Last Thursday’s book-launch

Last Thursday’s Oxford launch for Peter Hughes and Vahni Capildeo was by some margin the most fun I’ve had on licensed premises with a portable PA system. Both poets read brilliantly; the audience was engaged and responsive and laughed at all the right moments; the Oxford Wine Café’s friendly staff and delicious wines kept everyone suitably lubricated; and if the number of books bought and signed is any indication, the poems genuinely resonated with people.

I had wanted to post some thoughts on the two books before the event, but my day job got in the way. So, better late than never, here’s a slightly more structured version of what I said by way of introduction on the night, intercut with some other musings.

Peter Hughes’s Cavalcanty (Equipage) is the first instalment of a project to be published in entirety by Carcanet next year. Anyone familiar with his critically-acclaimed versions of Petrarch will have some idea of what to expect: contemporary reworkings that are at once jarring and perfectly-judged; idiom transformed by an electric intelligence; stunning craftsmanship where you can’t see the joins; persistent, deep humour that is only a line-break away from sadness; irrepressible humanity. (And occasional bursts of life-affirming virtuoso swearing.)

At the same time, the source material, subject matter, tone and voice are all different, and the result is a pamphlet that differentiates itself from Quite Frankly as much as it builds on its achievement. Here’s the opening of Cavalcanti’s most famous poem, “Donna me prega”:

now the lady makes me think about love’s
pit-bull attacks on the soul’s soft tissues
& those fatal core-reactor meltdowns
& deep immunity to metaphor
it’s tricky thinking through these things in ink
as love demands we loosen up our grip
on pre-existing modes of consciousness

From one perspective this is a significant departure from Cavalcanti’s original poem (which you can read here in Ezra Pound’s archaism-infested version). But looked at only slightly differently, it’s the same poem translated across time and cultural difference as well as language. Between Cavalcanti and Peter Hughes stand seven centuries of love lyric, the Neoplatonism of the Florentine academy, Astrophil and Stella, Shakespeare, the internal combustion engine, powered flight, the general theory of relativity, google adwords, JH Prynne, Donald Trump, Julia Kristeva, the Apollo landings, credit default swaps, the Reformation, Wagner, Marx, the atomic bomb, gene therapy, the Death of the Author, battery farming and did I mention that 99.9% of the love lyrics filling those intervening seven centuries were unmitigated derivative shit? In spite of which, the lines quoted above hit us with a freshness, energy and electrifying originality even as they rehearse some of the oldest thoughts in human culture. Hughes’s version of “Donna me prega” has done what Pound’s emphatically failed to achieve: made it new.

But although Hughes’s poem departs from the original in strict sense, it doesn’t depart nearly as far as a first reading suggests. Those “core-reactor meltdowns” are a modern interpolation amid multiple modern interpolations, but etymology reminds us that “core” derives from the heart — in which light “reactor” can also be an awkward agent-noun for one who reacts, and “meltdown” suddenly acquires its colloquial dead-metaphor sense of an emotional crisis. And if we go to the original Italian and find “di basso core” at the end of line 6, we are free to dismiss it as a coincidence or to delight in the word’s time-capsule re-emergence seven centuries later in another language’s modernist reimagining of the same poem.

Cavalcanty is a startling, intelligent, complex work that repays multiple readings. There isn’t space to do it anything like justice here, but I can’t resist quoting the opening lines of “Tu m’hai sì piena di dolor la mente”, which has been a favourite ever since I first read it last year, and which sent a ripple of spontaneous laughter-and-appreciation through the audience on Thursday evening:

the worst thing about being a dalek
is how remote you feel from tender flesh
& how every sexual position
makes you feel more like a fucking bollard

it’s all so weird & inconceivable
that the person strolling past the butcher’s
with a bag clogged with Asda ready meals
is set for a night of supple passion

while you stand wheel-clamped by your tinny self

Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet) has been published for a couple of months and is already a PBS choice. It’s an extraordinary book: innovative, brave and beautifully written. It is also thrillingly evasive and associative, like the thought-patterns it prompts and enacts. I’ve been reading it for weeks now and must have read each page multiple times, but have not yet managed to read the thing through like a linear narrative: every time, some correspondence or echo or recurring thought sends me back into the labyrinth, down the snakes and up the ladders, willingly lost in a hardcopy hypertext.

The book is a mix of verse and prose, all of it poetry but never straying into self-conscious “prose-poem” territory. Memories, vignettes and fractured anecdotes are intercut with breathtaking lyrics; voices blur and fade into one another; the experience of reading is both dislocating and powerfully compelling.

Early in the book a few pages of prose describe an experience of being ill and alone in Oxford while trying to navigate the bureaucracy that restricts access to flu medicine. The language is simple to the point of austerity, but pulls you into its thought-patterns and associations until it starts to blur with your own thoughts, like Proust in fragmented miniature. The effect is as powerful as it is deceptively-simple:

The official website directed me to the so-called Primary Care Trust. Relieved to see they were located in my neighbourhood, I rang. Soon antibiotics would drop through the brass flap; I would wander germily down the stairs, making rest stops when the lead box was awkward, and wander back up to start waging internal war against the infection. The person who answered the phone had an audible conversation with his colleague. If she doesn’t have a number and she hasn’t spoken to her GP we don’t have to give her the Tamiflu. I gave the number several times, to two people, in the course of a few minutes. Each time, they seemed not to remember that I had consulted the website and given them an official number. I pushed back memories of Passport Control, and the memorable twenty minutes when I reiterate where I live or where I was born and the blandness of my desired voyaging…the classical music of the wrong origin; twenty minutes is long enough to perform some concertos. The Primary Care Trust would call me back.

This is as much about ways of seeing, ways of thinking, as it is about institutional idiocy or worse. As “Cities in Step” puts it, “you dream in black and white / I dream in fauve and phosphor”.

For me one of the most powerful poems in the book is “Kassandra #memoryandtrauma #livingilionstyle”, a multi-layered reworking of the Cassandra myth that draws on modern social media idiom and perfectly-judged coinage (“Athena, grey-eyed, justicer”).

Terribly terribly sorry (not) it’s hard relating
to this one: you know, the dead wench in another country,
gifted, but an attention-seeker? […] More Twitter than other girls round her.
Your camera strikes. K’s screwing up her eyes in a boat —
speaking for the sisterhood, but from that kind of family?
Why listen? She’s privilege. Complication. Must be spoilt.

This whole poem shimmers and refuses to be pinned down to any single viewpoint or voice. Although the modern updating of classical myth and the present-day reimagining of classical characters have become common tropes in contemporary poetry, this is in a league of its own. The juxtaposing of ancient source material and modern mores happens at the level of the language itself, from the knowing allusion to Marlowe (possibly also sending us via Eliot’s use of the same line as epigraph to the problematic “Portrait of a Lady”) to the beautifully-awkward “More Twitter than other girls round her” — simultaneously both “she uses twitter more than other girls” and commandeering “twitter” as a kind of mutated adjective (“she is more Twitter than other girls”) — and the just-the-wrong-side-of-idiom “she’s privilege” (that replacing of the expected verb “to have” with the verb “to be” exposing levels of personal motive that the unidentified speaker of these words presumably either doesn’t recognise or doesn’t acknowledge).

Neither of these extracts made it into Thursday’s reading: the book is an album made entirely of hits, and the poems that Capildeo read on the night grabbed the audience by the throat, the heart-strings and the brain all at once. Three lines from the end of the poem “Felt pen” hung in the air long after the microphone was turned off on Thursday:

Because it was bloody well there,
and in a fix or in a fit, the artist
fiercely repurposes whatever is to hand.

Enough of my meanderings: I’d urge you to read Sandeep Parmar’s excellent review of Measures of Expatriation for the Guardian and Ian Brinton’s of Cavalcanty for Tears in the Fence.

And then I’d urge you to read these two fantastic books from two excellent poets.

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