Ezra Pound said poetry was news that stays news. I thought that in gathering some notes on poetry I’ve read this year I’d bring a bit of news and only after doing so realized to what extent those notes would indicate how today’s poetry can be entwined with medieval Moorish Spain or fourteenth century Tuscany or Elizabethan London or sixteenth century Japan. Sometimes, apparently, poetry can also be ancientries made new again.

PETER HUGHEs, AFTER PETRARCHPeter Hughes, Quite Frankly: After Petrarch: Canzoniere 1–28 (Like This Press, 2013)

Entirely new to me is the work of mid-career British poet Peter Hughes, but I’m certainly going to start seeking it out now. These poems “after” the father of the sonnet — “long after,” one might say, and yet something of the Italian poems’ original argument, wit, and “various style” continues to animate Hughes’s poems — are lithe in movement and copious in invention, a true delight. In the opening of Petrarch’s sequence, for instance (“Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono”) he imagines how the sound of his youthful sighs, translated, as it were, into “scattered rhymes,” might find an empathetic echo in his understanding listener/readers; yet by the same token he has become an old story (“favola fui gran tempo”) whose lesson is the vanity of earthly pleasure. In Hughes’s version, this parable of reception, Petrarch’s spirit seems to whisper from beyond the graveyard of the library amidst the clamor of a street fair. The poem is worth quoting in full:

if you can read the afterglow
of all the friction I connived in
escaping to the fair so very young
& so variously insane

I hope you’ll recognize a few shapes
if only by the state of the trellis
& that pain in the stomach
which is mainly knots in the convention

I don’t blame them for crossing the street
when I come trudging down the contents page
I’d do it myself & head for the coconut shy

but it’s long gone now & the whole hurts—
the most intoxicating music of fairground at night
reduced to diesel & syringes

The combination of immediacy and deep memory in this verse is astounding; through it, Petrarch really does speak to our present. Rumor has it another installment of Hughes’s Petrarch project has just been released by another UK press, Knives Forks & Spoons; I can’t wait to read Snowclone Detritus: Petrarch Sonnets 97-116.

Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour, editors, Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four: The University of California Book of North African Literature (University of California Press, 2012)

“In the folds of the stranger’s rags / many strange things are hidden,” read the unforgettable lines by Ibn Darradj al-Qastalli, a Berber poet of the late tenth/early eleventh centuries who, according to a biographical note, is known as a poet of exile though he never exactly experienced it, having “lived more in a nostalgic nomadic world of his own, though he did write some excellent poems thanks to this virtual nomadic state of mind.”

This book, tracing more than two millennia of literature in North Africa but concentrating on modern times, may seem a stranger bearing many strange things but there’s good reason why it appears as the latest volume in the great Poems for the Millennium series. This series began with two big volumes of “modern and postmodern” poetry edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, published in 1995 and 1998. It then backtracked to the nineteenth and even the late eighteenth centuries for a collection of romantic and, yes, “postromantic” poetry in 2009, edited by Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson. The backward extension of the Poems for the Millennium brand to modernism’s immediate precursors in Europe and North America — albeit in incipient dialogue with Asia—was at once logical and revelatory; the sideways leap to a tradition essentially unknown to most Western readers comes as more of a surprise. And for just that reason, the book is even more of an eye-opener.

The poetry of North Africa may not exactly be mon semblable, mon frère but at the very least it appears as a long-lost cousin of the Western poetic tradition. As a comparable volume of European writing would have to be, it is a very mixed bag, but I dare you not to come up with a dozen discoveries you’ll treasure for life. Just one of mine: Ahmad al-Majjaty, who lived most of his life (1936-1995) in his native Casablanca. The second part of his brief poem “Disappointment,” in Norddine Zouitni’s translation, gives an idea of his quality:

Out of hunger, we killed the spiny-tailed lizard
And slept in the shade of wormwood.
The chords played only wind poems for our sake
Until we soared around.
We passed the strewn one by our caravan
Chewing the bone of is she-camel, disappointed.
We were two people
Silence the third
And tears our fourth companion.

Even for a tyro like me it is as easy to hear this poem’s delicate echoes of the ancient qasida as its debts to Surrealism and T.S. Eliot. But when we read in the translator’s note that this poetry “is characterized by its emphasis on pure Arabic diction and original syntactic formation,” which is “due to the poet’s high respect for classical Arabic,” one can only long for a better idea of what this pure diction is and how it manifests itself in al-Majjaty’s verse. But of course a book like this cannot convey such things, and so one remains at a considerable distance from this remarkable poetry. In effect I am suggesting that one might have hoped for a different kind of book, one with far more commentary in proportion to translated text. Probably that would be asking too much for now. This is a book whose success will be in creating a craving to know, rather than even beginning to satisfy that desire.

K. Silem Mohammad, Sonnagrams 1–20 (Slack Buddha Press, 2012)

It’s usually not recommended that a critic comment on a publication he hasn’t actually read. But this time I’m making an exception. I know from having heard K. Silem Mohammad read them that his ongoing series “Sonnagrams” amounts to some of the most remarkable poetry being written today. We should all be reading them:

Go softly to the Disneyland Hotel,
Its simulacral threshold grown sublime:
The bedrooms all emit that new car smell,
Like nothing else in bourgie Anaheim.

Along with so much else, I love the Stevensian kicker in that opening stanza of Sonnagram 3, “’Oh, We Be Few, Oh, We Be Few,’ She Huffed.” But I have bad news: Slack Buddha Press, having taken the money I sent them via PayPal for a copy of this chapbook containing the first installment of Mohammad’s series, stiffed me. Not only did they never send the publication but they never responded to my emails and Facebook messages. Bad, bad behavior. Read this poet, please, but steer clear of his publisher. Luckily, some of the poems in this chapbook are available online, and I’ve tracked them down there.

Anyway, what you need to know about Mohammad’s “Sonnagrams” is that they are Oulipian confections made by rearranging the letters of each of Shakespeare’s sonnets into new sonnets, rhyme, meter, and all—and that in their submission to convention they take the collagiste methodology of his earlier books starting with Deer Head Nation (2003) to dizzying levels of intricacy. And how much of Shakespeare continues to echo through these hyper-anagrams, and in what ratio to whatever might emerge of Mohammad’s thinking amidst such severe constraints? The answer might lie in the closing couplet of his remake of sonnet 13: “Although you feel the author’s days are through, / The author in the end erases you.” In a manner completely different from Hughes’s adaptation of Petrarch, Mohammad too reminds us that the most radical move in poetry often has to do with radically plumbing the tradition.

Hoa Nguyen, As Long as Trees Last (Wave Books, 2012)

Hoa Nguyen puts her ear to the ordinary and hears strange and disconcerting overtones. I can’t help thinking that this might be what the bleakly apocalyptic quaverings of W.S. Merwin’s The Lice might sound like if they were rewired through the wide-eyed wonderment of Joseph Ceravolo. Nguyen wants to touch a nerve but not always by way of explicit meaning—and not always not either. These are like imagist poems with the images cut up and reshuffled; they’re mostly short, in the neighborhood of sixteen lines. Unpunctuated, pieced together from fragments yet self-contained, they seem cut from the same cloth. All sorts of mundane details (“My boy wears shark pajamas,” “Wash towels and rags / on Wednesdays,” “Jimmy Stewart laughs in the dream”) mingle with near-visionary ones (“The soul has wings and migrates / A plain stowaway on the updraft,” “the woman cut into two to make / the earth and stars”) and various bits of general bad news (“You can sample cord blood / find rocket fuel there / Find rocket fuel in breast milk,” “Countrywide has collapsed”). I wonder if I should be worried that I find it so hard to pick favorites, but maybe I can say that this poetry at its best where the threads that bind the individual lyric together seem most frayed yet still not broken. Nguyen’s “Rain Poem” ends with a to-do list that consists of “Mash the sea / Evolve love / Keen / Coo” and in any case she seems to be doing it.

Brandon Shimoda, Portuguese (Octopus Books/Tin House Books, 2013)

Brandon Shimoda’s poetry makes the most of a strange tension. On the one hand, it takes on an air of objectivity thanks to its evidently being highly constructed/collaged, with a “research” aspect behind it; on the other, it relentlessly brings to the fore an expressionistic, gestural quality of language that seems to register pure emotion, if only through the deformation of language. A recurrent reference, explained in an afterword, is to a story of some Portuguese shipwrecked on a Japanese island in 1543, the first Europeans to arrive there. Shimoda explains that the Japanese language includes a number of words derived from ones introduced by Portuguese Jesuits: “those for the underwear worn beneath a kimono; star-shaped candy; mummy; shaddock (fruit); sponge cake; cactus; (the Christian) cross; caramel; Christian (people); (religious) missionary; quince; soap; marbles; flask; (cigarette) tobacco; Jesus (Christ); and a certain type of small biscuit. I list these words in another, foreign tongue,” i.e., English. That list is almost too good to be true; it smacks of the ancient Chinese encyclopedia imagined by Borges and discussed by Foucault at the beginning of his book The Order of Things. At the same time, Shimoda seeks the elemental; this is a poetry in which “We look at skulls and feel unsettled — skulls are right here.” Well, that’s easy to say, but often enough Shimoda’s writing is genuinely unsettling, and I can’t help but respond to his agonized manifestation of “The terrible inefficiency of bodies to reflect accurately the feeling.”

Catherine Wagner, Nervous Device (City Lights, 2012)

“Writing a poem,” according to Catherine Wagner’s poem “Unclang,” “is like reaching two prosthetic limbs out as far as you can on either side to grab something in front of you. You can’t grab it but maybe you’ll take flight.” But funny, that’s what I would have said reading a poem is like — it was just on the tip of my tongue! — at least when the poems are Wagner’s. Her poems are as confrontational as they come (I think that’s why they hover right in front of you, and they stay there even when you try looking away from them) and just as elusive. “But I’m not trying to grab anything in front of me when I write a poem,” that one continues and concludes, “GET that kitty.” Taking with one hand what they give with the other, Wagner’s poems are full of vehemence and disdain and tenderness and somewhere, in some inexpugnable part of the body of language through which so many discomforting feelings pass, a thorny kind of joy. This is my idea of great poetry: in which “The actual is / flickering a binary / between word and not-word.”

Andrea Zanzotto, Haiku for a Season / Haiku per una stagione, edited by Anna Secco and Patrick Barron (University of Chicago Press, 2012)

It ought to be treated as an important occasion when one of the world’s outstanding poets takes a holiday from his own language to give something new to ours. And yet it has hardly been noticed that the most recent book by Andrea Zanzotto, published shortly after his death in 2011, is a belated gift to the English language. These haiku — not bound by any convention of syllable-counting, they are simply short, sharp, imagistic poems of three or four lines each — were written in 1984 and subsequently translated by himself into Italian. They have not been published before. They will be a surprise for those familiar with Zanzotto’s earlier work — best rendered in English in Anthony Barnett’s extraordinary 1993 versions, now included in his new compendium Translations (Tears in the Fence/Allardyce Book ABP, 2012) — with its phantasmagorical mixings of linguistic registers, from technical jargon to baby talk. Here, we find the limpid and incisive poignancy of the classic haiku –“Lost-shy petals on panes, / clipped minitalks, past thoughts— / little bitter teeth biting” — but the turbulent, expressionist core of Zanzotto’s sensibility is never far away either: “Parallel worlds, roots / of vitreous deep languages— / bubbles weep in throats.” About two-thirds of the way through the sequence suddenly becomes a sort of fragmented ode or incantation to the poppy — intoxicating. In a marvelous 1982 essay on haiku, also included here, Zanzotto writes of them as “elastic cups of a substance that remains hidden from us (and perhaps from everyone), but that we feel in some essential way is also our own.” The quintessence of poetry, in other words. Zanzotto distills it more reliably than most — something like a grappa of the word.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...