Poets must speak of their time, Czeslaw Milosz often told his students. And so they, in very different ways, do. Karim Fawzi, in a poem dated June 9th, 2003, speaks of berries and Baghdad, and of beating his present existence “with the cane of departure,” while Valzhyna Mort tells us about the fate of her generation in post-Soviet (but still totalitarian) Belarus.
As you will browse through the pages of this special “all poetry” issue of Words Without Borders you will discover many images, details, the tiniest moments tied together by emotion, wonder, rhythm. Thus, Gloria Fuertes’s vigor, Daniil Kharms’s theatrics of marvel, and Goran Sonnevi’s passion for the smallest of details, for “The visions of birds / she and B had together, that attentiveness.” Why such attentiveness in poetry? Why images-so many of them, reoccurring in poem after poem, line after line? Attentiveness, Paul Celan teaches us, is the natural prayer of the soul. As for images, they are perhaps the only universal language we have-a language that can be translated into any nation’s dialect.
So many different shapes, different tones of voice-and yet often about the same things: love, war, memory, a lyric moment. Thus, for instance, the wildly imaginative Ioan Flora’s Eastern European science fiction-in-verse, while being completely different from Milo De Angelis’ elegiac “Mute Map” or Silvina Ocampo’s loving affair with horses, is nevertheless about the same sort of longing-the heart’s. It is that “blooming insect” that enters the poet’s body in Tristan Tzara’s piece, exclaiming, “It is a beautiful thing to be in a poem!”
My own joy in working for Words Without Borders is a chance to discover new voices-the thrill of finding a poet or translator whose music changes the way I view the world, the way I breathe, if only for a moment. I felt this joy, for instance, when reading Brian Barker’s gorgeous, confident translations. Just by reading three pieces sent to us for this issue one easily begins to trust in Barker’s gift. Another wonderful new voice is that of young Valzyna Mort, whose wild, memorable poetry will surely define the way in which we Americans think of literature from Belarus in the years to come. Another discovery for me, perhaps a late discovery, was by Mansur Rajih’s courageous poems, eloquently translated by Ren Powell. Poets can have a voice that is far more important than politicians’, Aristotle insisted, and Rajih is certainly such a voice when he exclaims-against all geopolitical odds-“Yemen is a happy country.” Great poetry begins in elegy and ends in praise and I find this to be true in Rajih’s poems. Another poet of praise sent work from southern Spain-as his work in this issue shows, Luis García Montero must surely be one of Europe’s most exciting younger poets.
Just as the issue was closing, we were lucky to receive Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright’s masterful translations of two Turkish poets from Germany, Zafer Enocak and Zehra Cirak. I am glad to include them here because both of these pieces provide an example of how a good translator can understand the myth embodied in the original and transform it into gifted poetry in English.
At the center of this issue is the section of thirty-seven new poems from Poland. It would not be an overestimation to say that after 1945, the strongest poetry written on our planet was probably written in the Polish language. Here, in the United States, we often look with great anticipation to new translations from Polish. Thanks to the extraordinary effort of my co-editor, Alissa Valles, this issue of Words Without Borders can present a great deal of previously unpublished work by several Polish authors.
And to finish, dear readers, let’s remember Milo De Angelis’s words: “Together we became that grief / which can’t be spoken in poetry, now I know, and so will you, / you too, we’ll both know it, everyone will, / now that we’re about to return.”