Crìsdean MacIlleBhàin / Christopher Whyte translated from the Gaelic by Niall O’Gallagher & interviewed by Alessio Merli

STEP BY STEP

I

La tarde en que debía tomar el tren camino de Londres y Cambridge, dejando al fin Escocia, fui por última vez a la universidad y, deteniendome en el “quadrangle”, miré bien a todos lados (a la antipatía, lo mismo que a la simpatía, también puede en algun ocasión complacerle el demorar la mirada sobre el objecto de ella). Luego me fui. Rara vez me he ido tan a gusto de sitio alguno.
LUIS CERNUDA

Az igazi hazafi nem hagyja el hazája területét,
 az igazi hazafi otthon ül
ANTAL SZERB

Did my steps ever touch the steps you left
upon the pavements of the university?
Did my route fall upon the route you took
between the classroom and the library,
from the loneliness of the refectory
to the office where a different, calmer,
safer kind of loneliness was waiting
for us both? Did you take the images

of the few attractive men you saw
and hang them on your memory’s four walls,
pictures that stayed clear and radiant
throughout the boredom of each class you taught?
They were so different from the ones you used
to look upon when you still lived in Spain,
a country that you left unwillingly
and where your footsteps never fell again.

How careful did you have to be among
the Scots that sat before you when you taught?
Did you have to watch your steps each time
you went to work among your English colleagues?
Did the fire of suspicion burn
in their eyes from time to time, or was
the love you cultivated so exotic,
so impossible, that your desire

could be expressed without danger or shame?
Conscription meant that many lads were missing,
who otherwise would have been in your charge,
and so you had the time to think about
another war that had been lost by both
your people and yourself. As finally
that fruitless war in Spain drew to a close,
and the cause that kept your loyalty

was splitting into petty factions in
the cinema of Stalin’s Russian lies,
you were living in a shoddy room
in a hotel in Valencia;
you heard someone knocking on the door
of the next room, where your friend was staying,
and listened on as he was led away
to be interrogated mercilessly.

It should be no surprise to learn that you
looked upon that second, greater war
with thrawn indifference, and a hopelessness
you tried to hide, but which was clear enough,
despite your effforts, and condemned. You looked
back to the hidden courtyards of Seville,
that were full of coloured tiles and flowers,
where people sat throughout the summer months,

where nothing living moved under the sun,
until the evening’s cool, at last, had come.
Glasgow was different. Week by week the light
would fail in autumn, like a candle melting
until the winter’s darkness smothered it.
Then you heard the drunkard in your poem
outside pissing on the frozen stones
of the lane that ran beside your window,

about eleven, in an echo of
the heavy downpour that prevented you
from reading when you sat on other nights
with just your trusty lamp for company.
You had no love for this cruel, northern place
or for its university, the two
went hand in hand, two punishments that you
were sentenced to, in exile, for three years.

You had been banished from the place you loved
and made to live there in the company
of strangers whom you could not understand.
But your years in Glasgow weren’t in vain,
because you wrote a book of poetry
as perfect as you wrote throughout your life.
You praised beauty in clean and sober words
that left us proof of your great artistry.

II

 

…joyeux de fuir une patrie infâme
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE

mак край меня не уберëг
мой, что и самый зоркый сыщик
вдоль всей дущи, всей – поперëк!
родимого пятна не сыщет!
MARINA TSVETAEVA

I have no more love than you had for
that place, though I was born a short while from
the university, though I grew up
even closer still, though I returned
after fifteen years to teach the native
literature. When I was a boy, and then
a teenager, my steps never crossed your steps.
I avoided the university,

and had no reason to go there, since you
had quit the place long before I was born.
While I travelled between the house and
the school, or between the school, the library
and the church, I sometimes used to think
that I was treading on the border that
separated madness from sanity.
And so that city gradually became

a mental scenery, a spiritual
symbol of a thing that I could not
make sense of, a mystery that settled
inside me, but came between my eyes
and every labour that I contemplated.
Indeed, some mornings after I woke up,
I was afraid that when I put my foot
upon the bedroom carpet I would travel

in that domain of madness, that the city
would have metamorphosed completely.
I could not love the place where I was born,
although when I came back I was equipped
with every tool of reason and of knowledge
that I needed to reveal the mystery,
or to be an enchanter and cast out,
if I had to, every demon in the place.

That was impossible. But I discovered
another dilemma, a conceptual
mystery. Teaching was a battle,
not between the students and the man
or woman that stood before them or sat
among them, but between the teaching staff
themselves. Teaching was to me a way of
learning, playing with concepts and ideas,

that glanced and glimpsed and splashed around the room
until there were so many that you had
no clear idea of which one you should choose
with which to start again, and even then
you could not predict your destination,
with so many paths open in your mind.
But there were others for whom teaching was
a means of domination or possession,

of erecting boundaries and imposing
their definitions on the land, on words,
and even on an individual book.
Playfulness was foreign to that lot,
and many of the students that I taught
were attracted to their way of thinking.
And so the freedom that I had at first
gradually began to fall away,

and restrictions started to appear
on the ways that people thought, or even
on their freedom to express themselves.
Those other teachers loved their definitions,
especially of words connected to
the country and the people who lived there;
they liked to prescribe limits on the ways
that Scottish people looked upon the world,

and spilt ink laying down exactly what
they held the meaning of “Scottish” to be.
I only gradually understood
that their pedantry and their precision
always meant someone would be shut out,
and that when they’d put up their boundaries
I would end up, more often than not, on
the wrong side of the fence. This didn’t make

me angry, simply puzzled and perplexed.
I was born in that place, grew up there,
the place where I first learned of suffering,
and they could say that I did not belong?
Was it only the kind of love that dwelt
inside me, or that I used Latin when
I prayed and sang hymns to the Creator,
when I was no more than a little boy?

III

С фонарем обшaрьте
весь подлунный свет!
Той страны нa карте –
нет, в пространстве – нет.
MARINA TSVETAEVA

You left Glasgow for Cambridge before leaving
Cambridge for the New World, where at last
you found yourself a home in Mexico.
You would never see Seville again
but all around you, in a way that was
both foreign and familiar, your language
was spoken day by day. The words you found
for the country that you’d left were harsh.

You thought the language to which you were chained
and which you had to write in was a curse.
You said a poet couldn’t choose his background,
his country or his language, but must keep
the highest and most perfect loyalty
to his conscience only. He must write
not for the countrymen assigned to him
by a cruel and bitter fate, but for

whoever listened with a ready mind
and a generous understanding,
whatever language they used, whatever
country they belonged to. Should the words
that I use when I speak about my country
be gentler, my little northern homeland?
The homeland that for me was never homely,
where I never was or will be protected?

Because every family is a little
country of its own and immigrants
live in its midst as they do everywhere.
The longest living of my mother’s sisters
spent her last days in an old folks’ home.
They said that she was senile but I think
that she was very lucid when she said
the people all around her were “so Scottish”.

She was born, just as my mother was,
near Glasgow and had never lived in Ireland,
but the country where they had been born,
where they were brought up and where they lived,
was a place of exile in their eyes,
surrounded by strangers and enemies.
They did not imagine the hostility
that they felt around them when they were

just infants and young girls. How can I make
sense of the feeling that my mother had,
of her relationship to her own city,
her foreignness at the heart of her own
country? I cannot untie that knot,
the knot that is so tangled and so tight.
Glasgow was an impossibility
to me, a place that you could visit but

which you had to leave to start anew.
I didn’t understand how Glasgow could
be homely, all I ever felt there was
disconnectedness, or even exile.
I felt jealousy towards those who
felt as connected to valleys and mountains
as if they were parts of their bodies.
Envy, indecision and great longing.

IV

Segíts szabadság,
ó hadd leljem meg végre honnomat!
MIKLÓS RADNÓTI

…es ist für mich das Gedicht, zu dem ich immer stehen
werde. Es ist gerichtet an alle Menschen, weil es
das Land ihrer Hoffnung ist, das sie nicht erreichen werden.
INGEBORG BACHMANN

Не в том суть жизни, что в ней есть,
но в вере в то, что в ней должно быть.
JOSEPH BRODSKY

Freedom, can you help me, or should I turn
to another of the abstract notions
created by the human mind to people
the emptiness that it feels and fears?
Can you show me my home, the homely earth
that has always eluded me till now?
Can you be more use to me than to
that poet* they condemned because of his

Jewish blood, as their laws defined it,
and with which they oppressed him till he died?
What can I say about my own blood?
Should I say the blood flowing through my veins
is Protestant and not just Catholic?
Would that protect me, keep me on the right path?
But how can anybody say that blood
has a religion, or different dogmas,

or any task except to carry oxygen
to the different members of our bodies,
to take blushes to our cheeks and throb
against our temples? He didn’t want to be
a Jew, his customs, his religion and
his language were those of his countrymen.
How could anyone accurately
describe the blood, the seed of such a man?

What was in his mind each time he wished
to step upon the ground of his true homeland?
I don’t think that he held out any hope
for sudden change to come upon the country
that had denounced and banished him, that made
him wear a yellow star upon his arm,
a star with meaning in the eyes of some
but to which he was indifferent.

His country was a faith he carried with him
a hope he clung to everywhere he went,
the image of a woman’s body, maybe,
her thighs, her breasts, or the memory of
the last normal day they spent together,
sitting at his desk, his last cigarette
between his lips, that sweetness half-rotten,
pre-echoing those famous lines of his,

his wife waiting for him in the bed,
her body’s heat while she slept at his side,
a pencil in his fingers’ grip while he
kept playing with the lazy syllables
of that precious line that he could not
organise at all, struggling with
that line and with the sleep on his eyelids.
But there was more in home that he desired,

a freedom of meaning, escape from labels,
from oppressive fixed definitions,
the names that come like bullets that must be
avoided for as long as possible.
That place was not one that had been established,
that home, nor was it a place where you could
stop and take a rest, but closer to a
space, a journey, renewing every meaning.

Perhaps that place was just a dream that he
took with him, just a possibility
embracing the connections that exist
between things and their names, connecting
person to person. There’d be no sense
in grasping them and firing them like weapons.
Someone would open his closed fist to see
what had been lying hidden in the palm

of his hand (without knowing in advance
the purport of what had been hidden there)
and show it to his friend. That land had been
inhabited by people that were just,
hardy and, above all, tolerant.
Unless we put together verses that
are regular, and with the faith that they
will find readers, responsive and open,

some, perhaps, who haven’t yet been born,
we won’t be working or labouring
effectively without being connected
already to that nation, to that land,
although our feet will never touch its soil
as long as we’re alive. Nobody can
be banished from that country, that welcomes
every exile and every exile’s language.

Language can’t be inhabited because
language is a bridge. It can’t protect
anyone from real, physical bullets.
A bullet reached the poets heart and he
was buried in the soil of strangers.
But his words did not stay in the grave:
their fate was not to be control or exile,
but journeying and meaning once again.


Christopher Whyte interviewed by Alessio Merli
(April 2010, in the context of a reading at the Auditorium Santa Margherita, Venice, Italy)

Gaelic was not spoken in your family of origin. What made you decide to learn the language?

 One incident in particular has stuck in my mind. I grew up in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s, when the city was still heavily marked by its industrial past – buildings caked in soot and grime, thick fogs in the wintertime, and a grinding poverty which, to be honest, hasn’t changed very much today. The family would often escape on afternoon-  or day-long “runs” in the car, north to the Trossachs. You only had to drive for 40 minutes to find yourself in a wondrous landscape of lochs and mountains. One afternoon we stopped at a viewfinder. You parked the car then climbed a flight of steps and there was a wall in the shape of a flat arch, about waist height, with a metal plate set flat on the top. The plate had an outline of the mountains on it, with the name of each of the peaks. I looked at the plate and realised that I was not capable of pronouncing a single one of the names. All of them were in Gaelic. I had been born close to this place, I had one Scottish and three Irish grandparents, had been coming there more or less since I was a child, but… I couldn’t speak the language of the landscape, or rather, it couldn’t speak to me. That made me determined to break through the barrier sooner or later. But more than a barrier, it was insubstantial, like a thin curtain one could lift, or else a mist that would clear if sufficient warmth were brought to bear on it. I wrote these images down in one of my poems.

You started publishing poems in Gaelic relatively late. Why was that, and how did it come about?

I started learning Gaelic seriously when I was in Rome, in 1973 and 1974. That was also where I did my first translations into the language, of poems by the Greek writer Constantine Cavafy, at the very end of 1981. After I returned to Scotland in 1985, my Ph.D supervisor, Professor Derick Thomson, asked me to write a critical essay for the magazine Gairm about Uilleam MacDhunlèibhe (William Livingston 1808-1870), who was the subject of my thesis. I made the mistake of writing the essay in English, then translating it into Gaelic. It came back to me with so many corrections that I was left utterly downhearted and frustrated. Writing my first poems in the language – something I had always aspired to do – was a paradoxical response to that fracas. The poems, a sequence of 8, weren’t anything like so problematic from a language point of view. I sent them to Derick, who made a few changes and published them right away in the magazine. They then appeared at the start of my first collection, which won a prize when it came out in 1991.

Would it not have been more natural to write these poems in English which was, after all, the first language you spoke? Do you think that anyone writing poetry in a language they have learned can ever hope to be taken seriously?

These are difficult questions, and deserve serious consideration. I am not sure that the writing of poetry can ever be a “natural” activity. Poetry is, after all, language placed in “unnatural” circumstances, as when words are sung to music, with all the inevitable distortion and alteration that brings about. Making language rhyme, or conform to a fixed metrical pattern, is not in itself a “natural” activity. As for the distinction between “native speakers” and “learners”, one is always, in the last analysis, a learner of a language, even of the first one learnt. Native speakers also have to “learn” Gaelic, to master the very complex spelling and compare their spoken usage with what has been codified as correct and educated. They also have to extend their vocabulary beyond the specific, day-to-day domains in which they have been trained to use it as children. Douglas Dunn, a Scottish poet who was very sceptical about, for example, the poetry in Gaelic of George Campbell Hay (1915-1984), has said that it is impossible to write poetry in a language one did not dream in as a child. A remark like that seems to me to be rooted in Romantic ideologies of the early nineteenth century, about having a language in one’s blood, having it connect one to the soil. Poets who wrote in more than one language are actually quite a frequent phenomenon, especially those who were educated, and began writing, in a culturally dominant language, but then chose to continue in another which had a less developed tradition and enjoyed less prestige.

Can you name some of the poets who have been most important in your own development?

I have to say that I always made a point, where possible, of reading poets in their original language, rather than in English translations. Baudelaire was important to me while I was at university, and then Rilke, still a major influence today, also Hofmannsthal. Then Pasolini, Gil de Biedma, Cernuda… Among the Russians, Akhmatova and Brodsky, but most of all, supremely, Tsvetaeva.

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