Sunday, April 22, 2018

`Read Generously--As He Once Read'

Dick Davis’ verse I knew only from three recent volumes -- Touchwood (1996), Belonging (2002) and A Trick of Sunlight (2007) – and a scattering of earlier work online and in anthologies. Everything I read, I liked. This week I ordered Love in Another Language: Collected Poems and Selected Translations (Carcanet, 2017). Reading it is like discovering the rest of the iceberg. The earliest collection included, In the Distance, dates from 1975. From the start he was a craftsman with a delicate touch, focusing on particulars, avoiding grandiose gestures. Davis understands that when he is quiet we listen more intently. Here is “Littoral” from In the Distance:

“Salt smoothes and sand obliterates
The trite, the once-dear vestiges

“Mute hieroglyphs, the hulks of pomp
And sea-worn amulets of love.”

The theme is familiar – mutability, time’s attritions. Davis moves Ozymandias from the desert to the shore. There’s virtue in his brevity. It recalls many Imagist poems but without their lazily undeveloped snapshot quality. Inclusion of the “trite” in the catalog of losses is clear-eyed and inspired. Much of what we lose, much of what we regret losing, was hackneyed in the first place. No loss in such a loss. Here is “With Johnson’s Lives of the Poets” (Devices and Desires, 1989):

“He wrote these quick biographies
To be instructive and to please;
In them we find

“Among judicious anecdotes
The apt quotation that denotes
A taste defined

“And wrested from this record of
His irritable, captious love
For failed mankind—

From fear, from his compassion for
Insanity, the abject poor,
The world’s maligned.

He laboured to be just, and where
Justice eluded him his care
Was to be kind.

Read generously—as once he read
The words of the indifferent dead.
Enter his mind.” 

More than most writers, Johnson makes it difficult to separate him from his work. When we judge the writing, we’re implicitly judging the man. His poems and prose, seldom banally autobiographical, are self-revelatory. When we read his best-known observation on writing – “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it” – we hear Johnson speaking confidentially. Davis makes this clear in his final line: “Enter his mind.”

Davis dedicates the Johnson poem to the Kentucky poet and publisher R.L. Barth. Some years ago, the late Helen Pinkerton sent me a copy of Samuel Johnson: Selected Latin Poems Translated by Various Hands (1995), edited and published by Barth. On the title page is Davis’ “To the Reader”:

“In these few, graceful pages you will find
Translation of an untranslated mind;
A heart brought home that had aspired to be
At one with a serener clerisy—
Latin and Christian, still, unchanging, true:
And was, as it too intimately knew,
Contingent, fallen, unrelieved by prayer;
The prey of spleen, regret, bad jokes, despair.”

1 comment:

Pohaku Nezami said...

I have little experience of Davis as a poet but know him pretty well through his work as the most reliable and most prolific translator of Persian classical poetry of our time. I can judge the reliability since I read classical Persian. Introducing others who don't read Persian to the poetry of Hafez, Rumi, Nezami, Ferdowsi, Sa'di, Attar, Khayyam, etc., requires good translations and Davis has been of great help. There's much more that I wish he would do. For example, there is no English translation at all, to my knowledge, of one of the greatest of all Persian works, Khosrow and Shirin, a delightful book-length romance by Nezami.