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Robert Crawford, from Still Life with Loops


It was a visual image in Eli Tolaretxipi's poetry which first caught my attention when I heard her read the translations of Philip Jenkins a few years ago:

Green insect
on a green apple
(p. 33)

concluding the love poem which appears in the present book as 'I, VIII', this is an image at once of merging and of separateness, of deceptive camouflage and sensuous richness. It is also witty — can the insect be seen or not? Tolaretxipi's poems often contain compelling minute physical details that have the power to lodge in the reader's attention, to make contact with the reader's dream- mind 'with the serenity of an enigma / or the obstinacy of a bat' as she puts it in another poem included here. Beauties, gleams, and serrations of the physical world are lyrically insistent in her work, but the poetry is as much about the hidden as it is about the immediately apparent. Hers is writing that returns again and again to erotic relationships, union and separation, the merging and the separateness of identity.

Though some of the poems in this book may be set in San Sebastian or somewhere very like that thronging seaboard city where Basque and Spanish meet, Tolaretxipi's work is subtle and strong in its customary avoidance of specific map references. We hear occasionally of cities identified by a letter of the alphabet, but readily identifiable placenames are oddly lacking. This encourages a more concentrated attention to small sensuous details, which is one of the rewards of Eli Tolaretxipi's poetry. The images are so clearly noticed and digested that for the reader as well as the writer they seem intimately close, and can be unsettling:

I brush the dust from my clothes.
Only a love which is decomposing would smell like this.
(p. 29)


I shake the sawdust from my shoes.
The room smells of onion
(p. 35)

Particles of the material world cling to these poems, however hard the speaker may sometimes wish to shake them off. Smells, sights, touches, fragments are all garnered and shed in work that is also about the weight of daily routines and the mobility, excitement, pain of desire. The desire is all the more insistent for being in no way externally politicized or commodified.

These are poems which gradually constellate into bright patterns of loss, longing, and intimate experience. They 'apply ointment to the wound', as one poem puts it, and sometimes we feel the salve, sometimes the sting. It took me several readings of these grouped, looped poems before I felt I was beginning to get the measure of them. At their best they do not seem measured, plotted, but they are nonetheless full of small, precise calibrations vital to their making. Once or twice they made me think of the erotic narratives and linkages found in a sonnet sequence. If there is a postmodern knowingness here, it is also perhaps inflected by the heritage of surrealism and by the disciplines of everyday life. Repeatedly, it was clear, loaded, simple images that made an impact as I read:

I wring out the sponge.
I rub my eyes a lot with soap.
(p. 35 )

But such details alone are not what makes these poems. Their grace lies in the way telling details are combined with stuff that in English can seem riskily abstract, but which contributes to a sensuous, flotational quality here in writing that is both attached to recognizable daily circumstances, yet also aware of pulls beyond the mundane.

I place the white paste draining away
in the corners of my mouth
the clandestine litter of desire
installed on the highest shelves:
delay of bodies
rigorous calls
(p. 45)

In different proportions and differently developed, I have sensed analogous 'rigorous calls' in the work of the French poet Michel Deguy, not least in his love poems, but in Tolaretxipi's work a flotational sensation in the writing is particularly appealing and effective because focused on and enacted through miniature moments, items, and the movement of often short verse lines. So, in a zone of 'no anchors' and where arms are 'soft from swimming', the poems move us through — not merely across — emotional depths. We can feel 'the tide's rhythm which / the lung quickens'.

With their brief lines and frequent line-breaks, the poems' form contributes to this flotational quality, a quality of constant, sometimes edgy yet unanchored movement, a flux that is resolved into a pattern, an attunement to greater rhythms:

The wind must be this:
a carrier of drawn up rain
(p. 111)

We sense the world afresh as a place that is aquatic as well as inhabited. We sense life as if at times it is underwater and so seems at once impossible and intensified. While they maintain a clear syntax, the lines of the poems are honed, so that, as the poem 'Me' puts it, writing grows

with the hair and nails
the plants
vinelike fingers of the geraniums
which have to be cut back each autumn
(p. 97)

What is to be honoured and valued in these poems is something that seems at times bound up with the culture they come from — a culture of warm sunlight on fruit where a green insect looks lyrically at home. This culture contrasts strongly with the one I am part of, looking out across the crisp frost and bare twigs of an early-morning, wintry Scottish garden. Yet often in the poetry (especially, perhaps, poetry in translation) what matters most is finding the necessary, unexpected gift that becomes all the more treasured because it complements and adds to what is known and loved in one's own culture. Read with care in Philip Jenkins's translations, Eli Tolaretxipi can convey to English-speaking readers in Britain and elsewhere a gift of just this kind. Here emotion, lyricism, and realised attentiveness convince us at times that Tolaretxipi does one of the things that modern lyric poetry does best: 'She continues to speak while dreaming'.

© Robert Crawford