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This item is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.

News & Notes
Language and Power

Sasha Dugdale writes: Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020) has won the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. DMZ Colony is a book-length work, and the second book in a trilogy, which began with Choi’s Hardly War in 2016.

Don Mee’s body of work is concerned with language, history and geopolitics. The title, DMZ Colony, refers to the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, and one of the central episodes in the work is an interview the author conducted with a Korean ‘Communist sympathiser’ Ahn Hak-sop who lives in the DMZ and who was treated brutally by the authorities in South Korea. Other episodes recreate the voices of orphans who witnessed genocide by the South Korean army and women who have been beaten until their skin was blue (this last account is accompanied by sketches of thousands of tiny blue angels). The episodes are interspersed by text, images, personal reminiscences and profound and yet delicate meditations on language and power.  

In work remarkable for its fluidity, beauty and operatic qualities, Don Mee Choi traces the political nature of language, and reveals how language itself is formed and deformed by relationships of political power and landscapes of war and colonialisation. As one of the pre-eminent Korean-English translators, Don Mee has written movingly about the act of translation between two modes of being, especially when translation is performed across the fissures of neo-colonialism (as Don Mee describes the relationship between the USA and South Korea). Here that awareness is embodied in disjointed and dreamlike dialogue and the coming together of both languages in one fractured twin-self.

Much has been written about the politics of Don Mee Choi’s groundbreaking work: the two books are unique in their seamless blending of the personal, the political and the historical. But nothing in Don Mee’s work is naked polemic. She begins very simply from her own fractured, exiled language-self and builds outwards, constructing structures of thought, word and expression, just as she painstakingly constructed the many mulberry-paper angels that formed part of a recent exhibition of her visual work in Berlin. The result is a book for our age, a radical (in that it builds from the roots out) philosophy, a new angel of history backing away slowly from the wreck of the century.

When thou hast Donne

The British Library has acquired – ‘saved for the nation’ as they say – a seventeenth-century manuscript of John Donne’s poetry. The ‘Melford Hall manuscript’ is accessible online for everyone and will be available to researchers through the British Library’s Reading Rooms in 2021.

The manuscript was discovered in Melford Hall, Suffolk in 2018. It includes over 130 poems by Donne and is one of the five largest collections of scribal copies of Donne material surviving. It includes famous verse such as ‘The Calme’, ‘To his Mistress Going to Bed’, ‘The Breake of Daye’ and ‘Sunn Risinge’. Created in the early seventeenth century, the 400-page volume features text written in iron gall ink on gilt edged paper and is bound in a quarto gilt panelled calf binding with an oval centrepiece. Donne’s poems were often copied out in manuscript for circulation among aficionados rather than being published for a general readership.

The British Library’s acquisition was supported by a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and funding from the British Library Collections Trust, the Friends of the National Libraries and the American Trust for the British Library.

Dr Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library, said: ‘The British Library’s mission is to make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone and the discovery of this collection of poems presents a major new resource for scholarship. The Melford Hall manuscript provides evidence as to how Donne’s poetry was written, copied and circulated, as well as helping to further shape our understanding of his audiences and patrons.’

A Covid open letter from Shakespeare & Co., Paris

Dear Friends, Thank you so much to the many of you who reached out after our last newsletter asking how you can help the bookshop. It is true that, like many independent businesses, we are struggling, trying to see a way forward during this time when we’ve been operating at a loss, with our sales down almost 80% since March.

With this in mind, we would be especially grateful for new website orders from those of you with the means and interest to do so. Below, we’ve compiled some of our favorite books and merchandise, including our new Le Sac Shopping, made from 100% recycled plastic. And we’re thrilled to announce the opening of enrollment to our 2021 Year of Reading, an annual subscription whereby we mail parcels of books and gifts to you from Paris throughout the year.  

Next year will mark seven decades since our bookshop first opened its doors. Today, each morning, taking down the wooden shutters, opening those same doors, and welcoming readers and writers – whether travellers from across the world or the Parisians who are still able to visit us – always feels like an immense privilege. Because, as well as being a bookshop, Shakespeare and Company is a community, a commune (often literally), of which you are all a part. We are here today, almost seventy years after that first morning, because of you.

We send our best wishes for your health and safety. May we all thrive together soon. With thanks & love,
Shakespeare and Company

Happily, the letter of invitation had the desired effect and the bookshop received a mighty surge of support and seems to have weathered the storm and emerged as vigorous and irreplaceable as ever.

Poetry Archive Now! Wordview 2020

Maggie Sullivan, administrator of the Poetry Archive, writes: The Poetry Archive opened its doors wide and invited poets from around the world to submit work in the form of a homemade video on topics informing their writing during 2020. Before we knew it, the world was forced to close many of its doors and our project took on a whole new dimension. More than 370 poets from 22 countries around the world sent in work for our YouTube channel. Our judges, Imtiaz Dharker, Robert Seatter and Lavinia Singer, chose twenty entries for a Winners’ Collection on the Poetry Archive website. You can access our YouTube channel and Winners’ collection using this link:

Emyr Humphreys (1919–2020)

Sam Adams writes: Emyr Humphreys, the distinguished novelist, poet and cultural historian, died on 29 September 2020 at his home in Llanfairpwll, Anglesey. He was 101. Shards of Light, his last book and third collection of poems (reviewed in PNR 249, 2019), was a remarkable centenary triumph. He was a man of gentle demeanour and strong principle – Christian, humanitarian, rootedly Welsh. A conscientious objector in WWII, he helped succour the human wreckage of military campaigns in North Africa and Italy as a charity worker for the Save the Children Fund, acquiring his third language, Italian, and a staunch European outlook in the process. He was born in the anglicised north-east corner of Wales and the Welsh that was to become the language of his home and social life he learned as a teenager while studying history at UCW Aberystwyth, at the same time as he acquired his commitment to Wales as a nation. Aside from his writing, his career embraced periods as a teacher, in broadcasting and as an academic. He wrote plays in Welsh for S4C, the Welsh-language TV channel for which he had campaigned vigorously, but English remained the medium of the greater part of his creative output. He published twenty-four novels, including the seven-volume sequence ‘Land of the Living’ and his masterpiece, Outside the House of Baal.

Nathan Zach (1930–2020)

Anthony Rudolf writes: Nathan Zach, who died recently within a month of his ninetieth birthday, was by this time the senior Israeli poet. Born in Berlin in 1930, he was six years younger than the late Yehuda Amichai, also born in Germany. Unlike Amichai, Zach was not from a religious family, and unlike Amichai he did not become internationally celebrated among the wider poetry­reading public. Amichai, like Ginsberg and Neruda, was a prodigious maker of poems, a ceaseless producer of song and chant, equally sophisticated but more popular in tone than Zach. Which is not to say that Zach was an elite poet difficult of access. On the contrary, he, like the USA born T. Carmi and the Bukovina-born Dan Pagis and the sabra Moshe Dor, wrote deceptively conversational lyrics. No one spoke like that in real life but during the time of the poem, as in a play or a novel, readers are persuaded by the artifice that they are overhearing a lucid and brilliant talker: the illusion is achieved by mastery of free verse rhythm, subtle syntax, repetition, tonal sophistication, crucial enjambements: pitch-perfect musicality of simulacra, great as-ifs: he deployed most registers of modern poetry and created a great oeuvre. It works as subject matter because of the artifice, complexity made apparently simple. Take away the sophisticated poetical work with language, and you would have jottings.

Zach was of a generation that came after the Russian and East European­influenced Hebrew poets such as Shlonsky and Alterman, kibbutz poets who arrived in the 1920s and whose modernism was deemed antiquated by the poets who came to maturity in the 1950s. Zach, unlike Amichai, edited avant-garde magazines and wrote influential iconoclastic articles, killing the senior gods. His influences were German (as we might expect) and Anglo-American, including Auden and Eliot, Ginsberg and Lowell. His first translator into English was Jon Silkin, who published him in a Northern House pamphlet. Between these two (born in the same year) there was reciprocal influence, and Silkin, the finest Anglo-Jewish poet since Rosenberg, is probably his closest English equivalent.

Zach lived in London for most of the 1970s while studying and teaching at the University of Essex where his friends included the poet and scholar John Barrell. His friends in London included myself, when we both lived in Belsize Park. There was talk of a Menard Press book, which came to nothing, but I obviously included him in Voices in the Ark, my world anthology of Jewish poets co-edited with Howard Schwartz and published in the USA in 1980; although, unlike Amichai, Zach did not rejoice in the possibilities available to a lover of, if not necessarily practitioner of, Jewish tradition. Nor did he go to the other extreme, that of the so-called Canaanite poets and he was not self-consciously avant-garde like David Avidan. Later there were books and selections in translation by Peter Everwhine, Peter Cole and others.

On one visit to Israel, I bumped into Zach in Haifa (where he was for years a professor at the university) outside the Bahai temple, close to his house, and sadly he was a little the worse for wear. Poetry and the demon alcohol. Zach arrived in Mandate Palestine, aged six, in 1936. By the time of his death he had won all the major literary Israeli prizes and many international honours. He participated in the 1948 War of Independence. As a pro-Palestinian activist and politico, his politics were way to the left of the liberal socialists well known outside Israel such as Oz and Grossman. In mainstream circles, the politics aroused as much hostility as his poetics had earlier. Even so, he was eulogised by the President of Israel. His final years were blighted by Alzheimers; the domestic circumstances were much discussed in the press as was his long and complicated relationship with Amichai, whose first book he published when they were close colleagues and friends.

His many books include a translation of Ginsberg’s Kaddish and various German plays. Before his long decline, at his best, he was, like Yehuda Amichai, a charming and brilliant man. But Nathan was more reserved, more intellectual. However, what matters to those who did not have the privilege of knowing him is that he was one of the most important Hebrew poets of the last third of the twentieth century and deserves as much attention as the slightly older and more prolific Amichai. These two major poets, born in Germany, shadowed each other in life, in work and now in death. Rich is the literature which contains two such contemporaries.     

Diane di Prima (1934–2020)

Diane di Prima, the noted Feminist and quondam Beat poet, was born in Brooklyn, attended Swarthmore College but moved to Greenwich Village where she completed her education and emergence. She became a friend of Baraka, Ginsberg, Kerouac, O’Hara and Audre Lorde. For a time she belonged to Timothy Leary’s ‘intentional community’ in upstate New York, then moved to San Francisco in 1968.

In her work, politics and spiritual practice sometimes fuse, and her formal interests sometimes work in a suggestive dissonance with her preferred stream of consciousness voice. She was a kind of Buddhist, and she helped set up the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. A writer, mother and activist, she once told an interviewer, ‘I wanted everything – very earnestly and totally – I wanted to have every experience I could have, I wanted everything that was possible to a person in a female body, and that meant that I wanted to be mother.… […] “Well, nobody’s done it quite this way before but fuck it, that’s what I’m doing, I’m going to risk it.”’

She published forty books, some with manifesto-like metaphorical titles: This Kind of Bird Flies Backward (1958) and Loba (1978, 1998). Her early Memoirs of a Beatnik (1968) was oblique but candid, and Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (2001) relived the same, intense formative years in which, with Baraka, she edited The Floating Bear (1961–69).

She received the National Poetry Association’s Lifetime Service Award and enjoyed grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and other money-dispensing bodies. She taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute and elsewhere.

Lewis Warsh (1944–2020)

David Rosenberg writes: Born 1944 in New York, Lewis Warsh died there, 15 November 2020. He was a pillar of 2nd Generation New York School, as poet, novelist and editor of Angel Hair, The World and Angel Hair Books with his first wife, poet Anne Waldman, and United Artists, mag and books, with his second wife, poet Bernadette Mayer. Attended in hospice by his beloved wife of twenty years, Katt, she called when Lewis lost control of his hands in his last days, putting him on the line, his voice as strong as ever, and worried, the most worried, inquiring voice I’ve known beside my mother׳s. Not about us per se but about our ability to nail down a moment in history. Of course, nothing was ‘nailed down’ except Lewis’s voice in my ear and in the communal ear, for which it is a loving deadpan. ‘“LOVE POEMS” / by Frank O’Hara / (it’s never far off) / Take me down, it says from the shelf / take me down / take me down down / & open / & open me / & open me.’ (1972). It is closest perhaps to Ted Berrigan, the presiding influence of our generation in his provocative range of humorous open-heart surgery. From ‘Train Ride’ (1971, reprinted 2020 by Vehicle Editions): ‘I rent a car & drive it to Wales, & Liverpool, / with / Lewis Warsh, / on Acid!’

His family emigrated from Vilna, Lithuania (‘the Jerusalem of the East’). Lewis showed little evidence in his writing of his Jewish background or family drama. This was in opposition to his lifelong interrogation of history itself, manifesting in his mid-twenties in Part of My History, which I edited at Coach House Press. Rereading it now, I’m struck by its attention, in alternating prose and poetry, strictly to physical movement: who was coming and going within his immediate vicinity. It was more strangely domesticated than Frank O’Hara’s informal (though brilliantly timed) sashaying in verse, our New York School master.

By then, Lewis’s work was known in Canada as a regular contributor to The Ant’s Forefoot, distributed also in England by Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press. Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, John James, and Wendy Mulford asked after him.

Lewis’s first posthumous book, a new edition of his translation of Robert Desnos’s Night of Loveless Nights, will appear from Ugly Duckling Presse.

This item is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.

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