Just squeezing in my last November poem before December is upon us, I’m starting from a paraphrase of the opening sentences of Edward Said’s On Late Style, which I’m reading for the Book Group. Here’s how Said’s posthumously finished book begins:
The relationship between bodily condition and aesthetic style seems at first to be a subject so irrelevant and perhaps even trivial by comparison with the momentousness of life, morality, medical science, and health, as to be quickly dismissed.
That gives you a taste. The New York Times website gives the whole first chapter, here, if you’re interested to read on. My little verse deals only with the first paragraph, and isn’t exactly a paraphrase of that.
November verse 14: Why the relationship between bodily condition and aesthetic style is not a trivial subject You say: 'So trivial a subject, the body and aesthetic style's relationship! Why not reflect on what's important in your files, like life, and health, and science and morals or medicine or the death of corals?' I say: Of all of us it's true because we're conscious, me and you, we're constantly involved in making something of our little lives, and this self-making builds archives, a base of the great undertaking, history, which sages tell, at heart is made by human toil.
I don’t know yet where Said’s argument goes from there, and I apologise in advance for not trying to produce a verse version of the whole book.
Is it possible to make verse from the To-Be-Read pile? Let’s see.
November verse 13: To be read I've counted ninety-six and growing, lined neat on shelf and heaped by bed, gifts, impulse buys, gateways to knowing, some I lust for, some I dread. War, genocide, intrigue, corruption, love, fantasy, delight, disruption: you never know until you look inside the covers of a book. But if I read two hundred pages (including pages filled with pics) daily till I'm ninety-six, obsessed but not, I hope, contagious these unread piles would hardly shrink. Oh well, it costs much less than drink.
This one uses the rhyme words from David Malouf ‘s ‘La Belle Hélène’, which I wrote about yesterday. It’s not the Onegin stanza rhyme scheme – sorry!
November verse 12: It's been a while since we've seen midnight or, naked-eyed, pushed thread through needle, decades since you've been a girl or I a boy. No half-sane poet would write of us as bête and belle, yet here we are, alive, awake, no cancer, heart attack or stroke to force the point we're not immortal. Though, always seeming as innocuous as phoenix embers in the hearth, these fleeting memories of youth – when I had painless knees, and you no back complaining when you rose – hint darkly at what looms tomorrow.
Speaking a couple of years ago at a seminar on Poetry and the Sacred at the Catholic University, David Malouf offered a definition of prayer as paying close attention. If one accepts that definition, then An Open Book is full of prayer: attention to the environment, to relationships, to small children playing, to tiny moments, to his own fleeting thoughts and feelings. There’s also close attention to language, in particular the kind of attention that translation demands.
This means that for the reader the book offers many things that make you go hmmm, or ah, and sometimes oof!
The title, An Open Book, could look like a publisher’s little joke: that is, it’s a kind of label – ‘This is a book.’ But there’s more to it: it makes you think the sentence, ‘My life is an open book,’ and the book does follow the trajectory of a life’. It pretty much begins with a series entitled ‘Kinderszenen’, German for ‘Scenes from childhood’, and ends with a number of poems about old age and the anticipation of death. It follows in the poet’s footsteps from the Brisbane of his childhood, to London, the village of Campagnatico in Tuscany, Myrtle Street in Chippendale, and back to Brisbane.
One of the childhood poems, ‘The Open Book’, suggests pretty strongly that while the book may be in some way autobiographical, it’s not offering us a writer stripped bare:
My mother could read me, or so she claimed, like a book. Fair warning! But I too was a reader and knew that books
like houses have their secrets. Under the words even of plain speakers, echo and pre-echo.
There’s plenty of echo and pre-echo under the mostly plain words of these poems.
I mostly want to talk about translation, but first, just because I love them, I have to quote these lines from one of the ‘death’ poems, ‘Before or After’:
At something more than fourscore, till the big
surprise kicks in and leaves me breathless, most surprises, though not unwelcome,
are small. It is the small, the muted inconsequential, at this point that comes closest to real.
About translation. Malouf’s first collection, Bicycle and other poems (UQP 1970) included a number of translations. I can’t quote from memory, but I remember the pleasure I found in the freshness of his versions of Horace: one of them mentions the early light glinting off milk churns put out beside a country road, and to me it felt that rural Queensland was being linked to classical Rome; and his translation of ‘carpe diem’ is a small miracle:
Today's a rose. Let it blaze in your lapel.
There’s a Horace translation in this book, and a Dante, and the one I want to talk about, ‘La Belle Hélène’, after ‘Sonnet pour Hélène’ by the 16th century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. This is not exactly an obscure poem: I found a website that gives the original French and at least ten translations (here, if you’re interested).
A basic question about any translation is: why? Why this poem? Why include it in a collection of your own poems? Is it a technical exercise? is the translated poem one you love and simply want your readers to know about? Or does it provide a medium for you to express something of your own?
The first thing to say is that ‘La Belle Hélène’ is actually a translation – in contrast to W B Yeats’s also-lovely ‘When You Are Old‘, which takes the original poem as a starting point for a slightly different argument addressed to his own love.
Look at the first lines.
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle, Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant, Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant : Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle.
Very close literal translation):
When you will be well old, in the evening, by the candle, Sitting near the fire, dividing and spinning You will say, singing my verses, being filled with wonder: Ronsard celebrated me in the time when I was beautiful
Long years from now, in the fireside hush of midnight, as you muse by candlelight, you'll pause at your needle -work and say, 'Years back, when I was a girl, an impossible sweet sixteen, Ronsard, the poet
you know, once sang my praises, called me 'belle'.
Malouf doesn’t stay close to the words of the original, or use full rhymes, but nor does he hijack the poem for his own purposes. There is evidence everywhere that he has paid close, loving, deeply respectful attention to the original. All the elements are there: the projection well into the future, the fire, the candle, the work, the rhyme scheme (though modernised away from full rhymes). Instead of singing the poet’s verses, the future person drops his name, a rough equivalent in these days when no one sits around a fire singing poetry. Malouf moves the hour of the imagined future scene from the evening to midnight, and introduces the idea of a hush, but the effect is to intensify what’s in the original rather than change it. Interestingly, he does specify the girl’s age, ‘sweet sixteen’, which has a decidedly 20th century feel, and can be seen as part of the project of rescuing the poem from a museum existence.
But she’s not just ‘sweet sixteen’, she’s ‘an impossible sweet sixteen’. And that sounds a note not in the original: one feels that Ronsard is about the same age as the woman he addresses, but this ‘impossible’ comes from a much older person. It seems to be asking how anyone could ever be that young?
And it turns out that the poet as an older person has been subtly woven into the texture of the poem. Where Ronsard’s speaker refers to his future self abstractly as a boneless ghost (fantôme sans os), Malouf’s is more specifically imagined – ‘innocuous’ and ‘esteemed’. It’s slight, but enough to be the difference between a young person and an old one imagining themselves as no longer alive. So the ground has been prepared for when he calls her ‘child’ in the second last line. And that word does a lot of work.
Ronsard’s original is unambiguously a poem of seduction. Malouf’s is something else. Ronsard says the older woman will be ‘regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain‘ (‘regretting my love and your proud disdain’). There is no reference to Malouf’s speaker’s love:
You'll regret at last what youth and youthful pride disdained.
Ronsard’s final injunction – ‘n’attendez à demain; /Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie‘ (‘don’t wait until tomorrow; / Gather today the roses of life’) – is a lover pressing his case. In Malouf’s version, having diverged incrementally from the original, it becomes something else, a warning from age to youth:
child, relent, choose life! Today is a rose that withers. Pluck it now, and boldly. Beware tomorrow.
Only the single word, ‘relent’, carries a hint that seduction might be on the agenda. Which would be just a bit creepy. But having now read the poem a number of times, I find that element recedes into the shadows, and the poem becomes an impassioned, generous, considered cry to the young not to waste their youth.
OK, I’m committed to a stanza a day for the rest of the month. Yesterday I built on end-rhymes from a stanza n Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. Today, back to the source of the Onegin stanza: Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, as translated by James E Falen. The arbitrarily chosen stanza that supplied the rhymes is in Chapter Two.
November verse 11: On fair dinkum politics The dream of being ruled by sages is defunct. There on the crest of Parliament Hill a wildfire rages. No charm can soothe that savage breast whose fuse is blown by power surges, trust’s betrayed by carnal urges. Far too many old white men talk only to themselves and then they watch Sky News. Is there a swelling cloud to quench that toxic flame, to make that coal-fired monster lame and save our sweet blue planet-dwelling? You want a hero? Save your breath! It’s all together now – or death!
I’m running against the calendar if I’m to meet my goal of 14 14-line stanzas this November. Moving home does get in the way of meeting deadlines.
Rather than offering yet another glimpse into my mundane life, I started out with the rhyme words and went wherever they took me, which turned out in the first line to be a paraphrase of G K Chesterton’s aphorism, ‘If a things’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,’ closely followed by Fred Brooks’s advice to software systems developers, ‘Plan to throw one away – you will anyway.’
The rhyme words are from stanza 5.10 of Vikram Seth’s verse novel The Golden Gate, the book that provoked my fascination with these Onegin stanzas.
November verse 10: Advice to myself
If it’s worth doing, do it badly
then make it good, or throw it away
and start again – not grimly, sadly:
ludic as a toddler, play
and laugh at failure. Hire a jester,
can the scripts that carp and pester.
Challenges aren’t meant for woe,
they’re the way we get to know
new skills. Scrupulous evasion
is no virtue. Be unclear,
but form rough words and plans, then steer
them on to clarity. Persuasion,
not coercion’s, how we’ve learned
to fan a dream until it burned.
November verse 9: In Newtown
Noon, Saturday. As I went walking
King Street South I met a flow,
a gaggle, not a troupe, of talking
mimes – youths dressed à la Marceau:
white face, striped shirt, a red carnation.
Cheerful, noisy desecration.
If mimes aren’t silent, what’s the point?
The times are clearly out of joint.
Then at the bus stop, here’s a scammer:
‘Hi,’ she says, ‘Long time no see!’ …
Then, ‘Would you like to come with me?’
She made no headway with her glamour.
‘Five dollars, then?’ I shook my head.
All when I went to buy some bread.
Overland provides the significant pleasure every quarter (or even more often if you can read on the web) of argument, analysis, fiction, poetry and visual art informed by a leftwing perspective. I think it would probably be a pleasure even for people whose politics are antagonistic – they could still enjoy engaging with minds that are engaging with things that matter.
Because I’m three issues late and short of time, I won’t attempt to review this issue. Instead, here are some excerpts that leapt out at me.
From Rise from this grave by Tony Birch, which tells the story of Camp Sovereignty, the Aboriginal protest at the park known as Kings Domain during the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games:
Kings Domain is clogged with imperial monuments, statues of civic leaders, celebratory plaques and war commemorations, offering a sanitised, largely fictional history of colonial occupation.One of the most imposing monuments os a stature of George V, ruler of empire. Its plaque explains that it was a gift from the people of Victoria to the crown; today it serves as a perpetual reminder of who we once were, and who many continue to regard themselves, despite periodic rumblings of republicanism. King George looks pensively across the gardens to the Shrine of Remembrance, which itself is h=guarded by an eternal flame.
In occupying the Domain, Black GST [Genocide Sovereignty Treaty] staked a claim on both its past and its present.
There is the permanent ‘now’ of the social media exchange. But even there, even on what goes by the absurd name of ‘my Twitter timeline’, there is a user who sends day-by-day dispatches from the Second World War and another who types out the diaries of a long-dead writer.
I feel at home on Twitter, where the evanescent thoughts of millions of people (and even more millions of bots that are, nevertheless, programmed by people) slip past in a turbulent Heraclitan stream. Like the sea, Twitter is full of pollution. But at least I can filter it.
The first time I make eye contact with a cuttlefish I am shocked by the familiarity of the animal’s gaze. I know that their eyes are a case of parallel evolution, that their similarity to our own in form is a 600-million-year-old coincidence. I know that I could be projecting. Nonetheless, the experience of catching a cuttlefish’s eye is uncannily like catching the eye of an intelligent human. It seems to react just as a human’s would: widening a little, studying the stranger for a moment, then looking politely away.
Incredibly – given his later literary achievements – [Henry] Lawson’s formal schooling lasted only three years. Opinion is divided over why he left school. Local legend has it that John Tierney, the schoolmaster, accused Louisa [Lawson, Henry’s mother] of plagiarising Byron in one of her literary pieces. leading to a ‘falling out’.
Jafar arrived in Indonesia hoping, like many others, to travel to Australia by boat. His was one of the boats that the Australian government so proudly stopped. His is the ‘life saved’ by bureaucracy. But, he says, it’s a life barely worth living.
From Unspooling by Laura Elvery, winner of the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize (there’s always a literary prize in Overland):
Don’t name it. Don’t wonder about its sex. Don’t send out for a handmade silver oval pendant half the size of a postage stamp to wear around your neck. Don’t feel bad that you sprinted up a hill, in the cold, in the dark. Don’t google anything.Don’t seek out that TV show you mainlined those few days to take your mind off what was happening (Never again, even though, truth be told, it was a terrific show.) Don’t look at the pale, soft things you bought to put in a bassinet. Don’t forget your good posture. Don’t forget your exercises. Keep it up.
From Guarded by birds by Evelyn Araluen, winner of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize:
I know little of this ceremony
have only collected for the coolamon
carved from river red
to carry water to carry child to carry smoke _________to carry you to those who watch _________and hope there will be a place for you
Verse 8: Moving out, moving in
Sugar-soaping, mopping, sweeping,
drilling, screwing, bashing nails,
flattening used boxes, heaping
rubbish near the balcony rail,
fix the toilet seat (if able)
buy a longer TV cable,
screw in half a dozen hooks,
unpack and shelve a thousand books
(give some away), fix vacuum cleaner,
phone about the internet,
the Council pickup, don’t forget
the neighbours’ names (Regina, Tina?).
Too much to fit so little time,
too much to squeeze into a rhyme.
Verse 7: Removal day
We rise at six. Van’s due at seven.
All 34 is boxed and stacked.
We’re bushy-tailed, all systems revving.
8.30, no van. Panic attack.
Six phone calls get the tragic story:
driver’s wife and something gory.
By 2 we’ve found another mob
from near Kashmir to do the job.
And so eight years accumulated
tables, books, beds, fridge, TV,
become backbreaking work for these
young men. By six, not quite elated
we’re sitting in our home-to-be,
all boxed and stacked at 43.
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