Archipelago, Antonella Anedda, translated by Jamie McKendrick,
Bloodaxe Books, 2014, 160pp, £12 (paperback)

From Elsewhere, Ciaran Carson, The Gallery Press, 2014,192pp, £12

Archipelago is a bilingual selection from the six volumes of poetry that
Antonella Anedda has published over the last two decades. Though born
in Rome in 1955, her family hails from the archipelago of La Maddalena
off the northern coast of Sardinia and, as a child, she grew up speaking the
Lugordorese dialect of Sardinian, a language to which she has returned in
some of her later poems. In ‘Tongue’ she addresses it: ‘You own no coffin
to drag across the snow, / just a dog shivering in the dark’. In ‘Against
Scaurus’, another poem she has composed in her ancestral limba, she refers
to an incident which took place in 54 BC, when a delegation of Sardinians
came to Rome in order to seek justice against a corrupt proconsul. It’s a
piece in which she highlights the distance between Rome: ‘a glut of beauty,
taste and linen tunics’ and the provincials who are dismissed by Cicero as
‘A truthless people … land where even the honey is gall.’ In his concise,
but helpful Introduction, Jamie McKendrick quotes a passage from Anedda
in which she speaks of her rediscovery of her linguistic roots and the way
that they have influenced her poetry:

I can only say that at a certain time the sounds that rose in my memory
were those harsh ones of a pre-scholastic language, thick with
consonants and shorn of adjectives… I saw that one language steered
or guided the other and that most likely I had always ‘translated’ into
Italian from that language.

However, in an interview with the American poet Gerry LaFemina, she
explains that the actual source of her poetry lies elsewhere and that she was
first inspired to write at the age of thirteen when she heard a poem by Alexander
Blok being read on the radio and was ‘fascinated by those foreign
sounds.’ Subsequently, her quest for a poetic language has been shaped
by, amongst others, Mandelstam, Celan and Jaccottet. Ill-disposed towards
‘confessional’ poetry and what she has called the ‘intrusion of the self’,
Anedda further clarified her poetic aspirations in an interview for Poetry
International Rotterdam: ‘This is my understanding of writing: to write in
order to disappear, so that life is revealed to me.’

It is her exposure to the work of Blok and, thereafter, Mandelstam, Akhmatova
and Pasternak, that goes some way, perhaps, towards explaining the
snowbound atmosphere of her first collection, Winter Residences, which
seems more redolent of Northern Europe than Rome or Sardinia. Its dreamlike
opening sequence is set in the terminal wards of a hospital whose shadowy
inmates seem poised between life and death:

At four o’clock on festival days
visits come to an end. Slowly foreheads turn to the walls.
In empty corridors an aquarium peace descends.
Blue lights above and below,
on the tops of doors,
the edge of stairs.

If some of the writing here has the hypnotic clarity of a Robbe-Grillet novel,
the dying, too, seem little more than objects: ‘The only difference being the
way / the knees bend, if their knees / can bend, or the wave / shape their covers
make.’ However, there are also lines that resonate with a striking beauty:

There’s a moment before death
when the night turns like a key.
What strange signals the lamps make to the dying,
how many shadows their bodies cast.

And yet, seen from the perspective of the dying, it is those who tend them
who seem ghostlike: ‘The living call to each other as from distant boats’;
while in an extract from another longer poem, ‘Wind Lock’, her depersonalised
style captures the strange otherness of everyday objects in lines
brilliantly rendered by McKendrick:

Think of the house’s implements:
the hammers in the lumber-room’s shadows,
the nails scattered on the cloth, the saw,
the basket’s chill filigree.

In her debut collection Anedda’s attempt to rein in the self and to find a language
appropriate to the contingencies of human existence is resoundingly
successful. In her second collection, Nights of Western Peace, in which she
once more favours the long sequence, her tone becomes more expository
and, at times, gnomic:

To discover the reason for a verb
because truly it isn’t yet time
and we don’t know whether to rush towards it or take flight.

Again, McKendrick’s Introduction is helpful when he explains that this
collection was composed in the aftermath of the Iraq War and that it explores
a world in which ‘peace’ is used ironically and where the best we can
aspire to is a ‘truce’. While Anedda’s concern to explore the limits of language
is commendable, she can on occasion be somewhat cerebral. Most
successful are those moments, as here in the opening lines of ‘IV’ where
she is focused on something concrete:

She was running towards shelter, covering her head.
She belonged in that commonplace image,
indistinguishable from any other
woman surprised by rain.

With her 2003 collection, Catalogue of Joy, the language is less austere as
the poet returns to La Maddelena in a sequence of ‘Dream Fragments’. In
‘September 2001. Maddalena Archipelago. Island of S. Stefano’ she juxta42
poses ancestral history and a more ominous present:

This small island riven underwater by U.S. submarines,
where my great-grandfather planted citrus fruits and vines,
built cowsheds and brought ten cows from the mainland.

In ‘Earth’, from the same collection, she moves from a description of
the planet revolving in space to an exploration of that ‘emptiness’ that so
haunted Philip Larkin: ‘Asleep, I cry out “I’m falling” / and then feel
space, blackness, the stars at the nape of my neck’. As so often in the work
of Larkin, an awareness of mortality is never far from the surface of Anedda’s
poems and is given memorable expression in ‘Love and the Crow’:

Then we fly off, he skywards, I towards the earth
that waits for me, down there, beneath the steps:
a patch of earth, still colourless, but with stones and moss,
an unexplored continent.

As a counterweight, however, there is also a stoic determination to make
the most of what life offers, as in these lines from ‘Courage’: With its compassionate
muzzle of cloud / dawn nudges us into life.’

Antonella Anedda has had a working relationship with Jamie McKendrick
over many years. These authoritative and stylish translations have much
to commend them. Self-effacing and true to the originals, they offer those
with no Italian English versions that are beautifully cadenced and stand
up as poems in their own right; while for those with some grasp of the
language, but who would struggle to read the Italian text unaided, they will
open up a clear pathway through it.

Ciaran Carson’s From Elsewhere consists of eighty-one translations from the
work of the French poet, Jean Follain, each of which is matched by a ‘shadowy
counterpart’, an original poem by Carson, which has in some way been
prompted by it. Carson’s engagement with French poetry is long standing
and can be traced back to his 1993 collection, First Language, in which there
are exuberant versions of two poems ‘after’ Baudelaire and ‘Drunk Boat’, a
version of Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau ivre’. Moreover, having somewhat freely
reinvented Rimbaud’s great poem, Carson included in the same volume ‘The
Ballad of HMS Belfast’, an original poem of his own which is nonetheless
inspired by it. By and large, Carson’s versions of nineteenth-century French
poetry have been freewheeling ‘imitations’ in the tradition of Pound and
Lowell, rather than ‘translations’ in any strict sense of the word. In his Introduction
to From Elsewhere he alludes briefly to a classic dilemma:

When one translates one cannot avoid taking liberties of one kind
or another; and perhaps one takes a special liberty in translating
Follain, whose attachment to his native language was such that
he declared himself unable to learn any other.

And yet, notwithstanding this caveat, Carson’s versions of Follain are far
closer to their originals than any of his previous versions from the French,
since Follain is a poet whose impact is visual, his language stripped back
and concrete, his lines free and unrhymed.

Born in 1903 in the village of Canisy in Normandy, Follain’s life and work
were shaped by his experience of two world wars. Nevertheless, he always
considered himself lucky to have been born just old enough to remember a
way of life that was swept away by the 1914-18 war and to have had direct
access to folk memories that went back to the Napoleonic era. Here is an
extract from Canisy, the prose memoir he published in 1942:

One evening during the 1914 war … Mother Aimé, a washerwoman,
standing on the doorsill, talking to my maternal grandmother
was led to say, ‘This war will not be as bad as Napoleon’s.
It was bad at Berezina when the men and the horses died
in piles. I had a great uncle who was there and told us.’

‘Soulier renoué: Shoelace Tied’, the first poem in this collection and one of
the first to capture Carson’s attention, is, like most of them, short enough
to be quoted entire:

When evening waves
its bank of clouds
one sees the grass fires
raise their smoke
flowers grow in the sunken lanes
there’s still a glimpse of daylight
and a boy in an iron-grey smock
bows to a rut
to tie his shoelace
no slack in his life
no trace of absence.

A simple, but enigmatic description of a figure in a landscape, devoid of
rhetoric and couched in homely language, it’s a poem which is typical of
Follain and all the more remarkable, perhaps, when seen in the context of
a tradition where the gap between everyday speech and poetry is much
greater than in our own. In his companion piece, ‘Out’, Carson expands the
eleven lines of the original to eighteen and has invented a brief narrative:

the end of the world to be
at the horizon the boy walked
for hours; after his people
scoured the fields for miles around
crying his name
to the four winds…

Moreover, Carson’s more elaborate transposition is based upon details
gleaned from the writings of John Clare, a poet whom, surprisingly, given
his reluctance to study foreign languages, Follain admired. In ‘Sans langage:
Without Language’ Follain refers to ‘The sadness of voice without
language’. In his response to it, Carson incorporates an image from Seamus
Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’: ‘he shouted / the two syllables / of his
name / deep down into it / to hear his echo.’ However, in spite of these
references one should not imagine that there is anything forced or literary
about Carson’s response to Follain, since both are poets, who in their own
way have always been fascinated by the details of mundane existence and
have sought to capture the actuality of objects and the lives associated with
them. Follain’s poem ‘Entailles: Furrows’ moves from ‘A furrowed school
table’ to take in a view of roads, a granite building, and a ship leaving ‘the
city to its rubble.’ It could very easily be a Carson poem from his 2003
collection Breaking News; while the opening lines of Carson’s ‘Mill Street’
sound very much like Follain: ‘Alone in the dayroom / he would listen for
the murmur of the stream / that ran below the school.’

Frequently, Carson’s re-imagining of Follain is largely a question of updating
the the earlier poet’s historical context, so that we move beyond the folk
memories of rural France to the divided streets of Belfast and, by implication,
war zones that are even further afield, with Follain’s evocation of dark
times, ‘des temps sombres’, being analogous to the ‘Troubles’ of Carson’s
formative years and not so far removed, either, from ‘la tregua’ or the uneasy
‘truce’ explored by Antonella Anedda in Nights of Western Peace.
And so, where we find in Follain solitary horsemen, hussars, braid, sabres,
their counterparts in Carson are helicopters, foot patrols, armoured cars and
radios. Sometimes, it is no more than a fleeting image that sparks Carson’s
response. In ‘La ruine: the Ruin’ ‘a dilapidated wall’ takes him back to the
‘Belfast confetti’ of his 1989 collection of that name: ‘With sledgehammers
/ they break down the walls / of their back yards / into bricks for missiles.’
In ‘Guenille: Rag’ the way a seemingly unremarkable object is presented
reminds one of the work of William Carlos Williams:

to imitate the bird
the rag hangs from the branch
red beside the sweet apple
the bird flown the apple fallen
it stays where it is
flaunting the chill of ages
and its colour in the silence…

Inspired by it, Carson’s ‘Sunset’ is more obviously political: ‘along the
stretch of demarcated road / the union / flags begin to flicker in their tatters’.
Moreover, beyond his concern to present historical reality and the
daily struggle for survival in uncertain times, there is also, throughout Follain’s
work, an attempt to capture the essential mystery of existence and
the frequent vanity of our ambitions in the light of nature’s indifference.
This is captured succinctly in ‘Tragique du temps: Tragedy of the Times’:
‘However strong the prison door / The wind blows through.’ In ‘Sous le
soleil: Under the Sun’ he quotes from Ecclesiastes and, at the same time,
neatly subverts the central conceit of Baudelaire’s ‘Correspondances’, that
sacred text of Les Symbolistes: ‘Under the sun everything appears / a symbol
of nothing’. In ‘Run’, Carson’s companion piece, he homes in on a man
who is fleeing from a situation that means nothing to the ’grey rabbits’ who
‘below his moving feet … do what they have always done.’

In ‘L’oeuf: the Egg’ Follain finds a breathtakingly simple image to suggest
something that is good and wholesome. In Carson’s ‘Rifle’ it is destroyed
in a fraction of a second, and yet, as Follain suggests in ‘Par ce jour: In this
Light’, everything survives in memory: ‘Images from memory / will resurface
/ in the due course of the evening.’ A rich and absorbing collaboration
between two poets, one dead and one living, From Elsewhere reads like
fragments from a great folk epic. We can only hope that Follain’s prophecy
in ‘L’affiche: The Poster’ that ‘the next century will be worse’ does not
continue to haunt us and that, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary,
humane values will, in the end, prevail.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.