100 Dutch-Language Poems selected & translated by Paul Vincent & John Irons

Reviewed by Anthony Costello

Holland Park Press should be commended for publishing 100 Dutch-Language Poems, a bi-lingual anthology: poetry from the Netherlands and Flanders is rarely translated into English, yet here we have a hundred poems from the medieval period to the present day. It’s a smoothly navigable book, with a translator’s introduction detailing definitive periods in Dutch poetic history, and an excellent afterword by Gaston Franssen. The afterword is the literary exegesis I would have liked to write, if I knew as much about Dutch poetry as Franssen does, and I hope his essay was used in publicity for the book.

Franssen is sceptical about the cliched and debatable metaphors of Holland’s “backbreaking history and cramped mentality…dominated by a Spartan work ethic, and an ongoing battle against water”, and the resulting “shaping and dissemination” of the Dutch self-image. He prefers to highlight varying poetic styles, from naturalist to symbolist to surrealist, and foregrounds what he sees as a fundamental love-hate relationship between Dutch poets and their country, examining how the landscape and topography of the Netherlands affects Dutch mentality and shapes political thought. Enjoy Franssen extrapolating at length when you buy the book, for it is an important book to purchase and read, essential for students of Dutch literature or those interested in translation, and a welcome publication for bi-lingual readers.

100 Dutch-Language Poems opts for a chronological approach, the breadth of Lowlands poetry laid out in a dual language format: one poem per poet. Understandably this results in an overall lack of depth, which individual poems like ‘In Flanders Fields’ and the introduction and afterword mitigates. There is a quietness to this anthology which makes me think of Dutch paintings, poetry as a series of still lives, subject matter: loss, love, death. If the poems are not always lively, they persuade with their understated beauty. As a non-Dutch speaker, my approach would be to find a poem I like and investigate that poet further, hoping that their work is translated into English. However, this is an admirable work of scholarship and translation by Paul Vincent and John Irons. I feel I can best serve their efforts by giving excerpts from three poems that might inspire would-be readers to buy this accomplished book.

From Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953), THE OLD LADY

I went to Bommel just to see the bridge.
I saw the new bridge. Two opposing shores
that shunned each other seemingly before
are neighbours once again. A grassy verge
I lay on, tea consumed, for some ten minutes
my head filled with the landscape far and wide –
when from that endlessness on every side
this voice came, and my ears resounded with it.

 

 

From Hugo Claus (1929 – 2008), IN FLANDERS FIELDS

The English veterans are getting scarce.
Every year they point to their yet scarcer friends:
Hill Sixty, Hill Sixty-One, Poelkapelle.

In Flanders Fields the threshers
draw ever smaller circles round the twisting trenches
of hardened sandbags, the entrails of death.

The local butter
tastes of poppies.

 

From Herman de Concinck (1944-1997), YONDER

I seek a village.
And in it a house. And in it a
room, in which there’s a bed, in which there’s a woman.
And in that woman a womb.

Outside the window the river swells
for a long journey, the silver-scaled,
fish-holding, boat-bearing,
sea-seeking, here-staying one.

Trafika Europe #2: Polish Nocturne

– Reviewed by Hayden Westfield Bell

Translated literature has a hard time finding an audience in the contemporary publishing industry. It’s a shame, because there’s a huge amount of high quality writing being produced by authors in thousands of languages all around the world. It’s not a problem of quantity or quality, but one of access. There’s a lot of support for authors writing in English within the US and the UK, but it seems we’ve forgotten that the language’s unique position as lingua franca allows it to be used as a vehicle for those working in thousands of other languages.

Why is there less support for authors writing in other countries? A lack of publishing opportunities and difficulties reaching an audience are two important factors, which Trafika seeks to challenge, by publishing anthologies of translated poems, short stories, extracts and other literary experiments on a regular basis, each issue focussing on a specific region. In this review I’m looking at their second issue, ‘Polish Nocturne’. I will focus mainly on the poetry, but comment lightly on the prose featured in the book as well.

The anthology opens with a long excerpt from Wiesław Myśliwski’s ‘A Treatise on Shelling Beans’. The length is welcome in this case, as we are able to see a story to its conclusion, describing characters the protagonist encounters while working as a labourer, and the romantic tragedy that blooms between two of them. The translation (by Bill Johnston) does a very good job of preserving the working-class speech of the main character; sentences are soft and simple, focussing on everyday encounters, women, work and food. It’s an enjoyable piece, with great rhythm, and the conversational nature of the writing shines through in translation too.

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This is followed by nine poems by Tomasz Różycki, eight of which can be found in his collection Colonies. They are dense with commas, creating a fractured, shattered rhythm in each line which Rozycki pins to the page with simple sentences containing sharp, concrete images. This pinning prevents the poem from rising into empty ethereality, essentially giving the reader something to hold on to so as to keep them on the ground. This tempestuousness is furthered by the recurring theme of nature, and its role in the poems is usually one of terrific force and motion. Yet Rozycki’s style is very meditative; almost every pause develops in a descriptive staccato; a thing becomes more defined, or is rephrased, following each comma.

Six of Kasia Buczkowska’s ten short takes come from her collection In Prose, the other four are new pieces. These are curious incidents, far shorter than most short stories and almost photographic in nature. There’s motion to these images, and a clear message, yet I’m unsure as to what they really are – they could be described as prosaic poems, or very short short stories. Whilst interesting, I found the standard English to be very standard, and thus dry – the style is almost Carver-esque, but fails to grasp the particularities of people and everyday life. They feel almost like overacted scenes from a play; some scenes seem to have a kind of moral, though some are just scenes.

I found Ewa Chrusciel’s poems the most affecting of those featured in the anthology. Her style is very free, flowing loosely about the page, and the content of her poems follows a similar path. Chrusciel is unafraid of using scientific and technological terminology in her work and this, fused with religious symbolism, helps to create wildly imaginative twists. Sugar packets ‘perch like fledglings; / the puffs of white grace / awaiting their take off’, each grain of sugar moves ‘like the centrifugal leaps / of your mom’s neurons’. The more prosaic pieces I felt were a little too telling in places, however, they rise out of restrictive narrative as they continue and eventually grasp at the abstract symbolism which can be found in her shorter poems.

The excerpt of ‘All Days are Night’ by Peter Stamm is intensely domestic and personal. We follow the thoughts and actions of a disabled woman – Gillian – as she negotiates her flat after returning from hospital. The narrative slowly reveals itself in her movements through space, and the objects which she engages with. However, I found the text too ‘everyday’ for my tastes, and it seems like the kind of text that has a specific audience. Observations are very sharp, the style is concise but potentially a little dry in places.

László Sárközi’s ‘Inner World’ sonnet wreath fuses modern images with fantastical elements. There’s a strong magical realist aspect to these poems, featuring recurring images of swords and objects of power. Like many of the pieces in the anthology, religious and cultural symbols densely populate the wreath. The ‘I’ is ever present, the sonnets are syrupy thick, and neo-classical and mythological elements pepper them. They require careful picking apart, and though very enjoyable I’d hesitate to recommend them to a light poetry reader.

The final two pieces include an extract from Imma Monsó’s ‘A Man of His Word’, and ‘Kiss of Santa’, a short story by Leena Lehtolainen from Helsinki Noir, both of which I will keep temptingly mysterious. The anthology can be accessed online for free, so you have no excuse not to read.

A Note on Design
I often struggle with the way magazines appear online, but the Trafika Europe anthologies are incredibly tactile and appear exactly as a book on screen, complete with page movements and the sound of paper flipping. Selecting a chapter from the contents is met with a pleasing chunk of section of artificial pages passing by the screen, which then focusses on the page in question. There are search bars and buttons which quickly give access to specific pages. It’s incredibly flexible, and I’d highly recommend taking a look.

I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust by Yu Xiang (trans. by Fiona Sze-Lorrain)

-Reviewed by Zara Raab

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Named by The Asian Review of Books as one of the top women poets writing in China, Yu Xiang rarely makes historical or geographical references in I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust. She begins her second full-length book––her first was Exhale (2006)––  with ‘My House’, where she issues not so much an invitation as a warning:

I have a door, a reminder:
Be careful
You might lose your way.
This is my house. . .

Sometimes open, sometimes shut, doors are thresholds between worlds, semi-permeable boundaries bearing all the mythology of crossings. The reminder seems to be for the householder (the poet here has a male persona) as well as his reader.  ‘My House’ is deceptively simple: a lonely man describes his dwelling: “I have a chair. Sometimes / it disappears.” The narrator claims to have a stable life, but the boundaries of the self here as in other poems are porous, flexible, easily crossed—whether by invasion or betrayal. This opening poem and others here have a fairy tale aura—without the happy endings of most such tales—in the way Yu Xiang introduces magic, and in the narrator’s struggles to negotiate external reality.

In ‘The Key Turns in the Keyhole’, for example, the poet uses a locked door to establish a credo for daily life. The poet lists her rituals:

taking out the garbage I open it
getting the milk I open it
the toilet bowl is clogged, I open the door
when someone comes I open it
when someone leaves I open it

I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust registers the ephemerality of fluctuating fantasy. As the poet says, “I like staring at fleeting things” (‘Distracted’). “[E]very day,” she writes, “has a wonderful letter, falling on / a road in the rain / like footprints / the world afar step by step”. Yu Xiang’s poet-persona’s boundaries are thin, transparent. Confronted with dismal reality, she stands on the edge of a twinkling a half-life, about to disappear. The poet projects these qualities in dazzling array on the world. In “Distressed Person,” for example, the narrator looks in the mirror, like Snow White’s stepmother, and tries to imagine the mirror’s experience:

she is distressed that she looks exactly like me
distressed that she can’t be me

Ephemeral or non-identity leads to extreme states, like the metaphoric (rather than medical) autism described in section 2, ‘This Person is Vanishing’. Many poets have written on this theme, from Wallace Stevens, whose snowman is “nothing himself” beholding “nothing that is not there, / and the nothing that is,” to Marianne Moore, whose mule in “I Like a Horse” treads the nothing and “skirts the treeless precipice”. Unlike Moore’s mule, Yu Xiang’s treading is not done safely; the persona is troubled, even abject. Yu Xiang turns different body parts––eyes, mouth, hair, vagina—into inventive metaphors for these alienated states. Like autism in the popular imagination, this is a difficult, mysterious poem:

entranced eye for eye
then forlorn
they grow on the same face
diffusing the same illusion
but one can’t see the other

The idea that my left eye does not-–cannot—see my right eye, that I cannot in this sense “see” myself, is striking. Sight here creates illusion rather than revealing reality.  In another poem in the sequence, the persona dyes her hair over and over, and this becomes a trope on dying: disguise becomes a method of obliterating what is disguised.

Other poems here capture the liminal quality of youth, its openness and vulnerability to experience. ‘A Gust of Wind’ is a howl of loneliness:

You make me feel how empty my body is
how it needs to be filled. You can fill me
You connect the wires and let the current in
At this moment, my cry is not a scream

‘The Place I left Is Still Swaying’, captures the fugue state of emotional regression following separation from a lover:

I stand on the platform
watching the metro in motion. Watching you
leave with the metro. Watching myself
sliced by sharp car windows
thinly, slice by slice

[. . .]

You can’t see me, as if
you won’t see me in this life again
No one notices me. In the crowd
no one
notices me. I see a body
another body
each blurrier
than the other

The train windows in which the lover’s reflection is cast cut her slice by slice to vanishing. No one in the station sees this happening, not only because the experience is subjective, but also because she is no longer there, blurred to nothing by the other’s departure. She is no longer the adolescent lover who believes her own body will provide her the sustenance she requires to live; unconsciously, she may recognize the need for something more than the satisfaction of her own impulses—the need perhaps for adult cooperation with reality, but has yet to name or seek it.

The long, sequenced poem ‘A Painting Life’, concerning seeing, writing, arranging, conceiving, is one of the few here with political under tones.  The narrator plans to paint “some outdoor scenes/ like going to work every day” When black and white pigments are squeezed on a canvas, “white smudges blood / black explodes / the grey in-between like an abstract government”. She’ll paint scenes from her life, like

a beggar couple singing ‘Visit Home’
a distorted history, a dusty
fugitive, or refinery tailings, dug and re-dug
filled but never finally levelled
Culture Street, Peace Street, improvised quotes
and undefined anger. . .

There’s humor, here, too, or a kind of veiled sarcasm: “I want to paint some still lifes [sic] / sell them cheap to get by”, but the “still lifes” turn out to be collections of medals that she arranges and re-arranges, each new arrangement a fresh “still life” as if the medals were the life. In the end the paintings are the artist’s way of escaping, or trying to, a life she cannot support, each painting an “exile”. May be the poet is commemorating the thousands of Chinese who have migrated from China to the West:

I’ll send you a painting, with
no title or signature
like one exile after another

The six-line poem ‘Low Key’ compares a man’s life to a leaf, falling soundlessly, “as a man who lives alone a long time, and dies”. Sze-Lorrain’s translation emphasizes the density of the images and the poem’s aphoristic quality. One can find online a more expansive translation than Sze-Lorrain’s of this poem by David Lehman and Fan Jinghua, who translate the title as ‘One Leaf’:

One leaf falls
All night long only one leaf has fallen
A leaf falls every night of every season of every year
Leaves are falling one at a time
Without a sound
Still falling and then falling down
Reaching the ground
As one who lives alone keeps living
And then dies alone

Sze-Lorrain’s concision better captures the minute existence Yu Xiang embodies in this poem.  Her title, ‘Low Key’ seems to me to express more matter of factly the mood of Yu Xiang’s poem.

I have already mentioned how, all throughout this collection, Yu Xiang records the inconsequential with diligence and clarity, finding beauty in that which is fleeting. Not only is experience ephemeral, but human life—at least the poet’s life––inconsequential, as well. In ‘Holy Front’, Yu Xing compares human life to flies buzzing, futilely hurtling themselves against a holy front (one meaning of hold is transparent, like glass):  “I guess my life is no different from these flies”. In a later poem, Yu Xiang imagines bumblebees swarming.

In Sze-Lorrain’s translation of ‘The Rotten, the Fresh’, the stings of the bumblebees “are scaling needles heater/ by the noon sun”. It is a vivid image. Sometimes, Sze-Lorrain’s translations jettison the typical rules of syntax, as in ‘Fantasia of a Housefly’ which begins: “walking into the hotel’s backyard / black hailstones / came pounding down in clusters”. One wonders if the original contains a similar anti-grammatical thrust. Still, Sze-Lorrain’s translation of Yu Xiang’s rendering of an attack of houseflies is vivid, and conveys an eerie blurring of subject and object, of flies and person fused in proximity.

‘The One Who Writes Poetry Tonight’, inevitably evokes Adrienne Rich’s late classic ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’. Yu Xiang’s poem begins at night and ends at dawn.  I was at first put off by grammatical challenges arising from my difficulty in parsing the subject of Sze-Lorrain’s verb “give.” But by substituting a directive, “take,” the poem claimed its power for me. Running eighteen pages, this is the longest poem in the book and, as the title says, is addressed to a poet (perhaps herself) writing through the night, and seems to enumerate the blessings of the poetic vocation.

you are here, the ladder you’ve used
for thirty years is here too
will give you the pleasure of coming down
if you can’t climb up
give you fine food, fitness and adult games
give you others’ lives
others’ names
others’ overcoats
others’ lovers

Following her surrealist bent, Yu Xiang includes “used furniture” and ”insanely long weeds between computer keys” among the gifts of the vocation. She ends on a sweet note of aubade: “I can go on writing a poem / which can be unfinished / but it will be dawn soon“.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s translations speak for themselves in a post-modern idiom, whatever their success in capturing the music of the poet. In Yu Xiang’s new work, the poem does not so much energize the poet as provide scaffolding for perception and action, a path toward meaning in an ephemeral life. Once she has exhausted the expressive potential of ennui and emptiness, the poem is reduced to an electrifying skeleton making breath and movement possible. Yu Xiang’s poems offer, not a window or even a mirror on the world, so much as a lyric keening of successive moments of the day and night. Her imaginary has a vivid, ephemeral connection to the bodied world.

Now if we could begin to hear the poet speak the poem in her native language, as I did—in Cantonese, I believe—at a panel of the 2014 AWP meeting in Seattle, where the sheer brilliance and fullness of the sound captivated the room!