March 22, 2021KR Reviews

March 2021 Micro-Reviews

Interest in translation within the literary community is growing, and as a result, interest in Kenyon Review micro-reviews of poetry in translation is too. In 2021, we’ll be expanding from twice a year to four times. Look for us from now on in March, April, August, and September. Enjoy this latest round and come back in April for more! —KH

Mykola Bazhan. “Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul”: Mykola (Nik) Bazhan’s Early Experimental Poetry. Ed. Oksana Rosenblum, Lev Fridman, and Anzhelika Khyzhnya. Academic Studies Press, 2020. 324 pages. $24.95.

Mykola (Nik) Bazhan’s Early Experimental PoetryUkrainian poet Mykola (Nik) Bazhan’s (1904-1983) early poems, now collected and published in English translation (many for the first time), are a sustained experiment in newness. Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul collects some of Bazhan’s freshest, most varied work from 1926-1929, before he was forced to write in USSR-sanctioned Socialist Realism to survive the purges of the 1930s.

Bazhan and his fellow avant-gardes aimed to create a new Ukrainian poetry freed from the “superannuated themes and exhausted techniques of the literature they sought to demolish.” In true modernist spirit, he experimented with futurism, neoclassicism, the baroque, and more. To translate Bazhan’s vast (multiple) experiments, Quiet Spiders’s editors gathered a large sample size: twenty people are listed among the team’s bios!

They did extensive research into Bazhan’s historical and linguistic context and recovered some of the physical texts of his poems that were nearly lost to history. But a team approach is also fitting because Bazhan was many poets. Certainly, some central characteristics appear, such as the preeminence given to imagery and to Ukrainian folklore, and his vast vocabulary, which includes invented language “bewildering” to contemporary Ukrainian speakers, according to the editors. But each translator writes their own Bazhan. Svetlana Lavochkina versions “Trooper’s Song” into quick-beat, militaristic English:

Don’t wait for commands.
We shoot those who linger!
The wind is slashed up
By hundreds of swords.

Whereas George Grabowicz writes Bazhan’s meandering, metaphysical, philosophical iambs: “In essence all movement just longs for completion / And as soon as it starts it contains in itself / A primal equipoise…”

Again, consider these fragmented, zaum-like lines from “Circus”: “at a jot trot / hop—tsa—tsa.” This poem’s three translators play with Bazhan’s sound performatively, creating a visual and auditory romp in English—a very different mode than the tumultuous “Heart to Heart Conversation,” a phantasmagorical allegory questioning the strengths of Communist ideals while critiquing pre-revolutionary Russia, translated by Oksana Rosenblum and Jon Frankel:

And what’s the point in a cross
Or in your distress?
In foreign dumps, like a starving dog,
Your Rus’ expired.

Some poems show their age or are full of specific allusions requiring detailed footnotes, but Quiet Spiders plays the vital role of bringing Bazhan’s 1920s newness to a new audience of present-day Anglophone readers, be they lovers of poetic sound, story, or scholarship. The 324-page volume includes critical introductions and translators’ notes, and its bilingual format preserves and makes accessible the original poems. A positive experiment indeed. —KV


Di Giorgio, Marosa. Carnation and Tenebrae Candle. Trans. Jeannine Marie Pitas. Cardboard House Press. 2020. $18.00.

Carnation and Tenebrae Candle“When they realized what was happening, the tragedy had already begun” opens Marosa di Giorgio’s Carnation and Tenebrae Candle, immediately establishing the disorientation that characterizes her collection. Di Giorgio grew up on a farm outside of Salto, Uruguay, and in her poetry—which she discovered her gift for as a child— she returns to this lush countryside saturated with peculiar and deadly flora and fauna. The 124 numbered poems, beautifully translated by Jeannine Marie Pitas, fuse the past and the present, the living and the dead: an ambiguity takes hold and it is impossible to ground oneself in the ever-changing landscape. Yet constant throughout tense and time, lurking among the “lion’s tooth” flowers, are ghosts of the Uruguayan military dictatorship.

Though these terrors are approached through the eyes of a child, the poetic voice is by no means innocent or unaware; It is quite the opposite. Plants and animals are humanized: a turkey-hen with an “obsession with getting married,” gladioli standing “rigid like soldiers.” The natural world possesses more than just sentience, and beings are capable of empathy, but also of great violence. Di Giorgio picks up on the imperceptible, noticing what others cannot. On the speaker’s ability to see strange formations on the walls around her, di Giorgio concedes:

I am cursed, condemned to this.
And there’s a certain pleasure in this matter.

In her translation, Pitas captures the speaker’s moments of clarity that come from a willingness to see beyond her immediate world. There is an unmistakable urgency in Pitas’ translation, despite the collection’s shifting temporality. In the poems written from the perspective of the narrator as an adult, di Giorgio preserves her sense of wonder, still indulging in the supernatural aura of her childhood.

Even now when I step into the office every morning,
                                                                                I open my bag and
          pull out
the remains of butterflies,
or the crown of some wild beast.

Through her engagement with di Giorgio’s poetry, Pitas invites a new audience to witness the power of imagination and the possibilities that it offers: the capacity for curiosity both in the quotidian moments and the horrific. Originally published in 1979 during the time of Uruguay’s military dictatorship, Carnation and Tenebrae Candle is a timely translation for contemporary English-speaking readers. In our own tumultuous times, di Giorgio’s words are an immense comfort, showing us the potential for humanity and creation in the face of brutality and destruction. —RB


Åke Hodell. The Marathon Poet. Trans. by Fia Backström. Edited by Kira Josefsson. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020. 152 pages. $16.00.

The Marathon Poet“Is the poet running nude on Bellman’s Road? / Has the poet gone completely mad?” I have never encountered a poet quite like Åke Hodell: hilarious, surreal, and filled with numerous language experiments. Known as one of the great experimental Swedish poets of the 1960s and expertly translated by Fia Backström, Hodell’s 1981 poetry collection The Marathon Poet (Maratonpoeten) gives a whole new meaning to “poetry in motion.” Early in the book, during “preparations for the great race,” we’re introduced to photographs of Hodell in running gear. Once the poet starts running, he begins discarding language—the words “and” (“och”) and “as” (“som”)—only to be reprimanded by another poet for “littering.” Seeing as how “and” always implies more, Hodell’s crime appears to be excess. In one photo, we see Hodell fastening literal ribbons of and and as to his legs. He describes the loosening of these ribbons of language as the sound of his own jogging:

And all as and and
around the toes and heel of my left foot
The sound of my jogging:
                              and as
                              as and
                              and as
                              as and
Rhythmic, like two basses
at least while we wait for the race to start.
The double basses are a nice backing for poetry
especially for the heavy uphill climbs
on the way to Athens

In an elaborate, fantastical race against other poets (who are sometimes referred to as “sheep”), Hodell runs in search of an identity, runs to escape what he calls the “morality” of 1980s Swedish poetry:

How much rather I would have preferred to follow
the poets now soaring in the sky with their balloons
and escape carrying alone
the burdensome responsibility for eighties poetry.
I stagger and sweat under
the 80-kilo weight of morality

Reality is a questionable thing in Hodell’s multiplex marathon poem. Who is the real Hodell? How can we tell fact from fiction? This was one of many challenges for Backström, whose detailed translator’s note reveals that she had to consult a medical doctor because some of the bodily symptoms Hodell wrote about (“intractable obstruction of pulmonary ventilation throughout the entire body”) were in fact made up.

From a story about how Cerberus founded an avant-garde press in Hell . . .

I have given Cerberus my word to not reveal the content of the pact, as he wishes to avoid any conflict with the Swedish Writers’ Union, the Swedish Publishing Association, or the Swedish Academy.

With many well wishes from Cerberus I existed through the Gates of Hell with my script and took the bus to Wadstens & Sons Pritng Press in Stockholm’s Södermalm.

. . . to a zany “Racing Car Opera” reminiscent of a Dada performance,

ROLLS-ROYCE: roooooooooools-rooooooooooois
THE FRENCH EMCEE (not very enthusiastic): Fiat? Fiat? Fiat?
FIAT: (with bite and power): fiiiiiiii’att fiiiiiiiiiiiii’att

The Marathon Poet is a rousing, fast-paced book that vacillates from poetry to prose, never concerned with the speedometer’s numbers, racing into sound after sound, sinking deeper and deeper into a desert of language, only to embrace collision itself. “As its speed exceeds that of light2, Åke Hodell is = Blue Out (transformed into a blue light).” —PC


Giancarlo Huapaya. Sub Verse Workshop. Trans. Ilana Dann Luna. Diálogos, 2020. 103 pages. $19.95.

Sub Verse WorkshopWithin each letter of the alphabet is a poem. In Taller Sub Verso, Giancarlo Huapaya, translated by Ilana Dann Luna to Sub Verse Workshop, explores what lies beneath these letters. Huapaya’s poetry overwhelms; the words and images build against each other until they create the walls of their own world. Each poem in the book is assigned to a letter of the alphabet, which serves as its title.

Huapaya focuses on the body as the subject of many of his poems, and with the body comes desire and sex. However, Huapaya reimagines reproduction as a process of transaction. “Transfer your heritable characteristics to me,” says the speaker in poem “A.” Bodies in Huapaya’s poems are strange, grown beyond cultural bounds. Despite the persistence of sex throughout the book, ideas of gender are largely absent, with only the occasional gendered pronoun.

In poem “G1,” Huapaya lays out his theory of bodies: “bodies are the traces of pain,” and talks about them as separate entities before the speaker admits to their own possession of one: “we’re curves of contaminating development, bodies written on by ruins.” He expands on the subject of bodies:

You are all a foundation of squatters of body-texts, body-numbers
in the transient spasm, in the body-process, among documents,
oneiromancy embellishes with its bereaved writings,
burials of maps drawn with flamboyancy

Resonating throughout the book is how the things a body interacts with leave their impressions. For example, in the letter “Z,” the speaker says, “much of your nudity has been pixelated.” Huapaya emphasizes the faultline between the body and the machine, the reflexive mechanization of sex.

The concepts behind the poetry resonate in the translation. In the translator’s note, Luna writes that her theory of translation is one of “‘transcreation,’ in which translation is a dialogic process that breathes new life into the poetry.” The Spanish and the English poems lie face to face in the book, allowing the reader not only to read in one language but to find the poetry that lies between the two.

Huapaya’s poetry is philosophical and physical, and a fascinating thing to experience. The extensiveness of the ideas in this book appear to contrast the simplicity of the project of detailing the alphabet. Luna’s translation is a whole new alphabet, a whole new language to populate Huapaya’s written world. In his alphabet, Huapaya’s letters are intersections to an entire language. —CA


Sasja Janssen. Putting on My Species. Trans. Michele Hutchison. Shearsman Books, 2020. 72 pages. $18.00.

Putting on My Species“I am the only one / I am lonelier than you,” a grounded moment in the surreal playground of Putting on My Species that feels particularly potent to our time. In a collection that finds its main obsession in the nature of living as a simultaneously relational and ego-driven creature, loneliness is a death of its own. And right now, we must be alone. In this light, Sasja Janssen and the translator, Michele Hutchison, paint life not as a timeline from birth to death, rather a ring of relation, to self and others. The opening, “Enough poems about me” acts as a springboard into fascination with the interiority of the human animal beyond the self. There is a beautiful moment of Hutchison’s expert translation where question marks are swapped for the blunter period: “Were you intimate. / Were you secretive.” Inviting then a sense of what haunts the collection: the expansive landscape of possibility for human forms. Mercurial. Renewing. The heart of the investigation, what does it mean to be “putting on my species”? A lovely opting for continuum with the gerund in the title by Hutchison in an already fraught proposition by Janssen: that there is an option to put on and take off all the pageantry and affectations of our kind, and that if you could you might want to try. There is magic to their glissando, their seamless moving between. “I’m so turned on” becomes a compelling repetition in the collection, and a beautiful hallmark of Hutchinson’s crafting of an English space with enough slip, enough linguistic grease to contain multiplicity—sometimes it is the body coming alive, at other times the soul, and it never lacks the seduction of either possibility. This collection breathes transition, deaths, rebirths, the myth of the self, and, ultimately offers a point to all this living: “I am made of metallic rivers, the red earth. / Is it about the others? / I am the others.” A constant contradiction, a constant education, a promise that the need for connection is not a flaw: it is the design. —EP


Yin Lichuan. Karma. Trans. Fiona Sze-Lorrain. Tolsun Books, 2020. 222 pages. $19.00.

KarmaFiona Sze-Lorrain writes in Karma’s introduction that Yin Lichuan’s “official” narrative is that she rose to literary notoriety after co-founding the Lower Body Poets, a provocative Beijing-based avant-garde movement which sought to depict the “undersides and underdogs of modern life.” Karma’s early poems, with their “nutritious semen” and “slutty virgins,” might start to explain some of the controversy whereby Lower Body poets were deemed to be hedonistic, pornographic, and vulgar by the intellectual establishment. Yet Yin’s life is full of contradictions, and her poetry is equally suffused with a recalcitrance which resists categorisation and its responsibilities: like fate itself Karma asks not to be taken too seriously if one can help it.

Karma contains a bilingual selection of Yin’s most representative work from 2000-2014. Her short poems are frank and colloquial, and there is a cool coquettish quality to her lines which speak irreverently to everyday life; yet her laissez-faire poems are rarely boring, even when cynically reaching towards the banal or dispassionate. For all its preamble, Yin’s poetry is at its most buzzing when she writes the poem the reader is never quite expecting. An ekphrastic poem about a vase begins nostalgically, “surely some horses / long to return to ancient times.” And in Yin’s exceptional poem “Korea, North Korea,” the narrator wants to “return to the time before [they were] born” in order to stand beside their father “to keep him company, so he won’t feel lonely.”

Attentive to detail, Karma asks what meaningful connections are possible for a young and urban generation who have to live, work, love in a period defined by precarity and globalisation. If life’s goalposts—in relation to family, gender, or class—are always being moved then Yin marks that discontent with tomorrow’s uncertainty as her most anxious concern: “I praise tonight / and eat fresh cabbage / tomorrow I’ll starve myself / or steal.” There are moments of Surrealism, Gurlesque, Lower Body horror, but Yin chews all of that earth back out as if to say that the affect of reality is always harder to swallow and digest: the trick to living, as one narrator fantasises, is that “I can perfectly / live like this / so long as I don’t rack my brain / to give such life / a name.” —JGY


Fernando Pessoa. The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro. Trans. Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari. Ed. Jerónimo Pizarro and Ferrari. New Directions, 2020. 272 pages. $18.95.

The Complete Works of Alberto CaeiroAlberto Caeiro (1889-1915) is a seemingly simple shepherd. He is a bucolic poet for whom feeling unequivocally triumphs over thinking, who claims, “I have no philosophy: I have senses” (9). He also does not exist, at least not in flesh-and-blood. He is, rather, the most famous “heteronym,” or invented alter-ego, of the Portuguese modernist poet, Fernando Pessoa. This bilingual collection, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari, gathers together Caeiro’s poetry, alongside fragments of editorial prose pieces and interviews with the apocryphal poet, most penned by Pessoa’s other notable heteronyms.

Pessoa opted for the term heteronym to describe his invented literary personae because, more than mere pseudonyms, these are fully fleshed-out characters with their own biographies, horoscopes, and philosophies independent of Pessoa’s own. In this sense, Pessoa fragments into a plethora of other voices, producing a kaleidoscopic, rather than singular sense of authorship. Jull Costa and Ferrari add their voices to Pessoa’s polyphony, elegantly carrying over Caiero’s verses into clear, direct English:

I am a keeper of sheep.
The sheep are my thoughts
And my thoughts are all sensations.
I think with my eyes and my ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.
To think a flower is to see it and smell it
And to eat a fruit is to know its meaning

Caeiro’s steady ease—the simplicity of the mantra-like repetitions, the almost-meditative, uncomplicated insistence that things are not more than what they are, that the only inner meaning of things is that they have no inner meaning at all (19)is seductive. Yet all the while, the construction of Caeiro as heteronym continuously calls this sentiment into question, as if Pessoa were daring us to challenge him: we are reading Caeiro, but we are also reading a masked Pessoa (and now, Jull Costa and Ferrari). Perhaps, contrary to what Caeiro purports, things are not at all just how they seem.

But Pessoa/Caeiro are extraordinarily comfortable with contradictions, holding a firm commitment to multiple facets of reality being able to co-exist. After all, these are Caeiro’s Complete Works, but many of the pieces are unfinished fragments: drafts of prefaces, unfinished poems, scraps of writing. Caeiro’s work is perpetually incomplete, but as he suggests, to be complete it is enough to exist (129). —GM


Marcin Świetlicki. Night Truck Driver. Trans. Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese. Zephyr Press, 2020. 128 pages. $15.00.

Night Truck DriverElżbieta Wójcik-Leese writes in her translator’s note that Marcin Świetlicki’s poetry and “positioning [have] always been complicated and acutely self-aware: on the verge.” This observation rings throughout the collection, which merges—and, perhaps more fitting, blurs—private and political, comfort and discomfort, existential unease and nonchalance. The world that Świetlicki builds is earnest, but never takes itself too seriously:

This night the sky was supposed to brighten
with the remnants of a dead comet’s tail.
But it was foggy, nothing could be seen.
The night was brightened by faint supermarket
lights. That’s all. Recently everything has been
thinning so. The end of the world will come,
give a sigh, and go.

That quick turn—the sighing, the going—embodies not an oscillation, but a carefully constructed balancing act between the reality of a situation and how briefly it will end—slightly comical, slightly absurd, slightly troubling, mostly true. Wójcik-Leese’s translations find themselves, too, somewhere on the verge: between cultures, between languages, between registers, between beginnings and ends. At some moments straightforward, at others baroquely biblical, Wójcik-Leese succeeds at the daunting task of compressing Świetlicki’s existential playfulness and worries into her translations:

Today will happen. May it be not evil. May
it be not final. The letters in the accidental
sequence make a dim prophecy. May this strange
city make love to me today and remain loyal.

The matter-of-factness in the first sentence of the first line—the assertion that today will indeed happen—isn’t a reduction or a restriction of what follows as so often is the case; instead, the directness paves the way for the diverse incantations that follow.

In her notes, Wójcik-Leese notes that this collection serves as a chronology of Świetlicki’s poetry. Her curation walks us through his poetry, but also provides the lyrical voice with its own story, too. This is exactly what I hope for from such a collection, and I’ll be thinking about these poems for days and months to come—in particular, the solitary line of the final poem hasn’t stopped replaying itself in my head: “And this can’t be done endlessly.” This can’t be done endlessly, can it? —KD


Clara Altfeld lives in Nagasaki, Japan.

Rose Bialer is a recent graduate of Kenyon College where she majored in Spanish and Sociology. While there, she interned at 826 Valencia and was an associate at the Kenyon Review. She teaches English in Madrid, Spain.

Paul Cunningham is the author of the The House of the Tree of Sores (Schism2 Press, 2020) and his latest chapbook is The Inmost (Carrion Bloom Books, 2020). He is the translator of Helen Österlund’s Words (OOMPH! Press, 2019). He is a managing editor of Action Books, co-editor of Radioactive Cloud, and co-curator of the Yumfactory Reading Series. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia.

Kraig Davis currently lives, translates, and works in Hamburg, Germany.

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.

Gabriella Martin is a translator and scholar based at Aarhus University in Denmark. She holds a PhD in Hispanic Studies from Washington University in St. Louis.

Erintrude Pieta is a writer, translator, and current MFA candidate at North Carolina State University.

Kelsi Vanada’s translations from Spanish are Into Muteness by Sergio Espinosa and The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet. She’s the author of the poetry chapbook Rare Earth and the Program Manager of ALTA in Tucson.

Jay G Ying is a Chinese-Scottish writer, critic and translator. Currently, he is an MFA candidate at Brown University. He is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Wedding Beasts (2019) and Katabasis (2020). He is a Contributing Editor at The White Review.