From Nabokov to Nichita Stanescu by way of José Kozer and MTC Cronin
For me reading is a bit like chain-smoking with one book leading me on to another. Sebald’s essay in Campo Santo ‘Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov’ sparked the desire to explore Nabokov. I’d read Lolita in my twenties and been repelled by its combination of, to me, moral-aesthetic emptiness and literary stardom. If Sebald, whose Austerlitz and Vertigo must count among the late 20th century’s greatest novels, rated Nabokov so highly I felt I needed to revisit his work. Sebald singled out The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Speak, Memory so I read them both. I quickly understood Sebald’s enthusiasm. Both are masterpieces: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight with its mix of humour, sadness and wild inventiveness; Speak, Memory for its beautifully written, exquisitely detailed summoning of a lost world, Russia before the Revolution.
Biographies, autobiographies, diaries and memoirs, when written with perception, artistry and flair, would have to be among my favourite reading pleasures. Stand-outs from recent years include Victor Klemperer’s strikingly analytic diaries of life as a Jew in Nazi Germany, I Will Bear Witness and To The Bitter End, Reiner Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka and Romain Gary’s autobiography of his war years, Promesse de l’aube. Paul Klee’s Diaries joins that group. Klee is a wonderful observer as he annotates a life as devoted to music and literature, and country walks and family life, as to art. As a poet it’s comforting for me to see Klee’s patience and persistence with his art, his devotion to miniature forms, holding back from creation in order to find what will be truly new, truly his own. Enrolling to study art in Munich in 1898, Klee leaves within a year, avoiding all ready-made paths, preferring to experiment cautiously on his own. For fifteen years he barely paints at all. Finally, visiting Tunisia for a few weeks in 1914, the revelation comes:
Color possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always. I know it. That is the meaning of the happy hour. Color and I are one. I am a painter.(297)
As companions to Klee’s Diaries I read The Angels of Paul Klee by Boris Friedewald and Paul Klee: Masterpieces of Art edited and with commentary by Susie Hodge. Seeing Klee’s art works, at least in colour reproductions, added greatly to the experience of reading the Diaries, and Friedewald’s inspired mini-essays on a generous sample of Klee’s drawings of angels, drawings Klee did throughout his lifetime, helped me see his work from a deeper, somewhat Rilke-like, perspective. Above the start of an essay on the 1934 painting The Making of an Angel Friedewald sets a brief, quite haunting excerpt from Klee’s writing that says much about the nature of artistic creation: ‘… who wouldn’t want to live there/as an artist? / In nature’s lap, at the very roots/ of creation, where the secret key/ to everything lies safe?’
In the last two months I’ve read, or skim-read, several contemporary novels but my love-hate relationship with the form is so complex it needs a separate essay. So I’ll move on to highlights from my poetry reading.
The ultimate, deeply satisfying slow-read is translation, especially when you can be in regular contact with the author. Such is my relationship with Cuban poet José Kozer. I am now working on Kozer’s most recent book Imago Mundi. Kozer writes a poem a day, usually about three pages with very short lines. It takes him half an hour or so to write a poem and generally another half hour the next day to revise it. I need a day or two for a first draft and the same time again to revise my translation, aiming at a poem that will stand up fully as a poem in English. Through our correspondence I’ve got to know of other poets and translators, for example Kristin Dykstra, translator of many Cuban poets including Reina María Rodríguez. The poems in Rodríguez’s The Winter Garden Photograph carry multiple layers of intertextuality. Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Paul Celan, Che Guevara, Pessoa, Samuel Beckett are among the many who leave their traces in these poems, either through references to photographs of them or through their writings. Through imagined interlocutors Rodríguez summons a life lived between Havana and the rest of the world. In an accompanying interview Rodríguez explains: ‘I don’t believe that literature is territorial. Not only for Cuban literature, but for all literature. The poet has no determined place.’ It’s a perspective that resonates a lot with me as I translate poets who may be in Latin America or Florida, or, more generally, correspond through email or Facebook with writers in Sweden, France, England or Queensland, as happens with MTC Cronin.
MTC Cronin is a long-term favourite poet of mine and I’ve just finished reading her latest book God is Waiting in the World’s Yard. It’s a book of contemplative prose poems, their mythic location the world’s yard, a back yard marked by limitless depth and resonance. Here a strange logic plays out through images, and God often resembles the speaker of everything we can’t find a place for in ready-made categories. It is poetry’s ability to sidestep normal ways of thinking that Cronin mines in her poetry and in this book especially. Images guide us forward without explanations, as in this passage: ‘The door to the yard swings open—Flowers glitter in small cloths of light—A butterfly is mistaken for one of the tiny red and blue birds that travel the fence in pairs and all around me castles have lain themselves in the furrows that form when history emerges from castles.’ I love the kind of free-floating mind that can ask, ‘What ambition do you think the wind has? Yet it carries the dreams of men. And there, the tree, kingly connoisseur of the birds, always happy with daylight as it is. Its leaves, like rain, fit where they fall.’ Cronin writes poetry the way Wallace Stevens or Rilke wrote it—with a breathtaking edge.
I’d like to mention briefly a book I read that’s very different from God Is Waiting. I don’t generally enjoy verse novels or collections tracing a story but Jennifer Liston’s Grace Notes won me over. Liston brings so much energy to the story and has a real flair for making the protagonist’s inner world come alive. And it’s an interesting story—a 16th-century Irish Pirate Queen, operating around a then extraordinarily disorganised Ireland of feuds and rival alliances.
I ‘d never heard of Rumanian poet Nichita Stanescu until Margie (MTC) Cronin recommended him to me. His collection in English translation Wheel With A Single Spoke gathers poems written over some thirty years (Stanescu died in 1983, aged fifty). Stanescu’s poems stand out for their direct immediacy, the clarity of his strange images and the unusual perspectives he brings to the most mundane or mystical objects. Whether it’s a child receiving ‘his natural right to time’ or houses being bombed as seen by a very young boy, an angel passing through a city or a Babylonian hero facing his ability to shape mountains but not escape his own loneliness in ‘Enkidu’, Stanescu’s poems never go where you might expect. Reading Stanescu, I felt like someone at the point of touching a world I’d never seen before—for me, one of the deepest pleasures poetry has to offer.
I read many novels back in my teens and twenties and spent several years trying to write novels. There are a few I’ve reread several times, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu being the main one. However, increasingly poetry and non-fiction are my favourite forms of reading. The non-fiction I enjoy ranges from philosophy and books on science to history and biographies. Non-fiction and poetry have some deep connection. Both concern reality—’non-fiction poetry’ is almost a tautology as it’s natural to read poems as true accounts of reality, whether it’s personal experience, the objective world out there or an attempt to grapple with life’s unknowables. Both offer the reader the pleasure of having the whole self engaged—intellect, imagination and emotion—and both offer the delight of learning something new and important about the world and about our lives in it.
Peter Boyle is a Sydney-based poet and translator of poetry from Spanish and French. He has had eight books of poetry published and has seven books as a translator of Latin American poetry. In 2017 he won the New South Wales Premier’s Prize for poetry with his book Ghostspeaking. His latest collection is Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness (Vagabond Press, 2019).