HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

Poetry and Conflict

Joel Swann reflects on the contemporary poetry of unrest.

Nikola Madzirov, What We Have Said Haunts Us, trans. Peggy and Graham Reid et al. (Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2015), 72 pp.

Étienne Lalonde, Because The Sky Was Real, trans. Hugh Hazleton and Antonio D’Alfonso (Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2015), 73 pp.

Jean-Michel Espitallier, Make War Not War, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault, Sherry Brennan and Guy Bennett (Chinese University of Hong Kong Press 2015), 62 pp.

 

The many booklets of Poetry and Conflict implicitly invite a comparison of disparate sources and traditions, which nonetheless intervene in similar debates and with overlaps of mannerism and expression. Shorn of the idioms of their original languages, the translated texts can (on a bad day) feel surprisingly repetitive across volumes but it does not take a lot of scrutiny to find unique meaning in the returning patterns of imagery, thematic interests, and political concerns specific to each of the countries represented in the booklets.  

In the Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov’s What We Have Said Haunts Us, boundaries and borders attract insistent interest. Quite aside from the national configurations that would render these issues pertinent, there is some history of thinking of poetry and poets in such terms. For metaphysical poets like Herbert and Donne, images of glass and windows offer an allegory for their verse, which lies between an infinite, outside spiritual world and the more limited, internal sphere of human thought. Madzirov shares some of this sense but pictures himself in terms of numerous manufactured objects – presenting a few examples of this in isolation from the complete text is, at least as a starting point, illuminating:  

I lived at the edge of town

like a streetlamp whose light bulb

no one ever replaces  

(‘Home’, ll. 1-3)

 

we’re waiting for the wind

like two flags on a border

(‘Shadows Pass us By’, ll. 19-20)

 

I live between two truths

like a neon light trembling in an empty hall

(‘When Someone Goes Away’, ll. 3-4)

 

crucified by history

on a glass cross through which

in the distance flowers can be seen

(‘The Cross of History’, ll. 15-17)

 

On the one hand nervous and flaccid, on the other sacrificial and prophetic, existence on the border seems at best passive, at worst incapable. Consistent with these images, the idea of acting on these borders is regarded with some suspicion; the coming of night, for example, is the moment when:

… someone quietly interprets Byzantine neumes,

someone else falsifies the exoduses

of the Balkan and the civil wars

in the name of universal truths

(‘Usual Summer Nightfall’, ll. 11-14)

As innocent as the interpreter is, the falsifier’s determination projects artificial ‘universal truths’ into the future. To return to the figure of the poet, what that means is that to the question ‘Is this the right bus?’ or ‘Is this the window?’ the answer is – ‘I say / Yes, but I mean I don’t know’ (‘I Don’t Know’, ll. 23-24).

My own understanding of Madzirov’s poetry is that this renunciation of action comes with little sense of value or purpose. It exists on the boundary between places, yet they remain undefined. One poem declares that ‘It was a time of peace when I left home’ and later states, ‘From birth I’ve migrated to quiet places’ (‘Home’, ll. 12, 15); another dreams ‘of a house on the hill of our longings’ (‘I Don’t Know’, l. 14) from which to watch desire from a distance: ‘New lands should be invented, / so one can walk on water once again’ (‘New Lands’, ll. 13-14). There is a pleasant and dreamy ‘restlessness’ (p. 32) here (to meet someone ‘like a paper boat and / a watermelon that’s been cooling in the river’ – ‘Shadows Pass Us By’, ll. 2-3) but the dominant tendency is a nervous and twitchy stasis, with the hope of retracting into a vaguely imagined ideal.

***

By contrast, in Because the Sky Was Real the Canadian poet Étienne Lalonde is interested in representing a speaker that exists unsatisfactorily in different places rather than poised between conditions. One poem begins ‘Walking back into my den’; while in another the ‘Need for house cleaning’ takes place amidst ‘screaming’ and a plea of ‘help me’ (ll. 1, 7), and the opening poem describes a move from contemplating the sky to the details of walls, which hold their own horrors (‘A Red-animal Sky’). For Lalonde, being ‘up’ or ‘down’ is as nerve-wracking as being ‘neither up nor down’, as attested to by the often-dramatic opening lines and statements that frame the ensuing lyrical moments:

I quivered

blossoming

(‘I Could have Moved Faster’)

 

Then I was given a star

A name, a collision

(‘Because the Sky was Real’)

 

Denying myself, sorting myself out

Walking back into my den

My spirit was calm

(‘Walking back into my den’, ll. 1-3)

These direct expressions of activity grow alarming in the context of poems that work through highly fragmentary and often surrealistic images, tinted with only the barest hint of narrative and movement. In this quality, the collection is similar to Kim Hyesoon’s previously-reviewed work, The Salt Dress Inside Me.

In Because The Sky Was Real, the meaning of that rather perplexed sense of action, movement, development and change stems from a troubled perception of the world –again presented in the trope of existing between places, strikingly used in ‘Grief has Secrets’:

Grief eats anything  

It has many Secrets …

Mountains stand back

Or become motionless

About to tip over

(ll. 3-9)

The poem offers a landscape of Renaissance-like melancholia – think of Dürer’s ‘Melancholia’ engravings, or Donne’s ‘Nocturnal’ – in which the meditative state of grief renders the world a bewildering and precarious place. If the poetry does describe some kind of a journey of personal discovery, it takes place in the context of perceiving the imminent collapse of the world.

This perception rests on the possibility of an uneasy, teeming vitality that pervades the whole environment. The key image of a ‘red-animal sky’ that ‘searches for the end of everything’ suggests that the sky itself possesses an animus, a spirit; remaining in a state of animation, which in turn can apply to anything –   

In the room a wall white

Of voices tarnished by embers

The awakening of our dreams

The solitary cry of a bird

Stuck in black paint

(‘A red-animal sky’, ll. 13-17)

The discovery of a personal being comes in the midst of a terrifyingly busy existence.

The contrast between poets like Lalonde and Madzirov could be potentially explained with broad-brush biographical generalisations. Writing from Macedonia, with its complex and challenging political history, Madzirov might be more inclined than the politically urgent Lalonde to chart a kind of floating restlessness on the borderline. Yet, this willed sense of poetic distance from the world is hardly inevitable: as other cultural outputs from the former Yugoslav countries amply demonstrate, political upheaval does not necessarily result in lasting social disengagement.

***

Jean-Michel Espitallier’s Make War Not War is by comparison radically and self-consciously political, both in content and form. This is one collection in which the written page compares unfavourably with the oral performance of the poems. The collection’s focus is the vacuousness of both governmental parlance – ‘We are the axis of good. We do good and bring good to the evil who do evil to the good’ (‘Justification’) – as well as of quotidian sayings. The poem ‘Les amis de mes amis sont mes amis’ (well worth listening to at the PennSound archive):

Les amis des amis des amis des amis de mes amis sont mes amis

Les amis des amis des amis des amis de mes ennemis sont mes ennemis

Les ennemis des ennemis des ennemis des ennemis de mes ennemies sont mes     ennemis

Les ennemis des ennemis des ennemis des ennemis de mes amis sont mes amis ….

 

My friends’ friends’ friends’ friends’ friends are my friends

My enemies’ friends’ friends’ friends’ friends are my enemies

My enemies’ enemies’ enemies’ enemies’ enemies are my enemies

My friends’ enemies’ enemies’ enemies’ enemies are my friends….

 

While I wouldn’t usually quote the original verse of a language I barely understand, it is clear that repetition in itself is not the only principle at work – as this stanza ripples on for some 26 lines, the oral boundary between ‘mes amis’ and ‘mes ennemis’ quite quickly fades away, with the flow of vowels and consonants suggesting the slow dissolution of semantics.

Although this collection persistently mocks ‘strong and stable’ political slogans, its contribution is all the more interesting for its engagement with the construction of meaning, culture, and ideology. The titular poem, ‘Make War Not War (how I missed war)’ begins with a description of a subject that is ‘Always there and always absent’ before embarking on a list of fragmentary simulacra:

… the films of René Vautier, the East Station, the Heller Jeanne d’Arc, Otto Dix, the rumbling of American bombers flying over France during the first Gulf war, a painting by Zeno Dimer representing two zeppelins caught by spotlights on the English coast in 1915, the armored solidos on metal tracks (AMX-13, Bi-Tubes, Tiger, Jagpanther), The Deer Hunter, the song ‘Aux morts’ in the silence every November 11, Timisoara on television…

Again, it is only possible to give a taste of the six-page poem, but this already hints at the diversity of its references. All items clearly exist in a familiar world of art, cinema, literature and music, where the ideological construction of warfare is only implicit, fully visible to a reader armed with contextual knowledge. This patchwork permits many interpretations, each specific to its readers.

While poetry and its definitions are the recurrent concerns of the Poetry and Conflict series, Espitallier constructs his work in the most direct, fullest relation to the experience of language, turning the materials of everyday life into a hammer against political platitudes. While I am not always entirely convinced of the efficacy of his effort, the emphatic particularities of his work read well in English in a way that is not universal in translated poetry.

Joel Swann lives and works in Manchester.

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