Ch-ch-changes?


The Essential Neruda. Selected Poems, edited by Mark Eisner,
various translators, (204pp, 9.95, Bloodaxe)

Selected Poems
, Federico Garcia Lorca, translated by J.L.Gili
(192pp, 9.95, Anvil)

Art in the Light of Conscience, Eight essays on poetry,
Marina Tsvetayeva,
translated by Angela Livingstone  (209pp, 9.95, 2010, Bloodaxe)


The cover of the Neruda has a photograph of him in a short-sleeved shirt, his right hand palm up across the top of his head, on his arm a hawk-like bird, and he is not so much smiling as bursting with pleasure. There's no date for the photo; maybe it's the bird that's funny, maybe something quite else. He is looking at one or more people we can't see.

The book was originated by City Lights Books, 2004, and has an American typeface, a kind of squiggly italic, faint, which I find hard to read. The book is bilingual, page by page. Some of the translations have been published before, most are newly made, some at least, while individually credited, out of a group process.

The cover photo seems to have been selected to say, poetry is fun! I am reminded of something I read about him and I went on to tell it to students. There was a big gathering of workers; they were solemnly addressed by their union leader; then Neruda was introduced and they all applauded. Maybe the photo says this: here is a man happy in his own body, and that this joyfulness shows in everything he does.

The title, The Essential Neruda
, is a sales pitch; it wants to tell me my ten or so other books of his poems are (overlapping) partly essential, and that I needn't bother with the rest.

The implication is also that the book has the essential translations
. I wonder if this, for instance ('Walking Around', trans.Forrest Gander):

     Comes a time I'm tired of being a man.
     comes a time I check out the tailor's or the movies
     shriveled, impenetrable, like a felt swan
     launched into waves of origin and ashes.

is better than this (trans.W S Merwin, Penguin Selected, 1975):

     It happens that I am tired of being a man.
     It happens that I go into the tailor's shops and the movies
     all shrivelled up, impenetrable, like a felt swan
     navigating on a water of origin and ash.

The American (for 'shrivelled') gets to stay or it gets changed; and in the Merwin the singular tailor and the plural shops doesn't seem right. Is 'movies' right (for 'los cines')? Depends where and when we are. Aside from such niggles, which version gets closer to

     Sucede que me canso de ser hombre

and so on? I'm not a Spanish speaker but some of it is evident and I can hear
this well enough.

The book has selections from Neruda's books dated from 1924 to 1964, plus a few posthumously published. I have discovered myself returning and ignoring the English, instead mouthing the Spanish, as a man back from illness tries to learn to breathe again.


The Lorca is easier to place in translation history: it is a reprint of the 'Penguin Lorca' of 1960, the Spanish with prose translations by J.L.Gili.

The book size and the typeface are somewhat larger and more pleasing to handle. Lorca's essay (or prose reverie, let's say), 'Theory and function of the Duende', is appended as before. The cover has a simple carpet design, as the Penguin had, differently.

A translation curiosity arises here. Some of the poems were translated elsewhere by Gili with Stephen Spender, available in the New Directions Selected Poems (various translators) of 1955. Here is a passage compared from the long 'Ode to Walt Whitman':

     Agony, agony, dream, ferment and dream. Such is the world,
     my friend, agony, agony. Corpses are decomposing under the
     clocks of cities; war passes with a million grey rats weeping,
     the rich give to their mistresses small illuminated moribund,
     and life is not noble, nor good, nor sacred.         [Gili]

    Agony, agony, dream, ferment and dream.
    This is the world, my friend, agony, agony.
    The corpses decompose under the clock of the cities.
    War passes weeping with a million grey rats,
    the rich give to their mistresses
    small illuminated moribunds,
    and Life is not noble, nor good, nor sacred.   [Spender & Gili]

It makes for a workshop discussion on the difference between poetry and prose; although again one might suppose Gili by himself, and some years later, was working towards poetic prose.  How curious to think of Gili and Spender discussing it.

Incidentally the closest definition I can find to 'moribund' (noun) - as above, singular in one, plural in the other - is a 'dying person': Latin mort-
/mors death; which doesn't seem to be quite what either the translation or the Lorca says: moribundos iluminados. Checking against other translations - Carlos Bauer, 1988: 'illuminated half-corpses'; Greg Simon & Steven F.White, also 1988: 'illuminated dying things' - it seems it's been all along to have been a puzzle.

The book's selections are translated from books of 1921 to 1936 plus four undated 'Miscellaneous'. Again, even without fluency, whisper the Spanish.


Covers, I suppose, come out of a publisher's editorial meeting; Marina Tsvetayeva's 'Art in the Light of Conscience' has a 1900 muted soft-brush painting by Mikhail Nesterov: two woman by a pond, one standing, eyes closed, the other sitting on the grass, eyes down, perhaps also closed. I don't have the original 1992 edition for comparison, but would guess it was plainer.

The book's title is that of one of the eight essays, five of which were  published in Russian (written in exile in Berlin or Paris) in the early 1930s, two in the 1920s and one posthumously in 1964. The book includes also (revised translations of) Twelve Poems, plus a general Introduction and Notes.
           
She was not quite fifty in 1941 when she hanged herself, and I have long marvelled at what she achieved, in poetry and prose, during a far from settled or comfortable life. Nor (in 1941 I was one year old) can I begin really to know what the life was, or the times, that produced the art.
           
But I can suppose there is one prose writer like this to every thousand and more arts academics. She knows stuff first hand and she argues, in her guts and soul she is for ever aware (as she says) of the chasm between new writing that matters and the dreary expectations of most readers. And she is best known not as an essayist but as one of the great twentieth century poets.

Unable to know the voice to page to translation of the accuracy of these translations, I can say thy read vigorously, they sound passionately written, she knows her subject, whether it be Pasternak, Mayakovsky, the town of Alexandrov in her birth province of Vladimir picking up details, characterisations as we know better but not more engagingly from Chekhov, and much more besides.

It may not be an exaggeration to suggest the book is worth having for the new translations of the Twelve Poems. There is something about a fine poem in whatever the translation (and these are a pleasure), that it reverberates with new possibilities even as it is being read. But no, hear her talk as well, give her the breathing space she had so little of in life.

      David Hart 2010