In Conversation: Kate Adams

In Conversation

Kate Adams – poet, artist and author of The Cheering Rain – talks to David Nettleingham about her work with refugees, and the stories that inspired her debut collection.

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How did you first become involved in working with refugees and asylum seekers?

I became involved with refugees in 2002. The young offenders unit in Dover had been converted to an Immigration Removal Centre, or in other words, a prison detaining asylum seekers and other migrants indefinitely for the purpose of deportation. A campaign group was set up to oppose the Detention Centre. I became involved and also joined a Visitor Group befriending the detainees. The campaign group encouraged people to stand bail for the prisoners. One of the first detainees I visited was an Algerian man who was suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the shooting of a woman on a bus by Islamist rebels. I stood bail for him and he was released. His asylum claim was refused and he spent many years living on the edge of society without papers or rights. He was finally granted indefinite leave to remain in 2011. He continues to suffer from depression and anxiety related to his traumatic experiences.

In 2007 Kent Refugee Help, a registered charity was set up to support detainees in obtaining their release and to provide after-care. I have worked as a volunteer caseworker for the charity since its inception. The charity operates more or less as a co-operative with little funding. We work very much in partnership with detainees and former detainees. A number of our current clients are ex-foreign national prisoners, a group targeted and scapegoated by successive governments and the tabloid press. Many have drifted into crime through destitution. They are routinely criminalised for using false papers to enter the UK or working illegally, when they had no other option. It has been a great experience working collectively to help these refugees access their rights and challenge discrimination.

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What was it that made you start writing poetry about these experiences?

I was moved and shocked by the case of a young man who became mute because he could not cope with his incarceration. He refused to co-operate with the Detention Centre regime and expressed his anger through a dirty protest, abandoning personal care and refusing food. He was punished for this behaviour by segregation and I was refused access when I went to visit him. We could not communicate but I wrote to him and asked other detainees to translate my letters into his language, Darija, an Arabic dialect.

I began writing poems which charted his struggle. Writing poetry helped me deal with my own distress at what was happening but also to honour his resilience. It was another way of fighting the system. I went on to complete a foundation course in counselling at the Refugee Therapy Centre, to learn more about the effects of trauma on the human psyche and the potential for healing. Until this point my writing energies had been focussed on producing reports for casework and leaflets, and press releases for campaigning. The year at the Refugee Therapy Centre allowed me to think in a different way and to begin to take writing poetry seriously.

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The Cheering Rain reads as a series of snapshots and stories of different people and places, how far are they based on your experience and how far on the experiences of those you write about?

This is a difficult question to answer. There is no clear division between these two things. The poems are not an objective account of the experiences of the people I meet. They are my subjective response to their stories. In some of the poems stories are collaged or merged so they are not simply reportage.

It is not an obviously compelling or exciting story that inspires me to write; it is more about the way a person expresses themselves, their use of language, their imagery, the way of telling that then sparks my reaction. In this sense the poem results from a shared experience, an exchange between myself and the person I am listening to. I feel strongly that the poems belong to the people I have encountered; they are sourced from their struggle and survival in impossible circumstances. Of course, I am there in the poems too in different guises and my reaction is part of the story. I hope this gives the poems a universal quality.

In the poem, The Meeting Place, the narrator says in the last stanza,

“My meeting and yours collide/ two bright shapes/ in a kaleidoscopic night.”

Perhaps the place where two worlds collide, the refugee’s experience and mine, is the catalyst for the poems.

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The sequence ‘Fes’ contains six individual poems – what separates these from the rest of the collection?

The refugees and migrants I connected with most strongly were Algerians and Moroccans. As the two countries border each other many of my clients had lived in both places and there were issues of disputed nationality. The Algerian Embassy is not co-operative in providing emergency travel documents for people to be returned who have no passport. Detainees in this situation languished in detention for many months and sometimes years before obtaining their release because their detention was deemed unlawful. They talked about the beauty of the country they missed, the colour and light in contrast to grey and rainy England as well as the impossibility of ever returning. I took a trip to Fes, Morocco in 2011 so that I could understand more. I would have liked to travel to Algeria but was advised it wasn’t safe because of the kidnapping of tourists. In Morocco I met people like the detainees I had been supporting, the difference was they were free and independent if extremely poor. I made notes and drawings while I was there and from these the six poems emerged. I could have written many more if I had stayed longer; every day was an amazing visual and emotional experience.

The Fes poems are about the other side of detention, the roots and the source of migration. I tried to honour this in the poem, Your Name Means an Avenue which is about remembering someone you have lost when you visit their country.

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What would you like the reader to take away from this collection?

Poetry works when it takes you to another place, the country of your imagination. I have sometimes experienced this sensation in my work with detainees and post detention survivors; a voice on the telephone, a house in a run down road, a man facing his trouble with extraordinary courage and resolution can transport me to a different world, allowing me to escape my own frustrations and limitations. In forgetting myself I have arrived somewhere else and so extended my understanding of the human condition. I hope this is reflected in the poetry.

Requiem auf einer Stele – Lost and Found in Berlin

Collaboration

By Federico Federici

In the past few days, ten draft copies of Requiem auf einer Stele have been bookcrossed in Berlin and its outskirts. Most of them are labelled with their unique ID (859-11287638). They are in every respect identical to the commercial edition but for the draft cover.

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Details of the releases:

on 26th July 2012 six copies were left on the shelves carved in the special dead trunks in the Sredzkistrasse, Prenzlauer Berg;

on 27th July 2012 two copies were set on the tables outside two old bookshops selling second hand books in Knesebeckstraße;

on 1st August one copy was left on a seat at Tegel Airport Terminal D, and one other on seat 15F on Lufthansa flight LH 3490 from Berlin to Mailand-Linate;

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A few other copies and small bookmarks may have been left in different places around in Berlin.

All those who will read this post after turning to the net in search of information about Requiem auf einer Stele, will be presented with a new copy of the book and a copy of the new Red giants and dwarfs pamphlet (out soon). Just provide information (a photo maybe?) of where and when you picked up a copy or bookmark.

The Conversation Paperpress staff and I believe that poetry must always stretch from one hand to another. Words spoken and shared retain part of their meaning while simultaneously modifying the rest in the joyful variety of intonation.

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Stories from Berlin

Collaboration

By Federico Federici

The Berlin Project has been outstanding for me for a long time, inspired by an old second hand guidebook published few years before the wall fell, which I had found by chance in a street market. A dedication on the inside cover addresses an unknown woman: ‘Paula, September 1989′ spurring her into taking a trip to East Berlin, “with care”. No underlining or other marks suggest whether she did, or which way she would eventually choose.

When I first wrote to British poet David Nettleingham about this, I intended to make for Berlin, travelling through time stirred up by those old roadmaps – crammed with and dominated by physical barriers, social prohibitions and subterfuges, and by the mysterious fascination of documents and excerpts which I had collected during my stays in Germany over the years. I wished to finally compare the original guidebook with a contemporary copy, though somehow aware of the ultimate uncertainty of them both. Where did the frame end and real picture within begin in such an historical entanglement? What faces lay behind the mask? What voices behind the language? Ich und Ick, was und wat, Appel und Apfel: the Berlinisch replies to both an official language and a newer slang are born and restlessly absorbed in the perpetual flow of passing strangers. In the most secretive way, misspelled words retain the naïve inspiration of speech, like the colourful splinters of a shattered object. No neat boundaries survive: words demolish cultural barriers and animate the vivid spirit of Babel anew, within an underlying process of creative change.

The more information we recovered the more a spell was cast on Berlin, re-attaching it to the vague idea of some seat of the soul. What has remained of the wall other than its colourful memorials, in front of which a crowd of sightseers queues up everyday to save another smiling shot? Are Mehringhof, Ufa Fabrik, Kerngehäuse, Schwarze Risse (the anarchic bookshop) still there? And what about the famous Café Kranzler, Das Sowjetische buch? Have all of these names survived only on these maps? What path would we tread while moving eastwards, according to the fussy expatriation procedure suggested in the guidebook, following the Grenzübergangstelle; maybe standing again in a queue where the Andere Staaten gate was, waiting for our turn?

Despite the widely shared and accepted image of Berlin as a hip, germ-cell of new trends, the irrefutable contradictions emerging from its bedrock draw a veil over the scar tissue covering the wounds, without really healing them. Clearing away the rubble from the Second World War has not soothed the grief and the Cold War that followed was an even harder, since invisible, fight.

While Berlin treasures its hidden places and looks after each more or less irregular inhabitant who has made it his wish to be there, something still unforgiven nourishes the Stadtgeist. The new topography is driven by the mandatory force of a vanguard building plan. As it allegedly absorbs old relics within a thick concrete shrine, it seems much more concerned about its propaganda impact, in favour of a peaceful coexistence of ancient Eastern/Western rivalries in the name of wider interests, than about facing the actual expectations of people.

The policy of disregarding the widespread request of radical freedom, with the hope of appeasing it, is indeed creating the opposite effect, spontaneously drawing the alternative movements behind the scenes together to concerted common action. The failure of the recent attempt of eviction of the Tacheles arthouse, a former department store due to be demolished, squatted in since 1990, and the subsequent revolt of the artistic community marching across the quarter, is just another hint of the simmering discontent. Walls let whispers and draughts pass easily throughout Berlin.

It is facing this variegated background that Nettleingham and I have decided to start our personal research into the literature, politics, films and art of the old city interleaved with the new, picking up ideas, stories, photographs, quick spontaneous street interviews and other audio/video samples; working out contrasts and personal experiences. In this process, Nettleingham is much more involved in the social implications of the new city growing within/without the old one, and I tend to give prominence to the “walled in” feeling under the shadow of an invisible barrier.

Our aim is ultimately to produce a series of joint socio-artistic works, multi-layered, rich in different languages, bringing together all the collected materials, and unveiling the skeleton or the soul of Berlin.

The developing state and progress of the project is currently updated on the pages of a blog, reworked and revived with each new stay in the city: http://theberlinerblog.wordpress.com/

We are very grateful to Canterbury City Council’s Creative Canterbury initiative for their support in the research and development of this project and hope new partners will soon show interest and get involved as well.

M.V. Montgomery’s ‘Joshu Holds A Press Conference’

Reviews

By Christopher Hobday

If Zen is to be found on a map, then the ‘X’ would be at the point of frustration when understanding ends, logic fails to enable progress, and the limitation of the individual’s conception of the universe is revealed, giving way to wonder and fear.

It’s easy to wax lyrical about apothegms and cosmic riddles, and it is easy to be amazed when one touches the boundaries of human thought. It is a tracing of the walls of the cage, feeling the weight of the lid, testing the gravity of the space. With the terrain measured, the real exploration can begin – systematically examining every grid reference, playing the role of the vainglorious cartographer, seeking nothing but the obliteration of ignorances.

In the four sections of Joshu Holds a Press Conference, M. V. Montgomery makes for a fine expedition leader, his flighty intelligence buzzing from one thing to the next, his interest in the human animal wide-ranging and incisive. He paints a colourful world populated with vivid characters whose reputations precede them, not least the titular character.

The poet’s interest is in delving into mystery. We might think of him not as cleaving through to the jungle’s heart but rather diving into the black depths of oceanic chasms to bring back pearls for the rest of us to fondle.

What we do with these pearls is up to us. Joshu serves as both master and metaphor, a wandering genius or madman who spent decades contemplating the term ‘Mu’, which translates as the negative, but might also mean nothing or simply no. Of course, it means none of these things, and is a word vague in its own tongue, hazier when squeezed into English. Let us say that Joshu achieved a mental power over social facts, became untouchable, reduced the potency of the corporeal to the fleeting fancy of the imaginary, and vice-versa.

Joshu is a metaphor for the unrealisable object. We do not know him, cannot know him, all that remains is Koan and conjecture. He is not even himself. The real wandering Zen master was Chau Chou of Tsung Shen. Joshu is what the Japanese have called him. It goes without saying that Joshu is not Chau Chou (how could he be?). We are arguing with the echo of an echo, translating a translation of a translation.
But isn’t that the way it always is?

Fittingly, Montgomery’s collection begins far from Joshu in time and proximity. Linus Recalls Hercules is as typical a Montgomery poem as might exist (and there is no guarantee that such a thing does exist). The tone is warm, conversational, pleasant. It dances on the edge of prose, held as music by the surety of its deportment. Modern terms sit comfortably alongside references to the ancient world, because this is a book in which any God would have to fit Milton’s definition as a being that saw past, present and future as one.

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I could get nowhere with that one.
Built for heroic deeds, unsuited for the
lyceum, only interested in working out.

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It’s lightly funny, providing Linus with a personality and Hercules with another dimension of character. That we do not hear Hercules speak for himself is partly the point; all we know of the world passes through someone else. Even our first-hand experiences are made real to us, realised by us, using terms and processes defined elsewhere and elsewhen. The lovely thing about the poem is not just its weightlessness – a leaf in time, a swirling mote in an ever expanding ocean of motes, bound to get lost – but the way that it ends with an apothegmic flourish that is both open and complete, unfinished and yet perfect. Beat-wise, it is a poetic ending, too, convincing the ear before it convinces the mind.

The title poem presents Joshu holding court, delivering his wisdom in short, impenetrable bursts. He flummoxes, teases, misleads and jibes his acolytes, his language switching between the crude and the contemplative. Divided into sections, it is unclear if each is an answer to the same question, or to further questions, or whether each question takes place at the same point in time, each a facet of the same response. If there was an answer that could be rendered in human language, or that could be comprehended by a human mind, there would be no need for the question. So Joshu responds each time in a way that moves closer to clarity, but rounds his character, making him slowly more real, more authentic.

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Was it my answer that was nothing?
I have forgotten your original question.
Silence fills all of the sky
when an old bird is at roost.

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His cry of “Kaa!” might relate to Zen Master Hoshin’s last utterance before vanishing in another famous Koan. It ends the poem with a mystery, drives the point home with a hammerfall.

Montgomery likes his mystics. Saint Christina’s tragic and bloody story is retold, in which “she resembles a Pythia / or a sadhu rather than a tamable saint”. It shows how poetry can expand knowledge, how it can pique interest, how it can show how rich and fascinating the world and its myriad histories can be. Ultimately the poem serves as a reminder that the real Christina is as lost to us as the city of Tyro, now lost to lake Balsena, and that we can see only glimpses of the real person. I am not in any doubt that the poet would argue that these glimpses, however piecemeal, are as valuable as the myths and legends entire. Yet, as he notes in the triptych Three English Kings, it is human to place the false above the true, for obvious reasons: “we will ourselves to believe the unbelievable, still, / sifting through the ruins at Cadbury, hoping to call into our own time / any faint ray of light from Camelot.” If we are to have glory in our lives, is there enough in the ruins of the past to provide it?

With this in mind, it is nice to see Montgomery discuss Leigh Hunt, whose autobiography reminds us that Keats could not have cared much for Shelley, for the latter was of the landed gentry, which the former despised; we then think on Shelley’s Adonais, which provides us with the enduring caricature of Keats as a simpering, pathetic whelp (which he was not), and realise that Shelley might have admired his work, but neither knew nor understood him. And yet, Adonais replaced Keats in the same way Joshu replaced Chau Chou, and Saint Christina was stunt-double for a victim of terrible violence.

The second section of the book leaves the ancient world behind and explores instead the temporal zone that sits on the doorstep of modernity. It is less strange than the more distant past, because there is less mystery; the gaps can be filled in by historians, scholars, people with trowels. Here are characters whose lives are passed on to us in more reliable accounts, who are more real to us than the phantoms of antiquity. After considering old English Kings and Leonardo da Vinci, Montgomery presents us with snapshots of Gaughin, van Gogh, Bram Stoker. Formative events intermingle with these stories, including an autopsy of the enslavement of Irish Catholics and the Colonisation of America. These are foundation-like pieces, reminding us upon what world these figures walked, what had preceded their era, into what universe they had been born. Against it, they stand more vivid, more like themselves. The section ends with the splendid Darwin in Rio, encapsulating in its almost paragraph-like stanzas the aloofness of humankind from the rest of the natural world, a severance enforced by the mechanism called society, which presents us with more factors to amend our behaviour than mere survival and propagation. It is moving, alluring stuff; it is also an admittance by the poet that any deeper understanding of the human animal might well be impossible. I am reminded of Pound’s Meditatio: “When I consider the curious habits of man / I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.”

The penultimate section of the book gives us another exquisite pantheon. We meet Einstein, Darrow, Roosevelt. Each rises from the water like a dolphinhead then vanishes, leaving the vaguest impression that we knew them. The polaroid of Ginsberg captures the wit, occasional vacuity and edginess of that catalyst of the Beats, but Borges is treated somewhat lightly, but for some fine lines that nudge us towards the best of his prose:

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Dark nights on the pampas.
The glint of a blade in the marketplace.
Literary conferences where
new gods were chosen,
and old ones put to slaughter.

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Elsewhere, my favourite line of the collection is to be found. Like J D Salinger rambles pleasantly, but underneath the chit-chat is a mute horror at the distance between imaginary idyll and modern civilisation. “My neighbors are always pulling out of their driveways” conveys a shadowy sense of displacement, or the nightmarish fate of Sisyphus converted into the life of every modern American. The sense of being left behind, of being outside, of being an exile from the tribe, ebbs and flows behind the line. It is marvellously off-hand, like a treasure hidden in the spare room. It echoed the sort of horrible dislocation one finds in the best Philip K Dick novels.

In a way Dreams from Obama is the last poem, an amusing and celebratory inauguration piece that cleverly ends the third section with a hopeful look into the future. It interprets several variations on the same dream and is a sustained cry for a positive mental attitude in the face of uncertain future.

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Obama surrounded by crowds: he’s essentially in touch with the populace.
Obama among dolphins: kindly intelligence, a sign that rescue is on the way.
Obama among elephants: a sign of good luck, though not of bipartisanship.
Obama’s outstretched hand: nothing to fear.

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The fourth and final section contains just a single poem, the experimental piece Ouroboros. Concerning death and rebirth, it declares that it is “the time to renew ourselves, / to devour our past year’s dead”. Like the Aztecs, who buried their dead to enrich the earth, understanding the cycle of life better than their European conquerors, we must recycle. All matter comes from elsewhere, nothing comes from nothing. Existence is the conversion of matter and energy. Time will end when there is nothing to burn, or when there is no death. The world and everything in it and around it is simply a game of constant reorganisation, conversion, transformation, most of it beyond our command. Whether the reader gets joy from this, or despair, depends on the individual. Following the hopeful lines of Dreams from Obama, it reminds us that even good things must be destroyed to cleanse the way for tomorrow.

Montgomery’s world is a terrain of familiar places but strange landmarks. Though a thread of sorts binds the book together, and each section has its own subtly unique flavour, it might be best to approach it as though it is an old book shop, the tomes piled to the ceiling, fiction nestling next to poetry, history arrayed alongside philosophy, occult primers and the odd vide mecum, folio or treatise poking out from the popular paperbacks. There is, throughout, a delight to be taken in Montgomery’s desire for knowledge and in the unmasking of figures lost to the dust and debris of the past. But mostly, this is a human book – a study of thousands of years of action and reaction, of lies, mythology and nonsense, of misreading and misinterpretation. It is a hand wiping grime from the oldest mirror there is, and asking, what do you find there? And is it what you expected?

With such portentous goings-on, it is good to have a guide who is full of bonhomie, not immune to the occasional bout of horror and misery, but always consumed by the thrill of our wide, wonderful world, with its heroes, murderers, poets, prophets, wackos, monarchs, artists, adventurers and paragons, and the spectacular concatenation of legends that is their constantly spreading wake.

M.V. Montgomery’s Joshu Holds A Press Conference is published by The Conversation Paperpress.
http://conversationpoetry.co.uk/joshu-holds-a-press-conference

Other titles by M.V. Montgomery:
Strange Conveyances (2010) Plain View Press
Dream Koans (2011) Fast Forward Press

Nika Turbina: All the Letters of this Alphabet

Features

Russian poet Nika Turbina (1974 – 2002) was just seven years old when her poems were first published. Translator Federico Federici explores the complex work and mind of this poetic prodigy.

Nika Turbina’s poetic path opens and comes to an end over only the shortest lapse of time. She seems to have known this from the beginning, once writing in her journal:

“I said everything there was to say about myself in my poems, when I was just a child. I needn’t have grown into this woman’s body…”

Adulthood has not the value of experience that we look forward to for so long, and though not in itself desirable, childhood seems to contain all the facets of life. While seeking their path, with the burden of “[…] life and death/on the shoulder”, all have to hurry up. For as night follows day, the day will come when the sun sets forever.

Nika Turbina was concerned early on with this impending sense of time, which meant loss, change, disappointment from her soon to be abandoned hopes. How to escape having known so much so young? Forgetfulness comes only with eternity, yet “[…] the old house/[…] stands by the river of memory” – the place where we lived while yet we might again. The gradual loss of innocence is first accepted, then fought by the desperate strength of mild submission, to become a mess of feelings consumed by time and in the constant attempt to disperse sorrow. It is the very purity of this leap of truth that is to be renewed in the reader’s soul in the utmost detachment of poetry from life. It is more than remedy or consolation against the pain one cannot ease or say, and yet the wound of childhood is not healed. The acquisition of knowledge and all of the other virtues which move grown-ups to action give no rest. The child hides divorced from reality, or captive in a cage for fledglings. The sense of both an individual condition and a collective one, often contrasting, persists even in her full maturity. Love should draw human beings together if only they could understand, but love is not always a source of happiness, given the false premises of any strictly individual condition.

If, as Evtušenko informs us in the preface of First Draft (1984), children show a sort of inborn insight into truth, Nika Turbina’s words are the non-rhetorical expression of it. They go far beyond the excess of happiness or pain in the heart of the artist as a child and engage with the attitude of mankind to its fate. The act of creation often transfigures the pain transcending it. Words come as the last sign of hope and grace (“be not written, lines,/or be written in the sky./The whole paper/is in a blood stain”). Pain takes root in Nature, as well as in overcoming the infringement of these lines (“chopped up rhymes,/chopped up phrases,/chopped up trees: the wood is felled”), or in a broken bond which retains the late traits of childhood (“I search for friends,/I let them go”). Words would absorb everything and revive the novelty of life:

“When I write, I have the feeling that a person can do anything if only he wants to. There are so many words inside that you get lost.”

No more anguish or pain would be left unanswered, “no breath is without words”. Human beings query the precariousness of the things they name.

Writing is a more multi-faceted way of experiencing life than merely looking, smelling, touching. It is a most serious game played by an enchanted child, handling the odd things raised by their curiosity and inspiration:

“I began composing verses out loud when I was three. I would bang my fists on the piano and compose. Poems came to me as something incredible that comes and leaves all over again.”

Lines gather the image-place of life: a jotted draft, a scatter of stars, the body without a heart of a broken doll waiting for a caress to renew her beat after play. Things press to be brought back to the real but “[…] the whole bitterness of the day/will be transformed into words”. No compromise can repay for sorrow, nor is any invoked piety worth the spontaneous attitude of love and its deeds. “The hardship of the day I block/with my shoulder, I leave you a nightingale,/the night only”: protection offered first, then grace. It is, like for the fallen child who sees his blood for the first time and gazes into the wound, better to be rapt in the novelty of blood than suffering from pain. That’s the way knowledge grows beyond awareness, not in a real act of will.

“A person must understand that his life is not long. And if he values his life, then his life will be long. And if he deserves it, it will be eternal even after death.”

The acceptance of the way things are is stated under no illusions about the progress of time, or one’s or another’s suffering.

Interlocutors are often absent from Turbina’s dialogue. They are far away or most probably sent away by a stronger will, which sometimes coincides with the speaker’s, as if the speaking itself needed solitude.

Every creature cowers before destiny, under the anxiety of testing it, of stirring it up in a cosmic jump while still alive (“on that edge I stand/invited to step over/immortality”). When only narrow passages remain, the last step is fatal (“never hold a moth in your hand/which the fire tempts”). This all-pervading hesitation is enhanced in most spontaneous experiences when “[…] hands cannot find/walls in the dark/and bump into doors at daylight”, or in the rules of an evil, as well as mysterious game played with a sometimes kind master who “keeps the door open at night/but on guard duty/leaves the dark/out of the dirty panes”.

The world itself appears to be confined to some familiar place of anxious affection, of deceitful happiness, which is not worth fighting against. Even the roots of trees are to consume themselves in a lifetime digging into the poisoned land. The still house of childhood stands afar on the drained banks of time. The paralysed chests of unwanted dolls rest in dusty corners. The need for shelter costs freedom but “[…] the cage is nice/and there is plenty/of water and food”.

Somewhere, in the garden hedged with flowers, the print of a bare foot still keeps the warmth of some old day in the sun. Beyond the gate, only windy streets open in a mess of directions. Past events are but hopes now and we all hope to turn again, though some intuition tells us we shall not. Once the days to come are stated, their loss and hopelessness are too. Not much else remains to do but to fit into the pattern or rip it like a written paper.

Fate spans the lifetime, no later. Our double is waiting beyond this world. What we have lost and what we have suffered from belongs to him. He doesn’t go away at night. He is there even while we close our eyes. He is our bad luck and our suffering and he is gazing at us like in a mirror, but we won’t get rid of him if that mirror splinters. The self stands beyond the fragments of experience, only images are to be cancelled.

One heart is hardly enough for one fate.

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Biography

Nika Turbina (Ни́ка Гео́ргиевна Турбина) was born on 17th December 1974 in Yalta. Maya Nikanorkina, her mother, was an artist. Lyudmila Karpova, her grandmother, was an interpreter, and Anatoly Nikanorkin, her grandfather, was a poet and prose writer. She began writing verses in her early childhood, even while she could not write, dictating them to her mother. Thanks to the promotion of Julian Semenov, a well-known writer, her poems were published in a national newspaper when she was only 7 years old.

Черновик (First Draft), her first collection, appeared in 1984 in Moscow, with a favourable foreword by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In 1985 she was awarded The Big Golden Lion of Venice at the International Poetry Festival Poets and Earth. The only other Russian poet to receive this award had been Anna Achmatova. It dates back to this period her travel to the USA and the meeting with Josef Brodsky.

Her second collection Ступеньки вверх, ступеньки вниз… (Steps upwards, steps downwards…) appeared in Moscow in 1991. In the meanwhile, her poems got translated and published in over twelve countries.

By the middle of her life, Nika Turbina moved to Moscow to attend courses at the Institute of Cinematography and the Institute of Culture. She acted in some movies including Это было у моря (It happened by the sea), directed by Ayan Shakhmaliyeva. She went on writing poems and tried to work in TV and radio.

She spent the second half of her life aloof and in silence. On 11th May 2002, when she was only 27 years old, she passed away in Moscow. She is buried at Vagankovskoe cemetery.

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The Works of Nika Turbina

Черновик (1984) Introduction by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Молодая гвардия, (Russian)

First Draft (1988) Introduction by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translations by Antonina W. Bouis and Elaine Feinstein, Marion Boyars Publishers, (Russian/English)

Ступеньки вверх, ступеньки вниз… (Steps upwards, steps downwards…) (1991) Дом, (Russian)

Чтоы не забыть (Not to forget) (2004) Edited and seen through the press by Alexander Ratner, монолит, (Russian)

Sono pesi queste mie poesie (My lines are loads) (2008) Introduction and translations by Federico Federici, Via del Vento, (Italian)

Breaking Fast: A year with and without poetry in Sudan

Features

By Toby Collins

A disclaimer

Hawajat[1] in Sudan are stubborn; running away from something or towards oblivion; or in the wrong place. I had been sold on Sudan with stories which I half believed and in retrospect, I was guilty of all the aforementioned.

The British Ambassador’s bodyguards in Khartoum, the capital of the Republic of Sudan, were bored out of their minds. The ex-Foreign Legion haulier I met in Juba, the capital of the Republic of South Sudan, was drunk out of his mind. In the isolated pockets of excess, people exhibited strange behaviours, like animals in captivity.

Many of my Sudanese friends fought for excess and spoke about their Romantic environment without fear of disjointedness or pretentiousness or cliché or embellishment of the truth. This is an ode to them, not about them.

There are still Bohemians in Khartoum; sometimes eating, sometimes drinking and always smoking in barren rooms with noisy fans. They embrace the verbose and do not glorify brevity. They tell long, lyrical stories that, if I had free abandon, I would link to a slower and more rhythmical pace of life, an inherently nostalgic light and the desert. I might even stretch to the haboob, great dust storms which march from the deserts into the towns and eat away at the buildings, returning them to powder. But the metaphorical mention of hour-glasses makes me wince. Perhaps if this was a translation I could get away with it.

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Fierce rocks in the desert

I lived in a small town in the desert on the Sudanese side of the Ethiopian border. It was the metropolis of the Gedaref state where private and alien groups of people met and bartered. The water was brown and the wind was always hot. Most people used the remains of the train track as a thoroughfare. We jumped between the beams high above the deep, dried-out river to where we smoked shisha[2] at night. Once we saw a goat with a cardboard box stuck on its head in the riverbed – the spectators were going berserk and after three months there, I understood why.

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Eid Mubarak[3]

Sometimes I took the bus across expanses sparsely populated with nomads and their camels, armed with a bundle of security papers to the bright lights Khartoum. This time they played Rambo II, where he joins forces with the Afghans, against the Soviets.

Near Souq Arabi, there is a man who sells books that he shouldn’t. Unless someone is privileged enough to go, or to know someone going overseas, this is the man they have to see. Although censorship of this kind is becoming harder with the massing digital cloud, availability of controversial texts in Arabic is still limited. For the majority, internet access is still found in the internet cafés, monitored and with rudimentary censorship (perhaps courtesy of a deal struck with the CIA). When the internet enabled phone is cheap and cheerful, the second digital revolution will take place.

Partly by imposed isolationism, the old traditions of Sudanese poetry have a solid footing in the modern Sudanese psyche.

A bag of tombac[4] was being passed around and people were beginning to lie back onto the grass or pick at what remained of the spiced yoghurt; peanut, tomato and chilli; wet dates; sweet pastries; gorasa[5]; assida[6]; kissra[7]; and abray[8].

I asked a friend if he had heard of the Sudanese poet, Gely Abdel Rahman. He smiled.

We were breaking fast in a packed, chattering park to the east of the Nile; the north and thankfully downwind of the fish market; the west of the tank waiting outside the TV station, since the media savvy Darfurians crossed the desert in pick-up trucks to storm the city in 2008, hoping to address the nation with the state’s own apparatus; and a stone’s throw from the house of the great-grandson of the Mahdi – the self-proclaimed messianic redeemer of Islam. He fought General Gordon in the 1880s, and his great-grandson studied at Oxford and was Prime Minister of Sudan in the 1960s and 1980s. The statue of colonial Britain’s Gordon which was in Khartoum, where he died, is said to be resting at the bottom of the Nile. What the Nile definitely has contained is gallons of Khartoum’s booze. In 1983 people watched as the then president, Nimeri poured it in, to mark a new era of harsh sharia[9] law, which has been memorialised in song.

There were shifting, sprawling groups of friends and families, with children darting about in sweet and balloon-induced stupors.

It was my first Eid and therefore the first time I had had a fast to break. The sun had set and a Hadendewa man in a white jalabia[10] sold us his coffee. He was a descendant of the warriors Rudyard Kipling described in his poem ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ – they broke the symbol of military and empirical might, the British Square.

We drank from a fist-sized pitcher, hammered out of aluminium cans, kept warm by coals on a tray, held precariously above his head, poured into tiny bell-shaped cups, more than half full with sugar. Rich, thick and spiced. Coupled with the tombac, mind and stomach were gently fizzing. My friend recited a lengthy Rahnman poem from memory.

The day before, I broke fast in Souq Arabi with my friends at the phone shop. It was eerily quite without the traffic. The shopkeepers laid mats out on the street and waiting in long lines either side were dishes of food. Everyone was waiting for the muezzin[11] to announce the departure of the sun. There were a couple of false starts but I didn’t mind – some tea ladies from the Nuba Mountains, hiding behind a parked car had already ushered me over to eat with them.

After eating, a man of some religious seniority came to lead people in prayer. He pointed at me with his stick and asked those around me if I was going to pray with them. He gave me a relaxed smile and I went for some coffee.

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The ontology of Sudan’s poetry

In the second half of the nineteenth century there were two major waves in Arabic poetry which are the fundamentals of the majority of contemporary Sudanese poetry: the first was the rediscovery of classical Arabic poetry. This renaissance was spearheaded by the Egyptian Mahmid Sami al-Barudi and Syrio-Lebanese Maronite Nasif al-Yazif, who showed little Western influence in their work.

In the second wave, English and French literary influences started to creep in. It was dominated by the Diwan poets most of whom studied English Literature. The Mahj group, from the Syrian Diaspora in North America were also significant. They expressed a sense of being in an alien cultural environment. Unlike the Diwan, their otherness had been thrust upon them. They had forgotten some of their traditions but the nostalgic nuance of their work gave the impression that it was an unwanted forgetting. The Apollo group focused on the second generation of English Romantic poets and romanticised England.

In the 1940s a new form of Arabic poetry came out of Iraq and took hold in Lebanon, Egypt and then spread throughout the region. It was less constrained by the traditions of rhyme and meter.

In the 1950s Free Verse was de rigueur. Form was the albatross around the poet’s neck.

In the 1960s Arabic poetry gained more direction. The political context of the time meant that modernity became synonymous with rebellion – so there was something to kick against. Understanding life rather than describing it became the focus. Modernity meant access to information was freer but it also meant personal isolation.

Some of the dice of the recent Arab uprising have been thrown and there are plenty of unpredictable African countries in the mood for insurrection, yet to come to the table. Poets will be there to log the existential crises of the process and inshallah[12], in doing so, create solidarity and empathy.

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The elephants’ graveyard

To get to the park in Omdurman, I had changed at Jackson bus station, which takes its name from a member of the British colonial administration. It is alive with place names proclaimed by conductors: “Arabi, Arabi, Arabeeeeey!”, “Shooada, Shooada, Shooada”, “Bahribahribahreeeeee!” . They slap the sides of their buses like unruly cattle. The only sense not assaulted is taste – tankards of fresh, thick, icy mango juice. That day I drank water from the bucket. Boys carrying buckets of water and ice clink their metal cups together, patrol the station. The dubious provenance of the water makes it all the more indulgent.

Sat on the bus I was hit by wave after wave of nostalgia for things I had never experienced. The light had the right mix of red, yellow and grey to make the jallabiat outside glow. Old Sudanese music played on the radio. The tassels around the driver swayed like Sufi dancers.

Everything had been in the sea. Everything was washed up on the shore a long time ago. Everything was covered in a fine red dust. The sky was darkening and everyone in the bus was rolling and pitching gently, in silence, thinking about longer journeys, looking about without seeing a thing. I really was smiling. I had an inexplicable and very powerful sense of contentment, as though lots or pernickety frets had converged into a manageable cloud.

The conductor held folded money between his fingers. He casually kept count of the payees and the change they were due. He resolved disputes between passengers who were insisting on paying one-another’s fare. He listened out for the clicks of the passengers fingers and relayed it to the driver with a “kisss kisss” which told him to stop. He hopped off the bus as it moved, his footsteps in perfect harmony with the bus.

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People from other worlds

There was a man who wandered around Gedaref with a bag of string, calling out his job again and again for hours. He fixed the beds that most sleep on, string tied to a frame – cooler than a mattress. Another aged man rode a tricycle at speed while playing a home-made trumpet – announcing his unrefrigerated ice cream for sale, for a limited time only.

There were two little girls in the shop opposite. They used kittens as boxing gloves. They ran barefoot on the rocks. Their younger brother, a baby, had Down’s Syndrome. The family joke was to call him Cini – Chinese. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh. I know on some days they didn’t have enough to eat but would insist on giving me coffee, thick with sugar. When the mother pounded the roasted coffee beans with a hunk of iron, she sang in rhythm with her daughters.

The shop next door was run by an Eritrean man who was all for Hitler because he hated Jews.

The teaching assistant at university risked her marriageability by eating an hibiscus ice lolly in the park with me.

There were young men proud to have lost their virginity to Ethiopian prostitutes in the brothels on the border.

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Tribes and hearsay

The Beni Amir and Hadendewa (both Beja) wore black waistcoats over their jalabia and carried ornate swords and had dramatic hair. They sold milk from aluminium urns just off ‘Million Stupid’ Street.

The Rashida wore platform shoes and their women were heavily veiled, with ornate jewellery pouring out of every available gap in the fabric. They fled Saudi Arabia a century ago and they smuggle Iranian arms from Eritrea to Palestine and keep their money in holes in the ground. They rebelled against the government as the Rashida Free Lions, then joined with the Beja Congress to form the Eastern Liberation Front in a rebellion against the Khartoum regime.

The Mbararo women were topless at home in their tents and had powerful sorcerers whose hijab[13] of powdered lion forehead protects the wearer from bullets. They chose their husbands, who had meticulously coiffured hair and wore multiple watches with their colourful robes. A doctor saw an Mbararo sorcerer in the village of ‘Elephant’s Stomach’ draw a donkey in the sand and make it materialise.

The first time I met some Mbararo, they were wearing different clothes from anyone else around. One had cat whisker shapes scarred into his cheeks. My friend knew their language but they refused to acknowledge they were Mbararo. Subsequently we were told it is a derogatory term. However, they put me in contact with a chief who invited me to come to Elephant’s Stomach in the cab of his son’s lorry (there were fifteen other passengers clinging to the cargo in the back).

I went to Elephant’s Stomach and saw a man holding a hijab in his mouth stab at his stomach with a knife. It was in candlelight, he was overweight, I don’t know how sharp the blade was and I don’t know how many layers he was wearing; it was still arresting.

I went to a place where I was sold water in a bowl with ice served with a soup spoon, and it was the most delicious water I have ever drunk. That night under a mango tree a generator powered a techno cassette and a single light bulb. All that was recognisable was a thick, sludgy beat. People danced in and out of the darkness. When the generator died there were just the rustles of nature and humanity and a hint of moonlight.

After the British colonisation of northern Nigeria in 1903 there was mass migration out of the country. Mbararo had taken the same route across Africa, through Sudan, to Mecca, for centuries.

Their cattle are larger zebus than most used by northern Sudanese, linking them to South Sudan.

Their allegiance in Sudan shifts. They are perceived by some as enemies of the north and south. They are not particularly popular with ex-car mechanic and current president of the Republic of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir.

Key to their social system is foulanite – self-denial, modesty and toughness. Something which the elders feel is being lost.

There are no lions in Sudan, they were eaten or fled in the war between the north and south.

I saw women with tattooed faces when I went to a crumbling coral city called Suakin. This is where pilgrims used to depart Africa on the Hajj[14]. It was lit by candlelight, there was no electricity. A few miles down the road in Sinkat, I wanted to get a lift to Erkowit – a place where New Zealanders flew RAF planes to attack Italians in Eritrea – and was picked up by the security services. A man without uniform put me in the back of a truck and drove me around the state all day. There are rumours of Palestinian freedom fighter training camps in the area.

So, I was on the back foot. Rather than the neatly codified Orientalism I had hoped for, I was barraged by waves of otherness. This otherness stretched out to the horizon. I had heard of a few Sudanese poets, but they seemed preoccupied with a romantic past which I assumed would be overarching in the present. I was struggling to marry what I had imagined and what I was experiencing. I was powerfully aware that I was an alien and I was subject to Sudan’s sleight of hand.

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Going about town

En route to the shisha place we went past the gun shop and the abandoned cinema. Past outdoor TVs, to the gym on the edge of the football pitch. The gym equipment was made up of bits of old lorry – cogs on an axle and so on. That’s where we got rushed by the police.

At night we sat there and smoked shisha and talked of distant lands where women wandered the streets in bikinis. That night a primary school teacher from a village on a dirt track was talking about The Wasteland. For many of the younger people in Gedaref I represented either debauchery or freedom, and for many of the older generation either oppressive colonialism or sagacity and resolve.

The legacy of colonial rule lives on in a generation of English students trying to learn from teachers who don’t know English, being taught The Wasteland and Shakespeare. They learn from textbooks riddled with spelling mistakes.

A line of policemen emerged from across the football pitch. Their guns were illuminated by moonlight and the licks of orange light from the shisha coals. They did not stop. The nonchalance with which they carried their guns was intimidating. Without shouts and without fuss everyone stood up from their collapsing chairs and ran, and the police chased.

We met there the following night and no one seemed to know what had happened or why. Someone was muttering about the Ja’aliyyia[15] administration, some of whom consider themselves to have patrilineal descent from Prophet’s uncle, Abbas. It was out of character.

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The poetry book left on the train

I was collecting contemporary Sudanese poetry for a book and was interested in how it related to a long history of lyricism in Arabic and in Sudan in particular.

Near the vegetable market on the edge of town, in an area populated by immigrants, on the flat, low-walled roof of my friend’s house we were sitting on paint tins and drinking aragi[16]. The air was still dusty and there were stragglers, pieces of rubbish still floating about in the trail of the haboob, which had long since cut the power. After an hour or so of hitting the paint tins like drums, revelling in the cool breeze that always follows the storm, the mood became solemn like clockwork, and I asked the assembled about Sudanese poetry. Drinking from the same cup like this, everyone gets drunk at the same time and when drinking is an act of rebellion there is a sense of comradeship, a sense which is fortified by drunkenness. It also stilts development; there are some very old teenagers in Khartoum.

A few days later I met someone from the party in a café near my home that sold liver and beans. He handed me a folder of yellowed photocopies and told me how he came by it:

SudaNow was a magazine of value in the eighties. It had short stories and poems of a different calibre to what you will find today. There was more freedom at that time and people could remember what Sudan was like when we were really free. This new generation have never known it and the arts are dying.

We are going through a difficult divorce. Everyone is thinking about separation now so they can’t think about rebellion. Sudanese protest when they are hungry anyway.

We were speaking just before the 2011 referendum vote in which South Sudan voted overwhelmingly to secede and become an independent state. The plebiscite was a condition of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which marked the end of more than two decades of civil war between north and south Sudan. The Republic of South Sudan is scheduled to declare her statehood in July 2011.

With the director of the Goethe Institute in the eighties I compiled these poems. These are what we thought were the best poems of the eighties. She fled the country, I can’t remember why, she was married to a Sudanese man. She was carrying a copy of the collection with her back to Germany for publication. She left her copy on a bench at Cairo train station. I don’t know what happened to her.

The poetry book did not contain what I expected. There was the spattering of colonial ghosts which I had expected – sunburnt wives of diplomats desperately romanticising their surroundings – but there was poetry written by South Sudanese which I did not expect and the content was predominantly racy and universal.

Khediry, the translator of the poems is old and blind. He lives to the north of Khartoum and travels by donkey. I wondered how these translations retain their lyricism, but Sudan is a place familiar with translation.

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Arabics in Sudan

Daragi or Randog or Sudani, the Arabic of Khartoum is clearly suited to poetry. In the east of Sudan, bordering Ethiopia, there is a spattering of Amharic ‘shoya shoya‘ or ‘little little’ or to translate it further, ‘a little bit’ in the East, becomes ‘tinish tinish‘.

In South Sudan the ? is softened and a more distinct melody is added. It’s something like the -ch from loch but with the retching muscles doing more work. In Darfur their Arabic is eloquent and archaic.

Across Sudan there are hundreds of languages. In the north many have Arabic as their second language. In the South, Arabic is perceived by some as the language of the oppressors. English is the official language but for many it is the third, after a tribal language and Arabic.

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Communism, atheism, alcoholics and other affectations of middle-classery

I used to exchange lines of poetry with my friend in Khartoum.

Now the Sudanese youth text poems to each other. They have condensed ancient poems and they are alive again.

Poetry is relevant in Sudan. Perhaps this has something to do with the Koran – many Sudanese learn great tracts of it by heart and it is lyrical. The Koran, unlike the Bible, for its followers, is the verbatim word of God and is written in a difficult, archaic Arabic is for some at times incomprehensible.

Some of the poets in Khartoum sit in the concrete remains of the bars their parents frequented. Glugging from scuffed water bottles of booze, sometimes with perfunctory cardamom pods in them. When some of them say they are communists, they mean they smoke. Some women conceal it with their headscarf in public. Some drink because they don’t want to be there. Some drink because they feel apart from Sudan and a part of it. Some drink because they are tortured by the security services.

But, there are some who successfully embody this bi-polarity of environment and people. The bar of rebellion is so low and the suppression is so systemic that the kicking is inward.

There is a precise word in Sudan – Gatia’a, a kind of Schadenfreude gossip.

I went to an apartment furnished with a string bed, fan and scrawls all over the walls, to meet a studious man watching Inland Empire on his laptop. Through a translator I recommended Antichrist to him and he was very pleased. That night I was accused of working for Mossad, and I was not sure if it was a joke, but it ended in hugs as everyone gradually converged to an international proto-language of slurs and slow, wide gesticulations.

Sitting with a tea lady on the roadside, with patterned scars on her face, the air rich with bahoor (frankincense and other incenses) with her singing in a Nuban language under her breath was, for me, exotic. For the man who had spent his life in an environment where the women on billboards cover their hair and tradition dictates that a guest should only ever be asked about the length of their stay after a month has passed, it is hard to imagine how Lars von Trier sits.

It is less difficult to imagine how T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin or even James Joyce sit. Their abstraction and aesthetics are far more fluid. What unified it all was their sense of otherness. Not only outside the cultural context which they experienced, but occupying a singular space outside time.

That these artefacts are experienced by a clique, driven on by a claque whose payment is membership to the clique, where some of the women are perceived by some to have less robust moral outlooks, and that they meet in secret places and do the secret things they see codified in fiction, unifies them. That is not to say that these are acts alien to Sudanese society. But, the alchemical combination of history, personalities and circumstance means some of them are creating something worth sitting up and listening to.

A friend left Khartoum and headed north to make his millions in a gold rush last year. When he came back, everyone knew that he had failed, knew that he had been as foolish as Dick Whittington, but the way this was dealt with was alien to me, but joyous. Upon his return we went to the grassy bank of the Nile where Southerners sell aragi – they walk back and forth, darting into the bushes and emerging with bottles.

Anyway, he tackled it head on. He described his experiences in minute detail, with necessary prompting from his friends. He orated his experiences, which involved the death of scores in pits in the desert, with all the nuances to suggest that there were truths in every twist and turn of the tale and he ended with a punch line – “the only people making money were the Rashida hiring out the metal detectors.”

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Sufi[17] poetry

I went to a town north of Khartoum with a friend who was after a cure for recurring headaches. We went to visit a Sufi preacher who when he heard my name asked “why not three ‘b’s?” in perfect English. There was a storm outside. The streets that had been alive with the song and dance of Dervishes18 and their drums, were rivers of mud ferrying torch-lit raindrops and umbrellas.

We were all huddled in the low ceilinged room. Its walls, steps and wood shiny and smooth. It was full of cats sheltering from the storm, who seemed quite at home in the hushed, reverential confusion. A Dervish recited an epic poem about the Sufi preacher everyone was waiting for a minute with. He sat cross-legged on a palm mat, grinning into the middle distance. A man at his side was on fly duty, ensuring that none remained on the preacher for an irreverent length of time. The preacher had a monstrous hair growing out of a mole on his face like an antenna.

He prescribed my friend a treatment we got from another room. The room was full of men writing sections of the Koran with special ink on special paper. They lent on wooden boards. Everything was stored in alcoves in the walls. The relevant section was transcribed and folded small. My friend stewed it in water which she drank and bathed in over the next few days.

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The other poets

There are other cafés in Khartoum where you can buy bad coffee. This coffee costs the same as a meal for five. But, it offers escapism. There are young Sudanese who take rebellious brunches. Many of them were schooled overseas. They discuss cupcakes at length and pretend they are in Sex in the City without the sex. Too many of them are poets. There are open mic nights where they read poems about a nebulous and toothless peace as if they were not connected by war. The civil war between north and south Sudan ended in 2005. But, this artificiality in itself, is interesting and some seem aware of it and are bound to make good use of it.

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The languages of South Sudan

The South is a very different place. But… there is something indescribable that links it with north Sudan. Despite the dissimilarities in landscape, faces, cultures and religions, the sum of the sameness is greater than the language, history and heart of its parts. It has something to do with pace and movement and the Nile and stories.
The ‘natural units’ of administration, as the British officials of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan described its tribes, speak languages that fit into the band of sub-Saharan languages which crosses the continent from Senegal to Eritrea; what Diedrich Hermann Westermann described as Sudansprachen. They tend to have logophoric pronouns. For example, he thought he could understand is ambiguous in English – the two hes involved could be the same person, or they may not be. Logophoric pronouns disambiguate this.

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Romantic poets and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army

Once upon a time I was in the Nuba Mountains, the edge of the Republic of Sudan, where the Republic of South Sudan begins / will begin.

There were no buses so to get from place to place we had to catch a ride. After a night of harassment by the police we went to the market square to look for someone ticking one or all of the following figure-of-authority boxes: old, with a big stick, strikingly white jalabia, sunglasses. We found our man and drank tea with him. He put us on the back of a lorry carrying troops from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army south. It was scorchingly hot and bumpy and unnerving. We watched their AK47’s bounce around in the spare tyre. By hour three they had had enough of eyeing us up. We had run out of places to look, to avoid eye contact. There was a studious looking soldier with glasses who seemed to have some authority. He asked me a question I had heard a thousand times in Sudan: “What is the best way to learn English?” I wittered on about the BBC World Service and remembered that I had a book of Wordsworth in my bag. He read I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud out loud. We were passing baobab trees in bloom, his rank was painted onto his shoulder with oil paint. This was not the transubstantiation of a donkey or magic teabags or the voice of a nation. He thanked me for the book which I had not planned to give him as and we came to a group of Joint Integrated Units19. He took off his glasses and stared them down. As someone from a dreich land it still does sit right when the flowers are in bloom and the light is clean and yellow, for the mood to be so dark. He turned back to us and smiled and asked to us to spend the night at his family’s home.

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Notes
Title image: “Coffee for sale in Medani souq, Republic of Sudan” by Heidi Erickson
[1] ‘Foreigners’ in Sudanese colloquial Arabic. Probably originally referred to the Turkish colonial forces in Sudan.
[2] Water pipe used to smoke tobacco. Shisha bars are common across Sudan. Often shared with friends and accompanied with coffee.
[3] ‘Happy Eid’ Eid is a Muslim religious period in which food, and in Sudan, water, cannot be consumed while the sun is in the sky.
[4] Tobacco squashed into a pellet and stored under the lip.
[5] Okra stew.
[6] A giant dumpling made of ground millet.
[7] A giant savoury pancake.
[8] A sweet drink made from fermented kissra.
[9] Islamic law.
[10] A long, white robe. Similar to thobe worn throughout Arab countries but with wider sleeves and no collar. Associated by some with the proletariat. Prestigious in squint-inducing white.
[11] Leader of Islamic prayer.
[12] “God-willing”.
[13] A piece of leather containing things which are believed to protect the wearer.
[14] Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
[15] North Sudanese tribe.
[16] Moonshine, traditionally made with dates.
[17] Islamic mysticism.
[18] Travelling follower of Sufism who leads ascetic life.
[19] Forces made up, in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, of troops from north and south Sudan.

In Conversation: Worod Al Musawi

In Conversation

Translation means forging a relationship between languages.

David Nettleingham speaks to Iraqi poet, translator and scholar Worod Al Musawi about her work, attempts to introduce Iraqi poetry to the UK, and understanding the dialogue between the Arabic and English languages.

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What was it that drew you towards becoming a translator?

The fact is, translation drew me toward its edge. Translation was a sacred thing that I never considered, because of my understanding of this type of literature. What must the translator know? It is also the most exhausting form of creativity one can do.

But the story began when I attended the first Arabic workshop with the Poetry Translation Centre in London, and I found people from different ages and backgrounds trying to capture the real meaning of the poem through literal translation. The poem was written by an Arab poet. However the attempt at literal translation was made by one of the team who studied Arabic as a second language. Here they were working on the poetic translation from different angles! It is not an easy job but I was amazed by this will to reach the real meaning and to add to it, not to take from it as we have often experienced with translation, especially in terms of poetry.

As a native speaker and poet I found myself drawn to this group and I tried to help them in forming meanings, to make the poem more acceptable to English audiences. Hence, I decided to introduce Iraqi poetry to English readers, with new poets unknown in the UK or in the rest of the world. For me it’s hard to present myself as a translator but rather as a poet experienced in both languages and cultures trying to reveal the new face of Arabic / Iraqi poetry.

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Is it difficult to retain the nuances of Arabic in translation into English?

We might take the definition of translation to be: an activity comprising the interpretation of the meaning of the text from one language into the other by taking into account the constraints such as the context, the grammar and the idioms.

But is this the real function of translation? Of course not. Language will be the main ground on which to build your translation pyramid, but the real player on this ground is the culture in each context. This is crucially important to both works.

Translation is a bridge between two civilizations and between two nations. We expect from the translator an understanding of both cultures, folklores and even ignorance of the some details. Through this we will have a real piece of art.

Yet, the Arabic language is one of the richest languages in the world, and this richness reshapes the metaphors, synonymies, linguistics as well as traditions and cultures. All these elements alongside other concepts are remarkable in the transfer of deep, meaningful poems in all perspectives and spheres.

Hence, Arabic poetry becomes one of the hardest to translate, and I’ll give an example to make this point clear. With a comparison between both languages (Arabic and English) we will consider the term ‘wideness’: the flexibility in Arabic language which prepares the stage and the plot for the poet, providing the solid ground to free him; to let fly or clamp the imagination with little effort and to receive the meaning that he or she wishes! Whereas in the English language we have a very narrow stage and plot, because English is an accurate language, and even if you have some freedom in poetry, compared to Arabic language it will be very limited.

From this, difficulties will appear that make reaching the highest level of translation a nightmare. I have faced lots of words in Arabic that don’t have an English equivalent.

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Is there anything that could be said to be unique about Iraqi poetry?

Iraq or Mesopotamia has been the land of poets since Gilgamesh and his epic: the first literary text in the world. Iraq was the first civilisation to create human rights and an idea of humanity, and this fact is hard to deny or erase. Nevertheless, the epic of Gilgamesh later on became the door for all the Greek epics written a hundred years later: the Iliad and the Odyssey. So, yes Iraq has had very unique poetry compared to other countries, not only Arab countries but the rest of the world.

However this uniqueness comes from the deep sorrow that we’ve felt during all the years since the birth of the earth and the air. The Gods have been leading our land (in mythology), since when Tammuz “the God of love and fertility” captured by earthly guards and the Goddess Ishtar or Inana “Goddess of Love” was wailing for his freedom. Since Imam Husain the son of Imam Ali and Fatima the daughter of prophet Muhammed suffered and were killed in the battle of Karbala against the devil Yazied ibn Mu’awyya, seeking the freedom of humanity and the world from all fetters. Since all of the pain that all mothers faced and felt in first Gulf War and the second; since all the palm trees were destroyed by Saddam Hussein in 1991 after our real revolution and rebellion against his dictatorship. Since the beautiful marshes were dried by that same person!

So yes we have a very deep and unique history to make our poems different from others. We held pain and sadness in one hand and the beauty of the green of palm trees in the other.

Palm trees were planted by Gilgamesh, the fifth King of Uruk. Palm trees are a symbol of life, beauty and giving, and if you visit Iraq you will see in every single house at least one palm tree!

Eventually, we had the greatest poetry hailed in the Arab world. Iraq was the first country to pull up Arabic poetry from the classical form into the neoclassic movement through the greatest Arab poet Muhammed Mahdi Al Jawaheri (1900-1997) around 1918 and beyond. Later on in the same period, in the 1920s and after, it spread from Iraq to Egypt and Levant.

Not far from the neoclassic form, in 1946 Iraq invented a new form and movement through Iraqi poet Badr Shakir Assayyab (1926-1964) by introducing the biggest ever change in Arabic poetry – the jump from the neoclassic form into free verse.

Assayyab side by side with Iraqi (female) poet and critic Nazik Al-Mala’ika (1923-2007), reshaped the new face of Arabic poetry. Al-Mala’ika through her critical essays and book fairs all about the free verse poem, her intelligent studies, suggestions and critical views, became a grounding for all poets and critics who have an interest in the free verse movement, and Assayyab is an example for all other poets even today.

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How do you think Iraqi poetry has been affected by the events of the past decade?

Nothing can kill the poet more than their ties. The real effect on all our innovative activities began when the Baath party ruled Iraq, I would say in late 1977. Iraqi innovation was attacked by the Baathists and since that time we have faced a new language, new perspectives, new ideology, new praise, a new face of poetry full of blood and martyrs, dust and militaries. Of course not all poets participated in this bloody carnival, many of them fled from Iraq, seeking breathing space for their poems. That’s why there are 4 million Iraqis out of their country and most of them are intellectuals in their fields.

But now, I can say that Iraqi poetry has turned again.

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How has Iraqi/Arabic poetry been received in other countries?

I think the Arabic language is the fourth or fifth most spoken language in the world, so it’s been received in stages compared to other languages, but this is not enough. We must call all the translation centres in Arab countries to work hard if we want to go the distance. But so far Arabic literature and poetry I think is known as one of the most important forms of poetry in the world and, because of the history of Arabic poetry, as one of oldest poetry forms in the world going back thousands of the years. For that, I ask all literature foundations and centres to give more attention to translating our literary works into English and other languages.

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Are there any major themes that run through your own poetry?

My work focuses on two major themes:

1 – Souls in all creatures, the human with all his inner feelings and sensations, strength and weakness, nostalgia and tendency, and with that our feeling toward death and poverty. I can say that in both my collections death and poverty were dual heroes.

In the case of death, because it’s the only fact in the world one can be sure of! No creature can flee his grip!

Death for me is a door I can open on my inner self and take from (him) for Worod! Death is a creature with his own function for this life!

Some critics have noted that my poems introduce philosophical questions about cosmic forces, humanity, politics, emotions and homelands. Those are all the themes and doors I use to find myself as a human and poet.

However, as far as I am searching for myself, so I need to come closer to the world and think deeply on each creature, act, relationship, love, political corruption, poverty (and this word does not always refer to life’s expenses, rather one can be poor-minded or have poor feelings, or poverty in an understanding of the soul that is invented in us! So it can be anything), emotions, and death of course. It might be that those essential elements or aspects can open the door for me in understanding my soul more and more.

I believe that the poet is the soul of the cosmic.

2 – Homeland, has a wide range of meanings, consequently I never specify the land in my poems and leave it as the symbol of a journey on which you never reach the distance and never find your treasures. It has been left unknown, to be anywhere in the world, however through this particular theme I deal with politics, injustice in the world, and poverty.

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Biography

Worod Al Musawi, was born in Babylon, south of Baghdad in 1981. At the age of ten she began writing poetry. That same year, she left Iraq with her family for Iran where she studied at Almustafa University in the School of Arabic and Islamic law until 1997. She spent the following year as a teacher. In 1998 she was forced to leave Iran for political reasons; she went first to Syria and then to the UK. She continued her education at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, obtaining an MA in Arabic Literature in 2007.

Worod has published two collections of poems, Washmu A’aqarib (Scorpion’s Tattoo) in 2007 and Hal Ataa (It Has Come!) in 2010; and a volume of her short stories, What the Bullet Whispered to the Head, is forthcoming. She has also published a number of critical essays on Arabic poetics. Both her collections have been translated into various languages. She is a member of the Poetry Society as well as the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). She worked for several Iraqi Satellite channels as producer, programme maker and presenter between 2006 and 2008. She spent 2008-2009 teaching Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and is now busy with her translation project from Arabic into English, and from Farsi into English, with the Poetry Translation Centre.

Under the Skin: examining Luigi Marchini’s ‘The Anatomist’

Reviews

Christopher Hobday dissects the most recent work of this quiet and elusive poet. Drawing on Marchini’s own words, the pamphlet and the poet are fleshed out in equal measure, revealing a philosophical and imaginative writer to the world.

The front cover of Luigi Marchini’s first solo collection, The Anatomist, is an exposure of subdermal muscle. The pursed lips and modest pudenda identify that this is the male of the species, shorn of its sheen and ready to be examined. This is the most fitting of adorning images; Marchini labours privately on his poems, bringing them to light only when he has honed them beyond equivocality. There is a sense, then, of being allowed into the secret sanctum, and it is a rewarding experience.

As a writer, Marchini’s stubbornness to be open manifests itself in a tendency to pare down each text, to cut away what seems not only extraneous but also what is the product of ego rather than instinct. Yet this is sculpture not mutilation.

“I would certainly describe it as a watershed,” says Marchini, discussing the volume’s publication. “Not only for the fact that it is my first solo collection, but also because it marks, I hope, the start of a new style of poetry for me. The poems I have written recently are sparser.” Only a handful of the poems in the collection are familiar, and the difference in style is quite distinct. Of his past poetry, he has selected ‘Mask’, ‘A Renaissance Kind of Cool’, ‘We Love the Smell of Napalm in the Evening’ and the ‘David’ poems for inclusion alongside new work, and there is a verbosity in these pieces that has been eschewed in favour of a Brancusi-like seeking of the essential over the extraneous.

The delights of his other poems show us that this has been a wise move, although some of the warmth and accessibility has been lost. However, Marchini was at his most prosaic when lost in the reverie of description, unburdening or admission, and his new style frees him from this. Only “On the Cusp of a Vortex”, a comparatively recent piece compared to the aforementioned, concedes to his previous style, and would work as a paragraph of text just as well as it works divided into lines. Marchini has recognised this as a weakness to be expunged; as good a piece as ‘Vortex’ is, he is not wrong.

“The later poems are less verbose,” says Marchini. “This is the kind of writing that interests me now. When I started, the temptation was always to write as much as possible and leave the reader to do as little work as possible. Now, I feel that I am maturing as a writer. I take more time over every word and I am beginning to grasp the notion of ‘less is more’ with a firmer hand.”

This is evident from the volume’s first salvo. ‘That’s Not My Name’ introduces the concept of whittling away at an object to reduce it to its fundamental elements. A fish is skilfully sliced to pieces, fins and insides removed. Marchini reminds us that this is a suitable metaphor for the artist honing his material. When everything unnecessary has been removed, what’s left is often impersonal and vacuous. There is a fine line between stark minimalism of expression and impenetrable mystery, and this opening piece describes the panic fear most artists feel towards the end of the revision process: that feeling of, ‘have I cut too much of this?’

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I have no name.
I am carcass, shell, husk.
A hulk.

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This is not to suggest that Marchini is overly reticent; he reveals much about himself in the work. The poet’s sparse language is a manifestation of his general distaste for egocentric self-expression,hence his careful war on verbosity.

Poetry for Marchini is essential in the modern quest for selfhood. “I am happiest when I am writing,” he says. “Through writing, I have more of a sense of me. It defines me, gives me confidence. The self is an extremely complex network of relations. It is not merely a single simple essence, but exists as an incredibly rich and layered tapestry of languages that we constantly weave and re-weave. It is of course no tangible thing, but more of a process: an accumulation of experiences, and a constant re-evaluation.” Here is poetry not as an expression of self, but an identification. “It is a textual re-evaluation; I need to write, without it I am nothing.”

So what connotations does this have for that tense relationship between artist and audience? “I pay attention to the audience only by acknowledging its existence. Otherwise,” he asks, “why write at all? But this cursory acknowledgement is as far as I go. Back when I had just started out as a writer, I used to spell things out more, because that was how I thought it was done. Now I don’t think about my audience at all.” Any duty a poet might have to an audience might also compromise the difficult act of self-interrogation that, for Marchini, lies at the heart of the writing process and is all about discovering, through an analysis of authentic responses, something about the writer. “If I did think about my audience, I would end up with a piece that is not a reflection of myself or what I want to write. I would end up compromising my work as I write, subconsciously.”

One of the poet’s motifs is the inadequacy of language to accurately capture experience. Nowhere does he communicate this more succinctly or more delightfully than ‘I Cannot Describe What It Feels Like’. It is my favourite poem in the collection, because it evokes that sense of being unable to get at the object; baroque literature has been described as an attempt to describe an object via circumscription, delineating it without discussing it. Each metaphor becomes a point of reference, and only when we connect these points does the object reveal itself. In this poem, Marchini quite rightly points out that, sometimes, the object itself can disappear during the process.

In writing, we are divorced twice from reality: the first time is when we acknowledge that the moment of experience has passed, and the second is when we render the experience in the most accurate words. Without intending to, we have created another experience, having to make do with what language our lexicon contains. The initial experience, during the act of writing, is somewhere between “the taste of corn/ the side of a knife/ a walk in the fog”.

So is this Marchini hinting that poetry is doomed to imprecision, and does he embrace the freedom this provides, or strive for a more verbatim reconstruction? “The poem is exactly about the imprecision or inadequacy of words to convey an experience,” he responds. “None of the experiences I describe in The Anatomist are real to me. I have never experienced these events. Even if I always carried a notebook with me, which I never do, what good would it be? You actually have to be in the experience in order to describe it with any accuracy. By the time you have rendered it into words, the moment has gone.” He has the same attitude to his own past. “How can I record accurately how I felt when I witnessed the birth of my children?” he asks, incredulous. His conclusion leaves no room for manoeuvre. “Isn’t it best to use your imagination and invent scenarios, to ask, ‘how would I feel if this happened’? Aren’t writers supposed to have imaginations as well as control over language?”

This comment reveals much about Marchini’s attitude to language (or how it has changed; compare the older poems to the latest ones). The Anatomist is technically very adept, with the pen wielded with an almost draconian austerity. The manipulation of textography, the picture that the poem makes on the page, is often used to mask a more prosaic work as a poem by isolating certain words or phrases on the page. It doesn’t fool the audience when the piece is read aloud; they hear that they’re being sold prose in a poetry suit. Marchini uses this much too popular technique very sparingly, only for emphasis and always with an understanding that form should follow content. So, for instance, the punchline of ‘Rabbit’ is a single word suspended in the ether. In ‘Skin’, the two stanzas are divided by a poignant turn of phrase that makes the last four lines (one of which consists solely of the word “dying”) a sort of elegiac refl ection on the first stanza.

‘Skin’ triumphs as a masterful experiment in form. Marchini does not write without rhythm; his poems are certainly verse (and legion are the poets who, when writing vers libre, utterly and unforgivably neglect the vers part, so enticed are they by how easy it is to write libre). Every line in ‘Skin’, even the ones that are drastic in their brevity, has an equivalent length of utterance. Take the first stanza, for instance, which steadily walks a tightrope between lines of trimeter (“its texture as I scrape/my nails along its length”) and dimeter (“fat until/a dead end”). The structure coaxes the reader to adopt a slow, sombre pace that fi ts the poem perfectly. It is a subtle but irresistible dictation.

Elsewhere, he displays a clever use of traditional form. It does a poet credit these days to show an awareness of prosody and systems that young writers on the whole seem to behold as contemptible (and it is their loss, and I would venture, literature’s). ‘Royalty’ is a sonnet, but the stresses are loose enough to almost convince you otherwise; what’s brilliant is that the poem benefits from the dramatic force of the sonnet form, its two dances – the octave and the sestet – building to the inevitable and neatly tied last rhyme, yet does not feel contrived or restricted, as sonnets often do. It’s nice to see Marchini indulging himself in an Italian form; it reminds us that, before the French and then the English seized the throne of poetry, it was held by the Italians, thanks in the main to Dante, and Francesco Petrarca. ‘Royalty’ is a tender and accessible poem, smartly so:

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Sandwiched between the sun and your bed –
hours of yearning wasted in the streets
of my day until we hugged the oversheet,
pulled it tight over our forms, our heads.

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How much interest does Marchini have in stricter forms? “I choose not to write in them,” he says with finality. “I admire anyone who has the time and patience to do it. I find that it restricts me and tends to block what I have to say, almost like an extra editor!” While I cannot wholly agree, this freer approach to form enables him to be more authentic in his evocations, to capture a sense of what Pound referred to as echt (and, let us remember, we are discussing a writer who agonises over the inadequacy of language to do the job of accurately reporting experiences). With a hint of sarcasm, he adds, “I’m not sure whether ‘Th at’s Not My Name’ or ‘On the Cusp of a Vortex’ could have been done as villanelles, or if they would have succeeded with a rigid pattern of rhyme.” ‘Atlas’, a splendid love poem, flirts with the sonnet form but one or two of the half-rhymes are a little off . This doesn’t harm the overall effect. In fact, the piece does not require the strong pinions of the sonnet form in order to fly.

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An explorer rushing to slake
eternal thirst, infinite aches
I lifted you up, bent to kiss
your earth, then dug hard into soil

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Abi Curtis has made a very accurate appraisal of The Anatomist, and the most accurate adjective she used was “tender”. For all its intelligence, this remains a very human collection. It is not cold, as intellectual poetry can often be. Nor is it afraid of admitting the foibles of its creator. The tenderness manifests itself in the mot juste and the tone of voice, the cadence and the imagery. It is evoked rather than telegraphed. The ‘David’ poems, in which the eponymous biblical hero speaks to us before and after his encounter with the Philistine Goliath, produce this effect not through dubious neologisms like ‘viridescent’ (intended to mean a green lustre) but through the finer details, the sheer exactitude of its protagonist’s mind in which every object is a punctum, a powerful focal point. The second poem in particular threatens to collapse under the weight of its own portent, with “reek of fear”, “lingering acrid stench” and “sensuous vapours of finest incense” uncharacteristically Romantic. Yet David’s incessant introspection and re-evaluation mirror Marchini’s attitudes towards the creative process. He is constantly recollecting and revising, attempting to rebuild the past, to give memories new life, so that he might never forget. The tenderness is in the mind that falters as the body does not; this slayer of Goliath agonises over every detail. He lists his ancestors (“Abraham, Issac, Sarah,/Rebekah, Jacob, Leah”) and those incenses (“stacte, frankincense,/galbanum, onycha”). There is even room for a very Poundian stunt in the opening lines of ‘David (After Goliath)’ which uses the same technique as ‘In a Station of the Metro’:

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I lift the candle, wax descending;
stare into the empty goblet:
a tree trunk sliced through, whitened, dead.

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What’s wonderful is that this metaphor unites the sterility of an empty goblet and the sense of an end to growth as evoked by the tree trunk. Here is the great hero looking back on his life, panicking that all these details might be lost, and with it the memory of the struggle, and that he will join those ancestors lost in the “spangled blanket” of the heavens. Marchini’s David is a fleshed-out human being, one with whom we feel immediate empathy, such is his humility and Hamletesque morbid self-attention.

An ability to explore the psychological or emotional state of a largely conjured-up character requires both imagination and empathy. In ‘Mask’, a poem that has impressed Marchini’s fans, the tenderness is ramped up to produce a piece of sustained writing that is intensely sad and captivating. Concerning the death of an infant, ‘Mask’ delivers the heaviest blow to the reader of The Anatomist. Whether Marchini is comfortable or not dealing with such a tragic event is moot, as is the question of whether he is able to lay any discomfort aside in the name of the craft.

“This piece was inspired by a line in a short story I read,” says Marchini. “At the time, I had not known anyone who had gone through such an experience. I imagined myself as a person in the same house, witnessing the woman’s grief.” The evocation of a mind struggling between wild exhortations of pain and the silent mewls of a demolished psyche is vivid due to the commonplaceness of the language.

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Now she finds a moment each day
to stagger to that place
between cries and whispers.

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“Writing the poem certainly wasn’t comfortable. How could it be?” Marchini asks. “Isn’t it strange how being a writer is often like being a fraud? People tell me that the poem makes them cry, and that I was brave to write it. What must people who have gone through this very experience think of me? Wouldn’t they hate me if they knew?” This heave-ho between invention and reportage, between the truth and the invention, is felt keenly by Marchini. Having successfully reproduced a genuine and authentic emotional response in the reader, he remains guilt-stricken while others, having achieved the same thing, might have marvelled at the extent of their powers.

Harrowing events inspire the mind to produce art. This is why we can study Goya’s pictures and Wilfred Owen’s exemplary half-rhymes. What price success for the artist? For Marchini, it is a louche enterprise, repaying the effort with something analogous with common-or-garden shame. This tension is not as evident though in his more overtly political poems, ‘Docility’ and the old poem ‘We Love the Smell of Napalm in the Evening’.

Dedicated to the Catonsville Nine, a group of Catholic activists who burned nearly 400 draft files with ersatz napalm in protest against the war in Vietnam, ‘We Love the Smell of Napalm in the Evening’ reveals another thing about the poet: Marchini has no stomach for satire. He has the sense of injustice, but not the bilious indignation required of a successful satirist. Blessed with too gentle and unassuming a character, he is unable to assemble to arrogant swagger necessary, so instead ‘…Naplam in the Evening’ has at its centre an engine of sadness, rather than zealous fury. This is evident in the short, almost stuttered lines. In the end, with its paraphrase of activist Father Daniel Berrigan’s statement, it is a call to reason, not a call to arms.

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Pacifists=criminals.
Conscripts=dead bodies.
Bring out the napalm
it must be better to burn
paper
than children.

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Interestingly, it succeeds as a piece of writing and I freely admit to preferring this approach to the vitriol of satire (which tends to bring out the worst characteristics in even the most humane practitioners), but does not succeed as a poem. The lines are too short, and the sense of desperation almost banal (“they won’t listen, their ears/ deaf to reason”… “how black must the bodies char/ before they say no/ to war?”) but the fundamental human decency that drives the poem is quite beautiful. So, does Marchini feel that poets have a duty to deal with the devils of the past, in order to arm society against the devils of the future?

“I don’t think poets have any duties other than to themselves,” is Marchini’s answer. If every poet must by definition be a humanist, must every poet be political too? Again, there is certainty in his response. “I don’t see myself as a political or humanist poet – I am just a poet. The past always forms a part of the poet’s work, but I prefer to see history as universal as opposed to personal. It seems much more daunting to write about the devils of your own past, than those of the world’s history.”

As celebrations go, ‘Docility’, is rather underwhelming. A warrior, an Everyman-analogue, discovers that writing about his experiences gives him power over them. “No more mephitic carcasses”, he decrees, and that’s a tremendous word: mephitic, meaning foul-smelling, noxious, poisonous. It’s excruciatingly precise; the bodies of Iraq and Cambodia, the corpses produced by the Nazi pogrom, are not just offensive to the nose. They have also poisoned the world, a product of the highend human capacity for evil. They have poisoned the nations that produced them, poisoned the civilisations that produced Fascism and National Socialism. Even today, Marxists struggle to free Communism from its connections with violent Stalinist lunacy and the orgiastic barbarism of the Khmer Rouge. Mephitic covers this too. It’s an adjective of genius, like Joseph Conrad’s use of the word jocose.

The poem is a vote for docility over aggression. Though the ending is trite, the sentiment beneath the poem is very fine. Like ‘…Napalm in the Evening’ its strength is not in the language, but in the chamber behind the text’s iron grille. Marchini’s protagonist turns from the rifle to the pen not out of pacifism, but out of a desire to seize back the language, to use words not for propaganda, but for beauty and innocence and kindness. Funnily enough, the poem is upside-down. Its first stanza is the best, and says almost everything the poem has in its locker:

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I want to speak another language other
than that uttered in Fallujah and Phnom Penh.
I want to form different words than
those heard in Belsen or Vorkuta.

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It is well known that the human race experienced a sense of profound disenfranchisement when works of great poetry and classical music were discovered in the private rooms of Nazi officials. Here is a poem attempting to wrestle the treasures of civilisation back out of the clutching paws of tyranny – and what are written words, if not the most valuable of treasures?

Moving from the vulgar horrors of war to the lure of innocence that has bewitched writers since the advent of written language requires no segue. In ‘Rabbit’, Marchini loses himself in the form and movement of an animal. This poem is about longing to escape the human world, with its demands and responsibilities, finding a primal peace in the rigorous and violent system of nature. Once again, the tenderness: a gentle eye takes in the creature –

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flesh fuses with muscle.
Your motion never linear,
random but always kinetic
as you chase the air.

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– and the human mind, split between cold science and tactile curiosity, attempts an almost invasive categorisation:

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your body a mass of molecules,
your fur like soft chalk

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Marchini’s theme of being unable to capture an object with the words at hand is articulated wonderfully here, as the poet tries in vain to describe the signified without using its signifier. It is believed that one of the major obstacles preventing the construction of Artificial Intelligence is that while humans and animals understand concepts like ‘wet’, enabling a computer to understand these concepts is a remarkably difficult undertaking. How do you describe the wetness of water? Similarly, how do you evoke the concept of a rabbit without using the R-word? Perhaps a poem is an attempt made by one individual to convey a fleeting momentary sense to another individual, with art as a by-product; whatever the difficulties of this process, a rare moment of humour from Marchini gives this age-old problem fresh force:

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On hind legs you resemble a bear,
lying down a purring cat.
Other times I imagine, for some reason,
You are a snake or a humpback whale.

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We are back with that description of the baroque. The poet attempts to recreate the rabbit by providing a list of several objects. By these points of reference we discover the true essence, the Brancusi shape, of the rabbit. In the quite brilliant short poem ‘Th ey Are Felt’, the disconnect between the inspiration for a piece and the words required to express it returns with delightful playfulness. “I imagined pigeons in the cellar and took it from there,” is Marchini’s invisible shrug. Yet it is in the finely-wrought images that are conjured by the poet’s imagination of these distant creatures, separated from sight by the floorboards, that the poem’s pleasures lie. “A jerk of napes, a confusion of quills” occur in his mind’s eye. “This poem was meant to be a mystery,” says Marchini. The sensation of mystery is precisely what this excellent piece of writing, with its great final rhyme, evokes.

Ultimately, it is enough to say that this is a fine collection. Marchini is right to prize the newer poems over the old. Their sentiments are not always as potent or as neatly realised, but in technical terms they are simply better written. But for all its linguistic dexterity, astonishing metaphors and sincere humanism, what we get a sense of most is the personality of the poet himself. “Poetry will always be an expression of the individual artist more than any other art-form,” Marchini argues. “In the 21st century, with the diversions and technology, poetry is less popular that it might have been for previous generations. It is easy to be engulfed by everything around us, to be soaked up by the internet to the point when our voices can no longer be heard. Poetry is a way of making ourselves heard, of making us matter.”

In this sense, Marchini’s poetry is a revelation of the self to the surrounding world, making it a statement against various weapons of totalitarian ugliness (and I include our mass media’s regular and automatic employment of despicable phrases such as ‘the common man’ and ‘ordinary people’ in this). Here, art is wielded with skill and sensitivity to enable an individual to set himself apart. Only when all men and women strive to do this will the stifling doctrines that lump people together be nullified. Am I getting carried away when I say that The Anatomist is a tool for utopianism? Of course I’m not; it’s a good book of poems, which makes it a bona-fide weapon against human weakness, abominable vice and crass apathy. The only unfortunate thing is that Marchini is too humble to accept his considerable achievement.

Luigi Marchini’s ‘The Anatomist’ is available now from The Conversation Paperpress.

Dialectical Poetry: A Primer

Collaboration

Christopher Hobday writes the first of a series of essays on the role of dialectical thinking in poetry.

Tiresome delineation, ogre of the necessary. Human consciousness is functional only after boundaries have been set. Womb, world, universe. Following an evolutionary step, it might be possible to grasp the limitless, appreciate infi nity. Until then, thoughts must be gathered into convenient pockets with affixed labels demarking theory sets.

Well, the artist is in for a tough time of it. Craft can be explained as an affirmation of self, which is mainly achieved by defining the self against society. We know what we are by identifying what we are not. What remains, by process of elimination, must be our tribe. Another irritating human limitation. To circumvent this, the artist admits to being a thinker first and foremost, understanding that there is no true aestheticism, that every poem exposes the poet like a peephole into the bedroom. This has been termed Dialecticism, or Dialectic Poetry, by this writer and his fellow poet, David Nettleingham.

Peering closer, and observing etymology, the word is dull with fingerprints of previous users. Socrates has handled it, and from him comes the problematic concept of reaching a conclusion through conversation. Here, a skilled orator or a charlatan of nimble mind can browbeat a slower but more fastidious intellect. Hardly a perfect system. Hegel wielded it too: the thinker uncovers truth by bringing yin against yang. For instance, by considering two opposing arguments, the truth can be more accurately discerned. This does not mean compromise. Both arguments are assailed by criticism, dismantled, elements proven or discarded until only one stands, either as glorious entirety or mutilated remnant. We can leave Hegel behind now, and progress to a concise definition of Dialectic Poetry. Let this be done in a dance of veils, with a limited number of steps. Clarity can be indulged, like a vice.

1. The poem is a text with a subject and an underlying hypothesis (which we should call the philosophy, usually inchoate, of the poet).

2. The poet applies a dialectic process to the poem, either in draft or post-draft: this means interrogating every principle of the poem’s salient statements, using logical arguments and counter-arguments to eliminate any falsehoods or absurdities.

3. By this principle, for instance, it is impossible to produce a Dialectic Poem propounding a belief in any supernatural deity, since any argument in the existence of such a being is easily demolished by logical argument. This can be perceived, I suppose, as a limitation; in fact, it is the most sublime emancipation from thought-imprisonment.

In tribal terms our dialectic poet is, therefore, the perennial outsider. Th e weaknesses of Left and Right are necessarily admitted. No tribe is without sin, yet any ahierarchal judgement of systems is also impossible, as certain qualities (gender equality for instance, or defence of the arts) are reasonably superior by virtue of their benefit to society, therefore indicating superiority of certain systems over others.

The perfect Dialectic expedition would involve a thousand poets tackling the same issue, each in opposition, each asserted as an individual, none accepting another’s hypothesis entire. As for the perfect dialectic poem, it would involve a social sacrifice: what the audience wants to hear is irrelevant, and comfortable lies are abandoned in favour of uncomfortable truths. Dialectic poetry is the poetry of reason and logic; that is, whatever the poem’s subject matter, form or conceit, it cannot flaunt a lack of thoughtful rigour (i.e., an atheist poet does not use words like ‘soul’; the humanist poet understands that morality is to some extent contextual and what is compassionate in the short term may produce suffering in the long-term).

Dialectic poetry is self-interrogation and an admission that, instead of mirroring the audience, and pleasing them by giving beatific voice to the audience’s extant feelings, literature is for seeking and expounding truth. This is the universal dialogue, and has involved Copernicus, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shelley and Juan Goytisolo: luminous specks amid innumerable nobilities.

No Dialectic Poem or text can be the work of more than one writer, as Dialectic Poetry forbids any individual from accepting the rule of another. Due to the nature of experience and consciousness, no two individuals will ever be in utter agreement on all aspects of a theory. This is fortunate, as it promotes freedom (since the unique nature of every person is pointedly acknowledged), yet unfortunate as it also promotes anarchy (slowest and most fragile and unfair of all social systems, always on the brink of fortissimus quisque tantum superest). Human culture is determined by the desires and ideas of individuals, not collectives. Th ere are only creators (individuals) and consumers (collectives). Th rough what we call ‘media’, the former convince the latter to adhere to their principles through overwhelming social saturation and gradual normalisation, and of course, these powerful individuals are themselves members of a collective, subordinate to higher systems (the weight of history, for instance, or their own inadequacies).

In the case of the literary canon, that paradigm of examples, this process is collegial: certain individuals become guardians of the canon, upholding the importance of a standard of excellence that is vital to the health and progress of culture-at-large and, ultimately, species. Spot the ghost of the Cult of Diana, explored by Frazer in his Golden Bough: the high priest directs the cult and upholds its rites and principles, but is always at the mercy of acolytes, who can only become high priests by murdering the high priest. In the canon, each high priest is doomed to be executed by underlings in turn at the mercy of the same unavoidable knife. The canon is perhaps the only artificial system that is truly self-regulating, its defenders growing more ardent with each inarticulate thrust of the vast moronising engine of the mass media. All literature is affected by the canon’s gravity well. Think of every poem as a rock in the rings of Saturn: gathered, codified, and aligned with other rocks, always moving.

In sum: I am a Dialectic Poet not because I choose to be, but as a consequence of my instinctive and preferred approach to thought and craft. As such, I acknowledge the virtuous act of open disagreement, a vital part of the process en route not to mere verisimilitude, but objective truth.

In Search of a Zimbabwean Poetry

Features

By Tinashe Mushakavanhu

In high school, I hated poetry, especially the English poetry that more often than not did not relate to my experiences, set in the ghostly marshes of a distant utopia. I crammed it to pass exams, but while an undergraduate English student at Midlands State University, my then lecturer of Zimbabwean literature, Josephine Muganiwa, made me yearn to discover more about local poetry.

I grew up hearing and reading poems from a very young age, first as sounds, repeated, musical, rhythmically, satisfying in themselves, and the power of concrete, sensuously compelling images. The Bhundu Boys, Oliver Mtukudzi, Thomas Mapfumo, James Chimombe and Simon Chimbetu. But soon, poetry became more than music and images; it was also revelation, information, a rite of passage. I thought it could offer clues, intimations, keys to questions that haunted our existence, questions I could not even frame yet.

There’s been some incredible poetry written in this country that has never really been promoted. Irene Staunton, once observed that ‘Zimbabwe is a country of poets. Zimbabweans write poetry, speak it and sing it in Shona, Ndebele, Tonga, Shangaan and other minority languages; we have poetry in English, praise, performance, oratorical, and declamatory poetry. Perhaps as many as one in six people writes poetry or takes pleasure from trying to do so.” And yet what is interesting is that this mine of talents has largely not been explored. Except for a few obvious names, production output of poetry books by our local publishers has been very low. In fact, poetry remains the poorer cousin of the novel and the short story in Zimbabwe. This is not just English poetry, but poetry in the various indigenous languages as well.

Most of our anthologised poetry (Zimbabwean Poetry in English, And Now the Poets Speak, Patterns of Poetry in Zimbabwe and State of the Nation) has often been incredibly sad or angry, bitter or ironic. Memory Chirere has characterized most Zimbabwean poetry to be ‘melancholic.’ But a recurrent theme in much of the writing is the indestructibility of poetry – poems as songs of resistance radiating an indestructible Zimbabwean spirit.

In recent years, it was difficult to write and be too critical while in Zimbabwe. To discuss Zimbabwean poetry that was being written and performed, was to do so in the shadow of the political turmoil as well as in the glow of the energy unleashed by the struggle against it. This tension was deep rooted. It permeated all aspects of our lives. And yet, this has had a positive eff ect on the quality of writings produced as the environment encouraged innovation in the poets in their use of language, images, symbolism, irony, allegory whilst others abandoned political issues to focus on other ‘human’ issues.

Perhaps, that is why the new book Sunflowers in Your Eyes is a breath of fresh air. A remarkable collection of some of the finest young women poets in Zimbabwe today. Zimbabwean poetry has always been very masculine and male dominated.

There is a culture in Zimbabwe to anthologize its writers and poets, and while understandably it is a cost effective broadcasting method of ‘a collective voice’, it is stifling individual talents, as some of our writers never get to blossom individually. Who is collecting and publishing the poetry of the now deceased Phillip Zhuwao, Stephen Alumenda, Reuben Pakaenda or Ruzvidzo Mupfudza; Zimbabwe’s young and lost voices? We remember them and we know them as fragments, never in the wholeness of their genius. Rather than being treated and appreciated as individuals, there is often no space to articulate their own creative visions.
Zimbabwean publishers, please give poets and poetry a chance!