Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Two poems I liked in Romania

I have picked these two poems because, in their different ways, they appealed to me at first reading. Both are by younger men and when I think about it now, I would find it hard to believe that they were by women. As to why that is, that is not entirely clear to me. Both are in English translation of course. Tomorrow I will take poems by two younger women to see how they might differ.

Michael Astner (nr Sibiu, b.1961)
To My Brothers

my brothers' strength of purpose
without doubt obliges me
to admire them -

and to imagine for myself roots
that forsake their trees.

the sun shines
rain falls
winter and summer are
of course
rather unusual -

even the plants pretend
they're growing in complete indifference

and a blind hope
is driven about in a white carriage
without a coachman.

translated by Adam J. Sorkin with the author

Some salient points. There are registers in the translation that probably respond to something in the original. Two examples: without doubt obliges me / to and are of course rather unusual. These are pitched (in English certainly) in a mixture of the authoritative, the scholarly and the ironic, moods I associate with, on the whole, male institutions. They are faintly Kafkaesque. The narrative itself is direct and distanced, until we come to the last verse where a romantic, surreal image appears without warning, the whole set in some historical past. That disjunction too I think of as male, the blossoming lyricism of the last verse held back by the apparently dry earlier lines. The richness is presented with a certain reluctance, as if it surprised the writer and he didn't quite know what to do with it. But the coachmanless white carriage stays with us, all the more so for its sudden appearance. And the passenger of the coach, that 'blind hope' addresses a dynamic intensity of feeling. It is often how feeling works. It is distanced, hedged about by cold, apparently 'objective' language, then leaps into fantasy, which contains a ferocious core (blind hope) of emotion. It is how a feeling finds itself. This poem moves through elegant gestures with a certain awkward grace. It is the akwardness that makes it powerful and touching. It becomes a kind of grace plus.


Tadeusz Dabrowski (Gdansk, b.1979)
from A Lover's Discourse: Fragments

I caught her in the act of looking through
a porn mag. Pointing at a picture
of a naked man, I asked her: What is that?

Ceci n'est pas une pipe - she answered me,
taking me into the bracket of her legs. And today
I came home early from work and in the passage

I bumped into a naked man, and asked:
What is that? - pointing at him, or rather at his
manhood freshly smeared in lipstick. That is a

- I heard the answer from the woman, with whom
I'm still sleeping because I cannot prove her

Translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones

Quite different from the Astner, the poem moves by way of logic and cultural allusion. A Lover's Discourse nods knowingly at Roland Barthes while keeping its route to real feeling open: Ceci n'est pas une pipe refers us to Magritte's painting. Now we have had two nods. We will, if we know the painting, be aware that on one level it is a comment on the difference between reality and depiction, and that Magritte's po-faced prosaic application of paint is his approximation to a dry manner of speech. It is like a clearing of the throat before a rather dull lecture begins. It is Magritte's bowler hat. It also resembles the dry manner of the Astner poem. It comes, that is, from a similar psychological source. So we have philosophy and dry humour to work with.

But it is also a poem about sex. The crude slangy term 'porn mag' is flashed at us in line two. The question asked is one to which both questioner and subject know the answer. Une pipe in French is slang for dick, so the woman's answer is both an evasion and a cleverly knowing joke. The photographic image in the porn mag, like the pipe in the Magritte painting, is not reality but an image. Sex occurs in brackets ('the bracket of her legs'). The next day the male figure returns home and find a naked man with clear evidence of sex on him. At this point the woman speaks again and tells him, not in French this time, that the 'manhood' of the visitor is a 'pipe', maintaining the joky ambiguity while distancing it, through a switch in language, from its French language source. So the joke comes round and the speaker is uncertain which is reality and which image. The ending is perhaps a little laboured, but the wit of the conception remains with us. And beyond that, beyond the joke and the philosophy, there is a serious question that transcends the intellect, about sex and reality. Again, as with Astner, there is a sense of distance between mind and experience. The language is more in a single key here, though in the English the word 'manhood' has a Victorian sobriety that might be matched in the Polish.

Neither poem is, or pretends to be, a 'great' poem, but through grace, precision and wit, both poems feel their way to a more complete sense of experience. Astner's is closer to the core of lyrical poetry: its key emotion turns out to be intensity. Dabrowski's key emotion is a knowing bemusement.

Both poems are formally achieved structures that pass through clear stages of feeling without surrendering to feeling. They are in some ways attitudes to experience more than responses to direct experience. We don't after all know what has occasioned the Astner poem: all we know is that there is, at the end, an occasion and a condition referred to as bright hope.

Nor do we know whether any of the incidents in the Dabrowski actually occured, or invite us to believe that they occured in some sense. The whole has the air of a propostion, and in fact it does carry a proposition about language. Language is not to be trusted because it is not life. The important question for the poem is whether it convinces us that the question itself is important on some level. If it is important the importance lies in our sense of the wordplay. If the wordplay offers comedy beyond the notional the value of the poem rises. And it does linger as more than a joke or an amusing parallel between a sober pipe and a listick stained organ. The organ in the poem is psychologically detached, regarded as an object whose very existence is uncertain. It also refers us to the independent and involuntary aspect of an erection ('Down wanton, down', as Robert Graves wrote) so in effect the male figure is occasionally obliged to ask: What is that thing to do with me? And that, I suggest, is a serious question, beyond a joke, which is why there is distance and jokes.

As a poem of metaphysical and linguistic wit it is simple enough but the subtlety of register is what determines the value of feeling. A young man's poem again, the feeling in it is not rechanneled through register as in Astner, but is distilled into pun and parallel.

It is probably right that younger male feeling about experience involves distancing of both body and mind. Or so it seems in many cases. Indeed in most of the verse of the younger poets I have taught and now teach. Ceci n'est une pipe: it's rhetoric.


Anonymous said...

The first poem is more fascinating because it leaves more to the individual readers interpretation. I think the white carriage is a bit of a show stealer that could make you disregard the rest of the poem, when really there is a lot being said. There is a tendency to try to construct a dramatic narrative around ambiguous poems. The whole centre/core of the poem works on a strange kind of reversal after establishing the brothers strength, he then suggests that his own roots sustain their trees and that he would prefer it if his roots would forsake them. The next verse again reverses the natural sequence by the placement of winter before summer, which makes the reader attach the sun shining to winter and the rain falling in summer, which gives us the connection to death, loss and grief. My dramatic narrative would be that the older brothers are dead or missing and so the roles have been reversed for the writer, who now has to take on the mantle of being the oldest son but isn't happy about any of it. Another person may simply think he has taken over the family farm and had a bad year.

George S said...

Yes, that's all fair, Anon. I find back stories, such as the possible deaths of the brothers and the bad harvest a little problematic in that they provide explanations where it is the explanation that least interests me. It doesn't bother me that I don't know the provenance of the poem, either in detail or as a whole.

Nevertheless, you are right in describing the carriage as a show stealer. It is the way the show has led us to this point of being stolen that is fascinating. There are, it seems to me, conflicted feelings about the brothers. The speaker resents being obliged to admire them, that's for sure, but then the poem is addressed to the brothers. Once we are with the trees, the seasons and the plants, however, I feel we have shifted terms into a world of symbols, and that it is the symbols that enable us to make the transition to the white carriage. It's a classic three-part poem in other words, the extended central section with trees and plants being the most ambiguous.

The issue seems to be partly independence (forsaking their trees) and developing a life elsewhere, possibly as a poet, or in the blind hope of being a poet.

I have no great confidence that my reading is right, or even that such a specific reading is required. I sometimes think that lyric poems simply present us with states through which we pass without quite understanding such states, without quite having a reliable map, with only the feel of the language, like a blind man's stick, to help us.