Future Remnants: Frances Leviston’s “Reconstruction”

Radio 4 introduced me to Frances Leviston’s work in early 2008. Over the course of a week The Today Programme were broadcasting a poem per day from each of the TS Eliot prize shortlist. After three lines of Leviston’s “I Resolve to Live Chastely” I’d resolved to buy her book. It was an extraordinary poem, and Public Dream was one of the poetic highlights of 2007/8 – a debut that could more than hold its own against a strong TS Eliot shortlist including Sean O’Brien’s The Drowned Book and Fiona Sampson’s Common Prayer. Later that year I met my wife for the first time; we both owned a copy of Public Dream and spent one of our earliest dinners together enthusing about how good it is.

Leviston has since published a steady drip-feed of excellent poems in the lead-up to her (forthcoming) second collection Disinformation. “Reconstruction”, her version of the Old English poem known as “The Ruin”, was published in Modern Poetry in Translation 2013.1 (the issue in which new editor Sasha Dugdale took the helm, on which more below). You can find the poem here along with a podcast of Leviston reading it at the MPT launch.

This is quite simply the best translation of an Old English poem I have ever read. It’s been stuck in my head for weeks like some hyper-literate jingle, insistent and unforgettable. Leviston has pulled off a conjuring trick that preserves the Anglo-Saxon-ness of the original but renders it as a spontaneous modern poem that feels natural and necessary in its own right.

There are three non-trivial challenges a translator faces in making a new poem (as opposed to a prose crib) from “The Ruin”: the alliterative verse-form; the fire-damaged text; and the riddle-like lack of clarity about what’s being described. Leviston’s poem has turned each of these obstacles into a strength.

Transposing any approximation of Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter into modern English is tricky. Without it you have to work doubly hard to carry over the feel of the original, but it’s far too easy to end up in a stilted pseudo-medieval sound-world (“well-wrought this wall; wyrd wrecked that”, to quote my own undergraduate mangling of the same poem). Even successful modern versions like Pound’s “Seafarer” struggle to avoid a kind of fetishized diction (“Bitter breast-cares have I abided”).

Leviston’s opening line tackles this head-on: “The future creates these fabulous blueprints”. Nobody could accuse this poem of sounding like an escapee from Lord of the Rings. Aside from the modernity of blueprints (a wonderfully topsy-turvy image for the remains of a city), the rest of the line is made up of Latinate words with not a Saxon etymology in sight: future, creates, fabulous. This is counterintuitive, but it works. When Leviston allows Anglo-Saxon derivatives back into the poem (pulls, ground) the poem has already established its rules of engagement.

That future is particularly good. The Anglo-Saxon concept of wyrd (ancestor of our modern weird) contains complex ideas of causality and inevitability, often either awkwardly translated as “fate” or else left untranslated as wyrd. By rendering it as “the future” Leviston has both demystified and re-energized the term, leaving us with a sense of its on-going unfolding and with a strange temporal vertigo (especially in the past tense: “until the future finished all that”).

The text of “The Ruin” is incomplete due to fire damage, leaving gaps that a translator must either preserve (giving a fragmented modern poem) or else choose to fill in. Leviston’s introduction speaks of how she “experimented with keeping these holes in the text, but in the end found it more interesting to bridge the gaps instead”. In doing so she allows the poem a freedom to depart from the original in a way that ultimately conveys more of its sense and spirit into modern English than would have been possible with a more faithful translation. So we have “archipelagos of bathing-pools,… the bored glint of swords on patrol” and camaraderie spiralling “like confetti / orbiting a plug-hole”. This use of modern imagery isn’t confined to the lacunae in the original text: as well as the blueprints noted above, civilization falls “in dribbling heaps” and the gaze of a “man of the past” surrounded by treasure is brilliantly described as “pin-balling angles round the faceted rock” (where the original stops at listing the precious things he sees).

This filling-in of gaps and interpolation of new images also allows Leviston to turn the original’s accidental obscurity (no one is entirely sure what the poem is describing, except that it’s a ruin) into something more intentional. Many commentators have argued that “The Ruin” is about the Roman remains at Bath, and Leviston has certainly played to that interpretation with her “archipelagos of bathing-pools”. But in adding human detail (the metonymy of those bored sword-glints; the casks open at street corners) her poem changes that ambiguity from a riddle into something more universal. In adding specifics, Leviston has turned her generic ruin into every ruin – the ruin that the future makes of every city.

The podcast adds another dimension to the poem. I’ve written before about poetry as an art made from sound and the importance of hearing poets read their work. Leviston is an excellent reader and it’s fantastic that Modern Poetry in Translation are making these podcasts available (Leviston’s is one of a series released on the MPT site over recent weeks). Please take the time to listen to it: you won’t be disappointed.

As well as making podcasts available on their site and introducing a new iPad subscription (excellent value and delightfully easy to read), MPT has published some consistently first-rate poems in the first two issues under Sasha Dugdale’s editorship. Dugdale is a wonderful poet and translator in her own right, and her version of MPT is already shaping up as something very exciting indeed. Magazines need subscribers to survive: if you’re interested in modern poetry (translated or otherwise) then I’d urge you to take a look at the new incarnation of MPT.

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