Dark Things, Novica Tadić, tr. by Charles Simic. (BOA Editions LTD) $16
Dark Things is a short selection of short poems by Tadić, mostly composed of work from his more recent oeuvre. Simic has done a good job of translating the poems, though his explanation, from the book’s introduction, suggests that it is the poems themselves that account for their English-language success: “Strict literalism—word for word, phrase for phrase is my rule, until I get stuck. It pains me to take even the smallest liberties…”
Tadić’s poems read like a depraved rendition of the book of Proverbs, full of human nature—including that of the I-speaker—at its most sinister. Simic imagines them like the would-be poetry of Hieronymus Bosch, and Tadić himself writes about the despair of our material and human world:
Again that dangerous confusion
Of things and people.
I see an ashtray next to a dozing armchair
And say it’s a baby-ashtray.
In the pantry: bottles-maidens.
I saw white chairs startled
To be slapped by hot asses
Dropping on them out of the blue.
In a tavern I once spoke with a human cash register.
Once a violin told me in passing,
Everyone has his tone.…
I’m not afraid of anything. I don’t feel sorry for anyone.…
Dark year, hurry by.
Still, somehow, a thin vein of hope trickles through the poems, which testify to the poetic prowess of the most important living Serbian poet.
Selected Poems/Poemas Selectos, Jimmy Santiago Baca. (New Directions) $16.95
Baca is an English-language poet whose aesthetic concerns transcend his creative language. Of both Mexican and Native American heritage, the poet began writing during a six year jail sentence in his 20s, and has become one of America’s most significant contemporary poets. His work embodies much of the social activism advocated by Adrienne Rich and James Scully, but without crossing into the overly rhetorical. His portraits are most often of life lived by racial and socioeconomic underclass in America, with a heavy focus on the immigrant and prisoner experience:
#####I make my way to the local prison
where men are not allowed to have paper or pencil,
and I shout through the solid steel cells and bulletproof security Plexiglas
how plum trees celebrate the loneliness of their souls.
Baca’s translators, Tomás Huitzilcohuátl Lucero and Liz Fania Werner, have used a technique much looser than Simic’s to replicate the New Mexican vernacular Spanish that is sprinkled throughout his poems with his simultaneously colloquial and imagistic English. In the book’s introduction Ilan Stavans comments on the difficulty of translating contemporary Latino diaspora writers into Spanish—including recent, relevant examples like Junot Díaz—but Lucero and Werner have succeeded in producing translations that will be valuable for Spanish speakers in the United States and throughout the Americas.
Reaching Out to the World: New & Selected Prose Poems, Robert Bly. (White Pine Press) $16
In his introduction Bly writes that “The prose poem encourages the writer to stay close to the senses for the length of the poem,” and indeed the prose poems collected in this volume are basically extended poetic descriptions in prose form. They are perhaps best considered case studies in natural description by an important American and world poet. The book is divided into seven sections of poems focusing on specific themes, from farm life to observation of wildlife to hockey to specific friendships. This collection is certainly worthwhile to Bly enthusiasts and poets keen to improve their craft of observation, but does not particularly advance the contemporary prose poem—or Bly’s lifework—in any especially noteworthy way.
As for me, I have given so many hours to the ecstasy of detail, the shadow of a closing door, the final syllable of that poem which is already gone, looking back over its shoulder.
Reaching Out to the World is proof-positive that this poet indeed has dedicated himself to “the ecstasy of detail.”