Language lives!


Six Estonian Poets
, edited by Doris Kareva (165pp, Arc)
Self-Portrait With A Swarm of Bees
, Jan Wagner,
translated by Iain Galbraith, (129pp, Arc)
(O)
, Sophie Mayer, (105pp, Arc)
The Midnight Letterbox, Selected Correspondence 1950-2010
,
Edwin Morgan, edited by Mames McGonigal and John Coyle
(534pp, 19.99, Carcanet)


Each poet in Six Estonian Poets is introduced. Here is the opening of one introduction:

   Kauski Ülle is the central figure of the South Estonian
   regional movement, a writer in, and promoter of, the
   Vro dialect of southern Estonia.

She was born in 1962, the other poets included are of that generation apart from the first, Juhan Vilding, born 1948. Even this beginning of a context - where is Estonia exactly, what is its modern history, what traditions have been the making of its poetry? - appear to make a clear reading of the poems, and not least in translation (there are three co-translators of Kauski lle and more for the whole book), impossibly difficult.

But here is the opening of Kauski Ülle's 'Greeting to mothers and mothers' mothers'

   Greetings to the mother of mothers
   to the kindly primal woman
   who keeps all the world alive
   spreader of both warmth and light
   it is to you that we bow
   tying lengths of white yard for you
   call your power to make porridge
   and give power to our porridge
   for the good of all the world
   take a mouthful of the porridge

and I think yes, there is difference here and there is powerful writing, alive with it, and how happy a thing to have it now in English. It communicates across boundaries and it is new. The book has an urgency about it, a patience too, a life-blessedness:

   I formed you and found
   rightness in your light,
   until your pain
   alarmed me: you are alive.

   Rain tumbled onto my hands,
   wind rocked my body.

   You are other

This is the whole of a poem, or part of a loose sequence, untitled, by Triin Soomets. The book has poems by three women and three men. On this evidence, Estonia's poetry seems alive and very well, and I would recommend this bilingual collection as exemplary for groups, colleges and for open-hearted individual poets.

From the introductions by Karen Leeder and the translator Iain Galbraith to Jan Wagner's poems - 'an unerring instinct for the surprising perspective on events or commonlace objects', 'highly self-conscious play with language', 'the poem as a horse (after Michael Donaghy)' - one gets the idea: the poems are bold, playful and confidently constructed. Born 1971, he lives in Berlin and has published six books of poems. I suspect that this book opens itself to you, or not, according to what mood you bring to it.

   the landscape blurred as soon as it saw him.
   a dare-devil, a son of a gun
   with his star-spangled shirt
   and a bike-engine's swarm of angry hornets
   constantly in pursuit. his bones broke,
   his bones fixed - and he jumped.

[punctutation as it says]

   hardly more real than the unicorn
   and as rare as sphinx or dragon
   whose offspring it was thought to be
   when first it came to light, a medusa's head
   in the mirror of a stream.
   a snow-white fish with four legs
   the country folk called it,
   its cry like that of a human.
   its skill: to be forgotten.
   and so it grows old, and outlives
   those who seek it.

[ditto]

These are the opening stanza of 'Elegy for Knievel' and the opening section of 'Olm'. My feeling now is that this is not a book to which I would remember to return, while I can see it might appeal to writers who are working in a similar way.


In severe contrast to anything of the above, Sophie Mayer's '(O)' is a romp of narration. I have never heard her live, never heard her voice but seem to hear it now. The book is all voice. Is she a voracious reader, does she listen in in every way she can to whatever she can, is she for ever translating English into English?

There is her slow mode -

   Euripides wrote two plays about Iphigenia. They are our main
   source for her story, and he told it backwards: in the first play,
   Iphigenia among the Taurians
, she is alive and the war is over.
   The god that wanted her dead has saved her.

- and I am happy to listen patiently to where she takes it (I am quoting some way into the seven and a bit pages of 'Silence, Singing') and there is more of the newsy narrative of this kind, of the ancients, and there is, for instance, a 'Pas de Deux - for Mike and Heather', which begins,

   ENTRÉE

   You have always been moving towards and towards.
   From out of the north and the west, through orchard and
   prairie, running and dancing and longing,
   you've come.

It's not all sweetness and light, there's a Biblical talkback - 'David's First Drafts' - with sections beginning typically (this the first),

   Fuck you, Bathsheba,
   and your little dog, too. You're not
   invited to this party. Sorry,
   off the list.

Buy this book for the group, for the university essay, for a personal journey. Language lives.


I met Edward Morgan (1920-2010) a few times at events; both in person and through his poetry he seemed warm-hearted, deeply versed, playful, inventive and justly Scotland's first Makar - its Poet Laureate. This heavy book of his letters is of course valuable for the archives, not least for Scottish cultural history, given the correspondents, now gathered here, but it allows us into cultural business more than it does into the life of the mind and heart.

Always a book of a writer's letters tells us to whom he wrote while leaving us to wish we had the other side of the correspondence. I suppose some of these in the to and fro here will be published separately, links will be made, but the book is not conversation; and most of it is business: of events, of publishing, of arrangements.

'Lanark
has caused quite a stir; got a long review in the TLS , is selling well in America,.....' is typical of much of what is to be found here; 'I am enclosing a dozen concrete poems for the 'typographical' exercise. They present a variety of printing problems' but I hope....', 'Thank you for your letter, I regret this a lot. I am very sorry I couldn't go to the Edinburgh meeting....', and so on. This last letter, to Magnus Magnusson in September 1962, does get into the fray about aspects of his poetry: 'I think you know I am not a pedant, and I believe it is possible to write both interestingly and popularly, but that sort of matey facetiousness gets us nowhere.'

Yes, there are moments when he is present as the poet he was in print and in his public readings, with energy, conviction and humour and there is much that can be dug out here if you will wade through the rest; but thank the gods we have his poems in print and some recordings of his voice,YouTube 'live'.

His correspondents include Al Alvarez, Stephen Bann, Bob Cobbing, T.S.Eliot, Ian Hamilton Finlay (lots), Allen Ginsberg, Anselm Hollo, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Gael Turnbull.

    David Hart 2015