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Beautiful Signals

It is uncommon for Molossus to feature magazines but I am always happy when we do, as I so admire their succinctness and digestibility. That said, I can be quite harsh in my opinions, as so few magazines maintain their quality from beginning to end, much less from issue to issue. The few we do feature here are the best of the best, discoveries we’re excited to share.

Two Lines World Writing in Translation XVII: Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, ed. Natasha Wimmer & Jeffrey Yang (Center for the Art of Translation) $14.95

The San Francisco-based Center for the Art of Translation publishes Two Lines each year, its contents selected quite curatorially by a tandem of guest editors. The newest edition was assembled by notable Bolaño translator Natasha Wimmers and New Directions editor Jeffrey Yang. Still published in its strange horizontal format, the book-style magazine collects the best work of working translators. Highlights of this issue include Bolaño’s short note on the importance of translation, which perfectly accompanies his advice on the writing of short stories, bilingual poetry by Xi Chuan, translated by Lucas Klein, the cleverly translated “Tropes” of Oliverio Girondo, by Heather Cleary Wolfgang, and the nimble transfer of Carlito Azevedo’s concrete poem “Traduzir” into the equally effective English-language “Translation,” by Sarah Rebecca Kersley. As always, a translator’s note accompanies each translation; these alone are worth more than the volume’s purchase price. The book ends with a special section dedicated to Uyghur poetry, including both contemporary and classical work translated by Dolkun Kamberi and Jeffrey Yang. More on that impressive survey is forthcoming on Molossus in February, when our interview with Yang is scheduled to appear.

In his essay “Translation is a Testing Ground,” which appears toward the end of Beautiful Signal, Bolaño writes

How to recognize a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated.

That’s exactly what Two Lines does: the graceful legwork required for recognizing works of art. Without fail, the poetry and prose within stands the test of translation.

Signal: 01: A Journal of International Political Graphics & Culture, ed. Alec Icky Dunn & Josh MacPhee (PM Press) $14.95

Like Two Lines, Signal culls the best and most interesting material from around the world. Using interview as their primary method, the editors allow practitioners to speak for themselves, be they the Xicana printmakers of Taller Tupac Amaru, Johannes van de Weert, the Dutch creator of Red Rat, an influential comic during the rise of the Dutch punk scene in the 1980s, Felipe Hernandez Moreno, a printmaker in his 70s who participated in the Mexican Student Movement of 1968, or Rufus Segar, who designed almost every cover of the 1960s magazine Anarchy.

The first issue also includes a photo-essay of work by Midwestern graffiti artist IMPEACH, who tags boxcars with Wild West-styled lettering of simple messages like “IMPEACH,” “TORTURE,” “BAILOUT,” and “POVERTY,” in a rolling commentary on contemporary political buzzwords and the larger policies they represent. The most unexpected article in :01 is about adventure playgrounds, first organized by Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen during World War II. Also known as junk playgrounds, the projects offer children the opportunity to reflect their own vision of creative space.

In the introduction to the first volume of their new book-style magazine, Dunn and MacPhee write,

The production of art and culture does not happen in a vacuum; it is not a neutral process. We don’t ask the question of whether culture should be instrumentalized towards political goals, the economic and social conditions we exist under marshal all material culture towards the maintenance of the way things are.

Their wide-ranging interviews examine those economic and social conditions with a lens that is political but not politicized. Unsurprisingly, Signal is beautifully designed, with a surplus of graphic material that would be difficult to find elsewhere. My favorite images are the Mexican prints from 1968, especially interesting when compared to the contemporary print-work of Taller Tupac Amaru, but the wide range of covers of Anarchy come in a close second. I look forward to Signal:02.

DS

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I first encountered Tom Pow’s dying villages work at the Edinburgh Poetry Library, on a tour with the Poetry Translation Centre. I was fascinated by the Cornell-like collections of simple objects, small shrines to the lives once lived in the villages in which they were found. Very curious about his project, I bought two small books, the letterpress-printed Songs from a Dying Village and the equally beautiful Cean Loch Reasort and Other Dead Village Walks, both printed in limited editions. Shortly thereafter, Tom and I began the email correspondence that eventually led to this conversation.

Tom Pow is very much a multidisciplinary poet and artist, as he explains below, and the photographs that accompany this interview were taken on his travels through the dying villages of Europe, as part of his series “Signs of a Dying Village.”

DS

OOO

Tell me, briefly, about dying villages. What are they?

It is estimated that by 2030 Europe will lose roughly one third of its population, the greatest demographic change since the Black Death. The effects of depopulation will be felt most acutely in rural areas, as a result of high levels of emigration to cities and low birth rates. Europe is home to 22 of the world’s 25 lowest birthrate countries, so there are many areas where villages are dying. I travelled to northern Spain, central France, southern Italy, eastern Germany, Bulgaria and central Russia. In Russia, for example, according to recent statistics, 11,000 villages and 290 cities have disappeared from the map of the Russian Federation. 13,000 villages remain on the map, but have no inhabitants. I came across a village there with one surviving inhabitant. This is not unusual.

How did you hear of them? How did that initial impulse—the spark of interest in the dying villages—evolve into the project it now is?

I was in Edmonton for the 30th anniversary of the University of Alberta’s Writing Program for which I’d been a visiting fellow in the early 90s. There was an article in the Edmonton Journal, with the title Withering Heights. It was about a village in northern Spain called Villabandin which had a handful of inhabitants all in their 60s and older. I learned that the phenomenon of the dying village is widespread in Europe and the subject gripped me—history, memory, loss, identity: very Scottish themes, I think! I was given a Creative Scotland Award, which funded my research trips and I began at Villabandin.

 

What do we stand to lose with the death of so many villages? Do you think dying villages contribute to a larger cultural attrition?
I’ve just read that 84% of people in Sweden live on 1.3% of the land. That is a sign of the increasing urbanisation that exists throughout the world. Villages die. Villages have always died, when they can no longer find reasons to exist. What  is undoubtedly lost with the deaths of so many villages is a myriad of ways of looking at the world. But what is perhaps more  concerning is the future of our relationship with the natural world—a world more and more people are distanced from and with which fewer and fewer have an intimate relationship.

You do more than just write poems, right? You also take photographs, collect artefacts, and more. How does your poetry interact with those other forms or disciplines of remembrance?

The photographs and the sound recordings were part of the research—they are a kind of noticing. But they also reflect my interests: for example, there are many photographs of doors and windows (thresholds), of what is worn and decayed; the recordings reflect an interest in the texture/the impossibility of silence. The website makes much of this material available. The artefacts grow from the poetry. I see them as physical embodiments of the poems. For example, one of the signs of a dying village is fruit lying unpicked. I came across an arrangement of apples that reminded me of the French game of boules. I showed the photograph to a sculptor and she made three apples on the edge of decay which were then cast in foundry bronze. I call then Boules from a Dying Village. They are beautiful to handle. After they were made, I discovered Gustave Courbet’s still lifes of apples which he painted while in prison. They are acknowledged as rustic memories of the village where he was born and spent his childhood. Each of the artefacts has similarly rich resonances.

People love to bemoan the state of poetry; I hate listening to them. Tell me about how the medium of poetry worked (or didn’t) for this project?

John Berger writes, in And Our Faces, My heart, Brief as Photos, that prose is a battle and that poetry moves through the battlefield tending the wounds. Poetry can still the narrative, so that something can be looked at and considered—given due attention. Some of the pieces I wrote were very short—poems of three or four lines. They are sequences with, I hope, a cumulative power. But each of them offers a threshold into the world of the dying village:

She’s sitting on the old green bench
by the side of the lilac tree.
Oh, the songs she once sung here!
The thought of them still makes her blush.

OOOO(from Songs from a Dying Village)

Did the project—and especially the travel portion of it, actually visiting these communities—affect your writing? What did you learn?

Of course. The small poem above is part of a sequence that drew on the Russian folk poem, the chastushka, a short lyric that was sung and that reflected village life. So common was it that the Soviets high-jacked it and used it as a way of spreading propaganda. My poems drew on what I read, but also on field work in Russia, listening to old women singing these songs.

What’s the future of the dying villages project?

I have begun a series of intimate engagements, using my Suitcase of the Dying Village. These are events/presentations round a table of 12-15 people. I share photographs, artefacts, recordings, read poems and tell stories relating to the project. There is always time to engage with others’ experiences and memories and  there is opportunity for them to write very briefly about their connection with a (dying) village. At one of these events, after the presentation, we served soup, bread and cheese. I like to think I am creating a space for people to engage with the subject in their own ways. And I suppose there is something about the intimacy that fits the subject. On the other hand, I have also given talks/lectures to fairly large audiences about the subject. I am working on a book about dying villages in Europe, which will be published in 2011. The book will contain travel essays, poems and short stories. But I’d like to go on one further dying villages trip.

What do you take with you on the road? Any specific books or albums? Have you picked up anything great recently?

Travelling can be a good time to read things you’ve been meaning to read for some time and never got round to. On one of the trips I took Gaston Bachelar’s The Poetics of Space. It started me writing a sequence of short poems about nests. I’d thought they were an escape from the enormity of the dying villages project. But I came to realise that nests are intimately connected to the themes of home and of abandonment that are at the heart of dying villages.

A nest is a blessing
for a tree and a prayer
upon the water.

December 2010

Tunnel People, Teun Voeten (PM Press) $24.95

Teun Voeten is not the first to document the lives of the people living in the tunnel systems of New York City. His newly updated account, Tunnel People, is unique, however, because of Voeten’s commitment not only to his craft, but also to the people. Articles and books have been written about the tunnel people and Mark Singer’s award winning documentary, Dark Days, introduced the world to this underground society in what Voeten himself calls a “shockingly honest portrayal.” But Voeten went a step further, living in the Amtrak tunnel on Manhattan’s west side for five months over two years, digging beneath the surface of the tunnel people’s lives as well as their complex and diverse social environment. “To add something new to the earlier studies,” Voeten writes in the introduction to his book, “I decided to take the anthropological approach, using its favorite research method of participant observation” (3).

During Voeten’s time living in the tunnel, Amtrak closed the tunnel, evicting all the residents. City and federal agencies made valiant efforts to place the tunnel people in permanent housing. Now, thirteen years later, Voeten has reestablished communication with as many of the former tunnel people as he can find. In a brand new Part 4, Voeten describes where his friends are and how they are faring. Some have successfully integrated into life up top while other have not. Some have returned to the streets, others have died, a few have overcome some remarkable challenges.

Voeten is no stranger to dangerous situations having covered more than a dozen conflict zones as a photo journalist, he brings all his unique talent and experience to bear upon this subject.

There is no shortage of people who want to help the homeless, serve the homeless, even study the homeless. There are federal and local programs to end homelessness in ten years. These efforts have a range of motivations, from sparing the rest of us the visual obstacle of people living on our streets to moral outrage over the inhumanity of allowing widespread suffering to continue unchecked. Those in a position to help others don’t often stop to consider how those on the receiving end experience that help. Many of the tunnel people didn’t consider themselves homeless at all. Indeed, the tunnel was their home. Voeten’s account gives us a window into this complexity

Yesterday, Frankie was also approached by an outreach worker. He holds the same kind of grudge as Bernard toward the do-gooders that try to intervene in his life. This time it was a friendly man who gave him a baloney sandwich and offered him a place to stay, that is to say, a city-operated shelter. Of course, Frankie was deeply offended.

“What the fuck do they think they’re talking about?” Frankie says angrily. “A shelter and a lousy sandwich! I told the guy, ‘Come to my place, I’ll make coffee and cook burgers and we gonna watch the ballgame on TV.’ But this asshole, he didn’t dare to come down.” It sounds like it was Do-Gooder Galindez again. “Something wrong with the system,” Frankie ponders, “when you got those guys making thirty grand a year driving fancy cars and handing out baloney sandwiches” (105).

Still, life on the streets—or in a tunnel—is difficult and dangerous. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that people are not meant to live this way, even when so many willingly chose it. The tension between respect for people’s choices and the outrage over a society that structures life in such a away that so many get left behind is not easily resolved. Handing out baloney sandwiches is not the answer.

As someone who regularly encounters homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles and interacts with half a dozen social service agencies working among the homeless, I found Voeten’s book deeply insightful and helpfully frustrating. Tunnel People offers a penetrating vision of a slice of life that is uniquely American, recounted by a uniquely qualified Dutch writer.

 

Ryan Bell is senior pastor of Hollywood Seventh Day Adventist Church, which was awarded the North American Division’s Award for Most Innovative Church in 2010. Bell writes for a wide range of publications, including the Huffington Post, and works very closely with many LA-based and national organizations to promote social justice.

 

Alfred Corn is the author of nine books of poems, the most recent titled Contradictions. He has published a collection of essays, The Metamorphoses of Metaphor, and a novel, Part of His Story. In 2008, University of Michigan Press brought out a collection of essays titled Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007 and Copper Canyon recently published a new edition of his study of prosody, The Poem’s Heartbeat. Fellowships and prizes awarded for his poetry include the Guggenheim, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. He has taught at Yale, Columbia, UCLA, the Poetry School in London, an Arvon workshop at Totleigh Barton, and at the Almàssera Vella Arts Centre in Spain.

Eleven   Londons

1967

Christmas carols, light-strings, mist, and rain.

Learning how to pronounce Marylebone.

A cut-rate holiday flight over the Channel

had lobbed us from our year on the Left Bank

to London, where Ann and I put up in a Baker Street

two-star, heated only when numb-fingered guests

fed shillings to the gas-gauge. Shillings, thruppence,

half-crowns, and the imaginary guinea:

Sterling’s baffling backup currency

at least had been marked down by Harold Wilson,

which gave grad-student cash a little boost.

Currency was everything, birds on Carnaby Street,

rock fans at Camden Round House, hip mandala

for music happenings. Stones and under-thirties

were rolling their own, and soon as Jimi Hendrix

breezed into town youth hair ballooned out

in fluffy, copycat spheres. Are you experienced?

A purple haze drifted through Notting Hill,

compounded of smoke, incense and hallucination.

Fire up the time machine, get in and drive

with Vanessa Redgrave in Blow Up, levitate

on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and tune in

to visible autonomy now the overdue

Sexual Offences Act has gone into effect.

At Liberty’s, my paisley shirt compared itself

to their extravagant flower-power cottons,

strawberry fields the Doors of Perception

could open on as before for Aldous Huxley,

Jim Morrison. And if for them why not for us?

Doors onto an innocence at least less vapid

than Holborn’s fake Olde Curiosity Shoppe,

a private blamelessness we tried to fabricate,

making a separate peace untainted by what

America had locked, loaded, and fired in Vietnam

Sure, but innocence of the standard sort

won out when we queued up to see the Tower’s

ravens, its tourist bait of regal finery.

With meeker if still jeweled exactitude,

Van Eyck’s uncanny Arnolfini Marriage

wakened enlightened silence in the gazer,

transmuting a public-funded institution

into a Buddhist shrine for rag-tag pilgrims.

Our friend Jean took us up to Hampstead,

Keats’s leafless garden subsisting without its Bird,

a no-show we shrugged off with a trudge up to the Heath,

to nurse a pint at Jack Straw’s Castle, another

in the brown interior of the Spaniards—

somehow followed by a trip on the Northern Line

to Charing Cross and a prance down Whitehall,

the tall-hatted bobby on duty not bothering

to challenge whoever stepped into Downing Street.

So plant yourself in front of No. Ten’s

unassuming door, take in the plain white spokes

of a fanlight set in soot-black brick, and then

push on to the bridge, waiting until Big Ben

strikes three, lit up by winter sun and brazen

as Hendrix’s ax. Evening the same as morning,

Earth had not anything to show more… Cool.

We experienced the scene that experienced us,

reciprocal fuels pledged to set the night on fire.

OOO

1978

Yale English had opened its doors, to us

junior-faculty types sufficient motive

for culling closer knowledge of the source.

At Paddington, no stereotype fogs

Or rains, instead, mid-July heat. Reception

at our hotel in Bayswater suggested

Hyde Park as the guest’s likeliest cool refuge.

Untrue in the event, but on we loped,

on past the statue of Peter Pan, recalled

from an album cover of The Wand of Youth.

My own I’d shelved; was serious; had published.

On offer at the National Portrait Gallery

were dour Tudors, Stuarts, Pepys, Blake, Shelley.

And why not follow up with a tiptoe through

Soane’s lapidary house by Lincoln’s Inn Fields?

Meanwhile, on the south bank of the Thames,

where, except to take in Turner’s spectral

cyclones, no one used to go, had risen

a massive modernist performance complex,

design incarnate in gray concrete. Elsewhere

the Wallace Collection hoisted its genteel

standards, attracting patrons with Boucher

or Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time, a title

Powell’s panoramic Proustian twelve-speed

novel recycled for his own charmed circle.

Continue Reading »

Black Nature

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, ed. Camille T. Dungy. The University of Georgia Press. $24.95

Includes: Phillis Wheatley, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden, Wanda Coleman, Natasha Trethewey, Melvin B. Tolson, Douglas Kearney, Major Jackson, Honorée Fannone Jeffers, and many more.

From the Introduction: The first tree whose story I cared to discover grows through the filtration pumps at the edge of an abandoned swimming pool in Lynchburg, Virginia, city park. In the late 1960s, a group of black children and community leaders staged a swim-in at this pool. Rather than desegregate this public facility, the city drained the water and replaced it with dirt. The space is now more lawn than pool. A gentle slope of lush grass reaches toward the deep end, and moss coats exposed walkways. A stately box elder grows through the retaining wall, roots ensnared in the pool’s filtration system. This is the final insult. No child, black or white, will ever swim in this pool again. Thanks to the tree’s tenacity, its remarkable, beautiful, uncompromised growth, the mechanisms that accommodated this simple form of recreation have been destroyed…. For years, poets and critics have called for a broader inclusiveness in conversations about ecocriticism and ecopoetics, one that acknowledges other voices and a wider range of cultural and ethnic concerns. African Americans, specifically, are fundamental to the natural fabric of this nation but have been noticeably absent from tables of contents. To bring more voices into the conversation about human interactions with the natural world, we must change the parameters of the conversation….

An excerpt from Douglas Kearney’s “Floodsong 2: Water Moccasin’s Spiritual”:

wade in the water
wade in the water, children
wade in the water
god’s gon’ trouble the water

wade in the water
wade in the water, children
wade in the water
god’s gon’ trouble the water

wade in
wade in
wade in
OOOOOOOtrouble

DS

© Lynd Ward, courtesy of The Library of America

Lynd Ward, ed. Art Spiegelman (The Library of America) $70

The Library of America has issued the most beautiful reproduction of Lynd Ward’s early woodcut novels—from Gods’ Man to Vertigoever. Not only more physically impressive than Dover’s editions, the only ones that can be readily found today, the woodcut reproductions are also of higher quality and resolution, with special care paid to their layout. All six woodcut novels were written and published while Ward was in his 20s, and though his stories sometimes peak in melodrama—something mitigated, to some degree, by its wordless narrative pace—Ward proves himself to be a structural storyteller of increasing genius.

 

© Lynd Ward, courtesy of The Library of America

Spiegelman’s introduction sketches Ward’s biography: the son of a progressive Methodist minister, it was luck that found the newly married, post-collegiate Ward in Germany rather than Paris, where he learned woodcut technique from the German Expressionist, whose works are probably best anthologized in Dover’s larger German Expressionist Woodcuts. Like his father, young Ward was very conscious of contemporary social justice issues and the artist’s role in addressing them. His use of—in his own words—the most primitive technique of image making exemplifies his rejection of the artist as bourgeois spectator.

The first volume of the two-volume set also contains four essays by Ward, written significantly after the publication of these six novels. These reveal an introspective creator keen to contextualize his own work. They also suggest his work’s increasing relevance to the present, as in his essay “On ‘Wild Pilgrimage’”:

The early thirties were a time when it seemed problematical whether the great, complicated American economic machine, which has but recently made such confident promises about the future, could ever be cranked up again. But to many thoughtful persons the real question was whether getting things going again was all that worthwhile…

© Lynd Ward, courtesy of The Library of America

The Anthology of Rap, ed. Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois (Yale U P) $35

With its foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—who remembers his father’s signifying—and afterwords by Chuck D and Common, The Anthology begins and ends with heavy hitters from the academic and rap communities, and the rap poetry those icons bookend is both a crash course in the diversity of rap lyrics from Afrika Bambaataa onward and a compelling case that the lyrics belong in the canon of contemporary poetry. The rap-as-poetry argument is about as stale as the comics-as-literature argument; once the chairman of the NEA has written about the prosody of rap, the genre ought to be a shoo-in. Still, editors Bradley and DuBois do well to treat their topic with the respect it deserves in this context, setting the stage for the appearance of rap lyrics in print. While rap has undoubtedly proved its own value to the world at large, and while, as I’ve argued before, the most relevant critics of the genre disseminate their criticism through the medium itself, The Anthology will go a long way toward legitimizing rap as literature. As Common writes in his afterword, “Strip all the performance away from rap and what do you have? A new perspective. Reading rap lyrics lets you see familiar things in new ways.” That’s as succinct a description of The Anthology of Rap as I could write. The Anthology of Rap is a new perspective on the world’s most widespread, most malleable, most popular form of poetry, and that’s worth celebrating.

DS

Darkroom: South Africa

Darkrooom: Photography and New Media in South Africa Since 1950, ed. Tosha Grantham (U Virginia P) $35

This catalogue, published to accompany the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibit that ran through late October, collects a wide range of photography and new media by South Africa’s most exciting artist-practitioners, from both before and after apartheid. Rather than offer a complete review, I’ve decided to let the images speak for themselves, with a short preface extracted from the book, by Tumelo Mosaka:

Africa has always been in conversation with the West. It’s just that for a long time the resulting narrative was Eurocentric; only recently have new narratives challenged the old, revealing how the colonzier retained control of knowledge about the continent.

Ian Berry
British, born 1934
South Africa. Transvaal. East Rand.
A polling booth set up for the referendum as to whether South Africa should become a republic or not
1960
Gelatin silver print
15 7/8 x 20 in.
(40.3 x 50.8 cm)
Courtesy of Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

Jürgen Schadeberg
German, born 1931
Nelson Mandela in His Law Office, Johannesburg
1952
Gelatin silver print
19 7/8 x 16 in.
(50.5 x 40.6 cm)
Courtesy of the artist, Le Pin-la-Garenne, France

Graeme Williams
South African, born 1961
Shaft Sinkers, Freddies No. 4 Shaft, Welkom, South Africa
1996
Chemical print on Illford multigrade paper
12 x 16 in.
(30.5 x 40.6 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Axis Gallery, West Orange, New Jersey

Santu Mofokeng
Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890–1950
1997

Sue Williamson
British, born 1941
For Thirty Years Next to His Heart (full view and detail)
1990
Color laser prints, hand-covered frames
49 panels
77 x 103 in. overall
(196 x 262 cm)
Collection of Amanda Williams and William Scarbrough, Cape Town

With special thanks to Brandon Robertson at the VMFA.

DS