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?

13 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lucas Klein on Jonathan Stalling’s Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics, which is available from Counterpath Press.

Jonathan Stalling is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Poetics of Emptiness: Transformations of Asian Thought in American Poetry (Fordham University Press, 2010), and a co-editor of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, A Critical Edition (Fordham, 2008). He is also the author of a books of poetry GROTTO HEAVEN (Chax Press, 2010).

Here is part of his review:

If poets are, as P. B. Shelley wrote, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then translation must be one of the unacknowledged legislators of poetry. Certainly translation of Chinese poetry has been essential to modern American writing: Ezra Pound’s Cathay didn’t just invent, as T. S. Eliot put it, “Chinese poetry for our time,” it invented the possibility within English for modes of writing recognizable as somehow Chinese. Poets as dissimilar as Charles Reznikoff and Stanley Kunitz, or Charles Wright and J. H. Prynne, have built careers inhabiting these modes; from Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End to John Ashbery’s Mountains and Rivers, we know Chinese whispers when we hear them in American poetry because we have read Chinese poetry in an English first invented by Pound.

Never mind the inaccuracies that have often come with translating poetry from Chinese to English; inaccuracies have been one of poetic translation’s more fruitful possibilities: Aramaic gamla may mean both “camel” and “rope,” but would we cite the Bible’s suspicion of the rich entering heaven if not for the striking surrealism of camels passing through needle-eyes? Or, in that case, mind the inaccuracies, because through them a kind of poetry is born. And this is the kind of poetry that Jonathan Stalling brings us with Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics.

Click here to read the entire review.

13 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

If poets are, as P. B. Shelley wrote, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then translation must be one of the unacknowledged legislators of poetry. Certainly translation of Chinese poetry has been essential to modern American writing: Ezra Pound’s Cathay didn’t just invent, as T. S. Eliot put it, “Chinese poetry for our time,” it invented the possibility within English for modes of writing recognizable as somehow Chinese. Poets as dissimilar as Charles Reznikoff and Stanley Kunitz, or Charles Wright and J. H. Prynne, have built careers inhabiting these modes; from Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End to John Ashbery’s Mountains and Rivers, we know Chinese whispers when we hear them in American poetry because we have read Chinese poetry in an English first invented by Pound.

Never mind the inaccuracies that have often come with translating poetry from Chinese to English; inaccuracies have been one of poetic translation’s more fruitful possibilities: Aramaic gamla may mean both “camel” and “rope,” but would we cite the Bible’s suspicion of the rich entering heaven if not for the striking surrealism of camels passing through needle-eyes? Or, in that case, mind the inaccuracies, because through them a kind of poetry is born. And this is the kind of poetry that Jonathan Stalling brings us with Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics.

Translational inaccuracies and the poetic possibilities they create are topics Stalling has been contemplating for some time now. He began studying Chinese in middle school, throwing himself into it with the zeal that only idealistic early teenagers seem to possess. His pursuit of Chinese took him from Arkansas first to Hawaii, then to Beijing, before he graduated with a BA in Chinese Studies from Berkeley. Along the way, however, he had read Edward Said and become convinced that, all modes of academic study serving to perpetuate the ideologically projected containment of that which they held as their object, the “Orient” he had been chasing had been of his own devising, in the aim of creating something he could master (though, it must be said: !?). Turning his back on the study of Asia, then, he looked for a way out of this intellectual cul de sac in the utterly unimaginable community of Scotland, reading an MA in English Literature and Cultural Theory at the University of Edinburgh. This led him back to the US for a PhD from Buffalo’s Poetics program, where something snapped again and he began reinvestigating the productive ways in which writers have imagined East Asia and brought elements of its literatures into English. This re-awakening has motivated Stalling’s career since, resulting in academic work—a critical edition of Ernest Fenollosa’s & Ezra Pound’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (Fordham, 2008, which he and I edited with Haun Saussy) and the monograph Poetics of Emptiness: Transformations of Asian Thought in American Poetry (Fordham, 2010); editorship—of the journal Chinese Literature Today and the Chinese Literature Today Book Series from University of Oklahoma Press; translation—his recent volume of the seminal modern Chinese poet Shi Zhi, Winter Sun (Oklahoma, 2012; see my take in a forthcoming Chinese Literature: Essays Articles Reviews); and poetry—Grotto Heaven (Chax, 2010), based on an introductory Chinese language textbook, and now Yingelishi.

A story of inter-continental and trans-civilizational travel, the base text of Yingelishi—the word “English” as pronounced in Chinese that, depending on the tones of the syllables, can mean “Chanted Songs Beautiful Poetry” or “The Sounds of Songs Leaving the World”—was taken from an English phrasebook published in China. But like a Monty Python sketch acted out by either the Dharma Bums or the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, this is a phrasebook that does not communicate, or that communicates too much, as Stalling has “totally rewritten the book by changing all of the original simple Chinese characters (chosen to mimic the pronunciation of common English phrases without initiating Chinese meanings) into complex Chinese poetic phrases and ‘poems’” (p. 4), which he then translates into English poetry. The result fuses the mundane, the ridiculous, and the sublime:

我的座位在哪?

  where is my seat

  wài ‘è yì si mái xī tè

     外堮

      意思

         霢窸忒?

           Outside the border

             of meaning buried

                the faint cricket’s whisper error

                 (p. 54)

Cracking open translation—the first two lines are straightforward equivalents of the same phrase in two different languages—Stalling’s method in these pieces is to bring attention to the sound inherent in meaning and the meaning inherent in sound. The result is an English poetic image—a “radiant node or cluster,” as Pound defined it, “from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing”—that often, as in the poem above, comments on its own poetic process as much as on the prisms and misprisions of cross-cultural communication.

Another piece, in which the themes of the book cluster even more radiantly:

原谅我

  forgive me

  fó gěi fú mí

      佛给浮迷

        Buddha offers floating enigmas (p. 87)

While the pieces’ ultimate lines present stunning poetry, they do raise a question about the politics or ethics of using Chinese texts in such a way (we want our legislators, after all, to be fair representatives). Because of his background in studying, walking away from, and then walking back to Chinese, Stalling is clearly aware of this; as he writes in the helpful introduction, “working against the anti-pidgin/Chinglish stereotype is a complicated and difficult task. The cultural frame through which these sounds are heard in the West has long been ideologically contaminated by a history of ‘yellowface minstrelsy’ and other ways of degrading pidgins, accents, and dialects that arise from the admixture of English and various Pacific Rim languages” (pp. 3 – 4). But only by engaging with the ideological contamination can he overturn it. Indeed, the English-reader should know that the Chinese characters that transcribe the sounds of Stalling’s sinophonic English are often very obscure; Chinese-readers will probably find themselves lost in the semantic meaning of Stalling’s transcriptions into Chinese. Nor are the translations from Chinese necessarily proper representations of how Chinese-speakers would understand these phrases. English-learners in China may joke about how “thank you” sounds like sān kè yóu, but they are less likely to write it as 三客游 (p. 41) than as 三克油, laughing that it means “three grams of oil.” Nor would they understand 三客游 as “Three wanderers floating,” but here Stalling is able not only to avail himself of the tradition of Chinese signification in English poetry from Pound onward, he is able to draw on other instances of poetry translation playing with sound and sense: when Louis Zukofsky turned Catullus’s Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire, / et quod vides perisse perditum ducas into “Miss her, Catullus? Don’t be so inept to rail / at what you see perish when perished is the case,” the point was not whether readers of Latin would have understood it that way, but to create poetry out of the misreadings inherent in translation that could displace Latin from its position of superiority over English and English from its position of superiority in the ears of a non-native speaker such as Zukofsky. Not only does Stalling’s Chinese also come from the rare position of a non-native speaker, by writing against “the ideological framework … of hearing what is not there (the phantom ‘other’ that serves ideological jingoism), rather than what is (the full range of human experience and aesthetic complexity within other ways of speaking)” (p. 4), he is able to push towards a further level of transcendence, his English departing from the ground of Chinese as his Chinese has departed from its grounding in English.

As it happened, I read Yingelishi on flight from Hong Kong to Beijing, airborne from the ground of one relationship between English and Chinese to another, from one relationship between Chinese written characters and their pronunciation to another. I found the reading experience especially apt, not only in the translingual resonances but in the phrasebook’s implied narrative of a tourist finding his passport stolen and struggling to communicate with the authorities. Miscommunication, like translation, is another of poetry’s legislators. But even if read elsewhere than on an airplane, the transcendent resonances with American poetry and its incorporations of Chinese allow Yingelishi to take off into, and from its, chanted songs and beautiful poetry.

3 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next three days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Brittle Age and Returning Upland by Rene Char. Translated from the French by Gustaf Sobin. (France, Counterpath)

This guest post is by Brandon Holmquest—poet, translator, and editor of CALQUE. Brandon is devoted to the reception and promotion of international poetry, so I’m really glad he was able to serve on the panel this year. And write up a couple books!

On one particularly bad night we were all in the kitchen with this book, idly translating it into German, Spanish, Chinese. Then the war began. Another time, I handed it to a guy and, flipping through it and seeing how “The Brittle Age” is composed often of single sentences each on their own page, he called it a waste of paper. I made him take it home and when he returned it I asked him if he still felt the same and he shook his head very slowly. I think I’ve read it five times now. Maybe six.

All of which is to say that The Brittle Age and Returning Upland is an eloquent, disquieting book. One that makes an impact. That these two works by a poet who’s been dead for more than two decades is being published in this country for the first time is both great and puzzling. I am unfortunately ignorant of the history of how it came to be published. But neither am I terribly concerned about that, grateful as I am for the mere fact of its existence.

The book contains two poems written in the 60s. The first, “The Brittle Age,” stretches across some 87 pages, made up of single fragments, none of them longer than five lines, many a few words. The second, “Returning Upland,” is more properly a series of poems, if not a serial poem. The two works are discrete, having no relation other than having been written by one person, translated by another.

“Comfort is crime, the fountain told me from its rock.” And on the next page: “Be consoled. In dying you return everything that you were lent, your love, your friends. Even that living coldness, harvested over and over.” And the next: “Death’s great ally, where its midges are best concealed, is memory: the persecutor of our odyssey, lasting from an eve to the pink tomorrow.”

And so on. “The Brittle Age” is undoubtedly the star here, though I doubt very seriously is “Returning Upland” could get a fair hearing in any court containing the other poem. The inclusion of both of them makes the most sense in light of the fact that both were translated by Gustaf Sobin, an American poet for whom Char appears to have been something between mentor and father-figure.

Even the cursory sort of French I possess is enough to reveal the quality of Sobin’s work here. His ear is so good, and his sense of English poetry so sound that he can rewrite individual sentences as he needs to in order to maintain Char’s voice, changing the letter, capturing the spirit of the thing, as when Char’s French reads:

Il advient que notre coeur soit comme chassé de notre corps. Et notre corps est comme mort.

And Sobin’s English gives us:

Sometimes our heart seems as if chased from our body, and our body, as if dead.

Sobin makes two sentences into one. He uses commas to create pauses that work to excellent rhythmic effect and to enable a reproduction, with the double use of the word “body,” of an echo of the homophonic effect the French has with couer and corps, which is where most of Char’s art in this passage resides.

One example, pulled at random from a book which teems with them.

....
Berlin
Berlin by Aleš Šteger
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

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. . .

Read More >

The Gun
The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura
Reviewed by Will Eells

Like any good potboiler worth its salt, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun wastes no time setting up its premise: “Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it, I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen something so. . .

Read More >

This Place Holds No Fear
This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Heiner Resseck, the protagonist in Monika Held’s thought-provoking, first novel, This Place Holds No Fear, intentionally re-lives his past every hour of every day. His memories are his treasures, more dear than the present or future. What wonderful past eclipses. . .

Read More >

The Room
The Room by Jonas Karlsson
Reviewed by Peter Biello

If you’ve ever worked in a corporate office, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Perception is reality.” To Björn, the office worker who narrates Jonas Karlsson’s novel The Room, the reality is simple: there’s a door near the bathroom that leads. . .

Read More >

Thérèse and Isabelle
Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

I recently listened to Three Percent Podcast #99, which had guest speaker Julia Berner-Tobin from Feminist Press. In addition to the usual amusement of finally hearing both sides of the podcast (normally I just hear parts of Chad’s side. . .

Read More >

On the Edge
On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes
Reviewed by Jeremy Garber

Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven. . .

Read More >

Rambling Jack
Rambling Jack by Micheál Ó Conghaile
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“50 pages?”
“Including illustrations.”
“And this—what. . .

Read More >