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Tim Morris reviews

Word is Born
by Michael Kindellan and Reitha Pattison

20pp. Cambridge Arehouse, 2006. 3.50 paper

This review is about 10 printed pages long.


‘The poems collected in this book are translations from eight lyric poems by the Perigordian troubadour poet Bertrand de Born, who co-owned a castle, and died in 1215. The poems on the left-hand pages are by Reitha Pattison. The poems on the right-hand pages are by Michael Kindellan. Each pair of poems, left and right, is a translation of the same original poem by de Born.’ [From the Foreword.]

The moral life-arcs of dead personages can be examined for lessons in how to behave, but the act of literary translation is more intimate than the sorting of life-coaching bullet-points. And when, as in this book, the poets are engaged in two complementary translations, from the original and between their own versions, the forces and tensions of this intimacy are considerable.
     I admire this book because on one hand it quite explicitly suggests a Bertran de Born for 2006, a flawed character and moral judge we might (and do) begin to recognise; but on the other tests this parallelism of schisms and conflicts in action, and provides all sorts of reasons why his conflicts are not ours, why we would be naïve in imagining them to be so. And these historical speculations arise from a text (two texts, really) which sustain the intimacy and carefully judged characterisation of successful dramatic monologue.
     Here are two poets, who have had to, in translation, consider an old function and its plausible modern equivalents. The troubadours were both enjoyment and information, the thrill of not working and gossip. In de Born’s case the troubadour also spreads intrigue (and possibly misinformation), advertises a love-interest, belittles his enemies and makes calls to arms. We also imagine the author and jongleur to be easily censured by habitual public expertise. The forms were relatively strict, the courtly audience’s expectation pre-encoded. They knew the tunes.
      To inform the crowd of local news and opinion while at the same time angling on that local news, snapping a joke, rendering a personality hapless, or bringing in the need for the group to be together by energetically critical parts, were all part of the troubadour’s functions. And all the time the Bertran de Born history has left for us thought of nothing but his capital advancement, and the savage calculations of his skilfully directed bloodlust.
     The basic form of the poems is the dramatic monologue or dramatic lyric. Both writers successfully negotiate the many possible pitfalls inherent in maintaining a plausible character while filtering their own contemporary concerns through that character, a double-function which has always rendered the dramatic monologue a difficult form to write well.
     Someone skilled in Provençale may mop up the inaccuracies, of which there may or may not be many. But a point for point approach to original and translation fails to quite grasp the technique here. These poems don’t deliver as traditional, scholarly translations, but as departures from a base, improvisations from a personae, mood, and predicament. It is not exactness of meaning in relation to an authentic original which is being sought here, it seems, but exactness of moral and behavioural equivalent.
     Therefore, for both poets, though their approaches are very different, there appears to be an underlying belief in some quality stable or unchanged from the 12th century to the 21st, an ethical system imprinted permanently on human interaction, and its extreme forms of love and war. But de Born, as we know, is no passive bystander in his poems, speculating in the abstract. His sword was drawn, his friends went down, his mail did not remain sparkling on the castle wall; and eventually, with gritted teeth, he had to bend the knee.
     The first set of poems is, as far as I can tell, based on the original ‘Lo Coms M’a Mandat’, a sirventes preparatory to battle, and authored somewhat reluctantly. Reitha Pattison’s translation emphasizes this reluctance as a sophisticated cynicism. The speaker, lacking real power, but deeply implicated in the social setting as commentator, is both in and out of the power plays he attends:

The count had requested
And required of me
An Air for My Luke of Hope,
To fashion a song
Like one branch, stretched out
In a million escutcheons. Leafbare
wide-boughed and proximate,
polished in its degradation.
Early he waited my lay,
pea-counting til I ran his race.
The man he wouldn’t take no unless I’d swear
On the indifferent Maria. She
Couldn’t let me off lightly.

Who knows what happened to the song requested, but this is not it. The poem mocks the courtly strut, the insider joke, the posing under the gonfanon. The speaker is well aware that it is the tallied body count, not the nobility of the bodies, which will decide the outcome. This voice shuns consolations beyond death in battle, in favour of the heat of his earthly scorn:

It’s not possible to be remasculated.
On the contrary.
Heaven isn’t willing to be a collection box
Of siege cinders and failed thunderbolts
And non-saturnine commissioned scions
Of threadbare and tenderized, pacifying
And ambushed parvenus on colts.

This is compelling writing, particular when, due to the book’s structure and conceit, we can come at it from so many angles. It doesn’t seem quite enough to say that this is a modern poet’s condemnation of twelfth-century feudal wars. The suppressed anger seems more potent than that, more proximate.
     Michael Kindellan’s version of the same poem intensifies this impression that de Born’s poems are being used as templates of how the poet should think about war from within. Here the speaker is already encamped, stimulating himself with disgust as he waits:

Lo, how my mandate’s enamelling gluts
through armaments believed
only inlit | a fortification for who

sings on: the mind yields to a million
escutcheons of hardwood and ell-wand
cut to prosecute this false rumpus of kings.
And, ah, attendant optics counter —

poise a blade this digital in gesture
to gather a heap of busted gaskets.

Both versions seem somewhat contrary to de Born’s reputation as a lover of battle and Dante’s ‘sower of scandal and schism’ [Note 1]. Both poets are working with a much more ambivalent morality, a personae caught up in the savage contradictions of courtly socialisation and individual self-interest. And the strong implication throughout the book is that these relations between morality and expediency are still very much in play.
     The original ‘Cortz e Guerras e Joi D’Amor’ (The Court and War and Joy of Love) becomes the terser ‘Combat Yes Or No’ in Reitha Pattison’s translation. Sir Yea-or-Nay is de Born’s codename for Richard, against whom de Born was lining up, on the side of Henry the Young King, in the power struggle between Henry II’s sons. The title then refers specifically to de Born’s original, and again suggests a contemporary parallel from our own experience of polarising conflicts. The poem begins with an invocation of the joy of love, though one which already contains in its vocabulary the poem’s development into a justification of combat:

The joy of love is total, internecine
I wonder at it in the quotidian hours
And it keeps me cheerful and tuneful
Like the other I obey,
My soft foe.

The speaker does not oppose two extremes, but regards love and war as a continuum of single existence. Here is no sense of good and evil, or of one side of our nature cancelling or curing another. There are practical decisions to be made, and respect for the leader is not mandatory. The poet suggests, but does not strain, the obvious parallels:

I like the paltry king of Young Country
Because he wants to grow older.
His only plan is to rule without
interruption; he blinks at the potential
length of his proud service.
He’ll suffer heavy losses.
Don’t allow me to imagine it;
I want to be a lucky noble,
uncursed, rich.

Get on the winning side, quick. De Born’s poem declares his position, and again the translation judges that position. It is translation as ironic criticism, as an inverted rendering of the values the original bore, in order to show a modern readership its dark heart. Reitha Pattison’s poems conduct this process most assiduously, calmly; Michael Kindellan’s with more show, catching de Born as sharp chancer, ready with the quick change of register to keep the opponent off-guard. In his rendering of the same poem, the vaunted combat has now become mincing and petty, all Saturdaynight bathos between the boys:

                                        Dust touched
the latch through outer doors
are cussed | We must to the other lair!
What mean sense could think so fast
it chassed us in to old guards.
Yeah, so bring a scarf of war to town.
That, and, you
know, the cash you still owe me.

It is instructive to compare these versions with Ezra Pound’s treatments in Personae (1908, 1909, 1910) and Lystra (1915). Pound’s well-known ‘Sestina: Altaforte’ (on the words peace, music, clash, opposing, crimson, rejoicing), which also gives us a version of de Born’s voice, concentrates on the love of combat as purpose and artistic self-realisation, where peace fails to arouse the expressive response of heroic defiance:

And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears through the dark clash
And it fills all my heart with rejoicing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might ’gainst all darkness opposing. [2]

Pound’s de Born makes no distinctions here between his music and his violent impulse; he is not yet a politician, has not yet learned the cunning of tempered messages.
     Likewise, in Pound’s ‘Planh for the Young English King’, a monologue on the death of Henry, the de Born personae grieves in relatively straightforward fashion: the death is a light extinguished, Death is the greater warrior. And the poet hints that by the loss, his own material situation may be rendered more precarious:

Grieving and sad and full of bitterness
Are left in teen the liegemen courteous,
The joglars supple and the troubadours.
O’er much hath ta’en Sir Death that deadly warrior
In taking from them the young English King,
Who made the freest hand seem covetous.
‘Las! Never was nor will be in this world
The balance for this loss in ire and sadness! [3]

For Pound the project of resurrecting and mining the troubadours for his contemporaries always involves his novelty and his keen sense of sound structure and technical skill. But it involves to a much lesser extent the urging of contemporary parallels which are so much a feature of the present work. While Pattison and Kindellan allow themselves a freer hand than Pound in moving from the original, the reader perceives exercises of a different kind and with different motives.
     For example, we can focus on the present book’s treatment of the theme of monarchy. Reitha Pattison’s poem (based, perhaps, on ‘Nostre Senher Somonis el Mezeis’), carefully splits its title into ‘Mon Archy’. This would seem to imply that where the suffix of government is ironised, the speaker’s acceptance of the feudal status quo is suspended. The poem speculates on the processes which confirm the maintenance of power, and seems to echo de Born’s original much more directly than others in the book.
     James H. Donaldson’s ‘straight’ translation (if it can be so called), demonstrates that de Born’ is not blind to the dialectic of feudal power:

Cel qui es coms e ducs e sera reis
S’es mes enan, per qu’es sos pretz doblatz,
Qu’el vol mais pretz qu’om de las doas leis, crestias e no batejatz.
E s’el vol pretz, a las obras pareis
Qu’el vol ten pretz e tan bona aventura,
Per que sos pretz cries ades e melhura,
Qu’el vol lo pretz del mal el pretz del be                
Tant ama pretz qu’ambedos los rete.

He who is count and duke and would be King
Has led the way and doubled his good fame,
For he prefers his fame as man of laws
Of Christians and the unbaptized as well;
And if he wants his fame in deeds he shows
That he wants fame and his good fortune too,
So that his fame will quickly grow and spread,
For he wants fame with evil men and good.
He so loves fame that he plays host to both. [4].

When we turn to Pattison’s translation, we find this voice deeply ironised, and the instigation of a new technique by which the reader overhears the cutting judgements of the speaker, his subtle, self-sustaining critique of his own context:

From the mezzanine,
our evening’s atonal crooner
summons his lost ardour
for the covalent present.
He rails against the war :
shelling, gunmetal desuetude, all
tin-strong bellicose grievances.

The present is the true cross.
And the monarchy, of course.
Its sepulchral fractures
no succour or strength
of deontic cream can suture.
This fulcrum of deicide : sainthood
as I see it, has no appreciable effect
on my credo.

Not for this poem the absurdities of worship, or the servitudes of hierarchy, not even the unreformed ambition to be top dog. The poem sees further into the mutual dependence of this late master-servant dialectic, and recognises that the monarch can ascribe a value to his enemies all the more easily if they desire to topple him, since by doing so they have accepted the ideology which structures his rule.
      Knowing the power which resides at the touching apex of Church and State, de Born as protagonist here deftly sidesteps out of the structure into permanent critique, fearing neither constant war nor lack of social order. The degraded form of power passed on is for this poet a disavowal of all expressive endeavour, and the compromises of loyalty are fatal to the vision of life as combat:

Ductless kings beget serried counts and dukes.
we should auction them off
at double their market value.
And the Christians and Non-Combatants.

The worth! The worth!
The nepotism of adventure!
The price tag of the best cringing adept,
of the good and barely moral,
of the forfeited ambience of a family retainer.

So, I’d be worth a peanut
if I wanted to be king :

I still have the sense that this poem and others are interested in a double transfer from the original. The technique might be described as, the ironising of the troubadour’s voice into modern idioms and quite sophisticated tones of contemporary inquiry, which are themselves held up to scorn by the author as deplored political positions and character traits. The speaker is feckless, disloyal, crafty and subtle. He waits for the winning side to reveal itself before jumping, and he is utterly cynical about the abstractions humanity uses to sustain itself. He has no soul left to sell.
     This satirical motive is also present in Michael Kindellan’s version of the monarchy poem, called ‘Songs Five’. The speaker moves equally deftly among received wishes, at first suavely patronising, then increasingly impatient:

Alert cretin and Christian non-combatants in the dell
beholden of the armless parade | of semaphore is a
charade that we’re locked and loathed and rooting for.

So too by the readiness to help we ameliorate belief
that fled the camp but also the willingness for good
(though prepared to ambush perps at the outer wall).

I don’t give a rat’s ass for quadrants galore, get me?
or for Philip’s lost ring, or for some smug denizen
swilling around puked carols all puckered up with empathy
or for fallow periods or for daisies killed by a banana.

This is how we are dragged back to a contemporary grievance, but what grievance? For these techniques of ambiguous voicing are also a form of deniability, particularly where there are strong and as yet unresolved intimations of a breakdown in the second process, a pouring through of a nearby hateful concern in the author’s (not the persona’s) motives. Whatever responsibility there previously was to de Born’s voice is increasingly relinquished in favour of this deniability, which remains wholly private, and is perhaps the book’s one flaw.
    There are of course more specific examples of these kinds of transfers to modern idiom, which give us clues to the poets’ compositional thinking. The puns both poets use are suggestive. ‘Limousin’, the region of France which was the theatre of many of de Born’s adventures, becomes ‘limousine’; ‘On high’ transfers to the bathetic ‘mezzanine’, ‘Castellan’ slips in sound to ‘castled in’; and ‘Papiols’, de Born’s jongleur, becomes ‘Pa Pile’. It is also very noticeable that both poets have concentrated on Romance vocabulary over Anglo-Saxon in their translations, presumably as another (etymological) link in the chain of language from de Born to now.
     Poem seven (both versions) is perhaps that which draws the reader into closest proximity with the double-nature of the poem’s historical and contemporary operations and motives. Here the troubadour muses negatively on his own position among so many propagandists. Both appear as highly elaborated shrugs in the face of aesthetic grouping, more of de Born’s bitter wit, directed within and without. But here is also an increase in satiric pressure, a kind of bitter exhaustion registered by the poems from within. And again, we remember that both authors achieve this within the contract of the dramatic monologue. This from Reitha Pattison’s poem:

No one needs dissonance. It breaks out
in a talent for perky Belgian coloraturas.
When the controlled breath fizzes
against the jugular vein, coming
out in lies, Quo Vadis?
I’m not staying in Normandy,
this buttock of a department,
to acquire an ascetic, cardinal
dinari of a bob-bob patois.
I’ll find a member’s bar
between Biarritz and the Dordogne
and regret.

And so regret can be just another co-ordinate. The slick rhythm and the underlying cynicism, which only just covers some deeper sadness, seem to implicate a fear or distrust on the troubadour’s part of any language act which is not wholly instrumental, which claims aesthetic autonomy at any point. His martial ethics have come home to roost in his poetry, and are beginning to destroy it from within.
     This debate is very active for both poets it seems. Here is a passage from Michael Kindellan’s ‘Songs Seven’, which for this reader goes for just this jugular, registering a deep distrust, in building paratactic images, of the poet as autonomous creator. No longer do the poems seem to act successfully in managing their creator’s political and material needs in good faith:

Plotting a soar that more the
verse shunt curls to dizzy queues
tears men w/tactical draconian tricks :
and ant shaking in the crosshair’s
juicy loins of love,
stoned as pergamum | Temerity claims
to sense a stake in this.

     The selected passages of a review may perhaps fail to give the mounting sense of the book as a whole, that the poet’s ‘ire and sadness’ (to use Pound’s phrase) begin to be directed at certain targets. While there is a foot in the past, increasingly a critique of some modern poetic begins to show through. The self-narration of the artist is neutral, entranced, self-interested and cowardly, where deep insecurities cower behind claims of autonomy which become increasingly more threadbare. This critique builds more slowly, with less anger, though with no less bite, in Reitha Pattison’s poems; in Michael Kindellan’s series flashes out towards our own time, mainly by idiomatic manipulation, more harshly, more bitterly. Yet both are successful because they just manage to avoid falling into the holes they’re engaged in digging.
     So the act of translation from a posited ‘original’ appears in a very distinct way in this remarkable book. It anchors this growing anger and frustration with a contemporary verse culture that both poets perceive themselves to be writing about. It anchors the satire, the extravagance of imagery and vocabulary and the obscurity the poems would display were they to stand alone without their reference point. De Born’s works are the base camp from which both poets conduct guerrilla raids on their contemporary targets. Not too much evidence of their passing is left behind, but the charges have been set.
      If this can be criticised as a conceit which allows a certain distance or level of deniability, then this is in any case characteristic of a great deal of contemporary poetry which wishes to say strident things about the contradictions of behaviour and motive it finds proximate. It is a quality we see very often in poems about war and language, and about the future of ethical decisions.
     Whether the book’s methods of idiomatic translation and doubling are the only plausible ways now to exact the truth of this type of experience from poetry, or whether the angular surface of endlessly modulated tone which is the book’s keenest device merely postpones the brutal, wholly unsentimental involvement which both poets seem to admire in de Born and despise now, are the questions I end on, the questions with which this wholly fascinating and engrossing book has left me.


Dore etching

Gustav Doré, etching from Dante’s Inferno

Note 1:  See Dante, Inferno XVIII, ll. 34-36:

And all the others whom you see down here
Were sowers of scandal and schism while
They lived, and for this they are rent in two.

Of course ‘rent in two’ provides another, suggestive gloss on the organisation of the book into two versions side by side.

See also Dante, Inferno XVIII, ll. 118-142:

I saw for sure — and still I seem to see it —
A body without a head that walked along
Just as the others in that sad herd were walking,

But it held the severed head by the hair,
Swinging it like a lantern in its hand,
And the head stared at us and said, “Ah me!”

Itself had made a lamp of its own self,
And they were two in one and one in two:
How can that be? He knows who so ordains it.

When it was right at the base of the bridge,
It raised up full length the arm with the head
To carry closer to us words, which were:

Now you see the galling punishment,
You there, breathing, come visiting the dead:
See if you find pain heavier than this!

And so that you may bring back news of me,
Know that I am Bertran de Born, the one
Who offered the young king corrupt advice.

I made the son and father rebel foes.
Achitophel with his pernicious promptings
Did no worse harm to Absalom and David.

Because I severed persons bound so closely,
I carry my brain separate (what grief!)
From its life-source which is within this trunk.

So see in me the counterstroke of justice.

2. Ezra Pound, ‘Sestina: Altaforte’, Collected Early Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), p.43.

3. Ezra Pound, ‘Planh for the Young English King’, Ibid., p. 50-1.

4. Poems of Bertran de Born, trans. James H. Donalson (Brindon Press). Virtual Book.

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