curated by Katherine M. Hedeen
Reviewing poetry in translation
- recognizes translators as authors
- destabilizes narrow definitions of originality, authenticity, and authorship
- makes visible the artistry of translation
- is dissent, defiance, disobedience, subversion, solidarity
Where better than the Action Books blog to do the work?
Microreviews of poetry in translation coming at you every few months right here!
Xi Chuan. Bloom and Other Poems.
Trans. by Lucas Klein.
New Directions, 2022.
204 pages. $22.95.
In Xi Chuan’s much-viewed interview with media personality Xu Zhiyuan, Xi Chuan describes himself as “an artist whose medium happens to be language” (182). In Bloom and Other Poems, Lucas Klein reveals Xi Chuan’s artistry to a new audience of English speakers. Throughout the poems in this collection, Xi Chuan dialogues with scholars, poets, and political leaders from across time and culture to provide a glimpse into the meaning of the word ‘human’. The skill with which Xi Chuan dances between sharp commentary on the injustices of life…
Corrupt politics can’t take care of the trash covering the wilderness;
it can only keep the grand hall clean (93)
…and an honest vulgarity that captures the essence of everyday thoughts is a particularly striking element of this poetry collection.
Do people who have achieved nirvana still take a shit? (165)
The effect that this melding of scholarship and vulgarity has on the reader might be best described by a line from the poem Land Reclamation:
000000The moon shining on trash is no less poetic than the moon shining on a ten-thousand-mile-
000000but to shine on a seaside dump for seven years would make the moon’s poetry more meaningful (113)
Another resonant aspect of Xi Chuan’s poetry is the simple affection for humanity that the poetic voice conveys throughout this collection. Bloom and Other Poems evokes the feeling that– even in its meanness, crudeness, and silliness– life is indeed a beautiful and precious thing to behold.
Looking down with the blue sky at my back, I have to say, I do love this city and all its
people. I’ve just been badmouthing myself, not the whole human world. I love these
people, as flustered and funny and vulgar as they can be, even though most of the time I
am one of them. Everyone is making fun of this pandemic, except for all the people dying
because even the doctors can’t save them—
they never prepared for death (145)
In Bloom and Other Poems, Lucas Klein shows his own artistry as a translator through bringing the resonance of Xi Chuan’s observations, wit, and depth of emotion across language and culture, thereby allowing a new audience to grapple with themes of interconnectedness, modernity, and the universality of shit.
Burp and fart and recite Tang poetry. Yeah, that’s the way to do it (173)
Jerzy Ficowski. Everything I Don’t Know.
Trans. Jennifer Grotz and Piotr Sommer.
World Poetry Books, 2021.
192 pages. $16.00.
Polish writer Jerzy Ficowski, best known as an expert on the Polish Roma community and for his prolific work as a translator, penned 15 collections of poetry during his lifetime. Everything I Don’t Know sources poems from 11 of those 15 volumes, bringing Ficowski’s work into the English language for the first time through the careful efforts of translators Jennifer Grotz and Piotr Sommer.
In the first poem of the collection, Apricot Time, we are introduced to Ficowski’s lyricism, his interest in the passage of time, and his masterful ability to turn the mundane into something more like lore: “After each mouthful/ we’re in a different phase of apricot,/ in apricot time/ quick as the passing of a scent. Until the new moon/ when Mirza the gardener/ spits in a godly manner/ the meteor of pit.”
Several volumes in, subject matter turns graver. A lens on the war, a scenic view of brutality. Ficowski handles atrocity with a tone that evokes levity against solemnity, that underscores the banality of evil without flippancy. He writes in Tell How It Was, “when was that/ I’d have to ask Staszek/ but he’s dead/ I don’t want to bother him … so do not ask what else and how/ I came out of this in one piece/ that’s it/ there’s nothing else to talk about.”
Towards the end of his life, Ficowski’s writing grows more melancholy. More sparse. The collection ends with a poem that snaps shut like a box, as Yeats recommends that poems do. The final lines of the book are from a poem titled We, which read, “then we die out a little/ and those who remain/ feel very sorry.”
Everything I Don’t Know is a sprawling and generous sampling of a life’s work, and Ficowski’s deft prose documents more than a review could ever hope to fully catalog, so I’ll go with the broad strokes here. Ficowski was a poet of the quotidian, a post-war poet, a lyric poet, a careful observer of both the mundane and those things which are most grave. His work is worth reading, re-reading, canonizing, etc.
Reading Ficowski in the End Times™ feels a bit like the conclusion of his poem I’m Heading Out, that is to say, “rivers suspend their current/ abandon their beds/ from one place to another/ woods and wildernesses roam/ no map can keep up/ after them after us/ squirrels from on high lose/ the last bits of gravity/ time is running faster/ our history/ won’t fit in it now.” (ZCK)
Julia Wong Kcomt. Vice-royal-ties.
Translated by Jennifer Shyue.
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021.
19 pages. $12.00.
When translator Jennifer Shyue curated an issue of Words Without Borders in 2020 that highlighted Asian Peruvian writers, the project came with a certain transposition. “Asian,” the political and cultural label that attempts to unify diasporas in the U.S., does not exist in the same way in Latin America, Shyue explained. As such, there was an implicit question to a project that grouped writers together like this. It is the same one we often ask of Asian authors who write in English: How does this work reflect your background?
Among the many answers and non-answers in that issue, Julia Wong Kcomt’s poems stand out. When the poems do evoke themes of identity, Wong Kcomt’s words are at once candid and sly. In “The Red Rooster,” a poem dedicated to Jose Watanabe (perhaps the most notable Peruvian poet of Asian descent), she writes:
Peru dies, Wata,
and all I remember is what you said about my aunt:
“She was hot, your aunt Carmen,
she didn’t look Chinese.”
I smiled unoffended, because in Peru nobody
looks like anything.
Here is something we might call a microaggression in the identity politics of today, and yet the moment fizzles into the overall ambiguity of race in Peru. The absence of conflict leaves us with a different thought: What even is a Peruvian? For a reader familiar with the many tones that diasporic Asian writers have used to approach their marginalization, whether it be defiance, opportunism, or distress, this rhetorical wave-of-a-hand is refreshing.
Shyue’s partnership with Wong Kcomt is at the core of her emerging career. The pair has been working together for a couple years now, and their first collection in English translation, Vice-royal-ties, came out last December. The chapbook is concise — 11 poems in bilingual edition — but it still manages to show off what is exciting about this duo. Next to a newer version of “The Red Rooster,” there is a swath of poems that, each in their own manner, deal with the many ways that history and power intersect within the individual.
In Wong Kcomt’s most striking poems, she slings imagery like a backhand slap. The result is often a whiplash between yearning and carnage:
I pray, squatting. Praying hurts.
Thrust open my Lima sky
Shatter my cold member
that doesn’t understand,
that isn’t gloriously fondled.
There is annihilation; there is glorious fondling; and there is Lima — the adult home of Wong Kcomt. To what ends must we go to make a space for ourselves? Furthermore, with the original Spanish printed on the flip side, one can see Shyue’s art as a translator: her attention to the sonic as well as the semantic, her decisions in response to polyglot poems like “Six.”
This is a publication of promise. Shyue’s work to broaden the field of diasporic Asian writing in English lances necessary questions at the marker of “Asian” — a category that is as tenuous as it is persistent. Where do we draw the line? Why do we draw the line? How?
Vice-royal-ties does not give answers, nor should it. The thrill here is in the window of dissolution. It is in hoping for more. (JS)
Verónica Zondek. Cold Fire.
Trans. by Katherine Silver.
World Poetry Books, 2022.
136 pages. $16.00.
I held three images in mind as I read Verónica Zondek’s Cold Fire in Katherine Silver’s English translation. The sand-scrubbed desert town/ Calama in the north of Zondek’s native Chile/ where I lived for a time with a Chilean woman and her daughter/ age 10/ had never seen rain fall. The long-abandoned weathered wooden house/ leaning more precariously/ with each visit to my grandparents’ Dakota ranch/ finally giving way. And 2020 wildfires/ devastating the Catalina mountains/ north of my Tucson home/ long tails of smoke.
Zondek’s 20 cantos describing, meditating on, and interrogating the wind are in one sense tied specifically to place, to her Chilean landscape. References to fauna like the endangered huemul and the condor, two animals that appear on the country’s coat of arms, abound. But the poems also evoke readers’ personal associations, like mine above. Silver’s translation makes this possible in a few ways.
For one, Spanish words such as animal names or the word ay are not italicized or otherwise exoticized. Silver also draws on the full possibilities of English to describe the wind’s actions and keep them fresh, especially the verbs. The wind may gust, but it is also “your cursed trawls” and “the galloping quavers.”
Many of the subject pronouns in these poems are ambiguous or have no immediate antecedent. For example, in canto 4, it’s not clear from what comes in previous lines what “it” refers to in “Look how it slides unimpeded down the barren/.” In Zondek’s poems, subjects change and merge often; the effect is a blending of human/ animal/ natural. The slipperiness of subject that Silver upholds in her translation allows readers to consider the interconnectedness of life forms and natural processes.
Zondek’s poems are written at times in lines, at times in blocks that look like prose, but which are freed from prose’s strictures by slashes. These do more than present alternatives or options but move the pace of the poems along in a rush of wind. Silver’s translation draws on English’s possibilities for assonance and consonance, even occasional slant rhyme: “Can silence be the only actor in the vastness?” she translates. Or:
I only know that you illuminate
In Cold Fire, the wind is most often “a wind of death” that “lays siege” and leaves destruction in its wake; climate disaster is ever-present. But the collection pushes into new realms of understanding the connection between the natural world and the humans that inhabit it, by imaginative descriptions of wind in us. It “sunders the soul,” Zondek/ Silver write, and is “a belly dance / a sentient spark.” (KV)
Zoe Contros Kearl is a writer and editor based in Vermont. Writing appears in Hobart, Entropy Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Neutral Spaces, and elsewhere. ZCK holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from New York University’s Gallatin School
Shanti Silver is an aspiring polyglot and poetry enthusiast from Honolulu, Hawaii. In her free time, she enjoys exploring media from across the world, spending time with family, and playing with her cats.
Justin Sun is from San Jose. He lives in Chicago.
Kelsi Vanada writes poems and translates from Spanish and sometimes Swedish. She is the Program Manager of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in Tucson, AZ.