As life moves along, horizons widen. New people, new experiences, new ideas. Sometimes there’s even a win in a contest. My contest winnings have included a trip from Buffalo to Cleveland. (Heart be still.) A gift basket during a luncheon raffle. A floral centerpiece, also at a luncheon. Enjoyable, fun. I know, I know. A million dollars would have been better. Such is life.
Then, recently, I won a collection of books. For a writer and reader, this is kind of neat. It came about when I joined Pen Center USA, and I got lucky in their membership drawing.
I joined the organization because of a class I took on the personal essay taught by journalist and UC Riverside instructor Maggie Downs. PEN sponsored the class and the Palm Springs Writers Guild coordinated it.
PEN Center USA’s mission (quoted from their website) is to “stimulate and maintain interest in the written word, to foster a vital literary culture, and to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally.” “PEN Center USA is a branch of PEN International, the world’s leading international literary and human rights organization.” Its broad goals are to foster world literature and protect writers and the written word, writers who are jailed, exiled, in hiding, whose lives are threatened. Sadly, some have lost their lives. In the USA, we have freedom of speech. As we know, that is not true around the world. I like and believe in their mission.
What I didn’t know was this. With these books, I’d be taken quickly into the realm of current world literature: three books of poetry, one of short stories , and one novella – by authors from around the world. Brazil, Russia, Uyghurland, and two from Mexico.
The three books of poetry I received offer a departure from the canon of works often written by American poets. While the genesis or content may be different due to cultural and geographical differences, I found the poetry generates a similar emotional impact and truth.
The first book is Rilke Shake by Brazilian Angelica Freitas; translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan. Some of the pieces were very light hearted such as “perfect teeth, listen up” which I sent to my dentist nephew in Oklahoma, or “i enter the idiot’s bookstore.” The poet does like to shake things up.
what passed through the head of the violinist
as he hurled toward his death
pale against his black hair
clutching his stradivarius
in yesterday’s great air disaster
I think of bela bartok
I think of rita lee
I think of the stradivarius
and the sundry and various
jobs I held
to get here
and now the turbine fails
and now the cabin breaks in two
and now the whole kit and caboodle
tumbles from the overhead compartments
and I plummet too
beautiful and pale my black head of hair
my violin against my chest
a passenger up ahead prays
I just think
I think about stravinski
and the beard of klaus kinksi
and the nose of karabtchevsky
and a poem by joseph brodsky
I once read
intact ladies, unfasten your seatbelts
cause here comes the earth
Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile by Ahmatjan Osman is translated by Jeffrey Yang. The first thing I had to do was find out about Uyghurland. The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group living today primarily in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, in the Tarim Basin, bordered by Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Tibet. This all can be shortened to the oppressive region called East Turkistan (Xinjiang province.)
Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile is the first book by a Uyghur poet to be published in English translation according to Jeffrey Yang, translator. Poet Ahmatjan Osman, a Muslim, now lives in exile in Canada for his own safety. Although his place of origin may be remote to us, he captures the poet’s universal mission in the poem below.
My Share of the Night
Ephemeral as a falling star, evanescent as twilight
and this old, old world
is like mellow tobacco. . .
I rip off a corner of the sky and roll it up
I, the most familiar the most strange
more concerned with tobacco than death
I walk along the streets of my imagination
poems falling from my autumn mouth
with flecks of tobacco
The starlight picks them up with slender fingers
the whole of my life
the whole of my death
my share of the night
Diorama by Rocio Ceron is translated from Spanish by Anna Rosenwong. Ceron’s poetry is experimental, impressionistic, and lends itself to performance, incorporating the spoken word, art, music, and video. In Diorama she explores Mexican history, language, sounds, and images. Below is an excerpt from “13 Ways to Inhabit a Corner,” the thirteenth stanza.
13 Ways to Inhabit a Corner
Cars circulate in an inch and a half. A dog barks in the distance.
Tinsel. Blueberry-chocolate chip muffin. Synthetic happiness pill. It wasn’t
just the swinging of cumber salsa samba. Hinge between realities, “look at
your iridescent body, iridescent bluegreenpurple.” Language. Territory for
the emergence of parks cityscapes rehabilitated hillsides of houses with met-
al roofs nucleic stones sacrificial spaces. Boxes and wrapping, vital space
inch and a half. Nation.
On youtube, Ceron offers Diorama in both Spanish and English. You can get a feel of the rhythm and tone and drama of her work through this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpQJMvZFfNU. I feel the work is meant to be heard and seen.
Bessarabia Stamps (16 short stories) by Oleg Woolf and Jacob the Mutant (a novella) by Mario Bellatin are the other two books.
Poets take us into lives, thoughts and surroundings, in an extraordinary way. No matter where they are in the world, they do this with well chosen words. Thank you, PEN, for acquainting me with these works and these poets.