Friday, 27 April 2012

London, Trieste, Duino

Arch of Riccardo, Trieste
Duino Castle, seen from the east
Entrance to Duino Castle

The second week of April, I left Cambridge and made a journey down to Trieste, in the extreme northeastern corner of Italy. It’s in the region known as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, just south of Slovenia and northwest of Croatia.  Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War, a history that makes it noticeably different from other Italian cities, but also one that establishes a link with several large Hapsburg capitals elsewhere. There is a family resemblance between Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Trieste, seen primarily in the large scale of the public buildings, especially those flanking Piazza dell’Unitá, the main square. In more residential areas, houses and large common dwellings are often stuccoed and painted light colors—ochre, terracotta, tan, and what I call Maria Theresa yellow, the color used for Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna and many other parts of Maria Theresa’s empire.
          My hotel was in the old medieval quarter not far from Piazza Unitá, a place of narrow twisting streets that gradually climb up to the Cattedrale di San Giusto, which overlooks Trieste.  This neighborhood was until recently a slum but has been renovated, at least partly. My first walk took me up toward the Cathedral, past a Roman arch known as the “Arco di Riccardo,” to which a later building was attached as if by super-glue. (The Roman name for the ancient city was Tergestum.)  Farther on, I reached the excavated Roman theatre, which sits there unperturbed a few yards from one of the city’s modern thoroughfares. You’d have no trouble imagining plays by Terence or Plautus being staged there. More like reverie than experience (and still more in retrospect) to stand there in the sprinkling rain and gaze at those wet stones.

Next morning cleared, and I took a bus out to the little town of Duino, roughly ten miles southwest of Trieste.  This was a local, not express bus, one that went up into the hills above the city, in the region known as the Karst (Italian, Il Carso), a vast stretch of limestone wilderness, where trees never grow tall, and farming is as hardscrabble as it gets. But little hamlets appear along the way, with semi-rural Italian life going on as one might expect. Eventually, the road moves back toward the coast and you arrive at the town of Duino. The Castle sits on a promontory, a little limestone spur of the Karst that thrusts out into the Bay of Duino in the Adriatic, about three hundred feet above the water.This is one of the castles belonging to the Czech branch of the Thurn und Taxis family.  A little more than a hundred years ago, Rilke became acquainted with Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe (her birth name is usually appended to the title). She was his hostess at the Castle and elsewhere, for which reason his Duino Elegies mention her as his patroness.  At some point I will have to write an introduction to my translation of the Elegies, and I was certain that seeing Duino Castle would give me some useful details for that.   

 The picture above shows the entrance. I decided to wander a bit in the park before going inside. To the right of the castle, there’s a small rectangular pool with central statuary—cherubs at play around a single spout of water.  Down from this, stone steps take you to a less formal part, and I could see winding paths under shade trees that probably go all the way down to the water. But the public isn’t admitted there. Box hedges, an early lilac, birds clattering in the trees. On the stone balustrade, at each landing, sculpted urns held limestone fruit in the familiar way.  Back up to the path to the “Belvedere,” my feet crunching on little pebbles.  You’re soon on the side of the Castle that fronts the sea, where you find a small terrace with stone balustrade.  Absolutely rapturous vistas out onto the Bay of Duino; and to the west, the Rocca, where ruins of the older castle stand—a few walls and arches, nothing more.  Cypresses and other trees thickly planted.  Water a color somewhere between jade and bottle glass.  Greyish-white cliffs, the last outpost of the Karst.  A stone table is protected from visitors by a chain and four steel poles, with a sign saying that the Duino Elegies were written here.   But if I’m not mistaken the first inspiration came when RMR was walking down below, close to the water, on a day in late January 1912.  The bora (north wind) was blowing fiercely in his ears and the opening question of the sequence suddenly came to him.  I went over the opening in my mind, in German and in English, trying to change the noonday of April 12, 2012, into a lasting personal memory.  Above the terrace was the newer part of the Castle, finished in stucco and painted, again, in Maria Theresa yellow.
        I came into the Castle courtyard, paved in irregularly shaped stones, and then went up a few steps to enter the public rooms.  First, the dining room, which had a table set up as though dinner would in a few moments be served there.  The Torre e Tasso (Italian form of the family name) armorial china, Venetian glasses, two bulky silver candelabras, the table backed by a painted screen, with pictures of the obligatory parrot on it. The ceiling and walls had ornamental plaster, white against lemon yellow, the familiar rococo scagliola patterns.  Savonnerie carpet, seventeenth-c. Dutch still lifes at the center of the wall panels, their black backgrounds somewhat at odds with this light and airy room. On from there to the Salotto Verde, furnished much as you’d expect, with ancestral portraits on the walls, little glass-fronted cabinets holding fans and objets de virtú.  And then the Salotto Impero, where it’s believed Emperor Leopold of Austria signed over the Castle to the Thurn und Taxis family.  Walls painted a red-clay color, with more portraits and vitrines containing family memorabilia.  On to the bedroom of the Principessa, modest enough with its single bed sans canopy.  But lovely views out to to the sea and sunlight.  This connected to an enfilade, the first side room being a handsome library, not to be entered, but allowing you to see the shelves and their morocco-bound contents, plus a few volumes out for display.  These included Marie von T. and T.’s children’s book, The Tea Party of Mrs. Moon, for which RMR provided, at her request, a tepid comment. (He had his integrity: In one instance he refused a prestigious prize, attached to money, offered by the Austrian government.)  Several other rooms along the way, all containing rare old instruments the family collected.  Further  memorabilia, for example, a telegram from Eleonora Duse, with only the words “Duino! Duino! Duino!”  The envelope of a letter addressed by RMR to the Principessa Marie.  A photocopy of the first page of the First Elegy in RMR’s handwriting.  Several photographs of the poet that Princess Marie called “Il Serafico,” referring obviously to RMR’s angels.  You climb up to the next levels in the dwelling by means of an elliptical spiral staircase, the stone steps jutting out without any support except the cantilver of their attachment in the wall. A wrought iron balustrade protected mounters from falling, and as they climbed their hand would rest on a rail covered in red velvet, with intermittent brass finials at each turning.  Looking up or down, you get the chambered-nautilus effect of the winding stair as it moves through several levels.  Not bad for the country seat of provincial nobles who weren’t all that rich. To complete my tour I climbed the family’s eponymous tower, an old square structure entered through the courtyard.  The view of the Adriatic, the town, and the Karst hills northward is indescribable so I won’t make an attempt.

Seeing Duino was the main purpose of the visit, but there was also Trieste itself that deserved exploration. In the following days, I found notable sites for James Joyce, for Italo Svevo, and for Umberto Saba, all writers associated with the city.  Joyce’s brief prose work Giacomo Joyce is set in Trieste, the only work of his to use a non-Dublin setting.  But the city is essential and pervasive in the work of Saba and Svevo, and the latter was Joyce’s closest friend during his Trieste years. I’m sure there’s a PhD. thesis there if it hasn’t already been done.
      As a coda, I will mention visiting the tomb of J.J. Winckelmann, erected in the lapidary garden adjoining the city’s antiquities museum.  A German by birth, Winckelmann became one of the most prominent classical scholars of his era, a pioneer in the study of Greek sculpture.  His classical education was furthered by long residence in Italy, where he could study original manuscripts and works of art.  Not coincidentally he took a classical view of homosexuality, based on Greek and Roman texts and his own orientation. That was one factor that must have prompted the essay Pater wrote about him in The Renaissance.  He died in Trieste in 1833, and his monument has been a local attraction since that time.       

Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Cambridge, London, Grantchester

Clock tower, Trinity College
Since last writing I’ve continued with the Rilke translation project and have drafts of four of the elegies now. Of course the final version will have to wait until I’ve done the whole series, after which I’ll go through all of the Elegies again, to make adjustments.  Translation is not easy.  However, don’t assume I never leave my study. I do, either for events in Cambridge or to go to London. Most recently I went down to participate in the launch of issue 26 of The Wolf magazine, which has a poem of mine in it.  I went into town early and caught the matinee of the National Theatre’s new production of Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, which I’d never seen staged.  Some of the acting was too broad or sit-comish, but there was plenty to like in the piece. 

The launch was held at The Poetry Place in Covent Garden, with James Byrne hosting the evening.  The readers were, in order, Sophie Meyer, Michael McKim, Helen Moore, Ruth Padel, Giles Goodland, and myself.  Lots of people came and there were some excellent readings. I always enjoy performing for The Wolf because the audience is so expert, you don’t have to do a lot of explaining.  It happened that Marilyn Hacker was in town that day to judge a prize, so she came to the event and then joined us after for dinner.  It had been a while since we’d seen each other, so there was a good bit of catching up to do. She is prospering, making plans to go to Turkey with a group of American poets and then to Tripoli for the first Libyan international literature festival, organized by Khaled Mattawa.

To continue the international theme, I will mention that I’ve become acquainted with a poet from China named Iok Foung Lin. She is a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall this year and in fact is my next-door neighbor.  Iok Foung is from Macau, a city with an interesting history and, like Hong Kong, was recently placed under the Chinese sovereignty.  She has published three books of poems, and is working on a history project while at Clare Hall. We’ve had some good conversations about our respective nationalities, and I was reminded again how much easier it is for poets from different countries to be friendly than for the countries themselves.

Another Visiting Fellow I’ve spent time with is Thomas Glave, a fiction-writer and essayist who teaches at SUNY Binghamton.  After having several conversations in the dining hall over the past month, we made a plan to walk to Grantchester, a village about five miles south of Cambridge.  Cambridge has had glorious spring weather here this year, with daffodils, cherry blossom, and all sorts of flowering shrubs.  So the walk across Grantchester Meadows, with the slow-moving Granta flowing through them, was lovely.  Once arrived at Grantchester, we found the Old Vicarage, where Rupert Brooke was a lodger for a couple of years. A commemorative bronze statue of him stands in front of the house, currently owned by the novelist Jeffrey Archer.  Not far away is The Orchard, a place where you can have tea and, if the weather is fine as it was that day, have it outside.  Exactly what we did, with a view of flowering trees and a stretch of countryside. The Orchard distributes a little brochure recounting the history of how the place came to be what it is and informs you that earlier customers have included most of the Bloomsbury set, not to mention Brooke’s “Neo-Pagan” friends.  Through half-closed eyes you could look around and half imagine you’d been transported back to those days. To feed the illusion, I’ll add a few lines from Brooke’s “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” which was written during a fit of homesickness in a Berlin café where RB was at the time, almost exactly one hundred years ago:

I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . 

On the grass at the Orchard, Grantchester

Monday, 12 March 2012

Cambridge, Poetry, Translation, Transatlantic Bridge

Writing here I have to overcome the feeling that I could be elsewhere, involved in something more instructive or fun. Because Cambridge offers a world of things to do—lectures open to the public, concerts, book fairs, evensong with highly trained choirs at the various college chapels, not to mention conversations with Clare Hall fellows or Faculty members of other colleges.  There is also the distraction of London, less than an hour away by train.  I’ve been down several times, attending events such as the Sebald Lecture on translation, given this year by Sean O’Brien. The event, held at London’s King’s Place, also featured the awarding of several translation prizes, including one that Banipal magazine offers for the best Arabic-to-English book of the year. The 2012 prize went to Khaled Matawa for a volume of selected poems by the Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis, who now lives in Paris.  At the reception afterwards, I spoke to Khaled briefly, both of us remarking that we hadn’t seen each other since a first meeting at the U. of Indiana Bloomington, nearly two decades ago.  Since that time he has become an internationally known poet and translator.  He is also the organizer of a literary festival to be held in Tripoli this spring, to which my friends James Byrne and Marilyn Hacker have been invited.  (Marilyn, not incidentally, was tapped for the international Argana poetry award, granted by Morocco’s Bayt Achir, i.e., the House of Poetry, earlier this year.)

Here in Cambridge I attended last month a poetry evening organized at Corpus Christi by poet Richard Berengarten, who used to be known as Richard Burns, back in the years when he organized the Cambridge International Poetry Festival.  After ten years as its director, he stood down and concentrated on his own work and has since published several distinguished volumes, my own favorite titled The Blue Butterfly, which is based on facts surrounding the mass murder of Serbian citizens in the Second World War.  Guest poets at the Corpus evening were Anne Stevenson, Angela Leighton, and Clive Wilmer.  Anne I met twenty-five years ago and then didn’t see again until last year’s TS Eliot Prize ceremony, when she chaired the judges’ panel (see the March 21, 2011 entry for this blog).  Dr. Leighton is a member  of the English Faculty here and is counted as one of Cambridge’s leading literary figures.  Clive Wilmer has just published a collected poems with Carcanet and is currently preparing an edition of Thom Gunn’s poetry.  All three poets read effectively and answered our questions afterward.    

I’ve explored most of the older colleges now, seeing many impressive buildings, for example, the chapel at Pembroke, which was Wren’s first design as well his masterly library at Trinity.  I also spent some time in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, where all his books are kept, including the celebrated diaries. And visited Kettle’s Yard, the former private house of Jim and Helen Ede. Ede, for many years director of the Tate, donated his house and the artworks it contains to the town of Cambridge, and it is on every visitor’s list of things to see here.  The artworks include drawings and sculptures by Gaudier-Brzeska, David Jones, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Ben Nicholson.  The arrangement of the house itself and its furnishings also have an appeal.  I’ll just sum up and say I feel perfectly settled in at Cambridge now, and consider it one of my favorite places in England.  Yes, it is daunting to list the stellar names of former graduates and scholars who have passed through these gates—Erasmus, Marlowe, Milton, Newton, George Herbert, Gray, Smart, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Darwin, AE Housman, Bertand Russell, Lytton Strachey, J.M. Keynes, Wittgenstein, E.M. Forster, Jane Harrison, Crick and Watson, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and others I haven’t mentioned.  But many of those figures also reported themselves equally daunted, so one should simply accept the feeling as an integral part of the spirit of the place.

This entry began by mentioning a translation event, and this is a good point to bring in a related effort of my own. I’m not speaking of the Duino Elegies now, but instead a little ebook that I recently published as the first in a series that Thethe Poetry blog is launching. My book isn’t a poetry collection but instead an introductory study of the differences between British and American English, meant to be useful to both nationalities.  Most of the pages are devoted to listing vocabulary differences and also idioms, but there are extensive sections on pronunciation, grammar, spelling, and punctuation—plus a fairly sizable offering of slang.  The audience for the book?  Travelers to both countries, teachers and readers of poetry and fiction from both, students of English as a Foreign Language, linguists, and actors preparing roles in the other idiom. You can read the book’s introduction on Amazon if you follow this link: ( or, for British Amazon,  both of them marketing it as a Kindle book. But it is also available in Nook format at B&N (   Happy trails.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Cambridge and Clare Hall

King's College Chapel, from across the Cam.
Since last writing, I've come to Britain and to Cambridge--specifically, to Cambridge's Clare Hall, where I will be a Resident Fellow until June.  Clare Hall, founded in the 1960s, has a program of accepting fellows from the world over, scholars or artists who work on a special project during their residency. In my case, I'll be completing a new translation of Rilke's Duineser Elegien. It's a project I've contemplated a long time, never up to now finding the circumstances or occasion to begin it. The reason I didn't simply propose writing new poems or fiction is that I'm not able to guarantee in advance that I will produce new writing of my own.  Sometimes a period of three or four months can pass during which I don't feel compelled to write.  And I never force myself to do it if I don't feel that drive to get something down. A sufficient number of dutiful, uninspired works already exist, and there's no point in adding others.

I was met at Heathrow by James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar, who drove me directly to Cambridge.  Sandeep is also a Resident Fellow at Clare Hall, doing research at the Newnham College archive for a biography of the British Modernist poet Hope Mirrlees.  Last year an edition of Mirrlees's poetry that Sandeep edited was published by Carcanet, so the biography is the next logical step. Also, her first book of poems will appear in March with Shearsman publishers. James has been named the Poet in Residence at Clare Hall and meanwhile is teaching poetry workshops in London, while continuing to edit The Wolf and write his own poetry.  Not knowing anyone else in Cambridge, I was glad that they would both be here during my residency, and in fact we see each other every week.  I had been in correspondence with Professor D K Midgely of the German Faculty before arriving, and had lunch with him last month at St Johns College, where he is a Fellow. A bonus of being here is that you have the opportunity of seeing the various colleges at considerably less than the usual tourist speed.  Cambridge amounts to a trove of brilliant architecture from several centuries, a sort of library of architectural styles from the 14th right up to the 21st century.  Above, I've added a picture of King's College Chapel, which is the signature structure representing the University.   Several of the older colleges have "backs" that go down to the River Cam, crossed by bridges also of architectural interest. 

I've been down to London once, attending the TS Eliot Prize festivities.  The reading for it was held at Royal Festival Hall on January 16, with the eight shortlisted candidates each appearing for ten minutes.  Sean O'Brien was the only poet I knew personally, though I knew the work of most of the others.  They read to an audience of 2000, a figure that will have to be swept under the carpet by commentators who continue to insist that "no one cares about poetry."  We can assume that for every person attending there are fifteen or twenty who wish they could have attended. Many poets were among the audience. I sat with Mimi Khalvati, who has appeared in this blog before now. There was also time for brief greetings to Ruth Padel and Fiona Sampson.  

The actual award ceremony was held the following night at the Haberdashers Union headquarters in the City, not far from Smithfield Market.  A luxurious modern building with handsome paneling and large rooms, reminding us how profitable the clothing industry is. There were about two hundred guests at the party, I would estimate.  One reason I attended is that I knew it would be a convenient way to re-establish contact with poet friends.  Apart from Kathryn Maris (who was putting me up in London), I had lively conversations with Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien, Elaine Feinstein, Maurice Riordan, Ruth Fainlight, Katy Evans-Bush, and Dennis O'Driscoll. Dennis and I got acquainted through correspondence as long ago as the 1980s but had never met face to face.   He was one of the panel of judges for the prize and when I mentioned I didn't know John Burnside (the favorite for the prize, according to bookmakers), Dennis took me up to him.  I found him a thoroughly likable person, a bit on the shy side, but then he was waiting to hear the prize outcome.  Other people I met included Bernard O'Donoghue, Imtiaz Dharker, Gillian Clarke (also one of the prize judges), Neil Astley, Carol Ann Duffy, Daljit Nagra, Esther Morgan, Michael Symmons Roberts, John Dugdale, and Kathleen Jamie. Quite a field of fair folk, including a good portion of the most-discussed poets in Britain today.  Eventually the prize was announced: and the favorite won.  I haven't read Burnside's book yet (I will), but there didn't seem to be any carping afterwards, so apparently the prize was deserved.

Returning to Cambridge, I can say that my stay is well launched. I've begun making the acquaintance of other Clare Hall Fellows, meeting as we do for lunch in the College dining room every week day.  One of these is the gifted American prose writer Thomas Glave, who will be here for an entire year. Everything looks promising, and in fact I now have in hand a translation of the First Elegy.  On to the Second.