4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by P.T. Smith, BTBA judge, writer, and reader. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)

This year’s BTBA long list can, like others in years past, be praised for its diversity, and I’m sure that for most, that calls to mind gender, cultural background, language, etc, but for me, just as interesting a form of diversity on an award list is in style, length, tone, etc. We have long novels, we have short novels, we have a linked story collection, and a collection from across multiple works, across a lifetime. There are novels on a grand scale, and with the microscopic, funny books and wholly serious ones, realist and reality unsettled. Aleś Šteger’s Berlin (published by Counterpath) should win because it’s a masterpiece of the shortest short stories, so much so that I wholly rediscovered my forgotten love for the form.

Long before flash fiction, Yasunari Kawabata wrote what he called palm-of-the-hand stories, and though there is much more event in his stories and Šteger’s are personal and observational, they are of the same tradition. Brevity dominates, ephemeral beauty captured ever so briefly, and emotions turn on a single line, shift completely with a thought or a glimpse. The shifting, unsettled nature of his tales makes them well suited to being worked on by three different translators, Brian Henry, Aljaž Kovač, and Forrest Gander. The two to three page stories are ideas distilled to their essence, complete offerings that left me satisfied in a way so many novels fail to do it. There is nothing lesser in literature so brief, so seemingly consumable, and each scene should be sat with, pages turned slowly. That’s not to say, though, that I couldn’t keep myself from reading many in a sitting.

Berlin should win because it is not about a city or place in the sense that it uses history, fact, the verisimilitude of the physical, but instead it is about the experience of place, and that is a more significant, and difficult to achieve, accomplishment. Though clearly inspired by Šteger’s time in Berlin, in the type of moments it portrays, in the emotions of them, it’s about the particular way that a place is experienced by a visitor, whether there for a week or for months. The specific place at hand is Berlin, but it could be any place, so long as the passing through is deeply felt.

So Berlin should win because it not only reminded me how much I love the truly short form, but also why I have loved travel. The moments where you see a city in a detail and feel it personally, feel a connection to that place that is private, and in its total insignificance is infinitely more memorable, more sentimental, than experiences you sought, had expectations of. If I’m being honest, what I mean is that Berlin should win because Šteger does what I wish I could do with any of my travels to foreign cities: make them interesting, beautiful, worth sharing, instead of obsessive navel-gazing by someone who thinks travel makes them interesting and beautiful, who sounds like they think their gaze is so privileged that they discovered something essential to that city that no one before them ever did.

So yes, I think Berlin should win because if I’m to be this jealous of a book, it better damn well impress everyone else, be so accomplished that my jealousy is of something far beyond me. Mundane moments become loaded just by being detached from familiarity. In “Flea Markets,” Šteger visits exactly that, and sees it the way traveler does, inspired by what others, in their routine instead of out of it, don’t. It creates desire, “The objects develop photographic negatives in the memories of those who would resist the urge to buy them.” It haunts his day, this unnamed object, “around which I’d spun my own thick skein of longing,” so much so that he returns to it, his desire easily read by its seller, vulnerable in the face of it. That vulnerability only makes his satisfaction greater when he is the owner of a chair, proudly sitting in it, on the subway, others happy to witness this level of contentment in the traveler.

“The museum of museum guards” captures the poetic idleness travelers can be granted. Visits to museums are sometimes not about the art, but about passing the time, about seeing what events or ideas somehow come along with the trip. Here, the guards become the focus, the work of art, the movements of this breed of human, this job: “The museum, in which the exhibits protect themselves, will end with a room with a display of a guard’s fart, an act inspired by classical art, a gesture of pure, organic creative expression, without restraint and without apology.”

Berlin is a book of pleasures. The melancholic, the funny, the weight of history, the heights of art, the minor interactions of street life, the changes in weather that change us, insights triggered by glimpses of another’s life or of a building, all these minor pleasures are offered. There is sadness in all of it, as pleasures so brief always are, but Šteger pins them down in writing, to be revisited, to be paired with our own versions of the same.

If you need to read only one story in this collection to believe it is a worthy BTBA winner, I’d ask you for a favored memory, one that rests in a deep place in your heart, from time in a distant city. For me, in a rather embarrassing cliché, it’d be bookstores, whether they sell books in a language I could read or not. In his own cliché, Šteger’s visit to a bookshop is an act of worship, “About temples.” It’s utterly, almost absurdly, romantic, but he makes it felt, beautiful and intimate, bringing it back from that point of eye-rolling, so skillfully that I know I will reread it both in preparation for, and returning from, travel, as I will many other pieces in this collection. Šteger has been “ordained in books, which uncover the secret correspondences between Berlin and its gods,” and it does not mater if I have ever uncovered secret correspondences, it does not matter if I think of Berlin or Kyoto or Dublin or Reykjavik, what matters is that some part of me, for once, feels something true in the expression, and that ability is why Šteger and his translators should win this year.

13 January 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Vincent Francone on Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander & Aljaž Kovac and published by Counterpath Press.

Vince has brought up a lot of interesting points in this “review,” and questions the relationship of the reader’s response to a book to the perceived value of a book. I’ve had many similar reading experiences: a book has been, by all logistical elements, a fine book, I can identify it as being well written, can think of a handful of other people who would love it to bits—and yet for me it didn’t quite click. But whether or not that’s reason for me to state that a book is lacking in some way… I’m not so sure that’s always the case.

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Vince’s review!:

Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished Berlin by Aleš Šteger, I am reminded of Jarrell’s idea because I am supposed to be writing a review of Berlin and I realize that I am not Šteger’s ideal reader. I came to the book with expectations and am, to be completely honest, disappointed. But so what? A book didn’t do what I’d hoped it would do. Does that make it a failure?

Of course not. It makes it a book with a specific vision that seemed well suited to my tastes and interests, even if the execution was different than I’d imaged. I love books that make interesting use of cities. I love the way G. Cabrera Infante made Havana such a part of his work; I adore how Ciaran Carson writes about his native Belfast; I’m awed by Faulkner’s ability to spin gold out of rural Mississippi. The list goes on: Bukowski’s L.A.; Auster’s New York; Joyce’s Dublin. As someone who has spent a lot of effort writing stories and poems about a city I both love and hate, I should have been more receptive to Šteger’s book. After all, this is a poet writing in prose about his individual encounters with Berlin. Sounds like my kind of book.

And it is. Sort of. Berlin is a book of quick prose pieces by a Slovenian poet about his time in Berlin. Most of the miniature essays are accompanied by photos, some of which make up the most stunning parts of the book. There are allusions to other great writers who walked the Berlin streets, as well as a humorous exchange with a fellow poet, and tiny details (food, bakeries, the weather) that add up to something indeed, though I will admit that I am not exactly sure what. This is evidence of my response as a reader, not Šteger’s failure as a writer, though it makes an objective review difficult.

For the rest of the review and more deep thoughts, go here.

13 January 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished Berlin by Aleš Šteger, I am reminded of Jarrell’s idea because I am supposed to be writing a review of Berlin and I realize that I am not Šteger’s ideal reader. I came to the book with expectations and am, to be completely honest, disappointed. But so what? A book didn’t do what I’d hoped it would do. Does that make it a failure?

Of course not. It makes it a book with a specific vision that seemed well suited to my tastes and interests, even if the execution was different than I’d imaged. I love books that make interesting use of cities. I love the way G. Cabrera Infante made Havana such a part of his work; I adore how Ciaran Carson writes about his native Belfast; I’m awed by Faulkner’s ability to spin gold out of rural Mississippi. The list goes on: Bukowski’s L.A.; Auster’s New York; Joyce’s Dublin. As someone who has spent a lot of effort writing stories and poems about a city I both love and hate, I should have been more receptive to Šteger’s book. After all, this is a poet writing in prose about his individual encounters with Berlin. Sounds like my kind of book.

And it is. Sort of. Berlin is a book of quick prose pieces by a Slovenian poet about his time in Berlin. Most of the miniature essays are accompanied by photos, some of which make up the most stunning parts of the book. There are allusions to other great writers who walked the Berlin streets, as well as a humorous exchange with a fellow poet, and tiny details (food, bakeries, the weather) that add up to something indeed, though I will admit that I am not exactly sure what. This is evidence of my response as a reader, not Šteger’s failure as a writer, though it makes an objective review difficult.

I think part of the problem is the way I approached the book. Berlin is best read over the course of a week or two, one vignette lasting the course of days; though, at 131 pages, the book can easily be polished off in a sitting. And that is my problem: I read it quickly and, in doing so, missed the effect. After putting it down for a week, I revisited some of the more memorable bits in preparation for this review and found this:

It seemed that every moment winter would touch its own back. Walking in it nearly all year, the snow melted in the daytime, budded again overnight from sidewalks and car hoods, consuming into March and then into April the deep patience of the most euphoric innkeepers, who at the first rays of better prospects populated the sidewalks with tables and chairs. Winter was so long that even Berlin’s biggest stay-at-homes enjoyed it when spring finally came.

This is delightful to me, though I shared the same passage and it elicited only the sad recognition of a native Midwesterner. This again reminds me of Jarrell’s idea, only inasmuch as I begin to question the purpose of reviews. They are a product of one person’s reading, so, to that end, they are bound to be flawed. But that is fine. My reading is solely my own and if it is my duty to relay what this individual reading yielded, so be it. Take from this the following: Berlin is a fine book of surprising lyricism that did not exactly do what I expected, but wouldn’t it be a dull world if things always went as planned?

9 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This past weekend, the recording of the BTBA awards ceremony popped up on YouTube, so here you go . . . Be sure and wait for (or fast-forward to) Thomas Teal’s acceptance speech—it’s a wonderful, perfect way to end this year’s BTBA.

P.S. I love how the still for this video features me bending awkwardly to pick up my beer. Thanks, PEN/YouTube!

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.

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