Reviewed by Lucina Schell, Editor
Periscope, a new imprint of A Midsummer Night’s Press focusing on poetry in translation by women, launched in 2014 against long odds. Among the 3% of books published in the United States which are translations, only 26% of works from all languages and genres are by women writers. Periscope’s first season also offers readers the opportunity to encounter poetry from rarely translated languages. One is None by Kätlin Kaldmaa, translated from the Estonian by Miriam McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov, and Anything Could Happen by Jana Putrle Srdić, translated from the Slovenian by Barbara Jurša (among others), are both tantalizing introductions to two distinctly compelling contemporary poetic voices. Each pocket-sized, approximately 40-page volume presents remarkable breadth in few pages and impressive cohesion for anthologies. (The third title in their first season, not reviewed here, is Care Santos’ full Carmen Conde prize-winning collection Dissection translated by publisher Lawrence Schimel.) All three books are available for $25.00.
While the United States remains dismally insular when it comes to literature in translation, it should come as no surprise that the poets Schimel has published are necessarily global in their outlook, their poetry influenced by their own travel and translation work. These are poets whom “Birds bid welcome / at home. In two tongues”—at least (Kaldmaa, 10). Srdić’s poem “Our Tongues” beautifully exemplifies the connection and conflict experienced by multilingual people through an everyday commercial interaction. Here is the poem in full:
Trousers and a jacket for a good price,
straight from the German producer’s factory,
he claims. We talk politely, half in English,
half in German, cautiously testing one another.
He is well-mannered, does not want to impose.
After he hears my language, he continues in Croatian;
he draws back a little at my ignorant Serbian
expression, but I’m a customer.
How did he perceive us from far away?
A 2nd generation immigrant with
his parent’s fine accent, but he almost falls off
the edge of his tongue when he runs out of words.
The sun is setting over the streets of
this foreign city. Tired of five languages,
we fall silent. We watch the vegetable vendor
pile up wooden crates across the street,
finishing his working day.
He does not ask me
where I come from.
There is nothing nostalgic
Still, this language insurmountably
this honey-sweet tongue in our mouths
with which we’re licking each other.
What a difficult part of the world I come from.
I nod, hand over a bill,
with a generous gesture he adds a tie.
We don’t speak anymore. (Srdić, 41)
With sensitivity, Srdić explores the subtle negotiations of potential misunderstanding inherent in interactions that take place outside of fluency. Slovenian, the poet’s mother tongue and the fifth language, is not mentioned by name as if to undercut the very concept of a “native” language. The poet and salesman circle around one another as they try on different modes of communication. Finally, by the fifth stanza, there is a turn toward connection as language binds the speakers—but which language? Perhaps the hybrid, five-pronged tongue they’ve found to understand one another. “What a difficult part of the world I come from,” without quotation marks or dialogue tags is allowed to speak for both of them, though the poet’s nod signals it is the shopkeeper’s speech.
The question of where one comes from is complicated for both poets: “My European lover comes from / Syria and Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia, / Egypt and Indonesia, Serbia and Iraq. / He has no past he wants to speak of / and is at home wherever he is living” (Kaldmaa, 21). Even where one is born has no bearing: “i want to argue with you about our / children’s names and nationalities” (Kaldmaa, 18). At least 28 different countries and cities are mentioned across Kaldmaa’s slim volume of poems—mostly in Europe or the Middle East. Srdić’s poems mention fewer place names, more often rooting themselves in the poet’s native Slovenia, yet they are cosmopolitan in their pop-cultural and literary allusions, drawn perhaps from some of Srdić’s translation projects. The Slovenian poet Tone Škrjanec mingles with Sapphire, whose poetry Srdić has translated. Translation is as commonplace for Srdić as domestic activities: “thinking about the translation / of Siberian poetry, but my thoughts / are overheating in the hot summer kitchen and I don’t care / about language anymore, or relationships—” (Srdić, 31).
The poems of One is None, though drawn from across Kaldmaa’s body of work, are carefully selected to explore themes of parts and wholes, separation and cohesion, often along the borders of bodies. National boundaries dissolve, too: “This is a land on the edge / of the one and the other,” Kaldmaa writes of Iceland. Kaldmaa, a prolific translator of works by well-known Anglophone writers, as well as from other languages, is at home in these translations by McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov, who manages to find the poet’s puns, for example:
the island the first day the sun set,
the first minute—it took a shard from my heart
to the North Sea floor. Only
there is my heart a whole. I
can hear it still. (Kaldmaa, 9)
The sea figures prominently throughout One is None as a metaphor: “The sea, dark as distress, rolls ashore, / ashore, always ashore, never away. / On every shore, on every beach. / Does the sea split down the middle?” (Kaldmaa, 10). The repeated hush of shore/ashore enacts the sounds of waves, as we flow like the tides in and out of a disembodied talk between lovers: “I need time, one said. / Can you give me time? […] I won’t give you time, said the other.” The poem ends with the satisfying punch, “I’ll give you myself, said the other. / Full-time” (Kaldmaa, 11). In the repeated speech, we lose track of who is “one” and who is an/other. “One” at first seems to signify one of the poet’s lovers, a part of a whole, but it can also be read as “oneself.” Similarly, the responding “other” seems to be the poet, yet strangely disembodies the lyric voice. One is None is divided into two sections: “None” and “NOne.” The book’s title comes from the poem that closes the first section, “Eventide,” the archaic English word a tremendous choice on the part of the translator as it invokes the ocean yet again. It is a poem of dissolution, as forms disappear into shadow:
A human being lies in bed and does not see
skin becomes linen,
linen becomes air,
air becomes ocean,
ocean becomes rock,
moon becomes silence,
silence becomes thought,
thought becomes dream,
dream becomes fact,
fact becomes being.
One is none
As the book begins to cross the threshold into the second section, Kaldmaa fuses the two halves juxtaposed by this structure. Kaldmaa seems to be making an argument about loneliness, but it’s an ambivalent one. Can one be whole on one’s own? Is Kaldmaa simply taking a feminist stance against the imposition of monogamy?
Schimel’s other imprints focus on explorations of gender and sexual identity, so it is no surprise that Kaldmaa’s poems showcased in this anthology are unabashedly feminist as they revel playfully and frankly in her relationships with lovers from different countries. Through her Bosnian lover, we get refreshingly unsentimental responses to the region’s violent past:
My Bosnian lover
has outlived his siblings.
His brother burnt in his home.
His sister fled from
looters and outlaws to be
snared in the forest by soldiers.
She served as their war wife,
one for all. (Kaldmaa, 12)
Again, McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov finds a haunting double-entendre in the phrase “one for all,” upending the One is None of the title with an echo of the militaristic chant of solidarity “all for one.” A survivor, the Bosnian lover has a startling sense of humor about what he’s been through:
My Bosnian lover has a bullet hole
in his forearm.
“It’s a good place,”
“to keep a smoke
when out for a walk.” (Kaldmaa, 13)
Images like these are some of the riches poetry in translation has to offer, as we can learn from the way other writers process trauma through art.
Kaldmaa has expansive emotional range and moves easily from uproarious humor to biting observations. “My Swiss Lover” becomes a metaphor for larger social ironies:
I bite the pillow, not to burst out laughing,
he takes the sound as a sign that I’ve climaxed.
My Swiss lover’s sense of justice
is very highly developed.
He weeps when he sees the homeless
and lives alone in a four-room flat. (Kaldmaa, 44)
The Swiss lover’s empty pleasure in believing he has satisfied the poet is extended to a social critique of empty empathy in the face of glaring wealth inequity.
In Anything Could Happen, Srdić also confronts the tension between independence and interdependence in romantic relationships as she struggles “to reach the bottom / of entanglement.” “The Dark Green Poem,” the book’s opening, avoids romantic cliches despite the poet’s stated intention: “I always thought it would be / a love poem” (Srdić, 10 tr. Laura Solomon). Taking the couple’s home as a metaphor for their relationship, the poem is instead about two lovers growing distant, yet yearning to reconnect. Many frank statements will be achingly familiar: “This is a poem about us two, / I have avoided it for a long time. Some spaces we never / use, at least not with / each other” (Srdić, 9). The poem itself becomes a strange form dissolving in the couple’s midst, “In our long breakfast silence it sheds / its skin / into words until only a dry / empty husk remains.” In perhaps a knowing nod to Walter Benjamin’s famous analogy of translation to the original text as a skin is to fruit, Srdić’s poem beautifully dissolves into Solomon’s translation; two creative minds meet inside the words of one. The poet dreams of a perfect woman with one leg, then “I dreamed that we share one leg, / is that perfect? It would be hard to / reach / the town square with it […] We can still crawl.” Two become one, but only through violence, through a wound that precludes the couple from advancing toward “the heart of the city” (Srdić, 9-10).
Kaldmaa and Srdić seem to agree: “A poem is a leg into emptiness” (Srdić, 20).
Kaldmaa, Kätlin. One is None. Tr. Miriam McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov. New York: Periscope Press, 2014.
Srdić, Jana Putrle. Anything Could Happen. Tr. Barbara Jurša. New York: Periscope Press, 2014.