Wednesday, 17 December 2014

'North Sea' by Sidney Keyes: Looking Eastward

Spiekeroog XXVII by daniel.stark. Used under Creative Commons license

Here, as the end of the year approaches, is a chilly poem about Germany - or, quite possibly, looking across into Germany from England - by Sidney Keyes. I will soon be heading for Germany, and it seemed a wintry poem anyway.

I am sure that in 2015 I will continue to post poems by Sidney Keyes, but you may expect to see a lot by Keith Douglas. He will, rather sadly, be out of copyright then.

NORTH SEA (Sidney Keyes)

The evening thickens. Figures like a frieze
Cross the sea's face, their cold unlifted heads
Disdainful of the wind that pulls their hair.
The brown light lies across the harbour wall.

And eastward looking, eastward wondering
I meet the eyes of Heine's ghost, who saw
His failure in the grey forsaken waves
At Rulenstein one autumn. And between
Rises the shape in more than memory
Of Düsseldorf, the ringing, the river-enfolding
City that brought such sorrow on us both.

                                                           October 1942.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Nomination for the 2016 Pushcart Prize

It was great to hear recently from Muse-Pie Press that they had nominated my poem 'Wicklow Mountains After Rain' (which appeared in their short-poem publication Shot Glass Journal) for a 2016 Pushcart Prize.

This follows their nomination, last year, of one of my poems for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. I'm very flattered, and obviously it's once again motivation to get working...

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Anselm Kiefer and Paul Celan at the Royal Academy

In recent weeks I've been reading Paul Celan again. I move in and out of the Celanian moments in my life (when I say "moments", these can last for weeks or months). I don't find it possible to read Celan all the time - I get tired and sad if I go on for too long, though his work can also be very clarifying in the right proportion. I have never been able to forget the comment by Michael Hamburger, one of Celan's most dedicated translators: "From the first my engagement with the work of Celan had been difficult and sporadic. Had it become a full-time occupation and specialisation, it could have driven me into suicide, as it did his friend and interpreter Peter Szondi."

Anyway, I have been reading John Felstiner's wonderful translations, and I have also finally started reading Felstiner's biography Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. I'm also about to dip (or dive) into Pierre Joris's new translations of Celan's later works, Breathturn into Timestead. But I came back to Celan this time most notably through the Anselm Kiefer exhibition currently showing at the Royal Academy in London, which will end in a few days.

For someone (me) who is mostly drawn to art created one hundred years ago or more, Kiefer's work seemed a bit alien and intimidating. In a post-World War II Germany he created controversial works touching provocatively on Nazi symbolism, and has otherwise explored the threads of German history, its influences, and its own influence on the world. Many of his works are massive in size, overwhelming. My way in, and my main reason for going to the exhibition, was the influence of Paul Celan's works.

Kiefer has many artworks directly inspired by Celan's poems and several of them were in the exhibition. The paintings Margarete and Sulamith, directly inspired by 'Deathfugue', appeared side by side. Next to them, on the wall, was John Felstiner's translation in full of 'Deathfugue' - this translation is particularly famous for how it daringly and effectively weaves lines of the original German in with the English translation. I was glad to see other people reading the poem attentively.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

I really loved For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night, among others. One of the "lead book" works, Black Flakes, I also found especially striking:

Anselm Kiefer, Black Flakes. Private collection, c/o Museum Kuppersmuhle fur Moderne Kunst. Photo Privatbesitz Famille Grothe/copyright Anselm Kiefer

This painting is embedded with an enormous lead book and it features lines from the poem 'Black Flakes', a particularly heart-wrenching poem Celan wrote after the loss of his mother, from which he never recovered.

Autumn bled all away, Mother, snow burned me through:
I sought out my heart so it might weep, I found - oh the summer's breath,
it was like you.
Then came my tears. I wove the shawl.

(translation by John Felstiner)

I find it difficult to write about visual art, and you will find far more thorough reviews of the exhibition elsewhere. But there were a couple of things I thought particularly worth noting.

The size of many of these works is such that it has a very immersive effect. With works such as Black Flakes, I had a feeling that Kiefer had directly transferred the broken, scratchy, beautiful images in his mind directly onto the canvas. I find it very interesting to think about the pictures in others' minds, and I have sometimes asked people to describe how they "see" their consciousness, the mind's eye, the film inside your head, however you want to describe it. Mine is a mix of constant palimpsest film-reels, often with music or with words faintly (or clearly) heard, sometimes with the written words themselves. Perhaps nothing unusual, but I have a feeling that this is different for everyone. These works were so enveloping that I seemed to be seeing behind the artist's eyes. This was an especially fascinating impression because of my feeling that Celan's poems are transferring the images in his mind directly onto the page, in a way that few other poems achieve.

The other thing is that some of Kiefer's works produced a strange aural impression on me. The gallery wasn't empty and it was far from silent in there, but when I looked at some of the canvases, including the Celan works, I seemed to hear a rustling. I don't know why and I wouldn't say it necessarily represented anything, but it is very unusual for me to have aural impressions when I look at works of art. I had a confused feeling that the rustling I "heard" was something to do with the sounds of silence.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

"Blaze Like Meteors": Interstellar and Dylan Thomas

Star Trails Over NASA by Zach Dischner. Used under Creative Commons license

A few days ago I went to see the new film Interstellar. I'm an enthusiast of Christopher Nolan's films (those that I've seen, which isn't all of them - but Inception is one of my favourite films and The Prestige is wonderful).  

Interstellar is a great big space epic with many nods to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey but with a gentle approach to the human stories within it, which keeps it intimate. Matthew McConaughey was particularly good. I have to admit that the last half-hour lost me a bit. I'm all for metaphysical Hollywood with a philosophical side, but it just got a bit too weird for me in the final stages. I am still not sure if I ever saw 2001 in its entirety; I remember my family watching it on TV many, many years ago when the ending would have been past my bedtime. And although I was partly beguiled and partly horrified by HAL the computer ("I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going"...and then he sings 'Daisy') I don't think the rest of the film fascinated me that much. Anyway, I later asked my parents what actually happened at the end of the film and as I recall, the answer was "Oh, they just sort of go on out into the universe". I have my doubts as to how well anyone in my family handles space films, arty films, or generally films with weird endings.

Interstellar has made it onto this poetry blog because of Dylan Thomas's 'Do not go gentle into that good night', which features prominently in the film.


On several occasions in the course of the film, the enigmatic Professor Brand of NASA recites lines from this great poem, and it makes another appearance very near the end. I'm not going to give anything away, but depending on the context, the poem becomes either inspiring or rather ominous. To me, Interstellar was in large part about survival - the survival (or not) of the human race, of course, but also: what makes life worth living? What happens to people when they are forced to survive (as in 'outlive') someone they love? Just how far (morally and/or physically) will humans go to survive?

The onward rush of the poem has always seemed to me both joyful and catastrophic, and at the same time, the villanelle form gives it a circling/returning quality. Rather mysteriously, and along with some of the language of the poem, these qualities make it remarkably suited to the theme of space travel - a hurtling rush to the stars, and a sense of being caught in orbit.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Friday, 21 November 2014

My Translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's 'Song'

I translated this French poem by Rainer Maria Rilke some time ago. It isn't a very ambitious translation, but I found it to be such a beautiful poem that I didn't want to mess around with it too much - just be faithful to it (yes, I know it's a poem, not a relationship).

You can find the original French poem after the translation.

(For anyone who might wonder or care, I promise I'm going to get back to my translations of the Rose poems very soon.)

SONG (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from French by Clarissa Aykroyd)

You, to whom I don't confide
my long wakeful nights,
You, who leave me so gently tired,
cradling me to sleep;
You, who hide your sleeplessness from me,
tell me, can we endure
this transcending thirst
without giving in?

Remember how lovers 
are startled by a lie
at the hour of confession.

You alone can enter my pure solitude.
You become all things; you are a murmur
or an airy scent.
Between my arms, the void streams with loss.
It never held you back, and it's surely by that grace
that I hold you forever.


Toi, à qui je ne confie pas
mes longues nuits sans repos,
Toi qui me rends si tendrement las,
me berçant comme un berceau;
Toi qui me caches tes insomnies,
dis, si nous supportions
cette soif qui nous magnifie,
sans abandon?

Car rappelle-toi les amants,
comme le mensonge les surprend
à l’heure des confessions.

Toi seule, tu fais partie de ma solitude pure.
Tu te transformes en tout: tu es ce murmure
ou ce parfum aérien.
Entre mes bras: quel abîme qui s’abreuve de pertes.
Ils ne t’ont point retenue, et c’est grâce à cela, certes,
qu'à jamais je te tiens.

Translation  © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Adam Zagajewski's 'Don't Allow the Lucid Moment to Dissolve': Clinging to Lucidity

Soap Bubble by Mike Haller. Used under Creative Commons license

I've been blogging for more than three years now, which may or may not be longer than expected. One thing is certain: very few things get easier with the passage of time, whatever people may tell you - if you're like me and motivation, momentum and good habits aren't your strong points, anyway.

I have recently been wondering what The Stone and the Star is for and whether it needs to change, whether or not I should continue, whether I should dial back on the Facebook and Twitter aspects and just blog, whether I should concentrate on having 800+ Twitter followers and not worry much about the blog...etc. The fact remains that while sometimes blogging feels more like a chore than like a release, it started all this (whatever "all this" is) and in my mind, the blog still seems to be framed as one of the core points of my creative life. The other social media aspects are more peripheral.

I was reaching for a poem which might articulate some of what I've been thinking about and I came to Adam Zagajewski's 'Don't Allow the Lucid Moment to Dissolve'.

DON'T ALLOW THE LUCID MOMENT TO DISSOLVE (Adam Zagajewski, translated by Renata Gorczynski)

In this poem, the "lucid moment" is about reaching our full potential - "the level of ourselves" and "[t]he stature of a man...notched/high up on a white door". When in conclusion Zagajewski says "On a hard dry substance/you have to engrave the truth", it certainly calls poetry and writing to mind; perhaps also the visual arts, carved like Michelangelo's painful and glorious statues; or music, inscribed on the page and written in sound on air.

Beyond these, so much that is important happens because people hold on to and make a record of lucid moments. The Bible writers and prophets, whether you believe their inspiration was divine or otherwise, certainly saw the crucial necessity of recording the lucid moment. Great scientists, explorers, human rights activists and others have glimpsed and reached for them repeatedly. The "lucid moments" become a kind of ladder, or a series of lights on the roadway ('lucid' comes from the Latin for 'light'). And while blogging about poetry isn't a great deal, it can also be a small way to hold onto and to reach forward with lucidity.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A Long Weekend of Paris and Poetry

Ten days ago I went to Paris for a long weekend. I think it was my sixth visit (between the age of seven and, er, now), but my first in a few years, and Paris is never not worth visiting. I was with a friend from London and we also met up with one of my good friends who lives in the south of France, and one of her Parisian friends. Over the course of four days there was much amazing food, speaking French, wandering and taking photos, a wonderful visit to the Louvre, bookshops, a ramble round the base of the Eiffel Tower (the queue was too long to go up), and more.

There were, of course, poetic moments. I had thought to make a Paul Celan pilgrimage to his grave (in the outskirts of Paris) and maybe his last address on Avenue Emile Zola, and the Pont Mirabeau, but in the end I just wasn't in the mood for the sadness - and I would have been reluctant to drag my friend along. The Celanian pilgrimage is still on my list to do another time, though. But as always, there were the bookshops in St-Michel, especially my favourite, Gibert Jeune. Their 'livres poche' section is to die for. I bought poetry collections by Paul Eluard, René Char and André Breton (after my recent post about liking Spanish poetry more than French poetry...I felt this was a good time to act). I could easily have gone crazy in their poetry section, and I slightly wish I had, but honestly I have more than enough French poetry at home to keep going for a while.

We also went to the lovely Shakespeare & Company, where a pianist played jazz upstairs and we squeezed through the narrow aisles packed with books. I was a little unnerved to see A Cypress Walk, the correspondence between Alun Lewis and Freda Aykroyd (my great-aunt), displayed in the war poetry section. (I still haven't read it....) 

 And there was Walt Whitman, in French, outside the shop...

In the Île de la Cité, I came across Edmond Fleg, who I didn't know. All I have learned so far is that he was a Jewish French writer who wrote much work, including poetry, closely based on the Bible and his Jewish beliefs. I'd like to learn more.

We were staying in Montparnasse, for which my mother had given me a few tips from her student days in the '60s. The hotel was pleasant and there was an amazing crêperie where we feasted a couple of times. Also notable, of course, was the Montparnasse cemetery, across the road from our hotel. We walked through shortly before collecting our bags on the last day to go to Gare du Nord, and I wanted to see Baudelaire's grave. As I craned my neck to find the exact spot, having only a rough idea from the cemetery map, a middle-aged man walked by smoking a little cigar, smiled, and wordlessly gestured at the grave of the Baudelaire family.

And of course, there were many other places and moments with their own poetry. I love Paris. It is a city that wears the darkness lightly.

 Photos © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Jorge Luis Borges and Poetry in Spanish

Jorge Luis Borges at L'Hôtel, Paris, 1969. Photo by José María 'Pepe' Fernández. Public domain

I made a list the other day and subsequently realised that it looked like a really stupid poem. One who perfected the art of using lists in poems, however, was the great Jorge Luis Borges, as in 'That One'.

THAT ONE (Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Srikanth Reddy) 

Quintessential Borges, always wandering in a labyrinth of mirrors and ephemeral walls, but also able to compress a life of shifting perspectives into a snapshot of intention.

I have spent more time speaking and reading Spanish this year than I have for the past fifteen-plus years. This has occasionally included reading Spanish poetry, both in the original and in translation - not only Borges, but Lorca, Machado, Neruda, Rafael Alberti, Octavio Paz, and various more contemporary poets. The curious discovery that I have made is that (at least for now) I seem to prefer Spanish-language poetry to French-language poetry. This is odd at least because my French is so much better than my Spanish - I can freely read French poetry without any accompanying translation, whereas in Spanish I'd have to look up at least some words and preferably look at a facing translation - but I suppose that's not all there is to it.

The English language reminds me of a Gothic cathedral with trapdoors, dead ends, endless staircases, secret entrances and exits, trompe-l'oeil and on and on. French reminds me of the flashing of a bright sharp knife. Spanish, with its rounded vowels and strong inclination towards rhyme, makes me think of drinking red wine. These are all rather facile comparisons, but maybe it's partly that I'll take wine over knives, for now.