is to be found in the tale that breaks off
but does not,
amongst the communion,
and the cutlery.

The break is the tale’s breathing, it continues always:
the room, and the haunting — the window,
and the blind hurt, the bleeding,
and the doors


On poems by Rutger Kopland and Kathleen Jamie

What follows is a brief discussion of use of interruptive image and of modes of address, in two seemingly disparate writers. There is much to be found in common between them.

Under the Apple Tree/Onder de appelboom

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


…………………….. 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

Rutger Kopland, Under the Apple Tree/Onder de appleboom (Among Cattle/Onder het vee, 1966)

We scarcely notice the ballad-like repetitions of key phrases, or 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? The past of a secure economy, of safe jobs, a stable society? This is a claim that plagued Rutger 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, via sound, to the house, and identified as the laughter of children. The emotions are stirred but not settled, their direction may have been channelled but in consequence 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.

Now I want to look at Flashing Green Man by Kathleen Jamie: my apologies for the long excerpts, the text of the poem occurs nowhere online

Flashing Green Man

I regret the little time I make to consider
these adult days, …………………
……………………………………… Under the multi’s

walking tall and bejewelled
across our dark land, I wait with the others:
thinking about supper and the grocer’s wife,
………………………………. But these days I don’t much consider.

The green man flashed – he too refuged in cities –
and the traffic stilled for the shouting
news-vendor in his cap and scarf, for us
blethering people; and a sound
in the orange glow: a high kronk-honk
…………………………….. But I stopped

on the rush hour pavement to watch
the skein’s arrow
cross the traffic-choked Marketgait,
and head for the glittering multi’s
tenth or twelth floor, where they banked
in the wind of these pivotal buildings
to pull themselves North to the Sidlaws:
and brash light from windows

…… a pale-faced woman peeling potatoes

as her husband climbed the long stairs,
listened, smiled, and wiping the window
cupped her hands around her eyes
to acknowledge a sign
truer than the flashing green man
or directional arrows seen at a junction
where I watched the geese tilt
to make their turn, their beating wings
more precious than angels’ in the city lights.

Kathleen Jamie, The Queen of Sheba, Bloodaxe, 1994

Both poems employ long sentences that take up almost a whole long stanza; both do not employ much by way of commas, colons, semi-colons. The Kathleen Jamie much more than the Rutger Kopland. Why is this? What does the long sentence express in the poem? Because it is used for a reason. What, the lack of punctuation?

Rutger Kopland only uses the comma; this allows a sense of flow, of ongoing thought, of feeling uninterrupted by analysis, discursive thought, consideration.

The long sentence can be seen as a rhythmic device, except that my term ‘device’ devalues the way the writer orders his work in this instance. Both writers contribute to the effect of on-going life in the poems, of on-going life in tandem with reflection; that is, although the poem instances a brief period of time, the minutes of the event, it encapsulates a life period. The point being that life and reflection are portrayed as part and parcel of the same event, the event that that the poem enacts, and that is the poem. It is all thrown against a much bigger, wider screen where times passes and is enacted.

Try to imagine what each poem would be without the interruption of geese.

For Rutger Kopland the geese can be seen as a device for expressing (or discovering?) an emotional state beyond that posited by the poem to that point. Admittedly, tiredness combined with a sense of fulfilment/achievement, had brought Rutger Kopland to a delicate state where he found his cognisance of the evening as too beautiful to be true. I use the term ‘cognisance’ here because I think it is necessary to know something of the man to know the range of the poem.

The late Rudi H van den Hoofdakker was a neuroscientist, who specialized in sleep disorders, and the aging process in the elderly. He was, it has been said, ‘the least metaphysical of men’; he was also a pioneer of the use of ‘ordinary language’ in poetry. By this I mean he did not use terms, express concepts that were not available to common language use. And yet he strove continually to express deeper and deeper insights into the human condition using this limited palate. To read his (translated) poetry aloud is to never stumble over an overwrought, or extravagant image, never to sense any awkwardness due to incursion by uncharacteristic content. I have cited negative attributes; for the positive I would state the poems recommend themselves to us as owning an integrity, honesty even.

In Kathleen Jamie the geese are an interruption into the closed state the city represents, of the wilderness, the ‘natural’ world, from the world that covers major parts of the earth’s surface. Kathleen Jamie has travelled these places, remote, difficult, almost inaccessible. Her books bear this out.

In this poem we are prepared for this special interpretation of the geese, by the Green Man image, a rural image of the essence of wildness in this case translated into the city as an icon for Walk, that is, movement, vitality, if you will.

Without the geese the poem would still have been a very potent expression of the urban life. For some writers this would have been enough. For Kathleen Jamie, though, she has at least a dual vision. Like her fellow Scot, Norman MacCaig with his ‘binocular vision’ who identifies the smell of herring on an Edinburgh high street, or the incursion of Highland (Lochinver/Assynt) experience, memories, into city experience, Kathleen Jamie is aware of the importance to her of those outside places.

She identifies herself as a city dweller in the poem, and this, it could be argued, precipitates the crisis that the incursion of geese engenders. The geese in this case become for her agents of a wider life-experience. Yet it seems to be a gendered life-experience: the clerks tugging on their street clothes are set against the pale-faced woman peeling potatoes: the clerks are oblivious to the geese, although just as trammelled and trapped, whilst the woman, and there is no hint of an unhappy relationship, smiles and recognises something of an extra adjunct to life in the incursion and activity of the geese.

For Rutger Kopland the geese are the vehicle for acknowledging a greater intensity of feeling. In the poem he writes how the sound of the geese precipitated a sense of how still and empty/ it was becoming.

If we compare this stillness and emptiness with the immediately preceding sense of fullness we get a quick switch from full to emptiness, itself symptomatic of emotion without outlet, looping in itself, until anchored by the presence of the other person.

If we compare this sense of emptiness with the following by Kathleen Jamie we maybe can get a handle on the emotion.

Skeins o geese

Skeins o geese write a word
across the sky. …..
The sky moves like cattle, lowin.

I’m as empty as stane, as fields
ploo’d but not sown, naked
an blin as a stane. …..

tae a’ soon but geese ca’ing.

Wire twists lik archaic script
roon a gate. …………………
………………………  The word whustles

ower high for ma senses. Awa.


Whit dae birds write in the dark?
A word niver spoken or read.
the skeins turn hame,
on the wind’s dumb moan, a soun,
maybe human, bereft.

Kathleen Jamie, as above

Line 15 – that Awa’., should it be read as The word whustles/ ower high for ma senses and awa? Or is it a direct address: Awa with all that! In the latter case it could be said to serve a similar purpose to the retreat from the intensity of emotion in the Rutger Kopland poem. And as in the Rutger Kopland poem the emotive power of the piece is re-directed, first by disentangling from the past and then by calling upon the standard image for the going beyond language, custom, culture, into a common heritage of human experience, that of the human predicament of being faced with the ultimate full stop, our inevitable deaths.

Both writers have particular takes on use of language. I have mentioned Rutger Kopland’s ‘common language’; Kathleen Jamie intersperses standard English with lowland Scots, a lived language rather than a dictionary-enhanced language such as lallans. Kathleen Jamie’s lived Scots, particularly evident in Skeins o Geese, is also and emphatically a ‘common language’. Elsewhere in the book this poem is from, The Queen of Sheba, we have poems of recognition between people, of a (re-)discovered fellowship. This is at times wholly a gendered recognition, at others a recognition of common humanity. The identifying of herself as a city dweller, as in Flashing Green Man, is a part of this. The book also broadens out into the ‘other’ lands Kathleen Jamie constantly references. There we find recognition and fellowship amongst, and with, nomads and widely different cultural groups.

And where do the poems end, in relation to these interruptions of geese?

In Rutger Kopland the becoming is in the arrival of the partner, remarkably close, that is, it is a treasured relationship. With Rutger Kopland we never move beyond the self. This is what has contributed to his being called essentially a sane writer: he recognises that all our knowledge is the self’s knowledge, that we are always just people on the earth, amongst its variousness. In a later poem Self-portrait as a Horse the writer does not become the horse but is always aware that he is human, and can never enter the being of another, whether person, or creature. We can only know the world other than from the position of our self. In this we are all alike.

In Kathleen Jamie we become aware of the close proximity of the Sidlaw Hills to the city. This is a key feature of much Scottish writing, that city and ‘mountain’ are cheek by jowl. One is never without a glimpse, sighting, of ‘wilderness’ in one form or another. This dual vision, cited above, becomes a means for investigating the common bond in the variousness of human lives, in whatever terrain.

Rutger Kopland investigates a similar connection, but by emphasising the common humanity inherent in all, but from within.

Both poems chart a journey; in Kathleen Jamie this has the added resonance through her experience of nomadic peoples, and the apparently nomadic migrating geese in the city. The journey in Rutger Kopland is an entirely self-referential journey; maybe here we see the impact and legacy of the Calvinist tradition, the sole reliance on the self naked before God, without intercession from priest or saint. This is very much what we now take to be Martin Luther’s great vision. Historically it took many generations, twist and turns, interpretations etc to get to this, but the vision is strong enough for us in our unreligious time to glimpse: it is the existential moment. But in Rutger Kopland’s case brought back from the brink by the bonds of common humanity, of love for family, of duty, of responsibility to one’s community. And all accepted with varying degrees of willingness.

Rutger Kopland (1934-2012):


Kathleen Jamie:

The main focus of attention of Stammers’ poetry in the first book is on the experience of the act of writing; his poems attempt to chart their own existence in space; that of their subject matter is maybe secondary to this. The experience of the act of writing is the source of the exuberance that is one of the most noticeable factors of the poems; it is also part of the experiencing of the self through the act of expression. And as we observe the process of the poems, which is what happens when we read them, then, as in quantum physics, we realize we are a part of what we observe; our enacting of the experience of the poem becomes part of our own myth as identifiable beings. So, with the event of writing the writing experience, is it possible that the two areas we interface are in fact further conjoined by our awareness of them in the act of writing?

I have no wish to put forward an entirely solipsistic slant to Stammers’ achievement here in his poems.

When we approach Interior Night we cannot help but notice a change in mood, in language-use. In terms of light and colour tones we encounter darker, more sombre colours. On reading Nightsweats in the Afternoon, we cannot but read it as another take, a darker, flipped, take on the earlier delightful House on the Beach of Panoramic Lounge Bar. In this latter book the role of language is undermined, the imagery and quotations that allow the elaborations, rhetorical flights, are questioned.

The poem The University recreates a self-enclosed, locked-in nightmare scenario; it is a world of seemingly real objects, but where the persona is only part-sensible: it is a dream landscape; these are all the qualities of the lucid dream. There is the seeming riddle of the subject of the poem that plays itself out twice (what Freud calls ‘repetition compulsion’), the constantly changing perspective, the changing uphill and downhill of the street to the shop; the colour schemes that tone down from brown to black. The poem has all the hallmark qualities of the half-awake dream state that enacts an unstated, unexplained complex event. It is a psychological memory that carries its own gestalt.

The earlier poem Ondine, opens with a take on a much-admired Pablo Neruda poem; the mannered style to the writing suggests to a certain extent the translatorese of the-poem-in-translation. Stammers constantly draws our attention to modes of verbal expression in this book, and how it perhaps has a conditioning effect on how we perceive the world. The subject matter, in this case alluding to a ballet, is of a water nymph whose song lures men to their death, and another classic Freudian concept. What Stammers does with the myth is investigate it from within, in this particular instance he takes up the central vehicle of the myth, the musical dimension: song, music, dance; he creates a typically Stammersian persona, and sees where it goes within the self- prison of its own existence.

In an early interview (Wolf Magazine), John Stammers commented that one the best pieces of luck in his writing career was to have Don Patterson for an editor, because he ‘doesn’t let him get away with anything’. Indeed, Patterson has joined that group of contemporary Scots poets whose commitment to poetics is strong and redoubtable: W N Herbert and Robert Crawford. This would imply that Stammer’s own use of poetics has thereby gone under close scrutiny. It is of a different order. Furthermore the Avenue (Stolen Love Behaviour) is a poem intent on sound. To read it aloud, read it for its patterns, is to trip the wire that sets it chiming; each metric foot has its own ring tone:  Platters of sea bass, gambas and trinkling glass/do nothing but vie with the C-sharp of Lambrettas/ that dopple off down the street to G.’ Each ‘a’ sound of those first two lines, although linking in the mind’s ear with assonantal patterns, to the actual ear each has its own weight and inflection. The London voice weighs vowels differently. The stand-out onomatopoeic word ‘trinkling’ with its ‘r’ and high ‘i’s revs into the memory of the high warbling sound of a Lambretta; its ‘r’ specifically introduced by the preceding sharp pull-up sound of ‘C-sharp’. The long sound of ‘C’ continues the other sound strand through these lines, the sibilance. It is amusing how Stammers modulates high C to the key of G here by way of the pulled-back rhythmic stress in ‘Lambrettas’.

In Black Dog the Freudian arena is further explored. Black Dog is the classic image of depression (see Churchill), and depression in Freudian terms is the symptom of a suppressed complex. We have a mannered use of language: … the shadows commence a faint unnerving undulation… where coolness and distance could almost characterize it as a quotation from a clinician’s notes of a patient’s (analysand’s) dream record. This in turn contrasts with the later easy, relaxed, chatty tone of: … sciency new conditioner….. But it must be remembered that this is a description of the … awful sheen… the shadows wear. It is as if both of these types of language-use are ways of approaching the same suppressed gestalt of the subject matter. As we follow the poem we see it act itself out, we see the narrator and the experience become one.  Similarly, in The House Sale, the persona is so very distinctly different from the Stammers of earlier poems; what is being enacted in this poem is an exploration of a dangerous, entrenched, state of mind. As this is an illustration rather than explanation of a state of mind/being, we readily accept the exaggerated aspects, attitudes, the reductive reasoning for what they are. Dead Alsatian… uses Martian distancing techniques, with their Hughesian undertones, for observing the concrete, the Real. Only, the real subject matter here is death; we have what is in effect a memento mori in miniature.

The Shrine of Proteus has a revealing prosody; the subject matter echoes Freud’s deep interest in classical myth, and its implications that play out in our daily lives. That is all very well, but it is what Stammers does with his subject matter is important, it is how it is written gives it its relevance. Structurally it is very interesting. The poem consists of nine stanzas, the first two of which have fifteen lines each, followed by a seven, an eleven, and then the last five of ten lines each. Metrically these lines pattern out roughly at eight iambics per line; but this is not the Stammers way: the line is the proper Stammers measure. Each line has its strong yet subtle internal audial patternings, whether by assonance or alliteration; it is usually a combination of both. It is tempting to say the line here is a breath-measure, but I don’t think it is so. The stanzas are built around polysyllabic patterns; the first stanza begins easily with a pocketful of small-change words, a jingling of copper and silver words, before we hit the larger denominations, the ‘barbarous’, ‘metaphysical’, ‘significance’, and ‘parodical’ before settling down again. Each stanza has its own variation. From line to line the pattern plays a variation on a basic sound-range. What this shifting does to the way we read the lines is important; this is particularly relevant in the last four lines of stanza nine, where the shift in level, tone, betokens a shift in perspective: we suddenly move from a fictionalised memory-tale, into something more sinister, psychological… Freudian. The form and range of perspectives, meanings, within the poem change; it is, in effect, protean.

Is it possible that, having said all this, in the volume Interior Night Stammers is attempting the Greek thing: catharsis? It is possible that by approaching the particular range of subject matter of the poems in this book, in this particular way, that Stammers is hoping to help us expose our underlying, suppressed, knowledge of the nature of the world around us: death, drugs, lust, fear… and so, to help us bring it out, see the world for what it is? What we do with that knowledge, is also of course, conditioned by the nature of the intent of that exposure.

I have name-checked quite a number of modern French writers in these pieces; can we go on and look for Irigary, Cixous, Kristeva? I have as yet not been able to locate any references. A previous reviewer of Stolen Love Behaviour commented to the effect that ‘Stammers says he is writing about love, passion. He can’t.’ At first I dismissed this as, ‘Well, when you look for only one (or two) definitions, or personal experiences, and then not find them… you know…! Well, need I say more!’ It was the dogmatic denial I reacted against. I think that maybe the mismatch here lies in that Stammers keeps strictly to an original-source Freudianism plus immediate interpreters for his life’s science, whilst the further French writers have produced critiques of Freud that at times dismantle both the efficacy of psycho-analysis, and of the Freudian conceptual framework. This then, is perhaps one other boundary of Stammers’ world.