Cliff’s archived blogposts

I’m archiving the older blog posts as they fall off my website. Please bear with as I organise the material here and think about the best way to present it. Do visit Cliff’s website for a wealth of poems, paintings, translations and details of his books, exhibitions and current projects: http://www.cliff-forshaw.co.uk/



Thursday, 31 December 2015 at 12:06

(Originally posted on Frances Leviston’s Verse Palace site some years previously. I came across it while trying to organise old files. As Verse Palace was defunct by 2015, it seemed an appropriate end-of-December post to start the blog.)


Mid-winter and midday feels like dusk.  Cold and wet outside; inside it’s dark, cavelike. Light seeps in around the windows, but not enough to blunt the glow from laptop, lamp, the radio’s digital display. It seems a good time to make soups, stews: have things simmering on the stove, hoping some sympathetic magic will help word-broths thicken through the dark afternoons.  The days are not so much short as weak: half-hearted respites while the night gathers strength. A sudden snowfall overnight and the contrast is turned up loud. Night seems pushed back, the sun, as John Updike has it, “a spark / Hung thin between / the dark and dark.”[1] It seems a good time to think about darkness.

            In the city I miss star-thick winter nights. Something evocative remains in the first smoky weeks of the autumn: the bright-dark dusk as you notice the brake-lights stabbing on, the slow sulphurous warming up of streetlights. But soon it is all top-lit amber-grey which flattens the street and lids the sky. 

            The bright-dark encourages dreaming. The word “focus” is cognate with “fire”, the hearth which the family gathered round and stared into. Behind them, the flickering flames shifted the room’s perspectives. A little away from the family, a candle cast a cold halo over book or writing table. Imagine how that would seep into your writing. Now shadows are banished from corners. Central heating and screens in every room have left the grate unfocused. The gas fire may have retained some vestigial warmth, but, as Tony Harrison noted, sitting with his ex-coal miner father, it’s “Not as good for staring in, blue gas, / too regular each bud, each yellow spike.”[2] The coal-fire simulacra cowling some gas fires settle for a bed of lumpy warmth rather than spooky rainbow-plumed updrafts and shape-shifts, though even that effect is defeated by electric light.   

            Darkness and light. Liminal / luminal. You need darkness to see certain lights: stars, sparks, glow. Heaney tells us that all he knows is a “door into the dark”. Inside “The Forge” is an “altar” where, in an “unpredictable fantail of sparks”, the blacksmith “expends himself in shape and music”, beating “real iron out”. The dark is sacred, mythic, magical, but also somehow more authentic than the contemporary world of traffic “flashing in rows”. In the dark we see a vanished world, like the one in which the Bard Schools nightly set apprentices themes to work on “the whole next day in the Dark, till a certain Hour of the Night, Lights being brought in, they committed it to writing”.[3] The dark allows imagination to roam, feed on memory, conjure visions. Seeds grow in the dark earth, but they grow towards, and flower in, the light.

            The archetypal poet Orpheus bears a name which is probably connected with  “darkness” (Orphna). The Underworld is peopled with shades: these dead give wisdom which we can retrieve into the light. Following Orpheus, the Orphic Mysteries proclaimed a cycle of death and rebirth, darkness and light. The Orphics revered Phanes, the god of light, but also Persephone, seasonal goddess who wintered underground in Hades to be reborn each spring.  In Hades, the dead may choose to drink from Lethe, forgetfulness,  or Mnemosyne, memory: the latter guarantees rebirth with the knowledge of past lives. Mnemosyne is also the Mother of the Muses. The descent is only part of it; we must learn from the shades then reascend into light; to wallow in darkness is eternal death.  Dante is guided through Hell by Virgil who had his hero Aeneas also descend. “Facilis descensus Averno”: it’s easy to slip into Hell, Virgil tells us: climbing out is what’s difficult. The inchoate and dreamlike beckons, but the gradus ad parnassum, the slow ascent to craft, requires perseverance and  guidance from the shades.

            Darkness is, of course, also a metaphor for depression or mental torment, the time of ashes. Roethke writes: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see, / I meet my shadow in the deepening shade”.[4] This “darkness” is beyond seasons. Tennyson’s “dark and true and tender is the North”[5] contrasts with the “bright and fierce and fickle” south. But fierce bright Spain gives us Lorca’s death-haunted duende: “all that has dark sounds has duende[6]– and St John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul. For Scott Fitzgerald “in the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’ clock in the morning”,[7] while for Nathaniel Tarn the terrible thing about la noche oscura is that it comes about in broad daylight.[8]  A gloomy January afternoon, however, can make even “the long dark tea-time of the soul” seem more like Eliot than Douglas Adams.

            Google “poetry and darkness” and you discover the vast goth subculture  in which psychic darkness complements the subfusc dress-code. “Emo” poems peep out from behind stage-scenery that was already looking rackety by the time of Baudelaire and the druggier decadents. Some sites give tips on writing “dark poetry”: “think of dark things… death, blood, negative thoughts, depression, anger, hate, fear and the supernatural are good things to start off with. Add in anything else not listed here”; “If you cannot think of anything else, write about death.”[9]  Black has always been the new black, since melancholy or “black bile” was the admired mode on Elizabethan page and stage. Though Robert Burton claimed to write his compendious The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) in order to avoid the condition, later writers seem in love with it. “O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!” writes James Thompson in The City of Dreadful Night (1874), anticipating the ironically gregarious nature of the black-clad virtual brotherhood now baring their dark souls on the web. Dark fashion outlasts seasons by ignoring them.   

            Most of us spend our season in Hell and move on. “Darkness” is seasonal, or was. Traditionally haiku contained a season-word and were often grouped according to the four seasons. This system was robust enough to accommodate the bombing of Hiroshima [6 August] and Nagasaki [9 August], though the ancient lunar-based calendar meant that the first fell in summer and the second in the autumn. Since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by Japan in 1872, there have been problems reconciling lunar festivals with the solar calendar. This, and the diminishing influence of the seasons on modern urban life, have led to the growth of new categories: tsûki [“spreading through seasons”] and muki [“no season”]. Though western poetry traditionally mirrored the seasons and the ecclesiastical calendar, meaning has now effectively been banished from both. We have Kenyan green beans, Spanish strawberries, all seasons and none. Seasonal Affectless Disorder: our season-words become as incomprehensible as Shakespeare’s old measurements of rods, chains, furlongs, perches.

            Darkness may signal the end of seasonality itself. From Biblical punishment to Milton’s “darkness visible” it has been also been retributive. In Byron’s “Darkness” “The bright sun was extinguished” and the world doomed to be  “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless – / A lump of death – a chaos of hard clay.” Not so long ago, the Cold War threatened us with a Nuclear Winter; today global warming seems more likely to banish seasons or twist them out of kilter.

            In a way I’ve returned to where I began: dark skies. A bare-light bulb you can’t turn off is torture and now the American Medical Association warns of “light trespass”: “Many species, including humans need darkness to survive and thrive. Light trespass has been implicated in disruption of the human and animal circadian rhythms, and strongly suspected of causing depressed immune systems and increase in cancer rates…” Poetry adapts. Nick Laird, for example, has a poem called “Light Pollution”, but it’s difficult to imagine a genre growing out of the night-time glare and the buckled seasonal wheel bewildering man and beast. Slowly we recognise that “Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself.”[10] It may also be essential to our poetry.

[1] John Updike, “January”, A Child’s Calendar.

[2] “Book Ends”.

[3] 1772 source quoted by Daniel Corkery in Hidden Ireland; also in Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: the Making of a Poet, p.79.

[4] Theodore Roethke, “In a Dark Time.”

[5] “O swallow, Swallow”

[6] In Lorca’s lecture “The Theory and Play of the Duende.” http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.htm

[7] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up.

[8] In, I think, the collection A Nowhere for Vallejo.

[9] http://www.wikihow.com/Write-Dark-Poems

[10]  Verlyn Klinkenborg, “Our Vanishing Night,” National Geographic magazine, November 2008, also at http://www.darksky.org/ f

XII International Festival of Poetry in Granada, Nicaragua 14-20 February 2016

Thursday, 3 March 2016 at 20:23

Cliff was invited to read at the XII International Festival of Poetry in Granada, Nicaragua 14-20 February 2016.  This year the festival, which is the largest event of its

type in the world, invited 114 poets from 67 countries. Cliff was one of only two from the UK, the other being Gerrie Fellows from Scotland. Cliff performed his poems in English, with his own Spanish translations, at several events, including the carnival, at a school, and at the final event in the main square. Excellent and generous hospitality from Nicaraguan hosts. Huge and enthusiastic audiences. Great fun and lots of poetry…. but also music, food and dance in a beautiful city on a spectacular lake under the shadow of volcanos.  This year was the centenary of Ruben Darío’s “passing into immortality.” If you look at most bilingual anthologies  of Spanish verse, there’s a curious hiatus. The Penguin  Book, for example, after hitting the heights in 16th/17th century with Góngora and Quevedo, ends its Golden Age with the fabulously quirky (and in some ways Emily Dickinson-like) Mexican nun Sor Juana de la Cruz (1651-1695) and doesn’t really get going again until the mid-19th century, with a couple more Mexicans (Salvador Díaz Mirón; Manuel Jose Othón) and the great Nicaraguan “modernista” Ruben Darío (1867-1916).

Rubén Darío
The festival celebrates the centenary of Darío’s “passing into immortality” and the poet’s ghost is everywhere. The Sandino monument at the top of Tiscapa volcano may dominate the city and be the obvious Managua landmark, but Darío’s image is both more ubiquitous and varied than Sandino’s black cut-out silhouette (hastily erected by the Sandinistas as they prepared to leave power): there’s RD the ambassador in his ambassadorial suit of lights, with ornate ambassadorial sword and plumed ambassadorial hat; there’s RD the hirsute symboliste with his upswept waxed moustaches which, antennae-like, seem to be trying to get into heaven before him.
In Léon, we visit Darío’s house. When we arrive in Granada, traditional adversary of Léon, our very fine hotel is called the Darío. There is a letter for me, inside the envelope there’s a very nice stiff invitation, illustrated by a picture of RD at his most ambassadorial, inviting me to a gala dinner celebrating “El primer Centenario del paso a la Inmortalidad de nuestra Gran Poeta Rubén Darío”.
At the open mike events, Nicaraguans line up to share their poems. On the first day the first half-a-dozen poets all eulogise the great poet. There is much riffing on his passing into immortality.
I give a reading at a high school. On stage half-a-dozen girls, perhaps one from each year, dressed in white, recite Darío’s poems and are quizzed on the details of his life. They are all word and fact perfect. Other students act out scenes from his narrative verse.
I get into conversation with a Nicaraguan. I want to speak Spanish, he English. I mention something about thinking about doing a version of Darío’s “El Canto Errante”. By this I mean the poem that begins the book of the same name. He turns out to have translated RD and begins to recite his own version of “El Canto Errante”, in full. I wonder if he will stop at the end of the poem or, as I begin to fear, the end of the book. One of the many events is about to start. I make my excuses and head in that direction.

Monday, 7 March 2016 at 07:44

Bienvenidos Poetas del Mundo:
Welcomed and fast-tracked through the formalities of the airport. First thought: this is a great land for poets. Last thought similar: as I’m checking in to fly home, an official says he enjoyed my performance in Granada. He probably says that to all the poets. (I notice, a couple of others leaving on this flight.)
Managua, after a couple of hours’ sleep, reminds me of the outskirts of Mexico City: lots of talleres, workshops, cut by big busy roads, but we seem to keep missing the centre. Much walking in the heat looking for a shady bar and cold beer. Find way back to hotel, and the bar is fine and is inevitably El Café de los Poetas. All the good stuff here seems to claim some poetic connection.
In Granada, the carnival dances down to the lake under huge signs proclaiming: Bienvenidos Poetas del Mundo. School children collect the autographs of poets reading at the carnival. (Apart from signing a book or two, I’ve never been asked for an autograph before.) Music, noise, dancing. Poetry is partying! Getting down and shaking its backside to the metre.
We arrive. The poets are seated on the stage as colourfully folkloric groups dance past. Nicaraguan ladies laureate us with crowns of paper flowers and honour us with baskets of biscuits and sweets. This is an unexpectedly touching event. It’s been hot, hot, hot. Cold cans of beers are handed out: Toña, the Nicaraguan brewery, is one of the sponsors. Oddly one of the big donors is the European Union. I see their stars on the programme and elsewhere. Nicaragua has got this together. Granada is aiming to be a world culture heritage site, as a city of poetry. On this showing, they deserve it.

Poetry, Politics and Translation.
In Latin America politics comes with the territory. The Chileans Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, the Mexican Octavio Paz, and the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias were all diplomats. Most have been on the left, at least to start with, and often suffered for their trouble: Neruda was an advisor to Allende – and there is some doubt as to the cause of his death when Pinochet came to power; Paz resigned after the massacre of student demonstrators in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, just before the 1968 Olympics, though he later opposed the Sandinistas and supported Mexican government’s attempts to put down various left-wing uprisings by force.
In Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal managed to combine poetry with politics and the priesthood. He was appointed Minister for Culture by the Sandinista government in 1979, a position he retained until 1987. He was famously scolded by Pope John Paul II in 1983, and defrocked a year later for his socialist “liberation theology” stance. Cardenal was welcomed back into the fold by Pope Francis (another Latin American) in 2014.
Gioconda Belli joined the Sandinistas aged 20, and was involved in clandestine operations. She was forced to exile in Mexico in 1975, returning in 1979 just before the Sandinista victory. She held various posts under the FSLN, including international press officer.
At the Darío hotel, I see Ernesto Cardenal . He’s in his 90s now and frail, but I recognise the beret and beard and feel I should introduce myself. I see Gioconda and her husband Charles Castaldi at the Darío and around town. Castaldi has an interesting history as journalist, film producer and more. She is, as I overhear Castaldi say, “a force of nature”. She reads at the carnival, a long impassioned piece. I manage to exchange a few words with her at a restaurant after the carnival, but only to get her to state the obvious. The restaurant’s worth eating at. On the last night I’m reading in the last group with her and a few others. I’m not entirely sure of my Spanish translations. It’s been a long while since I spoke Spanish day to day, and, if I was writing these poems in Spanish, I’d had written something entirely different. The other non-Hispanoparlantes have had their verses translated for them. I wonder, if it was hubris to do this. And now I’m going to read them, in English, and then in Spanish, to a packed square. I think this is also on TV. The audience seem to warm to my introduction to the effect that these are bad translations but my own. Reading them out, I’m aware that I’m pumping it up, trilling my “r”s and it’s probably way too dramatic. I stumble over an odd word. For some reason, I’ve started to speak French. Why did I do that? I recover and it’s all OK, I relax and then come across the phrase “Big Bang”. My old Spanish-English dictionary hadn’t had an equivalent. I think I’d done a quick Google translate, meaning to check it later, and got “Big Bang”. I’d forgotten to check later.
So read my translation of “Megiddo Junction” (from Pilgrim Tongues). The English goes:

        It all began round here, you think: Big Bang,
        the One True... and then that other thing...

The Spanish has it:

        Todo comenzó por aquí, piensas: Big Bang,
        el único y verdadero... y luego lo otro...

Well, I’m worried that this doesn’t make much sense in Spanish, and maybe not in English anyway, but what are these people going to make of “Big Bang”? I turn to the table of poets and ask the only Nicaraguan at the table: ¿”Big Bang? ¿Es una frase? ¿Se dice eso en Español? Gioconda Belli says “Sí” and smiles, and I know everything is going right. Later that night, at the end-of-festival party she gives me a signed copy of her book Fuego Soy, Apartado y Espada Puesta Lejos . I think about how to translate this: I am Fire, Isolated (Exiled? Separated? Alienated?) and My Sword Long from My Hand (A long way Off? Long put down? Forgotten ?). Big Bang. I resolve to get back into the language I stopped speaking daily, now thirty-odd years ago.


Wednesday, 16 March 2016 at 11:25

Here’s a version of a Darí­o poem, “El Canto Errante”, the first poem in a collection of that name. My attempt is pretty loose, more a variation on a theme than translation, as you can see from the original pasted in below. RD concludes by taking wing with his song into Harmony and Eternity, (“En canto vuela, con sus alas: / Armoní­­a y Eternidad.”) which strikes an odd note after his quite playful, and occasionally bathetically modern railway rhymes:  “mar” / ” vagon de sleeping-car”; “tren”, / riding an ass into “Jerusalen”. It seemed better to end with the old Routemaster bus which, in addition to an often jaunty conductor, had recognisably friendly features, rather than a single operative locked in a cab behind a flat inexpressive face. Buen viaje!

Vagabundage, or the Errant Song

            very loosely after “El Canto Errante” by Rubén Darío (1867-1916)

The poet travels the whole wide earth;
and reckons what it’s really worth.
He sees the rich, he sees the poor,
in the white of peace, the red of war.
He sways through India (and this is relevant)
hallucinating on the back of an elephant.
In a palanquin – you’ve seen non finer –
he slides through the silky heart of China.

High on a ship of the desert’s back,
he sways into port from a Saharan track.
He’s in a Venetian gondola, black and sleek.,
or a Deux Chevaux on the Périférique,
A Chevrolet’s not the only way
to cruise the highways of the USA;
he parks at Avis or Hertz Car Rental,
drives off in a Lincoln Continental.
He rides the subway under Harlem;
skis down the Alps, can schuss, plough, slalom.
He bumps on the pampas on a skittish colt,
or a nervous mustang prone to bolt.
He sails across Lake Nicaragua,
fails to find downtown Managua.
In León, he dances con molto brio,
prances up to the house of Rubén Darío,
(taking in the vista with an ex-Sandinista,
who’d given it all up for a Starbucks’ barista).
Of course he’s seen the aurora borealis
– but from a bendy bus in Crystal Palace?
He’s twinkling at night on a Jumbo Jet,
above the snowy wrinkles of Tibet.
Our poet’s been seen: during the Intifada,
crossing the Green Line in a second-hand Lada;
in a bathyscope on the ocean bed;
skimming the tundra on a Shaman’s sled.
We’ve caught him at stations, catching trains:
at Waterloo he was changing for Staines;
at the Gare du Nord in the Eurostar;
in the Trans-Siberian dining car.
On rails, or wheels, by ship or wing,
he’s on the move, he notes down things.
His Routemaster waits. The conductor  rings
the bell. Once more they’re off. The poet sings
–well, he  hums to himself his Errant Song.
Back on the road. Ding Dong! Ding Dong!

Another helping of Rubén Darío

Friday, 18 March 2016 at 11:49

The ghost of Rubén Darío is still hanging around (as the poster says we are all sons of
Darío and Sandino), so here’s another version. He’s in high symbolist mode here, borrowing the title from Gautier’s “Symphony in White Major” (first pub 1849). Gautier’s poem is about a very different water creature, and is quite literally a swan-song.  Musical titles, hinting at synaesthesia, became fashionable among nineteenth-century writers and painters. Whistler painted several variations on “Symphony in White” (1851-62). Larkin later worked a quite different version on the theme in his own “Sympathy in White Major”. Like Larkin I’ve allowed myself a pun in the title. I’ve also been quite free in bringing the maritime elements to the fore, playing with the form, and moving Darío’s tropical siesta to something snoozing closer to home. I’ve included the original, and a literal translation.

Symphony in Sea Major
very loosely after “Symphony in Grey Major” by Rubén Darío (1867-1916)

The sea, like a vast quicksilver mirror,
reflects the sky’s grey sheet. Far away,
birds flock – I’m thinking stains on the dull
sheen of the quayside bar’s long zinc.

Opaque porthole. The sun toils up
to the crow’s nest, like he did as a kid.
Wind off the sea collapses in the shade,
head down, exhausted, on tarpaulin.

This sea-dog’s grizzled. Under grey, doldrum
suns have leathered his skin; he’s drunk gin,
weathered out Beaufort 12, while typhoons
shattered freighters, junks on the South China Sea.

      The waves now roil their bellies of lead,
      groaning beneath the pier where he sits
      on a capstan smoking Navy Cut.
      He is untipped, spits out what sticks to lip,
      an old tar peering through the haar.

That saltpetre-y iodine sniff lives up
his raspberry nose. It’s steeped his deckhand
wrists, blue-grey tattoos, his old salt’s
sea-boots, sun-faded first-mate’s cap.

Off watch. The sea-dog snoozes. The glint
of scattered fish-scales fades to grey
as if sea-mist has worn the horizon, washed
all that lies beyond it, far away.

      The old bull-frog tries the mouth-organ out,
      hornpiped on to the wheezing shanty of squeeze-box lungs:
somewhere a grasshopper rasps
      his one-string solo on a plywood violin.


El mar como un vasto cristal azogado
refleja la lámina de un cielo de zinc;
lejanas bandadas de pájaros manchan
el fondo bruñido de pálido gris.

El sol como un vidrio redondo y opaco
con paso de enfermo camina al cenit;
el viento marino descansa en la sombra
teniendo de almohada su negro clarin.

Las ondas que mueven su vientre de plomo
debajo del muelle parecen gemir.
Sentado en un cable, fumando su pipa,
está un marinero pensando en las playas
de un vago, lejano, brumoso país.

Es viejo ese lobo. Tostaron su cara
los rayos de fuego del sol del Brasil;
los recios tifones del mar de la China
le han visto bebiendo su frasco de gin.

La espuma impregnada de yodo y salitre
ha tiempo conoce su roja nariz,
sus crespos cabellos, sus biceps de atleta,
su gorra de lona, su blusa de dril.

En medio de humo que forma el tabaco
ve el viejo el lejano, brumoso país,
adonde una tarde caliente y dorada
tendidas las velas partió el bergantín…

La siesta del trópico. El lobo se duerme.
Ya todo lo envuelve la gama del gris.
Parece que un suave y enorme esfumino
del curvo horizonte borrara el confín.

La siesta del trópico. La vieja cigarra
ensaya su ronca guitarra senil,
y el grillo preludia un solo monótono
en la única cuerda que está en su violín.

Symphony in Grey Major (literal translation)

The sea like a vast silvered mirror
reflects the sky like a sheet of zinc;
distant flocks of birds make stains
on the burnished pale grey background. 

The sun, like a round, opaque window
with an invalid’s steps climbs to the zenith;
the sea wind relaxes in the shade
using its black trumpet as a pillow. 

The waves that move their leaden bellies
seem to moan beneath the pier.
Sitting on a cable, smoking his pipe,
is a sailor thinking of the beaches
of a vague, distant, misty land. 

This sea-dog is old. The fiery beams
of Brazilian sun have tanned his face;
the wild typhoons of the China sea
have seen him drinking his bottle of gin. 

The iodine and saltpetre foam
long has known his ruddy nose,
his curly hair, athletic biceps,
his canvas cap, his blouse of drill.  

Surrounded by tobacco smoke
the old man sees the far off misty land
for which one hot and golden evening
his brig set out with all sails set … 

The siesta of the tropics. The sea-dog sleeps.
Now the shades of grey enfold him.
It is as if an enormous soft charcoal
rubbed out the lines of the horizon’s arc.  

The siesta of the tropics. The old cicada
tries out his senile, raucous guitar
and the cricket strikes up a monotonous solo
on the single string of his violin. 

Lorca: Death and Duende

Sunday, 20 March 2016 at 20:02

Lorca: Death and Duende

My trip to Nicaragua has made me realise just how much I’ve missed the language and its culture. I’ve not done much with Spanish since I lived in Spain and Mexico in the late seventies, early eighties, but maybe that’s something to remedy. I have, though, done the odd version. Here’s a poem from my latest collection Pilgrim Tongues.

In his lecture The Theory and Function of the Duende, Lorca quotes Manuel Torres: “All that has dark sounds has duende.” This poem, the third of the four which make up Lorca’s lament for a dead bullfighter friend, seems to exemplify duende and its relationship to death, form and improvisation. The “Lament” combines the traditional elements of elegy with surreal imagery: sudden associative shifts mimic both the transitory nature of life and the mind’s response to grief as it flits from one image to another trying to make sense of loss and the absurdity of death. Lorca’s strange, dreamlike imagery is a challenge. Timid fidelity seems pointless: I introduce Rorschach blots, usherettes, hard shoulders and radio aerials. English typically needs fewer syllables to express an idea than Spanish. I knit quatrains together with rhymes and half-rhymes to echo the repetitive vowel-music inherent in even unrhymed Spanish.  Just once, Lorca breaks his quatrain: a little past the mid-point, a five-line unit rattles the lid of the coffin-like stanza. (Oddly, Dario does exactly the same in “Symphony in Grey Major” … see previous blog). In what I hope is a similar improvisatory duende-summoning spirit, I break the last stanza into two short-lined unequal fragments. 

On The Slab

 after Federico García Lorca    “Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías: 3. Cuerpo Presente”

No curving stream, no frozen cypresses,
this slab’s the brow where all dreams groan
into planets, ribbons caught up in tears and trees.
It’s just a shoulder to bear off time, this stone.

Hard shoulders. You’ve seen how those grey rains
throw up their arms, then pit the running waves
to flee the stalking, outstretched stone?
Nothing soaks through this slab. The blood still runs.

This stone gathers seed and cloud, a Rorschach:
one half at least, the other’s in our mind
with the shadowy wolf and the bones of larks,
and all that’s left of bull-rings is the boundless sand.

No applause, no suit of lights, he’s dead:
just so many kilos cooling on the slab.
His body turns to meat, weird sulphurs,
masked by that dark minotaur’s head. 

All done with now. Rain gargles in his mouth.
The crazed air wheezes from his unlocked
chest, and love, drenched with creaking snows,
warms itself in crags above the flocks.

Silence creeps around us like a stench.
We’re keeping vigil with a once-bright form,
one familiar with nightingales who now melts.
He’s filling up with holes. We stare into a trench.

Who has wrinkled this shroud? Let no one sing,
weep in the corner, tear hair, or frighten off the snake.
Here I need only my own wide-open eyes
to see this forever restless body in stiff repose.

Bring them in, those strong-voiced men:
breakers of horses, tamers of rivers, the skint
but rattling skeletons who dance and sing
with mouths full of sun, skins full of wine and flint.

Bring them all before this stage of stone;
before this corpse with its broken reins.
Let usherettes shine torches down the aisles,
towards the illumination of the Exit sign.

Give me dirge. I want lament. Cry me a river,
with steep banks, vague mists to bear this body off.
Hire wailing women to mourn him gone.
Let him disappear where no bulls snort.

In the moon’s arena, let him lose himself
between the calf’s sad horns; let him sleep
with the fishes, with coral, tuning the white
aerials of smoke into their songless night.

Don’t cover his face.
It’s better that he gets
used to staring up at death;

all that bellowing hot breath.
Let him sleep open-eyed.
Even the sea dies…

Lorca’s original: Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías: 3. Cuerpo Presente

La piedra es una frente donde los sueños gimen 
sin tener agua curva ni cipreses helados, 
La piedra es una espalda para llevar al tiempo 
con árboles de lágrimas y cintas y planetas. 

Yo he visto lluvias grises hacia las olas 
levantando sus tiernos brazos acribillados, 
para no ser cazadas por la piedra tendida 
que desata sus miembros sin empapar la sangre. 

Porque la piedra coge simientes y nublados, 
esqueletos de alondras y lobos de penumbra; 
pero no da sonidos, ni cristales, ni fuego, 
sino plazas y plazas y otras plazas sin muros. 

Ya está sobre la piedra Ignacio el bien nacido. 
Ya se acabó; ¿que pasa? Contemplad su figura: 
la muerte le ha cubierto de pálidos azufres 
y le ha puesto cabeza de oscuro minotauro. 

Ya se acabó. La lluvia penetra por su boca. 
El aire como loco deja su pecho hundido, 
y el Amor, empapado con lágrimas de nieve, 
se calienta en la cumbre de las ganaderías. 

¿Qué dicen? Un silencio con hedores reposa. 
Estamos con un cuerpo presente que se esfuma, 
con una forma clara que tuvo ruiseñores 
y la vemos llenarse de agujeros sin fondo. 

¿Quién arruga el sudario? ¡No es verdad lo que dice! 
Aquí no canta nadie, ni llora en el rincón, 
ni pica las espuelas, ni espanta la serpiente: 
aquí no quiero más que los ojos redondos 
para ver ese cuerpo sin posible descanso. 

Yo quiero ver aquí los hombres de voz dura. 
Los que doman caballos y dominan los ríos: 
los hombres que les suena el esqueleto y cantan 
con una boca llena de sol y pedernales. 

Aquí quiero yo verlos. Delante de la piedra. 
Delante de este cuerpo con las riendas quebradas. 
Yo quiero que me enseñen donde está la salida 
para este capitán atado por la muerte. 

Yo quiero que me enseñen un llanto como un río 
que tenga dulces nieblas y profundas orillas, 
para llevar el cuerpo de Ignacio y que se pierda 
sin escuchar el doble resuello de los toros. 

Que se pierda en la plaza redonda de la luna 
que finge cuando niña doliente res inmóvil; 
que se pierda en la noche sin canto de los peces 
y en la maleza blanca del humo congelado. 

No quiero que le tapen la cara con pañuelos 
para que se acostumbre con la muerte que lleva. 
Vete Ignacio: No sientas el caliente bramido. 
Duerme, vuela, reposa: ¡También se muere el mar!

Rilke: three Sonnets to Orpheus

Sunday, 10 April 2016 at 19:y


Here are three recycled versions of poems from Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke(1875-1926). It’s something of a shock to realise that these must’ve been written the best part of twenty-five years ago after I’d spent a few months working in Germany.  These poems appeared in a chapbook Strange Tongues(1994) which consisted mainly of translations and poems about language. The first also appeared in the Forward Prize anthology 1996.

A God Perhaps
“Ein Gott vermags”, Sonnets to Orpheus I.3

A god perhaps. But it’s not that simple
for a man to follow himself through guitar strings.
His mind is split. Contradictory strivings
are his heart’s paths. At his crossroads is no temple.

Song, you teach us, it’s not about desire,
not about asking for what can never be asked.
Song is being. For a god that’s an easy task.
But when are we live? When does he trip the wire

that turns the earth and stars towards our being?
It’s not enough, young one, that you love, that voice
bursts through, blooms upon your lips. Try remembering

to forget. It means nothing, whatever you’ve sung
so far. Real singing – the truth – is another breath.
Breath of nothing. Gust of god. The wind’s lungs.


He Needs No Gravestone
“Errichtet keinen Denkstein”, Sonnets to Orpheus I. 5 

He needs no gravestone. The rose’s
yearly bloom becomes him best.
This is him. his metamorphosis
through this or that’s an endless quest

for himself: Orpheus. No other name. His song
echoes through all art. He comes, he goes
through everything. Whether he stays as long
or as briefly as the petals on this rose,

it has to be enough. He also fears
to lose this world. But he cannot stay.
His words go beyond and he disappears.

His wrists are not tied by humming strings.
You will not find him now. He, too, must obey.
And this is how – by overstepping everything.


Be Ahead of all Parting
“Sei allem Abschied voran”, Sonnets to Orpheus II.13.

Be ahead of all parting, as though it were
already behind you, like the winter just gone.
Know that, among these winters, is one
so endless that the heart, unsheltered, must out-winter.

Be forever dead in Eurydike. – Yet rise and sing.
For it is praiseworthy to be raised proud.
Here, in our entropic realms, be loud
like humming crystal that, even as it shatters, rings.

Be – and yet still know Unbeing, the void,
the empty cavern in which you first heard
yourself echo. Just this once, fill it with your shout.

To the sum of all the second-hand, tinny
and worn-out things on Nature’s inventory,
joyfully add yourself. Then wipe the total out.

HOLE: Larkin Meets Dante

Wednesday, 30 March 2016 at 17:31

    Big Phil at Paragon Station, Hull

I’ve long been fascinated by the opening of Dante’s Inferno: how he finds himself, half-way through his journey through life, lost in a wild wood, and his subsequent descent into Hell led by his guide Virgil, and I’d used the theme, or variations on the lines, in several poems; my most recent collection Pilgrim Tongues concludes with “Andante”, a poem about getting lost on a hike. I’m also fascinated by satire and the grotesque, shifting worlds it conjures. I wrote my doctoral thesis on John Marston’s verse satires voiced through his psychopathic and hypocritical “barking Satyrist” persona W. Kinsayder, and, in various sequences, I’ve tried to summon up the ghost of the Elizabethan  malcontent to see what he’d say about our world.  These sequences seem like vacations from my normal lyric or elegiac mode: holidays of the sort that critics, following Bakhtin, might dignify with notions of the “carnivalesque”, but essentially they’re jeux d’esprit.

A figure you can’t avoid if you live in Hull is Philip Larkin, probably best known for the line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Attitudes to Larkin and his work are sharply divided. I have mixed feelings myself, but I’ve had some good mileage out of him: the part of the university I work in calls itself  “The Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing”; the Larkin Society commissioned my anthology, film and exhibition project Under Travelling Skies in which contemporary poets and painters associated with Hull responded to Larkin’s landscapes and work; I’ve written a poem sequence exploring Larkin’s life and attitudes, and exhibited various paintings in which Larkin, pushing his bike, is confronted by the various mythological figures he had no time for. The shade of Larkin seemed a good guide to the Underworld. 

I started “Hole” as a sort of diversion from a project translating French poems, and working variations on their themes. This is obviously more perversion than version of Dante and, as it has rumbled on, other elements have found their way into the mix: medieval Complaint and, hanging round the Larkin figure, an incongruous whiff of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger. “Difficile est satyram non scribere”, wrote Juvenal, and it often does seem difficult not to write satire; or as John Marston’s alter ego W. Kinsayder  put it: “Let Custards quake, my rage must freely runne!”

Hole is the March 2016 poetry feature of The Common online: http://www.thecommononline.org/features/march-2016-poetry-feature

Sir William Wilberforce looking out over Hull, again.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016 at 21:22

No Text

I’ve been working on a couple of large (3 X 4 foot-something canvasses). The exact dimensions have been determined by the efficiencies of dividing how to cut up store-bought lengths of 2×4 wood for stretchers by what can fit into the car. 

For previous paintings in this cityscape series I’ve been very influenced by Euan Uglow’s theories of canvas proportion and have thought about and tried golden section (5:8 ) and root two (1: 1.4 something )….  but the size of the car is absolute. The car, I hasten to admit is not mine …more on this (Euan Uglow, a sense of proportion, why poets tend not to drive, and why I haven’t driven since attending driver re-education school in Doncaster several years ago) – soonish… or laterish.

Meanwhile, I’ve returned to the statue of William Wilberforce overlooking Queen’s Gardens from the tower at Hull College. I did a few paintings of this statue early on in this project, and one of them appears on this website’s pages. This one’s not quite right yet and this little picture (I’m limited to 400 pixels width) can’t quite give much more than a sense, but I hope it catches something of what I’m trying to do with the cityscapes.


Wednesday, 1 June 2016 at 23:05

Dark studio, orange lightbox

Darkened Studio / model with cold light from device 

  A set-up I worked on late last year. How do you paint light? How can paint, a reflective medium, imitate a powerful light source? How can you mix colours in semi-darkness that you want to be appreciated in full-light? Here, in a darkened studio, we have the intense orange filtered light-box; the model coldly front-lit from her tablet / device; floor lamps and a wayward window light.

This was one of Andy Fairbank’s conundrums. Thursday morning life classes at Hull College’s Park Street building with Andy (a great admirer like myself of Euan Uglow) have always set particular problems. Here it is light. The drawing is difficult, the forms are distorted by the contrasting lights. The light itself changes as your eyes become accustomed to darkness, see greens to compensate for intense orange; notice tonal harmonics on the edge of the light-box. All this, and then you look at your palette and see only mud.


Thursday, 2 June 2016 at 23:06

No Text

Back to Spanish. Here’s the first serious attempt I made to translate a Spanish poem. After a year or so in Spain, I found myself in Mexico City for New Year 1980, where I lived on and off for the next couple of years. I remember how Mexico was so important to me, and how much I loved that country. Awful to hear what narcopolitics and the rest has done. Anyway, I haven’t been back for almost 25 years. Maybe time to do that now. Meanwhile, here’s a version of a much longer poem. Even as a fragment it’s long; maybe I’ll look at it again, cut down, but I think this unedited versions still contains some of that long-form mythopoeic energy I admired in Octavio Paz’s original. The image is the Aztec calendrical sunstone the poem takes off from.


a fragment after the Spanish of Octavio Paz, “Piedra de Sol”

willow of glass, black water poplar,
tall spray bow-sprung by wind,
a deep-rooted tree – dancing,
a passage of river which twists,
advances, recedes, circles, always arriving:
peaceful passage
of star or unhurried spring,
water trickling prophecy all night long,
unanimous presence in swell,
wave upon wave until everything is swamped,
green sovereignty without decline
like the dazzle of wings
opening in the heart of the sky,

a passage rifling the thicknesses
of the coming days and the damned radiance
of the cursed like a bird whose song
turns the forest to stone
and the imminent joys
between disappearing branches,
light hours which even peck at birds,
omens escaping the hand,

a presence like a sudden song,
like the wind singing in the flame,
a glance hanging in the air,
the world with its seas and mountains,
body of light filtered through agate,
thighs of light, belly of light, bays,
solar rock, body coloured by cloud,
colour of fast day jumping,
the hour twinkles and has body,
already the world is visible through your body,
transparent through your transparency,

I go through galleries of sound,
I flow through resonancies,
I go through transparency like a blind man,
a reflection erases me, I am born in another,
o wood of magic pillars,
under the arches of light I penetrate
the corridors of a diaphanous autumn,

I go through your body as through the world,
your belly a sunny plaza,
your breasts twin churches where blood
officiates in mysterious parallels,
my looks cover you like ivy,
you are a city that the sea assails,
a wall that the light splits in halves of peach,
a shrine of salt, rocks, birds
under the law of amazed midday,

dressed in the colour of my desires
you go naked as my thoughts,
I go through your eyes as through water,
tigers drink dreams from those eyes,
the hummingbird burns in those flames,
I go through your forehead as though through the moon,
like cloud upon your thought,
I go through your belly as through your dreams,

your maize skirt sways and sings,
your skirt of glass, skirt of water,
your lips, your hair, your glances, 
all night long you rain, all day
you open my breast with your water fingers,
close my eyes with your mouth of water,
you rain over my bones, a liquid tree hides
its watery roots in my ribs,

I go through your waist as through a river,
I go through your body like through a wood,
like a thin path on the mountain that
ceases in an abrupt abyss,
I go through your sharpened thoughts
and just at the exit of your white forehead
my fallen shadow is destroyed,
I gather my fragments one by one,
continue fleshless, grope blindly,

endless corridors of memory,
doors open onto an empty room
where all the summers rot,
jewels of thirst burn in the depths,
a face disappears when remembered,
a hand crumbles at a touch,
coiffures of disturbed spiders
over ancient smiles,

at the exit of my forehead I search,
search without finding, for an instant,
a face of lightning and storm
running under night trees,
face of rain in a darkened garden,
stubborn water flowing at my side,

I search without finding, writing alone,
there is nobody, the day falls, the year falls,
I fall with that moment, fall into the depths,
invisible transit over thicknesses
which repeat my destroyed image,
I walk over days, stepped-on instants,
I walk on the thoughts of my shadow,
I walk on my shadow in search of a moment,

I seek a live time like a bird,
I seek the five o’clock evening sun
warming ion granite walls:
the hour’s cluster matured,
opening to loose the girls
from its rosy entrails and they
relaxed in the stone courtyards of the college,
tall as autumn went walking,
walking in light under the arcade
and as space girdled her it dressed her
in a skin more golden, more transparent,

tiger the colour of light, cloud-grey deer
on the outskirts of night,
girl glimpsed reclining 
on the green balconies of rain,
face of adolescence – numberless,
I have forgotten your name, Melusina,
Laura, Isobel, Persephone, Mary,
you have all the faces and none,
you are all times and none,
you are like a tree, like a cloud,
you are all birds and a star,
you are like blade of a sword
and the goblet of blood from the tormentor,
ivy which advances, embraces and uproots
the soul to divide from itself,
fire writing across jade,
fissure in the rock, queen of snakes,
steam column, fountain in the stone,
lunar circus, eagles’ crag,
aniseed grain, tiny thorn
that’s mortal and gives immortal pains,
shepherdess of the submarine valleys
and guardian of valley of dead ones,
liana hanging from the gibbet of vertigo,
creeper, poisonous plant,
flower of resurrection, grape of life,
lady of the flute and of lightning,
terrace of jasmine, salt in the wound,
bouquet of roses for the shotgun-blasted,
August snows, gallows moon,
the sea writing over basalt,
the wind writing over desert,
testament of sun, grenade, spike of wheat,

face in flame, face devoured,
adolescent face pursued,
ghost years, circular days
which lead to the same yard, the same wall,
the instant burns and they are all one face,
all faces are one face,
all centuries one instant,
and through the centuries of centuries
a pair of eyes close upon the future,

there nothing facing me, only a
rescued moment tonight, against a dream
of an assembly of dreamt images,
sternly sculpted against dream,
uprooted from the emptiness of tonight,
pulled out by hand letter by letter,
while beyond time the world
with its butcher’s time-table
hurls itself to batter the doors of my soul,

only an instant while the cities,
the names, the flavours, the vivid lives,
crumble in my blind brow,
while the night’s grief humbles my
thoughts and my bones and blood
stroll more slowly and my teeth loosen
and my eyes cloud over and the days
and years collect their empty horrors,

while time closes its fan
and there is nothing behind its images
the instant plunges and floats surrounded
by death, threatened by night and its gloomy yawn,
threatened by the babble of lively and masked death
the instant plunges and penetrates, like a fist closing,
like a fruit ripening inside itself
and it drinks and spills itself

the translucent instant closes
and ripens inwards, springs roots,
grows within me, fills me,
pushes me out through its delirious leafage,
my thoughts are only its birds,
its mercury throbbing in my veins,
a tree of mind, fruits the flavour of time,

o life for the living yet already lived,
time returning in the swell
and slipping away without restoring the face,
whatever happened wasn’t but is being
and is silently spilling into
another vanishing moment…