Contributor News: Pattie McCarthy
She has also published a chapbook, fifteen genre scenes, from eth press. It’s a “scribal experiment”—each copy is written out by hand.
Contributor News: Pattie McCarthy
She has also published a chapbook, fifteen genre scenes, from eth press. It’s a “scribal experiment”—each copy is written out by hand.
Contributor News: Steve Davenport
Contributor News: Arielle Greenberg
Review: Mirror Gazing by Warren Motte
By Nancy Smith
Warren Motte has been collecting literary mirror scenes for the past twenty-five years—a remarkable, if somewhat curious, undertaking. Motte, a devoted reader who absorbs “a healthy mix of so-called ‘serious literature’ and so-called ‘popular literature,’ ” has kept 3×5 notecards within each book to record the author, title, and page of each encountered mirror scene. His fascinating new book, Mirror Gazing, is a lovely reflection on these many mirror scenes and the peculiar pursuit of collecting.
What is a mirror scene? In the most literal sense, a character actually looks into a mirror, but characters also catch their reflections in train windows or coffee cups. And then there are bodies of water or dark, rainslicked streets. In the modern world, we cannot escape screens. We are, in a sense, surrounded by mirrors, and as often as we encounter them in real life, so too do characters in fiction.
There are many ways that we look metaphorically into mirrors, perhaps gazing into our souls while listening to a record. But mirror gazing, for Motte, cannot take place on this purely figurative level. He writes, “I do not consider Roquentin rereading his diary in Nausea a mirror scene, however, because the level of abstraction therein is unacceptable, stretching the working definition such that it might eventually include everything in literature—and everything outside of literature, as well. The scene in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover where the narrator describes her ruined face is not an example of the breed, for me at least; the scene where a man who used to know her when she had been young tells her he prefers the face she has now, ‘ravaged’ (3), just barely clears the bar; and the scene where the narrator looks in a shopkeeper’s mirror, and says, ‘Suddenly I see myself as another’ (13) is an almost perfect example of the genre.”
Motte has collected around ten thousand mirror scenes from roughly 1,500 books. This, in and of itself, is noteworthy, but the book is not simply a reprinting of quotes from various books. It is a deeply considered analysis of what it actually means to look into a mirror. For the serious reader, this book will serve as a trip through your reading past. I was reminded—somewhat nostalgically—of much of the literature that has defined the early part of my adult life. From Nabokov to Salinger to Rilke to Calvino, the book makes its way into just about every corner of American and European literature. Some books have no mirror scenes, and thus are left out, whereas others have just a few. Motte says, “The record, insofar as my own readings are concerned, is held by William Gaddis: I’m pleased to report that The Recognitions contains no less than eighty-three mirror scenes.”
When digging through these ten thousand passages, one has to wonder where to begin when writing such a book. Motte suggests that this project is emblematic of “the kinds of impossible situations that certain, stubborn, fixated academics get themselves into.” But, as someone who spends her days in the academy, I found the book to be a refreshing departure from much of the dense, arcane text that lives within the university. Mirror Gazing reads like a lively conversation with your favorite English professor. When thinking about the project, it is easy to wonder how might we productively look at or analyze these index cards. In other words, what is the point? This is not, I believe, the right question to ask of such a book. I’m not sure that we need an explanation for such a project, because the fundamental concept of collecting requires a certain kind of intellectual inquisitiveness that justifies itself. At any rate, Motte is such a thoughtful and engaging writer. The explanations he offers for these mirror scenes are, simply put, an absolute joy to read.
The project is not as haphazard as it may sound. There are, in fact, some rules to the collecting. Motte writes, “First, I have to come upon each scene myself, in the course of otherwise undirected readings. That is, I have never gone in search of mirror scenes, nor have I accepted them when upon rare occasion benevolent friends aware of my project have contributed them. Second, they have to occur in books that I own, and have shelved in my personal library. For how else would I find them again, one day, with only page references to go by, in an age when editions change so quickly?—and I confess, too, with some chagrin, that I am as loathe to leave the comforts of my own library as Oblomov was to leave the comforts of his couch.”
And so, with the ever-evolving collection in hand, Motte begins the process of categorizing the mirror scenes. As I began this book I could only think of a handful of reasons that one might even look into a mirror in the first place, but I soon learned that the reasons (and contexts) are infinite. The sheer variety of mirror scenes is perhaps the most absorbing thing about this book. To name just a few of the themes that run through the book: narcissism, avoidance (or the unavoidability of looking into a mirror), banalities, voyeurism, conscience, skepticism, alienation (on being a stranger to oneself in a mirror could be a book in of itself), ageing, shock, self-loathing, truth, difficult recognition, and happy events (let us not forget that these do exist in literature from time to time). In fact, a happy mirror scene (of which there are few) is a nice example of how the book arranges itself:
“The limit-case of these happy recognition scenes is one where happiness swells into something approaching ecstasy. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, Raymond Queneau’s Zazie reacts in a way that leaves little room for doubt, alienation, or otiose introspection: ‘Zazie gazed at herself in the mirror, salivating with admiration’ (Zazie dans le métro 63). One easily understands her, and my own feeling is that we ought to allow ourselves to share her admiration—otherwise, where is the plaisir du texte? In a more macho vein, a character in Elmore Leonard’s Stick expresses his pleasure with an eloquence all his own: ‘Cornell buttoned his blazer, turned sideways to the dresser mirror to look at himself. “You a lean, handsome motherfucker, ain’t you?” ’ (105). Sometimes the mirror serves to correct and improve an impression of the self, and that correction can be a very dramatic one indeed: ‘Though she and Youqing’s wife had similar figures, the blouse seemed a bit tight in the waist. But when she looked in the mirror, Yumi nearly jumped out of her skin. She’d never looked so good—as pretty as a city girl’ (Bi Feiyu, Three Sisters 48).” The juxtaposition of such vastly different characters and writers is typical of Mirror Gazing, and Motte effortlessly moves through book after book making connections and observations along the way.
Beyond the literature itself, there is something about the very nature of a collection that is captivating. We often encounter collections in the public space, in museums or shops. Consider a collection of paintings or butterflies or buttons. There is something quite curious and beautiful about the arrangement and cataloging of things for our viewing. But what of the personal collector? The basement full of National Geographic, the drawers full of maps, or the shelf lined with antique dolls. For my part, I collect cigar boxes. It’s something I took up over a decade ago, when I discovered a small, worn box filled with letters in the basement of my childhood home. Over the years, I have picked up unique cigar boxes at flea markets and antique stores, often as mementos from trips. These boxes are lined up on my windowsill, and when people come to visit, they often become a topic of conversation. When people ask why I collect boxes, I am never able to provide a satisfactory explanation because I really don’t know. Motte says, “Any collection, undoubtedly, is a way for the collector to impose order upon the world, his or her world, or at least a very small corner thereof.” This is the best explanation I have come across. It is something that is all mine, a collection unlike any other, and one that I can carry with me as I make my way through this world.
For Motte, the project of collecting seems to have become something that is almost unconscious, an inexplicable task that is an ingrained part of his reading life. It is the kind of project that can happily fill a lifetime. He says, “One thing I know, for example, is that my fascination with these mirror scenes is both endless and end-less. That is, it is ongoing and uninterrupted, with no end in sight. Moreover, it is not directed toward any particular goal; it is largely disinterested; it is playful. If I felt an absolute need to bring my activity to a close, I guess that I could restrict myself to reading only those books that I’ve already read—or indeed to stop reading entirely. But I’m not likely to do that. More than anything else, it’s a question of quality of life.”
Perhaps what makes Mirror Gazing such an extraordinary book is that there is something deeply human and deeply personal about looking into a mirror. One of Motte’s collected scenes neatly sums up the experience of looking in the mirror: “For there are at least two ways of looking into a mirror: ‘The first is to see your face. The second is to probe your conscience. When we size ourselves up in the mirror, we are always struck by the different forms of the self that we see there’ (Patrick Roegiers, L’Artiste, la servante et le savant 12–13).”
Can we really see ourselves in a mirror? This is the question—if not literally—that every great piece of literature asks. How are we to perceive ourselves? How are we to understand the face that looks back at us when we gaze into a mirror? And how do other people perceive that face? Motte’s book doesn’t answer these questions outright, though they are at the heart of the project. He writes, “The fact of the matter seems to be that the face, considered as a crude image, is never entirely congruous with the image of ourselves that we construct in function of our desires, our hopes, our fears, and our obsessions. There is always—almost always—a distance between the two. And a close consideration of that phenomenon suggests that it is the face, rather than the self, which mostly bears the weight of difference.”
At the end of the book, Motte reflects on twenty-five years of collecting mirror scenes: “When I gaze into the mirror of this project, I see different things. A sixtyish professor, beavering away at a piece of scholarly writing. A person who lives a great deal of the time in his imagination, giving full rein to that imagination. A committed reader, surveying the particulars of his commitment. A collector, perusing and arranging his collection in order to put it on view. A man at work. A boy at play.”
Reflection is at the core of Mirror Gazing. Of course there is the literal reflection of characters looking into mirrors, but there is also the theoretical task of reflecting upon one’s life. We often open up a piece of literature in order to find ourselves, to understand how we measure up. Even beyond the books, this is an endless pursuit. Like the collector who socks away trinkets, we are all, always, cataloging and arranging our lives, if only to make sense of the face that looks back at us in the mirror.
By Warren Motte
Dalkey Archive (April 2014)
Nancy Smith is a writer and graphic designer in Bloomington, IN. She has an MA from The New School and an MFA from the University of San Francisco. She is currently working on a PhD in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, where she studies digital books and the future of storytelling. Her work has been published in Paper, The Believer, Seattle Weekly, Communication Arts, and The Rumpus. She blogs about books and design at www.somequietfuture.com.
Review: Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle
Trances of the Blast’s title and its epigraph from the Book of Revelation conjure apocalypse, the blast from which we can hardly expect to recover. The book seldom deals with literal blasts, however, instead focusing on small everyday explosions of experience. The opening poem, titled “Saga,” begins with a statement of human connection:
Everything that ever happened to me
is just hanging—crushed
and sparkling—in the air,
waiting to happen to you.
Everything that ever happened to me
happened to somebody else first.
There is a sense of connection in the lines, but also a sense of smallness, of the inconsequence of any individual. Later on, the poem says “there is a rift through everything.” The rifts, the tears, the gaps, feature prominently in the book.
Sometimes, the rift is between the living and the dead, as in “Jaroslav,” in which the speaker addresses, “I, I mean you, I mean the shadow / of your shadow.” Or in “Happy,” which juxtaposes its title with the opening line, “After my mother died.”
Other times, it is a rift between individuals, as in “Little Eternities,” and its portrayal of a disconnected couple, or in “Jumping Ahead,” where the speaker addresses an unnamed other, “I wish I loved you, / but you can’t have everything.”
Trances of the Blast weighs in at 110 pages, and the middle of the book feels overloaded with frivolous observations about things like countertops and bank statements and spiders in the bathroom, but an overarching light shines through. It is the poet’s imperative, articulated in the title poem: “Explain yourself or vanish.”
“Fireworks” begins, “The world was designed and built / to overwhelm and astonish. Which makes it hard to like.” Hard to like indeed. Yet Ruefle’s speaker loves her life. In “Provenance,” she asserts, “I hated childhood / I hate adulthood / And I love being alive.” The paradox of that statement, the embrace of life in spite of its messiness, its disasters, its rifts, gives energy and purpose to a book which might otherwise feel disillusioned and fractured.
Trances of the Blast
By Mary Ruefle
Wave Books (October 2013)
Emily May Anderson earned her MFA in creative writing from Penn State University. She is a regular book review contributor for NewPages, and her poetry and reviews have also appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Poetry East, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Pleiades, Moon City Review, and other venues. She lives with one charming cat in Columbus, Ohio, and teaches English at a community college.
Review: The Strangers by Eugene Lim
As poets may look for languages to think in, some fiction writers search out new contexts to subject to prose. Thus inciting the necessary friction between writing and the world one imagines. One’s own country filled with one’s own miracles.
Eugene Lim possesses the preparation and discipline needed for such travels, not easily distracted by whatever flavor-of-the-month floods the market, or the pages of the official/officious organs upholding that same market.
Above all, Lim’s work is blessedly free of “tundra,” a propensity that H.L. Mencken, already in the 1930s, found overabundant in much American writing. An often obligatory regionalism passing itself off as realism, with the writer constrained “to give a voice” to hitherto unspoken and perhaps unspeakable locales. Also, the work seems uninterested in the moral equivalent of these landscapes, as in the fiction of such different mainstream writers as Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy.
In The Strangers one comes upon, instead, an ideal of exploratory fiction. Making one’s own sentences, one might call it, whether in prose or poetry, and always the next territory ready to be forsaken. To wit:
The first movie was nothing but it led to something. I’m not sure if that’s true. Maybe when the something came, it came of itself and was not dependent on nothing before. That seems unlikely.
Or the cameraman talking about his last film:
To give some context and ‘humanize’ it, sleeper sleeps, sleeper wakes, woken rises, and risen breakfasts. Later, diner lunches, worker works, watcher boobtubes, fatigued sups, and lastly, sleeper sleeps. It was hard to figure out how to do it, technically, but eventually we also film: thinker thinks.
Or, toward voyage’s end, on the cruise ship that accommodates and seems endlessly to multiply the novel’s characters and their actions, one of the travelers muses:
I went on deck. Every morning the sun felt like a different place. Sometimes I thought it felt like Barcelona in autumn or Beijing in summer or San Francisco any cold, foggy dawn. Today I thought it felt like Montevideo in springtime, a clear and cool sweetness. I’ve never set foot in any of those cities but I’d read a lot of poetry.
Making one’s own sentences, one’s own contexts, appears fundamental at this stage of our perishing republic, of poesy or otherwise. For this reader, much of the romance of American fiction seems faded until one reads a novel like The Strangers. As with some of the more interesting 20th century sentence-makers, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Tomasso Landolfi, Robert Walser, or, closer to home, Gilbert Sorrentino and Roberto Bolaño, right from the start of The Strangers, Lim’s characters run away from the writer, get lost, and hide within the writing.
The men and women in this novel don’t so much “jump off the page” as become embedded further and further within the fabric of the writer’s language. They become prosed, if you will, luring the reader deeper into being read by the text, yielding an ever more enveloping experience. As with the actress Noona, who entirely fascinates one of the narrators: “What is captivating about her is the same thing that makes her a great actress. That is, she is the master of the intimate situation. Or, to be more precise, she is master of that situation where a few people are in the room.”
The effect of Lim’s prose is engrossing, perhaps even carnivalesque, in that the narrative context expands and contracts in a relentlessly comic manner. From the intimate, to the inscrutable, to the ridiculous, the story slips and starts, then veers off into entirely new territory. Toward the end of the novel, two of the several pairs of lovers/twins take a stroll in the park, and one of them, Oon, says to the aforementioned Noona:
“When this man who claimed to be my brother stopped speaking I excused myself to go to the bathroom. When I came back he was gone and our table had been cleared so I walked out. I thought he was a madman but I was disappointed he was gone and wanted to see him again—but I never did. Instead, I soon after quit my job at the gallery and got another better-paying one at an office. I decided to become rich myself so on my days off I began to take classes to become a real estate agent.”
Beside the vital consideration of technique—recall Ezra Pound’s observation about technique being a “… test of sincerity”—some truisms and cliché’s might begin to surface, such as “meta-fiction,” “new narrative,” even the recently witnessed-in-print “experimental magical realism.” Lim’s narrative skill, however, undermines simplification, keeping the reader alert, as it defies the categories that plague much contemporary fiction. (I suppose one can thank MFA programs for this but that’s a whole other subject.)
Be all this as it may, Eugene Lim’s is intelligent writing. Consider the scene right after the above passage:
Oon had by this time finished his lemonade and put away his book. We got
up and continued our walk through the park.
He said to me, “I love you.”
I said to him, “I love you too so what.”
As the story concludes with an oblique and lovely sentence, the narrative appears unending, capable still of multiplying in a multitude of directions:
“From the moment in the chair, my mistake or my silence—I still wasn’t sure which, and in any case they operated and existed entirely independent of my desires, and maybe it was both of them—pushed back and forth so as to surround and pervade each act of these strange twins.”
Ever present the unnamed city, by turns first, third, and second world. And when not involved in an at once familiar, disorienting, and sometimes menacing cityscape, the various protagonists or “strangers” continue what seems an indefinite trip on the grand vessel, with a vast and exceptionally comprehensive library. Perhaps Lim’s is the vision of a rootless and self-absorbed urban gathering, cruising through time and space. Notable as are the precedents for this in 19th and 20th century American fiction, the results remain an all-too-familiar aimlessness, even, perhaps, an ultimate madness and destruction.
To call The Strangers international seems obvious, and in a sense a civil alternative to the sensational, apocalyptic landscapes of American exceptionalism (read more “tundra”). Thank god it feels like the end and the people who inhabit Lim’s world hardly seem to notice.
Los Angeles, March 2014
By Eugene Lim
Black Square Editions (November 2013)
Paul Vangelisti is the author of more than twenty books of poetry, as well as being a noted translator from Italian. Wholly Falsetto with People Dancing, a memoir of sorts, appeared in 2013, while his most recent collection of poems, Two, was published by Talisman House in 2011. His translation of Adriano Spatola’s The Position of Things: Collected Poems, 1961-1992, won the Academy of American Poets’ Book Prize for Translation in 2010. Vangelisti is Founding Chair of the Graduate Writing program at Otis College of Art & Design.
Review: Tiff Dressen, Todd Melicker, and Joseph Noble
Tiff Dressen, Todd Melicker, and Joseph Noble will read from their work on the following:
Wednesday, March 26, 7pm
Canessa Park Reading Series, Canessa Gallery
708 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, California
The Canessa Park building is in North Beach just downhill from City Lights Bookstore towards the Financial District. This intimate space provides a splendid opportunity to hear the work live! $6 donation.
Thursday, April 3, 7:30pm
2476 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, California
“He looks out over the ruins, takes cold air into his lungs and vomits a cloud into the missing palm of his hand. Tragedy is born from such moments, yet he only experiences an uncommon joy.”
—Brian Lucas, “Sketch of an Eclipse,” Circles Matter (Blazevox)
Poet-musician-visual-artist Brian Lucas is my axis for the radiating spokes of this review-wheel. It was his impulse that brought the work of these poets to my attention. His own book, Circles Matter, borrows its title from the ever consciously sound-as-well-as-visually-oriented poet Ronald Johnson. Johnson’s work is suitably found hanging round throughout these books. Mirrored by “I bore a word/bare back” (Dressen, “As Deer (in aurora borealis)”) is Johnson’s “bareback as Pegasus guess us” from his ever great (and greatly back in print!) Ark, which is mirrored again by “this ark & ask” (Melicker, “Rendezvous One”) as these poets query a lesson from “string insomnia’s / aural geometry” (Noble, “Criss-Cross (Thelonius Monk)”), searching for forms found in asking. Listen to them go. Just listen.
This all starts off from experience. “Looking for a language,” as Creeley rather snidely told Olson in his first, hastily rushed retort to the older man sending him some poems. Yet this is not criticism meant to chide or harass these poets. Seeking to write poems which speak from (and of) an inner chorus rimmed from off outer sensation(s), the poets under review take advantage of not knowing. As with any poetry based on discovering as it goes, they actively seek a language with which to give understanding.
This is embodied writing: “both tone and word / and neither // read the strings / the ear listens” (Noble, “Prefigurations”).
And as the tonal vowels arising in the opening lines of each section from Dressen’s “Delph Cycle (turns)” declare, catching us forward leaning into them, birthing us forth as it were into hearing them: “An earth long / vowel”; “Someone carry a vowel”; “Someone please carry / the caul…”; “Someone watch”; “Someone please bury / the caul”.
Poem as caul, covering from under which the language is sounded out: “breath prints / vibrate / on eardrums // sounds not / only sounds” (Noble, “Vibrations in Air (Anthony Braxton)”). We’re thus exposed to the elements of the poem itself: “a skin without clouds is empty. to form a word without actually. the circle drifts” (Melicker, “Nautilus”).
Drawing reference to the ideas of Hazrat Inayat Khan, Noble admits how he’s “fond of this idea of forms and flesh coming from sound and vibration,” recognizing as it does that “not just humans, but animals and plants too…are made of vibrations and sounds themselves” (“Afterword”). Such an understanding alters everything in the world of our interactions. Simple daily sights become re-envisioned as “street lamps are coming into their leaves” (Melicker, “Nautilus”). Nothing static remains. Jolted, we’re all attention.
A staple in the chest
where the song
to the song
(Dressen, “Message: A Theory (Song)”)
This is but a near miss from a horror flick turned poetic. That very “uncommon joy” Lucas nails in the epigraph above. We’re struck (feel the thud of “stuck” embedded therein) within our reading. Compelled to negotiate a galaxy of interlocked perceptions concerning identity and cosmos, searchers “Seastars in our / hulls // water seeking / water” (Melicker, “Rendezvous Two”) like to like, a “blueshiftchorus / singing under water” (Dressen, “Message: telepathy”) calls us near.
An insistent address arrives from these books, “a song hiding in the air / forgetting its own name” (Noble, “La Transformata”). Looking ahead to “death & deathbreath // a crossing/crossed / ship // a star / a sea” (Melicker, “Rendezvous One”), but there’s nothing threatening in this, we’re all born into it after all.
Each of these books is meticulously assembled. The organization of parts is not only in itself sound but elegant. Dressen addresses our relationship to the stars. Noble gives us a musician-poet’s response to a range of composers while traversing the Sound’s Orphic shades. Melicker is an inner cosmonaut’s unveiling. These books are vessels for voyages underway, offering rewards of the traveler’s journeying. From the enthusiastic, “We sing starve-white-dwarf-crater songs!” (Dressen, “As Deer (in aurora borealis)”), to the steady performer’s grasp of what’s to come moment-to-moment:
at horn’s ceiling
(Noble, “Prelude, Correspondences II”)
Onwards into what remains, an open-ended welcome:
for all night
to our garden.
gather the daily
tasks & ask
to be mine/yours
(Melicker, “Rendezvous One”)
These poets are working out celestial arrangements for all.
Songs from the Astral Bestiary
By Tiff Dressen
Lyric& Press (2013)
By Todd Melicker
Rescue Press (2013)
By Joseph Noble
Skylight Press (2013)
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library @ USF. His latest books are “There Are People Who Think That Painter’s Shouldn’t Talk”: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo 2011) and Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling forthcoming 2013). Other things are appearing or expected with: 1913 A Journal of Forms, American Book Review, Amerarcana, Bright Pink Mosquito, Dusie, Greetings, House Organ, HTMLgiant, Lifeanddeathofamericancities, Lightning’d Press house mag, New Pages, Rain Taxi, The Rumpus, Shampoo, Switchback, and The Volta.
Review: Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Short enough to be read in one sitting, Severina by Guatemalan master Rodrigo Rey Rosa lingers disproportionately long in the imagination. A seemingly straightforward tale of a bookseller’s obsession with an alluring book thief, Severina carries mysterious hints of the metaphysical as it makes sly jokes and asides about literary culture and bibliophilia.
An unnamed narrator encounters and falls in love with a woman, Severina, who repeatedly visits his bookstore and steals from him. He watches her and notes the titles she steals as if they are keys to her soul. He follows her. At one point she moves in with him. Yet however close he gets to her, she remains elusive. Why does she steal? Who is the older gentleman she travels with? What sort of life do they lead, these nomads who steer themselves by the currents of literature?
A fellow bookseller suggests that Severina’s continuing thefts are the result of kleptomania. The narrator disagrees: “…I felt that there must have been another explanation, which I associated with an uncompromising approach to life: absolute freedom, a radical realization of the ideal that I too had adopted one fine day—the ideal of living by and for books.”
By and for books! Anyone who has been touched at some point by love for books will recognize this dream. And, if nothing else, Severina gives the great pleasure of dropping the reader into such a dream world, one where it’s possible to spend your life in the company of equally obsessed readers. At first it seems Severina is a water bug of a novella, skimming a surface composed of poetry readings and flirtations among the bookshelves.
That impression would be the result of a calculated lightness present from the very beginning. Describing how he and his friends opened a bookstore (La Entretenida, or diversion in Spanish) on something of a lark, the narrator adds this parenthetical: “There are far more serious problems here, but I don’t want to talk about all that now.”
Soon there are more serious problems in his own story as well: intrigue, death, deception, all stemming from his infatuation with Severina. The narrator shrugs off these darker notes, at one point remarking that the Romantic idea of love is indelibly associated with death, but that this idea is “too gloomy to be credible, much less desirable, these days.”
His efforts to reassure himself aren’t entirely convincing. Rey Rosa’s prose is always beautifully limpid, whether he’s writing about drinking in a cantina or about why it’s difficult to carry a dead body. But a strange effect of this clarity and precision is a sense that much more is going on than is said on the page.
The book is also full of puzzles and feints. Is it significant that our narrator seems to have spent time in North Africa, where Rey Rosa has lived and set other books (not to mention encountered his onetime translator Paul Bowles)? Surely it means something that Severina’s most daring theft is from the library of Borges himself?
Like the narrator who studies Severina’s reading material for clues, the reader can’t help doubling back to examine the story for extra dimensions. The introduction by translator Chris Andrews notes the tendency of Rey Rosa’s fiction to open from a “narrowly conceived realism…onto a mythical or allegorical hinterland, delicately intimated, never insisted upon.”
That delicate intimation is beautifully manifested in the character of Severina. For a while the narrator isn’t even certain of her name. She doesn’t have an ID card, no papers, an unplaceable accent—she lives a borderless life. She does have, however, a father or grandfather (initially, the narrator fears, a husband), the cultured and learned Señor Blanco. This uncertainty over her traveling companion’s role and identity is paid out in the delightfully unsettling ending and the book’s last line.
Could Severina be in some sense (this will sound corny) the embodied spirit of literature? Anything is possible in this luminous, deceptively simple book.
By Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Translated by Chris Andrews
Yale University Press/Margellos World Republic of Letters (February 2014)
Heather Mackey has an MFA from the University of Arizona and is the author of Dreamwood (coming June 2014 from Putnam). She toils by day in the oft-strange world of high-tech marketing and can be found online at www.heathermackey.com/blog and @heathermackey.
Letter from Hong Kong
By Lucas Klein
Reviewing exiled Chinese poet Bei Dao’s first full-length collection The August Sleepwalker in English in 1990, a professor quipped, “These could just as easily be translations from a Slovak or an Estonian or a Philippine poet. It could even be a kind of American poetry….”
From a certain perspective—say, that of the seventeenth century—the reviewer was right. The defining characteristics and qualities of Biag ni Lam-ang, a Filipino epic transcribed around 1640, would have been very different from that written by Vavrinec Benedikt z Nedožier (1555-1615), though his verses may have shared features with Estonian poetry as inaugurated by Reiner Brockmann in 1637. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), too, would have been noticeably different. And all these should have been immediately distinguishable from seventeenth-century Chinese poetry, such as by Wu Weiye 吳偉業 (1609-1671), famous for his narrative poems but also able to write intricate metaphors of precise detail, as in “Ancient Feeling” (translated by Jonathan Chaves):
Beloved, you are like the thread in the loom
woven into a flowering tree of love!
I am like the flowers on your robe:
the spring wind blows but they won’t drop off.
From such a point of view, most poetry from around the world today must look very similar, indeed, having been bred from cross-pollination and intercultural miscegenation. But from the perspective of poetry today, which is to say, from the perspective of people who habitually, consciously, and conscientiously read contemporary poetry around the world, do all cultures and languages and poetries blend together?
The International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong 香港國際詩歌之夜, which has been taking place biannually since 2009, offers one place to test the question, as invited poets have included poets from Eastern Europe, the Philippines, the Americas, the Chinese-speaking world, and many other regions of the globe. The festival is organized by Bei Dao 北島, born and raised in Beijing but living in Hong Kong since 2007. Exiled from mainland China in 1989 after a poem he wrote in the seventies was recited at the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, he lived in several countries in Europe before settling in the US in 1993. Only after a stroke in 2012, with the chairwoman of the Chinese Writers’ Association personally vouching that he would avoid both political and literary activities, has he been allowed a multi-entry visa to the PRC for medical treatment.
A clear motivation for the International Poetry Nights is to combat Hong Kong’s reputation as a cultural wasteland. Whereas Bei Dao started writing poetry against the overly politicized language of the Cultural Revolution, today he frames his poetry in opposition to linguistic commercialization.
“We live amidst separate jargons,” he wrote in the introduction of the 2011 Poetry Nights, “scholarly jargon, businessmen’s jargon, political jargon, and more…and in the internet age of so-called globalization, vulgar and elegant meld to form a common pact, simplifying humanity’s linguistic expressivity.”
Multilingual anthologies comprising poems of the international participants, The Other Voice 另一種聲音 (2009), Words and the World 詞與世界 (2011), and Islands or Continents 島嶼或大陸 (2013), are available from Chinese University Press or its international distributor, Columbia University Press. From 2011 on, the anthologies can come as part of boxed sets featuring individual pocket-sized volumes by each participating poet. (See this review of the Words and the World set at Rain Taxi.) All poems are translated into English and/or Chinese and printed with their original languages. Since the 2011 Poetry Nights, I’ve served as translation editor for the books and festival.
* * *
We have not had Slovak or Estonian poets, but Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku, from the 2009 festival, and Russian Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Slovene Tomaž Šalamun, from 2011, may serve as sufficient examples, as will 2013 Filipina participant Conchitina Cruz and American Jeffrey Yang. From Lleshanaku’s “Marked” (translated by Henry Israeli and Shresa Qatipi):
My deskmate in elementary school
had blue nails, blue lips, and a big irreparable hole in his heart.
He was marked by death. He was invisible.
He used to sit on a stone
guarding our coats
as we played in the playground, that alchemy of sweat and dust.
The “deskmate” suggests the classroom organization common to schools in state socialism, but Dragomoshchenko, who would have had a similar schooling, writes differently. From “Elegy on Rising Dust” (translated by Lyn Hejinian):
Spring’s scales are shadowless like the brain’s axe-head
And blood is revealed in concealed transformations
As if it were a substance rising to the zenith
Then falling back to the nadir of pure speech
That leads off endlessly to dreams of birth
And contemplates itself in the husk around essential matter.
Like so: in the gliding of the swift
In the instant the lizard darts from the shade—
The foregrounding of linguistics resonates with contemporary American Language poetry, befitting translation by Hejinian, but Šalamun (b. 1941) represents a different engagement with contemporary America. “Folk Song” (translated by Charles Simic):
Every true poet is a monster.
He destroys people and their speech.
His singing elevates a technique that wipes out
the earth so we are not eaten by worms.
The drunk sells his coat.
The thief sells his mother.
Only the poet sells his soul to separate it
from the body that he loves.
Again, an interrogation of poetry, but with a sense of substance, however frightening, beneath the rhetoric. Meanwhile, Cruz, who writes in English, writes about global circulation, as in “Here”:
In Manila, I spend an inordinate amount of time around copy machines.
In the cheap hotel, I peel an apple with a Swiss knife.
In my childhood bedroom, I weep over an unpresentable pincushion made for sewing class.
In Bali, I am too embarrassed to say no to a manicure.
In Makati, I take off my heels and slip into flats.
In the coffee shop, I write the incriminating postcard.
In the ballet studio, I am amused by my catastrophic pirouettes.
In Chicago, I attempt to mimic an old roommate’s unidentifiable accent.
In Bangkok, I am addressed in Chinese.
Where Cruz may be addressed in Chinese, Jeffrey Yang’s poems are often addressed to Chinese, though also about global circulation. “Xiangjun”:
Follow the twelfth guideway thru
the Middle Mountains to the realm
of the Nine Rivers where Xiao
flows into Xiang and tear-stained
bamboo grows. In this place four
thousand years ago the Xiangjun
drowned themselves: two daughters
of Yao, wives of Shun. Not even
geese can bear their water-spirit
sorrow. Tang Poet Qian Qi:
Why rashly turn back once at the Xiao-Xiang
Blue-green waters bright sand moss on both banks
Twenty-five strings plucked on moonlit nights an
unbearable pure melancholy so they take flight
Including Chinese legend and his idiosyncratic translation of Qian Qi 錢起 (710 – 782) puts Yang in more conspicuous dialogue with Chinese tradition than many poets writing in Chinese.
As for Chinese poetry, it does not necessarily sound like itself, though I do not think that makes it less Chinese. Bei Dao is not Eastern European, even when he writes in dedication to Chuvash/Russian poet Gennady Aygi, from “Tribute” (translated by Eliot Weinberger):
a storm screams in a kettle—
the homeland is leaving from the platform
open your window
this moment leads the days of the past
like wild geese heading south
But neither does he sound like Xi Chuan 西川, as in “A Sanskrit Brick from the Nanzhao Kingdom (738–937 ce): after a Vietnamese poet” (translation mine):
An antique shop on Jadestream Road in Dali’s old quarter. A gray-green brick in the shop from the late Nanzhao era. On the gray-green brick eleven lines of Sanskrit. The hands that molded the Sanskrit lines. The hands that inlaid the brick into the base of the pagoda. The late Nanzhao monk who could read the eleven lines of Sanskrit. The man or men who brought Sanskrit from India through Nepal to Nanzhao. Buddhists. Buddhists who had or had not achieved nirvana before dying, and the loiterers who couldn’t give a damn about achieving nirvana. Problems Hīnayāna Buddhism encountered never encountered by Mahāyāna Buddhism. The pain the emperor of Nanzhao suffered unbeknownst to the emperor of Tang. The dusk of Nanzhao kingdom’s demise. The thugs who knocked over the pagoda. The astonished onlookers. 902 CE. From then till now, countless I’s have searched for this gray-green brick molded with eleven Sanskrit lines. In this antique shop on Jadestream Road in Dali’s old quarter, coming down with a cold and with a runny nose, I pulled the gray-green brick out of the glass case, held it in my hands, and in the end talked the clerk down from 800 to 430 RMB. Just by shifting my hand, I could have dropped it and watched it shatter. But the notion passed in an instant. Also present were the poet Song Lin and a spider dangling from the rafters.
And yet both these poems strike me as indelibly Chinese.
Of course, that is a Chinese very different from the Chinese found in Taiwanese poetry—such as Ye Mimi’s “A Moth Laid Its Eggs in my Armpit, and Then It Died” (translated by Steven Bradbury):
One day there’ll come a day / when the rain will not be wet / the avenue uneven / the grass undry umbrellas
unbroken / the sky bent out of shape / a day when sand and surf have gone their separate ways
/ the breeze unveiled its fine-tooth milk-teeth / and clouds have it all over fog for puttin’ on a happy face
then everyone will / move into their very own phone booth / keep a puppy at the welcome mat /
/ or a peacock / or a cat
—or Hong Kong poetry—like Natalia Chan’s “The Loving Wind and SARS” (translated by Eleanor Goodman):
From now on we keep three feet apart
from now on I wear a surgical mask to talk with you
from now on we can’t hold hands, just say goodbye
until my body’s severe, acute love for you
—as these poetries reflect the different directions Chinese culture has taken in its interactions with the rest of the world.
* * *
While the poems I’ve cited here don’t sound like poetry in any language from four centuries ago, I do not think they sound indistinguishable from each other. Rather, they sound like languages in dialogue, as Bei Dao’s dedication to Aygi and Xi Chuan’s inspiration from a Vietnamese poet attest.
Within this dialogue, cultural rhythms still ring through. Writing to Dragomoshchenko in “Untitled” (translated by Odile Cisneros), Régis Bonvicino describes Brazil:
the sun shining through the trees
on a clear autumn day
Brazil is a jungle where snakes
devour cake on the streets
And I can hear a Hispanic passion even in English in Maria Baranda’s “Letters to Robinson” (translated by Joshua Edwards):
Listen, listen to time’s detonations.
Don’t confuse the aviator’s signs
with explosions formed on the tongue.
Powerful provocations. Time of scales.
Filth from the skin and its stubble.
Jacob Edmond has shown that Bonnie McDougall’s translation of Bei Dao’s early work targeted a universalist aesthetic, showing at once the validity and fallacy (depending on emphasis) of the review I quoted in the first paragraph. But if so much depends on the translation and the translator, how do these poems sound when translated into English and Chinese?
A particular test case is Swedish poet Aase Berg. She invents words, and her translator, Johannes Göransson, matches her coinages with made-up words in English. When Göransson found out that Berg was going to be translated into Chinese, he posted on Facebook, “I would love to be able to read those translations. I mean, you might think my translations of all those neologism etc into english are weird. What are they doing in chinese? The more ‘impossible’ the translation, the more interesting it is to me.”
Someone replied, “Weirdly, the word combinations in Chinese might be more natural than in English or Swedish, since Chinese is written with no breaks on the page, and words are more explicitly formed as combinations of symbols.”
Here is one of Berg’s poems, with Göransson’s translation, “Ouroboros”:
värka ut ur tuggom
väcka tidens tand
vinka klumpt korallisk
äggu! hättä!, äsping
gapet av en gasping
biter på ingenting
lindorm ömsar summan
av en bitring
ache out of chewup
wake time’s tooth
wave clumped corallic
äggu! hättä!, viper
the gape of a yawning
vampirebiter’s poison sting
has no bite
swaddle snake sloughs off sum
of a teething ring
To compare this with the Chinese version, by Chen Maiping 陳邁平 (penname Wan Zhi 萬之), writer and co-founder with Bei Dao of the re-born literary journal Jintian (Today) 今天 in exile in 1990 (and husband of Anna Gustafsson Chen, Swedish translator of Nobel literature laureate Mo Yan 莫言), takes some work. When she spoke at the “Poetry & Globalization: Opponents or Partners?” panel during the Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, Berg said that she did not want her translator to be “faithful,” but rather to put forth his own creative interpretation of what she was doing in her poetry in Swedish.
Based on what Göransson has written, in his note to his translation of Berg’s Transfer Fat (Ugly Duckling, 2012), for instance, he is absolutely on her wavelength. My own tendency in translating is the opposite: I want my translation not to be an expression of myself, but rather an expression of someone else. Though of course I cannot but present my own interpretation, even so.
Here, then, is Chen’s translation of Berg’s poem, “銜尾蛇”:
Chen provides extensive annotations to his translations. He explains that “Ouroboros” is a snake eating its own tail, and notes the alliteration and consonance of Berg’s Swedish. He explains that a lindworm (Ch. linde chong 林德蟲; Sw. lindorm; what for Göransson is “swaddle snake”) is a flying dragon, wingless and legless, from Norse legend, as well as the namesake of a noted Swedish poet. Literary translators in English often reject footnotes as features that intellectualize and therefore break the reader’s emotional connection to the literary product. Translators in Chinese, with a longer tradition of annotation and a different relationship to reading global masterpieces for pleasure or edification, do not necessarily see it that way. Chen notes that Berg wrote many of these poems of mythological creatures for her then newborn baby, hence onomatopoeiae such as äggu! hättä! (I think this explains Göransson’s “swaddle snake”).
To translate this properly, I should also look into how Chinese translators have handled other poets who employ neologisms. Paul Celan, for instance, has been translated by Wang Jiaxin 王家新 (I believe from intermediary English versions, though I don’t know whose; translating from Michael Hamburger’s Celan would be very different from translating from Pierre Joris’s). How has Celan’s translator handled the new coinages, and has that handling informed Chen’s handling of Aase Berg’s Swedish? (Many have noted that Celan’s de- and re-composition of post-Shoah German is matched by what Bei Dao and his generation of poets have done with post-Cultural Revolution Chinese.) In his notes, though, Chen only mentions one coinage, jiao’e 嚼顎, to match Berg’s tuggom, from tugga and gom.
I should also try not to be influenced by Göransson’s version, or rely on his terminology to find English equivalents to Chen’s Chinese equivalents to Berg’s Swedish. To echo Göransson would weight the translation so much that my English version could not be put beside it (even if, though I don’t know if this is the case, Chen Maiping consulted the available English translations before finishing his Chinese versions).
pain comes from chewjaw
teeth in the time of being woken
wave hands inelegant are coral
pit viper’s scrawl-dirty hands
o wu! miao wu! mother pit viper
a yawn opening mouth wide tongue out
stinger vampire venom
stinging in nothing
lindworm sheds skin to replace
a teething ring’s totality
Walter Benjamin said translations were themselves untranslatable because in them meaning adheres to language too loosely, too fleetingly. His view of language makes no sense, but translating translations is hard, nonetheless.
In my version, questions remain. Göransson’s friend’s post that in Chinese “words are more explicitly formed as combinations of symbols” is a fantasy. (More likely, because there are no spaces between words and such a range of combinatorial possibilities, there’s less conventional freedom to coin your own words.) But it is indeed hard to decide what is attributive or predicative—or even noun or verb—in what I have translated as “wave hands inelegant are coral / pit viper’s scrawl-dirty hands,” or for that matter if “coral” describes the hands, the inelegance, the pit viper, or its “scrawl-dirty hands” (whatever they might be). In other words, the Chinese offers no certainty from which to judge if my translation is right or wrong, or if it is anything but my own limited understanding. Even when translating from Chinese, the translator can only translate as Berg wishes, which is not to be limited by Berg’s own designs on the poem.
* * *
In the aforementioned “Poetry & Globalization” panel, Ye Mimi said that poetry for her was wholly individual, and therefore unrelated to globalization. (The other panelists, including Aase Berg and Jeffrey Yang, disagreed.) Looking at the cross-cultural similarities and differences of the Poetry Nights poems I’ve quoted, and of what happens in translation from Swedish to Chinese to English, I also have to disagree. (As an aside, Johannes Göransson wrote about Aase Berg’s enthusiasm for Ye Mimi’s poetry, her comparison of it with Tomas Tranströmer, and what it has to do with our understanding of translation).
Poetry, or one’s response to it, is certainly individual, but it also takes part in an international, translingual, and cross-cultural conversation. And while this conversation creates similarities and resonances, because each participant is bound by its own position within its language and culture, differences and misprisions and distinctions emerge. Local culture, in other words, is not going away because poetries are in dialogue with each other around the world.
In that respect, poetry today at once owes its existence to a certain kind of globalization, but at the same time can combat the sort of globalization in which all of us, around the world, end up learning the same language, eating the same foods, and wearing the same clothes. Poetry, that is, presents a vision for an alternate globalization. It allows us to ask if poetry from China and Slovakia and Estonia and the Philippines and any part of the Americas is the same, and to answer that question in the negative.
Islands or Continents: International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong (also as 18-volume box set)
Edited by Gilbert Fong, Shelby Chan, Lucas Klein, Bei Dao, and Christopher Mattison
The Chinese University Press (March 2014)
ISBN: 9789629966058 (box set)
Words and the World: International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong (also as 20-volume box set)
Edited by Gilbert Fong, Shelby Chan, Lucas Klein, and Bei Dao
The Chinese University Press (April 2012)
ISBN: 9789629965129 (box set)
The Other Voice: International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong
Edited by Gilbert Fong, Shelby Chan, and Bei Dao
The Chinese University Press (September 2010)
Lucas Klein—a former radio DJ and union organizer—is a writer, translator, and editor whose work has appeared in Jacket, Rain Taxi, CLEAR, and PMLA, as well as from Fordham, Black Widow, and New Directions presses. Assistant Professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong, he is the translator of Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan 西川, which won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize for Asian poetry in translation and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in poetry (see http://xichuanpoetry.com). He is at work translating Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin 李商隱 and seminal contemporary poet Mang Ke 芒克.