Emerging Foreign Poets #4: Linda Maria Baros

written by the Judge

Writing about poetry, it’s pretty hard to get travel expenses covered. Obviously it doesn’t help when the poet you’d like to meet lives not in another city but in another country, and seen how I’m job-hunting at the time of writing this, my appreciation of Linda Maria Baros will have to be written from home, sitting in my flat in Shadwell, with a glass of Coke fizzing next to me.

That I should have opened the article with such a perambulatory reflection reveals, I think, that I am somewhat troubled in introducing this week’s poet. Maybe I should start with the kind of stuff you can find out just by Googling her. To be sure, then, Baros is a Romanian-born, Paris-based poet writing in French, thirty-one years old, currently one of the most successful (and discussed) young voices to have attained prominence in the competitive French scene. Her mixed cultural background may sound exotic upon first impact, but it is not at all unusual, especially not in the present age, and not in Europe – she is, in fact, a typical example of a translocal poet.

What makes her tough to figure out is her poetry. Baros has no qualms in representing extreme social deprivation, painting vignettes about homeless people or prostitutes (from this point of view, I suspect her experience in Bucharest may have come to bear on her writing more than her years in Paris). She also does not refrain from using visceral, disturbing imagery which could be taken straight from a splatter movie; titles like ‘The high-schoolers rip birds out of their rectum’ or ‘If the lintel beheads you, that’s a bad sign’ should begin to give an idea.

Unpalatable as the imagery may be, it is executed with superb technical confidence, and one understands why she is already famous at a relatively tender age. In ‘The children that passed through the sifter’, my favourite of the poems I’ve read by her, she writes a long monologue addressed to an unnamed second person. ‘It is for you,’ she writes, ‘that I have split my heart in two, / like a lamb’s hoof’. She goes on to list the many things she did ‘for you’ in a sequence of images that are as suggestive as they are bleak:

I stole and lied, I spat blood.

I washed dead bodies
and I slept on plastic bags
filled with waste from the garbage skips
in streets that always have
a knife at hand I slept,
amid the shells of the city’s old beggars
who, in your honour, have let their beards
grow to the ankles,
like the ancient Sumerians
off to hunt lions for their loved ones.

The closing lines bring us back to the trope of the heart with a simile that is nothing short of extraordinary:

Yes, it is for you that I have forcefully come into this world
like a wave of blood
that no longer finds its path to the heart.

The source expression is actually subtler than I am able to translate – the original for ‘forcefully come into’ is ‘entrée en force’, which has a formal, professional sense I could not retain in English (it is what you say for instance of a contract as it becomes formally effective – the date of the ‘entrée en force’ is…). But of course it also sounds like ‘entering forcefully’, which in context has connotations of birth and rape simultaneously. The image, and indeed the entire triplet as it works towards the super-charged trope of the ‘heart’, is powerful and deeply layered.

So why do I say that Baros is ‘tough to figure out’? Well, it is only that I do not understand where all of this horror comes from. As far as I can tell from the bio snippets that I could find on the net, she is an academic poet of the type that we so commonly find in France, with a PhD and a great deal of work in the field of translation. Even if we take her imagery to be a form of engagement with the realities of social deprivation (an agenda we would commend), it is so gritty and deliberately shocking, so uncompromisingly violent, that one feels there is more at work than simply denunciation. Where is all this gore pouring out from?

And that’s why I wish Jon and Kirsten could cover my flights (business class if you’re reading, fellas). Baros is a very interesting poet, but I have the impression I’m not getting the full story, and I might not be able to until I can meet her in person. In the meantime, those of you who can, and who are not too squeamish to enjoy this type of verse, definitely check her out. Salt has done me the favour of providing some translations, so you can do that even without speaking French. I promise you, she leaves a scar.

Emerging Foreign Poets #2: Louise Dupré

written by the Judge.

Poetry in French, when it is not from France, tends to receive little attention. The preponderance of the ‘real’ French intellectual culture may have a natural way of eclipsing those around them, in particular their numerous historical colonies in Africa, Asia and Canada. The latter represents an interesting case-study – we are so used to thinking that literature in English is mostly produced outside of England (just like literature in Spanish is mostly produced outside of Spain), that Anglophone Canadian writers have often replicated their success internationally. Names such as those of Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje or Alice Munro are familiar to high-school students all over Europe. On the other hand, how many Francophone Canadian writers can you name? They are so under-represented, in fact, that I think it’s worth bending the rules a little bit for this entry in our series. Though ‘emerging’ is not necessarily a synonym for ‘young’, I expect it may crease a few brows to learn that today’s poet was born in 1949.

After picking up Louise Dupré’s most recent poetry book Plus Haut Que Les Flammes (Higher than the Flames), winner of the Grand Prix Quebecor du Festival International de Poésie 2011, I have been given a taste of what her rather obscure literary world can produce. It certainly made for an interesting introduction. The book is not a collection but a single long poem, just topping one hundred pages, divided in four parts. At the heart of it are a woman’s meditations as she puts her baby to sleep, torn between the anguish and violence of past history on one side, and the sense of hope simultaneously afforded and demanded by the child on the other. It is a surprisingly readable text, partly because the choice of form is such a natural free-fall: each section is composed of a single long sentence drawing on and on, with every brief stanza (usually two or three lines) connected by endless conjunctions. An example will give a better idea of what it reads like, so I’ve included a small extract from Part III, of my own translation, at the bottom of this article.

Dupré’s book makes for a fresh reading experience from the start. There is a certain apprehension that she may just mess it all up when she first references Auschwitz, but the theme and question of concentration camps comes up periodically in her poem, and eventually becomes one of the book’s central motifs. It is handled remarkably well. The first of the book’s four parts makes it a point of counterpoising the (hi)story of Auschwitz to the fairy tales that she tells her child – two issues that are in turn reflected in the child’s double nature as something extremely lovely and extremely fragile. The central conflict in both cases seems to be that between an unacceptable history and an indispensable future.

As the mother puts the child to sleep in part two, and then wakes to console the child from a nightmare, we follow the poet into a more careful construction of what we may call an ideology of the future (or should I say a deconstruction? It is hard to tell whether we are dealing with an architect or with a subtle arsonist here). For brevity, we may refer to such an ideology of the future simply as ‘the Dream,’ though this is not a term used by Dupré herself, especially not in relation to the ever-too-wakeful mother. Her argument is led to a solid and interesting conclusion: that the Dream, and the sentiment of hope for the child, are necessary for the mother, and not for the child him/herself. Without this concern for the Other, she herself cannot withstand the burden of history. At the very least, she cannot make sense of it, as her memory remains ‘a white frame over a white background / a terrifyingly abstract painting.’

Part III comprises a series of meditations on the concept of pain, with emphasis on the salvational ‘caress’ of the child. There are some gorgeous metaphors in this section, though one is left wondering how Dupré will close such an ambitious and momentous discussion on the relationship between motherhood and history. Unfortunately, the ending is the only bit that is somewhat disappointing. Dupré speaks of the ‘dance’ as the way of salvation, the method by which we redeem our present from past and future history. Obviously the dance is a metaphor, standing in for a type of performative gesture, an active rather than passive way of engaging with our history. That poetry should be an example of what the ‘dance’ represents is suggested with a certain sleight of hand. The first three sections all open by discussing some mysterious ‘poem’ coming to the mother from within, and the fourth begins with the lines, ‘And you want to learn / how to dance / on the calcinated rope / of words.’ In conclusion, then, Dupré responds to the problem of history by means of a salvational aestheticism.

In my opinion this paradigm is hollow. Aesthetical answers do not satisfy ethical questions, as the first historical precedent of the Book of Job exampled as far back as three-thousand years ago. Moreover, it misses the point that Auschwitz, culturally speaking, represents precisely an attack on the precondition of the aesthetic – something so brutal and intolerable that you cannot write poetry (or ‘dance’) anymore. In the words of Primo Levi (who in turn was paraphrasing Adorno), ‘[a]fter Auschwitz there can be no more poetry, unless on Auschwitz.’ That Dupré should demonstrate little or no awareness of this historical impasse is an important shortcoming for someone who wishes to bring the problem of the holocaust into her meditations.

I don’t want to overstress this type of weakness in PHQF because it’s a very common one in contemporary poetry – like many of her peers, Dupré can point to the problem with great lucidity, but she is less able when it comes to showing us a solution.

All that said, and aside from the final let-down, the execution on the whole is very strong. The idea of projecting the timeless historical problem through the mother-son relationship gives it a visceral and original representation, and the choice (and use) of form is brilliant. I cannot speak for the rest of Quebecois poetry, but this little volume is certainly one worth hunting down.

Plus Haut Que Les Flammes, extract from Part III.

no story, no face

your memory is a frame
white on white background

a terrifyingly abstract

a regret
that you scratch with the end of the nail

down to the blood
of words

because words also leave
fragments under
the skin

when the finger touches
the deadwood
of language

and the ghosts that sleep there […]

Find out who our Emerging Foreign Poet #3 is next Wednesday.

Emerging Foreign Poets #1: Marianna Geyde

The first in a series of articles in which the Judge discusses some of the most interesting young poets writing in languages other than English. Today’s candidate comes from Russia.

Born in Moscow in 1980, Marianna Geyde is yet another entry in the apparently endless list of precocious Russian writers, from Irina Denezhkina to Alina Vituchnovskaja. I’m going to introduce her by turning straight to the opening of one of her poems. It has no title, and the translation is my own:

may my hand be crumbled, like Sunday bread,
in twelve and two phalanxes, ordered
five by five with shields carved from bone,
and may all remain this way, until peace comes and
my bread once more turns into my hand.

I’ve singled out this stanza because it demonstrates, I think, the biblical economy of her language. When I say ‘biblical,’ I am not referring to the taste of her imagery (or, not just). It’s easy to say that the first and last line recall Christ’s miraculous crumbling of the bread-loaves, reversing the roles of hand and bread (and by extension, agent and object). It’s also obvious that the line ‘and may all remain this way, until peace comes’ is alike to biblical verse in both syntax and style, including the opening with the conjunction ‘and.’ What I mean, over and above all of this, is her ability to charge very simple words with profound symbolic meaning, and then sustain that charge throughout.

The resonance between the first and last line, which seem to attract and repel each other magnetically, containing the rest of the stanza within their field, leaves room for a great deal of interpretation. The ‘hand’ is metonymic for the poet’s agency, and the mutation into ‘Sunday bread’ (meaning festive bread) suggests the same agency’s surrender into a sacred order which is at once religious, cultural, and historical (even domestic, as bread has special connotations of hospitality in Russia). The term ‘Sunday’ recalls Christian traditions (mass, for instance), but it also has teleological implications as the last day of the week, and thus the last step of the cycle. So surrendering the ‘hand’ into the bread of Sunday may refer to the hand’s ultimate destination – the agent (and its actions) ending their journey in sublimation with an historical identity. Read this way, the extract is biblical even without being Christian (there are, note well, no explicit references to Christianity anywhere in the poem), in the sense that its choice of words suggests great richness of meaning without imposing any specific reading on the receptor. In fact, the whole point of the term ‘bread’ may be its polyfunctionality, turning the mysterious, alchemic last stanza (with the return to the concept of the cycle), into an equally sophisticated open end. The bread is turned back into the hand (or at least takes its role, as the word притворится means to transform but also to pretend, to act), returning harmony between agent and object, poet and Christ, present and myth. I shall refrain from bringing the whole central part of the stanza (much less the whole poem) into the discussion as well, but hopefully the brightness and conceptual fertility of Geyde’s work has been aptly exposed.

Geyde is not, of course, the only artist to deploy this type of intertextual sensitivity. Even restraining our search to her own country we find other poets engaging with mytho-theological themes (Olga Grebennikova, for example). But she is the only one I have encountered who can execute it with such technical simplicity. The stanza above includes no erudite references to saints or historical events or past writers, of the type we so commonly find in modern and contemporary poetry. There is no recondite vocabulary at all. And the turn of phrase is a simple one, which lends itself to being followed serenely.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that she is in any way bland, or unwilling to play games with words – the two lines immediately following our extract are as follows:

you, palm-tree branch on the palm,
palm on the palm and palm-tree branch,

Here the playfulness of the verse doesn’t cloud the symbolic richness (again) of the words themselves. The lines suggest a sort of subjectivity falling into itself, as the palm holds itself and also the ‘branching’ of itself, and then turns back into the branch. This convolution is staged in a relationship between flesh and plant which seems to involve the idea of nature, even while suggesting that nature may itself be a construct held in the ‘palm.’ It is also expressed rather musically, though this aspect of the verse goes beyond my powers of translation.

Having introduced Geyde’s verse in this article, I feel I should add – on the run – a note on another poet. Readers who are a little familiar with contemporary Russian poetry may ask themselves why, when choosing to introduce a representative from that country, I should have turned to Marianna Geyde when the most obvious choice is Boris Ryzhy. The latter, born in 1974, was a geophysicist from the Urals, apparently even a member of a number of geological expeditions to the North. Published in magazines by the age of twenty, he hung himself at twenty-seven and left behind a disordered collection of brilliant, candid and utterly heart-breaking poems. His reputation as one of Russia’s greatest contemporary poets is already considerable.

The reason I chose to write about someone other than Ryzhy is that he probably doesn’t need it – a film about his life has already been made, and his legend seems to be growing every year. If a selection of his work were to appear in English within the next decade, I would be the last to be surprised. Marianna Geyde, on the other hand, is a young poet of extraordinary promise who could remain anonymous for many decades if no-one takes the bother to research her (and possibly translate her works). And while Ryzhy’s verse is poignant precisely because it is relatively straightforward, Geyde instead develops this dense apocalyptic symbolism along the lines of Blake or Rimbaud that could provoke endless readings and debates. The only cause of complaint, really, is that her work is so infuriatingly difficult to find. Of the half-dozen poems that I have managed to put my hands on, none suggests that her oeuvre as a whole may be weaker than that selection, but that can only be ascertained if someone translates her books of verse, and maybe bothers to publish them in the UK. Anyone willing to give it a go?

Find out who our Emerging Foreign Poet #2 is going to be next Wednesday.