Poetry in translation is not particularly well represented in the UK, but the Arc series of parallel text translations is certainly doing great work to alter this state of affairs. Beautifully produced, interesting publications that profile either single authors or a variety of poets in an anthology, Arc’s series of poetry in translation makes work from different cultures accessible – and their choice is almost always sound.
Catalonia, with its turbulent history and distinct national identity, is perhaps a country whose poetry has been lost on the international scene. Arc’s volume comprises the work of six poets who, in their diverse ways, bring us a flavour of life in Catalonia, from political struggle to intimate love poetry – Josep Lluís Aguiló, Elies Barberà, Manuel Forcano, Gemma Gorga, Jordi Julià and Carles Torner are all given a good quantity of space in the anthology.
First is Charles Torner, whose powerful political work is highlighted in his poem “The Plundering Angel”. He doesn’t shy away from using violent imagery, as we can see in the lines:
the plundering angel comes: swift, with wings of fire setting everything ablaze with fury,
reveals the souls of the books,
splits space wounded with yellows and blues and flames.
This destructive force seems to permeate the book, unsettling old ideas and “revealing the soul” of Catalonia. We see it in “Walking through the Call” by Manuel Forcano, in which the poetic voice is reminiscing about lost love in the Jewish quarter, when he stumbles upon a far greater loss:
the fall of Jerusalem,
and by the photos of Auschwitz
I will weep.
Here, personal loss is literally overlaid by cultural encoding – they are building a Jewish museum in the house of a past lover. This accretion of culture is everywhere in these poems – meanings laid over each other that require us to translate, as it were, from the political to the personal, and back again.
Josep Lluís Aguiló, for example, devotes a poem to the idea of “Parellelisms”: events of a similar nature (in this case, a horrific nature), that occur throughout history. His scope is very broad:
acquired their testicular cancer
before puberty. Stunted
miners. All this reminds us of other
Belgian Congo, Auschwitz, Vukovar, Mostar,
Sierra Leone, Thailand, Iraq.
Enough. Draw your own conclusions.
Some of Aguilo’s poetic voice may be lost in the political message which he is attempting to communicate, but this poem is nevertheless fascinating. Rather than put forward the common idea that history repeats itself, Aguilo instead emphasises a continuous, but evolving, series of atrocities, eliminating the idea that humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes and instead putting forward the chilling idea that they do so because they wish to.
In contrast, Elies Barberà’s poetry is located in a more immediate, experiential space. “Industrial Estate” depicts a scene common to most urban dwellers:
it is eight o”clock in the evening in the bus.
human or animal there is a stink of thick pork fat
that the blade of the nose cuts in two.
The bus, with its disgusting smells of private life in a public space, is the setting for a broad reaching and highly political poem about the nature of economic inequality and capitalist systems of oppression. Its subtle, relatable beginning, however, ensures that the reader is led into the rallying cry gently and asked to identify with the speaker throughout the poem.
This collection adjusts the cultural landscape and introduces into more hands poets who should have wide recognition. Whilst at times this collection can seem to err a little heavily on the side of the explicitly political, it is nevertheless an enlightening addition to the Arc series.