Poetry judge Matthew Zapruder — poet, translator, academic, and co-editor of Wave Books — wrote the review below. I want to publicly thank him — and all the poetry judges — for helping provide info about all of the BTBA poetry finalists.
The Romanian poet Liliana Ursu’s wonderful new volume, Lightwall, continues to establish her reputation as one of the foremost living Central European poets. This is her fourth book in English: previously she worked with legendary Romanian translator Adam Sorkin and poet Tess Gallagher, to marvelous effect, and this time she is lucky again to collaborate on the translations with Sean Cotter, who has also written a fascinating introduction to the book. The results in English are full of power and grace. Ursu’s poems are sometimes mythic, taking place in an imagined landscape; at others, they are full of everyday details, but always viewed through her particular pleasurably tilted lens. In this latter way she is, as Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun justly calls her, “an archeologist of light.” Ursu’s poems are built structures in which light, aka consciousness, or seeing, bounces pleasurably and strangely around.
The poems of this bilingual edition continue to exhibit Ursu’s idiosyncratic transformative imagination, but also include more details of everyday life in America, where she has spent significant time over the past decade, teaching and writing. “Waiting for Hurricane Isabella to Pass” for instance begins with the lines:
On my table: The Art of Poetry, Lives of Egyptian Saints
and the coffee from Starbucks I drink every morning
with eyes lost to my American window.
This is a perspective somewhat familiar to any reader of contemporary American poetry, but also more confident and stranger in its distance. And when the second stanza begins “
I also talk to an old tree
whom I address as ‘Your Majesty,’
we feel in the presence of a European, contemporary poetic perspective, one that is, like this entire terrific book of poems, very exciting and welcome.
Poetry judge Matthew Zapruder — poet, translator, academic, and co-editor of Wave Books — wrote the review below. I’m running another of his write-ups tomorrow, as we work our way through the poetry finalists.
The poems in In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu feel strangely connected to our current historical situation. The struggle of this individual poet to find himself, personally and spiritually, through his poems, feels like a contemporary search. Like other T’ang Dynasty poets (Li Po and Tu Fu and many others) Wei Ying-wu writes to his friends, and wonders what he is going to do with his life, why he is living and working the way he is. He is caught between the needs of the world and his spiritual impulses. He wonders and despairs. Yet somehow, even more than Tu Fu and Li Po, whose poems are deservedly beloved in their various translations, Wei Ying-wu in particular feels like our T’ang poet: the one who most directly connects to the spirit of our time, today.
English translations of Chinese poets of the T’ang dynasty period (618-907 A.D.), by Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, David Hinton, David Young and many others have played a major role in the development of contemporary American poetry. The T’ang was perhaps the greatest era of poetry writing in human history. And the addition of another significant translation would be, in purely historical terms, a major event. The fact that these poems are translated with such clarity, unassuming erudition, good humor, precision and just plain old skill by Red Pine (aka Bill Porter) is unsurprising, given the translator’s previous output, including a translation of the canonical anthology of Chinese Poetry Poems of the Masters, as well as poems by Cold Mountain, several important Sutras, and an edition of the Tao Te Ching. And these new translations are nothing short of a poetic revelation.
Secret Weapon is the final collection from Romanian poet Eugen Jebeleanu (1911-1991). I can’t say that I knew all that much about Romania or Romanian poetry before picking up this book, likely because this is the first time Jebeleanu’s work has appeared in English despite his reputation as one of Romania’s best-known poets and public figures. Jebeleanu had an impressive career, publishing over twelve collections of poetry between 1930 and 1980; he won several of Europe’s most important poetry awards and was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Secret Weapon is the poet’s final collection, published in Romania in 1980, and focuses on life under the totalitarian rule of Ceausescu.
There are about 90 poems in the collection, in which the poet either simply or elaborately—and always clearly—describes a world marked by despair. The collection begins with a little girl’s dream about dying and the speaker’s effort to sooth her by telling her “It was just a dream.” Continuing through the poems, the theme of death is as threatening as it is in the first poem, and here and there, it completely takes over. Much further into the collection, a poem called “Clara” echoes the relationship between the speaker and the girl from early on. The poem begins, “Oh, I see her hanging. / But she didn’t hang herself,” then ends with the line, “And she was guilty of nothing.”
The poems range in tone from quietly desperate to ironic to resigned, yet no poem feels like it does not belong; all seem to have been written from a certain perspective, the poet confident in his own awareness. After all, the collection is his last, written late in life, while he is preoccupied with those who have already died, and, of course, with his own death. In the poem called “Patience,” the speaker says,
No, the dead aren’t getting bored.
Far away they are waiting for me to reach them.
And waiting, they leaf through a book
with wet pages—and they smile at me.
Many of the poems involve only a few short lines, but there is something powerful about each one. The images within are often strikingly vivid, at other times vague, and there are even some poems without images at all. Under the title “My Life,” the poet gives four lines:
I am looking for my lost life.
And I cannot find it.
My life is a bankruptcy.
And? And? And?
It is as if he is still groping for the words to describe his loss, but he lets the questions mark the poem, perhaps even more than that considering the title. The poet does not offer any simple answers; there is no single take-away message. In the poem called “So Remain,” the speaker says, “Don’t ever ask anyone/ anything,” just, “remain“—a lovely bit of advice from one who has realized that often we humans “understand/ nothing at all”
Jebeleanu is sometimes considered the epic poet of Romania, an awesome claim, but one that I can’t yet speak to considering how recently I’ve been introduced to Romanian literature. However, I have become attached to this collection, perhaps because it offers a kind of intensity that is rarely so genuine, or accessible. Jebeleanu’s poems hail from a very specific historical moment, but the personal nature of the work, and his voice, gives them lasting relevance.
By Eugen Jebeleanu
Translated by Matthew Zapruder and Radu Ioanid
Coffee House Press
98 pgs, $15.00
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
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Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .