Review by Ted Jenner of ENCLOSURES 1
brief Nr 40 (June 2010 [July 2010])
Enclosures, Bill Direen (Titus Books, 2007) 132 pp., $24.95
The four stories in this small volume seem, on the surface, to bear little relation to each other: we have a ‘love conquers all’ story set in ancient Persia, a latter- day Jonah living in self-imposed exile on a beach opposite Kapiti Is., the dark and foreboding meditations of an expat. flying to London on his first OE, and a group of captives trapped in a stadium discovering that they know even less about the world beyond their confines than they thought. The stories, however, are carefully linked by cross references, by themes, and even by locations, the first being situated mainly in Nineveh and the second recalling the biblical Jonah’s exile from, and return to, Nineveh. Furthermore, within each story, disparate threads are woven together to create a patchwork of symbolic or allegorical significance. The fact that the stories are numbered rather than titled may also be part of a deliberate strategy to make the reader think of these fictions as texts offering different perspectives on common themes.
The major themes of this collection, the outsider and his fate, i.e. entrapment or enclosure, are evoked rather more traditionally in the first story which would not be out of place in The Thousand and One Nights. A musician, an Orpheus who can tame nature, demonstrates the transforming power of love and imagination, triumphing over those who ‘see nothing in mirrors but themselves’. His death occurs in a far-eastern landscape of orchards and canals reminiscent of the scenery in which he first met his beloved in distant Nineveh, now almost half a world away. The circularity of the musician’s fate represents the enclosure in this story, but such a destiny is not quite so benign in the stories that follow.
Jonah in ‘2/3’ and his namesake Jones in ‘4’ are enclosed within the cavernous bodies which have swallowed and temporarily confined them, but it is their ultimate fate to be drawn towards cities which engulf them; here they eke out a living as virtual hermits, alienated by the acquisitive society that surrounds them. The theme of the outsider trapped by the very fate he was attempting to avoid becomes a modern parable of isolation and self-imprisonment, but it is one enriched by the various allusions and quotations that Direen adduces to illustrate related themes and parallels, especially that of man devoured by beast but soon to be disgorged by same, alive and transformed.
‘2/3’ consists of a very closely connected pair of threads, the one advancing the narrative of modern Jonah only to be repeatedly interrupted by the other, i.e. the place-named sections which stop at strategic geographical points along the way to ponder, gather information and describe aspects of the Kapiti coast. With a Poundian flourish, a page of hieroglyphics quotes an Egyptian parallel to Jonah and the whale; two pages of learned notes bring to our attention man’s kinship with the sea and the Koranic prohibition against urinating in water. The subject matter is approached by various avenues – narrative, autobiography, quotation, footnotes – recalling the collage-like, quasi-documentary style of some contemporary post-modern fiction (Guy Davenport’s for instance) and hence the artist-as-forager concept found in such fiction (‘foraging as a reading of the signs of supernatural order and significance in the world of here-and-now, with the allied notion of the weaving-together of these diverse strands of symbolic significance’ – David Miller in Parallax 3, 1983, 827-28).
Within the narrative, Direen takes us through an ‘alimentary experience’ of the littoral; he remembers his own boyhood fear of the sea, with distant Kapiti as a monstrous whaleback; he discusses the gender of the element (ambiguous at best), and, more to the point, notes that the sea offers ‘a kind of captivity and release’ – as whale to Jonah – the whale being one of the ocean’s ‘kind’, a ‘regenerating tomb’. The allusion here to the biblical ‘three days and three nights in the whale’s belly’ (Math. 12.40), a parallel to Christ’s resurrection, is evident here, but the sea too is just such a monster, tempting our Jonah, camped out in his wilderness, with both self-destruction and the eventual release from the fear of such a death.
In ‘2/3’, the narrative gathers pace towards the end, and the language becomes (appropriately) a sort of supple and relaxed ‘King James’. For a second time, Jonah abandons the city (disgorged by another monster?), and lives on its fringes in ‘darkness absolute’. Jones’ destiny in ‘4’ is even more pitiless, though his story is partly a humorous update of Jonah’s. He travels for ‘two days and two nights in the belly of a bird’ on his way to London where he will repeat the solitary existence his great-grandfather leads on the Otago Peninsula. The great-grandson, however, intends to live in Europe’s most populous city where ‘he will keep to himself’. The Jonah parallel is even more starkly illustrated by the transfiguring experience Jones undergoes on board the hermetically sealed airliner. The jet aircraft, in which nothing lives ‘except the animal man’, becomes the arch symbol of what is known amongst some contemporary scientists as the Anthropocene, in which man, ‘the ultimate life form, is the natural inhibitor’ (Direen’s words). And here the story might have ended, somewhat abruptly were it not for a last-minute piece of collage. A ‘description of Edgar Allen Poe at his lecture “On the Cosmogony of the Universe”’, casts, with the footnote the author supplies, a dark shadow over the future of Jones the Prophet in the metropolis of London.
We are thrust much more deeply into the Anthropocene in the final story (‘5’), in which the sole tree withers and animals are hunted to extinction. The tree also has a symbolic function, however, and the animals appear to be creatures of a collective dream. Direen’s literary strengths are most evident here: his Kafkaesque scenario – an enormous stadium in which a group of people are imprisoned for reasons they no longer remember – is permeated with symbols which remain ambiguous, able to be interpreted in a variety of ways. On one level, the story resembles one of William Golding’s pessimistic allegories of the human condition, complete with archetypal figures that have reverted to primordial functions in the wake of some disaster. The pattern of polarized opposites is also characteristic of allegory: imaginative/shamanic journeys vs. the imposition of law, fear and superstition vs. rebellion and experimentation etc. But here the analogy ends because many of the images suggest that the narrative can also be interpreted as a nightmare from the collective unconscious with all the ambiguity and arbitrary detail that implies. Let me explore this a little further.
The captives are incarcerated by ‘ill-defined powers’; they may also be the subject of someone’s experiment, their children genitally mutilated as they were themselves in some forgotten past. Throughout the story, down to its ominous finale, we follow the fortunes of a people without history in a landscape where food and light are dwindling in entropy. Within the labyrinthine walls surrounding the arena, images of strange animals, ‘those of their dreams’, stare at a group of would-be escapees. When they return to the arena, match-flames conjure up each of the beasts they had slaughtered, whereupon Zabu (the wise woman and healer) ‘called the name of that animal and touched the wound of each of the returned. And the skin-wounds of the returned were healed.’ This passage illustrates the biblical cadence the story is sometimes couched in and the oneiric, hallucinatory details which seem so arbitrary but never quite undermine the network of symbols and oppositions that Direen has quite consciously built into this intriguing tale. That the surrealism often complements and even enhances the symbolism is the mark of a skilful narrator. To his other talents – poet, musician, composer – Bill Direen has, with Story of the Brakeman and now Enclosures, added another: storyteller of the apocalypse and of a dreamtime that looks uncomfortably like twilight in the Anthropocene rather than first light.
Review by Erik Kennedy of Enclosures 2
Takahe 90, August 2017. © Takahe
Enclosures 2 by Bill Direen. Dunedin: Percutio (2016).
RRP: $24.95. Pb, 190pp. ISBN: 9791091280044.
Perhaps we haven’t entirely moved beyond the literary nationalism of Curnow and co. In Enclosures 2, a five-part sequel to 2008’s cross-genre ‘novel’ Enclosures, Bill Direen once again tries to come to terms with his status as a citizen of two continents, a man falling between two stools:
An expatriated man hears of events in his own country as a parallel to events happening around him. Sometimes he confuses the two, and each has its influence upon his thinking. When in Europe, he hears of events in Europe while thinking as a New Zealander. He finds it psychologically difficult to separate himself from that point of view, and this puts a distance between him and the people he is moving among. The reverse is true when he returns. (p 81).
This is from the excellent “Europe, New Zealand”, a loquaciously aphoristic account of experiences in France, Germany, and Aotearoa that takes up half the book. Much of it is diaristic in the best way; these are the close observations of someone who has been ghosting the streets and apartments of big cities, recording the small but significant stories of their inhabitants like a latter-day Félix Fénéon, who recorded the ‘sundry events’ of Paris life in the newspaper Le Matin. Direen’s prose reminds me of work that has been translated into English by a very good stylist: it has clarity and universality, but some of the strangeness of the unfamiliar, too.
The sight of a mouse disturbs the elephant, because the elephant is afraid of stepping upon a tiny elephant.
A colour descends from the most recent colour seen, a second, a minute, a year ago. So too, emotions, dreams, ideas. It all depends. (p 86).
Sometimes he prefers to dodge rather than divulge, as in the riddle ‘Melbourne has the hide, Canberra the heart, New Zealand the articulated skeleton’ (p 86). (The answer is Phar Lap.) But Direen’s digressions in “Europe, New Zealand” are only ever variations on a theme: that only ‘a very, very few know in what way we belong to any place at all’ (p 95).
The book’s four other sections are in different modes, and they don’t all work for me. “Centre” is a free-verse rhapsody on Direen’s time at the Michael King Writers’ Centre on Mount Victoria in Devonport. It is a bit wispy as it juxtaposes pathetic-fallacy description – ‘All day Mount Victoria seems vainglorious, its trees and lilac serene above a succession of time-wasting motorcades’ (p 106) – with meditations on the deaths of friends and his father and explorations of the big themes of mortality and faith.
“Stoat” and “Survey” are more obviously experimental. The former is a loose narrative ostensibly about two characters named Skink and Goat who record an album in Robert Stoat’s basement. This prose piece, which is almost gloopy with detail (‘Album of ibex and reptile, of world and idea reborn from coilings of flesh as a species repulsive, denuded of outer fur’ [p 151]), is also an allegory of creation – album is the white of an egg. It surely owes something to Direen’s own work as a musician. “Survey” relocates the story of the death and dismemberment of Captain Cook in Hawaii to the microbial level. The various contending parties are given names like Viri, Splinter, Urns, and Tubers. As a concept this is not too confusing, but I dare anyone to make sense of the specifics.
“Canal City”, on the other hand, is a utopian vision of a post-quake Christchurch completely rebuilt around canals. (Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that 2016 was the year of the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia.) The ‘Squarist’ grid defined by the four avenues has given way to ‘high-density citylettes, with each village or nest integrating green, work- and creative spaces according to the desires of its members’ (p 172). “Canal City” has no plot (although it outlines both real and imagined history), but its speaker makes serious arguments in favour of the project the citizens of Christchurch have undertaken: ‘We put our trust in nature’ (p 172), ‘We dreamed a new city upon a devastated reality’ (p 173), ‘We have not tried to deny the psychological pain people of this place have endured’ (p 175). There is no ironic twist in the piece, no built-in criticism that shows that the speaker is a fool. This is a fantastical but earnest written future for Direen’s native city, and as such, it is a work that is almost totally unlike other future-oriented poetic fictions being written today. ‘No endeavour for true progress is eternal, but none is futile. We have shown a way from mere possibility’ (p 180), reads the motto on the last page. And maybe here Direen has created for himself a place where he is truly at home.
Critique by Lisa Samuels of poetic content in ENCLOSURES 2
Axon: Creative Explorations, Vol 8, No 1, May 2018
FROM Soft text and the open line
In trauma or in ecstasy, we could say the line is obliterated: experience blares, you are integrated by being split and holding excess with your body. The line in this case becomes a report from elsewhere, a translation and medial stasis within that rupture of your ordinary existence. The soft text of trauma is a swamped blare. Its hard text can produce lines that are anything from sliced glare to careful pulses, depending on when you get permission to make lines out of the record.
In Bill Direen’s Enclosures 2 (Percutio 2016), the death of his father is explicitly part of what swerves the otherwise-prose of Direen’s book into a prolonged poetry. Here are some of his lines from the long poem “Centre”:
Light scales, optometry puddles on the walls,
Tempera touches as just-audible matter.
Pods deliquescing as matt shade, joining fingers,
It all throws me across a parallel to be of one mind,
Before snapping me back to a correlative hamartia,
Where stems swish and proudly seed.
Spinning disks of coal shiny vinyl once voiced
Scripts of unsatisfied longing.
I drew the odour of turpentine and wrote tabacco blue,
Edging inches further away from home,
Then miles, oceans away from God,
I added sulphur to the provocative incendium.
Away away we are nothing silver can exalt
Nor lurid signifiers demean.
Backward flaps of days! What we were!
Breasts bared, up naked rocks struggling,
Self-scratching till the skin ran and tears,
Tears through and thoroughly.
All those lines, and only two punctuate enjambments! Only twice does the line accede to the cliff face of its end. Otherwise control, control: formal capitalized initial safety letters holding on to the left margin, gentle commas and full stops delivering the line to the right margin, one cry (the exclamation points line), and otherwise the lines pull their trauma inward, where soft text turns quite mental.
That mentality can be partly private enigma in the opened text: what the writer thinks or knows or partly-thinks or used-to-know that doesn’t leave denotative (semantically and contextually curtailed or “clear”) marks in the text.
That mentality can be the interpretive presagement of “It all throws me across a parallel to be of one mind”, a line whose interpretive opportunity can be irresistable to the hard-text imperative of the critical reader. And if that reader knows you cannot score all the opportunities of reading that line, if you know that its contexts and recombinations are theoretically infinite, then you know soft text is part of the breath of that line. The scrutable releases the infinity of the inscrutable, thus interpretive penumbra always glows with soft text.
In other words, possiblity intrinsically exceeds actuality, thus there is always more soft text than hard text anywhere and any time.
Some of the breath of soft text inheres in the breaks between the strophes in Direen’s poem. Those larger breaks tap into the smaller rivers of page areality that run around and through the words in each strophe and line. The lettrified inflections that sound patterns – for example, “ds de es as a ade“ from line 4 above (“Pods deliquescing as matt shade”) and “l iny vinyl o ce voice” from line 8 (“coal shiny vinyl once voiced ”) – are legible strikes, one aspect of the innuendoes of soft text that can constellate implosively or explosively in a reading.
© Lisa Samuels 2017. For full article please see http://axonjournal.com.au/issue-14/soft-text-and-open-line
Review of DEVONPORT, A DIARY
by Murray Edmond. 31st July, Landfall Literary, 2011
Devonport: A Diary, by Bill Direen
Signalman's House/Holloway Press, limited edition, 100 copies $100.
Bill Direen's diary of his time of holding the Michael King Writing Fellowship at the University of Auckland and living in the Signalman's House on Mount Victoria, Devonport, which is part of the Michael King Centre, juggles with and meditates on the problems of the diary form itself; whether the quotidian should be filled with the marvellous or the mundane. He confronts the insects in the kitchen, and relates this sense of embattlement to living next to the naval base and on a hill with gun emplacements dating back to the imagined Russian invasion of New Zealand. He stands on the edge of the lapping tide and launches into a delightful diversion about the moon, the tides and the ‘principal lunar semidiurnal’.
Finding a good diversion is counter-ballast to plodding though the days, diary-style. There is something quaintly Beckettian in Direen's counting and numbering and obsessive trips to the tide line ‘to stand calmly by the water.’ The aimlessness of being a writer begins to shine through. My grandmother once asked me, ‘What do you want to write poetry for’ and I took the opportunity to play the smart-arse and reply, ‘That's the point, it's pointless.’ Direen, who, has lived in France for some time (as Beckett did) plays the scales of existential and geographical alienation: ‘I'm not of this place./Am of this place.’ The Beckett echo is from the end of Waiting for Godot: ‘Let's go. They do not move.’ Direen looks at the landscape and see its impermanence, of which the tsunami is one possible agent: ‘everything is bach-like/it could all go in a wave.’ Vladimir in Godot looks at the landscape and describes it as ‘indescribable.’
Direen's diary goes beyond description, whether literal or symbolic, in search of an awareness of the endeavour of writing itself, surprising himself in discovering what he is engaged at. He wonders how to know if the diary form is finished. Quoting Matisse about not repeating a line, he questions the validity of re-writing. Just as a book is never simply a book, so he notes that there are many kinds of notebooks. The notebook, basis of this printed diary, returns the reader's focus to the moments of composition. And this notebook/diary records the moment of the September earthquake in Christchurch, where Direen's father and brother and sister-in-law are located. The writing response to the quake consists of a series of Joycean (James Joyce being Beckett's mentor) language flourishes: ‘Manmade ... mad made.’ At the core of this intriguing meditation, in its plain and tasteful Holloway Press presentation, is an ambiguous curiosity about the very act of recording in writing – ‘Writing dares to oppose all that disguises things as they are’ (p. 25) – that might derive from the elegant paradoxes of French literary theory. At the same time, Direen's writing contains an almost naïve directness: ‘I will probably never live in such a nice place as the signalman's house .... ever again.’
A short fiction, ‘Esplanade,’ is appended to the diary. Once again Joycean flourishes appear, this time as the call-girl approaches the Esplanade Hotel where B (the particle) waits. For Direen, like Beckett, French and English are his writing languages. Like Beckett, when asked whether he was English (and the same would apply if he were asked if he were French) he could reply: ‘Au contraire’. He is located here, in his diary.
Review of Devonport: A Diary
by Graham Reid, Music reviewer NZ Herald
Saturday Jul 9, 2011
Devonport: A Diary, by Bill Direen
Signalman's House/Holloway Press, limited edition, 100 copies $100.
Writer/musician Bill Direen's Devonport Diary - written during his stay in an old houseon Mt Victoria last year [has him exploring the place he finds himself in after years in the South Island, Paris and Berlin (the local terrain is familiar to many Aucklanders so some observations are hardly resonant with insight). But there is dry humour and, once he is settled, his thoughts become more probing. A turning point comes when he quotes from a 2006 notebook, in which he wrote of having decided 12 years before to concentrate on short pieces which "amount to 'moments' of writing". Ambition took him to novels but, five years ago, he was back at that place, as he is on these pages of "moments".
Some entries come loaded with meaning, especially after that first Christchurch quake in September:
"Climb on slabs as the stacks and slabs topple. Climb and climb.
Hear nothing as the man-made crumbles to the south."
At other times, he grapples with the writing process ("I am beginning to see what Matisse meant when he said never to repeat a line. To go over a line is to destroy it.") Thereafter follows a brief, artfully distilled fiction in which a son returns from self-imposed exile, back to Devonport, to sell the family villa he grew up in, "whose
beauty was a wonder he dared not bruise with his touch".
And you feel Direen has arrived also.
Review by Hamish Wyatt of Dunedin Poems
Sat, 3 Sep 2011
Otago Daily Times (ODT)
DUNEDIN POEMS, Bill Direen
Bill Direen has been around for many years as a writer and musician.
He has worked on poetry, fiction, songs and music-theatre pieces.
Dunedin Poems is a classy new book that contains 23 small poems. Gone is the anger and agro of earlier efforts.
There is a quality and cohesiveness to this particular collection.
Direen knows Dunedin, Mosgiel, Port Chalmers and Aramoana. He brings this out in his work. There is a little echo of David Eggleton's Time of the Icebergs (Otago University, 2010) and a nod to James K Baxter in "On the Other Side of the Leith Stream":
Sometimes there is no wound
- and that is the time
for starting fires
with old exercise books,
shoe boxes, Greetings Cards,
and those photos that always tightened
the Celtic knots of your heart.
That is the time for standing close
and letting the smoke coat your face
Till there is no more time to destroy.
Till you are once again boy.
Direen has always had a little of the damaged-drifter persona in him. Dunedin Poems is certainly worth a look.
Review by Kate Belgrave
The Impossible, absurdist short stories by Bill Direen. NZ Listener, May 25, 2002.
A cast of happy urban misfits go through the modern age's kookier motions in Direen's 13 stories. There are marketers, replacement (of everything) therapists, pet-lovers and a lot of people who are off sex. It's hard not to admire his commitment to showing up the ludicrousness of modern priorities.
"Smoke the Book", for instance, is a great tribute to a down-at-heel marketing guru who has the brilliant idea of printing books on cigarette packets and making the packets smokeable. The end-result is a marketing sensation called Bookabacco. Given Bookabacco's undeniable contribution as a learning and relaxation tool; the government is compelled to define it as "a health remedy with side effects". And so the next sales campaign claims, "No Cure Without Cancer"!
In 'Jumping Man' a man jumps a bit every time he is addressed. After a while he transforms into a pair of thighs. He gains real height and even starts catching birds... Direen's heightened ear for absurdity serves this collection well.
Review by Katherine Liddy
Coma, short novel by Bill Direen
from “Something Strange” Landfall 212 (Spring 2006): 185-88.
Coma ... deals with the afterlife. Right from the start it is clear that William Direen's Coma is paranormal or at least out of the ordinary. 'I', the unnamed protagonist, begins the story by describing her own birth:
"I am in a tympanum, in a blood vessel in a dragon's brain, on the warm side of a peritoneal wall that separates us, me and another, from others."
Chilled, detached and sorrowful, the narration continues in the present continuous tense as the heroine develops post partum, through childhood and adolescence. However unlike Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which adjusts its diction to match Stephen's intellectual age, the voice of the principal character is changeless. As she grows she speaks in a steady mournful monotone that makes her seem almost ghostly, as in this exchange with her young teen boyfriend:
"He is laughing. He so wanted me to say I could go with him. He is laughing because deep down he really wants to hit me. He is laughing so hard that his breath clouds the windshield. He is yelling into the windshield, 'Birds don't matter! They don't know they are going to die!'"
Realistic interior monologue is eschewed; anaphora and Jim-Morrison-style metaphor solemnises her utterances. Death, or a funereal formality, pervades the atmosphere.
Intrepid ventures deserve admiration, and by choosing to write from the perspective of a young girl from contemporary USA, Direen exhibits the sort of derring do that gives fiction wings ... there are several anomalous details that accumulate to expose Direen's act of ventriloquism, ... perhaps Direen wants to draw attention to his artifice? Only the author can know his intention.
Review by Jan Kemp
of Versions Translations by Bill Direen
01 October 2014, Landfall
"Sleuthing Through The Layers"
Versions Translations, Kilmog Press, 2014,
53 numbered copies, unpaginated, $35
Bill Direen gives us no hints as to the reasons for his eclectic (you might say ‘motley’ in the best sense of the word) selection/collection of ‘incomparable originals’ of the ‘highly charged short poem from classical times to the present’, except that he was ‘greatly taken’ by translations of European language poetry in his youth. We must assume then, that these chosen for his own ‘responses, mirror versions in [his] native (New Zealand) English’ are among his favourites. Grouping them, what might we then learn about Direen’s own poetic style?
Versions and Translations consists of twenty-three poems, many in sonnet form. Eight are translations, eight are written ‘After’ a particular poem, seven are responses to seven others, and the lot come from seven different languages: French (4), German (3), Italian (2), Spanish (2), Portuguese (1), Latin (1) and Greek (1), as well as from British and American English over three centuries. His editor states Direen has ‘adopted two of these languages’ but does not say which ones. These we must surmise. ... I feel he/the publisher might have cited the original poems’ titles in italics or with single quotation marks within his own titles, to delineate clearly whose is what; for, failing this, confusion can arise. For example, ‘Trakl’s Decay’ is different from Trakl’s ‘Decay’, in that it is not Trakl’s own decay that is the poem’s subject matter as in the original, but ‘Trakl’s poem about decay’ (yet however much that might be Trakl’s own, we still have here an ‘I’ persona and can’t establish that it is Trakl, as Direen’s title would suggest.) A little more exactitude, please. Second, page numbers don’t exist at all in this volume, so the hunting game to locate things continues.
On first looking at this beautifully hand-crafted and hand-stitched orange and black cloth-covered book with its poems printed on quality cream paper (a proper colophon indicating typeface and font please, Kilmog Press), you are already challenged to sleuth your way through the layers. The suggestion of layering and perhaps even palimpsests (though do the originals ever disappear?) is there tactically in themateria and design: black-filled or orange-within-black outlines filled, or empty triangles, or squares of cloth glued onto three vertical oblongs of cloth, themselves glued onto and under a horizontal oblong of black lettering on orange, glued on the lot. The title as printed is: VERSIONS TRANSLATIONS. So layers upon layers of poems are suggested from the outset ...
Is Direen ‘a poet’s poet’? Perhaps so. It’s perhaps because of his love of the poems he has chosen and because they were meaningful to him in the first place, that he has put together this book. His selection ranges from c. 500BC (Euripides) to the first century (Martial); from the Medieval world (Dante and Petrarch), to the 16th century (Vittoria Colonna – one of only two women poets selected), Michelangelo, Sir Philip Sidney, Henry Howard), to the 17th century (Donne and Milton). There are two poets selected from the 18th century (Goethe, Mallarmé), two from the 19th (Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins), with his selection most populated with 20th century poets (Artaud, Rilke, Huidobro, Lorca, Hart Crane, Pessoa and Pound, concluding with the Romanian/French Tristan Tzara, and Robert Desnos.) From Rilke he has chosen two poems. No selection from either Rimbaud or Neruda, though both are mentioned in the explanatory preface in relation to his having been ‘taken’ by such poems, so that he was prompted to write ‘Direen’s versions –‘passionate, paradoxical, mystical – alongside their incomparable originals’. Incomparable indeed.
I loved reading Direen’s selection ... [His] diction is notably colloquial – ‘the big man in misfortune’ – while his ‘yet you are it’ unfortunately emphasises ‘it’ rather than Rilke’s italicised ‘Du’ (you). Direen’s use of ‘full-on’, again, is very contemporary diction which we understand, but this Americanism fits strangely with phrases referring to things ‘that occur about me’ or ‘in thee’ in terms of its mixed historicism of usage. This sudden drop or mix in register is a mark of Direen’s style, as is his sometimes unduly forced syntax, forced for rhyme’s sake. These features occur in any number of his translations/versions/responses here. ...
Direen’s ‘Martial’s Epigrammaton LIB V, xxxiv’ reads as lightly as its last line – ‘she weighed so lightly on you’ – and is not troubled by lapses in register, but is all of a piece and even uses lovely – what I think of as reverse or encapsulating – cadences such as ‘as she was wont to do’, a joy to the ear, even if old-fashioned. But why in Euripides’ ‘Pirithous’, cannot Zeus fill Ixion with just ‘passion’ instead of ‘sexual passion’ beats me. For in the next line Ixion ‘ravishes’ an image, and isn’t always one word less when it is implied by another, a gain for a poem? And why the trema on ‘Pirithous’ when the play’s title is here in English translation?
Then Direen turns to the southern tongues that grew out of Latin – Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese – though only the two French poems are claimed as translations by Direen. But he begins this section with northern visitors to the south. First, Goethe’s ‘Römische Elegie I’, then Direen’s own ‘After Goethe’s Rome’, followed by Pound’s ‘Paracelsus’. ...
Milton’s ‘On the Late Massacre in Piedmont’ calling on religion to enact justice (regarding the fate of the Piedmontese – Milton calls them Piemontese – Waldensians who refused to become Catholics) is another highly wrought religious theme, and possibly therefore why it was chosen by Direen. These things appeal to him. His own ‘Response’ is a very free version of Milton, with inversions for rhyme’s sake – as in ‘Though God did not her life protect’ – as well as a more baroque diction than we’ve seen in some of his other ‘Responses’: ‘to nurture his own’, ‘sequester belief’, ‘His predication’.
Jumping two and a half centuries now to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Spring’ and to Direen’s ‘Response’, we again find Direen using bathos in his diction. He mimics well Hopkins’ sprung rhythmtechnique and manages to communicate his own poem’s inscape to the reader; however his poem feels ‘after the fact’, an intellectualisation of the world seen and felt, in contrast to what in Hopkins’ poem comes across as a sensual evocation of Spring.
Four American writers next enter Direen’s book: Edgar Allen Poe via his tomb in the Mallarmé poem, and in one shot, Hart Crane and Emily Dickinson. Direen’s poem to Hart Crane (who first inspired him to read Emily Dickinson) is about the Crane’s dramatic end: his diving overboard from a ship into the Gulf of Mexico. Here at last we really find a clue to Direen’s method: ‘these words intimate, disturbed’. As one might have surmised all along, Direen’s reasons for choosing his ‘motley crew’ to translate or respond to are that these poems have been inspirational, even formative; they have got through to him and made him want to write.
Because he starts his collection with a strange, dream-like poem from Trakl, let me end by considering four slightly surrealist/expressionist poems – seemingly a favourite genre for Direen: Huidobro’s ‘Solo’ (a translation from the Spanish), Mallarmé’s ‘Tomb of Edgar Poe’ (from the French), along with his final two selections: Artaud’s ‘Tree’ and Desnos’ ‘Greet the road’ (both from the French); the latter itself a free translation of what Direen calls ‘Saluer la route’ by Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet. Unfortunately, this is another sloppy misquotation, for Tzara’s actual title is ‘Saluer le chemin’.
Huidobro’s line in ‘Solo’, ‘eating fruit at the core of nothingness’, is an existentialist, expressionist image showing him at the moment of being ‘on your own between nocturne and dying’. This late poem, written in 1941 when Huidobro was sixty-five, with its plaintive end-line ‘and a dog howls and howls for the land we have lost’ (as Direen’s words put it), makes one pity any dying soldier as well as anyone dying far from home, when they feel too they’ve lost their country.
Apart from his mistitling the Mallarmé poem ‘Tomb of Edgar Poe’ as ‘Mallarmé’s Tomb of Poe’, and losing the important adjective (especially for a poet’s voice) of ‘cette voix étrange’ (‘this strange voice’), Direen’s translation works well enough. It lands heavily and expressively on the end rhymes in the last rhyming couplet with ‘tomb’ and ‘doom’. These long dark vowels parallel those inherent in the French ‘un désastre obscur’ and ‘épars dans le futur’ of Mallarmé, Direen’s having turned the latter’s eefgfg endings in the two triplets of these last six lines into a successful eeffgg sestet. Another poet or two close to Direen’s heart for their grand styles and symbolism, not to mention falling cadences? Let’s remember too that Mallarmé translated Poe’s ‘The Raven’.
Direen’s stricter translation of (rather than ‘Response to’) Artaud’s poem ‘Tree’ provides a poem similar in theme to ‘Solo’, that of a tree representing a person or their being, alone in the world with Nature and the elements. Another poet might have translated this slightly differently into English, but what matter? Direen captures the poem’s expressionist existentialism accurately enough.
The French poet Robert Desnos’s death by typhoid, contracted during his internment in Auschwitz, is the subject of the penultimate poem ‘Desnos’, this time a free version written in response to lines inscribed on a memorial wall as recorded in ‘The Heart That Hated War’. Here Direen escapes the sonnet form and uses his own twelve-lined, in one dying fall, longer sentence to achieve his fine effect. Here we see layering itself carefully handled by the poet showing ways in which death can come in life to demean you, a lowering and a further degradation following another, until you are a concentration camp number in a condemned shirt. Desnos’ poem is most moving and heart-breaking in its isolating truth.
Finally, we are free to ‘Greet the road’, as Desnos’ Romanian friend Tristan Tzara has done and Direen has responded to, in his last chosen poem. As in Huidobro’s ‘Solo’, again an image of fruit occurs. This time it’s almost surreal: ‘smack in the centre of the split fruit of day’ is presented as if this is where you are. ‘What are you after’ and ‘where are you off to’ are two great questions the poet puts to you, the reader.
The answer is a mystical one, but not unfathomable; it is the one any contemporary poet faces daily, ‘alone on the road’ with his own ‘riotous thoughts a ribbon behind him’. It is the magical enjoyment of every moment, despite the howling of dogs and the compulsion to write.