Review: ‘Centres of Cataclysm: Celebrating Fifty Years of Modern Poetry in Translation’

‘The burning heart of cataclysm at the centre of the anthology is drawn out; through translation, migration and exile, it is transplanted into another soil. The word spoke under duress becomes a world of affirmation; a protection and a stating of our own humanity.’ – Sasha Dugdale

The anthology Centres of Cataclysm celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the poetry magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, established in 1965 by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort as a kind of ‘airport for incoming translations’. As editor Sasha Dugdale explains, this collection represents only a ‘tiny fraction of the work’ that could have been compiled. The anthology celebrates the endurance of humanity, which can be seen in the work of the translators and editors as much as in the work of the writers. Human resilience is shown to be impossible to completely repress: it surfaces in every single poem as the collection moves through the ‘ripples or tremors’ left by war, by trauma and by pain. These poems are about cataclysm — about war and violence and suffering — but also about the resounding effects war and violence continue to have on an individual or a collective throughout their lives. The anthology ends with a section of poems that address how we can possibly rebuild a world torn apart by cataclysms, the final poems ‘concerned with protecting and saving’ (as Dugdale writes in the Preface), whether it is language or culture more widely. These are the irrepressible voices of the writers and speakers in the individual works, as well as those of the translators, who work to preserve such examples of human courage.

This anthology is not only a literary history. It is also a history of individual lives, a celebration of the forgotten men and women who shaped the world around them, and a history of how art’s place in the world. The anthology is interspersed with notes, letters, and essays which explain both why the poems and poets were chosen by the editors (Sasha Dugdale, and David and Helen Constantine) and the importance of such poetry in the world both then and now. For instance, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, we are reminded, is a translator and human rights activist as well as a poet — it is possible to be an ‘activist’ through the preservation of both literature and voices, just as it is possible to be an activist on a public, political level. She took her newborn son, a mere three months old, to a protest in the Red Square against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Through the inclusion of this personal story, we are encouraged to read her poems as linguistic embodiments of bravery in the face of oppression both political and intellectual. Hers are words which continually shock and move. She writes ‘that time I did not save Warsaw, nor Prague later,/ not I, not I, and there’s no atoning for this guilt’, prompting questions over whether the individual can make a difference in the ‘house of evil’, whether they can save whole cities, whether they should carry a burden of guilt. In her work, art means that ‘memory’s not wiped clean’. The speaker of her poem can’t save Warsaw and Prague, but she can save memories; she can acknowledge her guilt, highlight oppression. The speaker says ‘And chained by an eternal, invisible chain to this terrible house/ I shall find pleasure in it’. Human endeavour, artistic endeavour answers the evil. The anthology is one that propels you to keep reading, despite its length. To read such work compiled together is an unforgettable experience, and an incredible opportunity. Primo Levi’s speaker in ‘The Black Stars’ says ‘No one should sing any more of love or war’, yet they themselves sing of it. Despair – ‘and all our human seed live and die for nothing./ And the skies spin round perpetually to no purpose’ – is somewhat resolved in the form of the art itself.

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Centres of Cataclysm is arranged in different ‘zones’, from the epicentre of the ‘cataclysm’ borne of war, revolution, destruction and pain, to a zone which redeems such destruction through the creative processes of language and translation. It then enters another zone which treats ‘human experience of migration and exile’. Feelings of alienation and isolation are addressed in the last zone, which is concerned with protection, with salvaging languages, cultures, and humanity itself. In Gabriela Cantu Westendarp’s ‘The Language of Ghosts’, the speaker, a child, says ‘Yes mama. Seriously, I discovered/ the language of ghosts’. Memories are found anew, a new language discovered. Well-known poets can be found here, from Paul Celan to Szirtes, from Primo Levi to Yehuda Amichai. But so can poets who may otherwise be forgotten, lost to history, such as Kaneko Misuzu. The counterpoising of writers from different time periods, from different cultures and from completely different worlds implies that the difficulties faced by these authors can unite them across both geographical and chronological distance, suggesting that emotions such as pain and hope are innate across societies. ‘Romance de la Pena Negra’ by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, published in 2014, sits alongside Yehuda Amichai’s ‘When I was A Boy’, first published in 1965: the anthology may span fifty years, but the positioning of poems from either end of this spectrum next to each other allows us to see the similarities between experiences of war and chaos, and the nostalgia for the past such experiences can cause. The anthology similarly allows us to see the impact of older poets on younger generations – the creation of something new from the old, even as the work retains the same themes, the same devotion and dedication to language and to hope.

One series of poems in particular shows how interconnected their authors’ worlds are, however far apart they may initially seem. Ferenc Juhasz’s ‘The Boy who Changed Into a Stag Cried Out at the Gate of Secrets’ leads into Ted Hughes’s ‘ On the “provisional tense”’, then to Pascale Petit’s version of Hughes’s poem and finally into Tara Bergin’s ‘The Stag Boy’. In Pascale Petit’s poem, the mother calls out to her daughter rather than a son as in Ferenc Juhasz’s poem. The two poems share imagery, such as ‘her cry climbed in a spiral’ and ‘her cry climbs in a spiral’. Whereas the boy, turned into a stag, cannot return to his mother in Juhasz’s poem, the daughter in Bergin’s work, also having become a stag, can reply in spite of her transformation, saying ‘my balls swing like purses/ which holds moons and suns’. But she chooses to go through ‘the gate of secrets’ rather than return to her mother, saying ‘only to die, can I return to you Mother… When I return, Mother, it will be/ to join you in the grave/ where we will torment one another./ And no one else will suffer/ as you will suffer then, my mother’. Tara Bergin’s ‘Stag-Boy’ was partially inspired by encountering a stag party on a train with their ‘terrible, eager, desperate faces’ and the poem ends with the mother’s loss rather than the loss the boy feels in Juhasz’s poem, or the dying of the “girl-stag” in Petit’s poem.

The work is deliberately universalizing — ‘the anguish of each is the anguish of all’. In today’s society such a message is timely and necessary. The poems selected are stunning in themselves, but the collection becomes an overwhelmingly beautiful testament to humanity’s ability to endure, to create from nothing. At every second ‘the word spoken under duress becomes a word of affirmation: a protecting and stating of our own humanity’.

Tilly Nevin

‘Centres of Cataclysm’ is available to purchase from the Poetry in Translation website.

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