Sunday, 28 December 2008

Carolyn Forché interviewed by Sandeep Parmar

Carolyn Forché has published three books of poetry in Britain, The Country Between Us (1983) from Cape and two collections from Bloodaxe, The Angel of History (1994) and Blue Hour (2003). Her first collection Gathering the Tribes won the Yale Younger Poets Award. She edited the Norton anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993). Among her translations are Mahmoud Darwish's Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems (with Munir Akash, 2003); Claribel Alegria's Flowers from the Volcano (1983), and Robert Desnos's Selected Poetry (with William Kulik, 1991). Carolyn Forché has won many prizes for her poetry, including awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Society of America for The Country Between Us and The Los Angeles Times Book Award for The Angel of History, and was given the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award for Peace and Culture in Stockholm. She lives in Maryland.


SP: You have written that 'surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end'. Each of your collections, in particular The Angel of History and then in Blue Hour, formulate a kind of ending, whether it is the end of human history, or of prophecy, and where either uncertainty or rebirth must lie. The end becomes a continual one, an ongoing process, much like the 'open wound' of memory. How much has the need not to reach an end, or not to forget, contributed to the writing of both these books?

CF: We can think about going through an experience all the way to the end if we think of experience, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has suggested, as from 'the Latin ex-periri, a crossing through danger'. A risky crossing. He cautions against thinking about experience as the anecdotal material of a life lived. So we are continually crossing the abyss as we write, and to do so we must keep moving. We must be, as Paul Celan advises, en route but without destination. In this sense, I experience poetry as resisting eschatology , whether addressing the death of an individual or the larger, cosmic sense of the end of humanity or the world. The end is continual, open, and unknowable. The Angel of History attempts a poetic meditation on the twentieth century, and it closes with the birth of a cloud rising above an annihilated city, and with that cloud, a knowledge of ends unable to be borne. In Blue Hour, in the decade following, a consciousness at once singular and collective passes from life into death. So, yes, meditations on ends, but on ends without endings. As for memory and forgetting, these are large and intertwined subjects, deserving of more time than we have here. They have been my continual devotions.

SP: You've been involved in translating the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, in particular his selected poetry: Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (2003). You have spoken about how poetry can become 'part of the life of the community'. Darwish is an example of such a poet. To what extent are Western poets able to write for a community?

CF: Mahmoud Darwish told me that for him, when he tells his own story, he inescapably tells the story of Palestine, and that destiny has ordained that his history would be read as a collective history, and his people be recognised in his voice. He shares the fate of his people, and they are spoken for in his poems. That has been both his blessing and his burden, to write in a state of continual emergency without respite. When Archbishop Oscar Romero asked me to leave El Salvador and return to the United States in March, 1980, only a week before he would be assassinated, I begged him to leave El Salvador as well. He was regarded as the voice of his people, the only voice to speak against institutional and state violence, and he was most prominent on the list of those targeted by death squads. His response to my plea was to smile and tell me softly that his place was with his people, and my place was with mine. As an American of the United States, I had never thought of myself as having a people, much less writing for a community, but I think now, after these many years, that artists, poets, philosophers and all humanitarians write for the party of the whole, and constitute a community of those who are keeping watch over all that we value: civil society, tolerance, enfranchisement, freedom of conscience and thought, social and political well-being and the preservation of the earth. This community was imagined by the French resistance poet Robert Desnos as an earth lit by thousands of fires, each a spirit keeping this watch, and when called upon, one bivouacs all over the world. So yes, poets of Europe and the Western hemisphere can begin to imagine ourselves as speaking for a community, as those from other parts of the world have long done. Part of that speaking is the language of the interior life.

SP: Partly in response to some of the criticism of The Country Between Us and the implication that the book was 'overly political' you said that 'Poetry can't be placed in the service of anything other than itself'. It also struck me that you were urged by those who remained in Salvador to go back to America and write about their collective experiences as well as your own. Did you feel that the poetry you were writing on your return was, in a sense, written for a "political" purpose?

CF: That poetry was written during my years as a human rights advocate in El Salvador, and in the aftermath, when I spoke publicly against military intervention and on behalf of those who sought asylum. My notebook and pen were always with me, and were my refuge. The poems were first-person lyric-narratives and in that mode, closely resembled my earlier work. I hadn’t recognized the perceived shift to the political in the poetry because I hadn’t recognised it in my life. I was not active in any political movement or party, and attended no meetings. I thought of the work I was doing as a matter of ethics rather than politics as I understood it, and the purpose of my poetry was poetry. I wrote essays about El Salvador, and answered Salvadoran requests by traveling the United States and speaking to students, church groups, and community gatherings. The idea of writing poetry with a particular intent is a fraught one, and perhaps, in the end, impossible.

SP: You are often called a 'Poet of Witness'. How far can one embellish to satisfy the craft while still being faithful to a kind of "documenting" of experience (whether it is your own or of a community)?

CF: The controversy surrounding The Country Between Us had to do with the perception that this poetry was political, and it seemed that there was a strong but until then unspoken prohibition against exploring certain subjects—war, brutality, injustice— in poems, even though it had been done, and for thousands of years. In the academy in the United States, controversy usually leads to symposia, and I was invited to participate in all manner of panel discussions regarding the relation of the poet to the state, and poetry to politics. On the one hand, there were those who decried the absence of politics in poems, and celebrated any poem that gave strong support to the reader’s political views. On the other were those who disapproved of poets writing about political struggles, wars, and man’s inhumanity to man, believing in some way that these subjects were not in the province of poetry. I came away from these meetings in despair, feeling that the arguments were simplistic and reductive, and this led to a thirteen-year project, beginning with research into poetry of the twentieth century, written by those who had endured conditions of extremity and suffered the depredations of the state: war, ethnic cleansing, exile, imprisonment, torture, censorship, banning orders, house arrest. Most poets of the twentieth century endured these things, especially beyond the English-speaking world. I read the poems for the mark of this extremity, for its impress, rather than for positions advocated or subjects addressed. I was interested in the legibility, in the poetry, of this experience, and also in the realm of the social, between the institutions of the state (and politics) and the private life of citizens. This is 'poetry of witness'. I’m not sure that I recognise the category of 'poets of witness'.

Regarding fidelity to truth, one does tell the truth in poems. Good poems are true. They are often more true than newspaper articles and certainly more true than the speeches of politicians. And they express a truth that endures far longer than language’s other life forms.

SP: Leonel Gomez Vides urged you to go to El Salvador and write about the war even before it had begun. His insistence that he wanted a poet (and not, say, a journalist), someone with a 'peculiar kind of sensitivity' was at odds with your feeling that an American audience didn't believe poets had credibility. Do you still, after having published The Country Between Us and others since, feel that Gomez was right to want a poet there?

CF: This is somewhat uncanny, but Leonel Gomez Vides was in my house last evening for the first time in many years, and so I posed your question to him. Would you ask a poet again, under the circumstances? “Of course. There is no doubt. You, as a poet, were open to what was going on, without preconceptions or professional constraints. You could see the place, you could smell it, and you were able, later, to bring the world of it alive to others, what it was like to be living in such a time. Read the newspapers of that period. There is nothing there. Maybe in two hundred years, people will be reading the poems.”

As for me, yes, I agree now with Leonel Gomez, but at the time I thought his idea compelling but also incomprehensible. That turned out to be a form of wisdom.

SP: Do you think it is possible for poets writing and living in the West to be 'poets of witness'? Are our experiences of war abroad too distant and mediated?

CF: We all write out of our deepest obsessions with language and experience, secrets and disclosures, speculative thought, music, a search for something, moving along the perimeter of what might be said. That given, we bear witness to the experience of human subjectivity. As to the understanding of ‘poets of witness’ as poets writing about war, or by extension, all forms of extremity, the battlefield is not the only vantage point. What concerns poets in this moment of crisis in the United States, most of whom are far from the wars, is the unease we feel, our apprehension regarding our historical moment and our future, our agency or lack thereof, our anger, our horror, our helplessness. How do we speak as poets to our people in a time of need? How do we exercise conscience? What is the loss of our country as we knew it doing to our minds and our art? If one feels distanced and removed, one can write of distance and removal, about what is being kept hidden and the task of seeing through the scrim of mediation.

SP: After having compiled Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, how did this broaden your awareness of poets living and writing in exile today?

CF: In response to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, a Norwegian town offered him asylum, and inspired by the courage and generosity of this town, a small group of writers began the North American Network Cities of Asylum, extending refuge to writers and poets under threat of death or imprisonment. These writers are adopted by cities and towns across North America. There is a similar organisation in Europe and one in Mexico, and all are linked by mutual concerns. Our group consists of Russell Banks, Wole Soyinka, Michael Ondaatje, Caryl Phillips, Jayne Cortez and myself.

SP: In an interview with David Wright in 2000, he quoted you as saying that the artists and thinkers you admire are a community of 'archivists of the incomprehensible'. How are these writers able to order and preserve those experiences or ideas that are in some way unreachable by thought?

CF: Writing is a means of retrieving from consciousness a knowledge irretrievable by other means.

SP: Your last two collections, The Angel of History and Blue Hour, mostly dispose of the solid first-person narrative voice. Witness seems almost to come from a community of voices, rather than just one, in these poems. Do you find that this plurality of the speaking voices acts as a protective conduit for the individual "author"? Is the move away from a recognisable 'I' a kind of anonymity?

CF: While I have long worked in a polyphonic mode, and welcomed the inclusion of other voices into my work, this openness to the ‘community of voices’ to quotations and dialogue is not quite the same as the occulting of the first-person voice, or the shift from the authorial, first-person speaker with single point perspective. The polyphonic poems are dialogic. But there is another mode that I began to explore in Blue Hour more intensely, and that is the I/Thou of encounter, speaker to other, even the other within oneself.

SP: The long poem from Blue Hour, 'On Earth', was influenced by Gnostic hymns dating back to the third century and takes on the abecedarian form. Among its obliteration of moments and objects and thought, you use quotes from various "thinkers", such as René Char, Julia Kristeva and Robert Desnos. How did you imagine that the form and its apocalyptic vision aligned itself with the Gnostic texts?

CF: The hymns, dating to the third century A.D. were recovered, along with Christian and Buddhist texts, from small towns on the northern fringe of the Taklamakan desert in the twentieth century. They aren’t like English abecedaries, because they are much longer than twenty-six lines. These mnemonic hymns offered a felicitous form for what might have been a very digressive, almost chaotic text, having to do with the passage from life into death and including the recollections of earthly life. The quotations are memorable for the consciousness disclosing itself: my own. The images and moments, epiphanies and notations are from my life. I see the poem as apocalyptic only when it is read as collective utterance, but on as the experience of an individual, it simply reveals one’s experience of mortality. The poem is formally influenced by the hymns, but not in terms of Gnostic belief.

SP: The line from 'On Earth': 'open the book of what happened' resonates with all of your work. And yet in this instance it is one of the many voices that interferes and does not clearly identify with an authorial speaker. Does this kind of decentering comment on the impossibility of witness or knowing, that which Burgess says is 'lost to our eye'?

CF: 'Open the book of what happened' is spoken, but by whom? It might be the poet herself, or the voice of an Other to whom the poet is listening. “Open” is an imperative, either from without or from within.

SP: You write about your son, Sean, in both The Angel of History and Blue Hour. In The Angel of History you write that when your son was born you became 'mortal'. For someone who has lived in the midst of great personal risk, do you feel motherhood made that kind of risk less worthy?

CF: It made the choice of that risk unacceptable, but we know that mothers live with their children in terrible conditions all over the world, including in war zones. It is not widely understood that over half the deaths in twentieth-century wars were those of women and children.

SP: You've commented in the past that the American poetry world is very conservative and concerned with reputation and marketability. Has this been your experience elsewhere, for instance in either Britain or Europe? If, at all, how do you find the British audience differs from American audiences?

CF: I don’t know how things are for poets in Britain or Europe. I have impressions. In Europe, people are less concerned with where one has published, or if one is “known”. I also don’t know whether the British audience differs from the American one, but readers in Britain seemed to understand Blue Hour very deeply, whereas the reception was more confused in America. The British and Irish reviews were very interesting to me, perceptive and intelligent. I learned something from them.

SP: What are you working on now?

CF: I am writing a memoir and a book of essays, as well as a new book of poems. Thank you, Sandeep, for your questions. I enjoyed thinking about them.

A shorter version of this interview appeared in issue 14 of The Wolf (March 2007).

Since giving this interview Carolyn Forché has joined the International Advisory Panel of The Wolf. Sandeep Parmar has subsequently become a Reviews Editor for the magazine, and was recently selected as one of the poets for James Byrne and Clare Pollard's anthology Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, to be published by Bloodaxe in September 2009.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Obama's inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander interviewed by Natasha Trethewey

NT: What was growing up in Washington like? Did it have an effect on your work?

EA: Washington was a great place during the 60s and 70s. I grew up surrounded by electoral politics as well as the street politics and protests of the late 60s. The 1963 March on Washington was an often invoked benchmark of my family’s move from New York to that city. Washington’s disfranchisement was a vital issue throughout my childhood, and my father was a candidate in the city’s first mayoral election in 1974. So a sense of national issues played out on a local stage, and vice versa, and of private lives made public was a part of my upbringing.

Washington is also an international city, and an internationally black city. My childhood awareness of the rest of the black world was sometimes imprecise, but omnipresent, and my much admired and adored late grandmother was proudly an “internationalist” who grew up in D.C. as well and roller-skated to the embassies ‘to see that the rest of the world was there’, as I write in ‘Feminist Poem Number One’. I think that curiosity about the black world beyond my black city, and how I fit into it all, is important to my work, even when inexplicit.

My parents are New Yorkers – more specifically Harlemites, which is where I was born – and that is a fierce identity that never leaves you. I feel lucky not to have been too circumscribed by localness – any localness can have its limitations – to have something else to belong to and to fantasise about as well, which you see in many mentions of New York in my poems. I seem to be very interested in “real” or “natural” identities and their tug with constructed ones, and the romance of racial and geographic identification.

NT: You have a poem in your collection Antebellum Dream Book called ‘Race’. Reading the poem, and particularly the last two lines – ‘What a strange thing is race and family stranger still. / Here a poem tells a story, a story about race’ – I get a glimpse of not only your thoughtfulness, but also your sense of humor. It’s as if you said, ‘Okay, I’m going to deal with it once and for all – here’s the banner title.’ Can you talk about the role race plays in your work?

EA: There are great storytellers in my family, as in so many of our families. But sometimes it’s rare that those stories are transportable or translatable intact into poem form; somebody talking to you is not the same as how you would tell a story or use narrative in a poem. These stories about color and about passing and even about siblings and their adult relationships and the readjustments of their adult relationships, as you have in that poem are the stones that so many of us have and do tell or don’t tell.

As for the ‘banner headline’, ‘Race’, I always loved the way that my grandfather, and to a lesser extent my parents, used the word race to talk about ‘the race’ – meaning, of course, black people – as a thing that they could imagine, a body of people that we could imagine, that you could almost get your arms around, that the race was something tangible and palpable. I think it is in some very important ways generational. I also thought about the idea of what it meant to be a ‘race man’ or a ‘race woman’, what it meant to ‘do something for the race’, or what it meant to ‘bring shame upon the race’.

NT: You’ve written some successful persona poems about historical personae. How do you go about making their voices real, as in ‘The Venus Hottentot’, which is about Saartjie Baartman?

EA: With invented voices, how do we really know if they are accurate or not? There’s no way of knowing. Certainly in writing ‘The Venus Hottentot’, one of the big challenges was to hold on, especially when the Venus Hottentot herself speaks, because that’s a longer part of the poem – to create a voice, and then to hold on to it and keep it consistent when it was not a voice that felt close to my own.

NT: You make it look effortless, though.

EA: Oh, I labored! [Laughter] To really, really be tight and to strike the proper historical note and tone, I did a lot of historical research, though there wasn’t a lot to be found about Saartjie Bartmaan at the time. But I read about carnivals and circuses and London in the early 19th century, and all kinds of different things that would give me a sense of her world. I didn’t want to be anachronistic, although at the same time there are very deliberately anachronistic moments – for example at the end, when she imagines her daughters in banana skirts and ostrich-feather fans, which is alluding to a Josephine Baker act, not something that she would have known. But that is where poetic license comes in handy.

I think in a poem like ‘Race’, in a way, I’m speaking in a voice that is more familiar. Certainly that, too, is a very formal poem in its way. It has a set of rules that it follows, but it’s trying to be a little chattier, a little more contemporary. The speaker is a contemporary person like myself telling a story, with the things that I know and my vocabulary to call upon. What I’ve always been interested in about ‘The Venus Hottentot’, and what I think is such a great teaching tool about persona poems, is that if you write about a character who obsesses you, you might not even know necessarily why that character is so compelling to you. Much later, after writing ‘The Venus Hottentot’, I thought, ‘Well, of course I know about being a black woman who is the subject of objectification, who is in some people’s eyes a spectacle simply for being a black woman, who is in some people’s eyes sexualised simply for being a black woman.’ That’s something that we all know as black women in the world.

NT: In your third collection, Antebellum Dream Book, did you find yourself taking uncertain paths? And did much of the book’s surreal imagery come from actual dreams you were having?

EA: Much of it did; some of it didn’t. Obviously, much of it was made possible by first trusting the surreal images that came out of actual dreams. I’ve been lucky to always have been a really great dreamer. And I’ve always been fascinated by my own dreams and the dreams of others, what different cultures believe about dreams: how they guide you, how they tell you things that you should pay attention to, how they sometimes look ahead to the future, how they’re a place where the ancestors can come and speak to you. So I’ve used dreams before in poems, but I just went further this time, really trusting that these strange juxtapositions could work as poetry.

NT: So you aren’t afraid to trust that kind of surreal dream imagery to take you to new places?

EA: Well, I have a great fear of getting stuck in a rut. I think there are certain kinds of poems – such as poems in the ‘Venus Hottentot’ mode, poems that engage a black historical figure, an aspect of black history – that I sort of know how to do, and that I feel I can do well. I don’t want to do that kind of poem to death, although certainly there’s so much to write about in that whole area. That’s just to say I wouldn’t want to be someone who just writes the same version of a poem she wrote before over and over and over again. That would be the worst thing.

NT: Your first book begins with a poem that imagines the voice of a woman who has been objectified and thus rendered a mere body. Then you have a second collection entitled The Body of Life; and your next collection, Antebellum Dream Book, seemed to deal with the body in many more ways. In your work, what does it mean to ‘write the body’?

EA: I think, certainly for women, that the stories of so many bodies are not the stories that we have heard. I remember once, teaching Descartes, one of my feminist colleagues saying that she asked the class, ‘If Descartes were a woman who had given birth, would he have written “I think, therefore I am”?’ In other words, what would a more embodied version of that statement look like? What that means to me is ‘What would so many versions of our history look like if the body of the physically abused woman, the body of the sexually exulting woman, the body of the child-birthing woman, the body of the slave, the body of the domestic worker all spoke and told their stories and narrated their embodied experiences?’ That’s a huge, vast terrain. If you let a body speak, it gives you access to all sorts of concrete sensations that are vital, the stuff of poetry, the way a poem convinces. When my oldest child began to realise that he smelled things, he started telling me what everything smelled like: ‘Oh, it smells like toast in here’ or ‘Oh, it smells like sickness in here’. He’d go through experiencing the world only through smell. What a gift to go through life being aware that we’ve been given these senses and that you should live in them: something to look at, something to smell, something to taste – all as a gift.

Elizabeth Alexander is a leading American poet whose work has been inspired by a wide range of influence, from history, literature, art and music, dreams and stories to the ‘rich infinity’ of the African American experience. She is Professor of African-American Studies at Yale University. In January 2009 she reads the inaugural poem for the swearing-in of President Barack Obama. Elizabeth Alexander has published four collections in the States: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001) and American Sublime (2005), as well as a collection of essays on African American artistic life through literature, painting, film and popular media, The Black Interior (Graywolf, 2004). Her first British publication, American Blue: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2006), draws on all these. Copies can be ordered from

The above interview is an extract from ‘The Far, Deep Things of Dreamland: an interview with Elizabeth Alexander’ by Natasha Trethewey, from Poets & Writers (Nov-Dec 2001), reprinted from Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions: 1 (Bloodaxe Books, 2006). Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions: 1 is an anthology of work by Elizabeth Alexander, Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker and Jackie Kay. Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions are a new kind of anthology aimed at the general reader as well as the poetry lover. Compiled by Staying Alive editor Neil Astley, each book in the series covers four leading contemporary poets in depth, with substantial selections covering the whole range of each writer’s poetry, as well as intriguing and illuminating background material, including profiles, interviews, essays and commentary by the poets. To order from, go to this page:
American readers can order it here:

Natasha Trethewey is Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Her first two collections Domestic Work (2000) and Bellocq's Ophelia (2002) were published by Graywolf Press.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Joan Margarit and Anna Crowe in conversation

Joan Margarit is one of Spain’s major modern writers. Born in 1938, he worked as an architect and first published his work in Spanish, but for the past three decades has become known for his mastery of the Catalan language. The melancholy and candour of his poetry show his affinity with Thomas Hardy, whose work he has translated. In poems evoking the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, the harshness of life in Barcelona under Franco, and grief at the death of a beloved handicapped daughter, Margarit reminds us that it is not death we have to understand but life. His poetry confronts the worst that life can throw at us, yet what lingers in the mind is its warmth and humanity. Bloodaxe Books published Joan Margarit's Tugs in the Fog: Selected Poems, translated by Anna Crowe, in 2006, his first book of poetry translated into English. His work as an architect included many years working on on Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

A regular event held at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.

Below is the transcribed dialogue between poet Joan Margarit and his translator Anna Crowe held at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November 2006.

Anna Crowe: Now that you are an "English poet", which you told me once you always wished you could have been, how do you think your poems sound in English? Do they make the same or similar noise as in Catalan? Do you recognise them as your poems?

Joan Margarit: I’m very happy to have a lot of my poems in English, but I am more happy because you are my translator. And the proof that this affirmation is objective is that our book is the poetry book society recommended translation.
In poetry, the Catalan tongue is nearer to English than Castilian, whose lines are generally longer. We can say one English eight or nine syllable line is a Catalan eleven syllable line and a Castilian fourteen syllable line. Also the rhyme in English and in Catalan is similar: it is a faint rhyme, if we compare it with the strong Castilian rhyme.

AC: I know you greatly admire the work of poets like Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop. When, in terms of your own writing career did you begin to read their work, and did you read it in English or in translation?

JM: There’s a good translation of Larkin into Spanish by Alvaro García.
Hardy and Bishop I read by translating them myself with the help of the American poet and critic Sam Abrams.
It’s the best way of reading the work of a poet who writes in another language, translating it.
Now, if life allows me enough time, I shall do the same with Philip Levine, Douglas Dunn and Anna Akhmatova.
Indeed, we’ll translate Douglas Dunn together, won’t we?

AC: Is there someone whom you might describe as your "father in poetry"? Was Gabriel Ferrater’s work important in your own development as a poet?

JM: I am the son of many fathers.
It is the fate of poets who write in minority languages like Catalan.
The most important of these fathers are the medieval ones, Jorge Manrique, Ausias March, and also, Pablo Neruda, Juan Ramón Jiménez and Thomas Hardy.

AC: Would you say that your poetry is typical or atypical of what has been written in Catalonia in the past thirty years?

JM: When I started to write poetry in Catalan, I was absolutely and totally atypical.
I was one of the first poets to separate the vindication of nationalism from the quality of the poetry, giving clear pre-eminence to the latter.
Now, among young poets, this is already the norm.
I think my main contribution has been to avoid literary Catalan and to write in the Catalan spoken by all.

AC: I have translated poems by you that are in a strict form, notably sonnets, and many of your poems are written in what sounds, to my English ears, very like iambic pentameter. What advice to you have for aspiring translators of poetry about the role of form in poetry?

JM: This is the central theme in translation.
One says that “traductore-traditore”, that is “translator-traitor”.
I cannot save the whole poem: it is impossible.
My personal rule is: first, I have to say the same as the original, I cannot say that “the wind whistles” if the original says “the wind sings”.
Second: my translation must be doubtless a poem, a good poem if it is possible.

AC: I believe your friend, the academic Sam Abrams, dedicated an earlier book of translations of Hardy to you, describing you as the ‘soul-mate of Thomas Hardy’, and it was seeing this that led you to explore Hardy’s work?

JM: The story is true and I explain it in my prologue to the translation of Hardy.
Sam had dedicated an essay on Hardy to me, with the words, “For Joan Margarit, kindred spirit of Thomas Hardy”.

AC:You have translated a huge number of Hardy’s poems into Castilian. What is it about Hardy’s work that appeals to you, and why did you translate his poetry into Castilian, and not into Catalan? Was this in order to reach a wider readership? Do you have a favourite Hardy poem?

JM: The poems by Hardy that I love best are Afterwards, A wife in London, Seen by the waits and Shelley’s skylark.
What attracts me in Hardy is the mixture of his Victorianism and his modernity: it is precisely the actual within the classical that I have always searched for. And so I translated him, renouncing his Victorianism more than his modernity, because you can’t keep everything when translating.
I translated Hardy into Spanish rather than Catalan because there isn’t a big enough market in Catalan for so many Hardy poems (about two hundred).

AC: You share another profession with Hardy—you are both architects. Are you familiar with any building he designed?

JM: Hardy’s era is one of transition between the old “Masters of Works” and “Architects”.
His work and mine have been very different.
But we have both carried out a lot of restoration work within architecture, and perhaps it is that which most unites us.
I have spent many years thinking of him while directing my work, winter mornings beside the bonfires which the bricklayers lit on the site with the remains of plank mouldings.
And I have always wished that I had written that long, magnificent poem, Heiress and Architect.

This is indeed an extraordinary poem, in which the words of the two characters are given equal weight in terms of imagery and rhetoric. There’s a strictly fair balance at work – the richness and sensual imagery of the Heiress’s words as against the relentless and annihilating power of the Architect’s replies to her. The verse about the “little chamber” which she wishes him to design is like a verse from Keats’ Eve of St Agnes, written 40 years or so earlier.

AC: Your poetry is remarkable for its tension, balance, a liking for minimal structure: are these ideas that have flowed into your architecture, or have they entered your poetry from your architecture, or is it that these are part of your individual make-up, and therefore characteristics of both? Could you say something about the relationship between your poetry and your architecture? What sort of structures do you like to design? Some would say that both professions call for a willingness to suffer dangerous exposure, to work, sometimes, without a safety-net, as you yourself say in your poem, Safety! Is it fortuitous that you serve both professions or do they share common goals?

JM: As for the relationship between Architecture and Poetry, I would say first of all that the only characteristics that differentiate poetry from prose are concision and exactness.

About concision, I would say that a poem is like the structure of a very particular building in which there is not a pillar or a beam too few or too many: and that if we take away one single piece, it would collapse.

If we take one word away from a poem, or exchange it for another, and nothing happens,
then it means that it wasn’t a poem. Or it was not yet a poem.
It becomes one only when you cannot take away or change any piece of the structure.
But then it will not necessarily be a good poem either: that is another theme which has more to do with the other characteristic I mentioned: exactness: a poem has to say just what the reader needs (most of the time without knowing it).

From this exactness comes the power of poetry to console, because poetry serves to introduce into people’s solitude some change which may bring a greater inner order in the face of life’s disorder.

As far as safety is concerned, I say in my poem of the same title:

with the wind at the top of the scaffolding,
and always facing into the void, because you know
that the man who’s installing a safety-net has no net.

A good poem is found only in that zone of poetry that passes very, very close to the abyss. The abyss of the ridiculous. But without falling into it.

AC: You followed your father’s footsteps in becoming an architect, and later you became Professor of Deep Foundations at the School of Architecture in Barcelona. Did you always know this would be the career you would choose? Was your father proud of you? Did you discuss your work with him?

JM: The relationship with my father was very complicated.

The affectionate poems dedicated to him reflect this
(this evening we will read one called My father’s face).

But the following poem, as yet unpublished, also reflects it.

It belongs to my next collection, House of Mercy,
and the poem is called Saturn.


You ripped up my books of poems
and threw them out of the window into the street.
The pages looked like rare butterflies
that were floating down on people.
I don’t know whether we might, now,
be able to understand each other,
two tired and disappointed old men.
Probably not. Let’s leave it as it is.
You wanted to devour me. I wanted to kill you.
I, the son you had during the war.

AC: You say in your poem, ‘Elegy for the architect, Coderch de Sentmenat’, quoting him, that "architecture cannot disturb…that the house should be virtuous and humble, …not made in vain, original, sumptuous". You are one of the five architects responsible for implementing Gaudí’s plans for the Sagrada Familia. What do you yourself think of it? Can you say when the building might be finished?

JM: At the present pace of construction the Sagrada Familia —The Holy Family— will take about 30 years to finish.
It is financed without any help from any official body, only with donations and the price of entry tickets.
If I were religious I would say that it is a miracle.
But it is the most visited monument in the whole of Spain, even more than the Prado: two and a half million visitors a year.
It is the work of the maturity and old age of one of the greatest architects there have ever been:
a cathedral that is made generation by generation.
To continue this, for me as an architect, is both thrilling and an honour.
But I also think it is a marvellous folly.

AC: You write in Catalan, but almost immediately start putting the poem into Castilian. Can you tell us how this came about?

JM: A person may have one or several cultural tongues, but it may be that none of these allows you to enter the place where the poem is.
As in fairytales, it is about entering a crypt and you have to know the password that opens it.
All these questions are irrelevant when the mother tongue and the cultural tongue are one and the same.
When they are not, the cultural tongue may be a cathedral built on top of an inaccessible crypt.
I consent to the poem in Catalan and immediately plan in this language the skeleton of the poem. I work at it a lot and, generally, the final version bears little resemblance to the first.
After, all the versions, modifications and fresh starts that the poem suffers at my hands I make in Catalan and Castilian at one and the same time.

AC: You grew up in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Can you paint a picture for us of what life was like at that time for anyone living in Catalonia, where the language was proscribed in any form?

JM: I will answer you with a story.

A few years ago the President of the Spanish Government was Sr Aznar.
One day he invited to have lunch in his residence of Moncloa Palace two Castilian poets, one Andalusian, one Basque, one Gallego and me as a Catalan, to ask us to write the words to the national anthem (the words it has are never sung because it is obsolete, from the time of Franco).
My reply when he asked me how I would write it was:

1st) Dear Mr President: It’s lucky to have an anthem with no words.
Anthems are usually a series of grandiloquent words that are often insulting or aggressive towards other nations.

(For example, the Catalan anthem says
“With Castilian blood, we will make red ink
for painting the four bars of the coat of arms of our country”).

Let’s go on as we are, with an anthem without words.

2nd) Also I said to him: Dear Mr President, now I will explain to you
what the flag and the anthem mean for me.
When I was little, Franco had destroyed the Republic and forbidden my language, Catalan. Those cold mornings, in the little village where I lived, they compelled us to start the day at school by singing, in Castilian—a language that most did not know—the Spanish anthem.
To do this, one child held the flag-pole and another, standing on tiptoe, lifted the fabric of the flag and stretched it out in front of the class.

I still remember the special smell
of that special fabric that is used in making flags,
a smell that came back to me when they made me kiss the flag
when I did my National Service, which was compulsory.

Mr President, I told him, if you want me to make a poem out of all that, I can do it, but I doubt whether it will produce the anthem you are asking me for.

AC: You spent your adolescence in Tenerife, your treasure-island, as you call it in your poetry. Were the oppressive effects of the Franco dictatorship felt less rigorously there? Did your parents continue to speak Catalan at home?

JM: It didn’t seem like Spain:
Indian businessmen, links by ship (the plane was still of little importance) with America, Portugal and the UK more than with Spain.
Free port, free from taxes, few inhabitants, calm and peace-loving. A very sweet Castilian that I learned at once as though I were one of them.
Far from everything, in the middle of the sea, tourists almost non-existent…
The treasure-island!

AC: I would like to ask you about your daughter, Joana. She was born with Rubinstein-Taybe Syndrome, which meant that she had a mental age of about four, and suffered from severe motor disability. She needed crutches or a wheelchair to get about. She died of cancer when she was thirty, five years ago now, and you have written many poems to her and about her. How difficult was it for you to accept the hard facts of Joana’s disability?

JM: This difficulty, overcome day by day, has been our life, that of my wife and me.
She and I have dearly loved, and we dearly love our son and other daughter whom we have.
But Joana, because of her very helplessness, has probably been our great love.
A poem which reflects very clearly all these feelings is Sonnet in two cities.
It was written in Paris, in the Hôtel de l’Avenir.
Avenir means future in French.
There is first a quotation from a song of Leo Ferré: Thank you, Satan.
It says: Le rouge pour naître à Barcelone, le noir pour mourir à Paris.


Hôtel de l’Avenir, the final night :
Paris shows off her evening through the glass.
What luck to be approaching sixty -
my Porte des Lilas - wearing a smile.
What luck not to have been a sad man,
nor you a sad woman. Hurts
toughen us, make us compassionate.
What luck these two daughters. And this son.
What luck to be able to see, beyond the glass,
a city that does not exist, our own:
Ferré sings Verlaine, and the rain lays
its red and black reflections on the night.
Red for being born in Barcelona,
black for the night-trains to Paris.

AC: You have said that wherever you find yourself, you always try to imagine her being there also and how she might feel. What would you say to the argument that a loss like this is best put behind you, that a line should be drawn under the past? Why is it of the utmost importance for you, as a person and as a poet, to go on remembering her?

JM: Losing a father or mother you become an orphan.

Losing a wife or husband you become a widower or widow.

Losing a son or daughter has no name.

And everything that has no name is an object of attention on the part of poetry.

In general, requiems find expression, more than in the plastic arts, in music and in poetry.

AC: You have written about Pablo Neruda, whose work you greatly admire, and who, like you, had a mentally and physically handicapped daughter, but whom he sent back to Holland with her mother, while he returned to Chile, and never wrote any poems about her. In your poem, Motorway, you suggest he lost something important by not making her a part of his life.

JM: Neruda speaks only in a vague, irrelevant and remote poem about his daughter, Malva Marina, in his complete poetic work, in which he left no subject untouched and which is more extensive even than that of Thomas Hardy.
It seems to me that this is the proof that this question was an emotional black hole in his life.

AC: And lastly, for you, how should Poetry behave/what should Poetry be like?

JM: There are poets and intellectuals who attribute the lack of interest on the part of many people in poems which are unintelligible to the poor preparation or the insensitivity of these people. This is a field where there is an abundance of intent to confer an important role to things that are mere unrealities, and even philosophers have contributed to it, whose seriousness in deliberating these questions does not excuse their foolishness. This is the absurdity provoked by the alienation from poetry on the part of many readers, in a kind of self-destructive ritual by some intellectuals who seem to aspire to a poetry that says nothing and is read by no one.

If I can put it this way, the easiest thing is to write a bad poem that cannot be understood. It’s a bit harder to write a bad poem which may perhaps be understood. It’s much harder to write a good poem which cannot be understood. And, finally, to write a good poem which can be understood belongs by right only to the classical poets.

Joking apart, it seems to me that the only valid poetry is the kind that can be understood, and I can only come close to the concept of understanding a poem by saying that it is a process of going in and coming out. What is called, in information theory, a black box. One piece of information goes in and another comes out: a person goes in with a particular inner state, what I would describe, keeping the analogy with information theory, as a degree of disorder. A degree of
disorder means fear, misunderstandings, moods of sadness… Factors which are continually threatening inner equilibrium. This person comes out of the poem with a lesser degree of disorder or, if you like, more ordered. Understanding a poem is a process of going into and coming out of a black box.

There are few black boxes that our loneliness may somehow go into and come
out more consoled, more ordered, in short happier. Poetry is one of these, the one
which I personally have closest to hand together with music.

Anna Crowe was raised in England and France and is a poet, translator and creative tutor living in St. Andrews, Scotland. She is also the co-founder of StAnza, Scotland's Poetry Festival, and was its Artistic Director for seven years.

Bloodaxe Books published Joan Margarit's Tugs in the Fog: Selected Poems, translated by Anna Crowe, in 2006, his first book of poetry translated into English. To order from, go to this page:
American readers can order from

R. Clark Morrow reviews Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert: Transgressions: Selected Poems
Bloodaxe Books (2006) ISBN 978 1 85224 752 2, £9.95

Poetic greatness comes in a variety of forms and Jack Gilbert's is a quiet one. “I never wanted fame. I just wanted to be allowed to live my life,” he declares. And if the price of fame really is fame, Gilbert has successfully managed to avoid it. In an award-winning, Pulitzer-nominated career spanning more than forty years, Gilbert has published a scant four collections of poetry.

Transgressions, Gilbert's first UK release, is a selection of poems from his first four collections including the out of print Views of Jeopardy (1962) and Monolithos (1984), both of which are extremely rare and carry a high price on the used market. This, apart from the quality of the writing, makes Transgressions a must have for any fan of Gilbert's work. For UK readers, it will be a great introduction to one of the best American poets of the 20th Century. For US fans it gives a rare glimpse of Gilbert's early work, and as a whole, showcases his masterful use of an experiential tapestry into which he weaves allusions, as seen in the poem “Failing and Flying”:

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.

As this excerpt only begins to show, this is the work of a man who loves life first and foremost. Gilbert reminds us that it is the doing of life that is truly important, as he works the mythological reference down into a more visceral image later in the poem:

Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed?...

Gilbert was born in Pittsburgh in 1925. It was a city hit hard by the depression era. He would have felt the domestic impact of WWII in his teen years. In his early adulthood, Gilbert would see his contemporaries spark the beat movement and give voice to the disillusionment of a generation, yet his work is never politically charged, never issue-driven. A pairing of the mythological and the personal is typical in Gilbert's work - he doesn't shy away from crafting poems that are bigger than his own experience, yet never sacrifices the everyday or particular in favour of the universal or surreal: an example that many poets could learn from.

John Freeman reported in the March/April 2005 issue of Poets & Writers magazine that Gilbert attended Jack Spicer's informal workshops in San Francisco during the mid 1950s where he and Allen Ginsberg had frequent disagreements about what poetry should and shouldn't do. One of the stories in the article tells us that Ginsberg once rode a bus across the bay and walked far into the woods of Sausalito to get Gilbert's opinion on the beginning of a new poem. Gilbert told Ginsberg, “Finally, this is really beautiful and wonderful stuff.” The poem would become ‘Howl’ the seminal icon of the Beat movement.

Gilbert would continue to meet his ideal of poetry by not branching out to an extreme of experimentalism that obscures meaning, but instead by working towards a new and subtle use of formal prosody that gives his poems their deceptive simplicity and plain-speaking power. He would remain obscure, however, until Views of Jeopardy won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship. After this Gilbert promptly left the US, living abroad throughout Europe often in financial straights, but never poor. These places and the richness in his experience of them would become the texture from which Gilbert would work his poems of love, loss and beauty.

Grief is a common theme in Gilbert's work. However, he is always reminding us that not only is it in spite of suffering, but also because of suffering, that we must love life:

...To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

("A Brief for the Defense")

When his poems are personal, they are uncommon love poems, tributes to those he has loved. It is as though, like a painter, Gilbert is preserving some small truth of these people and in achieving this he keeps memory close, as seen in the closing lines of “Measuring the Tyger”:

I want to go back to that time after Michiko's death
when I cried every day among the trees. To the real.
To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive.

Gilbert’s rarely superfluous poems are much more than the sum of their lines, making it difficult to find choice excerpts without missing the sense of a poem as a whole. His are poems that ask to be read multiple times, each time leading to the discovery of additional nuance and the persistent demand that we must slow our pace to savour what it is to be living.

This review by R. Clark Morrow was published in The Wolf 14:

Born in 1925, Jack Gilbert is a major figure in American poetry, but has always been a total outsider, defiantly unfashionable and publishing only four books in five decades. Initially associated with the Beats, he left America after winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize with Views of Jeopardy in 1962, eking out a living for many years on Greek islands. His second collection, Monolithos, appeared twenty years later in 1982, but he made his strongest impression on American readers with the late work published in his last two books, The Great Fires (1994) and Refusing Heaven (2005), winner of the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. Transgressions: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2006) drew on all four of his US collections, and was his first UK publication. Two of the collections it draws upon, Views of Jeopardy and Monolithos are out of print in the US, but American readers can order copies of this British selection covering those collections from

Friday, 11 April 2008

Bill Gilson reviews Ladder of Hours by Keith Althaus

Ladder of Hours;
Poems 1969-2005
by Keith Althaus
(Ausable Press, 2005) 176 pp.

Keith Althaus, in a short prose piece on the cover of his second book of poems, Ladder of Hours, describes how he began, some forty years ago:
"I began to write in the simplest and most straightforward language because I thought it would be easy. And because I had no audience, any attempt to impress or seduce the reader with rhetoric would only come back to me. Years later, by the time I realized how difficult it is to write simply, I was hooked on the promise of its reward".
“To write simply” -- the phrase holds great appeal, both for poets and readers, yet complexities swarm when you ask what it means. So much of what we hold to be first rate isn’t written simply, and so much of what is, isn’t good.
In Althaus’s case simplicity starts with a pared-down form based on the sentence. ‘First Memory’ begins

The taillights disappearing
into the black wood of the hill
mark the end of my reach,
the limit of my knowledge.
It’s the kind of beginning that might take you into an ordinary poem, possibly heading towards flatness. But here is where he goes with it:
Before that there is nothing.
Sometimes I am awakened by the slamming
of brakes, or the jerky shifting of gears
going uphill, the clattering of an empty trolley
through a deserted, unlit intersection.
Sometimes I am filled with enormous sadness
for no reason, as a car veers off up ahead
or a city bus slows to make a turn farther
and farther behind me.

There is unexpectedness, even surprise, in the way the reader is carried quickly from a thought accompanying an image into a bodily experience, brakes slamming, gears juddering, then through a dark intersection opening into a feeling, an “enormous sadness” which accompanies, perhaps is caused by, the sight of traffic, turning vehicles diminishing. All this in thirteen short lines, three sentences.

To readers used to poems in which words are juxtaposed in defiance of their everyday meanings, or to poems of deliberate ambiguity and fragmentation of syntax, an Althaus poem when viewed quickly can look like adequate prose split into phrases. The method risks flatness, and requires that the poem be so tightly constructed as to hold itself together as if with magnetized parts.
Many poets have written in this style. It is an obvious way to begin, but the difficulty to which Althaus refers sets in immediately, in that the space to move is actually more restrictive than that within rhymes and meters. The sentence, in which we are so at home and which normally does much of the work for us, can constrain, resisting the poet’s need to startle and enthral.
Oddly, along with Althaus’s ability to work within such tight spaces has come one of the strangest and most compelling aspects of his work: his insistent returnings to a small number of themes or subjects. Old friends (lost, dead, alive but living elsewhere), childhood (toys, early rooms, school), travel (often solitary moments with or without his wife and son), past jobs (laborer on a pig farm, tree trimmer, dump-sticker salesman), New York City in the ’60s (student at the Art Students League, booze, drugs, loneliness), sleep (waking, dreams, insomnia) ... the list in its entirety would not be much longer, and would not seem all that unusual or even that original. But what matters are the details, the odd particularities in what is noticed, and the depths he is able to reach while maintaining a luminous clarity.

On a night like this
you can imagine
the end of the world:
the power out, high winds and snow,
the earth changed so completely
in a matter of hours.
Total silence of manmade things,
the plows and sanders useless.
The weight of the sky
now equal to that of the land.
And the flame of the candle
you carry so frail it sways
in each breath, and with each step,
a butterfly at rest, moving its wings,
the last thought of those you’ll miss,
alive in your hand.

Here we have a pure Althaus moment: the delicate point where time seems to pause, where the smallest movement -- one’s breath upon a candle flame -- seems to hold the possibility of a fateful turn.

The poems in Ladder of Hours are not dated but the arrangement gives a feeling of at least a rough chronological order. A poem such as ‘The Feather’ comes early in the book. The “I,” the Althaus voice, tells of a man mowing the grass next to a garden and a cornfield where a scarecrow wears the man’s “cast off clothes.” Nearby a “jack o’lantern sits on top / like the brains of the compost heap, / ageing fast, thinking deep.” A wind which “doesn’t care if it is loved or not” moves among rotting vegetables, flowers gone to seed. In a furrow, which is a “runway for the slow takeoff of pheasants,” the man finds a feather. “Among husks and stubble” he hunts for the pheasants’ nest, then for another feather. Finding neither, he looks down at the feather in his hand --
"this was lost alone,
in flight, or momentary rest.
I pocket it: a note
to be read later."
The tone, with its description of a bit of routine labor, of a man poking curiously in the detritus, of the sense of his looking for something he probably won’t find, and his falling short of some ultimate explanation, together with the light touch of absurdity and its hint of self-deprecating laughter, will be at once familiar to readers of Althaus’s first book, Rival Heavens. Ladder of Hours is rich with such moments and poems; but as you move on through the book you sense that Althaus’s confidence and technical control have deepened, and like a veteran jazz musician he can now take you farther into the abstractions of feelings without your getting lost.
In the lovely poem, ‘For Mary Hackett’ the texture of the language shades towards an abstractness that nevertheless maintains precision. [Hackett (1906-1989) was an American painter; Althaus has written several essays about her work.]

The most beautiful thing is a year:
its green, gold, and white wheel
turned by the wind and rain,
by the breaths of strangers
in a crowd beside you,
kept spinning by hands
lifted off of beds in unseen
benedictions of farewell.
Dry ice bubbling in the lake;
late summer, the brown water
boiling at the end of the dock.
Lost hours, watching a sunfish
defend a rock and a stalk of algae
from a school of cruising bass.
Days left empty as the pages
in an angel’s diary.
And the long winds of fall,
which are the sighs
of people in the city,
cooling breaths that dry the words scraped
on the stiff crepe of a corn husk
by a pin dipped in blood.
Then snow fine as dust
clapped from erasers
falls through the air
sparkling, coating
the ground like gesso,
with the slow
steady sound
of brushstrokes.

The “breaths” in the first and third stanzas appear again and again in Althaus’s work, obsessively, sometimes twice in the same poem. It is as if the word were as necessary to the work as breathing is to the body. Sometimes visible in cold air, “breaths torn to shreds, / the unsaid returning / to the alphabet” (‘In Traffic’ from Rival Heavens); or imagined, “Down in the street / breaths like souls ascend / from bodies trapped / between the seamy underground / and frozen heaven” (‘In the City’); or part of the physical intimacy of language, “and long chains of hills / in a few breaths and syllables, / these names / in tandem rattled off / on the late news” (‘Landscape’).
Throughout Ladder of Hours there runs a saving laughter, an affectionate bemused and loving regard for the absurdity of the difficult present, and for heroically comic struggles once waged. In ‘Self-Portrait in Pigshit’ the poet remembers how once, years ago, he “crouched on those flyblown boards / laid across the tops of the pens” installing plywood ventilation panels in a “finishing house” on a pig farm. “If a nail fell into the shit below / you’d have to climb down / and get it otherwise a pig / might eat it and die.” And, of course, lunch break: “... stinking, though we’d / hosed our boots / and shed our coveralls, / we were still barely welcome / at the diner down the road ...”

The young man smiling,
standing with his crew
in the doorway of Nellie’s Cafe
greeted by a chorus
of catcalls and ribbing,
does not exist anymore.
Those cells are buried in the air.
Yet around his visage
there’s a glow
as if someone has been breathing
on his picture, trying to bring
it closer, make it clearer.

There are longer poems in Ladder of Hours, some with three and four parts, and in these Althaus extends the meditation while holding to his tightness of language and sureness of touch. ‘Treasure Island’ describes his reading to his son at bedtime, “Beside me / on the couch, / finally quiet / after running all day; / his knees stick out / like a pair of bruised peaches”. The poem modulates through scenes from the book, the pirate ship, Jack Hawkins and the Squire and Long John Silver, through a memory of a “dealer’s pad” in New York City where the man who played Jack Hawkins in the movie awaits his heroin connection; the final stanza returns to the room where the sound of rain “brings music, / changing tempos, slowing”, and a father’s silent wishes and fears for his son as the son begins to fall asleep --
a shiver runs through him,
then me. It’s late.
I mark our place.
Ladder of Hours is a book of subtle humor and quiet astonishments, with rarely a note out of place. Here is one more small example of its beauties:

Across gravel that has lost
the secret of the mountain,
dust which hides in an insect’s voice,
through what’s left of the tattered shade
that stunted love
so it could stay in a world
guarded by toy soldiers,
a boy leads you to your shadow.

Keith Althaus is an American poet living and writing on Cape Cod with his wife the artist Susan Baker. One of his poems is included in the Bloodaxe anthology Soul Food, where the note on him reads: 'His conversational poems are philosophical in spirit, persistently enquiring after what a person can know and showing how insight into everyday life can transform the world. They take us into numinous territory we didn't know was there.'

Bill Gilson is an American poet living and writing in the Lake District with his family.

This review was first published in the magazine Tears in the Fence (editor: David Caddy).

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Linda Gordon reviews Earth Shattering: ecopoems

Review of Earth Shattering: ecopoems, edited by Neil Astley
(Bloodaxe Books, 2007), 256 pages, £9.99
ISBN 978-1-85224-774-4. American readers can order this book from

This is a timely and wide-ranging anthology of poems from Bloodaxe Books. Its theme is the Earth, and our continuing and ever-deepening environmental crisis. It is not preachy, or full of negativity. The poets in this anthology say things as they are, from the heart, without flinching.

Fe years
Yu hav been fighting wars an destroying de scene
An now dat yu dying
Yu start turn Green
Benjamin Zephaniah, from ‘Me green poem’.

Earth Shattering contains an astonishing range of contributions. It includes works by significant writers from around the world, both past and present - from William Wordsworth to Ken Saro-Wiwa to Pablo Neruda to Margaret Atwood. As Neil Astley says in the book's introduction: "It is the first anthology to show the full range of ecopoetry, from the wilderness poetry of ancient China to 21st-century Native American poetry."

The book is divided into categories, making for comfortable browsing, if not necessarily comfortable reading. From the category labelled ‘Rooted in Nature’, we read:

The birds have vanished into deep skies.
A last cloud drifts away, all idleness.

Inexhaustible, this mountain and I
Gaze at each other, it alone remaining.

Li-Po, ‘Reverence-Pavilion Mountain, Sitting Alone’.

(Translation David Hinton)

And here is an excerpt from the ‘Unbalance of Nature’ category, which addresses interference with the processes of nature, and the effects of pollution:

The fish faced into the current,
Its mouth agape
Its whole head opened like a valve.
You said ’It’s diseased.’
Seamus Heaney, from ‘Augury’.

The words of each and every poet are potent - speaking out clearly on behalf of the earth and its myriad life-forms. Reading one of these poems a day is a moving experience, guaranteed to strengthen one's resolve to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem. But, for me, the anthology's greatest impact lies in the sheer range and diversity of poems - giving a sense of a great and unstoppable environmental movement, with the potential to change the world.

Throughout the book, there are fascinating contextual notes and biographical details about all the poets – plus there are some carefully placed prose pieces, such as James Lovelock’s ‘What is Gaia?’ and Caroline Tisdall’s description of Joseph Beuys’ seminal Coyote performance. This greatly enriches the reading experience, makes one look again, think again - and draws one into further and deeper exploration.

Earth Shattering, with its concerted voices, takes us to that place where we know the truth of what that old Native American chief is supposed to have said: "... we are a part of the Earth, and the Earth is part of us."

Linda Gordon is an environmental artist who makes site-specific work in all parts of the world. See and for more information about her work.

Review first printed in Landscape & Arts Network Journal No.43, Zen Edition. For more information go to

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Jonathon Porritt reviews Earth Shattering: ecopoems

Review of Earth Shattering: ecopoems, edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, 2007).

256 pages. £9.99.
ISBN: 9781852247744.

Any poetry anthology, in any field, inevitably owes something to those anthologies that have gone before it. But with
Earth Shattering, Neil Astley has set out to do something rather different – not just moving us well beyond the canon of ‘nature poetry’ (which a number of other anthologies have also sought to do over the last few years), but by digging much deeper into the complexities of the historical relationship between humankind and the living Earth that sustains us, reflected in a highly contemporaneous and politically relevant way That will certainly appeal to environmental activists who will already be familiar with many of the poets featured in Earth Shattering. But they will discover a whole lot more than that in this astonishingly eclectic and wide-ranging anthology.

For one thing, Astley sets out systematically to fill some of the yawning gaps in our usual range, particularly regarding eco-poetry from the United States. For me, this was a real delight. Over-familiarity with the work of ‘old faithfuls’ such as Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder would appear to have rendered me deaf to poets such as Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver and W.S Merwin, let alone a whole slew of Native American poets including Linda Hogan and Joy Harjo who are such subtle, fresh voices, covering an extraordinary emotional range.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the dominant tone here and in the anthology as a whole is unavoidably elegiac, with many poems focussed on both historical and current loss of species, habitats, special places and ‘right relationships’. Cumulatively, the power of that indictment is overwhelming, the pain and anger intense. There are far fewer poems simply celebrating the beauty and mystery of the Earth and its teeming citizenry, even though the two sections that do focus more on this inspirational quality (The Great Web and Force of Nature) are amongst the strongest in the anthology, with excellent commentaries from the editor.

This has to be one of the great strengths of
Earth Shattering. The work of each of the poets featured in the anthology is properly contextualised, the significance of their wider work briefly explained, and hugely helpful insights provided into motivation and, occasionally, interpretation. For the most part, Neil Astley relies on his own expertise in providing these ‘extended footnotes’, but I particularly enjoyed the way he draws on other writers (such as Jonathan Bate whose wonderful Song of the Earth Astley cites as his own most important influence) and other poets to provide additional insights. Sometimes he draws on the poet’s own commentaries of their underlying philosophy, especially when this has relevance to the collection as a whole. For example Mary Oliver’s reflection on her own poetic impulse (‘the man who does not know nature, who does not walk under the leaves as under his own roof, is partial and wounded. I say this even as wilderness shrinks beneath our unkindness and our indifference. We can come to our senses yet, and rescue the world, but we will never return it to anything like its original form’) clearly doubles up as a leitmotiv for many, many of the authors represented here.

In this whole area of reflection and commentary, Astley’s editorial touch seems very sound. There may be rather more questions both about the categorisation of contributors (with considerable overlap between different sections) and indeed the choice of contributors. This may sound churlish, but there were a surprisingly large number of poems that I just found very hard work as in producing almost zero reward for considerable time invested. And given that this is a substantial collection, I found myself towards the end either dipping in or tracking contributions from poets that had really caught my attention rather than crunching each and every individual item.

But there were so many completely new discoveries as to more than make up for the occasional ‘what the hell is that about?’. Perhaps it just reflects my own current mood (one of growing anger at the fact that what we are doing to the Earth today we are doing in full knowledge, with no conceivable excuse of ignorance or uncertainty as to consequence), but I was particularly struck by those poets who explicitly link environmental devastation to the ongoing oppression of communities and whole nations – Jayne Cortez writing about the Ogoni people in Nigeria, for instance, or Ernesto Cardenal reflecting on the impact of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua.

These are certainly some of the more polemical contributions, unapologetically setting out to stir anger and action – as Oodgeroo, the first published Aboriginal poet, puts it:

But time is running out,
And time is close at hand,
For the Dreamtime folk are massing
To defend their timeless land
Come gentle black man
Show your strength;
Time to take a stand.
Make the violent miner feel
Your violent
Love of land.

But the heart of
Earth Shattering lies in one grand philosophical enquiry threaded throughout the collection: to what extent are we destined, as a species, to rediscover a proper sense of co-habitation, of deepest intimacy with the living world – or are we now locked into the role of alien presence, or hateful cancer, until the final reckoning? Theodore Roethke’s ‘Moss Gathering’ or Pattiann Rogers’s ‘The Laying on of Hands’ beautifully capture that essential conflict between our non-negotiable ‘naturalness’ and our problematic and habitually destructive separateness.

The enquiry remains open-ended – just! But as Neil Astley so eloquently reminds us, poetry has a special, possibly unique role to play in persuading us to confront such conflicts far more honestly than we are currently inclined to do:

As our world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards Eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture. But
Earth Shattering shows that the power of poetry is in the detail, in the force of each individual poem, in every poem’s effect on every reader. And anyone whose resolve is stirred will strengthen the collective call for change.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future, Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission; and author of Capitalism as if the World Matters; (Earthscan, revised pbk edition 2007) available through Forum for the Future website.

Review reprinted from
Sofia #87 (March 2008) by kind permission of Jonathon Porritt and Sofia editor Dinah Livingstone. See

American readers can order copies of Earth Shattering: ecopoems from