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Review: Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees, by Jan Wagner

Lorna Hanlon, DURA, 27 September 2016

In the prize-winning "Quince Jelly", the translator-poet's skill is in evidence in every line, and the end result is a beautiful piece of work which sings with sensuality and tilts with nostalgia. In the original, the quinces hung among the "Astwerk", literally "branchwork", but the word which Galbraith chooses is "leaves", which clearly works better with the meter and the feel of the line itself.


In "Bindweed", vivid and unexpected imagery and ideas abound. Again, Galbraith has an interesting explanation of how the decision to use Bindweed for the German original "Giersch" was arrived at, which literally translated is Ground Elder, and the scourge of many a gardener! It is clear that the poem would not work at all if he had stuck strictly to the horticultural etymology of the German, and herein once more, the translator-poet's skill is apparent.


There is so much for the reader to enjoy here, and poetic immersion may just take over an afternoon, or a whole day. Self-portrait with a swarm of bees works on so many different levels - the natural world of flora and fauna dominates, but it has rarely felt more human.