Our way of being in danger is our way as poets: Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalos

If this poem is filled with the beating of wings
It’s because you hear birds
                                            You don’t just see them

—from “The Meaning of the Blind” (1962)

I confess to be rendered speechless, or is that wordless, at the prospect of saying anything that can do justice to the experience of reading Before Lyricism by Greek poet Eleni Vakalos. This collection is comprised of six book length poems from early in her career, is misleading upon first glance. Some pieces are broken into subtitled sections, elsewhere fragments hang in mid-air, continuing from page to page or changing course midstream. But each book is an intended whole, meant to be read as such. And the collection, presented together, contains cross references, themes that reappear, and an open-endedness that is echoed throughout. As the translator, Karen Emmerich, tells us in her essay that closes out the book, Valakos intensifies the grammatical features her language affords in unexpected ways:

Present active participles such as following, watching, leaving, grasping resembling, normally rare in Greek precisely because of the ambiguity they invite, allow the poet to systematically  obscure the subjects of her verbs: one might say that nearly all Vakalos’ particles dangle.

Punctuation is either absent or minimal, numbers of subjects and objects and verbs may not match, main verbs may be missing altogether, whereas several potential subjects may emerge. Yet the opacity that arises creates its own allure, its own space for reading into meaning. For the translator, the challenge is allow a process of unfolding to occur. The poems, as presented, represent a decade’s worth of work and as she admits they are “less an end product than a resting point in a process that could easily have continued for another decade or more.” It a tribute to Emmerich’s skill and sensitivity, that sense of being in flux comes through. And that is, I think, what catches the words in my throat or rather in my fingers on the keyboard, as I attempt to capture a sense of this book.

Dating from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, natural elements have a dominant presence in the poems that comprise Before Lyricism. Engagement of the human (poetic) experience with the nonhuman is fluid and often undefined, boundaries blur. There is a sense of being inside the reading, an effect of the frequently shifting subject, incompleteness of many passages, and the poet’s use of space on the page. It is a sensation impossible to reproduce with a selection abstracted from any one of the poems, a task which, in itself, is antithetical to the way the poet wanted these pieces to be encountered:

Because I dwell in the abyss as in my poem, always hidden,
 .         dwells not a word but a sob

How many times hunched in his boat does the fisherman
        list with it over the abyss

Fishing for the dark life of my soul

And when at last the fish rises seized on the bait it seems a
       stream begins to run from the darkness to the waters

 

of the sea
                        Where could you find for it seasons
In bloom, so many gardens brimming
With despair, with incredible eros
Now in spring as they spun slowly lifting the coolness
I sat at night and watched the gardens becoming
Deep in a way, reminding me of the listing embrace
Of all those who become lovers
Of a breathtaking fall that lasted
The whole of that deadly sky

—from “Our Way of Being in Danger” (1966)

There is, within Vakalo’s poetry an intimation of the deeply unsettling potencies at play in the natural world. The images evoked are beautiful and threatening. “Plant Upbringing” (1956), as a particularly striking example, casts the garden as a place of nocturnal conspiracies, paints flowers and trees as defiant, even rebellious monsters. And yet, plants, as she sees them are entirely recognizable and imaginable, it is the poet’s engagement with the vegetative reality that is intuitive and alarming:

Which habits of plants frighten me
When shoots burst from dry branches
folded inside are tiny green leaves
—Perhaps that’s why you can’t ever be sure a plant
is really dead—
because a new stalk
strong
and blooming
sprouts from the very root
replacing the weathered trunk
other plants drop seed before they die
in the proper season you’ll see them sprout
or the root remains
and the next year will give us more and fuller

The endurance of plants astonishes me
some slip their roots beneath the foundations
Advancing beside the garden
A poplar sprouted that way by the house and grew big
You can’t hem plants in
You just prune them when necessary
Those plants we all think so simple

There is a persistent element of danger in the most obvious and the most innocuous moments. That is, for Vakalo, where the poet rests. Allusions to hidden meaning, misunderstanding, decay, loss and distortion all reflect the challenges that interrupt linguistic interaction with perceived realities. With the world. The natural elements—forests and deserts, moonlight and darkness, birds and fish, bodies and sensations—are all wound with multiple threads of possibility. And those threads make their way back to the spark of human existence within this interrelated network, with the desire to step outside to articulate truths, but ever inside and unable draw distinctions that hold hard and fast.

Nothing holds firmly in these poems. Everything hangs in the air.

Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, is edited and translated by Karen Emmerich and published by Ugly Duckling Press. At this time of writing it has been shortlisted for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award.

The Best Translated Book Award 2018: Some reflections about the fiction and poetry nominees

In advance of the announcement of this year’s BTBA finalists for fiction and poetry, I wanted to share a few thoughts about the nominated titles I have had a chance to read. I read almost half of the poetry long list and almost six of the 25 fiction titles—I say “almost” because there is a title on each side that I have not yet finished. I don’t have posted reviews for all, but I do have a few favourites going forward.

What I love about this award is that it invariably draws my attention to a few titles that I might never have encountered and, because it is based on titles released in the US, I can generally get my hands on the books that interest me. This year, because I turned my focus to poetry, the experience has been especially rewarding. Here are the books I’ve read, in whole or in part, with links to the reviews I wrote (where applicable) and some thoughts about the books read and not yet reviewed:

Fiction:

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson (Norway, Seagull Books)

I have not quite finished this book, and therefore cannot judge it fully. I am pleased to see it on the list; it’s an interesting blend of genre and so far I am enjoying it. However, as it is my first experience with Espedal, I have no context to place it against.

I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff (Switzerland, New Directions)

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (India, Penguin)

 The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker (Mexico, Feminist Press)

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Two Lines Press)

Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press) Also see here.

Hands down this is my favourite title of all that I have read, a book that I absolutely adore. Above I have linked the argument in its favour that I wrote for the Three Percent site. I would have to say that this and My Heart Hemmed In are two books I really love and hope make the cut. Both, it happens, are from the same publisher, in this case Two Lines Press—a circumstance echoed on the poetry side of the equation.

*

Poetry:
Because this is where I spent most of my energies, this is where my attention will focus.

Paraguayan Sea by Wilson Bueno, translated from the Portunhol and Guarani to Frenglish and Guarani by Erin Moore (Brazil, Nightboat Books)

Raining. Winter wet pluries of southern hemispheric June in the beach town. Dense fog, tick, a sort of paste of days when the rains start to soak even gardens and streets. An evocation of fairies through the windows: all marrying winter, leurs sombreros s’embracent in an orgy of wet leaves. I swear.

I have not yet finished this most unusual book—an extended prose poem that employs a delicious blend of languages to tell a strange narrative tale. Very intriguing, it would be good to see it make the cut.

Hackers by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Goransson (Sweden, Black Ocean Press)

I am
inside you
Where nobody expected
Looneysingapore
Hovered down through
The Phillipine
storm

cat-soft
toxoplasma
schizosex

Endorphoria
never kills
its host world

Of the poetry I read, this book was the least successful for me. The imagery—parasites, computer viruses, hackers, movie and pop culture references—did not resonate with me. I could admire it, the translation is slippery and solid, but I don’t feel I would be drawn back to it so readily. It is a quick read, so another visit is likely in order. But not yet.Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling)

The plants in the garden
Give a first impression
Of peace
Even more so than pets
But that impression changes
As evening falls
And the garden seems to have multiplied
In the movement
Of proportions of changes
You understand
At such times I try not to look
In case someone is hiding there
As it often seems
Though in morning the garden
Will be once more
Like the slanting line on the cheeks
Of very young girls
When the light strikes them from the side

—from “Plant Upbringing”

I did not have time to review this book, but probably will write more soon. This is a magnificent collection of six early book length poems by Eleni Vakalo, presented with great attention to placement and space on the page, and intended to be read as complete pieces. One of the exciting encounters of my recent BTBA poetry excursions.

Things That Happen by Bhaskar Chakrabarti, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (India, Seagull Books)

I am so pleased to see an Indian author in translation on each list. This collection strikes a melancholic tone and speaks to very human emotions—loneliness, loss and nostalgia. It speaks to the diversity represented by the BTBA selections.

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun, translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham (Syria, Action Books)

If it isn’t clear from my recent review, I love this book. It is a vital collection and so very timely. I would be quite happy to see this take the award. I certainly hope it makes the short list, along with my other favourite, also from the same publisher, Action Books (in this case a joint publication with Broken Dimache Press in Europe).

Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Denmark, Action Books & Broken Dimanche Press)

You were inside me like I was a house; that does not
mean I know what’s going on inside you. A house
does not know the interior of its resident.

That is the other wall for loneliness.
To irradiate.

My x-ray/loneliness.
Your loneliness/grass.

If you are to be tortured, I must
teach you to sing: as I walked out one midsummer’s morning
it will keep them out.

You make me think, as I walked out, I must learn to sing
double with one voice,

whose song will fan in to seven voices
whose songs will each fan into seven voices
whose songs will each fan into seven voices, whose songs will

make the air solid and prevent any movement. No one can move.
No one can harm you.

I have read this book many times, my copy is exploding with marginalia and sticky notes, and in response, I wrote an experimental review that has been published at Minor Literature[s] . In the meantime, I will say it is at once spare and epic. A post-human vision that moves beyond patriarchal and matriarchal physical, social, and political dynamics—edgy, unnerving and ultimately inspiring. A challenging work, I love it as a piece of literature, and find it endlessly fascinating as a person with a bi-gendered life experience and a history of heart-stopping re-awakening (in literal terms).

So, now to see the short list…