Just in time for Halloween, we welcome the launch of Asymptote’s spookiest, ghouliest issue yet! Featuring an uncanny English-language poetry feature on mythology, major contributions from the likes of Lawrence Venuti and Shi Tiesheng, an embrace of the absurd (rampaging cows, anyone? Or do you prefer a minotaur?), and some phenomenal special features, this latest issue is a must-read—and out now!
We say this every quarter, but it’s impossible (and annoying) to pick absolute favorites. So we (being your loyal blog editors, Eva Richter and Patty Nash), hedge our bets, and have selected two standouts each we really hope you check out. The list isn’t conclusive; feel free to attack our Buzzfed shortsightedness. We’re just happy to be reading.
Patty: I’ve always had a soft spot for Mary Jo Bang, and may or may not have giggled audibly when I heard she was to contribute to Asymptote’s English-language feature. Bang (what a name!) has been widely acclaimed for her own work, but her translation of Dante’s Inferno knocked my socks off (take a look if you get the chance).
Bang is in true form here. The poem is short—or shorter than what I’m used to—and its vocabulary engages clearly, borderline didactically, with things we experience, as readers reading through the Internet, both a paradoxically imaginary non-space and a distinctly measurable, recordable, and trackable one. We don’t know how our doings on the Internet, in the digital realm, will end, but we still let ourselves speak, look, and be looked at.
To what extent are we passive in this exchange, and how are we made passive? What, even, is being exchanged—our myths, our stories, our naked Emperors? Where is our will? I am not sure if Bang answers or even wants to answer these questions. Perhaps I’m still digesting them and I apologize for my vague rhetoricizing. But these questions are certainly at the forefront of my mind, reading lines like this:
You, an open mouth in the middle, plus a shadow that stops the sun and now the shadow is alive inside you. They can see it when you open. Your closed mind won’t counteract what is coming up. Counteract: to oppose and obliterate the effect of.
The poem ends unexpectedly—as it should. Our engagement is not over, yet. We coil around prepositions.
Eva: In this Special Feature, Nowhere People author Paulo Scott paints in quite loving and intriguing colors the writer Graciliano Ramos. Throughout his piece, Scott frequently points out how his own writing and the modern Brazilian literary tradition have been influenced by Ramos, so fans of Nowhere People and Brazilian lit in general will have plenty to mull over by the end.
As one who has not had the good fortune to, as Scott says, “[have] been forced to read [Vidas secas] at school as part of an assignment worth ten percent of the grade,” I was thrilled to learn about Ramos’s work, which takes an existential look at power and class in Brazil, and focuses on Brazilians just barely above complete destitution.
Indeed, Scott writes of Ramos’s masterpiece Angústia that it is “the odyssey of man battling his own dehumanization; even in describing human relations, the narrator goes so far as to use verbs usually reserved for animals.” Scott further goes on to indicate animals’ odd and fascinating roles in Ramos’s work, mentioning that the dog (Baleia) in Vidas secas is treated as narratively equal to the book’s human protagonists. Scott explains that Baleia is the novel’s “dramatic nucleus,” awakening “the reader’s empathy,” but leaves the compelling question of animals’ overall role in Ramos’s critique of capitalism and the country’s class structure ambiguous. To answer that question, I’ll be putting Vidas secas and Angústia next on my reading list.
Patty: These selections, which mark Asymptote’s very first translation from the Galician, are absolutely stunning because they take a trope I think most literati are familiar with—namely, that of the novel-in-dialogue—and meaningfully add to it. This is not Gass, or even (perhaps more famously), Eggers: these are poems that address the speaker whose lips we trace when we read a poem. There is an I, but it is also a not-I, a He, and a She, and a constant reconfiguration of togetherness.
I can’t help but be really impressed with the formal aspects of this poem, which speak to a conceptually strong translation. But it isn’t just formal, or poetry-for-nerds. The language is plain, and the syntax of the poem literally, syntactically, performs what it needs to to re-render memory and sharing. The parenthetical insertions, like theatrical asides or stage directions, are a smarting reminder of context, of story-around-a-text, an about that rounds, asphyxiates, recoils and embraces. Even the parentheses themselves perform this circularity.
But we remember that even circles, as two-dimensional, are splitting—hemispheres are liminal, but distinct divisions of plane. And planes have heritages, lineages:
(They have a father. But they’re not brother and sister, either.)
Eva: Finally, make sure to check out this quite remarkable short story from Taiwanese writer Sabrina Huang, about a fast food worker’s attempts to find love online. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, since this particular fast food worker seems to have the world’s most un-loveable face; Huang’s hilarious, misery-inducing description of him begins, “he was the composite of his grandfather’s freakishly tiny mouth,” and ends, some five lines later, “[and] his uncle’s mole (he was particularly annoyed about this—whoever heard of a mole being hereditary?) and vast quantities of acne, not to mention the petty bourgeois taint they all shared.” So: yes. It’s hard for him out there. And even when things seem to be getting better, they’re at the same time also getting… stranger.
This story—between its sense of humor, alternately melodramatic and absurdist elements, and stand-out lines—is a wonderful, impossible-to-put-down read. Jeremy Tiang’s translation feels natural and emphasizes the story’s oddly formal tone. But I could go on all day, so let’s end these highlights with a quote from “The Girl of His Dreams” about Huang’s depressive, unattractive fast food worker:
“Beauty is a form of class, and the physical body is a weapon of class warfare. As he walked through the city meeting gaze after gaze, he knew he had become a conqueror.”