Thursday, February 18, 2016



by Fleur Adcock

Literally thin-skinned, I suppose, my face
catches the wind off the snow-line and flushes
with a flush that will never wholly settle. Well:
that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young for ever, to pass.

I was never a Pre-Raphaelite beauty,
nor anything but pretty enough to satisfy
men who need to be seen with passable women.
But now that I am in love with a place
which doesn’t care how I look, or if I’m happy,

happy is how I look, and that’s all.
My hair will turn grey in any case,
my nails chip and lake, my waist thicken,
and the years work all their usual changes.
If my face is to be weather-beaten as well

that’s little enough lost, a fair bargain
for a year among lakes and fells, when simply
to look out of my window at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors and to what
my soul may wear over its new complexion.

The contemporary New Zealand poet Fleur Adcock is renowned for her poems dwelling on themes of place, human relationships and everyday activities, but frequently with a dark twist given to the mundane events she writes about. Disarmingly conversational in style, they are remarkable for their psychological insight and their unsentimental, mischievously casual view of personal relationships.
The poem starts with the sudden onset of a blush on an otherwise aging face when a snowy cold wind caresses her face and the resultant momentary gush of youthfulness. The poet is aware that it is not going to sustain and her wish to preserve physical beauty is a futile exercise. The progressive, but inevitable, decline of her corporeal charm is an irreversible reality. The poet is so enamoured by the beauty of the places she visits that she is least concerned about her eroding physical beauty. She concludes that the enthralling view of nature from her window makes her indifferent to mirror as it is this enduring beauty outside that adds a new complexion to her soul.
Fleur Adcock teaches us something about true beauty and grace in this poem. Our vanity often conspires against our authenticity and blocks the Inner light in us. For the poet, it is the beauty of the place that awakens the Inner light and offers a remedy for her regressive charm. She thereby portrays an astonishing picture of a life that is possible, a life of wholeness, in which we can truly be what we are. The grace that Adcock unlocks is overwhelmingly appealing to the cosmetically driven man or woman exuding metropolitan vanity. Beauty around us has the power to flood our being and uplift us to the transcendent realm.
Like the poet, we can become “indifferent to mirrors”, to what our souls wear to the outside. Maybe we should forget what we cannot control and find that grace to live a life that is nourishing and fulfilling.

 ( Credits: Poems 1960-2000 by Fleur Adcock (Bloodaxe Books, 2000)

Sunday, February 7, 2016



By Attilio Bertolucci
Translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock

This is a year of poppies: our land
was brimming with them as May burned
into June and I returned—
a sweet dark wine that made me drunk.

From clouds of mulberry to grains to grasses
ripeness was all, in the fitting
heat, in the slow drowsiness spreading
through the universe of green.

My life half over I saw grown sons
setting off alone and vanishing from sight
beyond the prison the flight
of the swallow makes in the spent

glow of a stormy evening, but the pain
gave way humanely to the light
coming on inside the house for another meal
in air made cooler by hail

letting off steam in the distance.
Attilio Bertolucci was one of the greatest poets of Italy. Born in 1911, Attilio Bertolucci published his first book of poems at the age of 18. His second, published in 1934, was recognised and favourably reviewed by Eugenio Montale, the Nobel Laureate. There followed a period of silence, broken in 1951 by The Indian Wigwam, which won the Viareggio Prize. He has also published two bestselling volumes of a novel in verse, La camera da letto, a kind of family history about his parents and childhood, and his love for Ninetta, the mother of Giuseppe and Bernardo Bertolucci, his two famous film-director sons. A frequent cause of pleasure and also disquiet in Bertolucci's poetry is his sense of time, the calm fire of the days. The critic Paolo Lagazzi speaks of Bertolucci, although slowly bleeding to death because wounded by time, as also drawing from time 'all the gifts, colours, sweetnesses still possible - while darkness and winter advance without truce'. Attilio Bertolucci won the Montale Prize in 1989, and in 1992 the most prestigious of all Italian prizes, that of the Accademia del Lincei.
This poem can be considered as the poet’s midlife musings. It is a stage where you are mature and your children depart from your life one after another seeking their shores of contentment. The line ‘Ripeness was all" is an echo of a line in Shakespeare's King Lear: "Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all." It speaks to being ready for inevitable death, but also, savoring your life and making the most of every moment until the end. While the line (spoken by Edgar to Gloucester in King Lear) comes from a play about fathers and their children, there’s nothing in the poem to suggest the paternal agonies that are the stuff of Lear. Rather, the subject of this mid-year, mid-life poem is the painful but proper experience of seeing one’s children leave home and make their way into the wider world. (Where, by the way, they seem to have done pretty well as Bertolucci’s sons are both highly regarded filmmakers.)
The word “humanely” in line fourteen (the pain gave way humanely to the light) seems almost to impart personification to the entity of “pain.” It would be such a different poem were it not for that light coming on when it does—showing that, though the sons have set out alone, they haven’t left the speaker alone: the light is the sign of some ongoing companionship, which seems to ease his losses. And the storm passes, having actually improved the quality of the evening (‘air made cooler by hail’) . “Poppies” strikes the reader as a rare poem in which the bitter and the sweet find a nearly perfect balance.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Biography of Sleep

Biography of Sleep

by Aleš Debeljak

Translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry


 Shadows are thickening‚ the long backs of hills plunge 
 into the ocean’s waves‚ the drone of a trumpet solo 
 is heard. Perhaps it comes from a transistor.—
 Somewhere at the edge of the visible world the hidden

 power of melancholy is lost in the quicksand of Maghreb.
 —Noon throbs metallic. Veterans sleep in wicker rocking 
 chairs. Their shoes’ soft leather smells perhaps of resin
 and of punitive journeys. —Ripe fruit lies in the burnt 

 grass of the garden. The white walls of small houses 
 shiver from the heat‚ lethargy corrodes the officer’s liver. 
 And turns it into a catalog of plants. —One of them 
 recites Dante. Many deaths slowly gather in him.


 Clock hands have been still for years. Young roe deer 
 are frozen in lithographs. —Reports continue. —And 
 fermented fruit goes to the head: in weightless dizziness
 there is a mirage. Which multiplies with recent encounters 

 with the theory of poison. Many times. No surprise: memory 
 melts like wax. The magnetic circle of crime is now stronger
 than gravity. Nothing unusual. If pigeons flutter in dreams‚
 they retreat at once into oblivion. —This instant‚ when the air

 trembles with fervor: all places trick the memory on times 
 passed‚ variations of murder‚ the symmetry of slow deaths.
 All of these. And the human trace is tattooed with a green snake 
 head‚ burning with a wish to break through the sound barrier.


 This poem is for you‚ anonymous. Irritable and ill from 
 monotonous waiting for some cry still wandering through 
 seasons. And you don’t write a diary. No one has‚ no one 
 like you. You’re left to yourself. And to nostalgia for the future. 

 In your own way you will endure refugee camps and part from 
 beautiful ornaments in secessionist architecture. On titmouse 
 feathers you might lay eyes on the brief glimmering of weapons. 
 And your solitary whistle. Which lasts. Long. It will harden into elegy. 

 You can do nothing about this. So it must happen. Then despair 
 murmuring softly in us. That’s the point. You can drink six bottles‚ 
 but you will not revive your own face in the mirror of a stranger’s 
 memory. You will be single and alone until the end. Surely.


 Banks‚ flags‚ ships‚ holidays‚ cock fights‚ epaulets‚ 
 copper engravings of English horses‚ dead guards
 and elite divisions. All this slides by. Disappears 
 like talk during an afternoon slumber. —

 Face it. Arrival and a desolate scene are the same thing. 
 Instead of a planted tree and pages of a will only a name 
 remains‚ which someone entered in a dictionary. Nothing 
 more. Oh‚ perhaps someone for a moment remembers 

 the metamorphosis from pale to purple: like in old times with 
 lords. Otherwise it is really nothing. —Rip the crumpled
 carnation off the chest‚ lean over the geometric granite
 cubes‚ exhale. Now. Like those in the Stammheim prison.


 At the border of lip and tongue‚ someone is counting days 
 to a strong earthquake‚ which Halley’s comet did not predict. 
 And bird catchers are emptying full traps and family
 homes sink into the mud. As from afar‚ grape leaves 

 scorched with Peronospora gently fall off the fronts 
 of houses. And the spears of white hunters unerringly
 find the softness of loins and bellies: I would like to place
 the last period. Listen‚ there is no rhetorical figure

 of eternity. Behind a closed window some long vowel foretells 
 an influx of sorrow‚ which laps meekly in anguished people.
 A thick haze settles on all sides and the room expands.
 Under a railway embankment the two of you are lost in a slow fuck.


 To survive all that persists in evident harmony.
 To be snow on a warm palm‚ which will freeze from 
 the weight of silvery crystals. To be a letter in Sanskrit.
 Buckwheat honey. To be less than eternity and confidential

 documents. To become poppies‚ tobacco leaves‚ a flat
 landscape. A word which no one can repeat properly. 
 To rustle to someone like a rhyme from a sonnet
 and instantly sink into disorder. To be absurd bird

 chatter echoing in all the rooms like a melody. To be vast 
 fields‚ blues in forty-year-olds’ memories. To survive 
 the anguish of a space that constricts like an animal’s pupil.
 That attacks with dreadful force and settles its belated debt.


 Under horizons of wet flocks it could have been otherwise.
 Perhaps neighbors would leave him in the room for at least 
 three days. So that the air might lie heavily on his eyes‚ open 
 wide to the hunt and flight. And to nostalgia‚ which no one 

 among them can shake off. So that death’s thin song would echo 
 in his ear. And the casual droning of bees would close the circle. 
 But I don’t believe it. In the people endlessly wandering‚ some 
 map is always rioting beyond the edges of these lines. 

 And it borders on the unbearable. So that the premonition 
 of a cuckoo’s muffled singing clearly breathes in them.
 And in their liver burns brute strength‚ which in the presence 
 of a woman turns into yearning. With it comes the smell of cinnamon.

When Aleš Debeljak, one of the most renowned Slovenian poets and essayists of the past three decades, died in a car accident on 28th January 2016, the world lost a great postmodern poet who endeavored to capture the complexity of our living planet with commanding historical sense and emotional intensity.

Born in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 1961, the poet, editor, translator, and professor Ales Debeljak graduated in comparative literature from the University of Ljubljana and later received his Ph.D. in Social Thought at Syracuse University, New York. He was a Senior Fulbright fellow at the University of California, Berkeley and a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in Budapest.

A leading Central European poet, Debeljak has published five books of poems and eight books of essays in his native Slovenian. His books in English translation include Anxious Moments as well as Dictionary of Silence and The City and the Child and Without Anesthesia: New & Selected Poems

As the American critic Kathy Crown rightly mentions,"Each of Ales Debeljak's hallucinatory poems is lit by wonder, as the poetic voice strives for a pure state of incandescence. Pushed beyond language into the body's shadow zone, the human voice threatens to disintegrate into inarticulate cries piercing screams, soft chimes, vocal tremors, and the high C of Ella Fitzgerald. Yet the poet who is "running out of words" does not succumb to silence; instead, he begins to enter new names in its dictionary. Deeply grounded in an awareness of social and political concerns, Debeljak's poems wander restlessly "on the border between east and west," in a surreal landscape of refugee camps, barren fields, and deserted city streets. His work more ontology than confession exists where Rilke's gleaming visions meet the dark edge of the millennium. In Sonja Kravanja's splendid translations, which deftly capture the music and melancholy that infuse Debeljak's work, we have a significant document on the effects of exile, wandering, and survival on language." 

 Debeljak is a postmodern Spinx and his poems often carry a detailed mapping of lives-of-the-moment and they are intellectually sharp and penetrating affecting our psyche. Seemingly simple and prosaic at first glance, his poetry gains power, magic and momentum as it treads into the historical, topographical and human landscape, from which no exit seems possible. 

This gripping quality makes his poems intense, cohesive and articulate. Memory, melancholy and moist silence pervade much of his poetry. Aleš Debeljak is a universal poet and his encyclopedic style carries the command of a Renaissance master, continuously combining artistic sensibility and scientific reflection with social responsibility. 

His poetry is a wonderful combo of passion, emotion, pathos, sensuality meditation, warmth, reflection, beauty and rich engagement even the minutia around him. This can be experienced in the above poem too.