Monday, 12 October 2015

A Review of Six Estonian Poets, ed. by Doris Kareva (Arc Publications, 2015)

Alexander Jacoby reviews an anthology of modern Estonian verse, edited by Doris Kareva

“Cannot the language of this land / Rising to the heavens / in the wind of song / seek eternity for itself?” asked the pioneering Estonian-language poet Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801-1822). At the time, Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, while its major city, Reval (now Tallinn) was populated by a German-speaking elite, as was its university at Dorpat (today’s Tartu). For Peterson, a student at that university, the decision to write in Estonian was a revolutionary one. But in the two centuries since, despite having barely a million native speakers, the Estonian language has evolved a remarkably rich literary culture, which survived even the active promotion of Russian during half a century of Soviet occupation. As editor Doris Kareva, who is herself one of Estonia’s leading modern poets, writes: “For Estonians poetry has always been more than just poetry, not so much a form of entertainment as a way of keeping their language alive.”

A reasonably broad selection of Estonian prose literature has appeared in English, most notably the work of one of the masters of modern historical fiction, Jaan Kross. Anthologies of Estonian poetry in translation appeared as early as the 1950s. But this new selection of modern Estonian verse brings us up to date, gathering poems by one major writer of the late Soviet period, Juhan Viiding, and five younger poets active mainly in the years since 1991, when Estonia regained its independence.

The poets represented are highly diverse. Juhan Viiding writes on existential themes, with a keen sense of the baffling quality of life: “So much is given to us, and still we are perplexed.” This poet, who could write, “Truly, above all, I dread death,” ironically took his own life in 1995. His daughter, Elo Viiding, addresses political themes, and women's issues in particular, in a voice of biting irony. Hasso Krull is a fine descriptive poet, but also another existentialist, for whom our knowledge of mortality is reminiscent of our anticipation of the end of a period of warm weather, something known intellectually that cannot be accepted emotionally. Triin Soomets' verse has a sensuality which is at ease with carnal and romantic subject matter, but which is also apparent in her tribute to the distinctive textures of the “seething wheeling / whirlpool weaving / rampant romping / seesaw seeking / breathless tending” Estonian language itself. The youngest poet represented here, Jürgen Rooste (b.1979), produces what editor Kareva aptly describes as “dionysian poetry […] an effervescent mix of raging rock, blues and beat, howl and prayer, lucidity and delirium”. Alongside these five poets writing in standard Estonian, the anthology includes the work of a leading regional poet, Kauksi Ülle, who writes in the Võro language of Southern Estonia, and draws on the homely imagery of rural life as well as on aspects of local legend.

The diversity of subject matter is reflected in a formal variety. Most of the poets represented in this volume write primarily in free verse. But several of Juhan Viiding's poems are in regular metrical forms with fixed rhyme schemes; while Kareva claims that he “revolutioned the language of Estonian poetry”, this technical discipline also links him back to older poetic traditions. Some of the younger writers too, such as Triin Soomets, make intermittent, irregular use of rhyme and more frequent use of assonance.

The poems are presented in parallel text. While non-native readers of Estonian are few, even the reader who knows no Estonian, or who recognises only a few words, may find the original text useful, since it clarifies some of the formal intricacies which are necessarily lost in translation. Thus, reading the literal rendering of a haunting twelve-line poem by Soomets (first line “Only darkness in shadows” in English), one is able at the same time to note the alliteration in the Estonian on the letter “v”, the direct verbal correspondence between “sõrm” (“finger”) and “sõrmus” (“ring”), and the shared initial syllable of “horisonti” (“horizon”) and “hommik” (“morning”).

The parallel-text format would seem to encourage literal translation, but the poems, which have been put into English by various hands, display a variety of approaches. Juhan Viiding's rhyming poems sometimes emerge in unrhymed form, but in other cases, a presumably less literal translation finds equivalents for the original rhymes; in one example, the Rubaiyat-like rhyme scheme of a poem entitled “Morning” is preserved exactly in the first stanza of the translation, as if to exemplify the form, before being abandoned in subsequent stanzas. The diverse practices on show represent a wide-ranging set of responses to the perennial problem of how best to recapture what is lost in translation.

Editor Kareva provides an enlightening and informative introduction to this valuable anthology, which opens up new perspectives on Estonian literature and the modern Estonian experience to English-speaking readers. In one poem, Juhan Viiding speaks of “a tiny regret that not every notion translates to another tongue.” It is a mark of the excellence of this collection that the reader's regrets about this are no more than tiny.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

A review of Self Portrait with a Swarm of Bees by Jan Wagner (Arc Publications, 2015)

Inigo Purcell reviews Jan Wagner's new book, translated by Iain Galbraith.

If asked to describe the main theme of Jan Wagner’s collection, my first response would be 'nature', then I would hastily correct myself, saying that the poems don’t so much focus on nature as on the physical world, and the unexpected similarities between physical experiences. In 'Steinway' (p.99) for example a glimpse of a grand piano becomes 'my childhood’s frozen lake', and aside from a pun on the make of the piano in the final stanza (which is alluded to but less present in the original German), the focus of the poem becomes solely the lake and the poet’s memories of it.

This kind of unexpected turn in a poem is characteristic of the collection. 'The Catkin' begins:

what caused auntie mia to stick a catkin
up her nose, and when exactly she did
our story cannot relate (p.117).

It is not until the third stanza when the aunt is described as a 'wailing girl' that it becomes quite apparent that this event happened long before the poet’s birth, in his aunt’s childhood in Germany during the Second World War, and that the anecdote has passed into family legend. The comic image of the adult aunt sticking a catkin up her nose lingers throughout, however, almost incongruous with the other theme of wartime bombing and the difference between being participants in an historical event, and being 'mere witnesses or extras' to it; how it is impossible to distinguish in an experience between the major 'our town has fallen and stands ablaze' and the personal 'the favourite carpet ruined' when both are part of the same event.

Another thematic migration takes place in the two stanza poem 'earthworms' (p. 49): the poet starts by reflecting on luring earthworms out of the earth during a summer drought in his childhood, perhaps with a degree of regret, then decades later sees 'their shadows drifting by/in sombre clouds' and distrusts the rain and overcast weather waiting for some kind of cruel fate to trap him the way his callous child-self tricked earthworms.

It would be remiss in a review of this collection not to mention the formatting of the Arc Visible poets series: Wagner writes in German, and the original text of his poems is placed parallel to Ian Galbraith’s excellent translations. My German is shamefully rusty, but it is fascinating to compare the two texts and observe where a piece of alliteration has been kept, where one has been discarded and where (as described in 'Steinway' above) a play on words which is hinted at in the German is used more fully in English. The foreword and introduction both stress that the parallel text is not solely intended for bilingual readers, but to allow a greater understanding of the poems and nature of translation in the curious, and for this Arc is to be commended: the presentation is accessible and likely to encourage people to explore or improve their language skills.

This collection is charming, interesting and surprising in the choice of topics (many of which I have had to neglect for the sake of word count in the review): through a choice of extremely specific details it manages to create a sense of a common experience and wonder at being alive.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Introducing a new review blog featuring books published by Arc Publications, reviewed by Brookes staff and students

Today we are launching a new Poetry Centre venture: a review blog. Already regular contributors to the Weekly Poem initiative, Arc Publications have now kindly supplied us with some of their most recent books for our staff and students to review.

This is a wonderful opportunity for us to engage with exciting contemporary poetry from around the world (one particularly impressive strand of Arc's catalogue is work in translation), and to hone our critical skills.

We look forward to developing this relationship with Arc, and encourage you to seek out the works being reviewed on the Arc website, where the reviews will also appear.

A review of Wioletta Greg’s Finite Formulae and Theories of Chance (Arc Publications, 2014)

Brittany Krier reviews Marek Kazmierski's translation of Wioletta Greg's book.

Arc Publications has recently published an English translation of Polish poet and writer Wioletta Greg’s [Grzegorzewska] most recent, two-part collection of poetry and prose, Finite Formulae and Theories of Chance. The longer Part I features 37 poems and Part II, titled ‘Notes from an island’, includes dated journal-type entries, which span between the years 2006 and 2014. Both sections feature the original Polish and translated English side-by-side.

While there is a short biographical note at the back of the edition, given Greg’s numerous accolades and the expansiveness of this collection (and indeed my lack of knowledge of her impressive work), an introduction would have been welcome. However, I was happy to do some additional research. I discovered that Greg has published six volumes of poetry, a novel, and a collection of short prose. Her poems have been featured in Poland’s most prestigious literary magazines and she has won several awards, including the Tyska Zima Poctycka Prize. After earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Polish language and literature from Jan Dlugosz University in Czestochowa, she immigrated to the Isle of Wight. The collection has been translated by Marek Kazmierski, a Polish writer, publisher, and translator, who also translated one of Greg’s previous collections of poems, Smena’s Memory, through his indie publishing house, Off_Press.

In terms of content, Greg’s collection details her family’s experiences living in Poland through two world wars, Communist occupation, and subsequent liberation, and it progresses in time to feature her own childhood and adult experiences in Poland, as well as her more recent struggles living in the UK. The collection serves as a historical and personal document that tracks Greg’s rich inheritance of war stories, family trials and tribulations, childhood memories, character traits and flaws, and varied sources of inspiration, which colour the pages of this book. Initially, flipping through the book, the juxtaposition of sentimental poems about her grandparents and her less-structured personal prose pieces seemed unusual; however, it became clear that Greg’s collection is all about in-betweens and each piece connects to the subsequent piece, maturing as time creeps forward. The collection is meant to be read from beginning to end if you are to grasp the spirit and life of the poet. Her poems often begin in medias res, emulating a feeling of motion and indicating the force of time that propels them. They often encapsulate singular moments, which are brief and lap into the next like a wave.

In many of the earlier poems, Greg focuses on her grandparents and parents. She has an incredible ability to zoom in on a single moment or event, which is often indicated in the title, but pans out to contextualise that moment historically and personally in both the past and future. As the collection progresses through time, her poems which encapsulate her childhood experiences are filled with attentive observations of her surroundings and they ooze with nostalgia. I appreciated the simplicity and tenderness with which she treats her reimagined childhood moments such as sliding down a snowy hill and digging up onions for ‘near-worthless’ money. I felt a distinctive shift in the tone of the collection when it reaches her coming of age, particularly in her poem so aptly titled ‘Spring, 1986’, in which the speaker becomes aware of her body and sexuality. The maturity of the poet manifests itself in the revelation of deeper observations about her relationships, particularly with her father. In these poems nostalgia is tainted by the passing of time and renders a sombre yet perceptive sense of personal truth.

This was most evident in the poem ‘Swimming Lessons’ in which Greg highlights the irony of her father’s instructive statement ‘Only the strong survive’, while teaching her to swim on a lake at which, years later, he would suffer a heart attack and die. The irony is stretched further by the fact that Greg later moves to an island and lives by the sea in which she metaphorically finds herself unable to swim. The poem closes with ‘I drown and rise again’, beautifully exposing her resilient spirit which reverberates throughout the collection. Greg is able to pack a punch and make connections between layers of her past and present in very few words, demonstrating that concision is certainly an art form.

Greg’s prose pieces in ‘Notes from an island’ are much more provocative and certainly more emotional, as they are written from the perspective of a foreigner, or a ‘pale alien’, who feels ‘halved’. These pieces are also more confessional, autobiographical, and seem almost therapeutic, as she reveals her part-comedic, part-tragic struggles with the English language, with being a mother, and with being between jobs. Greg captures seeming ordinary yet beautifully humbling moments such as her daughter comforting a spider and a man taking pictures of hatching eggs for his dying wife.

Overall, her poems, particularly the earlier ones, are more reserved and almost sacrosanct, given the sensitivity required in preserving one’s past and the specificity of certain memories. Her prose, while also clearly thought-out, feels more in-the-moment and is less structured. The two-part poetry/prose structure of the collection parallels the movement of Greg’s life from her home in Poland to the unfamiliar Isle of Wight. In one of her prose pieces (dated 30.06.2011) she details her new-found struggle with poetry after having been deeply immersed in it her entire life. Marek’s translation brilliantly reads that she is ‘infected with Polish poetry’ and it has therefore become a disease rather than a delight. Perhaps I am reading too deeply, but her switch to writing prose (at least in the collection) seems a by-product of the fragmentary feeling of living ‘between worlds’, ‘right on the edge of everything’ and prose offers her the ability to represent her experiences as such. Yet, some of her prose pieces read like poetry and indeed many of her poems read like prose. She has an incredible ability to linger in between the worlds of poetry and prose, Poland and England, and the past and the present, making the unfamiliar seem familiar and the familiar seem foreign. This unique collection has the feel of a story and is an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

Love that so terrifies us: a review of Eeva Kilpi’s A Landscape Blossoms within Me (Arc Publications, 2014)

Marc Sharp reviews a translation of the Finnish poet Eeva Kilpi’s work.

Arc Publications’ release of A Landscape Blossoms Within Me is the first extensive translation of Eeva Kilpi’s poetry into English. Kilpi was born in Karelia, Finland, in 1928, and is one of Finland’s best-loved poets. She has won several prestigious literary awards and was awarded the Order of the Lion of Finland. She has been Chair of the Finnish PEN and was nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize. From this information, provided in the inside sleeve of the book, I expected sparse, academic poems and a feeling of dread set in. The dark blues and browns of the impressionistic painting on the cover were, perhaps, cause for apprehension. But it was the list of awards and my complete ignorance of Finnish poetry that influenced my preconceptions most. The introduction by the translator and poet, Donald Adamson, describes Kilpi’s style as ‘full of irony and self-mockery’, influenced by the work of the English Metaphysical poets. Once I had read the introduction any preconceived ideas formed by my initial impressions had vanished as had my vision of a sombre poet.

A Landscape Blossoms Within Me is a collection consisting of 70 poems selected from work published between 1972 and 2000. The poems are arranged chronologically by date of composition with Adamson’s English translation printed alongside the original Finnish. This arrangement is helpful for anyone wishing to use this book for academic purposes. Although I do not speak Finnish, I enjoyed looking at the unfamiliar patterns of double ks and umlauted vowels, and viewing the two languages alongside one another drew my attention to the meticulous choices taken in the practice of translation. I like the simplicity of language, the conversational tone, and how well it expresses both the bawdy witticisms ‘That was true love. When I farted he said: - How beautiful!’ and thoughtful musings ‘So is it to be just once a year and so briefly?’ indicative of Kilpi’s style. Although subjects such as aging and dying are noticeable in titles such as ‘Before Death’ and ‘Voices from an Old People’s Home’ the self-mocking title ‘Granny-ography’ better reflects the light and stoic approach Kilpi takes in the treatment of conventionally morbid topics. The poems in this collection range from pithy aphorisms that leave you thinking long after you’ve finished reading ‘You change the order of words in me//Hush now, let it happen’ to longer compositions on religion ‘These days I still say a prayer’ and the natural world – in ‘Animalia’.

The finest poems of the collection are ones in which an all-encompassing, transcendent love blossoms out of candid descriptions of physical aging. The inclusiveness characteristic of the pantheistic Christianity Kilpi believes in is illustrated best by the poem ‘A Song about Love’. In this poem the poetic voice prays for help in accepting the love of all people, ‘a love that so terrifies us’. The poem begins in medias res, a recurring feature in Kilpi’s poems, with a lover imagining a future of ‘stiff joints, rheumatism and lumbago’, but a future in which she and her partner are ‘hooked round each other’. The description of the aging couple is beautiful in its honesty and the image of the multiple becoming one is beatific. The description of suffering ‘lumps and folds of skin’ and the union of ‘wrinkles into creases’ is interrupted by the lover’s ‘soft’ prayer for the other’s easy death. This view of death as an escape from suffering must be read in light of the final lines: ‘Arm in arm we’ll walk together/And our sky will always be bright.’ Kilpi views love as something that continues to exist long after physical deterioration and death. This powerful belief that love’s potential to unify in life continues into death is wonderfully expressed throughout this and other poems in the collection.

A Landscape Blossoms Within Me is a wonderful collection of poetry that has elicited both laughter and contemplation from everyone with whom I have shared the poems. Kilpi’s humorous quips about the differences between men and women and her concern with issues such as religious tolerance and global warming make her an accessible and profound voice in the contemporary moment. It’s hard for me to find serious fault with this book. The dates of composition could have been included on the title page of each new section. Instead, the information relating to publication dates is placed, nondescriptly, in the notes on the text and translation. Matching the Finnish titles to the corresponding English ones is not difficult but could be avoided if the original dates of publication were printed next to the titles on the contents page. Having read this funny, emotive and provoking collection, it is easy to see why Eeva Kilpi is one of Finland’s best-loved poets, and why her work has been translated into so many languages.