Hiromi Itō: From 'Wild Grass on the Riverbank' (just published)

Translation from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles 

[Two years after the first publication of the following extract in Poems and Poetics, Hiromi Itō’s Wild Grass on the Riverbank has now been published by Action Books in a definitive English translation by Jeffrey Angles.  One of the most important poets of contemporary Japan, her impact has been summarized by fellow poet Kido Shuri as follows: “The appearance of Itō Hiromi, a figure that one might best call a ‘shamaness of poetry’ (shi no miko) was an enormous event in post-postwar poetry.  Her physiological sensitivity and writing style, which cannot be captured within any existing framework, became the igniting force behind the subsequent flourishing of ‘women’s poetry’ (josei shi), just as Hagiwara Sakutarō had revolutionized modern poetry with his morbid sensitivity and colloquial style.”  More on Itō and this important new work follows the excerpt from the work itself. (J.R.)]



By late summer, everyone on the riverbank was dead,

Not just the once living creatures, but the summer grass, the rusted bicycles, the summer grass,

Cars without doors or windows, the warped porn magazines, the summer grass,

Empty cans with food stuck inside and empty bottles full of muddy water,

Girl’s panties and condoms, the dead body of father, and so much summer grass


The riverbank meant only to control you

The summer grass touched our bodies

The seeds falling down onto our bodies

Recently, on the bank, I noticed a kind of grass that multiplied conspicuously

It is about one meter high and stands like some kind of rice

It has ears

It is everywhere

It glimmers white in the dim evening light

Sticky liquid oozes from the ear

The dogs get sticky

The dogs smell terrible

The dogs agonize and rub their bodies onto the ground

The man from the riverbank appears in the evening

Every evening he appears, sits in an arbor

Completely alone

Aged, unpolished and shabby, pale as a corpse

When his penis rises up

A smell rises like the one from the rice-like grass on the bank

The penis in his hands shines and shines


The flowers of the kudzu also rise up, I notice the arrowroot flowers rising up here and there, one day, we became tangled in the tendrils of the kudzu plants, I heard something slithering along abruptly, no sooner had I heard this when a tendril trapped my heel, it hit me, and knocked me on my back into a bush, there the Sorghum halepense rattled in the wind, an unfamiliar grass shook releasing its scent, then the tendril stretched all the further, crawling onto my body, getting into my panties, and creeping into my vagina, I…  I inhaled and exhaled, I exhaled and the tendril slid in, I inhaled and the tendril slid out, I exhaled again and it slid further in, like the leaves of the kudzu my body was turned this way and that, my body was forced open and closed over and over, and Alexsa watched all of this, Alexsa was watching, watching and smiling, I became angry, so angry, I got up and shoved Alexsa away, she fell down on her back, the tendrils clung to Alexsa too, Alexsa also turned this way and that, the tendril also went inside her vagina, deep inside, and she started to cry


Everyone was dead



Mother and me


Ahh…I think to myself

Think I'll pack it in
And buy a pick-up
Take it down to L.A.
Find a place
To call my own
Or maybe a hot sprint
One that heals eczema, dermatitis, neuralgia
Menopausal disorders, diabetes, infectious diseases
A hot spring in a hot sprint to fix you up right away
To soak yourself, open your pores, scrub your body, swell up
And then start a brand new day

Hey I’m itchy, so itchy, my younger brother cried, I told him not to scratch, but he did it anyway, the place he scratched soon turned into a blister, I didn’t scratch it that much, only a little, brother cried, but even if he only scratched a little, the place he scratched turned into a blister, all over his body were blisters, after they ruptured, they got inflamed and full of pus

My little brother no longer seemed like himself, he was horribly swollen, he rolled all over the house, mouth open, wheezing, crying,



I want to take him to a hot spring, Mother said I’ve heard of a hot spring good for your skin, if we’re going, why don’t we take our dead father and dead dog along to put in, so just left everything as it was, dirty dishes, old clothes, wet towels just as they were, then we carefully laid my wheezing brother on the rear seat, and we stuffed some other things in the car, my little sister, spare clothes, dead bodies, dogs, plastic bags, pillows, food and drink (even some flowerpots), so much stuff, and then we took off, as I stared at the road from the passenger seat, I asked, how do we get there? Mother replied as she drove the car, it’s over that mountain


That hot spring is

A hot spring that fixes you up right away

Soak yourself, open your pores, scrub your body, swell up

And fix your eczema, blisters

Skin infections, ringworm

Dermatitis, infectious diseases

Atopy, allergic diseases

Dead bodies, death, dying, and having died

Try to fix you up and
And start a brand new day
Let’s go over that mountain, Mother said
The back seat was full, no space left
As for space, the car was old and rickety from the start
But still we stuffed it full with
Things, garbage, food
People, dogs, dead bodies
So there was no space
The dogs stunk
The dead bodies stunk
My brother was wheezing in the back seat
My sister sometimes cried out as if she’d just remembered
She’d left something back at home
Please go back, I forgot something
No, we never go back
We just go further
Beyond that forked road
Isn’t that Toroku?
Isn’t that Kurokami? 
Isn’t that Kokai?
The Jyogyoji crossing
Through Uchi-tsuboi
Up Setozaka slope
Shouldn’t we go
All the way over there?
I know the way to the big tree
Where the samurai-turned-monk used to live
At his big tree, we turn right at the three-way intersection
We see the huge treetop of his big tree
From here, it looks so huge
If you go under and look up, it blocks out the whole world
There’s a path only for tractors and pick-ups
Turn right at the three-way intersection
There’s a small stone bridge, we cross it
Then another three-way intersection
Go straight
Go straight
Go up the road
Go through mandarin orange orchards on both sides
And when we come out
We come to mountainous roads
Where it’s dark even during the day
The road meanders through a forest with shining leaves
The road meanders
Comes close to a cliff
Then separates from it
Ahh… I think to myself
Think I'll pack it in, and buy a pick-up, take it down to L.A.
Mother started to sing in a key way too high for her
Ahh… Think I’ll…
A tangle of karasuuri flowers and fruits
Ahh, Think I’ll…
A flourishing bunch of worm-eaten leaves
A scarlet flower is blooming
It must be a garden species that escaped somebody’s terrace
In the shade of the plants, a large white flower is blooming
A flower pale and white
That can’t be a garden species
It’s so pale because it’s in the shade
Another car comes
We pass each other
That car must be coming back from the hot spring
All fixed up, the driver must have fixed his skin trouble
And come back, thinking this, I try to get a good look
But it disappeared into the distance in a flash
Much further and we’ll be at the seashore
The seashore facing west
Doesn’t look like there is a hot spring
Beyond this is the pure land, Mother said
The dog noticed the smell of the sea
It stuck its nose out the window, howling for the sea
We should’ve crossed a large bridge, Mother said
I forgot the name, but it’s a large bridge
There were big floods there late in the nineteenth century
And again in the mid-twentieth century
Lots of earth, sand, and drowned bodies caught on the bridge
‘Cause of that bridge, the floods downstream were even worse
We screwed up when we missed that bridge
All the water we’ve seen has just been small streams
We’ve definitely gone the wrong way, Mother said
We’ll never get there if we keep going like this, Mother said
The dog howling for the sea rose up in the rear seat
And walked across my little brother
Alexsa shouted
We’d better start all over, Mother said
She must have given up
My brother let up a sharp cry
You can’t give up
Is that the only option?
Shut up, Alexsa shouted
I told you, I told you, my little sister wept
The dog barked
Lots of dogs barked
Alexsa shouted, I can’t take it anymore, I can’t, I can’t
No one ever listens to me, she said
She sunk her face into her thighs, curled up, started to sob
Her voice grew louder, more childish than brother’s
More infantile than sister’s
Cried on and on, on and on
Nothing else
On and on
On and on
We should have turned around
But if we did, we’d just get more lost, mother said
Let’s keep going down the hill to the sea
Then go home round the cape
So that’s how we got back home
Nothing fixed
Nothing found
We failed
It’s no good
It’s all over

NOTE.  The 140-page narrative poem Wild Grass on the Riverbank (Kawara arekusa) represents Hiromi Itō’s dramatic return to poetry after several years of writing primarily prose works.  First serialized in the prominent Japanese poetry journal Handbook of Modern Poetry (Gendai shi techō) in 2004 and 2005, Wild Grass was published in book form in 2005. ... The critic Tochigi Nobuaki has said that in Wild Grass, “We, Ito's readers, are witnessing the advent of a new poetic language that modern Japanese has never seen.” Wild Grass explores the experience of migrancy and alienation through the eyes of an eleven-year old girl who narrates the long poem. In the work, the girl travels with her mother back and forth between a dry landscape known in the poem as the “wasteland,” a place that resembles the dry landscape of southwestern California [where Itō now lives], and a lush, overgrown place known as the “riverbank,” which resembles Kumamoto, a city in southern Japan where Itō’s children grew up and where Itō still spends several weeks each year.


NOTE ON THE SUBTITLE: Michiyuki are lyric compositions that feature prominently in bunraku and kabuki dramas of the early modern era. Typically, they describe the scenery that characters encounter while traveling—sometimes while eloping or traveling to a site where they will commit suicide. For this reason, michiyuki typically come at the climactic moment of a drama. In Itō’s poem, however, the michiyuki sequence is profoundly anticlimactic as the characters travel and travel in search of a place they cannot find. This chapter contains quotes and passages loosely based upon the lyrics of Neil Young’s song “Harvest” from 1972.

Witness Mark Booth

A prosodic variable is the type of constant

Mark Booth, from T.S.I.R.B.A.I.S. (2)

Susan Howe’s recuperation of Emily Dickinson’s visual prosody marks a pivot point in American poetics, insofar as it calls attention to the long effaced but paradigmatically American enterprise of self-invention that Dickinson’s practice depicts. And in depicting her work, the picture is the work, hence the holograph images that for the most part replace block quotes in texts like Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and the essay from which I’ll cull this epigraph, “These Flames and Generosities of the Heart.”

This space is the poem’s space. Letters are sounds we see. Sounds leap to the eye. Word lists, crosses, blanks, and ruptured stanzas are points of contact and displacement. Line breaks and visual contrapuntal stresses represent an athematic compositional intention.

Howe, and by extension Dickinson, are reference points for discussing the work of Mark Booth, printmaker by training, a painter, who also works in sound and performance, but whose practice is in some sense reducible to writing. I consider him a poet. And in my opinion, his work is one of the most engaging of many going concerns in Chicago’s art and literary scenes. If nothing else, I want to use this last commentary to introduce you to Booth’s work, acclaim it, and also try to come to grips with it myself, a little. His projects are fundametnally iterative, so they manifest in multiple ways. This multiplicity tempts me to stop at enthusiasm and forego analysis, at least in relation to the work I’ve seen, heard, and (full disclosure) participated in. So I had to inject some sense of duty in relation to it. When I undertook the project of writing these commentaries for Jacket2, I set only three parameters. First, I drafted the statement in the sidebar to the right, delimiting my topic. Second, I named names to delimit my subjects. Third, I commissioned a banner image from Booth. Now, at the end of the series, I return to the initial impulse behind it. In short, I will think through this material as a becoming rather than a conclusion.

Some reference points for Booth’s work are as follows. In sound, Robert Ashley, a professed influence. Booth completed a sound piece for the 2007 Chicago book release event for Hannah Weiner’s Open House, layering tracks reciting passages from Weiner’s “Silent History.” His sole voice enunciates the poem’s frenetic, hermetic lexical units with a crystalline sobriety. This is punctuated by a choral chant of “silence,” “silences,” “history,” “power”—these voices clearly do not belong to him. The cues are not obviously patterned, but they give the feeling of an underlying system and an algorithmic proliferation or continuous variation that is in the first voice’s material (the words) but under erasure in the chorus (reduced to four key terms). The last phrase of the poem is “without mental excitement” (the lexical units rarely add up to phrasal units, so a lot of pressure can be put on the moments when they do). That same year, I read “Silent History” at release events in Vancouver, Portland, Ashland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles. I first heard Booth’s piece literally the day before leaving home for the West Coast reading tour. But instead of trying to emulate the careful balance struck between Booth and his chorus, I read the piece in a frenzy, trying to take it all in one breath—displacing any “mental excitement” to the voice. I should have just played Booth’s recording, though. I think it’s only been heard once. Obviously, Ashley’s command of a “whole art”—opera—provides a reference point for Booth’s meticulous array of coordinates: medial, thematic, and intentional. Ashley’s Celestial Excursions, though, actually sounds like Booth’s “Silent History.” The cyclical pulse of chorus and solo voice, especially.

In drawing, print, painting, Christopher Knowles’ Typings and Guy de Cointet’s ink and pencil drawings. De Cointet’s wit and whimsy are redolent in Booth’s writing. But visually, also, drawings like His Music Looked at Me and Bit Me share a visual idiom. Nothing is withheld, but the signifier is only found between space and grapheme, where one must look for it. It is drawn language, the way the eye of the beholder is drawn through it.

Guy de Cointet, His Music Looked at Me and Bit Me (1976)

In writing, Mark E. Smith’s phonic orthography and love of obscure, even private acronyms come to mind. In a gallery talk at the MCA Chicago’s 12x12 series, Booth mentioned listening to The Fall’s Perverted by Language while working on the paintings hanging behind him, and I thought yes, of course! Smith was my initiation into the fact that orthography was not a dictate but a generative constraint. Smith will write “frenz” instead of “friends,” “N.W.A.” instead of “the north will rise again,” etc. This isn’t a tick or a gimmick, a style as set of symptoms or signature traits. It actually runs ripples through commonalities and construals, pronunciation and presentation, that ameliorate discordances in a language by rendering them equally susceptible to a single force. From a given angle, this force is either audible, visible, or legible. One can’t just listen to a Fall album, look at a Booth painting, read the writing of either.

Which brings me to the issue that most baffles me. How does Booth write? Visiting his studio last spring, he showed me a stack of ink drawings he’d just worked up that month, half angular, abstract drawing and half prose poetry—the two halves split down the middle, as though it were self transcribing. But which is the apparition, image or statement? As he described them to me, I realized he writes in situ, drawing all the while. Poiesis precisely.

This space is the poem’s space. Letters are sounds we see. Sounds leap to the eye. Word lists, crosses, blanks, and ruptured stanzas are points of contact and displacement. Line breaks and visual contrapuntal stresses represent an athematic compositional intention.

When I asked him to provide the banner for these “Witness” commentaries, I stupidly assumed he might cull an image from an existing work, reframe it, and to that end I told him that I particularly admired this piece.

Mark Booth, Mathmathmatics Prayer Group, from the exhibition ENDLESS (PERVERTED BY LANGUAGE/DELAY 1968)

Wit and whimsy, but I was also attracted to the use of color. Well, he worked for what seemed like weeks on a variation, in another mode, and another medium: photography. With the first batch of images he sent this question: “Do you want to shorten the line to ‘mathematics prayer group’ thereby correcting dyslexic stutter and spelling errors? The latter makes sense to me as I'm doing something new with an old line that can be corrected in the new process of articulation.” I responded this way. “I have never considered the role of correction or revision outside of visible strike-thru or overlay, layering, smudge, swipe, the sense of keeping a process going. Or the mirroring of drawing and writing (those pieces I saw this spring in your studio). I also think that the rhetorical value of the misspelling of mathematics is particularly effective. But if you're now interested in the revision, that would seem to mean it is a part of this new piece. That the correction belongs to it.” Obviously, in the end the atypical expression was retained, but it still seemed peculiar that revision was entertained in the first place, much less that it was an option offered to me. Doing something new, as he put it, is a matter of “articulation,” a word etymologically traceable to cutting, splicing, and here literally that. He had hand cut the letters and set them in garden/leisure environments. One imagines them blowing apart in a breeze (“sky”), and the fibrile letter forms in what look like mylar are adjoined, as cutouts, to fluctuation—articulatory flux. The original phrase insists, in the Steinian sense of not repeating but inflecting, in both letter and spirit. Hence the “prayer,” the “group,” and the stammering. And the stammer just looks right, somehow.

Booth (in the foreground) and collaborators performing God Is Represented by the Sea at Devening Projects

This resonates with “Silent History,” but even moreso with God Is Represented by the Sea, a project that has had many iterations, including a durational performance I attended one extremely forebidding winter day in 2011, at Devening Projects. The piece consisted of four hours spent in a small gallery with the prints hung around us, the electronics and bellows duo Coppice, joined by Booth, playing on the floor in the center of the room, and a table full of readers who read the text, cycling through it. (Readers included poets and novelists like Devin King, Caroline Picard, and Peter O’Leary.) Booth describes the score/text as an “anadiplotic list.” In the performance condition he set up there, anadiplosis registered as a sort of renga-like chain, inherently collaborative, ritualistic, yet with a parlor game and/or garden party ambience. A phase-effect of gradual shading and shifting softens the desire for completion, becoming something like what Whitehead called a lure for feeling. While the first line, “God is represented by the sea” will lead to another representation until, ultimately, all of the lines converge on their source (God), this convergence is nascent in the role of representation itself, which always depends on the One. I would argue that this role is not semiotic in the structuralist sense, nor contractual in a socio-political sense, but is rather a becoming or univocity of being, in the ontological sense. “God” might stand as well as, say, “carbonated water” stands for “space.”

Scroll through the images if you want to see for yourself, or listen in. There is just enough logic to every sentence to insinuate the next. There are no logical leaps, but one has the sense a great distance is traversed, ramifying the whole at every refrain. Perhaps the writing was spontaneous. And while the reading is successive, it amounts to a simulcast. An all-at-once, overwhelming one’s attention in a soothing way (destined for nothing in particular, you start to float a little). You can leave off and resume at any instant whatsoever. This is the pace of thought without thoughts. I think the piece is finally about refusing to ignore the limits of cognition. Sublimity, yes, but a euphoric, celestial calm that, even when it becomes crowded, respects and presents the immanent integrity of its elements (this is what de Cointet’s His Music Looked at Me and Bit Me does with the letterform, too). The dispersal of the line draws toward and maybe becomes an ecology. I would have written “ecosystem,” except that I want logos in the suffix for the important reason that God Is Represented by the Sea is a becoming in writing.

A shot of Booth's studio, works exhibited in the 12 x 12 Gallery of the MCA Chicago

Many of you will notice I have been, without much subtlety, siphoning Deleuze-Guattarian paradigms throughout my descriptions of Booth’s work. I don’t know that he’d profess any interest, much less any influence, care of that theoretical corpus. But their description of the linguistic “tensor” in A Thousand Plateaus, to my mind, unambiguously plays into practically every other attempt to describe his work that I have encountered. Michelle Hyun: “Booth’s project…begins with sound…continues in the mind’s ear…the closed, albeit infinite, loop of meaning and never-ending difference…presented as artistic sacrifice…[and cries] out for a new mode of analysis.” Matthew Goulish: “The question in this laboratory, where cloud becomes word becomes body, is less one of ethics (How should one live?) and more one of a deployment of imagination (How might one live? How might one enchant the world through observation?).” I wish to observe only that the mode of difference in itself here is of a type, an “atypical” expression channeled by grammatical sobriety. Which leads me to Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the tensor as a form of Boothian anadiplosis.

[T]he atypical expression…produces the placing-in-variation of the correct forms, uprooting them from their state as constants. The atypical expression constitutes a cutting edge of deterritorialization of language, it plays the role of tensor; in other words, it causes language to tend toward a near side or a beyond of language. The tensor effects a kind of transitivization of the phrase, causing the last term to react upon the preceding term, back through the entire chain. It assures an intensive and chromatic treatment of language. An expression as simple as AND…can play the role of tensor for all of language. In this sense, AND is less a conjunction than the atypical expression of all the possible conjunctions it places in continuous variation. The tensor, therefore, is not reducible either to a constant or a variable, but assures the variation of the variable by subtracing in each instance the value of the constant (n – 1).

Which, in turn, brings me back to Dickinson. At one point above, I describe the mirroring of line and letterform as a situation in which writing, for Booth, takes place. It is as though the drawing and writing are audience to one another, and so I come upon the whole piece as an interpretation underway, rather than an object of scrutiny, an ecology rather than an ecosystem. I’m thinking also of Steve Benson’s performative lecture "Leavings and Cleavings," wherein he describes a quatrain from Dickinson as “circular, or out of order.” The “or” is the tensor, because while the representational value of “God” is putatively circular—as Hyun put it, “closed, albeit infinite”—the globe or “ball” lends a third dimension to the “disk” or circle, the “loop of meaning,” that renders meaning irreducible. It is curious that Benson should emphasize this point in this way, being a master of transcription, or reverse-scoring “talk” (in a piece like Views of Communist China, for example). Becoming is a transversal rather than a reversal of elements; not a two part trope but a dispersive presentation or multiplicity that makes for a “poetic” experience, if there is something inherent to the prosodic cue glimpsed and therefore actionable, after all.

The Dust behind I strove to join

Unto the Disk before –

But Sequence ravelled out of Sound

Like Balls upon a Floor –

Audio recordings of Harriet Monroe

Thanks to the scholarly sleuthing, the archival negotiating, the digitizing, the uploading and filenaming, and the context-setting of Chris Mustazza, PennSound is now adding eight audio recordings of Harriet Monroe — the founding editor of Poetry and one of the crucial figures in the editorial acceptance and promotion of modernism in the U.S. — made in 1932.

Here is what Chris has to say about this acquisition:

Harriet Monroe was recorded reading her poetry at Columbia University on January 29, 1932. The recording, made by Barnard professor W. Cabell Greet, was one of the first recordings in a series that came to be known as The Contemporary Poets Series, which began with the recording of Vachel Lindsay in 1931 (available here in PennSound). Several of Greet’s recordings were later released on distribution LPs, produced by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), for pedagogical purposes and distributed to schools on a subscription basis. These recordings of Monroe were never released (the reason why is unclear at this time). While there is still research to be done as to how Monroe came to be recorded in this session, it seems likely that Vachel Lindsay would have been the connection between Greet and Monroe. Monroe and Lindsay collaborated over the years, including Monroe writing the introduction for Lindsay’s The Congo and Other Poems and her publication of him in Poetry magazine. Lindsay died less than two months before these recordings we made, and so may have helped to arrange the recording session before his death. This is the first time the recordings, originally made on two aluminum records, are being distributed to the public. PennSound wishes to thank the staff at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library for their help in obtaining and digitizing these recordings, as well as Ann Monroe, for giving us permission, on behalf of the Monroe family, to distribute them.

These sound recordings are being made available for noncommercial and educational use only. The copyright is retained by the estate of Harriet Monroe. I have been corresponding with Ann Monroe of Brooklyn, NY, about these recordings for nearly a year, and I and we are grateful that Ann and other descendents of Harriet have given us permission to make her recordings available to all.

Anne-Marie Albiach: 'Work Vertical and Blank'

Cinq le Choeur,  Anne-Marie Albiach's collected poems, 1966-2012 has just been published by Poésie/Flammarion. This magnificent 600-page collection of one of the signal achievements of postwar French poetry, includes an afterword by Isabelle Garron and cover by Claude Royet-Journoud. 

In Conjunctions 23 (1994), I published a reworking of Albiach's "Travail Vertical et Blanc": pdf.   & here is  the original poem, from the new collected (reprinted with permission)pdf .

Jacket 2 published an obituary for Albiach in 2012)

For the 1994 publication, I included this introduction:

Anne-Marie Albiach gave me a copy of Travail Vertical et Blanc on a visit Susan Bee and our daughter Emma made to her apartment in the summer of 1989.  On this very bright summer afternoon, the shutters were completely closed, but at Emma's insistence Anne-Marie let the light in so Emma could play on the balcony.  Sitting in the apartment, I immediately began to scratch out English versions as a way of reading the poem.  The title of Albiach's poem is the last line from "Le drap maternel", a poem of Royet-Journoud's that I had translated as The Maternal Drape (Awede, 1984; digital publication, 2014) — "drape" rather than "sheet", just as "work vertical and blank" rather than the conventional "vertical and white work," which gives some sense of the modified homophonic approach I took to making an "American" version (as the French say) of the poem.  By a modified homophonic approach I mean that I give precedence to the sound and word order of the French without completely departing from the "lexical" sense of the original.  Working with Olivier Cadiot on our collaborative adaption of his Red, Green and Black (Potes and Poets, 1990; EPC Digital Edition, 2004), I found the rhetorical style and humor of the original was best expressed by finding substitutions and equivalences for passages of the original, while focussing somewhat less on homophonic crossovers. 
            Sitting at Anne-Marie's apartment, I thought again about the difference between a thin translation, one that is correct but lacks the linguistic density of the original; and a thick translation, in which the loss of semiotic and sonic reverberation is countered by the creation of compensatory poetic value.  Surely, there is no formula for thick translation, but the irony of poetry that is dense and intractable in the original reading "smoothly" in English  too common to think of as anything but the product of an institutional standard that needs to be challenged.  I am also drawn to translations which mark the incommensurability with their source languages by retaining traces of the untranslatable.  (Lawrence Venuti has written persuasively on these points.)  Then again, multiple translations and "reworkings" of the same poem, like multiple readings, are the ideal situation; the more versions the better.
            In the case of Work Vertical and Blank, while I have gone well beyond the permssions of translation as conventionally understood, inevitably I have stayed quite close to the original; certainly I am reassured that Albiach has expressed pleasure with the results.

photo from January 1971, chosen by Albiach for the publication of Etat with Mercure de France. Below, as an earlier photo.  (Photos courtesy Claude Royet-Journoud.)

Sounds outside of English

Sonnet L'Abbé's 'Ghazals for Zahra Kazemi'

Sonnet L'Abbé
Sonnet L'Abbé

Earlier this week, I received an email from a friend of mine, the poet Sonnet L'Abbé. She sent me one of her poems, "Ghazals for Zahra Kazemi," which appears in her book Killarnoe (2007). The occasion for the gift of this poem was the deaths of two Canadian soldiers in two separate incidents: when I received Sonnet's email, I was listening to a news report in which the two incidents — which took place in two separate provinces, on two different days — were blended together and blamed on radical Islam. Sonn, it emerged that the shooter in the second incident was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a person with an apparent "Arabic-sounding" name.

The poem that Sonnet sent me is a detailed investigation into exactly these patterns of blame and suspicion. Occasioned by the death of the Iranian-born Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi in an Iranian prison in 2003 and by the detention and torture of Canadian software engineer Maher Arar at the hands of the United States government in 2003, the poem delves into the spaces between languages and identities. In her email to me, Sonnet wrote, 

"Members of my family have names that don't sound rooted in English — because they aren't. My name isn't like that, and as a kid I used to be so glad about the absence in my name of any sign of my non-European heritage. But when the terrorist hunts start in the media, and a name like 'Zehaf' comes up, I think of my mother, and my uncles, and my cousins, and feel deep apprehensions about how certain sounds are heard by the dominant culture. The ghazal, a Persian/Urdu form that has a history of being taken up by Anglo-Canadian poets, felt like the right one in which to explore these apprehensions." 

For my commentary this week, I am opening this space up to Sonnet's poem, which asks that we slow down and attend to multilingual sounds differently. 

Z: Ghazals for Zahra Kazemi 

One definition of the word ghazal [is that it] is the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it will die.

- Agha Shahid Ali


The poem has no palpable intention upon us. It breaks, has to be listened to as a song: its order is clandestine.

- John Thompson




Alpha male, Zahra.

Zeta female, Zahra?


Nine eleven I noticed my mom’s name is Zalena.

I noticed my cuzzins, Zaibun and Farzeen.


A to Z, said my uncle Asad.

Yes, Adam, said Muhammad.


The mountain comes. Zero sum.

Abu Ghraib. Arar.


Gaza, Zahra. Bloody gauze.

Your gaze on a military strip.





Ra, ra. Sis boom bah.

Hip: hype: hip. Hooray!


This fall season, let’s pump

iron. Push artillery chic


(bodycheck them) on petite puck chicks.

Bench the liberal press.


Pompom the pill-fed population.

Pep the house-poor on.


The strong’s odds, yawn.

Big bad opponent, rad rally!





CBC says A B C.

Hanguk says ka na da.


Yo, yo. That last book said Aral.

Look, Karakalpak, it said!


Nunavut says Kashechewan.

Toronto says uh-uh, ka-ching.


Ottawa spells inukshuk.

Québec tells them phoque.


In any cab, hear a-salaam alaykum.

North Amerika, say alaykum a-salaam.





I say, old chap, you’re jolly mum.

Muss use ainshen Chinee watoh torchoh.


Say ah. Say yassa, massa. Say uncle.

Learn 21 moans that drive men crazy!


Zat is ze wrong answer. Ve haff vays

of making you talk.


Ten Hail Marys, child. Two Our Fathers.

La la la la la la, I can’t hear you …


Yo G. Dis bitch in front we she wan freak. Word.

Swear, your honour, Lynddie never said

                                             mwa-ha-ha, mwa-ha-ha.





How I use you, too, Zahra.

Me, a name I call my self. Fatwa, a note.


Capitalizing on the buzz of your was.

A Jezebel with my new Uzbek


while oil’s gazillions upholster plus pews.

Ohm, Zahra. Reason, Zahra. Shalom, inshallah, amen.


My life of ease. How can I please

when your pleas track my waking dreams?


Mirror. Image. Other, Zahra. My body

can’t stop recognizing — realizing — itself. 


Sonnet L'Abbé, Ph.D. is the author of two collections of poetry, A Strange Relief and Killarnoe, and is the 2014 guest editor of Best Canadian Poetry. L'Abbé has written a dissertation on the American poet Ronald Johnson, taught at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and at the University of British Columbia, and in 2015 will be the Edna Staebler Writer-In-Residence at Wilfrid Laurier University.