My bookshelves once were alphabetized, before the two most recent moves and the baby. Now my books are in piles everywhere. Beside my bed is the stack of books I’m reading or about to read or just unwilling to surrender to a shelf that loosely echoes with its adjacent letters. In that pile:
Inger Christensen, alphabet, trans. Susanna Nied (New Directions) – A necessary book to revisit these days, to ward off despair. I assigned it for my advanced poetry course and discovered it to be upsettingly relevant to our current political moment (like Oppen’s Of Being Numerous, actually, which I revisited earlier this spring). Beyond those anxiety-pangs and thrums of recognition, though, there’s pure pleasure in seeing Nied grapple with the central competing forces that tug at a translator: the sound and sense of a poem, particularly one that proceeds through alliteration but has a deep ethical stance underpinning it. And what comes through is devastating and restorative by turns as it moves from a litany of affirmation to lyrics as sharply political and ecopoetic as they are personal. I’m living with alphabet now.
Paul Celan, Breathturn into Timestead, trans. Pierre Joris (FSG) – Reading late Celan is like reading the very edge of the language. Any language. The edge of the sayable, which is arrived at by looking hard at horror and speaking in its tongue:
drifted sea oats blow
sand patterns over
the smoke of wellchants.
An ear, severed, listens.
An eye, cut in strips,
does justice to all this.
I can’t tell if I’m reading or wallowing here, but I want to do it, to come to rest briefly inside these jagged poems. Banging Joris’ cinderblock of an edition up against other versions, like Popov and McHugh’s wonderful glottal stop, drives home the impossible sparsity of Celan’s work, and how much of a translator’s voice you can hear through even the thinnest streak of words. Joris’ versions, even with their buckets of paratext (which I am dutifully and gratefully reading, nerd that I am), keep buzzing in my brain for so long after reading them that I can only take this book a few poems at a time.
James Allen Hall, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well (CSU Press) – This is a first collection of essays, and I’m only a handful of essays into it. But it’s genuinely moving in its particular, beautiful articulation of some familiar paces: growing up queer in 1980s America, family damage and the minor triumphs and comedy to be found in that muddling through identity. Hall’s essays seem especially compassionate, which makes them a useful antidote to so much of my media diet these days. I picked this book up because Caryl Pagel, who edits both Rescue Press and the CSU Poetry Center, recommended it to me for my wife, Alicia Rebecca Myers. Caryl is right, as always. Becca, when you read this, go ahead and steal Hall’s book from my side of the bed.
Eileen Simpson, Poets in Their Youth (FSG) – Here at the end of teaching a course on The Dream Songs, my interest in this book was all Berryman and gossip. But Simpson’s prose is so light, and her sense of her own place in the narrative is so deft and smart, that I’m just happy to be aboard as she remembers her way around. The preface to my edition ends, “I hope this new edition will also send readers to the poems themselves.” Me too, of course, but also: I hope the poems send more people to her, as they did me.
Aase Berg, Hackers, trans. Johannes Göransson (Black Ocean) – At the last AWP, I popped by the Black Ocean table and the editor, Janaka Stucky, started telling me about Berg’s newest publication in English. I cut him off and bought it immediately, because I’ve read her previous books, all translated with what seems like adventurous fidelity by Göransson, and I knew I’d want to ride along with wherever this new book was going. It turns out Berg and Göransson, who are listed as “The Authors” in the back of the book (a rare and welcome acknowledgment of the translator’s work) bring us something recognizably uncomfortable in its of-the-moment-ness: a broken feminist eco-techno-epic, self-aware and sincere and snarky all at once. It’s a slippery collection, and one that begs to be read in sustained bursts to relish the wild juxtapositions: Classic Berg grotesquery:
Salad is for weaklings
I only eat raw beef
as the fur boils
in the glowing dusk
lick the sores
of my heels.
coexists just a few pages from sudden, if hesitant and doubtful, tenderness:
My small girls
think they’ve eaten dinner
I guess it’s good
that they trust
in the order of things
What’s carrying me deeper into the black hole of this book (eye-catchingly rendered on the badass cover, by the way) is the sense that pervades Berg’s writing, in Göransson’s English: That she’s brimming with both violence and love. It’s how the world feels at its best right now.
If you’re going to be up at night anyway, adrift in disorder, at least with books like these you’re not alone.