It’s a perennial debate: what constitutes a valid poetry translation, is it desirable or even possible? One tactic of the translator is to attempt “adaptations” or “versions” of an original text from another language. This avoids certain obvious criticisms that attend the more literal approach. It allows for a strong injection of the creator’s own voice; through feeding off the source-poet a set of poems might be written which are both one’s own and someone else’s. At worst, this might be appropriative; at best it reinvigorates both text and writer.
Don Paterson’s astonishing third volume of poetry, The Eyes, fits the latter category. I say third because it is both “versions” of the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), and a new set of Paterson poems. It’s a thin volume, just over fifty pages with afterword, but it’s a giant book in other ways, a triumph. True to elements of the original, these are nonetheless wonderful English-language poems. Though the music of the book can seem a little flat at times, and the presentation of spiritual struggles, the agnostic tensions of Machado and, indeed, the English-language persona himself, can become slightly clinical, this book will bring a new public to both poets’ work.
Paterson is a “poet’s poet”. I say this in a positive sense – any reader will learn from his remarkable ability to fashion a line, to surprise with a sudden image and a quick turn of phrase. The essential elements of Machado – the ability to express through words the nature of spiritual existence, to capture, as Machado once said, “a deep palpitation of the spirit”, and “a dialogue of a man with his time” – are all there. As are the twilit autumnal road, the hope for a restoration of beauty, the border zones between melancholy and pessimism – without ever really succumbing to the latter – and the wonder of dreams.
Machado was a skilful technician, but eschewed the use of devices such as rhyme for their own sakes. Paterson has done likewise. His competence is such that you feel he could have done almost anything with these poems, but has let the inner voice of each piece speak without hindrance or prejudice. They’re natural, don’t seem forced. Here’s the first stanza of “Promethean”:
The traveller is the aggregate of the road.In a wall garden beside the ocean’s ear
he carries his whole journey on his coat –
the hoarfrost and the coffee smell, the dry heat
of the hay, the dog-rose, the bitter woodsmoke.
The long day’s veteran, he puts a brake
on all sentiment, and waits for the slow word
to surface in his mind, as if for air.
This is modern, alive. It lives with us now yet retains the texture of another time. It is imagistically dense and yet lightly woven.
Paterson has chosen to present versions of shorter aphoristic pieces. They offer him the opportunity to achieve images imbued with wit at ease. The best of these are lively, wry, and amusing:
…but I’ve seen men drinkfrom ditches;
ah the caprices
of the parched mind
and my favourites:
It’s not the trueI the poet’s after:
it’s the you
. . . But that you in my song
doesn’t mean you, pal;
no – that’s me.
These apparently slight pieces tell us much about both Machado and Paterson. In his introduction, Paterson writes against the biographical or ego-focussed approach to reading:
“in Machado’s case it is a grave error, not least because Machado himself would have abhorred this kind of reading… he would have been disappointed in any reader who sought to ‘explain’ a poem in terms of a geographic or psychological provenance”.
Likewise for Paterson; in some ways his introduction works as manifesto and disclaimer. Paterson applies this principle to his own work as a poet, and distances himself from “authenticity” or “authority”.
Roger McGough’s new volume, The Way Things Are, offers familiar McGough fare. This is one for the fans, and for those wanting to take something concrete away from his readings. The poems, in their own terms, are deft and alive, but one feels that they ache to be performed. There are worthy social observations and commentaries, and McGough’s wit is in form. The poem “clone” consists of the following verse being repeated three times:
A genetic scientistWith literary leanings
Cloned old verses
And gave them new meanings.
Overall, however, the language on the page is often flat, and the ideas very much on the surface. These poems are designed for immediate appreciation. It’s best reading them aloud to someone else. McGough knows what he’s doing, and does it well. But there’s nothing in here to excite this reader.
A Review by John Kinsella
Alan Hollinghurst, The Spell. Chatto & Windus, £15.99
Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel The Spell is easy to loathe or to dismiss as trivial depending on your expectations of gay literature. As a “genre” work it seems clichéd, wrapped in a class-privilege gloss that leaves the reader going through the motions, in the same way that his apparently one-dimensional characters embrace so readily in their enclosed world of gratification and excess. If read as literal, it will obviously lack anything “queer” that might allow a deeper exploration of gender and sexual identity. Women here are rare extras, and “femininity” is not part of the picture – be it in a female or in a male – but as parody through camp. The novel would therefore seem to be a work without politics, a kind of “Aga saga” that we pick up, experience (“masturbate over”?), before moving on to our next conquest. Even if in place of the Aga we have the Rayburn. A bunch of boys flexing their egos and vulnerabilities. With humour.
But this would be to misread the text dramatically. The Spell is an overtly political “gay novel” that challenges any willingness to dismiss it as just a gay novel. Everything’s there – the sex, the food, the drugs, the night clubs and country retreat. Set piece. The book is artifice. It is a clever, if overwritten, drawing-room drama that parodies the expectations of the hetero-reader. Sure, the novel is energetic on a sexual level, but isn’t that what’s expected by many readers of “such a work”? It absorbs and/or deflects any projection a reader may make.
Briefly, the book examines the relationships between four major characters and a few minors that help drive the story. Robin, an architect who works on restoring period houses and converting them into apartments for the upwardly mobile; his boyfriend Jason, who has a strong aversion to work, a healthy reverence for money, and a slight disappointment at Robin’s lack of ambition; Jason’s ex, Alex, who is well-heeled and a government employee (yes, it’s true); and Danny – Robin’s son, Alex’s new boyfriend and lover to most. Terry, George, and a variety of characters from the “club world” shift in and out of their lives. At the core of the book is Alex’s awakening, or maturing, in his late thirties: “YouÕre the one who falls in love,” someone tells him. It is he who talks of the spell: “The last two weeks have been extraordinary – I feel as if I’m under a beautiful spell.” But the spell directs all lives, and, “‘The thing about spells,’ [says] Hugh, “is that you don’t know at the time if they’re good ones or bad ones. All black magicians learn how to sugar the pill.'” It is compulsion, longing, and the core of their life-force. It is potentially, if not inevitably destructive. But there is always room to pick up the pieces. Death intensifies this life-force – the death of a parent, the death – as in Robin’s case – of a lover.
Alex’s late “awakening” is facilitated through Danny, who at twenty-two going on twenty-three (we experience his birthday party, all excess and jealousy) persuades Alex to take ecstacy. Hollinghurst is writing about the “leisure” use of drugs, and not their darker sides. If we choose not to read the drug experience on this level as symbolic, the novel becomes superficial. But it is the intensity of an occasion that is being examined, and the selfishness that comes out of this. This is the black magician’s potion – the illusion of pleasure. And race is a muted problem for this “white” book: “Dave sat among the shiny flesh-colours of shrink-wrapped pornography and rubber sex-aids like a big black deity in a garish little shrine.” Irony, if that is what it is, misfires here.
The younger Danny can only ever be a phase in Alex’s life. Alex’s ending up, for the first time, with someone older than himself qualifies this rite of passage. He never quite fits in anywhere – he is an outsider in an already-outside world. He is physically marked as different from the other men, is hypersensitive, but still propelled by his urges, even if he’s willing (or able) to suppress them more than others.
And the rural setting that anchors much of the “action” is an interesting play on the Victorian pastoral. Shortly before reading The Spell I reread Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet Major – and it is through such a work that the stock rural comi-tragedy aspect of the work might be read. Then there’s a dash of dialogic repartee worthy of Vanity Fair or a Jane Austen novel. The urban is played off against the rural. We are in an apparently classless drawing room here, with the guests plotting and staging their own dramas concurrently – overlapping, interacting, manipulating, and being manipulated, and resolving themselves before starting anew. In this sense it meets the blurb’s claim of being “a comedy of sexual manners”. The reader is seduced and dumped accordingly.
Yet this is not the earthy compulsion we find in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles – despite the pantheism – but an examination of the way environment and sexuality inform each other. It’s the seemingly uncontrollable sexual urge that creates the environment as much as vice versa, whether it be in the country or in a London nightclub with booming house music playing. All of this is accompanied by a gently ironic critique of the consumerism of flesh (the you-don’t-need-to-work,-I’ve-got-money line). There is more control than we might like to think, and despite the lush rural descriptions and “poetic” imagery, the book as a whole works like a stage piece, with the backdrops there for the actors to play against.
This novel didn’t start working for me until about the halfway mark ,and I still have reservations. But Hollinghurst is a skilled writer and The Spell may well be an acquired taste. Read it and ask yourself whether or not it’s worth structuring a dinner-party around. It might be hinting that you do this; it might be mocking you for even considering it!