Here at the blog, we continue to be amazed by the breadth of the material featured every quarter at Asymptote. From our Korean literature feature to a Japanese dadaist‘s outrageous fusion of text and image, our Spring 2018 issue again proves that the most groundbreaking material is being produced far from the centers of Anglo-American literary dominance. This issue’s Tolstoyan theme, “Unhappy Families,” might suggest an individualized focus on how each of us is unhappy in our own way. However, the blog editors’ selections all touch on wider themes of war and genocide, suggesting an undercurrent of collective trauma beneath the stories of personal travail. These pieces are just a small taste of the vast terrain covered in the Spring 2018 issue. You won’t want to miss any of it!
Iya Kiva’s three poems from “little green lights” (translated by Katherine E. Young) almost immediately caught my attention in this new Spring issue. It is divided into three sections that are distinguishable through their tone—the first one resentful, the second satirical, and the third calmly futile. The second section revolves around the punning of воды [water] and война [war], which is perhaps a rare instance when the translation succeeds even more than the original. The war in the Donbass region of Ukraine is now in its fifth year of conflict between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, with no end in sight. Kiva’s ironic assertions of “what if there’s no war by the time night falls” and “in these parts it’s considered unnatural / if war doesn’t course through the pipes” creates two possible interpretations: the disbelief at the war’s complete destruction, to the point that there is no running water (as if a war could be comfortably fought from both sides), and the biting accusation that war, not water, is essential to a people’s survival, as well as their nation. Running water is no longer the passive object for Romantic contemplation, but has become a basic expectation for life in a modern society, tragically, just as war has. On the other hand, not everything in Kiva’s poems is double-edged. One of my favourite lines is the simplest: “and it’s really beautiful / like in a Tarkovsky film”, which at first sounds like a platitude, but becomes charming with the realisation that nothing more can be said about a Tarkovsky film without slipping into pretention. I highly recommend our readers to delve into this poem, to question Kiva’s stance and at the same time to feel as if their own ideas are being questioned.
Perhaps this has something to do with a recent reading of The Turn of the Screw and a fascination with ghost stories, but I have recently been thinking a lot about how traces of the past emerge in the present, shaping it in often unexpected ways. Nasrollah Kasraian’s “The Photographer’s Notes” (translated by Poupeh Missaghi) beautifully explores those traces in the form of photographs and the stories that accompany them. The piece asks how these moments, captured in images and words, shared on social media and in books, return to the present. In “I Am What I Can’t Remember,” however, Jacques Fux examines the absence of those traces and how those missing memories actually compose his identity.
“I Am What I Can’t Remember” reads as an extended list of moments that the narrator acknowledges must have happened in his life, but that he cannot remember. The conceit of beginning every sentence with “I can’t remember . . .” is highly effective as it draws the reader into a sort of trance while also opening up the multiplicity of meaning behind forgetting and remembering. What the author expresses is a universally-relatable experience: much of who we are today is made up of everything that has happened in our past, including the countless moments that we do not remember. Yet it all happened, we gained mobility, began to explore the world, learned to communicate, interacted with those around us, and understood what defined us.
The idea of difference and the ways we differentiate ourselves from the world and understand individual objects, people, and stories, is key to this piece. While the narrator thinks about the universal experiences of early childhood development, he also weaves in his individual history, the ways he learned about his brother’s learning disabilities, his Jewish identity, and his family’s experience during the Holocaust with sentences like this: “I can’t remember realizing that my teachers weren’t Jewish, that the world wasn’t Jewish, and that the tattoos with strange numbers on your grandparents’ arms weren’t a normal, common, everyday thing.” The inability to remember specific childhood moments is a frustration that feels deeply personal and familiar as I read this piece, but it is a reminder that sometimes forgetting is an essential part of living, of moving forward.
Spearheaded by the anthology Bones Will Crow, there has been a surge of contemporary Burmese poetry coming out in English in recent years. During decades of military rule, many of these poets distributed their work in underground samizdat editions, or were forced into exile. Their unruly, satirical, jarring poems prove Borges’ adage that censorship is the mother of metaphor. In ko ko thett’s English poetry collection, The Burden of Being Burmese, the author bio makes a terse, bold claim: “The burden of being burmese is not just his. It is also yours.” What is this burden for the Burmese poets? and how do non-Burmese readers partake in this burden?
We might find some answers in thett’s new translations from Aung Khin Myint’s Trojan Horsemeat. “Going to the Origin” mentions the suicides of Jan Palach (a Czech dissident who self-immolated) and Paul Celan. Myint echoes the latter’s “Death Fugue” in what is likely a Holocaust reference: “Glad hands sticking out of train windows have existed in all previous ages. Some people have returned. Some others haven’t.” Myint makes it clear that these genocides are not peculiar to one time and place: “The metropolis you have grown up in is horsing around on the road paved with bones . . . Birthplace doesn’t necessarily mean the Origin.” It’s hard not to hear this as a reference to the plight of the Rohingya today, which here becomes not merely a Burmese burden, but one that we all share as witnesses to the past century’s history.
A commentator in Jacket2 wrote of ko ko thett’s “cannibalistic poetics . . . piling it all into the stomach of the poem, each morsel separated only by a comma.” A similar voraciousness exists in Myint’s “Trojan Horsemeat,” where the narrator tells about his wife’s “craving” for horsemeat: “Horsemeat is sweet. It’s full of nutrients. If necessary, on horsemeat, you can run away from your past as fast & as far as possible . . . Eating a horse is like eating all the miles that beast of burden has travelled.” Consumption of the horse’s meat can, of course, be read for its sexual overtones (“sexcalibur hrosspower,” to take a Joycean formulation from Finnegans Wake). But the slaughtering of animals, which happens in hidden lairs most of us would prefer not to think about, might also recall the years of censorship, or perhaps the silence of Myanmar’s leadership toward the Rohingya genocide. Where there is a silencing, the poem ultimately suggests a return of the repressed, a day of reckoning: “One day, we will have to do business with horses. It’s inevitable. A Trojan Horse will enter our conscience at the least expected moment.”
Enjoy these pieces? Here are some other selections to get you started in the Spring 2018 issue: