Latest Review: "The Book of Things" by Ales Steger
If you don’t know BOA Editions, they’re one of the premiere publishers of poetry in the U.S. and do a number of books in translation. They also happen to be based here in Rochester and their publisher is my good friend Peter Conners. In addition to guiding this admirable non-profit, Peter is a poet himself and author of two very cool works of nonfiction: Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead and the more recent The White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg. (Yes, there is a theme here.) Anyway, Peter’s not really the focus of this, so shout out over.
Ales Steger is one of those European poets whose name comes up time and again, be it in the Boston Review or Guernica or in Graywolf’s New European Poets anthology of a couple years back. I was actually a bit surprised to find out that The Book of Things is his first collection to be published in English translation.
Tim Nassau was a summer intern back in the day, and is a bit Open Letter fan and regular contributor to Three Percent. He’s also supposed to stop by the office in the next few hours, so I feel compelled to say nice things about him.
Here’s the opening of his review:
Literary critic Edmund Wilson, writing in the 1930s, said that the pieces of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons were intended to be “prose still-lifes to correspond to those of such painters as Picasso and Braque. A pattern of assorted words, though they might make nonsense from the traditional point of view, would be analogous to a Cubist canvas composed of unidentifiable fragments.” The first two sections of that book are entitled “Objects” and “Food,” and those are the main subjects of Slovenian poet Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things (with a few animals thrown in as well). The collection, which consists of 50 poems—a poem followed by seven sections of seven “things,” from raisins and bread to tapeworms and windshield wipers—is the poet’s fourth and the first to appear in English translation. While Stein sought to portray her things by breaking them down into tiny linguistic pieces and collaging those bits back together, Šteger’s cubism is in the addition of angles: like in Toy Story, objects are given literal lives of their own that are here drawn out; the things we so often overlook become the repositories of our own human fears and dreams. The effect is often disarming and although the individual success of each poem is inconsistent, there is enough beauty and surprise in these lines for Šteger’s stature as one of Slovenia’s best young poets to be amply justified.
So, as expected, the things described in this book are defamiliarized and here, often, Šteger is at his best. The way he personifies an object, or the metaphor he uses, is never obvious, but it always makes complete sense. That when you open an umbrella “he unbuttons his too-tight tuxedo” is an image that could very well become engrained my experience of walking in the rain. The description of a cat as a “castrated transvestite in fur” also belies a strain of humor, or at least a taste for the uncanny. The effect of such language, however, can at times be discomfiting. In “Sausage” we are asked “Is your stomach rumbling again? Come, put it in your mouth. / Between the anus and the mouth the appetite of a body for a body.” Though destined to be a lifelong carnivore, the reminder that a sausage is a body in the same way that I am a body is sobering.
Click here to read the full review. (And for the official count, this is the fourth review of 2011 . . . Only 96 more to reach our goal . . .)