As you may recall, I’ve been attending a writers’ group in the city where I live which has afforded me all kinds of pleasures. Not least among these is the newsletter that drops through my letterbox once a month. It’s usually a round up of the various groups that have met (short prose, long prose, poetry and travel writing), synopses of passages that have been read (so that we can keep up with the progress of novels) and a whole list of competitions (mostly for poetry, absolutely never for non-fiction) that we could enter if we chose. Recently we were asked to signal our readiness to accept it over the email, thus saving wear and tear on the newsletter editor, but actually I stuck out for my printed version. There’s something about its photocopied format that just tickles me and it wouldn’t be the same as a pdf. Anyhow, in the miscellaneous news items last month was a cry for support from the small, independent publisher, Salt Publishing, who specializes in poetry. They’ve been feeling the pinch, apparently, and are encouraging readers to buy ‘just one book’ to prevent them from going under. Well, ever willing to do my bit, I had a good look around their website, which usefully offers extracts from all the books they offer, and settled on a copy of Voyaging Out by Peter Abbs.
Well, this arrived last week and I have been delighted with it. I’m horribly fussy about poetry; I’m sure it’s a weakness on my part but there is so much of it that doesn’t speak to me. For some reason I have a much broader tolerance for quality in prose, and I’ll struggle to the end of a moderately interesting novel without complaint. In poetry, however, I’ll put the book down and never return to it again if a skim through of a couple of poems doesn’t immediately please me. I chose Voyaging Out on the strength of my curiosity about its second part, which features a contemporary return to the poetry of Rumi, Dante and Rilke. The cover says: ‘These poems are not literal translations but work in the manner of metamorphoses. […] Their purpose is to keep faith with the encompassing spirit of these writers, to bring them forcibly into the modern imagination and, in so doing, to keep alive a conversation with the past.’ Well, whatever; there’s also the fact that these are gorgeous poems in their own right. Here’s one in the spirit of Rumi:
When I heard my first love story
I rushed out looking for you.
Lovers never meet.
They’ve always been contemplating each other –
from the beginning of time.
As you know, I am a big fan of Rilke, so I wasn’t sure that any other poet could pull off a poetic tribute that worked. But here’s a little something I thought was marvelous:
your breath expands our world
and your existence rings out like a bronze bell
and the night wind blows stronger
from the very touch of you.
All life’s transformation:
lift up whatever pulls you down.
If vinegar tastes bitter turn it into wine!
In this immeasurable night, stand calm
at the congested cross-roads of your senses –
for this is the tryst of life
and you are its dark center.
And should the world ever forget your name; whisper to the
dumb earth: I exist.
And to the running water say: I am.
There’s much to admire in the first half of the collection too, beautiful meditations on art by Hopper and Bonnard that enter imaginatively into the painter’s experience at the genesis of a work of art, some delicately but piercingly evocative scenes of childhood, ruminations on the art of poetry and, true to the title, several affirmations of the power and the insight of travel. It’s wonderful stuff. Seamus Heaney seems to like him, too, as he’s provided one of the endorsements. If you like poetry, I’d certainly suggest you try him, and Salt Publishing, too.