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


To Vladimir Nabokov on His seventieth Birthday

That nymphet’s magnificence lay much less on her bones
Than in her title’s proclaimed two allophones,
A boned veracity gradual to be discovered
In all the chanting of recorded sound.
Extrude an orange pip upon the monitor,
And it will likely be a pip performed entrance or again,
But solely in the kingdom of the shade
Can diaper run again and be repaid.
Such speculations salt my exile too,
One that I bear much less stoically than you.
I look in sourly on my lemon bushes
Spiked by the Qs and Xes of Maltese
And marvel: Is this house or the place is house?
(Melita’s caves, Calypso’s honeycomb).
I see a cue or clue. Just reverse,
The grocer has a cat that loves to take a seat
Upon the scales. Respecting his repose,
One day he weighed him: simply two rotolos.
In this palazzo wooden decays and falls;
Buses knock stucco from the outer partitions,
Slam shut the shutters. Coughing as they lurch
They but enclose the silence of a church,
Rock in baroque: Teresan spados stab
The Sacred Heart upon the driver’s cab,
Whereupon, in circus colors, one can learn
That verbum caro factum est. Indeed.
I feel the phrase is all the flesh I would like –
The style, and never the nutritional vitamins of sense
Whatever sense could also be. I like the fence
Of black and white that retains these bullocks in –
Crossboard or chesswood. Eurish present of Finn –
The crossmess parzel. If phrases aren’t any extra
Than pyoshki, preordained to look earlier than,
Save for his or her taking chassé, they alone
And not the higher home, can declare a throne
(Exploded first the secular magazines
And puff of bishops). All aswarm with queens,
Potentially, that board. Well, there it’s:
You assist me counter the liquidities
With counters which are counties, nations. Best
To learn it: Caro Verbum Facta Est.

One of the nice Twentieth-century British novelists, Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was additionally a prolific poet. His curiosity each in poetry as an artwork kind and in the psychology of poets is expressed in a number of works of fiction, for instance, the quartet of Enderby novels, and ABBA ABBA. Both include poems by their protagonists. Burgess’s last novel, Byrne, is in truth composed in ottava rima.

Burgess’s Collected Poems, edited by Jonathan Mann, is a hefty quantity, displaying each strengths and limitations. Burgess is at his greatest in the position of Twentieth-century “Augustan” poet: the 18-plus pages of An Essay on Censorship bear comparability, of their energy of logical argument and mastery of the rhyming couplet, with the verse essays of Alexander Pope. This week’s poem, written to have a good time Vladimir Nabokov’s seventieth birthday, is fairly shorter, however shares some of its traits.

Censorship is extra obliquely addressed, nevertheless it’s of the component underlying Burgess’s sense of connection to Nabokov. Burgess’s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange and Nabokov’s Lolita had each been subject to its tyranny. The opening traces of the Birthday poem replicate, nonetheless, a extra vital inventive relationship between the novelists, the shared preoccupation with mining the richest sources of their language. Lolita, the so-called “nymphet”, owes her “boned veracity”, Burgess punningly declares, to her creator’s sensuous virtuosity with phrases. The allophones savoured in line two (and in Nabokov’s personal textual content) are the first two phonemes of “Lo-Li-Ta”.

In his the second quantity of his autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time, Burgess explains that the Birthday poem’s sourness of tone was partly the outcome of a latest adverse evaluate by Geoffrey Grigson. The greater discontent for Burgess, although, was his “exile” on Malta, a rustic in thrall to the slim Catholicism that, as a lapsed Catholic, he significantly detested. Censorship flourished and curtailed his entry to literary materials there. The island the place Calypso detained Odysseus for seven years, Ogygia, has been recognized as Gozo in the Maltese archipelago, therefore the reference in line 14, “(Melita’s caves, Calypso’s honeycomb)”. The poem dryly notes that the picture of the Sacred Heart in the bus-driver’s cab, bears the citation saying “in circus colours”, “That verbum caro factum est…” (“The Word was made flesh”). Burgess provides the sarcastic “Indeed” to make his level.

The Birthday poem is an odd, dry, bracing cocktail, partly grumpy private letter, partly a show by Burgess of the qualities he most admires in Nabokov. He emphasises symmetry and sample, for instance: see the reference to the diaper (nothing to do with babies’ nappies) in line eight. This repeated patterning is critical for Burgess, the poet-novelist, and has a extra existential, Nabokovian connection – to the re-routing of time and the restoration of the previous by way of reminiscence. It’s additional fleshed out in the poem by photographs of an area farmer’s black and white fence and the chess-board.

Creating chess issues one of Nabokov’s passions. Burgess appears tempted at instances 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 citation from St John’s gospel in line 26 declares that “the word was made flesh” and the poem’s final tribute to Nabokov is that the phrase has change into flesh (by way of the energy of his literary artwork), there’s a counterpoint of abstraction in some of the wordplay, the impact of which is to de-incarnate language. It’s one other advanced flavour Burgess provides to the celebration cocktail. Nabokov appreciated the poem, Burgess reported.

I go away you with a query, reflecting I hope the mischievous spirit of two nice writers, and never solely my very own incapability to unravel maths issues. Was the grocer’s cat chubby at 2 rotolos? You may find a clue here.

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

Some further notes:

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

For more on the Maltese language.

Melite – Malta

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

Pyoshki (Russian, plural of pyoshka ) – pawns.



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