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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.

News & Notes
‘He is not dead but sleeping’ ·  At the age of ten (AD 2007–2016) CB Editions seems to be over. Is it death or a restless sleep? The eponymous CB, Charles Boyle, sent out a self-obituary just as the old year ended. The metaphor he used was that of the one-man (he is sufficiently modern to call it ‘one-person’) band. He will now be in ‘hobbyist’ mode and resurrect at will, if something takes his fancy. ‘A part of the fun has been proving – to myself as much as anyone – what can be done with little money and no funding. Extracurricular activities have included, in 2011, a London book fair for poetry presses (now an annual event) and a pop-up shop in Portobello Road for a week in 2013. Should I mention the gongs? CBe titles have won the McKitterick Prize, the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize and the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (three times), and have been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, the Guardian First Book Award, the Forward main prize (twice) and the Forward first collection Prize (four times) and more.’ It seems unlikely that this is the last or even the penultimate word: CB Editions predicted its demise once before, and survived. Even now, CB admits there are possible books in the works, but fewer of them, less of him. It is regrettable to be on the threshold of spring without the promise of a continuing supply of his handsome, unexpected, invariably excellent books. ‘For the record: 57 titles, rough count. Heinz Means Beans. Placed in a pile on the floor, the total run of these books comes to around 64 cm, just over 2 feet, not much above my knees. Around 30 authors. […] Three of the authors have died since I published their books, one at the age of 37. The oldest author on the list is 95. I have stood in line at the post office 1,147 times.’


John Montague · contributed by MARY O'MALLEY.  John Montague, who died in Nice on 10 December 2016, was one of Ireland’s finest poets. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, he was sent to be reared by an aunt in Garvaghy, Co Tyrone. Those early years were to provide the subject and locus of his most celebrated work.

He went south to attend University College Dublin, and a Fulbright scholarship took him to Yale in 1953. He subsequently spent time in Iowa and Berkeley, where he met his first wife, Madeleine de Brauer, and came under the influence of the American poets including John Berryman and Hayden Carruth.

By the time he joined the English Department at University College Cork, he had published several books, including Tides and Poisoned Lands. Some of those books were published by Liam Miller of Dolmen Press, also a formative influence on Thomas Kinsella, whom Montague held in high regard. He lived many years in Cork with his second wife, Evelyn Robson, and his two daughters, Oonagh and Sybil.

The Rough Field came out in 1972, an extended sequence about Northern Ireland which took its name and much of its inspiration from the townland of Garvaghy. It perturbed some and excited many, with its eloquent interrogation of received truths. It succeeded in doing what Montague himself would later suggest was the essence of the poet’s work: turning psychic defeats into victories on the page.

Montague collaborated with the composer Sean O’Riada and was a involved in setting up Claddagh Records, which recorded poets and musicians and released a number of recordings of Montague himself, including a reading at the Roundhouse in London with The Chieftains, the band which took its name from Montague’s poem ‘Death of a Chieftain’.

In the 1960s he started to spend time in France, reporting from Paris for the Irish Times. He was a friend of Samuel Beckett, to whom he referred as ‘the Garbo of Irish letters’, and they continued to meet until Beckett’s death. He settled in Nice with his third wife, Elizabeth Wassell, in the mid-1990s, coming back to Ireland every summer and when occasion demanded.

In all, John Montague published more than thirty books of poems, essays and short stories, including most notably The Great Cloak, The Dead Kingdom, Mount Eagle and Time in Armagh. His Collected Poems was published in 1995 and a New and Collected in 2012. He published three volumes of memoirs, and The Pear is Ripe, a volume of essays. Second Childhood, a posthumous collection of poems, will be published later this year.

From The Rough Field to the late, masterly Border Sick Call which closes the first edition of his Collected Poems, Montague has given voice to Northern Ireland in collection after collection, in poems of political weight and literary merit that have yet to gain full recognition. Border Sick Call, about an epic border journey with his brother, a doctor, repeats the motif of circling to be found throughout his work in a meditation on death that is healing, because shared: ‘…When we stride again on the road / there is a bright crop of stars / the high, clear stars of winter ...’

Marked by a riven sense of place and ‘forked tongue’, as steeped in the song and tradition of Tyrone and South Armagh as he was in French literature, Montague was also enlivened by the American poets who were his contemporaries. He became a Chevalier de la légion d’honneur in 2010 and held the first post as Ireland Professor of Poetry.

He was a poet, to quote his own words from his introduction to the 1974 Faber Book of Irish Verse, ‘balanced between the pastoral and atomic age’ and continued working until the end, giving a series of electrifying readings in recent years.
 

John Berger · Art critic, essayist and novelist: those are the main sobriquets applied to John Berger, who died on 2 January 2017, in the obituaries. That he also wrote poems, and that those poems set out to challenge conventional readers much as his art criticism challenged conventional viewers, was not much mentioned. The poems were scattered, and not collected in English until 2014 when Smokestack Books, with its mission of ‘championing poets who are unfashionable, radical, left-field and working a long way from the metropolitan centres of cultural authority’, published a Collected Poems.

We knew he read poetry: he reviewed Nicki Jackowska’s New and Selected Poems in PNR 133, admiring the speed and narrative directness of the writing. ‘All the stories are the invention of the voice telling them, and therein lies their marvelous and very contemporary poetry.’ Not a single voice, but the voice each story requires.

Years ago – some time in the 1980s – at the Mauritshaus in The Hague I had gone to see Vermeer’s View of Delft. I stood before the painting, thinking of Bergotte and Proust and how much this painting drew out of the fictional character and the living writer. A man, woman and child came into the room. The child was bored and threw himself backwards over a leather bench in the middle of the room. The man began to explain the painting to the woman. He said that Proust admired it because if you focused at any point on the canvas, and not just the ‘petit pan du mur jaune’, the whole picture composed around that point, whether it was a corner, a window, a patch of water, a single brick – as in Á la recherché du temps perdu, where any point in the action is the focal point, and the narrative re-configures itself around that point, incident, event. The man was strikingly familiar. ‘Are you John Berger?’ It was.

His poem ‘A View from Delft’ (the preposition inverted) is also vaguely dated ‘1980s’. It exemplifies his ways of seeing and seeing with, his sense of inherences, and his deep love of an historical and a living person, the one being a condition for the other.

 
In that town,
across the water
where all has been seen
and the bricks are cherished like sparrows,
in that town like a letter from home
read again and again in a port,
in that town with its library of tiles
and its addresses recalled by Johannes Vermeer
who died in debt,
in that town across the water
where the dead take the census
and there are no vacant rooms
for his gaze occupies them all,
where the sky is waiting
to have news of a birth,
in that town which pours from the eyes
of those who left it,
there
between two chimes of the morning,
when fish are sold in the square
and the maps on the walls
show the depth of the sea,
in that town
I am preparing for your arrival.
 
In 1976 he looked at the same painting in prose, in ‘Drawn to that Moment’ (reprinted in Berger on Drawing, 2005). ‘The painted moment has remained (almost) unchanged for three centuries. The reflections in the water have not moved. Yet this painted moment, as we look at it, has a plenitude of actuality that we experience only rarely in life. We experience everything we see in the painting as absolutely momentary. At the same time the experience is repeatable the next day or in ten years. It would be naïve to suppose that this has to do with accuracy: Delft at any given moment never looked like this painting. It has to do with the density per square millimetre of Vermeer’s looking, with the density per square millimetre of assembled moments.’

 
David Meltzer · The prolific Beat poet and musician David Meltzer died on the last day of 2016 at the age of seventy-nine. New York-born, Meltzer was associated with the Beats from his early twenties, appearing in Beat anthologies and settling at last in the San Francisco Bay area, where many of the Beats made their homes.

His work was featured in Allen Ginsberg’s and John Ashbery’s The New American Poetry 1945–1960. He published prose and poetry. A retrospective of his verse, David’s Copy: The Selected Poems of David Meltzer, was published by Penguin in 2005. Lawrence Ferlinghetti admired him and published his work with City Lights, and Black Sparrow produced handsome editions of his work.

As well as being a poet, jazz musician (song-writer and guitarist) and musical collaborator, he wrote prose books, appeared on television and radio. He taight at the New College of California and served on the board of the Before Columbus Foundation devoted to multicultural writing.


Spring Couplet · Controversy flared in Taiwan (reported in The China Post, 1 February) when President Tsai Ing-wen’s contribution to the annual spring couplet ceremony was criticized for being ‘incorrect’. Her defenders preferred to call her structuring ‘unusual’. The head of the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature applauded the President’s attempt, increasing awareness of Taiwan’s literary culture, but it wouldn’t quite do as a spring couplet: ‘The president’s spring couplets could probably count as two lines of new year greetings, but couplets? Not so much.’ A number of rules constrain the spring couplet in terms of number of characters per line, the lexical category of each character in relation to their corresponding characters, and the tone patterns: one line must reverse the tone pattern of the other. The President rooted her couplet in one by Lai He, the ‘father of modern Taiwanese literature’. Her office expressed its respect for diverse opinions and wished everyone a happy spring.


Pablo Larraín’s Neruda · contributed by ADAM FEINSTEIN .  Anyone seeking the truth about the life of Chile’s great Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda should look elsewhere than Pablo Larraín’s latest film. And Larraín himself would have it no other way. He knows the facts. He’s read the books on Neruda (including my biography). He says he is an admirer of realistic filmmakers like Mike Leigh. ‘But I can’t do that. For me, cinema is related to the old magicians, the illusionists.’

Neruda does indeed turn out to be an ‘anti-biopic’.  It is set in Santiago in 1948, at the height of the Cold War. This was an extraordinary period of Neruda’s life, one which the poet himself called ‘a year of blind rats’. Already renowned for his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, he stood up in the Senate (where he represented the Communist Party) and condemned Chile’s President, Gabriel González Videla, for turning against the party which had helped to bring him to power and for behaving as thuggishly and fascistically as Franco in Spain. (Neruda had witnessed Franco’s brutality, and the murder of his friend and fellow poet Federico García Lorca, while Chilean consul in Madrid in 1936.) For his courageous outspokenness in Santiago in 1948, Neruda was deprived of his parliamentary immunity and forced into hiding, rushed from one safe house to another, sometimes in the middle of the night, to avoid being captured and taken to the concentration camp at Pisagua, in the northern Atacama desert (where the commandant was a certain Augusto Pinochet). He eventually escaped across the Andes on horseback into Argentina and made his way to Europe using the passport of his fellow writer, the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias.

This would have made a thrilling movie. Instead, Larraín chooses to subvert reality. He tells the story from the perspective of the fedora-sporting police inspector Óscar Peluchonneau (played here with admirable intensity and poignancy by Gael García Bernal), who is leading the hunt for Neruda. Most critics have maintained that Peluchonneau is an imaginary figure. Not so. He really existed, although not as he appears here. Indeed, his son, Jorge Peluchonneau Cádiz, told the bbc that he could not understand why the filmmakers chose to use his name, since his father emerges unrecognisable.  After it is decided that Neruda must flee Chile, the poet (interpreted impressively by Luis Gnecco, all corpulence and knowingness) exclaims: ‘I’m not going to hide under the bed. This has to become a wild hunt!’ And wild it certainly becomes. Both he and his pursuer crave fame. Both want to be remembered – one as a poet, the other for capturing a poet. But both come reluctantly to realise, especially in the increasingly elegiac second half of the film, that they are, in some way, validating each other.

Larraín sought a Borgesian structure: ‘I realised it could work as a meta-fictional labyrinth where characters are creating other characters. Each needs the other in order to exist. All these characters – Neruda, Óscar the detective, the narrator who narrates himself into the story – all of them are creating each other because they need each other to tell the story. The film is about storytelling and how we need to tell stories in order to survive life.’

His aim was, indeed, to approach the poet through the ‘arbitrariness of fiction’.  But the film, the director insists, also has elements of film noir, a cat-and-mouse chase thriller, a road movie, a western and a black comedy. Neruda, himself a life-long lover of detective novels, would at least have enjoyed the suspense. However, Larraín’s film also indulges in Buñuelesque surrealism, which Neruda himself had rejected at this time in his life. Indeed, the film’s opening scene could come straight out of Buñuel: Neruda is seen pissing in the chamber of the Santiago Senate, which mysteriously doubles as an opulent urinal.  Elsewhere, Larraín deliberately injects Hitchcockian artifice: for example, the use of conspicuous back-projection as Peluchonneau is driving his car.

Larraín told one interviewer: ‘I’m Chilean. Neruda is in the water, in the earth, in the trees […] This is a movie about the Neruda cosmos.’ But for all Neruda’s genuine passion for life, the Rabelaisian excesses in the film have a sleaziness that his friends would not have recognised. Neruda’s second wife Delia del Carril (portrayed affectionately by Mercedes Morán) shared many of Neruda’s most difficult moments in hiding. You would not know, however, from this film – and from the scornful way Neruda occasionally talks to her – that Delia was a talented painter and an enormously cultured woman whom he adored, who had been instrumental in firing his political commitment (during the Spanish Civil War) and who was his most astute and attentive literary critic.

We should not be surprised by Larraín’s approach.  The forty-year-old director has never aimed for straightforward docudrama. His Oscar-nominated 2012 film, No, based on a Chilean political advertising campaign during the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1980s, was shot with forty-year-old technology to make it look like a  tv commercial from that era. A specific filmic influence on Larraín was Maurice Pialat’s 1991 movie Van Gogh: ‘Pialat used the paintings as a mirror. That’s how I approached Neruda. We used Neruda’s poetry to create the structure. I insisted that we would get the audience to realise that we are playing with the characters. Nothing is entirely serious. It is more based on poetry than anything else. Neruda’s poetry was a virus that infected us all.’

Those who know little of Neruda’s life will enjoy the imaginative and provocative playfulness of Larraín’s direction and the fine performances of Gnecco, García Bernal and Morán. The screenplay, by Guillermo Calderón, certainly has its moments, for all its detachment from historical veracity. (Peluchonneau remarks, at one point, that poets ‘tend to think that the world is something they imagined’, and as he trudges through the snow on the trail of his prey, he begins to fear, sadly, that he himself may be no more than a figment of Neruda’s invention.)  The cinematography of Sergio Armstrong (Larraín’s regular photographer), with its use of  chiaroscuro and faded colours, is sumptuous.

Nevertheless, Larraín makes too many sacrifices in his relentless determination to flee the facts. He deprives his audience of some astonishingly rich (and cinematic) moments. The idea that Neruda could walk freely down a street while a fugitive from justice, as he does in this film, is laughable. In his memoirs, he actually described gazing out longingly at a shoe shop from his cramped hiding place in Valparaíso. What a touching shot that would have made! Larraín could also have shown us the profoundly moving incident when Neruda ended up hiding on the estate of the right-wing mill-owner Pepe Rodríguez, a friend of President González Videla, who would have been expected to hand over Neruda immediately to the authorities. Instead, Rodríguez was utterly delighted to meet Chile’s greatest poet and urged his workers to ensure Neruda escaped. Poetry breaking down political barriers. Poetry as a force for good. But it’s not in the movie.

The struggle between freedom and tyranny is a central theme of the film. So it is a pity that Larraín fails to highlight one of the great paradoxes in twentieth-century literature. While Neruda was living in extremely confined spaces, he wrote much of his most expansive book, Canto General, with its twin themes of betrayal: the personal betrayal by President González Videla and the savage betrayal of pre-Columbian civilisation by the Spanish Conquistadors. Instead, Larraín shows us a Neruda in bordellos repeatedly reciting the famous Poem Twenty from the Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, written more than two decades earlier in 1924. Of course, Larraín is playing with the lability of time here. That is his prerogative. (His other new release, the much-lauded English-language Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination of her husband, also plays around with time.) But if Larraín genuinely believes, as he has stated, in the transformative power of art, why not have Neruda read the wonderfully evocative and tender poem from Canto General, ‘The Fugitive,’ in which Neruda reveals himself not as the ‘rock star’ celebrity but as the humanist poet, expressing gratitude to the strangers who took him in during this year underground? 

This item is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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