Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Zvi Sesling’s Simple Game, Baseball Poems, published by Presa Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

Zvi Sesling’s Simple Game, Baseball Poems, published by Pressa Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

            Put me in Coach, I’m ready to play today
            Look at me, I can be Centerfield
                                                                        --John Fogarty, “Centerfield”

            What is Baseball? It’s a sport, of course, but it’s more than just that. It’s not a religion, but it’s close. It’s called America’s pastime, but its time is more than simply the “past”—baseball encompasses past, present, future in a way that makes the passing of time irrelevant. Which isn’t to say that baseball doesn’t live in its moments—in fact, it’s the moments that snag in our memory—a hit, a catch, a pitch, a play at the plate, an argument with an umpire, a portrait on a baseball card.

            On one level, each of us lives within our own version of what the game means. For some of us, there are on field memories: I, like the singer in John Fogarty’s song, played centerfield; after fifty years my mind and body remember chasing down and gloving certain fly balls as if they’d just been struck. But just as firm in my memory are games I’ve experienced only as a fan: games I’ve sat through on the edge of my seat, rooting for my team with a combination of superstition and prayer. And then there’s the baseball I know through its lore—anecdotes and personalities I’ve read or been told about. So, though my idea of “baseball” is mine and mine alone, the scope of baseball is so universal that I and every other true baseball fan can recognize and take pleasure in the individual baseball world of another, especially when that private world is rendered as vividly and joyfully as Zvi A. Sesling renders his in Simple Games, his chapbook of baseball poems.

            Poetry is perfect for baseball: the form is meant to express the ineffable. Through their poems, writers strive to make their individual experiences available to the reader, and, to fans of the sport, the language of baseball is a perfect conduit for such sharing.

In Sesling’s first poem, “Sibby Sisti,” he describes his “first baseball hero,” a player whose name, to Sesling represented “a poetic sound, an alliteration.” Before reading this poem, I’d never heard of this player. But, as a baseball fan, I can identify with the attachment—I have my own cache of favorite players, and Sesling taps into my definition of what “favorite” means. But his descriptions of this and other players, sites, and events do more than just connect me to past pleasures; the beauty of these poems, and of baseball, is that the lore actually expands my own experience. For example, I’d heard of Warren Spahn, but, after reading Sesling’s poem, “Warren’s Arm,” I can now picture him, as he “let’s the ball go like a prisoner escaping/ from jail, fast and low.”  I learn about Spahn’s pitching motion, his uniform, his number, and his statistics—because, after all, one of the threads that connects baseball fans as both a private and universal phenomenon is its numbers.

            Through Sesling’s memory, skill, and generous spirit, my own world of baseball now includes Sam the Jet, the first black player in Boston, former MVP Bob Eliot, and Rabbit Maranville. And while, as a Yankee fan, I’m well acquainted with Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Sesling’s poem about the feat, “Larsen’s No-No” fills in details with the names of no less than twelve participants in that contest in  twenty-one lines. But more than just contributing to the totality of my baseball world, Sesling’s poems vitalize parallel associations. Both “Earl of Snohomish” and “Mr. Team” portray their subjects on their baseball cards. Although I never knew these players, Sesling’s descriptions, such as of Bob Eliot posed “on one knee/ in the on-deck circle leaning on his bat/ not in prayer, but studying the pitcher/ waiting to hit” evoke memories of my own card collections— of my personal favorites and of the card-flipping games I played as a ten-year old on the school playground.

            Some of Sesling’s poems lament baseball’s darker moments, such as “Kenesaw’s Revenge,” which discusses the commissioner’s decision to void a female player’s contract and a 1952 decision that “strikes out women by banning/ them completely from pro ball.” In “Black Sox,” Sesling describes a gambler in the stands, “looking every bit a rich dandy . . . /waving like he is drowning” during baseball’s most infamous cheating scandal. It is clear that the poet feels that these events intrude on the purity of the game he loves so dearly. But even these poems expand beyond the history they depict, leading me to reflect upon other times the sport has disappointed its fans, such as the decade during which the rise in performance enhancing drugs forced asterisks upon some of baseball’s most revered records.

            Zvi Sesling in Simple Game often uses baseball as a lens through which to revisit important moments of his life, such as in the poem “The First Girl I Kissed,” which equates his memory of that event with one of the sports well known tragedies. When pitcher Herb Score’s career was ended by a line drive, “just as suddenly as the shot that/ takes out Score, I break up with the girl of the first kiss.” Eventually, Sesling is “[f]orced to recover in a new town with a new girlfriend/ While the Indians pursue their first World Series win since 1948.” The use of baseball history as the palimpsest upon which to transcribe our most enduring memories is a phenomenon shared by all true fans of the game. 
            “A poem,” Archibald MacLeish writes in “Ars Poetica,” “must not mean/ But be.”  Zvi Sesling in Simple Game transforms his life experience with baseball into poetry; his poems not only afford us entry into his world of Baseball, they lead us to a fresh assessment of our own memories. John Fogarty in his song “Centerfield” doesn’t write, “Look at me, I can play centerfield”—it’s “I can be centerfield.” Because when we are part of this game, we become it: Sesling’s baseball is my baseball and is the baseball of all fans who have surrendered themselves to this game. The memories we inhabit are conjoined, and though we may seem to live and die for particular teams, it’s really one perpetual, timeless game that defines our world.

Monday, November 18, 2019

THE CHIMERAS Written by Gérard de Nerval Translated by Henry Weinfield Illustrated by Douglas Kinsey

Review by Ravi Teja Yelamanchili

            THE CHIMERAS written by Gérard de Nerval, was originally published in 1854 in French. 
 Though the collection contains only eight poems, it is a work of monumental genius.THECHIMERAS  It is a vision of unfettered idealism, madness, hope, and despair—that blossoms into a beautiful sonnet sermon Nerval calls ‘Golden Verses’.

On page 21, Nerval writes: “This sublime, insensate madman, it was he, one could be sure, / This Icarus forgotten who again began to soar”. The myth of Icarus and Daedalus is a cautionary tale. It is the story of a son who ignores his father’s wisdom and flies to the sun—though he knew the wax would melt from his wings, and the ocean would devour him. For Nerval characters like Icarus are heroes— martyrs who died in the pursuit of idealism and truth. Nerval places figures like Icarus alongside Christ and other prophets from often incongruous religions and myths. Henry Weinfield’s brilliant English translation and Douglas Kinsey’s beautiful illustrations add rich layers and levels of depth to this collection.

Weinfield’s and Kinsey’s THE CHIMERAS, was my first time reading Nerval. When I first saw Weinfield’s and Kinsey’s translation I was immediately drawn to the book’s cover art. It has an illustration of a chimera on it. On the body of the chimera are white lines, which reminded me of a cave painting. I randomly flipped the book open to page 11 to a poem titled ‘Artemis’, and saw the lines:

“White roses fall! Profanation to our gods:
Fall, white phantoms, from your skies, scorched abodes:
—The saint of the abyss is more saintly to my eyes.”

The moment I read those lines I was mesmerized, and looked Nerval up on Google, to learn that he that was one of the great giants of French Romanticism. There are many books out there, and we all have only so much time to read. I only spend time reading books that expose me to perspectives and ideas that challenge my own, teach me valuable skills, and or make me a better person. Had any one of the three artists not done exceptional work I doubt I would have continued reading this book. Nerval and Weinfield have created poetry that is exceptionally beautiful and elegant. The poetry is complex and forces the reader to confront the inescapable darkness and egocentrism prevalent at the core of human nature.

            Traditionally, the sonnet was a form used to write love poems—and most sonnets were written in praise of a woman and or her beauty. THE CHIMERAS is a sonnet sequence, where the ‘truth’ is personified, and praised in verse—in Greek mythology, the chimera is a female. In THE CHIMERAS the ‘truth’ that Nerval pines after takes on the form of a chimera: many headed, strange bodied, etc— each sonnet in the sequence forming one of the parts of the chimera. Since each individual sonnet is a crossbreeding of various religions, and myths— each individual sonnet can also be thought of as a chimera as well.

            Growing up I was raised in a bilingual family, and I never really thought too much about what an accent meant until recently. An accent is the superpositioning of one language and by extension one culture on another. Many immigrant families, like my own, often find themselves negotiating and bartering two different cultures. The task of the translator is similar to the aforementioned phenomenon—there is a constant negotiation between different languages and the cultures. It is particularly complex when translating work from a different time and poetic tradition.
            Translating between French and English is particularly interesting because English is influenced heavily by French and German. I have read before that the English of the ‘upper class’ was derived more heavily from French, while the English of the lower classes was derived more heavily from German. When reading a French to English translation, I would expect to find these linguistic patterns also present in the resulting translated work, and often do. Interestingly, Weinfield’s translation reads more like the translation of a 1900’s-1950’s Greek Myth or Epic, than a French poem. After reading Weinfield’s translation of THE CHIMERAS, I decided to read several other translations of THE CHIMERAS as well.

Other translations of THE CHIMERAS read more like a French to English translation, the expected linguistic patterns finding their way into the poetry. Weinfield’s careful word selection ensures that that the poetry has a unique ‘mythical’ tone to it. I would also argue that it is the most faithful translation of THE CHIMERAS I have read so far. Translating work this faithfully takes great skill. In the poem “Myrtho”, Nerval’s writes “À ton front inondé des clartés d'Orient,”. Weinfield’s translation reads, “Your forehead flooded by the Orient’s bright rays”. Weinfield uses the uses the word “Orient” while other translators refrain from using it, and instead write “morning light”, or “radiance of the East”. The reference to Asia is lost when d’Orient is translated to “morning light” or “radiance of the East”.

 If the word orient wasn’t capitalized it would simply mean “situated in or belonging to the East”— referring to the position of the morning sun. Capitalizing the word ‘Orient’ carries a more Eurocentric reference to Asia. Nerval wrote THE CHIMERAS, in the 1850’s in the heart of European Imperialism. Around this time a great deal of Eastern scripture and literature was being translated by the likes of Ralph T. H. Griffith, Max Muller, Karl Friedrich Neumann, and etc. The word ‘Orient’ plays a critical role in THE CHIMERAS, since the book draws from many myths and scriptures. Additionally, the Romanticist movement as whole was heavily influenced by Eastern scripture and philosophy—so, changing the word Orient drastically alters the meaning and decontextualizes of the poem.

            In mythology Myrto is a Maenad, or a female follower of Dionysus. Many translators change the name Iacchus to Bacchus, possibly to make the poem more accessible to the reader. Though even in mythology Bacchus is closely associated with Iacchus, they are not one and the same. Iacchus is a minor god belonging to an agrarian cult, associated with Demeter and Persephone; while Bacchus has been associated with several different cults such as the hedonistic cult of Bacchus. Demeter and Persephone play an important role in explaining the natural cycles of the world, life, and death; while the cult of Bacchus was associated more so with sensual pleasures. Translating Iacchus into the Bacchus completely strips the poem of its Eleusian Mysteries (the agrarian cult) context. In the third verse of the poem “Myrtho”, Weinfield’s translation reads “the volcano comes alive” while others translated to “the volcano boiled up again”, and “I know why that volcano is aflame”. A characteristic of many myths is the personification of natural phenomenon. In a poem that draws very heavily on Greek Mythology, there is mountain of difference between saying the “volcano is alive”, and “the volcano boiled up again”. While the word alive is a personification of a natural event, the latter are both retellings of an event. Myths serve many purposes—retelling events is one of them, but another is explaining why they happened. If a child were to ask, “why is there lava everywhere?”, “it boiled up again” does not adequately answer why. On the other hand, “it came alive”, or “it was sleeping, and now it is awake” not only answers what, but also provides a more satiating answer to why something happened the way it did.  Additionally, using the word ‘alive’ as opposed to ‘boiled up again’ does a better job of tying back into the narrative of Demeter and Persephone, the seasons, life and death, etc.

            Several years back when I was discussing the work of Rabindranath Tagore with one of my Bengali friends, they explained to me that Bengali is a very flowery language. He had me listen to Tagore in Bengali, to get a better understanding of what the poem would have sounded like in its original language.  I don’t speak French, so to get a better sense of what Nerval’s work sounds like, I listened to several French readings of his poetry. When I compared Weinfield’s translations with the translations of other English translators I found that Weinfield’s was very close to Nerval’s original sound. Weinfield is an accomplished poet with a great ear and captures Nerval’s melodies with precision. Many poetry translators, especially with rhyming poetry, will try to force rhymes just to maintain form—resulting in clunky writing. Weinfield’s translation is very elegant—the rhymes and sounds, remarkably close to Nerval’s.

Weinfield’s and Kinsey’s project is unlike any other take on THE CHIMERAS: each of Nerval’s sonnets are accompanied by one of the Kinsey’s illustrations.  Each of the pieces are stylistically very different. The illustration that goes alongside ‘Myrtho’ on page 3 looks a bit like a Renaissance painting, while the painting on page 18 has a post-Impressionist feel to it. However, each of the paintings are a blending of many different styles—and any attempts at categorizing them would be reductionist and do Kinsey’s work little justice. The artwork influences the poems in a very interesting way. I find visual arts to be more accessible to my eye than words and found myself first looking at the paintings, then reading the poetry. Furthermore, since the paintings were laid out on the left side of the book as opposed to the right side—I found myself taking a quick glimpse of Kinsey’s art before reading each of the lines.

When we read English, most of us, read from the left side to the right side of the page. In poetry the end of each line functions as a soft pause, or a fractional comma or period. When the paintings are laid out on the left side of the manuscript, the reader’s eyes instinctually start on the left side and moves to the right again, where it stops. Then it goes back to the left side where it catches a glimpse of Kinsey’s painting before the next line is read. This to me was a bit like going to a museum looking at a work of art, and then reading the label underneath it. However, since the artwork and the sonnets were given equal page economy, the reader looks at the artwork as they read the poems. Nerval’s sonnets on their own are extremely complex and often the emotional power of the poems is muzzled by the intellectual. Kinsey’s illustrations are abstract and use bold color choices and patterns— this helps draw the emotions out of the poems, while at the same time not forcing interpretation on the reader.

            In summation, I would like to thank Weinfield and Kinsey for the work they have done. Had it not been for them, I would have never read Nerval’s magnificent poetry. Thank you both for your remarkable work!