Ramapada Chowdhury’s Second Encounter

Ramapada Chowdhury, Second Encounter (Je Jekhane Danriye 1972, translation by Swapna Dutta,  Niyogi Books 2016)

9385285440.jpgIt’s easy for English-speaking readers to forget that a vast amount of writing exists in the world independent of the English language: neither written in English nor translated into it. In India, I’m told, there are a number of languages in which novels can find much greater audiences than the one we Anglophones arrogantly assume to be universal.

Bengali is one of those languages. It’s the language of the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and we Anglophones are fortunate enough to have had at lest some of their work translated for us. (Satyajit Ray was one of the names my oldest brother used to conjure up the great world of Culture when he came home from his first term at University – along with Tolstoy, Tchaikowsky and Kurosawa.)

jejakhanedanriye.jpgRamapada Chowdhury’s 1972 novella Je Jekhane Danriye is a gem that would have remained invisible to non-Bengali readers if Swapna Dutta’s love for it hadn’t led her to make it available to us. A film version was released in 1974, but there’s very little information about it on IMDB. The poster for the film seriously misrepresents the book.

It’s a story of young love revisited: two people, each married with a child, meet up again after a twenty-year separation. In their teenage years they had lived near each other and developed a mutual infatuation, which was never consummated in so much as a direct exchange of words. Each of them has cherished the thrilling memory and found solace in it in the midst of humdrum reality, and now it seems a spark has been reignited.

But this is not a Mills and Boon romance. The emotional weight of the book hangs on the question of what twenty years can mean in a person’s life. Not only do individuals mature and make choices, but social mores change: while twenty years previously young people could only gaze raptly at each other from their restricted lives, the current teenagers roam the countryside together day and night. Both main characters agonise over the meaning of their rekindled feelings, for themselves, for each other, for their spouses, and for their children (who are engaged in a teenage romance of their own).

By serendipity, I’ve been reading the poems of C P Cavafy at the same time as Second Encounter. I plan to write a little bit about Cavafy in a couple of days, but for now I just want to refer to the many poems in which a fifty year old man looks back yearningly to objects of desire from his 20s. Cavafy’s poems never test nostalgic desire against any kind of reality. He would probably have rejected Second Encounter‘s meditations as appallingly anti-romantic, but I can’t help feeling he might have been a happier human if he had read it and taken its wisdom on board.

In case you’re interested in learning more: I came across a documentary on Ramapada Chowdhury on YouTube, made, I think, by one of his grandchildren. Now in his 90s, he mentions this little book, which the English subtitles call Where One Stands, and says that it was influenced by ‘One Day after 20 Years’, a poem by Bengali poet Jibanananda Das (there’s a poem at that link called ‘After 25 Years’, which may be the one he means).

Halldór Laxness’s Independent People

Halldór Laxness, Independent People (©1934–1935, translation by James Anderson Thompson 1945, Vintage edition 1997)

ip.jpgMy Book Group read Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites – set in Iceland in 1830 – in November. A number of friends said I should read Independent People by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, a book beside which Burial Rites looked shallow. It took a while for IP to become available from the library, and it’s a long book, but at last  I’ve read it.

Let me deal with the Hannah Kent comparison first: to say that a novel isn’t as good as Independent People is like saying a play isn’t as good as King Lear, or a science fiction movie pales beside Bladerunner. The book is monumental. Everything I have ever heard or read about Iceland is in its pages: the landscape, the banking system, the poetry, the weather and the sheep – mainly terrible weather and diseased or starving sheep. Grímur Hákonarson’s wonderful movie Rams could have been a postscript. The current dominance of Iceland’s conservative Independence Party suggests that the book’s satirical probing of the notion of independence is as relevant now as it ever was.

The protagonist, Bjartur, having worked for a relatively rich farmer for eighteen years, has managed to get possession of a small, unpromising and possibly cursed piece of land. He moves in with his bride, and lives a life of unremitting labour and deprivation, refusing all help in the name of independence. It’s not giving too much away to say that things go badly for him in every conceivable way, and he – inspired by the heroes of the sagas – struggles on, defiant and misanthropic. Humans and animals die hearbreakingly, some of the latter at his hand, and some of the former as a direct result of his obduracy or as a result of their resistance to it. Whenever a glimmer of hope shines through the blizzard of Bjartur’s life, the reader braces for the moment when he will sabotage it. And when prosperity comes to Iceland thanks to the First World War, it’s only a matter of time before all is once again grim.

The book was published about the same time as Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, the once much loved collection of stories about families struggling on small farms in Australia. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast to the way Rudd’s Dad and Dave face adversity together, with naive, cheerful resilience.

For all its grimness, the book is a delight. Bjartur is an unforgettable character. So are the young woman unlucky enough to be married off to him, and their daughter, and his youngest son, Nonni, who I read as representing the author’s point of view (not to give too much away, he escapes and we glean that his new life in America is relatively OK). There are wonderful minor characters, of whom my favourite is the Bailiff’s wife, described as pope-like, presumably with plump Pope Leo X in mind, who ceaselessly spouts romantic nonsense about the joys of rural poverty. I also love the chorus of small farmers who meet regularly and amidst their main talk of sheep disease and weather, pronounce on economics, politics and metaphysics.

The writing is wonderful. As a child of the town with the highest annual rainfall in Australia, I loved this passage (not least for the way it makes us understand that a woman wouldn’t have to be neurotic, as she is described in the last sentence, to be miserable in that place):

Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling – rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.

There’s a lot that’s quotable, though not much that would find its way onto inspirational wall hangings. Some typical aphorisms:

Come what may and go what may, a man always has the memories of his dogs. Of these at least no one can deprive him.

The life of man is so short that ordinary people simply cannot afford to be born.

What does it matter if a man has to live in a little mud hut all his life when his life, if you can really call it a life, is so short?

The most unpleasant feature of midwinter is not its darkness. More unpleasant still, perhaps, is that it should never grow dark enough for one to forget the endlessness of which it is a symbol.

I could go on.

I just want to say a little bit about the translation. Evidently it took J A Thompson eight years to write the English version, and he did it in consultation with Haldór Laxness. The translation has a strong voice of its own, an assurance that means the tone is always absolutely clear – as in that ‘neurotic’ in the passage above. It’s a brilliant piece of writing in its own right. I was happy to find a 2014 English-language MA dissertation for the University of Iceland, The Creative Translator: Creativity and Originality in J.A. Thompson’s Translation of Halldór Laxness’ Sjálfstætt fólk by Abigail Charlotte Cooper (PDF here), that discusses some of the issues.

Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (Faber & Faber 1997)

0374525870.jpg

‘Why are you reading that?’ the Emerging Artist asked with genuine curiosity. Unvoiced supplementary clauses hung in the air: ‘… when you don’t have to?’  ‘… when the world is going to hell in a handcart?’

I said, ‘I bought it on impulse when I was spending my voucher at Sappho’s.’ I could have explained the impulse further. I regularly ran into Ovid’s poetry in my years of Latin at school and university, mainly in ‘unseens’ passages for translation. His sometimes racy retellings of miraculous transformations have had a huge afterlife – they live on in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (source of My Fair Lady), Yeats’s Leda and the Swan, and commonplace phrases like ‘the Midas touch’ or ‘the narcissistic president’. According to Clive James, Shakespeare knew the Metamorphoses by heart. I liked the idea of reading the original – though not enough to wrestle with the Latin. So I was drawn to a book described on its back cover as ‘the best rendering of Ovid in generations’.

Ted Hughes published this version of 24 of the 250 stories from the Metamorphoses the year before he died. It doesn’t read as if it was written by someone winding down. From the urbane, orderly originals in which line after line conforms to the strict scanning requirements of epic hexameter, he produced a collection that is richly varied in form, and moves in to a close attention to physical, even visceral sensation.

The first section, eighteen pages long, tells a creation story, followed by a flood story – a striking reminder that the Hebrew Bible stories didn’t exist in isolation from the surrounding cultures. And the next 20 pages  tell the story of young, ambitious Phaethon, who rode the sun’s chariot across the sky, lost control and nearly destroyed the world once again, a story that reads – in Hughes’s version – as a worst-case scenario for climate change brought about by reckless abuse of natural resources. Here’s the section where the Goddess of Earth pleads with the supreme God:

She choked in a squall of ashes.
‘See my hair singed to the roots,
My eyes cauterised by your glare.
Are these my reward
For my fertility, my limitless bounty,
My tireless production?
Is this my compensation
For undergoing the ploughshare,
The pick and the mattock,
My flesh gouged and attacked and ground to a tilth
Year in and year out? Is this how you pay me
For foddering fat beasts,
For plumping the milky grain that suckles man,
For concocting the essences and rich herbs
That smoke on your altars?

And then the book settles down to less cosmic tales, but tales that are a long way from having lost their sting: Proserpina, Echo and Narcissus, Venus and Adonis (and Atalanta), Pygmalion and Galatea, Pyramus and Thisbe (darker than the Midsummer Night’s Dream version); Midas, Tiresias and Arachne; the birth of Hercules (a truly terrible labour for his mother Alcmene, who was sabotaged by the god who usually helps labour go well), the incest of Myrrha (‘Hatred for one’s father is a crime. / Myrrha’s love for her father / Was a crime infinitely worse’), Niobe (all I knew was that she wept, now I know why!), Actaeon turned into a stag for seeing Diana naked, Erysichthon condemned to starve (the most graphic story in the book, and completely new to me), and more.

There are occasional apparent anachronistic scientific terms, but Hughes generally stays true to the cosmology and geography of the original. There are many references to other classical stories, some of which I recognised from my childhood reading of Kingsley’s Heroes, many not, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a terrific read

Now I want to geek out about translation for a while, so feel free to stop reading.

Having struggled with basic translation of Latin poetry in my distant youth , I was naturally aware as I was reading that this book is in no way a literal translation. Occasionally, I’d be struck by a vivid phrase or sentence expressing of a physical sensation and surmise that the Latin original was just two words, a noun and participle (not even a full verb.

I wanted to have a close look at a passage. Somehow I ended up with part of the story of Pygmalion. In case someone reading this doesn’t know the story, Pygmalion is a sculptor who can’t stand actual women but sculpts a statue of ivory of his ideal woman. Besotted with the sculpture, he prays to Venus, and she answers his prayer by bringing the statue to life. I picked 20 lines of the original in which he falls in love (creepily) with the statue, then – deferring to my need and yours to do other things – I cut it down to five lines.

The original, Book Ten, lines 254-258:

saepe manus operi temptantes admovet, an sit
corpus an illud ebur, nec adhuc ebur esse fatetur.
oscula dat reddique putat loquiturque tenetque
et credit tactis digitos insidere membris
et metuit, pressos veniat ne livor in artus

Here’s a very literal translation:

Often he moves his hands to the work, testing whether it be
flesh or ivory; nor does he yet acknowledge it to be ivory.
He gives kisses it and thinks they are returned, and he speaks, and grasps
and believes his fingers sink into the parts he has touched,
and fears that bruising may appear on the limbs when they have been pressed.

Even this isn’t word-for-word, because word order doesn’t matter in Latin the same way it does in English, and in Latin you can tell which words belong together by their endings (it is the hands/manus that are testing/temptantes, which is hard to convey in English). A thing that is kept in this translation is the absence of a pronoun for the statue after ‘it’ (illud) in the second line – important to the sense that Pygmalion is dealing with inanimate matter, but awkward in English. A lot else is lost, which is of course why non-literal translation is desirable. We’ve lost the way metre works in the original: every line ends with the same sequence of long and short syllables – long-short-short-long-long (though the last could be short) – which creates a particular kind of music. We’ve also lost (and I have no idea if Ovid’s first readers cared about it) the use of rhyme and other repeated sounds: dat (gives) and putat (thinks) in the third line, say, and especially the metrically complex repetition of ebur (ivory) in the second line, echoed by livor (bruising) in the fifth.

A search on the internet found a verse translation that stays very close to the original. It’s by Rolfe Humphries (1954), in six lines of blank verse:

He would often move his hands to test and touch It,
Could this be flesh, or was it ivory only?
No, it could not be ivory. His kisses,
He fancies, she returns; he speaks to her,
Holds her, believes his fingers almost leave
An imprint on her limbs, and fears to bruise her.

This has some of the metrical formality of the original, but the other lost things stay lost, and the demands of English mean that the statue becomes a ‘she’ – anticipating the transformation that doesn’t actually happen until more than 20 lines later in Ovid.

The most famous translation by an established English poet is by John Dryden (1631-1700). Here’s the relevant passage, which throws careful word-by-word accuracy to the wind:

The Flesh, or what so seems, he touches oft,
Which feels so smooth, that he believes it soft.
Fir’d with this Thought, at once he strain’d the Breast,
And on the lips a burning kiss impress’d.
‘Tis true, the harden’d breast resists the gripe,
And the cold lips return a kiss unripe:
But when, retiring back, he look’d again,
To think it iv’ry, was a thought too mean:
So wou’d believe she kiss’d, and courting more,
Again embrac’d her naked body o’er;
And straining hard the statue, was afraid
His hands had made a dint, and hurt his maid:
Explor’d her limb by limb, and fear’d to find
So rude a gripe had left a livid mark behind:

In place of the epic hexameter, Dryden uses the heroic couplets beloved of seventeenth century English poets. It hums along OK, but it takes more than twice as many lines – possibly because English needs more words anyhow, and because English has a much bigger storehouse of synonyms, but also because the need to find rhymes meant the text had to be expanded. Dryden’s strategy was to give more titillating detail: touching becomes straining, courting, embracing and exploring; we’ve got flesh, a breast, lips, nakedness, none of which is named in the Latin. The creepiness of the set-up is much emphasised. The statue is ‘his maid’, definitely now ‘she’ rather than Ovid’s ‘it’.

Here’s Ted Hughes on page 136:

Incessantly now
He caressed her,
Searching for the warmth of living flesh,
His fingertip whorls filtering out
Every feel of mere ivory.

He kissed her, closing his eyes
To divine an answering kiss of life
In her perfect lips.
And he could not believe
They were after all only ivory.

He spoke to her, he stroked her
Lightly to feel her living aura
Soft as down over her whiteness.
His fingers gripped her hard
To feel flesh yield under the pressure
That half wanted to bruise her
Into a proof of life, and half did not
Want to hurt or mar or least of all
Find her the solid ivory he had made her.

If I hadn’t read the Dryden I would have taken this to be taking huge liberties, but it’s comparatively restrained. ‘Incessantly’ isn’t bad for saepe/often, ‘searching’ for temptantes. ‘Caress’ for admovet can’t be helped really. He does introduce flesh, and lips, and eyes, like Dryden.The ‘fingertip whorls’ are an insertion of a different order, taking the emphasis away from the creepily erotic to the original’s emphasis on the difference between ebur (ivory) and corpus (a body). ‘Kiss of life’ is apt, in spite of (or because of?) its modern connotations. The repetition of ‘ivory’ at the end of consecutive stanzas achieves a rough equivalent of the repetition of ebur. In the third stanza his fingers ‘half wanted to bruise her’. You can see where that’s grounded in the original, but Ovid’s Pygmalion touches and half believes the ivory yields. It is never explicit that he want it  to happen. That doesn’t happen until later. He fears that he will bruise the limbs, but he doesn’t even half desire it. Where Ovid can leave the emotional content partly unsaid, Hughes takes the extra time to spell it out.

Now of course, I’m tempted to go back to the Erysichthon’s terrible hunger and Myrrha’s incestuous agonising to see how much is Ovid and how much Hughes. But really I’m happy to leave it there.

 

The Book Group and Falstaff

When we were discussing possibilities for our next book at the Book Group’s last meeting, one Grouper said he was reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,  and was fascinated by Bloom’s argument that Falstaff, the roistering old man in the Henry IV plays, was one of Shakespeare’s most important creations – ‘a great dream of reality’. He proposed that we read those plays. Perhaps our collective defences were down, but his proposal won the day.

Before the meeting:
Plays are meant for the stage rather than the page. That’s my excuse for not reading them,  but watching two modified versions: the relevant episodes of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (2012, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre), and Orson Welles’s 1965 Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight). The plot, in case you need it, is that Henry IV, who became king through pretty disgusting machinations in Richard II, now fights off rebels and establishes himself as a legitimate ruler. To his chagrin, his son and heir to the crown, Henry, Hal to his friends, lives a dissolute life under the mentorship of a gross, permanently drunk old man, Sir John Falstaff. It’s no spoiler to say that Hal comes good in the end, defeats the rebel Percy Hotspur, who in the king’s eyes has all the qualities Hal lacks, and is finally reconciled with his father and assumes the crown, rejecting his former life and those who were his companions, most notably and dramatically Falstaff

h41.jpgh42.jpg

The Hollow Crown episodes have high production values, with a powerful Falstaff in Simon Russell Beale and a completely charming Tom Hiddleston as Hal. As two of seven episodes in a historical TV series that happens to be largely written by Shakespeare, they necessarily focus on the story of the king (played by Jeremy Irons). There’s a grimy realism to the portrayal of Falstaff and his world, so he comes across as a pathetic drunkard lacking in moral integrity who tries to cover the squalor of his life with witty patter and unconvincing bravado. When Hal insults him (trigger warning: there are a lot of fat jokes), it feels hurtful even at its most playful. Whatever its other strengths, this production is no help in understanding what Harold Bloom was talking about.

chimes.jpg

Chimes at Midnight is a huge contrast. It looks as if it was scraped together on the smell of an oily rag – possibly the oily rag that was left after John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Ralph Richardson and Margaret Rutherford had been paid (though who knows, maybe they worked for very little). The sound is at times painfully iffy (lots of post-production dubbing), and the acting and mise-en-scène stagey to the nth degree. But the sheer exuberance of Welles’s Falstaff carries all before it.

I loved it when I saw it in the early 1970s, and I loved it again this week.

At one point, in the tavern/brothel where Hal, Falstaff and their fellow-roisterers hang out, Falstaff proposes a play, in which he will be the king. With a cushion on his head for a crown, and his vast bulk hoisted onto a raised chair, he upbraids Hal for his prodigal ways (anticipating a scene not much later when the real king does the same), and sings the praises of the good Sir John Falstaff. The original audience would have recognised, I remember from my university days, the presence of the traditional Lord of Misrule, a peasant crowned ‘king’ in a midwinter festival so that all normal, staid life gave way to riotous living. Falstaff in his tavern, full of life, big of body, delighting in language (including witty insults hurled at his own head), is a an updating of that tradition: a bright, irresponsible double of the calculating king in his forbidding court where every word is consequential and there is very little joy.

Which made me think of Donald Trump. In Part One Act 2 Scene 4, Falstaff is accused of lying. First he denies it:

What, art thou mad? art thou mad? is not the truth the truth?

Challenged to explain the discrepancies in his story, he shifts the ground. Why should he allow himself to be compelled to explain himself?

What, upon compulsion? ‘Zounds, an I were at the strappado, or all the racks in the world, I would not tell you on compulsion. Give you a reason on compulsion! If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I.

Then he attacks his accuser:

‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried  neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck —

And at last, confronted with hard evidence, he says he was joking.

In the final scene of the first play, Falstaff claims to have killed Hotspur. When Hal calls him on it, and asserts that he did it himself, Falstaff shakes his head:

Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying!

We laugh. He is such an ingenious rogue. When Falstaff says, ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,’ we feel the truth of it, and when at the end of the second play, the newly crowned King Henry V turns to him and says, ‘I know thee not, old man,’ we don’t see the dashed hopes of an unrealistic opportunist (which is pretty much how it comes across in The Hollow Crown) so much as a terrible self-amputation that’s necessary if Hal is to assume political power responsibly. And it is necessary. If Falstaff were to have a position of influence at court, the political system would be in serious trouble.

If only someone could have invented a position of Misrule President, it might have been fun, for a week or so over summer, for a Falstaffian figure who ‘isn’t a politician’ to bully and bluster and joke at the expense of the carefully correct, to make outrageous claims for himself and outrageous threats against other people, to talk of alternative facts and fake news. So long as he did all that with panache we could enjoy the sheer gall of it. We might even laugh at his naughtiness as he robs people blind. For a week or so.

Banish plump Donald and banish all the world. Yes, I get that: we need irreverence. But elect plump Donald and wreck all the world.

The meeting:
Unusually, I came to this meeting with explicit expectations. I wanted to hear more about how Harold Bloom sees Falstaff, and I wanted to hear from a Grouper who has played the role.

It turned out that the latter played Falstaff decades ago in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he said is a romp churned out by Shakespeare on short order at Queen Elizabeth’s request. The Falstaff in that play is a much less interesting creation, though much more sexually active, and attractive. Our actor had interesting things to say about the way Elizabethan audiences were much more sensitive to verbal subtleties than we are – they would go to hear a play, while we go to see one.

As for Bloom, evidently he goes through the usual perceptions of Falstaff one by one and demolishes them. Not a coward. Not a drunk. Not an opportunist. Not a liar, a thief, a scrounger or a knave. Instead, he is a great refuser of cant, a truth-speaker, a person who puts the joy of living and the joy of relationships above all else. I may be misrepresenting, as of course this discussion happened over barbecued sausages and salad and was far from interjection free. But I was unconvinced. However, we were treated to a reading from Part One, Act V Scene 1. The battle (truly horrendous in the Welles movie) is about to start. Falstaff has asked Hal to protect him and been refused, Hal saying, ‘Thou owest God a death.’ Alone on stage, Falstaff ruminates:

calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

It’s wrong, according to Bloom (at third hand), to read this as a roguish rationalisation for cowardice. It is actually a deep challenge to the whole code of conduct built around the concept of honour, a code that accounts for an awful lot of violence and death. I was reminded of Israeli writer Etgar Keret on ABC Radio’s Books and Arts recently saying that when he asked his father what he was proudest of in his life, he said, ‘I have been in the front lines of five wars, and as far as I know I’ve never hurt anyone.’ That’s not dishonourable, but – arguably true also of Falstaff – it stands aside from the demands of honour.

My Trump-as-Falstaff thesis cut only a little bit of ice.

Kathryn Lomer’s Night Writing

Kathryn Lomer, Night Writing (University of Queensland Press 2014)

nw.jpgKathryn Lomer has been to places I’ve been, loved music I’ve loved, had experiences similar to mine, learned things I’ve learned, and uses words about them that opens doors for me. A rural Catholic childhood, science and maths, bushwalking, parenthood, sex, the ups and downs of relationships, camping holidays, birds, cattle, several kinds of loss, several kinds of revival, surgery, music, visual art and sculpture, the quality of daylight, Brisbane and Melbourne art galleries, North Queensland tourist spots: she makes warm, intelligent, accessible poetry from all these.

An attractive feature of her work is the way it’s grounded in science and physical experience, while open to kinds of feeling generally associated with religion or fantasy. This stanza from ‘Measure’, for example:

I used to make shell necklaces on Hawley Beach,
my mother saying fairies made the shell holes
to help little children do just that.
I tell my son sea urchins
drill a hole to get at food inside.
Truth is also extraordinary

And how about this bit of taxonomical music from ‘Spyhopping’, which is addressed to humpback whales:

Your name is a parsing of the past:
animalia chordata vertebrata mammalia
cetacea mysticeti balaenopteridae
megaptera novaeangliae
;
a prayer said in Latin
that you survive.

The book is in five sections. There’s a lot to say about all of them, but I’ll start with the fourth, ‘Eclipse plumage’, which reads pretty much as a narrative. The title poem gives the set-up:

I read in my bird book of females’
changed feathers after breeding:
eclipse plumage.
They become undistinguished.
Here, my colour has come back.
It’s all the walking, I say.
The fresh air. The land.
Silly, I know, but I grin
all the way to the river.

In the next poem, ‘Paddock bull’, the bull is not distracted by cows lowing in the next paddock, ‘though I detect a little bit of pink interest’. And from there on, a narrative can be pieced together: ‘Here’ in the lines above is an artists’ and writers’ retreat at Bundanon in New South Wales, and the returning colour is the stirrings of desire, in abeyance since she became a mother, presumably some years before; a painter of birds reciprocates, they vacillate (‘we’ve said the timing isn’t right, / but all day we will wonder / What if it is?‘), go for it (as conveyed in ‘Lovers below Brasso tin’ which mainly describes the drypoint by Arthur Boyd for which it is named, in which ‘lovers are suspended in lust’), and in a final two poems ‘Men without sorrows’ and ‘Contentment’ say goodbye.

Nine of the ten poems in the section contribute at least indirectly to this narrative – which raises questions about the other poem, a double sestina at the beginning of the section, ‘The fencer and his mate’. (A sestina has six 6-line stanzas, each stanza having the same six end-words, but in a changing order, followed by a 3-line stanza using all six ‘end-words’. ‘The fencer and his mate’ does it twice, with two sets of end-words.) It’s a stunning poem in its own right. As if the complex recurrent rhymes aren’t enough, a number of other words and motifs recur, and the poem’s technical whizzery functions as a kind of homage to the fencers’ skill with their axes and saws. Nothing in it relates obviously to the main narrative of the section, but then near the end of ‘Contentment’, there’s this:

Across the Shoalhaven, a dead tree is chain-sawed for firewood,
next winter’s warmth to be stored

as comforting in its woodpile pattern
as the promise of love

That stands by itself, but it also sends us back to the final lines of that first poem, which on first reading struck an odd note by speaking of ‘love’ between the fencer and his mate (rhyme words are straight, earn, axe, true, sleep and new):

and moist and ready. To tell it straight, what they can earn
is each other’s love, that feeling like an axe, something fine and true,
like a sound sleep, two lives made new.

We’re left with the hovering notion of ‘two lives made new’ in a passing holiday affair.

Once I’ve committed myself to reading for narrative, it’s hard not to read the final section, ‘Holy Days’, as telling what happens next. There’s a rough equivalent to the earlier poem’s new plumage in ‘Shy’, which speaks of the ‘platypus of the bedroom’:

it comes in only at night,
wraps itself around my waist and thighs,
strokes my breast and buttocks,
nuzzles, sometimes settles on my belly.
Gone is the begetting,
the wearing, the faring well.
Here in the dark,
all is fine.

There’s a man who spends time with the poet and the son who was noticeably absent from the ‘Eclipse Plumage’ section. This man seems to be a keeper, and when the two of them go on a North Queensland holiday in the sequence ‘Holy Days’ (roughly a quarter of the section) there’s no need for a Boyd print to convey their physical joy in each other. Then in a couple of lines that must bring joy to the heart of anyone raised as a Catholic:

Yes, it’s an indulgence.
As a child, and in my church,
the word meant punishment was cancelled,
everything forgiven.
They’ve skipped purgatory
and sent me straight to heaven.

aww2017.jpgNight Writing is the second book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden’s Metronome

Jennifer Maiden, The Metronome (ebook, Quemar Press 2016)

metronome.jpg

Jennifer Maiden’s poetry inhabits the news cycle the way another poet’s might a particular landscape. Kevin Rudd’s pursed lips, George W Bush’s nose, Tanya Plibersek’s smile, Tony Abbott’s hurt look – all have been sharply observed and made meaningful in her poems. In The Metronome, Hillary Clinton’s ‘crazy campaign smile’ joins the list, along with

the movements of a little-marching-girl, the
drilled expansive gestures.

In many Maiden poems of the last half-dozen collections, someone – a historical or fictional personage – wakes up and engages with a contemporary political figure or another fictional character. Ten of the 15 poems in The Metronome are of this sort. I tend to read these poems naively. That is, I just enjoy the conversations: what do Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln have to say to Hillary Clinton; what do Jeremy Corbyn and Constance Markiewicz discuss as they stride out on the moors; and who wouldn’t want to eavesdrop on Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen? In other poems too, whether they’re picking a fight with a critic (only one in this book, in ‘Jennifer Maiden Woke Up outside the Fourth Wall’), or reflecting on the uses of Rodin’s The Kiss or Catalonia (these two add to a substantial list of ‘uses of’ poems), the conversational mode draws one in: one reads for the argument (in this book, a recurring subject is economic austerity), the wit, the odd twists of mind and unexpected digressions. Sometimes, as in the adventures of Clare Collins and George Jeffreys, characters from her three Play with Knives novels, one reads for the story.

Like any good conversation, these poems tend to touch, glancingly or attentively, on a wide range of subjects. I found myself reading with my phone near at hand: I watched Vladimir Miller singing Veniamin Basner’s ‘Leningrad Metronome’ on YouTube (for the poem ‘Metronome’); I checked to see if Malcolm Turnbull’s middle name really is ‘Bligh’ and William Bligh really was a water-colourist (for ‘Temper’); I satisfied my curiosity about the unnamed critic; I read Wikipedia on Constance Markiewicz (for ‘The gazelle’), Dick Whittington (for ‘‘Turn Again, Whittington’’) and the brumby cull in the Australian Alps (for ‘George Jeffreys 19: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Thredbo’). I found some lovely intertextual serendipity: Clare – in ‘Clare and Nauru’ – mentions that the Nauruan government invested a lot of money in a West End Musical about Leonardo Da Vinci. A little after reading that, I heard the This American Life episode ‘In the Middle of Nowhere‘ in which, at about the 15 minute mark, a couple of lines from that musical are sung. This American Life‘s description of the Nauru landscape echoes Clare’s:

She herself had wondered: was it flammable?
The wide stripped-bare belly of the island
with its lorn coral peaks clawing up
where the pasty soil had been? One
could not plant crops here now. The lagoon
of freshwater near here shone toxic. There
generations ago young saltwater fish
had been trapped by the tribal families,
and adapted to freshwater, kept to grow
for food, like the family pigs.

All that is pleasurable (not the devastation of Nauru, but the interplay of texts), and there’s pleasure in the way the words sit on the page. I notice, though, that when I try to read a passage to a long-suffering companion, I have trouble: I can see that the lines are musical but I can’t read them aloud musically. I mention this here, because in another piece of serendipity I read Clive James’s Poetry Notebooks in rough tandem with The Metronome. I doubt if these poems are to James’s taste. They certainly lack the thing he seems to prize above all else: rigorous adherence to an established metric form which plays against the rhythms of normal speech. But nor are they the formless self expression he despises.

I want to mention two things related to that. First, Maiden’s use of enjambment: often a line ends with the first word or two of a new phrase – three of the ten lines from ‘Clare and Nauru’ above, for example – or a line break falls after a preposition or between an adjective and the noun it refers to. Something in the poetry plays against the conversational rhythms after all. It’s nothing as orderly as James’s classical model, but it keeps the reader on her/his toes.

Second, she uses rhyme a lot, though not always obviously. I was shocked to realise, for example, that all but two of the 34 lines of ‘George Jeffreys 19’ rhyme with either ‘so’ or ‘cull’. Here’s the start:

George Jeffreys woke up depressed in Thredbo.
It was too early for autumn snow.
Clare was at a meeting to organise local
resistance to the planned brumby cull
of ninety per cent of the wild horses, no
great hope to prevent it, although
she would ghost herself trying. So,
he thought, the death aura of Thredbo
– there for years after decades ago
an avalanche caused by a kill
of non-native trees crushed all
asleep in a hillside building – now
would return like the hooves of dead foals
along an icy grassy overflow.

Maybe there’s even an iambic tetrameter lurking there. Whatever, I enjoy and am challenged by my first, naive read, and then find more on each further read. As I think I’ve said before, I’m a fan.

The Metronome was published by Quemar Press as an ebook (available on the Press’s website for $5) on the night of the US presidential election – quite a feat given that in its final poem, ‘George Jeffreys 20: George Jeffreys Woke up in Washington’, Donald Trump’s ‘soft voice sounded infinitely defeated’ when he told George over the phone that he’d won the election. The publication in paper form by Giramondo is scheduled for February.

Quemar Press has reissued Maiden’s novel Play with Knives and published for the first time its sequel, Complicity, which has been around in manuscript for decades. Recently it has also published a third novel, George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker. All three novels are available for free from the press’s website.

aww2017.jpgEven though I started reading The Metronome last year, I think it’s legitimate to count it as the first book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s a great start to a year’s reading.

Brian K Vaughan’s Paper Girls Books 1 and 2

Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, Paper Girls, Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Image 2016)

Yet another comic series from the brilliant and prolific Brian K Vaughan, co-creator of Y: The Last Man and Saga. This time, working with an all-male team (Cliff Chiang on pencils, Matt Wilson colorist and Jared K Fletcher as distinctive letterer), he gives us lead characters who are all female: twelve-year-old girls who deliver newspapers in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.

No sooner are the four bike-riding heroines introduced, doing their rounds early on the morning after Halloween in 1988, than weird, deadly dangerous things start to happen. It’s like a female Goonies or Stranger Things, only even more incident-packed and – at least at first – explanation-light. The word that came to mind as the first volume’s action progresses, complete with weird time-machines (note the plural) and pterodactyl-riding robots (I think), is ‘bonkers’, but in a good way. The second volume’s carnivorous grubs the size of four-story buildings don’t do much to restore equilibrium.

1632158957By the end of the second volume, most of the weirdness has at least a broadbrush explanation, but I have no idea what will happen next, or why these four girls are so important to the participants in the massive multi-generational multi-time-period battle that rages around them.

Any confusion doesn’t come from muddle in the artwork, which is wonderfully clear,  or for that matter in the story-telling. The teasing is deliberate. The girls are caught up in a hugely complex conflict. We are ahead of them in a couple of details – we recognise the Apple logo on an artefact dropped by an ‘alien’, for instance, and likewise a ‘Hillary for President’ poster seen on their visit to 2016 – but mostly we’re plunged into the action with hardly any more perspective than they have. For them of course it’s life and death. For us it’s fun.

Clive James’s Poetry Notebook

Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006–2014 (Picador 2014)

1447269128.jpgI bought this book because I felt slightly grubby after reading Play All, Clive James’s book about television. Play All brings James’s wit, clowning, extraordinary recall, clarity of judgement and contrarianism to bear on the object of an addiction – the relatively harmless one to television; this book puts those qualities, minus the clowning, at the service of a passion – his lifelong passion for poetry. The result is much more wholesome. 

The book is a series of short, free-ranging pieces written for the US journal Poetry, linked by very short ‘Interludes’, and bulked out by  equally short pieces published in sources ranging from Quadrant to the Times Literary Supplement, all between 2006 and 2014. The collection is free-ranging, but it’s not directionless. James’s mind has been concentrated wonderfully by being diagnosed with a terminal illness, and though he writes in his introduction that a lifetime of thinking about poetry has not left him with an aesthetic system to convey, in fact a pretty coherent view does emerge. James could almost have been describing this book when he wrote of  a book of Michael Donaghy’s criticism (page 138):

Many of these pieces, undertaken as journeywork at the time but always lavished with the wealth of his knowledge and the best of his judgement, are collected in this book, and it is remarkable how they coalesce into the most articulate possible expression of a unified critical vision.

James’s main thrust is to defend traditional English verse, particularly verse in rhyming stanzas  in iambic pentameter, to defend it and to explain it to an age that he fears has forgotten how to read it. 

You do have to get past his contrarianism. He’s not crude enough to say that the only poetry worth reading is the kind he favours, but sometimes he comes close. There are too many cheap cracks at the influential US poet John Ashbery or at journalists en masse, and a number of characterisations of the whole of Australia as given over to  the orthodoxy that ‘an apprehensible form is thought to be a repressive hangover from the old imperialism’. He says something vaguely positive about Francis Webb, then adds, ‘but Webb was a mental patient.’  He proclaims that Judith Wright wrote only one or two decent poems. And there are one or two breathtakingly ignorant comments on non-poetic matters, probably intended as curmudgeonly rejections of ‘political correctness’.

But once you’ve thrown the book across the room once or twice, there’s a lot to enjoy and learn from. I read it with my phone beside me, and read for the first time many of the poems referred to, from Robert Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent‘ and Louis MacNeice’s ‘Meeting Point‘ to UiAiFanthorpe’s ‘Not My Best Side‘. This might not be a positive quality for readers who are better read or less interested than I am, but for the ignorant but interested it’s terrific. And it’s worth noting that his harsh judgements aren’t limited to ‘informal’ contemporary or near-contemporary poets: he gets stuck into Milton and Alexander Pope, and Ezra Pound emerges as pretty much a grandiloquent phoney.

You wouldn’t go to Clive James for illuminating comment on, say, Jennifer Maiden, Rhyll McMaster or Pam Brown. But he does a brilliant detailed exposition of a poem by Stephen Edgar, and he illuminates with a passion many other poems that he loves, or include a phrase, a line, or a passage he loves. One never doubts that Gerard Manly Hopkins, James McAuley, and a myriad others have won his love, sometimes by a complete poem but often by a single phrase or line. 

He’s concerned, as implied by the US subtitle ‘Reflections on the Intensity of Language’, with the way poetry uses language intensely: with phrases, lines, stanzas, and occasionally whole poems. Writing poetry is all very well, but to write a poem is an achievement. In among his sharp judgements, there is a deep humility about poetry itself: ‘I’m still trying to figure out just how the propulsive energy that drives a line of poetry joins up with the binding energy that holds a poem together.’

As my regular readers will know, I sometimes turn my hand to versifying. I found his discussions of the fruitful tension between metrical forms and conversational rhythms enormously instructive. Uncharacteristically, his prose in these passages becomes a little clogged with technical terms, but I for one was glad of that. And here too his gift for epigram shines through: ‘The only way to hide the tensions of a set form is to perfect it.’

Through it all, there’s a thread of farewell. In this book, James says  things he doesn’t want to die leaving unsaid. But it’s not grim or gloomy. He refers to himself as a beginner as a poet. The book’s final exclamation, ostensibly about how to write as ‘innocently’ as Shakespeare, cries out to be extracted from its immediate context to serve as a description of the book’s project:

Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realise what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.

Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark

The time when you don’t need hope is when your hopes have been fulfilled. Hope is for when you don’t have what you need and for when things are not OK. It is the belief that liberation might be possible that motivates you to make it more possible, and pursuing hope even when it doesn’t lead to the ultimate goal can generate changes that matter along the way, including in yourself.
Another, more beautiful America is rising. Trump will be resisted‘, The Guardian, 30 December 2016

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2004; this revised edition Haymarket Books 2016)

solnit.jpg The paragraph quoted above from Rebecca Solnit’s article on the election of Donald Trump is also a reasonable summary of Hope in the Dark‘s central argument.

First published in 2004 by Nation Books, a small publisher whose motto is ‘Challenging power, one book at a time’, this book challenged the power of the bleak sense of defeat and despair that threatened to overwhelm many progressives after the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. In three subsequent editions new chapters have been added, but the book is essentially rooted in its time – the millennium was new, the invasion of Iraq was fresh, the younger Bush had been elected twice. There was almost as much reason for gloom then as there is now, when the results of that invasion are still laying waste to thousands of lives, and a man who inherited vast wealth and who has never held political office is about to be inaugurated as president of the United States.

Any number of inspirational quotes could be extracted from this book and pinned to the fridge door. For example, on page 20:

There are those who think that turning the official version inside out is enough. To say that the emperor has no clothes is a nice antiauthoritarian gesture, but to say that everything without exception is going straight to hell is not an alternative vision but only an inverted version of the mainstream’s ‘everything’s fine’.

On page 24:

Political awareness without activism means looking at the devastation, your face turned toward the centre of things. Activism itself can generate hope because it already constitutes an alternative and turns away from the corruption at the centre to face the wild possibilities and the heroes at the edges or at your side.

and page 24 again:

Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.

or, just to show that the quotes aren’t limited to the early pages, from page 80:

Paradise is not the place in which you arrive but the journey toward it.

But it would misrepresent the book to leave it at that. Solnit is more than a crafter of superior inspirational quotes.  She’s also a long-term activist and a historian. She has an argument: it’s a mistake to take any defeat as final, because the future is inherently dark, in the sense of unknowable; it’s a mistake to take any defeat as complete, because you can never know the effect of any action you take – tiny actions lay the groundwork for future victories, and indeed all victories build on myriad earlier actions that met with defeat at the time. The stories we tell make a difference to our possibilities. It’s a mistake to swallow whole the mainstream version of history – if you ‘pay attention to what they tell you to forget’ (to quote Muriel Rukeyser, another great US writer and activist) things look a lot less grim. The middle part of the book considers recent US political history and finds cause for hope (that is to say, not certainty of better things to come, but the possibility of them if one acts) in the new, joyful, animated forms of resistance that were developing in the US around the millennium. The note added in 2016 adds quite a lot to this list.

It’s a short book. I recommend it for anyone who finds themselves transfixed by the latest Trumpism in the US or Duttonism / Turnbullism in Australia.

 

Clive James’s Play All

Clive James, Play All: A bingewatcher’s notebook (2016)

0300218095.jpg

‘Television, the drug of a nation, breeding ignorance and feeding radiation.’ If the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy were right, then boxed sets and streaming services are drugs on a drip. If you spend too much time on that drip, then you won’t add very much to your burden of guilt by reading this short book by Clive James, a hyper-articulate addict whose habit only intensified a couple of years ago when he believed death was imminent.

James is intelligent, extremely well-read and screen-literate, witty and opinionated, qualities that shine forth in this book about long-form television series.

Formal scholarly writing about these television series needs to be done, he writes, but

it will be done best if contact is not lost with the tone of common speech in which habitual consumers discuss the product; a tone not all that far from the voluble congeniality with which they pass the popcorn.

So his notes on these shows – The Sopranos, The West WingMad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Band of Brothers, The Wire, House of Cards (he prefers the US version), Homeland (he doesn’t mention the Israeli original) and more – include the names of the daughters (and sometimes wife) with whom he watched them and the days of the week on which they had their binges. They also have something of the feel of conversations that people might have during a binge and in the following days.

When he tells us he found Treme boring because it lacked a villain, he adds that his daughter had a different response and kept nudging him awake. And perhaps the moments of climate change denial are best understood misjudged fatherly provocations.

The spirit of popcorn is never far away as Clive the Entertainer gives us clever phrase-making, snarky putdowns, flashy displays of erudition, and fanboy talk about recurring actors. His lascivious comments on women’s appearance are probably intended to be a kind of clowning – Clive as the helpless puppet on Hollywood’s seductive strings.

It’s probably a matter of taste, but I prefer Clive the Critic – at least I do when he’s not just delivering one-line dismissals of films I quite like. This Clive has interesting things to say about, for example, The Good Wife or the career of Dennis Franz (Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue). He is at his best in two chapters, ‘Game of Depths’ on Game of Thrones and ‘The Way We Weren’t’ on Mad Men. He doesn’t make me want to watch either show, bingeing or otherwise, but he develops interesting theses. He argues that the only indispensable character in Game of Thrones is the dwarf Tyrion played by Peter Dinklage:

Tyrion is the embodiment, in a small body, of the show’s prepolitical psychological range. A perpetual victim of injustice, he has a sense of justice: circumstances can’t destroy his inner certainty that there are such things as fairness, love and truth. Those circumstances might lead him to despair, but he takes their measure by his instincts. This to raise, for an uninstructed audience, the question of what comes first, a civilised society or an instinctive wish for civilisation, can’t be a bad effect for an entertainment to have; although we might have to be part of an instructed audience ourselves in order to find that effect good, and we had better be protected by police and an army from anyone who finds it trivial.

I don’t know what an (un)instructed audience is, but this is a respectful and respectable argument for taking the show seriously.

Mad Men seems to have struck a nerve. In it, he writes,

the corporate world never questions its right to manipulate a captive audience. The truth of the matter was very different. …  [The real advertising men of those times] were much more conscious of what they were involved in than the show makes them out to have been. They would have talked about it among themselves. … There would have been disputes, and, these being intelligent people, they would have been intelligent disputes about ethical purpose and legitimate method.

And that would have been the truly interesting conflict in the mind of Don Draper. In the show he spends a lot of time questioning himself, but hardly any of it questioning his job. But questioning his job would have been part of his job, because one of the ways that advertising developed was by becoming more self-aware.

From my little acquaintance  with Mad Men, this seems spot on. But whereas my unarticulated dissatisfaction made me decide not to persevere with the show, Clive James can love it, watch it more than once from beginning to end, and still bring a clear critical head to bear on it. Moments like this, and there are many of them, are an adequate compensation for the aforementioned climate denialism, the occasional nastiness (‘very few of [Frank] O’Hara’s poems get far beyond the condition of not being prose’) and one or two passages so dense with references to old movies as to be incomprehensible.

The book was a gift from a friend who knows I watch too much television. It’s a fun read, and part of the fun is hating some bits of it.