December 3, 2013 | by Anna Della Subin
Like his friend, fellow Scorpio, and confidant Albert Camus, Albert Cossery would also have celebrated his one hundredth birthday last month. The patron saint of indolence—who wrote only when he had nothing better to do—died in 2008. But one can imagine that Cossery, had he made it to his centenary, would have been exactly like Cossery at any age. The elegant Egyptian novelist, impeccably dressed, forever held fast to his routine. For nearly sixty years, until his death, he lived in an austere room in the Hotel La Louisiane in St. Germain des Prés. Each day he slept late, venturing out only in the afternoons, to bask in the sun and watch the girls of the Luxembourg Gardens, or to have a plate of lentils and fizzy water at the Café de Flore and linger for hours, doing nothing. Even when, toward the end of his life, he was hospitalized for an operation, Cossery—still wearing the ward’s pajamas—escaped the hospital for the café, pushed in a wheelchair by a beautiful blonde.
“Here comes Tutanhkamun,” the waiters whispered behind his back. Just so, Cossery’s writings, forever returning to the same scenes and casts—of mendicants and saltimbanques, failed revolutionaries and hashish-addled philosophers—preserved a certain consistency over the decades. The young Albert, who attended French schools as a child in Cairo, began his first novel at age ten. At seventeen, he published a book of poems, titled Les Morsures, “The Teeth Marks” or “Bites.” By all accounts the book has been lost, and Cossery himself up until his death coyly refused to aid any devoted readers in search of a copy. Yet three poems were preserved in the monumental anthology Poètes en Egypte, edited in Cairo in 1955 by Jean Moscatelli. The anthology, which brought together over fifty-five Franco-Egyptian writers, captured the collective achievements of a literary community in the twilight of its end. It included Cossery’s friends Georges Henein and Edmond Jabès, as well as Joyce Mansour and Horus Schenouda—all of whom were soon to leave, or had already left, for exile in Paris in the wake of Nasser’s coup. Read More »
September 11, 2013 | by Diane Mehta
“I’d have to go up or it’s better if you come down and, arm in arm, let’s go somewhere else where no one looks at us,” says Pierre Reverdy in his poem “Further Away Than There.” So many of Reverdy’s tiny geometric poems are like this: refreshingly, dizzyingly cubist. You think you’re reading a poem but are being manipulated to move around it in a way that’s cinematic.
Reverdy’s is the latest in The New York Review of Books’s new poetry-in-translation series. The tiny ultramarine-and-turquoise book is packed with embittered, contemplative, spooky, lyrical, and emotionally honest poems. Reverdy dares to move a sentence into strange and misleading territory but it seldom makes no sense. The fourteen translators, who include Rosanna Warren and John Ashbery, are as disparate in tone, syntax, and translation style as you can get. It’s hats off to Reverdy, then, for producing work so exacting that it reads consistently and lucidly in English.
At the center of the French avant-garde, Reverdy founded Nord-Sud in 1917 with Apollinaire and Max Jacob, and was close friends with the cubist painters Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. It’s because of these friendships that Reverdy became associated with literary cubism. (In March 1917, Juan Gris launched his treatise on cubism, “Sur le Cubisme,” in Nord-Sud.) Though Reverdy’s Nord-Sud lasted only a year, it embodied and advanced the avant-garde movements, especially surrealism and dadaism, that coalesced and overlapped in wartime Paris.
I skimmed the book from the back forward first, to see where Reverdy ended up. The varied forms (prose poems, fractured lines, squares, paragraphs) force you to constantly reassess, but the diction seemed deliberately chosen. Then I looked at Juan Gris’s paintings online. In Fruit Dish, Pipe and Newspaper, the diagonals cut up, down, and across the canvas. Turning back to the Reverdy, I closed in on a few poems, and found a parallel technique in a sentence in Always Alone: “In the street when our arms threw up a bridge, no one looked up and the houses tilted.” What an extraordinary scene—the pull between love and its boundaries, their private public space, houses tilting presumably around the lovers. Read More »
June 6, 2013 | by Catherine Lacey
My poetry shelf is slim but holds the most thumbed book I own: John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, and, until recently, I would read several songs a week, rereading my favorites as if they held some kind of clue. I read them to cheer myself or wallow. I read them aloud, alone and to other people. Some nights after having wine, I’d read the meanest, strangest ones aloud. When I found a copy in a bookstore, I’d open to a favorite and hand it to someone. Even his darkest, most dire, most hopeless songs soothe me. Lines worm in me for weeks.
It’s not that I think Berryman is the most talented writer or that he has written the most important poems or that his work has reached some aesthetic pinnacle or that I have nothing better to read. All of those things are untrue, and yet I am compelled to read his work in a way I am not often compelled by anyone else’s work. I am still trying to understand why.
Nearly a decade ago, I almost made myself sick on them during a New Orleans summer. While hurricanes spun toward us from the gulf, dire conversations at the grocery store blended into my Dream Song summer like milk poured into milk.
A note signed J.B. at the front of the book:
The poem then … is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age … who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.
March 14, 2013 | by Rachel Hurn
At Bluestocking Books, my favorite indie bookstore in Hillcrest, San Diego, I pick up a glorious-looking object. The cover is textured, beige with a blue inside flap—a look typical of the publisher Black Sparrow Press. On the front is a painting by Nicole Eisenman of twenty women in a brawl, or having sex, or both. All over the cover and among the cream pages are hand-scrawled notes. It looks like a literature student once owned the book. Probably someone studying creative writing. Probably someone at UCSD. I hold up the paperback to the woman behind the register, and ask, “What is this?”
“That’s Eileen Myles. She’s a lesbian poet. She’s amazing.”
That day I read the entire thing. Read More »
November 19, 2012 | by Casey N. Cep
“I used to want to live / to avoid your elegy,” Robert Lowell confessed in “For John Berryman.”
The death of one poet is an extraordinary occasion for another poet. It is like the day a stonemason dies and another has to carve his headstone. Like a rough ashlar, the elegy sits waiting to be shaped into a memorial for the one who is gone. The death of a poet so great as Jack Gilbert last week pains, but also promises remembrances fitting the one who died.
Gilbert devoted most of his elegies to his wife, Michiko Nogami, but poets have forever elegized one another. We can trace the canon through the poems that poets have written to mourn their own: Henri Cole grieving Elizabeth Bishop; Bishop remembering Robert Lowell; Lowell lamenting the death of John Berryman; Berryman longing for Roethke, Jarrell, Hughes, Plath, Schwartz, and William Carlos Williams; W.H. Auden elegizing Yeats; Shelley bemoaning the loss of Keats; all the way back to Ovid mourning Orpheus.
November 14, 2012 | by Drew Bratcher
The fall I moved to Washington from Nashville, Tennessee, the poet Jack Gilbert gave a reading at the Library of Congress. During my first days in the city, Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven had become for me something of a vade mecum. On wobbly Metro rides to and from work (my first experience with public transportation), I read and reread the book, drawn to its fierce, lapidary verses as a kind of antidote to homesickness and the political blather emanating from Capitol Hill.
The poems trembled in my hands on the train yet somehow steadied me. Gilbert’s lines might have come from any continent in any century. They wouldn’t have seemed so out of place scrawled on papyrus or etched in stone.