KR Reviews

March 2018 Micro-Reviews

This issue marks the beginning of a new feature of the Kenyon Review’s micro-reviews. Twice a year, in March and in September, we’ll be completely dedicated to recent collections of poetry in English translation. At a time when there’s so much talk about building walls, we highlight the work of those who are busy tearing them down. We’ve brought together a gifted and diverse team of poet/translators eager to expand KR’s ever growing commitment to showcasing the best in poetry from around the world. —KH

Galo Ghigliotto. Valdivia. Trans. Daniel Borzutzky. co-im-press, 2016. 123 pages. $17.95.


i was born a bullet and i came out of my mother’s mouth (14)

Valdivia, by Chilean poet Galo Ghigliotto and translator Daniel Borzutzky, is one of the most exciting translations to come into English in recent years. Set within the Chilean town of the same name, the book draws upon an anachronistic context of Valdivian violence: the erasure of the region’s indigenous populations, the state-sponsored persecution of thousands of Chileans, the 1960 earthquake, and the poet’s own witnessing of domestic abuse. All of this comes together in a series of poems in which Ghigliotto pieces together memories from his upbringing, where elements of reality, imagination, and mythology both converge and diffract within a childlike stream of consciousness.

This vivid and visceral poetry is full of flash-backs, dreams, constantly altered repetitions, and the transformation of a landscape of violence into Valdivia’s own phantasmal, nightmarish plane: death rattles drawing “bubbles of blood”; the devil “bottling spirits”; black birds “with human faces . . . dropping their death holes”; Santa Claus filling his sack “with dead kids.” The form takes on this same intensity as the non-chronologically numbered poems and virtual absence of punctuation and uppercase letters unmarks all beginnings and endings and lends a particular velocity to the poems. In short, Valdivia overwhelms our senses.

Borzutzky’s translation carries this same intensity of sensation into English. He matches the clash of the original’s childlike narrative playfulness (“squishy,” “bellies,” “slobbers”), the adult voice who revisits these scenes, and the harsh (un)reality of what’s being described (“rivers are tongues of 3M bags”; cartoon characters “holding belts in their blood-stained hands”). On a more subtle level, Borzutzky’s translation makes this rift feel even more uncanny by making Ghigliotto’s a lowercase poetic “i.” Often not marked separate from the verb in Spanish, the heightened presence of the “i” suggests the smallness and vulnerability of the young lyrical subject, the swiftness with which he could drift off—unnoticed—down the Cruces or Calle Calle rivers.

It comes as no surprise that Valdivia and Borzutzky were awarded the 2017 National Translation Award in Poetry. In fact, the success of the English translation has now spurred a second Chilean edition, which had been out of print, attesting to the power of literary translation not only to bring new poetics into English but also to transform the reading of them in the original. What becomes quite clear, then, is that Valdivia affirms both Borzutzky as one of today’s most exciting translators and co-im-press as a cutting edge publisher to be watched. —OL

Ann Jäderlund. Which once had been meadow. Trans. Johannes Göransson. Black Square Editions, 2017. 119 pages. $18.00.

Which once had been meadowIn Johannes Göransson’s translation of Ann Jäderlund’s Which once had been meadow (first published in Sweden in 1988 as Som en gång varit äng), structures, bodies, and natural spaces move in and out of each other. The poems are beautiful and spiny: jewel-like, with deep magic in them (“The crystals in our breasts are of the same size”). The female speaker acts with great agency: “You put a finger down my brown throat / I burned you until you became also warm.” An erotic female body-as-meadow, but one that is not literature’s oft-repeated image of the fertile field ripe for the taking. No—in Jäderlund’s language, pussy grabs back.

The book, Jäderlund’s second, has deeply influenced Swedish poetry. I had the pleasure of reading it in Sweden, where area writers told me male critics called it “obegriplig,” incomprehensible, kicking off a debate about gendered responses to Jäderlund’s writing about sex.

These are compact poems, often with around six words to a line, a handful of lines to a page. And they do read as cryptic. It strikes me as fitting that Jäderlund translates Emily Dickinson into Swedish. Precision at the word-level is key, especially since there is great repetition—beam, core, chamber, muscle, leaf, bud, seed. She uses, for Swedish, very few compound words (these stand out in English as more inventive—“boneframe” for “benstomme,” “beneathbottom” for “underbotten”).

Many Swedish words are multivalent—“gränsa” is both border and limit, “strand” is both beach and shore—and a Swedish reader holds all the possibilities of each—a movement of mind that’s harder to mirror in English. But what is gained here in translation is the ability to translate based on sound and rhythm. In syllable count, straightforward syntax, and in grounded Anglo-Saxon terms, Göransson succeeds in staying close to the original.

In English too, of course, “beams” are both structural supports and rays of light, and can be metaphorical. This works in many cases thanks to the nearness of English and Swedish—I wonder how it would be to translate this book into an unrelated language, or one without the same possibilities. Which once had been meadow challenged ideas I had about “direct translation” or how to judge what the most “available” word in translation might be. In any case, I want to read lines like “But I mature / Every time you leave / I become tighter / Will you gather me then” over and over again. —KV

Diana Morán. Reflections Next to Yr Skin. Trans. Ash Ponders. Gramma Poetry, 2017. 45 pages. $16.00.

Reflections Next to Yr SkinAs the title suggests, Panamanian poet and activist Diana Morán’s collection Reflections Next to Yr Skin explores tensions between intimacy and distance, refracted through frames of citizenship and selfhood. The collection maneuvers deftly between bodies personal and politic. While many of the images are intensely bodily, the pronouns are often collective, accumulating political weight and emphasizing the vulnerability and resilience of the speakers:

          in the shackles
                        our fists are multiplied
              w/o passports
                        they threw us to the air

Divided into three movements, the collection is anchored by ten “Dawn Station” pieces, forming a daisy chain of love poems addressed to a precarious material existence. Filled with train stations, ocean voyages, and clashing bodies, these poems speak to Morán’s background as a labor organizer and her subsequent exile in Mexico City. Between the jewel-like “Dawn Stations,” I repeatedly found myself thinking of Alejandra Pizarnik and Raúl Zurita, poets who shared similar concerns about voice, presence, and precarity. In “We Reject Nothing,” a long poem that provides a rhetorical center in the collection, Morán writes, “October got into the body / + the final gesture of the desaparecidos / infuriated the distance / w/ broken digits / + boiling hands / I’ve no voice / I’ve their voices.” For me, these lines recall Zurita’s mastery of erased voices speaking from vast landscapes as well as Pizarnik’s claim that “I cannot speak with my voice, but I speak with my voices.”

Despite the crystalline intensity of the poems, Ponder’s translation choices occasionally sound odd tones. For instance, the words “y,” “con,” and “tu” become “+,” “w/,” and “yr.” To some readers, decisions like these may lend a sense of punk urgency, as if the poems might be scratched into the police station wall under cover of night. However, the visual effect is frequently distracting from Morán’s breakneck turns of phrase and arresting imagery.

By translating Reflections Next to Yr Skin, Ash Ponders brings readers into vital contact with Diana Morán’s riotous, gorgeous, saboteur poetry. Morán died in 1987, but her work is striking as ever, a poetics that revels in the messiness of borders both physical and affective, a “fugitive sheaf…imperfect / / disheveled / / my sweetheart” (“Poetry”). —ZA

Ursula Andkjær Olsen. Third-Millennium Heart. Trans. Katrine Øgaard Jensen. Action Books, 2017. 210 pages. $14.00.

Third-Millennium Heart“This is my new body language,” announces the speaker throughout Katrine Øgaard Jensen’s translation of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart. This intoxicating and terrifying poem (or many poems) is a meditation humming with repeated mantras of feminist poetics, words inside of words inside of pages inside of the book held inside your hands. I find myself continuously resisting the urge to adopt the language of the book when writing about it—almost as if there’s no other way to comment upon it except in its own body language.

The images that flow through Third-Millennium Heart are often surprising, perverse, and very dark: the speaker adorned with food chains, crowns constructed out of unfertilized eggs, a solar system of organs suspended in orbit, a string of fingers with another hand attached to each tip, “which, at the end of each fingertip has a / cradle, so I can hold you infinitely.”

Olsen pays careful attention to the naming of things, a practice at the heart-center of translation itself—the renaming of things. One of the most striking elements of Jensen’s translation is the flexibility and comfort with which she allows the English to be transformed by the Danish. Jensen adopts new English body languages through invented compound words: comajubilation, groundwine, heavenmechanic, fuck-forest, babelchords, and a crowd favorite, namedrunk.

The reader navigates contradictions and tensions both thematically—between emptiness and excess, blood both flowing and coagulated, all places and nowhere, nameless-ness and namedrunk-enness, where correlation equals coincidence, “distant interiors” and “exits with no openings”—and rhetorically; Olsen weaves the divine and the crassly human:

If your death is meaningless, it must be because you
are meaning, and losing you would be the loss of meaning
inside my distant interior: where meaning runs out, where
rose and name run

My urine has smelled abnormally bitter the last few days.

Olsen does not attempt to resolve these contradictions, but instead, adopts a kaleidoscopic methodology; the speaker examines all sides of the book’s motifs, muses over every possibility contained within a word or idea or identity. If Third-Millennium Heart seems at first unstructured, the reader is quickly corrected: rather, it has a structure entirely, wholly its own. —GM

Spiral StaircaseHirato Renkichi. Spiral Staircase. Trans. Sho Sugita. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017. 206 pages. $17.00.

When I first encountered Futurism, it was European. It made me think speed and feel terror. This was new to me. When I read Hirato Renkichi’s Futurism, I think and feel LIFE! This is new to me.

The bird flying
. . .
. . .
The wings of a hydraulic turbine
One after another                              A wing
                                               A wing
                                     A wing
                           A wing
                 A wing

Renkichi sees in all things breath and mind, motion and emotion. The human heart is everywhere in its own body; in the restless, proliferating, ultramodern city; in the sky and in fish and in Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Or it is the machine (“An animal of irritated electricity / An animal of composure”) that is everywhere and the heart. Translator Sho Sugito writes that for Renkichi, “Futurism was an all-consuming Deus absconditus of the machines—ready to transform all the -isms into a unified theory he called dōitsu hyōgen (‘expression of one-ness’ or ‘amalgamated expression’).”

Aggregating inside one flower of the field
                                    The natural world!

Renkichi was an influential poet of Japan’s avant-garde and he died young, at the age of twenty-nine, in 1922. Almost a century later, we finally have an English translation of all his poems, a precious object in Ugly Duckling’s Lost Literature series. Sho Sugita writes into English Renkichi’s formal, exclamatory, and typographical experiments with the jouissance I imagine they possess in Japanese. There is clarity too—a directness of vision, an eye toward the eye of the storm, as it were. Or as the first line of the first poem in the book goes: “My eyes are inside that everyday.”

The future, which is in the now of modernity, is terrifying. But Renkichi is able to spin the speed of machines into the oneness of the world, “the flow of crimson magma,” “an ingenious harmony,” a dance into which he too is drawn:

I become a merry maiko there and dance
In a row lined up in front of you people
In addition, dancing (what is thought to be) a strange performance.

A strange and astonishing performance. What a thrill to have this book available to Anglophone readers today. —AM

Mercedes Roffé. Floating Lanterns. Trans. Anna Deeny. Shearsman Books, Ltd., 2015. 104 pages. $18.00.

Floating LanternsMercedes Roffé’s collection, Linternas flotantes, appeared in Spanish in 2009—yet it speaks directly to the emotional necessities of our moment. Confronting violence, Roffé gives us shelter. The poems do not articulate platforms for resistance. They’re carefully paced meditations demonstrating that interiority is powerful and silence essential. Roffé began writing them in New York, observing the sea at night. She continued in Argentina, whose presence is marked with repeated reference to jasmine. Repetition of many kinds, including anaphora, lends a ceremonial tone to the whole. The fires in Floating Lanterns are ritualistic, candles lit to stave off the inferno. Rage still surfaces from time to time, as Roffé attests to evil: “3000 bombs in one weekend / how many faces / how many hands / how many legs / how many veils-gauze stuck to skin burning / how many stones over stones torn away / how many lives torn from life.” The drive to respond with intense awareness leads her back toward life and love, though without erasing knowledge of humanity’s failures. “And this too shall pass,” Roffé asserts. “Not evil. Not evil. Just the names.”

Floating Lanterns appears in facing-page bilingual format. As her literal rendition of the title suggests, translator Anna Deeny observes some constraint. A specialist in Latin American literature with substantial depth in poetry, she is sensitive to terms and contexts from the original Spanish. Yet Deeny exploits sound and image with care. For Roffé’s disciplined poetry, her choices tend to be subtle. For example, where the term “reina” would lose echoes in English if presented literally, as “queen,” Deeny rearranges her phrasing to foreground the verb “reign.” Elsewhere she chooses “thieve” over other options (such as “rob”), creating an elegant pace: “To thieve the fire is not to thieve nor is it fire.” These small choices add up; Deeny successfully melds them into longer progressions on each page. She pursues Roffé’s questions with the restrained musicality they require: “And if there are not two shores? / If all is one? / If there are not two or one / but a glissando of mirrors / toward or from the light”? In her brief but useful introduction to the book, Deeny offers a way to understand what “political” vision comes from this thoughtful poet, citing Roffé’s statement, “I think of poetry and art in general as an alternative to . . . monolithic idiocy.” —KD


Zack Anderson holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame, where he interned for Action Books, and an MA from the University of Wyoming. He currently works as an English teacher and bookseller in Denver, Colorado.

Kristin Dykstra is editor and co-translator of Maqroll’s Prayer and Other Poems by Álvaro Mutis, forthcoming from New York Review Books. Her translations of books by Reina María Rodríguez, Juan Carlos Flores, Angel Escobar, and Marcelo Morales were published by the University of Alabama Press, each with her critical introduction.

Katherine M. Hedeen is professor of Spanish at Kenyon College. Her latest book-length translations include night badly written (Action Books) and tasks (co-im-press) by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, and Nothing Out of This World, an anthology of contemporary Cuban poetry. She is the poetry translation editor for the Kenyon Review and a two-time recipient of a NEA Translation Project Grant.

Olivia Lott is a literary translator and PhD student in Hispanic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, specializing in modern and contemporary Spanish American poetry and translation studies.

Aditi Machado is the translator of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia (Action Books, 2016) and the author of Some Beheadings (Nightboat Books, 2017). She edits poetry in translation for Asymptote.

Gabriella Martin is a literary translator and PhD candidate in Hispanic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, where she studies the critical theory and practice of translation in the context of Iberian literatures.

Kelsi Vanada translates from Spanish and writes poems. She has collaborated on translations of Swedish poet Marie Silkeberg, and was a 2016 ALTA Travel Fellow. Her first full-length translation, The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet, was published by Song Bridge Press in February 2018.