The catch of cool
POETRY: DAVID WHEATLEYreviews Bay of Flags & other poemsBy Enrique Juncosa Translated by Michael Smith Dedalus Press, 156pp, €20.50 hbk, €13.50 pbk
DON PATERSON’S translations of Antonio Machado, The Eyes(1999), were a welcome but all too rare example of Anglophone publishing opening a window on the manifold splendours of 20th-century and contemporary Spanish poetry. The fact that it was Paterson’s, and not Machado’s name on the volume’s spine, however, and the absence of the poems in their Spanish originals, served as a reminder of the enduring hegemony of the English language, even or precisely where translation is concerned.
Any small counterblast to the global imperium of the English language is to be welcomed, and Dedalus Press has done more than most publishers to show a genuine commitment to writing in translation. Bay of Flags & other poemsintroduces Irish readers to the work of Mallorca-born Enrique Juncosa, the author of six collections of poetry in Spanish, and an experienced gallery curator (he currently directs the Irish Museum of Modern Art).
Juncosa is a writer of enormous appetite for travel, art, love, and other passing pleasures of a cosmopolitan life, all rendered in mercurial free verse:
I lie down on my back
for a long time
and I feel my blood
pumping the white masses
of clouds stirring
and they envelop me
in a diaphanous joy.
(The House of Friends)
“No one can deny that it is of advantage to a poet to deal with a beautiful world,” Matthew Arnold wrote superciliously of Robert Burns, but a glut of exotic locales presents its own problems too. Many poems here are set in Senegal, Botswana, Egypt and other tourist destinations, and the bric-a-brac of exoticism is sometimes all too ready to hand, a problem Juncosa’s translator, Michael Smith, addresses by hailing him as a “poet of the non-local”. “I have no home/beyond the bars of the world”, he writes in Self-Portrait at 38, or in Dakar, paraphrasing José Lezama Lima, “I am waiting for no one/ but I insist someone must arrive”.
Smith also compares Juncosa to Thomas MacGreevy, that most Iberophile of Irish poets, though Juncosa’s image-studded short lines cannot quite match the epiphanic lustre of MacGreevy poems such as Gloria de Carlos V. A litany takes something special to maintain a sense of purpose over long stretches of verblessness, and the examples here, of Juncosa’s favourite writers, film-makers and discotheques, risk descending into a form of consumerist display.
Substitute a less modish name (once modish, at least) in the couplet Bande à Part(“I want to marry /Jean-Luc Godard”) and Juncosa’s dependency on a style of foregrounded cool becomes uncomfortably apparent.
“The language of love /was never the worse /for some overstatement”, Antonio Machado declared, and Juncosa gravitates naturally towards a breathless sensualism: “I want to make love with you /all night /and to see how later /you sleep securely /in my arms /knowing that when I wish /I can have you again”, he writes in Chinese Pavillion. This is more than overstatement, and not in a good way either. “Where /desire takes charge readings will grow erratic”, Philip Larkin wrote in Deceptions. Erotic and erratic combine in Neon Torso, where Juncosa writes: “You cry stretched on the sofa /huddling in my arms”. How does one stretch and huddle simultaneously?
The best of these poems shepherd their energies and communicate sensual gusto and delight without succumbing to self-satisfaction. A poem such as Eclipseis all the better for its sparing use of the first-person pronoun, and suggests comparisons to MacGreevy may not be so far-fetched after all:
I ponder that black
has no limits.
I know you are there
like the moon.
David Wheatley is a poet and critic