Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
Yesterday evening we went up to the Southbank in London, to the Royal Festival Hall's Purcell Room, mainly to see a poet whom I've only just begun to read and admire: the Californian Robert Hass. He and five other poets from around the world were reading there to celebrate the launch of Poetry International Magazine. I already had a copy of his "Apple Trees at Olema" and I was looking forward tremendously to hearing the poet reading from it. His reading didn't disappoint me at all, except in its brevity - only one long poem. He said he was nervous of following the Egyptian rap artist who preceded him in the running order, but the density of Hass's imagery and the warmth and humanity of his work had totally the opposite effect for me. It seemed to me that the rap artist's songs had taken up a disproportionate amount of the evening.
When the evening finished, I felt I had to go up to Robert Hass (we were both in the front row) to tell him how much I loved this book "Apple Trees" and that he certainly had no competition as far as I was concerned! To my surprise and delight he took from his bag a copy of his translations of the haiku of Basho, Buson and Issa, "The Essential Haiku" and asked me if he could give it to me! Of course I accepted and had him sign it. What a nice gesture, what a charming man, what a wonderful poet!
I very much enjoyed Carolyn Forché's reading of "The Lightkeeper": a gentle but emphatic reading. She is also the author of the foreword to "Remnants of Another Age" by Nikola Madzirov, the eminent Macedonian poet whose reading was first on the programme.
Madzirov's poems about displacement and the provisional nature of life, Anne Forché suggests, are rooted in his background as the son of refugees from the Balkan Wars of the last century. His beautiful voice in the original Macedonian language, with some stanzas inserted from the English translations, is something not to be forgotten. We bought his book and found the poems on the page full of remarkable images, derived from twenty-first century images as often as from Balkan life and countryside. His meditations on the ephemeral are gentle and strong, secular and spiritual at once.
So we came away with 40% of our feelings positively engaged by this Poetry Society sponsored event, where Robert Hass, Carolyn Forché and Nikola Madzirov were fully worth seeing. If only a more well-prepared and experienced person could have been assigned to lead us through the evening, it would have been fully a 50% success - or even more.