A Wee Dram of History

Review of new poetry from Carol Ann Duffy, Derwent May, W.G. Sebald and Tomas Tranströmer

Books Literature

In her new collection, The Bees (Picador, £14.99), her first since becoming Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy is unabashedly bibulous, and all the better for it. She is tipsy not only on “John Barleycorn”, the title of a rollicking ballade (one of her finest), but on words themselves. She celebrates bees, those emblematic insects, but her bees are also words themselves, “brazen, blurs on paper,/besotted”. Names too enchant her, as “John Barleycorn” makes plain in its loving litany of pubs:

Britain’s soul, as the crow flies so flew he.
I saw him in the Hollybush, the Yew Tree,
the Royal Oak, the Ivy Bush, the Linden.
I saw him in the Forester, the Woodman.
He history, I saw him in the Wellington, the Nelson,
Greyfriars Bobby, Wicked Lady, Bishop’s Finger.
I saw him in the Ship, the Golden Fleece, the Flask,
the Railway Inn, the Robin Hood and Little John,
my green man, legend strong, re-born, John Barleycorn.

Whiskey-fuelled history has never been so merrily celebrated. But in “Drams”, a delicate sequence of haikus, she carries this enchantment deeper, into the very loam and heather of the land whence a good dram is distilled:

Barley, water, peat,
weather, landscape, history;
malted, swallowed neat.

In each dram we swig a mouthful of history.  The taste kindles the tongue; it binds us to the land until of a sudden we can peer through the heron’s unerring eye:

What the heron saw,
the homesick salmon’s shadow,
shy in this whiskey.

Notwithstanding her public pronouncements, her insistence on the “democracy” of poetry, Duffy is an incantatory poet. Her best poems display an “alchemical, nectar-slurred, pollen-furred” exuberance. She is too much given to clanging alliteration — “I gaze, gawp, glare” is only one example — and to occasional mawkish notes, as in “the robin’s blushing bounce”, but when she clings, doggedly alliterative, to “the bronze buzz of a bee”, she fully inhabits Yeats’s “bee-loud glade”, and the effect is exhilarating. Nor are her bees mere symbols; she is attentive to their ways. She catches their “hard devotional sound/in the ears of flowers”. She can “bless the winter clusters of the bees” as they crowd within the hive to protect their queen. Though the collection contains such much-admired “public” poems as “The Last Post”, these seem too self-consciously programmatic alongside her dafter flights. In several fine sonnets, cunningly camouflaged, she displays a secret self, freed from agendas. The most moving of these poems are those about her late mother, especially a poignant Christmas poem in which

I saw a coffin, shouldered
through snow, shrouded
in its cold, laced sheet.

“The hive is love,” Duffy writes. From what I’ve observed of bee-hives, I’m not so sure of this. And yet, maybe she’s right: maybe the piercing grief at the heart of the hive is the most riddling shape of love.

The novelist, editor and critic Derwent May is well known to readers of The Times for his “Nature Notes”, which he has been writing for some 30 years. But he is also a superb poet and though his poems have appeared over the years in various magazines, Wondering about Many Women (Greenwich Exchange Ltd, £7.99) is his first collection. At first sight, this is the usual “slim” plaquette of exquisitely crafted verse. Don’t be deceived:  this is a masterful and deeply moving collection. In reading the poems, one has the felicitous sense of long experience consummately distilled.  May is adept at many difficult forms — the sonnet, the quatrain, blank verse, the triolet and the ballad — but he handles these so deftly that we are less impressed by his command of the craft than by the justness of his expression. Take “The Ginger Cat”:

The ginger cat on the curtained bed
Only purred,
Beside her, men cried, went mad, went blind
Or died.
But till long after the last train had gone past
She only, slightly, stirred.

Those strategic commas in the last line are the mark of a master; this is turbulence, and tragedy, inferred from the demeanour of a lounging cat, and just as delicately suggested. May’s collection opens with three love poems; all turn on recollection. And indeed, recollection, sometimes poignant, at other times serene, informs all the poems. But there is something distinctly sharp-edged, a razoring demarcation, in May’s finest poems: he anticipates recollection even as he struggles with the past. This chameleonic perspective — one eye cocked on the past, the other tilted towards an imagined future — is especially moving in his  poems on children. Whether on an outing, as in “The Walk” or at a performance, as in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park”, May wonders whether the children who accompany him will look back on this event, as he, retrospectively, does:

And will these children ever think
Again about this leaf-lit scene-
Even a single turning branch
Glimmer in their darker green?
Perhaps one moment when the sky
Was dropping dusk light from above
Will touch their eyes with tenderness
Before another night of love.

As a poet, May finds himself at a mid-point in time: his parents, as he recalls them, “vanish into death”, even as his children, as he contemplates them sleeping, will “vanish into life”. For all its elegiac aplomb, this is a collection tense with expectancy.  Here, as in “By a Foreign Embassy,” one of many exotic locales evoked in these beautiful poems: “So slowly, the strange becomes familiar,/The seeking mind resting as it seeks.”

In a 1997 interview, W.G. Sebald said, “My medium is prose” (“Mein Medium ist die Prosa“). This was a bit disingenuous. From his youth, Sebald had written poetry. His “Poemtrees” were drafted in the early 1960s and until the end of his life, tragically cut short ten years ago this month, he continued to write verse. Still, like Jorge Luis Borges, whom he admired and evoked in his books, Sebald’s lyricism found its full expression in his utterly magical prose; his is a taut and hammered lyricism, shot through with the grief of an unsparing eye. In Across the Land and the Water (Trans. Iain Galbraith, Hamish Hamilton, £14.99), a gathering of his unpublished verse from School Latin, his first collection, to poems written shortly before his death (and preserved in the German Literary Archive in Marbach), Sebald turned to poetry for some of his most concentrated utterances. To English readers, Sebald’s verse may appear reminiscent of such high Modernist poetry as that of William Carlos Williams whose choppy stanzas and abruptly calculated line-breaks present a possible model; and indeed, one of the poems in the collection is “New Jersey Journey”, where “the undeciphered sighs/of an entire nation” may be heard (and anyone who has travelled that ghastly highway, as I have, will know exactly what Sebald meant). But in fact, a glance at the German originals reveals that Sebald, for all the variousness of the influences he underwent, stands firmly in German and Austrian poetic tradition. Consider the little lyric “Nymphenburg” in Iain Galbraith’s superb translation:

Hedges have grown
over palace and court.
A forgotten era
of fountains and chandeliers
behind facades,
serenades and strings,
the colours of the mauves.
The guides mutter
through sandalwood halls
of the Wishing Table
in the libraries
of princes past.

Galbraith has skilfully caught the cadences of the original and in doing so, reveals Sebald’s indebtedness to a long tradition of German and Austrian elegy; this is not nostalgia but evocation in asperity, akin to the double-edged laments of Georg Trakl, of a past at once illusory and much-cherished. Galbraith provides a perceptive introduction and copious notes; all that the reader of Sebald needs is here. 

In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald wrote (in Michael Hulse’s translation) that “memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life”. These poems are records of those memories, suddenly awoken, then blinding and illuminating. Sebald was a chronicler of the forsaken heartlands of memory. In those forbidding regions remains “no sign/of the reclaimed land”. In German, that land is the “gewonnenes Land“, the land won back, the land wrested away from oblivion, the land we recover when we look, as Sebald did, at the wreckage of what once we held most dear.

For once, last year, the “Immortals” of the Swedish Academy got it right. (They got it right in 2010 too by giving the Nobel Prize to Mario Vargas Llosa — are the Swedes coming to their senses at last?) Last October, finally aware that a great poet was living not a stone’s throw from their august precincts, they bestowed the Nobel Prize on Tomas Tranströmer. To be fair, for all his worldwide acclaim, Tranströmer is not an obvious choice. His poems are studiously understated; they are perilously quiet.  Their imagery is weird, their accents gloomy. Indeed, there is something distinctly creepy about them; they can make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. In The Deleted World (Enitharmon Press, £35), the acclaimed Scottish poet Robin Robertson offers “versions” of Tranströmer’s poetry. Robertson’s versions — what he terms “these imitations”, with obvious allusion to Robert Lowell’s Imitations — not only read well; they are compelling poems in English. They are superb exemplars of that old shibboleth that a translation should read as though it were a poem “written in English”.  

Certainly Robertson takes liberties. He ignores the original forms. Even a reader without Swedish, like myself, can see that the first poem in his selection is written in Sapphics in the original — a metre which Robin Fulton, Tranströmer’s long-standing, and brilliant, translator, adopts in his classic versions. Here is how Robertson renders the last stanza of “Autumn Archipelago”:

Under the buzzard’s circling point of stillness
the ocean rolls thundering into the light; blindly chewing
its straps of seaweed, it snorts up foam across the beach.
The earth is covered in darkness, traced by bats.
The buzzard stops and becomes a star.  The ocean rolls
thundering on, blowing the foam across the beach.

In a memoir that Tranströmer wrote for his two daughters, shortly before his devastating stroke in 1990, the poet recounted the impact which his Latin classes had on him as a student. Summoned to translate a stanza by Horace he stammered and mangled the verses; but suddenly, when the ordeal was over, and the teacher returned to the original, he marvelled at the beauty of the Latin, and especially “the prodigious precision of Horace’s voice”. This was his first encounter with poetry. The class, with its alternation of stammering and humdrum recitation and the magnificence of the original, he said, “taught me what the conditions of existence were”. Ever afterwards, he would think of Horace — along with the French Surrealists! — as “his contemporaries”. 

This odd conjuncture of the classical and the irreverently spontaneous characterises Tranströmer’s singular voice. His poetry is unmistakable and inimitable. From “Baltics”, his great narrative sequence, to his later, more lapidary verse, written out of aphasia, he has been a poet for whom silence is as telling as speech. He is a poet fluent in “language without words” and that is a language we all understand.