This is an interesting one: a piece of oral poetry, transcribed from a performance by a griot, Nouhou Malio, in Niger. To quote the introduction:
The EThis is an interesting one: a piece of oral poetry, transcribed from a performance by a griot, Nouhou Malio, in Niger. To quote the introduction:
The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounts the life of the most famous ruler of the Songhay empire, a man who reigned in Gao, an old city in present-day eastern Mali, from 1493 to 1528.
Although to be strictly accurate, it recounts the life of Askia Mohammed and some of his descendants. I was interested to learn that the events were recorded in contemporary written chronicles, so we have some sense of how the stories have changed over the centuries: the genealogies have been compressed a bit, and some historical events seem to have been conflated, but the people and events are clearly identifiable.
The subject matter fits comfortably into what you might expect of epic poetry: kings, conquest, revenge, wrangling over succession. But of course it also has cultural specifics; for example, Askia Mohammed is remembered for spreading Islam in West Africa, and one of his notable achievements was a pilgrimage to Mecca. Similarly, some of the second half of the poem is the story of Amar Zoumbani, one of Askia Mohammed’s descendants, and his ambivalent social position as the son of a king and a slave woman.
It’s enjoyable as a story — if you skip over some genealogies of the Bob begat Fred begat Kevin variety — but it doesn’t seem particularly remarkable as a piece of literature. It seems to be fairly plain, direct storytelling; there’s some interesting use of repetition for emphasis, but otherwise the way the language is used seems straightforward; with the inevitable caveat that some amount has been lost in translation. Most notably, the original switched occasionally from Songhay to a version of Soninké used as an ‘occult language’ by Songhay griots, healers and sorcerers, a language which is apparently sufficiently obscure that many lines are just marked as ‘undecipherable’. There’s also some suggestion in the introduction that Malio switched between dialects of Songhay, though I may be misunderstanding; what effect any of this code-switching might have is left unclear.
I kind of feel I should be drawing comparisons with other oral/epic poetry: Greek, Haida, Norse, or Anglo-Saxon, which is the only one I’ve actually studied. But nothing insightful is coming to mind, tbh.
Anyway. The Epic of Askia Mohammed is my book from Niger for the Read The World challenge. ...more
There was a lot about these poems which I found sympathetic, like the wildlife/environmental themes, but something about Kinsella’s stylistic quirks mThere was a lot about these poems which I found sympathetic, like the wildlife/environmental themes, but something about Kinsella’s stylistic quirks made it a bit of a struggle for me. I’m not quite sure what it is… something about the way he uses sentence fragments and run-on sentences? Anyway, there were poems I liked but overall it just didn’t chime for me....more
This, according to the blurb, is a ‘controversial reworking’ of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name*. ‘Controversial’ and ‘famous’ are both rThis, according to the blurb, is a ‘controversial reworking’ of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name*. ‘Controversial’ and ‘famous’ are both relative terms here, of course.
I assume the controversy mainly arose because the poem is given a female narrator. To quote the introduction:
I also transformed the male ‘Wanderer’ of the poem’s title into a female figure and focused on that narrator alone, even though the original poem seems occasionally to suggest two distinct speakers. (A point on which some academics disagree.) This rather drastic change was made for two reasons. Firstly, the traditional male-male relationship of the lord and his faithful retainer takes on a strongly homoerotic charge when read with a modern sensibility and, writing as a female poet, this posited relationship lacked authenticity in my early drafts. Secondly, I originally undertook this translation to provide a centrepiece to my third poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, which is itself themed around the concept of a lone female traveller.
I think the change works well. The themes of exile and loss take on a slightly different flavour but work just as well with a female narrator. It makes it a different poem, but it’s not as radical a change as you might imagine.
There are two other notable tweaks to the poem. The first is to strip out the Christian imagery. Holland reads The Wanderer as an essentially secular poem with ‘artificially imposed religious overtones’, which is certainly an entirely plausible reading; others have found it to be deeply infused with a Christian sensibility.
The third change, which I thought was perhaps more striking than either of those, was the inclusion of a few modern references. Not that many of them, but for example in the description of men lost in battle, she writes [every other line is supposed to be indented]:
Some fell there in the line of duty, caught off-guard in the crossfire; others were blasted to bits at the roadside or picked off by snipers
The Wanderer deals with that essential Anglo-Saxon theme of a world in decline, and living among the evidence former glory. Taking that idea and setting it in a modern world gives the poem a remarkable post-apocalyptic feel. I’d never made that connection before, between Anglo-Saxon poetry and, say, Mad Max; but actually it’s surprisingly apt.
Anyway, I’m generally in favour of people doing interesting reinterpretations of the classics, and I think this is completely successful. It does bring something new, but it also captures the gloomy beauty of the original. ...more
This is my book from Paraguay for the Read The World challenge. I previously bought a copy of I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, but that’s a fat dThis is my book from Paraguay for the Read The World challenge. I previously bought a copy of I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, but that’s a fat dense modernist novel and it defeated me.
I always find it frustrating reading poetry in translation. I mean, even with English-language poetry I often find myself uncertain, not knowing what to think; with translations you get the added bonus that you know that something will be missing, but you never know what.
And with a selection of different poets but only one translator, there’s the added worry that the influence of the translator will make them all sound alike.
In other words: nothing here grabbed me the way that poetry sometimes can. But there were certainly things to enjoy. And in fact I’ve been enjoying dipping in and out for this post more than I did on the first read-through.
Much of the poetry is political; Paraguay has been under some variety of dictatorship for most of its history, most notably under Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-89, and there are poems about repression and violence; here’s a short one about Stroessner, by Jacobo Rauskin:
The effigy sustained by a thousand standard bearers loses its force and colour.
The years attenuate the militant rictus and the great bully looks old in the sun.
But there is poetry on a variety of themes, including the usuals: poetry, love, death, nature. Rain seems to be a recurrent image. Here’s one by Joaquín Morales, picked semi-randomly because I quite like it and it’s short enough to type out:
Still Life, 1
It’s not the partridges with their eyes probably bursting out, nor the bouquet of their legs mingled with aromatic herbs; nor the clay vase that clearly shows the prints of the fingers that molded it; not even the dark, irregular boards of the table, whose veins and nodules still retain the aroma of the forest:
not the old theme of appearance and reality, nor the one of time briefly detained in brush strokes that memory vivifies and recomposes:
perhaps — though certainty is almost impossible — perhaps it’s the complete apprehension of a yellow reflection in a small dark beak.
A bit of a mixed bag, then, which perhaps is what anthologies should be; but certainly quite a lot of things I liked....more
I was intrigued to read this because Matt Merritt is a poet who is also a proper birdwatcher—as opposed to someone who occasionally puts an egret or aI was intrigued to read this because Matt Merritt is a poet who is also a proper birdwatcher — as opposed to someone who occasionally puts an egret or a hummingbird into a poem. And I am also at least a dabbler in both birding and poetry.
I never felt I managed to combine the two in a satisfactory way, personally; birds would inevitably crop up in my poems, in a metaphor or a bit of local colour, but I never felt able to write anything that did justice to my experience of watching them, or communicated what it was about birds that was important to me.
So I was curious to see how someone else did it. And this book does indeed include poems about birds and birdwatching. So for example, 'The Capercaillie' and 'Black-throated Diver, Lochindorb' both capture something of bird behaviour, and of the experience of watching the birds; 'Svalbard' (which you can read here) is a poem which successfully compares the overheard sound of a couple having sex to migrating Canada geese.
But, not surprisingly, there's no particular trick to making birds into poems. The bird poems work in the same way poems normally do; my own mental block remains un-explained.
My own neuroses aside, there are plenty of poems to like here, birdy and otherwise....more
This is my book from Guinea-Bissau for the Read The World challenge. Although 'book' is almost overselling it; it's a pamphlet really. A total of twelThis is my book from Guinea-Bissau for the Read The World challenge. Although 'book' is almost overselling it; it's a pamphlet really. A total of twelve poems by nine poets, and even with an introduction, acknowledgements and the poems in both English and Portuguese, it's only 44 pages.
But the choices were limited; the only real alternative was a book of the collected speeches and writings of Amílcar Cabral, the politician and guerrilla leader who campaigned for independence for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Which probably would have been interesting, but I took the cheaper, lazier option and bought this instead.
There are some strong thematic threads running through the poems: the forest, freedom fighters, saudade, eroticised women, slavery, nationalism. If I had been told they were all written by the same poet over a long period, that wouldn't surprise me; although there may be stylistic differences that are flattened out in translation.
Presumably that thematic similarity is at least partially an artefact of the selection process. But apparently the country's intellectual tradition grew out of politics: the book is dedicated to Vasco Cabral* 'who has been called the first Guinean intellectual' and who, as well as being a poet, was freedom fighter, political prisoner and then government minister of the independent Guinea-Bissau. And in the forty years since independence (almost exactly: the anniversary is the Tuesday after next) there has been a civil war, so the theme of political violence hasn't lost its relevance.
As always with parallel texts, it was interesting to see some of the translation decisions, even without knowing any Portuguese. For example, one poem was broken up at different points in the English from the original — i.e. the white space appeared a couple of lines later in the translation — which seems weirdly arbitrary, but it would be fascinating to hear the reasoning behind it.
Anyway, it was worth reading, I think; some of the poems worked better than others, in translation at least, with Hélder Proença the pick of the bunch.
*no relation to Amílcar, as far as I can tell. ...more
It's a clever and effective idea: all the deaths in the Iliad, presented without their narrative context, leaving just 80 page of characters being intIt's a clever and effective idea: all the deaths in the Iliad, presented without their narrative context, leaving just 80 page of characters being introduced and struck down in the same breath. Some have a tiny fragmentary biography, other are just names; and between the biographies are little lyrical similes, also apparently translated from the Greek, but not as far as I can tell from exactly the same place in the original.
The Iliad was always of course about violence and death, among other things, but now it is entirely a poem about violence and death: all the grand stuff about gods and fate and the clash of powers reduced to just a tone in the background....more
‘Even all by themselves, the titles of Patricia Lockwood's poems reveal the sort of surreal, enigmatic, rhetorically-elongated world he
The blurb says
‘Even all by themselves, the titles of Patricia Lockwood's poems reveal the sort of surreal, enigmatic, rhetorically-elongated world her sensibility inhabits effortlessly’
which, you know, seems pretty fair… but if, like me, you're a bit ambivalent about whether 'surreal' and 'enigmatic' are necessarily positive qualities in poetry, I think it's worth adding that the language has a clarity, simplicity and sharpness to it which means that, whatever unexpected and inventive turns the poems take, they read beautifully.
I suppose the worry if I see something described as 'surreal' is that the writer has just chucked everything at the page to see what sticks; but that is not the case here. The poems are constantly moving in odd directions, but there is always a strong connecting thread; ideas are stretched and teased and inverted, and over and over again, the result is a clever, surprising image, a shift in tone, a new perspective.
Inevitably I clicked with some poems more than others, but the best of them, like 'The Quickening', about a whale and a boy, are magnificent....more
This is my book from Micronesia* for the Read The World challenge. It is apparently the first collection of poetry by a Pohnpeian poet. I have to admiThis is my book from Micronesia* for the Read The World challenge. It is apparently the first collection of poetry by a Pohnpeian poet. I have to admit, I didn’t pick it up with a great deal of enthusiasm; my main reaction when it arrived in the post was oh well, at least it’s short. Because picking books for this exercise is always a bit of a lottery, but the smaller the country, the worse the odds. And the track record for slim volumes of poetry is not great either.
However, I was pleasantly surprised. The poems have the local focus suggested by the title — an urohs is a Pohnpeian skirt decorated in appliqué — but it’s a contemporary version of it, with Facebook and ramen and Destiny’s Child as well as breadfruit and paramount chiefs. It’s built up with simple effective details and the English is interspersed with phrases of Pohnpeian, some of it footnoted and some of it not. The poems touch in various ways on the issues of globalisation, identity, modernity and so on, but usually without being too heavy-handed.
I don’t want to oversell it — it’s good rather than amazing — but I did genuinely enjoy it and in the end would have been happy for it to be longer.
* Strictly speaking, the Federated States of Micronesia, or FSM, which I just find confusing because it makes me think of the Flying Spaghetti Monster....more
This was going to be my book for Kiribati for the Read The World challenge, but it turns out I misread the listing: the illustrator is from Kiribati,This was going to be my book for Kiribati for the Read The World challenge, but it turns out I misread the listing: the illustrator is from Kiribati, the poet is from Tonga. But I didn’t have a book for Tonga, so that’s fine.
I’ve read some underwhelming books from the Pacific for this exercise — which is no surprise, really. Tonga has a population of just 104,000, so picking a book from Tonga is like picking a book from Colchester — if Colchester* was a fairly poor country in the middle of nowhere with little literary tradition and English as a second language [ESSEX JOKE].
I would love to be able to say that this was one of those unexpected treats that make the whole exercise worthwhile… but it’s not. Sorry. It’s OK, I’ve read far worse poetry, but I couldn’t get very excited about it. Here’s a short poem that I quite liked:
EARLY MORNING SUN
the early morning sun steals through the tightly closed windows touching last night’s leftovers leaning low against the light
there is the kettle boiling and still you will not come
It’s all lower-case, btw, even place names and ‘i’. Which is a stylistic choice I personally find a bit irritating, but hey-ho.
* or pick your local equivalent: Langley, British Columbia; Launceston, Tasmania; Burbank, California; Nancy in France; Siegen in Germany, Bolzano in Italy, etc....more
Rabearivelo was a poet writing in Madagascar in the 20s and 30s—he killed himself in 1937 at the age of 36. He wrote in French; some of his later poemRabearivelo was a poet writing in Madagascar in the 20s and 30s — he killed himself in 1937 at the age of 36. He wrote in French; some of his later poems claimed to be translated from Malagasy, but according to this anthology’s introduction, the evidence suggests it was the other way round: that he wrote them in French, produced Malagasy versions, and then lied about it.
Initially at least he wrote squarely in the mainstream of French poetry at the time — again this is according to the introduction, I don’t know enough about early C20th French poetry to judge — but later he took more influence from local traditions, as evidenced by the way he pretended his poems had been translated from Malagasy.
This anthology includes a few examples of his early work but is mainly selected from three later books: shortish free verse lyrics from Presque-Songes (‘Near-Dreams’) and Traduit de la Nuit (‘Translated from the Night’); and short prose pieces from Vieilles Chansons des Pays d’Imerina ['Old Imerinan Songs'].
The Madagascan influence is not especially obvious, to me at least, in the lyrics; there are a few references to lianas, cassava, coral, and so on, but most of the imagery seems to be very universal: twilight, stars, birds, flowers, bulls, the sun, the moon. I’m sure I’m missing things, since the book is blissfully free of footnotes; which is nice, because footnotes can feel a bit naggy and joyless, but on the other hand, when it says something like
What invisible rat out of the walls of the night is gnawing at the milk-cake of the moon?
it could for all I know be a reference to some Malagasy folk-story, or it might just be a ‘normal’ poetic image. And ‘gateau lacté‘ might be some kind of local dish, or it might just mean that the moon is round and white (if it is a real dish, a quick googling provides no evidence for it).
The local influence seems more obvious in the prose, which not only has more local colour but has something of the flavour of traditional story-telling to it. Here’s an example:
– Who is there? Is the Woman-whose-footsteps-echo-the-livelong-days? Is it the Woman-who-is-hard-to-question? – It is not the Woman-whose-footsteps-echo-the-livelong-days nor the Woman-who-is-hard-to-question! But I am the wife of another, and the livelong days I must know my place. Besides I am the wife of another, and when someone tells me our secrets I am not at all pleased. So plant one root of a fig-tree: perhaps its shadow would make me come. Plant a few roots of castor-oil tree: perhaps then you might be able to hold me. I would rather walk a long way to get my pitcher filled than take away a half empty pitcher with no waiting! – Offer me green fruits and I will offer you bitter ones.
Questions of ethnology and influence aside, I quite enjoyed it as poetry, although I always struggle with poetry in translation: I assume I’m missing something and try to give everything the benefit of the doubt, but it does feel like watching TV through smoked glass sometimes.
At least in this case I had the French parallel text, but my long-withered schoolboy French was never good enough to assess poetry. It is good enough to find a few spots where the translation seemed a bit odd: repetition in the French which wasn’t reproduced in the English, long sentences in French which were broken up in translation, slangy dialogue in English which seemed less slangy in the original. Small things, really, but they just undermine your confidence a bit.
Still, it was interesting and enjoyable enough to be worth reading.
Translations From The Night: Selected Poems Of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo is my book from Madagascar for the Read The World challenge. ...more
Sherry Chandler's book of poems about Kentucky—mainly Kentucky's history—as seen through the eyes of women, including Rebecca Boone, the wife of DanieSherry Chandler's book of poems about Kentucky — mainly Kentucky's history — as seen through the eyes of women, including Rebecca Boone, the wife of Daniel Boone.
I approach these poems very much as an outsider; Daniel Boone isn't really a name to conjure with in south London. I have heard the name but I think I could have told you literally nothing about him. But that didn't stop me enjoying them....more
The first year of what is intended to be a long-running British equivalent of the American and other equivalents. Some poems I liked, some which justThe first year of what is intended to be a long-running British equivalent of the American and other equivalents. Some poems I liked, some which just didn't do anything for me, and a few I actively disliked. Which is as it should be, I think....more
I'd almost forgotten I ordered this book, but it arrived this morning and I read my way through it with a cup of green tea in the friend's room at TatI'd almost forgotten I ordered this book, but it arrived this morning and I read my way through it with a cup of green tea in the friend's room at Tate Modern.
I really enjoyed it. There's some seriously good writing in there. Unusually for me (I'm a literal minded soul) I preferred the less obvious poems, though this may be down to my slightly hungover state.
Anyway. I seem to be rambling at this point.
EDIT: some poor phrasing there. 'Obvious' is a rather unflattering sounding term to apply to poems, which wasn't my intention. I liked all of them, but was particularly struck by some of those with less clearly-defined subjects....more
Mama Lily and the Dead is my book from the Bahamas for the Read The World challenge. It's a collection of poems which tell Lily's life story, runningMama Lily and the Dead is my book from the Bahamas for the Read The World challenge. It's a collection of poems which tell Lily's life story, running from 'The Scotsman Gives Lily Her Name (1904)' to 'The Granddaughter Sings Lily Home (1994)'. I know Nico a bit via the world of internet poetry, and I'd read some of the poems before, or earlier drafts of them, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but it's still rather different to have them in actual printed paper form and read the whole lot in order.
Incidentally, if you'll excuse a slight detour, it still seems weird to me to say I 'know' someone when I've never met or talked to them. Even if I have interacted with them online over a period of years. I feel like we need a new verb for it. Like: "Do you know Bob?" "Well, I knowontheinternet him." Or: "I've had a couple of Twitter exchanges with George Michael, but I wouldn't say I knowontheinternet him."
Anyway. As I was saying, I'd never read the whole sequence of Lily poems together before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At their best they have a sharp in-the-moment-ness, a vivid sense of being a particular point in time. And that brings with it a sense of place, emphasised by the use of Caribbean-inflected grammar.
One thing which struck me as interesting, reading them, is as much a point about me as about the poems. Nico has a particular stylistic quirk of using neologistic compounds — like, for example, using 'bonechill' as a verb — which just slightly makes my critical self uneasy; not because I object to neologising, but precisely the opposite: I have exactly the same tendency myself when I write poetry [perhaps I should say when I wrote poetry]. All the times I have come up with compounds and then cast a jaundiced eye on them trying to decide if I was being self-indulgent have apparently programmed a warning flag into my brain which pings up whenever I see them.
I was going to type out an extract but actually there's no need, because various of the poems have been published in internet poetry journals; so if you want to read some, just put Nicolette Bethel Lily into Google and it will offer you a variety to choose from. You could start with 'The Preacher Man Saves Lily’s Soul (1914)', for example.
And a quick note on the actual physical book, which is rather lovely. It's a numbered edition; my copy is 35 of 200. As you can see above, the cover is letterpress printed† on handmade Indian paper with bits of flowers in it. What you can't see above is that it has endpapers, also handmade paper, in a sort of translucent acid yellow with thready bits running through it; or that the pages themselves are printed on high quality cotton paper.
It struck me, when I opened the parcel and saw the book for the first time, that this is one future for printed books in a world of e-readers: to celebrate the physicality of them, to make them into covetable objects in their own right. Although, nice as it is to imagine a flowering of artisanal, boutique publishers producing books which are exquisitely designed and made, I guess it's a red herring really. The point of books is the words, not the packaging. Any defence of printed books purely on the basis of their appearance is straying into the territory of interior designers who buy leather-bound books by the metre because they make a room look cosy.
And actually I don't think small publishers would be the winners in a world where books were bought for their beauty. I've read a lot of books from all kinds of small presses as part of the Read The World challenge, and Poinciana Paper Press is an admirable exception; much more often the books are rather badly designed. Which is understandable; a small press on a shoestring budget has to focus on what they're good at, which is hopefully choosing, translating and editing texts. ...more
I finally got around to joining the Poetry Book Society when I heard they had lost their government funding; this is one of the first books they sentI finally got around to joining the Poetry Book Society when I heard they had lost their government funding; this is one of the first books they sent me. I can appreciate the skill — this is certainly much better written than some of the things I've given three stars to — but for whatever reason these didn't particularly connect with me....more
I ordered this for Nauru for the read The World challenge and then discovered that Makerita Va'ai was actually from Samoa… it's poetry, and TBH it's rI ordered this for Nauru for the read The World challenge and then discovered that Makerita Va'ai was actually from Samoa… it's poetry, and TBH it's really not very good poetry....more