Translated by Kurt Beals. Providence, RI: Burning Deck Press, 2010. 93 pages. $14.
engulf — enkindle, the English-speaking world’s introduction to contemporary German poet Anja Utler, is full of poems that look broken. Colons and dashes violate the syntax, banging words up against their neighbors. Instead of leading to disjointed fragments, though, this fracturing brings out new facets in her language, foregrounding not just sonic but semantic relationships. The words in Utler’s poems are mutual lapidaries, cutting and polishing each other, brilliantly rendering a vision of the human body and the world united in violent entropy. Here is the first poem from the third cycle in the book:
as if thinned
raw: is the clearing is bristling and bare
to the sun: the eyes graze over gravel, scrap, as if
loose as if: scraping until: the eye catches
in clusters of liverwort: lifewort
stalks—as they’re known, known too as—
agrimony, is grown over with: prickling
fruits that it: claws into the foreign tissue it
knits it—it’s said—back together, skins over
as if: it adhered, glued the: hide to the sclera,
tarsi, cornea should: be severed be
sanded see: how the stalks, stranded
at forest’s edge, glow
Notice how, in the second line of this poem’s interrogation into the violence of viewing, “graze” suggests “gaze,” how “scrap” colors how we read “scraping” (not “scrapping”) in the next line. Notice how the colon in the penultimate line chops up the rhythm, complicating the alliteration and emphasizing the mandate to see. This muscular, visceral writing reminds us that language is a living, evolving thing, and that poets mark and push its limits. Utler’s poetry is indeed “raw,” but the violence against the eye here is also an act of generation—by the end of this poem, of illumination.
Utler arranges the explosive linguistic energies of engulf — enkindle in complex and sometimes puzzling architectures. The first half of the book is called “engulf: mouth into,” setting the stage for a text littered with body parts. The poems in this section frequently feature a main block of text with a short phrase separated from it on the page—above, below, or to the side of the main poem. These phrases operate like titles, or notes, or précis to the main poems, but their function is far from clear and uniform. The poems in the second half of the book, “enkindle: fourfold,” use the vertical space of the page more, starting toward the bottom or incorporating more white space between sections of individual poems. Though these formal decisions can seem arbitrary, they reinforce that language is a plastic medium for Utler, something to be shaped and sculpted, not just a vehicle for discursive meaning.
Due to this relationship to language, Utler’s poems don’t make arguments as much as throw us into physical and psychological states (and complicate the distinction between the two). They discourage traditional, narrative reading, inviting us instead to immerse ourselves in suggestive, highly personal fields of language. In the title of the first section, “engulf: mouth into,” is “mouth” a noun or a verb? If a verb, are we being instructed to mouth into something? To mouth something—this book?—into being? Is that done by engulfing, by taking something fully into ourselves? If “mouth” is a noun, what’s being engulfed by going into the mouth? Is it us, about to be swallowed up by these little worlds of words? Rather than nudging us toward an answer, Utler’s syntax and diction encourage us to consider all of these possibilities, and to apprehend how they can all hang together in her coherent and surprisingly visceral voice. In Utler’s poems, the speaker is both subject and object, foreground and background, a mix of subjectivity and space: “the field / purges its limbs and: crusts / the lungs beneath them lie: fallow.”
Greek mythology guides part of this book’s investigation into the blurring of metaphysical boundaries. In “marsyas, encircled,” inspired by the satyr who challenged Apollo to a flute contest, Utler depicts Marsyas’ flaying as both the grotesque violation of a body and the miraculous expansion of the body into the world’s greater system. Marsyas becomes a voice for more than just himself:
. . . they: bud
on bone ridges on: thorny outgrowths and will
need to be deleaved and: should be called rhomboid, trapezius,
abdominal muscles, to lift and to lower the ribs
underneath is: the lung, now laid bare, but still bundled,
pressed under air
engulf — enkindle embodies and explores such recursive systems, the give and take of cyclical structures, in which bodies and landscapes bleed into each other. In formal logic, a biconditional is when two propositions lead to each other: p↔q (if you have p, then you have q, and vice versa). The biconditional is the dominant relationship in engulf — enkindle. Utler engages with the human body through the landscape, and she engages with the landscape through the human body; one always leads to the other. This is the pathetic fallacy taken to its most extreme conclusion, and it is never boring.
I have been crediting Utler alone for the power of engulf — enkindle, but of course what we have in this book is not her language but the result of Kurt Beals’ stellar translation. Since neither Utler nor Beals is well-known in America, I understand why Beals is not the focus of any of the blurbs and jacket copy on the back of the book. I am surprised though, since Burning Deck is edited by well-known translators, that he is not even mentioned, particularly since Beals deserves serious laurels for his work. engulf — enkindle is a book of surfaces—its significance is rooted in the relationships between words, between sounds—and Beals has rendered those relationships with compelling richness and enviable potency.
Though engulf — enkindle has no translator’s introduction or other paratextual apparatuses, Beals is deeply aware of the difficulties of translating poems that operate as these do. He notes in “Play for Two Voices: On Translating the Poetry of Anja Utler” (available online from TranscUlturAl) some of the places where Utler’s pressures on the German language are inimitable in English: “For instance, the word ‘kiefer’ that turns up repeatedly means both jaw (der Kiefer) and pine tree (die Kiefer)—and in these poems it generally means both at once, not one or the other.” Conscious of these losses in his English translations, since there is no word capable of pulling that double-duty, Beals leaps on opportunities to gain parallel types of complexity by using words like “spit” to describe a stretch of land, entwining the human body and the landscape once again.
engulf — enkindle is a powerfully idiosyncratic, unforgettable book, at once intimate and public, of the body and of the earth. Utler’s work estranges German from itself, and Beals’ translation accomplishes a similar feat in English, allowing the language to reflect its most important and surprising potentiality: that breaking can give birth to song. The book ends with a highly sibilant section entitled “sybil—poem in eight syllables,” which concludes on the far side of its violent, slippery, visionary language with a reprieve and a ginger hope, a gesture outward:
and still. just the scent: fire site clearing to hear—once
a rustling—and spoilage: toes finger the stump:
fungous hollow, they probe cast-off skin: it breaks down
on the scaled soles and: crackles out