Saturday, March 14, 2015

Quite Frankly: Peter Hughes (Reality Street, £12.50)

This is the full, complete edition of Peter Hughes' versions of Petrarch's Sonnets to Laura. There are 317 sonnets here; all of which  in the original language are dedicated to the woman of Petrarch's dreams, who he never managed to have a relationship with and who seems to have died young too.

317 sonnets that on the surface seem to be about the same thing brings up a couple of problems. Firstly, it's one heck of an obsession to sustain over a lifetime. Secondly, it's also a problem that there is bound to be a lot of repetition and reiteration; so how do you keep the reader interested?

Well, Peter Hughes keeps up a great level of wit and humour and cultural reference that at times is dizzyingly fast and frequently made me smile and even laugh out loud at times. But then, in the midst of this, he'll hit us with something metaphysical or political or emotive. And, having zero knowledge of medieval Italian, I have no idea how this captures 'the spirit' of Petrarch; and, as these are 'versions' not translations, I don't think it matters much. Hughes has used the originals as a launching pad for his own thoughts; each sonnet starts with Petrarch, but takes off into the 21st century world of rock lyrics, astrophysics (284) and living in Britain.

Here's what I mean:

I've never even had a happy meal
& heaven knows I'm miserable now
these days any interlude of sunlight
transforms my inner organs into slush

prompting health & safety speculations
of a largely metaphysical kind
while inside my intestines the infant
Hercules continues to strangle snakes

astrophysics helps me to come to terms with
her translation to the worm-infested
dancing-floors of heaven through which stars stare

blinking as the dancers slowly circle
& you know how you can't hear the music
actually I don't get astrophysics

(284, L'ultimo, lasso, de'miei giorno allegri)

There you find the embedded quote from pop music (the Smiths, line two), the contemporary imagery and fast cutting of the contemporary avant garde sonnet, with at least one foot in the Rennaisance past. I can't say too much about that but it seems to me to be at least in dialogue with the ideas of that age; references to astrophysics seem modern but the ideas referenced behind the 'dancing-floors of heaven' are pre-modern. Hughes doesn't believe them, but Petrarch obviously did; and however far from the original these poems are, Petrarch is still there talking back to his modern equivalent.

On the whole, this is a collection of sparkling, inventive and often startlingly feeling poems. It does have its longuers, and read all at once, it can get quite wearing. 317 sparklingly inventive sonnets is a lot of sonnets, however good they are. In many ways, it's a remarkably consistent achievement; but that very consistency means that I had at times to go away from the book and do something more mundane for awhile. Of course, I had to come back; partly because I wanted to review the book, but also because it is a great achievement and it is a very entertaining ride through the minds of both Petrarch and Peter Hughes.

The fact that the whole book is itself divided into sections means, however, that you don't have to read it all at once; you can read a section at a time (some were published as individual pamphlets: usually 21-24 poems each) then come back and read another. The reviewer has to read the whole thing through but the reader can read in any order they choose.

This is a book to wallow in, though, however you choose to read it. In bringing all these poems together, Reality Street and Peter Hughes have given us a great book.

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