“Pearl” (translated by Simon Armitage) and “Algaravias: Echo Chamber” by Waly Salomão (translated by Maryam Monalisa Ghaavi)


Three weeks ago I posted the Longlist for the 2017 American PEN Poetry in Translation Award  and have managed to read two of the listed books. Today a short review of each, “Pearl” translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage and “Algaravias: Echo Chamber” by Waly Salomão (translated from the Portuguese by Maryam Monalisa Ghaavi).


First up “Pearl; A New Verse Translation”. As the Introduction advises us the poem was “probably composed in the 1390’s” and “only one copy of the untitled poem that has come to be called Pearl remains in existence.” The poem is the first poem in a manuscript that also includes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness (or Purity). Translator, Simon Armitage, has also translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and several others have translated Pearl, including JRR Tolkien.

The Introduction is compulsory reading, advising us of the intricacies of the poem;

Presented in twenty sections, each section consists of five stanzas of twelve lines, except for section XV which consists of six stanzas, bringing the total number of lines to an enigmatic 1212, thus mimicking not only the number of lines in each stanza but also the structure of the heavenly Jerusalem (twelve by twelve furlongs), with twelve gates for the twelve tribes of Israel, as specified in the Book of Revelation.

The Introduction also alerting us to the alliteration, puns, and homonyms in the original as well as the strict rhyming scheme of ababababbcb. There is then an explanation about other translators using the rhyming scheme, preserving many of the poem’s end words, and Simon Armitage’s reasoning;

My own response has been to allow rhymes to occur as naturally as possible within sentences, internally or at the end of lines, and to let half-rhymes and syllabic rhymes to play their part, and for the poem’s musical orchestration to be performed by pronounced alliteration, lopping repetition, and the quartet of beats in each line…hopefully my solution will appear to the ear and the voice.

Personally, I found this approach rather cumbersome, making the flow of a medieval poem, stilted and jarring. As an example, here is the Middle English version and the translation of one stanza (number 43);

‘”That date of yere wel knawe thys hyne.
The lorde ful erly up he ros,
To hyre workmen to hys vyne,
& fyndez ther summe to hys porpos.
Into acorde that con declyne
For a pene on a day, & forth that gotz,
Wrythen & worchen & don gret pyne,
Kerven & caggen & man hit clos.
Aboute vnder the lorde to marked totz,
& ydel men stande he fyndez therate.
‘Why stande ye ydel?’ he sayde to tos;
‘Ne knawe ye of this day no date?’


‘”All laborers know that date is a limit.
So the vineyard owner rose very early
to take on hands to tend his estate,
and found a gang of able fellows,
men who would work in the fields for a wage
of a penny a day. With the pay agreed,
they toiled at the trying a tiring tasks,
trimming and tying, cultivating the crop.
At nine the master went back to the market
where men hung about, kicking their heels.
‘Why wait here idle and aimless?’ he asked,
‘when the light of day is not limitless?’

One, the original, scans, rhymes, and is a poetic piece, the translation a literal story of a vineyard owner seeking workers.

Personally, I enjoyed the story of a man grief struck at the loss of his two-year-old daughter, his “pearl”, who visits the scene of his “bereavement” and falls into a deep sleep, where he visits the gates of heaven. There he partakes in an extended dialogue with his deceased child, across an “unfordable stretch of water”, where he learns his daughter is now one of Christ’s brides. However, the “translation” limits some of the poetic, and I found myself referring to the original text to enjoy the poetic beat and rhyme. To me a disappointing presentation.


Onto “Algaravias: Echo Chamber” by Waly Salomão (translated from the Portuguese by Maryam Monalisa Ghaavi), as “Pearl” the collection is presented in the original language alongside the translation. Here’s a bio of the poet from the publisher Ugly Duckling Presse’s website:

Waly Salomão (1943-2003) was one of the foremost 20th-century experimental poets of South America. In 1995, his fifth book of poetry, Algaravias: Echo Chamber won Brazil’s highest literary prize, the Prêmio Jabuti. Born in Jequié, Bahia, to a Syrian immigrant father and a Brazilian mother, Salomão carved out an early career as a songwriter to major Tropicália vocalists, including Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso. In 1970, at the height of Brazil’s military regime, he was imprisoned at Carandiru prison in São Paulo. The author of more than ten books, his poetry has been included in major anthologies including Nothing the Sun Could Explain: New Brazilian Poetry (Sun & Moon Press, 2000). Following the author’s death, the Waly Salomão Cultural Center was established in Rio de Janeiro.

Here is a masterful work, the opening page explaining “Algarabia” and advising “algarabía began figuratively to pass for something written or said in a way that one does not understand”, I was fearful that this would transpose to the poems, but there was no need to fear;

…where everything is balance
and calculus…
in itself
per itself
the audacity of being a poet.
…where everything is balance
and calculus
like in Stravinsky’s music.

(from Just like Paul Valéry)

This collection is subtle and the musicality is juxtaposed against the proud closing line “POETRY IS THE ESSENTIAL”

A work that is about the creation of poetry, debating poetry and then making that a poem itself, poems that maybe from the margins, but the words are pushing outwards, extending the boundaries;

synecdoches, catachresis,
metonymies, alliterations, metaphors, oxymorons
cleared away in the chasm.
one should not anticipate many remnants
lurking at the top
of the watchtower.

(from Poem Factory)

A collection of poems that pay homage to other poets, for example the American writers Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery (both Pulitzer Prize winning poets).

With strung out poems like “Jet-Lagged Poem”, where the banality of travel and the endless lists of highlights, which are no different from others highlights, there are so many that it is easier to “lose the commas that separate them”, and the poem “Anti Travel”;

All travel is useless,
I brood at the edge of the enclosed well.

To what end abandon one’s shelter,
leave one’s turtle shell behind
And be impelled downstream by the rapids?
To what end this suspension of the
quotidian bed, if soon after
the balloon disinflates slowly and everything
resounds worse than ever before and
now in comparison looks tarnished?


This collection lingers with the “what is poetry?” question, using circular references, repetitive arguments (the “Echo Chamber” in the title being a poem and is referenced), rhythm, “polyphonic” and of course Poe.


What is poetry?
– Poetry!
that Proteus –

Edgar A. Poe

I wish Ugly Duckling Presse (and of course the translator Maryam Monalisa Ghaavi) all the best with the Award (and hopefully with the Best Translated Book Award), the publisher bringing nine poetry translated works into being in 2016, representing more than 10% of translated poetry in the USA!!!

I have a few more titles from the 2017 American PEN Poetry in Translation Award on order, and have decided to subscribe to Ugly Duckling Presse’s books to support their efforts of translating poetry,  so stay tuned for more thoughts on poetry in translation over the coming months.

A Cup Of Rage – Raduan Nassar (translated by Stefan Tobler) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

Don’t forget that in life’s rough and tumble motives aren’t the point.
Welcome to the “rough and tumble” world of Raduan Nassar and his short but bitter description of human relationships, and the motive? That’s not the point.
Here’s a short review for a very very short book.
The shortest book on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize longlist for many a year (I can only think of poetry books and chapbooks that I own that are shorter than this work), is the Brazilian “A Cup of Rage” by Raduan Nassar (translated by Stefan Tobler). Originally published in 1978, under the title ‘Um Copo de Cólera’, and running to a mere 45 pages this publication is not a weighty read, however it isn’t a shallow one either.
Our book opens with the distant allure of our male protagonist nonchalantly eating a tomato sprinkled with salt, he knows that his detached approach is fuelling a lustful desire in his partner. Our story then moves to the bedroom and we continue the detachment with distant observations that our male believes will be forthcoming in the love making, descriptions of feet, hands, hair, these are more detailed than the act itself.
A mere seven chapters, with six of them taking up less than fourteen pages, each chapter is written in long melancholic single paragraphs, in fact single sentences, pages and pages of single sentences, this work, although short, is not simplistic nor conventional;
It was already half past five when I said to her ‘I’m going to jump out of bed’ but she wound herself around me like a creeping vine, her claws closing where they could, and she had claws on her hands and claws on her feet, and a thick, strongly smelling birdlime over her whole body, and since we were almost grappling each other I said ‘let me go, little bindweed’, knowing that she liked it when I spoke that way, so in response she said. Feigning solemnity, ‘I won’t let you go, my grave Cypressus erectus’, her eyes beaming with pride at her impressive repartee (although there she wasn’t well versed in botanical matters, even less so  in the geometry of conifers, and the little that she dared flaunt concerning plants she has learnt from me and nobody else), and in the knowledge that there are no branches or trunks, however strong the tree may be, that can resist the advances of a creeper, I tore myself away from her while there was time and slipped quickly over to the window, immediately raised the blind and felt on my still warm body the cold, damp air that started to get in the room,…
Broken into seven chapters, as described above, the opening revealing our manipulative male alluring the younger woman and the subsequent sexual actions, the longer middle section containing a destructive, unexplained, bitter battle of words and wits, and an ending which I will not reveal here, this is a work that contains a raft of quotable observations, our rich older male landowner, moves from lover to enraged verbal abuser, the catalyst for his behaviour appearing to be him observing ants destroying his prized hedge;
…livid with these wonderfully orderly ants, livid with their model efficiency, livid with how fucking organized they are that they left the weeds well alone and ate my privet hedge
An observation that flies in the face of his own behaviour, an organised, calculating, efficient, scheming man who is now rebelling against all he stands for. Our counterpoint to his outrageous boiling over, is a younger successful journalist female, a wisecracking, often laughing, intellectual who can verbally deflate even the most boisterous of egos. “In short the little miss could never get enough of this ‘old man’.”
The wise observations are scattered throughout:
I who was – methodically – mixing reason and emotion into and extraordinary alchemical amalgam.
Not forgetting that reflection is nothing more than the excretions of the drama of our existence, foolishly put on a pedestal by us.
A work that explores the manipulative side to relationships, the allure, the sexual desire and then the destructive, often violent, reactions, the perpetual spiral of self-destruction, the slipping away from attraction and into rejection.
Although an intriguing work, with gems scattered throughout and a wise view on relationships, however, personally I feel this is a short story, even too short to be classed as a novella, and this has to be a major hindrance as to the book’s ability to even make the shortlist, let alone take out the Man Booker International Prize itself.  

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