2014 BTBA Poetry Winner: "The Guest in the Wood" by Elisa Biagini
As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for poetry is The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagnini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and published by Chelsea Editions. Below is a statement from the judges about the collection, along with some notes about the two runners up.
From the poetry jury:
In Elisa Biagini’s eerie interiors, nothing is quite what it seems. “Peeled hands” become tapestries, teeth are “white and dry like kneecaps,” a woman irons as a way of “stopping decomposition / by joining collar points.” What at first glance might seem like straight-forward lyrics of domesticity or celebrations of the ordinary, turn quickly violent and grotesque. Female selves are not dissolved, martyr-style, for their loved ones, but cut-up into pieces, a butchery that is sensuously and surreally chronicled: “My body is a bag of fluids,” “I see myself in pieces in the supermarket.” Reading Biagini we realize how frequently we do, in actuality, leave traces of our bodies with, in, and upon the ones we love: “you smile at your seed in me / (you’ve just eaten your lipstick) / and if I draw my face near / I see a wisp of my hair / in your gloves.” “The guest” of Biagini’s title shifts viscerally, now a growing embryo, now the familiar fairytale innocents in the forbidding wood, now language itself, whose “words [are] glowworms in / this my / dark.” Reading this collection, our own worlds, our own homes, our own narratives, our own words are illuminated in their already existing strangeness. That Biagini’s haunting, disturbing, brilliant, and beautiful poems retain this power and immediacy—above all this passion—in their English translations is a testament to the work of her translators: Diana Thow, Sarah Strickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky.
The first runner-up, Four Elemental Bodies by Claude Royet-Journoud is translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, and published by Burning Deck, a press that almost always has at least one title on the list of BTBA poetry finalists. This is the second volume of Royet-Journoud’s to come out from Burning Deck, and contains four volumes: Reversal, The Notion of Obstacle, Objects Contain the Infinite, and Natures Indivisible.
Here’s a bit more about his from the Burning Deck website:
Claude Royet-Journoud is one of the most important contemporary French poets whose one-line manifesto: “Shall we escape analogy” marked a revolutionary turn away from Surrealism and its lush imagery. His spare, “neutral” language, stripped of devices like metaphor, assonance, alliteration has had a great influence on recent French poetry.
Poetry judge Bill Martin wrote The Oasis of Now up earlier today, and since his piece is so comprehensive and interesting, I’ll just let him speak for this runner-up:
Something that Dabashi hints at and another scholar, Massud Farzan, addressed forty years ago as crucial to Sepehri’s work is, in addition to the influence on it of Buddhism, its connection to Sufi apophatic theology, the “via negativa . . . the cleansing of the heart’s and mind’s mirror of its dust and grime.” This mystical affiliation informs the frame that Ali and Mahallati give his work in the introduction to the book, and also affirms the fantasy I had in reading him of an affinity with Tomaž Šalamun, another poetic descendent of Rumi. (I imagined a genealogy involving other poets on the American scene, too: Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Trakl, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Lax, Gary Snyder, Fanny Howe; but none seemed so closely related.) Like Šalamun’s poetry, Sepehri’s cleaves and coheres at odd angles to the Anglophone avant-garde. But while Šalamun refracts sense paratactically and with scintillating speed, Sepehri is much slower, tellurian, more liable to syntax, haunting, his epiphanies so figurative and deliberate they often come across as platitudes. Yet the experience of reading him is more robust, ample, and structured than it may appear at first sight:
Beyond the poplars
sweet innocence beckons.
I paused by the stand of bamboo to listen as the wind susurrated through.
Who was speaking to me?
A lizard slid into the water. I walked on.
Hayfield, cucumber patch, rose bush, oblivion . . .
At the stream I doffed my sandals to dangle my feet in the water.
How alive I am,
how green like the garden.
So what if sadness creeps down the mountain slope?
Who is that hiding behind the trees?
Only a water buffalo grazing.
Like most of the poems in The Oasis of Now, this one, “Golestaneh,” reads like a rehearsal of reverse apperception, with the “human position” of the subject reconceived in relation to nature through repeated gestures—questions, reappraisals, simple descriptions, epiphanies—a repertoire of moderated ecstasy. This poetic redirection of the subject toward nature, or as Jonathan Skinner has put it, this “turning of the poem out of doors” and the “extending and developing” in these poems of the “perception of the natural world,” that signals the potential inspiration of Sepehri’s work for ecopoetics. This is not a book that immediately announces itself as avant-garde or new, it does not brandish its modernism, and does not in fact seem so easily commodifiable, but the more time one spends with it, the more it astonishes and yields.