Monday, 29 February 2016

Jenny Mastoraki: Poem

The Trojan Horse refused to comment
at the time, and when they pressed him,
insisted that he personally knew nothing
about the so-called massacre.
In any case, and speaking for himself,
he had always dined frugally
and as a colt
he had been respectably employed
on a merry-go-round.

Jenny (Iphigenia) Mastoraki is a Greek poet who is bilingual enough to translate and write her own poetry into/in English. This one I think was written in English originally. 

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Fleur Adcock: Cattle in Mist

A postcard from my father's childhood
the one nobody photographed or painted;
the one we never had, my sister and I.
Such feeble daughters—couldn't milk a cow
(watched it now and then, but no one taught us).
How could we hold our heads up, having never
pressed them in the warm flank of a beast
and lured the milk down? Hiss, hiss, in a bucket:
routine, that's all. Not ours. That one missed us.

His later childhood, I should say;
not his second childhood—that he evaded 
by dying—and his first was Manchester.
But out there in the bush, from the age of ten,
in charge of milking, rounding up the herd,
combing the misty fringes of the forest
(as he would have had to learn not to call it)
at dawn, and again after school, for stragglers;
cursing them; bailing them up: it was no childhood.

A talent-spotting teacher saved him.
The small neat smiling boy (I'm guessing)
evolved into a small neat professor.
He could have spent his life wreathed in cow-breath,
a slave to endlessly refilling udders,
companion of heifers, midwife at their calvings,
judicious pronouncer on milk-yields and mastitis,
survivor of the bull he bipped on the nose
('Tell us again, Daddy!') as it charged him.

All his cattle: I drive them back
into the mist, into the dawn haze
where they can look romantic; where they must
have wandered now for sixty or seventy years.
Off they go, then, tripping over the tree-roots,
pulling up short to lip at a tasty twig,
bumping into each other, stumbling off again
into the bush. He never much liked them.
He'll never need to rustle them back again.

Published 1988. Adcock, like Katherine Mansfield, is a writer divided between New Zealand's settler society and the British "home"; she re-emigrated back to the UK in her late twenties. This poem is rooted in the tension of being from two homelands. It seems unfair to call rounding up cattle "no childhood": there were far, far worse childhoods, then and now.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Denise Levertov: Come Into Animal Presence

Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn't
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.

Published 1960. Levertov steps forward to anthropomorphize the animals, then steps back from the brink: like the animals' vision, her "sight that saw it faltered and turned from it." The poem seems to be about the impossibility of writing the poem.

Gerrit Achterberg: Blackbird

The morning blackbird gargles
cupfuls of bitter wine
dream that grows grainy with pain
in the throats of birds
because the day must be;
because the great whole
darkness can no longer remain closed.

Published 1944; tr. Cliff Crego. Achterberg, frequently unstable, was released from a mental asylum the year before this poem was written.

Friday, 26 February 2016

César Vallejo: The Spider

   It's an enormous spider that no longer goes;
a colorless spider, whose body,
a head and an abdomen, is bleeding.

   Today I have watched it, up close. And with what effort
towards every flank
it was extending its innumerable feet!
And I've thought about its invisible eyes,
deadly pilots of the spider.

   It's a spider that was trembling, stuck
on the edge of a stone;
its abdomen over one side,
its head over the other.

   With so many feet, poor thing, and still unable
to resolve itself. And on seeing it aghast
in such a crisis
today I feel so bad for that traveler.

   It's an enormous spider, whose abdomen keeps
it from following its head.
And I've thought about its eyes,
its numerous feet...
And I feel so bad for that traveler!

From Vallejo's first collection, The Black Heralds (1918), which contains astonishing poetry far in advance of anything the English-speaking world was doing at the time. Without anthropomorphizing the spider Vallejo uses it as a metaphor for all difficulty and pain, including human pain. The not totally successful translation is by Richard Schaaf and Kathleen Ross (1990); another, better-known, attempt by Robert Bly is available on Google Books.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Anonymous: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

As the cry went up the wild creatures quaked.
The deer in the dale, quivering with dread,
hurtled to high ground, but were headed off
by the ring of beaters who bawled and roared.
The stags of the herd with their high-branched heads
and the broad-horned bucks were allowed to pass by,
for the lord of the land had laid down a law
that man should not maim the male in close season.
But the hinds were halted with hollers and whoops
and the din drove the does to sprint for the dells.
Then the eye can see that the air is all arrows:
all across the forest they flashed and flickered,
biting through hides with their broad heads.
What! They bleat as they bleed and they die on the banks,
and always the hounds are hard on their heels,
and the hunters on horseback come hammering behind
with stone-splitting cries, as if cliffs had collapsed.
And those animals which escaped the aim of the archers
were steered from the slopes down to rivers and streams
and set upon and seized at the stations below.
So perfect and practised were the men at their posts
and so great were the greyhounds which grappled with the deer
that prey was pounced on and dispatched with speed
                            and force.
               The lord's heart leaps with life.
               Now on, now off his horse
               all day he hacks and drives.
               And dusk comes in due course.

An excerpt from the 2007 translation by Simon Armitage, who aims to give the feel of the original's alliteration (at the cost of the occasional gristly bit of translationese). Notable is the utterly pre-modern lack of any empathy, even ironic, with the hunted animals: that simply wasn't part of the furniture in 1400 AD.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

W.B. Yeats: The Hawk

'Call down the hawk from the air;
Let him be hooded or caged
Till the yellow eye has grown mild,
For larder and spit are bare,
The old cook enraged,
The scullion gone wild.'

'I will not be clapped in a hood,
Nor a cage, nor alight upon wrist,
Now I have learnt to be proud
Hovering over the wood
In the broken mist
Or tumbling cloud.'

'What tumbling cloud did you cleave,
Yellow-eyed hawk of the mind,
Last evening? that I, who had sat
Dumbfounded before a knave,
Should give to my friend
A pretence of wit.'

Not too much of the Yeatsian rhetoric here. The real poetry emerges from the last stanza's metamorphosis of the hawk in the clouds.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Jay Macpherson: The Swan

White-habited, the mystic Swan
Walks her rank cloister as the night draws down,
In sweet communion with her sister shade,
Matchless and unassayed.

The tower of ivory sways,
Gaze bends to mirrored gaze:
This perfect arc embraces all her days.
And when she comes to die,
The treasures of her silence patent lie:
'I am all that is and was and shall be,
My garment may no man put by.'

Only a tenuous claim to be an animal poem: this is, to state the obvious, not about actual swans. Macpherson spent much of her life as an academic in Canada, and her poetry was influenced by Northrop Frye's views on myth.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

D.M. Black: A Dream About a Pig

When we face the reality of what we have done to the planet, how will we stop weeping?

Some folk can bear the thought of heating a lobster to death. I have heard them laughing as they build the fires.

And last night I dreamt someone brought in a pig. It was already dead before they started to cook it.

But as they cooked it, small droplets of fat oozed through the skin, thousands and thousands of tiny droplets,

And I could not bear it and lay down and started to weep, to weep unceasingly.

O tears and tears. Not like the tears under Bluebeard's castle, a standing flood, but an unending stream.

Published 2008. A poem for those "Maybe I should try going vegetarian" moments.

Nosratullah Kasemi: Sting and Antidote

Said wasp to bee:
they loathe me
stone my nest
smoke me out
and even pay
for cyanide
to move me,

but you,
with your hexagons
and pollen dances,
they house in luxury.

Said bee: to sting
and still be loved
you must give honey.

Translated by Omar Pound (son of Ezra, and a Persian scholar). Kasemi was a physician and politician as well as poet; he'd quit politics long before Iran's Islamic Revolution. The translation has some nice touches ("your hexagons and pollen dances") but I have no idea if its light-verse tone reflects the original.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Thomas Hardy: The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House

One without looks in tonight
       Through the curtain-chink
From the sheet of glistening white;
One without looks in tonight
       As we sit and think
       By the fender-brink.

We do not discern those eyes
       Watching in the snow;
Lit by lamps of rosy dyes
We do not discern those eyes
       Wondering, aglow,
       Fourfooted, tiptoe.

The diction and poesy of high Tennyson are changing to a more conversational and perhaps more nervous register; and in the last line a slightly jarring shift that a good Victorian would not have allowed. Hardy wasn't a good Victorian.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Umberto Saba: The Goat

I talked to a goat,
Alone in the field, tied to a post,
Full up with grass, soaked
Through with rain, bleating.

That monotone was brother
To my grief. I answered back: first
For fun, but then because sorrow's
Forever, and is monotonous.
I heard its voice
Sounding in a solitary goat.

From a goat with a semitic face
I heard all ills, all lives,

Written 1910, tr. Martin Seymour-Smith. An unforced humane poem: much of Saba's poetry seems to be a humane record of his life. It was a life that had much of the standard grist for poets (severe depression, infidelities, sexual confusion, literary quarrels, anger at lack of recognition) but the poetry comes from a core of gentleness.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Alan Dugan: Another Cat Poem: A Cat Is Not A Dancer But A Hunter

The cat on its hind legs
taking a swipe at a mocking bird
was in a serious dance
but a stand-off dance
with the bird because
the cat didn't catch
the bird with its claws
and the bird didn't beak
the cat with its beak:
it just amused us,

but later the cat won some
other encounter. The words
"serious" and "dance" did not apply.
It came back to us wing-mouthed,
(the wings of a fledgling
coming out of both sides
of its mouth, the bird
a bloody fluff in its teeth)
expecting our congratulations,
expecting us to say Good hunting,
Dancer, dancer, oh you dancer.

From Poems Seven (New poems) (2001). Which contains two poems with titles beginning "Another Cat Poem", but I don't know whether the anothers refer to a previous cat poem by Dugan or to the fact that the general corpus of cat poems is, well, extensive.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Gavin Ewart: Sonnet: Cat Logic

Cat sentimentality is a human thing. Cats
are indifferent, their minds can't comprehend
the concept 'I shall die', they just go on living.
Death is more foreign to their thought than
to us the idea of a lime-green lobster. That's
why holding these warm containers of purring fur
is poignant, that they just don't know.
Life is in them, like the brandy in the bottle.

One morning a cat wakes up, and doesn't feel
disposed to eat or wash or walk. It doesn't panic
or scream: 'My last hour has come!' It
simply fades. Cats never go grey at the edges
like us, they don't even look old. Peter Pans,
insouciant. No wonder people identify with cats.

From Be My Guest! (1975). From an early age Ewart became expert at light verse that was more than just light verse. You don't have to agree with every claim in the poem's text: perhaps Ewart is trying to persuade himself rather than the reader.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Tu Mu: Egrets

Snowy coats and snowy crests and beaks of blue jade
Flock above the fish in the brook and dart at their own shadows,
In startled flight show up far back against the green hills,
The blossoms of a whole pear-tree shed by the evening wind.
                                                (tr. A.C. Graham)

Robes of snow, crests of snow, and beaks of azure-jade,
they fish in shadowy streams. Then starting up into

flight, they leave emerald mountains for lit distances.
Pear blossoms, a tree-full, tumble in the evening wind.
                                                (tr. David Hinton)

Tu Mu (or Du Mu) wrote in the mid-9th century. The poetry in translations from classical Chinese is usually in an invisible dimension just outside the reader’s perception. Both these versions are too busy to bring across the impact of the pear blossom image, which is surely Tu Mu’s main point and one grasped a millennium later by Ezra Pound.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

C.H. Sisson: The Hare

I saw a hare jump across a ditch:
It came to the edge, thought, and then went over
Five feet at least over the new-cut rhine
And then away, sideways, as if thrown
— Across the field where Gordon and I walked
Talking of apples, prices and bog-oak,
Denizens of the country, were it not
That denizens do not belong, as they do
And the hare tossing herself here and there.
And I? If I could, I would go back
To where Coombe Farm stood, as Gordon's stands
Trenched in antiquity and looking out
Over immense acres not its own
And none the worse for that. You may say
It is the sick dream of an ageing man
Looking out over a past not his own.
But I say this: it is there I belong
Or here, where the pasture squelches underfoot
And England stirs, forever to hold my bones.
You may boast of the city, I do not say
That it is not all that you say it is
But at the Last Judgement it will stand
Abject before the power of this land.

Published 1984. The poem copies the hare's jump and sideways swerve until it arrives at the still point of the final quatrain, which is magnificent.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Gunnar Ekelöf: from The Tale of Fatumeh

No, when they speak to each other
Souls are no different from birds
Nor birds different from souls
Our ears require
A multitude of words
Of carefully articulated sounds
So that what is said may be received
For birds a few suffice
Only varying in their tone of eagerness
And varying in their stress.

Published 1966, translation by W.H. Auden and Lief Sjöberg 1971. Ekelöf moved from surrealism in the 1930s to a unique identification with Byzantine and Near Eastern mysticism in the 1960s. This is one poem in a diwan, itself part of a triptych arranged according to a complex numerological system. Perhaps it isn't so much an animal poem as a poem about spiritual music - music was a constant preoccupation for Ekelöf.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Paul Muldoon: The Panther

For what it's worth, the last panther in Massachusetts
was brought to justice
in the woods beyond these meadows
and hung by its heels from a meat-hook
in what is now our kitchen.

(The house itself is something of a conundrum,
built as it was by an Ephraim Cowan from Antrim.)

I look in one evening while Jean
is jelly-making. She has rendered down pounds of grapes
and crab-apples
to a single jar
at once impenetrable and clear:
'Something's missing. This simply won't take.'

The air directly under the meat-hook
it quakes, it quickens;
on a flagstone, the smudge of the tippy-tip of its nose.

From Madoc: A Mystery (1990). Very clever, very unsolemn, and a commentary on the most solemn of panther poems, by Rilke on the panther in the Jardin des Plantes. Rilke's panther is the imprisoned, inexpressible image; Muldoon's panther is the image become the shadow of a ghost, making things "at once impenetrable and clear."

Monday, 8 February 2016

Tristan Corbière: The Toad

Some song on an airless night ...
The moon tin-plates clear and bright
The cut-outs of gloomy greenery.

... Some song; like an echo dies,
Buried alive in that clump it lies ...
– Finished: there in the shadows, see ...

– A toad! – Why ever this fear
Of me, your old faithful thing?
Look: a shorn poet, not a wing,
The mud lark ... – Horrible to hear! –

... It sings. – Horrible!! – Horrible, why?
Don't you see its eye's bright look? ...
No: gone, cold, to its stone nook.
·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  
Goodnight – that toad is me. Goodbye.

Dated by Corbière This evening, 20th July (probably 1872). Translation by Peter Dale in Wry-Blue Loves, 2005. Corbière's sardonic recounting of his defeats by life can verge on unsubtle self-pity, but this is saved by its sympathy with the "horrible" song of the toad. Dale's translation brings over as much as is possible in the constraints of the sonnet form (which Corbière, who scorned classical forms, upends). The final "Goodbye" is the translator's insertion for the rhyme: the poem's last words are "that toad is me."

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Gwen Harwood: Blackbird

In the morning my blackbird sings
             "Believe in the Trinity."
In the evening he seems to say
             "Abandon all property."
Song, faith and ethics from one beak 
             what a divinity!

From Bone Scan (1988). "Song, faith and ethics" summarises Harwood's concerns in poetry. The blackbird, her blackbird, may not be singing with her exact voice, but is nonetheless the poet.