17 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Grant Barber on Selected Translations by W. S. Merwin, from Copper Canyon Press. Selected Translations is a collection of Merwin’s greatest translations, representing authors from all over the world and languages from almost every corner.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston.

Collections like this are always fascinating to me—we get to see a wide range of the translator’s abilities and tastes, and are simultaneously introduced to more than one era, style, and form of poetry. So if you find it difficult to sit through an entire book of haikus, but would find more pleasure in reading a haiku here or there among a plethora of other poetic styles, this collection will be right up your alley.

Here’s a part of Grant’s review:

To enter Merwin’s larger poetic project, whether in his translations or his own poems, the reader weighs life’s experiences captured in language so that “these very things may be the poem.” This collection gathers poems spanning 2,500 years, from thirty-eight languages, seventy-eight different poets whose names are known, and twenty-six anonymous poets, the latter including songs from communal oral traditions. Two previously gathered selected translations (1948-1968 and 1968-1978), join those Merwin has selected from 1978 to 2011. Each of the three sections is preceded by Merwin’s explanation of his evolving project of translation.

“Since the eighteenth century, and especially since the beginning of modernism, more and more translations have been undertaken with the clear purpose of introducing readers (most of them, of course, unknown to the translators) to works they could not read in the original, by authors they might very well never have heard of, from cultures, traditions and forms with which they had no acquaintance . . . . (by) poet-translators who do not, themselves, know the languages from which they are making their versions, but must rely, for their grasp of the originals, on the knowledge and work of others.” (from “Forward, 1968-1978”)

Merwin honors his fellow poets who have helped him in his project of translations from not only languages more familiar to Western ears, and the haikus of classic Asian writers of the form, but also ancient Egyptian, Quechua, Kabylia, Dahomey, Caxinua, Vietnamese, Tartar, Urdu, and so forth. Beyond French and Spanish, Merwin explains that he is dependent on dictionaries and other translations; he might not work from the original but from, say, a French translation of the original.

Click here for the entire review, and some preview poems.

17 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“South”

To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of water in the secret pool
known the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle
the silence of the sleeping bird
the arch of the entrance the damp
—these very things may be the poem.

-Jorge Luis Borges, Spanish, 1899-1986

To enter Merwin’s larger poetic project, whether in his translations or his own poems, the reader weighs life’s experiences captured in language so that “these very things may be the poem.” This collection gathers poems spanning 2,500 years, from thirty-eight languages, seventy-eight different poets whose names are known, and twenty-six anonymous poets, the latter including songs from communal oral traditions. Two previously gathered selected translations (1948-1968 and 1968-1978), join those Merwin has selected from 1978 to 2011. Each of the three sections is preceded by Merwin’s explanation of his evolving project of translation.

“Since the eighteenth century, and especially since the beginning of modernism, more and more translations have been undertaken with the clear purpose of introducing readers (most of them, of course, unknown to the translators) to works they could not read in the original, by authors they might very well never have heard of, from cultures, traditions and forms with which they had no acquaintance . . . . (by) poet-translators who do not, themselves, know the languages from which they are making their versions, but must rely, for their grasp of the originals, on the knowledge and work of others.” (from “Forward, 1968-1978”)

Merwin honors his fellow poets who have helped him in his project of translations from not only languages more familiar to Western ears, and the haikus of classic Asian writers of the form, but also ancient Egyptian, Quechua, Kabylia, Dahomey, Caxinua, Vietnamese, Tartar, Urdu, and so forth. Beyond French and Spanish, Merwin explains that he is dependent on dictionaries and other translations; he might not work from the original but from, say, a French translation of the original.

“Yscolan”

Your horse is black your cloak is black
your face is black you are black
you are all black—is it you Yscolan?

I am Yscolan the seer
my thoughts fly they are covered with clouds.
Is there no reparation then for offending the Master?

I burned a church I killed the cows that belonged to a school
I threw the Book into the waves
my penance is heavy.

Creator of living things you
greatest of all my protectors forgive me.
He that betrayed you deceived me.

I was fastened for a whole year
at Bangor under the piles of the dam.
Try to think what I suffered from the sea worms.

If I had known then what I know now
the liberty of the wind in the moving treetops
the crime could not be laid to me.

-Myrddyn, Welch, ca 6th century

Merwin at age 19 visited Ezra Pound when Pound was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital; Pound told Merwin that the best apprenticeship is to translate the masters, to draw from the well from which poetry arose. In following this advice, Merwin grounded himself in ancient poets and even more so in medieval poetry from Romance languages. The medieval poetry shares with Merwin’s larger poetic project the crystallizing use of images; these images carry deeper into the psyche than mere words on the surface might discursively capture. One doesn’t need to know the legend story cycle from which “Yscolan” is taken to hear the experience suffered from sea worms while being imprisoned under a dam, and then contrasted to the freedom of winds in a tree.

Merwin does this in good company, during an important moment in time of world letters for English speakers. In the late 1960s into the 1980s, one larger poetic project/school was referred to as “deep imagists.” Along with Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, and Robert Hass (among others), Merwin shared a use of seeming surrealist images which bypassed rational thought to reach emotional/spiritual reality. These writers also translated poems of varying eras and geographies in what seems in retrospect to be a new blossoming of translations into English.

In the first “Forward,” Merwin points to this impulse for both deep image and translation: “Translation may be no more dangerous than any other to a growing recognition of the true original that, in del Vasto’s words, ‘tastes of the source.’ It is love, I imagine, more than learning, that may eventually make it possible to be aware of the living resonance before it has words . . .” The Borges poem cited previously evokes this ‘source’ with ancient stars and the silence of a sleeping bird; the poet does not know the names of stars and constellations imposed by people, but does enjoy direct apprehension of them, and the smell of jasmine, the sound of the “ring of water in the secret pool.” Poetry bypasses intervening mythological/scientific constructs to grasp reality itself.

from “Looking Across the Field”

A peony appears
in my mind
after the petals have fallen

The evening I cut
a peony stem
and felt my spirit whither

The summer night is short
dew gathers
on the hairy caterpillars

-Yosa Buson, Japanese, 1716-1783

Merwin’s own poetry continued to grow and change in subject matter. He has deep ecological concerns, so nature figures significantly in both his own poems and those he translates. Love and its challenges figure importantly. Liminal moments—twilight, an approaching horizon, seasons as they are changing (especially into fall and winter), and most recurrent—the inevitable reality of death—thread through Merwin’s larger poetic project. The Buson poem Merwin chose presents all this by content and form: the natural world suffuses the images—a peony both mentally conjured and in a garden and a summer night’s dew fall—lovely, yes?—but the third line of each stanza, not only finishing the brief thought/image each in lines longer than the two preceding, but also turns the building image into something troubling—all the petals fallen, a spirit withered and, most graphic, a wet hairy caterpillar.

Formally, Merwin’s own poetry omits punctuation (since his first four books); he explains that punctuation seems to nail down the words and poem to a page in a limiting manner. Perhaps this is one of many reasons why Merwin is drawn to the Asian haiku-like verse of Asian poets such as Buson in addition to more recent, European authors:

“Words”

They were talking about
pretend love
at the old table
riddled with worms
the fire warmed up the stove
the lentil darkened as it cooked
and in the open doorway
facing human words
composed in well-tried syntax
the beauty of the bitter foliage
and birds with red breasts
were shining.

-Jean Follain, French, 1903-1971

This photographic tableau captures conversation around this decaying table in a kitchen/dining room that is not comfy, but in a place of falseness and paucity. Over against the interior space is the exterior, which has beauty—albeit somewhat bitter—and is alive with the shining red quickness of the birds.

This former Poet Laureate of the US, Pulitzer Prize winner, author/translator of over 50 volumes of poetry and prose, is now in his mid-80s. Of interest is how the poet returns to the same sources of ancient languages and medieval poets in the third, most recent period of translating; this after a middle period more characterized by modern poets. His forward to this last section is also ruminative, recalling his life as a poet through personal detail; he is no longer as caught up in the issues of translation.

Next month his Collected Poems will come out from the Library of America to make him the second only living poet to be so honored (John Ashbery is the other). Other poets may join him in importance for American poetry of the 20th/21st centuries. None surpass him. This Selected Translations is amazing in scope, mastery, themes, artistry, imagination: a testimony to a life time of consequential work.

6 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Tomas Transtromer.

From the “Guardian:”:

Praised by the judges for “his condensed translucent images” which give us “fresh access to reality”, Tranströmer’s surreal explorations of the inner world and its relation to the jagged landscape of his native country have been translated into 50 languages.

Born in Stockholm in 1931, Tranströmer studied at the University of Stockholm and worked as a psychologist at an institution for young offenders. His first collection of poetry, 17 Dikter (17 Poems, was published in 1954, while he was still at college. Collections including Hemligheter på vägen (1958) and Klangar och spår (1966) reflected on his travels in the Balkans, Spain and Africa, while the poems in Östersjöar (1974) examine the troubled history of the Baltic region through the conflict between sea and land.

He suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write, with his collection Sorgegondolen going on to sell 30,000 copies on its pubilcation in 1996. At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand.

Tranströmer has described his poems as “meeting places,” where dark and light, interior and exterior collide to give a sudden connection with the world, history or ourselves. According to the poet, “The language marches in step with the executioners. Therefore we must get a new language.”

Of course, seeing that Transtromer is Swedish, a lot of critics are going to get their hackles up, such as this line that opens the same Guardian article: “The Swedish Academy has responded to accusations of insularity over recent years by awarding the 2011 Nobel prize for literature to one of their own.” Snarky!

I don’t actually think this is very controversial at all, but others do . . .

Anyway, congrats to Transtormer and to New Directions, Green Integer, Graywolf, Ecco, and his other publishers. And speaking of ND, the podcast going up tomorrow is a special discussion about the Nobel Prize, with the first half recorded yesterday before the announcement, and the second half today. So Tom can share the excitement of the ND office . . .

18 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Raul Zurita’s collection Song for His Disappeared Love, which was translated from the Spanish by Daniel Borzutzky and published by Action Books.

I don’t read much poetry, so I wasn’t familiar with Zurita until Vincent Francone pitched us this review. (Although I love his Wikipedia entry: “Raúl Zurita Canessa (born 1950) is a Chilean poet and anthologist. He won the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 2000.” This is a street. There is a house.) Strangely—or maybe not so—one of the best overviews is available through the Blue Flower Arts agency and makes him sound pretty interesting:

Raul Zurita was born in Santiago, Chile in 1950. He started out studying engineering before turning to poetry. His early work is a ferocious response to Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup. Like many other Chileans, Zurita was arrested and tortured. When he was released, he helped to form a radical artistic group CADA, and he became renowned for his provocative and intensely physical public performances. He has written what are perhaps the most massively scaled poems ever created. He has done this with earth-moving equipment and with smoke-trailing aircraft. In the early 1980s, Zurita famously sky-wrote passages from his poem, “The New Life,” over New York and later—still during the reign of Pinochet—he bulldozed the phrase “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” (“Without Pain Or Fear”) into the Atacama Desert which, for its length, can only be seen from the sky. An article in Jacket Magazine elucidates, “He says that in those days of brutality and distrust and terror . . . he began to imagine writing poems in the sky, on the faces of cliffs, in the desert. . . . He started to imagine that he might fight sadistic force with poems as insubstantial as contrails in the air over a city.” Zurita’s renowned poetic trilogy, composed over a span of 15 years, is considered one of the singular poetic achievements in Latin American poetry: Purgatory appeared in 1979, Anteparadise in 1982, and The New Life in 1993.

Anyway, here’s the opening of Vincent’s review of the new book:

To the betterment of our cultural landscape, a number of works by Raúl Zurita have been recently translated into English. Much of this work centers on the nightmare of Chile’s Pinochet era. While other writers have tackled this subject, mostly while in exile, Zurita remained in Chile, a direct witness to the terror that began on September 11, 1973 and remained beyond the seventeen years of Pinochet’s rule. Zurita, like so many, was captured and tortured. Unlike so many, he lived to tell the tale. His work exists in opposition to the dictatorship and, by extension, the long, terrible history of man’s inhumanity to man. The latest of his translated books, Song of His Disappeared Love (Action Books) is more than a reflection on the disappeared, tortured, and murdered; it is a direct confrontation. The reader is beset by the poem, forced to parse through the language and face the horror head on. His writing—often surreal and incantatory—rides the crest of the avant-garde without succumbing to empty abstractions, urging the reader to look directly into the abyss and yet, oddly, conveying a sense of hope. Within the elusive moments are punctuations of astonishing imagery. To this reader, the image that refuses to die is that of the disappeared thrown from helicopters into the sea and the mouths of volcanoes, unseen but impossible to ignore.

Click here to read the full piece.

18 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To the betterment of our cultural landscape, a number of works by Raúl Zurita have been recently translated into English. Much of this work centers on the nightmare of Chile’s Pinochet era. While other writers have tackled this subject, mostly while in exile, Zurita remained in Chile, a direct witness to the terror that began on September 11, 1973 and remained beyond the seventeen years of Pinochet’s rule. Zurita, like so many, was captured and tortured. Unlike so many, he lived to tell the tale. His work exists in opposition to the dictatorship and, by extension, the long, terrible history of man’s inhumanity to man. The latest of his translated books, Song of His Disappeared Love (Action Books) is more than a reflection on the disappeared, tortured, and murdered; it is a direct confrontation. The reader is beset by the poem, forced to parse through the language and face the horror head on. His writing—often surreal and incantatory—rides the crest of the avant-garde without succumbing to empty abstractions, urging the reader to look directly into the abyss and yet, oddly, conveying a sense of hope. Within the elusive moments are punctuations of astonishing imagery. To this reader, the image that refuses to die is that of the disappeared thrown from helicopters into the sea and the mouths of volcanoes, unseen but impossible to ignore.

Song of His Disappeared Love, written in 1985, first addressed this grisly practice of discarding the dead at a time when such actions were well known and never spoken of. Years after the Pinochet era, the truth was made officially known. By then, it might have felt like the news was far too late. Chile already knew. Zurita knew. His testament is his poem through which the discarded dead have a voice. Zurita made them the focus of INRI (recently published by Marick Press, translated by William Rowe), written after Ricardo Lagos made the news public in 2001. If his subject is made overt in INRI, whereas it is implied in Song of His Disappeared Love, one can forgive the latter (or former, depending on your taste). In a time when self-censorship is the natural result of governmental oppression, what is left to the poet but codes? Song of His Disappeared Love employs such coding, though it never feels dense or obscure. Zurita’s voice (expertly translated by Daniel Borzutzky) explodes off the page. The horror is direct and the interrogation is clear. Zurita is not a symbolist; he is a poet of accusation, testimony, and intensity rarely seen today. In the face of indescribable pain, the poet burns himself, as Zurita did in protest. He writes poems on the page, in the sky, and bulldozes them into the desert (all of which Zurita has done—the residents of the Atacama in Chile still preserve his words “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” in the sand). The poet creates more than poetry; he fashions a new language that best captures his subject. Song of His Disappeared Love is Zurita writing in that new tongue, seeking to give voice to more than the individual. The poem, while mourning the dead and confronting the living, unites other countries with Chile in a series of “niches” that smashes borders. In this sense, Zurita’s poem is, to paraphrase Roque Dalton, like bread: for everyone.

6 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the complaints I get from time to time—about both Three Percent and Open Letter—is our lack of poetry coverage. This is primarily my fault, since I rarely ever read poetry. Probably some sort of reading deficiency, blindspot, or problem with my soul, but, well, there you have it. (It’s not as if this is my only flaw! Even my best-friend could provide a list as long as a summer day.)

To try and make up for this, Open Letter is launching a poetry series (one book a year, starting in February or thereabouts) and below you’ll find a poem that I came across in the new issue of Zoland Poetry. (BTW, the new issue isn’t actually featured on the website . . . yet. Whoops. There is a mention of the pub date—March 23rd—but that’s it. I can confirm that yes, this really does exist, and that it’s filled with good stuff.)

“Invented Memoir” by Manoel de Barros, translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey

I leaned into the morning the way a bird leans and a vision appeared: the afternoon running behind a dog. I was fourteen. The vision must have come from my origins. I don’t remember ever seeing a dog outrun the afternoon. I made a note of it anyway. Such leaps of the imagination are what make our speech more beautiful. I made a note in a phrasebook. By this point, I was already saving visions like this one. I had another that month, but first I should tell you the circumstances. I transported parts of my childhood between the kitchen wall and the yard. I pretended to put a yoke on the frogs behind our kitchen. We understood each other well. I fixed things so the frog’s skin matched the color of the ground. It seemed right, since they were of the ground and grimy. One day I said to my mother: A frog is a piece of the ground that jumps. She said I was mixed up, that a frog isn’t a piece of the ground. Now that I’m older, I think of the prophet Jeremiah. He was so distraught at seeing his Zion destroyed and dragged through the fire that a vision came to him in his home: even the stones in the street were crying. Later, calmer, writing to a friend, he remembered the vision: even the stones in the street had cried. It was such a beautiful sentence because there was no reason in it. He said this.

22 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next ten days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Russian Version by Elena Fanailova. Translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler. (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

For the poetry finalists, each of the five judges is writing about two books. Idra Novey—poet, translator, executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University—is up first.

The Russian Version obliterates the stereotype of what Great Russian Poetry should sound like. Fanailova has the candor and compassion of Akhmatova and a gift for striking metaphor that might bring Mandelstam to mind, but she is also ruthlessly quick to fire “from the hip,” as she says in the title poem, and her aim is impeccable. In the ironic poem “(The Italics are Mine),” she writes:

In the era when poetry flowed
From human shortcoming,
When poetry was waiting
For dry remainders,
It did its best, I beg your pardon,
Like a hysterical bitch . . .

All of the poems in The Russian Version veer off in delightfully unexpected directions like this. What begins in sweeping historical statement often turns to sly aside or to some in-your-face metaphor. Turovskaya and Sandler do a superb job of keeping these shifts in tone in Fanailova’s poems palpable and surprising. Throughout the book, the voice in these translations are as lively and distinctive as in any poetry currently being written in the US, if not more so. To the credit of both Fanailova and her translators, the poems consistently come across as both alluringly raw and carefully honed. “Now you can say what you actually think,” Fanailova writes in “The Queer’s Girldfriend, “and not what Great Russan Poetry demands.”

Instead of striving for Great Russian Poetry, Fanailova tells of a “tired Petersburg,” a grandmother who sets an apple tree on fire and has the stained dress of a “perpetually slovenly cook.” In an excerpt from her 2002 collection Transylvania Calling, she writes of a woman off to an abortion clinic “like a soldier marching the familiar march” and in the next line of soldiers “fucking beautiful Uzbek girls/unbraiding bridles with their tongues.” Powerful juxtapositions like these, of a tired city and a tree on fire, or of a woman marching like a soldier and soldiers marching over women, crop up throughout the poems. Fanailova, never takes these moments too far or editorializes unnecessarily. Like the scars of the married couples she describes in the same poem, she lets her lines “speak for themselves.”

A well-placed silence is key to the craft of poetry and Fanailova is a master of such silences. In a poem earlier in the collection, she writes:

I love to keep silent,
And to guard the thin-walled, fragile things
I save in cigarette papers.

In the selections contained in this book, spanning nearly twenty years of work, Fanailova knows just when to quietly roll up a poem in cigarette paper and when to let it unfurl. Her version of Russia is one told through a “grease-paint made of crystals” and the result is mesmerizing.

18 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Erica Mena’s examination of Pablo Neruda’s World’s End, which came out last year from Copper Canyon, and is translated from the Spanish by William O’Daly.

In case anyone’s keeping track, that makes two—count ‘em, two—poetry reviews in the past month. All credit to Erica for both pushing for more poetry coverage (confession: the only poetry books I read are the ones that win the BTBA), and for writing these reviews. And I know there are many more poetry pieces to come . . .

Speaking of Erica, in addition to being a poet and translator, she’s also behind the Alluringly Short blog and is the co-host of the Reading the World podcast. (Which you all should a) listen to, b) subscribe to on iTunes, and c) give a five-star rating to.)

Yeah.

So here’s the beginning of her piece:

It’s incredibly difficult to imagine that there is anything new to say about Pablo Neruda. But Neruda, probably the most prolific poet of the twentieth century, provides endless opportunities for his readers, scholars and critics to re-evaluate his oeuvre. World’s End (Copper Canyon, 2009) is a treasure-trove of intimate insight, available in its entirety in English for the first time in William O’Daly’s careful and precise translation. In this expansive book-length poem Neruda oscillates between moments of vulnerable reflection on his own life and work (including his controversial early support of Stalin for which he denounces his naivety), bitter condemnation of the violence of the twentieth century, and a prophetic poetic voice.

World’s End, written towards the end of the poet’s life in 1968-69, is in many ways a response to the sometimes naive exuberance of his only other book-length poem Canto General, which was written over a much longer period of time from 1938-49. World’s End follows in the epic footsteps of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but instead of the celebratory and ultimately hopeful sense of Canto General, in this work Neruda bitterly confronts the century of violence he has participated in as witness and activist.

Click here for the full review.

18 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s incredibly difficult to imagine that there is anything new to say about Pablo Neruda. But Neruda, probably the most prolific poet of the twentieth century, provides endless opportunities for his readers, scholars and critics to re-evaluate his oeuvre. World’s End (Copper Canyon, 2009) is a treasure-trove of intimate insight, available in its entirety in English for the first time in William O’Daly’s careful and precise translation. In this expansive book-length poem Neruda oscillates between moments of vulnerable reflection on his own life and work (including his controversial early support of Stalin for which he denounces his naivety), bitter condemnation of the violence of the twentieth century, and a prophetic poetic voice.

World’s End, written towards the end of the poet’s life in 1968-69, is in many ways a response to the sometimes naive exuberance of his only other book-length poem Canto General, which was written over a much longer period of time from 1938-49. World’s End follows in the epic footsteps of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but instead of the celebratory and ultimately hopeful sense of Canto General, in this work Neruda bitterly confronts the century of violence he has participated in as witness and activist.

Here we have the mature Neruda. A Neruda of silence and of memory—his own, and historical. Of forgetting and the unforgettable. Here is a Neruda at times disillusioned about the power and usefulness of art in the face of so much violence:

It is our heavy epoch,
the age of iron paws,
the bloody and circular century,
and we must recognize
the wheels of the Apocalypse.

After all, they did not serve us,
the fragile human towers,
everything was soft and breakable,
any painting may be riddled with holes,
a sonata does not defend us,
the books burn and pass on.

(Death of a Journalist)

Despite this horror, this despair, Neruda (and this is why can forgive him so much) is ultimately certain that his work as a writer is vital: “I do not dedicate myself to the ashes, / I go on naming and believing” he writes in an elegy for Oliverio Girondo of the same name.

In the dizzying vastness of the book, Neruda telescopes from the intimate to the expansive. Encompassing everything, he writes bestiaries and indictments of the U.S.’s war in Vietnam, elegies and love poems. He condemns himself with one breath and defends himself with the next. He laments and he celebrates. It is the contradictions that make this work so important, and so human. It is also this unrestrained breadth that makes this poem seem less like a coherent sequence and more like a collection of individual poems.

For a patient reader (or more likely, a Neruda scholar), reading it as a sequence reveals subtexts that form the skeleton of the poem. Confronting the recurring violence, the modern mechanisms of war, the technology of destruction that threatens to overwhelm his humanity, there is silence and forgetting. Ultimately, this is a work about the unforgettable. The shared burden of violence and the responsibility of the poet to remember the unalterable truth. And only once that truth has been committed to poetry is it possible to “forget / so as to sustain hope” (“The Worship II”). This contradiction—silence as the way to bear witness, and forgetting as the way to remember—rests on the plurality of silences and of forgettings. Neruda writes between “the truthfulness of silence” (“The Passion”) and the missing who are “crucified in the silence / of this age of agony” (“The Missing”). In a “century of communicating / failed communications” (“Know It Know It Know It”) “words will come to an end / all language will be burned” (“Bomb I”) because language can’t withstand the abuses of propaganda, cover-ups and official lies. Language must lapse into silence in order to recover the ability to remember truth, and in doing so, allow the poet to unburden himself of that truth.

Neruda finds this restorative power primarily in his relationship to the natural world. In “The Idler” he writes:

May the enemy forgive me
if I wasted too much time speaking
with sands and minerals:
I had no real reason
but I learned a lot about silence.

Politics and nature depend on one another in this work, and as the cycle nears its end Neruda reclaims his power as a poet connected intimately to his people, his land and his sea.

But I move forward singing
my song, and the roads tell me
of the many they have seen pass
in this century of people without a country.
And the poet keeps on singing
so many victories, so much pain

(Exiles)

This book is perhaps most valuable for the insight it provides into Neruda’s political engagement with the major events of the twentieth century, and his contemporary writers. In addition to coming to terms with his role in history, he places himself among (or in opposition to) the great writers, mentioning among others Whitman, Vallejo, García Marquez, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Zola, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. The personal-historical, the mediation of history through the voice of the poet, is most interesting in this case for what it tells us about the poet.

And what it tells us about the poet is told in the voice of William O’Daly, the translator of this book, along with the other eight late and posthumous Neruda books published in this series by Copper Canyon. O’Daly re-creates in English the variety of Neruda’s voices within this poem. Surrealism mixes with politics and love poetry, and in the refusal of a distanced poetic voice O’Daly meets the challenge of Neruda’s self-implication in a heterogeneous vocabulary and a multitude of registers and dictions. From the prophetic to the elegiac, the nuanced variation of language is beautifully explored in resonant English. In contrast to the melancholic politics already quoted, take this short poem “Physics:”

Love, like the resin
of a tree filled with blood,
hangs out its strange odor of the origin
of natural enchantment:
the sea goes to extremes
or the devoured night
breaks over your motherland:
your soul breaks inside you,
two bells of bone sound,
and nothing happens but the weight
of your body, empty once again.

If Neruda, like Whitman, contains multitudes, then here we come to him in his full multitudinousness. Volumes could (and likely will) be written about the implications of this work in understanding one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Equally, in reading this book at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we have an unparalleled vantage point from which to reflect on the suffering, the pain, and our implicit share of that guilt of the most violent century in history. The perfection of the technologies of destruction requires the poetics of this book to remember, and to help us forget, the unforgettable.

15 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few weeks back, I posted about the 2010 Best Translated Book Award and included all of the dates and information for the Fiction selections. (To recap: We’ll announce the 25-title longlist on Tuesday, January 5th, the ten finalists on Tuesday, February 16th, and the winner at a TBD day in mid-March.)

In terms of potery, just over 60 titles came out over the past year (that year being from December 2008 through November 2009), so rather than announce a longlist consisting of 40% of all eligible books, for poetry we’re skipping right to the finalists and announcing the ten BTB poetry books on Tuesday, February 16th. And just as we do for the fiction titles, we’ll be highlighting a poetry book a day between the 22nd of February and the announcement of the winner.

I’ve been contacting all publishers with eligible titles, but in case I missed anyone, or in case you’re intentionally or unintentionally ignoring my e-mail, I thought I’d post the general guidelines on submitting books for the prize.

All original translations published between December 1, 2008 and November 30, 2009 are eligible. And by “original” we mean collections that have never before appeared in English—so no reprints, and no retranslations.

There’s no entry fee, all you have to do is mail one copy of your publication to each of the five panelists. (And if possible, send one copy to me as well—my address is on that same form—for record keeping and whatnot.) Please include a note or mark the package in some way indicating that these are 2010 BTB submissions . . .

Here are the names of the five panelists for this year’s award:

  • Brandon Holmquest, poet, translator, editor of CALQUE;
  • Jennifer Kronovet, poet, translator, editor of Circumference;
  • Idra Novey, poet, translator, Executive Director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University;
  • Kevin Prufer, poet, academic, essayist, and co-editor of New European Poets;
  • Matthew Zapruder, poet, translator, academic, and co-editor of Wave Books.

And now the countdown begins . . . I have a feeling that this year’s award will spark a lot more debate than the 2009 one. There doesn’t seem to be as many clear-cut favorites this time around, whereas last year was all about Bolano . . . And although he didn’t win, 2666 was one of the three best books that stood out to all of the panelists, along with Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness, and eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility. Should be interesting . . .

28 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I don’t read nearly as much international poetry as I do prose, but for those of you out there who are more lyrically inclined, here are two sites worth exploring:

Lyrikline is celebrating its 10th Anniversary this year, and over that time has compiled a damn impressive database of poems from around the world translated into several languages. And in addition to simply cataloging thousands of poems (to be more exact: “580 poets and 5300 poems in 49 languages” as well as “6400 translations in 48 languages”), there are audio recordings of a lot of the poems, so you can both read and hear the poetry . . .

I just found out about Brindin via Metafilter. The site isn’t the most high tech, but there’s a lot of content here, and the poems are translated from (and into) several different languages. Also interesting cataloging scheme that includes a section of Quirky Poems.

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In honor of today’s Ernesto Cardenal event in Ann Arbor, we thought we’d post a review of Pluriverse that Vincent Francone wrote for us.

The collection—which came out from New Directions earlier this year—covers Cardenal’s entire career, and Vincent has nothing but positive things to say about the book:

Readers of English, thank your gods: the breadth of Ernesto Cardenal’s amazing poetic career is now available for your consumption thanks to New Directions and the recently published Pluriverse. Spanning fifty-six years, the book presents Cardenal in all his guises: revolutionary, spiritualist, chronicler of man’s inhumanity to man, chilling visionary, and cosmic quasi-historian. The poems in this collection are often long, deceptively assessable, and quite dazzling.

      They told me you were in love with another man
      and then I went off to my room
      and I wrote that article against the government
      that landed me in jail.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Readers of English, thank your gods: the breadth of Ernesto Cardenal’s amazing poetic career is now available for your consumption thanks to New Directions and the recently published Pluriverse. Spanning fifty-six years, the book presents Cardenal in all his guises: revolutionary, spiritualist, chronicler of man’s inhumanity to man, chilling visionary, and cosmic quasi-historian. The poems in this collection are often long, deceptively assessable, and quite dazzling.

They told me you were in love with another man
and then I went off to my room
and I wrote that article against the government
that landed me in jail.

When I first encountered the above four lines—the eighth section of Cardenal’s long poem “Epigrams”—I was sure I was reading a Latin American writer concerned, a la Neruda, with love and political strife in equal measure. I was right, but little did I know of the complete depth of Cardenal; little did I know that this poem, which is wonderful, was not necessarily a perfect synecdoche of the poet/priest/activist’s total abilities. “Epigrams” is early Cardenal, written in a period of reaction against Somoza in Nicaragua. Though its deep political leanings manifest before long, the poet as sad bastard makes an appearance first:

This will be my revenge
that one day you’ll hold in your hands the book of a famous poet
and you’ll read these lines that the author wrote for you
and you won’t even know it.

Reading the poem alongside the more famous “Zero Hour,” one can see the development beginning in Cardenal from romantic young poet to mature writer documenting injustice:

     . . . the United Fruit Company
with its revolutions for the acquisition of concessions
and exemptions of millions in import duties
and export duties, revisions of old concessions
and grants for new exploitations,
violations of contracts, violations
of the Constitution

“Zero Hour” remains one of the most striking examples of the poet as witness. The artful translation by Donald Walsh (one of seven translators contributing to this collection) captures the horror and history permeating throughout Cardenal’s long, unsettling poem:

Oh, to be able to sleep in your own bed tonight
without the fear of being pulled out of bed and taken out of your house,
the fear of knocks at the door or doorbells ringing in the night!

Pluriverse jumps from these early works to contemplative, spiritual poems that fuse Cardenal’s socio-political concerns with his religious vocation—“In respect of riches, just or unjust, / of goods be they ill-gotten or well-gotten: / All riches are unjust.” (from “Unrighteous Mammon (Luke 16:9))—sorrowful meditations, such as his “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” and the nightmarish vision of his classic “Apocalypse,” a poem that seems all the more prophetic when read today:

And the angel gave me a check drawn on the National City Bank
and said unto me: Go thou cash this check
but no bank would for all the banks were bankrupt
Skyscrapers were as though they had never been
A million simultaneous fires yet not one firefighter
nor a phone to summon an ambulance nor were there any ambulances
nor was there enough plasma in all the world
                                to help the injured of a single city”

Cardenal always keeps his eye fixed firmly to his subject, even when bouncing from place to place, as in his “Trip to New York,” a poem that offers North Americans a look at a foreigner’s view of our rampant capitalism:

                      . . . And I look
at the deep canyon, the sunken gorge of buildings
where the hidden persuaders hide behind their windows
          selling automobiles of True Happiness, canned Relief (for 30¢)
                ** The Coca-Cola Company**
we cut through the canyon of windows and trillions of dollars

A seller of old books in the Village in love with my shirt
              my cotton peasant shirt from Nicaragua
he asks me who designed it.

Reading Pluriverse from cover to cover is, in effect, charting Cardenal from his beginnings to his current, Cosmic Canticle era writings—poems that chart the progression of the universe, the Earth, and the individual all at once. The new poems in Pluriverse strive to balance all of creation on the tip of the poet’s pen, fusing a connection between man and the cosmos:

Our cycle follows the star cycle:
stars are born, grow, die; our cycle is short
            — theirs too.
They seem stable
but like us they’re slowly dying.

If the universe is expanding
from which center is it expanding?
Or is every point the center?
So then the center of the universe
is also our galaxy,
is also our planet
(and the girl who once was for me).

The cosmic/mythical quality of these new works matches the storied life of their author. Cardenal, at age eighty-four, after political opposition, after serving as ambassador for the Sandinistas, after forming the Our Lady of Solentiname commune, after being publicly admonished by Pope John Paul II, after being harassed by the current incarnation of the Sandinistas, has earned the right to look not only backward but beyond, into the furthest regions of space. His findings match the remarkable quality of his past poetry. This is essential reading.

4 March 08 | Melissa Schoenberger | Comments

This week, El Pais features the work of the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish. A number of his books of poetry have been translated from Arabic into Spanish, including Menos rosas, Estado de sitio, and Mural. Darwish, born to Muslim parents in Al-Birwa, faced exile to Egypt, France, Lebanon, and Tunisia as a result of his writing and political involvment. Ángel Rupérez elaborates on Darwish’s ability to take on the rather tricky task of crafting poems that approach political subjects:

La mejor poesía social y política es ésta, la que denuncia sin renunciar a la ambición artística…el resultado es una indiscutible y artística complejidad.

(The best social and political poetry is this, that which denounces without renouncing artistic ambition…the result is an unquestionable and artistic complexity.)

Stuart Reigeluth contributes an accompanying article that provides much more information concerning Darwish’s political life. Reigeluth writes that, despite exile, incarceration, and censorship, Darwish, “without accusing any one group, spoke about how the prolonged Israeli occupation has divided Palestine.”

You can find both articles in their original Spanish versions here.

Darwish’s official website has more information about the poet, including his biography, audio clips of Darwish reading his poetry in Arabic, and a listing of his books that have been translated into English.

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