Versions and Translations, by Bill Direen, (Kilmog Press, 2014), edition of 53 numbered copies, unpaginated, $35
Bill Direen gives us no hints as to the reasons for his eclectic (you might say ‘motley’ in the best sense of the word) selection/collection of ‘incomparable originals’ of the ‘highly charged short poem from classical times to the present’, except that he was ‘greatly taken’ by translations of European language poetry in his youth. We must assume then, that these chosen for his own ‘responses, mirror versions in [his] native (New Zealand) English’ are among his favourites. Grouping them, what might we then learn about Direen’s own poetic style?
Versions and Translations consists of twenty-three poems, many in sonnet form. Eight are translations, eight are written ‘After’ a particular poem, seven are responses to seven others, and the lot come from seven different languages: French (4), German (3), Italian (2), Spanish (2), Portuguese (1), Latin (1) and Greek (1), as well as from British and American English over three centuries. His editor states Direen has ‘adopted two of these languages’ but does not say which ones. These we must surmise. Though there’s a clue provided by his own note – that his poems are ‘based on more than one published text or manuscript’ and ‘differing manuscripts and existing translations’ – this leads us no further to specifics; nor does the note to Rime 242 by Michelangelo, where Direen gives us the ‘[Sense (after various translations) …]’ of the poem and on the facing page, his own ‘Response’. As a further help to the reader, I feel he/the publisher might have cited the original poems’ titles in italics or with single quotation marks within his own titles, to delineate clearly whose is what; for, failing this, confusion can arise. For example, ‘Trakl’s Decay’ is different from Trakl’s ‘Decay’, in that it is not Trakl’s own decay that is the poem’s subject matter as in the original, but ‘Trakl’s poem about decay’ (yet however much that might be Trakl’s own, we still have here an ‘I’ persona and can’t establish that it is Trakl, as Direen’s title would suggest.) A little more exactitude, please. Second, page numbers don’t exist at all in this volume, so the hunting game to locate things continues.
On first looking at this beautifully hand-crafted and hand-stitched orange and black cloth-covered book with its poems printed on quality cream paper (a proper colophon indicating typeface and font please, Kilmog Press), you are already challenged to sleuth your way through the layers. The suggestion of layering and perhaps even palimpsests (though do the originals ever disappear?) is there tactically in the materia and design: black-filled or orange-within-black outlines filled, or empty triangles, or squares of cloth glued onto three vertical oblongs of cloth, themselves glued onto and under a horizontal oblong of black lettering on orange, glued on the lot. The title as printed is: VERSIONS TRANSLATIONS. So layers upon layers of poems are suggested from the outset.
Examining the table of contents, you might next ask yourself: why are the poems in the order they are in? It is not chronological. And then, with what themes/ideas do the poems concern themselves? Do these provide an ordering? And finally, as so many of these poems have already been translated into English or are originally in English, what is significant or special about Direen’s 2014 contribution?
Is Direen ‘a poet’s poet’? Perhaps so. It’s perhaps because of his love of the poems he has chosen and because they were meaningful to him in the first place, that he has put together this book. His selection ranges from c. 500BC (Euripides) to the first century (Martial); from the Medieval world (Dante and Petrarch), to the 16th century (Vittoria Colonna – one of only two women poets selected), Michelangelo, Sir Philip Sidney, Henry Howard), to the 17th century (Donne and Milton). There are two poets selected from the 18th century (Goethe, Mallarmé), two from the 19th (Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins), with his selection most populated with 20th century poets (Artaud, Rilke, Huidobro, Lorca, Hart Crane, Pessoa and Pound, concluding with the Romanian/French Tristan Tzara, and Robert Desnos.) From Rilke he has chosen two poems. No selection from either Rimbaud or Neruda, though both are mentioned in the explanatory preface in relation to his having been ‘taken’ by such poems, so that he was prompted to write ‘Direen’s versions –‘passionate, paradoxical, mystical – alongside their incomparable originals’. Incomparable indeed. I loved reading Direen’s selection; you might choose twenty-three others – and then why not twenty-three further others yourself by the same or as ‘great’ poets? But there must be something in the versions that makes these poems somehow marked as Direen’s, rather than his getting by with a great deal of help from his friends. And let us see if he deserves those three generous adjectives: passionate, paradoxical, mystical.
The argument in Fernando Pessoa’s poem ‘The Tomb of Christian Rosenkreutz’ (corrected spelling, not as Direen has it) is that the unknowability of the ‘hidden truth’ that existed ‘before the world was’, shines out through the apparent rose of our world, symbolising the apparent sacrifice/death of Christ. In his fourteen lines, Direen attempts to capture the three-times-longer poem’s slightly occult meaning. (With relation to the other Rosenkreutz mentioned by Direen, the ‘Jacob’ in Pound’s poem, I can unfortunately find no reference. Who is he? Why is he brought in?) Does the original poem’s theme set the tone for the whole collection? If so, Direen’s version is well placed here, the themes of these ‘great poems’ mostly being the big ones: life, death, is there a God, if so who/where/what? – and so on.
Let’s look closely next at his translation of George Trakl’s poem ‘Verfall (Decay)’. The title sets the tone which first enters the poem in the sextet, in the line: ‘Da macht ein Hauch mich von Verfall erzittern’, translated by Direen as ‘then a breath of Decay [why the capital letters here and in the last line in ‘Round Dance of Death’?] gives me the shivers’; fair enough, despite the drop in register, which isn’t quite Trakl’s sombre tone. But the first stanza is mistranslated. ‘Frieden’ means peace, not liberty (which would be ‘Freiheit’), and ‘Freude’ (joy) is not mentioned at all by Trakl.
Why then doesn’t Direen translate close to the original text and keep to Trakl’s punctuation, as in what could have been, say: ‘In the evening, when the bells sound out peace / I follow …’ And why is there the American overlay? This poem was written in 1908 and it is surmised that Trakl anticipated the outbreak of the First World War, so it follows that ‘peace’ would be more appropriate here. Further, why too doesn’t Direen, (as Trakl does), specify that ‘the red creeper’ is part of a vine? He loses rich meaning here, in that the contrast of the ripe grape at harvest time, the opposite of Autumn in the poem, would be inherent here, as an absence.
As I’m better equipped to consider Direen’s translations from German (and possibly also Italian and French) rather than from other languages, I’ll turn next to the two poems chosen from Rilke. First, Rilke’s earlier-written ‘Poem 1’ from the ‘Book of Penury and Death’ (helpfully numbered by Direen, though in fact Rilke himself didn’t number these poems, but sequenced them into the three parts of his Das Stunden-Buch or Book of Hours, giving each part a name). Why doesn’t Direen correctly quote Rilke’s title of the third part ‘Von der Armut und vom Tode’, for the final ‘e’ on Tode is in Rilke’s title. And, why translate ‘Armut’ as ‘Penury’ when ‘penury’ – lack of money/funds – is only one variant of the larger idea, ‘Poverty’? The poem was written two weeks after Rilke’s arrival in Viareggio from Paris in 1908 seeking peace and quiet, and is itself a soul cry against the spiritual poverty he was feeling at the time. He was then 33.
Direen’s diction is notably colloquial – ‘the big man in misfortune’ – while his ‘yet you are it’ unfortunately emphasises ‘it’ rather than Rilke’s italicised ‘Du’ (you). Direen’s use of ‘full-on’, again, is very contemporary diction which we understand, but this Americanism fits strangely with phrases referring to things ‘that occur about me’ or ‘in thee’ in terms of its mixed historicism of usage. This sudden drop or mix in register is a mark of Direen’s style, as is his sometimes unduly forced syntax, forced for rhyme’s sake. These features occur in any number of his translations/versions/responses here.
The other Rilke translation, ‘Sonnet IX to Orpheus’, is from Rilke’s two-part sonnet cycle written fourteen years later – the gift on the side written quickly as he was at last completing his magnum opus The Duino Elegies. This time Direen does number the sonnet as Rilke does, though not in his Roman numerals, but as #9; yet he omits to mention that it’s from part one of the cycle. Some oddities in translation again stand out: while in stanza two Direen does use the word ‘opiate’, which we might associate with ‘Mohn’ in Rilke’s text, why doesn’t he use the actual word ‘poppy’ and get closer to Rilke’s original? Also, Rilke himself doesn’t ‘child’ an image – the word is brought in by Direen to rhyme with the sonnet’s last word ‘mild’, the same spelling in both English and German, though pronounced in German with a short ‘i’. A ‘Teich’ is not a ‘tarn’, with its Scottish association, but a ‘pond’. If Direen were daring or declared an intention to write freer ‘translations’ (i.e. invent his own poem out of these canonical poems), possibly I wouldn’t quibble so much, but he calls this one, too, a translation. For me, to translate is to get as close as possible to the original in diction, sound and meaning. I could go on. ‘Schatten’ is ‘shadow/s’ not ‘underground’; ‘Lob’ is not ‘choir’, but ‘praise’ – even though a choir may sing praises whose sound is ‘faintly’ heard by the second poet. Direen is too far away from Rilke’s phrasing for his own piece to be a fair translation. Sure, to use an American word, I vaguely get the gist. But this is certainly not enough.
‘After Goethe’s Rome’ (the reference is to Goethe’s ‘Römische Elegie I’) at least isn’t claiming to be a translation. Perhaps it would have been better if Direen had stuck to this distance throughout his book? Though this too has a great disadvantage, for it could seem like piggy-back riding. Also, he possibly gives us a clue into his method into these poems, for he offers, as he says, the ‘sense’ of what the poem is saying – (despite tiny typographical errors that ought to have been corrected at the proof stage: ‘Rome you are an (not ‘en’) entire world’; and ‘wäre’ which is in the subjunctive and would have been better rendered in English as ‘were’) – rather than a literal translation; that is, he writes ‘After’ it, or in the manner of, as if the original were a model to aspire to. In his response, though, we can hear Direen’s own voice, and despite all these small critiques of mine I want to like Direen’s work, because he’s at least gone to all this trouble. So why don’t I next, sadly knowing ‘little Latin and less Greek’ myself, trust him in his translations of both Martial and Euripides and read them as pure Direen? Perhaps because he doesn’t quite establish a sense of trust.
Direen’s ‘Martial’s Epigrammaton LIB V, xxxiv’ reads as lightly as its last line – ‘she weighed so lightly on you’ – and is not troubled by lapses in register, but is all of a piece and even uses lovely – what I think of as reverse or encapsulating – cadences such as ‘as she was wont to do’, a joy to the ear, even if old-fashioned. But why in Euripides’ ‘Pirithous’, cannot Zeus fill Ixion with just ‘passion’ instead of ‘sexual passion’ beats me. For in the next line Ixion ‘ravishes’ an image, and isn’t always one word less when it is implied by another, a gain for a poem? And why the trema on ‘Pirithous’ when the play’s title is here in English translation?
Then Direen turns to the southern tongues that grew out of Latin – Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese – though only the two French poems are claimed as translations by Direen. But he begins this section with northern visitors to the south. First, Goethe’s ‘Römische Elegie I’, then Direen’s own ‘After Goethe’s Rome’, followed by Pound’s ‘Paracelsus’.
Published in 1795, Goethe’s Roman Elegies – a cycle of twenty-four poems – was written between 1788 and 1790 after his famed Italian Journey, when he was thirty-nine, and celebrate the erotic vigour and sensuality of Italian and classical culture. Is Direen here just having a bit of fun, or is he seriously mocking Goethe for his high spirits? He may also be attacking his hubris and his high style, so out of date now and not at all like the American contemporary slang Direen uses in his last line, ‘Goethe rubber-necked in the abstract’. In case you don’t know, ‘rubbernecking’ is craning one’s neck to get a better view. I had to look it up myself. Poor Goethe. Though he was shorter than Schiller, it’s true. Despite their equal-height double statue in Weimar. But what has Direen’s attitude and translation really to do with Goethe and Goethe’s poem? I don’t know.
Direen looks at the 16th-century healer Paracelsus stripped to his stark vision by Pound in ‘Paracelsus in Excelsis’, the title itself lovely word play. He takes apart ‘the man behind the poet’, ‘the poet in the man’. The gist is ‘physician, heal thyself’, but then no matter, it is over, you are pure spirit. Is this calm also given to a poet in his afterlife in his poems? And placed in Direen’s own canon, so he can find himself? Isn’t that why we poets have our halls of poetic hero/ines to call on, worship, imitate, laugh at, applaud, take apart, learn from? Direen’s freer version of Pound’s tight poem is lightly done and ends wittily enough.
Unrequited love, that great theme, comes out in both Sir Philip Sidney’s lovely ‘Astrophil and Stella XLV’, based on Petrarch, and in Henry Howard’s beautiful 16th-century response to Petrarch’s ‘Rime Sparse 145’ of two centuries earlier. Direen’s ‘Response’ to the former and also to Howard’s response to ‘Rime Sparse 145’ are somehow uglier. In his own words, the second ‘Response’ ‘mocks with black humour’ – not that black humour is necessarily ugly. If you enjoy this, read on. Direen seems to know well the morbid underbelly of the world, with his Americanisms again: ‘a snake behind every deal’, ‘an old man, as they’d have it, sucks’; but the wonder that Dante felt on first gazing at Bernard of Clairvaux (Paradiso Canto XXX1, 103–111) he only manages to hint at. Dante himself, as ever, gives us an involved parallel simile, so we can liken one experience with another: (i) a traveller from afar who looks at Veronica’s cloth of the image of Christ’s face asks ‘was this then how you really looked’?; which can be paralleled with (ii) Dante’s own looking at Bernard, who while living knew truly of heavenly peace. So, the likeness is between both the traveller and Dante, each still being a step away from the object of enthrallment. I don’t think though that Direen brings this over in his ‘Response’.
So let’s look at two poems written by two friends – you might say ‘spiritual lovers’ – Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna, both 16th-century Italian artists; he’s writing about the other sex from the man’s point of view, and she’s offering him indeed a spiritual truth, via the figure of Christ. I hear too the spirit of Shakespeare’s sonnets behind Michelangelo’s Rime 242, which is about a hard and sharp mistress who mocks the sculptor and frequently makes him pale with weakness; but despite these vicissitudes, because art can keep beauty alive throughout time and this thought comforts him, when he sculpts her, he’ll make her beautiful.
Direen adopts Michelangelo’s argument in his response, but turns its subject towards words and poetry instead of towards hard stone and the art of sculpture. He introduces more of the world via ‘an editor’, ‘a self-made sage’, ‘to keep me off the dole’: a poor poet’s worldly laments not all caused by the way ‘the girl’ treats him, as in Michelangelo’s sonnet. Direen’s diction sometimes falls hard on my ear, ‘They say right … (who)’, which I accept much less readily than the street language ‘who slag off at me’ or ‘in a screwy world’, phrases of the sort, as we’ve already seen, he likes to use.
Colonna’s sonnet was actually addressed to Michelangelo (in their exchange of letters 1539–40) and, accompanied by a drawing of the Crucifixion, exalts Michelangelo’s own understanding of heaven (‘del ciel’) and his knowledge of a world beyond this one, made evident by his art. The poem turns on a conceit, that of Christ’s heart offered to the soldier’s spear, and from which holy life can stream onto the sculptor; though this is not why Colonna makes her gesture, but because there is nothing higher than the metaphoric ‘book’ of faith, for which the image stands. As she says, the knowledge that this would bring him would make him immortal. Direen’s rather overwrought twists and turns of syntax don’t unravel this elegant argument and sometimes his forced rhymes, however long he must have struggled after them, show that struggle and do not achieve the lightness of Colonna’s own touch.
John Donne’s sonnet on the Resurrection and Mary’s devotion, ‘To the Lady Magdalen Herbert’, which praises the latter’s faith and innocence, is written at a similarly elevated level as Colonna’s and leaves Direen’s rather more lame version off the subject, and to my mind unfinished. Why use the Donne then?
Staying with religious matter, though involving even more complications, is Direen’s ‘After Frederico Lorca’s Vivo sin vir in mí’. Here we have a poet writing back to a poet replying to a traditional Spanish refrain (presumably anonymous) made use of by two saintly poets, Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. Direen certainly enjoys layering. This time his touch is lighter and his ‘After’ response more successful. Proofreading, however, should have picked up the word ‘fuera’ in the transliteration into English; thus: ‘I live fuera from me’ should have been ‘I live far from’ or ‘outside myself’.
Milton’s ‘On the Late Massacre in Piedmont’ calling on religion to enact justice (regarding the fate of the Piedmontese – Milton calls them Piemontese – Waldensians who refused to become Catholics) is another highly wrought religious theme, and possibly therefore why it was chosen by Direen. These things appeal to him. His own ‘Response’ is a very free version of Milton, with inversions for rhyme’s sake – as in ‘Though God did not her life protect’ – as well as a more baroque diction than we’ve seen in some of his other ‘Responses’: ‘to nurture his own’, ‘sequester belief’, ‘His predication’.
Jumping two and a half centuries now to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Spring’ and to Direen’s ‘Response’, we again find Direen using bathos in his diction. He mimics well Hopkins’ sprung rhythm technique and manages to communicate his own poem’s inscape to the reader; however his poem feels ‘after the fact’, an intellectualisation of the world seen and felt, in contrast to what in Hopkins’ poem comes across as a sensual evocation of Spring.
Four American writers next enter Direen’s book: Edgar Allen Poe via his tomb in the Mallarmé poem, and in one shot, Hart Crane and Emily Dickinson. Direen’s poem to Hart Crane (who first inspired him to read Emily Dickinson) is about the Crane’s dramatic end: his diving overboard from a ship into the Gulf of Mexico. Here at last we really find a clue to Direen’s method: ‘these words intimate, disturbed’. As one might have surmised all along, Direen’s reasons for choosing his ‘motley crew’ to translate or respond to are that these poems have been inspirational, even formative; they have got through to him and made him want to write.
Because he starts his collection with a strange, dream-like poem from Trakl, let me end by considering four slightly surrealist/expressionist poems – seemingly a favourite genre for Direen: Huidobro’s ‘Solo’ (a translation from the Spanish), Mallarmé’s ‘Tomb of Edgar Poe’ (from the French), along with his final two selections: Artaud’s ‘Tree’ and Desnos’ ‘Greet the road’ (both from the French); the latter itself a free translation of what Direen calls ‘Saluer la route’ by Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet. Unfortunately, this is another sloppy misquotation, for Tzara’s actual title is ‘Saluer le chemin’.
Huidobro’s line in ‘Solo’, ‘eating fruit at the core of nothingness’, is an existentialist, expressionist image showing him at the moment of being ‘on your own between nocturne and dying’. This late poem, written in 1941 when Huidobro was sixty-five, with its plaintive end-line ‘and a dog howls and howls for the land we have lost’ (as Direen’s words put it), makes one pity any dying soldier as well as anyone dying far from home, when they feel too they’ve lost their country.
Apart from his mistitling the Mallarmé poem ‘Tomb of Edgar Poe’ as ‘Mallarmé’s Tomb of Poe’, and losing the important adjective (especially for a poet’s voice) of ‘cette voix étrange’ (‘this strange voice’), Direen’s translation works well enough. It lands heavily and expressively on the end rhymes in the last rhyming couplet with ‘tomb’ and ‘doom’. These long dark vowels parallel those inherent in the French ‘un désastre obscur’ and ‘épars dans le futur’ of Mallarmé, Direen’s having turned the latter’s eefgfg endings in the two triplets of these last six lines into a successful eeffgg sestet. Another poet or two close to Direen’s heart for their grand styles and symbolism, not to mention falling cadences? Let’s remember too that Mallarmé translated Poe’s ‘The Raven’.
Direen’s stricter translation of (rather than ‘Response to’) Artaud’s poem ‘Tree’ provides a poem similar in theme to ‘Solo’, that of a tree representing a person or their being, alone in the world with Nature and the elements. Another poet might have translated this slightly differently into English, but what matter? Direen captures the poem’s expressionist existentialism accurately enough.
The French poet Robert Desnos’s death by typhoid, contracted during his internment in Auschwitz, is the subject of the penultimate poem ‘Desnos’, this time a free version written in response to lines inscribed on a memorial wall as recorded in ‘The Heart That Hated War’. Here Direen escapes the sonnet form and uses his own twelve-lined, in one dying fall, longer sentence to achieve his fine effect. Here we see layering itself carefully handled by the poet showing ways in which death can come in life to demean you, a lowering and a further degradation following another, until you are a concentration camp number in a condemned shirt. Desnos’ poem is most moving and heart-breaking in its isolating truth.
Finally, we are free to ‘Greet the road’, as Desnos’ Romanian friend Tristan Tzara has done and Direen has responded to, in his last chosen poem. As in Huidobro’s ‘Solo’, again an image of fruit occurs. This time it’s almost surreal: ‘smack in the centre of the split fruit of day’ is presented as if this is where you are. ‘What are you after’ and ‘where are you off to’ are two great questions the poet puts to you, the reader.
The answer is a mystical one, but not unfathomable; it is the one any contemporary poet faces daily, ‘alone on the road’ with his own ‘riotous thoughts a ribbon behind him’. It is the magical enjoyment of every moment, despite the howling of dogs and the compulsion to write.
Jan Kemp lives in Kronberg im Taunus in Germany and is a poet, anthologist, translator and lecturer. She was co-editor with Jack Ross of Classic, Contemporary and New New Zealand Poets in Performance, three CD and text anthologies (Auckland University Press, 2006–08).