Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Supervielle and the Smoke

I enjoyed this review of Homesick for the Earth, a selection of poems by Jules Supervielle, 'versioned' in English by Moniza Alvi. I know of Supervielle but have read more or less nothing of his work, and this review has made me want to read more. Doing that will have to wait for a couple of months as I’m snowed under at the moment, but I’ve enjoyed reading even the short passages that Sean O’Brien quotes and the two poems quoted afterwards in the comments box. ‘Rain and the Tyrants’ (translated by David Gascoyne, and not included in this new book) is terrific, and the title poem, ‘Homesick for the Earth’ (an Alvi 'translation') closes with the astonishing lines O’Brien quotes:

We'd pick daffodils, collect pebbles, shells,
but we couldn't catch the smoke.
Now smoke is all we hold in our hands.

Just great. There’s a very solid memory combined with regret and then the terrible loss in the final line, which makes the previous regret all the more tragic. In addition, there’s a sense of recognition because in today’s cynical world, smoke is all we hold in our hands, all we are allowed to hold. Maybe good poems keep our eyes open and attentive in spite of the smoke.

I was intrigued by Sean O’Brien’s comment that “the world of objects, places and ordinary events, to which poetry in English is habitually so attentive, is rarely a secure presence in the poems Alvi presents; reading them feels at times like trying to drop anchor in fog.” That lack of a secure presence also speaks to a contemporary sensibility, I think, so these translations may be timely. ‘Homesick for the Earth’, for all its imagery, is indeed hardly an “ordinary” everyday event, even if it does speak into the world of everyday. I do like the idea of dropping anchor in fog. Perhaps that’s what reading a good poem ought to feel like. If you are already clear on where you’re dropping anchor, a poem may not feel so necessary.

(Homesick for the Earth by Jules Supervielle is published by Bloodaxe, 2011, £9.95)

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