Where It Is To Be Human
“We love life if we find a way to it,” writes Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in his poem, “And We Love Life”: “And we plant, where we settle, some fast growing plants, and harvest / the dead.”
Finding a way to it: a metaphor for the nationless, like Darwish, for all humankind struggling for a sense of place, or meaning, or community, or language—a metaphor for the writer and the reader as well. Indeed, this question of where we find ourselves is quite possibly the question of our current moment.
The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry ponders this question deeply. The poems included here are poems of translation and journey, of solitude and togetherness, of rage and fear and joy and humor. They are poems that inhabit what it is to be human. And, appropriately, they are poems that inhabit where it is to be human.
My first impulse when holding a book like The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry in my hands is to map the “international-ness” of it. What nationality do the authors claim? Where do they live? Were they exiled, colonized? Why do they live where they do? In what language do they write? Who are their translators and what is their nationality? I need to find out what “international” means in the title. As a reader, I need to find my vantage point, a place to land in all this bigness.
Next, I want to map the “anthology-ness.” Why were these poems and poets included? What was left out? When in the span of history are these poems written? What is the editor interested in collecting? Why? Anthologies are difficult like this; they seem to be collections of everything, and yet of course that’s not the case.
Editor Ilya Kaminsky’s introduction dissuaded me from my cartographic meanderings, if not from mentioning them here. Kaminsky does an admirable job of laying out the “rules” of this anthology. He includes discussions of the difficulties surrounding issues of translation and acknowledges the inclusion of poets writing in minority languages such as Belorusian or Yiddish as well as colonial languages such as Afrikaans. Regarding Afrikaans, Kaminsky writes, “the history that surrounds this language is torturous and oppressive, and yet the work of poets writing in it . . . is resonant, moving, rehabilitating.” Though one could certainly say the same for English, Kaminsky avoids it diplomatically. Instead, he quotes Forrest Gander, who writes in his book of essays, A Faithful Existence, “I may hope that my own translations are less colonial raids into other languages than subversions of English, injections of new poetic forms, ideas, images and rhythms into the muscular arm of the language of power.”
Kaminsky also frankly notes the scarcity of quality translation from Asian and African poetries and of women poets worldwide, and encourages discussion (and hopefully future translations of these poets) in a forum at Words Without Borders. Though there are lots of interesting discussions going on at Words Without Borders, this particular forum is unfortunately absent. Managing director Joshua Mandelbaum explained to me via e=mail that this is due to a shortage of staff and an overabundance of pressing projects but that “talks of doing a series on this issue on [WWB's] blog, Dispatches, has resumed.”
On the strength of the introduction alone, I would recommend this anthology to any beginning student of international poetry or translation. It answered many of my rattling questions and primed me to be receptive to the poetry that follows. It is the editor’s wish that the range of voices collected here, “will allow us, in this somewhat unsettling time in Anglo American political history, to find the voice within that is strong and compelling, an instrument of poetry that—to rephrase Auden—is our chief means of breaking bread with the world.”
Kaminsky states that his single criterion for selection was “the quality of the poem in English.” Quoting Ezra Pound, he writes: “It really matters that great poems get written, and it doesn’t matter a damn who writes them.” Alas, I just don’t agree. Translation, publishing, even reading is political, and perhaps especially in an international context. The informed, active reader knows it is crucial to build an awareness of who and why and probably even where while reading an anthology of international poetry. The fact of the matter is there is always a why a poet or poem was included and a why another was not. These factors are historical, cultural, racial, gendered, geographical, economic, and political, and certainly can’t be pinned on Kaminsky alone. Indeed, though he quotes Pound and encourages the separation in one’s mind of the poet from the poem, this is an anthology that knows it is part of a larger dialogue about language, translation, and the idea of nationhood, and on the whole Kaminsky approaches this dialogue with thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
There are poems that try to deal with the immensity of what it means to live in the world. In “A Great Number,” Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska writes, in Czeslaw Milosz’s translation:
Four billion people on this earth,
While my imagination remains as it was.
It clumsily copes with great numbers.
Still it is sensitive to the particular.
There are poems that call on a new home to fulfill its potential, as Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor calls on New York to “open . . . “:
. . . your ears, especially your ears, to God
Who in one burst of saxophone laughter
Created heaven and earth in six days,
And on the seventh slept a deep Negro sleep.
(“To New York, 3,” trans. Melvin Dixon)
Then there are poems such as Romanian poet Paul Celan’s “Deathfugue” (trans. John Felstiner) that can stand alone, due to both the strength of its craft and because its historical context (Nazi death camps) is so generally well known. Or Danish poet Inger Christensen’s “Alphabet” (trans. Susanna Nied), a meditation on nuclear annihilation that is beautifully excerpted here, but is even more stunning in its entirety.
What one wants to do with an anthology such as this is find connection, to find poems that express how alike we are, and to settle on uniqueness instead of difference. That’s easy to do in this collection, where all voices lament the failures of humanity, and all voices bow in wonder at the gift of life. Home and homelessness, prayer and godlessness, humanity and our inconceivable inhumanity—these are, in this anthology, the issues of our time. What softens and opens the reader, though, is the many voices together that ask as one for a better world, that call out across time and distance to each other for strength and compassion and action. Some snippets of this century-long, worldwide conversation include:
The Korean poet Kim Nam-Jo wonders “what it’s like / to be shaking all over, looking down / on the mutability of people and things?” and the Serbian poet Vasko Popa responds, “The little box which contains the world / Fell in love with herself / And conceived / Still another little box.”
The Finnish poet Edith Sodergran writes, “On foot / I wandered through the solar systems, / before I found the first thread of my red dress,” and the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz commiserates, “Now everything is like my heart, / a color at the edge of blood.”
And just when one feels completely desolate: “I am Adam / who heard god say / / farewell Adam,” by Indonesian poet Sapardi Djoko Damonno, one feels that thought strangely twinned: “in the morning or at any time, in the morning / you dream you wake up, you’re afraid of waking up,” by Chinese poet Duoduo.
Or one finds a transcendental spirit, as in that of Israeli poet Aharon Shabati, who wrote: “My heart’s so full of shit, / and that’s the quality in me that sings . . . ” and Mexican poet Ricardo Castillo, who echoes, “I just want to be the greatest pisser in history, / Oh Mama, for the love of God, the greatest pisser in history.”
Are you swaying and humming “We Are the World” yet? Fear not: Kaminsky makes an important choice in the formatting of this anthology. There are roughly 428 poems, 209 poets, and 65 (though nothing could be disputed more vehemently) nations represented herein. Rather than categorizing by nation or language, a choice that would at once be artificial, multiplicitous, and oversimplified, Kaminsky organizes the poems chronologically by the year of each poet’s birth. From the first poem (by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, born 1861), to the last (Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort, born 1981), the effect is sobering: it binds these voices across time and space without trivializing them or imposing limiting categories. It makes for a nuanced and interesting read, a historical framework that places the emphasis on content, which is, after all, what Kaminsky had hoped.
Ellen Welcker is a poet living in Seattle. Her first book, The Botanical Garden, has just been published by Astrophil Press.
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