Where is that wild and endemic high-heeled shoe Europe . . . ?
— Branko Cegec
(translated from the Croatian by Miljenko Kovacicek)
It is difficult to get beyond the novelty inherent in the New European Poets project. Its remarkable scope, breadth and depth show-cases 290 poets representing 45 nations, all bridged by nearly 200 translators and directed by 24 regional editors. Every contributing poet’s first collection was published in or after 1970. The motivation behind the project is two-fold, reintroduce and reengage American readers with European poetry and express how the borders of Europe have been redrawn in recent decades there by altering its regional identities along with its identity as a whole. And what is contemporary Europe anyway?
Is it the landmass whose topology begins at the Atlantic shore, expanding north to Scandinavia, south to the Mediterranean then eastward, coming to a halt at the Ural Mountains? Is the EU contemporary Europe? Is Iceland? Is Turkey? Is Russia a European nation? Are the endangered languages of Sami and Romani European languages? Europe is a patch-work quilt of a continent, comprised of mutually exclusive diverse ethnic identities and languages. In these many Europes—nationality, ethnicity, culture, people, language and poetry are absolutely idiosyncratic, particular to themselves. The opposite is also true as Europe is now more open than it ever was during the bulk of the twentieth century. Traveling by train through Western Europe it is not unusual to hear a young person’s voice come over the loud speaker making mundane but fluent announcements about the dining car hours in 5 different languages. Then again, the further east one travels the more complicated things become. Poland and the Czech Republic now consider themselves Central, as opposed to Eastern, Europe no doubt making a political statement while simultaneously acknowledging national trauma. The parts and pieces of the former Yugoslavia and the shards and slivers of the former Eastern Bloc are further testament that the term “nation” is not a static one. As New European Poets is a Herculean undertaking toward celebrating and promoting poetry, it is also an inadvertent definition of what contemporary Europe has become as expressed through the singing of its bards.
We open with the quivering dramatic neurosis of Portugal’s Adilia Lopes as she laments “once I was beautiful now I am myself” in Elizabeth Doesn’t Work Here Anymore (with a few things borrowed from Anne Sexton). We shift northward to William Cliff of Belgium and his exceptional Ballade of the Mouse (After Charles d’Orleans) “I stopped appearing in the spots/where once I used to perch my puny/build, they made a grave pronouncement/I hereby trounce as tactless jive/this little mouse is still alive.” We move into Central Europe, into Germany, with the über-contemporary Recovery Room written by Uljana Wolf, translated by the author and Christian Hawkey:
—and if there were
no borders that could again define us in
these fields in post narcotic sniffling—
we would stick very close to this our i
Willfully and fearlessly contributing to the destruction of Adorno’s edict “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Senadin Musabegovic, representing Bosnia and Herzegovina, in her poem Dawn at Auschwitz writes “. . . and the officer’s shining badge from which/the eagle with spread-out wings / plucks out pieces of my flesh / enter me / like darkness enters / a child’s eyes.” Poland, having disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795, reappearing only to tragically run smack into two World Wars has emerged to establish itself an uncontested literary and poetic powerhouse. Ewa Sonnenberg writes, “My funny little poem I’ll warm you in my hands / we’ll tell life we’re sorry for writing not living / your naïve and tender efforts to spy on naked words . . .” Finally, as intrinsic climates shape each country’s identity as much as politics, culture or war, Sweden’s Eva Runefelt beautifully relays in her bleak, cold and quiet The Slowness “like the chill from a half-open window, from foot to neck / There is space enough in the finger moving along a back. / How far in does the slowness go?”
Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker put a Babel Fish in his ear which enabled him to understand every form of language. Rightly in keeping with the dedication of the anthology which reads “to all who translate” the contributing translators of New European Poets have brought across the poetry of their European counterparts in the lingua franca, English, for an American audience. These translators include, Anselm Hollo, Rosemarie Waldrop, John Ashbery, Wanda Phipps, Paul Muldoon, Charles Simic, Christian Hawkey, Derek Walcott and Cole Swenson to name a few. Beyond the role of “translator” it should be noted that these are the proliferators of contemporary poetry being written in the English language today. They are our poets, our native poets, our immigrant poets, our nation-of-birth-hyphenated-American and international poets. They are individuals who write in the English language, teach in the American Universities and are the recipients of major American literary awards. In many cases, these are individuals who were born in Europe but who live and work in the United States and who inadvertently maintain the ongoing conversation that is both contemporary American and European poetry through the duality of their identities. This added element of cultural exchange to the project makes it a nearly perfect undertaking.
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