The Utter Silence of the Untranslated Stars

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.


Marianne began this week’s proceedings with a bolt from the blue.

‘I’m afraid I have to tender my resignation from the committee,’ she said. ‘I’ve been nominated by my party to stand as a candidate in the next elections.’

I didn’t know Marianne had a party.

Patrice was better informed. ‘The regional assembly?’ he asked.

‘The European Parliament,’ she said.

Oddly, when Marianne specified her chamber of choice, I thought the viability of her candidacy somewhat enhanced – I imagine the EP as a place more at home with the theoretical than the prosaic and practical side of politics. If I have to think of her as a politician rather than a poet, then Strasbourg would be Marianne’s natural home.

‘It’s a bit far off, isn’t it?’ Patrice asked. I thought he meant geographically, but then he added, ‘Haven’t they just had an election?’

‘Networking,’ Marianne said. ‘Building support – and I have a rival from my own party. I will have to attend to her.’

Marianne has always seemed to me to be the most focused of our little coterie, a woman for whom the term ‘non-nonsense’ might have been invented. Yet, ‘attending’ to her rival sounded, well, a little chilling.

‘It will be a very great loss,’ Dimitri said, and then – in case anyone was uncertain as to the professional versus the personal nature of the loss – he added, ‘to the magazine.’

‘We will keep in touch, though,’ Marianne said. She spoke crisply, but I detected an undertone of tenderness.

Dimitri is a Modernist of the uncompromising variety, while Marianne’s affinity with the late nineteenth-century Symbolists entails (I think most people would agree) a certain incompatibility with Modernism. Yet, these two have warmed to one another across the universe of Zoom.

‘We should start thinking about a replacement,’ Kim said, which was a bit brash since Marianne was still, metaphorically, in the room.

‘I have one or two candidates in mind,’ Patrice said.

Patrice and Kim are not the most forthright of colleagues. Their swift apprehension of the main chance surprised me – I suppose you don’t really know people until you’ve served on a committee with them.

‘One is a graduate student from Hubei – unconventional but academically sound,’ Patrice continued

‘When I was in Namibia last year,’ Kim said, ‘I had the great good fortune to meet an exponent of jazz verse who works with traditional rhythms’

‘Shall we each submit one or two candidates?’ Dimitri asked, assuming a business-like tone. ‘The criteria should go beyond the practice of poetry. After all, what we actually do here is a bit more humdrum.’

‘Och,’ I said, ‘It’s not humdrum – though it will be less fun without Marianne!’

Some apt lines came into my head:

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me) 

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea,’ I said.

‘Is that your own, Albus?’ Patrice asked, with evident appreciation.

‘E.E. Cummings,’ I said.

‘Well selected!’ Dimitri said.

Marianne spoke in a voice that seemed to me to express agreement and regret at the same time. ‘It’s by sharing a little bit of ourselves,’ she said, ‘that we can pierce The utter silence of the untranslated stars.’

‘Cummings again?’ Kim asked.

‘Yes,’ Patrice said.

And the earth withers,’ Dimitri added, ‘the moon crumbles / one by one / stars flutter into dust.

We were, no doubt, going a little over the top – it was only a matter of a colleague venturing off in a new – and rather impressive – direction. But what’s the point of poetry if you don’t make use of it from time to time.

‘A bit of a Brahmin was E.E.Cummings?’ Kim asked – with syntax somewhat Cummingsesque.

‘Upper crust,’ Patrice said. ‘Radical by artistic avocation – but not a great fan of progress on other fronts.’

‘He has those lines,’ Marianne said ‘about the breaking of your soul upon my lips – so perhaps we can forgive him many things.’

‘The breaking of your soul upon my lips,’ Dimitri repeated with deepest melancholy.

Dimitri, as I said, will miss Marianne.

But if all goes well, the European Parliament will presently be graced by the presence of a bright and sometimes luminescent emigre from the rough and tumble of literary life – assuming her political rival is attended to in the interim.

The Poetic Art of Putting Up with Things

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Marianne has two children of school age, so, during our weekly Zoom call we touched upon the challenges facing parents and education authorities as children return to the classroom.

‘They’ll be fine,’ Marianne said. ‘They are climbing the walls at home. They need new walls to climb.’

‘Hmm,’ Kim said. Kim has a medical degree as well as a PhD.

‘Chekhov would have been against premature re-opening,’ I noted. ‘He had first-hand experience of typhus and . . . that sort of thing.’

As I spoke, I realized a knowledge of linguistics is no basis for the making of epidemiological pronouncements – but then I thought: everyone else is making epidemiological pronouncements and most of them know as little as I do, so I added, ‘He wrote a whole book about typhus in Sakhalin . . . I think . . .’

‘It was cholera that exercised Chekhov,’ Dimitri said, ‘in Moscow and thereabouts. His Sakhalin book is more about the evils of the penal system. But you’re right, he would probably have placed public health above other considerations. He was a conscientious doctor – very generous, didn’t charge.’

‘They call me and I go. / It is a frozen road / past midnight, a dust / of snow caught / in the rigid wheeltracks,’ Patrice said.

‘That’s not Chekhov,’ Marianne suggested a little uncertainly.

‘William Carlos Williams?’ Kim asked.

‘Correct,’ Patrice said. ‘On the limitations of the doctor’s art.’

As we were apparently on the topic of literary physicians, I was going to mention that Arthur Conan Doyle modeled Sherlock Holmes on his old anatomy professor at Edinburgh University – but I then I concluded that my inaccurate recollections about Chekhov might have dented my credibility in this particular field, so I remained silent.

‘Wasn’t Arthur Conan Doyle a doctor?’ Marianne asked.

‘He was,’ Kim said, ‘and so was Keats.’

‘Didn’t do him much good,’ Dimitri remarked, rather acerbically.

‘Well,’ Marianne said, ‘the medical science of the time had no response to tuberculosis.’

‘Chekhov was in the same predicament.’

‘So, they explored alternative responses to the problem of existence when they wrote,’ I said. ‘It was their way of sidestepping the limitations of their profession.’

It was, I felt, an eminently valid point.

‘Ah,’ Patrice said, ‘. . . for I will fly to thee, not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, but on the viewless wings of Poesy . . .’

Ode to a Nightingale,’ he added for the benefit of the rest of us.

‘What about Bulgakov?” Kim asked.

There was a silence and then Dimitri said, ‘Bulgakov?’

‘He was a doctor,’ Kim said. ‘Served at the front in the First World War . . .’

‘He did,’ Patrice said. ‘If memory serves, he was wounded and was given morphine. Is that what caused those grandiose flights of fancy in The Master and Master and Margarita.’

‘No, no, Patrice,’ Dimitri said, suddenly and uncharacteristically earnest, ‘He weaned himself away from morphine. The flights of fancy were his response to the Terror.

‘William Carlos Williams was a cardiologist, wasn’t he?’ Marianne said.

It occurred to me that we had drifted rather far from the original subject – the advisability or otherwise of sending children back to school in the midst of a pandemic.

‘A pediatrician,’ Dimitri corrected, and then he added, ‘But undoubtedly a heart specialist in the non-medical sense.’

‘Night is a room / darkened for lovers,’ Patrice said, ‘through the jalousies / the sun has sent one golden needle! / I pick the hair from her eyes / and watch her misery / with compassion.’

‘Patrice, you cannot possibly have that from memory!’ Marianne said, almost accusingly.

Patrice chuckled. ‘I looked it up when you were talking. But it’s from the poem I quoted before – about the doctor’s ultimate incapacity and the poet’s ability to see to the heart of the matter.

‘None of this helps Marianne resolve her dilemma,’ I said.

‘Oh, there’s never a resolution,’ Kim said with sudden but not unkind conviction. ‘Life is what happens – and poetry is about how we put up with it.’

For, lest o’ersaddened by such woes as spring

To rural peace from our meek onward trend,

What else more fit? We’ll draw the latch-string

 Kim said.

 And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,

On poesy’s transforming giant wing,

To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.

‘Williams again,’ she explained. ‘And, yes, I do have that one by heart.’

Soon after this, we returned to the question of who should write the introduction to the next issue of the magazine.


You Are Many – They Are Few

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Dimitri has proposed a poem for the next issue written by a student from Minsk. It is a cogent and timely argument for democracy and the benefits it will bring, which Dimitri prefaced in his presentation with a quote from Shelley, about a lost country country bought and sold / With a price of blood and gold.

Patrice completed the Shelley quote – enunciating the lines with feeling – Declare with measured words that ye / Are, as God has made ye, free!

A resident of Hong Kong and an eyewitness to the 1989 events in Beijing, Patrice has first-hand and painful insight on how a popular desire for change may be resisted by those for whom such change would represent an erosion of power.

In Belarus (and elsewhere), change is bubbling to the surface. All around the world, it is in the air, literally – the virus is altering multiple aspects of human interaction, and the consequences will last well beyond the present unpleasantness.

When we began our weekly Zoom meetings, we imagined – like everyone else – that this would be a temporary means of maintaining the status quo, of continuing a dialogue that was already well established. But Zoom hasn’t maintained the dialogue, it has changed it fundamentally and sent it off in new directions.

This has been positive, overall.

For one thing, we have discovered romance! Well, two of us have. Marianne and Dimitri were once at daggers drawn (intellectually speaking). Now, when Dimitri makes one of his witty (often, it must be said, rather wicked) interventions, Marianne responds with all the prim disapproval of an infatuated teenager – and when Marianne makes one of her austere (perhaps even intolerant) aesthetic judgments, it is Dimitri who softens the tone and renders the argument more agreeable to everyone else.

Since we entered the Age of Zoom, Kim has earned a gratifyingly substantial sum of money from the unlikely sale of film rights to her epic poem about trans-Pacific migration at the end of the nineteenth century. The creative boost that this has given her has been amplified more strikingly in the virtual weekly meeting than would have been the case, I believe, if we had continued to communicate by email.

And, as his domicile has begun to change from a vibrant global hub to a sullen coastal outpost, with dispiriting consequences for the life of the mind, Patrice appears to have adopted a more combative approach to the uses of art (reflected in his quick and passionate deployment of the lines cited above).

Changes in the circumstances of our editorial board have been shared, analysed, managed and reflected in the collective engagement of our weekly call. In the beginning, I was nervous about how our disparate personalities would interact. As it turns out, the adjustment has been other than expected, and altogether more interesting. I imagine this has been replicated in millions of similar collegial encounters around the world in recent months – human beings do have a remarkable capacity to find ways of understanding one another. New possibilities emerge from even the most unpromising conditions.

Unpredictable change should make those in power tremble – especially those who have no business being in power in the first place. Whether corrupt or incompetent or simply bad, leaders who are unfit to rule are being found out in an era when adversity has driven change at warp speed. They will not put the genie of the people’s righteous indignation back into the bottle (in this respect, unfortunately, the virus serves as a bleak but informative metaphor). The people will, in Shelley’s words, Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number.

The poem quoted by Dimitri and Patrice concludes with an observation that is, clearly, as valid today as when it was written two hundred years ago:

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you –

Ye are many – they are few.

Change is in the air, and in the long run, if history is any guide, it is likely to be more positive for those who aspire to something better than for those who benefit from the status quo.

Rappelle-toi Barbara

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

We were considering whether to publish an article on the politics of Jacques Prevert. However, in the week that marked the 75th anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I found myself wondering about the relevance or the power of poetry.

Marianne had questioned the academic rigour of the piece under discussion. ‘It lacks the fresh perspective that would make it more appealing,’ she said. ‘The author has read the poems but she hasn’t lived them.’

Which I felt was setting the bar for literary criticism rather high. Not the fault of the bright young graduate student who submitted the article that she was born long after the global conflict that shaped Prevert’s politics.

Dimitri, who has lived through some dramatic social and historical happenings, expressed the view that ‘an academic approach, fresh or otherwise, will miss the target.’ Dimitri has mastered the art of the effective Zoom entrance. Faces peered at screens a fraction more closely ahead of his next sentence. ‘The nature of Prevert’s poetry – like all great art – defies analysis.’

Which I felt was unhelpful, since literary analysis is what we do for a living.

Still, Dimitri’s whole persona somehow lets him get away with picaresque nuggets of nihilism – he would have been at home on the Left Bank circa 1957: a lifetime of smoking and drinking (and a moustache in the tradition of Emiliano Zapata) has left him with a wizened appearance of Bohemian proportions.

Patrice – undoubtedly the most academic of the academics on the editorial board and a man more comfortable with suit and tie than jeans and denim waistcoat – insisted that Prevert can only be understood in the context of his times. ‘The era – from the Depression to the Sixties – is crucial,’ he said. ‘When you grasp the context, the universality can be glimpsed underneath.’

Marianne had already expressed a robust scepticism about Prevert’s indulgence of ideological fashion. She replied to Patrice by arguing, rather stridently, that, ‘This saddles the work to a historical tradition that is obsolete.’

It has become Marianne’s practice to sneak into the opposite corner when Patrice enters the ring.

‘If I may?’ Kim said.

When Kim is going to put a spanner in the works, she enters the fray by asking permission to enter the fray.

‘Of course, you may,’ Dimitri said.

‘It isn’t binary,’ Kim said. ‘The artist doesn’t have to be consistent.’

She quoted Whitman: Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I felt we were veering off topic (which Whitman would have liked).

‘The article focuses on one poem,’ I said, referring to Alicante, a staple of elementary French classes, ‘and it’s a poem that doesn’t make a political point, so . . . no real need to accommodate contradiction.’

Alicante begins with the famously limpid lines, Une orange sur la table / Ta robe sur le tapis / Et toi dans mon lit. A succinct and elegiac evocation of human intimacy.

‘But look at the date!’ Dimitri said, as though none of us had looked at the date. ‘It was written in the midst of conflict!’

‘Indeed!’ Marianne warmed to her theme. ‘It can be understood as a protest against the return of the old regime after the trauma of the conflict.’

‘Really?’ I thought.

But before I could articulate this thought, Kim said, ‘There has been an explosion!’

There was a flurry of split screens and eyes darting over headlines. I switched to my news platform and saw the mushroom cloud over Beirut.

I was reminded, in these moments, of another poem by Prevert – after the corruption and physical devastation of Occupation and Resistance – two lovers on the Rue de Siam, rain falling on the port. The poet asks what happened to them in the catastrophe that engulfed their world.

Barbara ends with a bleak acknowledgement of violence and the failings of humanity, but it also contains an affirmation of beauty and the survival of what is good:

Rappelle-toi Barbara                                   Remember, Barbara,

N’oublie pas                                                Do not forget

Cette pluie sage et heureuse                      The wise and joyful rain falling

Sur ton visage heureux                             On your happy face

Sur cette ville heureuse                              On that happy town

Cette pluie sur la mer                                 Rain falling on the sea

Patrice was right about the universality that may be glimpsed beneath. It’s important to remember such things, especially in times like these.



On Dover Beach

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

In 1928, the Japanese-American artist and poet Lilian May Miller produced a wonderfully gloomy image of Rain Blossoms, kimono-clad figures sprouting umbrellas in a sudden squall. The figures are shown crossing a classical wooden bridge beneath willow trees, and the rain falls, in the Edo woodblock tradition, as a series of diagonal black lines. It’s an image mirrored in the haiku:

A spring squall surprises

In an instant, flowers bloom

Each its own colour

The painting and the poem celebrate a moment glimpsed – a point that was very succinctly made by Patrice during our latest Zoom conference. He had proposed that we use both on the cover of our next issue, which will be devoted to the spirit of place.

‘You are reading too much into the lines,’ Marianne said. ‘It’s in the nature of the form to eschew a broader philosophical meaning.’

‘Surely, it’s not about eschewing philosophy,’ Dimitri said. ‘It’s about offering the reader a blank page – to choose how much or how little they wish to read into the poem!’

Dimitri would have made the opposite point, I think, if he’d thought it would rile Marianne – this inclination to tease reflects an increasingly harmonious (I shudder to use the word ‘amorous’) relationship between two formerly more pointedly adversarial colleagues.

I like Rain Blossoms but for the sheer wonder of atmospheric gloom on a rainy afternoon I prefer Fudo Ritsuzan’s Squall. Painted in 1930, it is one of the glories of the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. The rain is miasmic rather than linear; in the distance there’s nothing but light, and the sodden serried rooftops have a dull grandeur that is quintessentially Japanese. Unfortunately, there’s just one umbrella in Ritsuzan’s melancholy masterpiece, so the poem’s riot of sudden blossoms is rendered somewhat nugatory.

Exploring the spirit of place is our response to the present global unpleasantness. We thought a meditation on geographical diversity, on interesting corners of the world, might offer some respite from the sameness of staying indoors.

‘There are different haiku traditions,’ Kim said. ‘In one tradition, Marianne’s point would be valid. In another, Dimitri would tend to be closer to the accepted convention.’ Then she added, ‘but that’s as much as I know: Japanese literature isn’t my field.’

Marianne agreed, rather vehemently. ‘I know what you mean! If I had a Euro for every time someone assumed I knew all about Rimbaud, I’d be . . . better off than I am.’

‘It’s the same for us in the Balkans,’ Dimitri said. ‘People imagine our literary tastes are defined by our place of birth!’

‘Well, surely they’re defined to some extent by where we choose to live?’ I said. (I live in Madrid and my field of literary investigation is Iberian.)

‘No, no!’ Kim said. ‘That’s precisely the trap we should avoid falling into! The essence of the poetic sensibility is universal. It’s not about where you’re born or where you live. It’s about – as Patrice put it – the moment glimpsed.  The poet sees with a distinctive eye: the spirit of place is not about portraits but about self-portraits.’

‘Like Matthew Arnold on his honeymoon?’ I said, aspiring perhaps to emulate Dimitri’s easy-going and entertaining aptitude for contrary eccentricity. I felt the spirit of place was becoming rather more contentious than anticipated – though this is not necessarily a bad thing.

‘That was a terrible choice for a wedding night,’ Dimitri said. ‘I’ve been to Dover!’

‘The poem’s not about the ferry terminal,’ Kim said, ‘It’s about the beach.’

‘Well, actually, it’s about the end of belief and the frightening prospect of humanity abandoned to the elements,’ I said, ‘illustrating rather neatly, I think, your observation about the subjective rather than the objective view.’

‘Which brings us back to the haiku!’ Patrice said. ‘We are not entirely vulnerable: we have umbrellas!’

‘. . . we are here as on a darkling plain,’

Marianne said. Marianne has an encyclopaedic memory for gloomy lines.

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

‘Can’t help feeling you’d want more than an umbrella,’ Kim said.

‘Or indeed a slightly lighter mood for seaside bliss,’ Dimitri added.

‘Two poems!’ Patrice said. ‘Two responses! Two places! It proves my point!’

And I think it does.