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 famous opening line of “Under the Cherry Blossoms” is certain to cross a few minds every spring in Japan.
Widely considered one of Kajii’s major works, the story was first published in December 1928. It appeared in the journal Poetry and Poetics (Shi to Shiron), which set out to introduce readers to contemporary modernist writings from the West through translations and critical discourse. The debut issue had carried an essay by Louis Aragon, and the magazine later went on to publish the work of Paul Valéry and André Gide. The second issue, which featured “Under the Cherry Blossoms,” sought to explore the notion of a poetics beyond verse.
The early work “Lemon” (1925) illustrated a surrealist ethos arisen from the dingy back alleys of Kyoto, and it was in this internationalist context that “Under the Cherry Blossoms” was also conceived. Kajii, who began but never completed a degree in English literature at the top-ranked Tokyo Imperial University (what is today the University of Tokyo), is known to have read Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen in an English translation. A portion of the text was found transcribed in his notebooks around the time when the story was written.
Among such literary coteries Kajii himself founded a journal called Blue Skies (Aozora) while the editors of Poetry and Poetics included at least one bookseller-cum-tastemaker with knowledge of the latest foreign titles. Paris Spleen served as the exemplar of a kind of urbanite experience, the work that many a fledgling author aspired to write when prose poems were the form and decadence the theme of the day.
“Under the Cherry Blossoms” is a stylistically mature work that depicts a coming to terms with mortality and its accompanying dualisms through an exposition of the sub rosa, a revelation that starts with the creeping notion that beneath such beautiful flowers, something lies hidden.
– Bonnie Huie
After four decades of writing in her adopted tongue, Argentine poet Silvia Baron Supervielle’s themes in Around the Void seem little changed, even if tinged more recently with a sense of impending mortality: always she finds herself at an existential precipice, with her mixed allegiances to her two languages as to her sense of place and belonging.
About her change of language, she explained in a 1997 interview with the translator: “It seemed to me that I would never be able to find the thread, to achieve some kind of wholeness, if I kept writing in Spanish. But something very strange happened to me. Suddenly I found a terrain where I recognized myself and which was mine, where it was so difficult finding the word and the language that I wrote very short poems, very pared down. That’s how I started to write these poems that are of such little means, I understood that this is exactly what I am, this sort of poverty of words, this fear of the language. I realized I had found something, a place that was mine. That poverty was like a mirror that was imposed on me. It wasn’t due to French, from which I also wanted to remain apart, but to that distance between the language and me, which resembled the distance I wanted to exist around me, on both sides, a distance that obliged me to pare things down. That’s how I became a writer in French. For me it was a discovery that has nothing to do with the idea of the past or the French language tradition.”
Though she has visited her native Buenos Aires with some regularity over the years, it wasn’t until 1997 that she returned as a writer–invited by the French embassy as a French writer who also spoke Spanish. And only in subsequent years has her work begun to appear in Spanish translation.
The following poems are the first two sections of Autour du vide (“Around the Void”), her eleventh book of poetry, made up of seven sections with ten poems each.
– Jason Weiss
Margarita Meklina traverses multiple literary and social worlds as a bilingual, transnational writer and omnisexual traveler. Writing in NLO of her 2003 Andrei Bely prize-winning book The Battle at St. Petersburg, the critic Kirill Kobrin said of her: “Having departed Petersburg for San Francisco [in 1994], Meklina took with her not only a tendency toward Bely’s rhythmic prose, Nabokov’s fondness for punning playfulness, but also that characteristic of Petersburg ‘being in two worlds,’ and its ambiguous, imprecise relationship toward the so-called ‘fiction’ of ‘literature,’ its opposition of so-called ‘reality,’ ‘life’….” An online biography asserts that, “Her stories, often built around themes of marginalized sexuality, in combining postmodernist sensibility with New Sincerity-like elements created a new Russian lexicon in that genre.” For my own part, I find these, Rita’s miniatures, particularly imbued with lyricism and resonant with pathos, something that presents me as a translator with the immensely pleasing challenge of getting her wistful tone precisely right.
– Alex Cigale
Nader Naderpour (1929 -2000) was born in Tehran and received his early education in Europe. He returned to Iran to publish his first collection of poetry in the 1940s. In the later 1960’s, he helped found “The Association of Writers of Iran and directed the literature department of the Iranian National Radio and Television Department. He fled the Iranian Revolution in 1980, living in France until the late 1980’s, when he moved to the United States. Regarded as one of the leaders of the movement of “New Poetry” in Iran, he published ten collections of poems. Naderpour was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and was awarded the Human Rights Watch Hellman-Hammett Grant in 1993.
– Roger Sedarat and Rouhollah Zarei
Antonio Álvarez Gil is a novelist and short story writer. Born in Melena del Sur, Cuba, he has resided in Sweden since 1994. I discovered Naufragios (Algaida, 2002; in English translation, Shipwrecked) some years ago at a bookstore in Spain, where he has published several novels and won numerous awards. For years, the enigmatic beauty of one of that novel’s characters, a Russian-Cuban girl, lingered in my mind, and it took some time before I discovered that the vast universe occupied by his characters extended beyond Cuba and the Soviet Union, where Álvarez Gil himself had long ago studied chemical engineering. Knowing that literature was his vocation even when he was obliged to pursue a different career altogether, Álvarez Gil has written short stories and novels often brimming with the adventures of youth and universal literary and human quests–whether set in the present, as is the case with “Fascination”; the recent past of Cubans experiencing Soviet Perestroika up close, as in Callejones de Arbat (2012); or the more distant past of Las largas horas de la noche (2000, 2003), where, as Arístides Vega Chapú suggests in a recent review of the novel, the “most universal Cuban of all time,” José Martí, undergoes immense humanization within his ten-year foray in Guatemala City in the late 19th century. That is to say, literature, love, travel, persecution, exile, masculinity, the ocean, and vocation harbor an important place in Álvarez Gil’s writing. Mostly realist, it is also prone to twists and turns that take on an almost magical quality closely linked in his prose to the processes of writing, inspiration, and intertextuality. In “Fascination,” readers board a cruise ship in Stockholm only to find themselves amidst Cuban characters working out their relationships to their homeland, their compatriots, the vigilance of the state, their desire–and, last but not least, to a writer who seeks to find the best way to introduce himself to all of them, and to tell a good story while doing so.
– Jacqueline Loss
Gabriele Tinti is a writer fascinated by boxing. His micro-essays and dramatic reenactments probe our frayed tolerance for the cruelty of the sport in the modern era. With great compassion, Tinti sketches recent bouts and the stories of boxers that are at risk of perdition. Many of these boxers were badly used; their blood-sport struggle became passing entertainment. Tinti’s stories of heroic and often tragic perseverance push us to contemplate social issues that engulf us well beyond the ring. This selection is taken from Tinti’s All Over, published in 2013 by Mimesis Edizioni.
– Nicholas Benson
No city’s worth the name without barbers in it. And the citied societies of pre-nineteenth century Islamic civilization had them in plenty. But, as in pre-modern Europe, these barbers did more than cut hair. They also played medical roles. Islamic medical traditions were based on Arabic translations of the works of the ancient Greek physician Galen (d. 200 C.E.). They inherited from him their humoral physiology and an understanding of health as humoral balance. Cure lay in restoring lost humoral balance by draining the body of its excess humor. While learned philosophers and physicians composed medical treatises and qualified surgeons attended to the rich, people of more modest means typically resorted to barbers for everyday surgical operations like cupping, phlebotomy, circumcision, and cauterization.
They often did so at the hammāms or steam-baths that Islamic urban culture inherited in its earliest phases from Byzantium, baths that almost always featured barbers among their staff. Regarded as facilitating God’s will that everyone be clean, steam-baths were considered vital to bodily discipline, health and ethical culture. Their attendant barbers consequently took on a simultaneously aesthetic and ethical-political role as divinely mandated beautifiers and doctors of bodies. This is the context for the constellation of images and associations Ghanī Kashmīrī invokes in his “A Masnavī Satirizing a Barber.”*
The masnavī in rhymed couplets was the most prestigious pre-novelistic genre for narrative literature in the Persianate world. Ghanī gives the first 17 of his 28 couplets to a series of descriptions apparently extolling a certain barber for his simultaneously erotic, political, and medical powers. These 17 couplets ingeniously describe the barber’s implements of trade in terms associated with the ghazal beloved: for instance, couplet 8 declares he never wets hairs on heads because hairs themselves melt from shame at his erotically narrow waist, here described as finer than a hair by conventional hyperbole; and couplet 9 metaphorizes the holes and curves of his scissors, respectively, as the beloved’s eyes and brows.
Ghanī devotes the remaining 10 couplets to describing his relations with the barber. These couplets play on the barber’s dual role as hair-cutter and surgeon, ironically aestheticizing his grotesquely painful cupping and surgical operations as if they were the archetypal beloved’s cruelty towards the lover.
Finally, a note on what is lost in translation: Ghanī excelled at īhām, the generation of poetic ambiguity. Couplet 10 that speaks of scissor-handles as “competition for the eyebrow” uses the word ham-chishmī, meaning “competition” but also containing the word chishm or “eye.” Such linguistic play is as much a delight to the reader of the Persian original as it is the despair of the translator. Nevertheless, to convey the jogging rhythm of the original I have translated Ghanī’s masnavī into rhymed English couplets, almost all in iambic pentameter.
* “Masnavī-i avval dar hajv-i hajjām,” in Mullā Muhammad Tāhir Ghanī Kashmīrī, Dīvān-i ghanī (Srinagar: Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Arts, Culture and Literature, 1984), 244-245.
– Prashant Keshavmurthy
Lana Abdel Rahman is a Lebanese writer, living in Cairo. In her novel The Snow of Cairo, published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo, Abdel Rahman not only explores Sufi ideas, but also reincarnation. Bushra, a young Syrian woman, moves to Cairo from Syria with her Egyptian mother. Bushra’s father has died, and her mother wants to return to her Egyptian roots. But soon after their arrival, Bushra’s mother dies and Bushra must cope with her grief and alienation, alone except for a few Egyptian relatives. Bushra feels the visceral presence of another woman, Nur Jihan, in her dreams and even in her body. Nur Jihan was a young Egyptian princess who was married off to a Turkish prince. She is a woman from the past with a tragic story; someone Bushra could not have possibly known in her life. Chapter One of the novel alternates between the voices of two narrators, Nur Jihan and Bushra. Nur Jihan also remembers her past life as a gypsy dancer called “Soleil.”
In The Snow of Cairo time is borderless: the narrators’ shift verb tense from present to past and back again. Consciousness is similarly fluid and dreamlike, evoking the fluidity and inscrutability of history and the dead. In Chapter One, Bushra learns many secrets of her mother’s life. The novel holds us in suspense as the lives of the two narrators, at first seemingly unrelated, crisscross and circle back to the secret of Nur Jihan’s death.
– Gretchen McCullough
Endlich Stille (“Silence at Last”) is the story told by an unnamed professor of philosophy who allows a man he meets accidentally while traveling to invade and disrupt his life to an ever-greater extent until only the most radical of solutions appears viable. In the excerpt at hand, Friedrich Grävenich, who first addressed the narrator in front of the Strasbourg railway station after the narrator had alighted there to spend a single night, has been living in the narrator’s apartment in Basel’s old town for several weeks; while the narrator wishes to have his apartment, and his existence, to himself again, he is unable to put his foot down and demand that Friedrich take his suitcases and go. The narrator, who was originally willing to give Friedrich the benefit of the doubt, no longer finds Friedrich’s claims about his past life or future plans to be necessarily credible. Far from indicating that he is about to depart, Friedrich is behaving in an increasingly, and presumably intentionally, provocative manner. Major themes in Endlich Stille are morality, power, and control in human relationships; the tension between the desire for intimacy and commitment on the one hand and the desire for solitude and independence on the other hand; and the instability of identity.
Ott’s text is characterized by sentences that tend to be very long and syntactically complex; the novel takes the form of a long reminiscence by the narrator during and, in terms of the novel’s structure, framed by his solitary journey home to Basel from Liechtenstein. It appeared important to me that these long sentences for the most part be maintained in translation because they reflect the narrator’s thought processes; specifically, he is–with one notable exception–indecisive and irresolute, and he tends to keep turning possible courses of action over in his mind rather than realizing any one of these possible courses of action. The narrator’s paralysis, his inability to produce a solution to the central dilemma of how to rid himself of his unofficial roommate, is reflected in the length of the sentences he uses in his recollection of his time with Friedrich. While these sentences constitute narration well after the fact–when the novel begins, Friedrich has already fallen, presumably to his death, from a mountain trail in the vicinity of Vaduz–their length and structure, not least their many parallel constructions, are generally indicative of the narrator’s personality and specifically reflect his mental state during the period of his enforced togetherness with Friedrich (a period during which the two men consumed large amounts of alcohol daily, mostly in the Crooked Tower, a smoke-filled bar in working-class Kleinbasel).
Like Hiroshi, Mr. Grandstetter, to whose encounter with the narrator and Friedrich the excerpt presented here makes reference, is a colleague of the narrator’s in the philosophy department at the University of Basel. Friedrich’s addressing the Grandstetters as “Mr. and Mrs. Pepe” is inspired by an anecdote related earlier by the narrator involving a small child who had once addressed Mr. Grandstetter as “Pepe,” a presumably embarrassing incident.
– Peter Sean Woltemade
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).