3 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wróblewski, translated by Piotr Gwiazda, from Zephyr Press.

Chad had previously mentioned this book of poetry in a Poland-Love post; his enthusiasm wasn’t misplaced. Wróblewski has a delightfully and “casually strained” voice at times, an affect that, in my mind, resembles fleeting (and sometimes snarky) thoughts or internally-screamed observations one might make in a crowded grocery store line behind an old woman who is slowly counting out coupons for Campbell’s soup and cat food, and then the teenager at the register hits the wrong button and ALL THE LIGHTS START TO FLASH AND OH, MY GOD, MURPHY’S LAW YOU’VE PICKED THE WRONG LINE YET AGAIN. Anyway, this little bilingual volume is definitely one to take a look at.

Here’s an extract from Vincent’s review:

It may be worth considering the purpose of prose poems, specifically in the case of Wróblewski. The theme of Kopenhaga, if one can be found, is the familiar one of writer-in-exile and the pieces that comprise the book—usually only running a paragraph or two, sometimes only a sentence—are episodic in nature, often funny, deceptively disconnected, and frequently profound. While constructing these poems, Wróblewski did not concern himself with meter so much as impact. Brief meditations on the everyday life of a poet in exile can go in numerous directions. Such freedom requires breaking out of traditional form.

Despite the random feel of these musings, the book is a complete and intentionally constructed work (even though the reader learns from translator Piotr Gwiazda’s introduction that the English edition is a collection of different texts). The fragments (I think this is a better description) discuss the trepidations of exile, but also incorporate pop culture, URLs, personal recollections, advice to beginning writers (“If an editor doesn’t respond at all . . . you need to calmly drain two bottles of cheap wine and discuss the matter with local pigeons”) and sardonic jokes. The result is a perfect example of the poet as witness. Better: poet as anthropologist, observing and reporting on the absurdity of orienting to shifting cultures.

For the whole piece, go here .

3 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“What if even in the afterlife you have to know foreign languages? Since I have already suffered so much trying to speak Danish, make sure to assign me to the Polish zone . . .”

So reads a typical aphoristic “poem” in Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wróblewski. I use quotation marks in an attempt to indicate that while the book is being advertised as poetry, the form hardly matches one’s expectations. This, depending on your perspective, is a good or bad thing. As I touched on in my last review, poetry is not a huge seller in these United States. If you are the sort of reader who finds line breaks infuriating and coded language obnoxious, Kopenhaga is poetry for you. If you’re a purist—look elsewhere.

Or maybe you’re used to this technique. It’s not like other writers haven’t dabbled in prose poems. Still, while the approach is nothing new, how many readers of Baudelaire go beyond Les Fleurs du Mal into Le Spleen de Paris? Even seasoned poetry readers tend to shrug off prose poems.

Example: an associate of mine, a poet, flipped through Wróblewski’s book and commented that, while it seems quite interesting, it isn’t poetry. I could practically see the dismissal manifest physically. Never mind the content—the form doesn’t work for him. This is lamentable and further evidence that poets and their readers may be poetry’s worst enemy.

It may be worth considering the purpose of prose poems, specifically in the case of Wróblewski. The theme of Kopenhaga, if one can be found, is the familiar one of writer-in-exile and the pieces that comprise the book—usually only running a paragraph or two, sometimes only a sentence—are episodic in nature, often funny, deceptively disconnected, and frequently profound. While constructing these poems, Wróblewski did not concern himself with meter so much as impact. Brief meditations on the everyday life of a poet in exile can go in numerous directions. Such freedom requires breaking out of traditional form.

Despite the random feel of these musings, the book is a complete and intentionally constructed work (even though the reader learns from translator Piotr Gwiazda’s introduction that the English edition is a collection of different texts). The fragments (I think this is a better description) discuss the trepidations of exile, but also incorporate pop culture, URLs, personal recollections, advice to beginning writers (“If an editor doesn’t respond at all . . . you need to calmly drain two bottles of cheap wine and discuss the matter with local pigeons”) and sardonic jokes. The result is a perfect example of the poet as witness. Better: poet as anthropologist, observing and reporting on the absurdity of orienting to shifting cultures. Wróblewski quantifies his existence by writing:

A letter from the insurance company PFA. My life is currently worth 7,993 Danish crowns. (The amount my family will get if I unexpectedly relocate to the next world.) Cosmic Loneliness. Thank you, Krystopher, I will keep you in my thoughts when I’m underground. A unique combination of protein and paranoia: 1,330 bottles of beer (or four tickets to Poland.)

What might otherwise be a brief interlude in a different book stands out on its own as a contained thought, yet serves a larger goal. In this sense, Kopenhaga is a piecemeal accumulation that deserves to be read in its entirety. Picking isolated movements feels criminal and detracts from the cumulative effect. In this sense, the poems adhere to a theme and build upon each other not unlike a novel. Any one page from Kopenhaga can stand on its own, but taken as a whole it makes a larger, albeit bizarre, sense.

And for all his concern with his homeland and his adopted country, in the end Wróblewski’s realization is that they are irrelevant:

bq, What terrifies me in Denmark (the land of Bohr and Kierkegaard, a caring tolerate state, with a high standard of living, etc)? What terrifies me is homo sapiens. Also in Wilanów and other wholly innocent corners of the Earth. What terrifies me is homo sapiens.

In this brevity, Wróblewski communicates the enormity of not only the exile’s tragedy but of all of humanity’s. The joke, it seems, is on us all.

6 December 13 | Chad W. Post |

So, my 9-year-old daughter recently moved to a new school—one that encourages its students to participate in something called Odyssey of the Mind. If you’re not familiar with this, which I totally wasn’t, it’s basically a competition in which teams perform different tasks that highlight “creativity”: some build a new form of transportation, others make a funny haunted house, or some, like my daughter’s group, act out a scene from a historic royal court and then act out one from an imagined court.

All sounds great, right? Kids learning to work together, doing something that doesn’t involve the Disney channel, learning to compete, etc.

And maybe this is great for some people. But with a team consisting of all fourth grade girls? HOLY SHIT. Basically, our weekly meetings are a competition to see which girl can be the loudest, the most distracting, the “funniest,” mostly at the expense of the hearing and sanity of the two adult coaches. You ever want to know what tinnitus is like? Attend one of these gatherings. WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

Here’s a little breakdown of how last night’s meeting went just to give you an idea.

6:30-6:40

Five girls descend upon this poor woman’s house. They great each other banshee style, and are seemingly incapable of understanding that when everyone talks simultaneously, no one hears anything. Keep in mind that these kids all go to the same school, are in the same class, and just saw each other about two hours ago. (As will become clear, spending time around gaggles of young children is turning me into Andy fucking Rooney.)

6:40-6:45

The primary coach of the team tries, valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to describe once again the nature of the “problem” our team has to work on. Basically, it went a little something like this:

Coach: We need to start by learning about a real king and queen.

Girl #1: KING ARTHUR! THAT WAS A KING!

Girl #2: I LOVE FASHION. I WILL DESIGN ALL THE ROBES.

Girl #3: CAN I BE THE QUEEN? WAIT, I’M THE JESTER!

Girl #4: DO WE HAVE SNACK TONIGHT?

Girl #1: CLEOPATRA! QUEEN ELIZABETH! HENRY THE VIII!

Girl #4: CAUSE, LIKE I’M REALLY HUNGRY.

Coach: Well, yes, if you’d all just listen for a—

Girl #3: WE CAN MAKE A SONG AND THE QUEEN CAN DANCE AND WE CALL ALL BE FUNNY AND OMG I LOVE SEAN!

Coach: If—

Girl #2: DID YOU SEE JESSICA’S HAIR TODAY? I CAN BRAID MY HAIR JUST LIKE THAT.

Girl #1: KINGS OF LEON!

6:45-7:00

In an attempt to remain sane, we let the girls spend 15 minutes researching kings and queens and decrees on their own. This was totally pointless, obviously, but helped to keep the total number of kid strangulations close to zero.

What I hadn’t realized before last night is that kids believe that Siri is the one and only gateway to knowledge. These kids had computers and iPads and phones and all the normal stuff, but not a single one of them went to Wikipedia, or used Google, or anything. They all just took turns yelling shit at Siri and expecting her to provide the answer. Their questions ranged from the reasonable, yet too complex for Siri, “WHAT DECREES DID QUEEN ELIZABETH MAKE?” to the utterly ridiculous “WHAT KING SHOULD WE DO OUR PROJECT ON TO WIN ODYSSEY OF THE MIND?” I always wondered who actually used Siri for things other than cracking wise (“Siri! What is a butt, Siri!”) or setting alarms (“Wake me up when I’m not hungover.”)—it is children. I have seen the future and it is a bunch of hyperactive homunculi expecting a non-existent woman to provide answers to the mysteries of life. We should all be afraid.

7:00-7:30

We coaches try and regroup and gain control of the team, but shit is too far gone. One girl has decided that the best research option is to play “Call Me Maybe” at like 200,000 decibels, so as to drown out the other screeching noises erupting from her teammates. Obviously.

Our only option to overthrow this band of renegade fourth graders is to bring out the snacks.

Every parent knows this next part. Snacks—which I remember as being peanut butter and celery, crackers, Hi-C, etc.—have become super-potent sugar transporters specially designed to transform every normal kid into Animal from the Muppets.

For example, last night’s snack was popcorn (good, good), fruit juice (made with exactly 1% real juice and 99% aspartame!), and pixy stick infused candy canes. I am not shitting you. As if a candy cane wasn’t sweet enough that we need to actually inject it with ANOTHER CANDY, one that’s simply colored sugar.

Five minutes after they all ingested this terrible Franken-candy, I was ready to bust out a plate of Ritalin and let them snort it until they were zombified. That’s what people should be injecting into candy canes.


7:30-8:00

In addition to their planned performance, each team also has to participate in a “Spontaneous Challenge” in which they’re given a problem that’s either verbal, hands-on, or hands-on and verbal (don’t ask) and have to solve it in five minutes. According to the coaching manual, this is the part that almost all the teams suck at, so you’re supposed to practice it a lot.

We decided to start with a verbal challenge. The group would be given a question, and then go around in a circle throwing out as many responses as possible in a five minute time period. Each answer would get 0, 1, or 5 points based on creativity, and you would lose points if more than one team member spoke at once. (Needless to say, our team ended with -46.)

Coach: So, here’s your question: “Name something that causes pain, and what pain it causes.”

Girl #1: WELL, SO, UM, DIVORCE? DIVORCE CAUSES PAIN IN YOUR HEART.

Game. Fucking. Over.

After that creepy, heart-breaking answer, everything devolved into a sort of therapy session with all the girls confessing to things that they felt guilty about:

Girl #2: YOU KNOW WHEN YOU TURN SOMEONE DOWN FROM BEING YOUR FRIEND? THAT HURTS IN YOUR CHEST.

Girl #3: WHEN YOU TELL SOMEONE THEIR CLOTHES ARE UGLY IT HURTS ALL OVER HERE (waiving hand over her head and face).

Girl #4: I THREW A BALL AT MY BROTHER AND BROKE HIS LEG. THAT HURT HIS LEG AND MY BRAIN.

Girl #5: FIVE. SQUIRREL. FOUR.

All Girls: HYSTERICAL LAUGHTER

Our official competition is sometime in March. Wish me luck. Not them—they’re totally fine with showing up juiced on Pixy Crack, yelling over top of everyone, and losing by a million points. I just hope my mind—and ears—can last that long.

Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov (NYRB)

Probably the book I’m most looking forward to this month. Sigizmund UNPRONOUNCEABLE NAME was one of Russia’s wildest authors of the twentieth century—which is saying a lot. Adjectives tend to fall short in describing his surreal, fantastical, satirical stories, but here’s a great description from Adam Thirlwell’s introduction to this volume:

Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction is based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality. If there is a word for “role” and a word for “character,” then naturally it follows, according to this method, that the two could possess separate existences. Or, to put this maybe more precisely, he investigated whether the distinction between what is possible in language and reality is even tenable at all. And so the central mechanism of this writing is metaphor (“a three-by-four-inch slip of paper torn from the notepad had miraculously turned into lodgings measuring one hundred square fee”)—the hinge between animate and inanimate objects, which allows figures of speech to acquire a strange kind of life.

Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitkin (Dutton)

When Kaija and I were in Copenhagen, we had a chance to meet with Martin Aitkin, one of the premiere Danish translators working today. He’s a great guy, is constantly booked with translation job after translation job (including a lot of Danish mysteries), and showed up to our meeting wearing a My Bloody Valentine t-shirt. That’s bad ass.

A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books)

How many times can we mention this on Three Percent in one week? I read this over the holiday weekend, and although it’s not as immediately gripping and hysterical as Stone Upon Stone, it’s a really solid novel—one of my favorites from this year. I’m planning on writing a real review of it in the near future, but in short, it’s a novel about an old Pole whose village was annihilated in World War II and his ensuing adventures as an electrician and saxophone player. Similar to Stone Upon Stone, the novel runs off of his voice and elliptical story-telling style. Bill Johnston hit another home run with this translation. He’s an absolute genius.

The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Wakefield Press)

This is a combination of a bunch of things I love: Wakefield Press (simply amazing books, and so well designed), Edward Gauvin, pataphysics, and, from the jacket copy, this collection includes a story about “secret societies so secret that one cannot know if one is a member of not.” SOLD.

The King of China by Tilman Rammstedt, translated from the Germany by Katy Derbyshire (Seagull Books)

This novel just sounds like fun. At least at first. It’s about a guy and his grandfather pretending to be on a trip to China, sending wild letters back to their family about their “Chinese adventures.” Along the way though, the grandfather dies unexpectedly and Keith is left writing longer and stranger letters about all sorts of bizarre things, like “non-stop dental hygiene shows on television, dog vaccinations at the post office,” and anything but news of their grandfather’s death and his ruse . . . Plus Katy Derbyshire is definitely on my list of books I read because I like the translator . . .

In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Even though Esposito shit on this in his recent BTBA post, I actually want to find some time to at least check it out. Molina is a masterful writer, and Scott’s logic—that he’s already read War and Peace so why read the War and Peace of Spain’s Civil War—is incredibly dismissive and flawed. By his logic, since I’ve read Don Quixote, all of contemporary literature can fuck itself. Besides, the Spanish Civil War is fascinating.

Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by John Keene (Nightboat Books)

Hilda Hilst is like Clarice Lispector’s raunchy twin sister. In a literary sense of course. Her books are just as experimental as Lispector’s, but are much dirtier. In an strange, complicated, experimental way of course.

Here’s a bit about Hilst from Triple Canopy:

In 1990, the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst—a prolific writer of experimental poems, plays, and fiction, beloved by initiates and completely unknown to the broader public—declared herself fed up with the punishing obscurity of high art and started writing smut for money and fame. Really filthy stuff, like a pornographic memoir narrated by a nine-year-old girl. The literary critics, those few but loyal readers, were left baffled and betrayed. “I think money delicious,” Hilst explained, chain-smoking her way through interviews that accompanied the celebrity with which she was instantly rewarded. She said the idea came to her after witnessing the international success of The Blue Bicycle, a hugely popular erotic French novel—Fifty Shades of Gray for the 1980s. She figured she could make a buck the same way.

Or, at least, that’s one of the versions of events that Hilst slyly propagated. In fact, the bizarre series of obscene books she wrote in the early ’90s—three novels and one collection of poetry—is far from possessing broad popular appeal; the stunt brought Hilst more recognition as a personality than as a writer, and she never got to taste much money.

Clisson and Eugénie by Napoleon Bonaparte, translated from the French by Peter Hicks (Gallic Books)

Not to make fun of Gallic Books—they’re doing a lot of great stuff, including a Pascal Garnier book that I’m really looking forward to—but this “novel” by Napoleon consists of: a 13-page introduction, an 8-page afterword, a 28-page interpretation, a 5-page “Brief History of the Manuscript,” a 3-page “Note to the Readers,” and a 20-page novel. For those keeping track at home, Napoleon’s novel makes up exactly 26% of this total volume.

The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely (Penguin)

The description on Penguin’s site is a bit lacking (SPOILER ALERT: The “Summary” is completely blank), but regardless, I’d read this anyway just because Maureen Freely translated it. Her essay in In Translation about translating Orhan Pamuk is one of the strongest in that collection and has turned me into a Freely Fanatic. Thanks to her essay I’m finally getting around to reading Pamuk’s Snow, and then will dive into this book.

Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wroblewski, translated from the Polish by Piotr Gwiazda (Zephyr Press)

Pretty sure this is the first poetry collection to appear on one of monthly round-ups. I wrote about this collection a while back though, and I still love these two poems:

You will survive in the minds of distant relatives and cousins, in their memories of you . . . (Motherfuckers! What if they deliberately choose to forget you!) And then, when they also depart, you will be no more.

and

You’ve got to watch experimental films! Underground. Underground poets. Tripping. Alcohol and sluts. Everything experimental. Nothing ordinary. (A: “Alcohol slows your reflexes.” B: “What reflexes?” A: “Your judgment.” B: “Is judgment reflexive?” A: “Fuck off.”)

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim (Penguin)

After all that above, it seems fitting to end on a nice, charming, polite, allegorical novel about a hen.

This is the story of a hen named Sprout. No longer content to lay eggs on command, only to have them carted off to the market, she glimpses her future every morning through the barn doors, where the other animals roam free, and comes up with a plan to escape into the wild—and to hatch an egg of her own.

An anthem for freedom, individuality and motherhood featuring a plucky, spirited heroine who rebels against the tradition-bound world of the barnyard, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a novel of universal resonance that also opens a window on Korea, where it has captivated millions of readers. And with its array of animal characters—the hen, the duck, the rooster, the dog, the weasel—it calls to mind such classics in English as Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web.

3 September 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Recently I found out that, contrary to my past belief, I’m not 1/4 Polish, but 3/4 Polish (or Prussian, or whatever—most everywhere my family is from has changed hands over and over and over) and have since been on a bit of a Polish pride kick, mostly related to soccer players like Robert Lewandowski (Dortmund’s still perfect on points!), and, after he shut down the dreaded Tottenham Spurs and then trolled their fans, Arsenal’s keeper, Wojciech Szczesny.

All of which is a long and unnecessary way to plug soccer and lead-in to the fact that I received a copy of Grzegorz Wróblewski’s Kopenhaga this morning and am really digging this book.

First, here’s a bit about Wróblewski from translator Piotr Gwiazda’s introduction:

Born in 1962, Polish poet, playwright, and visual artist Grzegorz Wróblewski has lived in Copenhagen since 1985, “far from Poland and far from Denmark” (in his own phrase). Kopenhaga, a collection of prose poems based on his experiences as an emigrant, was published in Poland in 2000. [. . .]

Wróblewski at once exemplifies and complicates the notion of an émigré writer introduced by Joseph Brodsky in “The Condition We Call Exile.” In his 1987 essay Brodsky describes the émigré writer as a person who perpetually looks backward and as a result fails “to deal with the realities of the present of the uncertainties of the future.” Like Brodsky’s typical writer in exile, Wróblewski clings to what is most important to him, his native language, which has suddenly turned from being his “sword” into his “shield.” His lyric narrator in Kopenhaga seems to be in a state of permanent disquiet; he is vulnerable, anxious, self-estranged. We observe his tendency for psychological extremes, his morbid fascination with death and decay, his crippling paranoia and “cosmic loneliness.” But Wróblewski’s self-imposed exile in Copenhagen, which continues to this day, can also be regarded as a kind of metaphysical luxury.

On the subject of “death and decay,” here are a couple of Wróblewski’s prose poems that particularly grabbed me:

You will survive in the minds of distant relatives and cousins, in their memories of you . . . (Motherfuckers! What if they deliberately choose to forget you!) And then, when they also depart, you will be no more.

And:

A long and eventful life? The doctors make no bones about it . . . Your blood cholesterol: 350. You must go on a diet immediately. Reduce your intake of alcohol and start playing sports again. Unless nothing matters to you anymore. If that’s the case, then don’t change a thing. Within three, four years you can expect your first, possibly fatal heart attack. Mind you, though, you still have a chance for a long and eventful life. The Amazon Jungle? Numerology? Sheraton Everest Hotel? Think abou tit!!! It’s all up to you. Unless nothing matters to you anymore. (I think there is a lot to be said for spiritualism, quite a lot, in spite of much imposture. H.G. Wells.)

Going back real quickly to Gwiazda’s intro, here’s a nice bit for all the translators and translation students reading this:

Like most translators, I often found myself confronting aspects of the original text that remained stubbornly untranslatable—I mean interjections (which Roman Jakobson called the “purely emotive stratum in language”), idiomatic and onomatopoeic expressions, clichés, puns. For example, my translation of the phrase “Ołowiany tornister duńskiego narodu”1 only partly succeeds in reproducing Wróblewski’s brilliant reworking of the common Polish metaphor—the literal rendering would have been “Danish nation’s lead satchel.” I was also eventually unable to fully convey the double meaning of “pieczony kurczak przeistacza się szybko w różowego pawika”2—in Polish “paw” refers to “peacock” but also, in a slang phrase, to the act of vomiting.

There’s also a bit about the challenges of dealing with a “linguistically heterogeneous text” that reminded me of things that Esther Allen has talked about previously. But rather than quote that here, I think you should just buy the book and read the intro.

But I’ll end with one last fun opening that will sort of seal the deal on why I would be a fan of this collection:

You’ve got to watch experimental films! Underground. Underground poets. Tripping. Alcohol and sluts. Everything experimental. Nothing ordinary. (A: “Alcohol slows your reflexes.” B: “What reflexes?” A: “Your judgment.” B: “Is judgment reflexive?” A: “Fuck off.”)

1 He translated it as: “A collection of national hang-ups!”

2 Translated as: “Roasted chicken soon turns into flying vomit!”

....
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