Archive for December, 2011

In the bleak mid-winter

When I think of Christmas as a child, I think of Carols by Candlelight. Each year, our family would walk to the church in our village in the dark – beside the frozen reservoir, then up the hill. When we got there they would be lighting candles at the end of every pew.  And then the lights went off, and there was nothing but their flickering and the pastel glow of the Christmas tree.  One year my sister had a bug, so I just went with my dad.  I remember holding his hand and it starting to snow as we walked there. His favourite carol was always ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.

He died at Christmas eight years ago.  Just a couple of days afterwards, on Christmas Eve, the village carol singers came round. They knew we were grieving and didn’t want to disturb us, but sang ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ in our yard, in memory of my father.  I was sat in the dark by the window, listening, tears sluicing down my face. I will never forget the kindness of their song, and its beauty, despite everything.

So here is the poem that carol is based on, in memory of my dad.  Wishing you all a happy Christmas with those you love.

In the bleak mid-winter 

In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter a stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim worship night and day,
A breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air,
But only His mother in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man, I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart

By Christina Rossetti

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So, as I mentioned in the previous post, my next book will be a new translation of Ovid’s Heroides, which Bloodaxe will publish in 2013.  The title translates as Heroines, and it’s a series of poems in the voices of women from Greek and Roman myth, including Phaedra, Medea, Penelope and Ariadne, addressed to the men they love.   It’s a really radical text – in its literary transvestism; the way it often presents the same story from very different, subjective perspectives; the fact there’s a claim for it being both the first book of dramatic monologues and the first of epistolary fiction. For a long time it was Ovid’s most influential work, loved by Chaucer, Dante, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Donne, and translated by Dryden and Pope. Yet somehow, readers these days read the love poems and Metamorphoses and pass it by.  Why?  Perhaps a  combination of sexist criticism in the last century, which side-lined it as a minor work because of all its ‘carping women’, and a series of scholarly but rather dry translations which fail to make the heroines’ voices come to life.  

Anyway, I’ve been working on a new translation in free verse, and absolutely falling in love with the sequence.  It’s alternately sexy, witty, sinister, horrifying, campily bitchy, guts-out heartbreaking and pretty much everything else you love about Ovid.  I’m very much hoping I can contribute in a small way to people rediscovering it…

While we’re on the subject of strong female voices, I’d also like to point out that four of the translations I’ve made of the Somalian poet Caasha Luul Mohamad Yusuf are now up on the Poetry Translation Centre website. A pamphlet will be launched in March and we’ll soon be announcing a mini-tour around International Womens’ Day.

And whilst researching Somalian poetry, I’ve come across the new poet Warsan Shire.  Her poems in the Salt Book of Younger Poets go into very brave territory, and it’s been a while since I’ve been so knocked out by a blog: some very raw, powerful posts touching on how it feels to be a young muslim woman right now.  Writing of the drought she evokes the Somalian phrase: ‘dhiiga kuma dhaqaqo?’ – ‘does your blood not move?’ Recommended.

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