I asked the fine writers and translators at Calypso Editions, who describe themselves as “dedicated to publishing quality literary books of poetry and fiction with a global perspective,” to make the globe a little smaller with recommendations for some international & crush-worthy lyric. What I got was a reminder of how important (& less lonely-making) it is to read the works of poets of our time from around the world.
J. Hope Stein
by Martin Woodside
Turkish poet Ece Temelkuran doubles as an investigative journalist, taking on sensitive political issues such as women’s rights, political prisoners, and revolutionary movements in her home country and abroad. For all that, the poetry in Temelkuran’s Book of the Edge betrays little of the author’s activist bent. Rather the poems are markedly understated and meditative; through the form of the quest narrative, they gently probe human frailty and strength. Broken into six parts, the poems in this book can, in fact, be read as one long poem, detailing the speaker’s dream-journey from her doorway, across the sea, and finally home again. These pieces work in isolation too, and this fragment comes from a longer poem, “Seven Aches,” in the book’s final section, in which the poet’s voice achieves a fine balance between the restless of exploration and the comfort of home.
FROM “SEVEN ACHES”
Every ache sleeps in a particular position. In sleep, the
body that becomes itself as it forgets itself, discovers this
position through trial and error.
The body knows how to soothe its ache. It constructs
soporific angles, hills for its aches. Every hill conceals an
ache. This is why thousands of aches settle in the hills of
our flesh, of our insides, where they find their sleeping
positions. This is why it is dangerous to budge people, to
demolish their hills.
To tug at cities, and at urbanites, is to awaken the aches
that sleep on the hills.
Translated by Deniz Perin
by Tony Bonds
While Jorge Luis Borges is known for his short story style, incorporating in his work motifs of myth, dreams, the infinite, and various historic personages, his incisive poetry is equally astounding.
With inauspicious beginnings as a writer of detective fiction, the man who would later act as director of the National Library of Argentina wielded an encyclopedic knowledge of literature that would put most of us modern writers to shame. And yet he is able to reduce grand ideas about the labyrinths of the human condition and offer these meditations to us with singular imagery and poise.
“Poetry always remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art. It remembers that it was first song.”–J.L. Borges
they grow weary, the patio’s two or three colours.
Tonight, the moon, bright circle,
fails to dominate space.
Patio, channel of sky.
The patio is the slope
down which sky flows into the house.
eternity waits at the crossroad of stars.
It’s pleasant to live in the friendly dark
of entrance-way, arbour, and cistern.
Translated by A. S. Kline
by Piotr Florczyk
Poets write many poems—perhaps too many?—to get at what they find fascinating and troubling about themselves and the world they live in. Czesław Miłosz, the late Nobel laureate, was no different. But despite his voluminous output, Miłosz never fully trusted that what he was writing had any value or meaning, which automatically sets him apart from many other scribblers, whose sure-footed peregrinations know no doubt, and thus no true faith. The following poem, in which the speaker expresses his anxiety in the face of Time, is considered to be one of Miłosz’s greatest:
I said so little.
Days were short.
I said so little.
I couldn’t keep up.
My heart grew weary
The jaws of Leviathan
Were closing upon me.
Naked, I lay on the shores
Of desert islands.
The white whale of the world
Hauled me down to its pit.
And now I don’t know
What in all that was real.
Translated from the Polish by Lillian Vallee and the author
by Piotr Florczyk
Tadeusz Różewicz (b. 1921) is another great witness to the twentieth century and our times—“the Samuel Beckett of modern Polish poetry,“ in the words of Edward Hirsch. Having surived the death of God in the fires of World War II, Różewicz aims to make sense of our post-apocaliptic existence by questioning the basic principles of human nature. In this untitled poem, the speaker comes to grips with the realization that it is the insufficiency of our consciousness that nullifies reality par excellence, turning it into a thing unto itself, which also underscores the failure of langauge as our would-be ally in the process of aquiring meaning.
white is neither sad
it’s just white
I tell it
and tell it
but white does not listen
it is deaf
it’s just right
whiter and whiter
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak
By Matin Woodside
Mircea Ivănescu is one of my favorite Romanian poets, though, like many great Romanian poets he’s relatively unknown in America. Certainly, Ivănescu’s influence on contemporary Romanian poetry cannot be overstated. In addition to being one of the most influential poets in his native country, Ivănescu also introduced Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath (and many others) to Romanian audiences through his translations, which have profoundly impacted generations of Romanian poets, right up to the current day. Ivănescu’s own poetry mixes witticism and mysticism, balances the erudite and intimate, and is marked in equal measure by bemusement, wonder, and pathos. In this poem, which speaks to many of those tendencies, Ivănescu adopts a more personal and even (playfully perhaps) sensual tone.
a winter’s tale—how, stealthily,
i crept up behind her—and suddenly raised
the lamp in my right hand high above her.
her body was thus inscribed against the golden background
of light, like the initial capital letter in a medieval manuscript.
(outside, beyond the heavy curtains, a winter night,
translucent waves of cold, the deserted street,
a memory of evenings from childhood when houses loomed gray
and upside-down against a sky empty of light.)
but soon she turned her head to me,
suddenly she narrowed her eyes,
and where i was, behind the raised lamp,
only the blur of a reddish circle.
she sat this way for a while, turned
toward my light illuminating her cheek
—her face was the face of a blind woman, intent.
then gradually she bowed her head
as her hair grew heavy with light.
Translated by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu
Tony Bonds is the author of The Moon Flower King.
Piotr Florczyk is the translator of Building the Barricade and Other Poems by Anna Swir.
Martin Woodside is the translator of Of Gentle Wolves: An Anthology of Romanian Poets.