Monday, June 04, 2018

*Essays On Hilda Hilst* Now Available

Thanks to the dedication of editors Adam Morris and Bruno Carvalho, Essays on Hilda Hilst: Between Brazil and World Literature, the first English-language scholarly volume dedicated to the work of one of Brazil's most singular and path-blazing authors, is now available for purchase. Published by Springer this month, the book opens with an insightful introduction about Hilst (1930-2004) and her relation to the category of "World Literature," by Morris, a gifted translator and scholar who produced an exceptional rendering of Hilst's 1986 novella Com os meus olhos de cão (With My Dog Eyes, Melville House, 2014), as well as works by Jõao Gilberto Noll, Beatriz Bracher, and other major contemporary Portuguese-language writers, and Carvalho, a Princeton professor of Spanish and Portuguese, whose scholarly interests span an array of topics and whose study Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro (2013), received the Brazilian Studies Association Robert Reis Book Award in 2014. Other essays in the volume explore different aspects of the late author's oeuvre, ranging from her plays (Tatiana Franca Rodrigues Zanirato), fiction (David William Foster), poetry (Alva Martinez Teixeiro), and broader theoretical, political and ideological readings (Deneval Siqueira Azevedo Filho, Eliane Robert Morães, Morris, and Nathanaël).

For my part, I contributed a revision of a talk I delivered in at the New York Public Library back in 2014, "Translating Brazil's Marquis de Sade," which explores the complexities of Hilst's Cartas de um Sedutor (Letters from a Seducer), for which Carvalho wrote the introduction, and the challenges I--and anyone--might face bringing it and her work in general into English. (In "Derelict of Duty, "Nathanaël also discusses some challenges faced co-translating Hilst's A obscena Madame D (The Obscene Madame D, Nightboat and A Bolha Editora, 2013). It is especially exciting to see this essay in print and in this volume, which I hope will serve as an enticing overview and introduction that I hope sparks more studies in English about Hilst, and spurs more translations of Hilst's work. I believe a translation of Hilst's Fluxo-Floema is on its way soon, and this year, Hilst's Of DeathMinimal Odes, translated by Laura Cesarco Eglin, will be published by co•im•press.

Please consider getting a copy of this volume, or at least suggesting your nearest library do so. And please, read Hilda Hilst!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Hillmans' New Translation of Ana Cristina Cesar's At Your Feet + Poems: Ana Cristina Cesar

At Your Feet, by Ana Cristina Cesar
translated by Brenda Hillman
and Helen Hillman, with Sebastião
Edson Macedo, edited by
Katrina Dodson (Anderson, SC:
Parlor Press, 2018)
A few years ago at the Associated Writing Program's annual conference, I was on a panel that focused on translating Brazilian women writers, and one of the figures I had translated and shared with my co-panelists and the audience was the late Brazilian poet Ana Cristina Cesar (1952-1983). Although she committed suicide at age 31 and left only a small oeuvre, it has proved to be among the most significant and durable of her generation. She now stands as one of the important Brazilian poets of the last quarter of the 20th century, as well as one who continues to influence poetry in her native country as well as outside it.

What I did not learn until after that panel had concluded was that the distinguished American poet and professor Brenda Hillman and her mother, Helen Hillman, who was born in Brazil, had been translating Cesar's poetry as well. Specifically, they were bringing the poems in her acclaimed 1982 Brasiliense collection A teus pés (At Your Feet) into English, and had run into the challenge I faced, which was trying to get permission to publish the English translations in the US. (I had only sought journal publication, but they had the entire collection in mind.)

Unlike them, however, I never heard back from Cesar's estate, which I knew did permit some translations, as I had found a copy online of British publisher Boulevard's (now Boulevard Books The Babel Guides) 1997 edition of Cesar's Intimate Diary, translated by Patricia E. Paige, Celia McCullough and David Treece and edited by Treece roughly a decade ago. As far I know, other than individual poems published in journals and anthologies, that was the only book-length edition of Cesar's books of poetry in English. Interestingly enough, it contains poems not only from the titular volume, but also from At Your Feet (which itself gathered together the three chapbooks Cesar had published from 1970 through 1980, Luvas de pelica (Kid Gloves: Fragments of a Journey), Correspondência Complete (Complete Correspondence), and Cenas de abril (April Scenes), at times in versions whose original source remains somewhat unclear (more about this below).

Given Hillman's gifts and stature in the poetry world, and her mother's familiarity with Brazilian Portuguese, I was eager to see how they would capture and carry over into English Cesar's ironic, often casual and erotic tone, the often laser-sharp shifts and textual collaging her poetic speakers engage, and the often very subtle tissue of allusions she weaves into her work, sometimes from Brazilian and global literary traditions (especially Anglophone literature, which she was quite familiar with, having lived in the UK for a short period), sometimes from popular culture.

A few weeks back, I received the fruit of the Hillmans' labor, At Your Feet, a bilingual collection completed in conjunction with Sebastião Edson Macedo and edited by Katrina Dodson, published by Parlor Press, an indie publisher based in South Carolina. Their book and translations are certain to become n excellent entry point into Cesar's poetry, and the standard for future English translations of the author's work. Readers now have some of her best known poems, like "[Soundtrack in the background," "[The story is complete: wide sargasso sea]," and "Samba Song," along with others that have not previously appeared in English before. (I hope that this translation spurs a re-translation of  Intimate Diaries, as well as much more of her unpublished prose and poems like "Gramas," which I translated a few years ago.)

In her introduction, Hillman rightly describes Cesar as an "avant-garde" poet, which she was, both for her time and today. She also was a key figure in the Poesia marginal (Marginal Poetry) movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and a pioneer in Brazilian LGBTQ writing. As I noted above, Cesar's mediation between high and popular culture is crucial to how her poems look and sound, and the Hillmans and Macedo negotiate the shifts quite well. Same-sexual desire, and a queering of discourse suffuse her poems, making her love poems in particular feel very contemporary, as if they were written just yesterday, i.e., earlier in 2018 or last year. No wonder that this poetry continues to appeal to young writers and readers of all ages.

Hillman also notes in her introduction that she received help from Cesar's current publishers, Companhia das Letras, in establishing the correct lineation of the poems. What she does not say, and what a comparison between her and mother's collection and the Paige-McCullough-Treece collection demonstrates, are variant versions of the poems, in some cases considerably so, perhaps arguing for a fuller introduction in a future edition of this or another translated Cesar collection. I do not have the Companhia das Letras edition of Cesar's collected poems, Poética (2013), or A teus pés (2016), but I assume that these were the versions that the Hillmans worked from. A few years ago I translated some of Cesar's poems that appeared not just in A teus pés, but also in Antigos e soltos: poemas e prosas da pasta rosa (Rio de Janeiro, Instituto Moreira Salles, 2008), and Álbum de retazos: antología crítica bilingüe : poemas, cartas, imágenes, inéditos (Buenos Aires: Corregidor), a collection of her poems, letters, photos, and unpublished work translated into Spanish and edited by Luciana Di Leone, Florencia Garramuño, and Ana Carolina Puente.

I assumed the versions of Cesar's poems in A teus pés were the authoritative one, but with the ones in other volumes, like Antigos e soltos, I took them as drafts that she--or editors--very well might have refined, she if she had lived to do so, or editors based on drafts they had carefully studied. So I now am quite curious about what versions Paige-McCullough-Treece might have chosen in translating Cesar's poems. Given that the earlier anthology was published in conjunction with the Center for the Study of  Brazilian Culture and Society, now King's Brazil Institute at King's College London, and given that David Treece, now the Camões Professor of Portuguese, is still there, I probably should write him to inquire about this.

Here is one example, the Portuguese taken directly from the Hillmans' book, followed by their translation, and, just for comparison, the P-M-T version (which, as you'll see, contains what are freestanding poems in the Hillmans' version.)


Polly Kellog e o motorista Osmar.
Dramas rápidas mas intensos.
Fotogramas d meu coração conceital.
De tomara-que-caia azul-marinho.
Engulo desaforos mas com sinceridade.
Sonsa com bom-senso.
Antena de praça.
Artista da poupança.
Absolute blind.
Tesão do talvez.
Água na boca.
Anjo que registra.


Polly Kellog and Osmar the driver.
Fast but intense dramas.
Freeze-frame of my conceptual heart.
In a navy blue strapless dress.
I take insults but with sincerity.
Sly with common sense.
Village gossip.
Savings artist.
Absolutely blind.
Lust for the maybe.
Limp wrist.
Recording angel.

tr. Brenda Hillman and Helen Hillman,
with Sebastião Edson Macedo


Polly Kellog and the driver Osmar.
Rapid but intense dramas.
Still frames of my conceptual heart.
In a navy blue strapless dress.
I swallow insults but with sincerity.
Artful with good sense.
Antenna in the square.
Artist of thrift.
Absolutely blind.
The hots for perhaps.
Mouth watering.
An angel who leaves his mark.

The story is complete: wide Sargasso sea,
     blue blue that does not
frighten me, and sings like a paper siren.
Without you I am a lake, a mountain.
I think of a man named Herberto.
I lie down beneath the window to smoke.
I breathe dizzily. Roll on the mattress.
And fearfully, heartlessly, I raise the price.

tr. Patricia E. Paige and David Treece

Portuguese original and first translation, as well as the two translations below, Copyright © Ana Cristina Cesar, At Your Feet, translated by Brenda Hillman and Helen Hillman, with Sebastião Edson Macedo, edited by Katrina Dodson. Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press, 2018. All rights reserved.

Second translation above, Copyright © Ana Cristina Cesar, Intimate Diary, translated by Patricia E. Paige, Celia McCullough, and David Treece. London: Boulevard, 1997. All rights reserved.

The final section in the P-M-T version is two free-standing, untitled poems in the Hillman's version: "[The story is complete: wide sargasso sea]" and "[Without you I'm really a lake, a mountain.]" Each includes slight variations, capturing a truer sense of the Brazilian original:

A historia está completa: wide sargasso sea, azul azul que não
me espanta, e canta como uma sereia de papel.

The story is complete: wide sargasso sea, blue blue that doesn't
amaze me, and sings like a paper mermaid.


Sem você bem que sou lago, montanha.
Penso num homem chamado Herberto.
Me deita a fumar debaixa da janela.
Respiro com vertigem. Rolo no colchão.
E sem bravata, coração, 
     aumento o preço

Without you I'm really a lake, a mountain.
I think of a man named Herberto.
I lie down and smoke under the window.
I breathe dizzily. Roll around on the mattress.
And without bravado, sweetheart, <
     I raise the price

In the Hillmans' version of the first now free-standing poem, "[A historia...]",  the English words become italicized; "espantar" is translated as "amaze" rather than "frighten," changing the meaning; and in conjunction with that change, the original "sereia," which Paige and Treece translate as "siren," becomes a "mermaid," a more benign figure. In the second poem, which is extremely simple yet wry, as Cesar's poems often are, just on the edge of heartbreak, we get a more mellifluous English translation--"smoke under" and "roll around"--as well as a crucial change, "heartlessly" to "sweetheart." I actually think both slightly miss the sly complexity of Cesar's original, since "sem," meaning without, both does and does not modify "coração" ("heart"), so the original poem is saying both "without bravado [and] heartlessly" and "without bravado, [my] heart"; perhaps "my heart" might have worked the best.

But either way, as she says, she raises the price. At any rate, please do check out the Hillmans' translation when you can.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Quotes: Dionne Brand

Dionne Brand
(The Canadian Encyclopedia)
"VERSO 5.5

I have plans; I have no plans. They disappear in the Gulf of Mexico like brown pelicans and hermit crabs in an oil spill. Isn't it time we stopped saying spill? That wasn't a spill it was a deluge. It has no mercy, nation. I have no mercy. I'm jaundiced. All the while through the hoots of democracy, I was looking for the women in Tahrir Square, in Yemen, in Tunisia. I am listening. Whatever, the author says. I don't want to hear any more about waiting. In September, and now October, I am unpinned from all allegiances. Of course you're not. But what if I wrote like this? Unpinned."



On hearing of my left-hand pages, ASJ, a poet, sent me this note from Edmond Jabès:

A book without room for the world would be / no book.
It would lack the most beautiful pages, / those on the left,
in which even the smallest / pebble is reflected.

Then I sent away for Jabès's book, The Book of Questions, and received it from England after some weeks. And there was his handwriting: pour Jane et Sidney Shiff / j'ai été heureux / de connaître / En souvenir et / avec la cordiale pensée / d' E. Jabès. This last note arrived with his cordial thoughts, says the clerk. Yes, so I suppose it is a sign that we continue, says the author."



Tonight my brain is full of beautiful things collected over three weeks: the ring around Jupiter in the southern hemisphere; three flamingos dancing brine shrimp to the surface; the mirages of harbours only I have seen; the lithium salt desert; the rush for the local train at Ollantaytambo; a frantic scramble for a bundle of goods left behind; the electrochemical sky. The silence was the best thing."

-- Dionne Brand, from The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos, Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming in August 2018.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Random Photo

This one is truly random, and I would have missed it had my friend Anthony Montgomery not called my attention to it. The lead-in: a few weeks ago the Daily Mail, as it's wont to do, posted an article on the death of a celebrity, Matthew Mellon (1964-2018), the banking heir and cryptocurrency billionaire, who had recently passed away after a struggle with addiction. Anthony must have scrolled all the way down to the bottom of the article, where he spotted the following photograph, which, it turns out, was one of the last Mellon posted on his Instagram account before he passed away. It shows him beside his close friend, Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy (daughter of environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.), who is hiding her face behind...well, you see! As I mentioned to C, my publishers, and others, you never know who's reading your work or where it might turn up.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

National Memorial for Peace & Justice + Legacy Museum Now Open

National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Despite the fact that the US has a well documented history of nearly two and a half centuries of legalized enslavement (1640-1865/66), enshrined in the US  Constitution; nearly another century of legalized apartheid known as Jim Crow (1876-1960-1980s?) and multiple de facto forms of explicitly racialized and class segregation (continuing today); and centuries of racist terror and enforced white supremacist terror, policing, brutality, and violence against peoples of African descent (as well as Native Americans and other non-white peoples), there have been relatively few national or regional museums or monuments recognizing this terrible history.

The aftermath of a lynching
Across the US there (rightly) museums calling attention to the horrific Nazi Holocaust against Jewish people that occurred in Germany and across much of Europe from the 1930s through 1945. There are specific museums and commemoration cites honoring specific African American figures, regional events, and particular moments, like Civil Rights history. Yet until very recently, there were only a few general museums specifically recognizing African American history and culture, and almost none calling attention to the horrendous legacy of slavery, segregation and racialized terror, all of which have contributed in numerous ways to shaping the society in which all Americans live today.
A sculpture commemorating
the brutal history of chattel slavery
Thankfully, Americans and people from all over the globe are flocking to the architecturally stunning National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, which provides an exceptionally thorough overview and celebration of the richness of African American and Black life in the United States and North America. (I wrote about visiting the NMAAHC last February.) To the NMAAHC, as of a week ago you can also now visit a museum that acknowledges the legacy of lynching, one of the most horrific manifestations of racialized terror in American history, as well as chattel slavery and its many afterlives, which include the carceral state. The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both projects of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), opened in Montgomery, Alabama 2 weeks ago on April 26, 2018. According to its website,
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is situated on a site in Montgomery where enslaved people were once warehoused. A block from one of the most prominent slave auction spaces in America, the Legacy Museum is steps away from an Alabama dock and rail station where tens of thousands of black people were trafficked during the 19th century....

The 11,000-square-foot museum is built on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned, and is located midway between an historic slave market and the main river dock and train station where tens of thousands of enslaved people were trafficked during the height of the domestic slave trade. Montgomery's proximity to the fertile Black Belt region, where slave-owners amassed large enslaved populations to work the rich soil, elevated Montgomery's prominence in domestic trafficking, and by 1860, Montgomery was the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama, one of the two largest slave-owning states in America.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018, is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.

Work on the memorial began in 2010 when EJI staff began investigating thousands of racial terror lynchings in the American South, many of which had never been documented. EJI was interested not only in lynching incidents, but in understanding the terror and trauma this sanctioned violence against the black community created. Six million black people fled the South as refugees and exiles as a result of these "racial terror lynchings."

This research ultimately produced Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror in 2015 which documented thousands of racial terror lynchings in twelve states. Since the report’s release, EJI has supplemented its original research by documenting racial terror lynchings in states outside the Deep South. EJI staff have also embarked on a project to memorialize this history by visiting hundreds of lynching sites, collecting soil, and erecting public markers, in an effort to reshape the cultural landscape with monuments and memorials that more truthfully and accurately reflect our history.

African Americans re-enslaved
through convict leasing
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), established by public interest lawyer, author and MacArthur Foundation "genius" award-winner Bryan Stevenson in 1989, was long known for its impressive work providing legal aid to innocent death row prisoners and successfully exonerating a number of them, as well as its manifold efforts on behalf of economically and socially marginalized communities across the US. As Stevenson looked at the history of the US prison-industrial complex, the school-to-prison pipeline and unequal applications of justice that African Americans faced, and the larger, profoundly skewed narrative about race in the US, he realized that one component of maintaining the structures and systems that allowed this narrative to take root was the absence of public recognition of the history that had helped to create it and the structures of oppression now in place, and one key element was the occluded history of US lynching, which usually went unpunished by federal or state authorities--and in the case of the latter, often had their complicity or tacit acquiescence--and which helped to support and further white supremacy and inequality.

Newly freed African Americans
in the post-Civil War era
Moreover, the absence of public museums and venues commemorating this history have helped in allowing narratives of white and national innocence to take hold; what the public doesn't know cannot exist, right? Out of site, out of mind. It only happened down there or far away, etc. Slavery ended and that was the end of it, right? Furthering this, the absence and silencing of the names of the more than 4,000 lynched, of their stories and voices, their families' and communities' traumas, except in specific works of art (films, photographic exhibits, works of fiction and nonfiction, etc.), has allowed the horror to become abstracted and thus, to a certain degree, ignored and dismissed. And yet, it waters the very soil and sand on which every American treads, much as the dispossession, forced removals and slaughter of Native Americans, to name but another frequently obscured component of US history does as well.

Stevenson and a group of fellow lawyers spent years delving into this history, combing through archives to notate names and stories of lynchings across the South, and documented roughly 4,400 across the South (though there were lynchings all over the US, including in the North and West), from 1877 to 1950, which are featured at the Memorial site. As a result, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice redresses this long silencing and invisibility; its architecturally striking building housing the tribute to those who were lynched and the site on which it sits have drawn considerable praise. The latter venue was inspired by the unforgettably powerful Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and by the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. To quote The New York Times's Campbell Robertson

At the center is a grim cloister, a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns, all hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there, most listed by name, many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.

The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk: Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.
At the second site, the Legacy Museum makes the connection between the slavery and apartheid past and the present prison system, showing how the past evolved into a system that continues to wreak havoc on countless Black and brown lives. As the Times article notes, the Museum guides the visitor through the compelling argument that Stevenson have made for how this system is still operating, ending on the hopeful note encouraging voter registration and political activism. Like the NMAAHC, where I witnessed groups of students eagerly queuing up to visit, the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice should be obligatory sites for American school children to spend time and study. Given the current state of our politics and society, the US can only benefit as a result.

The Guardian interviews museum founder Bryan Stevenson:

Saturday, May 05, 2018

New Comics (Comey + The Summit)

Some doodles to pass the time.

First, Comey commentary:

James Comey on George
Stephanopoulos's show

And second, since the "Summit" between North Korea and the corrupt chaotic gang running the US will supposedly take place at some point soon (June? never), here's a prediction (if they pull off a real peace deal, they'll earn my thanks):

The Summit

Friday, May 04, 2018

As Ignoble Scandal Unfolds, No 2018 Nobel Literature Prize

One of this site's perennials used to be my fall Nobel speculation posts. These would usually appear a week or so before the Swedish Academy named that year's Nobel Prize in Literature laureate each October. My predictions, often wrong and far off the mark, would follow a private email exchange with fellow writer Reggie H., who is and remains one of the most avid and discerning readers I know. We would toss out names to each other, and then I'd post a long-ish speculation about whom the Swedish Academy might select from the large pool of excellent writers across the globe.

Several suppositions shaped my choices: The Swedish Academy, though it had elected a woman, author Sara Danius, to lead it as its Permanent Secretary (i.e., Director), has mostly comprised 18 (or nearly that many) white, middle-aged and senior Swedish male academics, critics and writers. One of its prominent members, Horace Engdahl, was on record as denouncing contemporary American literature for its parochialism: "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature." (Yes, by some lights, no by many others.)  Throughout its history, the vast majority of winners have been European men, or wrote in European languages if they lived on other continents (see most of the African winners).

Additionally, most of the Nobel laureates have produced work that was clearly in one genre--poetry, fiction, drama, and to a far lesser degree, historical or critical nonfiction--even if they wrote in a variety of genres; radical formal innovation, outside of some notable examples, has been rare among the winners. I also took into account that certain countries or language groups with significant literary traditions--Brazil, South Korea, India, Algeria, Iran, Nigeria, Cuba, Argentina, etc. have been completely or mostly overlooked. Writers working on other languages--like those of southern India, for example--were like to be ignored completely. Lastly, the charge for this elite body has been, as per Alfred Nobel's will, to give the award for work of "an idealistic nature," and not, as I have always interpreted it, for groundbreaking, lasting, culturally or politically impactful and resonant literature. 

Thus, while some of the widely acknowledged great writers of the 20th century from across the globe but writing in European languages--William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, etc.--have received the award, many more, including James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Wilson Harris, etc., did not, for a variety of reasons some known only the Swedish Academy. Meanwhile, writers who will most certainly fade into the shadows even of their own literatures have been recognized (Mikhail Sholokov, to give one example, Pearl S. Buck and Jaroslav Seifert two others), despite the temporary bump in attention the Nobel gave them. The limitations I note above therefore should lead anyone to approach the Nobel Prize in Literature with considerable skepticism, as Tim Parks argued in the New York Times today. Yet, because of its longstanding global reach, its sustained history and its sizable purse (roughly about $1 million dollars, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending upon the Swedish kroner's exchange rate), it remains the premier honor in the international literary world.

Or it did, perhaps up to the point two years ago when, bizarrely, the Swedish Academy passed over countless superlative living writers, particularly poets, and awarded the honor to Bob Dylan, a songwriter and composer who proceeded to act out by initially not acknowledging his selection, and then left the Academy hanging as to whether he would even show up to accept the prize. (Perhaps embarrassment left him somewhat socially paralyzed.) I am all for eccentricity in choice--Camilo José Cela, anyone?--and vision, but this pick struck me as the worst kind of spasm of Baby Boomer fanboy-ism, a comfort-foodish but also cynical thumb in the face of readers and writers everywhere. It was also, I imagine, an attempt to spark controversy and appear relevant, which is not exactly the purpose of the Nobel Prize in literature, though it succeeded on the first account. I could not bring myself to write about the absurdity of the 2016 debacle. This past year's winner, Kazuo Ishiguro, one of Great Britain's most highly regarded fiction writers, however, seemed like a compensatory, safe choice. Ishiguro is, at the very least, a writer, and one of great accomplishment.

What was unknown to the wider public until last fall, however, was the extent of the maelstrom engulfing the Swedish Academy, a result of snowballing sexual harassment and abuse allegations by 18 women against photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, the 71-year-old husband of one of the Academy's permanent members, poet Kristina Frostensen, and friend to many others. In another literary world-specific instance of the #Metoo movement, he has been accused of using his position to coerce women into sex, including raping them, at his apartments as well as Swedish Academy-owned venues in Stockholm and Paris; allegations of his inappropriate behavior date back to the early 1990s up through to quite recently, when he is reported to have groped Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria. Adding to the controversy, Arnault also is alleged to have leaked the names of Nobel winners at least seven times before they were publicly announced, hinting that Frostenson may have revealed them to him in advance, and providing bookmakers with a potential windfall. In addition, though not a member of the Academy, Arnault co-owned and ran a cultural center, the Forum, in Stockholm, which received Academy funding, so its and his affairs were part of its purview.

In response to the cumulative allegations, some of which date back more than 20 years, several members of the Academy resigned, and former head Danius severed all Academy ties with Arnault and the Forum, then ordered a legal review of Arnault and his cultural center. For her troubles, however, Danius was ousted by fellow members from her post, though she remains an Academy member. The mounting crisis spurred the Nobel Foundation, which oversees and awards all the prizes, to issue a statement postponing the prize for 2018, given the jury's diminished ranks--it now lacks enough members to form a quorum--and the public glare on its internal turmoil. Instead, it will name two winners in 2019. As the acting permanent secretary, scholar Anders Olsson has put it, "Confidence in the academy from the world around us has sunk drastically in the past year...and that is the decisive reason that we are postponing the prize."

Because of its depleted ranks and a rule that members of the jury cannot resign or retire, the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, had to step in to change the rules to allow the resigning members to leave and new ones to be added. Only 10 of the current 18 members are active, and most of those remaining carry the taint of the Arnault debacle. As the Der Spiegel article I link to above notes, one option could be for the Nobel Foundation to replace the 232-year-old Swedish Academy, which has awarded the prize since 1901, with another one in the country or based elsewhere. For example, what about a rotating set of "academies," based in a different country every two years? (The Nobel Foundation, however, says no, the award will most likely stay in the Academy's hands, but that it needs to take the necessary steps to reform itself.). Another option might be to limit terms of service and cycle members in and out and, most importantly, bring in artistic and critical authorities from outside Sweden, while also requiring gender parity, age and racial-ethnic diversity, and a clearer statement of what the prize aims to reward. Critic Ron Charles argued in the Washington Post that the Swedish Academy should skip more than one year to get its act together. He even quoted some of Dylan's doggerel to underline how ridiculous the 2016 choice was. Perhaps several years of joint awards, to address the huge gaps in writers and writing the Academy has missed, might also be in order.  Why just two in 2019? What about two for the next ten years, or twenty?

Or, as Tim Parks asks, should there even be a Nobel Prize? Does it matter? Beyond sales surges, however temporary. Even if we account for the limits of any group of judges to assess quality in literary works written in a variety of languages, is there not value in calling attention to works that might merit wider attention based on their assessed excellence, beauty, social and political resonance? Scrapping the Nobel would be dramatic, but does anyone think that some other existing award, like the Man Booker, or the Neustadt International Prize, or a new prize created with funds from one of the world's small but growing ranks of billionaires, would not take its place? Moreover, as I point out in the previous paragraph, what should the Nobel Prize, when it returns, honor? Is Alfred Nobel's specific search for works "of an idealistic nature" still stand? What does "idealistic" even mean in today's world of perpetual war, mass inequality, almost uncontrolled technological advances, and climate change? Should we start honoring those SFF writers who offer glimpses, amidst their dystopias and post-apocalyses, of a better world? It is so unfortunate that Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler did not live to enjoy this possible turn of events, unlikely as it may be.

At any rate, then, this fall there will be no Nobel laureate in literature. Maybe the very idea marks an impossibility. On the other hand, as the continued popularity and acclaimed global performances and adaptations of works by figures such as William Shakespeare--who died far too early to be considered for a Nobel, of course--demonstrate, some writers and some works do translate, or can resignify, despite cultural barriers. So, in two years, we will see who the reconstituted Academy, if it can reconstitute and reform itself, selects.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Poem: John Yau

I end this month's run of ekphrastic poems with yet another approach to the genre, by John Yau (1950-), a poet whose work has garnered an array of awards over the years but who, I believe, remains still too little known or discussed. A native of Lynn, Massachusetts and a longtime professor of art history and criticism at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Yau began publishing his work in the early 1970s, and from the beginning, he showed a singular voice with his inventive, playful, humorous poems, drawn from his experience as an Asian American child and young adult growing up in mid-century America, viewing the work of Asian American and white artists, taking in the mass culture of those years, and engaging in dialogue with his avant-garde contemporaries as well as senior figures whom he studied with at Boston University, Bard College and Brooklyn College, including John Ashbery and Robert Kelly. Yau also has published fiction; established and runs a press, Black Square Editions; and serves as a freelance curator, and regularly writes for an online magazine he co-founded, Hyperallergic Weekend. He was the Art Critic for the Brooklyn Rail from 2006-11.

Yau's poetry can range from riffs on popular culture to readings of rarefied art, but his personal, incisive vision and sensibility always come through. By far the best and most subtle reading of Yau's poetry (and of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's work, Asian American poetry and contemporary experimental poetics, particularly in relation to the politics of race and form in general) can be found in Dorothy Wang's award-winning scholarly monograph Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Asian American Poetry (Stanford, 2014). As Dorothy notes in the opening of her first chapter on Yau, in his work one can find "Film noir, Jasper Johns, Peter Lorre, Anna May Wong, Eugene Delacroix, Boris Karloff, Dashiell Hammett, X-rated movies, German Expressionist writers...." (Wang, Thinking Its Presence, p. 162). Yau has developed a unique means for bringing all of these strands together, even though, as he has said, he aims not to have a particular "style," but to leave open all avenues of experimentation.

Like Ashbery, Yau has written extensive art criticism, and published a hybrid book of poetic criticism, entitled Further Adventures in Monochrome in 2012. The title immediate tips off an astute reader to the book's subject and focus: the experimental genius and proto-conceptualist Yves Klein (1928-1962), whose untimely death cut short a path-charting career across a range of formal experiments. Klein was a painter, composer, sculptor, installation and performance artist, judoka (!), and exemplar of the Nouveau réalisme movement, while also prefiguring Pop and minimal art. And, as I wrote of Frank O'Hara but a few days ago, he accomplished all of this in a very tiny window of time. Perhaps best known for his International Klein Blue 191, the sublime, seemingly infinite blue monochrome that he made the subject of various works--and which is the color of the British edition of Counternarratives, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions!--he also created a number of other works that both critiqued the post-war moment of their appearance and looked forward to whole swaths of art to come.

In Further Adventures in Monochrome, Yau attempts to do more than write about Klein and his art. In 2013, Rachel May interviewed Yau for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and introduces the collection in this way:

The title poem of Further Adventures, written in 15 sections that alternate between poetry and prose, addresses issues central to Yau’s work: his insistence that “painting is not dead,” the materiality of paint and language, language’s plasticity. He takes on the voice of Yves Klein throughout the poem’s 15 sections, and also speaks to Klein’s own writing about painting in 1954, and engages with Baudelaire, Mallarme, Dickinson, Rilke, Trakl, Whitman, Pollock, Warhol, and Johns, among others. The work is sometimes playful, as in the section titled “(Robert Desnos and Yves Klein meet in the sky),” but he’s pushed past what might be categorized as ekphrastic poetry or criticism, to create a form that combines the two. He speaks from or with the art, rather than “about” it. The penultimate section opens in the voice of Klein:

What I wanted from art was impossible. This is what every artist wants. If you settle for the possible, then your failure is ordinary, although, in a few cases, spectacular. I didn’t want what was there for the taking, the images of things that could be named. I didn’t want to add names to the vocabulary.

 Yau goes on to say in the interview that

That’s part of it. In a way, what I learned from painters is that words could be treated as things, that you could put any one color next to any other color. And I thought, in poetry, you should technically be able to put any one word next to any other word. So, looking at painting made me look at language differently.

I’m interested in what language is capable of, and I am interested in collage without collaging. In other words, I do try to put one thing next to another — words, phrases — but I haven’t actually collaged. I haven’t taken it from one place and collaged it next to something from another place.

Here then, is the excerpt, borrowed (as I did with Shin Yu Pai's poems the other day) from Michael Leong's excellent curated selection, "Lines of Sight: Visual Art in Asian American Poetry," at the Asian American Writers Workshop's online site The Margins. I have blathered on enough, so let's read and hear what Yau's poetic speaker--and Klein and his work(s)--have to say.


by John Yau


I dwell in possibility, Emily Dickinson

I dwell in impossibility, Yves Klein

You should understand that I did not want you to read a painting. I wanted you to bathe in it before words domesticated the experience, and you turned to such stand-bys as “illumination” and “transcendent” to describe what happened to you. Painting should not be sentenced to sentences.
Painting is COLOR, I yelled at my first champion and biggest supporter. COLOR banishes words from its domain. When you read a painting, you turn it into language, but there is so much that cannot be turned into language that each of us experiences every day.

Red shadows leak out of rusting cars and collapsed bridges. Green smoke rises from behind horizons and rooftops. The spectrum of your mother’s voice the last time she spoke to you.
Every day there are thresholds that you must cross to reach the domain where words mar every transmission, rendering them intangible. We put our memory of these reverberations aside in favor of what is known and, we believe, knowable. We say we are going to the beach and we will look at the ocean and leave indentations in the sand, but that is not what happens. We go there to ponder a blue parcel cut from infinity.

True poets and artists know where language ends, which is why they go there. Some settle for going beyond the possible into possibility, but others want to dwell in the impossible. I am not talking fantasy here, because that version of the impossible is just a story about a girl named Thumbelina or a boy named Jack. The ones who go to where two roads diverge in a yellow wood are not poets, because they believe that experience can be reduced to a lesson about choices. True poets know that language is neither window nor mirror. The mistake is to believe that the opposite is true, that words (or signs) are arbitrary.

This is my example of why words are not arbitrary. Charles Baudelaire believed that there are perfumes for which all matter is porous. These perfumes can permeate the air of one’s dreams. Our thoughts quiver in the shadows that fall over us; they begin to free their wings and rise in flight, tinged with azure, glazed with rose, spangled with gold.

Azure, Rose, Gold.

I was not thinking of Baudelaire when I made my paintings, but the poet was clearly dreaming of me when he sat at his desk and wrote “The Perfume Flask.”

Can’t you see that this is how I, radiating outward, happened to appear on this planet, this speck of dust? Yves Klein was born because Baudelaire predicted this propitious event by naming colors, which, like all colors, escape the confines of their names, becoming more than an emanation of infinity. Even black can get away from its name, which is why Malevich had to surround it with white. But what is color that isn’t surrounded by another color? What is that boundless world we catch a glimpse of whenever we look up at the sky? Is it so vast that we must turn away from it, afraid that it will swallow us up, which it will? Astronomy, the Greeks believed, was a royal science, which means I am a royal painter. Do not confuse me, however, with a painter of royalty, with Ingres, who used lines to hold and improve the faces of his sitters, who believed in the despotic power of beauty.

I am not interested in beauty. I am not Andy Warhol. He longed for possibility, but was afraid of what it might tell him. I dwell in impossibility, and I want to be embraced by what it will tell me. My name is Yves Klein. There is a photograph of me that you might know. I have put on my best suit and jumped out a window. My arms are outspread, but they are not wings. I don’t need them to fly. Nor am I the prince of clouds, Baudelaire’s albatross, fallen from the sky. Screw that fascist Marinetti. My arms are not the wings of a drunkard beating against the wall. Mine are the outstretched arms of a diver. I fall effortlessly through the air, but I never am completely fallen. The cobblestones and I will never meet. I hover in a miracle, which is why you believe in the photograph, even after you have learned how I tricked you. It wasn’t that hard to do. The true magician shows everyone how the trick was done, and after seeing how you were deceived, you believe in the trick all the more. I jumped out the window and I stayed in the air, which is where you wanted me to stay. I dwell in impossibility—that zone that lies beyond here and there, while embracing both.

Copyright © John Yau, from Further Adventures in Monochrome, Port Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2012. All rights reserved.

And here are two of Klein's works, also borrowed from Michael's curated selection:

Yves Klein. Silence is Golden (1960). ADAGP, Paris.

Yves Klein, photographed by Harry Shunk
and Janos Kender. 
Leap into the Void (1960).
Gelatin silver print. 25.9 x 20 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Poems + Translations: Arnaldo Antunes

Last year I had the pleasure of translating a small cache of poems by Arnaldo Antunes (1960-), a Brazilian musician, composer and writer, who is very famous in his home country, but not as well known on these shores. A former member of the rock & roll  band the Titãs (Titans) and an extensive collaborator with the Brazilian singer Marisa Monte (1967-), Antunes has been publishing his poetry since the early 1980s, and, like his music, it has the capacity for being both seemingly straightforward and accessible, while also proving quite playfully complex. One of my favorite of his musical works is Os Tribalistas (EMI/Phonomotor), a 2002 project with Monte and Bahian musician Carlinhos Brown (1962-).

One challenge with Antunes's poetry is the magic he wields with apparently simple elements combines into challenging verbal artifacts. I am thinking for example of a poem I translated entitled "Pedro de pedro," whose title may seem easy enough, but which is actually quite difficult to render into English. Why? Because "pedro" means "stone" or "rock" and that "de," meaning "of," adds layers of nuance, creating in English the following possibilities: "Stone's stone," "Rocky stone," "Stony stone," "Stone made out of stone," etc.

Of course I can't write all of these into the English translation, which demands that I pick one (I did), but I nevertheless want and need to to give a sense of what a native Portuguese speaker would pick up and puzzle over, yet understand, seeing the title alone. The polysemous nature of such poetry, which abounds in Antunes's work, deeply fascinates me, leading me to attempt to translate the untranslatable, but then, isn't that what all translators at some level are up to? Na impossibilidade fica possibilidade, não?

Antunes also has played with concrete and digital poetics over the years. You can find a variety of examples if you search online. You also can view an array of his musical and visual artistry at his personal site. In 1993, shortly after leaving Titãs, he released a collaborative LP, Nome (Name) guest-starring Monte, João Donato and Arto Lindsay, which was a multimedia music-and-poetic project with a computer-animated video that later traveled to various art museums and galleries. He has continued exploring poetry's materiality, and its nexus with visual art and the digital, and after a bit of scrounging about online, I found three examples of his poems, on Brazil Escola and  that merge the poetic and visual, emphasizing language's materiality and multiplicity.

 The first poem feels very appropriate to the political and social situations in Brazilian and US society today:




LI       TA




LI        TY

The second involves a little visual play, with the flying upside down once the wing(s) come(s) out (or off, in which case the upside flying also signifies falling!):





This third piece is a quartet (or, thinking of visual art, a tetrych) of poems, one partly in English, one the same in the both languages, the other two in Portuguese, and all together forming a kind of crossword puzzle when viewed from afar:



(Or "Imagigabytes," a neologism, but really what we produce with every creative thought)




This one needs no explication; even if you speak no Portuguese, if you say it aloud it you can here the rhyme, and the inward sound of "dentro" (within, inside) vs. "vento" (wind); is it that "r" that does the trick?




This is quite simple too; my translation misses the visual design of the poem, in which the "blowing" is clearly attenuated; stars are far away, as we know.




With this one I reversed the translations, so that his English becomes Portuguese and vice versa. As we human beings steadily learn, almost anything can be thought, though that does not mean we need to act on it.

All translations and commentary © Copyright John Keene, 2018.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Poem: Frank O'Hara

Alex Katz, "Frank O'Hara," cutout:
oil on wood (double-sided),
1959, Robert Miller Gallery

One of my favorite poets is the late Frank O'Hara (1926-1966), who nowadays needs no introduction but who, I would assert from the vantage point of my own middle age, has deservedly ascended into the upper stratosphere of American poetry in a way that might not have seemed likely at the time of his early death, or even in the 1980s, when I was in college and first encountered his work. O'Hara's influence not just in American poetry--and among LGBTQ poets in particular--but in poetry across the globe is considerable, and akin to that of his friend and compatriot John Ashbery (1927-2017), who is now widely acknowledged as one of the major poets in the English language, controversies about his poetry itself aside. When I was still teaching at Northwestern I had the pleasure of meeting the Slovenian poet Ales Debeljak (1961-2016) and his wife Erica Johnson Debeljak, and when we began discussing poets who'd influenced his generation (he's roughly my contemporary) of Slovenian writers, one of the first he mentioned was O'Hara. In fact, he pointed out to me, O'Hara's influence was apparent in the poetry of poets not just in Slovenia, but in Poland and a number of other countries.

But whereas Ashbery had a long and varied career that stretched for over half a century, O'Hara's ended after a roughly two decade stretch; in barely 20 years (1948-1966), beginning during his undergraduate career at Harvard and continuing through his time at the University of Michigan and his years in New York City working as a museum curator, he published nearly all the poetry that made his name. He also served as an artistic, social and cultural avatar, linking poets ranging from Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) to James Merrill to Allen Ginsberg to Gregory Corso to Diane DiPrima, though O'Hara's closest connections were with the poets and Abstract Expressionist and pre-Pop visual artists clustered around what Donald Allen named the New York School of poetry Ashbery (who wrote a number of major ekphrastic poems, including the sublime "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror)," Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Mike Bluhm, Joan Mitchell, Fairfield Porter, and others. A gifted pianist and raconteur, O'Hara not only worked in the art world at the Museum of Modern Art, but wrote regularly about and to artists and art, in his poetry, while also collaborating on a number of projects with figures who would become famous in their own right, including Larry Rivers and Bill Berkson.

Despite its relatively small quantity and the fact that it ceased in 1966, O'Hara's poetry possesses a vitality and vibrancy that often makes it sounds as if it could have been written yesterday. Part of this is its everyday language, not unlike that of one of his poetic forebears, William Carlos Williams; his often casual, jaunty tone, laced with irony and wit; a gift for zany juxtapositions, learned from reading French and Russian Modernist poets; and a queer, sometimes campy exuberance that conveys a delight with being alive and, I recognized early on, a negotiation with the many and difficult challenges of being an out gay (white, upper-middle-class) man in mid-century America. (He is not without his occasional blind spots on race, sex and class.) One excellent example is O'Hara's "Poem ["The eager note on my door said, 'Call Me,']," written decades before Grindr or similar apps, but which details an absurd and tragic urban sexual assignation that would not be out of place even in hypergentrified contemporary New York. He wrote and published this poem in 1957, twelve years before Stonewall, and one thing I often wonder is what kind of poet might have become in the wake of gay liberation, the push for LGBTQ equality, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, let alone the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements, to name just two. Ginsberg, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Merrill all lived through these waves of social, political and cultural change and approached them (or not) in various ways, so what might O'Hara have had to say?

The focus of this blog post is writing about art, though, so here is one of O'Hara's most famous poems, "Why I Am Not a Painter," which he wrote in conversation with his friend, Abstract Expressionist painter Mike Goldberg's (1924-2007) painting "Sardines," which is as much a poem about writing poetry, as the second stanza makes clear, as it is about creating visual art, inspiration, process, and how life and time shape whatever we do. As I noted above, O'Hara doesn't shy away from those darker notes in life and we see it here when he writes, "There should be / so much more, not of orange, of / words, of how terrible orange is and life." Which is to say that amidst the beauty of the color orange--it is a striking color--there is all the rest of life as well, and orange becomes the pivot through which O'Hara, a poet, delves into the world. I also love the ironic note "It is even in / prose, I am a real poet," underlining his assertion in the opening line, provocatively assessing his prosy, painterly verse here, with its seemingly pedestrian strokes that together create a work of art, and avowing his practice as an experimental poet--he was--working in and against genre conventions, queering them. So much in a three-stanza poem!


by Frank O'Hara 

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be 
a painter, but I am not. Well, 

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he 
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there." 
"Oh." I go and the days go by 
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days 
go by. I drop in. The painting is 
finished. "Where's SARDINES?" 
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says. 

But me? One day I am thinking of 
a color: orange. I write a line 
about orange. Pretty soon it is a 
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be 
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is 
and life. Days go by. It is even in 
prose, I am a real poet. My poem 
is finished and I haven't mentioned 
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call 
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery 
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

Here is Mike Goldberg's "SARDINES." You can see "EXIT" and other letters, but "SARDINES"....

Michael Goldberg, Sardines, 1955, oil and adhesive tape on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, Martha Jackson Memorial Collection.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Poems: Shin Yu Pai

Shin Yu Pai
(Seattle Review of Books)

Back in 2008, the multi-talented Shin Yu Pai published a book of collected poems entitled Sightings: Poems 2000-2005 with 1913 Press. Comprising a range of formal, material and textual experiments, it also showed her to be both an artist at heart and in her practice. The poems were mostly brief, political, playful, and never repetitive, marking her out as as someone not following the main experimental crowds. After reading Sightings, I added her to my list of poets to follow, and I have, including blogging her poetry several times, once for her baseball poems in 2011 (scroll past the break), and once for a very witty still life poem in 2012. She has since published several more full collections of poems, including AUX ARCS (La Alameda, 2013) and Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), two of whose poems I quote below, as well as limited edition artist books, works on paper, photography, and collaborative projects of various kinds.

In 2015, the poet and scholar Michael Leong curated a collection of poems about visual art, "Lines of Sight," by nine Asian American writers for the Asian American Writers Workshop's The Margins journal. One of the poets he included was Shin Yu Pai, and when I remembered that she was one of the poets--the others were Christine Wong Yap, Debora Kuan, Eileen Tabios, Jennifer Hayashida, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (whom I highlighted earlier this month), Walter K. Lew, O Woomi Chang, and John Yau (whose work will close out the month--I said that I would have to include her here. (Please do check out the entire portfolio.)

Michael featured four of Pai's poems, but to whet readers' interests and encourage that you head over to AAWW's website I'm only going to feature two, both from Adamantine. The first is entitled "Lunch Poem," which immediately made me think of Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) and his eponymous, beloved collection, but when you the photograph her poem is in conversation with, her poem's title becomes clearer, shaking off (a bit) the New York School avatar's influence. Instead, we are exploring Indian artist Subodh Gupta's hanging sculpture, a shiny excrescence whose surface appears to be both bumpy--all those fissures between the pails--and, from a short distance, a silvery, pulsating button.

In this poem, Pai plays with the lunch pails and boxes the image invokes, the vast world those pail carriers index, opening with a statistic about how rare it is that they "[go] missing." It is brief enough to be a poem she might have thought up and mulled over during a lunch-time exploration of it, whether it hung in an art museum or a wall near wherever she was spending any time. The poem itself bells like a vessel--a bit plumper here than on The Margins site because of my lack of kerning tools--that has been filled, or, by its end, by author and reader, like the lunchtime diner, emptied.


by Shin Yu Pai

(after Subodh Gupta)

             to one: the delivery that

        goes missing – a lunch pail that fails

        to arrive @ its destination; domestic

       articles bear homemade offerings produced

    by housewives & dadi jis for their men-folk –

        fleet-footed dabbawallas dispatch, carry,

    & collect steel boxes by the thousands packed

         lunch boys sport starched cotton nehru

         caps pilot familiar passages – the son

       of a railway guard solders stainless-steel

              tiffin carriers a new class

                     of metalwork

Subodh Gupta. Untitled, 2008,
Stainless steel, Houston Museum of Art.
(Photo: Deena DeNaro-Bickerstaffe.)

The second poem is entitled "Bell(e)," and speaks to an actual ornamental bell, by the late Japanese-American artist Toshiko Takaezu, produced in 1997, and one of many she produced during her career. Pai's title injects a bit of polysemy through that final "e," making the word French as well as English, and highlighting the beauty inherent in Takaezu's sculpture, with its patinated surface color and graceful, parabolic form. That silent "e" also embodies the silence and latent sound to be released, once the bell sounds...its beautiful sounds.

"Bell(e)" tells in swift strokes about how such a bell might have been handled "in centuries / past," but now it hangs in what looks like a greenhouse, "a museum / of curative plants." Where the poem goes is beyond description to an evocation of the bell(e)'s potentiality, as I note above, showing the reader its anticipation--and ours--of its "stillness & / gathering before / the shudder / of first sound," that is, when it finally is rung or struck, how it dreams of the sounds within sounds that will come, or that reappear, as part of and after that reverberation, like the poem itself.

Here is a short paragraph about Takaezu from Wikipedia (linked above):
Takaezu treated life with a sense of wholesomeness and oneness with nature; everything she did was to improve and discover herself. She believed that ceramics involved self-revelation, once commenting, "In my life I see no difference between making pots, cooking and growing vegetables... there is need for me to work in clay... it gives me answers for my life."[5] When she developed her signature “closed form” after sealing her pots, she found her identity as an artist. The ceramic forms resembled human hearts and torsos, closed cylindrical forms, and huge spheres she called “moons.”
The bell pictured below is an "open" ceramic forms, but its capacity for "self-revelation," and its connection to nature are both aspects that Pai discerns in her poem.


After Toshiko Takaezu


in centuries
past, sunk
beneath soil

to draw earth’s
vital force, inert
vessel of

sound + light,

in a museum
of curative plants
the moment of

stillness &
gathering before
the shudder

of first sound

the shake of chime
hum &

g o n g

Toshiko Takaezu. Bell (1997). Seattle’s Volunteer Park
Conservatory. (Photo courtesy Myra/Flickr.)

Both poems, Copyright © Shin Yu Pai, from Adamantine, White Pine Press. Buffalo, NY 2010. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Poem: Tomas Tranströmer

Tomas Tranströmer
(World Literature Today)

In 2011, Tomas Tranströmer (1931-2015), a highly regarded but perhaps not widely known Swedish poet, translator and psychologist, received the Nobel Prize in Literature. I wrote a short blog post about him and featured some of his poems. I did not, however, delve into a discussion of his biography, since it was up at the Nobel site, and I was somewhat indifferent to his selection. Given some of the bizarre Nobel literature choices (save Alice Munro) since Tranströmer, and the ongoing scandals linked to the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature Nobel, Tranströmer's honor looks like a recent high-water point for that organization.

His poetry certainly holds up; a lyric poet to the core, he has a gift for creating mystery and drama out of observations of everyday life, and a skill for utilizing metaphor to suggest great depths below and beyond the surface of the visible world. There is something charged and spiritual in so many of his poems that while I think it might be wrong to call him either a metaphysical or a religious poet, he is, I think it fair to say, a poet of the spirit and, conversely, of immanence. In the three poems of his I quoted back in 2011, you can see this most directly in "Strophe and Antistrophe" (I love that title), when he is describing both reality and something within and beneath--beyond--it: "Sudden change: beneath the float of heavenly hulls / glide the tethered ones. / Stern high, at an impossible angle, / leans the carcass of a dream, black / against a pale red strip of coast."

The sensory and sensuous apprehension of the world pulses dialectically in these lines, which paint a picture, but not a verisimilitudinous one. Instead, it is painterly in the stricter sense, of capturing what lies in in the mind, before the eyes and fingertips, while being interpreted and transformed by them. As it turns out, Tranströmer was alert to how other artists might be engaging with the world around them, and in "Vermeer," his short poem about Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), the Dutch Golden Age painter, whose exquisite intimate portraits had to wait several centuries before they received widespread acclaim. Careful, slow, deliberate, with an exceptional eye and gift for depicting light, he is now praised as an Old Master.

In "Vermeer," beautifully translated by Samuel Charters and which I am borrowing from the Painters and Poets blog, Tranströmer is chattier than usual, and appears to have devised a formal game for himself, which entails repeating "wall," one pictorial element that appears in the first of the images below, in nearly all of the stanzas. One way to read this repetition apart from being a result of observation and description of the paintings is by noting some of its possible metaphorical meanings; a wall of time separates us from the lifeworld and vision of Vermeer, and no amount of research can make him, his process or his perception of the world fully knowable. (David Hockney created a stir when, a few years ago, he argued and demonstrated the several of the Old Master painters like Vermeer, may have used optical devices, including special lenses and camerae obscurae, to produce works of such pinpoint precision.) That has stopped writers and even Hollywood from trying, though; Vermeer's iconic "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (one of its many names) spurred an eponymous 1999 historical novel, by Tracy Chevalier, which then became a belauded 2003 film starring Scarlett Johansson--as well as an allegedly dreadful 2008 play, which I've never seen.

Yet what does a work of art--a poem, a short story or novel, a play--about someone from the past do but allow us another means to "know" that gone world, to access, imaginatively, its vistas, its landscapes, including of feelings? Like a filmmaker with magic powers, Tranströmer is taking us into Vermeer's scenes, his world--"straight through the wall into the bright studio / into the second that goes on living for hundreds of years"--captured and preserved for posterity in these paintings, aware of course that in so doing, it can disorient us--"it hurts to go through walls, it makes you sick / but it is necessary"--but, as so many of these poems have shown, that defamiliarization is salutary in the end. A new sense of language, of time, of space, of ourselves and others, however brief and temporary, is important, so that, like the "emptiness" and against the nihilism, we can say as the paintings--and something within them--say, "'I am open."


by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Samuel Charters

No sheltered world . . . on the other side of the wall 
        the noise begins
the tavern begins
with laughter and bickering, rows of teeth, tears, 
        the din of bells
and the mentally disordered brother-in-law, the bearer
        of death that everyone must tremble for.

The great explosion and the delayed tramp of rescuers
the boats that strut at anchor, the money that creeps
        into the pocket of the wrong person
demands piled on demands
Cusps of gaping red flowers that sweat premonitions 
        of war.

Away from there and straight through the wall 
        into the bright studio
into the second that goes on living for hundreds 
        of years.
Paintings titled The Music Lesson
or Woman in Blue Reading a Letter --
she's in her eighth month, two hearts kicking 
        inside her.
On the wall behind her hangs a wrinkled map of 
       Terra Incognita.

Breathe calmly . . . An unknown blue material is nailed
       to the chair.
The gold upholstery tacks flew in with unheard-of speed
and stopped abruptly
as if they had never been anything but stillness.

The ears ring with either depth or height.
It's the pressure from the other side of the wall
that leaves every fact suspended
and holds the brush steady.

It hurts to go through walls, it makes you sick
but it's necessary.
The world is one. But walls . . .
And the wall is part of yourself --
Whether you know it or not it's the same for everyone,
everyone except little children. No walls for them.

The clear sky has set itself on a slant against the wall.
It's like a prayer to emptiness.
And the emptiness turns its face to us
and whispers,
"I am not empty, I am open."

Tomas Tranströmer,"Vermeer," from Painters and Poets, originally in Art and Artists: Poems, an anthology of ekphrastic poems by Emily Fragos, Knopf, 2012. Copyright © Tomas Tranströmer, Emily Fragos, 2012. All rights reserved.

Here are a few Vermeer paintings that Culture Trip's Lani Seelinger recommends you see if you are unfamiliar with his work. Tranströmer's poem explicitly references the first two, I believe.

The Little Street (1657–58), oil on canvas,
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Music Lesson or A Lady at the Virginals
with a Gentleman, c. 1662-65, oil on canvas,
Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace

View of Delft, 1659-60, oil on canvas,
Mauritshuis, the Hague