Knives Forks And Spoons Press, 2013 £5.00
Reviewed by Marcia Menter and Claire Crowther
I can imagine Mark Goodwin sitting in a classroom as a boy, bored out of his skull, amusing himself by turning each word the teacher says into its opposite. This sort of wordplay takes you to faraway places. What does narrative mean, you ask yourself, with its sense turned inside out? If a word has more than one opposite, which one do you pick?
This game has now been executed at pamphlet length, with straight-faced playfulness, in ‘translations’ of poems by four very different poets. I can’t tell whether Goodwin is honoring them, sending them up, or both. But in order to understand what he was doing, I had to track down the originals, because the pamphlet makes little sense without them. I found three out of four.
Goodwin’s opening poem, ‘Facts of a Teleology of Utterance’, translates ‘Myths of the Origin of Language’ by Giles Goodland, a thoughtful, deeply lyrical meditation on words and meaning. Goodland writes
It is the linguist who wins
the first trip in a time machine.
He sets the dial for the dawn of
humanity, goes back and back,
searching for the first shoots
In Goodwin’s ‘translation’, this becomes
It is a phenomenologist who loses
a last jaunt through an organism of distance.
She melts a switch through an evening of
beast, comes forward & foreword
hiding from a final flower
Well, okay, it’s kind of interesting that Goodwin chooses ‘phenomenologist’ as the opposite of ‘linguist’. The former studies consciousness, the latter, language. But I’m overthinking this. Goodwin is flinging words at the page to see what sticks. Goodland’s lines
Adam, the first Tourette’s victim:
he is cursing each thing he sees
Eve, a final Etiquette victor:
she is praising one being she hears.
The second poem, ‘A Contiguous Body’, is based on Elisabeth Bletsoe’s ‘The Separable Soul’, which is tough to understand in the first place. It, too, is about language — thorny, polysyllabic language:
threads of occluded syllables
that bind me to the locale by
“strange & injurious ties”
symbols like marks made by gulls in the sand
exploring the contextures of this
(a nail in the vertex)
the exquisite salting of wounds
gauzes of illumined phonemes
that dissolve you from a venue near
normal & healing releases
icons not like the lines destroyed by dippers on mud
ignoring the sham-sheens of that
(the bolt on an occipital)
a glib sugaring of scars
This is, I have to admit, kind of fun, especially when Goodwin thumbs his nose at Bletsoe’s feminist imagery:
as if my cream silk clothes were covered in a huge clot of blood (Bletsoe)
not as your bloody rags are covering a small clot of cream (Goodwin)
But if I hadn’t troubled to obtain Bletsoe’s poem, this would have been lost on me. The final poem in the pamphlet tackles Peter Riley’s ‘Aria with Small Lights’, which is 279 lines long. You heard me. Thirty-one nine-line stanzas. I would be happy to hear Riley read his poem if I were seated at a table with a glass of good red wine. Or three. The ends of the lines in each stanza chime with the lines of the other stanzas, and Riley’s meditation on time and loss, though terribly long, is pleasingly musical. But Goodwin’s version is neither musical nor coherent. I couldn’t read it.
So why does he do it? Online, I was able to find a couple of Goodwin’s poems I quite liked. I also found a ‘translation’ of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’. In a way, his version makes as much sense as hers. But a little of this goes a long way.
Clause in a Noise is a set of translations from four poems written in English. This is an exercise favoured by Oulipo, a group who believed that strict poetic conditions give a poet freedom. Goodwin’s (mostly) antonymic translation, substituting words for their opposite in the same language, does pose a challenge, for the reader as well as the poet.
To begin with, you aren’t given the originals. You don’t know, for example, that “it’s made of leaves” becomes “it’s created from arrivals”. But the original titles are given: ‘Chemicals of a Dog’ is translated from Peter Redgrove’s ‘Electricities of The Cat’, Elizabeth Bletsoe’s ‘The Separable Soul’ translates as ‘A Contiguous Body’, and these set you up to do the work yourself, translating backwards and making your own poem.
Paul Muldoon has suggested a poem contains words that are not there. I find that an exciting strength in a translation. By the final poem, ‘Chant for Large Dark’ (translated from Peter Riley’s ‘Aria with Small Lights’) I was full of ghost-like echoes and ready for this bard-like disquisition on death, the strongest poem in the pamphlet in my view. I read it as an elegy, for the death of someone whose presence stays or who isn’t sure, or even willing, to accept s/he has died. Here are the opening lines:
Beyond an odd death you climbed two days
in a deep gully-bed, Annamino, tiny mountain
of the Hidden O south of Dosh, you climbed
all souls around, early morn, the mud-slots
& pockets, microscopic frogs, rain-moths, cold
light, you climbed through before the city.
Goodwin finds many fresh ways to describe death: “to forget to be”, “the bed of stopping”. A style that abandons everyday combinations, allowing more unusual couplings such as “dull deaths like huge roasted lobsters / in black brandy”, enables a positive view of the after-life: “We are heaps in this dark, and / we are familiars in this land”.
Comparing this work with the originals is not the best way to read Clause in a Noise though I did it with two poems for the sake of this review. The effect is of parody, a bit like a recalcitrant child saying no, it wasn’t that, it was this. Goodwin dedicates this pamphlet to “Tony Frazer, and his faith in play”.
Get into these poems and play your own game. You might be seriously moved.