Lost in the endlessly circular experience of Agnomia by Róbert Gál

Stories that begin at the end don’t need beginnings that would convict them of making a point, that is, of committing a falsehood. A falsehood that loses its falsehood, being turned inside out by the truth, as if that were possible at first sight. But in any subculture there are other rules and privileges accorded to others that permit them to fire off viruses at everyone else, as if all that was at issue were the odd truth. As indeed is the case.

After what seems an impossible delay, and an unthinkable series of detours, Agnomia by Slovakian writer Róbert Gál is finally available in English, only a decade after its original release. I originally encountered Róbert’s writing in 2015 with what was, at the time, his first published work of fiction in English, On Wing (Dalkey Archive). After that I slipped back  to what was, at the time, his only other available translated book, 2003’s more explicitly philosophical Signs & Symptoms (Twisted Spoon Press). I have to confess that these two volumes served as important inspirational triggers for my own writing, and Róbert has become part of my far-flung circle of literary friends. He is, however, stubbornly reticent to talk about his own work, so I have no advantage in crafting my response to this text which fits, chronologically speaking, subsequent to Signs & Symptoms and On Wing, holding thematic ties to both, but standing uniquely as an attempt to offer a solid, singular prose piece, albeit one that disrupts the lines between fiction, memoir, and philosophy.

Unfolding in a single, unbroken paragraph, Agnomia runs to just under 80 pages. The narrator is, as one would expect, a Slovak writer named Róbert Gál. But where the enigmatic author and his fictional alter ego converge and diverge is unclear; it’s not even clear that they know:

For the author wants to tell his tale, but doesn’t know where to begin, and he doesn’t even know if there is a tale to be told at all. He tries to get inside it, as if any entrance on his part would automatically coordinate with the context in which the tale is being played out. Coordinate with what is being played out, whatever that might be, on a parasitical basis, though it’s erroneously taken to be symbiotic.

This metafictional segue that arises in the early pages of the book is not sustained, the narrative “I” soon takes centre stage, such as it is, but he is an impatient, introspective, and alternately obsessive and ambivalent participant/observer/chronicler, inclined to lapse into philosophical musings. If the story does, in fact, have a beginning and end, it seems to be in New York City, with plenty of Prague in between. But this tale is circular rather than linear. Our author appears to be piecing together his account as he goes, fueled by memories and dreams, however ambiguous and unformed. The result is an meandering prose poem, regularly folding back on itself as if to take stock of its own ability to write itself into being, a post-punk Bernhard monologue set to an erratic thrash jazz soundtrack, playing out inside the mind of a mildly neurotic writer.

And that mindscape is a busy place. Old friends and passing acquaintances, former girlfriends, fellow artists, even the author’s parents pop in and out, arising in fractured conversations, their off-hand gestures observed, their habits briefly dissected, their otherness serving as springboards for the narrator’s digressions. The men are analyzed and compared, while women are allowed a certain magical leeway, like L., a former lover whose diaphanous nudes he’d “used in another book of aphorisms” (see Signs & Symptoms). But between them all, the narrator, seems to be navigating ghosts, remembering encounters, propelled by his own recurrent personal and philosophical obsessions. Nothing is fixed fast in time, lines of thought spin off in all directions, always circular in motion with a relentlessly engaging force.

Driving the narrative are several persistent themes: an underlying bitterness about the futility of being involved in the creative process, especially as a purveyor of words, and more explicitly as the citizen of a small, insignificant country like Slovakia (where “a poet is dead before he’s even born”) ; a fascination with the curious dynamics of romantic and sexual involvement; and a penchant to wander down metaphysical and epistemological wormholes, get tangled up in tautologies, and play with words:

I’m gazing at a tree-shrub hastily planted in a demolished square. I want to tie the moon in with it so that the image I’m creating looks fully formed. It’s a full moon. Is it fulfilled? My room is inhuman. It isn’t accessed by a door, but by clockwork, with a key poking from outside in. A bit like a deep intake of breath whose exhalation and exhaustion are identical. Music has an instant effect. That’s something it shares with a drug or a telling aphorism. Circular self-relocation, each time a total gyration round one of a pair of aching legs. Oneness with pain like a fly with a wing torn off. The whirling of a whirligig beetle. Extirpation of redundancy by stretching it on the rack of a thing that at that instant is no longer a problem.

The flow of accounts, anecdotes, aphorisms, and anxieties continues unabated from end to end of this slender, philosophical fiction, inviting and rewarding rereading—as is typical of all of Gál’s other writing. The abiding presence of his holy trinity of influences is increasingly evident with each re-encounter: Thomas Bernhard, Georges Bataille, and the wildly prolific and ambitious avant-garde composer John Zorn. Readers familiar with the author’s aphorisms and other published work will recognize strong cross currents running throughout Agnomia, but the tone here is lighter, the logical challenges more accessible, and more of Gál’s spirit and humour comes through. The “truth” of fiction? Who knows?

The “stories” or memories that form the loose, fractured framework of this book support what is, in fact, its beating heart—the endlessly unanswerable questions about the nature of thought, truth, and the possibility of adequately representing reality. The balance of narrative—fiction or memoir, it matters not at all—against the narrator’s musings and meditations is pitch perfect. An account of an evening out with a woman, for example, leads to further considerations:

“We’re going now,” I say. I might have helped her break free from certain stereotypes, but she didn’t need my help. She might have helped me break free from certain stereotypes, but I didn’t need her help. Repetition is reminiscing ahead. Ineffectual dreams don’t exist, so the unconscious is more effectual than consciousness. And since my pain doesn’t follow from the findings of philosophy, the question is: In what respect can clarification of the cause of my pain be aided by the findings of philosophy? In being accountable for anything’s enduring, since for what else can one be held accountable? This raises more questions: To what extent can the consciousness’s accountability for something enduring be its consistent monitoring of it, and to what extent is the monitoring of what endures even conceivable and admissible? Is every story a manipulation? And so forth.

At the end of the story we have more questions than answers and that’s the point. After all, what truths lie in the thoughts we think we have?  And is it possible to express them, or is all creative process dependent on our own inherent ignorance?

Agnomia by Róbert Gál is translated from the Slovak by David Short, and published by Dalkey Archive.

Folktales for a new world: Rain and Other Stories by Mia Couto

In the preface to his newly translated collection, Rain and Other Stories, Mozambican writer Mia Couto tells us that the stories we are about to read were written after his country’s long and bloody civil war. The conflict which erupted in 1977, two years after the African nation achieved independence from Portugal, would last for fifteen years, leaving over one million dead and devastating the country’s infrastructure. As the majority of the white Portuguese fled, they left behind an impoverished, uneducated population. Yet, where Couto had anticipated total ruin and destruction, he found that seeds of life and hope had survived. Not all was lost.

These tales speak to this land we are remaking and where we soak our faces in this rain of hope, this water of benedreamtion. Of this land where each man is the same, like this: pretending he’s here, dreaming of going away, imagining his return.

The twenty-six stories that follow are very short—most are but a handful of pages—and although they spring from the immediate aftermath of a contemporary battle, signalling the end of both Soviet-backed Cold War alliances and white domination in Southern Africa, the roots and spirits of these tales seem to run deep into the very bedrock of the earth. They are uniquely Mozambican and yet timeless. These are the fables, folktales, comic and magical imaginings of human folly and resilience. They are a telling of a shattered world back into being.

Couto, the winner of the Neustadt International Prize, and a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, has an uncanny ability to create miniature worlds peopled with wonderful characters, images and happenings. In some tales war is still a present quantity, in others it is past but only barely. These are the people caught in the “transition from the tragedy of war to the misery of peace.” We encounter ordinary folk trying to deal with love, its loss, infidelity, old age, even an errant hippopotamus. Some tales are apocryphal in tone, others tragic, yet others simply enchanting. Throughout the collection, the accounts are seasoned with witticisms, aphorisms, and gentle wisdom.

“Blind Estrelinho” is an early and particularly captivating example. The title character is a “man of no moment,”entirely dependent on his guide Gigito Efraim to lead him through the world and open it to his unseeing eyes. And what a world it is! Little Gigito:

described what wasn’t there. The work he detailed was fantasies and fine-lacery. The guide’s imagination bore more fruit than a papaya tree. The blind man’s mouth filled with waters:
What marvellousity, this world. Tell me everything, Gigito!

When his young guide is taken away to war, the blind man’s world falls dark. Gigito’s sister arrives to take her brother’s place but she describes the world as it truly is, and Estrelinho’s loss is magnified. Until he discovers that a girl offers other, shall we say, insights. But the story does not end there.

Some tales are disturbing, like “The Flag in the Sunset” about a boy who, needing to bleed to dream, would ask his grandma to cut him. For his failure to salute the flag he meets an untimely and bloody end, taking another life with him, and haunting all who pass where the flagpole once stood—a resounding comment on forced allegiance, and the degree to which flags “detract from the celestial blues.” “Lamentations of a Coconut Tree” recounts the report, verified by the Nation’s newspaper, of the experience of the narrator’s friend Suleimane Ibraimo who, upon splitting the shell of a coconut finds that:

the fruit didn’t gush the usual sweet water, but blood. Exactly so: blood. But that wasn’t the only astonishing thing. The fruit cried and lamented in a human voice. Suleimane took no exaggerated measures: his wide-open hands dropped the coconut, the red stains spread. He stood there, dumbfounded and overwhelmed, spent. The shock made his soul vanish into the low tide.

The narrator rushes to help, finding his friend sunken but with all traces of the incident cleaned away. Naturally he is distrustful: “Doubt, we know,” he says, “is the envy that the unbelievable hasn’t happened to us.”

One of Couto’s real strengths lies in his ability to sketch out larger-than-life characters in the span of a few pages, like the man who worries about what his enjoyment of his formerly frigid wife’s newfound manly intensity says about him, the night watchman who confronts a hippopotamus ravaging a schoolroom or Professor Novesfora, the protagonist of “The Hapless Calculus of Happiness,” a mathematically minded man who weighs and measures everything, allowing algebraic operations to guide his world view:

He also divided out his affections in calculated doses, limiting love to its numerical equivalent. Love affairs, women, children: all those things were null hypotheses. Feelings, he was fond of saying, have no logarithm. For that reason, there was no reason to even solve the equation. Since he was a child, he’d abstained from affection. From an algebraic point of view, he would say, tenderness is absurd. Like a negative zero.

Until the day he falls for an underage student and all the calculations change!

Rain and Other Stories, is a rich and rewarding collection of fables that capture the cultural and ethnic diversity of post colonial Mozambique rebuilding itself after prolonged conflict between the Marxist government and right wing insurgents, each backed by outside players with their own agendas, had nearly torn the fledgling nation apart. Translator Eric M. B. Becker captures the sheer magic of Couto’s playful Portuguese, and his simple but powerful imagery. This is writing toward healing, toward a celebration of life, but with a clear caution that darkness is never far away.

Rain and Other Stories is published by Bibioasis.

 

Ever a son and a father: To Grieve by Will Daddario

“What is loss,” asks Matthew Goulish in his introduction to Will Daddario’s chapbook To Grieve, “but an instance of the extreme ephemeral, for which one finds oneself unprepared, for which could never prepare? Is it accurate to say that loss makes its day extraordinary? It’s the ordinary we lose, as it transforms it into a treasure.” Writing grief is one way of tracing out a pathway back to some semblance of, if not the old “ordinary,” a new normal. For oneself, firstly and, in the sharing of the experience, for others who may, in time, require a trail of signs and symbols as they chart their own paths.

In this short, emotionally measured essay, part of the Dossier Series from Ugly Duckling Presse, Daddario unspools the knotted threads of grief that followed the fifteen-month period that began with the sudden death of his father, counted a number of significant losses—his grandmother, a close friend and a beloved pet—and ended with the stillbirth of his son, Finlay, his first child. As he navigated a course through the flood of emotions, he turned, as a writer and a scholar, not just to the writing of others, but to the very structure of language itself. If grief, as he tells us, “does not reside within you but, rather, exists outside” and works its way into your system no matter how you might endeavour to hold it at a distance, the cliché expressions that are offered to describe the process often fall hollow, yet the feelings seem to be bound these same cliches, so the articulation of the experience of grieving, invites the search for a new vocabulary. Turning to a range of literary, spiritual, and poetic resources, Daddario seeks guidance to “re-write the script of depression” that settled in on him in the months after his series of losses. The resulting journey is one that is both idiosyncratic and universal.

In their individual and shared efforts (“together alone” and “alone together”) to make sense of their son’s death, Daddario and his wife Joanne take a cue from Barthes’ Mourning Diary and record reflections on scraps of paper and gather them in a jar. On Finlay’s first birthday, they read through them. A selection of these collected thoughts, lends a loose frame to this broader exploration of grief. The weight of the emptiness that has descended into their lives is resonant in these fragments of immediate, unmediated grief, forming a counterpoint to Daddario’s more carefully and logically paced analysis of this early period of mourning observed and recounted from a place of some greater distance along. The true beauty of this short book lies not so much in any radical revisioning of grief, but in the poetic voice the grieving son and father gives to a process that can linger, seemingly suspended, at the edges of our lives in the aftermath of loss, leaving us to wonder: How long does this take?

Grief neither takes nor gives. It rushes in from the outside and inaugurates a new temporal existence that will be unique to each person or group who grieves. Another lesson of grief arises here: grief makes time, in the sense that you must now make a calendar for yourself that honours the nature of your existence. Rather than asking “how long will it take,” you can try this: what time will grief make, and what will you make within grief’s duration?

To Grieve is a thoughtful and intelligent meditation. It is also a heartrending tribute, as both a son and a father, to a father, an infant son and, before the final draft was complete, a stepfather as well. As love expands, so does grief. As I’ve mentioned before, in 2016 I lost both of my parents within eleven days of one another, followed a little over a month later by the suicide of one of my dearest friends. These deaths sit within the context of other ungrieved losses I’ve carried. Thus, it is impossible to read about grief as someone still in the midst of grieving a complex network of cicumstances, without taking one’s own pulse along the way. I did, and many of my responses are personal, sketched into my notebook. Proof, if any is needed, that this gentle chapbook is a worthy addition to the literature of, in Daddario’s own terms, grieving and “re-membering.”

To Grieve by Will Daddario is available from Ugly Duckling Presse.

Forty-nine days of the spirit: Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon

The attempt to voice to the experience of reading Korean poet Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death echoes the challenge she found as the project began to take form for her. Death, as much as we may wish to avoid thinking about it, is a fundamental and natural part of life. But sometimes death arrives in unnecessary, violent, and horrifyingly tragic forms. Or simply when it is unexpected, or worse, unwarranted. The forty-nine poems that comprise the core of this work—one for each day during which the spirit wanders before re-entering the cycle of reincarnation—were written in response to those moments when Hyesoon felt the presence of death in some way. Although her intense reaction to the catastrophic collapse of a ferry carrying high school students bound for an island field trip—an event in which the crew escaped in lifeboats while the youth, ordered to their cabins, drowned—was a trigger, Korea’s recent history is rife with unjust deaths. How to reconcile all this? As an assembly of poems began to take form, she came to understand that her existence begins with death, not birth, and that we live our lives within the structure of death:

I thought to myself that I needed to sing to death, perform a rite for death, write death, then bid farewell to it. The way to send death away was to sing with my own death all the death in the sky and on the ground.

In essence, to sing to death, she had to allow her own death to take the poetic voice. To let it tell its story. How then are we to hear the songs gathered here? Quite simply, to read this book, is to listen.

As one might imagine, the language and imagery is not always easy to encounter.  Heartbreaking, often disturbing, death does not necessarily come gently, and the spirit does not effortlessly shed its fleshy anchor. Verses infused with sad and tender tones mix with horror-filled prose poems and gruesome nursery rhymes, while songs of mournful remembrance turn strange and surreal. To move through this post-death journey is an odd and deeply compelling experience. At moments it is even exquisite:

Like the failing frail twilight and
the rising frail dawn
certain light caves in, certain light soars and embraces

Something like the silvery alligator in your throat
Something like the silvery mosquito on your face

Something like the abrupt opening of the windows of the sea after waking
.                 up from a lifetime of sleep

You’ll see the mornings of the world all at once

– from “Naked Body” (Day Sixteen)

Death is a bodied, intensely physical presence in this sequence of poems. Visceral and graphic at times. Certain images reappear throughout including water, dolls, winged beings—birds, insects and angels—mothers and children, coffins and burial. The space between death and rebirth is an icy, wintery one. Hyesoon shifts and builds on this imagery as the body is slowly and, seemingly reluctantly shed, transforming and decaying as the spirit is increasingly cut off from the world. The poetic perspective invites an intimate engagement with death:

The shape of a woman appears in the mirror. Now you’ve become toeless feet. Now you’ve become fingerless hands. You’ve become a noseless, mouthless face. Your insides that are so far away yet close, the forest in your hair, light enters the rocky moon, and the sea wavers in your shoes. Birds fly up your sleeves and a horse weeps in your pants.

– from “A Face” (Day Forty-Three)

As the forty-nine day passage draws toward a close, faces lose their distinction. Death erases names and identities. “You” lose the ability to recognize yourself or your place in the world. But who exactly is this “you”? In the conversation with her long time translator, Korean-American poet Don Mee Choi, that closes out the book, Hyesoon explains that she could not call her own death “I”, thus her death became “you”, but not as in a simple second person narrative. It is an intrinsically poetic space, such that “you” was “not I or you or he/she.” She goes on to describe how she began to wonder if the narrator might be a sixth or seventh-person narrator, and the “you” who is being addressed is “my death”—“I” has been killed. This she insists, is in keeping with what she sees as the only way to ethically practice poetry, by practicing the death of “I”. Of course, in reading, “you” also feels like “my” or “our” death. At times, especially with the poems that have a sing-song or nursery rhyme feel, it is not unlikely that one might be inclined to want to sing along.

The collection ends with an extended poem “Face of Rhythm,” a piece born out of meditation during a period of pain and illness. Filled with an aching intensity, it is a fitting follow-up to the forty-nine day sequence of Death, a laborious rebirth, release from facelessness and  namelessness. But renewal is hard won, a slow hallucinatory passage through sickness:

That feeling of my soul getting yanked
I wonder where my soul hides when I’m sick
My heart feels as if it’s getting beat up
Is it because the restless ocean is clumping up?
My heart beats regardless of the pain
It beats spewing out red thread like a red spider
A sinkful of red thread gets submerged in water
My heart beats like a girl marathon runner who only had ramen to eat

Autobiography of Death is a collection that leaves one alternately drained and exhilarated. I find it hard to imagine anyone would emerge indifferent. Translator Don Mee Choi’s strong affection and sensitivity for  Kim Hyesoon’s poetry is invaluable, while the playfully strange illustrations by the her daughter Fi Jae Lee contribute to the power and magic of this new work from one of Korea’s most important poets.

Autobiography of Death is published by New Directions.

Tainted by wanderlust: A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma

Those days on the road, I wrote with a pencil. The faint inscriptions of provisional memories made my notebooks seem like fallow territory. I would spend hours before bed recording variations of my experience, keeping no version of myself from the page. Yet, even if that were possible, it saddened me to write each day without a clear vision of whom I addressed. How long would it take for letters of my alphabet to form an impression, moving from reading eye to sensuous heart?

Of late I am drawn to curious projects that bring together memory, image, and environment— projects that blur the parameters of literary classification, where memoir, photo essay, travelogue and storytelling blend. To books like Nigerian writer and art critic Emmanuel Iduma’s enigmatic The Stranger’s Pose. Described in his Acknowledgements as an “imaginative gesture” extended to “the many lives that entered mine,” this collection of seventy-seven segments (or chapters?) has its basis in actual trips through several African countries that the author made, either on his own, or with a varying group of photographers, writers and visual artists as part of the Invisible  Borders Trans-African Photographers’ Organization. However, by allowing his reflections to form in the “twilight worlds between experience and memory, fiction and criticism” and presenting them with a curated selection of black and white images, in many of which he is the staged and central figure, Iduma invites the reader to join him on a lyrical journey, one that is at once elusive and absorbing.

There is, about halfway through the book, a map tracing out a pathway from Addis Ababa, westward through Nigeria, onward to pass up through Senegal, Mauritania and into Morocco. A simple scattering of place names, white text on a black background, connected by curving dotted lines. A geography of dreams. The recollections and remembrances that link these far flung cities tumble forth without chronological or spatial connection, but they do not exist in an emotional or political vacuum. Border crossings can be fraught, stories of the fates of migrants fleeing north toward Europe are shared, religious and ethnic tensions simmer, and language barriers hinder communication and require dependence on translators.

Our restless wanderer is a contemporary African flaneur. An openness to experience infuses his reflections. He is acutely sensitive to the human tableaux he observes, to the eccentricities of the photographers and artists he seeks out, and to the resonances of the stories he is told. He is attentive to the body language and facial expressions he encounters, both in images and in person. At the state library in Enugu, which resembles a dusty study hall more than anything, he finds an extensive archive of newspapers dating back to the 1960s. Inspired to seek out accounts of the events immediately preceding the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa in November 1995, he traces the daily photographic record  in The Guardian, examining the subtle indications of shifting emotion in the grainy images. Watching a stranger on a bus in Addis Ababa practice smiling at his reflection in the  window, he turns to notice that, in the glass, his own countenance could be taken for unhappy. Turning back his eyes meet the other man’s and now, in his face, feels he recognizes himself:

But faces aren’t mirrors. Suppose we look long enough at others to discover their secret impulses, could we understand our own in the process?

His intention throughout is to capture his thoughts and experiences. We are never simply travelling in the present tense. Every journey we take stirs memories from the past, and extends into an unknown future. Travel reframes the idea of home in many different ways. And Iduma, of course, is a writer. As such, this is not a voyage without literary guideposts. Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri, Breyten Breytenbach, Italo Calvino, Isabelle Eberhardt, John Berger and more are called on to contribute tales to this extended meditation.

The segments that comprise this book range from a few sentences to several pages. Some describe encounters and experiences, some revisit childhood memories, some imagine stories. He describes dreams and writes notes to some of his travelling companions, looking back at their shared moments. And sometimes he simply describes a photograph which, incidentally, may or may not be included in the book. The camera is a mediator, in individual interactions and as a transformational exercise. Relatively few of the photographs are actually taken by the author himself (thus none are reproduced in this review) and the ones in which he appears form an especially interesting counternarrative.

One hand holds my shoes; the other is raised, a few inches from my face. I approach a fenced mosque, with my shadow falling across its entrance. One part of the gate is shut, leaving space for a single entrant. The walls and the fence are brownish, just like the sandy ground, but with a darker hue. On the highest deck, three-horn speakers point in different directions: frontwards, leftwards and rightwards. A man glances towards the exit. I doubt he sees me. But he is looking in the direction of the photographer.

The image we are shown, exactly as described, is black and white, the surfaces of mosque stark in the harsh light. How, one must ask, does Iduma fit into these photographs, tall and striking, often dressed in white, walking or standing against storefronts, alleys, and walls? He is the stranger posed —itinerant, restive, trailed by a sense of displacement, heartbreak, and loss. When asked in an interview what he hoped a reader might take away from this book, he replied:

Below each encounter something trembles under the surface, inarticulate. I wrote the book thinking of anonymity as a method, in order to speak to an audience besides those whose stories I was retelling, and whose lives I was conjuring. I hope the reader might be able to meet me at the intersection of my life and those I write about.

It is this ineffable quality that comes through and makes A Stranger’s Pose such an affecting experience. In a line with the work of Teju Cole who writes the Foreword, and yet with its own distinct style and voice, this is a book for anyone who welcomes the idea of navigating the invisible borders that lie between travel, memoir, fiction and photo essay.

A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma is published by Cassava Republic Press.

The poetry of grief: Loss Sings by James E. Montgomery

Grief and loss has its own language, one that cannot be forced, one that is found waiting when the mourner ready. That is the experience recounted in the 32nd addition to The Cahier Series, a collection of short meditations published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris in association with Sylph Editions. Each volume pairs an author and an illustrator or artist, and examines some aspect of the intersection of writing and translation, allowing a broad scope within which such ideas can be understood and explored. As such, each cahier opens a door to a different way of engaging the world.

James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings is a deeply personal essay that owes its genesis to tragedy. On 24 August 2014, the distinguished Professor of Arabic’s seventeen-year-old son was struck by a car when walking with some friends in the city of Cambridge. He suffered what were described as “life-altering injuries.” The driver was uninsured. Suddenly his family’s world was forever altered as an entirely new set of realities, concerns, and anxieties came into play. The young man with a promising future now faced a life of serious physical disability, marked by increasing pain, decreased mobility, and the need for ongoing care. As surgery, rehabilitation, and the detailed record keeping required for legal purposes began to shape Montgomery’s life, he discovered an unexpected appreciation for a cycle of Arabic laments that had long left him unmoved and indifferent. In the early months after his son’s accident, a personal translation project involving these poems emerged. Three years later he recorded his reflections on his son’s injury and his thoughts on memory and the articulation of loss in a series of dated diary entries. Presented together with a selection of his newly translated verses, the present cahier was born.

The poems at the centre of this fascinating account, are the threnodies of the seventh-century Arabic poet Tumāḍir bint ‘Amr, known to posterity as al-Khansā, a woman who composed and sang hymns to the loss of her two brothers in battle—more than a hundred wailing odes that were memorized and passed on for two centuries before they were committed to writing. Although Montgomery had taught these well-known elegies for three decades, through significant losses and traumas of his own including a close proximity to the surreal horror of the attack on the World Trade Towers, he had found them repetitive and cliched. It took his son’s injury to unlock their power. As a parent with a seriously injured child, the rules of order were suddenly rewritten. He realized that his son’s need for assistance would increase as his own physical abilities declined, and when an unexpected potential health problem of his own arose, his concerns for the future intensified.

Memory is a strange place. It is unreliable, pliant, liable – mercifully so. It makes so many mistakes, gets so much wrong. An event like the one I am describing rips to shreds the veil of the commonplace and the mundane, and memory is charged with the task of remembering the future, of recalling the unusual; for such events reveal to us that the future is little more than a memory.

What unfolds over the course of less than forty pages is a multi-stranded meditation on grief, loss, and the relationship between trauma and memory. As Montgomery notes, the confusion that commonly strikes in the aftermath of trauma is a response to the confrontation of previously trusted memory with a “new reality, an unalterable experience.” He recognizes a close analogy in literary translation. In order for a translator to recreate a literary work in another language, decisions must be made about what can be left out as much as what one wishes to retain. With poetry in particular, he says, it may be the only means of transmitting what is irreducibly poetic, and as such, literary translation is “more akin to trauma than it is to memory.” As trauma leaves one at odds to make sense of the world, often bound to a silence that swallows up attempts to give voice to grief, the mourner is forced to navigate a “no-man’s land” between one remembered reality and a new one. Literary translation echoes this process, and through the act of translating al-Khansā’s poetry in particular, Montgomery is able to articulate his own experience of grief and loss through an understanding and appreciation of the very elements that once irked him in these classical Arabic laments.

We are all likely well aware of the kind of cliché, stock phrases, and time-worm comforts that are offered as a solace in times of loss. When faced with profound grief ourselves, there is often a sense that common statements fall short of the magnitude of our emotions. Yet we reach for them—in condolences, eulogies, obituaries. Or worse, for fear of sounding banal we say nothing. It takes the near loss of his son for Montgomery to finally feel the power of these clichés, in the personal and the poetic:

Experience, memory, artifice and art are confronted by the absence of comfort, and earlier versions of a poet’s selves are rehearsed and re-inscribed in memory – but the brute truth of the mundanity of death is the age-old cliché about clichés, namely that, like death, they are too true.

The seventh-century warrior society to which al-Khansā belonged was bound by intense devotion to the cult of the ancestor. Death in battle demanded both vengeance and epic memorial. The latter was the responsibility of women, and her sequence of Arabic keenings—songs of loss— are the most extensive, powerful and poetically inventive to have survived to the present. Her poems are defiant. She will allow no accommodation of her loss over time, her grief stands still, “(h)er doleful, disembodied voice, entombed forever in the inanimate sarcophagus of metre, rhyme, and language.”

Night is long, denies sleep.
.    I am crippled
by the news—
.    Ibn ‘Amr is dead.

I will cry my shock.
.    Why shouldn’t I?
Time is fickle,
.    Disaster shock.

Eyes, weep
.     for my dear brother!
Today, the world
.     feels my pain.

Montgomery’s reflections on his own experiences with loss and the parallels he sees in translation speak clearly to lived grief and trauma. The yearning, aching threnodies of al-Khansā woven throughout, call from the distant past with a pain and longing that is recognizable, real, especially for anyone who is, as I am, still caught in the lingering aftermath of a series of significant losses. But throughout my engagement with this book there was one thought that I could not shake, a possible understanding that the author himself is perhaps not fully aware of. He admits that he is not entirely certain why these ancient Arabic laments finally reached into him when they did.

I worked for years with the survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. I recall one family in particular whose son was injured in a single vehicle rollover in his late teens. His parents admitted at the intake, to a double sense of grief—for their son’s ever-altered future, and for their loss of an image of their own anticipated freedom on the cusp of their youngest child’s pending adult independence. Two futures and their attendant memories altered in an instant. Yet this kind of grief—the grief of survival—is not easily mediated. When the parents attempted to attend a grief support group in their community they were pushed away. “What do you have to grieve?” they were asked, “You still have your son.” There is no accepted ritual or memorial for this kind of loss. With each step through rehabilitation, fighting for funding, worrying about an undefined but infinitely more precarious future, a song of loss sung anew every day. It does not surprise me in the least that a sequence of laments that hold so fast to grief, repeating, reinforcing and seeking voice in the comfort of cliché would break through at this time in Montgomery’s life.

How fortunate that he was able to hear them and feel inclined to guide these verses across the distances of language and time to share with us. Paired with abstract illustrations in black and shades of grey by artist Alison Watt, this small volume speaks to the universality of loss and the longing to find expression through the stories, myths and poems we turn to in times of trauma.

Words on the wind: Thick of It by Ulrike Almut Sandig

If this has been a year of poetry for me, that is, of extending my ear to listen to the voices of contemporary poets, the greatest lesson has come in the form of an understanding that I, as a non-poet, must come to each collection with a willingness to be open to both the language and the silences a poet employs. I have also learned that poetry that leans too closely into the confessional is not as rewarding as that which reaches toward the human condition, be that political, historical or personal. And I’ve found that, like a good essay, a poem should leave space at its centre for questions and meanings to take shape, shift, and re-form. It is that space that pulls me, as a reader, back into my favourite poems, again and again.

At first blush, the work of German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig may seem deceptively simple. One could slip through quickly and miss the musicality, the odd fantastical turns, and the political undertones. Born in 1979, in a rural part of what was, at the time, East Germany, Sandig first emerged as a radical poet, posting poems on lampstands and distributing them as flyers. From the beginning she has been drawn to experimenting with the presentation and delivery of poetry, intent on opening the form to those who might be unfamiliar with or resistant to it. This has led to collaborations with musicians, and visual and sound artists on CDs, audiobooks and multimedia presentations. Her work invites the reader, or listener, into a world of familiar images and shadowy ambiguities.

Thick of It, recently released from Seagull Books, marks the first appearance of Sandig’s work in English. In her generous introduction, translator Karen Leeder, calls attention to the poet’s transformative approach to language:

Blisteringly contemporary, but with a kind of purity too; by turns comic, ironic, sceptical or nostalgic, it is also profoundly musical. The poems explore an urgently urban reality but are splintered with references to nightmares, the Bible, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, hymns, Goethe, Emily Dickinson and Kafka. Sandig abandons the traditional upper-case for sentences and end-of-line punctuation so as to exploit multiple meanings, stretches syntax, plays with idioms… and surfs on patterns of sound…

Titles at the top of pieces are uncommon, rather, the title, as such, is often woven into the poem, indicated by boldface type. As well, she frequently sets her poems in pairs that echo, reflect and undermine one another. The original title Dickicht which means “thicket”, speaks to this intertwining of meanings. Leeder extends this one step further, by bending the English title to “thick of it”.The poems in this collection, which draw heavily on images of nature—trees and birds—and movement—migration and travel—are separated into two sections “North” and “South”, set apart by the “Centre of the World” which contains a single six-line poem. Loss, and certain measured melancholy, runs through her poetry, things and people are misplaced, slipping from memory. Birds, seasons, and people are ever leaving and returning. Throughout the collection, poems often address a “you”, an other. Sometimes an intimacy is implied, but as the translator indicates, Sandig often plays the formal “Sie” against the informal “du”, a distinction lost in translation, so “you” encountered here is allowed an openness that can be understood as specific or general, individual or plural.

The first part is more firmly rooted, as much as any of these poems are ever rooted, in nature and fragments of the everyday, real and dreamed:

behind my eyes the others sit and watch
everything I see. I only see what I can see.

at night I see the marten in the porchlight
under the foxglove tree, not moving a muscle,

becoming invisible in the fading light. I see
no comets, no satellites. I see nothing but

the scrap of moon and my own reflection
in the glass…

— from “behind my eyes”

The second section, “South”, is a less clearly defined space, sometimes more fantastical—visited by ghosts, a centaur and a gardening John the Baptist—other times more personal, although that atmosphere is frequently strained. Nostalgia and sadness run deeper in this part of the world:

can you still see me? you won’t
recognize me. already we are almost
not there. were you the one who looked right
through me?
try again, hard as you can, look closely:
we were
never that pale.

— from “this photos of us”

The world evoked in Thick of It is one that expands with every return visit. Translator Karen Leeder’s enthusiasm for Sandig’s creative and performative energy is palpable—it comes through the more one reads across this collection, moving with and against its currents. Encountering it, as I have, as winter settles in and the year draws to a close has been especially fortuitous. I cannot leave this short review without a poem,  “denuded trees,” perfect for the season, that deserves to be heard in full:

when I left the afternoon was already over. straggling
children tidied themselves from the playground into the
houses. the first rockets hissed invisibly, still almost inaudible
the throb of the bass. the roadside for quite some distance
was overcast with the haze of denuded trees, they smelled

of cuckoo flowers in the woods, and dozing above them the real
clouds in the wind hole, polar light, biting ice. once a chunk
of milk glass fell to the ground in front of me. before I could
tread on it, it melted away. that’s when I finally left. after that
I forgot everything here.                          I was back by new year.

Thick of It by Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by Karen Leeder, is published by Seagull Books.