An Enemy Comes Down the Hill

by Fady Joudah, translating from the Arabic written by Ghassan Zaqtan

copyright ©Translation copyright © 2012 by Fady Joudah



When he comes down
or is seen coming down
when he reveals to us that he is coming down.

The waiting and silence

his entire lack
when he hearkens before the plants.

His caution when he comes down
like one postponed by a hush,
and by his being not “us”
and not “here”
death begins.

He bought a flower
nothing more, a flower
that has no vase and leaves no will.

From the hill, he can spot the military checkpoint, the paratroopers,
he can spot the squatters, the mountain edges, and the only road
where their feet will leave a print in the rocks, mud, and water.

Losses also will appear from the hill
abandoned without effort.

And the fragility in shadow,
the Jewish man with a long mustache
who resembles the dead Arabs here.

From the mountain edges, all the caves will appear peaceful
and the road will seem as it were.

While he was coming down
the caves continued to stare
and blink in the cold.

Notes on the Poem

In "An Enemy Comes Down the Hill", Fady Joudah's translation from the Arabic of Ghassan Zaqtan's original poem, what is in sight and what is perceived are both presented in fine detail. Still, are things as they seem? Let's take another look at this intriguing poem. The opening stanza illustrates well how Joudah's words delicately balance what is seen, what is perceived, what the subject who is seen ("he", presumably the "enemy" of the title) tries to hide or convey - and how these can all be confused to blur what truly is. "When he comes down or is seen coming down when he reveals to us that he is coming down." While we imagine that an enemy would advance on us with caution, don't we also assume that advancing is a form of aggression, inherent in being an enemy? What then, do we make of his caution being gently described ... "like one postponed by a hush" Is he really an enemy? He's carrying a flower, for heaven's sake ... and there's that "fragility in shadow" that suggests vulnerability, not menace. Do we despair then that we can never fully trust or understand each other? The caves are staring, but not so harshly that they don't also blink. Conversely, can we be heartened that how things appear can always be open to interpretation? If not put in the best light, can we assume that some appearances are at least benign?

Verso 40.6

by Dionne Brand

copyright ©2018 Dionne Brand



M sent me a photograph by Daguerre. It is of the first human being to be photographed. Someone is cleaning the shoes of someone. All descriptions of the photograph claim that the first human being to be photographed is the figure having his shoes cleaned. I see first the figure cleaning the shoes as the photograph’s subject. Secondly, the event of the shoe-cleaning. From this immediately I saw the state of the world.

Notes on the Poem

Some segments of Dionne Brand's 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted The Blue Clerk are brief but strikingly acute on numbers of levels. From a blurry image, Brand extracts clear and pointed commentary in "Verso 40.6". The touchstone of this succinct prose poem is a historical photograph by Louis Daguerre, the French photographer who pioneered the eponymous daguerreotype, an early form of photograph (Interestingly, Eve Joseph, with whom Dionne Brand share the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist, offers a series of ekphrastic poems in her collection Quarrels, in which she responds to images from the work of American photographer Diane Arbus.) At first glance ... the Daguerre photograph in question looks to be an empty street scene (apparently taken in Paris, France in 1838). However, on closer scrutiny (which Brand and her narrator have practiced), some human activity is discernible in the lower left corner of the image: While of coarse resolution, one can make out two figures, one on the left with a foot upraised that is having his footwear attended to by a crouching figure on the right. It's actually unlikely that this service was being rendered on an otherwise deserted street. As a 2014 CNN article explains, "the exposure time for the image was around seven minutes. The street appears deserted because while the two human figures were relatively still, other pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages were moving too fast to register on the plate." Thanks to that early technological constraint, the two figures are an intriguing focal point in the photograph. While there seems to be little dispute that this is the first photograph of a human being, Brand's poem and narrator pose an excellent question about who of the two is really the first: the one being served or the one serving. It's fascinating to see how Brand has mined early and faint traces of modest, everyday human existence to make observations about the state of humanity today. From something so indistinct comes something so unforgettably provocative and vivid.

The sight of the songbirds at dusk

by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh, translated from the German written by Paul Celan

copyright ©2000 Paul Celan (translated by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh)



The sight of the songbirds at dusk,
through a ring of
ungraphed space,

made me promise myself weapons.

The sight of weapons, hands;
the sight of hands, the line
long since described by a flat, sharp
rock,

– you, wave,
carried it here, sharpened it,
you, Un-
losable One, gave yourself to it,
you, beach sand, are the taker,
partaker,
you, shore-grass, drift
your share –

the line, the line
we swim through, twice each
millennium, tied up
in each other,
and not even the sea,
sublime unfathomable sea
that runs alive through us,
can believe
all the singing in our fingers.

Notes on the Poem

The words of poet Paul Celan journeyed far to reach us here. Celan was born in Romania and raised speaking and reading German. He survived the Holocaust and continued with his work after settling in Paris after the war. Although he spoke at least six languages and worked as a translator of French, Russian and English literature, he insisted on writing his poetry solely in German. Translators Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh carefully carried that original poetry into English, encapsulated in the 2001 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan. The judges' citation for the collection both laments the arduous journey of these words, and shows gratitude for Popov and McHugh's steadfast and sensitive work in translating them: "... much of [Celan's] work has seemed too hermetic, linguistically complex, and bound to his struggle with the German language in the aftermath of the Shoah to be translatable." Magic alchemized from an alloy of Popov and McHugh's resourcefulness, creativity and nimbleness with language has rendered up poems as simultaneously beautiful and unnerving as "The sight of the songbirds at dusk". There is a pervasive sense of flow in the momentum of the words and lines - after the disarmingly abrupt opening lines, leaping from birds to weapons - where one image seems to hand off to another. Impelling forces seem to be driving things forward - carrying, taking, partaking, swimming - but also moving backward, possibly eroding, drifting at the same time. This gentle, continuous sense of unrelenting motion ... could it perhaps symbolize the passage from one language to another to another?

To Sweeten Bitter

by Raymond Antrobus

copyright ©Raymond Antrobus 2018



My father had four children
and three sugars in his coffee
and every birthday he bought me
a dictionary which got thicker
and thicker and because his word
is not dead I carry it like sugar

on silver spoons
up the Mobay hills in Jamaica
past the flaked white walls
of plantation houses
past the canefields and coconut trees
past the new crystal sugar factories.

I ask dictionary why we came here –
It said nourish so I sat with my aunt
on her balcony at the top
of Barnet Heights
and ate saltfish
and sweet potato

and watched women
leading their children
home from school.
As I ate I asked dictionary
what is difficult about love?
It opened on the word grasp

and I looked at the hand
holding this ivory knife
and thought about how hard it was
to accept my father
for who he was
and where he came from

how easy it is now to spill
sugar on the table before
it is poured into my cup.

Notes on the Poem

"To Sweeten Bitter", a selection from 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, creates poignancy through sharpened sensory cues, largely taste and touch. Does it, in turn, achieve what the title suggests? A son is struggling with his memories of and feelings for his father. The poem opens with a telling image, an intriguing link to the poem's title and an unbalanced equation, establishing a wistful and uneasy undercurrent in just two brief but pointed lines: "My father had four children and three sugars in his coffee" As he delves into his emotions, the son uses a dictionary that is an annual gift from his father as his anthropomorphized guide to his feelings and to sensations associated with them. The word "nourish" evokes warm recollections of shared meals and the taste of "saltfish / and sweet potato" - connections with comforting things. The word "grasp", in contrast, captures the harsh touch of a beautiful knife handle, which segues to a declaration of frustration. The sugar presumably meant "to sweeten bitter" is initially treated as something precious, borne "on silver spoons". However, it seems to be something squandered and possibly maudlin by the time we reach the final stanza: "how easy it is now to spill sugar on the table before it is poured into my cup." Is the bitterness still there? In fact, have attempts at sweetness actually been further embittered, essentially reversing the poem's title?

The Novel As Manuscript

by Norman Dubie

copyright ©2015 by Norman Dubie



An ars poetica

I remember the death, in Russia,
of postage stamps
like immense museum masterpieces
patchwork
wrapped in linen, tea stained,
with hemp for strapping…

these colored stamps designed for foreign places
were even printed during famine—
so when they vanished, so did the whole
Soviet system:
the Berlin Wall, tanks from Afghanistan,
and Ceausescu’s bride before a firing squad.

It had begun with the character of Yuri Zhivago
in a frozen wilderness, the summer house
of his dead in-laws, his
pregnant mistress asleep
before the fireplace
with flames dancing around a broken chair, piano keys,
and the gardener’s long black underwear.

Lara lying there. A vulgar fat businessman
coming by sleigh to collect her for the dangers
of a near arctic escape…

But for Yuri, not that long ago, he was
with celebrity,
a young doctor publishing a thin volume
of poems in France, he was writing
now at a cold desk
poems against all experience
and for love of a woman buried
in moth-eaten furs on the floor—

while he wrote
wolves out along the green tree line
howled at him. The author of this novel,
Boris Pasternak, arranged it all. Stalin would
have liked to have killed him. But superstition kept him from it.
So, the daughter of Pasternak’s mistress eventually
is walking with a candle
through a prison basement—
she is stepping over acres of twisted corpses
hoping to locate her vanished mother …
she thinks this reminds her of edging slowly
over the crust on a very deep snow, just a child who believes
she is about to be swallowed by the purity of it all,
like this write your new poems.

Notes on the Poem

Norman Dubie uses "The Novel As Manuscript" to provide crisp insight into forms of poetic inspiration, useful for those who love poetry and for those who might aspire to create it themselves. Let's take a look at how he does this in this selection from his 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection, The Quotations of Bone. The poem's title is our first signpost. We're ready to decipher from the clues provided which novel Dubie will reference in this poem. We're also ready to figure out how the novel - as a form and as a specific work, in this case Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago - is a manuscript or roadmap for something else yet envisioned. The poem's subtitle - An ars poetica - is our second signpost. With those words, Dubie informs us that he is going to scrutinize "The Art of Poetry", and we can guess that it will be both in broad, philsophical and in personal, individual terms. The Academy of American Poets offers an overview of this poetic term, including excellent classical and contemporary examples. There is much fodder here for understanding expectations for how poetry is crafted, and for what poets must demand of themselves. As we proceed from this signpost into the poem itself, we discover that Dubie is contemplating Pasternak, Pasternak's novel and the novel's protagonist as opportunities to mine the rich veins of other's artistic inspiration to fire other artistry, from the novelist, the novel, and a character who is also a writer, to this poet and his poetry. Dubie is engaging in the practice of ekphrasis, whereby a poem uses as its departure point and expands upon the themes and meanings evoked by an artwork from another form. (Most recently, we enjoyed a series of ekphrastic poems in 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Quarrels by Eve Joseph, where Joseph's poems responded to images from the work of American photographer Diane Arbus.) We're reminded that in praising Dubie's The Quotations of Bone, the Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed that the energy with which Dubie effects the art of poetry itself "blurs the distinction between what is real because it once happened, and what is real because of the emphatic manner in which it has been felt." So, even as Doctor Zhivago is a fictional work, Dubie's consideration of and obvious feelings for the work bring it to palpable life. This is the life, he in turn advises, with which we should all approach our own work: "like this write your new poems."

A five-year-old asks his mother …

by Eve Joseph

copyright ©2018 by Eve Joseph



A five-year-old asks his mother if the clouds are solid and wants to know why, when he looks up, he can’t see the old people and their old cats. I must have dozed off. The trees were bare when I fell asleep but now their leaves are that impossible newly minted green. Tom Waits is bellowing downstairs and any second now someone I love is going to walk through the door. I want to know why the clouds told the Serbian poet their names in the quiet of a summer afternoon. And why didn’t he share those names with the rest of us? Perhaps they did not translate into English. Perhaps the old want to stay hidden and keep their secrets all to themselves.

Notes on the Poem

Let's continue celebrating the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize winners by spending a few moments again with one of the softly surreal prose poems from Quarrels by Eve Joseph. The Academy of American Poets offers some useful insights into what constitutes a prose poem, including this:
"While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects."
Couple that with the 2019 Griffin Poetry judges' observation that in Quarrels ... "The poet has surrendered herself to the realm of the illogical, trusting that it has a logic of its own, and the outcome is, indeed, a new music." ... and we see how Joseph has found some ideal techniques to navigate that misty but intriguing realm. In her succinct renditions of the form, Joseph seems to have found the perfect format with which to tussle with the illogical, give it its own internal logic and deliver it in a way that is bewitching in its brevity. As mentioned in the preceding definition, fragmentation can help create this charm, like a snatch of music (Tom Waits will certainly do) or a snippet of a dream that seems to meld with the ostensible real world when one dozes off momentarily. Or was it momentary, if ... "The trees were bare when I fell asleep but now their leaves are that impossible newly minted green." The question opening the poem literally has its own childlike logic. We hope the mother responded to the child's logic in the spirit of that logic, although we don't know anything else about the mother and child, including if they were in the poem's narrator's waking or sleeping world. At any rate, the question is consistent with what seems to be the recalcitrant nature of the clouds - they only told their names to the Serbian poet, no one else. The poet too is not being too cooperative with information - did he purposely not reveal the names or were they lost in translation? To circle back to the beginningm maybe the old people are up there in the clouds, but they do just want to stay hidden. It's all very logical, isn't it?

After You’re Gone / DAY SIX

by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon

copyright ©2016 by Kim Hyesoon / 2018 by Don Mee Choi



After you’ve gone don’t go, don’t
After you’ve come don’t come, don’t

When you depart, they close your eyes, put your hands together and cry
        don’t go, don’t go
But when you say open the door, open the door, they say don’t come, don’t
        come

They glue a paper doll onto a bamboo stick and say don’t come, don’t come
They throw your clothes into the fire and say don’t come, don’t come

That’s why you’re footless
wingless

yet all you do is fly
unable to land

You’re visible even when you hide
You know everything even without a brain

You feel so cold
even without a body

That’s why this morning the nightgown hiding under the bed
is sobbing quietly to itself

Water collects in your coffin
You’ve already left the coffin

Your head’s imprint on the moon pillow
Your body’s imprint on the cloud blanket

So after you’ve gone don’t go, don’t
So after you’ve come don’t come, don’t

Notes on the Poem

On the heels of the work's 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize win, it seems only right that we should reprise this selection from the hypnotic Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon. The bulk of Autobiography of Death is a sequence of 49 poems, matched to the period of 49 days a spirit roams after death before it proceeds to reincarnation. Variations of the 49-day period are articulated in different faiths. In the Tibetan tradition, mentioned in this article about the Dalai Lama offering a prayer service for the deaths of Tibetan protesters in 2008:
"Prayers conducted by the living can assist the dead through this journey and can help to guide them toward a good rebirth, and so it is a period that is always marked by special rites."
In Kim's sequence of poems, so sensitively and determinedly translated by Choi, there is much to equate them with ritual and invocation. The prayer-like aspects of this particular selection from early in the 49-poem sequence / 49-day observance include the incantatory opening and closing stanzas and the rites suggested by the second and third stanzas. A particular anguish bursts through in these lines: "You feel so cold even without a body" and paired with this: "Water collects in your coffin You've already left the coffin" makes direct reference to a contemporary Korean catastrophe, the 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry, in which over 300 people died, many of them young high school students. what Went Wrong in the Sewol Ferry Disaster is a heartwrenching 30-minute New Yorker documentary on the tragedy, capturing strikingly what haunts many of the poems in Autobiography of Death.

Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon and Quarrels by Eve Joseph Win the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize

TORONTO – Thursday, June 6, 2019Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon (New Directions) and Quarrels by Eve Joseph (Anvil Press) are the International and Canadian winners of the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize. They each received C$65,000 in prize money.

Continue readingAutobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon and Quarrels by Eve Joseph Win the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize”

67

by Sarah Tolmie

copyright ©Sarah Tolmie 2018



We are scared to death by the words for things.
Even yet, when we should know better.
I know my father’s teeth will chatter

If I say pneumonia about my son.
Suddenly it is World War One
And influenza, H 1 N 1

And doom and liver flukes.
It’s Bay of Pigs and waiting nukes.

And me? I am a heartless bitch
For saying he should get a grip.

Notes on the Poem

This week's Poem of the Week choice comes from the third of three works on the Canadian 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. We've now spent time with selections from all seven works shortlisted for this year's prize. Now, let's turn our gaze to one of the spirited poems from The Art of Dying by Sarah Tolmie. From the outset, the collection's title (and even how it is spelled out by an unnervingly charming and jaunty cavalcade of skeletons on the book cover), signal we're going to be prodded to confront a troubling and taboo subject. Tolmie takes a largely satirical approach to the attitudes and rituals around death and deathly subjects, floating cheeky and feisty observations on a raft of slyly imperfect rhymes, lively personae (like this poem's self-effacing and supposedly "heartless bitch") and other lyrical poetic effects. As Tolmie contends "We are scared to death by the words for things." and then she launches directly and perhaps perversely into a list of terms naming someone's fear. In fact, experts advise is one of the ways to conquer it. With irreverence, with a light touch, whether the indifference of that "heartless bitch" is true or feigned, she has succinctly and effectively built a strong case for wielding words and "faking it till you make it".

A five-year-old asks his mother …

by Eve Joseph

copyright ©2018 by Eve Joseph



A five-year-old asks his mother if the clouds are solid and wants to know why, when he looks up, he can’t see the old people and their old cats. I must have dozed off. The trees were bare when I fell asleep but now their leaves are that impossible newly minted green. Tom Waits is bellowing downstairs and any second now someone I love is going to walk through the door. I want to know why the clouds told the Serbian poet their names in the quiet of a summer afternoon. And why didn’t he share those names with the rest of us? Perhaps they did not translate into English. Perhaps the old want to stay hidden and keep their secrets all to themselves.

Notes on the Poem

This week's Poem of the Week choice comes from the second of three works on the Canadian 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. Let's spend a few moments with one of the softly surreal prose poems from Quarrels by Eve Joseph. The Academy of American Poets offers some useful insights into what constitutes a prose poem, including this:
"While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects."
Couple that with the 2019 Griffin Poetry judges' observation that in Quarrels ... "The poet has surrendered herself to the realm of the illogical, trusting that it has a logic of its own, and the outcome is, indeed, a new music." ... and we see how Joseph has found some ideal techniques to navigate that misty but intriguing realm. In her succinct renditions of the form, Joseph seems to have found the perfect format with which to tussle with the illogical, give it its own internal logic and deliver it in a way that is bewitching in its brevity. As mentioned in the preceding definition, fragmentation can help create this charm, like a snatch of music (Tom Waits will certainly do) or a snippet of a dream that seems to meld with the ostensible real world when one dozes off momentarily. Or was it momentary, if ... "The trees were bare when I fell asleep but now their leaves are that impossible newly minted green." The question opening the poem literally has its own childlike logic. We hope the mother responded to the child's logic in the spirit of that logic, although we don't know anything else about the mother and child, including if they were in the poem's narrator's waking or sleeping world. At any rate, the question is consistent with what seems to be the recalcitrant nature of the clouds - they only told their names to the Serbian poet, no one else. The poet too is not being too cooperative with information - did he purposely not reveal the names or were they lost in translation? To circle back to the beginningm maybe the old people are up there in the clouds, but they do just want to stay hidden. It's all very logical, isn't it?