Saturday, December 27, 2014

Tomaž Šalamun's "Photograph with a Quote from Yazoo"

Tomaž Šalamun

Photograph with a Quote from Yazoo: Deep in Each Other’s Dream

Christ is my sex object, therefore I am 
not an ethical problem. I lead him to the meadows.
Like a little shepherd, I force him to graze.

I root him out and clean his hands. Shall we
rinse ourselves under the tree? And when
we stretch out on the earth and watch the sky,

what moves? Will we have enough heat
for winter? Will we peel potatoes? Will
we make soldiers out of molten lead? Are we

going to the cows with our arms in their muzzles?
Will we bite the horsetail? Watch Mount Nanos.
We’ll hide in the moss, under sheets of glass.

When you took the picture of the tree, did you
take care of the explosion? What do you mean exactly?
The white milk traveling through the veins

into eternity, glazing the dark? I am a little stone
falling into your flesh. I made you twitch
and tied you up. We crucified you.

Translated from the Slovenian by Christopher Merrill and the author

[from Verse, Volume 13, Numbers 2&3]

Tomaž Šalamun's other "Jonah"

Tomaž Šalamun


Pleasure writes history. Bombs resemble
human eggs. You tear them off and throw them
around. They rut. Shepherds wake in the hills.
You see, a grenade falls on your head, it’s landing there.
The ones who were served grew bored. Still I never
saw a whale. Supposedly it swims in the sea. Supposedly
you can stick a mast through its eyes. Yesterday
they killed my darling Jeffrey Dahmer
while he was cleaning a toilet. He had eaten
seventeen young men and ended in blood. Power
is always inherited, never divided. And if a body is raveled
we mend it. Power cannot evaporate. It renews itself
on solemn scaffolds. We, the people who wade in blood,
we’re erotic and fascinating. We write sublime poetry.

Translated by Christopher Merrill and the author

[from Verse, Volume 15.3/16.1]

Tomaž Šalamun poem

Tomaž Šalamun


With juice in my muscles.
I’m not bad, I’m used to it and calm.
I’m dissolving my eyes.
I hear the sail fluttering.
The sun kisses the white linen
thirty times and settles
like a glowing club.
Who cares about refoli!
From the left and the right—the sea!
A quadruped first uses all
four of his legs, he runs over the earth.
The bush scratches, how it tamps down, now this, now
that, but what steps into silk,
a rift in the glue, still on the earth?
Is it still in triumph and juice when it takes off?

No one scratches you softly in heaven. You
can’t roll up your cloven foot,
no granite cube for your
head. Mouldering limbs have meaning.
The air is grayish bronze,
someone is burning linen tablecloths,
the calves are drunk and dazed.

You catch your lungs,
they roll over and uncover
a fresh cherry pie, someone
unwinds it before it was poured
into the piepan. Plants grow
into it and out,
the skin fits like the moon.

Do you remember my blue bathing suit
and the record for the hundred-meter freestyle?
How you stretched above the splits.
And your rested pulse,
a little like a twitching fish,
a little like a fish fanning itself.

Translated by Christopher Merrill and the author

[from Verse, Volume 15, Number 3/Volume 16, Number 1]

RIP, Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014)

In honor of Tomaž and his artistic legacy, Verse will be posting some of his poems that have appeared in the magazine over the past 20 years.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

NEW! Review of Allison Titus

The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing To Do With Fire by Allison Titus. Etruscan Press, $15.

Reviewed by Brynne Rebele-Henry 

Alison Titus’s devastating debut novel The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing To Do With Fire is a harshly illuminated lament: the prose forms a death chant for life itself. The novel emerges as a gorgeous planet of melancholy, its language spiraling in deep space, as its three protagonists, haunted by loss, become satellites of isolation in their orbits of town and home and body. Their collective orbit begins in a small stretch of town illuminated by the flash of Titus’s lyrical prose. Titus gathers her words like stones that she spreads out on a riverbank. Sometimes the words roll like a new, extra-terrestrial language:
A skirt of flame, smoke plumes petticoating wide, roaming, layer after layer of fire trembling the dark forest, a floating furnace that illuminated the dead pinetops then felled them in swift collapse. The smoke coarsened room, coarsened lung, and mapped over the dwindling hours with embers and ash. … Morning was an ugly country no one dared to name.

The novel’s central character, Vivian Foster, is a neurotic house sitter who has a ritual in which she tries to find the names closest to hers in newspaper obituaries every morning. In an attempt to divine the day and method of her death, she tallies the letters in the names to score points, “the fewer points the better.” She lives in a premature funeral with no guests, “submitting to the idea of death in all its terrible versions,” and she writes obituaries for herself as well: 

Much later Vivian stared at the guest room ceiling, thinking about it. If she died in this city, it would be from drowning. ... She closed her eyes, held her breath and tried to imagine it. The pitch black, the thick water that pulled through her clothes, pummeled her arms her legs her face and burned sharp as it flooded her nose, mouth, throat, lungs—she’d choke hard before blacking out, which she knew would be painful but she wasn’t sure how, exactly…

After moving to a small town to watch the house for a woman whose husband has disappeared, Vivian meets Ronny, an arsonist, and they become romantically involved. Ronny takes a job as a janitor at a hospital, where he meets a renowned plastic surgeon trying to build the first human wings. The surgeon asks Ronny to serve as his test subject, but before Ronny can decide, Vivian’s mother dies, so they drive to Nebraska together. The trip is a disaster from the outset, but Titus’s prose is a stunning incantation:

The sky, splayed so keenly white and threshed to an invisible zenith, deleted every minor thing: the field assembled with its vast epiphany of barren land; a couple trees; a crow; the car with Ronny and Vivian in it. Hard to tell, way out, what was sky and what wasn’t, how it settled over the world out there as an uninterrupted sheet of clabbered white. 

When they arrive at the trailer where her mother lived, they find Vivian’s estranged twin brother Seth: 

She could almost forget she had a brother, since they hadn’t been in touch for years. He was obscured, he was part time, he was in hiding. He was a mime. He was no forwarding address/no longer at this address/undeliverable. He was a postcard back in March that said I am an exhibit at the state fair. They were twins, but that didn’t mean much that Vivian could vouch for. They weren’t psychically connected. Vivian and Seth weren’t aligned in some intrinsic, magical twin way and never had been.

Ronny drives home to see the surgeon, and Vivian, confronting the various remnants of her mother’s descent into insanity, has her own escalating, character-redefining breakdown. She follows Ronny a few days later. The novel’s final pages, rife with revelation and tragedy, boil over into a bruising, yet inevitable, conclusion.

The Arsonist’s Song is a song for every bone that has ever been broken, cast, healed or not healed, that has ever been torn from the body. For every vertebra or piece of marrow that has been taken from the spine. For every attempt at flying that has ended badly, or too successfully. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

NEW! Three poems by Jeffrey Skinner

Jeffrey Skinner



Who would the sky help thinking 
Crisp wrought iron shadows 
Asked what I wanted
Got what I asked, more & less

Game of life-sized air hockey
Little faces to knock you down dead 
Maybe if I had a look at the poet
I could upload the poetry

I’m talking consciousness, Bub 
How it anchors & tugs
Then lets out a flying laugh
O you windup machine of meat!

—Iron bars at its feet—
Man alone is an end in himself


Did you get what you wanted?
Mass of unconnected wires
Plank extending from flatbed, red flag 
Little gods of approximation

Smack of flesh on flesh
I move my chair for a different view 
If only I had sleek Europe!
Not just plugging like into like

Belief also chooses
A soul made of many tiny robots 
Sky atilt, trees piled bottom left 
Short-shorts with cuffed hems

Moral to the smallest button
I have what I want & will, always

The Flood

I dig for something cool
I snarl as well as kiss
I bring mother’s death closer 
I open doors in the river

I dial a smaller wish
I don’t agree with my position 
I see mother claw the screen
I hawk, I dog, I ant, I fish

I prank up as if an angel
I give man & chair equal weight 
I whine like a tooth
I break myself on text

I pull mother’s soft ribbon 
I let the Ohio find her

Monday, October 27, 2014

NEW! Review of James Pate

The Fassbinder Diaries by James Pate. Civil Coping Mechanisms, $12.95.

Reviewed by Erica Bernheim

Growing up in Italy before the internet, my sister and I maintained meticulous lists of the most ridiculous translations we encountered, translations that were neither literally correct literally nor entirely phonetic. Often, we noticed, there was a food element, something decadent, decaying, or simply just off: the local movie theater showing “Ratty and Ham” (instead of U2’s “Rattle and Hum”), “Porky Coolness” (a strange rendering of salsiccia dolce, or sweet sausage). Coincidentally, the pig—both as animal and symbol and consumable object—features heavily throughout The Fassbinder Diaries, James Pate’s 2013 collection of “filmic poetry.” Upon its publication, The Fassbinder Diaries received well-deserved attention from a number of readers and critics who praised the wide scope of Pate’s lens as well as the generosity of his allusiveness, the pop culture references made both familiar and ominous throughout the text. In a Montevidayo post, Johannes Goransson alludes to Pate’s formative years in Memphis, a city which evokes crime and decay and a specific type of Southern grittiness replacing the more straightforward gothic tropes. In this instance, as in Fassbinder’s oeuvre, realism can become much more horrifying than the imagined. 

By structuring this collection around the notion of the late director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the author of this collection establishes himself either as someone who really likes Fassbinder, or—more interestingly— as someone considering what it means to be perceived as someone who likes Fassbinder. Pate is not writing exclusively about the films; he is writing about the experience of watching them, whether in the first or the third person, his words often mimicking the techniques in the films themselves. The Fassbinder Diaries is a text about art, cinematic and problematic, exclusionary, and contradictory. We are inside the movies and then we are clearly outside of them outside, floating in the meta, “the Catonic Room” (“U-Bahn”), and we are navigating the territory as newly released synesthesiac agoraphobics or clostraphiles: “I hear, among other things, your fingers with their crowns of blood.” Each poem is a striation; the book is the muscle, pulsing with energy perverse and erotic, as we are never loved exactly the right way, the aforementioned compromise cum exploitation, the magnetic boomerang-esque projection of the idea: “The figure without hair probes part of its thinner shoots into the soft patches of the figure without brains and the figure with only a few branches of meat curls around the figure that consists of pink mist” (“Exhibit x:”).

“Return of the Holy Beasts” is where, for me, The Fassbinder Diaries navigates the most surprising territory. We have a clear sense of the speaker, even as s/he shifts between ages, times, locations, (perhaps more reminiscent of Orlando than Fassbinder in places), but anchored to the banal as a way of navigating and, ultimately, moving towards nowhere. Some of the questions this collection anticipates are also banal: the difference between poem and prose poem, the (auto) biography and its value as artifact, and Pate seems well-aware of how such territories have been previously broached. For instance, in “Imperial Tangos,” as the entire poem reads: “The endless boulevards extend among endless extractions.” Precisely half as long as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,”  in this poem Pate is less concerned with Imagism than with the machinations of readers and critics, eternally bound to finding meaning and following all possible paths in a text in search of that elusive signifying, something to be proven, something victorious. 

While rereading this text, I thought of that distance between translation and original, the humor that comes not necessarily from a joke or utterance, but from the mere presence of a word where it is not supposed to be. There must be a long German word that encapsulates this, and if so, I have little doubt that Pate, as Ken Baumann says, “gets it,” but keeps it from his readers. Throughout the entire collection, the diary motif returns, as does the idea of reading on more than one level. In “The Double Life of Mick Jagger,” we enter the culmination of the doubling, although it explicates little for the reader. The doubling is a complication, rather than an explication, a wrinkle rather than a clean crease. The images throughout the collection are stacked, fitting tightly together, but allowing for the unexpected. In an earlier essay about Fassbinder’s fourteen hour film, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Pate himself describes the work as, “cavernous and roomy and full of echoes and a dizzying amount of characters wander through it.” This effect is certainly present in The Fassbinder Diaries, and as the collection resists the human impulse towards classification, it also reflects characteristics from Fassbinder’s films, creating a connection where we would expect one to be.

Part Two of Pate’s collection veers from reimaginings of Fassbinder’s daily schedules and into a consideration of his “first theatrical production at a farm in southern Germany.” The seven poems in this section position the aforementioned pig against humans (“The pig has a human wail and the pig has a human tongue”) and also place the human speaker in their domain: “I am fond of pig parties. / I have been to many pig parties” (from “Pig Knot”). These pigs are not Mina Loy’s “Pig Cupid,” yet they are immersed in a sort of erotic garbage, rooting in search of something unspeakable and unnamable. Animals show up later in “Dream of the varying Pork Cloud,” an ominous poem which personifies dreams and ends with possible dream interpretations of mice, rats, tigers, and panthers, ultimately foregrounding the ridiculousness of the idea of trying to define or decipher one’s own dream.

The Fassbinder Diaries ends not only with the final entries in the imagined diary, but with the reprise of an eight-question quiz which appeared earlier in the text. In the earlier version, Fassbinder is the subject of the questions, which begin with his birthplace and end with his death and an examination of it. In the second version of the quiz, it’s Querelle (the protagonist in Fassbinder’s final film, released posthumously in 1982). I read this as the inevitable conflation of one’s own life with one’s creative work, the desire on the part of the audience to substitute the artist for the protagonist, particularly when death is involved. This is also another type of translation. Fassbinder is dead; long live his diaries.

Monday, September 22, 2014

NEW! Review of Karla Kelsey

A Conjoined Book: Aftermath & Become Tree, Become Bird by Karla Kelsey. Omnidawn Publishing, $17.95. 

Reviewed by Catherine Kyle

In Karla Kelsey’s A Conjoined Book: Aftermath & Become Tree, Become Bird, disparate things coexist in tenuous but elegant union. The tranquility of nature interlocks with decay, contamination, and violence. Fairy tale joins with historical anecdote. Descriptions of painterly techniques are juxtaposed with meditations on astronomy, Descartes, and Galileo. The book itself, as the title suggests, invites a kind of “conjoined” or double vision, challenging readers to form connections between linked but separate things. Aftermath and Become Tree, Become Bird exist in recursive harmony, each teasing out new meanings in the other. 

Aftermath opens with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves that conflates the speaker’s subjectivity with the sea. This excerpt sets the tone for the first portion of Kelsey’s conjoined book, which thoughtfully explores the parallels between human consciousness and nature. In “Landscape of Vantage & Soft Motion,” she writes:

… the
river is not just the river but holds legends in relief. The
woman in reeds breathing murky water. The man &
the stone that was starred. Pages begin to disintegrate 
& so she puts them into a glass cylinder & buries it
under the holly tree.

While this bond between humans and nature is frequently generative, it also necessitates joint suffering. Kelsey’s subjects and speakers experience decline in concert with their settings:

mercury into
the watertable

(the scald
filled me 

In an interview with Omnidawn co-editor Rusty Morrison, Kelsey explains that part of her inspiration for the book came from her time spent in Pennsylvania, a land that both awed her with its beauty and pained her with its long history of environmental degradation. This disquieting blend of admiration and horror is brought to bear in her work as she orchestrates imagery that encompasses both: “I /   was your / Rose, your Lily, your Loralie dying over & over with the slow pause of an early / silver screen, grass gone nickel, skin gone glycerin.”
True to her understated approach to such turbulent themes, the catalyst of the subjects’ waning vitality is never explicitly named. Speaking from the negative space of undisclosed events—the perimeter, the echo of catastrophe rather than the catastrophe itself—Kelsey dwells in effect rather than cause. This is perhaps most deftly achieved in her series of “Afterimages” that read as both part of and additions to the poems that immediately precede them:

the sun

the pen

increasingly estranged. 


… In pictures his
face has gone blanched from scald from freeze. The car a
sun a chair that wouldn’t that couldn’t go.

As is apparent in this passage, Kelsey’s work bears certain hallmarks of modernist writing, foregoing standard punctuation in favor of free-flowing thought. Hyphenated phrases such as “the seen-through-a-glass” and “the wait-in-the-doorway-until-you-recognize” invite consideration of the relationship between perception, understanding, and language. The author also toys with form, rearranging and repeating poem titles, interspersing asterisks and footnotes, and substantially altering her use of line breaks from one piece to the next. These techniques, which also appear in the second half of the conjoined book, reveal a keen interest in expression and a willingness to take linguistic risks. 

Like Aftermath, Become Tree, Become Bird opens with an epigraph, this one from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale “The Juniper Tree.” This story, in which a wicked stepmother murders her stepson and frames her daughter for the act, forms the backbone of the text. Kelsey unfolds the story gradually, interlacing it with echoes of Afterimage (some line-for-line) in addition to plenty of new images and themes. Though it has a somewhat narrative quality, Become Tree, Become Bird is more than a poetic retelling of “The Juniper Tree.” With its abrupt shifts from the intimate and personal to the historic and public, Kelsey troubles the boundaries between confessional and expository writing:

Shadow: Your hair smelled of smoke & ash & I have not forgotten departure 
sketched on thin paper. …
Source: The sources used by the Brothers
Grimm were demonstratably literary & many of their tales are not
exclusively German. From the 1812 edition on, one way the Grimms made
their fairy tales seem authentically German was to render them in some form
of dialect. 

This questioning of the supposedly monolithic subdivisions of literature evolves as Kelsey reflects on the invisible dialogue that undergirds all reading: “True readers always read creatively,” she writes in “Interstitial Weather Remnant.” In another poem by the same title, she adds, “Performers do not repeat their texts word for word but introduce changes into them.” This is a book that asks us to imagine, to fill in gaps, and even to invent. Many of its strongest moments are those that make readers conscious of their own presence, which, as Kelsey suggests, is synonymous with their own participation. Become Tree, Become Bird encourages us to regard text as something living, protean, and wily, much like the soul of the stepson who reemerges in new guise. 

The body of A Conjoined Book is followed by a “Sources” page—a list of books, images, and internet searches that Kelsey “is indebted to.” The breadth of sources illustrates the author’s curiosity, and the bibliography lends one final flourish to her work’s thematic apophenia. An intellectually nuanced and formally refreshing read, A Conjoined Book is a layered set of mirrors reflecting nature, tragedy, resilience, and the spaces where these things meet in contradiction and symbiosis.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

NEW! Review of Elizabeth Robinson

On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson. Solid Objects, $16 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Mary McMyne

Elizabeth Robinson’s fourteenth book, On Ghosts, is indeed a haunting collection. Elusive and difficult to characterize, the book contains poems as well as abstract essayistic passages, floating quotations, anecdotes, an e-mail, mathematical formulae, and descriptions of (absent) photographs. In her “Explanatory Note,” Robinson writes that the collection “is an essay on the phenomenon of ghosts and haunting,” and at first glance, this statement appears to be true. She begins by exploring the “conditions that locate themselves in specific sites or persons” and “calibrate individuals and places, make them vulnerable to the heightened perception, which is hauntedness.” What conditions make us vulnerable to perceiving that which others cannot see? How and why does this happen? What can we make of it? Later in the same note, Robinson claims that an “[a]pparition is not an entity as we think of it” with agency, but an “erasure.” As an example of this phenomenon, in “Creatures,” she describes a “subject” plagued by pain so insistent the pain
eats through layers of herself variably, mostly consuming the surface, but sometimes penetrating deeper. The remainder of the surface is first spongy with excavation, but then dries to a surprising sheen
bright enough to “attract things that want light.” The subject goes on to complain that since the pain has begun to persist, she has perceived invisible things attacking her, which she calls “creatures” for lack of a better word. The subject’s complaint—along with many of the other images and examples Robinsons uses throughout the book, such as the image on the first page of a building infested with termites—emphasizes the erosive quality of loss, the way absence can eat away at the self, causing the self to perceive absence as something other, something else, like a phantom limb. 
Much of the book is filled with essayistic passages, which outline ideas in abstract exposition and ask readers to project their own understandings to fill in the blanks. Robinson’s examples, when she provides them, are brilliant and lyrical. In “Incident One,” she narrates the story of a child who ends his own life: “Over and over the loop of his life rubs on its seam until the stitches rough up his skin and the garment comes apart. Dual ravel. He wrestles in the hammock slung over what, until seam and skin fall out.” Once dead, the child cannot figure out “what to do with goneness” and “keeps coming back to his departure.” The bereaved family he has left behind then perceives his presence in uncanny details, presumably projecting the apparition of his ghost, though Robinson stops short of saying so: “The nicely watered grass gets trodden down and the soil beneath it glistens, clinging to the bottoms of shoes.” A “tape clicks on mid-narrative when no one is there to push the PLAY button on.” In the description that follows, which appears atop a blank page with no such visual aid, Robinson describes the house the child has left behind: 

This is a photograph of a domestic interior. Because this ghost manifested primarily in an auditory manner, it is hard to see anything of significance in the photo. Note however the ghost’s baby tooth crumbling in a dish on the kitchen counter (foreground) and further back in the room, the boom box that went on at random times, always when there was a Harry Potter story tape in it.
There is, of course, no proof of the little boy’s ghost in this description, nor would there be in the missing photograph. Rather than provide proof that the haunting occurred, the description offers only proof of the boy’s family’s desire to perceive the boy, in the crumbling “baby tooth” that so concretely evokes his absence and the uncanny auditory events they ascribe to his return. Throughout the book, every time Robinson approaches the question of proof, she emphasizes her inability to provide it: in the doubtful nature of her evidence, her beautiful fumbling language, and the language of her characters. 
A closer look at On Ghosts, in fact, reveals the collection is less about literal ghosts than the ghosts of meaning and metaphor. Pulsing beneath the surface of these fragments is Robinson’s interrogation of the sort of haunting that compels writers to put words to page. Like ghosts do the bereaved, termites buildings, and pain its victims, the question of meaning haunts writers, compelling them to write despite the fact that their words “never truly impact the surface.” Robinson explores the way words erode those who attempt to “use” them as their medium, “lessening” or “infesting” them: “The word, his word or words, was like an autoimmune disease which attacked him, the word’s own organism, his soul and his body.” In “Drifting Interlude,” a writer trying to explain something—what we cannot be sure—
says, gesturing with her hands,
“There was just
this and this
and in between it was all commas.”
In “Visitor,” an elderly poet, who Robinson wryly calls “the dead man,” enjoys reading his poems aloud to a class despite having forgotten its teacher’s name, then, in “PHOTOGRAPH #3,” “is seen”—or not seen, since it is absent, of course—“looking jaunty, surrounded by a group of friends and admirers,” holding “a cigarette aloft.” In an epigraph to her poem, “Translation,” Robinson quotes James Longley on his difficulty with capturing the spirit that haunts him on the page: “How will I be sure that the spirit is speaking in me at all, much less when I transcribe, much much less when I translate?” Such writerly skepticism is apparent throughout Robinson’s book, in the way she uses analogies and then corrects them, the way she consciously experiments with form.
It is, no doubt, Robinson’s experimentation with form that causes the collection to continue to haunt the reader after it has been put back on the shelf. Robinson has written a collection full of absences, blank spaces, and abstractions, which require the reader to project her own understandings, to fill in the blanks in a way that brilliantly illustrates the book’s concepts. Robinson’s consistent use of absence, echo, and fragmentation enables her to capture a difficult subject in all its complexity, offering readers a new language for contemplating the human struggle with meaning and absence.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

NEW! Two poems by Doug Ramspeck

Doug Ramspeck

Two poems


And if there are no names 
for the land before us,

there are still the cataract 

clouds, the shapes we watch for,

the hardened ground

come winter opening its great body

into a pale reliquary.

And when it rains come spring,

we know to huddle close. 

There must be names

for the warmth of bodies, 

the emptiness of so much

stillborn land. Even children know 

that stars gathering

in a swollen sky 

must still be lonely.


Everywhere is rain. Is grass. Or night becomes a hunger 
of analgesic stars. Or day stews in its loam pot.

Is this what it means to be alive? Earth dreaming an augury 

of living ash. Then, come dim morning, something thrashes

into air. Something evolves or devolves outside

the bedroom window in gray light. Calls as primitive

as the odalisque moon, so many dark feathers.

Then clouds begin slipping nearer with fluency or away.

And hours pass in the language of earth then vessel, vessel 

then earth, though nothing knows to hold its shape for long. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

NEW! Review of Paul Verlaine

Songs without Words by Paul Verlaine. Translated by Donald Revell. Omnidawn.

Reviewed by Dan Disney

Drunkard, ill-fated lover, silhouette amid shapes of the real, Paul Verlaine pitched headlong across what he calls ‘a new oblivion’ (29). The Symbolist poet embarked on a series of famously doomed love affairs, spent time abroad (including a couple of years in a Belgian prison), and lived the last part of his life in an absinthe fug, wandering the Paris slums; he died a relatively young man at 51 years. This book, Songs Without Words, is poet and translator Donald Revell’s sixth translated work of 19th century French verse; these English-language versions are (after Dryden) paraphrased echoes of the poems Verlaine made while imprisoned after shooting at (and slightly injuring) his young lover and proto-arriviste, Rimbaud, in a jealous and drunken rage. 

Verlaine lived a large but impoverished life, partied hard indeed, then expired: he leaves a considerable mythology, some of which is captured by the reverential tone in the translator’s preface—

Enchantment was the motive force of Paul Verlaine, man and poet … In life, enchantment made for a series of fanatic devotions, erotic and spiritual, absolute in their addictedness and absolute also in their disaster. In poetry, it made for exquisite candor, a music whose purity, whether sounded on a lyre or barrel organ, remains matchless—almost hermetic, entirely its own. (13)

In his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’, Walter Benjamin also speculates on purity, and avows that a pure language exists abstractly and ‘no longer means or expresses anything but is, as expressionless and creative Word, that which is meant in all languages’ (80). This is more than what Verlaine’s contemporary and colleague Mallarmé would designate as a function for poets (whom, he felt, would purify the dialect of the tribe); Benjamin posits a meta-language to contain all possible expressions of nuance, gesture, and trope echoing inside each living language. The task of the translator is to shift toward trans-linguistic universalism: no poet and no language is hermetic, and all remain ‘interrelated in what they want to express’ (Benjamin 74). What Verlaine expresses in these texts – so skillfully transferred by Revell—is an often-wrenching cri de coeur situating a continuum of affectivity, from the mad swirl of reality—

Round and go round! Ever so slowly
The velvet of heaven is strewn with stars.
The lovers drift away. The horses keep going
In the bliss of abandonment, their song without words (55)

to the lovelorn keening for a connection that has been lost—

The waxy picturesque goes on forever.
But you, you were real. Nothing else matters. (79)

These biographical sketches reaffirm the lore of an often out-of-control poet, hungry with desire for the satiation of authenticity; within the realm of appearances in which the poet gambols, carols, prances and plays (he at one point suggests, ‘Let’s be children, let’s be little girls’) (29), there are moments of weirdly ecstatic gloom— 

Oh traveler, this fading picturesque
Mirrors death.
And overhead, in the drowning branches,
All hope dies. (41)

In attempting to transmit pan-cultural affect into particular linguistic echoes, in his book One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (1999), Norman Shapiro locates the following language to express the Symbolist’s same stanza—

How often, traveler, have you seen your blear
Image reflected in life’s drear,
Bleak scene, while high above, midst bough and leaf,
Your drowned hopes, wailful, weep their grief! (89)

If, after Alexander Pope’s fiat, issued in the early 18th century, we can agree that indeed, ‘The sound must seem an echo to the sense’ (Pope), then what is happening to Verlaine’s sense-making, transmuted elsewhere into—

How wan the face, O traveller, this wan
Gray landscape looked upon;
And how forlornly in the high tree-tops
Lamented thy drowned hopes!
(Bernstein 1947)

There are magnitudes of prosodic—and therein, affective—difference here, and these three iterations exemplify the call poet-translators have made across the 20th century: Bonnefoy, Valery, Paz (among others) each avow translations of poems are at best only ever variations; Scottish poet Don Paterson frames it as follows: ‘one can no more translate a poem than one can a piece of music’ (77). In his essay, ‘The Preface to Ovid’s Epistles’ (1680), which essentially founds Translation Studies, John Dryden enumerates three modes of translation practice—

First, that of metaphrase, or turning author word by word, and line by line … The second way is that of paraphrase, or translation with latitude … The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the ground-work, as he pleases. (17)

Revell’s strength is that he shifts somewhere between Dryden’s second and third principles, and his texts make interpretative, imitative sense of Verlaine’s desperate, affective, ontological manouvres. Rather than attempt (the impossible task of) equivalence, this translator’s faithfulness is instead toward making poems that echo distantly rather than closely resembling the syntax of the source. As a poet, one assumes Revell understands language can stretch and shift into musical investigation of those spaces where ‘air is screaming’ (47); the same line is transmuted by Shapiro as, ‘That whir?/ Like sistrum sounding’ (93). While for some translators the relationship between source and target can best be framed as parasitic, the poems in Revell’s Songs without Words are indeed poems in their own right: compressed, precise, wild propositions which, as Seamus Heaney avows of all poems, successfully knock language—and therein accustomed modes of perception—sideward.

Works cited

Benjamin, Walter (trans. Harry Zohn) ‘The Task of the Translator’. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Ed. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print. 71-82. 

Bernstein, Joseph, M. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine: Selected Verse and Prose Poems. Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press, 1947. Print.

Dryden, John. ‘On Translation’. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Ed. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print. 17-31.

Paterson, Don. Orpheus: A Version of Rilke. London: Faber and Faber, 2006. Print.

Pope, Alexander. ‘An Essay on Criticism: Part 2’.  24 May 2014. Web. .

Shapiro, Norman B. One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

New issue of VERSE

The new issue of Verse is out and includes portfolios by

Brian Teare
Elizabeth Robinson
Daniel Tiffany
Bridgette Bates 
Stephen Ratcliffe
Barbara Tomash
F. Daniel Rzicznek 
C.V. Moore
Seth Landman
Deborah Celizic 
Tony Mancus
W.C. Bamberger
Srečko Kosovel

The issue costs $15 and can be ordered from the Verse office: English Department, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA 23173.

Monday, May 12, 2014

NEW! Two poems by Ryan Collins

Ryan Collins

Two poems

You’re too much on the fly, not enough 
Feet on the ground, too much a burning 
Candle at both ends, too hot to handle 
& too cold to hold. If you move too fast 
Into the heat you will shatter like a light-

Bulb. Your murals colored w/ shades not 
Legal in the country where you were born, 
But your tags all painted over. So you stew 
In your own juices, hope the bromide & 
Mercury have made a way into the branches 
Of your rivals, your enemies, your erasers. 
You are desperate not to be erased, New 
American—who could blame you besides 
The voice-over narration from the movie 
Being filmed inside of your unreliable head? 


You are the danger & I am the weapon. 
You are the science & I am the sweet 
Chile, the hydraulic, the knowhow.
You are the master & I am supposed to 

Bow at your feet, but I can’t go for that.

What I can do for you instead is deep 
Background, reconnaissance, the enemy 
Killed in action. We make our decisions 
For whatever lord we answer to alone, 
New American. You are the righteous 
Man & I am the tyranny of evil men, of 
Arsonists, of monsters suicide bombing 
In broad daylight—the battlefield makes 
Its own decisions. You are blue sheets
Of glass. I am leaves of grass for the rake. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

NEW! Poem by Peycho Kanev

Peycho Kanev


In this
calm lake
thousands of moons
and nobody dug
them graves.
Only Li Po
sat at the shore
and wrote their

Friday, April 25, 2014

NEW! Poem by James Reidel

James Reidel


The wisterias in flower—
You can see the beards,
The title,
The Blue Supper.

Monday, April 21, 2014

NEW! Review of Ramona Ausubel

A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel. Riverhead, $26.95 hardcover / $16 paperback.

Reviewed by Brynne Rebele-Henry

Ramona Ausubel’s unearthly collection of short stories, A Guide To Being Born, reconfigures the lines between birth and death, human and plant, the earth and the womb. Throughout these stories, Ausubel creates a dimension of growth and creation that, more often than not, destroys in pursuit of madness and comfort. The book is divided into four parts—reverse stages of birth—with two to three stories in each section: Birth (“Safe Passage” and “Poppyseed”), Gestation (“Atria,” “Chest of Drawers,” “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations”), Conception (“Catch and Release,” “Saver,” “Snow Remote”), and Love (“The Ages” and  “Magniloquence”). The different sections present a dissection of birth, and the stories are all the more haunting for it. At their best, these stories are like a poltergeist: they follow you around, leaving dust, confusion, and bones to sift through and ponder later. 

In “Safe Passage,” a mob of grandmothers near death are on a cruise ship in an ocean filled with crates of baseball bats and roses—mementos of their time on land. The protagonist, Alice, remembers the boats and trains she has been on throughout her life and divides them into different passages of her time on land. At the end of the story, she climbs overboard and floats suspended in the cold ocean while unknown creatures swim beneath her:

She peers below, trying to see, but the only things are her own feet haloed by green phosphorescence, kicking and kicking and kicking.

“Will both of my husbands be mine again?” she calls to the birds or the fish or the sky. “Can I love them again now?” She does not get her answer. Her slip rises up around her like a tutu. She looks now like a ballerina on a music box, legs bared under the high-flying skirt. The material is soft and brushes Alice’s arms. She does not try to hold the slip down. Her breasts float up. All around her the green light of stirred water.
The images in this story are captivating, and each sentence is polished, packaged like a planet insulated by the other corresponding story systems. 
In “Poppyseed,” the parents of a severely disabled eight-year-old whose brain cannot develop past infancy decide to give her a hysterectomy. Her growth is compared to plant life and seeds, and they literally transplant her by burying her breast glands in a median in the highway near the hospital where her operation takes place:

In the median I knelt down and began to dig a hole. Your father understood right away and helped, his left hand a protective fist, his right a shovel. In a few minutes, we had come to darker soil and we both put the seeds of you inside, covered them in earth. “To growing,” I said. “Whatever that might mean.”
This is a book of maladies, a manifesto to mothers and animals and desire. Here, furniture and fetuses and animals join. In “Atria,” a teenage girl in a closely knit suburban community gets pregnant and begins to think of her unborn baby as a host of various animals because the possible fathers (a rapist and a gas station employee) seem inhuman and incapable of creating life. In “Snow Remote,” two twins begin to assume identities based on the expectations and myths surrounding their dysfunctional home, most of which are fabricated by their father, who spends his days rigging a Christmas light display and waiting for passersby to rain artificial snow upon. In “Tributaries,” people grow new arms when they fall in love, and a person’s character is judged by the number of arms he or she has.
Throughout A Guide To Being Born, Ausubel’s prose is lush yet natural, clear and bell-like, almost religious in its fervor. She expertly combines the profane and outrageous with the mythical, beautiful, and surreal. These stories are reminiscent of a Matisse, visceral and amusing, as if ridiculing sadness. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

NEW! Review of Robert Walser

A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser. Translated by Damion Searls. NYRB Classics, $14.95.

Reviewed by Diane Gremillion

Robert Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, translated from German by Damion Searls, garners affection from readers by adopting several perspectives throughout the narrative. There are three parts to the book: Part I (“Fritz Kocher’s Essays”), Part II (a medley of short fictions), and Part III (“Hans”). The stories, written just before World War I, masterfully foreshadow the tensions building up. However, A Schoolboy’s Diary never explicitly states its intentions or any clear agenda. What one piece subtly hints at, the next piece builds a stronger case for, and then may be alluded to in another work in the book. Throughout this collection, Walser retains his sophistication and distinct writing style, simultaneously exposing readers to various outlooks. Poets’ lives, poetry’s purposes, soldiers’ lives, and war’s value are interrogated from various ages and positions in society. Just as Fritz Kocher claims that he would rather die than live a boring life, Hans of the last story is a wanderer who refuses to commit to anything uninteresting. They both strive to challenge expectations and to enjoy themselves. True to these characters, A Schoolboy’s Diary is, if anything, entertaining. 

“Fritz Kocher’s Essays” are framed as a young German schoolboy’s class writing assignments. The introduction, written by Walser, informs readers that this pupil (whose persona he adopts) dies young, which influences how readers interpret Fritz’s outlook on life. Nonetheless, these pieces are endearing, upsetting, and inspirational. With the candid nature preserved only by youth, Fritz writes, “I would die, yes, stubbornly die out of spite, if I was poor.” This phrase carries emphasis because of the knowledge that young Kocher does, in fact, die. Fritz is aware of his high social class and explains his understanding as a child would:

Someone is poor when he comes to school in a torn jacket … I wouldn’t want to be poor, I’d be ashamed to death. Why is being poor such a disgrace? I don’t know. My parents are well off. Papa has a carriage and horses. He couldn’t have them if he was poor.

Walser’s mastery of a schoolboy’s writing style allows him to confront complex social paradigms with little acknowledgement of the implications of each statement and to vocalize the concrete details in which the problem manifests. For example, “all the poor people work in the factories, maybe to punish them for being poor.” Fritz’s insensitivity is often shocking. He despises the poor and lacks empathy, and his thinking is one-dimensional. However, he also offers extremely insightful bits on other topics not influenced so heavily by class, such as friendship between boys, nature, and music. However, Fritz’s language and style are occasionally elevated to an advanced level. This may be an intentional source of friction, created by Walser, between what the narrator should be capable of saying and what is actually being said, as in this passage:

What a precious flower friendship is. Without it, even the strongest man could not live long. The heart needs a kindred, familiar heart, like a little clearing in the forest, a place to rest and lie down and chat … O, there are false friends, whose only goal in life is to wound, to hurt, to destroy! There are people who zealously strive to seem to be our friends…

Although Fritz’s age is never specified, he is in grade A-2, and based upon his candidness, he is still too young for “zealously” to be a part of his active vocabulary, to write “O” in the style of a lyric poem, or to convey emotions such as “the heart needs a kindred, familiar heart.” This disjunction in style serves as a type of comic relief. Readers must imagine little Fritz Kocher delivering these profound messages, which lightens their mood. 
Walser uses the same writing method—gradual hints at meaning—in Fritz’s essays as well. These exercises work together to create a dialogue for readers and to further explain his personal beliefs. At one point, Fitz references the unspoken nurturing bond between his mother and himself, the youngest child:

I felt like I had to say something loving to [Mother] but I couldn’t get it past my lips. She noticed what I was trying to get out and hugged me close and kissed me. I was unspeakably happy and glad that she had understood me … I was so happy that I could talk to my mother in this nicer way.

Fritz connects with his mother by nestling in her arms, rather than explaining to her verbally how much he loves her. In this instance, feelings speak more clearly than reason could express. Walser creates this image between mother and child, thereby eliciting a deep level of affection and familiarity among readers, and then evokes the same emotion once again when Fritz describes music:

Purely rational beings will never appreciate it, but they are precisely the ones it is most deeply beneficial for, in the moments when they do listen to it. You can’t try to comprehend and appreciate any kind of art. Art wants to cuddle up to us. Its nature is so completely pure and self-sufficient that it doesn’t like when you pursue it.

Personification of art cuddling up to listeners, completely wrapping itself around them, echoes Fritz’s bond with his mother. The mother’s love and the music completely surround Fritz and induce the same positive reaction. Although this intensity of contact which language cannot express is not explicitly stated, the two instances complement one another. 

This same tactic, paralleling emotions and struggles throughout separate works, appears in the series of short stories, but in more creative ways. Each story carries the possibility of different perspectives. The common, yet unspoken, themes create unity among the seemingly separate narratives and endow readers with deeper, more complex understandings of the beliefs at hand. The collection, unlike Fritz’s writings, focus on many more mystical topics, such as “Apollo and Diana,” “The Tale of the Four Happy Fellows,” and “The Little Tree.” The titles alone hint at the style of each piece. Walser operates frequently in the hypothetical, thereby gaining freedom to use abstract images, evoke magic, and say exactly what he means. Very simple and approachable subjects allow him to examine larger themes. In “Hat-Chitti,” Walser creates words for specific emotions. In this way, he retains a joyful air while confronting a somber topic:

Oh how terrible this chitti is! Grim inner hatred and deep quiet rage are very, very bad things. Not only boys can bear grudges against other boys in such a way, so too just as well can grown-ups against grown-ups, mature adults against mature adults, and, I would venture to say, nations against nations … Yes, that is chitti, hat-chitti: unburied inner hatred.

From a German author, written in 1915, this is audacious and extremely insightful. Walser circles around what he really means, and once the issue is explored from every possible perspective, an undeniable concreteness to his sentiments emerges. Soft allusions connect each piece and narrow down from the oblivious observations of a schoolboy to the reality at the end of the book: a soldier called to war. 

Readers today may find fault with these pieces because women are never presented as narrators or endowed with thought in the writing. When this book was written, however, German women still had not gained the right to vote, which might help to explain Walser’s lack of consideration. Still, the subtle elements of sexism may be unsettling for readers. The assumedly male speakers often describe women according to their beauty. Fritz writes, “The women’s singing is the prettiest,” “The ladies look especially lovely,” “She is as beautiful as a princess,” “[She has the] most beautiful hands on earth.” While women are never given a voice in these stories, it is also important to keep in mind that Fritz Kocher’s sexist views, like his comments on class, parrot cultural and social conventions modeled for him in his life. The only alternative to being lovely for women in A Schoolboy’s Diary is the one “wicked woman” written about by the assumedly older narrator, Hans. Women’s function in this part of the book, besides being beautiful, is to raise men’s stature in society comparatively. “If [military service] was fun, then young girls would be best at it. Since, however, it isn’t, men are better suited for it.” These opinions are reflective of commonly accepted views in the early 20th century, but are nonetheless sexist and important to identify. 
Walser masterfully writes about increasingly concrete issues, despite progressively abstract narratives. This style requires careful readings from translators in order to identify and to achieve the same effect in a different language. The larger messages are presented within the details. As Fritz concludes his last essay, “[The teacher] is too small to seem big to us.” Despite his youth, Fritz maintains a larger perspective on life than those outlined in simple classroom rules. Similarly, Walser sustains a broader understanding of his nation and of his writing. The result—written during a moment when the world most desperately needed it, but failed to see the larger meaning—is timeless.