Since her debut novel, Shankini (2006), the Indian writer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay has been exploring female sexuality with an uncompromising and subversive vision. The radical nature of her works might have contributed to the fact that they remain largely inaccessible in the West—the only title available in translation outside of India up until now was her novella, Panty (2007), which represented Tilted Axis Press’ publishing debut in 2016. In her own country, however, Bandyopadhyay has published nine novels and over fifty short stories over the last decade, and her work has made her a widely discussed and highly controversial author. Now her third novel, Abandon (2008), has just been published by Tilted Axis in a translation by Arunava Sinha (who revised his own previous translation published in 2013 by HarperCollins India). It is an experimental yet human fiction that challenges our notions of the artistic life, and allows us to better understand the furor surrounding Bandyopadhyay’s work.
At the start of the novel, the female protagonist, Ishwari, and her child, Roo, have recently reunited and search the streets of India for shelter. She yearns to write a novel of her own life, but she is poor, her son suffers from severe malnutrition, and she has few job prospects. Ishwari is an example of a fictional character for whom art is not simply a form of escapism from the dreariness of life. Rather, in the Flaubertian tradition, she seeks to live purely for the sake of her art, to engage in experience that would enrich her novelistic creation. It is perhaps unavoidable to see her as a metafictional stand-in for the author: she admits that she is writing the book we have before us. Abandon thus adverts itself as a fiction, a combination of truth and lies, a form of artifice.
As Flaubert quickly discovered when lust and romantic love kept intruding into his hermitic existence, the manipulation of one’s life to serve one’s art is an impossible project. Life is truculent, capricious, and indomitable for even the most resolute of wills. The novel dramatizes the idea that the creation of art demands of the creator a certain amount of self-absorption, cruelty, and willingness to drop one’s attachments. In the past, Ishwari has abandoned her child, supposedly because motherhood suffocated the muse. She is conflicted between the responsibility toward her child and the responsibility toward her art. Ishwari suggests that the choice is often one between compassion and self-realization: “This narrative will continue to shriek as its characters claw their way between the poles of extreme humanity and extreme art.”
Bandyopadhyay ingeniously expresses this conflict as a fragmentation of the mind, a form of schizophrenia. Ishwari possesses a humane, compassionate self and an artistic, self-involved self both grappling for control in the same mind. The artistic persona is dominant and believes that it has invented the more humane Ishwari as a means of functioning in the world. The “I” of the novel is the artistic Ishwari, the Mr. Hyde of the pair, a character capable of manipulation and deceit. She is something of a Scheherazade, a woman barely surviving through the fluent telling of tales. What is important from this unique rendering of the inner life is that the artistic self is the essential self. The artistic consciousness understands the world first and then tries to accommodate itself to reality: “Only I can hear the buzz of crickets in the air. My authentic self is imprinted in my brain, exposed only to me. The Ishwari that Rantideb knows of, that Sukul and Gourohori Babu know of, is only a story. This is the self which needs to be presented at Radheshyam House . . . A person who can ask herself ‘Why am I what I am?’ and receive an answer is capable of creating a new narrative at every sunset.” The narrator suggests the artist peers through many masks and those masks are doffed and shelved in accordance with the circumstances. The artistic self can be monstrous but it justifies itself by reassuring the mind of both the nobility of its purpose and its own authenticity.
Ishwari is the product of an appalling personal history. She has escaped from an abusive, neglectful family and is, from what we can infer, most likely a victim of rape. Adopted and beloved as a child by her foster mother and father, Ishwari became marginalized for the impurity of her lineage when the couple gave birth to a child of their own flesh and blood. Ishwari writes with characteristic fierceness about her attempts in vain to abort her own child: “The truth is: I did not want to give birth to Roo. Roo’s arrival was unintended. I dislike children. You could say I cannot stand them. I made any number of secret attempts to ensure that the embryo lodged in my womb was not born . . . I inserted my hair into my nostrils to induce violent sneezing so that my stomach muscles could put terrible pressure on my uterus and force the foetus out.”
One of the central themes of the novel is the autonomy of the body and how that autonomy is either preserved or lost—in motherhood or sexual encounters. Though Ishwari knows herself to be a highly sexual creature, she often restrains the expression of her own desire. She shamefacedly admits an uncontrollable outpouring of desire when a handsome neighbor appears on his veranda and smokes a cigarette. But when sex does occur, it is on male terms. Ishwari is always the exploited party and often subservient to male desire. Even with the man who claims to love her, a widowed man who hires her as a companion, she quickly loses her excitement and begins to see the sex as a necessary function of her employment: “Over the past month and a half, Ishwari had savoured this love, this eagerness, with every pore in her body, till her wonder dissipated gradually and she grew accustomed to it.” In this novel, sex loses its quality of transcendence. It is a primal act, an act of raw desire rather than a consummation of love. For Ishwari, control over the body may be sacrificed so that the mind can remain pure, autonomous, and possessed by no one else.
Despite all its modern trappings, Bandyopadhyay’s theme is not that novel—the constraint of a female’s self-realization and imagination by moral conventions is a theme as old as Austen and George Eliot. Their protagonists negotiated those constraints but remained within the confines of their patriarchal societies. The novel differs in that Ishwari cannot abide by those constraints and abandons society altogether because artistic creation has become a matter of spiritual life and death. That is, if she cannot create, she cannot live. Society does not let her create, so she must depart from society. One of the greatest accomplishments of this audacious novel is the metaphorical representation of the artistic self as an individual’s dominant life force. The need to create, Bandyopadhyay suggests, is something like a permanent wound—inextricable, smarting with pain, and only denied for so long.
If one has come across any English translations of modern Czech poetry, it is likely to have been something by a member of the Devětsil group, perhaps Jaroslav Seifert, or maybe Vítězslav Nezval. Comprised of young leftist artists and authors primarily living in Prague, Devětsil paradoxically embraced a raucous Epicureanism alongside the socialist ideals of Marxism-Leninism. With the end of the First World War, the group made an ethos out of play, celebrating Charlie Chaplin and circus clowns, cabarets and cocktails, in its various publications. It is far less likely that the present reader will have heard of the radical Catholic Stará Říše community, which formed in the early twentieth century around the publisher Josef Florian in a village of the same name a few hours southeast of Prague, or the poet Bohuslav Reynek, a representative figure of the collective. Stará Říše put out beautiful editions typically dedicated to translation, a shared interest with Devětsil, but in this case the end goal was rather more morose: to preserve something of European culture against the inevitable flood and fire to come. So it was that in the decade of the Roaring Twenties, while Seifert was writing about sticking his head up women’s skirts “in our all-electric age,” Reynek took a more existentially somber approach: “we’re all drunk with grief. / Where we wander we don’t know.”
These lines, from the 1925 poem “A Fool,” open a new collection of his poems in English translation, A Well at Morning, out now from Karolinum Press. This most recent addition to the Modern Czech Classics series offers a selection of poems and prints by Reynek—who worked as an author, translator, and graphic artist—that spans five decades, from the early 1920s through early 1970s. The translator of this new volume, Justin Quinn, rightly states that these deeply religious poems are “untimely,” but he likewise notes that for many readers (like myself) the church is not what will be central here.
Reynek took the pastoral as his great theme, and Quinn’s deft translations alluringly echo the environmental emphasis of some of his own poems. Reynek lived the majority of his life at his family’s farmstead in the village of Petrkov on the Bohemian-Moravian border, and many of his poems included in this collection center around the details of rural life. Dogs and cats and goats and geese roam the pages. There is a “white ox in the yard” and one finds “cobwebs wound round the empty swallows’ nest.” Even at the site of hearth and home, the day of rest requires a cat for comfort, a Sunday’s stillness complete only with “a book and kitten grey / beneath my hand.” (Reynek’s evident love of feline companionship is echoed in the etching “Still Life with Artist” from 1954, which pictures the artist/poet seated with mug and kitten, and also in one of the beautiful black and white photographs included in the book, by Dagmar Hochová. The artist-with-cat motif also conjures an association with the great Czech writer of a later generation, Bohumil Hrabal.)
Images: "Still Life with Artist" and photograph of the poet-artist. Used with permission.
Although the poems are largely depopulated of people, man occasionally emerges in Reynek’s poetry, most notably to do violence to the natural landscape. In “Carpenters in the Wind,” we do not have the good Joseph but “these men / with their axes. // I’ve lost one of my own. / I’m more and more alone. / These men have finished chopping.” So it is, Reynek would seem to suggest here, that Earth’s destruction might come not through any apocalyptic grand finale but rather as a result of the banal, everyday actions that human beings act out upon their lived environment.
Similarly, the earthly element that often rears its head in vengeance in these poems is not the Pentecostal fire one might expect in the work of a poet associated with an “obscure apocalyptic sect” (as the scholar Martin C. Putna describes Stará Říše in an essay at the end of the book) but rather, snow. In a late poem, titled “Saint Martin,” Reynek details the more sinister aspects of the winter tableau:
Snow on the fence. Snow on the cape.
Ice in the hair and on the skin,
on hope, on the bare body’s shape,
across the fields, the days’ chagrin.
Snow falls on human hunger, spreads
on stones as cold as burnt-out coals;
falls on this dog’s unbarking head,
on sparrows perched on odd bean-poles.
An earlier standout beauty of a poem—“Advent in Stará Říše” (from Reynek’s post-World War Two collection, itself titled Snow at the Door)—opens ominously: “In the first snows / you see the print / of the last geese.”
Two poems entitled “November” (one from Snow at the Door and another in Swallows Flown, a collection of poems written between 1969 and 1971) mark the month as the true coming of cold. In the first, November is “a sorrel horse with a white blaze” that looks in upon sleepers restless in their grief but safe inside for the moment. In the second, we are warned that “beyond the fence it’s cold. / Death wants some warmth to keep.” November as a harbinger of loss would seem to be a fascination for Reynek, a month that is also depicted in one of the prints included in The Well at Morning. In a monotype drypoint from 1967, two dark figures beside a farmstead are foregrounded by a gaggle of geese who appear to be about to make their exit stage right, bright white against the overwhelming darkness of the rest of the image. They are as though the earliest flecks of snow, which will fall steadily with their departure.
The sixty-odd pages of poems included in The Well at Morning are followed by twenty-five graphic works by Reynek—all expressionistic drypoint etchings, occasionally hand-colored—that maintain a similar preoccupation as his poems, with farm animals and snowy, still landscapes. Some of the selected images are also more explicitly biblical, with several renderings of the Crucifixion and the Pietà. In a particularly interesting version of the latter, “Pietà with Train Stop” from 1968, the biblical scene is situated within the modern-day setting of Petrkov, where a train in the background pulls into the station and tiny bodies mill about, as Mary grieves alone. A burst of red in the direction of the train station is portrayed in an adjacent description as “glowing autumnal trees,” but it is tempting to interpret the color as the final coming of the promised fire.
Image: "Pietà with Train Stop," used with permission.
The jacket text of The Well at Morning proclaims this volume to be “the first comprehensive book on Reynek to be published in English,” and this is largely true—only one other publication, a dual-language edition of Reynek’s prose poems Fish Scales from 2001 has been dedicated to the author in English. But the supplementary materials in the book—the explanatory texts accompanying the print works, inclusion of four poems by Reynek’s wife, the French poet Suzanne Reynaud (whom Reynek himself first brought into Czech translation), and three essays on Reynek as poet, artist, and translator—risk weighing down the lightness of the bright white sheets of poems that occupy a mere third of the book’s pages. If a major goal was to assert Reynek’s as a powerful voice in twentieth-century European poetry for an English-reading audience, a larger portion of the available space might have been given over to that work, rendered as these poems are so well by Justin Quinn. At the same time, the inclusion of the four bucolic poems by Reynaud (translated here not by Reynek but by David Wheatley), feels a somewhat inadequate gesture, when one considers that not a single volume in the Modern Czech Classics series is dedicated to a female author.
Overall though, this new book marks a unique and welcome addition from a publisher that has done much to bring the works of Czech authors to a wider readership through its thoughtful and attractive editions.
Рев, наполненный гневом и яростью, перешел в долгий тоскливый вой. Ужас мой быстро сменился недоумением, потому что этот крик прозвучал летним солнечным днем на территории Академгородка среди новеньких, отделанных розовым ракушечником зданий научных институтов и домов для их сотрудников.
Я довольно часто приезжала сюда после уроков и на каникулах, чтобы помочь маме заполнить десять квадратных метров розово-оранжевой миллиметровки на стене, продолжить полсотни изломанных линий из сливающихся карандашных точек. Муторная, требующая не только дотошности, но и постоянного напряжения зрения канитель была уже не под силу маме, работавшей на четверть ставки. Ответственность и гордость мешали ей отказаться от адской нагрузки, а начальство, выпестованные ею вчерашние выпускники, старались не замечать этого. Поэтому-то я оказалась в институте и из раскрытого окна услышала крик...
Я смотрела на маму. Но она, против своего обыкновения, не торопилась ничего объяснять. Как-то виновато она смотрела вниз и молчала. Молчали и ее соседки по кабинету. Крик повторился. Теперь я уже отчетливо поняла, что кричит человек. Мама настолько сжалась, что я не смогла задать свой вопрос вслух. Я продолжала работать над графиком, мысленно перебирая возможные объяснения. Крик горя? Вопли алкоголика в белой горячке? Семейная ссора, скандал, побои? Сумасшедший?..
Вечером, когда по дороге домой мы остались вдвоем, мама, наконец, нашла в себе силы объяснить. Оказалось, это кричала казахская бабушка из жилого дома напротив.
Одна из сотрудниц Института биологии должна была получить квартиру и, чтобы квартира была побольше, прописала к себе проживавшую в ауле маму. Так многие делали тогда. Для надежности – вдруг комиссия нагрянет или кто донесет – она уговорила старушку какое-то время пожить с ней в Алма-Ате. Старуха торопилась домой – скучно ей в городе, непривычно, дочь отговорила: для подстраховки надо бы пожить еще какое-то время с ней, кто-то из соседей может заявление написать, тогда квартиру отберут. Потерпев еще сколько-то, старуха собралась домой окончательно. Но оказалось, что ехать ей некуда. Дочери в новой квартире хотелось новой обстановки, поэтому она втихую продала родительский дом и на вырученные деньги купила мебель. Ничего страшного: чем старухе куковать одной в ауле, топить печь и таскать воду, пусть поживет с дочерью в городской квартире со всеми удобствами.
Что было делать? Старуха согласилась. Академгородок тогда находился в пустынном зеленом массиве. Ниже – Ботанический сад, справа – пустующая территория КазГУграда. Привыкшая целый день двигаться, быть ближе к земле, старуха начала, было, выходить на прогулки. Но тут начались проблемы. Она, всю жизнь прожив на одном месте, в маленьком степном ауле, на старости никак не могла научиться ориентироваться на новой, незнакомой местности, среди густых зарослей деревьев и неразличимых, на ее взгляд, многоэтажных домов. Она несколько раз заблудилась так, что искали ее всем домом, чуть ли не милицию вызывали. Пришлось ограничить прогулки одним двором.
Новая беда: в отдаленном ауле, где почти не было приезжих, она никогда в жизни не запирала дом на замок, а потому и в городе то забывала закрыть дверь на ключ, то оставляла его где-нибудь. Дочь совсем перестала давать ей ключи. Когда дочь утром отправлялась на работу, мать выходила вместе с ней во двор, сидела на скамеечке, разговаривала с прохожими, и так до возвращения дочери с работы. Соседи, жалея старуху, приглашали ее к себе попить чаю. Но дочери не нравилось, что мать, как бездомная побирушка, ходит по соседям, и, уходя на работу, она стала закрывать ее дома одну.
Вначале бабушка еще выбиралась во двор по вечерам, но смена климата и привычного образа жизни сказались на ее здоровье, она все больше слабела. Подниматься на пятый этаж становилось все труднее. С наступлением зимы она перестала выходить из дома. Одиночное заключение в каменной коробке привело к помутнению сознания. Теперь она время от времени выбирается на балкон, смотрит на горы вдали, на сады вокруг, на спешащих по своим делам людей внизу. И кричит…
В Алма-Ате 60-70-х старшее поколение в казахских семьях было представлено почти всегда лишь аже или апа – военными вдовами. Если шал не погиб во время войны, то старики обычно вместе доживали свой век в ауле. А вот овдовевших пожилых женщин их дети всеми силами пытались уговорить переехать в город – нянчить внуков, прежде всего. Была, конечно, и любовь, и стремление избежать укоров «бросили старуху одну».
Лишь теперь понимаю, как трудно было нашим аже прижиться в каменном чужом городе, где царили совсем другие нравы, где за двухкилограммовый, завернутый в целлофан, сверток костей надо было отстоять в душной очереди несколько часов, где внуки часто не знали ни слова на родном языке.
Сам городской быт был для них не просто непривычен, он вступал в противоречие с традиционным воспитанием и чувством благопристойности. Земляк моей мамы, подполковник КГБ, когда его навещала мать, был вынужден в центре города рано утром и поздно вечером выводить старушку в кусты, потому что мысль справлять физиологические потребности в доме ее шокировала. «Не дай Бог, сын, невестка или внуки услышат журчанье!» Комичная, вроде бы, ситуация, частный факт, но ведь сшибка менталитетов, на самом деле.
Американский психолог Эрик Эриксон пишет, что у индейских девочек, воспитывавшихся в интернатах, часто начиналась депрессия из-за разного понимания чистоты в родной семье и в интернате. Для индейских матерей была важна ритуальная чистота дочерей, а для белых воспитателей – санитарно-гигиенические правила. В результате девочки-подростки чувствовали себя грязными и там, и тут. К тому же индейцы считали, что экскременты должны подвергнуться очищающему воздействию солнечных лучей и ветра, ужасались обычаю белых скапливать и гноить нечистоты в одном месте. Что думали белые по поводу индейцев, нам – горожанам – ясно без слов. Но первые перепланировки в городских квартирах казахов, когда это стало возможно во время перестройки, касались именно туалета. Дверь туалета, выходившую в один коридорчик с кухней, старались переставить, вывести в прихожую. В современно спланированных квартирах вход в гостевой санузел часто попадает в поле зрения сидящих за столом в объединенной с холлом большой комнате, что по-прежнему смущает тех, кто сохранил рудименты традиционного воспитания.
Мать подполковника так и не смогла привыкнуть к городу: приезжала, впадала в депрессию, звонила нашей бабушке по маме – нашей Әже, просила приехать в гости. Әже пыталась «вправить мозги» землячке: да, здесь тошно, но той с байгой для тебя я организовать не смогу, приди в себя, сын днем и ночью на работе, невестка в больнице, подумай о внуках, давай хоть в магазин за продуктами сходим. Но подругу магазинная толчея и необходимость объясняться по-русски с хамовитыми продавщицами страшно пугали. Она уехала, наша Әже прижилась в Алматы. Но чего ей это стоило, знала лишь она сама.
В конце 80-х мы как-то смотрели с ней по ТВ передачу о турецком сельском празднике со скачками и прочим. Реакция Әже была совершенно неожиданной для меня. Она со вздохом подытожила увиденное: счастливые, на равнине живут… А ведь она, когда была помоложе, уступив напору зятя – общественного инструктора по туризму, пару раз вместе с нами сходила в горный поход. Но торжественная красота Алатау, как оказалось, совсем не воодушевляла степнячку.
Лишенные привычного образа жизни и родственного коллектива, казахские бабушки пытались воссоздать свой мир в городе. Дети и внуки – это прекрасно, но казахи сверстников называют «своим народом», последующие же поколения – это «племя младое, незнакомое», поселившееся на опустевшем стойбище. Переживший ровесников старик – это человек, случайно отставший от своего кочевья и потому гостящий у новых поселенцев. Таков постоянный образ традиционной культуры.
Перебравшиеся в город к взрослым детям старые вдовы были уязвимы социально и психологически, часто оказываясь заложниками вдруг ожесточившихся от городской жизни детей. Гордость мешала им вернуться к родне в аул, публично признать, что с их детьми что-то не так.
В детстве и юности Әже была для меня главным человеком, а потому отношение к бабушкам было для меня чуть ли не основным критерием оценки людей. Я видела, как избалованный городской подросток, доставлявший немало проблем своим родителям, привычно садился на корточки, чтобы обуть свою ажеку, на спине выносил ее во двор, звонил в двери ее подруг, а потом заносил обратно на какой-нибудь четвертый этаж, и так – каждый день. Я видела, как пристыжено возвращается наша Әже после попытки выразить соболезнования в связи со смертью подруги ее семье, потому что семья никакого горя не испытывает и в соболезнованиях не нуждается. Но больше всего были интересны мне сами бабушки, каждая из них.
Одна моя старшая подруга недавно сказала мне: ты во многом еще ребенок, и в тоже время ты намного старше меня, иногда ты мне кажешься такой древней, старше моей мамы. Наверное, это действительно так. Еще подростком мне было интереснее с малышами или девяностолетними старухами, чем со своими сверстниками. Но зато я могу кое-что рассказать о мире, уже ушедшем в небытие. Сейчас таких казахских аже почти не осталось.
Я назвала этот цикл зарисовок «Бескемпир» («Пять старух»), потому что это распространенное в казахском фольклоре и топонимике понятие. Дело в том, что (обоснованная уже очень давно, не то академиком А. Маргуланом, не то академиком А. Коныратбаевым) этимология казахского слова «кемпір» – «кам пір», где слово «кам» означает «шаман», а «пір» – это «духовный наставник, сверхъестественный покровитель» и т.д. Предполагается, что изначально слово «кемпір» означало покровителей-владык природных стихий и явлений в облике пожилой женщины. А уж потом смысл его профанизировался, стал таким, какой мы знаем.
Если у индоевропейцев, например, громовержец – это бог-мужчина Зевс или Тор, то у тюрков это «кемпір», «бабушка-громовница», как принято сейчас формулировать. Такова особенность прототюркской и тюркской мифологии, матриархальный характер которой прекрасно показал С. Кондыбай. Тюрки – охотники, скотоводы и воины – поклонялись своим матерям. Таким образом, Бескемпир – это название некоего древнего пантеона божеств.
Рудиментом этой мифологии является обычай проносить новорожденного из семьи, где дети часто умирают, между ног трех или пяти старух. Сейчас этот обычай объясняют стремлением запутать смерть. Изначальный смысл – в том, что ребенок рождается от «владычиц стихий», наделяется их силой. Отсюда фамилия первого казахского олимпийского чемпиона Жаксылыка Ушкемпирова.
Казахские аже не чувствовали себя богинями или хотя бы байбише-матриархами в Алма-Ате, но судьбы их под конец их дней оказались вплетены в огромное полотнище городской жизни. Иногда мне становится страшно, что в суете они будут окончательно забыты, и я повторяю их имена, точнее, прозвища, так как они редко называли друг друга по именам – отголосок древнего табу. Астархан шеше, Сары кемпір, Өскемен кемпір, Офицердің кемпірі... Других – ушедших раньше нашей Әже – я помню плохо, при жизни они были для меня лишь ее подругами. Те же, кто пережил Әже, кого я приглашала на ее поминки, своим уважением к нашему горю и своим теплом помогли пройти через самый темный период моей жизни. Когда ушла последняя из них – шустрая и хвастливая Офицердің кемпірі (я даже успела узнать ее настоящее имя – Нурганым), – дверь в этот мир для меня закрылась…
Even though the cooked-up myth of transparent translation has been debunked many times before, anthologies of world literature and Great Books courses haven’t budged a bit. The standard recipe goes like this: put together their English renderings and read these texts pretending they’ve been originally written in English. Surely, this is often the only way out of the monolingual impasse; otherwise Anglophone readers wouldn’t have the faintest idea that these texts are out there. By the same token, however, it keeps consolidating the belief that the medium of translation is, if not non-existent, then at least of no bearing to our interpretation of works translated from other languages.
Thankfully, this newly-released collection of essays and translated poems does an excellent job of proving otherwise. Edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, Into English is an impressive and ambitious project featuring original poems that span multiple centuries, languages, traditions and forms; three times as many voices of translators that have bent over backwards to bring the poems across into English; and their respective critics that delve into the intricacies of different tacks and textual weavings. The editors of this volume recently published by Graywolf Press, along with the twenty-five contributors who have commented on twenty-five poems and their respective three (or in one case: four) renderings, demonstrate suavely and with great panache why we should not take translated poetry at its face value. It is a genuine pleasure to read this book from its oblong cover to cover, turning its horizontally stretched pages. As the format facilitates seeing the poem lined up with its three renderings, it visually encompasses the wide spectrum of textual metamorphosis.
The idea of celebrating the multiplicity of translation and ensuing creative transformations amongst an ensemble of writers and translators has been explored in several collaborative projects over the last decades. Whereas some of them revolved around single authors (Daniel Halpern’s Dante’s Inferno, 1993; Michael Hofman and James Lasdun’s After Ovid, 1994; Paul Legault and Sharmila Cohen’s The Sonnets, 2012), others engaged more texts: for instance, in 2012, Adam Thirlwell took the concept to a completely new level in his chain translations of twelve stories by sixty-one writers, entitled Multiples. In comparison with these books, Into English turns the tables: here, it is poets and translators that judge the fruits of their colleagues’ labor as they go on display in a sort of translation slam. This is clearly calling for trouble. If not now, then on what other occasion can translators get away taking a petty revenge and needling fellow translators for their lapses?
In most instances, however, the contributors luckily don’t take this easy route and instead offer us a series of instructive close readings of what they’ve nominated as the three most interesting takes on the original poems. Admittedly, all these essays could equally work as separate case studies attached to editions of single poets. After all, such compilations of canonical writers in multiple translation exist, including Penguin’s Poets in Translation (e.g. Virgil, Dante, Baudelaire in English) or publications with “comparative translations,” as Rebecca Walkowitz calls them, sporadically released by university presses. Here the question arises: to what end are these completely different pieces put together in Into English and what do we gain from their comparative reading? What is the value of this Imaginary Museum of World Poetry in Multiple English Translations other than having convenient access to a fixed suggested reading for university curricula of literary translation courses? The book is advertised as something that “plunges the reader into a translation seminar” and “teaches us about craft.” Does Into English lend itself to a less didactic but more literary reading?
In her introduction, Martha Collins argues that “multiple translations can give us a much better sense of the poem” and refers to translation books such as Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987) and Douglas Hofstadter’s Le ton beau de Marot (1997) to instantiate her remark. While this is all true, both Weinberger and Hofstadter, as well as other editors of similar projects (Rosemarie Waldrop’s Reft and light, 2000) or artists multiplying different translation variants within one work (Caroline Bergvall in VIA, 2000; Sawako Nakayasu in her Promenade cycle, 2011, etc.) usually treat the originals as a starting point to tell us a much bigger story. For Weinberger, Wei’s poem experiences cubist reincarnations analogous to Wallace Stevens’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; Hofstadter hankers for the idea of the eternal form that outlives the poem in translations (also a poignant reminder of his late wife); numerous takes on Ernst Jandl’s poems in Reft and light become multiplied patterns molding visual poetry in its own right; VIA becomes a life path (“via”), Promenade re-lives the impressionist walk on a promenade, and so on. But what unique story can Into English tell us through these translation triplets of poems by “Sappho, San Juan de la Cruz, Basho, Rilke, Akhmatova, Garcia Lorca, Szymborska, Amichai, and Adonis” written in languages ranging from “Latin to Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Haitian Creole”?
Something that uncannily emerges out of this “chorus in celebration of international poetry and translation” is a range of orchestrated exercises in the style of translation criticism. As we proceed, we can’t help but reflect on how different writing temperaments have left an imprint on these commentaries and to what extent the language of translation criticism becomes invested in the original metaphors and poetics as these essayists get their heads around the multiplicity of renderings. We see some authors coining their titles after original phrases or issues characteristic of the respective originals. In her “Translating Leopardi’s ‘L’infinito’: An Infinite Task,” Susan Stewart envisions translating Giacomo Leopardi’s poem on infinity as an infinite task itself. Ellen Doré Watson’s “Drummond Incommunicado” heralds how the Brazilian author’s poetry will prove “incommunicable” across languages. For J. Kates, Boris Pasternak’s translations become “A Little More than Kin.” Rebecca Seiferle confronts the redundant ornamentation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s translation with the original’s simplicity of a “Black Cactus Open in Reeds.” Johannes Göransson looks at Tomas Tranströmer’s reception and translations that can never grasp from “Behind the Borders” the original poetry written “Between the Lines.”
We see also some of them including their own renderings as personal or visceral responses to the text. Willis Barnstone gives his own translation first as an exemplum of his erotic interpretation of St. John of the Cross, becoming very possessive of the poem and measuring other translations against his passionate reading. Bits from George Kalogeris’ own translation of Cavafy’s poem resound throughout his essay like echoes of “songs replying to songs replying to songs,” blending into the continuum of the poem’s prototypes, etymological layers and renderings. Alexis Levitin weaves his translation of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andersen’s poem towards the end of the essay’s fabric, showing “a pleasure in trying but constantly falling short,” just like the poem’s heroine can only endeavor to spare her mother from “the tissue that death is binding around her.”
In other words, there seems to be more self-reflexiveness going on in this project than perhaps is visible at first glance. That other languages resist a smooth transfer “into English” becomes evident in the unique language the book itself speaks. I mean here, however, something else than occasional misspellings in foreign languages (e.g. Mond for Mohn in Celan’s title and diacritics playing havoc with Polish words)—even though these few glitches do ironically hedge the inter-lingual zone that can never be tamed and smoothly edited into the common denominator of English. But the real fun of this book kicks off elsewhere: it begins when we try matching the collected poems with the poetics of respective essays on their translation triples. We get, for instance, essays arguing for the impenetrable meaning that remains inaccessible in translation while the original poems are already all about mysteries and hidden relation of things. We thus are doomed to be kept in the dark by the translators of Stéphane Mallarmé’s scintillations and Yahya Kemal Beyatlı’s nocturnal poem, just like the originals meant to entrap their readers in a dreamy state and unsettling enigma. On the other side of the spectrum, we also follow more sober readings of the poems that different translators and their critics manage to illuminate in equally sober terms. Perhaps it is Rilke’s own laconism and rigor in German that inevitably calls for an analogously succinct and rigid language of analysis (“a sonnet wants to remain a sonnet”)? Is it Yehuda Amichai’s logical calculus in his approach to life on earth that presupposes the critic’s metaphor of a zero-sum game? Does underscoring the individual aims and personal contingencies of Anna Akhmatova’s translators simply reflect the poet’s own lyrical physiology of trees? After all, to reiterate Joanna Trzeciak Huss’ metaphor, translators are “not just trees, but maples, lindens, elms, oaks, spruces, and poplars . . .”—they all represent distinct species that read differently and speak their unique voices.
And so do their critics, as Into English tells us. While similar translation metaphors can go even further, the very tone of essays in the book also feels like they’ve become imbued with the original poetry. This tone splinters into multiple tunes and chords as we go: it can vary from Carl Philips’ slightly moralistic conclusion about translations of Virgil’s didactic poem, to Arthur Sze’s straightforward calmness in coming to terms with the “untranslability” of Taoist spontaneity and peace of mind, to Cole Swensen’s tongue-in-cheek manner of toying with Baudelaire’s pranksters. But the most palpable record of this mutual kinship is perhaps Alissa Valles’s very somatic reading of Wisława Szymborska’s “Torture(s).” Here, the critic activates all her senses and even rehearses some of the physical descriptions from the poem (“I find myself throwing up my arms as well as my hands”). She also doesn’t shy away from talking about her deeply personal responses (“I feel,” “I favor,” “I prefer”) and aesthetic biases (“rhythmically, I lean toward the latter”). In this respect, as we read along and try to follow suit, we almost feel how translation can truly “get under one’s skin.”
And here, the question arises: would the originals generate so many interesting senses and responses had it not been for the multiple translators and their commentators? In one of my favorite essays in this volume, Stephen Tapscott argues that it is always the comparative reading of originals and their translations that makes an actual poem come into focus. The case in point is Paul Celan, whose consecutive waves of interpreters flesh out his different facets. It feels like the dynamic of plural renderings “conversing” while also distinguishing themselves from one another could as well illuminate other examples from this book. We get to see tasters of interactions between translations in recorded textual practices: John F. Deane’s translations of Marin Sorescu relied on English trots, not originals; Robin Robertson’s renderings of Tranströmer were based on previous translations; Adam J. Sorkin admits to a twinge of envy for W.D. Snodgrass’s interesting solution but ends up using a different phrase. Maybe it's not exclusively the original that triggers certain translation solutions and, if so, it shouldn’t be the only axis of comparison? When approaching a poem, translators do not only translate the original, but they also often need to “untranslate” other existing renderings. In effect, their versions are entangled in a network of different textual forces.
Tapscott also states, revisiting Walter Benjamin, that translation is inscribed in the original. Like Celan, it keeps calling and asking: “count me in” and “render me bitter.” Only thanks to translation, some hidden senses of the original are salvaged and unexpectedly come to the surface. In Sorescu’s poem “Adam,” the titular hero multiplies his harem of Eves in a surrealist act, which is said to reflect the author’s own actual liking for multiple variations of his poems published in different places. At the same time, the poem unwittingly anticipates the surrealist technique of Into English at large: Adam’s act of multiplied creation is somewhat extended by the plural translation production of the poem “Adam” and other works in the volume. Translation thus recapitulates original themes and reading problems with greater force. For instance, Hiroaki Sato’s take on Bashō’s translations reinstates the plurality that is already inherent to the original haiku with its many-crow and single-crow versions. In the same vein, translations of Sappho’s poem discussed by Karen Emmerich bridge temporally distant worlds that are actually inscribed in the original verse: two heroines of the poem positioned towards each other within the order of “now and then” may as well comment on the reading practices of Sappho’s fragments and efforts to make sense of her past story by embellishing it nowadays. Similar self-reflexive affinities recur in cases such as César Vallejo, Xu Zhimo, Adonis and Félix Morisseu-Leroy as their translations can only become touchstones of the authors’ original intercultural standing, colonial position, attitude to the West, and attempts to modernize the local tradition in relation to other literatures. And thus, it is also no coincidence that in discussing gestures of inclusivity reflected in pronouns, Danielle Legros Georges symbolically opens the project to as many as four previously unpublished renderings of the Haitian Creole activist Morisseu-Leroy. This generous act of permitting more versions to appear despite the fixed format nicely rounds off the whole book, which itself is also about questioning the common editorial practice of limiting the number of published translation variants.
Though veering off in various directions, all these fascinating cases unchangeably remind us about one crucial thing: that the art of translation starts already within the originals and sinks into us as we engage with them. We need more books such as Into English to understand how translation transforms our reading and how it changes us, too.
Elke Erb is a poet of observation, and her observations often lead quickly and vividly to problems of the act of observing:
A Rhyme on Ever
The bushes, the bushes, the brambles,
the clumps of wild roses and round sloes
have torn our gaze forever
into bushes, brambles, roses and sloes.
The gaze on nature does not perceive nature whole; it is always "torn" by the perception of its individual parts. That tearing is not immediately a matter of language, as the plants are distinct from each other before they are named. But naming them as "bushes, brambles, roses and sloes" has the same effect as the gaze: it "tears" what could have been a whole into "clumps" that can be distinguished from each other both visually and verbally. So Erb's poetics of observation both produces poems and explores the fragmenting effect of the act of observation itself.
The linguistic problems Erb repeatedly addresses in her work are summed up in the opening lines of "The Smile Pitiful":
how recast in words what upsets us
bird nailed to a black post
how escape words that don't protect
from all that bares its teeth behind our back
Here, words offer a way to take "what upsets us", such as violence done to a bird, and "recast" it in lines that give upsetting images a new shape that can contain and communicate the emotions triggered by what the poet sees. At the same time, though, words cannot always provide such containment, and as they cannot "protect" us from such violence, they are also something to "escape". In "A Rhyme for Ever", the composite effect of the "gaze" and of words is a "tearing" of the world into parts; here, in "The Smile Pitiful", words may give form to emotion caused by already "torn" images, but even when they do so, the desire to "escape" from words and their failures remains.
Both the formulations in the latter poem present the issue as a problem of "how" to do it. The implicit question is explicit in the brief "Getting Wind of a Plan":
How can anyone be rain and wind,
that is falling and blowing, and a path on a rock ridge
and rose hip and iron maw
and wings in clear air
and choking on it all at the same time?
for Friederike Mayröcker
The dedication at the end implies an answer to this rhetorical question: if anyone can be so expansive and all-inclusive, it is Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, who is fourteen years Erb's senior. While one might have to know Mayröcker's work to see how it's really done, the question here does act out an answer: the poem that captures so many distinct images with different valences can reach for wholeness in a question that brings contradictory elements together. All the parts may "tear our gaze forever", but the question becomes a suture for that tear that admits distinctions while also bridging them "at the same time."
Like Mayröcker, Erb writes in German; thanks to Rosmarie Waldrop's translations, both of them are available in English in the Burning Deck Press Dichten= series, along with many other German-language poets. Erb was born in 1938 and has published twenty-five volumes of poetry in the past forty years; the selections in The Up and Down of Feet are taken from six volumes published between 1994 and 2010. She has also worked most of her life as a translator, mostly from Russian into German but also from other languages, including Italian and English. In fact, she has also translated Rosmarie Waldrop into German, and Waldrop's translations make clear that the two poets have a great affinity with each other as they carry their poems across the distance from one language to another. That distance appears in The Up and Down of Feet at the beginning of Erb's prose poem "From Holland to Spain" as a distance between countries that can be bridged by reading:
You see yourself from a great distance when you read about Holland. You could be anybody. Whoever reads about Holland is there in spirit. Holland's eminence pushes it into the far distance. Its eminence is composite, one thing connected to another.
Reading about another country, like reading translated poems by a poet from another country, establishes a double distance: from oneself as one identifies with that other; from the other country and language as one remains in one's own geography. Yet from these distances, the other country becomes a composite whole, its parts not "torn from" but "connected to" each other: "Naval power, commercial power, sheep breeding, lens grinding." The observational perspective may "tear" up the wholeness of nature and, even here, set the self at a distance to the self, but the distance of the other country or language becomes a way of seeing things as connected rather than as separated by the act of seeing itself.
The implicit and explicit threats to the self that run through Erb's work in this volume are occasionally revealed to have a historical and political edge, as in the beginning of the prose poem "Russia As It Moved On": "How in Russia, you, I would have been . . . eliminated. No matter under which regime [. . .]." The poet as critic of the desire for wholeness and unity is a danger to both Russia's Soviet incarnation and its contemporary authoritarianism. An aesthetics of wholeness and its troubles will always undermine a politics of wholeness that does not recognize that any member of the nation might want to "escape" it, whether by crossing a border or by reading and writing of elsewheres that are outside the political community. When you want to be "there in spirit," rather than wholly here where others see you as belonging, "the regime" will ultimately see you and your difference as something to be ". . . eliminated."
All in all, Erb's poetry thrives on shifting observational perspectives as it reaches for a natural wholeness prior to observation and challenges artificial wholeness created by acts of violence on small and large scales. If observation is Erb's ever-present problem, it is also the source of her great productivity as a poet. The poems often register moments of everyday life in its beauty and melancholy, as in this moment of observation from a "Train Window":
In the sun in the front of his house
between mountain face and railroad
an apple tree
he trims, on a ladder.
Must have heard the bells toll that
we don't live forever.
Indeed we don't, but this moment of observation lays claim to the immortality poems have always aimed for: how observed moments live beyond themselves in the words in which they are "recast."
In the terrifying new world order, Cairo is a place where people walk about with microchips in their heads, where everyone laments a green Egypt that never was, and where scientists warn against "unsafe levels of nostalgia" that come from hearing strains of old songs. Such is the premise of Ahmed Naji's dystopian novel, Using Life, fluidly translated from Arabic by Ben Koerber and just published in the US by the University of Texas Press. The story is a rich, wild ride narrated by Bassem Bahget, a forty-six-year-old looking back to his youth just before Cairo's destruction by violent sandstorms and earthquakes. Surprisingly, though, it isn't the novel's critique of authoritarian regimes, but all of the fucking (to stick with the translator's term of choice) the protagonist gets up to that led the Egyptian government to charge and convict author Ahmed Naji of "violating public modesty." The trial and sentence condemning Naji to prison sparked protests in Egypt last year and brought his work to the attention of the foreign press and PEN America, which led an international campaign for his release. The attention and praise the book has since received, including a rave review by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books, are inevitably connected to these circumstances, but now that Using Life has been published in English we can see that they are fully earned by the author's exceptional work.
Though tempting for readers unfamiliar with Egyptian politics to assume that Naji's case is about enforcing Islamic values, it's more complex than that. Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Egyptian constitution, and the escalation of arrests and prosecutions under President el-Sisi is in defiance of Egyptian law. As Naji remarked in an interview, "the moral code in Egypt is closely tied to the structure of power." Indeed, Naji is the first writer in Egypt to receive a prison sentence for his fiction since the January 25 Revolution of 2011, and his arrest rallied the Egyptian and then the international literary community to his cause. What we see here is an authoritarian regime stoking fear and self-censorship among those who would speak out against the government, not a guarding of Islamic traditions.
Naji's raucous celebration of Egyptian popular culture, Arab history, sex, and youth plays out in the contested urban spaces of Egypt. The story opens with young Bassem, a filmmaker in his twenties who's just trying to smoke some hash, fuck, and hopefully make it across town without vomiting on the minibus, but all the while Cairo bears down on him. "Welcome to the hell that is Cairo, where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere." After Bassem is hired by the secret Society of Urbanists to make documentaries about city planning and the architecture of the Egyptian capital, he quickly becomes bound up in the battle by members of the Society over the future of his city.
The struggle between liberalism and authoritarian rule plays out as a question of the future of Egypt's capital between powerful figures in the Society of Urbanists. Ihab Hassan (a character that plays tribute to the literary critic Ihab Hassan, an expat Cairene who championed postmodernism) argues that Cairo should be reformed through a revitalization of its neighborhoods, through a democratization of space, while the soul-sucking, gorgeous centenarian Paprika demands Cairo be wiped out to make room for a new order. It is Paprika who rules the day and it is from the bizarre new world that the older Bassem writes to us.
In Using Life, questions of architecture and city planning come up throughout, a footnoted account of the nineteenth-century mobile capital of Algeria's storied prince Abd al-Qadir being just one delightful example of the theme. The unsettling illustrations by Ayman Al Zorkany serve as brilliant complement to this question: is Cairo Bassem's lifeblood, or is it eating him alive like an undiagnosed flesh-eating bacteria? Throughout the book, the Egyptian capital is like a beast clawing at Bassem's skin, insidiously infiltrating his lungs. It is a city that might rear up and lash out at Bassem at any moment, that holds him hostage in its traffic jams, and that presses such despair on Bassem it shapes even his intimate relationships. There is Reem, a woman whose identity is subsumed by religion and then by her love for another woman, and Mrs. Spoon, a sexy older woman. But of the women he fucks, it is Mona May, Bassem's elusive objet petit a, that readers will find most vividly rendered.
The novel describes Bassem's sexual relations in explicit terms. With every "fuck," "dick," and "pussy," the author reclaims the centuries-old Arabic literary tradition of speaking frankly about sex. In Using Life, Naji puts that tradition in conversation with innovations like illustrations, tangential footnotes, and a fluid time structure. The result is a book that infuses new urgency and excitement in the Egyptian, and now international, literary world.
At thirty-two years old, Ahmed Naji has already been working in Egypt's vibrant literary scene for over a decade. His blogging, critiques of the Egyptian regime, editorial work, and genre-blurring novels have earned him a devoted following in Egypt. Naji completed Using Life on the eve of the 2011 Egyptian "January Revolution" that ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak, and the novel reflects the tumult and pressures of that era. After the Egyptian weekly Akhbar al-Abad published a chapter of Using Life in 2014, Naji was charged with "indecency and disturbing public morals." The indictment, prosecution, conviction, and ten months Naji spent in jail all stemmed from a reader complaint claiming that the sex and drugs in that chapter gave him heart palpitations. The trial hinged on whether Using Life was fiction or nonfiction, a question the Egyptian judiciary spent months investigating. Had Naji himself smoked hash and eaten out a married woman (Mrs. Spoon), or was that a fiction? Naji has called the trial "Kafkaesque." Rightly so. After such a conviction, one has to ask: what is fiction?
"I'm not a writer with a message," Naji has said. "I'm more of a writer with questions." As too many governments in the world bends towards authoritarianism, one can only hope Naji will keep using his considerable gifts to ask those questions.
″ Que sais-tu ? ″
″ Rien. ″
″ Qu’entends-tu ? ″
″ Le silence.″
″ Que vois-tu ?″
″ La transparence. ″
″ Où vas-tu ? ″
″ Là où mes pas me portent. ″
L’étranger traverse la ville. Une vieille dame le croise, dans son regard tremblotant l’enfance coule comme une rivière à l’envers. Elle lui sourit, saisit son bras et chuchote à son oreille :
″ Sais-tu où je vais ? ″
″ Non, je ne le sais pas. ″
Plus bas encore, si bas que sa voix n’est plus qu’un soupir elle murmure :
″ Je vais là où elle ne pourra pas m’avoir. ″
″ Qui ? ″
″ Elle bien sûr ! ″
Et la vieille dame se retourne en indiquant de son doigt un point dans l’espace vide.
″ Mais il n’y a personne ! ″
″ Si, elle est là, elle est méchante, elle me fait peur. ″
Alors il comprend.
″ Hier, elle a eu mon mari mais moi elle ne m’aura pas. ″
Dans ses yeux sourit l’enfant qu’elle a été, elle reprend son chemin courbée sur son ombre comme pour la ramasser. Il la regarde s’éloigner. Peut-être devrait-il l’aider à la porter, l’ombre devient lourde sous le poids des années. Il compte les réverbères qui la séparent du bout de la rue : un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six. Un vélo passe conduit par un homme engoncé dans son pardessus.
Dring, dring, dring ! clame-t-il enjoué, mais personne ne l’entend, avec la nuit tombée chacun a basculé de l’autre côté de sa vie, là où le rêve entraine les esprits.
L’étranger porte à nouveau son regard vers la vieille dame, elle a progressé de deux réverbères. Comme s’il sortait du mur un chat surgit la queue dressée, s’avance vers elle et s’assied sur son ombre. Elle s’arrête, il l’entend s’exclamer :
″ Va-t-en ! va-t-en ! ″
Mais le chat ne bouge pas et continue de quémander une caresse :
″ Miaou, miaou, miaaaaaou ! ″
Alors elle s’écrie :
″ Laisse-moi repartir ! ″ et le chat compatissant se pousse juste ce qu’il faut pour les laisser passer, elle et son ombre.
Elle se remet à marcher, à pas menus et hésitants. Quand on est si vieille chaque pas est un combat, un instant de plus arraché à la vie. Elle porte tant d’années sur son dos cassé, mais dans sa tête elle est redevenue une enfant qui court se cacher.
L’étranger se décide à la suivre, il aimerait lui demander où elle court se réfugier. Huit réverbères la séparent d’elle, il ne se presse pas, il a tout le temps de la rattraper, il n’en reste plus que trois à la vieille dame pour atteindre le bout de la rue.
Un homme et une femme approchent, un couple enlacé, lui la tenant par l’épaule, elle le tenant par la taille. Arrivés à sa hauteur la vieille dame se redresse autant qu’elle peut, les regarde mais eux ne la voient pas. Dans la lumière blafarde de la nuit citadine sa main se lève et se tend, le geste est lent, un abime les sépare, mais au moment où elle croit les toucher, l’homme et la femme sont déjà loin. Alors la main maigre et ridée retombe le long du corps qui semble s’affaisser davantage. L’étranger s’arrête et s’écarte. Les deux êtres accrochés l’un à l’autre paraissent n’en faire qu’un seul : tête et corps énorme planté sur quatre jambes. Ils ne le voient pas lui non plus, l’amour est aveugle à tout ce qui n’est pas lui. L’étranger remarque des larmes qui coulent des yeux de la femme que l’homme aspire avec ses lèvres.
La vieille dame est arrivée au bout de la rue, il lui faut la traverser pour continuer son chemin. Elle s’arrête en dessous du sémaphore, un petit bonhomme couleur sang indique qu’il ne faut pas passer, attention danger ! puis il vire au vert, danger passé. A pas menus et hésitants elle commence sa longue traversée, trainant avec elle son ombre qui ne la quitte pas d’une semelle, unique et dernière compagne d’une vie usée. Son visage est éclairé par les réverbères maintenant face à elle de l’autre côté de la chaussée ; derrière elle son ombre s’allonge, s’étire, comme prête à se détacher − s’enfuir ? mais elle ne voit rien d’autre que les bandes blanches sous ses pieds qui la séparent encore du trottoir salvateur. Soudain la lumière aveuglante de deux phares qui se rapprochent à toute vitesse. L’étranger voudrait crier, au lieu de cela il se dit que la vieille dame n’aura plus le temps de se cacher. Puis le crissement infernal de roues qui freinent. Dans la nuit le choc d’une voiture heurtant violemment un corps résonne comme une fin attendue.
In thinking of Polish poetry after the Second World War, a characteristic tone of sharp-eyed moral clarity often comes to my mind. Czesław Miłosz exemplified this school of writing, and codified a canon of like-minded writers in his influential 1965 anthology Postwar Polish Poetry. That book included giants of Polish poetry such as Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz, who confronted the traumas and injustices of that country’s 20th century with spiritual honesty, righteous judgment, and— sometimes—rage.
Rage was the weapon of choice for Ryszard Krynicki during his poetic coming-of-age in the late 1960s and 1970s, a generation after Miłosz. Previously little translated into English, some of his best works are now available in two major books published this fall in the US: his 1977 collection Our Life Grows (New York Review Books, translated by Alissa Valles) and Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014 (New Directions, translated by Clare Cavanagh). Together, they offer a compelling portrait of this powerful and unique poet.
Krynicki was born in 1943 in a Nazi labor camp in Austria. After the war, his family was settled in the “reclaimed” territories of western Poland that had been broken off from Germany and emptied of their pre-war populations. Born in a nonplace and brought up where the past had been wiped clean, the poet seems to have nursed a sense of otherness throughout his life.
Krynicki was still a boy in 1956 when the dark days of Stalinism came to an end. As a young man, he watched promises of reform and liberalization give way to sclerosis, finally descending into outright depravity in the watershed year of 1968. That March saw massive anti-regime protests in Warsaw violently suppressed by the government, which blamed the uprising on “Zionist” agents. A nationwide anti-Semitic campaign ensued, driving much of Poland’s remaining Jewish population out of the country. Then in August, Poland joined the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces, helping to crush the nascent pro-Western reforms of the Prague Spring.
The very next year, Krynicki published his first major poetry collection, Akt Urodzenia (meaning both “act of birth” and “birth certificate”). He was one of a generation of poets and intellectuals disgusted by the events of ’68 and scornful of moral equivocation and political compromise. Krynicki would spend much of the 1970s causing trouble and getting into it. He battled with censors, published underground editions, endured police harassment, and in 1976 was finally banned from even being mentioned in print.
In 1977, he published Our Life Grows with an émigré press in Paris. Many of these poems had been mangled by Communist censors, but in the NYRB edition they appear in their unexpurgated form. I found them shockingly raw: Our Life Grows felt like a beam of fury focused squarely at the brutality, stupidity, and double-speak of People’s Poland. The collection includes landmark works like “Our Special Correspondent,” a poem so ideologically incendiary it got Krynicki’s editor fired by the authorities, and “Posthumous Journey (III),” whose litany of political and literary dissidents, its mocking reference to Stalin, and allusions to violent suppression of striking workers was the cause of Krynicki’s complete print ban in 1976.
As well as politics, the collection explores themes of spirituality, love, and the social and cultural role of the poet in the twentieth century. Krynicki circles around a familiar repertoire of structures, themes, and images. Formally, he seems to favor three types of poem: mid-length, reflective works; extremely short and aphoristic ones (sometimes even a single line); and long, often very political tours de force. His recurring images include animals like axolotls and snails, human anatomy like brains and blood, and the tools of censorship: sheets of paper, card indexes, red pencils and, of course, the censor himself, who at times appears as a character in the poems.
Krynicki’s imagery is always powerful, if sometimes baffling. Valles does an excellent job of keeping these difficult images tangible and concrete, as in this example from “Much Simpler” (featuring the aforementioned card indexes):
fingerprints circulate in unfathomable space
card indexes faded, were burnt or shredded
your you is astonished at your I
nothing’s for sure took the elevator down
while everything’s possible
was laboring up the stairs
Readers of Polish poetry expecting something closer to the philosophical detachment of Miłosz or the wry gallows humor of Szymborska may find this collection jarring. Krynicki’s poems are darker, stranger, and more mysterious.
A fuller, more nuanced picture of Krynicki emerges in Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014. The late poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak once described Krynicki’s oeuvre as “moving from excess to ascesis.” In this collection, we watch this transition as it happens, and Cavanagh’s translation maintains a remarkable (and beautiful) unity of voice, even as Krynicki experiments with new themes, imagery, and forms, including prose.
The work in Magnetic Point reveals a huge range of influences. Krynicki often dedicates poems to other poets or refers explicitly to others’ poems. He is a translator of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, and the German tradition shines through in his work. A period of engagement with East Asian poetry has borne fruit in the form of, among other things, numerous references to the Japanese master poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) and Krynicki’s own experimentation with haiku.
His later work also develops his ambiguous relationship to geography and history, both in Poland and abroad. Unlike his contemporaries Barańczak and Adam Zagajewski, Krynicki did not choose emigration to escape Communist rule. But that does not mean he felt at home—his 1987 poem “This Country” states in its entirety:
In this country? Yes, I stayed in this country.
Exile comes in many shapes
Spirituality is often a current running powerfully through these reflections. For instance, in the prose poem “A Stone from the Village of New World” from 2005, Krynicki describes accidentally finding the remains of a Jewish gravestone:
I found the stone in a yard overgrown with weeds and bushes, just after buying a run-down house in the hamlet of New World: I’d picked it more for the auspicious name than for the place itself. Exiles like me—from the East, from beyond the Bug River— settled here after the war. Germans had lived here before, they left a moldy scrap of a 1936 newspaper in the attic and countless broken medicine bottles.
I’m not asking when and how it ended up here, or who committed this atrocity. I only want to preserve it from further destruction, I seek a refuge more lasting than my weak letters. I don’t know what to do.
While Krynicki’s anger seems to subside over the course of Magnetic Point, it is clear he has lost none of his desire to challenge simplistic narratives and to ask difficult questions. In an author’s note to Our Life Grows, Krynicki writes, “In my time I dared to oppose Zbigniew Herbert, [saying] that the drama of language should not obscure for us the tragedy of the world. I thought I was right—I was wrong.” Yet even at this mature stage in his career, Krynicki’s suspicion of the power of language remains. It seems fitting to end on one of the last poems in Magnetic Point, which address this skepticism and shows that perhaps the Krynicki of today is not so different from the Krynicki of Our Life Grows:
Sweet, innocent words,
sweet, full sentences,
from sweet, gently
(Nowy Świat, July 8, 2004, B.)