Writings / Reviews: George Elliott Clarke

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Against the Light
by Tiziano Broggiato
Toronto, ON: Guernica Editions, 2012
112 pp, $20

Snow Drifts, I Sing: Selected Poems
by Juhan Liiv
Toronto, ON: Guernica Editions, 2013
104 pp, $20

Throughout its decades-long history as a small press, Guernica Editions has frequently elected to publish poetry in translation. Originally based in Montreal, the press was keen to produce bilingual work as well as texts translated into—or from—Italian.

(Two other English-language presses that routinely offer poetry in translation are Exile Editions and KCLF-21, both based in Toronto.)

Now based in Toronto, Guernica continues this tradition, and it’s an important one, for as poet-translators like Charles Baudelaire and Ezra Pound have proven, the poetry of the host language is improved by exposure to the import verse.

Recently, Guernica has released Tiziano Broggiato’s Against the Light (2012) and Juhan Liiv’s Snow Drifts, I Sing: Selected Poems (2013).

Broggiato, an Italian, was born in Vicenza in 1953, where he still lives. The winner of prestigious Italian awards, he has been translated into many languages, including Spanish, French, Croatian, Serbian, and Greek.

His English translators—Patricia Hanley and Maria Laura Mosco, both Torontonian—stumbled upon Broggiato’s verse by accident, lifting it from a Florence bookstore table “laden with contemporary Italian poetry.” (That verb, “laden,” suggests that, for them, the other books were leaden.)

As fate would have it, the Broggiato book they picked, won a prize, and Hanley and Mosco became the official translators.

They like Broggiato because he describes well modern disorientation and fills his poems with almost indiscernible traces of previous poets, who hearken back to classics. Broggiato’s poetry projects, says Mario Luzi, “forceful beauty,” a fact also appealing to the translators.

It’s a truism that translation is like pressing grapes and throwing away the wine. But something is lost in the process of pressing Broggiato into English. Against the Light is a fine read, but perhaps Broggiato sounds a bit too refined.

His tone is Old Testament apocalyptic—with a Renaissance gloss: T.S. Eliot in faux, peasant garb.

“We are no longer what we were before. / It has come to pass. / We have become spirits, both of us. / Only spirits—.”

A poem on the Shoah—the Holocaust—is, again, good, but the imagery is déjà vu surrealism: “The night trains / are quick cracks of the whip / on the eyelids of the children…. // In a while / strange identical moths will come / hurled into this womb of savagery / towards the end of their brief journeying….”

But Broggiato does turn in excellent lines, such as, “I beg of you / let me reach beyond my sight.”

Perhaps Broggiato tries too hard, at times, to be visionary, rather than to just “see” and say.

In contrast, the reputation of Juhan Liiv (1864-1913) is based upon his elementary poetry, almost nursery-rhyme-like in look and sound, but which is only superficially simple. Rather, the Estonian poet’s complexity is supple and resonant.

According to Liiv’s English translators, Juri Talvet and H.L. Hix, Liiv is “recognized in Estonia as the epitome of its indigenous poetic genius” and may be compared favourably with American poets like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as a poet-philosopher.

But Liiv is too deliberately insular, involuted, to be Whitmanesque. No, his verses in these Selected Poems resemble best Dickinson—and, I will add, the English visionary poet William Blake (who is most profound when his “visions” are clear).

Anyway, Liiv is a discovery. His poems are generally short, use a lot of repetition, and ripple with profundity, despite his accessible images and scenarios.

In one haunting poem, a kind housewife offers a starving, lonely, homeless man a table by a fire and “a thick hunk of warm bread.” She asks him to tell her of his life, and the bits that he reports are spare and sorrowful: “I’m alone. Truth is bitter, / my family is dead.”

But just as we absorb this bluesy revelation, the housewife answers, “‘There, there, now. There, there.— / The biggest is still a chick, / I have four little ones, / awakened by our talk…’”

In a few deft lines, Liiv conjures up the human condition—utter, universal irony. Snow Drifts, I Sing, is a gift to English Canada. Merci, Guernica!

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