Monday, June 20, 2016

Small Bombs

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan

It happens (literally) every single day. Thirty-two thousand seven-hundred people died in terrorist bomb attacks in 2015. Mostly, but no longer exclusively, in the Middle East. A big bomb will kill two hundred, perhaps more. A "small bomb" placed in a car or left in a backpack, five or six, wounding dozens more. We say, "It is terrible." Or, "Madness." Or, "Why did they do it?" And then we forget until the next time, rather as with mass shootings in our own unhappy country. "What can we do?" It turns out that "we" (that is, those paid to govern) can do nothing. Perhaps we wait our turn, hope for the best, turn off the news, stop reading the newspaper. Maybe elect a president who will do it to them before they can do it to us.  That's why they call it "terrorism."

What happens to the people who survive a "small bomb"? The logic of small bombs is that there are fewer victims with whom a survivor can connect and commiserate. Compassion requires a large object: the Holocaust; 9/11; maybe Biafra. Small disasters evoke curiosity, which isn't yet compassion or even empathy. It takes a lot to wake up sleepwalkers, but a small bomb--for those who have given terror some thought--is a fine way to create ripples of fear and disenchantment. Just the thing if chaos is your ultimate goal. Those merely maimed are basically alone. If the bomb goes off in India (or Iraq, or Syria) the government takes no interest in the victims, or in the perpetrators. What do the survivors feel? How do their lives go on, or do they? You could think about this problem all day long, maybe go a little crazy wondering at the waste of lives. But there's something important for us to consider, and, I admit, I hadn't, at least until I read Mahajan.

Karan Mahajan has asked lots of good questions about small bombs. The Association of Small Bombs is a very smart novel, not only for the compassion it evokes for the the innocent victims of terror, but for the honesty with which Mahajan confronts the fundamental fact that suffering is always personal and that the consequences of any political act (it needn't be a terrorist bomb) unfold endlessly. The "association" is both the organization of survivors of a Kashmir-terrorist bombing in Delhi in 1996, and the bonds that forever link the victims, the bombers, the police, and the dozens of others whose own lives are forever altered by a single, relatively low-key political act. And the implication of the novel--searingly revealed in the final pages--is that the Association is rapidly growing to include all of us. And the really smart thing I learned from Mahajan is that suffering and chaos unites us in a way that happiness and order cannot. "Unites" might be the wrong word: it is more along the lines of a brother- and sisterhood of suffering creating bonds that would otherwise never have existed. In a strange way the association of small bombs is like the association of believers, a few of whom subscribe to dogmas of violence as central to their creed. The believers create a new dispensation: that of the victims.

Bakunin took up the idea of the "propaganda of the deed" in his struggle against the Tsarist regime in Russia. Revolutionary violence was thought to be more effective than mere propaganda--ideally, the terrorist act stirs revolutionary fervor among the supine masses (Bakunin, Paul Broursse). Modern terrorism may or may not be directed at bringing down a particular state; its purpose may be to draw attention to a particular injustice, to undermine an ideology ("the West"), or simply to spread terror without a definable political goal. Mahajan's terrorists mix all of these motives with a baser alloy: a fascination with terror for its own sake. Murder, it appears, can become a job, rather like engineering or computer programming. Shockie, the bomb builder in TAOSB is a haunted, inscrutable figure. He hates the Indian government for its occupation of Kashmir, but his politics are vague. Mostly he builds and detonates bombs because that is his profession. He doesn't represent the "banality of evil," just evil's unreflecting nature. Killing innocent people is, for some, a default setting. It's difficult to hate Shockie, even though what he does is terrible. It's a very strange kind of art that can create such a figure, strange and wonderful.

Shockie sets off a small bomb in a crowded market in Delhi in 1996. Two boys, the sons of the Khurana's, are killed; their best friend, Mansoor, survives, but is wounded. The bomb is detonated on page three. What happens "next" is both a linear description of effects and a multilayered accounting of the complexity of a catastrophic event. The Khurana's lives are, of course, ruined, but not simply torn apart--rather they are blown up slowly, as if in slow motion, briefly healing and then torn open again. Mansoor grows up but he would have been better off if he too had been killed. His suffering is most acutely felt; Mahajan is at his most brilliant in his painstaking stripping away of everything that Mansoor once was, breaking him, as it were, on the rack of his own innocence. The bombers themselves suffer in various ways, but not, I suspect, enough to satisfy any sort of karmic balance. And other characters, not a part of the initial event, are also drawn into the great skein of its tragic consequences. No one survives. That too is why it is called "terrorism." Terrorism is the most acute modern reminder of the fragility of life and the impotence of politics in the face of ideology. You go to work and someone blows you up. Terrorism is the principle tool of the ideologically-inclined, just as peace might have been the natural outgrowth of politics, if politics were motivated by a desire for justice. It's a wonder that a novel so focused on individual peoples' lives could have so much to say (between the lines) about the ordering of everyday life.

Mahajan writes beautifully, with remarkable (he's very young!) compassion. I underlined dozens of passages to reproduce here. Let me quote only one.  Years after their sons' deaths, Vika and Deepa Khurana establish The Association of Small Bombs, a victims' aid group, though they can do little for the victims of bombings but visit the newly blown up in the hospital. Here is a tender passage whose description turns out to be terribly ironic:

"Together, aged, having experienced so much, [Vika and Deepa] cut warm, comforting, watchful figures in the hospitals. Often, they were observing not the victims but each other. How had they come from marriage to the death of their boys--to this? And yet, it gave them enormous solace to know that their suffering had not been for naught, that they had been able to eke a larger meaning out of it; they felt the closeness couples sometimes experience when they become rich after years of poverty, a mutual appreciation and gratefulness and wonder and an awareness of the depths of the other person--an awareness that is stronger than any affection or love."

I can think of few novels that examine evil and its consequences with as much intelligence, clarity, and compassion as this great book by Karan Mahajan. It's published by Viking, and worth your while.

George Ovitt (6/20/16)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Summer He Died

The summer he died
My father discovered plants.
He grew sunflowers that leapt
over his tiny house, tomatoes
that burst in the heat, stunted
corn and rows of string beans
eaten over one July night
by a pack of ravenous moles.
He could hardly stand; he’d
lost fifty pounds—his hair,
thick and brown into his 80’s,
simply disappeared. We rose
together at mid-morning; he
ate Wheaties with strawberries
that I bought at the Farmers
Market—he told me he hated
the thought of dying and missing
his breakfast, the newspaper,
the thought of that first cigarette
(he’d quit a decade before—like all
men his age he’d ash his Lucky in
the orange half-moon of his eggs.)
Then we’d reminisce for an hour:
I knew nothing about him, nor did
he know a thing about me: fathers
and sons practice silence like monks
locked together in a desert of love.
After lunch we’d find a ballgame.
He would fall asleep and quietly fart;
I’d go for a walk, up and down blocks
of large empty houses--I never saw a soul.
Later I would drive to the store for corn
and steaks; he had no appetite and would
vomit while I cooked. I wasn’t
sad—we were standing on the edge
of something we couldn’t name or feel--
time ended in the blackness of his dying.
On the phone my wife told me about the
children; I could picture her in our bright
living room, thousands of miles from where
I stood. The house would be hot and loud
with music—my father’s house was silent
and smelled of rust and mildew;
the cicadas chorused in a manic circle—
the heat pushed the outdoors
onto the porch where we sat, remembering
the lightning bugs that I had caught
in Mason jars, the cool nights when we
could smell the faintly salty Eastern breeze,
the far off sound of fireworks from the
boardwalk, the men laughing as they
played bocce and drank beer,
the way your hand would hurt as you
dug into the icy tub for a Coke,
the snap of the church key and the cold
that hurt your throat and eye—
my mother calling us in for dessert,
my father telling me to go ahead, he’d sit a while
longer on the stoop, watching the kids play
stickball in the gathering darkness.
And the way the house was so full of us,
the five of us, the rooms dense with our
lives, the dishes drying in the sink, the
tired way my legs would feel after another
day of being alive. And my father would
come in the sit and not say a word: he was
locked up in himself even then, as I would
be when I was his age, a silence that was
watching and waiting for something better
to come along, when there was nothing better,
when there was nothing better to come.

In Memory of George Ovitt, Sr. November 13, 1919-July 6, 2010

Happy Fathers Day to all of our readers....(that's my sister, Patricia, with my father, mid-1950's)

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Kingfisher

The Kingfisher, Amy Clampitt

Amy Clampitt, the Iowa Quaker, published her first book of poetry in 1983--she was sixty-three years old--and while she had been writing poetry since her undergraduate days at Grinnell College, she had only started to publish in the late 1970's.  Simply put, The Kingfisher is among the finest sustained poetic achievements in the English language. Clampitt, who died in 1994, was born on June 15, 1920, and it was the proximity of her birthday that led me to reread this extraordinary book.

Wheeling, the careening
winds arrive with lariets
and tambourines of rain.
Torn-to-pieces, mud-dark
flounces of Caribbean

cumulus keep passing, 
keep passing.  By afternoon
rinsed transparencies begin
to open overhead, Mediterranean
windowpanes of clearness

crossed by young gusts'
vaporous fripperies, liquid
footprints flying, lacewing
leaf-shade brightning
and fading....

[From "The Edge of the Hurricane"]

Miss Clampitt's closest progenitor was Gerard Manley Hopkins (her title is taken from a line of Hopkins); both share a baroque and mystical connection to the natural world, an extraordinary lexical richness, stunning imagery, and the metaphysical poet's ability to link the seemingly disconnected into unforgettable synthesis.  Her work at Oxford University Press and the Audubon Society appear to have leached both language and observational acuity into her verse--like Hopkins, but better, Clampitt uncovers the rich symbiotic connection between poet and nature, not in search of God, and not in search of Meaning, but purely for the beauty of being alive, the wry and charming oddity of being in this world. Here's one of my favorite Clampitt poems, "Sea Mouse":

The orphanage of possibility
has had to be expanded to 
admit the sea mouse. No one
had asked for such a thing, 
or prophesied its advent,

sheltering under ruching
edges of sea lettuce--
a wet thing but pettable
as, seen in the distance, 
the tops of copses, 

sun-honeyed, needle pelted
pine trees, bearded barley, 
or anything newborn not bald
but furred. No rodent this 
scabrous, this unlooked-for

foundling, no catnip plaything
for a cat to worry, not even
an echinoderm, the creature
seems to be a worm. Silk-spiny, 
baby-mummy-swaddled, it's

at home where every corridor
is mop-and-bucket scrubbed
and aired from wall to wall
twice daily by the inde-
fatigable tidal head nurse.  

Such chewy language! Ruchy, needle-pelted, silk-spiny. And in other poems the same joyful playing with language. But not just playing, Clampitt's not a "language poet," no, there's meaning and feeling at every turn: "the nodding/campanula of bell buoys" ("Fog"); "a tatting/ of foam out where the rocks are" ("Gradual Clearing"); "Strawstacks' beveled loaves" ("Stacking the Straws"). She's one of the few poets who sends me, gratefully, to the OED--"furred with a velouté/of looking glass"--velouté, one of the Mother Sauces of French cuisine (who knew?). Then there is "scenes of transhumance," "a chromo of Hobbema," "grisaille." I especially admire the way Clampitt uses possessives and compounding hyphens to join ideas that one might not conceive of as joined, but which, in her capable hands, are effortlessly put together; her striking adjectives: "wing-dragging" killdeer or "berry-eyed and bark-brown" kingfisher. The freshness with which she looks at the every day. Great poets are always youthful, vigorous, joyful. Except if they are mopes, but in the summer I am opting for the joyful ones, Clampitt above all--a romantic in the American idiom.

Not only does she send me to the dictionary. Clampitt taken on a meandering stroll in the local landscape incites me to look more carefully: "Nightfall/hangs up a single moon/bleached white as laundry;" and this: "spilled/and scattered like/a gust of lost pollen."  No seas near me, but I do remember the coast in a storm well enough for this image: "gales hurled gnashing like seawater over fences'/laddered apertures..." ("The Woodlot").

My copy--now 33 years old--is full of pencil markings, grass stains, stuffed with cottonwood leaves, scuffed from being packed along on hikes and camping trips (along with Annie Dillard, who, like Hopkins, is a bit too pious for my tastes, but who nonetheless has the keen eye and immersion in poetic language we find in Clampitt). Clampitt wrote poems about Maine and New York City (where she mostly lived--you wouldn't know it), about Iowa and farm life in that beautiful corny rectangle of a place. About the many countries she visited--Italy and England in particular--and, some of her best and wittiest, about music. Especially memorable is her long poem "Beethoven, Opus 111," too beautiful simply to quote from and too long to type out here.

Buy the book. Write your name in it. Carry it around all summer (with a pocket dictionary). You'll be happy you did.

And finally, this:

Easter Morning

a stone at dawn
cold water in the basin
these walls' rough plaster
after the hammering
of so much insistence
on the need for naming
after the travesties
that passed as faces,
grace : the unction
of sheer nonexistence
upwelling in this
hyacinthine freshet
of the unnamed
the faceless

There are no bad photographs of Amy Clampitt. Here is my favorite.

George Ovitt (6/10/16)

The Kingfisher is published by Knopf and is still in print, thank God. 

For the sea mouse:

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Eros, Philos, Agape

Seven Years, by Peter Stamm

translated by Michael Hofmann

 It was the great scholar and saint, Augustine of Hippo, who first explored with remarkable psychological acuity the nuances of human love and the connection between human erotic passion and the love of God. In the Confessions, Augustine delineates with exquisite--at times excruciating--self-awareness his journey from cupidity to caritas, from love of the flesh to love of the spirit:

“I was in misery, and misery is the state of every soul overcome by love of mortal things and lacerated when they are lost. Then the soul becomes aware of the misery which is its actual condition even before it loses them.” 

In his short, exegetical work, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine argues that Scripture, as God's Word, must always be read and interpreted as tending toward the enhancement of divine love--the word alone is merely dross; its meaning uplifts the devout to knowledge of, and love for, the Divine.

Strange as it may seem, it was Augustine who came to mind as I read through the unusual and unsettling 2009 novel Sieben Jahre, translated with typical felicity by Michael Hofmann as Seven Years and published by Other Press. Believe me, there is nothing remotely Augustinian or even especially religious about this novel, yet I was compelled to think, as the story of Sonia, Alexander, and Ivona unwound, not of the physical compulsions of human love but of the mysterious psychological or, in this case, spiritual dimensions of attraction and obsession. The force fields of this particular triangle are oddly proportioned--unbalanced and disjointed: Alexander has married Sonia. He is a handsome, charming, and not especially ambitious architect, more deeply engaged by the practical side of design than the aesthetic; he offhandedly woos and eventually marries Sonia. Sonia, we are told (repeatedly) is beautiful, brilliant, dynamic, alluring, etc. Unlike Alex, Sonia is drawn to the aesthetics of architecture, in particular to the murky--authoritarian--utopianism of Le Corbusier. Indeed, the novel's epigram is from the great Swiss-French architect, an often-quoted modernist koan: "Light and shadow reveal form." If Alexander and Sonia are light and shadow--he all practicality, down-to-earthiness, muddle; she a ravishing mystery--then the nearly mute, devout, lower-class and decidedly unattractive Ivona is "revealed form." For what Stamm has achieved, brilliantly if incredibly, is to make a silent outcast, a mystical washerwoman, the real center of the novel, the source of its energy and cryptic meaning. How so?

Alexander has a brief tryst with Ivona, not out of attraction, but out of (self) loathing; he finds Ivona repulsive but compelling; he strips off her clothes and lies on top of her, fondles her, but does not "possess her." It's a disturbing scene: not rape, but not consensual, and it's not sexual but contractual, a tacit acknowledgment of a connection that persists over years and years, even though Alex has virtually no contact with Ivona, his life is shaped by her being, and hers by him. It is as if Ivona, the victim of a callous and unfeeling man's assault, is the seducer. For thereafter, all through his profitable marriage and business partnership with Sonia, Alexander cannot excise Ivona from his consciousness. He cannot be happy with Sonia (it appears) largely because the woman he desires is someone he doesn't love. It's a muddle, implausible, but entirely believable. The form of a life is made not by anything real, but by contrasting ideals.

We live in a building that we build ourselves. This "building" is not only our life--that's the least of it--this building is what we think about our life. The modernist ethos prescribed functionality, a prescription that grew out of the embrace of positivism and technology that swept through European intellectual life in the late 19th century. The great monuments of modernist writing accept as given the fact that we have built a world and that we are compelled to constantly reconstruct and remodel our view of our place in that world. The tension between a lived and an examined life is the source of what is loosely called "irony."* The magisterial work of modernist irony is Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, a novel that excavates the tension between the world we actually live in and the world we think we live in... Joyce, Woolf, James, Eliot, all wrote from the same ironic perspective, trying or not trying to bring into harmony light and shadow, life and thought, the building and the space it defines.

Augustine, as a believer in an omniscient deity, had no such paradoxes to resolve, and if he thought of irony at all he thought of it in the Greek sense of εἰρωνεία, the rhetorical trope for "dissimulation" or "delusion." Augustinian love is "ironic" when the the lover mistakes his erotic fascination for the real thing, as when Chaucer's Troilus, released at last from the surly bonds of earth, looks down on the world and, at long last, gets it.

SPOILER ALERT: So here is the joke, the irony in the Augustinian sense: only Ivona--fat, covered with moles, naive, unfashionable, etc. is fruitful. Only Ivona is fully alive. Only Ivona has bridged the unbridgeable gap between life-as-lived and life-as-reflection. And how does she manage this miracle? Here's where Augustine popped to mind: she is a medieval woman; she is the annunciate, the true Child of God. Sonia cannot conceive; she can design and create soulless buildings, but she cannot love her husband, or the child (Sophia!) whom he creates with unloved Ivona. It is with these unexpected developments that Stamm is most original. His love triangle offers no clarity, no resolution; there is no "happily ever after," no "blended family." Sonia runs off. Alexander broods. Ivona, out of love, gives up her baby. Stamm's wonderful insight is that "making sense" of our lives isn't a solitary pursuit, and in any case, isn't really worth the time and suffering we put into it. "Making sense" of things is a modern madness--things in themselves have sense, are meaningful, and our role is to accept that fact, or, rather, to make the leap to belief. This belief isn't--I say again--religious--but psychological. But, in the end, what's the difference?

*Among the Ancients, Socrates, as he comes to us via Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, was an "ironic" figure ("The Apology"). The next great ironist was Shakespeare (compare "The Tempest" to "On Cannibals" for the difference between irony and not-irony). This said, I am probably wrong, and if I had paid closer attention to my teachers I would have avoided this sort of shameless generalization. 

George Ovitt (6/7/16)

Friday, June 3, 2016

"Nothing is Mine for Long"

Divan of Ghalib, Nachoem M. Wijnberg

"The human / image remains imprisoned / in the mirror of the world." (Ghalib) 

Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, whose takhallus, or pen-name, was Ghalib ("most excellent"), was born in Agra during the twilight of the Mughal Empire, though he lived most of his life in Delhi. Ghalib's "traditional divan," contains 234 ghazals as well as Urdu poems in other styles. Ghalib also composed poetry and prose works in Persian, including a history of the 1857 "mutiny." Virtually all translators and commentators (over one hundred commentaries on Ghalib's ghazals exist) agree that the task of translating Ghalib is a "doomed mission" [Frances W. Pritchett], and agree that Ghalib is "mushkil-panand"--a lover of complexity.  I have spent parts of the past few days admiring a handful of the ghazals in various translations (Niazi, Ahmed Ali, as well as adaptations by W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, and others).  I also found myself rereading Nabokov's famous 1941 New Republic article, "On the Art of Translation,"written as the polyglot novelist revised his version of Pushkin:

"We can deduce now the requirements that a translator must possess in order to be able to give an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece. First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude."

No doubt Nabokov considered himself nearly up to the task of Eugene Onegin--but to render Ghalib's subtle and delicate love poems from Urdu to English--to have assimilated not only the languages but the "author's manner and methods," his "social background," his "demeanor"--who could achieve so much, and how might we, as readers without Urdu or any other Nabokovian qualification, hope to make sense of this great poet?

While I was reading Nachoem M. Wijnberg's poems for (in honor of, as homage to, based on, etc.) Ghalib in David Colmer's fine translation, I had in mind this sentence from the collection's forward, written, presumably, by Colmer: "[Divan of Ghalib] is a book of English translations of the Dutch poems Nachoem Wijnberg wrote for Ghalib and with Ghalib with Ghalib and to Ghalib." This clarification--if you can call it that--yes, at first I thought White Pine had sent me a collection of translations of Ghalib by a Dutch poet translated into English by an Austrailian!--not only enhanced my interest in the book (beautifully gotten up, as all WP books are) but let me off the hook: no need to fret about the "accuracy" or "spirit" of the translations. This was a straightforward literary transaction: a book of poems Englished from a comfortable (bourgeois!) language from which even I--monoglot that I am--could wrestle some words, a hommage (of sorts) rather than another attempt to climb the mountain of Ghalib's esoteric genius.

This is familiar territory for me, this realm of the poetic transformation rather than translation. I have enough German to know that Rilke's sublime Duino Elegies are untranslatable (William Gass has a wonderful book on the subject of not translating Rilke), and Kenneth Rexroth's versions of Tu Fu--among my favorite poems--have always felt more like Rexroth channeling Tu Fu than surmounting the multiple Nabokovian hurdles to rendering a man as little known to us as Lao Tzu. Rexroth worked with the Chinese scholar Ling Chung on his versions of Chinese poetry; but of course Rexroth had many languages, and he was among the last poets to have read everything. I also love reading and comparing various versions of grad school stand-bys like Beowulf, wondering all the while if Michael Alexander, Burton Raffel, and Seamus Heaney had even read the same poem. But then there's John Gardner's wonderful Grendel, and that, patient reader, brings us at last to Wijnberg's Ghalib.

Nachoem M. Wijnberg, born in 1961, is the author, in Dutch, of fourteen books of poetry and, by my count, three novels. He is a professor of something called "cultural entrepreneurship" at the University of Amsterdam. And why not? The best poems are written by those who have never been "work-shopped" in Iowa or anyplace else. I have ordered both of Wijnberg's books available in English (The Jews and Advance Payment, the latter also translated by David Colmer); I will report on these books in due course. The reviews suggest that Wijnberg's novels are difficult and obscure; so much the better.

However, there is nothing obscure about Wijnberg's Divan of Ghalib--the poems are personal, chatty, direct, and commodious. No need to have mastered the intricacies of the ghazal to cozy up to "Enough:"

I have seen no more of the one who said that if he had a second 
life it would be mine.
   I wished I had seen more of the one who made morning for 
himself, who said my morning.

He can build his own hourse, he doesn't make day or night until 
the house is ready.
   His legs spread, a hand of each knee, that how he sits on a 
chair in the doorway. There is no door, he doesn't know how to 
make one....

The loose lines seem to stretch out through odd-ball commas until the idea is done. Throughout the collection, one finds a no-nonsense, declarative style: "I know how this goes, last time I didn't find a solution in time./But if I can try again I'll be more able to keep up with what's/Happening--it helps to know a lot." ("How It Grows"). Here and there I thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard's let's-have-a-coffee-and-a-cigarette-and-talk style of coming to the point; Wijnberg eschews metaphor for straight talk, as if he were doing two things at once (culture and entrepreneurship) and didn't want to waste a lot of time: "Ghalib, did you have to spend another day getting used/To the idea that the stars you see at night might have/disappeared long ago?" A rhetorical question posed in "India," not so much, one feels, to Ghalib as to the poet himself. No channeling here, but rather an unfolding meditation on reading and thinking about a predecessor, which, when you come right down to it, is what all literature is really about, an adding to the universe of language by charting one's own reflection of what, frankly, can never be what Nabokov wished--a full reckoning with another mind.

The poems in Wijnberg's Divan that I returned to several times were the most discursive and personal. I thought I might have a go at matching one divan to another, Wijnberg back to Ghalib's originals, but I doubt I'd find many resemblances, and so what if I did? The pleasure I took in this book was more along the lines of seeing how many associations might be coaxed out of "Ghalib," as if the 19th century Urdu/Persian genius were at the center of one of many millions of poetic constellations and Wijnberg's idea was to make poems reflecting this fact. Think, perhaps, of Dante's Cavalcanti or Lorca's Gypsy Ballads, not dissimilar recognitions of the power of predecessors.  Wijnberg's poetic "you," I'm guessing, isn't Ghalib, but some North Star of meaning.  I note that one of the blurbs on the book jacket points to Wijnberg as "disguising himself" as Ghalib. I respectfully disagree. The distance between the meditative subject of these poems and Wijnberg is preserved throughout; his Divan evokes unknowing, distance, the mystery of another's life and language. It is precisely the lack of disguise that is most perceptive in Divan of Ghalib. Not only is translation (sometimes) futile; so is impersonation. What remains is the kind of homage Wijnberg pays to Ghalib: we are different, but like some great perturbation in the sea of language, your words affect my own. Bloom thought of influence as anxious; perhaps, but also respectful and worthy of recognition.

This book was welcome right at this moment of my life--of our lives. So much nonsense about our insurmountable differences, our inescapable tribal loathings, tumbling from the mouths of the ignorant  and ambitious! How refreshing to encounter in a new poet (Wijnberg) an old friend (Ghalib) freshly attired. To be reminded again of what continues to matter when so much no longer does.

George Ovitt (6/3/16)

Nachoem M. Wijnberg's Divan of Ghalib, translated by David Colmer is available from White Pine Press.

A brief, accessible study of Ghalib by Ahmed Ali is here

For addition information on the ghazal and other poetic forms in Urdu I rely on Frances W. Pritchitt of Columbia University (whose translation of Intizar Husain's great Urdu novel Basti was reviewed in this blog):