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.
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .