Sunday, 22 May 2016


On Saturday I drive out to the coast.  Through West Newton where a stream runs parallel to the road and the houses have little bridges to link them to the village street.  Then on to Allonby where I park by the shore and look over to Criffel on the Dumfries side of the Solway - only it isn't there because the mist has obliterated it.  Charles Dickens walked to Allonby when he was staying in Wigton with Wilkie Collins (Collins was recuperating after twisting his ankle on an ascent of Carrock Fell).  Percy Kelly painted it (he lived here for 12 years).  Meg Peacocke wrote a poem about it.  She included the road sign which reads "Allonby Please d  i  e carefully).

The wind churns up the incoming tide.  Beige-coloured sea water heaves itself onto the sandy strip between beach and road.  Beery froth crests the waves.  The houses at Allonby hunker down, crowding together for shelter against the next storm.  A gaunt dark brick building keeps a lonely vigil by the shore.   It's been derelict for years but I'm pleased to see that at last the Old Reading Rooms are being renovated and converted into a house.

I continue north towards Mawbray.  Soon there's nothing but sea on the left side of the road.  At Dubmill Point the land thrusts out a defiant rocky fist against the tide.  A black and white bird with bright orange bill flies low across the road and over the fields near Salta - an oystercatcher.  At this time of year oystercatchers come inland to nest - not just in fields by the Solway but further eastward, even to the Eden Valley (see my post of 23 February 2016).

At Mawbray the weather is even wilder.  The wind blows rain (or is it salt spray?) in my face.  The white horses are jostling for position as they race towards the dunes where a single line of cottages wisely have their backs turned to the sea.  But the rest of Mawbray is in retreat from the coast.  The village street runs at right angles to the beach as if the houses are trying to escape from the Solway Firth.

I still can't see Scotland.

  there is nothing
  to show there's land
            across the sea"

Mavis Gulliver
from "Looking South from Islay"
(Envoi issue 156 June 2010)

Tuesday, 10 May 2016


“The days run away like wild horses over the hills” wrote Charles Bukowski.   What beauty, fear and wistfulness in those words.  I’ve been away over the hills for a busy few days in Edinburgh and it feels as if the time has galloped away.

On Thursday I spent the day with friends exploring South Berwick (where we saw the new Forth road bridge under construction) and watching the gulls, eider duck and mute swans on the firth.  In the evening I went to the Scottish Poetry Library for a German translation workshop ably led by the translator and academic, Anne Stokes. 

Anne teaches translation studies at the University of Stirling and one of her recent books is a translation of the poetry of Sarah Kirsch (Ice Roses).  She gave us three poems in German and alongside them a literal English translation.   I have minimal German (I can apologise for being late and ask for the bill) but that didn’t matter in Anne’s supportive and relaxed workshop.

We tackled one of Sarah Kirsch’s poems, “The Last of November”, from 1989.  Anne encouraged us to look at the repeated vowel sounds in the original German to see if we could in some way replicate them.  She said that we should try to think of synonyms for the literal when translating.  We should also consider word order.  Each language has its own syntax so we may not want to retain a literal word order.

Translating makes you look at a poem in detail – that was what I appreciated most from the evening.   We noticed how Sarah’s apparently surface descriptions conveyed a deeper meaning.  Exchanging money, the blotches on a wall, turrets, nervous creatures, the word “registieren” (register) all had political associations which might be missed at first reading.  As the evening went on we also worked on Jan Wagner’s “Small Town Elegy” and Günter Eich’s “Where I Live”.  It was good to be introduced to three very different poems in the original. 

During the course of the workshop various theories inevitably arose.  Anne spoke of Michael Hoffman’s idea of translation – “This is what I think the poet would write if he was writing in English”.  We talked about the difficulty of translating poetry for both form and meaning.  This led to the word “Compensation” where a translator may not be able to follow the original exactly but might do an equivalent .  An example might be the alliteration and rhyme used in the phrase “Wir fuhren und flogen” (we drove and flew).  Two of us translated that as “driving and flying”, not strictly a present participle in the original, but retaining a rhyme which we would have lost with the strictly literal “we drove and flew”. 

One evening was not enough – even with three short poems.  The next morning I was back at the Scottish Poetry Library to browse the latest poetry magazines and to pick six books to borrow for the next month.  Then it was off to the National Library of Scotland for The Celts, the exhibition which has come up from the British Museum.  Celts is an umbrella term, the introduction told me, covering a wide span of time, people, places and religions.  Yet here was the art I have come to associate with the Celts: interwoven patterns, stylised designs of birds and animals (real and mythical – I liked the dragon on a brooch from Portugal), the carefully illuminated Gospel books, the warrior culture of decorated shields, scabbards and swords, the beautiful jewellery and the fine gold torcs which have been found in several places.  Pride of place was given to the splendid silver cauldron from Gundestrup in Jutland (c. 150 – 50BC).  I remember seeing this magnificent object in the museum in Copenhagen when I visited the city in 2014.  At the end of the exhibition were a few displays showing how we have interpreted the Celts.  In Ireland the Celtic revival was harnessed to Irish nationalism.  In Wales there was an important cultural dimension with the national Esiteddford’s Welsh druids and the importance of what has been seen as a Bardic tradition in literature.  Each year the Bardic chair is awarded for poetry (written in the form of cynghanedd).  In 1917 the Bardic chair was awarded to Hedd Wyn.  The chair was draped in black – the poet had been killed at Passchendale six weeks earlier (an award winning film Hedd Wyn was made about the poet’s life in 1992).  More recently Mererid Hopwood became the first woman to win the chair.

     On Saturday I was back at the Scottish Poetry Library for an all day symposium on the work of Thomas A Clark.  The poet was there in person to read his work and be interviewed.  But much of the day was taken up with papers by various academics.  In between we had a variety of (non-Clark) poems read by Iain Morrison and some beautiful violin playing.  These intermissions lightened the atmosphere because we had to concentrate hard on the academic papers – perhaps putting the most abstract of these in the session after the excellent lunch was not a good idea.  I thought the most interesting and listen-able to speaker was Harriet Tarlo (reader in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University).  She is a poet herself and I couldn’t resist buying her behind land: poems and paintings, an artist’s book collaboration with Judith Tucker.  The book is wide and narrow (think of an A4 piece of paper folded length-ways). 

One word which kept coming up over the course of the day was “attention”.  “Pay attention in order to notice”, said Simone Weill.  The words of Dominic Smith was quoted with a music analogy – “playing attention”, “composing attention”.  One of Clark’s works on display embodied this attention: the words “Anyone who goes in the quest of the ordinary should carry a stone” accompanying a little straw lined square box in which was placed a pebble, like an egg in a nest.  It was good to be celebrating the work of Thomas A Clark, whose poetry I have admired for some years.  I first bought one of his books at the gallery at Lochmaddy on a wet day on North Uist. 

More days running away like wild horses.

Scottish poetry library

The Celts runs at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh until 25 September

Thursday, 28 April 2016


“How can anyone translate Shakespeare?”
asked an audience member at the end of my Shakespeare talk to the Cumbrian Literary Group recently.  The questioner was clearly dubious that the language of the plays could be transferred to another tongue with any degree of success.

I thought of Shakespeare’s puns, his imagery, his delight in specialist vocabularies – such as thieves’ cant, that ridiculous hairy exchange between Launcelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo in the Merchant of Venice - the scene itself a skit on the Biblical Isaac and Jacob.  (I also thought of the time I tried to explain to a young German friend the English colloquialism “Pull the other leg, it’s got bells on”.  Her eyes widened in increasing disbelief as I started to tell her about Medieval jesters).  Alas, I completely forgot the performances of Shakespeare’s plays in 38 different languages at the Globe in 2012 to mark the Olympics.

Time was short.  I fudged the answer.  “Yes, it does seem extraordinary, but Shakespeare has been translated into and performed in a large number of languages all over the world.”  Later, poet and translator, Chris Pilling, who happened to be in the audience, muttered to me, “One day I’m going to do a defence of translation”.

I know people who refuse to read translations, even though it means depriving themselves of fine literature written in a language they do not understand.  Their assumption is that translation is not even  second best, that too much is lost in translation.  Perhaps they have ploughed through a poor, stilted translation, where readability has been sacrificed to a rigid literalism. 

But the best translations can take us into the world of the original text and also relate to the reader to such an extent that we forget we are reading a translation.  I think of Anthea Bell’s superb translations of W G Sebald and  Asterix, Sandra Smith’s translations of the French novelist Irène Némirovsky, Clive James’ Dante.  Working in the other direction it’s said that Germans think Shakespeare is better in German than in English.  Goethe and Schiller adopted Shakespeare as a classic of German literature: “unser” (our) Shakespeare.

I’ve been discovering a few things that have been gained in Shakespeare translation, rather than lost. 

*Andrew Dickson states that the wall in the rude mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be translated in German as Die Mauer.  So what? we might think.  Except that Die Mauer was also the name given to the Berlin Wall.  Lovers separated by a wall – the irony was not lost to German speakers in the days of the Cold War.

**Vahni Capildeo has written illuminatingly about translations of Hamlet’s words about death in the famous “To be, or not to be” speech:

   “That undiscovered country from whose bourn
     No traveller returns.”
Here’s Pierre Le Tourneur in the late 18th century with a colonial spin: “Cette contrée ignorée dont nul voyageur ne revient.”  The word “revient” also suggests “revenant” (ghost, as in Hamlet’s father).  Victor Hugo in the mid 19th century has “cette région inexplorée” and I think of Livingstone in Africa.  André Markowicz translated the phrase as “Cette inconnue dont les frontières/Se referment sur tous les voyageurs.”  A strange land where the borders close on all travellers is chillingly contemporary.   André Markowicz’ translation was published in 2009 – his words are even more apt today when we think of the plight of thousands of refugees for whom the borders have closed.

As Vahni Capildeo says “Translation captures the conscience of the time”.

*Andrew Dickson Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (Bodley Head/Penguin Random House 2015).

**Vahni Capildeo “Use All Gently” PN Review 42:3 January- February 2016, issue 227.

Thursday, 21 April 2016


April 23rd: four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare.

A couple of weeks ago I made my own modest contribution to the Shakespeare celebrations.  I was invited to speak to the Cumbrian Literary Group and decided that it had to be a Shakespeare talk.  I considered how a playwright who died 400 years ago became such an iconic figure of English literature.  It was my first powerpoint talk (never act with animals, children or technology) and, once I had got that sorted, I was able to liven things up with pictures of some of the key people who contributed to Shakespeare’s reputation over the centuries. 

Shakespeare’s plays seem to be infinitely malleable – they have been exported and translated all over the world, staged in weird and wonderful costumes and settings, interpreted to provoke thought about the politics of the day, edited, rewritten, and turned into operas, films, cartoons, musicals.  They have influenced artists, composers, novelists and poets. 

I’m fascinated by the way poetry can explore the characters imagined by Shakespeare.  Auden’s virtuoso The Sea and the Mirror consists of monologues in the voices of the characters in The Tempest.  It is also a compendium of poetic forms - each character is given a different poetic form.  It’s brilliant, though I do find Caliban’s prose section (lesser characters traditionally spoke in prose in the plays) somewhat impenetrable.

Still on The Tempest a fellow Cumbrian poet recently recommended Michael Hamburger’s “Gonzalo’s Afterthoughts” (Collected Poems 1941 -94).  It’s in the voice of Gonzalo, one of those good old honest counsellors in Shakespeare’s plays, and it begins after the play has finished:

“A happy ending?  Well, we might have carried
Corpses away, as usual, clamped into doom’s

But no, “We all went home”.  The poem goes beyond the play’s characters to consider illusion, creativity, dreams, imagination.  Gonzalo concludes “There is no end”.  This is a wonderful poem, worthy of many re-readings.

Samuel Johnson wrote of King Lear: “I was so shocked by Cordelia’s death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play until I undertook to revise them as editor”.   Not a play to take a child to see, one would think, but Gillian Clarke was taken to see Lear at Stratford at the tender age of ten.   The experience fed into her poem “Llŷr” which blends Shakespeare, the Welsh Mabinogion stories and the Warwickshire and Llŷn landscapes. 

I’ve been reading Malcolm Carson’s new collection Route Choice recently and been intrigued by his Edgar poems.   There are six in the new book, but there are also seven at the end of Rangi Changi and a tentative three in his first volume Breccia. 

Edgar in Lear is an embodiment of the theme of appearance and reality which is so common in Shakespeare’s plays.  He changes from naively over-trusting brother, to “Poor Tom”, to anonymous warrior who kills his half-brother Edmund, to the moral good guy who restores order at the end of the play.  Even this is in doubt as there is textual debate over whether he or the Duke of Albany has the last word.  And order?  After what we have to go through in Lear order seems a simplistic term.  Rather a cessation of cruelty and violence.

It seems to me that it is Edgar’s capacity for morphing into different roles that Malcolm adopts for his Edgar poems.  So in Route Choice we have, for example, “Edgar Tends His Cacti” with the lines

“Too much love, too little,
  and all’s undone”

and “Edgar Regards His Attire”:

“Burrs cling to the troubled heart,
  Robin–run-the-hedge teases
  the skin to scratch away where nothing is”.

At Words by the Water last month I heard Andrew Dickson speak on Shakespeare world-wide.  He talked about how the situations in the plays have parallels with people’s experiences today.  In The Comedy of Errors, behind the knockabout comedy, there are journeys, mistakes, strange cultures, disasters.  Aegeon has spent five years searching for those he loves, he is arrested and put on death row.  Exile, refugees, imprisonment – news stories which don’t change with the centuries. 

On and off over the last few years I’ve been writing poems based on characters in some of the plays, (sometimes the minor ones – “Boy” in Henry V is probably my most obscure).   One character I’ve found fascinating is Cressida in Troilus and Cressida.  She has had a bad press – as true as Troilus, as false as Cressida is the persistent refrain from Shakespeare, as well as Chaucer and Robert Henryson.  But all these accounts are written by men, and I thought it was time to hear Cressida’s voice.  I would like to add that Cassandra wasn’t the only woman whose words were ignored.


Because you won’t believe me I will speak
the truth.  I woke up one morning and knew
that war would go on for ever, each side
claiming victory (only the merchants do well –
the procurers of flour, fish and flesh).
With one night’s pleasure Venus took my name
for a debt I cannot redeem.  In Troy
there is nowhere to hide.  Once, as a child,
I rolled a loom-weight down the stairs and watched
it smash on the final step.  A hostage exchange –
that’s all it ever was.  When I entered the Greek camp
the common soldiers pawed my skin, the lazars
begged with cop and clapper.  Read me truly –
sister of the first casualty of war.

© Mary Robinson 2011

(First published in Envoi issue 160, October 2011)

Wednesday, 6 April 2016


Today I visited the Outer Hebrides for the afternoon. 

   This shattered place, this place of fragments,
   A play of wind and sea and light,
   Shifting always, becoming and diminishing.
   ‘Hebrides’ from Salt and Light Kenneth Steven
   (Saint Andrew Press 2007)

I went to see the exhibition of photographs From the Land by Ian Lawson.  The images are taken mainly on the Isle of Harris and are completely absorbing to look at.  I felt as if I was there, out in the uncertain weather (there are no cloudless skies), hearing the wind and the waves, watching the crofters working their sheep.  

A picture of the vast sandy bay of Luskentyre reminded me of Norman MacCaig’s Aunt Julia (from the Isle of Scalpay) buried in ‘a sandy grave at Luskentyre’.  Several photographs featured the bare rocky landscape of the east part of Harris, where islanders in the past painstakingly built up the ironically named ‘lazy beds’ with seaweed taken from the shore (I overheard one person explaining what she called ‘the olden days’ to her grandchild).  The grassed over straight lines of the lazy beds could be seen perched above the shore in the image of the Old Post Office at Manish.  The picture  was a reminder of the way the Hebrides have changed:  this post office was ‘once home to the only telephone in the area ... a vibrant hub of community and communication ... letters from war-torn Europe, parcels to exiled family, an influx of news and goods’.  It’s a solid building, built of good quality quarried blocks of stone.  But now the rust red corrugated iron roof is fraying at the edges, birds fly in through glassless windows and sheep are the only customers, wandering in through the blank doorways.

But the vibrant colours of the photographs, especially of flowers on the machair, prevented me from lapsing into melancholy.  It’s good that Harris Tweed is thriving and provides additional employment on the Outer Hebrides.  The exhibition is held in collaboration with the Harris Tweed Authority and there is some interesting information about the making of Harris Tweed in the 21st century (no urine as a mordant now!).  The rich colours of the landscape are shown alongside the same colours in the tweed (if you thought Harris Tweed was just a – tweedy green, think again!).  I learnt some of the names for the weaving patterns:
‘bird’s eye’, ‘barleycorn’, ‘herringbone’ (how appropriate – the ‘silver darlings’ were once a big part of the economy of the islands).

The photographs are accompanied by a lyrical, romantic commentary.  Ian Lawson’s manifesto is ‘Documenting the places I have come to love’.  Is there a word to denote love of a place or a landscape?  Topophilia.  It sounds like a pathological condition.  Perhaps it is – but many of us have it.

Harris Tweed: From the Land is on show at Rheged near Penrith until Sunday 15 May 2016.