What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson, Elfriede Jelinek, and László Krasznahorkai among the architects, playwrights, painters, and philosophers. Weinberger certainly belongs in such company; anything he writes can be assumed to be interesting, different, intellectually engaging. The essay collections he writes—and Elsewhere can be considered to be an extended meditation/essay—puts him as well alongside Rebecca Solnit, Lawrence Weschler, Sven Birkets, and Ilan Stavans.
Elsewhere consists of poems, all in translation, by writers of the Modernist era (by Weinberger’s use here roughly 1910s-1940s) illustrating a broad sensibility that Weinberger calls the sense of being “elsewhere”:
Victor Segalen, in China at the beginning of the century, writes of the “manifestation of Diversity,” a “spectacle of Difference”: everything that is “foreign, strange, unexpected, surprising, mysterious, amorous, superhuman, heroic, and even divine, everything that is Other.” Picasso put it more bluntly: “Strangeness is what we wanted to make people think about because we were quite aware that our world was becoming very strange.”
While certainly many English speakers/authors wrote poems about travel to foreign places during the same era, by relying on works in translation, of a Japanese traveler writing about Paris or a Senegalese poet in NYC for example, Weinberger doubles down on the foreignness, the dislocation and wonder of the experiences.
He organizes the selection of poems first into three geographical locations—Paris, NYC, and Los Angeles—then the experience of travel in a section “Trains and Cars,” followed by “Imaginary Countries,” and concludes with a coda about the end of journeying. With only a few poems in each section. Weinberger is neither trying to anthologize nor exhaust the poetic expressions of elsewhere; the prospect of doing so for any one of the cities for example—Paris—would require hundreds of poems to do justice. Instead Weinberger is free to choose unique poems, under topics specific to his interests without being tied down to any taxonomic-like system. Of the thirteen poems in total, Weinberger is the translator of four, along with others such as Thomas Merton and Langston Hughes.
The first poem, “Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain” (trans. Hiroaki Sato) is by Japanese poet Kotaro Takamura. I suspect that he is heretofore unknown to 99 out of 100 English readers (unless familiar with a Green Integer edition from 2007 of the poet’s The Chieko Poems). The poem lauds the Cathedral of Notre Dame in an extended address to it, a pattern of address that repeats several times throughout in this book; there’s an odd, quaint tone to the address to this “you” that is actually charming and engaging. The first stanza begins:
O another deluge of wind and rain.
Collar turned up, getting drenched in this splashing rain,
and looking up at you—it’s me,
me who never fails to come here once a day,
It’s that Japanese.
Takamura goes on to evoke the cathedral and immediate environment in the middle of a storm, outside weather in the real world perhaps mirroring the passion of the poet who describes the building in an affectionate embrace:
O Cathedral, you who at such a moment keep ever more silent and
Cathedral, you who watch motionless the houses of Paris suffering
Please do not think me rude,
who, hands on your cornerstone,
has his hot check pressed on your skin,
it’s me, the drunken one
It’s that Japanese.
Yes, the reader comes to agree, this is truly an experience of elsewhere, “foreign, strange, unexpected, surprising, mysterious, amorous . . .”
Weinberger follows each poem with a quite brief biographical account of the poets. The choice to order this explanation after the poems rather than before brings a direct experience of the poems first. It is rewarding to read the poem, then the biographical context, and finally to double back and reread the poem.
Some readers might be familiar with Garcia Lorca’s poems about NYC, with one in this collection as selected by Weinberger, and others might even know Brecht’s poetry—although I suspect more know him as a writer of plays (albeit in the sense of Jeopardy answers rather than readers of the actual plays). Others might be familiar with the Turkish poet Hikmet, South African/Portuguese Pessoa, and French Apollinaire, I’m willing to wager that no one until Weinberger has brought together such disparate voices, added to by several other lesser-known Latin American writers, others from Senegal, Haiti and Austria. One of the great joys of reading this book is putting yourself in the hands of Weinberger and his selection of voices.