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Turn, turn, turn

July 22, 2009

I love all the turning I have to do with New American Writing #27. There are some poems for which I have to turn pages, which is always exciting. But I actually loved turning the book on its side to read Amaranth Borsuk and Gabriela Jauregui’s “Paul Braffort’s My Hypertropes: Translations and Transversions.” And turning it repeatedly up and down for Todd Melicker’s “king” and “queen.” And turning it on its side again for Caroline Knox’s “Key” and Alice Jones’s “Crystal objects.”

[As if to dispute these, Clayton Eshelman’s poem “Descent” begins with an epigraph from Sam Shepard “(after the Vallejo program)”: “Why do poets write vertically?” to which he begins to answer, “Cremasteric / metaphor. Descent intensifies / consciousness.” Ah yes. Bless Matthew Barney for bringing the cremaster muscle to our attention! In three lines the poet hints to us that women, alas, lacking testicles, muddle along in untroubled unconsciousness. But I digress.]

There are two of Braffort’s poems translated and Transversioned by Borsuk and Jauregui here, presented in three columns (original, translation, and Transversion) for ease of comparison. “Our method builds on that of poets and theorists Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, for whom translation stimulates creative experiment,” they write in an introduction, “as well as on the Brazilian concrete poets’ notion of transcreation, whereby every translation is always already a reinvention of the original. Each translation and Transversion is a collaboration, both between the two of us, and between our poem and Braffort’s.”

This is tremendous fun to read. Braffort’s title “La voile se lève sur les fondements (A Claude BERGE)” is, in Transversion, “The Bellye Lifts Over the Fundament (For Gertrude STEIN).” Their main task is in finding four homonymic matches for a fifth word, which Braffort accomplishes (in French) using the word “mathématique” and which the two translators accomplish for “mathematics” in English. But in the Transversion, they must find four homonyms for “perseverate,” which leads them to, in one case, “Perc. Everett.” The two-page extravaganza is both fascinating and extremely enjoyable; I’ll probably call on it when teaching Oulipo strategies to undergrads this coming fall semester.

Todd Melicker’s poems appear across a spread, with the odd lines set to be read right-side up, and the even lines set to be read upside-down. Before I figured out how to read the poem, I was dutifully turning the book over with every line—but it didn’t take long to realize that I could read the right-side up lines all at once, flip the book, and read all the upside-down ones. (I prefer to think that I admit of all possibilities rather than that I am muddling along in untroubled unconsciousness, occasionally bumping into walls.) Doing this reinforced the idea from the titling that the king and queen are on opposite sides of a perspective, though still partners. The poems are suggestive and ambiguous, permitting re-reading and more or less requiring that you slowly spin the book around as you step into their world yet again.

The format of these poems immediately attracted me, but don’t get me wrong, the whole issue is terrific. (Click over to their website and subscribe today!) Happy as always to see new work by Ahsahta authors Brian Henry, Rachel Loden, and Dan Beachy-Quick, and by my colleague, Martin Corless-Smith (I liked his title “The Evening of a Faun”—G.C. Waldrep’s “Apologia Pro Vita Tua,” as well). Poets whose work I’m just getting to know (Edward Smallfield, Etel Adnan) are there too. I’m looking forward to reading Ben Lerner’s essay on Barbara Guest.

Lest I seem all warm and fuzzy today, let me sneak in some snark: what is it with the current New Yorker’s creepy “spots”? There I was, enjoying their article on Al Franken, when a cockroach showed up on page 32—and I don’t think the fact that it had a pin through it makes it any less creepy. And then earwigs, and beetles, and flies! You’d think they want us to throw down the magazine and run away screaming.

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