Category Archives: New York Review of Books Poetry

My Pilgrimage from Dante to Catullus to Sappho

The fifth chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage  describes Miriam attending a Dante lecture. As I was reading  Interim I remembered that I had bought a copy of Vita Nuova translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that was reissued by the NYRB poets series in 2011.  And from Dante I was led to Catullus and then to Sappho.  I am sure that entire dissertations have been written about this topic, but here are my scattered thoughts anyway.

When reading Dante’s Vita Nuova, a comparison between the Italian poet and Catullus immediately comes to mind.  Some of the similarities are so basic and superficial that they can be considered coincidences.  Both poets, for instance, humbly call their collections a “little book” (libello in Italian and libellus in Latin.)  The poetry of both men is deeply personal and autobiographical, although specific details such as dates for events are difficult to glean from their writings.   The Italian and the Roman, both of whom were upper class, wealthy citizens, each fall in love with a woman that is inaccessible and married to another man—Beatrice is for Dante what Clodia (Lesbia) is for Catullus.  And finally, both men are the novi poetae of their respective generations, breaking free from the traditional conventions of their craft (Catullus rejects epic in favor of short, personal poetry; Dante writes in Italian instead of Latin.)

Beginning from the age of nine, Dante writes about each of his encounters with his beloved Beatrice.  On one such occasion, a gathering to celebrate a wedding (some believe it is Beatrice’s own wedding), he sees her with a group of other young women and he is struck dumb by the sight of her.  The loss of all of his senses  is described in a sonnet that was written about this chance meeting with her:

Even as the others mock, thou mockest me;
Not dreaming, noble lady, whence it is
That I am taken with strange semblances,
Seeing thy face which is so fair to see:
For else, compassion would not suffer thee
To grieve my heart with such harsh scoffs as these.
Lo! Love, when thou art present, sits at ease,
And bears his mastership so mightily,
That all my troubled senses he thrusts out,
Sorely tormenting some, and slaying some,
Till none but he is left and has free range
To gaze on thee. This makes my face to change
Into another’s; while I stand all dumb,
And hear my senses clamour in their rout.

The last five lines are similar enough to Catullus Poem #51 to suspect a case of intertextuality. Many scholars have speculated that this poem captures Catullus’ first encounter with Clodia who is sitting with another man at a party while the poet looks on (translation is my own):

This situation steals away all of my senses,
I who am so wretched; For as soon as I looked at you, Lesbia,
nothing else exists for me. But my tongue swells up,
a thin flame simmers beneath my limbs,
my ears are ringing, and darkness covers
both of my eyes.

Catullus 51 is the Roman poet’s translation of Sappho #31 in which poem she is similarly frozen while beholding her lover. Some scholars have speculated that Sappho sees the object of her desire at a wedding, which is an interesting parallel with the setting of Dante’s sonnet (translation is my own):

When I look at you, even for a short time,
I am no longer able to speak.

But my tongue breaks,
and at once a small fire assails me under my skin
my eyes do not see and my ears are ringing.

I am contemplating another reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy and I have Dorothy Richardson to thank for rekindling my interest in the Italian poet and bringing me back to some of my favorite poems from Catullus and Sappho.

For the extra curious here are links to the original languages: Catullus, Sappho, Dante

And here is an abstract of an excellent article about Dante’s influence in Pilgrimage: https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/dantes-pilgrimage-in-dorothy-richardson(6bff1f93-85f3-4b23-99a1-05ddfef79ef4).html

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Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry

My Reading List for Poetry Month

Since April is poetry month I thought I would share a few of the poetry collections that I intend to read and write about this month.

I have two poetry books from my favorite small press, Seagull Books.  The first is a collection entitled in field Latin by German author Lutz Seiler and translated by Alexander Booth.  Seiler grew up in the former East Germany and his poetry is full of images that deal with the borders and boundaries of landscapes.

Things that Happen and Other Poems by the Bengali poet Bhaskar Chakrabarti , also published by Seagull Books, has been translated by Arunava Sinha. A deep sense of melancholy pervades Chakrabarti’s poems.

I am especially looking forward to the collection of poetry entitled 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. This volume was edited by Boris Dralyuk whom I had the great fortune to interview about his translation of Odessa Stories.

I also have a collection of poetry from Ugly Duckling Presse entitled The Happy End/All Welcome by Monica de la Torre. The setting for these poems is a job fair by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma from Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika. So far I have found the first few poems to be both clever and witty.

Finally, I intend to read Dante’s The New Life translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti which was reissued by The New York Review of Books Poetry. I have not taken the time to read any Dante in quite a while so I am particularly looking forward to reading this work.

What is everyone else reading for poetry month?

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Filed under German Literature, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Stranded in New York City: My Literary Adventure

This week I had the opportunity to visit New York City and explore one of its biggest and best bookstores.  The Strand, on 12th Street and Broadway, which has been in business for 86 years,  boasts 18 miles of books on three floors.  Browsing the massive collection of books is a bibliophile’s dream come true.  One of the things that impressed me the most is the abundance of what blogger Times Flow recently called “alt-lit”—which to me means literature in translation from around the world, books from small presses, and reissued classics.  Not only do they have a plethora of such interesting literature, but these types of books are displayed prominently on easy-to-browse tables on the first floor of The Strand.

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I recently acquired a copy of Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho and became intrigued with her writing and translating so I was excited to find two Carson books (well, more like pamphlets) at The Strand.  Her poetry collection entitled Float comes in a clear plastic box and contains a series of chapbooks with poems, reflections, lists, and thoughtful observations.  They are meant to be read separately or as one continuous, connected work; I would like to set aside enough time to read them all at once.

 

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I also found another  chapbook from Anne Carson that she wrote for part of the New Directions poetry pamphlet series.  I read The Albertine Workout on the train ride home and found it interesting, clever, humorous and erudite.   It’s ironic and thrilling that she penned such a small, thoughtful pamphlet on Proust!

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I also came across a rather inexpensive copy of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones.  One aspect of The Strand that is also helpful is their abundance of new books on sale as well as inexpensive used book selection.

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I also couldn’t resist this new, pristine copy of Fagle’s translation of the Aeneid to replace my badly worn out copy.  The introduction by Bernard Knox is a fantastic piece of writing that makes this translation worth owning just for his essay alone.

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It was particularly exciting for me to walk into The Strand and immediately find books from many of my favorite small presses.  I browsed through books from Deep Vellum, New Vessel Press, Archipelago Books, Seagull Books and New Directions.  I found three books to add to my ever-growing collection from the New York Review of Books: The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, The Other by Thomas Tryon and The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout.

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I also found this copy of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom published by Archipelago Books.

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Finally, I had the thrill of a lifetime when, as I was browsing this fabulous selection of books, I opened a copy of Recitation by Bae Suah from Deep Vellum which I recently reviewed.  Inside the front cover was a blurb from my review of her previous book, A Greater Music, that I wrote for World Literature Today.

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I also highly recommend The Strand Kiosk which is located outside of Central Park on E. 60th St. and 5th Ave.  It is only opened seasonally and I had the opportunity to browse the Kiosk during my visit last June and also came home with an assortment of great books.  And a final thing worth mentioning about The Strand is the third floor of the main shop on Broadway which is full of rare and collectable first edition books.  Their selection of rare books is also listed for sale on their website.  I am hoping that someday my copy of Bottom’s Dream from Dalkey Archive will be worthy of sitting among the rare books in their collection.  Although I doubt that I would ever be able to part with my copy!

I always find New York exciting and exhilarating and The Strand is a unique destination in the city that adds to the thrill of visiting.  I could have spent at least a few more hours there, I didn’t even make it to the second floor of books!  I am contemplating a day trip next month just to go back and visit this magical, literary place.  What are your favorite bookshops from around the world?

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Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry, Russian Literature

My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

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Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Persephone Books, Philosophy, Poetry, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Review: Berlin-Hamlet — Poetry by Szilárd Borbély

I received a review copy of this title from NYRB.  This collection was published in the original Hungarian in 2003 and this English version has been translated by Ottilie Mulzet.

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My Review:
berlin-hamletI was debating whether or not to even attempt any type of review of this collection of poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép could never be unpacked or fully explained in one short review.  But I found the language and images of Borbély’s  poetry so moving that I decided I had to at least attempt to put some thoughts together in order to bring more attention to this Hungarian poet and his tragic end.

The collection of free verse poems is divided into five interwoven themes and each poem in a cycle is given a sequential number.  The cycle of poems entitled “Letter” are based upon quotations extracted from diaries and letters of Kafka.  Borbély puts his own unique touch on each of Kafka’s quotations by rewriting and reworking them.  Kafka is the perfect figure through which to mix images of Berlin, with city he had a connection through Felice, and Hamlet, whose indecision is reminiscent of Kafka’s own hesitancy about his relationship.  The first in the series of “Letter” poems is the perfect blend of elements that include Kafka, Berlin, and reticence:

[Letter I]

At last I have a picture of you as I
once saw you. Of course not as when
I glimpsed you
for the first time, without your
jacket, bareheaded,
your face unframed by a hat. but
when
you disappeared before my eyes into
the entrance of the hotel,

as I walked beside you, and nothing
as of yet
connected me to you. Although I
longed only
for the strongest tie to bind me to
you. Tell me,
don’t your relatives pursue you
altogether too much? You shouldn’t
have had time for me, even if I had
come
to Berlin. But what am I saying? Is
this how I want
to bring my self-reproaches to an
end? And finally,
wasn’t I right not to have come to
Berlin? But
when shall I see you? In the
summer? But why
precisely in the summer, if I shan’t
see you at Christmas?

The second cycle of poems specifically deals with the city of Berlin and Berbely’s visit there in the mid-1990’s.  Each poem in this series is given the name of a specific place or a district in Berlin. Poem titles include, “Naturhistorisches Museum,” Herrmann Strasse,” and Heidelberger Platz.”   The translator, in his afterword, points out that it is in this series of poems where Benjamin’s Arcades Project is heavily alluded to.  The poems are a blend of Borbély’s personal experience of Berlin with that city’s complicated history.  In “Krumme Lanke” he opens with a memory of the “last days of the Reich” and proceeds to tell a story of two soldiers who ignore their superior’s orders and have a clandestine meeting.  The poem then shifts without a transition to the poet’s own memory of walking next to Krumme Lanke:  “Our conversation/ was more of a remember, a/revocation of all that had happened earlier. Like a/ film being played in reverse.”  There is a deep sense of wandering that pervades these poems as he visits train stations, various seedy parts of the city and the natural history museum and uses these places as starting point with which to reflect on Berlin’s past and the poet’s present.

The series of poems entitle “Epilogue” do not appear to have any specific references to famous authors and are the most deeply personal and reflective.  These poems only appear at the beginning and end of the collection and show us a writer who is battling many emotional demons:

[Epilogue II]

For the dead are expected to know the
path
above the precipice of the everyday.
When
they leave the lands of despair, and
depart
towards a kingdom far away and
unknown,
which is like music. Swelling, a solitary
expectation everywhere present. this
music
does not break through the walls. It
taps gently.
It steals across the crevices. Silently it
creeps,
and cracks open the nut hidden deep
within the coffer.

Next, are a series of poems entitled “Fragment” which are all addressed to an unnamed receiver.  There is a deep sense of not only hesitation but also loneliness in these poems.  He begins the first “Fragment” poem:

Yes, I could express it simply by
saying
that our conversation left in me a vacant space. Since then, every
day contains this space.

Of the five different categories of poetry, the “Fragments” are my favorite because Borbély’s  own voice, pain, and struggle come through most clearly.  I found a line from “Fragment III” especially chilling and laden with foreshadowing: “My need is for those who will know/how/all of this will end.”  Borbély tragically takes his own life in 2014at the age of fifty and there are hints throughout his poems that allude to his melancholy.

The final category of poems are called “Allegory” and are a mixture of philosophical observations which still maintain obvious references to Kafka.  The first poem in the collection especially evokes images of Kafka and his complicated relationship with his father:

[Allegory I]

The pierced heart, in which lovers
believe, recalls me to
my task.  Always have I desired

to be led.  My father’s spirit instruc-
ted me
in ruthlessness.  what he missed in
life, he now
in death wished to supplant.  I did
not

find my upbringing to be a comfort.
the spirit of our age is for me
excessively
libertine.  My scorn is reserved for
the weak.

Finally, a word must be said about the afterward which was beautifully written by the translator. It serves as a thorough introduction to Borbély’s life, literary influences, and style of writing but is also a fitting eulogy for this gifted poem whom the world lost too soon.

 

About the Author:
borbelySzilárd Borbély is widely acknowledged as one of the most important poets to emerge in post-1989 Hungary. He worked in a wide variety of genres, including essay, drama, and short fiction, usually dealing with issues of trauma, memory, and loss. His poems appeared in English translation in The American Reader, Asymptote, and Poetry. Borbély received many awards for his work, including the Attila József Prize. He died in 2014.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry