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.

24 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Will Evans on Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets, a collection of poems from Zephyr Press by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova, translated by Catherine Ciepiela, Anna Khasin, and Sibelan Forrester.

For those who don’t know, Will is the face behind Deep Vellum Publishing, based in Dallas, Texas, and is also a translator of Russian. Here’s the beginning of his review:

Two women dominate the history of Russian poetry: Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. Both authors transcended the label of “woman poet” and live in the realm of the eternal untouchable legends of Russian poetry. To wit, I remember a Russian professor in college correcting a short essay I wrote on an Akhmatova poem because I used a feminine noun to describe her, as what in English we would call a “poetess.” My professor crossed that word out emphatically and wrote in the column in bold Cyrillic letters: “Akhmatova is a POET,” using the masculine-gendered noun to correct a term Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were both outspoken in rejecting. In the strictly-gendered Russian language, this choice of gender is not a trivial distinction, and provided a lesson in gender politics that has stuck with me to this day.

Yet since these two grand dames, standard bearers of the rich Russian poetic tradition and shining lights of 20th century poetry, passed away, there have been precious few Russian women poets translated into English. This is where Zephyr Press comes in, and bless them for it. Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets is their latest bilingual collection of contemporary poetry by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova. Relocations was released around the same time as their edition of Anzhelina Polonskaya’s Paul Klee’s Boat (which I reviewed for Three Percent in late 2013), and in just two books, Zephyr Press has published more Russian women poets than all other American publishers in the last 20 years combined. And they’ve been doing it for a while now.

For the rest of the review, go here

24 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Two women dominate the history of Russian poetry: Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. Both authors transcended the label of “woman poet” and live in the realm of the eternal untouchable legends of Russian poetry. To wit, I remember a Russian professor in college correcting a short essay I wrote on an Akhmatova poem because I used a feminine noun to describe her, as what in English we would call a “poetess.” My professor crossed that word out emphatically and wrote in the column in bold Cyrillic letters: “Akhmatova is a POET,” using the masculine-gendered noun to correct a term Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were both outspoken in rejecting. In the strictly-gendered Russian language, this choice of gender is not a trivial distinction, and provided a lesson in gender politics that has stuck with me to this day.

Yet since these two grand dames, standard bearers of the rich Russian poetic tradition and shining lights of 20th century poetry, passed away, there have been precious few Russian women poets translated into English. This is where Zephyr Press comes in, and bless them for it. Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets is their latest bilingual collection of contemporary poetry by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova. Relocations was released around the same time as their edition of Anzhelina Polonskaya’s Paul Klee’s Boat, and in just two books, Zephyr Press has published more Russian women poets than all other American publishers in the last 20 years combined. And they’ve been doing it for a while now.

Relocations is a 21st collection of poetry in constant dialogue with Russia’s past, present, and future. The ghosts of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva haunt the pages, as does the brutal history of Russia and the Soviet Union’s 20th century, with its revolutions and wars, and the middle-class stabilization and increasing internationalism of Putin’s 2000s. These three quite different but well-paired Russian women poets are each attempting to “modernize” Russian poetry, while at the same time reclaiming the status of “woman poet”:

“. . . they [Barskova, Glazova, and Stepanova] confidently leave behind Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova as poets of female desire, while remaining conscious of themselves as writing women. Stepanova insists on calling herself a ‘ poetess,’ a knowing postmodern reclaiming of a category Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova felt necessary to reject.”

In her introduction, editor Catherine Ciepiela notes that these women live and work internationally, in contrast to their lyric Russian poet forebears like Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Joseph Brodsky, whose movements were restricted by Soviet authorities. The “relocations” of the collection’s title are as much physical as artistic, as each poet’s work “relocates” across genres of poetry as much as each poem represents part of the international lives these 21st century Russian women live in Russia (in the case of Stepanova), abroad (Barskova and Glazova), and the spaces in between.

Polina Barskova’s poetry is included first in the collection, translated by the collection’s editor, Catherine Ciepiela. Her work is dominated by a conversational tone that puts emphasis on the sounds of words strung together, stretched across the page in unrhyming, varying forms free verse. Dual language poetry books are awesome for this reason, especially if you know the original language, and Ciepiela does a fantastic job translating Barskova’s language into a playful, yet serious, English, as in this excerpt from “The Translator I”:

bq, We flounder through powdery snow
Siamese t-t-
Twins joined by the tongue’s sweet saliva,
My round-the-word dawns break inside you over you
With awkward precision—
A tattoo job,
Wet still, trace of blood from the needle,
The trace of my writing stains you.

Barskova writes from a first person, seemingly autobiographical narrative “I”, unafraid to link herself to the history of Russian letters, as in the epic “Leningrad Directory of Writers at the Front 1941-45,” which provides creative interpretation of the choices made by the Soviet Union’s most famous poets and artists to survive the brutal Leningrad siege in World War II. And at the same time, Barskova is capable of moments of profound beauty in imagery and ideas, as in her section’s closing poem, “Tomatoes and Sunflowers”:

Brimming—branches, shadows, lineaments,
Flavor and scent not quite stench, just exhaling.
Grasses black, brown, blue, then down from the
Sky, a gust—there’s a rush, shuddering.
But as soon as the picture completes itself
And perspective shrinks to zero, everything
Collapses. You know what will stay with me?
The spider web—its dire embroidery,
The tomato—the crack that won’t close again,
Half-minute foretaste of ashes, calamity—
I was given it all, none of it promised to me.

Anna Glazova, translated by Anna Khasin, is a quite different poet from Barskova and Stepanova, and writes much shorter poems that are unnamed, uncapitalized, and unrhymed, with a detached narrator observing the essence of the world around them in a style that is at once sensually lush and haunting:

the work of hands is the work of ears of grain.
through bread we want to touch death.
who eats bread.

we, wheat, growing, don’t know.

he who cuts
breaks the whole thing with all.

Glazova’s style is described in the introduction as “phenomenological,” reflecting the individual’s direct interpretation of their surroundings. The closing poem in Glazova’s section is a fitting image of her style, encapsulated in the haunting final line, a rare instance of the narrative first-person:

it takes all kinds of thoughts to come of departure,
hid the throat in the collar, somebody standing in the backyard
or taking a feral way to the through yard.

given that to wait for an answer
is simpler for me than to arrive home.
and the sense of a foothold keeps getting lost.

this is me remembering how hard it is sometimes to walk before the wind.

The poems of Maria Stepanova, translated by Sibelan Forrester, are bold, narrative reflections on the world, especially current affairs, with a strong narrator writing in the first person. Stepanova is well known in Russia as the founder of Openspace.ru, an online journal of cultural commentary akin to The Huffington Post. She more recently founded Russia’s first publicly-funded cultural journal, Colta.ru. Unlike Glazova’s work, which straddles ambiguous narrative spaces by not identifying the narrator, Stepanova writes strongly feminine and feminist poems that play with form, rhyme, meter, and content, that drop endings off of words, leave out lines, and hint at what remains unsaid between the lines. These poems are quite different from the works of Barskova and Glazova, both in terms of form (longer, rhyming at times) and content, they all refer directly to the feminine form in its many forms, with political intonations both indirectly and directly expressed, as from the “The Wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, Broadcast Live by RTL German TV”:

But who is a man, and who inhabits him,
Puffs him up, follows after him as if he’s a plough,
As pregnancy reduces the female form to zero,
Traces the coming contour with an unseen circle,
So its cramped O will be filled from within,
And are you and I to remember it forever?

Between the poems on current events and contemporary political topics, the Russian and Soviet past makes an appearance in Stepanova’s work as well. Like to Barskova’s poem about the Leningrad siege, Stepanova’s “Sarra on the Barricades” gives a history of Stepanova’s own great-grandmother, who participated in the 1905 revolution, and who miraculously lived long enough to know her great-granddaughter. The poem is a spectacular recreation of Russia’s 20th century history, dominated as it was by women, the women who were left home, left to make do and keep the country running with what ravaged remnants of society remained while the men went off to fight and die by the millions in revolution after revolution, war after war, purge after purge:

Now—just in my own cramped skull.
With her daughter.
With her granddaughter.
With her great-granddaughter me.
The storm cloud swallow of feminist skies.
Noah of a female ark.
And when she crowns the barricade,
I shall not bare her arms and breasts,
But neither will I drape her with a flag,
Because there’s no such flag.
And neither the color red, nor the white and blue
Are suited to such a task.

In the cacophonous lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in a few weeks, these last lines remind the reader that politics in Russia is an inhuman constant, whether under the flag of the Soviets or the ostensibly democratic Russian Federation. Their sentiment of the flag as beneath humanity echoes one of my favorite poems by the American poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz, writing in the height of the George W. Bush war era: “I don’t believe a flag / is important / / enough to kiss— / or even burn. / / Some men would hate me / enough to kill me / if they read those words.”

Reviewing poetry presents a world of problems. Reviewing translated poetry presents another world of problems in addition. Reviewing translated poetry by women poets throws the male reviewer into a universe of problems that could take lifetimes to extract himself from. As with most reviews, context is everything. How to contextualize the contents of the work under review is the most important task any reviewer faces, and with a collection like Relocations, the reviewer could go in any number of contextual directions, before settling, finally, on presenting these three incredible female poets as a vital new chapter in the history Russian poetry.

Relocations is a highly enjoyable collection of poetry introducing the English-language world to three incredibly diverse and talented women poets writing in Russian that could be as meaningful to a casual fan of poetry as to a comparative literature scholar. Since the 80s, Zephyr Press has published more Russian poetry than just about anybody, including numerous women poets, starting with the comprehensive collected works of Anna Akhmatova, a thick tome that has become the standardized edition that I remember all so well buying from my college bookstore as a wide-eyed freshman, Akhmatova’s legendary profile on the cover. It would have been easy for Zephyr Press to stop there—after all, most publishers do, rarely delving into contemporary poetry; but Zephyr Press started publishing contemporary Russian poetry in the 1990s in a bilingual anthology called In the Grips of Strange Thoughts, which morphed into a series of Russia’s most interesting contemporary poets.

Relocations is a fantastic addition to the In the Grips list, and a much-needed, timely, fun, and all-too-relevant read in 2014. The best part about anthologies like Relocations is that no matter what style of poetry you like best, it’s included within, though you’re more likely to enjoy all three poets as their poems strike various chords in your mind as you make your way through the collection. A great anthology, highly recommended.

3 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on Anzhelina Polonskaya’s Paul Klee’s Boat, Zephyr Press.

Formerly an Open Letter apprentice and now his Own Man, Will is the mustache director behind Deep Vellum Publishing, a soon-to-be year-old literature in translation house based in Dallas Texas. Will knows incredible amounts about Russian literature, and his review on Polonskaya’s collection of poems is enough to make anyone interested. Here’s the beginning of his review:

Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the world of dancing and moved back home to the small town where she was born to focus on describing the ice within the human heart. Paul Klee’s Boat is Polonskaya’s first collection of poems published in English since her debut A Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2004), also translated by Wachtel. Her poems have been published widely in the meantime, in World Literature Today, Poetry Review, the American Poetry Review and International Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Described as “a rising star in Russia,” Polonskaya rose to prominence in the tumultuous post-Soviet 90s. One of the notable things about her is that she does not live in Moscow, but rather in a small town in the outer ring of exurbs outside Moscow. This distance, along with her unique background as an ice dancer with no formal poetry training other than what she read on her own from the great Russian poets, grants her work a sort of outsider status in the Russian poetry scene.
As you make your way through the collection, you will hear echoes of said great Russian poets, none more evident than the anguished voice of Akhmatova, reinvented in Polonskaya’s tragic “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM,” a cycle of poems written over several years in remembrance of the 118 sailors killed in the sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine in August 2000. If there were one reason alone to buy this collection of poems, it would be for this requiem. It is tremendous. Powerful. Epic. Timeless. And so, so sad.

For the rest of the review, go here.

3 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the world of dancing and moved back home to the small town where she was born to focus on describing the ice within the human heart. Paul Klee’s Boat is Polonskaya’s first collection of poems published in English since her debut A Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2004), also translated by Wachtel. Her poems have been published widely in the meantime, in World Literature Today, Poetry Review, the American Poetry Review and International Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Described as “a rising star in Russia,” Polonskaya rose to prominence in the tumultuous post-Soviet 90s. One of the notable things about her is that she does not live in Moscow, but rather in a small town in the outer ring of exurbs outside Moscow. This distance, along with her unique background as an ice dancer with no formal poetry training other than what she read on her own from the great Russian poets, grants her work a sort of outsider status in the Russian poetry scene.
As you make your way through the collection, you will hear echoes of said great Russian poets, none more evident than the anguished voice of Akhmatova, reinvented in Polonskaya’s tragic “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM,” a cycle of poems written over several years in remembrance of the 118 sailors killed in the sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine in August 2000. If there were one reason alone to buy this collection of poems, it would be for this requiem. It is tremendous. Powerful. Epic. Timeless. And so, so sad.

For some background on the Kursk submarine and why Polonskaya would devote a cycle of poems to the memory of its lost sailors, shortly after Vladimir Putin became president of Russia, while America was immersed in the Bush-Gore presidential campaign, the sinking of the Kursk became the first international incident affecting Putin, and gave hints to how he would engage the rest of the world for the next decade plus. After an explosion on board killed a large number of the sailors instantly, the submarine sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea in salvageable condition, and in relatively shallow water, but with an unknown number of the men still alive (some think it was most of the crew), no power, and oxygen depleting fast. Putin spurned offers of help from British and Norwegian rescue expeditions despite the lack of Russian crews that could do anything to help in the vicinity. In the delayed Russian response to the tragedy, all 118 sailors died. The men who survived the explosion suffocated to death, knocking in vain on the hull of the submarine for days on end in an attempt to alert rescue crews, and rumor has it several managed to write farewell letters to their loved ones. The tragedy became a permanent stain on Putin’s presidency. Many Russians will never forgive him for ignoring the chance to save the men on board in favor of trying to prove the still-weakened Russian state’s competency in its own matters—and failing miserably.

Westerners have all but forgotten the Kursk incident, since Putin went back to war with Chechnya around the same time and 9/11 distracted all foreign media for the decade since. But the Kursk sinking still means so much, and Polonskaya has provided the first attempt to come to terms with this tragedy, and she writes with a palpable sadness, alternating between the voices of Chorus, Sailor, Siren, and Angel to tell the tale of loss without ever naming the submarine or its sailors directly:

Chorus

00:15. Water in the hold. The deck rocks.
We sail. A taut wire of legs,
we bespatter the walls.

00:45. We’re sinking. The anchor glows
like a farewell star. Wind rasps, the cries,
the sea sucks the Great Bear.

00:53. The storm laid the blueness of its hands
on the heeling boat. Called for help,
no answer. Nothing lasts forever.

The effect is haunting. The nameless sailors transcend the political ramifications of Putin’s inaction and become universally recognizable victims. The voices in “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM” provided the basis for the libretto to David Chisholm’s orchestral adaptation of the cycle, which premiered in Melbourne’s Arcko Symphonic Project in October 2011 (a link to watch a documentary on the making of the adaptation of Polonskaya’s poem into music can be found here on Vimeo, which also includes a video performance of the piece).
“KURSK” is presented at the end of the collection, which Wachtel lays out in an orderly fashion that follows, seemingly, some sort of thematic logic, wherein a poem about one subject segues into another poem on a similar subject, which opens the door into another theme, and so on. The first thematic cycle is a dialogue between the poet and the work of classic visual artists, from the collection’s namesake Paul Klee to Picasso, Magritte, and Michelangelo’s David. From the breathtaking “Like David”:

There’ll be snow tomorrow. It will alter our faces, sewing solemn lines of
      wrinkles.
Winter’s white goats will wander the orchard, stripping bark from the apple
      trees,
and they’ll look into the windows where we warm our hands over a quiet
      geranium fire.
Such are the days here, like drops of water in a prisoner’s solitary cell.
And we are immobile, like David, our legs planted deep in the ground.

Subsequent themes reveal themselves as layered elements that build off and complement each other in the shape and scope of each poem. The poems ponder a wide range of themes, such as the relationship between humanity and nature; or of the triumph of evil over good; of love lost; of “God’s indifference”; snow and cold (standing in for so, so much, emotional and physical, “the snow within”); the passage of time; the fragility of memory; family ties; soldiers and war.

The poems in Paul Klee’s Boat are for the most part unrhymed free verse. Occasional rhymes in the Russian are translated into English unrhymed, and occasionally structured poetic forms appear, but without holding true to the forms’ stylistic convention. The first half of the collection consists of shorter poems, all a page or less, then rounds out with five longer cycles of poems, starting with “The Wave,” a requiem about the devastating 2005 tsunami in Thailand, followed by the more personal “Greek Diary,” “Dalmatian Cycle,” and “Free Verses,” in which Polonskaya reflects on her own style, all of which crescendo in the epic sweep of the closing cycle, “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM.”

The collection is not expressly political, and I am loathe to always analyze Russian poetry and literature toward the political, and Polonskaya never names names, nor does she descend into open criticisms of anyone in particular (“KURSK” being an exception to the rest of the poems). But there is an undercurrent of malaise in these poems that recalls the period of “stagnation” under Brezhnev, that has been morphed under Putin into “timelessness,” i.e. Russia has become a land that exists out of sync with the rest of the world. You can see it in the short excerpt above from “Like David,” the prisoners with their legs stuck in the cold winter’s ground. It’s as if perestroika and the Berlin Wall’s collapse never happened in Russia, and people can’t decide if Putin has thrown Russia back into the 1980 Soviet Union or Ivan the Terrible’s Muscovy. Without saying it, but in unspoken acknowledgement, Polonskaya paints a grim portrait of a contemporary Russia developing a sense of its own angst, gaining a voice yet still ultimately powerless, that reminds me of the pre-revolutionary poets and their entrapment between the tsar’s vice grip on power and the murky future that revolution would bring.

Paul Klee’s Boat is part of the series of contemporary Russian poetry called “In the Grips of Strange Thoughts” that Zephyr Press has published since an extensive anthology of the same name in 1999. Zephyr Press is an amazing and dedicated independent publisher that has been around since 1980, and has become one of the most important publishers of international poetry in translation, especially from the Russian. Their complete collection of Anna Akhamotva’s poetry put them on the publishing map in 1990, and they have since published emerging poets and new voices from across the world.

In short, Anzhelina Polonskaya is a fantastic poet whose work calls to mind Russia’s great poets past, and Paul Klee’s Boat is a vital addition to the contemporary poetry canon, a collection as interesting as it is touching that will inevitably be remembered for years to come.

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!”

26 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tim Nassau on Yu Jian’s Flash Cards, translated from the Chinese by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett, and published by Zephyr Press last year.

Most notably, Flash Cards is a finalist for this year’s BTBA for poetry. I’ll try to handicap the poetry titles tomorrow, but based on Tim’s review, I’m not so sure this book is going to pull it off . . .

Speaking of Tim, he was an intern here some summers ago and thanks to our special brand of Open Letter guidance, he’s going to be launching a student-centric literary translation journal out of Brown University. Our quixotic nature strikes again! (And as soon as the first issue drops, we’ll have more information.)

In the meantime, here’s the opening to Tim’s review:

A few weeks ago I was visiting my grandparents in the tiny town of Kewanee, Illinois. Their house, because it is the same house where my mother grew up with her brothers and sisters, is crammed with the detritus of several childhoods and adolescences. While looking through a closet, I found a sheet of paper hand painted with beautiful calligraphic Chinese characters. It surely belonged to my uncle, but curiosity, and the feeling that it might otherwise remain in that closet forever, compelled me to take the sheet back to Providence against what some might consider the standards of being a good guest. None of my friends who speak Chinese could read the characters, so I took the mystery to Xue Di, Brown’s resident dissident poet. He of course sent me to Wikipedia, where I learned that what I had was a famous line from 7th century poet Wang Bo. It translates to: “When one has a close friend, the far ends of heaven are next door.”

Such a sentiment is the exact opposite of what you will encounter in Flash Cards, a collection of poems by Yu Jian. Born in 1954, Yu Jian has been writing since the early 1970s. For those who know what such things mean, he is considered one of “The Third Generation Poets” that followed the “Misty Poetry” movement of the early 1980s. Part of the Zephyr Press’s Jintian series dedicated to making available contemporary Chinese works, this is Yu Jian’s first collection to appear in English.

Click here to read the full piece.

And stay tuned to find out how Flash Cards fares in the BTBA . . .

26 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few weeks ago I was visiting my grandparents in the tiny town of Kewanee, Illinois. Their house, because it is the same house where my mother grew up with her brothers and sisters, is crammed with the detritus of several childhoods and adolescences. While looking through a closet, I found a sheet of paper hand painted with beautiful calligraphic Chinese characters. It surely belonged to my uncle, but curiosity, and the feeling that it might otherwise remain in that closet forever, compelled me to take the sheet back to Providence against what some might consider the standards of being a good guest. None of my friends who speak Chinese could read the characters, so I took the mystery to Xue Di, Brown’s resident dissident poet. He of course sent me to Wikipedia, where I learned that what I had was a famous line from 7th century poet Wang Bo. It translates to: “When one has a close friend, the far ends of heaven are next door.”

Such a sentiment is the exact opposite of what you will encounter in Flash Cards, a collection of poems by Yu Jian. Born in 1954, Yu Jian has been writing since the early 1970s. For those who know what such things mean, he is considered one of “The Third Generation Poets” that followed the “Misty Poetry” movement of the early 1980s. Part of the Zephyr Press’s Jintian series dedicated to making available contemporary Chinese works, this is Yu Jian’s first collection to appear in English.

The world of the poet presented here is one of constant alienation, dissociation, and feeling out of place. But all this in a sea of people—everyone is forced together by necessity, but this does not create a feeling of connectedness. The far ends of heaven are not next door: everyone is crammed together and one does not have a close friend: one has 1.3 billion people. The poems are described as constituting “a primer of modern Chinese life,” and it is hard to escape the fact of the political and social reality from whence they emanate while reading these poems, especially when several seem to reference it directly:

Morning in the park
Thousands of retired women are exercising
They’ve given birth their children are grown
scattered across the wilderness of life
The Dishes have been washed
With leisure time they want to do something for themselves
In the winter sunlight
a thousand mothers are dancing
One of them gave birth to me
Mother I call out
They all turn their heads

This is surreal, and it is skillfully ambiguous whether it is meant to be funny or horrifying (as those seem to be the main things surrealism can do), but it is quite real as well. A commentary on a nation’s desire for children it cannot have, a single man’s obsession with his own mother, a meditation on the indistinguishability of the self in a communist regime . . . It’s as if Yu Jian grafted the stereotype of the Westerner who thinks all Chinese look alike onto himself.

Of course, the only possible outcome of this is clear: poems about being yourself and poems about how poems can let you do this. A general warning sign for me when reading a book of poetry is if the poet spends too long writing poems about writing poems. In this case, the stakes are higher so it is more forgivable: in America, the concept of dissident poetry is somewhat laughable (“You mean like America?”) because though you may be jailed for indecency, you will not disappear. I do not think Yu Jian is a dissident poet (because if he were I feel like it would have been mentioned somewhere prominent), but he recognizes that poetry as self-expression in China is not just about solipsism:

The poet is hosting a meeting
but she doesn’t know how to begin
Her poems are far away
planted at Black Leopard Farm
Time’s up everyone is looking at the clock
“Stand up, everyone” she says
“Let’s sing the national anthem”

The implication that nationalism is what fills in the gap left by poetry (or art in general) is powerful and important. This is what gives Yu Jian a feeling of belonging: not the forced comradery of communism, but that “A letter traveled a thousand miles / not to explain Ulysses / but to let me know / that somebody understood / my words.” Unfortunately, a large portion of this book passes by without making much of an impact. Many poems muse on daily life and present it enigmatically, but the exotically oblique meditativeness that seems to dominate our view of Chinese poetry rarely extends past the surface; each poem gives the strange impression of being both mysterious and making perfect sense, though the latter sensation often comes to dominate, and not in a good way; ambiguities are too tidily resolved. Perhaps this feeling is strictly my own, but I think it may come from a tension in how we view works from China: on the one hand we think of political oppression and work produced in exile, and on the other we imagine quatrains seeped in nature and Confucius. The reality of Chinese literature must be different and the oversimplification comes from my end, yet Yu Jian writes,

On the garden’s eyelashes
a butterfly is catching the twilight
The evening paper has arrived
Among reports of murder and the stock market
is a poem about the butterfly

What can we do with this? Can a poem about a butterfly also be about the economy (like this one)? The question is not even Chinese: can you be philosophical while writing about the actual world you live in? It has been done, but the tension between these two strains is not dealt with satisfactorily here: most “political” poems are abstract to the point of toothlessness while the “poetic” ones feel weighed down by inescapable ideological readings. For now, I’ll read the paper and then get to that poem about the butterfly.

29 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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 poetry committee member Idra Novey. Idra is the director of the Literary Translation at Columbia University program, a poet, and a translator. It’s worth noting here that her translation of Manoel de Barros’s “Birds for a Demolition” was eligible for this year’s BTBA, but was excluded from consideration based on the fact that Idra was a judge. That said, over on the fiction side, her translation of “On Elegance While Sleeping” is a finalist.

Flash Cards by YU Jian, translated by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett

Language: Chinese
Country: China
Publisher: Zephyr Press & the Chinese University Press
Pages: 151

Why This Book Should Win: Because Yu Jian knows we should avoid comparing ourselves to fish: they’re doomed, the lake drying up. Because Yu Jian has many lines that are this tragic and funny and involve washing machines and the Chinese army.

So many American poets are currently struggling with how to write about our environment. It’s an important questions, and I’ve been reading new pastorals: poems of lament, elegies for the flora and fauna that we’re rapidly losing and won’t get back. But here comes Yu Jian, writing about nature—and more—in a new way that addresses loss with humor and with a lack of familiar binaries.

In Flash Cards, his first collection to appear in English translation, he writes of frogs that died in 1998 along with their pond, but also of the mosquitoes that remain there, “sometimes conversing in English.” It’s hard to translate humor well, especially in the streamlined language of a poem, but American poet Ron Padgett and Chinese poet Wang Ping do an extraordinary job of getting the tone right every time. “Conversing” is just the verb for a wry, quirky line like this in English.

In another poem, when Yu Jian drives to the edge of “the virgin forest,” the translators go with a car that “zooms.” That zoom seems spot on when an imaginary doe leaps into Yu Jian’s heart and he says, “I no longer have a stream or meadow/ to keep it there.”

Not all of the poems in Flash Cards are concerned with the natural world, however, or at least not explicitly. One stunning poem begins with “the washing machine on Saturday” and ends with the declaration:

Happiness belongs only to a cashmere sweater
that demands a different spin cycle
its only wish to match
the mistress’ red skirt.

I would argue that happiness also belongs to the reader of Flash Cards and to its translators, as the humor and music in these English versions suggests that Wang Ping and Ron Padgett took great pleasure, and care, in translating these poems. If you haven’t yet had the experience of having a woman in heavy makeup and a wolf face turn to you at dusk in the zoo and say in perfect Mandarin, “Good evening, comrade,” you’re in for a delightful surprise with the poetry of Yu Jian.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Yesterday, Jim Kates (former American Literary Translators Association president, and director of Zephyr Press) was on the NPR show “Here & Now” to talk about Bringing the World’s Literature to an American Audience.

Super-awesome that he namechecks us, but what’s really interesting is his list of recommendations:

Short stories

Snow Plain by Duo Duo, translated by John Crespi (Chinese) (Excerpt here available)

Moscow Noir, (stories) edited by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen (Russian)

The Rest is Jungle: Short Stories from Uruguay, by Mario Benedetti, translated by Harry Morales (Spanish)

Poetry

The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry, a bilingual anthology of poetry, edited by Mark Weiss (Spanish) (Excerpt chinatown available)

Desolation of the Chimera, by Luis Cerneda, translated by Stephen Kessler (Spanish)

Forest of Eyes: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako, translated by Jeffrey Angles (Japanese)

69, by MLB [Milosz Biedrzycki] translated by Frank L. Vigoda (Polish)

Flash Cards, by Yu Jian, translated by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett (Chinese)

Novels

All This Belongs to Me, by Petra Hulova, translated by Alex Zucker (Czech) (Excerpt this available)

To the End of the Land, by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen (Hebrew)

Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky (German)

In the United States of Africa, Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated by David and Nicole Ball (French) (This is the second reference to Waberi on Three Percent in as many days . . .)

Agaat, by Marlene van Niekerk, translated by Michiel Heyns (Afrikaans)

And remember, you can listen to the complete conversation here.

20 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

Russian poet and artist Dmitri Prigov died on Monday at the age of 66.

Prigov was an interesting character. In 2005 he claimed to have written 36,000 poems, and was known for writing verse on cans. His literature was considered subversive, and as a result, the K.G.B. took him away to a psychiatric hospital. Thankfully his stay there was relatively brief due to protests from prominent writers.

Some of his poems are available in English translation in In the Grip of Strange Thoughts: Poetry for a New Era edited by J. Kates.

....
The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

Read More >

Fear: A Novel of World War I
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .

Read More >

Little Grey Lies
Little Grey Lies by Hédi Kaddour
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .

Read More >

Autobiography of a Corpse
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Reviewed by Simon Collinson

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .

Read More >

A Musical Hell
A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .

Read More >

Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

Read More >