Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Other Europe

Contemporary East European Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Emery George

How many Eastern European poets can you name? Until some months ago I myself could name but three: the Polish and widely-feted Milosz, Szymborska, and Zagajewski. Great poets, surely but hardly representative when it comes to the dazzling multitude of nations, languages, and cultures that comprise this historically rich, politically charged region, a fact made plain to me one evening when I happened upon a copy of this extraordinary anthology in a local bookstore. “Eastern Europe is one half of Europe,” writes the editor, Emery George, in his introduction to the collection. “It is a vast and vital realm of society and culture which, for all the attention lavished on it since World War II, remains for many Americans either that sinister expanse ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ or, at best, ‘the old country,’ where tales of Dracula, ethnic grandmothers, and good recipes come from.” 

Offering readers a sampling of the work of no less than 162 contemporary poets, both men and women, from at least fifteen different languages, this volume is astonishing both in its breadth and resonance, stamping the names and homelands of these poets on the cluttered, workaday maps in our brains. Including writers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,Poland, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, as well as former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, editor Emery George also provides a short if illuminating section on Yiddish poets still writing today. Here, from the anthology, is my own brief sampling:

In Chalk Rooms

                                                                 let all the walls
                                                                 about me be green
                                                                 like a whole harvest
                                                                 of summer’s meadows
walls like light
        sliding through green bottle-glass
walls like forest
       moss-grown and damp
walls like mouldy
       cheese on a knife
and walls like frogs
       so cool and loud
walls with gentleness
        like budding leaves
walls of juiciness
        as of chopped turnip tops
walls in that tone
        in which rain soaks moss
and yellowed like cabbage
        butterflies abandoning cocoon
walls hard and green
        corrugated wet
encompassing me
                                                                 as have only woods and waters.
                                                                 but the world listens
                                                                 to me as to a gnat’s song
                                                                 though I suffer terrible
                                                                 famine for greenness

 Aina Kraujiete (Translated by Inara Cedrins)

Father’s Winter

The birds have all left
my father’s tall trees.
Now only frozen stars
cling to the black branches.

Old farm tools stand stagnant:
plows, scythes, hands and hoes.
It seems there is nowhere to go,
nothing to make us wonder.
The wonders of Father’s life
have passed unnoted and expected—
who will marvel at the water or grass,
or write down the spring or winter?

If you listen, at night
you can hear the deep and heavy sighs
of the senile, faithful Guernsey 
passing up from the cattle-shed.

All thoughts, like snow, blend to one.

Justinas Marcinkevičious (Translated by  Irene Pogožzelskyte Suboczewski)

The Early Chaplin

We know the early Chaplin but before him
was an earlier Chaplin   Those films
are already forgotten   Chaplin
had the face of a brute he bared his teeth
like a wildcat readying to spring and had no
scruples he seduced women hired gangsters
to rub out his rivals rejected he sought revenge
by all means fair and foul when the lovely Mabel
Normand was in an auto race this blackguard
wetted down the pavement switched around the signs sending
the car to the precipice planted dynamite despite
everything Mabel survived and won he almost
burst with fury the audience
was bursting with laughter and of course showed
him no sympathy at all   He did not yet have
his dress suit cane mustache   He had
a monocle and goatee   His name was not
Charlie but Chas   This went on
for some time  But in time
his face figure and inner self began to change  This
happens not only to actors but
to apostles and mere mortals   More than one
person has lived through this in his youth wondering
and suffering when his skin
hardened in a grimace which
seemed to be an exact replica
of the inner self when it crumbled and again froze
in another mould    No one knows
how all this happens   This is no
run-of-the mill decision  Maybe inspiration   Thus Chaplin
after making thirty-five films went ahead and
changed from Chas to Charlie   In the last
of these films they both were there Charlie
dreamed of being Chas   From sleep
the loiterer was wakened by the policeman’s stick   He got up
from the park bench and hobbled
into the distance with an embarrassed smile   There was no
anger in him only hope   No craving
for success but a desire
to defend human dignity   From the pursuer
he became the pursued   And this was now
the early Chaplin whom
we came to love without ceasing to laugh

Wiktor Worosylski (Translated by Magnus J. Kryńnski and Robert A. Maguire)

Emory George is the author of sixteen books, including seven of his own poetry and two collections of the work of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti.  Contemporary East European Poetry: An Anthology is published by Oxford University Press.

Peter Adam Nash 


  1. My Baltic anthology of contemporary poetry, three books for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, was published by the University of New Orleans Press this year and is available at, as well as e books of translations of Latvian writers Aleksandrs Caks, Janis Einfelds and Inga Abele.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I will order your book today. Peter and I are always looking for new books to write about, especially good translations of poetry from places in the world with which American readers are unfamiliar.

    George Ovitt