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

Jamie Osborn, PN Review, Nov-Dec 2015, 42:2

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.
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'.
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.
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'.
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.

Ian Galbraith won the Popescu Prize for this translation.