2012 National Book Award winner in Poetry: David Ferry, Bewilderment

October 31st, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Then, truly, wretched Dido, overwhelmed
By knowledge of the fate that has come upon her,
Prays for death; she is weary of looking at
The overarching sky.  And to make sure
that what has been begun will be completed
And that she will depart from the light, she saw
As she set out her ritual offerings
Upon the incense-burning altars, how –
The horror! – the holy water darkened and
The wine was changed to an excremental slime.

– From “Dido in Despair,” translation of Aeneid, IV, lines 450-473 (p. 40)

Translation is a difficult art as I have come to know over these past few years as an occasional freelance translator.  The rhythms differ from tongue to tongue, as idiomatic expressions do not traverse freely from idiom to idiom.  This is doubly true when it comes to poetry.  Good translators will not be afraid to “break” the structure of a poem composed in another language in order to do what Humpty Dumpty’s would-be repairman could not:  to put it all back together again, the “yolk” now housed in a new form.

Acclaimed poet-translator David Ferry’s latest collection, Bewilderment, is an odd collection, in that the author’s poems on the experiences of advanced age (he is now 88 years old) and his various translations from the Latin verse of Horace, Marcial, and Vergil often seem to clash in terms of content and even form.  As I read through this collection, I kept trying to understand why the poet’s verses appear next to the translator’s renderings with such frequent interminglings.

When considered separately, the translations perhaps are slightly stronger than the original verses.  In reading the excerpts published within Bewilderment of his forthcoming verse translation of Vergil’s Aeneid, I found his translations to highlight the emotional impact of such scenes as that of Dido’s impending demise over her despair of Aeneas’ departure from Carthage.  The images are generally faithful to those of the Latin original (which I consulted before re-reading Ferry’s verse translation), although the imagery does change curiously on occasion.  One such example would be the changing of the wine, which is “latices nigrescere sacros fusaque in obscenum se vertere vina cruorem” in the original.  Ferry’s “excremental slime,” while evoking the scatalogical or the horrors of certain natural excretions, does not fully capture the literal bloodiness of this change as “the sacred water darkens, pouring out obscenely, changing into gory wine [my near-literal translation].”  Yet this is one of the few occasions where Ferry’s departure from the imagery of the Latin original is noticeable (not to mention questionable, at least for this particular image); otherwise, he eloquently captures the spirit of the original verses.

Ferry’s original compositions, such as “Soul,” contain some eloquent lines:

What am I doing inside this old man’s body?
I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief in what,
God knows, vague memories of friends, and what
They said last night, and seeing, outside of myself, (p. 7)

Here the poet lays forth his bewilderment over his life, his need to confront the development that he is now old, that he is confused, trying to recall what memories he has of life, food, friendship, and love.  Ferry’s images and metaphors ring true in this poem and in several others like it, for they address directly those life questions that we have had at various points of our existences.  Yet at times the free verse is a bit too formal in feel, as those Ferry trusts not his metaphors and images to be unbound.  When working with classical motifs, this is acceptable, but there were a few times were I sensed that too heavy of a hand was placed upon some of these poems, that perhaps they were stuffed into models too strait for comfort.

This is not so much a condemnation of the poet (or the translator) as it is an acknowledgement that there was this sense of a missed opportunity in places to take greater risks and thus “free” the poetic metaphors and images to be more daring, original works, unconstrained by conventions or expectations.  Bewilderment is a good collection, but it is not an excellent one and in comparison to other National Book Award poetry finalists, it perhaps suffers due to its perceived shackling to older conventions.

2012 National Book Award finalist in Poetry: Susan Wheeler, Meme

October 31st, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I learned how to make ring tum ditty when your father and I didn’t have two cents to rub together.

Well, these saltines are a little stale. (p. 6, from “Splitting Hairs”)

Lace our shut eyes shut.

Don’t you ping my machine. Young lady. (p. 20, from “Judas Priest”)

Susan Wheeler’s National Book Award-nominated poetry collection, Meme, is difficult to sum up in a few pithy paragraphs. Divided into three parts, the first of which, “The Maud Poems,” being based on Wheeler’s mother, Meme explores several themes, among them the trials and travails of motherhood, the dangers and joys of childhood, the temptations of life, and cruel humorous ironies of life through protean verses that shift in register, tone, and form to fit the characters contained within.

Take for instance the two citations provided above, both taken from “The Maud Poems.” Here we hear one half of a conversation, or perhaps “Maud” is caught in a soliloquy over her past poverty before interrupting herself to respond to her children’s needs. This alternation between reminisce and response catches the reader reacting on two levels, the recalled past and the immediate present. Wheeler’s lines are deceptively simple. Vivid images are created through the use of alliterations, such as this combination found within “The Devil – or – The Introjects”:

She’s got your hand moving out for a dish, for a drink, for a doughnut. (p. 30)

Wheeler is more than a one-trick poetess. Further on in “The Devil – or – The Introjects,” she creates memorable descriptions through twisting, turning, moving, mutable descriptors:

She’s driven you out here with her taunting, pushed you out to the

extremities of town where the dust coils in the wind and your own

parched throat rasps. Go on, missy, jump, but the land’s straight and flat,

and the prefab arsenal by the side of the road bears unbankable walls.

Jump. (p. 35)

But it is in the third part, “The Split,” where Wheeler’s talent for imagery and expression shine fullest:

Spangled like showgirls in the gleam of our fears,

shiny Christians in chain mail, with our faux-lizard shingling,

whores limping to West Street from the Bank Street piers, (p. 39)

There are few duds in Meme. Even the relatively weaker segments contain a warmth of characters and a vividness in metaphor and image that makes reading and re-reading the poems a delight. Wheeler’s expert use of language creates poems that even in simple actions, something profound is being expressed:

I am tired. Today

I moved a book from its shelf

to the bed. The span

of its moving was vast. (p. 83)

Out of the four poetry finalists that I have read to date, Meme perhaps will be the one that lingers longest for me. This is not to say the others, yet to be reviewed, are not good or excellent in their own right, but Meme is the work that connects closest with the wild, weird vastness of human life and emotions and Wheeler’s ability to stretch metaphor to cover this broad emotional expanse is impressive.

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