I am the hard one: Outgoing Vessel by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

destructive is my normal state (37)

Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen is a singular force of poetic vision. Intense, strident, futuristic. Outgoing Vessel, newly released from Action Books, is the follow up to her award-winning Third-Millennium Heart, a powerful reading experience I loved so much that I responded in verse with an experimental review published here (open the PDF to read). Translator Katrine Ogaard Jensen is on board again for this new journey and, as with her previous work, Outgoing Vessel unfolds over a sequence of poetic movements to form a 193-page, book-length poem that is both epic and operatic in scope. I was not surprised to learn that Olsen is also a librettist. As with her earlier project, the “singer” here is an enigmatic narrative force—perhaps the same one, I don’t know, though I hear a companion rather than a continuation myself.

no one except me can hate feelings
anyone else who claims to hate feelings:
let it be known how they still succumb to them
anyone else who claims to hate feelings:
let it be known how they, in weak moments
open up to them and

and become soft with longing

among all time’s winners
i am the hardest (8)

The early suites of Outgoing Vessel seem charged with negative energy, often erupting in harsh declarations of hatred that begin with the self and extend outward.  The voice is hard, constrained. Darkness and destruction are evoked frequently. Yet the motion is self-driven, Olsen owns her language, and the direction she is moving toward (and expecting others to align with) is not symbolic, but it is futuristic. She seems to be intent on encasing her darker, grieving being, containing it inside a container—described as an orb:

which I will send off as the outgoing
vessel that it is
after which the new human can arrive in its

incoming (48)

Third-Millennium Heart built on a tension between the clinical and the organic, pregnant with promise, anger and grief, rupturing ultimately into a powerful post-human feminist vision—one which gives birth to the possibility of a cyborg-like hive-heart existence. Heart’s speaker devoured and contained. Vessel’s is more isolated, inward focused and philosophical. Pain, grief, and an existential disconnection drive her rhythmic reasoning as she moves toward the foundation of a technological ontology, a science fiction solution, and a re-imagining of a new human beingness.

we must assume there is an original alienation:
first the estrangement, a person, a stranger to themselves
stranger to others, the person exists deep inside their
distant interior, without knowing, they must escape to the
surface, from inside, to become human (108)

The futuristic tone becomes more prevalent as the sequence progresses, propelled in no small part by the “technoscientic” poems that close each section of the work. As translator Katrine Øgaard Jensen explains in her note, Olsen “created these poems by piecing together lines from each suite, running the text through multiple languages in Google Translate, translating it back into Danish via Google Translate” then, from the resulting document, the final piece was created employing a cut-up method. This mechanical process allows for a new tone, energy and uncertainty to enter the cycle (not mention an added challenge for the translator to meet in a satisfactory measure):

human nature
in the coffin, a
relic, collection of Bones and Hair
encapsulated and stored in
a humane vacuum

this is
the refuge (94)

The strange brutality of Olsen’s poetry, the slogan-like chants, and the tightly-honed anger can be off-putting, but as with Third Millennium Heart, I find it oddly therapeutic. Anger in its shades and intensities can be a positive force—it is the healing movement of the cycle of grief, it pushes you forward, up and out of the sandpit of sadness that follows loss, trauma, heartache. It sounds counter-intuitive but I saw it many times working with survivors of acquired brain injury. Yet it is hard to allow it in oneself, for fear it will erupt in uncontrollable ways. Through the course of Outgoing Vessel we witness the speaker’s emergence as a voice of concern, intent on invalidating loneliness—through her outgoing/incoming vessel she comes to a radicalizing understanding of empathy and experience.

Olsen is a poet who, as her translator Jensen freely admits, cannot be neatly and directly rendered into English—her work is highly inventive, rife with cultural references, puns, neologisms, and experiments with language. Rather than attempting to produce an exact copy, Jensen aims to stay true to the “spirit of the work,” allowing it to find its own form in translation. This is, it turns out, an ideal approach for a poet who sees her own  work as a “translation of an idea”. As such, she is simply the first translator and Jensen is the second. The result is a sequence of poems that carries its own fresh energy. Tight. Terse. Tender. And ultimately affirming in its futuristic vision.

Outgoing Vessel by Ursula Andkjær Olsen is translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen. It features stark, spare photographic works by Sophia Kalkau and is published by Action Books.

Rise, fall, and redemption: The Divine Song by Abdourahman A. Waberi

“With us, everything begins with a song and everything ends with another song.”

Or, one could say: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was put to Music and Song was born, and thus the song came to be the driving creative force of the universe.  This is the nature of the world as we are invited to experience it in French-Djiboutian writer, Abdourahman A. Waberi’s imaginative novel The Divine Song. Yet, it is clear from the outset, that this is no ordinary musical journey we are about to embark on—it is, instead, the story of one man’s life  with its genius and its frailties, woven into the broader tapestry of African American literature, music and history, orchestrated by one singular feline. Yes, you heard that right, the narrator of The Divine Song is Paris, “an old bachelor cat on the threshold of his last life.” A Sufi cat, no less.

In an earlier incarnation Paris was a Persian named Farid, companion to Mawlana, a venerable Sufi master whose teachings continue to provide guidance in his present role as the self-described guardian angel to a most unlikely soul. He knows he does not possess the power to protect his charge from adversity, but he can, and will, bear witness—a mission he attends to, from the opening pages, with a blend of spiritual wisdom and street (cat) sense:

Life is beautiful despite its vagaries and my nine lives show this clearly. Life is beautiful on the condition that you serve it. In other words, helping others, the brothers and sisters you meet along the way. And for me, that other brotherly face is above all Sammy, the mage who burned his life at both ends.

This Sammy, to whom Paris is devoted, is the brilliant, yet deeply troubled, musician Samuel Kamau-Williams, a man whose life shares the outlines of that of African-American singer, composer and writer, Gil Scott-Heron—an echo, an homage, a point of reference perhaps, but with a story of his own.  And a most unusual biographer prepared to tell it.

The course of the impassioned account Paris proceeds to deliver is framed against the closing months of Sammy’s life: his last musical adventures in Europe, and his final days back home in New York. Against this canvas our narrator sketches out the details of his subject’s life, his family, and his influences. We meet his self-sufficient mother and his Jamaican-born father, a soccer player who disappears early in his son’s life to play abroad, first in the UK and later in Brazil. And we are granted a close, affectionate view of Lily Williams, his grandmother, who cared for him until he was twelve. Sammy’s time with her in Savannah, Tennessee proves formative for the future musical prodigy while Lily herself provides a spiritual and historical link her young grandson’s roots in the depths of Africa generations earlier. By his teens, Sammy is back with his mother in New York City attending good schools on the strength of his excellent grades, playing sports and exploring rock and blues with friends before starting to chart his own course as an artist and politically-minded poetic force. The road from there on will be marked by success and marred by drugs and illness.

Mind you, Paris’ narrative is anything but straightforward. It winds its way back and forth, casting Sammy’s biography against a wide mystical landscape. He sees the magic—good and evil—casting it into a broader backstory at times, and frequently draws on the Sufi traditions that are so intrinsic to his being. Most of the time he speaks directly to his readerly audience, but at one point he steps into a journalistic mode, bringing in the views of several of Sammy’s school mates, documentary style, and on a few occasions he turns his attention directly to his subject, addressing him in second person, often with some of his most critical words. And, of course, he regularly weaves in elements of his own story—his early ninth life on the thankless New York streets, and his years living and travelling with Sammy—frequently reinforcing the very unique connection he shares with the man he calls the Enchanter. Here, for example, he describes his morning ritual:

I let silence settle into my carnal envelope; I pay attention to my breathing. In complete awareness. Then I send my whole being into orbit, I simply point it in Sammy’s direction. And wherever he may be on this earth, inside or outside the territory of the United States, I’m at his side or more exactly at his back. My soul sticks to his coattails. I hear his breath coming out of his throat in little jerky exhalations. I do not relax my attention. My breath superimposes itself on his. Gently. That’s the way it’s been since the beginning of our relationship. There’s no reason for it to change.

Not a pet, this cat. But a wonderful narrator.

Leaving the narrative in the hands, or rather, paws of an animal can be a risky venture, but Paris not only carries this tale like a seasoned raconteur, he can take a perspective and a tone that an ordinary human could not. Clearly he is a magical character, but for all his un-animal-like abilities and his enthusiasm to put right his dear Sammy’s tale, he remains conscious (and perhaps relieved) that he is a cat. He is not naïve, but he holds, in comparison with his human subjects, a certain universality. And most critically, Paris is a storyteller with the soul of a poet and a timeless story to tell.

Rise, fall, redemption.

As a novel, then, The Divine Song is somewhat of a literary chameleon. With a tragic hero woven into so deeply into African American history and  musical heritage, it is easy to forget that this is the work of a francophone author from Africa. The ghosts, the magical energy, and the enigmatic feline narrator arise in the Old World, freed from chronological constraint to focus themselves in the person of  one musical genius whose own life shadows that of a real person. It’s a heady mix. But it’s more than that. The Divine Song is a hymn, an exaltation of the power of music to redeem a nation, a people and a man.

The Divine Song by Abdourahman A. Waberi is translated by David and Nicole Ball and published by Seagull Books.

 

An island to hold in the palm of your hand: Purple Perilla by Can Xue

Imagine. Islands of words, small self-contained worlds of ideas, stories, exploration. Points of reference in a sea that is increasingly uneasy, uncertain to navigate. This is the vision of isolarii, a project designed to revive the notion of “island books”—collections of literature and art united on a singular idea and bound into a single volume—that first appeared during the Renaissance, but was lost as other literary forms began to take precedence. Now, under a bimonthly subscription model, the tradition has been reborn in miniature.

Purple Perilla by Chinese experimental writer Can Xue is the third offering in this series. Beautifully presented, complete with a translucent dust jacket, this tiny book is about the size of a deck of cards and contains, in just under 150 pages, three delightful short stories: “An Affair,” “Mountain Ants,” and “Purple Perilla.” Xue offers these tales, which move from an urban to a wild setting, as a lyrical reaction to our contemporary condition. Her trademark measure of unreality permeates each piece.

For those unfamiliar with her work, Can Xue is a very idiosyncratic writer. She allows her fiction to spill forth in what will be its finished state—she writes, one hour a day, without rereading or edits. As a result, her stories and novels have a wandering quality, with a real, yet unreal atmosphere. Much like a dream. The best way to approach such work is to read as Xue writes, one word at a time. This is against an attentive reader’s natural instincts, but looking for patterns and clues will not help. However, this is not to say there is no form, no direction, no meaning—only that one is forced to be patient, to listen and see where the story takes you, not worrying if it seems to tumble along freely at times. Reader and author are essentially on a journey together. As Can Xue says:

Reading my fiction requires a certain creativity. This particular way of reading has to be more than just gazing at the accepted meanings of the text on a literal level, because you are reading messages sent out by the soul, and your reading is awakening your soul into communication with the author’s.

“An Affair” tells the story of Fay, a thirty-six year old teacher, living in a city, who receives a most unusual love letter from a man who claims he has seen her on the bus. He neither reveals his name nor provides a return address, admitting he does not expect she would want to write back. This odd, enigmatic correspondence haunts Fay, leading her to wonder what kind of hold this mysterious man has on her imagination. Eventually she sets out to find him, or find out more about him, by travelling to the far end of the city where he told her he works at a cigarette factory. What she discovers on her strange, convoluted mission seems to tell her more about herself than any mysterious suitor.

The second tale, “Mountain Ants,” is set in a small city surrounded by mountains. Lin Mai lives with his parents in a mansion which is oddly isolated despite being surrounded by buildings. Visitors are rare. The boy spends much of his free time interacting with a large nest of ants in his yard. One day an old man appears at his gate. He tells Lin Mai that he lives in the mountains and has followed the ants to his home. This man, who is called Grandpa Wu, shares some knowledge about the ants and promises that one day he will take Lin Mai up a mountain. As this magical story unfolds, Lin Mai learns some curious information about his parents, the beggar known as Grandpa Wu, and the importance of tending to his own and several other mountain ant colonies in the city.

The final story “Purple Perilla,” the most dreamlike and magical of the three, ultimately carries the narrator into the wilderness, where a friend and his grandma have gone to live among the wolves. To young Chickadee this friend, a boy he has long admired, has uncanny qualities:

Unwittingly, I followed Nigu. He was so profound that he wasn’t like a child, but like … what was he like?

“I’m my grandfather’s grandfather.” Nigu turned around and spoke to me. I was stunned—he actually knew what I was thinking!

“I’m really like my grandfather’s grandfather. I think I am. Chickadee, don’t be afraid of me; I won’t hurt anyone…”

Read as a cycle, these short stories walk headfirst into the unknown. Here, questions are transformative in themselves—it’s less a matter of securing answers than of finding comfort in mystery. Bound together in this portable format, they offer a direct engagement with the magic and vision of one of China’s most inventive writers.

Each volume in the isolarii series is accompanied by several forewords. Presently, Scholastique Mukasonga’s prose riffing in response to a sentence or two from each of Can Xue’s stories is available online. It can be found here. Reading this small volume is a uniquely pleasurable experience. And, it’s worth noting that although the book is small in size, the font is not nor do the stories feel compressed or compromised in any way. It has been a while since I last wandered in Can Xue’s world and my first encounter with her short fiction, but I am now keen to return, before long, to her dreamscapes in a longer work or collection.

Purple Perilla by Can Xue is translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. It is the third volume in the isolarii series published by Common Era Inc.

Love is at the heart of everything. Everything except for love itself: The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović

“We only know their story as they told it. Like in books. The only way their story can be told is the way they want to tell it. Isn’t that beautiful? Like a fairy tale. The only pictures we’re left with are the ones our minds created, as we listened to their storytelling.”

The back cover of Slovenian writer Goran Vojnović’s award winning novel, The Fig Tree, promises a “multigenerational family saga…spanning three generations”—exactly the type of description that typically has me thinking twice if not turning away altogether. However, trusting on the strength of Vojnović’s Yugoslavia, My Fatherland—a tightly woven tale of a young man who discovers that his father, long thought dead in the bloody conflicts of the 1990s, is not only alive, but a fugitive war criminal—I had no hesitation to take on this newer (2016) work, recently released from Istros Books in a translation by Olivia Hellewell.

The Fig Tree is an ambitious undertaking. It is multigenerational in the sense that we all exist within the framework of those who came before us and those who will follow. Here the central concern is that of the narrator, Jadran Dizdar, a man in his 30s who is, it seems, adrift within his own life. His grandfather has just died, perhaps under curious circumstances, his father has been gone for many years, his mother is bitter and resentful, and his wife has just walked out on him and their young son. He is trying to make sense of himself by coming to understand the decisions and actions of those around him. But is he avoiding asking the questions only he can answer?

The story begins in 1955, in Buje, Croatia, close to the Slovenian border where a young Aleksandar Đorđević is due to take up a post as forest warden. Arriving from Ljubljana in Slovenia, the newcomer bears a Serbian name and birthplace, but his heritage is complicated and uncertain. He soon takes a fancy to the nearby village of Momjan where, against the concerns of his pregnant wife, Jana, he decides to build a home—the house where they will raise their two daughters, and where one day the garden will be graced by a huge fig tree. It is also where the very next chapter opens. Moving ahead to the present time, Jana is gone, having faded away in a steady loss of memory, and now Aleksandar, Jadran’s Grandad, has also died. That event and its consequences—his daughters’ differing reactions, his grandson’s suspicion that he may have taken his own life, and his cremation and burial—form the backbone upon which will Jadran flesh out the story of his family’s near and distant history.

As a novel focused on family dynamics, it is natural that relationships—especially those between husbands and wives, parents and children—should be the primary focus of The Fig Tree. And so it is. This is a novel about all the complicated facets of love. Jadran is intent on retracing his parents’ early romance, his own love affair with Anya, and the factors that shaped his grandparents’ final years. But his connection to his father, Safet, who has made himself so strangely absent, is possibly the most nebulous element of all, one that haunts both him and his mother. When Safet disappears to Bosnia in 1992, my immediate thought was that he would get caught up in the war. However, his existence in Otoka where he assumes residence in his grandmother’s empty house, is at once mundane and mildly eccentric. He is perhaps trying to connect with his own family’s past, while escaping the family and life of his present. Five years after his departure, his son comes to visit. In his father’s absence, Jadran had created a Bosnian dad fantasy that Safet could not even begin to live up to. He has to come to terms with the truth of the man who is not an idealized hero but:

just like the person who was waiting for me at the bus station in Bihać: scrawny and greying, oddly dressed, the sort of person who offered his hand and asked how my journey was, and whether I was hungry, the sort who, after I replied that I was, glanced around confusedly, not knowing where to take me to get something to eat; unprepared, lost.

Their brief reunion is awkward and strained, both parties are uncomfortable, but the reader may well wonder if there is discomfort in the son finding an unwelcome reflection of himself in the father.

Some of the most powerful passages of The Fig Tree trace the gradual decline of Jadran’s grandmother Jana following a likely stroke. Aleksandar’s complicated reactions as his wife gradually slips away from him—loss, guilt, frustration, redefined love—is wonderfully imagined. It is also one of the spaces in which the wars which tore apart the Balkans enter the narrative:

I know who that is, she said to him, turning away. It was of no interest to her that the country was collapsing, because that was beyond her comprehension. And what she didn’t understand didn’t interest her. The present became increasingly demanding, and one evening she got up, said that she couldn’t watch any more of it, and left the present behind.

Her world no longer extended beyond the walls of their house, and Aleksandar was left alone with the impending times, with a sense of dread, alone with everything that was happening on the outside.

The conflict and its implications are echoed in personal concerns about ethnic identity and nationality. Jadran’s family is rooted in Slovenia, but he and some of the characters have a complicated heritage—something which always matters on some level but holds greater relevance as the former Yugoslavia comes apart and borders take on new importance. The arc of this story may extend beyond the war, before and after, but underlying tensions and repercussions cross into the everyday throughout.

The Fig Tree is a deeply immersive, highly rewarding novel. However, I would suggest that it might take a little time to find one’s footing within the narrative flow. This is, perhaps, because Jadran can be a somewhat difficult narrator to warm to. At times he seems colourless, willing to slip into the background or even slip offstage altogether, allowing accounts drawn from his parents’ and grandparents’ lives to be told from afar. At other times, when he is front and centre, he can get bogged down in his own mix of blame, bitterness, and limited self-awareness, on occasion even falling into unbroken passages of running thoughts, a near stream of consciousness. Early on, shifts in the storyline seem a little odd, characters and situations are often introduced in a sideways fashion, with explanations and clarifications arriving only in time. Yet, once one gets accustomed to the manner of telling, the characters and their stories become increasingly compelling. And if there is a strong current of uncertainty running through Jadran’s account, it is not surprising, there is so much he is trying to resolve, so much that may never be known:

The coffin is no longer visible. The cranking of the mechanism that lowered it down has stopped. The sound of the furnace, however, grows louder. I hear the last of Grandad’s secrets burning, I hear it all disappear. All that remains is doubt, for doubt is the only thing that’s eternal.

Then, as the novel nears a close, Jadran makes a confession that I did not see coming, but one that reveals what I had already sensed. It’s a twist that brilliantly reframes everything—not only the text that has just been read, but the notion of writing a family history at all.

The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović is translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell and published by Istros Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For fear of electric shocks.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Caught between seasons: Camille in October by Mireille Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragedy or farce: Natural History by Carlos Fonseca

“Hell is an incomprehensible sarcasm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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