Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Senegal and Poetry: 'Continent of the Spirit'

Joal-Fadiouth, Senegal - September 2016. All photos by Clarissa Aykroyd

I recently returned from two trips in one - Portugal and Senegal. This combination raised a few eyebrows, but it made perfect sense: Portugal was to visit friends and sightsee, and Senegal was for a friend's wedding. The flight from Lisbon to Dakar is only about three and a half hours, so when I found out my friend was getting married, it was hard not to start planning an epic trip.

I spent just over a week in each country, and I will write about both halves of the trip (over the course of at least two blog posts). Senegal has been a little more on my mind since I returned. It was my first time in both countries, but for someone who has travelled all over Western and Northern Europe, and to parts of Central and Eastern Europe, Portugal was always going to feel much more familiar. Technically I had been to Africa before, but Morocco and Egypt are part of the Arab world. This was my first time in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dakar was heat, humidity, white light and dust; the vast Atlantic; chaos of taxis; pockets of pleasant but oddly faceless Western comfort; horses and carts; beautiful colonial buildings with difficult histories; an outdoor bar in the middle of the night with very loud music, incredible rain and a raging electrical storm; friendly but relatively reserved people. It was a total immersion: everything about such a destination engages all the senses, and it's difficult to think about anything else while you're there, except the fact of being there. The wedding was French-Senegalese (or more accurately, French-Swedish-Australian-Senegalese), over three days, and trips involving weddings always have their own heightened intensity, although everything went beautifully. My friends' friends looked after us (me, the bride's family and other friends) extremely well and ferried the sweaty foreigners around with great kindness and patience. And while I didn't have a lot of time on the trip itself to explore the literature in-depth, I was left in no doubt that Senegal had a lot of poetry.

My poetic Senegalese journey started the moment I landed at Léopold Sédar Senghor airport - not that the airport was poetic (it really wasn't), but Senghor was a renowned poet as well as the first president of Senegal. Senghor was not only a member of the Académie française, who preside over matters relating to the French language and award prestigious literary prizes; he was also one of the founders of négritude, the cultural movement which promoted a unified concept of black identity around the world, as well as anti-colonialism. As well as Senghor, prominent proponents of négritude included the poet Aimé Césaire of Martinique, and the French Guyanese poet Léon Damas. You can read some of Senghor's poetry in translation here. The poems reflect both his international vision and his love of Senegal (the latter is especially powerful in 'Night in Sine'.)

During a couple of days outside of Dakar, we went to Joal-Fadiouth, a beautiful and unusual community where Joal on the mainland is linked to the village of Fadiouth on an island of clam shells. I was stunned by the shallow, radiant water around the island, where the inhabitants seemed at times to be walking on water. The walks on the bridges connecting the islands (there was also a "cemetery island"), with a huge sky and a breeze lifting off the water, were among my most wonderful moments in Senegal. Senghor was born at Joal, and I found this quotation over the entrance to a restaurant where we had lunch:

"We do not inherit the earth from our parents - we borrow it from our children."

A day or two before that, visiting the historic Ile de Gorée, we explored its history as a transportation point in the slave trade, and I came across this:

[He who said to you "Gorée is an island"
This one was a liar
This island is not an island
It is the continent of the spirit]

I was a bit surprised, to put it mildly, to find a poem on a historic Senegalese island written by a Canadian poet (and a memorial stone put in place by our former prime minister Jean Chrétien). It also made me curious about the Maison Africaine de la Poésie.

In the 'House of the Slaves' at Gorée I also found this poem:

(I would have quite liked to translate this, but this post would have taken a lot longer to appear.) I always appreciate it when poetry appears as a form of memorial.

As it turns out, the new issue of Modern Poetry in Translation has just appeared. Entitled One Thousand Suns, it has a focus on African poets. At least one Senegalese poet, Mama Seck Mbacké, will feature. I can't wait to receive my copy...

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Rilke's French Rose Poems In Translation - XVIII

Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2016

Here's the latest in my very slow-to-appear series of translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's Rose poems, from French. The original is below the translation.

THE ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Clarissa Aykroyd)


You share all things that move us.
But we are unaware of your changes.
We could only read your pages
in the form of a hundred butterflies.

Some of you are like dictionaries;
those who pluck them
just want to re-read them.
As for me, I love rose-letters.



Tout ce qui nous émeut, tu le partages.
Mais ce qui t’arrive, nous l’ignorons.
Il faudrait être cent papillons
pour lire toutes tes pages.

Il y en a d’entre vous qui sont comme des dictionnaires;
ceux qui les cueillent
ont envie de faire relier toutes ces feuilles.
Moi, j’aime les roses épistolaires.

Translation  © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2016

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Alice Oswald: Falling Awake

Leaf by daBinsi. Used under Creative Commons license

A couple of weeks ago I went to the launch of Alice Oswald's new collection, Falling Awake, at Southbank. A collection of mostly nature poems, it is also a book of high-level anxiety, with a tick tick tick of paranoia throughout. "It's as if the whole book is a kind of parking meter," said Oswald, noting that all of the poems are in some way about time. The reading, as always with her appearances, was not actually a reading, but a hypnotised/hypnotic recital.

Nature poetry can be really dull - well, this applies to any subject for poetry, but perhaps it has been my misfortune to read a lot of really dull nature poetry. Alice Oswald is never dull, not just because of the paranoia (which I have also noticed in her earlier work), but because her work partakes of a kind of super-perception. In April I went to an event celebrating Christopher Logue's War Music, a version of Homer's Iliad. Along with classicist Bettany Hughes, Alice Oswald was one of the speakers, on the basis of her own Memorial, which is another groundbreaking version of the Iliad. In the course of the discussion, Oswald mentioned that when she read the Iliad in the original ancient Greek, there was a sense that she was not just reading a powerful description of a river, or a battle, or a leaf - but that she was actually seeing these things directly, through a kind of periscope into another time and another mode of perception. I would describe her own work in a similar way; this super-perception makes me think of the title of Wallace Stevens' poem 'Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.' It is also like the moment when out of the corner of your eye, you see a face in the crowd of someone you thought you had lost - in a way which is more than imagination, a physical shock strikes you, and then you realise it wasn't them, after all.

Reaching this level of intensity through the power of the written word is unusual even in poetry - amongst the poets I love who succeed, I would name Oswald, Paul Celan and Vasko Popa, and the latter two I can read only in translation. There are others, but even with the greatest of writers, I think this is rare. I think it helps enormously to be a writer who can recall the extraordinary intensity of childhood experience (not all writers can), and through a combination of effort and unconscious reach, perceive adult experience in this way, as well.

Here are a few poems from Falling Awake:


Sunday, 17 July 2016

Louis MacNeice: 'Wolves'

Waves by maxine raynal. Used under Creative Commons license

I haven't been writing a lot about Louis MacNeice lately, but he very often comes to mind at times of drama and tragedy on the world stage - Autumn Journal is one that I have re-read a lot. I posted his poem 'Prayer Before Birth' here, in January 2015, in the context of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

MacNeice, who I think of as a journalist of poetry, has that quality of reassurance when you read him - for me, it's like watching a terrible event unfold on the news, but your favourite newscaster is covering it in a calm, measured fashion. It doesn't take away the horror, but it does make it a little easier to process.

This week I thought of MacNeice's short poem 'Wolves', which you can read here: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/Review/News_Review_of_the_Week/article414956.ece

'Wolves' was written in the mid-1930s, like many of MacNeice's great poems. Thursday's atrocity in Nice may have given it an extra charge, based on the seaside imagery. Essentially, though, I find it quite a difficult poem to grasp firmly. On one hand, the speaker wants to be a person who lives in the moment, with the joys and difficulties that this brings; on the other hand, he knows that this means burying his head in the sand. Presumably this was a very difficult balancing act in the 1930s. It is now, too.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

New Poem Published in The Level Crossing

B738 by Bernal Saborio. Used under Creative Commons license

Dedalus Press, the well-known Dublin publishers specialising in Irish and international poetry, recently published the first issue of a new journal, The Level Crossing. I was honoured to have my poem 'The air outside American airports' published in the journal's Poetry of Place feature. It was one of 14 poems published in this feature, out of more than 900 submissions.

In another life, which is also this life, I lived in Dublin for a few years and worked in the United Airlines call centre. I felt as though I were living a double life, where I worked an unglamorous job and then flew off regularly on holiday, mostly in business class, to destinations including New York, Chicago, Sydney and Tokyo. I also commuted through the US a lot, especially travelling back to see my family on the West Coast of Canada.

'The air outside American airports' arose out of that part of my life. I wrote it when I was still living in Dublin and working at that job - probably about eleven years ago. The way in which it was chosen out of the poems I submitted, to come home to Dublin, is mysterious and beautiful to me.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

My Translation of Emile Nelligan's 'The Ship of Gold' ('Le Vaisseau d'or')

I recently translated the French-Canadian poet Emile Nelligan's 'Le Vaisseau d'or' ('The Ship of Gold'), and here it is. The original French poem is below the translation.

You can read my translation of Nelligan's 'Soir d'hiver' ('Winter Night') here, and some more details about his life. I find him quite difficult to translate. His poems tend to have a sort of high-strung edge which is hard to convey without going over the top. I did try, but the rhyme scheme also eluded me - or it would have involved contortions I was unwilling to enter into.

The final line of this poem has haunted me for a long time.

THE SHIP OF GOLD (Emile Nelligan, translated from the French by Clarissa Aykroyd)

It was a great Ship, of solid gold,
Its masts reached up from sea to sky.
Love's Venus, wild-haired and bare-skinned,
Sprawled on the prow, in the heady sun.

But then came a night when it struck a reef
In the trickster Sea, where sirens sing.
And fiercely wrecked, its tilted hull
Drowned in the Gulf's unrelenting grave.

It was a Ship of Gold, whose melting sides
Showed treasures that the cruel sailors,
Disgust, Hate and Madness, ripped apart.

What is left after the brief storm?
What of my heart, the deserted ship?
Alas! It foundered in the Dream's abyss!


Ce fut un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif :
Ses mats touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues ;
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues,
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif.

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène,
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil.

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes,
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés.

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève ?
Qu’est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté ?
Hélas ! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve !

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2016

Friday, 1 July 2016

Geoffrey Hill, 1932-2016

Shadows, Severn Valley by Kumweni. Used under Creative Commons license

We learned today that the English poet Geoffrey Hill died yesterday, on 30 June 2016.

Many will have something more insightful to say about Geoffrey Hill today or in the days to come. I am a long way from being an expert on his work, though I have read some of it. It always seemed to me that his work would demand the same level of engagement as, say, Paul Celan's (one of Hill's influences.) But I haven't gone there yet.

In a quiet way, Geoffrey Hill bestrode the literary world like a colossus. It was like being alive at the same time as TS Eliot. From reading other tributes today, I would say that it is a little difficult to talk about his death without sounding superstitious. This may have something to do with the times we live in, and the questions about the United Kingdom and about identity that many are asking themselves. It also has something to do with the fact that hearing of his death is like turning around and noticing that Stonehenge has vanished without trace.

There is a sort of Geoffrey Hill thing that happens, at times. It is a feeling like being watched, then realising that an enormous mountain is looming over you. It could also be the feeling just before the avalanche hits you.

Here are a few poems to read today.




Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Sidney Keyes: 'Neutrality'

Battersea Park. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

'Neutrality' is a particularly interesting poem from one normally considered a war poet. Sidney Keyes called it "one of the poems for which I have - I can't tell you why - genuine affection."

NEUTRALITY (Sidney Keyes)

Here not the flags, the rhythmic
Feet of returning legions; nor at household shrines
The small tears' offering, the postcards
Treasured for years, nor the names cut in brass.
Here not the lowered voices.
Not the drum.

Only at suppertime, rain slanting
Among our orchards, printing its coded
But peaceful messages across our pavements.
Only the cryptic swift performing
His ordered evolutions through our sky.
Only the growing.

And in the night, the secret voices
Of summer, the progression
Of hours without suspense, without surprise.
Only the moon beholds us, even the hunting owl
May watch us without malice.
Without envy.

We are no cowards, we are pictures
Of ordinary people, as you once were.
Blame not nor pity us; we are the people
Who laugh in dreams before the ramping boar
Appears, before the loved one's death.
We are your hope.

                                                                      16 July 1941.