11 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by poetry committee member Brandon Holmquest.

Child of Nature by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated by Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi

Language: Albanian
Country: Albania
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 108

Why This Book Should Win:

It begins
when she searches in the darkness
for her likeness, a line of verse awaiting its end rhyme

and it goes on from there, and in just about every poem there’s something that grabs your attention. As in the quote above, where the rhythm of the use of the letter S is so nice in the first two lines, establishing a beat which then opens up to let the long I come in, “likeness” “line” then the same S in “verse” and the long I again in “rhyme.”

This is English-language poetry, of course. I have no Albanian whatsoever and the book is not bilingual, something which I generally regard as a minor crime, though this book may have persuaded me to be a little less hard-line about it. As I was attempting to explain to a bookseller friend of mine not that long ago: I want the original even in languages I don’t know because I want to see what I can see. Are the original much longer or shorter than the translations? Are they shaped differently? Do they rhyme and if so, do the translations? And so on. I’m suspicious, in short.

And often, there’s reason to be. But, sometimes, maybe it doesn’t matter at all, because the English is so good I cease to care if it’s even a translation. I just want more of it, whatever it is, however it came to be made.

Case in point, the poem “Monday in Seven Days,” a longish serial poem of ten parts, which I’m only going to quote once because otherwise the whole thing is going to wind up in what is supposed to be a brief review:

Preparing for winter
isn’t tradition, but instinct. We hurl our spare anxieties
like precious cargo from a shipwreck.

Read that again. If you don’t see on your own how good it is, how truly excellent the choice of the word “hurl” is and how excellently true the observation contained in the lines is, maybe you don’t like poetry as much as you thought. Or maybe you need to read a lot more of it.

Well, there’s a lot more of it in this book. Both the above quotes are pulled from the first quarter of a 100+ page book. At about the halfway point we find:

They are dying one after the other;
shoveling earth on them has become as common
as sprinkling salt on food.

I don’t know what anyone could say to work like this except, “Hell yes.” I could go on dropping quotes all day, but I can see no real percentage in aggressively preaching to a mixed congregation of the choir and the uncovertable.

Lleshanaku’s work is in a vein with some other writers from Eastern Europe I’ve run across in the last few years. She reminds me of Mariana Marin with a less severe case of depression, but really most of the good work I’ve seen from Romania or Poland and elsewhere in the region is in the ball park. Lots of images, vernacular language, a tendency to roll around in the lower reaches of the culture, and a level of comfort on the part of the poet with the saying of things, the making of explicit statements about the nature of something, be it the self, the world, or some interaction between the two.

Point being, there’s something going on over there that we’re only just now getting a chance to see in this country, thanks to books like this and translators like Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi. There are literary cultures less dominated by the inane war between boring middlebrow crap and equally boring academic crap. Child of Nature is a book that comes from such a place. Read it.

5 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As started last week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by poetry committee member and Reading the World podcast host Erica Mena.

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air by Ayane Kawata, translated by Sawako Nakayasu

Language: Japanese
Country: Japan
Publisher: Litmus Press
Pages: 144

Why This Book Should Win: Outsiders are cool, two-for-the-price-of-one, 1st ever repeat translator winner, the poetry will explode your brain and send you spinning into dreamspace.

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air are two separate books, collected into this single volume, and their contrast underscores Ayane Kawata’s breadth of poetic talent and Sawako Nakayasu’s impressive range as translator. Time of Sky is Kawata’s first collection of poems, published in Japanese in 1969. At the time of publication, Kawata was (and still is) an intentional outsider in the Japanese poetry world. This remove is perhaps the strongest feature of this first part of the collection: the distance of the observer from the poetic world she engages with.

These sparse, short verses seem at first to belong to the tradition of abstract, imagistic Asian poetry that most Western readers are familiar with. The grammatical minimalism, the intense images, the staccato rhythm of constrained lines, all of these things feel familiar, within the comfort-zone of contemporary Japanese poetry. But there is a dark tension lurking beneath the surface, and in places it bursts through, startling:

19

From the trace of the incontinent blood of an angel walking along
holding some sky cut out with a class cutter, the dawn—

27

Will the lark’s vein blow up
Or will an earful of the distant blue make its way inside

30

At the speed of a reed of blood crawling about the brain
As if to assault—
Sing

Not all of them are about blood and veins blowing up, but the sky is a threat in many of these poems, a violent imposition on life, body and nature. The distant blue that is too bright, and cut up, and ominous and penetrating and rupturing, is a spectacularly original feat of imagination.

There is also a layered femininity in these poems, that builds sexuality within protest and suffering.

37

O naked women letting out screams and passing through the
invisible automatic doors of the blue sky

38

Breasts that hatch
Like music
Mirrors resound and melt
The sky goes missing

50

How long will the women be gasping as they open and close their
arms in the towering forest of mirrors

The reflection of the body in a mirror is a clear gesture toward feminist positioning, but at such cold remove, such seemingly idle wondering, that the violence of the watcher’s gaze is all but undone. This first book is full of startling imagery, more striking for the distanced tone which Nakayasu preserves throughout. This tone, which could become monochromatic or dully repetitive, emphasizes the layers of image and meaning, and hints at innocence and indifference. But if the tone gestures towards indifference, it is even more exciting to encounter the violence and strangeness of these sharp fragments of image.

Castles in the Air, published in Japanese in 1991, is a dream journal presented as prose poems, and operates within its own hybrid rationale. Operating within a familiar dream-logic, these poems are at once unbearably personal, shamelessly intimate, and frankly grotesque. They unflinchingly reveal the subconscious monstrosity of the speaker, but so bluntly, so unapologetically that the reader too is implicated by the assumed understanding in the tone. These are dreams we all have had, in one way or another, and so no embarrassment is necessary.

With an infant

A man is chasing me—so in order to escape I try to have a relationship with an infant. The idea is to drive the man away by having him see me make love to the infant. The infant understands the situation completely.

Throughout this sequence the poet struggles with impossibility – the attempt (often failed) to escape pursuit, to be seen, to be heard. Familiar tropes of an unsettled dreamer, these are transformed into revelations of weakness and strength.

Flute

I have a flute in my hands and try to play it, but no sound comes out. I accidentally breathe in and something like a scrap of silver foil gets left behind in my mouth. As I am wondering what it’s like inside the flute, the thin wooden flute splits vertically like a cicada shell, exposing the metallic scraps and grass seeds mixed inside. The flute sounds because of something inside it. I put it back together and try again to play it. Still no sound comes out.

This collection moves from cold remove to shameless vulnerability, from verse to prose, from imagistic to dreamlike. In maintaining a recognizable voice and preserving the disparity between pieces, Nakayasu created a remarkable translation, deserving of close and repeated readings.

4 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by poetry committee member Kevin Prufer.

The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, translated by Brian Henry

Language: Slovenian
Country: Slovenia
Publisher: BOA Editions
Pages: 92

Why This Book Should Win: The poems in Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things focus with nearly comic intensity on an array of everyday objects—an egg, a coat, a toothpick, a stomach. Here, a potato recollects the soil it came from. Or a hand dryer speaks a windy language we can’t quite understand. Or a doormat forgives us all. But Šteger’s poems go far beyond mere comic description, personification, or metaphor. Rather, his objects reflect our own strange complexities—our eagerness to consume, our rationalizations and kindness. Our many cruelties and our grandiosities.

Each of these fifty poems (the book includes seven sections of seven poems plus one introductory “proem” titled “A”) fixates with obsessive detail on a different, focusing on the turnings of its imagined mind. A loaf of bread “asks you to do him harm, for you to stab him / To shred him to pieces, consume his still warm body.” “Yes, yes,” Šteger concludes, “he loves you, that is why he accepts your knife. / He knows that all his wounds crumble in your hand.” Or, of a pair of windshield wipers, he writes: “Both of them hide something, / That is why they move in such harmony. / Like two serfs in black rubber boots.”

At times playful or grimly serious, the effect of these poems slowly gathers until one has the sense not of looking at everyday objects anew, but of being looked at anew by the once inconsequential objects that surround us. And, reflected in their many, multifaceted eyes, we do no fair well.

Šteger’s The Book of Things is harrowing and hilarious, unnerving and weirdly familiar—and, most of all, ambitious in its attempt to look anew into our all-too-human darkness. And translator, Brian Henry (himself a poet of significant talent) renders these poems beautifully into an English that is both colloquial and disconcertingly plainspoken.

29 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by poetry committee member Idra Novey. Idra is the director of the Literary Translation at Columbia University program, a poet, and a translator. It’s worth noting here that her translation of Manoel de Barros’s “Birds for a Demolition” was eligible for this year’s BTBA, but was excluded from consideration based on the fact that Idra was a judge. That said, over on the fiction side, her translation of “On Elegance While Sleeping” is a finalist.

Flash Cards by YU Jian, translated by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett

Language: Chinese
Country: China
Publisher: Zephyr Press & the Chinese University Press
Pages: 151

Why This Book Should Win: Because Yu Jian knows we should avoid comparing ourselves to fish: they’re doomed, the lake drying up. Because Yu Jian has many lines that are this tragic and funny and involve washing machines and the Chinese army.

So many American poets are currently struggling with how to write about our environment. It’s an important questions, and I’ve been reading new pastorals: poems of lament, elegies for the flora and fauna that we’re rapidly losing and won’t get back. But here comes Yu Jian, writing about nature—and more—in a new way that addresses loss with humor and with a lack of familiar binaries.

In Flash Cards, his first collection to appear in English translation, he writes of frogs that died in 1998 along with their pond, but also of the mosquitoes that remain there, “sometimes conversing in English.” It’s hard to translate humor well, especially in the streamlined language of a poem, but American poet Ron Padgett and Chinese poet Wang Ping do an extraordinary job of getting the tone right every time. “Conversing” is just the verb for a wry, quirky line like this in English.

In another poem, when Yu Jian drives to the edge of “the virgin forest,” the translators go with a car that “zooms.” That zoom seems spot on when an imaginary doe leaps into Yu Jian’s heart and he says, “I no longer have a stream or meadow/ to keep it there.”

Not all of the poems in Flash Cards are concerned with the natural world, however, or at least not explicitly. One stunning poem begins with “the washing machine on Saturday” and ends with the declaration:

Happiness belongs only to a cashmere sweater
that demands a different spin cycle
its only wish to match
the mistress’ red skirt.

I would argue that happiness also belongs to the reader of Flash Cards and to its translators, as the humor and music in these English versions suggests that Wang Ping and Ron Padgett took great pleasure, and care, in translating these poems. If you haven’t yet had the experience of having a woman in heavy makeup and a wolf face turn to you at dusk in the zoo and say in perfect Mandarin, “Good evening, comrade,” you’re in for a delightful surprise with the poetry of Yu Jian.

28 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by BTBA poetry judge Jennifer Kronovet.

Geometries by Guillevic, translated by Richard Sieburth

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse
Pages: 80

Why This Book Should Win: Charming yet deep; sweet and funny; stimulating, challenging, and yet approachable; private, but easy to relate to, sexy. No, I’m not describing my perfect mate—wait, yes I am!—but I’m also describing the wonderful poems in Geometries, by Guillevic, translated by Richard Sieburth and originally published in French in 1967.

Each of these poems is based on a geometrical figure—presented in its Euclidian simplicity at the top of each piece. These poems bounce playfully, deftly, and philosophically between the unchanging fact of the simple, named form, and the nameless feelings and attitudes we have toward space, the way it shapes us, is us, and comes between us.

Some of the poems in Geometries are intimate addresses to the shapes, such as in “Ellipse,” which begins, “Listen, I know how hard it is/To achieve this kind of balance,//With everything pressing in/On each of your outer points.” These poems, by commiserating with forms, by sometimes chastising them, by truly conversing and engaging with them, reshape shapes from the physical to the metaphysical and back again. The condition of the body and the mind, minds that love and bodies that love—the troubling trouble of it all, is playfully illuminated. “Ellipse” ends “Two centers,/Either oblivious/To each other,/Or at war.” How like our own—my own!—sense of a self at odds with itself. I find I can relate to this ellipse. Who knew.

Many of the poems in the collection give a voice to these shapes, which speak to us out of their self-awareness and their striking personalities. These shapes are resigned to behaving as their dimensions demand—just as may know where the arc of our particular behavior leads us. The “Point” ballsily notes:

I am no more than the fruit
bq. Of an encounter.

I have nothing.

‘Get the point.’
bq. ‘Miss the point.’

What do I know?

Yet who would venture
bq. To erase me?

The cover of the collection says that these poems were “Englished” by Richard Sieburth. They are indeed. Sieburth captures in English the specific spokenness of the poems, their philosophical wit, their pathos (who would have thought shapes could have pathos!), without losing a sense of the inherent playfulness of the project. These shapes are foreign mirrors—yet astounding mirrors nonetheless. These poems are part game, part serious seriousness, and Sieburth stealthily draws the poems down that line into a wonderfully pleasing feeling that something true has been discovered in the oddest of ways.

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