christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: tony ward

Seasons of the Moon: Review of Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló

I had the privilege of meeting Josep Lluís Aguiló at a poetry festival this year and I can testify that he is as remarkable in person as he is on the page, in equal parts challenging and inquisitive, funny, considerate and startling. He is also fiercely proud of his native Mallorca, still fascinated by its landscapes and mysteries. His work has an integrity, vigour and lightness of touch to it that is missing from so much contemporary poetry.

His latest collection, Lunarium is shot through with a sort of magical lyricism, occasionally surreal in the manner of Borges but with an originality all its own. While the harbours and sands of Mallorca are a constant presence, the imagination is the primary landscape. The opening poem, The Rules of the Labyrinth, is a rubric for the book and his brand of poetry; we are set on ‘paths that make us walk ever further from the centre.’ But there is a crucial detail: ‘they are paved with dark desire.’ Sexuality is an undercurrent throughout these poems.  


There are several poems about poetry, or at least language, which is something that never offends me. I Have Lost a Few Lines is an ingenious, deftly comic piece about how lines slip away from the poet: ‘They are like shy animals/sometimes they pass right over me.’ They also escape by other means: ‘…some spirituous liquor has ruined them/or the visitor from Porlock.’ It is adroit piece of work about the elusive nature of the perfect line; the bon mot.

There is humour in abundance throughout, albeit as dark as it comes; I particularly enjoyed The Rights of the Dead, where the dead appear to unionise, organising themselves ‘into associations to establish their rights and preferences.’ While some prefer the ‘permanence of buried coffins’ others wish to be ‘quartered and placed on high/mountains so that birds may devour them.’

However overwhelmingly, these poems are an affirmation of life and love; a reminder that life is fleeting and we must make the most of the now: ‘We are drowning in a sea of time./Tomorrow we will be older.’ It is unashamedly romantic stuff. ‘Maybe we’ll never/ again have the energy have the energy to make love with the night on each other.

Josep’s poetry is perhaps, more passionate than most English poets would allow, without losing any of the complexity of allusion or technique. It is a reminder why poetry in translation is more important than ever; surround yourself with people who look and sound like yourself and you will find within your echo chamber a deadening of the language and a paucity of emotional range; it takes you to a dangerously reductive place. Anna Crowe’s magnificent translation allows Josep to show us a brighter, more luminous world of possibility and language. We owe Arc, and Tony Ward, the adventurous publisher of this and so many other important work from beyond our own shores, a debt of gratitude.

Josep’s poem, Poetry, perhaps makes the most compelling case for the poet’s right to ambiguity and a mercurial spirit of independence. He defies an easy definition of poetry: ‘They want us to explain, in a single headline the soul of wine … and all the shades of turquoise in the sea of Ithaca.’ Poetry, he concludes, is not what you read on the page, it is ‘what is left inside us/long after forgetting this poem.’

Fervent, accomplished and infused with the rhythms of the sea as well as the heart, Lunarium is a book to jolt you into life and appreciate the miracle of existence. It is a poet’s manifesto too: his role is to ‘paint, in the void that has been given to you/the burning desperate words.’   




A Spanish Dancer in Highgate

At a magnificent reading last night with the Arc poets at Lauderdale House in Highgate. Spent half an hour beforehand in Waterlow Park eating white chocolate and reading Treasure Island while a tree sheltered me from the rain. The perfect preparation I think for two hours of poetry.

The line up included James Byrne (with the beguiling line: ‘September – the month that tends all others’)  a lumious reading from Astrid Alben including an amusing anecdote about her drinking session with some Romanian monks. With little mutual language, one of the monks raises his wine glass and exclaims: ‘cheese!’

All poets had something unique to offer; there was tremendous anecdote too from publisher Tony Ward about Branwell Bronte, ill-starred brother of the more famous sisters; the station where he served as the ramshackle, inebriated station master’s assistant (see my earlier post on poor Branwell) was apparently carted off by wheelbarrow, stone by stone, to build someone’s shed. It all adds to the ignominy.   

The highlight perhaps was a thumping set of translations of Rainer Maria Rilke by Ian Crockatt, who came down all the way from North East Scotland for the night.

Ian’s introductions alone were totally absorbing. It was a relief to hear him say that Rilke’s poetry does not always make perfect sense – it is more about the image, the tone, the moment and the feeling in his work; a relief because I have sometimes struggled for the sense of his poems. The fact that Rilke wrote in French rather than his native German also says something about the distance and sense of strangeness and disconnectedness Rilke wanted to achieve.

Ian ended his set with great panache with a sparking, vivacious version of The Spanish Dancer (concluding with a dramatic flamenco stamp no less) which more or less stole the evening. It is a more complete and straightforward poem than many of Rilke’s and I apologise that this translation is not Ian’s own. It is an excellent example of the theme of transformation that pervades his work. It is so completely vivid and alive – the poem practically catches fire on the page.

The Spanish Dancer

As on all its sides a kitchen-match darts white
flickering tongues before it bursts into flame:
with the audience around her, quickened, hot,
her dance begins to flicker in the dark room.

And all at once it is completely fire.

One upward glance and she ignites her hair
and, whirling faster and faster, fans her dress
into passionate flames, till it becomes a furnace
from which, like startled rattlesnakes, the long
naked arms uncoil, aroused and clicking.

And then: as if the fire were too tight
around her body, she takes and flings it out
haughtily, with an imperious gesture,
and watches: it lies raging on the floor,
still blazing up, and the flames refuse to die –
Till, moving with total confidence and a sweet
exultant smile, she looks up finally
and stamps it out with powerful small feet.

Rainer Maria Rilke