April 2010

Elizabeth Bachner


The Joy of Writing: Reading The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry

I have ten fingers, evenly divided between my two arms. Most creatures don’t have anything going on that’s as neat and tricky as those fingers, or maybe they do. The slow loris can make a poison in its mouth, which I can’t. My skin color doesn’t change to help me blend in to my surroundings. I can’t fly. I’m not as fast or as beautiful as certain other creatures. I can write.

I’m reading Angus Trumble’s The Finger: A Handbook, which is all about human fingers in the world, in art, in history, in economics, in music. Angus Trumble says, “I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of aesthetic experiences that one would willingly call life-changing,” and he picks out a visit to a great temple in Kyoto as one of them, where he saw a statue of Kannon, the feminine manifestation of the bodhisattva of infinite compassion. She’s surrounded by different images of herself, a tangle of thousands of arms and hands and fingers “painstakingly crafted into a bewildering range of delicate gestures.” In one of the legends I’ve read about Kannon, she decides she wants to free all sentient beings from suffering. Her head splits into eleven pieces, because she’s so confused trying to understand all the different individual lives of all the unhappy beings out there. The Buddha gives her eleven heads, so that she can hear each of their cries. But when she tries to reach out for them, her arms shatter. The Buddha gives her a thousand arms.

Sometimes it’s so hard to understand how things do and don’t connect -- body parts, aesthetic experiences, myths, lives. Tim Parks, on translating Roberto Calasso’s Ka: “You kill some tiny thing and discover you have committed an appalling crime, wiped out a brahman or something.”

Something sad happened to me recently that changed my life. At the same time, the same day, the same week, even sadder things happened to change the lives of some of the people I love. Luckily, I have the new Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, and international poetry (like domestic poetry) is one of the least disappointing things in the world. Sometimes it’s vast, sometimes it’s tiny. Luckily, we don’t have to decide, or to choose between poems. We don’t have to choose between lorises and panthers, Julio Cortázar and Nina Cassian, the fingers of one hand and the fingers of the other. Or do we?

My favorite anthologies of international poetry are Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers (edited by Charles Simic and Mark Strand), The Poetry of Survival: Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe (edited by Daniel Weissbort), The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry (edited by J.D. McClatchy), and the beautifully-illustrated This Same Sky (edited by Naomi Shihab Nye). There’s some overlap in the collections. Sometimes I’ll read a certain poem, like Dan Pagis’s “Scrawled in Pencil in a Sealed Car,” in as many translations as I can find. Sometimes I’ll imagine that a favorite poem is in there, when it isn’t, like that Ruben Dario poem that starts, “I was a soldier who slept in the bed/ of Cleopatra the Queen.”

What makes a poem, a poem? In the new edition of Fernando Sorrentino’s Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, Borges says that he finds the idea that “all arts aspire to the condition of music” to be possibly true, because in music form and content are one. But he also thinks poetry has its own music: “For instance, when I was told that certain compositions of Verlaine had been set to music, it occurred to me that Verlaine would have been indignant about this, because the music is already in the words.” My own favorite poems are music, even when they’re not officially lyric poetry. They put into words things that cannot be put into words. They are often satirical, in the old Celtic sense, meaning that they curse or harm the reader. Sometimes, maybe they cure or transform the reader.

My favorite poem is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or maybe his “Preludes.” When I reread “Preludes,” or let parts of it run through my head, it contains all of Edward Hopper’s paintings, with those women on the edges of beds, and all of Eliot’s other work, and every morning I’ve ever spent in America, and all of my own work, and London when it’s sunny, and Walt Whitman, and that section of Ulysses about agenbite, and everyone I’ve ever loved -- not the being with them, but the losing them and being alone. But of course I like Vasko Popa’s poems about the Little Box, and Claribel Alegria’s “Documentary,” with its perilous alphabet of grief (“My etcetera country,/ my wounded country,/my child,/my tears,/ my obsession”), and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Prayer for Persephone,” and Anthony Hecht’s “See Naples and Die,” and thousands of other poems, just as much as I like “Preludes.” Maybe. I do not have enough arms or enough hands or enough fingers or enough heads.

It’s lucky we don’t have to pick just one poet to love, and it’s lucky, too, that we don’t have to pick just one anthologist. Ilya Kaminsky is a young, thoughtful poet, born in Odessa and raised in the States since the 1990s. He tends to choose poems that are spare, ironic, searing, cutting, cold, over poems filled with ripe colors and fruit and flowers, although of course there are necessary exceptions -- Salvatore Quasimodo’s poems are all teeming and fecund, even the tiny ones, and Kaminsky doesn’t leave them out. The poets are arranged by simple chronology, the way that finger book is stacked with the thumb last, and Kaminsky has decided not to introduce them with too much critical or biographical information because, as Ezra Pound said, “It really matters that great poems get written, and it doesn’t matter a damn who writes them.”

For the first week after I got the Ecco Anthology, I just read and reread Borges’s brilliant pieces “Borges and I,” which explains where the poet’s human life leaves off and his work as a poet begins. Then I read and reread Paul Valery’s “The Angel Handed Me a Book”: “…the book melted, until it could no longer be told apart from the world that surrounds us.” I fell in love with Osip Mandelstam: “Your thin shoulders are for turning red under whips,/ turning red under whips, and flaming in the raw cold,” and with Karl Krolow: “Happiness always begins/ A little above the earth./ But no one has been able to watch it.” I read Claribel Alegria’s “From the Bridge,” which hooks you in one of the organs, maybe the heart, not in a pleasant way, and leaves a little scar. I read Yehuda Amichai’s dirtiest, purest, most ferocious love poems, the ones translated from Hebrew by Assia Gutmann, the beautiful and unforgivable woman who stole Ted Hughes from Sylvia Plath, and then killed herself the way that Sylvia did, only she killed her little daughter too. There’s that one, “A Dog After Love,” about a man scorned: “I hope it will tear the/ Testicles of your lover and bite off his penis.” I read Luo Fu’s astonishing “Song of Everlasting Regret.” I reread Paul Celan -- “Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand, we are friends” -- and cried again because of the way he took his life, and the ways people tried to harm him in the years before that. It doesn’t matter a damn who writes them? Maybe. Or maybe it matters a great deal. Maybe it is everything.

I wonder how these international poems made it into books. I know that international poets are often the victims of persecution -- of death threats and death sentences, or censorship, of forced exile. And then, among the healthy and privileged writers in my own country -- the ones who, to paraphrase Primo Levi, live “safe in their warm houses” -- the world-rotting, Hollywood idea of a production team as co-authors has taken root, so that everything is written and rewritten and rewritten until it turns more uniform, until it loses its jagged edges and its radioactivity and its electricity. I have the fantasy that maybe things are better in, say, Europe, where a book is a book, and nobody’s scrambling to define it as poetry or prose, memoir or fiction, experimental or not -- nobody is telling Annie Ernaux to double the length of her novella. It was hard for Edmond Jabes’s translator to find a U.S. publisher for his piercing, unclassifiable work (is it poetry? Prose? A new kabbala?), even though it’s hard to argue with the power of those books if you read them.

The Spanish edition of Cuban exile Norberto Fuentes darkly hilarious, horribly authentic novel The Autobiography of Fidel Castro comes to almost 2,500 pages, in two volumes, because that’s the way Fuentes wrote it -- the U.S. edition has been cut to 564 pages. I just finished Frederic Mitterrand’s memoir The Bad Life, a bestseller in France -- it’s a watery, elliptical, gentle book that pushes you under and then lets you float up to the surface, three-hundred pages, non-linear, not entirely a memoir. And then there’s Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s novel Self-Portrait Abroad, also a bestseller in France, which is sharp and quick and eighty-four short pages, much more memoir than novel. These books made me realize how uniform the voices are in the recent American novels and memoirs I’ve read -- if you opened up Augusten Burroughs or James Frey or Stephen Elliott or David Sedaris to any random page, you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference. And their first-person narratives hold your hand or lead you by the nose, providing a punchy opening line to keep you reading, explaining to you who the protagonist is. But maybe most novel(la)s/ memoirs/ poetry books get rhinoplasty and Botox in France, Spain, Israel, and Austria too. I don’t really know how it all works.

Ezra Pound was probably right, but it gets me thinking about the many ways the human world interferes with poems. First the poet has to find a way to get the poem onto paper. I read somewhere that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed, but it seems like some of these poets are creating matter, which is probably taxing. And then someone -- often not the poet -- has to shepherd the poem into the public world. Which raises the question: are we all suffering from lost poems? The poems that never get written, and then, the poems that are written, but destroyed, and then, the poems that never get published at all?

Julio Cortázar walked up to Jorge Luis Borges one day on Roque Sáenz Peña Avenue and handed him what would later become the first piece in Bestiario. “He came back a week later. He asked me for my opinion,” says Borges, “and I told him: rather than give you my opinion, I’m going to say two things to you: one, the story is at the printer’s and we’ll have the proofs within a few days; and the other, we’ve already assigned my sister Norah to do the illustrations.” Years later, Cortázar saw Borges in Paris and thanked him: “It was the first text I had published in my own country when I was an unknown.”

In the Ecco Anthology, there are two poems by Cortázar and two by Borges. Maybe it doesn’t matter who wrote them, or how they reached us. It’s soothing to imagine an infinitely compassionate universe, where somehow all of the most dazzling poems will be rescued, protected, set free. Soothing to imagine, but maybe impossible, maybe untrue. And maybe poetry, like music, is often a Dionysian art -- not just an art of creation or transformation, but of destruction. When I think of what poetry might be, and how it can survive, I think of a dancer and not a poet. I think of Nijinsky: “People must not think me. They must feel me and understand me through feeling. Scholars will ponder over me, they will rack their brains needlessly, because thinking will produce no results for them. They are stupid. They are beasts. They are meat. They are death.” Of course he was struggling with insanity. He wasn’t long for the world. He danced. He was felt.

The poets in the Ecco Anthology of International Poetry have all died. Except for the young ones and the ones who are old and the ones who are getting old and the ones who are weirdly ageless. Those haven’t died yet, but they will die soon. Soon is a relative term. Ten million years is young for a star to die, but some stars do die that young. Tigers live for about ten years in the wild, or up to twenty in captivity, expect for those tigers found recently in that mass grave full of rare animals at that Chinese zoo. It really matters that great poems get written.

Joseph Brodsky says: “…Every speech, every speech’s truth,/ is sleeping.”

Blaga Dimitrova says: “Write each of your poems,/ tersely, mercilessly,/ with blood--as if it were your last.”

Yannis Ritsos says: “Every word is a doorway/ to a meeting, one often cancelled,/ and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.”

Anna Kamienska says: “Lord let me suffer much/ and then die.”

Vasko Popa says: “Let’s see you find the world now.”

Gloria Fuertes says: “…my body is an endless eye/ through which, unfortunately, I see everything.”

Paul Celan says: “It is time the stone made an effort to flower.”

Wislawa Symborska says: “The joy of writing./ A chance to make things stay./ A revenge of a mortal hand.”