Surreal truth and other pleasures


Talking Vrouz, Valérie Rouzeau, translated by Susan Wicks (141pp, Arc)
Poems
, Emile Verhaeren, translated by Will Stone (141pp, Arc)
Peatlands
, Pedro Serrano, translated by Anna Crowe (121pp, Arc)
Inside Voices Outside Light,
Sigurdur Pálsson, translated by Martin S. Regal (138pp, Arc)


The translation by Susan Wicks from two books by the French poet Valérie Rouzeau (b.1967) is a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation, comes therefore as it were reviewed already and by people better equipped from French to English than I am. The very first line sets the scene for the book's racing along 'mind blowing' as I recall I used to say of whatever it was once,

   Le cheval a mangé la rose voice le Prince
    
   The horse has eaten the rose here is the Prince

But shouldn't that 'voice' in the French be 'voici'? Does the book begin with a typing error?

The book anyway is a tour de force
of surreal truth, it seems to me, the voice convinces me this is living, this is how it is for this poet while also  something grand and carefree is communicated. Surreal not crazy this and that but a way of saying how it is, my readers, this is my life here.
    
But these lines, whatever the French,

   Down the whole track-length of the railway-line
   Grow the dandelions with their trustful faces'?

- isn't the inversion unfelicitious, holding up when flow should be enabled?

 But the book as a whole is as pleasurably readable as any I've read in a long time, the sheer liveliness of the images, that's to say of the connections, which is to say of the living sensation of discovery. Perhaps the more recent, from Vrouz
(2013), take off the more wildly, a person is always there, here, as it were, very much a lively presence. Here, for example, a section from a sequence,
  
   You walk towards death you think
   But everyone does that and even if you'd worn your holdup tights
   (If not a lovely leg they'd have made a great big stocking for the tree)
   And when like Gaston you could just as well be walking
                                                                               towards love so go
   and in your absence lose yourself and find.

The poems use no stops until the end one. Read perhaps a few poems or sections at a time, straight through seems too much, and some of the lines are like stand-up jokes ('Before you leave the train make sure/ You haven't left yourself or anything behind'), but if you think, as I do, that language as talked, for instance, on the radio is ever narrowing to lazy cliché, then the poet is more than ever the guardian of the richness of the language. In 'speaking about', the introduction is an instructive pleasure in itself, and there are good end-notes.


Staying with French - Belgian French late 19thC - I feel, from what I have learned now, that I should have known something of Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916), celebrated in his time and thought of as a lyric Symbolist. Will Stone's extensive introduction that includes some black and white portrait photographs, tells us not least that Verhaeren's legacy is confused by his habit of rewriting a poem on its republication, sometimes two or three times. The translator's view is that first was best and it is these he has brought into English.

He has also, as seems usually wisest, not attempted the originals' customary end rhymes. The poems are variable in length. There are instances where something seems lost in the shifts of sound and flow, here, for example from a three-page poem, 'The ferryman',

   Une rame soudain cassa
   Que le courant chassa,
   A vagues lourdres, vers la mer.

   Suddenly an oar broke
   which the current drove,
   on rapid waves, towards the sea.

Why not 'to the sea', catching the rapidity that seems to be there in the original? And here are three lines from another longish poem, 'On the shore',

   Et c'est fête dans tout mon être;
   L'ardeaur de l'univers
   Me rajeunir et me pén¸tre.

   Celebration floods my entire being:
   the ardour of the universe
   re-animates and penetrates me.

I am not able to guage the original either as if in its own time nor as heard by a French speaker now, but the English seems to me to deaden emotion.

In other of the translations there is
a voice, one can hear a voice for real, or a poem comes in and out of focus as true voice - as living poem; it is hard to know what in the original were stock phrases of the time or fresh-made; the originals would, I imagine, make for an imaginative translation exercise.

There is a lot of scene-setting, image-making, romantic of landscape especially. Here is the whole of 'Darkness',

   The moon, with glacial, vacant eye, observes
   winter reign vast and white on the hard ground;    [sic]
   night is an azure translucent and complete;
   the wind, a knife, comes suddenly, stabs deep.

   Yonder, on the horizons, the long tracks of frost
   seem ever to pierce the expanses,
   and stars of gold as far as the zenith
   amid the ether, ever higher, pierce the sky.

   Villages huddled in the plains of Flanders,
   near the moor, the rivers, the great forests,
   between these two pale infinities shudder with cold
   around old hearts, whose ashes they rake.


To turn to Pedro Serrano's Peatland is to experience an uplift; it's a joyful book, simple in mode, complex in imagery and its poems' pleasures. By mode I mean the poems' free-flowing forms at ease with their purpose. It is one of those books I feel talks to me, this log of Pedro Serrano's experience, his being alive with language.

It is also and no less a book of the translator's pleasure. Anna Crowe's Preface starts from when she hears the poet read in Scotland, having provided translations for the reading, and finds herself hooked. She relates the task then of finding English equivalents for the very different flow of the Spanish, and it is surely her pleasure in working the detail while staying with the emotional flow that makes this such an enjoyable collection.

The poet gave the translator a book of his selected poems, this book now  of five sections translated. And while I have spoken here of pleasure, of the job well done, the book is not easy entertainment. Here is a section from a sequence, 'de Turba'/'from Peat',

   Everything coagulates like curdled milk,
   like sour vomit that throws up
   bits of intestine, seeds, bile,
   what could be swallowed and what could not.
   On the sheet of glass lie the remains,
   on the aluminium tray the detailed account,
   on the skin, ash and dead static.
   The entire past now moves like cloudy water,
   like a dead donkey rotting upstream
   and which others drink further down, unaware.
   The whole of the past remains here, regurgitating.

The book goes with the physical, the being-a-body,

   Shitting is a pleasure, to bawl
   along the feverish pipe and then abate
   without the haste that might lead us to hatred.

and so on for eight more stanzas ('The limiting art'). A a poem sometimes takes off into a longer flow (The wind's trust'),

   I heard her afar off, like a blue sword of midnight,
   like an edge that grew from the frozen point of her lips,
   like a knife made of water that in its stridency could not be heard.

leading by walk and sense to many lovely lines,

   like a dress striped with black and pearl that could fall off her back,
   for they were touching every edge and the sea was green now,
 
   as if such an experience and such a poem should never end. Yes, this book I    recommend for a joyful or an uneasy day.


Born 1948, Sigurdur Pálsson's poems seem to me still at the notebook stage; not fair, I suppose; nor fair to say I get the feeling he turns them out in large numbers, as jouralistic observations, as jests or as quick meditations or observations, but that's how they read to me. The poems are from twelve collections between 1980 and 2012., and the cover note tells me he is 'one of Iceland's best-known and most highly regarded poets,' this his first full length collection into English.

The translator, Martin S.Regal (born London 1951) teaches at the University of Iceland. Perhaps he has failed to catch the Pálsson voice but, if so, I don't see what crucial difference it has made essentially. The long list of Pálsson's publications seems, rather, to be what may account for what seems to me this book's bordering on the superficial, or I am simply not attuned to it. The poems are in a variety of forms, including some prose poems, a few (or silently more?) of them feed off Beckett, who had what I find missing here.

The book has full stops only in the prose poems. Here are three poems or sections numbered, from a sequence of thirteen titled 'Downtown in Reykjavik City',

   IX

   The staggering friends
   remnant rods in the ruins
   Some have hats
   Others hurry under the eaves
   (not to mention those wet with tears)


   X

   Strange prizes
   at the downtown raffle
   A kiss and a laugh
   a song and a cry
   or night

   But there are always quite a few losing tickets.


   XI

   The newspaper vendors don't sell manuals
   I always need direction
   And there's almost no hope
   for Plan B


                © David Hart 2014