The High Window Reviews: Translations

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Tempo, Excursions in 21st-Century Italian Poetry •  So That the Butterfly Won’t Die, Selected Poems by Hatif Janabi

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Tempo, Excursions in 21st-Century Italian Poetry reviewed by Caroline Maldonado

tempo

Tempo, Excursions in 21st-Century Italian Poetry edited by Luca Paci.
£15. Parthian.ISBN 978-1-91-340-56-9

The title of this collection indicates that it makes no claims to be a revised canon of contemporary Italian poetry.  ‘Excursions’ suggests a more leisurely amble, a more personal and democratic approach. The Italian editor, Luca Paci, who has lived and worked in the UK for over 20 years sets out his principles and intentions in the introduction:

Poetry is an essential tool to understand and question at a deeper level events, feelings and attitudes of present and past, recognising the complexity of reality in a radically different way.

He highlights the diversity of Italian poetry in linguistic practice, form and origin. These are poems that criticise the language of power and reach for the people at the margin of the new global economy (women, the disabled, transgender people, migrants) and explore, with bold originality, the experience of separation and exclusion.

Of the 22 poets in Tempo, 9 are women – in marked contrast to the main Italian anthologies of the twentieth century in which women poets were almost completely absent.  It includes poets born in the often culturally disparate regions of Italy, in Sicily, Naples, Rome and Milan but also in Mogadishu.  There is a self-proclaimed Buddhist poet (Chandra Livia Candiani), a poet exploring ‘queer’ poetics  (Franco Buffoni)and another addressing transsexuality and gender dysphoria (Giovanna Cristina Vivinetto).  There are poets following a relatively traditional style, such as a poet from Urbino (Umberto Piersanti) whose poems echo those of Giacomo Leopardi from the same region. Another experiments visually on the page (Marco Giovenale) and there are also spoken word and performance poets.  Lyrical and anti-lyrical poetry are both represented.  Some poets are directly political, others attend to an experience more intimately personal. The preoccupation with language and identity runs through many of the poems, an interest in dialect and the mother-tongue, with several poets actively confronting the struggle with language. Recalling the Italian visual art movement Arte Povera,  Ida Travi expresses a desire to return to ‘un linguaggio povero, duro come una colpa’ (translated as  ‘a poor language, as hard as guilt’), while Shirin Ramzali Fazel who was born in Somalia writes from the outsider perspective:

I struggle when I have to read this language I love most,
Written in an alphabet adopted from a foreign land,
Signs not strong enough to lift my heavy tongue –
I feel like a ballerina dancing on a broken toe’

There are a few Italian poets of the 20th century familiar to the English reader of poetry, such as Montale, Ungaretti and Quasimodo. Most of the poets in this collection will not be known, as our limited English translation has not caught up with them.  Exceptions are those that already have collections published in English such as Antonella Anedda.  Her preoccupations are identity, language and place, war and time and this collection opens with a poem by her.  I’ll quote the English version in full as it also picks up themes that echo through the book:

This language has no innocence
– listen to how speeches break up
as if also here there were a war
a different war but war
all the same – in a time of drought.

And so I write with reluctance
with a few dry stumps of phrases
boxed into humdrum language
which I arrange so as to call out
down there as far as the dark
that sounds the bells.

Another poem by her is in Sardinian dialect:

Limba-madres ses triste
S’azu s’inniéddigat in sartàine

Mother-tongue you’re heavy-hearted;
garlic blackens the copper pan.

What a pleasure it is to have a bilingual book where the reader can find this heavy, consonant-rich language as well as Italian!

Anedda is translated beautifully by Jamie McKendrick who has also translated the poetry of Valerio Magrelli, a writer of short, often metaphysical poems whose love poem ‘The Embrace’, represented here, contains echoes of John Donne.

As you lie beside me I edge closer
taking sleep from your lips
as one wick draws flame from another.

All one can do, when reviewing an anthology of such disparate voices, is give a flavour of its contents and that will also inevitably be influenced by personal taste.  For example, I responded strongly to the lyrical poems that ‘write of lost places’ by Umberto Piersanti, a Nobel prize nominee referred to above, set in Le Marche, an area I love and know well.

Matteo Fantuzzi, who was born in Bologna, has written about the fascist bombing of the railway station in that city. In urgent physical detail his work explores Italy’s repressed memories and inability to come to terms with fascism and his work is reminiscent of South American writers recording their own ‘disappeared’.  The recent election of an Italian PM with her roots in a fascist party reminds us how necessary a voice this is.

I was moved by the poems of Cristina Vivinetto, from a prize-winning debut collection.  She is a young Sicilian poet addressing the subject of transsexuality in delicate poems expressing the difficulty of negotiating family relationships. Sensitively translated by Cristina Viti,  the sequence moves from the experience of loss:

The first loss was the hands
I lost the innocent touch
that delved into things, discovered them
with a child’s pluck – formed them.’

Then the stanzas alternate between loss and of discovery until they arrive at the discovery of forgiveness.

Another fine poet is Mariangela Gualtieri, who explores a different kind of loss:

Be gentle with me.  Be kind.
Little is the time we have left.  Then
we will be trails of pure light.
And so nostalgic
of the human. The way we now
are of infinity.
But we will not have hands.  No longer
will we caress with our hands.
Nor cheeks to stroke,
softly.

Laura Pugni also writes about the body and its relationship with the external world.  The introduction to her poems describes them ‘like an installation…caught in a sort of suspended subjectivity her poetry presents elemental movements and corporeal images.’

Unusually, this volume acknowledges ‘the extraordinary work translators carry out’ and gives their biographies almost as much space as that of the poets themselves in this handsome bilingual publication.  As usual, some translations are more successful than others.  Inevitably, those requiring a greater inventiveness from the translators were the visually experimental and ‘spoken’ poems depending more on patterns and music, such as repeated alliterative effects, that may be harder to replicate in English.  In general, though, the translators, most of them very experienced and selected from both the UK and the US, have done the poems justice and reading through this anthology has been an immensely enjoyable, stimulating experience.

Caroline Maldonado is a poet and translator.  Her book publications include Your call keeps us awake, poems by Rocco Scotellaro co-translated with Allen Prowle (Smokestack Books 2013); What they say in Avenale, (Indigo Dreams Publishing 2014); Isabella (Smokestack Books 2019) a hybrid of her own poems with translations of the Renaissance poet, Isabella Morra, commended in University of Warwick’s Women in Translation prize; Liminal (Smokestack Books 2020), winner of the 2019 UK PEN Translates award and Nadir (Smokestack Books 2022) both translations of poems by Laura Fusco; and her recent collection Faultlines (Vole Books 2022).

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So That the Butterfly Won’t Die: Selected Poems by Hatif Janabi reviewed by Alan Price

butterfly

So That the Butterfly Won’t Die: Selected Poems by Hatif Janabi  translated by Kahtan Mahboub. £2.50.  Dar Arab For Publishing and Translation.  ISBN 978-1-78871-084-8

‘Spring is late this year with no meaning or cause
I even forget myself among the scattered leaves of autumn.’

These are the opening lines of “Misunderstanding”, the first poem of this book. Their regretful tone pervades much of these selected poems of Hatif Janabi. A sense of loss and needing to understand such loss come from the voice of an exiled Arabic poet.

Yet Janabi’s sense of the homeland he desires is not simply a healed Iraq nation but a more generalised philosophical idea of belonging and certainty. Janabi is aware of over-reaching for the ideal yet he never lets his confident poetic voice drift into the wistful and sentimental. He doesn’t fall into the trap of being a romantic exile. The poetry is lyrical, sensual and tough: conveying a pragmatic reality about the world’s denial, mostly through the sufferings of war, of social betterment even though the yearning for it persists.

‘I write so that no innocent be slain;
no sinner be stoned;
no living-dead are mutilated;
no other meaning for water than life;
not to be like the caves’ inhabitants
or a rotten shoe riddled by the roads.

‘I write so inhalation and exhalation have a meaning,
a purpose in life,
the beloved to have a statue higher than the mountains.’

Hanif Janabi is an Iraqi poet who was born near Babylon in 1952. He studied Arabic language and literature at Baghdad university. After some years of being conscripted into the army, and experiencing the military conflict between Iran and Iraq over territory, Janabi left Iraq in 1976 to live in Poland. He still lives in Warsaw and has travelled extensively. His poetry has been translated into many languages including Polish, English, French, German, Spanish and Russian.

This sense of Janabi being an internationalist writer has given him different voices. Of

traditional poetry he has said, ‘It belongs to ancient ages and eras that can’t contain present heartbeats and visions.’ So he had to reject classic Arabic forms to become, for me, on my first readings, a dense modern poet. He holds onto the visionary yet

allows anger, scepticism and irony to enter his world view. Being in Poland has seen some of their dark, often surreal, ironists like Zbeing Herbert rub off on Janabi’s work.

‘She knocks on my window.
When the night arrives, I hear her moan.
She deciphers the bird’s logic,
and beholds the winds like winged ships
or perplexed angels.’

from “Weeping Willow.”

Yet he has also written poems in Dublin, Birmingham England, China and America. Written in the state of Indiana I found a sequence of almost Blake-like proverbs called “Between Laughing and Crying”

‘A full pub
is livelier than an abandoned church.
An abandoned church
is safer than a brutal country.’

“Tyranny”

Poems from China called “Writing with Chinese Ink” of course register his encounters with ordinary Chinese people and a reflection on their ancient poets. Yet

in the beautiful poem “My Father’s Blue Eyes and The Wall of China.”Janabi introduces a memory of father and son drinking wine and swopping accounts of unlikely and absurd events. We are charmingly sped from China’s dreams and its wall, which according to myths about space can be seen from the moon, back to the mundane earth of Iraq.

‘Still transcending the universe,
dreaming of the Wall, cuddling the clouds,
wondering how Man converses with the deities,
climbing the stair of eternity,
then succumbs to build his nest
between the sand and the mud?’

Janabi’s sense of humour can equally be applied to his father to produce serious reflection.

‘In his final days, he began to knock on the door from inside,
calling, tenderly:
“I’m from the people of Babel,
why doesn’t the door open?”

What a stupid joke is this,
the night plays,
the wind listens too?’

“Identities Eight: My Father”

Given the collection’s title So That the Butterfly Won’t Die I was intrigued to find a number of poems that use the image of the butterfly. We have poems that speak of a butterfly tracing the light’s trail as it hovers over a blind lantern; a butterfly copying the colours of ink needed for writing on the page; butterflies make their way to a meadow become a shrine for the slaughtered dead of the war in Iraq and they even appear in a poem called “Brighten My Ways” as a element of the contradictory mental landscape of the poet. Hanif handles the image with great delicacy and skill as something both elusive and short-lived: a conveyer of hope in a dark and uncertain landscape.

There’s a persistent melancholy in Hatif Janabi’s poetry that alternates with a vivid gratitude at being alive and able to combat injustice with words. He’s taken the hurt of his country with him. Yet exile hasn’t limited his voice for his concerns and subject matter are wide. Above all his poetry has nobility (that sadly contemporary, sceptical Western European poets shun) which is very moving. He’s determined, angry, forgiving, compassionate and holds on tight to the conviction that poetry, acts like a force of nature, no matter the adversity of the political and personal situation.

‘I will leave you tomorrow or the day after,
and say what is needed to be said.
My language is the thunders; my home is the sparks.
I will undoubtedly depart in a wink,
but will remain, to the end,
the wind’s grasp in the storm.’

“The Wind’s Grasp”

Hatif Janabi is a remarkable and important poet who deserves a much greater readership in the UK.

Alan Price’s film and book reviews regularly appear on the websites Magonia and London Grip. His screenplay A Box of Swan was produced by BBC 2. He has published fiction, poetry chapbooks and three full collections among which are two published by The High Window Press: Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady and The Trio Confessions. His latest book of poems Bewilderment (a collaboration with the paintings of Herve Constant) was published by the Martello Press in 2022. His latest collection, The Cinephile Poems will be published this year by the High Window Press.

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