A Timber Oratorio, Max Elskamp (translated by Andrew McCulloch)
The Melos Press, 2020 £5.00
The word ‘simplicity’ repeats in my head pleasurably when I read these poems. The pleasure comes from entering a late nineteenth-century world that’s seemingly less complex than our own: I smell the timber-built city, its rivers and boats: ‘wherry’, ‘skiff’, and life ordered by the seasons; ‘unearthly coloured fruit is seen / beckoning’.
There’s sadness, too, though it’s never overpowering. In ‘My eyes begin to weary’ it’s muffled by the alliterative music of language and the natural imagery:
whether in wind, whether in rain,
with or without reasons,
to everything there is a time,
the heart, too, has seasons.
Similarly, in ‘Winter grips the earth again’:
my heart that walked in Spring,
is happy now on its native soil
in love with everything
Max Elskamp was important in the Belgian symbolist movement. These translations are drawn from his last collection, Illuminations, published in the 1890s. Andrew McCulloch uses traditional form and end-rhyme. This feels appropriate for some of the simple, fresh visions of the poet. In ‘It is a country in the sky’, for example, tightly controlled form brings out the movement and sounds of birds:
It is a country in the sky
where birds wheel
blackbirds, magpies, starlings,
waxwings and lapwings,
all wheel and cry
This works just as well in poems with an explicit religious theme — Elskamp was a Roman Catholic. In ‘Mary, let down your golden hair’, rhyming couplets lend the lines an aphoristic quality:
Then sing, all you who work the earth
and praise the land that gave you birth.
This same sense comes through the enjambed closing lines:
your Saviour stretches wide his arms
to hold the waves, the fields and farms
and paint the sky with watered milk
in a land of velvet and of silk.
I enjoyed the paradox of reading poems that feel both contemporary and true to the nineteenth-century spirit. It’s also interesting to learn from the notes section that Elskamp has been ‘sadly neglected in Belgian’ and is ‘almost completely unknown’ in the UK. High time for this translation!