Friday 8th March, St. Andrews Town Hall
On the Friday night at StAnza, the distinguished Canadian translator and poet Erin Moure was paired to read with the first US winner of the TS Eliot Prize, Mark Doty. Moure’s work, influenced by post-structuralism, challenges many poetic norms, splitting and interrupting words and language. She opened with her translations of, and responses to, the Galician poetry of Chus Pato and then read from her latest work, The Unmemntioable, which takes on political, cultural and philosophical issues, conveying layers of experience overlaid by legacies of memory, thought, and sense of place. Moure took us to the very heart of the significance of words and language in Ukraine where,
In the fields […] people were once murdered on the basis of an
accent. By asking locals the names for food,pyrohy or pirogy, they
knew which language led at home, which is to say, at the table.
To say the name of food one way =
“the historical enemies of the x <scratch> people”.
One of Moure’s characters, “E.M”, has been burying her mother’s ashes in Ukraine, allowing her to reflect on identity and embodiment and the relationship between language and life with a controlled conciseness:
Experience of “she”? A breach or symptom?
If experience requires entry into language, then we cannot experience
death, for language ceases. There is no remnant.
Legacy and place, themes of StAnza 2013, were also to the fore in the reading from Doty. His is a more accessible, lyrical poetry but, like that of Moure, is concerned with bringing precision to every aspect of what it is to be human. He opened with “House of Beauty”, a poem set in Jersey City, New York. The structure of the poem, building incrementally and with a refrain, is based on the nursery rhyme, “The House That Jack Built”, and opens,
In Jersey City, on Tonelle Avenue,
the House of Beauty is burning.
Images of the burning beauty parlour are stacked up alongside allusions to Virgil, to conclude in both defeat and triumph,
If beauty is burning, what could you save?
The house of beauty is a house of flames.
There was beauty too in a more pastoral poem, “Pescadero”, which describes something of the nature of goats with arresting accuracy while conveying the feelings of “difference” or “otherness” that we come up against in our attempts to engage with nature. In the poem, a little goat
pushes her mouth forward to my mouth,
so that I can see the smallish squared seeds of her teeth, and the bristle-whiskers,
and then she kisses me, though I know it doesn’t mean “kiss”…
One of the pleasures of hearing both Moure and Doty was the warmth, intimacy and humour they brought to their poetry and their introductions to each poem. Doty spoke movingly about how his partner, Wally, dying of AIDS in 1994, wanted to adopt a new dog, “seeking another attachment, just as he’s leaving the world”. He then read a selection of new poems about his golden retriever (the “champagne plume of his tail”) and from a sequence of fourteen poems each titled “Deep Lane”; much like Moure’s work they address “the wild unsayable”.
The contrasts in tone and approach, as much as their similarities – the centrality of place, the work’s precision, image and rhythm – made this twinning of two outstanding North American poets yet another StAnza night to remember.