Review: Night Wraps the Sky

Review: Night Wraps the Sky

This is a brilliant exercise in documentation and now the preferred method by which I would like to discover any new poet or artist or creative figure.

Mayakovsky’s creative output is chronologically arranged and interspersed with selections of writing by his contemporaries which give light and life to the context of the man whose images fill the pages. The result is an augmented poetry, one which allows for all the hidden experiences a poet normally tucks away in their words to be made less shadowy.

 

This is not to say that all poetry requires the context of a poet’s life to be appreciated. But Mayakovsky in particular is a cultural Zeitgeist, and his poetry, for better or worse, is utilitarian in the way by which it can reveal the engine behind a country’s revolution. Poetry is always a lived thing, a product of a hand which pulses with blood, and there is something to be said for filling an anthology with documentation and data, images, history. Mayakovsky vividly inhabits these pages.

My oft-cited, beloved radical experimentation in translation, Ventrakl, did a bit of this, however another voice, Christian Hawkey’s unreliable narration, served to interrupt the truth of Georg Trakl’s life.

If there was one way the volume could be improved, it would be the presentation of his works in bilingual edition. As carefully curated and well-translated as the pieces are, I found myself wishing desperately I could at least hear the Russian beside them, even if some vernacular was lost to me. But for English-speaking audiences, this is a prime introduction to the best translations of his work.

I am almost 10 years late past the publication, but I cannot recommend Night Wraps the Sky more highly. I sincerely hope to find more life/work documentation with a similar dedication to uncovering the truth of a poet and his works.

Speaking Berlinish

Speaking Berlinish

(Due to some confusion which is entirely the result of my imprecise writing, I’d like to add the disclaimer here that this post is not about the dialect of German spoken in Berlin, or even about German language at all.)


There is something disconcerting about being born into a lingua franca, traveling abroad and hearing words you grew up with awash with various accents, mistakes, —as a tool, simplified, rather than a lived thing.

Native English speakers are uniquely privileged in the world in that we can be lazy—and still be understood. That is to say, we are not obligated to undergo years of language education in order to be attractive to international employers, or even to work a simple café job. But this privilege, it seems to me, comes with its shares of disadvantages. The first and most noticeable of which is, at least for Americans, the largely systemic inability to understand different cultures, the fear of the Other, and the indignant dropping out of Spanish classes the moment the true difficulty of language-learning becomes apparent.

The other disadvantage is perhaps more nebulous.

Upon arrival in Berlin, what is first abundantly clear is the prevalence of English. A city proudly defined by international transplants, Berlin seems to be in the midst of a shaky balancing act between English and German. Every few blocks one sees an advertisement for German classes, and yet there is an overwhelming sense that if your grasp of English is good enough, you don’t need German. But the English spoken in Berlin is far from the comfortable fluency of home. The nuances of an unintuitive verbal tense system, for example, are gone. “I go to the museum.” “I was seeing a movie yesterday.” “Tomorrow I visit friends.” The words which we all sneak into our native tongues, fillers and flavors, have vanished or are misused. Our beloved curse words, even, seem misplaced.

I will never forget overhearing a conversation between two Russians in their early twenties on the subway in Berlin. Speaking animatedly, one of them interrupted the flow of Russian with a comedic, awkwardly pronounced insertion of “I’m asking for a friend” in English. They both laughed, and I sat in my seat wondering about the ownership of such a phrase. English jokes would seem to no longer belong to native-English speakers. We can no longer claim a cultural home in such things. English-speaking culture, for better or worse, is global culture, and while I am left utterly adrift in conversations of Russian humor, my own English comedy is readily taken up by the vast English-enabled world.

What arises are questions of home. We feel at home in our cultures not just because it is what we are used to, but because of the sense that only one who grew up in our circumstances would truly understand what it means to be… us. For most, this would mean, among other things, the language that we speak. Learning new languages is a powerful gateway to new cultures and new understandings, but even as my German approaches fluency, I know that I will never be German, and I will likely struggle with idioms, humor, and the appropriate methods for cursing for the rest of my time with the language. English, however, is no longer an indication of home. Overhearing English while traveling in Berlin especially is almost meaningless. The speakers could be from anywhere, and only a careful assessment of accent can truly uncover any information about origin.

This would also seem, however, to be a testament to Berlin’s powerful ability to obliterate the significance of origin. Language becomes just another thing a newcomer can embrace quickly in order to find belonging as a Berliner. Imperfect English is perfect Berlinish, and one is perfectly correct to use it. Mistakes in German while in Germany are less easily forgiven than those in English, after all.

So to be in Berlin proved a unique experience for me as a native speaker of English. Familiar words were everywhere, baristas and servers switched instantly to English, occasionally even with relief, the moment they heard even the slightest accent on my German. What I hoped was a courtesy on my part—always speaking German first—in fact seemed to violate the hidden code that runs Berlin: Foreigners should speak English.

Any native-speaker of English who has traveled abroad to learn or speak another language can sympathize with the frustration of always being spoken to in English. But in Berlin it would seem, there is more to it. Refusing to speak English is a refusal to speak Berlinish, a rejection of the city’s commitment to acceptance. When I speak English here, I slow my words, simplify, avoid the slang and other markers of home and fluency in my language. I speak Berlinish, another language entirely.


Header image: Kreuzberg, Berlin. (c) Vincent Comparetto, 2017.

ALTA40: A Brief Report

ALTA40: A Brief Report

(This is long overdue.)

In July I was notified that my submission to the ALTA Travel Fellowship, an opportunity by that point that I had nearly forgotten about and long-since given up on seeing any results from, had been selected as a finalist. It was a wonderful surprise, though soon driven to disappointment when just a few weeks later I learned I hadn’t been chosen in the final round. As a consolation, however, I was offered free registration for ALTA40: Reflections/Refractions, so in mid-October I found myself packing my bags for Minneapolis anyways.

The conference was informative, though perhaps surprisingly, not necessarily enlightening as far as the method and theory of translation. I did not meet the wizened, experienced translator who would take me under their wing and I guide me to success. (Alas.) Nor did I meet the publisher interested in paying advance royalties for my next 10 book-length translations. (Alas, alas.) I did, however, meet many others in my own situation, younger students with a taste for it, though little publication history.

The diversity of panels was encouraging. No less than three panels related in some way to “queering” translation and exploring LGBTQ voices in translation. A panel on “choosing to translate women,” which was nice, though I thought did not go far enough in engaging with the historic gender dynamics inherent in the profession of translation (ie. women translate what men create). I was disappointed to miss a presentation by Susan Bernofsky, and I was otherwise surprised by the dearth of translators working in German. However Russian was well-represented.

Lydia Davis’ keynote was surprisingly quaint, describing “the pleasures of translation” to a room full of people who arguably knew intimately well the pleasures of translation. However, it was wonderful to hear her speak in light of conversations I’d had at DU, where some became quite heated in comparing her (in)famous translation of Proust to the classic Moncrieff. (I myself have zero investment in French, and found myself on team Davis if only for her supposed faithfulness to the original).

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Svendsen on “The Mad, the Bad, the Dreamy: Translating Literary Rogues and Eccentrics”

The highlight for me was in fact Christina Svendsen’s presentation on her remarkable translation of Unica Zürn’s Trumpets of Jericho. I hadn’t known Svendsen was attending until I was shocked to read her name in the program. (Context: the only time I have ever pre-ordered a book was Trumpets of Jericho when it was announced.) Her work takes on Zürn’s anagrammatic writing, a nearly impossible task for translation. Svendsen, however, does a masterful job weaving both aesthetic translation (reminiscent of Christian Hawkey‘s work on Ventrakl) and substantive translation of Zürn’s wonderfully bizarre text. The result is a beautiful liminal space, made all the more tenuous by the already unstable contents of Zürn’s writing.

As an aside, Minneapolis turned out to be a lovely city. As Denver sinks further into the beige, brewery and dispensary-infested hole it has dug, Minneapolis seems focused, engaged. Its artists are funded, its authors supported, and I could not ride the bus without passing at least two large arts complexes. I was also surprised to learn it is the home of Coffee House Press, that legendary publisher of DU’s most experimental, confrontational writers. (They are a non-profit, supported by Minnesota’s generous arts funding). And there is something to be said for the beauty of Minneapolis’ skyline at night.

In the end, perhaps where ALTA40 was most valuable was in understanding a little more of what it is to be a literary translator. I expected the university-sponsored students and faculty, but was surprised to see how many hobbyists and local writers the conference attracted. There is a large variation in the level of critical engagement with which translators approach their work, and if anything, I left feeling even more committed to the route of scholarship rather than to translation in and of itself. Translation is valuable to me as a space for the interaction of creativity and logic. To invoke Davis’ speech, it is the pleasure of problem solving. There is also no greater method of understanding one’s own limitations in the source language than pouring over each and every word and attempting to render them first into meaning and then into English.

Being selected as a finalist for the Travel Fellowship was validating, though not life-changing. There was an atmosphere of collaboration that I hope will result in some exciting projects coming up, though all remains chained to the speed of email communication. I’m not sure if I will attend again without financial sponsorship, but I am profoundly glad I was able to this year.

By All Means, Tear Them Down

By All Means, Tear Them Down

A statue or monument can be defined as a type of societal memory. It is the carefully engineered product of an intent, a form with which we are meant to mold our memories of the past.

A permanent statue or memorial does not just appear overnight. First, someone must decide a statue is warranted, they must have valued a person or event to such an extent, that they believe the person or event must be immortalized in some way. Then, they need others to agree with them. Land for the statue must be procured, funding acquired, an artist hired. Every detail is a message. How is a person represented? Do they stand triumphantly or sit in contemplation? Do they hold a weapon or a book? How large is this figure? Where will the statue live in a community? What materials is it made out of? Abstract or life-like? All of these decisions represent an agenda. Do we feel awe? Respect? Fear? Admiration? In looking at a statue, we are receiving a message, always.

Monuments are perspectives encoded into stone. Over time though, the perspective can change. A community may re-evaluate their understanding and views of a person or event, and decide that the statue or image no longer represents their values.

It is probably not too much an exaggeration to suggest that every public installation of a monument comes with its share of controversy. After all, we all want others to understand something our way. And the fight to install monuments to events and figures we now find important is just as significant as the decision to remove an idol no longer worshipped. The recent decision to establish a National Historic Site in remembrance of the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, for example, reflects a change in values in our society. We have actively chosen to acknowledge the horrors endured by Native Americans in the face of white expansionism. By the same token, we may find memorials of the commanders who perpetrated the crimes to no longer reflect our values, and we take them down. A personal favorite example of politics defining a monument is Nikita Krushchev’s grave, purposefully designed by an abstract sculptor he publicly denigrated, and a strong indicator of how he was viewed by the public in his final days.

This is a natural societal progression. To argue that a statue contains “historic” value regardless of its politics is to completely circumvent the point of a memorial. It tells us how to remember something. And that is always the choice of the present. It is not, as some may argue, a responsibility to the past.

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The removal of a monument in Poland to Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB. (1989)

In all the controversy around the removal of Confederate and slavery-era statues, this is the understanding the “well-meaning” side seems to be lacking. There is no greater indicator of societal change than the desperate removal of the figures that represent a previous era. We cheered on the people of Ukraine and Poland as they tore down statues of Soviet heroes while the USSR collapsed. We watched with self-satisfaction in 2003, as Iraqi civilians began to attack the figure of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, with the US military soon arriving to finish the job.

The only difference between these events and the protestors tearing down Confederate-era statues today is the scale. To argue that the sheer act of tearing down a statue is somehow always negative is to completely ignore the entirety of history. It is simply showing that you fear change of any type, and that this fear is more important to you than standing up for a better society. These statues do not have any more “historic value” than the figures of Saddam Hussein and Stalin.

Another confusing argument I’ve seen forwarded by people timidly criticizing anti-Nazi protestors, is that tearing down statues is something the Nazis did themselves. This is, for the most part, wrong. The Nazis did far more to build monuments during their 12 years in power than destroy any. In fact, part of their genius in seizing control of the German people was the re-purposing of old symbols of German culture, such as the Brandenburg Gate. It was the Allied forces of course, who completed the majority of the destruction of Hitler’s intended monuments.

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The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, 1936. Completed in 1791, the Gate was initially a monument celebrating the (perceived) and of a revolution. It has since been appropriated for numerous agendas in history.

Every society must decide how they value the relics of their predecessors. A statue is not just a piece of art without context, it always carries meaning. That a statue which has existed without major controversy for generations can suddenly become as divisive as the one in Charlottesville is a sign of deep change. Remaining neutral, defending its existence as simply “historical,” is not an option.

Charles D’Ambrosio and Permission to be Unsure

In the face of “fake news,” it feels inappropriate to gracefully accept ignorance and incomplete knowledge, as I feel I must do every time I sit down to write. In the week before Trump’s inauguration, journalist and activist Masha Gessen, as the first controversies and confusions began to simmer, tweeted “We are now fully immersed in the anonymous, the unverified, and the unverifiable. And he hasn’t even taken office. Trumpism sure is fast.” The complete breakdown in mainstream means of information delivery has meant that the drive to be truthful, complete, an expert, weighs even heavier, and every conversation carries the rhetoric of urgency. Where is it acceptable to have a conversation that begins with, “I would like to know more?” The world is slipping to memes, so I must be as thorough, precise, nuanced and careful as possible. The ease with which people can now take another’s words and drive them into the ground as signposts pointing in wildly differing directions is horrifying. And so, to put a sentence on the internet and make it, in essence, able to be stolen from you and your intent, seems almost ludicrous. I have found myself recently paralyzed by the need to be iron-clad. Every argument I make must be authoritative, unquestionable, fully-researched and sound.

But the result of that has simply been silence on my end. Ironically despite all my commitment to wabi sabi, I have done a terrible job of incorporating it into this facet of my life, where I have let perfectionism stop me dead. Inspiration to move forward with essay writing, especially in a time when it seems even the most basic rational thought process of human beings are, extraordinarily, being mocked, comes only rarely. But Charles D’Ambrosio, in prefacing his recently published book of essays, provides a bit of relief.

A good essay seemed to question itself in a way that a novel or short story did not—or perhaps it was simply that the personal essay left its questions on the page, there for everyone to see; it was a forum for self-doubt, for an attempt whose outcome wasn’t assured. That one mind would speak so candidly to another mind held a special appeal to me at a time when I didn’t even know I had such a thing. Late at night, sitting on a cold stoop, waiting for the bus, the free and easy conversations I fell into via the essay seemed to suit my station in life perfectly. (D’Ambrosio, Loitering. 2015)

How I envy the ease with which he embraces a lack of surety in the long-form. I wonder though, why he has such permission and another might not.

The BBC published an article shortly after inauguration on what a group of 8-year-old “Trump supporters” were saying. Childish racism, “Mexicans just take our jobs,” the unthinking regurgitation of parental rants. They are unexposed, but also simply, undeveloped. Why did we need to hear these views? Are they relevant? Other than simply the shock of a child’s voice chanting “build the wall?” But apart from the lax journalism of it, what horrifies me the most is the fact that these 8-year-olds are now in a way beholden to their 8-year-old perspectives. In 8 years, when these children are now teenagers, this article will forever exist in the archives of the internet. How much more difficult is it to go through the necessary identity-crises, the need to rebel and form selfhood, when your name is already attached to a political viewpoint? How desperately unfair.

Perhaps unnecessarily so, this potential circumstance has haunted me. I can give myself permission to change and grow in my views and perspectives, but do others? How can I lower the stakes, so to speak, in what I post under my name, to be forever preserved by the archiving bots of the web?

I’m not sure. I’m not sure how to be successfully unsure, as D’Ambrosio seems to have discovered.

And with that lack of finality, I’ll end. The pages of unpublished posts are building up, and they need my attention.

The Boundaries of Empathy

(are non-existent)

 

We begin with introductions. We state our names, where we come from, and how long we’ve been in Denver, always careful to emphasize proper English structures. Contractions, idioms, phrasal verbs, all of these are carefully extracted from our speech. The volunteers and teachers, including myself, distill endless amounts of nuance and data into simple sentences. My name is. I am from.

The students mimic as best they can, a variety of accents lending a rainbow of tones to the sound. Matched is the diversity of clothing, the bright colors of traditional fabrics mixed in with faded Walmart t-shirts. A woman nurses an infant as she speaks, another older child grasping at her breast. Some, long-time attendees, breeze through the exercise and end their “nice to meet you” with a triumphant smile. Others, new not just to the class but to English itself, must be carefully led through the exercise, a teacher repeating for them each and every word. We can only hope that by filling in their sentences with names, countries, and years, they will be able to understand the meaning of the words we are unable to explain to them in the native tongues they’ve been forced to leave behind.

We the teachers are of course not the only ones distilling our life experiences into simple sentences. There is an indescribable magnitude in hearing someone utter, “I am from Syria.” I find myself immediately looking to their eyes, their hands, as if I could read something of the story they don’t yet know how to tell. (Or perhaps better to say, I do not yet know how to understand).

After the exercise we greet each student warmly, congratulate them on a successful English sentence, and often I find my encouragement colored with something closer to awe. Because all of our students, ranging in age from teens to the very elderly, are refugees. Forced to leave their homes, often left to languish in poorly organized camps for years, bureaucracy and chance has finally led them of all places in the world to Denver, Colorado. (At no point, as many anti-refugee protestors misunderstand, did these people “choose” to come here.) With essentially no formal support, they must learn to live and work in an entirely foreign country. English language is only one of the many barriers they must overcome to reestablish their independence, and begin the perhaps unending process of rebuilding their lives.

Although I felt a genuine call to action in becoming a volunteer, my initial intent was also more selfish in nature. I wanted more classroom experience. But although I might have considered myself fairly informed about the crises in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, I was all the same unprepared for facing the sheer human tragedy of it all.

In a macabre sort of way, it’s like meeting a popstar face-to-face. “I come from the city of Baghdad.” “I come from Damascus.” These city names invoke the broadcasts from my small kitchen television growing up, the scan-lined images of endless pale desert, smoke rising in the distance, US tanks crawling through the dust. Death statistics, buildings as faded as the ground around them, collapsing back to it. In other cases, such as the country of Myanmar, I can only conjure a more Hollywood scene, dense greenery echoing with the sound of bullets, blood mixed into a rich black soil.

One quickly feels the ridiculousness of such conceptions. Instantly, the television headlines and political maps are brushed away and replaced with the faces and names of those you see calmly, sometimes nervously, sitting in classroom chairs. In sharing a table with a Syrian woman, I find the act of helping her learn English letters takes on an urgency—I want so badly for her to succeed.

Sometimes though, as I get to know the students and assume the more familiar role of teacher and encourager, I find my awareness of their past slipping to the back of my mind. But all too often this comes back in an instant. In one class a man’s phone went off loudly, and the student next to him flinched violently in alarm. He quickly calmed down, class continued without disruption. But I am unable, nor do I want, to forget how hard it was to watch such a display of trauma.

Before meeting these people and assisting in these classes, I could have honestly said that I had empathy for the human beings affected by war and political upheaval around the world. Of course I did. I shouldn’t have to meet every single mother who has lost a child to know that losing a child is devastating. But even so there is something so much more intense gained in sharing a room with the people whose entire lives are wrapped into the headlines we read over breakfast.

It is an experience I am deeply grateful for, but also one I immediately hope others can gain as well. I perhaps naively assume that most of my readers share sympathy and condemn the devastation taking place far away from us. But even if you find your fists clenching at every new piece of devastation, there is always a still greater depth of empathy.

Perhaps nothing compares to shaking the weathered hands of those who have faced the harshest obstacles life can present, and still sit down every week to eagerly, if slowly, learn the words that will unlock a new life.

 

Thoughts on NYC

Thoughts on NYC

The energy of New York swells and dips like the waves that surround it, and I am tossed, similarly, about the streets, caught in the tide of bodies. The sounds coalesce into the same white noise comfort too as the ocean.

It’s easy to feel as if I’m standing on a Moloch, a monstrous machine below my feet, its hot breath pushing out of the vents and eyes glinting, a strange iridescence that shines just below the darkness.

Each person carries their own silence with them. Carefully gathered in private places, the shower stall in the shared apartment, the laptop settled on the coffee table, the walk to work intentionally lengthened through the park—all these silences are skillfully captured and draped about the body, tucked away in thick winter coats, pressed between the ear and headphone.

The people have made their peace with the machine beneath them, as I have not. The sidewalk rattles me to vertigo. I descend below only anxiously, wary of the heat even as it wraps around the knife wounds of the cold above.

It is obvious at every point in the city that there is no escape. I know that I am on an island, that those waves that push and pull like the people are close, but I will never reach them. I am contained. I accept it, that there is nothing else but this now, the buildings swallowing the sky above, the machine’s exhales grasping at my ankles.

metropass

And I become—not trapped, but built into this very system, a mechanism, a bolt or screw, made to serve a purpose in it all. And so the captivity is bearable, because perhaps I am important, something necessary to keep it all from crashing down. Keeping the buildings from consuming too much of the sunset, the machines below from breaching the barriers that keep it all afloat. I am living in artifice, but artifice is also living in me. And both would die without the other.

It is in this way, also amoral, and more authentic. Neither good nor bad, existing on no spectrum of ethics. Trash will overflow on the sidewalks. Christmas trees discarded without decoration or ceremony atop the bulging black bags. And the instinct may at first be to turn away, angrily remark on the tastelessness of it all. But in the end, it’s all the same elsewhere—Christmas trees discretely thrown in bins, the wasted life of the holidays quietly euthanized behind the white picket fence without affront. The city however, refuses to lend its precious time to such concerns. It embraces the refuse of life, names it, moves on. Valuing, perhaps, a little more, the truth of beauty, humanity.


Images copyright Vincent Comparetto.