This month’s group of micro-reviews focuses on poetry in translation. We in the English-reading world are unfortunate to have access to so little of the literature written in other languages, and we are arguably—as readers, editors, reviewers, writers—complicit in the problem. The group Three Percent estimates that of the 3% of books translated from other languages and published in English—the statistic from which they derive their name—only a portion of those are literary and an even smaller portion poetry. “The number,” they write, “is actually closer to 0.7%.” Perhaps more important, they argue that “despite the quality of these books, most translations go virtually unnoticed and never find their audience.” While the Kenyon Review regularly includes reviews of literature in translation, we underscore our resistance, with this small sampling of recent poetry in translation, to walls that inhibit the circulation of and conversation among the diverse texts of the world. —JMc
Ida Börjel. Miximum Ca’Canny the Sabotage Manuals. Trans. Jennifer Hayashida. Commune Editions, 2016. 72 pages. $16.00.
All writing has a politics, but only some books actually propose forms of dissent. Swedish poet Ida Börjel’s proposition is this: make mistakes. Let your tools grow dull. Disrupt the efficiency of the workplace and you disrupt capitalism. Sourced from pamphlets and factory workers’ narratives, Börjel’s manual conceives of the saboteur as a goal-oriented mischief-maker. The word “miximum” in the title is a great example of what saboteurs do:
distort telegrams so that additional ones need to be
composed sometimes simply by
changing a letter from “minimum” to
“miximum” then they won’t know if
minimizing or maximizing is at stake
Meanwhile, “ca’canny” suggests something like “canny cacophony”: the shrewd sort of chaos-making that’s at the heart of workers’ revolts—like nineteenth-century Scottish dock workers destroying cargo to agitate for better pay: “you cutta da pay / we cutta da shob.”
The Sabotage Manuals are rousing. They urge us to commit acts of anti-discipline. Equally, the book depicts the source of disaffection, the grim extent to which “the factory matrix” has colonized our bodies and our speech, so that we speak in “management rhetoric” or we “say something in absurdum.” It’s a precarious balance between the clarity of instruction and “crackled language” that translator Jennifer Hayashida has to recreate in English, and she does so expertly. I am so moved by the stanza in which the command to “follow the manual to a T” is elaborated over several lines until it begins to stutter:
homelessness rootlessness childlessness
but in a present but in a present but
in a present that holds on in a present . . .
Terrifying and exhilarating, The Manuals offer historical example and present-day waywardness as micro-means to turn up the volume on dissent. So, if you want to “disturb / the automated gaze,” release three dozen moths at a propaganda film screening: “the film [will become] an agitated fluttering shadow play.” —AM
Alireza Taheri Araghi, Ed. and Trans. I Am a Face Sympathizing with Your Grief. Co-im-press, 2015. 138 pages. $18.95.
In his introduction to I Am a Face Sympathizing with Your Grief, an anthology containing the work of seven Iranian poets, editor and translator Alireza Taheri Araghi describes his selection process—because he is most interested in “less established” poets, he limited inclusion to writers younger than forty; because he aspired to create a unified collection, he chose poems he could translate into English “comfortably.” Although he doesn’t elaborate, the poems in this collection consistently adopt a casual tone, relying on accessible, even frequently profane, language. They are also stylistically similar, with lines that reproduce grammatical units, and nearly all of which rely on anaphora as an organizing device. Subject matter, on the other hand, varies more among the poets; taken as a whole, the collection addresses overtly political issues but also romance and rejection, parental relationships, classic mythology, and other topics.
Despite these stylistic similarities, the poets’ unique voices manifest themselves even in translation. I would like to read more like the nearly surreal “Circle of Elephants” by Sodéh Negintaj, “Arena” or “So That Minotaur” by Babak Khoshjan, or “There Was a Shadow Sitting in the Trench’s Cup” by Shahram Shahidi. I could name several others. Like all good poems, they unite surprise with inevitability.
Alireza Taheri Araghi has done a good job selecting a sufficient number of poems by and providing biographical notes for each poet. Yet fifteen or twenty pages per poet feels inadequate and demonstrates once again how much we miss when we read as if the global dominance of English provides all the literature we need. —LD
Victor Terán & David Shook, Eds. Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry. Phoneme Media, 2015. 206 pages. $24.00.
Victor Terán, Mikeas Sánchez, Juan Gregorio Regino, the fabulous Briceida Cuevas Cob, Juan Hernández Ramirez and Enriqueta Lunez are six contemporary poets writing in Indigenous languages from Mexico. In this book, they are presented as translated by Adam W. Coon, Johnathan Harrington, Jerome Rothenberg, David Shook, Clare Sullivan, Jacob Surpin, and Eliot Weinberger. Weinberger introduces the mix with a generous foreword listing nine of the eleven subgenre of Aztec poetry, “eagle songs, ocelot songs, spring songs, flower songs, war songs, divine songs, songs of orphanhood . . ., tickling songs, and songs of pleasure.” Terán, who translates poetry into Isthmus Zapotec language and is a prolific poet/translator, gives the preface and is, as a poet, translated by Shook (who with Brian Hewes founded Phoneme Press to promote cross-cultural understanding and here delivers the introduction, as well). Téran and Shook set up each individual section with a language mapping guide as enchantment entry into the distinct poetics represented in Mazatec (Regino), Zoque (Sánchez), Eastern Huasteca Nahuatl (Ramírez), Tsotsil (Lunez), Isthmus Zapotec (Terán), and Yucatec Maya (Cob).
For those new to these leading poets (impressive poets, including formidable world voices we should all know), for those new to these Native languages, consider why this book, why books including Indigenous language are the most essential poetic engagements happening today, and why they were not happening all along. Yes, that. Consider each act of writing in Indigenous language a modem of survival, of strategy to thrive, “Where the owl arrives. / It crouches on the wall. / Meditating” (Cob). Consider the sweet widening of unexpected ease in tension, “My memory is the black box / [of a place without return” (Sánchez). Consider the deepening of embodiment, “With sacrifices, with humility, / I have reached the nest of perfect images, / I will restore the order / Inside your body” (Regino). Consider the politic, “and in it see a thousand legends / reborn on her lips. (Lunez). Consider meditating, “. . . dust dances in the eclipse of my eyes.” (Téran). Consider each collection that brings Indigenous language, translation, poetic, philosophy, life, the text that wove the rope to bridge the divide colonization created. In this case, by non-Indigenous translators, thus a whirling cyclic rewind. “The necklace of flowers is complete” (Ramírez). —AHC
Dulce María Loynaz. Absolute Solitude. Trans. James O’Connor. Archipelago Books, 2016. 263 pages. $18.00.
The world gave me many things, but the only thing I ever kept was absolute solitude (VII).
Dulce María Loynaz’s life can be read as a solitude of sorts. Due to the difficult circumstances she faced with the rise of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, she stopped writing—although never sympathizing with the counter-revolutionary cause—and her work fell into a self-induced oblivion. It wasn’t until the 1980s that her poetry was sent to press again in Havana, beginning to receive the critical attention it deserved. In 1992, Loynaz’s work reached an international audience when, at ninety years old, she became just the second Cuban—and the second woman—to win the coveted Cervantes Prize. As Miguel Barnet put it, “She survived her own oblivion by anticipating it” (my translation).
Absolute Solitude compiles Loynaz’s prose poems. These texts vacillate between light and shadow, falling and flying, movement and seclusion. But above all, they showcase the poet’s precision and transparency, holding true to her conviction that poetry represents no end point, but rather a journey, a movement. In “XXXIII” she writes:
I have no blood to slake its savage thirst and I carry nothing in my saddlebags but the echoes of dreams grown cold.
Where did I lose my way? I can’t remember.
What flowers did I step on pretending I didn’t see them?
Before me the great jungle grows dense.
Perhaps what most stands out in Loynaz’s verse is the presence of an intimate poetic “I,” one that engages the reader in inwardness, usually experienced in solitude. In fact, Cuban writer and critic Cintio Vitier has referred to her work as the maximum expression of “post-modernismo intimist poetry,” where a poetics of intimacy and daily life collide in the writer’s search for a transcendental, pure lyrical form. In “LX” we read:
This is the hour of my self-annihilation, the hour in which I bind myself to my heart, in which I turn my back on time, face the wall of my angst, and tremble as a century passes through an hourglass.
It comes at no surprise, then, that Absolute Solitude has recently been named a finalist for the 2017 PEN award for poetry in translation. O’Connor beautifully brings the collection into English, rendering Loynaz’s intimacy delicate and strong, her poetic subject bold and emotionally bare. As my favorite translation reads:
Poetry and love ask for patience. Love is waiting and then cutting yourself open. Poetry is cutting yourself open and then waiting.
Loynaz’s poetry has waited long enough. —OL
Angelica Freitas. Rilke Shake. Trans. Hilary Kaplan. Phoneme Media, 2015. 115 pages. $16.00.
How awesome would it be if, along with burgers and fries, In-n-Out featured on its menu a Rilke Shake. I’d order that every time.
I don’t think they have In-n-Out Burger in Brazil (In-n-Out Churrasco perhaps), but that does not deter Angélica Freitas. For her, “shake,” is a metaphor for the blending work poetry performs—a lyric liquification, an aesthetic amalgam, as in the title poem:
make me a rilke shake
with love & ovaltine
when I have a sleepless night
and nothing lights up
I order a rilke shake
and eat a toasted blake
sunny side up
This poem, and a good deal of Freitas’s hilarious book, plays with the universal pleasure of devouring poetry, of consuming it. Here, she internalizes, literally, Rilke and Blake, making them part of her daily digestion. Her book is also a play on the notion of literary inspiration—what goes in also comes out.
The entire book, which is an uncanny mix of reverence and irreverence, is it itself a kind of shake. Ezra Pound, Stephen Mallarmé, Joseph Brodsky, John Keats, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein—their names never capitalized—are whirled together into one unpredictable but entirely enjoyable concoction.
My favorite ingredient in Freitas’s shake is a series of poems that explore famous Lesbian writers like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and, in particular, Elizabeth Bishop and her Brazilian lover, Lota de Macedo Soares: “I picture bishop among cashew fruits / totally swollen and miserable / out the window rio de janeiro / and beside her lota, with a dropper.”
I don’t speak Portuguese, but Hilary Kaplan’s translation is playful, consistent, and celebratory. Just like the poems themselves. Few presses are doing more interesting translation work than Phoneme Media—they and Kaplan have done Freitas (who has done Rilke) proud. —DR
Ángel Escobar. Breach of Trust / Abuso de confianza. Trans. Kristin Dykstra. University of Alabama Press, 2016. 136 pages. $19.95.
Where are we. Or what do all these people
want with my peace of mind. Oh the risk, little brother, the poor,
the simple risk of keeping count: the number
of the unannounced dead
Violence, mistrust, disillusion, tenderness, and beauty are some of the words that come to mind when reading Breach of Trust by Ángel Escobar (Guantánamo, Cuba, 1957-1997). As translator Kristin Dykstra points out in her introduction, he is “a poet of dissent in the broadest and most generous sense,” and this is a necessary disclaimer. Cuban writers are frequently pigeonholed on both sides of the Gulf: revolutionary or dissident. There is no middle ground. No room for gray. The problem, of course, is that good writing is never as easy as all that.
And so, the poems that make up this collection are hard, aesthetically and otherwise. They are often chaotic. They come across strong. They make us work. Yet, they are profoundly concerned with the injustices of the world. Take this poem about Helene Zarour, a member of a Chilean leftist organization who was captured and tortured by Pinochet’s government in the mid-1970s:
She used to believe in her hands and in her mouth, in the events
they transfer to the mirror and crosscut
before they smash her skull against the wall.
(“Notes toward a biography of Helene Zarour”)
The complexities of Escobar’s poetry are typical of the best authors from his generation in Cuba; a generation that grew up with the revolution, often benefiting from the opportunities it provided, as Escobar himself did. They rose to prominence in the eighties, at once challengers of orthodox revolutionary aesthetics and proponents of progressive social change. Such dichotomies are a sure recipe for controversy. As such, their work is only now beginning to receive its due merit both on and off the island.
Explaining these kinds of complexities to a US audience is its own kind of struggle. Dykstra knows all this very well; she has long taken up the cause of promoting contemporary Cuban poetry in translation, most recently with four titles out with Alabama. Breach of Trust is the third, and the first of Escobar’s books to be translated into English. The series has a dual focus, functioning well as academic textbooks, but also as bilingual poetry collections. Dykstra is a seasoned expert and it shows in her accessible introduction and flawless translations.
Escobar was lost to this world too soon (in 1997 he committed suicide by jumping off a building). Thankfully, this collection keeps his poetry alive, both in Spanish and English. —KH
Josué Guébo. My Country, Tonight. Trans. Todd Fredson. Action Books, 2016. 121 pages. $16.00.
I know a bit of French, but there are moments I wished I had kept up with it. Usually, reading a translation of a Francophone African or Caribbean author makes me hanker for my never realized bilingual aspiration. My Country, Tonight, the English translation of Josué Guébo’s Mon pay, ce soir, made me particularly wistful.
Guébo is a native of Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa; the original version of his book was published in French in 2011, and the English translation appeared last year. This is “political poetry”: verses on the sometimes-disturbing public events in a country. I make this distinction because in the United States, apparently, writing about the banal events of one’s life while occupying skin that is not white is viewed as writing political poetry. (I don’t agree, but that’s another essay that somebody else needs to write.) There’s an introduction by Todd Fredson, the translator of this book, and it aids readers by providing a contemporary political context. I won’t attempt to summarize Fredson’s entire essay, but I must say, it is concise, well-written, and much-needed as we move to short, untitled poems that, as Fredson observes, display examples of the Ivorian idiom of “couper le Coeur, [which] might literally translate as ‘to cut the heart.’” Here are splendid lines from two poems:
To shock the heart
Tanks are funneled in over the bridges
From the Prague Spring . . .
But tell me what’s the point
Iron at the foot
Of a mind
Already under orders . . .
Fredson’s translations on the right sides of the page are exquisite, and, with my few morsels of French, I can see that he maintained a very faithful translation as well. The latter issue can present problems for less accomplished translators, though when publishing for an American, monolingual reading public, I can see translators reasoning, “But how will they even know?” What stands out for me, however, as I (haltingly) read the left side of the page—the French side—is that Fredson pays attention to Guébo’s music. For example, the assonance of “A quoi sert / Le fer au pied” becomes “What’s the point / Iron at the foot,” with a slant rhyme. Thus, there’s not much sonic loss throughout the translation. There were some moments, though, when Fredson changed Guébo’s line breaks, lengthening the poet’s spare, at times one-word lines, and as a poet myself, this bothered me. Some French lines necessitated changing because of the switch in languages, but with other lines, this was not the case, and I found my hackles rising in millimeters. But once I calmed, I was forgiving of Fredson’s small liberties, since, overwhelmingly, it is clear he was a very respectful and attentive translator. (Again, without his fine introduction, I might have been less forgiving.)
In terms of politics, as a student of post-colonial literature, I recognized echoes of Negritude poetry, to books by well-known, Francophone writers, such as Leopold Sedar Senghor’s Chants d’Ombre and Hosties Noires, and Aimé Cesaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal. In the introduction, Fredson writes that Guébo “responds to the military intervention by French and United Nations forces in the aftermath of the country’s disputed 2010 presidential elections. That November election gave way to what is often called the second Ivorian war.” But as readers move through the book, they will discover the real, political issue is historical and stretches back hundreds of years, when European explorers—who morphed into invaders—helped to create slave trading as the major economic foundation of West and Central Africa. The resulting colonization destabilized those cultures, and centuries later, France’s intervention into the 2010 Ivorian presidential election was a colonial remix, despite Cote d’Ivoire’s putative independence from France, since 1950.
Guébo identifies this connection to slavery’s past in two poems that appear halfway through the book. One containing the litany, “Lumumba/Nyobé/Moumié,” three West African leaders assassinated by European colonial powers. The poem on the next page travels back, to the Transatlantic Slave Trade:
Gorée will become
A place of workshop
Only by the measure
Of my caesura
At last sewn shut . . .
Obviously, the poet references Gorée Island, a former slave castle kept by the English and then French—a tangled provenance, for sure—where Africans forced into slavery were imprisoned, and then, they were sold to slave ship captains who carried them across the Atlantic Ocean, renamed the Middle Passage. Gorée is not located in Cote d’Ivoire, but rather, in Senegal. However, the latter country once was a French colony, too; in fact, Dakar, Senegal was the colonial capital of the eight French African Colonies. By reading these two strategically placed poems, we now know that the recent political upheaval in Guébo’s country has strong ties to global capitalism which fed upon the suffering of trafficked human beings. And when Guébo continues that Gorée Island is “Radiant rock / In the stoning / Of my somber complicity,” he becomes the communal lyric speaker, a collective first person who warns that African collaboration with European and Western powers has been ongoing, since the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This collaboration only serves to further the self-destruction of African countries.
Last words: “Political poetry” acts in two ways, and should—must—emphasize both aspects of the title. Younger American poets of various races and cultural backgrounds would do well to study Guébo’s My Country, Tonight as an illustration of great political poetry. —HFJ
Lynn Domina is the author of two collections of poetry, Corporal Works and Framed in Silence, and the editor of a collection of essays, Poets on the Psalms. She currently serves as Head of the English Department at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Glory Gets (2015). She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. A native southerner, she now lives on the prairie where she teaches at University of Oklahoma.
Katherine Hedeen’s latest translations include night badly written and tasks by Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez. She is an associate editor of Earthworks’ Latin American Poetry in Translation Series for Salt Publishing, an acquisitions editor for Arc Publications, and Translation Editor at the Kenyon Review. A two-time recipient of a NEA Translation Project Grant, she is a Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, University of California, Riverside, is author of six books of poetry, a memoir, and editor of nine anthologies. Recent releases include Burn and Streaming. http://www.allisonhedgecoke.com
Olivia Lott is a doctoral student in Hispanic Language and Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, specializing in contemporary Spanish American poetry and literary translation.
Aditi Machado is the translator of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia (Action Books, 2016) and the author of Some Beheadings (Nightboat Books, forthcoming). She edits poetry in translation for Asymptote.
Janet McAdams’s most recent poetry collection is the chapbook, Seven Boxes for the Country After. She serves as general editor of KROnline’s Micro-Reviews.
Dean Rader’s most recent books of poems are Suture, collaborative sonnets written with Simone Muench (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon Press, 2017). He is a professor at the University of San Francisco. More reviews, essays, and poems can be found at deanrader.com