Saturday, July 28, 2012

Wild apple-tree - Karin Boye

How is it possible?
How could it spring up, such lovely multiplicity,
such a fresh, fine and airy crown of flowers,
such a forest of wild, twisting branches,
such rugged bark, green with lichen,
the whole lot, all
from the same one little dark pip?
There it all lay –
stem, boughs, leaves and bark and bright flowers,
crowded together, within a heart-shape.

But we are the apple-tree’s reflection in the water.
From abundances without limit or bottom,
from our younger days’ airy, pale fruit-blossom,
from the hundred-ways forest of interwoven branches,
from the plain bark of an ordinary life,
we accumulate slowly,
till everything lies still, close, and sealed
within the heart’s core...
How is it possible?

(Karin Boye, from The Seven Deadly Sins and other posthumous poems, 1941)


This, along with the poem in my previous post, was what I translated during my recent week in Sweden.

It's curious how you can live with a poet's work for so long and then suddenly get an entirely different view of it. I have always accepted Karin Boye's five collections as a total body of classical work (in my head, if not in print, I've compared them with Horace's five books of Odes). It was only while working on these two late poems that I grasped what a dramatic stride forward the poems in The Seven Deadly Sins amount to. If anything, I had rather neglected this final collection. It was put together after her death, and, knowing this, I suppose I had it down as, comparatively, rather a ragbag. But now I realized that there was an intensity of connected thought in these two small poems that stood out as new to me. I'd read the poems before, of course, many times; I only saw the comprehensiveness of this vision when I started to translate them. Both poems describe a process of gathering total experience and mysteriously, in some inner chamber, bringing one's identity to birth. Boye now saw the psyche as a multiplicity, a store. The identity was a totality. There was also a terrific and terrible "breaking open" involved in this conception. It is impossible to detach the clarity of this vision from her suicide soon afterwards. While immersed in my translations I had always found the distinction between our identities starting to break down and merge; I welcomed that, it fascinated me. It was only now that I felt a tremor of fear. A feeling that I might not want to get too close to Boye's insights, that I do not want my life to end up too closely resembling hers.

Reading poetry is fantastic, but there's always a danger that it might bite back. Poems don't simply be: they mean stuff.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Never was the wood so joyful as now - Karin Boye

Never was the wood so joyful as now in the sun and the rain,
never so overflowing with wood-scents and wood-glitter,
never so free with the sweet solace I alone cannot obtain,
though I seek it and pray, but my grief is too bitter.

Drink in, my two eyes, the golden light that I myself don't see.
Breathe deeply in, my two lungs, the mist of wet moss.
I am a dead stone. Forget me and live for yourselves,
Pull in to your secret chambers everything, whatever you come across.

Inaccessible is the room where the day's crop gently ripens
from the shimmering, the scents and the breath of wind. When the moment arrives
a compacted splendour bursts its cell: rushes over me
keen and wild like a waterfall, the memory of my griefs.

(Karin Boye, from The Seven Deadly Sins and other posthumous poems, 1941)

Other translations from Karin Boye.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

McDonald's tea served with organic milk - not

In a recent post I incidentally gave McDonald's some positive (and deserved) PR .

But it cuts both ways. So today I want to ask a question about this:

Made with PG tips tea and served with organic semi-skimmed milk. 

Well, that's what it says here:

And that's also what it says on promotional material in the restaurants themselves. For example "The A to Z ... of What Makes McDonald's" (leaflet, (C) McDonald's 2012).
U .. is for the udders that fill our bottles with lovely organic milk. All the milk used in our coffee, tea, porridge and Happy Meal milk bottles is British, semi-skimmed and organic. How refreshing.
Well, up til about the end of 2011 this claim about organic milk was definitely true. The milk sachets were supplied by Dairystix and they were certified as organic.

But in 2012 I've had many teas at half a dozen different UK McDonald's restaurants and every time I've been given little tubs of UHT milk made by Lakeland. And they're definitely NOT organic.

So what's going on?


Follow-up note (Aug 12, 2012). Probably as a direct result of this post, new-style milk-portions (organic, McDonald's-branded)  have now appeared and are being given out with the tea! ;-)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

One, I could hammer into a shed door,
the back of it,
all rough with splinters.

Rocking her in your arms
you walked around the kitchen
rocking slowly
minding the white
christener shawl
did not snag
Think of that. Was it her or me?
Was it to still my clamour?

plain salute mark creep lapse sign oral freak chart detail total drill squat

Then, away yard, eh?  
bloody nice, fire in the throat.
Drumstick crew has run crazy along the quay.  
And the iron is a doll now, sling it in the boat.

Estuary harvest, mud neck and crop,
like dill tongues,
well, that was the parish:
husk and creature plaited to a penny piece.
The television sun

Was is to make your point,
Was it to still my clamour,
the needles are swarming up the woods
so close
growing so close
I think it says



Tuesday, July 03, 2012


This is a little pamphlet containing verse translations from the Spanish, published in 1954 by
María F. de Laguna, then a resident of Wells, Somerset. An admiring notice was elicited from Roy Campbell ("It beats my attempts hollow") - to which is suffixed: "A photostat copy may be seen, if required."
The translations are indeed quite good, most of them. I'll come back to them later, but first here's more of what I can infer about the translator.

Lady Margaret Sackville (then in her 70s), who contributed a foreword, tells us that MFdL is half-Spanish and half-English, fluent in both languages and herself a poet. (She names three Spanish collections: Arco Iris, Cuarenta Poesías and Cuesta Arriba.)
MFdL was a staunch Catholic, a staunch Spanish nationalist and a supporter of Franco. I know this from various articles (available on-line) that she contributed to the Catholic Herald. In 1938, she was telling us that, at any rate, there were no beggars on the streets of Nationalist Spain. She attributed this to the excellent welfare services. Other articles attack the claims of Basque separatism, urge the return of Gibraltar to Spain, celebrate Science's rejection of the path of arid materialism,  and testify to the validity of synchronicities, tokens, miracles and the Devil. "Satan, for long soft-pedalled in the non-Catholic pulpit and banished from the Press, is now considered a force to be reckoned with." 

It's in the Francoist context that I suppose we must understand her remarks, in the pamphlet, about Spain's "present youthful vigour and revival in every sphere of national life". I don't know what this refers to specifically, but Franco's Spain did achieve two major publicity coups in 1953, signalling the end of international isolation: the Treaty of Madrid (with the USA) and the Concordat with the Vatican.


Sackville writes: "Spain is the most masculine of the Latin countries, with its stern beauty, its language each word of which seems stamped on metal, the glory of its place-names, its poverty and splendour, each in its way magnificent."

Characterizations of a whole nation's culture aren't worth taking seriously, but it's fun to think about this. It's very of its era. The aesthetic thrill of connecting language with metal is familiar from Pound and Eliot. "Masculine" was then quite a common term of praise for literature, though it's hard to recapture exactly what it then conveyed. The writer's Catholicism may be significant, i.e. proposing Spain as the faithful heartland of the Church Militant. By contrast, when the Protestant Richard Ford wrote about Spain, in the 1840s, his fond but critical gaze dwelt on its "Oriental" and therefore "feminine" aspects.


The poems represent in tiny compass a traditional and still recognizably prevalent overview of the canon of Spanish verse: some medieval, some Renaissance, a big gap between Calderón and Ramón de Campoamor, then people like Bécquer and Machado, some Hispanoamericans, and Lorca. The short section from Mio Cid, with rhyme, works well. Machado is such a wonderfully translatable poet that he always comes out well, even though MFdL does things with "Campos de Soria" that I don't agree with. For example she expands Machado's "hierbas olorosas" into "rosemary heather and gorse". That seems to bring the shrubs into flower. I think the point is that in early spring they are still mainly grey scrub - it's only the white marguerites (in the succeeding line) that dot the ground with colour.

Here's the first stanza of Rosalía de Castro's "Las Campanas" (The Bells):

How I love them, and I hear them
like the wind o'er earth and sky,
like the gushing of spring-waters
or the lambs' soft bleating cry. (MFdL)

  Yo las amo, yo las oigo
cual oigo el rumor del viento,
el murmurar de la fuente
o el balido del cordero.

  I love them, I hear them
as I hear the sound of the wind,
the murmur of the fountain,
or the bleat of the lamb. (Michael Smith)
MFdL gives us too many extras, but Smith is too literal. I'm sure she is right that "fuente" here means a spring, not a fountain, and that the last line should convey the bleating of numerous lambs, rather than the solitary bleat of one lamb.


The translation that Roy Campbell particularly admired was St John of the Cross's "Noche Oscura". These are the final three stanzas:

Upon my heart in flower,
Surrendered, for him ever more to keep,
He lay, within that bower,
And of my love drank deep,
The cedars gently fanning him to sleep.

The air embalmed the land,
And while my lover's hair I did caress,
With undisturbing hand
Against my neck did press,
Till I entranced, all but lost consciousness.

There knew I Love's first kiss
When on my lover's breast I laid my face,
And this enthralling bliss,
Left of my cares no trace,
Forgotten, midst the lilies in that place.

Michael Smith (again) has written an interesting article about translations of this poem. Though MFdL would earn brownie points from Smith for correctly understanding that "hería" does not mean "wounded" but "stroked" ("did press" in this case), and that the hand belongs to the air and not to the lover, she would forfeit them, perhaps, for dispensing with the Canticle's "almena" (ramparts) and expecially for the extremely erotic account of a passionate, swooning, extensive and active night of love-making. I think she's right and that you cannot purge that eroticism from John's poem. Accepting that the imagery comes from the Song of Songs, the devotee's body is to be imagined as a woman's. It is beyond dispute that the Lord is lying on the devotee's breast in the first of these three stanzas, while in the last their positions are reversed, i.e. they're closely entwined and rolling about. This is not a static image, it is prolonged love-play. "Dejéme", in the final stanza, implies abandonment - both erotic and spiritual.


Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) found growing in the middle of Frome, in a small close surrounded by houses. This amazing plant, native to the Caucasus, was introduced to the UK in the nineteenth century and is evidently here to stay. (From the UK it has spread to much of W. Europe and N. America)

The photo below gives a better view of the plant, but without such an obvious scale comparison.

Contact with the plant can lead to a nasty rash, or rather burn, with scarring, hyperpigmentation and long-term hypersensitivity to sunlight. This happens if the plant's furanocoumarins get under your skin. They absorb photons and react with them, so every time you expose the affected area to sunlight, then back comes the inflammation.  (Similar to parsnips, both wild and cultivated, but these usually present more of a risk to farmers, growers and walkers, and less of a risk to children in town.)

A younger plant nearby. The plants are monocarpal, that is, they live for 5-7 years but only flower in their final year.

This one must have been damaged earlier in the year, and consequently is only the same height as a normal hogweed. It did give me a chance to get closer to the flowers.

You can still tell it isn't normal hogweed, mainly because the leaves look so different. Hogweed (H. sphondylium) is hispid, i.e. harshly bristly-hairy, on nearly all surfaces.Giant Hogweed is, at most, softly pubescent (I told you not to touch it!!), and the upper surface of the rather lax-looking  leaves is pretty much hairless.

Compound umbel, above.

Below is one of the individual umbellules. 

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