Heaven by Manuel Vilas (Translated from Spanish by James Womack); The Next Loves by Stéphane Bouquet (Translated from French by Lindsay Turner); Zonal by Don Paterson - review by Paul Bailey

Paul Bailey

Innocence & Experience



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The Next Loves


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The exuberant Manuel Vilas writes about ‘the nightmare of being alive, the happy nightmare of a much-loved life’, as he puts it in ‘Rosaries, Flick-Knives’, a funny and disturbing poem that tells of a visit he made to Lourdes in July 1998. While there, he buys a ‘cheap and jazzy rosary’ and a flick knife costing two hundred francs. He stays in the Hotel Bernadette and looks out at the town, where everything ‘smells of incense’, of ‘conservative romanticism’,

of sacristies with their golden shadows,
of sin and ecstasy,
of plus-size girdles designed specifically for nuns

of omelettes and boiled cod,
of beds which when their sheets are turned back smell of death

Vilas is an accomplished, freewheeling storyteller, forever leading his readers into unexpected byways. The man who occupies centre stage in his poetry is a hedonistic, unmarried Roman Catholic who consumes oceanic quantities of gin and lusts after women of every class and colour. His appetite for refined depravity often leaves him both hungover and broke, yet whatever his condition or state of mind, he usually manages to say his Pater Noster and Hail Mary before he goes to sleep. He’s very conscious that death is our common lot and that one’s waking hours must be filled with as much enjoyment as possible.

James Womack’s translations of these beguiling narrative poems, selected from two of Vilas’s collections published in 2000 and 2008, are so vivid, natural-seeming and alert to every nuance and shade of feeling that they scarcely register as translations at all. Vilas, who has written twelve other collections, is also a prize-winning novelist and essayist. This is a consistently entertaining and surprising book, not least when Vilas confronts darkness, as in ‘The Unknown Man’, a poem about a mournful drunk who walks into the sea, and ‘Cocaine’, which takes inspiration from Paul Celan’s most famous poem, ‘Death Fugue’.

The French poet Stéphane Bouquet has translated the poems of James Schuyler and Peter Gizzi, and, like them, is openly gay. At his best, he resembles a Parisian Frank O’Hara, constantly inquisitive and happy to be out and about in the streets or on the Métro. He looks at people, especially small children, with a fond and curious eye. He is very much of the moment, talking of using apps like Grindr. He is cheerfully promiscuous, as eager to give a blowjob as Vilas is to down a gin and tonic, though sometimes his mood changes to disappointment and defeat. He’s very good at conveying the transience of a certain kind of relationship, the sense of heightened pleasure that comes with the knowledge that an affair, however heartfelt or romantic, will soon be over. This is especially so in ‘East Side Story’, which rather brilliantly tells its sad tale backwards, beginning on the last day two lovers spend together and ending with their first meeting. It’s set in Taiwan, where surveillance cameras record any acts of civic disobedience:

4 days before the end, we’re walking towards
Daan Park at an hour sunk deep into the night,

there’s an ice-cream place still open and he wants a scoop
of mango. In fact
it’s closed, rats and stray dogs running through the park,
I’m not supposed
to kiss him because of the surveillance cameras, you’re in Taipei
you know and besides
he says (I’m translating), don’t be too good to me

The Next Loves has been sensitively translated into English by Lindsay Turner. It’s a book that’s mostly joyful, which is a welcome surprise, given that its subject matter is usually an excuse for self-pity and abject despair of a theatrical kind.

Don Paterson’s new collection, Zonal, shows this always inventive poet at his most original. It could be accounted a confessional work, concerned with a midlife crisis, but it’s more devious and cunning than that. In the note preceding the twenty poems, Paterson reveals that his inspirational cue was the first series of The Twilight Zone (1959–64), in particular the episodes written by Rod Serling. The programme encompasses a number of genres, from sci-fi to western. Here we have Paterson as a master of disguise, though he makes more than one appearance as a jazz guitarist, which he is in real life too. Is the poem ‘Chet’s Habit’ really based on an encounter with the jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker in Istanbul in 1987, the year before the musician’s death? It certainly reads as if it is. It ends wonderfully: ‘You have to see the whole picture. Let’s not forget that when his teeth weren’t kicked out/Chet played his horn like a cashiered angel, and his singing was ‘like being sweet-talked by the void’.

But elsewhere, as in ‘The Deal’, about a Faustian pact to obtain immortality, Paterson is more playful. In ‘The Old White Male Poet: An Allegory’ he sees himself as a gunslinger in the Midwest, drinking his ‘sarsaparilly’ and eating his ‘salt horse’. Every so often, past tenderness and failed love are recalled with something close to dismay. Zonal is a performance of sorts, never less than diabolically clever and, on occasions, very moving.

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