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.
Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, and published by Archipelago Books.
Russell Valentino is the chair of Slavic Studies at Indiana University, editor of The Iowa Review, founder of Autumn Hill Books, and translator of eight literary works from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. Oh, and he’s also received two Fulbright-Hays research grants and two NEA Fellowships.
A friend of mine once did commentary for a literary death match in the language of wine labels: a fruity blend of blackberry and barnyard; hints of oaky tangerines and smoked chestnuts; and so on. This worked well because no one forgets irony in literary death matches: everyone knows the contest cannot ever really be a contest. Unfortunately not the cast with the things called contests, and O, do we need some irony here!
This is one—though just one—of the reasons that Nichita Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke, in Sean Cotter’s English translations, should win this contest. It knows for irony, as when, in the love lyric, “Beauty-sick,” the lover enjoins, “Do your best not to die, my love / try to not die if you can”; or, in a nod to trans-sense, (“What is the Supreme Power that Drives the Universe and Creates Life?”), it turns out to be “A and E / and I and O / and U.” And once this tone, then everything takes on a tinge, or you at least have to wonder, when he writes words like “consciousness” and “cognition” and “being” and “ah” and most definitely “O.”
It should also win because through the irony the post-War, Cold War, otherwise all-too-depressive seriousness grows deeper, more meaningful, easier to understand and appreciate, brighter, as when he writes, “Because my father and because my mother, / because my older sister and because my younger sister, / because my father’s various brothers and because my mother’s various sisters, / because my sister’s various lovers, / imagined or real,” after which you can’t help but want to know more, read another line and another. And because Cotter has selected, pulled together, found coherent, compelling English form. And because the book itself is beautiful.
And because of poems like “Knot 33. In the Quiet of Evening””:
I thought of a way so sweet
for words to meet
that below, blooms bloomed
and above, grass greened.
I thought of a way so sweet
for words to crash
that perhaps grass would bloom
and blooms would grass.
Finally, it should win because it’s ambitious and humble at the same time. This may smack of the poetry version of wine label verbiage, but I don’t know how else to express it, and I don’t mean it ironically. Though it’s true that such a combination settles with a surprising tingle upon the palate, and leaves one stimulated long after.
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