For his guest-edited issue, Ilya Kaminsky chooses nine far-flung writers who attempt to answer the question, “What are poets to do in this moment of uncertainty?”
Photograph via Flickr by Joe Mud
“War is no longer declared, / it is continued” wrote the great Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann about her moment in time, which is not unlike our own. What are poets to do in this moment of uncertainty? where is truth in this time of propaganda? where is beauty after the bombardments? “o, my generation, I don’t know you!” exclaims Romanian poet Nicolae Coande, and indeed, this is no longer the moment of Ginsberg’s great barbaric bravado. “I’m a poet and poets / don’t speak the truth” Coande attests. And, that is truth, for he, the poet, speaks mystery, hears “a verse that tore down a walled city.”
So, what is it, our time? and what is the lyric for our moment? How do we go on this planet that is so tormented by our own kind? What to do when there is “no one at the gas / station pump, no one alive in the local / dive, so no one hears the long thunder”? Ishion Hutchinson, one of the most exciting and masterful new poets from the Caribbean knows that “loneliness” is “in his ear” where “the algae keep its culture hidden”—perhaps this is because “land blurs April / into a fiction that never ends.”
And the world goes on, as James Byrne, a brilliant younger poet from UK reminds us, and so “right now golden potatoes are crackling in a pan” as the Estonian poet Kalju Kruusa attests us. And the writer, according to Katie Farris? The writer shits on the Devil’s face! And, rightly so! And, with compassion. The lyric? it will survive—as it does each day—as it does each day—
And the poet will say:
My head, thrown back in laughter, has bought me more
than money thrown forward, and men
pressed me down and worked like a Chinese seamstress.
But none could slap my face as hard as the sea slaps
its adopted child and then steps back, all tears.
This is Valzhyna Mort, one of Eastern Europe’s most gifted poets, now writing in English. She knows that the lyric voice must consist of textures, must include dualities. The black-and-white view of the world is left elsewhere, and poets (such as Polish poet Jacek Gutorow) walk on borderlines, in uncertainty, but with an attempt to praise. For “joy thinks I’m on its side / when I run through a snowy field / but death keeps its eyes open / and looks into my right pocket / where a plastic airplane / flies and flies in a clenched fist.”
This sort of attentiveness, Paul Celan taught us, is the natural prayer of the soul. Nikola Madzirov, Republic of Macedonia’s finest poet of a new generation, understands this, and observes how,
Many things happened
while the Earth was spinning on
And he goes on to list those things, tells us how “Ocean drops / deposited themselves eagerly / onto caves’ walls” and how
from the back pocket pieces of paper
started flying all over our airy room:
irrelevant things which we’d
never do unless they were written down.
Absolute, unmixed attention, wrote Simone Weil, is a prayer. These poets—and, certainly, their gifted translators—seem to agree with that notion, for their level of attentiveness to the world around us is extraordinary. Most poems here come from other cultures, other realms. The other when brought to our eye, wakes us. (“What is the purpose of poetry?” a silly journalist once asked Zbigniew Herbert, and maestro responded: “To Wake Up!”)
Ilya Kaminsky is the author of Dancing in Odessa and the co-editor of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. His poetry has won awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Lannan Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, and Poetry magazine.