Translated from the French by Alan Dixon
Spectacular Diseases, 2010 £7.50
available from Paul Green, 83b London Road, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire PE2 9BS
Reviewed by Anna Crowe, Trevor McCandless and Helena Nelson
Although I have not been able to find any of these particular poems in the original, Alan Dixon's translations read fluently, capturing the strangeness of the Max Jacob world—a world long gone, yet sometimes terrifyingly familiar. Dixon has kindly provided us with a short biography of the poet and painter—a friend of Picasso and Apollinaire, both of whom admired his poetry and artwork. The book is elegant, its grass-green endpapers matching the original woodcut self-portrait on the cover. A print inside the back cover, by Alan Dixon, of a crab, echoes a poem called 'Author's Confession: A Crabby Portrait'. The poem is self-deprecating, critical even, but hinting at the vulnerability of both poet and creature, both needing a shield.
The son of Jewish shopkeepers in Quimper, Finistère, Jacob converted to Catholicism after he had a vision of Christ appearing in one of his paintings (this would not prevent him being interned in the concentration-camp at Drancy by the Nazis, where he died of pneumonia in 1944). His poems are painterly, catching the telling detail and tone of voice to sketch ordinary, often poor people. Using natural speech rhythms and a sometimes childlike voice, even nursery-rhyme, Jacob evokes a drunken Breton sailor, a jobbing tailor, a cuckold, a serving-maid, a weary wife, a dead philatelist, even a 'Paralysed Repairer of Old Vehicles'. In 'The Sinner and Another', the poem could be expressing Jacob's own conflicting feelings, torn between a longing for the monastic life (he did embrace this as a lay-brother for several years), and the need to be in Paris, painting among friends.
Jacob's sly, bizarre vignettes, that sometimes remind me of Chagall's paintings, can suggest how little we know of other lives. 'Access to a Prospect' has a cinematographic feel, opening with a long-shot: “View in the mountains of a white house with turrets”, then zooming in to the illuminated window, behind which “is love in abundance, with wings”, while behind “another room/ Room without light, there is a death”. And the last line simply retreats, into “Prospect of a white house with turrets.”
And what an eye Jacob has! In 'Malvina', the dead Malvina “continues to tighten/ Her grip on her fan.” It appears she is
........ . . dying of love on the rug
.......By the door and the stoneware jug
.......Which takes the walking sticks . . .
but, characteristically, all is not as it seems. . . .
These are extraordinary poems and deserve a wide readership.
I had never heard of Max Jacob. He was Jew who converted to Catholicism following a vision of Jesus. If this was his epiphany I am not sure what you would call his second holy vision. It involved him arguing with the Virgin Mary over whether he was ugly or not. It seems she presented the case for the negative (I would have told her to stick to religion). He was a room-mate of Picasso’s and a model for Modigliani. He died in a German concentration camp of pneumonia in 1944. The pamphlet begins with the translator’s introduction, mostly a biography of Jacob and at times hard to follow. For instance, comparisons are drawn between Jacob and Rouault, but it is never made clear whether they met.
In terms of introduction, I would have preferred to read the challenges Dixon faced in translating these poems. One of the questions I have in reading poetry in translation is just how like the originals they are. It makes sense to be told about compromises made and the reasoning behind them.
At times the poems felt like Spike Milligan or Edmund Lear, although without their wit. This may also be a translation issue, where one can translate the poem or the humour, but not both.
‘The Damp’ particularly reminded me of Milligan. Of the eleven lines, all but one end with the word ‘gamp’. And like some of Milligan’s poetry, I think it would have improved with more care. Many of the lines don’t scan and funny poems, it seems to me, need to be as smooth as silk:
.......I must go out and buy a gamp
.......I who never use a gamp
.......I’ve a mac with a hood to keep out the damp
.......Mr Yousouf you are lucky to do without a gamp.
Other poems are darker, but even here surrealism undercuts the emotion. My favourite was probably ‘Nocturne’:
.......Watery whistles of toads
.......sound of boats rowing through the night…
.......sound of a snake in the reeds,
.......of a laugh hands suffocate,
.......sound of water, a heavy body falling
.......sound of the cautious steps of a crowd,
.......under the trees the sound of sobbing,
.......a far-off sound of travelling clowns.
To translate someone's poetry takes a great deal of affection and that affection is made abundantly clear in this collection. It is made all the more apparent by the translator adding two of his own excellent wood-cuts—the cover illustration of Jacob and another of a crab at the back of the pamphlet.
This is a large, thin publication, much taller and wider than the usual pamphlet. The front cover sports a dramatic green wood-cut portrait of Max Jacob, done by Alan Dixon. There are bright green endpapers and a green tissue page before the first poem. In my copy, there is a little woodcut of a crab attached to the final endpaper and a hand-written copy of a poem by Alan Dixon below the dedication (which is to Alan Tarling, note-worthy originator of Poet & Printer). It is a quirky, memorable piece of writing and it captures much of the spirit of Jacob’s poems. Here it is in full:
.......I began as a soft-shelled lad,
.......With pincers in a spin.
.......(Max Jacob had been one.)
.......Where angels flutter round
.......Why shouldn’t a fool crawl in
.......Sideways, where space is found?
It’s clear from the start, then, that Jacob has been a profound personal influence on his translator. Jacob was an artist-poet, like Dixon himself, a person at home with the surreal, the odd, the strange, the sideways approach. “Consistency,” says Dixon in the biographical introduction, “was not part of his nature.” The poems use “simple, natural diction, unliterary, vivacious, apparently negligent, even thoughtless, childish, childlike.”
Indeed, a number of the poems (not all!) could easily appear in a children’s publication: they are deliciously, rumbustiously rich to the ear and also lend themselves to visual illustration. ‘Thirty-six Ports’, for example, opens:
.......Thirty-six ports! what slaps and slops
.......Thirty-six ports with thirty-six porters
...........A score of sloops.
And the same poem ends, hauntingly:
.......Thirty-six snorts on thirty-six horns
...........Blown out of umbrage
.......And all misfortunes of dark passage
.......Shut in my heart’s dark cabin, steerage.
This is not just any poet. This is master of the bizarre, the off-kilter. No assumptions can be made at any point about where the poem has come from, or where it is going. It is a merry-go-round, and you either jump on and enjoy the ride, or sit to one side scratching your head. The first poem, for example, ‘Acidulous Music’ flings syllables out like spray from a bus thundering through a puddle. I have no idea what it’s about—the city of Amsterdam perhaps—and I don’t care: I’m just singing along:
.......Rage, mage, disengage
.......You who squeeze choose ripe cheese
.......Poppa’s not on top.
.......The ipecac of the Satrap of Stepnyak.
.......I wish for this piss
.......Here! this is his bit of spit.
I love those final three lines, that sequence of monosyllables, practically impossible to enunciate without spitting. It is outrageous, and great fun—a single-pamphlet antidote to the idea that poetry is boring.