Countries of the Mind

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Following my recent article on WOL about the idea of omphalos, I spoke with award-winning poet Yvonne Reddick (pictured) and asked for her thoughts on this. Her poetry pamphlet, Translating Mountains, is published by Seren and won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Prize:

The landscapes of my poetry are mapped in paths and detours. I’ve always felt drawn to the idea of an omphalos: a site of inspiration, like Heaney’s Mossbawn or Hughes’s Mytholmroyd. However, some of the poets I’m reading at the moment – Tishani Doshi, Pascale Petit, Ocean Vuong, Hannah Sullivan – have a far more complex and fractured relationship to place. Critic Stan Smith has even called forced or voluntary migration the ‘characteristic’ condition of twentieth-century poets. I’ve never been forced to flee my home due to war or persecution, and I’m aware that I’m lucky in that way. However, my family tree has intricate roots, linking me to Switzerland, Germany, France and Scotland.

I left Scotland shortly after I started school, but many of the poems in my pamphlet Translating Mountains are fixed there as stubbornly as heather to a mountainside. (I was born in Glasgow, but moved away when I was so young that the city has left no traces on my accent. Next stop for our family was Scotland’s east coast.) But when my father died doing what he most loved – hiking the Highlands – it seemed natural to set a long sequence of elegies for him there. The rolling downlands of the Home Counties, where I spent eleven years, did not give my writing the same kind of grounding.

My grandmother was Swiss, and my pamphlet Translating Mountains contains a series of poems that follow one of my French-speaking ancestors’ journeys through the Alps. After I’d written these poems, I was struck by how few French-speaking Swiss poets are known in the UK. Their French counterparts fare better: authors such as Yves Bonnefoy and Eugène Guillevic are available in plenty of translated editions. Major Swiss poets, such as Philippe Jaccottet (an award-winner in France, Switzerland and Germany), have not travelled so widely in English translation. When I set out to read poetry from my grandmother’s culture, I discovered Denise Mützenberg, Marie-José Papier, Ferenc Rákóczy, Jack Perrot – and my personal favourite, Maurice Chappaz. A poet, novelist, diarist, traveller and firebrand environmentalist, Chappaz’s omphalos was the Valais region in southern Switzerland. He witnessed the landscape that he loved becoming disfigured by tourism and profiteering, its forests felled and its mountainsides bulldozed. His response was Prostituting the White Summits, a collection of incendiary poetry and prose. ‘Mafia in excelsis!’ is one of the best expressions of sheer disgust that I’ve heard in any language. I’ve translated a small selection of poetry about the Alps by Chappaz, and hope to translate more. These poems are grounded in a sacred place – the poet’s omphalos – but I hope that they gain new dimensions by travelling through a different language.

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