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
Publisher: Zephyr Press & the Chinese University Press
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.
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .