John Gallas (editor), The Song Atlas

reviewed by Melissa Flores-Bórquez

196 poems, one from each of the countries in the UN, this anthology presents itself as a kind of united flag of human colours: Gallas says that the organising principle, "as well as being childishly satisfying - gave order and an end to what could have become a Habit."

I don’t think "anthology" is quite right, as each poem has been translated line by line then "re-poemed" by Gallas – so the book is a strange hybrid between collection and "round the world sequence". John Gallas (who exemplifies Carcanet's "eccentric" streak, see also Frank Kuppner), author of such collections as Grrrrr and Star City (which includes a round the world sonnet sequence of variable quality), is a poet in love with alliteration and inventive adjectives, and he doesn't restrain himself in any of these "re-poemings." The countries are in alphabetical order, and the emphasis is on songs, chants, lists, with many of the poems anonymous. The impression builds that this is a kind of world kaleidoscope of singing and street-cries – what a pity that an accompanying CD couldn't have been assembled in collaboration with Rough Guides?

The page for St Kitts & Nevis reads:



The book begins with a mystical song from Afghan poet, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, "I came out of the unmade", and it ends with an anonymous song from Zimbabwe called "Loveburn". To get an idea of Gallas' re-poeming style, here's an Anonymous (11th Century) poem from Ireland:


    My hand's crabbed up with scribbling.
    I can't steer the prickly pen
    and it splats plum ink
    like a skinny spitting beak.

    A runny restless gill of godness
    twines out of my nutslim hand
    and reels its plum holly-sap
    around the aching paper.

    And I haul my skinny splatting pen
    along a whole holiday of bright books
    to fill Sir Splendid's orders –
    so my hand's crabbed up with scribbling.

I don't have many anthologies on my shelf – ones which explore a particular territory, or break new ground, are interesting & necessary, but themed ones tend to bore me by flattening out variety. This book falls out of any category: it feels like light reading (though some of the songs are full of pain), but it's far from the mind-numbing experience of light verse. The subjects include everything or very nearly: a lullaby from Myanmar, work in Macedonia… to borrow Gallas' own list: "Satire (Kenya), mourning (Azerbaijan, Georgia), proverbs (Central African Republic, Niger), despair (Sweden), stoical wisdom (Ivory Coast), political anger (Angola, Peru, Mauritania), war (Austria, Lithuania), love (Egypt, Zimbabwe), surrealism (Venezuela, Ecuador), tales (Tonga, Marshall Islands), work (Macedonia), nature both friendly (Fiji, Slovakia) and unfriendly (Bolivia, Costa Rica), My Nation (Mongolia), memories (Netherlands, Denmark)... "

The editor goes half-way towards writing all the poems in his re-writes, so is it anthology or hybrid Gallas project? It has its conceit of being the Atlas, though worrying about cultures & their relationships to nations seems beside the point, as the organising principle is so clearly a cheerful conceit, "rooted and random". Many of the countries, such as the U.S.A., are represented by a song from an indigenous society, yet it's only half a collection of anonymous work – Lorca's "The Sterile Orange Tree" (Spain), Vincente Gerbasi's "Hallucinatory Sunset, with Sons" (Venezuela), Ion Minulescu's "Mechanical-landscape-poem" (Romania), not to mention Trakl, Pessoa... Here is Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska's

    Polish Colours

    White – bloodred.
    Bloodred linen – white linen.
    that dammed the bled soak.
    The wind unfurls this ledger of a wound,
    lifts the heroic swab,
    and dictum.

All the poems shine with a peculiar freshness, and part of the fun is looking up a particular country (just like an Atlas). It's pretty certain there will be more than a few discoveries – of poets and poems – in this book. John Gallas is clearly the Kofi Annan of Leicestershire Student Support Service (where he works, according to the bio-data), and his role is as a kind of "secretary-general", half secretary, half general, collecting, ordering and rewriting. One poem from every country in the world, what a strange idea; what an entertaining book. As (the Latvian) Ojars Vacietis's poem, "Goodbye to a Spaceman", ends:

    It's me, child:
    your planet, Earth –
    take from me
    on your starry course
    a ryeloaf
    and a clod.

[ISBN:1857546148 / Published: Sep 2002 / 216mmx135mm / 242pp / Paperback / Carcanet.]

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