KR Reviews

April 2021 Micro-Reviews

To celebrate National Poetry Month, here’s another round of microreviews! #KRTranslates —KH

Ra’ad Abdulqadir. Except for This Unseen Thread. Trans. Mona Kareem. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021. 144 pages. $20.00.

Except for This Unseen ThreadIn a blurb for Except for This Unseen Thread, Iraqi poet, editor, and journalist Ra’ad Abdulqadir’s first translated work in English, Don Mee Choi refers to the poet’s “glass language of refusal.” Given the pervasive imagery of windows in the collection, Choi’s blurb aptly describes Ra’ad’s poetics. But the glass here is more than an inert, transparent medium: the book opens on windows with “light cutting through their bodies.”

Except for This Unseen Thread cycles through a set of emblematic images like windows, the sun, birds, angels, shadows, and the moon. The repeated invocation of these icons is reminiscent of Etel Adnan’s symbol-catalogues in The Arab Apocalypse or Joyce Mansour’s desert-inflected surrealism. The surrealist impulse surfaces in Ra’ad’s poetry as well. His objects shimmer with an eerie vibrancy, often taking on human qualities. The objects in “Outside Inside,” for instance, take corporeal form while human bodies are deconstructed:

The rain is pouring heavily
the windshield wipers are waving like drowning arms
noses are glued to the windows
hands sinking in the flesh of chairs

Inside the car
the sky looks awake
in the mirror
the trees glow with twittering sounds
and the keys are dangling over the earth
like clusters

The line describing “trees glow[ing] with twittering sounds” highlights Ra’ad’s persistent interest in sound’s materiality. In these noisy poems, sounds become objects in their own right. We hear the “roar of a lion / like grass growing” and we observe that “the hole on the street corner is filled / with ringing.” Elsewhere, sound indexes the ever-present ambience of war:

Our eyes stand still in their sockets
listening attentively
listening to a strange clamor outside
we keep on listening, baffled—
even in this safe place
the strange clamor doesn’t stop?

Ra’ad lived through the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War and died in 2003, the year of the US invasion. War enters these poems in surprising and often surreal ways, like the image of “a flower taking the shape of a tank.” But the most striking moments are the glimpses of the strangeness of daily life, like the desolately cinematic “Two Windows”:

On the street his shadow falls
the man who is standing by the window,
On the street her shadow falls
the woman who’s standing by the opposite window,
On their shadows the rain falls
the man and woman sharing a long kiss,
A car driving by at night
its lights cut through the kisses and the rain

Mona Kareem’s spellbinding translation, presented in a bilingual edition with the original Arabic, provides a welcome window into Ra’ad’s poetic world. Except for This Unseen Thread registers images both mythic and mundane in its “glass language,” pierced by light, wounded and glimmering. —ZA

 

Helena Boberg. Sense Violence. Trans. Johannes Göransson. Black Ocean, 2020. 96 pages. $16.00.

Sense ViolenceHelena Boberg’s Sense Violence, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson, examines what it means to be alive, to be a woman, to play games, to be tied (ever and always) to forces both beautiful and violent. Boberg’s work trades in the languor of melancholy and offers a tour de force of physical brutality paired with the blur of detachment, disembodiment. We meet mothers, daughters, grandmothers: in and out of temporal bodies, in and out of hospital wards, in and out of the male gaze, in and out of danger. The text offers flowers and fruit aplenty, sexuality and suffering meet hand-in-hand. Early, and later in refrain:

The taut apricot
paints her mouth wet

A jab opens death
this summer already
where the fruit violates its sisters

Boberg’s language is all-consuming, intense and vivid, rending the knowable, reminding the reader again and again of the drunkenness of violence, the reckless nature with which men handle women and girls, and the ways in which this goes on. How all of this—the beauty and violence of living—is its own eternal summer, kismet, and playing out across these pages, across our own lives. Another refrain:

Everything begins
and ends
at exactly
the right time
and place

It can be difficult to reckon with the visceral brutality of Sense Violence, but the agency in the voice of the speaker(s) stabilizes the reader as deftly as it destabilizes. Sense Violence offers humanity on display, in all its horridness and splendor. It reveals all of us (freaks, leashed or otherwise) in a world of inescapable volatility and undeniable beauty.

She flees
with loosened hair
a gash in her back

(how feminine)

She bows to
the will of the masters
Like a fragile bluebell
Her folded
petals
in shreds

Read it. —ZCK

 

Najwan Darwish. Exhausted on the Cross. Trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid. New York Review Books, 2021. 126 pages. $16.00.

Exhausted on the CrossIn his brilliant foreword to Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish’s Exhausted on the Cross, Chilean poet Raúl Zurita declares that the poems “reemerge from their own silence, signaling that nothing would exist were it not for the fact that the most imperishable aspect of the human dream is inscribed in the hope of a new day.”

Through this notion, Zurita lays the essence of this book wide open to readers: floating between grief and hope, between life and death, is only one answer. Choosing hope over grief, life over death, resistance over obedience, has been the answer for every Palestinian exhausted on the cross. It’s hard to read this book without passing checkpoints of humanity. Darwish, through Kareem Abu-Zeid’s superb translation, forces us to be awakened to our own sense of loss; to our need for refuge.

In Exhausted on the Cross, we travel emotionally and geographically in time, from Mount Carmel to Shatila to Shiraz to Gaza. Borders in poetry are just delusions, inventing them is merely a choice of the reader. Abu-Zeid translates:

You’re still resisting, in such a wretched state?
We’re still able to respond,
and we’re still smiling and laughing
and taking you unawares,
You—
The defeated entourage.

Here, too, anger and hope intertwine to tease out what it means to be a child of exile. The collection deftly reflects the myriad of ways Palestinians have conjured up hope from hopelessness, have forced contradictions to make sense. We are faced with the contrast, complexity, and depth of lives left behind just as we are reminded that on the other side of the world reside resilience and rebellion inscribed with devotion to life, love, and homeland.

In “They Woke You at Dawn” Abu-Zeid renders a line into English: “Christ was a fedayee, just like you.” Choosing NOT to translate here is crucial since the term “fedayee” in Arabic—and specifically in Palestine—refers to Christ as a quintessential form of sacrifice in the face of injustice. In this way Abu-Zeid subtly imprints Darwish’s, and by extension, a Palestinian usage in the reader’s mind. This choice of translation in and of itself is a form of resistance, forcing a way for Arabic to persist within a colonial language; a parallel to the way Palestinians have persisted despite the occupation.

I die,
and they say I’m resting.
You’re covered in my blood
but my murder, somehow,
Fails to disturb you.

Ultimately, Exhausted on the Cross—in all its beautiful complexity—brings us to this question:  What will it take, who has to die, for us to be disturbed? —HSI

 

Home: New Arabic Poems. Two Lines Press, 2020. 152 pages. $16.95.

Home: New Arabic PoemsThe poets in this anthology already knew what this year has taught us all: that home can be both a safe haven and a prison; an escape from the world and a world unto itself; a marker of and a vessel for the passage of time. This slim bilingual collection brings together some of the most stirring and incisive voices in contemporary Arabic poetry. Their translators bring them into English with all senses alert: each page bursts and whispers with many-sensory images.

“Home” takes on many hues across these poems. In Palestinian poet Samer Abu Hawwash’s “Last Selfie with a Dying World” (tr. Rawad Wehbe), you hear “a glass shattering in the neighbor’s sink, / little feet stomping the ground, / eyes trying to swallow the light / like the mouths of hungry fish.” As his haiku-like snapshots build into a detailed scene over several pages, you begin to feel the subtle terror that lurks in the corners of daily life.

Egyptian poet Iman Mersal (tr. Robyn Creswell and Robin Moger) reminds us that home can be gentle: it welcomes you back after a safe return from sleep with black coffee and skin temperature floorboards. But it can also break your heart, as when she watches her family home being torn down, its memories dismantled along with the earthen walls that still contain strands of her mother’s hair. Sometimes, home isn’t a house at all but any small act that tethers you to the earth: Walter Benjamin carefully wrapped in underwear in your suitcase; the stranger on the plane who lends you his shoulder for five hours while you sleep.

For Tunisian poet Ines Abassi (tr. Koen De Cuyper and Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg), home is the body we’re stuck in as well as the painful appendage we extend, trying to touch someone who doesn’t share our homeland, our home language. For Egyptian Ahmed Shafie (tr. Nuernberg and Shafie), too, home clings to the body – when the homeland of his father has changed so much his soul may not find its way home, memories are no longer of much use. The body will have to do instead: “Where most people have memories / I have two arms / held wide open.”

The anthology also includes poetry by Mohamad Nassereddine (Lebanon; tr. Huda Fakhreddine), Saadiah Mufarreh (Kuwait; tr. Allison Blecker), Riyad al-Salih al-Hussein (Syria; tr. Rana Issa and Suneela Mubayi), Ashjan Hendi (Saudi Arabia; tr. Moneera Al-Ghadeer), and Fadhil al-Azzawi (Iraq; tr. William M. Hutchins). —PBC

 

Valerie Mejer Caso. Edinburgh Notebook. Trans. Michelle Gil-Montero. Action Books, 2021. 158 pages. $20.00.

Edinburgh NotebookEvery line of Valerie Mejer Caso’s Edinburgh Notebook is caught up in the expansion of a particular moment: the suicide of the poet’s brother. Mejer Caso holds on to this event, chronicling the aftermath that still reverberates through her family, following the hairline cracks that lead back to that tragedy that “will shatter for forty years.” Time slows and clots like blood. Her brother falls from his window, slows down, rewinds over and over again throughout the book. “The diamantine trace of his flight is still visible” and lingers like a contrail in the margins of these pages.

To return
would mean that no time has passed,
that nothing happened.
          But yes, it did happen.

Temporality is flexible in this book, and the present circles back, folding itself over towards the past. “Now is the echo”; the poet’s present act of writing is intangible, weightless, and unstable in comparison to the event, and she reaches back for that moment. She is writing after the fact, elegizing, remembering: “I am that sentence listing their words.”

Mejer Caso’s language mimics her backward motion. Her lines often show the evidence of an editing mind, a mind that returns to an image, expands it, adjusts it.

I won’t be the ashes of a sketch
I won’t be the life
I don’t have
that I’m not          not the man
or his absence      I’m not
the blue                 body
of the planet         shredded
hunger            hill
and shadow I am

This wealth of expansions and additions is symptomatic of the poet trying to articulate her brother’s death, something she recognizes as not fully possible. She runs through her resources—childhood memories, a painting by Kobayashi Kiyochika, things said or unsaid—in an effort to understand, but ultimately: “the poem would set off like a ship and be gone, dwarfed on the horizon . . . and I hadn’t found the right words.”

Michelle Gil-Montero’s translation of Edinburgh Notebook is tuned in to the echoey, open sounds of Mejer Caso’s poetry as in “rolling like worlds” and “The crone Moon was coming back.” But more than just tracking sonic echoes, Gil-Montero manages the many unruly, thematic trails of Mejer Caso’s poetry throughout her translation, reminding the reader through purposeful reiterations and resonant images of the same event, at once a flight and a fall, a vacuum, a silence, an explosion. —MT

 

Moon Bo Young. Pillar of Books. Trans. Hedgie Choi. Black Ocean, 2021. 152 pages. $16.00.

Pillar of BooksAn abbreviated list of things that come alive in Pillar of Books:

1) carrots
2) a, b, and c
3) two o’clock in the afternoon
4) “the small shit beneath the utility pole”
5) ☆

In Moon Bo Young’s poetic world, one line’s object is another’s subject. Take for example “Poem Written with a Mosquito.” In it the “young poets” Antoine, Gemelle, and Strains (recurring characters who seem to live in a perpetual season of summer) attend a lecture about “shattering this way and that way.” There is a pesky mosquito in the room; Strains opens his bag and “Mom” tries to climb out; the lecturer shows them a photo of baby turtles; Gemelle unknots his own bag, and then from inside of it emerge three “mini-poets,” pocket versions of our abstruse heroes, who proceed to have a discussion about the nagging question: “Why is childbirth so uniquely difficult for humans?” Here, personification is no mere condiment to imagery; it is a drunk magic wand, skipping wildly about, turning any old thing into a real boy so we can hear its daily grievances.

Pillar of Books is Moon’s second book of poetry. It is the South Korean poet’s first translation into English. And while the translator, Hedgie Choi, pens a curiously self-effacing note (“Hm . . . what exactly is a translator’s note for?”), her work is rewarding. As in the grammar of “Wall” or the puns of “Axe Wielding Crazy Assed Person,” she consistently finds ways to use the challenge of these poems to present exciting new possibilities in English.

Ultimately, what is impressive about this collection is not its language—though it has its moments. What is impressive is its relentless sense of play, a fabric woven together from Moon’s voracious anthropomorphizing, her deadpan tone, her proclivity for the absurd, and her constant curiosity in pushing the bounds of what can be called poetry (see: “Laws of Science”).

This is not a collection for the semantically-attached. Moon’s poetics, if anything, seem to delight in evading interpretation and epiphany. To the protuberance of the critic’s gaze, they offer up a pig’s ass (see: “When You’re Sad Bring a Pig’s Ass). But if you’re still willing to dive in, you might learn a thing or two. Or not. In “Collaboration Poem,” there is a “poem-writing scorpion” who grabs a “hard-to-grab pencil.” It writes a poem. “The reader” tries to look and the scorpion stabs the reader’s eyes with the pencil. The reader gets new eyes. The scorpion stabs them again. And so on, until eventually the eyes pop, making a single, confounding sound: “Splork!” —JS

 

Susana Thénon. Ova Completa. Trans. Rebekah Smith. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021. 136 pages. $20.00.

Ova CompletaSusana Thénon and translator Rebekah Smith’s Ova Completa begins by asking its reader to imagine a screaming woman:

why is that woman screaming?
why is she screaming?
why is that woman screaming?

What follows is a series of highly-varied poems, wherein female fed-upness—as Smith offers as one idiomatic meaning behind the title—courses through avant-garde aesthetic protocols, a polyphonic speaker, and reappropriated discourses. In Ova Completa, first published in Argentina in 1987, gender and genre (both género in Spanish) are profoundly coupled, and it is in this interplay that patriarchal convention is pieced apart. “because the thing itself / doesn’t peel off so easily / but rather layer by layer / like an artichoke / like winter.”

Ova Completa is a razor-sharp reappropriation of the canon-affirming tomes labeled “Complete Works” (“Obras completas” in Spanish). That Thénon critiques this lopsidedly-male publishing practice from a female reproductive organ (the Latin “ova” means egg, ovary) underscores the text’s feminist intervention. The poems subvert phallogocentrism, and with it, parody male originality and “seminal” knowledge. Thénon re-defines (“Philosophy means ‘rape of a living being’”), refashions (“I can offer you instead / Avellaneda’s Quixote”), and makes fun (“this will be understood [. . .] with the advent of some Sigmundo / or Segismundo”).

There is a great deal of “irony, darling.” A number of poems, like “Anthology,” are quite funny. Yet, there is always a layer of social truth underneath, like this commentary on the literal marginalization of women writers:

of course I’m not featured in the Fantastic Zoolo
guide of Borges
but I’ll feature in the next editions
as addenda
as breaking news
or as asterisk fodder

Though, much of Ova Completa’s confrontational drive manifests through unstable language as resistant to the symbolic logic of patriarchy and empire. Located “intransgression,” the book undercuts entrenched social and literary codes: “it’s called language consciousness / intransgression / pavement / that slides into the Monument.”

Smith’s translation shapeshifts between registers, rhetoric, and tones, matching Thénon’s beat for beat (“meanwhile they smell like shit […] meanwhile they die wrecked / whilst you expire archaic”). I’m particularly drawn to Smith’s visceral choices, which redouble Thénon’s revolutionary claim that the space of reproduction is one of transformation.

By the end of the collection, it becomes possible to envision the woman’s scream not as a breaking point, but as a radical move to demand space—like Thénon granting herself an Ova Completa—in a world that gives so much space to men. It is a call to pay attention to the asterisk fodder—to translate it. —OL

 

Zack Anderson is from Cheyenne, Wyoming. He holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD student at the University of Georgia. His critical writing appears in American Microreviews and Interviews, Harvard Review, and the Action Books blog. His poems have recently been published in Fairy Tale ReviewNew Delta Review, grama, and Dreginald.

Phoebe Bay Carter is a graduate student in comparative literature at Harvard University and a translator from Arabic and Spanish. Her translations have appeared in Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslationAlchemy, and ArabLit Quarterly.

Katherine M. Hedeen’s latest translations include from a red barn by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and prepoems in postspanish and other poems by Jorgenrique Adoum. She is a Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College, a Managing Editor of Action Books, and the Poetry in Translation Editor at the Kenyon Review. More info: www.katherinemhedeen.com

Hanaa Saad Ibrahim is from Gaza, Palestine. She is currently a Senior Psychology Major and Spanish Minor at Kenyon College.

Zoe Contros Kearl holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she studied poetry and translation, and a BA from New York University’s Gallatin School. She lives and works in New York.

Olivia Lott is the translator of Lucía Estrada’s Katabasis (2020, Eulalia Books), which is a finalist for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She is an Olin Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in Hispanic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Justin Sun is from San Jose, CA. He currently lives in Chicago.

Mallory Truckenmiller Saylor is an MFA Iowa Arts Fellow in literary translation at the University of Iowa and received a BA in English from Saint Vincent College. Specializing in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, Mallory primarily translates Latin American and Iberian women writers with a focus on the role of gender in literature and translation. She works with Exchanges, Eulalia Books, and Song Bridge Project.