It’s axiomatic—or should be, and especially in the American poetry of our moment—that in fact there are many poetries, many overlapping constituencies of readers, poets, and poems. A poet whose work seems important, even canonical, in one camp may be a fringe presence in a second, a mere name in a third, and entirely unknown in a fourth. I was reminded of this recently when a colleague asked me, after I had mentioned a certain poet, whether that poet had published a book. (The poet in question was Fanny Howe. Yes, for the record, she has.)
One partial (or at least possible) cure for American poetry’s Balkanized myopia may be a turning outward, towards other poetries, defined by language or nationality, beyond our borders. The small but discernible uptick of interest in non-American and non-Anglophone poetries since 9/11 has something to do with the national psyche, certainly—the restless suspicion that our cultural nearsightedness in some way prepared both the attack and the national response—but it also, I think, emerges from a more general desire to know what else is out there, what other poetic landscapes might look like. West Branch joins many other journals in seeking poetry in translation.
For a recent model of the sort of reconnoitering literary and cultural work a journal can do, see the recent folio of contemporary Arabic poetry in translation in Pleaides (31:2, Summer 2011). Adonis is here in Khaled Mattawa’s translations, following up on last year’s superb Selected Poems from Yale University Press. Fady Joudah, the American poet and translator best-known for his translations of Mahmoud Darwish, presents the work of three younger Palestinian poets: Ghassan Zaqtan, Asmaa Azaizeh, and Dalia Taha, all of them rich in lyric tones and none of whom I had ever heard of before. The real revelation, though, is the Libyan poet Ashur Etwebi, represented by two longer lyrics in Rasheeda Plenty’s translations. This is stunning work, at home simultaneously in the tropes of classical and contemporary Arabic poetry and the Anglophone inheritances of twentieth-century Modernism. Etwebi’s virtuosic “Selene” made me forget, if only for a few moments, that we had lost Darwish, too soon.
The received wisdom in contemporary publishing is that if there’s no mass market for poetry, there’s even less of a market for poetry in translation: all praise, then, to the smaller presses, like Parlor Press, Ugly Duckling, and BOA Editions, who are committed to bringing out book-length works in translation. Calypso Editions is a new press responsible for the slender and elegant Of Gentle Wolves: An Anthology of Romanian Poetry. Editor Martin Woodside opens with poems by Gellu Naum (1915-2001), the Romanian Surrealist whose work has never found the Anglophone audience it deserves, and Marin Sorescu (1936-1996), who has been slightly better served in English, at least in the U.K., where his work has been featured in Bloodaxe’s excellent translation series. (In the U.S.A., the last edition of his work to see print was a 1991 Selected Poems in the FIELD translation series from Oberlin College Press.) The poets that follow these two are, as far as I can tell, entirely unknown in English versions. There is a certain flatness of statement and the existential preoccupations one associates with other Eastern European poets of the twentieth century (Herbert, Szymborska, Holub, et al.). But there is also a sensual richness of idiom that sets these voices apart. It’s as if somehow Szymborska (or perhaps Rozewicz) had miscegenated with a fey, rogue strain of fin-de-siecle Symbolism, or perhaps Imagism:
I hide in the great bell of the cathedral praying there will be no funerals, no feast days that no one will summon a day of evil no fire will break out
I hide stuck behind the hardened bronze eyes fixed on its drooping tongue motionless, terrible
though dark in the great bell I tremble with solitude much greater than my own
steam condenses on the bronze tongue, rising from mine which I moisten cured with salt it begins to move slowly like the dead resurrected from rain
This by the younger Romanian poet Robert Serban (b. 1970, a Google search informs me; a frustrating weakness of this Woodside volume is that it contains no biographical notes).
Unlike, say, Rozewicz’s or Szymborska’s existentially bracing verse, this is a poetry that can conceive a “solitude much greater than [its] own,” that can hide inside a bell both literally and figuratively. Passing through both the surrealism of Naum and the skepticism of Sorescu, it’s a richly introspective body of work—or seems to be, based on the taste this anthology affords. To borrow an image from the anthology’s final poem, by Nicolae Coande, this slender volume constitutes “a collective passport, / unstamped” for the American reader. We need more volumes like this, slim and quick enough to decant us from our usual camps even as they convey the news, as Emily Dickinson had it, “that Popocatapel exists— / Or Etna’s Scarlets, Choose—”
This fall I take over the editorship of West Branch, a journal that in fact published some of my own early poems. We read everything we receive; we read it closely; and because we, too, are writers, we try to respond to work in a matter of days or weeks, rather than months.
Whatever else it is, a literary journal is a conversation. It is a living, breathing space within a culture’s own best sense of itself. All of us here look forward to reading your best work. Let us hear from you.
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