Monday, 22 December 2014


I'm just back from a week in Oslo.  In the days leading up to the solstice there were candles on almost every available flat surface, indoors and out, willing the sun to return and lengthen those precious few hours of Norwegian daylight.

There were many Christmas trees, bringing the ever-green inside.  At the Askershus Fortress (little changed from the time of King Christian IV, one of the main characters of Rose Tremain's Music and Silence) I visited the excellent Resistance Museum which reminded me that each year Norway provides the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree in memory and gratitude for Britain's support during the Second World War.

Several buildings had little sheaves of oats hung outside their front doors or tied to gateposts.  This is the Julenek, an old custom of giving a gift to the birds at Christmas (perhaps its origins lie in an offering to Odin or a pagan fertility symbol).  The birds were certainly grateful - small flocks of finches clustered like bees on the sheaves and any seeds knocked to the ground were quickly snapped up by the hooded crows which patrol the streets and parks of Oslo in their sleek grey and black uniforms like a supernumerary police force.

Christmas customs blur into the past, age-old folk traditions morphed into Christmas celebration.  My Christmas poem this year takes a line from a carol as its starting point - "The running of the deer" from The Holly and the Ivy.  Deer are part of our Christmas iconography - think: Christmas card of snowbound landscape, deer venturing out from small copse and in the distance village with church; then add a sprinkling of glitter.

Why deer?  (not the reindeer of Santa Claus - a relatively recent invention popularised in the 19th century by Clement C Moore's "The Night before Christmas").  In winter the deer's normally effective brown/grey camouflage is blown and they stand out against the snow.  Perhaps hunger makes them more adventurous in seeking food.  "Our hunting fathers" would have been out on the chase at this time of year.  The medieval alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is structured round a series of hunts, deer being the quarry of the first hunt, a noble prey symbolising Gawain's initial innocence and purity.  Deer have a good press in the Bible - in the psalms they are an image of piety and devotion: "As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God" (Psalm 42:1).  The stag has been portrayed as a symbol of Christ trampling the devil.  Shakespeare in As You Like It alludes to a pagan symbolism in the Forest of Arden:

Jaques Which is he that killed the deer?
First Lord Sir, it was I.
Jaques Let's present him to the Duke like a Roman conqueror; and it would do well to set the deer's horns upon his head for a branch of victory.

And they all sing lustily "What shall he have that kill'd the deer?" (As You Like It Act IV scene 2).  It takes me back to the village where I grew up in the real Forest of Arden (or what is left of it) - the village had a great singing tradition and each Christmas we sang a wide variety of carols, some of them fairly obviously adapting pagan customs for Christian purposes.

A couple of years ago on my after-Christmas-dinner dog walk I startled three roe deer on the field path along the ridge. Roe deer are the secret inhabitants of the Cumbrian countryside where I live.  An encounter with them is always a special moment. 

“And the running of the deer”

  The deer come like memories –
  unbidden, tentative,
  on the edge of sight,

  grey-brown shadows slipping
  through the glittering frost –
  winter’s grace, heart’s leap.                                                       

 © Mary Robinson 2014

Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 4 December 2014


Walking and writing have often gone together.  William Wordsworth (and Dorothy with her notebook), WH Auden, Laurie Lee, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Thomas A Clark are just a few examples.  

Walking was the reason for a week-end in Gibraltar recently.  A friend of mine has spent the last four months walking there from Lincoln, so a group of family and friends went out to welcome him back to British soil and to celebrate his achievement (and his 60th birthday).

I found that we had just missed the Gibunco International Literature Festival (including an impressive line-up of Jacqui Dankworth, Butterfly Wing and Maureen Lipman reading from jazz poet Jeremy Robson's new collection).  But the weather was too good to spend indoors.  Of course we went up the Rock and saw the apes (Barbary Macaques) and the military tunnels.  I was hoping to see Africa but for the whole week-end a misty haze stubbornly obscured the Moroccan coastline.

Because of its strategic importance Gibraltar abounds in history and there are many reminders of its military past, from the Moorish castle to the 100 ton gun from the First World War.  We visited Europa Point and saw the ships entering the Mediterranean.  I thought of the troop ships which went through the straits in the Second World War, including one carrying my father who sailed this way en route to the Far East.  As I watched the numerous vessels passing Europa Point I was reminded of W H Auden's "Look, stranger, on this island now" with the ships on their "urgent voluntary errands".

We walked back from Europa Point along the quiet shore roads and tunnels which took us to Rosia and back into the city.  We explored La Alameda Gardens (Gibraltar's botanical gardens), marvelling at a free-flying Monarch Butterfly (bigger than a wren) and the colourful bird of paradise flowers.  

The last thing I expected to find in the gardens was a statue of Molly Bloom from Joyce's Ulysses.  I had forgotten that Molly, daughter of Major Tweedie, grew up in Gibraltar.   Her memories of Gibraltar form part of her famous reverie at the end of the book - including "the fig trees in the Alameda gardens".

"Each walk moves through space like a thread through fabric, sewing it together into a continuous experience ... this continuity is one of the things I think we lost in the industrial age - but we can choose to reclaim it." (Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust, a History of Walking)  I am full of admiration for my walker-friend.  Four months and over 2000 miles on the path.

Monday, 17 November 2014


"I do like my own wildly inaccurate translations" wrote John Ashbery of mid twentieth century French poetry, but went on to add "but not the originals".

I am not in a position to judge the original poems by Maciej Woźniak but they sounded wonderful in the original Polish.  Last week I wrote about the excellent Scottish Poetry Library translation workshop.  This week I thought I would post my English versions - I hesitate to use the word translations (it sounds too dependable!) - but I hope I have kept the spirit and some of the form and content of the originals. 

Some background

Maciej said he wanted to describe in the first poem a little epiphany which came to him on a dreary wet day while chopping wood to feed the large tiled wood-burning stove which heats the house he shares with his partner. 

The second poem was a list of startling metaphors to describe the paradoxical nature of the poet's heart.  It was a real challenge to find English words for the taut contradictory tensions.  There was a great subtlety in the Polish words used.  For example, the adjective describing the midwife in the first line was literally translated as "hazy" or "muddled", but Maciej said it was like Shakespeare's use of "rosy-fingered" to describe dawn.  That made me think of those straight rays from the sun which are called the fingers of God.  So I translated the word as "divine-fingered" - something you wouldn't expect a midwife to be.  "Lord of the Flies seaside rock" was my version of Maciej's "Wuthering Heights candy" - the latter sounding too much like the souvenir shops of Haworth to be sharp enough.

English versions of two poems by Maciej Woźniak

Mandala z kropli i szczap

Creating a mandala from drops and scraps

Damp down the nape of my neck.  Splitting wood.  A log crushes my foot
and pain runs back up my spine.  That’s the moment
I pick up the signal from home.  Drizzle all morning, but now by the shed roof
a message in a shoal of raindrops.  Love doesn’t do anything.  It just is.

Piosenka do serca

Song: for my heart

Pert waitress with your new moon tray, divine-fingered midwife,
wet-nurse madam with no make-up, my return key, my control + x,
my clutching at razor-edged straws, Fonteyn in a boxing ring,
Rita Heyworth in Bergman films, Baader Meinhof aspirin,
Lord of the Flies seaside rock, ping-pong on a pool table,
a Castrol tear for a star’s dynamo, all muck and no roses,
a funeral cheerleader, Thumbelina lured to the mole’s bed,

my Hildegarde from nowhere, in the rear-view mirror my Euridice.

Sunday, 9 November 2014


On Saturday I went to the Scottish Poetry Library for a translation workshop with Polish poet, Maciej Woźniak, facilitated by the library’s director, Robyn Marsack.  We were issued with three poems in Polish, together with two literal translations of each poem by Agata Maslowska and Kasia Kokowska, who joined us for the workshop.  They acted as interpreters for Maciej who spoke in Polish to explain the background to the poems – so that was an extra layer of translation!

We were a mixed bunch of participants – some (like me) with no Polish at all, some bilingual Polish/English speakers.  Some people discretely produced Polish-English dictionaries.   I couldn’t help thinking of the apocryphal story of the person who typed an English colloquialism into a computer, translated the phrase into Russian and then re-translated it back into English.  “Out of sight, out of mind” came back as “invisible insanity”.

I looked at the poems.  I could pick out rhymes, repetitions, alliteration, line length.  When Maciej read the poems aloud in Polish, the rhythm and the mood of the poems emerged.  The condensed diction of the original poems meant that the literal English translations were enigmatic, sometimes scarcely comprehensible.  Maciej gave us a lot of background to each poem which was enormously helpful.  He also told us what he thought was most important in each poem.  In “Piosenka do serca” it was the tension between the contradictory elements in each line.  In “Mandala z kropli i szcsap” it was the run-on lines.  In “Pocztówka od Sylvii Kristel” it was the relationship between culture and sexuality.

We spent an hour and a half on the first poem – which was not enough time.  There were so many decisions to make – how far to keep the structure of the original poem, how to echo the linguistic effects of the poem, how far to change the poem so that English readers could connect with the meaning of the words, how to find the equivalent in English of a Polish idiom.  Choosing the exact word to convey sense, sound and mood – how hard it was.  The “Mandela” poem was set on a cold drizzly day.  “Dricht”, said Robyn, and we all murmured appreciatively – and wished we had thought of it ourselves.

Maciej generously gave us permission not to stick too rigidly to the original poems.  As the workshop went on I felt able to be more free – I was producing versions, not translations.  I didn’t feel guilty.  Robyn told us about Alastair Reid translating Pablo Neruda.  Neruda said to him “Make a better poem for me, Alistair.”  What a wonderful tribute from poet to translator.  It would be presumptuous to think that we made better poems for Maciej, but we had great fun playing with them.

Sunday, 2 November 2014


"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" - discuss.  I once struggled to write an undergraduate essay on this quotation from Shelley.  I found the claim extraordinary, even arrogant, and I doubt if I understood what Shelley meant.

In the latest PN Review I read of the death of the Iranian poet, Simin Behbahani, who died this year at the age of 87.  When I looked her up on the internet I felt awed by the descriptions of this wonderful writer and ashamed that I had never heard of her before.

Born into a  family of Iranian intellectuals in 1927 Simin Behbahani wrote her first poetry at the age of twelve.  She took the Persian ghazal and transformed it by writing from a woman's viewpoint.  She was known for her adaptations of traditional Persian poetic forms for contemporary subjects.

Simin Behbahani lived through the British deposition of Mohammad Mossadegh, the rule of the Shah, the 1979 Islamic revolution which brought Ayatollah Khomenei to power, the Iran-Iraq war, and the protests after Ahmadinajad's disputed election victory in 2009.

Her poetry tackled women's issues and social and political injustice and, not surprisingly, she tangled with the police.  Her work was banned for 10 years in the 1980s, she was the subject of harassment, and, even in her 80s, she was roughly treated by security officers at Tehran airport.

Although she travelled abroad several times to read her poetry she was not one of the Iranian intellectuals who live in self-imposed exile - though she must surely have had the opportunity to do so.  She loved Iran:
   "My country, I will build you again,
     if need be, with bricks made from my life.
     I will build columns to support your roof,
     if need be, with my bones."

Her words are translated into English by Farzaneh Milani, an eminent professor and scholar, who teaches Persian literature and women's studies at the University of Virginia.  Farzaneh Milani herself was born in Tehran.

Simin Behbahani was known as the "Lioness of Iran" and was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Her face has appeared on placards and T shirts - in the Middle East poetry is not a minority interest.

After I had read about her, Shelley's quotation came into my head, with a little more insight.  "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".  Simin Behbahani was one such poet - the world has lost a great writer.