Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Recent Reads: Hugh Thomas and N.W. Lea

Albanian Suite by Hugh Thomas
Present! by N.W. Lea

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

Translators typically have an agenda when they choose their work. Whether the translation aims to remedy an incomplete version or present literature to a new population, the perceived gesture often determines the public’s approach. But Hugh Thomas’ treatment of poems by Visar Zhiti and a few others not only operates without that explicit gesture, it confesses to not knowing Albanian! Exploring the grey area of translation, Albanian Suite is as much a study in intuition as it is a doorway to improvisation.

Thomas’ key to informal translation involves responding to words as they appear on the page. (My efforts to do the same, focusing on poems Zhiti has had reproduced online, were unproductive.)  However the means of his methodology, it’s clear that Thomas’ poetic guide was at least accompanied by an experienced, geographical one. Signposts of a summer’s escape in Europe colour the culture-rich but cash-poor “Music I heard with you” and the title suite. But broadly speaking, Albanian Suite exists in an overcrowded nexus between languages – so again, Europe – and finds a couple decoding their way through the Mediterranean.


The two sicknesses frequent in this epoch are heat and isolation.
There are boxes of hotels. We are a collection.
Closet doors, gelatine reductions. Reapparition and sale of automobiles.
Miracles are also part of the equipment.
Painting, recovering, becoming impermeable.
The water is in your family.
Him vs. it: although they dream equally, they do not speak the same
To become free as a fish, enter the universal museum.
Dolphin madrigal, closed water. The subway is culture.
Eat your ticket. Your future is our compromise.
Language is a door. At the door we watch you turning out the lights.

Thomas’ lines are direct and unaccommodating, as if under foreign constraints, yet the linguistics at play resound beyond a surface level of political boundaries. The musicality of the “dolphin madrigal”, like the tokens and tradition that exude a hectic wedding day rhythm in “Epithalamion”, flex the non-verbal ways we navigate space (or lack thereof). Thomas offsets the narrowing effects of language’s deductions as an explorer in “The Strange Mine of Pork Poetry”:

I don’t worry about the garden path, which is different for every letter,
because every letter carries a different experience to the poem. The poem
turns somersaults along the path despite the tower of texts piled atop one
another to deter diversions.

This excerpt, the third of five prose-poem stanzas, also sheds light on Thomas’ attitude toward loose translations, waking up dormant avenues inside each letter. Although unable to find an online bio that lists the languages the author is fluent in, I reckon Thomas does know some Italian (which, as part of my in-house research, has been suggested as a useful tool for cracking Albanian) and perhaps some Swedish. These skills would explain the relative spaciousness of “Clear” (from Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti) and “Stars” (by Finnish poet Edith Sodergran), one-off translations that glimmer on the outskirts of Thomas’ jam-packed verse. It’s unclear whether Thomas took more or less creative license with these poems but, alongside one of his loose translations, the morning song “Early”, they’re the poems I find most liberating.

There’s a good deal of improvisation throughout Albanian Suite, as Zhiti’s influence maneuvers traditional stanzas, free verse, a ten-part sequential and a mock review, among others. The latter, entitled “Review”, reads like cut-up words of a poetry review reassembled in scattered order. It may very well be that simple, another angle of translation that excites with the glimpse of something new. From my experience, the degree to which these poems leave their mark is also varied, which is to say the impact of Thomas’ intuition will largely depend on the dexterity of the reader’s. Confusion is a latent component to excitement and certainly part of this translator’s curious agenda.

N.W. Lea’s new chapbook Present! forgoes the responsive processes that layer Albanian Suite, instead centering on small admissions of awareness. Assembled as twenty individually numbered trinkets, these new poems rouse us awake in the midst of minutia: a plain observation, the unspoken portion of a conversation, some inexplicable act or faraway memory. The who, where and why’s couldn’t make it. In fact, those omissions form the connective tissue for each tangent – omissions that put the onus on Lea’s delicate craftsmanship.

Several of these offerings expire within ten words, so it’s telling that Present! digs so much aplomb out of its sparseness. Take the otherwise untitled “9.”:

the doughy flute music
the classical hand
the budding edifices
the braggart

This bite-sized portrayal helps to populate Present!’s rather domesticated neighbourhood but also shows Lea’s mastery of honing in on the small scale. 


this forest is reckless
with odour

I am on the inside
of an outrageous calm

tiny respite
from the terror

of the temporary

At once skeletal and fully formed, “5.” is an opportunity to revel in ambiguity. The forest, odour, calm and terror each have their proximity to “an outrageous calm” but even that imagery remains elusive. Lea’s disciplined sieve permits only mood and tone to have a fixed presence and it lingers like the afterglow of a good Haiku.

Present! collects unassuming but cleverly managed observations refined over time and, as such, rewards a casual read. Digested over a longer period, however, these poems and their gaps, like communal patches of lawn between houses that neither neighbour can fully enjoy, hang together like a tapestry, all the more memorable for the ways it feels unfinished.

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