Four poems about fruit

Some people make pies from fruit, others crumbles and yet others poems. Just recently, I was re-reading a selection of poetry by the Bengali poet Jibanananda Das which i found on the Internet some time back and one poem in particular struck me:

Tangerine

When once l leave this body
Shall I not come back to the world?
If only I might return
Upon a winter’s evening
Taking on the compassionate flesh of a cold tangerine
At the bedside of some dying acquaintance.

(tr. unknown)

I was quite taken aback by this association of tangerines with death. Thinking about it, i realise that like most British people of my generation and background i connect them with Christmas. When i was a child that was the only time we ever ate them. They have always conjured up ideas of plenty, celebration, lightheartedness and hope. Now, juxtaposed with that is a picture of deathbed. For some reason i imagine the occupant’s hand to be cold and damp, like the tangerine itself.

Jibanananda Das was a great favourite of mine when i was at university. The slightly alien quality of his world resonated with me and i loved his sensual and yet sinister imagery: his poems were full of deer, grass and hands. The language was strange and oblique which appealed to me: i felt for once my lack of understanding of Bengali didn’t put me at such a disadvantage. In fact, it thrilled me that i could feel his distinctive style.

Another poet i discovered around the same time – actually probably a year or two earlier – and who appealed to me for similar reasons was Francis Ponge. His style was different: the poems were like free verse essays, almost extended dictionary definitions of the objects at their centre. One of my favourites was about blackberries:

Les Mûres

Aux buissons typographiques constitués par le poème sur une route qui ne mène hors des choses ni à l’esprit, certains fruits sont formés d’une agglomération de sphères qu’une goutte d’encre remplit.

Noirs, roses et kakis ensemble dur la grappe, ils offrent plutôt le spectacle d’une famille rogue à ses âges divers, qu’une tentation très vive à la cueillette.

Vue la disproportion des pépins à la pulpe les oiseaux les apprécient pue, si peu de chose au fond leur reste quand du bec à l’anus ils en sont traversés.

Mais le poète au cours de sa promenade professionnelle, en prend de la graine à raison : « Ainsi donc » se dit-il, « réussissent en grand nombre les efforts patients d’une fleur très fragile quoique par un rébarbatif enchevêtrement de ronces défendue. Sans beaucoup d’autres qualités, – mûres, parfaitement elles sont mûres – comme aussi ce poème est fait. »

Or, in English :

Blackberries

On typographical bushes constituted by the poem along a road which leads neither beyond things nor to the spirit, certain fruits are formed by an agglomeration of spheres filled by a drop of ink.

Blacks, pinks, khakis, all on a cluster, they look more like members of an arrogant family of varying ages than a very lively temptation to pick them off.

Given the disproportion of the seeds to the pulp, birds find little to appreciate, so little in the end remains by the time it has travelled from the beak to the anus.

But the poet on his professional walk mulls this over in his mind: “Clearly,” he says to himself, “the patient efforts of a very delicate flower succeeds to a large extent although protected by a forbidding tangle of brambles. Lacking many other qualities – blackberries are perfectly ripe – the way this poem is ready.”

(tr. Serge Gavronsky)

Very French! I’m not sure how i would feel about a poem like this if i encountered it for the first time now, but at the time i was enchanted by the way in which Ponge made ordinary things seem strange and perplexing; the way he made you look at things close up and at the same time distance yourself from them, so that you saw them for what they were and not for what they were to you. Blackberries reminds me of one of a postcard i have on my bookcase which shows a shoal of sperm captured under a microscope. It’s really rather pretty and people often ask what kind of ‘fish’ they are.

From a minute examination of blackberries to the raspberry as metaphor. This is a poem by my beloved Solveig von Schoultz:

Portrait of a raspberry

Just as raspberry runners travel under the sand
and put out new shoots each year
he had travelled
far from his beginnings, had forgotten
and since he only lived in his outpost,
his remotest rootlet, thought he was new
and singular to the species.
If he’d turned round
he’d have seen similar bushes the whole way:
even in the mother-bush the one he was.

(tr. Anne Born)

We might just as easily say: very Nordic. Schoultz uses images from nature throughout her poetry and in a very simple, yet powerful way. All these ordinary things, she seems to say, all these ordinary lives and ordinary sorrows which go unnoticed and yet matter so much. I can never put into words how much i love her poetry or why i love it so much. It’s often the way though: love eludes analysis just as admiration attracts it.

And that brings me to the final poem by the Turkish poet Oktay Rifat, a new poet to me. I picked up a book of his work during my recent trip to Turkey. The poem is about his love for his wife – but it does mention an apple!

To my wife

You bring coolness to the halls
A sense of space to rooms
To wake in your bed in the morning
Gives me daylong joy

We are two halves of the same apple
Our day and night
Our house and home are one
Happiness is a meadow
Where you tread
It springs to life
Loneliness comes from the road you go down

(tr. Ruth Christie & Richard McKane)

Four poems more or less about fruit: tangerines, blackberries, raspberries and an apple. Imagine a crumble made from those!

Advertisements

Friends are always dropping keys

This poem was just sent to me by a friend. Thank God for friends!

Dropping Keys

The small person
Builds cages for everyone
She
Sees.
Instead, the sage,
Who needs to duck her head,
When the moon is low,
Can be found dropping keys, all night long
For the beautiful,
Rowdy,
Prisoners.

It’s by the Persian Sufi poet Hafez (1315–1390).

Polish poetry & me

I discovered the poetry of Poland via the work of Ewa Lipska. I remember reading her poem Instruction Manual, with its insistent refrain “The nation’s dead”, when i was twenty or so. At that time i was at home with a young son, trying to keep my mind alive by reaching out to a world beyond the small commuter town in which i was trapped. Poetry more than anything was my lifeline: language distilled to perfection. Lipska’s work spoke to me despite, rather than because of, its focus on politics; I sought out more and – naturally? inevitably? – discovered her compatriots Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. For some reason lost in the mist of time however their work didn’t stick, at least not then.

Soon afterwards i came across another Polish poet whose work did stick: Anna Swir (or Świrszczyńska). I’ve long since forgotten the name of the anthology in which i found her poems and only remember that it was a book showcasing women poets. More frustrating is the fact that i have no idea who did the translations; they (and presumably the original poems) are marvellous – deft, sensual, acerbic, poignant. Three of them i copied out and cherish to this day: A Spring, She Doesn’t Remember and Her Hand. The third of those is short enough to quote in full:

When my mother was dying
I held her hand.
When she died i burnt everything
her hand had touched.
Only my own hands
I couldn’t burn.

A few more years passed and i found myself unemployed and back in my hometown. Up on the city walls there was a little second-hand bookshop and whenever i had a bit of money i’d go up there and spend it on poetry books. Actually, i went up there whenever i got the chance, not just when i had money; but the rest of the time i had to come away empty handed. One of the books i found there was by Tadeusz Różewicz: Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems*, a bilingual selection of his work translated by Adam Czerniawski. This is dark stuff. Forever marked, it seems, by his experience of the Second World War, Różewicz makes lists; he mistrusts beauty. The typewriter-like font (green for the Polish and black for the English) and the delicate paper only emphasises the feeling of austerity. One poem in particular haunts me. It’s called Beyond Words (in Polish: Nad Wyraz) and begins:

What are you doing
emerged from darkness
Why don’t you want
to live in full light

Its final words are even more powerful:

One tear
inexpressible
beyond words

After that – a long while after that – came Zbigniew Herbert, ‘a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland’ according to the brief biography which prefaces his Collected Poems 1956-1998**. Herbert’s work is thrilling – comic and grave – yet curiously difficult to quote from; the poems work beautifully, yet if you try to pull out lines to show to people they fall apart. I do like this stanza from I Would Like To Describe, however:

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

(Translation: Alissa Valles)

I too would like to be free of that dusty lion.

Finally, we come to a poet who arrived in my life just a month ago, courtesy of yet another anthology: Anna Piwkowska. The anthology is called Six Polish Poets*** and I found it in the same second-hand bookshop where many years previously i discovered Snow and Summers by Solveig von Schoultz. There is one poem in particular, about the sudden death of young woman as she is getting out the bath, which i think is incredible. It’s called Lament Of That Summer (or in Polish: Tren Tamtego Lata):

She stepped onto the side of death.
Here, one wet foot on the floor,
hair dryer, towel around her hips,
the other foot into the water,
into death, straight from the summer bath.
She managed just once more to run
the wet hand through her tangled hair.
The tea was cooling in the room;
she planned to hang the lingerie,
the light blue nothing, woven
out of fine silk threads.
Summer. Hot quivering morning.
The day had promised joy, and haste;
behind the wall her son called out
about the puppy’s nose in milk.
The dress hurriedly thrown
across the chair, cinnabar, absorbed
the drops of sunshine. The organ
music of Johann Sebastian
flowed across the room, a woman
or some strange furry animal.
The day brought joy. She managed
nothing. Not even a single shout.
Fear or a contraction
as if before a battle or
a trip. But why with no preparing
or good-byes did she let out
this tiny drop of oxygen
like laughter? A small wooden cross
above the mirror. Brief lapse
of attention. Behind the wall
The boy was playing with the dog.

(Translation: Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese).

There you have it: the story so far, spanning two decades, of Polish poetry and me.

* Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems: ISBN 83-08-01777-0;  Tadeusz Różewicz; trans. Adam Czerniawski; pub. Wydawnictwo Literackie (1991)
** Collected Poems 1956-1998: ISBN 978-1-84354-833-6; Zbigniew Herbert; trans. Alissa Valles; pub. Atlantic Books (2008)
*** Six Polish Poets: ISBN 978-1-904614-50-0; ed. Jacek Dehnel; pub. Arc Publications (2008)

Cavafy & the unreal city

Constantine Cavafy was a Greek poet of the early Twentieth Century. Well, i say he was Greek. He was actually born in Alexandria to parents whose families came from Constantinople – as the Greeks call Istanbul. He spent his teenage years in England and then moved back to Alexandria where, barring a couple of years in Istanbul, he lived for the rest of his life.

And yet he was Greek, quite truly, which i find fascinating. He wrote in Greek, his work is full of references to Greek history and mythology and he identifies himself very clearly as a Greek. At the same time he was completely a creature of his city:

… decaying Alexandria, the city whose decline reflected in large the poet’s own

As Avi Sharon puts it in his introduction to Cavafy’s Selected Poems*.

And there again Cavafy stood apart from Alexandria, not just because he was Greek in an Egyptian city and probably not just because he was gay either, but because the city he inhabited – the world he inhabited – was in truth the city of his imagination. Sharon calls it “Cavafy’s unreal city” and compares it to Joyce’s Dublin.

“Unreal cities” fascinate me, as do “unreal countries” and “unreal worlds”. Indeed for a long time i have had my own unreal city, but for me unlike Cavafy that remains a private place. As a teenager i remember being enchanted by Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, which he wrote while recovering from illness drawing on his own internal, “unreal England” of the past – which made the book a great contrast to his realistic historical Scottish novels. Likewise, the wild imaginary landscape in which Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is set. These places have an intensity, a charge, a meaningfulness which is lacking – mostly – from places in the real world. And often a poignancy too. I have often felt that there is no journey i would rather make than one into an imagined land – my own or that of others; although i suspect they would lose some of their magic if examined close up. We’re not very patient gods. We haven’t the time or concentration to make individual leaves for our trees or even individual trees for our forests.

Cavafy’s Alexandria is unreal in a more subtle way than the worlds of the novels i’ve mentioned above – or perhaps it just seems so because, Alexandria being unknown to me in either its real or unreal form, it’s not easy for me to see where one ends and the other begins. The poet weaves together images and characters from the city’s Hellenistic past with those from the modern city. The streets along which he walks, the brothels he visits and the beautiful young men he encounters: do they belong to the “real world”? Are they merely disguised by imagery from the past? Or are they “imaginary”, made real by Cavafy’s conviction?

Just as the world of his poetry is glorious in a way that the “real city “ of Alexandria was not, so too Cavafy’s life in his poetry seems more exciting than his “real” life: he was a civil servant and lived at home with his family till the age of 45. Yet despite the poetic glamour there’s a sadness and a claustrophobia that permeates the poems i’ve read so far, a feeling of being trapped in this beautiful imagined place. One particular poem seems to encapsulate this and it’s called – in English anyway – The City:

The City

You said: ‘I will go to another land; i will try another sea.
Another city will turn up, better than this one.
Here everything i do is condemned in advance
And my heart – like a dead man’s – lies buried.
How long can my mind remain in this swamp?
Wherever i turn, wherever i look, i gaze
On the ruins of my life here, where i’ve spent
And botched and wasted so many years.’

You will find no new land; you will find no other seas.
This city will follow you. You will wander the same
Streets and grow old in the same neighbourhoods;
Your hair will turn white in the same houses.
And you will always arrive in this city. Abandon any hope
Of finding another place. No shop, no road can take you there.
For just as you’ve ruined your life here
In this backwater, you’ve destroyed it everywhere on earth.

(translated by Avi Sharon)

What trapped Cavafy in this “city”? Was it that this was the only way he could resolve the paradox of being a Greek in a city that was itself no longer Greek? A creator of masterpieces that those around him couldn’t read? A member of a diaspora in a world becoming increasingly nationalistic and – in its aspirations anyway – monoethnic? Was it how he made sense of his homosexuality, the expression of which in the “real city” would have been severely circumscribed? Or was the “real city” the place in which he felt trapped – and, if so, why? Was a static, humdrum life the price he had to pay for being able to roam freely in his imagination?

* ISBN: 978-0-141-18561-3. Published by Penguin Classics. All poems translated by Avi Sharon. I don’t know Greek so i can’t comment on how faithful the translations are to the originals, but they make beautiful poems in their own right which to my mind is just as important.

We were a family of cagoules

“We were a family of umbrellas…”

The first line from a poem called Opened by Mario Petrucci, from his wonderful collection Flowers of Sulphur*. The poem is about a funeral but for some reason this sent my mind off in a completely different direction: to days out at the seaside – Rhyl or Prestatyn – as a child. Whatever the weather when we left home, whatever the weather when we arrived at the coast, you could almost guarantee that at some point during the day it would turn, and we would have to seek refuge from the inevitable wind and rain.

You would find us crouched beneath the sea wall, invisible beneath our cagoules. My dad would be pouring milky coffee from his flask (nobody was allowed to handle the thermos except him) and my mum would be doling out butties – cheese or jam or fish paste. These would quickly acquire a coating of fine sand but that didn’t stop us eating them. In fact, the quicker you ate them the better as Sally would have them off you in a second if you put them down. She would also have your Penguin biscuit**, although you’d get in trouble if she did because dogs and chocolate don’t go. Still we’d hesitate when it came to take it, trying to decide which colour wrapper to select. This was despite the fact that we knew full well that the biscuits inside were all exactly the same. Nevertheless: Red? Blue? Green?

Sally, being a dog, was the only one of us who didn’t have a cagoule, so my dad used to open up his and wrap it around both of them. For the rest of the family this was an impossibility as we had those old-style cagoules*** you have to put on over your head like a smock. No breathable linings in those days: you got wet from the rain or wet from your sweat. Your choice.

This is how I always picture us on those family days out: a tribe of blue and red plastic ghosts. This is the image i somehow associated with the line from Mario Petrucci’s poem (have i mentioned how good it is?). The sunshine – when we had any, the sea and the sand are much more vaguely remembered. But this is not, I think, down to negativity on my part. No, I cherish that image of us huddled together in our cagoules. It is the very essence of family.

Of course, it was also the performance of family – because we were in public after all, even if there were only seagulls to view us; and so in some ways it was as much about the family we wanted to be as the family we were. But perhaps that’s also part of what a family is in any case? Aspirations and memories and food and shelter.

* ISBN: 978-1904634379, published by Enitharmon Press. See here for a review.
** Ignore the photo. It shows the modern day wrapper. Google couldn’t locate any pictures of the coloured tin-foil packaging the biscuits came in during the 70s. You will have to use your imagination/consult your memory.
***See the section on the roll-up-able cagoule on Wikipedia’s page about cagoules. I don’t remember ours being roll-up-able though.

I want the dog

I want the dog to come back
running
across the wet grass –
wet tongue hanging from
her happy mouth,
her tail wagging and snagged with
brambles.

I want her to bark.
I want her to have dirty paws
and one ear
folded back on itself.

But most of all
I want her to smell
of dog
and feel like
a dog;
and not just to look like
a dog
sitting in a field in a photograph.