Why This Book Should Win: "Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life" by Elfriede Czurda [BTBA 2013]
Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.
Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life by Elfriede Czurda, translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop, and published by Burning Deck.
Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and editor, not necessarily in that order. Her original poetry has appeared in Vanitas, the Dos Passos Review, Pressed Wafer, and Arrowsmith Press. Her translations have appeared in Two Lines, Asymptote, PEN America, and Words without Borders, among others. She is the founding editor of Anomalous Press.
Most of us have probably never heard of Elfriede Czurda. That’s because this translation is her first publication in English. More interestingly, it’s a translation of (almost all of) her first book to appear in her native German, as well as the entirety of her second book. It’s unusual for poets’ first books to be translated into English, in part because of most publishers’ self-fulfilling expectations that unknown poets are hard to sell, and even harder in translation. But translator, and extraordinary poet herself, Rosmarie Waldrop has an advantage in this sense: she and her husband co-edit this book’s publishing house, Burning Deck, and so can take risks on new work they feel deserving of an English readership. (Burning Deck, I want to point out, brought out the phenomenal BTBA finalist engulf — enkindle by Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals that I reviewed last year for Three Percent.)
Which is not to say that Elfriede Czurda is unknown in German. She’s won numerous awards for her work which includes poetry, plays, and criticism, and has published three books in the past five years. But introducing new, living, experimental authors to an English poetry readership already resistant to works of literary translation is a daring move, one that we’re fortunate independent houses like Burning Deck continue to take. And that brings me to why, I think, Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life should actually win the Best Translated Book Award this year. It’s utterly daring.
The book is divided into two sections, “Almost 1 Book” and “Almost 1 Life.” The first part of the work is definitively hybrid: it includes lineated verse; long, meandering lines that spill across the page; blocks of prose; images; diagrams; and text-images reminiscent of the world-wide mid-century concrete poetry experiments. Take one page spread of the book as an example, the one that is the most varied:
The verso is the second and page of a section of a long poem called “Mutilation with Intent,” this section titled “manifesto of the stitchomantic cat.” I can’t imagine what the word “stitchomantic” was in the original German, my German being literary nonexistent. What I do know is that it’s evocative, inventive, and fascinating in English. It resonates with schizophrenic. It makes me think of an automated sewing machine, and a particular kind of invented advertising language that might say “stitch-o-matic.” The “-mantic” also could be “manic,” especially given that it’s a cat and all cats are of course neurotic. The recto is a narrative-poem-rhebus of sorts. This sets my mind spinning, thinking about translation of image-reliant poetry; how the images sound in English versus how they sound in German, the meanings that can be read into and out of them shifting based on context (of the poem, and of the culture). Images are percieved to be universal, but of course are far from that.
It’s not all flashy typographics. One of my favorite poems in the first section is a obsessively comprehensive microscopic description of a landscape that shifts into the poets body, and the body of an unknown you:
by the rain-puddled wheel-rutted road on the mossy ground rank
dandelion ribwort plantain clover milkwort grass
on either side of the road pear- apple- and plum-trees galore
a beetle with a black carapace and an orange dot in the lower third
of it climbs up a blade of grass and tries belly-up head-first to reach
the next blade belly and legs pale pink like shrimp shells
The excessive detail, the attempt at wholeness of description, the violence done to the landscape and the body in this attempt, is exquisite.
The second section of the book, “Almost 1 Life,” is a poem composed of seventeen sections with three “editorial digressions” and is part satire, part “(almost) true-life-novel,” and begins with discussion of the work at hand in relation to its reader:
i put the reader off with promises: all our famous animosities will
become characters in this (almost) true-life-novel
the reader’s reaction is not what i expected (he wants to wait and see)
And readers who do wait and see, who are willing to take the risk that Czurda and Waldrop have taken, each in their own language, are richly rewarded. The reward of a work like this is directly proportional to how challenging it is to read. The playfulness of the language belies a serious challenge to readerly poetic expectations, it gives with one hand and takes twice as much with the other. It entrances and disturbs, and stays, like good poetry should, lodged under your skin like a bullet.