If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, tr. Anne Carson (a #WITMonth post)

Title:  If Not, Winter – Fragments of Sappho

Author:  Sappho

Translator:  Anne Carson

Language:  Classical Greek

Publisher:  Vintage Books/Random House, New York (2002)

ISBN:  0 375 72451 6

IfNotWinterIs Sappho, who composed her poems c. 630-570 B.C., the earliest woman to have her work was translated into English? She was much admired in antiquity, the woman whom Plato called “the tenth muse”, but notwithstanding the immensity of her reputation very little of her work has survived intact.  There are reasons for this and scholars who are more qualified to speak on the subject than I am.  Enough to say that what do exist are fragments of the original poems preserved on bits of decaying papyrus.  These surviving pieces are beautiful even in (and sometimes because of) their incomplete state…. and tantalize us with what they do and do not reveal.

Anne Carson seems to understand that part of the attraction of Sappho is the mystery which surrounds her.  Carson’s 2002 translations, collected in the book titled If Not, Winter, are interesting in a variety of ways – not least being how she presents the verses.   On the left hand page is the original Greek. On the right, the English translations. This is fairly typical formatting in poetry translations, but she has also made the radical decision to use brackets to signify the missing words and sections – to define the negative space within Sappho’s poems. Carson explains her thought process in an Introduction to the collection: “Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it… I emphasize the distinction between brackets and no brackets because it will affect your reading experience, if you allow it. Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, there is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp – brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.”  

What results is a surprisingly modern form of poetry.

]despise

]quick as possible

]

But you, O Dika, bind your hair with lovely crowns,

tying stems of anise together in your soft hands.

For the blessed Graces prefer to look on one who wears flowers

and turn away from those without a crown.

(Fragment 81)

Reading the truncated succinctness of the first three incomplete lines, followed by the fullness of the final four, is a voluptuous pleasure that must exist separately from the original verse Sappho would have sung. Perhaps what surprises most is the loveliness of the left hand page, an area most monolingual readers tend to ignore, believing it the territory of scholars who might want to compare the original to the translation. In this case the Greek characters, to which Carson has also applied her brackets, have a visual beauty.  They appear romantic and exotic, evoking the Mytilene island of Lesbos where Sappho lived and composed.

Anne Carson is an accomplished poet in her own right, in conjunction to being a skilled translator.  She is also a woman (to state the obvious) – which is relevant because the feminine voice is the essence of all Sappho’s poetry. So if in some places she has taken liberties in how the lines are formatted on the page, creating spacing and indentations where none existed in the Greek, it is because her knowledge of modern poetry – of the works of poets such as e.e. cummings and Emily Dickinson – informs her translation.  This does not necessarily put Carson at odds with the antiquity of the source text since no one is even sure that Sappho was, herself, literate. Her poetry was sang, accompanied by a variety of musical instruments and most of what has come down to us are transcriptions made by others after her death.

Fragment 81 in the original Greek, from If Not, Winter
Fragment 81 in the original Greek, from If Not, Winter

Each poem and fragment in the collection is numbered – using the same numbers/numerical system as the one used by Greek scholars. This means that Fragment 81, for example, is always the same (notwithstanding differences in translations) across texts. These fragments range from almost complete poems (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5 & 31); to series of seemingly random words; to single lines which float at the top of a page – “and I on a soft pillow will lay down my limbs”.  Fragment 38 consists of only three words – “you burn me”. While it might seem useless reading these words, stranded without context – it is that very lack of context which makes them seem powerful.  True their power will inevitably be diminished as new words and lines are discovered and “you burn me” is again imbedded among the other, more relevant, lyrics.  But reading Sappho is a rather like a high-stakes game of Mad Libs, something Carson seems to understand.

Over time this reader of Sappho has found herself becoming a collector of words and phrases as new information, new fragments, are uncovered. Often in the most obscure places –  ancient rubbish heaps or scraps of papyrus that was used in the wrappings of Egyptian mummies.  In 2005 the Times Literary Supplement published a more complete version of Fragment No. 58 than what was available to Carson in 2002.  The discovery of a new papyrus magically allowed us to fill in the blanks, completing almost the entire poem. Two more poems were found in 2014 (“New Poems By Sappho” TLS, 5 February 2014).  The first poem was not entirely unknown to scholars, its existence had been mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus in his writings. What has become known as “The Brothers Poem” is missing only a few words.  The second find was yet another short fragment consisting of approximate five, more or less, complete lines.

WITMonth15Each of these new discoveries is a revelation that fills in more of the negative space surrounding Sappho’s work, and causes those seemingly innocuous brackets in If Not, Winter to take on a new significance. “…Brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure” Anne Carson wrote in 2002. That implication has since become a promise.

 

 

 

 

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All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão, translated from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler

ALL DOGS ARE BLUE_FRONT cmykAll Dogs Are Blue is a beautifully nuanced portrayal of mental illness.  Rodrigo de Souza Leão has given us a story set in a Brazilian mental institution which isn’t a caricature of lunacy.  The author does not fall into the familiar stereotypes.  He does not confine his narrator within a prison of horrors.  Nor does Souza Leão romanticize the disease, assigning it the attributes of genius.  The narrator has schizophrenia, but he is not defined by it.  He possesses a consciousness and humanity outside of his mental illness.

The unnamed narrator is a patient at a Rio de Janeiro asylum.  In the course of his free-flowing, stream-of-conscious narrative he tells us about his daily routine, gives his observations on his fellow patients, his parents and caregivers, tells how he came to be committed and shares his reoccurring delusions. Two of these, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, are his best friends – the angel and the devil on his shoulders.  He masturbates a lot.  A loose subplot hinges on another inmate, The Fearsome Madman, and provides some comic relief.  All Dogs Are Blue is a book full of contradictions.  When it is funny, it’s hilarious.  When it is serious, it’s heartbreaking. 

This is by no means a traditional narrative, filtered as it is through the narrator’s – sometimes lucid, sometimes delusional – perceptions.   The routine of the asylum can be mind-numbingly boring, and yet the narrator is constantly striving to find beauty and meaning inside this narrow world.  While Souza Leão is no slouch as a novelist, his true calling is as a poet.  I recommend reading this book for the richness of the prose;  the shifts between reality and delusion; the beautiful and surreal imagery; and the symbolism of a blue toy dog.  Each and every word, up until the last period, counts.

All Dogs Are Blue is – at its heart – a long, shimmering prose poem beautifully translated by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler.

I’ve been to China.  Saying it like that makes it sound like I’ve travelled a lot.  It was a very pretty place, full of people, bicycles and lots of clouds.  The clouds, the clouds.  There I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a foreigner and I was madly in love with those far-away clouds, oh those wonderful clouds!  Shapes in the sky.  When the day is like that, a sunny day, a day like today, I no longer want to get out of here.  I’ll sleep in the calm green of 6 mg of Lexotan.  Hold on tight to my blue dog and enter into a pact with happiness.  Remember China, its bicycles, its blood-red flag and, finally, those incredible clouds in the Chinese sky.  I think I’ll be happier once I’ve taken the bloody blood oath.  I want to die of anything, anything but of a chip I swallowed.

This is also a semi-autobiographical novel.  It’s Brazilian author, Rodrigo de Souza Leão, died in an institution.  He, like his protagonist, was not a man defined by his illness.  His artistic output during his too short life (1965-2008) was enormous.  He was the author of at least four novels, more than ten books of poetry and was co-founder/editor of the Brazilian poetry magazine Zunái.  He was a blogger and maintained friendships with several other important Brazilian poets and authors through email and social media.  In addition he was a visual artist whose paintings were posthumously exhibited, in a solo exhibition, at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art.  Most dream of, but few succeed in, leaving behind such a legacy.

____________

The English edition of All Dogs Are Blue, published by And Other Stories includes an Introduction by Deborah Levy and the Publisher’s Preface to the Second Brazilian Edition by Jorge Viveiros de Castro (Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s Brazilian publisher) who was a friend of the author’s.

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Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki (translated by Thomas Lamarre & Kazuko Y. Behrans)

The description on the back cover of Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences compares the sci-fi/fantasy novel to the 2002 horror film The Ring (or Ringu, if you’re a purist who only acknowledges the original 1998 Japanese version). The film plot centers on  **SPOILER ALERT**  a video tape that’s haunted by a murdered girl.  Anyone who watches the tape dies in seven days. Of course there’s a loophole. (There’s always a loophole).

Outside of the initial premise that something you see/watch/read/focus-on-for-an-extended-period-of-time can kill you the plots are very different.  A better comparison is, in my opinion, “The Albertine Notes” by Rick Moody.   (This novella can be read in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales).  The two share several common themes – time travel, addiction, a mysterious and deadly drug (The Albertine Notes) or poem (Death Sentences), and an opportunity to set things right that comes at the end.  In addition, both stories feature an Asian protagonist and a haunting, fragmented narrative that only gradually resolves itself.

Chiaki’s novel opens in  the1980’s where we meet Sakamoto, a member of a Japanese special police unit tasked with stopping the spread of an unidentified narcotic among the population.  Its victims commit suicide.  We’re quickly told that what we assumed to be a  drug is actually a poem, copied by hand (copier use is now closely monitored by the authorities) and spread from person to person through an  underground network of addicts.

Death Sentences jumps back in time to 1930’s New York, and then forward to Paris in the late 40’s.  Here we witness, through the eyes of the Surrealist André Breton, the discovery of the poem and the emergence of the mysterious poet Who May.  (And it is here that Chiaki accomplishes the truly unimaginable – somehow making the Surrealists interesting!)    Who May will write only three powerful and disturbing poems: “Other World”, “Mirror” and “The Gold of Time”.  These are enough to establish his reputation and his shadowy place in history.  Breton is a witness, forced to watch helplessly as many of his contemporaries succumb to Who May’s art.  After reading only a few lines he will, we learn, spend much of his life seeking “The Gold of Time”.

Duchamp picked at the corner of the manuscript on the table with a fingernail.

“This man… Who May… isn’t he Chinese?  No matter, but what exactly did he think he was writing?  Poetry? Well, this is nothing like poetry.  It may be written with words, but this is painting.  And,one might say, quite garish at that.  Its fantasy is visually too primitive.  Don’t you think?  That paranoid Catalonian would be delighted to crank out his sort of thing in reams.”

That was a bit of sarcasm directed at Salvidor Dalí.

These two stories – the poem’s origin and its deadly consequences – converge in yet a third plotline that brings us back to 1980’s Japan.  In it a small, independent poetry press organizes an exhibit built around a collection of newly discovered materials belonging to the early Surrealists.  Among the items is André Breton’s trunk.

Kawamata Chiaki writes in abrupt, rapid fire prose. Each paragraph contains between 1-3 sentences and he incorporates a lot of dialogue.  Personally, I like his style (though, I’ve seen reviews on GoodReads by readers who did not).  It keeps the action moving and increases the tension.  It also imbues the whole experience with an alien atmosphere.  Chiaki – and his translators – use this stylistic tick to their advantage.  Creating a nice contrast between the main narrative and the stream of conscious flow of the excerpts of Who May’s poetry which appear within the story.

It was all too obvious what he’d been doing.

That night he returned home well past two in the morning, and while having a nightcap he’d started reading the manuscripts signed my Who May.

The bottle of whiskey had been left uncapped.  It was now empty.  The glass was empty, too.  Later they discovered that he hadn’t drunk the whiskey.  It had evaporated in the heat.  That explained why the place reeked.

At first Sakakibara thought he had drunk too much and fallen asleep like that.  But that wasn’t it.  Kasadera wasn’t asleep at all.  He was lying there with both eyes wide open, staring into space.

His one hand was still clutching one of the three manuscript copies.

Death Sentences blends genres – incorporating sci-fi, literary thriller and noir.  The plot, while not totally unexpected, is fairly complex in its construction.  It’s the elements of complexity – the converging plotlines, the large cast of characters, the flashbacks and forwards, the defiance of genre – that make this novel so unusual.  Not to mention ridiculously hard to stop reading.

The University of Minnesota Press has put out a beautiful edition, taking the time to include a good amount of scholarly material.  The implication being that they consider Death Sentences a significant example of contemporary Japanese writing. I only wish more publishers would follow their example. There is a Foreword by Takayuki Tatsumi and an Afterword by Thomas Lamarre.  Both with notes. Both closely examine the novel itself, its author and his influences.  The care and attention that has gone into packaging this book (which, to their credit, seems to be typical of Minnesota) has me eagerly anticipating the next Chiaki novel to be published in English. I’ve been told that it deals with hikikomori culture – the Japanese phenomenon where young adults retreat from the world, never leaving their bedrooms.  Just imagine what a skilled storyteller like Kawamati Chiaki will do with a subject like that!

[Correction:  The hikikomori book is actually by another Japanese author, Saito Tamaki.  The title is Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End and is scheduled to be released Spring, 2013.  I suppose that’s what happens when you repeat things you thought you heard over loud music & drinks!]

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 8166 5455 0

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Varamo by César Aira (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)

My love affair with César Aira began at the Idlewild Bookshop.  A friend handed me a copy of GHOSTS and said “This looks interesting.  You read it and let me know if it’s any good”.  (These assignments occur more often then you might think).  And so I read it.  Afterwards, I began to hunt for other Aira books with the single-minded focus I’d previously reserved for obscure short stories by Faulkner & Salinger (4 hours and $25.00 spent at the NYPL making copies of Hapworth 16 1924 from the 1965 New Yorker magazine microfiche).  Fortunately New Directions publishes a nice selection of his translations, immensely simplifying my task.

Why my passion?  Because no one writes like Aira.  His small novellas  – usually under a hundred pages – contain line-after-line of sublime prose.  Each is a tiny, carefully articulated, universe.  Like a miniature diorama you can lose yourself in for hours. The plots, on the other hand, appear relatively straight-forward.  Deceptively so, in my opinion.

Varamo is “a third-class clerk” working for the Panamanian government.  In the year 1923, during the ten- to twelve-hours described in this novel, he will be inspired and write The Song of the Virgin Child.  It will be celebrated as a masterpiece.  It will also be the first and last thing he ever writes.  You never actually read the poem in its entirety… or even excerpts.  Instead, Aira recounts this unusual day in Varamo’s life – seemingly disparate events which will culminate in a single poem.

Varamo has a place amongst literature’s eccentric characters.  When we first meet him he is under stress, believing himself the recipient of counterfeit bills and convinced that he’ll be arrested if he tries to use or dispose of them.  Things just get stranger from there as our protagonist is joined by a cast of equally outlandish characters.  Their, and subsequently our, hold on reality seems more and more tenuous.  The story is filled with absurdities – a botched taxidermy experiment, a regularity race (it’s real!), mysterious Voices – all accompanied by seemingly rational explanations.  But as each strange event is explained away, another moves in to fill its place.

The races, said Cigarro, were fundamentally technical competitions, an opportunity for the fledgling automobile industry to test its innovations, and they appealed mainly to car fanatics rather than the general public, which made them rather esoteric.  The race underway was a special case, because it had been promoted by the Central Administration as part of the festivities for the inauguration of the linked highways running right across the isthmus, connecting the cities of Colón and Panamá.  In fact (and here he lowered his voice, as if revealing a state secret) the race had been planned, mainly, as a trap for anarchists.  To them, a regularity race was a provocation; it’s strict regulation of time and space was bound to prove repugnant to the libertarian spirit.

Part of the frustration in reviewing a César Aira novel is that anything I write will be inadequate at conveying the pure delight to be found in his prose style, the way he transitions in and out of ideas and the overall narrative rhythm.  How to fully appreciate “And the black sky crossed by streams of phosphorescent mercury was a vision worth the risk.  The stars were an overwhelming surprise.  But since each scene was linked to the one that had gone before, he continued to see the dominoes and dishes, twinkling among the constellations…”  without reading it in context? Varamo poses an even greater challenge than usual – the narrative is perplexing, the plot (most of it filtered through our protagonist’s mind) difficult to untangle and a little slow getting off the ground.  But – and I stress this –  it’s so worth the effort.  Every time I come to the end of an Aira novella I feel as if I’ve missed something important.  Varamo was no different.  Rather than finding it frustrating, I see it as an opportunity… a welcome excuse to go back to the first page and begin again.

Publisher: New Directions, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 8112 1741 5

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Flash Cards, poetry by Yu Jian (translated from the Chinese by Wang Ping & Ron Padgett)

I purchased this little book of poetry sometime last year on a whim.  It didn’t pop back up on my radar until after I read The True Deceiver, and discovered in the course of writing my review that both books were nominated for the 2011 Best Translated Book Award.  I immediately pulled it out of the pile and devoured Flash Cards in just a few short hours.  It’s a brilliant, beautiful collection of poems.  I’ve returned to it several times since that first reading to re-visit my favorites.

Yu Jian is a Chinese poet.  “The second bestselling contemporary Chinese poet, behind Bei Dao” we learn in his translator’s, Ron Padgett’s, thoughtful note (really more of an introduction) at the beginning of Flash Cards.  The three pages of Padgett’s A Note on Translating Yu Jian provide a unique portrait of a poet living in today’s China.  It’s followed by an equally interesting analysis of the poetry by Simon Patton, who discusses T.S. Eliot’s influence.  And then we get to the meat of it:  the seventy-five poems that make up this collection.

Throughout the book Yu Jian grapples with China’s vast cultural history in an attempt to contextualize its present.  He repeatedly uses the traditional symbols and motifs – Autumn, leopards, flowering fruit trees, a porcelain bowl – and then contrasts them to a much less elegant modern world.  And so peach blossoms become pink cosmetic boxes glimpsed from an escalator and a presumably priceless Shang Dynasty antique reveals itself to be a mass-produced bowl used to hold chicken soup.  He shows us a China disconnected from its past.  The poems are short and yet, in just a few lines, Yu Jian tells surprisingly complex stories.

Someone discovered Xi Shuang Ban Na
“Beautiful Place”
The locals don’t know what that means
They’ve never discovered beauty in their native land
The world     has always been like this
The place has always been called     Xi Shuang Ban Na

This collection is not political.  But I still couldn’t help thinking of the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei and his 1995 piece:  Dropping a Han dynasty urn.  Both artists are smashing tradition – though, perhaps not so dramatically in Yu Jian’s case.  Both challenge the public’s attachment to a China that no longer exists by co-opting its icons and placing them within what has become an almost alien environment.  In Yu Jian’s case this includes the art of poetry. Nothing, it seems, is sacred.

(Poetry Recipe)

The lake takes off its blue mitten
exposing a red palm

The blue mitten is a metaphor for the lake
The red palm is the lakebed
Next     you should compare yourself
to something small and lovely on the shore
a gazelle or deer drinking water
but don’t ever compare yourself to a fish
because they’re doomed     the lake drying up

Yu Jien does not sacrifice beauty for meaning in his writing.  Nor do the translators.  The surprisingly lovely imagery, the distinctive meter and rhythm of these poems seems to have been strictly held to – an English and a Chinese translator collaborating to protect the integrity of the work.  For those who have to ability to confirm this:  the original Chinese text is printed on the page facing the English translation for each of the seventy-five poems.  The paperback is well designed with clean-cut pages and french flaps.  In short:  Zephyr Press has done a wonderful job.  Not surprising, as the non-profit, independent publisher specializes in international poetry translations.

Flash Cards is a joint project with The Chinese University Press and the Jintian Literary Foundation.

Publisher: Zephyr Press & Chinese University Press; Brookline, Mass./Hong Kong (2011)
ISBN: 978 0 9815521 3 2

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