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This review is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.Better Language
‘Better language than yours.’ Anne Carson’s pamphlet, Nay Rather, opens with an essay on translation. At its heart, Carson places the words of Joan of Arc, when asked which language her voices spoke. The essay’s chosen voices could scarcely be better: Joan’s, Francis Bacon’s, Hölderlin’s, Celan’s. Carson admires those who aim ‘to defeat narrative’. ‘They put a stop on the cliché.’ She has an unerring ear for her subjects’ most revealing language, quoting Bacon, on painting: ‘an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself’.
Carson’s own prose eloquently circles ‘the untranslatable’, ‘the feeling […] that some possibility has got free’. To share this sense, she turns to poetry: six translations of a Greek fragment. Each takes its words from a single source, including Beckett and a microwave manual. ‘The violence of reality’ sizzles in the microwave’s finale: ‘[it] will burn your nose right off’. The poems’ reader may indeed feel a baffled sense of original meaning, hidden behind provisional words.
Carson’s admirable publishers explain that they alternated pages of her essay with pages of a poem. They hoped this would be ‘illuminating’. I think it is over-complicated. But the poem, ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’, is profound and troubling. Its lines, rearranged by ‘a random number generator’, are in short sections. Some are smoothly flowing sentences: ‘10.1 She plied the ferryboat back and forth, island to island’. Some are almost despairingly terse: ‘2.1 It was no use. They’d lost the knack. Sleep was a stranger.’ Its themes, scattered by the ‘number generator’, include insomnia and ‘frying pans’. The pans, I discovered, do exist. One, coloured red ochre, appears amongst Lanfranco Quadrio’s beautiful (and fragmentary) illustrations of the poem. The sleeplessness, I fear, is ours. It haunted me. So did ‘15.0 She’d been a pretty good harpist before the die-off’. The poem concludes that ‘great stillness’ produces ‘great stirring’. Carson’s language, in poetry or prose, is a deep stirrer of thought.
Anyone in an audience at a reading by Mimi Khalvati will quickly realise that she is one of a very small number of living poets whose words are not only admired, but loved. Earthshine is a pamphlet in which every poem has eight couplets, with unrhymed lines of flexible length. Even the best poet’s language may flirt with cliché, as in the ‘daffodil yellow’ mist of the opening line of ‘House Mouse’. But its fourth couplet reveals Khalvati’s unmatchable delicacy:
Pricked on her shadow, her ear and fur stood sharp as grass
but her real ear was soft, thin, pliable, faint as a sweetpea petal
Earthshine keeps a fine balance of energy and miniaturism. In its description of a lemur, a ‘little living furry torch’, linked consonants slip irresistibly under the radar of a reader’s consciousness. But Khalvati is keenly aware of destruction: the ‘slash and burn’ of the lemurs’ forests. Many of the poems expand into a sense of loss, whose roots are gradually laid bare, in the plainest language: ‘not having a mother’.
In one of the last poems of Earthshine, Khalvati imagines the soul on horseback ‘breaking the moon into a swarm of clear, crystal roses’. A critic can try to analyse this line: the swoons of its vowels, the crisp chimes of its consonants, the descent of its syllables. But this is language which stuns the mind by its beauty. Nothing looks simpler, nothing is more difficult (and risky) than to write like Khalvati, at her best.
Judy Brown’s pamphlet, One of the Summer People, is slim, but rewarding. Written during a residency at the Wordsworth Trust, it brings a powerful sense of ferocious Cumbrian weather: ‘I could hardly move in the mornings / in those first iced-out months’. Brown marries the strangeness of dream, where ‘the Devil lounged at my shoulder’, with daily life: ‘snow whispers from cars on the A591’. This awakening of the senses leads to an almost physical delight in summer’s copper beech leaves ‘like plum jam’.
Occasionally, poems feel more dutiful than driven. But at her best, Brown creates lines of tough clarity. In ‘This Is Not a Garden’ ‘this garden, this marriage, is divided into rooms’. The poem becomes possessed by the unexpected energies of plants and humans:
A man made this garden for me, whether
I liked it or not. After I had gone, he let it
go wild, to armoured holly and hawthorn,
the small beer of thugweeds, but in time
it will settle, a wiry daisy meadow, well-fenced.
Language fences the poem into a tiny world, both intricate and mysterious.
Japan’s Noh plays remain mysterious to most British readers, including me. Paul Griffiths’ pamphlet, The Tilted Cup, offers brief prose versions of eleven plays. Despite an early flicker of mannerism, these are a deep delight. As Carson admits, ‘humans […] crave a story’. Griffiths explains that Noh plays use ‘language dense with metonymy, ambiguity and cross-reference’. Griffiths’ more elaborate syntax reflects this intricacy. But his language can be down-to-earth: ‘Lady Han […] was no lady’. His tales often end simply, distilled to a phrase. Lady Han takes her lover’s fan: ‘She slowly raised what she had been given, up to what she already had. […] Moon covered moon’.
Poets may brood on Tadanori, who deliberately dies in battle, because he is not credited in an anthology. (John L. Tran’s photographs provide arresting comment. Tadanori’s hunger for glory is followed by the brilliant scarlet and gold of a shopping mall.) Other stories present talking trees, and porridge, in starring roles. In ‘Hagoromo’, a fisherman watches a spirit dance, ‘until its feather cloak […] was a point, until it was nothing at all’. What is the story’s point? Ecstasy? ‘Hagoromo’ entrances.
Griffiths is technically adventurous. ‘Teika’ is one sentence, dense as the ivy around its two lovers’ graves. But the plays’ power would be diminished by over-analysis. As the Emperor of ‘Sagi’ commands (of his heron) ‘Let it go, let it go!’
One of Griffith’s stories contains a lovely trick: his homage to an English poet. But I must let The Tilted Cup pour out its own secrets, in better language.
This review is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.