Thursday, 31 March 2016

Vladimir Holan: The Chicken

The doors open by themselves
before an angel. At other times a chicken
comes from the courtyard into the kitchen
and looks round at the company with so critical an eye
that they do not wait to see how it will end
but quickly cross themselves in self-defence.

Tr. Jarmila and Ian Milner. Written in 1950s Czechoslovakia, when poetry with angels and crossing oneself could be dangerous. Aside from that, there's something characteristically Central European in the deadpan mixture of the numinous and the domestic.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Randall Jarrell: The Mockingbird

Look one way and the sun is going down,
Look the other, and the moon is rising.
The sparrow’s shadow’s longer than the lawn.
The bats squeak: “Night is here”; the birds cheep: “Day is gone.”
On the willow’s highest branch, monopolizing
Day and night, cheeping, squeaking, soaring,
The mockingbird is imitating life.

All day the mockingbird has owned the yard.
As light first woke the world, the sparrows trooped
Onto the seedy lawn: the mockingbird
Chased them off shrieking. Hour by hour, fighting hard
To make the world his own, he swooped
On thrushes, thrashers, jays, and chickadees–
At noon he drove away a big black cat.

Now, in the moonlight, he sits here and sings. 
A thrush is singing, then a thrasher, then a jay– 
Then, all at once, a cat begins meowing. 
A mockingbird can sound like anything. 
He imitates the world he drove away 
So well for a minute, in the moonlight, 
Which one’s the mockingbird? which one’s the world?

From Jarrell's last collection, The Lost World (1965): poems about the loss of serenity. In three stanzas this one contains Jarrell's view of his own life, which he ended soon after.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Alda Merini: 'I used to be a bird'

As for me, I used to be a bird
with a gentle white womb,
someone cut my throat
     just for laughs,
     I don't know.
As for me, I used to be a great albatross
and whirled over the seas.
Someone put an end to my journey,
without any charity in the tone of it.
But even stretched out on the ground
I sing for you now
my songs of love.

Tr. Susan Stewart. Merini (1931-2009) was astonishingly prolific: only Italian fans, of whom there are many, have read every poem she wrote. Yet she went silent, institutionalised, for twenty years. Which may be the subject of this poem. The As for me in the first and sixth lines of the translation doesn't have a direct equivalent in the original, but interprets Merini's emphatic use of the first-person pronoun io.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Larissa Szporluk: Duressor

In darkness, crabs are believed to rest.
It is nobody's world. It is even less
theirs when they touch that first
inch of beach and the stunning blow
of elastic fire that is nobody's star
knocks them out of existence,
knocking them out like knees
in a murderous arena of tungsten lamps
and questioners. Of tables and pounding
fists. Of the decision of tide
to rebel against attraction, flattening out,
the moon looking up in surprise
from the underside of the stagnant water,
twisted and sad, like a coroner's eye
scrambled in a dearth of time,
the faraway body's insomnia, the crabs
combing the sand without minds.

From Dark Sky Question (1998). This poem shoulders the intense weight of making the action of the crabs equivalent to an action of the human mind: the two become as one. Its effect is almost phenomenological.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Les Murray: Platypus

Once in an April moon
Lapped in dark water
Or in some forest pool
Behind midsummer
You may discern him, still
In rippling shade,
Or see him tilt and glide,
Leaving few bubbles,
Sunk to the cool of his nest
In the roots of the creekbed.

Go down no further. Let us watch from here.
Shadows of scrub lie windless on the water.
Flat-headed, his otter-like body dark as soil,
Small eyes, crude fur and that patent-leather beak,
Blunt limbs and webbed feet
Held just below the light,
He floats and is there.
He has not heard us come.
Not strange, across so vast
A plain of time.

Twice born, and yet a mammal—with a beak.
But see, now he sinks away, perhaps to feed
On the leaf-dark bottom, or to find the mouth
Of his burrow and smear the earth wall as he climbs
And scrambles up to doze there in the darkness.

Hold the thought of him
Kindly to your skin.
It is good to have him in our country,
Unique, beneath our thoughts,
To nurture difference.
Changeless beneath our thought
And its disjunctions.

From The Weatherboard Cathedral (1969). Not great Murray: his 'Echidna' is better. But perhaps the only tolerable serious poem about the platypus (and the line Unique, beneath our thoughts is perfect). Banjo Patterson's piece of verse is execrable. Predictably there are several lugubriously comic platypus poems, so Murray's poem helps to right the balance. 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Robert Minhinnick: from The Porthcawl Preludes


I am sprockled
        Like a foxglove,
             My teeth
A silversmith's hammers.
Yet, like you, I will be overwhelmed
By the riptide in the blood.

Basking Shark

There is an ocean on the moon, I'm told.
A blue ocean of dust, aeons old.
Perhaps there are sharks there, basking in the swell.
Yeah. Moonsharks in moondust. Who can tell?


Dark little abbot on your rock,
You will have to preach louder than that.
These days the congregation is a long way out.

'The Porthcawl Preludes' is a sequence in After the Hurricane (2002). Minhinnick is expert at moving among registers: perhaps he gains inspiration from some contemporary American poets, but his voice is very individual.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Eugenio Montale: The Eel

The eel, the siren
 of freezing oceans, who leaves the Baltic
 to reach our seas,
 our estuaries, the rivers
 that she climbs again, deep under opposing tides
 of branch narrowing into more slender branch, and then
 in the root fibers of streams piercing
 always closer to the rock’s heart,
 filtering like bright water through
 rivulets of mere mud until one day
 light flashed from chestnut leaves
 lights up the quiver in a dead pool,
 in runnels that slant down
 from the ridges of the Apennine to the Romagna;
 the eel, torch, whip,
 Love’s arrow on earth
 which only our stagnant ditches or the dried
 streams of the Pyrenees lead back
 to paradises of fecundity;
 the green spirit who seeks
 life there only
 where drought and desolation gnaw,
 the spark that says
 everything begins where everything seems
 charcoal, a burnt-down stump;
 brief rainbow, iris, twin
 to the glance mounted within your lashes
 which you keep sparkling and untouched
 in the midst of the sons
 of Man, all sunk in your mire—Can you
 not see she’s your sister?

One of the greatest animal poems of the twentieth century. One of the greatest poems of the twentieth century. It's said there are more than fifty versions in English - this is by Millicent Bell, first published in Agni.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Theodore Roethke: Snake

I saw a young snake glide
Out of the mottled shade
And hang, limp on a stone:
A thin mouth, and a tongue
Stayed, in the still air.

It turned; it drew away;
Its shadow bent in half;
It quickened, and was gone.

I felt my slow blood warm.
I longed to be that thing,
The pure, sensuous form.

And I may be, some time.

Roethke, alcoholic, often unbalanced and hysterical, attracts very differing views. One criticism is that he imitates and appropriates other poets' attitudes without genuinely sharing in them, that he misuses them instead of using them well. But this poem seems successful to me: it may start from Blake and later poets writing of nature, but its own substance and technique coalesce convincingly.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Yehuda Amichai: The Bull Comes Home

The bull comes home from his workday in the ring
After drinking coffee with his fighters
And leaving them a note with his exact address
And the place of the red handkerchief.
(The sword stays stuck in his stiff-necked neck.
    And it stays.)
And that he's at home now
And sitting on his bed, with his heavy
Jewish eyes. He knows 
It hurts the sword too, when it plunges into flesh.
In the next reincarnation he'll be a sword:
The hurt will stay.
('The door
Is open. If not, the key is under the mat.')
He knows the mercy of evening
And true mercy. In the Bible
He is listed with the clean animals.
He is very kosher, chews his cud
And even his heart's divided and cleft
Like a hoof.
Out through his breast break hairs
Dry and grey as from a split mattress.

Tr. Harold Schimmel, with the collaboration of Ted Hughes. More a human poem than an animal poem, I guess: quite likely a poem about Amichai himself. From a recent review by James Wood of his selected poems: “When we encounter a natural style, Pascal says, we are surprised and delighted, because we expected to find an author and instead found a man. Yehuda Amichai, who died in 2000, at the age of seventy-six, and is still Israel’s most celebrated poet, possesses that natural style: a human being speaks, in frequencies audible to all, and the discovery is a spreading delight, a shelter and a steady accompaniment to our own lives… Or maybe we should be more brutal about the whole matter? Some writers are likable, and quite a few are not. Amichai is intensely likable.”

Monday, 21 March 2016

Anon: Mad Jack's Cockatoo

There's a man that went out in the floodtime and drought
By the banks of the outer Barcoo,
They called him Mad Jack 'cause the swag on his back
Was the perch for an old cockatoo.

By the towns near and far, in sheds, shanty and bar
Came the yarns of Mad Jack and his bird,
And this tale I relate (it was told by a mate)
Is just one of the many I've heard.

Now Jack was a bloke who could drink, holy smoke,
He could swig twenty mugs to my ten,
And that old cockatoo, it could sink quite a few,
And it drank with the rest of the men.

One day when the heat was a thing hard to beat,
Mad Jack and his old cockatoo
Came in from the West – at the old Swagman's Rest
Jack ordered the schooners for two.

And when these had gone down he forked out half a crown
And they drank till the money was spent:
Then Jack pulled out a note from his old tattered coat,
And between them they drank every cent.

Then the old cockatoo, it swore red, black and blue,
And it knocked all the mugs off the bar;
Then it flew through the air, and it pulled at the hair
Of a bloke who was drinking Three Star.

And it jerked out the pegs from the barrels and kegs,
Knocked the bottles all down from the shelf,
With a sound like a cheer it dived into the beer
And it finished up drowning itself.

When at last Mad Jack woke from his sleep he ne’er spoke,
But he cried like a lost husband’s wife,
And with each falling tear made a flood with the beer,
And the men had to swim for their life.

Then Mad Jack he did drown; when the waters went down
He was lying there stiffened and blue,
And it’s told far and wide that stretched out by his side
Was his track-mate – the old cockatoo.

An Australian bush ballad from around the turn of the twentieth century. A cockatoo (this would have been a white sulphur-crested cockatoo) perched on one's back may seem a danger to ears and eardrums, but apparently they're well-behaved when tamed.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Louise Bogan: The Crows

The woman who has grown old
And knows desire must die,
Yet turns to love again,
Hears the crows' cry.

She is a stem long hardened,
A weed that no scythe mows.
The heart's laughter will be to her
The crying of the crows,

Who slide in the air with the same voice
Over what yields not, and what yields,
Alike in spring, and when there is only bitter
Winter-burning in the fields.

Louise Bogan (1897-1970) can at first glance appear too calculating to write real poetry; but respect for her grows as her sure rhythms merge with her obsessions (mainly, the impossibility of faithfulness and love). This is a poem of 1923: its author was far from a "woman who has grown old" in the literal sense.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Christopher Smart: from Jubilate Agno

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually--Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

An eccentric classic. Probably the first poem ever written about an individual cat. Also contained within a poem of religious mania, written by an inmate of an insane asylum.