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

infinite energy borrowed from the future
founded everything
out of nothing

like debt  (45)

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

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

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

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

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

interrupt me in my work

i sat there and

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

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

is it alive

an incredible labor (18)

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

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

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

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

griefbody
ragebody
joybody
lovebody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from “translation”)

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

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

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

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

(from “home”)

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

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

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

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

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

Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore (and a few words about Seagull Books for World Book Day 2022)

As I write this, it is World Book Day, April 23, 2022 and it seems the perfect time to call attention to a man who has dedicated his life to making important, challenging books available to eager readers and celebrating the book itself as a work of art, an object as delightful to look at and hold as it is to read. And now, that man, Naveen Kishore, the founder of Seagull Books, has a book of his own, Knotted Grief—a collection of piercing, spare poems that turns its attention to sorrow and anguish as experienced in both national and intimate spaces.

Poetry is, for Kishore, as I understand it, the product of a daily practice of writing—of putting words to the page every day, regardless of available time or present situation. As a friend, it is a discipline he has recommended to me, rather insistently in fact, but I fear I fell off the page some time ago and am only just climbing back on. His poetry has also been shared with those around him, appearing online here and there, even arriving on occasion in my own email inbox. One could even say that poetry tends to inform and permeate his prose and his speech—as if it has become, not a vocation or an exercise so much as a way of being in the world.

Knotted Grief, coalesces around “Kashmiriyat,” an extended cycle inspired by the devastating events in Kashmir in recent years. Across 105 spare verses Kishore paints a pained portrait of violence, misery and loss. The flickering light of candles, personified shadows, cold winter winds, bloodied earth, strangled silence—images of war fold in on one another, frozen by the photographer-poet’s eye and trimmed to their bare essentials, then revisited again and again.

6
bird stripped
of sight
seeking
refuge
in a sky
full
of bullet wounds

Most of the verses are short, a handful of lines, but midway through the sequence—50, 52, 55—stretch out, with anger and desperation rising:

elsewhere the echoes
of a candle flame muffled
by fingers that knew no pain

the stone floor
beginning to feel the cold
as bare footsteps walked over its grave

like a whisper
the angel gliding past
its silhouette fighting shy of the firelight

on a clear and blue sky is heard
the song of the winter wind
utterly and completely silent

a child’s memory of the future? (from 55)

Sadly, armed conflict and occupation are not unique to any one place or time and to read this poem as war rages in Ukraine and elsewhere, the words are not in any way diluted. Rather they dig deeper, strike closer to the core. In the following sequence, “Street Full of Widows” the painful universality of the human cost of war strikes hard:

Go gather the flowers               for the wreaths
go                   from door to door
                      gathering
.                            sheets for the shrouds

 

there is no time to grieve

When, then, we might ask, is the time to grieve? Grief is a fundamental part of life and living, complex and compounded as we grow older, and this theme in its more intimate sense guides the balance of the poems in this collection. The weight of sorrow is, at times, heavy, and Kashmir still lingers in the shadows, while the interplay of memory, dreams and desires carry the later pieces in a more fanciful and uplifting direction. Throughout, an unmistakable energy lifts and carries the poetry, rising and falling in mood and intensity, the weight and balance of each line carefully measured. One might imagine that the poet’s background in stage lighting serves him well. Certainly Naveen Kishore’s deep association with theatre, literature and photography stretching back over more than four decades fuels this moving debut.

Writing about books these past few years has opened for me a network of independent publishers I might never have encountered had I continued to let the literary bestseller lists guide my fortunes. It is, I suppose, one of the small gifts of having to leave my profession earlier than planned. I bought my first Seagull Book in 2015 and made my first pilgrimage to Calcutta in 2018. I’ve been back to the city once but hope that, if all goes well—as the world conspires against us daily—I will be able to visit Naveen and the rest of the Seagull family on this, the fortieth anniversary year of operations for a publisher that believes in the power and beauty of literature.

Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore is published in India by Speaking Tiger and in Australia by Gazebo Books

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

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

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

before the text.

(from “sentry duty”)

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

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

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

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

(from “what I possessed”)

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

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

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

(from “the very first affection”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from “Appear”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from “Moon”)

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

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

Dreams distancing: Triptych by Alexander Booth

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

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

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

Slim sun-edged thumb
Of Roman brick

Umbered, undone

This late valley dozing
Under a late spring sun

You still want what will not last

– from “Eveningsong”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8th June

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

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

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

Our secret sketchbooks.

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

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

Losing Touch by Magda Kapa is published by Phoenicia Publishing.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each to his own “green truth”: Ponge, Pastures, Prairies by Philippe Jaccottet

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies is more than a simple tribute to French poet and essayist Francis Ponge by fellow poet Philippe Jaccottet, it is a deeper examination of the way creative influences sift through a writer’s own process of literary development. The two men first met in 1946, when the latter was barely twenty years-old and, as Jaccottet recounts, he imagines that, though he said nothing, the older man likely had his reservations about his youthful lyric enthusiasms. Nonetheless, a friendship between them would form and continue for over forty years. When Ponge died in 1988 at the age of 89, Jaccottet was among the mourners at his funeral in a rustic graveyard in Nîmes. It is with his reflections that day—a piece intended to stand alone—that this small, special book has its origin.

The funeral was a modest affair on a bright summer day, but it was not one without qualities that seem to Jaccottet oddly fitting for his friend. The pastor arrived quietly by bicycle and chose to recite the 23rd Psalm beside the family vault, “because the deceased was a poet.” King David’s ode to his heavenly shepherd and “green pastures” was followed by a simple reading of Ponge’s “The Meadow” by actor Christian Rist:

“Carried away suddenly by a sort of peaceful enthusiasm / In favor of a truth, today, which is green. . .” This kind of albeit distorted echo, over some thirty centuries, was thus perhaps even stranger and more striking than the rest (the vast, noble, abandoned cemetery and this burial, as if for an unknown person, of a writer so legitimately famous).

This juxtaposition sets the scene for Jaccottet’s homage to Ponge—a poet whose domain was the minute examination of the everyday—calling attention to his commitment to a “green truth” and the remarkable vigour with which he defended it. A sketch of a strong character, given to both “excessive intolerance” and “most generous enthusiasms” emerges, composed in the emotion of the moment of loss. It is not surprising, then, that despite the many formal arguments he had offered in praise of his friend over the years, Jaccottet felt a personal need to articulate what essentially separated him from Ponge’s work. So he started to write a follow up.

However, the expansion of this text into its final form was not an immediate or obvious project. In his Postface, written in 2013 when he was preparing for the original French publication, Jaccottet admits that he was not inclined to work his sentiments through to a natural end. Others encouraged him to think otherwise, but still he delayed, out of laziness or, perhaps, out of fear that entertaining his reservations might be disrespectful to a man he had continued to admire and think of with great affection. But this recognition of the complex interplay of influence and divergence, explored with a perspective stretching over more than two decades lends depth to this slender volume.

Jaccottet begins with a consideration of two of Ponges’ heroes: François de Malherbe (1555-1628), the French poet and critic who insisted on strict form, restraint and purity of expression, and composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) whom Ponge proclaimed as the artist who interested him more than any other with a style “of the kind that awakens: male, energetic, and  ardent.” If these men spoke to the inspiration that charged his friend, Jaccottet takes care to look at how his own response and tendencies diverge. As he moves on to discuss the way their approaches to writing start from contrasting points of view or ways of looking—one precise and object-oriented, the other lyrical trial-and error experimentation open to the “fleeting impression.” However, even if the origin and ends differ, he can acknowledge that his thinking on questions, such as the “enigma of purity” has been influenced by Ponge’s concern with that which is “pure” or “true.” One’s questing can be furthered, after all, in discourse with those whose creative inclinations deviate from one’s own. And throughout this text, Jaccottet is careful to reiterate his respect and fondness for Ponge, a feeling that he is assured in reviewing the volume of correspondence they exchanged over the years, was returned.

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies offers a tribute and a uniquely honest, yet sensitive critique. Jaccottet writes very thoughtfully, entertaining ideas about poetry, death, and the particular dynamics of the relationship between himself and Ponge in a manner that does not require a deep familiarity with the work of either man. In this regard, the extensive footnotes, based on Jaccottet’s own but expanded by translator John Taylor, are helpful and informative. I will confess that I have acquired more than a few volumes of Jaccottet’s work over the years, but until this time I’ve not seriously engaged with any, feeling, perhaps, a little intimidated or uncertain where to start. This book has ignited my interest and opened the door or, as Jacottet might say, a crack in that wall.

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies by Philippe Jaccottet is translated by John Taylor and published by Black Square Editions.

Words are rocky tears: Alphabets of Sand by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta

Where do words come from?
from what rubbing of sounds are they born
on what flint do they light their wicks
what winds brought them into our mouths

Their past is the rustling of stifled silences
the trumpeting of molten elements
the grunting of stagnant waters

– from “Words”

My first encounter with Vénus Khoury-Ghata was with her novella, The Last Days of Mandelstam, a spare, poignant portrait of the Russian poet’s life and lonely death that I read several months ago. It left me keen to explore her poetry and prose further. I soon discovered that American poet and translator Marilyn Hacker has released translations of several collections of her poetry and one novella, so, uncertain where to begin, I opted for the evocatively titled Alphabets of Sand (2009) from UK publisher, Carcanet. A wise choice it turns out, because this collection draws on material from three of Hacker’s earlier US translations along with an insightful introduction.

If poets dwell in language, Khoury-Ghata exists in a world threaded with letters of alphabets scattered like sand in the wind or like stars cast against the blackness of the sky. Born in Beruit in 1937, into a French-speaking Maronite Christian family, the dual French and Arabic cultural and linguistic influences of her childhood animate her poetry and colour the world that she imagines—a place filled with magic and marred by misery. Although she has lived in Paris since 1972, much of her writing looks back to the country of her birth and its tragic history.

Alphabets of Sand gathers five poems or sequences and selections from a sixth. The title of this collection comes from the wonderful piece “Words” which plays with and celebrates language as a primal life form, born and nurtured in the soils of the continents of the earth, taking shape, searching for and finding tongues, mouths and speakers to breathe words into being. As such, language is a collaborative magic between nature and humankind:

Language at that time was a straight line reserved for birds
the letter ‘i’ was the cleft of a hummingbird
‘h’ a ladder with one rung necessary to replace a charred sun before nightfall
‘o’ a hole in the sole of the universe

Unlike the consonants with their rough garments
the vowels were naked
all the weaver’s art consisted of humouring them
in the evening they counted each other to make sure no one was missing
in the rocky countries men slept without dreaming

Khoury-Ghatta’s native Arabic and French speak to one another in the course of this sequence, their respective alphabets moving from left to right and right to left, but the Word she evokes, belongs to neither language but to all languages living and lost.

As translator Marilyn Hacker describes it: “Khoury-Ghatta’s work bridges the anti-lyrical surrealist tradition which has informed modern French poetry since Baudelaire, and the parabolic and communal narrative with its (we might say Homeric) repetitions of metaphors and semi-mythic tropes of poetry in Arabic.” She writes, as she herself puts it, “in Arabic through the French language.” The confluence of these traditions is especially evident in the poetry collected here. “The Darkened Ones,” for example, written during the 2006 war in Lebanon, adopts a communal voice of unfathomable depth—a chorus of women speaking to generations of the dead, displaced and disrupted—echoing the unanswered questions that accompany the sorrow and pain of senseless conflict.

An idiosyncratic personal mythology permeates the most powerful works here, a magical sense of place that pays tribute to a world where ghosts mingle with a shifting present. “The Seven Honeysuckle Sprigs of Wisdom” paints a portrait—by turns affectionate, coarse and funny—of the eccentric cast of characters who people a village where time is “in a hurry,” but the river “turns back toward its source.” The hairdresser, cemetery caretaker, beggar, shepherdess, prostitute, schoolmasters and others appear, alongside saints and spirits and a host of struggles and dreams.

However, it is the sequence of poems from “Early Childhood” that carry, for me, the most weight and shimmering energy. Central to these pieces, most of which are dedicated to individuals including the author’s sister, the writer May Ménassa, is an enigmatic mother figure:

I write Mother
and an old woman arises in the uncertainty of evening
slips into a wedding dress
stands on tiptoe on her windowsill
calls out to the hostile city
addresses the haughty tribe of streetlights
bares her chest to the clocks
shows them the precise site of her sorrow
disrobes gently for fear of creasing her wrinkles
and unsettling the air

My mother had her own way of undressing
as one would strip the medals from a disgraced general

The poems that comprise this sequence move from a familial to a wider universal sense of mother as teacher, keeper of wisdoms and memory. Language again features prominently, not simply as a alphabets deciphered in books, but as read in nature:

The books we browsed in came from the forest that watched us read
from the peeled bark’s shriek which continued under the pages’ skin
We read in the darkness of August
when the galaxy disposed of its excess stars
when, without  margins, night stretched itself out until night.

As presented, the lasting sensation that this collection leaves me with is one of the kindling of a connection with the roots of Khoury-Gatta’s poetic sensibility. Her love of language and her comfort with repeated metaphor—dead leaves, pebbles, wind, streetlights, stars, trees, alphabets—make sense within the context of her dual language, culturally rich upbringing. Again, I am left wanting to read more and know more. Now in her 80s, she has many honours and an extensive body of work to her name, most of which is yet to be translated into English. Nonetheless, I plan to explore more of what is out there in the new year.

Alphabets of Sand by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta is translated by Marilyn Hacker and published by Carcanet Press.

To fall with grace and compassion: A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving by Katie Farris

I know people who shy away from poetry for fear that they will not know what it means, as if a prerequisite of appreciating poetry is an intimacy with style and form and an inexhaustible knowledge of that which came before lest an influence be mistaken or missed in the reading. So, here is a collection to assuage that fear, a small book that can be met by anyone. Paradoxically it is accessible precisely because it chronicles an experience, a reality, that we all fear—a diagnosis that so many of us have known, if not intimately, then in a friend or loved one.

In the miraculously titled A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving, Katie Farris invites us to walk alongside her, as she ventures into hell, so that we can know, as she is determined to believe, that even in the midst of hell, there are things that are not hell. Her words, lines, poems, bruised against the flesh of living, become an offering, an answer to a terrifying uncertainty, a string of songs that speak to her journey, expose her joys, and catch her falling body in their shadows. Love poetry to a burning world.

Here’s a shot between
the eyes: Six days before
my thirty-seventh birthday,
a stranger called and said,
You have cancer. Unfortunately.
Then hung up the phone.
– from “Tell It Slant”

This slender chapbook is her response to the third stage breast cancer that is staking a claim on her body, tracing the shock of diagnosis, the invasion of surgery, the toll of treatment. Unflinching and honest, this collection of poems speaks with an awareness only illness can heighten.

For Farris the experience of cancer seems less of an inward looking process, but rather one of looking and extending outward, into the world. Which might, appear at first glance, counter-intuitive. She turns to her husband, wondering about the balance of intimacy and caregiving, if a “slow / sweet collapse into / oneness” has its limits, and yet discovering, to her surprise, that mid-chemotherapy she wants sex:

Philosexical, soft and
Gentle, a real
Straight fucking, rhymed
Or metrical—whatever
You’ve got, I’ll take it.
Just so long as we’re naked.

Poetry itself is also a comfort, a companion, as one might expect and, at this time, it is Emily Dickinson with whom she develops a special friendship, if you like. Echoes of her idiosyncratic spirit may be heard. “Emiloma: A Riddle & an Answer” playfully addresses Dickinson, alternately with questions directed to her own condition and treatment. The kind of questions that evade comforting responses:

Will you be
my death, Emily?
Today I placed
your collected poems
over my breast, my heart
knocking fast
on your front cover.

*

Will you be
my death, chemo?
The shell of my self
in the sphere of time
plucking, plucking
the wool of my hair
from its branches.

But, perhaps one of the most powerful elements in this collection, one that speaks to me in particular in relation to illness and healing, is her engagement with the natural world, with images of trees and birds. In front of the Atlanta Cancer Center she ponders whether we arose in imitation of trees, longing for roots and raising our arms like branches, while another poem contemplates the strangeness of survival, of standing “in the forest of being alive.” It is, however, in the closing poem, “What Would Root” that she finally gives herself to that forest, a reconnecting with a vivid, corporeal recognition of being one with nature—the water, the soil, the roots and branches—however tenuous or complete the journey is. In just 37 pages, this chapbook, is evidence that when the world is falling apart, writing love poetry may just be the best defense.

A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving by Katie Farris is the winner of the 2021 Chad Walsh Chapbook Prize and published by Beloit Poetry Journal.