September: and our 51th issue! And our little party catches its second wind. Please note: the new website is now pretty much what we have been working toward: a cleaner, more readable format — with some nice stylistic touches that do not stray from our initial intent to retain a certain aesthetic starkness, that reads, one hopes, as elegance, restraint. For the format remains unsullied: twelve poems, an Editor’s Note, and Featured selection. Digestible, I have learned in conversations with readers, on the subway in NY and the breakroom of a bank as well as the offices of more than one college. It’s almost certain that there will be the addition of long form book reviews after the first of the year, and a photo gallery of Plume cover art. Other than that, we demur. But, oh — this — finally, Plume has an intern — or will, after this week’s interviews. A great help, no doubt. And take a look at the Staff page. Names, faces! (Even my own, and need I say that was a battle?)So move about the site as you will, explore — it won’t take long. I think things are fairly intuitive: I am by no means a tech person, and I bore that in mind as I worked with Jason Cook, who designed the new site — a chore far more complicated than it might appear, I assure you.
Yes, this, too —of some importance:
Given staff schedules and sometimes poets’, Plume has shifted its monthly release date: in the future expect to see each monthly issue of Plume announced on Facebook, Twitter, etc. on the first day of the month, with the Newsletter to be released shortly thereafter.
I think that’s it, for now on that subject.
But let me take a moment here to extend, again, my profound thanks to all — poets, translators, visual artists — who have contributed to whatever success our little journal has had these last four years. Your kindness never ceases to astonish. Would that I could meet each of you in person and convey that gratitude with a handshake, a few words, a look in the eye: you would know how much your efforts have meant to me. As this is not possible, let me say merely that I will continue to be in your debt.
Time to turn then — you see? things are not so different — to our usual format: a “secret” poem, below with a sharp and useful introduction from Teresa Cader.
Teresa Cader On Jacek Dehnel’s “Pheasant”
The younger generations of poets in Poland are in many disparate camps, sometimes aligned with the aesthetics and/or subject matter of their famous forbears–Szymborska, Milosz, Zagajewski, and Herbert, among the best known–and sometimes aligned with the aesthetics of postmodern disjunction and fragmentation, and a rejection of the historical and political angst that has partly defined Polish poetry in the twentieth century. Younger Polish poets can’t bear witness in the same way to suffering they didn’t experience. Many are not willing to embrace the cultural icons of Western Europe’s past. They are hungry to establish a language of their own, based on their experiences of contemporary Poland and the world and their penchant for experimentation and risk-taking.
As with all generalizations, however, this one has many nuanced exceptions. There are prominent younger poets who straddle these seeming dichotomies of allegiance to the past and inventive exploration of the present. One is Tomasz RÃ³Å¼ycki (b. 1970), author of six books of poetry and winner of many of Poland top literary honors. In Colonies, a stunning sequence of 77 sonnets translated by Mira Rosenthal, he explores immigration, colonization, and loss of self and home, using a blend of surreal imagery and ordinary objects to evoke a dislocation that feels global, even though it is obliquely rooted in Polish and personal history. The sonnet form is relatively rare in Poland, making his idiosyncratic sequence both experimental and classical. As a finalist for the Griffin Prize, this book has a solid following among American poets who read Polish poetry.
Jacek Dehnel (b. 1980) is even more of an iconoclast, but less well known in the US. He usually expresses himself in the traditional Polish thirteen-syllable line and in fixed forms such as the sonnet, and the villanelle and terza rima, which are also not widely used in Poland. While he upholds the lineage he inherited from poets like Milosz and sometimes refers to the same atrocities they referenced (such as his elegies for Bruno Schulz), his subject matter has a distinctly modern and often autobiographical cast, including love poems to his longtime partner Piotr TarczyÅ„ski. Dehnel has published six books of poetry, an acclaimed novel, Saturn, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and has won several prestigious prizes. He is deeply conversant with English language poetry, having written his MA thesis on Larkin. He has translated Auden, Mandelstam, and Carl Sandburg and is currently translating Proust.
I will focus on Dehnel’s masterful poem, “Pheasant,” translated by the American poet, Karen Kovacik, recent Poet Laureate of Indiana and editor of a forthcoming anthology of Polish women poets, Scattering the Dark. As a translation fellow at the Polish Institute for the Book in 2014, Kovacik consulted with Dehnel on her compilation of his shorter poems, titled Aperture. I met both of them in Krakow that year. While reading Aperture, I was especially moved by “Pheasant,” which blends Polish classicism with an almost uncanny aura of contemporary American naturalism.
“Pheasant” is written in rhymed quatrains of the traditional Polish thirteen syllable line. Kovacik has preserved the music of the original by slightly modifying Dehnel’s line–most are twelve syllables with five strong stresses–a cadence just long enough to accommodate the Polish poet’s turns of syntax, rhetoric, and image, without padding. By employing both regular and slant rhymes in English, Kovacik retains Dehnel’s reliance on sonic variation, making good use of internal repetitions and echoes, in order to render his poem into natural, colloquial English.
From afar, one makes out shapes: the Blue City dome,
buildings, windows, antennas. But from this angle,
the inbound train powers through fields overgrown
with sorrel, couch grass, and shrub toward the tangle
of the Western Station. Tracks fan out like the rose
window of some industrial cathedral. In close
we see the concrete platform from which a girl leapt
to her death one December. That day, in thick coats,
we had to pull our luggage over frozen weeds
and rutted paths. Now, rushing over this same spot,
in the reddish brush I notice a glassy bead,
then black crest, beak, and splash of rust. In the thicket
sits a pheasant: placid as the one in the food chain
illustration from our biology textbooks
(he was feasting on a beetle, while a red fox
aimed to eat him). I watch and watch him alone.
And he’s looking at the train or, in the distance,
the world as backdrop–and I’m not even a blip
on the radar of his bird brain. And that makes sense.
For he’ll be sitting, rain or shine, in furrows, on heaps
forever and ever, through many pheasant lives.
While I will disappear. To know me will prove
futile, all mastery useless. That’s why I write: he came
to the railway, his name: pheasant. Me, I have no name.
Train, Warsaw to Lublin, 6 October 2006
Dehnel’s metaphysical reflection, wit, irony, and precise observation of an object (here a pheasant in the midst of manmade objects) renders the question “Who am I?” through an unexpected lens. The photographic view captures fragments of the Blue City as a backdrop to the train powering through overgrown fields to the Western Station. In closer, the platform yields to memory its brief acknowledgment of a suicide. The passengers had to pull their luggage across “frozen weeds and rutted paths,” a detail reminiscent of the mundane horror that Szymborska evokes in her brilliant poem “The End and the Beginning.” Characteristically restrained, Dehnel leaves the suicide unexamined.
Later, when the speaker encounters a pheasant on the same track, the physicality of the pheasant dominates. One thinks of Lowell and Bishop. Kovacik mentioned to me that she and Dehnel discussed the echo of Bishop in his poems. Dehnel’s comparison of the bird to the one in his biology textbook is not only humorous, it provides yet another perspective on the nature of representation and viewing. The pheasant’s focus on the train and the backdrop prepares for the speaker’s realization that he is virtually meaningless in this setting: “–and I’m not even a blip on the radar of his bird brain.” The double entendre of bird brain combines Dehnel’s wit (there are many animal comparisons in Polish to denote low intelligence) with Kovacik’s ability to render Polish into idiomatic English. But it’s the metaphysical reflection that gives this poem its poetic turn and its weight. The pheasant will endure as a generic being. The speaker in his individuality won’t. “That’s why I write: he came/ to the railway, his name: pheasant. Me, I have no name.” While poems that invoke the speaker as writer can carry an air of self-indulgence, this one doesn’t. The revelation includes humanity, at the crux of which is the ancient philosophical question of the meaning of life, both human and animal. The poem moves with flawless cadence and musicality to its stunning ending, an ending I think Szymborska would have admired.
Wonderful, both the poem and Teresa’s introduction to and reflections on it, yes?
Many thanks to all who read for Plume and all who attended in Cambridge, at the beautiful library there —Daniel Tobin, David Rivard, Lloyd Schwartz, Martha Collins, Gail Mazur and Marc Vincenz; in New York at the exquisite and not-to-be-missed-on-any-visit-to-that-city Poets House — Sarah Arvio, Sally Bliumus-Dunn, Cynthia Cruz, Elaine Equi, Jerome Sala, and Grace Schulman; and at the lovely BookCourt in Brooklyn — Sarah Arvio, Nicole Cooley, Lyn Emanuel, D. Nurkse (who had a really bad Amtrak day), Kathleen Ossip, and Tom Sleigh.
We had a marvelous time — I cannot thank you enough, all!
And this, by way of congratulations:
Linda Pastan’s new book Insomnia is due in October; also, Peter Cooley has been named Poet Laureate for the state of Louisiana 2015-2017!
And not to be overlooked:
Poetry by: Adam Tavel
Interview by: Nancy Mitchell
Once more, Plume in conjunction with Bob Devin Jones at Studio@620 http://www.thestudioat620.org/has organized a monthly series of poetry readings in Saint Petersburg, Florida. The Studio is a wonderful site, near downtown (suddenly hip, if you can believe it), and the readings I have been to there in the past have been well-received. The remarkable Jay Hopler will kick things off in late September. So a heads up to any area poets, or poets touring in our vicinity, on the lookout for a venue, please keep us in mind, and contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to get on the calendar.
For more on this issue’s cover art and forthcoming Featured Selections, please see, well, you knowâ€¦