Advances in Embroidery: Poems
with translations from Mahmoud Darwish
(Poets & Traitors Press, 2017)
Relative Genitive: Poems
with translations from Osip Mandelstam & Vladimir Mayakovsky
(Poets & Traitors Press, 2018)
Education by Windows: Poems
with translations from Mario Quintana
(Poets & Traitors Press, 2018)
Recently I was walking through a Met exhibition of Edo period paintings, and I strolled right past Ogata Kōrin’s three-hundred-year-old Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges), a pair of screens depicting clusters of irises divided by an angled, snaking bridge. I thought the rough geometry of the bridge destroyed the naturalness of the painting, so I did not stop. Later, however, when I was flipping through the exhibition catalogue, I saw the image again, now above a smaller, fragmented, black-and-white version of the painting. These were pages from a woodblock-printed book in which Sakai Hōitsu reproduced the image a century after it was painted. Suddenly the painting seemed more interesting. The poorly inked print seemed interesting as well. I asked myself what art came from the reproduction. I wondered how the copy changed the original. And how did it change my perception, now knowing that a second artist had studied every brushstroke, every green leaf and blue flower to translate them to another medium? It was the juxtaposition of the two works that was fascinating.
Naturally, when my former teacher Val Vinokur told me he had started a new press to publish translations along with original poetry by the poet-translator, I was eager to see what came of these juxtapositions. Translations are rare enough in America, and the accepted (though incorrect) view that translators are—at best—journeymen, soon to be replaced by Google Translate, obviates any opportunity of seeing their work alongside the translated “masters.” Judging by the first three volumes from the press, Poets & Traitors has a different view and is exploring possibilities I have not previously seen in anglophone publishing.
Advances in Embroidery and Education by Windows begin and end with original poems by the translator, and the translations are grouped in the middle. Relative Genitive irregularly interleaves translations from two poets with the translator’s own writing. The different structures provide different advantages and disadvantages and open possibilities in their juxtapositions.
The first book from the press, Advances in Embroidery, contains translations from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and original poems by his translator, Ahmad Al-Ashqar. Darwish lived from 1941 to 2008 and was considered the Palestinian national poet. Al-Ashqar is Palestinian-American, and the two poets often write on the same themes of homelessness and travel, or wandering.
A poem I initially encountered when Al-Ashqar was drafting his translation, “I Do Not Know Your Name,” might be the crux of the book. Darwish’s poem is structured as a call and response between two homeless souls. Each voice is trying to be defined by the other, with one even offering, “name me & i will be that”, and I could imagine the conversation between the poet and translator. A translator—one who, as the translator Kate Briggs writes, “handles” each word of the source—does in some sense define the poet, and Al-Ashqar, with his shared sympathies, shows himself to be appropriate to the job.
“i am wind,/estranged as you are &/each name has a land”, Darwish characteristically writes in “I Do Not Know Your Name,” and the themes of homelessness and identity recur in Al-Ashqar’s own poems. In the first poem of the book, “Meditation on Ten Topics,” Al-Ashqar writes, “i have watched for years a nation/i call home demolishing homes in/my home” and “today i’m palestinian as i was yesterday,/am tomorrow”, yet
i have occupied another’s voice for
so long i forgot mine; his birds, his
olive-trees, & his longing for home.
The stanza is titled “on translation”, so this calls into question the primacy of Darwish’s themes in Al-Ashqar’s writing. Yet in a volume containing both Al-Ashqar’s poems and his translations of Darwish, we are able to see for ourselves. How does translation inflect a poet’s voice? Darwish’s themes are prevalent, and the three sections of the book make a satisfying whole. I would, however, have liked to see the development of Al-Ashqar’s poetry vis-à-vis his translation work. Perhaps this will be in a subsequent volume of Poets & Traitors.
Relative Genitive, Val Vinokur’s volume of poems with translations from Vladimir Mayakovsky and Osip Mandelstam, expands what is a single poem of call and response in Advances in Embroidery to encompass the structure of the entire book.
Both Mayakovsky and Mandelstam were Russian poets born in the 1890s, and each reacted to the beginnings of the Soviet Union in his own way. Mandelstam was a poet of the Acmeist movement, which he defined as a “neo-classical form of modernism.” Mayakovsky, nearly Mandelstam’s opposite, was a Russian Futurist and initially wrote in support of the Communist Party. He eventually came to bridle at government orthodoxy and committed suicide in 1930. Mandelstam resisted a little longer, but he was arrested in 1938 and died after being sentenced to hard labor.
In his introduction, Vinokur describes his relationship to the two poets: “where Mayakovsky is inspired by the dregs, human and otherwise, of the modern urban streetscape, Mandelstam finds the same when he looks to the late-medieval, Parisian poet-outlaw François Villon. My own work cements all this, provisionally, with the undrying mortar of the high and low: scriptures and television, spirits and dead letters, abject sentiment and exalted wreckage.”
Unlike Advances in Embroidery, this second book of Poets & Traitors shuffles the poems of the three poets together, evoking more immediate reflections on the juxtapositions. Vinokur organized his book with the help of guest editor Emily Skillings, and he follows Mandelstam’s grim poem “Verses on an Unknown Soldier” with a poem about the randomness of his twitter feed (“Try This One Weird Isaiah”), emulating the randomness of the feed (and life itself), thereby creating a black humor so common in Russian literature. Then comes Vinokur’s “Let’s Make a Deal,” about the game show, making deals, and the darkness of waiting for his mother. The poet wonders, once she was late from work, if she will return. He follows this with a sequence of poems springing from television: “Survivorman”, “Naked & Afraid”, “Hannibalism”, “The Shark Tank”, and “Protocols of the Real Learned Housewives of Auschwitz-Birkenstocks,” which takes us into the darkness of the Holocaust. Then, as if Vinokur must respond to Mandelstam, to Mayakovsky, to the television, to himself, he includes “Two Packs a Day”—a comedic riff on giving up his Biblical allusions because they are always interpreted as their pop-culture homonyms.
Vinokur does not limit his juxtapositions to his own verse, however, and one of my favorites is Mandelstam’s “Armed with the eyes of slender wasps” with Mayakovsky’s “Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostrov about the Essence of Love.” Mandelstam claims, “I do not draw and do not sing,/And I don’t drag black hairs across a string”, while Mayakovsky writes,
Cause I’m clever
I can talk your teeth off—
you agree to listen.
Naturally, since Mayakovsky is in Paris, no one understands his Russian, but he lacks the despair of Mandelstam, who writes, “I can feel all there ever was to witness,/And recall it by heart though it’s pointless.” The juxtaposition shows the differences of these two poets: Mandelstam structured, formal, depressed, and Mayakovsky loose, informal, optimistic. And I see similarities in their language, similarities that have me asking about the translations, wondering if Vinokur supplemented with his own rhymes (he did not). The juxtaposition shows what is possible with this innovative press.
Education by Windows rounds out the current publications by Poets & Traitors. Johnny Lorenz has translated poetry from the Brazilian poet and translator Mario Quintana. Quintana lived from 1906 to 1994, worked as a journalist, and was known as a poet of “simple things.” His style is often playful, and placing the entirety of the Quintana poems between sections of Lorenz’s own work accentuates this joy.
Lorenz, tellingly, opens the book with a political poem, “Love Letter to the IMF,” narrated by a resident of Brazil’s favelas who “sell[s] lottery tickets by the docks.” Lorenz does not continue with such overt politics, but politics remain an undercurrent while he assumes masks to write about childhood, language, and nature.
The shift to Quintana’s work is striking. The section begins with playful aphorisms (with the original Portuguese conveniently on facing pages), and Quintana seems more playful after the sometime politics of Lorenz. Quintana isn’t thinking about being Brazilian. He isn’t thinking about the politics of his country or international banking. He simply wants to play with language.
Then we get “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the police throwing bombs (albeit of “laughing gas”) and processions that feel to me like funerals. Following this is the politics of “Supreme Punishment” in which Quintana notes the ubiquity of the word “Coca-Cola,” an idea that reminds me of an earlier poem in the collection, “Machine,” in which Lorenz writes, “M&Ms and M-16s:/which are a universal good?/We are futile. The plowed. The routine.” Quintana, however, maintains his playfulness in his politics, for he is not only lamenting our plastering advertisements all over everything, he is looking at these ads as an archeologist of the future, who would believe that “Coca-Cola was the name of our God”.
Politics reappears in Quintana’s “If the Poet were to Speak of a Cat.” He wonders about speaking of poverty or “obedient tin soldiers/that really died” but concludes, as by now I feel he must, “If the poet were to speak of nothing at all/but simply said tra-la-la… What does it matter?/Every poem is a love poem!” The nearness of politics in Lorenz and Quintana’s work, in both poets feeling the obligation to write about politics but only reluctantly succumbing, comes out in Lorenz’s “Precision”, a poem about proximity: “In grade school,/I flirted with the girl who sat/behind the girl I had a crush on.” Throughout the book I hear these echoes, suggesting that Lorenz, with his rhymes, his politics, his love of Brazil, is well-matched for Quintana.
In “Carta,” the letter to “My dear poet” that concludes the section of translations, Quintana seems to understand exactly what is explored in Poets & Traitors press: the relationship between poets and their translators. As if he were alluding to Al-Ashqar and Darwish, he writes, “what they call poetic influence is only confluence.”
I want to conclude with a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. “Slanted Road” is appropriately found in the first published volume of Poets & Traitors, Advances in Embroidery. Al-Ashqar is interested in structure—his own poems are frequently left- and right-justified—and he employs irregular spacing in “Slanted Road” to align Darwish’s indentations, creating a vertical blank through the poem, a visual contrast to the eponymous slanted road.
road of the traveler from & into self
(my body a feather, space airy)
of logic & mistakes
(i’ve made mistakes but tried)
of ascent to heaven’s terrace
(higher & higher, further)
of descent to earth’s threshold
(how grey the skies)
of hopeful love
(that can turn wolves into busboys)
of swallowing & the scent
of oranges near the ocean
(the fragrance nostalgic)
of spices, salt, wheat
(& of war, too)
of peace, crowned in jerusalem
(after wars, a crusade against façades)
of business & language,
(all writing a noble story)
of intruders’ attempts
to rewrite their history
Playing with structure is something these books do on a more macro level, either interspersing translations with the translator’s original poetry (as in the Vinokur/Mayakovsky/Mandelstam) or sandwiching the translations between the translators’ original poems (as in Ahmad/Darwish and Lorenz/Quintana). Either way, we are encouraged by what is so unusual in published books but so natural in our own reading: the impulse to compare and contrast, here led by the guiding hand of the translators, by those who are the closest readers of their particular poets, having become intimate with every single word in the source and every word in their translation. Translators, I would say, are the ultimate curators.
In the American literary community, where translations are viewed with the skepticism of what has been lost—what has been betrayed—by the translator, a new press devoted to translation is always welcome. That Poets & Traitors is giving voice to these translators and is essentially creating new art through the “dialogue” between the translation and translator is truly exciting. I look forward to what juxtapositions Poets & Traitors will publish next.