A little poetic musing: Three recent or current reads and a poem of my own

I haven’t posted much lately, in part because I have been focused on some writing and reviewing for other publications, and also, because I’ve decided to list my house, concentrated reading has been somewhat disrupted. In the midst of all this, however, there is always time for poetry. I find lately that poetry has become an increasingly important part of my reading routine. So, I thought I would take a little time to look at a recent read and a couple of the collections currently vying for my attention.

Unbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin (Coffee House Press, 2016)

The intersection of essay and poetry is of particular interest to me. This collection takes a wide-ranging approach to the confluence of the two forms and stands as an impressive example of what can be achieved by filtering essayistic meditations through a poetic lens.

Sun Yung Shin was born in Korea and adopted by an American family at the age of two. The weight of her dual identity pulls the explorations that comprise Unbearable Splendor together into a loosely spinning orbit. Along the way, she weaves in elements from cosmology, linguistics, Korean culture, Greek mythology, literature and futuristic visions of being. The result is dazzling and devastatingly beautiful. For my money, the most interesting pieces offer strange and unusual angles on the cellular, spiritual, and genetic implications of being an orphan, often referring to herself in the first person plural:

As we task our memory-organ to remember our life in Korea, we breed dream after dream. False dreams? Truthful dreams? Hanging? Phantom shaped? They drop like ripe fruit, then disappear before hitting the ground, preventing bruising, rotting. Dreams are ephemera and have no body to violate, no flesh, to decay. They can remain fresh as the wind, recycled like hot rising vapor from the ocean, into the frozen clouds, and eventually back into the crashing black water, the source of all dreams, the living body of our planet.

Kafka and Borges offer inspiration, a series of essay/poems feature Antigone, and toward the end, she draws on cyborg and cloning technology. The language is devastating. However, if I have any reservations, it would be that some of the pieces fall awkwardly in between the two forms—too much an essay to be a satisfying poem, but not developed enough as a nonfiction piece to really flesh out an idea.

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Currently reading:

The Promised Land: Poems from an Itinerant Life by André Naffis-Sahely (Penguin Books, 2017)

This slender volume represents poet and translator André Naffis-Sahely’s first collection. Born in Venice to an Iranian father and Italian mother, he was raised in Abu Dhabi. The earlier poems in this collection deal with his childhood in the harshly surreal environment of a manufactured city, and his return visits in early adulthood. His shifting relationship with his parents, how he sees and understands them as their marriage crumbles and life in Abu Dhabi loses any lustre it may have had, provides the material for an strong series of poems. The second section, which is where I am currently biding my time, includes a number of poems that cross the globe and speak to a certain restlessness. Here, is a sample from the prose poem, “This Most Serene Republic” which opens with a description of Venice as his father experienced it when he first arrived in the 1960s and spent a cold damp winter huddling atop the wardrobes as water rose through holes in the floor of his flat. The son in his footsteps describes:

… Those old, porous palaces, whose upper floors housed the few penniless nobles whose hallowed ancestors once terrorized the Mare Nostrum. Those palaces, much like the one I’m sleeping in, smelt like Latin jungles: mahogany everywhere. I love this tiny room and its Franciscan sparseness. All my life, I’ve felt like a Jew, or a Gipsy, or some hapless scion of a lost wandering tribe, but they, at least, have Bar Mitzvahs, music… all I’ve left is this room. This was an empire ruled from rooms: chambers decorated for a single, specific purpose: to impress its numerous enemies. I can’t sleep. There’s a ghostly halo above my bed where a clock used to hang. One way, I suppose, to stake a claim on timelessness, if not serenity.

This is the type of collection I like to linger in, not to hurry through. A clear, authenticity shines through in Naffis-Sahely’s poetics, with a quiet reflective wisdom I am really enjoying.

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Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin India, 2018)

This book seemed destined to prove more elusive than Ahab’s famous whale. I looked for it in Calcutta, a copy was sent to me in late February, and finally assuming that that one drowned somewhere along the way, I placed an order with an Indian distributor that ships by courier and the book made its way across the globe in four days. Sometimes you do get what you pay for.

Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, translator, curator and cultural critic based in Bombay. I’ve just started into this volume and I’m very excited to see where its currents will carry me. I’m expecting a lyrical adventure along fabled waterways, through literary and historical channels. Hoskote’s broad cultural perspective promises a timely exploration of the political and ecological realities that shape and threaten our world. This, again, is a text, that invites careful reading. No need to rush on this journey. Here is a taste  from a piece called “Ahab”:

Captain of castaways, the pilot calls out and his curse carries
                                         across docks, derricks, opium factories:
                                          a typhoon in the horse latitudes.
He’s hurled his ship after the whale
that swallowed him and spat him out.
.                                     The monster is the only system he’s known.
At the bridge, he’s drenched in the dark:
locked on target, silent, furrowed,
Saturned to stone.

I have, as ever, several other books close at hand. I’m finding that short, single author collections from contemporary poets  hold the most interest for me at the moment.

*

And, finally, this past week saw the publication at Burning House Press, of my own modest piece of poetry, a short prose poem called “Are We There Yet?” This is my first successful poem as far as I’m concerned, that is, something that came out as I intended. It was written in response to the theme “Liminal Spaces”, a perfect fit for a way of thinking about my own dual-gendered life experience. I did, coincidentally, advise the editor that he could consider it a poem or an essay, since I look at everything I write, no matter the form, to be nonfiction.

You can find my poem here.

Waxing lyrical and irritable: QWERTY Invectives by Éric Chevillard

French writer Éric Chevillard opens QWERTY Invectives, his contribution to the Cahier Series, with a short reflection on translation, its importance and its limitations. Although any text will invariably suffer certain mutations on its passage from one language to another, these changes need not be met with certain despair. The re-imagining required to facilitate the journey can offer, he suggests, a well-needed breath of fresh air. Case in point, the present text, derived from his book Le Désordre AZERTY, “a primer arranged according to the layout of the French keyboard.” Not only does this short, beautifully presented cahier, represent a “radical abridgement” of the original text, the sections selected necessarily reflect a new order—that determined by the Anglophone keyboard.

What follows then, are six short treatises inspired by words beginning with the first six letters of the keyboard with a little linguistic gymnastics, no doubt, to line up an English word with a word compatible with the exercise at hand. And, given the words, or rather themes that feature, one must wonder what other liberties were taken to extract six pieces from what one assumes was a selection of at least twenty-six offerings, not allowing for diacritics and accents. In this slender volume we are treated to Chevillard, or his fictional alter-ego, waxing lyrical and irritable on reaching the age of fifty (“Quinquagenarian”); the “Water Closet” (or more explicitly the product one deposits in such facilities); the nature of one’s metaphorical “Enemy”; the “Return” to home or, more exactly, to routine and fresh promise in the fall; the photographer’s art (“Technician of the Darkroom”); and finally, gross human anatomy—especially the foot—in the final installment that opens “You, Eyes!” (or, I would suspect “yeux” in the original).

The narrator is never afraid to examine a subject from a most unlikely angle, employing language that is colourful and inclined to hyperbole. This is evident from the opening offering, a meditation on the misery of attaining the ripe age of fifty, dished out with a healthy dose of melancholic satire:

‘Half a century!’ people say, all smiles, thumping me on my osteoporosis-ridden shoulder-blades.

A little respect would be welcome; a little consideration wouldn’t hurt. Balzac writes somewhere of a ‘fifty-year-old codger’. That’s Balzac for you, who died of exhaustion one year after celebrating the same sinister birthday. I tell myself: Times have changed, today’s fifty is the nineteenth century’s thirty. Thirty year-olds back then were eighteen, and ten-year-old urchins weren’t even born yet.

And more often than not, his starting point, or apparent subject, is rarely more than a launching pad that can potentially take him anywhere. R’s entry which opens “Return Home?” begins with a description of the end of the summer holiday and the beginning of the school year, but his dissertation soon wanders into speculation about the flood of new books that arrive each year with the publishing houses’ autumn offerings. Here our narrator’s cynicism is barely held in check:

Where once there was the book, now there is the public figure of the author, duly dramatized, whose only real use turns out to be to provide a caption for the photo of the artiste who is the one really being featured. All the author can hope for is a meagre compensation in a currency that is already so outdated that it works only in public payphones and slot machines.

Each year sees a glut of new releases, so what of the game, the publishing lottery, into which eager authors enter?

The author of the present lines, given he contributes to full-bloodedly to the current literary over production, may not be ideally placed to complain. But nonetheless: six hundred novels published between September and October? It’s a figure that must be far in excess of the thirst for reading displayed by our contemporaries; it’s akin to pouring an ocean onto a piece of blotting paper, then peeing on it for good measure. Booksellers will soon have to surround themselves with ramparts and equip themselves with flame-throwers in order to repulse writers—those supernumerary writers. No matter! it will surely be educed that the phenomenon serves to demonstrate the surprising vitality of the literary landscape in France!

It would be fair to say that Chevillard’s humour might not whet everyone’s whistle. As a reader who found Author & Me, his book-length diatribe against cauliflower gratin which served as the pretext for a greater meta-fictional reflection, an endlessly hilarious exercise, I find his wit with even the most unlikely of subjects to be a treat. And this Cahier, lavishly illustrated by French artist Philippe Favier, is a perfect introduction to this energetic, imaginative writer. As ever, woven into his literary escapades are some very astute observations about life, the world, and our uneasy navigation of all the joys and obstacles we encounter every day.

QWERTY Invectives by Éric Chevillard is translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty. It is the 31st title in the Cahier Series, a joint project of the Center for Writers & Translators at The American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.

Speaking to poetry with poetry: The background to my experimental response to Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

I have, in recent months, been reading and responding to poetry with increasing frequency here on roughghosts. I hesitate to say review, perhaps because I lack the vocabulary to classify and analyze poetry in a learned fashion. That is, to speak to other poets about poetry—a task that tends to achieve little more than ensure that poetic appreciation remains a closed circle.

Do not pass Go, do not expect to enjoy poetry on its own terms alone. (Everyone knows collecting $200 is too much to hope for in this particular game.)

I have collected a few books about reading and writing poetry  with the thought that they might enhance my critical appreciation, but they remain unread, perhaps for the same reason that I decided not to study Literature at university. I am afraid of wringing all the pleasure out of the experience of reading with too much analysis.

And so, I have been content to respond, with a measure of innocent ignorance, to the work I read. Gut level. Which is fine, until I venture into the realm of experimental poetry where, in contrast to experimental literatures of other sorts, my response seems lacking. At least to me.

Enter Third-Millennium Heart, the ambitious epic cycle of poems by Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen. This work which, in my reading, traces the evolution of a post-human cyborg being, or state of being, is a glorious evocation of the power of language. Through Katrine Øgaard Jensen’s inventive, sensitive translation, we are held captive by a demanding chimeric voice, witnesses to the realization of a possible future reality which, unlike the mechanistic hive-mind typically associated with cyborg imagery, envisions a hive-heart existence.

Or, that’s how I think of it at the moment. It doesn’t really matter.  The true joy is in the experience of this series of poems. And when reading it, I simply knew I would want to respond. But prose analysis seemed inadequate, insufficient. I wanted to write in reaction to Olsen’s poetry. To answer poetry with poetry. Keep it minimal. Close to the heart, if you will.

Without question, the work of my friend Daniela Cascella, and in particular her recent book Singed, was essential to shaping my approach. It is unmediated, equivocal, open-ended.

Possibly the only way to fully respond to poetry.

My experimental review/response to Third-Millennium Heart can be found at Minor Literature[s]. The text opens as a PDF; I invite you to read it and welcome feedback.

Third Millennium Heart is a joint publication of Action Books and Broken Dimanche Press.

Once in motion, an avalanche can’t be stopped: Fleeting Snow by Pavel Vilikovský

Here’s the thing: the avalanche has begun to roll. It can’t yet be seen, it is still a long way off, but I can hear the first mass of snow pushing its way down the slope, rumbling quietly.

It is fair to say that Fleeting Snow, by Pavel Vilikovský, the first Slovak translation to be released by Istros Books, begins on an unusual note. The narrator promptly informs us that his original name has lost meaning for him, rather he prefers his self-declared name, Čimborazka. However, it is clear that he also seems to have affected some alienation from his own identity. His appearance in the mirror is vaguely familiar, but he questions whether he is really himself or his own step-twin. Mail arrives addressed to a name he no longer chooses to recognize and yet he has informed no one of his selected appellation. And he refuses to have a character—or a reliable, consistent way of being—and that, in itself should be our first clue. He has adopted some kind of metaphorical armour. But why? And against what?

What follows, or rather plays out,  is an orchestrated discourse that meanders down assorted pathways, broken into in a series of short, fragmented chapters, each conveniently denoted with a number and letter according to theme or motive, echoing a musical score. Čimborazka, we quickly learn, is given to wide ranging philosophical musings about the relationship between the body and the soul, the nature of God, the meaning of love and the limitations of the Slovak language. His digressions are, at least initially, light-hearted and good humoured. His friend Štefan Kováč, who may or may not be a separate person or an alternate self, plays the logical, scientifically grounded foil to Čimborazka’s esoteric ramblings. He is a linguist, a specialist in an extinct native American language, who challenges his friend’s flights of fancy.

And then, there is the avalanche, a recurring image rolling through the narrative.

If the unconventional ordering of the chapters or fragments is disorienting, one soon falls into the flow. The various themes which, at the outset appear quite disparate, increasingly echo one another. Key to the narrative central to Fleeting Snow is Čimborazka’s notion of the soul and its relation to the body. Although he spends much time wondering about the nature of God, his is not a specifically religious inquiry. He seems curiously agnostic. The soul is a useful concept—it can mean anything one wants it to mean—and for our narrator, it is that essence, produced by the body, that makes a person or a being, who they are. The soul, gives the body meaning.

The soul can’t be seen because it is hidden inside the body. Strangely enough, we can’t see even our own soul, we just know it’s in there somewhere. What’s even more strange is that all of it fits into our body even though we sense that it’s somehow much bigger. That it transcends the body in every way.

Likewise, another prominent theme, that revolving around language—the demise of indigenous languages, the corruption and loss of traditional dialects in Central European languages—represents an analogous relationship. Language is the soul of a culture. In both cases, when the soul starts to change, when critical features begin to disappear, what happens to the person or the peoples left behind?

Playing the various motives in a fluctuating manner moving back and forth between themes, allows Čimborazka to work his way into the tale at the heart of the novel—the one that is most difficult for him to tell—with caution, in a roundabout way. He reflects on ID cards, asking: What do they, and the name thereon, signify, the soul or the body? The next segment opens with an explanation of the names he used to call his wife whose formal name, Magdalena, seemed too awkward. He opted for Duška as a pet name, and more commonly Lienka. But now he admits, he is at a loss as to what to call her. They had been, at one time, so intuitively suited to one another, or so he thought. He had loved her wholly, and yet, suddenly, he began to notice a curious change:

But at some point, not long ago, her face suddenly seemed to become more beautiful. The lines around her mouth and eyes vanished, the skin on her forehead and cheeks became tauter, had I not known her I would have thought she’d had a facelift. It happened gradually, not from one day to the next, and I also became aware of it only little by little – one day I felt that her smile lost its sarcastic edge and suddenly started to spill over like a puddle because there was nothing to hold it back; on another occasion I missed the contemplative furrows on her brow, but thought it was just a one-off rather than an ongoing process.

Soon he realized that the change was permanent, as if she was showing another face or, as he would begin to see in time, another soul. Strange behavioural shifts that signaled a loss of cognitive function, forgetfulness, disorientation, and anxiety became more frequent. But Čimborazka is reluctant to acknowledge the significance. He describes himself as self-focused person  and confesses that in the past there had been so much about her that he had not cared to appreciate. As she starts to slip away, he feels shame. And shame is a complicated emotion, eliciting a mix of guilt and defiance.

At first he is in denial. He tests her, more for his own comfort than her benefit, but it make her annoyed and proves nothing more than a steady decline. The avalanche is already burying her. As her illness progresses he is forced into a caregiving role. He tends to her body, washing her now as if she was a small child, but her soul is increasingly hidden as she retreats into a present and a past in which he no longer has a place. He struggles to redefine love against the pain of loss, trying to love what remains of her, but it is not easy:

The word love is so popular because anyone is free to make it mean whatever they like – some might see it as a fusion of bodies, others as a fusion of souls. It is the latter who usually end up disappointed… But there are moments when two souls, even if travelling in opposite directions, pass each other and exchange a friendly wave, like tram drivers who work the same route. Now I realise that all one can expect of love are these precious, fleeting moments of intimacy.

But what if one of the drivers is suddenly assigned a different route?

The avalanche, that unstoppable force of nature that he fears throughout is, of course, a metaphor for the loss of memory—individual or collective. In concert with the account of his wife’s illness, it becomes the metaphorical windmill against which our hero tilts. As he starts to fear the avalanche’s inevitable approach  he seeks a spiritual answers, wants to understand the nature of being, even tries yoga. His friend Štefan, of course, tries to provide the practical, scientific angle, yet he remains determined to find a way to buffer his own soul against the vagaries of time. Spiritual exercise, he hopes, will help him build resistance against “the disease called life.”

Pavel Vilikovský is recognized as one of the most prominent authors of post-Communist Central Europe. In this creatively structured short novel, he presents, in Čimborazka, a digressive, eccentric narrator, reminiscent of Bohumil Hrabal’s loquacious protagonists. The lighthearted tone at the opening belies the depth. The humour, the philosophical questing, the digressions about love and language, the pragmatic counterpoint offered by Štefan, and the metaphorical avalanche nest a complex of painful and difficult emotions that the loss of memory engenders. The result is a multi-layered story that raises many questions—the kinds without easy answers.

Fleeting Snow by Pavel Vilikovský is translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood, and published by Istros Books. An excerpt can be found at B O D Y.

The loneliness of the Norwegian writer: Bergeners by Tomas Espedal

During the day he knows nothing but dreams.

During the day he knows only the lethargy the white, billowing curtain and the humming fan give him as a kind of comfort.

At night he’s wakeful.

At night he knows only the loneliness that lies down beside him in the bed and keeps him awake.

It was not until I finished Bergeners, that I stopped to take a closer look at the biography of its author, Tomas Espedal. I had sensed we were close in age, this introspective Norwegian writer and I. The eponymous narrator of this novel is in his early fifties during the period that frames this wandering meditation which opens in Paris during the dying days of a serious love affair and closes two years later, in Berlin, where he is still carrying  a lingering, immersive heartache and loneliness that won’t abate. So deeply did I connect with the protagonist’s emotional exile, even though my own life and shades of loneliness take on different hues, I could not help but wonder how closely our timelines align. Rather closely, as it turns out, we are only a year apart.

There is, throughout this work, a certain vulnerability that permeates the narrator’s musings. He bemoans his losses; he knows well that he is wallowing. Yet, in contrast to Knausgaard, the friend and fellow countryman whose name is synonymous with intense navel gazing, Espedal’s autobiographical fiction is spectral. He is there and not there. More spare and varied in style, the narrative has an erratic quality, shifting in perspective from first person to second, third and back again, incorporating stories, poetry, fragments and a fair share of modest, self-deprecating humour. And for all the deeply personal emotional moments, the heart of this novel is occupied by Bergen and its residents. The narrator does travel, for work or pleasure, but at this mid-point in his life, suddenly abandoned by both his grown daughter and his girlfriend, he seems intent on staying put, on burrowing himself into the familiar haunts and securites of his family home and community.

Espedal has a sober affection for his native city that comes through in his wonderful observations, character studies, and anecdotes. He argues that the city is difficult to live in, that the persistent rain and dampness enforces a confinement that creates an urban existence conducted almost entirely indoors, or perhaps, in vehicles travelling from place to place. As such, he claims that one could “empty the city of all its inhabitants and fill it up with entirely new people, but the city would remain the same.” However he captures its interior and exterior spaces, and the characters who occupy them, so memorably:

Eerland O. Nødtvedt smokes like an athlete. He’s dressed in a white shirt, a light brown cashmere sweater, the jacket of a green-check suit and light trousers. Good shoes. At night, he plays pieces he’s composed himself on a pump organ which he got from Yngve Pedersen. During the day he writes poetry. In a small one-roomed flat in Lodin Leppsgate, he writes poetry that is bigger than the city he lives in but maybe not as big as the room he inhabits.

The central part of Bergeners reads like a series of entries in a scrapbook—portraits and sketches of a place that contains all that is rooted and central to his existence, except that now, as he walks its streets, plumbing his memories, it is absence rather than nostalgia that weighs on him, pushing him to retreat further into his small house. His narrative, as the book progresses, is freighted with a loneliness no words will write away.

That first evening I sat alone in the living room, both my daughter and my girlfriend had moved out of the house, almost simultaneously, and gone to Oslo, I sat with my head in my hands feeling sorry for myself. I wept, repeating out loud (there was no one who could hear me after all): How could both leave me like this? I, who’ve done my best for you all these years, I said, who’ve given you all my love and nearly all my time, and you just move out  and leave me sitting here all alone like this.

How can you, at the age of almost fifty, adapt to an empty house?

How can you adapt to your own loneliness, what can you fill it with?

On a trip to Albania, Tomas meets a German writer who, at one point, asks him what he writes about. He answers: “Monotony.” That is not quite accurate, but he does have a gift for capturing the ordinary and seeing in it the universal and the exceptional.  His loneliness is not unique, but it is caught in the prism of middle-age. His characters are often eccentric, settled into their habits, their singular lives. However, for our protagonist, the attempt to redefine himself without the two women who meant most to him is an uneasy process. He has lost his anchor and does not know where he belongs. He tries to adapt to his newly defined life, but finds that Bergen, which he knows so intimately, cannot assuage his restlessness. He tries to escape, but finds foreign locales too alien to his own nature:

You can’t anticipate growing old here
age was not formed in you as a child
and now it’s too late
to grow old

Bergeners is my first encounter with Tomas Espedal. There is something very attractive about his autobiographical fiction, a form that can be too claustrophobic at times. The varying perspectives, the passing portraits of people and places, the fragmentary fugues, brief stories and snatches of poetry that are worked into this wandering meditation make for an unusual and absorbing read.

Longlisted for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award, Bergeners is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.

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…