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.