“Songs in E–” Dan Brady (Trnsfr Books) – book review

Dan Brady Songs In E– book cover

Dan Brady’s “Songs in E–” was winner of the Barclay Prize for Poetry. It has an intriguing premise, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” translated into Portguese and then back into English via an unreliable internet translator and the resulting material reshaped into “Songs in E–“. A similar process was used for the latter half of the book, “E–‘s Song” which used Robert Browning’s “One Word More” also dubiously translated into Portguese and back into English and then reshaped.

“Songs in E–” starts with “Meet Cute”,

“We bought antiques
but gradually saw
the rips, the sad years,
the melancholy.
Assumptions took hold.
Death, you say.
No, E——,
not Death,
the proximity of Heaven.”

The title was definitely not in Barrett Browning’s vocabulary and suggests a first meeting between a couple destined for romantic that had some sweet story behind it. There’s not much cute here: generally antiques are bought for their value – material or artistic – or for restoration, however there’s an air of neglect. What seemed like a good idea is now showing its age. E– suggests death but the speaker sees closeness to heaven, a meeting of opposites: the pessimist and the optimist. It’s the latter whose voice comes to dominate, in “Art Works”,

“If the face of the world has changed,
my best move is to be still.

Between each other and our terrible exteriors
is the brink of an obvious death.

Art is like drinking from the cup of God.”

Art offers a sense of salvation in a dying world. It also suggests that a rich inner life is a welcome retreat from a harsh world. The generic ‘Art’ loses sight of the literary origins of the sonnets. These poems seem to have taken a diversion from their original purpose: a celebration of love between two people who got married in secret since Barrett Browning was wary of lumbering her husband with an invalid and her father didn’t approve. This underlines the limitations of bad translation, the intention and subtlties become lost. It’s later, in “Fan Mail”, that writing is finally mentioned,

“These letters, all the paper mute and white, seem living creatures
that quiver when they meet my hands as today fills with low light.

One said she desired to see me as a friend.
A simple thing, but it made me cry.

This one, E——, with the light paper,
talked about how expensive love is,

a point thundering in my past. Yours said,
‘I am yours’ and its pale ink met with my pale skin.

This one repeated
what the last one said.”

The poeticisms of the first couplet become more prosaic with each line. There aren’t enough clues from this to know if the tears of the letter reader are with joy or sorrow at being seen as a friend – is it hope of friendship turning to love or sadness at being friend-zoned? But later letters are about love and repeated statements of love.

It’s no surprise that the poems in the first part are recognisably sonnets. None contain the most famous lines either. This underlines the value of translation is not just about fluency or vocabulary but an understanding of what’s being translated and a sympathy to the aims of the writer. Barrett Browning only pretended her poems were translations to distance herself from them because she thought them too personal to publish. The poems returned via the translation process have become so generic as to be almost impersonal. Most of them seem to have lost sight of the originals being love poems.

Did Browing’s poem fare any better? It’s presented as an unnumbered sequence and the start seems promising,

“His true glory
was beyond
what the world saw,
painted on his soul
was the soul of a poet.”

Although we don’t know who “he” is so the poem is reduced to lofty sentiment. At least love is mentioned,

“This: there is no artist
alive and in love
who does not wish once,
and once only,
and for only one—
fit and fair and simple
and sufficient.
Yet all artists living,
loving, renounce this love
to write songs
of new women,
to take on
the sorrow
of the artist
and lose
the joy of man.”

The implication seems to be that love may inspire but art is born of sorrow so love has to be lost in order for the lover to become an artist. This dichotomy is visited again later,

“Only this is certain—
our views of him were other,
like opposite sides
of the same moon. Man
has two sides to his soul,
one to face the world with,
one to show a woman
when he loves her.”

It implies love is a secret thing that can only be shared between lovers who then show a different side to the larger world. Love is a secret, intimate and to be kept from the wider world.

“Songs in E–” indirectly asks questions about translation, its value and how irresponsible translations affect readers’ responses to the work as well as the intentions and reputation of the original work. Some prior knowledge of “Songs from the Portuguese” and “One Word More” is useful. Brady’s reshaping though is more than just an interesting method, through dismantling and reassembling, the poems explore what it means to love someone, how two people negotiate sharing lives in face of other’s resistence. There’s a strand of playfulness though both sections that asks serious questions without taking itself too seriously.

“Songs in E–” is available from Trnsfer Books.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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