These conversations in and around poetry always attempts I think to reiterate in new ways to experience being alive…and love between people: the desire, frustration, denial as well as the joy…we gravitate in our work to those relationships that hurt, or that traumatize. The painfulness of relations between men and women is often the concern in Mira Rosenthal’s books—indeed how women look upon the world when they feel oppressed by it, traumatized by it; what hinders the body being in the world as curious participant—and can the world offer solace against it, as she writes in her newest book: “When violence terrifies us / with its pattern, we go looking / for stones on the earth—”
Lately my mind is filled with the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke—as I’ve been teaching a four week class with Ben Fama called The Unsayable. I can’t help but think about the strong themes of ode and psyche reflected in Rilke’s poems—and the task of translating those themes from the original German into English. In listening to this topic come up my conversation with the poet and translator, Mira Rosenthal, which is today’s podcast, I’ve realized that Rilke has opened up for me for me this really long overdue appreciation and investigation of the phenomena of translation in poetry—what are we talking about with poetry, but the subtlety and intricate power of words? And yet, we do not all share the same words, so investigating the possibility of meaning of a line of poetry, I think this heightens the awe and frustration poets have with language itself, its perceived limits and its strange, taken for granted power.
I reference in the start of our conversation, Robert Hass’s introduction to Joseph Cadora’s Translation of Rilke’s “New Poems,” in which Hass is discussing the issue of translation via an essay, which I say is by WH Auden—in fact, I realized I was mixing up two pieces—the essay in question is Walter Benjamin’s 1923 “the Task of the Translator” which Benjamin wrote reflecting on his time trying to translate Baudelaire. I wanted to quote in full what Hass wrote regarding this celebrated essay in his introduction: “Benjamin, curiously drawn both to Marxism and the Kabbalah, begins with what is a symbolist-era idea: the ideal version of the poem exists somewhere beyond the poem in its original language and any of its translations. Or, as [Benjamin] puts it, ‘the original and the translation [are] recognizable as fragments of a greater language.’ Or ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a wok in his re-creation of that work.’”
Mira Rosenthal whose first book, The Local World, was the winner of the 2010 Wick Poetry Prize and published by Kent State University Press, 2011. Maura Stanton writes that in The Local World, “memory is not a static screen for nostalgia but a fierce journey into the self where danger resides. These beautifully crafted poems work through a series of brilliant tropes, a tissue pattern resting over a piece of cloth, a knife cutting from the inside, a boy shadow-boxing with himself, a sunflower ‘like the mast of ship rising tall.’ Rosenthal is both a traveler and a thinker. Her poems, elegant marvels, dramatize her personal struggle to understand and transform the past.”
Many of these concerns of course return in her second collection, Territorial, which came out last year from University of Pittsburgh Press, was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Pitt Poetry Series. Here again we’re in the contrasted lyrical realm of earth, tangible world, and the less tangible topography of memory. Lisa Russ Spaar of The Adroit Journal writes: “Mira Rosenthal’s Territorial offers an alchemical encounter with language that is in itself a form of hope despite all manner of endangerment… In poem after beautiful poem, Rosenthal returns repeatedly to the ways in which exploration of the territories we inherit and inhabit is perhaps the only salvific recourse… The speaker stays with her story, her fear, her suspicion, and pushes into it, exploring and then foregoing old, knee-jerk images in favor of a new way of seeing and surveying the world.”
Mira Rosenthal is an NEA Fellow, a Stegner fellow, and her work has appeared widely in magazines such as Poetry, The New York Review of Books, Harvard Review, and Ploughshares. She has translated numerous books of poetry from Polish into English, including Krystyna Dąbrowska’s Tideline and Tomasz ROSE-IT-SKI’s Różycki’s Colonies, which won the Northern California Book Award. She is an Associate Professor of creative writing at Cal Poly.