Dec 042014
 

139056374STranslator David Need

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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.

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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.

§

DanHolmes

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

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Dec 032014
 

551-12.jpg

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

cover

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

 

I

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.

 

I

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.

Untitled1

II

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.

 

II

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.

Untitled2

VI

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.

 

VI

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.

Untitled3

XIV

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.

 

XIV

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.

pic1

XVIII

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.

 

XVIII

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.

Untitled4

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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.

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Oct 142014
 

cover

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

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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

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Oct 082014
 

Goran SimićGoran Simić

.                                   

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

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

5

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.

6

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.

7

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?

8

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)

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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 jmbg.org.

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.

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Sep 082014
 

Desktop12

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

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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.

(1927)

 

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Intensivism

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.

(1926)

—Robert Musil, Translated by Genese Grill

These short essays have been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, 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.

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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
 

saer2

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

lagrande

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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

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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.

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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.

§

Rivalidades 

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.

 

Rivalries 

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.

§

Cánones 

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.

 

Canons

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

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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.

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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

20091222154839-laviejasirena

 

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 ABC.es

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.”

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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.

Tiruvalluvar_statue_LIC

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
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Kural 12 in Tamil

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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

I—She

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.

II—He

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

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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 seranam.com.

 

 

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.
May 042014
 

CaptureGiulio Mozzi via www.wuz.it

“I read Giulio Mozzi’s first book with real enthusiasm. What struck me most was his everyday language. Even when his subjects rely on metaphor, his words are plain, and so turn mysterious.”
—Federico Fellini

Giulio Mozzi’s This Is the Garden is an astonishing debut short story collection that English readers can now enjoy thanks to Open Letter Books. First published in 1993 (and winner of the Premio Mondello) and translated this year by Elizabeth Harris, these short stories all play in some way in the garden of the mind, the sandbox of introspection. Reminiscent of the work of Borges and Kafka, Mozzi’s psychologically acute, trenchant prose explores the self-conscious idiosyncrasies of the troubled mind. 

The story below is “Claw,” in which Mozzi imagines the later years of Yanez, the right-hand man of well-known Italian fictional pirate Sandokan. The once-infamous Yanez, known as the Tiger’s white brother, has now for years sat peacefully in his small, square, and white house, relying for subsistence and cigarettes on the daily visit of a woman from the nearby village. He sits in his small, square, and white house, smoking his cigarettes and looking meditative—but we do not believe he is meditating. The villagers react to the arrival of their “first real Englishman,” a threatening missionary who claims to be a saint sent by God. The villagers wonder how their own outsider Yanez will react. You can read my review of This Is the Garden by clicking here.

—Tom Faure

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he house is small, square, and white. The roof is flat. The door, centered on the eastern side, is just a curtain with red and yellow flowers. The other sides have one square window, also centered. There’s no glass in the windows, just yellowing, loosely woven cotton rags nailed to the wood like mosquito netting. The house sits on a slight rise in the middle of the plain, and anyone looking out the windows could see a long way. Down the slope from the door, there’s a water pump. A leather razor strop hangs from a couple of nails in the pump’s wooden handle. A small washboard rests against the pump. The house has just one room. A hundred feet to the west, there’s a small shack for bodily functions. The house has a packed dirt floor. Two feet off the floor, a built-in shelf or bench runs along all four walls, interrupted only by the doorway. At the center of the room, there’s a wooden table, a single chair. A few things sit on the shelf: a bowl with a set of flatware, one fork, one knife, one spoon; a covered metal bucket with a curved handle and inside, a thick soup or mash; a basin with a few soap chips and a brush; a tiny, round mirror in a metal frame, a straight-edge razor resting on the mirror; a small rectangular basket with a lid, probably for linen or clothing; a rolled-up mat. On the table, there’s a white enamel pitcher with a blue rim and next to it, a slightly flared drinking glass, the bottom thick, rounded. The glass is cloudy, tinted pink. On one corner of the table, there’s a canister of cigarettes with a lighter. There’s a white man sitting on the chair. He has on khaki trousers and a light, collarless jacket, also khaki, but faded nearly white. He’s extremely thin: those clothes were meant for someone more muscular. The man’s face has a few deep lines. He doesn’t have a hair on his head. He could be fifty, someone who’s spent his life outdoors, but you can tell he’s extremely old because he’s so unnaturally thin. Another way you can tell his age: he barely moves. The man sits, facing the door, smoking. He’s not looking at anything in particular, or maybe he’s focused on the red and yellow curtain stirring just slightly in the breeze. The man sits rigid on the chair, left hand in his lap, right hand resting on the table, holding the cigarette, bringing it to his lips now and then. This man is Yanez, the Tiger’s white brother, and this ground where his house stands is far, far from any sea, in a part of India that appears on British maps as just a milk spot scratched with a few uncertain paths that could be swallowed up at any time by thriving forests or flooding rivers.

Once a day, in the morning, a woman comes from the village (which is close, just past the line of trees to the south), and she carries the bucket of food, and once a day, in the evening, she takes the empty bucket back again. Yanez has lost his teeth and his sense of taste; the bucket holds a milky broth with small bits of meat, boiled vegetables, rice. When he started eating only from the bowl, he gave the woman his metal plate but kept the fork and knife in case a large piece of meat needed cutting. Over the years, his throat has nearly closed. The woman also brings him soap and cigarettes when he runs out and sometimes a lantern wick or a piece of flint for the lighter. Sometimes the woman brings Yanez a shirt or a pair of pants, used, but still good enough to wear. She’s the only one who goes inside his house. Anyone could, but no one does. Yanez hasn’t asked to see anyone in years. For what the woman gives him, Yanez gives her nothing in return. When he dies, his few belongings will clearly go to her. But no one will live in the house—no one in the village can live outside the village. Yanez only leaves the house to fill the pitcher at the pump, or to wash his few clothes or to wash himself, pouring water over his body with the soup bowl; or else he’ll go to the small outhouse and relieve himself. To work the pump, Yanez must lean on the handle with all his slender might. Once a year, around the time of her wedding anniversary, the woman goes to Yanez’s house with her three sons dressed in their newest, cleanest clothes. She has her sons wait by the door, she pulls back the curtain, and Yanez looks at them a while. Years ago, there were two sons, and before that, one. Yanez looks at the young man, the youth, the child, and after a while, he smiles. Then the woman drops the curtain and sends her sons away. They’re healthy, handsome boys, and she’s a healthy, handsome woman—she hasn’t really changed with age. Yanez has never seen her husband. Years ago, Yanez went to the village by himself sometimes for supplies. The villagers knew who he was, but they never asked him any questions. The woman went to his house for the first time after they all realized no one had seen Yanez in nearly twenty days. She went once a week in the beginning; for years now, she’s gone every day. The two times she was in labor, her mother-in-law took her place, but didn’t go inside the house; the bucket of food she left outside the door in the morning was there by the door in the evening, empty. Yanez has given the woman two gifts: the metal plate, and on another occasion, his one book, a volume the size of his hand, three fingers thick, an English merchant vessel’s log of a voyage along the eastern coast of China.

The book was filled with small pictures: strange animals, strange plants, strange buildings, men and women with narrow eyes and strange clothing. The woman’s sons spent hours on boring or rainy days staring at those pictures, imagining all the strange and wonderful things he must have seen in his long, long life—this thin, silent man that people spoke of as a hero, a sea voyager, a great hunter of man and beast, brother in spirit to the Tiger. One day, before the youngest could even walk, the two older boys crept as close as they could to Yanez’s house and hid in the high grass and brush and watched Yanez leave his house with a torn shirt, the basin, the brush and soap. They watched him strain to pump a little water in the basin and wash the shirt, scrubbing it on the small washboard with the soap and brush. Then Yanez pumped a little more water, rinsed the shirt, and hung it over the pump handle to dry. They were quite impressed that he’d done this women’s work so easily, and they decided he could do anything at all. They never told anyone about their expedition and only admitted it to their little brother a few years later, after he swore a thousand oaths of secrecy. Their little brother knew he’d been made part of a great mystery, and he always kept his pledge.

No one knew what went on in Yanez’s mind. Some of the villagers thought he’d grown old and simple. Others thought he passed the time, in the absolute silence of his house, remembering his great adventures, his friends and brothers in spirit killed by accident or men, the thousand places where his name had been pronounced with reverence or rage, friendship or fear, love or loathing. When he first arrived from an unknown place and built his isolated, small white house, even then, Yanez was silent. He only said his name. And apparently, though he’d never been to this or any other nearby village, he knew his name would be enough for whatever he needed. And he needed little. He barely spoke, only if he needed something. When he still went to the village marketplace, he barely spoke a word. For years, the rumor had been that Yanez had died, but then he arrived in the village. The village boys imagined he’d taken refuge in this safe and tranquil place to plan his next great adventure. And they waited for him to tell them that they had to choose: either the safe, boring life of the village or the brief, glorious life of the hero.

But Yanez never told them. After almost a year of talking, meeting, stalling, the most spirited boys finally gathered up their courage and went to his house. They sat by his door and waited. Yanez came out almost at once, and then the boys spoke to him, taking turns, speaking passionately, for a long time. They recalled his great adventures, told him of their own desires to win glory in this life and honor in the next. Any adventure would do—it didn’t matter—it would be a glorious adventure, and they were ready for victory or defeat, because defeat at the hands of an overwhelming enemy would also bring glory on earth and honor in the heavens; they didn’t know their enemy, but they weren’t afraid; they’d fight anyone in his name, on the plains or in the mountains, in the rocky desert or the woods, even on the ocean that no villager had ever seen, but they knew it must be like a river with just one bank, and they weren’t afraid of any river or riverbank. Yanez stood in the doorway and listened, paying close attention to each boy, fixing his eye on the one who spoke, and when they’d all said their piece, and it was clearly his turn, the minutes passed in silence, and then he bowed stiffly and stepped behind the curtain. The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years—time for the village boys to become village men—before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant. The village was isolated, distant, and no one had ever seen an Englishman, but there still wasn’t a home without something made in England that had passed through a thousand peddlers’ hands. One villager, though quite suspicious, bought a sack of seeds from a bragging peddler, and it yielded thirty times the normal crop; from that year on, the children grew stronger. Some of the young men who longed to travel had gone off with peddlers to villages closer to the English, and they came back with stories of English medicines that cured almost anything and tools and machines that helped with every sort of labor. Who could resist the English when they brought such useful things? The village men wanted to consult with Yanez—he’d know everything about the English, everything good and bad—he’d fought them for so long and, really, was almost one of them, and the men wanted to know whether it was right or wrong to let the English take the village, even with fertile seeds, and strong medicines, and useful tools. The men talked a long while, but in the end they never went to Yanez—it was absurd, really—they could never keep something out that made life so much better. And then, around that time, a small caravan of peddlers arrived and brought the village its first real Englishman.

He was extremely robust, both muscular and fat, dressed all in black, with strange hair the same color you saw behind your eyelids when you closed your eyes and faced the sun. The Englishman’s hair shone in the sun, seemed almost to course with blood—not the dark blood of the body—a thinner, brighter blood. The Englishman could almost speak their language, but he used strange-sounding words, and once in a while, he’d go on and on when he was really saying something fairly simple, the same way children ramble when they’re first learning to talk. In the village square, the Englishman’s voice thundered that he was a saint of the English god, come for their own good, to save their souls from certain death, a death they’d all soon face, he insisted, if they refused his help. The village elders met for a long time, and finally they went to the square and told the Englishman they truly didn’t understand how a god, even the English god, could want or even allow men to die whom he hadn’t known existed until yesterday. The English saint laughed and said he admired the village elders for their intelligence and thought their answer was especially appropriate, coming from men who had understood the best ways of thinking when considering gods; but, he added, perhaps he hadn’t made himself quite clear, or the elders hadn’t quite understood. He asked permission to stay a while in the village, and they agreed. For a year, all the children, women, men, and elders listened every night while the English saint told stories about his god and the people to whom his god had first appeared. The English god treated his people (who weren’t English yet) like any good, stern father might treat his young son bursting with energy, both good and bad. When his people made mistakes, he punished them severely, and when they behaved, he rewarded them with his moderation. In the end, the English god wanted to teach his people a definitive lesson about the one true path, so he came down to earth as a man, yes, a real man who left his home and family when he was thirty and traveled around teaching the true path and living off the charity of others. Was he a buddha? the village asked. No, he wasn’t a buddha: he was god. An avatar? Something like that. A person could get along with this English saint; his topics were interesting and sparked debate. And he knew so many other useful things: how to cure certain childhood diseases, how to get an even larger yield from English seeds. The village men thought the god of the English saint seemed just and good, though they weren’t sure what to make of this idea of one god only; they might be willing to admit that he was a great god, and maybe—and this was extremely delicate—even a god more dignified and powerful than all the rest; but the English saint just kept insisting, ignoring all the evidence, that his was the one true god, and this, the village elders thought, was virtually insane; this pretense, this boundless pride was so out of character for a god who seemed so just, and kind, and good.

The English saint had been there almost a year, when much to everyone’s surprise, Yanez—who hadn’t left his house in years—showed up one night in the village square. He asked for the Englishman—so this was why he’d come. The English saint was astonished to see him, though Yanez didn’t say his name, at least in public, and somehow no villagers had mentioned it, either, so they’d kept Yanez hidden almost a year by just not saying anything. The English saint and Yanez wanted to be alone; they shut themselves away in the room of a house, and someone spying on them through a crack in the planks said Yanez dropped to his knees before the English saint, and stayed on his knees for over an hour, almost whispering—you couldn’t tell what he was saying—and the English saint listened, face attentive. You couldn’t see Yanez’s face, but his voice, that voice you couldn’t understand, that was the voice of a crying man, a man pleading to a vast superior, even pleading to a god. After a long time, the English saint and Yanez came out from the house, the saint in front, looking as if he could scarcely believe what he’d seen with his own two eyes; behind him came Yanez, his face, as always, revealing nothing. Together they went to Yanez’s house; meanwhile, in the village, people were making up stories; some were furious that Yanez had bowed down to this English saint, who maybe wasn’t so saintly after all; some said if the Tiger’s Claw welcomed the English saint into his home, the English saint must be good; but then others wondered if this applied to him and him alone, or whether all English saints were good (the English saint had said there were many saints like him spread all over the world, commanded by a saint of saints who lived in a very ancient city with a name that rolled beautifully off the tongue . . . Rome); and then what about the rest of the English—saint or otherwise—were they good, too? They discussed this in their homes; later, in the village square; finally, in the council of the adults and elders; and since they couldn’t send a delegation to Yanez and violate his privacy, they went directly to the English saint and questioned him in the square for an entire day, the people crowded all around him. They wanted to know—and the English saint could see the change right away—they wanted to know what his intentions were, not as a saint of his god or a saint in general, but as an Englishman, if he was there on his own or if he’d been sent by other Englishmen, and if anyone else, saint or otherwise, might be coming; quite simply, they wanted to know who he was, this man who’d made Yanez kneel down and cry and plead, this man who could break the Tiger’s Claw with just his presence, or better, who was so powerful, the Tiger’s Claw had come down to the village of his own free will, to be broken. But their questions served no purpose. The English saint still seemed like a good man, English, yes, so different from other men, but a good man all the same.

He’d lived in the village nearly a year and told wonderful stories. He’d taught the children new ways of doing figures. He’d taught the boys and men how to make English seeds yield more. He’d taught the women how to lower a child’s fever. He’d talked with the men and elders about the gods, about suffering and death. He’d laughed at births and cried at deaths, always in good measure. But he’d humiliated Yanez, they all said or thought. That isn’t true, someone stood up and said: Yanez humiliated himself. Following this day of questions came a night of talk, and in the morning they all said: Yanez humiliated himself. It was a surrender, not a defeat. The English saint could stay.

After his confession, Yanez barely slept. When it grew dark, he would unroll his reed mat and lie down, but he barely slept. He’d always been a light sleeper, but he slept often. Now he lay stretched out on the mat with his eyes closed, not sleeping, and this was like sitting and staring at the curtain moving slightly in the doorway, and really, if staring at the curtain was doing nothing, staying awake with his eyes closed was doing even less. He had only a short time to live, and he wanted to live every second of it, awake. He’d made himself a bet: if the priest absolved him and kept his confession, then god existed and was good and great, because only a true, and good, and great god could do great deeds with small men; and Yanez knew that he’d committed many large sins and pardoning them was a great deed, but above all, Yanez knew that even the smallest sin was enough for damnation, so even pardoning the smallest sin, and saving a soul from damnation, was a very great deed. If the priest refused to absolve him, then he had every reason to doubt the priest’s god. Yanez always knew the only one he could really count on was himself. He’d sailed a hundred seas, built and destroyed cities, been king and beggar, Portuguese and Oriental, loather and lover, friend and foe, only to find in the end that salvation comes not from what you take or lose, but from the gifts you’re given and keep forever. Yanez had been given three gifts: the friendship of the pirate Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia; the friendship of the woman who brought him food; and, maybe, the friendship of god. Sandokan had been dead for many years now, but their friendship wasn’t dead. They were friends together and friends apart, and now the great distance between them didn’t matter at all. Sandokan died young and handsome, as he should—a life like that couldn’t end with a frail body, a toothless mouth, a nearly closed throat, and soup trickling down your chin. This was Sandokan’s gift: the lesson that all lives are different, and each ends as it should. The woman was alive and gave Yanez almost everything, asking almost nothing in return; she fed him, honored him, named her sons for him. Yanez didn’t mind the woman’s devotion; he knew the woman considered this to be right because of what he was: an old man who needed her. Yanez knew the woman honored him for his age and for the wisdom gained with age. That’s why Yanez wanted to gain some wisdom, after so many years of life, because it was all he could give the woman in return for all her silent care. His desire for wisdom was the woman’s greatest gift. The English priest came just when Yanez realized that, for all his effort, wisdom was slipping away, because, quite simply, he wasn’t worthy: he’d wanted to live a thousand lives instead of one, the right life, his life. Perhaps the priest had the power to free him from all those superfluous lives, to strip him down to the least, the poorest. This power, perhaps the priest had it, and Yanez went to the village the day he felt strong enough and weak enough to find out. Now Yanez lies stretched out on the reed mat, awake, eyes closed, and he feels like a newborn child in a basket of rags who doesn’t know yet that he has arms, legs, a belly, and a back, who sees those limbs waving all around him without knowing that they’re his. Yanez grabs his left hand with his right; he clasps his hands, knits his fingers; he touches his face, his neck, his chest, his belly, and his thighs; he squats, hugs his knees, caresses himself, lightly kneads his lower back; he counts his toes, touches his hard soles, the backs of his knees; he hugs his shoulders, touches his throat, the back of his neck. He struggles to his knees, as he’s done only a few times by choice and as he was forced to do as a child. On his knees, almost without thinking, he prays, he gives himself.

Now he can die. When god’s claw decides to strike him.

—Giulio Mozzi, Translated by Elizabeth Harris

Giulio Mozzi was born in 1960 in the small town of Camira Vicentino in Northern Italy. He is the author of over two dozen books of fiction, poetry, and writing craft, and is credited with helping to launch the careers of numerous young writers in Italy. “The Apprentice,” a story from This Is the Garden, appeared in the anthology Racconti italiani del Novecento, edited by Enzo Siciliano for Mondadori Press. Mozzi lives in Padua.

§

harris

Elizabeth Harris‘s translations include Mario Rigoni Stern’s novel Giacomo’s Seasons (Autumn Hill Books), Giulio Mozzi’s story collection This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books), and Antonio Tabucchi’s novel Tristano Dies (forthcoming with Archipelago Books). Her prizes include a 2013 Translation Prize from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Culture (Rome), a Banff Centre Translation Residency, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant from the PEN American Center.

 

Apr 112014
 

john lee portrait

In poetry, the local is the universal. As William Blake wrote:  “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” John B. Lee is an old friend, published many times in Numéro Cinq, who lives in Port Dover, Ontario, just down the road from the farm where I grew up. We both have a special affection for Norfolk County, to me, always both local and an epic ground, filtered with blood of ancestors (see my anthology of Norfolk County history “A Geography of the Soul“). And in these poems, he remembers a relative of his, Ida Wright, born in Waterford, the farming town, where I went to high school. Ida went to China as a missionary — the rest I will let John tell. But notice, yes, how these poems rise by degrees to compass all life (and beyond), from a southwestern Ontario schoolroom to eternity.

we all share our nature with the dead
one name carved deep in the cave
of every empty desk is yours
and one name there is mine

We have also translations of the poems into Spanish (we’ve done this before as well), courtesy of John B. Lee’s Cuban friend and colleague Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon.

dg

The poems in this document are taken from a manuscript in progress called Into a Land of Strangers. The central figure in the poems is my great-aunt Ida Wight née Emerick, born in Waterford, Ontario, and raised by her father and mother in Bothwell, Ontario. After a brief stint as an elementary school teacher in Highgate, she joined the Mission to China and she became a missionary in China in the late 1800’s where she married a fellow missionary. Widowed during the Boxer Rebellion, she and her baby daughter fled on foot along with other westerners, surviving by eating boiled cotton and shoe leather. She spent two years in Canada before returning to China where she became superintendent of missionary schools. During the Second World War, she fled  to Hong Kong where she was eventually placed in an internment camp by the Japanese. Liberated by the Americans in late 1944, she traveled to Durban, South Africa, where she remained until her death on January 1, 1952. Her grandchildren were also interned in a camp for the duration of the war. The book Into a Land of Strangers tells the story of three generations of the Emerick family beginning with the German-American late-come Loyalist Francis Emerick who served on the Canadian side in the Lincoln militia during the War of 1812 after which he farmed a farm in what is now Middlesex County in southern Ontario. 

—John B. Lee

.

A Person on Business from Porlock

There is an imam
mosqued in the empire of the west
who preaches
that the greatest sin
in the land of the golden mountain
is the American lawn
even the burning earth
of south Texas, even there
on the torpid border of old Spain
that stolen-water-green thing thrives
with a great thickening
of wide-bladed
low-growth St. Augustine grass
even there
in the blue boil
of the unusable summer pools
of suburbia
in that necessary evaporate cool
all along the arroyos
the dry brown rivers
of parched clay
thirsty mud cracking open
like oil on old canvas
in the brilliant mirror of an unreflecting sky
the monolithic malady of modern paradise
insists itself
between the dream houses
of every middleclass mind

if one thinks of Cathay
and the Khan’s palace
in the city of Chandu
where mare’s milk spills
like moonlight on marble
and light falls in chords through cracks
like strands of silk that brace the bamboo palace
where leopards slip the saddle
in let-loose leaps
and the jessed hawks fly
over the claw shade of a shadow-measured wall

as I think now
of my own neighbour
mowing his yard for
the fourth time today

or as it was
with the woman next door
who plucked cut blades
one by one
from the sweet fragrance
of her wet-sock work with a similar care
one might use to pull stray thread
from a new garment

and I also recall
the mad lady nursing lost leaves
at midnight
in the candle-glow under star-dark heaven
when the world is otherwise laudanum black

and behind the forehead
like stones in a deep stream
something sleeps
turning green

.

Una persona de Porlock en negocios

Hay un imam
en una mezquita del imperio del oeste
que predica
que el pecado más grande
en la tierra de la montaña áurea
es el césped estadounidense
incluso la tierra ardiente
del sur de Texas, incluso allí
en la frontera letárgica de la vieja España
esa cosa verde del agua robada prospera
con un gran espesamiento
yerba de San Agustín
de anchas hojas
incluso allí
en el corral azul
de inservibles piscinas de verano
de los suburbios
en ese fresco necesario que se evapora
a lo largo de los arroyos
los secos ríos pardos
de árido barro
fango sediento que se resquebraja
como el óleo en el lienzo viejo
en el espejo brillante de un cielo sin reflejos
el mal monolítico del paraíso moderno
insiste
entre las casas de sueños
de cada mente de clase media

si uno piensa en Catay
y el palacio del Kan
en la ciudad de Chandu
donde la leche de yegua chorrea
como luz de luna sobre el mármol
y la luz cae en acordes a través de las grietas
como hebras de seda que apuntalan el palacio de bambú
donde los leopardos se deslizan de la montura
en saltos sueltos
y los halcones encorreados vuelan
sobre la penumbra desgarrada de una pared medida por su sombra

mientras pienso ahora
en mi propio vecino
cortando el césped de su patio por
cuarta vez hoy

o como fue
con la mujer de la casa de al lado
que recogió las briznas cortadas
una a una
desde la fragancia dulce
de su trabajo de medias mojadas con cuidado similar
al que pondríamos para sacar hilos extraviados
de una nueva prenda de vestir

y también recuerdo
la señora loca cuidando hojas perdidas
a medianoche
al fulgor de una vela bajo un cielo oscuro de estrellas
cuando el mundo está por otra parte negro como el láudano

y detrás de la frente
como piedras en una corriente profunda
algo duerme
tornándose verde

.

The Superintendent

looking at the comfortable room
in the luxurious home
she had built for herself
in the orient
my cousin said
of our late aunt
posing like widowed gentry
lolling amongst her precious things
“I thought missionaries
were supposed to be poor …”
her silk pillows
embroideries
gilt upholsteries, silver
tea service, fine cloth
painted vase, and
exotic 
high-buttoned
tight-bodice
dress, the tats
and flounces—doyen
of the wealthy classes
mistress of a private school
privy to
the Sino-Victoriana
of a distant land that changed the mind
like the slow conversion of green
in slanting shade
where everything greys
in the lonesome lamentation of a solitary light
growing older
in a homeland no longer home
in the piano parlour silence
with that deep-toned quiet
of untouched ivory, each key
yellow as a smoker’s tooth

who does not fear
or loathe to hear
the superintendent of schools
with her disapproving
and ultra-grammatical
crepitation, clearing her throat
with a phlegmy “ahem”
from the back of the room
her spine as stiff as a pointer
she strides
her heels cracking the floor
as she seizes the chalk of the day
and with white streak
screeching

is it a sin or is it a dream of sin
to see through the third eye
how the children tremble
shading their work
for a smudge of errors
the grand failures
we feel
in the pedagogical squint
of the once-a-term stranger
in a classroom smelling of spilled ink
and the bass notes of old plasticine
fragrant in bent fingers
and multi-coloured snakes of clay
rolled flat on the modeling board
one name carved deep
in the cave of every desk

for we are the bullied, the shy
the wild, the plump
the brilliant, the lost
the bratty, the eager-to-please
the quiet, the pimpled
the unclean, the poor
the criminal, the crippled, the maimed
the doomed-to-die young
the bad seed, the sniffling, sniveling
easy-to-hate tattle tale
the pampered
the beaten, the bewildered
the too-stupid-for words
learning one lesson in a tall cone-shaped hat
under tousled hair

and one in the tasseled
mortarboard

we all share our nature with the dead
one name carved deep in the cave
of every empty desk is yours
and one name there is mine

.

La superintendente

mirando el aposento confortable
en la casa lujosa
que ella construyó para sí
en el oriente
mi primo dijo
de nuestra tía difunta
posando como viuda aristocrática
reclinada entre sus objetos preciosos

“creía que los misioneros
se suponía que fueran pobres…”

sus almohadas de seda
bordados
dorada tapicerías acolchadas, servicio de
té de plata, finas ropas
jarrones pintados, y
exótico
vestido abotonado hasta arriba
con corpiño
ajustado, los encajes
y cenefas—decana
de clases acaudaladas
maestra de una escuela privada
consejera en
la Sino-Victoriana
de una tierra distante que cambió la mente
como una lenta conversión del verde
en matices sesgados
en los que todo se torna gris
en la triste lamentación de la luz solitaria

envejeciendo
en una patria que ya no es hogar
en el silencio del salón del piano
con ese silencioso tono profundo
de marfil intacto, cada tecla
amarilla como los dientes de un fumador

que no teme
o detesta escuchar
la superintendente de escuelas
con su traqueteo reprobador
y ultra-gramatical,
aclarándose la garganta
con flema “ejem”
desde el fondo del cuarto
su espalda tan tiesa como un puntero
camina a grandes pasos
sus talones golpeteando el suelo
mientras toma la tiza del día
y con un trazo blanco
chirreando

es este un pecado o el sueño de un pecado
ver a través del tercer ojo
como los niños tiemblan
sombreando sus trabajos
por un borrón de errores
los grandes fallos
que sentimos 
en la bizquera pedagógica
del extraño de una vez un trimestre
en un aula que huele a tinta derramada
y las notas bajas de la plastilina vieja
fragante en los dedos doblados
y las serpientes de barro multicolores
enrolladas y aplastadas en la tabla de modelar
un nombre gravado profundamente
en la caverna de cada pupitre

porque somos los intimidados, los tímidos
los salvajes, los regordetes
los brillantes, los extraviados
los niños malos, difíciles de complacer
los callados, los espinillosos
los sucios, los pobres
los criminales, los lisiados, los mutilados
los condenados a morir jóvenes
la mala semilla, los que se sorben los mocos, los llorones
fáciles de odiar parloteadores
los consentidos
los golpeados, los atolondrados
los demasiado estúpidos para las palabras

aprendiendo una lección en un sombrero de alta copa
bajo el pelo desgreñado

y uno en el birrete
adornado con borlitas

todos compartimos nuestra naturaleza con los muertos
un nombre gravado hondo en la caverna
de los pupitres vacíos es tuyo
y un nombre allí es mío

.

The Impossible Black Tulip

“The men of old see not the moon
of today; yet the moon of today
is the moon that shone on them.”
……………………—Chinese proverb

I wonder, Ida
when you joined the mission bound for China
did you know the name
Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit priest
from Italy
the man the Chinese still call
“the scholar from the west”
a sixteenth century Catholic polymath
wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk
impressing the mandarins
of the Ming
mastering the culture and
language of the middle kingdom
and then, mapping the world beyond the world
tracing coastlines on the impossible black tulip
of cartography wherever Magellan sailed
and Columbus lost his way
where the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French
the English, the Dutch
went warring for land
and the madness of gold
and the minds
of the savage
and the bodies of slaves
the rivalries of red-haired kings
and red-robed churches
barbarians and buccaneers uncouth humans
in the era of inquisition
after Copernicus spun the globe
and Galileo gave heaven away for fear of burning alive
and there the new lands were named
even the home of your birth Jiānádá
first named and thereby known
by the learned classes
who opened their eyes to the west
and the faith of the west
inscribed with the allegory of the Holy Land
and he, the first westerner
to enter into
the Forbidden City
died a failure to evangelize
though he built a cathedral
in the capital
and still, long after
the gunboats have fallen silent
and the opium wars
have burned away
and the Boxers razed
your home and murdered your kind, and the Japanese
imprisoned you and your children
for the sins of empire—his name
lives on
in reverence—
like Li Po’s drowning moon
held loose
and glowing in the drunkard’s palm
of a midnight pond
the one we might see
if we dare to dream
of a darkness yet to come

.

El tulipán negro imposible

“Los hombres de la antigüedad no ven la luna
de hoy; sin embargo la luna de hoy
es la luna que brilló sobre ellos.”
…………………………………….—Proverbio chino

Me pregunto, Ida
cuando te uniste a la misión destinada a China
si sabías el nombre
Matteo Ricci, el sacerdote jesuita
de Italia
el hombre que los chinos aún llaman
“el sabio del oeste”
un erudito católico del siglo dieciséis
que usaba la túnica de un monje budista
impresionando a los mandarines
de los Ming
que dominaba la cultura y
la lengua del reino medio
y luego, trazaba mapas del mundo más allá del mundo
dibujando la línea de las costas sobre el tulipán negro imposible
de la cartografía dondequiera que navegara Magallanes
y Colón perdiera su ruta
donde los portugueses, los españoles y los franceses
los ingleses, los holandeses
se fueron peleando por tierra
y la locura del oro
por las mentes
de los salvajes
y los cuerpos de los esclavos
las rivalidades de los reyes pelirrojos
y de las iglesias de mantos rojos
bárbaros y bucaneros humanos groseros
en la era de la inquisición
luego de que Copérnico hiciera girar el globo
y Galileo entregara al cielo por temor a que lo quemaran vivo
y entonces se nombraron las nuevas tierras
incluso el hogar de tu nacimiento Jiānádá
primero nombrado y por tanto conocido
por las clases ilustradas
que abrieron sus ojos al oeste
y la fe del oeste
inscrito con la alegoría de la Tierra Santa

y él, el primer occidental
que entrara en
la Ciudad Prohibida
murió en el fracaso de evangelizar
aunque construyó una catedral
en la capital
y aun, mucho más tarde de que
las cañoneras se han callado
y las guerras del opio
han consumido en llamas
y los Bóxer arrasaran
tu hogar y asesinaron a tu gente, y los japoneses
te hicieron prisionera con tus hijos
por los pecados del imperio—su nombre
perdura
en reverencia—
como la luna inundada de Li Po
suelta
y luciendo en la palma del borracho
de una laguna a medianoche
la que veríamos
si nos atrevemos a soñar
en una oscuridad aún por venir

.

Considering Ancient Chinese Erotica

in the spring palace
behind high walls
of the Forbidden City
the perfumed concubine
lolled with her bound-as-a-child body
lamed by beauty
the crimson water lily of the royal house
playing bring on the clouds and the rain
with the wealthy lords
of the Ming
in the court of songs
otherwise dishabille women
their misshapen bones
broken in slippers
crippled by pain her feet made small as a deer
for the visual delight of men
well-born girls
wearing bow shoes embroidered in silk
walking with the lotus gait
the short-step sway of pampered ladies
even in time the eldest daughter of the poor
wanting to marry highborn
achieved the crescent moon
of the cramped arch
with its erotic allure
an intimate and chaste concealment
lasting a thousand years
until the corseted Christians
came at the time of the heavenly foot
their own vital organs cramped
in whalebone
their tight breasts swaddled
in winding-cloth white wear
sending home souvenirs
amazing the congregation
amusing the minister
tantalizing all future museums
where horrified visitors troupe past
in clicking stilettos and blushing tattoos

.

Considerando la antigua erótica china

en el palacio de invierno
detrás de las altas murallas
de la Ciudad Prohibida
la concubina perfumada
se arrellanaba con el cuerpo envuelto como el de un bebé
lisiada por la belleza
el agua de lilas carmesí de la casa real
jugando a llevar al emperador al éxtasis del placer
con los señores acaudalados
de los Ming
en la corte de las canciones
por otra parte mujeres en traje de casa
sus huesos mal formados
rotos en las sandalias
lisiadas por el dolor en sus pies hechos pequeños como los de un venado
para el deleite visual de los hombres
muchachas bien nacidas
usando zapatos de arco bordados en seda
caminando con el modo del loto
el bamboleo de paso corto de las señoras consentidas
incluso con el tiempo las hijas mayores de los pobres
que querían casarse con los de alta cuna
alcanzaban la luna nueva
del arco agarrotado
con su encanto erótico
un casto disimulo íntimo
que dura mil años
hasta las cristianas encorsetadas
llegaron en la época de los pies celestiales
sus órganos vitales agarrotados
entre barbas de ballena
sus apretados pechos envueltos
en blanca ropa enrollada
enviando a casa suvenires
que sorprendían la congregación
divertían al pastor
tentando a todos los museos futuros
donde los visitantes horrorizados pasaban en grupo
en chasqueantes estiletes y tatuajes ruborizados

.

Into a Land of Strangers

the muddy root
of the lotus, also
desires the sky

………………..*

tropical lotus
blooms in the night
white flesh a white moon dreams

………………..*

black water, blue sky
two minds
consider one light

………………..*

undulating cutwater
darkens beneath
the white of a single cloud

………………..*

the lotus open
in the moon-wane of morning
how young a fading white

………………..*

how might the lotus thirst
in the ever-evaporate black
of a deep pool

………………..*

into a land of strangers
she comes
a stranger to herself

………………..*

in the seed pearl
of her beloved moon
the sand grain of her soul

………………..*

celestial stranger
your secret revealed
to a secret concealed

………………..*

an unpainted lotus
imagines the mind
wet brush dampens dry water

………………..*

here in the seam of true silk
the chrysalis clings
to the force of an unborn wing

.

A tierra extranjera

en la raíz lodosa
del loto, también
desea el cielo

………………..*

loto tropical
florece en la noche
blanca carne que una luna blanca sueña

………………..*

agua negra, cielo azul
dos mentes
consideran una luz

………………..*

ondulante rompeolas
se oscurece bajo
el blancor de una nube solitaria

………………..*

se abren los lotos
en el cuarto menguante de la mañana
qué lozano el blanco mortecino

………………..*

como puede el loto languidecer de sed
en el negro en evaporación
de una laguna profunda

………………..*

a tierra extranjera
ella llega
una extranjera para ella misma

………………..*

en la perla seminal
de su amada luna
el grano de arena de su alma

………………..*

extranjera celestial
tu secreto revelado
a un secreto guardado

………………..*

un loto no pintado
imagina la mente
el pincel mojado humedece el agua seca

………………..*

aquí en la sutura de la verdadera seda
cuelga la crisálida
ante la fuerza de un ala por nacer

—John B. Lee & Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon

.

John and I (1)Manuel Leon, translator, and John B. Lee

John B. Lee is the author of over sixty published books and  the recipient of over seventy awards for his writing. Inducted as Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity, he now lives in Port Dover, a fishing town located on the north coast of Lake Erie. He and Manuel have collaborated on translations on several occasions, the most substantial project being Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958 (Hidden Brook Press, 2010), a bilingual anthology of Cuban poetry in original Spanish with English translations.

Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon is a professor at University of Hoguin. A co-founder of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance, he is editor-in-chief of the bilingual literary journal, The Ambassador. He and John B. Lee collaborated on the 360-page bilingual anthology Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958, (Hidden Brook Press, 2010). Sweet Cuba has been called “the most significant book of translated Cuban poetry ever published.”  He lives in Holguin, Cuba, with his wife and their young son and is the publisher of Sand Crab books which recently printed a bilingual editon of Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Glen Sorestad’s book, A Thief of Impeccable Taste.

.
 

Apr 072014
 

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Lost love, unrequited love, love all too achingly brief (and yet ever so slightly comical) is the subject of this excerpt from Álvaro Pombo‘s novel Where The Women (translated from Spanish and introduced by Brendan Riley). Here we get the story of poor Aunt Nines, packed off to a convent (the Sisters of Adoration in Letona) after she refuses to eat for lost love. Not just lost love, her only love, the deliciously named Indalecio, whose life is cut short by a swimming accident. “Oh, how Indalecio went running along the beach! He charmed everybody that summer.” Meet also the divine Aunt Lucia who lives in a tower and tells everyone what to think. A gorgeous, sprawling novel inscribed in this short sample.

dg

Álvaro Pombo is one of Spain’s major writers. Poet, novelist, and political activist, Pombo has won multiple awards awards, including the 1983 Herralde Novel Prize, for El héroe de las mansardas de Mansard (The Hero of the Big House; trans. Margaret Jull Costa) and the 1996 Spanish National Novel Prize for Donde las mujeres (Where the Women), from which the excerpt below is translated.

Pombo was born in Santander, in the northern Spanish autonomous province of Cantabria on the Bay of Biscay, in 1939. He holds degrees in philosophy from the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, and from Birkbeck College in London. He has published some six volumes of poetry and twenty novels and collections of short stories. He is a fascinating and gifted author whose novels offer finely drawn characters, compelling narratives, and keen psychological insights, all presented in richly woven tapestries of lyrical color and the finely tuned Castillian Spanish of his native Cantabria. Despite his enormous reputation in Spain, few of Pombo’s works have yet been translated into English.

Where the Women, Pombo’s eighth novel, is a book with many virtues. Primarily set in northern Spain along the Cantabrian Sea, (with one of the final chapters in Madrid), Where the Women offers a vivid portrait of an aloof, upper-class family in the decades following the Spanish Civil War.  In addition to the captivating, unnamed narrator who is the family’s oldest daughter, Pombo creates a slate of memorable characters: the mother who might be a good woman; the angular, venomous Aunt Lucia; her dutiful German aristocratic lover Tom Bilfinger; the stolid, matronly governess Fraulein Hannah; and the vain, petulant younger siblings Violeta and Fernandito. Gabriel, the narrator’s architect father whom she never meets until the novels end, when she is 31, appears in a ruthless, devastating cameo, in which he seems to embody the sterility and silence of Franco’s Spain.

Donde las mujeres is an unqualified pleasure, told in the voice of the young woman, intimate, authoritative, self-aware, and engaging. She invites the reader’s sympathy as she struggles to become a thoughtful person amid a family whose self-conception demands that it, especially the women, not think too much.  As the narrator’s mother tells her, she should speak less and draw more; drawing things makes them clear, but words misrepresent them. Even when she coquettishly flirts with the hearts of her young suitors, what remains most interesting is her honest self-appraisal; she knows what she is doing and why. Pombo deftly inspires our desire for her to succeed, either in her studies or love affairs, but then deliberately subverts any hopeful fruition; this emphasizes the narrator’s ultimate isolation: her home life is fancy but sterile and unfulfilling; her studies are mere dilettantism; she is being prepared for no real future, and her family offers nothing in the way of practical, worldly or spiritual wisdom except the eventual vague notion that she should someday find a husband.  Instead, thanks to the cruel revelation of Aunt Lucia, she inherits the paradox of unknown identity; like her deceased Aunt Nines, whom she regrets not properly mourning, she is the product of a loveless affair which her mother has always concealed. Thus, she is not the daughter she has been brought up to believe in, and her upper class status, as she comes to suspect, is a sham.

So, what initially seems like a familiar coming of age story turns out to be a sombre and beautifully executed philosophical meditation.  As the narrator goes to Madrid to confront her father –Gabriel– there is some expectation of mutual recognition or self-discovery, but Pombo pursues the path of alienation to the end. Gabriel is even colder, more vain and self-centered than the rest of the narrator’s family; he cavalierly refuses to acknowledge her. Their brief, chilly meeting in the capital powerfully refocuses the novel on Spain as a whole. Although set during the harshest years of the Franco regime, the political struggles and suffering endured by millions are hardly mentioned. Lately, even after the long dictatorship and the somewhat tarnished decades of a new, apparently open democracy, Spain still struggles with its past; its postmodern identity is built firmly upon a denial that reaches back to its civil war, and the new present cannot endure if the past is known.  

At the end the narrator cannot return home. She wakes up from her atheistic, bourgeois slumber to find out that there is nothing special or reassuring about her life; she is 31 years old, without family love, friends, money or prospects.

Where the Women is an eloquent and reflective novel, virtuously transparent and believable, an intriguing balance of sentimental exploration and psychological insight. Álvaro Pombo’s lyrical prose achieves a finely shaded composition of intimate reveries, disdainful bourgeois chatter, modern cynicism, and tightly reined irony which allows the narrator’s clear, thoughtful, and often humorous voice to carry us from beginning to end with impressive sustain, fluidity, and conviction. Where the Women is a masterful, beautifully written book which awaits and deserves an equally captivating English translation. 

—Brendan Riley

 

.

But you can’t take Nines seriously! She’s suffering from something, no one’s disputing it, not me, not anybody. But it’s not an illness.”

“She was really in love; that’s like an illness!” my mother commented from the other end of the dining room table where the whole family was having tea.

“So what? What does being in love have to do with not eating? Nines is just completely apathetic, that’s what. Tell me, how many people, as far as you know, have stopped eating because of love? Nobody!” Aunt Lucia assured us, answering her own question.

Violeta and I looked at each other, horrified and delighted by the stormy turn that Aunt Lucia’s statements had started to take. Sitting bolt upright in her chair away from the seat back, she opened wide her large blue eyes, bright with the slight opposition she seemed to be offering my mother.

“Your egg, Lucia! Eat your egg. Later, when it’s cold, it’ll feel like a lump in your stomach.”

But at that moment Aunt Lucia was not interested in the temperature of her food.  She simply gave the egg a sharp tap with her small elegant ivory spoon.  Nobody could have prevented Aunt Lucia from saying what she wanted to say about Aunt Nines.

“What’s happening is that Nines has compromised her health by not controlling herself, and she won’t control herself, not even if you kill her. There’s no decent doctor, no nurse, no nun, nobody who can bend a will like hers. She has decided that she’s going to starve herself to death, and that’s the end of it. She already weighs less than 100 pounds, just like Gandhi!”

Violeta and I looked at each other again. The storm was getting worse by the moment.  My mother responded to her in a calm, quiet voice, a voice calculated to irritate Aunt Lucia—she was the oldest of the sisters, followed by my mother and then Aunt Nines:

“It’s quite unfair and quite absurd what you’re saying. You know how everything happened. I’m not just talking about her misfortune. I’m talking about everything. Poor Nines. Her life, how it was and how it is now. It’s not that she wants to starve to death. She doesn’t want to die. What she doesn’t want is to go on living, which is something very different.”

A long silence floated over the unbleached linen tablecloth and my grandmother’s elegant china. Violeta and I shrugged our shoulders and stared fixedly at our plates. Neither the argument nor the fuss were new. It didn’t matter; that wasn’t necessary for them to be incredibly fascinating. The word “justice” shifted Aunt Lucia’s attention to regions of great profundity and nervousness. The supposed injustice committed against Aunt Nines was absorbed and nullified by the larger idea of justice which Aunt Lucia was busy expounding in that moment. The corresponding balance of the scales of justice ended up getting completely twisted around, along with the saucer and spoon and cup of tea which danced wildly in Aunt Lucia’s left hand. Despite being frequently on the verge of falling, they never did, something which we would have all preferred: for us all to come crashing down. And to rest in peace, smashed to pieces alongside the china and justice, across the tablecloth puddled with tea, without the least bit of style. But her style never faltered; it was as if Aunt Lucia had a magnet set right in each of the five fingertips of her left hand, with their proportional counterparts of steel or metal in the spoon, the plate, and the cup. It allowed for a wonderful imbalance at the heart of Aunt Lucia’s most elegant equilibrium, and in her voice and her manners.

It was November. Aunt Nines no longer lived at home. On medical advice, Aunt Lucia had taken her to live with the Sisters of Adoration in Letona. In a separate wing of the convent they had rooms, each one with its own mirror and washstand where, during Lent, the ladies from Letona went for three-day retreats and spiritual exercises. Throughout the year the nuns rented out rooms for the elderly who could no longer take care of themselves, or people like Aunt Nines who were suffering from nerves, who had to be watched discretely, keeping an eye on them without offending them because they were still not completely crazy.

It was noticeable that, now that Aunt Nines was gone, we talked about her incessantly. We had never done that while she lived with us. According to my mother, the decision to move Aunt Nines to live with the Sisters of Adoration was not, in any way, an easy one to take. My mother and Aunt Lucia had to meet with Doctor Mazarín and his assistant to carefully weigh the pros and cons that the move would mean for her. Aunt Nines herself had no part in the discussions nor, it seemed, the decision itself. She simply said: “Whatever you decide will be fine by me.”  In Aunt Lucia’s opinion it was a completely apathetic comment, although it was enough to make it understood that she was leaving the house on her own, without anybody pushing her. She was moving in with the Sisters of Adoration of her own free will. No one deliberately meant to isolate her. Once at the convent, little by little, Aunt Nines stopped eating or being interested in life at all.

In November, they talked about Aunt Nines’s stubbornness, one afternoon after another, all through tea and afterwards. Aunt Lucia carried all the weight of the conversation, at times giving the impression that she was speaking not only with us but also, at the same time, to an enormous crowd of people gathered in a grand theatre, one which required clear, precise explanations pronounced in a voice a few octaves higher than what is customary in homes at tea time. Throughout December and January she classified Doctor Mazarín and his assistant as both eminent authorities and imbeciles, sometimes in the same breath. By the middle of March, Doctor Mazarin came to be, in Aunt Lucia’s eyes, a perfect incompetent, incapable of distinguishing between bodies and souls. And yet, for all that, at the end of that year, he was the one responsible for preventing Aunt Nines from slowly killing herself as a result of her depression. It was depression and perhaps her desire to be united, there beyond, in death, with Indalecio, the only boyfriend that she ever had, and whom she had lost. Aunt Lucia always stressed—and my mother always discretely assented to this—that Aunt Nines wasn’t crazy but was really just as sane as any of us. And the proof was to be found in the fact that when they found her lifeless one morning, her two eyes were open and eloquent, tenaciously fixed on the bare ceiling of her private room with its own washbasin, with an air of peace and confidence in what awaited her in the next life.

In this life, on the other hand, Aunt Nines had nothing special to look forward to. And for this reason it was such a great surprise when, without expecting it, the chance to be happy came upon her. Her life had passed slowly until Idalecio appeared. They fell in love; they were going to get married; it all happened in the blink of an eye. And very suddenly it ended.

Violeta and I talked about it all in our bedroom until late at night without figuring it out, but we didn’t share the same attitude. I felt that with Aunt Nines installed in the convent of the Sisters of Adoration that there must be a solution and there, at that stage of the tragedy, was where we would find it. For Violeta, talking about Aunt Nines seemed to be simply making pointless conversation for the sake of talking. On the other hand, perhaps for being two years older, I talked to try to modify the sad situation. But it was sad exactly because it could not be changed, and that was why we talked about it so much that winter: more than deepening it, our talking about the sadness ennobled and embellished the situation. The fact that it was all so sad also made it exciting, not just in general, but in every detail, too.  Specifically, it was very sad that Aunt Nines was not really even my mother’s and Aunt Lucia’s sister; nor was she, like them, the daughter of my grandmother and grandfather. She was nothing more than a stepsister, the daughter of my grandfather and the person whose flat he used on his trips to Madrid. Violeta and I learned this fact as a result of Indalecio’s accident. It had been ignored until then because since long before my memories began to take hold, we had always called her Aunt Nines and she always lived at home.

In the parlor there is a photo of the three of them, seated on the front porch with grandmother, who has her head turned to highlight her Greek profile. Aunt Nines stands out a little from her two sisters; she is somewhat taller—it’s an old photo—with her hair combed in a different style, dressed more severely, in a different fashion. It’s as if she were the oldest one, but she was really the youngest of the three.

Oh, how Indalecio went running along the beach! He charmed everybody that summer.  That included the two of us, who went running as soon as we saw him from a distance coming down to the beach each morning, with the excuse of asking him what time it was, just to hear him say: “Are you going home already?”  It was exciting to answer, almost like a chorus: “Not yet because it’s still early, we usually leave at three.”  And Indalecio would take us by the hand, one on each side, hanging on, just our feet brushing along the sand. It was something that served as an excuse for him to come over to our awning and take Aunt Nines for a walk, down along the beach, to the cliff where the sand ends by the big rocks. They would walk back very slowly, the two of them staring at the ground, taking their steps one at a time. It was thrilling to see them walk away and not be able to see them, then see them again, dallying right before our very eyes, until it was well after three o’clock.

Indalecio was a good fellow, he was invincible: only the sea could beat him. The sea always betrays; there is no such thing as an easy sea. Indalecio drowned for not taking that into account, for letting himself be infected by the thoughts the sea brings to light, which seem not thoughts of the sea but of man. The more green and swollen, the more loquacious it seems, the more mute and deadly it becomes once you are within it. Indalecio knew the sea very well but it did him no good. He owned a white yacht with a bright red jib. From the balcony our house, no matter how far out he was racing, you could pick him out from all the rest at a glance: tacking wide to take best advantage of the wind; the sky, the race, the blue light of the open sea and the summer, the adventure. But Indalecio was younger than the sea; that’s why he drowned. In spite of his considerable charm and his unpretentious seriousness. In spite of his long arms and large hands, and his wrists, thick and strong from rowing. In spite of his black spherical watch, rustproof and water resistant, that drowned with him but which, unlike Indalecio, didn’t resurface. Under its fogged glass the hands count the hours at the bottom, water resistant still. By chance, Aunt Nines wasn’t home when the accident happened. My mother informed her over the phone. It’s almost impossible to deliver such news well. My mother delivered it to her curtly, dryly. For Aunt Nines it must have been more terrible than the most terrible thing, as we saw afterwards in her careless self-abandon and her lack of desire for living. It stuck to the roof of her mouth, like a limpet, until it killed her.

 .

That winter was the wintriest of any winter.  No one could remember a worse one, neither in San Román nor in the other fishing towns on that part of the coast. We stopped attending school on the 4th of December in the afternoon, a Monday, because my mother said that it was better to be at home than anywhere else. That it was impossible to go to school was a marvelous impossibility.  Aunt Lucia was already installed in her tower, and that weather did not let up a bit.  At high tide, the waves released their pent-up energy against the wharf and the little bridge that connects to our part of the coast. It’s like an island. On the maps it looks like a peninsula—although on the maps it’s not called la Maraña—but it’s really an island. It has an isthmus at least two kilometers wide, a beach whose sand is swept by the waves and the northeast wind, secured by a partially hidden rocky place and the wild broom and weeds of the dunes. Having it look like a peninsula on the maps was unfortunate, although infinitely superior to living on the mainland like other girls. On the island, well, on La Maraña, we lived alone, just us, in two houses. Ours was the one closest to the bridge, a two-story chalet surrounded by a small garden and a privet hedge filled with holes that were, when we were small, secret doors for sneaking in and out. Facing ours was Aunt Lucia’s much bigger house with a semidetached tower and large grounds enclosed by a brick wall with an obelisk in the very center. From the bridge by our house you could only see one side of its slate roof.  On the other hand, the tower and the dormer windows of Aunt Lucia’s large house overlooked the highest part of the island. It faced the grey-white sky of winter like a dark lighthouse casting a gloomy shadow over the sea, useless and menacing, like a castle keep. Every year, at dawn on New Year’s Day, Aunt Lucia lit a fire in a large can of pitch atop the tower, which illuminated the whole wild flying sky with its sharp, capricious, incomprehensible flames. Aunt Lucia was an event all by herself. It was impossible for Violeta and I to listen to her and not end up arguing back in our bedroom about what she said and what she did. Her annual arrival, at the beginning of October, was a delightful holiday, blowing like a gale through the entire autumn and winter until the middle or end of April. “The spring won’t catch me here, not even dead!” Aunt Lucia used to say. It was true, because as soon as the air seemed to soften and the sun linger before setting, and we began to shed our sweaters, Aunt Lucia got ants in her pants and went off to Iceland, to Reykjavik, where Tom Bilfinger had built a chalet in the suburbs out of tar-covered logs and wood, the way they do in Iceland for the cold. Tom was essential for Aunt Lucia’s glamour: her High German suitor from a rich, noble Protestant family, whom Aunt Lucia never wanted to marry. Nor did he ever marry anyone else, perhaps in the hope that Aunt Lucia’s fierce iron will would soften as she grew older and they could at least have a civil wedding.

When we were little, it surprised us that Aunt Lucia didn’t live the whole year in her house with the tower, facing the sea, with its tall trees and gravel paths throughout the grounds, designed, as I believe, by Tom Bilfinger himself, in imitation of romantic English gardens.

“Why doesn’t Aunt Lucia stay all summer, since summer is so nice here?” Violeta and I asked my mother each time Aunt Lucia departed.

“Because Aunt Lucia is vain and doesn’t want her skin to get damaged a bit. In the North, it seems, with the humidity and the fog, her skin stays soft. Eternally young, as you can both see.”

“Well, if she’s vain then she’s stupid,” Violeta declared on one occasion. “Mother Maria Engracia said that everyone who is vain is stupid. Besides that, they always end up worse than bad. That’s her experience and she’s already grown up.”

“What does that nun know!” answered my mother. “If she specifically said that your aunt is stupid, then she’s mistaken. And if she said it about women in general, then I don’t know what to think about her anymore.”

“Well, it must be because of Aunt Lucia,” answered Violeta, “because when she said it she stared at me.”

“It’s always been that way,” exclaimed my mother,”because they all hate us in San Román, our family and us, the nuns and priests more than anybody. Because we don’t go to Mass. And your grandfather’s reputation as an atheist… We’re eagles, and always have been, and the nuns are chickens. That’s why they pray for everything, even to Saint Anthony when they lose their hairpins. Because, unlike us, they are incapable of taking care of themselves. They envy us because they’re nobodies. Meanwhile, just by being here, we shine like archangels, the way Lucifer shone. Don’t they teach you that in religion class?”

We both admitted that they did teach us that in religion, and in the chapel, about Lucifer, who lost God’s love because of his pride. The most beautiful archangel that existed. And just by looking at the two of them, at Aunt Lucia and my mother, it was more than well understood what Lucifer thought and what God thought as he cast him down to the inferno: that he shone too brightly, the way they shone and, by extension, the two of us and our little brother Fernandito, and the whole island of La Maraña, where we spent our childhood and youth.

 .

Aunt Nines’s misfortune meant much more to me than I was capable of expressing aloud at the age of fourteen.  “It’s a tragedy,” I told myself, without knowing how that word could be applied to two events, as distinct as Indalecio drowning—an accident—and, in little less than a year, Aunt Nines losing her desire to eat, to take care of herself, and to live. This was not an accident. Quite the opposite, really: it was the result of a decision, except that it was composed almost entirely of omissions and denials. It was a tragedy just the same, even if the incomprehensibility and inexpressibility didn’t come randomly but throughout a whole year instead, as the result of a decision.

They took her away in a taxi. A taxi from Letona and not San Román. I knew that they were taking her away that day, and I was watching from the window in the hallway. I saw the rattling taxi arrive, backfiring, and I saw how Doctor Mazarín, who came seated next to the driver, got out. I saw Aunt Nines leave the house, walking between my mother and Aunt Lucia as if they were escorting a prisoner between the two of them. I watched the scene from above, in the grayish light of the autumn dawn on La Maraña. It seemed like the end of a silent movie; Doctor Mazarín was the executioner and Aunt Lucia and my mother were two high ranking officers or two prosecuting attorneys who see it all very clearly and are just following orders. My feet were cold and I felt an intense curiosity. At the same time I had a very strong sensation of not feeling what I should, or perhaps an ambiguous feeling of guilt by simply observing that scene from the window instead of running down to kiss Aunt Nines goodbye. She left without saying goodbye to us. And we let her go without saying goodbye, just the same way that the cooks and maids and nannies almost always left the house at that hour. It seemed we stopped loving them as soon as they left. That’s why, perhaps, for my not having said goodbye to Aunt Nines, Violeta and I talked about her almost every afternoon. At first I missed her at tea time. Her empty place and chair reminded me of Aunt Nines before Indalecio: laborious, confusingly similar to Fräulein Hannah, Fernandito’s governess. Aunt Nines took us out for walks, she went out with Violeta and me on the stormiest days, with the hard rain slanting against our raincoats, and the ferocious wind that turned our umbrellas inside out. I saw her empty place and I remembered in vain—like those who remember a sum but forget the numbers they added up—the way that Aunt Nines spent whole Sunday afternoons with us playing Brisca or Parcheesi or the Game of the Goose.  Violeta and I learned those three games from Aunt Nines. As painful a memory as it was, the sadness did not make me sad—and for that reason it was confusing, incomprehensible, and strange.

At fourteen years old, the meanings of my experiences appeared and disappeared like instantaneous flashes; they were explosions that I was incapable of reconciling with the rest of my life. So, only a few days after Indalecio’s accident (Aunt Nines was still at home, shut up in her room. Manuela or one of us took up her meals which she hardly touched; she only seemed to want some puree, some rice or noodle soup, or a cup of broth from the stew), Violeta and I had just come home from school and the two of us were in our room, dressing to go downstairs to tea. It was going to be a special tea because we had visitors: three ladies who were, perhaps, the same age as Aunt Lucia or my mother, but at first glance seemed older; deliberate, corseted, matronly, and domineering. We’d seen them seated in the parlor with my mother. The oldest one was a blonde woman that Violeta said was the president of Catholic Action. The other two were less important, perhaps younger. We didn’t know who they were. Violeta was looking at herself in the mirror, smoothing the pleats in her dark blue skirt, her uniform for Sundays and holidays.  I was sitting on the bed shining our shoes. Violet said:

“Doesn’t it seem strange to you, it does to me, not to wear any mourning clothes today?  It’s a formal visit today, a courtesy call…”

“If you’re saying that because of Indalecio, that’s silly, because he wasn’t related to us.”

“What do you mean he wasn’t related to us?  He had to have been something, being Aunt Nines’s boyfriend. He was her sweetheart before he drowned.”

“They weren’t quite sweethearts yet, you know? And since Indalecio drowned, they’re not even sweethearts anymore.” I said it solemnly, and immediately felt a pang of confused guilt.  I felt cruel for talking that way to Violeta. It was very unpleasant to feel cruel: I looked at myself in the mirror, and the cruelty showed on my curved lips. After all, I hadn’t brought it up, it was Violeta who started talking about mourning. So I said: “You shouldn’t have said that, about mourning. You shouldn’t have even thought about it; it’s like we’re laughing at Aunt Nines.”

Violet had come closer while I was talking and she looked at me with surprise.

“But what are you talking about? Aunt Nines has nothing to do with it. I said that about mourning because I’d love to wear black in the afternoons—a smooth black suit and just a simple necklace of Austrian silver with strawberry-colored Russian enamel. Aunt Lucia always says that black complements people with complexions like ours, with those cheekbones of hers – white– as if they were always painted with some kind of lacquer.”

It was always about Aunt Lucia! Listening to Violeta talk about the black suit that she’d like to wear in the afternoons, I couldn’t fail to recognize it. I felt her same persuasive influence just as strongly in myself. Nevertheless, while going downstairs I thought about something that Aunt Lucia would not have thought: how false I had been to instinctively blame my displeasure at feeling cruel on Violeta: I wanted to be innocent by any means, to see myself blameless at any cost. I entered the parlor behind Violeta, not knowing how to consider what I had just thought about while talking with her, nor what I felt in that very moment. To watch her during the visit, just to see her making animated conversation with Aunt Lucia and my mother, who simply smiled, occasionally exchanging a few words with her, erased in me any feeling of regret and reduced it all to a solemn joy. It was the objective happiness which almost any visit, of the few we ever received, held for me when I was fourteen years old. It was fun to greet the three of them, one by one, and then take my place on a settee. Facing them all I put on a mature face, pretending that we were taking everything that was said quite seriously instead of simply observing them so that Violeta and I could laugh later on in our room, imitating them. Every fourth sentence, with rhythmic interjections, they said something like “Nines! Oh, the poor thing!” or “Indalecio, may he rest in peace.”  It seemed like they were trying to brighten up their three monotonous monologues a little. They really weren’t like us at all. They were brood hens; that’s why they made us laugh. It made sense, I thought suddenly, that my mother had withdrawn to live alone on La Maraña when we were little: she came here to escape from these hens and their clucking. “Better alone than in bad company,” I said to myself. And I felt a solemn shiver of hot grandeur, like a swallow of grappa in my throat, my esophagus, my soul. It was fascinating to be visited like that from time to time, the way queens, or queen mothers, or princesses are visited: by fat, swollen brood hens, all dressed up for the occasion. With delight I imagined them trying on their gloves, then hastily sewing up the unstitched fingertip, because they only saw us on special occasions, such as a funeral or a wedding or a Te Deum to celebrate the victory of the Nationalists. We were never really seen; they only glimpsed us occasionally, never very close up, only for a holiday or a parade, at a distance…  That gratifying daydream entertained me that afternoon like so many other times! I thought that it was all true. The proof came on the day of the funeral for the eternal rest of Indalecio. After the prayers for the deceased, my mother and Aunt Lucia—with the two of us following—approached Indalecio’s mother and family to offer our condolences. Everyone stood up all at once—there must have been twenty of them, because they filled the first two pews—and they approached us as if we were the ones suffering, as if the duty of presiding over the mourning belonged exclusively to the four of us, and not to them.

— Álvaro Pombo, from Donde las mujeres (Where the Women), translated by Brendan Riley

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.

 

Mar 082014
 

Cover

In 1996, less than a decade after the major state-run publishers closed during the revolution, the Romanian publishing house Humanitas, philosopher-owned and focused on critical nonfiction, published a suitably cerebral novel by the name of Orbitor: Aripa Stângă or Blinding: The Left Wing. Its author, the poet and essayist Mircea Cărtărescu, had spent the previous decade firmly establishing himself as one of the foremost figures in Romanian literature. The Left Wing, which Archipelago Books published in late 2013 as Blinding, is the first in a trilogy of books which seek out a greater human consciousness by uniting memories of the past with intimations of the future in a prophetic, far-seeing present. Humans lack a fundamental symmetry, Cărtărescu proposes in Blinding, and in this way we are like butterflies with only one wing.

Blinding focuses on that wing of the past, a thing wrought of memory and nostalgia. In a way it is autobiographical: the narrator-protagonist is Mircea Cărtărescu, and much of the story revolves around his childhood in Bucharest and his parents’ experiences in the Romanian capital before he came into being. But Blinding is welded together by fantasies and hallucinations. When facts are scarce and memories end, Cărtărescu fills the pages with his dreaming.

The following excerpt, featuring Cărtărescu’s future parents Maria and Costel (here they’re just young romantics) as they explore bombed-out factory wreckage in the wake of a pleasant movie date, shows the author’s talent for sliding casually into the realm of the unreal. Maria, feeling as if she has been chosen for this purpose, has just called down an elevator from a shaft that is miraculously still standing – the Allies bombed Bucharest heavily in the Second World War in an effort to disrupt railroad lines and destroy oil reserves – and when the glowing chamber reaches the ground, the doors open and this is what emerges.

The excerpt is published with permission from the publisher, the amazing  Archipelago Books. See my review of the novel here.

—Adam Segal

 

Inside the walnut-paneled car, between the crystal windows that doused the area with prisms and rainbow iridescences, seated on a little chair, was a rubicund, naked woman, blinding in the milky maturity of her skin, who held in her arms, like a swan and just as heavy, an immense butterfly with a thick, velvety body, six nervous legs that ended in claws propped on the woman’s breasts and stomach, a round head with enigmatic eyes, and a proboscis rolled up like a clock spring. The wings, unable to unfurl completely in the tight space, lined the car with an electric blue that hurt your eyes to look at, like the flame of a welding torch. The woman was at least forty years old. She had rings under her glassy, intelligent eyes, her breasts turned slightly toward the ground and their bluish curves were marked with small blue veins, and her stomach was creased with several deep folds. Her hair had grown down to the ragged floor of the elevator and the last tendrils were spread on the ground, wrapping her right thigh in curls and distinct locks. A subtle scent, dissolving rapidly in the sweet spinning of spring, wafted from her icon-like pose. A large, melancholic Omega was gouged between her eyebrows.

For a long time, she barely moved, staring at the two young people surrounded by the crepuscular light. When she stood, they sensed the fully female power of her hips. Her delicate webs of dry, curly hair did not quite cover the curved whiteness of her pubis, marked by a vertical velvet fissure. Released from the confining walls, where it left blue smudges like eye shadow, the butterfly beat its wings several times. Unfurled, they were more than three meters across. Although the woman held on to it as strongly as she could, hugging her arms around its ringed body, it still managed to pull itself free, to circle like a bird of prey over the vacant lot and rest, finally, on the warm wall of the house at the end. With its wings spread almost as wide as the yellow wall, it basked a few moments in the already rubicund rays of the sun, and then it brought its wings together and rested like the tail of a gnomon, casting a peaked shadow over the dandelions and chamomiles growing at the foot of the cracked wall. The underside of its wings took relief in the light that fell on their veins and nerves, a much paler blue below than the one above. Over the house’s pointed roof and chimneys, on the stillafternoon sky, blue, just visible, was the thin fingernail of the moon.

“You are Maria,” the woman said, stepping outside the box where she had waited for twelve years, feeding the strange infant from her breast, and dreaming, maybe, or gazing in a trance into the mirror on the elevator car wall. Because the mammary glands and tear glands are skin modified by the same hormone, the butterfly had fed alternately on tears and milk. Now the woman walked gracefully on the warm sidewalk, enveloped in spring. Costel and Maria walked very slowly, on either side of her, down the empty street. “Charlie told me about you. We only met for a moment, but he was able, in that moment, to tell me everything. The years from that time until I met you have passed so quickly, it’s like I was in a book and the author wrote ‘and then twelve years passed’. . . Just that much, as long as a phrase, an endless phrase that enclosed my child and me in a vial of liquid time. When I was young, I read the fairy tale about the djinn trapped in his bottle for millennia, and I quaked wondering how it was possible to experience something like that, the silence and endless stillness, your mind devouring itself in convulsions, nails growing into the heel of your hand, until they came out the other side, teeth plunging savagely into your tongue just to feel something, and from time to time, powerful hysteria rising inside you, dissolving you in its poisoned acid. . . So much better to choose the nameless tortures of a true, honest, inferno, with concrete objects that smash your mouth and crack your eyes and rip your kneecaps from your flesh! Even screaming, even writhing, you know you exist, that you are in history coming from somewhere and going somewhere, albeit another horrible suffering.

“It was different with me, it’s different with women. I lay in my chrysalis like a hard-shelled louse, degenerate, just a stomach full of fat and eggs, without eyes, without nerves, without hopes or expectations. Not like a consciousness that follows a thought to its end, then remains empty until the end of time, but like a thought from another, much greater someone, like a letter in a book, like a dot of color in a painting. I did not suffer, because I am woven from suffering; I did not think, because I am part of another thought, the fantastic intellection at the root of the world. My message is encoded in me, it is me, the way the host is the Savior, and the words of this message, meant only for you, are my fingers, lips, hips, spleen and vertebrae and large intestine. How odd, to live through someone else’s history, as though you were a dream creature, created entirely by the mind and yet complete, with personalities and desires, and with brown eyes with green flecks, without interiority, and which does not think, see, hear, or know it is alive. To be a secondary character in someone else’s novel rather than the enormous world of your full complexity, to be only one who brings a tray with a letter. To Hell with your heart and vulva and beliefs! Did you deliver the message? You will never appear again, not in this book or any other. And still, how pleasant it is to bear a message of good news. . . To be the Angel, kneeling with folded wings, speaking with a different kind of vocal apparatus than humans have, amidst the sounds of a triangle and carillon: ‘Rejoice, Maria!’ And then dissolving, not to disappear forever, but to return to the Intelligence whose fold you were, as though the fold would flatten or the smile depart, leaving the face serious, smiling only in its celestial eyes. . .

“I, this crumple in the sheet, this pleat of the Divine. This imperfection, this shard. This negativeness, which, much more blinding than beautiful, exceeds the flesh and mind in monstrousness. Ringworms, scorpions with translucent tails, octopi, abyssal fish that are all teeth, spiders and scabies, hunchbacks, lepers, cretins and newborns with only one eye in their foreheads are all less hideous than a beautiful woman in the splendor of her youth. For she is a piece plucked from God, a biopsy of his organ of light, a painful lumbar puncture that squirts a jet of liquid. She leaves a cavern in perfection, and she travels a much greater distance than monsters or any nightmare. It is terrible to possess beauty. Over twelve years I often looked at myself in the mirror, until my sin, my greatest and most unforgivable sin – because arrogance is another name for beauty – became clear and unbearable. Such joy I felt to find, now and then, a ring or wrinkle! Such a relief when my forehead was blotched with freckles! And when a pimple appeared on my lip, I was happy for days; it was as though a supernova had exploded in the abysses of constellations, destroying shameless matter, filling entire parsecs with blood. Aging, I offended the Flame less and less, my spark gained more and more of the delicate texture of ash. That’s all, all I wanted to be: a letter in a book, a snowflake of ash. . . Blessed, then and welcome may my double chin be, my sagging breasts, stretch marks, and varicose veins. I feel my beauty ebbing out of me like plasma, illuminating my contour and returning to the Beauty of the limitless one. . .”

Costel and Maria came to the end of the street, with the grand odalisque between them, her nipples turning wine-scarlet in the declining light. They stopped, contemplating the vanishing point of the nearly deserted boulevard. Some groups of young people passed occasionally, high school students with caps and briefcases, college kids with their hair combed flat over their heads, girls with their hair all in curls and eyebrows oddly plucked, their “eyebrows abroad,” as Tomazian teased on the radio; you might see a gentleman with a lavalier, a cane in hand, and a suit so elegant you wondered if time had gone backwards and the “Befores” ridiculed in magazines had become the “Afters.” Even though people passing by smiled at the three of them – they’d stopped at the corner, by the storefront of a funeral home, with a coffin leaned against the wall – nobody seemed to notice anything unusual. Walking on tip-toe, with her hair down to the backs of her knees, the last ringlets tickling the soft flesh there, oval like a closed eye, the woman from the elevator seemed to be made of honey-colored air. Maria suspected, despite their passivity, that everyone else could see the woman just as well as they did, but she matched so well the odd, nostalgic corner of Bucharest and the nightfall that she didn’t register in their minds. Her image descended directly into the obscure depths of their emotions and dreams.

They turned back, passing the unmoving houses again. Behind the curtains and windows covered with blue paper, a light would appear here and there. Maria remembered, charmed, the wonders in her landlord’s room on Silistra: dolls with pink and blue dresses, vases with painted feathers, pictures of wooly kittens. . . There could be so much of this kind of beauty behind every one of those curtains! She would never lose the taste for knick-knacks, macramé doilies, little framed photos: and in ten or fifteen years, on Ştefan cel Mare, she would fill her house with little angels, squirrels or kaolin ducklings, at two or three lei apiece, bracing herself resignedly for her husband’s sarcasm: “You brought another hen? If you won’t throw them all out, I will, just wait!”

“I had no childhood or youth. I page through my memory pointlessly, the way you pointlessly try to remember the eternity before you were born. Yet, there is a gray light there, a nuance somewhat lighter than the black we use for nothingness, and which, without representing, without showing something, signifies that the apparatus exists through which something might show itself. There are blind people who know they used to see, but, through an accident of fate, do not, and there are others who have no knowledge of any lack, for whom sight is unimaginable, the way we cannot imagine what we would feel if a sensory organ opened in our forehead like a flower, or if we grew bushy antennae like a moth. I always knew I was made to exist, full in body and mind, like the large, limpid eyes of the blind or dead, but also that I could not perceive existence. What does a millipede perceive, hanging in a slow spiral beneath a rotting leaf? What can a paramecium, writhing in a cup of tea, sense of the world’s spectacle? I experienced and sensed only that much for more than twenty years, as though I lived within the vague and mediocre dream of a railway clerk. I probably whimpered all night, wrapped up tight in wet diapers, struggling to get my hands out. I think I later went to school and shoved my classmates during recess, and I dirtied my nails with ink, and my cheeks and even my tongue. . . Or maybe I was sweet and awkward at thirteen, when anyone could do anything, embarrassed and revolted by the painful growth of my breasts. . . putting my first pad in my shorts and feeling, with more and more irritation, the wetness there. . . Maybe I was courted by a carbuncular apprentice who carried my books home and clowned around. . . I have no idea. None of this even weighs as much as a film that my mind confuses with all the others when I emerge from the dark theater, squinting my eyes against the August light, the sparking windshields and shop windows full of colored inscriptions. I only know this much: until the bombing I was, for a year, the elevator operator in this office building of a RomanianGerman petroleum corporation. For a whole year, eight hours a day, I sat on my little chair, opening and closing the elevator door, sliding the iron gate over, pushing buttons, carrying the clerks and their perfumed secretaries up and down, without any thought beyond doing this my whole life and then retiring from this less-than-two-square-meter box. Day after day within the four walls, thinking that I could have been a worker in a fertilizer factory, spitting out my lungs after a couple of months, or a waitress carrying ten plates or eight pints of beer at once with my butt bruised from pinching, or a whore bearing all the pigs and drunks on earth. . . So, at least I had a chair to sit on, at least, sometimes, the polite gentlemen smiled (even though they would try to touch me almost every day when, to my horror, one would enter the elevator alone and I had to take him to the top; sometimes I even had happen what any operator will tell you is normal: a gentleman shows you something before you can close your eyes, and you end up – you, a virgin with romantic dreams – with that pink stalk on your retina, unable to get it out of your mind, crying through the night on your lonely bed), at least the air smelled of cologne and Havana cigars. . . I had my proud moments and small satisfactions: I thought everyone admired the way I could stop the elevator, with a quick, decisive motion, right at the floor, not a millimeter too high or low. . . In the evenings, after the corporation closed, I would go, with my stiff back, through the ash of the streets, and, after a dreamlike hour of walking, reach my room, where I curled up on the bed like a kitten. I never saw anyone, never went out. Sundays it always rained, and all I did was sit by the wet window and look outside, at the yard behind the house, and watch the single tree there shake under gusts of rain. But I would not get lost in reveries or lamentations like other unmarried girls. Too great was my lack of experience, too obvious that all I touched turned to ash. It became ever clearer, precisely because no one chose me, that I was a chosen one. Not the Chosen One, because I sensed how small and weak I was. But still, something was going to happen, there would be significant moments, or hours. I would exist within a story, even if it wasn’t my story. It would give me coherence and dignity within a world, even if it was the most illusory world of all. Because you get reality from a story, not a substance. You could be carved in stone and not exist, lost somewhere inside endless dunes. But if you are a phantom in a dream, then the great light of the dream justifies you, constructs you. And there, in the story twisting in the mind of a person sleeping, you are truer than a billion inhabited worlds.

“And when, one evening in spring-summer-fall-winter (I had lost, if I ever had it, the thread of days and seasons) I found myself stuck in the top floor of the elevator shaft, with the electricity suddenly cut and a diffuse smell of fear floating around me like an arabesque of cigarette smoke, I knew at once that my astral moment had arrived. The sirens howled deafeningly outside, it was like you could hear, in a metaphysical sense, the engines of the approaching bombers, and when the quakes and explosions began, like a summer storm when the scary lightning flashes and you taste metal on your tongue and the children scream with their heads under blankets. This kind of blinding flash of lightning disassembled, in a single blow, the brick and lime flesh of the building, leaving only a skeleton of beams and black mesh. Up on the top floor, in my box of wood and crystal, with nighttime Bucharest around me, violently illuminated, from time to time, by the anti-aircraft guns and the ravishing explosions of carpet bombing. In contrast to the disaster below, a massive crystal moon, in its first quarter, wove itself around me like a motionless spider’s web.

“Then I took off my clothes, and I stood completely naked to await my winged groom, there, in the narrow nuptial chamber. He knew I was there, before he saw me from his cabin, he sensed the pheromones emanating from below my stomach (he felt with his brain, not his nostrils, because the brain is no more than the monstrous blossom of the olfactory bulb), and he dove toward my ziggurat of grease and metal. Suddenly he was in my cabin, blond and naked, with butterfly wings between his shoulder blades, his penis erect, powerful and golden, his dog tags on a silver chain around his neck. I clung to him and everything became luminous, fabulously colored, as though we had entered the mystical aura of a chakra with dozens of petals. When he broke my seal, he inserted in the center of my abdomen not only an ivory liquid, but also complete knowledge, as though his cannula of supple flesh had become a cord of communication between our two minds, through which, in a flash, we said everything to each other, we knew everything about each other, from the chemistry of our metabolisms to our complexes, preferences, experiences, and fantasies. He was Charlie Klosowsky from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was accompanying the bombers that took off almost daily from an airbase in Malta. A lieutenant with almost a thousand hours of flight time in the supple Spitfire which, through an ingenious mechanism, fired through propeller blades that rotated so fast they became invisible, he had flown many times over the Balkans and Romania. He had watched the steel cylinders of the Ploieşti refineries explode and the stations at Câmpina crumble to bits as though made of matchsticks. He had run through the sky, like he was playing tag, with IARs and Stukas; he had seen flak tear balls of fire and black smoke from a bomber’s stomach, and the mushrooms of dust grow, three thousand meters below, on scratches as abstract as a map of the earth. It was like he had done nothing his whole life: held the joystick, pushed the triggers of his guns, and looked at the indicator panel, alone in his cabin, for hours and hours, just as I, in the elevator cabin, pushed buttons and watched the succession of floors. We both rose and fell, and neither of us had memories or a life of our own. We had come into the world (but which one?) only for the moment of our coupling, like two insects, in a halo of concentric circles of light. And that was how we would always be: standing, stuck together, united above in our gazes and below by that seminal cable, through which we felt millions of bits of information invading me. We stayed like that, in that closed circuit, in that wheel through which the man flowed into the woman through her sex and the woman into the man through his eyes, even when we released each other, even when he stepped backwards and took a moment to gaze at my belly and breasts, both wet with sweat. I looked once more at the curly hair on his chest, also wet, and his soft sex, and then he was in his ashen cabin again, and he was completely ashen, like in a black-and-white film from wartime, racing on through the calm or cloudy skies with the planes of enemy hunters, shot down the same day or surviving until the depths of old age, bouncing grandchildren on their knees and telling them how they fought in the war. Who cares?

“As for me, I stayed in the cabin, aging for twelve years, and raising my child. From the beginning, I felt it in my uterus, first like a revolting larva, with, fortunately, soft mandibles, frightening to look at. I saw it, as though my stomach had turned to crystal. It ate my placenta like a worm eats a cabbage leaf. Then it grew limbs and its wings budded in its armpits. And from one day to another it became a butterfly. It spread through my uterine canal like the showcase of an insect collection, its proboscis sucking at the gelatin plug that separated it from our world. It was born completely wrapped in its wings; it came out dirty with blood and placental liquid and its own feces, that I had to clean afterward, for days on end, with my saliva, tears, and milk. After a week it was puffy and fresh, with sparkling eyes, and it spread its wings, which had room then to curve freely through the space between the mirror and the grill. At first, the tips of its wings were not more than two hand-widths apart, and their blue didn’t flash like it does now. It was a female which must, someday, reach maturity. I combed my fingers daily through the soft fur on its belly, and I felt, near the last rings, how the tubes were growing that would fill the air, for hundreds of kilometers, with scents only their antennae can perceive. Pheromones: a single molecule suffices for one cubic kilometer of air. Yes, soon I will have suitors for my little girl. . .”

The suitors appeared, but they looked so pitiful! Passing the last five-story apartment block before the lot, the three people watched, amazed, behind the tower of black mesh, a scene from a fantasy. At the far end of the lot, the entire wall of the house was covered with butterflies. In the center, its enormous wings wide and sparkling, rested the elevator woman’s grand butterfly. Its knob-capped antennae symmetrically framed the window where the old woman with a sucker in her mouth reappeared. Around its immense wings, placed symmetrically and in an orderly fashion, were countless other butterflies, each one unique, of all shapes, sizes, and colors, making up a carpet of ravishing beauty. Even in the distillated twilight, the colors glowed like glass, yet velvety, in soft nuances that merged and separated, making waves, turning toward a unanimous brown and flashing again in green, azure, lemon, mahogany, and carnation, so pure that you would have thought that they were the flames of a quartz prism, or that they were the light of dawn, like a needlepoint of drops of dew, on a violet crocus. The moon above showed its strong, sharp peaks.

The golden, naked woman opened her mouth wide, until the curved tip of her tongue became visible, held from below by a flap of skin, and she let out a piercing sound. The great butterfly abruptly lifted from the wall, blowing away the others with the beat of its azure wings. It turned again over the vacant lot and threw itself, like a hawk diving at a field mouse, onto its mother’s breast. The velvety body was almost as long as she was. The woman held it in her arms and turned to Maria: “It will be soon,” she said, smiling so sadly and strangely, that, years later, that smile would reappear to Maria in her nightmares. And, before the young people could recover, the woman pushed the butterfly into the elevator. She knelt before the girl, large and heavy, wrapped in her fibrous hair, and kissed her right hand. The lips on the back of her hand appeared to release a volatile substance that rose into Maria’s brain and, for a moment, made it sparkle. Costel saw clearly (but he would soon forget) a crown of light around the temples of his beloved. The woman rose and turned, showing her imperious hips, with her dark, almost animal, vulva beneath them, and went into the elevator cabin, sat again on the chair and took the butterfly back into her arms. In all this time, the air was so dense with the other thousands of lepidopterae that the two of them simply breathed them in, pulling them into their nostrils and lungs, feeling how they fluttered in the alveoli, and exhaling them again into the dusk. But in the end, together with the almost complete nightfall and the apparition of the first stars on the summer sky (since it had become, without doubt, summer, and the night was hot and scented), all the butterflies flew into the elevator, as though into a luminous trap, filling the space completely. Behind the grill, the woman and the great butterfly were no longer visible. Maria closed the metal door, and the elevator slowly started upwards, making the tower of pitch tremble. At the top, it stopped beneath the great wheel, and it would have become completely invisible if the moon hadn’t beat blue light on its crystal windows.

Maria took her dark young man by the hand and set off, overcome with sadness, through the spectral streets, toward home. They crossed the city in little more than an hour, hardly speaking. Costel was completely focused on the small, damp palm of his girl, whose fingers twitched at the caresses of his own. The heat intensified and the trees along the streets smelled of fleshy leaves and sap. A tram would pass on its way to the train yard at Vatra Luminoasă, rattling and shaking on the rails. Garbage men filled bins beside scavengers, and the street cleaners stood in twos and threes, leaning on their brooms and smoking. Some factories had their workshops illuminated and inside pieces of machinery twitched: the night shift. They came, finally, to Colentina. From the soap factory came an unbearable smell of rancid fat. They went two more stops on the tram, passing the short and dilapidated houses, covered with tarred cardboard like garages. Costel, who had been enveloped by the endless afternoon, almost without his knowing, in an egg of translucid yet impenetrable amber – because to intuit a miracle you need a different synaptic make-up than the step-by-step macramé of short strings in the left hemisphere, and Costel was a true believer in the left hemisphere, the logician of melancholy – hummed a song to himself that at the time was on everyone’s lips:

And one, and two, and nine, and ninety-nine,
Tell me, Gardenia, tell me,

and he wondered again what spring or lever to push to make Maria’s neck muscles contract and turn her gaze toward him, so that later, through another adroit maneuver, the way he worked the metal sheer in the ITB plant, he could provoke at least a little smile, at least one gentle lift of the cheek bones, or that complex and ineffable coordination of peribuccal and periorbital sphincters that produced an expression of tranquility. He was four years younger than Maria, and in his still-virginal mind, he pictured a large table, like the one for logarithms, sines and cosines in the musty book he had in his room, a table of the thousands of gestures, words, corporeal shifts, facial expressions, hairstyles, clothes, shoes, cigarettes, cirrus patterns, cloud cover, constellations, political events, sidewalk chips, flashes of memory – matching all the possible reactions of the female youth, in a direct, unequivocal, and immutable relation. But it took hundreds of parts of this mechanism, activated at once and in synchronization, for her to graze his poorly shaved cheek with her hand, hundreds of thousands of meshing gears and transmitting belts for her to embrace him, and (here, Costel had no doubt that all his mechanical aptitude would not help him at all) a mechanism vaster and more complex than the universe, with more components than there were photons running through space, for Maria ever to say to him, “I love you.” The table, as yet, included very few certainties, many hypotheses, and a host of erasures and revisions. It stretched, step by step, in unforeseeable and heteroclite directions.

They entered a tangle of streets on the right of the main road, through the darkness that smelled like dirty wash-water . Crickets chirped, dogs barked, and from time to time an old man in a beret poked his head out of his gate, looked up the street and mumbled something. Then he closed the gate and disappeared into a vault of grape vines. In other yards, people were eating outside, around a table covered with a cloth, under a light bulb hung over a branch. Thousands of flies and mosquitoes glinted as they flew around the bulb. But most houses were silent and dark already, covered with a powder of stars.

A triangular piaţa, dimly lit by a streetlight, had a round place in the center with flowers and a cheap statue of a plaster soldier, smaller than life-size, with his gun raised. One hand had fallen off long ago, leaving a stub of rusty iron, the kind used to reinforce concrete. It was an unspeakably sad place. Entering it, you grew just as pale and immaterial as everything around you. But exactly there, Maria stopped, turned toward Costel and said seriously, almost angrily, “Kiss me.” The Bănăţean felt his mind make a popping sound and the world order shake. The effect came before the cause and time ran backwards. In a moment, he tossed the limitless table into the fire, since it foretold nothing, and he abandoned himself as living prey, to the other hemisphere, where contradictions disappear within a tender light, a universal solvent. He awkwardly took the girl by her waist, the way he’d seen in movies, and he tried to open her mouth with his lips and tongue, but she resisted, and their kiss was a typical 1950s kiss, romantic and almost chaste, the way everyone imagined their mother and father kissing before they came into the world. And that’s what it was: a Hollywood kiss, with mimed passion and no drop of eroticism. Even the light on Maria when they let each other go and Costel could see her face directed up at him, seemed studied, like a lighting effect meant to emphasize her sparkling eyes and her teeth as perfect as yesteryear’s divas’. Maria had not put her arms around Costel’s neck but held him lightly on the shoulders, as though they were dancing. She didn’t know why she had told him to kiss her. Maybe it was fear. She had thought again and again about the woman with the butterflies and her terrible message. She was chosen, she didn’t doubt it – but for what? And why her exactly? Lord, she thought, it’s frightening to be chosen, to feel the angel’s finger point toward you like a dagger. To feel that you have left the obscurity of your freedom behind, that you are in the light, that you are observed, every moment of your life, and that nothing belongs to you, not even your own soul. It is so extraordinary for the gaze of Someone so powerful and incomprehensible to stop on you, that it doesn’t matter whether you are chosen for beatitude or torture. We should pray, daily, in hope and despair, “Lord, do not choose me, Lord, never let me know you, do not keep me in your book. . .” Maria trembled with fascination and horror, because from now on, she could not escape. Yes, out of fear she had kissed the apprentice, fear she would love him and marry him and stay with him her entire life. How clear it was! She looked at the young man carefully, as though for the first time: was he even worth loving? Was he going to be the man of her life? She saw black eyes and pale cheeks and sad lips. Suddenly, she was indifferent to it all. “Why her exactly? Why her?”

They parted, after they had talked a little more, holding both hands, at the gate by her house on Silistra. It seemed like they were deep at the bottom of an ocean, that the stars were just the reflections of waves under the moon of another world. The oleander in the yard was sweet and dizzying. They kissed again, their lips barely touching, and Maria went inside. In their wire cage, the peacock and the peahen pecked a stump of wood. Marinache ruffled his wings in sleep, sensing the girl pass, but his squawk stopped in his throat, and his comb rested pale and soft, hanging over his beak. A few windows, covered with blue paper, were lit, and there were men’s and women’s voices, talking quietly or arguing. The girl went up the narrow stairs, in an almost total darkness, down the hall that creaked terribly with every step, and unlocked the door to her room.

Through the window comes the moon,
It comes into our room,

she murmured, because, actually, the scythe of moon threw a bluish light on the floor and side of her bed. She felt, all at once, terribly alone. She curled up on her mattress, pulled her sheet over her head, and fell asleep, after weeping like a child for a long time.

Costel had stayed a bit by the gate, inhaling the suffocating air of the slums, where the peppery smell of the stars mixed bizarrely, nostalgically, with barking from far-away dogs. His hands in his pockets toyed with a few coins, turning them between threads and crumbs. Maria. For him, Maria was the woman with the butterflies, even her lips were the butterflies every man waited for mystically, and which he had tasted there, beneath the piaţa’s dim lightbulb. Like through sparkfilled stillness, the image of his beloved, completely psychic (because even though he had held her, Costel would never have dared to imagine that he would one day master the empire of tissues, glands, and memories that carried the name Maria, and to whose ports he would send galleons loaded to the masts with hopes, gazes, caresses, sperm, dusks, a desperate flotilla of impossible communication), ran drop by drop through his venous system. It reached his heart, now surrounded by the rays of the moon. From the auricles it rippled into the ventricles, and then it was shot by a powerful contraction into the jugular arteries, where it separated into thousands of filaments and tubes that pushed their tiny fingers into his brain and wandered through the axonic pipes. Billions of identical Marias in glucose tunics housed themselves like parasites in every starry cell and every glial cell like enchanted spirochetes, they met in halls and corridors and merged one with another, like beads of mercury, into the greatest and most hieratic Sea, until, in the supreme hall, on the brain’s supreme throne, framed by griffons, a single, immense Maria shook again, reflecting the pleasant bas-relief of the skull, under which she barely fit, and where she was venerated by a deceased Polish poet from two centuries ago. After the light went out in the girl’s window, Costel lit a cigarette and went back through the sweltering labyrinth, starting at every shadow. With each step, he felt his skull wobble gently, like a gyroscope.

Soon, the night became suspect. The muddy streets multiplied, and the stars above were not the same. They were dull and close like naïvely painted scenery. The fences, where he ran his fingers, absentmindedly, began to shine like cardboard. The houses blurred their barely visible outlines, becoming unformed mounds of earth, and the dogs’ barking rarified and spread over scales in ever slower glissandi. “What the hell?” said the young man, passing a hand through his hair. His hair was now as dense as a piece of rubber. When his hand fell over his face, he felt dull, softened features, as though modeled in porcelain. Even the visual space seemed full of cobwebs. Costel looked, like a sleepwalker, at his left hand: his fingers were shrinking into his palm. In a flash, he realized that he had left the Story, that he had reached the wings, where everything was crosshatched, a world barely formed, its space and time still budding. He continued moving forward, until there was nothing left of him but the forward movement. The world now was dirty and diaphanous, like modeling clay when you’ve mixed all the colors together, all the figurines, all the trees. Soon, any property would be reabsorbed into the final matrix: the night. Which also dissipated into the unthought, the unwritten, the nonexistent. Into the white page, above which I lean, and which I will no longer desecrate with the obscene seed of my pen.

—Mircea Cărtărescu, Translated by Sean Cotter

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Mircea Cărtărescu was born in Bucharest in 1956. Cărtărescu began his writing career in his early twenties, and soon became a celebrated cultural icon for his poetry. Cărtărescu has written of his youth in Romania as living in a sort of prison, because of the pervasive communist oppression and because he subsequently could not conceive of a reality beyond Romanian life, excepting what he read about in books. In 1990, the year following the revolution, Cărtărescu left Romania for the first time and visited several cities across the US, an experience whose massive shock left him feeling “as miserable as a Kafka character” and greatly impacted his writing. Cărtărescu continues to be prolific in poetry, fiction, and essay, and has won a number of international prizes including the Berlin International Prize for Literature, the Romanian Academy’s Prize and the Vilenica Prize. This is the first time any of Cărtărescu’s Orbitor trilogy has been published in English

 

Mar 042014
 

2014 bio photo colour doireann

It is well-understood that the language we speak shapes our perception, the structure of the language affecting the ways in which the speaker conceptualises his or her world. In this regard, bilingualism has been shown to have many cognitive advantages including an additive effect on a person’s creativity. Doireann Ní Ghríofa, a bilingual poet writing both in Irish and in English, exemplifies this. Although the written poems appear on the page in a single language, the thought processes to create them are borne of a far more complex interplay. I like to think of this interplay occurring in a type of cognitive marshlands, a ghostly transition zone between water and land with its own unique emotional ecosystem. Doireann’s poems, it seems to me, dwell in that world, and emerge from it like a rare and endangered species might emerge from its wetlands habitat through an early morning, low-lying mist.

— Gerard Beirne

My poem Waking gives voice to a woman waking up in the recovery room of a maternity hospital. At the core of this poem is the sense of disorientation, loneliness and loss that follows a miscarriage. This is an experience that is, sadly, not unfamiliar to me, personally.

I chose to dedicate Waking to the memory of  Savita Halappanavar, whose  appalling death while under the care of the Irish maternity system left many in shock. She was admitted to hospital while suffering a miscarriage, and despite her repeated requests to terminate her pregnancy, she was denied the procedure that would have saved her life. Savita’s death led to many protests both in Ireland and abroad, where protestors demanded a review of Irish law that prevented her from accessing the abortion that would have saved her life. I would wish nothing more for Savita than to allow her the treatment she needed in order to wake up and draw breath, and it angers and saddens me to live in a country where a woman must die in order for society to effect essential constitutional change.

I am very grateful to the talented filmmaker Peter Madden for interpreting my poem visually with a sensitivity that I believe honours those many, many women who each year suffer the pain of miscarriage in silence. The haunting soundtrack is an original musical composition by guitarist Stephen Moore that adds further depth to the collaboration.

Glaoch/Call is a consideration of modern life and love. I am intrigued by the multiple paradoxes of contemporary life — we are more connected than ever through technology, and yet there often remains a fundamental disconnect between us, an emotional distance, a fundamental interpersonal detachment. This poem arose from dissonance between these opposing constructs, and our collaboration in film seeks to further explore this matter.

—Doireann Ní Ghríofa

 .

Waking

.

Recovery Room, Maternity Ward
(for Savita Halappanavar)

The procedure complete,
I wake alone, weak under starched sheets.
As the hospital sleeps, my fingers fumble
over the sutured scar, a jagged map
of mourning stitched into my skin —
empty without and empty within.
Cradling my hollowed womb,
I trace this new wound and weep.
The only sound I hear now is the fading retreat
of a doctor’s footsteps, echoing my heartbeat.

/

Glaoch/Call 

.

Glaoch

Ní cheanglaíonn
…………………………aon chorda caol,
aon sreang teileafóin sinn níos mó.
I réimse na ríomhairí,
………………..ní thig liom
do ghuth a bhrú níos gaire do mo chluas.
Ní chloisim tú ag análú. Anois, ’sé an líne lag seo
……..an t-aon cheangal amháin atá fágtha eadrainn
agus titimid
……….as a chéile
………………………..arís
is
……….arís eile.

.

Call

No slender thread,
………………………………no telephone cord
binds us anymore.
Now that our computers call each other,
…………I can’t
…………………..press your voice to my ear.
No longer can I hear you breathe. Now, we are bound only
……………………………..by a weak connection
and we break up
……………………………..and break up
………..and break up.

.

Frozen Food

“The Iceman was carrying a sloe, presumably to eat” –Mandy Haggith

In the frozen foods aisle I think of him,
as I shiver among shelves of plastic-wrapped pizza,
green flecked garlic breads, chunks of frozen fish.
I touch the cold wrappers until my fingers
tingle, until my thumbs numb.

Strangers unpacked his body in a lab and thawed his hand.
His long-frozen fingers unfurled one by one,
his fist finally opened, let go,
and from his grasp rolled
a single sloe.
Ice-black with a purple-blue waxy bloom,
it waited through winters and winters
in his cold fingers.
……………………………………………………….Inside the sloe,
……………………………………………………..a blackthorn stone.
………………………………………………………Inside the stone,
…………………………………………………………….a seed.

In a frozen aisle, white on glass
I watch my breath freeze.

.

The Ledger

a sonnet for Edna O’ Brien

This chapter begins in a pharmacy.
Over the counter, you smooth prescriptions,
weigh powders, pass parcels. You nod shyly,
greet customers, mix tonics and potions.
Yellow liquid pours into glass bottles—
here, cures come from chemical addition.
All summer, you study, fill tins with pills,
dispense tablets, count coins, make medicines.
Summer blooms fade and fall. Rain returns. Bored,
you think up tales with each cream you concoct.
Every time the bell rings over the door,
you conjure symphonies of secret plots.
Name—ailment—payment. Pencil strikes paper,
filling the ledger, each word a step to your future.

.

In the University Library, I open the Book of my Finger

I study the same words again and again.
Smells of damp tobacco and beeswax polish
hover over a hundred desks of beech.
A sudden incision slices my skin,
splits my fingertip—a narrow breach.
The wound is so thin that it barely bleeds
but the slit stings, insists that I look again.
My cracked fingertip turns inside out.
Broken skin become walls, white-limed, gritty.
In the split, the red roof of a cowshed peaks. Doubt
rusts in my blood. I can’t live in this city.
On my palm, a road through streets and roundabouts
leads me home. Under beech trees a bee flits, free.

.

Radioactive Relics

Her papers still hum
in lead—lined boxes labelled Curie
in the Bibliothèque Nationale:

boxes filled with jotters
filled with the spools and loops
and curlicues of her hand

page after page of trials and tests
ideas in metamorphosis
the gleam of polonium and radium
the slow glow of understanding

a century later, her papers
still set our Geiger ticking
like a metal heart.

—Doireann Ní Ghríofa

 

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derrySE

Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual poet based in Ireland, writing both in Irish and in English. Her poems have appeared in literary journals in Ireland and internationally (in France, Mexico, USA, in Scotland and in England). The Arts Council of Ireland has twice awarded her bursaries in literature. Doireann’s Irish language collections Résheoid and Dúlasair  are both published by Coiscéim, and her bilingual chapbook A Hummingbird, Your Heart  is available from Smithereens Press. Doireann was the winner of a Wigtown Award (Scotland) in 2012. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (USA) and her pamphlet of poems in English Ouroboros was longlisted for The Venture Award (UK).  

peter bio photo

Peter Madden graduated from IADT National Film School, Ireland in 2011. Currently working in photography and video advertising, he also works in short documentary, short film and music videos, editing the award winning short documentary ‘Rose’ in 2011.  His own directorial pieces have been screened at Irish and international film festivals. He works with two media based companies; Replayhouse and Little Beast, and has just recently co-created MadBag Films, all based in Dublin, Ireland.

 

Feb 072014
 

Desktop33-001Julián Herbert

Julián Herbert is a brash, exciting, young Mexican novelist, poet and musician, and it’s a special honour to be able to publish on NC this excerpt from his 2011 novel Canción de Tumba (Song of the Tomb), a fiction based loosely on his childhood, his mother (who died of leukemia in 2008), and their impoverished, wandering life in the 1970s and 80s. As the translator, Brendan Riley, points out, the language here is neither artfully embellished nor romanticized; but the text is packed with story, casual violence, large personalities, and the tragicomedy of life. A terrific read, it wakes you up, does what fiction ought to do, make the world seem vibrant and flash with energy, even the saddest things seem grand.

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I find value in Julián Herbert’s words because they feel true, they relate a powerful variety of suffering and marginal behavior without surrendering to melodrama or getting stuck on the sentimental flypaper that makes some pages of Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Nelson Algren, or even, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, pretty overwrought. To take a more contemporary, and Latin American example, Antonio Ungar’s Tres Ataudes Blancos is a terrifying novel, but it’s also a leering, artful dodger of a book which flexes its literary technique with real panache. With Julián Herbert I feel more like I’m in the pages of something like Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs; with no need for guile, Herbert simply shows us the sad, sordid life he was forced to endure as a prostitute’s child, and this is what gives the story its power.

All writers reassemble the past but there is not a jot here that feels unlikely or necessarily embellished. Life routinely outstrips fiction. By comparison, a highly stylized, smoothly poetic story like Roberto Bolaño’s “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”, whose narrator recalls the life of his porn actress mother, feels crammed, baroque, and cloying. Maybe therein lies an authentic difference between pornography and real prostitution. Bolaño’s story is comically blue, making fun of the weird toil involved in committing sex to celluloid. “Mama Leukemia” succeeds by way of its hard, simple, realism: the exhausted prostitute taking her boy to the market in the morning, a family having all its belongings repossessed, surviving for three years in a self-constructed cinderblock hut with a cardboard roof.

—Brendan Riley

 

You only get one mother. And I sure got one.
Armando J. Guerra

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Mama was born on December 12, 1942 in the city of San Luis Potosí. Predictably, she was named Guadalupe. Guadalupe Chávez Moreno. Nevertheless, she assumed –in part to give herself an aura of mystery, in part because she perceived her existence as a criminal event– an endless number of aliases throughout the years. She changed her name with the same insouciance with which another woman might dye or curl her hair.  Sometimes, when she took her kids to visit her narco friends in Nueva Italia, or her volatile aunts-in-law in Matamoros or Villa de la Paz, or the old señoritas in Irapuato for whom she’d been a maid after she ran away from my grandmother’s house (there’s a photo: she’s fourteen years old, her hair is cropped very short, and she’s wearing a blouse with appliqués which she ironed onto the cloth herself), she’d give us instructions:

“Here my name is Lorena Menchaca; my cousin is the famous karate expert.”

“People in this place call me Vicky.”

“Around here I go by Juana, like your grandma.”

(My grandmother, usually, called her Condenada Maldita –that is, “Goddamned little bitch from hell”– as she gripped her by her hair to drag her across the patio, smashing her face against the flowerpots.) Her most consistent identity was “Marisela Acosta.” That was the name my mother used for decades when she made a living as a prostitute. I don’t know in which moment exactly she became Marisela; that’s how she was known when I met her. She was very beautiful: very small and slender, with her long straight hair falling down to her waist, her well-built body, and some shamelessly lucent indigenous features. She was a little over thirty but looked closer to twenty. Very much the go-go girl: ample hips, nicely rounded buttocks, and a flat stomach all which she used to her advantage, wearing only jeans with a wide scarf crossed over her lean breasts and knotted in the back. Sometimes she pulled her hair back into a ponytail, put on some sunglasses and, taking me by the hand, led me through the dark, squalid streets of Acapulco’s red light district –at seven in the morning, while the last drunks staggered out of La Huerta or Pepe Carioca, and women wrapped in towels leaned out on the metallic sills of tiny rooms to call me “cutie” –to the market stalls along Canal Street. With the spleen and exquisite abandon of a sleepless whore, she would buy me a Chocomilk shake and two coloring books.

All the men eyeing her.

But she was with me.

There, five years old, satisfied, I made the acquaintance of this nightmare: the avarice of being the owner of something that you’ll never manage to comprehend.

 

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As a boy I was called Favio Julián Herbert Chávez. Now, however, in the civil registry office in  Chilpancingo, they insist that’s not the case: the official register reads “Flavio”, whether thanks to some wicked mischief of my parents or because of some error by the old or new bureaucrats, I really don’t know: I can’t manage to distinguish (among the tons of crappy government propaganda and the hypocritical “¡Viva la familia!” video clips broadcast by Televisa. What family? The country’s one and only happy Family with roots in Michoacán is a clan of narcotraffickers whose members are experts in decapitation) between one and another. When it came time to renew my passport and my voter registration, I was required to use that name, “Flavio”. Thus all my childhood memories come, fatally, with a misprint. My memory is a hand-lettered cardboard sign posted on the outskirts of a modern airport equipped with Prodigy Mobile, a Sanborns department store, and a Casa de Bolsa bank office: “Welcomb to México”.

I was born on January 20, 1971, in the city and port of Acapulco de Juárez, in the state of Guerrero. At the age of four I met my first corpse: a drowned man. At five, my first guerilla: my godmother Jesu’s younger brother Kito, who was serving time for bank robbery. According to the nomadic conditions which my mother’s profession imposed on our family, I spent my early childhood traveling from one Mexican city to another, from one pimp to the next. Year after year,  armed with a burning patience, I traveled from the deep south until reaching the splendid cities of the north.

I thought that I’d never manage to escape the country. I thought that I’d never not be poor. I’ve worked –and here, with no desire to offend, I paraphrase an illustrious Mexican statesman, a prime example of our sublime national idiosyncrasy– doing things that even blacks would refuse. I’ve had seven wives –Aída, Sonia, Patricia, Ana Sol, Anabel, Lauréline, and Monica– and very few occasional lovers. I’ve fathered two sons: Jorge, who is now almost seventeen (he was born when I was twenty-one), and Arturo, who will soon turn fifteen. I’m going to be a father for the third time in September, exactly one year before the bicentennial: no one can ever accuse me of being unpatriotic. I’ve been a cocaine addict throughout the course of some of the happiest and most atrocious times of my life: I know how it feels to surf upon the shoulders of what Dexter Morgan called “the dark passenger”.

Once I helped to recover a dead body from the highway; I’ve smoked crystal meth using a lightbulb for a pipe; I did a fifteen day tour as a vocalist for a rock group; I attended university and studied literature; I’ve swallowed absinthe until I was blind drunk while making the rounds through the Spandau quarter of Berlin; I smuggled a chunk of opium through customs in Havana, Cuba, by distracting the officer with my t-shirt for the Industriales baseball team; I lost the school learning achievement competition whose prize was getting to meet Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado; I’m left-handed. None of those things prepared me for the news that my mother was dying from leukemia. None of those things reduced the sordidness of the forty days and nights I spent in vigil by her bedside, Noah plowing a flood of blood chemistry, caring for her and hating her, seeing her grow feverish to the point of asphyxiation, watching as she went bald.

I’m the sort who travels, swollen with vertigo, from the south to the north. I’ve followed a return path back from the ruins of the ancient civilization towards the conquest of a Second Coming of the Barbarians: Free Market; u.s.a. ; your motherfucking mother’s dying day.

 

3

I don’t have much experience with death. I suppose that could eventually present a serious logistical problem. I should have practiced with some junkie cousin of mine or some grandmother with a weak heart. But no. I regret to say that I lack experience. When it happens, I’ll end up making my debut in the Big Leagues: burying Mama.

One day I was playing my guitar when someone knocked on the door. It was the neighbor. She was sobbing.

“We’d like to ask you to stop playing your guitar. Cuquín got run over by a Coca-Cola truck. It killed him. We’ve been holding a vigil for him in the house for sometime now.”

I was fifteen, a useless layabout. I did them the courtesy to stop playing. Instead I slipped on my Walkman and switched on “Born in the USA.”

After a while, someone knocked again, insistently. It was my friend and namesake, the neighbor woman’s son and dead boy’s older brother. He said:

“Come with me to buy some bags of ice.”

I put on a t-shirt –it was summer: in the 117˚ summer in the Coahuila desert, people live inside their houses semi-naked–, I hopped over the fence and walked with him to the beer distributor.

He explained to me:

“He’s starting to smell. But Mama and Papa are pretending not to notice.”

We bought four bags of ice. As we walked back, my namesake stopped on the corner and started to cry. I embraced him. We stayed that way a long time. Then we picked up the bags and I accompanied him to his house. Shouts and cries floated out from inside. I helped him carry the bags to the porch, bid him good afternoon, and I went back to my headphones. I remember that episode today because something similar happened to me the other night: I went out to buy water at the Oxxo convenience store across from the hospital where my mother is a patient. Returning, I noticed a pedestrian having difficulty dodging the traffic in the street. In one moment, just before reaching the spot where I was standing, he stopped between two cars. The car horns flared up blaring instantly. I set my bottles of water down on the sidewalk, went to his side, and I gently pulled him towards the curb. When he felt my hand, he slid both his arms round my neck and began to cry, murmuring something bout his chiquita –his little girl–; I didn’t know if he meant his daughter or his wife. He asked if I could give him a telephone card. I gave it to him. There’ s something repugnant in the embrace of a person crying about death: they hang on to you as if you were a hunk of meat. I don’t know a thing about death. I only know about mortification.

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4

When I was a little boy I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. A man in a white coat. Sooner rather than later I discovered my lack of aptitude. It took me years to accept the fact that the Earth is round. Better to say, I wasn’t able to think about the Earth as a sphere. For a long time I only pretended to agree. Once in school –one of many: I attended eight different elementary schools– I stood in front of the class and explained, without stage fright, the movements of transit and rotation. Inspired by the textbook’s diagram, I used an orange decorated with blue crayon, and graphically illustrated these processes by piercing it with a pencil. I tried to memorize the illusory accounts, the hours and the days, the sun’s transit; the segments of each rotation. But, inside, no: I lived with that proud and lucid anguish that brought more than a few heresiarchs to die eviscerated at the hands of Saint Augustine. It was Mama’s fault: we traveled so much that for me the Earth was a gigantic basin circumscribed in all directions by railroad tracks. Curving tracks, straight, circular, elevated, subterranean. Ferrous and floating atmospheres that made one think of a disaster movie with sundering, crashing polar ice. Confines dark and inescapable as a tunnel, celestial as a cliff in Tarahumara, crackling as an alfalfa field upon which the sleeping stamp their feet. Sometimes, atop a rock or killing time atop a cliff along the Avenida Costera Miguel Alemán in Acapulco, I looked towards the sea and seemed to see rattling yellow train cars and diesel engines with the “N de M” emblem, more spectral than the breeze. Sometimes, at night, looking out a small train car window, I imagined that the glowworms under a bridge were those neighboring galaxies my older brother talked about. Sometimes, while I slept next to Mama, stretched out in a metallic hallway or hunched against a hard wooden seat, the whistle warned me that we were on the edge, that we might plunge into hyperspace. One day, while the train stopped in Paredón to change tracks, I reached the conclusion that the planet’s size and shape changed with each passing instant. This all sounds stupid, of course. It fills me with a monstrous sorrow. It makes me feel sorry, most of all, for Mama. Now that I see her completely wasted away in that bed, immobile, surrounded by translucent bottles of VenoPax stained with dry blood. With enormous bruises on both arms, needles, pieces of blue and yellow plastic and tiny BIC pen letters on the adhesive tape: Tempra 1g, Ceftzidime, Citarabine, Anthrcycline, Ciprofloxacin, Doxorubicin, poisonous solutions they shoot into her, mixed in black bags to protect them from the light. Crying because her most beloved and most hated child –the only one who could ever save her from her nightmares, the only one at whom she’s ever shouted “You’re not my son anymore, you bastard, you’re no better than a rabid dog”– has to spoonfeed her, see her withered breasts while changing her robe, carry her dead weight to the bath and listen (and smell, oh, how she hates smells) to how she shits. Without strength. Drunk from three blood transfusions. Walled away behind her surgical mask, waiting for them to remove a bone marrow sample.

I regret not having been, because of her (thanks to her hysterical life of traveling across the whole blessed country in search of a house or a lover or a job or some happiness, none of which ever existed in this Suave Patria––this Gentle Motherland), a model son; one capable of believing in the roundness of the Earth. Scientist or doctor. A man in a white coat who might be able to explain something to her. To recite something to her. To console her with a little bit of experience and wisdom and impressive medical machinery amid this hour in which her body shudders with wheezing and panic in the face of death.

 

5

In my final year of adolescence, at the age of sixteen, there was a second cadaver in my neighborhood. I didn’t dare to look at its coffin because, even now, I retain the sensation of having formed part of a shady plan for his murder. His name was David Durand Ramírez. He was younger than I was. He died on a September day in 1987, at eight o’clock in the morning, shot with a .22 caliber automatic pistol. His unfortunate death influenced my family to emigrate to Saltillo, and for me to study literature and choose a profession and, eventually, to sit myself down on leukemia’s balcony to narrate the sad and incredible account of my mother’s life. But, in order to explain how David Durand’s passing marked my life, I have to begin several years earlier. All this happened in Ciudad Frontera, a town of some fifteen or twenty thousand people which sprang up around the metalworking industry in Monclova, Coahuila. In that town, my family experienced its years of greatest ease as well as its whole catalog of indignities.

We moved there after the brothels in Lázaro Cárdenas went belly up. Mama took us there in search of sympathetic magic: she thought that with its flourishing iron and steel industry, the bonanza times we enjoyed in Lázaro Cárdenas would return to grace our home, the times before the Dry Law imposed by one of the most conservative PRI politicians of those years: Governor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano.

At first, she wasn’t wrong: in a brothel called Los Magueyes she met Don Ernesto Barajas, an old cattleman from the area. He began to visit her regularly, like any other whore, but as the months went by he began to realize that Mama wasn’t stupid: she read a lot, possessed a rare talent for mathematics, and –however absurd this might sound– she was a woman of unbreakable principles. She was, above all, incorruptible when it came to talking about finances –something that in this country makes a person practically a foreigner.

Don Ernesto hired her to be his eyes and ears in a few business ventures: a different brothel, and the town’s only gas station. He offered her a decent salary and affectionate treatment (which did not prevent him, after four tequilas, from slipping his hand into her pants; advances she had to manage to avoid without losing her composure or her job).

Marisela Acosta was happy. She trained her children to take care of each other so she wouldn’t have to shell out any more money for neurotic nannies. She rented a house with three bedrooms and a small patio. She acquired some furniture and a shoddy, sky-blue Ford. She brought black soil cultivated at a nursery in Lamadrid and with it sowed, at the end of the property, a small plot of carrots that never grew. Our neighborhood sported an ominous name: El Alacrán –the Scorpion. But, however stuffy it might sound, (and it will: what more could be expected from a story set in la Suave Patria?), we lived at the corner of Progreso y Renacimiento –Progress and Renaissance. There, between 1979 and 1981, our childhood unfolded: my mother’s and my own.

Then came the crisis of `82 and, within my childish pantheon, José López Portillo entered the ranks of posterity as (these are my mother’s words) El Gran Hijo de Puta – “The Great Son of a Bitch”. Don Ernesto Barajas gave up on suburban business ventures; he went back to livestock and let Marisela go. We kept the house but once again began to move from place to place: Acapulco, Oaxaca, San Luis, Ciudad Juárez, Sabinas, Laredo, Victoria, Miguel Alemán. Mama tried, for the umpteenth time, to earn a living working as a seamstress in a Teycon clothing factory in Monterrey. But the pay was criminal and they only hired her part time, two or three shifts a week. So she ended up returning to the daytime brothels on Villagrán Street, sordid dives which by mid-morning were overflowing with soldiers and lawyers more interested in the drag-queens than in the women, a fact which gave the competition a violent and miserable air.

Soon it was impossible to keep paying the rent on the house. At the end of `83 they evicted us and repossessed all our personal belongings. Almost all: by express petition the actuary allowed me to keep a few books before the police loaded our junk into the moving truck. I took the two fattest books: the Aguilar edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, and Volume 13 of the New Thematic Encyclopedia (Literature has always been good to me: if I had to return to that instant knowing what I know now, I’d choose the very same books). We spent three years in absolute misery. Mama had acquired a small bit of property on some disputed communal lands, but we possessed nothing more on that plot of land than dead cacti, a few little sand dunes, enough gravel to fill half a truck, two bags of cement, and three hundred cinder blocks. We built a tiny room about as high as my shoulder, without any foundation, atop which we laid sheets of cardboard for a roof. We had neither water nor drainage nor light. My older brother Jorge quit high school and found work shoveling corn flour in the tortilla factory of an industrial cafeteria. Saíd and I sang on buses for spare change.

After a year, Jorge exploded: he grabbed some clothes and left the house. He was seventeen. We received word from him again on his twenty-third birthday: they’d just named him shift manager in the Vidafel Hotel in Puerto Vallarta. He made it clear in his letter that it was only a temporary job.

“I was born in Mexico by mistake,” he told me once. “But one of these days I’m going to fix that once and for all.”

And he did: before he turned thirty he emigrated to Japan, where he still lives.

I can’t talk about myself nor about my mother without recalling those days: not for the pathos and sadness, but because it’s about our own curious Mexican version of The Dhammapada. Or, better yet and more vulgar, our version of the mystical kung fu film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Three years of extreme poverty don’t destroy you. On the contrary: they awaken a certain kind of visceral lucidity. By singing on the intercity buses which transported the workers from the Ahmsa steel company back to the bone-dry archipelago of the neighboring towns (San Buenaventura, Nadadores, Cuatro Ciénegas, Lamadrid, Sacramento) Saíd and I got to know the almost crystalline sand dunes, black and white hills, deep walnut groves, a river called Cariño – which means “darling”–, fossilized pools of water with stromatolites and box turtles with shell patterns like giraffes…. We had our own money. We ate whatever we felt like. As runs the verse with which we concluded all our performances: esto que yo ando haciendo, es porque no quiero robar, which means “I sing for my meals because I’d rather not steal.” We learned to think like artists: we were selling a part of the landscape. Sometimes the howling wind was our Coahuiltecan version of the simoom, blowing so strong that it ripped the cardboard covering right off our shack. Then Saíd and I would go running after our roof spinning and flying away down the middle of the street.

Between 1986 (when Mexico hosted the World Cup) and 1987 (the year when David Durand died), things improved: we rented a house, bought some furniture, and slowly, gradually re-entered the class of “poor but honorable people.” Save that Marisela Acosta, without the majority of the neighbors knowing it, had to spend four nights a week in the brothels in Monterrey, trying to earn enough money so she could send us to school.

I was in my first year of high school and, despite the shame of half the town having known me as a child beggar, I’d managed little by little to make friends with the Durands –a blond family of French descent, without much money but quite popular.

One night Gonzalo Durand asked me to accompany him to La Acequia. He was going to buy a pistol.

Gonzalo was a kind of alpha male for our street corner gang that met at night to smoke marijuana and try to flirt with the junior high school girls. Not only was he the oldest: he was also the best fighter, and the only one who had a good, dependable job: he operated the desulphurization unit in Furnace Five at Ahmsa. He’d just turned nineteen. The age of armed fantasies.

Adrian and I were the ones chosen to share his rite of passage. In an illegal, unregistered `74 Maverick we headed straight over to the next neighborhood. First they offered him a revolver; in a thick pasty voice –surely from being stoned off his ass on cough syrup– the seller called the Smith & Wesson a Mita y Hueso. Then they showed Gonzalo the small automatic pistol. He fell in love with it right away. He bought it.

The next day, Adrián came to see me and he said:

“Something terrible’s happened: Gonzalo fired the gun by accident and killed Güerillo while he was sleeping.”

The first image that came to my head was ominous: Gonzalo, sleepwalking, murdering his family… But no: Gonzalo had come off the third shift and, sleepless and anxious, hurried home, climbed into his bunk, and started to clean his pistol. A bullet had slipped into the chamber. Gonzalo, who didn’t understand weapons, didn’t even notice. At some moment, the pistol slipped out of his hands. Trying to grab it, he accidentally fired. The bullet struck his little brother, who was sleeping in the bunk below, piercing his belly.

David Durand must have been how old? Fourteen? One time he’d run away with his girlfriend. Maybe because he wanted to get married. Both their parents beat the hell out of them.

Adrian and I attended the funeral, but we didn’t have the nerve to go to the wake. We feared that at any moment someone might ask us: “Where did that bastard get himself a pistol?”

Gonzalo was in jail, I think, for a couple months. That was the last I heard about him. Mama said to me, very serious:

“You’ll be sorry if I ever catch you looking at guns or hanging out again with those scumbags.”

The rest of the year went by. One day, shortly before Christmas, Mama came home very early, with alcohol still on her breath. Saíd and I were sleeping in the same bed, clutching each other against the cold. She turned on the light, sat down next to us, and sprinkled a light rain of wrinkled bills down on our heads. Her makeup looked clownish, and a small red wound stood out on her forehead.

She said: “Let’s go.”

And just like that, without packing or taking apart the house, we fled the town of my childhood.

Occasionally I return to Monclova to give a lecture or to attend a book launch. Sometimes we drive along the edge of Ciudad Frontera, on the way to the swimming holes at Cuatro Cienegas, or to pick pomegranates at Mario’s and Mabel’s ranch in Lamadrid.  As we drive along the Carlos Salinas de Gotari beltway, I tell Mónica: “I spent my childhood on the other side of this airport.” She replies: “Let’s go see it.” I tell her no.

What for?

 

6

I leave the hospital after keeping vigil for 36 hours. Monica comes to get me. The light of day looks harsh, like the air has been sprayed with filthy powdered milk. Monica says that she’s gathering together all the bills to see if they’re tax deductible; that my ex-boss promised to cover, through the Institute of Culture, at least part of the expenses; that Maruca has been behaving herself but that she misses me terribly; that the garden, the kapok tree, and the jacaranda have been freshly watered. I don’t understand what she is saying (I don’t manage to make the connection) but I answer yes to everything. Exhaustion. To sleep fitfully on a chair without armrests you need a rope dancer’s agility and the fury of an off-kilter madman, far from the wall and very close to the reggaeton broadcast on the radio from the nurses’ station: mírala mírala cómo suda y cómo ella se desnuda ella no sabe que a mí se me partió la tuba. – “Look at her look at how she sweats how she strips she don’t know how it made me so hard my horn just split”. A voice inside my head woke me up in the middle of the night. It was saying: “Don’t be afraid. Nothing that might be yours comes from you.” I rubbed my neck and closed my eyes again: I supposed that it must be some greedy peddler’s koan recited by the TV astrologer and medium Mizada Mohamed on the television set in the next room. It’s not reality that makes one cynical; it’s how hard it is to get to sleep in the city.

We make it home. Monica opens the big garage door, parks and locks the Atos inside, and says:

“If you want, after lunch, you can come for a while to the garden to read and just sit in the sun.”

I’d like to tease my wife for saying such prissy things. But I’ve got no strength. Besides, the sun is falling on my face with a palpable bliss. On the freshly watered grass. On the leaves of the jacaranda… I tumble down and lie on the grass. Maruca, our dog, gambols out to say hello to me. I close my eyes. Being cynical requires rhetoric. Sitting in the sunshine doesn’t, no.

–Julián Herbert; Translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley

Translating Mama Leukemia
 

No matter how strong your command of Spanish, translating any piece, especially a literary one where you confront a personal voice, in this case a very personal one, forces you to encounter a variety of challenges.  In addition to the fact that the Hispanic world contains dozens of countries, each one of them contains many different regions with a dizzying variety of idioms and local flavorings. This is well known. All those possible complications are increased when filtered through the mind and voice of an individual writer. But the need for communication provides a kind of governor, in both the source text and the target language. Unless writing for purely personal reasons or constructing some thanatoptic dream language, à la Finnegans Wake, grammar and orthography offer the translator some reassurance that despite whatever difficulties encountered, they are going to encounter meaning, and though there are often no exact matches there must be some meaningful equivalent. Finding that is part of the fun.

Another enjoyable aspect, especially in a memoir like “Mama Leukemia,” is discovering people and places. Reading and translating this text is like spending time in the company of the writer and the character, almost like getting to know them and the places they inhabit. Thanks to Julián Herbert’s precise prose I’m able to revisit Acapulco, where I once spent a beach weekend in 1984, when I was a senior in high school. I remember arriving there on a tour coach from Mexico City and, as I had been in the capital city, shocked by the close proximity of poverty and opulence, vast shanty towns clinging to crumbling hillsides just a short ride from luxurious hotels whose likes I’d never imagined. Julián Herbert’s harrowing experiences with and without his mother make those scenes I glimpsed in passing far more vivid because he populates them and sets them in motion.

 I’m also grateful for having had the chance to correspond with Julián while working on this translation and to receive his generous and thoughtful feedback. He answered each of my questions and also spotted a number of details which needed correction, and he kindly, patiently discussed them and offered feedback. He helped me clarify some locations when I had conflated Acapulco with some of the story’s later locations in north central Mexico. He also helped clarify the term “cigarra” which is literally a “cicada” but also as slang carries the meaning of “layabout” or “loafer”. It’s interesting to see how the noun “go-go girl” can be used in Spanish as an adjective; Julián uses it to describe his prostitute mother when she was young: “Era muy agogó” which literally means, she was as vivacious as a go-go dancer. A very interesting localism appears in the Spanish phrase about a car: “Nos enfilamos en un Maverick 74 chocolate al barrio de junto.” I was working from a Word document I’d made from the PDF. In the PDF the word “chocolate” is italicized, but it didn’t appear that way in Word. Had I noticed that at first I might have paid more attention to it, but I simply took it to mean brown, and produced this sentence: “We got into a chocolate-colored `74 Maverick and drove over to the next neighborhood.” Julián pointed out to me that chocolate (with the Spanish pronunciation), as used here, comes from the word chueco which means “outside the law” and in the story’s context refers to an illegal, unregistered car, imported from the U.S. into Northern Mexico, without paying taxes. A similarly interesting corruption of pronunciation occurs in “Mama Leukemia” when, in this illegal Maverick, (whose real color, he tells me, was green), they go to buy an illegal gun, a Smith and Wesson, which the stoned Mexican seller slurs as “Mita y Hueso”. Interestingly those two words individually mean “myth” and “bone”. 

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. “Mama Leukemia” is a chapter from his novel Canción de Tumba (2011).

Photo on 2012-12-09 at 00.03 #5Brendan 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.

 

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Jan 062014
 

Segura

Mauricio Segura’s Eucalyptus, part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, is a novel about identity and ownership, a narrative that drops a (relative) stranger into a (relative) strange land and lets the skeletons tumble from the closet. This may sound familiar. And yet, Segura avoids the clichés normally associated with these kinds of stories, twisting Eucalyptus into a strange, existential whodunnit. As I wrote in my review, “Segura isn’t quite interested in ‘you can’t go home again’ platitudes. Rather, he finds fascination in more oblique questions: What is home? Who truly belongs to a parcel of land? And it is these queries that make Eucalyptus an adventurous, hypnotic read.”

The following excerpt comes from chapter two, chosen because it does a great job representing not only Segura’s skills at immersing the reader in location, but also the thematic ideas of identity and ownership that pervade the narrative. There isn’t much one needs to know to appreciate this snippet: Alberto, Eucalyptus‘s protagonist, has just traveled to Chile with his young son, Marco, to bury his father, Roberto. In chapter one, the duo come across Araya, Alberto’s uncle, who tells Alberto a tale that paints Roberto in a cold light. As chapter two opens, Alberto and Marco are waiting for Roberto’s sister, Noemi, to meet them.

— Benjamin Woodard

Eucalyptus

In the middle of the afternoon, tired of waiting for Noemi to come back, tired of the stale odour in the house, Alberto took off in the pickup with Marco. His elbow propped on the open window, he watched, through the rear-view mirror, the light wind at play in his son’s hair. When he turned into the Avenida Pablo Neruda, a flash of sunlight created a blinding spot on the windshield, with a rainbow-coloured aura. He passed square after square, and although on many of them youngsters were playing football or marbles, although the benches shone bottle- green, although no litter was lying about, they all seemed drab, desolate. Was it the concrete covering the ground? Or the smog that, like an ulterior motive, darkened the city in full daylight?

He parked the pickup in front of a glass building, in which were reflected the movie theatre’s heavy columns, encrusted with dirt. He bought some fried cheese empanadas, Marco’s favourite, in a nearby grocery store, and they ate them in the shade of a palm tree, on a bench in the Plaza de Armas. As the fountain shot its jet of water towards the sky in a deafening cloud, he scanned an election poster on a lamppost. “Francisco Huenchumilla, Concertación candidate for mayor of Temuco. Para un ciudad próspera.” He wondered if Temuco had ever had a native mayor. Behind them, music from another time, childlike and gay, drifted into the square. A man with a hand organ was drawing all eyes. On his shoulder, a monkey munched peanuts and made faces. When he saw Marco watching the show, wide-eyed, Alberto remembered his first impressions of the city when, after having left Chile at the age of four, he returned with his family. At the time everything seemed dirty and old-fashioned; the cars, the excessive pollution, the shifty faces of the street children, the cadaverous features of the women kneeling on the sidewalk, selling Kleenex or mote con huesillo. And then, during the same visit, he went from one extreme to the other: he suddenly felt as if he were being reunited with a buried part of himself. He didn’t want to leave. But this honeymoon didn’t last: people, his extended family above all, made him understand that he was not quite one of them, that in certain respects, perhaps the most important, he was too gringo, a remark they let drop, sometimes in jest, at other times in all seriousness. Since then, he had never felt at home either here or back there.

A little girl, her hair held back with pink ribbons, was walking with her mother, a balloon in her hand. He bought one for Marco, and made a knot for him at his wrist with the string; from that point on his son kept his eyes on the balloon, a smile on his lips. They strolled, and soon came on itinerant sellers of every age, set up in front of a shopping centre, behind wool blankets on which were displayed miniature tanks, lighters, ballpoint pens, underpants. Alberto told himself that Araya’s story was not at all surprising. He was like that, his father, totally unpredictable, loving to spring surprises and to make a scene, seeking always to protect his moral and material independence.

“And what are going to do now your papa’s dead?” asked Marco.

The question pulled him up short.

“Don’t worry about me.”

And he tried to smile.

“Fleurette says we go up to heaven when we die.”

Fleurette was his schoolteacher.

“You think Abuelo’s going to heaven?”

“If he behaved well, yes. If not, perhaps no.”

“Did he behave well?”

Alberto shrugged his shoulders.

Then, a bit farther on:

“Papa, but why did he die, Abuelo?”

He met his son’s eyes.

“Are you going to die one day, too?”

He nodded, yes.

Seeing his son’s concern, he added:

“Don’t bother about that. It won’t be for many years. We’ve lots of good times ahead of us.”

He gripped his hand a little more tightly.

*  *  *

Back in his grandparents’ house, he went upstairs with Marco to the room where his father was laid out. Abuela, still sitting in front of the window, raised her head and blinked her eyes when they appeared, her wine-red manta accentuating her slumped shoulders. She stared at them, knitting her brows, then with a movement of her chin she ordered Alberto to introduce himself. When he revealed his identity, she repeated to herself, “Roberto’s son,” as if she no longer remembered Roberto but didn’t want to admit it. After a moment, as Alberto became conscious of the dim light surrounding him, she asked him curtly to leave, because the real Alberto was a boy living in Canada “who’s no bigger than that,” she said, stretching out the fingers of one hand. He replied that he was the boy, that he had visited her four years earlier. But she made a dismissive gesture with her index and middle fingers, indicating that he should leave. Then he took out of his pocket a watch with a chain, a present from his grandfather, went up to her and held it out. She took it, weighed it, and stared for a long time at the motionless hands, as if memories were working their way bit by bit up to the surface of her mind.

“It doesn’t work anymore?”

“For the last few days, it stops and starts. It has to be repaired.”

She gave it back to him, and venturing a smile, she said:

“It’s really you, Albertito?”

He held the watch and got on his knees at her feet. With her rough fingers, she patted Alberto’s hair and cheeks. He looked at her face, which, despite her yellowed eyes, despite the ravages of time, brought back to him a torrent of memories, of when he was Marco’s age and she kept him with her for entire days, before the dictatorship chased them out of the country again.

“You look more and more like Roberto,” she said, mussing his hair. “Do you have his character, too?” she asked, teasingly. “Ay, Dios mío, I hope not!” she added, smiling.

He returned her smile and pushed his face up against her skirts. He felt her own special odour attack his nostrils, one of wool, of tenderness, and of a madness she would not concede. He kept his eyes closed, persuaded that when he opened them he could remove himself from this oppressive climate of mourning.

She gestured to Marco that he should come near. Caressing his hands vigorously, as if she could not believe the softness of his skin, she asked him where his mother was. When the child explained that she had stayed in Canada, she looked at Alberto the way she used to when she was going to scold him.

“I’m not wrong, then?” she said. “You are like Roberto?”

Continuing to pass her hands through his curly hair, she raised her eyes to the ceiling and, in a stronger voice, as if she were addressing a large audience, embarked on a confused tirade against men and the desires that possess them like evil spirits. An evil she traced back to her dead husband, and her husband’s father, and his father before him. She went on with her monologue, digging deeper into the family’s past, and recalling, as she never failed to do, their ancestors’ arrival from Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, from an idyllic village called Monastir, today Bitola, at the heart of Macedonia. And Alberto was treated to the entire narrative of the family’s founding, only now it was timely, because although he knew it was a romanticized version, he needed to hear this story of emigration, of a flight by boat against the backdrop of a great conflagration, of the persecution of the Jewish community, and the decadence of the Ottoman Empire. Then, losing the thread of what she was saying, as if suddenly she had come back to herself and the weighty concerns of the present, she went silent. Her eyes darted this way and that, while at last tears ran down Alberto’s cheeks.

— Mauricio Segura, translated from the French by Donald Winkler

————————————

Born in Chile in 1969, Mauricio Segura grew up in Montreal and studied at Université de Montréal and McGill University. A well-known journalist and documentary filmmaker, he is the author of three novels and a study of French perceptions of Latin America. He lives with his family in Montreal.

Donald Winkler is a Montreal-based literary translator and documentary filmmaker. He has translated books by the astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, the philosopher Georges Leroux and the novelists Daniel Poliquin and Nadine Bismuth. Winkler is a three-time winner of the Governor General of Canada’s Award for French-to-English translation.

Nov 132013
 

Everything Happens Cover

“Night Vigils” comes in the middle of Albena Stambolova’s new novel, Everything Happens as It Does (Open Letter Books). This chapter is a sample of Stambolova’s idea-rich and scintillating prose. The reader doesn’t need to know much context to make this chapter complete, save that Margarita and her father have not seen a lot of each other lately, and, for the most part, she is a rather odd young woman. I think my favorite aspect of this chapter is the way Stambolova can write about such commonplace scenarios and make them sound surprising and intimate (perhaps even intrusive). Through the eyes of Margarita, Stambolova manages to convey the authentic nature of experience as a surprising and unsettling encounter with otherness.

– Jacob Glover (see NC’s review of the novel here)

25.

Night Vigils

Margarita tiptoed between tangled legs and arms, tilted lamps, overturned glasses and all kinds of remnants from hours of sitting, smoking, talking and listening to music. She saw a couple kissing, their lips sunk into each other with such riveting force that she could not take her eyes off them. Worn-out desperate things had a strange effect on her. A threadbare blanket, for example, or this hopeless kiss, beautiful like a dead rose’s petals dripping with their scent of hysteria. She decided to walk around them, bumped into a sleeping body and the solid surface of an armchair, finally reached an emptier space with enough room for both her feet and managed to steady her step. Where could she have left her coat, her oversized, long black coat and her gigantic bag? They must be here somewhere. The figure of a man holding a candle appeared out of nowhere. Nothing ever happened the way one anticipated it. Come to think of it, even tonight, earlier in the evening, she had tried to explain that she didn’t have the time, but it turned out that she did have the time, she had lots of time. And what birthday were they talking about, no one had a birthday. At least she couldn’t see anyone who had a birthday.

For the first hour or so, it had been only the three of them—the boy who had brought her and who seemed to know her very well, and the girl she had assumed was the hostess, as she had changed into different clothes at least twice. They had all been sitting around a low coffee table when the girl had stood up and walked away, and just when they had almost forgotten about her, she reappeared wearing something like a transparent nightgown over her naked body. She looked beautiful in the dim light. Then more people came and Margarita lost sight of the girl, only to see her later in a different outfit, which made her doubt for a moment that it was the same person.

Now she was looking for her coat and her bag, and she was starving. Finally she stepped into a room with piles of coats thrown on a bed, and she buried her hands to search for hers. She recognized it by the touch of her fingers, like a blind person, and pulled it out, overcoming the resistance of the soft mass of clothes around it. Her bag was on the floor and she almost tripped over it. She flung it on her shoulder, continuing to tread carefully toward the exit.

Once outside, she could see only machines; there were people, but the people were all inside machines—trams, buses, and cars. She didn’t feel like going home, and decided instead to visit her father. The trams’ jangle and dazzling threaded lights did not seem inviting, so she headed there on foot, her heavy bag on her shoulder.

Walking gave her the satisfaction of work well done. Work that was pleasant and amusing, squeak-squeak-squeaking feet on the snow. Gliding, slaloming between the parked cars, stopping at traffic lights, standing upright like a soldier.

At night the city looked like a picture. Spaces look indistinct, the houses are surprising. At night the city lets you be; it lets you in, in all of its places, which, you then realize, belong to the city and not to you, a passerby. If you are brave enough, it will let you in even deeper, to places invisible in daylight no matter how hard you look for them. Night people in the city know this, they belong to the city, and that’s why they are scary and others are frightened by them.

Margarita was not thinking about these things. She never thought about anything at all. Thinking for her was like floating down a babbling stream, gently propelled by the drift of her unusual perceptions, until someone broke the spell by speaking or asking for something. No one had ever heard Margarita herself ask for anything. If she happened to feel like “asking,” what other people would call “asking,” she just let her feet take her to a place where whatever she needed simply happened to her. If she ever felt scared by something, she would run away and no one could stop her. She had thus gone through a number of schools, special schools and ordinary ones, she had started many classes and abandoned many, until one day Maria decided that she deserved some peace. Margarita read books, children’s stories and other books, she went out with people, to the cinema or elsewhere, but how far her knowledge of things extended was a mystery. She did not seem depressed about not fitting into a normal category, and the doctor, Mr. T., whom she was seeing about once a month, had himself come to a standstill in observing her perpetual state. Valentin would sometimes drag her with him for weekends or holidays with friends, and Margarita would blend in, in her own dazed way. At the same time, she never forgot faces or people in general. Her memory, free as it was from all other things, recorded words, faces, situations—gathering an endlessly abundant material that would make quite a few film directors happy.

Now she strolled about the city and registered no signs of danger. Every once in a while she felt the weight of her bag and moved it to her other shoulder. What was in that bag, only she knew, whatever to know meant for Margarita.

The window of her father’s apartment gleamed like a beacon. He answered the door almost immediately, dumbfounded to see her. So much so, that for a moment he did not invite her to come in, but let the smell of something burning reach her nose in wafts through the open door.

Are you alright?

Margarita smiled at him happily and he stepped back. He knew that she perceived things differently, but all the same he felt uncomfortable that she could see the remains of his lonely midnight dinner in the black frying pan. He chased away the thought of Maria’s ability to prepare something tasty out of anything, her oven turning out unbelievable dishes as if by itself.

Margarita looked at the piano, but her father waved his hand—not now, people are sleeping.

I’m hungry, dad.

Straight away he put a plate and some bread on the table, poured her a soda drink and took a salad out of the fridge. Margarita began to chew heartily, while her father wondered how he could possibly tell her that he was worried about her.

He asked about Valentin, but quickly hit some barrier and concluded that he needed to find out what was happening at his wife’s house.

Margarita finished eating, suddenly looking sad. He shouldn’t have spoken to her about Valentin. He took a sip of his beer and asked her about the baby. Margarita’s reaction was calmer, her mother and the baby were fine. And dear Boris? She hadn’t seen him for a while.

Her father felt anxious, the way he did every time he received news from Maria’s house. Margarita stirred from her seat like a restless bird before a storm. She wanted to go to bed and her father drove her home. He kissed her goodnight, lightly, as if this was something he did every night.

When she climbed into her enormous boat of a bed, her grandmother’s lamp was still lit. She couldn’t tell if there was anyone in the house.

—————————————————-

StambolovaExcerpted from Everything Happens as it Does by Albena Stambolova

Trans. Olga Nikolova from Bulgarian

Pubished by permission of Open Letter Books

Oct 162013
 

Ror-Wolf

Herewith, a delightful micro-story from Ror Wolf’s latest collection, Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions (published by Open Letter Books and translated by Jennifer Marquart ). Wolf was born in East Germany in 1932. He is an award-winning novelist, poet, artist and collagist. He emigrated West Germany in 1953, where he studied with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the famous Frankfurt School, the source of modern critical theory. As you might expect of a writer with such a background, Wolf merrily refuses to create a conventional story line. Rather he works in fragments and asides and wordplay, always shadowed by the IDEA of a conventional story that might come into existence but doesn’t.  A first person narrator is asked a question. “What prompted your remark?” But Wolf’s narrator dashes and evades. “I didn’t make a remark,” the narrator says. And from there, we are off and running. Notice how Wolf shifts from past tense to present tense. Notice how he describes a cast of characters that aren’t really part of the main action. Suddenly the story fills with a variety of men sprawled out like disfigured shapes in a Goya painting.  What’s real? What’s it about? And Wolf leads us only further into the mystery, into the facts that never materialize. Like Robert Walser, like Gertrude Stein, like Thomas Bernhard, Wolf invents new possibilities for the story.

—Richard Farrell

two or three

 

Excuse me, what prompted your remark, said a man as I approached the reception desk at the train station hotel on October 21st 1999, and I said: I didn’t make a remark. I can’t even guess if the next man who shows up in line will make a remark. I also don’t know if my abilities are sufficient enough to describe this showing up, or to at least prove my competence for such a description here, in front of my readers. Anyway, I have doubts about my competence regarding the problem that surrounds and seems to occupy this man, and from which he is trying to momentarily step away in order to get my attention. Before I give any thought to this, I’ll turn my attention to another man, who’s lying crumpled under the table with only his feet visible. Without an extra explanation, no one would figure out why two identical-looking men are behaving so differently; and yet the explanation is very simple. You shouldn’t wait for an explanation from me because I just decided to turn my attention to another man. This man is resting his head on the table, as we can see, but in reality it only looks like that, and has no bearing on the continuation of this story. I am also not really interested in this man, but will only compare him to the man I wanted to discuss at the beginning and who is standing beside him—not directly next to him, but at a little bit of a distance. If I were to hear that the man I mentioned opened a door and disappeared, it would live up to my expectations and wishes entirely, enabling me to easily turn my attention towards several other men. They are men with a purpose, coming in as if they invented their purposes in the moment they entered, and they are in reality only meaningless purposes. Incidentally, all of these men wear their hats on their heads, and, between you and me, that seems somewhat boring, but I won’t dwell on it. Instead, I exhibit a certain interest in listening to a man whom I don’t see, but can hear quite well. Excuse me, what prompted your remark, this man said, as I approached the reception desk at the train station hotel on October 21st. And I said: I didn’t make any remark. That was ’99, a rather shitty year for men—men who went to the brink of tolerability, the end of their strengths, men with hats firmly adhered to their heads, shoes firmly attached to their feet, men who did not have a solid grasp on what could happen to them in a train station hotel. And that’s not nearly all. I’m refraining from describing what came next. I’ll do everything to avoid confusing you with more words, I said that time in ’99. I stood up. Where are you going? someone asked, some man asked: Where are you going? But I didn’t pay attention to the question, I left, and refrained from describing the further development.

—Ror Wolf

——————————–

Ror Wolf is an artist, an author of prose and poetry, and a writer of radio plays and “radio collages.” Born in the East German city of Saalfeld, Wolf left the GDR for West Germany at the age of 31. His writing has earned him many awards, including Radio Play of the Year (2007), the Kassel Literature Prize for Grotesque Humor (2004) and the Literature Award of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in 2003. Wolf’s work has been translated into over 12 languages.

Jennifer Marquart studied German and translation at the University of Rochester. She has lived, continued her studies and taught in Cologne and Berlin. Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf is her first book-length translation.

 

Sep 152013
 

Vaclav HavelVáclav Havel via The New Yorker

Václav Havel was a hero to my generation, a poet, playwright, and political dissident who stood resolutely against Soviet domination during the final decades of the Iron Curtain, who spent years in prison, and who eventually helped engineer his country’s so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989. I have read Havel and about Havel all my life, it seems, and now it is a special honour to be able to publish in Numéro Cinq a hitherto untranslated Havel poem, “The Little Owl Who Brayed.” This is an amazing coup made possible through the efforts of the poet and translator David Celone who not only translated the poem and wrote an astute essay for us but also contacted Havel’s widow and obtained the necessary permissions for publication of both the translation and the original Czech version of the poem.

dg

.

The Little Owl Who Brayed

Wisdom’s little owl brayed:
“How beautiful is rot’s decay.”
A pine grove bleated low:
“Come on, easy does it now.”

A serpent hissed: “I love graveyard’s bliss.”
A flower extolled:
“Where ambitions pit your soul?”

Pines gushed: “Wise up.”
Flower hissed: “Let it stink.”

“You should never, it’s true,”
calls motherland insistent,
“in twilight’s advancing gloom
be the least resistant.”

Pines shot: “Reason rots.”
Flower shrieked: “Beauty reeks.”

Serpent hooted: “The graveyard
is paradise, so tranquil and muted.”

You should never, I cry,
in our nation’s interest
beneath twilight’s grimace
ever have to resist.
Dig in. Resist. Persist…

— Václav Havel 1977 (translated by D. Celone, with Liba Hladik and Paul Wilson)

/

ZAHÝKAL SÝC 

Zahýkal sýc: „Krásné je hnít.”
Zašuměl bor,
že: „To chce klid.”

Zasyčel had: „Hřbitov mám rád.”
Zaskvěl se květ:
„Kam se chceš drát?”

Zahýkal bor: „Rozumný být.”
Zasyčel květ:
„Nechat to čpít.”

„A tak by se neměl věru,”
volá vlast,
postupujícímu šeru
odpor klást.”

Zasyčel bor: „Rozumně hnít.”
Zaskučel květ:
„Krásné je čpít.”

Zahýkal had: „Hřbitov je ráj
a je tam klid.”

A tak by se neměl věru
v zájmu vlasti
postupujícímu šeru
odpor klásti.
Odpor klásti…

— Václav Havel, 1977

 §

Václav Havel’s many incarnations led him from poet to playwright, to essayist and dissident, to become the final president of then-communist Czechoslovakia in 1989 before being elected as the first president of the newly formed democratic Czech Republic in 1993.  He was jailed for his writing in samizdat (government suppressed and censored) underground publications and for signing Charter 77, a public indictment of the government’s human and civil rights abuses, the dissemination of which was considered a political crime.  Notions of peaceful resistance proffered by Charter 77 evolved into what became known as the Velvet Revolution, ultimately toppling the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.  During Havel’s nearly four-year incarceration, he continued to write letters and to dream of new scripts for plays.  His letters from jail to his wife were subsequently published as Letters to Olga, a fascinating introspective journey of personal snippets, joys and woes during his prison term.  Little is known of Havel’s poetry outside of the Czech language and archives of the Havel Library in Prague.  His fame revolved around his plays that used absurdist humor to expose the plight of a country and its people oppressed by communist rule.  Havel’s political career brought him into the public light, winning him many international accolades and honors for his work as an outspoken proponent of human rights including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, and the Order of Canada.  This poet turned playwright turned politician deserves much of our attention as writers and humanists.  Yet, his poetry remains a mystery.

The 1970s in Czechoslovakia was an era and place where totalitarian rule under the then communist regime took great tolls on the Czech people.  The state normalization politics of quietism backed by strong-armed police efforts and state-led propaganda campaigns attempted to convince the Czech people that silence and tranquility were the traits needed to live in peace and harmony with one another while submitting to the political will of communist rule.  The alternative, of course, was jail.  Imprisonment for speaking out against the state, including censorship and arrest of writers and artists, exile, loss of work, and loss of educational opportunities for the children of political dissidents became the norm.  As a result, the heavy iron hand of the communist regime laid waste to artistic creativity and voice, breeding considerable unrest and dissidence.

Václav Havel, playwright, essayist, poet, dissident, politician, was part of a group of artists and writers that published samizdat, or underground leaflets, to avoid total censorship.  This group, loosely organized to avoid political trouble, eventually authored and signed a document known as “Charter 77” in 1977.  This public manifesto criticized the Czech government for failing to implement certain human rights provisions in national documents it had signed including the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia.  Some short time after signing Charter 77, Havel wrote the poem “Zahýkal Sýc,” which has gone largely unnoticed by the cohorts of Havel archivists, translators, and, therefore, readers.  I have undertaken to translate this poem into English, which, to my knowledge after some considerable research of the Havel Library archives and other sources, is a first for any Havel poem other than his concrete poetry and one, short, nine-word poem entitled “We Promise” published in From A Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology.  (Delbos, Stephan. From A Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology. Ed. Delbos. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia. 2011.)

The English title of the poem I’ve chosen is “The Little Owl Who Brayed.”  It is replete with allusions and paradoxes, with an owl that brays, a serpent that hoots, a flower that hisses, and a forest that bleats, gushes, and moans.  All are absurdities that point to the deeper absurdity of the political order of the day and its heavy hand of political, social, educational, and cultural censorship.  “Zahýkal,” literally translated, means “murmured something painfully.”  “Sýc” is an owl, and an owl with a history in Greek myth and European hunting practice.  An owl that brays is clearly not well, and must feel considerable pain when making such an unusual noise.  There are several antithetical vocal elements at play, beginning with the wise owl who speaks with the paradoxical asininity of a donkey’s voice, then moving through a host of natural elements whose voices strain reason.  Havel approaches this poem in epistemological form, with an eye that describes and depicts nature at its most absurd, to convey a hugely powerful message to the Czech people.  In many ways, this poem serves as a roadmap for the type of dissidence that Havel and the members of Charter 77 would propound and follow for the next decade or so until communist rule devolved.

Classics from the then-popular movie Doctor Zhivago, itself an early samizdat publication authored by Boris Pasternak that had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and Jaroslav Hašek’s novel, The Good Soldier Švejk, are invoked through such lines as: “krasne je zit,” meaning “how beautiful it is to live” from the leitmotif “Lara’s Theme” in Doctor Zhivago (later becoming the basis for the English-language song “Somewhere My Love”) turned on its head to “krasne je hnít,” meaning, literally translated, “how beautiful it is to rot.”  Havel expresses his perspective of life in a satellite state of the Soviet Union as a place to rot rather than to live while also exposing a country that is, itself, rotting under the oppressive palm of the totalitarian hand.  So, too, does Havel use “to chce klid,” a famous line from Hašek’s Švejk meaning “take it easy,” or “don’t speak out and awaken the powers that be” as a defeatist form of quietism prevalent in then-communist Czechoslovakia—keeping one’s mouth shut was heralded by the government unless it wanted damning information about a neighbor, family member, or friend, in which case silence may well have become a political crime.

Havel then moves the poem and the reader into a world of absurdities in which animals and other characters in nature, such as a pine grove and a flower blossom, along with the prevailing iconic cultural themes of the day noted above are upended to convey the need to resist the state, the police, and the required social norms purveyed by the communist regime’s deep-rooted marketing and sloganeering propaganda efforts.

Similarly, Havel uses paradox to deliver his final message.  With “klast odpor,” meaning “to resist,” or, in biblical parlance, “to dig in” or “entrench,” and “vola vlast,” or, “motherland calls.”  Havel allows, sottovoce, and in the extant voice of the country itself to, at first, encourage people not to resist, or, in an absurdist twist of linguistic irony, to never “be the least resistant.”  Does this mean to not put up resistance against communism, or does it mean, as the country speaking in its double-negative voice implies, to never be the least resistant and, thus, arguably, to, in fact, be the most resistant to the country’s advancing gloom and plight?  It would seem the latter is what Havel had in mind, yet he couched it in terms the government might not readily understand.  Brilliantly, Havel used the absurd and circumlocution to make his political point while avoiding the strict scrutiny that otherwise might have censored his poem.  This was a trick he used during his lengthy jail term when writing letters to his then-wife, Olga.  He learned how to avoid censorship by making oblique references to certain places or people that he knew his wife would understand.

“Little Owl” also offers, at its most absurd, the notion of a cemetery as a place to which the Czechoslovakian people should aspire because it is a paradise of peace, tranquility, and quiet calm.  The poem closes with the voice of the country merging with Havel’s own narrative voice to urge the Czech people to, in fact, resist, persist, and resist again.  Throughout, Havel uses the voices of animals to mimic the political sloganeering of the communist government that offered constant passive-aggressive messaging and reinforcing innuendo that passivity and tranquility were the best ways to be a friend of the state in order to achieve peace and safety for oneself and one’s family.  Alternatives for those who spoke their minds were not favorable or pretty as Havel and his Charter 77 colleagues learned while serving out prison sentences.

Quietism, or keeping one’s thoughts private about politics and the state became a cultural agenda that took root and extracted a considerable toll on generations of disenchanted Czechs subjected to the encroaching gloom of a twilight that settled in upon their country over decades of communist rule.  Too, the notion of speaking out against friends or family to curry favor with the regime while “selling out” to communism comes under fire in this poem when the flower, a symbol of the country’s great beauty by virtue of its mention in the Czech national anthem, comments “Kam se chceš drát?,”  meaning, “Why be ambitious?” to benefit yourself to the detriment of others.  Personal ambition was frowned upon by the state and by most people living under the state’s powerful mind-control techniques.  In a double entendre of irony, Havel also brings to light the type of ambition the state allowed, which was to inform on others, thereby putting entire families at risk of being incarcerated.  Nobody felt safe from the watchful eye of the government as children, parents, or other family members, friends, colleagues, or complete strangers could levy accusations that might be taken seriously by the police.  Due process did not exist.  The rule of totalitarian law was extreme.  Little beyond quiet acceptance of state rule was tolerated.  The creative spirit of a nation was shorn.

As the final stanza suggests, and, again, with Havel’s use of the impish double negative, the Czech people should never have been put in a position to think about resisting the type of political regime under which they lived.  Yet, here they were tolerating, and oddly ignoring, the evils of communism.  They had entered the world of “Zahýkal Sýc” and its many absurdities that parallel reality under communist totalitarian rule.  The world of “The Little Owl Who Brayed” lives somewhere between nursery rhyme and parable, or fantasy and reality.   It is a rebuke of the prevailing defeatist tendencies of the people of Czechoslovakia at the time, leading to a country’s and a people’s entropy—politically, culturally, socially, individually, religiously, and artistically.  Yet “Little Owl” is also a highly emotional summons to the Czech people to take action and stand fast to principals of humanity and moral practices not condoned by the state and the Soviet regime.  By virtue of its use of cultural symbolism and natural elements known to all, direct story-telling prose, and poetic rhyme, this poem achieves its goal simply, dynamically, and with a deft hand and brilliantly wry wit.  At its end, in classic comic and absurdist form for which Havel is known as a dramatist, the narrator draws the reader in to resist the type of “wisdom” being purveyed by the state, or the snake.  In counterpoint to the serpent who hoots and preaches about paradise as a quiet graveyard, Havel offers the Czech people a poetic choice: they can choose freedom through resistance to overcome the serpent’s snare and break free of the political bonds that trap them like the owl, wise though it may be, or they can accept an ongoing existence of rotting within the decaying fabric of their once beautiful country by acquiescing to the demands of the communist propaganda, political, and police-state machine.  This poem is an epistemological triumph that delivers new knowledge through the elements of nature posited as absurd voices, while illuminating the Czech populace that their notions of normalcy were, in fact, completely invalid and out of touch with nature, reason, and humanity.  Havel hopes to move people away from entropy and call them to action to resist the ruling order of the day.

While Havel’s calling out to resist what is happening in the Czech homeland closes the poem, it gives rise to several complex questions about why he chose the various symbols to represent the speakers in the poem.  The owl, the serpent, the pine grove, the flower, and, most certainly and obviously, the country itself all have important allusory standing within this poem.

In brief, the owl represents wisdom, much as it did when perched on the shoulder of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and just warfare, who carried an owl with her, and who carries the image of the goddess Nike on her helmet.  It is Nike who is depicted in a statue with raised sword in triumph memorializing the Battle of Volgograd, one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history with more than two million casualties and a turning point in which Russia defeated the German army in World War II.  The statue of Nike is named “Matka Vlast Volá” or, “Mother Motherland Calls,” similar to Havel’s use of “vola vlast,” or “motherland calls” in the poem.  Thus, Havel may well be offering a reminder of the terrible bloodshed that can happen under totalitarian rule—even when power is wielded to protect a country—and a stern rebuke that aggressive resistance leading to bloodshed is not the best way forward for the people of Czechoslovakia.

The Little Owl (Athena noctua) carried by Athena was common in European pine forests and typically was used to hunt small prey.  Its particular facilities lay in its ability to be trained to catch animals (snakes included) in its claws and, most importantly, to learn to return again and again to the snare, or cage, of its captor and handler.  “Drat” in Czech, means “wire” or “snare,” as well as “to wear a wire” or microphone for eavesdropping or spying purposes.  “Drat se,” a reflexive verb, means “to push oneself forward” or “to be ambitious” to the demise of others as noted above.  Thus, the owl, though wise, serves its master willingly, obeys, and returns to its captor’s snare over and over much like Havel suggests the Czech people do through entropy and defeatism in the face of their political oppressors.  Too, like the owl, they are handled and trained by the state, held captive by the state police powers and propaganda machinery, and allowed only limited scope in which to live always being required to return to their nation-state cage itself held captive by the Soviet Union.  They also fall into the trap the state set that encouraged them to spy on others for personal gain or else be considered enemies of the state.  Havel delves deep beneath the veneer of the absurd, with an owl that brays, yielding further absurdities such as this symbol of wisdom that curries favor with its captor in exchange for a freedom that will never materialize.

The serpent suggests the obvious biblical allusion to Adam and Eve and its offer to them of knowledge versus life in Eden.  In this case, it is the serpent’s paradoxically irrational offer of living in a cemetery in exchange for peace that represents the state’s offer to the Czech people—not much of an offer to be sure!  The pine grove (“bor”) and the flower (“květ”) figure prominently in the Czech national anthem, thus invoking the love of country and Czech pride as important voices to heed.  The flower is, with the exception of the narrator in the final stanza, perhaps the only rational voice in the poem.  It is the flower that defines the beauty of the Czech homeland in the national anthem, and it is the flower that defies the seemingly rational voice of the pine grove.

—David Celone

Acknowledgements

I’ve been helped with this translation by native Czech speaker Liba Hladik of East Thetford, Vermont.  Liba is a Czech refugee who works for Dartmouth College.  I’ve also received generous assistance from Paul Wilson of Heathcote, Ontario.  Paul was Havel’s biographer, translator, and friend for many years.  He is also a freelance writer who was expelled from Czechoslovakia by the Communist government for his association with the dissident movement.  Liba and Paul have agreed to add their names to my translation of the “Little Owl” poem as I now affectionately call it.  I was further encouraged to take on this translation project by some wonderful people at the Václav Havel Library in Prague including: Jan Hron, Jan “Honza” Macháček, and Martin Palouš.  They’ve given me access to the Library archives and have allowed me to translate “Zahýkal Sýc” into English.  I’d also like to extend my gratitude to another Czech refugee who shall go only by the initials ZB, and his lovely wife, MMB, for their enduring friendship and for introducing me some time ago to the Václav Havel Library and its mission.  You’ve all helped me bring a newly translated voice into this world.  I am truly grateful.

Finally, and to echo the words of Robert Hass in his introduction to the selected poems of Tomas Tranströmer, translating is a “fiddlers task,” as opposed to editing, which belongs to the meddler.  (Tranströmer, Tomas.  Selected Poems 1965-1986.  Ed. Robert Hass. Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press. 1987.)  I’ve come to realize that tinkering with the strings of the Havelian fiddle is an enormously gratifying experience, producing beautiful music in a mellifluous language that many ears will hear for the very first time.  And, of course, I extend my abundant thanks to Jen Bervin and Rick Jackson of Vermont College of Fine Arts for their guidance as my faculty advisors, and to Douglas Glover of VCFA and his brilliantly designed online magazine Numéro Cinq for making Havel’s poetic music so readily available.  I expect to tinker further with more of Havel’s yet-to-be-translated verse over time.

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djcelone photo

David Celone has worked in higher education development and alumni relations for the past seventeen years at Dartmouth College, The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and Vermont Law School.  He holds a law degree from Vermont Law School and has practiced law in Vermont and Connecticut. Celone grew up in the seaside village of New Haven, Connecticut.  He lives in Lyme, New Hampshire, as he pursues a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Sep 062013
 

Boel Schenlaer

Boel Schenlaer is a whirlwind of a poet, playwright, editor and literary impresario in Sweden. She is also a bit of a nomad and writes about that, writes about the interzone where the familiar begins to fade and the Other, strange, foreign, crowded and confusing, begins to infiltrate consciousness with a tumult of sensation, gorgeous unknowable words, and fleeting, enigmatic encounters. This is the zone of translation (between cultures, peoples, languages) and transcendence. It’s ironic then that we also have here translations from the Swedish (by Alan Crozier) of Schenlaer’s translations of her experience, experience doubly displaced — something in this about the nature of poetry. Lovely to read.

dg

Marrakech

En route to Marrakech
Cane making. Afriqua is the name of the
filling station, lovely clusters of cactus.
“A new life is born” it says on
the sign. Birdbath fountain. Repair shop.
Donkeys shrieking like donkeys.
Afriqua. Oilibya and Marrakech begin.

Round buildings, holes in the walls
pink stone houses, built-up areas.
Orange trees, cars, a mosque, swimming baths.
Red stone houses, red wall. Yellow-pink houses.
Café Ourika. Moped riders. Africa depicted.
When there are too few things to observe…
…children become poets…

A roof of cloth
Never before have I seen such a swarm
the medina, souks, the square full of people
like one big dark mystic mass
in which I move, which moves round me.
A vault of cloth above, a roof of cloth, the sky
the soft, dark night of creation, black
and all the lanterns, fires, lights, the glare
Djema el-Fnaa, fortune tellers, madrasas.
Who is frightened by large open squares with
smoke, fires, snakes, horses, drums, food
begging children, jewellery, carpets, shawls
scents of incense, the darkness, the throng…

.

Encircled by darkness and people

I

When we got out of the taxi the darkness was there
enclosing, embracing, the closure
and the opening of night in movements
in tension, in encounters that come closer.
The square a roundabout of bustle, rhythms
three spells, the fairytale, the hostilities
dynasties of believing Arabs
the Muslims, the women’s clothing
– heavy yellow-pink, soft orange, jellyfish-green –
beards, roving eyes, the heat in the air
the teapots, the drinking vessels, hats
carpets, patterns and the arabesques
the conmen, the beggars, and the
hands cupped before one’s eyes.
To give, always to give, to be a poor
Swede, but poor gives to poor and I can’t
remember such vulnerability
just my own former poverty and
the children’s blind trust, a destitution that
makes them want to abandon the draught animals
with caked earth hanging from their bellies.
The teapots, symbols of pause.

II

A girl pursues us up on to the roof
she wants her dirhams. She stands her ground.
When we have drunk our tea she is at the foot
of the stairs, tugs our clothes, loses her temper.
She gets twenty dirhams but wants a hundred
she doesn’t give up, we have to chase
the child away and what does that make us?
In that moment I lose my dignity
to the red pisé walls of the medina.

At home my friends are exposed to
hate crimes and I protest vehemently
to those who made the damage possible.
Anti-Semites are growing in numbers.

III

Night in the square is the darkness and mumbling
of rapture, the gloom of a spirit.
My black nightmare is of a different kind.
Poetry is the dark muzzle of a
confiscated horse left in the stable.
The four-legged steed, chained fast and
inside the horse another one like it
a velvety creature we call a foal
with the well in its eyes and a hoarse cry,
a whisper that has become mute, that lives
its life concealed, born into uncertainty
that strides through fire on weightless hooves.

IV

I am standing in water up to my dream.
The clay houses, walls of dissected life.
Stone-paved sugar which for centuries has
got stuck together with corroded souls
terms of abuse, smears, disparagement, hatred
in a broad horizon of bridge abutments
underground passages, burnt sand, desert.

The same incurable torrent of words that
is an act of kindness to scornful faces.
The man who’s fit for fight flinches away.
A panegyric from purgatory, a gob of spittle.
Some ancient poems the door of which
cannot be seen without a protective film.
The pilgrimage of the seven shawls. An awkward hand.
Everything I lay down here agrees with what
he said about his own will to breathe:
You reach true depth on the surface level.

V

Mellah is Hebrew for salt, the
Jewish quarters, the salt regarded
as poison, strewn for murder victims, I
cannot put up with the lies, never,
not in situations where the clothes pegs
in our outstretched hand, our fellow feelings
are constantly questioned. Our hook on life.

How the button that Lenke Rothman kept as
a bridge over all time away from the end,
how candy floss, barbe à papa, ceases.

VI

The shoe-cleaner in a black jacket with a red
collar, dressed like a dirtied bellhop
on his low stool at the café guests’
shoes makes me burst into sudden tears.
Just like the grubby little boy
who handed me a packet of tissues
to give something in exchange for a few
paltry dirhams, and the youth who sold
a box of raspberries, took the note and ran.

—Boel Schenlær, from the collection I Dream of Blood translated by Alan Crozier

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Alan Crozier was born in Ulster in 1953. He gained a Ph.D. in Germanic philology at Cambridge University in 1980. For the past thirty years he has lived in Sweden, married, with two children. He works as a translator, mainly of Scandinavian academic texts, and more recently of poetry, including the latest two collections of poems by Boel Schenlaer. His spare-time interests include folk music and writing comic verse and
other nonsense.

Boel Schenlaer is a poet and playwright who made her debut in 1992. Her poems have been translated into eleven languages. She is also editor of the poetry magazine Post Scriptum, and of the literary journal Merkurius. For the past eleven years she has arranged the annual Södermalm Poetry Festival, where some three hundred Swedish and international poets have appeared. Her latest collection of poems is titled Nomad in Exile, and a new one is to be published this winter: I Dream of Blood (Symposion, 2014).