Sunday, March 27, 2016

`We Surround Ourselves with Books'

I wasn’t expecting a book in the mail though one reserves an obscure corner of the brain for miracles large and small. Inside the cardboard was a signed second impression of C.H. Sisson’s breakthrough book, the one announcing the arrival of an important and long-deferred poet and translator: In the Trojan Ditch (Carcanet, 1974). My benefactor is Marius Kociejowski. On stationery from Peter Ellis Booksellers of London, Marius writes: “A signed Sisson on an outside book table for a pittance? How could it not be yours for the having?" He reads me like a book.

Sisson had already published three slender volumes of poems by 1974, the year he turned sixty. He had taken early retirement in 1973 from his job as under-secretary in the Ministry of Labour, and it was time for his refulgence. Here is “Easter,” originally published in Numbers (1965): 

“One good crucifixion and he rose from the dead
He knew better than to wait for age
To nibble his intellect
And depress his love. 

“Out in the desert the sun beats and the cactus
Prickles more fiercely than any in his wilderness
And his forty days
Were merely monastic. 

“What he did on the cross was no more
Than others have done for less reason
And the resurrection you could take for granted. 

“What is astonishing is that he came here at all
Where no one ever came voluntarily before.” 

Thanks to interlibrary loan, on the day Marius’ gift showed up (Good Friday), a copy of Sisson’s translation of The Divine Comedy (Carcanet, 1980) also arrived. The first canto of his Inferno is posted here. In his introduction, “On Translating Dante,” Sisson writes: 

. . . all literary encounters have a certain unceremoniousness about them. We surround ourselves with books so that we can call up Montaigne, or Eckermann, or Virgil, or Andrew Marvell, as the mood takes us or the drift of our interests at the time suggests. There are scores or hundreds of merely casual encounters, and some of more intimate significance. The latter have their times, and their place in one’s development as a reader or a writer.”

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