Wrestling with an Angel: Part 2



by Robert Minhinnick


Writers used to love libraries. Maybe they still do. I learned to love the old Carnegie-bequested Bridgend library, opened in 1907 in Wyndham Street. Threatened now with closure, it hasn’t changed much. In 2013 I published a letter supporting the campaign to turn it into an arts centre. Maybe that will happen. In barren Bridgend.

Looking back, it was either the reading room or the poetry shelves. My mother would have asked me to look at the biographies, especially of the ‘Bloomsbury set’, with whom she was fascinated. Or astronomy. She taught me the names of constellations as we lay in the frost puzzling over a torchlit star atlas. The brickred blink of Beetlejuice steadied our spinning heads. But in those days science and history seemed like work to me. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.

No, it was poetry I browsed, usually hardback, although I remember some paperback Peter Redgrove. Gradually I began to take out Welsh language collections, as I tried to improve my feeble grasp of the language. None of the poetry was popular, the Welsh especially ignored.

Yet studiously, I attempted translation of whole poems. Maybe this is an indication that Welsh was a foreign language to me, although I didn’t feel that way. It was more like the ache of an amputated limb. So I puzzled over Bryan Martin Davies, Dafydd Rowlands, Nesta Wyn Jones – anybody who didn’t look too daunting on those sparse shelves. Einir Jones was a favourite with her anorexic lines.)

Years passed. Then a letter arrived asking me to join a team of writers translating for the proposed ‘Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry’, due in 2003, edited by John Rowlands and Menna Elfyn.

Immediately I was enthused. For a period (peaking during the Blair years) there had been unprecedented money and opportunity in the arts. Cheap foreign travel encouraged outrageous ambition, which meant unlikely projects and collaborations became possible. Indeed, they were expected in that millennial miasma. I remember being encouraged to undertake journeys to North and South America, Europe, Iraq.

Today I’m deconstructing English translations I made during that bountiful era. The originals include Turkish, Arabic, Somali, Malayalam and Welsh verse, and I’m attempting to incorporate some of them into a longish piece of my own. As these poems have individual identities, I will seek to publish them as such, and they will be thus credited.Yet they serve another purpose: enriching a long poem in English.

For me, the translated poem has to stand by itself, distinct from its progenitor. It must proclaim an identity unique in its new language. If I am the translator, the translated poem becomes mine. I own it (if I own anything). Gradually, when I have devoted time to translation, I learn to love that work. Whatever the relationship between poet and translator, to me it is one of significant intimacy.

One poet whose poetry I will use is the Cypriot, NeseYasin.We co-operated in Israel in 2008, at a translators’ event at ZichonYa’akov.

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I never saw or heard Nese’s poems. I didn’t see their structures or understand their prosody. I didn’t even know whether they rhymed. Instead, she talked to me about her poetry and I built up an initial picture. (My take on ‘Poisoned Apple’ has already appeared in PW). That was how I constructed what I now call (perversely?) my ‘aversions’ of NeseYasin, attempting to capture the spirit of her poems: their essences.

To achieve this, sound is vital, whether that applies in the original or not. Translation for me is a sonic art.Translation is music.

Nese read her work in Cypriot Turkish and then spoke in English about the meaning of pieces I took to be called ‘Aleysha’ and ‘Poisoned Apple’. I quickly assembled my ‘translations’.

Indeed, I’ve come slowly to feel these ‘aversions’ worthwhile, and use them now in public performance. Both are distinctive, concerning disturbance, indeed damage, to a female psyche. They go well with Elin ap Hywel’s ‘Aur’ / ‘Treasure’, which I turned into an earlier baleful gaze at patriarchy, and included in ‘The Adulterer’s Tongue’.


(After the Turkish of Nese Yasin)

There was a time we had a daughter who was always bouncing on our bed. She was called Aleysha.

Or something like that.

All that life seems a fairystory my mother taught me. Words were weapons we never used,

because the house was a haze of harsh

hashish, and our horizon the bedsheet.

Sometimes, in my crimson dress

I would visit your room

but you were engaged in some holy war and I felt futile in your fury.

Then your words were woundbringers, bald as blades, translated by your harlots

and your houris and your whores.

But our daughter was adored.

She lifted a ladybird, red and black, to hold as high as her heart.

That was Aleysha, delightful

as dew, speaking her ladybird language. I thought it forever, that fairystory.

But you were the torturer who taught me to laugh at all your rage and wretchedness,


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And Aleysha would come and join our hands, or run after you with naked feet, imploring eyes. That pleading little peacemaker.


Yes, I think that’s how she was called. A name I might find

in a fairystory.

Also present in Israel was the Arabic poet, Marwan Makhoul, whose Ford Thunderbird was gathering dust under the olive trees, until he shook it off and scared away the Zichon mongooses by driving us to the Fatoosh bar in Haifa.

I’ll consider using a version of Marwan’s ‘Jerusalem’, my skimpy take on ‘River’ and a series of verses about Golan which I roughly sketched, in the same long poem. Well, that’s the idea.


(from the Arabic of Marwan Makhoul)

A river is a sword lunge if in spate, a kiss when calm.

Logic its shallows,

dreams its deeps.

A river is a secret poet. Only the ocean might scan its green metrics.

Yet although it knows wisdom, a river can learn nothing. Look at it hurrying

into its own oblivion.

Yes, for myself (increasingly feeling a thwarted musician) translation is music, especially jazz. John Coltrane ‘translated’ ‘My Favorite Things’ by Rodgers and Hammerstein and did extraordinary things with it, the recorded version lasting fourteen minutes, although live performances could greatly exceed this. (The version recorded on ‘Live at the Half Note’ is twenty-three minutes. Another lasts forty-five.) For Philip Larkin, this was appalling, the product of ‘insolent egotism”, the song reduced by “a wilful and hideous distortion of tone that offered squeals, squeaks, Bronx cheers…”

Despite his difficulty, I try to listen to Coltrane. In fact, as a translator, John Coltrane is becoming as important to me as Ezra Pound or Ted Hughes. Maybe it’s something to do with his ambition, the risk taking that fails. The risks heard or seen to fail, and which exasperated and perplexed more listeners than Larkin. That’s why I don’t like that Bloodaxe compendium, but realise it was doomed from the onset. It proposes that ‘translation’ is literalism, but this is inimical to poetry.)

One poet I doubt I’ll use for this long poem is the Somali, Gaariye. Here is


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his ‘Bad Understanding’ (from a literal by Martin Orwin). The originals are extraordinarily alliterative, and I have not prevented my commissioned (and summarily rejected) ‘aversions’ possessing a somewhat arch and formal quality. But this is translation made to be read aloud.

“O bad understanding…”

(from the Somali of ‘Gaariye’, and a literal translation by Martin Orwin).

Myself a mystery, imponderable puzzle.

I might drown in a drop,

I might be crushed by a grain. It is as if the dazzling azimuth shows a short shadow,

or love loom

yet marriage mean mirage.

Impossible to rid

this world of riddles.

I reach for reason

but sense has no season.

Was I made immune

to this quandary,

a creature new, unique?

Or do I share in the quarrel of the mortal, the moral?

Who guesses this Gaariye? Can two ghosts make one guy? Might even earth

own-up to error?

Perhaps I should seek

his soul’s secret.

Still myself a mystery. Perplexing puzzle. But the physics in fire is our inheritance. The atoms in stars are our bones’ attar.

All the golden Greeks

and the great Egyptian kings

with their legions, were killed,

laid low.The battle-blare

that destroyed dynasties?

I might remind you of those histories.


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I was desert dust,

I was siftings,

I was atoms afloat in aeons.

Every element

on its own pilgrimage

became a grain of Gaariye,

a cry within my chronicle.

Such singularities made the whole as every camel hair

makes the camel hide.

Myself, this mystery,

weighted with the weathers of the world – I am drought, I am flood,

I am the harm in harmony,

and yet the love in lovelessness.

Might my blessing be a curse

if my better is my worse?

So where’s the constancy I crave

when even truth goes to the grave?

How the people ache

with argument over Gaariye.

Some would garland him –

a real role model.

Others count him confused,

drippy as a camel dream,

useless as a dried up stream, There’s one who sees him as a son – his sorrow would never cease

if Gaariye came to grief.

But another has him thug and thief.

Some say he’s shifty as a snake,

but that would be their big mistake. To others he’s Mr Reliable –

on him you might depend –

the best bet for a friend.

But none of these

guesses Gaariye,

glistening enigma.

If his life is a loaf

each of you is granted a crumb. Yet mystery is misery

for the misunderstood.

So is it this shape shifter who perturbs the people,


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is it he they must condemn? Is he apprentice or master, magician or conjuror,

this captain of camouflage? Who’d measure this magus, our scorching scholar?

But always myself a mystery.

I might outrun the ostrich,

leave the desert horse in my dust, but there’s a companion

I cannot escape,

who shadows my steps,

foretelling my future

while possessing my past.

The dark twin who shares my name.

This necromancer knows the crimes I will commit; he shakes shame’s shackle, turns thoughts to echoes, has seen the sin

I cannot confess.

All the forty faces

that make my masquerade he takes to task,

tortures me with testaments of my own words, guarantees Gaariye’s guilt.

Eternal mystery of myself!

I pace a prison cell of rules where my fire is forbidden.

But such is a fool’s fate –

to be goaded by the little gods. When it’s one against the many, freedom falls foul.

I’m locked up by logic

as majorities murder mercy.

Surely there’s a fairer world

where a man like me might thrive? Or must Gaariye grind his teeth in anger at his ancestry?

Father, mother, bear this blame –

I burn that I was born.

It might be impossible to incorporate my Gaariye incantations into the


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projected long poem. But stripping out lines such as “to be goaded by the little gods” and using them as repetitive rhetorical devices might work. I’m aware that John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ has been described as ‘incantationary’. Or perhaps what I’m attempting will mean a Godalmighty mash up.

Yet I am increasingly concerned with poetry as performance. Modern ‘spoken word’ art is trite and politically juvenile. But it does offer intriguing possibilities. My ‘An Opera in Baghdad’ was designed to be heard and performed, being what I trust is valid if simplistic political and poetic rhetoric. It was recently performed using a ‘looper’, which allowed repetitions that enriched the character of the work. On the other hand, the Garriye poems might be viewed as one long monologue. Their monotonous tone is hardly the more familiar Coltrane.

Occasionally I’ve wondered if such performance might work with prose.Years ago at ‘Sustainable Wales’ my attention was drawn to the Velvet Underground’s ‘The Gift’. Did I, it was asked, have something that could make a ‘long song’? Thus ‘Josephine’s Rain’ was created, a work that combines Porthcawl fairground, the coast, and, obliquely, climate change. Performed the first time with analogue Moog Synthesiser, guitar and percussion, it lasted a ridiculous thirty minutes, and now can incorporate film, photography, live painting. The usual combinations, often attempted over the years. But terrifying fun for the performer and hopefully worthwhile for an audience.

This is why poets such as Paul Muldoon, Simon Armitage and a host of others dabble in live performance of their own songs. It’s why poet-musicians such as Twm Morys use all their arts. Born into folk, blues, rock and roll or pop, and asked constantly to perform in public, it’s a natural development for many writers today. With my unlearned guitar, that’s how I started in 1965, aged thirteen. Everything I’ve written since has been an effort to compensate for that failure.

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