The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky (Italy; Chelsea Editions)
I love The Guest in the Wood. I didn’t expect to; it snuck up on me. I anticipated respecting the poems, appreciating the marvelous translations by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and the elegant volume from Chelsea Editions, but masterful translation and thoughtful publishing have been the rule in this competition. Dozens and dozens of brilliant translations have invited themselves into my home over the past months, but this book asked me in and wouldn’t let me leave.
I say it snuck up on me because, unlike many other remarkable submissions, The Guest in the Wood did not announce itself as exotic, exhaustive, avant-garde, genre-defying, or canonical. The Guest in the Wood is humbly subtitled, “A Selection of Poems 2004-2007,” and it was with no more warning than this that I ventured into the wood and became Biagini’s guest.
From the first, these surreal, understated poems create an uncanny physical space that is equally domestic, disturbing, and luminous, their airy structure leaving room for the reader-guest to receive their hospitality and offer something in return (the Italian ospite meaning both “guest” and “host”). The poet’s and translators’ forceful language presses us to “attend and rediscover” the quotidian and overdetermined realities of, as Angelina Oberdan explains in her introduction, “the self, the other, the body, and the private rituals of our lives.”
Born in 1970, Elisa Biagini is herself a translator of contemporary North American poetry, and part of my attraction to her work surely comes from a sense of the poems in translatorly conversation with influences such as Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich. Tellingly, The Guest in the Wood merges two of Biagini’s six collections, The Guest and Into the Wood, with the wood representing a very different kind of contained space than the home, one synonymous with fairy tale archetype and danger. With its evocation, Biagini’s homey interiors are revealed to be haunted, their spare restraint repeatedly performing domestic cleanliness and order in a perpetual struggle to manage threatening guests.
The plates are never left out
because otherwise the dead will come
and sop bread in the broth
so that a misplaced spoon won’t be noticed
the next morning.
You don’t want them counting the crumbs
reading your fortune in the leftovers
tasting your body
I’ve been thrilled to find that my fellow BTBA judges were likewise caught out and drawn in by this book’s unapologetically feminine sense of embodiment and urgency—Biagini’s sharp distortions of ironing boards and dirty dishes as compelling, political, and philosophical as any of the more obviously ambitious or grandiose works we read. The fact that this collection is Biagini’s first in English is a credit to Chelsea Editions for bucking the publishing preference for safety and known quantities, as well as testament to both the message of Three Percent and the importance of projects like the Best Translated Book Award. You should read this book. And it should win.
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