Zuzanna Ginczanka (Wikimedia Commons)

It can be tough to keep up with poetry when there’s so much of it. The pressure is even greater in a year when Ben Lerner brought out a new collection, Craig Santos Perez became the first Pacific Islander to win the National Book Award, and the Nobel-winning Louise Glück passed away. Then there’s all the great work that was translated into English in 2023. To make things a little easier on those who want to keep abreast of things—and to give attention where it’s due—here are four translations released in just the last few months of the year.

Zuzanna Ginczanka –– Firebird (NYRB/Poets; translated from the Polish by Alissa Valles)

With On Centaurs & Other Poems and Firebird, twentieth-century Polish-Jewish poet Zuzanna Ginczanka (1917–1944) received her first two English translations this year. Alex Braslavksy applies a polite, poetic polish to Centaurs, while Allisa Valles preserves the modest colloquialism and volatility of tone in Firebird. The latter suits and complements Ginczanka’s anger and steadfastness; actively publishing since she was fourteen, she witnessed oppression firsthand, but plugged away. In 1944, her landlady betrayed her to the Nazis. Between this time and her eventual arrest and execution, she composed an untitled poem that’s come to be known as “Non Omnis moriar.” There’s no emphasis on meter or rhyme, but its undaunted gaze on death is not unlike the World War I poetry of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. She even names her landlady, within a reference to her own Judaism: “I leave no heirs, so may your hands dig out / my Jewish things, Chominowa of Lvov, mother / of a Volksdeutscher, snitch’s wife, swift snout.”

Roque Dalton –– Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle (Seven Stories Press; translated from the Spanish by Jack Hirschman and Barbara Paschke)

A Communist polymath, the Salvadoran poet, activist, organizer, and soldier Roque Dalton left behind a rich body of work following his assassination in 1975. Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle is the first volume in Seven Stories Press’s ambitious, multiyear translation series of the poet’s work. Equally inspired by Bertolt Brecht and Fernando Pessoa, Dalton compartmentalized his various poetic temperaments into different pseudonymous personalities; if this practice, coupled with his political ferocity, hints at something dense and intimidating, don’t fret. Dalton’s verse is plainspoken, skewing towards the stunningly simple rather than the stultifying or alienating: “Inevitable in life, / the new life dawns in me: a small / sun with roots that I will have to water deeply / and push to fight their own battle / against the weeds,” he writes under the pseudonym Timoteo Lúe in “Life, Works.”

Her work is one of clattering grace––or graceful clattering––and proves that the cacophonic and symphonic are not mutually exclusive.

Though he fostered a vast network of comradeship across his tenures in Cuba, Cambodia, Czechoslovakia, Chile, and Mexico, his writing always returned to El Salvador, where Dalton perceived the tentacles of imperialism strangling his home country. In “Passing Truck,” he draws parallels between militaristic might and Western industry: “If it’s true it’s force / why the need to be armed? // Or is it that its only strength / is that of being armed?” In “El Salvador Will Be,” he envisions the future of his country, writing, “You have to round it [El Salvador] off with a little machete / sandpaper lathe turpentine penicillin / sitz-baths kisses and gunpowder.” His is a poetry of veritable love and veritable revolution, brought into English with an admirable unfussiness by Jack Hirschman and Barbara Paschke.

Tatsuhiko Ishii –– Bathhouse and Other Tanka (New Directions; translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato)

Tatsuhiko Ishii has been writing poetry since the early 1970s, winning the New Poet’s Prize in Japan in 1972 at the age of just twenty. Bathhouse and Other Tanka, however, is the first translation into English of Ishii’s rejiggered traditional poetry, with all typographical and ungrammatical idiosyncrasies preserved. Ishii specializes in his own iteration of the classical tanka form, condensing 5-7-5-5-7-syllable verse into a single line, and then linking an abundance of these lines into a larger poem cycle. His writerly gaze is distracted, attuned to the tactile, to subtly pungent smells, to moisture dripping from a sumo wrestler’s chest. “Intermittent and yet sharp a singing voice. Who is it crossing the / canals in twilight?” he writes in “The Song of Brew Man and Sailor." “Not an utter quietude yet leisurely darkening a row of houses the / sake-brewhouses // From the gleam of the poling man’s upper-arm, I know this a / night of stars and the moon.”

The poems are peripatetic delights, cataloging the changes of a post-9/11 New York City (“Hiding Behind a Cloud”) or contemplating the loneliness of nighttime cruising in his native Yokohama. The frequent use of epigraphs and interpolation make plain the influence of other twentieth-century queer writers (Yukio Mishima, Jean Genet, Federico García Lorca), but Ishii also drops in references to Dante, Yeats, Mallarmé, Eliot, Proust, Auden, and Voltaire. As he experiments with the classical Japanese verse of Okhai Takashi and Tsukamoto Kunio, he draws in classical western poetry and literature as well. Poetry for him is an intercontinental playground, and Ishii maps his messy personal desires across it.

Amelia Rosselli –– Sleep (NYRB/Poets)

The inclusion here of Amelia Rosselli’s Sleep may be a bit of a cheat; at the same time, it embodies the dichotomies of translation, both the hardline strictures between languages and the contrasting porousness. The Italian Rosselli was born in Paris in 1930 and shuttled around Europe and the United States (attending high school in Mamaroneck, New York) following the assassination of her anti-fascist father and uncle, finally returning to Italy after World War II. Inevitably a polyglot, she writes mostly in Italian, except for the English-language Sleep, which nevertheless is only making it outside of Italy decades after its publication. Included in this edition are a series of the author’s own translations of these English poems into Italian, as well as those originally withheld from the original collection, as Rosselli deemed them to be “untranslatable.”

The poems themselves defy categorization: they employ neologisms and antiquated terms; they follow tricky, twitchy internal rhyme schemes; they give a whiff of automatic writing, yet there’s always an underlying narrative. Rosselli’s poetry chases the countless sensations of shaping your mouth around a word, and the resulting sound (she was a friend of experimental composer Karl Stockhausen, for what it’s worth):

impertinent with tears and impotent
with grief the heart attacks billowing
clouds tremendous on the outline
of the world gone. Sententious poetry
reclaims the fear in the grief while
tears sweep through the street. Impertinent
with grief and grieved with salt tears
awash on the balcony the youth
sat on his chair enjoyed the sun employed
his grief. Hasard being the king
of grief felicity swept the clouds

Despite a distending rhyme, the poem also omits clauses, pledging itself equally to formalness and subversion. Her work is one of clattering grace––or graceful clattering––and proves that the cacophonic and symphonic are not mutually exclusive.

Hopefully, these releases—all introducing poets to English-reading audiences for the first time—will push the door of translation open even wider.

Patrick Preziosi is a Brooklyn-born and -based writer and critic. His work has appeared in Reverse Shot, MUBI Notebook, and elsewhere. He works at McNally Jackson in New York.

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