Andrew McCulloch, Gradual, (Melos Press) £5.00
The centre piece, literally, of Andrew McCulloch’s new pamphlet, Gradual, is a translation of six ‘Holy Sonnets’ attributed to the French playwright, Jean Racine. In a lengthy note at the back of the pamphlet, McCulloch acknowledges the disputed attribution of the poems. The poems also have a somewhat obscure provenance, having been discovered ‘in the Imperial Library of Saint Petersburg’ by one, Abbe Joseph Bonnet. Liturgically, the ‘Gradual’ itself, is the name sometimes given to the psalm with responses which is chanted, or these days often spoken, between the two readings from the Bible read during the Eucharist. Thus McCulloch’s title announces itself as a response. And there is considerable deftness in that title. McCulloch’s translations clearly ‘respond’ to the original French; and the ‘Racines’ are not the only translation here. McCulloch also translates a sonnet by the twentieth century French poet, Guillevic.
McCulloch comments that ‘Each of the 128 sonnets in the collection is a paraphrase of a verse from one of the Psalms.’ That might imply that the poems are quite intimately connected to those Bronze Age originals. Well, up to a point perhaps. We might see this in the sonnet whose opening two lines, McCulloch translates as ‘You know the places where I try to hide – / The corners where I cower from your sight – ‘ We might speculate that this sonnet could be related to Psalm 139, sometimes known as The Hound of Heaven, whose opening line in the Book of Common Prayer is rendered as, ‘O Lord, thou has searched me out, and known me : thou knowest my down-sitting and mine up-rising; though understandest my thoughts long before.’, and later, in this version from the Benedictine Handbook, ‘O where can I go from your spirit, / or where can I flee from your face.’ McCulloch, in his commentary on his own translations of the ‘Holy Sonnets’, notes that, ‘a translator familiar with the language of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer may find the job half done already.’ Such a modest disclaimer is slightly disingenuous. McCulloch’s idiom is both contemporary and responsive to the directly religious address that the sonnets point towards.
Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’ are ‘violent and perverse’ according to Yvor Winters. But McCulloch’s renderings of ‘Racine’s’ Holy Sonnets are the antithesis to that. Where Donne’s sonnets rage, often in a kind of sado-masochism, and not just in ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God’; the sonnets presented here are logical, often quite calm and collected and also pious. If the narrator has doubts, they are not the kind which requires the violent interventions of Donne’s God. The doubts in these pieces are doubts where God is truly God the Father; they are doubts about worthiness and obedience. ‘You know the places where I try to hide’ ends with, ‘Let me not go where I have fixed my eyes / But turn me round and let me face the skies.’ The monosyllables of that last line have a quiet cadence which is not only a quiet acquiescence to the will of God, but are also a testament to McCulloch’s quiet, fastidious elegance. Thus these Holy Sonnets might almost be placed in the Welsh tradition of praise poems.
The other sense of response about this collection is contained in McCulloch’s ‘own’ poems, which are imbued with a range of empathies. This can be an obvious empathy for a baby; as in the pamphlet’s final poem ‘For Helena’, with its concern for the child finding its own way in the world, and which ends, ‘those eyes clenched tight, / like tiny fists, / against the light / from which you came.’ Or it can be an empathy for the inanimate, as in the lovely ‘Fly Past’. This is another unrhymed sonnet in which the observer responds to a plane as it descends to a standstill after flying over ‘the car we drive in to her funeral,’ This plane growls ‘with the real sound of death’ and offers a kind of complicating vision of the death that the funeral cortege is marking, ‘The rows of rivets, the serious smell of fuel, / the bounce and turn of tyres as it lands / touch us for a second with the truth,’ That close observation pervades this short, but compelling collection and shows McCulloch to be a poet of wide and adroit empathies, and considerable, understated power.