September 17, 2018KR Reviews

September 2018

September is #NationalTranslationMonth and what better way to honor it than with a new batch of micro-reviews of poetry in translation. This time around we also give a (belated) shout out to #WomenInTranslation month (August) by featuring work by women poets, women translators, and women reviewers. —KH

Ana Arzoumanian. Juana I. Trans. Gabriel Amor. Kenning Editions, 2018. 170 pages. $14.95.

Juana I“What I need is a mouth.” This is the repeated affirmation of Juana “la loca,” sixteenth-century Queen of Castile, throughout Argentine poet Ana Arzoumanian’s Juana I, now granted a mouth that speaks English in Gabriel Amor’s expertly-crafted translation. Such a request begs the question: a mouth of one’s own, or the touch of another’s?

Daughter of Spain’s most (in)famous monarchs, Isabel and Fernando, Juana was considered “unfit” to rule and imprisoned for the last forty-seven years of her life; her overt sexuality and erratic behavior in response to the trauma of devastating familial loss and betrayal has been explained away by history as mere “insanity.” Arzoumanian resuscitates, and complicates, this centuries-old gendered power struggle with an immediacy that feels unsettlingly familiar to the masculine anxieties we witness in our present. Juana’s voice reads as contemporary, urgent, sexual, and tragic, sculpted by Amor into an English that prompts us to pause and marvel, Oh! That’s how translation should be—that’s what translation can do.

The poem reads almost as narrative, with Juana’s love affair with Felipe, his death and her mourning, the birth of her children, and her own imprisonment set to language, this time on Juana’s terms. The reader encounters multiple registers, as juridical jargon and colloquial gossip weave with Juana’s own voice, as if she were ruminating over the accusations against her and scoffing at them in turn:

Heavy, my heartbeat my finger and the small pile of milky sweat. And lovely, lovely.
I will not wash again.
She is mad.

All the while, the language does drip with madness. Juana’s grieving comes in manic, paragraph-length spurts, hallucinatory, disordered, wild. Juana’s insistence on a mouth, rather than a voice, draws our attention to the physical body—to the mouth as both mode of verbal expression and center of sexuality: a tool with which to clean her late husband’s corpse, “licking muscle joined to bone joined to skin,” “to spit on the cleanliness of this kingdom,” “to chew on those nails that keep growing” after death. A mouth with which she may at last respond, centuries later, to the men who betrayed her: “I am not mad.” —GM

Leslie Kaplan. Excess—The Factory. Trans. Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap. Commune Editions, 2018. 121 pages. $16.00.

Excess—The Factory“The Factory is still a hell,” wrote Eleanor Marx in 1891, “And this curse, these hells, must remain blasting the lives of the workers as long as the capitalistic system of production lasts.” Nearly a century later, Leslie Kaplan published her debut collection Excess—The Factory, newly translated by Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap. The book is in part a record of Kaplan’s time as a member of the établis, a class of post-’68 communist intellectuals that accepted manufacturing jobs in French industrial centers in an effort to organize the proletariat.

Like Dante’s Inferno, Kaplan’s book-length poem is organized into nine “circles,” each revealing a different layer of the factory. Kaplan also uses the circle to mimic the repetition of factory production. In the “First Circle,” for instance, a refrain prompts the reader to consider if repetition accumulates meaning or destroys it: “All space is occupied: all has become waste. The skin, the teeth, the gaze.” In French, Excess—The Factory is striking because of its eerily flat, declarative syntax and its reliance on the third-person neuter pronoun “on.” Carr and Pap expertly deliver Kaplan’s peculiar atmosphere and address their choices in a thorough afterword.

Ultimately, Excess—The Factory is an argument about the politics of representation. The poem at times gestures toward surrealism through its easy substitution of objects (“You encounter people, sandwiches, Coke bottles, tools, paper, crates, screws”), its dream logic, and its frightening fluctuation between overproduction and dearth of meaning (“Disarticulated and full, the factory”). Through these surreal flourishes, Kaplan’s factory produces its own reality, one incompatible with its workers as discrete subjects, yet consistent with the pernicious logic of capitalism. We catch occasional glimpses of human figures throughout the book, like the “tall, beautiful, made up / woman in the packing department.” Even when moments like these allow for the exchange of desire or companionship, Kaplan emphasizes the profound alienation of these women who only exist as subjects of the factory’s ideology: “The woman is sitting. Origin. The pieces arrive. / The woman assembles her parts, absorbed.” It is not merely the alienation of the worker from their labor, but from reality itself. Perhaps this is the most unsettling part of ExcessThe Factory; unlike Dante’s Inferno, this descent is not redemptive and “Time is outside, in things.” —ZA

Melisa Machado. The Red Song. Trans. Seth Michelson. Ed. Michelle Gil-Montero. Action Books, 2018. 75 pages. $16.00.

The Red Song

the prosperity of my tongue . . .

Beginning with the first line of The Red Song, Uruguayan poet Melisa Machado knowingly signals to her readers what is a constant throughout this book: the interconnectedness of body and language. In other words, tongue—in its multifaceted meanings—is all over. Sometimes it is “my tongue,” but more often than not it’s “yours”:

My hair flows off your tongue . . .

And your tongue on the fever . . .

darkness is as soft / as your tongue trailing across my brain . . .

What comes to the fore then is not only the intimacy found in the act of utterance, but the highly eroticized nature it can take on.

In other moments, it is simply “the tongue,” and it is the subject of the verse, executing the action: “untied” and “jabbed in the eye.” Indeed, what’s never in doubt here is that the body, identified by numerous metonyms throughout (eyelids, hands, hair) rules: “There’s no higher power than these, my clavicles.”

The body, in turn, becomes metaphor for nature, and we once again witness how it is linked to language: “And the mouth of a volcano bound to my words.” Language is then joined to violence: “I write a red fruit, / bloody as hibiscus water.” Translator Seth Michelson’s choices highlight this relationship, like when opting to render “Tengo la lengua afilada como un estilete” as the following: “I have a tongue sharp as a penknife” (“estilete” could easily be “stiletto knife”). An instance of “gained in translation,” the choice forces the reader in English to recall the implicit violence in the act of writing and once more underlines language as an active agent rather than a mere object to be manipulated.

The form of the poems themselves, often sparse in verse (they were first published in the original Spanish as text messages), suggests the erotics of language can be carried out silently. Here, an abundance of white space on the page makes us note that silence can speak loudly, asking us to consider all that happens behind the words.

These invisibilities are also brought to the fore when we take into account the silent collaborations always at work within translation. The translator’s hiddenness, for example, is one that is addressed regularly. Yet, there are others, like a reader’s or an editor’s, which aren’t spoken of as much. In that regard, Michelle Gil-Montero’s close work with this translation is worth mentioning. —KH

Omar Pimienta. Album of Fences. Trans. Jose Antonio Villarán. Cardboard House Press, 2018. 129 pages. $17.00. 

Album of FencesA blurb for Album of Fences calls Omar Pimienta’s Tijuana “not a wall but a magic portal,” which struck me as sounding positive. And Pimienta himself says in an interview, “I hope readers can experience the joy and liveliness of this beautiful borderland.” That’s the strength of this hybrid photo-poem collection—it humanizes a complex place that is a hot-button issue for many. For Pimienta, it’s home.

Certainly, the idea or question of “home” is one of the most political issues. And the book’s second section moves from family history and a roster of the dead toward a recounting of “the gradual invasion / of two cities that no longer / recognized us.” Some poems detailing life at the border feel like they could begin with Carolyn Forché’s “There is no other way to say this”: “prison and deportation / beatings and electricity / the only truth is death.”

The photo/poem pairings (translations?) in the book have different potentialities—the most powerful bear an oblique relation, reminding me of Claudia Rankine’s comment in a lecture at the University of Iowa in 2015: “Images [paired with text] fail when the relationship becomes illustrative.” A good example is a series of don Marcos, Pimienta’s blacksmith father, wearing an eye patch. The accompanying poem reads: “looking the customs officer in the eye.”

In the third section, we get a sense of a young person’s border life closer to the present day. It’s largely told in lists of names: places visited, female friends, blogger friends who have died, friends missing from the party, community members who get sick. A sense of disorientation is guiding: “I never understand much really.” The importance of safe homes, then, becomes paramount—unlike countries or border guards, “nobody has ever kicked me out of their house.”

Pimienta and his English translator, Jose Antonio Villarán, are friends, and this closeness is felt in the translation. Some moments are like private jokes; my favorite is “Welcome to the Blighted Estates of Mexico” for “Bienvenidos a los Estamos hUndidos Mexicanos” (more literally, Welcome to the Mexican States of the ‘We’re Sunk’).

Album of Fences is a beautiful physical book, with an attractive design and color photos—it’s exciting to watch Phoenix-based Cardboard House Press grow. And I doubt this is Pimienta’s final word on the border. —KV

Ana Ristović. Directions for Use. Trans. Steven and Maja Teref. Zephyr Press, 2017. 128 pages. $15.00.

Directions for UseDirections for Use, by Serbian poet Ana Ristović, translated by Steven and Maja Teref, is a collection of erotic, radically feminist poems injected with unexpected humor. Despite having been translated into more than a dozen languages, this is Ristović’s first collection translated into English. Straddling the line between gentleness and danger with ease, Ristović showcases the power of female eroticism, its ability to connect and destroy all at once.

Ristović weaves in and out of recurring feminist themes with playful humor, all the while evoking the notion that “the personal is political.” Innocent poems on trees and nature become intertwined with poems facing fears, independence and masturbation, parents, romantic partners, and daily chores, all the while incorporating an underlying sexuality that is both candid and subdued, at the will of the needle turning in and out.

For example, in the poem “Circling Zero” named one of the greatest love poems of the past fifty years by London’s Southbank Centre, and whose English translation was dropped all over London from a helicopter in 2012, Ristović writes: “we insert a small magical finger, / as if placing a bullet into the chamber / which refuses to fire.” For Ristović, the potential of intimacy to swiftly turn to violence is always there, but so is the agency of the female speaker who continues to voice her desire despite the threat of it going unsatisfied.

Among the list of ordinary objects one expects to find in a purse, for Ristović, there is also a chance one might find a “bomb,” exploding our expectations of safety, encouraging us to see how inherent in the phrase “blades of grass” is another potential for violence. Ristović seems to know all too well the feminist concept of “Your Body is a Battleground” as she writes a poem about her mother learning from a book on Japanese samurai: “One must greet the day / as if the skin is always read for / seppuku,” and reveals the violence of a “hairpin,” of ordinary objects we connect with womanhood. In the penultimate poem, we find that “poetry is cursed—no one can approach / its words strung together . . .”; nevertheless, we and she persist. —SS

Editor’s Note: Directions for Use has just been shortlisted for this year’s National Translation Award.

Tristan Tzara. Noontimes Won. Trans. Heather Green. Octopus Books, 2018. 107 pages. $14.95.

Noontimes WonTristan Tzara’s name may be synonymous with the world of Dada: the radical art—or, rather, anti-art—movement of the 1920s European avant-garde. Dada’s appeal tends to overshadow the hugely influential role that his poetry has played among international circles of experimental writers. This is perhaps most evident in the fact that we have surprisingly little access to Tzara’s post-Dada work in English translation. Simply put: Noontimes Won, translated by Heather Green, is a collection that readers of radical poetry have been waiting for.

Penned between 1936 and 1939, when the Romanian-French writer found himself in Madrid covering the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, the poems center on images of death and destruction mixed with typically Dadaist formal elements like synthesis, simultaneity, and sound play. The result is a poetry full of intense imagery circling in on what’s become a “beaten earth,” a recurring phrase that takes on double-meaning in English translation:

mattress mattress its pain squeaks on the glass of the river
sky all torn to bits peopled with friendly lethargy
beaten earth

Written with no punctuation and no upper-case letters, Tzara’s words appear to move quickly and crisply on the page, each image coming into contact with the other, yet there’s no messiness. As Green writes, “the lines move like gears, one phrase turning into the next, creating a relentless forward motion.” This gear-shifting just might be most pronounced in the moments where the speaker engages in simultaneity:

crystals of death
cartloads of information
death wins the struggle screws
the chest of hollow days

While the implied political dialogue of the collection is constant, the poetic subject offers no explicit meditations on the big-picture happenings of the historical moment. Rather, the everyday—here misshaped, turned troubling—is the on-going source of poetic material for Tzara’s speaker. In his Spain, laundry oozes, lamps wriggle, roofs have clenched teeth, windows shed tears, the sky is torn to bits.

Heather Green’s translations feel just right. Like Tzara’s version, they’re experimental yet warm, concise yet utterly complex, they’re hardened, unyielding yet overflow with human doubt. Ultimately, this middleness becomes a space of intense poetic creation for both Tzara and Green, a space where politics and aesthetics converge, a space that brings into eerie focus a question that courses through each and every one of these poems: what exactly has been won here after all?

the smoldering contours of the sleep
lost en route the froth of bodies
waiting to wait there are no more minutes
to ravish from deaf sinners
along the walls bloodied knees
transparent earth won upon the tuff of snakes


Jan Wagner. The Art of Topiary. Trans. David Keplinger. Milkweed Editions, 2017. 112 pages. $18.00.

The Art of TopiaryI

everything could be hidden
in their snowy interior

In The Art of Topiary, Jan Wagner poeticizes his interiority through image and form. Wagner’s poems exist in the hyper-distilled space of perception—of memory, industry, war and natural beauty. These poems are, thus, guarded and graceful, “surrounded by gardens.” One senses his feeling, but rather than reading with empathy, perceives from a distance.

Often, poetic moments nod toward emotion and push on, instead, to the quasi-supernatural. In “wejherowo,” Wagner closes his poem: “from every side of us, the landscape hastened.” One senses Wagner in control, tightly steering—and shaping—the language at hand. In this way, his poems perform the art of topiary: highly contained, almost otherworldly, meant to be seen (not felt) as craft.

Gaston Bachelard’s essay “Miniature” seems to be written in direct response to The Art of Topiary. Bachelard writes, “In this text, nothing stands out, but everything is imagined, and the imaginary miniature is proposed to enclose an imaginary value.” Wagner’s reader, however, sees a “total inversion” when the imagistic scale explodes to gigantic proportion: “while still from forest / to forest the beacon of the echo blazes outward.” His deft oscillations allow a simulation of emotionality, where image and the perception thereof invites awe.

David Keplinger’s translation is, perhaps, the most empathetic presence in the book. His movement from German to English is an inhabiting of Wagner’s language, a true feeling-with. Keplinger’s translation embodies the scale and scope of Wagner’s poems. “rhino,” the first poem, opens with an invocation: “come closer.” Keplinger, as close to the language—and Wagner’s interiority—as possible, makes no promise of proximity. Instead, the reader is met with the “impermeable.” —AMR


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.

Katherine M. Hedeen is Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College. Her latest book-length translations include night badly written (Action Books) and tasks (coimpress) by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, and Nothing Out of This World, an anthology of contemporary Cuban poetry. She is the Poetry in 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.

Gabriella Martin is a literary translator from Spanish and Catalan, and a PhD candidate in Hispanic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, focusing on the critical theory and practice of translation in the context of Iberian literatures.

AM Ringwalt is the author of Like Cleopatra (dancing girl press). Called “unsettling” by NPR, her words recently appeared in Cloud Rodeo, Tagvverk and Hobart, and were vocalized at the Watermill Center. She is an MFA in Poetry candidate at the University of Notre Dame.

Sanam Shahmiri is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Illinois State University, where she teaches Creative Writing and serves as the Editorial Assistant/Event Coordinator for SRPR. A Sutherland Fellow and McNair Scholar, her poems have been appeared in Cimarron Review, Northridge Review, Pair Shaped, and Whet Literary Journal.

Kelsi Vanada translates from Spanish and writes poems. She has collaborated on translations of Swedish poet Marie Silkeberg, and her translation of The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet was published by Song Bridge Press in 2018. Kelsi is the Program Manager of ALTA.