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This item is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

News and Notes
Raul Zurita

The Chilean poet Raul Zurita has been awarded Latin America’s greatest literary distinction, the Queen Sofia Ibero-American Poetry Prize for work in Spanish or Portuguese, sanctioned by Spain’s National Heritage and the University of Salamanca. Raul Zurita, born in Santiago in 1950, has long been recognised as a major figure, author of Canto a su amor desaparecido (Song to their disappeared love) which engaged directly with the cruel politics of the Pinochet years, Purgatorio (Purgatory), La Nueva Vida (New Life), El paraiso esta vacio (Heaven is empty) and Canto de los rios que se aman (Song of the loving rivers). Chilean poetry has been rich in the last hundred years with Pablo Neruda, Vicente Huidobro, Nicanor Parra and – Zurita. He has previously been awarded the Chilean awards, the Pablo Neruda Prize (1988), the National Prize for Literature (2000); and also the Cuban Casa de las Americas Prize for Poetry (Jose Lezama Lima Prize, 2006). Previous poets to receive the Queen Sofia include Juan Gelman (Argentina), Nicanor Parra (Chile), Mario Benedetti (Uruguay) and Alvaro Mutis (Colombia).

Everything Is Going to Be Alright

John McAuliffe writes: Derek Mahon, the doyen of Irish poets, has died at his home in Kinsale, Co. Cork.

Born in Belfast in 1941, Mahon attended Inst, before moving to Dublin, where he studied English and French at Trinity College, and hot-housed his own poetic development alongside contemporaries including Michael Longley and Eavan Boland. His first book, Night Crossing (1968), brought together poems written in Dublin and on his travels in Canada and the United States, and was unusually well received. It was his two 1970s collections Lives (1972) and The Snow Party (1975) which exhilarated readers and inspired generations of younger poets.

Glitteringly allusive, charming, formally commanding but willing to slough off big stanzas whenever the poems called for it, they epitomise the idea that poets could just go on their nerve. Their resonant, startling title poems felt as if they have always already existed, and others too, ‘The Last of the Fire Kings’, ‘Afterlives’, the poem ‘Dog Days’ which was lately renamed ‘J.P. Donleavy’s Dublin’, ‘A Disused Shed in Co Wexford’ – each of them as lucid as they are ornately made. Long perspectives intrude without demolishing tonal clarity: these poems seemed to emerge from a Byzantium-like otherworld, seeing and knowing more than anyone else, alienated but with seemingly perfect recall, casting light and, just as coolly, throwing shade.

During the 1970s, Mahon had lived mostly in London, freelancing for various journals including Vogue and The Listener, adapting novels for TV and radio. Suffering from alcoholism, and the breakdown of his marriage, he published The Hunt by Night in 1982 and the first of his many books with The Gallery Press, Courtyards in Delft, whose title poem’s switching of perspectives still astonishes: ‘I must be lying low in a room there / A strange child with a taste for verse, / While my hard-nosed companions dream of war.’

Mahon worked at a number of universities during the 1980s and 1990s in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the United States, but his writing stalled. Slowly he re-emerged, publishing two books which marked a turn towards a more relaxed, conversational style, The Yellow Book and The Hudson Letter, as well as plays (performed widely at venues including the National Theatre and the Gate) and essays, which collected old reviews, but new work too. His interest in translation, mostly from French, persisted, ‘adaptations’ of classic Baudelaire poems, classic versions of Philippe Jaccottet, and exploratory introductions to Francophone African poets, among many others.

Mahon moved back to Dublin and then in 2003 to Kinsale, a seaside town he had first visited as a student when he delivered an Afghan hound to Hedli MacNeice. Her famous restaurant The Spinnaker was part of the fishing town’s rebirth as a busy, tourist-friendly resort. It became his refuge – he very rarely gave readings, disliking the circus of the literary festival and, after his early peregrinations, travelled less and less.

In Kinsale, he became fluent again: coastal sounds (rock music he called it, more than once), sealight and the endlessly changing cloudscapes, as well as a particular genius for biographical poems (Coleridge, Jean Rhys, Palinurus, Montaigne, terrific poems about his contemporaries, Heaney, Longley, Montague, Ciaran Carson) mark an acclaimed series of new books, two of which, Harbour Lights (2006) and Life on Earth (2009), won the Irish Times/Poetry Now Prize, while he revised earlier work for a number of Collected, Selected, New Collected and New Selected Poems. His work became a staple of Irish high school anthologies, and one in particular, ‘Everything Is Going to Be Alright’, went viral when it was broadcast on the national news as the Covid-19 pandemic locked down the country.

He is survived by his partner Sarah Iremonger and his three children, Rory, Katy and Maisie. His last book, Washing Up, published weeks after his death, will be reviewed in a future issue.

‘The Muse really isn’t all that nice’

Anne Stevenson, who was eighty-­seven, and had been a contributor of poems and occasional essays to PN Review since 1985, died in September. Her devoted publisher Bloodaxe Books reported that she died ‘at her home in Durham following a short illness.’ She was brought up in New England but moved to England in the mid-1950s and stayed. Bloodaxe issued her Poems 1955–2005 in 2005. She wrote a biography of Sylvia Plath and two studies of Elizabeth Bishop. She was wonderfully contrary in her opinions, based for the most part in her own tangential experience of the soi disant poetic ‘centre’. Her character retained a specific New England inflection, which she evoked in a letter to PNR in 1998, quoted in Robyn Marsack’s Fifty fifty (2019):

I have taken to heart your criticism of the first line of ‘Arioso Dolente’ so am sending you a revised version – thanks to you, better. Or I hope so, rhythmically surely so. The image of the jug and cup seems right to me; it was that image that set the poem going in the first place; it does accurately describe my mother’s addiction to lecturing to her assembled family over supper every evening. She was an extraordinarily intelligent woman who should have been a history or English teacher; high-principled, well-read, a dedicated Democrat and ardent member of the League of Women Voters in Ann Arbor. The present stanza gives her more of her opinionated character (she predicted disaster for the U.S. if Ronald Reagan should ever become President. Clinton she would have thought a vulgar light-weight). My father, who was a lecturer in philosophy and a fine amateur pianist, always relied on mother to tell him how to vote. They were both first-generation intellectuals who met in their Cincinnati high school, married after college and came to England, where my father studied under I.A. Richards, G.E. Moore and Wittgenstein in 1930s Cambridge. All their lives they were determined to share with their three daughters all they themselves valued in the arts. I drank it all in greedily until I married; after which I rebelled against them and their Bourgeois Culture and all they stood for. Of course, now I share most of their attitudes and beliefs and much lament the amount of time I spent wasting my substance in riotous living.

Robyn Marsack (in Fifty fifty) recalls how in 2000, ‘asked by Cynthia Haven about teaching creative writing, Stevenson said: “The Muse, I suppose, really isn’t all that nice! She hates rules, hates conformity, favours her special pets, gleefully drives worshippers to drink or drugs, happily drives other worshippers to suicide, is politically completely unreliable, and, being an unmitigated snob, she takes flight as soon as she hears the word ‘creativity’. Goodness, how she detests the word and makes fun of it over drinks with her cronies!”’

Bloodaxe recalls how, terrible for one who trained to be a professional musician, ‘From the 1990s Anne Stevenson suffered from acute, progressive hearing loss. Her stoical response to this can be seen in her poems “On Going Deaf”, “Arioso Dolente” and “Hearing with My Fingers” (all from Poems 1955–2005).
A cochlear implant operation in the mid 2000s restored some of her hearing.’ A few months ago ‘she published what she herself called her “swansong collection”, Completing the Circle with Bloodaxe Books. This was her sixteenth collection…’

‘Poet of the Nepali soul’

Madhav Prasad Ghimire, described in a headline as the ‘Poet of the Nepali soul’, died in August at the age of 101. He was a prolific poet, and some of his poems are in effect national anthems, evoking the country, its landscapes and people. He was above all a nature poet in a nineteenth-century spirit. In his work an older, idealised Nepal survives. His obituarist seems closely attuned to the idealising aspects of his verse: ‘He grew up grazing goats in the high pastures, roamed forests picking wild berries, the hum of the Marsyangdi River constantly flowing through his mind – sadly whispering in winter, gurgling with happiness in the spring thaw, wild and angry in the monsoon.’ Can it have been idyllic, however? ‘He ran away from home at age 12, stealing some money from the family coffers, so he could get a better education in Kathmandu – then known as “Nepal”.’ He studied hard and came back with a mission. ‘Many of Ghimire’s poems have been rendered into song by Nepal’s famous musicians like Narayan Gopal and Ambar Gurung, and his plays have been performed for decades in Nepal’s theatres. Generations of Nepali children have grown up memorising his ‘Gaunchha geeta Nepali’. His critics suggested he was ‘too close to the Panchayat rulers, helping Queen Aishwarya with her poetry (some say he even ghost wrote some of her poems), and supporting King Gyanendra’s coup in 2005.’ Latterly, ‘some labeled him with retroactive correctness, as a proponent of a unitary Nepal’.

A Penguin in a Box

The 2019/2020 winner of the Nottingham Trent University Carcanet/PN Review Prize, for the best writing student of the year, is Micah Gardner. The prize consists of £75 worth of books and a subscription to PN Review. And the University of Dundee winner is Thomasin Collins, who writes, ‘I hardly know what to say. Everything is so up in the air now; my main plan is to keep writing and graduate! I am from the Highlands, but I can’t be more specific than that because I moved so much growing up; my last year of school was in Nairn. I am part of the Dundee University Rucksack Club, which feeds my need for the outdoors and walking, something that was nurtured through living next to hills and beaches. I find myself turning to history in my reading and research, and my upbringing has made art a focal point in my life.’ She shared with us ‘A Penguin in a Box’, an evocative narrative essay (essai?) that takes us into the worlds of research, heroic history and nature. It begins:

A penguin in a clear glass box. The quietly whirring air conditioning in the museum partially suggests the gales that whipped the icy plains, forcing the King Penguins to huddle in a family, protecting each other against the vast freeze. Now displaced into another kind of family, a visual display of species and specimens. The weak light above the penguin does little to dispel the shadows in the corners and underneath the penguin’s cabinet. The fluorine light flickers and feet sound softly on the carpeted floor. The spectacle is worshipped and gawked at by students and scholars scanning for buzzwords in the clue card, a summary of the exhibit, for any link to the reality of our living lives. They only glance briefly at the figure stuffed into life.

How can we rescue from oblivion these lives that were never made note of even when they were alive…?

A compelling adventure of historical imagination follows.

Trans Issue

Much ink and rancour have been spilled in recent weeks over J.K. Rowling’s original comments on trans-sexuality and their verbally violent aftermaths. The Society of Authors and English PEN have ‘stated their positions on online harassment of authors’ – a position which is so hedged about, so nuanced and subtilised, as to be effectively neutral. As a membership organisation, the Society of Authors is ‘appalled at any kind of hate speech’ but ‘refrains from getting involved in individual cases of trolling, especially if an author hasn’t asked for intervention’. They put out their statement in response to the novelist Amanda Craig’s inquiry, should professional bodies do more to defend authors who are being vilified – targets for hate speech online, with death threats for expressing their views or, as in the case of Rowling, dissenting from the emphatic views of others. English PEN put out a statement against online harassment and supporting the right to hold and express strong views – so long as no one’s human rights are infringed, a condition susceptible to very wide interpretation.

Craig, dropped as a judge by Myslexia for signing a letter defending J.K. Rowling, is ‘horrified’ that these author societies and the Royal Society of Literature had not intervened to stop the abuse of an author for her views of gender and biological sex. ‘Coming down on one side or the other on the trans issue is very, very difficult and that will take a long time to thrash out. But what seems very clear to me is that they’re not doing the other side of their remit, which is to protect authors. That’s what really is bad. Authors are suffering and being intimidated.’ Myslexia’s decision unsurprisingly provoked controversy on social media; the magazine issued a statement claiming to be supportive of any woman’s right to free speech, but ’if a Mslexia judge expresses views that threaten to undermine Mslexia’s climate of welcome and inclusivity, we will always ask her to step down from that role’. Craig said, ‘I was going to judge this prize as a favour to a magazine I’ve supported virtually since it began. I’m very sad, because I love finding new talent… But I am just very disappointed in them [Mslexia] because it seems quite clear to me what I am protesting against, like the other signatories, is the relentless bullying and death threats to a fellow author. It’s clear that is what that letter was about. It wasn’t about views on trans matters, which I know there is a broad spectrum of opinion about; it was to show someone I very much admire as a writer support. So it’s disappointing and ironic that a magazine, founded to support and champion women writers, should have fallen in this ridiculous way. I’m afraid it’s pretty damaging for them.’

This item is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

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