For the last two weeks, we presented the nonfiction and fiction winners of our annual Close Approximations translation contest, picked by Margaret Jull Costa and Ottilie Mulzet respectively. This week, we present the poetry winners: Swedish poet Marie Silkeberg and her co-translator Kelsi Vanada for their rendition of Silkeberg’s rapid-fire prose poetry, presented in squares, after the black squares of Malevich. Judge Michael Hofmann, one of the six most esteemed literary translators working today according to The Wall Street Journal, whittled his selection down to five entries. “Thereafter, things might have gone differently, all my choices were so incomparably dissimilar. In the end, I asked myself what poems would I most like to see published, to read a book of, to live with and deepen my understanding of, and that gave me my winner.”
—The editors at Asymptote
said his name. to whom. why. a crossing point. a home. army hotel. attachment building zone. adoptions. Hanoi. soldiers. infants. storm’s coming. we were at the red river. saw a wholly naked bleeding man wrapped in blue plastic. two policemen followed him. humidity rises. after the rain. storm now over Ha Long Bay. literature’s temple. the black space he falls into. rain falls over the streets. people wander in large plastic sheets. hurry. a Chinese man. or Vietnamese. wide round eyes. when I turn around we look each other in the eye. a glance. a glancing moment. double stage. the actors laugh. at our naiveté. examine how it feels. to be able to feel such confidence. to tell a sad story about a family in peacetime. in the morning. in half-sleep. in precisely his eyes. it is raining. I had no luck finding any cigarettes. dial 209 he says. to order. is not the heart the organ of repetition writes M. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. do you lose. or find. so many people everywhere. at each task. in clusters. taxi drivers waiters flower vendors. high humidity. the seven eight month-old children. the expectant parents. how does it sound. she asks the Vietnamese actors. the village you come from. big clusters. flocks of mopeds move among each other. rush between the cars. rapid movements of sadness tenderness run over her face. one pillar pagoda. disgust and pleasure. desire and anger. delta. the black square. darkness. at six o’clock already. begins to fall
the red river’s red-brown waters. we cast ourselves out into the traffic stream. the broad street. five motorcycles in breadth. in bike traffic measurements. much higher speed. at the lake we saw a dead fish. the shore. the water’s edge. full of offal. fruit skins. scraps. the dead fish on its side. its staring eye. understood only then what he spoke about. the environment. the problems. only then. for the surgical masks on women. children. and piled up in shops. and the family he says. the family unit splintered. the cities are too big. the difference between poor and rich. increasing. freedom of speech. not being allowed to say everything. anything. to give the site away to someone else. or understand justice differently. how it arises. how its horizon is drawn. Gulf of Tonkin. boat all-the-way still. surrounded by other boats lit up in darkness. full moon. the mountains are dark silhouettes. I swim. paddle. into something immense tall green. vast nature. look out into darkness to the opening to the sea. his eyes become sensitive. wounded. when I ask him about the war. dragon of the sky. that is what Ha Long means he says. or in the sky. what do you hope for I ask. peace he answers. no more war. nature. the tide he says. they fought with nature. with the help of nature. when the tide went out the whole fleet ran into steel-covered pilings. hidden underwater. three victories. he says. long border. history. he saw a dragon in the sky. twice the clouds shaped themselves into a dragon. a thousand-kilometer border with China he says. shows me his sandals. the sole’s underside. halo. a large magnetic ring ringing the sun. blue outer edges. unnerving he says. the sun. the doubling. before major natural disasters
in reverse. reverberations. two boys went home from the baker’s. crossing the paving stones. puddles. the systematic blasting. by hand. house by house. went astray. went along the canal. Spree. construction site. castle. cathedral. a large open space. snow sculptures. mirror-cubes. every time I try to imagine the city I see Sergel’s Torg fronting me. the black and white plaza. snow crystals outside the city center. like a blockade. volcano. volcanic ash. bashful Pompeii. cats in Istanbul. junction. a glimpse of the Bosporus. je t’interpelle dans la nuit. Anatolia. seagulls angle. two by two. across the sky. the courtyard. filters down into the alley. the passage. sun through the clouds. awnings. closed eyes. the choice not to travel. yet. maybe I am hallucinating he says but it feels like you already said that. at the gates. started bleeding freely. from all wounds simultaneously. huge cargo ships went toward the strait. the opening. disappeared out to sea. two sides. the alley. the courtyard. the face. strange amalgam. freezing. all the coins I cast into the tollbooth. emptied my pockets. for a prayer never to have to return again. see their faces are so alike. in some angle of consciousness. over the bridge. felt that it was unhelpable. loss. departure. the first. the second. I do not know. I will try to feel pain all the time he says. the abyss I say. has started moving. the dark alley. a cat rubs against my leg. a man whose legs are capped off at the kneecaps moves across the sunlit sidewalk. a heavily loaded truck gets stuck in the broken street. sways. a phrase with two memories. the bottles clink. open so to speak. until they are wholly still. on both sides. thus set free. city glittering. in sunset search after eros
a test of the heart. the membranes. could come in the morning. sleep. a measure of freedom. somewhere dogs bark. in the night. anxiety like a contraction. dizziness in the body. a state of shock. kicks. kicks. against fetal membranes. the streetlight-lit greenery. horned owl in the awakening city. searching gaze. over the facades. boulevards. all the cars. among lilacs and chestnuts. pollution. bullet holes in house walls. no wind in the night. homeless dogs. a flock. beyond sight. earthquake. Vrancea. six point five on the Richter scale she says. the replica. I stood in the doorway. the house swayed. all the concrete. books fell from the shelf. porcelain. the piano she says. like a black monster slowly moving across the floor. the last books fell. the body’s sensors. the hair stood up on my neck. in that moment I could have strangled someone she says. out of terror. I knew I could kill. in winter morning stillness. a flashing string of images. understandings. in the borderland. beyond the border. Stalin square. famine victims. a black dog in darkening mist. the unlit city. in haze. trembling exhaust light. the voice that speaks. has spoken. about birthing. across continents. pazhalsta. woman and child. at the crossing. the baby was all-the-way silent. cried silently. in reluctant light. the white room. I shudder every time I hear it she says. the tragedy of being a human being. after being a woman. Ukrainian. doubling in the labyrinth. to enter the darkness. change places. be left behind. become one of them. unable to be re-translated. at the very threshold of the station. birth. second birth. to feel the unexperienced. the squinting glance. the double. to embrace. life. death. winter-shadow. black or white magic. each reconstruction a loss. an erasure of erasure. it began to happen in my own life she says. Andrea’s Slope. acacias. agile and burning. fire smoke in December chill. gray military coats displayed on the fence. a line of men raking leaves on the hillside. reluctant dawn light. white church. white patterned synthetic curtains. stillness over the cobblestone streets. silent subway tunnels. despite the many people. breath like a cloud over her frozen fingers. pork fat. the taste. the smell. a strange perfume in the orange soap. revenge. torture. transition period. no end of history. no end of geography she says. archipelago in a bleeding sunset. during landing. with incredible speed. the sun sinks at the brink
the camera died in the wet snow. moisture. looked out the window. the hotel room’s. darkness. city lights. the giant highway. for the all-too-few cars. a man’s movements. a woman’s. a man so drunk he falls to the floor. crawls up. tries to sleep in a woman’s lap. falls when his friends try to raise him. across the chair. the table. falls. a surplus. seventeen years he says. repeats. answers nothing when I tell him some people said I should not come here. the fear of not getting out. home. wakes me up. keeps me awake. the day they celebrated spring. pancakes. round like the sun he says when I ask why. about the many heated burners. and points toward the gray sky. after showing us the monument at the subway to those trampled to death in the panic. women in traditional folk dresses dance on the big stage in the cold. with big coats over their dresses. when I ask her about the children. the music. her face lights up. see a small saxophone. an earring. glimmering under her long hair. their lives were destroyed. they say. after the protests. they will never get any work. be monitored. outcasts. the rest of their lives. they repeat. terror almost a smell in the room. in the restaurant. the entire city was destroyed in the war they say. we walk through the tunnel to the subway. the similarity cuts deep and quick. golden color. a small intense glowing fire-flame is the only thing that makes me ascend the stairs. through memory. detours. sun. the necessary movement. what they know. what they here call the events in Africa. what they are told. an uprising. a revolution. closed rooms. enclaves. established. several. one. one long image chain. dissonance. drunk men stumble into the hotel. four-thirty in the morning. I rise. drop the big key to the floor. move toward the lift
Translated from the Swedish by Marie Silkeberg and Kelsi Vanada
To read the rest of the article, hop over to Asymptote’s brand-new Spring issue uncovering new writing from 27 countries including an exclusive interview with Man International Booker Prize-shortlisted translator, Ann Goldstein. Click here for the interview.
Marie Silkeberg was born in Denmark in 1961. She lives in Sweden and is a poet, translator, nonfiction writer, and poetry filmmaker. She has published seven books of poetry, Till Damaskus (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2014) being the most recent. She has translated Susan Howe, Rosmarie Waldrop, Marguerite Duras, and Inger Christensen, among others, and is now working on a translation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. The poetry films The City (2012), Your Memory Is My Freedom (2012), The Celebration (2014), and Snow (2015) have been made in collaboration with Ghayath Almadhoun, a Palestinian poet born in Syria, and can be viewed at Moving Poems. Silkeberg’s collaborations also include a book of essays written as a series of letters and dialogues by seven Scandinavian poets on Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina. Silkeberg has been a professor of creative writing at the University of Gothenburg and works now as a guest professor of cultural studies at the University of Southern Denmark.
Kelsi Vanada is from Denver, Colorado, and will graduate with her M.F.A. in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in May. She has also taken classes in the International Writing Program (IWP), where she met and worked with Marie Silkeberg in fall 2015. Vanada is excited to enter the M.F.A. in literary translation at Iowa this fall. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Iowa, and translates from Spanish and the Scandinavian languages. She received a poetry-writing grant in the summer of 2015 from the Danish American Heritage Society to travel to Denmark to research her family history. Her poems and translations have been published most recently in Prelude, Berfrois, New Delta Review, and The Bridge.
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