Transitory Poetics is a monthly review series by Toby Altman focused solely on current and upcoming chapbooks. You can read the introduction here.
According to the University of Rochester, about 3% of all the books published in the United States each year are translations. That’s a distressing number. It suggests that so-called American literary culture remains largely parochial, in spite of the Herculean efforts of translation-oriented publishing projects like Ugly Duckling or Action Books—which have done much in recent years to disrupt and decentralize literary production in the United States. Further, it suggests a continuing cultural imperialism, which imagines that innovation and literary value radiate from a colonial center—despite the strong historical evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, I suspect the numbers are worse in chapbook publishing. There are a handful of chapbook presses that concertedly publish translations—but most, including my own, have not made translation a central part of their project. That’s a real pity. If many publishers are unwilling to dedicate the time and resources to publishing book-length translations, then the chapbook could serve as an alternative site of dissemination, a place to stage and introduce not only new translation projects but also new translation practices. In this spirit, then, I dedicate this month’s column to reviewing three recent chapbooks in translation: Beauty is Our Spiritual Guernica by Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, Semi-Circle by Nurduran Duman, and Anti-Ferule Karen Wild Díaz. My aim in doing so is to celebrate the essential and under-sung work of translators and of the chapbook presses that have championed translation as an active and essential part of their work, and of any literary culture.
Beauty is our Spiritual Guernica by Mario Santiago Papasquiaro – Translated by Cole Heinowitz
Commune Editions, 2015
Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, who died in 1998, was one of the founders of the infrarealist movement, alongside Roberto Bolaño, Cuahtémoc Méndez Estrada, Rubén Medina, and others. (Papasquiaro is a pen name; his real name is José Alfredo Zendejas Pineda). The infrarealists were a revolutionary avant-garde in the classical sense: “Radical vagabonds, fugitives from the bourgeois university,” as Santiago writes. Drawing inspiration from surrealism, stridentism, and dada, they attacked the post-68 institutions of Mexican literature, engaging in what Santiago calls “cultural terrorism,” “TURNING CONFERENCE ROOMS INTO SHOOTING GALLERIES.” Despite Bolaño’s international prestige, the work of the group remains under-read and under-published, especially in the United States. This translation, by Cole Heinowitz and published in a beautifully designed free e-book by the Oakland-based Commune Editions, is thus a major occasion. Alongside her earlier translation of Santiago’s work, Advice from 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Disciple of Heidegger, Cole Heinowitz’s translation offers English-language readers an opportunity to engage not only with Santiago’s work, but also with the infrarrealist movement as such, which threatens (or promises) to loose its revolutionary energy on the quietism of our own academic avant-garde. “What was contained overflows / what was silenced speaks through arms and legs…What was hardly a voice is now voice, mouth, and spit / What was nothing is back,” Santiago writes in a thrilling historical future tense, describing both the history of the infrarrealist movement and the future which it promises to unleash upon poetry itself.
Indeed, Santiago’s poetry is best described as a kind of overflowing, a wave of poetic possibility, pleasure, and subversive potential. Many of his poems are structured as extravagant litanies, which surge down the page, assembling “the long lineage of crap / Radiance & abyss / randomness & wind.” This gives his poems a sense of rushing, of unpredictability, an omnivorous capacity to devour and re-present (or regurgitate) the dense political and material life of modernity—what he calls, enthusiastically, “reality sandwiches!” He defines his sphere of activity as “EVERYTHING THAT EXISTS…AND THE FRENZIED SEARCH FOR WHAT DOESN’T EXIST YET.” He demands that poets reject traditional forms and “[LOOK] FOR UNPRECEDENTED FORMS OF INTERVENTION AND DIRECTION IN THE WORLD.”
In this sense, Santiago’s work joins a politically revolutionary program to a revolution in aesthetics—in the historical and the etymological sense of the word. He is concerned with inventing, “New sensations pointing toward Another Nature” because “CULTURE ISN’T IN BOOKS OR PAINTINGS OR STATUES IT’S IN THE NERVES.” “There’s a revolution going on in our skins,” he writes, repudiating the bourgeois body alongside the bourgeois university. Against the pious containment of the bourgeois body, he calls for “AN INCARNATE CULTURE / A CULTURE IN THE FLESH,” and he redescribes the body as unbounded, leaky vessel: “Man is 1 temporal & contingent / being / thrust between 2 nothings / bound to his own perceptions / Flowering at random between moon & buttocks / Sewn to the hook of his spirit / & leaking body from all sides / of the infinite concentration camps.” The poem cross-contaminates the political and the embodied: so that the body becomes a concentration camp and the concentration camp an embodied thing. Santiago locates the violence of modernity inside the subject and his body—“the gallows stamped in his entrails”—even as he carefully documents the material violence outside of it. “They murdered guerrillas & dumped them into turbid rivers,” he announces matter-of-factly in the aptly titled “Status & Revolutions / Come & Go.” This is writing of astonishing heteroglot force, which moves between visionary bursts, sober documentation of political violence, disruptive surrealist conjunctions, and flights of lyrical beauty. In other words, his writing appropriates the virtues of the traditional writing it cancels. He conceives of the poem as a many-temporal thing, which produces subversive energy by both attacking and appropriating the past, in its violence and its potency. As Santiago announces at the end of the same poem, “I kill what I speak.”
Semi Circle by Nurduran Duman – Translated by Andrew Wessels
Good Morning Menagerie, 2016
“Whoever I touch is wounded,” writes Turkish poet Nurduran Duman in the title of poem of Semi Circle, the first collection of her work translated into English. The poem is a kind of ars poetica—it takes the brokenness, the incompletion of the semi-circle as a figure for poetry itself. Duman’s poems characteristically occupy and produce semi-circles: spaces where the binaries that structure ordinary life—between violence and intimacy, sound and silence, body and world—break down. Throughout her work, Duman asks: is the job of the poet to complete the circle or to revel in its incompletion? Or is it both? Duman, cagey as she is, refuses to answer this question either way, but rather emphasizes the personal, bodily, cost of the question. Hers is a poetics of risk, a poetics that puts the self at risk, and sometimes sacrifices it, in order to discover what she calls the “lost line”—which might be the missing piece of a poem or the missing half of a semi circle. “To write that lost line,” she explains in “Semi Circle,” “…I passed inland seas of love / and so my one side always split.” The wound that her touch inflicts on the other returns to perjure the boundaries of her own body—and to confuse the distinctions between violence and intimacy, self and other.
At times her poems seem possessed by a self-mocking enthusiasm for such boundaries. As she writes in “Voiceword,” “I must be hidden / I have to hide everything, inside and outside / I tell my outside don’t come in!” But the act of making this boundary impeaches itself. She describes trying to build “a castle wall” with knitting needles: “I must go / from out to in knitting myself / from in to out.” The movement of the needle ruptures the border that it creates; the ambition to make such a border betrays its own impossibility. As if arguing against this ambition—with its accompanying paranoia—Duman invests her poems with lovely moments of crossing and confusion. “Pour Yourself from the Cup,” for example, begins,
Pour yourself from the cup
laying somewhere inside me
I tend toward dryness
flowers headed to death
Anyway I don’t want to be.
I love the way these lines locate the other inside the self, giving a physical reality to the cup and the ‘you’ that it contains. And I love the way these lines propose to surrender selfhood, making that surrender an ethical project: she gives up her own liquidity in order to secure life for the other. Similarly, in the opening of “Weave of colors,” a lover’s body dissolves into the world around it: “caught every morning in the lover’s hair, the sunset / circulates through its strands of red, of light.” Do the strands belong to the lover or to the sun? In the erotic plenitude of the moment, who cares? Duman concludes, in a hard won thesis statement for her own poetics: “everyone knows sharing is sacred.”
I hope these citations give some sense of the literary merit of Duman’s writing, which is consistently amphibious and unpredictable, swiveling between compressed bursts of syntactic disturbance and lyric clarity, between elegiac grace and off-hand humor. (One thinks of the bathos—and the pathos—in a line like, “Anyway I don’t want to be”). As a translator, Andrew Wessels is delicately attentive to the details of Duman’s poetics—the shifts in register, the way she uses punctuation, capitalization, and line breaks. Published in a beautiful bilingual edition, Semi Circle stages a confrontation or a crossing or a collaboration between the two languages. Indeed, part of the work of Wessel’s translation is to call into question the relationship between these languages, to interrogate the hierarchies and economies of prestige which structure international literary production and reception. (It matters, for instance, that the translations follow the originals, putting the English language where it belongs, in a position of subsequence, rather than imperial autonomy). But his translation does not explicitly or polemically settle these questions, establishing new hierarchies. Rather, it propagates border crossing and confusion. It creates a porous and permeable space in which poetry enacts continuous passage between languages and nations. In this sense, I think that Wessel’s work as a translator both extends and expands Duman’s poetics, which he tales up as a translation practice, as the aim of translation itself.
Anti-Ferule by Karen Wild Díaz – Translated by Ron Paul Salutsky
Toad Press, 2015
Since 2004, Toad Press has published nearly twenty chapbooks in translation. Their editions are artfully designed, and yet also cheap and accessible: all of their books cost $5.00, which is economical even by the thrifty standards of chapbook publishing. They consistently champion avant-garde translations, publishing poets from across the world and across history—from Tristan Tzara and Martial to Vincente Huidobro and Sara Tuss Efrik. The press is, in short, an exemplary publishing project, which has quietly but diligently done the hard, necessary work of decentering American poetry, putting it into conversation with a range of languages, avant-garde traditions, and literary figures—many of whom remain unjustly obscure in the United States.
Ron Salutsky’s recent translation of Karen Wild Díaz’s Anti-Ferule is, in its way, an exemplary contribution to this broader project. Anti-Ferule is the first significant gathering of her work in English. Díaz, a Uruguayan poet, writes metaphysical poetry of embodied intensity: fittingly enough for a writer who works as a professor of philosophy and who incorporates dance into her performance practice. You often feel the rigor of her philosophical training at work in these poems. For example, in “Shelter from the Sky”—the second in a series of four poems called “To The Sky”—she finds an elegant rhetorical balance between opposite assertions:
The sky is a place way up
She rises endlessly to the sky
Walk or climb the sky is endless
She suffers because the sky is a place
she cannot reach and she rises
Stops, and leans down
The sky is a place below
The diction is plain, ostentatiously so. The formal energy of the poem comes from the way she works and reworks simple words like “sky” and “endless,” making them musical by virtue of repetition. Yet the simplicity of the poem’s language should not obscure its delicate craftsmanship. Note how the line “She suffers because the sky is a place” falls exactly in the middle of the passage—two lines below the first use of the word “place”; two lines above the second use of the same word. It acts as a crease from which the symmetrical halves of the passage extend. This reserved, philosophical register is balanced by slashes of language that erupt in grotesque and epigrammatic untitled sections.
“In the vortex of vomit / with the performance of dissimulation // tears out my eyes / that glaze the image // if I had the frame / or the knives,” she writes in one such section. The citation doesn’t do the lines justice: on the page, they zig-zag back and forth between the left and right margin, a cutting motion which intensifies their momentum. These lines come as an eruption of linguistic energy after the careful pacing, the controlled diction, of “To the Sky”—indeed, they seem to exceed the poet’s own capacity to control and describe them: “I do not know what this is / I am shaking,” Díaz writes. The shaking testifies to an excess: the body and its energies exceed the capacity of language to say and capture it—or they call for an alternate poetic strategy, which ruptures the control of her philosophical verse. (In this sense, it matters that a “ferule” is a ruler with a flat end—which used to be used for disciplining children. This chapbook announces, from its commencement, its resistance to bodily discipline—indeed to measurement itself). In the chapbook’s second half, Díaz turns to the body in earnest, writing with an expansive intensity equal to her earlier philosophical finitude. In the first of two poems called “Body,” for instance, she writes:
d my hyperactive
d rejects that static
d and stuns
d its finitude
d always metamorphosing
wants to go out, to walk, meet, try out, give a go
wants to be and to be always composed of change
The energy—and also the originality—of her work comes from the alternation between these two registers. She refuses to a settle on a single poetics; to give a rigid description of the role of the poet. Rather, in her poems, the poet’s work is unstable and dynamic, prone to sudden shifts in content and approach. As she writes at the end of “Subfloor II,” perhaps describing her own approach to the poem: “Freefall. I say yes, I say no. Now I am a poet. Now I’m not[.]”