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Some time ago, in the spirit of good fun, I asked the denizens of Harriet what was on their desks and – perhaps understandably – reaped few responses. What does it matter, the cluttered context in which a writer gets her writing done? Who wants to confess to the favourite Troll doll that stands watch over a keyboard? Nevertheless, I was happy to read the note that trailed a Geoffrey Brock translation, in the April issue of the print magazine:
“Many writers populate their desks with pictures and quotes, as if to make their work seem less solitary by giving them the feeling of being watched or addressed. When I was growing up, my father had a scrawled Machado quatrain (in Bly’s translation) taped up over his writing desk:
Mankind owns four things
that are no good at sea:
rudder, anchor, oars
and the fear of going down.
Though I didn’t fully grasp its meaning, I sensed that it contained a prodigious truth, and I understood that my father had it there as a kind of reminder, even a goad.”
Brock goes on to mention other writers and the various quotes and photos with which they fortify themselves. “Writers love such talismans,” he writes. “Some are words, some images.” The poem he translates, a sonnet by Franco Fortini, ponders a photo of Chinese workers, tacked to the sonnet’s speaker’s wall. The photo’s a kind of conscience.
I have no such photo, but Brock’s translation and its accompanying note got me thinking about the mantras I recall from time to time – the mantras which I can only recall since the curling Post-Its that surround me, a flaking wallpaper of the stuff, preserve no mantras, though they ought to (as it stands, future archaeologists are poised to learn much about my recent appointments and my inability to retain a phone number). But Eliot’s famous quote about what he learned from Laforgue and co. – “the business of the poet was to make poetry out of the unexplored resources of the unpoetical” – has clung, as has a more recent quote, by an American novelist and poet, known more in Canada, name of Richard Teleky: “poems have needs / that differ from poets’….”
I’m sure I’ve more, but quick, look around: which mantras or talismans are currently confronting you with the sheer fact of themselves – perhaps the way those Chinese workers in the photo are confronting Fortini’s speaker?
They look wary or ironic or tense.
They know I do not write for them. I know
they didn’t live for me. Yet sometimes I feel
I’m being asked for more candid words,
more credible deeds, by their doubtfulness.
Actually, those lines by Fortini, by way of Brock, wouldn’t make a half bad mantra for tacking to some wall….