Scent of the Unseen by Mila Haugová, translated by James & Viera Sutherland-Smith

[Arc Visible Poets 9, ISBN 1900072394, pbk £8.95 136pp]

Between Nothing and Nothing by Ernst Meister, translated by Jean Boase-Beier

[Arc Visible Poets 10, ISBN 1900072386, pbk £8.95 124pp]

Absurd Athlete by Yannis Kondos, translated by David Connolly

[ Arc Visible Poets 11, ISBN 1900072769, pbk £8.95 108pp]

 

 

Sometimes I feel that reading translated poetry can be like looking at books of reproduction paintings: you’re not looking at the original, only a facsimile that roughly equates with the original. That isn’t the case at all here. Although there is always a gap between the poem and the translation, in these books the work of the translators is so thorough that any gap seems to be no more than the everyday poetic gap we encounter in poems between the experience and its description; or the gap between the thing and the name of the thing. There are also thorough Translators’ Prefaces, and introductions by authoritative voices.

 

Yannis Kondos is one of Greece’s most eminent poets, and this is his tenth collection. Visual and iconic, Kondos’ work covers the socio-political of the ‘Absurd Athlete’, a contemporary everyman struggling with the absurdity of life in the city with its particular highs and lows, technology and consumerism; to personal mythologies, and existential questioning, celebratory of both transience and transcendence. Boldly image based, Kondos explores colour in several poems:

 

I suspect that these colourful

lepidoptera, these souls

are our words.

(from ‘Pins in the clouds’)

 

and has himself commented: ‘Some of my themes are clearly painting. In many poems, the words have a chromatic quality. One phrase is red, another blue, another yellow; even an “and” can, for me, be a deep red’, in a tone reminiscent of Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles’. Witty and strangely odd, Kondos is as at home with the wry commentary of:

 

I owe something and with a steady hand

I record the fluctuations

in my soul

(from ‘The Taxman’)

 

as the heavier existential tones of :

 

Sometimes I think that it may be my own

black, worn-out shoes,

or my shadow – that often

is drunk with love – no, no, this

is the persistent sound of a murderer

with a shady background and white eyes.

(from ‘Shoes in the Rain’)

 

‘Computer Memory’ beautifully counterpoints technology with its inability to ‘find sorrow’s square root’, in a delightful list poem. Sorrow, and its counterpoint Love are explored in depth. Love for Kondos is ‘a moth, that devours my jumper and skin’, a delicate yet inexorable image. The moth image returns in the great poem ‘Summertime’:

 

It eats the songs, the repetitions,

the authority, the kisses: everything

it turns to dust. It’s like time.

This latter is insidious, it’s stagnant water.

It enters the blood and blackens it.

The sun pierces the cupboards and chests

and the moth slips in. It makes furrows in the mind,

in the blankets that cover you

in winter. Winter’s in the storeroom

waiting.

 

Other sets of extraordinary images are found throughout, in lines such as: ‘He’s a fruit and runs down the slope / of his desires’, and in poems such as ‘What I do with my body all day’: ‘I try on wings, none of them fit.’ Or,

 

I burn it, fling it up in the sky.

Then I put it in an office

and it freezes. Landslides of words,

empty wells and a wasteland

await it. I leave on a trip…

 

In the poem ‘Mice make the most of mayhem’, we read:

 

People tread on them

like on rotten fruit. Yet they retain memory

in their pips. Passers-by kick them

this way and that. The rodents rush around.’

 

I was particularly taken by the blending of the personal memory with the social memory in the following:

 

We find it hot and go to the wells,

with ropes we draw up our childhood

talk. It’s still cool and drinkable.

Now others are playing on the lot.

(from ‘To fellow pupils’)

 

Yannis Kondos’s Absurd Athlete is well-worth reading and translated attentively and sensitively by David Connolly.

 

Mila Haugová is Slovakia’s leading woman poet, ‘formed under, though not necessarily by, Communism’, as Fiona Sampson’s introduction states. Haugová’s work is dense in history, pre-history, and mythic spaces, exploring feminine spirit and sensibility, erotic love and other complex states. Masks (emanating from Greek drama) and wings (attached to archetypal female bodies) figure strongly in this work. The female poet-figure, characterized as Alfa, recurs throughout these poems, as a transcendent icon; on her poetic wings she is both society’s matriarch – the font of knowledge and wisdom – and the oogenitor of language.

 

Also working through dream, Haugová’s work borrows from a tradition of Eastern European grotesquerie – the tradition of ‘Hermetic Surrealism’, as Fiona Sampson calls it – alongside the likes of artist-animateur Jan Svankmajer. Rather than a normative syntax, these poems build up through the parataxis of juxtaposed phrases; fragments working together to build complex wholes of sound and meaning. This sets a difficult task for a translators, not least when, as an Anglophone reader, one tries to read the original Slovak language, which is thick with consonants and clashing glottals that are far removed from the vowel rich western European languages. IN their renderings of these poems, the Sutherland-Smith’s have given a clear and appreciative translation of what is highly complex work.

 

The poems are not arranged chronologically but, as the translators write: ‘…from notions of birth to death, from the beginnings of love to the end of the affair, from the mask to nakedness’. It is this personal take on Haugová’s work that adds another layer of richness to this book. And it is to the personal that I have to turn: as the book bears a cover blurb from myself, I have to confess a predilection for this writing. I gave a reading in Slovakia alongside Mila Haugová and it was a remarkable experience – she retains that remarkable ability of the seer poet to sing, praise and wail at the symbolic heights and depths of human experience. She is a revelatory poet; a complex, difficult poet; but an enchantingly strange, engaging and ultimately important European writer. In her own words, Haugová is ‘stronger circled by a mystery’. She seems to inhabit ‘a dream above knives of breath’ and even states, ‘The only relief for women is dream.’ Haugová’s female poet-narrator is ‘ a winged woman / from the bottom of a sarcophagus; immobile.’ She lives ‘In the tight mask of a woman’ and she ‘blooms in the wastefulness of autumn’ going among ‘sleep-walking trees, to finish debate’. The tradition of hermetic surrealism, with its savagery, openings and closings, is clearly evident in the following lines, along with the parataxis and montage like use of phrasing:

 

embrace children very firmly and then

let them leave: daughters of memory the wild fruit of women

tear open wounds barely healed over: evil footprints

(whatever’s within you can hurt you) you aren’t allowed

to bite into the heart: you are other than me with hot blood,

in your fingers glowing planets with glittering rings

(from ‘To Go’)

 

as well as the mythic space, (‘the cave of words’), of feminine sensibility. I find this complex, unsettling work that asks difficult questions an English poetry audience is surely unused to, but a more philosophic European one audience has grown up with: ‘Are we the memory of ourselves?’ I sincerely hope that doesn’t make this book inaccessible to English readers, as these are strangely beautiful poems that deserve reading and re-reading.

 

I’m not sure that I have the authority to comment upon these very minimal poems of Ernst Meister – for me, this was by far the most difficult to read of these three books – but in reviewing I can only go by my own tastes, in my case for lyricism and/or experimentation. Expertly translated from the German into direct English by Jean Boase-Beier, Meister’s religious imagery, philosophical tone; his explorations of being-and-nothingness and metaphysics, are hermetic in the extreme. In the introduction, John Hartley Williams writes, ‘A common reaction to the emergency of consciousness, a reaction that partakes of despair, is to write one’s poems in the ‘avant-garde’ manner, using fractured syntax, concussed semantics. Meister does not do this.’ That, I think, is a very sensible remark and for some poets will be the appropriate approach. Williams expresses this insight with clarity and erudition, but something in me wishes that Meister DID actually fracture things a little here! I found the extreme minimalism of these poems quite excluding, and was crying out for some music, rhythm, poetry, and playfulness with language. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist at all in these poems, but they are so absolutely pared back that little remains other than the philosophizing tone, for example in this complete poem:

 

            WHAT, above all,

            will I still know

of names soon:

 

House … tree …

flower … oh but

don’t think

 

your dust will

be burdened by

emptiness.

 

or in the desperations of lines such as:

 

And in front

Is the grave.

 

Is that so; really! ‘A valid poem is a metonymic stone, dropped. Concentric rings of meaning stand not only for the particular stone the poet lets fall, but also for the wave-ripple of its readers’ reception,’ again, John Hartley Williams writes beautifully in the introduction. But for me, these poems are not metonymic stones dropped into a pond; they are chips of grey concrete clunked onto thick ice. Cold, and with a very dull thud muffled by the winter air.

 

                        © Andy Brown 2004

 

 

All published by Arc Publications, Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Road, Todmorden, Lancs, OL14 6DA