With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
“engulf — enkindle”: by Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals
Publisher: Burning Deck Press
Why This Book Should Win: Burning Deck! Rosemarie and Keith Waldrop have done more for “experimental” international poetry in translation than anyone. They deserve to be honored.
Today’s post is from Erica Mena.
engulf — enkindle is a stunning book of poetry. It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.
want now: you – drive into me
want to push to the edge, hang, you
haul all my: shale, scrape
it off from: the head, from the shoulders
to rootstock throat gravel: you split me
give me – as if severed – sharp
countours – fangs wolffian ridge
questions too – will i? –
i – take you to me
The stacatto lines, broken by strange punctuation, expose themselves as duplicitious; the punctuation is superfluous, and yet it’s not. It’s a violation of the line, of the rules of grammar, but it forces a rhythm on the almost unwilling reader. It’s pleasurable and distressing simultaneously, mimetic of the poems. The I in the poem submits to the violence of the you, while exerting her own controlled violence over the reader, and the poem and ultimately her poetic body.
Like most “experimental” texts this work demands more of its reader, a different set of tools and strategies. It is a text that has been splayed wide open, disgorging multiple readings. This extract from the second poem could be read as describing what the poetry itself is doing:
– percieve: just at the opencuts: set free
furrow – to stand, sense, to drift now am: pitching to you
through the: fissures [. . .]
[The bracketed ellipsis is mine.] Pay attention to the slippery shifts of meaning across and through the punctuation, the way caesura is inserted into the lines and creates tension with the phrases that follow the colons. Feel the tension that is created by the speeding up and slowing down of the lines, the gaps in meaning and thwarted grammatical expectations (the missing subject for “am” for example).
This is poetry that demands several readings, at least one of which must be aloud. When I teach poetry, I always ask that the students read the poems out loud, as well as to themselves, and if I suspect they have not done it we do it together. Great poetry creates sonic space on the page, and visual space in the voice, and the movement between these opens up new meanings. Traditionally, this happens behind the semantic content of the poem, but Beals’s rendering of Utler’s poetry prioritizes its lyric qualities. In engulf – enkindle, the poems hinge on sound and silence, on rhythm and breaking, with meaning following.
finally, startled from sleep, find:
the larynx deseeded is
hollowed: hands palpate,
it: fumbling, feathered, from
ribcage entwine themselves
deeper into the: reed swallow: light,
gurgling, darkly well, dimly
they: keel towards hulls towards hollows
weave: cavities, gorges of
stalks of fingers of (..)
so to speak: towards the bittern – neting place,
in the singing reed so it’s called – grow
entangled as – flotsam and jetsam – stitched
up to the: glottis rustling
almost trembling i hear you again: say
song you say song – what is: song
Kurt Beals is a genius. I can’t imagine how these translations could have come to be otherwise. He may have been working at an advantage; Germanic languages share many rhythm and sound paterns, two of the most impressive features of this translation. Still, the strangeness of these poems, which demand so much of the reader, must have demaned even more of Beals. To create this kind of complexity in translation is nothing short of stunning, an acheivment compounded by the shifting registers and pacing of the language.
This is an uncompromising work of brilliance on both Utler and Beals’ parts. It’s sharp and sexy, challenging and riviting and absolutely relentless. This is the poetry I’ve been waiting my whole life for.
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