Altarpiece

by Clayton Eshleman, translating from the Spanish by César Vallejo

copyright ©2007 The Regents of the University of California



   I tell myself: at last I have escaped the noise;
no one sees me on my way to the sacred nave.
Tall shadows attend,
and Darío who passes with lyre in mourning.

   With innumerable steps the gentle Muse emerges,
and my eyes go to her, like chicks to corn.
Ethereal tulles and sleeping titmice harass her,
while the blackbird of life dreams in her hand.

   My God, you are merciful, for you have bestowed this nave,
where these blue sorcerers perform their duties.
Darío of celestial Americas! They are so much
like you! And from your braids they make their hair shirts.

   Like souls seeking burials of absurd gold,
those wayward archpriests of the heart,
probe deeper, and appear … and addressing us from afar,
bewail the monotonous suicide of God!

Notes on the Poem

Let's consider more of the work of distinguished translator Clayton Eshleman, transforming into English the work in Spanish of César Vallejo. That work is encompassed in The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, which was shortlisted for the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize. Just last fall, we pondered Eshleman's work in the poem "Spain, Take This Cup From Me". If one is proficient in both Spanish and English, the delight and the challenge of reading work like this is the facility with which one can alternate between the meaning and nuance of the original and translated text. Knowledge of both languages gives one the privilege of assessing the quality of the translation. The bilingual reader is afforded the luxury of determining if the poem has traveled safely and soundly from one language and culture to another and is still, arguably, poetic. But if one is reading work that has arrived in English from an origin in which one is not conversant, what then? Trust in the translator is essential, not just to employ linguistic accuracy, but to apply cultural sensitivity, historical context and more, along with an ear for the original's lyricism and music. Here is an interesting collection of reactions to what can and cannot be translated when poetry moves from one language to another. Ellen Welcker ponders this and more in her 2009 essay "Only Poems Can Translate Poems: On the Impossibility and Necessity of Translation" in The Quarterly Conversation. Her piece includes ruminations by 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poet Joy Harjo, who performs a startling type of translation in her work by, as a person of Muskogee heritage, not writing in her native tongue but in, as the essay describes it, "the language of her people’s colonizers". This powerful essay posits:
"In poetry, as well as in translation, there is no ultimate meaning. Indeed, the “trans” in translation and trans-creation indicates that we are always moving across languages, across cultures."
and concludes:
"As post-colonial translation and trans-creation become bolder and more experimental, the idea of ownership of language falls away. Each newly created text becomes the author’s, and simultaneously becomes the world’s. These poetries are dialogues, conversations. Language becomes three-dimensional as it encompasses more of its history and culture. Poems to be translated are no longer mathematical equations filled with estimations and “equals” signs. As new poetries assert that there can be both “homage and reappropriation,” new methods of translation arise and language is stretched, tested, discovered, and discovered anew."
When we read poetry in translation, we either trust poetic and linguist guides such as Clayton Eshleman, Susan Wicks, Heather McHugh, Mira Rosenthal, Joanna Trzeciak and more to present us with a faithful rendition of the original work, or we are in a position to critique the quality of their work because we're conversant in the original and translated languages. Either way, we can appreciate that translators undeniably embark on daunting missions, often crossing thorny terrain, often crossing it alone, to bring us poetry from a place of origin to a new place that still respects and holds precious a work's roots and essence. As Welcker observes, "translation and trans-creation are not only about what is lost, but also about new solidarities, built by a fusion of language."

from Periscope

by Susan Howe

copyright ©2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Susan Howe



Closed book who stole
who away do brackets
signify emptiness was
is a rift in experience

Mackerel and porpoise
was this the last of us

These tallied scraps float
like glass skiffs quietly for
love or pity and all that

What an idea in such a time
as ours Pip among Pleiads

If to sense you are
alive is pleasant itself
or can be nearly so –
If I knew what it is
I’d show it – but no

What I lack is myself

Notes on the Poem

This disarmingly spare excerpt from Susan Howe's 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize-winning collection Debths offers numerous entry points and various paths by which to approach it. Let's look at one way to explore the poem's intriguing depths / debts / deaths, as the judges' citation suggests. Throughout our weekly considerations of poems from Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted and winning works, we've regularly pondered the connections between those poems and their titles. (This is just one of many examples.) Can the title "Periscope" give us any insights? "A periscope is an optical instrument that allows objects that are not in direct line of sight to be viewed. Periscopes have proven to be of great help to submariners by allowing these professions to have a view above the surface of water and aid in navigation under water." The description from this source goes on to describe how types of periscopes range in complexity, with simple ones constructed using mirrors and more sophisticated ones employing prisms. With this in mind, does the title help to interpret the poem as we venture into it? A periscope allows us to see something not directly in our line of sight, so does that help to comprehend something not readily apparent in the poem? For example, what is the closed book withholding? We might argue that brackets don't necessarily signify emptiness, but enclose parenthetical information about something - not directly related, perhaps out of context, but certainly something, not a void. What do those floating scraps, tallied or noted, indicate? Certainly, that image evokes the surface of water, which we've just learned periscopes can help to transcend and navigate. Is there a connection here? These notes on "The Close Reading of Poetry" from the English Department of the University of Victoria, have a few things to say about using titles as a guide into a poem. The notes offer, in a somewhat impatient tone, examples of titles that don't seem to help or shed light on the poems to which they're attached. The notes ask, perhaps provocatively: "Does the title immediately influence what you are about to read, or does it, at the moment you begin your first reading, remain mysterious or vague?" Did the title here helped to elucidate Susan Howe's work, or was this perhaps not the path down which to head?

Unde malum?

by Joanna Trzeciak, translating from the Polish by Tadeusz Rozewicz

copyright ©English translation copyright © 2011 by Joanna Trzeciak



Where does evil come from?
what do you mean “where”

from a human being
always a human being
and only a human being

a human being is a work-related
accident
of nature
an error

if humankind
disentangles
itself
from flora and fauna

the earth will regain
its beauty and lustre

nature its purity
and innocence

human beings are the only beings
who use words
which can serve as tools of crime

words that lie
wound infect

evil does not come from an absence
or out of nothingness

evil comes from a human being
and only a human being

we differ in thought – as Kant said –
and for that matter in being
from pure Nature

Notes on the Poem

Let's revisit Joanna Trzeciak's translation from the Polish of Tadeusz Rozewicz's poem "Unde malum?" It captures strikingly the age-old philosophical struggle with the problem of evil, how one can reconcile the existence of evil with that of an all knowing, all powerful and benevolent deity. Not only do Rosewicz's ruminations add to the body of thought about this dilemma, but they spark responses in fellow thinkers and poets. The original version of Rozewicz's poem in Polish was published in 1998, in a collection entitled zawsze fragment. recycling. Fellow Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz then responded to that poem in Polish, and then it was translated into English and featured in The Guardian in 2001. After you read Joanna Trzeciak's translation on this page, you can read Milosz's response here. The tradition of answer or response poems is a long one, and as one essayist observes, "for the answer-poet the verse exchange represents a means of imposing an alternate outlook upon a contending poetic statement." This course material also discusses many methods that the answering artist can employ to craft a response to a work that has inspired debate. What do you think of the approach Milosz has taken, and do you think his response is effective? As Rosewicz, in Trzeciak's translation, observes: "human beings are the only beings who use words which can serve as tools of crime" In tandem, Rozewicz/Trzeciak and Milosz also use words as positive tools to advance a challenging subject with poetic conversation.

Winter Wheat

by Paul Muldoon

copyright ©Paul Muldoon, 2002



I

The plowboy was something his something as I nibbled the lobe
of her right ear and something her blouse
for the Empire-blotchy globe
of her left breast on which there something a something louse.

II

Those something lice like something seed pearls
and her collar something with dandruff
as when Queen Elizabeth entertained the Earls
in her something something ruff.

III

I might have something the something groan
of the something plowboy who would with such something urge
the something horses, a something and a roan,

had it not been for the something splurge
of something like the hare
which even now managed to something itself from the something
                                                  plowshare.

Notes on the Poem

What kind of a whimsical puzzle has Paul Muldoon presented us with in the fractured sonnet that is "Winter Wheat", from his 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Moy sand and gravel? We've pondered it before ... let's ponder it again. Does the title offer a clue towards deciphering the sometimes sensual (ear lobe nibbling!), sometimes impish (lice like ... seed pearls, eek!) lines that follow? Winter wheat refers to strains of wheat planted - perhaps counter-intuitively - in the fall to germinate and vegetate under winter snows and continue growing the next spring. What has Muldoon planted here that might be germinating in the reader's mind ... to surprise, grow and nurture sometime later? (Winter wheat appears elsewhere in Muldoon's work, in his intriguing poem "The Merman".) That "something something" tic throughout the poem is the heart of what puzzles, fascinates, maybe even kind of irritates the reader. Structurally, the occurrences of "something" are perfectly placed to maintain the poem's metre and rhyme scheme. Simultaneously, they maintain some of its mystery. Are these lines taken from other works, are they parodies (Joyce is one suggestion) ... or what? Are the "something something"'s indicative of a mind striving to commit something to memory, or of memories starting to break down?

When You Look Up

by Jan Zwicky

copyright ©Jan Zwicky, 2011



When you look up, or out,
or in, your seeing is
a substance: stuff: a density
of some kind, like a pitch
that’s just outside the range
of hearing: numb
nudge of the real.
                I saw air
once, in its nothingness
so clear it was a voice
almost, a kind of joy. I thought
of water – breath as drinking –
and the way it shows us
light. Or maybe it was light
I thought of – as though
water were the solid form
of wind, and air
a language with a single word
transparent to the world.
Your glance is this,
meltwater, mountain light.
The plunge and thunder of the pool.
The ripple at its farthest edge.

Notes on the Poem

At first glance (or even after several glimpses, as we are revisiting this poem), you might find the slim column of text that is Jan Zwicky's poem "When You Look Up" simple, modest and unassuming. But oh, the sensory shifts through which Zwicky swiftly takes you will make you appreciate each sensation in startlingly new ways. To start, how you see is compared to something tactile: "a density of some kind" ... and then in rapid succession, to something auditory: "like a pitch that’s just outside the range of hearing" How delightfully disorienting is that? It's not just how one sense is substituted for another that leaves you feeling this way. The line: "I saw air" leaps outside of the column of text surprisingly, mischievously, leading your eyes on a merry chase. As the rest of your senses follow in pursuit, it becomes clear (where the clarity, again, can take many forms) that all this sensory upheaval is created by the glance of a loved one, culminating in: "The plunge and thunder of the pool. The ripple at its farthest edge." You arrive at the final line out of breath - whatever breath is! - and exhilarated.

The landlord said he lost his phone.

by Aisha Sasha John

copyright ©2017 by Aisha Sasha John



The tenant she said call it.
He said I did, I did
And then the tenant’s boyfriend was like
I called you and a girl picked up and
Said it was the wrong number.
(And I’m like okay so it was the wrong number why are you even
Telling the guy that)
And then her boyfriend was like ya, I called it four times
She said it was the wrong number.
And then, then I was like okay. Hmm what the fuck.
And the tenant was like maybe it was your wife?
And her boyfriend was like no it
Was a girl.
So there’s a
Question there.

Also apparently the dog likes the cat
But the cat
Does not like the dog.

Notes on the Poem

In the poem "The landlord said he lost his phone", we're left breathless and intrigued again by Aisha Sasha John's highly attuned ear for colloquial interjections and rhythms. She hints at layers of meaning under the seemingly quotidian in this selection from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection I have to live. The poem unfolds uncannily like that half of a conversation you can't help but overhear next to someone on their phone at a bus stop or during a quick lunch grabbed at the food court. The person speaking in this half conversation seems to be tossing off a sequence of remarks ... "The tenant she said ..." "He said ..." "And then the tenant's boyfriend ..." The speaker's recap of the situation is peppered with "likes" that, in normal parlance these days, are so ubiquitous it's almost surprising to seem them transcribed here. The pointed suspicion of the parenthetical remark makes clear, however, that the casual tone is deceptive. The speaker is very attentive to what is going on, not unlike the seemingly heedless but very aware narrator of John's poem "I fold in half." What might seem on one level to be light or even humorous - a recounting of different people interpreting a situation differently, a game of phone tag or missed connections - might also have an undercurrent of more menacing subterfuge, circling back to the poem's title. The landlord is avoiding calls, making excuses, and that might mean the roof over someone's head is no longer an assured thing. In other words ... "And then, then I was like okay. Hmm what the fuck." In addition to that dilemma, the poem closes with an enigmatic line. Is it the voice of the person speaking to this point, or is it the listener? "Also apparently" doesn't really sound like the idiom of the speaker to this point, does it? After the flurry of "likes" preceding it, the use of "likes" as a verb sounds almost jarringly unusual. Hmm ...

Anniversaries, End of August

by Russell Thornton

copyright ©Russell Thornton 2014



Anniversaries circle round again. My grandparents
marrying in the sun. The guests in their best attire.
The filled vaulted room. Then the clinking glasses.
Then the private rites of those who waited long.
It is there in the light. Light that is a window.
And is a mirroring seas for my grandmother
out in the sailing ship of her wedding dress. Her ashes.

Someone I loved dying alone. The month the wide frame
of her final leaving. It was also her birth month. Light
opens its window, and is window upon window.
Her living hair darkens beyond its living black.
That black is another light, no visible sun
burning in its origins but a dark transparency,
and it arrives like another her, again and again.

I too am a window. In August, two people
among the dead look out of it. They do not know
the window is me. And I am what a window can wish.
To open endlessly because it is light,
and because it is a mirror, let the silver erase itself
and arrive and wait flawless on the glass,
and darken, and erase itself, like life, like death.

Notes on the Poem

Russell Thornton's "Anniversaries, End of August" leaves us dizzy after one reading, but eager to read the poem again. How does he so entice readers in this selection from his 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection The Hundred Lives? Anniversaries - yearly observances of occasions, such as weddings - and birthdays, arguably one's most precious anniversary of all, are often referred to as "a trip around the sun", the time it takes for planet Earth to circle the sun. Thornton reinforces this concept with immediate references to those very things - circling and the sun - and then takes us through a verging on vertiginous series of images and effects that reflect (pun rather intentional!) on our awareness of the passage of time. Light, windows and mirrors whirl, collide and merge. How we and those we love are bathed in changing light and captured as ever-repeating and either ever-intensifying or fading series of images leaves us close to dazed. Is light helping us to understand something - shedding light, in effect - or is it blinding us to something? Are windows opening us to something? "I too am a window. In August, two people among the dead look out of it." ... suggests awareness of our lineage and mortality. But then ... "Light opens its window, and is window upon window." ... is like the effect of mirrors mirroring other mirrors and the images held in the mirrors, repeating infinitely. Does that depiction of the limitless of time offer comfort or create helpless despair? Before readers tip into woozy sensory overload, Thornton establishes exquisite balance in the poem's closing lines: "because it is a mirror, let the silver erase itself and arrive and wait flawless on the glass, and darken, and erase itself, like life, like death." As we observed David McFadden doing in last week's Poem of the Week, Thornton lets the reader process whether or not the poem has ended on an encouraging or discouraging note.

Slow Black Dog

by David W. McFadden

copyright ©David W. McFadden 2007



Meditating in the back
of Jack’s green Volkswagen
rolling along Highway 2
east of Paris

I’m conscious only of the motion
of things speeding against me
on both sides of my head,
eyes closed, and a sudden braking

and a breaking of that dream.
I’m in a moving car among green hills
and cow grazings of the world,
motels, gas stations of Ontario

and a dog slowly walking across
into our speeding lane, a black dog,
and in tall grass at roadside, a boy,
waving his arms, screaming.

Notes on the Poem

We miss terribly David McFadden's wry, observant, mischievous voice, so adept at pulling us into stories and worlds. How grateful we are to have collections of his work where that voice runs like a strong current, such as Why Are You So Sad?, the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted work in which "Slow Black Dog" is found. The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize judges encapsulated beautifully the charms of McFadden's poetry:
"Like his hero William Blake, he lives at ease among the most supernatural of events, and gazes in wonderment at everyday things. As a poet he reminds you to be yourself, to be yourself in the world, and give it a chance to amaze you. While reading his beautiful clear language, you sense that he is a trickster, but you cannot help believing every stanza he writes."
In "Slow Black Dog", McFadden tells a story plainly, accenting it with small but striking touches. The green of the car brightens the first stanza, echoed by the green hills in the third stanza. Motion and how fast that motion unfolds is captured succinctly. And then oh! "a sudden braking and a breaking of that dream." The irresistible frisson of this deceptively simple poem is that you, the reader are jolted too. Wisely and generously, McFadden lets you decide which way your heart leaps - in sorrow or in joy.

from The Dragon of History

by Fanny Howe

copyright ©2004 by Fanny Howe



I have seen it happen
A face with fangs and gills

represents history and an angel
is beating the beast on the back

Both are made of marble
One is a dragon

Its head is flat
like the iron tanks
in muddy water
that drove the men into the Gulf of Tonkin.

In my experience

the angel with his wings up
is trying to kill the dragon of history

to prove that air
is stronger than the objects in it

and if he wasn’t made of stone, he would.

Notes on the Poem

With Fanny Howe's poem "The Dragon of History", we're reminded of what interesting paths a poem can take us down. The poem, taken from Howe's 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection On the Ground, offers a historical reference that of course, an attentive reader will want to learn more about and then, of course, might just pursue down unexpected avenues. Before we head down one of those intriguing pathways, let's pause to admire how this excerpt - the opening and closing sections of this poem - so beautifully frames the poem's possible theme or thesis. Contemplating some kind of historical monument ("both are made of marble"), we're asked to consider history as the figure of a dragon, in conflict with the figure of an angel. If the angel is some kind of symbol of religious or spiritual faith, are we to believe that faith prevails over what happened historically, or what the forces of the historical past can still unleash? The closing portion of the poem leaves us plenty to ponder. Amidst the concrete and symbolic images we're given to consider, the opening section of the poem makes a very specific historical reference, to the Gulf of Tonkin. Shrouded in mystery, military incidents in this region that have were not fully substantiated led to the intensification of tensions that ignited and escalated U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1964. Political subject matter engaged Fanny Howe from an early age. She admits "Well, I had already been indoctrinated by my father who talked about politics with me over the dishes" in a 2013 interview. Deeply and evocatively informing her work throughout her life, it is fascinating to discover how Vietnam emerged early on in her life as an artist, in a somewhat surprising piece: the vintage nurse romance novel Vietnam Nurse, one of two VNRNs (yes, that's how one refers to them!) she wrote and published before her first forays into poetry. This review of the companion novel, West Coast Nurse - both novels were written by Howe using the pseudonym Della Field (Delafield was briefly her married surname) - praises how progressively characters and themes are presented. Although apparently that subversive energy wasn't sustained in Vietnam Nurse, it's clear that early in her journey as a writer, Howe was imbuing a genre that some might dismiss as lightweight with serious perspectives. Those perspectives fully inform her poetry and other work to the present.

The Storm

by Mira Rosenthal, translating from the Polish by Tomasz Rózycki

copyright ©English Translation and Introduction Copyright © 2013 by Mira Rosenthal



At night three elements enjoy our bodies.
Fire, water, air. One moment you’re water
then air the next, but flame encircles all.
At night we are reduced, small bits of tar,

soot on our skins, in cups. A storm enters
the room and clouds the mirror. There are others
from far away who look on us as food,
they eat and drink. They find each orifice

and enter us. Our bodies then become
the final element of earth and turn
to ash, dust, coal, compost where insects live
and snails leave tracks you ask about at dawn.

Once, at the world’s end, I threw a stone into
the open mouth of hell; I can’t complain.

Notes on the Poem

Upheaval of various forms is captured memorably and forcefully in the poem "The Storm," translated by Mira Rosenthal from the Polish poem "Burza" by Tomasz Rózycki, from the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Colonies. "At night" ... Rózycki asserts we are not getting much rest. The three elements that swirl throughout this brief poem are, simultaneously, the fundamentals of which we are composed, but also seem to be the essence of demons that torment us. In an essay examining several of Rózycki's works, including Colonies and The Forgotten Keys (also translated by Mira Rosenthal), Nicole Zdeb observed:
"His poetic terrain is infused by place and by lack of place, place and displacement. He speaks from a place of permanent exile."
That displacement refers to the post World War II displacement of "whole towns, communities, and families of Germans and Poles forcibly moved due to geopolitical schemes that revised the map." As Rózycki speaks for successive generations still feeling and processing that disruption, could that in part explain the literally elemental disruption the haunted and distressed sleepers suffer in this poem? That rueful last line ... Zdeb also praises Rózycki's "rollicking, smart, and bitter humor", which Rosenthal has maintained so poignantly in translation. Even amidst the poem's sturm und drang, he "can't complain" and clearly will cope. Zdeb's essay, incidentally, refers to Colonies as a series of sonnets. Considering this is work in translation provokes an interesting conundrum. If, as some insist, sonnets must rhyme, can a poem in translation that might or might not have rhymed in the original language be considered a sonnet?