Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review of Dante’s Inferno tr. Philip Terry

Dante’s Inferno by Philip Terry, pub. Oystercatcher Press. £4.50

This short pamphlet contains selected cantos from The Inferno, rendered into contemporary English, and transposed to the present-day. It is, presumably, extracted from a translation of the whole work. Here are the famous, and portentous opening lines of Dante’s poem.

Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura…
(“Halfway along the path of life
I found myself in a dark wood…”)

And here's Terry:

Halfway through a bad trip
I found myself in this stinking car park,
Underground, miles from Amirillo.

Instead of Virgil as guide to the underworld, we have Ted Berrigan, and instead of a leopard barring the poet's way, we have "a hairy she-rat/that stalks me like a pimp". In the passage in Canto VII where the narrator's way forward is prevented by the damned, and he faces returning without his guide, he says:

Gentle reader, imagine how I shat myself
When those words reached my ears!

This version is funny – something not often associated with Dante translations (or with Dante himself)  – and as racy as the original. As you’ll have gathered, it’s very much in the contemporary vernacular; which seems appropriate, given that Dante himself used the Tuscan dialect instead of Latin, the poetic language of the day. Here's the opening of Canto XXVIII:
Who could, even in the goriest movie

Tell the tale of blood and guts [I saw]...
... I guarantee you every effect would fail

That last-quoted line is perfect - almost banal in its everyday realism (it's straight from contemporary spoken idiom), yet expertly judged;  musical with its repeated 'f' and 'v' sounds and its long consonants, and sounding just the right emphatic note. Like the original, this version reflects back to us the world of current affairs, and passes judgement in the best polemical style. Irish history looms large (Terry was born in Belfast), and we have Ian Paisley in Hell with Seamus Twomey ("who planted the car bomb in Donegal Street") alongside Oliver Cromwell, Ian Trimble, Bernadette Devlin and others.

Dante’s poem has had a mixed reception among British poets, being for a long time regarded as a grotesque oddity, and avoided as a catholic text. After Chaucer’s death, no part of the Inferno was translated into English until Jonathan Richardson’s version of the Ugolino episode in 1719; a gap of three hundred years. The tide turned during the eighteenth century, with its notion of ‘the sublime’, and Dante was subsequently revered by the Romantics and admired during the nineteenth century. But it was the modernists, and particularly T.S. Eliot, who presented The Inferno in the way that it’s still, to some extent, regarded today; as a kind of sacred text, and, of course, as it was usually quoted in the original, as a bar to the uneducated. Today, any poet wishing to enter The Canon feels obliged to give us a rendering of at least part of The Inferno – Heaney, O’Brien, Kinsella and numerous others have had a go; in a sense, it’s still being used as a shibboleth. For me, it’s good to see Terry’s irreverence and comedy dispense with that notion.

But there’s no doubt that Terry clearly knows the original well, and expects his readers to know it too. It’s not possible to fully appreciate this version – including the humour of it – without at least a passing knowledge of the original or an alternative translation; if you know which medieval figures have been replaced by Ian Paisley or Mervyn King, then it certainly adds to ones’ appreciation. Helen Vendler has claimed that ‘updating Dante’s circumstances… becomes parodic’; this may be true, and certainly, at one level, Terry’s version is a parody. But it’s also – like all translations – a new poem based on the original, and that new poem is much more than just a parody. Dante had tremendous audacity in condemning, as he saw fit, many of his contemporaries to Hell, including some who were not yet dead. In Terry's version, we have Bank of England governor Mervyn King ("man's arch enemy") alongside a bunch of people doing the conga for all eternity, some crying "What's the point of saving?" others "Take out an ISA!" - all of which leads to an impassioned tirade:

'This Capital you speak of,
what is it,
that has the world so in its clutches?'
And he replied: 'People are mugs,
things of real value,
friendship, love,
Poetry, health,
they ride over roughshod
for a slice of Capital's cake.
Commodity fetishism rules the day
drowning us in a sea of white goods
and smart gadgets.

This little pamphlet is a hugely entertaining read, and it gives the reader a good idea of what it must have been like to read Dante when he was contemporary – of the sheer shock value of some of his judgements, and of narrative thrust of the poem.  The extracts appear to be part of a full-length translation, the publication of which is something we can all look forward to.


  1. English Translations of Dante in the Eighteenth Century, Paget Toynbee. The Modern Language Review Vol. 1, No. 1 (Oct., 1905), pub. Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association
  1.  “Can we conceive of Beatrice ‘snapping’ like a shrew?” Helen Vendler, review of “Dante in English” edited by Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds. London Review of Books, Vol. 27 No. 17 · 1 September 2005

Copyright © Alan Baker, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"Wildlife" by Rupert Loydell

Wildlife by Rupert Loydell (Shearsman, 2011).

Review by Daniel O'Donnell-Smith

This latest poetry collection from the prolific Rupert Loydell, is a study of otherness; one man in contrast with everything. Covering a range of subjects from parental loss to leaving one’s shoes behind in a foreign country so that they may enjoy an unending holiday, Loydell’s work presents as a series of micro-essays, a kind of Philosophy-of-Everything, underpinned by bathetic humour and the notion that death, as an absurd adversary to the natural world, is always in view: ‘I am happiest hiding behind curtains or drapes, think I am ready to dig my own grave’.

The work is one of self-reflection and (non-mawkish) nostalgia or, more accurately, the sense of history one feels when one encounters a place. Running throughout the entire book is a sequence of poems entitled Animals Are Not Your Friends – a collection of curios, existential musings and lurking creatures; egrets and spiders hiding in the crease of the page, looking on (just out of sight but ever-present). Loydell constructs a poetics of organisms and organics. ‘Nests’ of letters actively arrange themselves to become the work; a hive mind of poetic thought housing ‘germs of ideas’ that self-organise into a repeating and self-replicating pattern. Each variation of Animals Are Not Your Friends is arranged into sets of four neat, centred stanzas ending with a disembodied quotation. This structure is safe, a rigid form to protect against the ‘dark and wilful energy’ of creatures that bite, howl, kill and are generally naughty (knocking over bins etc.).

I am thinking about what you have made,
those drawings with water, circles of stone,
marks left on the hills or the beach;
about how you then let time and weather
blow them away into memory’s book.
Animals are not your friends. They plunder
for their nest and forage for their food,
they run away and don’t return, fight
other cats at night. It’s no use limping home
to me, you’ll get no sympathy.
I am thinking that it doesn’t really matter
if you made those marks or took these walks,
or if you’re who I think you are. There is
still mud on the wall and your photographs
where text and landscape blur.
Animals are not your friends and art critics
are all snakes. What do they know about life
or being alone for a week? A stone is a stone
is a stone is a stone. Look at where the path
might go, at patterns in the sand.
“I prefer to leave things unsaid.”

At the beginning of Wildlife there is a quote from Anne Michaels’ What the Light Teaches – ‘When there are no places left for us, we’ll still talk in order to make things true’. Snatches of conversation are threaded throughout the book; a collage of vivid thoughts and recollections creating a confessional of sorts though one that is purposefully unreliable. Loydell never fully lets on whether or not he believes in the statements he makes: ‘…this poem is not concerned with truth or experience or even being honest’ (a line which in itself may not be true, taken from Line by Line). Not that one feels emotionally short-changed or intellectually hoodwinked - the victim of some philosophical flim-flam - rather, this approach seems to mimic the untrustworthiness of the natural world and the slippery glissage of thought and observation serves to amuse as a subversive pastiche on the uncertainty of it all.
Sometimes Loydell takes the form of a kindly pater familias, leaning in to impart advice and gently inform on the world, at other times he’s on a step-ladder in Hyde Park berating foxes and geese. Nature, lacking in tenderness, refuses to be tamed as families change; losing and gaining members with each progression: shoes are left on holiday, dead fish stink out their museum and words, not being ‘made to last’, face an uncertain future in what is a careful, humourous, and affecting discourse on the ephemeral nature of life, art and writing.

Daniel O’Donnell-Smith, 2012.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Friday, June 15, 2012

Carrie Etter at the Flying Goose

I published Carrie Etter's pamphlet 'Yet' five years ago, but last night at the Flying Goose was the first time we'd met, and I can say it was a great pleasure. Carrie's reading was revelatory, and, for me, it added an extra dimension to the poetry. The work in her Shearsman collection 'Divining for Starters' has elements of abstraction, and the title sequence, which investigates our cultural predilection for defining new beginnings, is full of false starts and broken sentences, and of snatches of language left unfinished. But there's also a strong sensual element to Etter's poetry, most evident in the remarkable 'Erotics' section. What last night's reading did for me, was to add a sense of place and a sense of the personal to these elements, and to foreground the musicality of the words (yes, I do believe poetry has a musical element, and that the sound of the words is very much part of its effect). Carrie has a  strong mid-western accent, and we had a conversation afterwards about how, because I had an English 'internal reader', hearing the words in her own accent subtly changed my reception of them. This, added to her brief introductions, placing the poems in a context of growing up in Illinois, and of her relationship with her late father, grounded the work in a way that silent reading couldn't completely do. The reading ended with a number of poems from her pamphlet, 'The Son', about her experience of giving up a son for adoption; I've reviewed this powerful sequence on Litterbug, so I won't add more, except to say that several audience members, including myself, found the reading a moving experience.

Friday, June 1, 2012

John James's new pamphlet

John James: Cloud Breaking Sun. Oystercatcher Press,
£5.00 A5 32pp. ISBN: 978-1-905885-51-0

The great thing about pamphlets is that you can roll them up and shove them in your back pocket and read them while eating your sandwich at lunch time or waiting in the rain for your train to work. Another great thing is that you can get a buzz from the contrast between the fragile and ephemeral nature of the stapled pamphlet and the sometimes astonishing beauty of the contents, as I did with my two latest Oystercatchers, one containing the luminous, spare wordcraft of Carol Watts, and the other new work by the great John James.

The poems by James are in his trademark laconic style, in plain language, set in France and Bristol, and containing a number of tributes to other poets - Barry MacSweeney, Apollinaire, John Temple and others. But the tone is a long way from the patrician "hail fellow, well met"; instead, it's cool and ironic, full of lyricism and beauty. The opening poem is a tribute to the late Andrew Crozier (topical, given the new 'Crozier Reader' from Carcanet): the kitchen table I put a hand to my breast in sorrow
then reach for the wine still singing
& your book resonant of a life
neither following nor in pursuit
at the end of a line let me read it again...

The poems are full of named people ('I reach toward the poetry of kindred') - family, friends and fellow poets - and are distinctly elegiac in tone. The language is plain, the speech direct. Reading this pamphlet got me wondering about the difference between these poems and the typical first-person-anecdote poem that I find so dull. One difference is that these poems look outward - to the persons addressed and to the world of affairs and politics (though they're not overtly political). The poems feel open; they don't tell us how to respond; they don't sum things up neatly; the persona in them is vague and unemphatic, subordinated to the external world and to the other characters that appear in the poems. But in the end, these things matter less than the fact that the poetry is supremely well-written, the result of lifetime's attention to the art of language; they have that undefinable quality which tells us we're in the presence of the real thing:


Stop on the turnpike in the month of May
& after breakfast head up country. From here on, says J,
grinning over a serious forkful of Red Lodge Special,
we're in the Texas of East Anglia.
Is that so, says, J, with mock sobriety.

The counter of the cafe painted cheerful red, the tea is hot & brown
& the heads of passing saints smile down
from the wall on these two pilgrims
laughing madly in the Hopper window
where space opens up into the blue beyond the red & white stripe canopy.

Years later swirls of sandy dust blow low across the truck park over the street.
At the next table Asterix the Gaul steadies himself above a dish of red meat.
HGV men return their empty plates and are gone.
It's a sunny afternoon. Drive on, they say, drive on.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Price: £8.99 ISBN: 978-0-9570984-3-5. pub. Nine Arches.

This is the first full-length collection that C.J. Allen has published since his 'New and Selected' from Leafe Press. Full of vintage Allen work, it comes highly recommended:

The Memory of Rain

The memory of rain on public parks
and tennis courts. The acres of regrets.
Sunset on the disused printing works,
as good as gold, as good as sunset gets.
The railings with their eczema of rust
you stood in front of once when you were nine
and watched the sky turn colourless and vast.
Dust like old grey blankets. Then more rain.

And love was once the very latest craze,
like alchohol, or sex, or Benzedrine,
and kicked in like all three. On quiet days
you'd watch the old men on the bowling green
and listen to their antiquated banter,
and go for walks, and feel a bit nonplussed,
and head for home and think about the winter
in rooms filled up with sunlight and with dust.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Roy Marshall, Laressa Dickey, Amy De'Ath

Roy Marshall, 'Gopagilla' (Crystal Clear Creators)

Laressa Dickey, 'Companions, Corps of Discovery' (Miel Books)

Amy De'ath, 'Erec and Enide' (Salt Publishing)

I have a (as yet untested) notion that the quality of most published poetry is higher than it was back in the days when output was controlled by a few London publishing houses, and most published poets were educated at Oxford. My contention is supported by three pamphlets I picked up at the Leicester book fair back in March. All three poets are at the beginning of their careers, or at least of their careers as published poets, although I believe that Roy Marshall, the oldest of the three, has been writing poetry for some time, and has recently returned after a long lay-off (usually a good sign).

Of these three, Roy Marshall's poetry is the most conventional; his writing contains emotional responses to observed events, subjective commentary on the external world and employs pathos in description of such things as family bonds and the passage of time, all of which is executed with enviable skill. What marks this poet out from many writing in a similar vein is the knack for highlighting the particulars that capture an emotion or encapsulate a story:

The circuitry of crickets on the air,
his red wine and cigarette breath,
a sickle and scythe laid aside,
and rosemary scent, rising.

The valley draped in wood-smoke webs,
my hair ruffled by his hardened hand...

Close observation, combined with beautifully-judged phrasing. Wayne Burrows, in his foreword, talks of Marshall's '...compression and unforced lyricism..' which is about right, but such attributes don't come without hard work and a long poetic apprenticeship; both of which Marshall evidently put in before bringing out this first slim collection. This pamphlet comes from the excellent series of first collections by Leicester-based Crystal Clear Creators.

Marshall's poems have a theme of family history and reconciliation running through them. I quote the following poem in full to show the skill and economy at work here:

National Service

Smaller wars can be fogotten between wars;
afterwards wars, the months and years of enforced peace.

A man of my Dad's generation told me how
you could go from Nissan hut and blancoed coal

to Korea, in a week, how a lad might replace a sentry
who'd been shot that evening;

how, at nineteen, you might catch shrapnel
in your spine and wheel-chair bound

get home to find your teens at an end
and the swinging sixties just beginning.

Laressa Dickey is American, and writes a poetry which is in a recognizably American style; spare and laconic, with its cadences rooted in everyday speech, not dissimilar to the poetry of Shannon Tharp, whom I recently reviewed. Compared to Marshall, Dickey's verse is more abstract, and its effects are reinforced by its spacing on the page. Phrases are lifted from their surrounding language to float as self-contained linguistic units.

You can go where you are not wanted

think those places slowly

without actually breaking skin

The impression I got from this poetry was rootlessness and distance; something reflecting perhaps the vast physical dimensions of the USA. I was confirmed in this feeling by reading the afterword, in which Dickey says:

'In my imagination, since I was a young girl, Amelia Earhart has been crossing the ocean and roaming the skies continuously. The memory of flight, the memory of roaming'.

The poems also touch on the domestic lives of women. Dickey asks 'what is it to be a women living - with what am I to concern myself.'  The poems address this question in snatches of words, like entries in a notebook:

Pretend love is a rocket, small salad greens
I note the seasons

I want to be a beautiful

impromptu meetings on limestone hills

When reading these poems I found myself, rather than reading serially, instead scanning the page, and flicking back and forwards in the book, which seems to be a way to let these pieces of language work their meditative effects:

go farther down to board

That evening I was quiet

I believed a song was boarding

The most linguistically innovative poet of these three is Amy De'Ath. The medieval story of Eric and Enide provides a loose framework around which youthful poems of love and desire are constructed, alongside more literary and intertextual poems. The poetry is clearly influenced by Language poetry, and the notes at the back reference Chretien de Troyes, Emily Dickinson, Virgil and John Clare. The language is woven from statements and phrases which at times appear to make sense, and to relate to the adjacent phrases, but most often veer in unexpected and disorienting directions.In this, De'Ath reminds me of the British poets of the 1940s who are being recovered and used as models by many left-field contemporary poets. Here's a poet writing in 1942:

Should I be here in this rare scaffolding
Clutching the promise of primrose?
You with a yokel handful of blight
Pitching your jacket on gowan,
Conceal the hollow in the core of love
For fear will fast after it move.

and here's De'Ath.

How to glide on promise
hunted hunted honed the sky
alone lacking ground a sky
alone on the border of a shadow
of a cloud betrothed and hunted

What's common here is both the lyric impulse, and the denial of a foothold for the reader, thus keeping the attention at surface level, at the level of the language itself. This produces some beautiful effects, and provides an invigorating read; although it's hard on the reader, in comparison with the direct statement and connection with the external world provided by a poet like Roy Marshall.

It should go without saying that I'd recommend anyone to buy and read these three poets.

Anyone recognize the 1940s poet?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Welch on Lowenstein

Review: 'Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry' by Tom Lowenstein. (Shearsman Books, £9.95)

"The poems in this volume", writes Tom Lowenstein in his introduction, "have all emerged from ethnographic work in Northwest Alaska and come from three separate periods of writing spread over thirty years". In 1993 Bloomsbury published Lowenstein's "Ancient Land: Sacred Whale". Subtitled "The Inuit Hunt and Its Rituals" this account of Eskimo life on the Peninsula of Tikiraq in Alaska focussing on the traditional whale hunt was narrated largely in verse, interspersed with prose sections giving background material. At the time, it attracted some very favourable reviews, in the London Review of Books and elsewhere. But one is struck by the fact that it was reviewed by critics who by and large, did not otherwise write about poetry, and in the poetry magazines the book went largely unacknowledged. It is not as if Lowenstein didn't have a track record. His first book publication had been a collection of translations of Eskimo poetry, made from the versions of the Danish originally collected by Rassmussen; this appeared from Allison and Busby in 1973 at about the same time as his fieldwork in Alaska was getting under way. The first collection of his own poetry to appear, "The Death of Mrs Owl", came out from Anvil in 1977, and in 1978 The Many Press (and here, as the press's founder perhaps I should declare an interest) brought out "Filibustering in Samsara". It is as if, when the Bloomsbury book appeared, people where not quite sure where to place these texts.

To read the full review, click here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Servant of the Royal Household

As I've been reminded by James Shapiro's excellent BBC4 documentary, Britain's most influential writer, national artistic icon and cultural export - not to mention literary Olympian - was effectively a servant of the Royal household, paid to entertain, not to say flatter, the King, which he did very effectively. I wonder how much this has influenced British history and helped keep the monarchy in place. I know the plays are ambiguous, ambivalent, questioning and quite clearly transcend their author's role as Royal lackey. But its still easy to construct a composite 'Shakespearean' view that works to support the British monarchy. Indeed, some of the speeches of the history plays are an accepted part of the royalist narrative. Had our foremost poet / dramatist been from the nineteenth century (being a post-revolutionary, more egalitarian era), as were Hugo or Baudelaire in France, or had he been an outsider in the way that, arguably, Dante was in Italy, or, say, Whitman and Dickinson were in the USA, how differently would British history have turned out? I'm not suggesting the the plays' investigations of power and politics are limited, or that, transferred to other cultures, they can't act as powerful challenges to authority; I'm just musing on their influence on Britain and its monarchy; could they be partly responsible for the fact the we're subjects, not citizens, and that our government and top layers of society are - even in the 21st century - stuffed with Lords, Ladies, Dames, Knights, Dukes and Princes?