“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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Selected Poems – Corsino Fortes (translated by Daniel Hahn and Sean O’Brien)

December sees a number of reading challenges being promoted, the first “twelve books of Christmas” challenges bloggers to read and review twelve works during the month, and when I totaled up my reviews of works this year for my personal listing of my favourites under the banner “Twelve Days of Translated Fiction” it came to eighty-eight, what better way to round out a nice 100 works for the year by joining in and ensuring I get to another twelve books before the end of the year.

Another reading challenge is “Diverse December” (you can read more here) where the BAME (“Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic”) writers get a little more exposure. Today’s review fits that demographic quite nicely.
Corsino Fortes was born in Mindelo on the island of São Vicente in Cape Verde in 1933. Serving as the first Ambassador of Cape Verde to Portugal from 1975 to 1981 he went on to become a judge in Angola and served several govenments in the Cape Verde Republic. Writing in both Creole and Portuguese, the works in this collection have been translated from poems written in Portuguese the official language of the ten island archipelago.
Earlier this year I read and reviewed “By Night The Mountain Burns” by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar) from Equatorial Guinea, a work set off the West African Coast of this nation and whilst reading Corsino Fortes’ poems there was a strong correlation to the island imagery used in Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s novel 
It only takes a poem or two to see these works are rooted in Cape Verde mythology and way of life, with recurring images of blood, the meridian, drums, guitars and the sea. From a widely travelled writer, and one who spent a significant time living overseas you can almost feel the pain of being forced to escape your roots, there is no escape:
There is fever now
            fever in the gum
The coat of sweat
            fouling the teeth
The corncob
            in the scorched mouth
The bay sweating
                        sun and sunflower
I left the plumb-line
                                    on the steps of the city
I left the hammer and the anvil
                                    in the council chambers
I left the pestle and the mortar
                                    Under you face: Monte Cara
And the wild surge of the waters
I packed my stuff
                                    And left
The heart behind and sailed to larboard
But before long before
I mortgaged
                                    my litre of blood
And left
I planted my thumb
                        Beside you tree
                                    o idol of my little earth
In that lesson
Of earth & blood
I heard the wild waves surge
                        From the heart to larboard
Very similar to the Mexican work (translated from the Spanish) “Diorama” by Rocío Cerón (translated by Anna Rosenwong), and winner of this year’s Best Translated Book Award for poetry, in the timbre of the local language, as opposed to English, these are poems that scream to be read aloud, and in their local tongue. As an example here’s a section from “Nightmare In A Foreign Land” describing the journey on a night train:
My sleep is goat my sleep is herb
My sleep is goat my sleep is herb
My mouth sleeps goat my mouth sleeps herb
My mouth sleeps goat my mouth sleeps herb
Goat train horse train goat train horse train
            Goat train horse train goat train horse train
Eating the earth eating the earth eating the earth
Eating the earth eating the earth eating the earth
And here in the original language (this books presents the original alongside the English translation):
Nha sone ê cabra nha sone ê erva
Nha sone ê cabra nha sone ê erva
Sone dnha boca ê cabra sone dnha boca ê erva
Sone dnha boca ê cabra sone dnha boca ê erva
Cabra comboie cavole comboie cabra comboie
                        cavole comboie
Cabra comboie cavole comboie cabra comboie
                        cavole comboie
Ta c’mê terra ta c’mê terra ta c’mê terra
Ta c’mê terra ta c’mê terra ta c’mê terra
In this example the rhythm and sound of the night train moving through the dark seems to have more power, and of course this is one of the major challenges that translators would face, especially with the poetic form. One of the translators here Daniel Hahn, I recently read through is work on “A General Theory of Oblivion” by José Eduardo Agualusa.
The collection shows a strong connection to country, being an outcast in another land, countries who display the bones of Cape Verde peoples in museums, as though they are showing us the birth of humankind.
From “Postcards from the High Seas”
Now as I walk
I watch the birth: the spring that watches
The shade of the shoulder-blades over the world
Striking the drum
            with the blood of Africa
            with the bones of Europe
Every evening my thumb returns
            And says to the mouth of the river
From Addis Ababa I came and drank
In the cataracts of Ruacana
This collection is taken from “Bread + Phoneme” published in 1974, the year that Portugal’s dictator Antonío Salazar was over thrown, this event triggering the decolonization of the Cape Verde Islands in 1975. “Tree + Drum”, “Stones of Sun + Substance” are the other published works that these poems are drawn from along with two “Uncollected” poems.
The earliest section, from “Bread + Phoneme” is a very obscure opening, and it took me a while to get used to the references, the metre and the rhythm of the poems, let alone the meaning, with poems taken from later collections having direct references and alignment to the island itself and feel a little more accessible.
This publication if very much grounded in being part of one’s land, one’s country is displayed in the poem “Earth to Earth” which explores the relationship between a child and a navel, we are born of the earth but we devour it.

Source personal copy (part of my Archipelago Books subscription).

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A General Theory of Oblivion – José Eduardo Agualusa (translated by Daniel Hahn)

Earlier this year I read and reviewed the Best Translated Book Award longlisted “Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret” by Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan), my first foray in Angolan literature. As part of my subscription to the outstanding not-for-profit independent publisher Archipelago Books the new release “A General Theory of Oblivion” by José Eduardo Agualusa (translated by Daniel Hahn) landed on my doorstep. Also translated from the Portuguese, this is very much a different tale to the childhood innocence story from Ondjaki.

José Eduardo Agualusa won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 for his novel “The Book of Chameleons” (also translated by Daniel Hahn), and if I decide, one day, to back read award winners or shortlisted novels this one will possibly make my list, but with the plethora of new works to investigate it may be some time before I get to older works!!!

Due for release in mid-December, our novel opens with the story of a Portuguese woman Ludovica, or Ludo, who suffers agoraphobia, a fear of wide open spaces. She wants to remain locked in a safe indoor environment and when her parent’s unexplainably die she is forced to travel to Angola to live with her sister and her Angolan husband. Living in an exclusive apartment the revolution begins. Everybody leaves, their supplies remaining behind and her sister and her husband mysteriously do not return from a party one evening, have they escaped the country or has a terrible fate befallen them? Ludo observes the world from within her own world, a microcosm of Angola itself, she gleans her history from snippets around her, observation and the world news.
I’m afraid of what’s outside the windows, of the air that arrives in bursts, and the noise it brings with it. I am scared of mosquitos, the myriad of insects I don’t know how to name. I am foreign to everything, like a bird that has fallen into the current of a river. I don’t understand the languages I hear outside, the languages the radio brings into the house, I don’t understand what they’re saying, not even when they sound like they’re speaking Portuguese, because this Portuguese they are speaking is no longer mine.
Switching between third person narrative and the stories of Ludo as she scrawls her life story down, we observe the changing landscape of Angolan politics through a single lens, a lens that is not privy to distractions or all information. A bit like our own current world in an era dominated by media moguls, we only know what we’re allowed to know.
Alongside Ludo’s story we have a number of interconnected tales, stories of carrier pigeons with valuable diamonds in their guts, stories of the diamonds being found by a political prisoner Monte, who Ludo observes attempting to flee the authorities, Monte is harboured by a kind woman who actually has a link to Ludo via the diamonds in the pigeons’ guts.
We also have Little Chief, who has been in hiding for four years, resurfacing after the death of the first president and working for an NGO serving soup to the people in the slums:
The young man was enthused by this. He started accompanying the nurse, in exchange for a symbolic wage, three meals a day, a bed, and laundry. In the meantime, the years went by. The socialist system was dismantled by the very same people who had set it up, ad capitalism rose from the ashes, as fierce as ever. Guys who just months ago had been railing against bourgeois democracy at family lunches and parties, at demonstrations, in newspaper articles, were no dressed in designer clothing, driving around the city in cars that gleamed.
Whilst we do have a number of concurrent stories the main thread is following Ludo, locked in her apartment, where she has bricked up the door to stop intruders. Whilst enclosed she writes her life story on the walls of her apartment in charcoal (as she no longer has any paper, the extensive library being used for fuel). Her jottings on the walls forming part of the story and appearing in italics:
I realize I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book. After burning the library, after I have died, all that remains will be my voice.
In this house all the walls have my mouth.
This is a literary novel, a work that refers to other works, a work that refers to the art of writing, the common theme of being locked away and seeking solace in a novel or your own writings (including poetry). The book came about after José Eduardo Agualusa was approached by the filmmaker Jorge António to write a screenplay for a feature-length film to be shot in Angola. He decided to write the story of Ludovica Fernandes Mano, a Portuguese woman who had bricked herself into her apartment days before the revolution. José Eduardo Agualusa had access to ten notebooks in which Ludo had been writing her diary, Sabalu Estevão Capitango giving the author these books. He also had access to other diaries and photographs of Ludo’s texts and charcoal pictures on her walls taken by the visual artist Sacramento Neto (Sakro).
Often, as she looked out over the crowds that clashed violently against the sides of the building, that vast uproar of car horns and whistles, cries and entreaties and curses, she had experienced a profound terror, a feeling of siege and threat. Whenever she wanted to go out she would look for a book in the library. She felt, as she went on burning those books, after having burned all the furniture, the doors, the wooden floor tiles, that she was losing her freedom. It was as though she was incinerating the whole planet. When she burned Jorge Amando she stopped being able to visit Ilhéus and São Salvador. Burning Ulysses, by Joyce, she had lost Dublin. Getting rid of Three Trapped Tigers, she had incinerated old Havana. There were fewer than a hundred books left. She kept them more out of stubbornness than to make any use of them. Her eyesight was so bad that even with an enormous magnifying glass, even holding the book in direct sunlight, sweating as though she were in a sauna, it took her an entire afternoon to decipher one page. In recent months she had taken to writing her favourite lines form the books she had left in huge letters on those walls of the apartment that were still empty. “It won’t be long,” she thought, “and I really will be a prisoner. I don’t want to live in a prison.” She fell asleep. She was awoken by a quiet laugh. The boy was there again in front of her, a slender silhouette, cut out against the stormy glare of the sunset.
A street kids, climbing scaffolding on an adjacent building enters Ludo’s world and as a result things will never be the same.
A highly readable and enjoyable novel, however the implausibility of the character connections is too much to ignore, with numerous characters all somehow linked via diamond mining, rebellion, blood, or neighbourhoods to have other common connections is just too unreal to be real. Personally I found a number of characters quite confusing to understand where they slotted into the plot and then to have a final “scene” with numerous players was too fantastical. Besides the implausibility there are a number of gems that appear in the text and the scrawling on the wall and the reason why Ludo has locked herself away (which is revealed) are quite moving.
A breath of fresh air from your usual African fare that seems to make its way into English, this is a worthwhile read.

Source personal copy.

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