‘Amazement is the thing’
For many years Alastair Reid could hardly be said to have been a presence in Scottish poetry. No one need search too hard for a reason — he simply wasn’t here, but in the U.S.A., France, Switzerland, Spain, or elsewhere in the Hispanic world. He appeared in some Scottish anthologies, but early in his career he seems to have been drawn towards what he has called “a deliberate, chosen strangeness”, that is, as opposed to deracination, an ‘otherness’ which some Scots have found irresistible, the prime examples being Robert Louis Stevenson for whom Scotland was “that blessed, beastly place”, and Muriel Spark who saw herself as of “Scottish formation”.
Roots are portable enough for a poet or any sort of writer either to eat them for breakfast, forget them, or be reminded through overhearing an accent or noticing a coincidence in the weather. In Scotland the temptation has been to make too much of them. Nationality sometimes seems scattered all over the page, a superficial squandering, an anxiety rather than a poetic fascination. For much of the time Reid is a poet of specific places rather than his nationality, a choice, or identity, which he shares with Norman MacCaig. In any case, a poet’s places (and events, memories, loves) are re-made by imagination whatever the immediacy of their origins in reality.
Reid is well aware of the continuities and vulnerabilities of poetry. ‘Poem Without Ends’, for example, opens:
One cannot take the beginning out of the air
Saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’.
The process is continuous as wind, …
Meditating on these lines encourages me to believe that one of the ways Reid differs from most Scottish poets of around his age is more than an openness to experience of the world, but an unwillingness to see a poem as a closed or finished artefact. Or, as Paul Valéry believed, a poem is never finished, merely abandoned. Another way of putting it is to cite what a friend of mine used to call “the miraculous school of poetry”, poems, that is, ought to happen because they must: the poet didn’t choose to write them, but was compelled. It’s not a recipe for artless spontaneity, but its resourceful opposite. Reid’s artistry in language is conspicuous, in both poetry and prose; his command of cadence, phrase, image, and narrative, is robust, or delicate when it needs to be. Yet in a brief introductory note in Weathering (1978) he claimed the book was “something of a farewell on my part to formal poetry, which seems to me now something of an artificial gesture, like wearing a tie.” It read then as too bad to be true; and it still puzzles me. “I am more interested in the essential act of putting-well-into-words, good writing.”
When asked why he didn’t seem to have written a poem in a long while, Philip Larkin liked to say, “You can’t write a poem unless you’ve a poem to write.” Could something similar have happened to Alastair Reid and he had the sense and courage to recognise that his poetry was finished? Of course, you can always change your mind, either back to what it was before, or take a different tack entirely. Reid, though, has the comforts of translation, and prose. New poems may be few and far between, but he is still the same eminent man of letters, and wise in his art.
Poetry has its mysteries as Alastair Reid acknowledges on virtually every page. Where they come from, those unpredictable accuracies of seeing, imagining, remembering, and saying, is, if not exactly anyone’s guess, then bordering on the secret; and an attentive reader’s answer is often likely to be wrong. Take, for example, the third stanza of ‘The Waterglass’:
An underwater wind
ruffled the red-roofed shallows
where wading stilt-legged children
stood in the clouded sand,
and down from the knee-deep harbour
a ladder led to the drowned.
Evocative as these lines are of a boy, or man, using a glass-bottomed box to look at the coastal sea bed, their perceptiveness, and that of the poem as a whole, goes beyond a memory of what was observed. It enters a realm at once unsettling but filled with a sense of wonder. Some cadences and phrasings are reminiscent of Dylan Thomas when he was being lucid, which is perhaps more obvious at the beginning of ‘Isle of Arran’:
Where no one was was where my world was stilled
into hills that hung behind the lasting water, …
Here the mystery arises from asking ourselves where ‘lasting’ came from — except that water is permanent, and few other phenomena more so in a northern, wet, temperate climate. That makes ‘lasting’ no less surprising an epithet; and one of the ways in which poetry happens is when surprise coincides with a reader’s recognition, or leads to understanding anew aspects of life and the world of which the reader was ignorant or only half-aware.
‘James Bottle’s Year’ uses a calendar form with a tightness of sound achieved through a deceptively off-hand use of rhyme. Rarely, if ever, has Reid been the all-out tie-wearing formalist he dismissed thirty years ago in his remarks in Weathering. Instead, his metrical astuteness avoids any taint of showing off and opts for an appropriate form. The simplicity of the month-by-month structure of ‘James Bottle’s Year’ contributes to its success as a portrait of a mythical or iconic countryman, perhaps a poacher, or gamekeeper, or agricultural worker, though more as an emblem of hard life. Setting and chronology seem Scottish, maybe Galloway; but that might not be so, and I could be misled by memories of books by John McNeillie and Ian Niall. As with many of Reid’s poems, its place and events are simultaneously local and universal.
Like Stevenson, and many before and since, Reid appears to have loved maps, charts, atlases, and islands. Certainly the way he describes them in ‘Directions for a Map’ suggests an ingrained affection as well as an awareness of the knowledge they do not disclose:
Crossing the threads of roads to nibbled coastlines,
the rivers run in veins that crack the surface.
Mountains are dark like hair, and here and there
lakes gape like moth holes with the sea showing through.
Between the seaports stutter dotted shiplines,
crossing designs of latitude and language.
The towns are flying names. The sea is titled.
A compass crowns the corner like a seal.
But, “There are no signs for love or trouble”.
And even though, on any printed landscape,
directions never tell you where to go,
maps are an evening comfort to the traveller —
a pencil line will quickly take him home.
Too much could be made of Reid’s itineracy, just as a critic could overdo sniffing for the fragrance of influences (Auden, for example, in ‘Directions for a Map’). Good poems are seldom the result of a flying visit. ‘New Hampshire’ (Robert Frost country) reads as a well-experienced poem, as do ‘Maine Coast’, ‘Chelsea Reach’ and ‘Geneva’. He likes to settle in first, then leave. As he writes in ‘The Spiral’:
Places, addresses, faces left behind.
The present is a devious wind
obliterating days and promises.
Tomorrow is a tinker’s guess.
Marooned in cities, dreaming of greenness,
or dazed by journeys, dreading to arrive —
change, change is where I live.
It is more profound, more thoughtful, than “love them and leave them”, whether applied to places or lovers.
Curiosity ranks high in Reid’s mind and range of choices.
Face it. Curiosity
will not cause us to die
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill
of that improbable country
where living is an idyll
(although a probable hell)
would kill us all.
Only the curious
have if they live a tale
worth telling at all.
Two other cat poems, ‘Propinquity’ and ‘Cat-Faith’, when added to ‘Curiosity’, appear to create Reid’s persona as a nocturnal cat-man:
When, libertine at dark,
we let the visions in, and the black window
grotesques us back, our world unbalances.
Feline monstrousness is redeemed by gestures of respectability:
Yet, to endure that unknown night by night,
must we not be sure, with cat-insight,
we can afford its terrors, and that full day
will find us at the desk, sane, unafraid —
cheeks shaven, letters written, bills paid?
‘Mediterranean’ is more than a poem that tries to live up to its title. Embedded in it is a discreetly but passionately expressed love poem. It reads as a poem conveying a feeling of love as transient. “The garden is not ours” is repeated twice, the first time at the end of the first stanza, and then as the last line of the poem:
Dear one, this present Eden
lays down its own condition:
we should not ask to wait.
No angel drives us out,
but time, without a word,
will show among the flowers,
sure as a flaming sword.
The garden is not ours.
When he writes about love there is an active presence of privacy. Nothing is hidden. Instead, it’s made over into fiction, as if writing in your own language is a way of ‘translating’ experiences and feelings into it. He enjoyed a close association with Robert Graves on Mallorca from 1956 to 1961. Towards the end Reid fell in love with Graves’s current muse, with whom he eloped. The episode is described in his affectionate memoir of Graves, and, with considerable bile, in Martin Seymour-Smith’s biography of 1982. (Acolytes of the same elder poet seldom have anything good to say of each other.) But that privacy was always there, and hardly to be explained by his affair with Margot Callas. There could be a Gravesian scenario in ‘A Lesson for Beautiful Women’ — “six eyes”, “three goddesses” &c. At the same time that sort of speculation leaves a bad taste in the mouth and overstates biography’s place in criticism.
Diversity is what Reid may have learned from his many conversations with Graves and close proximity to Graves’s example as a writer — poetry, prose, and “the alchemy of translation”. But whereas Graves translated mainly from ancient texts, Reid has translated modern Hispanic and Ibero-American poetry. Reid was unimpressed by the University of St Andrews which he attended in 1946-50 after war service in the Royal Navy, as he makes clear in two poems, ‘The Academy’ and ‘The O-Filler’. Disdain for academies and academics never did a poet any harm, though, while, for a translator of poetry it is surely more important that the poet-translator find an affinity with the translated. In his essay ‘Fictions’, Reid tells us that he first met Jorge Luis Borges in 1964 when Borges had already succumbed to hereditary blindness.
I found at once a coincidence of mind, not simply an enthusiasm for his writings, but more, a complete accord with the view of language implied in all his writing …. Borges referred to all his writings — essays, stories, poems, reviews —
Some might find it odd or ironic that the anti-bookish Alastair Reid should translate the inveterately bookish Borges, Director of the National Library of Argentina, whose life and mind were devoted to books and submerged in them, and in dreams of them:
Care of this city of books he handed over
to sightless eyes, which now can do no more
than read in libraries of dream the poor
and senseless paragraphs that dawns deliver
to wishful scrutiny. In vain the day
squanders on these same eyes its infinite tomes,
as distant as the inaccessible volumes
that perished once in Alexandria.
Only a poet nimble in versification could have achieved these translations of Borges’ poems. They read like radiant poems in English, almost a brilliant mimicry in English of a voice in Spanish with an Argentinian history behind it as well as a near-universal erudition. Two factors perhaps made the task just that little bit easier. One, Reid knew Borges and conversed at length with him. And two, Borges’ affection for and knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic culture.
When one poet translates another, perhaps superior, almost always different, he or she is performing an act of homage that seeks for an elusive accuracy. Part of the business of translation is simply to make poems available to those who do not understand the original language. While that was conceded by the great critic Walter Benjamin, in his “The Task of the Translator”, he also claimed that translation was “a mode of its own”. That is, he believed that “the task of the translator, too, may be regarded as distinct and clearly differentiated from the task of the poet”. For Benjamin, “The intention of the poet is spontaneous, primary, graphic; that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational”. But what if the translator is a poet, and a good poet at that, rather that artifex additus artifici, an “added artificer”? This is where poetic translation becomes interesting and aesthetically challenging; it becomes as creative as writing an original poem.
In “An ABC of Translating Poetry”, appended to his The Poetics of Translation (1993), Willis Barnstone writes:
Translation is an art BETWEEN tongues, and the child born of the art lives forever BETWEEN home and alien city. Once across the border, in new garb, the orphan remembers or conceals the old town, and appears new-born and different.
Moving BETWEEN tongues, translation acquires difference. Because the words and grammar of each language differ from every other language, the transference of a poem from one language to another involves differing sounds and prosody. And because there are no perfect word equivalents between languages or even within the same language (as Borges proves in his story of the mad Menard) perfection in translation is inconceivable.
A translator can accept that readily enough but still be stuck with the problem of what to do with versification and rhyme in original texts when they don’t correspond to those of the translator’s language. Reid’s rhymes in his versions of Borges are happily unforced, natural, opportunistic, while his use of iambic pentameter (the most common line in English) matches Spanish hendecasyllabics.
Some are adept at living in another language. (For others it’s to feel constantly like the village idiot.) A poet-translator has to live not just in another language but in its poetry. Translating will also pull you into the life, personality, and convictions of the translated. Both Borges and Neruda were very different from each other and each different from Alastair Reid. Neruda, for example, was a diplomat, communist, and while it is easy to warm to his hedonism it seems awkward in the context of his overarching fervour in the cause of universal social justice. Neruda was aware of the contrast of his love of food and wine with his political commitment, although I doubt if he saw them as tangential. His politics were at the service of “the justice of eating”, as he wrote in “The great tablecloth”.
The lamb is gold on its coals
and the onion undresses.
It is sad to eat in dinner clothes,
like eating in a coffin,
but eating in convents
is like eating underground.
Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a chain of fish hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.
… Let us sit down soon to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.
For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.
Neruda’s startling imagery, his vernacular surrealism delivered on a direct, democratic voice, when introduced in translations also offered new possibilities of writing in English (as well as many other languages).
What does living in another language do to a poet? It could perhaps submerge him in translation, weaken the instinctive and necessary servitude to his or her mother tongue, the language in which a childhood was lived. It could also provide access to stories and images which would otherwise have been unavailable, and extend them to readers and other writers. I believe this could be the case in what might be Reid’s most remarkable poem, “The Tale the Hermit Told”. A masterly dramatic monologue, it is a fiction worthy of Marquez, the story of how a village came to be lost. A boy – who is now, years later, the hermit of the title, and the poem’s speaker — is bewitched by a gypsy girl on a day of fiesta.
Time in that moment hung
upside down. In a gulp, I drank the wine.
What happened next? You must listen.
Goggling boys, girls, dogs, band, gypsies, village,
dove, magician, all rolled down my throat.
Even the music glugged once and was gone.
I was standing nowhere, horrified, alone,
waiting for her eyes to appear and laugh
the afternoon back, but nothing moved or happened.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
And now, as used to be said, read on.
by Douglas Dunn, from Inside Out