The Sinking of the Titanic, Hans Magus Enzensberger, (Palladin Poetry, £4.99 stg.)
Blue Shoes, Matthew Sweeney, (Secker and Warburg Poetry, £5 stg.)
In the title of his recently republished collection of essays, Dreamers of the Absolute, Hans Magus Enzensberger, the German poet and polemicist. has described the terrible yearning that has led to such events as the sinking of The Titanic. For talk of the great Unsinkable was an ominous Utopian prelude in 1911 to the greater devastation, three years later, of the First World War.
Originally published by Carcanet Press in 1981 and translated from the German by the author himself, Enzensberger's The Sinking of the Titanic is a marvellous poem. I found reading it again an exciting and challenging experience, touched by family stories of those who built the ship, of the men who died doing so; and all those strange myths about omens' read backwards in num bers and loyalist slogans red-lettered in the indestructible hulk of the ship. There were echoes too of the shock of recognition on first reading Derek Mahon's Lives (1972), with the infamous ship and yard emblazoned on the book's cover.
In some way, the Titanic, berthed in Belfast, casts a hauntingly chill light of parable upon that time and the town. Pride based upon workmanship ill-served by the greed which forced corners of safety to be cut (the notorious lack of adequate lifeboat provisions) and also the ordinary human freight in steerage, scuttled by panic and indecision, to monstrous death in the freezing waters.
The Titanic, pertaining to the colossal and gigantic, sought to enfeeble the sea, but ended-up being torn apart by the shifting packs of icebergs, like ghostly symbols of nothingness:
It is none of our business, it will drift on in silence, it needs nothing,
it has no offspring, it melts away.
it leaves nothing behind.
It disappears to perfection. Yes, that's the word for it: perfection.
It is this ideal that Enzensberger is also writing about, with the ship bearing the force of humanity - class-divided of course sailing blissfully towards its destruction.
From his port in Havanna in 1966, when the poem started, to Berlin in 1977 when it was completed, Enzensberger describes a version of his poem, 'which never turned up again', like all the others, lost:
Debris, broken sentences,
empty fruit crates, heavy Manilla bags, buff-coloured, soaked, soiled by the brine. I fetch verses from the waves,
from the dark warm waves
of the Caribbean,
teeming with sharks,
with dismembered verses, with life-belts and swirling souvenirs.,
For The Sinking of the Titanic deals with the survivors as well, and in various parts of the poem we have a sense of a broken world but one nonetheless which is preserved by human witness.
The great Unsinkable sank but there were still those who lived to tell the tale; so too, if the great Ideals are tarnished, or destroyed, by fanaticism or sheer inhuman acts, there will always be those around who have lived through the oppi~ssion. The Sinking of the Titanic sees art (often in the figure of a painter or painting) as the bridgehead between past and present; the actual and the ideal; the dream and the reality of grand absolutes:
With my back to the future I studied
statistics and floor-plans, and they all confirmed what I knew: we are in the same boat, all of us. but he who is poor is the first to drown.
It is revealing to place alongside this essential poem of Enzensberger, with its portrait of 'Bruce Ismay Esq. K.B.E., F.R.G.S., / ship-owner of S.S. Titanic, / President, White Star Line / of America, Inc., coward, / eyes like glass marbles, / pomade-greased hair', Derek Mahon's version, 'Bruce Ismay's
Soliloquy' (originally titled, 'As God Is My Judge' from NightCrossing, 1968). For in that fine poem, Mahon has the survivor Ismay plea to 'include me in your lamentations'. Frail individuality seeks its own understanding, no matter what we may try to do by way of short-circuiting it with language.
In his new collection of poems - and there have been three previous volumes - Matthew Sweeney loves to show how timorous language can be when it comes to dealing with life. Blue Shoes conveys the inarticulate and often inaccessible enigmas of living at the other end of a century that started off, after all, with the likes of The Titanic and looks hell-bent on following apace, if The Belgrano is anything to go by.
BIlle Shoes ekes out another kind of life, determined by the colour-supplemented suburbia of Thatcher's world to be, Mahonesque, history-less:
I just want to be here to write some books.
Blue Shoes reads as one poem almost because the subdued voice of the narrator wants it that way, as a kind of rebuke:
I am floating by the wrecked U-boat naked as a dolphin the August sun.
Sweeney's BIlle Shoes is about an artist in the floating world, trying hard to retain some sense and order to the flotsam of citylife passing him by, while every so often the hint of a darker reality surfaces, as in 'The Alibi'. Both books show what poetry can still do in the face of often insurmountable odds. I recommend them both on that count alone.