27 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Transfer Fat by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson, and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

Why this book should win: It amazingly makes English feel like a new language with visceral power.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that almost everyone reading this review here is interested in foreign languages. Although some books in translation may try to hide the very fact that they are translated, many of us turn to books in translation because they are that—a twisty relationship, a multi-dimensional trip, a dynamically charged confluence, language within language within language. Part of the engaging pleasure of reading contemporary Swedish poet Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat, translated by Johannes Göransson, is that one feels as though one is reading in a foreign language, and yet, has access to understanding the words as themselves.

Transfer Fat makes a world and puts us inside it to hear its language, to be subject to its laws and materiality, to be a citizen called upon to act and be acted upon. Articles are removed, new compounds words are made, and commands are given, and so this language feels like a paradigmatic example of itself, essential and new as it subverts expected idioms and means multi-directionally. This language is both highly prepositional and highly visceral; we are in relation and on top of relations and at relationships. With what? Whale fat, breast-gristle, hare-milk, glasswater, a fatcatatonic election promise, Hal, the hare Cosmos, and more nouns that seem pure thing and pure metaphor, Swedish and of my Midwestern backyard, political and inborn. These contrasts are productively disorienting. One learns to see this new language (am I beginning to think in it?) as one capable of bringing the body and the body politic together, and the body and the mind that charges it.

The first poem begins:

Cut the keel
in harebrood pool
cut fin in fat
fishtailborn

Right away the speaker asks us to perform a violence (as translators are often accused of doing) and in that violence, a new word is made, fishtailborn, and perhaps this new word is us, now composed of parts, of language severed and re-glued. After a large space on the page the poem continues:

Keep fat
let fat wait
keep time
let time go
let time rock calmly in hare
let fat build core in hare
in the hare Cosmos
time is shell

If we follow the speaker’s suggestions, follow the new language happening, we end up with a new feeling for how time works, a new metaphysics. The manipulations of language in the book never feel coy or like play for playing’s sake. Rather, through the thick scrim of foreigness, language is amplified as being viscerally of the body and of time, capable of leading us to bold ideas if we follow its permutations.

In the translator’s note, Göransson, a poet in English and native speaker of Swedish, writes that Forsla fett is “an ambient space where the Swedish language goes through all kinds of permutations: words, connotations, meanings letters are put into flux, combining and recombining continually.” Göransson notes that Berg brings parts of English-language texts into her poems which further “deforms the Swedish language.” Thus, the book is its materiality, is the way it moves in language, or rather, moves languages out of themselves. How does one translate such a text, when carrying over only the “meaning” of the words would be to lose almost everything? Göransson takes risks. He challenges and deforms English. He moves into the world of Forsla fett and practices the processes it demands on English, cutting and recreating, melting together and splicing, transferring and fattening and thinning, and we are left with the fat and the muscle of meaning, new language we can work with, that works on us.

24 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein, and published by New Directions.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

When I had the chance to meet the Chinese poet Xi Chuan at a conference on translation in Beijing, I asked him about the choice to write prose poems. Prose poems make up approximately half of Notes on the Mosquito, his selected work translated by Lucas Klein. He responded that years ago, an artist asked if he would write a poem in relation to a photograph of someone washing with a plastic wash basin. He told this artist that he did not know how to write about plastic basins, only wooden ones. Prose was a way for Xi Chuan’s poems to step outside of the imagery and language of traditional Chinese poetry and reenter with a different idiom and perspective. Xi Chuan’s prose poems are nodes of intense and felt thinking in relation to China’s present, expressed in a voice that is starkly contemporary and layered with history. Form and voice in Xi Chuan’s work feel like rooms where impossible thinking explains everything. In one poem he writes:

In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.

As much as Xi Chuan’s prose poems step outside of classical poetry to look back in, his lineated verse voraciously considers beyond the borders of China to expand a framework tied to the history of Chinese poetry, reframing the frame and what is beyond it. In a poem that reflects on turning thirty, Xi Chuan writes:

in my first decade
the moon revealed its silent craters
while under the moon, in the town I lived in
a clatter of exorcismal gongs and shouts in the street
     my limping uncle swore in the courtyard
     careless I met with a white rooster’s kiss
     and a girl pulled down her pants in front of me…
hail bounced in exhaustion on the road to the commune
     I entered an immaculate school and studied revolution

Here, lyrical observations on symbols of the natural world intermix with the surreal, the political, and the daily. In another poem, Xi Chuan writes:

even the moonlight is polluted blurring our shadows
even the mountaintops grow like fissures brewing

even the Tang Dynasty fell in the end
even the dumpsters have people living in them . . .

This is a poem of nihilistic momentum. Past dynasties can illustrate a mindset and so can polluted skies and ancient mountains—all re-envisioned in Xi Chuan’s verse.

So many of us are curious about how China sees itself, and so is Xi Chuan. Throughout the book, he reflects on, interrogates, builds up, tears apart, repaints and enacts what modern China means. This is, of course, a huge topic, and one feels the kinetic struggle in language to figure China’s dichotomies; the reader participates in the erratic dance between country and self, between an interior dialogue and a public setting forth. The poems are neither distanced considerations nor fleeting impressions. Rather, we see a mind using everything at hand—from ancient history to the senses, from the philosophers to the annoyance of neighbors, and sometimes what comes through most is this sense of urgency. Here, urgency feels like action against a fixed and false sense of the present. Thinking is political and personal, predetermined and endlessly open. Xi Chuan writes:

Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human . . . The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.

This is not nature poetry and yet it is. It is not political and is. It is impersonal and personal and cold and emotional. It is foreign and very near.

Lucas Klein, brings the poems into an English that feels lively and forceful, apparent in both the lineated and the prose poems, all of which sound intriguingly new and yet spoken by a familiar friend. He has not made these poems American, but rather allowed us to hear Xi Chuan’s poetics and ideas in an American idiom, in an English that is alive with personality. Klein’s knowledge of Chinese culture and history allows references to appear without explanation or odd framing. Rather, he translates the impulse of the poems so that we might eavesdrop on one of the more important conversations about national identity happening in poetry.

2 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation by Amal Al-Jubouri, translated by Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi

Language: Arabic

Country: Iraq
Publisher: Alice James Books

Why This Book Should Win: We’ve never had a winner from Iraq, or even from Arabic, and it’s about time.

Today’s post is from Jennifer Kronovet.

The following are some poem titles from Iraqi poet Amal Al-Junouri’s fantastic book of poetry: “My Neighbor Before the Occupation,” “My Neighbor After the Occupation,” “Bones Before the Occupation,” “Bones After the Occupation,” “Photographs Before the Occupation,” “Photographs After the Occupation.” These titles suggest that a stark dichotomy will be illuminated, that time and war work in such a way that there is a clear before and a clear after, that the Iraq before American and British occupation is a set place distinct from a solid present. Yet, through their spoken clarity, their lyrical beauty and complexity, and their specific observational longing, the poems in this book eradicate the myth of such dichotomies. Instead, this place, Iraq, is a place of perspective, of shifting, complicated change known to us through a way of seeing that cuts through the simple. In “My Mouth Before the Occupation,” Al-Junouri writes that her mouth “tried to say no, but couldn’t / I was afraid // Instead, my tongue led me to this curse: / protests that silenced me // then seeped from me, eternal.” Then

My Mouth After the Occupation:

shouts No! Fearless,
though my tongue fears arrest

I’m terrified of losing truth
and look—it’s already gone

Exiled with God’s tongues

She doesn’t say no before the occupation; she does after—but still there’s fear and loss, there’s a way in which words still leave one behind. In Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation, we see how the political writes itself on everything that is personal—one’s speech and body, one’s sense of freedom and of love. Rebecca Gayle Howell’s translation, with Husam Qaisi, is stunning in how it creates a powerful, contemporary voice speaking to us directly with warmth and suffering, and yet also carries over the poems’ connection to Arabic literary traditions. The language of the poems marry present and past, which is a feat of translatorly skill and innovation.

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.

23 March 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Here’s a picture from this month’s Best Translated Book Award, with some of the winners and several judges.

A good time was had by all.

....
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