Delirium, poetry, snacks

There was a time when Penguin published a series of modern European poets (and Penguin Modern Poets and a lot of anthologies). They still publish poets, of course, but they were giants in those days, and a great many people read for the first time, in slim Penguin paperbacks, such luminaries as Akhmatova, Apollinaire, Prévert, Miroslav Holub, Ungaretti, Quasimodo, Yevtushenko, Montale, Rilke, Blok, a volume of four Greek poets—and who could fault the selection of Cavafy, Elytis, Gatsos and Seferis?

Even in such glittering company, Miroslav Holub stood out a little for me. A scientist (immunologist), a Czech, writing often in very short lines, sometimes reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’ ‘three-ply line’.[1] The Penguin edition came out fifty years ago but a later Bloodaxe collection included some of the translations from that edition, by George Theiner and Ian Milner. Some of the older translations have stuck in my head for years: ‘In the microscope’, ‘The root of the matter’, Žito the magician’, ‘Wings’ and, perhaps particularly, ‘Love’.

Two thousand cigarettes.
A hundred miles
from wall to wall.
An eternity and a half of vigils
blanker than snow.

Tons of words
old as the tracks
of a platypus in the sand.

A hundred books we didn’t write.
A hundred pyramids we didn’t build.

Sweepings.
Dust.

Bitter
as the beginning of the world.

Believe me when I say
it was beautiful.[2]

I lay in bed roughing out another version during my recent bout of flu, from which I’m gradually emerging: ‘Two thousand tissues/ a hundred hacking coughs from hour to hour/ Believe me when I say/ it was delirious’. The Librarian, still recovering from her own bad case of flu, was shoved unceremoniously into the role of nurse-helper. Initially a little shell-shocked by such unaccustomed role reversal, she rose to the occasion to the extent of coffees, hot lemon drinks and a visually spectacular sandwich, delivered to the accompaniment of eloquent words of encouragement (‘Good luck with that’).

Macdonald-Four-Later      Lowry-Under

The coughing, the delirium, the headaches, even the catarrh, all finally diminish. But time is often out of joint. Taking to my bed mid-evening, seemingly on the point of collapse, I get up again at 01:30, having woken at fifteen-minute intervals for the past hour and now feeling wide awake. Downstairs, I rotate hot drinks and snacks, and tuck into a Ross Macdonald novel. ‘Late afternoon sunlight spilled over the mountains to the west. The light had a tarnished elegiac quality, as if the sinking sun might never rise again. On the fairway behind the house the golfers seemed to be hurrying, pursued by their lengthening shadows.’[3]

Suit the book to the illness or at least to the stage on the road to wellness. I remember being ill and feverish, many years ago, while reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Coincidentally, there was a dramatisation of the book on the radio and I lay in bed listening to it—deliriously. Lowry’s novel is itself hallucinatory and to the voices already in my head were added those coming over the airwaves. Altogether that accumulation of deliriums, if that’s the right plural, produced a pronouncedly weird effect. I wasn’t sure who was in the worst state, Lowry or his central character Geoffrey Firmin or me. I’ve since read Under the Volcano again (when in rude health) and whittled those candidates down a bit.

References

[1] Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 539-540; Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 542.

[2] ‘Love’, translated by Ian Milner, in Miroslav Holub, The Fly (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1987), 40.

[3] Ross Macdonald, The Instant Enemy, in Four Later Novels, edited by Tom Nolan (New York: Library of America, 2017), 413.

 

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