Stone Lyre, René Char, tr. Nancy Naomi Carlson (Tupelo Press) $16.95
In his introduction Ilya Kaminsky writes that the great poets deserve a great many translations, and though René Char is a poet with a venerable pantheon of literary translators—among them James Wright, Paul Auster, Samuel Beckett, and William Carlos Williams—Carlson’s sing most like the French originals. In her own note, she describes the difficulties of not simplifying the great Modernist’s semantic leaps, of maintaining the rich alliteration of the French, and even, of, “as [most] French words stress the last syllable… [trying] to end each line with English words that stressed the last syllable or were mono-syllabic.” These details—and she presents several other, similar examples—achieve their end without the clunkiness one might expect, as in her own example, “To Brother-Tree of Numbered Days,” in which only the last line retains the translatedness of Romance language poetry (and even then, not too distractingly):
Larch tree’s brief harp
On the spur of moss and flagstones in seed
—Forest’s façade where clouds break apart—
Counterpoint paired to the void in which I believe.
Carlson’s translations were selected from over five decades of Char’s work, and serve as an excellent introduction to his poetry. Despite their wide range of genesis they still maintain, as Kaminsky notes, the poet’s stylistic unity. That it is Char’s stylistic unity rather than Carlson’s again proves the quality of the translation. I especially enjoyed his later prose poems, which were also translated in strict imitation of French prosody, like “In Love,” here in its entirety:
Each square of the window’s pane is a piece of the facing wall; each stone sealed in the wall—blissful recluse—colors our dawns and evenings with gold dust mixed with sands. Our dwelling lives out its tale, through which winds love to slice.
Below, a narrow street where this fortune evaporates—pavement beyond our sight. Let anyone passing reclaim what he desires.
Borderland Roads, Hŏ Kyun, tr. Ian Haight & T’ae-young Hŏ (White Pine Press) $16
Korean poet Hŏ Kyun was born in 1569, worked as a prolific poet and diplomat, and was drawn and quartered in 1618 on false charges of treason. In 2006 a new collection of nearly 400 poems was discovered, mostly about his life abroad in China, written between August, 1615 and March, 1616. Responsible for writing Korea’s first novel, he was also a noted social reformer and critic.
Translators Haight and Hŏ introduce the volume in a manner they term “interpretive,” in fact a very unconventional but effective creative nonfiction narration of Kyun’s life in the second person. Its very strength is in its refusal to color the poetry with any academic interpretation, no doubt a nod to the poet’s own philosophy, reading instead as an obituary—and like an obituary, no doubt at times romanticized—of the poet. In a passage that describes his work and person well, they write:
You find your friends among the disenfranchised: the sons of concubines, the literati who have lost power or never had political connections, or those who, like you, are tired of the system and want no part of it. You write simple, plain-spoken poems that avoid the traditional aesthetics of the upper class, disavowing their literary embellishments. You write about the poor, about writing, about political life at court—how you wish it would end. You believe literature should be available to common people, and so you begin to eschew writing in the traditional Chinese for the Korean vernacular.
His poem “Writing What I See” exemplifies that practice, a poetry of witness without the artifice that might imply. It begins:
An old wife sits at dusk, grieving
in her charred village.
Her unkempt hair, like frost—
both eyes, muted.
Her husband imprisoned
Her son, drafted, follows the King’s son…
In the poem’s next section he describes more bourgeois Koreans, “Two old men / who’re not unhappy,” before offering more direct social criticism:
Charred remains of thatched houses
give people no shelter,
but to dig the castle’s moat,
half a family is called away.
Like Neruda, his social criticism is balanced by his descriptions of the natural world, as in his 1598 poem “Crossing Iron Mountain River,” in which he writes, “Dark waves rush south, / the north, plentiful / with new autumn colors. / The year goes— / I’ve already said it all.”
Though he sometimes writes with humor (“In Korea, there was a scholar, / who, though thin, had a fully developed mind.”) and frequently in praise of beauty, Hŏ Kyun is ultimately that most unusual poet, political in the most natural sense, exemplified by his 1604 poem “Indulgence,” also in its entirety:
Field and rice paddies, an abandoned desert.
Half the villagers, dead.
Taxes frequently collected,
a drought, a plague of insects.
In politics, it’s impossible
to be the best disciple of Confucius;
I have compassion only for my hometown.
Vaguely, I feel shame from my salary:
2,000 bags of rice
and still not practicing virtuous governance.