No 168 - 2002
Arrivals and Departures
Association of Serbian Writers Abroad,
no price indicated
Tickets from a Blank Window
Rockingham Press £7.95
Chatto & Windus £8.99
Bloodaxe Books £8.95
Strange how books seem to appear at the right time, just when the readership is ready and capable of taking them in. Could Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which evoked such grief at the contemplation of slavery, have appeared before it did, or Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, which told in such wry detail the sorry story of the fifties, and the baleful effect their hypocrisy, meanness and blind cruelty had upon my generation, and, by dominoes, the one we parented? I think not. We weren’t ready yet. So it is with these. They’ve come when we could read them.
Three of the collections explore the culture of masks, the masks that have to be worn because of living in a state of emergency, in a war zone. Besford’s collection emerges from the war zone of Serbia, Fyfe’s from Northern Ireland, Sorescu’s from the dictatorship of Ceausescu - and Hines’ Gilgamesh from where it all began: the first epic ever written, the first buddy movie, brat-pack tale, of two men who take on the world and the gods and, inevitably, lose.
In a dictatorship, run by the protestant and catholic mafia, as Northern Ireland is, or by the state, as Serbia and Romania were, you can never say what things are really like. You have to wear masks, use double-speak, whistle treason. And so you can’t really discover who you are:
Sometimes I am me. Sometimes not.
If a pebble in the weird music of myself
hurts, and I remove it, I end up
changing constantly from father into son.
(From ‘Am I always me?’ - Marin Sorescu)
You can’t even find out who belongs to you,
because whole parts of your country have been
removed, and you don’t know whether you can
trust them any more.
The woman on the other end
Says she’s my sister, long lost.
Where the hell were you for the third
decade of the family rosary or
when I wanted a sister to share
late-night dance-hall secrets?
Hang up. Press dial-back. My sister
Has withheld her number. Didn’t say
If she was younger, older, a twin.
It might have made a difference.
(From ‘Late Caller’ - Anne-Marie Fyfe)
The Thane of Fife he had a wife. Where is she now? Indeed. When nothing is but what is not, it’s hard to make sense of the self, to register boundaries between the real and the imagined. And if we can’t get that far, what hope have we of going beyond the self, of gaining even an inkling of the song of the earth, the laughter under pain, the wholeness that shoots through all separation and isolation? We need a break, a little touch of love or at least peace, if we are to see beyond the confines of our own paltry identities. And that break won’t come if the buddy boys and the bully boys insist on continuing to fight.
Enter Gilgamesh. The reason his poem is so worth reading is that he’s the first boy-bighead (Agammemnon was a new man in comparison) to take it to the limit. Written in cuneiform on clay tablets about 2100 B.C., it begins with a people in despair over Gilgamesh, a king who demands the right to the first taste of every new bride. The people ask the gods to help, and the gods invent Enkidu, a wild man with animal strength, whom they civilise by sex with a sacred prostitute. Enkidu goes off to subdue Gilgamesh - and what happens? They become best mates. They fell a sacred grove of cedars (the death of trees is always a sign of hubris in humans ) and bring down the bull of heaven and kill him too. This is too much for the gods. They kill Enkidu and, by the end of the poem, Gilgamesh is contemplating his own death.
Apart from felling the cedars, the other sins against nature involve the betrayal of women. Gilgamesh tosses each young bride aside, back to her hapless husband, thus trashing both the feminine and the masculine, and Enkidu, who has been sexually educated by Shamhat and so should know better, goes and becomes a kind of cosmic football hooligan. Too much wealth, too much power. It’s the Leeds boys and their mates, out Paki-bashing.
Is there any heroism in this epic? No. They’re just stupid. And Hines translates their stupidity with such top-form contemporaneity that the hubris of Milosovic, Ceaucescu and Belfast’s mafia drip from the text:
A synchromesh time-shift:
Gilgamesh and Shamhat at the bar
On the tramp steamer Espiritu Santu, 1937.
She is dressed like Dietrich in The Blue Angel-
Sex-crushed satin, décolleté - setting herself
up to lose
(From ‘Gilgamesh’ - Derek Hines)
If the boys will insist on continuing with this caper, what hope is there of any improvement?
In Ted Hughes’s Winter Pollen there’s an essay called ’Poetry and Violence’ which contains the following observation: “In the sixties, the Yugoslav poet Vasco Popa wrote a powerful cycle of poems about the Serbian national Saint: St Sava of the Wolves. The Serbs are St Sava’s wolves. During the seventies he told me that whenever he gave a public reading in Yugoslavia, students would begin to shout out, demanding the wolf poems, and then when he read them would become wildly excited - so much so that he was alarmed and puzzled. I asked him what he thought it meant and he said: ‘I don't know. But I fear - very bad things.’”
So much for poetry having no impact on a culture, even though that impact may be inimical. Sonja Besford, aware that her people have chosen terrible leaders and dreamed terrible dreams, has poems that harbour no illusions about what can be done for the destroyers: “perhaps it was a verbal tradition within our elders’/ immutable decrees which made me offer him shelter/ in our mission with its nomadic memories its scrolls/ many a night i held him in my still strong ancient arms/ hoping that i would draw off his deadly venom and he/ would shine once again with his now dormant goodness;/and then one earthly morning when i saw nothing/ in his eyes but a frenzied need to kill again and leave/ this weary place of failing absolution i told him to follow/ the river and journey out through the mangroves” (from ‘the nun and the terrorist’).
She also, though it may cut no ice with the axe-men, has a poem about the joys of waking in peacetime next to a lover. If St Sava’s wolves could rouse the war-spirit, perhaps Besford in her modest, lower-case, weirdly playful way, could find another animal to rouse the peace-spirit. Which animal would that be?
Otherwise, what’s to be done? Three strikes and you’re out? Strangle all male children? Obviously not. But can we stop ourselves enduring Ozymandias over and over again? What’s wrong with waking up next to a lover in peacetime? Nothing. So why aren’t more people allowed to do it?
- 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