Anja Utler’s “engulf – enkindle”

Reviewed by E.C. Belli

Image of Anja Utler’s “engulf – enkindle”

you speak of
waste heaps, of scree of: implanting, the
windrose

*

glottis rustling
almost trembling i hear you again: say
song you say song
what is: song

Mired as we are in the throes of a new political season, Anja Utler’s engulfenkindle, published last year, feels more essential than ever. Utler’s volume is a space of respite for those of us who pine for that clearing, for the voices to grow quiet, for language to cease to be garbled, paraded, travestied. Utler’s volume brings that kind of light, and snares readers with a haunted, elliptical syntax. The words walk through these poems as in a preserve—and it’s a delight to watch them, for a short while, elude their current misfortunes: 

again, then again came un-
wrung, apart, always, bare
am murmur am: as if
wounded, raw
under cilia,
raw

In a piece  titled "Play for Two Voices: On Translating the Poetry of Anja Utler" that appeared in TranscUlturAl in 2009, remarkable translator Kurt Beals, explains the uncanny effect first produced on him by the porous structural arrangement of Utler’s lines: “I think what really pulled me in was the syntax. The first time I read her poems, I knew that was something I hadn’t seen before [. . .] You can infer a pronoun here and there, but more often you’re left with a conspicuous absence, with verbs floating free in the poems, not quite attached to subject or objects.” As a general matter, the text is organic; the meaning intuited (not always without a little effort); the territory known, friendly (but also uncharted); and the energy untamed. But indeed, it is the patterns created by the frugal syntax and Utler’s enlightened punctuation, which often end up creating a beautiful left spine in the poem, that initially draw the eye:

as if thinned

raw: is the clearing is bristling and bare
to the sun: the eyes graze over gravel, scrap, as if
loose as if: scraping until: the eye catches
in clusters of liverwort: lifewort
stalks – as they’re known, known too as –
agrimony, is grown over with: prickling
fruits that it: claws into the foreign tissue it
knits it – it’s said – back together, skins over
as if: it adhered, glued the: hide to the sclera,
tarsi, cornea should: be severed be
sanded see: how the stalks, stranded
at forest’s edge, glow

But to proceed through engulfenkindle, the reader-visitor needs to focus on the fact that Utler is a poet heedful, above all, of instincts. She has to trust that the pattern will be revealed, relax into the take, and only then does it all emerge. Utler imposes reliance upon something deep within us, from the very start of poems (where oftentimes the action or story has already begun), she demands a certain kind of self-reliance:

are saying: to grow: even over the field
and i see you: your neck
blossomed into your throat
the slope: sunk through your
shoulders through breastbone through
collarbone air: knots itself
to your lips and in short: you turn leaf,
tremble under the palate now
i hear you down to the bones

Naturally a question arises: what is this ability that allows us to capture the essence of the text despite its spareness? An instinct, a reason, an entity within us? Let us call it a presence, a third man, leading us by the hand to an understanding. This reading experience doesn’t simply involve an interaction between the reader and Utler’s text, but activates a part of us, a person within us, someone we didn’t know was present and upon whom we unknowingly call.

What is also confounding about this volume—once the syntax, the punctuation and some wild imagery (seen below) are considered—is Utler’s (and by extension translator Kurt Beals’s) incredible intuition regarding what to keep and what to omit.

the grains in the cracks gleaming,
hissing, so – quenching – they net
the eye

smoulder, you say, splinters they: flash, they
crackle towards you this is: lightchaff you say
it: sprays, strides to you soaking you –

the pine trunks that: bend – far off,
waterstressed – spilling their
seed: into their, lapping image their own
aiming far: past the eyes

With one word lost, one connection skipped, each one of these poems would lose its dimension. But they do not and the result is a beautifully pared-down, musically charged, instinctive poetry:

and forces, forces – almost furrows – the
eyeballs – grow wild – enfluttered by lid – like:
an unforeseen wasting

engulfenkindle strikes the reader as an exercise in balance, in allusion, and draws our interest toward its gifted translator Kurt Beals. One of the most pressing question readers will ask themselves when faced with this collection is, what technique could he possibly make use of to retain so many of the double entendres, the sound play, the completely unique syntactic structure and the arresting punctuation? Utler’s text reads so richly in English that it appears that he had to make no concessions at all.

so: lightly they quiver: enshadowed – the stalks, it enwraps, and it finally
furrows through: grows through pumps through to: the tips
stretches: into the membranes drives: into the drying out hulls and
– fleshing from: the inside – bursts out

she: staggers, sibyl, struck down to: the sand falls she, streams
– myriad of pores – blasts through flashes through sibyl the sun – turns:
sunstorm – she murmurs she spits, knows it: it no longer sets

And yet, despite his achievement, Beals still hopes that, for the good of Utler’s work, many new and different translations will arise over the years. According to him, “One of the greatest challenges is that Utler’s work requires constant re-invention to represent all of the wordplay, the alliteration, the invocations with unusual structures, and no single translator is likely to come up with the best solution to every puzzle.” “I can do my best,” he admits, “but there will always be passages in the book where what I come up with just doesn’t communicate what Utler was doing.”

So what are the choices Beals makes in a text where there is no doubt that something’s going to have to give? The answer is familiar. In Beals’s TranscUlturAl piece, he shares a little on his process, and admits that one of the central question for him was “whether to stick close to the peculiarities of German syntax or to seek equivalent structures in English that may be quite different in their concrete form” for “a real interlinear translation that sticks too close to German grammar might just come out sounding like a Teutonic parody.” And Utler is nothing if not concerned with suggestion, intuition, intimation. The choices Beals has made as a translator are focused, realistic, concerned, thought-out—and they lend this little book the gravity we’d usually attribute to a classic.

Perhaps the only regret for this volume is the fact that the originals did not appear alongside the translation—for the visual force of these pieces, their actual physical look would surely provide added entertainment to a reader with even a little knowledge of German. But that could perhaps distract the reader from the impetus to capture these lines fully, could detract them from their third man, and in the end compromise the haunted feel imposed by having to grasp this text without any other resources than ourselves. And the level of independence gained by the reader in such an experience is certainly worth preserving.