by Ilya Kaminsky
“I am a child of September”
“Was he bowing to himself when he died?” So begins one of the most daring, unusual, and memorable collections of poetry in translation that I have read in years. This book of ‘remade psalms’ written by ‘a child of September’ and carried into English by one of our best lyric voices, gives us that rare thing: devotional poetry that is as skeptical, self-doubting and struggling as it is glorious in its high-style and aspiration.
“Yes, I loved greatness too much…I savored the vulgar tongue,” writes the poet who admits, “then I came to dream of writing / the great prayer of our time” only to step back “I could never have the right to such a voice” and yet, affirm: “I assemble an interior liturgy in this way.” One thinks here of Celan’s “o one, or none, o no one, o you” when one is faced with the poetics of such immediate negation and affirmation, of seeking.
And, so we recognize it as truth when the author of dozens of pages of psalms admits ‘it is quite dangerous to speak so much about God,” and yet exclaims ‘You allotted me too much happiness, my God!’ And we of course think of G.M. Hopkins exclaiming “(my God!) my God” and remember Kafka’s “all language is but a poor translation.” But the poet struggles on, as “the one who wanted to understand too much, say: here is a man.”
Argument with another, Yeats taught us, is rhetoric, while argument with one’s self is poetry. And we see this clearly when the author of this book, after much struggle, exclaims: “Like a sailor who cries out: Land! / There’s land! I shout: / Man! finally I’ve reached mankind!” And then, with even more clarity, we see how out of private struggle the lyric arrives: “Two of us: the throat and the voice to say so.” And we realize then that we are in the presence of a true spirit, as his talented translator Jennifer Grotz reminds us, with J. S. Mill, that “eloquence is heard. Poetry is what’s overheard.”
Devotional poetry is the hardest to translate and Grotz’s brilliant and very honest introduction offers a rare glimpse into the struggles, the doubts and joys of this process, in a way that is both frank and refreshing—and raises the bar for anyone who attempts to translate, from any language.