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This article is taken from PN Review 243, Volume 45 Number 1, September - October 2018.

Love in Another Language
‘intricate accommodation’
A.E. Stallings
on Dick Davis’s Love in Another Language: Collected Poems and Selected Translations (Carcanet) £20

DICK DAVIS’s Love in Another Language: Collected Poems and Selected Translations represents over forty years of original poetry and translations from the Persian. Davis is hard to place in some ways, like an accent that has softened over time, travel and distance. Born in Portsmouth, Davis has spent almost all of his adult life out of the United Kingdom, living for a time in Italy and Greece, residing for eight years in Iran (1970 to 1978, in the lead-up to the violent Revolution), where he met and married his wife, Afkham (to whom this volume is dedicated), and finally settling down in Columbus, Ohio. He is probably better known in some American poetry circles (associated, in particular, with the poets sometimes described as ‘New Formalists’) than in British ones, and better known in academia as a Persian scholar than as a poet. What makes him hard to pigeon-hole, however, is also what makes him distinctive. As the Collected brings home, here we have a poet who is not only technically skilled and widely and deeply read, but a worldly poet engaged in history and politics, whose most timeless qualities end up being the most topical. Likewise, Davis is among a number of contemporary verse translators who are challenging the notion of translation as in some way a secondary art dependent on an original rather than a primal generative act in itself. (Translation is, I would assert and I think Davis would agree, a kind of linguistic sexual reproduction.) The inclusion of a ‘selected translations’ with the ‘collected poems’ goes some way to making that case. In a world in which human migration and displacement will only increase and intensify, a poet who crosses borders of language and culture, and is attuned to the rhyming ironies of history and current events, is, however accomplished and polished in traditional English verse technique, a poet who belongs to these unsettled and unsettling times.

In Davis’s brief, modest ‘prefatory note’, he explains that ‘like most habitual writers of poetry who live past middle age, I tend to prefer my more recent poems to the earlier ones – readers of course often disagree with poets’ assessment of their own work […]’. The note is itself very telling – that use of the word ‘habitual’, for instance, which implies poetry not as a turn of the spirit but a way of life, artist as craftsman, a poet made, rather than born, and made by making, over and over, day in, day out. I find I agree with him: I too prefer the more recent poems, though it is also fascinating to track the arcs of subjects and themes, and to watch as Davis ‘enters the clarity’ he loves.

His 1982 ‘Letter to Omar’ comes roughly a third into the book, but is, in other ways, central. Written in the Rubaiyat quatrains introduced into the English language by Edward FitzGerald’s famed translation of Omar Khayyam (and further naturalised by Swinburne and Robert Frost), the verse letter to Omar Khayyam is equally indebted to W.H. Auden (‘Letter to Lord Byron’) and to Byron himself, the tripping triple rhymes being more Byronic than Audenesque (‘imperilled / FitzGerald / herald’; ‘dollars / scholars / Ayatollahs’; and maybe most emblematically, ‘traitor / creator / translator’). Discursive as suits the epistolary, the poem, in speaking to the dead, explains the poet’s own journey into translation and poetry, while also, as it were, serving as a letter of introduction from Omar Khayyam to his pioneering translator, Edward FitzGerald, another literary hero to Davis. My description sounds tortured and difficult, but the poem is itself sparkling and playful. ‘Merely slick’ sets us up for the closing rhyme (and the letter’s close), ‘Sincerely, Dick’.

Certain images and tropes, concerns and themes, can be traced through the book. Chess is a rarefied but not unpopular subject with poets (Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Cavafy all have chess in their poems – as do Omar Khayyam and Princess Jahan Khatum for that matter), and Davis has at least three chess poems, ‘A Short History of Chess’, which begins with its Indian origins and ends with an epigrammatic, ‘It took the West to twist the tale / to strategies of faith and sex’. A second poem that features the game is titled ‘Exiles’, and Davis sets up a tension between two men battling for a black-and-white victory or defeat on the chessboard, though of course for an exile there are only gradations of loss, while their wives gossip about actual (deposed?) royalty and lost fortunes. In both of these poems, the poet is himself absent from the scene, though he is the witty intelligence in one, and perhaps witness in the other. A third chess poem from a later book (Touchwood) seems to contain the earlier poems while expanding on them. This poem has the irony of the other two, with an added historic sweep; but by inserting himself into the poem, the poet achieves a note of ubi-sunt melancholy and a surprising personal conclusion. Set against a backdrop of ruined grandeur and fallen empires (the Ozymandias effect, perhaps), the simple, storytelling past tense, ballad meter, the plain diction, the neutral register (‘adolescents’) provide the unruffled surface so that you come upon its emotional depths with the suddenness of unexpected tears. I’ll quote it in its entirety:


The great hall at Firuzabad
    Lies open to the weather –
I saw two adolescents there
    Playing chess together.

There was no splendour to distract them;
    Only a cavernous shade
Cast by the drab and crumbling vault
    Where silently they played.

So much of Persian verse laments
    The transience of things
And triteness was mere truth as they
    Pursued each others’ kings

Where kings had given orders for
    Armies to march on Rome,
And where I watched their game awhile
    At home, and far from home.

One of the striking effects of the Collected Poems is how a metaphor in one poem can rub off onto another one in which it is not, technically, present at all. A poem that makes no reference to chess at the same time brings that image to mind. The later sonnet ‘In the Restaurant’, discusses yet another of Davis’s exiles, ‘A Queen in exile, she presides at table’ – now she is a ‘plump matriarch’ – but once in her youth she had ‘risked her life / To cross Beirut’s bomb-cratered no man’s land, / Defying anguished parents, to say “Yes” / and be an unbeliever’s outcast wife’. Somehow the mention of a queen who can cross a checkered no man’s land in a single, game-changing move brings to mind for a moment the chessboard of earlier poems.

In ‘Farewell to the Mentors’, Davis nods in the direction of four poets who are avowed influences – Fitz., Edgar, Wystan and Housman (that is, Edward FitzGerald, Edgar Bowers and Auden) – ‘Old bachelors to whom I’ve turned / For comfort in my life’ – only to realise in the area of marriage and teenaged children they have nothing to say to him. Another influence whose presence I felt often in reading through the Collected, one which is I think less conscious, is Philip Larkin. Davis does not have Larkin’s bleak misanthropic bitterness, but they do sometimes share a tone (that of ‘Home is so sad’), a certain flat melancholy that comes out in some of the poems about childhood, especially when unrhymed, and certain cadences. There is something Larkinesque at the end of ‘New Developments’: ‘As if their earnest play could substitute / Forever for worlds crueller and less cute’, or in a line like, ‘The heart has its abandoned mines’. Reading ‘No Going Back’, a poem about how the poet’s mother preferred the deep, tragedy-inflected voices of Robeson while the speaker prefers ‘high sexless voices’, ‘transcendent, bright, no weight, no tears’, I am put in mind of several Larkin poems at once, but in some ways it is almost a response, reversed in the mirror, of ‘Mother, Summer, I’.

Poems that are allusive rather than elusive, nimbly metrical, fully rhymed, stanzaic, proportioned, syntactically clear – measured in every sense – might seem to some readers on the surface dated. In fact, only a few of the earliest poems in this collection have a sepia-tone, a late mid-century mannerism. ‘A Mycenean Brooch’ (with an epigraph by Yvor Winters) or ‘The Youth of Telemachus’ (which ends ‘all night he views the changing sea’) are perhaps much as one might imagine from the titles, accomplished, unsurprising. (I hope I have latitude to say this as a writer who might well have committed the same titles!) But Davis becomes more and more particularly himself, perhaps through the act of translation. As he points out, creator and translator rhyme. He is as influenced by medieval Persian poetry as by any English master or Western classic (and makes use of Persian verse forms, monorhyme and ghazal and rubi’a), and doesn’t shy from alluding to poems, poets and characters most of his readers are unlikely to know. Names of composers and painters, of arcane writers and books, of far-flung places, a flash of German, an etymology, the plot of an opera, have not the sense of an elitist’s dropping of names, or an academic bristling with footnotes, but something of the opposite: a cherishing of civilisation and its humane productions by someone who has experienced tragedy at first and second hand, on the historical and personal level.

As the poems face up, more and more frankly, or more and more overtly, perhaps, to biographical sorrows and trauma (the suggestion of an abusive childhood, dysfunction, secrets, a brother’s suicide), and the vicissitudes of the people and places of Davis’s sojourns, including Iran and its revolution, to which he lost friends and acquaintances, the poems clarify and resonate. Even the story of how he met his wife in Tehran in 1971, suggestions of which flicker through various poems in various books, suddenly comes into sharp focus – he simply tells us the tale in the recent poem ‘The Introduction’, which begins with a bit of a recusatio: ‘Autobiography’s not something I / Have felt in any way impelled to try’… and ends on the inevitable English rhyme, here also absolutely earned:  ‘When I came round at last the doctor said, / “We very nearly gave you up for dead; / This nurse, Ms. Darbandi here, saved your life.” / This was my introduction to my wife.’

Davis is, in fact, a love poet of the rarest type – one who principally writes love poems for his wife. These poems braid throughout the volume (his first book appeared in 1975, after his marriage), and we seem to watch as that love matures, complicated with exile, in-laws, children and age. Davis has two early-ish poems that refer to Ausonius’s ‘Uxor vivamus’ (‘Wife, Let us Live…’), itself a response or perhaps a rebuttal to Catullus 5. One is titled ‘Uxor Vivamus’, and the other (‘To His Wife’) is a graceful translation. Poems about marriage, and epithalamia written for the weddings of others, appear throughout. ‘Marriages as a Problem of Universals’, ‘Memories of Cochin (an Epithalamion)’ ‘Hearing a Balkan Dance in England’ (in which a bride appears). Even among the subset of love poems to wives, erotic verses are rare. In Dick Davis’s ‘Monorhyme for the Shower’ (in, with sly appropriateness, two symmetrical and shapely stanzas), the poet hymns a glimpse of his wife’s breasts: ‘The movement of that buoyant pair / Is like a spell to make me swear / Twenty odd years have turned to air.’

Despite the melancholy and pain that emerge in poems about childhood particularly, and the different flavour of melancholy, the nostalgia that comes with a lifetime in a sort of exile and among exiles, Davis resists despair, choosing love and praise. In ‘A Monorhyme for Miscegenation’ (yet another epithalamion), we realise that marriage and translation aren’t just subjects to which Davis returns, again and again, they are metaphors for one another:

Mixed marriages, it’s true, can make
Two lives a dire disaster zone.

But only half since when they work
(As my luck, and my friends’, has shown)

Their intricate accommodations
Make them impossible to clone.

What is translation if not ‘intricate accommodation’ as meaning in one language must be embodied in the words of another? And what is marriage if not learning ‘Love in another language’? Davis sums up his biography and ars poetica in the candidly titled ‘A Personal Sonnet’, which recapitulates the facts about his dead brother, his ‘gadding years’ in Greece and Italy, etc., but which concludes:

The presences I’ve loved, and poetry –
Faces I cannot parse or paraphrase
Whose mystery is all that they reveal;
The Persian poets who laid hands on me
And whispered that all poetry is praise:
These are the dreams that turned out to be real.

Davis’s worldly wit and irony never become sour, only bittersweet, precisely because ultimately Davis turns to praise, for the flawed world, for complicated relationships with children, for the ‘intricate accommodation’ of marriage, the compromises and surprises of translation, and for poetry and language itself, perhaps the only true home exile can carry across borders. That the book ends on a selection of Davis’s Persian translations seems appropriate, and indeed seamless. Thus the poems are in the roughly chronological order, composed in the 20th and twenty-first century, largely in Columbus, Ohio, but the book ends smack in the fourteenth century, in Shiraz. The last poem in the volume is one Davis translates by Princess Jahan Malek Khatun. And indeed Davis seems to be speaking through her, as well as vice versa, when he concludes the Collected with this valedictory quatrain (ruba’i):

The roses have all gone; ‘Goodbye,’ we say; we must;

And I shall leave the busy world one day; I must.
My little room, my books, my love, my sips of wine –
All that is dear to me – they’ll pass away. They must.

She lived through another Iranian revolution, in 1353, when all the men in her family were slain by a conquering warlord. As Davis says, ‘Most of her poems are love poems, but a few comment on the political struggles she lived through’. The same, mutatis mutandis, of course applies to her translator as well.

This article is taken from PN Review 243, Volume 45 Number 1, September - October 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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