Steven R. Luebke
Ars Interpres No. 3 (October 2004)
Alexander Deriev, Editor (deriev@passagen.
se); Rusthallarevagen 20, 18769 TÄBY,
Stockholm, Sweden; Subscription: $19.90
single copy. For international ordering
information and submissions see
ARS INTERPRES describes itself as “an international
journal of Poetry, Translation, and Art.” It is an attractive, substantial
collection representing writers and artists from many geographic and cultural
backgrounds. For example, the “Notes on Contributors” section includes
writers and artists from the U.S., Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, the
Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Poland, and Ireland, and that covers only the
first four of the ten pages in that section. Many of the poems in the volume
have been translated into English from other languages.
The issue discussed here contains 184 pages (this inc
the table of contents and notes on contributors, but it is still a hefty
amount of material for one edition of a magazine). The cover is interesting.
The text is printed on high-quality paper and the print is easy to read.
It appears that each issue of ARS focuses on a
different theme. Another issue of the magazine is titled “Intersecting
Senses.” The issue reviewed here is “Blessing of the Beasts.” Not surprisingly,
it contains many works— poems, brief prose pieces, photographs, drawings,
and essays—that in one way or another focus on animals. Considering the
title of the issue, the cover art, a photo of a katydid playing a flute
superimposed on a photo of a human ear, has interesting metaphorical implications.
The list of animals is about as diverse as the backgrounds of the authors
themselves: turkey, pig, monarch butterfly, swan, duck, raven, cow, cat,
fox, hawk, woodpecker, horse, snake, eagle, grasshopper, mollusc, hyena,
jaguar, giraffe, kangaroo, elephant, leopard, quail, deer, raccoon, bees,
bass, lady bug, cockroach, iguana—they’re all here. One poet contributed
five poems about tigers. There is even a poem about Nixon’s dog, Checkers.
If all this isn’t enough, there are Mo sonnets by Bertolt Brecht and two
poems by Stephane Mallarme.
The poetry is mostly free verse, though some of the poems
early on, especially, are light, rhyming pieces. One of the opening pieces,
J. Kates’ “Like Bank Robbers, Monarch Butterflies” is a humorous example
whose opening lines illustrate how we use the human to relate to the non-human:
Like bank robbers, monarch butterflies
hide out in Mexico until the heat’s off,
or seasons change in some other wise,
and then head home to live it up.
The rest of the poem tells us more about the monarch, but returns to
the human focus as the speaker reflects on his own, less adventurous existence:
I would not dream of being a butterfly
For all the tao in China. Nosirree—
Even a short commute where I might die
At one end and the other discourages me.
A similar approach is seen in Ilya Bernstein’s “To A Cockroach,” which
appears toward the middle of the volume. The poem begins by describing
the rewarding peril of looking closely at what most of us regard as a repulsive
Daring, I approach you, cockroach
And I grasp your ignored grace
Once I overcome the outrage
Of your nearness to my face.
Leave it to the artist to unearth something beautiful, to discover her
own kinship to what the majority considers loathsome: “your body-plan and
mine. . . ./ Share principles of design.”
Many of the poems make similar use of their animal tenors.
For instance, John Kinsella’s “Wild Turkeys” draws us a picture of the
birds feeding “In the rough grey waste of cornstalks” but then transforms
the terrain into a surprising metaphor. The turkeys “make a sequence /
but only if the reader works at it. . . They might bind the narrative together.”
Here Kinsella’s language implies a philosophical question about our perception
of the natural world: can we really experience it as ding an sich,
the thing itself, or do we impose our own sense of meaning or desire for
meaning upon it? Why must there be a sequence? Why do we need to bind things
together? Because we’re human, of course, and we’re constantly about the
business of trying to make sense of everything. The picture of loss or
devastation described in the first line is picked up again near the end
of the poem where the speaker acknowledges, “The woods are getting less.”
Like the turkeys’ search for food, poets and readers attempt to salvage
some kind of nourishing meaning out of the “waste” of the world in which
they live. Kinsella’s following poem, “Pigshed,” evokes the life of those
porcine denizens “big fat grunter, twist-to-scratch, / romance against
These simple phrases name the thing itself describe what it does, and
draw a conclusion about its intent. Once again, it’s a combination of portraying
the thing itself even while projecting a human meaning on it.
Other poems, such as Hildred Crill’s “Sent Us Of The Air—”
emphasize the thrill that results from experiencing the otherness of the
natural world. It begins with a startling image that challenges our sense
of cause and effect, our usual way of thinking:
It takes so much light
to force leaf out in the birch twig
that suns won’t set
but rise again.
The poem goes on to describe the speaker searching for animals at night,
the desire to “trade stares / with the watchful reindeer.” She declares
the animals’ “foreignness / a guarantee against lies.” To commune with
nature unmediated, then, is to discover a kind of truth.
One way of expressing one’s connection to the other is
to try to speak in its voice. The persona of Cynthia Hogue’s “The Seal
Woman,” as the title suggests, conflates human and animal voices. The poem
begins with the voice of the seal and goes on to describe the anguish of
the one who witnesses the hunt:
But this night I am alone.
I have seen how the strange calls of men
put limbs like their own
on my sisters, stripped their fur
to freezing white skin.
As the title suggests, however, the poem is also a commentary on patriarchy.
The seal wants to follow her sisters,
…but they said,
in voices already altered,
They gave you no name;
you must stay there.
I waited to be named a long time.
Now I wait for my sisters.
To be named, to be chosen . . . one could make rather frightful inferences
about marriage or about other ways women have been defined through the
words men use to describe or refer to them.
In addition to the poems, there is a reminiscence of Joseph
Brodsky, an essay on the myths of the Australian wheat belt, and an essay
on typographic performance (animals figure in here, too). Finally, there
is an interview: a conversation about e painting. The casual or serious
reader might find this odd, but as the old woman in Candide says, “that
is how we judge everything when we leave our own country.” Reading the
conversation, one learns that this elephant drawing is a practice that
has roots in the ancients, the first description of it appearing in the
writings of Pliny the Elder. And it is not merely Dadaesque nonsense, apparently,
since the money generated from the elephants’ work, if that is what one
is to call it, is used to help the animals survive. There are even color
photographs of an elephant at work (her name is Renee) and her finished
creation and a chimp (named Mikki) with a camera.
The art in the volume is of various types. There are,
as mentioned, photographs. The two by Jurek Holzer, which he says described
the relationships between animals and people, are funny. Those curious
will have to get a copy of the journal, since the photos are not available
for viewing on the web page. The other photographs, prints, and drawings
are interesting though puzzling (they were to me, anyway). The illustration
by Antoni Albalat appears to go along with a juxtaposed poem about molluscs.
The drawings by Mitrich were confusing to me; the accompanying commentary
written in Russian appears to be (based on the translation of one of my
colleagues) a kind of quasi-biblical prophecy. One wonders why, in a magazine
where everything else is translated into English, that was not done in
this case: perhaps because the commentary was hand printed by the artist
and therefore considered part of the illustration.
Many readers will find ARS INTERPRES a worthwhile
experience. The magazine has lots of variety (even when it focuses on one
theme) in both the content and style of the work presented. Many readers
will be fascinated simply by the range of the authors, and the average
reader could certainly benefit from the opportunity to expand his or her
familiarity with contemporary poetry from all around the world.