Tag Archives: Rack Press

“this webbing of routes across the earth”

Terra Ignota, Rosalind Hudis, £5.00, Rack Press
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

“Beyond here be dragons” is the expression I’m more familiar with than terra ignota or terra incognito. Our lives are mapped out for us—at least that’s how it seems sometimes—then the unexpected happens and we find ourselves gazing out over Shakespeare’s undiscovered country, expecting, ailing or facing death. This is where these poems are set. In the first three: a man has leukaemia, his son is wheelchair-bound, an old woman’s crippled by senility and grief and a father’s died after a long illness; the last three trace the life of a Down’s syndrome child—“a chromosome too many,/ a glitch in the smooth/ running chain” —from her conception to becoming a Friends-obsessed young girl.

The opening poem feels slightly out of place here although it’s the only one that’s identifiably Welsh and reminded me of R.S. Thomas—perhaps because these people are neighbours (all the others have a familial feel)—but it’s the first to introduce the mapping theme which unifies the collection:

Beneath me, the earth’s
a map, its roots
spores, seeds, twigs,
small bones stored

like codes.

This theme is taken up in ‘Rupture’ where an old woman (Rosalind’s grandmother?) is clearly lost:

There are days the phone rings,
but she can’t re-map the way
her hands could bridge a room
to open or close the tap of speech.

In the titular poem we have a similar portrait of senility:

My father, in his final illness, adrift
across an armchair, barely able

to tack the crucial space from hearth
to toilet

Is the unknown always bleak? It depends “how you colour it”. What threatens to be a rather dark collection ends, surprisingly, on bright note:

       on this webbing of routes across the earth

that’s skin deep wherever you go
my daughter paints in the chiaroscuro
episodes of a self she will be.

None of the poems in this set are available online but Snowscape and Photograph especially will give you a taste of Rosalind’s style.

I wasn’t sure about that first poem but I suppose it has its place. We start at distance, with neighbours, and move through grandparents to parents to children. It’s a journey. Rosalind can no longer stand at a distance and watch. Her foreign-looking child has wandered off into unexplored territories and she must follow:

                                lead me there
into the heart of this pale green valley of paper
in safety, go where I go without history

Poetry’s a strange place, a land to get lost in—in good ways and bad—and so it’s the perfect setting for a discussion of uncomfortable topics like illness and death. Textbooks and leaflets—like the one she’s handed in ‘Disclosure’—list “the defects” but they don’t see, can’t see, the individuals. These poems do. Even if most of the characters remain nameless we recognise them; we know them. They may have set off for parts unknown but they’re not foreigners. They’re us and some day we will be them. A thought-provoking and touching collection.

Jim Murdoch

“the present is lost to us”

The Cavafy Variations, Ian Parks, £5.00, Rack Press
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

Translation’s a bugger; Auden says as much in his introduction to The Complete Poems of Cavafy. Yet he notes, “I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it.” Cavafy found his voice late on and only completed 154 carefully crafted poems, available here in various translations.

Ten poems aren’t much of a sampler—some well-known poems are omitted—but Parks provides examples of Cavafy’s three core themes: the philosophical, historical and hedonic (or sensuous) although there’s nothing of the erotic for which he is (in)famous; it wouldn’t have hurt to include a poem like ‘One Night’. Parks’ own poetry is known for being “spare, lyrical, memorable and intense”; similar could also be said of Cavafy despite being anti-Romantic and (arguably) antipoetic: his setting—the city, his interest—the past.

Variations are common in music, not so much in poetry: we would probably talk of “loose translations” which these aren’t really although they veer towards the Poundian ideal—aim to capture the ‘spirit’ of the original—and having compared his efforts with earlier versions I would say they’re fresh (some might say refreshing) interpretations.

The philosophical chimed with me from the line of lit and extinguished candles in ‘Candles’, through the damage that follows us in ‘The City’, to the life that becomes nothing more than a “tedious acquaintance” in ‘If Possible’. All these focus on a sense of belatedness as do the historical because, so quickly, the present is lost to us. Cavafy wrote, “With me the immediate impression does not provide the impulse for work. The impression must become part of the past, must be falsified of itself, by time, without my having to falsify it.”

It’s not the time to have regrets,
to brood upon the glories of your past
or curse the good luck you once had
now that it’s faltering, running low.

[‘The God Abandons Antony’]

Thankfully Parks chose from Cavafy’s less esoteric historical pieces; the man did tend to be drawn towards the backwaters of history.

‘Candles’ is the perfect poem to open this group. It exemplifies the betwixtness inherent in Cavafy’s poetry, trapped between a squandered past and an uncertain future. All that’s left to us is to wander through the ruins of our lives. It may be crass to say so but it feels sometimes as if Cavafy gets off on regret. The one thing man learns from history, however, is that man learns nothing from history:

            At each street corner, looking back
I see myself among the ruined squares,
the cafés and the harbour bars,
repeating the identical mistakes.

[‘The City’]

There’s a lot to Cavafy and it helps to know something about him before reading him. For a plain-spoken writer—I can see why a Yorkshireman would be drawn to him—there’s much subtlety under the surface of these short poems and, thankfully, Parks is equally sensitive to that.

Jim Murdoch