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A Matter of Blue

by Jean-Michel Maulpoix. Translated by Dawn Cornelio
200 pages,
ISBN: 1929918674

You & Yours

by Naomi Shihab Nye
88 pages,
ISBN: 1929918690


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Little Ruminations
by Chris Jennings

Poetry needs small presses. Nothing makes this more clear than the ominous pronouncements about fiction's declining sales in the face of faux-memoirs and Dr. Phil self-help guides. When books must sell and sell well, literary merit may seem too pricey a luxury. If large presses can no longer afford to take chances on literary fiction, then surely poetry has slipped even farther off of their agenda. There will always be exceptions, of course, those yet-to-be famous names that stop a bookstore poetry shelf from looking like a wake hosted by Harold Bloom or Garrison Keillor¨and small presses are responsible for publishing them. If you don't know the presses, though, you're screwed. At least this is how I account for my ignorance of contemporary American poetry beyond that stratum of the celebrated few. Most of my books of American poetry, limiting the list to living poets, are published by Norton, FSG, Penguin, and Random House. The rest tend to be from university presses: California, Arizona, Yale. The annual Best American Poetry hardly helps with its carapace of familiar names under which the rest of the body quickly disappears. Rochester's BOA Editions, then, a not-for-profit poetry press with a thirty-year history, intrigues me on principle alone.
It's hard to derive much sense of their editorial vision from the limited evidence in front of me. These two books represent only two of the four series BOA offers: the American Poets Continuum Series and the Lannan Translation Selections. I would have liked to see Thomas Whitbread's Whomp and Moonshiver, the latest addition to BOA's New Poets of America series, and something from the American Reader series of prose on poetry. Forgive me, then, for characterising through crude quantifications. There is a basic, curatorial quality to the American Poets Continuum Series. Almost half of the titles are collected or selected editions, with one of each for Isabella Gardner and Louis Simpson. The list includes both a collected poems and a collected fiction for John Logan and bookend editions for David Ignatow: uncollected early poems and last poems. Several writers, Nye among them, return faithfully to BOA: Mark Irwin, Mark Waters, and, most loyal with six books, Lucille Clifton. Many of the names ring bells, starting with Ignatow, Gardner, Simpson, and Snodgrass, as well as Caroline Kizer and Ray Gonzalez.
There's nothing unusual about such a list having a curatorial quality; I imagine that this is the body around which BOA's other series orbit. You & Yours, though, reinforces the impression of stable professionalism over risk. Nye writes many practical poems, useful poems, poems you can consume. Discursive free verse fills most of the pages, and, in the book's third poem, Nye declares thematic preferences that compliment her style. "Fold" begins:

I am partial to poems about
little ruminations, explosions of minor joy,
light falling on the heads of gentle elders.
Also the way pampas grasses look toward
the end of summer, shining, shaggy,
the quietude of their patient sway.
Cakes in a window do something for me too.

Essentially, she prefers the miniature, here ornamented with assonance, sibilance, and some nice shifts in vowel lengths ("little ruminations, explosions"). If "[t]he general potency and power / of mankind is hard for [her] to get [her] mind / around," anecdotes and "little ruminations" on community life are not. As you might expect from that partial list of partialities, Nye is comfortable with sentiment. In the elegiac "Rico's Dog", for example, Nye makes the confused circling of the now-lonely spaniel an emblem of the community's sadness over Rico's death.

Tell you how lonesome a
neighbourhood can feel? Even when it has said
goodbye to so
many? A different thing to lose the watcher.
A different kind
of light without him in it. A different hum in the air with
one dog walking in circles on the porch, inside the
gate, and
looking, looking, for Rico.

If anything keeps the sentiment from becoming overbearing, it's the form. It's a curious effect; the long lines slacken emotions that would be too much if too taut. These may not even be lines; the line breaks offer no help, and the accessory prose in the book is all left-justified and so useless as a comparison.
Nye can occasionally be too conscious of conveying the emotion itself rather than its source. In "The Sweet Arab, the Generous Arab", she contends with Arab stereotypes by offering counterexamples like "[t]he refugee inviting us in for a Coke," and a "little lost cousin who only / wanted to see a ferris wheel in his lifetime, ride it / high into the air." The homage feels no more accurate as a portrait of real people than the parade of images on American news channels. At best it echoes the mothering tone of "Renovation" where a mother compares the hardships of living through extended construction ("no running water or bathroom") to "the Palestinians overseas". And why? To convince her teenaged son to wash dishes: "Just consider someone coming and taking our house away [ . . . ] How would you feel? They would say your room is their room. Your computer is now their computer. Or they would blow up your room and say, Ah, too bad, we call it security, no one cares if you suffer." Details of the renovation that are described in Nye's bright and conversational voice are made to serve a banal version of the parental guilt trip. To be fair, the relative affluence of the speaker's neighbourhood lends some tension to her sympathy for the Palestinians, tingeing it with the same guilt later brought to bear on the son. The conventional mores of the conclusion, then, make "Renovation" slacken into sentiment, almost the inverse of "Rico's Dog".
The second half of You & Yours conveys Nye's anger as a Palestinian-American resident of Texas. In poems like "The Day", "He Said EYE-RACK", "Johnny Carson in Baghdad", or "I Never Realized They Had Aspirations Like Ours" Nye chooses sides, aligning her sympathies with her Palestinian and Arabic heritage against (at least) the actions of the American government. As a whole, this too feels packaged, less than intellectually or emotionally challenging despite more successful individual poems like "I Feel Sorry for Jesus" or the sparse "Interview, Saudi Arabia":

The fathers do not know
what the sons have done.
They are waiting for the sons to call home,
to say it was a mistake,
it was not me.
Somewhere on another street
their boys in short white pants
are walking proudly
in a world they love.
Nye bypasses a clichT here¨every terrorist is somebody's child¨by entering into the experience of the parent. This puts her back into the same areas of strength that bolster and animate the anecdotes in "Pimento", "Headache", or "Guide". In these poems, emotional content builds out of a carefully observed situation rather than authorial fiat. Across the spectrum, though, Nye's poems are thoroughly professional; they pursue a practical or useful vein of poetry as affirmation, inspiration, or meditation fully conscious of the criteria involved. She only disappoints if you are hoping for something else, something that pushes or challenges those same criteria.

Prose poems do challenge the usual perceptions of lyric poetry, and they make up most of Jean-Michel Maulpoix's A Matter of Blue, which seems fitting for a French poet who, according to the biographical note, characterises his poems as "an on-going dialogue with prose." This makes the task doubly demanding for his translator. For all their popularity, prose poems remain a paradoxical, hybrid genre, difficult (I assume) to realize in any language. Their poetic quality cannot be ascribed to the use of rhythm or figurative language or to an excess of either; prose uses rhythm and figures freely and excessive figuration tends to be ludicrous rather than poetic. The most successful examples find ways other than versification or grammar to create a sense of interval within a prose block. They cultivate units of sound that aren't reinforced visually by line breaks¨call it predatory enjambment¨often with some species of rhyme. These are very difficult poetics to translate because the translator must not only find the usual balance of literal equivalents and cultural connotations, but find similar sonic connections in the target language. For example, when Dawn Cornelio translates Maulpoix's "Nageur blanc dans les bras de la mer" as "White swimmer in the sea's arms" she translates accurately but ignores the rhythm of the original, which might be approximated with only a slight modification of the English syntax: "White swimmer in the arms of the sea." More importantly, though, the original's alliterative link between "blanc" and "bras" hints at white caps as the arms of the sea. In the translation, the sibilant "swimmer" and "sea" hints at more symbolic, less sensory interpretations.
A Matter of Blue treats the primary colour as a nexus for an array of concepts and ideas, and everything concrete threatens to follow into the realm of symbol. Even Cornelio's introduction seems to submit. She writes that blue "not only encompasses the melancholy and nostalgia of these poems, but also the joy and hope inherent in life. It incorporates both the infinity and possibility found in the sea and the undeniable limits and despair of human life that must end in death." There's something attractive about these words, but it's a guilty attraction attended by a suspicion that this may be posture more than position. Continuously reorienting the basic and central symbol of the colour blue, and so making every occurrence of that colour subject to revision by the next, leads to slippery poems. Sense is deferred from individual poems to the book as a whole, but the book as a whole is more daunting than illuminating.
In an essay on his English-language website (www.maulpoix.net), Maulpoix argues that lyricism is a polarising term in French literature¨it draws a line between the sublime and bathos. The line seems even thinner, at times, in the poems themselves than in Cornelio's too-sonorous description of them. Perhaps the tone shifts more toward the sublime to a francophone ear, and so I would have liked to hear more from Cornelio on the difficulty of reading and translating Maulpoix, a distillate of her doctoral thesis on the subject. You can get some sense of the challenge, in the tradition of facing-page translations, by using the original to compliment the translation, to convey the sound and organisation rather than sense. The French often helps refine the translation's abstractions leaving Cornelio to map rather than reproduce the effects of Maulpoix's French; the original is there to provide its endemic character and sound. This doesn't make reading the book easier, but it certainly makes the whole more engaging than the translation alone. I wish more presses would offer these facing-page editions, and I commend both Cornelio and BOA Editions for seeing the value. ˛

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