Poetry Roundup by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
Ryan Gallagher, trans., The Complete Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus (Bootstrap Press, 2008)
Gaius Valerius Catullus…we laud the caustic wit and cloacal satirist for his love, sorrow and outsized audacity. He famously put down politicians, prostitutes, and lame poets, lampooning every human foible with an acid sneer that could turn to tears.
We recognize contemporary conceits. Astonishingly, Frank O’Hara and the New York School’s social fixations are foreshadowed. Cato, Varus and Catullus’s famous lover Lesbia come alive in a timeless parade. A fierce accolade to “gorgeous,” Lesbia declares that “she alone, has snatched everything from Venus.”
In a sympathetic moment, Catullus enjoins a friend, Caecilius, to “come to Verona, leave the walls of Novum/ Comum, and let the Larium shore fade.” One of the joys of reading the ancients is the litany of quaint names. Catullus hitches that amber glow to surrealist lightning, commanding his domesticated buddy to “Swallow the road.” This sudden shock treatment is one reason we still read Catullus. In fact, a dozen or so translations have come out in the past thirty years.
This absorbing translation is true to the condensed nature of Latin and gives us a hip update. Accordingly we see “hollow friends/ activists, those with trendy bags… blush wines and speeches.” “Dickheads” abound. Lawyers are piss. Yet we can all wish “to be born in a time when/ heroes bred with gods.”
Kimberly Lyons, Phototherapique (Katalanche Press with Portable Press at Yo Yo Labs, 2008)
Walking around in Kimberly Lyons’s poems, one feels like Eugene Atget, who Berenice Abbot called “a Balzac of the camera.” You capture the forward moment and the look back at each stage. You know where you are and what time it is—the stuff in between is lyric and metaphoric: “4pm… / I look to the tunnels/ the scuffs, the sparkle of messed up/ tinsel, the broken gold star/ found on Henry Street…”
The book’s title, Phototherapique, implies that visual cataloging is a way of seeing what you’re doing and why. “Black Swallowtail” evokes a silken embroidery of the city, “a scarf all the way to Delancey Street/ to the Village, to Queens.” Always open to her surroundings, Lyons weaves in details to fashion a texture where the seams happily show. Green, white, blue, orange—colors jack up the poem. Two boys pass by: “Charisma says one…and boots of asskicking.”
Another poem, “No More Samovars,” is a fabulous list of found objects. It’s laden with cabinets, pamphlets, books, and “Many kittenish, black, fluffy sweaters/ all size 8.”
Turning her attention inward, the author strikes a tender note. After reading Breton and Soupault, she acknowledges “a feeling for the inwardness…” and a longing for “Convergence.” “On a bicycle/ after the dentist,” vulnerable and independent, Lyons magnifies the lens.
Aleksandr Skidan, Genya Turovskaya, trans., Red Shifting (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008)
Watermarks on the paper: “mother of pearl trace”—“an immaculate non-conception.” Aleksandr Skidan conjures his cathedrals from disappearing acts and “discarded uselessness.”
Passionate, Skidan would “Drink the star sailing across emptiness.” He would record “the waste of dust” in a hieroglyph of cobwebs. He would send you scampering to your dictionary to look up words like “aleatorics/ clynamen” (which he cleverly rhymes with “IBM”). You can see the rhyme in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet running alongside Genya Turovskaya’s powerful translation.
Systems of communication and structure are combed for their secrets: “Arrested dialectic/ diacritical sign.” He searches for the “interface/ of aletheia” and for “the tercets which promise catharsis.” He “burned like letters.” Outbursts of poetic exuberance ignite the pyre. “Bring lilies by the armfuls.” The poet rails against “the guardians of language” who want to sew up our mouths on the “machine of syntax.”
The title poem is an account of an adventure beginning at “Uprising Square.” The narrator goes with “Tsaplya” to “The Blok Museum. The Priazhka River.” Cigarettes, claret and “unbearable happiness” buoy this play-like romp studded with payphone calls from A. and G. Ultimately, we confront the question of resurrection. “So it’s a miracle that I want?/ Madness.” But we get one, thanks to Skidan. Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Yevtushenko—move over.
ContributorJeffrey Cyphers Wright