Paco Urondo’s poems figure in the conversational, revolutionary trend in Latin American poetry in the mid-to-late 20th century. He and his contemporaries engaged with the difficult political realities of their time, always with the intent to achieve art above all else. Though he would come to write conversationally and directly over time, his oeuvre preserves the legacy of Surrealism. His humor and pain, individually and in solidarity with others, make this poet crucial, unavoidable, to the reading of the poetry of the Americas.
Urondo was a victim of the dictatorship in Argentina, killed just months after the March 1976 coup. He was active in the guerrilla organization Montoneros and worked as a journalist. He was a contemporary of Juan Gelman, Mario Benedetti, Julio Cortázar, and many others who considered him a great talent and friend. Though his work appears alongside that of these renowned authors in some anthologies, it has largely been excluded from criticism and translation. Currently, his legacy is experiencing a revival in Argentina.
He is famously quoted as saying, “Empuñé un arma porque busco la palabra justa” (I took up arms in search of the just word). Urondo’s efforts to merge the roles of artist, intellectual, and militant were sites of devastation and of hope, confirming the poet’s valor and his trust in his work, in his compañeros, and in history, to effect the change he sought.
– Julia Leverone
The underlying concept for the book Geometry in the Dust concerns the idea of the city, and its extensive, facetious description. In the book’s first chapter, excerpted here, we learn that an Eastern, desert-dwelling king has dispatched his right-hand man–the book’s narrator–to a distant, nameless city. The aide’s job is to meticulously observe and notate the city, so that these descriptions might furnish instructions to build a city of their own, in the middle of their desert kingdom.
The book’s absurd conceit becomes then, how to describe a city to a person who has no concept of one? Very slowly and carefully, perhaps. The city takes on uncanny, conspiratorial hues: every trash can, every busker, and every alley cat appears, through a paranoid sort of logic, to be the result of a monumental effort of planning and coordination. Metaphysical ramifications and urban myths lurk in every manhole. The city’s jagged, broken geometries, its sewers and subways, doves and streetlamps, cul-de-sacs and dumpsters–all must be accounted for.
As with almost all of Pierre Senges’s texts, the narration unfolds with numerous erudite allusions. These can be overwhelming at times, but mostly they function as an invitation to explore the vast universal library from which Senges often gleans his material. Fortunately, no prior knowledge of Ibn Sahl, the mad caliph Hakem, or the Book of Rare Things in the Art of Calculation by Abū Kāmil–all mentioned here in passing–is required to enjoy this Borgesian tale’s wit.
Twenty-six large black-and-white drawings by the illustrator Killoffer complement the narrator’s anatomy of the city. Above all, they suggest visions of a frenzy: objects cluttered together, the violent pace of city life, and crowds overflowing with gruesome, terror-struck faces. As such, they afford a striking counterpoint to the narrator’s calm, collected, rational elaboration of the city’s aspects.
The book is available in a large, horizontal-format edition, with glossy pages and a cutaway cover, making this book a virtually one-of-a-kind collaboration. It was published in 2004 by Éditions Verticales as the first (and only, it turns out) title in a series entitled one wonders how such books find their way into readers’ hands. A very good question, indeed.
– Jacob Siefring
Born Liliane Cohen to a family originally from Salonica (whose Jewish community was essentially wiped out by the Nazis), Liliane Atlan attended the Gilbert Bloch d’Orsay school founded in Paris for youths traumatized by the Shoah, where she studied Talmud, Torah, mystical texts, and Jewish history. Her writing is steeped in this body of literature, and her French language is inflected with Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish. While living in Israel after the 1967 war, Atlan was a founder of a Jewish-Arab theatre company and was, until she died (in Kfar Saba), active in Jewish-Palestinian peace and cultural initiatives. Her literary, and especially theatrical forms are experimental, constructed at the limits of narrative, representation, temporal and spatial continuity. Her poems are her most accessible texts, and her final poems—represented here—are her most beautiful, at least to my mind.
– Marguerite Feitlowitz
“Hanácká ves,” which I translate as “A little village of Haná,” illustrates many of the themes and tropes present in many of the Silesian Songs. There is the tension between peasants and landlords, the rustics and city folk, between and amongst the Germans, Austrians, Jews, and Silesians. There is the defiance of the laborer against the monied land- or mine-owner. There is a snapshot of the culture of the region expressed in an idiom. There is the landscape and what it provides. And, too, there is the male gaze in all its gentle oppression.
– Jacob A. Bennett
Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone,” one of the outstanding works of early literary modernism, has been translated into English by many prominent poets and critics, among them Samuel Beckett, William Meredith, W.S. Merwin, Donald Revell, and Roger Shattuck. In creating my own translation, I can’t claim their expertise, only my affection. I first encountered “Zone” in college and have been moved and delighted by it ever since. First published in 1913 in Apollinaire’s groundbreaking collection Alcools, it is a collagistic and phantasmagorical rendition of a single day in Paris, with excursions, via memory and fantasy, to many other locations and scenes.
The mixture of high and low registers, of praise for secular new technology and nostalgia for the religious and Classical past, creates a terrific energy in “Zone,” as does Apollinaire’s rejection of punctuation and use of fragments of varying lengths. The poem veers between the lyrical, the playful, and the nakedly self-revelatory.
As the poet David Lehman notes, in the introduction to his own, interesting, translation of “Zone,” most translators avoid attempting to replicate the poem’s many end rhymes. But to me these rhymes give the poem much of its buoyancy, humor, and emotional impact, and I have worked to replicate their effect. Where there seemed to me to be a conflict between literal transcription and a looser word or phrase that better captured the rhythm or spirit of the original, I chose the latter.
Perhaps my greatest deviation is in the very first line. “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien” translates straightforwardly as “In the end you are tired of this ancient world.” Lehman rightly points out Apollinaire’s “audacity” in starting a poem with the words “in the end.” But my ear kept snagging on those few words, whether I tried “You’re weary in the end of this ancient world” or “In the end you’re tired of this ancient world,” or any other like translation. I ask Apollinaire’s forgiveness for the decision to enter swiftly into the hectic pace of his poem with the more frictionless “You’ve grown weary of this ancient world.”
“Zone” seems capable of being endlessly and compellingly translated, and no “right” translation will ever conquer all the others.
– Pamela Erens
I first met Haji Khavari during my last visit to Iran a few summers ago. My cousin, knowing my interest in translating Persian poetry, introduced me to him at a party of artist types much younger and cooler than me.
At that time, Haji showed me a few handwritten poems, and though they were far inferior to the ones I’ve translated here, I found them refreshingly edgy, reflective of Iran’s educated and rather restless youth. Given my own predilections, I was even more intrigued with his use of architecture and philosophy in his verse. He was at the time studying these subjects in college. In a follow-up email upon my return home, when I learned of his interest in Jean Baudrillard, I knew this was the beginning of a worthwhile correspondence.
Khavari, like modern Persian poets who came before him, retains much of his own tradition while eagerly absorbing others. At times it’s almost as if he’s bringing a kind of western art criticism to his own culture. Of course such intertextual allusions of literatures warrants foregrounding, but for such a vast poetic tradition predicated on musicality, it’s important also to include music. While Forough Farrokhzad had her Beatles, Haji Khavari listens to songs from Radiohead to the Ramones. I can’t say if the reader of his poems in the original or in translation can overtly hear such influences, but they certainly are felt in what I would call his intellectual yet intransigent sensibility.
As for the process of translation, almost all work is done by email correspondence. Like so many young Iranians, Khavari speaks and reads English relatively well, so at times my renderings become a kind of collaboration. I’ve offered to share credit, but he insists that I’m doing the real translation work. We send drafts back and forth for some time, highlighting and noting problem areas.
As of now, he has yet to publish his first collection in Iran, but based on what he’s shown me, I’d say one should be forthcoming soon.
– Roger Sedarat
“Some confuse the poem with a
vague rumor of their own Ego,
others see in it only a social function
(or fiction)–but the poem always
escapes our conditioned and aleatory conceptions.
The poem is an already-future…”
The French poet, essayist, and translator Alain Suied passed away in 2008, alas, well before his time. His poetic voice was exceptional, perhaps the most distinctive and moving poetic voice in our present epoch. His was at once a lyrical and a philosophical poetry, a poetry of exemplary generosity, resonant and abundant always with an intelligence which brought forth the most beautiful kind of existential and intersubjective magnanimity. His was a poetry of enchantment, of an ever sustained and sustaining openness to and celebration of the vivacities of life and of living and a poetry also and always–and necessarily–acutely sensitive and sensible to the anguish of existence, of being itself. The poem for him was always a No to violence and a Yes to conviviality, knowing always that poetic language, if it is to be able to avoid renunciation and despair, must nevertheless always place itself–it is the sole possibility of its truly being, of its truly rendering, of its truly imparting the most important–at the heart of its own fragility, and, in this sense, of our own.
– Steve Light
From 1995 to 2001, Afghanistan suffered from unrelenting drought, bringing great difficulty for many of the country’s most vulnerable populations–predominantly its poor farmers. In her poem “Appeal,” Nadia Anjuman pursues the horrible reality of drought in earnest: the earth’s “lips are dry, her heart on fire / It is like looking at death.” Every stanza provides another image that links the parched land with fire, with death, with upheaval. The most remarkable image in the poem appears in the second stanza, where Anjuman writes: “Come, for the emerald mountains of the city / have worn mourner’s clothes for ages.” She offers us the beauty of verdant hills, only to take them away from us in the next line–the dead flora itself providing the signifier for the mountain’s (and the people’s) mourning.
A rough sequence of events in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001 indicates that the incredible drought the country suffered coincided with Taliban rule:
1995: The Taliban begin to gain power and support in Afghanistan
1995: An extensive drought throughout Afghanistan begins
September 1995: The Taliban take over Herat
September 1996: The Taliban take over Kabul
October 2001: The United States begins “Operation Enduring Freedom”
November 2001: The Taliban falls from power
Winter 2001: The drought ends with a major snowfall
It’s hard not to read the timing of these events as more than mere coincidence, or at the very least, a terrible one. Indeed, they influenced one another, as the combination of violence and lack of rain often led to displacement within the country. The many-year droughts, which only began in recent history after the rise of the Taliban, continue to plague Afghanistan. The most recent finally abated in 2011.
Nadia Anjuman wrote a handful of poems that address the drought, and my inclination is to read them as metaphors for the more sinister issue of Taliban control. This is not to say that the drought was not terrible and very much worthy of lamentation in verse; its effects were indeed vast and devastating. Yet the drought, as metaphor, may have enabled the poet to address other sources of oppression indirectly. We can only speculate. At the very least, a direct link between the perpetual terrors imposed upon the population by its government and those imposed by its environment was forged in many of the people’s minds.
– Diana Arterian
A Hunting Party tells the story of Tristan, a sensitive young man who has been persuaded by his wife to go on a hunting trip in order to “fit in” with the men of their town. In the beginning of the book, Tristan accidentally shoots a rabbit, but when he discovers that the animal is still alive, he hides it in his gamebag with the intention of letting it free when no one is looking. This proves difficult, however, in the atmosphere of guns, blood, and aggressive masculinity. But when the leader of the group has a serious accident, Tristan is left alone with him while the others go for help–just as ominous storm clouds appear overhead. The intimidating situation leads him to reflect on his struggles with his mother’s death, his experience abroad as a teenager, and his disintegrating marriage. These flashbacks are interspersed with his present difficulties of battling a storm, keeping his companion occupied, and debating philosophical notions with the rabbit in his gamebag.
– Christiana Hills
In January 2014, I went to Cuba under a visa from the Cuban Ministry of Culture. Part of the work that I was doing in Cuba involved collaborations with Cuban writers. I had the chance to work personally with Ricardo Alberto Pérez on these poems. Born in 1963, Ricardo is among the first generation of writers raised with the Cuban Revolution. His work has not appeared in English, though it is known and lauded in Cuba and throughout the Americas.
– Daniel Borzutzky
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Launched in April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).