The Wrecking Light [Robin Robertson]

So I read the Fernando Pessoa collection as part of my Portugal trip but this was the first proper poetry collection.  The book itself is different, a sturdier cover, the paper is thicker and stronger, perhaps better to hold the majesty of the words printed upon it in a relaxed spaced font.

Having just finished Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna I was looking forward to this.  Forna’s prose is as beautiful as poetry, but I wasn’t sure how, I mean, how do you read a poetry book?  Do you read one poem a day, take in all it’s meanings? Look up words and learn it off by heart? I don’t know.  So I did neither of these.  It was hot, I took it to Wandsworth common and read it, intersped with podcasts (History of China, Notes from Spain, Shakespeares restless world..), in fact completed it, over a weekend.  24 hours.  That can’t be right? But I loved it.

From the opening poems, including the cold Signs on a White Field, Robertsons poetry is a beautiful trip through a natural and human dreamscape.

in the railway lines
from a train about to arrive.

The Tweed is short, sharp and funny, that you will re-read as you laugh, just to enjoy the humour again.  About Time is a poignant look at lifetime, mundane events are juxtaposed with epic events.

Cat, Failing
And with that
loss of face
his face, I see,
has turned human.

Strindberg in Berlin – A portrait of a man facing up to what he has gambled on and lost (details are in the notes at the end, if you like me, have no idea who Strindberg is)
I’ve now pulled out
every good tooth
in search of the one that was making me mad

The second part begins with a simple brutal scene in Law of the Island and continues with Khalighat a vivid observation on a sacrifice.  Pentheus and Dionysus is an eloquent retelling straight from Greece, beautifully set down, as is The Daughters of Minyas, a much darker telling of the powers of the gods, but told true to it’s tradition.

The Great Midwinter Sacrifice, Uppsala is a haunting description, a man walking through the darkness after a feast.

The poems are all evocative and powerful.  The collection paints a bleak landscape that is punctured with some sharp humour.  I can’t say I understand the binding of the poems to a theme, and that is completely my failing, not the poet.  I have since dipped back in to read certain poems, and indeed merely to pick one out at random to enjoy.  The simple Hammersmith Winter beautifully ends the collection, but not my thirst for poetry.


A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe [Fernando Pessoa, edited and translated by Richard Zenith]

“I’ve divided all my humaness among the various authors whom I’ve served as literary executor…I subsist as a kind of medium of myself, but I’m less real than the others.  Less substantial, less personal, and easily influenced by them all.”

I was introduced to Fernando Pessoa in the excellent novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago.  Possibly the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th Century, there is so much to be said about Pessoa, whose name means “Person” in Portuguese, and this seems to have affected the poet throughout his life.

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist” Alvaro de Campos

Alvaro de Campos was one of the “heteronyms” (alter egos with startingly different styles, points of view, and biographies) that Pessoa created and wrote under.  These included, other than Campos:

Alberto Caeiro
Ricardo Reis
Alexander Search – who wrote in English
Charles Robert Anon – who wrote in English
Jean Seul – who wrote in French

Pessoa wrote poems, articles, essays under all these names, including references to the other heternoyms, such as the quote from Alvaro de Campos above.

Richard Zenith puts together a rich introduction to Pessoa, his life and his poetry. So you are itching to get to the poems themselves, and when they arrive, they do not disappoint.  Split between his main Heteronyms and their works, the whole volume is an odyssey whose reward is the sheer delight in reading the pure, simple and evocative poems that Pessoa wrote.  I wanted to include some parts of some of the poems, but as I would quite happily reproduce the whole book (and I’m pretty sure there are laws against that) I have simply highlighted my favourites, although a great number of them don’t have names.

Alberto Caiero, The Master, as he is referred to, is by far my favourite of the heteronyms.  His poems come straight from nature, and paint the picture of a serene uncomplicated existence.  The following excerpts are from The Keeper of Sheep

…As if I’d lived my wh0le life
Peacefully, like the garden wall
Having ideas and feeling, the same way
A flower has scent and colour

…Almost happy like a man tired of being sad.

XLIX is a simply beautiful poem.

In his collection the Shepherd in Love, the poems become more scattered, like a storm of thoughts has interrupted his serene contemplation of nature.  The 2nd and 3rd poems of his uncollected works also deserve a special mention.

Ricardo Reis is the classicist, the lover of the Greeks whose poetry is slightly more formal, but no less enjoyable than the natural Caiero.

“…Let us also make our lives one day,
Consciously forgetting there’s night, Lydia,
Before and after
The little we endure”

“…Sunflowers forever
Beholding the Sun,
We will serenely
Depart from life,
Without even the regret
of having lived.”

“…Learn what your body
Your boundary, teachers you” 

Alvaro de Campos was originally going to compose five futuristic odes, and although three are in the book they have been partially cobbled together from the many verses de Campos wrote.  The Maritime ode particularly is a rambling, powerful ode, utterly compelling from start to finish, dedicated to the sea and it’s hold on those who travel on her.

“…Brushing against the ropes, descending the cramped stairways,
Smelling this greasy metallic and maritime mixture of all this-
Ships seen from up close are something else and are the same,
Stirring the same nostalgia and the same yearning in another way” 

His section also contains excerpts from two odes, the first one of which is some three pages of smooth prose dedicated to the night and the moon.

Pessoa himself is no less gifted than his creations, and everything from girls singing to shutting himself up in his house at night, everyday activities are described simply, purely and the whole volume is an absolute pleasure to read from start to finish.  A poem dated the 5th of April 1931 seems to particularly describe Pessoa

“…If people get tired
Of being in the same place,
Why shouldn’t they tire
Of having the same self?” 

I bought this to read while in Portugal for two weeks, along with The Elephants Journey by Jose Saramago (review to follow) and I ended up visiting the house where Pessoa spent 15 years of his life, now dedicated to him.  I’ll finish with some lines from Ricardo Reis, that I wrote on the first page of my notebook:

“Happy those who, placing their delight
In slight things, are never deprived
of each day’s natural fortune!” 

link to Casa Fernando Pessoa, Lisbon, here

The Diary of Lady Murasaki [Lady Murasaki with introduction from Richard Bowring]

So the Tale of Genji brought me to this, I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on the list, and a diary by it’s author, Lady Murasaki – ‘an intimate picture of her life as tutor and companion to the young Empress Shoshi‘ was enough to entice me.

It’s a slim volume, and indeed in the introduction by Richard Bowring, it is general consensus that the diary as I was holding in my hands is fragments of what it was.  Which is a shame because it would have been a beautiful piece of history as a whole.  Instead we are left to mere speculation for a lot of parts, including as to why the tone changes from a journal style to that of a letter written to an intimate.

Indeed the theories for this are expounded in the thorough introduction which covers Japanese names and dates, cultural background, language and style, poetry, religious background, architecture, dress and women’s titles.
The biography of Murasaki’s life is interesting and does it’s best to patch together the little of what is known about Mursaki (her real name, for example, is not known).

The diary itself is given extensive analysis, in it’s structure, evidence of additional parts, and it’s date of composition.
All this means by the time you reach the diary itself, you are wondering just what it will contain, even after glimpses of it given as examples.  In some cases, certainly for a casual reader, you would be forgiven for wondering if it was worth it.

There is no doubt that historically the diary is crucial, but while reading it it is difficult not to get bogged down in Names, titles (I particularly liked Yorimichi’s – Commander of the Gate Guards of the Left), footnotes ( a necessity, given the word play on some of the witty poetry exchanges) and the flicking to the appendix to see the ground layouts during the different days festivities.
However, when the diary switches to that of a letter, there are some fascinating insights:

“It is very easy to criticise others but far more difficult to put one’s own principles into practice, and it is when one forgets this truth, lauds oneself to the skies, treats everyone else as worthless and generally despises others that one’s own character is clearly revealed”
(About the women in the High Priestess’s household)

The poetry is beautiful and I delighted in the sparring nature of their composition

“The sight of him, so magnificent, makes me conscious of my own dishevelled appearance, and so when he presses me for a poem, I use it as an excuse to move to where my inkstone is kept

Now I see the colour of this maiden-flower in bloom
I know how much the dew discriminates against me

‘Quick aren’t we!’ says he with a smile and asks for my brush

It is not the dew that chooses where to fall
Does not the flower choose the colour that it desires?” 

 There is a strong melancholy running through the diary that Mursaki hints at

“As day dawned, I looked outside and saw the ducks playing about on the lake as if they had not a care in the world.

Can I remain indifferent to those birds on the water?
I too am floating in a sad uncertain world.

They too looked as though they were enjoying life but must suffer greatly, I thought”

At the end of the two years covered by the diary, an important son has been born and festivities and ceremonies have been observed and documented, including details of the colours worn by the women at court and the roles played by different nobles and servents.  However it seems that a full diary would have put this into context of Murasaki’s own life, which despite being written by her hand, seems just out of reach.

Still I believe any inadequacies in the book will have been brought by myself, indeed it seems a bit silly wishing for more of the diary, when we are indeed lucky to have what we do, but perhaps it’s not something for a casual reader, or perhaps if I had a much stronger interest in Japanese history and culture I would have enjoyed it much more than I did.
It has however encouraged me to read the Tale of Genji sooner rather than later, so it looks like I will be following Murasaki’s hand once more.

Verse from the Diary of Lady Murasaki

A couple of verses from the Diary of Lady Murasaki, which I have just finished reading, and a review to follow.  I’ve included a footnote from the book.

“I was in the midst of composing a reply to a note sent by Lady Koshosho, when all of a sudden it became dark and started to rain.  As the messenger was in a hurry, I finished it off with: ‘and the sky too seems unsettled.’ I must have included a rather lame verse, for that evening the messenger returned with a poem written on dark purple cloud-patterned paper:

The skies at which I gaze and gaze are overcast;
How is it that they too rain down tears of longing?

Unable to remember what I had written, I replied:

It is the season for such rainy skies;
Clouds may break, but these watching sleeves will never dry.”

“In particular I missed Lady Dainagon, who would often talk to me as we lay close by Her Majesty in the evenings.  Had I then succumbed to life at court?
I sent her the following:

How I long for those waters on which we lay,
A longing keener than the frost on a duck’s wing, 

To which she replied:

Awakening to find no friend to brush away the frost,
The Mandarin duck longs for her mate at night.*”

*Mandarin ducks were supposed to always go around in inseparable pairs

Percy Bysshe Shelley – Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Emily Dickinson – After Great Pain

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.