The joy of an anthology is similar to the joy of a college course in literature, of listening to the radio, of attending an art exhibition: it is the pleasure of having someone else tell you what is good and important and how it all connects together. You may find the joy of a discovery or an insight that you would probably never have stumbled upon on your own, a joy that puts them in the right. When they are wrong, your ego comes out unscarred, the validity of your own taste has been vindicated; for the reader, it is a riskless situation. Yet with an anthology such as The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris, the stakes are higher on both ends. Reading it is the equivalent of attending a class taught by Nabokov or Nicholson Baker. Access is granted to the private preferences of one of our most promising young poets, so the fruits to be gained may be more succulent, but the disappointment more sour should they prove rotten. After all, how many friendships have ended because someone listens to too much Simon and Garfunkel? Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers . . .
To lay any doubts to rest, however, I must say that this anthology brought me joy. All the major and well known poets of the twentieth century are here represented (Rilke, Apollinaire, Akhmatova, Reverdy, Pasternak, Lorca . . . all in the first one hundred pages), but more importantly the selections made by Kaminsky shy away from their most famous and obviously anthologizable work to present us with equally impressive B-sides (just to pick one example, rather than choose Apollinaire’s “Le Pont Mirabeau,” we get “Zone,” the spectacular five page opener of Alcools and “The Little Car” from Calligrammes, the collection of Apollinaire’s more technically experimental concrete poetry). Thus each poet we thought we knew before becomes more multi-faceted with every page of this collection. And this principle extends out to those we don’t usually think of as poets: we find a Kafka parable, poems by Brecht, Raymond Queneau, Günter Grass, and Pier Paolo Pasolini (the latter’s work as a poet often getting overshadowed by the controversy of his films). It as if this anthology singlehandedly seeks to remind us that our greatest novelists and playwrights are, at heart, simply poets.
What I have yet to mention is that, to me at least, the majority of the poets in this collection were unknown, and therein lies its greatest pleasure. Be forewarned that while reading this anthology you may feel compelled to immediately go and snatch up the collected (or selected) works of every new find. Though this may be unorthodox in a review, the best way to convey this sense is to open the book to a random page and transcribe what is found there, though every page will be different—in theme, in style, in country . . .1 Thus, on page 343, we find the poem “Destiny” by the Romanian Marin Sorescu:
The hen I’d bought the night before,
Had come to life,
Had laid the biggest egg in the world
And had been awarded the Nobel Prize.
The phenomenal egg
Was passed from hand to hand,
In a few weeks it had gone round the world,
And round the sun
In 365 days.
The hen had received who knows how much strong currency
Valued in pails of grain
Which she never managed to eat
Because she was invited everywhere,
Gave lectures, granted interviews,
Often the reporters insisted
That I should be there too
In the photograph
And so, after having served Art
All my life
Suddenly I’m famous
As a poultry-breeder.
I had never heard of Marin Sorescu before this book, yet the biographical fact that he “was the most translated Romanian writer of the latter half of the twentieth century” says much more (I hope) about the status of translation in America than about my personal ignorance. In his introduction Kaminsky writes that “It is not unusual these days to hear an American translator say that she translated partly because she lives in an empire and sees translation work as a chance to educated the American readers about the voices of the larger world.” In this, the anthology succeeds admirably and both Kaminsky and Words Without Borders are to be commended for this contribution to that effort. But there is something more at stake, something that touches on the very reason we translate. Kaminsky puts it better than I ever could: “Languages are many, says Voznesensky, poetry is one. If this is true, then perhaps an avid reader of poetry from around the globe may have a chance to glimpse into the heart of the art of poetry itself—of that which exists between languages.” What we have here are “poems of perversion and praise and lament from a century of destroyed cities, molten borders between states and nations, apartheid, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, totalitarianisms, racism, world wars, massive destruction, torture, epidemics, struggle, resistance.” This is the world we still live in, and it does not end at, or exist solely outside of, America’s frontiers. To show us, through poetry, that we all feel the same pains and love as everyone else is the essential task of this work.
And Kaminsky may be the poet best suited for this task: forced to flee Russia with his family when the Soviet Union fell, his own life crosses the borders of his work. Unlike Homer he is partially deaf, literally tuned out of the glossolalia that makes us think we are different from anyone else. But perhaps we should say he is only second best, for the collection ends with an anonymous poem:
Listen, O earth; we shall mourn because of you
Listen, shall we all die on the earth?
1 Since I can’t think of anywhere to put this in the body of my review, here seems as good a place as ever. I do have one complaint about this book. Poems are grouped by author and the authors are ordered chronologically by birth date (rather than by country), yet there is no date given to each poem, which I found extremely frustrating and which fact Ilya Kaminsky’s note in the introduction, that “we decided against accompanying poetry with lengthy biographical and critical information (only very brief notes are available at the end of the book), because those materials often affect the way poetry is read, and we feel that information ranging from awards to world wars has little to do with a ‘soul’s search for a release in language,’” though nice, hardly seems to adequately justify.
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