Tuesday, 14 November 2017

In Search of Ethiopian Poet Bewketu Seyoum

The work of Ethiopian poet Bewketu Seyoum is a recent discovery for me.  Thanks largely to the online journal The Missing Slate, I have learned he was born in Mankusa in Gojjam, north-west of Addis Ababa; that Seyoum's mother comes from a family of Orthodox priests, and his father is an English teacher; that he has a degree in Psychology, has published three collections of poetry, two novels, and two CDs of stories, that in 2008, he was awarded the prize for Young Writer of the Year by the President of Ethiopia, how in June 2012, he represented Ethiopia at the Poetry Parnassus Festival in London, and how he even finds time to perform as a stand-up comedian!  I have also thoroughly enjoyed the examples of his poetry I have so far discovered.




I Won't Climb a Mountain

I won’t climb a mountain
to touch the clouds,
I won’t lift the frown
of a rainbow into a smile,
I won’t borrow
Tekle Haymanot’s wings
or Jacob’s ladder —
when I want to climb,
the sky will come down to me!


 

As one might expect from a poet who doubles as a comic, wry observations and humorous comments on the modern world are never far away in Seyoum's repertoire, in his prose as much as in his poetry.  In the story Its All the Same, a curmudgeonly Ethiopian full of disapproval for modern society embarks upon an absurd attempt to plan a suicide sufficiently respectable for one of his self-perceived high standing, while many of his stage routines recount the funny side of Ethiopian assimilation into Western life. He also likes to hold a laughing mirror at his own society.  In a recent interview on website Ethiopian News and Views, Seyoum described how: I am fond of melancholic humor. One evening I encountered a shabbily dressed guy rummaging through a garbage can in one of the streets of Addis. I came closer and asked “what are you up to man?” “I am only looking for some leftover for supper” said the man sadly. Touched, I took out my wallet and offered him to buy  bread. The guy took the money and made his way to the nearby shop. Soon, he returned with a candle and a match and went back to the garbage can to look for some leftover. This is a kind of stuff I like to include in my work.

 

Even when Seyoum's poetry focuses on social themes, it is often shot through with an elaborate humour, as in the poem In Search of Fat, a reflection on his country's famine-ravaged past, and a scathing rebuke to the self-serving politicians:

In Search of Fat

A multitude of thin people, all skin,
call out like rag and bone men,
“Where’s our fat?” They rummage
every mountain, stone and huddle-huddle,
search in the soil, search in the sky.
At last they find it, piled up on one man’s belly!


While at other times, this social focus is more sharply framed within a philosophical context:

The Door to Freedom

If tortured spirits
who have lived in chains
are suddenly called to freedom,
the door of their cell thrown open
and the guards sent home,
they will not feel truly free
unless they break through the wall.
 In a similar vein, the Puckish  Prohibited! avows a libertarian streak:

Smoking is prohibited! Whistling is prohibited! Peeing is prohibited!
The whole wall made up of prohibitions.
Which one is right??

Were I blessed with a piece of wall, a little piece of power,
my slogan would be:

Prohibitions are prohibited!

 

Seyoum's rejection of rules and structures takes on a less militant colour in The Road to Nowhere, a snapshot of contemporary society which could be inspired by scenes of any city, and finds its author in contemplative mood:
The one who looks to be in a hurry.
The one who looks to be quick.
The one who drives a good car.
The one who wears designer shoes
and the one who goes barefoot.
All these intellectuals and illiterates
travelling up and down the road,
overcrowding it from top to bottom.
Look how they go back and forth
and never get to their destination!


 

Seyoum is rarely political in any explicit sense, nor do his poems hammer home any uncompromisingly didactic ethos, but are rather expressed from a somewhat polite, peripheral perspective, as may be natural to one living in new environments, surrounded by unfamiliar cultures. On the one hand, perhaps wary of the lessons learned from his past in a country wrought by conflicts, he takes a gently dismissive swipe at well-intentioned ideals:
So long as there is an Alexander the Great next door 
who sees a weapon in the cup he drinks from
I shall not be moved by the anti-gun cheerleaders 
with their innocent smiles 
I shall not invite white doves
to hover over my pillow 
I shall not throw my armour
into the trash.

Yet this world-weary cynicism is off-set by a warm embrace of genuine innocence, a desire for peaceful coexistence, and a restored faith in the better elements of humanity:


So long as there is a woman next door 
who sees a jug for drawing water 
in the fallen cannon shell
I shall not panic 
when the war drums sound
I will not despair 
when the army starts
its goose step.
 But he can also be biting, and uncompromising.  The poem which first made me stop short and take notice, was the damning Elegy, a bitter screed against environmental depletion, similar in its uncomplicated despair to Hopkins' Binsley Poplars, and railing against exactly the same sort of destruction:

Elegy

The fall of every leaf diminishes me,
so when I hear a rustle
I send my eyes out of the window
to look at the trees in the yard.

Alas! where there were woods,
I see flag-poles standing.
Men have swept nature’s nest away
to build their cities.

The melody of the nightingale
has lost its immortality
and I am sitting on a dead land,
writing an elegy in the sand.


The poetry of Bewketu Seyoum is by turns observational, and philosophical; dryly derisive of greed and political hypocrisy, and carried through with warm humour and respect for life. With poetry recitals in London, comedy appearances in Manchester, and a new book recently launched by the author at a live reading in New York, his star is slowly beginning to shine beyond the horizons of his native Ethiopia - which is excellent news for Bewketu Seyoum, and for all of us who will therefore come into contact with the work of this uniquely talented poet.

Remember Me 

When the night is still
and you overhear through your bedroom window 
a footstep fade like the last raindrop from the sky,
remember me. 

When the moon is low
hanging like a white nest on the edge of the universe 
and your heart 
is filled with an unexplained joy, 
remember me.

In a life ringed by thorns 
when you glimpse the rose beds,
remember me.


 Translations:  the B.S. with Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje Ayele,  except Prohibited!  - Bahrnegash Bellete, Road to Nowhere - B.S. and Chris Beckett, and  The Poem, and Remember Me -  Cheryl Moskowitz

Two Visions of Autumn, by William Blake and Philip Larkin

Its twenty years since I first encountered two poets who would come to exert influences on my life which would be hard to overstate. In September 1997, as part of the A Level cohort of the Leeds College of Art, I was introduced to a raft of poets by means of a sort of introduction to the course - among them Swinburne, Keats, Yeats, all of whom became firm favourites, but also to works by William Blake and Philip Larkin.





 

It seems odd to recall now that I had never heard of either of these people  - but such was my oblivious position as a sixteen year old who had only just survived a school where Class B drugs and flying chairs were in more regular supply than poetry.  the lure of studying writing and acting proved sufficient to lull me from this cultural prison, and in the direction of the city centre, then in a phase of burgeoning redevelopment, artistically as well as commercially.   So it was that, in the autumn of that year of great changes, I found myself cocooned in a room above the western edge of Leeds city centre, poring over the words of these two great poets, as wildly different as they are from one another in their writing, reputations and worldviews! Some of my contemporaries had heard of Blake, via his influence on the decadent rock star Jim Morrison, but it was left to our tutor to explain that Larkin - whom we would come, thanks to our studying of his famous Whitsun Weddings - to regard almost as an honorary classmate, due to the ubiquity of his poetry in that room over the ensuing couple of years, was "a poet who wrote mainly about everyday life in the North of England, in the 1950's and 60's."  The same tutor described how, when living as a student in Hull, where Larkin settled to work as a University Librarian, he and several fellow students would sometimes see the poet on his journeys to buy cream cakes at a local bakers, from where he would apparently scurry back to his high-windowed digs, presumably to listen to his beloved 78's of American Jazz, while scoffing cakes and avoiding anything connected with the literary or academic.


I was going to say that I had been thinking a lot of Blake and Larkin recently because the autumn colours here in the Calder Valley are absolutely splendid at the moment, and they both wrote poems, with decidedly different messages, about autumn. But the truth is, they are poets who are on my mind almost all of the time, and this autumnal connection really only serves as an excuse.  Nonetheless, it strikes me that the two poems concerned merit a juxtaposed reproduction, for they convey, more than a century apart, and in vivid, moving language, acutely contrasting, but equally incontrovertible truths, about the season.
None can doubt that autumn presents us with a colder, at times harsh landscape, as storm clouds gather and, as Philip Larkin put it, the leaves suddenly lose strength; at the same time, Blake's illustration of an autumn laden with fruit is demonstrated all across the valley that I walk through every day.


 William Blake's To Autumn was published in 1783:

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain'd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may'st rest
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

"The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Til clust'ring summer breaks forth into singing
And feathered clouds strew flowers round her head.

The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light roves round
The gardens or sits singing in the trees."
Thus sang the jolly autumn as he sat
Then rose, girded himself, and o'er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight, but left his golden load
.


While Larkin's poem, unpublished in his lifetime and taking its first line as its title, was composed in 1961:

And now the leaves suddenly lose strength.
Decaying towers stand still, lurid, lanes-long,
And seen from landing windows, or the length
of gardens, rubricate afternoons. New strong
rain-bearing night-winds come: then
Leaves chase warm buses, speckle statued air,
Pile up in corners, fetch out vague broomed men
Through mists at morning.

And no matter where goes down
The sallow lapsing drift in fields
Or squares behind hoardings, all men hesitate
Separately, always, seeing another year gone -
Frockcoated gentleman, farmer at his gate,
Villein with mattock, soldiers on their shields,
All silent, watching the winter coming on.         
  
       
      
So from Blake, we have the freedom of fruitfulness, joy, and jolly voices, from Larkin lapse, hesitation, and decay.  The two poems read like opposing convictions, and neither is the falser for the other's authenticity.  They underline the duality of this most contradictory of seasons - heralding the end of the Georgian calendar, the commencement of the Jewish year; the exile of sun-seeking birds, and the appearance of rutting deer, ground-dwelling creatures and fungi, sprouting from trees like the colourful stuff of fairytales; the decline of much natural scenery, and the emergence of a multitude of flowers. Wild is the music of autumnal winds, wrote Wordsworth, amongst the faded woods.  It is indeed a time of wildness, as winds sweep newly leafless trees like cold fingers plucking icy harps; a time of  bounty, and of depletion, of harvests, fires and hibernations, of the farewell flights of birds seeking warmer shores and not to return until the sky's dark veils have lightened to a bluer glaze, many months from now. It is beautiful, it is painful.  It is the season when nature's powers are in manifest conjunction with Her cyclical mortality and the passing of time.





                                                    

Ice and Flowers - Bulgarian Poet Ivan Davidkov


The poetry of Ivan Davidkov, Bulgarian writer and artist, fuses balladic lyricism with philosophical and spiritual themes, and, according to Simeon Hadjikosev of Sofia University, The many images in his verse - landscape, to do with things - are built upon the principle of dematerialisation and disembodiment of the image.

The Mirror

The mirror is an abyss.  In it
images quietly sink
without our hearing a sound, without our seeing
the rippling of running waves.
There, on the bottom, lies hidden
the secret soul of our house,
where we are born, where others sometimes
lived before us.

No matter whether we cry or pray,
they won't float up again
out of the wordless depth.
And cracked by our wrinkles,
silvery like morning mist,
the mirror keeps its silence.


Davidkov was born in 1926, in the town of Zhivovtsi, in the Bulgarian region of Mihailovgrad, and is the author of many works of poetry and prose.  His translator, Czech chemist Ewald Osers, who died in 2011, was born a century ago this year, and in the preface to Davidkov's Fires of the Sunflower (Forest 1988) described Davidkov's published works as related by subject, by reflection and by memories, which combine to present a colourful picture of life in a kind of dialogue about happiness, beauty, and the meaning of human existence.  Characterized by a sense of detail, their pictorial elements are drawn from nature. It would be difficult to separate Davidkov the prose writer from Davidkov the poet.

 I'll go and see the chestnut trees in bloom
along the banks of the Berkovitsa,
their blossom-spikes like starfish on the coast of Brittany
lie, mother-of-pearl-like, on the sea-wet meadows
when winter's floods receded but its spume still gleams
among the mountain ridges.
(From Prelude and Fugue)

Osers goes on to explain how Ivan Davidkov is not only a writer but also a painter of some distinction - a fact that emerges from his diction, no matter whether he writes philosophically reflective poems, or love lyrics, or playfully aphoristic short poems suggestive of miniature paintings.

 
























Indeed, within the broader theme of a seasonal worldview, the details of natural imagery - real or imagined - pepper Davidkov's poetry with splashes of complicated colour - the suggestion of Cohen's poetry strikes me, in these lines from Prelude and Fugue:
 
I have received your letter from Babylon-
and as the lizards darted
before you over the fragments of granite and glory,
so do my eyes now dart about the roughnesses
of words.

Mirrors and reflections are prevalent:


I sought my image in the looking glass
and my glance wandered over its rim,
anxious that it should not spin off
to its yawning whirlpools.
I saw reflected there the vast blue sky,
I saw the eyes, too, that were piercing it
and birds were flitting through the slits,
I saw the golden cloudlets,
and the light was flashing from vast boundless meadows,
so clearly ready for the reaper's sickle.


as are portraits of fantastical folk, such as the unnamed artist in his threadbare scarf, whose simple lifestyle serves as an example of aestheticism:

In winter his little window was a murky patch.
And when outside he heard the blizzard raging
he'd light one sun upon his canvas
so it should warm not just his hands, but the trees.
Where had he got it from? The angry sky?
No, that  is black, an icy wind is dropping its needles.
He must have carried it hidden in his cap,
the way young boys do a fledgling sparrow
fallen from its nest.

and the tragic clown who ran at midnight to inform me that / the swallows had returned that evening, but of whom:

no-one rang at the hour when he walked
the narrow tightrope of his final breath
and when below his feet he clearly felt
not the brilliant vastness of the circus ring
but the infernal abyss in the eys of those
whom he was leaving behind.

The exchange of death and birth is one which occurs throughout Davidkov's work, and is often accentuated by the imagery of returning birds, as above and as in The Return of the Storks:



The storks arrived at early dawn
over our valley
not yet warmed by the sun.
From the purple Berkovitsa hills
the light was pouring
on their enormous flock.

The windows of the houses shone like fire.
People awoke and stepped outside
to see if they could recognize their storks.
Were they the same?
Even the telephone wires sang with joy.

This beautiful poem, almost Biblical in tone and symbolism,traces a homecoming through the eyes of both the birds:

The silver wreaths of wings
interweaving
above smiles
above poplars
above white paths -
and then two storks flew down;
they'd found their old nest.

and the villagers below, who witness the returning storks:

cap in hand
the people stood,
leaning on their ploughs,
leaning against young trees.
Until that day you'd never seen them
so radiant, so inspired.

The morning had entranced them with a magic
which lent their souls a splendour of their own.
The valley silently observed a liturgy
that no religious creed have ever known.


Avian imagery flows richly through the work of this poet highly attuned to the natural world, and also to a sense of magic.  Consider the titles of some of his books fro the 1980's: The Eyes of a Bird (1983)  The Flight of the Starlings (1987)  but also The Ruler of Nocturnal Suns.  Simeon Hadjikosev suggests that Davidkov's poetry is more magical than his paintings, and that many of his evocations recall the ghostly landscapes of the Symbolists:

The flowers of the sunflower fields are dead.
Crows are the black charcoal with which autumn draws
the portrait of the rain on barren limestone cliffs.

 

How much of Davidkov's darker poetry is reflective of the political conditions under which he lived, and how far its sombre imagery was drawn from somewhere deeper within the poet's psyche, cannot be known, but undoubtedly the strain of living under Communism must surely be a factor behind the Orwellian elements of lines like:


If you attempt to heat your house with thoughts
you'll hear the ice tinkling in your kettle.
If you attempt to light the walls with memories of sunshine
you'll see the spider's dream gently rocking
in all the corners.Clouds will walk
along the words you've written
between the blackbird's voice and the banshee's
howling over the chimney.

But at the same time, the sadness inherent in so much of Davidkov's verse seems rooted in the personal rather than political, perhaps in bereavements or the losses of relationships:

I'll make myself a Trojan horse 
from the pitch-covered planks of sunken ships,
from my grief over lost friends,
from memories of markets and of ports
which wound me with their jagged edges
like a splintered mosaic

and is sometimes cast in comic mould, with a painter's eye for satirical detail:


This then was the spring's goodbye to us?

I saw the gardener walking
among the flowering bushes, secateurs in hand.
A moment later the most beautiful rose
dropped under the merciless steel,
curly wig tumbling
like the head of Marie Antoinette
under the clank of the guillotine.

 

According to Hadjikosev, in the mature poetry of Davidkov, hovers the halo of an unconquerable nostalgia, arising from the consciousness of the brevity and unrepeatability of human life.  The poet is aware that he is drawing with frozen breath upon heavenly silk, that what is created by man is impermanent and precisely for that reason is so tragically sublime.  

That Night

That summer day sky was like a bosom of fireflies
that night when I loved you,
when we were holding hands,
and walking through the dark forest
seemed more like crossing a ford in heaven,
and underneath our feet, tottering, moved
Perseus and Andromeda - 

where now
the laundered clouds are hanging
on the line strung up by a vanished aircraft
and only the yellowed grass
gives out sweet perfume to the sky
which - or was it just a dream? -
is like a bosom full of fireflies.

The indefinable nature of love, and the deep pains of parting and distance, are articulated in poems like the beautiful If Sometimes in the Night, which, again, reminds me in its understated tenderness, of some of the early poetry of Leonard Cohen:

If sometimes in the night a late wind
awakes you and you hear my voice
like the deaf foghorn of a ship
lost in an infinity,
know then that you have not set out alone
from the bare shore of your night:
I'm looking for you
just to hear your breath-
and nothing more.

while elsewhere, Davidkov knits together the pathos of the human heart, its longings and losses, with an embrace of something Universal, a spiritual awakening which unites human love with an awareness of our place in the ecological and philosophical plane of existence.  As Hadjikosev says, Spiritual and physical, material - bodily and intellectual - continually flow together and change places in the colour-impressionistic amalgam of his poetry.  From this maybe comes the feeling of a deeply pantheistic sense of the world of the poet:

At the tormenting hour She will come to mould
our faces out of clay and out of ash.
And streams of rain will wash our eyebrows, eyes and lips -
and we'll resemble roadside stones 
or clods of earth turned over by the plough.

Ultimately, I find Davidkov a poet of joy.  There is always a hint that, whatever dark dawns might be depicted in his harsher illustrations of a closed or deathly world, other, brighter realities hover on horizon.  Whether etching the obituaries of imagined artists,  painting serene visions of the cathedral of limetrees in blossom, celebrating longed-for homecomings, or foretelling of redemption, and of new beginnings, there is an undercurrent of regrowth, love, and hope:


I've picked up all the ice-flowers
from the window - and in my vases they
now gleam like silver and peacocks' tails,
waiting for you to come. Send me
a message by a bird, by a sunray flashing
through bare-branched poplars








Many Mirrors - Romanian Poet Ana Blandiana

Some of my family were Romanian Jews, of whom records exist up until the 1930's and then evaporate.  The reasons for this are fairly obvious, and the history of the Jews in Romania is not a happy one, but of late I have begun to delve into the country's history and culture, and found much to embrace.  I am a newcomer to the poetry of Romania, but in all the anthologies and websites I have read, one name keeps resurfacing, of a poet whose work, translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea, impresses and affects me profoundly - Ana Blandiana.

I've never been self-sufficient, I know.
Always in the air, hanging – like a fruit from
Its tree, like an arrow from a bended bow,
Like a word from its etymology.

That sense I had, when I dreamed what I would be
Before I came to earth, altered long ago
Into hope forgotten



Ana Blandiana was born Otilia Valeria Coman, taking the name Blandiana in honour of her mother's home village, and would become a librarian at the Institute of Fine Arts in Bucharest.  The daughter of a priest and an accountant, she was a critic of her country's Communist regime, her father having been imprisoned and dying only a few days after his release.  Interviewed 14 years ago by Naomi Frandzen of Georgetown University, Washington DC for the website Lingua Romana, the poet would explain:

 Because he was a priest and because he held sermons that a lot of people came to, he was locked up on a number of occasions. My whole childhood was spent in this atmosphere. At any given moment my father was either in prison or we were waiting for him to be locked up, but our family wasn’t the only one that this happened to. It was pretty common for priests to have their bags packed and have warm clothes prepared in case he was arrested.

An apolitical poet by nature, Ana Blandiana was compelled by circumstance to focus on her position as a poet within a repressive State, and much of her work reflects the bureaucratic brutality and dehumanizing nature of her country under Communism.  The brilliant Totul lampoons the self-important paternalism of Ceausescu, the word "Totul" meaning "Everything," - a word the dictator used frequently in his speeches.  Published appropriately in 1984, Totul presents a stark inventory of everyday items and sights supposedly on offer in Communist Romanian, contrasting with the meager shabbiness of the reality.  Within hours of the poem's publication in the literary journal Amfitreatu, the edition in which it featured was withdrawn from sale under government instructions, and its editors removed from their posts.
  
 ... Leaves, words, tears
Tinned Food, Cats
Trams from time to time, queues for flour
Weevils, empty bottles, speeches
Elongated images on the television
Colorado beetles, petrol
Pennants, the European Cup
Trucks with gas cylinders, familiar portraits
Export-reject apples
Newspapers, loaves of bread
Blended oil, carnations
Receptions at the airport
Cico-cola, balloons
Bucharest salami, diet yoghurt
Gypsy women with Kents, Crevedia Eggs
Rumours
The Saturday serial, coffee substitutes
The struggle of nations for peace, choirs
Production by the hectare
Gerovital, the Victoriei Avenue Mob
The Hymn of Romania, Adidas shoes
Bulgarian stewed fruit, jokes, sea fish
Everything.


Each line has specific resonance to the contemporary situation too manifold to extrapolate on here, but despite its suppression by the Romanian authorities, translations did appear in print around the world, affording a certain underground, even cult status for the poem, including in its native land.


A more narrative driven, if surreal, exposure comes in the form of the chilling Selection, with scenes painfully reminiscent of the Holocaust:


Those who have no wings 
Bustle round the cloakroom to collect them. 
Those who do have wings 
Very carefully zip them up. 
In the present conditions 
It’s hard to know 
Who will be able to fly
 When the moment comes, 
When the earth 
Opens up 
To carry out both a tardy 
And useless selection.

While the poem Each Move depicts the poet's predicament in the context of living under a censorious regime, in Kafkaesque, Orwellian language and nightmarish visions of surveillance and self-censorship:

Each of my moves 
Is seen
Simultaneously in many mirrors,
Each look I take 
Meets with itself
Several times,
Until
I forget which is
The true one,
And who
Mocks me.
 
But Ana Blandiana's poetry was aimed against the regime in more colourful ways also, at times segueing into a rebuttal of social restrictions by celebrating natural freedom. In a 2011 piece for Mascara literary journal, Daria Florea, describes how:

Her early work and the poetry written after the 1989 revolution are characterised by nature and emotion as pure expressions of life. It resembles the youthful preoccupation with love, self discovery and romanticism in cultural desert produced by oppression and lack of freedom of speech. “Rain Chant” celebrates youth as it compares sexuality with nature:
           
I am the most beautiful woman because it’s raining

And I look good with rain’s locks in my hair. 
I am the most beautiful woman because it’s windy,
And the dress desperately struggles to cover my knees.

 

 At times, the warmth and humour veer into dry wit:

   I believe that we are a botanic nation
  Otherwise, where do we get this calmness

  In which we await the shedding of our leaves?
 (From I Believe
...and elsewhere there are flashes of self-realization, as the poet herself becomes the subject of the poem.   Commenting on the compliments she has begun to receive, the author depicts the situation as if the comments related to her attire, whereupon she confides in the reader:
...my poems aren’t my clothes,
But my bones – 
Painfully extracted 
And placed around my flesh like a shell, 
Following the example of tortoises
 That manage to survive that way
 For long and unhappy
 Centuries.


Ana Blandiana has been the recipient of many literary awards, including the Poetry Award from the Romanian Writers Union (1969), the Writers Union Award for Children’s Literature (1980), the Gottfried Von Herder Award (1982) and the Mihai Eminescu National Award for Poetry (1997), and has just won a Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry - a magnificent profusion of acclaim for a writer who was officially banned from publishing by her own government for three separate periods, and who once believed that she would inevitably be outlived by Ceausescu.  Participating in the December 1989 removal of that leader, and subsequently affiliated with groups aiming to alleviate the effects of Communism in post-Ceausescu Romania, she has progressed through a literary evolution, from fearless rebel to wry commentator, to a poet whose work embodies a nation's emergence from oppression into an uncertain dawn. In her later work, there is something liberating in decay, a sense of personal progress thanks to, and against the backdrop of, ideological decline:

Old Angels

Old angels, stinking
With a rank smell in their humid feathers,In their thinning hair,Their skin peeling off in patches of psoriasis,Maps of terrifyingUnknown lands,Furrowed, scored, and scratched.Too sad to bring good news,Too thin to wield the sword of fire,They sink half-asleep into the earth,Like seeds being plantedIn the rheumatic joints of wings,Deeper and deeper in the ground,
Older and older, more and more human . . . 

...and at times purely transcendent:


I Glide, I Glide

I am the first of men to grow old
Beneath these burning skies.

 Alone I discover, 
With no one here to help me, 
The tremendous surprise 
Of a body that is mine  
But is being left behind, 
Like a devastated shore, 
While I glide 
On, glide on above the waves 
Until I see myself no more.




But I also detect a sense of personal loss in the poetry of Ana Blandiana, and of the timeless disconnection prevalent among poets or artistic people, perhaps at times of uncertainty or of not fully understanding the freedoms we enjoy for the brief times that we enjoy them, a feeling of confusion or of alienation, the loneliness which only increases in proportion to the numbers of people with whom one finds ones self, a sense of not belonging in a society one does not understand, with which I can myself identify, and which I suspect carries a great resonance for many other people.

A Young Horse 

I’ve never figured out what world I live in.
I rode on a horse as young and as happy as I.

 When he galloped I could feel his heartbeat 
Against my thighs 
And my heart pounded, unquenchable, with the speed. 
Everything flashing by, I didn’t even notice  
That my saddle was resting 
On the bones of a horse 
That was rapidly falling to pieces on the trailAnd that I was still riding 
On a young horse made of air 
In a century that wasn’t my own anymore.
 


Monday, 13 November 2017

Night at Daybreak - Alice Meynell

JS Sargent










Walking home form the Cenotaph at Crow Wood Park yesterday, I thought of the War Poets, and some of the lesser known poets of the period also came to mind. At home, I leafed through an anthology of First World War poetry, and was reminded of Alice Meynell (1847 - 1922), whose Summer in England, 1914, depicts with a chillingly deceptive calmness the last days of a fading innocence:



On London fell a clearer light;
Caressing pencils of the sun
Defined the distances, the white
Houses transfigured one by one,
The 'long, unlovely street' impearled.
O what a sky has walked the world!


In the second stanza, the poet's gaze is drawn from urban calm to a rural scene woven with pastoral motifs, evoking images of another England, in language reminiscent of Herrick, Crabbe, or even Clare:

Most happy year! And out of town
The hay was prosperous, and the wheat;
The silken harvest climbed the down:
Moon after moon was heavenly-sweet,
Stroking the bread within the sheaves,
Looking 'twixt apples and their leaves.


Before contrasting this prelapsarian serenity with the horrors of a war gradually unfolding:


And while this rose made round her cup,
The armies died convulsed. And when
This chaste young silver sun went up
Softly, a thousand shattered men,
One wet corruption, heaped the plain,
After a league-long throb of pain.


Alice Meynell, born to wealthy parents in Barnes, South London, and brought up in various countries around Europe, is one of those poets I turn to only occasionally, and even then only to tease out rare exceptions to her rhyme-bound rules.  In keeping with much poetry of its period, her pre-WW1 works in particular always strike me as conventional and unexciting, and mainly serve as a vehicle for her Catholic faith.  But, as in Summer in England, the poet was also capable of an elegant use of contrasts, and a great skill for personification, such as when she has the Moon address the Sun, the Day to the Night, or even A Letter from a Girl to her own old Age:

Only one youth, and the bright life was shrouded.
Only one morning, and the day was clouded.
And one old age with all regrets is crowded.
O hush, O hush! Thy tears my words are steeping.
O hush, hush, hush! So full, the fount of weeping?
Poor eyes, so quickly moved, so near to sleeping?
Pardon the girl; such strange desires beset her.
Poor woman, lay aside the mournful letter
That breaks thy heart; the one who wrote, forget her:

The rhymes could sometimes be ironic, or ingenious - to twin smog-spouting British factories with Mediterranean skies, as in the following lines in praise of a clear English breeze, is little short of sarcasm:

Unsmirched incredibly and clean,
   Between the towns and factories,
Avoiding, has his long flight been,
   Bringing a sky like Sicily’s


 As a poet of contrasts and unlikely evocations, Alice Meynell deserves renewed recognition.  She is also highly deserving of praise for her uncanny ability to draw out the lesser noticed, and her occupation of the shadows between things:


Darkness and solitude shine, for me.
   For life’s fair outward part are rife
The silver noises; let them be.
   It is the very soul of life
Listens for thee, listens for thee.
O pause between the sobs of cares;
   O thought within all thought that is;
Trance between laughters unawares:
   Thou art the shape of melodies,
And thou the ecstasy of prayers
!

Marrying the publisher Wilfred Meynell, the poet became an outspoken opponent of Colonial oppression, and a champion of suffrage and progressive causes.  The Meynells'  if not bohemian, then certainly liberal, household at 47 Palace Court, Bayswater, was a hub of artistic activity.  Alice's daughter, poet and novelist Viola Meynell, was an early promoter of DH Lawrence, and the family were friends and supporters of the tragic English poet Francis Thompson.  Her mother died on November 27th, 1922, and is buried at Kensall Rise Cemetery.  She remains an important English voice of the inter-war period, and is a writer I turn to at rare but salient moments of reflection - as much for the refreshing honesty and unapologetic nihilism which creep their way into her poetry as for her poems' ornateness, qualities which seem painfully resonant with the social and political morbidity coming to characterize our own time.

Song of the Night at Daybreak
All my stars forsake me.
And the dawn-winds shake me.
Where shall I betake me?
Whither shall I run
Till the set of sun,
Till the day be done?
To the mountain-mine,
To the boughs o’ the pine,
To the blind man’s eyne,
To a brow that is
Bowed upon the knees,
Sick with memories? 

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Poetry of Branwell Bronte - the Halifax Connetion












It was my privilege to deliver a talk today at the Bronte Parsonage, Haworth, about the influence of Halifax on the life and work of Branwell Bronte.  As explored in my film A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years, Branwell's time in the Valley was short lived but productive, yielding many poems and gaining him a circle of loyal friends who would have a positive impact on his poetry.  Working as a clerk on the Leeds and Manchester railway, first at Sowerby Bridge train station, then at Luddendenfoot, in the early 1840's, he enjoyed socializing at Luddenden's Lord Nelson pub, which housed the first lending library in the Ridings area, and where he would share poetry with such authors as William Heaton, William Dearden, "The Bard of Ovenden" Thomas Crossley, and the so-called "Airedale Poet", John Nicholson.

 

Branwell's job on the railways also provided him with the inspiration for some of his writing:

Amid the world's wide din around
I hear from far a solemn sound
that says Remember Me

I when I heard it sat amid
The bustle of a town like room
Neath skies with smoke-stained vapours hid,
By windows made to show their gloom-
The desk that held my ledger book
Beneath the thundering rattle shook
Of engines passing by
The bustle of the approaching train
Was all I hoped to rouse the brain
Or startle apathy.
 

Above the bar at the Lord Nelson, is an inscription from a letter of Branwell's in which he claims that he would rather give me right hand than undergo again the malignant yet cold debauchery which too often marked my conduct there - a quip which seems to have been intended as self-satire, but which has further fuelled the vision of him as a staggering, hopeless drunk.  During my talk today, I did not labour to dispel the idea that Branwell was certainly fond of a drink, but rather to illustrate that this was only one side of his character, and ought not to overshadow the not inconsiderable achievements of his poetry.  In particular, Branwell published several poems while living in the area, which were printed in the acclaimed Halifax Guardian, a newspaper based on King Cross Street, later to merge into the Courier, whose poetry pages were notoriously difficult to break into, owing to their editors' highly discriminating tastes.

 In The Brontes, Juliet Barker's book on which my film is partly based,  we read of how the chief merit of Branwell's new job was his proximity to the literary, artistic and musical circles of Halifax, a town long renowned for its culture.  John Frobisher, the organist at Halifax Parish Church, was a prolific organizer of concerts … there were regular, if bizarre, lectures in the town and, in December, a newly refurbished and reorganized Halifax Theatre opened … Juliet refers to  the wealthy and cultured town of Halifax, and points out that Halifax attracted eminent musicians from all over Europe. Branwell would have been well aware of the attractive Piece Hall, an 18th Century hall designed for traders from the cloth trade and often used for open air events, pictured here beautifully by one of the artists he socialized with in Halifax, John Wilson Anderson:







and which today he would have found brimming with bookshops, arts and crafts, food and drink, and live music:



 The story of the Bronte family's Halifax connection really begins in 1811, as documented in my essay The Brontes in Halifax http://simonzonenblickcaterpillarpoet.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/the-brontes-in-halifax.html , with the publication of Patrick Bronte's Cottage Poems, printed by a company based on Old Market, whose premises would have been above the chippy in this picture:



...which, by a rather delicious irony, was situated directly opposite one of the pubs where Branwell used to drink, The Union Cross hotel:



No doubt Patrick, the Reverend Patrick Bronte of Haworth Church, would have heartily disapproved of this short piece by Branwell, taken from a longer work in which he channels the identity of the apocryphal figure of Azrael, a sacrilegious sprite who turns up in various guises in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, also published in the Halifax Guardian:

There is no God,
I know there's none -
neither of spirit or of stone.
No holy hill or idol shrine
has ever held a power divine.
Nor Heaven above nor Hell below
can minister to wail or woe
I feel that when the body dies
its memories and feelings die
that they from Earth shall never rise


 Perhaps more in keeping with his Anglican upbringing was Branwell's friendship with the sculptor Joseph Leyland, two of whose works can be found in Halifax Minster.


There has been a church at the location for nearly 900 years, and the Minster's tower dates back to the 16th Century:






...while various elements of its interior also date to mediaeval, Tudor, and Stuart periods:





One of the memorials above the church's Jacobean pews was sculpted by Leyland from his London studio in 1838:



and in 1847, he would create the following beautiful commemorative monument to Bishop Robert Ferrar, a 16th Century Protestant clergyman born in Ewood, near Mythomroyd, burned at the stake during the Reformation for refusing to renounce his faith while serving as a Bishop in Wales:



By the 1840's, Leyland was living and working in "the Square", a part of Halifax known for its artistic scene, and site of today's library, museum and Square Chapel theatre:



...and his younger brother Francis, who later became an antiquarian bookseller on Halifax's Cornmarket, wrote a book about the Brontes, in which he remembered his first meeting with Branwell as a teenager:

The young railway clerk was of gentlemanlike appearance, and seemed qualified for a much better position than the one he had chosen...His voice had a ringing sweetness, and the utterance and use of his English was perfect. Branwell appeared in excellent spirits, and showed none of those signs of intemperance with which some writers have unjustly credited him about this period of his life.  My brother had often spoken to me of Branwell's poetical abilities, his conversational powers and the polish of his education, and on a personal acquaintance I found nothing to question in this estimate of his mental gifts, and of his literary attainments.  

Branwell shared a love of walking among the hills and woodlands of the Calder Valley with several of his Halifax associates, and friends like Joseph Leyland might be expected to have set a good example - but alas, it seems that the sculptor himself was prone to heavy drinking, became an alcoholic, and died in debt just three years after Branwell's own untimely death.  In a long poem composed in December 1841, Branwell depicts himself in a state of remorse, reflecting on his current position, past, and fate:

 Oh God! while I in pleasure's wiles
Count hours and years as one,
And deem that, rapt in pleasure's siles,
My joys can ne'er be done,

Give me the stern sustaining power
To Look into the past,
And see the darkly shadowed hour
Which I must meet at last;


But Branwell's talents seemed to lay more in the direction of wider philosophy, his poetry often suited to a sense of analysis of wordly ills, as in the following piece which was printed in the Halifax Guardian:


Increase of days increases misery
and misery brings selfishness, which sears
the heart's first feelings: mid the battle's roar
in death's dread grasp, the soldier's eyes are blind
to comrades dying, and he whose hopes are o'er
tuns coldest from the sufferings of mankind;
a bleeding heart oft delights in gore;

a tortured heart oft makes a tyrant mind.

 Here, Branwell elucidates a viewpoint more associated with psychology or post-modern social theory, than the 19th Century British worldview - that of assessing an individual's proclivity to wrongdoing in the context of their own experience, and his suggestion of trauma engendering or unleashing the capacity for tyranny places him decidedly on the humanist side of the moral and political debate, and he demonstrates an acute ability for empathy across the boundaries of personal experience.  The Parson's son from the rural lanes of Yorkshire is able to share a common humanity with those who have suffered on the front lines of battle.  If only Branwell were able to extend more of this compassion towards himself.  In the summer of 1845, living back in Haworth and increasingly gripped by his addictions to laudunum and alcohol, Branwell would imagine a corpse floating dead at sea, to who he composed the following sad lines:

I have an outward frame unlike to thine,
Warm with young life - not cold in death's decline;
An eye that sees the sunny light of heaven-
A heart by pleasure thrilled - by anguish riven -
But in exchange for thy untroubled calm,
Thy gift of cold oblivion's healing balm,
I'd give my own youth - my health - my life to come,
And share thy slumbers in an ocean tomb.

He was not to know that within three years, he would indeed be in his tomb.  Branwell, whose official cause of death was tuberculosis, lost his job on the railways in 1842 after a mix up with some money, the fault of a thieving colleague but for which unhappy circumstance he, as clerk-in-charge, had to bear responsibility, and would die at the age of only 31, just at the time when his sisters' literary endeavours were beginning to bear fruit.  Painted in many ensuing biographies as a wastrel, defined by his addictions and misfortunes, Branwell was a tragic figure, his contributions to the world cut short, and his memory only now beginning to surface in a positive light. The efforts of many local artists have resulted in poetry readings, radio discussions, and my own documentary film, not to mention the astounding television film To Walk Invisible, by Calder Valley born writer Sally Wainwright, and the wonderful bicentenary celebrations at Haworth parsonage, which include a marvelous exhibition of poetry about Branwell, by Simon Armitage.   Branwell's legacy is celebrated by a blue plaque at Sowerby Bridge station, and by the lovely Bronte Garden, created by volunteers, containing flowers pertaining to Bronte poems and novels,  and lately winning a tourism award:


Although the later periods of his life may have been characterized by disappointment and mistakes, Branwell's time in the Calder Valley was far from sparse in terms of poetic productivity, and his creative encounters in Halifax, together with the platform provided for him by the Halifax Guardian, certainly shine a  positive light upon the life and legacy of this talented, but troubled man.

On earth we see our own abode
a smoky town, a dusty road
a neighboruing hill or grove;
in Heaven a thousand worlds of light
revolving through the gloom of night
o'er endless pathways rove.

While daylight shows this little earth
it hides the mighty heaven
and, but by night, a visible birth
to all its stars is given
and, fast as fades departing day,
when silent marsh or woodland grey
mid evening's mist declines,
then slowly stealing, star on star,
as night sweeps forward, from afar,
more clear and countless shines.


(Branwell Bronte, published Halifax Guardian, June 1841)


 
 



Sunday, 5 November 2017

Animals, People and Bangers

Even now, just short of midnight,  the night air is hammered at intervals by a Pavlovian cacophony of bangs and barks, as fireworks erupt to the distress of dogs and other animals.  For around a week the Valley has sounded like a warzone, the repetitious clattering in the skies shuddering through house windows and menacingly echoing the tragic violence currently engulfing half the world, a nightly serenade of bomb-like banging, as selfish oiks stick two fingers at the rest of us and subject all and sundry to disturbance, all in the name of a national pastime. Nothing to do with its historical roots, the contemporary Bonfire Night is simply a pointless exercise in  money wasting, vandalism, and intentional animal cruelty. All my life I have racked my brains and failed to think of a single benefit from bangers, to think of one single reason anyone would detonate them.  Anyone who has ever taken care of any animal during one of these unpleasant evenings, will know the shock and anxiety suffered by many domestic pets - I have seen large Alsatians and guard dogs jumping in alarm.  Most animals have hearing ranges far excessive of humans, and the damage caused by bangers can be indelible.
We are led to believe that many British households are currently strapped for cash - yet some are evidently drowning in money, enough to set fire to, and are determined to harm others in the process. The panic caused by fireworks causes many wild animals to abandon their nests and burrows, resulting in infants separated from mothers and starving to death, while waterbirds and fish are known to die due to ingesting firework debris.  Many animals are traumatized, become strays, or exhibit life-threatening behaviours.  The damage caused to habitats by fireworks can be serious, light and chemical pollution can cause irreparable harm, while many humans also suffer a great deal of unwarranted stress. Clearly, anyone persisting in the use of bangers is either mentally sick or simply moronic, and it is high time the authorities put paid to their destructive habits.

BANGERS

Blasting through the night
like abusive drunks on trains
they startle dogs and rupture
whatever peace remains
in this unquiet age.

Frightening animals everywhere,
shrieking wastes-of-money
ignited by the ignorant
who, like obnoxious schoolboys,
love to play at war, enjoy
the heartlessness of noise,

these detonations are the calling cards
of a bloated generation,
nasty, twisted, thick bullies,
drunk on their own self-importance
and with money to burn,
hating non-humans and imposing
cacophony without cessation -
just another yobbish symptom of a sick, declining nation.