Contributors to the April “Exophony” Issue Share Favorite Poems
We invited contributors from the April “Exophony” issue to tell us about a favorite poem in their “original” language, or in their “adopted” literary language. Here are their responses. You can read responses to two previous prompts on the Editor’s Blog.
For poetry, I rarely have a favorite. I have read a variety of poems ranging from when I was just a reader of poetry to when I have started writing poetry. All the poems I have read in my native language are not online. They are poems I read during my secondary school days. For contemporary poetry, a poem I feel should be here is Hussain Ahmed’s “Àdán,” translated as “Bats,” published in Poetry magazine. I take delight in the mysticism of the poem.
As a language-learner, and even as a poet, I’ve often felt confined by the patterns and pragmatics of language. In “Maltreatment of Meaning,” the radical feminist poet Hiromi Itō explores the tension between the fixed linguistic patterns that construct meaning and the desire to co-op and disrupt those patterns to release new, productive poetic energy. The narrator starts with small patterns, which she masters and develops until starting to use those patterns against themselves. As grammar slowly breaks down over the course of the poem, the poet finds freedom and experiences a glorious burst of jouissance at the end.
A poetry collection, or long serial poem, that helped me re-understand how language can move within a poem is Ella, los pájaros by Olvido García Valdés. Not only is her first name the word for “oblivion,” but her work bears the mark of time’s fleeting nature, a form of loss I imagine necessary for the sense of atemporality her work resolves.
As a child I discovered “I Am Goya” by Andrei Voznesensky, a Soviet poet popular during the Khrushchev “thaw” of the 1960s. The poem is a devastating juxtaposition of war’s dehumanizing horrors with the intoxicating godlike abilities of the artist. It’s also a dazzling linguistic feat in Russian, with Voznesensky relentlessly tweaking the second syllable of Goya’s name to pair it with a host of cutting words. As it conflated tragedy with triumph, this poem opened me up to infinite possibilities of line and wordplay. While Stanley Kunitz’s translation can’t capture the Russian’s sonic magic, it preserves the emotional power.
I rarely have favorite things, and may have never seen a poem written in my native tongue. And although I am working on one, currently, themed about a local parable, my favorite poem in English—my adopted language, is “Homeboy,” a poem about my father’s relationship with myself, and my queerness, published in FOLIO. Usually, I’d mention an outstanding poem by some explicitly beautiful and profound writer, but for some reasons, this is the truth. No poem touches me every time as carefully as “Homeboy.”
After reading the long poem “Fragments and Farewell Songs” (《断片与骊歌》) by the Chinese poet SONG Lin 宋琳, I started translating him, which resulted in The Gleaner Song (Giramondo & Deep Vellum 2021). I structured The Gleaner Song around its fragments and hope to present the entire poem in English one day. Marked by his ways of looking, “the eyes are still stubbornly in love with the world,” this expansive poem is rooted in our shared travails and abiding friendships of migratory crossings.
I can barely think of a poem from my “original” language that is not a panegyric to a person or to a town—sadly, I can’t remember a favorite. In my “adopted” language, however, I have a lot of favorite poems—which is also a sad situation. A poem that moved me of recent was Anne Sexton’s “The Poet of Ignorance.” I felt particularly drawn to the poem because of its raw agnosticism, which is mostly the attitude I have toward the world. It’s one of the poems you’ll read over again.
Suphil Lee Park
Working on my translation project, I came across “Observation at Sea” by Kim Keum-Won, which is about the poet’s first impression of the East Sea. She made the trip disguised as a man in a time when Korean women were not even allowed to take solitary strolls. Yet she was enough of a poet (sassy one at that) to say the vast sea wasn’t beyond her imagination, because her mind proved to be far bigger. It reminded me of “I Never Saw a Moor.” I loved it so much that I translated it.
My first language is Tagalog and I write poetry in English, but because I teach in a bilingual Spanish-English MFA program, the language through which I speak about poetry most is Spanish. I’m also nine months pregnant, waiting to give birth next week or the one after, so I choose Puertorriqueña poet Mara Pastor’s “Appellidos en el cuerpo,” which returns to the pregnant body its own risings, away from the namings of men.
Sara Abou Rashed
My favorite Arabic poem has to be the first I ever memorized, “Sajil Ana Arabi” (Write Down, I’m an Arab) by fellow Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, in which he turns the many interrogations he endured in prison into a poem forgotten in his back pocket, then later celebrated as his most well-known one. Here it is in the original language and English translation.
It’s always hard to pick a favorite, but one of the German-language poets I love the most is Mascha Kaléko, and I always try to translate her work into English to be able to share it more widely. Here’s an excerpt from “Recipe” (a translation of Mascha Kaléko’s “Rezept”):
Send the fears packing,
and the fear of the fears.
For those few years
everything may well be enough.
The bread in the cupboard,
the suit in the wardrobe.
Do not say mine.
Everything is on loan.
Live for a time
and see how little you need.
Make your home
but keep the suitcase on hand.
I don’t have a link to a favorite Tamil poem in translation—there aren’t too many online. But here is my translation of a favorite by Ahilan (included here with his permission):
Beneath the fields of salt
the bodies of the unfortunate
are kept moist by the tears
of those who mourn them.
Nothing ripens above the blackened waters.
There is no one to gather the ashes
of those terror-filled days.
Now their memories lie
on the edge of forgetfulness
beneath new advertising hoardings.
I am building them a memorial
not with stones, or with water
but with the sounds flowing in the air
which follow me incessantly.
(tr. by Shash Trevett)
Semmani was the alleged site of a mass grave of men who had disappeared from Jaffna in the North of Sri Lanka in the mid-1990s. Ahilan, a poet and academic at the University of Jaffna, is one of the most prolific of Tamil poets writing in Sri Lanka at the moment. His style is sparse and tight; an economy of words used powerfully to negotiate a people’s traumatic past.
One of my favorite poems in Kurmanji is “Streets,” which is an excerpt from a longer prose poem, by the Rojavan poet Xoşman Qado. The poem starts with a surreal image and ends with a surreal image. The two surreal images envelop interwoven images from the day-to-day life in a war-torn, abandoned city where only sounds like dogs’ barking and plastic bags’ crinkling are heard in streets doomed by darkness, where no one trusts streets anymore, where children who are as close as twins to the streets turn everything into games, games they forget to play.
Some of my favorite poems in Hmong were ones sung by my late mother. These were ballads detailing her life, portraits of loss and other hauntings. She sang and wept often. Even though they were sad, these were her stories. I wish I had a recording of even just one of her songs. I hardly remember her voice now. I only recall how she looked when she sang. She looked as if the abyss would never return its gaze.