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Editorial February 2009

February 2009

The works artists create usually live on after they do, a fact that cannot be ignored even at the point of composition –“Adieu the poets write all life long”, begins the final stanza of ‘Poet’, in which Belgian Hugo Claus portrays anxieties of legacy and ego felt by poets as they near their deaths. Claus died last year; in this issue, as an addition to his pre-existing PIW poet page, is a commemorative essay by translator Paul Vincent, who articulately reflects on the life and career of one of the most prominent and respected Dutch-language authors.

As apt and literal illustration of Claus’s observations in ‘Poet’, two of the poems by twentieth-century Belgian poet Gaston Burssens published this month are entitled ‘Adieu’, one a farewell written by the poet, almost paradoxically, to himself. Burssens’s poems such as ‘Sea’ sparkle with both internal and end-rhyme, skilfully portrayed in the English translations. There is also a notable emphasis on the visual – from the unique typography and illustrative decoration of the original versions of ‘Snow’ and ‘Despair’ to the painter-like evocation of “Roseyellow and rosered”, “ashgray purplegray” in ‘From the Podium’, and the “poisonous” “purple and green” of the “electronic eye” in ‘Proverb’.

Ruth Padel, featured on the UK domain in the first of four Poetry Society Centenary editions of PIW UK, also considers the art of visual representation within her work. A photograph, fixing in time one moment of the existence of an ephemeral sculpture is a point of departure (and return) in ‘Icicles Round a Tree in Dumfriesshire’, while in ‘The Forest, the Corrupt Official and a Bowl of Penis Soup’ an artist resolves to portray “the truth of illusion” when considering how to paint a work such as “Five-Colour Parakeet on Blossoming Apricot Tree” faced only with a landscape decimated by human corruption and greed. The great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and the author of the forthcoming collection inspired by his life, Darwin: A Life in Poems, Padel shows a sharp and often witty observation of the natural world in her work. I particularly like her poem ‘Scotch’ for its subtle linguistic playfulness and the inversion of traditional nature poems in its casting of an animal as a spectator of human behaviour.

The UK domain’s second poet this month is the “Shadow Poet Laureate”. In January, as a tribute following his death at the end of last year, we published his poet page and a selection of poems along with audio recordings made at the Poetry International Festival in 1983. If you haven’t yet done so, listen to these to experience the verve, humour and intensity of his performances. More poems have now been added for the February issue of PIW UK, including his famous ‘To Whom It May Concern’, which, editor George Ttoouli notes, “represents brilliantly the political thread in his writing, which married the personal with the political, delivering radical ideas fearlessly, about the pain inflicted by humans on other humans”.

The idea that poetry should act as a political tool, questioning and resisting the systems that induce human suffering is echoed in this month’s India issue, which centres on the theme. In light of the extreme violence and terror in India, editor Arundhathi Subramaniam has selected four poets whose work invokes “the scent of danger in a variety of ways”, addressing issues from communal violence to caste division, religious bigotry and patriarchal oppression.

“Poetry must be raw like a side of beef, / should drip blood, remind you of sweat / and dusty slaughter and the epidermal crunch / and the sudden bullet to the head” Malayalam writing bristles with anger at the injustice of caste oppression: in ‘Kandathi’ a “battered woman” waits “For a handful of rice untainted with blood, / For a piece of land untainted with greed.”

Our final poet this month,  a bilingual poet and translator who works in Marathi and English, is also a visual artist. His poem ‘Flesh Tint’ may not “drip blood”, but in its contemplation of the way changing light alters what we see, it merges politics and the painter’s palette, calling into question human perception of social and racial difference:

All geography is as colourless as linseed oil
Pigments come from the sky
Like a naked woman from over the Western Ghats

Sarah Ream

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