July 5, 2011

Christopher MIddleton

Christopher Middleton (England/lives USA)

Middleton is one of most noted translations of German literature of the 20th and 21st centuries, having translated Robert Walser, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Christa Wolf, Paul Celan, Gottfried Benn, Elias Canetti, Günter Grass, Gert Hoffman, and numerous other major writers. He is also a noted poet and prose writer.

Middleton served in the Royal Air Force from 1944 to 1948, before attending Merton College in Oxford. After teaching English at the University of Zürich, be became Lecturer and afterwards, Senior Lecturer in German and King's College London (1955-1965).

The following year he was invited to be Professor of Germanic Language and Literature at the University of Texas in Austin, later becoming the David J. Bruton Centennial Professor of Modern Languages at Texas, where he continues to reside today.

His first book, Torse 3: Poems 1944-1961 was published by Harcourt in 1962, for which he shared the Geoffrey Faber award. Thus followed numerous volumes of verbally exuberant poet texts, including Twenty Tropes for Doctor Dark and The Fossil Fish. His Collected Poems was published in England in 2002.

Middleton also wrote brilliantly written prose works, most notably Pataxanadu & Other Prose (1977), Serpentine (1985), In the Mirror of the Eighth King (Green Integer, 1999), Crypto-Topographia: Stories of Secret Places (2002), and Depictions of Blaff (Green Integer, 2010)


Torse 3: Poems, 1949-1961 (New York: Harcourt, 1962); Penguin Modern Poets 4 [with David Holbrook and David Wevill] (New York: Penguin, 1963); Nonsequences: Selfpoems (New York: Norton, 1966); Our Flowers and Nice Bones (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Press, 1969); The Fossil Fish: 15 Micropoems (Providence, Rhode Island: Burning Deck, 1970); selections in John Matthias, ed. 23 Modern British Poets (Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1971); Briefcase History: 9 Poems (Providence, Rhode Island, 1972); Fractions from Another Telemachus (Frensham, England: Sceptre Press, 1974); Wild Horse (Frensham, England: Sceptre Press, 1975); The Lonely Suppers of W. V. Balloon (Boston: David R. Godine, 1975); Razzmatazz (Austin, Texas: W. Thomas Taylor, 1976); Eight Elementary Inventions (Frensham, England: Sceptre Press, 1977); Anasphere (Providence, Rhode Island: Burning Deck, 1982); Carminalenia (Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1980); Woden Dog (Providence, Rhode Island: Burning Deck, 1982); 111 Poems (Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1983); Two Horse Wagon Going By (Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1986); Selected Writings (Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1989); The Balcony Tree (Manchester, England: Carcanet Press/Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1992); Some Dogs (London: Enitharmon Press, 1993); Intimate Chronicles (Manchester, England: Carcanet Press/Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1996); Twenty Tropes for Doctor Dark (London: Enitharmon, 2000); The Word Pavilion and Selected Poems (Riverdale-on-Hudson: Sheep Meadow Press, 2001); Collected Poems (Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 2008)

The Thousand Things

Dry vine leaves burn in an angle of the wall.
Dry vine leaves and a sheet of paper, overhung
by the green vine.
From an open grate in an angle of the wall
dry vine leaves and dead flies send smoke up
into the green vine where grape clusters go
ignored by lizards. Dry vine leaves
and a few dead flies on fire
and a Spanish toffee spat
into an angle of the wall
make a smell that calls to mind
the thousand things. Dead flies go,
paper curls and flares,
Spanish toffee sizzles and the smell
has soon gone over the wall.

A naked child jumps over the threshold,
waving a green spry of leaves of vine.

China Shop Vigil

Useful these bowls may be;
what fatness makes the hollows glow,
their shadows bossed and plump.

Precisely these a wheel whirling backward
flattens them. Knuckles whiten on copper:
headless men are hammering drums

Cup and teapot may be such comforters:
small jaws mincing chatter
over the bad blood between us once.

When baking began, the air in jugs frothed
for milk, or lupins. Now mob is crushed
by mob, what fatness but in wild places,

where some half dozen dusty mindful men
drinking from gourd or canvas huddle,
and can speak at last of the good rain.

Disturbing the Tarantula

The door a maze
of shadow, peach leaves
veining its wood colour,

and cobwebs broken
breathing ah ah
as it is pushed open—

two hands
at a ladder shook
free the tarantula, it slid

black and fizzing to a rung
above eye-level,
knees jack knives,

a high-jumper's, bat mouth
slit grinning
into the fur belly—

helpful: peaches
out there, they keep growing
rounder and rounder

on branches wheeled low
by their weight over
roasted grass blades; sun

and moon, also, evolve
round this mountain
terrace, wrinkling now

with deadly green
emotion: All things
are here, monstrous convulsed

rose (don't anyone
dare come), sounding through
our caves, I hear them.

The Laundress

Bothering us for a long time,
This laundry woman: Beneath
A blue segment of sky she is
All brown and profiled against
A cliff so laboriously hewn
That it resembles a rampart.
Like a baby mask her face,
Black crescent moons for eyebrows
And greys to streak her bodice,
But yellow or brown the rampart
Towers behind the woman, as if
Its gravity propelled her—darkly
Her combed hair clings to the head
She launches forward, stooping.
Awkward skirts impede her,
Surely now she has to be hurrying
Somewhere. A little daughter
Runs at her left side, one foot
Lifting off the shadowy ground,
Hurled stooping forward she
Mimics her mother, and the labour
Extracted from the mother, that
She will inherit too. Still,
Goya’s glimpse of them has put
Happy family bonding into question:
Are they running to the fountain
Or to the river at all? Are they
Running away from something
Hidden? Their velocity
Must have to do with bread. Yet
Won’t they have had to scoot,
In those times, across the picture,
Basket on the mother’s haunch
Bumping up and down on it, because
Shirts coiled in the wickerwork
(Where bristles dashed, dripping
White, the profile of a billygoat)
Had been stiff with blood, or wet?
The next up for execution
Needed snowy linen, so the French
Bullets could be met with decent
Spanish gestures, death be dignified,
You now conjecture, whereupon
Some villagers in bleached
Apparel sign to us how best not
To die, if only, in Bordeaux,
Goya, to assuage despair, stands
Candle-crowned for half the night,
Imagining, him, in grief and detail,
Horrors he had likely never seen.

Judge Bean

Of him or her who placed it there, and why
No one knew anything. —Thomas Hardy

Judge Roy Bean of Long Ago
Beheld once in a magazine
The face of Lily Langtry,
And in the twilight often
Judge Bean upon his porch
Rocked in a rocking chair,
Upon his porch he’d rock
And dream and dream of her.

A distant blue, how it pulls
The flesh to Long Ago
And far away, although
Judge Bean had hopes:
Lily Langtry just might come,
Passing through, and sing to him.

Not far from where the judge
Had sat and rocked and hoped
There was a tree festooned
With bottles that were blue.
Over the tips of many twigs
Somebody had been slotting
Milk of Magnesia (Phillips),
His empties, by the dozen.

Well-water there is hard;
Deep canyons through the rock
The Rio Grande, a trickle now,
Had had long since to carve.
There too the mountains host
Various flocks of birds,
Yet not a one would choose
To nest in such a tree.

The tree, so dead its twigs
That pronged the bottles, have
They in the meantime broke?
A striking sight against the sky,
An image not to be forgot,
So many bottles of blue glass
And sips of milk drunk up,
It still explodes to mark
Dimensions in the mind,
A horizon in the heart.

Long before the twigs had pronged
Blue bottles for my sight,
Like Tao it had for sure
No name at all, that place
Where Judge Bean rocked;
But Lily Langtry’s face
Nothing airy in his mind,
Not despairing of his dream,
One stormy day he took his pen
And wrote:

Now Langtry is its name

felo de se

When he had pulled upright his jingle-jangle cart,
he said he hoped he would not be disturbing me.
He unpacked his kit from the cart and lost no time
but baited his lines with worms from a box of dirt
and made a long cast for the lead to plop in mid-river.

When he says he in Tex-Mex but spoke as a child
no Spanish, he explains that he took himself soon
to school, learning the way they speak it in Spain.

When he was little his father died, says he.
So he helped in the house, cleaning and sweeping,
cooking the beans, washing dishes for mother.

When he had a family of his own, two boys
and a girl, he told them, one by one, as they grew,
there’ll be no lazy nobodies in my house,
told them when it was time to grow up
and that it won’t be easy but here’s your support,
grow up to be somebody with an education:

Now there’s my boy in the marines (this war, it makes
no sense) but then his line is aviation, the mechanics,
in law-school the girl, the other boy in medicine,
and all three speak Spanish as well as they do English.

When he’s et to make a cast with this third rod,
he says his father-in-law’s funeral cost ten thousand,
but his own uncle’s was cheaper for he was cremated.

And when he has cast with a fourth rod far out
into mid-river, he says that he’ll be tonight
in Marble Falls where the catfish bite better,
that because of the funeral he has a week off.

But when he went to Mexico he didn’t like it,
didn’t like the Mexicans, a crooked lying crowd,
says he, they look down on us, call me a gringo.

Me, I’m a carpenter, he says, I can build you
a pretty house, restore, where wood has gone to rot,
repair, adapt, install any kind of cabinet:

anything to do with wood, I can do it with finish,
fishing is just a pastime when you’re needing it,
and it has clouded over now, the fish like that.

Yes, he says, any kind of wood, I can handle it,
and we were standing under a water-cypress,
a very tall tree that has gone brown by March,
the tangle of its roots ran in long looped
cylinders out under water, while he talked.

wearing a cobalt gimme cap with NY in a monogram,
an olive-green tabard (pockets in place of emblems),
drainpipe trousers and spongy-soled suede boots,

yet all I had asked was if he knew perhaps
a meaning of felo de se, supposing it Spanish.
Not theft, he said, thieving is robar, robo;
what you said, might that be in a book?

Poetry copyright © by Christopher Middleton

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