16 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Heath Mayhew on The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems by Sohrab Sepehri, translated by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, published by BOA Editions.

Heath is not only a loyal Open Letter subscriber, but has also previously reviewed for Three Percent. And to tote Open Letter things a bit more, one of the translators of this beautiful collection of poetry is Kazim Ali, who was one of the translators of Marguerite Duras’s L’amour, which Open Letter published last year. Also, BOA Editions is another local Rochester, NY publisher, and operated by great people. So this is really like one big group hug—that you’re all welcome to join!

Here’s the beginning of Heath’s review:

I have wanted to read Persian poetry ever since having heard so many good things about it from my Palestinian friend. Sohrab Sepehri’s collection, The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems, however, sounded quite new-agey—as if the poetry was canned lyricism awash in love, peace, and overly sensual descriptions of nature—and this worried me. I feared that Sepehri’s poetry would surely turn me off to anything Persian for a long time. Even when I started to read the first lines of the opening poem, “Water’s Footfall” (the title already felt like a distasteful personification), I felt depressed to have been selected to read the book. Very quickly, however, I began to shed my misgivings.

While Sepehri is not especially well known in the West, he is one of the five most popular Persian poets of the modern Persian poetry movement known as “New Poetry” (the other four being Nima Yushij, who is considered the father of modern Persian poetry, Ahmad Shamloo, Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, and Forough Farrokhzad; “New Poetry” is most notably characterized as having no meter or rhyme, which is a break from traditional Persian poetry). Sepehri was not even particularly popular in his own time—this has, however, changed since then. Philosopher Soursh Dabbagh explains, “Inclinations towards more abstract thoughts subjected him to criticism by his contemporary literary critics such as Shamloo, [Rezi] Barahani, and [Dariush] Ashoori.” Recently, Sepehri has become an emblem of justice and peace. During the 2009 Iranian election protests, the closing lines of his poem, and title of this collection, “The Oasis of Now”, were used on signs and banners and stitched into people’s clothing. They read, “If you look for me, / come soft and quietly, lest you crack the glass heart / that cups my loneliness.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

16 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I have wanted to read Persian poetry ever since having heard so many good things about it from my Palestinian friend. Sohrab Sepehri’s collection, The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems, however, sounded quite new-agey—as if the poetry was canned lyricism awash in love, peace, and overly sensual descriptions of nature—and this worried me. I feared that Sepehri’s poetry would surely turn me off to anything Persian for a long time. Even when I started to read the first lines of the opening poem, “Water’s Footfall” (the title already felt like a distasteful personification), I felt depressed to have been selected to read the book. Very quickly, however, I began to shed my misgivings.

While Sepehri is not especially well known in the West, he is one of the five most popular Persian poets of the modern Persian poetry movement known as “New Poetry” (the other four being Nima Yushij, who is considered the father of modern Persian poetry, Ahmad Shamloo, Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, and Forough Farrokhzad; “New Poetry” is most notably characterized as having no meter or rhyme, which is a break from traditional Persian poetry). Sepehri was not even particularly popular in his own time—this has, however, changed since then. Philosopher Soursh Dabbagh explains, “Inclinations towards more abstract thoughts subjected him to criticism by his contemporary literary critics such as Shamloo, [Rezi] Barahani, and [Dariush] Ashoori.” Recently, Sepehri has become an emblem of justice and peace. During the 2009 Iranian election protests, the closing lines of his poem, and title of this collection, “The Oasis of Now”, were used on signs and banners and stitched into people’s clothing. They read, “If you look for me, / come soft and quietly, lest you crack the glass heart / that cups my loneliness.”

From Kazim Ali’s introduction, we learn that Sepehri was influenced not only by his home religion, Shi’a and Sufism, but also by Buddhism and Hinduism, which he explored later in life. He was interested in “ordinary things, discarded things, with the spiritual and divine,” and this view is reflected throughout the poems in this collection. We get a heavy dose of such themes particularly in the aforementioned opening poem, “Water’s Footfalls”, which reflects on the death of his father, and how one wanders the world with such grief. As one would expect, the poem is dense and heavy, but Sepehri creates (or observes) pockets light, “Like a breeze, my Ka’aba drifts from orchard to orchard, town to / town.”

What surprised me most about this collection is the sensuality of the language, and the abstraction of everyday imagery. Sepehri has a way of morphing language to imply a deeper, fresher meaning. This seems obvious to the well-indoctrinated poetry reader, but when one expects cheesiness, and instead gets heart, one discovers treasure. That moment came, still in the opening poem, when he grafts the two most used themes of poetry, love and nature, and given the nature of the poem, the image rises right before the reader’s eyes: “I understand the language of ripe berries bursting in the mouth of the / climaxing lovers.” This line, itself a sort of climax, marries our everyday senses and that of nature flawlessly.

It helps to know that Sepehri was trained as a painter, and particularly that he was considered one of Iran’s foremost modern painters. As already shown, Sepehri infuses his poetry with a painterly eye, even if they are not always as lush as “Water’s Footfalls.” In “The Sound of an Encounter,” a poem that appears in the second section (of three sections), he finds the color and light, when as a boy, he is sent out to get pomegranates and quinces:
bq. The orchard’s long hours of worry glittered in the shadow of each fruit. / Some unknown thing shone among the quinces. / The pomegranates spread their dark red across the country of the pious. / Any thoughts I had about the people around me vanished / before the gleaming ripeness of oranges.

The translation of the text did not leave images or metaphors hanging indecipherably on the page; nor did they leave the reader alienated by complete foreignness. If a moment of cultural material arose, an endnote accompanied it. While the book appears for a moment’s instance to be bilingual, the truth is that each section is divided by a single page from one of Sepehri’s poems in Persian.

I felt the need to slow down after reading these pieces, so much so that I just wanted to walk around my apartment, look at things, without expectations, certain that if I waited long enough something beautiful would emerge out of its ordinariness. And what if we looked at the objects or emotions we find mundane, or cheesy, or over sentimental, or pastiche; what could we learn from them? What would we see? That’s the question Sepehri’s poetry taught me.

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re only hours away from announcing the two winners of this year’s BTBA awards, but it’s never too late to promote one of the finalists. The piece below was written by BTBA poetry judge, Bill Martin.

The Oasis of Now by Sorab Sepehri, translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati (Iran; BOA Editions)

One of the books that surprised and impressed me most from this year’s BTBA poetry submissions was Sohrab Sepehri’s The Oasis of Now, translated by the American poet Kazim Ali and the Iranian scholar of religion Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Like most readers of English, I was unfamiliar with the work, because like most Persian-language writers, Sepehri—who was born in 1928, lived most of his life during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and died in 1980, a few months after the revolution—is practically unknown in Anglophony. But something of his poetics, I’ve since discovered, has long been available “in translation” in the films of Sepehri’s countryman Abbas Kiarostami, a staple of film festivals and world cinema courses. The muted colors and rustic life-world, simple narration and gentle irony of Kiarostami’s first international success, Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), for instance, can be understood not only as opening a view onto everyday life in Iran—which was my primary takeaway when I saw it many years ago—but as enacting a philosophy that the filmmaker and the poet shared (the film’s title is a line in one of Sepehri’s canonical poems, “The Address,” which is included in this book). According to Hamid Dabashi, who has written at length about this connection, Kiarostami’s faith in immediate observation and the “fictive lucidity of the real” can be attributed to the influence of Sepehri’s poetry (and probably of his painting as well—he was equally well known in his lifetime as a visual artist).

Historically American readers have tended to understand literature from politically repressive countries unaffiliated with the United States mainly in terms of its political value, without reflecting on the ways in which our own reading practices are ideologically determined or inflected. What this may mean for literary translation and the place of world literature, of translated poetry, of a book like this, in the US, is a question at the back of my mind in reading it. Sepehri’s work does not ask to be understood “politically”—by contrast with other poets of his generation like Farough Farrokhzad and Ahmad Shamlu—because his domain is the lyric subject’s engagement with nature and his mode is highly deflective even in its insistence on a kind of affective immediacy. Nevertheless, this poetic itself has come to be understood in political terms. Dabashi puts it in a nutshell: “Sohrab Sepehri cut through the thick politicization of his age to grasp a primal moment of wonder in the world.” And this may also be a key factor in his translatability. Although Kiarostami’s Iran of the eighties, a fundamentalist theocracy hobbled by a war instigated by its (then US-backed) neighbor Iraq, was far different from the country Sepehri lived in a decade and more earlier (when he was criticized for not taking a stand against the abuses of the—then US-backed—Pahlavi regime), their mutual embrace of the primacy of perception may have provided existential coherence in a time and place disorganized by political ideology. Is that coherence available to us, English-language readers, disorganized (or organized—you choose!) as we are by capitalism? Can “primal moment of wonder in the world” ever be anything other than a commodity for us market segments? And what would it mean for this poetry to win a prize endowed by a megacorporation as part of its brand positioning? (A lot of money, that’s what!)

Well, there are universal values, and translation is possible. 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.

* * *

The Oasis of Now is made up of three sections of Sepehri’s poetry from the mid-1960s, the high point of his career, which followed on his encounter with Buddhism and coincided with extensive travel in China and Japan, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It begins with the long poem “Water’s Footfall” (Ṣedā-ye pā-ye āb, 1965), which Omnidawn published as a bilingual chapbook in 2011; the midsection comprises the 25 poems of the book “A Measure of Green” (Ḥajm-e sabz, 1968), which as Houman Sarshar points out, in his excellent Encyclopaedia Iranica entry on Sepehri, was written between 1962 and 1967 and “comprises virtually all of Sepehri’s best-known and most anthologized works” (a translation of this book by David L. Martin was published in 1988); and it wraps up with another long poem, “The Traveler” (Mosāfer, 1966). Sepehri’s collected works, “Eight Books” (Hašt ketāb, 1978), included everything already published along with a previously unpublished series of poems, Mā hič, mā negāh—a title that is basically untranslatable but means something like “We are nothing but looking,” as Kazim Ali says in the interview below. Sarshar also points to the influence on this final phase of Sepehri’s poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature,” and to the echo in this title of Emerson’s line: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all.” Hopefully English-language readers will be able to read more of Sepehri’s remarkable and important work very soon.

* * *

I was curious to hear more about the translation of Sepehri’s work in preparation for writing these ruminations, so I conducted a brief interview with Kazim Ali over Skype last week. Here it is:

WM: How did you come to Sohrab Sepehri’s poetry?

KA: My father, in around 2002–2003, was working in Iran on an international hydroelectric dam project, which is what he does. And he asked me what I would like him to bring back as a gift. I said I’d love to read some Iranian poets. So he brought back some volumes of poetry that had been translated into English from Farsi, but published in Iran in a very basic translation. I didn’t think too much of it, although I recognized that there was a mystical aspect that was appealing to me, in terms of the work that I do myself. It wasn’t until a while later that my partner, Marco, who is a photographer, needed text for a project he was working on, and took the book off the shelf and read this couplet out loud to me, which as I later learned is an iconic Sepehri couplet: “I am a Muslim, the rose is my qibla.” I thought it was actually very beautiful, and I often thought of that line and quoted it and other lines from the same passage later on. But I didn’t think about doing a translation of Sepehri’s poetry until several years later when Poets’ House and City Lore, two institutions in New York City, held their “Poetries of the Islamic World” event [in May 2011].

In preparation for that event, I felt like, even though they had invited me as an American Muslim poet, I wanted to bring something from the Muslim world. Particularly because the Cold War against Iran has not only been a political Cold War, but has had a cultural impact as well, in terms of its cultural isolation. So I thought I would bring some Iranian poets to the attention of the American audience. Because, as you know, it is a very ancient and storied literary culture, I mean it’s incredible, the literature of Iran and literature in Farsi, the classics, everything. And not just literary culture, but visual culture and music, all of it. I was thinking of what has happened with the cultural damage and fallout from the Iraq invasion, and the horror of something like that happening again. So there was a political motivation for me. I really wanted to get something of Iranian literature to American readers so they that they can better understand what this country is about.

Luckily for me, I have a colleague here at Oberlin, Jafar Mahallati, a wonderful scholar in the Religion Department, who is very interested in Iranian poetry. I asked him if he would be interested to tackle this with me, and we sat down and did it. I had the old, bad translation to work from, and he and I would sit together and he would recite the Farsi to me, and we would talk through the poem and all the different nuances. You know, with Sepehri there are so many different layers of meaning, oftentimes we would be very confused by the images and metaphors he was using and have to tease out the multiple layers. He uses lots of images of birds and plants and stuff like that. And Jafar would say something like, “Well, you know, the interesting thing about this plant is that it only blooms in the nighttime, so Sepehri is saying such and such by using it.” So we would spend an hour on a page of poetry, just talking through it. And then I would go and create it as an English poem. And then I would send them to him and he would say, “This is great,” or “this image is not exactly right,” that sort of thing. We did the whole book like that together. The final part, “The Traveler,” I did mostly on my own. But he did go through it, so it was a collaboration from beginning to end.

WM: The book you got from your father, from Iran, was that a single volume of Sepehri’s work, or was it his work in an anthology?

KA: It was two books of his in one: the long poem “Water’s Footfall” and another book which we’ve translated as “A Measure of Green.” And there was another volume as well, which we’re working on now, which had two more books of Sepehri’s in it. One of them is “The Traveler,” which went into The Oasis of Now; and the other is a book with a title that is very hard to translate, but means something like “We are nothing but the looking” or “Our life itself is an observation.” It’s like Emily Dickinson’s line “As all the Heavens were a Bell, and Being, but an Ear.” But with Sepehri, being is a looking. We don’t know how we’re going to translate the title. This is the problem when working on Sepehri, it’s all very esoteric and metaphysical and philosophical.

Sepehri had six collections of poetry that he published in his lifetime, and then included two sections of new poetry in his collected works, Eight Books. We’re just working our way through it. We’d like to finish his body of work, but it’s going to be a long project.

WM: You mention Dickinson. Another poet I thought of when reading the book was Rilke, in terms of a kind of embodied metaphysics in Sepehri’s poetry. And I thought of the way American poetry was saturated with Rilke in the 1980s, and also of the presence here of a poet like Tomaž Šalamun, and this made me wonder why Sepehri isn’t more available in English, and where you see Sepehri’s home on the American poetry scene.

KA: There are actually other recent English versions of Sepehri out there. Sholeh Wolpe, who has published translations of Farough Farrokhzad both here and in England, has done some of his work. Kaveh Bassiri and Jean Valentine did a handful of his poems together. The poet Robin Magowan has also done some. So some individual poems have been translated by different people here and there, but yes, The Oasis of Now and the Omnidawn chapbook are the only full books available here. I feel very personally connected to Sepehri’s work, as a poet who is invested in the metaphysical stuff, and someone who is steeped in the religious tradition as well. Sepehri was an iconoclast in a sense, he wasn’t part of the Muslim orthodoxy. That line “I am a Muslim, the rose is my qibla,” is an ironic line, in a way, but I feel there is a deep sincerity under the skin of irony. Sepehri often plays fast and loose with literal meanings and metaphorical meanings, flirting with the ordinary and quotidian and turning it into a mythical condition. Working with a native speaker has allowed me to really get underneath the skin of those lines and find a universality in them.

As for finding a home for his work on the American scene, one of the criticisms that we’ve gotten so far, in a review in American Poetry Review, was that I made Sepehri sound too American, or something like that. But there is something about the postmodern American lyric that’s very close to the classical poetics of disjunction that exists in Farsi and Arabic poetry. You know Adonis, the Syrian poet? He wrote an interesting piece on modernism in the Arab world, where he said that, “Our modernist moment in Arab literature happened in 700 A.D.” What happened to British and American literature in modernism in the 20th century was already happening in the Arab world in the 700s. So their classical literature is like our postmodern literature. The ghazal and all these other forms, which are centered around the notion of disjunction, came out in 1700–1800 over there; and their contemporary lyric has a lot of affinities with what’s happening now in contemporary American literature. So as far as Sepehri sounding American, I can see that.

WM: Is there anything else about Sepehri, about the book, that you would want people to know, in terms of framing it, its reception in English?

KA: Sepehri is one of the major figures of 20th century Iranian literature. Like a Whitman or Robert Frost. You know how “the road less travelled” is a line from Frost—the same thing goes for Sepehri. People quote him in everyday life situations. When we were preparing the introduction, we discovered that a newspaper in Afghanistan had just used a line of his for the headline of an article on religious intolerance—it was the line that goes “We have to rinse our eyes clear of habit so we can actually see”—and it was unattributed because everyone knows it. Sepehri is a great window into a certain type of contemporary, progressive Iranian thought. Which people here don’t think exists. So I’m really glad that the book got out there. I’m very grateful to BOA. I mean, they rushed it; they took the book in February and published it in October. So I’m really grateful to them for seeing the importance of the book and getting it out there, and I’m grateful to every organization that’s promoting it, because I think it’s very important to engage with literature from this part of the world now.

28 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the second time this week, we’re running a review of a BTBA Poetry Finalist. Up today is Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things, which is translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry and published by BOA Editions.

David Shook review this for us. He’s a poet and translator in Los Angeles, where he edits Molossus, the online broadside. (More on Molossus in the near future.) Current translation projects include work by Mario Bellatin, Tedi López Mills, and several other Mexican poets, as well as a portfolio of poems from Equatorial Guinea.

Here’s the opening of his review:

The Book of Things, published in Slovenian in 2005, is Aleš Šteger’s fourth book of poetry in ten years, beginning with his Chessboards of Hours, published in 1995 when he was 22. Despite his many international awards, including the 2007 Rožančeva Award for best book of essays written in Slovenian, TBOT is his first collection to be translated into English. Translator Brian Henry, best known for his translation of Tomaž Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices, praises “the philosophical and lyrical sophistication of [Šteger’s] poems,” and has achieved that same sophistication in translation. The book is structured in seven chapters of seven poems each, following the strange preface “A,” which Henry calls a “proem” though it is written in verse. The other forty-nine poems are titled after things with no obvious connection to each other, from the first poem “Egg” to the last poem “Candle,” with stops as varied as “Strobe Light” and “Cocker Spaniel.” The first set of seven is completed with “Knots,” “Stone,” “Grater,” “Cat,” “Sausage,” and “Urinal,” the last of which completes its well-developed imagery of the urinal as the mouth of a fish embedded in a restroom wall with a haunting testicular threat:

“What kind of human voice is on the other side of the urinal?
Are people happier, more timeless there, fish Fa?
Or there is no other side,

Only the visions of drunks, tensed in fear
That you don’t close your thirsty mouth, Faronika,
As fair punishment for grinding your yellowed teeth.

And castrate us.”

Click here to read the review in its entirety.

28 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Book of Things, published in Slovenian in 2005, is Aleš Šteger’s fourth book of poetry in ten years, beginning with his Chessboards of Hours, published in 1995 when he was 22. Despite his many international awards, including the 2007 Rožančeva Award for best book of essays written in Slovenian, TBOT is his first collection to be translated into English. Translator Brian Henry, best known for his translation of Tomaž Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices, praises “the philosophical and lyrical sophistication of [Šteger’s] poems,” and has achieved that same sophistication in translation. The book is structured in seven chapters of seven poems each, following the strange preface “A,” which Henry calls a “proem” though it is written in verse. The other forty-nine poems are titled after things with no obvious connection to each other, from the first poem “Egg” to the last poem “Candle,” with stops as varied as “Strobe Light” and “Cocker Spaniel.” The first set of seven is completed with “Knots,” “Stone,” “Grater,” “Cat,” “Sausage,” and “Urinal,” the last of which completes its well-developed imagery of the urinal as the mouth of a fish embedded in a restroom wall with a haunting testicular threat:

What kind of human voice is on the other side of the urinal?
Are people happier, more timeless there, fish Fa?
Or there is no other side,

Only the visions of drunks, tensed in fear
That you don’t close your thirsty mouth, Faronika,
As fair punishment for grinding your yellowed teeth.

And castrate us.

That complex layering, which combines metaphor and mythology—Faronika is a mythical fish from Slovenian folk songs—with the physical and contemporary—Fa is a popular brand of bathroom soap—is characteristic of Steger’s poems. In his preface Henry notes that Šteger’s use of couplets, tercets, and quatrains represents a notable departure from his freer first three collections. Their faux formality is a perfect medium for that layering.

Henry has done well to replicate the tone and sound play of the Slovenian originals, as in “Mint,” here in its entirety:

Mintafiction, minthane, mintabolism.
There the smell of mint grows out of bone,
Out of s neighbor’s thumb and a stranger’s shin.
No animal could do it, it’s not worth repeating.

Mintatax, mintasound, mintaphysics.
For what stays, when only plants try
To heal a musician’s rib and the mayor’s skull.
No laxative could do it, it’s not worth mentioning.

Even less who will remember, cannot forget.
Endless fields of mint, ruts, indifference.
Mintamen. Mintanight. Mintanaught.
No dictionary could do it, it’s not worth noting.

Šteger’s frequent mention of bones and stones remind me of Vasko Popa’s The Star Wizard’s Legacy, in the late Morton Marcus’ last translation, but Šteger’s Things achieve a greater density with their descriptive imagery. The wordplay Šteger employs to build novel mint-abstractions exemplifies his dry, observant humor. Elsewhere in the book he employs darker imagery to similar effect, as in “Coat,” which begins:

Do you remember the archivist who committed suicide
Because of one misplaced sheet?
The three librarians who never returned from the warehouse?

The history students who bit the professor’s neck in an exam
Because he could not remember the price of potato soup in May 1889?
The parrot who endlessly shouted Stalingrad, sexual revolution, self-
reliance?

“Coat” exemplifies Šteger’s greatest achievement with The Book of Things, the subtle development of the lexicographer’s pathos, the impossibility of objectivity. It’s one of the best collections of poetry in translation in recent memory, a Balkanized encyclopedia of things carefully examined.

17 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tim Nassau on Ales Steger’s The Book of Things, which is available from BOA Editions in Brian Henry’s translation from the Slovenian.

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 . . .)

17 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

Yet this aspect, this theme of Šteger’s poetry is actually not quite as prevalent as one could expect. It’s hard to generalize about the poems because each thing is treated differently and what they may lack in cohesion as a whole is made up in variety (and of course, how can you treat Salmon and Shit the same?). But there are unifying themes: loss, escape from yourself, confusion perhaps, though I may just be projecting . . . For poems ostensibly about things there is certainly a lot of human in here. Consider this, entitled “Grater”:

You remember how your mother, Jocasta,
Returned from the pigsty with a gaping palm.

Inside the madness of pain a window opened.
She stepped out and stepped out of her body.

You remember how your startled father was changing a bandage,
How, mid-escape, the edges of the bandage turned red.

This time the grater’s whisper is yours. The world is being whittled away.
The apple wedge is getting smaller, but who is there for whom?

Are you merely an instrument of the apple in your palm?
Silently it grates you, a ripe Buddhist, idared samsara.

When it vanishes you, you open your eyes, like your mother
That time, on the other side of the wound.

This is, certainly, poetry—an oblique allusion, two words in a row I don’t know (“idared samsara”), a little melodrama (the madness of pain), perhaps even (though we’ll give Šteger the benefit of the doubt) a reference to the Buddhist Beats—but it is beautiful and it has power. The feeling is of a view into a private world that is not our own, a view mediated by things, here a bandage, a grater, an apple. There is something behind them: memories that are not ours and that we cannot understand, so it is a testament to Šteger’s writing (and Brian Henry’s constantly lucid translation) that we feel them. And what is important beyond that is this idea: that objects might not just be there for us or, perhaps less crazy, that they grow past functionality to become the talismans of our lives, that they are imbued with our personal histories. We create the private lives of objects, but, as Šteger writes in the poem “Ant,” they are “the invisible moving through the visible world.” The poem ends thusly: “And there aren’t names for what it is. / When it disappears into its maze, only hope remains / That at least there are names for what it isn’t.” Stein showed in Tender Buttons that the names of things cannot contain them by proving to us that language is not tantamount to the world is ostensibly describes. Šteger shows that the names of things cannot contain them because they merely denote a function rather than connoting anything richer. The epigraph to these poems is “A word does not exist for every thing.” No, but a poem does, and we all write them every day.

1 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the BOA Editions blog there’s a guest post from Idra Novey—poet and translator of The Clean Shirt of It by Paulo Henriques Britto—about “bad girls” and translation:

Whenever this happens, I think of an interview I read a few years ago in the New York Times Magazine with the writer Mario Vargos Llosa about his novel The Bad Girl. In the interview, Vargos Llosa explains that he made his main character a translator to explain the man’s lack of personality and why he’d need to go groveling after the Bad Girl. A translator, according to Vargos Llosa, is an inhibited “intermediary” whose life is “curtailed” and “mediocre.”

My question after reading this was how many translators does Vargas Llosa actually know?

In the poetry world, I’ve found translators usually are the bad girls—the poets most likely to put themselves in dodgy situations in other languages and enjoy it. To disappear for years into other cultures and live in situations that would make their parents cringe but that also leaves them aware of the world in a way that makes them live, think, and take risks they never would have otherwise.

Exactly. So who wants to join ALTA now?

10 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Perennially picked as a Nobel Prize favorite, Adonis is a Syrian poet and essayist, who appeared on the Charlie Rose Show earlier this week.

It’s an interesting segment, and it’s always great to see fellow Rochester-based publisher BOA Editions get some serious national attention. They published Adonis’ Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs, translated by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard, earlier this year.

....
Writers
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .

Read More >

My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

Read More >

Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

Read More >

Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >

I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >