Oliverio Girondo, Poems to Read on a Streetcar (translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary) and Li Shangyin, Derangements of My Contemporaries: Miscellaneous Notes (translated from the the Chinese by Chloe Garcia Roberts). (New Directions Poetry Pamphlets #11 and 14).
New Directions is another long-standing supporter of avant-garde poetries that continues to evolve with the changing landscape of poetry publishing. Now in its second year, The New Directions Poetry Pamphlet Series offers a thought-provoking and diverse set of not-quite-full-length-manuscript-but-longer-than-a-chapbook publications, from American leaders in so-called experimental poetic forms (Lydia Davis, Bernadette Mayer, Susan Howe, and Anne Carson to name a few) to examples of innovative, historically important international voices in modern translation.
While of seemingly disparate backgrounds and eras – Shangyin’s pre-Tang Era China, Girondo’s Argentina and Europe of early-modernism – both provide sharp socio-political commentaries on their respective eras while reflecting present concerns. In their translator’s notes, both Roberts and Cleary provide helpful historical background on their subjects’ particularities and draw insightful commentaries on relevant contemporaneousness of each of these poets and eras.
As Roberts describes, Shangyin, one of the most celebrated poets of his era, lived a disappointing personal and professional life, never rising above a mid-level bureaucrat. Derangements
depicts the poet’s critical observations on emotional and social lives of those around him. The images unroll in lyrical, list like constructions, casting shadows on any age. For instance, commentating lines from “Raging Stupidity”:
Having money and not repaying debts
Knowing one’s faults and being unable to change
To hear another’s remarks then obstinately contradict them
Not realizing one’s culpability, blaming the mistakes of others
speak to any time and place, from the private homes of pre-modern China, to present day halls of Congress.
Fast forward a millennium, and you will find Girondo, boarding a streetcar in his native Buenos Aires or a European city, notating distress of the passing faces of a crowd in a gathering police state:
“The trees filter the city’s clamor… Men, anesthetized by the sun, hard to distinguish from the dead.” (from “Plaza”)
“Between the fingers of the arcades, a dense crowd gathers its disappointments while the band grinds out a waltz to make the pennants turn four times and stop… The plain, greenish, dingy sky is the same color as the soldiers’ uniforms” (from “Verona”).
Cleary selects thematically consistent work from throughout Girondo’s oeuvre, emphasizing his protest in a mix of “prose and verse, of the grotesque and the sublime” (from Cleary’s notes). Such heady combinations slice through these poems, such as in the end of “Join Your Hands”:
And the passion,
of the whole universe,
it took to make your pores,
Join your hands.
Amputate your braids.
In the meantime I’ll turn three somersaults.
The ancient poetry of the modern world is alive and well in these skillful and passionate translations.