Patrick McGuinness is that vanishing figure: the multi-lingual, multi-cultural, pan-European literary polymath. A translator who writes about how a word can “cross the unfenced border of its meaning”; a poet whose novel won, among other prizes, Wales Book of the Year; agent in the resurrection of the poet Lynette Roberts; editor, critic, and on the radio. He’s even the author of the entire oeuvre of a Romanian poet whose work he claims to be the translator of. His poetry is distinguished by an erudite urbanity that is sharply aware of its own price.
McGuiness was born in Tunisia in 1968 to a French-speaking Belgian mother and an Irish father, and his peripatetic childhood took in countries as diverse as Venezuela, Iran, England, Belgium, and Romania. His cultural and linguistic life seems to span several of these. This is illustrated in the poem he wrote for the project ‘The European Constitution in Verse’, where he describes:
. . . Republicans of the in-between,
celebrants of the glorious prefix trans and all its panoply
of cognates, cousins, second cousins, siblings, half-siblings
in-laws and out-: the neither/nor, the both/and, the none
of the above . . .
(from ‘Article 0.5: The Right to Be In-Between’ in Jilted City)
In 1998, he won an Eric Gregory Award for promising poets under 30, and his first collection, The Canals of Mars, came out six years later (with Carcanet): a mature, witty collection that plays with place and language and identity, and ends:
is finished and about to happen.
This first book is already fully engaged with McGuinness’ main concerns – the past, memory, local identity or its lack, the fickleness of language, and a restless cosmopolitanism. Its poems are ‘The Belgiad’, ‘Belgitude’, ‘Bruges’, ‘My Glasgohemia (Fantasy)’, ‘Borders’, ‘A View of Pasadena From the Road’. They use Welsh words. They channel Erik Satie or Rimbaud. In ‘The Belgiad’ he captures a mood he will reference often, writing:
Magritte’s Saturn: all rings and no planet
coastline dreaming of sea
The second collection, Jilted City (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), came out in 2010, incorporating poems from his Smith/Doorstop pamphlet 19th Century Blues: “Those were the days, though not for the people who lived them”.
This spirit of lostness, not-there-ness, also holds up the sequence ‘Blue Guide’, a sort of Via Dolorosa of the stations of the old railway line that ran between Brussels and Luxembourg. In ‘Charleville’, lostness follows Rimbaud in his hometown: “It’s not why Rimbaud left that mystifies . . . it’s why he kept returning”:
books with blackboard pages and all the boats
were floating libraries and all the letters spelled azure
or, after rain, erasure, which soon became its synonym.
It is interesting that each of these collections contains an evocative poem about dust. In The Canals of Mars, “shorelines hinge on it, feathers aspire to it” (from ‘Dust’). And in Jilted City, “Its tininess is a feat of scale, but it cannot disappear./ It is the shape of nothing, the shape of nothing happening” (from ‘The Shape of Nothing Happening’).
McGuinness lives in Wales with his family, and commutes in the week to Oxford, where he is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at St Anne’s College. He has edited numerous works by a variety of poets of Modernism and Symbolism, including the influential TE Hulme, who was active in the London poetry avant garde before the Great War, and was killed in 1917, and the French symbolist writer Marcel Schwob. He has compared the Argentinian-Welsh poet Lynette Roberts (“one of the greatest female war poets”), whose Collected Poems he edited for Carcanet in 2005, to the great Welsh Modernist, David Jones. His translations include Mallarmé’s For Anatole’s Tomb.
His best-known translation, though, isn’t really a translation at all, unless of himself: it is the work of the dissident Romanian poet, Liviu Campanu. Campanu is a very well-realised personality, a character in McGuiness’ novel The Last Hundred Days, for which McGuinness also wrote his poetry. Some Campanu poems also appear in Jilted City, in McGuinness’ translations, under the title City of Lost Walks. This game of inventing a foreign poet to ‘translate’ has been played by poets including Geoffrey Hill, Christopher Reid, and Michael Donaghy.
As McGuinness told the Telegraph newspaper in an interview:
The novel (published by Seren and Bloomsbury, winner of the Writers Guild Prize for Fiction and the Wales Book of the Year) deals with the end of the Ceaucescu regime, and Campanu is a poet exiled to Constanta, where Ovid also served out his exile from Rome. His poems are as witty as McGuinness’ own-voice work, but more overtly personal, and full of complaint. Yet even the complaint is partly of a lack of anything like real suffering: the endless grey boredom of the Communist regime, of being kept from one’s people and places and from creative life, of “fretting at tedium’s hem”. This is the dust that is the sound of living . . .
McGuiness’ work has been translated into French, Italian and Czech. Perhaps, almost speaking of his creator, the creation Campanu can have the last word:
but there’s no such thing as a portable metropolis.
(from The Ovid Complex)
Translator, For Anatole's Tomb, Stéphane Mallarmé (Carcanet, Manchester/ Routledge, New York, 2003), PBS Recommendation
The Canals of Mars (Carcanet, Manchester, 2004)
Editor, Collected Poems, Lynette Roberts (Carcanet, Manchester, 2005)
19th Century Blues (Smith/Doorstop, Sheffield, 2007)
Jilted City (Carcanet, Manchester, 2010), PBS Recommendation
Translator, Seizing: Places, Hélène Dorion (Arc, Todmorden, 2011)
The Last Hundred Days (Seren, Bridgend/ Bloomsbury, London, 2011)
Other People's Countries (Cape, London, 2014)
McGuiness’ author page at Carcanet, including various reviews
Issue of Poetry Review guest-edited by McGuiness
McGuinness discusses his guest-edited issue of Poetry Review with Sam Willetts
McGuinness’ profile at the British Council website
‘A Page in the Life’ – McGuinness talks to Gaby Wood in the Telegraph
Sean O’Brien reviews Jilted City for the Guardian
Tom Walker reviews Jilted City for Tower Poetry
Paul Batchelor reviews Jilted City for the Times Literary Supplement