No 59 - Spring 2008
Realigning the World
Helen Constantine’s admiration for three very different collections
Cape Poetry £9
Crocodiles and Obelisks
The Pomegranates of Kandahar
Chatto Poetry £9
We live very close to the edge of global disaster, but most of us are sick of being told so. In fact we mostly don’t even want to think about it. Jean Sprackland’s poems are therefore timely, because they tell us again, but differently, and arrestingly. They demand our attention. They are a warning to us.
The ecliptic plane – the imaginary plane containing the earth’s orbit round the sun – is vital for a habitable earth. The planet’s tilt dictates the cycle of summer and winter and any increase in the tilt of the earth’s axis would result in extremes of temperature, making life as we know it impossible. The title of this volume, Tilt, is itself an image of that movement. Sprackland’s planet is already askew, awry, out of line, causing fire, floods, ‘drowned forests and volcanoes’, hurricanes and, no doubt, as in the disordered planets in Troilus and Cressida: ‘raging of the sea, shaking of earth / Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors…’
In the volume’s title poem we see the results of such planetary imbalance: sailors in a freak storm, birds losing their way on migration to the south, a city tearing itself apart, abandoned animals in a zoo. The feeling of foreboding, of imminent and irreversible disaster, is ever-present, even in the most intimate moments: ‘that sound at the edge of the dark / is the world’s ice ticking’. Images of flooding invade her personal and emotional life: ‘you make me care about nothing except / falling, spilling, flooding’.
A telephone left off the hook, a roll of silk spooling off the edge of a counter are signs of dissolution in Sprackland’s world picture:
slowly at first, then
spending itself faster
and faster, a torrent
flashing over and pooling beneath –
Jean Sprackland’s poetry floods and spills and swamps us. Such verbs abound in her work and whole poems frequently become images of collapse and dissolution – in the poem ‘Mattresses’, for instance: ‘Tipped down the embankment, they / sprawl like sloshed suburban wives, // buckled and split, slashed by rain’. The same violent language is found in the more personal sonnet to an undisclosed recipient ‘You’, a poem that holds itself together with present participles (stumbling, refusing, thumping, watching, thrashing):
you are marvellous
who have each time hauled me up,
brought me thrashing to the surface, ravenous
with grief and gratitude.
‘All a poet can do today is warn’, wrote Wilfred Owen in another context. We have been warned; which is not to say that Jean Sprackland’s poetry is entirely filled with gloom, especially on a personal level. She never denies the beautiful things in life, and, reading her, we remember why we need to hang on in there. The child trying to carry the sea to fill the moat of a sandcastle is a striking memory that many of us will have shared (that poem is of course entitled ‘Spilt’) ; and in a delicate little poem, ‘Hands’, two images skilfully make a connection between the ‘hospital corners’ of the fish and chip wrappings and the experience of giving birth.
Jamie McKendrick makes his own attempt to ‘realign the broken world’ in Crocodiles and Obelisks. ‘Crocodiles’, we learn, is the ironic Italian term for obituaries, the implication being that false tears are being shed for someone who has died. ‘Obelisks’ may enhance and immortalize a reputation after death in a more concrete way. Together they represent the different complexions we put on an individual life. The crocodiles and obelisks also occur more specifically in particular poems, as for example in the sardonic poem ‘Old Pointy’ about the obelisk erected to Samuel Smith, the cotton broker and philanthropist, in Sefton Park in Liverpool, where McKendrick grew up. He comments wryly:
and both its drinking fountains
have run dry and the brass taps
they had have been sawn off –
which rather overtasks the point
of the biblical quote above them
to the effect that earthly water
will only briefly quench your thirst
whereas eternal water is forever
This book is full of names, not only the ones in his address book stolen by a pickpocket near the main station in Rome:
Between Termini and a few stops back
some fetid little cutpurse took a blade
to my leather shoulder bag behind my back,
slipped his deft paw in and helped himself
to the address book he most likely felt
was my wallet.
The characters on McKendrick’s canvas, villains or not, range from historical to modern, factual to fictional, their number awe-inspiring. There are poems about Gaudi, Dalí, Roger Casement, Polonius, Kropotkin, and a Jesuit ‘whose nom de plume / was Apelles’, who first tested the function of the retina on an ox’s eye; Alfonso X, the Tuareg poet Hawad, Anni Albers, Vice President Cheney, Mussolini, General William Booth, Bertolucci and Hannah Höch, to name but a few. Jamie McKendrick is concerned with the attitude of the living towards the dead and how we are affected by those former lives; why the dead did what they did and with what consequences. Characteristic of the collection is ‘In the Year of the Blue Angel’ about the artist Hannah Höch who, in her collages, portrayed the Weimar years as a dangerous and menacing period, using newspaper text and pictures. McKendrick mentions 1930, the year Marlene Dietrich appeared in the film The Blue Angel. Höch did a montage of the star, placing her legs upside down on a pedestal and showing admiring males gazing up at her. McKendrick comments: ‘Cuts / and joints are how she dwells upon / and realigns the broken world...’
Because the poet is curious about people and their actions, for good or ill, he excites in his readers a like curiosity about the characters who inhabit his collection. I couldn’t resist googling Hannah Höch and a few besides. But even without Google to and there is plenty in this book that will appeal. Many of his oems are set in towns in Spain or Italy, countries McKendrick knows intimately. His love of Italy is palpable – he is also an accomplished linguist and translator – and much of his poetry is infused with Italian images and expressions. Anyone who has seen the astonishing blue-green Giotto murals in Assisi and stood in the square outside the basilica of St Francis will enjoy McKendrick’s anecdotal poem about the nun who offers him something to eat: ‘under a pink ceramic sacred heart / hung on a nail beside a photograph / of some bearded candidate for sainthood…’
The villanelle ‘Unfaded’ encapsulates the philosophy of the whole collection:
The dead are villains we pretend to love.
Their waxy faces a serene reproach.
We learn their secrets with distaste:
the things they did make them at least
as bad as we are – even worse because
they’re dead, and we’re alive and might improve.
Sarah Maguire, like McKendrick, is a good linguist, and, like him, a well known translator. This ability informs their verse and affords them a greater understanding of the culture and of the people who often provide the inspiration for their poetry. Maguire, though a great traveller, especially in North Africa and the Middle East, is a rooted person, in more ways than one. London is in a very real way her home; she has lived there all her life – it is the place she starts from and her love for the city shines through many of her poems. The Thames for her is ‘a beaten platinum ribbon / coiling through the city’. ‘The Physic Garden’ movingly evokes this surprising, secret garden in Chelsea, beloved of the poet, where ‘even in the still centre of the high-walled garden... the hurt roar of traffic batters the night’, and the silent journeys of the plants in the apothecaries’ garden containing over 500 species are contrasted with the one-a-minute jets landing at Heathrow.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Sarah Maguire was poet-in-residence in this garden; I cannot imagine a happier combination. Many poems in the book demonstrate her botanical expertise, for she is a botanist as well as a poet and translator and has edited Flora Poetica: The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse. A close observer of plant life – Sido’s injunction to her daughter Colette, ‘Regarde!’, springs to mind – she derives much of her inspiration from fruit and flowers, and the strength and wholeness of her poetry lies in the expression of her sensuous life in a rich conjunction of images deriving from them. As we might guess from the book’s title, she luxuriates in the exotic – in the sexy short poem ‘Hunger’ for instance:
Our lust for swollen purple aubergines,
their taut and glistening skins
and the smoky flesh within...
provoked a sudden hunger on Regent Street at midnight,
and your soft mouth on mine, upstairs on the nightbus,
tasting me, all the way home.
The title poem of the collection typifies her particular talent for richly sensuous imagery that reaches out beyond itself to embrace a wider meaning, in this case the horror of dropping bombs on Afghanistan – the ambivalent ‘pomegranates’ for which, we learn, Kandahar is especially famous:
thrust your knife through the globe
till the soft flesh cleaves open
to these small shards of sweetness
Tease each jellied cell
from its white fur of membrane
till a city explodes in your mouth.
Her awareness of and despair at the devastation is in evidence throughout the collection in such poems as ‘From Dublin to Ramallah’ or the depressingly bleak ‘Ramallah’:
a provisional city
of loose roundabouts
and razor wire
Her sympathy with those North African boys longing for a better life comes across strongly in the poem ‘Europe’, which is not so much a place as an idea in the minds of the young men climbing nightly on to the ramparts of Tangiers to gaze across at the land of their dreams.
Characteristic of her poetry is ‘A Bowl of Transvaal
Daisies’ which evokes a brief, passionate relationship and
traverses joy, pleasure, anger and a sense of loss in an enviable
economy of language:
their long, slender stems
drinking, drinking –
pliant necks spooling up
into the shocked high rush
of red mouths wide open
in joy, in astonishment.
The richness of her imagery and the metres she sometimes favours – in ‘Reflection’ for example – are perhaps echoes of Arabic poetry, from which she is a noted translator. Sarah Maguire often combines the short and long line to good effect, as in the poem ‘Wintering in Tangier’ where she aspires to turn the papyrus she is writing about into the poem itself: ‘Perhaps I could split / their sharp, triangular stems into strips / and splice them into poetry’.
Any reader of this volume would agree that again and again, in her dealings with the world around her, this is exactly what she does.
Helen Constantine taught languages in schools until 2000, when she became a full-time translator. She has published a volume of translated stories, Paris Tales, and is editing a series of City Tales for Oxford University Press. She has translated Mademoiselle de Maupin by Théophile Gautier and Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos for Penguin. Helen is currently Chair of the Translators’ Association. She is married to the poet David Constantine, and with him edits the international magazine Modern Poetry in Translation.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The