Sunday, March 26, 2006

Joachim Sartorius, "Ice Memory"

The latest book to which I have contributed translations is Ice Memory, by Joachim Sartorius, which has just been published by Carcanet in the United Kingdom. The book features translations by many renowned translators, including Michael Hamburger, Michael Hulse, and Christopher Middleton. (What an honor to have my translations included in this book!)

A poem is for nobody.
I send it to my friends,
the freedom to understand it
or not to understand.
— Joachim Sartorius, "Poetics," tr. Andrew Shields

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Tim Parks, "The Rapids"

Another book I read on my trip (of many -- those were LONG airplane flights) was "The Rapids," by Tim Parks. It is a novel about kayaking on whitewater in northern Italy (in South Tirol, to be precise). A group of English kayakers is there for a long weekend of advanced kayaking lessons. As a theme, kayaking offers Parks the chance to say things about kayaking that also become metaphors:

There was always the tenth time when you didn't come up and didn't know why.

That particular sentence struck me because it captures one of the mysterious and fascinating things about sports: one does the same thing over and over again until it always works, and then suddenly it doesn't, and one has no clue why. Ski jumping is a sport that seems that way to an extreme degree: one jumper suddenly can fly ten meters further than before for a few months or a year, and then suddenly he can't anymore, and he can't explain why he got better or why he suddenly got worse again. Or a tennis player goes to hit an easy volley, and suddenly misses it, after having done it right dozens of times. No explanation possible.

In this novel, kayaking is about taking risks in order to push your envelope and have the exhilirating experience of success, but Clive, the main instructor in the book, sees what the limits of such risk-taking are:

... after the high of getting away with it on the river, nothing has really changed.

Parks himself takes risks in his narrative: such a story has an obvious ending that is hard to avoid: somebody has to die, or at least come close to dying, in a nasty accident. As is usually the case in his novels, Parks manages to get around this problem while also paying tribute to it, as it were. The way he does so is quite startling and powerful, so I won't reveal it here; suffice to say that he does sidestep the predictable ending in surprising and harrowing fashion.

Of course, after the high of getting away with it in the narrative, nothing has really changed. But that's all that art can do, it seems, or sport: provide a space in which one can get away with things, in which one can be out of character: "It was satisfying to do something out of character, something destructive." The destruction that one experiences in art, as in sport, is imaginary, and hence not really destructive. One goes beyond one's limits in a safe, controlled way.

Of course, sport is more dangerous than fiction (usually): you can die kayaking, which you usually can't do while reading a novel. Still, Michela (Clive's girlfriend) concludes that "these sports are something you do instead of life." Is fiction "something you do instead of life"? Perhaps, but I would always argue that fiction is part of life, and the "life" that Michela appeals to is also a fiction -- or a sport?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Geoffrey Hill, "Without Title"

I got Geoffrey Hill's "Without Title" from the Poetry Book Society right before I went to the United States ten days ago, and finished it on my trip.

Hill's work runs completely counter to the direction my tastes have been developing in the past few years (as I become more and more critical of unnecessarily convoluted stuff where poets are trying to be deep or "difficult" but are just being boring), but he offers so much even before I begin to "understand" what he is getting at:

Thou canst grasp nothing except through appetite.

That's the conclusion of "Improvisations for Hart Crane" (varying the line from Crane that Hill starts with: "Thou canst read nothing except through appetite"). With Hill, there's always the sound of his words and of his mind at work to stimulate my appetite so that I become interested in first reading and then potentially even grasping his poems.

"Without Title" also contains "Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix" (proving that Hill's tastes are not only poetic) and a series of 21 "Pindarics" that respond to passages from Cesare Pavese's diaries. The last concludes:

Patterns of lines, mostly, raw in appearance.
I see I have just defined a poem. Something I'd say
held over, deep in reserve, so that it may strike.

Even within Hill's dense work, there is always his reserve, ready to strike at any moment.