Letter from the Editor: Issue 20
After a longer than anticipated delay, we are so excited to finally share the latest issue of Alchemy–a double Winter/Spring issue, imbued with the energy of a new season.
In considering the concept of Unlearning, we are reconsidering the way readers engage with texts. Unlearning implies rewiring neural pathways, casting off systems that no longer serve us, being open to surprising interpretations of a text, or challenging how we approach the text in the first place. In this issue, our contributors use the call to refuse the power of the legal system to determine our personhood; to challenge the gaze, the grid & its relationship to colonial power, & the presumed superiority of wealthy urban over common rural life; to redistribute poetry to the public; and to transfigure matter itself from song to wooden vessel (each, in its own way, a receptacle).
Eszter Takacs offers us a fittingly experimental approach: a translation which repurposes Britney Spears’ courtroom testimony, prying open the legalese which trapped Spears into her conservatorship. “Her court testimony transcript…is evidence of binding language that traps, captures and imprisons,” writes Takacs. “The language of the law, the language of fame, the language of simplicity and the language of poetry—these are the moving parts of how we receive the narratives of icons and celebrities. Britney comes from a space and culture of privilege…but the power we thought she had was never real. I’m trying to translate that: that lack of power, both perceived and actual, into the language space of the poet, and, in doing so, unlearning the traditional rules of translation.”
The courtroom appears again in Giovanna Cristina Vivinetto’s poetry, translated by Dora Malech & Gabriella Fee. “What name do you choose, papa-judge?” asks the speaker of the poem, in court to file for a legal name change as part of her transition. “Your swollen hands on my documents, / head — such an ache – full of formulas, / articles, bylaws you’ve found / for me, prepared for my christening.” Vivinetto talks back to the patriarchal legal power structure with a biting condescension, echoing the condescending nature of the hostile systems and legal processes which constrain trans lives and possibilities: “But that’s not all, you tell me. You must / cancel your whole history. / These twenty years need correction / …. / Papa-judge – thank goodness – you know / the remedy. I’ve been yours since the day / you decided to fix me.” Through this faux-pandering, Vivinetto’s piece, similar to Tokacs’ piece, returns power and agency to the speaker otherwise at the mercy of the court.
Another kind of reversal happens in Reem Hazboun Taşyakan‘s translation of Maysun bint Bahdal’s poem, in which the speaker, a reluctant resident of urban Damascus, longs for her beloved home in rural Syria, through a series of quatrains which declare that “[a] humble house / with pulsating souls” is “more beloved than / this illustrious palace,” “[t]he pleasing comfort / of common cloaks / more appealing than / these frivolous lace gowns.” Tasyakan undoes the exoticizing language often used to translate this particular poem to return it to a universal feeling: that of missing one’s home, despite the apparent riches found in exile.
Kerry Cottle’s visual art piece “Grid Subversion” is concerned with relocation as well, this time from Northern California to Albuquerque (occupied Tiwa land). In grappling with her positionality as a white settler of European descent living on indigenous land, Cottle interrogates “the use of the grid as a potentially problematic symbol—something [weaponized] to reduce, compartmentalize, isolate, homogenize” by undoing grid imagery: nudging, toppling, and dissolving its presumed authority. To further decentralize the supremacy of the grid, Cottle makes her work using local invasive plant matter and soil, as well as foraged material. Here, unlearning the primacy of the grid is just one step towards the larger project of unlearning colonial white supremacy and its relationship to land and space.
This issue also contains two exciting autotranslations from Persian, one from Ali Asadollahi, the other two from Maziar Karim. Asadollahi’s poem, “The Labor’s Look” dismembers the body, breaking it down to bellies, thighs, breasts, but most of all, eyes. Like a modern-day Un Chien Andalou, “The Labor’s Look” challenges the gaze by isolating the eye: it is “blinking in a bowl of eye drops,” it is being “scooped out by a spoon,” it “wanders in Tehran’s mean streets’ dirt-cheap shops,” its “yolk and white is stirred with a diamond drill.” The eye, with or without the body that would fold it into the singular lyric “I,” is subjected to multiple scenes of violence, before ultimately giving way to a somatic communion of hands.
Meanwhile, Karim’s incendiary poetics deconstruct a privileged category of “poet,” in favor of a collective “we” which edit the pages of today’s stories over decades and generations. “they fired / a poet / to the mirror of sky / thousands of poems rained down / thousands of people / became poets,” Karim writes. Through this dissolution from individual to populace, Karim elegantly posits a coming-together which is essential to movement: “we are candles / that in the plural of anger / will become a sun.”
Finally, for something absolutely joyful, Mathias Kirchoff presents images from his series “Tribute,” which translates beloved songs into wooden objects, playing with color, form, and texture to convey the feeling of the original text. We hope you delight in these as much as we do.
Special Issue II
This is where I would normally sign off, but a double issue deserves a double introduction (befitting our 20th issue in the year 2022).
In Issue #19, we shared some translations of contemporary Russophone poets, facilitated by the Latvia-based Russian poet Dmitry Kuzmin, with the goal of sharing many more in this issue. But in the midst of our selection process, way back in February, Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered an unprovoked, unjustified, brutal invasion of Ukraine.
As with many outlets, we struggled with how to proceed. We agreed this was a moment to highlight dissenting Eastern European voices, as opposed to poets from the country waging an unprovoked attack on Ukraine. And yet, it is also a time to highlight the fact that language is not bound by borders, and to expect that language presupposes fidelity to a regime is to invoke the same rationale that underscores imperialist nationalist violence. As a compromise, we have chosen to share Russian-language translations only by Russophone poets who live in Ukraine, who have left Russia since the 2014 anti-Ukrainian military aggressions, and who have vocally opposed the war. Further, we are excited that this issue also includes translations of Ukrainian poets and writers, many of whom are in direct conversation with the war and the circumstances leading up to it.
Maxim Borodin’s, Fyodor Svarovsky’s, and Sergej Timofejev’s poems all give us surrealistic, melancholic, darkly humorous portrayals of urban life, in which modern comforts contend with a profound internal uneasiness: razor blades line the doors of subway cars; an office worker laments losing touch with the material world; a woman designs “an advertising campaign for feelings, because there are none left;” girls lock themselves in club bathrooms, come out with secretive looks, and later turn into garden benches. It is often said that the Russian word toska is untranslatable (though I believe “melancholy” and “ennui” may approach it). Here, at least the elements that comprise it are not.
Conversely, the shadows hanging over the urban life portrayed by Victoria Amelina, translated by Grace Mahoney, and Maria Galina, translated by both Dasha Koltunyuk and students in Victoria Somoff’s translation seminar, are bracingly specific. Galina’s cities are militarized landscapes: soldiers are ever-present, whether standing in the town square or “hanging from the skies.” A spinstress by the roadside is dismissed as “beyond reason,” her madness characterized by her errant labor: “All of your skeins are different colors / But we need identical shirts, / Khaki-colored uniform berets.” Meanwhile, in “The Depth,” Amelina shows us Lviv from the perspective of Dom: a dog, whose sense of smell allows him to perceive the city in a layered, palimpsestic way unreachable by humans: “Here, yesterday, milk was spilled…and here recently coffee has been sold…And there, already long ago—the stones record everything for us—someone was killed. There’s still the scent of someone’s determination to live, and of hope, and of that summer evening that was slashed apart in the 1940s.” Yet, even to this gifted narrator, a coherent truth is elusive. The dog can sense pain, but can’t tease apart victims from executioners, can’t parse out names or nationalities. Trying to supplement through overheard conversations is no easier: “about the same event some neighbors shout “occupation” and others use the word “liberation…And there are still traces of which no one speaks at all, not a word…” Dom reminds us that cities are as complex as the people who inhabit them. The soil contains deep violence, but, simultaneously, deep joy: kisses, first steps, fountains & public parks, loci of happiness and gathering.
Pavel Goldin’s poems are both layered and surreal, playful and sinister. Alice falls asleep in the heather and encounters a warm, affectionate little girl, but the child’s embraces are foreboding, foretelling a future where you “work until [you] die” and your children go to war and learn to shoot machine guns. In the second poem, in the form of another confession between women, a niece writes to her aunt from behind “enemy” lines of another Russian war, this time in Georgia. She has “married / the head terrorist,” and “goes to mosque” while “making biological robots.” With a masterful economy of language, Goldin leverages the fear of a sinister Orient to poke holes into Russian supremacy: “We’ll take away Kazan and Kursk / come visit me…”
In the Ukrainian Yiddish poet Khane Levin’s “The Levy,” translated from Yiddish by Reyzl Grace, we encounter another woman at war: this time not as a nurse but “on a horse, on the frontline, in the fire!” Levin served in the Red Army during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, transgressing expectations of Jewish womanhood. “Our daughter plays with rifles! / — Mama, the world goes on! / I, too, can saddle a horse / like a goy, like a shikse. / I’ve made love in bushes. / The world burns and the girl glows. / Beside me, a cold rifle. / On me, two hot hands.” Through Levin’s passionate language, I am reminded of the women now fighting to defend Ukraine from Russian occupation.
Occupation, as we know, arrives not only at the physical level but at a cultural and linguistic one. In Grace’s other translation, “O, My Language,” by Rashel Veprinski, Grace reflects on the ways language is held not only by native speakers but by second-language learners, and expatriates trying to reconstruct their relationship with native tongues. “The present war with Russia now threatens what remains of the language there,” Grace writes, “through both the physical destruction of libraries and archives and the dispersal of remaining speakers. As Ukrainian forests burn, yet another generation of children will, like Veprinski, have to replant them from cuttings of a language that, somehow, they will need to draw from their own cells.”
Finally, I am thrilled to share Alexandra Kutovoy’s translation of Okean Elzy vocalist Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s poem “Where’d you come from, my loathing?”, originally recited in early March at a hospital in Zaporizhia. In it, Vakarchuk grapples with being overcome by a deep, dull, all-consuming hatred in response to the Russian invasion. As an artist, Vakarchuk understands that such feelings corrode, destroy. But how can it be possible to play the hits, to live a nuanced life, when one’s home is under attack? In this lyric, Vakarchuk understands that in order to banish this anguish, one must banish the occupying forces and the devastation they unleash on both the land and the souls of the people.
Thank you, as always, to Alissa Tu, Reem Taşyakan, Kevin Jang, Lucien Herzog, Aminta Meru, Nilufar Karimi, and Bias Collins for being such a thoughtful and devoted editorial team; our tireless faculty advisor Amelia Glaser; Dmitry Kuzmin and Victoria Somoff for sending us their students’ work; and of course all of our featured writers and artists, and everyone who submits work, shares our calls for submissions, and reads this journal.
Ні війні! Слава Україні! Героям слава!
Нет войне! Слава Украине! Героям слава!