The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’: Porcelain by Durs Grünbein

In the winter when cupola and dome are white with snow,
the ravaged city fills my soul with shame, simply shame.
Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael—then nothing more to show…
Your downfall is the stuff of trashy melodrama.
How long ago was that? Don’t ask me, I can’t say.
The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’. (8)

The German city of Dresden, once known as Florence on the Elba, was long renowned for its Baroque architecture and pleasant climate. The Allied air raids that began on February 13, 1945 rapidly reduced this jewel to an eerie landscape of hollow structural supports rising out of a sea of rubble. 25,000 souls were lost in the firestorm and it would take decades to clean up and restore the damaged structures.

Buildings can be rebuilt, but the legacy of the bombing of Dresden is complex. The action was met with controversy among Allied forces, the losses exaggerated for effect by the Nazis, and the destruction doubly symbolic—first of German suffering in the war, second of lingering guilt. So, there is no one black-and-white way to understand this event, a reality that German poet Durs Grünbein explores in his book-length cycle, Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City. What began in 1992 as an annual ritual to mark the anniversary of the bombing, would eventually be published in 2005 as a sequence of forty-nine ten-line poems, rhymed and classical in form. Now, seventy-five years after the fateful air raids, the first English edition has been released with extensive notes, extra images and an additional, newly composed poem, translated and introduced by Karen Leeder.

Born in Dresden in 1962, Grünbein grew up amid the physical and psychological ruins of his hometown, surrounded by the historical and symbolic weight it carried, but without claim to any direct experience of the devastation. This temporal and emotional distance colours his poetic reflections while offering a double-edged sword to his critics—he was accused of both daring to intrude on the suffering of others and failing to do justice to the true horrors the city endured. In anticipation of this, the opening lines of the first poem in his sequence read:

Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone
when your little light first appeared on the scene.
Moist eyes are not the same as grey hair, son. (1)

Right away he is giving space to his would-be detractors and the lines that follow set the tone for what will not be a straightforward elegiac exercise.

As Grünbein strives to make sense of the bombing of Dresden—poem by poem, across the span of more than a decade—he allows multiple voices, angles and perspectives to appear, shifting moods and tones to rise and fall. However, his concern with the role of the poet as “a keeper and creator of memories” remains his central focus. For too long, mourning for the shattered city had been coloured by the motivations of political interests—Porcelain can be seen as an effort to challenge and release that grief.

Fragmented and lyrical, the work is infused with historical figures and references. The city’s character is often evoked, sometimes personified, sometimes in imagined vignettes, while the fine porcelain for which Dresden is famous is a recurring motif—intact and shattered.

Swans adorned the dinner service made for Count von Brühl—
flawless just like them you were: proud, curvaceous pin-up girl.
But it almost struck you dumb with shock when the fish,
the shells and dolphins shattered into smithereens,
sinking into the depths where no word could reach.
Who would hide munitions in porcelain tureens? (45)

Grünbein also draws on his literary forbears throughout these poetic illuminations, but by far his closest companion is Paul Celan. The ghost of the Holocaust poet haunts this cycle, directly and indirectly.

The forty-nine (plus one) poems that comprise Porcelain explore the complex layers of loss, meaning and memory and together form a rich meditation on war, destruction and the question of who owns suffering. It is not a dirge but a human reckoning. The presentation of this anniversary edition is both handsome and sombre, while Karen Leeder’s translation gives the poetry an immediate, grounded feel and the detailed glossary and notes provide context, as required, to enhance the reading experience.

Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City by Durs Grünbein is translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

Tell stories and let stories be told: Stigmata of Bliss by Klaus Merz

Venturing into the fictional territory defined by Swiss writer Klaus Merz, one immediately notices the lightness of his imagery and the marked economy of his language. His narratives are slowly and carefully crafted, allowed to form one brushstroke at a time. Anchored in a lush landscape mirroring his native canton of Aargau in northern Switzerland, his characters and the lives they live are at once simple and exceptional. Sensitively translated from the German by Tess Lewis, the present volume, Stigmata of Bliss, gathers together three of Merz’s best known novellas, and, as such, offers a fine introduction to his distinctive restrained poetic prose.

The collection begins with Jacob Asleep (Jakob schläft). Originally published in 1997 with the curious subtitle Eigentlich ein Roman—Actually a Novel—this tale of an ill-starred but strangely resilient family won several prominent awards including the Hermann Hesse Prize for Literature. The story opens at the graveside of the eponymous Jacob, the narrator’s older brother, who died at birth and as such was officially named “Child Renz”. Although he is gone, in the heart and imagination of the protagonist, Jacob is ever present as a sleeping angel of sorts to be called upon in times of need. And there will be plenty of those.

The narrator is, from an early age, surrounded by eccentricity and illness. A younger brother, Sunny, is born with hydrocephalus; his father, a baker, develops epilepsy; and his mother grows increasingly despondent as the years pass. His grandfather takes a turn at raising birds and then fish before turning with passionate intensity to beekeeping, while his grandmother becomes a faith healer who is undeterred by any apparent lack of response to her charms. Finally, an uncle, Franz, is a reckless daredevil with an unfettered lust for adventure that takes him, fatefully, to Alaska. But, ever the pragmatist, our hero recounts his family’s tragedies and joys with calm resolve and no small measure of peculiar pride:

In our family, illness had priority over all else. After Grandmother walked barefoot through the snow in her religious frenzy and, weightless as old, brittle leaves, was carried out of the house with the first spring storms, my brother was once again the most seriously ill member of the family, so ill that people gladly came often to visit him. Out on the street, everyone, young and old, turned to stare. They tripped over kerbstones, caught their trousers and skirts on garden fences and knocked their gaping heads on telegraph poles when I pushed him along the road in his high-wheeled cart.

There were only a few television shows at the time and the tabloids were still restrained, so, live and in real time, we satisfied some of the local craving for entertainment.

Given the premise of this novella, there could easily be a tendency to slip into pathos, but such is not the case. The spare prose, vivid images filtered through memory, and the charismatic narrative voice facilitate smooth transitions between scenes of boyish bliss and accounts of loss and pain, between times of happiness and hardship. No moment is oversold. Only the most essential details are offered, often indirectly, set up in such a manner that ultimately a simple sentence is left to carry the weight of all that has been left unspoken. One of the most powerful episodes in the text occurs after the narrator and his father pick up his mother after a stay at a sanatorium. Nothing is explicitly said of her experience. It is not necessary:

The first thing Mother did at home was to get rid of the electric blanket that had always warmed her bed. And she adamantly refused to let us replace it with a better one.

For fear of electric shocks.

What remains, at the end of this finely honed tale, is a sense of the light that lingers in the memory assuring that in a life filled with many hardships, the darkness is not denied but it need not dominate.

*

The second novella, A Man’s Fate (LOS. Eine Erzählung,2005), feels, perhaps, denser and heavier in tone. The style is still spare, but here the third person narrative takes the reader deep into the consciousness of a man, Thaler, who is at a crossroad in his life. A teacher, married with children, he is feeling cramped and constrained. He heads to the mountains hoping a hike will help clear his mind, allow him to figure out what he wants. Armed with his favourite snack—honey and lemons—he travels by train, on his way to a cabin where he plans to spend the night. At the same time his thoughts travel back, digging through his earlier adventures and affairs.

Thaler is a troubled man, weighed down by a certain nostalgia for his youth and a frustration with his present circumstances. Yet it is not clear what it is that he feels he has lost or what potentials he yearns for. The memories he keeps rifling through do not seem that exciting—but, then, mid-life tinges the past with regrets and what-if’s. His restlessness is echoed by the train:

His train gathers speed. Nowhere does he feel as secure as in a train. Surrounded only by chance companions. He finds them to be the most reliable and he feels closest to them.

Travelling divests one. Like a lover. Like a lover who leaves unnoticed after making  love to return to her own life, having washed up only cursorily yet unhurt. And safe elsewhere.

Thaler’s thoughts regularly swing back to women, leaving little wonder that his marriage is in trouble. He seems indifferent to his wife and children. However, there is, of course, more going on, and a chance mishap will upend everything.

*

The final novella in this volume, The Argentine (Der Argentinier. Novelle, 2009) is an account of the life of the colourful “Argentine”, a man who, in his youth, left Switzerland for a life of adventure in the New World. In Argentina he became, so he claimed, a gaucho and a celebrated dancer. Yet, once the desire to escape cooled, he returned to Europe, married his sweetheart, Amelie, and devoted himself to teaching. But he maintained a larger-than-life aura, his tales fueling his own mythology and his assorted wisdoms enlightening both his family and generations of students.

The Argentine’s story, however, is not told directly. It is recounted by his granddaughter Lena to a primary-school friend, the narrator, during a gathering of former classmates. His own memories and observations, as well as brief conversations about his and Lena’s present lives, filter into the narrative which continually circles back story of the Argentine, or simply “Grandfather” as he is called. The result is a portrait conveyed in segments, coloured with multilayered memories. A story within a story within a story and at the centre one remarkable man.

After his return, Grandfather created a different climate in each of his classrooms: an African climate in one, icebergs as in Patagonia in another or the blooming spring of the Wachau Valley in another. He wanted his students to be prepared for any circumstances when they had to face reality—actual or perceived—whether at home, out shopping, before a screen, in Shanghai or in bed. They should have emergency resources that come from worlds described or worlds still waiting to be described. With such inner resources, they will never die alone or of hunger, he always said.

Although published separately, there is a wholeness that can be found in reading these three novellas together. The same spareness marks each one, though the narratives have a different texture and energy. No piece extends beyond 60 pages (including the drawings by Heinz Egger that grace the text), but each offers a rewarding and intimate experience that lingers long after the reading has ended.

Stigmata of Bliss by Klaus Merz is translated by Tess Lewis and published by Seagull Books.

Dust, dreams and destiny: An Archipelago in a Landlocked Country by Elisa Taber

In “Raising Angel”,  a story in Elisa Taber’s unique and original debut, a boy occupies himself creating a family with figures cut from a newspaper. He sets them into a cardboard box home and imagines conversations occurring within that space. He puts them to bed, lets them fall asleep. All the while his grandmother watches from the corner of the spare cement dwelling they call home.

There is something in young Angel’s play that is eerily similar to the way his tale and those of the other individuals and characters who grace this book are composed, set into action, viewed and reported. It is at once evocative and unnerving.

Described as a lyric ethnography, An Archipelago in Landlocked Country offers a unique three-part journey deep into the heart of Paraguay. The Mennonite colony where the author was born and its neighbouring Indigenous settlement provide the context and inspiration for a filmic travelogue, a collection of short stories, and a novella. Each section is separate and can be read in any desired order, but throughout there is an overriding interdependency that crosses the boundaries between careful observation, mythology and magical imagining to weave a sensual, sensitive portrait of this distant land.

The backdrop is the Gran Chaco, an isolated region of grassland and thorny forest that extends over the Paraguayan-Argentinian border. Home to the Nivaklé peoples for centuries, the area was opened up to outsiders in the early part of the twentieth century. Among the first newcomers were German-speaking Russian Mennonites from Canada who established two colonies, Menno and Fernheim. The author’s birthplace, Neuland, was settled somewhat later, in 1947, by Mennonites fleeing prosecution in the Soviet Union. The community was initially home exclusively to women and children. In 2016, Taber and her mother returned to spend a month in Neuland and the first part of this book, “Asunción to Neuland, via Filadelfia” unfolds as a set of tableaus, descriptions of a series of 30-second films that form a spare documentary of their journey.

This string of visual vignettes has a dreamy feel; passing and static images are captured with descriptions at once detailed and incomplete. Flora, photographs, places and people are observed, recorded and recounted. Short scenes are sketched.

A man in a cheap tuxedo, a waiter, I guess, steers a broom back. A raven mustache and a low hairline. It starts right above his eyebrows. Acne scars on his cheeks and deep wrinkles between his eyes. A face that transitioned straight from adolescence to old age. A transformation like that of the tight-pant-clad blond I mistook for a girlfriend in the dining room until his weathered and bearded face turned to meet mine, smiling oddly.

I prefer to start at the beginning, I confess, so when moving through this book’s sections in the order presented, this opening part serves as a perfect entry into the territory where Taber’s fictional expansion will play out.

“Cayim ô Clim” offers a collection of short stories set in the Nivaklé settlement. Each piece serves as an imagined window into the lives and mythologies of its residents—the young and the old and those caught in between. There is a striking precision to the way Taber’s stories are arranged and a tactile quality to their execution. The landscape is as essential as any circumstance that arises or event that occurs; the atmosphere is evoked in an insistent, poetic prose that seems to physically occupy the textual space. You can feel the wind blowing dust across the pages, grit settling into your pores.

It blows from the south. Dismembers the soil. Creates a thick, brown haze. Bodies that obstruct its path claim it feels like dry hail. A hard substance in the air. Sand gathers to occupy space. The grains are close but separate. They do not dissolve into each other.

Within this harsh environment her characters exhibit a calm resilience, sometimes skewed, with an ability to stretch resources, employ their imaginations, and improvise at work and play. Children and their games, mothers and daughters, curious loners—losses and absences run through their lives, but life goes on. All the while, the author watching, closely, occasionally slipping into their skins.

The third section, “La Paz del Chaco Street” is a novella tinged with magic, deeply rooted in . the overlapping and intersecting histories of the distinct peoples that have met, mingled and made this landlocked corner of the world their own. Central to the story is Agatha, an eccentric third-generation Mennonite woman who, at puberty, feels a growing discomfort around other people. She begins to wander further and further away from home each day. She cannot be contained by societal restrictions and norms; everything begins to disturb her—especially her body:

Her skin seems to tremble while seated at the table. It is not anger towards what those around her say. She does not hear them. But towards her body, once whole, now visibly penetrable where she bleeds. She wants to feel impenetrable.

She cannot jump out of her own skin so instead she alters how her body moves, the thoughts and feelings it betrays. It is odd how the suppression of her desires makes her actions precise. The less she understands what she wants, the more she can will herself to become someone else.

She soon retreats to live in the house that once belonged to her grandmother, a strange dwelling with a tree growing through it, bound to her ancestor though the enigma of her mother who drowned when Agatha was a child. The life she crafts for herself begins to take on mythical qualities, a granddaughter of Neuland creating herself anew, rising against the lives of those around her.

One could say that An Archipelago in Landlocked Country is a literary guidebook that invites you into a place of refuge that is at once exotic and shaped by tradition, two contrasting traditions in fact. Elisa Taber takes this world and tilts it on its axis, opening it up. She is an astute observer, ethnographer and artist, capable of capturing minute and surprising details while maintaining a deep respect for her characters. She demonstrates a personal appreciation for their histories and mythologies, and a gift for crafting wise contemporary fables. Her poetic sensibility and disarmingly precise prose combine to propel this vivid exploration of an existing territory as re-imagined in the present and into the future.

An Archipelago in Landlocked Country by Elisa Taber is published by 11:11 Press.

Washing the wounds of time: Under the Sign of the Labyrinth by Christina Tudor-Sideri

Listen closely. If ever there was a book that reads as if the author is present, whispering over your shoulder, it is Under the Sign of the Labyrinth, recently released from the defiantly original independent publisher, Sublunary Editions. In this unclassifiable memoir/meditation Christina Tudor-Sideri carries her readers into an intimate, embodied anamnestic rumination on what it means to exist, exploring the myths and legends that form us, and the way our wounds shape who we become.

She begins with trauma, understood as something that “lives in the body of all things”—eternal, essential—and  proposes that to write trauma is to look deep into your inherited and personal histories, to examine your memories, to seek your self. A process that can, it seems, risk being traumatic itself:

Each word becomes a scream. Starving trains pass by my window with the heaviness of a dark eternity that cannot be erased once I travel back in search of what wounded me. Light becomes diseased. The genesis of poetry is expunged. Pain has a momentum of its own yet again, unceremoniously within the hollow and cold urn that entombs it.

A chill, a distinct darkness, and a slow pensive dawn colour this existential pilgrimage of a wounded poet philosopher as she allows her memories to guide her. It is a journey mapped in memory, literature, mythology—rendered visible in the blood coursing beneath the surface of her skin. Tudor-Sideri invites us back to the Romanian village where lived as a child, a formative world of forests, a river, and a place inhabited by the ghosts of wild mad men and women and the spirits of the children once housed in the local preventorium. She describes a childhood lived on the edge of ancient wisdom, magic and mystery. Drawing on traditions, images and lost historical practices she crafts an uncustomary quest in search of a way to understand and articulate the nature of being in the world.

The labyrinth, a symbol found widely in Eastern Europe and in Mediterranean cultures, is essential to this philosophical odyssey—imagined and reimagined as a physical embrace and as a metaphorical pathway toward the monsters that lie at the heart of memories, dreams, and lived experiences. Toward the self.

As I penetrate the labyrinth, touching the wall with my fingers, its outside becomes the silk fabric entombing my body—I become the pulsating core of the labyrinth inasmuch as it becomes the fabric shrouding me in my journey towards the center. I descend into the darkness of my being. I retreat from the world into the cavernous depths of memories that have blended with my viscera. In the dark, my mind dwells on the creature residing within—the monstrous I and the shadow it projects.

In following the lead of this powerful imagery, Tudor-Sideri calls on folklore, mythology and philosophy as she examines where self-reflection can take her—even if she does not wish to go—and explores the uncertain necessity of healing the wounds we bear.

Although Under the Sign of the Labyrinth contains some of the qualities of memoir and concerns itself with memory, it actually reveals little of the author’s life. Rather, she draws on her own sensory and emotional experience, because, after all, she can only speak to herself, but there is an intentional universality at heart. The “I” enwinds with “we.” The questions she is asking cannot be answered with what, but with how. Her fundamental inquiries—“What does it mean to write trauma/to write the self?”—are not directed at self-psychoanalysis. The bleeding out on the page is allegorical. This existential reflection, born of flesh and bone, extending beyond death and decay, is an extended dance between body and mind. For Tudor-Sideri:

Existence is always corporeal—we bleed, we ache, we become our wounds… The physical manifestations of our becomings and experiences leave traces on the world and on ourselves—the body marks the mind. We hold each other, and the mind marks the body.

In turn haunting, beautiful and gently macabre, the multiple threads of this essay are ultimately woven together as its poetic ramble reaches a thoughtful conclusion. Christina Tudor-Sideri’s work, according to her bio, examines “the absent body and its anonymous rhythms, myth, memory, narrative deferral, and the imprisonment of the mind within the time and space of its corporeal vessel.” There are many points at which these themes intersect with the kind of questions that trouble me, so I personally found this text to be filled with a wealth of ideas and inspiration. However, I have no doubt that anyone venturing into this intelligent, meditative prose poem will be richly rewarded.

Caught between seasons: Camille in October by Mireille Best

There is a chill that runs through Camille in October even though the seasons change—somehow it always feels like autumn, in the way that for some of us adolescence can feel like an interminable autumn. Growing up can be so complicated. And so it is for the critical, pensive, passionate narrator of this luminous novel, a young woman whose academic inclinations and sexual attractions increasingly alienate her from her working-class 1950s French neighbourhood. Familiar territory perhaps, but Camille’s distinctive voice and keen, if not entirely reliable, observations give it an undeniable energy and urgency.

Part of Seagull Books’ Pride List, this is the first English translation of a work by French author Mireille Lemarchand (1943-2005) who wrote under the pseudonym Mireille Best. Born into a working-class family in Le Havre, France, health problems kept her from attending university so she worked in a plastics factory and later as a civil servant. Known for her fiction featuring lesbian themes, Best published four short story collections and three novels with the French press Gallimard during her lifetime.

The world in which Camille and her siblings are growing up is one of relinquished dreams where the men are beaten down by hard labour and often turn to alcohol and violence, where housewives gather to trade gossip and offer criticism and support, and where few of their children will go on to complete their baccalaureate or go beyond that. The scars of World War II still run deep. And yet it is a tightly bound community.

The core of neighbourhood life is the group of women Camille refers to as the Mothers, her own included, who meet every afternoon to drink boiled coffee and talk about life. They are a regular presence throughout the book, a sort of opinionated, domesticated Greek chorus:

The Mothers should have killed themselves  Or let themselves die  It was the only logical step in the situation. But no. Very few died, of those among them. They had a stubborn resistance, animal-like  The passive resistance of things half-buried. The men climbed on top of them, knocked them about sometimes, weighed on their conscience as much as on the rhythm of their days  The kids screamed and vomited grew fell sick escaped went bad . . . The Mothers endured it all  The knocking down of days one after another endlessly  The eternal circuit house-shops-girlfriends and repeat

Yet if Camille’s cynical adolescent view of them is frequently caustic, she is often present at these gatherings, first with her siblings when they are younger, and later on her own, the misfit that everyone knows will never become a Mother like they are.

As for Camille’s family, they are strong characters, vividly portrayed. Her ever patient, loving mother harbours a dream of emigrating to Australia which her father, a veteran, refuses to even entertain. He’s a hard man, given to drink, and for a while Camille makes a few wildly unsuccessful, even humorous, attempts to kill him. Her younger sister Ariane is a firecracker, loud and fearless, possessed of resolute common sense that she never hesitates to dispense. A lively foil to her older sister’s intellectual seriousness, she is always ready to challenge anything and anyone. As one of the Mothers describes her:

—Poor little sweetie, says Gertrude. Not only does she think, but on top of that she thinks out loud . . . That age is carefree.

And finally, Abel, the youngest, has some kind of a seizure disorder of an unknown nature and his manner is oddly quiet with sudden outbursts. Camille reports that as a child he was “handsome in a strange and suspect way and it hollowed out around him an impalpable zone of emptiness.” As he gets older the strangeness comes to the fore.

Between her tough, firm sister and her soft but occasionally explosive brother, Camille describes herself as:

suspended in the atmosphere, participating in all realms. Endlessly permeable, I drifted, moved around like a fog. I was one or the other or everyone together, incapable of locating myself with certainty. I never really knew WHO I was. I don’t even know if this is a thing that gets better with time, or if I will never do anything besides wandering between contradictory solidarities, with bouts of intense haste when I become a pebble, a shell against the pain, an instrument of hatred.

This nebulous sense of identity is a quality that defines the narrative and gives it an authentic feel—this is the voice of a young adult who is increasingly out of place in her family and community. The black sheep with nowhere to go.

The central focus of Camille in October is a relationship between the protagonist and the dentist’s wife. It begins with tea and borrowing books, based on a common intellectual curiosity, but before long, Camille realizes that she has fallen for Clara. It is a deep and passionate attraction for an adolescent experiencing her first love, but one that is not so easily returned by a conflicted married woman. Theirs is a complicated friendship, beautifully and painfully executed. Camille as we come to understand her through her affection counterbalances the often harsh and cynical self defense she displays elsewhere in her account. Of course, although she is not the most reliable narrator, she is thoroughly engaging.

This novel, vibrantly translated by Stephanie Schechner, is a wonderful introduction to Mireille Best’s work. Coming of age / coming out novels often tread familiar ground. Place and personality set them apart. The 1950s working class setting would have no doubt mirrored the author’s own, but in Camille we have a contradictory and complex narrator. The intermittent use of an unusual punctuation style with dropped periods (as in the first quote above) grants a sense of urgency to some of her more idiosyncratic descriptive passages. Together with a broad, somewhat eccentric, supporting cast, Camille in October is a moving, thoroughly entertaining addition to the genre.

Camille in October by Mireille Best is translated from the French by Stephanie Schechner and published by Seagull Books.

Tragedy or farce: Natural History by Carlos Fonseca

“Hell is an incomprehensible sarcasm.”

There is, at the centre of the longest section of Carlos Fonseca’s ambitious and wildly inventive new novel, Natural History, an improbable tower inhabited by poor families, vagrants, addicts and an assortment of individuals who crave the seclusion afforded by a structure barely accessible by ordinary means. It is a strange and fantastic community bound by its own logic, something like the larger fictional work that supports its existence—a daring and intelligent spectacle peopled by a wide and vividly drawn cast, both historical and imagined.

Fonseca is a writer who loves to play with ideas, to set his eccentric characters up, rather like a set of dominoes, and allow them to follow leads, passages and pathways to the most unexpected and impossible conclusions. The tendencies that drive Natural History—a fascination with archival novels, science, and art—can be seen in his debut, Colonel Lágrimas, but here they are observed on a much grander scale. And yet there is a cramped, claustrophobic atmosphere that haunts the protagonists who get swept up in this multi-layered adventure.

The novel opens with the neurotic confession of the unnamed Puerto Rican American narrator who works as a curator at a natural history museum in New Jersey. He admits that he tries to avoid facing beginnings by imagining his life is a continual act of imitation, an ongoing repetition of what has already happened. So, when he receives a package containing several envelopes filled with photographs, essays and newspaper clippings, he is not surprised. They are from Giovanna Luxembourg, a recently deceased fashion designer. His inheritance, so to speak. Seven years earlier she had summoned him out of the blue and arranged for a meeting at her unusual New York City apartment. Her interest in him had been sparked by papers he had once published on tropical butterflies and the quincunx, a geometric pattern consisting of five points with the fifth in the centre like, for example, the five on a dice.

They begin to meet. Periodically she calls for him and they talk well into the night about patterns occurring in nature. Afterwards, the narrator typically makes his way through the Bowery and stops into a Lebanese restaurant where he has become oddly obsessed with an older woman who sits with a table full of newspapers. Strange? Yes, well everything is strange. The uncertain attraction between two troubled insomniacs, Giovanna’s strained elusiveness, the narrator’s peculiar behaviours, and his annoyance when the designer suddenly becomes obsessed with masks. However, when Giovanna’s package arrives after her death, the narrator finds clues that will allow him to begin to unravel the truth of her identity, and the unconventional family that she sought to hide from.

Natural History is not a mystery or a detective novel so much as an elaborate construction of facts and fictions that, if it seems loose and slippery around the edges, works as a whole. It depends on having a wide enough sweep to see patterns form, connect and repeat. As multiple, richly realized story lines unfold and individual characters labour after their own obsessions, Fonseca is slowly gathering threads and themes together. As his quest for answers begins, the narrator visits an abandoned mining town where underground fires burn, home to a reclusive Israeli photographer who had once enjoyed a glamourous existence in the New York City of the sixties and seventies. Bits and pieces of the story begin to take shape there. He tells meeting and marrying a dynamic young beauty, their shared fame and their unfortunate decision to head south with their young daughter, the child who would one day become known as Giovanna.

A year later, in 2008, our protagonist learns of the arrest, in Puerto Rico, of a former model and actress, missing for decades, found in the odd, rundown high rise where she’d been living in seclusion. Now in her seventies but still striking, she is charged with intentionally, yet anonymously, planting fake news items which have impacted the stock market. She argues that she was engaged in a time honoured act of performative art. A nervous young lawyer is hired, and a lengthy trial ensues, observed close at hand by the narrator’s colourful friend Tancredo who has been sent to report on the event. Before long, he gets swept up in the entire strange atmosphere, telling the narrator that he’s spent nights thinking of:

all those who… had fallen prey to Virginia McCallister’s madness. He spoke of a great conspiracy that originated not in a human mind, but in a cosmic figure that grew steadily. I recalled my first months with Giovanna, months of exhaustion and delirium, and understood why my friend was starting to rave. Too much rum, too much heat, too many theories.

In this part, the longest and most complex section of the book, a wealth of ideas are woven into the narrative, against a rich tapestry of unlikely and colourful characters. The fourth part carries us back to the mid-seventies to revisit, this time in third person, the journey of the small family—photographer father, actress-model mother and sickly child—into the Central American jungle following a man known as the apostle. A formative and destructive pilgrimage. The final section is another missive from a ghost.

The core story line is filled in slowly, but the overall tale is never slow. The human connections (and disconnections) are real and affecting. The settings, urban and natural alike, are vividly drawn. And there is so much going on. On so many levels. Primary themes—masks, camouflage, the desire to disappear, the nature of art, the quincunx, utopian colonies, ruins, burning—all cross over and multiply in the reader’s imagination long after the book is finished. As well, the  steady parade of historical personalities that pass in and out: Comandante Marcos of the Zapatistas; Argentinian artists Jacoby, Costa and Escari who planned and promoted a Happening that did not occur; B. Traven, the popular Mexican-based author whose actual identity remains a mystery; Antonin Artaud; Karl Wallenda; General William Sherman and many more offer a wealth of opportunities for extratextual reading. Of course, to be able to carry all these interwoven elements with ease, a novel must be strong, strange and smart enough. And this one is.

Natural History by Carlos Fonseca is translated by Megan McDowell and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

A seed, planted and nurtured: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

In this era of social media, similar bookish souls do tend to loosely gather, and I cannot be the only one who has been set off on the search for a book on the basis of a shared image and a few good words from a trusted fellow reader. Such was the case with a curiously titled book called How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy. The title and cover art caught my attention. I looked it up and was shocked at the price demanded for the few copies I could find online. Consequently, it took me a long time to track down a copy. When in India I would forget the author’s name or not know what section to look in. Finally, back at home, I lucked out, placed my order and after a long wait, welcomed this most unusual volume into my library.

So what kind of a book is it?

Quite simply it’s a love song to plants and trees, part natural history, part personal exploration—a most unusual memoir/meditation, shot through with striking observations, and fascinating characters, both human and tree-like, drawn from science, spirituality and literature.

Sumana Roy is a freelance writer, novelist and poet writing from, as her bio puts it, Siliguri, a city in the northernmost reaches of the state of West Bengal, India. Nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas, she is in the perfect space for a woman who finds herself, in mid-life, growing toward a desire to become a tree. Strange, perhaps, but it’s a notion that has deep roots in her own life. And although her inclinations are uniquely hers, she finds well-worn paths filled with kindred spirits in her journey to come to understand and articulate what it might mean to adopt a plant-like existence. To be a tree.

How I Became a Tree opens with a series of most unexpected observations:

At first it was the underwear. I wanted to become a tree because trees do not wear bras.

Then it had to do with the spectre of violence. I loved the way in which trees coped with dark and lonely places while sunlessness decided curfew hours for me. I liked too how trees thrived on things that were still freely available—water, air and sunlight; and no mortgage in spite of their lifelong occupation of land.

The early chapters expand on these themes in a quietly dramatic unfolding of her shifting sense of self and awareness of the ways humanity and plantness intersect in life and literature. Drawn to the silence, the sturdiness, the slowness of trees, she is opening up the questions and notions stirring inside, and beginning to mark out the types of pathways she will follow in the pages ahead. Setting the tone.

There is a gentle meandering feel to this work even though it is actually carefully tended, like a beautiful garden. Each section wanders down a different trail, looking for connections, searching for possible answers. Roy analyzes her own obsessions, even her parent-like concern for her plant children (much perhaps to her patient husband’s wonder). She passionately describes the devotion of the remarkable Bengali scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose—formerly unknown to me—who among other important findings, invented a number of hyper-sensitive instruments to measure the most minute movements in plants, hoping to be able to determine if they could feel and communicate. And, not surprisingly, she brings in many literary elements, reading widely in English literature, but reserving special attention for Italian author Jean Giorno, and Bengali writers Tagore, Bhanaphool (whom I recently wrote about), Syed Mustafa Siraj and Bibhutibhushan Bhandyopadhyaya.

The latter of these authors may be known to those who received a copy of his novel Aranyak when it was Seagull Books’ contribution to the Asymptote Book Club in 2018. I brought my copy home from my first trip to Calcutta and, although I did not write about it here, the vivid imagery has stayed with me. It is the story of a young man who, like the author himself, takes a job far from the city, as an administrator in the forests of Bihar. He is captivated by the jungles and by the subsistence farmers who make their living there. It is not only richly descriptive, but, set in the 1920s, it is also an early account of pending ecological destruction for commercial exploitation. Roy connects deeply to the narrator, to his evolution and immersion in the world dominated by trees, plants and flowers. Her reading is detailed and will be of particular interest to anyone familiar with Aranyak.

As Roy’s journey brings her closer to an understanding of her own motivations for her strange longing, and her appreciation for the multi-faceted appeal of trees, this memoir/meditation left me thinking more and more about trees as I have encountered them in poetry and literature and, more importantly as I have known them in my own life. You see, I too, have a deep affection for trees. I even live in a neighbourhood called Spruce Cliff, where every non-numbered street has a tree name. I live on Cedar Crescent. The balcony of my apartment is embraced by the thick arms of a tree that towers over the three story complex. And a six or seven hundred year old stand of Douglas fir trees extends along the embankment below me. The trail that runs through there, a tough hike, washed out in spots, instantly transports me an hour west to the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been walking it for the better part of the last thirty years and have many tree “friends” I look forward to visiting each time. But trees are more than roots, trunks, branches and leaves. When Roy muses about shadows early on in her book:

That there is no history of shadows is one of the saddest absences in our archives. In that laziness is also the refusal to see any worth in the transient, the old privileging of, say, a romantic ‘forever’ over the ‘affair’. Shadows are affairs, short-lived and short-sighted ones.

I think about the spot at the beginning of the long descent at the east of the trail that never fails to catch my breath, no matter the season, when the sun throws shadows across its way. It is always magical. The shadows are as essential as oxygen in that space.

Then there are the trees I’ve met in my travels. Palm trees, of course, so exotic to a northerner like me. The ghost gums in the red centre of Australia. And in India—my newly found refuge for greenery when bare, brown and patchy snow defines our winter landscape. I don’t even know most of the names of the trees but there is always something green, something flowering, and plants that I almost kill as houseplants growing tall and healthy by the roadside. And finally, there are all the trees I had to say good-bye to—a number of sixty-foot spruce, an aging mountain ash, an apple tree and an untameable row of hawthorns—around the house I sold, only a kilometer away from where I live now. Every spring I mourn them. Two newly built houses now share the lot and only two spruce remain standing.

And from other years, in other places I have lived and visited, there are more.

That is the beauty of a book like this. It brings forth the tree lover that dwells in so many of us, ignites memories, and inspires further reading (there is a bibliography). Sumana Roy invites her reader to join her on an entirely singular journey, one that is her own, yet one that cannot but offer moments of insight and reflection, unique to and belonging to the individual reader alone. After all, it’s perhaps not so much a book about wanting to be a tree, than a book about what it means to find the way one wants to be a human in the world.

How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy is published by Aleph Book Company.

Drawing draws us in: On Being Drawn by Peter Cole and Terry Winters

What would it mean to translate a drawing into a poem? To render the experience of a piece of art into words? Ekphrasis as translation. And, following from that idea, to what extent can one view translation as a form of ekphrasis? These are the questions that propel On Being Drawn, the most recent offering in the Cahier Series—the joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. The result, a unique collaborative project between artist Terry Winters and poet and translator Peter Cole, is a multilayered, dynamic exploration of the translational interrelationship between different forms of artistic expression.

Each addition to this collection of beautifully presented hand-sown booklets pairs a story, essay, or poetry with illustrations. The subjects, always in some way an examination of the idea of writing or translating—or both—are as varied as the writers invited to contribute. The artwork chosen to accompany the text is always striking and engaging in its own right, but there is not necessarily an intentional or existing  relationship between the writer and illustrator, so the final product is a complementary yet parallel effort. Sometimes, as with Éric Chevillard’s QWERTY Invectives, the artist (in this case Philippe Favier) comments on and reaches beyond the text. But with On Being Drawn, artist and author share equal billing. The connection between the two, as such, is essential. It originated with Winters’ request for some poems from Cole for a catalogue for an art show he was preparing. The selected images and poems are included here along with Cole’s later reflections on the act of translating images into words. Therein lies the true magic of this booklet: the commentary is poetic, open-ended and thought-provoking, enriching the entire experience.

There are different levels of interest and connection at play in a work like this. The initial exercise is one of ekphrasis—literary description or commentary on a visual piece of art—but an ekphrastic engagement undertaken in which, as Cole says: “I wanted to see what would happen if I consciously approached the writing as I would a translation.” The secondary project is a reflection, from a temporal distance, on the composition of these poems, and a closer meditation on the question: Is ekphrasis a kind of translation? And can the reverse be true?

These are two very different inquiries. The first might seem more obvious: ekphrasis renders the value, essence or meaning of an artwork into another medium. One expressed with words. Of course, it must be noted that Winters’ drawings are sometimes drawn from natural objects, but most (or at least those that Cole was drawn to) are abstracted—circles, lines, patterns. The poems generated are sometimes descriptive, but often rely on word games, playing with language against the image, engaging in a sort of lyrical Rorschach test. But then again, this results in a translation of the spirit of a work of art that does not appear to be anything specific but could, for the viewer, be almost anything. As they exist together in this work, the twelve selected drawings belong to part of an artist’s larger body of work; the poems are, in a sense, birthed in response to them. The poet’s musings are born of further reflections on translation as ekphrasis.

One of my favourite pairings, drawing and poem alike, is this one, simply called Untitled, 1988, to which Cole responds:

The nerve and zinc ascent of it
descending extension in every direction –
knots of cinder and brightness as one
wash of ash through which it hums
beneath the skin       these paths are thought.

Within the passage that follows this (nicely set off in a fainter print than the poems) he reflects, moving from art to literary translation:

‘My small skill to save a likeness’ John Berger writes of his own sketching his father’s final face in his coffin.

But in the case of these almost abstract sketches, a likeness of what? And how might that ‘what’ be tricked into speech?

It isn’t always pleasant. The act itself and the realization – that part of a translation’s depth derives from its movement through death. The total identification with an original leading to its replacement, so that another’s name and lines live on. so the present unfurls as a rickety bridge of resemblances and resurrections. And the translator, too, passes away again and again through self-effacement faced. For now. And after? An afterlife, after all?

It is perhaps, then, no accident that tracing a line from art to writing poetry to questions of literary translation offers such a rich avenue of exploration for Peter Cole, a translator from Arabic and Hebrew.

When the symbolic rendering of the two languages through which a translator navigates differ the letter acquires a certain significance. Cole is attuned to the shapes of letters surfacing through some of the images. As he reminds us:

The materiality of the letter, of all letters – as building block and spirit trap, a grounding but insurgent tactility – lurks beneath our talk and verse, bringing us back to what matters, as matter, involving continual return to beginnings and incessant permutation.

This brief volume, scarcely more than 40 pages, provides an especially rewarding opportunity for engagement. The art work is varied, representing the full range of the artist’s career, the poems are accessible yet well matched—curiously they often pick up on movement and energy in the drawings. And the commentary is insightful yet unobtrusive, faded so as not to upstage the initial connections. As ever, a welcome addition to a rich collection.

On Being Drawn, The Cahier Series, no. 36, by Peter Cole and Terry Winters is published by the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.

Dark folksongs for a new millennium: I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other by Ulrike Almut Sandig

we don’t know each other yet. I don’t even know
myself. every morning I get up and I don’t have a clue:
is it me, Almut? Ulrike? just who was that child under
its mother’s skirts? I am the mother, I am the daughter
I am the shadow for you to hide beneath

No question here. This is German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig, an artist for whom performance and collaboration—with other poets, musicians and filmmakers—is very important. She is a literary multi-instrumentalist and that sensibility colours her very distinctive poetry. From the outset, her approach was less than conventional. She began by pasting her poems to lampposts and distributing them as flyers and free postcards—reaching out to those resistant to poetry by making it readily accessible through the use of familiar images, comforting rhythms and experimental presentation. Yet, like the traditional folktales from which she derives so much of her inspiration, Sandig’s simple, fanciful poems hide a darkly serious heart. Beneath the allure and beauty of her language, her work boldly addresses some of the most important political issues of the day.

The whimsically titled I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other is her second collection to be released in English translation, following 2018’s much more modestly named Thick Of It. Both works are translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books. The title not only reflects the names of the sections within the book, but is contained and echoed in a couple of pieces. As with her earlier volume, tracks and traces wind their way through her poetry, sowing connections, entertaining dialogue, evoking natural and fantastic elements, and openly comment on modern warfare, the misuse of science, the fate of migrants, and the rise of Right Wing sentiments. She is like a bright radical spirit emerging from a world of shadowy forests and bleak fairy tales.

Compared to Thick of It (reviewed here) which was originally published in German in 2011, I am A Field which originally appeared five years later (2016) is a much more complex and unapologetically political exercise. ballad of the abolition of night (Sandig’s titles are always presented in bold either as headers or within the text—a convention I will hold to here) bluntly depicts instances of torture reported in American “Black Sites” or detainee camps, each verse beginning with the refrain

underneath the utterly cloudless sky
of a state lagging somewhat behind
on the historical timeline of our kind
in a camp for detainees

and each situation, so uncomfortably familiar from the news, loses none of its horror in poetic form.

The fate of refugees fleeing twenty-first century conflict is another theme that reappears several times throughout. This is captured with particular power in almost thirteen questions about Idomeni, 2016 AD. Based on an article about an expanding community of migrants trapped on the Greek border, it begins:

and what if love is not the answer after all?
and what if that dove doesn’t go out and
fetch the first leaf it finds and bring it
back as a sign: land in sight? and what if
there’s no daylight on the waters ahead
but instead just women and children
sinking? and what if there’s not a single
jot of good Deutsch to be found in this
Land of mine, but tarred and feathered
pity as a hyperlink, until I go and forget
my own language too?

Unforgiving in its sentiment, the poem highlights apathy and an unwillingness to engage with the plight of the migrants one way or another, ending with reference to the gorier original version of Cinderella:

coocoo, coocoo Idomeni, there’s blood in
the shoe. I wash my hands in the rain.

At the end of the day, there’s no question who will be disfigured and who will feign innocence.

As in Sandig’s earlier work, European folklore is an important influence—she reimagines nursery rhymes and fairy tales and, along with a fondness for lowercase letters and limited punctuation, this lends a magical atmosphere to her poems. However, not unlike the tradition she is calling on, these elements often serve as the perfect vehicles to explore the brutality of human nature. In I Am a Field, this aspect is pronounced with the inclusion of the “Grimm” cycle which is explicitly based on tales from The Children’s and Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm which, in their unsanitized original versions, could be gruesome and unsettling to say the least. In Fitcher’s Bird, for example, she gives poetic voice to the young woman who disguises herself to rescue and reanimate her older sisters who’ve been murdered and dismembered by an evil sorcerer:

I dipped myself in
a barrel of honey
slit open the bed and
rolled in the feathers.
now I am an odd
bird, nobody
knows me, I
scarcely know
myself. a globe is
stuck in my throat
I can’t get it down:
a monstrous great
round chamber
of wonders racing
through the dark.

Yet, in rescuing her sisters, the narrator is extending her intention to heal all who have been butchered. Other poems in this cycle evoke drone warfare, IS converts, and the reality of life for migrants in Germany and other contemporary realities. In her generous end notes which provide basic background, as needed, to the political and/or lyrical inspiration of many of the pieces, translator Karen Leeder indicates that knowledge of the fairy tales is not necessary to appreciate the Grimm poems, but that German readers might identify intertextual phrases and references even if their origins might not be immediately recognized. And since many of the stories may be lesser known, her short notes offer a little guidance to any interested reader who wishes to know more. She  adds:

The German word “Grimm” also, however, means rage: a rage that permeates the cycle as a reaction to the darkness in the collective German consciousness.

I would suggest that some of that rage underscores much of the collection as a whole, as an invigorating energy that refuses to be silenced. There is beauty and ugliness here, balanced against anger and hope: a collection as strange and strangely intriguing as its wonderfully eccentric title.

I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other by Ulrike Almut Sandig is translated from the German by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

Noticing the unnoticed: Wildfire by Banaphool

Those who love my writing need no introduction to it. Those who do not, need it even less. As for those who are unfamiliar with my writing, they will recognize my nature as soon as they read my stories. I have nothing particular to say to them, either.

In this brief introduction to the collected volumes of his short stories which, over the course of his lifetime amounted to some 578, the Bengali author Banaphool sets out all one really needs to know about his writing. Or to be more exact, the spirit of his work.

While maintaining a busy medical practice in Bhagalpur, Bihar, Dr. Balaichand Mukhopaghyay (1899-1979) produced an astonishing quantity of stories, poems, novels, plays and essays that reflect his deep sensitivity to the human condition and do full justice to his chosen pen-name Banaphool, which means “wildflower” in Bengali. As he was advised by Rabindranath Tagore, the wildflower blooms along the roadside, unnoticed but by creative vision. For a writer who wished to bloom outside the formal literary garden and from this unique vantage point, notice the complexities of the human condition that were often otherwise unnoticed, the name was a perfect fit. Frequently compared to O. Henry and Chekov, two authors he came to know of only after he himself started producing fiction, the similarities are there, but his world is distinctly Indian. The tensions and anxieties that ripple through many of his stories not only reflect the nation’s troubled emergence from colonial rule, but are still tragically disruptive today.

Wildfire is a collection of forty-four pieces translated by Somnath Zutshi, published by Seagull Books in 1999 and reissued in 2018. Most are very short, three to four pages or less, stark and straight to the point with little build up or fuss. There are fables, morality tales, ghost stories and character studies. Banaphool does not shy away from timeless philosophical questions, contemporary politics, or long-standing issues of caste and social class, but he does not proselytize. He expects his reader to fill in the blanks. To read between the lines. He creates characters who are either brave or blemished (or both) with compassion and without judgement. Petty rivalries can have tragic consequences, and vanities can invite supernatural intervention, frequently of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for variety. As such, a measure of moral messiness is typically allowed; his stories often end with an unexpected twist, a surprise revelation, an act of courage, or an unembellished sucker punch to the gut.

The range of the tales in this collection reflects the author’s extensive exposure to a wide range of human personality and behaviour in the course of his work, but although many of his protagonists are also doctors or other middle class professionals, he grants voices to people from all backgrounds as well as natural objects, animals, the dead, and, in one striking example, “Creator”, to a piece of paper whose screams of protest are inaudible to the artist applying paint to its surface. In this way, his work reaches across traditions, but never feels dated. Psychological themes are common, as in “The Human Mind” which tells the tale of two brothers, one devoted to science, the other to religion, similar only in their shared devotion to their orphaned nephew whom they have raised together. When the boy becomes gravely ill their differences are tested.  Other tales examine the vagaries of pride, greed, love and loss.

However, it is notable that a number of the stories speak to political discontents that are still very current in his native country. I brought this book home earlier this year, not long after the deadly riots in northeast Delhi, in late February. By chance the first story I happened upon was “During the Riots” set during the Bihar riots of late 1946. It opens:

Even the air had stopped moving in terror of the Hindu-Muslim riots. The days passed somehow but the nights seemed to last for ever. The blare of the conch shell from one direction, shouts of ‘Vande Mataram’ from another! At the slightest hint of a disturbance, we scrambled up to the terrace. Not a lot happened, generally; things quieted down in a couple of minutes. Moreover, the bitter cold made it impossible to stay on the terrace. My wife spent her time checking to see the various doors and windows were bolted and secured. We took turns staying awake.

As the narrator and his household struggle to arm themselves against certain attack, he thinks about the Muslim man who ran his father’s farm, whose wife had suckled him at her own breast. At several points the interdependence of the two communities is laid bare. But the speed and ferocity with which rumour spreads as tension rises demonstrate that even without WhatsApp and Twitter, misinformation is rampant. Through the narrator’s rising panic, encouraged by his neighbours, Banaphool deftly brings the story to a devastaing conclusion. One that sounds so freshly familiar.

Finally, included with the multitude of short short stories is one novella length addition, “Bhuvan Shome”, the quiet, extended study of a bitter, isolated Railways official who learns a valuable life-altering lesson from a young peasant girl on his annual hunting trip. A slow, complex character study, both sad and comic, this story was made into a Hindi-language movie by celebrated Indian film maker Minal Sen. The narrative takes much more time to build, at first a sharp contrast to the other condensed tales that populate this collection, and yet, even in this longer piece, the initially unpleasant main character is presented with empathy, encouraging the reader to hear what is not being said, and to realize what Bhuvan Shome, for all his self-obsessed rumination, cannot see. He is a classic Banaphool protagonist. An embodiment of the adage that there are none so blind as those who do not wish to see. It is to his good fortune that he comes to recognize the fact before it’s too late—so many of the characters who haunt these pages are not so fortunate.

But such is the view from the roadside sometimes. . .

Wildfire by Banaphool is translated with an introduction by Somnath Zutshi and published by Seagull Books.