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Monday, 5 September 2011

Alex Wylie on James Womack's 'Little Red Poem'

Little Red Poem by James Womack

If they ask for me tell them I have gone away
to lead my people and be led by them;
to take the thorny path that leads to the light
to struggle, suffer and finally prevail.

Tell them the only home a man can hope for
if he wish to prove his life worthwhile
is the struggle to create a home for all mankind,
not the lone sad fight from one day to the next.

Tell them that if they want me they shall find
my thoughts in others' books, in others' words,
that I am nothing but an honest vessel,
a witness to the truth and not the truth itself.

But do not tell them I am in the attic
behind the false partition, biting my arm in fear,
my gun by my side; that, although reluctant,
I could, at a pinch, employ it for the cause.
                                                    freely adapted from the Slovenian
from New Poetries V © James Womack

The difference between a translation and a version is that a translation feels guilty about the liberties it takes. If every translation is a compromise, every version is a liberty. James Womack's 'Little Red Poem' is a version, 'freely adapted from the Slovenian', which retains a sense of linguistic guilt about its liberties, a guilt felt residually in its international-English-diction, its un-localness – which is compromised by the leaked information of the poem’s ending, its 'loose lips'. The poem as it is reads quite tonelessly: but this, I would say, counts vitally towards its effect, and as such the poem is a superb bit of opportunism. Womack makes a virtue of the poem's placeless translationese, which registers the speaker's attempt to translate his fear, as we realize at the end of the poem, into a grand official heroism.

The poet Roy Campbell wrote that 'translations (like wives) are seldom faithful if they are in the least attractive.' Though this is a version, its (for want of a better word) 'unattractive' diction is exactly in accord with its ironic performance. 'Little Red Poem' creates a seam between propaganda and confession, official and unofficial speech; its payoff is the sudden change of focus from television broadcast to raggedly whispered confession – or, perhaps, from pulpit to priest hole. But the shock of its effect lies in the similarity of tone between the speaker's two versions of himself. We don't get a change of scene: the speaker was in the attic all the time, and at its ending the speaker's preceding testimony is revoked. What we took to be the studied rhetoric of a great leader becomes a man talking himself up to himself, at bay, and the most public posture shrinks into the most private, doubled-up in fear. And the poem is 'doubled-up' in another sense: this is a monologue which is actually locked in dialogue with itself. Just as the notion of the 'version' troubles the notion of an original, so the speaker here, in a fit of wishful thinking, wishes to create versions of himself, so that the 'real' him, hidden in the attic, is a politically inflected version of the picture of Dorian Gray, the reality behind the public, heroic face.

But is this 'political poetry'? If it is political, it performs rather than preaches, and its cause is its effect. Lulled by the studied earnestness of the first three stanzas, one is caught out by the poem's turn, made to feel guilty, even, about one’s assumptions. 'Little Red Poem' is to political poetry as the Northumbrian modernist poet Basil Bunting was to Ezra Pound: that is, it sees the human emotion beneath political contingency, as Bunting saw through Pound's shrill denunciations of European 'USURA' to the universal human reality of greed. 'Little Red Poem' is 'red', but it is also 'little': it is as much about its emotional situation as it is about political realities.

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