The light, bright space of Enitharmon bookshop in Bloomsbury was filled with jostlings and murmurings as more and more people tried to fit into the crowded gallery space. A double book launch was underway. Stephen Romer was here to celebrate his anticipated Set Thy Love In Order: New & Selected Poems, accompanied by Alan Jenkins and his soon-to-be-published White Nights, which will be available in the US.
Alan introduced the evening, calling attention to the ‘beautiful volumes of poetry, and beautiful livres d’artiste’ that surrounded us, his peppering of French a preview into much of the evening’s francophone flavour. He offers thanks to Stephen Stuart-Smith, Enitharmon’s director, for hosting the launch of two books that are not in fact published by the press – although Alan’s earlier Enitharmon collection Marine, written in collaboration with John Kinsella, was on display – and praises the ‘resplendent’ Set Thy Love In Order. Rather than read for a long time, Alan explains, he and Stephen will ‘do two little sets of poems each. I’ll read for a little while, Stephen will read for a little while, I’ll read for an even littler while, so you don’t have the opportunity to start finding either of our voices monotonous’. And afterwards, he promises, there will be ‘more wine!’
White Nights, Alan notes, is a book that has taken ‘more than the usual temerity’ to publish. It centres on translations from French literature, although there are also poems written after Italian and Spanish writers. Some of these are poems that Alan has been ‘working on or thinking about for a great many years’, and when he was invited by the US publisher Stanley Moss to bring out a book, he thought of these translations. ‘I’m not going to start an argument about translation’, Alan declares, before noting simply that the poems he has chosen to work with are not ‘obscure’ and, in many cases, have been much translated in the past. He is, therefore, indebted to these earlier versions. The poems are ‘mostly love poems, or after love poems, or failed love poems, or longing love poems – and they’re all poems that I’ve loved since first reading them’. Some of these first encounters occurred when Alan was a student, aged nineteen, and his translation work often stretches back to this time.
At this point, the reading is interrupted as yet more people attempt to squeeze into the white interior of Enitharmon. There are clatterings of glasses, chatterings, offerings and refusals of chairs, until the room is stilled once more and Alan begins his reading with ‘Christ in the Olive Grove’. The poem is ‘designated after Gérard de Nerval, but it’s actually a much reduced version of his sequence of sonnets – I’ve translated just three of the sonnets’, Alan explains. His reading is slow and deliberate, with an occasional conversational lilt, and he stands with the book resting lightly in his hands, leaning casually against the bookcase behind him. Afterwards, he reads a compact poem based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘La Pipe’, answering requests from the audience for the page number. The mini-reading ends with ‘Classical Walpurgisnacht’, a poem based on a work by Paul Verlaine, but suggestive to Alan of Jules Laforgue. ‘I’m challenged and fascinated by this poem’, he says.
While the audience applauds, Alan deftly changes place with Stephen. Without pause, Stephen launches into a vervy performance of his poem ‘In the Sun’:
In the sun on my bed after swimming
In the sun and in the vast reflection of the sun on the sea
……….Under my window
And in the reflections and the reflection of the reflection
Of the sun and the suns on the sea
………..In the mirrors,
After the swim, the coffee, the ideas,
………..Naked in the sun on my light-flooded bed
………..Naked – alone – mad –
‘That’s Valéry’, Stephen says with a bashful smile. He moves from images of a ‘light-flooded bed’ to a comment on the ‘flood of warmth I get from seeing all these lovely friends and colleagues here tonight’. Both Stephen and Alan are participating in the T. S. Eliot International Summer School running in Bloomsbury in the same week – many of the school’s students and scholars are in attendance at the reading – and Stephen notes that the title of his book is ‘not innocent’ in regard to Eliot. ‘La relations entre les sexes’, an Eliotic theme, is also of importance to him, he says, echoing Alan’s earlier sprinklings of French language. Stephen then reads ‘Resolve’ from his 1986 collection Idols, calling attention to the poem’s Laforguian references. His reading is dramatic, and it is clear that he enjoys his material. This is followed by ‘Primavera’, a poem that also flirts with French, containing both French and Italian terms as well as a reference to ‘spring in every language’.
After a further chair shuffle, Alan and Stephen once again exchange places. Alan also alludes to the T. S. Eliot School, recalling his opening lecture which addressed Eliot’s debt to Laforgue. The American poet was ‘completely taken over – ravished’ by Laforgue, Alan notes, in what was a ‘tremendous surrendering of his own selfhood’. ‘I felt something akin to that when I first read Laforgue’, he professes, ‘but of course I read Laforgue through Eliot’s eyes, or through Eliot’s sensibility’. Since then, he has worked on translations of Laforgue’s later poems, the Derniers Vers. ‘Winter Coming On’ is a version of the French poet’s ‘L’Hiver qui vient’, and ‘at the more faithful end’ of Alan’s translations:
Feelings under embargo! Freight and Cargo, Middle East!
Oh, the rain falling, and the night falling,
Oh, the wind! Oh, que c’est triste…
Hallowe’en, Christmas and New Year –
All my chimneys – factory-chimneys – drizzled on; too drear…
You can’t sit down, all the benches are soaked;
Trust me, it’s over till next year.
The benches are all soaked, the woods mildewed, rust-choked,
And the hunt is calling…
And you, clouds come beetling up from the Channel coast:
You’ve spoiled our last Sunday for us. Toast.
Stephen finishes the evening with further French-inflected poems, including ‘Arbbre de Bhoneur’, written for his son, and ‘Yellow Studio’, which he liltingly interrupts to declare the page number for the keen reader-listeners among the audience. As the reading ends, listeners weave like fish in a crowded sea to the piles of books at the back of the gallery space, energised by their encounter with multiple languages, versions of poems, and ways of performing.
Suzannah V. Evans
Book Launch at Enitharmon: Stephen Romer and Alan Jenkins
Enitharmon Editions, 10 Bury Place, Bloomsbury, 12 July 2017