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
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse
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.
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 small stone plaza was floating in the midday heat. The Christ of Elqui, kneeling on the ground, his gaze thrown back on high, the part in his hair dark under the Atacaman sun—he felt himself falling into an ecstasy.. . .
This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are. . .
The Urdu word basti refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers,. . .
The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve. . .
Luis Negrón’s debut collection Mundo Cruel is a journey through Puerto Rico’s gay world. Published in 2010, the book is already in its fifth Spanish edition. Here in the U.S., the collection has been published by Seven Stories Press and. . .
To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can. . .