Saturday, 3 December 2016

Climbing, Robert Graves' 'Welsh Incident', And...

Canadian Rockies. Photo by Bernard Spragg (public domain) 

I have been reading the book Echoes: One Climber's Hard Road to Freedom by Nick Bullock. He is a climber from Staffordshire whose blog is also very much worth reading. Nick Bullock first came to my attention when I read an article in the Guardian about a bear attack in the Canadian Rockies involving him and another climber. Both climbers survived and Bullock wrote a gripping account on his blog.

I followed Bullock on Twitter and when, slightly to my surprise, he followed me back, I discovered that he was also a poetry enthusiast. We had an exchange one day when he tweeted that he had just climbed a route called The Wrecking Light and I asked if it was named after the book by Robin Robertson. He said yes, it was his current poetry reading and the name suited the route. I also thought it a wonderful name for a line on a mountain.

Climbing and poetry often seem to intersect, particularly in the Midlands and north - the British regions which have produced a lot of climbers. Helen Mort, from Sheffield and Derbyshire, recently released a good collection called No Map Could Show Them, many of whose poems are about women in climbing and mountaineering. When I went to one of her readings, she described how writing a poem could be like climbing a route, or vice versa.

Early on in the book Echoes, I was led off on a Sebaldean (I wish) train of thought which, I suppose, was also something like writing a poem or climbing a route. Bullock was describing how at one point in his life he had lived near the Welsh towns of Porthmadog and Criccieth, both of which I visited when I travelled around Snowdonia in 2002. I'm not sure what took me to Criccieth - all I remember is that I had to go one or two stops farther on the train than I otherwise would have, and that all I really did was look at the castle ruins, and then leave. But anyway, while reading the book, I was suddenly reminded not only of my brief visit, but also of the poem 'Welsh Incident' by Robert Graves, which I find both funny and slightly sinister.

By the way, while this blog post was still in draft form, my temporary title for it was 'Nick Bullock/Welsh Incident/weirdness'. That should tell you something about how my mind works, in case this post didn't already illustrate it.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Vanguard #2 Poetry Anthology

In May of this year I read at Vanguard Readings, a monthly series (currently at the Peckham Pelican in south London) featuring sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, and sometimes both. These evenings are organised by Richard Skinner (novelist, poet and director of Faber Academy) and they have a friendly, non-hierarchical and varied vibe.

I was then delighted to be included in #2 Poetry Anthology, published by Vanguard Editions and featuring poets who have appeared at Vanguard. I'm in exceptionally good company in this anthology, with poets such as Catherine Ayres, Ian Duhig, Victoria Kennefick, Charles Lauder Jr, Kim Moore, Dan O'Brien, Rebecca Perry, Tara Skurtu, Kelley Swain and Tamar Yoseloff, among many others.

To find out which poem of mine is included you will have to buy the anthology, but I can tell you that it is one of my Sherlock Holmes poems.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Keith Douglas: 'The House'

Mysterious door by Scott Wylie. Used under Creative Commons license

This poem by Keith Douglas, 'The House', haunts me from time to time. It sometimes comes to mind when I think of houses associated with my childhood and the movement of memory within them, although it really functions on a more symbolic level.

It has the shifting personas and (il)logical leaps of a dream, but 'The House' seems to be mainly about the mysterious workings of imagination, what can impede it, and the at least occasional fear of every artist that creativity is departing, perhaps for good. In this respect, I think it may share a common theme with 'The God Abandons Antony' by CP Cavafy.

There is also a touch of TS Eliot in the disembodied voices and shadows. A copy of the poem exists in which Eliot had made marginal notes.

THE HOUSE (Keith Douglas)

I am a pillar of this house
of which it seems the whole is glass
likewise transparent to the touch
for men like weightless shadows march
ignorantly in at the bright portico
or through a wall serenely go
unnoticing: myself am like a mouse
and carefully inspect all those that pass.

I am the pillar about which
like a conjured spectacle, such
amazing walls and floors appeared
as in the house that devils made.
Yet this queer magnificence 
shows not to many, its defence
not being walls but in the property 
that it is thin as air and hard to see.

I am the pillar and again the one
walking a perpetual up-and-down
scrutinizing all these
substances, shadows on their ways
crowding or evacuating the place.
At times a voice singing, or a face
may seem suspended in the cunning air;
a voice by itself, a face traversing the stair
alone, like a mask of narrow porcelain.
These I introduce but lose again
which are of the imagination, or of air,
being in relation to the house, actually there
yet unreal till I meet with one
who has that creative stone
to turn alive, to turn all alive:
prospecting this is all the care I have.

In order of appearance chosen by chance
whether to speak, to sing, to play, or dance
to my mute invisible audience
many have performed here and gone hence.
Some have resided in the house a time
the best rooms were theirs, also for them
scents and decorations were introduced
and other visitors were refused.
But when for weeks, months no one came near
an unpleasant prompting of suspicious fear 
sent me climbing up to inspect the high
attic, where I made a curious discovery.
In this room which I had not entered for months
among the old pictures and bowls for hyacinths
and other refuse, I discovered the body
conventionally arranged, of a young lady
whom I admit I knew once, but had heard
declined in another country and there died.

Here's the strange fact, for here she lies.
If I but raise them my incredulous eyes
discern her, fairer now than when she lived
because on death her obscure beauty thrived;
the eyes turned to fine stones, the hair to flexible
gold, her flesh to the most natural marble,
until she's the most permanent thing
in this impermanent building
and to remove her I must use
some supernatural device
it seems: for I am forced to say
she arrived in a miraculous way.
I never studied such things; it will need a wiser
practitioner than me to exorcize her
but till the heart is dust and the gold head
disintegrates, I shall never hear the tread
of the visitors at whom I cannot guess,
the beautiful strangers, coming to my house.

                                                             Wickwar, Glos., 1941

Friday, 18 November 2016

The Open Eye: Five Years in Blogland

Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, October 2016

Open one eye only - 
the horizon is in the closed eye.

-Nikola Madzirov

As of October, I have been blogging fairly regularly for over five years. It feels like longer, which may or may not be a good thing. This blog has, at various times, been a release, an obligation, a handshake, and a door. Here you can read my first blog post ever, which may give some indication as to why I chose the quote above. (Although it's only a partial indication, because the quote came to mind when I took the photo above - a piece of found art.)

I can see from early blog posts that I had a slightly more rigid approach in mind; or not rigid, exactly, but more of a template. Discuss a poem and then open it up to touch aspects of my life; or pick something in my life, write about it and then draw it down to a poem. This works quite well, and at times I still use this template, more or less. Perhaps I should use it more often - in terms of close reading, there are other blogs out there that put mine to shame.

But over the course of a few years, one of the things I have discovered in myself is a general interest in poetry as a concept - what it touches and what is touched by it - in other words, everything. I am quite capable of finding a particular poet's work, or a particular school of work (tellingly, I saw this referred to as 'factions' on Twitter today) uninteresting or unlikeable in a personal, aesthetic or moral sense. In terms of the part that this work or idea plays in poetry, however, it is always interesting - the breadth of poetry as a concept, and what it can come into contact with. And in this sense, the metaphor of the eye is especially important. Poetry is everywhere, so I have to keep my eyes open for it - except it doesn't just happen through the eye; it's every way in which we experience our self, other people and the world, every way in which we come into contact with the things within ourselves and the things outside of ourselves.

It has also been fascinating to see how my tastes have developed and which poets or poems I write about. Poets such as Yeats, Celan, MacNeice, Eliot and Keith Douglas come and go, except they never really go because even if I were never to read another word of their work, at this point they can never leave me. (As for Celan, I don't get tired of him - I just get tired.) But in this regard, the most essential thing is the fact that I have embraced poetry in translation. Poetry-wise, if one thing over the past five years has influenced not only my reading choices and my own writing, but my life in general - this is it. In the early stages of this blog, I was still very hesitant about reading poetry in translation. In this aspect and the progress I have made, I also owe a lot to Paul Celan, because he was there right at the beginning.

And then, over five years I have also come a long way with my own poetry, met some amazing people, and discovered a lot about what I love about the poetry world, and what I don't love. But that is another story and shall be told another time, as Michael Ende wrote in The Neverending Story.

If you are a reader, and especially if you are a regular reader, thank you so much for coming with me. When I started blogging, I wasn't sure if I even needed readers - but as it turns out, I really do.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Portugal: Poetry = Emotion, Motion

Before my week in Senegal (which you can read about here) I spent a week in Portugal, a country which was also new to me. I had friends to visit in a couple of different cities, so a few days in Lisbon were followed by a few days farther north in Coimbra.

Lisbon has an extremely dramatic setting on the Tagus estuary, amazing beaches and many different and fascinating areas, but it felt a little elusive. It was, as well, a city with the feeling of a chessboard or a game board. Of course I cannot explain this, but it may be some feeling left by the patterns of the huge mosaic world map in Belem, or the landmarks such as the castle above the city and the Belem tower, which seemed like iconic game pieces. It could also be some historic impression. One of my main discoveries was that the Portuguese, who I did know had explored widely, went absolutely everywhere in the age of exploration - and I do mean everywhere. When I arrived in Senegal I found that, of course, they had been among the first there from Europe, and the nearby Cape Verde was colonised by the Portuguese. You end up mentally consulting a world map a lot while in Portugal. It is pre-eminently a maritime nation, a small country which had an enormous impact on world history, and one with a very long coastline.

Poetry is an important part of Portuguese culture. When I was flying to Lisbon on TAP Portugal, I noticed that the in-flight magazine had more mentions of poetry and poets than I have probably ever seen before in an in-flight magazine (I watch out for these things). Everywhere in Lisbon I found traces of poetry, which so far have left me with more questions than answers.

Then there was Fernando Pessoa, who for many embodies Lisbon. This great writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century wrote under heteronyms, which were personas rather than pseudonyms: this adds to the impression of Lisbon as a many-faced or many-masked city. Pessoa has a couple of statues dedicated to him, quite close to each other, which in itself I found unusual. Yes, that is me in the photo with the first statue (doing my best poet-face), outside some of the cafes he frequented. The second and stranger statue is outside his birthplace.

Coimbra was my next stop in Portugal. This ultra-historic city has a famous university with an extraordinary library (populated by bats), a beautiful old town centre and nearby Roman ruins. I didn't have a lot of time to explore its poetry, but Luís de Camões, the sixteenth century poet who is considered Portugal's Shakespeare or Dante, may have been born in Coimbra and definitely attended the university.

And then there were the cork poetry bookmarks. Portugal is famous for its cork production and you can buy all sorts of things in this versatile material. Shopping for souvenirs in Coimbra, I found a cork box of chocolates which also detached into three literary bookmarks. Obviously this was a must-buy.

I had to look up Queiroz. As well as realist novels and short stories, this great 19th-century writer wrote prose poems and translated Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines into Portuguese.

Of course, there is another world of contemporary Portuguese poetry. I can always do some reading, and maybe I'll discover more of it on a future visit.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

National Poetry Day 2016: Messages

Today is National Poetry Day. I seldom manage to do much for this occasion, but, well, I'm thinking poetry. There are many events taking place around the UK, which you can discover by visiting the website, or just with a bit of online browsing.

This year's theme is 'Messages'. This is once again a theme which could encompass every poem, but these two seemed appropriate. Enjoy!


THE LIGHTKEEPER (Carolyn Forché)

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