“How many lives go into a life?” Leaving by Cees Nooteboom, Drawings by Max Neumann

A man standing in a winter garden becomes aware of something not quite right—a cloud that seems too heavy, bare branches against an ancient wall, the refusal of neighbouring geese—an unspoken uneasiness that carries his thoughts back to the war:

The war that never stopped coming back,
a guest who’s known to all, a toothless
kiss, the language of intimate betrayal
around him now again, remembering a past

he couldn’t share with anyone.

This is how Dutch poet and writer Cees Nooteboom’s Leaving begins, its speaker in his garden thinking about family, war, times past. About those images that fail to fade. But as this three-part sequence of poems was coming into being, another guest, unexpected and uncertain, arrived and shifted the focus. His work would, in the end, acquire a subtitle: A Poem from the Time of the Virus. Without ever mentioning the virus itself outside of his Afterword, the shifting currents of the early months of its spread cannot be ignored even within the poet’s green refuge, for “Whimpering at the garden gate is the world, the / fuss of a newspaper.”

Heads and faces—remembered, imagined, dreamed—form a key motif throughout these poems, complemented by German artist Max Neuman’s series of drawings of abstract figures with spare features, completed in advance of news of the pandemic, for this, their second collaboration. The man in his garden is haunted by heads:

I saw heads, countless heads,
field marshals, lovers, travellers
from star to star. Each head its
own story, hidden in the folds

of the brain, alongside narrow streams
of blood, reeds on the banks, secret
landscapes no one can reach,
except for a lonely traveller

This leads into the second sequence, where the poet, the lonely traveller, wants to make sense of the darkness and strangeness of his visions  that surface from memory. All these heads. Who are these people, he asks, these creatures, these voices? As spartan as Neumann’s drawings, these poems propose questions that the poet cannot or does not want to answer. Can one look for meaning in life if, when looking back, one is confronted with forms, shadows, faces without mouths? The past seems intent on revisiting the man who knows that the end is nearing:

Life, the song of songs? Sure,
but underneath there is that other truth,
the truth of night and fog,
the test that lasts

until the end.

The third and final sequence, or movement if one wishes to read this poem as a musical composition, moves into a space of quiet and melancholy. Others—friends, brothers, lovers—have left the path once shared, one by one, “disappearing like ghosts.” The silence descending on the world is like a nothingness the poet has never heard before: “contradiction / surrounds me, an organ, / no keys, a song // whose sound has been sealed.” Yet, where the poet is troubled by the images that confront him in the second sequence, he is now coming to a place of peace with himself and others in the silence and isolation, and finds he is ready to take the road ahead and let the past be:

Now my feet are counting the road, I know,
looking back is not allowed. My steps measure time,
a dark and peerless poem, a beat
that can’t be slowed.

In the Afterword, Nooteboom who is not a writer to shy away from contemporary issues,  talks about how a poem comes to be, how influences enter and make themselves known, changing the direction in which the poet thought he was headed. It would be strange, he says, if the arrival of a mysterious virus were to be completely ignored; sometimes reality intervenes to help one write. And so we have this thoughtful, timely work, one that invites rereading and lingering on the words and the drawings.

Leaving: A Poem from the Time of the Virus by Cees Nooteboom with drawing by Max Neumann is translated by David Colmer and published by Seagull Books.

A romantic soul: May by Karel Hynek Mácha

A star has dropped from heaven’s height,
a dying star of dark blue light;
it falls through endless realms;
it dwells eternally in falling.
Its cry sounds from the grave of all,
a horrible shriek, a terrible scream.
“When will its falling end?”
Never—nowhere—there is no end.

There are many literary works that risk being ruined for readers simply because they are prescribed study in school, often presented in a rote manner that leaves its victims, er students, with few fond memories. No doubt, for generations of Czech students, Karel Hynek Mácha’s epic poem May might be remembered primarily as something they were required to read in school, old fashioned and difficult. But to come to this poem well into adulthood, without school-deadened experience and as someone whose first poetic passion was English Romantic poetry, this tale of romance, betrayal, patricide and brutal punishment is fascinating, as is the short, tragic life of its author.

Image from Twisted Spoon Press on Flickr

I was inspired to read this important Czech poem by my reading of Daniela Hodrova’s City of Torment earlier this year. Now recognized as the greatest Czech Romantic poet, Mácha is one of the many ghosts haunting this monumental trilogy and his story Márinka, which not yet available in English, forms an important part of the literary subtext of Hodrova’s work. May, however, has been published by Twisted Spoon Press in a handsome dual language volume translated by Marcela Malek Sulak with drawings by Jindřich Štyrský (1899–1942) that were specifically created for this poem.

Mácha was born in Prague on November 16, 1810 and educated in the two languages approved by the Hapsburg authorities, German and Latin. He would go on to study law at Prague University. Yet at heart he was a romantic who spent much of his time wandering the countryside, visiting castles and ruins, and embarking on extended walking tours across Moravia and Slovakia, even making his way to Venice on foot. His great inspiration was Byron.

Writing at a time when Czech poets were seeking to reclaim the Czech language from beneath to weight of two hundred years of imposed German, Mácha also chose Czech for his epic, but he rejected the current focus on folklore and myth as a means to define a new national identity and challenged the Czech language to stretch “to perform in innovative ways and borrowed from Italian landscape, Byronic themes, and local scandal” to fashion his tale of love and a passion denied by fate.

Image from Twisted Spoon Press on Flickr

The finished poem was not well received in Mácha’s circles, causing him to finance the publishing himself in 1836. He died of pneumonia later the same year, a few days shy of his twenty-sixth birthday and three days before he was to have married his lover, Lori, the mother of his child. He was buried in a pauper’s grave. His reputation grew over the decades following his death and a century later, in 1939, his remains were exhumed and he was granted a formal state funeral and buried in the Slavín Cemetery at Vyšehrad in Prague, his status as a national hero finally confirmed.

May consists of four cantos with two intermezzos. It relays the story of Vilém, the notorious “forest lord,” leader of a group of bandits, who is in love with Jarmila, a young girl who has been seduced by another man. In defense of his “wilted rose,” Vilém has killed her debaucher, unaware that his victim was his own father who had driven him out of his childhood home many years earlier. Sentenced to death, Vilém spends the night before his execution preparing to meet his fate:

“How long the night—how long the night—
A longer night yet comes for me!———
Perish the thought!”—The strength of terror
fells his thought.—
Profound silence.—A water drop,
falling, measures time once more.

The next morning, as a beautiful day dawns, the convict is led out to the hillock where a crowd has gathered. He surveys the landscape, bemoans that he will never see his beloved homeland again. The sword falls, and his head and broken limbs are left displayed on a pillar and wheel. Seven years later, a traveller, Hynek, encounters the site and Vilém’s remains. The following morning, the innkeeper in town tells him the tragic tale. Returning once more, many years later on the first of May, the traveller sits on the hillock until nightfall and sees his own and humanity’s fate reflected in Jarmila and Vilém’s story of love and betrayal.

Mácha’s attention to the beauty of nature in evident throughout this poem, from the opening lines of Canto I in which Jarmila waits in vain for Vilém to meet her:

It was late evening—first of May—
was evening May—the time for love.
The turtledove invited love
to where the pine grove’s fragrance lay.
The silent moss murmured of love,
the flowering tree belied love’s woe.
The nightingale sang rose-filled love,
the rose exhaled a sweet complaint.
The placid lake in shadowed thicket
resounded darkly secret pain,
embracing it within its shores;
the pristine suns of other worlds
were wandering through the sky’s blue band,
as fiery as a lover’s tears.

Holding close to his Romantic inspiration and instincts, nature reflects both the passion and the sorrow of his tale. The poem is well-paced and dramatic, speaking to particular style and time, of course, but with all the elements of an entertaining tragic romance. As Sulak explains in her Introduction, she tried to capture the exact meter of the original poem and, because Mácha paid close attention to sound when making language choices to capture his hero’s mental state, she tried approximate a similar affect with the words she used in Canto II, the prison sequence. Because Czech is a language with a much more flexible word order, an effort to reproduce the rhyming pattern was not made. These decisions help preserve the rhythm and flow, as well as the beauty and emotion that have made May such a well-loved poem.

May by Karel Hynek Mácha is translated from the Czech by Marcela Malek Sulak with drawings by Jindřich Štyrský and published  by Twisted Spoon Press.

No one accepts an honest mirror: Ever Since I Did Not Die by Ramy Al-Asheq

Minutes before the Resurrection, the dead-alive walked across the crooked path towards a lesser death. The soldiers shoved them, drove them, robbed them. ‘Who is you God?’ they asked each one, ‘What is your religion? What is your book?’ Rifle butts struck him. He screamed a scream the whole universe heard, except for three: God; the international community; and his people. The wounded rise up like waves before they fall again. They are resurrected, only to be thrown again into the hell that is the tent for seventy more years. There is no power for them, surrounded by nothing but desert and their own skin. (“Escaping from Paradise”)

It is, sadly, easy to turn away from the horror of war when it happens “over there” or occurred “long ago,” to turn a deaf ear to the flood of testimonies that continue to flow out of embattled zones and occupied territories; time and again immediate concern and outrage becomes just more white noise in a world thrumming with a continuous level of sustained violence too uncomfortable to acknowledge. That is why the voices of the people must be reported, shared and amplified not only by journalists, but by writers and poets—those who can deftly wield words sharpened like knives. Like Ramy Al-Asheq.

Ever Since I Did Not Die is a collection of seventeen short prose pieces that bear witness to the unspeakable experiences of war, escape and migration. A Palestinian poet raised in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus, Syria, Al-Asheq was jailed during the Syrian uprisings that followed the Arab Spring, escaped to live under an assumed name in Amman, Jordan, and finally migrated to Berlin where he now lives in exile. The pieces in this slim volume, which were written between 2014 and 2016 for an Arabic series called Syrian Testimonies, intentionally stand in a space between poetry and prose, intended by their author, to be “saved from classification.” The first lines of his Preface set the tone for the works that follow:

I gathered these texts like someone collecting body parts. Here are the pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag. This randomness of body parts is real in its destruction. Bloody at times, violent, honest, imaginary, personal. It looks like me with all my madness and sickness, how the revolution made me grow, what the war broke inside me and what exile chipped away.

Breathless in its brutality, its despair and longing, this collection bears witness to an array of experiences, some recounted in heartbreaking detail, some depicted allegorically, others arising out of dreams and nightmares. The pieces are no more than three or four pages long, each maintaining a steady rhythmic pace that pulls the reader through from beginning to end with little respite, but the language is so vivid, so shocking in its poetic intensity, that it is best to read one or two at a time and pause to let them settle in.

The refugee is a central figure here, doubly displaced, identity fractured, longing for a permanent home. For some, the tent they know is preferable to the unknown, but it is impossible to set down roots. Women’s bodies are often associated with notions of homeland and freedom, sexual imagery often representing the battles and struggles over the “body” of a nation, and Al-Asheq embraces and challenges that convention while questioning and rejecting traditional ideas of masculinity and heroism. This is not to say that there is not the desire for love and belonging to be found in a relationship and family. Meanwhile, the continual pressures of living under siege exacts a harsh toll. Moments of unthinkable cruelty arise without notice, bullets pierce fleeing bodies, bombs rain down from above and in a particularly horrific scene, a bomb decorated like gift explodes blowing three of four children to pieces, leaving the survivor mute.

Mercifully, these pieces are varied and very short. The blow is swift and efficiently delivered, the language is startling, even beautiful at times. That terrible beauty only poetry or poetic prose can achieve. The title piece which closes out the collection, is Al-Asheq’s dynamic testament to his survival, his rejection of totalitarian, patriarchal countries and the necessity of redefining his place in the world in his own terms:

Ever since I did not die, I started to taste beauty. I open war’s door, the chapter of fear, and sink further into the hatred of heroism. I shed all I thought was right for love. There is no reality in believing. Believing is the enemy of reality. Identity is everything except for place, flag, race, religion and gender. Ever since I did not die, I have lost my identity. I do not care much if I carry one or it carries me!

Translator Isis Nusair conveys the emotional energy that charges these poetic prose pieces while her Introduction and Notes provide a framework for appreciating many of the elements at play. Editor Levi Thompson’s Afterword captures the spirit of Al-Asheq’s work which, as he claims, crosses borders in form and content echoing the troubled journey of its author. This powerful collection is a testimony to war and dislocation that does not easily fade into the background.

Ever Since I Did Not Die by Ramy Al-Asheq is translated from the Arabic by Isis Nusair, edited by Levi Thompson and published by Seagull Books.

“Trembling in the dew. / Dancing in the fog.” Seriously Well by Helge Torvund

Can you
instead of
grieving the awful
deeds you have done,
or shuddering
dread the horror
that may come,
enjoy the fact
that you are
seriously well?

With a work of poetry that arises from an experience of significant illness, one might expect a to travel a familiar pathway through diagnosis, treatment and recovery—a healing journey. In his book-length poem, Seriously Well, Norwegian poet Helge Torvund begins with a meditation on the wonderous power of poetry to facilitate emotional connection and moves through a sequence of poems that explore questions of the relationship between mood and environment, the possibility of welcoming of Death as a companion in life, and the bond between the physical body and the energies of the world. The speaker calls to mind adult and childhood memories. Fashions thoughtful wisdoms and parables. These gentle free verse pieces unfold in quiet anticipation, or preparation, for what ultimately lies ahead in the doctor’s office where he receives worrying news.

Originally published in Norwegian in the collection Alt Brenner in 2011, this sequence of poems has now been translated by the author and released by The Song Cave. The tone of this work is crystalline, meditative and wise. The wonder of nature, the quality of light, and the comforting nearness of water are key motifs that recur, but there is also, underlying it all, an ever present awareness that life is fragile and death will, in time, come for all living creatures and things. A most affecting poem, not quite midway through, finds the speaker waking in the middle of a winter night noticing:

that something,
one thing or another,
was different,
strange, remarkable.

With his family asleep, he gathers his clothing, gets dressed and steps outside into a snowy world lit by a full moon. He marvels at the distorted landscape:

You recognize this side
but still it is different,
strange, peculiar, odd,
remarkable.
Sinister,
but beautiful too.
Changed. Deformed.

Further along, down by the water, he notices a strange shape, an object that suddenly moves. A heron on the ice cold concrete:

I went a bit closer,
stopped for a while.
I saw its ancient gaze
staring at me over
the long narrow beak.
There was great wisdom
in that eye.
I moved even closer.
It did not fly away?
No.
How
strange.
Suddenly it lay down
on the concrete.
And the eyes
became begging, helpless.

This nocturnal encounter with a dying heron seems to embody the keen perception and restrained sentiment that gives this sequence its immediate emotional force. Through a series of similar meditations and tales,  Torvund guides his reader toward what so often feels elusive—even impossible in our darkest moments—an expression of acceptance that is timeless and enduring.

Seriously Well by Helge Torvund is translated from the Norwegian by the author and published by The Song Cave.

Is he really gone: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

The loss, he says, the loss of someone so
close, the loss of a HAND and HEART
PARTNER is something so completely and
utterly devastating, yet it may be, we may be
able to keep right on speaking with this HEART and
LOVE PARTNER continue conversing and may
even expect a response from this person.

I’ve long had an interest in literary expressions of immediate grief, a much more elusive task than one might imagine until actually faced with the intensity of loss and the longing to express that experience at its most raw. Then it seems almost impossible, yet Friederike Mayröcker’s Requiem for Ernst Jandl may be one of the most successful unmediated responses to the loss of a loved one that I have encountered.

Paperback edition, German List

Mayröcker met fellow Austrian poet and writer Ernst Jandl in 1954. They both left marriages to be together, but did not marry or share a home. Theirs was a deeply creative lifelong partnership, they supported one another’s work and collaborated on radio plays and other projects over the next forty-six years. When Jandl died on June 9, 2000, she was devastated by the loss yet miraculously she was able to channel it into a series of poems composed within the first months after his death. The rawness and confusion of grief is evident. Her characteristic, experimental style which employs capitalization, italics and numerals, and often incorporates fragments of private conversations and excerpts from letters and diaries, serves to heighten the anxiety, confusion and emotion of this period of early grief. Also woven into the series of poems that comprise this requiem is an earlier piece that captures the nature of the interplay of the their creative energies.

There is a sense throughout this slender collection of words and emotion spilling out on the page, gathered up and coming loose again. The great love, the completeness of the loss, and the exhaustion of caring for a weak and dying man all have to be released, repeatedly, in the tumult of grief and guilt that colours these early months. Each poem approaches these conflicts, but the final long piece in the book, the prose poem “’the days of wine and roses’, for Ernst Jandl,” reflects this emotional urgency with particular power. Here Mayröcker seems to be sorting out a flux of memories, thoughts and feelings as expressed to a friend, Leo N.

And what about the pencil, I say to B., why
on the morning of his death did he draw a
pencil on a piece of note paper, I say to B.,
why did he ask for a pencil, there were
plenty of pens on the little table next to his
bed, the quill of the Holy Ghost lingered
longer on Job’s sorrows than it did on the
delights of Solomon, B. says, I tell Leo N.,
is he really gone, is he really in heaven now,
a heaven you yourself believe in, the
passageway into the other world, says Leo
N., is described as stepping through a
waterfall, and the vulture flies through the
sun, I went up to his room, up to a bed that is
empty and say to him I feel better today, but
I am thinking: I NO LONGER have any hope
for this life, at 3 o’clock in the morning…

In the crush of the weeks and months following Jandl’s death the voices of some friends and phone calls from others rise and fall. This is a loss both deeply personal and shared with a community of artists, and at times a tension is evident, one senses that the poet both welcomes the company and wants to be alone. Needs the comfort and doesn’t know what to do with it.

Of course, the death of her companion and creative partner did not silence Mayröcker. She continued to write startling, challenging and innovative poetry and prose right up until her death last year at the age of ninety-six. Jandl continues to appear and inspire along the way but never in such an open, unabashed lament as in this Requiem—one that fittingly closes with one of his best known poems, the humorous sound poem ottos mops complete with Mayröcker’s original reflection on the composition written in 1976, long ago she admits, adding that if she could have one single year from that now distant time back, “how intensively I would live it, how tenderly and how happily.”

Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker is translated from the German by Roslyn Theobald and published by Seagull Books.

Absence is the only distance felt by the heart: Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully

Without a spurious memory,
the sole true blood, like salt
flowed around
every white seashell
wrenched from the belly of languages.

Speak so as not to forget—
isn’t this the true gift of tongues?  (p. 62)

The island nation of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean about 800 kilometres east of Madagascar, was uninhabited until the Dutch took possession of it in 1598. They named it after governor Maurice of Nassau, but despite two attempts to settle the island, they abandoned it to pirates. Mauritius was then occupied by the French East India Company in 1721 and renamed Ile de France. Over the next forty years settlement proceeded until the French Crown assumed control and established a thriving sugar cane industry, bring in African slaves to work the plantations. In 1810, the British captured the island. Four years later, their sovereignty was confirmed and the name Mauritius was restored but, in contrast to other British colonies, French customs, laws and language remained in place.

When abolition brought an end to slavery in Britain, pressure extended to the colonies and the replacement of slaves with indentured servants, primarily from India, began. Between 1849 and 1923, millions of men and women were brought to the island and beyond to other European colonies. Today, Mauritius, an independent Republic with administrative control of several nearby islands (including a still-disputed claim over the Chagos Archipelago), has a population reflecting its short history. Approximately two-thirds are of Indo-Pakistani origin, one-third Creole (French-African) and a small percentage of mixed Chinese heritage.[i]  A rich blend of cultures, traditions and religions have contributed to a diverse and growing economy in this small African country, but the wounds of a history of slavery and indentured servitude cannot be ignored. Countless people were torn from their homelands and transported in unsafe, sometimes deadly conditions to work in a harsh environment with little hope of ever seeing home again. Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Mauritian poet, essayist and filmmaker, Khal Torabully, is a poetic tribute to his own ancestors, and an attempt to give voice to those who made that fateful voyage, human cargo in the hold of ships, to the shores of Mauritius so many years ago.

I want to go to the grand bazaar
to seek at last the saffron of shadows
o refrain from your refrain
the hoist of spices clears the remains
o refrain from your refrain
for your bodies heaped on the wind:
cries of cumin: cries my journey’s route
cries of thyme: cries my future
cries of coriander corpses awaiting return.
And the bids of roots chased away
my terrified dreams all the way to hell.   (p. 37)

This collection moves backward, from the blended community of peoples forced into labour who not only held on to traditions carried in their memories, but, with the blending of cultures created a stronger community, through the horrors of the seabound journey, back to the point of departure from their distant motherland. Torabully’s mission is reflected in his reclamation and empowering of the word “coolie,” the pejorative term for primarily Indian and Chinese indentured workers once common throughout the colonies. Echoing Aimé Césaire’s term “Negritude,” he coins the idea of “Coolitude” to recognize the resilience, dignity and cultural and linguistic endurance of these forgotten men and women. By taking up their voices, he is at once giving them back their unique histories and setting them free:

Coolitude: because all humans have the right to a memory, all are entitled to know their first odyssey’s port. Not that this port is a refuge, but because in this place, forever unnameable, they raise those anchors that sometimes bind to their truth.

Yes indeed, all humans have the right to know the flames that ignite their dreams and silences. Even to be their own history’s moth.

By coolitude I mean that peculiar clashing of tongues which cracks the heart of hearts of millions of men for a history of crystals and spices, fabric and parcels of land.

Unsuspected music at the threshold of words from different horizons.

Within myself an encounter with those who invert the course of boats.

In a cargo hold of stars.  (p. 18)

Given the cultural diversity inherent among the population of the workers who were brought to Mauritius, honouring their experiences demands a language of its own. As translator Nancy Naomi Carlson explains in her Foreword, Torabully developed a “poetics of coolitude” by creating “a new French, peppered with Mauritian Creole, Old Scandinavian, old French, mariners’ language, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Urdu and neologisms.” The playfulness and musicality of his verse serves to accentuate the serious, even tragic themes that recur throughout this work, but provided a unique challenge for Carlson, whose wonderful translation of this work has been awarded the 2022 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. She employed a “sound mapping” technique, identifying “salient patterns of assonance, alliteration and rhyme in the original, using a colour-coded system to help keep track within each poem, then tried to infuse this music into [her] translation without sacrificing the original meaning.” The results invite reading aloud—the resulting poems read like a cycle of songs—verses recited in the fields, on the ship, around the home fire. Songs of longing, songs of loss, songs of hope.

Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully is translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson and published by Seagull Books.

[i] Historical and population data from Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/place/Mauritius

Give me better ghosts: Nekhau by Rico Craig

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

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

(from “Caverns”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are home you say, and I recognise nothing

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

(from “Caverns”)

Nekhau by Rico Craig is published by Recent Work Press.

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

Dark, endless,
lampless
behind the windowpanes

the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

behind the bare windowpane
the clouds
leave stains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a nearby star twinkling
and ripping

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

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

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

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

– from “The Enchantment of Death: Briar Rose”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

infinite energy borrowed from the future
founded everything
out of nothing

like debt  (45)

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

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

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

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

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

interrupt me in my work

i sat there and

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

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

is it alive

an incredible labor (18)

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

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

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

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

griefbody
ragebody
joybody
lovebody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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