McGuckian, Maxwell, Venclova

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Last night was a funny mix of types: there seemed to be less coherence in the line-up than there had been the other night. Medbh McGuckian and Glyn Maxwell bounced off each other in a surprisingly interesting way, though his bounciness and in-yer-face delivery sort of eclipsed her quiet, intelligent, slightly wry reading.

Medbh McGuckian, interpreting the Poetry International theme of “freedom,” read some marvellous poems about the lives of women. It was never explicitly stated that the women in question were not alive now, but the trope is largely historical/mythological, so that our emancipated modernity is seen through the prism of time. Poems made like recipes for childbed cures, household instructions, entries in 17th century commonplace books; a poem based in a French text instructing priests how to analyse the milk to determine the suitability of the prospective wet nurse.

Her drapy grey outfit, Yoshi Yamomoto meets the Middle Ages, lent verisimilitude to her reading. I’ve never heard her read before; chatting over getting my books signed, I liked her tremendously.

Maxwell bounded up to the stage in the single most shapeless, 10-year-old Primark-looking T shirt I’ve ever seen: brown, with white around the neck and sleeves, and just kind of weirdly bagging out around him as a stood at the podium. You have to think this is “boyishness” taken too far. (Really, Glyn. People paid £8.50 to get in there to see you.)

Anyway, boyish and bouncy, he delivered a rousing reading of some fragments of a play not yet written, based on a wheeze to do with the Medieval mystery plays – and finished with a very funny poem based on a suburban town production of the complete Mystery cycle, clearly a yearly community event, like a fête. Fun.

Adam Foulds started the second half, unfortunately as the unannounced replacement for the absent Leontia Flynn, reading a long extract from his even longer poem about the Mau Mau uprising, The Broken Word. It sounded interesting, but it was a slightly uncompromising introduction. I only know what he was reading because I looked it up this morning, so quick was whatever introduction he gave it last night. There seemed to be no attempt to engage an audience who, let’s face it, hadn’t come there to see him (no fault of ours or his; but a small attempt to win us over might have been nice!).

While we’re on the subject of What They Wore, I’ll remark that Foulds’ black suit, smart as it was, also created a strange blankness where one was looking for signifiers (Who is this person? What is his stuff about? How old is he? What’s his general shtick, what’s he like?), especially when combined with his lack of interaction with the audience.

The work sounds good.

Tomas Venclova, a Lithuanian – that is, ex-Soviet – elder statesman of European poetry, an ex-dissident and friend of Joseph Brodsky who has been a professor at Yale since 1985, finished the night off in grand, understated style. Also very formal, in a quiet grey suit that might have been from any time, any place, and a stripy tie that looked silver from where I was sitting. A gentle, courtly, stooped man with white hair and a slightly nonplussed expression. A little daunting, frankly, and I got the impression the other poets thought so, too. He read with his translator, Ellen Hinsey, an American woman who lives in Paris and who is a poet in her own right.

This shows, by the way: this is one of the best translations to read that I’ve ever come across. That is, it doesn’t jar. It flows like the intention of the poet, especially important as Venclova writes very deliberately, relying on classical form for the vestiges of civilisation he so nearly lost, growing up in post-war ruins.

He read one poem in Lithuanian, then read in English by Hinsey; after that, he introduced, and she read, while he stood by listening with intense concentration, until the final poem, which is not in the new Bloodaxe edition of his work. It was an electrifying finish, based on repetition which comes through the language barrier loud and clear.

“In the fire in the fire in the fire in the fire in the fire,” the poem began. Each stanza began with a similar line: “In the water in the water in the water in the water in the water.” “Underground underground underground underground underground.” “A spark a speck a split [?] a breach in the fire” – and ending with, “All things are ready for death when the syllable sparks.” In Lithuanian it was remarkable.

One poem they read last night was Commentary, which is in the new Bloodaxe book:

Above all, though it’s hard, love language –
humbled in newspapers, obituaries saturated with lies,
in the bedroom’s close darkness, the informer’s confession,
in the cry at the bazaar, trenches, the stench of hospital wards,

in third-rate theatres, secret police offices, on lavatory walls…

then you’ll be the one who ‘saw that it was good’ –
because letters float across the page like sludge on a river,
and suddenly bushes, an embankment, a city come into view.
And it doesn’t matter who reads this (if anyone ever).

Standing in the queue for signatures afterwards, while a chamber orchestra on the other side of the Queen Elizabeth Hall played some Baroque interlude, I quipped to my friend that I felt as if I was in church, waiting to take communion – and it suddenly didn’t feel so very far off that.

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