Counterpath Press: A Review of Three Books
$16.95 | 180 pages | paper | ISBN 9781933996172
$14.95 | 80 pages | paper | ISBN 9781933996158
$14.00 | 80 pages | paper | ISBN 9781933996202
What do a 14th century Vietnamese poet, a contemporary American poet, and a mixed media French writer all have in common? Counterpath Press (an independent, nonprofit and global literary publisher). I first learned about Counterpath when I reviewed their bilingual edition of Dolores Dorantes’s sexoPUROsexoVELOZ // Septiembre (translated from the Spanish by Jen Hofer)—one of the most exciting books of translation I’ve read in recent years. So I was interested when I received three new books of poetry from Counterpath published in 2010: Beyond the Court Gate: Selected Poems of Nguyen Trai (translated by Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover); Incivilities, by Barbara Claire Freeman; and The Field is Lethal, by Suzanne Doppelt (translated from the French by Cole Swensen).
According to the introduction of Beyond the Court Gate, Nguyen Trai (1380-1442) is a “Vietnamese national hero both for his writing and his role in overthrowing the Minh Dynasty, which had controlled Vietnam for centuries” (vii). His poems are still memorized by school children and quoted in political speeches. There’s even a folk legend that he wrote political messages in honey on thousands of forest leaves; later, ants chewed the letters into the leaves.
This collection contains about one hundred and fifty poems and is the first extensive translation of the poet’s work into English. Nguyen Trai wrote in Han (the Cantonese language of the courts) and Nom (a popular Vietnamese Cantonese), mostly in traditional eight-line poems. The Selected Poems presents translation of both the Han and Nom poems.
Nguyen Trai’s poems are lyrical meditations on human experience. While they aim for the universal, many of the poems express very personal perceptions grounded within intertextual and cultural references. For example, “After the Chaos of Wartime” reads:
Since the war began in our sacred country, The people have cried out groaning; they don’t know how to react! I’m like Tu My, whose pained heart was loyal to the Tang Dynasty. Ba Nhan shed two waterfalls of tears for his Chen Dynasty. So many things have changed, I grow old quickly. When autumn comes to this strange land, I feel passionate, Having spent thirty years of false pride for what? Looking back, I see that everything’s a drunken Nam Kha story. (3)
Nguyen Trai’s poems move in surprising ways: some lines connect and aggregate, while some lines shift quite jarringly. What holds these poems together is the voice and vision of the poet and the desire to understand his thoughts, express them, and let them go. Many titles of his work reflect this kind of Buddhist aesthetic: “Written on Impulse,” “Written Casually on a Boat,” “Written for Fun,” Written in Autumn Moonlight,” and “Randomly Written in a Boat.”
As an exile for part of his life, Nguyen Trai felt homesick and nostalgic: “For ten years of wandering, my fate floated like dry grass on an ocean. / Every day, my heart was a flag tugged by homesickness. / Many times in my dreams I have found my old home, / cleaned my ancestors’ graves with tears that turn to blood” (10). When he returns to his isolated mountain home, his poems express stillness, detachment, and solitariness. He lets the grass grow, drinks tea, reads from sunrise to sunset.
Despite this, war and politics still infringe. One poem becomes occasion to warn the king: “But if the king, in his heart, wants security, stability, and wealth, / He should build peace through culture, not war” (17). Even though the war always echoes, Nguyen Trai sings another life:
Shaking off the dust of life, I pull up my sleeves to enter the pine forest, Where the shade of many trees makes flowers last longer, And grass keeps on weaving because few people walk there. Coming from real life, the poems sound like people talking. If I feel no emotion, neither does the view. Under the quiet veranda among bamboo and pine, Some mountain monks and I often sing our poems. (74)
Indeed, Nguyen Trai’s poems sound like people talking—or I should say they sound like one poet talking, a poet who has found a measure of peace in his life. And the depiction of this life provides little snippets of joy:
I don’t raise fish, so the moon can perform on a clear pond. I don’t trim trees, so birds will return to them. If even a fairy of the Buddha asked why, I’d say: This man has his own joy. (84)
Throughout Beyond the Court Gate, I felt accompanied by the poet as he sang the songs of his life—from his politically fraught youth to his seemingly wise rejection of politics. Reading Nguyen Trai made me feel passionate for politically engaged poetry, but it also made me long for a time when we too could abandon politics and write about the reflection of the moon on a clear pond. Poetry allows both: “Because guests are coming, the garden remains in flower, / The way poetry opens the door to let in the moon” (89).
It feels true and beautiful that poetry can open the door to let in the moon. However, if you let poetry open the doors of perception in 21st century USA, a hell of lot more than the moon is going to bust through your door. Reading Barbara Claire Freeman’s Incivilities completely grabbed my attention and threw me down from Nguyen Trai’s mountain home and into the dark heart of America—surrounded by the Iraq & Afghanistan wars, the Great Recession, financial fraud, and the race and culture wars (and their violent histories). Freeman places us within the psyche of a citizen poet who finds the nation crumbling around her—much like H.D. in her Trilogy.
The first poem of the book, “The Second Inaugural” adapts language from George Washington’s Inaugural Addresses. It begins: “Dear Necessity, the magnitude / and difficulty of the trust to which the voice / of my country has called arises from the recent tempest…” (1). Through collage and palimpsest, the plural speaker tells an alternative story of the nation, “how it became, what it began” (5). If the nation is made of many voices, then Freeman has found a way to siphon these many voices into her poems:
Better to live like an options trader awake before the market begins its metronymic stream and the first scattered symbols undo the possibility of hope overlapping the circular than pretend style is an inheritance anyone can use contrasted with the immortality of currency (while wheat remains commodities are firm) but disappearing will not serve to memorialize incivilities weightless as words when you feel the Dow drop 360 points in one day… (“Incivilities,” 9)
Freeman maintains several “metronymic streams,” which also feel like a media saturated stream of consciousness. This style creates surprise (and sometimes terror) because you never know how the phrase is going to turn, or what theme or subject might emerge around the corner. An interesting moment in “In the Garden of Discarded Glass” speaks to this: “I look out the window and see / ash fall. Links to more American stories / can be found at the bottom of this page” (15).
These poems, these stories, these links emerge not from a proud nation, but from a nation buckling under the weight of its greed and structural injustices. The poet sounds “The Closing Bell:”
…Perhaps it’s too late to believe the sins of excess liquid can be solved with more liquidity,
that the river mimics a sky. This, friend, is the life we inherited; if not for the weather we could not hear
the wind…” (27)
The “sins of excess” is a striking phrase that tolls and echoes across Wall Street, corporate America, paid-for politicians, media-brainwashed Americans, foreclosures, and the national debt. The poet does not try to escape the noise of politics; instead, Freeman dives into it and asks us to imagine a different nation: “Imagine not having to apologize for the United States” (“When the Moon Comes Up,” 47).
The darkest corners of Freeman’s collection are the poems about racial injustice in America. In “First Georgic,” Freeman takes language from the letters of George Washington and “The Massachusetts Slaves Petition” (1777) and weaves:
The winds were first to whisper of this strange state, with this letter comes a Negro
(Tom) which I beg favour of you to sell to the Massachusetts legislature assembled
January 13, 1777: but wher Unjustly Dragged by the hand of Cruel Power from their
Derest Even torn from Embraces of tender Parents by beautiful law which renders…
The poem continues in the hand of America’s first president to insist that the addressee sell the slave for “whatever he will // fetch” in exchange for Molasses, Rum, and Lymes. The poem ends, “…beg favour to keep him handcuffd till you get to Sea, Sir, // Yr Hble Servt., G. Washington” (17). America’s racial origins continue to shape and haunt the nation, especially since the election of President Obama. One of the more lyrically minimalist moments of the book:
I shudder to recall
I was conceived (“In the Garden Of,” 8)
Throughout Incivilities, Freeman shudders emotionally and aesthetically. She re-conceives the nation, its origins and trajectories. She exposes, in surprising and innovative ways, the incivilities structuring and destroying America. Within these shudderings, Freeman repurposes the past and present discursive fabrics of America into a post-modern, post-9/11, post-bailout, poetic address. Freeman is unapologetic as her work inaugurates a different national imagery.
Suzanne Doppelt’s The Field is Lethal (translated by Cole Swensen) is a mixed-genre work that includes prose poetry, a streaming lyric, and visual images (Doppelt is also a photographer). These three strands interweave throughout the book to create a very dynamic—and dreamlike—pattern of text and image.
Unlike Nguyen Trai & Barbara Claire Freeman, Doppelt’s work does not explicitly engage with the politics of France. Instead, she sets the narrative in this book within a general field, which could definitely symbolize a nation. I was drawn into the setting from the very first page:
In the field, the mushrooms give off light, while the sunflowers seek it, and in the river, algae and eels discharge jolts of electricity. What light there is travels in waves, gliding through the air and over the calm surface of the water, or else it splays out in drops as if sprayed from a garden hose. You drive at your peril; is the field an expanse filled with gunpowder?
The very next page (and this pattern continues) is a single lyrical line stretching from the extreme left margin of one page to the extreme right margin of the other page, with a visual image (sometimes photography, sometimes minimalist art, sometimes a combination) accompanying the streaming line. The first long line reads:
toward the bottom of the screen, flower blooming in the morning—soon it fades
the contents of a memory projected, it’s a target image, the world in which she lives is in two pieces
The rhythm of this pattern creates a feeling of pulse and repetition, ebb and flow. It also underscores the cinematic quality of Doppelt’s prose, which is reflected and embodied in the field itself: “objects move, the vase breaks, the buildings crumble; a piece of the ceiling falls and the flies, the walls crack, the furniture dances…The entire city falls, the mountain moves, and its crest, which looks like the bow of a ship, flies off at a single blow; the animals run to higher ground.” There isn’t one narrative that develops in this work as the basic setting transforms unexpectedly.
At one point, the “he” is in a room: “The corners disappear and the windows no longer count. The walls are covered in stains, scars, marks, bands of dark and light: fugue in red, city of dream, ventriloquist, the navigator.” The fugue of voices, the dreamlike images, the narrator being both navigator and ventriloquist—all cue us in to the aesthetics of poem. The poem ends: “Clouds make vast, vague shadows, scenes take shape, images come and go, the field is kinetic. He grows and shrinks in turn, 5 foot 5, 2 foot 10, then 2 inches, then overshadowed by a fly, he spends the whole night stretched out on a bed of leaves, six foot square.”
Reading The Field Is Lethal is like reading a Kafkaesque dream. Even though the single page prose poems place us in a narrative dreamscape, the single streaming line, paired with the minimalist images, pull me in and out of the narrative. However, we learn that the “he” is a somnambulist—a waking dreamer:
The magnetic somnambulist rises before dreaming and walks around the room, unable to go to the field. He sees without eyes, x-glances sharp as rays, hears without ears, a microphone humming, panic and torpor, it was a deeply troubled night. For those who can’t sleep, it never ends, runs in place, never started, never done, a blade of grass right in the middle, just to try to grasp it, even some plants sleep at night.
This book exudes a similar sense of panic and torpor, as the setting transforms the field into a city, amusement park, river, train, stars, chandeliers, freeway intersections, vacant space, mazes, a ghost ship, and shadows. The navigator, lost and unrecognizable, wanders through the text, completely disoriented by the changing world—just trying to grasp it. And this was my experience as well as a reader: I was trying to grasp this waking dream as it changed around me, completely engulfed in its strange rhythms and horizons.
For readers who can’t sleep, I wonder which writer—Nguyen Trai, Barbara Claire Freeman, or Suzanne Doppelt—you will feel most drawn to. Or, perhaps you’re like me and you enjoy the different possibilities of linguistically experiencing the world. Compared to Freeman & Doppelt, I definitely appreciate Nguyen Trai’s humor, peacefulness, and joy. However, I also appreciate how Freeman energetically wrestles with the language of media, politics, race, economics, and war to expose America’s incivilities and to image a different union. I also appreciate Doppelt’s surrealism and her willingness to completely transform the world through the imagination—a power that we would be powerless without.
I am grateful to Counterpath Press for publishing such engaging poetry from a diverse range of cultures and historical periods. I also appreciate Counterpath’s willingness to take risks: it’s a risk to publish poetry in translation and “experimental” poetry in a time of economic recession when even the American readership of poetry seems more interested in flippant national narratives (think Billy Collins) or simplistic racial narratives (think Tony Hoagland). Counterpath provides just what their name suggests: a path that runs counter to dull expectation, a path through which we can encounter something new and deeper.