September 28, 2020KR Reviews

September 2020 Micro-Reviews, Part 2

For #TranslationMonth, here’s part 2 of what’s been an unprecedented number of micro-reviews of poetry in translation. #KRTranslates. —KH

Paul Celan. Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry: A Bilingual Edition. Trans. Pierre Joris. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 592 pages. $45.00.

Memory Rose into Threshold SpeechPaul Celan’s poetry lives in its duality: “Speak— / But do not split the No from the Yes / Give your saying also meaning: / give it its shadow.” It is the most basic tenant of metaphor—the saying and the shadow—yet in Celan, multiplicity is more than just a tool. It is a driving force of his work, a core as ambiguous as the fact that one of the most celebrated post-war German-language poets was a Jew born in Romania who spent his early-twenties in a labor camp and most of the rest of his life in Paris.

It is also, however, as Pierre Joris states in the introduction of his new translations of Celan’s early poems, Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, a delicate goal. He mentions a review from prominent German critic (and former SS officer), Hans Egon Holthusen, of Celan’s famous and symbolistic “Deathfugue” in which Holthusen flattens the poem’s stabbing images of loss into a-historic “dreamy surrealism.” It was then, Joris writes, that Celan realized “that the concept of metaphor, of something standing for something else, if historically an essential poetic devise, was in need of revision.”

With such a framing, and the biography and notes Joris provides as commentary, Memory Rose into Threshold Speech offers itself as a tour of that search for revision. From the poems’ relentless paradoxes to their juxtaposition of symbolic and personal to Celan’s later characteristic compound neologisms, this collection sheds a light on a poet trying to elicit a multitude of meanings while refusing to let us ignore one. Joris’s translations, furthermore, pull off a different paradox: reflecting a poet at multiple stages of his life while translating from a single stage of your own. In their best moments, the translations layer on themselves, building a thick rhythm that is as hypnotic as the morphing universe Celan creates: “He calls jab deeper into the earth you there / and you other men sing and play / he grabs the gun in his belt he draws it his / eyes are blue.” —JS

Choi Seungja. Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me. Trans. Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong. Action Books, 2020. 102 pages. $18.00.

Phone Bells Keep Ringing for MeChoi Seungja’s Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me, translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong, is arranged in five sections that span decades of poems by the revered South Korean feminist writer. The collection is all-encompassing: beautiful, frightening, banal, subversive, and submissive from one moment to the next.

Many of Choi’s poems are lonely, the loneliness that comes with living, sure, but also the loneliness of waking each morning to be yoked by capitalism and knowledge of inevitable death. See: “Lonely Women.” This is not to say that these poems are without tenderness or joy. Only that life sucks (mostly) and then you die, the in-between punctuated by rain and love and endless dualities. In “Toward You,” Choi writes of death as “gripping life.” I’d argue that death is gripping each of these poems as well, just as it holds each of us by the scruffs of our necks.

The collection is marked by time: “Thirty Years Old,” “The Age of 40,” “The End of the Century,” etc. It is through this emphasis on time that Choi’s writing flirts with the border of nihilism and not, with the ways in which our suffering pairs with our happiness. The liminal is turned routine. In “The End of the Century” Choi writes:

I wish I had a friend
to beat me like a dog
when I get upset.
Oh, I wish I’d become a dog, beaten to death.
I’d like to become a carpet made of the skin of a dog
beaten to death. In the twenty-first century,
I’d like to be a rag, trodden by your feet.
(Please trod on me softly).

To be human is to be desperate, desperation can be liberating, and these poems know that. Choi is an icon. Read this book. —ZCK

Agustín Fernández Mallo. Pixel Flesh. Trans. Zachary Rockwell Ludington. Cardboard House Press, 2020. 126 pages. $14.00.

Pixel FleshAs the speaker of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Pixel Flesh copes with loss through repetition, so too does Zachary Rockwell Ludington seek to perform through a translation with strict and recurring diction that “no word can find its center in another language.” In this circular text, absence—of a lover and of the poem’s original language, Spanish—generates repetition. Mallo writes, as translated by Ludington, “I don’t know what happens when a pendulum stops because I have never seen one stopped.” Mallo’s poetry, like a pendulum, resists rest. Ludington’s translation doubles this motion. In a tireless movement through ever-fractalizing memory, where recurring lines like “we circled the city” challenge the accessibility of past time and past place, the poet gathers pixels against memory’s futility: “I’ll call it pixilation n° 5.” No matter what grounding details the speaker might provide—the hotel in Italy, the rain, the ex-lover with “hands of a young model”—fragments of memory distort in pixilation, rendering the ex-lover a void wherein Mallo’s speaker projects more vacuity, more inscrutable loss. She is disembodied, dehumanized, pixel flesh.

In his Translator’s Note, Ludington states that “[t]hese moments are copied, shuffled, and repeated throughout the book, producing a kind of feedback loop […] continually reconstituting the two characters, the reader, and pop images.” Just as these moments loop, Ludington translates so that “certain lexical correspondences […] hold up in every instant.” Mallo’s “circunvalar” is always “circle,” never another synonym, to emphasize the symbolic import of the word in both Spanish and English. The more the “circle” appears, the more vital it becomes; the translated circle has no center. Ludington’s translation, through its verbal re-presentation of Mallo’s circling poetics, effectively intensifies Mallo’s project, demonstrating a generative absence beyond memory and beyond language. Everything is unsettled; from this site of unsettledness, where even language is without center, Ludington translates around the impossibility of grasping absence. Crucially, and interspersed throughout dense blocks of text, Mallo provides glimpses of scientific fact in verse. Ludington translates: “we can see how space-time / bends and spins / around a black hole.” —AMR

Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine. Agadir. Trans. Pierre Joris & Jake Syersak. Diálogos, 2020. 134 pages. $19.95.

AgadirShortly before midnight on February 29th, 1960, an earthquake rocked the Moroccan city of Agadir. The fifteen seconds of tremors caused the near-total destruction of the city’s infrastructure and the death of a third of the population, around 12,000 people. Moroccan Francophone poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine (1941-1995) revisits this catastrophe in his 1967 hybrid novel Agadir, in the voice of a civil servant sent to the site of the disaster. His task is to evacuate the city’s population and devise a plan for its reconstruction (a role Khaïr-Eddine himself occupied from 1961 to 1963). The absurdity of trying to rebuild a city after such devastation becomes increasingly apparent to the narrator, whose pessimism grows alongside his resentment toward his own position as a state bureaucrat. The text alternates between memoiristic prose-poetry, often filling whole pages with one single, unbroken sentence, reportage, and dramatic scenarios portraying dialogues between the narrator (identified in the script simply as “I”) and various characters of the city (the caïd, the cook, the communist; the shepherd who dreams of migrating to France “to be a simple miner in the rectum of the Black earth”).

In Khaïr-Eddine’s telling of the earthquake’s aftermath, this singular event dislodges the ghosts of another slower-moving catastrophe: that of political repression. As the sediments of colonization and oppressive regimes are exhumed throughout the text, the figure of the monarch falls under the most scathing critique. He is “a hydra with manufactured weapons. A hydra that takes an atom bomb for a walk above our heads,” while Europe is the “poorly-disguised savior.”

With his explosive style, surrealist imagery, and political critique, Khaïr-Eddine was among the most important avant-garde writers of his generation. Translators Pierre Joris and Jake Syersak forge a biting idiom in English to convey the apocalyptic world of Agadir, as well as the creative violence of its language. A substantial introduction by Khalid Lyamlahy serves to contextualize the work in its historical and literary context. The publication of the English translation of Agadir in 2020, with its portrayal of “catastrophe, the place from which questions will unceasingly arise,” feels fitting—unsettlingly and urgently so. —PBC

Lee Hyemi. Unexpected Vanilla. Trans. So J. Lee. Tilted Axis Press, 2020. 80 pages. £9.99.

Unexpected VanillaLee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla, translated by So J. Lee, explores the erotic subject as she beholds, and is beheld by, the world. The eroticism often arises from surprisingly platonic contexts. From “World of Breaths”:

Some things you only hear at dawn, asleep embraced:
the sound of a dry leaf gently
falling on a white field,
the sound of a single wheel
stroking a wet ear

Many of Lee’s poems are image-driven. In the title poem of this collection, “Unexpected Vanilla,” syrup falls from the speaker’s tongue and glides along the groove of her ear. The impermanence of sweetness is brought into question before the vanilla orchid is evoked: “In the territory of sound I’m a flower reclining vertically.” The final strophe begins, “That type of vanilla,” reinforcing the poem’s aim to describe the image of the particular vanilla that has unexpectedly entered the speaker’s life.

What’s remarkable about Lee’s image is that while vanilla is used as a metaphor for the speaker’s sensuous experience, what lingers in the reader’s mind after reading the poem is in fact a concrete vanilla orchid, one that they might encounter in a greenhouse. It seems to clarify and redefine, indeed in a queer context, the platonic ideal of vanilla. Yes, the pears are not seen as the observer wills, Lee Hyemi seems to say, but here’s what a pear is.

Lee Hyemi admires and is influenced by the bisexual Argentinian surrealist artist Leonor Fini, who often painted women in nude and in positions of power. Many of the poems in Unexpected Vanilla are hauntingly still, like a surrealist painting, even more so in English than in Korean, owing to the authoritatively engrossing voice of translator So J. Lee’s prose. In an interview for Words Without Borders, So J. Lee says to Lee Hyemi, “. . . Surrealism started as an artistic movement to resist fascism, but male artists received much more attention than female artists and treated women as sexual muses. So I appreciate the way that you, as a female artist, resist the machismo of Surrealism.”

Unexpected Vanilla challenges patriarchal and heteronormative power structures not only through its subject matter, but also by offering an aesthetic that threatens to dismantle any and all hierarchy, even the hierarchy between a metaphor’s vehicle and tenor. —JK

Blanca Varela. Rough Song. Trans. Carlos Lara. The Song Cave, 2020. 98 pages. $17.95.

Rough Song“which is the light / which the shadow.” Opening with this two-line poem, titled “Railing,” Blanca Varela’s Rough Song takes place on the (l)edge. In Carlos Lara’s nimble translation, the collection marks the long-anticipated English-language debut of one of Peru’s most celebrated poets. Varela’s work avoids clear-cut categorization; her poems are at once surrealist and confessional, hermetic and elliptical, lyrical and prosaic, never fully occupying one end of a (supposed) binary opposition. “in the center of everything is the poem,” write Varela and Lara. A threshold, a portal, the poem is its own enclosure and disclosure, where the self and its surroundings come in and out of focus:

I smell the splendor
sniff the tracks
the remains
all to say
that I was ever
attentive disarmed
nearly dead
nearly on fire

A quest to see differently, or grasp or hear or voice differently, appears as a central impetus of the poems, taking shape in both defamiliarized images (“plaster udder    plaster tear / tread mark in the middle of a cloud”) as well as discourses (“mea culpa the cloudy eye / mea culpa the black morsel / mea culpa divine nausea”). Yet, Varela and Lara’s poems seek something beyond altered perception; the avant-garde poetic image routinely trails off: “the empty womb but with wings / yet without the womb”; “from river to sky / from sky to light / from light to nothing.” Indeed, there is a sense of precarity, brought on by perspective shifting and self-probing, that evokes a railinglessness, a place where, to adopt a phrasing from Lara’s translator’s note, the poem is without brace or barrier:

the grain of the earth upon the grain
of the earth
the self-eclipse

the dear animal
whose passing is endless
it leaves me spinning

At times deceptively simple, Rough Song is layered with abruptness, intensity, and—as Lara draws out in his inspired choice for the English title (Canto villano in Spanish)—a roughness that points to precision without perfection, rawness without sentimentality, compression without restraint. Lara’s translation shines at conveying the rippling impact of Varela’s brevity, the poem perpetually on the brink: “yes / the dark matter / animated by your hand / it’s me.”

What’s most groundbreaking about this book, and what could have been more central to its paratext, is that English-language readers can now read an absolutely essential voice in Latin American poetry. I’ll shout it here. Blanca Varela in English. Finally! —OL

Yi Sang: Selected Works. Trans. by Jack Jung, Don Mee Choi, Sawako Nakayasu, and Joyelle McSweeney. Wave Books, 2020. 256 pages. $25.00.

Yi Sang: Selected WorksPoems, stories, (and games) of extravagance, delirium, and the darkness of colonial exile—Yi Sang (1910-1937) is an icon of Korean modernism. Translated from Korean and Japanese, Jack Jung, Sawako Nakayasu, Don Mee Choi, and Joyelle McSweeney have brought the long-awaited Yi Sang: Selected Works into existence, celebrating the inimitable poet’s incredible legacy.

Overflowing with “pungent ink” and “liquid silver,” the dove-white pages of this decadent volume are filled with profound doubles, mysterious riddles, “murderous” lines, a blaze of numbers, and the germy ache of disease. Showing symptoms, Joyelle McSweeney writes:

I caught Yi Sang from an image; next, I read a translation of “Flowering Tree,” next, I read multiple translations of flowering tree, in which the tree catches art from a tree.

Infectious, Yi Sang’s writings are also “thunderbolt-infested, sending readers down halls of mirrors, spitting ideas of self, like mutant moonlight, into all directions”:

I finally chase down my galloping shadow and get in front of it. Now, my shadow chases me as if it is my tail.

The Moon is in front of me. New—new—like a flame—or perhaps like a rapturous flood—.

The wide dimensions of Yi Sang’s poems’ mirrors will engulf readers inside surreal anatomies of life and death. His poems often bring outsiders in, only to be left still feeling like an outsider on the inside.

Because of the mirror I cannot touch the me-inside-the-mirror

Because of the mirror I get to meet the me-inside-the-mirror

From the Korean, Jack Jung has spent over a decade translating “primary doctor” Yi Sang, navigating his numerous “experiments” and moments of “weird mimicry.” Like Don Mee Choi and Joyelle McSweeney’s co-translation of the story “Spider&SpiderMeetPigs,” Jung, too, has preserved Yi Sang’s exciting syntactic strangenesses and pointedly claustrophobic language (i.e. the lack of space in “Spider&SpiderMeetPigs” feels reminiscent of Jung’s translation of “Poem No. 7”). Citing the compression of space inflicted by colonialism, Choi writes, “Hence, Yi Sang’s sentences are also compressed, deprived of air, barely leaving any gaps between words, syllabically speaking.”

Spideragain. Mywifeisdefinitelyaspider hebelieves. Wishshewouldreincarnate andreveal herspidershape—howeveroneneverhearsofanyonekillingaspiderwith agunshot.

Translating from Japanese, Sawako Nakayasu also takes many aspects of influence, geographical and architectural, into account. In her translator’s note, she informs readers that the poet’s style can sometimes feel “nonpoetic, mathematical,” and that the original poems contain traditional Chinese characters that were used in Korea, but not in Japan. In her translator’s note, Nakayasu writes, “Just as he wrote in Japanese from a locale outside of it, Yi Sang mirrors the position of the translator being on the outside of an ‘original’ text (or language), while on the inside of the new ‘translation’ (or language).”

This book is a rebellion against colonial violence. Carry it around under your shirt. Like a stethoscope, hold the cold mirror against your skin. A most welcome shield in these fiery times of protest. —PC


Phoebe Bay Carter is a translator from Arabic and Spanish and a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Harvard University.

Paul Cunningham is the author of The House of the Tree of Sores (Schism2 Press, 2020) and the translator of Helena Österlund’s Words (OOMPH! Press, 2019). He is a Managing Editor of Action Books and he holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame.

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.

Jae Kim is a writer from South Korea and a translator of Korean poetry. He received his MFA in fiction writing from Washington University in St. Louis. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in ConjunctionsGuernicaPoetry ReviewPoem-a-DayNOONChicago Review, and Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic. His translation of a collection of Lee Young-ju’s poetry, selected from her body of work, will be published by Black Ocean in 2021.

Olivia Lott is the translator of Lucía Estrada’s Katabasis (2020, Eulalia Books) and the co-translator of Soleida Ríos’s The Dirty Text (2018, Kenning Editions). She is ABD in Hispanic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

AM Ringwalt is a writer and musician. The recipient of the 2019 Sparks Prize as a graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s MFA in Poetry Program, she currently lives and teaches in Nashville, Tennessee. Her words appear or are forthcoming in the Washington Square Review, Peripheries, and Bennington Review.

Justin Sun is a graduate of Kenyon College, where he majored in English and Spanish. He is from San Jose, California and currently resides in Chicago.