Kozer, translated by Peter Boyle (241pp, Shearsman)
A landscape blossoms within me,
translated by Dinald
Adamson (117pp, Arc)
Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance, Wioletta Greg,
translated by Marek Kazmierski
effect of a book is immediate, even before proper consideration of what it is
one is reading. Indeed, 'proper consideration', where the effect is joyful,
may even lose it. Reading is a curious activity, it interrupts, and is
interruped by, whatever other activity precedes and follows. 'What a relief
and pleasure' or 'don't have the time for this'.
Another way of saying this is is to wonder what in the making of poetry can
be falsified, play-acted, put on as a show, and what can only be (a shifty
word even so) genuine. Not least in this - as it were - bargaining, is
(between one activity and another) what one brings to the reading.
I was intrigued to enter José Kozer's Tokonoma, knowing nothing of his writing previously,
and to find myself reading down his columns of short lines (mirror of the
Spanish on the preceding page) that seemed at once ro rush me on and want me
to slow down.
The only biographical information is on the back cover; it confuses cultural identity
immediately: that he was born in 1940 in Havana of Jewish parents who had
emigrated from Poland and Czechoslovakia; much of his later life then
university teaching (Spanish and Latin American Literature) in New York,
retired now and living in Florida.
The book is (seems) something else again: sections of 'Concentration', of
'Meditation' and of 'Satori'. Even knowing his (compressed) biography, who
really is the man who has written these, as seem, solitary sequences?
So, to begin again, the effect on me was to be led into this solitariness. A
section of 'Contemplation' starting on page 97 reaches this on page 99:
Such are the mental
formations of one who
without being a
a large bed through
a double window
a sycamore's crown,
the change of seasons,
the new century's
he hears galloping
(four horsemen) sees
snow fall, turns his
back to the window,
buds are sprouting:
sap dries: a leaf
breaks loose: spinning
and so on to page 100, by which time and place Chuang Tzu is again present
(out of his sleep, or that all of this has emerged from his sleep) and (to
lose the thread here and find it again), the final lines,
they're sharing out two
changes of bed
clothes, how they're
at the entrance.
In a Satori sequence towards the end of the book:
He lies down, fourth
person, at the foot of a stupa,
Buddha's face, slimy
skin, boxwood flakes:
the ears (a part of the
pillar of the Universe)
reach to his knees
(much laughter) (the
monks split their
sides pointing at
him): he's lying at
the entrance to the
Meditation Hut, the
morning sun flays
him, the pre-dawn moon
has stripped him of all
the images he's had
and his joy knows
no limit) will have.
It is not unknown to Buddhism that it's all a big joke. While yet in order to
arrive at this big joke is either luck or hard meditational work or both.
There are 230 pages of such columns, halve that for the translations, and
there is no guide because (I suppose) the work is its own coming into being
out of itself.
The translator is Australian with several books of his own poems in print;
you are lucky (as I am not, other than to sense the sound and flow) if you
can read the Spanish. As to the English, in a country where the language is
being degraded into thoughtless cliché, there is here a freshness and a
delight, itself an essential of playful wisdom.
website says Eeva Kilpi is one of Finland's best-loved writers, a Wikipedia
entry says she is better known abroad than in her own country, but there are
lots of web sites referring to and quoting her poems. This book is her first
full-length to be translated into English. She was born in February 1928.
Curious that this is the first English translation, but then translation
whimsically depends on there being a willing or desiring translator, on who
will pay, and who will publish.
She is known, I learn now, as a light-hearted writer and as a feminist. My
reading of the book tells me she is a fluent talker and that the lightness
has a solemn edge to it, especially in the later poems. It is more rare than
might be superfically supposed to find such a poet: she talks well, or one
has to say the translation talks well and I trust this to be true to her own
writing voice. The poems date from collections between 1972 and 2000, and I
would reckon this to be an excellent book for a writing or reading group.
Most of the poems are brief, often two to a page; none is titled. Here are
two poems, one from early and one from late in the chronological order:
Will you fuck for a grand?
at the bus-stop at half
Frost lay on the empty
streets all around.
At first I shook my head,
but then I said;
Not for money, but if you
will do the vacuuming and the washing up.
Then he was the one who
shook his head
and he turned to go,
dejected and forlorn.
In this moment I own all
those I have loved,
it's that kind of day:
so old have I become,
so old are they -
except for you my dear,
my late-born one.
In you they have all been waiting for me
and thus, at last, I fall
into their arms
thus at last I forgive
and beg forgiveness.
That's the power of love.
I return them to their
as if I had never hurt
But you, my dear, I
to desire me
Finite Formulae & Theories of
Chance is something
else again, from the Polish poet Wioletta Greg, (born 1974) who lives now,
since 2006, on the Isle of Wight.
The book is in two parts, the first poems, the second, 'Notes from an
island', a prose journal. All of the second and some of the first date from
her time now in England. All are in Polish, with translations.
As translation becomes more common and as poets move around the world, for a
while or permanently, the pasts of writing will become more shared, a
catching up with each other, and will come fresh also from each other's
presents. In the present tense perhaps and as gifts.
A poem, 'Sleepless in Ryde', towards the end of the poems, has a quoted
subtitle from Kafka from his diaries 1910-1923, in Polish, translated into
English, 'A void separates me from everything/ and so I don't even go near
the edge'. This is
rich enough already: Kafka quoted in Polish on the Isle of Wight, and the
short poem opens this up to,
A speckled iris - a
ginger cat on the window sill,
shiny fur on the edge of
jumping out of itself
just to catch a
An Englishwoman released
by a Victorian tenement.
Let the walls forgive her
At night, the void opens
up, cracking the temples,
full of a child's cries
and whistling ferries.
I wish I knew whether 'temple' has a double meaning in Polish.
I write this on the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the first world
war, and I wonder the extent to which British poets in recent decades have
been reckoning still with that war, with what it meant and still may mean
now. A three stanza poem in this book, 'Grandfather on a bridge July 1914', opens
Crowds rushing the
bridge, the boy barely seven
out of breath and
running, forced to abandon
his basket of hatchlings.
His lolly slips into
the river, while mother,
so late for the market,
haggles over roubles with
an old babushka.
What is this word 'lolly' here? If I recall rightly, this was a word in use
for money. The translator must have a reason to choose it and the poet to
accept it. And we are in tricky
territory here, the translation of the past into either a researched
equivalent or into the language of the present.
Other poems summon up the past and there is throughout the book a starkness
of image, an engagement with life where it hurts. The journal part of the
book, about a third of it, moves from a line such as 'I feel closer to ghosts
than to the living' to a more laidback anecdote:
I go into a shop with old
furniture and in the corner spot a beautiful, antique dressing-table.
"Is it art nouveau?" I ask in English.
The young shopkeeper
shrugs, shaking his head.
"Nope, think it's oak."
The more intense past never disappears, though, from the present, and this is
a book, its poems especially, that, with the others here, I hope will
circulate widely. We need such poetry.