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This review is taken from PN Review 224, Volume 41 Number 6, July - August 2015.

Long Complex Moments peter hughes, Quite Frankly: After Petrarch’s Sonnets (Reality Street) £12.50

Let me make two things quite clear from the outset. Firstly, these are poems ‘after Petrarch’ and secondly they are written by a poet who stands at the very forefront of twenty-first-century lyricism. When I point to the subtitle with its disclaimer, ‘After’, I suppose that any late-medieval academic who looks here for a word-for-word rendering of fourteenth-century Italian will be disappointed. The same academic may well, of course, be also disappointed with Sir Thomas Wyatt’s deeply felt renderings of Petrarch in ‘My galy charged with forgetfulnes’ and ‘Who so list to hounte I know where is an hynde’. However, the Wyatt who recognised the haunting emptiness of seeking to catch the wind in a net would surely have recognised a similar power in Hughes’s ‘attempt to scoop up with unsteady hands / her reflection gliding in the river’.

In his 1976 essay on the ‘Translation of Poetry’ Yves Bonnefoy suggested that while we cannot hope to translate a poem we most certainly can translate poetry: ‘We should relive the act that produces the poem – the very act that also founders there. Its frozen form is but a trace of the poet’s first intention, his primal intuition (call it a longing, an inkling, something universal)’. The translator, in Bonnefoy’s terms, can seek to renew the impulse of what prompted the original poem in another language and, he added, ‘all the more authentically because the poet’s own dilemma will arise again for us’.

Petrarch’s Laura, whose light of life was withdrawn from the light of day in 1348, stirs a lyricism in Peter Hughes which interweaves the physical, the unforgotten with a yearning sense of the untouchable. As in an Ovidian tale the moving fragility of the present is immobilised within a work of art and held up for the observer’s contemplation. As Charles Olson knew, ‘Purity / is only an instant of being’ before the ‘trammels / recur’ (‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’), and Eliot recognised in ‘Little Gidding’ how ghosts can disappear ‘with a kind of valediction’, fading ‘on the blowing of the horn’. For Peter Hughes this fading of the vivid present becomes a tale

          told by ageing neo-Platonists
who know they’ve missed the turning of the tide
& sense parting glimmers in the distance

When Petrarch undertook his climb of Mt Ventoux in the spring of 1336 he wrote afterwards about the experience of climbing to a spiritual goal and suggested that the ‘agile, immortal soul can reach its goal in the twinkling of an eye without intermediate space’. That ‘twinkling’ moment is what might in Hughes’s world be recognised in ‘a gap in the shadows / courtesy of some hallucination / resilient hope’; it might also in its spiritual sense of the moment be

thwarted by blinking reality & night
which overcompensates with deep vistas

of distance & the unattainable

The tentative yearning towards fixity in Hughes is caught in a mathematical mystery in which two minuses make a plus and ‘I saw her as the absence of absence’, that fragility of presence. That glimpse seems itself to echo Donne’s poem for the ‘year’s midnight’ and the poet becomes re-begotten ‘Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not’.

Peter Hughes stands at the endless end of Western lyricism and the accumulation of voices threading their way through his evocations do not only include those from the Renaissance. As the opening sonnet hopes that the reader will recognise ‘a few shapes / if only by the state of the trellis’ I see Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi’s ‘dozen knots’ producing a ladder for him to climb down and join the ‘hurry of feet and little feet, / a sweep of lute strings, laughs, and whiffs of song’. As the nympholeptic vision fades from the precision of the moment I can hear Swinburne’s question ‘why should an hour that is heaven for an hour / pass hence?’ When Erich Auerbach wrote about ‘The Western Public and its Language’ he suggested that Petrarch’s lyrical subjectivism ‘achieved perfection for the first time since antiquity, not impaired but, quite on the contrary, enriched by the motif of Christian anguish that always accompanies it’. For Auerbach it was this motif that gave lyrical subjectivism its dialectical character and the poignancy of its emotional appeal. In the world of Peter Hughes the ‘ageing neo-Platonists’ provide us with another echo from the nineteenth century: that of two people standing on a hotel balcony at Dover listening to the sea’s ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’. The lyrical qualities of Hughes’s poetry, however, look forward as well as back, and another voice shining through the references to music, poets, friends and Art is that of Ted Berrigan, whose Sonnets invoke what Alice Notley has called the incorporation of the past into the present becoming the future. The sonnet sequences of both Berrigan and Hughes present the reader with ‘invisible arrows’ pointing out from the lines, urging us ‘backwards, forwards, and sideways too, creating a long complex moment’.


This review is taken from PN Review 224, Volume 41 Number 6, July - August 2015.

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