28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for poetry is The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagnini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and published by Chelsea Editions. Below is a statement from the judges about the collection, along with some notes about the two runners up.

From the poetry jury:

In Elisa Biagini’s eerie interiors, nothing is quite what it seems. “Peeled hands” become tapestries, teeth are “white and dry like kneecaps,” a woman irons as a way of “stopping decomposition / by joining collar points.” What at first glance might seem like straight-forward lyrics of domesticity or celebrations of the ordinary, turn quickly violent and grotesque. Female selves are not dissolved, martyr-style, for their loved ones, but cut-up into pieces, a butchery that is sensuously and surreally chronicled: “My body is a bag of fluids,” “I see myself in pieces in the supermarket.” Reading Biagini we realize how frequently we do, in actuality, leave traces of our bodies with, in, and upon the ones we love: “you smile at your seed in me / (you’ve just eaten your lipstick) / and if I draw my face near / I see a wisp of my hair / in your gloves.” “The guest” of Biagini’s title shifts viscerally, now a growing embryo, now the familiar fairytale innocents in the forbidding wood, now language itself, whose “words [are] glowworms in / this my / dark.” Reading this collection, our own worlds, our own homes, our own narratives, our own words are illuminated in their already existing strangeness. That Biagini’s haunting, disturbing, brilliant, and beautiful poems retain this power and immediacy—above all this passion—in their English translations is a testament to the work of her translators: Diana Thow, Sarah Strickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky.

The first runner-up, Four Elemental Bodies by Claude Royet-Journoud is translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, and published by Burning Deck, a press that almost always has at least one title on the list of BTBA poetry finalists. This is the second volume of Royet-Journoud’s to come out from Burning Deck, and contains four volumes: Reversal, The Notion of Obstacle, Objects Contain the Infinite, and Natures Indivisible.

Here’s a bit more about his from the Burning Deck website:

Claude Royet-Journoud is one of the most important contemporary French poets whose one-line manifesto: “Shall we escape analogy” marked a revolutionary turn away from Surrealism and its lush imagery. His spare, “neutral” language, stripped of devices like metaphor, assonance, alliteration has had a great influence on recent French poetry.

Poetry judge Bill Martin wrote The Oasis of Now up earlier today, and since his piece is so comprehensive and interesting, I’ll just let him speak for this runner-up:

Something that Dabashi hints at and another scholar, Massud Farzan, addressed forty years ago as crucial to Sepehri’s work is, in addition to the influence on it of Buddhism, its connection to Sufi apophatic theology, the “via negativa . . . the cleansing of the heart’s and mind’s mirror of its dust and grime.” This mystical affiliation informs the frame that Ali and Mahallati give his work in the introduction to the book, and also affirms the fantasy I had in reading him of an affinity with Tomaž Šalamun, another poetic descendent of Rumi. (I imagined a genealogy involving other poets on the American scene, too: Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Trakl, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Lax, Gary Snyder, Fanny Howe; but none seemed so closely related.) Like Šalamun’s poetry, Sepehri’s cleaves and coheres at odd angles to the Anglophone avant-garde. But while Šalamun refracts sense paratactically and with scintillating speed, Sepehri is much slower, tellurian, more liable to syntax, haunting, his epiphanies so figurative and deliberate they often come across as platitudes. Yet the experience of reading him is more robust, ample, and structured than it may appear at first sight:

Beyond the poplars
sweet innocence beckons.

I paused by the stand of bamboo to listen as the wind susurrated through.
Who was speaking to me?

A lizard slid into the water. I walked on.

Hayfield, cucumber patch, rose bush, oblivion . . .

At the stream I doffed my sandals to dangle my feet in the water.
How alive I am,
how green like the garden.
So what if sadness creeps down the mountain slope?
Who is that hiding behind the trees?
Only a water buffalo grazing.

Like most of the poems in The Oasis of Now, this one, “Golestaneh,” reads like a rehearsal of reverse apperception, with the “human position” of the subject reconceived in relation to nature through repeated gestures—questions, reappraisals, simple descriptions, epiphanies—a repertoire of moderated ecstasy. This poetic redirection of the subject toward nature, or as Jonathan Skinner has put it, this “turning of the poem out of doors” and the “extending and developing” in these poems of the “perception of the natural world,” that signals the potential inspiration of Sepehri’s work for ecopoetics. This is not a book that immediately announces itself as avant-garde or new, it does not brandish its modernism, and does not in fact seem so easily commodifiable, but the more time one spends with it, the more it astonishes and yields.

16 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World, out from FSG.

Vincent is a regular contributor here, and I can guarantee that his review will give you some great poet-poetry insight and a few laughs for this chilly Monday morning (as well as a new recommendation for great international poetry). Here’s a part of his review:

bq The (incredibly exaggerated) dilemma of poetry in these United States, at least in the minds of poets, is that no one cares to read verse. The complaint is often made: readers have no appreciation for poetry here, not like they do in Russia and Latin America and Ireland and Poland. And, it turns out, in Italy. If the jacket of My Poems Won’t Change the World is to be believed, Patrizia Cavalli is a national treasure in Italy, much the way Wisława Szymborska was in Poland or Nicanor Parra is in Chile. Patrizia’s readings pack halls and her elegant, colloquial poems have enchanted European readers. At long last, her “music,” as Jorie Graham calls it, is available for American readers to ignore.

What brought this collection to life? The answer is the concerted effort of its editor and primary translator, Gini Alhadeff, who does a very good job rendering Italian into airy, digestible English. Alhadeff has had some help along the way; none other than Kenneth Koch, Mark Strand, and the before-mentioned Jorie Graham—all relatively famous American poets—have lent their skills to the translations, as have J, D. McClatchy, David Shapiro, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, and Geoffrey Brock. With such a large group of translators focusing on one poet’s work the results can sometimes be intriguing, albeit unfocused. The reader sees something of the translators’ individual fingerprints in the English renditions, sometimes benefiting the poems, but the cumulative effect is not unlike current hip hop records made with an all-star lineup of heavy-hitting producers. Sometimes it is better to select one producer and let them work closely with the artist, creating a unified vision.

For the entire piece, go “here”:

16 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“The more bored you are, the more attached you get.
I’m so bored, I no longer want to die.”

So reads an entire poem by Patrizia Cavalli (translated by Gini Alhadeff) confirming for many critics of poetry what they’ve always believed: poets are gloomy, self-pitying bastards.

***

The (incredibly exaggerated) dilemma of poetry in these United States, at least in the minds of poets, is that no one cares to read verse. The complaint is often made: readers have no appreciation for poetry here, not like they do in Russia and Latin America and Ireland and Poland. And, it turns out, in Italy. If the jacket of My Poems Won’t Change the World is to be believed, Patrizia Cavalli is a national treasure in Italy, much the way Wisława Szymborska was in Poland or Nicanor Parra is in Chile. Patrizia’s readings pack halls and her elegant, colloquial poems have enchanted European readers. At long last, her “music,” as Jorie Graham calls it, is available for American readers to ignore.

What brought this collection to life? The answer is the concerted effort of its editor and primary translator, Gini Alhadeff, who does a very good job rendering Italian into airy, digestible English. Alhadeff has had some help along the way; none other than Kenneth Koch, Mark Strand, and the before-mentioned Jorie Graham—all relatively famous American poets—have lent their skills to the translations, as have J, D. McClatchy, David Shapiro, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, and Geoffrey Brock. With such a large group of translators focusing on one poet’s work the results can sometimes be intriguing, albeit unfocused. The reader sees something of the translators’ individual fingerprints in the English renditions, sometimes benefiting the poems, but the cumulative effect is not unlike current hip hop records made with an all-star lineup of heavy-hitting producers. Sometimes it is better to select one producer and let them work closely with the artist, creating a unified vision.

I suppose the idea is to allow American readers to see the work of Cavalli through the eyes of poets they know and trust. But this American reader had not heard of Alhadeff, and her translations still seem the most competent, a few exceptions not withstanding. Geoffrey Brock did this with Cavalli’s Italian:

If you knocked now on my door
and if you took off your glasses
and I took off mine which are like yours
and then if you entered my mouth
unafraid of kisses that are not like yours
and said to me: “My love,
is everything alright?”— that would be quite
a piece of theater

Not possessing enough Italian to do more than get my face slapped, I’ll take it on faith that this is damn close to what Cavalli wrote, though reading later, equally pleasing translations by Brock lead me to the conclusion that his style suits my taste, which is to say that his reading of Cavalli suits my taste. And, apparently, Jorie Graham’s doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong; the book is by no means a mess. The many hands that produced it have not inadvertently created obvious seams in the fabric. No, the tone shifts occasionally but I was never taken out of the poems, many of which are short, subtle, and compelling. Like much good poetry, Cavalli’s work can be read quickly, resulting in superficial responses, but returning to them allows for deeper appreciation. Poetry demands patience, investment, reinvestment, consideration, patience, commitment, patience, and patience. It is helpful when the work is as smooth as Cavalli’s (in most of the translations) and when the poet offers enough of an emotional core to attract readers.

***

To return to the subject of American audiences and their supposed disinclination toward poetry . . . While this disinclincation may be fact, I can’t help but think that if we had more poets like Cavalli, whose work drew comedy, ethics, and passion from the stillness of the everyday, and who were less concerned with abstractions and convolutions, then perhaps we’d have more readers of poetry.

Consider these lines from longest poem in the collection, and one of the few with a title, “La Guardiana,” translated by Alhadeff as “The Keeper,” which come after a little girl has pried a door open:

No mystery lay beyond that door,
it was a door a door like any other
and in the drawer was whatever was there,
everyone knew. And as to praises,
the only reward for my feats, many
at first, then fewer and fewer
—my prowess, with time, was taken for granted—
I cared little or nothing at all.
My pleasure lay only in the challenge
of unravelling that obstinate
inaccessible resistance to which
I was only the chosen instrument
of surrender: forces withdrawn
entering without forcing, only listening,
indifferent to the prize and to the profit,
the sound that rises form every sealed
thing, wanting just
to open and give itself away
but only to one ready for that sound.
With those bent wires, then words,
I practiced poetry.

Portrait of the artist as a young girl or easy metaphor, you decide, but to me this is the sort of clear, compelling work that is easy to dismiss and rich upon return.

This collection may not sway more Americans to poetry, but it certainly won’t alienate any, either. Cavalli will likely not become a household name, at least not in this country, but I, along with the other fools who write and read poems, and who sometimes (wrongly) bemoan the lack of attention poetry receives, now have one more writer of verse to recommend.

Fight on, brothers and sisters.

....
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