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A Spirit-Handshake: Kjell Espmark


by Susan Kelly-DeWitt


I recently used The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris) as a text for one of my poetry workshops. In the introduction Kaminsky, quoting Akhmatova, calls works in translation "correspondences in the air"; he also quotes Celan, who called them "encounters." Kaminsky then expands more upon this:

By admitting that no poem can truly be translated, but that a new poetics can flow from the originals, a literary tradition is established in that midrash-like handshake between the author of the original and her translators.…We enter the company of great poets not by ruthlessly rewriting their work, shoving it into our language [my italics], but instead by honoring them in the medium we possess, giving them a second voice.

(pages xlv-xlvi)

In a related interview "Various Tongues: An Exchange" (with Adam Kirsch) in the March 2010 Poetry, Kaminsky gives us some eye-opening facts after Kirsch refers to "the abundance of English translations from all imaginable languages."

IK: You speak of the abundance of English translations of poetry available. But the truth is, very little is available: 50 percent of all the books in translation worldwide are translated from English, but less than 3 percent are translated into English. And that 3 percent figure includes all books in translation—in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7 percent! (The figures are available at wordswithoutborders.org.)

(page 468)

This brings me to Kjell Espmark who will be reading for Poetry Flash at Moe's Books and at the Sacramento Poetry Center this April 2013 (with the poet Mariela Griffor, who is also the publisher of Marick Press). One could say that Espmark has not just a second voice, but at least eight voices, since his poetry has been translated from the Swedish into Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, Croatian, Icelandic and English—most notably in English by Robin Fulton Macpherson (who has also translated Tranströmer and other Scandinavian poets). His two most recent books, published by Marick Press, are especially interesting in light of this idea of giving poets a new voice through translation.

His collection, Lend Me Your Voice (Vintergata in the 2007 Swedish original), published in translation by Marick Press in 2011, is a collection of "testimonies" in the voices of people spread across time and space. Inspired by poems in The Greek Anthology (which also inspired Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology) the collection starts with ancient voices (ice men perhaps) that sound all too current:

The air smells of approaching thunder.

Are we still in the age of wars?

Are new heads being spiked up on stakes

in the rubbish dumps beyond the city gate?

(page 4)

and proceed through a Vintergata—sometimes translated as a Milky Way—of voices, times, hardships, delights—

An arrested moment in a garden—

that's all there is.

This white foam must be a bird-cherry in bloom,

sudden like desire.

The blackbird screws its song in further.

(page 85)

on through poems and time like:

What I have left is that minute of courage.

The helicopter landed between the patrol and us—

a family of fifteen, mostly small children,

about to be slaughtered with the rest of the village.

And the pilot stepped between

to defend our sobbing group.

He was no doubt dragged before a court martial

and his name scrubbed out of history.

But I've caught a glimpse of a chronology

where humans are included among humans.

(page 90)

concluding with poems that feel all too rooted in the now:

I'm scarcely visible,

a void with another void in tow,

too discreet for you to grasp

it's the future you're looking at.

(page 93)

The book that followed this one, Outside the Calendar, also translated by Fulton Macpherson and published by Marick in 2012, is a selected, with work from ten volumes spanning 1968 to 2007. Perhaps less deliberately in these earlier collections, reading here I also find the "I' progressively and determinedly disappearing into the other—an almost metaphysical reconfiguration of poetic atoms.

The past of both of us is gathered here,

mother's prayers, village school,

attempted love,

all like a smell of sweat in a smell of sweat.

The moment gets longer and longer.

Breath draws through breath.

(page 133)

An encounter with Espmark (who is eighty-three now and a member of the Nobel Committee as well as its former Chair) in translation does indeed feel like a clasping of hands across time and space, a spirit-handshake.


Susan Kelly-DeWitt is the author of The Fortunate Islands (Marick Press) and a contributing editor of Poetry Flash.

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