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Alan Baker

Petrarch 3 – a derivate dérive by Robert Sheppard
A broadsheet by Crater Press (USA). ISSN 2014-0948

This is a broadsheet from the American publisher Crater Press containing sixteen "translations" of a single sonnet by Petrarch. Sheppard's affiliations are signaled on the title page by the dedication to Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, who have both given us recent modernist versions of Petrach. The title page also references Harry Matthews, the first American member of Oulipo, and Nicholas Moore, who famously submitted thirty-one translations of the same Baudelaire poem to a Sunday Times Poetry Competition, each one under a different pseudonym. Sheppard's versions of Petrach are in this vein.

The sonnet in question is this one:

Era il giorno ch'al sol si scoloraro
per la pietà del suo factore i rai,
quando i' fui preso, et non me ne guardai,
ché i be' vostr'occhi, donna, mi legaro.

Which, translated by AS Kline, reads:

It was on that day when the sun's ray
was darkened in pity for its Maker,
that I was captured, and did not defend myself,
because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady.

We start with the original Italian, followed by Sheppard’s  conventional, literal  translation, including end-rhyme and internal  rhyme:

That pitiful morning when the light of Heaven
Was hidden for our mourning maker’s sake,
I saw you first that day my lady, but
Was captured, then bound to your stake…

This version compares well with other translations I've seen of this sonnet – including the one by Kline above - and is musically adept and finely crafted. It does however, remind us how hackneyed this type of love-poetry is; it was even regarded this way in the Early Modern period, with Shakespeare's "dark lady" sonnets being reactions to, and deliberate parodies of, the Petrachan mode.  We then have a nicely done Middle English version, which includes what I take to be invented vocabulary (“unbuxomnesse”?). After these two respectful translations, things take a very different turn...

We have an "Iron Maiden" sonnet, a vampire sonnet, a twittersonnet and a sonnet in the voice of Sheppard's satrical poet-persona Wayne Pratt. With the sonnet entitled "Pet" spoken in the voice of a dog we've come a long way from the earnest literal translation, with hilarious results:

Tied to the gate I first saw you

It was Brass Monkeys, believe me. Licking my bollocks
Was like snuffling dropped ice cream dollops.

There are comments on the poetry scene ("It's National Poetry Day again. Duffy's / droning on the radio") and a skim through freeview channels from Russia Today to pornoraphy. Amongst all this, the poems manage moments of hard-hitting satire, with a poem in the voice of Jimmy Saville expressing some of the anger many people feel about that whole affair, with it's still untold story of Saville’s protection by his friends in high places.

As we'd expect from any work by Sheppard, there are multiple layers and a self-referencing knowingness. One of the sonnets is entitled "Empty Diary 1327", a reference to the Empty Diaries sequence which was a major part of his Twentieth Century Blues. This particular one speaks in the voice of the female "Laura" who's the object the sonneteer's affections, and gives short shriftto the hapless poet. And there's a long parody dedicated to the memory of the avant-garde film-maker and inventor of "semantic poetry", Stefan Themerson. This piece is partly homage and partly a skit of academic language:

I perceived by the sense seated in the eye
                    for the foremost occasion regarded as
one of a number of multiplied instances in a recurring series...

          ... I lamented
          by leaking
          drops of liquid secreted by the lachrymal gland
          in accordance with
                  the system of things which accomodates
                  the inhabitants of this universe

And so it goes on; funny, irreverent, cutting and inventive, but also very aware of poetics, translation strategies and literary theory; things which few contemporaries could make as entertaining as Sheppard.



Copyright © Alan Baker, 2017