A top ten for Jack
I answered Jack's earlier lists with my own, and I was keen to take up his new challenge. It's proved very hard, though, to come up with a list of only ten favourite poems. I made an initial list of about thirty pieces, and then began culling it, getting steadily more guilty as one fine poem after another bit the dust.
Here is my provisional top ten: leave your own in the comments box.
'In Ostrobothnia', by Gosta Agren (c. 1980s)
A Marxist and a regionalist, Agren has spent his life championing the workers and writers of Ostrobothnia, a slice of east Finland whose people speak a rustic dialect of Swedish and frequently feel forgotten by their compatriots in the big southern cities of Helsinki and Turku. His poems tend to be short, and to mix up abstract, almost philosophical language with coldly sensuous images of the northern Finnish landscape. This poem was translated by Roger McDuff.
Here each town is a
footnote to the forest's
melancholy mass of text,
here the horizon bares
its teeth. Here freedom shrinks
to restlessness. Here necessity grows
into tranquility. One travels away
in an attempt to prevent
what must happen. One stays
here, and as the years go by
life grows simplified until
there are left only earth
'How to Kill', Keith Douglas (1943)
One of my dearest ambitions is to put the two greatest British poets to die in the Second World War, Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, into print in New Zealand. As I said last Anzac Day, if Keith Douglas were widely read in New Zealand then this country would not have such a wretchedly hypocritical attitude towards war. We send warriors abroad pretending they are 'peacekeepers' on nebulous 'humanitarian' missions; in poems like 'How to Kill', Douglas reminds us what warriors really do.
How to Kill
Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears
And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.
The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.
'The Moon', by Gunnar Ekelof (c. 1932)
I blogged about this poem back in 2007, admitting that it had obsessed me since I first read it as a young man. Gunnar Ekelof's father was a pillar of Stockholm's business and political establishments, until he fell ill with syphilis and went mad. Young Gunnar took off to Paris with his share of the family fortune, and quickly lost his dosh at gambling tables and in taverns. He bought a revolver and thought about ending his life, but was saved by his love of 'poetes maudits' like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. He settled in the Swedish countryside and decided to revolutionise his homeland's culture by writing poems that combined Rimbaudian hallucination with Dadaist satire. In his later years Ekelof became preoccupied with mysticism, and took to claiming that his poems were written by the spirits of various long-dead magicians and princes.
'The Moon' is one of Ekelof's calmer, clearer poems, but that didn't stop readers of this blog differing about its meaning in the comments thread underneath my 2007 post. I still think that the protagonist of the poem is meant to represent the sort of man or woman who suddenly feels mysteriously estranged from his or her peers, and who feels called upon to make a journey that is both isolating and exihilarating. 'The Moon' was translated by Robert Bly.
The moon passes her hand softly over my eyes,
Wakes me long into the night. Lonesome among the sleepers,
I lay wood on the fire, fuss about with smoking sticks,
Move quietly among the shadows, shadows flapping high
Above the brown logs, richly
Decorated with glistening fish-lures...
Why did I wake? Lonesome among the sleepers,
Backs turned to the fire, I open the door quietly,
Walk around the corner in the snow, tramp on the clumps, see
Moonlight coldly calling me over the snow...
'Blood in the Kava Bowl', Epeli Hau'ofa (c. 1980)
Epeli Hau'ofa was an anthropologist, social theorist and satirical novelist and short story writer as well as a poet. In this poem, which I discovered a couple of years ago along with the magnificent essay 'Our Sea of Islands', Tongan tradition, with its incorrigible hierarchies and elegantly sclerotic rituals, battles it out with the full-blooded Marxism that Hau'ofa encountered during his years teaching at the University of the South Pacific. Hau'ofa takes the side of faka Tonga, yet is not as comfortable and confident as some of his rhetoric would suggest. According to his fellow Tongan intellectual 'Okusitino Mahina, Hau'ofa was for some time an advocate of the Marxist analysis of Pacific societies, but in his last years developed a much more reverent attitude toward Tongan traditional authority.
Blood in the Kava Bowl
In the twilight we sit
drinking kava from the bowl between us.
Who we are we know and need not say
for the soul we share came from Vaihi.
Across the bowl we nod our understanding of the line
that is also our cord brought by Tangaloa from above,
and the professor does not know.
He sees the line but not the cord
for he drinks the kava not tasting its blood.
And the kava has risen, my friend,
drink, and smile the grace of our fathers
at him who says we are oppressed
by you, by me, but it's twilight in Vaihi
and his vision is clouded.
The kava has risen again, dear friend,
take this cup...
Ah, yes, that matter of oppression -
from Vaihi it begot in us unspoken knowledge
for our soul and our bondage.
You and I hold the love of that inner mountain
shrouded in mist and spouting ashes spread
by the winds from Ono-i-Lau,
Lakemba and Lomaloma
over the soils of our land, shaping
those slender kahokaho kaumeile
we offer in first-fruits to our Hau.
And the kava trees of Tonga grow well,
our foreheads on the royal toes!
The Hau is healthy,
our land's in fine, fat shape for another season.
The professor still talks
of oppression that we both know,
yet he tastes not the blood in the kava
mixed with dry waters that rose to Tangaloa
who gave us the cup from which we drink
the soul and the tears of our land.
Nor has he heard of our brothers who slayed Takalaua
and fled to Niue, Manono and Futuna
to be caught in Uvea by the tyrant's son
and brought home under the aegis of the priest of Maui
to decorate the royal congregation and to chew for the king
the kava mixed with blood from their mouths,
the mouths of all oppressed Tongans,
in expiation to Hikule'o the inner mountain
with an echo others cannot hear.
And the mountain spouts ancestral ashes
spread by the winds from Ono-iLau, Lakemba and Lomaloma
over the soils of our land, raising fine yams,
symbols of our manhood, of the strength of our nation,
in first-fruits we offer to our Hau.
The mountain also crushes our people,
their blood flowing into the royal ring
for the health of the Victor and of Tonga;
the red waters from the warm springs of Pulotu
only you and I can taste, and live
in ancient understanding begat by Maui in Vaihi.
The kava has risen, my brother,
drink this cup of the soul and sweat of our people,
and pass me three more mushrooms which grew on Mururoa
on the shit of the cows Captain Cook brought
from the Kings of England and France!
'No. 92', by Osip Mandelstam (1917)
Late in the revolutionary year of 1917 Osip Mandelstam decided to exchange freezing St Petersburg, where food was scarce and streetfighting endemic, for the warmth and relative safety of the Crimean peninsula. He ended up living for a few weeks on a vineyard which had been occupied by a group of hungry writers and artists. Mandelstam was obsessed with ancient Greece, and he associated the warm waters of the Black Sea and ancient port towns of the Crimea with the world of Odysseus and Jason's Argonauts. This poem contrasts the tranquility of Mandelstam's temporary home, with its huge white rooms and acres of grapes, with the drama of revolutionary Russia and ancient Greece. Does Odysseus return at the end of the poem as a saviour or an avenger?
This text comes from the famous book of Mandelstam translations made by Clarence Brown, who had spent decades studying Osip, and WS Merwin, an American poet who didn't know more than a few words of Russian, but knew how to get inspired.
The thread of gold cordial flowed from the bottle
with such languor that the hostess found time to say
here in mournful Tauris where our fates have cast us
we are never bored - with a glance over her shoulder.
On all hands the rites of Bacchus, as though the whole world
held only guards and dogs. As you go you see no one.
And the placid days roll past like heavy barrels. Far off
in the ancient rooms there are voices. Can't make them out. Can't answer.
After tea we went out into the great brown garden.
Dark binds are dropped like eyelashes on the windows.
We move along the white columns looking at grapes. Beyond them
airy glass has been poured over the drowsing mountains.
I said the vines live on like an antique battle,
with gnarled cavalry tangling in curving waves.
Here in stone-starred Tauris is an art of Hellas: here, rusted,
are the noble ranks of the golden acres.
Meanwhile silence stands in the white room like a spinning wheel,
smelling of vinegar, paint, wine cool from the cellar.
Do you remember in the Greek house the wife they all loved?
Not Helen. The other. And how long she embroidered?
Golden fleece, where are you then, golden fleece?
All the way the heaved weight of the sea rumbled.
Leaving his boat and its sea-wearied sails,
Odysseus returned, filled with space and time.
'The Fossil Fish', by Christopher Middleton (c. 1979)
Christopher Middleton's poetry is a strange mix of postmodern avant-gardism and old-fashioned, hopelessly English absurdity. 'The Fossil Fish' was one of a series of 'micro-poems' which Middleton published as a chapbook at the end of the '70s, and republished in his relentlessly unpredictable Selected Writings in 1989. I like to shout out the lines of this poem at parties, after having one drink too many.
The Fossil Fish
the fossil fish
hides in time
for now it is the season
& all the hunters come
with long clean rifles
'Idyll' is one of the first Smithyman poems I read, and it remains my sentimental favourite. The poem was written after a camping trip Smithyman took with his wife and fellow writer Mary Stanley in the Bay of Plenty. Stanley's chronic arthritis meant that she was in pain and popping pills throughout the adventure. 'Idyll' contains allusions to Stanley's misery, and to the hospitals and drugs which dominated the final decades of her life, but they are almost hidden, and perhaps partially transformed into something joyous, by Smithyman's dense, incantatory language. My Seventh Form English teacher warned me about Smithyman, saying that he was "hopelessly obscure", but it was the very mysteriousness of 'Idyll' that excited and fascinated me. I remember reciting the poem's opening lines out loud, again and again, and wondering why they could seem so beautiful to me when I didn't understand what they meant:
Adam and Eve, without serpent
or guile, all night the river duetto,
voices that were steps and stairs...
You can read 'Idyll' here.
'Diving into the Wreck', by Adrienne Rich (1973)
Rich's poem, which you can read here, is full of small brilliant details - an 'awkward grave' diving mask, 'crenellated' fish, the sea-spoiled logbook of a long-wrecked ship - yet gradually acquires the solemnity of myth, as the poet descends deeper and deeper into a sea which come to stand for her own past and, perhaps, for the whole of human history. I found 'Diving into the Wreck' in a university textbook nearly two decades ago, and have probably reread it too many times, because I regularly find the poem's images bobbing to the surface of my texts. Here's the beginning of 'The Analyst', a piece included in my first book of poems:
Breathing is easier underwater. The knife between my teeth tastes of rust, as I dive through seaweed and shoaled flounder, toward a treasure chest capsized in estuary mud. I know that someone has been here before me, that the coins and statuettes have been looted, the ancient manuscripts spoiled. I know that the chest's rotten mahogany and rust-red bolts are my treasure.
'To Friends behind a Frontier', by Tomas Transtromer (c. 1970s)
Tomas Transtromer will need no introduction to regular readers of this blog. Back in 2006 Tomas won a flagon of Old Thumper beer after topping a poll set up here to determine the world's greatest living writer. That triumph set him up to take out the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature.
To Friends behind a Frontier
I wrote so meagrely to you. But what I couldn't write
swelled and swelled like an old-fashioned airship
and drifted away at last through the night sky.
The letter is now at the censor's. He lights his lamp.
In the glare my words fly up like monkeys on a grille,
rattle it, become still, and bare their teeth.
Read between the lines. We'll meet in 200 years
when the microphones in the hotel's walls are forgotten
and can at last sleep, become trilobites.
'Exile', Theognis (c. 500 BC)
I discovered Theognis' flinty poems in an anthology of the literature of ancient Greece some kindly soul had ordered into Rosehill College Library. As a self-pitying seventeen year-old semi-Goth, I was surprised and alarmed to learn that melancholy, unrequited love and general grumpiness had been themes for writers before the era of Morrissey and Ian Curtis.
I have been there
Eretrian waterlands rust-red
kindled in river reeds.
I went there
I found men with franks hearts
who took me in
I found kind hands
but no joy
and no rest.
Home hugs close.