Stephan Delbos on Translating the Poetry of Tim Postovit
Tim Postovit is one of the most excitingly imaginative and worldly young poets in Central Europe. Born in Ukraine, he soon moved to Israel with his family, and settled in the Czech Republic at the age of six. An award-winning performer and a university undergraduate who publishes in Czech with one of Prague’s most respected poetry publishers, Postovit has earned the attention of critics and readers in the Czech Republic and throughout Europe.
“About Tea” (the Czech title is “o čaji”) comes from Postovit’s second collection, The Butterfly Pavilion (Motýlí pavilon in Czech). The poem exhibits his typically precise yet fluid imagery, with striking scenes of contemporary displacement and a universally recognizable grasping for certainty as the poem swerves from tenderness to evocations of natural disasters and international incidents. Postovit’s point of view is unique, but also strangely familiar to our modern moment.
As the poet writes in his introduction to The Butterfly Pavilion: “Our era bears the marks of semantic emptiness. Poets should therefore attend to their words, providing them a safe haven in a sea full of big demagogic fish and manipulative microorganisms. And they should also keep their eyes open… to notice anything that looks like a piece of unwritten poetry. Whatever poetry is, I believe it is humanity’s subconscious North Star.”
I love reading and translating Postovit’s poems because they surprise, delight and entertain while bearing witness to the dramas, crises and beauties of twenty-first-century earth. All the while, they insist on exploring the twin mysteries of poetry and imagination. “About Tea” is a carefully crafted lyric poem that nods to the sonnet form while utilizing repetition and a circular narrative structure rather than meter and rhyme. Here the promise of having black tea when we get home is both pleasant and binding, a gesture that book-ends the poem and lends a pleasing cohesion to the unpredictable departures of the middle stanzas. In my English translation I have tried to maintain the energy and fluidity of Postovit’s original poem in Czech.
Peter Johnson’s Poets Speak Section on his Excerpts from Observation at the Edge of the Abyss:
I wrote Observations at the Edge of the Abyss during a period when unanticipated events disrupted “the life,” making it very difficult to focus for long periods on “the work.” I composed the first drafts of these pieces in various local coffee shops, jotting down and juxtaposing images or phrases from my notebooks, newspapers, and magazines, along with random utterances I heard daily on TV or in public. Then I gave them space to breathe, hoping some narrative strategies might present themselves later.
As the pieces began to accumulate, I was simultaneously re-reading some of my favorite works of short prose: Kafka’s aphorisms, Friedrich Schlegel’s and Emil Cioran’s fragments, Eduardo Galeano’s The Book of Embraces, Max Jacob’s shorter prose poems, Montaigne’s shorter essays, Nietzsche’s unpublished notebook fragments, and Pascal’s Pensées. I had no plan, instead trusting that this outside reading might bring a different kind of energy to the process I described above.
Much to my surprise, over time and many revisions, each piece ended up being self-contained, and yet acquired more meaning and resonance when juxtaposed with other pieces sharing similar themes and preoccupations, and this process kept repeating itself until individual sections developed, some with reappearing characters. Even the sections themselves eventually seemed to play off each other, as they continue to do so today, so that, to me, upon multiple re-readings, the book welcomes an inexhaustible number of interpretations.
But what to call these little pieces? Fragments? Prose Poems? Micro-Fables? I think my full introduction to Observations answers this question best.
Lawrence Raab on “The Invention of Everyday Life”:
“The Invention of Everyday Life” began in 2016 with a page of notes ironically titled “The Whole Story.” But even with a title, those fragments didn’t move toward becoming a poem. About three years later I came upon that page in a folder of jottings and unfinished poems. I’m sure the line that struck me was: “A few days later Pierre arrived.” I can do something with this, I must have thought, I can take it somewhere.
Who is Pierre? Who is the speaker? (I knew he wasn’t me.) Where is all this taking place, what is going on, and most of all, what happened “a few days” ago? But I didn’t want to go into that last question. I didn’t even want to know myself. What “actually” occurs before the poem begins is either very important or completely unimportant. I liked leaving that up in the air. How many questions could the poem raise, and then seem to turn away from? What kinds of not knowing might be resonant and mysterious rather than merely annoying?
The shape and concerns of the poem started to clarify when Kurt Schwitters entered. I especially wanted the “Cathedral of Erotic Misery”: that name. And I was enjoying reading about Schwitters, borrowing lines from him, which I often changed, as if I were involved in intentionally sloppy research. I made up the affair between Schwitters and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, though I do present it as “almost certainly apocryphal.” (I was happy with the fussy comedy of “almost certainly.”) In fact, Schwitters did include her bra in one of the grottoes of his Cathedral. That he stole it was a fact I thought I’d invented, but later learned was true.
I liked moving around among different stories, suggesting connections, then letting them go, then suggesting others. And with characters to work with, and dialogue, I felt like I was writing a novel. It was exciting—even comforting—to return day by day to a poem that refused for so long to be finished.
My friend Stephen Dunn never cared for the poem, but late in 2020 he wrote to me about the last version he’d read: “It runs the happy risk of losing the reader who wants to know where he is, and what the stakes are, at all times. But I’m guessing you don’t care about satisfying that reader. It’s a poem that wants to create a new reader, or so it seems to me.”
To try to create a “new reader” would be presumptuous, probably impossible, and certainly not a useful working strategy. I was trying to get Stephen to like the poem, but he needed more clarity of thinking than I was willing to provide. He is right that I imagine a reader who prefers wandering to certainty. My hope, however, is to lure some of those other readers into feeling an unexpected pleasure in being lost–or as Frost writes in his great poem “Directive”–“lost enough to find yourself.”
Hailey Leithauser on “Our Bodies Ourselves”:
John Poch on “Light and Dark”:
I listen to the Lex Fridman podcast a good bit, and I recommend his conversation with John Danaher about animal combat and its many parameters. Context matters, of course. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mo_OtuZVDz0 Psalm 35 refers to former friends as lions. But people are not mere animals. They can repent. Lions cannot repent. Nor bears nor silverbacks. Having just gone through the darkest time of my life, having survived, having risen into the beautiful light of love out of what King David calls “the pit”, I’m bathing myself in the light of scripture. I’m thinking of John 1:5. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. I’m thinking back to a world created in which light and dark figure from the beginning. Darkness, then light, and then the two divided. My poem may end darkly, but by faith I believe light wins and I welcome it. Though I am not dead yet, I maintain, as Whitman suggested, “the disdain and calmness of martyrs.”
Arielle Kaplan on “How I Felt the First Time I Tried It”:
A cherished teacher gave me an informal assignment after I shared that my poems often begin as blocks of text, with lines emerging later in the composition process. Why not try writing a poem in lines of three thumps and see what would happen? His choice of “thumps” rather than “feet” was intentional; though I like to believe I have an intuitive understanding of a poem’s rhythm, thinking too hard about meter makes me anxious. I can never tell whether I’ve written an iamb or a trochee, and the more I try to figure out where the stress falls, the less I can hear what I’ve actually written—the same way that, in a crowd of people clapping along to music, I have to watch the person next to me to know when to put my hands together. “Thumps” made it possible for me to approach a mode of making poetry I found uncomfortably challenging. (In fact, I dragged my feet for two months, but I’m a teacher-pleaser to my core.) When I look back at the notebook containing drafts of this poem, I notice that I was playing with several of the images (the goose’s neck, the nail in the floorboard) and words (bright, socket, filament) for weeks. The material of the poem needed to be put through the process my teacher suggested to discover its form.
Patricia Clark on “Passing Royalty” and “Dostadning: Beginner’s Translation”:
“Passing Royalty” This poem comes from my personal experience of testing positive for COVID while traveling in Venice, Italy. It was a shock! We were due to fly home to Michigan in the morning. I was asymptomatic. It ended up being quite an expensive adventure. What I learned, among other things, was how it feels to be shunned—it was revelatory, and it widened my understanding of how some people are routinely treated. I gained more empathy from the experience and will never forget the small town near the Venice airport where we spent our last three nights.
“Dostadning: Beginner’s Translation” I had heard of Swedish death cleaning but not the Swedish word for it, and I experimented with deriving the word’s meaning out of the syllables as though I were translating the word syllable by syllable with no knowledge of the original language. I enjoyed free-associating with the particles of the word and by the end I linked a bit of Swedish culture with Catholicism in a playful-serious touch. I was thinking of a poem in Ellen Bass’s book of poems, Indigo, where she likewise “translates” a poem from a language she doesn’t know.
Elinor Ann Walker on “Nautilus”:
“Nautilus: An Ode” was inspired by my fascination with logarithmic spirals, a mathematical concept replicated in nature, including the biological structure of mollusk shells. Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli called the phenomenon “spira mirabilis,” a phrase used in the poem that is Latin for “miraculous spiral.” Bernoulli wanted a logarithmic spiral engraved on his gravestone along with “eadem mutata resurgo,” Latin for “although changed, I arise the same.” I quoted these words in an early draft, but the poem resisted, so I took them out. The nautilus has survived, unchanged, for hundreds of millions of years and as such is like a living fossil.
The nautilus lives with its bodily structure akin to our skeletons on the outside, which idea intrigues me. I wrote another draft from the second person point of view, posing questions to the reader about inhabiting a protected place of retreat. That version didn’t work, either. A more intimate tone evolved, one that permitted wonder—but also suggested potential threat, entrapment, implosion.
The metaphorical implications are delightfully many. Thus, the “I” navigates the spirals both in relation to and away from someone else, movement similar to the creature’s within its shell. The nautilus inhabits its shell’s largest chamber while siphoning water through the others which act as ballasts to control buoyancy and propel the nautilus through the sea. The hard, inner layer of its shell, “nacre,” is iridescent and pearl-like in luster (hence Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “ship of pearl” and the poem’s epigraph). Mollusks repair their shells from the inside. The outer layer resists pressure but only to certain depths. An actual nautilus does not outgrow its shell but rather creates new, larger spaces within it, walling off smaller chambers as it does. I used these facts in the poem. I also re-imagined boundaries, so to speak, by having the speaker emerge fully from the “shell” in an interlude of vulnerability and possibility, unencumbered by what is left behind. Then the poem’s shape of praise revealed itself.