Nov 092015

SengesPierre Senges. Photo credit: Philippe Bretelle


Many ways to stuff a watermelon, many ways to fill a library — you can write one, as Pierre Senges seems to be doing, turning out about a book a year since 2000, along with countless radio plays; or you can buy (or steal) books to fill your library with; or, not really any easier, if you are able you can translate them, and perhaps get a small collection going. Slowly I am making some headway into Senges’s library, studiously Englishing it, and thus growing my own. There are lots of ways to farce up a library, and lots of ways to fill one too. Here are just a few.

                                                                     —Jacob Siefring



Somewhere Jean-Paul writes: “I have forty odd libraries in my
possession that I myself — this strains credulity —
conceived and wrote in their totality.”

The library of Maria Wutz

In 1793, this same Jean-Paul brought his character the schoolmaster Maria Wutz into the world (he joins Fibel, the inventor of the abecediary, and the trader Vagel, who sold his pustules for a bargain when he contracted smallpox). Poverty has an important role to play in these adventures, it combines with the desire to read and the imaginative faculty (should one exist) to create a personal library in the style of Jean-Paul. Since he has not a single kopeck, nor a thaler nor a maravedis with which to buy the first chapter of the first volume of a popular anthology, Wutz decides to write the books of his literary patrimony himself. “Each new book whose title he assigned he was able to consider as belonging to him”: willful appropriation becomes the poor man’s revenge on the free market, the refutation of his wretched lot, making use of the means at hand.

By over a century, this schoolmaster anticipates the author of the Quixote invented by Borges: well before Pierre Menard, Wutz parasites a book, a title, and an author whenever he feels an urgent desire to compose, as soon as it is published, and on the double at that, The Philosophical Fragments of Lavater. No sooner has an editor announced the good news to booksellers, than Wutz the omnipotent sits down to his desk to start writing — as if his private library were the proof of his responsibility: the proof of little Wutz’s authority over every written thing: Wutz, at the center, as first cause, with his manuscripts for effects, and then, all around his Original Library, all the other books, displayed in bookstores as so many fraudulent editions.


The library of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

The poverty of Maria Wutz is a poverty of fables, it calls to mind that of the shoemaker who goes off into the woods with his family to abandon there his seven children, born in a time of steady work; the poverty Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky inflicts on his character is that of Russia at the start of the twentieth century (chilly or freezing, most likely): split-soled shoes, queues, famine in the Ukraine, and artificial beets (and yet, not for everyone). An intellectual lives in a tiny room: in that room, a bed, a chair, a stove (a cold one), a bookcase, “four long boards running the length of a wall that sag beneath the burden of the manuscripts.” This cold-stove poverty apparently doesn’t preclude the possession of four shelves of books, but it’s a bliss that doesn’t last: for, in the middle of winter, Krzhizhanovsky requires his character to trade in all his books for four banknotes.

What comes next in this first chapter of The Letter Killers Club is a delicate variation on the theme of absence: with many repetitions, the dispossessed student reaches out his hand towards one of the four shelves to take down a book — a gesture implying familiarity, fraternity, and an almost leisurely routine. The first time the hand meets the absence, the effect is sad, not the less painful for the gesture’s banality — but by the twentieth time, it demands passionate spiritual exercises: now it becomes a question of inventing the vanished book. At that instant, the totally denuded library not only signifies poverty, it somehow asserts its force as library, it replaces the books’ actual presence with a potential presence, upheld by memory and experience; it permits the intellectual to pursue his work by means of his memory… oh well, so much the better if memory is approximative. The book that is present is always the exact copy, always fixed and unchanging unto itself; the absent book, like a poem in a dead language translated from other translations, or like the voyages of Ulysses, will yield various recombinations of itself from one day to the next, condescending to exist in many versions, all true, all flawed, all unfinished, still unstable, as if, by vanishing, it returned to an earlier stage of its development.


The library of Giacomo Casanova

A century before Captain Nemo would find refuge among the books he kept aboard the Nautilus, another adventurer, representative of a certain society fashionable during a certain, superannuated century, also found refuge in a library: in Bohemia, at Dux, in Count von Waldstein’s castle. Giacomo becomes the librarian there at the ripe age of seventy: the exact opposite of adventure: sedentariness instead of stagecoaches, the rules of order instead of fugues, the status of a subaltern replacing the motto Follow your god, reading by candlelight replacing romantic caresses, the dusting of book bindings replacing theatrical bluffs proffered to young girls and Emperor Joseph II alike. Casanova did not fail to oversee his own decline (the brutal metamorphosis of the skirt-chaser into a bookkeeper), but he must have remembered having been tempted many times already, over the course of his youth, by libraries: he used them as rest stops. (He even once tried priesthood — but to be a priest is to wear a half-mask, as Da Ponte surely knew.)

No one knows whether the books in the library made it any easier for Casanova to pass the time, it would have had to contain an Orlando Furioso or maybe a Quixote for that; but we at least know how writing saved him from hanging himself from the Bohemian ceiling. The stay, not at all the first, was granted when he consented to be a provisory appendage to a giant book — namely, the twelve volumes of the Histoire de ma vie.


The Library of the Congress

Borges postulates the existence in Buenos Aires of a Congress of the World representing all of humanity; the Congress is of course endowed with a library, a serious library, as serious as Argentinian intellectuals trying to compete with the letters of Old Europe — and because a library springs to mind when we need to represent the universe on a more practical scale (the size of a city block). During an initial phase, the library acquires only rare and serious books (Pliny’s Natural History); second, the library avid for totality fills up with “classical works of all genres from all countries”; finally, in the last act, when the library is overflowing, raising the principle of representation to an exact paraphrase (as impossible as a map existing at a 1:1 scale), it welcomes all books in without restriction, the good and the bad alike: the Prensa, 3,400 copies of Don Quixote, university theses (sic), account books, theater programs. Later, we will see how a library can be rich with books that do not yet belong to it — Borges, who knew how necessary forgetting is to the intelligence, recalls that a library finds its meaning in the items it lacks: lacunae without which librarians would be unable to breathe, or move.


The library of Bouvard and Pécuchet

The one thousand five hundred books Gustave Flaubert read in Croisset, or at the Rouen library, or  at the Nationale in Paris, steadfastly devoured to the point of having one’s brain metamorphosed into soft cheese, are also the books in the Chavignolles library — Bouvard and Pécuchet preside over it, just as they preponderate over their vegetable garden, spades in hand: proud in anticipation of the duty done. For Gustave, the one thousand five hundred books meant afternoons of misery in poorly heated rooms; for these two gentlemen, one thousand five hundred books assembled in a farmhouse are the promise of knowledge, accession to knowledge, or, better yet, the promise of the layman’s conversion into a savant — they contain pedagogic virtue, they are receptacles for truths, before long they will be objects of critique and renouncement: little does it matter, venerated or tossed into the ditch, books are the attribute of comfortable people: yes, people who reflect on when they will nap and have the means to show off shelves of beautiful bindings to the neighbors.

To these two gentlemen, the contents of a library are: books to read and possess, authors to boo once deification is over (booing being the amateur’s free will in the professionals’ library), a mélange of indispensable classics and stupefyingly dull volumes, teeming with pignoufisms. Like the library of the Congress, Pécuchet’s farm simultaneously contains a Pantagruel, treatises on hygiene, and the sermons of some priest — and when it comes time to buy up paper by the kilo, the dream of universalism will be fulfilled tenfold: to choose, to weed out the good from the bad will require a nerve which, thanks to their intimate knowledge of failure, these gentlemen have learned to mistrust. In the end, this will be Everything, the admirable, consolatory, formless Everything, exhaustivity joined to nothing, if not to the right edition, and the eternity of unmoving things.


The library according to Émile Borel and Arthur Stanley Eddington

Exhaustivity in writing is a dream or a nightmare wrought in the Pécuchetian style, that of a totality abolishing judgment — or in the style of Maria Wutz, simultaneously obeying the desire to read and the desire to write. Those who dread Bouvard’s old papers as much as Wutz’s graphomania will always be able to fall back on the combinatorial arts when they want to access the Great All in one of its many forms. Many years before the library of Babel, built of hexagons and exhaustion, in 1913 in Le Journal de Physique (5th series, volume 3, pages 189-196, these details admitted with a librarian’s taste for precision), Émile Borel, the mathematician, invents a metaphor that will go on to enjoy a certain success: a million apes randomly typing away on the keys of a million typewriters for ten hours every day will eventually, “before the year is up,” compose “identical copies of books of every sort and in every language kept in the world’s best-stocked libraries.” Fifteen years later, in the mind of Arthur Stanley Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World), the million monkeys become an army and “the world’s best-stocked libraries” the singular library of the British Museum. It remains to be seen if the substitution of the British Museum for all the world’s libraries is a British riposte to the pretentions of the little Frenchman Borel, or if it’s  rather a question of the intrinsic plasticity of stories, which are passed along only by mutating (mutation being a consequence, and perhaps also a cause). In other versions of the fable, the British Museum becomes the work of William Shakespeare; in still others the work of Shakespeare becomes the ensemble of the sonnets, or a single sonnet, sometimes even a single line of verse — the monkey, for his part, is ever present.


The library of Thomas De Quincey

A library no single man could ever exhaust: it might become proverbial, it represents an infinity of books compared to the reader’s smallness — it belongs to the British Museum, it might be the equivalent of the library composed by a million chimpanzees over the course of a single year. Infinity signifies humanist generosity, the incontinence of editors, and the strike force of the public authorities (when libraries are a cultural affair of the State). The reader’s tininess signifies the brevity of our lives: it follows that the impossibility of reading everything takes the measure of our mortality, provoking frustration and vertigo at the same time — to Thomas De Quincey, in any case, one hundred thousand forever unknown volumes brought forth tears which he compared to those of Xerxes countenancing the death of his soldiers: not some “fanciful case of misery,” but “as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed.”


The library of Thomas Browne

Being a catalog, it must take the form of a book, but the library building could be deduced from a certain number of pages found between Urne Buriall (a meditation on death and funerary receptacles) and The Garden of Cyrus (in which it is the quincunx in question). Its title is Museum Clausum, its more explicit subtitle Bibliotheca Abscondita: the reader finds therein (to quote Browne himself) “some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living” — and among these remarkable books, a poem in the Getick language by Ovid, a detailed account of Hannibal’s march across the Alps, a fragment from Pytheas, instructions to create a demon, Seneca’s letters to Saint Paul, and many other marvels. (To add dubiousness to dubiety, a contemporary edition of the Museum includes a translator’s extrapolation: a fraudulent addition, the opposite of kleptomania.)


The library of Seleucos

According to an Armenian tradition passed down down to Mar Ibas and reported by the philologist historian Luciano Canfora, as Xerxes’ successor Seleucos “ordered all the books in the world to be burned, so that time could be reset to begin with him” (we recognize all the books in the world as an imperial or puerile exaggeration, just as we know that wiping the slate clean is in men of power a sign of weakness). To all the libraries assembled since Alexandria, small and large, authentic and spurious, we must then also add the many absent libraries: a perimeter traced in the soil, the residuum of a catalog, footprints of soldiers stamped in the ashes. Canfora notes that the idea of the library is inevitably tied to the idea of its destruction — or to put it more clearly, obliteration is part and parcel of our way of understanding libraries. He mysteriously adds that the conflagration arises “as if a greater force were intervening,” to destroy an organism that has become impossible to control: “uncontrollable, because it reveals an infinite capacity for growth, and also because of the equivocal (often forged) nature of the material that poured into them.” This hypothesis of an expiation of the fake by fire has a seductively romanesque quality to it, seductive like the apocalypse of Sardanapalus, as it links counterfeiting to the fires of ancient Rome and Alexandria — but it can also leave us feeling perplexed.


The library of Don Quixote

Sardanapalus organized his own private apocalypse, dragging maids, mistresses, and gold pieces all into the same pyre — against his will Señor Quijano organizes one of these expiatory fires too, in his farmyard: his library was the occupation of his lone nights, it was the vehicle of his hallucination, it was his merchant marine and the description of Spain from a certain point of view, but then, it was consumed in a cloud of smoke. But, however unhinged he is, Don Quixote knows that books sometimes outlast their auto-da-fé: that’s the advantage of existing in numerous copies in various locations, the libraries repeating themselves here and there, with variations.


The library of Aristotle’s inheritor’s inheritors

By turns, conservation can prove destructive, even fatal: I’m referring to those elderly archivists who were suffocated under a mountain of books, and the paradoxes of conservation too: after a certain point has been passed, conservation runs counter to reading. The heirs of Neleus, who inherited Aristotle’s library, set out to save their master’s treasure, lest it should end up one day on the shelves of the royal library; those clever, obstinate fellows had the idea to dig a hole somewhere under the house, and to bury the scrolls there, then forget them, quite purposefully, with the sense of a job well done — the humidity, rodents, and other vermin hoarded the bequest, which is to say, reduced it to dust.


The library of Diodorus

Bibliotheca historica is the title he gives his book, an honest way of owning that his chapters are a compilation of other chapters taken from elsewhere, and that Diodorus is one of those historians at the table, or geographers hunched over their atlases, a habitué of the libraries like the rest (Pliny, that other compiler of talent, gives Diodorus credit for not lying about his work’s contents as much as he did about his working methods).


The library of Moby Dick

Melville, we know, compares whales with books; he begins his Moby-Dick with ten pages of extracts taken from a universal patrimony. The white whale on one side, an entire library consecrated to cetalogy on the other, suffering from their distance, demonstrate the difficulty of establishing a link between a series of words and a thing. (Anyways, according to William Faulkner (William Faulkner according to Pierre Michon, that is), Moby Dick never read Sigmund Freud’s books, nor William Shakespeare’s  plays — to swallow them, contain them, that’s a whole other story, though.


The library of Réjean Ducharme

He used to visit the municipal library on his bicycle, or the bookstore rather, in a landscape singularly rare in books, so far from Alexandria (his inventions might be born from these hours spent sifting, these treasures for his island life). The extracts at the start of Le nez qui voque compete with, or parody, or pay homage to the library of Moby-Dick: we would think we were hearing a transcription of the New World Symphony for a single ukulele (the exact same ukulele played by Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, directed by Richard Fleisher).


The libraries of François Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, and Gilbert Sorrentino

The first is Saint-Victor’s in chapter VII of Pantagruel, it contains the Pantofola decretorum (The Slipper of the Decrees); the second belongs to Doctor Faustroll and contains the first; the third is in Mulligan Stew, and contains a 1001 Ways to Stuff a Watermelon (the character who catalogs it “makes no claim to completeness, since there may well be other materials in those rooms that do not exist”).

(The stuffing is contained in the watermelon, the watermelon in the 1001 Ways, the book of the 1001 Ways within the library, the library in a house of indefinite form, the indefinite house within a novel with the title Guinea Red — the novel Guinea Red floats in Mulligan Stew, Mulligan Stew takes its place on a library’s shelf, and the library, who knows, maybe among the ingredients for a watermelon stuffing.)


The library of Miklós Szentkuthy

Twenty-five thousand volumes, twice what the Nautilus’ library contained, were how Miklós Szentkuthy got through half a century of Hungarian Communism, with that manifest autarky which an abundance of reading secures — and to those twenty-five thousand volumes Szentkuthy had time to add the one hundred thousand pages of his journal, now preserved in the Archives of the literary museum of Budapest, entrusted to the conservators to guard their secrets and reveal them only a quarter-century after the death of its author, which is to say — now.


The other library of Alexandria

Ptolemy, who spent pharaonic sums to have masterpieces copied and fill up his library, was once informed by a man of letters, a half-idealist, half-jokester, that much of the world was still full of books to discover and hoard — which shows how a library is rich, too, with the books outside its walls.

—Pierre Senges translated by Jacob Siefring

“Plusieurs façons de farcir une pastèque” was originally published in French in fall 2013 in les écrits, a Québecois literary journal, issue 139.


Pierre Senges is the author of fourteen books and over sixty plays for radio. His erudite fictions often unfold in the margins of other texts as historical commentaries and hypothetical reconstructions. He is the recipient of prizes for Ruines-de-Rome (2002) and Veuves au maquillage (2000), as well as for his radio work. His longest novel, Fragments de Lichtenberg (2008), is forthcoming in English translation from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. His most recent book, Achab (séquelles), is published by Éditions Verticales and considers the lives of the white whale and Captain Ahab in the aftermath of Moby-Dick.



Jacob Siefring is a Canadian-American translator. His translations have appeared in Gorse Journal, Hyperion, The Brooklyn Rail, and Vestiges. His criticism and reviews have been published in The Quarterly Conversation and Golden Handcuffs Review and other outlets. His first book-length translation, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges, is forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press. He keeps a blog at



Oct 132015

Lumia Selfie alkalmazással készítve


Zsolt Láng (born 1958, based in Tg. Mures, Romania) is one of the most original and critically acclaimed writers of the mid-generation of Hungarian prose, whose eleven volumes of short fiction, criticism and the tetralogy entitled Bestiarium Transylvaniae (Vol I, 1997; Vols. II-III, 2003; Vol. IV, 2012) have long propelled him among the most original hues of Hungarian postmodern writing. Both his short fiction and novels are suffused with literary, cultural references (sometimes faked arcania, as in the (post-)magic realist carnival of 16th-17th century histories, annals, verse lays and legends from Transylvania, Moldova and the Balkans), rich wordplay and language effects, as well as being characterized by a relentless exploration of the poetics and politics of language. His experimental fiction turns topoi of domestic and  world literature inside out and creatively explores the contextual, political and biographical undersides of the genesis of artworks, all these with an all-pervasive humour that is as subtle as it is warped.One of the volumes of Bestiarium Transylvaniae have been translated by Tim Wilkinson (award-winning translator of the novels of Imre Kertész, Miklós Mészöly and Miklós Szentkuthy among others), but not yet published in English. A review (in English) of Vol. IV of  Bestiarium Transylvaniae, centred on Ceausescu’s Romania and the events of 1989, can be read here. Still, Láng is probably best known as a short story writer. His last collection of short prose (Szerelemváros – Love City, Bratislava/Budapest: Kalligram, 2013) was reviewed by Hungarian Literature Online. Several of Láng’s short stories can be read online in World Literature Today (January 2015)World Literature Today (September 2015), The Missing Slate, B O D Y magazine, VLAKmagazine and Hungarian Literature Online.

—Erika Mihálycsa


IF THE MAN LEANING out of the third-floor window did not know the woman in the green dressing gown and wanted to find out her name, he could go out on the street and pick up the envelope dropped from the litter bin, but now he can spare the bowing down. Instead, he can get engrossed, for instance, in contemplating the soft naps of the green terry cloth, or can jot down the figment of song drolling from the fourth floor window, or he might just as well continue gazing motionlessly, so that the unopened letter may rest unread forever, because the sad-faced scavenger who is to pick it up the next day would shove it on his screeching handcart to take it to the paper recycling point at the farther end of town, from where it is to be shovelled onto a dump truck’s tipper and in less than two hours emptied into the chloride bath of the Réce papermill, where the whirlpools of destruction decompose it in a matter of seconds; in other words, the scavenger known as Gyuszi is illiterate, although he had been through mandatory 8-year primary education at district school nr. 10.

It must have been because of her intensifying migraine that Ildikó Halász did not notice the envelope slip over the litter bin’s edge. But for that headache, she would unquestionably have picked it up; not for reading it, but merely because she has always been a tidy person. Something that seems undercut by the fact that the envelope is unopened but, let us not forget, this is the fifth letter received within one month from the sender written in bold lettering on the bright red postmark, a craftsmen’s cooperative that has lately branched out and started a credit bank. Perhaps Ildikó is a stickler for orderliness. This is probably the reason why she has headaches so often. The windows do not close properly, there is permanent draught, and even though she spends the day cleaning up, whenever she goes to the toilet at night, her bare soles get grey with dust. Besides, it is no ordinary dust she inhales: if you turn towards the west end of the town, you can see it from afar in the shape of a threatening black cloud – the Girodan Holding Group Ltd. that produces the cheapest tyres in Europe precisely because it doesn’t invest a penny in air filters. Black rubber dust is more harmful than cement dust even. The only more harmful substance is ammonia, so one could call it a piece of luck indeed that back then they had built the artificial fertilizer plant in Lápos and not here, although a certain comrade Dulea had left no stone unturned in his efforts to secure it for the town, he being the first man in the county party committee, and incidentally also the farseeing father of two students of chemical engineering.

A further contribution to her nagging headache is the fact that Ervin Zakk has just left who, although quite fifteen years younger, nevertheless keeps calling on her and on not one occasion would stay into the small hours, until morning even, especially over the past few days, although nothing passed between them, however often Ildikó daydreams about ”taking him in” one day – and here as a rule a variation would follow on the same simile in the shape of the encounter between some straightforward article for personal use, an iron coin, a bar of soap, a sabre, or a flashlight for instance, and one of the elements, mostly earth or water.

To call Ervin a mere boy would be an exaggeration, he is 35 and works at the newspaper where a new editor-in-chief was recently appointed. The new editor-in-chief does not loathe Ervin quite as much as the former one used to, so Ervin sees the time ripe to be promoted to the position of columnist. It is for this reason he unleashed himself on Pista Tavi. Why on him of all people? Primarily because the new editor-in-chief from whom Ervin expects his promotion is known to hate Pista Tavi ”like the plague”.

When he was at school Ervin, just like his mates, used to have a theatre subscription. In those days the more well-meaning of their teachers used to collect money for theatre subscriptions, wishing to sponsor the theatre, ”the Hungarian word” (”ward”, as Ervin’s Hungarian teacher once said in an excess of zeal), which happened to be subsidized by the authorities too, in order that the more well-meaning of teachers lack not something to sponsor and would not end up sponsoring other things they had better keep off. Ildikó Halász was playing Eve in Madách’s The Tragedy of Man and one Sunday at the morning performance for pupils with Kölcsey subscription, in the eighth scene, the one about Kepler, she revealed, that is, completely bared, her right breast. The next Sunday Ervin went to see the performance again with his grandparents who had a pensioners’ Petőfi subscription, because against the unanimous view of his classmates he adamantly upheld that it must have been an accident, the slip’s shoulder strap having unintentionally slid down, but he had to revise his view upon watching the performance again. He was furious at Ildikó, at the whole theatre, at his grandparents and classmates, although this time, quite uncharacteristically for him, he paid for the factory-made ice cream, their wager with Feri Madaras, unprotesting. Now, 22 years later Ervin would have had ample occasion to take a closer look at that right breast. And he certainly did harbour some curiosity, but was uncertain as yet, because it seemed somewhat unsuited to the thing he kept badgering Ildikó with, and which sensibly touched upon that right breast, even on its twin sister on the left side in fact, since the aspiring columnist was trying to ascertain whether Pista Tavi had indeed organized that infamous orgy on May 1st in the Forget-me-not restaurant that had stood on a secluded spot in the middle of the vast orchards in the hills at the town’s edge. Not that the tiniest details of the orgy had not been long known to the whole town, including the crucial moment when the blue lace knickers of comrade Marika Bodoki, the secretary, believed by many to have been import goods from France, although in fact merely the Kászon lace manufacture’s produce, destined for export, to be sure, ended up proudly flaunted, wrapped around comrade Dulea’s unmentionables. But of course it was one thing to know this, and a horse of quite another colour to read the same thing inside out in the paper.

And indeed, the next instant Ildikó nearly spat out the whole thing or, more precisely, reached the point where, had Ervin’s hand touched her right breast, or the left one for that matter, ever so slightly, she would have told him everything about that breast and about its companion into the bargain – that is, nothing, nothing would she have withheld.

Standing on the curb side, litter bin in hand, she is waiting for the not overtly hectic, but not leisurely traffic to subside for a while, to cross to the other side to the unsavoury constellation of a dozen or so garbage dumpsters behind the block of flats opposite.

The sun is setting and Ildikó knows no more dreadful place on earth than the communal dumpsters, domed and made of aluminum, about a man’s height and looking rather like field-kitchen stew cauldrons. When it is dark she at least doesn’t see the shadows drifting by, and she doesn’t feel any pangs of conscience when emptying her litter bin right in front of her toes behind the corner. What stops her now from crossing over, however, is not her dread of the shadow: a numbness coming from a much more remote place, or time rather, penetrates her feet or, to be scrupulously specific, not her feet but the synapses commanding her muscles, but it is not numbness that she feels, it being at best a second-rate symptom of the disorder that makes the synapses melt like overcharged wires, incapable of transmitting further information. Yes, in Ildikó’s brain a certain instant of the past explodes, causing a neuronal block. The cause of the explosion is presumably Ervin who, although not having placed the bomb there himself, certainly brought the flame to the fuse. Even admitting that the explosion is not a genuine one, or if so, it is one turned inside out. Something that Ildikó associates with stumbling upon the keyword in a crossword puzzle, whose letters trigger off the chain reaction of the right answers, or much rather, with the next state that hits her on the head when, after having completed all the answers, above the paper pushed triumphantly aside all of a sudden the listless and lonely evening’s emptiness engulfs her and she can conjure up nobody on whom she could blame the mood devouring her. Now, on the other hand, she knows it is Ervin she should hold responsible, but the moment she thinks of Ervin, aiming several times in succession like a poor marksman, instead of Ervin’s face it is the face of Pista Tavi that emerges in front of her mind’s eyes, and a certain evening in a certain restaurant that people have insisted on calling Forget-me-not ever since, half jokingly of course, for who would not much rather forget. Forget-me-not is also a poor joke, for its official registered name is Număuita, since our story is set in Romania, but everybody in town, all the story’s characters, even comrade Dulea himself speak Hungarian, which is however of no significance worth mentioning whatsoever. It was a famed night, for she had hoped she would finally go through something that she need not dread thereafter, and in those days it was dread she wanted most to be rid of, at least as much as of the thick hairs growing on her legs, or of a wrinkle in the corner of her mouth, even if she instinctively intuited that the end to dread would not bring a much better state, for it would mean the loss of the one living in dread, of her surviving childhood self, but she would recoup her loss by playing the roles that Böby Derzsi was then getting, the most abysmally untalented actress that ever walked the face of the earth. Back then they did obviously not call such nights orgies, but ”meatballing”, which sounds as if it meant that they ate mincemeat balls, but of course did not mean that, the waiters, the drivers, the actors and actresses, even the comrades themselves described everything down to the smallest detail during coffee breaks, so that the secretaries could pass it on to the hairdressers, who then disseminated it with the distortions due to the buzz of beauty parlour hair dryers, like some contagious disease, mumps for instance that is particularly dangerous for grown-up men who had not contracted it in childhood, so that whenever there’s an epidemic of mumps in the kindergarten, the mothers of boys dutifully take their offspring to the sickbed to kiss the ailing child, all the while relating further savoury details of the meatballing feat. And the meatballing always started with a couple of glasses of cognac and ended with Pista Tavi ordering all knickers off the comrades, that is, those that still needed ordering, and then breaking Laji Rupi’s current violin on Jani Derzsy’s reputedly thick head, so that nobody could play on it again the beauteous folksong of his heart’s desire, ”The thrush builds its nest…” Ildikó gulped down a waterglassful of cognac that knocked her out almost immediately; she became like a sack of potatoes while, strangely, her consciousness cleared up, she was peeping out lucidly from her own inert body, albeit Pista Tavi was hardly bothered by this inertia, he shoved her into a half-lit pantry, made her squat in the corner, held her head with one hand and with the other unbuttoned his fly, as in those days zips were still relatively rare, started swearing out loud, perhaps partly because all he managed to produce was a child’s pecker, but soon became violent and poor Ildikó was thinking with all the lucid part of her consciousness she could muster how there was no-one in this world to protect her. But only the next day at noon, after having returned to the drama students’ dorm where she was still living at the time, not to mention the fact that in those days on the site of her present lodgings the peach orchards of the district called the Manor were still blooming for many years to come, and after having planted herself beneath the shower and from underneath her breast, the left one, a whiff of that horrendous smell of Pista Tavi slapped her, it was only then that she started throwing up convulsively. After that day she would be sick frequently. The last time a few days ago she woke up feeling sick, tore the window open hoping to get better, because those fits of vomiting could be dreadful, coming up directly from her womb, and she didn’t want to wake up the whole block of flats again, the wind was blowing from the direction of the sleeping town, she leaned out and felt instantly better, but as she turned round the room’s concentrated reek of Pista Tavi hit her again, making her throw up the first portion of her supper on the spot.

She should have taken revenge. There had been an occasion once, on that certain Christmas when the glorious regime’s men bled to death, that is, they appeared to be bleeding but recovered quickly enough. Now the most she can do is to satisfy the curiosity of a journalist sniffing for scandal, and she would gladly do it, were it not for the fact that as soon as she starts relating of Pista Tavi to Ervin, in place of Ervin’s face the face of Pista Tavi pops up, and it is Ervin’s face she wants to see, for she loves that face, so young and carefree, a face whose outlines would romp with the shadows of fatigue, quite unhampered even in the small hours, then start splashing about at the break of day and in a few seconds be smoothed out. She is in love with this boy, keeps thinking of him night and day, she is worried about him and keeps her fingers crossed that everybody would love him. And she tells everybody because it feels good to be talking of Ervin, how smart and well-read, how sensible and clean, what a beautiful, innocent child he is.

How finely one can play with him! She says to him things like, well slim jim, you’ve swallowed this whole, or that, now this is something to make your balls itch, with such sense of liberation as only children teasing each other can feel, and with what enthusiasm they go into planning their theatre: Ervin would write plays with a sharp political edge, the likes of which have never been seen on this stage…

Now all of a sudden she sees herself from the outside, as if she were perching on the willow on the corner or looking out from a window, as if she had exchanged places with that Peeping Tom, even if only for minutes. It would surely serve him right, to be able to feel the headache of Ildikó Halász for five minutes, to be standing on the street corner in a green terry cloth dressing gown and litter bin in hand, with nobody as much as looking at her. But the Peeping Tom is already looking elsewhere: a moment ago he was still counting the lights going up across the street, now he is staring at the bird’s carcass pressed onto the grey tarmac, how the wind flutters its ragged feathers, but there is hardly any breeze, at least nothing stirs the leaves. Later he gets engrossed in matters celestial, gazing out at the moon and the stars, so that he notices precious little of the swarming Pista Tavi-faced monsters, sensing nothing of the lonesome woman’s fears, although according to the rules of chivalry a man should on such occasions warn the freak-faces, at the very least with a thumping of the feet, that he is there and, should necessity present itself, would readily jump to the defence of the weak; what is more, he can certainly not be accused of liking Pista Tavi and would be glad to read at the tail end of the report on the Forget-me-not orgies that Pista Tavi resigned his seat in Parliament – although somewhat later he would impassively take cognizance of that deputy’s office in Strasbourg, with the same impassivity his eye would, with at most a light thrill due to the impending event, be caught the next morning by the patch of green terry cloth sticking to the tarmac like the dead bird, with a dark red stain hidden deep among its naps. In the meantime Ildikó has looked down from the window and found the way back to herself again, to the one who knows precisely how far she is from a creature Ervin might fall for. Because from up there she can see all too well even in the gathering dusk, that her hair is growing thin, that her hairdresser is not particularly skillful, that the crowns on her teeth are wearing off, she should replace them but doesn’t have the money, that she isn’t getting any roles at the theatre, she survives on hackwork and even such occasions are getting few and far between, she put together a few simple little programs that she takes to school and kindergarten festivities: last time she recited Petőfi poems at the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, next she would do In young hearts I live on at the graduation ceremony, provided they invite her and not some latter-day Böby to declaim some by-our-blood-and-soil-stalwart-we-stand Albert Wass. She has her apartment, her mother’s savings deposit with the small sum she had saved up for her funeral; her clothes are shabby, so she has no idea how she could possibly change her life, although she knows that if she doesn’t change it now she is finished for good, better and proper. She clings to Ervin, but he is becoming ever more selfish and whimsical.

And even if something more intimate were to develop between them, how long could it possibly last? In front of Ildikó’s mind’s eyes her own fifteen-year-old self emerges, a thin, dark-haired girl going in white knee socks and dark blue pleated skirt to the May 1st parade, and imagines Ervin would be there too, but Ervin is only a tiny toddler, all right, let it be the party at Zsuzsi’s place when they locked themselves up in the bathroom with Bandi Szepesi and she suffered him to deflower her, she imagines Ervin in Bandi’s place, what they would have said to each other back then, what the little boy with the big blond head, barely three, would have made of the occasion, how he would have stuck his tiny fingers into her body.

She is standing on the curb side with a headache that makes her dizzy, waiting to cross to the other side. The litter bin has grown so heavy that her right shoulder falls inches below the other. As though she were dragging the carved-up corpse of Pista Tavi in that bin. Sure she would be caught, although on the ground around the stew cauldrons there are always bones scattered about, all kinds of sickening nondescript things. Yes, on that Christmas it had occurred to her to grab the bread knife and ring Pista Tavi’s doorbell, shove aside his screaming wife – hard to imagine, as she was about one handspan taller and even then quite fifty kilos heavier than Ildikó – then make straight for the armchair in front of the TV, plant the knife in Pista Tavi’s heart, which he would have received with such resignation as if a vengeful revolutionary had leaped out directly of the TV set. For 25 years she has been living with Pista Tavi’s corpse, dragging it along wherever she goes; her husband, all her lovers and aborted children, her director, her partners on stage, the bus driver, the cantankerous cab driver, all of them have been that corpse.

What sacrifice has she not made? Surely, her whole life had been a sacrifice. On that forget-me-not night, since she had to be there anyway, she had planned to turn Pista Tavi’s head but he barely noticed her and, what is more, when she coyly addressed him with, Has comrade Tavi ever noticed that the comrade’s name is Tavi and mine, Halász, the one a lake, the other a fisher, Pista Tavi cloddishly asked, what it was he should have noticed. It was then she drank up the cognac, all of it.

Dusk is gathering slowly. The headlights of lorries rushing by awaken yet more shadows, as if they were splitting off from her body standing on the curb side, taking the shape now of an ass, now of a goat, now of a mountain goat preparing to jump, legs tensely balancing on one tiny spot of a palm’s width, then scurrying off behind the blocks but peeping out from behind the concrete walls. As the odd beam of light carves their muzzle out of the darkness, Ildikó instantly recognizes them. Yes, she should have called in at Pista Tavi’s place on that clean, snowless Christmas when for three days a warm southerly wind blew over the town, carrying the black rubber dust far away from them. She should at least have spat in his face; she should at least have given him an insistent look, should have asked him casually, well comrade, how’s things these days. Then she could still have gained admittance, for on the third day bodyguards were around him again. And today, even if she could get in with a piece of luck, she would only find a decrepit sick man with a broken look in his eyes, a man in pieces and all the more wicked for that, more wicked than ever.

Ildikó is standing on the curb side, counting the lorries rushing by. Not counting the lorries really, just uttering the numbers to herself, one after the other. What for? She doesn’t want to stop time, neither does she want it to run on. Or rather, she thinks soon it would be completely dark, then she can go to the garbage dumpsters and empty the litter bin right in front of her toes. It’s long been completely dark. Perhaps the soldiers from the nearby barracks are marching out for nighttime shooting, practicing for some secret sortie. Perhaps it is not even genuine lorries rushing by. In Ildikó’s head the pain is growing unbearable. It occurs to her she should turn around, go back up to her apartment, call Ervin to tell him straightaway that there is something more she needs to tell him about Pista Tavi that bears no delay, but which she will only tell if… Then something bursts in her head. With eyes wide open she acknowledges how the pain disappears at once. So suddenly as if it were a sign. A sign urging her not to go back, to leave Ervin alone, to forget everything, start a new life, step onstage again, play all the roles she had never played, to play as she alone can play.

—Zsolt Láng, Translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa



Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, william carlos williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator of various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of HYPERION, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

Sep 102015


Vibrantly alive with the ancient spirit of the Mediterranean world, Rossend Bonás Miró is a Catalan poet, traveler, and teacher. For decades he has worked as a translator, interpreter, and lecturer in many countries, including Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, and Spain’s Ebro Delta region. Bonás is also the cofounder—along with fellow Catalan poet Arnau d’Oms—the pen name of Joan Vernet i Ribes (1952-2014)—of the independent press Els llibres del Rif (Rif Books). This press has been the imprint for several volumes by both poets.

Bonás published his first book of poems Preuat ostatge de les ciutats d’Orient (A Precious Hostage from Eastern Cities) in Barcelona in 1975. Another book of his poems El Emir de Tortosa (The Emir of Tortosa) (2003) was printed in the southern Catalan city of the same name where he lives when he is not making one of his regular trips to villages in the Moroccan Rif and Atlas Mountains. In fact, Bonás says that each of his books has been printed in a different city. Other volumes of poetry over the years have included Tothom ho sabia (Everyone Knew It) (1986) and Mercader d’essències (Essence Merchant) (1992). Summertime 2015 finds Bonás in northern Morocco, editing his forthcoming book of poems Perdut en la gentada (Lost in the Crowd), due to be printed in Tangier.

An artist of eclectic interests whose mission is to help build bridges of cultural understanding, Bonás uses both his Catalan given name Rossend and his adopted Arabic name, Rashid––as well as its Catalan cognate, Raixid.

In addition to his numerous books of poetry, Bonás has also collaborated on the creation of an illustrated Spanish-Arabic vocabulary book for students, about which he and the other authors write: “We hope that this book can be another channel for improving communication and understanding to build with the inherent richness of diversity, a better world where respect and peace hold sway.”

His ideals and poems echo the compassionate spirit of the great medieval Sufi poet Ibn Arabi (1165 – 1240) of Murcia, who wrote:

My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
a temple for idols and the circling pilgrim’s Kaa’ba,
the tables of the Torah and the scrolls of the Quran.

I follow the religion of Love:
whichever way Love’s camels turn,
that is my belief and the faith I keep.

In addition to a body of poems fascinated with the human spiritual journey towards union and understanding, and the non-human life of creation and the natural environment, Bonás is also a student of art, history, and culture both traditional and contemporary. He publishes his articles regularly in Fotent’s Blog ( A son of Iberia, he is naturally fascinated with the intersection of European and Arabic influences that informs Spanish history, as shown in recent posts about the aesthetic power of Islamic art; the Spanish outpost city of Tétouan on the shore of North Africa; and the powerful, geometric compositions of glazed tile work of al-Andalus, ancient decorative art that influences Spanish and Portuguese design sensibilities down to the present day. Other postings by Bonás have focused on such important Catalan artists as the painter Joachim Patinir (1480-1524) whose landscapes were influenced by Hieronymous Bosch; the photographer Francisco García Cortés (1901-1976) who was a correspondent for the EFE Agency in Tetuan, a graphic collaborator on Diari d’Àfrica and an official photographer for the Spanish High Commission in Morocco; the great artist Antoní Clavé (1913-2005), a master painter, printmaker, sculptor and stage designer; and the painter and poster artist Josep Renau (1907-1982). Bonás’ fascination with the specific personality of different cities is evident in a recent post he wrote about the poetic symbolism of windows, with photographs of the many beautiful and different styles of windows in his city of Tortosa. His love of people and places also inspires a keen, clear, critical voice concerned with the problems of multinational socioeconomic policies that degrade life for many and prevent cultures from living healthy, progressive lives:

As his friend and collaborator Arnau d’Oms (Joan Vernet i Ribes) said about him:

“Rossend Bonás’s poetic work goes hand in hand with his life, and thus, he has written poetry in the same way that some trees drip sap, and others provide us with lovely shade, while others give elderflower to clear our sight.

His books, published outside of commercial circles, are like rare jewels. Unusual discoveries. Simple, yes, but illustrated or designed by other artists.

Bonás is Catalan from Catalonia, where most people are not of any single race, although he claims to be among those with the deepest roots in this small country of transitions and permanences, with Iberian, Roman, and Saracen roots.

In his own style, he again mixes the unimagined with the unthinkable, the sacred with the profane, and recreates that time when the southern lands of Catalonia were Muslim and the northern frontier of Al-Andalus.”

On the matter of poetic composition, Bonás himself states: “The first raw material of poetry is sound, and that sound causes the reaction in the human brain. Over time, the reader knows that poetry, to capture all its nuances, should be read aloud. Or rather, should be recited or declaimed.” However, he affirms, there are those who read silently and “delight in pure literary love of the word, of the prosodic devices, of onomatopoeia, repetition and polysyndeton.” Either way, as far as the poet’s role in this relationship goes, Bonás contends that “When you finish a poem, you lose it, it’s no longer yours, you relinquish your authority over it to whoever reads it.”

In that spirit this article presents a generous offering of Bonás poems, selected by the poet himself, in their original Catalan and translated into English, which should provide readers with a splendid introduction to the verses of this timeless, visionary seeker.

— Brendan Riley

Als seus ulls

veig pregoneses
que no sé si hi són
ni si altres les veuen.

I see her eyes
deep proclamations
so deep I doubt
nor know if others see them.

* * *

Aquest vent que apareix
i desapareix sense avisar,
com els mals moments arriba
i, al cap de poc, se’n va.

Però torna,
insistent i regular,
i un bon dia fa tombar
la fulla més resistent
de garrofer o d’alzinar.

This wind that appears
and disappears without warning
comes like the worst moments
stays a while, flows away

But it returns
regular, insistent
and on any good day
it comes to tumble
the most resilient leaves
off the oak and carob trees.

* * *

Ígnia cabellera.
Encesa torxa
de rulls en cascada.
Volcànica lava.
El foc, semblava
que el diua per fora.
Però no, i ara!
És dins que cremava.

Her igneous hair
a burning torch
curling cascade
Lava from the volcano.
Like she was dressed
in a mantle of fire
But no, the perfect inversion
She was burning from the inside out


* * *

Wadi Lau I

Sota les palmeres de fulles remoroses
voldríem desxifrar el missatge del vent.
I a l’aigua de les sèquies, silenciosa,
espurnes de llum treu la lluna creixent.


Wadi Lau I

Under the palm trees’ murmuring leaves
we try to discern the wind’s message
And from the silent water pools
sparks of light engender the rising moon


* * *


—Si som en el temps,
que és moviment,
consiència pura;
si som consciència
en el còsmic moviment
i si és aquesta consciència
un privilegi…
¿per a què el vull, Senyor,
què n’haig de fer?—
rumia el pastor
mentre es bressola el ramat
amb la lenta i greu monotonia
dels cicles naturals.
-¿I no haguera pogut ésser
consciència d’ase o d’ovella,
i no haguera pogut ésser
atzavara, poniol, insecte
o la primera figa
que l’estiu madura?

If we reside in time
which is motion,
if we are consciousness
in the cosmic movement
and if this consciousness itself
constitutes a privilege
Why do I desire it, Lord
What business is it of mine?
Thus wonders the shepherd
while the flock meanders
with the slow solemn monotony
of the natural cycles.
And would not have been possible
consciousness of donkey or sheep
and would not have been possible
agave, mint, and insect
or the first ripening
fig of summer?


* * *


El pecador, que no en tenio prou amb el perdó, demanava, a més a més, l’esperança.

¿O hauré de veure com m’apago,
trista, anònima i lentament,
sense tan sols el comfort plaent
de l’esperança, resignant-me,
com el ruc corbat sota sa càrrega?


The Sinner, Not Satisfied with Being Forgiven, Asked For Hope As Well

Or will I have to pretend how I fade,
sad, anonymous, and slowly,
without even the pleasant comfort
of hope, resigned like the donkey
plodding beneath its heavy load?


* * *


Exposició col•lectiva d’Art basada en poemes de R. Bonàs

Aquesta exposició és el resultat d’una proposta en la que 12 artistes fan una lectura gràfica dels poemes de Raixid Bonàs.


Seguim en aquest món serè
enduts per remolins de passions
banals i no gens descabellades,
en un estiu accelerat que,
tot just començat, ja és ple.


La ment, ¿pot fer avinent
l’oblit de mi mateix
amb el ‘jo’ treballat
tan àrduament?


Seguint els cagallons
de les cabres de l’Olimp
pujàvem pels camins
flanquejats de margallons
baladres, atzavares i pins.


La realitat dels fets tossuts i quotidians
desafia, il•lògica, candor i fantasia.


Si simple titelles som
de la gran representació
al Teatre Universal…

moveu-nos els fils, Senyor,
que puguem representar
moltes funcions
en Vostre Honor
i per a satisfacció de tots!


Com descriure el dolor tens i larvat
després d’una separació definitiva?

S’endu el vent el lent treball dels anys
i l’íntim plaer de la mútua companyia.


Collective Art Exhibit based on the poems of R. Bonás

This exhibit is the result of a proposal in which twelve artists perform a graphic reading of the poems of Rossend Bonás.


We endure in this serene world
driven by whirlwinds of banal passions
still sane not at all hare-brained,
in an accelerated summer,
one freshly inaugurated
yet already teeming full


Can my mind be called
to recall my self-inflected
oblivion with the oh-so
arduously overwrought “I”?


Following the dark pellets dropped
behind by the goats from Olympus,
we pushed upwards along the paths
flanked closely by palmettos
oleander, agaves, and pines.


The reality of all
our stubborn daily deeds
illogically defies
candor and fantasy.


If we are merely marionettes
of the great representation
at the Universal Theater…

move our threads, Lord,
so we might mirror
a purposeful multitude
of movements
in Your Honor
meant to satisfy all!


How to describe the tense
and tightly wrapped pain
a dark cocoon
after a definitive separation?

The wind carries away the work of years
and the intimate pleasure of mutual company.

— Susana Fabrés Díaz & Brendan Riley


Rossend Bonas3

A native of Barcelona, Spain, Susana Fabrés Díaz is a teacher and artist. She wrote the first, working draft of these translations from the Catalan.

Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

Jul 082015


This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them… What Jandl’s wordplay accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too. — Julie Larios

reft and light


Ernst Jandl’s book Reft and Light opens with this word of warning from editor Rosemarie Waldrop: “Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate.” Notice that she doesn’t say “extremely difficult.” She says “impossible.” That doesn’t bode well for English-speaking readers who, like me, know only a few words in German – principally those used by fictional Nazis in old WWII movies – “Achtung! Verboten!” – or for readers who, also like me, have been puzzled by the long controversy over whether John Kennedy, in a 1963 speech, called himself a jelly donut or declared himself to be a citizen of Berlin (“Ich bin ein Berliner.”)

The jelly-donut controversy no doubt would have pleased Ernst Jandl, an Austrian poet and translator, whose work often explored the strange malleability of words. He was philosophically if not officially a member of  the Oulipo school of experimental poets (the moniker “Oulipo” formed from the French words Ouvroir  de Litterature Potentielle, meaning “Workshop of Potential Literature”) who played with formal constraints as a means of re-examining or re-awakening language. Inventive word-morphing, reconstructions, deconstructions and deliberately misdirected readings and soundings of words at the sentence, word and phoneme level – these were his strong suit, at least as far as Reft and Light is concerned. Waldrop’s note introducing the book helps explain why few people in the United States have heard of Jandl, despite his popularity among German-speaking readers. Reft and Light is one of only two collections translated into English (the other is Dingbat, translated by Michael Hamburger) and Jandl’s “poems” in this book are not lyrical in the traditional sense nor are they narrative. I’m not sure I would characterize most of them as poems; in fact, and I can’t recommend Jandl’s other work to you since I can’t speak German.  Reft and Light is not likely to satisfy people looking for poetry with a capital P. But for people looking at language at the word level and taking pleasure in innovation and experimentation, reading the book is like spending recess on a school playground.

I was handed Jandl’s book several years ago by Christine Deavel of Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore, Open Books. “You’re the perfect reader for this,” she told me, and she was right. I’m a recess junkie when it comes to poetry, which is not to say I can’t go back to the classroom and enjoy the quieter lessons when recess is over. But I admit to liking the dizziness of a ride on the dangerous Big Spinner, word-wise, especially if it creaks and groans at unnerving intervals, and even more so if I feel like I might just be thrown off by the G-forces at work, heels over head and away. Jandl’s book is for punsters, anagramists, riddlers, jumble solvers, Scrabble players, crossword addicts, and poets who respond to sound as much as they do to images and ideas. You get off the ride and don’t quite know which end is up.

So if his work is untranslatable, as Waldrop states, how successful is Reft and Light? The entirety of her Editor’s Note tries to explain:

Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate. But their procedures can be imitated. Here is an experiment: several American poets respond to each poem so that original is encircled by multiple English analogues. The responses (which range from close imitations to freewheeling versions that continue Jandl’s thinking into other semantic areas) form the first part of this book. The version that seems closest to Jandl’s text is usually the first to follow the German.

Part II presents, in roughly chronological order, poems by Ernst Jandl either left in their original form (including visual poems and poems that he wrote in English) or translated/adapted by Anselm Hollo or myself.

The characterization of the translations as “analogues” is a good one: they are comparable, but not equal to. They are not literal translations. They are re-interpretations; they “continue Jandl’s thinking” and find ways to express his thought-process in English. Take this short experiment (again, not what I would call a poem) where Jandl turns a simple counting list inside out:



The correct German numbers 1-10 would be ein, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn. Translated literally, the title means “series” and Jandl’s list reads (if I’ve got it right) ice, twig, fresh, cattle, fill, groan, syllables, oh, new, zinc. We hear the similarities in the German pairing – ein/eis, sieben/silben, etc.  But how to translate this into English when all the wordplay involves German sound variations? In Reft and Light, various poets try their best with a comparable English version of counting 1-10. The poet Keith Waldrop offers this basic possibility:



It’s a simple enough bit of play. I often asked my students at Vermont College of Fine Arts to give it a try, just to shake up the way they hear their own language (in the firm belief that we stop really hearing our own language because it’s too familiar – idiomatic speech is sometimes inaudible and metaphors are flattened by over-familiarity. Finding alternatives for the numbers is not hard. But if I asked my students to take it a step farther, to see if they could create a narrative of some kind out of the words, it became more difficult and more interesting. Here is an excerpt from Julie Patton’s extended variation on Jandl’s wordplay; her version incorporates both German and English equivalents and moves beyond sound imitation toward storytelling – it “sounds” like it could be counting from one to ten, but it’s not:


Ray di Palma’s versions (five lists) even play with the title “series,” changing the title for each list to cherries, ceres, seers, jerries and cerise. This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them. In another example, “Otto Mops,” a univocalic, Jandl goes for the o’s to tie things together, sound-wise:

ottos mops trotzt
otto: fort mops fort
ottos mops hopst fort
otto: soso

otto holt koks
otto holt obst
otto horcht
otto: mops mops
otto hofft

ottos mops klopft
otto: komm mops komm
ottos mops kommt
ottos mops kotzt
otto: ogottogott

Okay: it’s not W.B. Yeats. But Jandl is not going for mystery and moonlight. He’s going for Abbot and Costello, in their classic skit, “Who’s on first?” He wants to make us sit up and make us notice how confusing and playful language is. With my meager German and a good dictionary, I can discern this loose story in the Otto poem: ottos pug defies / otto: away, pug, away / ottos pug hops away / otto: so so. // otto brings coke [can that be right?] / otto picks fruit / otto listens / otto: pug pug / otto hopes // ottos pug knocks / otto: come pug come / ottos pug comes / ottos pug throws up / otto: ohgodohgod.

Notice that the poem uses only the vowel “o.” And notice that the German words do more than rhyme, they morph in terms of sound: trotzt, fort, soso, koks, mops, obst, horcht, hofft, klopft, komm, kommt, kotzt, ogott. Elizabeth MacKiernan’s English version, below, uses only u’s and o’s, having changed Jandl’s o’s to ooh’s. Our Hero become Lulu rather than Otto – fair enough. MacKiernan loosely follows the narrative thrust of the original but her words rhyme a bit more, morph a bit less:

Lulu’s pooch droops
Lulu: scoot, pooch, scoot!
Lulu’s pooch soon scoots.
Lulu brooms room.

Lulu scoops food.
Lulu spoons roots.
Lulu croons: pooch, pooch.
Lulu broods.

Lulu’s pooch drools.
Lulu: poor fool pooch.
Lulu grooms pooch.

Lulu’s pooch poops.
Lulu: oops.

This play with vowels is typical of some of the best known work by Oulipo poets. The French writer Georges Perec made enough of a splash in 1969 with his 300-page lipogrammatic novel La disparition (in which the vowel “e” is never used) that a translation into English (The Void) was commissioned – the translator was Gilbert Adair.  This was followed three years later by a companion novel, Les revenentes in which no vowels other than “e” are used (it was translated by Ian Monk in 1996 and given the title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.) 

GeorgesPerecGeorges Perec

One of Jandl’s sound experiments is a little more haunting, less comedic; more zen, less Big Spinner:



völlig beraubt



völlig beraubt

Translated loosely, this says “all/ all / without // completely bereft // canzone // all / all / without // completely bereft.” Jandl arrives at this quiet moment by way of the original Italian word “canzone” (song, ballad) — to any German speaker, “canzone” sounds immediately like “ganz ohne,” which means “all without.” Gale Nelson offers up this English equivalent:



wholly undone



wholly undone.

The English version doesn’t work quite as well because “sadly full” does not match “madrigal” quite as well as “canzone” matches “ganz ohne.” But it does continue Jandl’s thinking.  Jandl also offers up a form which changes how we see the relationship between two words when a single letter gets replaced by another. He places the words on the page so their similarity is clear (this isn’t rocket science: it’s easy to imagine a good elementary school language arts teacher having her students do the same):

fr   sch

In German, “frosh” means frog and “frisch” mean fresh. The Englsih translators do even better with this form:

…..i………………   is……………….o………………n…………..s
chmp   ||    poon   ||   ||   bo   y ||  .re  . olve
….o……………….  ti……………….i……………….d…………..v

Occasionally, the serious side of play shines through, as in this poem:

tee……….:….ein stück
lieber…..:    tee
ich……….:   tee
[er nie].:tee

Craig Watson comes up with an excellent translation:


all a…….:….tease

Is this a poem? I think this one is. Are some of the other, simpler experiments poems? Not in my opinion. What Jandl’s wordplay in Reft and Light accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. I was grateful that Christine Deavel put the book into my hands. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too.

Here’s one last Jandl poem, written in English late in his life and cited in the obituary the New York Times published when he died:

When born again
I want to be
a tenor saxophone
if it’s up to me,
theres gonna be
total promiscuity.

Ernst Jandl was born in Vienna in 1925 and died there seventy-five years later; he was called up into the German army during World War II but was strongly anti-Nazi and criticized the Austrian government for its cooperation with Germany during the war. I can’t tell you whether the majority of Jandl’s untranslated work consists of poems that play less and paint more. I’m only familiar with Reft and Light, which might be the sorbet in between other courses of a more substantial meal, serving to cleanse the palette. I do know that Jandl was voted one of the ten most important German-language poets of the 20th century by a group of 50 writers, scholars and critics; the fact that he has next to no name-recognition in this country makes him qualify as undersung by any standard.

As an experimental poet, Jandl is not to everyone’s taste – experimentation, by definition, is not mainstream, and to honor sound at the expense of image and meaning is dangerous. But an old-fashioned playground is dangerous, too.  At the very least, be brave, whether reader or writer or both: Climb up on the equipment and give it a spin. Try some of Jandl’s experiments: break up words, bend them. Above all, re-hear and re-fresh them. Meanwhile, keep the sound of that Abbot and Costello bit about “Who’s On First?” in your head. Why does that classic routine continue to appeal to us? Comedy is often located in miscommunication, and confusion makes us laugh, makes us wince, makes us listen more carefully and sends us new directions. Not a bad agenda for the creative spirit.

—Julie Larios


May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios  has contributed several Undersung essays to Numero Cinq over the last two years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.

Jun 302015

Julian Herbert

Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila, where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism.

         His English language debut came in February 2014, with the publication of “Mama Leukemia” (trans. Brendan Riley), a chapter from his novel Canción de tumba, which has been translated into Portuguese and Italian. 2014 also saw the publication of Jesus Libt Dich Nicht / Cristo no te ama (Christ Doesn’t Love You), a bilingual Spanish-German anthology of his poems translated and compiled by Timo Berger.

         In January 2015 Julián Herbert completed his novel La casa del dolor ajeno. Crónica de un pequeño genocidio en La Laguna. (The House of Someone Else’s Pain. Chronicle of a Minor Genocide in La Laguna ).

         La casa del dolor ajeno revisits a shameful event from Mexican history: the worst massacre of Chinese immigrants to have occurred in the Americas, which took place in the city of Torreón de Coahuila, in northern Mexico, between May 13th and 15th, 1911. As Herbert describes it:

         “The Chinese community that settled in that area were merchants. They even had their own bank. Part of the massacre had to do with resentment from the local people, but also envy from the Mexican businessmen. It was carried out at the behest of the bourgeoisie. After the Chinese were killed, their bodies were thrown into a common grave.”

         Herbert points out that some things have not changed in over a century:          

         “Mexico is full of pits filled with the bodies of people who disappeared. A few years ago in Coahuila, a whole town disappeared: 300 people were found buried in a common grave. And none of these cases ever get solved.”

         This includes the tragic events of September 2014, in which 43 Mexican student-teachers disappeared from Iguala, in the state of Guerrero.

         “In the case of the 43 students,” Herbert says, “the response from politicians shows an egregious level of cynicism and indifference,” and, in mordant summation adds, “I’m starting to get depressed.”

         Set in a hellish, crumbling Mexico City that refuses to die, Herbert’s story “Z” offers a wry psycho-sexual twist on the ever-popular zombie motif. The story, whose narrator might be the last sane man in Mexico, focuses on the tenuous trust between analyst and analysand, and ponders the problem of whether we are the engineers or willing victims of our own languid apocalypses.

         “Z” was originally published in Spanish in October 2014 in the multi-author collection Narcocuentos (Narco Tales) (Ediciones B).

—Brendan Riley



I SPEND THE MORNING talking on the phone with my analyst. My analyst’s name is Tadeo. Tadeo pretends to be an impartial judge but I think that he’d really prefer that I let him take a bite out of me. It couldn’t be any other way: they started slowly devouring him almost five months ago.

“This really isn’t a question of ethics,” he says. “This is about loneliness. What your increasing isolation means for you at an existential level.”

I almost burst out laughing: he talks about existentialism as if he were really alive. He’s a nice guy from UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I change the subject simply to avoid laughing about his condition.

“Y’know, it might be better if you come over and we can talk face to face. Or at least mouth to ear.”

“We’re already talking mouth to ear.”

“Through the door, I mean.”

“No, my friend,” he responds in a very sober tone, with the hypocritical tranquility instilled in him by his studies. “I’ve acquired the discipline of not sniffing my patients.”

“Except for Delfina,” I say, to rile him.

Tadeo guards a brief silence, then answers:

“Delfina doesn’t smell anymore. And she’s no longer my patient.”

For more than a year I’ve lived in a room on the fourth floor of the Majestic Hotel, overlooking the Zocalo, the great central square of Mexico City. Once a week, Tadeo comes over to my place and guides me through a session of psychoanalysis. At first he always came up to my room. We’d make ourselves comfortable ––he’d sit on the badly upholstered little armchair, I’d recline on my bed–– and chat with the television on low to make some background noise and to muffle the bloody carnivorous chomping sounds coming from my next-door neighbor’s room.

Tadeo was the most sensible man I’d ever met until Delfina (I’ve never seen her: I imagine that she’s quite pretty) seduced him and took, by way of tribute, several bites from his left forearm, infecting him and thereby destroying for me (without meaning to, I’m clear about that) six months of therapy.

Since then we’ve had to conduct our sessions through the insipid tones of the phone downstairs in the hotel vestibule.

“Human,” I say.

“Excuse me?”

“You mean that Delfina no longer smells like a human. Wouldn’t it be just the same if you phoned me from your office?”

“Human, yes . . . As far as coming over here, I swear I’m not doing it out of desperation. It’s a question of professionalism. Besides, who else was going to give you the message? There’s not a single soul left down here.”

He talks about professionalism but he’s had sexual relations with a number of his patients, and eventually fell for one of them. And now, for the sake of love, he’s let himself be transformed into a beast. Well, not entirely a beast: a transitional cannibal. I’ve said as much to him and he’s admitted it. Now he adds sadly:

“Maybe I should be your patient instead.”

It’s a polite thing to say. We both know that I’m a rotten person, a selfish and frightened master of ceremonies, incapable of helping anyone at all; never mind that half the world is currently mutating towards death or depression.

Tadeo says that it’s not a question of ethics but rather loneliness. What’s certainly true is that, lately anyway, it’s a question of food. I’ve been slipping out at night to look for some. That’s when there’s less of a chance of bumping into the ones I call mature sleepwalkers: they prefer to hunt by day, although their favorite time is sundown.

(There are no precise facts but it seems that the prolonged consumption of human flesh ends up destroying –among other things– their retina: the intense light damages them, and in the dark they’re as blind as moles. When they become completely blind they turn into carnivorous flowers: groaning invalids writhing about on the ground. They continue to be dangerous but being almost completely sedentary they’re relatively easy to avoid.)

At first I was frightened of going outside, so I lived on stale foodstuffs from the hotel kitchen: semi-rotten cutlets, rancid cheese, chocolate, frozen soups, dried fruit . . . . As the months went by, however, I gathered my courage, not only to undertake excursions in search of food in nearby stores, but also to have something resembling a social life. My greatest success in this area has been serving as master of ceremonies at the skateboard tournaments in Eugenia Alley.

My quests for food manage to provide me with everything from Pachucan empanadas to granola bars. From gallons of purified water to all the bottles of booze I could drink. The other day I found a bag of marijuana and another one stuffed with pills stashed behind the counter in an old printing shop. I put them back where I found them: I’m strongly opposed to any kind of illegal substances.

As long as nobody kills me, it’s all mine. The country has become a minefield of fangs and grinding molars but also a vast open air bargain. Thanks to the vain imaginings of some, whose willful denial impels them to keep performing their daily duties, I enjoy certain services formerly taken for granted, tasks that once made life with other humans unconsciously pleasant. For example, fresh milk in Tetra Briks in the morning. The truck keeps showing up, dropping off its deliveries and invoices at the 7-11 on the corner of Moneda and Callejón de Verdad; maybe they don’t notice that the store, which was looted four times in the last week alone, is a mere shadow of its former self. It has no regular workers anymore, only the occasional looters posing as cashiers. With their face like junkies and their backsides all bitten and gnawed away, they stand there, trembling like old boxers stricken with Parkinson’s, ringing up my selections even though they’ve only come around to steal the little that’s left on the shelves.

A few nights ago I found some excellent spoils: some nice packages of moldy falafel and humus, nearly two pounds of pistachios seasoned with garlic and chile de árbol, half a strip of Coronado caramel lollipops, a bottle of Appleton Estate, and an iPod that included –among some tolerably dark gems– Smetana’s From My Life string quartet… I waited until sunset on Friday to celebrate my discovery. My plan was to have a little picnic in the open air: I put on my headphones and, loaded with goodies from my raids, I went up to the Majestic’s observation deck.

When I relate all this to him, Tadeo returns to the line of analysis he’s been trying to use on me for the past month.

“Have you thought about why you did that?”

“I already told you why, to celebrate.”

“And you don’t think there’s any other reason? Some stubborn strain buried deep in your need to put yourself in danger?… You know that sunset is your riskiest time of day.”

I try to change the subject again but he insists:

“How do you think your neighbors took it? Have any of them followed you to the terrace?”

“A couple of them came up to catch a whiff of me, of course. It always happens. But they did it politely: they sat down several tables away from me.”

Except for Leah, a Jewish woman ––still perfectly human and healthy–– who lives on the second floor, and who only leaves the hotel to scrounge for pirate DVDs around the Bellas Artes Metro station, all my neighbors in the Majestic are bi-carnal. Although they’ve not yet decided to attack me, they’ll follow me anywhere with a desperately transparent look, the very look that used to belong exclusively to the brain-fried crystal meth smokers on the street.

Tadeo just keeps insisting:

“Did you say anything to them?”

He’s really starting to bug me.

“I didn’t really pay much attention to them. I was keeping my eye on the soldiers.”

“What soldiers?”

“The ones who show up every afternoon to take down the flag.”

Every day it’s the same routine: just before sunrise, a military squad marches along the esplanade of the Zocalo, unfolding an immense green, white, and red flag. They open it to its full size and then, after attaching it to a thick rope, they raise it up a giant metal and concrete flagpole, perhaps one hundred-fifty feet tall. This accomplished, they depart, marching away with the same gallantry as they arrived. The flag hangs there all day, fluttering and waving in the wind, magnificent, floating above thousands of shambling cadavers and hundreds of hungry carnivorous plants crammed together around the Metropolitan Cathedral. In the afternoon, shortly before sunset, the soldiers return to take down the gigantic flag: they perform their martial ballet in reverse motion, lowering, unhooking, and folding the linen of the motherland with exasperating solemnity. Part of their ordinance is to show up perfectly armed. It’s not just for show: almost every day they experience the tedious obligation of executing a few creatures that, completely out of their minds, attack the squad despite their uniforms. The soldiers usually fire at point blank range, directly above the temple: the .45 caliber slugs strike the flagstones with a dull crack, and the heads of the flesh-eaters, splitting wide open, rehearse the final Grand Slam of Mexico City. Even so, the soldiers find it quite difficult to completely avoid getting bitten; they rarely all escape unscathed. That must be why, invariably, more than one of them stumbles or tries to hide his stumps by readjusting the dirty bandages that cover his flaking, peeling flesh.

Almost the entire army suffers from some phase of the contagion. Who knows if this is due to their ceaseless patrols or their long, lonely nights in the barracks. While it’s true that the best vaccines are destined for the armed forces, it’s also true that on a daily basis (or at least that’s what CNN says: our own national media is completely extinct) cells of deserters appear, serving as security for roving bands of wormoisseurs. That’s how anything works that still works around here: corrupting everything in its orbit until it all becomes an allegorical mural of destruction.

However much these events resemble any other major epidemic, our situation began with a pair of isolated cases, indistinguishable from the furor usually caused by the sensational and now disappeared (or, depending how you see it: omnipresent) red line journalism. First, a construction worker murdered his lover and co-worker in the area near a building site. The authorities found fragments of intestines and human hearts roasted on a piece of sheet metal over some coals. During the trial, the suspect committed suicide. A year later, a young poet and professor from the University of Puebla was sent to jail when the authorities searched his refrigerator and found pieces of his dead girlfriend, which he used for masturbating. Although no one demonstrated that he’d killed her or consumed her flesh, the symptoms that this individual presented in the months to come left no room for doubt: he was ground zero for a new reality breaking out along the border, beyond the animal species and the plant and animal kingdoms: a walking virus.

The first person to come to Mexico to study the phenomenon was the English scientist Frank Ryan, a virologist whose theory proposed, in general, that humanity’s tremendous evolutionary leap forward was not owing to our DNA connection to other mammals but to the great percentage of viral information absorbed by the human genome. What at first seemed a polemical intuition capable of explaining sicknesses like AIDS or cancer turned into Ryan’s Evolutionary Law or the Clinamen of the Species: all organic entropy will eventually lead to the triumph of an entity neither alive nor dead, whose only activity will be to feed and reproduce itself by invading host organisms.

The most atrocious thing about our epidemic, and what makes it distinct from any other, is its irritating slowness. Once the sickness is contracted, the organism is defined by two characteristics: first, the unstoppable anxiety of having to feed on human flesh ––an impulse heightened by olfactory stimulation––; second, a gradual multiple sclerosis directly proportional to the quantity of human flesh consumed. It’s here where the individual willpower affects the processes, because one’s capacity for restructuring gluttony and administering consumption (such ridiculous but actual socioeconomic similes are issued daily by the Secretary of Health) define the speed at which the transformation will take place.

So far no formal catalog exists to describe the exact phases of the entity’s devolution. In my hours of leisure (which are many) I’ve derived four categories that I’ll here offer for the consideration of future carnivegetal realms:

The Transitional Cannibal: this refers to the phase in which my psychoanalyst currently finds himself. It can last from a week to a year, depending on the victim’s previous health, dietary habits, and experimental drug usage (“Retroviral and antipsychotic drugs have proven effective,” Tadeo told me the other day with a professorial thrill in his voice). In this phase, the infected person loses many of their vital functions, which allows them to stay alive while eating very little. Their interaction with his surrounding environment doesn’t change very much; for example, this group includes the President of the Republic and all his prominent detractors, opposition party leaders, many doctors and teachers, and almost all the business people that remain active. The only trait that distinguishes them from someone like me is that they show withdrawal symptoms ––nausea, dizziness, hyperventilation–– when they detect the smell of normal, healthy human beings.

The Bicarnal Beast: the individual suffering this phase is nearly unable to resist the temptation to take a bite out of you but, still governed by shame, delivers their overture with the classic exaggerated politesse of the well-bred Mexican: “Would you kindly allow me to accompany you, sir?” or some such courtesy. They turn out to be the most repulsive ones. I call them bicarnal because, to soften their anxiety, they deceive themselves by eating pounds and pounds of beef, pork, or lamb. I’ve come upon them in shattered minimarts, wolfing down frozen hamburgers straight out of the box. Once I even saw, from the terrace at the Majestic, the way in which a group of them sacrificed a fighting bull in the Zocalo (God knows where they managed to find it) and then devoured it’s raw flesh right there on the flagstones. I also call them junkies or wormoisseurs: their principal post-human activity is the buying and selling of cadavers. They are the lords and masters of what was once the Historic Center of the nation’s capital city.

The Mature Sleepwalker moves a little clumsily, with a crooked shambling gait, and is always filthy with bloodstains from eating any living thing that happens to cross its path. It’s blind and weak and doesn’t utter a single word; beyond its terrifying aspect, it’s simply a depressing creature. Not really very interesting. Relatively scarce, its condition represents the shortest stage of the infectious process.

Lastly, The Blossom: the immortal aspect of what we will all soon become: nascent vegetative man-eaters in a perpetual and pestilent state of putrefaction. As the sclerosis overtakes them, Blossoms, with their last remaining shreds of instinct, search for some place where they can drop down undead. Although I’ve occasionally seen these flesh-eating flowers on their own, you usually run into groups of them, almost as if the need for socialization was the last human trait to die. Once I saw one of these living cadavers remain standing on two feet. But normally they end up stretched out on the ground, whether it be in the street or locked inside rooms, or sometimes on benches, planter boxes, fountains, the hoods of cars . . . . More than actually moving about, they suffer from spasms. They clamber over one another, biting each other, snapping at anything that moves near them, ceaselessly opening and closing their jaws clack clack clack clack clack all night and day, the sound of a teletype in an insane asylum. At first it kept me from sleeping, and later gave me long nightmares, but lately it has become a sweet lullaby.

The largest garden of flesh-eating flowers that exists grew spontaneously around the Metropolitan Cathedral, along one side of the Zocalo, facing the patio of my hotel . . . . Could it really be any different in a Catholic country? Not only do the terminally ill in this epidemic keep arriving at all hours: every day also delivers an almost industrial quantity of the nourishment they require. Every morning finds rows of buses parked around the Zocalo. The buses disgorge groups of fervent pilgrims who pray to God for the world’s salvation and, as a test of their faith, try to pass through the bramble rows of teeth separating them from the doors of the cathedral. Nobody ever even makes it halfway through the atrium: they’re all devoured alive in just a few minutes. That keeps the garden well watered with fresh blood. If Mexico weren’t already the vast cemetery that it is, this perilous garden would be considered the country’s most peculiar tourist attraction.

As my session comes to a close, Tadeo asks:

“So, are you going to come over to install it? . . . . I live in La Condesa, really close to Avenida Amsterdam, a block and a half off Insurgentes, along Iztaccíhuatl. Just get off the metro at Chilpancingo. It’s on the sixth floor. You can’t miss it.”

I think it over a bit.

“You don’t even need to come see me,” he insists. “We can do the whole thing over the intercom.”

“It’s not about you. I just never go that far.”

“Come on, man. Nothing’ll happen. I go out every day and nothing happens.”

“Sure, but you have a car.”

“Consider it an exercise in socialization within the frame of therapy: one way or another you’ve got to go on living in our world.”

In the end he convinces me and we agree that next Monday (today is Thursday) I’ll go by his apartment to install a satellite television hookup.

“On one condition,” I clarify: “None of this shit about doing everything over the intercom. I want to see you. I want to see your house. And Delfina, too, of course.”

“What for?” he asks, suspicious.

“I don’t know . . . . To see what kind of beauty could get you to agree to become a human sirloin steak.”

Now it’s Tadeo who’s unsure. But 142 TV channels and 50 different music stations, as well as 10 hardcore porn sites and an all-access password for Pay Per View––all for free––is the kind of high quality blackmail that nobody, not even a Lacanian psychoanalyst and cannibal, could ever resist.

“It’s a deal,” he says.

He hangs up the phone.

I consider myself the ruler of this realm but once, up north, I was the ruler of a different one: regional maintenance manager for one of the most important satellite television companies in the world. For years I accumulated a huge assortment of things in my desk drawer: all kinds of keys, serial numbers, computer chips, cards, code numbers. After the first outbreaks of the epidemic, I moved to Mexico City and brought with me masses of tools and toys and doodads. These small bunches of talismans represent the multitasking treasure that I sometimes spend in place of money: for example, I can use them to place bets in the skateboarders’ casino on Eugenia Alley, where young skaters leap over long rows of the bodies of full-blossom cannibals lying side by side on the ground; the kind of thing you used to see at monster truck shows. We spectators bet to see who can jump the most bodies on their skateboard. Some, the best skaters, survive. Most of them end up with their calf muscles chewed to raw meat from the strong, virulent bites. I’m not complaining. Sometimes, in that hippodrome of cadavers and imbeciles, I win enough money to rent myself a toothless whore. And when things don’t go quite so well, I pay off my bets by installing residential satellite service in some building in the neighborhood: the worst thing that can happen in a day is that I end up having to scale a wall and cross over twenty yards of rotting flesh without a safety harness.

The thing is, everybody wants to keep on zapping: surfing a never-ending wave of 140 different channels even as they’re being ripped to pieces by the love of their life. Everybody, including the dead.

—Julián Herbert; Translated from the original Spanish by Brendan Riley, 2015


Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico.


Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuente

Jun 162015

Lady Rojas Benevente


Lady Rojas Benavente’s poetry fuses her countless — and sometimes clashing — identities as a Peruvian-Québecoise woman, who immigrated to Canada in the seventies and has lived in the interstices of various nations ever since. While some of her poems evoke a certain nostalgia for an idyllic childhood in Peru or describe the country’s history and its Incan culture, others are starkly candid about the realities of the immigrant experience and existence as the proverbial “Other.” In the poems chosen for Numéro Cinq, Lady Rojas Benavente playfully depicts her upbringing, schooling and first teaching jobs. Her meticulous manipulation of the sounds of the Spanish language is difficult to render into English so the translations are instead instilled with a teasing tone. These poems come from Rojas Benavente’s collection L’Étoile d’eau/Estrella de Agua published in 2006 by France’s prestigious L’Harmattan in a bilingual (Spanish and French) edition translated by Nicole Barré.

—Sophie M. Lavoie



Encierro interior
biblioteca redonda
leo a Rilke,
y me imagino
a Beauvoir
encima de Sartre.

Pasadizos circulares
donde recorren
mozas detrás de los monjes
y se les agria la leche
entre las piernas.

Confesionario barroco
he pecado padre,
peco con mi hermano,
y pecaré hijo mío.

Comedor gigante
los vientres
cuartos que engordan
y noche.

Auditorio inmenso
la fe
en la música
la esperanza
en la religión
y la caridad
no me acuerdo para quién.

Patio al aire libre
se anuncia
que tomaron
a los guerrilleros
que cayó Heraud en su río
y todos los comunistas.

A santiguarse,
a comulgar,
a rogar por todos los maleados
y en especial por mí
pecadora entre los hombres.



Interior seclusion
round library
I read Rilke,
and imagine
on top of Sartre.

Circular alleys
where lasses
run behind the monks
and the milk turns sour
between their legs.

Baroque confessional
father I have sinned,
I sin with my brother,
and I will sin, my son.

Gigantic dining hall
we sated
our tummies
rooms that get fatter
and night.

Immense auditorium
we show off
our faith
in the music
the hope
in religion
and charity
I don’t remember who for.

Open air courtyard
it is announced
that they caught
the guerrilla fighters
that Heraud fell in his river
with all the communists.

Off to cross yourself,
to take communion,
to pray
for all the degenerate
and especially for me
sinner amongst men.

(Note: Javier Heraud Pérez was a guerrilla fighter and poet who died at the age of 21 (1963), fighting with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) in Perú.)



Atrás el malecón de Chorrillos
y las jóvenes
se hechizan en sus mareas.
Sus bustos se mecen
y en el vaivén del agua
giran sus cometas.

Leemos Trilce
Vallejo les guiña abiertamente
“Y hembra es el alma de la ausente.
Y hembra es el alma mía”
les hace cosquillas
“Lavandera del alma…
que sí puede…
azular y planchar todos los caos.”

Cerca el bramido alocado
de todos los suspiros
una se ahogó de pena
y se lanzó en el corazón de la ballena
con un grito hembra
de tres agonías.

Las monjas rezan,
Cristo continúa
en su cruz.

La primera espina ajena
se grava
en el pizarrón inmenso
de mis veintiún años.



Beyond Chorrillo’s pier
young girls
become bewitched by the tides.
Their busts rock
and with the water’s swaying
their comets swirl about.

We read Trilce
Vallejo winks at them openly
“And female is the soul of the absent-she.
And female is my own soul.”
he tickles them
“laundress of the soul…
yes she can…
blue and iron all the chaoses.”[1]

Not far the wild roar
of all the sighs
one girl suffocated from sorrow
and threw herself into the belly of the whale
with a feminine shriek
of three agonies.

The nuns pray,
take notes,
Christ remains
on his cross.

The first foreign thorn
the immense blackboard
of my twenty-one years.


Río Rímac

Tu agua golpea los pedrones
y corre veloz
por tu cintura limeña.
silbando entre la maleza.

Colegio del Rímac
tu vaho de letrinas
me revuelve
la papa a la huancaína.
Los muchachos duermen
sobre las carpetas.
No hay psicología
ni lógica
que los despierte
después de ocho jornadas.

Visto minifalda
y me pifean,
les crece el macho.
qué quiere decir
y sueño latente
y sexo?

En un instante eterno,
la sierra calla
te seca la matriz
ya no hay cauce
sino un basural inmenso
que como gangrena
va borrando tu “fina estampa”.

Los chicos giran alrededor
de la loca,
la acorralan,
la pellizcan, la manosean.
Un día se desaparece.
Se cuelga
del cable del televisor
que le regaló su mecenas.

Lloro al joven-niña
mirándote Rímac
con tu pus a cuestas.


Rímac River

Your water hits the pebbles
and runs quickly
skirting Lima.
You dillydally
swishing through the brush.

Rímac middle school
a whiff of your latrines
shakes up
my Huancayo-style potatoes.
The children sleep
on their binders.
There is no psychology
nor logic
that will wake them
after eight workdays.

I wear a miniskirt
and they jeer at me,
their manliness grows.
what do wet dream
and suppressed desire
and sex

In an eternal instant,
the mountains are speechless
your spring dries up
there is no longer any riverbed
but a huge heap of garbage
like gangrene
gradually expunges your “elegant fascia.”

The boys encircle
the crazy lady,
corral her,
pinch her, grope her.
One day she disappears.
She hangs herself
with the television cable,
a gift from her benefactor.

I weep for the young girl
watching you, Rímac,
burdened by your purulence.

—Lady Rojas translated by Sophie M. Lavoie


Lady Rojas Benavente is a Professor at Concordia University. Her PhD (1991) is in Hispanic Literature from Laval University and her current research on Peruvian Women’s Narratives: Violence, Racism and Gender in National Post-Independence was funded by SSHRC (2011 – 2014). She has published 8 books (2 of which are poetry) and over 50 articles in Latin American women’s literary work, especially on Peruvian and Mexican authors. She is president of the Society for Literary Criticism of Spanish American Women Writers’ work (CCLEH) and has served as a Board member of several publications such as Alba de América, a literary journal from the US, and Voces, a Peruvian cultural magazine. She lives in Laval, QC.

sophie lavoie

Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Vallejo, César. The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition. Clayton Eshleman, Ed. & Trans. Berkely/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.
Jun 112015



Long recognized in Europe as one of the most important Czech writers of the twentieth century, Richard Weiner’s surrealistic fiction, often compared to Kafka’s, is now available for the first time in English with the publication of The Game for Real by Two Lines Press. Described by translator and Weiner scholar Benjamin Paloff as a “novel-in-two-novellas,” The Game for Real plumbs the subconscious mind through two metaphysical mysteries: The Game of Quartering and The Game for the Honor of Payback (read the Numéro Cinq review here.)

In the following excerpt from The Game for the Honor of Payback, the nameless protagonist travels aboard a train en route to Paris, a brief interlude between the principle settings in this tale of estrangement. Although the nameless man shares the train compartment with a jovial group of people, he remains isolated, the narrative style mimicking his feelings of alienation by juxtaposing the surreal landscape of his consciousness with a naturalistic description of the other travelers. Representative of Weiner’s prose and Paloff’s masterful translation, the third-person narration elucidates the nameless man’s anxious state of mind through symbolic, imagistic language, and in the world of Weiner’s psychological projections, we see the reflection of our own insecurities, our own fears.

The publisher Two Lines Press granted permission to publish this excerpt. The reviewer would like to thank Benjamin Paloff for his personal communication.

—Frank Richardson

From The Game for Real

Richard Weiner; Translated by Benjamin Paloff
Two Lines Press

THE TRAIN OF THIS auxiliary line ran daily, but it wasn’t used to it. It was a homebody. Three hundred sixty-five departures a year, and each one as tediously awkward as the frightened excursion of an antediluvian aunt. Express trains, which make sense to everywhere and nowhere, carry people whose yesterdays have all been shed behind them; they take them to tomorrows, which are innumerable. On express trains, everything is possible, express trains bar nothing. – This little train, however, was shambling in vain: it was already far out of town, and yet it couldn’t be rid of it. It drew it behind; the town was inside it,its presence petty, bespeaking sulkiness and hardship, and like them it lined the horizon, the little town calling itself importunately, pitifully to mind, like a dog barking behind a truck: nothing, but so puffed-up that what had been there could no longer find room for itself. Love, let’s say, had boarded the train; love, which might alter the world’s appearance; hatred had boarded the train, pledged to the same miracle; hostility toward life and death had boarded the train, or else it was a fidelity that depersonalized people into virtues—it was loaded with destinies, sins, and saintly deeds, invisible as atoms and heavy as worlds—but the train got the better of everything: it squeezed down everything that was within it, to the point of fussiness. A single chance remained: the transfer stop. The little train was carrying an impatience for the transfer stop.

There one awaits the express to Paris. The little train pulls into the station, still not entirely awake. Under a low, yet already promising sun, the chaotic optimism of a September morning, which befriends the sleepers returning to cities from their vacations. The tracks awaken to their infinitude with such enthusiasm it’s as though they’ve discovered it today for the first time. It has dawned on the warehouses that they are significant and anonymous, they’re even beginning to attain a barbarian beauty. A platform full of people. They marvel at the reassuring sense of their solidarity, but they marvel even more at the fact that they haven’t discovered the reason for this sureness: yet it’s as delectable as an ample vacation breakfast in the mountains. – So far, nothing has yet shattered this superhuman concord, but a spry inkling that there was worldly disorder nearby has already snuck in; it’s imponderable and pronounced. Heads turned to the right as if on command. The train was still far away down the ruler-straight track, so far away that they guessed its arrival not so much by the blackpoint into which it withered, but by the overbearing white plume with which it announced itself, and the immense din of this as-yet unheard announcement was such that it overpowered everything, everything and everything. It was the din of an obstinate and disciplined dominance that subjugates while reassuring and ennobling. You might think of the Pax Romana: that’s sort of how it was rushing, at the head of proud and perceptive legions. A throng of latecomers descended onto the platform. Boys and girls. They were laughing and shouting. One, large, proud, with straight chestnut hair, is next to him, dancing, stepping back. He was dancing his courage, but he was dancing it for one of the girls (you could immediately tell), and you could tell immediately which one. It was the one who, being too happy, was the only one brooding: her conquest was still a flower unto itself; it had happened last night. The platform was now entirely subject to the onrushing train-tyrant, beside whose arrival there was nothing in the universe at this moment that would be “worthy”; and on the platform the shouting throng, for whom the only thing “that’s worthy” was last night, because that’s when the two had met; this was a cluster of the free within a crowd of the enslaved. They alone were not waiting. They were going to meet the emperor, who was coming to meet them. The carefree among the solemn, the unhurried among the bustling, they roared and skipped all the more provocatively for being oblivious. The train! If they miss this one, they’ll catch the next. The nine-thirty train’s as good as the eight. They cared about the direction, which is invariable, not about the trains, which are innumerable.

The locomotive was coming in on the first track; it was only inadvertently—for the rambunctious group fascinated him—that he’d caught sight of the train’s eccentric, wheels, and rod. A fleeting dissatisfaction: that the relationship between the dizzying speed of arrival and the nearness of the goal, where that speed would be impressively renounced, seems incongruous to him, as always. – He’s lost sight of himself. The cluster dashed for the car it had arbitrarily selected; it dashed as though betting on a lottery number, knowing that there was no reason not to bet on any other number: that’s why, by all that is holy, it won on just the number it had bet on. The train exerted all its will and worked itself down to a spare trot. He saw it all, waiting for the door that would stop in front of him. Why run after the car he’s selected when there’s one, when there’s surely one that will stop right in front of him? Why bet if he knows for sure that he has to win something? He was standing here, waiting, disengaged, for it was to no purpose. And while he was waiting thus, that is, waiting while awaiting nothing, all of a sudden he discovered, just as we discover something that doesn’t concern us, that he was unhappy.

No, he didn’t discover his unhappiness so much as that he was unhappy. He beheld it with all his senses, each of which had as though assumed additional sight—perhaps to compensate for some enigmatic virtue of his.

He beheld it out of the blue, having anticipated anything but just this. It was a surprise for which amazement failed. He beheld that he was unhappy. He beheld it like a thing that is quite peculiar, though by no means awful; a thing apart from everyday reality, yet not at all imagined. It was a vision, but so cohesive that it outlasted even the shock of physical torpor, that is, the moment when he stepped forward to board. This thing—that is to say: that he was unhappy—gripped him, even though it accompanied him like a trusted friend, even though, like an atmosphere, it had became his environment, even though he carried it with care and respect.

The express had already departed again; with a tread each time more drawn out and pinioned. At last it took a shot at levitation, and a lucky one; it encouraged it with the bribes of intermittent bounces off its soles. The train became a self confident gale. Now, once again, there was nothing besides the rumbling that had begun somewhere where individual destinies had ceased, and that would become somewhere where any destiny could emerge. The travelers’ past had been obliterated, they had not yet arrived at the future that would sort them all out again: they were for the most part from among the favored, each one empowered by all the others, and their lack of skepticism was multiplied by their glee. –He, too, was aware of this, but only as information. Yet what he knew was that he was separate from that simultaneously destructive and unifying solidarity. There is no centrifugal force powerful enough to part him from the broodingly unexcited phantasm “I’m unhappy.” There is no centrifugal force that would pull him back into that forgotten self, like a Segner sprinkler spouting from a spinning wheel of destinies that had ceased being destinies. He is apart, unsociable, monstrous.

These monotonous testimonies! He’s asked his neighbor whether he might place his attaché on top of his thick rucksack. He has to depend on someone: he was coming off as affable, he even borrowed a smile (from where?); he sought his neighbor’s eyes so obtrusively that he found them, but in vain: consent was mumbled; the eyes, averted. And the person opposite him, a lady whose lips prepared so many times to ask a question, which she finally took to the adolescent, though he was sitting so far away! (It was just the one who’d been dancing for that happy throng; he replied—astonishingly!—so politely, obligingly, and almost sadly.) And the talkative conductor who misheard his query, as though professionally; his query alone . . . Right . . .

That he’s unhappy is a limpid phantasm, and it is also he: the two, inseparable. He’s not scared of it. As a companion it is seldom encouraging, but that it would weigh him down: no! –It searches patiently, ransacks itself, digs into itself, thinking itself simultaneously both the soggy finger and the fisherman who wants to find earthworms in there, and the more, the better; it searches the worm-soil, and with so certain a certitude finding itself that it has to guard against self-congratulation for so great an ardor: well no, not really, as many worms as it seems it finds there, it’s nothing against how many it won’t find; not even close. It’s just: where, where do they come from, all these misunderstandings, disagreements, losses? Where is it from, that unbridgeable hiatus between what he says and actually does and what can be heard and seen from his words and actions? Between what he’s intended and what he’s expressed? Between what he’s wanted to do and what he’s had to do? Where? From this thing that materialized so suddenly, transparently, and convincingly amid the screeching of the axles and the racket of cheerful country youths, from this thing so immaterial yet existing, from this thing shining with a kind of faint, stable, and interior moonlight, from this serious, real, calm, and collected thing. How to begrudge, how to bemoan an attribute so loyal, constant, and innocent! More and more he sees that he is unhappy. But no, that’s not really how it is; the fact that he’s unhappy—this thing made for his sake already long ago and decreed once and for all—he sees with increasing clarity, subtlety, persistence, and bitterness, but astonishingly he sees it bitterly without having experienced its bitterness, without a grudge, without bemoaning or lamenting.That’s how it is. It is neither weirder, nor more unfair, nor more hopeless than being happy, deserving, or famous, it’s pretty much like being loved by someone. That’s how it is. That’s how it is: this is his world, his share, his reward. The sun of his day and the stars of his night. And because it is so, all he needs now is to make a rather slight effort: to say “yes,” and from the fact that that’s how it is something even more cosmically positive will emerge, something that could not and cannot be anything else . . . and that’s all there is to say.

Benedictine Mill and its ignominy, and the spiteful and insidious town, and the frenzied circuit closed the previous night by that monstrous and unadulterated calm: to be compensated with money for a loved one’s ugliness (how majestically foul this love is!)—what remains of ignominy, spitefulness, and frenzy if we know that we are under the protection of this eternally present, broody-looking attribute, next to this thing whose unwittingly evil eye no prank will cheer up, nor deflect from us? That’s how it is. Why say that it could just as well be some other way if—and who cares if it is—we’re the only ones who know, we and no one else, that now and then we maybe feel like something else? Perhaps something better? But if there’s no choice, then what’s worse, and what’s better? –“I’m unhappy” isn’t threatening, it’s not scary; it simply is, and it’s one of those rare things that doesn’t go sit somewhere else. How loyal it is, how self-sacrificing this inscrutable and indiscernible thing outside us is, to which we have no obligations. It answers for mistakes and blunders, it shields from wrongs, it assumes failures and shame upon itself. It’s the screen he is safe behind; and right away, again, the sacrificial lamb he redeems himself with; and right away, again, the confessor with absolution. That he’s despised by them? But out of ignorance! That he’s treated unfairly? But out of misunderstanding! That he’s unappreciated and deprived? What does it matter, so long as there’s this “I’m unhappy” of his, behind which and within which his innocence, his human worth, and his unrecognized right have found refuge? – “I’m unhappy” is broody, but not dismayed; poor, but tidy; weak, yet not cowardly. To him it imparted so suspiciously great a respect that he was awash in anxiety as to whether he might have started to love sinfully. He was seized with some puritanical fear that he might be flirting with incest.

They were alone; that is, he was alone. In the unifying whoosh of the express train, slavishly and proudly alone. The rest had already lent themselves out to each other; they deserved each other, they communicated, they understood each other. They understood, without talking it out, all the way to the point of collaborating on that circle with which they circumscribed the solitude they’d assigned to him. Each one did only a section, but it fit the sections entrusted to the others so precisely that a literal circle emerged, a circle in the middle of which were him and his exclusion and his “I’m unhappy,” which he looked in the eye with suspicious pride. It was a circle of the spontaneously formed and colloidally diffuse tale of his leprosy, it was the guard of the healthy against the plague. He knew this, he didn’t suffer for it; he asked his “I’m unhappy” questions; it answered him with a melancholic, yet encouraging, smile. He was alone, he was grieving, he was dejected but—no, he wasn’t dejected; “I’m unhappy” was a sanctuary. What more can we ask for if we have a refuge?

A jolly, corpulent gentleman was telling a story; he was dumping it onto the person sitting opposite him (again, the inspiring youth from the platform). He began intimately; his neighbor added the punctuation with guffaws that, though sparing and concisely courteous, were getting longer and taking on an infectious virulence. The storyteller didn’t take his eyes off them, he was sizing them up, and then, as though having judged that they had grown to a size worthy of a counterpoint, he encouraged them and himself, and the slapping of the neighbor’s thigh became more frequent and substantial. The express train, too, finally eased off its enthusiastic levitation; it landed and dashed now only with attenuated, hulking strides. – The private joke was slowly being made public, admiring itself, reveling in its increasing gravity. And suddenly—as if it had remembered that it was actually that tiny crystal in which a helpless supersaturated solution had found its purpose—the sundry laughs ran to and fro like crazy shuttles and wove a net that no one wanted out of. But despite its having been woven with a speed that was utterly insane, it was careful not to miss him. The entire compartment had been as though gathered into a corner, where the overstuffed words were gushing, along with the youthful laughter that had been patronizingly surrendered: a fairy-tale prince, too happy to shy away from a graceless woodsman’s joy. – He, the whole time alone with himself, he, the whole time sad and with a torturously senseless dignity, for he was boasting of something (and knew it) that hurt. He didn’t surrender, not even when they started to dance the belly laugh, whipping into the walls like a downpour onto a slapdash rooftop, a shower as well as steam, both water and its benefaction. –

And just then, a settling down: a sudden, swift, noise pregnant silence. He looked up: the dancer had stretched out his hands, on the fingers of which—like puppet strings—was the travelers’ unbounded attention.

“He’s going to sing! Attention!”

And a solo, as notarially somber as hushed laughter:

“Dans le jardin de mon père …”

The refrain and chorus buried the solo, as the masquerade procession buries the buffoon’s monologue.

“Auprès de ma blonde …”

The refrain, a good-natured rascal, ruminated over what might be left of the individuals.

The people in this train compartment got along as no one had gotten along before, as no one would get along again: through words that were not the words of any of them.

And he suddenly understood that a great happiness had burst in here, that in which each would lose his trace, finding the trace of those similar to himself, and he is following it greedily.

His defiance broke into torrential relief: this is happiness! –Now he wanted it.

“Qu’il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon …”

He joined in, he felt like a fish in water.

“Qu’il fait …”

He shrieked into silence, into a silence ordered by the dancer’s outstretched hands.

“Hold on! That sounded off. . .Who’s spoiling it?” The eyes of the entire compartment are simultaneously upon him; halberdiers clearing the way; and behind them, the dancer’s finger, like the finger of a public prosecutor:

“It’s that gentleman there! Please, don’t spoil it for us . . .”

The song rolled out again like a ball in a steep trough; if only it could know what it was rolling through!

He, however, cast a timid glance to the side, where his encouraging “I’m unhappy” had still been sitting a moment before. Something shabbily diaphanous was sitting there. It had long, groomed eyelashes over ashamedly downcast eyes. It had the attractive and sticky-sweet smile of the fine-looking man from yesterday. It was only now that this yesterday was making itself manifest in its hidden truth. It was like a morsel that he couldn’t get rid of, and that tasted like a purgative.

—Richard Weiner, translated by Benjamin Paloff

Jun 072015
Photo: Focus Information Agency

Photo: Svoboda Tsekova

Individuals move against history’s current throughout Georgi Gospodinov’s fascinating, quixotic novel, newly translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. In this excerpt, a memory of the narrator’s father becomes the catalyst for an imaginary Socratic spat, a tribute to the ephemeral, and a demonstration of how a writer’s sense of control on the page can evaporate in human interaction. Gospodinov expands and contracts time and drapes layers of self-consciousness over the narrative to amplify the internal conflict that powers the novel. The reader is rewarded with passage through an enthralling maze that pivots and advances in a nonlinear trajectory and conveys experience of a life filtered through fiction.

See my review here.

—Geeda Searfoorce


From The Physics of Sorrow
Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Open Letter Press


Buffalo Shit, or The Sublime Is Everywhere

I remember how we walked through a historical town famous for its Revival Period architecture, uprising, fires, cannons made from cherry-tree trunks, history rolled down the narrow streets but my father was impressed mainly by the geraniums on the window sills, praising aloud those who had grown such flowers. Suddenly he stopped in a street and started hovering over something on the ground. I went to see what he had discovered. A pile of buffalo shit. It was standing there like a miniature cathedral, a church’s cupola or a mosque’s dome, may all religions forgive me. A fly was circling above it like an angel. It is very rare to see buffalo shit nowadays, my father said. No one breeds buffalos here anymore. And he spoke with such delight about how one could fertilize pumpkins with it, plaster a wall, daub a bee hive (of the old wicker type), how one could use it to cure an earache—you should warm it well and apply it to the ear. At that moment I would have agreed that the Revival-Era houses we were touring and the pyramids of Giza were something much less important than the architecture, physics, and metaphysics of buffalo (bull?) shit.

Even if you weren’t born in Versailles, Athens, Rome, or Paris, the sublime will always find a form in which to appear before you. If you haven’t read Pseudo Longinus, haven’t heard of Kant, or if you inhabit the eternal, illiterate fields of anonymous villages and towns, of empty days and nights, the sublime will reveal itself to you in your own language. As smoke from a chimney on a winter morning, as a slice of blue sky, as a cloud that reminds you of something from another world, as a pile of buffalo shit. The sublime is everywhere.


Socrates on the Train

If everything lasted forever, nothing would be valuable.

The world is set up in such as way that it looks obvious and irrefutable. But what would happen if for a moment we turned the whole system upside down and instead of the enduring, the constant, the eternal, and the dead, we decided to revere that which is fleeting, changeable, transitory, yet alive?

The train was passing through the hot stubble fields in late August, where they still use that barbaric method of stubble burning. The fields had been reaped and to make for easier plowing afterward, someone had set a match to them. I imagined the meadow birds’ scorched wings, the running and squealing mice and rats, the burned up lizards and snakes. Storks were anxiously circling above the burning fields—we’ve got to get out of here ASAP, ASAP . . . Everyone wanted to run away, the world was heading toward autumn. At the same time, I was returning to the town of T.

In the end, man, if we still insist on seeing him as the measure of all things, is closer to the parameters of the fleeting—he is changeable, inclined toward death, alive, but mortal, perishable, constantly perishing.

I sensed that my imagination was running wild, I needed an opponent. I invented an opponent, clever, with a sharp rhetorical bite, I generously endowed him with qualities and gave myself over to my favorite pastime, Socratic spats.

“So, my dear sir, you propose that we replace the lasting with the fleeting,” my opponent began.

“I suggest that we examine this possibility.”

“Very wellll . . . Just say it aloud and you will hear how absurd it sounds—to replace the lasting with the fleeting. Illustrate it with a concrete example, isn’t that what you always love to say, my dear fellow? Now then, imagine a nice, sturdy house on the one hand, and a tumbledown hut on the other. Would you exchange the house for the hut? In one hand, I’m holding gold, in the other straw. Which would you choose? Won’t the straw grow moldy after the first rain?”

“Wait, wait, my most noble opponent . . . You speak wisely and take shameless advantage of your right to peek into my own misgivings. Yet let us look at the other side as well. Imagine a world, in which everyone agrees to a new hierarchy. In which the Fleeting and the Living are more valuable than the Eternal and the Dead. The opposite of the usual world, which we share today. And so, let us imagine what consequences this might have. Immediately many of the reasons for war and theft fall away. That which entices one to theft is that which is eternal or at least lasting, like a bar of gold, for example, or sturdy houses, cities, palaces, land . . . That is what’s ripe for the taking. No one goes to war over a pile of apples or lays siege to a city for its fragrant, blossoming cherry trees. By the time the siege is over, the cherry trees will have lost their blossoms, and the apples will have rotted.

“And since gold will have lost all of its agreed-upon value (because that’s exactly what it is, a contract value), it’ll just be rolling around on the ground and no one will think to up and go on a crusade for it.

“And speaking of crusades, let’s look at that side of the question as well. The religions that stand behind every crusade or holy war will suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them. The old gods were the Gods of the Eternal in all of its aspects. Is there a God of the Ephemeral? If there are Gods in the new constellation—and why not?—they will be exactly that: Gods of the Ephemeral. Gods of the Fragile and the Perishable. And hence fragile and perishable gods. Sensitive, feeling, empathizing. What more can we say? Mortality raises the price and opens our eyes.”

“But isn’t all of that so fleeting and unstable . . .”

“You’re fooling yourself. Let’s take that straw, which you’ve been clutching in your left hand since the very beginning of our debate. That straw used to be wheat, which used to be seeds, which used to be wheat, which used to be . . . And here, nota bene: the perishable reproduces itself. And that is its first advantage. While the gold, which you’ve been holding in your right hand, is made once-and-for-all, it won’t give birth to gold even if you plant it and water it every day for two hundred years. Let me put it like this, paradoxically—the perishable is more enduring, precisely because of its death, than that which is imperishable and cannot reproduce itself.” (I’ve completely forgotten about the opponent I created.) “What do you say to that, my friend?”

“Wellll, what happens to tradition then? To all of art, to your own pathetic scribbling?” (We’ve left politesse behind, my opponent is pissed off.) “Let me ask you this—that book you’re writing, is it on the side of the ephemeral, or does it uphold the values of the eternal? How long do your own words last?”

“How long do words last?” I repeat this, because I don’t know the answer. “Let us assume that they last as long as the breath with which you utter them. You exhale the word, it’s so light, you fill its sails and send it toward the harbor of the Other. It might perish before reaching shore, it might sink along the way, shipwrecked against the flotilla of another’s words. Whether that is fragility or unfathomable endurance, I cannot say.” (I won’t apologize for this outburst of lyricism here.)

“I’ll ignore the lyrical explanation. So where does that leave your own identity, if you set store by the changeable?” He refuses to give in. “Where does that leave your forefathers, traditions, culture? All of that which was created from constancy? All of that which you call up so as not to forget who you are and where you come from?”

“And what has that identity of yours ever given you, ass-hat?” (Politesse has now definitely been left in the dust.) Blood and wars, busted butts, suicide bombers—there’s your inheritance. There’s only one true identity—to be a living creature among living creatures. To be ephemeral and to value the Other, because he is ephemeral as well.”

“Man is the measure of all things, thus what man creates must endure so as to outlive him.”

(Now I’ve got him—I invented him after all, I have the right to push him into a trap.)

“Exactly, man is the measure of all things. And everything that exceeds this measure and lasts longer and remains after his death is inhuman by its very nature, a source of sorrow and discord as a rule.” (Are you listening to me now? He’s listening, that’s what I invented him for.)

“But . . .”

“We live in houses that will continue to live on even after we die. We go into cathedrals, where long lines of people and generations who are no longer with us have trod, as if on Judgment Day. All of this tells you: you pass on, but we remain. We’ve buried plenty before you, we’ll take care of the ones you’ve sired as well. Think up at least one good reason why that which is built of stone should last longer than that built of flesh. I don’t see any particular point or justice in that. We can only wonder what sense of time and the eternal the ones who came before us had, in the dark night of the primeval, living in their flimsy huts, outliving their flimsy huts, outliving their hearths, moving from place to place, measuring out their lives in days and nights, in lighted and extinguished fires . . . They truly lived forever, even if they died at thirty.”


Things Unsuited to Collecting
(a list of the perishable)

cheeses – start to stink
apples – shrivel up and rot
clouds – constantly change their states of aggregation
quince jam – gets moldy on top
lovers – get old, shriveled up (see apples)
children – grow up
snowmen – melt
tadpoles and silkworms – anatomically unstable

If we draw the line, it turns out that nothing organic is suitable for collecting. A world with a permanently expiring expiration date. A perishable, shriveling, rotting, deteriorating (and thus) wonderful world.


A Place to Stop

I can imagine the look on the face of the first person to find these notes. He’ll probably think that some monster lived here. Indeed, inside me, the Minotaur shivers, afraid of the dark, but otherwise I look completely normal, I wear the body of a white, middle-aged man, a woman is carrying my child, I sometimes go to the seaside, alone, or travel abroad. I keep up what they call “a normal life” in the upper world. OK, fine, I do pass as quite withdrawn and reticent, but in my line of work, that absolutely goes with the territory. My books sell relatively well, which allows me the time and space to do my own things and guarantees me much-needed tranquility. I don’t give interviews.

I used to be able to take part—a bit sluggishly, true—in lively conversations and at the same time to be somewhere else entirely, in a different body or memory. Sometimes this would show ever so slightly, one or two women with whom I was in closer contact always caught me. I got off the hook using the alibi of a writer. You can be absent as much as you like, they’ll always understand when you want to be left alone or when you don’t respond to repeated invitations. At first they keep calling, then they quickly forget you. Here people forget quickly, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that already.

—Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel

May 022015

karl ove
The fraught interplay between the teenage Karl Ove and his father, who is now divorced and living a different life with Unni, his girlfriend, is caught in this extract. One of the first changes the sixteen-year-old notices is the informal way of dress for a formerly carefully put-together man; the second is the steady drinking; the third is that infractions he commits that would have been punished before, such as spilling a drink, smoking, or having another glass of wine, pass by unremarked. The narrator’s disorientation is clear; this is not the father he once knew. However, everything can change back quickly, and the alcohol-induced state of cheerfulness on the part of both adults descends into anger once Karl Ove’s mother is brought up too many times for Unni’s comfort. Abruptly dismissed from their home, Karl Ove boards a bus. He doesn’t dwell on the mood shift any more than we consciously think of the air we breath. The narrative jumps forward a quarter century to when he has possession of his dead father’s notebooks that indicate Karl Ove’s visits, along with other matters.

—Jeff Bursey



From My Struggle: Book Four
Karl Ove Knausgaard; Translated by Donald Bartlett
Archipelago Books

The following afternoon I went to Dad’s. I had put on a white shirt, black cotton trousers, and white basketball shoes. In order not to feel so utterly naked, as I did when I wore only a shirt, I took a jacket with me, slung it over my shoulder and held it by the hook since it was too hot outside to wear it.

I jumped off the bus after Lundsbroa Bridge and ambled along the drowsy, deserted summer street to the house he was renting, where I had stayed that winter.

He was in the back garden pouring lighter fluid over the charcoal in the grill when I arrived. Bare chest, blue swimming shorts, feet thrust into a pair of sloppy sneakers without laces. Again this getup was unlike him.

“Hi,” he said. “Hi,” I said. “Have a seat.”

He nodded to the bench by the wall.

The kitchen window was open, from inside came the clattering of glasses and crockery.

“Unni’s busy inside,” he said. “She’ll be here soon.” His eyes were glassy.

He stepped toward me, grabbed the lighter from the table, and lit the charcoal. A low almost transparent flame, blue at the bottom, rose in the grill. It didn’t appear to have any contact with the charcoal at all, it seemed to be floating above it.

“Heard anything from Yngve?”

“Yes,” I said. “He dropped by briefly before leaving for Bergen.” “He didn’t come by,” Dad said.

“He said he was going to, see how you were doing, but he didn’t have time.”

Dad stared into the flames, which were lower already. Turned and came toward me, sat down on a camping chair. Produced a glass and bottle of red wine from nowhere. They must have been on the ground beside him.

“I’ve been relaxing with a drop of wine today,” he said. “It’s summer after all, you know.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Your mother didn’t like that,” he said. “Oh?” I said.

“No, no, no,” he said. “That wasn’t good.” “No,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, emptying the glass in one swig.

“Gunnar’s been round, snooping,” he said. “Afterward he goes straight to Grandma and Grandad and tells them what he’s seen.”

“I’m sure he just came to visit you,” I said. Dad didn’t answer. He refilled his glass.

“Are you coming, Unni?” he shouted. “We’ve got my son here!” “OK, coming,” we heard from inside.

“No, he was snooping,” he repeated. “Then he ingratiates himself with your grandparents.”

He stared into the middle distance with the glass resting in his hand. Turned his head to me.

“Would you like something to drink? A Coke? I think we’ve got some in the fridge. Go and ask Unni.”

I stood up, glad to get away.

Gunnar was a sensible, fair man, decent and proper in all ways, he always had been, of that there was no doubt. So where had Dad’s sudden backbiting come from?

After all the light in the garden, at first I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face in the kitchen. Unni put down the scrub brush when I went in, came over and gave me a hug.

“Good to see you, Karl Ove.” She smiled.

I smiled back. She was a warm person. The times I had met her she had been happy, almost flushed with happiness. And she had treated me like an adult. She seemed to want to be close to me. Which I both liked and disliked.

“Same here,” I said. “Dad said there was some Coke in the fridge.”

I opened the fridge door and took out a bottle. Unni wiped a glass dry and passed it to me.

“Your father’s a fine man,” she said. “But you know that, don’t you?”

I didn’t answer, just smiled, and when I was sure that my silence hadn’t been perceived as a denial, I went back out.

Dad was still sitting there.

“What did Mom say?” he asked into the middle distance once again. “About what?” I said, sat down, unscrewed the top, and filled the glass so full that I had to hold it away from my body and let it froth over the flag- stones.

He didn’t even notice!

“Well, about the divorce,” he said. “Nothing in particular,” I said.

“I suppose I’m the monster,” he said. “Do you sit around talking about it?” “No, not at all. Cross my heart.”

There was a silence.

Over the white timber fence you could see sections of the river, greenish in the bright sunlight, and the roofs of the houses on the other side. There were trees everywhere, these beautiful green creations that you never really paid much attention to, just walked past; you registered them but they made no great impression on you in the way that dogs or cats did, but they were actually, if you lent the matter some thought, present in a far more breath- taking and sweeping way.

The flames in the grill had disappeared entirely. Some of the charcoal briquettes glowed orange, some had been transformed into grayish-white puffballs, some were as black as before. I wondered if I could light up. I had a packet of cigarettes inside my jacket. It had been all right at their party. But that was not the same as it being permitted now.

Dad drank. Patted the thick hair at the side of his head. Poured wine into his glass, not enough to fill it, the bottle was empty. He held it in the air and studied the label. Then he stood up and went indoors.

I would be as good to him as I could possibly be, I decided. Regardless of what he did, I would be a good son.

This decision came at the same time as a gust of wind blew in from the sea, and in some strange way the two phenomena became connected inside me, there was something fresh about it, a relief after a long day of passivity.

He returned, knocked back the dregs in his glass and recharged it.

“I’m doing fine now, Karl Ove,” he said as he sat down. “We’re having such a good time together.”

“I can see you are,” I said. “Yes,” he said, oblivious to me.


Dad grilled some steaks, which he carried into the living room, where Unni had set the table: a white cloth, shiny new plates and glasses. Why we didn’t sit outside I didn’t know, but I assumed it was something to do with the neighbors. Dad had never liked being seen and definitely not in such an intimate situation as eating was for him.

He absented himself for a few minutes and returned wearing the white shirt with frills he had worn at their party, with black trousers.

While we had been sitting outside Unni had boiled some broccoli and baked some potatoes in the oven. Dad poured red wine into my glass, I could have one with the meal, he said, but no more than that.

I praised the food. The barbecue flavor was particularly good when you had meat as good as this.

Skål,” Dad said. “Skål to Unni!”

We held up our glasses and looked at each other. “And to Karl Ove,” she said.

“We may as well toast me too then.” Dad laughed.

This was the first relaxed moment, and a warmth spread through me. There was a sudden glint in Dad’s eye and I ate faster out of sheer elation.

“We have such a cozy time, the two of us do,” Dad said, placing a hand on Unni’s shoulder. She laughed.

Before he would never have used an expression such as cozy.

I studied my glass, it was empty. I hesitated, caught myself hesitating, put the little spoon into a potato to hide my nerves and then stretched casually across the table for the bottle.

Dad didn’t notice, I finished the glass quickly and poured myself another. He rolled a cigarette, and Unni rolled a cigarette. They sat back in their chairs. “We need another bottle,” he said, and went into the kitchen. When he returned he put his arm around her.

I fetched the cigarettes from my jacket, sat down and lit up. Dad didn’t notice that either.

He got up again and went to the bathroom. His gait was unsteady. Unni smiled at me.

“I teach my first course at gymnas in Norwegian this autumn,” she said. “Perhaps you can give me a few tips? It’s my first time.”

“Yes, of course.”

She smiled and looked me in the eye. I lowered my gaze and took another swig of the wine.

“Because you’re interested in literature, aren’t you?” she continued. “Sort of,” I said. “Among other things.”

“I am too,” she said. “And I’ve never read as much as when I was your age.” “Mm.”

“I plowed through everything in sight. It was a kind of existential search, I think. Which was at its most intense then.”


“You’ve found each other, I can see,” Dad said behind me. “That’s good. You have to get to know Unni, Karl Ove. She’s such a wonderful person. She laughs all the time. Don’t you, Unni?”

“Not all the time.” She laughed.

Dad sat down, sipped from his glass and as he did so his eyes were as vacant as an animal’s.

He leaned forward.

“I haven’t always been a good father to you, Karl Ove. I know that’s what you think.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Now, now, no stupidities. We don’t need to pretend any longer. You think I haven’t always been a good father. And you’re right. I’ve done a lot of things wrong. But you should know that I’ve always done the very best I could. I have!”

I looked down. This last he said with an imploring tone to his voice. “When you were born, Karl Ove, there was a problem with one of your legs. Did you know that?” “Vaguely,” I said.

“I ran up to the hospital that day. And then I saw it. One leg was crooked! So it was put in plaster, you know. You lay there, so small, with plaster all the way up your leg. And when it was removed I massaged you. Many times every day for several months. We had to so that you would be able to walk. I massaged your leg, Karl Ove. We lived in Oslo then, you know.”

Tears coursed down his cheeks. I glanced quickly at Unni, she watched him and squeezed his hand.

“We had no money either,” he said. “We had to go out and pick berries, and I had to go fishing to make ends meet. Can you remember that? You think about that when you think about how we were. I did my best, you mustn’t believe anything else.”

“I don’t,” I said. “A lot happened, but it doesn’t matter anymore.” His head shot up.

“YES, IT DOES!” he said. “Don’t say that!”

Then he noticed the cigarette between his fingers. Took the lighter from the table, lit it, and sat back.

“But now we’re having a cozy time anyway,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “It was a wonderful meal.”

“Unni’s got a son as well, you know,” Dad said. “He’s almost as old as you.” “Let’s not talk about him now,” Unni said. “We’ve got Karl Ove here.” “But I’m sure Karl Ove would like to hear,” Dad said. “They’ll be like brothers. Won’t they. Don’t you agree, Karl Ove?” I nodded.

“He’s a fine young man. I met him here a week ago,” he said. I filled my glass as inconspicuously as I could.

The telephone in the living room rang. Dad got up to answer it. “Whoops!” he said, almost losing his balance, and then to the phone, “Yes, yes, I’m coming.” He lifted the receiver. “Hi, Arne!” he said.

He spoke loudly, I could have listened to every word if I’d wanted to. “He’s been under enormous strain recently,” Unni whispered. “He needs to let off some steam.” “I see,” I said.

“It’s a shame Yngve couldn’t come,” she said. Yngve?

“He had to go back to Bergen,” I said.

“Yes, my dear friend, I’m sure you understand!” Dad said. “Who’s Arne?” I said.

“A relative of mine,” she said. “We met them in the summer. They’re so nice. You’re bound to meet them.”

“OK,” I said.

Dad came back in and saw the bottle was nearly empty. “Let’s have a little brandy, shall we?” he said. “A digestif?” “You don’t drink brandy, do you?” Unni asked, looking at me. “No, the boy can’t have spirits,” Dad said.

“I’ve had brandy before,” I said. “In the summer. At soccer training camp.” Dad eyed me. “Does Mom know?” he said.

“Mom?” Unni said.

“You can have one glass, but no more,” Dad said, staring straight at Unni. “Is that all right?”

“Yes, it is,” she said.

He fetched the brandy and a glass, poured, and leaned back into the deep white sofa under the windows facing the road, where the dusk now hung like a veil over the white walls of the houses opposite.

Unni put her arm around him and one hand on his chest. Dad smiled. “See how lucky I am, Karl Ove,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, and shuddered as the brandy met my tongue. My shoulders trembled.

“But she has a temper too, you know,” he said. “Isn’t that true?” “Certainly is,” she said with a smile.

“Once she threw the alarm clock against this wall,” he said. “I like to get things off my chest right away,” Unni said. “Not like your mother,” he said.

“Do you have to talk about her the whole time?” Unni said.

“No, no, no, not at all,” Dad said. “Don’t be so touchy. After all, I had him with her,” he said, nodding toward me. “This is my son. We have to be able to talk as well.”

“OK,” Unni said. “You just talk. I’m going to bed.” She got up. “But Unni . . .” Dad said.

She went into the next room. He stood up and slowly followed her with- out a further look.

I heard their voices, muted and angry. Finished the brandy, refilled my glass, and carefully put the bottle back in exactly the same place.

Oh dear. He yelled.

Immediately afterward he returned.

“When does the last bus go, did you say?” he said. “Ten past eleven,” I said.

“It’s almost that now,” he said. “Perhaps it’s best if you go now. You don’t want to miss it.”

“OK,” I said, and got up. Had to place one foot well apart from the other so as not to sway. I smiled. “Thanks for everything.”

“Let’s keep in touch,” he said. “Even though we don’t live together any- more nothing must change between us. That’s important.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes. It’s important we keep in touch,” I said.

“You’re not being flippant with me, are you?” he said.

“No, no, of course not,” I said. “It’s important now that you’re divorced.” “Yes,” he said. “I’ll ring. Just drop by when you’re in town. All right?” “Yes,” I said.

While putting on my shoes I almost toppled over and had to hold on to the wall. Dad sat on the sofa drinking and noticed nothing.

“Bye!” I shouted as I opened the door.

“Bye, Karl Ove,” Dad called from inside, and then I went out into the darkness and headed for the bus stop.


I waited for about a quarter of an hour until the bus arrived, sitting on a step smoking and watching the stars, thinking about Hanne.

I could see her face in front of me.

She was laughing; her eyes were gleaming. I could hear her laughter.

She was almost always laughing. And when she wasn’t, laughter bubbled in her voice.

Brilliant! she would say when something was absurd or comical.

I thought about what she was like when she turned serious. Then it was as if she was on my home ground, and I felt I was an enormous black cloud wrapped around her, always greater than her. But only when she was serious, not otherwise.

When I was with Hanne I laughed almost all the time. Her little nose!

She was more girl than woman in the same way that I was more boy than man. I used to say she was like a cat. And it was true there was something feline about her, in her movements, but also a kind of softness that wanted to be close to you.

I could hear her laughter, and I smoked and peered up at the stars. Then I heard the deep growl of the bus approaching between the houses, flicked the cigarette into the road, stood up, counted the coins in my pocket, and handed them to the driver when I stepped on board.

Oh, the muted lights in buses at night and the muted sounds. The few passengers, all in their own worlds. The countryside gliding past in the dark- ness. The drone of the engine. Sitting there and thinking about the best that you know, that which is dearest to your heart, wanting only to be there, out of this world, in transit from one place to another, isn’t it only then you are really present in this world? Isn’t it only then you really experience the world?

Oh, this is the song about the young man who loves a young woman. Has he the right to use such a word as “love”? He knows nothing about life, he knows nothing about her, he knows nothing about himself. All he knows is that he has never felt anything with such force and clarity before. Everything hurts, but nothing is as good. Oh, this is the song about being sixteen years old and sitting on a bus and thinking about her, the one, not knowing that feelings will slowly, slowly, weaken and fade, that life, that which is now so vast and so all-embracing, will inexorably dwindle and shrink until it is a manageable entity that doesn’t hurt so much, but nor is it as good.


Only a forty-year-old man could have written that. I am forty now, as old as my father was then, I’m sitting in our flat in Malmö, my family is asleep in the rooms around me. Linda and Vanja in our bedroom, Heidi and John in the children’s room, Ingrid, the children’s grandmother, on a bed in the liv- ing room. It is November 25, 2009. The mid-’80s are as far away as the ’50s were then. But most of the people in this story are still out there. Hanne is out there, Jan Vidar is out there, Jøgge is out there. My mother and my brother, Yngve – he spoke to me on the phone two hours ago, about a trip we are planning to Corsica in the summer, he with his children, Linda and I with ours – they are out there. But Dad is dead, his parents are dead.

Among the items Dad left behind were three notebooks and one diary. For three years he wrote down the names of everyone he met during the day, everyone he phoned, all the times he slept with Unni, and how much he drank. Now and then there was a brief report, mostly there wasn’t.

“K.O. visited” appeared often. That was me.

Sometimes it said “K.O. cheerful” after I had been there. Sometimes “good conversation.”

Sometimes “decent atmosphere.” Sometimes nothing.

I understand why he noted down the names of everyone he met and spoke to in the course of a day, why he registered all the quarrels and all the reconciliations, but I don’t understand why he documented how much he drank. It is as if he was logging his own demise.

—Karl Ove Knausgaard


Apr 032015

cid corman and gregory dunneCid Corman & Gregory  Dunne

Cid Corman was born in Roxbury, Boston, in 1924. His seminal magazine Origin was one of the first to publish poets such as Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. In addition to the magazine, Cid, a poet and translator, organized poetry events around Boston and started the country’s first poetry radio program, This Is Poetry at WMEX featuring readings by Creeley, Stephen Spender and Theodore Roethke amongst others.  In 1958 he moved to Japan where he continued to edit Origin and in 1959 published Gary Snyder’s first collection Riprap. He began to translate Japanese poetry, in particular work by Basho and Kusano Shimpei. A prolific poet, he published over a hundred books and pamphlets. In 1990 he published the first two volumes of his selected poems Of. In all there are five volumes each containing 750 poems. Volumes 4 and 5 were just published in January of this year. Although described as a selected poems, Corman did not necessarily see it that way. He saw it as a single book that told his life in passing. Cid Corman died in Kyoto on March 12, 2004.


I am grateful to Greg Dunne, not just for the extract from his new book but for the wonderful opportunity he gave me back in 2000 to spend an afternoon visiting with Corman in his home in Kyoto. I had been travelling with my wife and young children in China for several months and stopped off in Japan on the way back to visit Greg. Over the years I had heard the story many times of how after moving to Kyoto Greg had stopped in at a coffee shop, CC`s, that sold western style ice-cream and cakes. The shop turned out to be Corman’s and Greg soon joined with a small group that met with him every two weeks for gatherings that lasted five hours or more. Cid read and talked poetry with them, discussed their work.

That afternoon, however, we talked to Corman about his work and his life. I got the feeling that he liked visitors so that he could relate the stories of his past to them, and through those stories reaffirm his true relevance to American poetry. This seemed to me to be borne of disappointment, sadness even – an awareness that his decision to live in Kyoto had left him largely forgotten in his home country. Nevertheless, it was evident that deep-down he knew that the poet’s life was exactly that – a life, a way of living. And he talked that day too of not even wanting his name on his poems at all, at refusing publicity when it occasionally came his way.

He excused himself at one point and left the room briefly returning with a copy of the first issue of Origin. He was proud of it, and rightly so. He spoke then of his writing routine. His morning began by writing letters, long letters to anyone who had taken the time to write to him. “If you write to me,” he told me, “I will write back.” After his letter writing he began work on his poems. He took me in to see his study. It was stacked high with manuscripts, heaps of paper across his desk and all around the room. “I write a book of poems a day,” he said. Most of these pages would probably never see the light of day. The act of writing to him, it appeared, was akin to the act of breathing – a breath in/a breath out, a word given/a word taken. This was not a rushed process; it was not a mountain of first drafts, of beginnings, but an ongoing expression of self.

Cid Corman

Later we took a pleasant walk to the post-office to mail off his letters and then said our goodbyes.  Despite his generous offer, I never did write to him. I regret it enormously of course but, in some ways these feelings of regret seem apt – a more fitting response to our short afternoon together.

—Gerard Beirne

quiet accomplishment cover


What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. …….~ Homi Bhabha

A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.…..~ Martin Heidegger

IN 1990, CID CORMAN PUBLISHED the first two volumes of this five-volume magnum opus book of poetry, of. The work was monumental in scope – each volume consisted of 750 pages of poetry. The book included many translations of poetry from around the world and from many different time periods that stretched from the earliest of times – Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese texts – up through contemporary poetry translations. In an unusual move, Corman left his translations un-sourced, that is, he did not attribute his translations to their original authors openly. Some fellow writers, notably Clayton Eshleman, found Cid’s practice suspect and wrote to Cid concerning it. Eshleman explained his dismay in the following way: “I was shocked to find Cid’s translations here, of Homer, Sophocles, Catullus, T’ao Ch’ien, Montale, Villon, Rimbaud, Basho, Malarlarme, Rilke, Ungaretti, Char, Celan, Artaud, and Scotellaro, treated as Corman poems. So I wrote to him questioning such appropriation” (Eshleman).

To do justice to the book, a book of this size and scope, and a book that is the culminating event in the life of a significant American poet, more attention is warranted in exploring the act of his incorporating un-sourced translations into the book – how it was accomplished – and what rationale there may have been for the move, assuming the act is not simply one of appropriation. To understand, appreciate, and comprehend more fully what Corman was up to then, one needs to begin with his poetics, with what informs them – his sense of poetry and its role and place in culture, society and life.

Translation came early to Corman and through the activity – within it – he found himself drawn into a larger community of poetry that would sustain his interest and attention throughout his life. For Corman both the writing of poetry and the translating of poetry developed at about the same time when he was in high school. Here he began translating Greek and Latin poetry. Later, during the war years (World War II), when he stayed home from the war due to his youth and illness, he went deeper into translation. In conversation, some years ago (1994), at his home in Kyoto, he told me about his start in poetry and how intertwined it was with his activities in translation:

…The first quatrain I wrote one Sunday two weeks after Pearl Harbor was… (shakes his head in disapproval)… almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time. I had studied Greek in high school, and I was very interested still in Greek literature and read quite a bit at University, mostly on my own, this was not for any course. is was just for my own satisfaction. I had read no translation of Aeschylus that struck me as being accurate or true to the thing…. when I started out… I wanted to know about meter. I wanted to understand how poetry was structured, why they used rhyme, the way poetry moved. (Corman, APR 25)

The translation of poetry affects his poetry. Even as a young man, he was able to see the effect that translation was having on his poetry. The force, or influence, is so strong that he seems to recognize a need to disassociate the two: he is unsatisfied with his own poem because it reads too much like the work he has been translating: “. . . almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time.” The translating of poetry is shaping this poet – the translation work is exerting an influence that Corman recognizes and understands as becoming a part of him. Though he seems to understand the influence can be negative at times, he does not disavow the overall positive influence that the practice is having in teaching him how to become a better poet. In our conversation that day, he went on to make the following points:

By the time I was a sophomore, I was studying Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. And those poets struck me very strongly. They were new to me, and they were different than American poetry. But, I figured by translating I had a way of getting closer to what they were doing, and by doing that, I could learn.

So… it was the beginning for me. So I translated almost all of Les Fleurs du Mal for myself. They weren’t meant for publication. To learn. So it was for me, my education. (Corman, APR 25)

One sees from these comments that Corman understands his beginnings as a poet to be closely associated with his beginnings as a translator. We see also his passionate interest in non-English poetries, and his interest in translating as a means of education, of educating himself as a poet. In looking at the poetry of others, at other poetries, and translating that poetry into his own language, Corman put himself in conversation with other poets, and more importantly found himself within a conversation of sorts that involved poetry – a community of poets that carried him beyond the borders of language, state, and time. In this community, poetry itself became a unifying force –– a center that actually did hold, at least for Cid Corman.

We see further evidence of Corman viewing himself as working within a tradition and within a community when he collects his prose writings and publishes them as one book in two separate volumes. The first volume, Word for Word: Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), contains essays related directly to his own poetry and poetic theory. The second volume, At Their Word/Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow, 1978), concerns itself with translation, and with the work of other writers: “At Their Word.” The two volumes make for a whole; with each volume informing what is said in the companion volume. Corman knows how essential translation has been in helping him to shape and refine his own understanding of poetry and how, in turn, his poetics have informed his translations of other’s poems.

And as it turns out, the first two essays in the second volume take up the topic of translation. Here, in the first essay, Corman offers five translations and commentary upon those translations: “translator’s notes.” The poems he offers are from Rilke, Baudelaire, and Montale. In his prefatory comments at the start of the essay, he offers the following explanation:

The versions here offered (my emphasis) are representative of different approaches possible. In all cases, however, the poems are pieces that have been savored and put into English originally for no other purpose than to prolong the translator’s own pleasure and perhaps to discover some possibility in them for his own tongue. Only where the results seem felicitous poems too (my emphasis) have offerings (my emphasis) been made to a larger audience. (Corman, ATW 10)

Corman’s use of the term “offer,” underscores his sense of giving – or gifting – the translations to the reader with humility – he makes no claim that the translations are definitive. They are offered – the reader can take them, or leave them: “The versions here offered . . .” They are being offered because the original poems were poems that he appreciated so deeply that he was moved to translate them, poems he “savored and put into English to prolong his own pleasure.” His versions of the poems, and only those versions that have become poems in English, and thus deemed worthy of being shared, become “offerings” to a wider audience. Corman’s explanation, particularly his use of the word “offerings,” implies both his giving something of himself to the reader – his work as a translator – and also – and more to the point here – his gratitude for the gift of the original poems. In this gesture and use of the word “offerings,” he implies his awareness of being part of a community that has involved many others over time.

He shows this attitude of gratitude towards the original poets and those who have translated the poem when he speaks of titling one of his translations, in this case the Baudelaire’s poem, “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie.” Unlike other translators who have tried to approach the untitled poem by translating the poem’s first line as the title and coming up with titles such as “The Servant” or the “The Kind-Hearted Servant of Whom You Were Jealous,” Corman titles his translation simply “after Baudelaire.” In his “translator’s notes,” he explains that “’After’ . . . is quite honest, for countless versions over many years achieved this result – which is finally a sort of homage to feeling shared.” The word “homage” as in the case of the word “offering” suggests an awareness on Corman’s part of being involved in a community – a world poetry – and a world that can be shared across time, space, and culture. Here is Corman’s version of Baudelaire’s “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie:”

after Baudelaire

The bighearted nurse
you envied, buried
sod, merits flowers.
The living thankless
rest between warm sheets
while the poor dead feel
all alone, no one
to bring them fresh trash.

If, at the good fire,
I saw her sitting,
some December night
found her in my room
crushed from the long bed
gazing at this child,
what cold worlds tell her
tears filling those eyes?
(Corman ATW 10)

Corman felt a need to translate, as well as a need to share his translations of poetry with others: To make “offerings” to a larger audience. We see further evidence of this in the story of his coming to translate the poetry of Paul Celan and to publish that poetry in his magazine Origin.

After leaving the University of Michigan, and after a few years back in Boston where he hosted a weekly poetry radio program, Corman was awarded a Fulbright and traveled to France to study at the Sorbonne. In Paris, Cid wrote poetry and immersed himself in translation. During this time, in 1955, he met the poet Paul Celan, virtually unknown in North America at the time, and began translating his work into English. Some years later, when Corman wanted to publish his Celan translations in his magazine Origin, he contacted Celan to ask permission. Celan refused to give permission and threatened litigation against Corman if he pursued publication. After some consideration, Corman went ahead and published the poems in Origin and, as promised, Celan wrote an angry letter to Corman threatening “persecution” – an ironic typographical error, as Corman would later remark to me, considering Celan’s persecution by the Nazi’s during the Second World War. Celan had meant to write “prosecution,” of course.

In 1994, when I asked Corman how he first meet Paul Celan, he told me the following story:

My friend. I was living with her at the time: 1955, in Paris. Edith Aron (German, but reared mostly in Argentina, of Jewish descent too) who had helped Paul Celan get a job with UNESCO introduced me personally to him one day. He seemed very dour to me and they did most of the talking. Both near my age – early 30s. And she gave me his first two books and suggested we translate from them together. We did. And I did the first English versions ever and a few were published in Toronto by Ray Souster at once. I didn’t like those first two volumes as much as what followed. And I bought each of his books as they occurred thereafter and translated each – with someone native to German assisting. I met him just as he was really coming into his own. And I have translated all his work – much of it still unpublished.

I asked Corman what specifically attracted him to Celan’s work, and he answered in the following way:

His depth of language use – not as technics (cf. Zukofsky) but as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me. I couldn’t /wouldn’t be as obscure and “difficult” as he allowed himself/his language to be, but I could feel the truth of what he was doing, or trying to do. And that moved me. To want to share that work – despite his challenging me. (Corman, APR 26)

Corman speaks in terms of feeling “moved” to translate the work, feeling compelled to share the work of Celan with others. He decided to publish the translations despite Celan’s “challenging” him. His rationale being, in so many words, that he felt compelled to share it – that he could feel “the truth” of what (Celan) was doing: “His depth of language use . . . as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me.”

One might find fault with Corman’s rationale as stated here. Is his desire to share the work reason enough to publish his translations without Celan’s permission? But in questioning Corman rationale, one would also do well to consider Corman’s passion and sincerity to share the work. Every- thing about Corman’s life in poetry suggests that his reply to Celan was sincere. Of course, I do not mean to assert that passion and sincerity, in and of themselves, make Corman’s actions right or absolve him of honoring the wishes of Celan. What I do want to point out is that Corman was deeply motivated to act in the way that he did act, and that his action speaks to his understanding of poetry in the world, and per- haps also to questions of ownership of it.

Corman felt Celan’s work should be shared – that it needed to be shared. This desire to share poetry has remained consistent throughout Corman’s life: his poetry radio program in Boston was a way for him to share poetry with a wider community. It was a way of creating a community around poetry, for poetry. His founding of the magazine Origin was another way in which he worked to share poetry with a larger community: he wanted to get poetry into the world, particularly the kind of poetry that mainstream poetry magazines were not taking seriously, at least not taking seriously enough to publish.

Written correspondence was a further way in which Corman shared poetry with others. Correspondence, i.e. letter writing, was a central part of his life as a poet. In conversation once, he referred to it as his “life-line.” When I asked him if there was anything that stood out in the letters that he received – anything remarkable? He told me, “Everything. Every letter is my news. Is poetry” (Corman APR 26). At the time, I didn’t think he meant that the letters were themselves really poetry – but over the years I have come to doubt that first understanding – maybe he did mean it, literally. After all a letter, like poetry, involves the experience of one person sharing news, to use Pound’s word for poetry – news that stays news with another. Letters and poetry are correspondences, if you will, that share an experiential quality about them: the words of the writer being shared with the reader in an intimate way. So for Corman, this idea, of letters being “poetry,” is not as far fetched as it might at first sound. Perhaps his feeling on this accounts for his publishing letters right alongside poetry in his magazine Origin. In the first series of Origin (1951-1957) Volume XIV/Autumn, for example, he published the following section of letter by the Canadian poet Irving Layton:

Letter to Cid Corman

Lac Desert, County Lab
August 5, 1954

Dear Cid,…

In all these poems I’ve tried to express the idea “in the image,” for although as a rule I leave theorizing about poetry to others, there are one or two work-a-day rules I try to govern myself by when writing verse. For me, rhythm and imagery usually tell the story; I’m not much interested in any poet’s ideas unless he can make them dance for me, that is embody them in a rhythmic pattern of visual images, which is only another way of saying the same thing in different words. If I want sociology, economics, uplift, or metaphysics; or that generalized state of despairing benevolence concerning the prospects of the human race which seems to characterize much of present-day poetic effort, I know my way around a library as well as the next man. Catalogues are no mystery to me. I regard the writing of verse as a serious craft, the most serious there is, demanding from a man everything he’s got. Moreover, it’s a craft in which good intentions count for nil. It’s how much a man has absorbed into his being that counts, how he opens up continuously to experience, and then with talent and luck communicates to others (my emphasis) without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply …

Yours, Irving

This letter appeared in Origin alongside Layton’s poems. It was not set off as a prefatory statement of any kind but appeared on the page as if a poem, in the flow of the poems presented there, with several poems preceding it and several poems following it.

Poetry is a craft, according to Layton, that demands much of the poet: “demanding from a man everything he’s got.” It is also a craft that demands the poet open up “continuously to experience,” a craft that calls upon the poet to communicate to others “without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply . . .” These ideas are all in sympathy with Corman’s own poetics, as editor and as poet. Certainly, an open- ness to experience, and a direct form of communication/address are characteristic of Corman’s poetry. Here, Layton’s letter may be seen to be a poem in Corman’s eyes in so far as it achieves a rhythmic liveliness in its prose while communicating in a direct, unaffected and sincere way. A piece of writing that opens up to experience and communicates with others. In publishing the letter, we see Corman, the publisher, opening up to the experience of the letter and sharing that experience with others. In placing poes and letters in the magazine in such away, Corman seems to ask, “Why can’t a letter such as this be read as a poem?” Corman opens himself to the possibility of the letter being read in such a way – opens himself to that experience. In publishing the letter, Corman participates then in a reciprocal gesture of gift giving, and communicating with others – he shares Layton’s letter with a wider audience.

Corman’s active life as a correspondent is legendary, and the books of correspondence that have been published over the years indicate this – no doubt more books will follow.  The many letters between Corman and Charles Olson, for example, were edited and published in 1987 and in 1991 (Charles Olson & Cid Corman, Complete Correspondence 1950 –1964 Volume 1 and Volume II. Ed. George Evans, National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine Press); Olson’s letters to Corman were published earlier in 1970 (Charles Olson, Letters for Origin, Cape Goliard [London] and Grossman [New York] Ed. Albert Glover); a collection of Lorine Niedecker’s letters to Corman was published in 1986 (Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 – 1970, Ed. Lisa Pater Faranda, Duke University Press); a more recent volume of Corman Letters was published in 2000 (Where to Begin, Selected Letters between Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, Ed. Keegan Doyle. Ekstasis Editions).

The contemporary American poet and translator, Andrew Schelling provides a telling and instructive story of his coming into correspondence with Corman through the aegis of Clayton Eshleman, who had known Corman in Kyoto years earlier and knew first-hand of his approachability, and his willingness to help younger poets. As Schelling recalls in a tribute that he wrote after Corman’s passing in 2004, he was a “fledgling poet . . . just beginning to publish . . . in the early to mid eighties” when he first corresponded with Cid Corman. Clayton Eshleman told him he had “to get in touch with Cid Corman.” Eshleman’s suggestion was a piece of “true counsel,” and not simply “a piece of advice.” Schelling listened to Eshelman and contacted Corman and they began corresponding. In short order, Schelling and Corman became correspondents. Corman replied “to every letter instantly,” Schelling says, expressing wonder at Corman’s generosity and attentiveness: “his aerograms usually leaving the day my own had arrived. Always an aerogram, always every patch of space on it filled with typewritten words—almost always a small poem or two or three typed onto the outside.” (Schelling)

As a poet living far from the American scene, one might expect Corman to have less to offer Schelling than an elder poet based in the U.S. and familiar with contemporary American poetics. Schelling however did not find this to be the case. While it was true, Schelling concedes, that Corman was not always up to date on the latest developments on the American scene, and that poetry news reached him “in curiously winnowed ways,” Schelling felt that Corman had something special to offer. According to Schelling, Corman’s “expatriate status gave him an in-touch status hard to qualify but completely visible to all who knew him. He was more a citizen of the world than are most American poets. His correspondence permitted him equal access to friends in Japan, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Mexico.” Corman was in his own curious way at the center of things – his correspondence had him in touch with poets around the world. For a young poet like Schelling, a poet interested in translation, Corman’s international contacts and his active engagement with translation had much to offer Schelling.

Corman wrote tens of thousands of letters to contacts around the world during his lifetime. His correspondents included friends, family members, and poets, as well as politicians, philosophers, artists, and religious figures. His correspondence with others was something that he wanted to share, that is, he wanted not only to connect with others through correspondence, but he wanted to connect others to others through correspondence. If he thought that one of his correspondents would benefit from getting to know another of his correspondents, he would try to put them in touch with one another. Through his correspondence then, Corman tried to introduce different writers to each another. When I first began corresponding with Corman on a regular basis, he frequently went out of his way to send me contact information about writers he thought I should connect with.

When one looks at the sum of Corman’s life then, one feels convinced that Corman felt poetry was, in large measure, about sharing and community. He felt that one of the most fundamental qualities of poetry was found in its ability to bring two individual lives together – to create a community of two: a conversation between the reader and the poet. This sentiment is found throughout his oeuvre. Here are four poems that demonstrate some of this:

Poetry becomes
that conversation we could
not otherwise have.
(Corman, ND 86)


As long as you are here –
Would you turn the page?
(Corman, APR 23)

The Call

Life is poetry
and poetry is life — O
awaken — people!
(Corman, APR 21)

There’s only
one poem:
this is it.
(Corman, ND 121)

In elegant and conversational language, Corman asserts the primacy of poetry in human relations in these poems: “Poetry becomes / that conversation we would / not other- wise have.” Poetry is unique and solitary in what it offers – nothing else is quite like it.

In the second poem we see a humorous and yet quite serious invitation for the reader to participate actively in the reading of the book. It is as though Corman himself were reaching out through the poem to make contact with the reader and participate in the reading of the book: “Would you mind turning the page?” The poet shows up and speaks directly to the reader – let’s the reader know that he, the poet, has thought of him. The poet has envisioned the reader one day finding himself on the page and reading. This is the community that Corman values – the interaction of one person conversing with another through the medium of poetry. Corman moves through time and space in doing this, he is aware of the poem’s ability to transcend time and space and remain relevant – to still speak. Here he quietly alludes to times’ passing and to the ephemeral nature of life: “As long as you are here.” This conversational line, a line we commonly hear, is brought to bear its full measure of import within the poem: the weight of intonation and stress falls precisely on the word “are:” “As long as you are (my emphasis) here.” If Corman were not the poet that he is, he might have written “you’re” instead of “you are.” Corman wants the reader to sound “are:” “As long as you are . . .” In other words, as long as you are here, and alive, will you turn the page?

This subtle gesture points to one of the enduring qualities and strengths of poetry: the poem speaks to the reader even when the poet is gone. It speaks to the movement of time, the movement within a lifetime, to the human condition of being here now and knowing we will not always be. The poet after all, is not really with the reader on the page in the present moment of reading. He has passed on. The reader in reading the poem understands this, feels it through the poem.

The final two poems cited above get at similar notions as the first two poems. “The Call,” again announces the primacy of poetry, equating it with life itself: “Life is poetry/and poetry is life – O.” And the final poem makes the playful and, at first glance, seemingly audacious statement, that “There’s only/one poem:/this is it.”

Of course, in a real sense, Corman means exactly what he says, and that is, that the impulse behind the writing of a poem, the engine of the poem, the origin of any poem, of all poems, is the same at its source – it is the impulse to speak, it is the “O” of breath and being – the reaching out of one to another through language – the poet and reader together – the song that brings one to another. It is at base a connectivity, and communication, a form of communion, or community: ”the conversation/we could not otherwise have.” Seen in this light, we understand the claim that the poem makes: there is one poem and it resides in our very breathing and breath. It is life.

This poem, this last one, is an especially helpful poem to consider in relation to Corman’s book of and his questionable act of incorporating un-sourced translations into the book alongside his own poems. I say this because in this poem, we see a clear statement which may be seen as supporting what Corman has done in the book; that is to say, he makes his poems and his translations one book, one unified book, one poem: “There is /only one poem:/ this is it.”


Of is, at first glance, a strange title for a book. How many books can one think of that contain a preposition for a title? Strange as it is, it is a title that is precise and telling, and one meant to draw attention. When one opens the book, one finds a preface that immediately addresses the rationale behind the titling of the book:

for those who find themselves here
and sounding the words care to be

this is a book of a life as exacting as any
other, not in chronological order, but
through as for all time: a small proportion of
what has occurred to me and to which the work
unseen is complementary

the title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics:
the meta the indissoluble unfathomable fact: the
genitive case: to which we are all beholden and
within which we remain hopelessly particular

and to the extent that a poetry can, these poems
articulate it – which humbly (meaning – aware
of there being no choice) reveals transparently,
whatever else may be felt, I trust (trust implying
you), wonder, gratitude, pain, and love.

(Corman, of Vol. I, 2)

The Preface begins by immediately engaging the reader: “for those who find themselves here/and sounding the words care to be.” The reader is said to be “sounding” the words, suggesting that the reader is actively involved in both sounding the depth of the words – the depth of their various and associative meanings – as well as physically making the sound of the words in their mouths – “sounding” them. The words themselves are said to be things that “care to be,” underscoring Corman’s emphasis on our appreciating “words” as having an existence beyond the individual’s control – emphasizing, reminding the reader that words exist independent of the individual speaker – that they are thus shared within a larger community. If words did not possess this characteristic capacity, of what use would they be? To the extent that words are shared, they carry meaning and significance for us, and they bring us together, allow us to communicate with each other. Readers can “find themselves here” (my emphasis) precisely because the words on the page belong to the reader as much as they belong to the writer.
 As Corman says, “The title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics,” that is, it attempts to underscore the existent relationship between the individual and the world beyond the individual to which the individual is both separate from and a part of: “the genitive case: to which we are all beholden and/within which we remain hopelessly particular.” Language is thus the bridge, or the “connectivity,” as the post-colonial scholar Inderpal Grewal refers to it (Grewal 236).

Corman continues to elaborate upon this theme on the following page of the book with another epigraph. Here he translates the Greek of Philo of Alexandria (20 B. C. E. ~ 50 C. E.). It is salient to note that Philo himself was writing a literary work in Greek that was based on the older Hebraic writings of the Bible (Genesis), namely the Old Testament. Thus Philo too, like Corman, was involved in translation – the crossing of linguistic borders. Corman translates the epigraph as follows:

The soul of the most perfect is fed by the word as a whole; we may well be content should we be fed even by a portion of it.

PHILO: Allegorical Interpretations of Genesis. III, Ixi, 176.(Corman, of, Vol. I. 1)

In this epigraph, Corman once more alludes to there being a whole to which we belong: “the word as a whole.” With my layman’s knowledge of ancient texts, I cautiously interpret Philo in the following way: I take the “most perfect” as referring to God. Following upon this, I understand God is fed “by the word as a whole.” I read “the word as a whole” to refer to the whole of humanity, and that humanity’s offering God prayers, songs, poetry – praise feeds God. If the word as a whole is what God – “the soul of the most perfect” – is nourished by then we lesser ones might be sustain by, and should be “content” with, even a portion of it, the word: our own individual languages. The divine world and the human world are bound by, and through, the word. For Corman then, poetry is nothing less than manna – an essential thing – meant to be shared. Further, it is the diversity of languages that Corman is signaling as being of importance. It is not one particular language but the word as a whole – all poetries contributing to the whole that feeds the most perfect.

With this title, preface, and epigraph, Corman makes the case, rhetorically, for including un-sourced translations from many different languages and time periods into the book. His gesture is to say that we are OF this material – that the poetry of the world belongs to all of us. Moreover, he means to suggest that we are shaped by our inheritance of these languages, poetries, and cultures. We are of them – born into a scene and situation that we did not ourselves wholly create. He honors the inheritance.

In 2000, Corman responded to the charge of appropriation – whether or not his use of un-sourced translations in of was a form of appropriation. Did he deliberately leave the names of the original authors of his translations off the page? In his characteristically frank way, he acknowledged that he had done so while emphasizing that he did so with a purpose:

Yes, of course. Take Eshleman, who I know very – have known very well: very angry at me for doing that, not to give the credits. But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize… Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is. Anyone who’s really interested could easily find out. But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous; and if you look at my books that I myself designed without fail, my name is not on the title page. This is unique: there’s nobody else that ever has done this and I do it deliberately. My name is put as a signature at the end, but actually, I would rather have my name not in the book at all…

(Corman, ICPR 1)

“But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced.” Corman doesn’t want the names introduced because he wants the work, of, to be that whole that he alludes to in the epigraphs. His own poems will be part of the book, but they will find themselves within a community of poetry – his poems will be at home within a greater whole.

While I think it is understandable how the charge of appropriation could be leveled at Corman – for he does incorporate translations of others’ poems into his book – I believe under close analysis the assertion of appropriation does not stand up. “Appropriation” doesn’t adequately come to terms with the nuanced complexity of Corman’s gesture, and it is in the nuance and carefully balanced aesthetic manner in which the translations are brought into relationship with Corman’s own poetry that matters. The manner in which the translations are incorporated allows for them to be felt as translations, known as such, while not overtly crediting them as translations nor naming the authors.

Corman asserts in the interview that anyone really interested in finding out the source of a poem can easily do so because the poems are well known, or they are tagged in a way that allows them to be identified: “But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize . . . Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is.” In other words, Corman maintains that the translated poems remain in some fashion distinct and particular, in some way known and sourced.

This is in keeping with what he announces in the Preface and through his use of epigraphs. In some measure, “a precisely physical metaphysics” is enacted in the book: the translated poems remain particular within a constellation of other poems, including Corman’s own. The ability of Corman to translate poems and incorporate them so that they become both distinct and a part of the whole is one of the signal achievements of the text. And in so much as readers experience the poems as translations within the book, that is, poems different from Corman’s own poems, a multitude of voices are allowed to enter the book and circulate through and between Corman’s own poems.

For Corman to insert the names of the original authors on every page where a translation appeared would be to break (brake) the resonant play of the poems echoing off each other. It would be, in short, contrary to the aesthetic intentions suggested in the titling of the book. This is to say that the listing of sources would break the text into discrete parts and detract from the whole that Corman is trying to create.

When readers encounter translations in the text, the readers should understand that the poetry is other than Cor- man’s own. When Corman’s friend and fellow poet, Clayton Eshleman read the book, he had precisely this experience – he recognized certain poems as translations despite their lack of citation. The first poem, for example, is entitled Shingyo; as such, it immediately signals a foreign language – in this case Japanese. The poem is actually a translation of an ancient prayer, a sutra that comes from India. Just as Philo’s use of the Genesis story demonstrates his awareness of precedent, Corman too chooses a work that demonstrates his awareness of precedent, and the way in which languages and ideas cross borders and are shared among and within communities. The sutra, which is well known in Asia and in- creasing in the West, was written in Sanskrit at around 350 C. E. Later, Buddhist monks brought the sutra to China where it was translated into Chinese. Then the Japanese brought the sutra to Japan, and translated it into Japanese. Here, the sutra, known in English as “The Heart Sutra” is a work that has passed over and through many national borders, languages, and cultures to be shared anew through further translations. Interesting to note, and apropos to what Corman has said about his own wish for anonymity in poetry, the poem he begins the book with – his magnum opus – is an anonymous work, a poem that has been chanted by many different people of various cultural backgrounds for ages.

Beginning the book with this poem amplifies the theme struck by the epigraphs and the Preface, that is to say, the poem moves us to confront the paradox that we find ourselves in – we are particular and yet each exists within a community – in relationship with others – our shared language tells us as much: no one person invented the language, and no one owns it. It is shared. Shingyo speaks to a condition of enlightenment, which would have us acknowledge being both a part and a whole, a poem that celebrates non-duality:


Seeing reflecting sense nonsense
Friend – here is emptiness here is form
Unborn undying – untainted
unpure – no more no less – therefore
Friend – nothing to know or not to
to come to this – the suffering
reaching where it is and is not
Come – body – and go – body – no
body – gone to the other – gone.
(Corman, of, Vol. 1. 5)

The poem speaks to a sensibility that is unified, a non- dualistic sensibility – one that recognizes both the part (“body”) and the whole (“gone to the other”). It reaches through both – goes beyond opposites – to locate a site of commonality in a singular word of compassion “Friend.”

It is not only by titling the poems carefully then, as in the case of “Shingyo,” and by including well-known translations that Corman indicates which poems are translations: Corman also employs other techniques that quietly signal translation. The entire first section of the second volume of the book, for example, is indexed in the back under the title “Offered,” echoing the title of the book, of. Indexing the poems in this way, suggests that the majority of the poems in the section are translations, as they indeed are.

And it is not only by his unobtrusively marking the poems as translations that Corman succeeds in building the polyphonic quality of the text; He also succeeds through skillful translation. Corman is careful to honor the text, to honor the rhetoricity of the original. This is to say that his translations are distinguished by what the post colonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as “fraying,” a manner of translating that eschews the long searched-for equivalency between the original and the target language in favor of acknowledging qualities of the original that may be better left un-translated, giving the text a frayed or roughened feel. As Spivak puts it, “The task of the translator is to facilitate love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay.”

Corman’s translations leave the text open and rough with possibility. When balanced between the translator’s agency and the reader’s expectation, Corman honors the rhetoricity of the text. In 1964, long before the term of fraying came into use in translation studies, Corman spoke about his willingness to retain Japanese words in his translations. For example, in the Preface to his translation of Basho’s Oku-No-Hosomichi, (Back Roads to Far Towns, Munjinsha 1964) he and his fellow translator decided to retain original Japanese words in the translation. Corman expressed their decision this way:

If the translators have often not accepted Western approximations for particular Japanese and/or Chinese terms, it is not to create undue difficulties for readers, but rather to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible. As a result, notes may be needed in greater profusion than before. (Basho, BRFT 10)

Corman is not going to smooth the text out so that it reads comfortably in English if that means compromising too much of the complexity of the original. The original words, rich in associative meanings, may offer a complexity that the English words cannot adequately represent, that is, the English equivalent is not accurate enough. This decision on the part of translators (Corman and Kamaike Susumu), make it is necessary for them to use original Japanese words in the translation. In translating Basho’s Oku-no-Hosomichi, Corman and Kamaike retain original Japanese words in both the prose and the poetry. Here is some of their translation work – the poetry following the prose:

Afterwards off to the Sesshoseki on horse sent by
the kandai. Man leading it by halter asked for a
tanzaku. Beautiful he wanted one:

across the meadow
horse take your lead now from the
(Basho BRFT 25)

In this brief passage, Corman and Kamaike retain four Japanese words. Their notes in the back of the book relate the following:

kandai: Castle overseer
Sesshoseki: Still exists, though fenced about. The legends associated with it are told in Noh of the same name.
tanzaku: Narrow strip of fine paper to write poetry on; a poem
hototogisu: Japanese cuckoo, whose name is its song.
(Basho BRFT 122)

In using original words the translators intend “to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible.” They bring the Japanese flavor of the original in – they “admit” it – because English does not have similar words that are reliably precise. By retaining the Japanese words the translators allow the shadow of the original to be felt and appreciated. By “shadow” I mean to suggest that Corman and Kamaike’s translation emphasizes that while it is not the original it does retain some of the original’s defining qualities. Hototogisu, for example, is the Japanese cuckoo, but more to the point – and the point Corman and Kamaike want the reader to experience – is the fact that the name of the bird IS the bird’s song. When the reader reads “hototogisu” the reader hears what the Japanese themselves believe the bird sounds like when it calls. And it just so happens that this has a further meaning (or possibility of meaning) – the sound of the song is imaginatively thought to be the sound of a Buddhist sutra. Thus, the bird is thought to be, figuratively speaking, chanting a sutra. The bird and its call are steeped in the folklore of Japan, and its literary history and culture. The reader gets the onomatopoetic sound that the Japanese themselves feel best represents the sound of the bird. The reader is thus connected in this way with Japan: its animals, culture, language, and people.

Corman frays many of his translated texts in of in similar ways. When he translates Catullus, for example, he uses the Latin title of the poem and translates the poem in the following way:


Happy, my life, to me you propose love
This ours between us perpetual be.

Great gods, see that she really can promise
And she say so honestly and from heart,

So that it be ours all life to continue
Eternal this trust of blest affection.

I will tell you the secret.

(Corman, of, Vol. II, 30)

Encountering a poem such as this would lead any observant reader to conclude that she is indeed reading a translation. Why else would the poem be titled in Latin? If this doesn’t wake the reader to the fact of the poem being a translation, the reader could Google the title and find the poem ascribed to Catullus. In other worlds, the poem calls out to be understood – read – as a translation. The fraying one finds in the translation makes this even more abundantly clear. This translation is not rendered in Corman’s contemporary American English, but in a distinctively textured, tonal, and syntactical manner quite foreign to it, resulting in a poem that sounds ancient. Some of the ancient sounding qualities of the translation come from Corman’s mining the possibilities of the original Latin poem. Corman draws our attention to the word “ours:” “Happy, my life, to me you propose love/this ours between us perpetual be.” Here, “ours” functions as a noun and retains its Latin sense of something not only as something shared between people but something alive and living, and “ours” that is, “perpetually to be, a love that comes “honestly” and “from heart.” The word “ours” is struck again in the penultimate line with stress and weight – “So that it be ours all life to continue.”

Beyond the polyphonic and the symphonic qualities that the book achieves by bringing in such a rich variety of voices from various cultures, languages, and time periods, Corman’s book, of, reminds us that we come from this stuff – from this poetry – and that our languages and poetries have played a role in shaping the world we live in – the way in which we see and understand ourselves and the world.

Homi K. Bhabha, the literary scholar and cultural theorist, in commenting upon the contemporary Mexican American musical artist Guillermo Gomex-Pena, who travels between Mexico and American to sing songs on both sides of the border, both old and new songs – a man who sings to different audiences – Spanish-speaking audiences and English-speaking audiences, may provide us with the clearest lens yet by which to discern and appreciate what Corman achieves in his own crossing of boundaries – the boundaries of time, space, languages, cultures, and poetries – not to mention his crossing back and forth between his own poems and his translations.
 According to Bhabha, Gomez-Pena’s actions of performing songs in both languages on both sides of the Mexican and U.S. border – songs that are traditional as well as new – creates a generative “inbetween space” that allows for the artist to elaborate “strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity . . .” This “inbetween space,” he asserts, is a site of “collaboration, and contestation.” (Bhabha LC 336) Corman’s work too creates such an inbetween space. It also creates a site of collaboration and contestation in so far as we see him collaborating with other poets through the act of translation, taking their poems and translating them into English. We can see the contestation in terms of his own voice, his poems, asserting themselves through the surrounding poems, many voices vying, if you will, to be heard.

In fact, Bhabha prefaces the above comments by saying that what is “theoretically innovative and politically crucial is the need to think beyond narratives of “originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is precisely this activity that opens up what he terms “the inbetween space which leads to new signs of identity . . . in the act of defining society itself:”

What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of sellfood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.” (Bhabha, LC 337)

Corman’s inclusion of poems from many languages – translations – poems both old and new – creates an “inbetween space” that is at once familiar and de-familiarizing – Corman’s own poems written in vernacular contemporary American English sound familiar to the American ear, whereas the translations, such as a poem like “Shingyo,” sound much less familiar because they are sourced in different languages, time periods, or cultures and because Corman’s renderings in English of those translations tend to be deliberately marked or frayed, creating a degree of dissonance between his own poetry and the translated poetry. In this way, Corman creates a gap, a space, and in-between, that allows, admits, a larger world of poetry to enter. He gets beyond, as Bhabha would have us do, “originaries and initial subjectivities” and allows the reader to experience a larger world of poetry by allowing her “to focus on moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is through this performance, this act, that Corman succeeds in initiating “new signs of identity,”which would lead to “the act of defining the idea of society itself ” (337).

The new identity that Corman wants us to embrace says that WE are OF this stuff, this material, this poetry. It is an identity that includes others – other languages, other poetries, other stories, and it accepts them graciously and identifies with them as human stories, familial stories. The new identity implies that the poetry of the world is gifted – offered – in the way that language itself is gifted to each of us, that is, handed down to us by our mothers and fathers, freely given. Corman’s move is deliberate and provocative – an insurgent act – and we should understand it as such and appreciate it as such. Rather than apologize or become defensive in responding to Eshleman’s question regarding appropriation, he becomes more assertive: “. . . the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous” (Corman, ICPR).

In placing translation directly beside his own poems, Corman forces us to ask questions about poetry and poetry’s role and place in the world at a time when cultures and languages are crossing borders more rapidly than ever before. He asks us if we are ready to hear what a world of poetry has to tell each of us about the nature of our existence on the planet. Do we understand the generous loving gesture that the poem itself is offering each of us? Can we approach not only poetry but each other with a larger sense of gratitude, or, as he would say in another poem, can we listen to the poem and each other?

What is it – you ask?
I keep telling you:

(Corman, ND 64)

Corman wants us to understand that poetry is as important now as it’s ever been in helping us through the night in helping us understand who we are, and what we are – even if poetry is nothing but cry in the night, even if it’s simply one person reaching out to another. Corman is not concerned with copyright issues, or questions of appropriation. It is as though he deliberately pushes these concerns aside in order to get at something more elemental and vital, and that is to remind us that poetry bring us together into a conversation – that language itself comes before ownership, that it is held in trust and commonly constructed. What ever it is that compels a person to write a poem, or for a person to read a poem, gestures toward shared community.

Corman’s magnum opus, of, by combining both translations from other poetries and placing them beside his own poems in a single book allows us to think beyond boundaries into new spaces that allow for a world of poetry to open up, a large world we find ourselves a part of. In doing this, the book reminds us that poetry, to be worthy of the name, to remain vital in our lives, must remain within the community as something offered and shared.


We know it is love
Because we are – as
The stars are – because

Dante and Shakespeare
And Homer were and
So many others

Who never leave us
Alone – light shining
Under the closed door.

(Corman, of Vol. II 378)

—Gregory Dunne


Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “Locations of Culture.” The Transnational Studies Reader: Interdisciplinary Intersections and Innovations. Ed. Peggy Levitt. New York: Routledge, 2007. 233-237. (Print)

Corman, Cid. At Their Word: Essays on the Arts of Language. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, California. Black Sparrow. 1978. (Print)

Corman, Cid. Back Roads to Far Towns. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press. 2004. (Print)

Corman, Cid. “Cid Corman in Conversation.” Interview with Philip Rowland. Flash Point Magazine, 16 Sept. 2000. (Web) 06 May 2013. <http://www.flashpoint>.

Corman, Cid. Interview. “An Interview with Gregory Dunne. “American Poetry Review. (July/August 2000): 25. (Print) Corman, Cid, Mike Doyle, and Kegan Doyle. Where to Begin: Selected Letters of Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, 1967-1970. Victoria, B.C.: Ekstasis Editions, 2000. (Print) Corman, Cid. Nothing Doing. New York: New Directions,

  1. (Print) Corman, Cid. of. Vol. 1 and 2. Venice, California: Lapis. 1990.

(Print) Corman, Cid. The Gist of Origin, 1951-1971: An Anthology.

New York: Grossman, 1975. (Print) Dunne, Gregory. “Getting the Secret Out of Cid Corman.” Poetry East: 44 (Spring 1997): 9 – 23. (Print) Eshleman, Clayton. “Cid,” Cipher Journal. 12 June 2004. <

html> (Web) Grewal, Inderpal. Transnational America. Durham and London: Duke. 2005. (Print)
Heidegger. Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Harper Colophon Books, New York:1971.

(Print) Niedecker, Lorine, Cid Corman, and Lisa Pater Faranda. “Between Your House and Mine”: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970. Durham [N.C.: Duke UP, 1986. (Print)

Olson, Charles, Cid Corman, and George Evans. Charles Olson & Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence 1950- 1964. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, Univer- sity of Maine, 1987. (Print)

Schelling, Andrew. “Schelling CC Death Notes.” Web log post. Schelling CC Death Notes. Cipherjournal, 28 Mar. 2004. (Web) 03 May 2013.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Politics of Translation.” Destabilizing Theory. Eds. Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips. London: Polity Press, 1982. (Print)


Gregory Dunne is the author of two collections of poetry: Home Test (Adastra Press, 2009) and Fistful of Lotus (a handmade book by Canadian printmaker Elizabeth Forrest, 2000). He has contributed to Strangest of Theaters: Poets Writing Across Borders (McSweeneys and the Poetry Foundation, 2013). His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous magazines, including the American Poetry Review, Manoa, Poetry East, and Kyoto Journal. He lives in Japan and teaches in the Faculty of Comparative Culture at Miyazaki International College. Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman was published by Ekstasis Press in 2014.


Mar 042015


Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions. As translator David Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. –Jeff Bursey

il condottiere

Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
Georges Perec
Trans. David Bellos
University of Chicago Press
Cloth, 144 pp., $20.00
ISBN: 9780226054254


1. OVER THE LAST number of years small presses have been addressing gaps in the knowledge of English-language readers when it comes to the shorter works of the acclaimed French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982), best known for his novel Life A User’s Manual (1978; translated into English in 1987), by issuing An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (2010), The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise (2011), La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams (2013), and I Remember (2014). Now we have his first novel, Portrait of a Man. In 1960 it was rewritten for the publishing house Gallimard, who had issued a contract and paid royalties ahead of receiving the completed work. According to David Bellos, when Perec finished revising it he affixed these words to the typescript: “YOU’LL HAVE TO PAY ME LOADS IF YOU WANT ME TO START IT OVER AGAIN.” Even after that effort the manuscript failed to succeed, and it gradually fell out of sight until rediscovered by Bellos while he wrote Georges Perec: A Life in Words (1993; rev. 1995). In 1960 Perec predicted that his first novel would experience one of two fates: either he would revisit it in later years and turn it into a “‘masterpiece’” or he would “‘wait in my grave until one of my faithful exegetes comes across it in an old trunk… and brings it out.’” There’s no word on if the former approach was tried, but as Bellos says, “it’s not like anything else that he wrote,” and perhaps there was no way for the Perec we are more familiar with to venture back to that earlier version of his writer self. (What goes unexplained is why it took until 2012 for the novel to appear in French.)

The plot of the book is simple. Gaspard Winckler, a forger of painters, works for a group run by the shadowy Anatole Madera. After 12 years in this occupation, preceded by four as an apprentice to Jérôme, an older forger who also works for Madera, Winckler chooses, as his next task, to create a painting supposedly by Antonella da Messina, based on the latter’s Portrait of a Man known as Il Condottiere (1475). This new work would have to come from Winckler’s soul and not be a technical exercise, yet having inhabited for years the habits and work of other painters, it is not going to be easy for him to find out who he really is. In addition to burying himself in studies of the esoteric natures of painting, wood, and visual perspectives over the ages, Winckler has been cut off from people and world events since he started his career as a posturer in 1947. What he runs into is a blunt fact: masterpieces can’t be willed into existence, and originality doesn’t emerge based on wishes. The failure of his attempt leads him—or rather, it may be one of the reasons—to rebel against his employer, and to do that he must commit an act that irrevocably cuts him off from his former life. He kills Madera, and then flees the isolated house that contained his laboratory.

Portrait of a Man is divided into two parts: the first describes Gaspard’s attempt to escape from his past; the second is comprised of a set of chapters where he tries to describe, to an inquisitive friend named Streten who is sheltering him, what he had done and why, how he entered into a lucrative career, and what propelled him out of it. Part I is filled with action and pell-mell sentences, and for a while it seems like this novel will fall into a pattern found in the “detective novels” Winckler reads now and then for mental release from the pressures of work. (This puts in mind We Always Treat Women Too Well [1947] by Raymond Queneau, written under a pseudonym, Sally Mara. Apart from being set in Dublin in the mid-1910s and using names found in James Joyce’s Ulysses, this novel ramped up, in protest and with deliberate irony, the violence and sex present in gangster novels then popular in France. Perec and Queneau were friends and members of Oulipo.) The opening lines of Portrait of a Man are startling for their pulpiness:

Madera was heavy. I grabbed him by the armpits and went backwards down the stairs to the laboratory. His feet bounced from tread to tread in a staccato rhythm that matched my own unsteady descent, thumping and banging around the narrow stairwell. Our shadows danced on the walls. Blood was still flowing, all sticky, seeping from the soaking wet towel, rapidly forming drips on the silk lapels, then disappearing into the folds of the jacket, like trails of slightly glinting snot side-racked by the slightest roughness in the fabric, sometimes accumulating into drops that fell to the floor and exploded into star-shaped stains. I let him slump at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the laboratory door, and then went back up to fetch the razor and to mop up the bloodstains before Otto returned.

On the novel’s cover a cascade of crimson obscures the top half of the Antonella painting that gives the novel its title; and that passage, with its shadows, the descent, and that dance, brings to mind the fondness the French have for murder mysteries and Edgar Allan Poe.


As Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. The figure of the forger bundles that thorny topic together with Perec’s “extensive learning” in art history, the controversy in 1945 surrounding the arrested Dutch art dealer and forger Han van Meegeren (readers of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions [1955] will recall that name and his importance in the creation of that novel), and, to my mind, looks directly at uncomfortable historical events: in the 16 years covered by Winckler’s training and output to his abrupt retirement—so, beginning in 1943—France endured, among other things, the Occupation, collaboration with Nazi Germany, the role of its citizens in sending Jews to death camps, the Resistance, and the violence of the Algerian War (1954-1962). In these atrocities, state scandals, and actions some Frenchmen led false lives. Also, during the Second World War Perec’s father was killed in battle and his mother died either in Auschwitz or on the way to it. It’s impossible to read this book, which in the second half turns into a confession-cum-self-exculpation, without wondering, in a cautious and limited way, how Winckler’s half-life symbolizes an absence within Perec (what he might have been like if his parents had lived) and within the soul of his country.

Unlike the bloody events and fevered prose of Part I, the second part is hesitant and revolves around a set of intellectual and emotional questions. Asked by Streten why he killed Madera, Winckler replies: “‘But I had to wake up one day … It didn’t matter when or where … It happened, it had to. It happened because of Mila [a girl he had some interest in], but it could have happened because of something else. It doesn’t matter.’” Further along Winckler will say: “‘My own story written down once and for all, in a closed circle, with no way out other than dying ten or twenty or thirty years on. Needing to go on to the end without meaning, without necessity …’” Streten, in his search for precise answers—he comes off as a character who has been placed in the wrong novel—pursues what he sees as a vital question:

“Why did you kill Madera?”

“I don’t know … If I knew, I wouldn’t be here … If I’d known, I suppose I wouldn’t have done it … You think it’s easy … You commit an act … You don’t know … you can’t know … you don’t want to know … But after a while it’s behind you … You know you did it … and then …”

“Then what?”

“Then nothing.”

“Why do you say ‘you’?”

“No reason … It doesn’t matter … I killed Madera … And then? It doesn’t make things any simpler … A last act, the least act of all …”
“Just to see …”

“As you say … Just to see what would happen …”

“And what did happen?”

“You can see for yourself … Nothing yet … Perhaps one day something will happen … Something worthwhile …”

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions (Bellos points out that Winckler reappears in Life A User’s Manual)—these are themes returned to, with variations, particularly in Part II. Streten insists this or that “‘doesn’t make sense,’” acutely observes that Winckler “‘pretend[s] to be a victim,’” and repeatedly demands that there be explanations for why his friend behaved as he did, which Winckler argues against: “‘You’d like there to be a solid point of departure, a sudden insight […] There wasn’t any turning point in my existence … There wasn’t a story … There wasn’t even an existence … Of course, if things had been logical […]’”

(As an aside, Perec uses ellipsis to slow the momentum of the second part of Portrait of a Man, and it’s worth noting how the same device, in the hands of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, achieves the complete opposite: in his books those three dots act like stones that trip you down an endless set of stairs at breakneck pace, leaving you breathless, dizzy, and bruised at the fall of the last line.)

Inside the “false world… a world without sense…” occupied by Winckler, where there are no narrative arcs, where he is cocooned from national and world events, where other countries exist as study locations (galleries, libraries, museums) or vacation resorts, where nothing is connected, where the insignificant and the significant weigh the same, and where fate is first invoked and then denied, the forger fitfully dreams of the possibility of a cohesive existence: “To be at long last, in your own right, the captain of your soul and the world in an irrefutable ascent, a single movement towards unity.” Winckler believes he can achieve those aims by painting a new Antonello, with its subject a man who is kin to the Condottiere—a figure who “…has nothing to lose: no friends, no enemies. He is brute force.”—yet who is sufficiently distinct so that experts will accept the forgery. How the painting turns out is not predictable (like so much else in a novel that relies on the words logical, perhaps, nothing, and so on), and the result shows Winckler what he needs to know about himself:

I looked at myself in the mirror in the middle of the night. That was me. That was my face, and my year of struggle and sleepless nights, that oak board and that steel easel, that was my face too, and so were those pots and those hundreds of brushes and the rags and the spots. My story. My fate. A fine caricature of a fate. That was me: anxious and greedy, cruel and mean, with the eyes of a rat. Looking like I thought I was a warlord.

It might be this revelation that is the impetus for the murder and the escape, but as Winckler states numerous times, it could be any reason, or simply something that just happens; even the notion of fate, shaky though it is, could be why his life went along as it did. No final justification or motive will be found, and that debate is a sizeable portion of the content. What is easier to conclude is that in this novel Perec, via Winckler, tends to explain everything (while answering little), leaving less of the pleasurable ambiguity readers might prefer. As Bellos observes: “This is a novel, not an essay. Almost.” The action of the first part is replaced by rambling talk in the second, yet nevertheless, Portrait of a Man is at times an engrossing read, with early hallmarks of the later author—a fascination with exactitude, on painting techniques and on numbers, an intellectual apparatus that undermines the structure of the novel—as well as unusual features that Georges Perec fans will want to encounter for themselves.

—Jeff Bursey


Excerpt from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere

Bellos makes clear that Perec started educating himself in visual art in the mid-1950s, and proceeded from there. He “visited exhibitions and galleries in Paris and made a trip to Berne to see a large collection of works by Paul Klee,” studied general and scholarly works and catalogues, and engaged in discussion with “Yugoslav art historians he had befriended in Paris…” Using these sources and his imaginative powers, he invested Gaspard Winckler with the language and thought processes that get across the practical, physical, and mental aspects that lie underneath the act of painting, as this extract shows.

—Jeff Bursey

The hardest part obviously was that celebrated tautness in the jaw. It was impossible to pastiche without creating a double, and there was no sense in that. In the end I settled for using Memling’s portrait as my model: a very thick and powerful neck, with the first minute signs of a double chin, very deep eyes, a line on each side of the nose and a fairly thick mouth. I would put the strength into the neck, into the articulation of the head, in the very high and straight way it was held, and in the lips. It was all fine on the drafts. On the trial paintings in gouache it even turned out rather splendidly: a complex melange of Memling and Antonello sufficiently corrected, with a very pure look in the eyes, immediate contours that yielded easily at first and then thickened, became impermeable, turning hard and merciless. No cruelty, no weakness. What I wanted. Pretty much exactly what I was after . . . It was another month before I started really painting. I had to get my pots, brushes and rags ready. I took three days’ rest. I began to paint sitting in the armchair, with my palette within easy reach, and the panel set on the easel with its four corners wrapped in cotton wool and rags so that the metal angles that held it in place would leave no mark. I had an elbow support and a crutch to keep my hand steady, a huge visor to keep the glare of the spots off my eyes, and wore magnifying goggles. An extraordinary set of safety devices. I would paint for twenty minutes and then stop for two hours. I sweated so much I had to change three or four times a day. From then on fear never left me. I don’t know why but I had no confidence at all, I never managed to have a clear vision of what I was trying to do, I couldn’t say what my panel would be like when I’d finished painting it; I wasn’t able to guarantee that it would look like any of the dozens of more or less completed drafts lying around the room. I didn’t understand some of my own details, I was unable to get a grip on the overall project, to recognise it in the smallest touch, to feel it taking shape. I was stumbling onwards, despite the innumerable safeguards I’d set up. Previously, I’d been able to paint any Renaissance picture in a couple of months, but now, after four months’ work, in mid- September, I still had the whole face to do . . .

Reprinted with permission from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere by Georges Perec. Published by the University of Chicago ©. © 2012 by Éditions du Seuil Introduction and English translation © 2015 by David Bellos. All rights reserved. Published 2015.

jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010). He is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.


Dec 042014

139056374STranslator David Need


When poet and translator David Need began translating Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poetry in 2001, it was in part an attempt to get closer to one of his favorite writers, to fashion a “close workshop with someone” of remarkable ability. Rilke’s often-overlooked second-language work presented a convenient inroad for Need, whose proficiency in French at the time exceeded his knowledge of German, the poet’s first language. This practicality proved fortuitous as he began to focus his attention on a discreet series of short “rose poems,” written by Rilke in 1924. Need felt the rose poems constituted a unique arm of Rilke’s oeuvre, one that if considered on its own terms can be found to contain the generous whole of the poet’s vision in miniature. As he continued to translate Rilke, completing work on the rose poems and moving on to the German material, he began to incorporate his ideas on Rilke’s aesthetic into a book that would present a variety of the poet’s German and French pieces along with an essay and commissioned ink drawings, all serving to support a thesis embodied by the heart of collection: the rose series.

Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is first and foremost a set of fine translations. Each two-or-three-stanza poem in the rose series is given its own page opposite the French original, which encourages the reader to proceed slowly and attentively. If one wants to stop there, satisfied with Need’s fresh take on these under-read poems, the book is a worthwhile read, an enlivening encounter with one of modernity’s greatest poets. But a patient reader eventually realizes that Roses, like the flower that inspired Rilke’s meditations, is constantly seeking to open up for us toward a more potent aesthetic revelation. This is because Need has invested the book with a varied and generative infrastructure that forwards a larger argument through a series of dialogues. Most conspicuous in this regard are the 27 sketches by artist Clare Johnson that react to each brief rose poem with an image that engages the text, but does not attempt to “portray” its content in an overtly literal or didactic way. The images, which range from atmospheric depictions of silhouettes on a city street, to rain-streaked windows, to abstract patterns, act out of Johnson’s response to widen the confines of the multi-media dialogue. The sketches echo the poems and in so doing help us to reconstrue their meaning. Another important interlocutor in Roses is Need’s essay, “The Room Next Door: The Impossible Affordance of the Rose.” The essay is a convincing distillation of the translator’s ethos that considers the influence of Aestheticism and figures like Rodin and Cezanne on Rilke’s vision and situates the poet’s artistic response within a millennia-old incantatory tradition in poetry that goes back to the Rgveda, India’s pre-Hindu epic written around 1400 BCE. Need argues that Rilke uses the rose motif to take a firm stand against the reduction of the material to a kind of impenetrable surface, urging us to consider the ways in which nature creates room, or “affordances,” for the various—at times contradictory—facets of our being. The combined effect of the essay, sketches, and poems is one that collaborators across genre and medium strive for: a ringing of distinct yet concordant tonalities that elevate the piece to something more than the sum of its parts.

David Need teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. A specialist in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, he sees confluence in philosophies of religion and art and often speaks of them in overlapping terms. It’s a point of view I found instructive when I was his student at North Carolina State University in 2003. We’ve kept in touch over the years and, upon learning of the publication of Roses, I was eager to set up an interview. He invited me to his home in Durham, North Carolina, where we talked at length about Rilke, translation, and the implications of an existence that might somehow be, in the poet’s words, “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.”

—Dan Holmes


Dan Holmes (Holmes): What brought about this turn toward translating in earnest? How is this situated in your creative development?

David Need (Need): There are two parts to that. One is that I think it’s always good for an artist to be working in two modalities. It’s important to think about your medium in a couple of different ways, or to think about a problem in a couple of different ways. I’ve noticed that when I spend time doing a lot of singing, I start to have ideas about writing that are new and fresh. There’s something about the singing that presents a set of problems to me, like problems of rhythm or problems of shape, but it presents them in this other form. Then when I come back to write, the music of the writing is being informed by what I’m doing with the other thing. For me it doesn’t happen just by listening, I have to be involved in some kind of making. Same thing with translating. Translating gives you this really close workshop with a particular writer’s language. When you translate really good writers you’re getting a close workshop with someone whose ambitions or skills in poetry is extraordinary. In translation, you get what’s going on completely, but you have to make some decisions about it. And in some ways those are the same problems you have with respect to your own gestures and skills. When working on my poetry, I can pull out an image and put it down, but I learn something from working with Rilke about how heavily to weight that image. And I learn other things, like, reading him I’ve learned he leaves messy things in his poems sometimes deliberately. He just leaves little thumbprints and you know he’s clearly got an ability to be smoother and it hasn’t happened there. That was an important lesson for me: that I didn’t always have to smooth and that I could mix diction at times if that was the way the poem was emerging.

The other thing is that I think any art is basically translation. Talking now, I’m translating. When I’m teaching I’m constantly translating—that’s all I’m doing. I’m standing in front of a class, I’ve got this body of information I’ve been interpreting, then I’m putting it into forms for the students, and their ability to understand this stuff is related to the reading they’ve done, and what they bring to the class, how old they are, the ideas they already have about spirituality. I have to see those and figure those out and translate to them. Also when I’m working with different religious traditions I’m constantly needing to translate, from talking within a Christian context to talking within a Buddhist context to talking within our context here—it is a lot like translating. “Now I’m in this field. Now I’m in this location. And this is the way you think inside this situation.” I have a sense of the world, or music in the world, and I’m trying to get that vision or image to happen for you. There’s a translation or a telepathy there that happens in the reading. I know as a reader and writer that’s what I’m looking for—to make other people see things that aren’t visible commonly but might be common in our imaginations.

Holmes: I can imagine two approaches to translation: one is to render as clearly and accurately as possible what you’re seeing within the context that you understand the writer wrote it, and one is to draw out the germ of it and further express it.

Need: I’m a really more the first kind of translator. A lot of times when I’m looking at other people’s translations, I’m impatient if I see they’re getting away from the word count, the words that are there in the original. If there is any “thing” that the poem is, I don’t think it’s the ideas, or only the ideas—I think it’s the words. The words are these little material edges that are the latticework of the poem that the reader catches on. Some people that have their own lyric sensibility take a poem and say, “I see the image and I’m going to render that image in my own lyric terms.” I’m not comfortable with that. I think it brings too much of your own reading to the material and doesn’t leave the material open enough in something like its original form.

The people that I’ve translated so far are good for the kind of translation I do. I have a lyric sensibility, so when I’m faced with choosing some words, I go for a quiet music that will work as a poetics for the reader, so it will read lyrically. But the word count and the grammar I’ve almost always just transformed it into an English word count, and grammar and line count, and things like that. Rilke is not a poet where there’s a lot of punning. He tends to use words directly and simply so he’s easier to translate. I can establish a word without worrying about the fifteen meanings the word Rilke chose in German has that a reader might pick up. Celan has been more challenging for me because there’s a lot more play going on and what’s worse, or better, is that Celan is a translator, so the puns aren’t even just in German. He’s constantly making these really wicked puns with English and English phonemes that are buried in German and French. So sometimes I find that I actually leave the third language or fourth language that he’ll use, and I don’t translate it. I’ll run into objections with readers who don’t want to put the time in. But if that person is interested and curious then that little thing—which is like a little smear that Celan has left there because he shifted into the other language—will look like a smear instead of being fixed out of being a smear. There is a way in which that multilingual capacity can grow in a reading and still be connected to the writing that he does.

551-12.jpgRainer Maria Rilke

Holmes: Rilke wrote these poems in French, which was a second language for him. Is that different for you than translating a German Rilke poem?

Need: Not in the end. When I first sat down and did it I didn’t have German yet. I had the sense that the French was a little strange, but I didn’t try to do anything to make the strangeness apparent. I just translated the weight of the language. My approach is the same with German. I’m not as comfortable in German so I have to do more dictionary work and I have to go, “Okay, that’s a dative” and work out what all the grammar is, but my approach isn’t that different. He’s not a completely different person in French.

Holmes: Like Beckett’s French. It feels to me like a second language.

Need: Yeah. And there’s been some great second language writers like Conrad, who are just unbelievable, but there’s a little bit of the haunt of it, that fact that it’s a second language. Or Kerouac. People are starting to focus on that, that he is actually a second language writer.

Holmes: What drew you to the rose poems? Have they been neglected? Are they emblematic of your aesthetic in some way?

Need: I did work with them because they were in French, and they were a discreet set, and because I like flowers and they haven’t been translated that much. So French because back then I didn’t have German and I wanted to work with some Rilke. Roses because it’s a discreet set and kind of simple. And I have a bit of a disposition to the pastoral. So the rose works for me at the level of motif. I’m similar enough for finding floral or seasonal things as the beginnings for certain kinds of meditations. There was a rapport there.

I translated them back in 2001 and even then I was beginning to develop an argument about Rilke in relation to contemporary poetics. So there is actually an aesthetic argument that I’m using Rilke to make. I think when it comes down to it it’s the idea that post-60’s and 70’s there was this turn to the surface in poetry. To lots of attention to the surface and a distrust of any kind of depth at all… a criticism of depth as always referring to the romantic subject that we were supposed to dispel as good progressives, because somehow the romantic subject was this feudal encrustation that could only create bad things in our relationships with other people. So I already knew that in Rilke I had somebody that I could use to argue for interiority—for the aesthetics of interiority. In the writing itself, right from the first one he says, “Rose you’re this thing that’s infinitely unfolded and absolutely withdrawn at the same time.” That really fit with ideas that I was having at the time about the human situation, that the human is a being who has this exteriority that continues to unfold; there continues to be this play on the surface, but there is also this interiority that never gets completely seen by anyone else or even by the person, or gets completely exhausted. That seemed to be really important in terms of arguing for a place of freedom despite the way people were thinking about language and culture, because so many people felt that we were in this hegemonic era with commercial culture dominating all production and value and I felt: no, that’s not quite true. We’re buying into and shutting off access to something within ourselves that we shouldn’t cut off access to, that actually is freer that we imagine, but also at stake. And what people who want freedom can never quite understand is—and obviously this reflects a kind of commitment but—we don’t have some kind of “drive your car in all directions without ever having to be accountable to anything” kind of freedom. We have life, but we’re in relation to others and we’re always at stake in those relationships.

Rilke just seemed to be another person coming out of modernity—early on in modernity—who seemed to be really caring about the world, and arguing that the lyrical and what we feel as beauty and desire are not to be shut off, or cut apart, or dismantled because of the harm we do each other. We have to work hard to make the choice not to harm each other. And I felt like a lot of peoples’ construction of interiority and the unconscious has been wrong, so I felt that the rose poems were a good small vehicle, a simple study, that were themselves making an argument that was consistent overall with the way Rilke used the trope of the rose in his work. The idea I’m arguing I think is an idea that was Rilke’s, actually rooted in what he was doing with the rose.


Holmes: Do you see the Rose poems as a culmination in miniature of Rilke’s vision? Or an anamoly?

Need: I think it’s a miniature. He finishes the Duino Elegies and writes the Sonnets to Orpheus in 1922 and he spends a lot of the rest of the year finishing a translation from French of Paul Valery. There are two things that are going on: he’s already starting to work on ongoing lyric projects in German. One of the things I translated (for the book) was actually a suite. Most of the poems are from ’23 and ’24 in German and he put it together at the end of his life and gave it to his publisher as something to bring out for the estate. And there are about 80 poems there. He was working in German but I also think he got the idea from working with Valery to do some studies in French. And he had started doing the Valais Quatrains within about a two-week period. They were studies. I think he was a good enough artist to apply himself to a material. But not just any material; it was one of his leitmotifs, something he’d brought up at different times to try and make a certain kind of argument. And that argument is there again in miniature. It’s almost like somebody who had been painting larger scale paintings of roses decided to do a series of line drawings. That’s not because he doesn’t want to do the big project. It’s because he’s decided to do a setting that’s a line drawing setting. So I see this as yet another setting.

A lot of them are what I call—and I think this is important regarding surface and depth—a lot of them are half-sonnets. Not “half,” but what you can call broken sonnets. He wrote often in the Italian sonnet throughout his life, and once he found the Italian sonnet it appears in all the published books. Not all of the Rose poems are broken sonnets, but many of them are just two quatrains, which means for the Italian sonnet he didn’t add the two tercets at the end. But I feel like he was still thinking “sonnet”. He just drew the sonnet that far and then left it blank, so it feels to me like he drew in the visible part of the sonnet and left the turn part not visible. They weren’t casual at all. He was still working and thinking on a project that was related to the ideas he was working on in his life.

Holmes: Rilke describes the rose in #3 as “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” He’s always showing us the rose as paradox, as something interior that is inseparable from its surroundings. He considers the relational nature of “features” and forms in order to glean something of their essence. Can you talk about what you think he’s doing by setting up and undermining these dualities?

Need: Thinking in terms of antimonies is characteristic of human thought. Certainly in Europe post-Hegel, thinking in terms of antithesis tended to be a mode of thought that people thought was a real structure. Any kind of opposition you found, its resolution would be in this dialectical process. That’s how you worked with problems like the tension between mind and body, or spirit and body, or life and death—any thing that you could think of in those terms. I think lyric poetry in general, and post-Romantic poetry, was trying to argue for a different status. To actually argue for “both/and” rather than a conflict. Even though Hegel’s model—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—moves towards a “both/and,” the synthesis actually erases the difference. I think Rilke was really interested in the fact that another way of thinking would say that impossibly we were “both/and.” So his problem is how to get us to break the Hegelian way of reading, or to recognize that there’s another way to resolve that kind of antithesis.

Hegel’s model is a very combative model. It’s a model of unresolvable antagonisms. It can’t imagine the resolution. Rilke is trying to say “I want to have a relationship to the world that doesn’t erase it. I want to have a relationship to other people where I’m not taking away the space or being taken over. I want to somehow be in a situation where impossibly this difference can exist, together.” So I think he’s presenting us over and over again with a problem, but also trying to get us through contradictions to consider impossible things, such as the possibility of being “infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” We’re encouraged to think of both of those at the same time. And we could be like that. We are fundamentally limited by being incarnate at the same time we have openness in us. It’s not that one or the other wins, but that we’re impossibly both of those things.

Holmes: Had he read into Eastern religions at all? That cutting away of dichotomies is an insight that I associate with that kind of thinking and it’s interesting if he had that insight on his own. Had he read any of that?

Need: No. The stuff he writes about the Buddha is not…it doesn’t look to me like he read the material about Buddhism. I take Buddhism as arguing for both/and but a lot of people take Buddhism as arguing for just one. Just this. I think Buddhism is saying that impossibly there is both form and emptiness at the same time. And that it isn’t possible to work it out, but you can bear or realize that, impossibly, appearing forms are what they are without any grounding and it doesn’t hurt.

pic1Illustration by Clare Johnson

Holmes: These poems feel linked to me, almost like a single poem of many stanzas. Some of the most gratifying reading I had was when I would read it for a long time and feel the perspective shift just enough; it starts to mount and become a larger aesthetic experience.

Need: He’s a suite poet. He composes suites. All of his books are set up—this one feels musical to me—but other ones are set up as picture galleries, where you’re supposed to walk through and see this image and then that image and then that image. Each poem has a setting in relation to the other ones. He thought a lot about that. And it is really gratifying. There is an intelligence about theme and variation that I’ve been moved by in my own life. I can’t imagine trying to write any longer except in that way. He recognizes that any poem is a version, and therefore what links the poems is the project of starting out. The series of poems don’t have to be about a particular argument. They’re essays, and they can be linked essays by which you don’t just tell people there is a series of infinitely repeating moves. The one freedom we have is that when we’re crossing the street, and we’re doing the street-crossing routine, we can shape through “crossing the street” in different kinds of ways. In the same way, when you’re working with “the motif” you can show an interesting aesthetic freedom by showing there are a number of different aesthetically valid ways through this space. Like when you go through a well-hung show at a museum, you feel instructed by it. It’s an experience that has informed you beyond what any one poem could do.

Holmes: There seems to be a larger ontological inquiry happening here, something beyond the Rilke poems (or perhaps a continuance of their gesture) that is uniquely yours. Are you conscious of employing the poems, the drawings and the essays toward the end of a personal aesthetic statement?

Need: Yes. I think it would be hard not to. I’m pursuing a line and Rilke is a co-conspirator. I don’t feel I’m being unfaithful to him. It is part of a larger aesthetic related to looking for beauty or care, and an argument about beauty and care in the face of other arguments about freedom or power that other people have.

Holmes: And if you just read the poems themselves, that’s one thing, but if you read the whole book there is a kind of collaboration. You mention in “The Room Next Door” that Rilke thought of the poems as sketches or “brief drawings.” Did this provide the impetus to commission the sketches? How did your collaboration with Clare Johnson come about?

Need: Right from the beginning the poems seemed like little line drawings—very careful line drawings that I saw right from the beginning. I wanted to bring that plastic quality out by having a series of images commissioned. I wanted someone who would create a set of images that weren’t illustrations of the poems; I wanted them to have their own integrity as a suite and yet somehow have a relationship to the poems, and Clare got that. She thought it was an interesting project and wanted to try her hand to it. I was grateful and Clare’s been doing other kinds of projects in this post-it note series, working in a small space, and also doing black and whites on a larger field.

When you work with somebody you’re looking for a kind of intelligence. You could, I guess, be looking for someone that had precisely your sensibility of the beautiful. I had a sense of Clare’s commitment and her effort. She had serious standards about beauty; she has graphic problems that she’s working on. The actual images might or might not be the first thing that would come out of my mind, but when you’re working collaboratively, what’s more important is that there has to be a common agreement about that workshop practice side of it. That the person is actually thinking about the work, and has a project going on in which they are thinking again and again about certain kinds of problems. She seemed to connect with the project.

One thing to add to that is that Rilke was planning to bring out another one of his French suites that would have drawings that were commissioned in exactly that kind of “Not an illustration, but alongside.” His partner who was an artist was going to do that. So I felt like this wasn’t far from what Rilke was thinking at that time anyway.

Holmes: The multimedia approach feels apt here, because the poems themselves are dialogical. One way to look at this book is as a framing of dialogues: of the rose with its surroundings, of Rilke with the rose, of you with Rilke, of Clare with Rilke, and of you with Clare. Even the way the print interacts with white space. To what extent was it a conscious structural decision to embed a series of dialogues within the book?

Need: One of my fundamental principles—and I don’t know if it’s one of Rilke’s fundamental principles, but I think we might agree—starts from this idea of “impossible doubledness.” One correlate of that for me has been the idea that things acquire resonance and open up for the reader in ways that are hard for us to talk about, like a dream that we have that somehow has an affordance for us. So I have some kind of—I don’t know if it’s metaphysics—some sort of desire in general in my work to try to create things that have the possibility of opening up these affordances for others. Right now my guiding thought has been that you do that by establishing dialogue and difference, and what happens because of that isn’t that you just keep bouncing, but that actual resonance happens. And if resonance happens then the imagination can come alive.

It’s deliberate about keeping the difference there, especially in America where there’s so much pressure all the time to make everything common, or to erase difference, or to act as if difference doesn’t exist. And I feel like, “No.” We actually deprive ourselves of some of our dignity and some of our real worth by doing that. We don’t actually become common with each other and we lose the ability to talk about our differences. Our whole economy is based on a zero-sum game. So how do you make money that’s not there? How do you make energy that’s not there? What I’m curious about is, if you’re rigorous about doing this, is it possible to create this thing-that-isn’t-there for other people? So that they actually have energy they didn’t have before, because of paying attention to the dialogical structure. I don’t know if that’s for real or not.

Holmes: I think it is. I’ve read multi-genre books before but this one really popped for me and I think it’s because it’s so well thought out and holistic.

Need: And you know that thing when people get together and they want to go a multimedia thing, so they get some musicians and they throw some images on the wall and they do a couple of other things. But nobody is actually thinking about those things as being different, the idea is that they’re just kind of letting them loose in there. I think that’s a dead end. It doesn’t produce what people would hope a multigenre or multimedia thing would do.

It was hard at times. Dave (Wofford of Horse & Buggy Press), Clare, and I have really different ideas at times and I had to make some decisions. For the image weight and the image layout, Clare’s the boss. It just doesn’t matter if I like it. In terms of finally being the person that was paying for it, there was some level at which I got to make decisions like that—some of the decisions were actually not to make decisions, which ended up sometimes being frustrating for me and for the other people too.

Holmes: When you ran into those difficulties, what was your guiding light? Was it always back in the poems or in your larger aesthetic project?

Need: My aesthetic. I keep talking. This is the kind of directorial move that is consistent with the overall project. We did talk about that and just sort of set that out intellectually at the beginning. But when it got down into it, with actual material things…it’s easy to have an idea, but it’s harder when you’re deciding “is the book going to be blue? Red? What’re your color choices?” I’m not very good at those decisions. You could show me a blue one and a beige one and a yellow one and a red one and I’d find ways to like each one. So I’m not great at that. I had to make decisions at times with what that person has generated. But I also felt that was consistent with my overall practice there. If you thought about it as a bandleader, I really did have to let this person bring this kind of music out. I couldn’t get in the way of that because they couldn’t be a part of it unless they could do what they do. I had to go with their notes.

Holmes: That’s the only way to make it strong I think.

Need: I think so. I got that from Miles Davis actually. I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis when I was working out these principles. I was listening to the Columbia session recordings.

Holmes: That’s how he put those great bands together. He was a nurturer of talent, not just the bandleader.

Need: Right. And that’s consistent. My goal is to bring out the possibility of each person’s capacity but in a structured way, not just “here is the thing, now run.”

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Holmes: Translation is perhaps often misunderstood in its creative potential. Can you say something about what happens in this dialogue between poet and translator?

Need: When people think about artists, they tend to like the idea of “out of nowhere” creation, but I don’t think that’s how creativity works. I think we’re playing along with the reading that we’re already doing. We’re already reading in the world and we’re reading the options that people are presenting to us, whether it’s music, or reading a lot of books, or looking at paintings. We have seen options. Some people have this idea, kind of a Platonic idea, that the real poem is there somewhere. I might say that the real painting is there in a way that the real poem isn’t ever there. And I feel like maybe the real song isn’t ever there. We have these different ways that we mark the song; we write down music, we make “a” record of the song. But even when we write down music there’s a gap that exists between the piece and the various performances of the piece. Even for the author of the music itself.

If we’re talking about a piece where the author sits down and writes a piece of music out and then plays it, I bet that something happens that’s not recorded in the writing down of the music. And I know as a writer, one of the things that happened for me was, in the beginning, I was more of an oral poet than a written poet; I would write and I would hear it when I wrote, so it wasn’t that I wasn’t having the performance when I was writing. When I would read it out loud, it would come alive, but I was trying to perform again that thing that I was hearing, and sometimes that meant that I would do things that we’re not that reproducible on the page. A page only has a line break. It’s hard to create a word that somehow gets suspended. Type doesn’t give you the ability to create that sense of suspension easily. But suspension can be done in music. You can create these kinds of suspended turns. So I would look at that and see there’s a suspension happening there, but how do I mark that? So from the very beginning I never was bothered by the idea that my translation of the poem wasn’t the real poem, because I’ve always felt that the poem exists in reading anyway, and I’m in a sense creating a translation of some kind, or I’m doing a reading of it that heads toward being a translation. And I have my own sense of music and a sense of the music that I see some echoes of in Rilke’s work but I never try to go beyond, or ambitiously try to get some fine move he made if it didn’t come simply in my own language. I never got hung up on those.

Holmes: Like you were saying with the Celan, “that’s a fourth language, I’m not going to be able to tackle that.”

Need: Right. So I’ll just leave it. Because I want to create a text that does something of what the original text does in some way. Or not the original, but the one that we have. Because they are all how people set them as printed texts. So to some degree I have decided to commit to printed settings.

The other things I’ve felt—and this is probably just my own romantic imagination—I really felt with Rilke that his poetry had interceded in my life; it had given me a possibility that didn’t exist before I read it, when I really read it in grad school. I sat down and it was just “Oh my God, there’s more. And there’s somebody with me.” And I was stunned by the sense of “This is somebody who knows some of the things that I experience that are so hard to talk about to other people.” He’s made a place where we are laughing across the surface of the poem together in the way that people that are chronically sick nevertheless have joy. When I did the translations I felt, “I’m being allowed into the room where I’m getting to sit down with this poet and his intelligence is still present in the poems, even though he’s dead. This isn’t just somebody who’s teaching me how to think, but is somehow making a place for me.” So you can make art that isn’t just an artifact, but actually has energy and can come to life years after you’re dead. The translations are a way of trying to do that, of trying to make settings or versions. It’s not going to work for everybody but there is some of that, “Wow, this medicine really worked for me; I hope it works for you.” It was about the pleasure of being taught by this profoundly caring intelligence whose instincts I wanted to get something from.

Holmes: Was it in part the encounter with that intelligence and the intimacy of it that made you feel the existing translations were not quite adequate?

Need: Sure. The existing French translation, it wasn’t quite…I felt that there was only one and I wanted to try my hand at it. It wasn’t that I wanted to cancel it or erase it, but I felt like I could try my hand at it and not be too influenced by all the other translations and the whole process. It was still simple enough for me to take a swing at it. (Translator A. Poulin) had made some choices that seemed less musical than the French. I thought I might have slightly better instincts at the level of music in some cases. There’s only so far the translation can go. I didn’t struggle to not use words that he used and things like that. I made decisions so that I could feel it was my own, but I didn’t try to force that either.

Since I’ve been translating the German, I’ve been trying to place the German within the larger project of me ventriloquising Rilke. At this point, I feel like I’ve developed a voice that is my voice-language in which Rilke is translated. So when I now turn to things like A Sonnet to Orpheus, or things that have been translated a lot, what I’m doing is my Sonnets to Orpheus based on the voice and practice that I’ve already established. I’m hoping that the passion I feel in the voice produces a poem that has more of that passion in English.

I really want to see if I can bring out these two unpublished German sequences that Rilke put down (before Orpheus). They haven’t been worked over that much, so they’re like Rilke exhibits that people haven’t been taken through yet. I remember a couple of years ago I was thinking, “God I wish there was just one more thing by Rilke that I’ve never read.” Then somebody brought something out that I hadn’t read and that was exciting. But I can’t be the only person who’s read Rilke enough that it would be cool to see one more film by him.

rilke baby

Holmes: Can you tell me about your work translating the Rgveda and how that informed this work?

Need: I learned translation working on the Rgveda and Buddhist texts, and early Sanskrit material. There is some connectivity there. It was one body of literature that I worked closely with, that I thought was actually still relevant, looking at the way poetry and art are working now. I don’t think our relationship to the world or language is in certain important ways that different. It’s not clear to me that we’ve solved the problem they were working on. A lot of that has to with the imagination, with understanding the relationship of the imagination to the world. I think that we have this radical capacity to amplify the world for ourselves through weaving our imagination into physical forms and the kind of amplification that occurs through doing that—I think human beings have been using and then refining a whole range of media for staging their imaginations and that it’s always been important.

Holmes: Like what you said earlier about the reaction toward poetry that is more surface… Rilke seems to be unapologetic about what he thinks poetry can do, and there’s that link to the Rgveda, or other religious scriptures, where there’s a willingness to go further with it.

Need: Yeah. I know some people feel that they can’t go there but I don’t know what else we can do. We have not solved it by just becoming secular creatures or by killing the romantic subject in ourselves. We’re just as hostage to the violence that we do each other. I think that in doing that we rob ourselves of a great deal of possibilities that we might bring to bear in our relation to each other.

I think World War II and everything since then indicated that we do tremendous violence to each other and certainly one response to that would be to want to have a huge revolution to change that, or to become deeply suspicious of any desire that you have. You can almost see that as a coherent trauma reaction if you were dealing with things on a smaller scale. But I think we would get a lot more if we really understood that it’s not just what we’ve done but that we continue to be at stake in our relationships now. And we still desperately need to finds ways to nurture, to create affordances for each other, to create impossible economy and space for each other. And we can’t do that just through strict rational means. The 20th century has pretty much proven that just getting grain someplace is not what makes culture happen or nurtures people. Not that art necessarily does it, but at least art is making the argument that it should be our goal.

—David Need & Dan Holmes

David Need is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.



Dan Holmes lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Numéro Cinq, Paste, and Digital Americana.


Dec 032014


The following selections from David Need’s Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke provide an illuminating glimpse into the ways Rilke uses the rose as motif. The poems seek to elucidate how time’s ceaseless transformations do not rectify or allay the contradictions they invoke. The living rose is “fully awake” but discreet, possessing “many pages / of detailed happiness / we will never read.” Rilke is fascinated by these irreducible relationships: the flower’s vitality belies its eventual death; its blooming won’t diminish the impenetrable density of its petals. Clare Johnson’s attending illustrations reinforce Rilke’s assertion that the rose of these poems is “a supple spoken word / framed by the text of things” and that this “framing” constitutes a relationship binding our transitory hopes to “the tender moments / in the continual departure.”

—Dan Holmes


Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation by David Need
Illustrations by Clare Johnson
Horse & Buggy Press, 2014
224 pages, $27.34



Si ta fraîcheur parfois nous étonne tant,
heureuse rose,
c’est qu’en toi-même, en dedans,
pétale contre pétale, tu te reposes.
Ensemble tout éveillé, dont le milieu
dort, pendant qu’innombrables se touchent
les tendresses de ce coeur silencieux
qui aboutissent à l’extrême bouche.



If your blooming sometimes so astonishes us,
happy rose,
it’s that, petal against petal, you rest
within yourself, inside.

Fully awake, your petals, whose surroundings
sleep, though numberless, meet
this silent heart’s tendernesses
which end in these urgent lips.



Je te vois, rose, livre entrebaîllé,
qui contient tant de pages
de bonheur détaillé
qu’on ne lira jamais. Livre-mage,
qui s’ouvre au vent et qui peut être lu
les yeux fermés…,
dont les papillons sortent confus
d’avoir eu les mêmes idées.



I see you, rose, book half-opened,
having so many pages
of detailed happiness
we will never read. Mage-Book,

which is opened by the wind and can be read,
eyes shut …
from which butterflies scatter, confused
to have had the same ideas.



Une rose seule, c’est toutes les rose
et celle-ci: l’irremplaçable,
le parfait, le souple vocable
encadré par le texte des choses.
Comment jamais dire sans elle
ce que furent nos espérances,
et les tendres intermittences
dans la partance continuelle.



A single rose, it’s every rose
and this one—the irreplaceable one,
the perfect one—a supple spoken word
framed by the text of things.

How could we ever speak without her
of what our hopes were,
and of the tender moments
in the continual departure.



Été: être pour quelques jours
le contemporain des roses;
respirer ce qui flotte autour
de leurs âmes écloses.
Faire de chacune qui se meurt
une confidente,
et survivre à cette soeur
en d’autres roses absente.



Summer: to be for a few days
the contemporary of roses;
to breath what drifts about
their blooming spirits.

To make of each who dies,
a confidant,
and to outlive this sister
among the other, wandering roses.



Tout ce qui nous émeut, tu le partages.
Mais ce qui t’arrive, nous l’ignorons.
Il faudrait être cent papillons
pour lire toutes tes pages.
Il y en d’entre vous qui sont comme des dictionnaires;
ceux qui les cueillent
ont envie de faire relier toutes ces feuilles.
Moi, j’aime les roses épistolaires.



All that we feel, you share,
yet we ignore what happens to you.
There would have to be a hundred butterflies
to read all your pages.

There are ones among you like dictionaries;
those who gather these
are tempted to bind all the pages.
Me? I like the roses which are letters.


David Need (translator) is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.


Oct 142014


Warning: I burst out giggling every time I stick my nose in the following excerpt from Chapter 2 of Han Dong’s A Tabby-cat’s Tale. It’s a perfect example of how the author uses irony to inspire laughter. As you read this excerpt, it’ll be hard to focus on anything besides the hero, an anti-social, flea-ridden, incontinent cat called Tabby, but try and pay a little attention to this Chinese family’s reaction to the cat’s quirkiness. Tabby’s eccentricities don’t diminish their love, but intensify it. It’s truly hilarious. —Melissa Armstrong

Han Dong
A Tabby-cat’s Tale
By Han Dong
Translated by Nicky Harman
Frisch and Co.
Ebook, 43 pages;  $2.99


We never found out what had happened in those two hours, but what was certain was that the cat’s temperament had changed radically, and that it had gone in a highly unusual direction. Tabby no longer wove around our legs under the table. In fact, the family rarely knew his whereabouts, or if they did, they couldn’t get at him. Everyone knew we kept a cat, but the only signs of his existence were a particular smell—though it was impossible to trace the smell to its source. The neighbours’ children were endlessly curious and searched every corner of the house. Sometimes my sister-in-law, as Tabby’s owner, put on a show of joining in, but she wasn’t in the least anxious—she knew that Tabby was unlikely to make an appearance. So as the kids ransacked the flat, even turning cupboards and drawers upside down, she smiled secretly, knowing full well that Tabby had found a safe hiding place. Even my sister-in-law was unwilling to hazard a guess as to where he was. If she knew, she might betray her fear, so it was better not to know, better to have unconditional trust in Tabby. (This gave my mother an idea: Why not hide their savings book with Tabby? No burglar would ever find them.)

Tabby, strictly speaking, belonged to my sister-in-law. It was her idea to get a cat, and she was his chief caregiver. The rest of us just did the odd bit to help out but we had no particular role. With his change of personality, Tabby became doubly incontinent, pissing and shitting all over the flat and carefully concealing the evidence. It was my sister-in-law’s duty to clean up after him; this was unpleasant enough in itself, but having to find the mess first made it even worse. As I said, Tabby was an expert at hide-and-seek and could easily tuck himself out of sight; hiding a much smaller pile of crap wasn’t a problem at all. As for a tiny puddle of pee, that was almost indiscernible. My sister-in-law had only the stink to go on. Every day she had to get my brother or me to move cupboards and bookshelves and lift the bed boards and frames. She swept out the turds, applied charcoal to get rid of the smell of cat pee, washed the soiled upholstery and bedding and hung them out to dry in the sun. The flat was never really tidy, in fact it got to be quite a mess. The furniture was piled higgledy-piggledy in the middle of the room, as if we had just moved in or were about to move out and the removal truck was waiting downstairs. It began to get us humans down, but Tabby was in his element. Our house had become a jungle, the air pungent with the odour of cats. Gradually, we too became acclimatized; the smell became attenuated and our noses less sensitive. This had the effect of making it more difficult to locate the puddles of cat pee, and we failed more often. My sister-in-law, conscious that her olfactory sense had dulled, worried constantly that she had overlooked something. She went around sniffing all day long, until she sounded as if she had chronic rhinitis.

Still, there were good times. Picture the touching scene: My sister-in-law sits at the table, Tabby in her arms, all four paws in the air, revealing his pale tummy. She’s engrossed in picking off his fleas, cracking each one between her fingernails and dunking it in a bowl of fresh water at her elbow until, after half-an-hour or so, the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.

Our cat was infested with the creatures, so his mistress had to repeat this service constantly. By this time, my sister-in-law was the only person who was allowed to touch him, and even she had raw, red scratches all over her hands from his sharp claws. She didn’t care and never went to get a rabies inoculation. My brother was horrified. Rabies can stay dormant for as much as twenty years, he told her, and might flare up at any time. ‘But Tabby’s a clean-living cat,’ retorted my sister-in-law. ‘He never goes out, so he can’t possibly have picked up rabies. If he bites us and behaves oddly, it’s because he has psychological problems.’ Tabby lay in the crook of her arm like a beautiful baby, staring at us wide-eyed, content to allow his mistress to part his belly fur this way and that. His eyes closed in blissful content and grunting issued from his throat. But appearances were deceptive: at any moment, this un-swaddled infant might leap into the air and extend his fearsome claws. Once, my sister-in-law was bent just a little too close over her task, and Tabby nearly had her eye out. As it was, her nose was badly scratched, and she was scarred for life. Her cat duties were not just never-ending, they were extremely hazardous. No wonder they demanded her unwavering attention.

My sister-in-law went to work every day, came home and spent the rest of the evening caring for Tabby. As time went by, the cooking gradually devolved on my mother, who was over sixty and in frail health. Until then, the most she had done in the kitchen was lend my sister-in-law a hand, but now she wielded the ladle over the wok and my sister-in-law didn’t lift a finger. My elderly mother shopped and cooked, served us and even did the washing-up afterwards. It was hard for her—she’d been a pampered only-child, and this was the first time in her life that she’d had to take charge of the house. At the start, my mother accepted her new responsibilities with alacrity. Her daughter-in-law constantly praised her efforts—because she had a guilty conscience—and so my brother and I had to follow suit. If my sister-in-law put her nose through the kitchen door, it was only to prepare food for Tabby. She stewed fish guts for him until the kitchen stank to high heaven and we had to hold our noses. But sometimes, the kitchen smells were delicious—that was when, on high days and holidays, she went out especially to buy fresh fish for Tabby, which she left swimming in the wash basin. These she cleaned and cooked herself, entirely for the cat. We never got so much as a taste, nor did she. She and my mother jostled for space in the kitchen, so that Tabby should get his meals on time. Sometimes the smell of Tabby’s food made our mouths water. Once, my brother and I accidentally tasted a spoonful of Tabby’s food and told my mother how good her cooking was; another time, I had a spoonful of the sweet and sour fish my mother was making and it was so horrible that I thought it was for the cat. Eventually, my mother’s confidence in her cooking plummeted, and she no longer wielded the wok ladle with the energy of a master chef.

It was not that my sister-in-law wanted to leave my mother in charge. In fact, her constant care for the cat was largely done for my mother’s benefit. If she didn’t prepare the cat’s food, then he would have had to eat a portion of our food, wouldn’t he? Most importantly, my mother was super-sensitive to bugs. In summer, a single mosquito in the flat would keep her awake. If she got bitten, she would be scratching all night. And the mosquitos found her irresistible: in fact, she was the best mosquito-repellent for everyone else. Any mosquito would make a beeline for her and leave the rest of us alone. With fleas, it was even worse. Even since Tabby’s arrival, my mother had been covered in streaks of blood from flea bites, which were indirectly caused by the cat. My sister-in-law felt so sorry that she redoubled her efforts to rid Tabby of his fleas. But she wouldn’t get rid of Tabby. Even my mother could see that her daughter-in-law treated him like her own son, and she accepted this. Both mother-in-law and daughter-in-law were highly principled women, and somehow, Tabby kept their relationship in harmonious balance.

Tabby was the pivotal point of family life, and the pivot of the pivot was the never-ending supply of fleas. One day, my sister-in-law bought him a Happy Kitty flea collar. The fleas deserted him in droves, which made him happy, but rather than disappear, they scattered to the four corners of the flat before coming together in one place—my mother’s bedding. My mother wasn’t wearing a Happy Kitty flea collar, so you can imagine the outcome. The old lady had a much harder time of it than Tabby: no flea collar and no one to spend all day picking the fleas off of her. When my sister-in-law saw the appalling devastation that my mother’s continual scratching was wreaking on her body, she had to take Tabby’s collar off. Once they had heard the news, most of the fleas returned to live on the cat, although a few remained behind, and even one bite was enough to give my mother a sleepless night. However, she was at least liberated from the torment of hundreds of fleas inflicting thousands of bites on her. The truth is that my mother learned to tolerate the flea bites somewhat, and the sight of my sister-in-law bent assiduously over Tabby’s belly made it difficult for her to complain.

After that, my brother swore to exterminate the pests. He got a can of insect repellent and directed a fierce jet at Tabby. The cat yowled and fled, not under the bed or behind the cupboard, but onto the windowsill, perhaps seeing safety in the outside world. Our flat was on the seventh floor, and luckily the windows were screened with a plastic mesh. Otherwise, Tabby would have fallen through. He dangled from the mesh, and his claws scrabbled and tore at it. Spread-eagled and silhouetted blackly against the rectangle of light, he mewed piteously. But my brother was determined to solve this problem once and for all. He emptied half the can, filling the flat with DDVP; the spray formed droplets on Tabby that dripped from his fur. His mewing grew fainter until finally he dropped, still spread-eagled, to the floor.

My brother had to adopt emergency measures to revive him. He rinsed him with bowl after bowl of clean water, finally holding him under the kitchen tap. Tabby went limp and let himself be handled. Normally, he refused to be bathed, and it took the two of them to manage it, my sister-in-law washing him while my brother gripped his back legs. This time was different: he even allowed my brother to give him two soapings and several rinses. My brother then towelled him dry and blew warm air at him with the hair dryer; he even trimmed Tabby’s front claws. My sister-in-law came home from work to see a well-groomed Tabby and my tenderly solicitous brother. This gave her a gnawing, jealous feeling, but she never got the bottom of what had happened, and my brother never told her about the insecticide. From then on, however, Tabby never trusted anyone but my sister-in-law. She was the only person he allowed close to him, yet he attacked her with renewed savagery. My sister-in-law’s arms were covered in a network of scratches, both fresh and old, and she became expert at dodging his attacks. My sister-in-law must have been suspicious about the cold Tabby caught as a result of the incident with the spray can, and his subsequent bath, perhaps connecting it with something my brother had done, but her woman’s intuition warned her not to probe too deeply, in case it led to divorce. She didn’t want that—neither did my brother—so Tabby’s bath became a taboo subject, which they both learned to avoid. My brother simply assumed an air of guilt, as if he were a man with a mistress on the side.

—Han Dong, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harmon


Oct 082014

Goran SimićGoran Simić


 “Until lions have their historians
tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”
African proverb


I got tired of victimizing myself.
Empty perfume bottles overgrow
The pile of my mistakes
And a gigantic pen with its lame heart overpowers
My simple need to record
My little self.

I got tired of punishing myself,
Of apologies because the pigment of my skin can stand
Only moonlight,
Tired of myself looking like a dog,
Howling like a wolf,
Hidden in an immigrant services file.

Banned book covers inhabited me in the form
Of paper plates in the hands of Sunday park protesters.
I turned into kitsch,
A sweet monster who no longer hides a wedding ring
Made of barbed wire.

I became ashamed because I allowed bank clerks
To tune their beggar-producing machine
To my blood pressure,
Because I let my sorrow be measured
And packed in the same colourful boxes
That remained unopened under
Last year’s Christmas tree.
It was nobody’s fault but mine,
The maple tree started drying after I engraved the name
Of my forgotten homeland.
Now I am collecting dry leaves for my pillowcase,
For my ancestors who still bribe me with ampoules of blood.
My back turned to my chest,
The basement ceiling bent my spine
Into a hunch.
I buy shoes in the children’s department
And can’t remember how to stand tall
When bullets fly,
Or the difference between soldiers and heroes.

I got tired of the whispers I was sending myself
From countries I never memorized,
From cities that taxed me for eyes too big,
From beaches where old mocking turtles
Walked over a new old man covered with sand.

In those whispers
There is no return address,
No name.
Just the sound of a roaring garbage truck in the distance,
Grinding perfume bottles like an anthem,
There, a few blocks away,
At the place where my sorrow starts.


What did I miss before I was born?
Not much it seems to me,
Nothing that didn’t repeat itself in the same shape.
The way mothers incessantly curse the funeral home apprentice
Who sits idle at the Maternity Hospital gate
Eating toast with black milk.
The way the chicken obediently goes into the coop
Dreaming of the moment when a peacock will come out
Of an eggshell in full bloom, bravely stepping
In front of the hand groping for the stupid egg.

I am talking about millions of shells who chew
Their own brain for years, counting on the day
When a little pearl will shine on the neck of a fairy-tale queen.
Before the same queen all oceans turn into mirrors.

I am talking about my small hands
That worked for years to place a heavy metal door
In the window’s place,
To peep at the world through its keyhole.
The same world I helped to shape the way I dislike
So I could puke on it whenever I want.

Before nightfall I put on heavy drapes
Because of the mad sniper who has been active
Since the war that started before I was born.
He simply shot at ordinary and content people,
At policemen disguised in a preacher’s robe,
At war veterans that manage kindergartens,
At politicians disguised in a postman’s uniform,
Hidden deep in the womb of the red cloud
Above my scared town.
He aims at street signs named for heroes
But the streets are covered by
bloodthirsty pigeons’ bodies.

He’s not me. Still, I am not suspected.

Even neighbours reported seeing me content
While listening to a lullaby of metal rain
Tap on the roof
And pretending not to know that the sound comes
From the cocoons falling from the cloud.
The same cocoons I will obediently broom
From my doorstep.


I kept secret my birth
And I used not to retell events I could express
Only with tears.
As a butterfly larva in diapers, I never managed to fly.
Instead, it crawled blindly obedient to the mirror
To became an ugly spot,
The eye that looks at itself.

My imagination was born from my simple need
To be silent instead of cry
Because silence alone has the colour I am craving
To paint myself,
Which finds no place on the hardware store’s palette.

How many times the Coast Guard stopped me from
Swimming deep down toward the bottom of the ocean.
They begged me to give up
Because there is nothing there but moist darkness
But I would always swim underwater
In search of something already promised to me
That belongs to me
Which I have never truly defined.

That something that became my goal
Was perhaps already registered
In my skin
In the form of bruises from the golden sandbars
While I was swimming deeper and deeper,
In the fishes’ bites selfishly chewing eternal darkness,
In my own failure to breathe my own breath again,
Under the mask
In my smile
After defeat I swim back up to the silent beach.

Who knows,
Maybe I was right when marrying the silence,
Because my scream became my lover
Who doesn’t see the difference between a fishing boat
And a submarine,
Who doesn’t care if I breathe black water
Or white air.


No, it wasn’t me
the one who would leave the house at dawn
dressed like a fisherman
going to the North to reconcile clever rebellious salmon
with thousands of stupid lures
and returning home with canisters full of oil in my hands.

It wasn’t me,
Who would shake out desert sand
From shoes made of polar bear fur.

I was born on the tarp in the military warehouse
And a flashlight was the very first star I saw.

Perhaps I watched in the wrong direction
And learned too late that only losers have a right
To celebrate
And that headaches are what remains for conquerors,
For fear of those who celebrate.

On my first trip from clinging to my mother’s skirt
To wearing my father’s military backpack
I was told: the safest way to go for a crocodile hunt
Is to wear crocodile-skin boots.
My pointer finger is still sweating while throwing
Celebratory fire crackers into the refugee camp,
While I sniff kerosene under the vulture’s wing
And read horror on the lips of the stewardess
Who smiles like a pregnant woman before takeoff.

But I was never the one
Who went to the North to chop down ancient trees
To carve an old pulpit.
God is my witness.
If any witness remains
At the end of the day.


So many times I moved from place to place,
That I don’t even remember my first address.

I remember the cities because of the train tickets
And continents because of the stamps in my passport.
I don’t even carry anything else in my suitcases
But city and road maps.
I don’t even get surprised anymore when the suitcase bites me
When I try to close it.

I live in the flight attendants’ fake smile
When watching suspiciously
The plastic rose in my hand.
I drink the train conductors’ politeness
When asking me for the origin of my face’s scars.
From the plastic plate I eat somebody else’s bitter bread
With its country of origin written on the bottom of each slice
That will eat me before I reach my stop.

My camera resists capturing the sunny landscapes,
My pen is dead to describe
Nameless stops and faceless people.

A pocket flashlight is my guide
When thinking of my true love, who agrees
To live in my imagination.

Behind me, blue snow falls from the sky,
On the streets that I have just passed.
In front of me hotel rooms still devour the bones of lovers
Who walked away with new dreams.

Strangers pronounce the name of the country they come from
Like they are pronouncing
The name of a terminal illness
That one dies from only in front
Of a blank TV screen.

Strangers’ voices sound like telephones that don’t ring
In new hotel rooms,
Email messages appear on the computer screen
As swallows
On the roof of the old family house.
Afterwards the same swallows turn into storks
After patiently waiting for years on the frozen chimney
And then leave
For some other roof.

Every foreigner dies in a dream with the
Old country’s anthem
Stuck in his throat like a fishbone,
Dies with wide-open eyes
Too small to chew up new landscapes,
To wake up in a cold silence
After the pillow starts smelling
Of the flag bleached by rain
And wind.

I am also one of those in search of home,
In search of the warmth of my mother’s womb.

In search of
My first address.


When you left the bar
Only your frozen gloves remained in my pocket.
I pretended nothing was left after you
Except your lipstick stamp on the glass
That morning will eat like breakfast.

Only the barman knows the reason he showed you
The exit door,
Only the waiter knows why you left him a condom
Instead of a tip,
Only I know how long I kept your gloves
In my pocket to make them soft and tasty like ice cream.

I shouldn’t drive
With your gloves already on the wheel,
I shouldn’t present you with a bracelet made of my hair,
I shouldn’t notice the moment when the bear tattooed on my chest
Bites your hand ready to stretch its golden claws.

I could guess,
Your wallet will knock on my door one day
To tell me that you were stolen
And liberate me from accusing myself
Of never giving you a chance.


When I fall in love for the first time

I promise to donate my organs
To anyone who believes that death happens
Only to those that wander from oneself to somebody else,
Like food in the market that moves
From shelf to shelf.

My brain could extend the life of some old man
Who believes
That there is a difference between the brain rotten with cancer
And the brain already infected by life.
It could be of use to some suicide beginner
To make another try,
Or to some young preacher punishing himself in a cell
Whenever imagination overpowers rules.

My liver is my cellar
In which the smell of vine lives in forbidden relationship
With a young woman ready to taste her own skin.
It may be useful to someone who never tasted the shame
In front of a Red Cross kitchen,
In a long line of those who believe that food eats
Those who didn’t prepare it by themselves.
He must be used to sorrow and doubts
That make love constantly,
Their pregnancy in the shape of tobacco smoke.
My liver might explode like a balloon
If the new owner starts baby-talking it
After yesterday’s storm comes again from the past.

That room is too small for one and too big for two.

My skin is like a map,
A battlefield where gentle fingerprints fight
With the bruises of a club.
Only I, hunter,
Can read the fear in the runaway’s roar,
Can read from my skin why I am going
To hunt
With a gigantic pen on my shoulder
And a plastic gun in my pocket.
Out of my skin I never manage to make the flag
Adapt to the hundred colours of the belt
I purchased from the retired hangman.

My skin could easily be used
As a patch for the scars on someone’s cheek
But I don’t see any woman who would press her lips to it
Without feeling that the kiss already happened
A long time ago.

My heart could easily be placed in the chest
Of some young man
Ready for rebellion
But inexperienced in loss.
Unless that lucky man quickly learns
How to compare mystical bits of the new heart,
Already blue from ink,
With the bits from an old wall clock
Grinding hours into minutes.

But who would desire that kind of heart
Already infected by love?


I embrace you so tight
That drops of ink appear on your skin.
You hug me back and watch
A drop of orange juice glide down from my chest
Making a road like a scar.

You claim that your skin is a never-ending desert
Stretched before the masters of caravans.
You comfort me
My face got the shape of a camel
Only because of your imagination.

How horrible must be the moment of defining
Something that doesn’t exist.
How wonderful it is to be protected
By the cage of words
Soaked with the religion
Of the deaf and blind.
In the homeland of
Stupid, careless question marks
That will survive the desert even without ink
And a drop of orange.

 —  Goran Simić (translated by the author and edited by Tom Simpson)


Born in 1952, Goran Simić emigrated from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Canada in 1996 under the auspices of PEN Canada. In his native Yugoslavia he was a widely published poet and writer of short stories, puppet plays, librettos for opera, and radio plays. He was also an editor and columnist for magazines and radio networks.

He has been a Senior Resident of Massey College, University of Toronto (1996). He held a Fleck Fellowship at the Banff Centre for the Arts (2000), and he was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Guelph (2006). He has also been Writer-in-Exile at the University of Alberta (2011).

Since 1996 his literary work has been translated into 15 languages and was included in several world anthologies, such as Scanning the Century (Penguin, 2000) and Banned Poetry (Index of Censorship, 1997), as well as numerous anthologies in Canada and the former Yugoslavia. He received the Hellman-Hammett/PEN USA Freedom to Write award (1994), and the People’s Award, Canada (2006), along with numerous literary prizes for his work in puppet theatres. Recently the Canadian Association of Authors named his Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman the best poetry book in Canada of 2012.

His other published volumes include Sprinting from the Graveyard (Oxford University Press, 1997), Immigrant Blues (Brick Books, 2003), and From Sarajevo with Sorrow (Biblioasis, 2005). Additional collections of his selected poems are forthcoming in the UK, Romania, Russia, and Bulgaria.


Tom Simpson

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, whose faculty senate awarded him a dissertation-year fellowship for excellence in teaching and research. In 2006 he won the American Society of Church History’s Sidney Mead Prize, for the year’s best essay based on doctoral research. He has also received Phillips Exeter Academy’s New Teacher Award (2011) and Distinguished Faculty Fund Award (2013). His previous published writings have appeared in Religion and American Culture, Church History, Perspectives on the Social Gospel, the online gallery of Bosnian painter Samir Biščević, and the Bosnian website

From 2002-2004 he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with the Bosnian writer Goran Simić on a collection of poems and essays, which they plan to publish in Bosnian and English in 2015. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire with his partner, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.


Sep 082014


The Austrian novelist, Robert Musil (1880-1942), who was trained as a mathematician, physicist, and behavioral psychologist, spent most of his career working on his magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, which, despite the thousands of pages completed, remained unfinished at his death while in exile in Switzerland. But he also wrote many essays, a few plays, a good deal of criticism, many philosophical and sociological essays, and many shorter prose pieces, including a novella and a number of longer short stories, published during his lifetime in book form and in numerous journals and newspapers, not to mention endless unpublished drafts of his novel, and for other literary, essayistic, and theatrical projects. Musil’s short prose pieces, which are a mixture of different sorts of experimental stories, of period vignettes, feuilletonistic sketches, and glosses on social and cultural issues, situate Musil within the literary, social, and philosophical concerns of his times, and show him struggling with incomparable wit and insight with problems, such as the commodification of art and culture, the sloppiness of language, the tension between individualism and conformity, and the decline of critical thinking, still very much unsolved today. These two short glosses, from the mid-twenties, which were published in 1926 and 1927 in a number of journals and newspapers, address the question of modern art, commodification, and the imprecision of metaphoric language. They are part of a collection of translations of previously untranslated Musil stories, glosses, and literary fragments I will be publishing with Contra Mundum Press in 2015.

This excerpt has been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

—Genese Grill


Speed Is Witchy!

It is always good to use words as one should, without thinking about it, that is. One can easily go on for ten sentences before a word pops up that needs to be thought about. This is doubtless a freewheeling kind of style that has about it an air of speeding traffic over long distances, and it seems that the intellectual tasks of the day can only be mastered with its assistance. But if one pays niggling attention to details, one will go flying into a hole in the language. Language no longer ambles along like it did in the days of our ancestors.

Consider for example the phrase, “head over heels”; what an important and much used phrase in a time which depends so much on tempo! How many people use this phrase in a rush without considering how many difficulties it creates for speed? For to fall head over heels toward somewhere would be to develop such a frantic acceleration that your body would seem to be wheeling over your feet, and your feet over your head; speed grabs you by the cuffs of your pants, the law of inertia shuts down in your head, and you are torn out of yourself like a rabbit out of his hide. But when was a person ever in such a mad rush? God yes, as a child, when one ran with unsteady legs. As a boy when one rode one’s bike down a steep hill. Maybe as a knight when one didn’t really know how the quest would end. At a paltry speed of ten to twenty miles per hour! If a car or a train wanted to drive head over heels they would have to creep!

Head over heels does not express a speediness then, but rather a relationship between the quickness and the danger of the conveyance or between the quickness and the excitement of extreme exertion. The streamers have to fly, the eyes have to lather, and the flanks must cramp. But then even a snail rushes along head over heels, in an utterly accelerated snail tempo, mad cap, in peril. Secondary observations are once again always the decisive ones. It is said that a small car speeds faster than a large wagon, and the more worn down the rails are, the faster a train speeds. Even romping is a matter of habituation. We have neighbors who think it means carefully gliding along through life as if on waxed floors.

One looks around in language for more solid expressions. How would it sound, for example, if one said: “He stuck the dagger in her heart head over heels?” Even the most daring novelist wouldn’t bring that over his quill. He doesn’t know why. But he makes the dagger thrust like lightning. Quick like a thought would not quite be the correct speed for it. But a lover is with his beloved as quick as a thought and never suddenly like lightning. These are mysteries.

A general always charges in forced marches. Someone who has finally been found falls into your arms, but runs to greet you. A general director storms around; his office employee, on the other hand, enters breathless; the speed of movement has, for each of them, the opposite effect on their breath. Perhaps it also should be mentioned that one always comes flying, but is gone in a flash.

One can see that these are difficult problems. But the worst of it is that modern life is filled with new speeds for which we have no expressions. Remarkably, speeds are described using the most conservative expressions that exist. Despite the train, the airplane, revolutions per minute, slow motion, the outermost limitation of speed expressions is the same today as it was in the Stone Age; nothing in language has gotten any faster than a thought or lightning or any slower than a snail. That is a devilish situation for a time period that has no time and that believes itself called to give the world a new speediness; the apples of quickness are dangling in front of us, but we cannot seem to open our mouths.

But maybe the future will be totally different. Classically experienced speeds still do exist today, but only in places where one would least expect them, like for farmers in the country. There lightning still flies through the air, the passing car blasts through the chickens, and there are paths where one can fall on one’s nose for rushing. In the city, the only speed one still senses is that of the connection that has to be made, the haste of disembarking and the uncertainty about getting somewhere at the right time. Without the blessing of neurasthenia we would have already lost this kind of speed too, since, in the worst case scenario, the person in a hurry, instead of wheezing and perspiring vapors, relinquishes a buck fifty for a car that will do this for him. And the higher one rises in the realms of power, the quieter it gets. A turbine factory with fifty thousand volts of horse power hums almost silently, and the most monstrous speeds of technology are still only a gentle rocking. Life becomes more prosaic and practical the larger it gets. A boxing match between two masters makes a lot less noise than a street fight between two laymen, and an explosion is not as dramatic as a knifing. The great new intensities have something that our feelings cannot grasp, like rays of light for which an eye does not yet exist. But it won’t be very long before we say relaxing-train instead of express and only use the phrase head over heels when we want to describe or depict something like the evening stillness, when far and wide nothing stirs, and the rare quiet rushes over us like an ocean.



Don’t waste too much time on art! Find yourself without further ado on the pinnacle of expertise! All you need is two rules.

Always declare that a picture that does not please you or that you do not understand is old-fashioned. Don’t include anything that will let on whether you have taken it to be second or twentieth century, a watercolor or a woodcut. For one can argue about those things.

Secondly, maintain, if people ask you for the reasons for this judgment, that the painting style of the future is Intensivism. And if they ask you what this is, refuse to answer and say, that’s self-explanatory.

This is, after all, how it is always done. This is how Impressionism did it and Expressionism. I will not tell you, of course, what these two words mean; happily, that no longer concerns you. And if I tell you a bit more about Intensivism, it is not with the intention of giving you an idea of it—because, if the adherents of a movement had a clear conception of it that would paralyze their momentum —, but so that you can get a feeling about how this coming art will become the nerves, the will, and the vitality of painting; stick to this resolution, forget everything else.

In the old days people painted larger pictures than today. That was because the living areas were larger. You see how simple the rules of art are.

When we lived in castles, we covered whole walls with a single picture. Later, when we lived in a house, the pictures were 5 x 6 ½ feet at their largest. Today even massive people can only afford apartments with a few rooms, rooms only half as high as they were before, and the pictures correspondingly have a format of only 3 ¼ feet; and if, as is to be expected, the building activity in Europe stagnates for much longer, the pictures will get even smaller.

But they have not become correspondingly less expensive. From this follows that the ground and surface of the picture has gotten more expensive, the ground rent of the canvas per square inches has become larger and the same spiritual profit requires an intensivist economizing. That is the root of Intensivism.

Secondly, it demands psychic energy. Look at a landscape, and you will usually find a third, if not a half of the picture covered with air or water. Such pictures are more or less fallow land. It cannot be contested that a quarter inch of painted blue or an explanatory note are quite sufficient to let us know whether sky or water was meant; every person knows what they look like, there is nothing new about it to depict, it is just a matter of habitual waste of going through the motions. Naturally, you discover the same thing when you look at a portrait. The painter does not fill the whole picture with it, but spares himself with a background, which fills at least half of it.

I could, for example, paint you two times, or you and then after you your rival while you step on his neck, the great day when all paper securities skyrocketed, or the black day when everything collapsed. Don’t be afraid of such demands; all truly original epochs of art came about quite naturally. Consider that one can paint many pictures inside each other; but I won’t jump ahead, this art is already developing on its own. Just keep a firm hold on the wish that painting will soon turn to race horses, hunting scenes, automobiles, airplanes, and whatever you find truly beautiful, and tentatively demand that we put an end to all these underutilized spiritual surfaces.

Intensivistic life in the smallest portion of a picture, nervous surfaces, introduction of the victorious energy of modern life into the frame of the picture: that is Intensivismus! If you see something that already seems to tend toward it, then say nothing more than: but is that ever intense! If this is too hard for you, then bring your wife along, she will get it right.


—Robert Musil, Translated by Genese Grill

These short essays have been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Thought Flights, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

All original texts taken from Die Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition): Annotated Digital Edition of the Collected Works, Letters and Literary and Biographical Remains, with Transcriptions and Facsimiles of All Manuscripts. Ed. Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann, and Karl Corino. Robert Musil-Institut, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Austria, 2009.

Intensivism. “Intensismus”. Berliner Tageblatt (1926), Der Tag (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1978), pp. 681-683, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte Kleine Prosa.

Speed is Witchy! “Geschwindigkeit ist eine Hexerei”. Vossische Zeitung (5.28.1927), Prager Presse (7.6.1927), Magdeburgische Zeitung (7.29.1927), Der Tag (9.20.1927), Vierzehn Federn (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1957), pp. 542-544, Frisé (1978), pp. 683-685, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte: Kleine Prosa.


Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, German scholar, and translator living in Burlington, Vermont. Her first book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), explores the aesthetic-ethical imperative of word and world-making in Musil’s metaphoric theory and practice and celebrates the extra-temporal moment of Musil’s “Other Condition” as a transformative aesthetic and mystical experience informing a utopian conduct of life.

Aug 042014


La Grande was Juan José Saer’s final novel, published not long after the Argentinian author’s death in 2005.  Recently translated by Steve Dolph and published by Open Letter Books, La Grande follows Nula Anoch, Willi Gutiérrez and a host of other characters over the course of a single week. Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s long and tortured history, the characters contend with memory, loss, love, betrayal and hope in the days leading up to a party at the Gutiérrez compound. Part mystery, part  philosophy, part answer to the question, What is the novel? Saer’s masterwork is a wonderful example of why the novel remains relevant and very much alive. Saer reminds you of John Fowles, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, all rolled together into a South American exile with a Paris address.

In this excerpt. Nula (five years before the major events of the novel) has been swept up in a strange, sordid relationship with a married couple, Lucía and Riera. For months, LucÍa fondles Nula on the couch with her husband’s permission, but she refuses to bring him to orgasm or have intercourse with him. Still, Nula is mesmerized, and progressively becomes a puppet to this couple, until, in a heart-cringing scene, Lucía and Riera have sex on the bed while Nula watches television on the floor.

Saer’s ability to precisely render a scene, coupled with his unflinching gaze into the heart of human desire, offers a tense, gripping and unforgettable view into the mystery of existence.  We may not understand it all, but we will never forget it.

—Richard Farrell



After that October night, for several months, until the following fall, they were almost always together. Lucía didn’t work, which meant she had lots of free time, but Riera went to the office early, and later, during his lunch hour, and in the evenings, he made house calls; Nula worked at the law school kiosk several times a week, and when he stayed home he pretended to prepare for his philosophy exams in November and December, but the thought of returning to Rosario, of leaving the city and Lucía, and Riera too, even for a single day, seemed intolerable: it would have been like stepping out of a magical world, a novel and seductive place, not exempt from sordidness and cruelty, to return to the uncertain, grayish days, with their perpetual seesaw between doubt and serenity, where he’d been treading water, resigned, since his childhood. He wanted to be Lucía’s lover, but he was barely her friend, her confidant, and sometimes he even reached the status of lap dog. Even though it would’ve been enough for him to know her, to sit calmly and silently at her side, she allowed him certain gratifications: every so often she let him touch her, kiss her, put his hand down her brassiere, and even suck on her breasts, and two or three times she’d accepted, submissively, when he guided her hand to his open fly, squeezing his penis in that strange way, squeezing and releasing, but once when he’d put his own hand over hers, forcing her to rub until he finished, she’d jumped up, rearranging her clothes, indignant and flustered, protesting, Oh no, not that, definitely not that! And she’d practically run to the bathroom and the bedroom to clean up and change. But despite that, when she returned she seemed content, with an abstracted, placid smile. After being with them a few times, Nula realized that Lucía and Riera were joined by a feeling, or whatever it was, that wasn’t exactly love, in the altruistic sense of the word at least, but actually something more turbulent that combined with a sort of voluptuous interdependence in which their differences generated a sarcasm more mocking than violent and their affinities a blind, impulsive, almost animal fusion. It was strange to see how the most insulting nonsense from one, verbal or otherwise, first produced indignation and then complicit laughter in the other. Nula felt momentarily excluded in those situations, but they, together or alone, always rushed to recover him. There was always the perpetual enigma: were they manipulating him, were they laughing at him, were they using him for some incomprehensible ends? Or did they really appreciate him and acted like that with everyone? Even now, lying face down on the mat, his chin resting on the back of his superimposed hands, feeling the sweat run down his face and back, even at this very moment, when they’ve reappeared, unexpectedly, into his life, he still doesn’t know. The fact that he’d been with Lucía two days before, finally possessing what five years before he’d sought in vain, and then the coincidence that Riera had called to announce his arrival from Bahía Blanca, restarts the mechanism of the past, and though he knows that he’ll never be trapped by them again, a distant, even vaguely ironic curiosity suggests that he should be alert in the days ahead. With his eyes closed, his face sweaty, pressed against the back of his hand, Nula laughs, shivering expectantly, and he realizes that his affection for them persists, but that its charge has been reversed, that it doesn’t have the same painful dependency of the first period, which had lasted a while after he voluntarily decided to stop seeing them, and has now taken on a paternalistic forbearance, a sympathy without a trace of possessiveness, governed by a completely atheoretical and in fact sporting inclination, to anticipate their curious reactions, for pure entertainment, without inverting any sentiment in the issue. This attitude provokes in him an excessive impatience to see them again.

Lucía was rich, but Riera, on the other hand, had come from a family of petty merchants in Bahía Blanca, and he always said that because petty merchants and the rich had more or less the same things weighing on their conscience, that it was only a difference of proportion, he and Lucía had been made for each other from the start. Lucía always complained that, because she was expected to marry rich, she hadn’t been allowed to pursue secondary studies. She’d had a rancher boyfriend, but she’d left him for Riera. Her mother disapproved of the relationship (Lucía’s father had died long before), but her own sentimental complications didn’t allow her the occasion to worry about Lucía’s future; Leonor, for her part, had been born rich, and because she’d married a rich man from whom she’d inherited a second fortune, she knew instinctively, and from personal experience, that money made intelligence superfluous. But Lucía’s ignorance tormented her: when Nula and Riera discussed science and philosophy (each loathed the other’s specialty), Lucía’s mood would sour, and Riera, mercifully, would change the subject. The sexual disarray of Riera’s life contrasted with his professional diligence. When he finished at the office he went on house calls, and he also worked with a group of doctors who treated people from the shantytowns and the countryside free of charge; they distributed medicine, and, in the worse cases, sent them to the hospital. He also saw the novitiates of a semi-clandestine brothel and though the owner paid him he gave the girls condoms and free samples that pharmaceutical salesmen had left with him. One Saturday afternoon, Nula was in Riera’s car with him when suddenly he stopped, opened the door, and ran out onto the sidewalk, leaving the car running; they were downtown, and because it was Saturday, it was crowded on the street. The row of cars and buses behind Riera started to honk, but Riera didn’t seem to hear a thing. Nula got out and saw that a boy who was about ten, a shoe shine who always worked on that corner, was lying on the ground, convulsing and drooling. Riera bent over him, and with two or three quick operations, did something to his jaw and laid him on his side, trying to contain his seizures. It was an epileptic fit. The boy calmed down gradually—the scene lasted two or three minutes—and Riera told Nula to open the rear door of the car and then to pick up the shine box, while he himself picked up the boy, laid him down on his side on the back seat, set the shine box on the floor of the car, closed the door, and sat down behind the steering wheel. He told Nula to kneel on the front seat and watch the boy in case the seizures started again. The boy was pale but calm, and seemed lost and drowsy. Riera took him to the hospital, to the neurological office, and didn’t move until he was sure he had a bed and a specialist to examine him. Nula had gone to his office to meet him for an afternoon swim at the beach in Rincón (Lucía had gone to Paraná to see her mother), but at two thirty they were still at the hospital, so when they left, shortly after three, they ate a slice of pizza standing up at a pizzeria across from the hospital, and Riera, although he didn’t usually work on Saturday, decided not to go to the beach after all, and leaving him at the entrance to La India’s, went back home.

In late November, Nula had a fight with La India because he’d decided not to take his philosophy exams in December and push them back to March, under the pretext that he still wasn’t prepared. You’re one of those people who thinks that the mayonnaise gets made whether you beat the eggs or not! La India had exploded; she’d noticed that something strange had been going on with him since September, though she didn’t mind that he was staying in the city, working at the kiosk and living at home. Ever since their father had left, and especially after he was killed, her sons’ emotional life worried her, and she preferred to always have them on hand, but it was difficult (with Chade, who was more reserved, almost impossible) to talk about things in a clear and direct way. The offhand and somewhat aggressive talks she had with Nula contributed more to hiding the real problems than to revealing them clearly. Nula listened with a serious expression to La India’s remonstrations, but every free moment he had he spent with his new friends. Sometimes he was alone with Lucía at their house, or they went out walking, and other times he met up with Riera for a beer and they’d talk a while, but what he preferred was for the three of them to be together, because he got the feeling that Lucía and Riera really appreciated him and did everything they could to make him feel welcome. But with them there was always something false that came through despite the fact that everything they did seemed so natural, so much so that Nula ended up thinking that they must have been unaware of it. Riera would sometimes take him to Cristina’s—he remembers a week in December when her son was in Córdoba, at his grandparents’ house—and the thing that seemed unconscious with Lucía became obvious, even brutal, when they were with her. Riera’s political theories were as expedient as they come: the problem with society wasn’t the poor but rather the rich families that controlled the banks, the military, the seats of political power, the media, the factories, the press, and so on. Because they were very few, the simplest solution was to kill them all, but because this was impossible, they had to start by corrupting their women, and he’d taken on the task of corrupting the wives of the bourgeoisie in order to precipitate social change. And he always followed that brief discourse with that terse, somewhat degenerate laugh that no one, male or female—and he knew it—was capable of resisting. Cristina wasn’t particularly rich: if her family did have money, it was certainly less than Calcagno’s fortune, of which Riera never touched a dime, referring to it often with contempt and even disgust. Riera subjugated her, and she, Cristina, accepted everything he gave her. Sometimes, in Nula’s presence, he even ordered her around, and one night even suggested she should sleep with him, something she accepted immediately, but Nula, although he was very excited, didn’t dare do it and went home. He heard them laughing as he went out to the street, and then, after taking a few steps along the sidewalk, he stopped and stood for a couple of minutes, thinking about going back, but he changed his mind and went home, past Lucía’s house, which was dark and silent, and since it was almost midnight he didn’t want to ring the bell, so he just went to sleep.

The summer passed in this way; March, and the exams, were approaching. Nula studied, and because the law school shut down from early December to early March, the kiosk closed too. The bookstore, meanwhile, closed in January, for the judicial holiday, and reopened in February, half days only. Nula worked there twice a week, Thursdays and Fridays, which allowed La India to spend long weekends in the country or at the shore. Riera and Lucía didn’t leave the city all summer, and all that time Nula was trapped in the aura that they secreted, trying to prove to himself that he was capable of controlling his desire, his suffering, and even his lust. Their company became a kind of addiction: wherever they were was the center of the world, solid and brilliant; everything else was soft, shapeless, and gray. He knew he wasn’t getting any farther with Lucía, but while they continued to make him feel like he existed as something other than the theater of their wretched war—a feeling he often had—he’d be able to tolerate their machinations. One night in early March, having already decided to go to Rosario for his exams, he decided never to see them again. The heat was dreadful, so they ate in the courtyard, but suddenly, in the middle of their conversation, a storm drove them inside. After the lightning and thunder of a dense and turbulent storm had passed, a rain settled in that would surely last till the morning. Lucía proposed that they watch a movie she’d rented, a detective story that had made a big splash the previous winter, but which she hadn’t been able to see in the theater. They moved to the bedroom, with fruit and cold water, and sat down together at the foot of the bed to watch the movie. After a while, Lucía said she preferred to lie in bed to be more comfortable, and five minutes later, without saying a word, Riera followed her. Nula felt his heart beating harder and harder in his chest. His throat dried, and he opened his mouth to breathe, trying to be silent, because it felt like he was drowning. At first he thought these were the symptoms of desire, but immediately he realized they were of pain, and that, in fact, he wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart. The unnamable, the inconceivable, was happening. Because they’d turned on a bedside lamp so as to not watch the movie in the dark, the room had a warm glow, which from time to time brightened even more when the film passed from a dark image to a clear one, and which meant that everything happening was perfectly visible. But Nula didn’t want to turn around. Suddenly he heard Lucía’s voice behind him saying, Poor thing, we left him alone, and then, directly to him, Are you alright there, on the floor? with a distant, absent voice, as if she were falling asleep. But Nula was sure that she wasn’t falling asleep—just the opposite; their barely audible voices, their movements, their sounds, signaled not only that they weren’t sleeping, but that in fact they were wide awake, though in a somewhat different state of consciousness, which may have even pushed them radically farther from consciousness than a dream, believing they liberated in a whirlwind of sensation that defined them most intimately, when in fact they had been possessed and were now controlled by what was most external to them. Up till that moment, Nula had thought that the strange laughter that connected them precluded intercourse, that they left that extenuating labor for others—an illusion that, later, when he thought it over, seemed at once hilarious and pathetic. For several minutes, he was frozen, rigid, leaning against the edge of the bed, trying to ignore their whispers, their laughter, their moaning, the squeaking and creaking of the bed, the rustle of the sheets, but when Lucía finally started to emit a guttural noise, increasing in intensity, he crawled out on all fours, like a cat, trying not to make a sound, all the way to the hallway, where he stood up and walked out, practically running, through the darkened house that, over the last few months, he’d come to know by heart. Except for the morning when he’d seen them from a taxi, in Rosario, he never saw either of them again, until about a month back, in March, five years after that night, when he saw Lucía come out of the swimming pool in a green swimsuit, and when Gutiérrez, looking at him, had said, It’s not what you think. She’s my daughter. After the March exams, Nula stayed in Rosario under the pretext that classes were starting soon and he didn’t want to get behind that year, and when he came to visit La India on the weekends he almost never left the apartment, and if he did he never took the walk around the block; he always walked straight to the city center. Later, from Cristina, who he bumped into that winter, with her husband, he learned that Lucía and Riera had moved to Bahía Blanca. That October he met Diana, and he forgot about them completely; with Diana everything seemed easy and transparent, which was why, when she got pregnant and she told him she was willing to get an abortion he responded that it would be better if they got married. With his Greek philosophy professor he’d studied Problem XXX.1, attributed to Aristotle, or to Theophrastus, where the affinity between wine, sex, poetry, and philosophy—common ground of the melancholics—was discussed, and because he had to find work and just then an introductory seminar in enology was being offered at the Hotel Iguazú, and which created the possibility of finding a job if he did well, he enrolled with a loan from La India, and, soon after, with another brief course in Mendoza, he was offered a job with Amigos del Vino, which meant that the next year, when Yussef was born, he had enough to provide for him, and by the time Inés was born he was already one of the top salesmen for Amigos del Vino, at least the only one who Américo allowed to bend the rules. And now he’s lying on the mat, face down, tanning in the sun, feeling the sweat drip down the corners of his face pressed against the back of his hands superimposed on the edge of the mat.

 —Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph

Juan José Saer (1937–2005), born in Santa Fé, Argentina, was the leading Argentinian writer of the post-Borges generation. In 1968, he moved to Paris and taught literature at the University of Rennes. The author of numerous novels and short-story collections (including The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, Scars, The One Before, and The Clouds, all published by or forthcoming from Open Letter Books), Saer was awarded Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize in 1987 for The Event.


Jul 312014

Nela Rio


Rio_Laberinto_vertical portada

The Argentinian-born poet Nela Rio’s writing is imbued with nostalgia and longing. She composes poems about everything from women victims of imprisonment and torture to the tango. She has even published a collection of erotic poetry. In El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth (translated by Sophie M. Lavoie and Hugh HazeltonBroken Jaw Press, 2014), Rio invents a woman-centered creation story, an original myth meant to disrupt the Christian biblical tradition. Though her exquisitely precise Spanish makes Rio’s work difficult to translate, many of of her poems have appeared in bilingual collections, from Spanish to both French and English. Nela Rio has lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick, for the past 45 years. She is the most prolific poet of the ten Latino-Canadian writers described by Hugh Hazelton in his book Latinocanadá: A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada. Broken Jaw Press has now published ten of her collections of poetry and short stories. El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth will be published in the Spring of 2014.

—Sophie M. Lavoie


Las Mistícas 

… también había una que decía
de aquellas mujeres
que amaron a dios con amor de mujer
y lloraron la ausencia de la carne
en sus rezos que ardían de fervor.

Veneraron la parte de la Unidad con sabor a hombre
y se deleitaban en sus imágenes
saboreando los colores rozándolos con la lengua.
Ellas guardaban bajo amplios mantos
tejidos con los colores de los corales
los pezones erguidos de placer
en las noches en que en los corredores encantados
la magia del amor les traía vahídos de aliento sagrado.
Y no se contentaban con la tierra que recibía los pasos,
ni con el aire que recogía los murmullos,
sino que besaban con labios temblorosos
la plegaria
para que ascendiera a los otros.

Las castigaron por mala compañía,
por aceptar la naturaleza de sus pensamientos,
y les llovieron lluvias
hasta ahogarlas de amor en las noches tristes.

Preguntaron si estaba mal amar al hombre
diciéndoles “el amor es sagrado”
y también dijeron “así es”.
Las mujeres volvieron y amaron en su corazón
y dejaron que la carne se deleitara
en exquisitas oraciones.


The Mystics

… there was also one who said
that those women
loved god with a woman’s love
and mourned the absence of the flesh
in their prayers that burned with fervour.

They venerated the part of Unity that tasted of man
and delighted in its images
savouring the colours, running their tongues over them.
They kept their nipples, erect with pleasure,
under flowing blankets woven in shades of coral
on nights when, in the enchanted corridors,
the magic of love dizzied them with sacred inspiration.
And unsatisfied with the earth that felt their steps
and the air which collected murmurs,
they kissed the prayer
with trembling lips
so it would ascend to others.

They were punished for being bad company,
for accepting the nature of their thoughts,
and rains fell upon them
drowning them with love on sad nights.

They asked if it was wrong to love man
saying “love is sacred”
as well as “that’s the way it is.”
The women returned and loved with their hearts,
letting the flesh delight
in exquisite prayers.



Algunos, subiéndose a montañas
o descendiendo al fondo del océano
o contemplando el cielo
o meditando sobre la tierra
comenzaron a creer que algunas cosas
eran más hermosas que otras y las alabaron,
o que eran más sabias que otras y las alabaron,
o que eran más poderosas que otras y las alabaron.

Y comenzaron a haber dioses diversos
y rivalidades
y para superarse unos a otros
crearon normas y modos y leyes.

Y aún más, inventaron castigos,
y se habló de obediencia y desobediencia
y de resbaladizos planos de lomos intranquilos
donde moraban la condena o el invencible goce.

Y ya no hubo entendimiento entre la gente
porque hablaban idiomas distintos
y amaban las mismas cosas pero con exclusividad.

Así la Unidad quedó tamizada entre los siglos
y el amor tuvo que disfrazarse de muchas cosas
para sobrevivir.



Some people, climbing mountains
or descending to the depths of the ocean
or contemplating the sky
or meditating on the earth,
began to think that some things
were more beautiful than others and praised them,
or were more learned than others and praised them,
or were more powerful than others and praised them.

And there began to be many gods
and rivalries
and to outdo one another
they created norms and modes and laws.

And they went even further, inventing punishments,
and spoke of obedience and disobedience
and of slippery planes of restless backs,
a land of condemnation or invincible pleasure.

And there was no longer understanding among people
for they spoke different languages
and loved the same things, but exclusively.

Unity was then filtered through the centuries
and love had to disguise itself as many things
to survive.


Sol de Cartón 

Dicen que algunos de los hombres
se cegaron porque miraron la luz
creyendo que se irradiaba de ellos mismos.

El mayor secreto que guardaron
en sus pupilas vacías fue
que se tuvieron por gran señor
y fueron adúlteros con gran diligencia
y abusadores sin discriminación.
Respetaron su sabiduría y se sintieron sagaces
y fabricaron la gran diferencia.
Le dieron a la mujer el lugar
que correspondía
en su cosmogonía
y se entretenían limpiándose los traseros
cuando hacían justicia o predicaban.

Crearon niveles para vasallos
y con grandes sentimientos celebraban
que todo estaba por debajo de ellos
y lo guardaban con vigilancia.

Así la piel se les fue endureciendo
y el corazón se les achicó
y se les hizo tan remoto
que lo colgaron de una rama filuda
y lo escuchaban latir muy de vez en cuando.


Cardboard Sun

They say some men went blind
from looking at the light
thinking it came from themselves.

The greatest secret they kept
in their vacant pupils was
that they thought themselves great lords,
and were skilful adulterers
and indiscriminate abusers.
They respected their own wisdom and felt sagacious
and contrived the great difference.
They gave woman the place
that fell to her
in their cosmogony
and kept busy covering each other’s ass
while they carried out justice or preached.

They created ranks for vassals
and celebrated with great pomp
that everything was now beneath them
and kept close guard over all.

Thus their skin became thicker
and their hearts grew smaller
and became so remote
that they hung them from sharp branches
and only occasionally listened to their beat.



Te negaban la cima
donde se propaga la raíz del fuego, mujer,
tu boca abierta, clandestinamente sellada
por la rosa violada del idioma,
EEEEEEsufría la cópula con la desnudez del círculo,
EEEEEEramalazos de frío entubando calles.
Derribaban tu voz de firmamento de alas
EEEEEEescapando de pupilas transparentes:
pero ahora sabes que el idioma también puede disfrazar palabras,
obligarte a la mudez.

Por eso transformas la montaña con tu sed de ruptura,
te eriges como la fuente que proclama
la copiosa vertiente del acorde.
Penetrando el vuelo de la noche
enroscas tu voluntad al centro de la vida.

Tu pasión coral exige conciencia de destino,
resonancia del silencio.

Con el caprichoso alfabeto fecundizas, mujer,
la vocación de abrazo que tiene la palabra.



They denied you the summit
where the root of fire spreads, woman,
your open mouth, clandestinely sealed
by the raped rose of language,
EEEEEEsuffered copulation with the circle’s nakedness,
EEEEEEgusts of cold channelled by streets.
They cut down your voice of winged firmament
EEEEEEspringing from transparent pupils:
but now you know that language can also disguise words
and force you to be mute.

That’s why you transform the mountain
with your thirst for breaking away,
establishing yourself as the fountain proclaiming
the abundant slope of harmony.
Penetrating the night’s flight,
you curl up your will in the centre of life.

Your coral-coloured passion demands awareness of destiny,
resonance of silence.

Woman, with your capricious alphabet you fertilize
the word’s vocation to embrace.

—Nela Rio; Translated by Sophie M. Lavoie & Hugh Hazelton

sophie lavoie prince rupert cropped

Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Études Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.


Hugh Hazelton reading

Hugh Hazelton is a writer, translator, and retired professor from Concordia University who has run The Banff Centre’s International Literary Translation Centre programme for years. Hazelton is author of a number of translations and was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Literary Translation in 2006 for his English translation of Joel DesRosiers’s Vétiver. He is the author of Latinocanadá, A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada. El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth is Hazelton’s first collaborative translation.


Jun 032014
jose_luis_sampedro bw

José Luis Sampedro © José Aymá via Komunikis

La Vieja Sirena (The Old Mermaid) is a novel by José Luis Sampedro first published in Spanish in 1990. It is the second title in Sampedro’s trilogy Los círculos de tiempo (Circles of Time) which also includes Octubre, Octubre (October, October) (1981) and Real Sitio (Seat of Power) (1993).

As the novel’s epigraph from William Blake states: Eternity is in love with the productions of time. So is Sampedro, whose colorful, skillfully layered drama set in ancient Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century A.D., follows three principal characters: the mysterious and exquisitely beautiful slave Irenia; a power-hungry businessman named Ahram; and Krito, a philosopher employed by Ahram, who experiences the classic blessing and curse of Tiresias as he alternately experiences life as both a man and a woman. The story which then unfolds is one of the complex attractions between these three characters, interpolated with the Irenia’s memories from her life before Alexandria.

The novel’s opening pages present a compelling variety of voices and perspectives: the narrator setting the scene in the ancient Alexandrian marketplace with its delightful cornucopia of wares, and describing the formal transaction between the haughty Amoptis, scribe and son-in-law to Ahram, and the cringing slave dealer who sells him Irenia. Then Amoptis’s cold, selfish, scheming thoughts, governed primarily by ambition and fear. In the final third of the selection, we see life through the eyes of Irenia herself, and how, in this ancient, hierarchical world, her lovely internal monologue introduces the cipher of love as a response to royal pomp and power’s brutal indifference.

One work that The Old Mermaid especially recalls is Flaubert’s great historical fantasia Salammbô (set in ancient Carthage). Sampedro’s novel works a tangible magic with its ability to transport the modern reader to a time and place usually depicted on the plane of relics, tombs, silent hieroglyphics; instead we experience a drama fraught with personal anxiety and wonder at the teeming variety of life and its astonishing experiences.

—Brendan Riley



Part I. The Slave (257 A.D.)

Eternity is in love with the productions of Time
William Blake

Chapter 1. The Land of the Gods

During the warm morning of the Egyptian spring, the summer already close at hand, the market of the third days in Canopus is a continuous vibration of light, color, and voices. The air is riddled with a heady mix of intensely pungent smells and the cries of the merchants who hawk their wares while seated on mats of woven papyrus. Make way! Make way! come the constant shouts of those trying to move through the throng, more densely crowded today because many farmers have harvested their crops and are enjoying the free time imposed by the annual flood which will soon be announced from the great southern Nilometer on Elephantine Island. Some seek care at the hands of the barber surgeon, some pass the time playing the serpent game, while others stop and visit the quack doctor with his magical herbs for cases of love or sickness. Because they are happy, they also permit themselves the luxury of buying barley water from the water vendor who advertises the drink with the jingling of his bells. At last, the plague of the tax assessors has left their fields, the scribes who monitored their reaping like eager crows, estimating first hand the taxes payable on demand for the ripe grain.

Towards midday, farmers and merchants go about packing up their stalls and stands. The smells –sweet or pungent, fermented or aromatic– intensify as the goods and produce are moved about: fava beans, lentils, smoked delta fish, meats and viscera, small sycamore figs alongside the very juiciest figs from true fig trees, dates, pistachios, snails, wild honey gathered in the Nubian oases, sesame, garlic, and so many more, inedible, objects: goatskins, flax, hides, tools, firewood, coal, farming implements, sandals and sun hats woven from papyrus. The plaza empties out, but on the adjacent streets and alleys small shops with more select merchandise remain open: silks and transparent linens suitable for pleating, goldsmiths and other artisans of fine metals, silver and lapis lazuli from the Sinai, imported amber and cosmetics, amulets, perfumes, wigs for men or women, and belts in the latest style. Coming down along one of these streets, the one that descends from the hill crowned by the exalted temple of Serapis, is a rider mounted on an ass whose height and lustrous coat reflect the quality of his personage: a mature man with a clear complexion, small shrewd eyes, and slender lips. From time to time, he checks the correct position of his black wig. One slave opens the way for his mount and another walks at his side, carrying his lord’s staff and sandals; three porters follow behind with bundles of goods acquired in the market.

The rider’s smile indicates pleasant thoughts. Certainly, the words heard in the temple could not have been more promising, dispelling his fears that the new Father of the Mysteries might not grant him the same protection as his recently deceased predecessor. The priestly community thinks in the long term and has not altered its expected plans in defense of the divine interests; nor has it forgotten the services rendered by the rider ever since he was a young scribe in the temple.

“Be patient, my son” the Father has said, “time labors for Heaven. The sacrilegious plundering of the lands of Tanuris, perpetrated by the emperor Caracalla forty-two years ago, will be corrected with your help. Serapis will recover that property and you will no longer be solely the majordomo of your impious patron, but the administrator for life of that estate in the name of the temple.” The rider will command in Tanuris. He will eventually build for himself, on the hilltop overlooking the canal, a tomb with a beautiful sarcophagus, one worthy of a scribe born of the priestly caste, where he will live on in the world of Osiris. His mind delights in contemplating the means necessary for hastening the recovery process, and he does not omit the possibilities of his daughter Yazila who, though barely ten years old, already promises to become a maiden of highly desirable charms. If he manages to get the young master to notice her…!

Meanwhile the slave guide has brought the retinue out of the market district, leading it toward the banks of the Alexandria canal, an area of concentration for the delightful activities that have made Canopus one of the most luxurious spas and pleasure centers in all Egypt. From the small riverside pavilions and pleasure houses and from the colorfully decorated party ships comes the ringing of cymbals, the rhythm of hand drums, and the melody of cithers and flutes. Some barges transport tourists from Alexandria but the majority belong to rich financiers and high society families whose names appear in the street satires or in the erotic epigrams scrawled by night upon certain walls in the capital.

As one additional public service this quarter sports one of the best slave markets, specializing in youths of both sexes trainable for pleasure. The master rises hastily from his shady seat on the porch as he recognizes a regular buyer: the grand majordomo of the House of Tanuris, property of Ahram the Navigator, inhabited by his son-in-law Neferhotep. The rider halts his mount. He condescends to hear the merchant’s flattery but impatiently dismisses how the man sings the praises of his merchandise because he has no intention of making a purchase. The salesman insists:
“At least come to have a look, noble Amoptis. I have an authentic rarity on hand, something never before seen. If this were not true, how could I have dared to detain you?”

In response to a gesture from the rider, his staff bearer hastens to kneel down, placing the sandals alongside the ass. He helps his master to dismount and put them on his feet. Then, handing him his staff, he follows him along the portico to the patio where he then stands waiting for Amoptis to return.

In a room apart from the communal chambers, a woman is lying upon a stone bench set into the wall, covered with a woven mat of rushes. She sits up as she notices the entrance of a possible buyer and, with customary indifference, lets fall to her feet the robe which covers her. Filtering through the latticework blind, the oblique rays of the sun turn her smooth white shapely hips gold. Nevertheless, she fails to provoke the visitor’s interest, for the reason that Amoptis prefers androgynous physiques over her slender body with its erect, high-set breasts whose arrogance resides more in their predictable density than in their volume. Besides, her flesh is not young: she is more than twenty years old, and thus the majordomo is sorry for having entered. He looks reproachfully at the old salesman. But this is what the man was expecting, and without a single word of excuse, he smiles craftily and pulls away the veil covering the woman’s face.

All at once an incredible cascade spills down to her naked shoulders, framing her face with a golden clarity very much like the shine of freshly cut copper. She is not one of those redheads frowned upon by Egyptian superstition: her living mane of silk, which writhes in long waves with her every movement like a gently swelling sea, has the deep, strong, sweet blonde color of ancient amber or fresh honey. Fascinated, Amoptis approaches and caresses the wondrous hair with a trembling hand while the woman remains indifferent. For the first time he contemplates the feminine face: he is astonished by her eyes—somewhere between green and grey—that make him feel guilty of insolence although they do not even deign to look at him. No, they do not see him. Distant from everything as if she were alone, the woman offers his masculine contemplation a figure that now seems marvelous: the discreet fullness of her lips, the delicate nose, the slender neck set upon well-rounded shoulders, the lightly pointed plum-colored nipples, the smooth line of her belly and the perfection of the navel, the tender pubis, and the long full statuesque legs with impeccable knees. As is normal in such transactions, Amoptis might wish to test with his own finger to see if the woman is a virgin, but inexplicably intimidated he suddenly turns his back on the slave and walks towards the door. The astonished salesman follows and closes the door behind him.

“Is your nobleness displeased?”

“At her age I suppose she’s not likely to be a virgin.”

The slave dealer gives a helpless shrug: “If she were, and young, too, she would have it all. But, my lord, that head of hair! I’ve never seen another like it in my life!”

Amoptis acknowledges it, and in that instant conceives of an idea that can win him greater influence over his wife, as well as—although he does not admit it to himself—free himself from his ridiculous inhibition before a mere slave. Such an absurd sentiment for the Grand Majordomo of Neferhotep, son-in-law of Ahram the Navigator, thanks to whose influence he is a member of the Municipal Council of Alexandria!
Amoptis opens the negotiation disdainfully.

“She’s not really worth a great deal. The only thing valuable to me is her hair. If you would sell me just that I would leave you the body.”

And as the salesman looks at him strangely, he concludes:
“So I could offer a wig to my wife. She would take delight in dazzling the ladies of Alexandria with it.”

With the price finally agreed upon—not very high because the salesman has had to admit that she is already twenty-three years old and a Christian terrorist—Amoptis reenters the room, where the woman gets to her feet, guessing the outcome.

“Be content: you are fortunate in your new master,” begins the salesman, “none less than the powerful Ahram…”
Amoptis silences him with a gesture and orders the woman to disrobe.

“Turn around and bend over,” he orders imperiously, thus discovering the harmony of the female back, covered almost to the waist by her hair.

The woman obeys, holding herself at a right angle, with her hands on her knees. Amoptis approaches her suggestive buttocks, and with humiliating brutality thrusts his hand between her legs, forcing them apart. Apparently he is simply following custom but in reality he exercises a vengeance for having felt intimidated before her. Although to do so, he has to touch those impure folds of female flesh, hardly attractive to one who was initiated into sex through the virile adolescent backsides of temple choirboys. Amoptis then orders the slave to dress and forbids her to uncover her hair unless he orders it: he wants to surprise his wife.

“Where are you from?” he asks in Egyptian.

“From the island of Psyra, sir,” she responds, also in Egyptian, though clumsily. Her voice is seductive without trying to be.

“Your name?” continues Amoptis in Greek, proud of his learning.

“Lately they have called me Irenia,” responds the slave. An imperceptible stab of pain wounds her heart as she remembers when she joined the wandering Christians that it was Domicia who gave her that name which means peace.

As he pays for his purchase, Amoptis orders some papyrus sandals to be brought for the slave. With an hour’s journey to Tanuris he does not wish to ruin the delicate feet that add value to his merchandise.
Upon arriving to the villa, Amoptis considers that it has gotten too late to show off his discovery. To ensure the surprise he orders them to take the slave to his own room, spread out a mat for her, and serve her food. And so when, with other obligations accomplished, he ascends to his chambers, he finds the woman there. He would prefer to be alone but decides to take advantage of her presence to have her remove his shoes and wash his feet with natron water, first ordering her to uncover her amazing hair.

Lost in thought, he lets her work. As she caresses his feet in the washbowl he suddenly notices that her feminine gestures are singularly soft and delicate. Leaning forward he studies the pair of delicate hands encircling his ankles. They lack the roughness of one who has run with a band of terrorists. Each movement of her bowed head makes her hair ripple and expand. Amoptis runs his fingers across that silk and feels an almost forgotten desire beating in his old veins. Meanwhile she has finished drying his feet and removes the vessel.

“You’re skillful. Are you trained in the arts of massage?”

“I have practiced them, my lord.”

The man stands and orders her to help him undress, then he stretches himself out face down on the bed, displaying a scribe’s narrow back with the spine slightly crooked, flaccid buttocks, and thin legs with knotty knees. He indicates a flask of oil on the shelf. Her feminine hands begin to caress, prod, and stimulate his lean flesh. The man sighs, pensive: Who would have imagined…that this happen to me, at my age…? If my little Yazila could learn these massages, I’m sure that the master would take delight in her flexible body, in her cinnamon skin…I will manage it, she will have to help me…ah, this woman, this woman! So cold, and knowing so much! Softly skinning me alive, removing my skin to go deeper inside…Where could she have…

“Have you ever worked in brothels? Don’t lie!”

The woman looks at him stupefied. Why would she have to lie?

“In Byzantium, my lord.”

Byzantium…they say that the pleasures there…I’m sure that…He suddenly turns over and before thinking about it, his body orders his voice:
“Suck me!”

The slave does not reply. Already kneeling, she lowers her head over his groin and her mouth knowingly begins to caress his circumcised member as her hair brushes against his half-opened thighs… Slow, slowly… The man sighs, pants, trembles, feels delight… His body feels disconnected, dispersed, liquid: he has never known such feverish dissolution… The woman returns to the alcove for the washbowl, returns with it, and carefully washes his shrinking member.

“Put out the lamp,” orders the man at last, “but leave that candle burning.”

Amoptis closes his eyes, not so much to fall asleep as to make her, and the confusion she causes him, disappear. He is always so self-assured! How is it that this woman who seemed to be ignoring him has driven him to such distraction? He begins to wonder if he has not perhaps brought some evil creature into his house. Suddenly he is frightened to recall that, as rumor has it, the carriers of the strange plague which has lately flared up, thrive among those who live badly. The very next morning, once her hair is shorn, he will consign her to the kitchens. No, to the stables, where he will not even see her, where she will pose no risk to anyone. Instinctively he raises his hand to his sex, as if to protect it, and begins to mutter the charm to appease Sekhmet, the powerful, the destroyer.

Thus was purchased the slave Irenia for the exalted Lord Neferhotep of the House of Tanuris in the first days of May in the year 1010 from the foundation of Rome, quarter of the reign of Caesar Gaius Publius Licinius Valerian, in the month which the Egyptian scribes call Mesore and the people know as the season of Fourth of Shemu, before which the tears of Isis, away in the remote south, cause the rising of the Nile and its flooding across the millenary land of the pharaohs.

* * *

What’s happening to me? What is it that affects me so? That pompous personage who has purchased me and who still lies awake, unable to sleep, must be thinking perhaps that the thought of him, or my other news masters, keeps me awake; but that is not the reason, it is really everything that has happened since they brought me to this land, Egypt… Barely three weeks since I arrived here and only from watching along the road, listening on the patio, of eating differently, of smelling the air and feeling the night, I am enveloped in a world I never imagined… Egypt! Before it was only a name to me, like Syria, Armenia, Sogdiana, Cyrenaica… When we traveled with Uruk, Fakumit amazed me with her greatness, she spoke to me about her gods, I had to learn something of his language to understand her, according to her there was no finer land, no greater empire, it sounded like her nostalgic exaggerations, but it was true, this is a different world, what a flood of lives and mysteries! I’m continually amazed, though nothing in life matters to me any more, though I expect nothing, I am drawn by this abundance, which must be how the world was when it was newly created, full, overflowing, giving birth every moment to waters, beings, gods, just yesterday, emerging from the house of slaves, in the corner of the patio, that hyacinth, the day before yesterday it was not there, sprouting in a single night, with its tender arrogance, fragile and powerful, its stem, its flowers, its slender leaves, launching its perfume like a cock crowing, the day before yesterday it was not there, this land never sleeps, giving birth to lotuses, crocodiles, papyrus, ibises, birds, palm trees, serpents, bulls, hippopotamuses, and the dazzling greenery, even here in this town by the sea, everything roiling with heat, the palm fronds, the shimmering air, this world overwhelms me, penetrates me, engenderer, multiplier, waster of lives, what a contrast to Cyrenaica! Not only that prison, with its sweating clay walls, its swill and filth, even free at the oasis everything was precarious, palm trees besieged by the sand, water in a puddle or enclosed in a well, a few scanty oleanders alongside the dry avenue, while here there are wide flowing canals and the arms of the delta, Egypt creating lives, as well as all its many gods, Sobek the sacred crocodile, Bast the cat, Udjit the cobra, Hapi the Nile River, Nefertum the lotus, Hathor, mother of Osiris… No, his daughter, I’m mistaken, Seth who is both good and bad, all divine, the water, the wheat, the beer, because everything gives life, “Life” is the key word, thus so much hope, here the people smile though they are naked and without possessions, and even the dead live on in their tombs, it is only I without a soul, how do I go on living after my disaster, she died in the amphitheater but the morays did not devour me, Domicia’s death killed me, too, I hear her voice everywhere in the silence, right now, that whispering, her wisdom in the serenity, and her hand, her hand, no one ever caressed me like that, not Narsus on the island, no man in Byzantium, nor in the harem, no, not even Uruk, he was something else, but Domicia’s hand was a dark heat, endless friction, burning but quenchable fire, no one else like that, none remembered nor forgotten, she smiled at my ecstasy, and explained it like this: “No man understands a woman’s flesh, only another woman.” She knew that I felt it, feeling with me at the same time, how she created pleasure, how her fingers and her tongue set me on fire! It was a world of women although there were also men following the Mother, I had already heard talk of Christ, when Uruk took me down the Oronotes past Antioch, I remember well, but they said that the Messiah was really a woman, that his masculine garb was only a disguise, the so-called Christ was born a girl, with a girl’s body and a girl’s soul, raised as a woman, that new goddess attracted me, and Domicia’s love had a hold on me, her absolute certainty, she lived safely removed from everything, and so she raised me to a new height, different from a man, I will no longer enjoy such moments, the revelation of life, the soul breaking free, once they were simply passions, caresses or excitations, hidden places in the flesh, but Domicia was the mistress of everything, including the spirit. Oh, how she began to show me! Writing! Words of Latin between her kisses! The geometry of the flesh! She had studied in Syracuse, she was from a rich family, that explained why she was a deaconess to the Mother. I’m dead without her! She was everything! It’s a devastating memory, the emptiness torments me, missing her lips on my sex, on my nipples, my own hands trying to imitate her are no replacement, I can’t recall, can’t remember, but impossible to forget her, I carry her in my skin, since her hand touched me, laying it on my arm, in that shadowy dungeon, her caressing voice, “Will you tell me your sorrows, my sister?” I groaned for Uruk, months had gone by and I was till crying for him, it was the first time she called me sister, me: born without anyone, her inexplicable appearance on a beach, she brought me to the clear light at the tiny window, I noticed on her cheek the purple welt, a whip had lashed her face, but in her eyes the serenity, immutable, her certainty in the faith, I confided, for the first time, I was able to speak to someone about Uruk murdered before my eyes, I transferred to her my desperation, and since then we were never apart, her peace flooded into me, she showed me that a woman’s love is not found in the games of a brothel and harem, but in putting the soul into the flesh, and the flesh into the soul, she pulled me out of my sorrow, without making me forget about Uruk because she embraced him, too, she had known a man’s love before, she could understand me. Why do I remember if it pains me so? Our embraces in the night, the oasis, dark island of silver moonlight on the sands, our walks together holding hands, envious but also admiring, and censured, by the men of the group especially, lusting after the two of us, I know that I saddened the deacon, he was in love with me without confessing it, I might have been his, she would have understood it, but he denied it to himself, he loved me from afar, only for the sake of faith, for salvation in the next life, which I reject! Impossible to understand him, although perhaps the secret in his past, perhaps the way I am now indifferent to everything, Domicia’s death ended my world, she changed my name, another name in my life, like reincarnations, but this time the last one, I am finished, I would have preferred to have cut my hair right there, before her body pierced with arrows, the hair she adored, so many times sliding over her calves, her breasts, her buttocks, pleasure that gave me chills, but they stopped me from doing it, it makes me more valuable, after the morays devoured me they would have cut it off to sell it, like this old man, sure, it’s what he has thought, what does it matter, nothing matters to me at all, and nevertheless, my world also sank when they killed Uruk, also before, when my poor daughter, my little Nira, knifed by the pirates, destroyers of my life, but I go on living. Life is so resistant! How life maintains its grip on us! And especially here in Egypt, an anthill of beings, fertilized by the Nile… Nothing matters to me at all, but I didn’t kill myself, as easy as it was, how strong is the blood against sorrow! Will everything be repeated? It seems to me impossible, then, why do I go on breathing amid this choking distress? A tormented panting but I go on, unable to forget those hours, that eternity by Domicia’s side, in the Church of the Divine Mother, among the femmes as they called us…

—José Luis Sampedro Sáez; translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley

 CapturePhoto by Gonzalo Cruz via

José Luis Sampedro Sáez was born in Barcelona, Spain in 1917. He led an extraordinarily active and productive life, pursuing a dual career as economist and novelist. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) he joined the Republican forces and spent the war in Melilla, Catalonia, Guadalajara, and Huete, in Cuenca. Following the war he worked as a customs agent in Melilla, and later studied Economics in Madrid. In 1948 he joined the research team for the Banco Exterior de España and in 1951 became an advisor in the Spanish Ministry of Trade. Throughout his long career he published ten books on economics as well as a dozen novels and assorted other volumes, including collections of short stories and essays. In 1990 he was elected as a member of the Real Academia Española, and in 2011 he was awarded the National Prize for Spanish Literature. He was known for as an advocate for human rights and ethical economic practices. Sampedro died in Madrid, in 2013, at the age of 96.

 Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

May 082014

A. AnupamaA. Anupama

A. Anupama, one of our regular contributors, dusts off her translating skills, bringing us hilariously sexy, curiously modern couplets from the classic Tirikkural, a vast book of over a thousand rhyming couplets written in ancient Tamil and dating from about 2,000 years ago. They run the gamut from agricultural advice to law to flirting couples (the most charming).

I thought about you, I said. Then sometimes, you forgot, she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

A. Anupama gives us a rare glimpse into this ancient world, also providing us with a brief gloss on the difficulties of translation and her modus operandi, plus, joy of joys, some sound files with the original Tamil verse (beautiful liquid sounds) and the English translation.

This is not her first translation effort. See also her “Poems from Kuruntokai” and “Sweet to my heart | Translations of Tamil Love Poems.”




Tirukkural is a collection of 1,330 rhyming couplets (called kural) written by the Tamil poet-saint Tiruvalluvar perhaps around 30 BC (dating is vague). The verses were meant as a comprehensive portrait of Tamil culture, a description but also an epigrammatic guidebook in verse to the formulas of this south Indian civilization. The poems cover every aspect of society and right living from the conduct of kings to the sowing of fields, from aspects of ascetic virtue to the intricacies of lovers’ quarrels, and from the art of friendship to dire warnings against vice.

I gaze at her, admiring her every line, while she scowls
with whom do you compare me, staring like that?

The couplets are organized into chapters of ten each, and the entire work is divided into three sections, Virtue, Wealth, and Love. Tirukkural differs from other classical Indian philosophical literature (e.g., the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) by not including the fourth section of traditional teaching on spiritual release. Tirukkural emphasizes domestic life over ascetic or religious practice.


The colossal statue of Tiruvalluvar built on a small islet at the meeting of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian Sea, just offshore from the town of Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India, represents the poet’s legendary status. Designed by sculptor V. Ganapati Sthapati, this granite monument stands 133 feet high, representing the 133 chapters of Tirukkural. The height of the statue’s base, at 38 feet, represents the 38 chapters of the first section, Virtue, symbolically setting the foundation of the other two sections, Wealth and Love. The poet is depicted holding up three fingers, a stylized and definitive gesture of Tirukkural’s three sections.

According to tradition, Tiruvalluvar lived in about the first century BCE (though estimates vary by a few hundred years) and was a weaver from Mylapore, near present-day Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil culture and language are the oldest of Dravidian heritage, originating in the southern tip of India.

Tamil Nadu

Tamil is the oldest living language in the world, with a rich classical literary history. Tiruvalluvar’s work dates from the period of the classical Cankam, a famous gathering of poets, scholars, and sages in the ancient city of Madurai. His poetic couplets are the shortest verse form in Tamil literature, and his work was known and referred to by the writers of classical Tamil epics like Cilappatikaram and Manimekhalai.

If you search YouTube for “kural recitation,” you’ll find videos of young schoolchildren reciting memorized couplets, sometimes with a little prompting, but mostly with ease and confidence. The boy in this video recited chapter 40 from Tirukkural, a set of ten couplets on learning.YouTube Preview Image

On the other hand, centuries of erudite commentary on Tirukkural have revealed its subtlety, and its influence on modern thinkers and writers has been significant. Leo Tolstoy quoted several couplets from it in a letter to an editor at Free Hindustan, a letter that was later translated into Gujarati and published by M.K. Gandhi. Albert Schweitzer said about Tirukkural, “There hardly exists in the literature of the world a collection of maxims in which we find so much of lofty wisdom.”

I couldn’t find a tougher or more rewarding translation challenge than this. Arthur Schopenhauer in his essay “On Language and Words” remarked, “Take translations of authors from antiquity: they are as obvious a surrogate as chicory for coffee. Poems cannot be translated; they can only be transposed, and that is always awkward.”[1] W.S. Merwin in the prologue to his collection Selected Translations, cites advice he received from Ezra Pound: “He spoke of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of the possibilities of his own language… Pound also urged—at that point and to me, at least—the greatest possible fidelity to the original, including its sounds.”[2] Tirukkural is a particular gift to the translator because in addition to offering fresh mental vistas, it invites one to stricter attention through the voice and the ear.

The couplets, like most proverbs, are designed to be easy to remember and repeat: the alliterative and assonant strength of the compositions aids memory, and tight line-length keeps each verse within a single breath. These same qualities make the couplets difficult to translate, requiring the translator to create equivalencies in sound and sense in a very tight space. Kural 12 showed me quickly how impossible it might be to honor the sound of the original. “Living” sounds nothing like “thupakith,” and yet, the poem in English requires the repetitive transformation of the single word for the purpose of the poem’s sense. The Tamil “Thupaarkuth thupaaya thupaakith thupaarkuth thupaaya” turns into “living,” “live,” “life-giving,” and “life” in my translation.

Still, I found that evoking the original’s sound was possible in many places, with some effort and luck. For example in Kural 18, the “s” sounds in the first line and the “v” sounds in the second line were reproducible, though they lack the alliterative effect of the original. In Kural 20, I added the words “nearness” and “farthest” at the beginnings of the lines to mimic the sounds of the Tamil words “neerindru” and “vaanindru,” which altered the sense only slightly by emphasizing the nuance of distance in the poem’s imagery.

Nearness of rain—without which all worldly work ends, whomever you are.
Farthest skies—without which all natures end.

Word order and integrity of the poetic line are another challenge, because Tamil syntax runs in the opposite direction from English. Subject-verb-object in English often translates to object-verb-subject in Tamil, and even prepositions become postpositions. Sometimes, I could maintain word order, as in Kural 19: “Charity and penance, twins, make their exit from our world, / sky unyielding.” In Kural 20, however, I had to flip word order for sense, translating the two phrases “all worldly work ends” and “all natures end” exactly inverted. The rest of the word order, as well as the couplet’s line integrity, I carefully maintained.

I learned my method of line-by-line translation in Richard Jackson’s translation workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2011 when Patty Crane showed us her work translating poems by Tomas Tranströmer. For each line of poetry, I add directly underneath it a literal translation, maintaining the syntax of the original. Alternative word choices are included in this step. Then, directly under that is a first draft of my literary translation of the line. I continue in this way, adding lines for each line of the original poem. I keep everything, every attempt to translate stays in the document. If the lines of poetry get too far away from each other in the process to look at on the computer screen, I copy and paste what I want to work with on a new page in the same document.

Kural 11 in Tamil

Kural 12 in Tamil


In this work with Tirukkural and in my previous translations from Kuruntokai, I relied on my co-translator B. Jeyaganesh for literal translations and recorded readings of the original poems. B. Jeyaganesh is a native speaker of Tamil, the son of a scholar with a Tamil PhD, and a fellow self-described non-expert in this classical literature. For this selection from Tirukkural, we spent over three hours coming up with alternative word choices in English and discussing the relative emphasis of words in the couplets. I listened to the recording over and over to gain a familiarity with the poems’ sounds. I used the recordings again to check my work, often reading my drafts aloud for comparison. Another helpful tool was an English transliteration of the full text online along with the original Tamil and the classic translation by Rev. Dr. G.U. Pope from 1886.

Palm-leaf manuscript

I chose this particular set of couplets to translate (the second chapter and the penultimate chapter) from Tirukkural partly to keep this first try easy for me and easy for a reader unfamiliar with this work. The poet intended these very specific moral edicts and proverb-like statements for people living in a certain cultural and philosophical context, making translation for a contemporary reader in English difficult. The universality of the need for rain and of quarrels between lovers is obvious, and I found this a generous place to begin. My idea was to bracket the work as a whole, but also to bring its didactic verse and its elegant love poetry close together in this small set. The couplets in the third section on love are beautiful, witty, and very different from those in the preceding chapters. In words, sounds, and imagery, however, the thread of the work from beginning to end is wonderfully consistent. The recent drought in South India, and its continuing effects in the region, also inspired me to bring this poetry off my shelf and to translate the chapter on rain.

Tiruvalluvar statue and Vivekananda memorialPhoto by Bennet Anand

In two instances in these couplets, I departed slightly from the literal meaning in order to evoke the sense of the whole work. In couplet 17, my eco-poetic commentary in the addition of “those who don’t give from within” reflects Tirukkural’s moral standard of generosity and right action, as in Kural 211: “Duty expects not anything in return / just as rain expects none.”[3] The literal translation of the line is roughly “gives not, if that’s the state of things.” The state of things today is marked by the urgency of eco-conscious moral imperatives. I found in this a beautiful opportunity to investigate how Tirukkural in translation might evolve in order to retain its original function, which was to describe the cultural, ethical ideal. My initial idea for the change in this line, however, came from the poem’s sound: the end-word “vitin” sounds like my “within.”

My second departure from the literal translation is in Kural 1323, the couplet taken from the last chapter of Tirukkural. My version ends “with earth and water inseparable as in a clay vessel: the water drum of the heart,” while the literal includes no mention of a clay water vessel. My addition of the object attempts to bridge the distance between that specific culture and universal understanding. While this image would hover in the subconscious mind of a Tamil reader 2000 years ago and offer another level of mystery to the poem, a contemporary reader from another culture might miss it.

These departures from the literal in my translation are experiments based on an essay by David Damrosch, titled “Translation and World Literature.”[4] In writing about the problem of translating one of the oldest known lyric poems—an Egyptian poem inscribed in 1160 BCE—he observes, “Some literary works, indeed, may be so closely dependent on detailed culture-specific knowledge that they can only be meaningful to members of the originating culture or to specialists in that culture; these are works that remain within the sphere of a national literature and never achieve an effective life in world literature.” In regard to the Egyptian word mss in that poem, which has been variously translated as tunic, dress, loincloth, and clothing, he writes,

…however mss may be translated, most readers will be unable to visualize the ancient garment in all its authentic particularity. Yet as long as the translation doesn’t impose a wholesale modernization, we won’t assimilate the mss directly to our modern experience, as we remain aware that we’re reading an ancient poem: whatever we think a mss is, we won’t envision it as a Gore-Tex windbreaker, though this might be a modern equivalent of the original item. All the same, we can never hold the poem entirely away from our own experience, nor should we. As we read, we triangulate not only between ancient and modern worlds but also between general and personal meanings: however the mss is translated, different readers will visualize it very differently, and this variability helps the poem to resonate with memories from the reader’s own life. (Italics mine.)

In my translation, adding the material object of a water vessel creates a specific resonance and aids the reader’s associations within the ancient world of the poem. Adding the phrase “or if by those who don’t give from within” aids the reader’s associations in the modern world, simultaneously awakening moral consciousness, which is the original objective of Tirukkural. Though I initially felt awkward treating translation as a sort of geometry problem, I felt that the result brought me closer to the text. The availability of many complete translations of Tirukkural also lessened my concern over maintaining literal exactitude in every line. I hope that my work inspires more readers to take a close look at this ancient literary treasure.

—A. Anupama


Translations from Tirukkural


Chapter 2: On the excellence of rain

The sky, so distant, gives to our living world
rain, its own self, living essence.

The living live by the life-giving gift of the seed of life itself:
nourishment spraying down, this rain.

The sky, yielding no rain in spite of these steep surrounding seas,
will bite you from inside your hunger.


The plow won’t plow if the farmer’s awaited downpours, which sow
and grow their wealth, ebb.

Drought’s devastation crushes lives and brings ruin, while its reverse is
restoration in rain.

The sky’s quell of falling raindrops upsets
the lush grass, whose heads will then hide from sight.


The enormous sea, voluminous and teeming, will diminish if not diminished by clouds,
or if by those who don’t give from within.


Grand rituals and extravagant offerings will end if the sky is
rain void, serving the little gods no festivals.

Charity and penance, twins, make their exit from our world,
sky unyielding.

Nearness of rain—without which all worldly work ends, whomever you are.
Farthest skies—without which all natures end.


Chapter 132: On pretending to sulk


Women’s eyes savor your every line,
but mine won’t embrace your broad chest.

Our silent spat dragged on, so he sneezed on purpose, so that I would say
“bless you.” So he thought.


A whole branch of blossoms for a garland, and you accuse me of wearing it to catch another woman’s glance,
showing off how I’m dressed.

I love you more than anyone, I said. She sulked,
demanding more than whom, whom!


In this life, we will never be apart, I said.
Eyefuls of tears, she replied.

I thought about you, I said. Then sometimes, you forgot, she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

She blessed me when I sneezed, then altered, asking
Who thought about you to make you sneeze?

My next sneeze I quelled, but she cried, someone is thinking of you,
I know, you’re hiding it from me.

She spurned all my assurances, imagining the other women for whom
I’ve offered the same.

I gaze at her, admiring her every line, while she scowls
with whom do you compare me, staring like that?


from Chapter 133: On the pleasures of lovers’ quarrels

Inside this lyric sulk, a heaven nears, with earth and
water inseparable as in a clay vessel: the water drum of the heart.

—A. Anupama


A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Schopenhauer, Arthur. Peter Mollenhauer, transl. “On Language and Words,” in Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  2. Merwin, W.S. Selected Translations. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2013.
  3. Rajaram, M., transl. Thirukkural, Pearls of Wisdom. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2009.
  4. Damrosch, David. Translation and World Literature: Love in the Necropolis,” in The Translation Studies Reader, third edition, Lawrence Venuti, ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.