To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, July 11, 2014

Geoffrey Squires: Five poems from “Irish Poetry 600-1200” (a work in progress)

[Following his remarkable translations of the great Persian poet Hafez, Squires has embarked on an assemblage of translations from Old Irish, “the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe.”  Its relation to what John Bloomberg-Rissman & I have been assembling as outside & subterranean poetry should also be noted. (J.R.)] 
Over the sea comes Adzehead
off his head
with a hole in his cloak for his head
and a stick with a bent head

he stands in front of a table in front of his house
intoning impieties
and his followers all respond
amen       amen

Ticfa tálcenn … A hostile poem about the arrival of St. Patrick. The Adzehead is a rude reference to the shape of his tonsure. Anon, 6th c. or earlier. 

How many Thirties in this noble island
how many half-Thirties allied to them 
how many townlands side by side                                                                                 
how many yoke of oxen in each townland

how many townlands and Thirty-hundreds
in Ireland rich in goods and chattels
I tell you straight
I defy anyone else to work it out

and do not presume to challenge me
I who am known as Fintan the wise                     
the most learned man that ever was
in Scotland or Ireland

ten townlands in each Thirty-hundred
and twenty more       to be precise
and although they might seem small to us
together comprising a great country

a townland sustains three hundred cattle
with twelve ploughed fields       to be exact
four full herds can roam there without
one cow rubbing up against the next

eighteen Thirties       this is my tally
for the rich and fertile county of Meath
and one score and ten Thirties
belonging to the fair-haired men of Connaught

and fifteen thirties and another twenty
I can tell you as a matter of fact 
without fear of contradiction
in the mighty province of Ulster

eleven Thirties and another twenty
in crowded affluent Leinster
from the mouth of Inver Dublin
up as far as the Boru road

ten thirties and another three score
living together in perfect harmony
in the two illustrious provinces
of the far reaches of Munster

of the Thirty-hundreds I have reckoned
nine score altogether             
and not a townland or half a townland
short in any of them

five thousand five hundred and twenty townlands
by dividing and adding them up
believe me
this is how I have arrived
at the number of townlands in Ireland

Ca lín tríchaIreland was originally divided into areas that could raise thirty hundred fighting men. Over time, these became simply administrative. The term ‘townland’ is still used for a small community. Fintan is a mythical poet. Anon, undated.

My cat and I are of one mind
he hunts mice but I too
hunt in my own way

indifferent to celebrity
I like nothing better
than to be seated quietly
at my books
diligently pursuing the truth
he is not put out because
he has his own small pursuits

when the two of us
are alone together in the house
each of us deploying our skills
we have great sport       endless amusement

he fixes his beady eye
on the far wall
my eyes are not so good now
but even so I focus
on the finer points of the arguments

every so often
a mouse falls into his net
as a result of his martial arts
as for me from time to time
some answer drops into mine

he is overjoyed when
with one swift movement
he traps a mouse in his claws
I am pleased when I grasp some problem
that has long preoccupied me

though we are like this all the time
neither of us gets in the other’s way
each of us loves what he is doing
my little white cat and I

he is a past master
of the work that occupies him daily
I too have my work to do
elucidating difficulty

Messe ocus Pangur Bán … This much-translated poem, known by the cat’s name White Pangur, was written in the margins of a manuscript in an Austrian monastery probably by a missionary monk. The original is in rhyming seven-syllable lines. Anon, 9th c.

I invoke the seven daughters of the sea
who spin youth’s threads of longevity

may three deaths be spared me
may three lives be granted me
may seven waves of good fortune wash over me

may spirits not harm me as I make my rounds
in my flashing breastplate
may my fame not come to nothing
may I enjoy long life       let death
not come to me till I am old

I call upon my silver champion
who has not died and will not die
may my life be as strong as white bronze
as precious as gold
may my status be enhanced
my strength increased

may my grave lie unprepared
may death not come to me
while I am travelling
may I return home safely

the senseless serpent shall not take hold of me
nor the pitiless grey worm       the mindless black beetle
no robber shall assail me        nor coven of women
nor band of armed men

may my lifespan be prolonged
by the King of the universe

I invoke the Ancient One of the seven ages
whom fairy women suckled on their flowing breasts
may my seven candles be not extinguished
I am a strong fort
an immovable rock
a precious stone
a weekly benediction

may I live a hundred times a hundred years
one after another
enjoying all the blessings of life
may the grace of the Holy Spirit be upon me

Domini est salus (thrice)
Christi est salus (thrice)
super populum tuum Domine benedictio tua

Admuiniur secht … Attributed to the abbot of Comraire who died in 762.  The poem mixes pagan and Christian references, typifying the mingling of the two cultures.

A bank of trees overlooking me
       how could I fail to mention this
a blackbird composing an ode for me

above my book       the lined one
here       in the glade
the chatter of birds       birdsong

a clear-voiced cuckoo in a grey mantle
sings to me
making a fine speech
from the top of a bush-fort

truly the Lord is good to me
I write well in the wood 

Dom-farcai fidbaide fál … Another marginalia poem found in a Latin grammar in Switzerland. The Irish is quite mannered rather than spontaneous, and has given rise to discussions about the role of ‘nature’ in such verse. Anon, early 9th c.

[note. “The poems translated here were, with one or two possible exceptions, written between the 7th and 12th centuries AD, making them the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. Latin, which arrived with Christianity in the 5th century and brought a script, was the only other language in play, although there are occasional loanwords from Norse and other tongues. … This work gives us a window onto a world that is in some respects very different but in others seems strangely close. There are poems about war and warriors, the geography and topography of the country, the religious life, nature and the seasons, the Viking threat, about love, exile and death. They comprise a mixture of pagan and Christian in a period when the two cultures intermingled, with the latter gradually displacing the former. … Here … the over-riding aim has been to make of these originals an equivalent poetry in English, and without attempting to reproduce the very different Irish prosodies, to capture something of their form, dynamics and style. The translations are typically close without being literal, and draw on the painstaking scholarly work that has been done in the field over the last century and more. But they are offered as literature: as texts that, despite the great chasm of time, and without in any way diminishing their otherness, still somehow speak to us.” (G.S.)]

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