Give me better ghosts: Nekhau by Rico Craig

When we are one hundred and thirty
pages old and it is still night, you place your hand
on my shoulder and still the shovel I’ve been swinging

into darkness. This is place of many walls,
many arms, endless caverns where we are
always at work turning what was into what will be.

(from “Caverns”)

Nekhau is my second encounter with the work of Australian poet Rico Craig. It’s his third collection. I read and wrote about his debut collection, Bone Ink, back in 2017 when I was still building my confidence as an amateur reviewer of poetry. In the meantime I have published a few of my own poems and written about a variety of poetic collections, but I still see myself as someone who lacks the language to critically analyze poetry and am quite comfortable with simply allowing myself to respond or, as I suggested when I set out to review Bone Ink, write through the experience of reading a collection.

With this new work, the focus is love, that most essential and ancient poetic theme. Craig is, as he says, asking the reader to “sit with love, to share hopes and fears.” Swimming through the collection, offering a shimmering thread of connection, are fish—real and talismanic alike. The “nekhau” of the title are small metal fish-shaped amulets created by Ancient Egyptian craftsmen to be attached to a loved one’s hair as protection against drowning. These charms are echoed explicitly and implicitly throughout:

These nekhau-poems aim to preserve and shield: they are reminders of dangers near, distant, even imagined, that bear upon our experience of love. Their existence becomes a rehearsal of loss and an expression of hope.

The lyric “I,” then, carries the capacity to speak for any of us, our loved ones, friends and families, as the poet mines the intricate and intimate dynamics of our interrelationships with one another, in a world born of flesh and dreams.

Nekhau is divided into three sections—End, Nekhau, Future—and to move from one to another there is a sense of a change of environmental awareness. The first and longest section, “End,” seems to speak to an abstracted space in which corporeal and chimerical worlds meet; a dream-like quality infuses the poems. The central section which opens with the title poem, “Nekhau”, a piece that also appears in fragments sprinkled throughout the book, holds to a more immediate domesticity and familial themes, again with an otherworldly tint, while many of the poems in the final part, “Future,” are set in locations abroad or otherwise marked by an a away-from-homeness. Across the collection, in addition to the small fish glimmering through the verses, distinct motifs link poems directly and indirectly, erupting in a visceral language that transcends experience. I could quote endlessly from this delicious collection but this, a length of the closing passage of “Black Swans” speaks volumes, distilling the power of Craig’s poetic imagination:

The river is a misshapen question and we answer, waking,
white air, the love beneath an eyelid. Our molecules crush
against pale ether; our songs float on water, fill culverts,
push against the scarp. All night we protect the rocks,
hide them in our sleeves; and when sunrise wakes us,
we lift from earth. I’m floating above the bed,
beside you, in a half-dream light shines into. My ears are filled
with sounds—lungs expanding, the river expelling life.
There are shapes hidden below our skin and each morning
I remember you as clearly as blood remembers a vein.
Love is cellular, in the sky, and you are still beside me. We will rise
and move into the day, encased in the people we are; we will drift
from this place, there will be buses to catch, clouds to be;
and for a moment it is impossible to know what has become of me,
become of you, if there is an I. It’s possible the scientists
have been truthful and we are clouds of swirling

matter, and only our pact with vision keeps us solid.

With his debut collection, Bone Ink, Craig was engaged a form of storytelling, slipping into characters, taking a frustrated attempt at prose writing and turning it into fragments of stories of suburban youth and riffing on artistic and historical themes. Now, two collections later his canvas is broader, more ethereal, but not divorced from quotidian routines or harsh contemporary realities. As he carries his reader (listener?) along a current sparked by the magic and the mundane, summoning fear and hope, one sense that the nekhau he invokes as a theme are also guiding his own passage, and growth, as a poet.

We are home you say, and I recognise nothing

of this darkness, only artefacts we have collected,
on we have rubbed across our skin,
treasures you have polished from dust.

(from “Caverns”)

Nekhau by Rico Craig is published by Recent Work Press.

Somewhere between night and day: Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy

Dark, endless,
lampless
behind the windowpanes

the night

Yet even it
ends up famished
can be heard fidgeting,
shrinking to better flee,
suddenly escaping
over the roofs

Spare, essential in its spirit, the voice of Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy strikes a distinctive note  from the first lines of “The Corridor,” the poem that opens Before the Night, the first part of her book Trás-os-Montes—a note that continues to rise off all the pages that follow. Born in Lausanne in 1954, Tappy is a highly respected writer, researcher and translator. The present collection of poetry, her seventh, was awarded the prestigious Swiss Prize for Literature in 2019 and is now available in a dual language French / English edition in John Taylor’s translation. (Her first six books were released in a single volume as Sheds / Hangars in 2014, again in Taylor’s translation, available from Bitter Oleander Press.)

In his Preface, Taylor provides an overview of the key poetic elements at play in the poems, linking them, where appropriate, to a continuation or development of approaches emerging in Tappy’s earlier poetry. His long association with the poet and her work allows him to contextualize the themes that arise, but a conversation between poet and translator recorded and published in translation in The Fortnightly Review, offers a valuable opportunity to hear Tappy discuss her poetic philosophy and this work in particular. In speaking about her own poetic evolution, she notes that Spanish and Latin American poets have had an abiding presence in her life and writing. Taylor wonders how this influence is reflected and she responds:

Surely natural elements in all their intensity: the Mediterranean, the arid lands, the most deserted landscapes, or the poorest landscapes. This is where my imagination goes and where I recover my roots. I have spent many moments of my life on one of the Balearic islands, and I came of age in the midst of an environment that was at once solar and maritime — and very harsh, where sunlight can be hostile, the vegetation overgrown and inhospitable, where the violence of nature demands a strong existential response from a human being. The southern European landscapes and their inhabitants, the harshness of their daily lives, have always accompanied me: Spain, but also Sicily, Greece, and Portugal.

This sensitivity to the human-natural interplay of intense landscapes is directly evident in Trás-os-Montes which is set in Portugal and Spain, along with an extended poetic epigram set in Greece. The first series of poems, Before the Night, feature a village woman, Maria, as she tends to the tasks of her daily life in “Trás-os-Montes” (which means “on the other side of the mountains”), an impoverished, isolated region of northern Portugal with an aging population clustered in small villages, almost forgotten by the rest of the country, bound to this austere lifestyle by deep ancestral roots.

Tiny and bent over
the sink, so far from us
in her blue apron, lost
in her rain boots, she’s sorting
the black cherries, setting the ripest
off to the side, separating them
from the rotten ones

She seems to be measuring
an old dream from a distance,
visiting it with her fingertips

behind the bare windowpane
the clouds
leave stains

We see her tending her garden, cleaning her home, straightening a fence, heading off to market, engaging in communal activities. But this is more than a quotidian cataloguing of chores or portrayal of a life shaped by the forces of nature and defined by time. The precise, economical language carries its own emotional and existential weight. Through the speaker’s observations of this woman who is at once a real person and someone who stands for a kind of “universal humanity,” Tappy is exercising a form of distanced depiction to ask questions about what life means. She says:

This book does not draw her portrait, nor address her (she will obviously never read me!). It’s actually the opposite that happens. . . Without her knowing so, this discreet hardworking woman holds out a mirror to me, and in this mirror I look at myself. This woman is a lamp for me. She illumines me and helps me to think, to think about myself.

This sequence of poems, then, lays the groundwork for those of the second section, The Blank Hour. Here the tone is more personal, while landscape—natural and man-made—becomes an even stronger feature, as trails and roads lead the speaker into an encounter with an intimate past.  Although in neither section is a location explicitly stated, these poems are ostensibly set in the Balearic Islands of Spain where Tappy has spent much time during her life. The imagery is bleak and beautiful, coloured with an atmosphere of memory and loss that grows deeper as the sequence proceeds.

But for those who go afar
with neither lamp nor landmark
under a sky of black snow,
the earth with its lighthouses,
its bits of bone, its rockets,
the earth so noisy during the day,
every evening closes up
like a wooden chest
over hope

There is, again, a real person at the centre of The Blank Hour, someone Tappy once loved who has passed away. Her speaker, the lyric “I” which she understands as “an ‘augmented I,’ as it were, composed of personal experiences but also of projections of my imagination,” addresses this individual and encounters his absence in the places they once knew together. Her language, so evocative, illuminates the experience of sorrow and grief so perfectly. Our losses always seem magnified, not only by specific locations but by the vastness of the universe itself.

Today the tamarisks
covered with dust from the trucks,
pink stars become gray
that you’ll never see again,
persist,
and the enamel-bright houses
bunch together. In silence
they stand, staving off
absence

A single fault line suffices, however,
and that look from the past returns,
slipping by mistake
into the heart, reopening
what had been locked up so well

a nearby star twinkling
and ripping

In reading Trás-os-Montes, one has a sense of journeying alongside the speaker, yet at the end we are each, poet and reader alike, left alone to understand the destinations we have reached. Tappy’s poetic process is openly existential in a way that prescribes no specific conclusion. The story she is telling, she claims, is not her own but rather a means to self-understanding: “By writing, I get myself going on a path, towards a deeper, renewed self.” As such, the story we read, is, at least to some degree, our own, shaped and coloured by our lives and experiences. And that is the true beauty and power of poetry.

Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy is translated from the French by John Taylor and published by MadHat Press.

The poet who learned to fly: The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli

In the years when written words were indecipherable signs, entrusted to a world that I couldn’t even reach on tiptoes, a book would be opened only for its illustrations or because my father’s voice was passing through it, over completely unknown roads, although his index finger seemed to trace them out, leaving short trails in which black letters, like objects in a magical night, came to life, silently spelling out in unison the same story which, open and ready to shift and change its pictures, my father was holding on his chest. It was his voice that brought the stories to us as we three were half-lying in the big bed where my little brother was staying up late, with his tiny ears that would soon close, containing a trail of sound and sense in the warm silence.

– from “The Enchantment of Death: Briar Rose”

If the first books read to us as children opened a world of strange symbols, hypnotic rhythms, and elliptical meanings, translations from foreign languages similarly open a doorway to landscapes and experiences at once distant and familiar. They introduce us to the images and words of writers we might not hear otherwise. Their stories. Their ideas. Their poetry.

The work of Italian poet Franca Mancinelli was first formally made available to English-speaking audiences through a small dual language collection of enigmatic, fragmentary prose poems, The Little Book of Passage, translated by John Taylor and published in 2018. These brief pieces which first appear to explore the vagaries of transit, packing, leaving, travel, soon begin to slide toward the examination of an existential space between internal and external reality—seeking form in that wordless, restless terrain of perception and experience. It was, and remains, a book that speaks to so much of my own sense of groundlessness. A collection containing Mancinelli’s two earlier volumes of poetry, At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007-2019), followed a year later. Once again her work is presented in a dual language format. Like her prose poems, her verses tend to be brief, spare, with an openness and space framing  unanswerable questions of identity, self and the insufficience of our connections with other beings.

Her newly released collection, The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose (2008 – 2021), stands as an illuminating counterpoint and companion to Mancinelli’s poetic work. Her most important stories, personal essays and writings about the poetic spirit are gathered here, including several pieces which have not yet appeared in print in Italian, presented, as before in both languages, and completed with a comprehensive assessment of her work written by Taylor, her long-time translator. For someone who has read her poetry, this collection offers further insight into the creative heart and soul of the poet herself—and that is not to imply that she gives herself away, for Mancinelli is a poet who manages to address the intimate and the universal, by speaking from the essential boundaries of experience—because, in her prose, one can begin to feel how her poetic sensibilities were born and nurtured and share in her vision of where poetry comes from.

Of course, it is not necessary to be previously acquainted with her poetry to appreciate the stories and essays contained in The Butterfly Cemetery (although it may well inspire a reader to seek them out), because this work offers its own rich rewards. If Mancinelli’s poems tend to be very open and spare, in her prose there is a profound lyric intensity. Her writing breathes, deeply and slowly, as her images, ideas and reflections rise, disappear and surface again. The book opens with stories and essays that strike a personal note, evoking memories of childhood and early adulthood, some sentimental, some gently fictionalized, and others tinged with aching and longing. In many of these early pieces, one encounters a sensitive, wistful dreamer, as in the title story about a young child fascinated by butterflies who does not realize her desire to touch their wings will kill them, or the exquisitely simple “How the Fire Loves,” a fable of a little girl who escapes to the comfort of the fireplace after supper:

She had curled up alone on the sofa. The television was turned off, and she was watching the fire in the fireplace, shivering as if it were cold. The fire cannot be caressed by anyone. It is always a little distant from the others, in its own space, alongside newspapers and pieces of wood; they will be in its arms, until they become ashes. This is how the fire loves.

The second section moves further away from the childhood home and the confused pain of first love, to explore the self in relation to natural landscapes and urban environments. Mancinelli wanders, on foot, by ferry and by train, observing and meditating on the landscape and communities that have formed and influenced her. There is a branching out and a cycling back to the people and places of her homeland—the hills, fields, and the waters that have cradled her family for generations. The tension between the desire to leave, the pull to return and the attempt to delineate the fragile borders of a personal geography are recurring themes. One senses that the weight of existence in a land with such a long historical, artistic and intellectual legacy both grounds and troubles the questions of identity and belonging that emerge from the shadows cast by her words. She is ever aware, in her prose as in her poetry, of the importance of darkness as a fundamental source of growth and understanding.

And that brings us to the third and final section of The Butterfly Cemetery. Here, Mancinelli the writer turns her focus to the nature of her own personal, creative relationship with words, and, more specifically, with the existential origins of poetic expression. She writes about the absolute urgency with which she first turned to writing, beginning in adolescence, as a means of “speaking” that which she could not find a way to voice, isolated and alone on the edge of her circle of friends. Feeling she was yielding her words to others, she reclaimed them with her pen:

I wrote within myself, on my body so deeply that ever since, I have taken the road on which I now walk. If had brought that sentence to my mouth, today I would be another person. The part of my life that I have spent up to now would have been different. This is why for me, everything continues to be staked on words. With words I have an unsettled account. (“Yielding Words”)

She speaks about the process of writing poetry with honesty, from the tentative beginnings to the frustrated failures—the lines that will never take flight—in “A Line is a Lap and Other Notes on Poetry” and talks about being mistaken for a traffic policewoman as she stands on a street taking notes in the notebook she always has close at hand. But it is the vital connection to poetry as a “practice of daily salvation” that comes through in the most powerful of these essays. Mancinelli is attuned the essential quality of poetic language, tracing its existence to the moment before it comes into being. In the wonderful piece “Poetry, Mother Tongue” she suggest that writing is the act of trying to translate what is already written within us, of looking into the empty space between “the unknown and nothingness”:

I believe that poetry is a voice that passes through us. For this reason I always begin with a lowercase letter when I write. I’m not beginning anything. I’ve only caught something that I stammer into this broken language, which crumbles and breaks in silence.

Before the words there is a rhythm: a cadence that suddenly reaches us, in silence through a hollow space that we carry inside us.

There is a strong sense in Mancinelli’s view of poetics that writing itself is a dangerous act, one that calls us to face the dark and the difficult, one that takes us into our own “darkroom,” that place where we are most vulnerable. “Writing,” she tells us, “is a soul surgery that calls for a steady hand, and a deep place to which uncertainty and tremor can be convoked. It is an act of internal self-surgery.” And yet in the writing, there is a possibility of decentring and being set free. Poetry (and prose) that arises from within, although grounded in direct experience and observation, allows for space and a measure of abstractedness to guide writer, and reader, from the individual toward the universal.

But, to return, once more, to the ability of translation to open doors to those who lack the fluency to read a writer’s work in its original language, John Taylor’s collaboration with Franca Mancinelli, has brought one of the most compelling voices in contemporary Italian poetry to a wider audience. Unexpectedly that has also come to have a special resonance for me. Shortly after I read and reviewed The Little Book of Passage, I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with the poet in Kolkata when a visit I made happened to overlap with her poetry residency in the city. Her English far outpaced my non-existent Italian and although I felt no lack in our conversations, all of the subsequent interviews, poetry and prose that has become available in English has only deepened my appreciation and affection for her sensitivity and vision. Translation truly expands the world as we know it.

The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli is translated by John Taylor and published by Bitter Oleander Press.

And now for something completely different: the adventures of char, vol #1 by Whiskey Radish

I have, for a number of years now, been an ardent admirer of Whiskey Radish, the enthusiastic, energetic creator of a world like no other—one peopled with an inexhaustible cast of characters whose adventures unfold in single-sentence illustrated frames. These moments sometimes stand alone, sometimes riff off one another with a free form jazz vibe. Her distinctive sketches have been a regular presence online and off—illustrating articles, decorating freely gifted postcards, stickers and other treats, and gathered together in books created and often sold for a song. Now, for the first time, a selection of Ms. Radish’s images have been collected in a fabulous full-colour book published by Ice Floe Press. The adventures of char, vol #1 is a labour of love. It is a treasure for existing fans and a welcome introduction for those who have not yet met the cheerful madness of Whiskey Radish.

Behind the playful moniker is an artist, writer and jazz lover who lives near Boston. A wife and mother of three who teaches private art classes to teenagers, the core stimulus of her art rests in the daily practice of producing a daily “sortie” or burst of thought. Illustrated with her boisterous ink drawings, each thought becomes a story in itself. The images in this volume are drawn from around 300 “sorties” made between October of 2020 and July of 2021. Robert Frede Krenter, the publisher of Ice Floe Press, selected and ordered the images with their descriptive wisdoms and observations to titled create mini-adventues. The result is a collaborative visual poetry.

Whiskey Radish’s primary template is black ink on white, a blend of blotchy exuberance and startlingly fine detail, but in this collection colour is invited to join the party, often adding texture, density and a remarkable range and variety to the images. The creative process and the method of assembly heightens the variability. Some of Whiskey’s familiar characters—Char, Slimbo the Rocket Dog, You and the King—are joined by other wise, wistful and magical personas and even, for a change of pace, a selection of drawings of plants.

I first read this book in PDF—full disclosure, I was asked to provide a blurb—a format that enforces a linear reading. But, now that I have a paper copy, it is just as delightful, if not more fun, to just open it up and slip in and out of the short segments moving forward and back. During a month in which a broken leg has me tethered to home as outside spring is bursting with green leaves and blossoms, and so much news has been shrouded in darkness, it has been wonderful to have a book so full of life close at hand.

The adventures of char, vol #1 by Whiskey Radish is published by Ice Floe Press.

i am so pure and lonely: My Jewel Box by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

infinite energy borrowed from the future
founded everything
out of nothing

like debt  (45)

It has been four years since my first encounter with the work of Danish experimental poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen through her book-length poem Third-Millennium Heart. I was, at the time, grieving the death of my mother a year and a half earlier, and in a process of coming to understand the nature of the particular absence her loss had left in my own sense of identity.

Dramatic and intense, the poem follows an expectant mother-figure like no other, her language pulsing like blood through arteries and veins, her vision pushing beyond patriarchal capitalist dynamics toward a new conception of the body and the kind of life it can nurture and contain.

As I described it in a blog post, “we are held captive by a demanding chimeric voice, witnesses to the realization of a possible future reality which, not unlike the mechanistic hive-mind typically associated with cyborg imagery, envisions a hive-heart existence.” I was so swept up in the flow of this epic, inventively translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, that I was moved to create an experimental poetic response of my own which was published at Minor Literature[s]. (The PDF is reproduced here.)

Last year, a follow-up volume, Outgoing Vessel was released in translation. Reading, perhaps, more like a companion piece, rather than a continuation, the enigmatic speaker here is a more isolated, inward focused figure. Through an atmosphere heavy with grief, anger, pain and existential disconnect, her rhythmic chants progress toward the articulation of a radicalized technological ontology. Now, in the place of a new life/lives, the poet talks of an orb, an indestructible object that she carries within her body—a planet of her own that ultimately figures in a re-imagining of a new human beingness. The tone, often harsh and seemingly unforgiving, ultimately leads to an affirming vision, even more boldly futuristic than that of the preceding cycle.

Now, a third work—My Jewel Box—has arrived, bringing with it another striking shift and a remarkable sense of closure. That is, at least in my experience, the three volumes form an echoing, interconnected epic, with a grand operatic arc, one in which the speaker/singer evolves through different ways of seeing and understanding herself—in society, in the universe, and finally as vital link in the ongoing chain of life. She returns to earth, one might say, but as an ever-dynamic force, she bends earth (along with air, water and fire) to her own imagination. The connection with Third-Millennium Heart is possibly the most obvious, but in the move from a gestational to a generational reality, I would suggest that the strongly internalized, starkly solitary exploration of Outgoing Vessel can be read as a necessary recalibration of the individual self in contrast to the communal self that is governed and influenced by our interpersonal and transactional relationships with others. Now, the self is redefining herself once again.

interrupt me in my work

i sat there and

i’m in the deep laboratory
connecting myself to
the unrest, how it feels
it has a pronounced gravity
soft, possibly smooth, and heavy
it calms the body, even though
it isn’t still

is it my child, is it my mother
is it myself

is it alive

an incredible labor (18)

Like its predecessors, My Jewel Box is comprised of a series of poetic sequences that together form a single, book-length poem. Photographic artworks by Sophia Kalkau mark each section, the continuation of creative partnership that has enhanced the entire trilogy. Olsen employs reiteration, chant-like passages, shifts in tense and intention, neologisms and a distinct sonic intensity to propel her poetry forward. Motifs and themes from the earlier works also reappear, drawing on threads that run throughout the trilogy. In Danish, she is lauded for her daring use of language, so, as ever, the trust and chemistry that exists between poet and translator is critical. Olsen sees herself as the first translator of the ideas, and Jensen as the second, granted the freedom to work with the language to capture the inventiveness and spirit of the original. The result is a collaboration that is very special.

My Jewel Box opens with a surreal poem that involves the speaker’s sister and their mother’s body. Her parents and her child will also appear later in the longer poems that close out each sequence, hinting at a somewhat more intimate tone than admitted in the previous works. We catch a glimpse of the dynamic central figure as daughter, sister and mother. Nonetheless, the poetry resounds with bold statements, sharp contrasts—love/hate, pleasure/pain, blame/guilt/innocence, supply/demand—and harsh indictments, but the tone is somehow wiser; the debt ratios and mechanisms of balance are changing. What has been borrowed must be repaid. And the payment will be realized in a new understanding of the relationship between the body and the material world. It will be emotionally and physically painful.

to keep the spirit inside
force it to stay inside the body
despite physical discomfort
despite almost endless physical discomfort

i place the body inside the world
and breathe in
i place the world inside the body
and breathe out
that is what i do
i am

griefbody
ragebody
joybody
lovebody

i identify with everything, with
(fire, water, earth, air)  (131)

The preparation occurs at all levels of the body, from the cellular to the surface and beyond—fleshy and metallic imagery are interwoven leading, ultimately, to what is the beating heart of this poetic epic, the longest sequence, named, like the book, “My Jewel Box.” Here we move into a quieter, more organic, melancholy space, one that increasingly embraces a connection to the natural world, as the speaker enters a new phase of life—the post-fertile. This menopausal suite is, in its early movements, charged with loneliness and loss. Rivers of sweat run, the uterus is reimagined as a container for what? Air? Water? The blood now bled out is invisible.

i am a mother
who does not turn anyone into siblings
who will not be turning anyone into siblings  (183)

Yet, as before, Olsen’s poetic vision is fundamentally life-affirming and, as her speaker begins to come to a fresh appreciation of her newly defined integration with the material world, her language explodes with the most vivid array of colours painted onto a tapestry of stars, gardens and forests. In contrast with the limited palettes of Third-Millennium Heart and Outgoing Vessel, it is blinding and exhilarating. The sadness lingers, the transition is pained, but possibilities are awoken, to be reclaimed as the work draws to a close at the end of the final sequence.

The power of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s trilogy lies, for me, in her ability to move from the restrictive to the expansive, the biological to the cosmic, and back again. Her enigmatic speaker seems to be seeking a grounding in a vast universe, either pulling it all inside herself or holding herself close against its emptiness. At last, with My Jewel Box, there is a sense that she has reached a more solid footing, at once tentative and secure, a place where she belongs, somewhere between eternity and eternity.

Or, perhaps, that might just be my own translation of my experience of reading this trilogy.

My Jewel Box by Ursula Andkjær Olsen is translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen and published by Action Books.

Note: I will be in conversation with the poet and her translator on Sunday, May 15, 2022 at 1:00 pm CST. If interested, you can register to attend this virtual event at Brazos Bookstore.

“a translation of myself”: distant transit by Maja Haderlap

is there a zone of darkness between all languages,
a black river that swallows words
and stories and transforms them?
here sentences must disrobe,
begin to roam, learn to swim,
not lose the memory that nests in
their bodies, a secret nucleus.

(from “translation”)

Maja Haderlap was born Carinthia, the southern-most province of Austria, into the Slovenian-speaking minority community that served in the resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War. As a result, they suffered repression during the war and ongoing persecution in the decades that followed. Haderlap was raised in this hostile borderland environment and educated in both Slovenian and German, two languages burdened with conflicting histories and dynamics in the region. She first established herself as a poet with several Slovenian-language collections before releasing, at the age of fifty, her acclaimed German-language novel, Angel of Oblivion. According to her translator, Tess Lewis, her decision to write about her family and community history in German, was controversial, but guided by a desire to reach as wide an audience as possible with a story that was largely ignored or unknown. Now, with distant transit, she has returned to poetry, but, for the first time, through the medium of her second language.

The fact that these poems were composed and published in German adds an extra layer to the themes Haderlap explores. Language and the translation of identity and self-understanding inform the poet’s reflections on home, relationships, and belonging—experiences grounded in her Slovenian culture and heritage, but examined through German and all that that language has afforded her beyond her rural roots. The tension between the two forms of expression comes through in Lewis’ perceptive translation, heightening the emotional impact of this work.

Haderlap’s poetic diction and simple, lowercase form, reward careful engagement. I found that the style encourages a close reading to follow the rhythm and the division of thoughts or sentences. Her imagery is rich, inspired by the natural beauty of her native countryside, yet filled with longing and questioning. Language is an ever present element—what does it contain, preserve and lose as one grows and moves between vocabularies and grammars? And what does it mean to be at home in any one place or community?

                                 language opens
rotted doors, thrusts the dusty boards
from their brackets, reveals the buried stone.
it flies at my face like a flock of startled
swallows, confronts me as the smell of mold,
drops from the jagged armor and
hulls of kids’ stuff like silt shed from all that was.
as soon as its bird heart beats calmly,
it shows its skin, appears unscathed and
hardly used. keep me safe, language,
wall me off against time.

(from “home”)

This collection is steeped in the landscape and mythologies of Haderlap’s Slovenian youth, carrying that foundation into adulthood in an evolving relationship with language—hoping and trusting words to carry memories forth into another time and tongue. It is an uncertain faith. Yet her poetry so vividly captures the possibilities and limitations of translation, that I would suggest that one does not need to likewise live between two languages to recognize the nature of the dilemma. Any one of us who trusts our own memories, emotions and experiences to the vagaries of words—even if in our sole language—worries those same words onto the page. The writer is always recognizing the permeability of the borders and boundaries within their own experiences, translating and transcribing themselves into being, seeking to find preservation and refuge in words. Haderlap speaks to this so acutely.

the shore path is now built up, shifted,
torn out of the meadow and discarded.
i, too, have emerged repeatedly
as a translation of myself,
transferred and rewritten
i appear in a new transcription
although in similar form.

(from “on the shore path in the evening light”)

The poems that comprise distant transit speak to a personal political reality in intimate, yet recognizable terms, echoing the transitions we all experience as we grow into adulthood, away from home and search to find ourselves in the world. More specifically and powerfully though, Haderlap animates the mystery, power and baggage that a language can carry with it, how words and sentences are laden with implications for understanding the past and the present, to articulate one’s identity as an individual torn between two tongues.

distant transit by Maja Haderlap is translated from the German by Tess Lewis and published by Archipelago Books.

you still don’t know / that you exist, & yet: in field latin by Lutz Seiler

i have said
something, sung without
my hands: i have

smoked up all the shadows.
lungward i took these shafts to where
the empty space begins the rustling
      out along the paling
towards the railway cars—seventeen years

before the text.

(from “sentry duty”)

Poet and novelist Lutz Seiler was born in 1963, in Gera, in the state of Thuringia in the GDR and, like many writers from the former East Germany, the arts, as a career, were not on his radar when he was growing up. He was expected to acquire a solid, practical trade and complete his mandatory military service—that was the accepted foundation required to be a productive member of society. And so he did, training as a mason and a carpenter, but during his period of service he began to read poetry, kindling an interest in reading and writing that would ultimately shape his future. He went on to study literature and is now widely recognized for his poetry and prose. German nature poet Peter Huchel (1903–1981) was an early influence on his own writing and, fittingly, in time he would become the custodian of the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst, thus carrying his distinct variation on the same literary tradition into the twenty-first century.

Natural themes and a strong sense of place mark Seiler’s work. This can be seen clearly in his collection in field latin, Alexander Booth’s thoughtful translation of his 2010 publication, im felderlatein. Rooted in the bucolic landscapes of his home state which, prior to reunification, was situated in the southwest corner of the GDR, many of his poems elicit the shifting moods of the borderlands, adding a certain layer of ambiguity to his precise, attentive lyric poetry.

within the fields’ rippling script the glimmer
of a few bricks, some tufts of grass & the small
      rests of bones: how

it all lies together in the end.
arise, ascent & so there was
a lot of signalling, radioing, failure
about my feet, step after step.

(from “what I possessed”)

The poems and sequences in this volume tend to draw inspiration from memories of childhood, family and the peculiarities of rural life. Seiler’s poetic form is spare, stripped down, details carefully selected and characteristically written with ampersands and without capitalization. This style is particularly affecting in German where nouns are typically capitalized, but in both languages the appearance on the page adds a hush to the sound and feel of his poems.

the shadows, aged early, but we
remember: homeward, lonely
simply walking
step by step recording
the silent outline. for

the shadows, at the beginning,
were the small, black units of pay
a currency for which
the creator interrupted his
.        work.

(from “the very first affection”)

Although Seiler’s poetic vision is clearly informed by his own unique political and literary inheritance—as much as any writer’s inevitably is—the deeply personal energy that animates his sparse, well-framed images invites recognition. It speaks to the universality of human experience. We are at once acutely aware of, and haunted by, the world around us. Every environment harbours its own ghosts. One of my favourite poems, “do you see the redbrick moon” evokes the image of an electrical lane. I once saw these parades of pylons marching across the landscape as an invasive species, but have learned to see them as a necessary presence, another creature that one might as well embrace as I do the line that runs between my apartment and the forest:

do you see the redbrick moon
above the eiffel towers? below that
the quacking, magnetic garbling & time
within the frogs’ legs humming?

this is the old high-voltage lane. it
holds the moistness to the poles, holds
the fog & supports it. soft
blue shadows envelop all, a spider

hands always its threads & floats
as if electrified. dreams unearthed.

Alexander Booth’s excellent translation allows Seiler’s poems room to breathe, preserving his unusual syntax and fine-boned imagery and emotion. As a result, in field latin offers a vital introduction for English language readers to the work of this important contemporary German poet.

in field latin by Lutz Seiler is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

Night / falls / slowly: Dream Pattering Soles by Miguelángel Meza

I was long asleep within me.
Emerge to keep vigil,
move.
Yes I was asleep within me.
I am truly alone.

(from “Appear”)

It may be small, but this trilingual chapbook contains an entire world in the span of ten poems. Here Guaraní poet Miguelángel Meza calls on the traditional mythology and cosmology of his Indigenous Paraguayan culture to speak to contemporary issues. This project, named in full Ita ha’eñoso / Ya no está sola la piedra Formerly and Again Known as Pyambu / Dream Pattering Soles has its origin in a dual language Spanish translation by Meza along with Carlos Villagra and Jacobo Rauskin first published in 1985. The original Guaraní was revisited and edited by the poet for this double bilingual edition which includes both the Spanish version and an English translation by Elisa Taber (each running alongside the original from the opposite end of the book). As a writer, translator and anthropologist born in Paraguay, Taber is especially well suited to take on this project. She was able to access the original poems directly and via the Spanish, check with the poet as needed, and edit the final version, allowing a uniquely interwoven translation to emerge.

The English title Dream Pattering Soles is a literal translation of the original title Pyambu, that, as the translator indicates in her Note, evokes an auditory image of “menacing presences, deities turned human.” The Spanish title that translates as The Stone is No Longer Alone calls to mind comforting presences, the “humanity of the nonhuman.” Together, the titles selected for the two translations embrace two essential elements of the grounding mythic narratives and the poet’s approach to rendering them. As Taber says:

Meza’s central figures of speech are metaphors and metonymies used in conjunction. Something substitutes another which is part of a whole. The attribute of a particular god is identifiable in a human and that of any human is identifiable in an animal or a thing.

As such, the journey of the poet, and by extension his community and the reader, is one of moving from being with to becoming in the other.

In the opening poem, Meza, takes on, as “I”, the voice of the fundamental essence—the first  ñe’ë, or world-soul, that arises with the beginning of the world. Nature is, as one would expect, an abiding presence in this sequence, and even without a detailed knowledge of Guaraní mythology, the mournful beauty speaks across a wide geographical and cultural expanse.

I suffer, moon.
Wrung firefly falls.
Earth will turn to dust, they say.
End. Then,
who will you, daughter, orbit?
I suffer:
The sky wrecks the rivers.
Sadness’ dust falls.
Ashes cover the fields and
the vast forest.
And you seem to spin back
into the sky’s depths.

(from “Moon”)

In this conception of the world, we see ancient wisdom meet modern concerns. The delicate, haunting images seem speak to our changing planet in the uncanny way traditional mythology so often does. In these uncertain times—the slogan of the 2020s it seems—this unique volume is a timely invitation to listen.

Dream Pattering Soles by Miguelángel Meza is translated by Elis Taber and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

Dreams distancing: Triptych by Alexander Booth

When you open a book like Alexander Booth’s Triptych and you know you have encountered something special—not just the poems within but the entire production—it almost seems like its route from poet to your hands is one that was destined to be. It is one that, by fate or circumstance, has bypassed conventional publishers. Yet, this collection is not your average DIY project; it is a beautiful object, crafted with an elegant simplicity, featuring fine textured paper, and an original artwork gracing the cover. For Booth, an American poet and translator living in Berlin, the decision to put together his own publication rather than furthering the endless cycle of submission and rejection, offered a way to guide the creative process and reach out directly to interested readers.

I first became acquainted with Alexander Booth through his translations, but I’ve also encountered excerpts of his poetry here and there over the years. His work is spare, filled with a pale light, silent shadows, distant landscapes, winding streets and dusty rooms. His translucent imagery allows a sense of intimacy and distance at once, a blurring of the internal and external environment. The first person pronoun is rarely used, much is left unsaid, or open.

Triptych, as the title implies, is comprised of three sequences, each composed at a different time in the poet’s life. The first, “Roman Hours,” Booth describes as “miniatures or mourning songs” mostly located in Italy. They are minimalist portraits:

Slim sun-edged thumb
Of Roman brick

Umbered, undone

This late valley dozing
Under a late spring sun

You still want what will not last

– from “Eveningsong”

The second section, “The Little Light that Escaped,” is a blend of fragmentary verse and prose-like passages that “explores metaphorical and literal dislocation against the backdrop of the Mediterranean, twinned with Berlin.” It evokes a feeling of exile, of migrants moving into Europe desperately seeking a better, safer life, and of the author’s own sense of foreignness, living away from his home country. The experience of detail is heightened but often disconnected in a new or strange land. That sense is captured in this extended intertextual work:

Days passing, just out of reach of the sun. Days passing, in a basement room, watching the arc of the sun through a small square of sky. Tides of no turning. Blocks of light mosaic and slow days taste like mineral, copper, rust.

How much of the other side is one allowed to see? Shadow. Half shadow. Night barely impastoed before the distant blue of the country’s spine once again appeared. Mallow, poppy, thistle. Streets like veins tracing a story through the heart, the city a map of a narrative. What hands, what fingers worked the threads, and who gave voice to whom.

The final part, “Insulae” is a series of fifteen short pieces featuring rooms recollected from Booth’s past—in Rome, Berlin, and in the US—“a memory of architecture an architecture of memory.” These sketches are unique and yet familiar, and set off images in my mind the uncommon spaces I’ve inhabited over the years. How sharply they come back after so long.

Most of the time you were in the kitchen. It was narrow, and looked onto a couple of trees, a few pre-fab high-rises tinged in blue. Bluish evenings. Haunt, hope, hue. Still the light was warm despite winter’s grey monotony: ice-rain, snow, frostblooms before your morning mouth, all the way up through May.  (from VII)

In an interview with Tobias Ryan on Minor Literature(s), Booth discusses Triptych, his influences, and his reasons for putting this collection together on his own. With a small, targeted project he was able to focus on quality, understanding, as he says, “I can do this and control everything, and the people who will, will and those won’t, won’t and what difference does it really make?” It is not an approach all poets would want to, or could afford to follow, but as someone who was excited to be able to purchase a copy, I feel that this lovingly produced volume is worthy of attention for its own value and as an example of what “self-published” can be.

Triptych by Alexander Booth was published with a limited run of 150. I’m not sure if copies are still available, but for more information check his website: http://www.wordkunst.com/

Two poetry collections read in January: Losing Touch by Magda Kapa and Small Talk by Stephan Delbos

Blogging, reviewing, and online book banter has brought writers, translators, and small publishers into my life that I may never have encountered otherwise. This is the beauty of a community of readers and book lovers that knows no borders. Last month I read two new collections by poets I came to know through this virtual literary network, both of whom I have read before: Magda Kapa and Stephan Delbos.

Greek-born Germany-based poet, photographer and teacher Magda Kapa captures small, finely observed moments in her poetry, sharing it on her blog I Was Not Born in English along with her photographs. Her new collection Losing Touch features spare poems that follow a form she credits to poet George Szirtes—3 stanzas of a haiku-like form followed by a single stand-alone 5-syllable line. As Covid came into our lives in early 2020, following Szirtes’ lead, she began capturing her response to the pandemic through these small structured poems. I have long followed her posts and have her earlier collection, All the Words, so as I read this new volume which chronicles the days, perhaps 8-10 times per month, from March 2020 to February 2021, I felt like I was sometimes encountering old friends in poems and lines that I myself had quoted and shared with others. Her images are sharp, her verses visually and emotionally astute:

8th June

Late afternoon light
falling sideways through gate doors,
marking lines on walls.

Inside us, self-drawn
lines too, implacable bars
that one gets used to.

As light shapes darkness,
lines like tears, marked days,
years, marked centuries.

Our secret sketchbooks.

Although deceptively simple, these poems carry the poet’s immediate response, in the moment, to the way the pandemic has strained and altered our connections, our expectations and our dreams. As they evolve across the first year of Covid, they capture changes we can all relate to. There is the inability to understand, and the fear and uncertainty of the early days marked by anxious nights, an increasing focus on the interiority of our individual existences and necessary distance from loved ones. Alongside the changing pandemic reality, other realities also intrude, marked as appropriate, by hashtags denoting BLM, climate change, the Lebanon explosion.

When Covid hit I was editing for an online journal and it seemed we were inundated with pandemic submissions. We even ran our own series. It felt like a quickly saturated market, but now, as we move into the third year, I am grateful for records like this that speak to the early ebb and flow of emotion, but I know well that the final story is yet to be written. Losing Touch, beautifully illustrated with drawings by Elizabeth Adams, is a moving testament to the distanced, sometimes surreal and melancholic, unwelcome new normal we are still navigating two years later.

Losing Touch by Magda Kapa is published by Phoenicia Publishing.

* * *

I first became aware American poet and translator Stephan Delbos as co-translator of Vitězslav Nezval’s The Absolute Gravedigger. I then read and reviewed Light Reading, his collection of sparse, fragmentary poems. Long based in Prague, he was named the first Poet Laureate of his hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts in 2020 and his new collection, Small Talk, spans both of his homes in Europe and the US. In doing so, it also covers a broad range of themes and settings. Vivid images from the streets of European cities meet childhood Cape Cod memories meet poetic tributes to Michael Jackson and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a chilling nursey rhyme style memorial to four boys killed on Gaza Beach.

However the highlight and centrepiece of this volume is the extended sequence “A Child’s Guide to Candor,” dedicated to his first child. By turns domestic, nostalgic and hallucinatory, a new father marvels at the wonder of a new life, a new role, and all of the dreams and fears that entails.

I dream of weeping on ice skates,
Olympiad Chorus swarming,
knife-bearing ceremony;
dream of burglars tearing books
and wake to the slumber of my son;
silence
of midnight hockey rinks
hovers in the house.

He implodes the luscious
fruit of dreams
fists tight as figs.

As he adjusts to his new role as a parent, the poet is flooded with an array of images drawn from his own boyhood, the adventures and the anxious moments, with knowledge that his child will have to face his own formative experiences—in time. He watches as his own parents settle into their new roles as grandparents and reflects on the generational shifts.

What is family?
Blood architecture.
Seasons of mind.
Rooms and furniture.
Bottles of words.
Charted worries.
Bookshelves of names.
Living photographs.
Lost property.
A story written.
of flesh and forgiveness.

The surreal strangeness of the early months and years of parenthood are so beautifully captured in this series of segmented poems— a personal celebration of new life in the world that reminds us that the future belongs to our children, in an individual and collective context, something we cannot afford to forget in these volatile times.

Small Talk by Stephan Delbos is published by Dos Madres Press.