Anna Crowe

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Strangely Happy

Joan Margarit

Strangely Happy

Strangely Happy, a second selection of translations by Anna Crowe from the work of the Catalan poet Joan Margarit, was published by Bloodaxe in 2011.


He has got up early and is sitting
in the living-room. It is still dark.
He remembers when Lluís Claret played
here for the three of them, for him and the two others,
who listened from this sofa
where now he waits for dawn to begin.
Like a siren sounding in a port,
the 'cello was saying goodbye to the girl
with the second Suite by Bach.

Your mother and I are growing old,
but that is something you'll never have to see,
the man says, while he gazes out at the courtyard.
A bird is already singing when he has put on
that piece, played by Lluís,
and once more he has felt against his chest
the gentle weight of Joana's head.
Now, when it is already beginning to grow light,
in her generosity she has returned
in the Suite for 'cello – the second –
which is, since she died, the way she comes home.

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House of Mercy *

The father, shot.
Or, as the judge says, executed.
The mother, poverty and hunger,
the petition someone types out for her:
Saludo al Vencedor, Segundo Año Triunfal,
Solicito a Vuencencia
(**) to have my children
put in the Casa de la Misericòrdia.

The coldness of her request is in a petition.
The orphanages and hospices were harsh,
but bad weather was harsher.
True charity is frightening.
It is like poetry: a good poem,
however beautiful, has to be cruel.
There is nothing else. Poetry is now
the final orphanage, the last house of mercy.

(*) This is the literal translation of the Catalan and means an orphanage

(**) In Castilian in the Catalan original: Hail to the Conqueror, Second Year of Triumph, I beseech your worship...: Fascistic and rhetorical post-war language. Franco prohibited all use of the Catalan language.

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Walking into a story

Over the wood in silence falls the snow,
a thick blanket which does not warm
the wretched multitude of oaks.
Well wrapped-up, I cross it on foot:
where the path was it has stayed covered
and the only tracks left are my steps.
I come upon a fallen nest, a very large nest
as though it were the cradle of a dead child.
Now, to go back the way I came, I need
my own footprints, but the snow
is falling and keeps silently wiping them out.
A gust of wind sets up a disturbance
and the nest is dragged along, bowling
through dumb, cold weather, with no paths.

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Children's voioces

The future in my eyes is a sad grey,
a film of tired light in which to remember
their bedtimes. The story-books
with hard covers and bright colours,
I still read them in that room,
in the light from the bedside lamp.
There are early mornings when, suddenly,
I hear a child calling me and I sit up,
but there is no one, only an old man
who has heard the murmur of memory,
a light rustle of air in the dark
as though a bullet passed through the house.
Turning out the light meant keeping a treasure safe.

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Railway sadness

The moon in the windows on one side
of the restaurant car. Desperate,
running like a fanatic along the rails
of the brutal wounds of the past,
the night train gleams like a horse
at full gallop covered in sweat.
I hear its hooves crossing the iron bridges
as it cuts across your death.
Wherever I go, there is always your death:
it is now a black mirror which the locomotive
carries before it and confronts it with its hell.
No one now weeps for you, there remains
not a single handkerchief waving on any platform.
I am this night train that is searching, wherever
it might be, for the wheelchair in the night.

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Shostakovitch, "Leningrad" Symphony

Do you remember? Joana had died.
You and I were going north by car,
to the flat that faces the sea,
and we listened to this symphony.
We began the journey
on a luminous morning. In the music
the day was made of walls covered in ice,
shadows of passers-by with half-empty sacks
and sledges with corpses on the lake.
Like a runway in the sun,
the motorway ran onwards and, behind the sounds,
there stretched the fog from the howitzers
and tank-tracks in the snow.
It was a blue-gold July morning
sparkling on the crystal sea.
In the brass and strings was the echo
of glory, which is always in the past,
rejecting, always rejecting, life.
At night all that was left was the murmur
of the waves below the terrace.
In us, though, just as in the music,
there raged the storm of snow and iron
that is unleashed when a page of history turns.

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Let me look into your eyes and sink
into the hot and dark imagining
of seeing you naked in anotherís arms.
These are not the whims of the old. Nor deviance.
It is the hard, ruddy-black stone
of the peach I ate in my hunger,
which still I scour with my tongue
preserving the sweetness of your love.

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Your life goes onward within me,
and I sing you all the love-songs
I can still remember: torn boleros
that reason has already turned into tombs,
romantic lieder like putrescence
that can shine in the dark,
desire curdling in the cancerous throat
of the French chanson. I sing
in the wind of lost arias
the cradle-songs that are holes
in childhoodís wretched counterpane.
I sing to you but no one knows it.
They donít know why I am an old man singing.

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Lost city

Homage to Thomas Hardy

It was early morning, dark and cold,
when I left the bar where the lights
were already being switched off, in an area
of wretched streets. The city
was like the corpse of my life,
and the trafficís pulse was no longer beating.
The houses were stiff in the darkness.

A light went on and a window opened,
and suddenly there emerged the lucent warmth
of a trumpet solo.
A song with a strength and joy
that contrasted with the silent streets.
Someone in one of those flats
was lobbing his life towards some place.

Often I think
that only a grief I knew nothing of
could make the melody surge up.
Or that it was my own anguish that made me hear,
in order to survive that night,
something sublime in a few lacklustre notes.

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We all will be at the port with the Unknown
JV Foix (On the death of Ferrater)

The liturgical harmonium of the street,
Germanyís poorest organ,
took ship with those emigrating,
who brought it to the brothels of Buenos Aires.
Like a priest who has apostatized,
it trailed about there among stories
of loneliness and melancholy.
I have always loved tangos. I heard them
when I was a child, on Sunday afternoons,
with my father and mother dancing
up and down the hallway of our house.
They are the voice of an epic that is lost,
with the bandoneon trailing
words that speak of guilty love.
Those who danced them in the hallway
now are only inside a tango.
Strangely happy, an old man sings it
trying out a dance-step as he comes closer
with a smile to the Unknown.

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Portrait in blue

Hermitage Museum

His daughter died aged ten,
and now grief does not let his brush
stop while he remembers.
But neither will he paint the future.
What he has painted is helplessness,
the young woman who will never exist.
You have to find words as innocent
and terrible as the blues of Rubens.

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Distant memory

Bent over the plough,
he pressed down hard to push
the ploughshare deep into the ground.
When the mule stopped
to piss, instead of hitting it
to make it go on, he said to me:
you have to let the mule piss
because when it pisses, it has a rest.
Life meant setting
the blade and opening the furrows.
Setting his compassionate
gaze on a mule
at the end of the war.
May someone remember in this wayó
profound and compassionateó
one of my poems.

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While listening to the wind I turn on the radio.
I listen to a young woman complaining
about a power-cut: she says it left her
without domestic-appliances, like centuries ago.
Like centuries ago.
Itís little enough I know of the place I come from,
itís very little I know about the seaís brutality
where fishermen in their hunger hoisted the tuna
with hooks out of a sea splashed with blood
so that a tiny, tough young girl
could study to be a teacher and be my mother.

I listen to the wind against the dry earth.
What awaits us. Flies. Like centuries ago.

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Another oracle

Facing the white wind-turbines with their metallic sheen,
the sun is setting in the clear winter air.
I think of the time when there were none.
Slowly I come to understand that those were the days
of broader horizons. Now they rise up
from their site, brutal things, these 'windmills'
orientated towards a difficult time.
I get close to one of them and feel its indifference.
I stroke its huge icy foot,
I hear the future in the powerful language
of a scythe slicing the air with its great blades.
They whirl furiously, face to the setting sun,
like someone who might tell the truth.

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While I listen, the rain is falling.
I think of the solitary dog, trotting
behind Mozartís hearse: I can follow it
in the pianoís tempo and, at the same time,
in the paths the water makes on the glass.
Strangely happy, I follow a dog
made of rain and of music.

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Early morning story

It is raining on the empty square.
There is a single taxi at the taxi-rank.
The driverís wait is a long one.
He has turned off the engine and it is very cold.
A door opens, a rain-soaked passenger,
tired, bad-tempered: he gives an address.
When they go through a red light, he shouts at him.
Turning round, the driver murmurs:
It is a week since my son died.
Silenced, the passenger sinks back in his seat.
Later on that night, when a group of passengers
board, making a racket, he tells them:
It is a week since my son died.
Weíve all got to die, they reply,
amid clumsy jokes and guffaws.
Comes the time to sign off, back at the garage,
he goes across to the radio-hut:
It is a week since my son died.
Her eyes red with fatigue, Yes,
the woman replies, while she attends to the voices
emanating with other sounds from the transmitter.

This is, in fact, one of Chekhov's stories.
There it is a coach with a horse, and it is snowing.
I know the taxi-driver will not be able to sleep.
Is death inside the fist raised by life?
Or else, is death the fist in which we are grasped?
In Chekhov's story, the coachman
will still have the horse in whom heíll confide
that his son has died. All at once I feel it
inside me, and that fear is turning to ice,
and I light a fire to warm us all,
the taxi-driver, the coachman, me and my dead,
you who are reading me
and Chekhov, and all together we see how life
falls, like snow, in solitude.
A night-train, washed with pink,
at dawn crosses the olive-groves.
Here – weary, full of sleep and, at the same time,
strangely happy – I end this poem.

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It was my father who introduced me
to painting. He did it through magazines,
well-printed ones, from that lost place
we called – and still call – the Republic(*).
I drew and painted for some years
with the futile rage of the convert.
It was as though I lived inside the paintings
of the lonely Museum of Modern Art
where there was never anyone. It resembled
a French provincial city.
And suddenly, there was the first Hokusai.
Slanting lines completely erasing a bridge
and men and women with umbrellas.
Now that I am old I would like to live
inside one of these Hokusai landscapes.
May they protect me as I cross my bridge,
those swift, tense, slanting lines.
The delicate grilles of the rain.

(*) The Spanish Republic destroyed by Franco

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The Navy (1950)

When the vessels of the Sixth Fleet
began to make Barcelona a stop over,
the Ramblaís colour of defeat
began to shine a little. The sailors
in their white uniforms brought jazz
to the gloomy streets of the Barri Xino(*).
I remember how at night in the Cafè de l'Òpera
a venerable-looking elderly man
would give English lessons to a few whores.
There were long queues on the jetty
where the launches left to go out to the aircraft-carrier,
the huge, grey, iron Iliad
anchored in the offing facing the port.
It was a good fleet. It had destroyed
Japanís armada and Germanyís too.
I can still feel it inside me.
I didnít realise then that each one of us
spends our life fabricating the myths
that are to defend us from our terrors.
After sixty years,
on this peaceful evening in New York,
I have been remembering that aircraft-carrier
that still for me has all its lights lit
though facing a darker port.
And I go back to being that child
who read those childrenís comics about the Second World War,
where the Americans were the good guys,
and I stared at the girls in their thin dresses
who went laughing, arm-in-arm with the sailors in white.
The myth carries on to reach The Village Vanguard,
where a black sax is playing. Black and old,
as old as the one in the Cafè de l'Òpera.
As old as the sailors are now
and the girls, if they arenít already dead.
The myth carries on into the hotel room,
where I am doing accounts with my epoch
which is over, leaving me on my own.

(*)Chinese quarter. But not because there were Chinese residents. It was a poor, densely-populated quarter in Barcelona, famous for prostitution, night life, etc.

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Anna Crowe
May 2014
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