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

An address to the karst-dwelling olm, a lyrically edgy elegy for Evel Knievel, a grandfather embalmed in his own sheets and discovered a year later 'shrivelled to a wasp, tiny/pharaoh of a long-gone summer' - the poems of Self Portrait with a Swarm of Bees teeter between the playful and the threatening.
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A communion-like pleasure in reality does preside in several of Wagner's poems; but there is always some obscurity, even in the most comforting or familiar domestic scenes: a warm kitchen window 'blind with steam' from cooking, luminous quince jelly 'stored for / harsher days, a cellar of days'.
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The way the translator cuts through - or allows himself to be ensnared by - the thickets of language itself forms a theme of Wagner' work. As a translator of Charles Simic, James Tate, Robin Robertson, and others, he knows the elusiveness of language.
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Wagner's poems are often peopled with discoverers, or with marginal figures whose awareness of borders, of surfaces, linings, sheets, makes them part of the liminal worlds they explore: 'strange feeling being / the frontier', say the pioneers of 'den westen' ('the west'). They encounter a wilderness that has a mind or minds of its own - 'the river thinks in fish' - and that seems to colonise them even as they enter it on 'adam's ancient chart'.
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Galbraith's translations, without being backward-looking, at times take on a quasi-mythical idiom; the result is a tone of wonder, and also of defiance.
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Ian Galbraith won the Popescu Prize for this translation.