28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

25 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life by Elfriede Czurda, translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop, and published by Burning Deck.

Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and editor, not necessarily in that order. Her original poetry has appeared in Vanitas, the Dos Passos Review, Pressed Wafer, and Arrowsmith Press. Her translations have appeared in Two Lines, Asymptote, PEN America, and Words without Borders, among others. She is the founding editor of Anomalous Press.

Most of us have probably never heard of Elfriede Czurda. That’s because this translation is her first publication in English. More interestingly, it’s a translation of (almost all of) her first book to appear in her native German, as well as the entirety of her second book. It’s unusual for poets’ first books to be translated into English, in part because of most publishers’ self-fulfilling expectations that unknown poets are hard to sell, and even harder in translation. But translator, and extraordinary poet herself, Rosmarie Waldrop has an advantage in this sense: she and her husband co-edit this book’s publishing house, Burning Deck, and so can take risks on new work they feel deserving of an English readership. (Burning Deck, I want to point out, brought out the phenomenal BTBA finalist engulf — enkindle by Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals that I reviewed last year for Three Percent.)

Which is not to say that Elfriede Czurda is unknown in German. She’s won numerous awards for her work which includes poetry, plays, and criticism, and has published three books in the past five years. But introducing new, living, experimental authors to an English poetry readership already resistant to works of literary translation is a daring move, one that we’re fortunate independent houses like Burning Deck continue to take. And that brings me to why, I think, Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life should actually win the Best Translated Book Award this year. It’s utterly daring.

The book is divided into two sections, “Almost 1 Book” and “Almost 1 Life.” The first part of the work is definitively hybrid: it includes lineated verse; long, meandering lines that spill across the page; blocks of prose; images; diagrams; and text-images reminiscent of the world-wide mid-century concrete poetry experiments. Take one page spread of the book as an example, the one that is the most varied:

The verso is the second and page of a section of a long poem called “Mutilation with Intent,” this section titled “manifesto of the stitchomantic cat.” I can’t imagine what the word “stitchomantic” was in the original German, my German being literary nonexistent. What I do know is that it’s evocative, inventive, and fascinating in English. It resonates with schizophrenic. It makes me think of an automated sewing machine, and a particular kind of invented advertising language that might say “stitch-o-matic.” The “-mantic” also could be “manic,” especially given that it’s a cat and all cats are of course neurotic. The recto is a narrative-poem-rhebus of sorts. This sets my mind spinning, thinking about translation of image-reliant poetry; how the images sound in English versus how they sound in German, the meanings that can be read into and out of them shifting based on context (of the poem, and of the culture). Images are percieved to be universal, but of course are far from that.

It’s not all flashy typographics. One of my favorite poems in the first section is a obsessively comprehensive microscopic description of a landscape that shifts into the poets body, and the body of an unknown you:

by the rain-puddled wheel-rutted road on the mossy ground rank
dandelion ribwort plantain clover milkwort grass
on either side of the road pear- apple- and plum-trees galore
a beetle with a black carapace and an orange dot in the lower third
of it climbs up a blade of grass and tries belly-up head-first to reach
the next blade belly and legs pale pink like shrimp shells

The excessive detail, the attempt at wholeness of description, the violence done to the landscape and the body in this attempt, is exquisite.

The second section of the book, “Almost 1 Life,” is a poem composed of seventeen sections with three “editorial digressions” and is part satire, part “(almost) true-life-novel,” and begins with discussion of the work at hand in relation to its reader:

i put the reader off with promises: all our famous animosities will
become characters in this (almost) true-life-novel
the reader’s reaction is not what i expected (he wants to wait and see)

And readers who do wait and see, who are willing to take the risk that Czurda and Waldrop have taken, each in their own language, are richly rewarded. The reward of a work like this is directly proportional to how challenging it is to read. The playfulness of the language belies a serious challenge to readerly poetic expectations, it gives with one hand and takes twice as much with the other. It entrances and disturbs, and stays, like good poetry should, lodged under your skin like a bullet.

9 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erica Mena on Anja Utler’s engulf—enkindle, which is translated by Kurt Beals and came out in December from the admirable Burning Deck.

The best source for info on German poet Anja Utler seems to be this site (which, for those of you into poetry of the experimental flavor, looks pretty awesome on the whole), which has this to say:

Her first volume of poetry, asfsagen, was published in 1999, followed by münden – entzügeln (engulf – enkindle) in 2004. The year before, she received her doctorate for her thesis on women Russian modernist poets.

That same year she was awarded the Leonce-und-Lena-Preis, an award devoted to outstanding younger poets. That award jury described her poetry as “sensual sound constructions, on paper as in recitation, without being pure sound-poetry. Rather, they are language games of psychological world perception, that out of the substance of their words create shafts of illumination through which our curiosity, but also our bafflement in the exploration of language, feel their way.”

Erica Mena is a member of the Best Translated Book Award poetry committee (quick interjection: engulf—enkindle isn’t eligible for this year’s award, but come BTBA 2012 . . . ), who is also a poet, translator, and noted screeder.

But today, Erica is gushing rather than screeding . . . Based on the first paragraph alone, I think Erica kinda sorta likes this collection . . . (And be sure to scroll to the bottom to hear a recording Erica did of one of the poems):

engulf — enkindle is a stunning book of poetry. It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.

want now: you – drive into me
want to push to the edge, hang, you
haul all my: shale, scrape
it off from: the head, from the shoulders
to rootstock throat gravel: you split me
give me – as if severed – sharp
countours – fangs wolffian ridge
questions too – will i? –
i – take you to me
                                 balances I

Click here for the full review.

9 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

engulf — enkindle is a stunning book of poetry. It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.

want now: you – drive into me
want to push to the edge, hang, you
haul all my: shale, scrape
it off from: the head, from the shoulders
to rootstock throat gravel: you split me
give me – as if severed – sharp
countours – fangs wolffian ridge
questions too – will i? –
i – take you to me
                                 balances I

The stacatto lines, broken by strange punctuation, expose themselves as duplicitious; the punctuation is superfluous, and yet it’s not. It’s a violation of the line, of the rules of grammar, but it forces a rhythm on the almost unwilling reader. It’s pleasurable and distressing simultaneously, mimetic of the poems. The I in the poem submits to the violence of the you, while exerting her own controlled violence over the reader, and the poem and ultimately her poetic body.

Like most “experimental” texts this work demands more of its reader, a different set of tools and strategies. It is a text that has been splayed wide open, disgorging multiple readings. This extract from the second poem could be read as describing what the poetry itself is doing:

     II

– percieve:     just at the opencuts: set free
furrow –          to stand, sense, to drift now am: pitching to you
                        through the: fissures [. . .]

[The bracketed ellipsis is mine.] Pay attention to the slippery shifts of meaning across and through the punctuation, the way caesura is inserted into the lines and creates tension with the phrases that follow the colons. Feel the tension that is created by the speeding up and slowing down of the lines, the gaps in meaning and thwarted grammatical expectations (the missing subject for “am” for example).

This is poetry that demands several readings, at least one of which must be aloud. When I teach poetry, I always ask that the students read the poems out loud, as well as to themselves, and if I suspect they have not done it we do it together. Great poetry creates sonic space on the page, and visual space in the voice, and the movement between these opens up new meanings. Traditionally, this happens behind the semantic content of the poem, but Beals’s rendering of Utler’s poetry prioritizes its lyric qualities. In engulf – enkindle, the poems hinge on sound and silence, on rhythm and breaking, with meaning following. Try listening to this without reading along, and see what kind of difference it makes.1

XI

finally, startled from sleep, find:
the larynx deseeded is
hollowed: hands palpate,
it: fumbling, feathered, from
ribcage entwine themselves
deeper into the: reed swallow: light,
gurgling, darkly well, dimly
they: keel towards hulls towards hollows
weave: cavities, gorges of
stalks of fingers of (..)
so to speak: towards the bittern – neting place,
in the singing reed so it’s called – grow
entangled as – flotsam and jetsam – stitched
up to the: glottis rustling
almost trembling i hear you again: say
song you say song – what is: song

Kurt Beals is a genius. I can’t imagine how these translations could have come to be otherwise. He may have been working at an advantage; Germanic languages share many rhythm and sound paterns, two of the most impressive features of this translation. Still, the strangeness of these poems, which demand so much of the reader, must have demaned even more of Beals. To create this kind of complexity in translation is nothing short of stunning, an acheivment compounded by the shifting registers and pacing of the language.

This is an uncompromising work of brilliance on both Utler and Beals’ parts. It’s sharp and sexy, challenging and riviting and absolutely relentless. This is the poetry I’ve been waiting my whole life for.

1 Here’s a recording Erica made of “Utler IX”:

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