JAMES SUTHERLAND-SMITH was born in Scotland, but lives in Slovakia. He has published seven collections of his own poetry the most recent being “The River and the Black Cat” published by Shearsman Books in 2018. He also translates poetry from Slovak and Serbian for which he has received the Slovak Hviezdoslav Prize and the Serbian Zlatko Krasni Prize.
His translations include selections from the work of Slovak poets Ján Buzassy, Mila Haugová, Pavol Janík, Ivan Laučík and Milan Rúfus and Serbian poets Ivana Milankov and Miodrag Pavlović. Selections of his translations of Mária Ferenčuhová’s Slovak poetry and Rajko Dzaković’s Serbian poetry were also published in 2018 and a second selection of translations of the poetry of Mila Haugová is about to be published in Britain by Arc Publications as well as a selection of the poetry of Ján Gavura in Slovakia.
Outside cold drags us down to minus ten degrees.
I’ve yet to shake the snow from our conifers
beyond which the streets run parallel to one another
their vanishing point under steep hills once patched
with orchards never lit by the orange street lamps.
No-one walks out, though on the radio a dance
from heat quickens on a guitar to abandon,
sounding where snow falls rarely on the glossy leaves
of orange trees growing in long parallels
and even then it turns to vapour upon the grass.
The guitarist’s fingers could be at minus ten degrees,
their touch exact and gentle as the falling snow
on strings not quite parallel to one another
where the notes walk out like folk acquainted
with one another shading their eyes against the light.
Our world today is melting.
The red arcs of the creeper
bend and shake with beaded light
to the point where a twig ends
its own non-Euclidean form,
so water drops on to mulch
which stirs under the impact.
Now your hair is much thicker.
You’ve washed, dried and twisted it
into a braid whose gold sparks
with light when you comb it out
and my gaze is held there by
I saw a snake swimming in the stream.
It moved in time with the minute changes
of the ripples over silt and pebbles.
So at first I thought it was a reed
or a long wild iris leaf folded double.
But then it seemed to tilt of its own accord
against the cool current and I made out its head
as it broke the surface then paused,
a mottled yellow like a linden bud,
on a stepping stone’s rough, warmer edge.
It withdrew once more into the water
so nonchalantly at ease in the cold
until the liquid and mineral mutter
accelerated and the snake rolled
sideways to slip between tree roots in the bank.
I left the cabin that night with you to look
first at the stars and meteors burning up
in the atmosphere of our dying planet,
then watched the stream with its scintillants of light,
the tail-end of a galaxy shaped like a snake.
There was rustling near us. It was not the creep
of a mouse. It was too continuous, too slight
like a breath avoiding words which wait on the tip
and back of our tongues so that language fails
and stays unformed in the dark heat of our throats.
The signs were there for all to see.
Red ants raised little dirt volcanoes
from cracks in the gazebo’s masonry.
Fruit dropped from creaking trees on cue
each windfall more circular than the last
and colouring to a blush’s hue.
Our manuscripts were carelessly left out.
Their ink ran like witch’s blood and scorched the grass
so nothing healthy would ever sprout.
The laurel was transformed by ill will.
Wind could not stir leaves which yet moved
when the air was absolutely still
as though they were lips round dark mouths
babbling above mould and loam where neither
bird hopped nor lizard scuttled. Truths
beyond our hearing’s pitch were uttered.
We slowed the noise down octaves, reversed it.
All we heard was meaningless mutter.
HAVING THE BOYS OVER
Who will tumble from the sky
and be arrested in my garden
disentangling themselves from a parachute?
Who will thrust up through the soil
and brush crumbs from their heads and shoulders
staring goggle-eyed waist deep in our cabbage patch?
And who will flit like a bat
intent on catching moths and midges
claiming they are between heaven and the earth?
None of my friends, I suspect,
though of those who are outrageous
some still love their wives, some still believe in God.
We look up at shooting stars.
The ground beneath our feet is unmoved.
Something dark in the air shies by very fast.
FIVE POEMS FROM “The River and the Black Cat”
The trees have devised an alphabet of colour.
The river nurses a favourite vowel
over hieroglyphs of shadow and small stones.
Yellow and green is the business of the day
although the black cat denies this
leaping from branch to branch in the apricot
as if blackness and points glittering
from the sunlight in her fur had nothing to do
with our language where syntax rattles its bones.
We regard and whisper nonsense
over the clauses of each other’s bodies
to confirm we are landscapes within
or landscapes without, trees without leaves
or blossom, flowering heads without
petals or colour, scent the breeze has brought
from somewhere we can never locate.
All at once more considered,
more leisurely, more constructed,
over time less inspired,
less impetuous, less improvised,
the garden comes alive at appointed places,
brown, violet, pink velvet buds,
nature imitating the unnatural,
staked, pruned, espaliered,
a language on its best behaviour,
voices practising a nuance,
hands splaying their fingers to make a point,
smiles not residing in the eyes,
laughter deliberately musical,
a heart breaking with perfect manners
unlike the river unruly with melting ice
while slightly elsewhere between little
avenues of rose twigs the black cat trots
with the first song of spring in her jaws.
A headless thrush brought in for breakfast,
the black cat more than usually companionable,
unseen, unheard the river conveys greetings
from the Holy Roman Empire to the court of France
despite the raucous manners of jay and magpie,
the calloused hands of the executioner grasping an axe,
a would-be lover having to comprehend that No means No
while the garden begins to flourish before its due time,
the apricot breaking out into white and pink
and you and I embrace naked heedless of the open window.
THE LOST WORLD
Our journey to the centre of the earth
begins without the clean-living white hunter,
without the absent-minded professor,
his devoted person-of-colour servant,
his critical daughter, virginal
obsessive cleaner of test tubes.
You require somebody who always leaves
the toilet seat down. I require somebody
who always laughs sincerely at my jokes.
The language synchronizes with the earth
and opens its golden fissures into which
we dive speaking unintelligible tongues.
Crust, mantle, magma are exposed as myths.
The river is a surface expression
of underground idioms and jargon.
The black cat frisks over continents
of extinct animal sounds to join us.
The Golden Age is once more upon us,
sunshine alternating with bouts of rain,
the black cat sheltering in the shed,
the river surly with reminiscences of the hills.
You and I, too, are fire and water,
our faces perfect shining miniatures
in drops of water, our kisses vapourising
with a tang like wine spilt on a hot stove.