Tag Archives: Martin Johnston

Cavafy for the first time

C P Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Chatto & Windus 1990)

0701136626.jpg Constantine P Cavafy (Kavafis/Kavaphes) is one of the many literary giants I haven’t read. This relatively slender volume offered a way to put that right.

Cavafy (1863–1933) lived in Alexandria for most of his life. He published little poetry while alive, mainly printing poems off privately and giving copies to friends and visitors. Though he spoke fluent English and other languages, he wrote poetry only in Greek. E M Forster was impressed: the two men’s meetings are beautifully imagined in Damon Galgut’s novel Arctic Summer. Cavafy’s quiet reputation in the literary world was solid by the time he died and grew hugely after that. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian novel Justine (1957) introduced him to a wide Anglophone readership. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ‘Alexandra Leaving’ is a loose rendering of Cavafy’s ‘The God Abandons Antony’. Martin Johnston, the most awesome intellectual of my university days in the early 1970s, referred to him, along with Borges, Seferis, Berryman and others who didn’t turn up on the Eng Lit course.

You can see why I’ve felt there was a Cavafy-shaped gap in my education.

And now there isn’t, though I think this is poetry you’d need to read in the original Greek to really read it. And you’d need to know a lot more of the history of Alexandria, from ancient times to modern decadence, to enjoy it. And it might help if nostalgia for a real or imagined youthful homoeroticism was your thing.

There are some wonderful poems: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians‘ and ‘Ithaka‘ are justly famous. And there are plenty of incidental pleasures. Of the poems set in the ancient world, ‘The footsteps’, which may have had satirical resonances in the early 1900s, certainly does in 2017:

Eagles of coral
adorn the ebony bed
where Nero lies fast asleep –
callous, happy, peaceful,
in the prime of his body’s strength,
in the fine vigour of youth.

But in the alabaster hall that holds
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
how restless the household deities!
The little gods tremble
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
They’ve heard a terrible sound,
a deadly sound coming up the stairs,
iron footsteps that shake the staircase;
and, faint with dear, the miserable Lares
scramble to the back of the shrine,
shoving each other and stumbling,
one little god falling over another,
because they know what kind of sound that is,
know by now the footsteps of the Furies.

The place where I engaged most with Cavafy is where the poetry deals with the struggle between Christian and pagan moralities. He comes down pretty clearly on the side of the pagans, th0ugh Julian the Apostate doesn’t fare much better than the grey, repressive Christian authorities. Read in that context, the many poems about young men with beautiful lips that have performed or might perform forbidden or shameful deeds come to seem less deadeningly masturbatorial. And it was one of those poems, it turns out, that Martin Johnston included in his 1973 book, Ithaka: Modern Greek Poetry in Translation, three years before the first edition of the book I’m discussing.

Because I can’t read Greek, and felt underwhelmed by the language of this poetry, I did a little triangulation, comparing Martin’s ‘On a Ship’ (MJ), Keeley and Sherrard’s ‘On Board Ship‘ (K&S) and Daniel Mendelsohn’s ‘Aboard the Ship‘ (DM). If anyone thought translation was a straightforward business, they’d surely be prompted to think again by those three titles, all faithful translations but each different from the others. When I ran the original ‘Του πλοίου‘ through Google translate, it gave a fifth version: ‘Ship’s’.

You can look up all but Martin’s at the links. Here’s his translation:

On a Ship
It looks like him, certainly, this small
pencil depiction of him.

Executed quickly, on the ship’s deck,
one magical afternoon,
with the Ionian sea all round us.

It looks like him. But I remember him more beautiful.
he was sensuous to the utmost,
and that illuminated his expression.
He seems more beautiful to me
now that my soul must call him out of time.

Out of time. All these things are very old,
the sketch and the ship and the afternoon.

Though the translations differ as much as their titles, only a handful of words seem to have been troublesome:

  • MJ’s ‘more beautiful’ is ‘better looking’ in K&S and ‘handsomer’ in DM. Each of the translators seems to have chosen a different position in the gender politics of the word. Google Translate opted out, giving ’emorfo’.
  • Where MJ has ‘sensuous to the utmost’, K&S have ‘almost pathologically sensitive’, and one suspects that while ‘pathological’ might be fine in Greek it’s in a wrong register in Engish. DM has, ‘To the point of illness: that’s how sensitive he was.’ And K&S had a second go at it: their online version has ‘sensitive almost to the point of illness’. It does seem that MJ was squibbing it to avoid any reference to illness, and ‘sensuous’ rather than ‘sensitive’ may have been simply wrong.. Google Translate offers ‘disease was a beautician’.
  • MJ’s ‘my soul must call him out of time’ compares well with DM’s ‘my soul recalls him, out of Time’, because ‘recall’ in English has lost all sense of summoning, and that does seem to be needed, as K&S have ‘my soul brings him back, out of Time’.

Comparing these translations, and Don Paterson’s looser ‘The Boat‘ (‘more handsome’, ‘so much the sensualist’, ‘my heart calls him / from so long ago’), is a way of staying with the poem long enough for it to sink in a little, to feel the care for language that has gone into it, and to catch the whiff the memento mori that emanates from it. Maybe (of course?) this will be so of much more in this book if I come back to them.

 

Southerly 71/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 71 No 3 2011: A Nest of Bunyips

In 2001 the National Library of Australia published Bunyips: Australia’s Folklore of Fear by Robert Holden and Nicholas Holden. Robert said in his introduction that writing and editing the book had taken him ‘down many byways of history, literature, folklore, superstition and cultural studies’, and that he had gleaned insights from palaeontology, evolutionary thinking and anthropology.

The title of this issue of Southerly might lead you to expect something along the same lines. You would be misled. It does include a scattering of atmospheric drawings dating from between 1890 and 1912, citing the Holdens’ book as the immediate source, but they are the only bunyips on offer. As David Brooks says in his editorial, the issue is filled with things from the backlog ‘of pieces too good to reject but refusing any easy categorisation, and the bunyip motif derives from Michael Sharkey’s long poem, ‘Where the Bunyip Builds it Nest’, chosen more or less at random from the pile. (The poem isn’t actually about bunyips, but it is a bit of a monster: a long poem in five parts made up of lines taken from other poems from settlement until now in roughly chronological order, all carefully annotated.)

On reflection, Brooks says, bunyips – nocturnal, haunters of waterholes, ‘strange hybrids whose shrill quarrellings can sometimes be heard late into the night’ – sound like some poets. So the motif gained legitimacy: the issue contains work by 28 poets, essays on and by a half dozen more, and reviews of seven books of poetry. And the online supplement, the Long Paddock, has almost as much again, plus a substantial interview with Laurie Duggan.

The riches on offer include:

  • Jennifer Maiden’s ‘The Pearl Roundabout’, in which the re-awakened Elanor Roosevelt continues the conversations with Hillary Clinton begun in the book Pirate Rain
  • Margaret Bradstock’s pre-elegiac ‘Ask not’
  • Julie Maclean’s ‘cassowary’, a North Queensland poem that compresses an awful lot into a small space, about colonisation, tourism, art, and of course the gorgeous, dangerous cassowary
  • Peter Kirkpatrick’s delightfully old-fashioned, even archaic ‘The Angels in the House’, a meditation on inner city housing in heroic couplets
  • two poems by Craig Powell: a sonnet named from a line from Seamus Heaney, “and catch the heart off guard”, and a reinterpretation of an anecdote from Freud, ‘Fort Da’ (Craig Powell also reviews Toby Davidson’s edition of Collected Poems by Francis Webb, seizing the occasion to share some poignant memories of Webb).

Southerly is a refereed scholarly journal, and I tend to skip the scholarly articles, or at least the ones about writers I am unlikely to read, and those with Deleuze, Kristeva etc in the title. I did read Kevin Hart’s ‘Susannah Without the Cherub’, a fascinating discussion of A D Hope’s ‘The Double Looking Glass’. It may be, as Martin Johnston said, that A D Hope sent away for a Great Poet Kit, and then successfully used it to become a great poet. This essay bears out the second part of Martin’s quip.

It’s not all poetry. There are four short stories, all of which I enjoyed – Matthia Dempsey’s ‘One Week Gone’, about an old man a week after his wife’s death, is superb.

No bunyips, not really, but that’s not a terrible loss, given what’s there instead.

Comfort reading

Martin Johnston, The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap (Hale and Iremonger 1984)

typewriter003I treasure my memories of Martin Johnston from when we were both in our mid 20s. I was an Eng Lit student, he was a poet – an intense, chain-smoking, introverted writer of largely incomprehensible but manifestly learned poetry. I was in awe. But not just awe: I loved hearing him read – it was like being taken to a different part of the brain. I don’t think I grasped the depth of feelings in the poems back then, dealing as many of them did, opaquely, with the death of his parents.

This book dates from well after those student days, but Martin’s voice is still vividly recognisable. Many of the poems remain impenetrable to me, but that doesn’t seem to matter any more. The pleasure is the main thing. There’s probably a profound reflection on poetry to be made here, something about it being important to take care what you read when young because those poems do to your brain what a magnet does when it strokes a lump of iron: they configure the molecules to be receptive to a particular kind of input.

That is to say, even though Martin’s poetry is austere, erudite, uncompromising, as I read it now I experience the joy and comfort of greeting an old friend. According to a despatch by John Tranter from the Poetry Wars (the 68ers vs the rest?), Les Murray said to Martin of the long sequence ‘To the innate island’: ‘It’s wonderfully rich, evocative and vivacious, but I fear you’ve left the poetry out.’ I have profound respect for Les Murray, especially since he accepted one of my poems for publication in Quadrant, but I can’t see that he’s right. Here’s the opening of the sequence (which admittedly reads a little =differently now in these post LOLcats days:

The small grey cat in the yard has a knack for the punctuational,
Confronted with unfamiliar yoghurt, it curls
bristling into a fluid query, later ingratiates
itself into tactful receding aposiopesis towards the garbage bag,
illuminated exclamation over the yellow light
of a butterfly to be slapped and broken, lays out evenings
in commas at the window, sentences from Proust
lapping to night where all cats are grey.

See what I mean? ‘Aposiopesis’? But if there’s no poetry in it, I’m easily conned.