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?

2 July 12 | Sarah Winstein-Hibbs | Comments

Click here to read the latest issue of Aldus, a new literary translation journal from Brown University. The pioneers behind this ambitious new publication are Three Percent contributors Matthew Weiss and Tim Nassau. Tim’s also a former Open Letter intern, and recently reviewed Tomas Tranströmer’s The Deleted World.

In this issue you’ll find a conversation between Steven T. Murray, translator of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and his wife and fellow translator, Tiina Nunnally. Also included in this edition: translations from Forrest Gander, winner of the 2012 Best Translated Book Award for his translation of Kiwao Nomura’s Spectacle and Pigsty ; translations by Lytton Smith, translator of Children in Reindeer Woods and The Ambassador (both published by Open Letter); and new works by C.D. Wright, Susan Bernofsky, Andrei Codrescu, and Andrew Barrett – as well as a piece or two by Tim himself.

13 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Dehiscent: in botany, the spontaneous rupture of a plant structure at maturity to release seeds; in medicine, the rupture of a wound with much discharge.

In this strong, propulsive collection of poems translator Forrest Gander uses dehiscent for the Spanish word diesminandose in one poem, and in the title of a second for ensimismada. López Colomé’s images draw on the dual meaning of the English word. The botanical one with the positive pitch of natural propagation of a species (picture a milk pod releasing its silk parachuted seeds) occurs for example in poems that reference the tibuchina flower and almonds, and with images of bees filled with pollen, silk flowers and blooming real ones (“My Life’s Portrait”). López Colomé though is not a “nature poet.” The substance of the poems are also wedded to the medical, colored by the idea that pain, pus, blood are pouring out of a wound. Thematically López Colomé touches on both, related concepts over and over again. The language also performs a verbal dehiscence, as is announced in the poem “Heart’s Core”:

. . . .
But
a certain sentence
perfectly measured,
a shard, black onyx dart,
keeps hitting the target inside me
with all its sinister, atomic
plunk.
How curious that it feels less like prickling than throbbing.
that between words
we find the heart’s core,
not merely an account of it.
there, where pain isn’t forgotten.
There, where memory
radiates,
candescent:
in signal strength enduring
with no need
to plead its case.
. . .

You know that you are in the hands of a master who has control over language. Echoes of the cultural past (“a shard, black onyx dart”), religious imagery allusively rendered (“the heart” in its iconographic Latin American role) are interwoven with the contemporary “atomic” and the technologically yoked reference to light, “candescent.” Thematically the poet is addressing the realities of pain at the heart’s core, but which can only be pointed to “between words . . . not merely an account of it.”

While this poem relies strongly on inner feelings that seem intimate, many of the other poems tell about states of emotion/being at a more distant remove. In this next poem the reader also encounters the use of images and language drawn from the poet’s reality. From the three part poem “My Life’s Portrait,” the second section, WATERWORM AGAINST A BLUE BACKGROUND:

A radiant
eight year old
on her way from the possible
to the shameful.

Reinvented
in the guise of a good girl
who learns to not be herself,
to sit still, all but immobile,
to adopt a pose
from this moment on
The expression on her face, fabulous.

A dress of purple velvet
with a lacy collar;
socks conscientiously folded down
to the top of the ankle
new patent leather shoes.
But her hands once again
escape the artist . . .

They reach into the future.
And they oblige
everything else to pose.
As she would pose and stare at that garden
with its interminable whirlwind
and the dizziness would intensify
until she tumbled into the grass
and discovered
that when her body wasn’t spinning around,
the stars themselves were circling;
then the telescopes in her eyes
would gradually funnel
away the delirium bit by bit . . .
Because I refused to be
a still life,
I lost the only grip I had.

The very cord that set me free
was twisted around my neck
a transparent slipknot
choking me
while fireflies
flickered
between the bars of my fingers
as I made
a fist.

The speaker ruminates on the ruptures in life; it starts with the promise of seemingly unlimited possibilities reduced on the one hand by societal expectations, and on the other hand the challenges of human existence. While the picture which emerges is dim—flickering fireflies seen through bars of fingers curving into a fist—it is not, from the adult speaker’s perspective, without humor or glimpses of happiness, the “fabulous” expression on the child’s face, the twirling of an eight year old in a garden.

This next poem continues with the child grown into adulthood. The “torment” emerges at the end, in the acorns grown into a choiring grove, a potentially poetic cliché that actually terrorizes. Gander interprets this in his introduction as an allusion to the cancer which López Colomé dealt while writing many of these poems.

“Tormented”

Enormous solids were falling
from who knows what heights,
who knows what places.
I trembled,
and in my mouth
an inky taste. Ready.

Hail, maybe
enormous kernels of ice;
coming down,
with a scandalous impact,
didn’t bury me, terrorized,
under the covers.
It didn’t happen, it wasn’t that.

A below-zero temperature
drove into the soft center of my bones.
A truly searing cold.

Nothing to do with monsters came to pass.
Nothing to do with endless distance.
Nothing to do with brutalities.
Only the agony of acorns.
Only a cycle that completes itself
every few years
and transforms into a tropical forest
a choiring oak grove.

Which is my terror.

In one of the longer poems “Dehiscent, Enraptured Invention” López Colomé brings another key concern of hers, the pull toward some spiritual reality, although not one tied to any traditional religious tradition.

To be able to speak

without punctuation

jubilant infinite moment
moment jubilant infinite
infinite moment jubilant
gibberish
and as if that weren’t enough
to burn and sing
a solipsist
heard
by no one
beyond
the weird world’s
distant core . . .

and what follows. There is an inner light here, with words as fuel, language in-itself pouring outward:

To be able to speak

without contrivance,
filigrees
underlinings or cursives

supreme instant
of unbounded
pleasure
at the center of an immensity
without any outside pressure
knowing that the vital forces
peel away from muscle easily
and drift off
and you drown
and it doesn’t matter
since you’re protected
enraptured
. . .

The first poem cited above, “Heart’s Core,” includes that image of a black onyx arrow piercing the heart, a contemporary version of ecstasy of St. Theresa captured once in Bernini’s sculpture. Here though the angel and long arrow are language itself. López Colomé makes it clear in her “Afterward” to this collection that her religious upbringing included exposure to religious poetry. She recalls that the words, the sound and movement and moving of the hearer, were her revelation, not that of a god’s visitation. As a child she confessed, “When I pray, I talk to God, but He doesn’t talk to me.” To which her confessor counseled, “Pray in your own words.” This directive she says gave her “a whole new imago mundi; a capacity to describe perceptions and emotions in a fresh way, with intimate verbs.” In adolescence she realized that “you could save the right words just to talk to yourself, without the Most Holy watching over your shoulder . . . a dialogue with my personal penumbra.” López Colomé is a religious skeptic, but definitely a fideist in the power of the Words.

Finally, the metaphor of dehiscence strikes me as a great way to understand the project of translation. The idea that a text, especially in the concentrated form of poetry, bursts out into multiple meanings in its original language, then in a translated text, and further in the two held in the tension of facing poems in Spanish and English. In López Colomé’s and Gander’s hands this bursting sometimes is propagative, at other times a lancing of wounds.

I have on my bookshelf at least five different approaches to that proto-text of vernacular poetry, Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which translators try to match the terza rima structure, others the plain meaning of the text, with all sorts of ground in between. Gander, an accomplished poet (essayist and novelist) in his own right and translator of many Spanish language writers, honors the voice and tone of López Colomé. If you pick up one of Gander’s several collections you would encounter a different voice, with his own unique concerns. Yet his approach is one of a poet with word choices that represent the meaning of the original, not the plain translation. Some of the changes are practical—both inventive and of a more mechanical, problem solving nature. The poem ‘Almendra’is in English titled ‘Almond.’ In the last stanza of the poem López Colomé draws attention to the actual word “almendra,”:

Consonantes trituridas        A vowel and two consonants
sin gastar savia en balde    worth the spit it takes
se repiten, se digieren         to chew them, repeat, and digest
se repiten sin cesar             them one after another
ene dé erre ene dé erre      ah el em ah el em
n d r  n d r                            alm alm

The translator has the challenge in a poem that uses in Spanish three consonants (consonantes trituridas) n, d, and r, which of course do not occur in the English translation, the word almond. So the first line quoted above keeps the intent but changes the literal wording, to a vowel and two consonants, which in “almond” are alm in Gander’s translation. Note here as well Gander’s mastery of Spanish colloquial speech in translating the second line to an English saying (not) “worth the spit it takes.”

Gander is able to take the project one step further, for example, in “Tormented,” when he translates “Un verdadero calor frio” not into “A truly/really hot cold,” but instead into the intended, equivalent meaning in English, “A truly searing cold.” Perhaps another English word could have been used in the place of searing, but I am hard-pressed to come up with any better.

Then there is a wholly different level of the translator’s engagement and interpretation. With true artistry Gander takes a series in Spanish “lagrimas, anhelos, nadieras” and turns it into “tears, longing, and ratty nothings.” Ratty: that’s a nice touch, as is the translation of “Aparacete tal cual, / resono” into (the Gander added italics and explanation mark) “Show yourself!

In a world where what is truly of value received attention, López Colomé and Gander would be soon going on tour to read from this collection in the same range of venues that a popular rock group might appear. As it is, I urge anyone who wants to read moving poetry that unfolds with multiple re-readings to buy this book, and then to buy a second and third copy to put into others’ hands.

3 September 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

This month we talk with poet and translator Forrest Gander about approaches to translating poetry and his forthcoming translation “Watchword” by Pura López Colomé.

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