8 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Catherine Partin on Pierre Reverdy’s Pierre Reverdy, a collection of the poet’s works translated by various authors, edited by Mary Ann Caws, and out from New York Review Books.

Catherine is an avid reader with interests in French and Francophone literature, modernism, and critical theory, and is soon to graduate with an MA in Culture and Difference from Durham University. Here’s the beginning of her review:

To read a poem by Pierre Reverdy is to enter a world of dreamlike contradictions, surreal metaphors, and jarring juxtapositions. Marked by recurring themes of consciousness, time, distance, and memory, Reverdy’s work inhabits an otherworldly realm. As when viewing a cubist painting, it’s hard to maintain a sense of orientation—follow along a line toward its expected end and, surprise! the work takes an unexpected turn. In Pierre Reverdy, the New York Review Books presents an exemplary collection of Reverdy’s poems in new English translations. Translated by an impressive roster of respected Anglophone poets, among them Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth, and a dozen others, the works selected here are nevertheless unified by Reverdy’s distinct poetic voice and a propensity for jarring juxtaposition, creating dreamlike imagery painted with lucidity and yet tinged with the surreal.

Known for his associations with such figures as Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, and Andre Breton, Reverdy’s close ties to these and other founding members of the early twentieth-century avant-garde are not to be underestimated. Their influences upon Reverdy’s work, most notably manifest in his surreal imagery and unconventional form, are perhaps best illustrated by the book’s opening selection from Prose Poems. These works, square chunks of text consisting of syntactically normal sentences that nevertheless retain a semantic opacity and make for difficult, if not intriguing reading, doubtless contributing to Reverdy’s reputation as the quintessential cubist poet.

For the rest of the review, go here.

8 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

To read a poem by Pierre Reverdy is to enter a world of dreamlike contradictions, surreal metaphors, and jarring juxtapositions. Marked by recurring themes of consciousness, time, distance, and memory, Reverdy’s work inhabits an otherworldly realm. As when viewing a cubist painting, it’s hard to maintain a sense of orientation—follow along a line toward its expected end and, surprise! the work takes an unexpected turn. In Pierre Reverdy, the New York Review Books presents an exemplary collection of Reverdy’s poems in new English translations. Translated by an impressive roster of respected Anglophone poets, among them Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth, and a dozen others, the works selected here are nevertheless unified by Reverdy’s distinct poetic voice and a propensity for jarring juxtaposition, creating dreamlike imagery painted with lucidity and yet tinged with the surreal.

Known for his associations with such figures as Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, and Andre Breton, Reverdy’s close ties to these and other founding members of the early twentieth-century avant-garde are not to be underestimated. Their influences upon Reverdy’s work, most notably manifest in his surreal imagery and unconventional form, are perhaps best illustrated by the book’s opening selection from Prose Poems. These works, square chunks of text consisting of syntactically normal sentences that nevertheless retain a semantic opacity and make for difficult, if not intriguing reading, doubtless contributing to Reverdy’s reputation as the quintessential cubist poet. Apart from their experimental form and use of language, two pieces drawn from this collection published in 1915, “The Intruder” and “The Spirit Goes Out,” particularly resonate with the modern sense of rupture, disorientation, and loss of an old world order, precipitated by what was then known only as the Great War. “The Intruder” begins with the intrusion of a human figure “leading behind him a caravan in chaos” into a world of silence and shadow, sparking a pandemonium heralded by “songs and shrieks” of the new:

A most ancient world was whirling through our heads and we were awaiting the moment when everything would collapse . . . the skies were grey and filled with the howls of machines that cut through our malaise. Once out in the street, we regained our century . . . But that other night, from what era did they all descend upon us, those spirits . . . ?

Similarly, in “The Spirit Goes Out,” Reverdy captures, with striking symbolism, the death of grand narratives simultaneously dealt with by many of his contemporaries. Prefiguring Paul Valéry’s 1919 philosophical essay, “La Crise de l’esprit” on the decay of Western intellectual tradition, Reverdy’s poem paints a scenario in which one might read the speaker’s turning away from lifeless ancient texts toward the piercing light of the present as a nod to Plato’s allegory of the cave,

So many books! A temple whose thick walls were built with books. And inside, where I had entered, who knows how, I don’t know where, I was suffocating. The ceilings were gray with dust. Not a sound. And all these great ideas no longer move, they sleep, or are dead . . . With my fingernail, I clawed at the partition and, bit by bit, I made a hole in the wall on the right. It was a window and the sun that tried to blind me couldn’t keep me from looking out

The poem’s final lines suggest liberation from the symbolic and a return to the real signified by the juxtaposition of darkness and light, a frequently recurring theme throughout the works selected in this volume. From burning lamps to brilliant stars, clouds of dust and pitch-black nights, these of Reverdy’s works are replete with symbols of illumination as well as elements of obscurity. While the two are often paired to create a stark contrast, many of Reverdy’s poems share characteristics of a world dulled by impenetrable clouds. “A Lot of People,” (translated by John Ashbery) offers a characteristic glimpse into this shadowy realm:

Over there is only a black hole
      Beyond the gate a laughing head
And in dust the noise died away
      Cloud
      Chiaroscuro
          Stop breathing
All the birds are dead
          The sun has burst
Blood flows
In the water where his eyes were drowning

Building upon themes of darkness and light, Reverdy’s work is replete with eyes, windows, and mirrors—symbols associated with the Lacanian concept of the gaze. Many of Reverdy’s poems examine the act of looking itself, as if describing the experience of visual perception from a detached and objective viewpoint. For the speaker in “Nothing”:

The world is erased
    At the point where I will disappear
Everything is snuffed out

There is no longer even a place
For the words I will leave

Much of Reverdy’s work is permeated by a sense of self-observation reminiscent of lucid dreaming, as if the anonymous subject in poems including “That”, “False Portal or Portrait,” and “Inner Motion” is in fact the poetic persona speaking from beyond immediate experience. The mirror figures as a prominent symbol in many poems, offering a fixed portrait of perceived reality, “the oval holding my whole countenance frozen,” or, alternatively, appearing as a gaping portal to the unknown, “[sending] back no images” while “[n]ight lurk[s] in the background.” In “Body and Soul Superimposed,” it is “that icy black abyss ruled by a threatening void and an equally threatening silence: the likelihood of every possible laceration,”—a line that perfectly captures the overwhelming tone of Reverdy’s poetry, which would arguably make for interesting examination under a psychoanalytic lens.

The poems’ recurring references to light, gaze, and mirrors—as emblematic of the confrontational encounter leading to self-recognition—reveals the readily apparent influences of Cubism upon Reverdy’s work in ways that extend beyond stylistic considerations and touch upon contemporaneous issues of philosophy. Judging by the content as well as the formal structure of his writing, Reverdy clearly contributes to and shares in the avant-garde fascination with unconscious dream-states and unknown aspects of the human mind. By exploring the surface of objects and reflected images, Reverdy undermines the illusion of a cohesive self, revealing the fracturing and fluidity of identity. Yet Reverdy also transforms the “void” or “black abyss,”—always just on the verge of experience, hidden behind the glint of a mirror or below the surface of unfathomable depths—from a threatening state of breakdown, and into a promise of unveiled reality. In “Secret,” Reverdy writes, “after the anxiety of the tightest, straightest passage, we always find an oasis of calm and repose in the whiteness of the expanse, the silence.” The ambiguity with which Reverdy’s poems refer to emptiness and lack is perhaps best expressed by “Fate Founders,” which deals with themes of absence and presence, ultimately suggestive of the trace inscribed in and by writing:

And if everything I’ve seen has deceived me of reality
If there was nothing behind the canvas
but an empty hole
What reassures me a bit is that I can always stay on
       the sidelines
Hang on
And leave a faint memory on earth
A gesture of regret
A sour expression
       What I did best

What Reverdy himself did best is amply demonstrated by the translations contained in this book, which brilliantly convey the linguistic meaning and artistic spirit of the original texts. In accordance with the Cubist goal of restructuring experience at the surface level to express or gain insights into reality from multiple perspectives, Reverdy’s poetic language is both compellingly evocative and yet nonetheless oblique. Although most of the works presented in Pierre Reverdy are treated by a single Anglophone translator, three renditions of “Live Flesh” by Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Rexroth, and Lydia Davis offer brilliantly nuanced versions of the poem, each maintaining the integrity of Reverdy’s artistic vision while exposing the play of language and subtle variants in meaning that allow for slight divergences in translation. Unfortunately, “Live Flesh” is one of only a few to be featured in so many versions, and this is a shame, as it provides a fascinating example of the subjective nature of translation and interpretation of work as richly symbolic as Reverdy’s.
While the works collected in Pierre Reverdy show off the poet’s skill to its best and most characteristically modern effect, it comes as no surprise that the poems exhibited are dazzling, dreamlike, and surprisingly contemporary in feel. With these excellent translations now making Reverdy’s work accessible to an Anglophone audience, this book deserves attention from not only students and readers of French literature, but anyone with an interest in early twentieth-century avant-garde poetry.

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.

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.

....
The Madmen of Benghazi
The Madmen of Benghazi by Gerard de Villiers
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .

Read More >

The Four Corners of Palermo
The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza
Reviewed by Patience Haggin

The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .

Read More >

Writers
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .

Read More >

My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

Read More >

Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

Read More >

Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >