If Penetrated by Light:
Five Poets Consider the Darkness
The Fortieth Day by Kazim Ali (BOA Editions, 2008)
Astonishment: Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska
——-Translated by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon (Paraclete Press, 2007)
The Alphabet in the Park: Selected Poems of Adélia Prado
——-Translated by Ellen Watson (Wesleyan University Press, 1990)
Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch
——-Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (Norton, 2009)
The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer
——-Translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions, 2006)
I don’t believe in the other world
But I don’t believe in this world either
if it’s not penetrated by light
I believe in the body of a woman
hit by a car on the street
THESE OPENING LINES from “The Other World,” in Anna Kamienska’s aptly titled Astonishments, are truly astonishing. After the first line’s deliberate shocker, each subsequent line is a surprise twist on its predecessor. The startling non-credo of line one is followed by the equally startling non-credo of line two. If this speaker believes in neither the other world nor this one, we wonder, what is left to her but despair? But, ah, line three’s qualification changes everything: “light” penetrating “this world” transforms it into something worthy of belief. But then the straightforward credo of line four takes us aback; it’s more sensual than we’d expect for the grounding of belief. Yet the line that follows is still more alarming: this “body” grounding belief is the object of violence; it is wounded, broken, by something else “in this world.”
I like imagining what each of the poets under review would do with these lines—because each writer shares at least something of the lines’ vision. This commonality itself is astonishing, considering that the poets come from a range of countries and religious backgrounds. Kamienska herself was Polish, and an agnostic rationalist until she was drawn toward Christianity in mid-life. (She died in 1986, but this English translation of her work dates from 2007.) Adélia Prado is a Brazilian Catholic. Tomas Tranströmer is Sweden’s major living poet; while his poems aren’t overtly Christian, they emerge from a mystical, religious way of seeing. Dahlia Ravikovitch was Israeli and a self-identified secular poet; acclaimed as the greatest Hebrew woman poet, she died in 2005. Kazim Ali, who now teaches at Oberlin College and is the only one of these poets to write in English, was born in Britain to parents of Indian descent and raised in an Islamic household.
Adélia Prado, I’d say, might actually have written these lines of Kamienska’s, though they’d take on a very different tone in the context of Prado’s work. While Kamienska writes with an intentionally pared-down matter-of-factness, Prado’s poetry is full of expressive passion. This passion is often overtly sensual: “I believe in the body of a woman” could indeed be her credo. Yet at the same time, Prado believes both in the other world of transcendence and in the myriad stuff of this world. For her, the two worlds interweave: God, she writes in “Pieces for a Stained-glass Window,” is “the one who made gold, and gave us the discretion / to invent necklaces to wear around our necks.” Or more startlingly: “I’m a lowly tapeworm in God’s intestine” (“Land of the Holy Cross”). Though dark violence can descend upon her work, it is grounded so deeply in her Catholic practice that God is as real to her as the woman hit by the car, and this woman is inseparable from Christ on the cross. Here is how Prado embraces the things of this world in “Absence of Poetry”:
Some things that tempt one: physical beauty,
the precise configuration of lips,
sex, the telephone, letters,
the bitter shape of the mouth of Ecce Homo.
Tomas Tranströmer could not have written these lines of Prado’s—temptation is not his theme—but I think he’d be comfortable with those lines from Kamienska’s “The Other World.” While credos are not his mode, his poetic stance places him solidly in this world with all its darkness, from which he experiences epiphanic flashes of the other one. Kamie´nska’s “I don’t believe in this world… / if it’s not penetrated by light” could paraphrase Tranströmer’s vision, though he wouldn’t express it so straightforwardly. Rather, he offers eerie images of the darkness of this world: a valley is “full of crawling axe handles” (in “Night Duty”); “The squat pine in the swamp holds up its crown: a dark rag” (in “A Few Minutes”); “The traffic thickens, crawls. / It is a sluggish dragon, glittering” (in “Further In”). Yet into Tranströmer’s darkness, light can penetrate unexpectedly and transformatively. “Further In” continues:
Suddenly the red sun is
right in the middle of the windshield
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
And that squat pine in “A Few Minutes,” with its extensive underground root system, turns into a metaphor for a graced human interconnectedness: “I you he she also branch out.”
This line of Tranströmer’s might have been Kazim Ali’s as well. Ali’s poetic vision is a continuous reach for connectedness, though it often eludes him. As he puts it in a haunting image from “Math”: “In the ocean our bodies float together / just a few feet apart.” He crafts his poems as visual images of the disconnections that he perceives as a fact of life; image-fragments are his predominant form. Typical is “Waiting for the Train,” where each line is its own stanza, and connections between lines are often elusive:
I am brief and a river
somehow space and far away… / /
or am I the adversary racing for shore
arrangement of birds or a raiment
arraignment of the river for mouthing off
am I music or motion—
the question on which the wind lectures me all afternoon
Notice this poem’s multiple interrogatives: “or am I… / am I music… / the question on which the wind….” In a sense, all of Ali’s poetry is in the form of questions—whether or not the syntax is literally interrogative. If Ali were to take those opening lines of Kamie´nska’s, he might recast them as unanswerable questions. Perhaps:
Can I believe in the other world
or in this one if not penetrated by light
I’m being fanciful here, but truly Ali’s poetry exudes a speculative openness to whatever the universe might be trying to tell him. And he’s not at all in a rush for answers; in fact, floating amid cosmic questions is his preferred state. The cosmos is his element: wind and sky, river and rain, earthen caves and outer space. And his perpetual question: where is my identity found in relation to (or disconnection from) the cosmos? Ali’s comfortably elusive interrogative vision occasionally draws on the particulars of his Islamic practice; but he is equally comfortable with allusions to the other Abrahamic faiths. In fact, the title of this second collection of his, The Fortieth Day, alludes (he says on his website) to the symbolism of the number forty shared by the three faiths: “if after forty days and forty nights the deluge receded, if Jesus and Moses both wandered in the desert for forty days, if after forty days—according to the Qur’an—God’s breath enters an embryo and imbues it with a spirit, then the fortieth day must be the last moment before deliverance.” Ali is also comfortable speaking to God, though, like the other poets mentioned so far, never in conventional terms. Instead he speaks always in striking images: “dear Lostness,” “dear Cup,” “dear Sound.”
Dahlia Ravikovitch is the only poet under review who is not comfortable speaking to God—unless it’s with the ironic tone of modernist disbelief. Among Kamienska’s lines, Ravikovitch would happily consent to the first: “I don’t believe in the other world.” The lines that follow, about belief in “this world,” she might lace with biblical references, which she draws on not as a believer but because they are the shared text of Israeli culture. She might say, with Kamienska, “But I don’t believe in this world either / if it’s not penetrated by light,” but then continue by critiquing light as merely apparent, not truly illuminating. So her reflection on “this world” in the poem “Even for a Thousand Years” begins:
I cannot bring a world quite round
and there’s no sense trying.
Day unto day and day unto night utter nothing.
This last line is a stark negation of Psalm 19’s joyous “Day unto day pours forth speech, and night unto night declares knowledge,” where the heavens are “telling the glory of God.”
As for Kamie´nska’s “body of a woman / hit by a car on the street,” Ravikovitch would likely identify this smashed, victimized woman as a melding of the marginalized Diaspora Jew with a Palestinian refugee, as she does in “A Jewish Portrait”:
People curse her as she goes by:
Her feet stub against the sharp gravel-stones,
dust soils her dress.
A deep identification with Palestinian suffering marks Ravikovitch’s later verse, and she uses scriptural allusions familiar to her Israeli audience in order to undercut what she feels is a misappropriation of Hebrew heritage by contemporary Israeli political policy. Scathing is her recasting of Psalm 137’s mournfully exilic “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept,” which in Ravikovitch’s “You Can’t Kill a Baby Twice” becomes:
By the wastewaters of Sabra and Shatila,
there you transported human beings, respectable
quantities of human beings,
from the animal kingdom
to kingdom come.
Ravikovitch is an avowedly secular poet; but all the poets under review here are conscious of writing within and to a largely secularized culture—whether it’s the culture of contemporary Poland, Brazil, Sweden, or North America. Their way of speaking to this culture is to keep specifically religious allusions to a minimum while articulating their faith in terms palatable to a secular readership. For Kamienska, this strategy comes naturally, since faith entered her life only after a tragic loss and remained a fragile gift, always to be handled as if it might drop and shatter at any moment. “Our weaknesses are the way to God,” she writes in “Through the Body”; “Tell me why it is through the body / through torment of the body you speak to the spirit….” And the entire poem “Lack of Faith” powerfully inverts the expectation that a “religious” poet will be grounded in belief.
even when I don’t believe
there is a place in me
inaccessible to unbelief
a patch of wild grace
a stubborn preserve
pain untouched sleeping in the body
music that builds its nest in silence
The crystalline honesty of this poem makes it accessible to religious and secular readers alike. Prado appeals to this dual audience by other means. One is a device I’ve noticed in many contemporary poets and always find stimulating in its stretching of the mind and spirit: titling a poem with a religious term, and then never directly alluding to the term again in the poem itself. So Prado’s “Easter” begins “Age / is a way of feeling cold that takes me by surprise” and continues with comical images bemoaning her aging body:
I am not picturesque.
I ask God
on behalf of my weakness,
to abbreviate my days and grant me the face
of an aging, tired mother, a good grandmama,
I don’t care which.
And her poem “Passion,” a word with a double meaning for Christian readers, begins unexpectedly: “Once in a while God takes poetry away from me. / I look at a stone, I see a stone.” Though references to the crucifixion and the rosary are scattered through the poem, these are at the service of Prado’s characteristically upfront sense of her own body as the place where the (sometimes dismaying) action is. “I feel ugly, gazing in mirrors to try to provoke them, / thrashing the brush through my hair, susceptible to believing in omens. / I become a terrible Christian.” Then come the profoundly intriguing lines “Except for the eyes in photographs, / no one knows what death is.” Somehow Prado manages to pull off an unusual mixture of tones and topics: meditations on death, celebration of her bodily desires, Christian allusions, and frustration with the very writing of poetry (“This poem has gone sticky on me”). And though she has said mid-poem that she is “tempted to believe that some things, / in fact, have no Easter,” by the poem’s end Easter bursts forth, even through the crucified body:
“What day is this?” asks Mother;
“Sunday is the day of glorious mysteries.”
Happiness alone has body:
Head hung low,
glassy eyes and mouth,
bruised feelings and bruised limbs.
It’s a tribute to Prado that the two customer reviews of The Alphabet in the Park on Amazon.com are by self-proclaimed atheists who are nevertheless enthusiastic about her poetry. As one puts it: “Prado’s devotion to her God doesn’t make me break out in hives.” I think that non-religious, hive-prone readers could say the same of both Ali and Tranströmer, as wildly different as their poetic tones and textures are—because both succeed in writing for a secular readership while keeping readers of faith engaged as well. This is the major challenge for writers of faith in our era. They have a dual audience, and they know it; they work to find language and forms that speak of their faith (and their questioning of their faith) which can also draw readers alienated from religious belief into their vision. Ali has met the challenge in his masterful crafting of the interrogative mode coupled with elusively intriguing image-fragments. Even the poems that announce themselves as prayer surprise us with their oblique and utterly unconventional connections to the divine. “Lostness” begins “dear God of blankness I pray to dear unerasable”; “Morning Prayer” asks “should I draw the spirit / as a lantern or a cup”; “Evening Prayer” speculates “But if it happens to be true / that space bends and the universe becomes you / / you will not mind.”
Tranströmer doesn’t share Ali’s expansive cosmic vision, but his epiphanic moments where light pierces an everyday darkness can speak to religious and non-religious readers alike. So can his sense of the startling connections that can open human beings to one another. Unexpected openings of doors and windows abound in his poems. My favorite is from “The Half-Finished Heaven”: “each man is a half-open door / leading to a room for everyone.”
All the poets under review, from wherever they write, also share a search for identity as poets and as individuals—a search made accessible to readers of any or no faith. “I am the place,” Tranströmer is eventually able to say in “The Outpost,” “where creation is working itself out.” “I am waiting for the silence,” Ravikovitch writes, with allusions to Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot; “and the silence shrieks inside me / and I shriek inside it” (“The Beginning of Silence”). Kamienska often ponders questions of identity both in her poems and in her notebooks, excerpts of which the publisher and translator have helpfully included at the end of Astonishments. Her notebooks are in aphoristic form, so the entries often read like poems themselves. “We create eternity out of crumbs of time.” “To treat every day as a word spoken to us. And yourself—as an answer to the word.” “Perhaps my task as a poet is to describe the landscape of loneliness.” “‘Laborious astonishments’—that is for many reasons an apt definition of poetry.”
With any poetry published in translation, translators and English-language editors must make complex decisions. All four of the translated volumes under review offer useful forewords by the translators, introducing the poets to the English-speaking world and describing the principles that guided the translations. Poetry translation is an art in itself, and one that I’m deeply appreciative of. No other artist is exactly comparable to the translator. The actor and musician are sometimes said to be analogous, but a performing artist is interpreting a work that doesn’t fully exist apart from the performance. Translated poetry, however, already exists—in another language, another culture. The translator must find corollaries in English, or sometimes simply drop a poem if no apt corollaries can be found—as Prado’s translator admits reluctantly doing. Ravikovitch’s translators for this comprehensive volume chose to keep nearly all her poems and present them with extensive explanatory footnotes. These notes are necessary, since many of Ravikovitch’s allusions are to Jewish texts and contemporary events unknown outside Israel’s borders. Without the notes, these poems would be incomprehensible to the English reader; yet for me they are a distraction, continually reminding me that I’m not reading the real thing.
We meet with the real thing only in Kazim Ali’s book: poetry with the word-play of its native language. I treasure this in Ali’s work (listen, for instance, to the play of “arrangement…raiment…arraignment” in the quotation above from “Waiting for the Train”). And I do miss this word-play in the other poets; it surely exists in the originals, but of course is untranslatable. But I’m no longer the purist I was in my graduate school days, when I refused to read literature not originally written in English because translations were not the original writer’s own art. That policy left me bereft of Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, and Homer, to name only a few; so I soon opened myself to the art of translation. And now I gratefully embrace it. Without it, we Anglophones wouldn’t have access to the marvelously rich and varied work of Prado, Tranströmer, Kamie´nska, and Ravikovitch: poets joining Ali in speaking to and for the human condition from cultures beyond our own.
—Reviewed by Peggy Rosenthal