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Alan Baker

Two Oystercatchers

"The Drop" by Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard's sequence is an elegy for his father, who died aged 89 in 2013. But you won't find here any reminiscences or personal details. Instead, the elegy is driven by a condensed language expressing the various energies, social, sexual and linguistic, which are in the process of dissipating as life comes to an end. The text suggests the period of waiting by the hospital bed at the end of life, but without ever being explicit about the scene or the people involved, thus giving the poem a universality. The poem also references the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in an intimation of the dying man's relationship with his wife, now, presumably, also deceased. The myth is referenced with some subtlety towards the end of the poem:

Her beauty extended to her private places
Upended with

Her muffled voice afar
Her breasts clap bells as he

Examines Eurydice with
Forensic passion Orpheus

Entuning the moist cavities
Of immediate  lust haunting

Desire the task
Of the poet is elective translation

To transmute the nothing said
Into the nothing that could

The Orpheus myth here serves to both provide an elegiac backdrop for the dying man reunited, in memory at least, with his loved one, and at the same time, to comment on the process of making poetry; this latter reinforced by the reference to poetry in the opening poem:

...the dream-chatter of the dead
Meaningless encased in his own deafening dome
Poetry does nothing here the earpiece vibrates

...The soft "Oh!" coughs from the last breath a message
Elegy lost in action on the outskirts of an event

Most of the poem is in couplets, and the broken sentences and sudden shifts, reminiscent of Tom Raworth, mean that the text is contantly modifying itself in the light of the next and previous lines in tightly-wrought, visceral language which affects the reader in an almost physical way. The opening  line of the opening poem is:

‘Chuting through the darkness the drop mourns itself

Sheppard’s father was a young RAF pilot in WW2, who had to parachute from his stricken craft to be captured by enemy forces (we don’t learn this from the poem, but from Sheppard’s website). So “the drop” is both the parachute drop and a metaphor for death; and we may note here that  ‘Chute’ is French for ‘drop’ but also has the sense of “Fall”, with all the connotations that term has. The range of language in this poem is tremendously impressive, from the medical (“Morphine thickens the glassy eye…”) to the lyrical:

Geese shelter
Under willows thunder shudders

Resistance to any kind of sentimentality means that the ending of the poem is moving and truly elegiac:

“To me new
To himself crooning wartime love ballads

Removed
From the breathing ear

Of existence into the stalled
Ark the cool archive loss

Fills with finding his things Orpheus
Swinging in swingtime.

 

 

"Spaces for Sappho" by Kat Peddie (Oystercatcher)

It could be argued that the most influential poet in the history of Western literature is a woman; one who wrote 2,500 years ago in an obscure dialect of Greek, almost all of whose work was destroyed, with only a few fragments remaining. Her work was translated and imitated by Roman poets like Catullus, who in turn were imitated by early modern writers in all the major European languages, thus transmitting her influence to us today.

Kat Peddie's pamphlet gives versions of those fragments shorn of any archaisms, in a plain and dynamic language. References to later poems which were influenced by Sappho ("the impediments / the gaps / I mean / the marriage of true minds") subtly indicate that we can't see this poet except through the lens of her later translators and imitators (unless we read Aeolian Greek, which not many people do).

Peddie has clearly done her homework, referring to the Sappho scholars Anne Carson, Margaret Reynolds and Page Dubois, and dedicating one fragment to Tim Atkins, well known for his  versions of Petrarch in a mode similar to these translations.  Near the beginning of the pamphlet, Peddie quotes Margaret Reynolds on Sappho:

"...We have eased off her name, made her docile and sliding, where she is really difficult, diffuse, many-syllabled, many-minded, vigorous and hard."

The implication here is that these versions are intended to bring back that vigour and hardness. But the poems, to my mind, don't exactly do that; what they do instead is to render the fragments in very plain, almost-colloquial language, which is beautifully clear, but which reflects the "difficult, diffuse" nature of the poetry by being disjunctive, by breaking up the sense. This is from the famous Fragment 31 (which was translated by Catullus, and more recently, by Basil Bunting):

my voice deserts
me silent            me speaking me
no longer           is possible
tongue cleaves

lost
my voice is
speechless
failed
faltering my    a slip
in my tongue

The title of the pamphlet - Spaces for Sappho – is about right, as these beautiful renditions have a calm and spaciousness which allows the poetry to breathe; somehow, using the plainest possible language, they manage to express the strangeness of this fragmentary poetry, and give us a glimpse of the power which has made it so influential for so long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Copyright © Alan Baker, 2016