Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Whoso list to hunt?

Are there more end-of-year poetry lists than ever this season? I guess that's good, though a lot of them seem to include the list-maker's friends, editors, and publishers - and one list by a rather well-known poet even features a couple of her own books! And I've stumbled upon at least two lists of book covers. AmPo folks sure like listing things.

Well, this year I, too, will have a best-poetry kind of list. It will have precisely one book on it, and my choice will appear over at the Poetry Foundation website, whose editors solicited it. And though my choice was published this year, its author is not living and is someone with whom I never had any personal connection. Stay tuned for that implicative bit of rectitude.

Meanwhile, since I'm not burdened with listing this way or that, I thought I'd mention two books I've been reading lately that have not been listed or even mentioned anywhere, as far as I'm aware. Both are published by a fascinating press, in fact, one of the most exciting literary presses presently in operation. It's Seagull Press in India, operated by the Seagull Foundation for the Arts. Their books are both astoundingly beautiful and exceptionally important. I mean, here's a press that has published previously unseen work by, among others, Max Frisch, Judith Butler, Peter Handke, Roland Barthes, Edward Lucie-Smith, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Edward Said, Thomas Bernhard, Slavenka Drakulic, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tzvetan Todorov, Aime Césaire, Antonin Artaud, Jean Baudrillard, Guy Debord, Theodor Adorno, Michel Leiris, Georges Bataille, and much else. They've been around for twenty-eight years, and hardly anyone I know of says a word about them: amazing.

Anyway, two of their most recent books have me especially enthralled.

One is the first English translation (by Wieland Hoban) of the correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, something I should think would be a real event, especially in this, the year of Celan's 90th birthday. Here's a sample from this trove:

In Egypt’
For Ingeborg

Thou shalt say to the strange woman’s eye: be the water!
Thou shalt seek in the stranger’s eye those whom thou knowest to be in the water.
Thou shalt call them from the water: Ruth! Noemi! Miriam!
Thou shalt adorn them when thou liest with the stranger.
Thou shalt adorn them with the cloud-hair of the stranger.
Thou shalt say to Ruth, to Miriam and Noemi:
behold, I sleep next to her!
Thou shalt adorn the stranger next to thee most beautiful of all.
Thou shalt adorn her with the pain over Ruth, over Miriam and Noemi.
Thou shalt say to the stranger:
Behold, I slept next to her!
Vienna, 23 May 1948
To the meticulous one,
22 years after her birthday,
From the unmeticulous one


Paris, 31 October 1957

Today. The day with the letter.

Destruction, Ingeborg? No, certainly not. rather: the truth. For this, here too, is surely the opposite principle: because it is the basic principle.

Passing over many things:

I will be coming to Munich in late November, around the 26th.

Returning to what was passed over:

I do not know what all this means, I do not know what I should call it—destiny perhaps, fate and calling; searching for names is pointless, I know that is how it is, forever.

It is the same for me as for you: being allowed to speak and write down your name without struggling with the shudder that comes over me—for me, in spite of everything, that is joy.

You also know: when I met you, you were both for me: the sensual and the spiritual. The two can never separate, Ingeborg.

Think of ‘In Ägypten’. every time I read it, I see you step into this poem: you are the reason for living, not least because you are, and will remain, the justification for my speaking. (and I suppose this is what I was referring to that time in Hamburg, without quite realizing how true my words were.)

But that alone, my speaking, is not even the point; I wanted to be silent with you too.

A different area in the dark:

Waiting: I considered that too. But would that not also mean waiting for life to accommodate us in some way?

Life is not going to accommodate us, Ingeborg; waiting for that would
surely be the most unfitting way for us to be.

Be—yes, we can and are allowed to do so. To be—be there for another.

Even if it is only a few words, alla breve, one letter, once a month: the heart will know how to live.

Do you know that I can speak (and write) again now?

Oh, there is still so much I have to tell you, some of them things that even you would barely suspect.

Write to me.

P. S. Strangely enough, I had to buy the Frankfurter Zeitung on the way to the national library. and stumble across the poem you had sent me together with Die Gestundete Zeit, written on a strip of paper, by hand. I had always interpreted it for myself, and now I found it greeting me again—in such a context!

Forgive me, Ingeborg, forgive my stupid postscript of yesterday—perhaps I must never think or speak in such a way again.

Oh, I was so unjust towards you all these years, and the postscript was probably a relapse that was supposed to come to my aid in my helplessness. Is ‘Köln, Am Hof ’ not a beautiful poem? Höllerer, whom I recently gave it to print in Akzente (was I allowed to?), called it one of my most beautiful ones.

Through you, Ingeborg, through you. Would it ever have happened if you had not spoken of the ‘dreamt ones’? a single word from you—and I can live. And to think that I now have your voice in my ear again!


The other Seagull book I'm almost literally swooning over is Guillaume Apollinaire's Letters to Madeleine, a collection of never-before translated letters and poems the poet wrote in the trenches during the First World War to Madeleine Pagès, a women he met on the train shipping out. Now, this book is really a revelation because it has been so easy to romanticize Apollinaire's war experiences. Though you have to get over his frequently addressing Madeleine as his "little fairy," the details of his life as a Parisian poet who suddenly became an artilleryman are amazing. Experiencing much terror and privation, Apollinaire nevertheless writes Madeleine with great ardor - and even makes metal rings for her from bomb casings ("if you would be so kind as to send me the measurement of your ring finger, in two or three days I shall make you one like those the others make—that is, if you would like me to. These are not fine jewellery of course, but they are rather nice, rather poignant, and they make amusing war souvenirs."), and a pen holder from the shells of bullets. He also wrote a poem for her on the bark of a tree, which he asked her to burn to make the poem more palpable -

The book is valuable because you'll find many poems here that were later polished up and published in different form. And of course, the man knew how to write a love letter, a love poem, and so his entreaties to far-off Madeleine are as dramatic as a novel. I won't tell you how it ends. Edited by Laurence Campa and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, it's essential for anyone interested in Apollinaire.

Here's part of a letter dated 25 May 1915:

I write you with the confidence of a man writing to a girl whose mind he respects infinitely, and whom he therefore trusts to see no vainglory or bluster in what he says. Nothing could be farther from my nature, and I would never dream of passing myself off as a great warrior. I am simply describing a sensation, or rather the absence of a sensation. Bravery consists as its etymology suggests in braving a danger and there is no bravery in my case, and it is indeed quite possible that I might turn out to be a coward when it comes to bayonets or hand-to-hand combat or even the defense of a casement under bombardment. I simply do not know. At all events, after I left the wood as the bombardment shifted its direction away from me, I headed straight for our trenches, for I found myself exposed to fire from the heights occupied by the Germans and saw masses of greenish smoke rolling along; it did not seem about to reach me at all, but after a moment my vision clouded over, and I staggered about with the impression that the ground was in violent motion, continually twisting back and forth, and then amidst the sanfoin in flower I trod on a soft body which thoroughly terrified me by rearing up and giving vent to a cry like that of a Punch doll when you press on its belly, and at the same moment two partridges took wing with the sound they make when startled. This brought me back to myself and my earlier simple state of mind, except for a continuing feeling of heaviness and a dizziness which I attributed to the sun, but which was experienced with like intensity as I later learnt in villages much farther away, so it was clearly bromine...

This is a poem called "Aiming," (which "belongs to you Madeleine") from a slightly later letter:

Horses almost cherry red Zeelanders
Gold machine-guns croaking out legends.
I love you Liberty watching over the hypogaea
Silver-stringed harp oh rain oh my music
The invisible enemy a silver wound in the sun
And the hidden future that the flare elucidates
Listen to the Word swimming subtle fish
The towns one by one become keys
Mask blue like the sky God dons
Peaceful war ascesis metaphysical solitude
Child with severed hands amidst the pink banners.

These two books and other Seagull titles are distributed in the US by the University of Chicago Press, who deserve great praise for bringing them to American readers!

Now back to my hunt for good books to read, but not list!

Pictured: Listmakers in a feeding frenzy. I mean gulls.


Morgan said...

one list by a rather well-known poet even features several of her own books

I missed that one. Luridly curious to know who it was.

Anonymous said...

He won't say, betcha, but I will:


Henry Gould said...

The Apollinaire book , mais oui, formidable! I see we have the original French ed. here in the library, publ. by Gallimard in 2005. Lettres a Madeleine.


Seagull is publishing Handke's next to last play, his reply to Beckett's KRAPP'S LAST TAPE.. BIS DAS DER TAG UNS SCHEIDE this fall...


Steven Fama said...

Hi Don,

I have guessed which book you've chosen as best poetry book published this year . . .

. . . but you will have to wait until I reveal it!


Your fellow list-maker (though not for the Poetry site!)

Shelley said...

You're right: the preponderance of well-placed "friends" is an enormous advantage to writers.

But that's different, to us, from having loyal readers.

That 31 October letter reminds me very much of Dickinson.

Steven Fama said...

Update -- December 16, 2010: Just saw your choice Don, revealed in the December 13th post on HarrietBlog. The Collected Eigner is a most excellent pick and (by-the-by) exactly what I thought you'd do!