Souvlaki Circus, M. Setola & A. Vähämäki. (Buenaventura Press) $13.95
This is an eery, unsettling little book of pencil drawings: a bear on fire, a man’s head disintegrating into bees, a bird with its beak in the barrel of a riffle, a line of ants marching into a broken television, and many more. Souvlaki Circus is a meditation on human and animal nature, and the fragility of their boundaries, which flex with the push a pencil. The Circus has the authority of a news headline, with the imaginative scope of a night terror. Even more impressive, when you consider the collection’s seamlessness, is that it is a blind collaboration between the Finnish Vähämäki and Italian Setola, as only after several careful viewings can one begin to distinguish between their drawings.
Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs, Adonis, tr. by Adnan Haydar & Michael Beard. (BOA Edition Ltd) $16
Adonis reimagines the story of Mihyar, a poet who converted from Zoroastrianism to Shi’i Islam in 1037 CE. Like Mihyar, Adonis has long been recognized as a dynamic aesthetic rebel. In their introduction, translators Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard compare this collection, first printed in Arabic in 1961, to other “series of breaks with traditional styles we find elsewhere at early moments in the history of modernisms.” Indeed, even with a cursory knowledge of Arabic-language poetry, Adonis does resemble an Ungaretti or Pound. His poems are inhabited by recurrent stones and islands, hands and eyelashes. My favorites are his prose poem Psalms, which begin each of the book’s first six sections. In section V, “These Petty Times,” he writes in “Psalm”:
XXXI shall scrape off the horizon’s hide until it bleeds. I shall fly from one wound to another.
XXXWe divide the sky up, Death and I.
XXXWe raise the flag of hunger, Bread and I.
XXXTomorrow, trapped in the robe of myth, I’ll climb the wall of shadow. A procession, songs of stone, will stick to me.
XXXO madness, my master, my messiah.
and in the “Psalm” that begins section VI, “Edge of the World”:
XXXI wear the elegance of anemones. The pine tree has a waist that smiles for me. I find no one to love. But will Death hold it against me that I love myself?
XXXI devise a kind of water that doesn’t quench my thirst. I’m like the air—there is no law for me. I create a climate where heaven and hell overlap. I invent other devils. I race and we place bets on things.…
XXXThe blood of the gods is still fresh on my clothes. A seagull’s scream echoes through my pages. So let me just pack up my words and leave.
Like Mihyar, Adonis writes, as his translators suggest, “far enough outside the tradition to ensure its dynamism.” Even nearly fifty years after its original publication in Arabic, Mihyar of Damascus is an exciting, vibrant contribution to international poetry in translation.