Robo-Burns: The Orfeon Translates

(By way of xenochronicitous – AKA late – celebration of the birth o the Bard, here’s an machine-generated curio. 

The Bulgarian poet Kristin Dimitrova completed a translation of one of my Burns poems – there’s mair – back in 2009 when we worked on a companion volume to Arc’s A Balkan Exchange, a book of collaborative translations from 2007, in which myself, Andy Croft, Linda France and Mark Robinson built on five years of contact with Bulgarian poets to translate Kristin, Georgi Gospodinov, Nadya Radulova, and VBV (Vassil Vidinsky). 

As that volume, a set of translations from English – and Scots – is due to appear this year (we poets are nothing if not tenacious), Kristin thought it’d be nice to greet the New Year with her translation of ‘Rabbie, Rabbie, Burning Bright’. Then Facebook’s auto-translate facility thought it’d be helpful to just, y’know, translate that back into ‘English’.

The result reminded me of my robotic alter ego from an earlier Arc volume, the roboet Orfeon (the apparition of which in Mexico City I will eventually recount). It is Unglish of a rare sort, which robots of the future are welcome to recite at their cybernetic festivals. I reproduce here first Orfeon’s version, then Kristin’s original Bulgarian, and finally my Scots antecedent. 

The latter, incidentally, was chosen by David Robinson for the Scottish Poetry Library as one of the best Scottish poems of 2013 – mebbe the version ablow will achieve a similar honour in anither hunnert year or so?)

Robbie, Robbie, living embers

Between November and now
Since the snow fell
Squatting under winter horns
In Winter and mech
Pray for spring, rainbow
And summer clothes.
May sunshine from st. Andrei
He got drunk and not grey,
In his boozy apogee
Left Home.
Heavenly Chandelier
Now throwing up.
As Knights and bold
Chopping down chickens, turkeys, geese,
We swear to spatter factory
Enemy to bucim.
Lads we are, but with ties.
Gelded dogs.
Christmas by gesture of gesture
Approaching Financial stress
But Robert Burns was born today
Oh, highest glory!
And this day glow of six
And thawing.
If lift full bŭrdutsi
Cut and juicy sausage,
Will grasp without Confucius,
That fight stops.
Peace be with you! Chillin fists
Wings and beer.
Eh, haggis, meaty zora
From January subsoil –
You still at the table in the court,
But how to start
No Burns, no song of mouth
Rhymes and accurate?
After these lush nights in chess
Wakes up every beggar,
Go tax that beating
Backs.
Scots, forget fear
Read and burns!

*

Роби, Роби, жива жар

Между ноември и сега,
откакто паднал е снега,
клечим под зимните рога
във зимен мех и
за пролет молим, за дъга
и летни дрехи.

Май Слънчо от Св. Андрей
се е натряскал и не грей,
в пиянския си апогей
напуснал къщи.
Небесният полиелей
сега повръща.

И както рицарите дръзки
сечем кокошки, пуйки, гъски,
кълнем се, та се дигат пръски,
врага да бучим.
Юнаци сме, но с вратовръзки,
скопени кучета.

По Коледа от жест на жест
достигаме финансов стрес,
но Робърт Бърнс роден е днес,
о, висша слава!
И този ден пламти на шест
и размразява.

Щом вдигнем пълните бърдуци
и резнем сочните суджуци,
ще схванеш, без да си Конфуций,
че боят спира.
Мир вам! Отпускаме юмруци
и пием бира.

Ех, хагис – месеста зора
от януарските недра –
ти пак край масата ни сбра, 
но как да почнем
без Бърнс, без песен на уста
и рими точни?

След тези буйни нощи в шах
се буди всеки сиромах,
че иде данъчен пердах
по гърбовете.
Шотландци, забравете страх
и Бърнс четете!

*

Rabbie, Rabbie, Burning Bright

Atween November’s end and noo
there’s really nithin else tae do
but climb inside a brindlet coo
           and dream o Spring,
fur Winter’s decked hur breist and broo
           wi icy bling.

It feels like, oan St Andrae’s nicht,
thi sun went oot and gote sae ticht
he endit up in a braw fire fecht
             wi some wee comet – 
noo he’s layin low wi his punched-oot licht
             aa rimmed wi vomit.

We too hae strachilt lik The Bruce
and hacked up turkey, duck and goose;
and let aa resolution loose
            oan Hogmanay,
but waddle noo frae wark tae hoose
              lyk dogs they spayed.

Each year fails tae begin thi same:
fae dregs o Daft Deys debt comes hame
and we gaither in depression’s wame
             aa duty-crossed – 
but Burns’s birthday is a flame
             set tae Defrost.

Ye dinna need tae be Confucius
tae ken, if Dullness wad confuse us,
ye caa ‘Respite! Let’s aa get stocious – 
              And dinna nag us.
Grant us that globe of spice, thi luscious
            Delight caaed “haggis”!’

That truffle o the North must be 
dug frae the depths o January,
but cannae pass oor lips, nor we
              cross Limbo’s border – 
unless that passport, Poetry,
             be quite in order.

Sae thi daurkest deys o thi haill damn year
can dawn in yawns baith dreich an drear – 
sae thi Taxman’s axe is at wir ear
             fur his Returns?
We Scots sall neither dreid nor fear
             but read wir Burns.

Posted in xenochronicity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Omnisatire and the Ragged Sleeve

Reading The Poets of The People’s Journal, edited by Kirstie Blair, I am so far maist impressed by by the mock-rustic ‘Poute’ (Alexander Burgess), wha conducts a sort of omnisatire, in that he critiques mid-19th century assumptions about poetry, the lower class poet, poetry in Scots, and the means of its reproduction, using unorthography as well as literary allusion to do so.

The result anticipates Tom Leonard as well as thae poets influenced by Leonard, amang whom I’d include mysel, Alison Flett, and William Letford:
img_2010
(My own case is of course complicated by a continued adherence to developing the Scottish forms favoured by post-Burnsian bards and, like the likes of fellow Informationists David Kinloch, Robert Crawford or Richard Price, the late modernist tenets of MacDiarmid, Morgan, and that key Scottish autodidact, W.S. Graham. That said, there’s even a hint of Informationism in Poute’s parodic adoption of the slogans of advertising in his ‘Gouldings Manur. a pome’.)

img_2011
As Kirstie Blair argues in The Bottle Imp, Poute’s procedures influence even if they do not explain the tactics of McGonagall: ‘McGonagall was contributing to a pre-existing poetic culture that hovered between the satirical and the serious, and that caused difficulties for editors faced with deciding which was which.’ (The Bottle Imp, issue 14).

This resistance to middle class mediators (like the subject of McGonagall’s first poem, the Reverend Gilfillan) and their interpretation of working class verse, relates to the William Letford review by Kate Kellaway I was discussing with Harry Giles and David Wheatley a couple of weeks ago on Facebook. Here’s that link.

What I said then was, in brief, an old argument about the reception of Scots by both Scots and the English: here is the curse of the Scottish poet’s career replayed yet again, in that we are allowed but the two ways of being ever so umble. One is to write in that great impossibility, an alternative (to) English which is, as Poute so intriguingly suggests, not entirely defined by working class identity. The other is to go along with the knotty game as R.D. Laing defined it, but be as though a parody of the working class in your accent/trenchancy or chippiness of view/propensity to drink [insert favourite McCliché].*

In other words, you can be foreignised or domesticated, though in each case in the terms of the classifier, naturally. Or you can do both/neither/something else entirely including rewriting the terms, as Burns and Letford might actually have done/be doing.

It’s in this sense MacDiarmid’s title Scottish Eccentrics continues to yield meaning (a volume in which he wrote about, among other outliers, McGonagall): such centres behove us to embrace ‘eccentricity’. What if, as a sort of critical experiment, the Scottish literary tradition was redefined as precisely everything that cannot be read as ‘centric’ no matter how they/we try?

Also worth considering in this light is the Guardian Review article by Annalena McAfee, ‘The battle of the Rose Street bards’ (21st Jan 17), linking Stella Cartwright, the ‘muse’ of that gathering of poets around Hugh MacDiarmid (famously depicted by Alexander Moffat in ‘Poets’ Pub’), to the controversy over Jackie Kay’s contribution of a poem in Scots to the baby box to be given by the Scottish Parliament to every newborn.

img_2012
It’s an interesting article, but just as Kellaway’s piece moved seamlessly (almost literally in respect of that ‘heart on his ragged sleeve’) from Burns to Letford, it has no room to discuss how Scottish poetry gets from MacDiarmid to Jackie, which it does through figures absent equally from Moffat’s painting or the pages of the Guardian Review – W.S. Graham, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, the aforementioned Informationists (whose group painting can only be imagined as a canvas by Stephen Campbell or Adrian Wisniewski – our prose counterparts would of course be depicted by Peter Howson or Lys Hansen).

Therefore, for want of space, the auld argument Poute is satirising way back in the 1860s, that baith Kirstie Blair and Tom Leonard (baith in his ain work and in Radical Renfrew – in many ways a parallel volume to Poets of the People’s Journal) explore, goes roond yet again.

img_2013
Space, then, must equate to historical perspective, and that space which is made available is in turn subdivided by according privilege to the previously ignored, patronised or misunderstood. Here synecdoche substitutes for deeper analysis, which seems fine when the selected representative is, like Letford or Kay, amply deserving of praise. But that may explain why Poute liked to nip at the hand of his indulgent editor, or indeed why Stella Cartwright eventually went wary of the male praise of Rose Street.

* ‘They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I shall break the rules and they will punish me. I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.’ R.D. Laing, Knots

Posted in current emanations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Putting the Hair on the Heron

(A collaboration with Colin Herd written for Steven J. Fowler’s Enemies project:

enemies-york

The piece was performed in York on Jan 13th, 2017. Footage can be found here.)

1 The Addressing of the Herring/Folkware of the Hare

The hameless man the hare has left
is bauld and cauld and luck-bereft
except he dresses up his herrin
for Hogmanay his year’s ill-farin
sae a bonny frock wi a lacy bow
will tell his erse frae his elbow
and prove he kens oor litanies
sae we can tell his citizenry
wha kens the heron fae the hare
alane shall all oor bounty share.

The her or him hare, 
let’s call us scotart,
candidates for mayor
(maybe not Natacha Bouchart)
O’Hara, the jump-leads, the brushed off,
the depilated, the hair’s breath, 
the hare from Dorothy Molloy’s
Hare soup, souped-up. 

*

‘The parable is a sort of comfort food. It’s made from a couple of dubious but delicious ingredients: belief in the existence of unproblematically universal values, and acceptance of the capacity of animals to unambiguously embody these. Of course, “belief” in this context, like “value” or “animal”, is slightly too strong a term.’

(From a report on the Synthetic Parables, Proverbs & Apothegms of Nea Pieopolis, Virtual Skye)

2 Minutes from the Meeting of the Proverbs and the Antiverbs

Whit’s it called when it’s cauld?

Cold.

Ah.

Sooner scold a skald than scald a scold.

Eh?

Some are hard o hearin, but aabdy’s heard o herrin.

Aye.

Ye can aye buy caller herrin but no aabdy can collar a heron.

No.

Whit’s the colour o caller?

S’no yella.

SNAA!

Ye auld yeller.

Eh’d rather hae it cauld n caller than a cold caller. 

Aye but oh.

(Pause)

Dog-owners tae be given a hare tae pal up wi their dog. Legally, tho, a Cooncil employee must ask: ‘Wid you like a herr o the dug?’

that’s just splitting herrs

Wad ye sooner split a herr or a herrin?

is the herring dressed or is it soused?

Whit’s the herring’s address and is it aroused?

(Pause)

Dog-owners will receive a herring in a red dress to pop on their dog’s heid reviving the Hogmanay tradition, ‘the herring o the dug’.

no hare will be greeted or farewelled front-on. all hares will be side-parted.

Nae vennel, pend, or wynd tae be narrower nor a heron’s breadth.

herons will be cut short, if discovered with hares on their chests, or the smalls of their backs

3 The Parable of the Hare and the Heron

Once the hare thought he would race the heron.
The heron, which did not speak Hare, was alarmed
by his jerky twerky warm-ups, and took off,
coincidentally heading for the finishing line.

Considering what had happened that time
with the tortoise, the hare gave paranoid pursuit.
Just then the Great God Pan rolled over in his sleep
and let off an earth-scorcher. Grass was burnt

from the ground, leaves blown from the trees,
and all the fur left the hare’s body. The hare
was passing a tarpit, and the divine fart also lifted
a brimstone meniscus. It then caught the heron

in its noxious blast, and, in succession, stripped
every feather from her body, pelted it in hot tar,
and enveloped it in the hare’s fur. Looking like
an Icarian ventriloquist’s dummy, the heron fell,

landing by chance on the tortoise, which was
sheltering from the fumous storm in his shell,
and her beak skewered him into the burning earth.
The naked hare limped past both to victory.

4 A Questionnaire Regarding the Hare

How was the hare?

Fair.

How was the way?

The way that can be spoken of is not the fair way. 

How was the park?

Dark.

How was the lark?

Sarc

astic?

Fan

tastic!

How was the sark? 

Cutty.

How was the chip?

Butty.

How was the otter?

Hotter or Notter!

How were the banks?

In hot water

How was the beaver?

An Unbeliever!

How was the Salmon?

Not in the Canon!

How was the goat?

On a banknote!

Wiz it wearing shorts?

I think nort.

But how was the hare again?

Daycare again!

How was the park again?

Funded by an Oligarch again!

How was the lark again?

Sanctioned by a Monarch of the Glen!

5 The Parable of the Shames of the Hare

Once, the hare held the hare and ran with the hounds.
The hare snogged the hare and married the hounds.
The hare stood on the hare and made a documentary on the hounds
The hare took the hare to one side and sided with the hounds
The heron hadn’t seen hide nor hare nor hound
The hare put in a funding application with the hare and had it rejected by the hounds
The hare married the hare and snogged the hounds
The hare undercooked the hare and served it to the hounds
The heron was a bitter’n
The hare imac’d the hare and waxed the hounds lyrical
The hare bodypainted the hare and smudged the hounds
The hare internally examined the hare and agreed with the hounds
And so it happened that there are 2 national hares in Scotland; 10 in England and 3 in Wales.
They are not our hares, but our hares to look after.

6 A Questionnaire Regarding the Heron

How was the heron?

Red!

How was the herring?

We already said

BOTH: Let’s hope it was dead.

How was the Eagle?

Angelic!

How was the egret?

I don’t get it!

But how was the hare again?

Sold its shares again!

How was the cock?

Spatched.

How was the lock?

Latched.

How was the sock?

Matched.

How was the match?

Scratched.

How was the finch?

Lynched.

How was the wren?

When?

(Pause: they shrug)

How was the wench?

French.

How was the mensch?

Tensch.

How was the mention?

The mention? 

How was the mention?

BOTH: Despatched!!

(They throw their papers in the air)

Posted in current emanations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Origins, Grafts, Whispers

(As will hopefully become apparent over the next few weeks, one of my ‘resolutions’ for January 2017 was to get my act together with the backlog of posts for this and my other blogs. At the end of the month I go off on leave from Newcastle University, stepping down as I do so from the role of subject head which has occupied a certain proportion of my time for several years now (cf when my last entry here was), so clearing the decks is very much how I hope to proceed.

However I have been here before (approximately once every four years, if you want to check the blog’s track record), hence the inverted commas above, and I understand that I have a very xenochronicitous approach to all such notions of orderliness, timeliness, and, especially, the idea that what writers must do is present a coherent face to the world via social and other media, submissions to magazines and competitions, and taking part in public-facing activities via festivals and the like – all the trappings of the dreaded Poebiz which appear to have been swallowed whole by some.

My take is that you actively resist all that even to the detriment of your ‘rep’, undermining all the Biz’s and your pomposities as best you can, and instead concentrate on Doing the Work in both senses of following your nose as a writer, and your conscience as a facilitator – be that tutor, translator, collaborator, editor, judge, or indeed blogger. So it seems somewhat apt to be reviving this blog for the New Year (we’re still in my notion of the extended Daft Days in the sense that a) it’s not Burns Night yet, and b) the inauguration of Trumpo is tomorrow, when we will descend instead into the Dark Days) with a review of a writer who embodies many of those principles: Sarah Maguire.

Her work as a tireless advocate for literary translation of writers from outside the Eurocentric frame goes before her. It expresses for me an issue regarding that frame: that the choice of familiar translatees of a certain assumed stature can take on the function of contextualising a poet-translator as they wish to be seen, rather than, as the Poetry Translation Centre does, providing access to an under-recognised or entirely new-to-‘us’ literature, and sharing the energising poem or poet or poetic. Part then of Doing the Work is being at the service of that poem, poet, or poetic – and trying to learn from it.

Her own poetry has always demonstrated that same quality of conceptual, ideological, and perceptual openness with great verve, and I was very pleased to get the chance to review her in the Summer 2016 issue of Poetry London.)

Sarah Maguire, Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems (Chatto Poetry), 149pp, £15.99

Sarah Maguire’s overlapping roles as poet of frank, brilliant sensuosity, gardener with encyclopaedic knowledge of the aesthetic and healing properties of plants, and traveller/translator and facilitator of translation, primarily in a non-European context, are strikingly reflected in this gathering of her three volumes for Chatto.

The intelligent editorial decision to reorder the poems in Almost the Equinox has had the effect of emphasising a single trajectory if not narrative to the work as a whole. This allows the reader to see, as few selected poems do, the integrity of the life work, and indeed of the life as work. The poems of ‘physic’ – the intimate relation between us and our environment, between our health and the plants we use to heal us – are positioned between two unknowns – those of her origins as an adopted child, and the further worlds her work increasingly opens up to, whether experientially or poetically.

Questions of origin for Maguire always themselves originate in the body, and in placing its vulnerabilities in a specific interior or against a named landscape. As ‘The Hearing Cure’ establishes, even in present misery there is music, ‘Each night/the slow wax silts/into place/coagulating sibilance//muffling susurration…’; and even in childhood pain she finds poise: ‘the football results/came on the radio;//Scottish League Division Two…//a litany//that lulled me’.

The turn in this poem, whereby the comforting adoptive mother cannot, in her old age, be comforted, is characteristic of the unflinching truth-telling behind Maguire’s lyricism. There are fractures in our lives that can only be healed by the imagination, as in the moment of re-encounter: ‘At twenty-one I found the mother I had never known,/much smaller than I’d thought, her hands like mine.’ Ironically, it is their shared love of dance that has left the poet literally in ‘The Fracture Clinic’,  ‘beneath a star-shaped atrium’.

That inherited joyousness and that eye for forms comes together in ‘Hibiscus’, which begins with a declaration of openness:

I have no idea what is coming
as I take the hand of a perfect stranger
as I’m taken through the streets of Marrakech.

This journey leads past the intense detail of ‘the indifferent city’, its ‘tagines and harira and brochettes’, and away from ‘that one huge bud of hibiscus -/madder red, almost cerise -/that is, at this moment, coming full into bloom’. It ends in a room in the windowframe of which the poet discovers ‘A bird’s nest woven of a filigree of fine straw/and cardboard’, in which there are two eggs – ‘I watch these eggs until I know them.’

In all this the play of physical detail against metaphoric implication is accomplished with great delicacy: we are aware as readers that this is not merely an encounter with some appropriated notion of the exotic, but a depiction of the otherness that makes up our own inner world of desires and desire for security and pattern, and of how random and rare such insights are, as well as a gentle insistence that sooner or later we must realise, in Auden’s phrase, that ‘Our dream of safety has to disappear.’

The pivotal role of plants in Sarah Maguire’s work, their capacity to poison, delight or heal, and the ambivalence of the gardener, who like the surgeon, must decide how or whether their charges shall live, haunts poem after poem at the heart of this book. ‘My Grafting Knife’ which, to the young gardener, represents ‘A whole week’s wages/balanced on my palm’, is described as so sharp its unlocking ‘[hurts] the air’. At the poem’s conclusion, the description of ‘my right thumb//criss-crossed with hair-scars/tarnished with sap’ rewrites Plath’s ‘Cut’ to bring gardener and garden into a sort of sacrificial communion. In ‘Umbellularia californica’ the headache tree (which is wittily characterised in the notes: ‘opinion is divided as to whether [its] smell actually causes headaches or relieves them’) becomes the poet’s ‘lodestar’, to which, as a sufferer from migraines, she makes pilgrimage ‘not for a cure…but for a witness,/for the process/of a map.’

That process, of mapping out a life, seeing it as a geography as much as a narrative, is enacted by poem after poem in this masterful selection, which feels as subtly open to the poetics of those other landscapes as it is rooted in the London of its title poem, where the poet notes a ginkgo flaring besides St Paul’s, the nave of which is rendered cognate with the Great Mosque in Kabul, while, returned and restored, she remembers

As a child, I climbed all the stairs
to the Whispering Gallery, laid my cheek
against the painted plaster of the dome,
and let those perfected acoustics bear my changed voice
back to myself.

Posted in reviews (some antique), xenochronicity | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Porridge Day Tag Team

As part of my zealous efforts to keep up with the marmalade-packed Poetry Calendar, I have so far failed to observe the fiftieth anniversary of Dundee’s roadbridge ower the Tay, or the 200th anniversary of the local paper, The Courier and Advertiser – though I did mark the fortieth anniversary of the toon’s great second hand record store, Groucho’s, which perhaps tells you where meh priorities leh.

Xenochronicitous works are in progress on both these momentous anniversaries.

In the meantime and by meagre compensation, noting that it is, inexplicably, World Porridge Day, I recall not one but two poems in the habbie form on the matter, one directed at the foodstuff, and first published in Omnesia, the other aimed at the central character of the much-loved 70s sitcom of that name, starring the late Ronnie Barker, and posted on my Tumblr site.

To Porridge

‘Auld claes and parritch…’

Captain of oats, braw brose, fine gruel,
you are thi Scotsman’s constant fuel
fae New Year’s Dey till end o Yule
(we don’t do Simmer):
oan ilka morn ye bring renewal,
thi stammack’s zimmer.

Ye greet us lyk a fu-fissed mune
and guarantee tae fill wir spune
wi fushion – see, ye’re cratert roond
wi seas o bubbles –
tranquillity is aa yir tune,
and ease fae troubles.

Grey revolutionary fur guts,
jump-starter fur thi slo-mo slutz
that sends us loupin fae wir cots
intae wir sarks
(a dram in you gets slob and klutz
back tae thir wark).

When snaa faas owre thi Border’s pale
and Southron bairns can plunk aff skail
then even English journos hail
wir Northern mannah –
are sudden experts oan oatmeal
tapped wi a sultana.

Ye’re like a clood-occludit sun
that casts grey licht oan ivrywun;
thi siller ash on grieshoch; grun
ablow thi slush
that derns oat-germs that sune will wun
thru Winter’s crush.

Tho Doctir Johnson caaed ye food
fur foals – mair fulmar him – ye’ve plooed
thru Scotia’s lard-imprisoned bluid
and freed oor veins:
dae mealie puddins dae us good?
Great Oat, explain!

Hoo dae we luve ye? Some wi cream,
wi hinny, spice or jeely reamed,
while Calvin’s crew hae sauty dreams
o fare of auld,
powred in a draaer fur bothy teams
tae slice oot cauld.

‘Auld claes an parritch’ gaes thi creh
wance we hae drunk thi Daft Deys dreh
and neath a sober, saft grey skeh
we view thi year –
we’re nae whit bettir, but we’ll treh
wi sic guid gear!

Stammack—stomach; fushion—wholesomeness, strength; slutz—a leap in skating; sark—shirt; grieshoch—red-hot embers; dern–hide.

To Norman Stanley Fletcher

(for Susie Maguire and Richard Ashcroft)

Habitually criminal,
contrary tae oor Lordships’ will
wha caucht yir fingers in thir till,
you did yir time –
an innocence in daein ill
yir actual crime.

The laws of property serve those
wha serve themselves. Anither dose
o prison proved hoo you oppose
the pooers that bay
you still were free tae thumb yir nose
tho locked away.

Let Groutie gloat an Godber moan:
nor Barraclough, that streak o strone,
nor mim Mackay by drill or drone
brocht you tae heel,
though croodit roond, you crawed alone,
and wouldna kneel.

Altho a Fletcher – ane o thi best –
ye failed tae feathir your ain nest,
instead sent arras forth tae test
thae slammin doors:
yir keyhole wit aye hit thir breasts
thru loopholes galore!

Posted in dundee makar, Makaronics, xenochronicity | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Awa the Messages (for National Poetry Day 2016)

I was prompted to post this piece for National Poetry Day by a comment made on Facebook by the poet Mandy Maxwell, who pointed out that the theme for this year’s NPD has a double meaning for a Scottish (or Irish) reader: ‘messages’ do not just suggest communication to us – ‘the messages’ are also ‘the shopping’. The conjectured meaning is that the written list we may use contains messages (to ourselves) regarding those things we want to buy.

This reminded me that I’d written a poem focussed on this double meaning for a piece of  public art in Dundee by the sculptor David Annand, which sits outside Tesco’s in Lochee (South Road branch), neatly wedged in between two angles of the ascending path.

tumblr_mpu1ben81g1sxolheo2_1280

So this post is a rewrite of an original piece on my Dundee Makar’s Tumblr site here, to add in the text (reproduced in 2013’s Omnesia) – see below.

David’s design is a brilliant, burnished coil of boxes – the packages in which ‘goods’ or ‘the messages’ arrive. And the text attempts to explore what exactly is good about goods, and what really is the message that the messages convey?

Of course, the same question could be addressed to the piece itself: what is the message that it and by extension such sculptures, delivered into the people’s midst, is trying to communicate? What can be established that we, the people, are ordained to do in response?

In a way the answer is: anything. We can look or look away, read or not read, ignore or even protest its presence. What did that cost? (No much.) Why weren’t we consulted? (We probably were, mind.)

A piece of public art, like a poem in the consciousness, is simply there, alongside the railings, the lampposts, the street ‘furniture’, as they call it. Of course it wants to be seen and considered as art; thought about, discussed, even cherished, however gradually or grudgingly. But it, like the poem, can’t insist on the fact.

Ideally, it wants everything in the public space to be similarly thought about, discussed, cherished or condemned – but considered. In a way it’s there to contribute towards a discussion about how we feel about our city and our homes. That discussion can be aesthetic, sentimental, pragmatic. It can even be a debate, should we want one.

It – the discussion, as much as the art – would fundamentally be about messages. What kinds of signals are we sending each other (the public, our representatives, businesses) as we co-exist? How many of these messages are only types of commodity?

One of the weird effects of Scots pronunciation, suggested by the ambivalence of ‘the messages’ is the way little unconscious puns crop up as we speak: South Road becomes Sooth Road becomes – just for a second – Truth Road (remember the soothsayer and his ‘ides of March’?).

In other words, we hear something in both Scots and English that the English do not – points of social bilingualism. Every time I hear the place name, Kent, for instance, I think – for a second – of the Scots past tense of ‘know’: ’kent’, as in the classic reductive remark made of those who, like poets, get a bit above themselves: ‘kent his faither.’

These points are part of the imaginative freedom every piece of art – poem, sculpture, story, song – offers to its audience. As such, they’re not a bad message to share on National Poetry Day with all users of English, bilingual or other.

A second may be all the time we have to give to a piece of public art or a poem, but that doesn’t mean it or our time is wasted. The truth is, a second can be more than enough for a message to be delivered. Or a discussion to begin.

*

The Messages

‘Established words also have their after-ripening.’
(Benjamin)

1

When Ally Bally Bee
fell doon the treacle well
he took a wee bawbee
to see what they would sell

soda farls for workin carles
pigs’ lugs for their nurses
OVD for thee and me
GBH for purses

falafels for beginners
polystyrene stovies
goudie cheese for dinner
(Eh could eat a pair of rovies)

black puddin white puddin
puddin heid and red
a samplin of dumplin
beh a bigger bed.

2

The messages were written doon
in cuneiform on clay
back when Ur wiz hauf a toon
we aa began tae pay

Sumeria soon consumed mair
Salonika had sales
there’s omega 3 in Linear B
and two for one on Wales

thae Ides were gey untidy
back when Caesar took a faa
saying, ‘Brutus, see’s twa bridies
and an ingin ane an aa.’

hauf a peh fae Santa
nae caviar for Lent
there’s the maik Eh’m aain ya
and noo meh loot is spent.

3

The message is that sassidges
are definitely the boys
while ham and eggs and wooden pegs
should not be used as toys

gae mental wi lentils
scell the frozen peas
there’s mammon in salmon
and pints of ankle grease

there’s sannies for trannies
grannies for sookers
there’s chewny for loonies
and toes for veruccas

be human as the bakéd bean
and mad as six bananas
we still have jam for wir yestreens
and spam for wir mañanas.

4

The messages keep comin in
like dandruff fae the stars
the messages are drummin in
fae souks and fae pazaars

aa the fruits of progress
pantsuits for the ogress
DVDs of Dangerman
cardboard bottles plastic cans

everything organic
fresh fae the Titanic
there’s nae praans in a Cullen Skink
nae calories in haen a think

Ally Bally all at sea
seekin oot his mammy’s knee
hush noo bairnie dinna fret
ye can’t aye waant the thing ye get.

The messages – shopping; bawbee – haepenny; pigs’ lugs – pastries; stovies – potatoes stewed with gravy; rovies – jute slippers; beh – buy; gey – very; faa – fall; see’s – fetch me; bridies – shortcrust pasty filled with mince; ingin and – bridie filled with mince and onion; maik – haepenny; aain – owing; scell – spill; sannies – sand-shoes, gym-shoes; ‘grannies for sookers’ – Granny-sookers are a boiled mint sweet; chewny – chewing gum; yestreen – last night; praans – prawns; Cullen Skink – a smoked haddock soup; haen – having.

Posted in dundee makar, xenochronicity | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quick notes on editing ‘New Boots’

(Eek, it’s been a while since I posted here! Still struggling with the unresolvable first section of my Mexican post, with the actual intro for New Boots and Pantisocracies just gone to the publisher, this is a few notes I made to myself to sharpen the wits on the way down to the Poetry Book Fair last Saturday. I was on a panel with Choman Hardi, Ron Villanueva, and Sophie Mayer, hosted by Fiona Moore, discussing political poetry and poetry politics.

Appropriately on the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Lyrical Ballads, there’s a whole further note to be finished about my ongoing problem with Coleridge’s attitude toward Fancy, and how the Biographia seems to hint this was a problem for him too, rather than a clarifying model for the Romantic Imagination. But there’s that small matter of the impending semester to deal with first…)

The crisis you encounter as an editor of a daily blog of political poetry is the same as the one you face as a writer of poetry at all: how do you escape the confirmation bias of preaching to the converted, what Facebook has conveniently identified as your circle? How do you burst the poetry bubble of people who already do that sort of thing?

Most of us – poets especially – find ourselves irresistible. Our ego loves our beliefs, and thinks them all both reasonable and good. Some of us have Opinions About Things – in which case we should remember Wilde’s remark ‘Most people are other people’, ie are you sure that opinion is actually yours? Some of us have marvellous systems which answer all our questions for us while allowing us to display our knowledge of said system – mansplainers, Londonsplainers, Marxsplainers, alike, all have answers a-go-go, usually to a different question from the one you asked.

What most of us share is a passive relationship to an active if frequently unarticulated ideology. Poetry is one of the ways we wake up to that.

When I was speed re-reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria for my intro to New Boots, one sentence from his discussion of Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis’ caught and held my attention: ‘The reader is forced into too much action to sympathise with the merely passive.’

Coleridge is making a point about how a good poet dramatises the act of reading poetry, so that it’s not just hard work, but engaging and energising as much as it is immersive and persuasive. He’s opposing this to just that opinionising or systematist aspect of the self, if not also to a consumerist, ‘entertain us’ attitude in the reader. This rang a loud familiar bell for me.

The lyric poem like the song from which it derives, often seems inadequate to the demands of the political because it encourages precisely that passivity, the act of overhearing something perhaps a little too familiar – yeah, yeah, you love/hate him/her/it. We know. Its mode, if not always its content, discourages us from independent thought, as though it were the PowerPoint of poetic discourses.

What we found we were opposing to this still dominant mode in poetry in English was a kind of editorial polystylism, an acceptance of a whole series of rhetorical tactics that, collectively, dramatised the act of reading the blog.

One day might be a found poem based on the Smith Commission’s report on Scottish independence, another might be a pastiche of a Poundian economic canto, another might be – yes – a lyric poem. Every day became a way of considering Hugh MacDiarmid’s interesting assertion ‘…all poetry that is not pure/propaganda, is impure propaganda for sure’.

Elegy, squib, ephemera, parable – we were assembling a set of rhetorical categories that could be political. Now, the idea that this expanded taxonomy might replace the consensus that a poem is a lyrical, personal, anecdotal, epiphanic event might be pretty pantisocratic, but at least it gave us something to build on from day to day.

Poetry, we realised we were asserting, is a way of, first, wakening up to and, second, resisting your own inherent and inevitable ideological standpoint.

Why? Because of its intense focus on words themselves, their opacity in terms of rhythmic, musical, imagistic texture, their etymologies, their cultural and historical and political specificity. The act of moving back and forth from this microcosm to a macrocosm, looking across a range of poetic modes, causes writer, editor, and – possibly – reader, to reconsider in political as well as cultural terms the key question asked by the Scottish poet W.S. Graham: ‘What is the language using us for?’

Posted in current emanations, xenochronicity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment