Friday, February 29, 2008


[Here's another piece of prose from the last millennium.]


The first time was in a nightclub. Chris held the three small tabs of pink gel on his palm for Doug and me to look at. We each took one, washing them down with a swig of beer. The metal dance floor in front of the stage was slick and cold despite the summer heat. When the band came on, Doug danced in the back, while the stage pressed me and Chris against the people behind us. The fingers on the frets played all of my strings.

The second time was at another concert, at a fairground by the beach. Dave and I had spent the night with my brother twenty miles up the coast; I had drunk too much beer and was sick. Still, on our way to the concert, I took the dose I had brought along. We strolled across the dusty parking lot and went through the gates — more dust, yellow paint on Dave's loose all-white outfit. While the band played, seagulls flew over the stage like lost words; I spoke them, joined them as they veered above the waves.

On our way back to my brother's apartment that evening, we hitched a ride in a pickup truck. Afraid to sit in the back, I chose the passenger seat in the cab, leaving Dave to feel the wind. Only as we were on the highway heading straight west into the setting sun burning orange over the ocean into my eyes did I think that I would have to talk to the driver. My mangled syntax must have clued him in: as he dropped us off he said, "Have a nice trip."

My brother wasn't home. We sat on the lawn outside his apartment complex, waiting. Dave made an ironic remark about not having his burgling tools; as I did not know how locks work, he began to draw pictures on paper from his notebook, explaining keys first and then how to trick a lock into thinking the burglar's various metal strips were really the key to open it. Suddenly a police car was circling into the parking lot. "This is not the best place to be talking about burglary!" Dave noticed. I laughed: "Especially while tripping!" "You're tripping?" Dave exclaimed. "Then we definitely better not sit here any longer."

Across the highway was a restaurant with great milkshakes which I'd had before with my brother. The cold chocolate iced my mouth; I only spoke to say, "I'll try to call my brother again now." Finally he came home, and we headed back over the highway for the night.

Eric and his friend Cran came to the café and asked for some of my liquid for a trip in the hills under the full moon. My shift was just ending, so I went home with them, decided to join them. We took the drops and began to head toward the foothills behind town, me tying on a bandana, Eric tying his jeans shirt around his waist. "Don't you want to leave that in my room?" I asked; "No," he laughed, "you never know when you might need a good heavy shirt."

The road into the hills branched at the top of a steep climb; we split the difference and headed through the long yellow summer grass. In a valley on the other side were the dry bones of mammoths; lifted, they became intricate old branches, far from any tree. Up another hill, we saw a tree the branches might have come from; its canopy enclosed us; it held us as we climbed. Jumping down, our bodies left trails in our eyes. Further up the hill, a narrow asphalt road was giving off the day's heat into the night. The untraveled way surrounded us as we lay on the warmth, looking at the moon and stars, listening to the heat turn into voices, and then a couple walked up with their dog, she in a mini-skirt, he bare-chested. "Beautiful evening," he said. "Yeah," was all we could answer, sitting up.

The road curved around the crest of the hill, but we went straight over the crest to a steep descent on the other side, the grass brushing our legs, the footing unsure. When I met the road again, ahead of the others, a log by the side of the road offered me a place to sit for a moment to wait for Eric and Cran.

Something moved on my finger. I brushed it away, hot iron burned my hand, sent me into the air, springing across the narrow road, Eric and Cran stock still as they heard me scream, "The buzzing! The buzzing!"

The swarm around my ears chased me back down that steep road we'd come up before. "The buzzing! The buzzing!" — and Eric had caught me, enclosed me in his tight embrace, "There's no buzzing! There's no ..." — he had heard the swarm and as I broke from his loosening grip Cran cried, "It's in his hair!" — coming up behind me to tear off my bandana and set free the wasp trapped behind my ear.

The adrenalin was gone, though my heart was still beating. "I thought I had finally seen someone freak out on acid," said Cran. "Do you want my shirt?" asked Eric.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


[Here's a story I wrote a while back (before 1999 at least). I've got a few of these short shorts lying around, back from when I still occasionally put stories in prose.]


She walked slowly across the parking lot, feeling the heat from the asphalt through her thin sandals and on her bare legs, precariously balancing her donut on the hot Styrofoam cup of coffee while fumbling with her keys. As she was putting the coffee onto the roof of the car, a young man trying to steer his bicycle while carrying a large bag of groceries lost control and fell over onto the hood of the car.

They looked at each other.

She saw a young man with long hair, a scraggly beard, an outrageously bright tie-dye T-shirt, and cut-off jeans with holes around the pockets. He put the bag carefully down and untangled himself from his bike.

"I hope you haven't made a dent," she said as he picked up the stray groceries and put them back into the bag.

"I don't think so," he said, glancing at the hood for a moment. "Looks all right to me." He picked up his bag and reached down carefully to pick up his bike.

"I don't know," she said, leaning down for a closer look. "Isn't this where you fell?" she asked, pointing.

He followed her finger. "Yeah, I guess it is," he said with a sigh. Reaching his leg cautiously over his bike, he added, "It's not such a big deal, is it? I don't know much about cars, but it looks pretty easy to fix." He set his foot on the pedal.

"This is a brand-new car. I just bought it last week."

He looked at her. "So?"

"When they hammer out the dent, they'll have to repaint the hood," she added.

"But if it's new, it's covered by a guarantee, isn't it?"

"Accidents aren't covered by guarantees. Don't you have a car?"

"If I had a car, I wouldn't be carrying groceries on my bicycle." He laughed. "In fact, I've never owned a car."

"Oh." She paused. "Look, I'm in a hurry right now. Give me your name and I'll call you when I've gotten an estimate."

"An estimate?"

"An estimate of how much it will cost to repair this."

"You want me to pay for it? Doesn't insurance cover stuff like this? It's just a tiny dent."

"Your insurance would cover it, if you had any. My insurance rates would go up if I asked them to pay for it. Is that fair?"

"No, I guess not. Look, I'll give you my name if you give me yours."

"Okay," she said, pulling two of her cards out of her wallet. She gave him one and wrote his name and telephone number on the other.

"Oh, you're at the university," he said. "Assistant Professor of Ethics. I just graduated last year."

"I just started this year," she said, climbing into her car. "Look, I'll call you as soon as I have the estimate."

"Okay. Bye."


As she waited to turn into the street, she saw him riding off. Once he got some momentum, he seemed to be in complete control of his bike.

At first, she thought she had lost his number. A friend had told her she was stupid anyway: "He's almost sure to have lied to you. Would you have given your real name and phone number to someone in such a situation? You should have asked to look at his license or something."

"Well, I didn't think of it. The whole thing took me by surprise."

"Your insurance would probably cover it without raising your rates. Why not try them?"

"Are you kidding? With my last car my rates kept going up every time I reported anything. It got so it seemed like they'd raise my rates every time I ran low on gas."

So when she finally found the card again and dialed the number, she didn't expect anything more than those three shrill tones and the announcement that the number was "not in service at this time."

Instead, a woman answered, somewhat older from her voice, but probably not old enough to be the young man's mother. She asked for him.

"Sure, just a second." She heard a loud voice calling the young man's name, and a "coming" echoing back.

Another extension. "Hello?" It was the same young man.

"Well, I'm happy to hear your voice."

"Oh, hi. Did you get an estimate?"

"Yes. Was that your mother?"

"No, my Mom lives back East. That was my landlady. I work as an au pair for her family. She has a four-year-old son."

This was a bit surprising, so she didn't say anything for a moment.

"So what's the damage?" he asked.

"Around three-hundred-fifty dollars."


"You don't have it, do you?"

"Well, no."

"Don't you get any money for your work?"

"Well, I was working part-time and doing the au pairing, but I just quit my job, and my cash flow is almost nonexistent."

"Well, where does that leave me?"

"Look, I have a friend who owns a garage. He said he could give me a good deal on it. Could we get a second estimate?"

She was surprised again. "I don't know. I don't know this friend of yours, after all."

"Well, it can't hurt to get an estimate, can it?"

"Look," she said. "It's my car. I want the repairs done by someone I know and trust."

Now he seemed surprised. "But --"

"All I want to know," she interrupted, "is whether you can get the money or not. Otherwise I'll have to go to my insurance company, and they'll come and ask you for the money."


"Yes," she said. "But I don't want to have to do that. You were nice enough to give me your real name, so I'd rather not have to hassle you with the insurance company."

"Did you think I would have lied about my name?"

"I wasn't sure. A friend of mine was sure you would have lied. She said I should have asked you for your license."

"But I said I don't have a car. Would you have lied in my position?"

She didn't answer. She didn't want to answer. "Are you going to be able to get the money?"

"Okay, look. Maybe I can. I have to check with my Mom. I'll call you again tomorrow."

"Make it tomorrow afternoon. I'll be teaching in the morning."

"Okay, I'll call you around two," he said. "Bye."


At 1:30, after eating lunch, she sat down on the deck with her newspaper, which she'd saved that morning just for this purpose. She didn't want to try to do any work before he called; the call would just break her train of thought. So she settled down with the news, which she hadn't been able to follow very closely lately.

She loved to take the time to read the newspaper closely, especially on such a lovely afternoon. The wood on the deck was beginning to get quite hot, but a light breeze was blowing, just enough to keep her from wanting to go inside. She sipped a drink and slowly turned the pages.

After she'd worked her way through two sections of the paper, with a break between to read the comics, she looked at the clock. It was 2:30. Maybe he was turning out to be a flake after all. Her friend had continued to doubt him: "Why didn't you get his address? You should have asked for his mother's address. Some people like that are always asking their parents for money. You're really much too trusting!"

She got up to go call him herself, but then the phone rang just as she was reaching for it.

"Hello?" she said.

"Hi, it's me," he said.

"Good. I was just about to call you."

"You were?"

"Well, it's 2:30. You said two o'clock. I can't wait for your call all afternoon. I've got work to do."

"Sorry. I had to wait until Trevor's Mom came home."


"He's the kid I take care of. Really cool. He sees right through anything people see. It's almost uncanny sometimes."

"Look, did you talk to your mother?"

"Yeah, she's going to send me the money. But things might get a little complicated."


"Well, she's mailing me a check, which will take a couple of days. Then the check has to clear. But by the time it clears, I'll be gone, so I can only mail you a check from my account."

"You want to mail me the check?"

"Yeah, is something wrong with that?"

"Where are you going?"

"See, I'm leaving to go off to grad school next week -- in five days, to be precise. That's why I quit my job. All my stuff is packed up and stored or being shipped -- everything's ready. And somehow I have to get this check to you without having it bounce."

"Okay, look. You can mail it to me -- my address is on the card, right? But you're going to mail it, right? And it's going to be good?"

"Hey, don't worry about it. If I've gone this far, I'm not going to rip you off now. As long as you don't deposit the check too quickly, then everything'll be okay."

"Okay, okay." She paused. "What are you going to study?"

"Philosophy," he said. "Ethics."

When the check arrived, earlier than she'd expected, she put it on her things-to-do pile with several other checks, setting aside the envelope with his note in it. When she went to the bank the next day, she took all the checks with her and deposited them. She was rather annoyed when the check bounced.

"I was very disappointed," she wrote, "that your check wasn't good, after you'd been so trustworthy until now. Please send me another check as soon as possible."

His reply was prompt. The check was enclosed with a brief note complaining that she had deposited the first check too soon, even though he had asked her not to in his letter. "What letter?" she thought, and then she remembered the note that she had only glanced at.

The second check was good.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tussi Research

My latest book publication is now available from Green Integer: Tussi Research, by Dieter M. Gräf, translated from the German by yours truly. Get yourself a copy from GI directly; check the GI blog for more info here.

My first volume of Gräf translations, Tousled Beauty, is still available, too, of course.

Here's something from Tussi Research:

31.8., DIANA

since when then does blood
come out of plastic chairs?,

their red: just can't keep
throbbing!, but it dissolves,

now it's dripping from
the radio, too, a trickle

toward the clearing. The
yapping dogs. There

she lies: snapped, dead.


I love the coincidences that poetry provides its readers with. This morning, reading Durs Grünbein's Strophen für Übermorgen while suffering from laryngitis:


Fern die Stimme, wie vom Häusermeer bedrückt:
Dieser Hauch Metropolis, der Mitleid weckt.
Schnell verhalt ist sie am Stahlbeton der Brücken.
Kurz nach Luft geschnappt, hat keinen angesteckt.
Die Sekunde Gegenwartsie gibt ihr Halt.
Psyche, im Versteck der Stadt, wie immer bland,
Schattenlos dort hüscht sie über den Asphalt.
Schwach die Stimme, ist sich selber unbekannt.

Essay on Rooms


Gerhard Richter: Ein Saal und ein Kabinett für die Sammlung, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, 1998
Andreas Gursky: Photographs 1994-1998, Photomuseum Winterthur, 1998
Andreas Gursky, Kunstmuseum Basel, 2007-2008

I still remember how the room was hung:
the student nurses, black-and-white, adorned
the farthest wall but caught the entering eye
as much as the painted-over copies of Titian,
the 1,024 distinct squares
of color in the color field, the flat
expanse of an all-gray painting, or
the Technicolor smearings of abstraction
pursued in the vertical painting at the near end.

I'd gone to Winterthur to see that room,
so the impression that it made was partly
merely satisfying expectations.
But art remembered even ten years later
as vividly as victory or trauma
has done what it's supposed to do: become
experience, not opinion, an idea
that one has felt, a feeling one has thought.

There was a second room that day that did
the same, becoming vivid memory,
without anticipation as a factor.
In another museum, photographs:
a stock exchange, at the height of trading;
computer operators in their rows;
a night-time high-rise, so many windows lit;
a hotel's open, layered atrium;
a plain of snow in front of mountains, crossed
by Nordic skiers—escaping, I first thought,
from the everyday stress depicted in
all the other photographs. But later
I learned it was a skiing marathon,
a race that made the room into a place
with no way out, between the mass of skiers
and endless lines of sellers, terminals,
skyscraper windows, and hotel floors and doors.
The mass experience put into a room
for individuals to recognize.

It stuck with me for years, that room, a vision
of the world in which we've come to live.
Exaggerated, even simplified,
but brought down to the level of perception;
too general, abstract, but palpable,
returning as a feeling in the mind
in every place where rows and lines would form;
in airports and railway stations; on beaches and highways;
wherever I took a ticket to be served.

And now, a decade later, room after room
of photographs that have expanded with
the artist's stature—one room first and foremost:
a Grand Prix racetrack in the Bahrain desert,
seen from so high up the cars are lines
of brightness barely seen against the track;
the Tour de France, a climbing stage, the switchbacks
ascended by as many cars as bikes,
past the greetings painted on the road;
and "Cheops," nothing but stones so neatly stacked
three thousand years ago. If the skiers seemed
at first to be a way to get away
but then became one race among so many,
the pyramid seems at first anomalous,
a remnant from a time before races.
But history is no escape; the lines
constructed by the Pharaoh's slaves reveal
how long the races have been run already.

(And if I did not feel the same about
the other photos in the new exhibit?
They made me think about the spectacles
the artist chose to photograph—the pit stops;
the North Korean festival with endless rows
of gymnasts forming one enormous bouquet;
the artificial islands in Dubai
that you can buy if you can pay the price—
but all those thoughts were not the kind one feels,
which make a room into a memory.)


Her thing for the Devil—it wasn't love. No, she could take or leave the Devil in the end. Nicola only did it because it was good fun and it made God mad.

(Martin Amis, London Fields, p. 123)

as tagged by Sam of the Ten Thousand Things

How to play:
1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Tag: Mr. Jumbo, Rob, Colin, Matt, Jane

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Edward Thomas's Daughter

Here's one of the poems included in this week's Daily Poem Project, by Alison Brackenbury:

Edward Thomas's daughter

Now winter prowls upon the hills
I write to her, her head so old
The war before the last war fills
Her mind. She lists her father's songs.

A man, I tell her, I admire:
Who steps as close as a lost child.
They sang, she tells me, by the fire
Wild Army songs before he died.

My fingertips once touched that world.
I saw it linger, washing boil,
The fire chill as long ashes curled.
Will Russia's gas put out our lights?

The robin brushes me at dusk.
Our good bones fail. We leave no mark.
His voice, she writes, was clear and quiet.
I hear him singing in the dark.

This is a beautiful and evocative poem, merging so many different levels and images, from the poet's reading of another poet to her encounter with that other poet's daughter, and several other layers as well ("Russia's gas" being perhaps the most startling).

But the syntax of the poem conflicts too much with the lineation for me, without generating any gain to make up for it. In the first stanza, I wonder if a single comma at the end of the first line might help me read the lines better:

Now winter prowls upon the hills,
I write to her, her head so old
The war before the last war fills
Her mind. She lists her father's songs.

Just that additional comma makes it much easier to read the line breaks at the end of lines two and three, but without that comma, I stumble at the end of line one, and then as a result I stumble at the ends of the next two lines as well.

This is another example of a problem I have commented on before, the omission of a comma at the end of a line.

Monday, February 25, 2008


Here's an article about the highest-scoring Scrabble game ever.

The author should have noted the record setter's own "quixotry" (the best-scoring word ever) in his style of play!

My Facebook friends know: I am addicted to Scrabble. :-)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fourth Daily Poem Project, Week One call for votes


Here are the poems to vote for in week one, the first week of my fourth Daily Poem Project (the poems on Poetry Daily from Monday, February 18, to Sunday, February 24):

1. Edward Thomas's daughter, by Alison Brackenbury
2. In the Coffee House, by Tony Towle
3. A Suitable Expression, by Gregory Woods (only the first poem)
4. By way of introduction, by Bob Hicok
5. Transitory, by Lee Sharkey (only the first poem)
6. For the Sightsingers, by Muriel Nelson
7. Stemming from Stevens, by Lisa Williams

The project will run for twelve weeks, and then the twelve weekly winners will be put together for a final vote.

HOW TO VOTE: You can send your vote to me by email or as a comment on the blog. If you want to vote by commenting but do not want your vote to appear on the blog, you just have to say so in your comment (I moderate all comments). (If you read this on Facebook, please vote on my blog and not as a comment on Facebook.)

In the past, I posted the comments only after the final vote was in, but this time around, I will post comments as they come in (so it is no longer a completely secret ballot if you vote early). I'm doing this because some voters (and potential voters) said they thought it would be more interesting this way.

You may vote by the title, the author's name, or the number of the poem in the list above. Please make a final decision and vote for only one poem (although it is always interesting to see people's lists).

Please VOTE BY FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 29! But I will still accept votes as long as I have not posted the final results, which might only be on March 1 or 2.

The winners of the previous projects:

1DPP: "The Shout," by Simon Armitage
2DPP: "Fragment," by A. E. Stallings.
3DPP: "Inside the Maze (II, III, and IV)", by Hadara Bar-Nadav (blog vote)
3DPP: "Friends", by Laure-Anne Bosselaar (class vote)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Jazz and Health, Poetry and Health

One of the ongoing issues in the world of jazz made the New York Times today: jazz musicians often have no health insurance, so when they get ill, their friends have to organize benefit performances for them.

This is, of course, a reason to be for universal health insurance (says the American living in Switzerland), but in the absence of that, it's also a reason for performing artists to have teaching jobs if they cannot afford to pay for health insurance.

By extension, this is one of my arguments in favor of giving poets teaching jobs: they get health insurance!

So if you're one of those poets who thinks that creative-writing programs are ruining poetry, just remember that, in one sense at least, they are keeping poetry alive—by keeping poets alive.


Here's the spectacular photo of John Scofield and Joe Lovano from the above article:

(Scofield and Lovano fans: don't worry, they're not sick.)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Fourth Daily Poem Project

The Daily Poem Project (fondly dubbed "Poetry Idol" by C. Dale Young) involves reading the poem on Poetry Daily every day for a week, then voting for the poem you like best. We do this for twelve weeks, and at the end there is a final vote among the twelve winners to determine an overall winner. (For a list of previous winners, see below.)

I am starting the new project with the PD poem from today (the first day of the first-ever Spring Semester at the University of Basel). I'll be posting a call for votes for the first week this coming Sunday. If you want to begin thinking about what poem to vote for, here are the poets whose work will be considered this week (their poems will be appearing on Poetry Daily from today until Sunday):

Monday - Alison Brackenbury
Tuesday - Tony Towle
Wednesday - Gregory Woods
Thursday - Bob Hicok
Friday - Lee Sharkey
Saturday - Muriel Nelson
Sunday - Lisa Williams

I will be doing one thing differently this time around: I will still moderate comments (and hence votes), but I will be posting them as they come in (between the posting of the call for votes and the deadline for voting), so that people can argue with each other if they want to!

The winners of the previous projects:

1DPP: "The Shout," by Simon Armitage
2DPP: "Fragment," by A. E. Stallings.
3DPP: "Inside the Maze (II, III, and IV)", by Hadara Bar-Nadav (blog vote)
3DPP: "Friends", by Laure-Anne Bosselaar (class vote)

This time around, though, I will be having only one set of votes (as I am not running this project in tandem with any particular class).

Any questions?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

On Ilya Kaminsky

Allow me to recommend Don Brown's excellent discussion of Ilya Kaminsky, whom Don recently heard read at Yale.


Yep, that's me listed by Rob Mackenzie among the poets reading at his Great Grog series in Edinburgh next February. Gonna be buying me an EasyJet thing or the like! :-)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Where Sadness Comes From

One of the finalists from my Daily Poem Project last spring and summer, Maurice Manning's "Where Sadness Comes From," is discussed in Peter Campion's essay on sincerity in the February 08 issue of Poetry.

I'm not quite sure I follow Campion's essay as a whole (perhaps I don't understand his motivation for writing it; that seems to be an issue for me these days), but his reading of Manning's poem is quite well done, as is his discussion of Elizabeth Arnold's "Civilization."

By the way, I'll be starting a new Daily Poem Project in a week; the first call for votes will cover the Poetry Daily poems from Monday, February 18, to Sunday, February 24.

Yet another post from Todtnauberg. :-)

Children of the Ghetto

Along with Louise Glück's "Midsummer" (which I commented on here), I was struck by two other poems in the February 2008 issue of Poetry, both by George Szirtes: "Ross: Children of the Ghetto" and "Petersen: Kleichen and a Man." The former is one of those rare villanelles that fully justifies its form by putting the villanelle's obsessive repetition to perfect use. The latter is a wonderful nonce form in which the last six lines repeat the end words of the first six lines in reverse order. (Or does this form have a name?)

The two poems are part of a set of seven Szirtes poems based on photographs, "In the Face of History."

This post was made from Todtnauberg, but I don't think that makes it Heideggerian (or a Celanian critique of Heidegger). :-)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Last year, I read an article somewhere about an album by a European singer with lyrics taken from famous English-language poets. I was interested, but not enough to get the album.

In the meantime, the singer has become famous for marrying the President of France. Here's an article about Carla Bruni's use of poems for her album "No Promises."

(Jonathan Mayhew will wince at the idea that Dickinson's hymnal stanzas can be sung to the tune of "Gilligan's Island," but at least that's a change from the usual reference to "The Yellow Rose of Texas.")

Monday, February 11, 2008



The orange pepperwort,
stick it behind your forehead,
silence the barb out of the wire,
with which she flatters, even now,
listen to it,
for the span of an impatience.

Paul Celan, tr. Pierre Joris

This is one of the beautiful translations in Threadsuns, Pierre Joris's English rendition of Paul Celan's Fadensonnen. Here are a couple more:

On the rainsoaked spoor
silence's little juggler sermon.

It's as if you could hear,
as if I still loved you.



Give me the right of way
across the grain ladder into your sleep,
the right of way
across the sleep trail,
the right, for me to cut peat
along the heart's hillside,


Near, in the aortic arch,
in the light-blood:
the light-word.

Mother Rachel
weeps no more.
Carried over:
all the weepings.

Quiet, in the coronary arteries,
Ziv, that light.


Still, despite the quality of these translations, and of many of the others (at least in part), I find myself forced to disagree with some of the fundamental decisions Joris made when undertaking his translations of Celan.

My first criticism is really a quibble, perhaps the result of my déformation professionelle as an English teacher: all too often, Joris retains German commas that should clearly be left out in English, as in line 5 of "Irish" (see above), which surely should read "the right for me to cut peat" (with no comma between "right" and "for").

The other two problems I have really mark a difference between philosophies of translation as much as anything else: Joris's decisions are consistent, so they must be intended. The first of these two problems involves compound words: Joris generally tends to translate Celan's German compounds as English compounds (as in the book's title). This seems to me to make Celan much stranger than he actually is, as the nonce compounding of nouns is an everyday practice in German and not in English. By generally translating Celan's compounds as English compounds, Joris adds a layer of "oddity" to Celan's poems that is not really there in the German. (I had long discussions with Dieter M. Gräf about compounds when I was translating Dieter's poems.)

The second problem involves a special grammatical construction that Celan uses quite often. Here's an example (the next-to-last poem in the book):

No name, that would name:
its consonance
knots us under the
in song to be stiffened

(Note the superfluous comma in line 1 and the compound in line 5, as examples of my first two criticisms.) The phrase translated by line 4 is dense in German, but it is not hard to parse: "unters / steifzusingende / Hellzelt" is a prepositional phrase with an adjective modifying the object of the preposition. In English, Joris's phrase makes no sense at all: preposition + article + preposition + noun + passive infinitive + noun. Huh?

Over and over again, then, Joris takes such complex participial constructions positioned between an article and a noun—perfectly standard in German—and translates them as if such constructions existed in English. If I were to write the previous sentence like that, then it would say "Joris takes such between an article and a noun positioned complex participial constructions."

It turns out that I was correct to assume that Joris was doing this on purpose, as he discusses and defends his translation of this very structure in the preface to Breathturn. But the proof of the translation is in the reading, and only those who know German will be able to make sense of the phrases where Joris retains the German word order.

My approach to translation is quite different in these two cases: I use compounds much more sparingly in my English versions of German poems than they are used in the originals, because excessive compounding is weird in English, while German poets who use compounding often (such as Celan, or Gräf, or Anne Duden) are only taking an everyday gesture further.

Nor do I see the point in following German word order when it produces bizarre or even incorrect English grammar or syntax. If the German is incorrect, then of course the English should be incorrect, too, as in this passage from a poem by Brigitte Oleschinski: "I / is the sleeper that journeys."

Beyond this difference in philosophy, though, I think Joris, for all his merits as a translator of Celan who has brought so many poems into English so beautifully (such as those I quoted above), often does Celan a disservice by making Celan seem not only "difficult," but simply bizarre. Celan may push the limits of German grammar, but he does not violate its rules (or perhaps I should say "hardly ever violates," just to be safe). Instead, he takes advantage of all the correct grammatical structures the German language offers him, fully exploiting their nuances and their power. To follow German syntax in an English version is to make him into a very different poet than he actually was and risk stripping him of all that nuance and power. A poet many people consider "difficult" largely because they have been told he is "difficult" does not need to have further difficulties like this added in the process of translation.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


And the next day, we were kids again, sitting on the front steps in the morning,
eating a peach.  Just that, but it seemed an honor to have a mouth.

Louise Glück, "Midsummer"

I don't think I have ever really been moved by a poem by Louise Glück before, but this one from the February 2008 issue of Poetry really struck me.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


No, this is not Johnny Depp, even though I think it is every time I see this self-portrait by Gustave Courbet.

Iran, a Winter Journey

I also have new translations of poems and prose by Franzobel and Julian Schutting in an absolutely stunning book called Iran, a Winter Journey, published by X-CHANGE in Vienna.

Never again, oh I swear, will the towers fall silent,
Never at night.
Day has not yet begun ending; already
Everything silently silenced awakens;
Oaths of the death god are broken by silence:
All silenced to death are the towers of silence,
They're going to be filled by such echoing voices—

Julian Schutting, "The Towers of Silence of Yazd"

My Yugoslavia

The Winter 2007/08 issue of Passages: The Cultural Magazine of Pro Helvetia, contains a beautiful short essay by Ilma Rakusa, "My Yugoslavia," which I had the pleasure and privilege of translating.

For as long as I can remember, the country called South Slavia — for that is what Yugoslavia means — has belonged to me. As a child, I lived for a while in Ljubljana, and even when we moved to Trieste, we regularly visited my father's Slovenian relatives. My father also took my mother and me along on business trips to Zagreb and Belgrade. That was an adventure, for we travelled by car, and the roads were bad. Once, on the way to Zagreb at night, we ran over a rabbit, and a little while later, we were stopped by a farmer looking for a fugitive thief.

is available from Pro Helvetia.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Internet Searching and Energy Use

According to an article in today's Basler Zeitung (unfortunately not available on-line), one Google search uses as much energy as a 10-watt bulb uses in a half an hour. Multiply that by more than one billion searches per day. It's running the server computers that sucks up so much energy.

I was going to do some Google searches to check on that, but I decided not to.

I wonder how much energy each blog post uses.

Lyrikline update

New English sounds and poems at the wonderful lyrikline site in February 2008 are "the American sound poet Charles Amirkhanian" and new English translations of poems by Polish poet Tadeusz Dąbrowski (Poland) and German poets Ursula Krechel and Lutz Seiler.

If you have not checked out lyrikline before, do so: poems and translations in over 40 languages, plus audio of many of the originals, as read by the poets.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

100 Books

Ron Silliman writes: "... name a minimum of 100 books of contemporary poetry – published in the past 25 years – and say a little about each."

Okay, Ron, I don't have time for "a little about each," but here are 100 that I could say something about without looking at my shelves:

Glyn Maxwell, The Breaking
Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems
Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level
Durs Grünbein, Ashes for Breakfast
Dieter M. Gräf, Tousled Beauty (okay, I translated that one)
Ilma Rakusa, A Farewell to Everything (and I co-translated that one)
C. Dale Young, The Second Person
Gabriel Spera, The Standing Wave
Brigitte Oleschinski, Your Passport Is Not Guilty
Anne Duden, Hingegend
Jacques Réda, L'incorrigible
Billy Collins, Questions about Angels
Simon Armitage, The Shout
A. E. Stallings, Hapax
Philip Levine, The Simple Truth
Michael Donhauser, Sarganserland
George Szirtes, Reel
Karin Gottshall, Crocus
Matthew Sweeney, Black Moon
Les Murray, Fredy Neptune
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
Donald Hall, The Museum of Clear Ideas
Thomas Lux, Street of Clocks
Joachim Sartorius, Ice Memory (to which I contributed translations)
Sean O'Brien, Cousin Coat (which I reviewed)
Giles Goodland, A Spy in the House of Years (ditto)
Franzobel, Luna Park
Geoffrey Brock, Weighing Light
Mark Halliday, Little Star
James Longenbach, Threshold
John Fuller, A Space for Joy
Jane Hirshfield, After
W. S. Merwin, The Folding Cliffs
Brad Leithauser, Darlington's Fall
Ko Un, Ten Thousand Lives
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Leichter als Luft
Marilyn Hacker, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons
Adrienne Rich, Sources (but was that more than 25 years ago?)

That's 38 in 15 minutes of brainstorming, trying not to repeat authors and not looking up things whose titles I can't recall at the moment.

Padraig Rooney, The Escape Artist
Paul Muldoon, Moy Sand and Gravel
Robert Creeley, Later (not sure about the pub date?)
Jürgen Theobaldy, Immer wieder alles
Edwin Morgan, A Book of Lives
Michael Longley, The Weather in Japan
David St. John, The Face
Daljit Nagra, Look We Have Coming to Dover!
Sarah Maguire, The Pomegranates of Kandahar
Selima Hill, Violet
Carol Ann Duffy, The World's Wife
Jill Alexander Essbaum, O Forbidden

I'll stop at 50 since I'm tired and it's time to go to bed. And I did those in 25 minutes under pretty strict conditions. If I repeated authors I'd get over 100 easily!

Not Seeing is Believing

This morning, I had to look at the little tag on the inside of the refrigerator to get the model number and other data from it. It was quite blurry, so I took my glasses off and discovered that I could see the label quite clearly without my glasses. Later in the day, for the first time, I noticed myself adjusting how far away the paper I was holding was, in order to focus more clearly. Looks like reading glasses are on their way for me! :-)

Fritz Senn and Klaus Reichert in Basel

In collaboration with the Theater Basel, the English Seminar of the University of Basel has organised a James Joyce double bill:

Thursday, February 21, Theater Basel, Literatursalon, Klosterberg 6, 8:00 p.m.: Fritz Senn, the Joyce expert and director of the Joyce Archive in Zurich, will give a talk about Ulysses combined with a reading of a passage of the novel by Bastian Semm.

Friday, February 22, English Seminar, Nadelberg 6, Basel, in the room called the Cave, 10.15 - 11.45 a.m.: Fritz Senn and Klaus Reichert, also an eminent Joyce scholar and editor, will have a public conversation and will also be available for questions from the audience and prepared to give students advice on a first approach to Ulysses.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A Measuring Worm; The Magic Kingdom; The Saws

By now, as far as I understand, the poetry in the latest issues of The New Yorker is Paul Muldoon's responsibility, not Alice Quinn's. So perhaps it is thanks to Muldoon that one can read this Richard Wilbur poem, "A Measuring Worm", in the February 11 issue (which I have not yet held in my hands, though, thanks to Perlentaucher, I already the poem on-line).

I love Wilbur's use of this stanza, here and elsewhere:

This yellow striped green
Caterpillar, climbing up
The steep window screen,

Each stanza is a haiku, with the first and third lines rhyming.


After writing the above, I went on to read the next poem on-line from that issue, Kathleen Graber's "The Magic Kingdom." Now (assuming that Muldoon picked that one) that is a poem that, as far as I can tell from years of reading the poems she edited, Quinn would not have chosen.


And just to make the list complete, here's the third poem from the same issue, Robert Pinsky's "The Saws." Not a bad set of poems for once! I cannot remember the last time there were three poems in the New Yorker and I did not think, about least one of them, "why would anyone want to publish that bland piece of boredom?"

Friday, February 01, 2008


935 was the year King Wenceslas was murdered, he of the song.

It's also the number of a Porsche.

And it's the number of "false statements" made by "President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld" "in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq."

So the next time somebody tries to tell you that the war was not fought on false pretenses, remember that number: the year Wenceslas died, or a good sports car, or the number of lies Bush and Co. told, as "part of an orchestrated campaign that ... led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses."

I am so grateful to the people who put this "War Card" together. After all, they made clear that many of the things Rummy called "unknown unknowns" were actually perfectly well known "knowns" that he was lying about.