Monday, 9 March 2015

Vera Janacopoulos, a cantilena

Presenting to you, my dear, English-reading ‘audience’, an intriguing poem I learned by heart in my teens. It’s a specimen of poésie pure and titled ‘Vera Janacopoulos’ (a Brazilian singer of Greek descent), subtitled ‘cantilene’, which in Italian means ‘a song’. The poet was Jan Engelman (1900-1972), a rather controversial Dutch poet, as he wrote erotic poetry in puritanical times - the Thirties and Fourties - and didn’t seem to fit into any contemporary literary movement.

Not every poem invites to be sung, but this one, being ‘pure poetry’, sounds like a song by sheer merit of its words even in our harsh, Dutch tongue.

At first, the poem itself.
Ambrosia, wat vloeit mij aan?
Uw schedelveld is koeler maan
En alle appels blozen.

De klankgazelle die ik vond,
Hoe zoete, zoele kindermond
Van zeeschuim en van rozen.

O Muze in het morgenlicht,
O minnares en slank gedicht,
Er is een god verscholen.

Violen vlagen op het mos,
Elysium, de vlinders los
En duizendjarig dolen.
Now, that doesn’t make much sense, does it? Even if you skip the meaning of words and try to play it by ear you’re put on the wrong leg, as our vowels and diphthongs make a mockery of English spelling rules, or vice versa. Our vowels sound like they do in Italian, be it shorter and less melodious. Our language isn’t called ‘Low German’ for nothing, after all.
But I’ll help you on. One of our singers, Lenny Kuhr, of Eurovision Song Contest fame, be it from 1969, set this poem to music and I found a YouTube clip of her performing.

Did you like it? At least, you’ve got an impression of how the words should be properly pronounced. Personally, though, I feel at odds with the melody, her musical interpretation of the poem, but let’s be generous.

But what does it all mean? Is meaning of importance, if the true test of the poem lies in its ability to please the ear, to be a concatenation of sounds, like music, that agrees with our sensual predilections?
In that case, you who don’t know Dutch be the true arbiter.
No meanings to distract you from an experience of pure sound.

According to literary critics, though, the meaning of its words does add to the experience of the poem as a whole, as words generate associations, vistas, ideas, feelings that can’t be evoked by sounds alone. The sounds and their meaning are the two different sides of the same coin.
So, I seem to owe you a translation, or let’s call it a transcription, because any poem not epic is impossible to truly translate.

Here goes...
Ambrosia, what’s flowing onto me?
Your cranial field is cooler moon
And all apples are blushing.

The tone gazelle that I found
How sweet the balmy child’s mouth
Of sea foam and of roses.

O Muse in the morning light,
O beloved mistress and svelte poem,
There is a god in hiding.

Violets flaring upon the moss
Elysium, release the butterflies
And a thousand years of roaming.
I tried to warn you in advance: in translation, without the magic of alliteration, rhyme and melody, it’s gibberish. It’s pure impressionist, allegedly jotted down by Jan Engelman in five minutes at a bar table after he'd heard Vera Janacopoulos sing at the Opera House. He must have been rather smitten by her voice or, apart from poetic license, he wouldn’t have imagined her as the slender nymph Ambrosia who rose up from the sea at full moon to meet him and send him forth on an ecstatic, millennial quest in a cloud of butterflies.
In Dutch, however, it makes perfect sense, if mainly by the mystery of its music.

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