Readers, as you will note, I have once again this month vacated my space in this note so that we might continue to offer a new element, instead: the authors of the poems (or translations, or both) speaking of their works’ origins, their raisons d’être. I think you’ll find the results fascinating, and enlightening, enriching your reading of the poems, as I did. And given the positive feedback on this change, I suspect we will continue it for the foreseeable future. Enjoy!
Dzvinia Orlowsky Let the Dead Bury the Dead 2: A Prose Poem about a Prose Poem
I grew up in a superstitious Eastern European family. If we weren’t knocking on wood or spitting our way to safety, we were busy looking for signs from our deceased loved ones who still cared enough to visit. A branch hanging crooked meant a missed connection. We developed a mystical lexicon for our secret belief system. Unfounded implied: a stronger signal from the afterlife is yet to come. Groundless confirmed: look, then, to the sky. Regardless, the dead always had our best interest in mind. All we had to do was ask.
My mother died on August 30, the same as my father, surviving him by 29 years. One night, recognizing her imminent death, my sister and I prayed to him to come and kindly escort her into the next world.
My mother had always believed that my father’s visitations came in the form of a cricket or a frog. My father was a resilient, kind man. And he played the guitar. Maybe my mother remembered his body as song. He would settle in outside her window and chirp, wings raised and rubbing. I understood the frog less; there was something in that appropriation—imagining his eager thumping forward in the grass—that made him seem excessively soft and vulnerable.
I don’t know how he appeared to her the night she died. Or what transported him to her bedside. Most likely, it wasn’t a Carriage—or something fragile as a cricket—more likely a bird, or just a feather. We looked around on the floor and found nothing. But we knew his heart was in it—by the way the phone rang three times then stopped.
Yvette Siegert on translating the poems of Ana Gorría
What has always stunned me about Ana Gorría’s poetry is its breathtaking intelligence. Her poems are searching and gorgeously difficult, and they have proven to be among the most challenging translations I’ve ever done. But what distinguishes them from most of the hyper-cerebral poetry being published in English is a complexity that is marked by exacting clarity. The simplicity of her images is hard-won, and the result is page after page of uncanny, inevitable lines. When I discovered Ana’s work, via the blog of the poet and translator James Womack, I was struck by the nuanced attention to sound and image of a poet who could explain “the way a current will carry its river’s disquiet.” This was a poet I wanted to become friends with, and the poetry itself seemed to reach out in friendship. I translated these poems during the bitter New York winter of late 2013. While struggling through a period of isolation and insomnia, I would arrive at the Columbia University library after dinner and work on these poems until 5 AM, then print them out, go to sleep, and later taste the words out loud in my kitchen over coffee in the early afternoon. This went on for weeks. Living with these drafts was a very private process. At times it felt as if I were searching for personal answers in the English words that spread out before me like so many spilled tea leaves. It took a long time to find the right alchemy of fragment and tone to coax out the beauty of the Spanish, but the philosophical specificity wasn’t the hardest part. Distracted by their lexical difficulty, I lost track of how visceral these poems are, and had to re-invent an American voice for their anti-ethereal intensity. For Gorría, a philologist and theatre scholar, what matters is the language and the unexamined gestures that characterize our human physicality. This is a poet who cares not just about words, but also about the tongue and saliva that give texture to those words. “The mouth only has room for the impatient places.”
Owen Lucas on “Rilke: Three Translations”
A number of things came together for me in these translations. I had read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet about a year prior and spent a month wringing my hands about whether I was suitably committed to my work as a writer. Shortly after that I started learning German by sitting with a big dictionary on one side of me and Der Prozess on the other. Much later I started reading Rilke and found that for a long time I couldn’t understand the complex syntax of his poems at all. When I finally cracked him though, I found that it did two things at once: firstly, blew my mind by expanding my understanding of German grammar, making it much easier for me to begin reading philosophy in the vernacular, and secondly, overwhelmed me with the emotional clarity and power of Rilke’s thought. I am not a religious person, but find the devotion Rilke expresses in these poems to be very touching. Writing these translations, I paused many times simply to absorb the bright-burning images, allowing them to send me down new imaginative pathways: Rilke’s writing certainly shaped my own attempts for months afterwards.
Ricardo Pau-Llosa on “Variation and Extension of ‘Flower Shadows’ by Su Shi (1037-1101),” “Allegory of Memory,” and “Building the Boat, Trèboul (1930)”–after the painting by Christopher Wood
Ekphrasis can take us to other poems, as well as to triggering works in other art forms. In my case, the visual arts, but also opera. Song dynasty poet Su Shi has had that effect on me, as have Li Bai, Du Fu and others of the legendary T’ang dynasty. Drawing out the inherent theater of a highly compressed poem is one approach. The confluence of exile, philosophy, and an intensely visual sensibility is irresistible. In the case of English modernist painters Christopher Wood, Stanley Spencer, and Paul Nash, it is the power of allegory and theatricality which draws me to their work–and to modernist Latin American art of the same period. The fluid movement between tropologically charged scenes of everday life and those of art is a natural result of these interests. Ultimately, ekphrasis derives its power, and faces its greatest challenge, in the fact that one is approaching a work of art which is a complex world onto itself–whatever its use of references or lack of them–and an object within the visible world made up of objects, scenes, contexts, and events. We enter fully, even powerlessly, the ambiguities of the lebenswelt or ‘lifeworld’(Edmund Husserl’s term for the world of shared experience) through ekphrasis.
DeWitt Henry on “On Handshakes”
Probably my sitting with faculty on stage for the annual parade of 1500 graduating students, each of whom after receiving a diploma went down the line of adminstrators shaking hands was one inspiration. Imagine being the President, a trustee, dean, or registrar required to shake 1500 times every year! I was glad to be spared. Another was my uncertainty about my own handshake, and the variety of grasps I have experienced. A brilliant mentor, a Shakespeare scholar, in contrast to his mental exchanges, shook like a dead fish, his offered hand lifeless and limp. Friends and strangers seemed practiced in firm handshakes, more often men than women, though some clasped too hard, as if to crush. Such a curious custom, I thought. A Google search brought up Wikipedia, with information about different cultures. The Keats association and its gloss came out of nowhere. The idea of touching has been special to me since writing an essay, “Embodiment” (http://www.nerve.com/fiction/henry/embodiment ): writers hope to make a connection, disembodied yet palpable. If I were to follow my thoughts, the next would be about palm reading.
Lee Upton on “My Fjord” and “Someone Else’s Someone Else”
If you know the 1958 technicolor film The Vikings you know it has everything: fjords, long ships, tiny horses, men dancing on oars, runes, knife throwing, weird sexual chemistry between Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh (despite the fact that they were married at the time) and great lines, including the one Kirk Douglas, breaking through a chapel’s window feet first, shouts at a monk: “Take your magic elsewhere, holy man!” And the names, including the place names, make you want to say them over and over: Einar, Lord Egbert, Ragnar, Northumbria! Maybe I was a nine-year-old girl when I first saw the movie on television, but I yearned to be both Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis—sailing through the fjords, my fjords, a person of great determination, able to find a way through the worst fog toward a large, free life. A few years ago I wasn’t able to resist writing a story, “The Wrath of the Norsemen,” that appears in my second short story collection, Visitations, and concerns characters who, like me, were influenced by the movie—to the point of writing haiku versions of the plot. Spoiler alert: the two characters in The Vikings who are out to murder each other turn out to be—you guessed it!—brothers.
“My Fjord”—like “Someone Else’s Someone Else”—is a love song—in recognition of the vulnerability we all share. How fragile our lives are, how many wrong turns we take, how adept we are at inventing dangers for ourselves and others. Both poems don’t want to exclude anyone, and both want to draw even our long-dead ancestors, all of them, all of us, together. “Someone Else’s Someone Else” initially was prompted by one of those online questions you encounter sometimes: What superpower would you like to possess? Superpowers (in every sense of the word) can’t save us. It seems so much of the time we escape the worst calamities by sheer luck. If something we fear hasn’t happened to us, just give it time. And in that knowledge we have few recourses, other than to recognize our common lot. We can’t take our magic elsewhere—we only have each other.
Carol Frost on “Moss City”
By the time I wrote “Moss City,” I was two-thirds done with my new manuscript of poems – a sequence about cities. I remembered some of the cities, but the book was never meant to be a travelogue—more an imaginalogue. The imagination supplies missing pieces. Simultaneous with perception it gives us correspondent objects or relationships. The imagination may match city, mind, moss, or sun and doubloon and the letter A, for instance. The purpose is to understand and the source is memory—a remembered walk in a comos of moss in a forest, a jr. high school science project, or a remembered passage from childhood on Spanish galleons, experience with algebra and the alphabet where A is primary (as is the sun). It doesn’t much matter whether this form of thinking makes sense: The beauty of it is its speed. Things happen all at once: Patterns recur and overlap: Intellect and emotion, which for purposes of sanity are often willed divided, subsume each other. The sense of things wherein an individual is the center of everything, surrounded by and fenced off from the rich desert of the unknown, and inside the solar system, is responsible for our limitations. The imagination can make of the unknown something known by transposing from one set of experience to fill the void with potential truth. Our reasoning might tell us over and over that x and y are utterly different, but the imagination returns us to similarities. Likeness to something else is tricky, but having to hold both concepts in the mind is an aspect of our deeper understanding of things. Language serves.
Kathleen Ossip on “Doing Sudoku on September 11, 2016” and “Mini-Golf”
I come from a gameplaying family. I don’t necessarily like competing against other players but I do enjoy seeing how well I can do within a given set of rules—something I also prize about writing poetry. As the subtitle suggests, September 11, 2016 was my daughter’s 18th birthday, the first that I didn’t celebrate with her and the one when she became able to vote, since she was at college in Ohio and working as a fellow on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Sudoku is the ultimate self-enclosed system; there’s a place, and only one place, for every digit in every grid, so you always know immediately if you’ve made a mistake, know immediately if things are going to work out. I was struck by the certainty vs. uncertainty dichotomy in the two sets of circumstances, me playing around soothingly with abstract numbers while she worked hard for an outcome and a future that was far from certain (although I didn’t know then how uncertain it would prove to be).
About mini-golf: I always joke that it’s our family sport, to emphasize our utter nerdiness. I lied about not being competitive: I do like to win at mini-golf. This poem is part of a very long diary poem called July, about a roadtrip from the northernmost point in the continental US (MN) to the southernmost (FL) that we took in July 2016. That month, a family roadtrip couldn’t help but be suffused with hourly news of the presidential campaigns and conventions, with daily news of violence around the country and the world. The game in question took place in Branson, MO.