A Note on Psalms of All My Days by Patrice de La Tour du Pin, translated by Jennifer Grotz

Tags

, , ,

grotz_psalmsby 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.

Advertisements

A Note on Todd Swift’s When All My Disappointments Came at Once

Tags

, ,

swiftby Ilya Kaminsky

 

“The highest criticism is the record of one’s own soul,” writes Oscar Wilde, and here in this book Todd Swift finds a way to give us a record which is both unpredictable and deeply comforting. How? Swift has found a tone that is smart and honest without being patronizing, he gives us an imaginative clarity that is both evocative and sustaining, in which we sense “the vibrancy of loss is violins.”

 

This is a book of portraits and voyages. You will find moving elegiac invocations of figures ranging from Delmore Schwartz to Snow Child.  Swift will take you on many trips to real world places such as St. John’s Wood hospital, St. Ives, Hammersmith Grove, as well as to various imaginary realms that are fascinating–“The land I’d wish to describe” Swift tells us, “contains beasts more delightful than art itself…how fortunate we are to live elsewhere.” And on another voyage we venture into “the past-clever home / for poets, when, inkhorn / Dry, their plain pure language / Has run out.” Then we find ourselves in a “New Country” watching  “ministries / swelling to a nation in some streets” and realizing that “light is always violent expansion.”

 

Swift’s tone possesses a certain knowledge, a certain vision. Of what sort? Of seeing a body that is “like a dancer, a mind like a jackal.” His acute awareness of his own mortality brings wisdom, yes. It also brings clarity to how, in our time, to use F.T. Prince’s phrase, “to love is terrible we prefer/the freedom of our crimes.” This too, is a record of one’s soul.

 

It is rare to find, in a chorus of contemporaries, a voice that speaks unsentimentally, but passionately–and of what matters. Todd Swift does this. I particularly loved here such pieces as “Michael Kohlahaas,” “Azoospermia,” “St. Peter and St. Paul,” “Love or Poetry,” “Pont D’Avignon,” “August 1982, Lac Bridgen.” If you have only a few minutes, read the piece called  “God has left us like a girl in a bookstore” and you will want to buy this book.

A Note on Sylva Fischerova

Tags

, ,

fischerova_sylvaby Ilya Kaminsky

Sylva Fischerova is a poet like no other. What does that mean? It means that here we have a poet who “lives with the dead,” who “finishes their gestures” and raves and dances and loves in a large way, with both arms open. But she also whispers, conjures, casts a spell.

 

She speaks of fate, but not “as in Greek tragedy / where you carry it inside / where it’s written in your eyes.” Her fate is “like rain: a branch fallen, / right in front of you, / pointing to the graveyard.” This is a voice that speaks without patronizing, that knows of mystery but admits that “in the last room, / the soul tied up in a password,/ which I’m not gonna tell you –”. This refusal to say, with all its warmth, love, verbal skill, aplomb, and fireworks of the highest order, is wisdom.

 

She is not just one of the most important European poets alive, she is also one of the few European poets who is great fun to read, without compromising the truth, without selling out the magic. She entertains in the old way, still teaching the lesson. Her phrases are both utterly playful and utterly instructive: “what the Greeks / died in admiration of, /all these are statues./ They can’t eat spinach. Can’t see/ how you, before the mirror, / try to find yourself, / the inside of your statue.”

 

Fisherova teaches me something new each time I open her books. This is a poet to live with.

Japanese Poetry Today: Masashi Musha Interviews Judy Halebsky

Tags

, ,

judy-halebskyJudy Halebsky’s book of poems Sky=Empty (New Issues, 2010) was chosen by Marvin Bell as the winner of the New Issues Prize, a first book award, and was also a finalist for the California Book Award. With a collective of Tokyo poets, Halebsky edits and translates the bilingual poetry journal Eki Mae. She lives in Ocean Beach, at San Francisco’s outer edges, and teaches at Dominican University of California.

Masashi Musha: Who do you consider to be some of the best contemporary Japanese poets currently living today?

Judy Halebsky: The biggest struggle for an English-speaking readership is the tiny portion of new writing that makes it into translation. Yuka Tsukagoshi, whose work I greatly admire and translate, is doing exciting work influenced by multiple strands of modern and contemporary poetry, including surrealism. Jeffery Angles has done excellent translations of poetry by Takako Arai and Hiromi Ito. Sawako Nakayasu and Eric Selland are compiling an anthology of modern Japanese poetry in translation. Poet Alan Botsford does a wonderful job as the editor of the bilingual poetry journal, Poetry Kanto. These are just a few places to get started with contemporary Japanese poetry.

MM: You’re originally from Canada and lived in Japan for five years. What brought you to Japan? Can you give us an overview of the poetry that you studied in Tokyo?

JH: I moved to California for graduate school and was reading Jane Hirshfield and Robert Hass. I wanted to learn more of the poetry forms and aesthetics that shape their work. Jane Hirshfield’s Ink Dark Moon offers translations of court poetry or “waka.” These are short poems with syllable count phrases of 5-7-5-7-7 and are generally about refined subject matter. Many of the poems are about the longing of waiting for a lover to visit.

Renga or linked verse extended the waka form into a collaborative poetry activity. Poets would take turns writing the 5-7-5 or 7-7 links. The poem could go on for hundreds of verses. The first verse is called the “hokku” and is composed in 5-7-5 meter. This hokku developed into a poetry form on its own, and is now called haiku. Early haiku poked fun at the court class and court poetry by using vernacular language and common images. Basho elevated haiku and brought a poetic sophistication to the form while maintaining the colloquial language and everyday images. Hass’s translated volume, The Essential Haiku, contains haiku by Basho, Buson, and Issa. These translations inspired me to study Japanese literature.

Of course, once I was living in Tokyo, I became involved in contemporary poetry as well. I attended a reading series where poets would read their entire poetry book in one night. I also went to haiku events and participated in a group gallery show where we composed a ren-shi (free verse version of renga) together. I met Tokyo poets and we started a bilingual journal called Eki Mae (e.g. In Front of the Station).

MM: You also translate Japanese poetry. How do you choose which poets or poems to translate?

JH: I’m drawn to translation because I want to access the poems. I translate the work of two contemporary poets, Yuka and Akutsu Ayumi. I also translate some haiku within my own writing. Mostly, I have come to translation through some connection to the poems in Japanese that I can’t find in English either because the poems are not translated or because my experience of the poem in Japanese is different from existing translations.

MM: Is there a certain challenge to translating Japanese poetry that may not exist in translating texts in other languages?

JH: Translation is always hard. There’s the written language and the cultural knowledge that shapes how we assign meaning to words. What is assumed knowledge for some audiences is different for other audiences. In terms of the challenges of translating from Japanese as compared to other languages, I do think there are different distances among languages. The distance between two languages lessens if they share some linguistic commonality (such as Latin or Germanic roots) or aspects of a shared cultural knowledge (such as a Judeo-Christian heritage). I struggle not only with understanding the poem in Japanese but in re-creating it in English within its own frame. For example, a repeated image in Yuka’s work is a rice field and, in particular, reflections on the water in a rice field. When I write ‘rice field’ does the reader in North America get an image of a field with standing water that on a bright day can reflect the sky? I don’t know. It wasn’t an immediate image for me.

MM: Do you ever collaborate with others?

JH: Yuka and I work together in a collaborative process. We bring different points of view and have spent hours at a diner called “Jonathan’s” (with a free drink bar), going over a thousand possibilities in a translation. It’s also a process of trust, almost like spinning while holding hands. We both need to lean out and give weight to create the new poem without falling.

MM: What’s your process of translation like?

JH: For translating Yuka’s poems, I start with reading the poems and seeing what poems might work well in translation. While I work closely with Yuka, I start by reading the poem on my own and developing my own relationship with it. I’ll then make a gloss of the poem by translating phrases and parts of lines literally. I use various dictionaries to come up with the gloss. Then, I’ll start to write lines of the translation from a sensory understanding of the poem.

One of the struggles in translating from Japanese is trying to preserve the order of the lines and phrases. To re-create the order of the source poem risks the English translation having a disrupted grammatical flow. I weight this with the importance of sequence and the location of images within the poem.

After I have a working draft of the translation, I’ll share it with Yuka and we’ll begin a long collaborative process of going back and forth about lines break, word choice, and punctuation. She usually favors a more literal translation than I do. I often stress creating the effect of the original poem in English over preserving specific literal meaning.

MM: Has translating the works of other poets affected how you write your own poetry?

JH: Poetry writing and learning a language are entwined in my work. There’s the continual making of meaning, the disruption of meaning, and the searching for failed equivalencies. For my translation of haiku, my process is generative and often results in multiple possible translations of a particular haiku embedded in a larger poem. There’s a point in translation where I’ve internalized the poem that I am trying to translate. From there, I can write a translation into the form of the source poem. Sometimes, I want to write that poem into a new shape and that’s what I can do in my own work. Most often, I do this with Basho’s haiku. My poem, “A Breaking Word,” translates Basho’s frog pond haiku. I quote from three different translations of the haiku (by Robert Hass, Alan Watts, and Allen Ginsberg). Lines in the poem describe some of the ways that it is difficult to translate the haiku. So, in a way, my newly generated poem opens up Basho’s haiku and reveals some of the intricacies of translation for an English-speaking readership.

Contemporary Poetry in Spanish: Jennifer Minniti-Shippey Interviews G.A. Chaves and translates his poems

Tags

, ,

chavesG.A. Chaves, born in Costa Rica in 1979, is the author of short stories Cuentos etcétera (2004) and poetry collection Vida ajena (2010). Chaves has translated an anthology of poems by Robinson Jeffers and edited the selected poetry of Costa Rica’s Carlos de la Ossa. Jennifer Minniti-Shippey was excited to interview him about contemporary Spanish-language poetry, his work as a translator, and everything in between.

 

Jennifer Minniti-Shippey: In your opinion, who are the most interesting poets writing in Spanish today? What sets them apart and makes them must-read poets?

G.A. Chaves: Among the ones I know best, I think that Fabio Morábito (Mexico) and Rafael Courtoisie (Uruguay) are both major poets with very distinctive voices. Morábito has a reportage kind of immediacy to his language, whereas Courtoisie is a ceaselessly experimental virtuoso.

I recently discovered the poetry of another Mexican, Luis Felipe Fabre. His poems seem to be capable of making old tricks (like rhyme) useful and fun again.

In Spain, I like the variety of Juan Carlos Mestre’s work. He’s densely personal, yet not confessional, and strongly social, though not quite political. He seems to me a modern-day John Donne: everything he sees becomes poetry.

Javier Payeras (Guatemala) is an incredibly inventive poet with an amazing eye for dramatic details.

There are two Costa Rican poets who I think we will keep reading for many years: Silvia Piranesi (a tropical Samuel Beckett, with a vengeance) and Klaus Steinmetz (a poet who understands that intelligence is not the negation of intense feeling). When I read Steinmetz and Piranesi I have to conclude that, yes, there are still things that can only be said through poetry, and that the medium of verse is not only valid but also very necessary. There are two other Costa Rican poets that make me feel that the place I inhabit is worth writing about: Luis Chaves (no relation) and Alfredo Trejos. Their poems are as familiar to me as the city I live in.

JMS: What European poets are best known or loved by their Spanish language counterparts? And what American poets?

GC: I feel like all I can do here is name-dropping. While all the major names (Ginsberg, Ashbery, Celan, Szymborska, Enzensberger, Pavese, Bonnefoy, Transtromer) are well-known, I think people look for stuff everywhere and their writing is proof of that. I think that not many people know Don Paterson and Jürgen Becker, which is a shame. But maybe I’m just hanging out in the wrong neighborhood.

JMS: Translators who work with Romance languages often wrestle with capturing the musicality of those languages in English, with its more limited range of rhyme.  When you translate poems from English to Spanish, what is your process?  Which poets have been “easiest” to translate into Spanish?  And which have been difficult?

GC: I think this is a mistake. We all despair too quickly when our target languages can’t quite reproduce the fixtures of the original and end up thinking that our native languages are somewhat inept. The reason why Spanish, for example, gives the impression of being rhyme-rich is because it is completely regular in its five vowel sounds. An “o” will always rhyme with an “o.” That’s why “rezo” and “mozo” can pass as rhymes. But I think every writer with a good sense of prosody will tell you that this is a limitation. English is so maddeningly irregular that it could rhyme the Spanish “rezo” with the English “wrestle.” More than a limitation, I think that’s a blessing.

So far, Stanley Crawford’s novel Log of the SS. The Mrs. Unguentine is the hardest translation I’ve done. It’s only a hundred pages long, but it took two translators to do it. I was functioning mostly as a consultant to Andrea Mickus, the other translator on the project, but it was a very demanding and exhausting job all the same.

JMS: How does working as a translator influence your own poetry? What can young poets learn by translating the work of other writers?

GC: I started translating out of sheer necessity to learn how to write. You often hear from writers this old piece of advice about re-typing the great works of the masters to let that energy enter your system. Well, I don’t much care for energy, but I have learned technique from doing this. You have this powerful Robinson Jeffers lyric in front of you, and then you have this flabby little joke of a story in Spanish, and you wonder, how are the two related? Little by little, you learn to pay closer attention to the original’s technique and you get to use that in your own writing. Ultimately, translation teaches one how to read and that’s essential to good writing as well.

***

Five Poems by G.A. Chaves

Desayuno, by Juan Gris (MoMA, 2008) for Julio Acuña, in memoriam

Terracotta is the color of origin;
 and grey, the color of Juan. 
We are what we eat: 
earth, letters, wings, and ash.

(Winter’s colors 
should be primaries:
 in the beginning were water and ashes.)

We are always a beginning, Julio:
 we’re a table set with the tools,
 smoking, peaceful,
 that give way to another dawn.

*

Chaves, Portugal

Life that breaks me against its hard angles, 
(life, eroded, without the faith of my dead), 
life, intermittent, with uncertain steps,

the life of my poems, the life of silence…
the evident life—as Melcion Mateu said—
seems a little strange and distant in this fire

that sometimes I call sky and others cielo and now céu.

*

Foncebadón, Camino de Santiago

When we’ve lost the fear
 of not hearing more than our own pulse,

and only the dust of our steps 
remains between the stumps of dry grass,

the stone fences grow weak, unreal,
 and the hermitage fills with overwhelmed flies.

(This silence seems poor 
but took centuries ripening).

*

Idaho, 1997for Olga Ruiz

Olguita sent me a petal in her letter and asked me to check if there are flowers where I live or if the sky is like the one over her house but here I only see snow and the night sky is the same with its stars and its blackness is broader than ever sometimes I lose sight of the moon but I don’t get sad because her petal doesn’t fade and I reread the letter where Olguita wrote life looks so beautiful at our age while I wait to leave this house and return to my own and see the whole flower planted below the narrow sky and the lovely Olguita imagining everything and writing me letters.

*

Catullus XCVI for Carlos de la Ossa

Because some joy must come with this 
interior, artificial winter,
 where we keep lovers and friends
 who with time we’ve lost, 
let’s not mourn the time spent
 while in our skin their memory remains.

Let’s leave with our souls,
 if it’s the soul that survives, 
if so much strength and cold 
hasn’t changed it into an animal. 
Be happy in your bones, Carlos;
 use them up until the world cannot weigh them down.

Translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Minniti-Shippey

Hebrew Poetry Today: Carly Miller and Rachel Gellman Interview Eli Eliahu and translate his work

eli

by Rachel Gellman and Carly Joy Miller

Eli Eliahu, born in 1969, is an Israeli poet based out of Ramat Gan. He has published two highly praised books in Hebrew: I, and not an Angel (2008) and City and Fears (2011). Aside from writing poetry, he writes for Haaretz Daily Newspaper on poetry and culture. Most of his work has not been translated into English, but following our interview with him below, you can read two of his poems, recently translated into English by contributing editors Rachel Gellman and Carly Joy Miller.

Rachel Gellman and Carly Joy Miller:  Other than poetry, what occupies your time?

Eli Eliahu:  I work at HaaretzDaily Newspaper as an editor and a writer on subjects of culture and literature. So every day I’m at the editorial board. I have a daughter, she is four years old, and I try to be with her as much as possible.

RG&CJM:  When did you start writing poetry and why?

EE:  I started to write poems when I was in elementary school. I was fascinated with books and words from the beginning and once I had the ability to write I tried to recapture the magic of the music created by words and syntax. But it took me a long time to feel that I had my private poetic language and that I could speak through it about my life and not just imitate other poets.

RG&CJM:  What are your obsessions and how do they come out in your writing?

EE:  I guess I’m obsessed with words. I like the rhythm, the order of the letters in the words. I am obsessed with the different meanings a word could have in different contexts. I also spend quite some time thinking about the connection between the soul and the body; I think it reflects in my poetry.

RG&CJM:  What tensions live in your poems? What wakes you up at night to start writing?

EE:  I think that art in general is based on and is about tensions. Everything that I write is about tensions between two or more things or feelings or thoughts, and poetry is the place that you can put some order to all these contradicting feelings. I also think that the main tension in poetry is between beauty and truth, between the aesthetic and honesty. But what makes me wake up at night to write is usually not an idea or a thought, but a combination of words that appears in my mind that demands to be developed.

RG&CJM:  How does living in Israel inform and shape your poetry?

EE:  This is a very complicated question. Almost as complicated as this country. One of the main shaping experiences of an Israeli man is the military service, especially to serve in the occupied territories. There are some poems of mine that deal directly with this experience.

But more than that, I think Israel is a very stressed, crowded, violent and noisy country. And this is the background of my poetry. I think part of my poetry is a documentation of the struggle of the individual against this background. I also live in a city, and the city with its buildings, roads, sidewalks, stairs, windows, is the background view of my poetry and a main source of metaphors and images.

RG&CJM:  Who are your poetic influences? Whose books do you read over and over?

EE:  First of all there is the Bible. This is the book I read over and over; it has great poetry in it. Maybe the best poetry written in Hebrew. And then there are many poets who have influenced me in different ways. Some of them influenced me with the subject of their poetry, some with their specific and unique vocabularies and others with the music of their poetry. To list some names – Amir Gilboa, Avot Yeshuron, Nathan Zach, Bialik, Alterman, Dalia Rabikovich, Itzhak Laor and others. I also read English poetry. I’m very fond of the poetry of Eliot, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Billy Collins, Carl Sandburg, and above all Walt Whitman. I also read translated poetry. We have great translators of Polish poetry in Israel. I like the poetry of Szymborska and Milosz. They had a great influence on my poetry.

RG&CJM:  What would you call your poetic aesthetic?

EE:  I think that poetry is the combination of beauty, wisdom, and music. I try to combine these in my poetry. I think a poet should not only pay attention to the meaning of the word, but also to its rhythm, music, to the associations it brings, and to its connections with the other words that it follows. Above all, poems must have inner music, even if the poem is not written in a structural way.

RG&CJM:  What do you love about the Hebrew language?

EE:  I love that Hebrew has an ancient background, and that there have been different kinds of Hebrew throughout the years. I like the fact that in Hebrew different words come from mutual roots. One gets a feeling that there is always a strong connection between things in the world. Hebrew also has an ability to say much in few words. The Bible does this in the most distinct way.

RG&CJM:  Do you translate any work into Hebrew?

EE:  Yes, sometimes. I am not consistent with it, but once in awhile I discover a poem that I like so much that I want to read it also in  Hebrew, so I translate first of all for myself. It must be a poem that I feel could also stand in Hebrew. There are poems that I like very much, but I feel that most of their power and beauty will be lost in translation. Up until now, I have translated Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and some poems by Billy Collins, Walt Whitman and Philip Larkin.

RG&CJM:  In the poems we’ve translated of yours, we’ve noticed the themes of family and your home life—do these subjects come up often in your work?

EE:  Yes. Since the beginning of my poetry I have been trying to find the right poetics in order to be able to talk about my life and my experiences, because, for me, this is one of the main differences between modern poetry/prose and philosophy. In philosophy, you begin with a big idea and then go to the individual, and in modern poetry you go from the individual experience to the big idea. I am also fascinated with the gap between the things that are on the surface and the things that lie beneath, between what is exposed and what is hidden. The place that this gap is most protrusive is within the family, because it is the most intimate place, and still, many things are happening under the surface.

***

Translations:

Yizkor

The day will come, and this war
will also be a chapter in the learning books.
Schoolchildren will memorize dates, names
of battles, warlords, states.
Some bored girl will draw hearts
in her notebook, a boy will yawn,
someone will ask to be excused.
Next to a black table,
a teacher will scold the student
who forgot the number
of casualties.

The Foreclosers

Knocked on the door at noon (a misunderstanding
with the city regarding property tax collections),
came with guns, pulled out forms,
so-and-so, square by square, they said.
So-and-so, debts accumulated, interest,
delays. They saw books on the shelves,
on the couch, on the table. The tall one asked
If I was working on a PhD. No, I said,
poet. He saw my book on the table,
opened it and read aloud: “The world is peeling back
like a giant snakeskin.” Beautiful, he said, the world
peeling back. Really beautiful. They agreed
to split the debt into equal payments. From all
the books, they foreclosed one line and went away.

Interview and translations by Rachel Gellman

and Carly Joy Miller

A Review of Jericho Brown’s Please

Tags

, ,

Please_Coverby Gina Vaynshteyn

Jericho Brown’s Please explores the way love and violence coexist and how the two sometimes intertwine. The collection of poems is categorized into four sections: “Repeat,” “Pause,” “Power,” and finally, “Stop.”  The poems address themes of both psychological and sexual self-identification, Brown’s relationships with his father, mother, and lovers, and the process of taming a terrorized beauty.

The content of this collection is meaty and complex.  Multiple readings are required in order to fully grasp the dense matter. The narratives are not meant to be relatable; Brown is illuminating a certain darkness uniquely portrayed in each poem. In “Detailing the Nape” Brown portrays a grandmother literally attempting to scrub the blackness off her granddaughter’s neck.  This familial poem brings up issues of black identity, recognition, and avoidance. “Lunch” reveals quiet homophobia and misrepresentation in a fast food joint: “The register takes my jealous / Stare for one of disapproval / And shakes his head at me. / To say, I hate faggots / Too.” The poem “Betty Jo Jackson” shares a story that the speaker’s father repeatedly tells, a story about his mother standing up to a young vixen attempting to flirt with his father: “I guess you can tell / Why I’m so jealous of Betty Jo. She got / To see my mother back when she still / Wanted a fight.”  

The collection of poems is moved fluidly along through the use of motifs of song and pop culture. Poems are often organized as tracklistings, such as “Track 1: Lush Life”. This aggressive and lusty piece illuminates hte physical and emotional abuse that can attach itself to sex: “You can’t tell the difference between a leather belt and a lover’s / Tongue. A lover’s tongue might call you bitch.” The poem delves into the sometimes smudged line between abuse and affection, juxtaposing the leather belt a father uses to beat his child and the leather belt a woman uses to beat a man in lust, in love.  Brown uses the track listing motif from time to time, displaying a unique sense of form and a creating a melodic soundtrack that compliments his style, voice, and (heart)beat.

Brown’s forms are unpredictable. Free verse lines are played with differently according to the dictates of each poem. The variety enhances both the content and the visual clarity. Blocks such as “Track 1: Lush Life” are juxtaposed with “Scarecrow,” a piece that is segmented into five sections and switches from coupled lines to short blocks. The poem “Tin Man” is best described as constructed open field; it is divided in to three sections that could be read vertically or horizontally. This type of experimentation with lineage flirts with the danger of muddy meanings, but Brown executes this form of writing well. One can read, “In my chest / a slit of air. /Don’t say love,” or “In my chest. / Drop a penny. / Cities shine gray.” The poem works both ways and creates symmetrical white space for the readers to play with. In the poems, “Lunch,”  and “Idea for an Album: Vandross the Duets” the lines are organized into tercets and couplets, respectively. This tight form compliments the straight-forward substance without distracting the reader with unorthodox line breaks.

In Brown’s Please, there is no quiet build up, only booming climax. The poet’s first collection of poems is masterfully presented with unique craft and conviction.  Jericho Brown represents a truly monumental voice in American poetry. Please exemplifies brave and honest writing in a world that too often shrugs off or pushes away the controversial and the ugly.

On the Poetics of Maria Garcia Teutsch

Tags

, ,

teutchby Ilya Kaminsky

In her poems, Maria introduces us to the woman “who used to talk so much God-language”:

 

She traveled inside a hole.

She shouted and pointed

her gun of daisies.

 

Look as she becomes

smoke around the rooftiles.

She used to talk to god

at a pew of park benches.

 

The voices in her poems are direct and yet there is a certain mystery to this directness, this clarity of address. Clarity, the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish taught us, is the first mystery. She understands this too. Her poems can be devotional, or political or sexy, but there is always this sense of direct address, of clarity that isn’t all that simple, that contains a kind of tenderness, a kind of playfulness that is clear and mysterious at the same time.

 

Here are a few lines from one of her love poems:

 

“My fingernails are

are tattooed with the ink of hate mail”

 

“my hands touch moonlight on your cheek while you sleep.”

 

And, here is how a speaker in another of her love lyrics defines clarity for us:

 

Clarity

 

is your stomach

against

my spine in the bed of salt.

 

 

What kind of vision comes from a poet who speaks of clarity in a language that is thoroughly metaphorical?  What is her sense of the past? Of the past, she says —

 

“The past is a whore insisting you notice her red silk dress.”

 

Is it a memory, we wonder, or theater? Perhaps it is both, as the language of images does not just list the detail, but invites the reader to enact it:

 

“The past is your sister’s curly hair in summer sunlight, her body an arc, diving.

              (The past is the ripple from the splash you dip your toe in.)”

 

Thus, her poems about memory and events in her life aren’t at all confessional, just as her political poems aren’t at all polemic. Here are some lines from the piece, “An American Poet in a Muslim Country,” which she wrote recently while living abroad:

 

Fisherman finds human finger in belly of a fish—

 

fish finds silver hook

with lemon bait twist

in corner of mouth of a man who’s caught it–

who’s pointing

the tail

at whom?

 

And, here is another lyric from a different sequence on living abroad:

 

French politician wages war on “anti-white racism.”

 

Soldiers confused

over white flag.

With hands outstretched,

they surrender

while whistling untender

untended parts of speech.

 

This, as you can see, is a poetry that is willing to take a closer look at strange things and to make familiar things new and fresh again.  To find clarity in confusion, take playfulness as a given, and to be alive in each days, with full intensity. She does this because she follows the path of Cezanne, who said that painting from nature is not copying the object…it is materializing one’s sensations.

 

Maria Garcia Teutsch is a poet who looks for lyricism and sensual flavor in our daily moments, and makes poems that ride on the human nerve, like Frank O’Hara told us the poet must.

A Review of Matt W. Miller’s Club Icarus

icarus

by Michael Luke Benedetto

In Matt W. Miller’s Club Icarus, his second collection and winner of the 2012 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry, the opening pages offer two epigraphs:  the first, a quote from Virgil’s The Aeneid, and the second, lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light.”  Miller’s readers can expect to navigate the spectrum between these two poles as they are confronted by densely constructed and intricately woven poems, as well as simpler, more lucid pieces, all the while unraveling the familial narrative of a man struggling with loss and becoming a father.

Death and loss are ubiquitous in the four sections of Club Icarus. Even though contemplative ruminations and narrative vignettes are interspersed throughout, the slow, debilitating decline of Miller’s father is always lurking nearby, in a photograph, under a bridge, in distant childhood memories, or an open letter to a famous NFL player.  Many of the characters that materialize out of the collection’s linguistic snapshots are intriguing within the few stanzas they occupy, but it is clear that the true power behind Miller’s narratives derives from the metamorphosis of a family across generations.

It is difficult not to be simultaneously enticed and alarmed by the language in these poems, often luring the reader in with smoothly compacted alliterative verse, which may, at any moment, leap from the page with macabre, guttural images.  From “Aruba, One Happy Island,” which opens, “Too much salt for our skin but the sun / is the sun again and the sand a warm / whiteness against the stitched lip of winter,” to the speaker in “Exempli Gratia” who wants “forearms scabbed / and scarred from fisting death’s teeth,” readers are treated to the full range of Miller’s poetic talents.

Often in tercets or couplets, these poems are crafted with succinct lines that expand into elaborate and forceful images.  Though the majority of poems are written in complete sentences, utilizing standard prosaic punctuation, Club Icarus is not without pieces that eschew this convention in order to reinforce the sense of immediacy that springs from the subject.  This is best evidenced in the poem “Partus,” which details the birth of, presumably, Miller’s daughter:

“Riflebutt the curve of her wool
socked foot into the shoulder shove

her knee down now toward her ear fingers
wrapping hamstrings stretched”

Again, Miller’s tightly packed language tumbles forth creating an air of urgency that propels the reader from these opening lines to the culmination of the narrative:  the successful delivery of a baby girl.

Though loss hangs heavily throughout this collection, and the Icarian theme is present in many of the poems, a sense of hope occasionally rises to the surface and solidifies around a familial relationship.  There is no better example than in the title poem, “Club Icarus,” which closes part two.  In it, we are ejected, along with the speaker and his daughter, from a plane that has struck Icarus on his flight.  Before meeting his fate at ground level, the speaker sees his daughter one last time as “wings like blades butterfly / from her back and lift her / laughing back into the blue.”

In Matt W. Miller’s prize-winning collection, windows are opened into the lives of tragic figures—a dying father, an ailing football coach, a down-on-her-luck ex-bodybuilder—and since these tragedies are played out in verse as striking as it is pleasing to the ear, the reader cannot help but be drawn into each brief glimpse before the window closes.  Whatever his subject, Miller masterfully paints an evocative scene with language both accessible and stunning.

A Review of Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia

Tags

, ,

girmayby Kaitlin Dyer

In her second book of poetry, Kingdom Animalia, Aracelis Girmay continues her exploration into deep emotional issues. While her first collection of poetry, Teeth, also used a slightly fragmented style to delve into such topics as love, death, and family discord, Kingdom Animalia seems to master this technique and exploit it for all its potential.

Kingdom Animalia is a book that unravels on itself like a Russian nesting doll. The structure of the book is broken into several “books” such as “a book of dirt” or “a book of beautiful monsters.” By doing this, Girmay refocuses the reader on viewing the world, and its inhabitants, in a new perspective. Uniquely, she seems to make even the mundane parts of humanity or life appear strange by shifting the reader’s perspective. One example of this can be found in the poem “St. Elizabeth” when Girmay discribes meeting a group of goats along a road:  “I fall in love. How they wear / their strange and double-eyes.” Naturally, it is not unusual that goats or any other creature would have two eyes, but Girmay is able to construct a perspective in which this occurrence feels strange. This only seems to add to the poem’s integrity, because the poem wants us to feel the appreciation and wonder of this specific road and experience. It is through the subversion of perspective that we, as readers, are able to relate to Girmay’s individual experience.

In Kingdom Animalia the technique of fragmentation is also evident in the transformations that occur throughout the book. The speakers in Girmay’s poetry hardly ever remain simply one entity. They are often objectified or transformed into other beings or objects. For instance, in the section, “a book of graves & birds,” she includes a series of self-portraits as other beings: “Self-Portrait as the Snail,” Self-Portrait as the Snake,” “Self-Portrait as the Airplane,” “Self-Portrait as the Pirate’s Gold,” and “Self-Portrait as the Snake’s Skin.” These poems do not simply present the self as these creature, but also work to expand and transform the creatures presented into still other creatures. In “Self-Portrait as the Snail,” Girmay begins by exclaiming “I am the snail / trailing my thought behind me,” but continues to characterize herself as “Resourceful Gretel who, in eating all the bread home, / lets her blood down to mark the way back home!” She is able to fold complicated metaphors for the self over and over again. Not only are her thoughts like a slow-moving snail, but she has become resourceful enough to find her way.

A similar strategy is taken when she objectifies body parts throughout Kingdom Animalia. In the title poem, “Kingdom Animalia,” Girmay speaks directly to the body:

“Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you 
& touch you with
 its mouth.”

Girmay is able to objectify her entire body in these lines and also fragment the body from the self. She fragments the body further later in the collection. In “Portrait of the Woman as a Skein,” the body becomes an expression of parts: “Tell me what, on earth, / would make you leave your hands / or want to, at the wash-sink?” The hands no longer have a literal connection to the rest of the body, but can be separated at will. In this way the body is continually fragmented from the whole, which transforms the objectified body parts.

In this way, the book becomes a book of transformations as Girmay is able to continually reinvent her objects through the use of perspective and fragmentation. This is a book that requires time and attention. We must give Girmay’s poems time to digest and unravel in our own minds—to reread and make connections.  Girmay’s work is careful and deliberate and should be read carefully, again and again.