Your story’s simple. You won’t see many loved ones when
you return, like an otter surfacing in a lake to catch its
breath. You won’t find words for short greetings, the seasons,
unsuccessful missions, white phosphorous lighting the
passion in soldiers’ eyes, a distant whistle on steep hillsides
you never climbed, children’s cane baskets floating silently
across a river basin, the way you have a constant burning
pain, the constellations discovered in a premonition,
Oriental love songs, the disappointment of everything we
were and will be. Believe me: this is your story. Later, I’ll tell
it again — only better.
You Are At Home Here
I study lungs. I go nowhere.
I gaze at the edge of white mountains. I want to die.
The path goes into money. Now I can occupy a calendar
of authority and give away the tent. They are twisted
into the song, the food, the sea. They are dressed
in white stories. He wasn’t hoarse, who didn’t know,
a stamp healed the window and the wound together.
The motive is beautiful. The elephant is bottomless.
It spins vases and the girls in them.
It spills itself on little cups, a coffee, an airplane
kneels in the overgrown grass. This isn’t my bread.
The bread is all yours. It adorns itself with claws.
Jump into the factory of rough flags
and stretch the edge. Fall asleep with the stretched edge.
In the Tongues of Bells
I decant a blossom. It goes before you.
You’re filled with Uriah. Green, tiny and pressed.
Blueness is a furious cake, a round
cake where yearning sleeps. Are the balls
the balls of the earth? At wells
and fountains? At Atlas’ pillar?
You say that you’d be my property.
You’d lose everything instantly.
I still wouldn’t notice you anymore, injured.
I choose from the thickness. Honey collects
cries. And when the body thickens and you get up
because I dress you, because I congeal you.
I erase you back in the past. I draw
a white flap, shine a white flap.
–Boris A Novak
Mysterious are the characters of things close to us:
familiar as a man’s face, but strangely near
from ceaseless use: but between the two
who is a man and who is a garment?
Silent is the tongue of the shoes put on.
(Things that serve are silent.)
When I take them off, they suddenly speak up:
a bottomless abyss since I am no longer there.
When I take off my glasses, what do they see?
Without them I see only myself. Insane.
Things live, I am alive and alone.
I sleep alone in a closet. When I unlock my eyelids,
I see gaping sleeves of my jacket
and my trousers without my legs. Empty.
Kiss the Eyes of Peace
Kiss the eyes of Peace, may it stream down
upon the trees. The sun shines and no longer roars
so intolerably. The soul again hopes to sense its
ribs, the sap. The cold has done me good. If the wind
blows, and I walk and watch the cars, life
brings me back to itself. It would be terrible
not to recognize anyone at the departure.
They’d be too far to touch or
be felt. In the pitch darkness I would not hold the memory
of love. A crust of ice forms on molten lava.
In time I might again be able to slide off. Walk
those roads of dust. Shake the jacket off, if it’s
dusty. There has been too much honey and grace, that’s
all. Too many blessings break a man apart.
Poljubi oči Miru
Poljubi oči Miru, ki naj se razlije po
drevesih. Sonce zunaj sije in ne buči več
tako neznosno. Duša upa spet začutiti svoja
rebra, svoj sok. Mraz mi je dobro del. Če
piham in hodim in gledam avtomobile, me
življenje vrne sebi. Najbolj strašno bi
bilo, ker pri odhodu ne bi nikogar spoznal.
Predaleč bi bili, da bi se jih dotaknil ali
čutil. V črni temi ne bi ohranil spomina na
ljubezen. Skorja ledu se dela čez vrelo lavo.
Počasi se bom morda lahko spet zadrsal. Hodil
po prašnih cestah. Otersel suknjič, če bo
prašno. Preveč medu in miline je bilo, to je
vse. Od prevelikega razkošja se človek razleti.
February and early March were months of grave loss and anxiety. I was only peripheral to the losses, but central to the ‘support offensive’ in all cases. Thus when my reading steered me toward thinking on grief and consolation, it hit nerves (this applies to at least half the things I read).
The last part of March felt a bit like a lonely waiting game, stale waiting rooms in familiar outposts, always with the Kindle in hand because… who knows how long one has to wait anywhere she goes? People often ask me how I manage to read so much, and this is how. I never go anywhere without my fully loaded Kindle. I never know when I’m going to be forced to wait… for some office to open, for a delayed plane, taking a long train journey… even five or ten minutes when my companions excuse themselves to discipline or put their children to bed or take a phone call. Every single minute is one in which I can immerse, for however short a time, myself in some other world, some facts I didn’t know before. I am obsessive in this way, and when I am not feeling like a slug, I tend to the extreme: ultra-productivity and speed.
It is in this way that, as March comes to an end, I’ve read 115 books so far this year. Sure, I am a bit behind on my stated original goal of only reading non-English-language books (or at least reading 26 such books alongside all the others), but I am still making progress on that front as well. Some languages read more slowly than others (for example, I read a very short German-language play, and it took time because, well, German is not actually a language I know. With a background in linguistics and Scandinavian languages and English as well as a rudimentary course called “German for reading knowledge” that was a requirement during my university years, in which I did not learn German for reading – or any other kind of – knowledge, I can piece together the language in written form, spurred on by my late-in-life enthusiasm for contemporary German television (Babylon Berlin, Deutschland 83) and German/Berlin-themed tv (Berlin Station, Counterpart) and my own on/off Berlin-based life).
And that brings me to my reading recommendations for March:
*“Betriebsunfall im Olymp” – Roxane Schwandt
Yes, the aforementioned German-language drama mentioned above. If you don’t know/read German, this probably isn’t for you, but it’s a timely, satirical take on the geopolitics of our time and the underlying valuelessness of humanity while at the same time assigning a price tag to the commoditization and automation of life (devoid of humanity). I didn’t know what to expect but was impressed by its incisive grasp on and illustration of the absurdity we live in today.
“Die Freiheit, sich mit der Waffe seiner Wahl umzubringen.”
*One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich/Один день Ивана Денисовича – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn/Александр Солженицын
Ivan Denisovich might not be the most original choice, but it’s one that I took up in its original Russian (having read it once in English about 20 years ago and skimmed it again just before reading it in Russian this time). It’s fascinating to compare originals to their translations (something I ramble about at length frequently); in this case, many of the sentences in the English translation feel much more convoluted than the somewhat stripped-down and direct quality of the Russian ones. I think this takes away from what is much more powerful in the original – embellishing the simplicity of the language does not add to what is essentially a gritty and brutal story of life in a Soviet gulag. Had I read the original Russian in college when I should have, I’d have seen the unfamiliar word contextualized appropriately and would have learned that no, in fact, “посудомойка” is not a dishwashing machine, as my hapless fellow students and I learned when our Russian instructor laughed at us for thinking such an abjectly foolish and improbable thing.
Translation is a funny thing, and not unlike a form of lying, or at the very least a (wildly) subjective interpretation of something. I’ve long considered its implications, and attempt, when possible, to avoid translations (which isn’t always realistic). This partly explains my drive to read more original-language works this year. Thinking back to the university years, I am reminded of how professors referenced specific “authoritative” translations of specific works; reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – which I recommended without reservation last month – this same theme recurs. Its prickly protagonist is a translator and complains about the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of some translations and the particular contexts in which certain translators come to render their versions of the translated reality. What stuck with me was that this narrator uses the well-known Constance Garnett as the primary representation of these failings, and Garnett was always the go-to translation of specific Russian-language works back in college. I often wondered back then about how and why a translation eventually becomes the ‘anointed’ one. Alameddine expresses perfectly how it ends up playing out:
“The memory seems both real and unreal, reliable and tenuous, solid and insubstantial. I wasn’t even two when he died. I must have configured these images much later. Childhood is played out in a foreign language and our memory of it is a Constance Garnett translation.” (from –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine)
“My only home is my throat.”
*Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels
Often my favorite poets, whose work I can revisit repeatedly and always find something new, write prose that I can’t stand. This is true of Marge Piercy, whose poetry is so vital that I can’t imagine a life without having read it, but whose prose books are tremendous labors to get through (with, I must say, no payoff). But Anne Michaels? She extends her command of the language from poetry to poetic prose and weaves such a beautiful and sad story.
Good – really good – but not great
“America, so frequently, is excited about the stories of black people but not the black people themselves. Everything is a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, or a march where no one was beaten or killed.”
“common knowledge that we don’t know, and can never know, what causes the cause of our presence, we are not acquainted with the purpose of our presence, nor do we know why we must disappear from here once we have appeared, I wrote. I don’t know why, I wrote, instead of living a life that may, perhaps, exist somewhere, I am obliged to live merely that fragment which happens to have been given to me: this gender, this body, this consciousness, this geographical arena, this fate, language, history and subtenancy”
*Sadness is a White Bird – Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Beautifully written story of a young Israeli man, recounting in ongoing-letter format his close friendship with two Palestinian siblings, and his own conflicting feelings about his service in the Israeli military.
“’Does Darwish have any poems that aren’t so political?’ Nimreen took a deep drag, and when she spoke, her voice was wrapped in a cloud: ‘There is nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.’”
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
“REMEMBER: If you are a Late Orphan, check your Old Parent privilege. Yes, you have suffered a loss, but if you had your parent for more than three decades, you still won.”
“A lower standard of living combined with a higher standard of education explains why so many Scottish emigrants have settled successfully abroad.”
Not everyone is going to be into this one; as Gray himself writes, it’s a kind of ‘pamphlet’ by a Scot written for other Scots on the subject of Scottish independence and related matters.
“It didn’t matter. Testicle madness was in full bloom.”
A somewhat humorous Sunday drive through many different topics as subjects of scientific studies on sex, sexual behavior, response and sexuality. It is surprising how many conversations one can innocently stumble into on the subjects covered in this book – everything from length of ejaculatory trajectory to penile implants.
*The Attack – Yasmina Khadra
I mention this one because I got about 20% into it, thinking, “This is so familiar. Did I read this before?” And then I remembered that I’d seen a film adaptation, L’attentat. That explains it. I preferred the film for some reason – might just be because I saw it first. But ultimately, I read the book the same day I stumbled on an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast that deals with the subject “We All Think We Know The People We Love. We’re All Deluded“. And this is at the heart of The Attack‘s protagonist and how he didn’t know his wife at all.
*We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
This is another one that I was speeding my way through without thinking much of it, but I hit a certain point when there’s a surprise/reveal, and I realized I was reading a book some guy told me about sometime in 2016. He had never told me the title or much about the story, but he had expressed with considerable anger how “betrayed” or “misled” (things he seems to have been obsessed with in every facet of his life) he felt by the story’s twist. Now having accidentally stumbled into the book, which I could have taken or left, I think less about the book itself and more about his ‘bewildering’ (to use one of his choice height-of-condescension words) reaction to it. At the time it seemed awfully reactionary, but in hindsight, so much about him seems that way.
*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance
I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t find this particularly compelling, maybe because this is in many ways so close to what I can observe in some of my own distant family. Beyond which, I am never impressed or taken in by anything that rests on the conclusion that a hard-won triumph against all odds is only possible in America, “the greatest country in the world”. No, not true. When stories or memoirs go down the lazy patriotism path, I stop paying attention.
Happily, I didn’t hate anything I read this month.