My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Two giants of post-WWII literature exchanging letters about poetry, translation, politics, family, and their own deep friendship makes for riveting reading. This wonderful book made me put a considerable stack of enjoyable reading on hold while I read it, and my first impulse upon finishing it was to start right over again from the beginning. Yes, it’s that good.
It’s unfair to compare Airmail with Lisa Jarnot’s Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography, of course, but since I read them almost back-to-back I have to say that the Robert Bly/Tomas Tranströmer correspondence delivers a clearer, deeper sense of what it is like to be a poet than Jarnot’s exhaustive and exhausting tome. We get a sense of both these poets as men, as word-mad writers, and watch as their careers and their friendship deepen and broaden over a period of 36 years—until the correspondence suddenly ends, cut off by the stroke Tranströmer suffered in 1990, which left him unable to write in the old, free way that characterizes these letters. What a loss! Heartbreaking for all concerned—and thanks to this book, we as readers join in that concern.
And yet the overall impression Airmail leaves is of the abiding comfort of friendship, especially when it thrives on both intellectual and emotional levels. The book quickly obliterates the image we have of poets as solitary garret-dwellers communing with the angels and shows us instead two deeply human beings seeking to heal the division between the inner and the outer life with searching intelligence and great good humor. Everything in Western culture militates against this healing, and yet this book illustrates that universal art (Tranströmer’s poetry has been translated into 60 some languages) can arise from the attempt.
It may be that one of these days Bly himself will get the Nobel Prize (I happen to think he deserves it), but prizes are ultimately irrelevant. What matters is the inner work and its artful expression. These two poets, in different ways, have already succeeded in changing how we receive poems into our lives, and by extension how we receive our own experience in the world. I imagine not a few readers will revise their ideas of friendship itself, especially male friendships, on the basis of these luminous letters.
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Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography by Lisa Jarnot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Jarnot’s book is brilliant and horribly dull by turns. Whole chapters are given over to lists of flights hither and yon for readings, lectures, workshops, panel discussions etc., which Duncan undertook to make money. (He never had or really sought a secure place in the Academy.) She also lists all the people he met at those events and generally makes some cursory comments on how he was received, interspersing quotations from the letters he wrote daily to his partner Jess, who was evidently a painfully shy homebody. The book provides some insight into Duncan’s character, which in print doesn’t seem terribly appealing because of his erotic aggressiveness, persistent infidelity, raging ego, and general disregard for the others’ feelings and views. In other words, this is not in any way a critical biography; it’s too often a vessel full of literary gossip. What’s missing is any in-depth insight into Duncan’s writings.
I have to say that I’ve long admired Duncan from afar. He’s what I think of as a process writer, a writer of sequences; there are few whole poems that stand alone, and because these tend to be the only ones Jarnot discusses, we’re left with a very partial sense of the man’s achievement. Jarnot does show us that Duncan was devoted to Charles Olson and his poetics, but gives no concrete examples of how he applied those ideas. My feeling is that Duncan rose above Olson’s vague and wooly-headed theories and ultimately outdid his mentor. I can scarcely stomach Olson’s poetry, but I continue to learn from Duncan and to read him with a sense of pleasure and discovery.
All this said, I can’t pretend that Jarnot is entirely to blame. The fashion in biographies these days is the tome: fat books crammed with quotidian facts, as if readers needed proof that these people actually existed, eating and drinking, getting and spending, committing and betraying just like them. It’s our own feeling of unreality that such biographies secretly seek to cure. Personally, I miss the days when literary biographies ranged from 200 to 350 pages or so, with a firm touch kept on the pulse of the work, which after all is the only reason to care about the writer’s life (with some exceptions, of course). Jarnot’s book could easily have weighed in at 300 pages and still had plenty of room to deal with Duncan’s fundamental themes, adventurous structures, and varied music. We’ll have to wait for another writer to wrestle with this poet on the terms that clearly mattered most to him.
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The History of Violets by Marosa Di Giorgio
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the second book of translations I’ve read of Marosa di Giorgio’s work, the first being Diadem: Selected Poems, translated by Adam Giannelli. Had I not read Giannelli’s versions I might have assigned this book a higher rating. This is not to say that translator Jeannine Marie Pitas somehow failed the original work. In fact, she went out of her way in her attempt to bring The History of Violets into English, going so far as to move to Salto, Uruguay, di Giorgio’s home town, in order to develop a deeper understanding of the poet. Unfortunately, Pitas’s efforts aren’t always successful. She seems to lack Giannelli’s ear for English, and as a result her translations are a bit stiff. Here is an example, the 15th poem from The History of Violets, the Pitas version first, followed by Gianelli’s:
The mushrooms are born in silence; some of them are born in silence, others with a brief shriek, a soft thunder. Some are white, others pink; that one is gray and looks like a dove, the statue of a dove; still others are gold or purple. Each one bears—and this is what’s awful—the initials of the corpse it comes from. I do not dare to eat them; that most tender meat is our relative.
But, come afternoon the mushroom buyer arrives and starts picking. My mother gives him permission. He chooses like an eagle. This one white as sugar, a pink one, a gray one.
My mother does not realize that she is selling her race.
The mushrooms are born in silence; some are born in silence; others, with a brief shriek, a bit of thunder. Some are white, others pink, that one’s gray and looks like a dove, the statue of a dove; some are gold or purple. Each one bears—and this is the horrible part—the initials of the dead person from which it springs. I don’t dare devour them; that tender flesh is our relative.
But in the afternoon the mushroom buyer comes and starts to pick them. My mother lets him. He chooses like an eagle. That one, white as sugar, a pink one, a gray one.
Mama doesn’t realize she’s selling her own kind.
The differences here are small; many phrases are exactly the same. The differences, though, are typical of the two translators. Both translate “mi madre” correctly as “my mother”; but in the last line, where di Giorgio shifts to the more intimate “mamá,” Pitas sticks with “my mother,” losing the original’s shift in tone. Earlier, in writing about the mushrooms themselves, Pitas translates “el muerto” as “the corpse,” which takes the poem in a Poe-ish direction; we can see she means to do this because she translates “carne” as “meat”. But surely di Giorgio’s “el muerto” means “the dead person,” as Giannelli has it, and her “carne” is (à la Giannelli) “flesh,” as we normally speak of the flesh of fruits and vegetables. Pitas simply loses the subtlety of the original.
Finally, there’s nothing “wrong” with Pitas’s phrase “she is selling her race”; “vende a su raza” can mean this. But I think Giannelli is right in choosing “her own kind” for “su raza,” because di Giorgio is talking about her kin—the dead whose graves are on the family farm where the poet grew up.
The above carping aside, I have to say we’re lucky that Pitas chose to translate a complete, single book of di Giorgio’s poems. Giannelli, with a different aim in mind, selected poems from the nearly 700 pages of the collected poetry (The Wild Papers); it seems that he took only one poem from The History of Violets, so Pitas’s volume fills a real gap.
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