Poem of the week: To Vladimir Nabokov … by Anthony Burgess

Part showy display of literary style, part grumpy personal letter, this is a rich celebration of the power of writing

To Vladimir Nabokov on His 70th Birthday

That nymphet’s beauty lay less on her bones
Than in her name’s proclaimed two allophones,
A boned veracity slow to be found
In all the chanting of recorded sound.
Extrude an orange pip upon the track,
And it will be a pip played front or back,
But only in the kingdom of the shade
Can diaper run back and be repaid.
Such speculations salt my exile too,
One that I bear less stoically than you.
I look in sourly on my lemon trees
Spiked by the Qs and Xes of Maltese
And wonder: Is this home or where is home?
(Melita’s caves, Calypso’s honeycomb).
I see a cue or clue. Just opposite,
The grocer has a cat that loves to sit
Upon the scales. Respecting his repose,
One day he weighed him: just two rotolos.
In this palazzo wood decays and falls;
Buses knock stucco from the outer walls,
Slam shut the shutters. Coughing as they lurch
They yet enclose the silence of a church,
Rock in baroque: Teresan spados stab
The Sacred Heart upon the driver’s cab,
Whereupon, in circus colours, one can read
That verbum caro factum est. Indeed.
I think the word is all the flesh I need –
The taste, and not the vitamins of sense
Whatever sense may be. I like the fence
Of black and white that keeps those bullocks in –
Crossboard or chesswood. Eurish gift of Finn –
The crossmess parzel. If words are no more
Than pyoshki, preordained to look before,
Save for their taking chassé, they alone
And not the upper house, can claim a throne
(Exploded first the secular magazines
And puff of bishops). All aswarm with queens,
Potentially, that board. Well, there it is:
You help me counter the liquidities
With counters that are counties, countries. Best
To read it: Caro Verbum Facta Est.

One of the great 20th-century British novelists, Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was also a prolific poet. His interest both in poetry as an art form and in the psychology of poets is expressed in several works of fiction, for example, the quartet of Enderby novels, and ABBA ABBA. Both contain poems by their protagonists. Burgess’s last novel, Byrne, is in fact composed in ottava rima.

Burgess’s Collected Poems, edited by Jonathan Mann, is a hefty volume, displaying both strengths and limitations. Burgess is at his best in the role of 20th-century “Augustan” poet: the 18-plus pages of An Essay on Censorship bear comparison, in their power of logical argument and mastery of the rhyming couplet, with the verse essays of Alexander Pope. This week’s poem, written to celebrate Vladimir Nabokov’s 70th birthday, is rather shorter, but shares some of its characteristics.

Censorship is more obliquely addressed, but it’s of the element underlying Burgess’s sense of connection to Nabokov. Burgess’s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange and Nabokov’s Lolita had both been subject to its tyranny. The opening lines of the Birthday poem reflect, however, a more significant artistic relationship between the novelists, the shared preoccupation with mining the richest resources of their language. Lolita, the so-called “nymphet”, owes her “boned veracity”, Burgess punningly declares, to her creator’s sensuous virtuosity with words. The allophones savoured in line two (and in Nabokov’s own text) are the first two phonemes of “Lo-Li-Ta”.

In his the second volume of his autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time, Burgess explains that the Birthday poem’s sourness of tone was partly the result of a recent negative review by Geoffrey Grigson. The bigger discontent for Burgess, though, was his “exile” on Malta, a country in thrall to the narrow Catholicism that, as a lapsed Catholic, he particularly detested. Censorship flourished and curtailed his access to literary material there. The island where Calypso detained Odysseus for seven years, Ogygia, has been identified as Gozo in the Maltese archipelago, hence the reference in line 14, “(Melita’s caves, Calypso’s honeycomb)”. The poem dryly notes that the image of the Sacred Heart in the bus-driver’s cab, bears the quotation announcing “in circus colours”, “That verbum caro factum est…” (“The Word was made flesh”). Burgess adds the sarcastic “Indeed” to make his point.

The Birthday poem is a strange, dry, bracing cocktail, partly grumpy personal letter, partly a display by Burgess of the qualities he most admires in Nabokov. He emphasises symmetry and pattern, for example: see the reference to the diaper (nothing to do with babies’ nappies) in line eight. This repeated patterning is significant for Burgess, the poet-novelist, and has a more existential, Nabokovian connection – to the re-routing of time and the recovery of the past through memory. It’s further fleshed out in the poem by images of a local farmer’s black and white fence and the chess-board.

Creating chess problems one of Nabokov’s passions. Burgess seems tempted at times to make up word-problems in a counter-cadenza. He honours James Joyce in passing. “The crossmess parzel” is from Finnegans Wake, “a cross between a crossword puzzle and a Christmas parcel”. While the Latin quotation from St John’s gospel in line 26 declares that “the word was made flesh” and the poem’s ultimate tribute to Nabokov is that the word has become flesh (through the power of his literary art), there is a counterpoint of abstraction in some of the wordplay, the effect of which is to de-incarnate language. It’s another complex flavour Burgess adds to the celebration cocktail. Nabokov liked the poem, Burgess reported.

I leave you with a question, reflecting I hope the mischievous spirit of two great writers, and not only my own inability to solve maths problems. Was the grocer’s cat overweight at 2 rotolos? You might find a clue here.

Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977 was born in St Petersburg, Russia on 22April. Burgess’s poem was published in a special Nabokov issue of Triquarterly.

Some additional notes:

“The kingdom of the shade” – see Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire. There may also be a reference to the scene in the 19th-century Russian ballet, La Bayadère (The Temple Dancer) in which lovers are reunited after death in a starlit Himalayan Nirvana.

For more on the Maltese language.

Melite – Malta

Chassé – a dance step used in many dances in many variations. All variations are triple-step patterns of gliding character in a “step-together-step” pattern.

Pyoshki (Russian, plural of pyoshka ) – pawns.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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