New Year

January 13, 2014

Aldeburgh sunrise

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
it’s a new life….
And I’m feeling good

Welcome, bright new year.
It’s the year of the Horse in less than 3 weeks, so I consult my chinese horoscope, which says, ‘It should be a good year – health and wealth abound.’
It also says that ‘working with blood (i.e. surgery, butchery, soldiers) as well as spirituality (priests, philosophers)’ is in my favour.

I should donate more blood, network with the local butchers.

New year is as good a time as any for resolutions. Do you (gentle reader) have one?
Mine is to stretch out of my comfort zone – with work, writing, reading, and all the rest. I’m going to learn to swim properly – like Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. But without the womanizing or cheezy lines. And without the constant refrain of ‘I drank too much last night’.
Though I did.

I’m also going to read my backlog of books in translation (mostly) from and other stories. Last year they sent me Deborah Levy’s collection of short stories, Black Vodka, which I loved. I then read her novel, Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. Swimming again. Burt Lancaster said he was swimming home, from pool to pool, all the way to his house. It wasn’t a happy story, though, as far as i remember.
Back to Levy, I discover that she trained as a playwright. I found a recording of a radio documentary she wrote, called The Glass Piano about the true story of a Bavarian princess who believed she had swallowed a glass grand piano – and worried about it shattering inside her. She moved carefully, with difficulty, sideways, though the palace corridors.
As well as imagining how it would feel, to believe as the princess did, Levy talks to psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, ER consultant Dr Fiona Lecky and historian Erin Sullivan, who researched people’s understanding of sadness. She talks to Levy about the connection between melancholy and the delusion about being made of glass.

The more I discover about Levy, the more she interests me.
She says:
In my earliest twenties, I think I believed that theatre could change the world. Later, I discovered that my true interest in the theatre was that it was a place to connect with discomfort rather than prescriptions for how we might live. It took me a while to understand that when theatre uses all the languages that make it a unique form to write for (text, sound, design, lights, the spaces between actors, film and video), it is a place to make visual poetry, a place to show the human nervous system in a state of disquiet…
[Levy, Plays 1]

When asked about why she wrote in different forms (play, novel, short story, poetry, radio documentary) Levy replied that the forms chose her. Stories demand different forms.
In Pillow Talk in Europe and Other Places, she says:

“Be sure to enjoy language, experiment with ways of talking, be exuberant even when you don’t feel like it because language can make your world a better place to live.”


Poetry and Beauty

November 28, 2013

Aldeburgh sunrisePoetry and Beauty was the theme of talks at The 25th International Aldeburgh Poetry Festival earlier this month: there were variations on the theme through discussions and short talks with Terrence Hayes, Ian McMillan, Vera Pavlova, Katha Pollitt, Karen Solie, Salena Godden, D Nurkse and me.

Is poetry still concerned with beauty?
I begin (as always when I don’t know where to start) with a definition of beauty, and find what I’m looking for in Wikipedia where beauty is defined as a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction.

When I think of the poems I love, they give me pleasure and satisfaction, so I’d say beauty is involved.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yeats, which I carry in my head, is blatantly beautiful – it’s about beauty of place, and beauty is also in the sound of the words, the music of the poem, the images and feelings it invokes.

Another favourite poem is this one by Chris Beckett:

A Daughter and Two Diseases

The woman in the next bed
has a daughter and two diseases:
malaria, like me, and elephantiasis.
Her huge distorted legs lie
beached and bloated on the sheets,
as if they’d been fished out of a lake.
When a fever comes, she shakes
the bed, rattles it on the pipes
until the whole room is ringing.
The skin around her ankles is thick
and pebbled – sometimes it opens
as if cut with a knife from the inside,
and puss bubbles out of the cracks.
Nurses rush to dab and dress her.
She looks at me apologetically,
says something in Amharic, moans.
Her hands are long and delicate,
soft as ostrich feathers – sometimes
she spreads her fingers in a veil
and covers her face as she cries.
In the afternoon her daughter comes,
when the light is starting to fade.
She speaks gently and holds
one of her mother’s beautiful hands.

Perhaps it doesn’t fit everyone’s idea of beauty, but it does mine: a perceptual experience of pleasure and satisfaction. Pleasure in the language and the arrangements of the words on the page. Also sadness is a pleasure for me in a strange way – not because I like to be sad (I’d rather be happy), but perhaps because it’s in the fabric of life, so it’s truthful. And I find satisfaction in the logic and arrangement of the words, but most of all, in the kindness and humaneness of the poet’s gaze.

Anne Carson’s book, The Beauty of the Husband, is described as a fictional essay in 29 tangoes.
Even if I wasn’t a huge fan of Anne Carson, I’d have bought the book for the title alone, for the idea of it.
In tango 25 the speaker – the wife – invites us to

…sharpen our eyes and circle closer to the beauty of the husband-
creafully, for he was on fire.
Under him the floor was on fire,
the world was on fire,
truth was on fire.

Earlier, she describes him as

Loyal to nothing
my husband. So why did I love him from early girlhood to late middle age
and the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty.
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

Sex brings me to my book, The Courtesans Reply, and the role of beauty in it. Like The Caturbhani which inspired it, TCR is set in the courtesans’ quarter. But instead of the male gaze turned on the beauty of the beloved, as is the case in the Caturbhani, my poems are written from the beloved, the beautiful.
One of the things that drew me to Ghosh’s translation of the Caturbhani, was the women’s delight in their sensuality and sexuality, and also the idea of beauty 2,000 years ago.
Here the narrator, Vita, describes the attending maids of courtesans

…who are like so many standards of victory of the god of love. Their side-long glances are like missiles ready to be released; their broad smiles are revealing their well-set rows of teeth; they speak with an undisguised movement of their eye-brows; their short front-covers are sometimes slipping off due to the plumpness of their breasts…

He then describes the special beauty of the courtesans’ daughters

….who are the store-house of coquetry, whose faces are always adorned with smiles, whose astonished looks are without any pride, whose glossy dark hairs are fine, long and wavy; whose (graceful) gait is slow due to (heavy) round buttocks, and excels that of a maddened elephant in rut…

The brackets are Ghosh’s, not mine, and the image of a rutting elephant recurs often in the text, seeming to be the highest form of praise for beauty.

In my poem, Ramadasi attempts to entice back a lover who has been absent, reminding him of her beauty:

…Undo my braid,
stiff as buffalo horn

and draw your
fingers through my hair.

Untie my belt, open
the silk cloth
covering my waist,

let my oiled limbs, my
perfumed skin
envelop you

as the rose
swallows
the bee.

Another courtesan, Sukumarika, is also trying to win back the man she loves, who has gone to another. But as a hijra or mtf transgender courtesan, she doesn’t have beauty to fall back on. So she reminds him of what she, and only she, can offer him:

My dearest, my life,
moon to my night,
remember our happiness?

Recall, if you can,
the equal kiss, Sama,
and the pressed kiss, Pidito.
Aschita, the devouring kiss
and Mridu, the delicate kiss…
Also the inflamer,
the kiss of encouragement,
the awakening kiss,
the vagabond, the joyful
kiss, the vibrant one,
the bowed kiss, the twisted kiss and
the satisfied kiss.

She then moves lower down his body (and if you want to know what exactly she does, you’ll have to read the book).
As well as her art, she offers him herself, her love, which he will not find anywhere else.

Those we love are beautiful to us.
Isn’t it perfect, how that works?

p.s. If there is anyone reading this, what are your favourite poems about beauty, or which encompass beauty for you?


The Generosity of the Translator

July 31, 2011

Taking a break from editing poems, I pulled out a book from my bag and opened it to find this: a short fragment of a possibly longer elegy [where] Archilochus and his companions have lost a party of their friends at sea [including his brother-in-law], and the poet asserts the privileges of mourning against the obligations of a civic festival, which appears to have coincided with the news of the ships’ loss:

“Not a man will grudge our mourning, Perikles, nor will the
town take pleasure in rich festivities,
when men such as these have been swallowed up by the waves of
the sounding sea, and our lungs are swollen
with pain. All the same, my friend, the gods gave us fortitude
as the best antidote to this grievous
ill, which they will upon different men whenever they choose;
and so today it has come our way and
we wail for our wound, but soon it will pass to other
men; so come then, forget these women’s tears…”

This fragment from Archilochus, introduced and translated from the Ancient Greek by William Heath in the Poetry and the State issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, feels like it could have been written yesterday.
I am filled with gratitude for the poem and the translator, and the people like him hard at work in their rooms, producing such offerings to share with the world.

It was this gratitude to translators that impelled me to sign up for the translation summer school at The British Centre for Literary Translation at UEA.


Poetry pf

May 14, 2011

I’m very pleased to have recently joined the Poetry pf website where I have 5 poems. The site is a showcase for modern poets, primarily British. Merryn Williams is currently on the home page, and I was interested to read her poems as I’ve been carrying around her translation of Lorca’s selected poems for the past month. Such a pleasure to meet a new poet whose poems speak to you directly. I like very much what she does, which is to speak for others, to inhabit their thoughts.

Each time I go on the site, I discover wonderful poets whose work is new to me. Such a pleasure. Like cake, which i was thinking about today: the pleasure of cake, and what exactly is contained in that pleasure? This wasn’t an abstract musing as I was sitting in the Blackbird bakery at the time, eating an almond croissant and reading Decreation. Life would be paler without cake in it.
Lemon Drizzle cake would be my first choice for an occasion requiring cake, but Blackbird doesn’t do it. So it would be a choice between Lemon Poppy Seed and Stem Ginger. Ten years ago, I would have chosen chocolate, but now it seems too obvious somehow, too heavy.