Non-Place and Place: “Remnants of Another Age” by Nikola Madzirov

Nikola Madzirov was born in Strumica in south-eastern Macedonia in 1973 and over the past few years has come to be recognized as “one of the most powerful voices in contemporary European poetry”, according to the blurb of Bloodaxe’s collection of his work, Remnants of Another Age. That might sound bombastic, but they may be right.

The book, which comes as a bilingual Macedonian-English edition (more on this later), has some breathtaking lines, like these in “Everything Is a Caress”:

The snow was folding its wings
over the hills, I was laying my palms
over your body like a tape measure
which unfolds only along the length
of other things.

The repetition of “folding” links the simile of the tape measure, which fulfils its purpose as it unfolds, not just to the speaker’s hands, but also to the snow, which too is nothing, until it falls on other things. Read more of this post

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High Altitude: David Yezzi’s ‘Flatirons’

The view from Kinabalu

The view from Kinabalu

On balance, the bathroom is a bad place to listen to poetry. The sound of water on tiles overpowers the softly spoken; the mental note to buy more shampoo distracts; a surprising turn of phrase can mean a nick on the chin. This is good advice and I don’t listen to it, often finding myself tuning into the oblivions of toothpaste or shaving foam, and out of the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day podcast (recommended), until I remember—once again—not to listen to in the bathroom. This is, of course, except when the speakers crackle to a first line like:

From the false summit, coxcomb-cum-arête

The sheer unfamiliarity of a “coxcomb-cum-arête”, alliterations of F and C, consonance of the M’s draw you into the poem. If you’ve studied glacial geography (a treasure trove of chewy words), you might remember what an arête is; you might be able to see the shape of a coxcomb; everyone knows that a summit, even a false one, sets you at altitude. You may not understand them all, but if you’re like me, you’re in already and any gaps are filled by the sounds alone.

This line is the first of five sonnets called ‘Flatirons’ by the American poet David Yezzi (read the whole thing here at the Poetry Foundation website). The high-altitude landscapes he creates exist in a thin-air, formal clarity that seems to echo poets like Wordsworth in the Snowdon sequence of The Prelude (one of the pieces of poetry that has made me gasp, audibly). And it feels there’s a nod to Petrarch, one of Europe’s earliest mountain climbers—and in a sonnet, it’s almost impossible not to—in the second line (don’t worry, dear reader, I’m not going through this line by line):

cool thermals underscore our frailties

The most famous of Petrarch’s oxymorons is “freezing fires” and “cool thermals” takes the same device. Not only is it more subtle (you might just think of a biting mountain wind), but also goes further with it: these warm currents take gliders and birds into another world, are air at its most tangible. On the mountain where “frailties” quickly become obvious, this is the liminal world that the “false summit” implied and the next few lines are full of “edges”, the Classical echo of “wingless feet”, diluted evergreens down the valley.

As the lowlands far below, the mountains become “the world of ghosts” past the slippery unfirm “scree below” and past the sandstone, a rock that will be repeated in the sequence’s enigmatic last line “and marked by sandstone long after we’re gone”. How we will be marked? Who knows? By broken bones? Marked out by sandstone in fossils?

It’s puzzles and double meanings like this that made me enjoy ‘Flatirons’ so much. It’s never clear whether the whispering air is the path through life, the speaker’s afterlife, dead climbers, or lost or current lovers. This is more than philosophies and metaphysics though: it’s also the language. There are phrases like “gravity’s unlikely slant”, that open up a world of slippage and fear, or a word like “abyss” (over-the-top words are rarely good in poems) that feels refreshing used geographically. This use of language is most effective for me, when Yezzi uses mountaineering and climbing terms, filling them with emotional range:

Free solo: dearest, I am losing you

A free solo is a climb with hands, no ropes. In this extreme world, Yezzi can keep the fearless climber on the mountain face, but he leaves it metaphorically for the slow pace of the years to midlife and old age, or love, or separation. As a sequence, it manages to be both concretely descriptive and deeply metaphysical, creating a realistic and dreamlike mountainscape, often at the same time, like so many of the best poems.

  • I haven’t read it, but if you want to read more of David Yezzi, his Birds of the Air was published in the US in 2013 by Carnegie Mellon University Press (Amazon)
  • For beautiful mountain photos, you could do no better than to check out this fantastic blog, hikingphoto.com

Modern Brazilian Sonnets: Paulo Henriques Britto’s Forms of Nothing

By Rob Packer

Formas do nada by Paulo Henriques Britto

A constant in all (?) European literatures, the sonnet has a long pedigree in Portuguese, ranging from love sonnets by Camões, the language’s equivalent to Shakespeare, Cervantes or Goethe, right down to twentieth-century Brazilian poets, such as Vinícius de Moraes or Mario Quintana. In his collection from March this year, Formas do nada (Forms of Nothing, no English translation), Paulo Henriques Britto, one of Brazil’s leading poets, returns to the form throughout, exploring in half the collection’s poems the sonnet’s Petrarchan, Shakespearean and unrhymed forms, as well as reaching into more unconventional combinations (5-4-3-2, 5-5-4 and the like).

It soon becomes clear how apt the title is: the Forms are specifically poetic in their most traditional and rhyming guise and it is clear that Nothing refers to the subject matter. The first poem is ‘Lorem ipsum’, named after the placeholder text, featured in PowerPoint or WordPress that’s really a nonsense version of text by Cicero. Britto, who is also a translator, includes a “self-translation”, where the speaker promises poetic fireworks: Read more of this post

Father Tyne: ‘On the Toon’ by Sean O’Brien

By Rob Packer

November by Sean O’Brien

Is there a trend towards epic in contemporary British poetry? Maybe it’s just my taste (or my local library’s, or prize judges’) that some of my favourite recent poetry collections are or include longish poems with clear epic influences: even stranger is that all of them came out this year and last. There’s been ‘Elsewhere’ in David Harsent’s excellent Night; the incomparable Alice Oswald’s reworking of the Iliad in Memorial (and her 2002 Dart); ‘The Fair Chase’ starting John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone (I won’t have time to write more about that collection unfortunately: it’s very good though); Simon Armitage’s adaptation of The Death of King Arthur (I didn’t enjoy this one so much and found it bathetic in parts: if you haven’t read Armitage before—and you should—, start with Kid, Seeing Stars or his Sir Gawain); and ‘On the Toon’ which closes Sean O’Brien’s November.

Read more of this post

Too Much Information: W. B. Yeats and Kebabs

By Rob Packer

Etymology is generally considered to be one of those unalloyed “good things”: after all, a lot of people like to use it to show how erudite they are (by using words like erudite, for example, when poncy will do). And when you’re growing up, it really is useful to remember that the horizon isn’t vertical. It’s also particularly helpful when learning languages: for example, vocabulary lists really are easier when you realize that a Spanish propuesta or desayuno is really an English proposal or breakfast from a different angle and that Vergangenheit and Zukunft in German really mean time that’s “gone for good” and “to come”. These aides-memoires do have a habit of ending up a little inane, though, and I’ll never forget being told by my school Russian teacher about the similarity between zavtra (tomorrow) and zavtrak (breakfast)—but it did the job and have used it most recently in Kyrgyzstan.

Sometimes, however, etymology sits within a word like a stink bomb, ready to explode at the rustle of a dictionary’s page. Nervous readers should look away now: there is half a chance I’ll ruin one of the English language’s greatest poems.

Read more of this post

If You Go Down in the Woods Today: Clare Pollard’s “Changeling”

Changeling by Clare Pollard

The legend of the changeling reaches back into British folk history and imagines fairies or elves abducting babies to the Elf Hills, substituting them for changelings. The tale is, perhaps, increasingly forgotten but still haunting, and it is this and other parts of deep British folklore that form the basis of Clare Pollard’s Changeling, full of poems that feel, explicitly or implicitly, on a knife edge—between the wild and the city, between North and South, between ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

There is a tense, uneasy liminality from the excellent opening poem, ‘Tam Lin’s Wife’, which starts with a couple receiving some bad medical news, but quickly turns as the wife desperately hangs onto her (werewolf?) husband as he shape-shifts in her arms. A more enticing version of this transformative tension appears in two poems influenced by the Pendle Witches, the infamous story of ten people hanged for witchcraft in Pollard’s native Lancashire in 1612. ‘Pendle’ gigs into the accuser’s mind with a refrain that insistently repeats “then someone is to blame”, underlining humanity’s need to look for scapegoats, rather than accepting responsibility and one’s misfortunes: “When your children curdle like milk & turn one by one to clay dolls, / & your husband’s fledgling-weak & you’re a good Christian woman, / then someone is to blame.” The following poem, the ballad ‘The Confession of Alizon Device’, tells of a girl who—seemingly for the hell of it—has sex with the Devil, makes a pedlar lame and concludes with: “And you ask me, do I feel shame? / Well no, sir, that’s what creatures do. / It was the moment of my life / to hurt things too.” Taken together, both are morally difficult and feel tabloid-sensation contemporary, even though they are rooted in a 400-year-old history.

Even in less dramatic poems, whether it’s the unease of being an outsider or in danger, something bubbles away beneath the surface: the Lancashire girl escaped to London “spurning your lips and lads / for libraries and la-di-dah”;  a poet and putative gang member passing each other on an East London street but really in different cities with different geographies; or the girl who has forgotten flower names to replace them with names for styles of shoe and consumer culture with its guilt and its “not enough”.

The poems often ask “who am I?” but offer no solutions. I often felt there was a yearning for a more innocent age, but it is the poems with influences from folklore, ballads, the Arthur legend or Ovid, that are the least comforting, the most violent (often sexually) and most of all, the stuff of nightmares.

What makes Changeling so enjoyable, though, is Pollard’s talent for simile and metaphor: sunflowers “lean against the wall, / like lads behind a bike-shed for a smoke”; “Whirlpools of gulls [that] whip over the harbour” in Whitby, which is, if you’ve ever been there, exactly what it’s like; and Pollard identifies “that Esperanto of want and need: / Selfridges, mojitos, latte, weed”. My favourite metaphor, though, describes a caravan you maybe can’t afford on the Yorkshire moors with “the chill wind blasting away our mortgage”. It encapsulates the collection, as the pressure to conform and be conventional confronts nature’s promise of excitement and escape. But nature is not benign in Changeling: it menaces, it threatens, and can do permanent damage.

Clare PollardChangeling, Bloodaxe 2011

Attention to Detail: Reading with Distractions

By Rob Packer

I made a stop at The South Kensington Bookshop (lots of good deals) coming back from central London last week. I picked up a hardback, half-price copy of Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems, then squeezed myself into a crowded tube towards Richmond. As I struggled against falling over, I took out the book and flicked through a few pages at random, before coming across ‘The Light of the World’ from his 1987 collection The Arkansas Testament.

I am, probably like most people, not a good reader standing on the tube: people push past to get in and out; you stagger forwards as the train brakes and backwards as it accelerates; the station announcements intrude. With the precision, rhythm and language of poetry, it’s even worse and the smallest disturbance can stop you up or set your eyes reading words with a brain too distracted to listen.

As the District Line train swayed its way through Earl’s Court and Hammersmith, the poem somehow took me from the doorway where I was wedged to another vehicle at sundown, this time a minibus back from market day on Walcott’s native St Lucia:

Marley was rocking on the transport’s stereo
and the beauty was humming the choruses quietly.
I could see where the lights on the planes of her cheek
streaked and defined them; if this were a portrait
you’d leave the highlights for last, these lights
silkened her black skin; I’d have put in an earring,
something simple, in good gold, for contrast, but she
wore no jewelry. I imagined a powerful and sweet
odour coming from her, as from a still panther,
and the head was nothing else but heraldic.
When she looked at me, then away from me politely
because any staring at strangers is impolite,
it was like a statue, like a black Delacroix’s
Liberty Leading the People, the gently bulging
whites of her eyes, the carved ebony mouth,
the heft of the torso solid, and a woman’s,
but gradually even that was going in the dusk,
except the line of her profile, and the highlit cheek,
and I thought, O Beauty, you are the light of the world!

The poem continues for another eight stanzas and between the stops and starts of the train, it felt like it took the whole journey to read, but it was also so gripping that I barely noticed all the tube’s other distractions. It’s some feat of writing.

When I got back home, I noticed this attention to detail. Look at the colours:

My thoughts on Derek Walcott’s most recent collection, White Egrets, here.

Derek Walcott, Selected Poems, Faber & Faber 2007

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