16 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Heath Mayhew on The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems by Sohrab Sepehri, translated by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, published by BOA Editions.

Heath is not only a loyal Open Letter subscriber, but has also previously reviewed for Three Percent. And to tote Open Letter things a bit more, one of the translators of this beautiful collection of poetry is Kazim Ali, who was one of the translators of Marguerite Duras’s L’amour, which Open Letter published last year. Also, BOA Editions is another local Rochester, NY publisher, and operated by great people. So this is really like one big group hug—that you’re all welcome to join!

Here’s the beginning of Heath’s review:

I have wanted to read Persian poetry ever since having heard so many good things about it from my Palestinian friend. Sohrab Sepehri’s collection, The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems, however, sounded quite new-agey—as if the poetry was canned lyricism awash in love, peace, and overly sensual descriptions of nature—and this worried me. I feared that Sepehri’s poetry would surely turn me off to anything Persian for a long time. Even when I started to read the first lines of the opening poem, “Water’s Footfall” (the title already felt like a distasteful personification), I felt depressed to have been selected to read the book. Very quickly, however, I began to shed my misgivings.

While Sepehri is not especially well known in the West, he is one of the five most popular Persian poets of the modern Persian poetry movement known as “New Poetry” (the other four being Nima Yushij, who is considered the father of modern Persian poetry, Ahmad Shamloo, Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, and Forough Farrokhzad; “New Poetry” is most notably characterized as having no meter or rhyme, which is a break from traditional Persian poetry). Sepehri was not even particularly popular in his own time—this has, however, changed since then. Philosopher Soursh Dabbagh explains, “Inclinations towards more abstract thoughts subjected him to criticism by his contemporary literary critics such as Shamloo, [Rezi] Barahani, and [Dariush] Ashoori.” Recently, Sepehri has become an emblem of justice and peace. During the 2009 Iranian election protests, the closing lines of his poem, and title of this collection, “The Oasis of Now”, were used on signs and banners and stitched into people’s clothing. They read, “If you look for me, / come soft and quietly, lest you crack the glass heart / that cups my loneliness.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

16 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I have wanted to read Persian poetry ever since having heard so many good things about it from my Palestinian friend. Sohrab Sepehri’s collection, The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems, however, sounded quite new-agey—as if the poetry was canned lyricism awash in love, peace, and overly sensual descriptions of nature—and this worried me. I feared that Sepehri’s poetry would surely turn me off to anything Persian for a long time. Even when I started to read the first lines of the opening poem, “Water’s Footfall” (the title already felt like a distasteful personification), I felt depressed to have been selected to read the book. Very quickly, however, I began to shed my misgivings.

While Sepehri is not especially well known in the West, he is one of the five most popular Persian poets of the modern Persian poetry movement known as “New Poetry” (the other four being Nima Yushij, who is considered the father of modern Persian poetry, Ahmad Shamloo, Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, and Forough Farrokhzad; “New Poetry” is most notably characterized as having no meter or rhyme, which is a break from traditional Persian poetry). Sepehri was not even particularly popular in his own time—this has, however, changed since then. Philosopher Soursh Dabbagh explains, “Inclinations towards more abstract thoughts subjected him to criticism by his contemporary literary critics such as Shamloo, [Rezi] Barahani, and [Dariush] Ashoori.” Recently, Sepehri has become an emblem of justice and peace. During the 2009 Iranian election protests, the closing lines of his poem, and title of this collection, “The Oasis of Now”, were used on signs and banners and stitched into people’s clothing. They read, “If you look for me, / come soft and quietly, lest you crack the glass heart / that cups my loneliness.”

From Kazim Ali’s introduction, we learn that Sepehri was influenced not only by his home religion, Shi’a and Sufism, but also by Buddhism and Hinduism, which he explored later in life. He was interested in “ordinary things, discarded things, with the spiritual and divine,” and this view is reflected throughout the poems in this collection. We get a heavy dose of such themes particularly in the aforementioned opening poem, “Water’s Footfalls”, which reflects on the death of his father, and how one wanders the world with such grief. As one would expect, the poem is dense and heavy, but Sepehri creates (or observes) pockets light, “Like a breeze, my Ka’aba drifts from orchard to orchard, town to / town.”

What surprised me most about this collection is the sensuality of the language, and the abstraction of everyday imagery. Sepehri has a way of morphing language to imply a deeper, fresher meaning. This seems obvious to the well-indoctrinated poetry reader, but when one expects cheesiness, and instead gets heart, one discovers treasure. That moment came, still in the opening poem, when he grafts the two most used themes of poetry, love and nature, and given the nature of the poem, the image rises right before the reader’s eyes: “I understand the language of ripe berries bursting in the mouth of the / climaxing lovers.” This line, itself a sort of climax, marries our everyday senses and that of nature flawlessly.

It helps to know that Sepehri was trained as a painter, and particularly that he was considered one of Iran’s foremost modern painters. As already shown, Sepehri infuses his poetry with a painterly eye, even if they are not always as lush as “Water’s Footfalls.” In “The Sound of an Encounter,” a poem that appears in the second section (of three sections), he finds the color and light, when as a boy, he is sent out to get pomegranates and quinces:
bq. The orchard’s long hours of worry glittered in the shadow of each fruit. / Some unknown thing shone among the quinces. / The pomegranates spread their dark red across the country of the pious. / Any thoughts I had about the people around me vanished / before the gleaming ripeness of oranges.

The translation of the text did not leave images or metaphors hanging indecipherably on the page; nor did they leave the reader alienated by complete foreignness. If a moment of cultural material arose, an endnote accompanied it. While the book appears for a moment’s instance to be bilingual, the truth is that each section is divided by a single page from one of Sepehri’s poems in Persian.

I felt the need to slow down after reading these pieces, so much so that I just wanted to walk around my apartment, look at things, without expectations, certain that if I waited long enough something beautiful would emerge out of its ordinariness. And what if we looked at the objects or emotions we find mundane, or cheesy, or over sentimental, or pastiche; what could we learn from them? What would we see? That’s the question Sepehri’s poetry taught me.

1 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Heath Mayhew on Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), which came out from Open Letter earlier this year in Margaret Schwartz’s translation.

As you may or may not know, we generally don’t run reviews of our own books, which may or may be a sound policy, but regardless, we’re making an exception for this piece because of how it came to us. Heath Mayhew is one of our subscribers, and with Macedonio’s Museum, he received a letter from me explaining how we came to publish this, how much the book means to me, why I love it so much, etc. It also included a request for readers to let me know what they thought of this, since it’s such a strange, unique book.

Last month, Heath sent me this review, which he wrote as part of a Translation Seminar he’s taking with Stefania Heim at Columbia University. It’s a great introduction to the book, which is why we decided to violate our “rule” and post it here:

Prologue to the Review

Macedonio Fernandez is little known outside Argentina. Unfortunately I foresee this remaining the case for some time. Even with the recent translation and publication of his posthumous novel, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel (Museo de la Novela de la Eterna), by Open Letter Books (translated by Margaret Schwartz), the “skip-around readers” Fernandez is looking for (to convert into “orderly readers”) are few. One of the reasons is because Fernandez is taking a risk. He knows exactly what his novel is and what it isn’t: he knows that it is the “First Good Novel,” which follows the writing of another novel, Adriana Buenos Aires: The Last Bad Novel (Adriana Buenos Aires: ultima novella mala). So what makes Fernandez’s novel so good? This is where (and why) he remains obscure: the tenacity with which he hopes to redefine the novel. It is a task that can get sloppy very quickly. And so, Fernandez makes sure that the reader is well equipped before “beginning” his novel (he argues, “. . . the reader comes late if he comes after the cover.”). Thus, he prolongs the start of his novel with fifty-seven prologues: in part to provoke the novel to be “thrown violently to the floor most often, and avidly taken up again just as often” by his readers. He boasts, “What other author can boast of that?”

Introduction to Macedonio Fernandez

You can tell by my first prologue, Macedonio Fernandez was not the typical novelist. From the Preface by Adam Thirlwell and Translator’s Introduction by Margaret Schwartz, and from my selected readings, there is a cacophony of mythology surrounding Fernandez. Most often mentioned, yet somewhat unknown, is Fernandez’s mentorship of Jorge Luis Borges. Oft-quoted Borges explains: “I imitated him, to the point of transcription, to the point of devoted and impassioned plagiarism.”

Click here to read the full review.

1 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Prologue to the Review

Macedonio Fernandez is little known outside Argentina. Unfortunately I foresee this remaining the case for some time. Even with the recent translation and publication of his posthumous novel, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel (Museo de la Novela de la Eterna), by Open Letter Books (translated by Margaret Schwartz), the “skip-around readers” Fernandez is looking for (to convert into “orderly readers”) are few. One of the reasons is because Fernandez is taking a risk. He knows exactly what his novel is and what it isn’t: he knows that it is the “First Good Novel,” which follows the writing of another novel, Adriana Buenos Aires: The Last Bad Novel (Adriana Buenos Aires: ultima novella mala). So what makes Fernandez’s novel so good? This is where (and why) he remains obscure: the tenacity with which he hopes to redefine the novel. It is a task that can get sloppy very quickly. And so, Fernandez makes sure that the reader is well equipped before “beginning” his novel (he argues, “. . . the reader comes late if he comes after the cover.”). Thus, he prolongs the start of his novel with fifty-seven prologues: in part to provoke the novel to be “thrown violently to the floor most often, and avidly taken up again just as often” by his readers. He boasts, “What other author can boast of that?”

Introduction to Macedonio Fernandez

You can tell by my first prologue, Macedonio Fernandez was not the typical novelist. From the Preface by Adam Thirlwell and Translator’s Introduction by Margaret Schwartz, and from my selected readings, there is a cacophony of mythology surrounding Fernandez. Most often mentioned, yet somewhat unknown, is Fernandez’s mentorship of Jorge Luis Borges. Oft-quoted Borges explains: “I imitated him, to the point of transcription, to the point of devoted and impassioned plagiarism.” But he continues:

I felt: Macedonio is metaphysics, is literature. Whoever preceded him might shine in history, but they were all rough drafts of Macedonio, imperfect previous versions. To not imitate this canon would have represented incredible negligence.

Other myths include eccentric qualities: running for president by leaving scraps of paper with his name inscribed on cafe tables; starting a utopian society, in Uruguay (with Borges’ father, Jorge Guillermo Borges), but stopping after a day because of mosquitoes; leaving pages of manuscripts behind after moving from one shanty to another. Numerous other myths survive, partly due to Borges, partly to others.

What seems to be true of his adult life is that Fernandez befriended Borges’ father as a university student and they remained close friends throughout their lives. He was a lawyer until his wife passed away in 1920. He left his children in the care of grandparents and, as Marcelo Ballvé describes, “spent the final three decades of his life drifting through Buenos Aires boardinghouses and country hermitages, absorbed in writing and thinking.” It was in these years, reunited with Borges senior, befriending younger Borges and the “_generación martinfierrista_,” that he dedicated himself to philosophy, literature, and meditation.

What the Novel is About

So what is the novel about? Alison McCulloch, in her Fiction Chronicle, tries to answer this, “So what is the novel about? A group of “characters” gather at a house called La Novela, which belongs to “the President.” But what is the novel about? Clearly, that’s for “the Reader” to decide.” Although the review is only nine sentences long (four of which appear in the quote), I couldn’t accept her final decree: aren’t all novels open for “Reader” interpretation?

The novel is about love. Or what Fernandez calls Todoamor; that is, as Schwartz translates “Totalove.” I refer to Ballve, once again, for assistance,

Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, first published in 1967 and impossible to summarize, is best described as an extended experiment in writing an open novel analogous to a piece of music. The prose evokes a dizzying world of aesthetic associations and possibilities in the reader’s mind. At every moment it tests the limits between art and life, reality and fiction, as well as form and content.

“Impossible to summarize.” That sounds like a challenge! The prologues address metaphysics, literary theory, time and space, non-identity, death, life, Love (Totalove), Authorial Persona, critics, characters that appear in the novel, characters that do not appear in the novel, the Reader, prologues, “postprologuery note” and “prenovelistic observations,” and then some.

The novel is the execution of the prologues. It is as if Fernandez has set up the novel’s history, the ur-thoughts, in the prologues. And without them, the novel would seem more absurd. Are the prologues a part of the novel? Fernandez is ahead of the Reader (as he often is): on a page between the end of the prologues, and the beginning of the novel, he writes, “Éstos ¿fueron prólogos? y ésta ¿será novela? Esta página es para que en ella se ande el lector antes de leer en su muy digna indecisión y gravedad.” Margaret Schwartz translates this post-prologue/pre-novel page as, “Were those prologues? And is this the novel? _This page is for the reader to linger, in his well-deserved and serious indecision, before reading on._”

Where the Reader realizes that Macedonio Fernandez wrote the novel in Spanish and that Margaret Schwartz translated it into English (which also finally answers what this review really meant to do from the beginning: tell what the novel is about)

Margaret Schwartz has imprinted a dual signature into this translation. One is Macedonio Fernandez’s. The other is her own. It is apparent in Schwartz’s translation, that the Spanish is playful and inventive; words (and worlds) collide and connect at the hip: Totalove, goodbad, firstlast, limit-end, autoexistence, auto-prologuery, etc. We do not even need to look at the Spanish to know just how well Schwartz has performed: towards originality in the English and creation of transparence for the Spanish. We cannot forget the debt we owe to Margaret Schwartz for working through the novel’s dense content and Fernandez’s eccentric style; this work shimmers in fluidity and strangeness.

“The playfulness of the novel is identical to its sadness,” writes Adam Thirlwell in his Preface. Schwartz does not confuse the two. Eventually she projects into English a novel about an estancia called ‘La Novela’ (an instance where the works shimmers in fluidity and strangeness), owned by The President. There, he asks certain characters to stay in hope that they can prepare for the novel, and perhaps find happiness. But they must first rid themselves of their past, in order to make themselves more real, which means they become dreams, because dreams have no past . . .

And now, to begin . . .

This novel is about beginning and ending, or the rejection of beginning and ending. To never start is to never end. Totalove, never having a witness to its start, never ends. But our everyday reader will say, “Certainly love has a beginning!” Macedonio Fernandez, bravely and brilliantly, rallies against this notion. He blows his trumpet on the beginning and ending to love, the novel, and life. There is no death. This novel is an expression of non-death. He is sure of it. And Margaret Schwartz turns the frequency dial and furthers this claim. If you are a reader, one well equipped, this eccentric, yet heartfelt novel is worth throwing to the ground. Because, you will pick it up again just as avidly.

....
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