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
In Jean Lorrain’s small book, Contes pour lire à la chandelle (1897), the stories about Madame Gorgibus appear under the subheading “Tales for sick children.” But these grotesque narratives about an eccentric loner also amuse us as adults—until our laughter is stifled by a cruel prank. Madame Gorgibus is a marginal character, a victim of public condemnation for her odd life and gaudy fashions, much as Lorrain himself had been. We are chided for our preconceptions when, despite accusations of misogyny, Lorrain sympathizes with the sad closed lives of old women who have suffered reversals of fortune.
The stories charm a reader with their rhythm and rhyme as well as the visual appeal of Madame Gorgibus’s outdated fashions and furnishings, and her raven’s behavior as both threatener and victim. Online image libraries were invaluable while translating; it was easy to find photos of the Dresden china statuettes popular in the mid-eighteenth century, or to learn that Madame Gorgibus’s preference for puce began with a trend set by Marie Antoinette. Images of ramparts and ravens, quincunxes, capes and capuches helped me translate the past in which Madame Gorgibus was still living.
– Patricia Worth
Carlo Carabba’s poetry embodies two of the more exemplary qualities we find in Italian poetry: a clear and serene diction coupled with a philosophical train of mind and experience at once imbued in and yet derived from the durations and trajectories of everyday life in all its various and variegated immediacies. An especially pleasing verve animates a verse that sparkles with all the vivacities of lyrical and poetic discovery. A philosophical poet? In Anglo-Saxon countries this kind of characterization can produce certain refractory responses. But it is because the term, the category, this manner of poetic being are invariably misunderstood. After all, poetry is always reflection, and the more admirable, the more consequential poetries are those whose gifts to us are not limited solely to the realms of affectivity, but to the realm of lived and ideational effectivities as well.
– Steve Light
These five translations are all taken from Anna Margolin’s first and only book of poetry, published in 1929 and simply titled Lider, which means both “poems” and “songs” in Yiddish. While this book was well received by Yiddish readers and critics, following its publication Anna Margolin stopped publishing poetry and eventually became a recluse. Nevertheless, Lider has gone on to become a classic of Yiddish-language literature, with some of its poems even being set to music.
– Maia Evrona
Elena Andreyevna Shvarts (1948-2010), a legendary Russian poet, until 1989 was published in samizdat (self-publishing) and abroad (New York, Paris, Ann Arbor). Born in Leningrad, where she lived her entire life, Shvarts attended the University of Tartu, where her first poems were published in the university newspaper in 1973. After that, however, she did not publish for another decade in her own country; her work began to appear in émigré journals in 1978, and she published two collections of poetry (Tantsuyushchii David and Stikhi) and a novel in verse (Trudy i dni Lavinii) abroad before a collection (Storony sveta) was allowed to be published in the Soviet Union. Birdsong escaping from a cage is a metaphor running though her work. Shvarts was awarded many prizes: in 1979, the Andrey Bely prize; in 1999, the Northern Palmira (Severnaya Palmira); in 2003, the Triumph, and others. In 2002–2008, a four-volume edition of her work was published in Saint Petersburg.
– Ian Probstein
Benjamin Aisenshtadt (1921-1999) chose the pen name Benjamin Blazhennyi, “Benjamin the Blessed.” In Russian the word blazhennyi can mean a freak, a jester, or a saint. The Soviet authorities treated the poet as a fool, a freak, an utterly unpractical person. Needless to say, none of Aizenshtadt’s poems was published until late 1980s. After the war, the poet was not allowed to finish his education because he was not a member of the Communist Party. Moreover, for his anti-social behavior he was from time to time put in a mental institution. Otherwise he worked in a facility for the disabled and took care of his wife, a disabled veteran of WWII. For the last 20 years of his life, he barely left his apartment in Minsk, Belarus. Beginning in the late 1980s, his poems started to appear in periodicals and immediately startled the critics who did not know how to classify them: Blazhennyi did not fit into any school or trend. It was well after the time of so-called perestroika when poets, critics, and publishers frequented his tiny apartment, taking interviews and asking for poems. This activity led to his books being published in Belarus, Russia, and Israel under the pen-name of Benjamin Blazhennyi (the Blessed).
It is notable that St. Augustine is called “Augustine the Blessed” in Russian. Therefore “the blessed” is a saint, the one who communicates with the Divine spirit. Blazhennyi’s poetry is full of powerful images: it is both pious and iconoclastic, sacred and profane, tranquil and full of fury.
Benjamin Aisenshtadt was born in 1921 to a Jewish family in the small Byelorussian shtetl Kopys’. His father Michail was an unpractical man as well. As the poet wrote:
My father Michail Aisenshtadt was the biggest fool in town:
He claimed that wolf and lamb had soul.
He claimed that a mosquito and a fly had soul as well
He wore worn-out trousers and never learned to sell.
When a Jew was sorry for a wounded nestling of a jackdaw,
He did not need a store. Why would he need a store?
Before World War II, Benjamin finished one year of a pedagogical college, majoring in history. Since he had poor health, he was not drafted into the army. His family managed to escape to a small village in Gorky oblast (now Nizny Novgorod) where he taught history at a school. He discovered a rich library there untouched by Bolshevik purges, and began copying books into his notebooks. After the war, he visited his favorite poets, Boris Pasternak and Arseny Tarkovsky, in Moscow. Pasternak was reluctant to meet with young emerging poets, perhaps fearing the ungifted who had the nerve to get a reference to publishers from famous authors. After reading Blazhennyi’s poems, however, Pasternak not only welcomed him, but initiated a lifelong friendship and correspondence. Blazhennyi eventually wrote essays and memoirs about Pasternak.
– Ian Probstein
Roald Mandelstam (1932-1961), who died of tuberculosis and intestinal hemorrhage at the age of twenty-eight, was a gifted and singular poet who unfortunately was not published in his short lifetime. He called himself “the last poet on earth” in his last poem, entitled “Epilogue.” In fact, he was perhaps the last romantic poet, a sparkling splinter of the Russian Silver Age. There is an evident affinity between the poetry of R. Mandelstam with the poetry of the Silver Age—first and foremost, with the poetry of Blok, Gumilev and Osip Mandelstam, but Roald Mandelstam’s work differs from theirs due to his unique syncretic imagery, vision, and intonation. Moreover, he is an existential poet and, as such, he continued the highest traditions of the Russian poetry from Derzhavin and Tiutchev to Gumilev and O. Mandelstam. He was one of the first postwar underground poets in Leningrad, a forerunner of the brilliant constellation of poets that included the so-called Leningrad Philological School, Leonid Aronson, Vladimir Uflyand, and Joseph Brodsky, as well as the poets of his circle, Victor Krivulin, Elena Shvarts, and many more.
In his review of Mandelstam’s third posthumously published book, Kirill Medvedev compares his poetry to the French les poètes maudits. True, such poems as “My Friends,” “A Grim Guest,” or “Junkman” are akin to Rimbaud’s poems and Corbière’s “Night Paris.” There is an evident trace of antagonism and protest against the totalitarian system, against those who accept their slavery, but the rebel-poet calls his fellow citizens to revolt. Even alluding to Roman history, Roald Mandelstam draws parallels with his contemporary life. Mandelstam’s lack of agony, decadence, and narcissism distinguishes him from the French les poètes maudits, however. Among other distinctive features of Mandelstam’s poetry are his artistic vision in images and syncretic imagery revealing all five senses. As V. Kreyd mentioned in his essay of 1984, in Mandelstam’s poetry “nature is spiritualized; there is no borderline between human nature, organic and inorganic nature” (Kreyd 22).*
He was rediscovered by Mikhail Shemiakin, who published Mandelstam’s poetry in the almanac Apollon-77, and by K. Kuz’minskii, who published selected works in the anthology U Goluboi Laguny (At the Blue Lagoon). From 1982 to 1997, four books of Mandelstam’s poetry were published in Israel and Russia, including Complete Poems (St. Petersburg: Ivan Limbakh Publishing, 2006), which was compiled and edited by the poet’s sister, Mrs. Helene Petrov-Mandelstam. She and I are currently compiling a bilingual English-Russian edition of Roald Mandelstam’s Selected Poetry.
* Kreyd, V. Zametki o poezii Roal’da Mandel’stama. (Notes on Roald Mandelstam’s poetry). Strelets 4 (1984): 22-24.
– Ian Probstein
Pilar Fraile Amador’s Larva & Hedge is one of those rare collections that affects the reader by both attracting and repelling, that can simultaneously enchant and disturb. Fraile’s poems mesmerize and sing; they weave captivating webs. But they are fascinating, too, in their potential for repulsion, in their willingness to inhabit the most unsettling of spaces. The force of the text, then–the way it acts upon the reader’s interior–is twofold.
On the one hand, Fraile’s poems are magnetic. They read like deftly spun incantations, sonorous lines draped over imagined topographies. But they derive equal force from their readiness to shock and disturb, to wield images that pierce a reader’s repose and rearrange one’s insides. The poems occupy both dreamscape and night terror; they caress and startle. They situate us in the space between our discomfort and enthrallment at the sight of blood. We cannot turn away.
That Fraile’s text both attracts and repels is fitting. It is a collection that deals in dualities, juxtaposing the intimate and the collective, the strong and the weak, the human and the animal; yoking them together to call their differences into question. It is this gesture that begins Fraile’s project of blurring lines and traversing borders.
The volume itself is binary, split into two distinct sections that function together. In Larva, Fraile explores the undercurrent of correspondence that exists unnoticed between human beings, the wellspring of the common subconscious. Here, individual and collective memories intermix and alter one another and the living can communicate with objects and the dead. The destruction of the ‘I,’ then, becomes a generative act that allows the other–or others–to pass into and expand an individual consciousness. Under these circumstances, the lines between past and present, between self and other, grow indistinct. The speaker is a secret essence that mediates the collective, a human distillate in the antechamber of life. The past never dies.
In the second section of the book, Hedge, the individual disappears completely. The poetic subject shifts to plural as Fraile reflects on what binds a community. While both halves of the volume are image-driven, the poems that constitute Hedge are more intricate than the preceding fragments, rich with sensory detail and of longer duration. They take shape as blocks of prose poetry that make use of repetition, compression, and fragmentation and fuse lines into paragraphs. This configuration yields both continuity and a useful sense of isolation: while each poem is visually cloistered as a block of text on its own page, the poems hang together with their consistent form as stages in a continuous meditation.
Fraile cites influences who move “in the border of the border”–from symbolists Baudelaire and Rimbaud with their intuitive associations, unconventional syntax, and indirect expression; to the surrealism of Lorca and Buñuel; to contemporary Spanish classics like Ullán, Valente, and Gamoneda. Her imagistic precision, along with stylistic choices like nonlinear forms and a disjunctive, multivocal timbre, demonstrate a desire to move in literary border areas and to create poetry that is unflinchingly exploratory.
– Elizabeth Davis
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).