Saturday, December 06, 2008

Recommended Reading

My local public library, the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, has New European Poets on one of its shelves where new books are kept. Published by Graywolf Press, the back cover informs us: "general editors Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer enlisted twenty-two additional regional editors to select these 290 poems, whose writing was first published after 1970." The volume contains more than 400 poems, a section 'About the Poets', another section 'About the Translators' and of course 'Permission Acknowledgments'. Nearly 200 translators worked with more than 40 languages to render these poems in English.

I see spirituality in poems from former Soviet states, and I am encouraged. Many such poems carry a world-weary tone, but stop short of cynicism and I would say even of pessimism. For example:

the men of my country
by Andriy Bondar (b. 1974)
translated from the Ukrainian by Vitaly Chernetsky

the men of my country
give up their seats on the subway
to the handicapped the aged
and to the passengers with children
but mostly they go on sitting
since these categories of citizens
have a pronounced tendency to die out
or travel by subway less and less often

the men of my country
they are saints under a heel
with trained insect jaws
with which they gnaw their way
to deserved fatherhood
and later having untied their hands
savor children's flesh
using proscribed methods
of raising the younger generation

the men of my country
are not mutants or perverts
they are products of secondary processing
of amino acids
this is all that remains of the nation
which loves and honors its heroes
youths so roly-poly or with pit bull jaws
their love for motherhood
has outgrown all discernible limiits
and become a signature style

the men of my country
wonderful specimens for an entomologist
for they are fragile like exotic butterflies
pinned to a piece of cardboard
they acknowledge the value
of every move every sound
for life is an unending crime
that has no justification

the men of my country
blow their noses simply into their hands
for the hand is the most useful organ
for such an important deed
they usually don't have any other
important deeds to consider

the men of my country
make no effort
efforts ruin the liver
and their mouths smell bad
and have they really been born
to exert efforts

the men of my country
prematurely descend into the grave
and become weightless angels
and ideal raw material
for metaphysical speculations
and superfluous argument in favor of the existence
of god or what's his name

The speaker of this poem sees much in the world that is undesirable but believes in God. Another poem from this book seems more cynical to me:

I Blow My Nose Inartistically
by Jozef Urban (1964-1999)
translated from the Slovak by James Sutherland-Smith

We who don't blow our nose nicely
offend polite company
and the routines of decent society

For not blowing our nose nicely
it is necessary to cancel us
from the list of folk who live decently
and to change good manners into laws
to exile us somewhere to an island
and there we'll blow our nose like Robinsons

For not blowing our nose nicely
we must be deprived of our inventions
of making babies
planting birch trees
and our railway track systems
and be left there on an island
so we won't blow our nose in discussions
and slobber over company
who've come to gorge upon each other, nicely,
utterly to the limits of decency.

I like both poems. And many more in this lovely volume.

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