Elsa Cross is a Mexican writer and philosopher, widely recognized as one of the most important voices of her generation. She has produced a considerable body of work that consists of over 20 collections of poetry, books of essays, and translations. Octavio Paz wrote that Cross “is one of the most personal voices in recent Latin American poetry. Her work, already extensive, brings together some of the most perfect poems among those written by recent generations of Mexican authors. I say ‘voice’ and not poetic writing; although it is written, above all it is spoken. Two opposed aspects are united in Elsa Cross: complexity of thought, and diaphanous diction.”
Bomarzo (from which these poems are taken) is a book-length sequence examining a relationship through the lens of the Italian garden of grotesques built in the mid-16th century by the Italian architect Pirro Ligorio that gives the book its title. Both the imagery and the language used in these poems are ornate and dreamlike, reflecting the phantasmagorical nature of the sculptures of orcs and other creatures which inhabit what is called the “Villa of Monsters,” designed to shock and express grief rather than to delight or amuse. And this poetic trip through Bomarzo is metaphoric, not literal, resulting in a nostalgia as much for things that never were as for those that never could be.
For the translation, I’ve tried to preserve Cross’ heavy utilization of Greco-Latinate terminology, to reflect both the location and a certain linguistic extravagance that echoes the Park’s eerie beauty.
Relatively little of Cross’ work is available in English, although Shearsman Press in the UK has been striving valiantly to redress this. They published a volume of Cross’ Selected Poems in 2009, and have just brought out two more of Cross’ shorter Greece-inspired collections in a single volume entitled Beyond the Sea, translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano. A bilingual edition of Bomarzo is forthcoming from Mexican publisher Vaso Roto in 2017.
– Lawrence Schimel
Manas is an epic novel in free verse and a mashup of two different cultures: Hindu mythology and Existential philosophy from 20th-century Europe.
This excerpt from Manas includes the first 350 or so of the 13,000 lines of the epic. War-hero Manas returns victorious to Udaipur, but broken by his existential awareness of Death. He insists on going to the source of this sorrow: Shiva’s Field of the Dead in the high Himalaya.
Encounters with human souls and demons render Manas unconscious. Demons hijack his body, hoping to use it to go down to Earth. Puto is tricked into “killing” the body, and Manas’ soul wafts back onto the Field. Puto hauls the body down to Udaipur.
Manas’ wife Savitri refuses to believe that he is dead. She sets out on an arduous quest to find him, eventually coming to the Field, where she encounters Manas’ soul. Their coupling leads to Manas’ re-embodiment. Shiva makes contact with Savitri, now revealed as the universal principle of Love. She rejoins Shiva on Kailas.
Manas rejoices in his restored body, but is unsure of his individuality and shows no empathy for other humans. He captures the three demons who caused his earlier “death” and returns with them to Earth. Holy men declare that he and the three demons together make up one new and terrible personality. Shiva comes down to retrieve the demons, but Manas challenges him with his new-found Ego, receives Shiva’s blessing, and becomes a benign spirit facilitating the transmigration of souls.
These bare bones of the tale are wrapped in scene after intriguing scene of action, comedy, pathos, and lyrical description, which leave the reader wondering, “Gosh, whatever next?”
– Chris Godwin
I met Zhu Zhu for the first time two years ago when he came to the US for a joint residency with me in Vermont. We established our trust over a long trans-Pacific phone call that lasted an entire night. Then it dawned on us that such trust could be extended to a book. Since then, I have read every poem he has written and selected with him a collection that encapsulates what this distinguished poet has achieved in the past decade.
This past decade has seen a Chinese economic boom, and many poets have abandoned poetry for lucrative businesses. Zhu Zhu took to the arts and makes a living by writing art criticism and curating art exhibitions in China and overseas. He has made a name for himself in the new field. It was the literariness of his words that first drew attention from a group of well-known artists. His art criticism does not distract Zhu Zhu from his poetry, however. Instead, it heightens his sensibility to the diverse emotional modes of expression inherent in artistic composition.
Though revered in poetry circles, Zhu Zhu remains on the periphery and his work in the art world gives him certain advantages in keeping his distance from the occasional riots within poetry circles. Zhu Zhu writes quietly. His paced poems weave slowly through personal and larger histories. The poems do not surprise for surprise’s sake; rather, they give the reader a painterly view at each and every turn. His smooth lines unfold like a scroll of painting and accrue meaning. Zhu Zhu’s poetry illuminates and sets the reader adrift in meditations, yet the poems are sharp as crystals that cut into the interiority of the mind.
– Dong Li
It may seem odd or anachronistic to represent a poet by three radically disparate works: a punchy satire of a medieval snake oil salesman, a heartwrenching plea to God to stop the Black Death plague, and a rendition of the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice fit to rival Browning’s best dramatic monologues. However, for Scots poet Robert Henryson, such a range was second nature. Seamus Heaney, in the introduction to his translations of Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables (FSG, 2009), described the Scotsman as “perfectly pitched, a poet whose knowledge of life [was] matched by the range of his art, whose constant awareness of the world’s hardness and injustice [was] mitigated by his irony, tenderheartedness, and ever-ready sense of humor.” High praise from a modern master, but worth every word. And as we move through these samples of Henryson’s work, the theme of chronicling humanity’s responses to mortality emerges as clearly and brilliantly as ever.
– Kent Leatham
Born and raised in Hualien on the east coast of Taiwan, Amang ( 阿芒 ) is the author of two volumes of verse: On/Off: Selected Poems of Amang, 1995—2002 (2003) and No Daddy (2008). Her work has appeared in various print and online journals. An avid blogger and mountaineer, Amang makes video documentaries and video poetry. Her bilingual collection, Chariots of Women (translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain) is forthcoming from Fembooks in Taipei.
The exact arrangement of poems in Meleager’s Garland, usually dated to 100 BCE, is unknown, but the evidence is strong that while some of its texts collected later in the 10th-century Palatine Anthology (AP) retain the same sequence as in the Garland, others do not. The two poems translated here most likely retain their original order. In the Garland, where the organizing principle seems to have been thematic and verbal resemblance, the first of these poems, 5.136 (its number in the AP), almost certainly followed and was a variation on a poem by Callimachus, a thematically similar amatory epigram with a nearly identical first line that includes the same first four words. In the AP, with its somewhat different organizing principles, the epigram by Callimachus, because addressed to Diocles, a boy, has been displaced to its book of same-sex amatory epigrams (Book 12; its number is 12.51). The second of the two poems translated here is essentially a variation on the variation. Its closeness thematically and verbally to 5.136 is such that only some as-yet-unidentified factor in the organization of the Garland could account for it not immediately following 5.136. Even if the largely discredited theory that the Garland’s poems were arranged alphabetically should turn out to be accurate—a theory based on a scholiast’s note to the AP—the order of these two poems would likely still stand, as their first words in the original are enkhei kai and enkhei tas, respectively.
– Fortunato Salazar
Blume Lempel’s work is noteworthy for its unflinching examination of erotic themes and gender relations, its psychological acuity, and its technical virtuosity. Mirroring the dislocation of her women protagonists, her stories move between present and past, Old World and New, dream and reality. Lempel did not hesitate to take up subjects only rarely explored by writers in Yiddish–including incest, abortion, feminism, and madness. This story–the tale of a blind date–is no exception.
In “The Little Red Umbrella,” Janet Silver accepts an invitation from an eccentric poet who was badly disfigured during the Holocaust. We learn of the erotic imaginings of this middle-aged woman, her preparations for the date, her flustered travel to meet the unknown poet, and finally, the awkward, challenging, and combative nature of the date itself. In the end, Janet finds herself feeling an unexpected compassion for her new acquaintance.
– Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
These sonnets were written in 1918-1919, amidst the chaos of a defeated Germany. In them, Benjamin recalled his closest friend, Christoph Friedrich Heinle. In 1914, at the age of nineteen, Heinle had committed suicide, along with his girlfriend, to protest the start of the Great War. Heinle had believed that the world was descending into barbarity, from which it would never emerge, and he’d chosen to live in it no longer. His death shattered Benjamin, for not only was Heinle his childhood friend, but also his closest intellectual companion. Benjamin never got over this loss and returned to it again and again in his personal and intellectual life. He gathered Heinle’s few poems and tried unsuccessfully to have them published. He also expressed his loss in a series of polished sonnets (seventy-three in all), in which a tangle of ideas merges into a biblical lamentation–death, tumult, confusion, friendship, immortality, salvation, and the mysticism of the word. The sonnets were first published in 1986, and this selection is the first English translation.
– Nirmal Dass
Marek Hlasko, known as the Polish James Dean, made his literary debut in 1956 with a short story collection. Born in 1934, Hlasko was a representative of the first generation to come of age after World War II, and he was known for his brutal prose style and his unflinching eye toward his surroundings. In 1956, Hlasko went to France; while there, he fell out of favor with the Polish communist authorities, and was given a choice of returning home and renouncing some of his work, or staying abroad forever. He chose the latter, and spent the next decade living and writing in many countries, from France to West Germany to the United States to Israel. Hlasko died in 1969 of a fatal mixture of alcohol and sleeping pills in Wiesbaden, West Germany, preparing for another sojourn in Israel. His memoir, Beautiful Twentysomethings, was published for the first time in English in 2013, translated by Ross Ufberg; his novels Killing the Second Dog and All Backs Were Turned were recently published by New Vessel Press.
Eduardo Lalo’s poetry collection Necropolis recollects the memory of trees that were cut down to become pages, words that struggled to recognize themselves on the page, language imputed with the weight of colonialism. Lalo’s reader was not surprised when news broke about the government’s failure to secure an economic future for the Puerto Rico, having already discovered the vast cemetery of Necropolis–the site where an unwritten literary tradition perished invisibly.
Toward the beginning of a poem titled “Unend,” Lalo writes, “I’ve travelled the biggest mall in the Caribbean from one end to the other without buying anything. Unconsumption: liberty.” In March of 2015, Rican merchants coordinated a day of #noconsumo (#noconsumption), closing down their businesses for the day in protest of the government’s attempt to impose a value-added tax. (Can writing be prophetic even if it is already dead?) The day after, a nonprofit called Puerto Rico Reads released a video addressing the governor of Puerto Rico, attempting to explain the precarious nature of intellectual production within an island stuck in the liminal space between autonomy and statehood. The owner of a bookstore called Libros AC speaks to the camera and says, “Without books, we are condemned to be a society of beggars, incapable of competing with the rest of the world in any industry, depending always on those who do have fair access to books.” In the title poem of his collection, Lalo pronounces, “I live in a necropolis / surviving after catastrophe and roving / its illiterate city.”
Are we there yet, then? Are Puerto Ricans living among Lalo’s Necropolis? What is the temporal nature of his anti-utopia? Is it a metaphorical present, or the literal description of a death that happened long ago? Reading these poems now feels like digging, like discovering a prophecy. And so I find myself questioning what I’m doing, what translation can be, if reading means unearthing a cemetery of language.
In the past couple of months, my translation of Necropolis has revealed itself as an endeavor to communicate the significance of these poems by filtering them through the anxious rhythm of the current economic crisis. I’d also like to believe that my work has morphed into an attempt to make sense of what literary stagnation could look like, to understand how the death of books would manifest itself both literally and metaphorically. To learn how to mourn once I recognize myself in the necropolis.
– Maru Pabón
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).