Some Lives by Leeanne Quinn (Dedalus Press, 2020). The Day Laid Bare by Kiwao Nomura, translated by Eric Selland (Isobar Press, 2020).
Reviewed by Ross Moore
Leeanne Quinn’s debut collection from 2012, Before You, contained a section of poems inspired by One Art: The Letters of Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop’s influence was apparent even from the vocabulary of the opening poems (the first few pages give us, “cold aches”, “burn”, “travelling”, “maps”, “Geography”, “rootless”, “house”). Further in, we have the sestina ‘Giving Rain’, and when isn’t any new sestina a nod to Bishop’s ‘Sestina’? The disciplined reticence and exacting description that we associate with Bishop are evidenced in the best of the poems from Before You, giving us the deft imagery of a poem such as ‘The Impact’. However, it is in poems such as ‘Ode to Memory’ with its repetitions, subtle shifts in word order and varied graduations of tone and meaning, or ‘Absence of Memory’ with a delicately formulated wish for “…proof / that there is still something of you // that cannot be reached by memory”, that the potential of Quinn’s work really becomes apparent, a potential now further realised in her recent collection Some Lives.
The lives in question include those of Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova and, centrally, the German poet Jakob van Hoddis, whose poem ‘Weltende’ from 1911 becomes Quinn’s point of departure as well as her guideline, particularly in the collection’s long title poem. Here ‘Weltende’ is a literal as well as ghostly presence in her poem which navigates incidents from the lives of the Russian poets, writers and dissidents while exploring tropes and concerns that recur throughout the collection. Images from ‘Weltende’ – falling roofers, rising tides, a world where “almost everyone has a cold” – merge in ‘Some Lives’ with the factual deaths of van Hoddis (“probably in the Sobibor death camp”), the many deaths of her husband that Nadezhda Mandelstam has been made endure through vindictive stories of a former Komsomol, and Marina Tsvetaeva’s suicide in August 1941. As Quinn recounts, Tsvetaeva was buried in an unknown location in a cemetery in Yelabuga, in her preferred location of Tarusa there is only a stone to memorialise her. It is inscribed, as she had imagined in life, “Here, Marina Tsvetaeva would have liked to lie.” Mandelstam’s grave does not exist (he was buried in a transit camp) nor, in a sense, does his cause of death; Quinn relates Nadezhda’s response to the official cause of her husband’s death which was given as heart failure, “This is as much to say that he died because he died: what is death but heart failure?” In ‘Some Lives’, while the dead lack graves, the living are entombed. Quinn describes scaffolding being placed around her apartment block while stone-work is carried out around the city: “a mesh gauze is lowered from roof to ground, sealing us in / with any falling debris.” Some Lives the collection and ‘Some Lives’ the poem are full of overlapping echoes and reverberations. Recurring images include the wasps that open the collection in the poem ‘September’ and the particular silence found in ‘Not At All Like The Sea’:
And what kind of silence is the silence
of seeing the sea behind glass as white
waves crash without sound, without.
Many of the images that pervade the collection appear in the title poem with an increased sense of foreboding: the soundlessly crashing waves, “…noise / in the lungs, the sound of winter / fever” and those damn wasps, though “By late October the wasps have completely disappeared.” Particularly haunting is Quinn’s handling of ‘Weltende’, the poem both fragmented within and framing her poem, and which we come to know from many angles during ‘Some Lives’. Quinn’s rendering is an assured version in its own right:
I read a poem about the end of the world.
Shouts echo in the air, roofers topple, break in two.
The tides are rising, almost everyone has a cold.
‘Some Lives’ the poem, while at risk of appearing an overly ambitious project, succeeds perfectly in aligning historical incidents and images with Quinn’s own concerns. Reading this sequence, the collection as a whole both coheres and expands. Themes of death and absence, and the role of language and memory ripple through the long poem, circling back to the poem ‘Weltende’ with which it begins, on which it is founded. In some ways it is a poem about reading, “I read a poem…” she writes, “The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva once wrote…”, or “In Elaine Feinstein’s preface to the poems …” Although framed elegantly within and by its predecessor, ‘Some Lives’, the poem, forms connections and coherences throughout the collection: on reading it, echoes and repetitions from other poems in the collection are recalled. The long poem concludes near the end of the volume, as such it sent this reader back to re-read the collection in its light. ‘Some Lives’, as the central sequence in the collection of its name, encourages the volume’s unified tone; the long poem appears to grow out of the accumulation of themes, images and phrases from other poems that preceded it. This coherence of tone and texture is further enhanced as Quinn has poems throughout the collection which also relate to the lives of the Russian writers, among others. In this way the long sequence extends beyond itself, permeating the collection as a whole and providing a coherent texture to Quinn’s wide-ranging subjects. This contrasts with the Elizabeth Bishop sequence in Quinn’s debut collection which, in the case of the prose poems, did not seem to add much to a collection which already carried Bishop’s influence in all the right ways. But the present collection seamlessly aligns the textures between the historical episodes she draws on and her contemporaneous concerns and surroundings.
Leeanne Quinn is originally from County Louth and lived in Dublin when her first collection was published in 2012. There are some eight years between publication of the two collections, during which time Quinn relocated to Munich, Germany in late 2018. The beguiling strangeness of these poems seems to reflect the slow acclimatisation to new surroundings, the mixture of heightened attention and unease that immersion in a new place can bring. Indeed, Quinn has mentioned in interview that during the writing of these poems, she found that poetry in translation had a greater effect on her when she was trying to learn a new language in a new environment. The dislocated imagery of the poems might owe something to the experience of apprehending the world through an unfamiliar language. Always there is the sense of interiority, of distance: the waves that crash noiselessly behind glass, streets clearing somewhere below, a “cube of sky” visible from a bedroom, the patterns of a street sweeper outside. As ‘Unless’ has it: “You could stand by the window / and wait for light to shatter / the sky, but it won’t / be what you imagined.” Quinn’s imagery resonates between the lives of the Russian poets, Jakob van Hoddis’s poem and her personal explorations of memory and absence.
As in Before You, where personal bereavement and loss is situated within a context of environmental destruction, Some Lives aligns specific historical deaths and persecutions alongside the contemporary environmental crisis, itself often evoked through the personal or local. The collection’s imagery, which ranges from the claustrophobic to providing a sense of eerily deserted space, proves particularly apt to the context of the current pandemic. Take these lines from the poem ‘Smoke’:
Winter fills my lungs with smoke,
as I breathe in the new year
in this old house. Winter of locked doors
and empty rooms, winter of ill-winds
and thrashing rains. Winter,
was I always this afraid?
Or ‘Any Weather’ where the speaker (in a poem whose epigraph is from Marina Tsvetaeva) finds:
… I used
to think any weather. I used to think
any state, used to think anyone could carry
any burden and still retain a handful
of happiness, like a handful of grain.
I used to have quite a cheerful nature,
would go out in any weather, now
I don’t think to go out at all beyond
necessity, which is now my only state.
Quinn has captured the texture of the current crisis, with lives steadily “reducing down”, accompanied by the refrains of “I used to.” Quinn’s perfectly judged use of repetition within poems such as ‘Any Weather’ mirrors the echo of lines and imagery between poems. The result is a collection of rare coherence: these poems have great range but cohere on the level of language, not simply theme. Her phrasing and use of repetition can work remarkably. ‘Precedence’, for example, speeds on, its stanzas laden with internal rhymes and end rhymes, always sure-footed, however much they catch up on themselves:
… in the city where the trams still
run and we greet each other
with smiles and greet each other
with smiles while the trams still
run our hands are not too tight
in each other’s and what precedence
has this day over any other
we have lived in the cold …
This would be easy to overdo, but Quinn almost always gets it right (‘Elegy’, strikes me as a rare misstep in the collection). These poems open out when they need to, close in when they need to; in poems necessarily concerned with endings, Quinn’s finely tuned, beautifully pitched cadences navigate places where the stars “foretell only / silence”, where:
To talk is to tempt, and everyone
around here knows how talk
can make things
Eric Selland’s translation of The Day Laid Bare by Kiwao Nomura was published by Isobar Press last year. The original appeared in Japan in 2011 and while Nomura may have embarked upon his work with a sense of cultural dereliction – the epigraph to the collection reads “There is no place left in this world for poets” – this unease was to merely prefigure the all-encompassing crisis of the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accidents. Nomura’s translator, Eric Selland writes that, for many of Japan’s artists and intellectuals, these events “seemed to be a sign of Japan’s imminent collapse.” Nomura’s collection emerges in the wake of this, structured as one long sequence which charts a general sense of physical, political and cultural devastation.
The long poem itself is the formal means by which Nomura explores the chaos. Within it the poems are placed in an alternating, numbered, sequence of ‘Roadblock’ and ‘Parade’. While many of the poems in this sequence are titled, there is the impression of individual titles as superfluous. Where titles are given, they are bracketed off, placed after the anonymous designation of sequential numbering. This encourages a reading of the sequence as a loosely ordered flow, where chaotic, surreal details accumulate and jostle together: no section seems to have been intended to stand on its own. The ‘Parade’ sections we can take as metaphors for society, written in descriptive prose and describing “pieces of flesh”, apparently designating oblivious humans or sub-humans partaking in an unthinking parade. The ‘Roadblock’ segments, the introduction tells us, are “passionate and expressive, moving into the territory of not only the lyrical but something like Rimbaud’s ‘derangement of the senses’”. While the ‘Roadblock’ sections are more often arranged by line and the ‘Parade’ sections more often written as prose, this is not always the case. Frequently there is little difference between the register of the language in each of these sections; not enough variation, in any case, to support Nomura’s alternating pattern as organising principle. Take ‘Parade 5’ which begins:
The day laid bare
Actions take hold of the human and then pass away with fright-
Or a passage through hell
And here’s the end of ‘Roadblock 5 (The Zone)’:
You no longer speak
Your body is colder than water
So I cram in plenty of letters
The riddle of the test tube, the squeaking sound
Love is …
But what the format does allow is for images, or even particular words, to recur and reappear over the long distance of the sequence. The phrase “The day laid bare” in ‘Parade 3’, follows the line “Stripped to the bone”. A different “laid bare” from that of ‘Parade 13’ where “An intense light shines on all things” and “All is laid bare”. Different connotations again to “The naked day” of ‘Parade 12’ (“Go, follow – give chase”).
In discussing the irony at play in The Day Laid Bare, Selland points out, on a few occasions, Nomura’s use of the English word ‘Japan’ to describe the country, but the explanations are unnecessary, lines such as the following make issues of cultural imperialism clear enough:
Here and there, like pockmarks, there are bases of another coun-
try, as if it were a protectorate (‘Parade 8’)
Similarly, the endnotes to ‘Roadblock 8’ gloss the phrase “Between waking and sleep” as a translation of hansui… “meaning ‘hypnapagogic’, or causing wakefulness; preventing sleep. A state similar to that through which the mind passes when coming out of sleep.” So, “between waking and sleep” then?
Much of the contextualising is useful, necessary even. It is stated in the introduction that there are issues at play relating to cultural sensibilities, namely the difficulty in English “to be silly and absurd, yet dead serious at the same time.” *Elsewhere, Selland has discussed Nomura’s belief in the necessity of difficulty in the work if it is to align with the contemporary condition, and of how Nomura “brings conventional poetic language into question”. But surely the belief that art must be necessarily difficult if it is to reflect a complicated world (a modernist principle), or even the desire to bring “poetic language into question”, are themselves a bit conventional by now? More problematically, if Nomura holds with a definition of poetry as “arising from the abyss between signifier and signified” and using this rupture within language to write out of, it’s easy to foresee a few pitfalls for the translator. The Day Laid Bare attends closely to its language on its own terms, but this translation might need a very particular kind of reader.
*This refers to an essay on Eric Selland’s website which can be found at https://ericselland.wordpress.com/2014/06/15/nude-day-the-day-laid-bare-by-kiwao-nomura/