Sarah Maguire Prize – poetry in translation – Shortlist

The Sarah Maguire Prize is a biennial award for the best book of poetry in English translation by a living poet “beyond Europe”. The winning poet and their translator (or translators) split an award of £3000 between them.

As the Poetry in Translation website states:

The prize has been established in the memory of the poet Sarah Maguire who was the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre and a champion of international poetry. The aim of the prize is to showcase the very best contemporary poetry from around the world and to champion the art of poetry translation.

The judges for the 2022 Prize are Rosalind Harvey (Chair) (translator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’), Kyoo Lee (Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York), and Kit Fan (novelist and poet).

The shortlist for the 2022 Sarah Maguire Award is as follows, blurbs taken from the publisher’s websites:

‘Come, Take a Gentle Stab’ by Salim Barakat (Translated from Arabic by Huda J. Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen)

Although Salim Barakat is one of the most renowned and respected contemporary writers in Arabic letters, he remains virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. This first collection of his poetry in English, representing every stage of his career, remedies that startling omission. Come, Take a Gentle Stab features selections from his most acclaimed works of poetry, including excerpts from his book-length poems, rendered into an English that captures the exultation of language for which he is famous.

A Kurdish-Syrian man, Barakat chose to write in Arabic, the language of cultural and political hegemony that has marginalized his people. Like Paul Celan, he mastered the language of the oppressor to such an extent that the course of the language itself has been compelled to bend to his will. Barakat pushes Arabic to a point just beyond its linguistic limits, stretching those limits. He resists coherence, but never destroys it, pulling back before the final blow. What results is a figurative abstraction of struggle, as alive as the struggle itself. And always beneath the surface of this roiling water one can glimpse the deep currents of ancient Kurdish culture.

‘Exhausted on the Cross’ by Najwan Darwish (Translated from Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid)

“We drag histories behind us,” the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish writes in Exhausted on the Cross, “here / where there’s neither land / nor sky.” In pared-down lines, brilliantly translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Darwish records what Raúl Zurita describes as “something immemorial, almost unspeakable”—a poetry driven by a “moral imperative” to be a “colossal record of violence and, at the same time, the no less colossal record of compassion.” Darwish’s poems cross histories, cultures, and geographies, taking us from the grime of modern-day Shatila and the opulence of medieval Baghdad to the gardens of Samarkand and the open-air prison of present-day Gaza. We join the Persian poet Hafez in the conquered city of Shiraz and converse with the Prophet Mohammad in Medina. Poem after poem evokes the humor in the face of despair, the hope in the face of nightmare.

‘Migrations: Poem, 1976–2020’ by Gloria Gervitz (Translated from Spanish by Mark Schafer)

Forty-four years in the making, Migrations is considered by critics to be a masterpiece of modern Mexican literature. Gloria Gervitz’s book, winner of the 2019 Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Prize, is an epic journey in free verse through the individual and collective memories of Jewish women emigrants from Eastern Europe, a conversation that ranges across two thousand years of poetry, a bridge that spans the oracles of ancient Greece and the markets of modern Mexico, a prayer that blends the Jewish and Catholic liturgies, a Mexican woman’s reclamation through poetry of her own voice and erotic power. In its reach, audacity, and astonishing vitality, Gervitz’s extraordinary life’s work bears comparison to the achievements of HD, Lorine Niedecker, Ezra Pound, and Walt Whitman.

‘Unexpected Vanilla’ by Lee Hyemi (Translated from Korean by Soje)

Lee Hyemi’s poetry is characterized by fluidity and wetness, with subjects moving about and soaking in each other through curious means.

Unexpected Vanilla’s exchange of liquids often involves sex, but intercourse can be nonsexual: drinking tea or alcohol, going to the beach, sitting in the same tub, crying, feeling your lover’s sweat on your palm. In this way, Lee explores a wide variety of relationships, attractions, and sensations. Her erotically charged, surrealist sensibility can be traced back to the paintings of Leonor Fini, a bisexual Argentinian artist whom she admires. Lee subverts the titular “vanilla” norm without denying its pleasures.

Detailing various intimacies in her “world of the second person,” which still feels clandestine but safe from the threat of exposure, Lee explores the Korean language’s scope for ambiguous gendering. The task of the queer translator is to feel out the subtleties with respect, as one does in life, and not presume heterosexuality. Just as Lee spoke out during the 2016 hashtag movement that began calling out sexual violence within South Korean literary circles, her poems recreate and hold space for agency and queerness in women’s sexuality.

‘The River in the Belly’ by Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Translated from French by J. Bret Maney)

A moving lyric meditation on the Congo River that explores the identity, chaos, and wonder of the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as race and the detritus of colonialism.

With The River in the Belly, award-winning Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila seeks no less than to reinitiate the Congo River in the imaginary of European languages. Through his invention of the “solitude”—a short poetic form lending itself to searing observation and troubled humor, prone to unexpected tonal shifts and lyrical u-turns—the collection celebrates, caresses, and chastises Central Africa’s great river, the world’s second largest by discharge volume.

Drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Soviet history, Congolese popular music, international jazz, and everyday life in European exile, Mwanza Mujila has fashioned a work that can speak to the extraordinary hopes and tragedies of post-independence Democratic Republic of the Congo while also mining the generative yet embattled subject position of the African diasporic writer in Europe longing for home.

‘Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude’ by Khal Torabully (Translated from French by Nancy Naomi Carlson)

Cargo Hold of Stars is an ode to the forgotten voyage of a forgotten people. Khal Torabully gives voice to the millions of indentured men and women, mostly from India and China, who were brought to Mauritius between 1849 and 1923. Many were transported overseas to other European colonies. Kept in close quarters in the ship’s cargo hold, many died. Most never returned home.

With Cargo Hold of Stars, Torabully introduces the concept of ‘Coolitude’ in a way that echoes Aime Cesaire’s term ‘Negritude,’ imbuing the term with dignity and pride, as well as a strong and resilient cultural identity and language. Stating that ordinary language was not equipped to bring to life the diverse voices of indenture, Torabully has developed a ‘poetics of Coolitude’: a new French, peppered with Mauritian Creole, wordplay, and neologisms-and always musical. The humor in these linguistic acrobatics serves to underscore the violence in which his poems are steeped.

Deftly translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson, Cargo Hold of Stars is the song of an uprooting, of the destruction and the reconstruction of the indentured laborer’s identity. But it also celebrates setting down roots, as it conjures an ideal homeland of fraternity and reconciliation in which bodies, memories, stories, and languages mingle-a compelling odyssey that ultimately defines the essence of humankind.


‘The Silent Letter’ – Jaume Subirana (tr. Christopher Whyte)

In my last post about Antonio Gamoneda’s ‘Book of the Cold’ (tr. Katherine M. Hedden & Victor Rodríguez Núñez) I quoted one of the translators, who wrote: “Spanish American poets who refuse to follow the conventions of how U.S Americans want them to write as a way to disrupt the neocolonialist unidirectional circulation of ideas”, let’s extend that idea to Catalan poets.

Fum d’Etampa Press, a recent arrival on the independent publishing scene, specialises in Catalonian literature. In the introduction to the novel ‘Wild Horses’ by Jordi Cussà (tr. Tiago Miller) there is a short explanation of the history of Catalan writing in the last century:

When Franco and his fellow rebels won the Civil War, they did everything they could to outlaw the Catalan language, which was made illegal in books, schools, the cinema, the theatre, as well as on transport tickets, remembrance cards, advertisements, road signs, tombstones and so forth. These strict prohibitions were partially lifted in the 1960’s and a new generation of writers began to emerge, although one of them (Joan Sales) wrote to another (Mercè Rodoreda), the fact that not a single news item or review could be published about any Catalan language book meant that there were all, so to speak, sent to Coventry, unable to re-enter the mainstream they had been happily swimming in before Franco’s victory.

Although poet Jaume Subirana was born in 1963 (in Barcelona) the impact of the language restrictions bleeds through into his collection of poems ‘The Silent Letter (tr. Christopher Whyte). As the “Acknowledgements” section advises these poems were written in places far from Catalonia such as Connecticut, Venice, and Wales. This feeling of being in “exile” from Barcelona was something I noted very early on in my reading of this collection. An exile from a culture that’s been restricted.

This book is presented in both Catalan and English and is made up of forty-two short poems, only one (‘Jonah by the Garonne’) is longer than one page.


Escaping from the island
trains whistle through the night:
carrying to the mainland
tiny lights, on the causeway
their voices alternating
at regular intervals
with the water taxis.
At night I think of trains
full up at the platform
waiting to depart
until I fall asleep,
little lights of meaning.
When they return they’re empty,
a long rope in the darkness
clattering in the silence,
clattering towards me.

As journalist Jordi Galves points out in a short essay at the end of the collection, titled “Viva Nova”;

I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that Subirana’s poetry dares to search out common sense and meaning in the midst of the experience, in the intimate biography steadily shedding itself of all unnecessary things until blossoming into an unexpected collection of visual, revolutionary Joan Brossa-esque poems. Visual because they cry out to be interpreted beyond the immediate obvious. A poetry as experimental as any other, as doubting as any other, but that sketches out a specific drawing, a slice of meaning, provisional comprehension, a harvest from within the fog.

As the above poem shows, there’s an “immediate obvious”, a recollection of packed trains, departing lights and them returning empty, however there’s also the silence, the escape and then the alienation.

Many of the poems capture this pensive regret:


Catching cold, night’s tyre slows down at the crossroads.

The breathing of the small hours gradually weakens, they congeal
progressively in this mineral silence of the trees, assuming the
disguise of snow, like a present delivered, left in offering to the
folds of dawn.

So much snow. Give thanks. You’ll have had the privilege of
spending a wakeful night with it, and when your eyes open, to-
morrow, months later, even the memory of it will have melted.

Now, today, all around you, a white sheet covered in frost.

And there are poems about poetry:


What strange, absurd matter you are, poetry:
revealing in detail the darkness of the soul
unable to tell the colour of the sea’s patina
growing solid in her eyes when afternoon comes.

As in the ‘Book of the Cold’, this collection is full of dark and unsettling images, nothing that you can anchor to, strange visions coming as you turn each page and read the few lines, the natural world meeting the imagined, the dreamlike landscapes of something slipping away.

The shipwreck is our greatest teacher, advising us to retire voluntarily from any lengthening of life before it’s too late, to definitively unlearn the certainty of death. In the intensity of ignorance, the oblivion of the moment, we feel eternal and pure, a little like animals not knowing they are to die. (Jordi Galves ‘Vita Nova’ – end word).

There is also a play on numbers and the number of letters in each word, as in the poem ‘Five Letters (Aubade)’:

Your finger on my lips,
the palm of your hand
wasting time on my back,
the pain, this pain with which
the night exhales itself
not wanting tomorrow’s
letters to reach an end.

My lips say “index”
the hand goes its way
explores impenitent
the river bank of now:
we’re this, we are a moment.
All I want to breathe
five letters and one night.

A love poem, the hand on the back, the exploring hand, and “night”, “index”, “night” five letters. Leads us back to “crying out to be interpreted beyond the immediate obvious”.

A collection that feels as though it’s playing on the edges, one where you read and then re-read the poem and have two different meanings, a focus on the here and now with this dark shadow of a foreboding future somewhere in your peripheral vision.

My copy is courtesy of my subscription to Fum d”estampa Press.

Book of the Cold – Antonio Gamoneda (tr. Katherine M. Hedden & Victor Rodríguez Núñez)

There are writers … who are interested in
reality and turn to verisimilitude or realism.
They are confused; both are artifice.
Antonio Gamoneda ‘La pobreza’

As the publisher, World Poetry Books, website states; “‘Book of the Cold’ is the long-overdue English translation of legendary Spanish poet Antonio Gamoneda’s 1992 long poem—a surreal, folkloric, modernist masterpiece between poetry and prose.” In 2006 Antonio Gamoneda received the two highest honours a poet can receive in the Spanish-speaking world, the Reina Sofia Poetry Prize and the ‘Premio de Literatura en Lengua Castellana Miguel de Cervantes” (‘Miguel de Cervantes Prize’), an award that is awarded annually to honour the lifetime achievement of an outstanding writer in the Spanish language. Other winners include Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ana María Matute and Elena Poniatowska. However, until now Antonio Gamoneda’s work has been largely ignored by English language translators.

As the translator’s note, titled ‘Translating Radical Reality’, points out, “Gamoneda is not an “establishment” poet, one concerned with maintaining the status quo or accommodating the reader”, we have a book length long poem in the modernist tradition.

His work is challenging: elliptical, hermetic, and what my co-translator Victor Rodríguez Núñez would call dialogic. (Translator Katherine M. Hedeen)

Broken into seven sections;


The Snowkeeper,


Impure Pavane,


Cold of Limits, and


the ‘Book of the Cold’ requires an immersion into an alien, frigid world. The realm of the Franco dictatorship, extending to the post-Franco era. A place of uncertainty, repetition, distance, and the work brings all these uncomfortably to the fore.

I am unafraid and hopeless. From a hotel outside destiny, I see a
black beach and, far off, the great eyelids of a city whose sorrow
is no business of mine.

The personal touches, is our poet being left out in the “cold” (?), brings a sense of gloom, a person uncertain of where they fit in the cultural milieu one who is challenging (through their writing) the “rules”, an experimentation that plays with time (through rhythmical shifts) and deconstructs the natural order of things.

There is a grass whose name is unknown; this is how my life has been.

Space on the page also plays with the shifting rhythms, as well as speeding up, slowing down the cadence, at no time is the reader given the liberty of resting.

You see the mirror with no quicksilver. It is only glass immersed
in shadow and within it your face. Like this

You are within yourself.

There’s also the shift from first to second person to third person, is the first-person nature, is it the “cold”, is it the poet?

There’s an old man before an empty path. No one returns from
the distant city; only the wind over the last traces.

I am the path and the old man. I am the city and the wind.

Repetition also comes to the fore, with images repeated but distorted, an uncomfortable read where you question your perception of reality. All of these elements, time, space, repetitiveness, uncomfortableness being a sub-pot for the Franco era?

Love, you lasting on my lips:

There is a disheartened honey beneath the helixes and the
shadows of great women and in the summer anguish it drops
like mercury until it reaches the blue heart stone.

Love, you lasting on my lips: cry between my legs,

Eat the disheartened honey.

Back to our translator’s note, “the poetry requires an active reader, one who must accept being a co-creator”, there is the feeling of co-creation you pause, re-read, think about the order of the words, and then you realise Gamoneda is not “concerned with maintaining the status quo or accommodating the reader”.

If Gamoneda’s poetry can be seen as an alternative to poetry of experience’s “excellent literature,” I would offer up translating Book of the Cold into English as a way to challenge similar trends in the U.S. In this way, it is an instance of what I have called, in an earlier essay, strategic personality. There, I argue for choosing to translate Spanish American poets who refuse to follow the conventions of how U.S Americans want them to write as a way to disrupt the neocolonialist unidirectional circulation of ideas from North to South back to North again (if the North deems it necessary). (Translator Katherine M. Hedeen)

A collection that challenges, that forces you to work hard, that elicits dark and twisted dreams, a challenge to the expected norms, and a thoroughly enjoyable (if not different) experience. Another great title from World Poetry Books.

Cold Fire – Verónica Zondek (tr. Katherine Silver)

The tiny bones of tiny mice, of tiny birds more
fragile than owls, of lizards, confirm what is
already known: that life is always nourished by
life and therefore it endures.

So opens Verónica Zondek ‘s recently released collection of poems ‘Cold Fire’, an epigraph by Gustavo Boldrini taken from ‘Longotoma, Fragmentos de una novela imposible’ (‘Fragments of an impossible novel’), Ediciones Kultrún, 2016.

From Valdiivia in Chile, poet Verónica Zondek is also a translator and editor. She has published a critical edition of the poetry of Nobel Prize winning poet Gabriela Mistral and has translated, into Spanish, the works of Gottfried Benn, Derek Walcott, June Jordan, Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, and Gertrude Stein. And here we have the first translation of her work into English by Katherine Silver, a collection originally published in 2016 as ‘Fuego Frio’ one that doesn’t even appear on her “selected publications” at Wikipedia.

‘Cold Fire’ consists of twenty long poems, in one Verónica Zondek refers to them as “cantos”, all musing on the wind. Burned trees, broken houses, scattered seeds:

And may the windgust
reign supreme and its dangling wings/ that push the
water/ that push the clouds/ that push the rain/ and
erode the stones/ and erode the mount. . .

The format of each canto taking on the shape or strength of the wind, sometimes sparse with blank spaces, at other times block text with pauses or line breaks indicated by a dash, occasionally only a few words on a page.

What beast?
What beast is that magnificent windgust that blows
upstream/ that climbs the heavens/ that moves clouds
to collapse over drought?

Meek burns the light through so much fog.

Meek is the cry of the forsaken bones.

Meek is the soul that watches and is flayed.

And on the horizon

A feeble/ wild light/ gallops/ gallops knowingly and
displays its reigns/ and batters/ batters without pity
or pledges.

Now it closes the stars the ancient poem intoned/
and just imagine/ imagine it arriving to soak our
drought/ to sprout it/ and sweet are the tears that
fall from on high/ that pour down/ that fatten the
grass/ an offering. What/ which

what beasts and men chew/ of course/ more beasts
than men………… yes………… to continue/ continue
singing/ singing/ s     ing    ing…………

Because strictly speaking/ they say/ they are only
beasts/ beasts for me enswirled by wind/ by wind
wind/ with its body so fragile/ my body/ and both
so tied to/ so spun into memory/ into thought/ into

The rhythm and cadence lend itself to a reading aloud, words repeated for emphasis, pauses as important as the words themselves, a replication of the wind and the important role it plays in our lives. It would be intriguing to listen to a reading of this work in Spanish and the translation into English thoroughly grabbed my attention, an outdoor reading, in winter, in the Australian bush was an immersive experience. Pauses to listen to the wind, to watch the leaves rustle, the grass bend, the flames of the open fire flicker.

A wind/ a wind that opens the womb/ a wind
that shakes the land/ that sprouts tenderness/ that
squanders heat and swallows/ swallows the pain
of men.

But no/ it doesn’t come/ it doesn’t grope/ it seems to
be only when it kneads life/ when seedlings bloom/
and everything/ everything returns/ returns and
begins again.

Each canto explores a different impact, the dangers of fire being fed by the winds, the devastation of buildings destroyed, light blowing of grasses, you can easily imagine the poet observing and noting the surroundings.

Nature, bones, existence, erosion, impermanence all captured. “Life is always nourished by life and therefore it endures.”

love/ smile and cry/ sleep/ dream/ kiss with passion
stop/ look/ listen/ stop and let the silver fingers of the
windgust touch you/ and the golden fingers of the
cold fires/ for my letter on the page sleeps while it
waits for the slow roar of awakening/ devouring what
voracious tongues have left behind. Inhaling the tears
of the defeated/ sowing eyes far and wide/ for our duty
is to read/ and reread/ and pay heed/ even if we are
only blood/ and bone. And dream. In this long/ long
and slow bog.

It is our duty to read, and to reread and to pay heed, read slowly, absorb and experience and Verónica Zondek ‘s wonderful new book from World Poetry Books is one you should read (and reread). As Daniel Borzutzky says in the back cover blurb; “Verónica Zondek meditates on the complex intertwinings of our bodies with the social world, the natural world, and death.”

W.H Auden, Kenzaburō Ōe, Lydia Davis and more

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, Kenzaburo Ōe’s (OH-way) short story ‘われらの狂気を生き延びる道を教えよ’, ‘Warera no kyōki wo ikinobiru michi wo oshieyo’ (translated by John Nathan as ‘Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness’) was published in 1969, five years after his novel ‘A Personal Matter’ which dealt with the birth of a disabled child (based on his own son Hikari). This story also tells of a protagonist who has a brain damaged child, the protagonist known only as the “fat man” (I wonder if Lydia Davis’ short story ‘What She Know’ was influenced by this “fat man”?)

What She Knew

People did not know what she knew, that she was not really a woman but a man, often a fat man, but more often, probably, an old man. The fact that she was an old man made it hard for her to be a young woman. It was hard for her to talk to a young man, for instance, though the young man was clearly interested in her. She had to ask herself, Why is this young man flirting with this old man?

At the opening of the story Ōe’s “fat man” is being thrown into polar bear enclosure. As we later learn he was at the zoo with his disabled son, who he calls by a nickname Eeyore a character from A.A. Milne’s ‘Winnie The Pooh’. What we do know is that the title of the story comes from “a line from a wartime poem by an English poet” a line that resided in the “fat man” “always, as if it were his prayer.” In fact it comes from W.H. Auden’s (British American) poem ‘Commentary’.

Lydia Davis also wrote a short story ‘How W.H. Auden Spends the Night in a Friend’s House:’, I won’t repeat the text of that here, you’ll have to buy her collected short stories, it is about only achieving peaceful sleep with a heavy weight pressing down on him.

Ōe’s setting with a polar bear had me thinking of a recent Japanese writer, Yōko Tawada and her novel ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ which she self-translated into German and Susan Bernofsky translated that version into English!!!

A 50-page short story and oh so many diversions. I will look at the book of four “short novels” that goes under the tile of ‘Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness’ at some later stage as it contains earlier and later works, and many many layers Ōe’s writings. In the meantime, here is the poem by W.H. Auden that resides in Ōe’s “fat man”.


Season inherits legally from dying season;
Protected by the wide peace of the sun, the planets
Continue their circulations; and the galaxy

Is free for ever to revolve like an enormous biscuit:
With all his engines round him and the summer flowers,
Little upon his little earth, man contemplates

The universe of which he is both judge and victim;
A rarity in an uncommon corner, gazes
On the great trackways where his tribe and truth are nothing.

Certainly the growth of the fore-brain has been a success:
Me has not got lost in a backwater like the lampshell
Or the limpet; he has not died out like the super-lizards.

His boneless worm-like ancestors would be amazed
At the upright position, the breasts, the four-chambered heart,
The clandestine evolution in the mother s shadow.

“Sweet is it,’’ say the doomed, “to be alive though wretched,”
And the young emerging from the closed parental circle,
To whose uncertainty the certain years present

Their syllabus of limitless anxiety and labour,
At first feel nothing but the gladness of their freedom,
Are happy in the new embraces and the open talk.

But liberty to be and weep has never been sufficient;
The winds surround our griefs, the unfenced sky
To all our failures is a taciturn unsmiling witness.

And not least here, among this humorous and hairless people
Who like a cereal have inherited these valleys:
Tarim nursed them; Thibet was the tall rock of their protection,

And where the Yellow River shifts its course, they learnt
How to live well, though ruin threatened often.
For centuries they looked in fear towards the northern defiles,

But now must turn and gather like a fist to strike
Wrong coming from the sea, from those whose paper houses
Tell of their origin among the coral islands;

Who even to themselves deny a human freedom,
And dwell in the estranging tyrant’s vision of the earth
In a calm stupor under their blood-spotted flag.

Here danger works a civil reconciliation,
Interior hatreds are resolved upon this foreign foe,
And will-power to resist is growing like a prosperous city.

For the invader now is deadly and impartial as a judge:
Down country footpaths, from each civic sky,
His anger blows alike upon the rich, and all

Who dwell within the crevices of destitution,
On those with a laborious lifetime to recall, and those,
The innocent and short whose dreams contain no children.

While in an international and undamaged quarter,
Casting our European shadows on Shanghai,
Walking unhurt among the banks, apparently immune

Below the monuments of an acquisitive society,
With friends and books and money and the traveller s freedom,
We are compelled to realize that our refuge is a sham.

For this material contest that has made Hongkew
A terror and a silence, and Chapei a howling desert,
Is but the local variant of a struggle in which all,

The elderly, the amorous, the young, the handy and
               the thoughtful,
Those to whom feeling is a science, those to whom study
Of all that can be added and compared is a consuming love,

With those whose brains are empty as a school in August,
And those in whom the urge to action is so strong
They cannot read a letter without whispering, all

In cities, deserts, ships, in lodgings near the port,
Discovering the past of strangers in a library,
Creating their own future on a bed, each with his treasure,

Self-confident among the laughter and the petits verres,
Or motionless and lonely like a moping cormorant,
In all their living are profoundly implicated.

This is one sector and one movement of the general war
Between the dead and the unborn, the Real and the Pretended,
Which for the creature who creates, communicates, and chooses,

The only animal aware of lack of finish,
In essence is eternal. When we emerged from holes
And blinked in the warm sunshine of the Laufen Ice Retreat,

Thinking of Nature as a close and loyal kinsman,
On every acre the opponents faced each other,
And we were far within the zone where casualties begin.

Now in a world that has no localized events,
Where not a tribe exists without its dossier,
And the machine has taught us how, to the Non-Human,

That unprogressive blind society that knows
No argument except the absolute and violent veto,
Our colours, creeds and sexes are identical,

The issue is the same. Some uniforms are new,
Some have changed sides; but the campaign continues:
Still unachieved is Jen, the Truly Human.

This is the epoch of the Third Great Disappointment:
The First was the collapse of that slave-owning empire
Whose yawning magistrate asked, ‘‘What is truth?’’

Upon its ruins rose the Plainly Visible Churches:
Men camped like tourists under their tremendous shadows,
United by a common sense of human failure,

Their certain knowledge only of the timeless fields
Where the Unchanging Happiness received the faithful,
And the Eternal Nightmare waited to devour the doubters.

In which a host of workers, famous and obscure,
Meaning to do no more than use their eyes,
Not knowing what they did, then sapped belief;

Put in its place a neutral dying star,
Where Justice could not visit. Self was the one city,
The cell where each must find his comfort and his pain,

The body nothing but a useful favourite machine
To go upon errands of love and to run the house,
While the mind in its study spoke with its private God.

But now that wave which already was washing the heart,
When the cruel Turk stormed the gates of Constantine s city,
When Galileo muttered to himself, “sed movet,

And Descartes thought, “I am because I think,”
Today, all spent, is silently withdrawing itself:
Unhappy he or she who after it is sucked.

Never before was the Intelligence so fertile,
The Heart more stunted. The human field became
Hostile to brotherhood and feeling like a forest.

Machines devised by harmless clergymen and boys
Attracted men like magnets from the marl and clay
Into towns on the coal-measures, to a kind of freedom,

Where the abstinent with the landless drove a bitter bargain,
But sowed in that act the seeds of an experienced hatred,
Which, germinating long in tenement and gas-lit cellar,

Is choking now the aqueducts of our affection.
Knowledge of their colonial suffering has cut off
The Hundred Families like an attack of shyness;

The apprehensive rich pace up and down
Their narrow compound of success; in every body
The ways of living are disturbed; intrusive as a sill,

Fear builds enormous ranges casting shadows,
Heavy, bird-silencing, upon the outer world,
Hills that our grief sighs over like a Shelley, parting

All that we feel from all that we perceive,
Desire from Data; and the Thirteen gay Companions
Grow sullen now and quarrelsome as mountain tribes.

We wander on the earth, or err from bed to bed
In search of home, and fail, and weep for the lost ages
Before Because became As If, or rigid Certainty

The Chances Are. The base hear us, and the violent
Who long to calm our guilt with murder, and already
Have not been slow to turn our wish to their advantage.

On every side they make their brazen offer:
Now in that Catholic country with the shape of Cornwall,
Where Europe first became a term of pride,

North of the Alps where dark hair turns to blonde,
In Germany now loudest, land without a centre
Where the sad plains are like a sounding rostrum,

And on these tidy and volcanic summits near us now,
From which the Black Stream hides the Tuscarora Deep,
The voice is quieter but the more inhuman and triumphant.

By wire and wireless, in a score of bad translations,
They give their simple message to the world of man :
Man can have Unity if Man will give up Freedom.

The State is real, the Individual is wicked;
Violence shall synchronize your movements like a tune,
And Terror like a frost shall halt the flood of thinking.

Barrack and bivouac shall he your friendly refuge,
And racial pride shall tower like a public column
And confiscate for safety every private sorrow.

Leave Truth to the police and us; we know the Good;
We build the Perfect City time shall never alter;
Our Law shall guard you always like a cirque of mountains,

Your ignorance keep off evil like a dangerous sea;
You shall be consummated in the General Will,
Your children innocent and charming as the beasts.”

All the great conquerors sit upon their platform,
Lending their sombre weight of practical experience:
Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, who burnt the scholars’ books,

Chaka the mad, who segregated the two sexes,
And Genghis Khan, who thought mankind should be destroyed,
And Diocletian the administrator, make impassioned speeches.

Napoleon claps who found religion useful,
And all who passed deception of the People, or who said
Like Little Frederick, “I shall see that it is done.”

While many famous clerks support their programme:
Plato the good, despairing of the average man,
With sad misgiving signs their manifesto;

Shang-tzu approves their principle of Nothing Private;
The author of The Prince will heckle; Hobbes will canvass,
With generalizing Hegel and quiet Bosanquet.

And every family and every heart is tempted:
The earth debates; the Fertile Crescent argues;
Even the little towns upon the way to somewhere,

Those desert flowers the aeroplane now fertilizes,
Quarrel on this; in England far away,
Behind the high tides and the navigable estuaries;

In the Far West, in absolutely free America,
In melancholy Hungary, and clever France
Where ridicule has acted a historic rôle,

And here where the rice-grain nourishes these patient households
The ethic of the feudal citadel has impregnated,
Thousands believe, and millions are half-way to a conviction.

Nor do our leaders help; we know them now
For humbugs full of vain dexterity, invoking
A gallery of ancestors, pursuing still the mirage

Of long dead grandeurs whence the interest has absconded,
As Fahrenheit in an odd corner of great Celsius’ kingdom
Might mumble of the summers measured once by him.

Yet all the same we have our faithful sworn supporters
Who never lost their faith in knowledge or in man,
But worked so eagerly that they forgot their food

And never noticed death or old age coming on,
Prepared for freedom as Kuo Hsi for inspiration,
Waiting it calmly like the coming of an honoured guest.

Some looked at falsehood with the candid eyes of children,
Some had a woman’s ear to catch injustice,
Some took Necessity, and knew her, and she brought
             forth Freedom.

Some of our dead are famous, but they would not care:
Evil is always personal and spectacular,
But goodness needs the evidence of all our lives,

And, even to exist, it must be shared as truth,
As freedom or as happiness. (For what is happiness
If not to witness joy upon the features of another?)

They did not live to be remembered specially as noble,
Like those who cultivated only cucumbers and melons
To prove that they were rich; and when we praise their names,

They shake their heads in warning, chiding us to give
Our gratitude to the Invisible College of the Humble,
Who through the ages have accomplished everything essential.

And stretch around our struggle as the normal landscape,
And mingle, fluent with our living, like the winds and waters,
The dust of all the dead that reddens every sunset;

Giving us courage to confront our enemies,
Not only on the Grand Canal, or in Madrid,
Across the campus of a university city,

But aid us everywhere, that in the lovers’ bedroom,
The white laboratory, the school, the public meeting,
The enemies of life may be more passionately attacked.

And, if we care to listen, we can always hear them:
“Men are not innocent as beasts and never can be,
Man can improve but never will himself be perfect,

Only the free have disposition to be truthful,
Only the truthful have the interest to be just,
Only the just possess the will-power to be free.

For common justice can determine private freedom,
As a clear sky can tempt men to astronomy,
Or a peninsula persuade them to be sailors.

You talked of Liberty, but were not just; and now
Your enemies have called your bluff; for in your city,
Only the man behind the rifle had free-will.

One wish is common to you both, the wish to build
A world united as that Europe was in which
The flint-faced exile wrote his three-act comedy.

Lament not its decay; that shell was too constricting:
The years of private isolation had their lesson,
And in the interest of intelligence were necessary.

Now in the clutch of crisis and the bloody hour
You must defeat your enemies or perish, hut remember,
Only by those who reverence it can life be mastered;

Only a whole and happy conscience can stand up
And answer their bleak lie; among the just,
And only there, is Unity compatible with Freedom.”

Night falls on China; the great arc of travelling shadow
Moves over land and ocean, altering life:
Thibet already silent, the packed Indias cooling,

Inert in the paralysis of caste. And though in Africa
The vegetation still grows fiercely like the young,
And in the cities that receive the slanting radiations

The lucky are at work, and most still know they suffer.
The dark will touch them soon : night’s tiny noises
Will echo vivid in the owl’s developed ear,

Vague in the anxious sentry’s; and the moon look down
On battlefields and dead men lying, heaped like treasure,
On lovers ruined in a brief embrace, on ships

Where exiles watch the sea: and in the silence
The cry that streams out into the indifferent spaces,
And never stops or slackens, may be heard more clearly.

Above the everlasting murmur of the woods and rivers,
And more insistent than the lulling answer of the waltzes,
Or hum of printing-presses turning forests into lies;

As now I hear it, rising round me from Shanghai,
And mingling with the distant mutter of guerrilla fighting,
The voice of Man : “O teach us to outgrow our madness.

Ruffle the perfect manners of the frozen heart,
And once again compel it to be awkward and alive,
To all it suffered once a weeping witness.

Clear from the head the masses of impressive rubbish;
Rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,
Gather them up and let them loose upon the earth,

Till, as the contribution of our star, we follow
The clear instructions of that Justice, in the shadow
Of Whose uplifting, loving, and constraining power
All human reasons do rejoice and operate.”

-WH Auden

Text taken from the Internet Archive and edited to correct numerous punctuation and spelling errors.

Ali Whitelock poet interview

A few weeks ago I interviewed Scottish born poet Ali Whitelock about her second book ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’, a collection that was due for launch on the first day of lockdown in Sydney. needless to say the launch was cancelled.

I talked to Ali Whitelock about the impacts of Covid, her poetic practice, her poems and a whole lot more.

Mascara Literary Review has been kind enough to publish the piece. Click the link to read more.

T.S. Eliot Prize Shortlist 2021

The T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry was inaugurated in 1993 by the Poetry Book Society in honour of its founding poet (T.S Eliot) and to celebrate the 40th birthday of the Society. In 2016 the T.S. Eliot Foundation took over running of the Prize after the Society was wound up and taken over by a book sales agency.

Prize money has been raised to £25,000 in 2021, with the winner taking home £11,500 and each of the nine runner’s-up receiving £1,500.

This year’s Chair of judges is writer Glyn Maxwell, with fellow judges being poets Caroline Bird and Zaffar Kunial. They made their way through 177 collections submitted for the prize, coming up with this year’s shortlist of ten books.

The shortlisted titles are:

  • Eat Or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (Carcanet)
  • Ransom by Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape)
  • Stones by Kevin Young (Jonathan Cape)
  • Men Who Feed Pigeons by Selima Hill (Bloodaxe)
  • The Kids by Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe)
  • All the Names Given by Raymond Antrobus (Picador)
  • A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi (Chatto & Windus)
  • single window by Daniel Sluman (Nine Arches Press)
  • C+nto & Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor (Westbourne Press)
  • A Year in the New Life by Jack Underwood (Faber & Faber)

At the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the Chair of judges, Glyn Maxwell, commented:

“We are delighted with our shortlist, while lamenting all the fine work we had to set aside. Poetry styles are as disparate as we’ve ever known them, and the wider world as threatened and bewildered as any of us can remember. Out of this we have chosen 10 books that sound clear and compelling voices of the moment. Older and younger, wiser and wilder, well-known and lesser-known, these are the 10 voices we think should enter the stage and be heard in the spotlight, changing the story.”

The winner will be announced on 10th January 2022.

Given my poetry reading has been a little scattered recently I look forward to sampling a few of these titles.

For those who are interested, here ae some links to poems by this year’s judges

Glyn Maxwell ‘Old Smile at the Roast’  

Caroline Bird ‘Sanity’

Zaffar Kunial ‘From Empty Words

Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist 2021

The Rathbones Folio Prize commenced in 2014, under the name of the “Folio Prize” as it was sponsored by the London based publisher “The Folio Society” for its first two years. There was no prize in 2016.  Since 2017 it has been sponsored by Rathbones Investment Management.

The prize was created after a group “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking…leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction” its launch also coincided with the Booker’s decision to open the award up to international writers, writing in English, in 2013. However, during the first two years the prize was presented to an English language book of fiction published in the UK by an author from any country. The prize dropped from £40,000 in 2014 and 2015 to £20,000 in 2017 and 2018, then climbed to £30,000 from 2019 onwards.

Since Rathbone’s sponsorship, from 2017, the prize was awarded to the best new work of literature published in the English language during a given year, regardless of form (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry).

“The jury for the prize is called the Academy, a body of more than 250 writers and critics that includes Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, A. S. Byatt, Zadie Smith and J. M. Coetzee. Books are nominated by members of the Academy, three each, ranked. Points are given to each book depending on how many first, second or third rankings are earned. The top scoring books are made into a longlist of 60 books (80 in the first two years). The list of nominated titles is then judged by a panel of three to five judges drawn from the Academy who select a shortlist of eight and the final winner.” (Thanks Wikipedia) A full membership listing can be found here.

On 11 February 2021, the shortlist for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize was announced, here are those works (listed in alphabetical order by author surname). The blurbs are taken straight from the publishers.

Sara Baume, ‘handiwork’ (Tramp Press) – Non-Fiction

handiwork is a contemplative short narrative from acclaimed writer and visual artist Sara Baume. It charts her daily process of making and writing, exploring what it is to create and to live as an artist. handiwork offers observations at once gentle and devastating, on the nature of art, grief and a life lived well. Baume’s first work of non-fiction offers readers a glimpse into the process of one Ireland’s best writers, written with the keen eye for nature and beauty as well as the extraordinary versatility Sara Baume’s fans have come to expect.

Amina Cain, ‘Indelicacy’ (Daunt Books)

In an undefined era and place, a cleaning woman at a museum of art aspires to do more than simply dust the paintings around her.  She dreams of having the liberty to explore them in writing, and so must find the way to win herself the security and time to use her mind. She escapes her lot by marrying a rich man, but having gained a husband, a house, high society and a maid, she finds that her new life of privilege is no less constrained. Not only has she taken up different forms of time-consuming labour — social and erotic — but she is now, however passively, forcing other women to clean up after her. Perhaps another and more drastic solution is necessary?

Indelicacy is an exquisite gem of a novel about class, desire, friendship, art, and the battle to find one’s true calling.

Elaine Feeney, ‘As You Were’ (Harvill Secker)

Sinead Hynes is a tough, driven, funny young property developer with a terrifying secret.

No-one knows it: not her fellow patients in a failing hospital, and certainly not her family. She has confided only in Google and a shiny magpie.

But she can’t go on like this, tirelessly trying to outstrip her past and in mortal fear of her future. Across the ward, Margaret Rose is running her chaotic family from her rose-gold Nokia. In the neighbouring bed, Jane, rarely but piercingly lucid, is searching for a decent bra and for someone to listen. Sinead needs them both.

As You Were is about intimate histories, institutional failures, the kindness of strangers, and the darkly present past of modern Ireland. It is about women’s stories and women’s struggles. It is about seizing the moment to be free.

Wildly funny, desperately tragic, inventive and irrepressible, As You Were introduces a brilliant voice in Irish fiction with a book that is absolutely of our times.

Caleb Femi, ‘Poor’ (Penguin) – Poetry

What is it like to grow up in a place where the same police officer who told your primary school class they were special stops and searches you at 13 because ‘you fit the description of a man’ – and where it is possible to walk two and a half miles through an estate of 1,444 homes without ever touching the ground?

In Poor, Caleb Femi combines poetry and original photography to explore the trials, tribulations, dreams and joys of young Black boys in twenty-first century Peckham. He contemplates the ways in which they are informed by the built environment of concrete walls and gentrifying neighbourhoods that form their stage, writes a coded, near-mythical history of the personalities and sagas of his South London youth, and pays tribute to the rappers and artists who spoke to their lives.

Above all, this is a tribute to the world that shaped a poet, and to the people forging difficult lives and finding magic within it. As Femi writes in one of the final poems of this book: ‘I have never loved anything the way I love the endz.’

Rachel Long, ‘My Darling from the Lions’ (Picador) – Poetry

Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems, My Darling from the Lions, announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.

Each poem has a vivid story to tell – of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion or sexual awakening – stories that are, by turn, emotionally insightful, politically conscious, wise, funny and outrageous.

Long reveals herself as a razor-sharp and original voice on the issues of sexual politics and cultural inheritance that polarize our current moment. But it’s her refreshing commitment to the power of the individual poem that will leave the reader turning each page in eager anticipation: here is an immediate, wide-awake poetry that entertains royally, without sacrificing a note of its urgency or remarkable skill.

Carmen Maria Machado, ‘In the Dream House’ (Serpent’s Tail) – A Memoir

In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing experience with a charismatic but volatile woman, this is a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse.

Each chapter views the relationship through a different lens, as Machado holds events up to the light and examines them from distinct angles. She casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek and Disney villains, as well as iconic works of film and fiction, infusing all with her characteristic wit, playfulness and openness to enquiry. The result is a powerful book that explodes our ideas about what a memoir can do and be.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa, ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ (Tramp Press)

A true original, this stunning prose debut by Doireann Ní Ghríofa weaves two stories together. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem that reaches across the centuries to another poet. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy in her own life. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with finding out the rest of the story.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa has sculpted a fluid hybrid of essay and autofiction to explore the ways in which a life can be changed in response to the discovery of another’s – in this case, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, famously referred to by Peter Levi as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.’

A devastating and timeless tale about finding your voice by freeing another’s.

Monique Roffey, ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ (Peepal Tree Press)

April 1976: St Constance, a tiny Caribbean village on the island of Black Conch, at the start of the rainy season. A fisherman sings to himself in his pirogue, waiting for a catch – but attracts a sea-dweller he doesn’t expect. Aycayia, a beautiful young woman cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid, has been swimming the Caribbean Sea for centuries. And she is entranced by this man David and his song.

But her fascination is her undoing. She hears his boat’s engine again and follows it, and finds herself at the mercy of American tourists, landed on the island for the annual fishing competition. After a fearsome battle, she is pulled out of the sea and strung up on the dock as a trophy. It is David who rescues her, and gently wins her trust – as slowly, painfully, she starts to transform into a woman again. But transformations are not always permanent, and jealousy, like love, can have the force of a hurricane, and last much longer

The novel’s characters are an unlikely mix: a mermaid, a fisherman, a deaf boy, a Caribbean artist and sweetman and a benevolent white landowner. Miss Arcadia Rain’s own love story is interwoven with Aycayia and David’s and the rivalries and affections in both family and community are brought brilliantly to life. Themes of unconditional love, friendship, family and loss, are examined without sentimentality. Roffey manages to write convincingly about a mermaid, a ‘legend drawn from the sea’, returned to land, to survive, heal and live again, as a real woman in modern times.

This year’s judges are T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Roger Robinson, the Irish writer, editor and broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson and novelist and short story writer Jon McGregor. A well-balanced jury indeed, the winner could be the Irish debut novel (Feeney) or the Irish non-fiction (Baume) or one of the two poetry collections or any of the other four titles!!!

The 2020 Prize was awarded to Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli for her book ‘Lost Children Archive’ (Fourth Estate) becoming the first female writer to win the award.

Astute readers and followers of awards will have noticed that Monique Roffey’s wonderful ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ has appeared on yet another award list and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ was also longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize announced only a week prior, and Sara Baume was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize back in 2017 for her novel ‘A Line Made By Walking’.

I’ve recently reviewed Monique Roffey’s novel and will possibly get to Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s, a few others are tempting (especially Sara Baume’s ‘handiwork’) however I am unlikely to get to many of these books before the winner is announced on 24 March 2021.

The Juniper Tree – Brothers Grimm, T.S. Eliot & Nietzchka Keene

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining

We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,

Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,

Forgetting themselves and each other, united

In the quiet of the desert.

T.S. Eliot

Black screen, white text, so opens the 1990 film ‘The Juniper Tree’, written and directed by Nietzchka Keene, based on the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale. The quote is a short piece taken from the much longer work by T.S. Eliot’s, “Ash Wednesday”.

The juniper tree is mentioned only twice in Eliot’s poem, both references in part II of the poem, the one above appearing at the end of the section, the other reference at the beginning:

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree

In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity

On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been


In the hollow round of my skull. And God said

Shall these bones live? shall these

Bones live? And that which had been contained

In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:

Because of the goodness of this Lady

And because of her loveliness, and because

She honours the Virgin in meditation,

We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled

Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love

To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.

Reading Eliot’s poem, I found the juniper tree reference removed from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, although there are some similarities.

‘The Juniper Tree’ published in the Grimms’ collection was written by Philipp Otto Range, and has been seen as a counterpart of the Greek myth of Cronus, who devours his children in order to ensure he retains his power. The tale opens:

A long time ago, as many as two thousand years ago, there lived a rich man with a wife who was both beautiful and good. They loved each other dearly, but they had no children, even though they longed for them. Day and night the wife prayed for a child, but still they had none.

She becomes pregnant and “in the seventh month, she picked the berries from the juniper tree and gorged herself on them until she became miserable and was ailing. According to the classical antiquity physician Galen, the juniper tree’s berries can be used for contraceptive purposes and to induce abortion. However the mother eventually “bore a child as white as snow and as red as blood. When she saw the child, she felt so happy that she died of joy.” The child was a boy, the husband buries the mother under the juniper tree.

He remarries and his second wife gives birth to a daughter. “When the woman looked at her daughter, she felt nothing but love for her, but whenever she looked at the little boy, she felt sick at heart….The devil got hold of her so that she began to hate the little boy, and she slapped him around and pinched him here and cuffed him there.” The second wife eventually beheads the young boy by slamming the lid of an apple chest onto him as he is reaching for an apple. “The mother then took the little boy and chopped him up. She put the pieces into a pot and cooked them up into a stew.” The father thought the stew tasted really good and as he ate “he threw the bones under the table.” The daughter collects the bones in her silk handkerchief and puts them “down in the green grass under the juniper tree.”

“The juniper tree began stirring. Its branches parted and came back together again as though it were clapping its hands for joy. A mist arose from the tree, and right in the middle of the mist a flame was burning, and from the flame a beautiful bird emerged and began signing gloriously.”

The bird, the boy reincarnated, sings:

“My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!”

Singing and collecting, a golden chain, a pair of red shoes and a mill stone. Continually singing his song, he drops the golden chain for his father, the red shoes for his sister and drops the millstone on the mother’s head crushing “her to death.” The smoke, flames and fire return and the “little brother was back, standing right there. He took his father and Little Marlene by the hand, and the three of them were filled with joy. Then they went back in the house, sat down at the table, and dined.”

A fable filled with eating aligned with death, gorging the juniper berries, apple chest, the child cooked as stew, happily dining once the step-mother is deceased, it is also a tale of childhood innocence vanishing and, according to the notes in “The Annotated Brothers Grimm”,  “by crushing the mother and joining the father, the children have been seen as “successfully” negotiating the path from dependence to autonomy.”

T.S. Eliot’s poem has a few similar references, primarily the bones, other interpretations of his poem state that the juniper tree in Eliot’s poem references the Bible – I Kings 19 (in some Bible versions it is a “broom bush” or “broom tree”, however in the King James Bible it is a “juniper tree”).

And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.

The poet is lost in the woods and like Elijah in the Bible, who is lost in the desert, he is nourished and renewed by an angel.

Onto the film, where we have a single father, with a son, Jonas, and two sisters who are seeking a new home as their mother has been stoned and burned for being a witch. The older sister becomes the stepmother, by using witchcraft, potions and incantations to attract the single father as her husband. The connection to nature, as appears in the Grimm Brothers tale is here, an early scene showing Björk, who plays the youngest sister Margit, reciting an incantation to stop the buzzing of the fly, and soon thereafter she entertains the young Jonas with shadow puppets, using her hands, whose actions align perfectly with the crowing of the rooster or the barking of the dog. Margit has a power over nature.

The film is filled with religious symbolism, crucifixes, prayer as well as the witchcraft elements. Margit also having visions of a mother figure.

Whilst the film does have elements of the Grimm fairy story, it deviates in a significant number of areas, a stand alone work that feels more aligned to religious and witchcraft themes, and less to the family, natural world, eating associated with death and childhood growth themes.

I loved the Brothers Grimm tale for its extreme themes, I rather enjoyed the movie and I question the T.S. Eliot reference, did the director just see a juniper tree in a poem and thought “I’ll make that the epigraph”?

Charles Baudelaire & Agnès Varda


Seems readers like the merging of poetry and film, last week’s post about Roy Andersson’s film featuring Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s poem ‘Stumble Between Two Stars’ has been my most popular post for 2020. Let’s continue the theme.

“The only female director of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda has been called both the movement’s mother and its grandmother” according to Criterion. Her short, 12 minute, film ‘Les dites cariatides’ (‘The So-Called Caryatides’) (1984) was made for French television, and features the music of Offenbach (his 1864 opera bouffe ‘La Belle Hélène’) and the poetry of Charles Baudelaire.

The film opens with a slow panning shot of a nude bronze sculpture light pole and then a nude man walking the streets of Paris. From the off the feminist themes abound, I won’t comment on these here, but if you’re after an explanation of the feminist themes in this short film I highly recommend the article “Wandering in the Presence of Women: Les dites cariatides” by Eloise Ross – click here for a link.

Caryatides, “the bearers of doors, lintels, capitals or balconies.” Agnès Varda tells us their origins and a brief history, whilst her camera pans from feet to head across a number of Parisian examples, from the late 19th century. In Paris there a twelve twin like men – “Pairs symmetrical but not identical” the males representing force and power, there are fifty twin like females, naked, bearing the weight on their heads, calm and composed.


Poems from Charles Baudelaire’s ‘The Flowers of Evil’ are read by Agnès Varda, again whilst the camera pans the caryatides. The subtitles on the version of the film I watched were uncredited, so I can’t direct you to the translator, however I transposed a number of the lines and have managed to find three of the poems in ‘The Flowers of Evil’ (with very different translations).

Sonnet XLIII

What sayest thou, to-night, poor soul so drear,

What sayest—heart erewhile engulfed in gloom,

To the very lovely, very chaste, and very dear,

Whose god-like look hath made thee to re-bloom?


To her, with pride we chant an echoing Hymn,

For nought can touch the sweetness of her sway;

Her flesh ethereal as the seraphim,

Her eyes with robe of light our souls array.


And be it in the night, or solitude,

Among the streets or ‘mid the multitude,

Her shadow, torch-like, dances in the air,


And murmurs, “I, the Beautiful proclaim—

That for my sake, alone ye love the Fair;

I am the Guardian Angel, Muse and Dame!”


Illusionary Love

When I behold thee wander by, my languorous love,

To songs of viols which throughout the dome resound,

Harmonious and stately as thy footsteps move,

Bestowing forth the languor of thy glance profound.


When I regard thee, glowing in the gaslight rays,

Thy pallid brow embellished by a charm obscure,

Here where the evening torches light the twilight haze,

Thine eyes attracting me like those of a portraiture,


I say—How beautiful she is! how strangely rich!

A mighty memory, royal and commanding tower,

A garland: and her heart, bruised like a ruddy peach,

Is ripe—like her body for Love’s sapient power.


Art thou, that spicy Autumn-fruit with taste supreme?

Art thou a funeral vase inviting tears of grief?

Aroma—causing one of Eastern wastes to dream;

A downy cushion, bunch of flowers or golden sheaf?


I know that there are eyes, most melancholy ones,

Wherein no precious secret deeply hidden lies,

Resplendent shrines, devoid of relics, sacred stones,

More empty, more profound than ye yourselves, O skies?


Yea, does thy semblance, not alone for me suffice,

To kindle senses which the cruel truth abhor?

All one to me! thy folly or thy heart of ice,

Decoy or mask, all hail! thy beauty I adore!


Both of the above translated by Cyril Scott.

The third poem, the first Agnès Varda quotes is “Beauty”


I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,

And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself

Is made to inspire in the poet a love

As eternal and silent as matter.

On a throne in the sky, a mysterious sphinx,

I join a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;

I hate movement for it displaces lines,

And never do I weep and never do I laugh.

Poets, before my grandiose poses,

Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues,

Will consume their lives in austere study;

For I have, to enchant those submissive lovers,

Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful:

My eyes, my large, wide eyes of eternal brightness!

Translated by William Aggeler, and if you’d like the original text with other translations click here.

More poetry on film and as I come across further examples I may post them here, Agnès Varda’s film may be short at only 12 minutes but it packs a lot into that time, worth hunting down.