Last year, I applied to be a social media intern with Asymptote, which is a literary journal that focuses on world literature and its translations. As part of the application process, I was asked to pick a few pieces and explain my choices. Having read through them, I found it a waste to leave it in the recesses of my sent mail. As such, here are some of my thoughts about some of the works featured.
Ermanno’s Breath by Fabio Pusteria (translated by Damiano Abeni & Moira Egan), Jan 2011
I am struck by the exploration of breath as a metaphor to describe a poet’s voice, presence and legacy. This simple tribute to a poet who died too young, with an inter-textual reference to another poem, is really clever. Just as the father’s breath gave life to the mattress in the other poem, Ermanno’s work thus brings to life certain things for Pusteria. I love the economy of the last line – “a breath and some lines” – which points to a variety of things but it most centrally suggests the lingering presence of the poet and his work.
Views and Testimony of a Sheep by Tan Chee Lay (translated by Teng Qian Xi), Jan 2011
Being a Singaporean, it is understandable that any work of local literature being featured will immediately catch my attention. This work was simply refreshing for me. There is a certain gentleness to the poem despite containing some biting criticism and fierce images such as war drums, annunciation and drawn-out screams. Portraying the voters as sheep is a very interesting choice for me as it contains a lot of connotations – from meekness and gentleness as marks of a civilised person to passiveness and helplessness as one is being shepherded around. Tan displays an acute awareness of this as evident from the direct juxtaposition in the line. “little lambs/must rule their homes”.
A lingering thought after reading the poems was how will Singapore solve the various problems of our politics? Do we need a sort of a Messiah figure to shepherd us? While there are no biblical allusions in the poems, it is to be expected that some readers would immediately connect it in such a way. But a further thought came to mind, if we need a shepherd, what are our roles as citizens and voters? This brings me back full circle to the complexity of the image of the sheep. If a poem could inspire such afterthoughts on first reading, what fruitful conversations are there to be had with closer readings and more in depth discussion? Of course, the accompanying essay by Teng made me appreciate the craftsmanship on part of the poet as well as the translator which further deepens by impression and admiration for the set of poems.
Only in New York by Jonas Hassen Khemiri (translated by Rachel Wilson-Broyles), July 2011
The sheer creativity of this piece caught my attention from the first few sentences. The structure of this fiction is a manifestation of what happens when we travel to another country or attempt to write about it; we engage in constant conversation with it. I love how through New York’s voice messages, one can see a variety of experiences one can have in the city. On the other hand it can remain impenetrable as evident from the persona’s failure to have a direct conversation with New York and a great deal of what the city says are stereotypes or idealised. After reading the piece, I found myself forgetting that this is a translation from Swedish. This leads me to wonder if Khemiri was spot on with the Americanisms or was this a voice of Wilson-Broyles coming through which reminds me of Susan Bassnett’s comments (in her interview from the previous issue) that “translation is effectively rewriting”. Whether it is the former or the latter, the co-authorship of two writers has provided me with a wonderful reading experience.
Mulberries by Massimo Gezzi (translated by Damiano Abeni & Moira Egan), July 2011
For some reason, this poem took me on a road trip. What spoke to me in this poem was that the reader was made to go through the exact same experience as the persona. I thought the first four lines were referring to the mulberries stretching out its branches to touch the car window as it drove past. This seemed to be further established by how the persona looked and counted 8 mulberries. It is only in the last lines that the hands and gestures refer to the passenger in the car. Just as the passenger is able to create an “illusion of redemption” for the persona, the carefully crafted words of the poet and translators gave us an illusion of the seeming personification of the mulberries. Really cleverly written.
HOTEL by Lin Yaode (translated by Lee Yew Leong), July 2011
Speaking of personification, I imagine the hotel heaving and breathing while reading this piece. I love how it casts a brilliant new light upon a venue that we are relatively familiar with. It also possesses a sensitivity in addressing the politics of space – from how the buildings around it are affected by its presence to the interaction between people and the hotel. It also compels us to think about how we conduct ourselves in different spaces as well especially in Singapore when the landscape is constantly changing and important buildings and social spaces can be demolished for the most banal of reasons.
If you’re wondering, I didn’t get the job.