Cultural Worth


Ant-Small And Amorous, Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, translated by Anne Talvaz
(49pp, 12 euros, corrupt press,)
Bones Will Grow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets,

edited and translated by James Byrne (266pp, Arc)
The Parley Tree: Poets from French-speaking Africa & the Arab World
,
edited, translated and introduced by Patrick Williamson (215pp, Arc)
Six Vowels & Twenty-Three Consonants: An Anthology of Persian Poetry from Rudaki to Langroodi,
edited and translated by Ali Alizadeh and John Kinsella (203pp, Arc)


Pansy Maurer-Alvarez's poems come in a simple booklet with no framing apart from a brief biographical note. Perhaps someone somewhere is doing a PhD on how poetry arises from both the person and the diversity or otherwise of their background. We are becoming - or some of us, of them - more travelled. Pansy Maurer-Alvarez (I quote) 'was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Pennsylvania and has lived in Europe since 1973. She did her literary studies at universities in the US, Spain and Swittzerland. .... She lives in Paris, mainly, and Zurich sometimes.'

It's a fair bet she speaks English. More and more translations seem to be arising from other language poets with English as a second or third language, brought into English by another translator.
   
She does play with related thoughts. A poem called 'All night the poems' opens like this,

     I envision
     my language
     in its other language.
     For example:
     its long ropes of Rs
     the dark Ls spinning out infinitely in front of me.

Why is 'J'envisage' not translated as 'I envisage'?

The means varies a lot in lengths of lines - or one might say in employment of voice - flow of voice would be better - from such short lines to, in a few poems, prose. There is a deceptive casualness, as if in conversation or in her own thoughts she was wandered into poem-making, and I like these poems, they live. From 'Of say, Berlin':

      Take the old mill at Vernon
                     take the war -
      the stories won't let these pictures
                                 slip back into the water
                                             neatly below your surface.
      In the cold afternoon the mistletoe is so prominent.

The Arc books come as usual with extensive introductory material and biographical notes.


I confess it hadn't been part of my world view to think of contemporary Burmese poets, but here some of them are, living in Rangoon or elsewhere, one poet, for instance, Ko Ko Thett, left Burma after being detained for a while after the student uprising in 1996, and lives in Vienna.
  
I don't recall seeing a more (to my eyes) strangely written language; such that translation seems a wondrous thing indeed, and some words (there is a glossary) are transliterated, for reasons of meaning rather than orthography.

Another PhD study might take on the emergence of women as published poets - or as poets at all - still recent in some countries. Such a study might be applied to all three of these Arc books. So I shall choose extracts from poems by women, and from Burma (b.1973) Eaindra, a few lines from a longish poem called 'Lily', where the name occurs again and again, here from midway,

     With cloudberry lips, Lily serves...                          [dots in original]
     Lily's nonchalant smile pierces their stares, Lily serves...

     Lily knifes words with her gabble, Lily serves...
     Lily wants to flow in their arteries, Lily serves...
                

Does anyone know the extent to which culture, place, the moment, the quirks of personhood are crucial in the making of poems? Or the question might be, what is to be understood from books location-based? The Parley Tree has both location and diversity and I despair of trying to convey what's here from Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Mauritius, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia.

Choosing one statement from the introduction: 'Tradition, myth, and visceral attachment to ancestral land are major strands in poetry from the continent. .... Metaphyiscal themes underpin modern post-colonial poetry in both Arabic and, probably to a greater extent, in French, acting as a way of federating people by bringing to the fore all the ancient cultural values ... as if to say, "we have a cultural worth strong enough to resist any onslaught".'
 
Quoting from one poem, or from however many, would not begin to show what the book holds, but anyway this is by one of the three women,V enus Khoury-Gata (Lebanon), from a poem called 'The Shades (extracts)',

     The clamour of the town reaches us all broken up
     piecing it together into a straight line requires
     the skill of a surveyor

     voices overlapping the stones
     echo overlapping voices
     lying stretched out until the upturned houses
     sheet shroud whatever

and to come a little closer to hearing a voice, the 4th and 5th of these lines in French,

     les voix chevauchant les pierres
     l'écho chevauchant les voix


And now a stream of poets writing in Persian from Rudaki (b.858) to Ahmad Zahedi Langroodi (b.1982). Six Vowels and Twenty-Three Consonants continues and adds to the tradition, as it seems now, of Persian language poets into English. So Rumi is here and Hafez, and then Mimi Khalvati's name jumps out from the list, with a ghazal after Hafez. At an event some years ago she taught me and others this form, and I was very glad of it.
No Persian here, she writes in English.

Recently I was praising in this space a book of translations, in varieties of close or more free ways, by John Kinsella, and here he is, knowing no Persian, working with Ali Alizadeh, whose language it is, to make a book extending this Persian-English tradition into Western culture. Kinsella's introduction on the process is a pleasure, as is the whole book. Not many women until the present time, I shall quote from the opening Mahasti Shahrokhi's (b.1956, lives now in France) 'Beautiful wounds', a long way from Rumi,

     Come see my wounds
     See my smashed skull
     See the spreading fractures
     See the congealed blood
     See my blooded larynx
     See my slashed throat
     See my torn uterus

and so on, until it ends,

     Despite all of this, I'm still young and alive
     And despite my smashed skull I'm still beautiful

              © David Hart 2012