Bradbury, Bliumis-Dunn, Florczyk, et. al.

Bradbury, Bliumis-Dunn, Florczyk, et. al.
June 25, 2023 Plume

Steve Bradbury on translating Wu Yu Hsuan:

I took this “headshot” of Frida, as she likes to call herself in English (Frida Kahlo being one of her great inspirations), when she came to visit me in Melrose, Florida earlier this year. It was then and there that we discussed the poems and I made the translations you have accepted.  Had she not come, I doubt the translations would have been half as good, as so much in Chinese poetry is implied, grammatically, semantically, temporally, as to leave you scratching your head wondering whether you are coming or going. But Frida set me straight, with a little help from some translator friends I always send my work to for that unbiased overview that is so hard to come by when you are wallowing knee deep in that messy business called translation. When I asked Frida about “The Still Object of Kazuo Ohno,” she replied that, being a performance artist as well as a poet and one who has studied and performed Butoh around the world, the poem on the co-founder of Butoh is one she hoped will encourage readers “to seize the essence of a thing”; or as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it many years ago: “What I do is me. For that I came.” Regarding “Feral,” Frida would not say a word except, “How can I describe ‘Feral’ without making it tame? I want to keep it brutal and alluring.”



Sally Bliumis-Dunn on “Origin Story” and “Those Days…”:

“Origin Story” is the discovery that what I had been taught to call a “nap” could be transformed into something quite other. That the names of things were changeable and as a result, my experience of them, and that there was something empowering in this ability to transform. In this case, what I felt as enforced solitude and boredom could become deep pleasure. Something empowering too that the pleasure arose from my own body.

“Those days, if I consider them disjointed from what came later” was inspired by Diane Seuss’s poem from frank: sonnets. The title is one of her actual first lines.

Diane’s poem opened the door for me to think about and inhabit the early years of my first marriage when I had hope for the relationship. To think of those years as a separate entity made the inhabiting of them possible.



Piotr Florczyk on translating Świrszczyńska’s poems:

Anna Świrszczyńska (aka Anna Swir) had waited thirty years to write and publish the poems that make up her seminal war-literature volume, Building the Barricade, in which she documented her experience of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising that was launched by the Polish underground army in hopes of liberating the capital city from the retreating Germans and ahead of the approaching Soviets. The poems are immediately recognizable for their surgically precise images of both heroism and despair. Ordinary people erecting barricades and searching for food next to poorly armed insurgents swept up in patriotic fervent. Comradery and plunder. Over the years of reading and, eventually, translating these poems into English, I’ve wondered about the source of the volume’s appeal to English-language readers. For Poles, the answer is obvious: Świrszczyńska’s eyewitness account depicts an event that has come to symbolize the nation’s valiant struggle against Nazi occupation during WWII, with all its attendant gore and glory, in a way that feels more trustworthy and closer to the facts than the romanticized narrative presented in history books. But what’s in it for American poetry fans? To be sure, like everybody else we love reading about war. However, we also seem to prefer poems and stories with strong thematic-thrusts and—dare I say?—purpose. Case in point? The rise in the number of poetry books framed sociologically or anthropologically, books that are less about the individual poems than about their collective aim and thus message. But Świrszczyńska’s poems are no morality plays, and their message, if that’s what it is, is rather banal: War is never black or white. Yet as snapshots—clipped and underwritten—they speak to us louder than many longer and pathos-driven poetry-of-witness poems. So what is it, then, that makes me return to Building the Barricade? Trust. Mutual trust. Reading these poems I take them at face value—and don’t question the images or ask for more—and in turn I feel like the poet, by refusing to explain things, so to speak, trusts me with being able to draw my own conclusions.



Alice Friman on “Puddles”:

“Puddles” is, of course, about the death of my sister, my only sister, whom I’ve been estranged from for the last nineteen years, the last nineteen years of her life. I never write about her, nor did I begin this piece even thinking I was going to write about her, especially about her death, for, after all, how to explore, justify, explain a difficult relationship to a reader when I can’t even clarify it to myself? I didn’t plan it but find it interesting that the poem is told in the voice of a child, calling up the years when I was sure our relationship was real and everlasting. If I grieve, it must be that child, still there, that grieves. Funny how a poem takes on a mysterious life of its own, takes you to not what you remember but what you want and really need, underneath it all, to remember.



Betsy Sholl on “Cardinal”:

For months last year a cardinal had been waking me very early in the morning, so at a summer workshop I was teaching I tried the prompt I’d given the class, which was to pick an object or creature and generate as many metaphors for it as possible.  I started with the cardinal, and as I wrote, the incident described in the poem came to mind.  It was from the previous year when I was selling my house.  After some folks who were helping me empty things out left, I heard a commotion in another room and there was a cardinal fluttering and bumping against different windows looking for a way out.  The backstory is that my beloved husband had just died, and in times of stress or great loss things can feel particularly laden with significance.  Everything seems more than itself, or perhaps more fully itself.   I held that wild creature in my hands and felt its vitality, felt everything redefined by its pulsing body.  Then it was gone, set free.  I wanted the poem to feel rushed, a little jagged and with a forward thrust like the experience itself.  The ending surprised me.  I hadn’t expected the last word to be “bereft,” but there it was.



Arthur Sze on Wang Jiaxin’s and Wang Yuyang’s Poems:

Wang Jiaxin is one of the leading poets of China, and he is also renowned for his translations of Paul Celan’s poetry into Chinese. I have known his work for years, and it was a pleasure to meet him in New York City in 2022. I told him I was assembling an expanded edition of my translations of Chinese poetry, The Silk Dragon II (forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in the spring of 2024), and he shared with me a few poems. I was attracted to “Fish Belly Poem” and how it used such varied perspectives to set up the main focus. Dr. Xia Kejun is a critic and professor at Renmin University in Beijing, and Jiabiangou, located on the edge of the desert in Gansu Province, was a labor camp used to imprison intellectuals and “rightists” in the late 1950s. In contrast to this poem written in free verse, I’ve included a translation of a quatrain written in classical Chinese by a poet of the early Qing dynasty, Wang Yuyang (1634-1711). Wang Yuyang frequently chose the Red Bridge in Yangzhou as the setting for literary and social gatherings. Both poems, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, “by indirections find directions out.”



Helen Bournas-Ney on “Fake Lemon Tree on a November Day in a Boat Depot in Chelsea”:

 Late fall of 2021 was an extremely difficult time as my sister, whom I was very close to, was  sick and her condition was rapidly deteriorating. The landscape was very bleak. During those days, my husband and I would often walk down the pier at Hudson River Park, passing a single fake lemon tree we would see through a glass office front. The office seemed to be always deserted. This lemon tree’s solitariness and steadfastness drew me to it. It felt like I couldn’t write directly about my sadness right then (the grieving and in memoriam poems would come later), but this very lonely scene spoke to me, and I could answer. In the last stanza of the poem, I found myself referring unconsciously to the tree’s “warmer sisters” – real trees which were fragile, always at risk.

In a surreal turn of events, after I had written this poem and my sister had died, my husband and I were again walking on the pier, past the lemon tree, and saw that the lemons had been spirited away! The tree was still there, but I guess someone had plucked the lemons, perhaps to clean or replace them with other plastic selves. It was as if, for a moment, there was a hiatus of all things stationary, certain, unnatural – maybe to make way for a period of grieving, the “warmer sisters elsewhere” now allowed to take center stage.




Sometimes as poets, we return to the subject of an earlier poem and realize that we might have more to say, or that you’ve changed my mind about what you wanted to say, and that’s the case with this poem, where I returned to the subject of “Charles Holmes Blew Up the Chem Lab,” the infamous chem lab explosion in my high school. I realized that I was just skimming the surface and focusing more on Charles and the spectacle of the explosion itself. Coming back to that event, I realized how it coincided with the beginning of the explosion of my own life into poetry—the discovery of that new kind of chemistry that changed my life forever.



William Trowbridge on “On Brueghel’s Massacre of the Innocents”:

Brueghel has always been one of my favorite painters. I love the earthiness of his works, what Williams would call “the ground sense.” And there seems to be something in them that’s particularly appealing to poets. A number of noted ones have written ekphrastic poems about them, perhaps the most famous being Auden’s “Musee Des Beaux Artes.” But Williams, Nemerov, and Heaney also wrote Breughel poems, Williams a whole collection. I wrote this poem soon after finishing one about Brueghel’s The Tower of Babel. Both came to me faster than usual, except for the closures, which required numerous revisions. This painting portrays the depravity that seems persistent throughout human history. I was especially struck by the apparent nonchalance of the figures in the painting who seem to be in charge, who embody what Arendt called “the banality of evil.” This poem belongs with a number that I’ve written about the Holocaust and matters related to it. “History!” writes Vonnegut’s Bokonon, “Read it and weep!”



Frances Rickey on “The Madonna Poems”:

The genesis of The Madonna Poems took place in 2006 when I was working on The Warrior, a collection of poems written while my son was deployed to Iraq. (The full collection was later published under the title, The Warrior, by Viking/Penguin in 2008) I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and walked among the Madonna and Child paintings. I was thinking of the Christ child as if he were a future soldier for his Father, and the Madonna reminded me of so many women I’ve known who have lost children, or who had premonitions they would lose a child. I wrote short poems for each painting, and used four in The Warrior. During the pandemic, I sent one of my poet pals the three or four Madonna poems I didn’t include. He encouraged me to write more Madonna poems, and for a period of time I wrote a poem a day and sent each one to him in the evenings. His response was so encouraging, I just kept writing them until I had thirty new Madonna poems. The poems in this issue of Plume were among those poems I sent to my friend. It was a wonderful way to stay connected to my work and to my friend/ and to other poet friends during quarantine. I asked a few of them to send me images of their favorite Madonna paintings, and one poem that resulted from that request was the poem included in this issue, “The Madonna of the Pilgrims.” A close friend gave me a postcard of Caravaggio’s painting, “The Madonna of the Pilgrims,” that she’d brought back from  Italy. It’s my favorite of all of my Madonna poems, maybe because it resurrects my grandmother and also reminds me of that gift from a dear friend. I am unabashedly in love with all these Madonnas and their beautiful boys.



Clare Rossini on “Coffee on the Stoop”:

I live on a block densely built with older homes and multi-family units, our tiny backyards converging in a confusion of disheveled gardens, lost baseballs, and clothes lines.  As a result, the dramas that unfold around us are quite visible to all. On the morning described in the poem, I was sitting on my back steps, drinking coffee and paging through my New York Times when some action in the neighbor’s yard caught my attention.  The poem tells the rest of the story.

I suppose the question behind “Coffee on the Stoop” is whether the “great plan” beloved of philosophers from Aristotle to Kant accurately assesses our human relationship to the natural world. The italicized statements in the poem might call such reductive thinking into question.  The hierarchies in the natural world,  the raw power of weather and season, can strike us as unforgiving, even amoral.   And yet, those forces are generative.   Astonishingly so.