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souvlakiSouvlaki 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.

DS

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David Shook

amatoritseroAmatisoritsero Ede, born in Nigeria, has been a Hindu Monk with the Hare Krishna movement and worked as a Book Editor with a major Nigerian trade publisher, Spectrum Books. His first collection of poems, Collected Poems: A Writer’s Pains & Caribbean Blues, was published in Germany and Nigeria. His work has appeared in seven anthologies in Canada, England, Germany, and Nigeria. A second poetry collection, Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children (New York: Akashic Books, 2009) just came out. He has won several awards for his poetry, and was the 2005-2006 Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University, Ottawa, under the auspices of PEN Canada’s Writer-in-Exile Program. He edited Sentinel Online Poetry Journal from 2005-2007, and is the publisher and managing editor of the online Maple Tree Literary SupplementHe lives in Canada, where he is SSHRC Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in English at Carleton University.

We engaged in this conversation with a series of emails; over the course of our correspondence Ede proved to be intelligent and generous, often responding late at night.

Tell me about your experience as a Hare Krishna monk. Was that in Nigeria? Does that spiritual background affect your writing?

Yes, I was with the Hare Krishna Movement in Lagos, Nigeria. I was 24 at the time. I was dealing with too much existential angst and needed solitude and withdrawal, the better to self-study. I had tried all forms of spiritual contemplation–Christianity particularly, only to discover that Biblical teachings are too literarily understood and disseminated by the clergy, and that it was merely “religion” with all the regimentation and unquestioning acceptance of dogma that that implied. I simply had too many questions and the church little or no answers. So as Dambudzo Marechera would have said, “I picked up my bag and left” that House of Hunger. I left, especially as I witnessed the overt commodification within–particularly–the Pentecostal “prosperity churches” that were beginning to mushroom at the time.

Growing up within the traditional Yoruba worldview of accommodation, religious and otherwise, as emphasized by Yoruba traditional religious pantheism, I also did not understand such fascist utterances like, “Jesus is the only way” and, “No one comes to the father except through me.”  I guess they presume the father is your ubiquitous next-door family man, and did not grasp the esoteric importance of  “father” as deployed in any scripture. And to expect that a father would put the child in hell, say a bakery oven—let me mimic the clergy’s own literal (mis)understanding of scripture—for being a sinner beat me too. The Bible did say that He gave us free will to choose from good and bad. Why does He not just make everyone do what He wants, if that is His will? Many questions; no answers.

It seems like a lot of your struggle with Christianity in particular seems to stem from interpretation of texts, from issues of language.

You can see how language must have taken over the process of interpretation–of hermeneutics–and reads the people who are supposed to be reading for meanings. In retrospect, there is also the problem of translation from original biblical source languages into target languages. A lot of metaphorization must have been lost or watered down in that globalizing process. Where then are “the errors of the rendering” as Christopher Okigbo says? Beyond metaphor, there is also the question of the esoteric significance of any scriptural language. For the lay clergy, it is all mostly literal–not all the time, but mostly. So when there is mention of “hell,” clergy and laity alike take it literal and tremble in fear thinking of a bakery oven. With a mention of “prosperity” ‘people of God’ think of Gold like Aaron at the foot of the mountain waiting for Moses to come down with the Ten Commandments. I am coming to the significance of all that to Vaishnavism–the Hare Krishna Movement–in a minute. Many question and little answers.

More confusing for me was the fact that this religion, Christianity, has been responsible for, or complicit in, a lot of atrocities historically; its investments in slavery, colonialism, and capitalism is all too well known, even if often ignored in analysis or on the pulpit. Part of the arrogance of this religion is that it never apologizes for anything. Not for the Nazi gold scandal, not for the crusades, not for pedophilia in the church, not for excesses like psychopathic pastor Jim Jones in Guyana and many more. Definitely not for slavery or colonialism and the “civilizing” mission. So you see the transliteration of scripture is then taken to an extreme and misreadings occur, which allow psychotics to hijack such transliterations for their own warped uses.  As Shakespeare has it, “the devil cites scripture for his purpose.” At some point earlier I was a Muslim, though that was due to an adult’s prodding to get us young rascally boys out of the way. I did it by rote. I found there were—still are—a lot of misreading of the Koran as well–literal misinterpretations of what should properly be esoteric and not so mistranslated as it often is.

So it was out of curiosity and the continuous search for something beyond my immediate grasp that I ran into the Hare Krishna folks dancing in downtown Lagos. I loved the sound of the mrdanga (the oblong drums), conch shells, and cymbals. And they did look weird. So I approached to find out what the ruckus was all about. And they began to explain the Krishna philosophy and religious thought to me. It was deep and not the usual literal slant I had experienced with Christianity particularly. The esoteric nature of the musings also struck a cord with my yearning for a deeper or higher explanation of things. I was in the face of the esoteric. I had toyed with the esoteric growing up; reading books like 14 Lessons in Occultism and Enter the Silence, books of palmistry and astrology. Lets us say I had a yearning and an affinity for the esoteric. Christianity took all of that away with its jealous ways. I got “born again” and burnt all my esoteric books, which were “of the devil”! When I got out of the church I was mad as a hatter! I cannot find some of those books anywhere. Hinduism–that’s what Krishna consciousness is–is pantheistic like the traditional Yoruba religions I grew up with. Hinduism in my experience is not as jealous as Christianity and Islam. These religions, younger by far than the traditional African and most Eastern religions, are very narcissistic. So I listened to the saffron-robed, bald-headed Prabhuji and decided I would go to their temple later and find out more–case the joint if you like! I went in and didn’t come out for a long time. I shaved my head too and wore a doti.

The Hare Krishna experience is one of a kind. You are supposed to drop all attachment to material life–family, friends, books, habits – good and bad. In short you renounced material life and lived a spiritual life of austerity and self-denial. Even food is not a big necessity. At some point you are supposed to conquer the tongue enough to need maybe just a piece of fruit a day. I never got that far–because again, I picked up my bag and left! The discipline was good but unearthly. You went to bed at 9 pm, woke up at 3 am; if you don’t wake up someone douses you in a sprinkle of water or rings the morning bell right into your eardrums. To further aid your wakefulness you take a cold shower, then mark your body (solar plexus, navel, forehead, shoulders, and so on) with tilak, which is clay from the Ganges, wear your doti and go into the Temple by 4 am to begin morning devotion with songs: Samsara dava dana lida loka trayana karuna ganagana twam, praptasya karlyana  dana lolu paysa vande guru sri ca na ra vindam. That is Sanskrit. Don’t ask me what it means because I don’t remember; there is a book where all the songs are translated. I loved those songs and still miss the temple if only for their resonance and the accompanying mrdanga and cymbals. It was bliss I can tell you: meditation, concentration and contemplation all in one. It definitely was consciousness- changing for me. Then the morning sermon–well, not really a sermon as such, but a meditation read (in Sanskrit) from the Bhagavad-Gita, then translated and explained by a more senior devotee–like the temple president. All, very very esoteric and mystifying for a bhakta–a new devotee.

The evening singing lifts you bodily and you are slapped flat like Spiderman against the ceiling for the next one hour at least, dancing in spiritual ecstasy. It was better than weed or cocaine! That’s why Hare Krishna thrived in the USA during the flower power, punk and hippie eras when even prominent figures like John Lennon were members. If you needed drugs simply “chant and be happy.” That was the drug! Chant the Hare Krishna maha mantra,

It was great experience but tough, so one day I picked up my bag and left. It was a tough decision to leave; it was difficult to go. But poetry and other matters called. I left.

That spiritual background does not affect or influence my poetry in a direct way but rather in the roundabout fashion that I insist on the truth as an ontological phenomenon; calling a spade as spade, as I see it. I do not play the mind games with self that people like to play. If someone is deceiving me at least I won’t deceive myself. “I am finely attuned to my own psyche” as Soyinka says in The Interpreters.

There are a lot of contemporary poets from a vaguely Christian tradition—I think of many of the Japanese haiku poets as well—that conceive of poetry as a sort of prayer. Does that at all resonate with you?

You are right about the idea of the poem as a prayer. The Jesuit Priest Gerald Manley Hopkins–early modernist and precursor of a full-fledged modernist movement–did just that with his poetry, pray. Is all of Rumi not one long prayer to the psyche? But to be more specific, religion has sometimes been an impetus for devotional poetry or literature generally. The critic G.H. Vallins in his The Best English has an elaborate analysis of how the Bible has been a model for early English poetry or prose. The Psalms of King David could be considered as free verse, praising the Christian God.

Have you read any of the recent translations of the Psalms, focusing on their poetry and the Hebrew poetic devices employed rather than, say, their sanctity as holy texts? I’m thinking specifically of Robert Alter and David Rosenberg.

No I have not read that. That would be an interesting read. I will definitely look out for the Literary Bible when it comes out. But to get back to Hopkins… What Hopkins, like King David of the Psalms, does is to praise God with his idea of inscape and instress. “By ‘inscape’ he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by ‘instress’ he means either the force of being which holds the inscape together or the impulse from the inscape which carries it whole into the mind of the beholder”₁ And that instress is the God in the thing, the object; it is the creative essence, which reflects the workings of a supernatural supreme personality of Godhead. In that way his poems are eternal prayers. But he wrote in secret. Poetry was considered too secular a preoccupation for a Jesuit priest to indulge in. It was seen as almost a sinful self-indulgence. So none of his work was published in his lifetime. Talking about which the spiritual background of Hare Krishna does not appear in my public poetry directly because I was almost forbidden to write poetry in the temple unless it had something to do with the religious, focusing on Krishna, the supreme personality of Hindu Godhead. I did write some poetry in that fashion and they were published in a journal we produced at the temple called transcendence. But otherwise you won’t find any directly spiritual poetry in my oeuvre. I could not not write poetry of all kinds. I felt restrained by the ecclesiastical demands of writing to form. So I picked up my bag and left. Now I am retracing my steps into traditional African religion and my patron saint, the Yoruba Trickster God Esu, is very liberal. “I write what I like.”

Obviously your relationship with Germany—political and personal—has had something to do with your poetry. It’s found its way into your subject matter; have there been any other, deeper ways its affected your poetry? What about the German poets?

There are no particular direct stylistic ways the German poets influenced or affected my poetry. This definitely has to do with the fact that I was a finished poet by the time I moved to Germany from Nigeria.

A finished poet? What, exactly, do you mean? Your fundamental sense of aesthetics had already been developed?

By a finished poet I mean that I was already largely formed in my stylistics and aesthetic predilections, yes.  And importantly I had already serviced my apprenticeship. I had written my juvenilia. I remember presenting Wole Soyinka with a notebook of handwritten poems when I first met him as a teenager of 18. He was kind enough not to say anything but just, “it is coming up; it is coming up!” None of my juvenilia is published at all. I can’t even find them, or I unconsciously lost them. Later on, I belonged to a group of poets at the University of Ibadan referred to in Nigeria as the Thursday People because we (the poetry club) met informally on Thursdays. That group was a spawning ground for good poetry and cross influences. It is the same group that Niyi Osundare belonged to–more and more in a fringe sense as he grew up and away as a poet.  Others include Harry Garuba, Chiedu Ezeanah, Remi Raji, Uche Nduka by affiliation, the late Sessan Ajayi, Sanya Osha and many more. I particularly had a close poetic relationship with Chiedu Ezeanah for his rigor, and we critiqued each other’s work honestly and without rancor. Such frank and no-nonsense criticism within the group generally helped me hone my craft. I am amused how in North America, despite the proliferation of creative writing schools, no criticism goes on at all. What passes for criticism is usually the unalloyed praise of the blurb writer. Writing blurbs has become a profession in itself and the unspoken ethic of it is that you praise the book to high heavens, deploy hyperboles couched in comparatives like “the best,” “the greatest,” “the most accomplished”— In comparison to what? one wonders. Even though I have left Nigeria, Chiedu still electronically sends me his poems from time to time to critique. He knows I will not call a spade a fork. The result of North American political correctness is that critics, both academic and lay, are petrified and refuse to do their work. Everyone is so sensitive; egos are so frail that you don’t dare offend their testiness by saying a poem is bad! You are supposed to simply praise. Why was it that the Romantic poets cut off the public and formed an inner group to critique their works? Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others at some point refused to follow the demands of the rabble about the direction their work should take. It led to a rejection of the age-old patronage system and the relationship of the Romantic poet to the public was then mediated through the market–especially with the increase in the English mercantile class and expansion of the middle class. Today, the general public and the critic behave like Wordsworth’s uncritical, unholy rabble. What you have out there is a lot of badly, hastily written poetry. There is also the desire to “popularize” poetry with things like slam and the “prose poem”—what an (oxy)moron! I think Derek Walcott recently frowned at that expression in a public talk. I can’t remember the circumstances now. These days everyone wants to be a poet. I wonder why. Poetry might be the queen of the arts but it is a beggar queen, you don’t make money with it. I suppose perhaps that some think writing poetry is easy and fast and does not need the patience, diligence, discipline, and long-suffering of prose. This view is far from the truth. The art requires more rather than less discipline. My own litmus test is this: if you can replace any word in any of my lines with another word, without causing a major breakdown in the very essence and structure of the poem, then I did a poor job in the first place! With me if at the syntagmatic level something is removed you will discover that it affects the whole paradigm. One word replaced and everything goes to hell! The rhythm and cadence–what Seamus Heaney refers to as that “ta-dum-ta-dum” in his The Government of the Tongue–the imagery too would probably go to hell, especially with me. I am an informal imagist.

(more…)

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It’s a pleasure to announce our newest weekly feature: Laura Peters’ series Portraits of Poets. Laura Peters’ world is both dark and whimsical, and her portraits reflect that vision of reality. The poets Peters paints are chosen in partnership with Molossus‘ editorial staff, selected for their personality, vision, and relevance. A new portrait will be posted each Friday.

You can read more about Peters on the Molossus Masthead. Her portraits are for sale. 

 

Frank Kuppner by Laura Peters

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Frank Kuppner is a Glaswegian poet who for many years has aspired of migrating to Edinburgh. Carcanet, his longtime publisher, has most recently published his work Arioflotga, previously featured on Molossus. Famously eclectic, Kuppner for many years sported the poetry world’s most impressive facial hair, second perhaps only to Czesław Miłosz’ eyebrows. His early collections include A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty (1984) and The Intelligent Observation of Naked Women (1987), and he writes a sporadic column for PN Review.

DS

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Beginning 1 September I will read a book of poetry each day for a year, writing 140-character reviews on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/yearofpoetry and on Molossus. I hope to accomplish more than compile 365 pithy back cover blurbs, to truly experiment with the medium as an effective venue for contemporary book reviewing.

I remember once, during my early interest in poetry, explaining to my mother in a bookstore that collections of poetry shouldn’t be read through—that poems should be enjoyed by themselves and that collections, even by single authors, were basically anthologies of one hit wonders. By graduate school I was vehemently opposed to the one hit wonder made popular by the MFA—what Donald Hall calls the McPoem—and interested in interconnected sequences of lyrics and the framework that connected them. I read collections straight through, often in a single sitting, trying to understand how the poems worked together.

As an online broadside, our interest in electronic media is obvious. As a critic, I am especially interested in new networks of media exposure: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. With the recent upsurge in literary content on Twitter—ranging from Penguin Poetry news updates to the alleged musings Edgar Allen Poe—I wondered if poetry, a medium known for its succinctness, could be effectively reviewed in 140 characters. Rather than experimenting with an occasional Twitter review, I have decided to commit myself to developing an effective format for the medium, by reviewing a collection each day for a year. 

Please do follow me on Twitter. To read the book list, which will be periodically updated, click here

 

David Shook

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An Aquarium, Jeffrey Yang. (Graywolf Press) $15.00

An-Aquarium_Yang-320x487Jeffrey Yang is an editor at New Directions, and his poetry evidences his wide exposure to world literature, manifested both in allusions—with poems featuring the literature and philosophy of peoples from around the world, ranging from the indigenous Miskito of coastal Nicaragua to Vishnu Ivara, as well as mythology name dropping on behalf of the Hawaiians, Maya, Olmec, and others—and in tone. The book catalogues the contents of Yang’s world aquarium alphabetically, beginning with his poem “Abalone,” and ending with “Zooxanthellae.” Yang often ends descriptive sequences with straightforward and contextually quaint declarations, an effect that occasionally strikes out but works on the whole. He ends his poem “Dolphin,” for example, with:

Scientists tell us that if we
rearrange a few of our genes,
we’d become dolphins. Wouldn’t
that be real progress! 

which indeed seems too quaint for contemporary poetry. In “Eel,” the poem immediately following that one, however, he uses it to great effect and with sly humor, as in the best aphorisms:

Eels are slimy creatures.
But they never lie. If they sense
the slightest pretence, they’ll
bite off your finger. Carefully 
study the hands of politicians. 

Not all of Yang’s alphabetical poems are about sea creatures, dry land titles include “Intelligent Design,” and “Rexroth.” 

Altogether a noteworthy book, An Aquarium engages world literature in an important dialogue. It contains allusions worth investigating further, a scientific but unpretentious vocabulary, and an assortment of interesting facts, like that “The barnacle has the longest penis / of any animal in proportion / to its body size.” 

The Gigantic Robot, Tom Gauld. (Buenaventura Press) $16.95

robotDescribed by Daniel Clowes as “A perfect little book,” Tom Gauld’s 32-page board book for adults captures perfectly the understatement of the children’s board book. His translation of the medium works well for his subject matter, the construction and eventual neglect of an instrument of war, an occurrence too often shrouded in political jargonese or ideological oversimplification. Social philosophy aside, Gauld is a contemporary Gorey, reminiscent of the late illustrator both in his minimal style and the terse, simple narration that accompanies his illustrations, differing in his political inclinations. The book is easy to flip through, but like its smaller board book cousins, it grows richer with each re-read.

robot1

 

DS

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Aria: Poetry Translations by Sudeep Sen. (Yeti Books, Calicut & Mulfran Press, Cardiff) Rs.399 & £11.99

I.

Sudeep Sen’s highly praised books include Postmarked India, Prayer Flag, Distracted Geographies, and the poetic meditation, Rain, illustrated by twenty of India’s top artists. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages and his writings have appeared in leading international and national newspapers and journals and been widely broadcast. In Aria he offers a synthesis of his abilities as a poet and translator to bring to the wider public an anthology of work by 17 South Asian poets (ranging from Rabindranath Tagore and Gulzar to lesser known and newer voices) and 10 writers from other parts of the world. The translated languages range from Hindi, Bengali and Urdu to Korean, Hebrew, Icelandic, Persian, Macedonian, Polish and Spanish. In his introduction to Aria, Sen reveals that it is his experience of growing up tri-lingual and being able to slip between the languages and registers of Bengali, Hindi and English that gives his poetry and translations a multi-dimensional character; and this quality is one of the book’s greatest achievements—as Sen’s translations move with ease through a variety of voices and registers.

Jibanananda Das has been called one of the most loved Bengali poets, after Rabindranath Tagore, and it’s easy to see why. The beautiful poem, ‘Banalata Sen’, has echoes of Omar Khayyam’s famous rubaiyat. The translation starts with a wonderful striding movement:

For a thousand years I have walked this earth’s passage
by day and night — from Lanka’s shores to Malay’s vast seas.

The second stanza, which begins ‘Like the dense ink-night of Bidhisha, her hair — black, deep black;’ has the deeply sensuous, hypnotic quality that distinguishes much of Sen’s own poetry — especially his love poetry. This is a case of poet and translator being exceptionally well attuned. Das’s work is followed by four delightfully playful poems taken from the Visva Bharati edition of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s nonsense verse, Khapcharra. Of these I especially liked the Pythonesque ‘Bird-seller says, “This is a black-coloured chanda.”’ To which the buyer, Panulal Haldar, replies, “I’m not blind — It is definitely a crow.”

AriaIt isn’t often that poetry makes you gasp; the last time, for me was many years ago on first reading Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Edge’ in which the moon is shown ‘Staring from her hood of bone. // Her blacks crackle and drag.’  The poems of Mandakranta Sen also induce a sharp intake of breath. To quote K. Satchidanandan (Molossus, July 2009) Mandakranta Sen is one of the brave women poets who ‘are fighting patriarchy and evolving their own mode of writing often organised around the female body and self’. Her Bengali poetry seems to me to represent an authentic voice for women, undiluted by patriarchal values. Her first poem, ‘The Witch’ contains imagery that disturbs and provokes. Identified by her habit of secretly writing poetry in the middle of the night with her hair undone, the moonstruck witch ‘roasts, then eats the pulpy sadness / Plucked from the crown of her head’. In ‘Nature Goddess’ the body is itemised and carved up —

Packing my groin, my navel, my buttocks in a sack,
I left my home for the sloping wrong side of the track.

The fact that these poems are beautifully rendered in rhymed and half-rhymed couplets belies their often excoriating language and themes. Another Sen — Mithu Sen — also uses what the ancient Sumerians called emesai or ‘women’s speech’. Her poetry is quiet, confessional and intense and she often uses forms that are even more spare than haiku.

In Bangladesh, Shamsur Rahman is considered to be one of the most distinguished Bengali poets of his generation. Syed Manzoorul Islam speaks of Rahman as having ‘produced a solid body of work which has permanently changed the geography and the climate of Bengali poetry … He has given us a language, which we did not have.’ The selection of his poems in this volume varies from the romantic (as in ‘Love’s Overture’), to the domestic (‘Mother’) which is a moving tribute to the role of women in South Asian life — especially, his own life. Two other Bangladeshi poets are represented in the book. Fazal Shahabuddin’s poems are both cosmological and cosmopolitan, often sounding an elegiac note. Aminur Rahman is a young poet and translator whose work is innovative, meditative and experimental.

Several leading Hindi poets, such as the incomparable Gulzar, Sachchidananda Vatsyayan Ageya, who is one of the most prominent exponents of the Nayi Kavita (New Poetry) and Prayogvad (Experimentalism), Kaifi Azmi, Kunwar Narain, and others, add immeasurably to the overall tonality of the book and display what is best in contemporary Hindi and Urdu poetry by the older generation. Among the younger writers, Mangalesh Dabral’s poems show a mixture of the political, the existential and the urbane which resonates well with much contemporary poetry being written by English language Western poets. Anamika has five collections of poetry to her credit and over the years she has won numerous accolades for her literary work. Her poems in this collection include the philosophical Salt: “Salt is earth’s sorrow and its taste. / Earth’s three-fourths is brackish water, / and men’s heart a salt mountain.” She can also be fiercely political as in ‘Mobile Phone’:

Like the streets of old Baghdad
before the American heavy bombings —
I too am like that.
In me, adorned like old souks, meena bazaars —
like archaeological ruins in this metropolis’s heart.

II.

The second part of Aria deals with translations of poetry from East and West Asia, the Middle East and Europe starting with the delicate ‘Willow’ by the Korean poet Moon Chung Hee:

He etched blue flowers
on my arms —

Blue flowers
that tied

my skin, my whole body,
my spirit, and my life.

Avraham Ben Yitshak is translated from Hebrew by Sudeep Sen with Yehuda Amichai, Daniel Weissbort and others. His work shares many spiritual resonances with the classical Indian poets, especially when he touches on religion:

Tomorrow, stricken with the absence of words, we die;
And on that day, we shall stand at death’s gate.
As the heart celebrates the closeness to God,
It will do so, in joy and repentance, in fear of betrayal.

Sudeep Sen photo by Sara Bowman[1]Israeli poet Amir Or, Iranian poet Shirin Razavian, Icelandic poet Ditte Steensballe and Polish poet Ewa Sonnenberg add their own distinctive notes to the cosmopolitan texture. Of Macedonian poet Zoran Anchevski’s six poems, the most strikingly original is ‘halfVerses’ but I particularly liked ‘History’ which shows Minerva the owl at the end ‘resting at ease in its burrow / masticating, consuming its prey’; and the sustained menace of ‘My Little Me’: “When I fenced in my little me / and said to myself This is mine / It grew, / became my dictator — / handsome and greedy.” Another Macedonian poet, Petko Dabeski, in ‘Five Minutes’ uses the vernacular ‘What’s with those five minutes? / Whether they exist or not, they are just a puny five minutes’ to begin a monologue on time and humanity.

Spanish poet Sergio Claudio F. Lima uses Duchamp’s statement that ‘art is not a creative activity, but a means to expand consciousness’ to preface his poem, which is ‘The Body [of a Woman] Signifies’. A note tells us that this poem is a translation of the essential framework/content of the book, O Corpo Significa. The poem is made up of a sequence of terse statements or gnomic utterances that remind me of some of Allen Ginsberg’s Beat poetry

I. The sight of love is definitive.

II. The way of seeing is the way/an expression of being.

III. The doing is the development of thinking, of thought.

IV. The act of action circumscribes, and the sense opens the field of art.

As a member of both the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, Duchamp had a huge influence on the development of modern Western art and, although it is hard to judge this poem on its own without the context of the book for which it provides the ‘framework’, introducing Duchamp inevitably widens the spectrum and terms of reference of Aria and helps give the book its international edge.

In the last section ‘Postscript’, there are two English poems by Sen himself. The first, ‘Translating Poetry’ could stand as the epigraph for any book of translation, tracing, as it does, the process of creation and transposition with all its mysteries and technicalities. When the poem ends with the translator concluding that ‘A real poem defies translation, in every way’ he is selling himself short. In this superlative book of translations, Sen uses his gifts as a poet, linguist, cosmopolitan traveller and observer to conjure, in Coleridge’s phrase, the ‘best words in their best order.’ The result is a fine collection of poetry which takes the best from classical and modern traditions and integrates them into a stunning whole.

Oxford | Summer 2009

Jenny Lewis is a poet and playwright who has worked extensively in cross-arts performances. Read more on our Masthead.

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Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988 – 2008, Norma Cole. (City Lights) $14.95

Norma_Cole

Norma Cole’s is the first book in City Light’s new spotlight series, which will showcase contemporary innovative poetry by both well-known and emerging American poets. City Light’s continuing commitment to experimental poetry is evident: one part of the series’ purpose is to draw attention to the small presses currently  publishing outside the mainstream—Cole’s wide range of original publishers include Moving Letters Press, Potes & Poets Press, O Books, and Granary Press.

Slightly larger than their iconic Pocket Poet Series, the Spotlight series is beautifully designed and produced. Cole’s verse ranges vastly in form and subject, with a large selection of prose poems. Her dialogue with contemporary French poetry is especially evident. As she begins her poem “: Well”:

Eating and shitting pearls, we
tell each other stories, listening for difference

Even with a half-hearted listen, it’s easy to tell that Cole’s poetry is different. Where Shadows Will offers only the beginning of an introduction, a whetting of the palate.

The next book in the series is Free Cell by Anselm Berrigan.

to be hung from the ceiling by strings of varying length, Rick Reid (Black Goat, Akashic) $15.95

globetrotter & hitler’s children, Amatoritsero Ede. (Black Goat, Akashic) $15.95

With the two most recent selection from Chris Abani’s Black Goat imprint, the editor continues to explore the experimental. Rick Reid’s debut collection is an experiment amaedein which the page itself is a “frame that superimposes itself temporally, aurally, and visually.” The text of each page appears in a sparse  free verse between two centered black dots, which give the effect that the collection is a single page with changing text, “producing a process of both afterimage and surfacing.” The text of the collection is less interesting than its conceptual foundations, but in the current age of evolving print culture the book raises interesting questions about the physicality of ink on paper, of the material construction of printed poetry.

Amitoritsero’s collection is made of two long poems, each composed of 26 lettered sections. The first, “globetrotter,” is a wanderer’s reflection on the city of Toronto, and the second, “hitler’s children,” is about the poet’s experience of contemporary Germany, framed within his vision of its “enabling, overarching ‘neo-liberal’ political atmosphere.” Both poems contain glimpses of genius, but the first is ultimately better than the second. Amitoritsero’s strength lies in his succint marriage of image and abstraction. His spatial descriptions are superb. From section c:

photographer
you have no perspective
wide as the autobahn

and from section d:

##what does the endless
###########north american sky
##########reveal

###like those sex workers
in amsterdam’s love quarters
########she says simply

####################i am wide open

The politics of the second poem are organic rather than forced, and at times—as in the leading segment, “The Skinhead’s Lord’s Prayer”—the poems are simultaneously humorous and tragic. An impressive debut by the Nigerian-born former Hindu monk, a truly successful contemporary practitioner of the long poem.

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