Tag Archives: winter 2023-24

Move Like Water

My Story of the Sea

Hannah Stowe
Tin House ($24.95)

by Elissa Greenwald

In her debut memoir Move Like Water, Hannah Stowe immerses readers in the world of the ocean. Early on, the Welsh author connects the constantly changing outer world of the ocean with her troubled inner one: “There was a current inside me. At times, it swept along straight and true, serene on the surface, but determinedly fast flowing. At others, the winds of life would turn against the tide . . . and I would rage, tempestuous.”

In the book’s opening chapter, Stowe tends to pile up phrases, with many sentences using five or more commas. While the lyrical style may lull the reader like waves, we start to long for events and characters that comprise a life, though we are given brief glimpses of the author’s mother (her parents are divorced) and companionable brother. Her mother, however, becomes more important as the book progresses; we learn it was she who both inspired Stowe’s artistic impulses and taught her how to swim, “moving with—moving like—the water.”

The book finds momentum in the second chapter when the author goes to sea, on a ship where “it was hard to tell the sea from the sky—the water was everywhere.” At sea, Stowe is continually off-balance, literally and metaphorically. In order to cook on shipboard, “You have to lash yourself to the stove, which swayed wildly on its gimbal, the pivoted support that allows it to swing with the motion of the boat.”

The dramatic action at sea brings the narrative to life. “In my roamings around the coast back home, I had moved through the landscape,” Stowe writes; “Now, the seascape built, fell, hurled, roared, and hurtled around me, dictating my movement with a Mephistophelian chaos.” There is no doubt that the ocean is Stowe’s true home: “I had found my north, the area of life into which I wanted to pour my passion.”

Stowe’s adventures at sea, where she crewed for scientific expeditions as far as Newfoundland, recede into memory after she suffers a surfing injury. Move Like Water here becomes a memoir of healing, both of body and mind. Comparing herself to Icarus for being dissatisfied with her life and always seeking new adventures, Stowe experiences recurring dreams in which she alternately becomes an albatross and a sea captain. Both dreams help her grow—the first through study of how the wanderings of the albatross resemble her own, and the second by inspiring her to buy her own boat.

The author’s rapturous descriptions of the sea and its inhabitants, from the lowly plankton to the lordly sperm whale, fulfill her goal to give the reader “an ocean to hold in your hands.” With a scientist’s perspective, a sea captain’s knowledge, and a poet’s soul, Stowe takes readers on a journey that enlists us in her project to preserve the ocean and its creatures.

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Meltwater - Curve

Claire Wahmanholm

Milkweed Editions ($16)

Kate Reavey
Empty Bowl Press ($16)

by Jessica Gigot

Poetry focused on the experience of motherhood, or that has the perspective of a mother figure, is sometimes seen as overly domestic. However, the many dimensions of mothering can inform other aspects of human experience. Two recent collections, Meltwater by Claire Wahmanholm and Curve by Kate Reavey, illuminate what we all gain when we examine the intricacies of life with a maternal lens.

Wahmanholm’s Meltwater is a somber feast of sounds and images, part remembrance and part gut-wrenching prediction; in poems both playful and bleak, the author employs lyrical repetition and fierce honesty to explore topics ranging from ecological change to personal grief. A series of poems titled after letters of the alphabet offer a particularly rich slurry of language, alliteration, and imagery: In “M” Wahmanholm writes, “I am a mare rolling in a midnight / meadow, all musk and muzzle,” while in “P” she speaks of her daughter directly: “I place her outside my arm’s parenthesis so she can’t feel my pulse/ pounding.”

Several poems in this book share the same title, such as “Meltwater” and “Glacier”; these poems are in conversation with each other and also serve as a touchstone for the rest of the collection. The “Meltwater” entries are erasure poems taken from an essay by Lacy M. Johnson called “How to Mourn a Glacier,” and the “Glacier” series examines glaciers as both abstract concepts and fleeting creatures. Wahmanholm’s treatment of water imagery can get confusing as she considers its various transformations, however, in the final “Glacier” poem of the collection she brings it all under one rubric when she writes, “It is the water I am trying to teach my daughters to float in.” There is deep reverence for the changing state of glaciers as well as immense guilt for what they will represent to future generations.

In the book’s penultimate poem, “The Empty Universe,” Wahmanholm writes:

I cannot, this night, stop myself
from listening to my daughter wail
and wishing she were less like herself
therefore less like me

Meltwater is the poet’s wail against the way our environment is changing. With the discerning eye and open heart of a mother, she startles the reader awake—in no small part because of her willingness to divulge her own vulnerabilities.

Reavey’s Curve navigates the full arc of a life, starting with poems focused on early motherhood, then moving through stages of parenting, marriage, and loss. Curve alludes to the shapes that contain us, the roles (like motherhood) that give us perspective on how the world works and for whom. In the poem “Curve is a word” Reavey sets the scope of her observational task: “that the curve / of the earth / is too small to see, / yet defines us // allows us to breathe.” Through the container of these observant and autobiographical poems, Reavey shares the textured experience of her own life as a woman, wife, and mother.

Reavey is focused on the body, particularly the way it transfigures through time and with age. The collection’s first poem includes a vision: “as I, in my own bed, dream of being / a mother.” Later, in “After the Hysterectomy,” the poet confesses, “Mine as verb // no longer possible.” Her physical experiences within a mother-body speak to a broader understanding of longing and the challenge of grappling with temporal changes to identity.

The poems in Curve elevate the quotidian in surprising ways; a series about grief, for example, melds the making of blackberry jam with the death of the poet’s mother. In “Grief,” she writes, “Fruit ripens, even in rain”; “Grief II” begins, “Blackberries boiling on the stovetop / are not violence. Their color changes.” In “Grief III,” Reavey concludes:

Come December I will wrap the jars, drop them in the heel
of stockings.
                                 Christmas morning, the fruit will remind me
of everything
except loss.

The metaphor is clear: Through the process of creating something, the poet becomes able to let go of the past; tending to others she is also modeling renewal.

These two collections offer distinct visions, to be sure—the fractured nature of Wahmanholm’s work is perhaps a generational artifact, rooted in skepticism, defiance, and frustration, while Reavey’s poems focus on complexities within relationships and between self and place rather than global urgencies—yet they both traverse wide swaths of emotion while anchoring their poems in the grit of life. As we continue to face ecological catastrophe, political collapse, and a thousand paper cuts of isolation from human contact, the tender and receptive voice of the mother may be what is needed most.

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Nina Zivancevic
Spuyten Duyvil ($20)

by Jim Cohn

The title of Serbian-born poet Nina Zivancevic’s vivid travel memoir, SMRTi, comes from the Sanskrit—literally, “that which is remembered.” Historically, smrti refers to written Hindu texts composed by authors seeking an ever-evolving yet precise and compact prose form to capture the passing of essential facts, principles, instructions, and ideas from generation to generation. In Zivancevic’s hands, smrti is an ideal and flexible form to present memorable distillations from her sojourns to India, Egypt, Italy, Spain, England, Paris (her present-day home), Lima, and Peru over the period from 1990 to 2015.

Zivancevic is an intrepid, eclectic world navigator and chronicler. She applies her own extensive and unique knowledge of European intellectual and aesthetic movements as well as Beat Generation writers and poets in a style exemplary of the international post-beat avant-garde, alive and well today. Cornerstones to her sense of lineage and tradition include the Serbian poet Ljubomir Micić, founder of the avant-garde movement Zenitism; the raw and transgressive French writer and dramatist Antonin Artaud; the Belgium-born French writer and visual artist Henri Michaux; the Bulgarian-French philosopher, semiotician, and feminist Julia Kristeva; and two American poets associated with the Beat Generation, Ira Cohen and Allen Ginsberg.

As a writer who has lived an international life in the arts, Zivancevic describes how she approached the writing in SMRTi based on something Michaux said after his travels to India: “I was observing myself during my journey as if I would observe someone else who was observing the world with emotion, remembering an imaginary land.” But they have differing relationships to this “imaginary land”: Whereas Michaux believed that he did not “inhabit” the lands to which he traveled, that he “was not there” and “did not even visit it,” Zivancevic argues that she had “always lived there . . . I am a part of it, I was there even when I did not live in it.”

The writing in SMRTi is delightfully fresh as a result and gives space to unexpected scenes and commentaries. Steeped in the history and cultures of the places she visits, Zivancevic approaches the world as a multilingual surrealist poet or anthropologist might, with a distinct and inventive sense of detail and a mashup of intellectual and colloquial subject matter.

Zivancevic is also grounded in a Buddhist practitioner’s understanding of breath, which sustains the rhythm of her prose. The poems in SMRTi are sequenced from longest to shortest and give rise to a stylistically oblique autobiography, filled with slanted and implicit recounts of investigations into the memory of ex-lovers and the development of her own maternal sense.

Perhaps most importantly, Zivancevic’s travel writing is a welcome departure from the colonialist norm. Her travel-memoir language has little relation to any National Geographic documentary or hired tour mentality—the kind of habitual, dull bubble of travel where people never really leave their cultures behind while abroad. Citing the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, as the basis for her own way of being, she writes:

Italy, Serbia and India are not so different; at the same time they are just singular entities, as Deleuze would have explained when he was creating the notion of “singularity,” opposing the notion of “otherness” which purported the Euro-centrist theory. In other words, one should view the cultural differences not so much as the post-effect of “otherness” but as an act of exhibiting equal cultural entities. What follows is a possibility of observing all cultural singularities as equal participants in our mutual presence, rather than treating them as different relics of the past.

It is this egalitarian and transformative approach to otherness that contextualizes Zivancevic’s perspective throughout SMRTi as a series of memory-oriented and dream-connected aesthetic singularities. She writes about her travels to India: “I close my eyes . . . and for a second I fall asleep, float away, as if I am Sarasvati, the goddess of poetry, noise and music in person.” Such “invasive souvenirs” allow Zivancevic her the opportunity to notice “quick passing memories” or, in her words, “what’s the most important thing to remember while passing out.”

This line of thinking brings her back, while traveling to the south of India to attend a yoga retreat, to memories of Allen Ginsberg, with whom she studied at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, who also journaled about his travels to India. As she notes, “Ginsberg called this particular experience in poetry ‘the direct (subjective or objective) approach to an object,’” adding that Ginsberg got this notion from Ezra Pound, who decades earlier advocated this same poetics based not on the Western version of concept or “sentimentality of abstraction” but on “the direct observance of things, without a particular conceptualization.”

SMRTi thus not surprisingly operates with a vigorous dedication to William Carlos Williams’s poetics of “No ideas but in things.” Writing in this mode can lead to brilliant anthropological investigation; it can also work on an individual, psycho-emotional scale. Take this reflection about the deep south of India and its coconut trees:

In order to drink coconut milk you have to cut off almost half the coconut very fast. The movement has to be stable and rapid, and then only at that point you’d be able to get the sweetness of that milk. And so with our life, when we grow older and weary of it, we have to cut it off, throw the negative part out––so we can get deeper into something better.

Zivancevic’s chaotic coherence throughout SMRTi aligns masterfully with her own life changes, and her approach to change as the essence of travel is informative even in its most comic and distraught moments of revelry and remembrance. This philosophy is most apparent in her explorations of her dreams, especially her four major “karmic dreams.” In one of these dreams, Zivancevic describes an argument regarding the nature of feelings between German artist Joseph Beuys and “a French sociologist standing next to me” who responds to Beuys in this way:

“You probably imply here a certain anti-realism. Feeling defends itself by preventing itself from observing something which is unbearable, thus replacing it immediately by a certain illusion.“

“However, you must agree with me that the ‘feeling’ became immune from persuasion and the commercial propaganda imposed on it by that very man who creates perfect illusions but who does not accept the truth of a lie which reality feeds him.”

Dreams like these make Zivancevic question her reality as she travels in the south of India: “Am I dreaming all this, or am I really in a certain film, more precisely, am I in a film where I’m having a dream about cinematography”? Her cinematic dream continues, with scenes of the green fields of Lido changing into the “pavilion of ex-Yugoslavia,” land of her birth, where the subsequent history of civil wars “mingle with the stories of the killing of the population, torture and mutilation and all this repeated every ten minutes on the screen in an endless loop” like one may experience at any museum of fine art.

History as memory, as future, as travel, as illness, as dream, as museum installation—all these divagations allow the reader to realize that for Zivancevic, the ancient cults of the goddesses still exist, that they live in universes that thrive by a matriarchy we cannot apprehend. It is a universe in which parents and children appear in a story when their grandparents are still children themselves, or not yet born. In such a universe, it is possible to go, as Zivancevic did, “right back to the only landscape where I truly belonged, the country where any real family of mine lived––of poets, writers, philosophers and artists. And it is not important really where I live as long as these people are directly or indirectly in my company.”

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The Haunted Quality of Poetry: An Interview with Norman Finkelstein

by Joe Safdie

In 2018, Norman Finkelstein published an odd collection of poetry titled From the Files of the Immanent Foundation—odd in that it detailed the history of a secret organization as bureaucratic as it was gnostic, “a network of spies and secrets, / an infinite arcanum of hierophants and fools.” In a Broken Star followed in 2021; this book introduced the character of Pascal Wanderlust, who both is and isn’t the subject of a quest narrative. Now a third book, Further Adventures (Dos Madres Press, $23), completes the trilogy, weaving connections between Pascal and the Foundation.

Finkelstein’s oeuvre has always been “sensitive to the overlapping traditions of Jewish mysticism, radical poetics and post-modern thought,” as J. Peter Moore wrote in a collection of essays about his expansive body of work. Finkelstein has published thirteen books of poems and six volumes of literary criticism, and is a professor emeritus at Xavier University, where he taught for forty years. One of his central themes, according to the Poetry Foundation, is “the tension between secular and religious world views”—a subject that he discusses, among others, in the interview below.

* * *

Joe Safdie: Norman, thanks for doing this. I want to talk mainly about Further Adventures, but I don’t think that’s possible without talking a bit about the two books that preceded it, From the Files of the Immanent Foundation and In A Broken Star. My first question involves that word “further”: when did you know that you weren’t quite finished with this journey, and is there a chance that it’s still not finished? You say in the Afterword that time itself is a problem in this poetry: Is there a difference in how narrative time is structured in this book from what was established in the previous two?

Norman Finkelstein: When Further Adventures appeared, I was fairly sure the story of Pascal and the Immanent Foundation was done. But recently, I’ve returned to it, perhaps out of a desire to fill in some of the gaps in the narrative. In any case, my experience in writing these poems has been similar to my experience in writing Track. I thought that Track was over once the first volume was published, but months later I found myself writing what became Columns, the second volume. At a certain point I knew there would be a third, and I also understood that it would not be interminable (as, say, Nathaniel Mackey’s work seems to be). So I thought From the Files was one book, and in a sense it still is—it can be read as a stand-alone work—but when The Adventures of Pascal Wanderlust came to me, I gradually realized that Pascal had something to do with the Immanent Foundation. I wanted to return to that world and somehow pull it all together. Hence Further Adventures, which is both prequel and sequel to the earlier books.

As for “narrative time” in this work, well, it’s tricky. By the end of Further Adventures, we can see that there is a definite narrative arc, a chronology. Pascal’s story intersects that of the Foundation at various points in time. But I also think that events in the poems occur in a phantasmagoric version of what Walter Benjamin calls jetzeit, “now time,” time at a standstill that has transformative, explosive potential. And there is also mythic time, cyclical time: Characters are themselves, but also avatars. There are archetypal resonances. There’s a forward trajectory but also a constant movement backward, a return to origins.

JS: In the Afterword to Further Adventures, you mention the 12 x 12 form (twelve stanzas of twelve lines each) as an instance of your “stanzaic numerology.” Could you say something more about form in this book, and in your work generally?

NF: Obviously I’m not a “formalist” as that term is conventionally understood. I’m acutely aware of measure, of end stop, enjambment, caesura, but most of my work doesn’t “scan” in terms of standard English meters. I love rhyme, but I use it sparingly, and when I use it, it tends to be off-kilter. But I’ve always been, if not a formalist, a structuralist. “Stanzaic numerology” is a notion I keep in mind that helps me structure my poetry. I first became aware of it writing Track, where lines, stanzas, and sections are all “magically” determined by recombinatory numerical procedures. “Stanzaic numerology” is fundamental to my shaping of verse, from couplets, tercets, and quatrains to more indeterminately formed poems in cyclopean and granitic blocks, in which many voices can be contained. Song and sculpture. Even as far back as my first book, Restless Messengers, I was deliberately riffing on the structure of the Romantic ode.

I believe in what Robert Duncan calls the “form of forms.” But the Objectivists are also important to me, and following them, I tend to dislike poetry that sprawls. Writing Further Adventures made me acutely aware of the productive tension between lyric and narrative, or in operatic terms, aria and recitative. So, I move among many possible structures, guided by voices, sensing what’s called for, and paying careful attention to what used to be called “numbers,” poetic units.

JS: Well, as Pope wrote, “Most by numbers judge a poet’s song.” Now that we’ve covered “Further,” how about “Adventures”? You recall Pascal’s aphorism “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” but much of the adventure of this narrative happens in a room like that, doesn’t it? Do you see this as mostly a philosophical inquiry à la Gnosticism—or is the quest simply to keep going, to write the next poem?

NF: The search for gnosis implies a quest, but it’s not a search for the Grail, or for transcendence—though in the Pascal poems, there is always a sense of going “beyond.” I suppose you can say it’s a philosophical or spiritual inquiry, but that sounds too abstract for me. In Further Adventures, we learn that Wanderlust came into being as a failsafe, and has a mission—restore the Immanent Foundation if, as proves to be the case, it is destroyed (or implodes). But Gnosticism involves seeking self-knowledge, thus our hero’s understanding of psychic being constantly grows, even if many episodes reveal Wanderlust to be something of a schlemiel.

Where does all of this take place? Not only in Pascal’s room or mind—this is, after all, a series of adventures. I have any number of models, from The Fairie Queene to Epipsychidion to “The Comedian as the Letter C” to Song of the Andoumboulou. Arthur Green calls the Zohar “sacred fantasy,” a term that can apply to my work, and that of quite a few other poets who are writing quest-romance.

JS: There’s a certain “boys’ life” feeling about some of this narrative. In the Afterword, you mention Lovecraft and Neil Gaiman, and even, in connection with Augustus Sprechenbaum, the Marvel Comics character Dr. Strange. I wonder who else you may be conjuring here (or, as you say, “data mining”), and how these many voices correspond with Pascal’s late desire “to be free of all the ghosts.” You’re obviously paying homage, but is there also something else going on?

NF: Allusion has always been crucial to my poetry. Wallace Stevens says that poetry is the scholar’s art, and I’m all in. For a long time, I have thought of my work as a poetry of commentary, and the midrashic impulse is essential—it generates meaning, and I hope my readers are willing to play along. And I’ve come to move between “high” and “pop” culture. Some years ago, Mark Scroggins and I were imagining a mash-up of the life of Hart Crane with Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, merging Crane and the narrator of that story to make a single character; that made its way into the story of Bob and Pete in Further Adventures. Now who is going to figure that one out? But if they do, I think it will add to the pleasure of the text. Then there’s the Guide; at some point I realized that he bears a striking resemblance to the Silver Surfer. So, Pascal might wish to be free of all the ghosts—I think, psychoanalytically, we all do—but it’s impossible. Poets make use of that, and I love the haunted quality of poetry.

JS: Getting back to quest narratives briefly, though, who is the villain here? The Foundation was certainly nefarious, but is there an antagonist against whom Pascal and the others play out their complexities?

NF: In these poems, the antagonist lies within the self. That’s the case for Wanderlust, and even for the Foundation, an overreaching, schizoid organization if ever there was one. We are the Deep State, and our task is to go ever deeper. I wrote much of From the Files while doing my training analysis at the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute. Consider the implications!

JS: I think I’ll refrain from that task, thanks! But psychoanalysis brings up the question of autobiography, and there are more than a few passages where I thought you were writing about yourself—most obviously as the “arch-mage” in the prologue, but at other times as well. In what sense (or in how many senses) is Pascal Wanderlust you, and in what sense is he an invention of (or an adventure in) narrative? Is he or you “the poet”? The narrator? The Accountant?

NF: I have thought about the place of the self in the poem for a long time. For me, poetry, even lyric poetry, is not primarily self-expression, and I could cite a number of poets who variously attest to this. Look, for example, at the beginning of Yeats’s “A General Introduction for My Work.” For Yeats, the poet “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.” I consider that an aesthetic ideal, so I try to write a richly affective, intellectually curious poetry that is not mainly about the self. To be sure, there is something of me in Pascal, in Sprechenbaum, in the Accountant, and so on, just as there are parts of novelists in their characters. And I deliberately inserted a voice, or figure, of “the poet”; he mentions himself at various points. The one character I am not, however, is Sprechenbaum’s cat—he is based entirely on my cat, Kitzel.

JS: I’m sure Kitzel appreciates it. I also wonder about oppositions: Pascal is both male and female (like the king and queen in the alchemical beaker?), but as you’ve said, the “adventures” might be internal as well as external; I sense as well an argument between Gnosticism and skepticism, an “Interminable / internal debate” as you have it in “Behind Every Poem.” Does Blake’s “Without contraries is no progression” come in here at all? It’s probably naive to think about resolution of any kind these days, but this is narrative poetry: does it just circle around, wandering in time?

NF: I interrogate several binaries in Further Adventures, and gender is only the most obvious of them. A debate between Gnosticism and skepticism? Maybe idealism and empiricism, or imagination and reason. The ratio of reason to magic, to borrow the title of my selected poems—my work has always measured that. Blake’s notion of contraries is certainly operative; I think of my poetry as dialectical, or dialogical. The narrative may come to an end, but the commentary never does.

JS: Thanks for doing this, Norman; I read all three books with great pleasure, and hope they find a wide audience. I have one more question for you, because your latest book of essays, To Go Into the Words (University of Michigan Press, $34.95), has just been published as well. Do you feel any tension between writing poetry and critical prose? Is there a state of mind that seems more conducive to one or the other?

NF: To Go Into the Words is a selection of my essays, mostly on contemporary poetry, going back to the 1980s. I’ve always been a “poet-critic”: after all, I have a doctorate in English; I was trained as a literary scholar; and I enjoy writing about poetry. As a poet, I have always felt a need to examine the work of my contemporaries and predecessors in an effort to understand its importance to me. What in the work resonates for me? What can I learn from it? If the qualities I admire in the work inspire me, I want to explain those qualities to other readers, so that they too can appreciate them. This is also why I started Restless Messengers, my poetry review blog. I want to argue for the importance of certain poets—why I think they should be read.

My poetry and my criticism are often in creative tension. I’ve written two books about Jewish American poetry, and Jewishness, of course, is a deep current in my poems. Track is in dialogue with On Mount Vision, my critical book on contemporary long poems that deal with the sacred. And there’s also this: When the poetry is lying fallow, I can usually manage to write critical prose. I can continue to think about poetry even when I’m giving my own work a rest. Then the time returns when I feel something stirring, I hear a promising phrase. And it’s back.

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An Eye in Each Square

Lauren Camp
River River Books ($18)

by Richard Oyama

The artist Agnes Martin slips in and out of Lauren Camp’s An Eye in Each Square like a wraith, an invisible companion. “Must Learn Neither” introduces the book’s tripartite structure and its obsessions: “What I want / is nothing. No meaning, no matter, no more.” Like Martin’s art, Camp’s is private and oblique, not confessional. The poet observes how the artist’s work “made / sacred an emptiness,” and if the poems are ekphrastic, they are also an invocation, a conversation, and the suture of “A line, a line: it never leaves you.” The book’s title is itself drawn from Martin’s description of a family potato farm in Michigan, “an eye in each square of a chequerboard field, all by hand.”

Camp’s poetry admits a stony absence: “the moon rising in the bone-field is more hole than stoic presence.” It can break into an unpunctuated sentence, syntax awry—not unlike Gertrude Stein, whom Martin admired. In “Line Break,” the artist’s “line . . . lets the artist unfinish weariness.” It isn’t difficult from the title to see how the poet’s process parallels the artist’s; Martin’s marks on canvas don’t yield meaning or consolation so much as the desire for an emotional response, but her repetitions were a way of “moving grief to the side.” Camp writes in an end note that Martin and her work remained an enigma, which was precisely what was needed: After having been diagnosed as schizophrenic, she was submitted to shock treatment and became both explorer and interrogator of the psyche.

“Trusting Space” is the longest poem in the book. It opens with the question of “How to ask for joy,” then follows the speaker through the quotidian and mystical events of her day—a cemetery’s “glances,” low water, the sky filled with apparitions: “It is imperative / to see how this is substantial.” Martin figures as both oracle and prophet who has “drawn hurt” and practices erasure—like a poet. Thus the speaker of these poems, who “had plundered past nervous,” is enlaced with the artist, who at last stops burning paintings she judges flawed.

In “Lecture on Nothing,” the speaker is caught in the “antique gaze of Agnes’ / eyes” while Martin “frames the room and the room where she sits is built reliable / around her.” Martin disappeared from an artists’ cooperative in lower Manhattan for New Mexico, building an adobe brick house and a log-cabin studio, a move alluded to in “Tremolo”: “When she quit the city / to break from her constant hysteria, Agnes promised herself the apology // of firmness.” In “Lecture on Nothing,” then, the poet is empowered as the artist inhabits the “reliable” world of her own making. It is, as another poem suggests, a “Self-Portrait with Agnes Martin,” both self-reflective and joined.

The last poem in the book, “White Flower,” observes birds rehearsing scales as “their voices wing out / abundant. /. . . / I unthink.” Martin was profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism and Taoism, practicing no-thought through meditation. Camp deftly captures the reason why: not to deny the world’s peril but to calmly experience “pasture and idle. / . . . / To grow solace is to measure light / as a purpose.”

After his conversion to Christianity, W. H. Auden famously rewrote the closing of “September 1, 1939”: “We must love one another or die” to “love and die,” seeing it as no choice. Camp is less era-specific, but these are poems of our catastrophic time—of smoke and schism, love and abyss, vigil and disquiet. How one accommodates dread and the beauty of a world going on despite it may be unanswerable, but through her veers of thought and bracing opacity, Camp offers poems that attempt to articulate a response.

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Mother Howl

Craig Clavenger
Datura Books/Angry Robot Books ($17.99)

by Gavin Pate

It’s been eighteen years since Craig Clevenger’s previous novel, and his fans have long wondered if the next book would inhabit the same sinister world of broken criminals and slippery identities as his earlier works. With the release of Mother Howl, the answer is yes, and then some. The most ambitious of his three books, Mother Howl has a wider scope and takes more risks; the novel has equal parts gritty realism and swaths of the fantastic. It’s a crime story and a social commentary at once, a book unafraid to be philosophical about humanity’s purpose on Earth and how we must learn to deal with our pasts if we want to fulfill it.

Lyle Edison, the son of a serial killer, changed his name years ago to escape his father’s crimes; now, he is on the cusp of a new marriage and baby. Problem is, he’s trying to navigate The System: the hoops he must jump through while on probation and the malicious officials determined to reduce him to their shuffling paperwork. All the while, he worries someone will discover who he really is. Lyle’s predicament allows Clevenger to dive into the modern noir underworld of mandatory recovery groups and piss-tests, hard-screw probation officers, tenuous employment, and piles of mounting bills. The author carefully balances Lyle’s desire to do right by his new family and his urge to vanish again, though when the book begins, it is clear there is nowhere left for Lyle to hide.

While Lyle’s story is the dominant narrative, it is the mysterious character of Icarus who pushes Lyle from the shadows and forces him to confront his past. Icarus is a man on a mission, sent by a strange entity he calls the Mother Howl. Early in the novel, Icarus explains to a psychiatrist:

Captain, me and my crew, we cooled the earth. I’ve crumpled suns in my bare fist. Made those black hole things, pockets of space so dark they bend math. I watched you monkeys climb down from the trees, sprout thumbs and figure how to sharpen sticks so’s to roast marshmallows in front of cave paintings. And I’m just one of the clean-up guys. A clock puncher.

Is this the story of a fallen angel or another street-smart schizophrenic cut loose in the world? Clevenger impressively straddles these possibilities and keeps the reader as uncertain about Icarus’s identity as the other characters are.

The intertwined stories make for a slow burn, but in the process, Clevenger delivers a series of thoughtful set pieces that allow his themes of memory, identity, and survival to develop through the material stresses of society’s forgotten and ignored. In vivid prose that defies the traditionally curt style of the crime fiction genre, Clevenger carries the story along with powerful recurring images and poignant dialogue. Mother Howl might test the patience of those who like their noir shackled to reality and all their questions neatly answered, and some might find the distribution between Icarus and Lyle a bit uneven, but for those who read to the end, the rewards are plentiful— especially in the last fifty pages, where two expert scenes (one with Lyle and one with Icarus) tie together the story’s looming questions and reveal both the horror and the hope at its center.

As for the Mother Howl—the godlike transmission running like static through the world—the book will make you wonder if you’re tuned to it, and if not, what you’re missing, or what you’ve been refusing to hear. If Mother Howl tells us anything, it’s the importance of paying attention to the here and now.

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Tania James
Knopf ($28)

by Mukund Belliappa

Tania James’s third novel Loot recalls historian Marc Bloch’s observation that it is impossible to understand the past without being interested in the present. However, in the case of Tipu Sultan—the 18th-century Anglophobic South Indian ruler of the kingdom of Mysore whose reign is the setting for much of Loot—the past seems self-explanatory: It is laid out in propagandist colonial-era English tomes and in treasures carted away by the victorious British, some of which are still on display behind plexiglass. To evaluate that history through the lens of the present, though, one has to wade through a variety of opinions. Was Tipu an early “freedom-fighter,” as held by many postcolonial liberal and secular thinkers? Was he a modernizer because he developed rocket technology that would inspire William Congreve, started a silk industry, and embraced trade? Or was he just a garden-variety Islamist despot, as some contemporary Hindus think, if only because he is a hero to the Muslims of South Asia?

In the Western world, Tipu’s reputation as the latter (based mainly on his harsh treatment of British prisoners) had been well established long before his end. As the kind of bloodthirsty figure the British needed to depict their colonial expansion as a heroic endeavor, Tipu (aka Teepoo, Tipoo, Tippoo Sahib, Tipu Saeb, etc.) appeared as a bogeyman for a century and a half in English fiction, plays, travelogues, and tales of colonial derring-do. Loot, a thoughtful and obviously well-researched historical novel, offers a corrective of sorts.

James threads her narrative around the fictional life of a real toy. Known as “Tipu’s tiger,” this life-sized, crudely built, automaton depicting a tiger devouring a red-uniformed English soldier was discovered in Tipu’s palace—the perfect loot to showcase his hatred of the English. European technicians in India, to flatter their royal employers, tended to showcase their virtuosity by putting together eccentric and eye-catching doodads rather than useful machinery. The protagonist of Loot is a young Muslim man named Abbas, a talented toymaker apprenticed to the French clockmaker named Lucien, who has been commissioned by Tipu to produce the mechanical wonder.

The first half of Loot, set in Tipu’s capital fortress of Srirangapatna in the 1790s, sympathetically shows a beleaguered ruler in the waning years of his reign. Dealing with both the unreasonable demands of Governor-General Richard Wellesley (the architect of British expansion Tipu calls a “walking hemorrhoid”) and with spies deployed by a rival chieftain, the Maratha Nana Phadnavis (aka the “termite”), Tipu seems resigned to a final showdown. Under the flimsiest of pretexts—two centuries later, historians would compare them to those under which the U.S. invaded Iraq—Wellesley launches a massive British attack against Mysore, and among the spoils of eventual victory for the British is Tipu’s tiger; it is chosen by Colonel Horace Selwyn, but he soon dies of dysentery, so his aide, a sepoy named Rangappa Rao, carries the Colonel’s remains and his possessions, including the life-sized toy, to the Colonel’s widow in England.

Four characters make it out of the carnage of Tipu’s capital to Europe and to the second phase of Loot. Lucien simply returns to Rouen to run his watch and clock repair shop. Abbas escapes India as an assistant to a ship’s carpenter and eventually makes his way to Lucien’s shop, which is being run by a half-Indian girl named Jehane—the third person to survive the razing of Tipu’s capital—after Lucien’s death. Abbas and Jehane hatch a plan to travel to Mrs. Selwyn’s castle in England, hoping to exchange some assorted memorabilia for Tipu’s tiger; the high-society widow has meanwhile been garnering attention by showing off the automaton. In England, Abbas and Jehane immediately run afoul of Rum, who is Mrs. Selwyn’s “personal secretary and land agent,” as well as her controlling lover and the fourth person to have escaped Srirangapatna—though unlike the other three, he takes great joy in Tipu’s demise.

It turns out we have met Rum before, briefly, at the “prize” ceremony after Tipu’s defeat, when he was introduced as a “sepoy with the Madras Infantry.” Rum is the nickname of Rangappa Rao. He is a central figure in the final sections of the novel set at Cloverpoint Castle, Mrs. Selwyn’s sprawling country home (which of course, because she is a collector, has a museum-like vastness, with “no humble rooms”). To find the former lowly sepoy as the virtual Lord of the Manor is puzzling, though James hurriedly fills in how Rum ended up as a sepoy: His parents, officials of a minor kingdom that was brutally subdued by Tipu’s father Haider Ali, were killed during the purge after the subjugation, forcing him to seek employment with the East India Company. Still, a reader might find his current station implausible.

It does not take much to realize that Rum is a surrogate for a constituency of Tipu’s legacy that Loot, until this point, has largely ignored: the mainly Hindu and Christian peoples of South India who bore the brunt (and who, if one reads the screeds of present-day right-wing Hindus, still bear scars) of Tipu’s self-aggrandizement. Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan were ferocious conquerors; many of the regions they conquered had grown increasingly fragmented under effete rulers; and the English were sneaking around everywhere, playing one against the other. The balance James is able to strike with her characterization of Tipu and his era in the first part of Loot proves elusive in the novel’s post-Tipu world. Rum is an attempt to restore that balance, but he seems like an afterthought, a band-aid.

Though set in an entirely different context, James’s previous novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage (Knopf, 2015), tackled a parallel predicament with greater success. The central themes of Tusk are elephant poaching and conservation, and one of its principal narrators is a tribal member from whose ranks most elephant poachers come. For centuries, those poachers derived their livelihoods from a forest which is now a “Wildlife Park,” where picking up a “finger length of firewood” is suddenly a serious offense; an equally crucial second narrator is a filmmaker who is sympathetic to conservation. Loot, however, has a single narrator, and its post-Tipu pages are devoted only to the perspectives of Tipu loyalists, an imbalance in the world James has created.

Unfortunately, Loot does not recover from Rum’s unconvincing rise to prominence, although it does hint at the possibility of happy endings. Mrs. Selwyn, who has artistic aspirations of her own, has written a romantic novel and by showing sympathy for it, Jehane is able to win the widow’s confidence; although she and Abbas return to Rouen without Tipu’s tiger, they start an aspirational boutique in a Brooklynesque setting, and even hire Rum as their bookkeeper. “People are so opinionated about endings,” Mrs. Selwyn had worried after giving Jehane her manuscript. In this ending to Loot, in the rapprochement between Rum and the Tipu loyalists, there is perhaps the wishful and wistful hope of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation in a foreign land.

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We Make Things in Translation: An Interview with Angela Rodel

by Karen Noll

It was music, not language, that pulled Angela Rodel toward the East. She was already fluent in German and Russian when she heard the voices of Bulgarian folk singers live in concert as an undergraduate and decided that she needed to hear more of those dissonant harmonies and unusual meters. Her accomplishments as a scholar, a linguist, a teacher, and a translator are impressive, and she will talk about them—but when the topic is music, there is an added timbre to her words, and the ways that music enhances the art of translation are certainly not lost on her.

Rodel has been living in Sofia, Bulgaria for more than twenty years. After obtaining degrees in Slavic studies, ethnomusicology, and linguistics from Yale and UCLA, she now translates literary fiction and is the Executive Director of the Bulgarian-American Fulbright Commission. Her awards as a translator include honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN America, AATSEEL (American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages), the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, and most recently, the 2023 International Booker Prize for her translation of Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter (Liveright, $27). Newly published this year is her translation of Vera Mutafchieva’s novel The Case of Cem (Sandorf Passage, $21.95), which we discuss briefly at the end of the interview.

Originally from the Twin Cities suburb of Burnsville, Minnesota, Rodel occasionally visits the state; she and I met in a public library space there to talk about music, poetry, Time Shelter, the art and business of translating—and, of course, the importance of public libraries.  

Karen Noll: It seems to me that in recent months, translation and translators are getting a lot of attention in the literary publishing world. Have you found that to be true?

Angela Rodel: Yes, absolutely. I have been a translator since 2005, and I was actually a full-time professional translator for about eight years. In my experience it has changed, especially in the last couple of years, thanks to people like Jennifer Croft, who is one of Olga Tokarczuk’s translators from Polish. There is a movement on social media—#namethetranslator—that has been gathering steam. In the U.S., support has been growing for the idea that translation is its own art rather than only playing second fiddle to something more important.

It’s interesting—with the publication of Time Shelter, my name is on the front cover of the U.S. edition, but it’s not on the front cover of the U.K. edition, so I think there are differences depending on the markets. Within the U.S. there has been a concerted effort by organizations like ALTA (American Literary Translators Association), as well as by individual translators, to call out situations in which a translator has not been named. There was just a big brouhaha at the British Museum where an exhibit about China featured poetry in translation. So, yes, I think it’s becoming recognized that translation is an art of its own. 

It’s a little bit ironic, though, because this moment of recognition corresponds to the rise of AI, which will change the work of translation. I’ve played with some of the AI programs, and they are quite good with grammar. They’re not so good with register, which tends to be uneven, and they’re not so good with rhythm. But we can’t ignore them, and we translators should probably think about how we’re going to use them as a tool, how we are going to integrate them into our practice, because I don’t think we can bury our heads in the sand and pretend this technology doesn’t exist. We might become something more like glorified editors in the future—I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but we’ll see, we’ll see.

KN: How about the writers’ strike—the Writer’s Guild of America and the struggle to be fairly compensated and recognized. What are your thoughts?

AR: Yes, yes, creative work is work. When people think that just the joy of creativity should be the reward for doing it, it’s like—well, no, you should pay us as well! There is joy in it, but creative work should not be coming only from people who can afford to be creative; that’s not a society we want to live in. It’s hard to make a living just as a freelance translator. The only reason I was able to do it was because I lived in Bulgaria, where the cost of living is less expensive than it is here or in western Europe. Creative work is work that should be compensated as such, and I think we are seeing that idea get stronger in many, many different fields. 

KN: Who have your clients been over your years in translation? Obviously this project was a literary client, but are there other non-literary clients that are more lucrative and that sustain your living costs so that you can afford to have literary clients?

AR: Well, now I have a day job—I’m actually the head of the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission, so I only translate things that I want to translate now, like literature. But when I was a full-time translator, I discovered you can’t translate literary fiction all day, every day. It’s too exhausting! So I did have other clients: I did some legal translation and a lot of academic writing. It helped pay the bills. I did not do medical translation, but that is pretty lucrative.  

It would be very difficult to survive exclusively as a literary translator. I think maybe people who can survive on literary translation alone are working with a number of different languages—and big languages, like Spanish or Russian—so there is enough interest in publishing that maybe you could make a living out of it. But for a language like Bulgarian, I can’t imagine that you could make a living out of translating literary fiction no matter how much people were willing to pay you; you can’t do it fast enough or well enough. 

KN: Oh, I have a question about Russian. I did a bit of reading about the sister languages of Russian and Bulgarian, and I found it fascinating. Can you offer a quick course for the uninitiated?

AR: It’s sort of like Spanish and Italian—they’re cousins. They’re both Slavic languages, Russian and Bulgarian. They are not the same branch of the Slavic family, so they are maybe second cousins, not first cousins like Russian and Ukrainian might be. If you know one, you will understand a lot of the other, like someone who knows Spanish and hears Italian—they can pick out things. 

I actually studied Russian at good ol’ Burnsville High School in Minnesota: One of the French teachers—I guess she was inspired by perestroika—started learning Russian and offered it, so I took Russian for two years in high school. Then I went to Yale, where there is an awesome Slavic department, and since I always loved Russian literature—I was that depressed teenager who read Dostoyevsky—it was perfect for me. I studied Russian very seriously at Yale for all four years, but I didn’t want to be a major (though I think I was only two credits short); I had started out in Comp Lit, but I thought the people were too pretentious, so I went for linguistics, and I have my master’s in linguistics as well.

When I got interested in Bulgarian in the early 1990s, mainly through Bulgarian music, nobody was teaching it; there wasn’t the big wave of immigration that there was later. But if you’re a person who likes languages, and if you know Russian, then so many of the roots are the same. The way the languages work is the same. So I basically used Russian to learn Bulgarian. It was a good jumping-off point.

KN: Were you ever a professional translator of Russian or German?

AR: No. Maybe I was just clueless, but it wasn’t really a thing. Nobody really mentioned translation as a possible career. I mean, there must have been very high-level literary translators at Yale, but I was always interested in reading in the original language. I remember reading Mario and the Magician by Thomas Mann. I read it first in English, and then I read it in German and was like, “Whoa!” It was so much better in the original. Maybe I ended up coming across a bad translation, and that inspired me to go back and read the original. 

I wasn’t really interested in or plugged into translation as an art or a profession until I was living in Bulgaria. I had done a full year as a Fulbright-Hays scholar, and I was supposed to go back to graduate school at UCLA, and I was thinking, you know, there are no jobs in academia. And Bulgaria was such an interesting place and it was an interesting time, and I thought, “Okay, I can stay here. What can I do?” My husband at the time was a writer and a musician, so people we knew would say, “Oh, I’ve got this poem. Can you translate it?” I realized there was a niche: There were not that many native speakers of English that knew Bulgarian well enough to translate it. And I kind of had a talent for it. I enjoyed it—as a linguist, it was a puzzle. So it was in Bulgaria that I realized there was a huge need for this and that I could actually make a living from it. It was only later that I got plugged into the U.S. literary translation community—thanks to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. 

KN: And music was a spark for your interest in Bulgarian as well—and specifically women’s voices. 

AR: As Bulgarians are a Slavic people, Bulgarian music has much in common with Russian and Serbian music, but since Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, it also has lots of things brought by the Ottoman Turks. So it’s this awesome mix, the best of eastern and western folk music. And the women’s singing tradition is totally unique. They sing super loud in a chest voice—if you have done musical theater, it is like belting—but that’s how they sing all the time. And they use these really interesting dissonant harmonies that are not typical of western music. They aren’t thirds and fifths that we like; they are seconds, and they sound very dissonant but also very powerful.

During the Communist period in Bulgaria, some musicians took this folk tradition and basically married it to western art music; they kept the vocal style and harmonies and then added a three, four, or five-part harmony. There was a brilliant composer named Filip Kutev who realized what should be saved from the tradition and what should be added; he kind of souped up the tradition with western compositional techniques. Now there are choirs that are world famous; they won a Grammy in 1990. To me it is the most beautiful music in the world, but I’m a little biased. That was the music that I went to Bulgaria to study—both the traditional style and the new choral tradition. 

To tie it back to translation, I think it really helps being musical. There is so much music in a text—there’s rhythm, there’s intonation, there’s the sounding of the language. It’s funny, I was at a translation seminar in London and there were a dozen of us from all over Europe working in different languages, and every single one of us was a musician! I would say it’s not a coincidence. People who can hear the sounding of the language, the melody, the rhythm—that is all a very important part of literary translation.  

KN: Maybe this is a good place to transition to a few questions about

Time Shelter—I know that Georgi Gospodinov has said he likes to smuggle poetry into his prose, so it seems likely that your musical approach to translation makes you the right fit to bring his work into English! There are specific phrases in the book I especially loved, such as “through the trumpets of tautology.” [129] Was the original Bulgarian phrase also lyrical? This happened a lot as I read: a beautiful phrase made me wonder whether the original phrase was smuggled poetry.

AR: Sometimes we make things in translation—like an alliteration—rather than find an exact match. But “through the trumpets of tautology” is actually alliterative in Bulgarian, so that one worked! But yes, as a poet, this is so important to Georgi. In his previous novel, The Physics of Sorrow, there was a case where he was really drawing attention to the sound of the language. In Bulgarian the word for “the” is placed at the end of the noun, so you would say “book the” instead of “the book.” And it is a hard “tuh” sound like “tuh, tuh, tuh.” Georgi placed a series of these “tuhs” in sequence so that it sounded like somebody falling down the stairs on their butt—sort of “bump, bump, bump, bump, bump.” It didn’t really work with the sound of “the,” so I did it with a “d”:

          Dear Young Man,
          There are moments in a person’s life that are never forgotten. Today, with trembling hands you untie the knot of your scarlet Pioneer’s neckerchief, replacing it with a red Comsomol membership booklet. This is a symbol of the great trust the Party and our heroic and hardworking people have in you.
          Be decent and daring in word and deed! Dedicate the drive of your youth and the wisdom of your mature years to that which is dearest to all generations – the Homeland!

This is yet another stellar example of socialist-speak, though I now see that it is a mouthful. But I wanted to keep this sound play, and I remember looking to see what the German translator did since it might give me some ideas—we always look at each other’s stuff. And he totally skipped that line! I gave him a hard time. For me, so much of the beauty of Georgi’s writing lies in those sound plays and word plays—so when I can, I try to save them, but sometimes I have to use a different sound or if it doesn’t work exactly in this sentence, I will see if I can find something that will work in a different sentence so the text will have that element of musicality that Georgi had intended—even if it’s not exactly the same word or phrase.

KN: How about the title of the book, Time Shelter. It seems to be a single word in Bulgarian. Is there a translator’s story there?

AR: It is interesting, because in Bulgarian it’s Vremeubezhishte, which mirrors the Bulgarian word bomboubezhishte, meaning bomb shelter; the words for time and bomb have the same musicality, the same syllabic structure, in Bulgarian. So the English title works really well in keeping the audible correspondence between time shelter/bomb shelter. But this does not work so smoothly in all languages. French apparently does not work at all, and the book’s French translator (whom I know and who is wonderful) was practically tearing her hair out. The German had to be altered as well—Zeitzuflucht doesn’t call up connotations to shelters like bomb shelters. In Italian it turned out really cool: Cronorifugio. So it depends on the language.

Titles are an extreme version of what we go through with every sentence—the tension between the form and the content. Georgi’s previous book I translated as The Physics of Sorrow; the word in Bulgarian for the last word is tuga, which has the element of sorrow, but it’s really more like melancholy than sorrow. But I feel melancholy just rhythmically sounds terrible. And also, we associate it so much with Freud, and I wanted something Slavic, something guttural like tuga. So I ended up choosing sorrow, and Georgi agreed, but there are naysayers out there who thought that either we should have gone with the more “accurate” melancholy or come up with a completely different title.  

KN: I also wanted to ask you about words where you chose to use the Bulgarian and to italicize them using the Roman alphabet instead of the Cyrillic. In some cases, like foods that are Bulgarian specialities, I understand why you might make that choice—shopska salad. But other choices did not make sense to me—satrap, bacho, brate, horo, ajvar, hajduks

AR: Hmm. Well, in the United States at this point, there is a tendency to discourage any kind of footnotes in literary translation. If you look at old translations, there are footnotes everywhere, but the idea now is that it pulls the reader out of the text—it’s distracting; it can kind of be pedantic; and do you really need to know this much about a single word? 

So most publishers want translators to minimize the use of footnotes. We can put in what’s called a stealth gloss, which is trying to define the word in the text so the reader can just translate it on their own. But there is also this idea that we don’t want to domesticate things too much; we want to have a little bit of the flavor of the original language. And even with writers who are writing in English, like Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner—he teaches you about a dozen Pashtun words. For example, he calls the father Baba, and you just learn it as you go. 

I think those two things together—the fact that it’s becoming more common to have foreign words in a text to keep some flavor of the original, and also the fact that we don’t want a lot of footnotes—are informing current translation practice. The publisher of The Physics of Sorrow refused to let us use any footnotes, so with Time Shelter, Georgi and I just assumed that we couldn’t, but they sent me some of their other translated books and we were like, “Hey! These have footnotes in them!” So we used them, but rather sparingly; I think there’s maybe ten footnotes in Time Shelter

We decided that if it was something that was a one-off and we could explain it easily and lightly in the text, then we kept it, like with the mare’s milk, kumis—and that’s not even a Bulgarian word, it’s old Bulgarian, like a central Asian word. Or if it was something that we thought was important—like rakia, which is the brandy that comes up over and over—we thought the reader can learn this, and that the reader should learn something about Bulgaria when engaging with the work. 

You don’t want it to be an encyclopedia entry. I teach translation, and Bulgarians who translate from English into Bulgarian are terrible with footnotes: My students might give a whole recipe in a footnote, and I’m like, “Guys. Really? If the reader is that interested, there’s Google.” It’s too distracting—you can’t put that in the text. 

And of course, sometimes I think something is clear, but I have lived in Bulgaria for way too long, so the editor might say, “What the hell is this?” And I’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s not a thing that everybody knows.” Between myself, Georgi, and the editor, we decide whether we should slip something into the text, translate it into English, or do a footnote if we really need it.  

KN: At one point you use the French word vous to explain the polite form. Is that because there is no polite form in English?

AR: Yes. Bulgarian, like all Slavic languages, has this difference between the formal you and the familiar you. It’s often important in literature because it shows the relationships between the characters. Sometimes if the characters talk about it specifically, then you can use the French word vous-ing someone, because English speakers mostly know that. Or you can use madam or sir or some other kind of workaround so that it’s clear that it’s a formal interaction. Then if it switches between those two characters, they will start using their first names. 

I always tell my students that we will get to the fun stuff like dialects and stylistics, but that first they need to think linguistically about the structural differences between the two languages—and honorifics are a big difference. Also, the way Bulgarian uses verb tense is completely different, so we have to look for where those grammatical mismatches exist. You need to find ways to elegantly work around the differences. 

KN: Also, the words lass and lassie really grabbed me. Why use those instead of girl?

AR: Because those are old-fashioned words from Bulgarian folk songs, so I want the English to sound correspondingly archaic and folky. There are few words in American English that register in this way, but when it’s folky in the original, I think you have to find something. In American English we flatten register, and everything is informal, so it’s hard sometimes. British English offers more variety, but I’m not a native speaker of British English, so I can’t use those sorts of things. 

If Georgi had used the average Bulgarian word for girl, I would have used girl. But he uses devoika, so I felt like I needed to try something that would give it a little of that flavor. 

KN: Another phrase that really struck me was in the passage with a Frankenstein analogy about creating something from many pieces. Your English takes the words dismembered and remembered and chops them up to isolate the word member—a word with so much power in the context of communism. I was curious to know what the Bulgarian looked like.

AR: The Bulgarian has the same play. And actually chlen is really interesting in Bulgarian because it has the meaning of member as party member but it also has the same sexual connotation as the English member, so I got lucky with that! I had to do some finessing because the two extended words—dismember and remember—didn’t quite coincide, but it worked well enough that I could use it. 

There were other places, however, where Georgi had a terrific play on words but I was like, “Ugh, that does not work at all in English.” This is a thing that AI is not going to be able to do very well. 

KN: Only once in the novel—at the very end—did you choose to leave the original Bulgarian in Cyrillic. No Roman letters. No italics. No English.

AR: That last line is actually just Georgi banging on the typewriter. There is no hidden meaning, but we just thought it best to leave it in the Cyrillic, as the letters are beautiful.

KN: The narrator of Time Shelter is a trustworthy guide, and it seems to me that your choices contribute greatly to that trust. For example, after the narrator hears the sound of gunfire, he addresses the reader directly in the second person about this particular neighborhood in Sofia—“Just so you know where you are.” [188] It’s not a tour guide pronouncement, but rather a gentle touch on the shoulder. 

AR: Yes, what I love about Georgi’s writing is that even while he is writing about huge historical things, he has an intimate tone. I think what is so brilliant—and I think this is something the Booker Prize jury recognized—is that he is writing about issues like nationalism and how we deal with history, but it’s always a personal experience. His narrator here talks to you as a real human being, a conversation partner, so I really tried to make sure that the voice captured that tone, that it was a real person speaking one-on-one with the reader. 

I think that’s important also because Gaustine has a very different voice. He is not trustworthy—he is flamboyant and over-the-top—but we are processing Gaustine’s ideas through the narrator who is delicate and tongue-in-cheek. He has a good sense of humor, but it’s subtle and ironic, and I needed to capture that in the narrator’s voice. 

KN: The narrator often refers to Gaustine as being a joker, but he is also unsure whether Gaustine is joking or not joking. The language of irony is nuanced, and I wonder whether you ever had to ask Georgi directly, “Is this line a joke? Is he joking?” just to clarify before you made your choices about irony.

AR: Yes. Sometimes I was like, “I think this is meant ironically, but let me check to make sure!” For the most part with Georgi, I can pretty much assume that if I think it’s ironic, it probably is. But you know, it’s tricky. He speaks English well, so he reads my draft and offers insights like “I’m not sure this is clear enough” or “maybe we should strengthen this,” and that’s always so helpful. 

It’s interesting with Gaustine. He is an ongoing character who first appeared in Georgi’s poetry and then as a character in his second novel. He is a meta-textual character, so there’s always going to be a fair amount of irony, but Gaustine is sort of allowed to do things that Georgi, the writer, wouldn’t allow himself to do. It’s his alter ego for sure. 

KN: Early on we learn that Gaustine’s name is a merging of Augustine and Garibaldi, and the narrator finds it interesting that the first captures early theology and the second late revolutionism. I didn’t find a lot of theology in this novel. Did I miss something?

AR: That might be indicative of Georgi’s generation: He was born in 1968 and grew up under socialism. Where he does talk about religion—not so much in this book but in his previous one—is more about his grandmother, who would still read the Bible but would cover it in newspaper and do it secretly. I think she secretly baptized him and his brother, because it wasn’t allowed. So it’s a fraught relationship with religion and theology; as a child he was interested but also a little afraid, because it was something that was forbidden.

So for his generation—at least this is true of other Bulgarians that I know, especially intellectuals—their religion is art and literature; that could give you a sort of spiritual experience of something beyond yourself, because you couldn’t really be a religious person in Bulgaria in that era. I would say that Georgi is certainly a spiritual seeker, but maybe because of when he grew up and where, his seeking has been more in conversation with the western literary tradition and the western art tradition. 

KN: A very moving scene is when one of the clinic’s patients gets to meet the government agent who was in charge of spying on that patient when he was younger. 

AR: Oh, that is my favorite scene in the entire book.

KN: It is brilliant. The patient has lost his memory, but the agent remembers everything. The agent supplies the details, some very personal and painful, to help the patient remember his life, but clearly both the watched and the watcher have suffered over the years. I thought it was a brilliant way to humanize the wounds of the surveillance state, and the encounter—long after the surveillance state has dissolved—is healing for both. Georgi refers to the pair as the “closest of enemies.” [54]

AR: Yes, and the word “wound” is so resonant. Bulgaria as a society has not really found a way to talk about what happened in their country like Germans have about the Holocaust, i.e., how are we going to move forward and discuss this? Bulgarians have not had that kind of reckoning about the socialist period. There are some people who have very positive nostalgic memories about the socialist period; there are many who are very negative. And it seems like those two camps have not found a way to speak publicly. So I just love that scene because it makes it personal but also taps a nerve that the entire society is still struggling with. There is blame, but both of those characters—the agent and the dissident—were in it together. 

Until about six years ago, history books stopped at about 1944, meaning kids in school did not learn history past that date—because they didn’t know how to talk about it, they didn’t know how to teach it. Finally, the ministry of education said, Okay, we need to change our textbooks. And it was a big public to-do because some of the books were too positive about communism, some were too negative, and they tried to find a kind of middle path. But it’s a very real wound that is still being processed there. I think this story is so poignant because it shows that whoever controls memory has so much power, and that power can be abused. It is still a very real conversation in Bulgaria and in a lot of eastern Europe. Look what’s happening now in Russia with Putin: He wants to control the historical narrative.

I’m sorry, I’m going off on a tangent a little bit, but the Sofia mayoral elections are coming up, and one of the candidates launched by the anti-corruption, pro-Europe, pro-western parties is a guy whose parents were part of the surveillance state. I know him personally because he went to the American University in Bulgaria; he is a brilliant tech start-up guy who launched the first Bulgarian IT unicorn, and he is re-opening that whole conversation. It’s amazing. He is younger than I am and probably born in late socialism, maybe in ’85, so he is not somebody who benefited directly from the power structure of socialism, though his family benefited. So we are asking the questions: Is he worthy? Is he burdened by being from that family? Does he carry some blame? Are people able to judge him on his own merits? It is just such an interesting conversation. I hope he gets elected; he would be a great mayor. But there is a chance that he won’t because of his family’s history. These topics are very painful still in Bulgaria and in a lot of eastern Europe. They haven’t had the time to process it as a society. 

KN: I was moved by this encounter between the “closest of enemies” simply because the agent became the one who could release another human being from the dark place that is Alzheimer’s. So I read it as an incredibly healing scene. 

AR: But Bulgarians will read that scene very differently than you. They’ll see the power imbalance. They’ll see him with the potential to abuse that position. 

KN: Yes, and he did abuse it, especially when the surveillance was about sex and love. Are there any conversations happening about a film being made of Time Shelter?

AR: Yes. I haven’t been part of them, but I know that they are happening. So his agent is busy. I think it would be a great movie. 

KN: It seems that writing about memory is having a moment right now. Are there novels or films that Georgi has mentioned as having an influence on his thinking?

AR: We have seen many comparisons to recent things about memory, but I think Georgi looks to work of the past and not so much to contemporary literature. Proust and In Search of Lost Time—that’s who he is dialoguing with here, and Thomas Mann with the clinics, you know; when I was reading this, I went back and reread Magic Mountain

That said, what the author intends is neither here nor there once the book is out in the world. And I think so many of us are realizing that memory is who we are and how we make sense of ourselves. A big part of mind control is memory control. I think that was part of what the Booker liked about Time Shelter—that it is a literary exploration of themes that we need to start thinking about pretty urgently. Georgi is tapping into a collective angst.

KN: Geez, Magic Mountain is quite a tome for anyone to take on in translation prep!

AR: I know. And because I am a translator, I had to decide, which translation should I read? Because it has been translated several times and they’re different. Georgi uses some quotations from the novel and I wanted to see which one fit best for my translation. This is something that happens not infrequently when Georgi quotes from other writers; the way they have been translated into Bulgarian is not always the way they have been translated into English, and for his use of the passage it would make perfect sense in Bulgarian but not so much sense if I used the English translation! And obviously both are departures from the original German, but the Bulgarian translator was a bit fancy free with their translation…

KN: So you had to find the English translation that best captured Georgi’s reason for using it.

AR: Actually, we have some funny examples of this from Georgi’s previous book. He was joking about how it was very difficult to get access to anything to do with sex during socialism, so kids would read German underwear catalogs, or The Godfather by Mario Puzo; he said there was a scene in it that was very racy, but it turns out that the Bulgarian version was totally censored—it still had a little juice, but the English was way juicier. We had a good laugh about the watered-down version; Georgi was saying how they didn’t even get the full scene but it was still steamy for them! We actually ended up putting the censored version in the novel so that people would understand what Bulgarian kids were reading and thinking. Bouncing between different translations here and there, it can be funny to navigate those sorts of things. 

KN: Okay, I went down a rabbit hole with Thomas Mann translations and learned that his first translator was an American woman named Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, and that Boris Johnson is her great-grandson! 

AR: What?! I will tell Georgi, he will get a kick out of that!

KN: What are you working on now?

AR: I just finished a translation of a historical novel called The Case of Cem by a woman named Vera Mutafchieva. She is not alive any longer, unfortunately. She wrote mostly during the socialist period, and she was actually an Ottoman historian which is kind of unusual because Bulgarians have a very fraught relationship with their Ottoman past. Like most European countries, they define themselves as not-the-colonizer. But she was a well respected Ottoman historian, and a really great writer. She wrote a lot of historical novels. 

She wrote The Case of Cem in the 1960s, and it’s basically about Mehmed the Conqueror, who has two sons; when he dies, there is a war to decide which son will ascend to the throne. The younger son loses and goes into exile, then becomes a pawn for several countries wanting to limit the expansion of the Ottoman Empire; this is the late 15th century, when the Ottomans were becoming a threat to Europe. Instead of uniting and smacking down the Ottomans once and for all, the Europeans end up fighting among themselves, and the Ottomans take over the Balkans essentially and make it all the way to Vienna. So the question in the novel is, what if the Europeans had actually supported Cem, whose mother is Serbian, and what if they had pushed back in a united way against the Turks?

It explores alternate histories, but it is super avant-garde for 1960s Bulgaria. It is set in a court where you don’t ever hear from Cem but the reader is part of the court panel, and you hear from all the witnesses about different aspects of what happened with Cem and why he basically wasn’t supported by the Europeans. It is a very interesting structure. 

But also, there are contemporary resonances. Vera Mutafchieva’s brother defected to France during the 1960s, which made her life complicated, so this is a personal, parallel story of a young man in exile who gets caught up in political machinations that he doesn’t understand. And then there is this queer storyline: You never hear from Cem, but you do hear from a Persian poet who is Cem’s companion, and it becomes clear that they had a relationship. (How on earth this got published in 1960s Bulgaria is a mystery!) 

And it has a lot to say about what is going on with Ukraine now, because what the Ottomans did is divide and conquer. They paid off the Europeans to continue fighting among themselves while they took over southeastern Europe. This is what we are seeing with Putin. He is definitely playing that game with gas and energy and grain, basically playing Europeans off each other. I think there are a lot of lessons in this book, and it is very funny as well—she is a very good psychologist, so all these different historical characters come before the court. 

KN: Who is publishing it? 

AR: Sandorf Passage, which is a small literary fiction press. I am excited about it. It is a really fun book, a really interesting book, and it has been translated into almost every European language, including three or four different Turkish translations. English was pretty much the only European language that it had not yet been translated into. 

The author is an interesting character as well. Right before she died, she was exposed as a communist secret service informer, and she was kind of defiant about it. But, you know, her brother being a defector, she didn’t really have a choice. She herself had a hard life. Her husband eventually defected and left her alone with her two daughters. She passed away in 2009; I never met her unfortunately, but I know many people who knew her. 

KN: Like the narrator of Time Shelter, you are sitting in a place where you grew up, but you are a visitor after having been away for many years. What do you find yourself noticing, thinking, feeling about the passing of time? And if Minnesota were holding a referendum to select a decade to return to, which one would you vote for?

AR: It’s funny you ask that because my dad had a bee in his bonnet about having me clear out all my old stuff from his basement, so it really has been like a time shelter—I have been going through old photos from high school and college. But, hmm, the U.S. these days is an interesting place. The level of polarization is palpable. That for sure makes me sad. I also feel the U.S. has got to get the guns figured out—we cannot go on as a society with this level of gun violence. Living in Europe, despite all my daughter’s trials and tribulations in school, at least I don’t have to worry about her getting shot.

On the other hand, I feel like I notice many things I didn’t appreciate when I lived here. Like how beautiful the lived environment is—even where we are in now, this amazing public library that is beautiful and well maintained—living in a post socialist country, there is a sense that public space is not cared for as well. Eastern Europe still has something to learn. There is a legacy of being forced into the shared, the communal . . . I don’t necessarily want to, but I find I’m turning inward to my own home, my own spaces, and I feel bad because libraries are neglected in Bulgaria. Communal spaces in general are not well funded. So I appreciate that much more now when I come back to the U.S. and spend time in these sorts of spaces.

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Fire-Rimmed Eden

Selected Poems

Lynn Lonidier
Edited by Julie R. Enszer
Sinister Wisdom ($25.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

A prolific poet of the San Francisco small press scene from the 1960s onwards, Lynn Lonidier (1937-1993) is virtually unknown today. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that she didn’t belong to any particular coterie. Even among lesbian poets, the crowd with whom she might most generally be associated, she always went her own way. As Fire-Rimmed Eden: Selected Poems testifies, her work is invariably unique, and all the more valuable for it, as it realizes an idiosyncratic sensibility.

Take the opening of “Sailorjig to Seapatchwoman” from A Lesbian Estate (Manroot Press, 1979):   

            Down the briny paths of rime,
            I join hands with an encrusted lion.

   Transpose a lion on a whale and have upheaval to the last
   tumescence of seadrop (water-holding speck of life) I am

Mid-Forty Woman    Deep tonnage tensor of wisdom    Weedpatch woman
with brio-bulge crop       mat       carpet island       Thicket       fishhooks
monster bites      Slew of parasites hang loose in the gold lion’s
mane      Hoar nest     Primeval catch    SeaROAR cRest sWell Woeforth
/PROMISE:       Green land grows on your bullback    wending invisible
harpoons R     uddy mantle of rush in Green Sea Contest

The jamming together of words here, along with the erratic spacing, spelling, and capitalization, achieve a dizzying yet effective presentation. There’s a clear sense that Lonidier writes the lines as she feels them arising within her, inflecting them with distinct emotive force; indeed, it reads irresistably like a performance script. While she may have had precursors from Dada to punk influencing her, her experimentation feels rooted in her own impulses.

Lonidier’s initial artistic inclination was musical in nature; she studied the cello before breaking away to poetry. Upon moving to the Bay Area, she became an early romantic partner of the experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, and the pair moved to San Diego in the ’60s before splitting up. They were immersed in the local arts scene, collaborating on several musical and art projects both together and with friends. Lonidier’s brother, the feted photographic artist Fred Lonidier, lived locally as well at the time (there are several terrific photos included in Fire-Rimmed Eden).

Lonidier lived elsewhere for periods of time, but she always returned to San Francisco. She was a founding member of the Women’s Building in the Mission District, where she also lived and worked as a public-school teacher, and the city’s environs continually triggered her imagination, as they have countless others over the years—as can be seen in this passage from “Bernal Hill,” originally contained in The Rhyme of the Ag-ed Mariness (Station Hill Press, 2001):

A tree-laced road leads to radar
screens overlying the Mission,
Morning sun timbres the bay—
Oakland— Berkeley— Mt. Tam—
in by breathtaking eye.

Fire-Rimmed Eden contains the vast majority of Lonidier’s poetry. There are selections from her earliest collections, Po Tree and The Female Freeway, and the substantial A Lesbian Estate is presented in full—as is the last collection she assembled in her lifetime, Clitoris Lost, along with excerpts from her Mayan travelogue Woman Explorer. Selections from the posthumous The Rhyme Of The Ag-Ed Mariness, assembled by her friend Janine Canan, round out the rest.

Lonidier’s earliest work features an insistence upon freely, and often wildly, wielding language in an unexpected, eyebrow raising manner. Her first collection, Po Tree (Berkeley Free Press, 1967), is more artist-zine than poetry book; between saddle-stapled covers, Lonider’s poems appear intermixed and superimposed among collages and drawings by sisters Betty and Shirley Wong (while the artwork is not reproduced here, notes at the bottom of relevant pages offer descriptions); the poems themselves are Dada-like in their playful stridency. Several are list-poems of unusual word-matches given in full capitals: “CONFETTI NIPPLE / HISHERS / MIND BLINDER / VENETIAN TUBE ROOM / GONDOLA GONADS / AUTOBLOMB / POOM /MOM HARASS HEROOT / GERMAN VICTROLA HOAR CAUSE / CHARTREUSE COMB JUICE.”

Among the central concerns of Lonidier’s poetry are gender, sexuality, and power. She avoids being overtly political or banner waving, however, keeping the focus on her direct experience. She writes what she knows:

In drive-ins movie foyers men’s magazines    they comment on my body
as though they owned me    are as familiar with my buttbreastthighs
as they are with    rings on their fingers    It’s not rape that they
heighten their bodies by removing mind earsmindfeelings    tossing
away the body they’ve mass-raped Because    I’m their perogrative
to imagine their penises are    rolled-up dollar bills in my
penny vagina

(from “The Boys At The Beach”)   

In short, Lonidier doesn’t hold back. Her work has rough edges and non sequitur ruptures, which can leave readers hanging as to where she was headed; nevertheless, with every poem the impression remains that she has managed somehow to achieve her exact desired result. These are the poems as she would have them—no regrets and nothing vital left unsaid.

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A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived

Karen DeBonis
Apprentice House Press ($19.99)

by Blair Glaser

In her memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, Karen DeBonis draws upon the various meanings of the word. When a mysterious set of behaviors—lack of focus, odd tics, and declining motor-skills—sprout up in her son Matthew, she must confront her people-pleasing nature and develop the assertiveness required to raise a special needs child in a broken healthcare system. As DeBonis registers the maddening helplessness of searching for what ails her firstborn, we spin with her through the revolving door of mother-shaming doctors, false diagnoses, ineffective treatment plans, and the well-meaning concern of friends and family.

DeBonis parents with the extreme patience of a Buddha, while peeling back the curtain on darker thoughts and feelings: her fear of making waves, her rage and its occasional outbursts, her coping mechanism of binge eating. Growth will especially speak to parents of special needs/chronically ill children, but it is, at its core, a woman’s story; many women will recognize themselves in the author’s struggle with her social programming to be “good,” underneath which—in her case—is genuine compassion. As Matthew’s illness isolates them both from friends and community, she writes, “I ached for his aloneness, knowing intimately the awfulness of it.”

Growth also holds up a mirror to the way patriarchal values operate in traditional marriages. DeBonis’s husband Michael is a loving partner and parent, but the author is often coaxing him into a greater level of concern and action on Matthew’s behalf. When they finally discover the cause of their son’s bizarre symptoms—the brain tumor of the subtitle—DeBonis criticizes herself for not working harder to find answers, but Michael wonders, “How did I not see it?” It is a question we’ve been wondering alongside him, and it validates DeBonis’s long held frustration of carrying the larger share of emotional labor.

DeBonis’s grounded perspective on personal growth helps readers see their own limitations with compassion. Directly after receiving the correct diagnoses, she experiences a seismic transformation when a new part of her she calls She-Bear emerges: “The boundaries of my body were unable to contain the force, so my legs and arms and head stretched and expanded to gigantic proportions. It wasn’t imagined. It was palpable in every cell of my growing body.” It’s one of those life-changing moments, and yet, DeBonis is honest about its fleeting nature: “My foray into assertiveness . . . turned out to be brief and subdued. My skills had not been honed for the long haul.”

In one particularly self-revealing chapter, “My Real, Messy Story,” DeBonis asks an existential question familiar to anyone who’s withstood long periods of crisis: “How does one reconcile such extremes of feeling, thinking and believing?” We find answers in the book’s main theme of self-acceptance. After what should have been life-changing surgery, Matthew’s handicaps do not vanish, and in order to thrive as an independent adult, he must finally come to terms with his disability and accept help from a government jobs program. DeBonis shares with us what she wishes she’d had the courage to say to the pediatrician who initially and repeatedly dismissed her concerns. This is the only time we lose an intimate connection with her, as she asks us to join her in self-recrimination. But at the chapter’s end, DeBonis offers forgiveness for her own—and by extension, our—shortcomings: “the baby steps I took were leaps of great distance.”

With exquisite vulnerability and awareness of interior dynamics, Growth anchors its suspense in a loving family who plays well, fights with and for each other, and ultimately grows together. Towards the end, the author’s parents exhibit polite passivity when a healthcare agency cancels an important appointment for her ailing mother. DeBonis finds their complacency—the very trait that shaped her good girl persona—unacceptable, and, in She Bear manner, swiftly and effectively advocates on their behalf. In this regard, Matthew’s tumor has spurred real change; readers would do well to conclude that though personal evolution can’t be rushed, it is entirely possible.

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