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“Flesh of Leviathan” by Chus Pato

All month we are celebrating Women in Translation on the Two Lines Press blog. This #WITMonth recommendation comes to us from Two Lines Press’s Emily Wolahan.

It’s a strange, humbling feeling to read a poet in translation for the first time and have to acknowledge that (1) you’d never before heard of the writer, despite her being one of the most important European poets currently working and the book you’re reading is the fifth in a pentology; (2) you’d never before heard of the translator, though she has published gads of books, both her own poetry and her translations; and (3) that you’re not even familiar with the language or its origins, and this is a language out of Western Europe (Galician is spoken in northwestern Spain).

But that feeling, a mixture of shameful ignorance and excited enthusiasm, is one of the best reasons to be reading literature in translation in the first place.

Another fantastic reason is that in Erín Moure’s translation of Chus Pato’s Flesh of Leviathan, we find a haunting, unique voice that speaks to so many questions we ask ourselves as poets and readers. What is the state of the lyric? What is our inheritance from Romanticism? Where do we go from here?

Pato’s poetry offers a contemporary and unflinching examination of these concerns. She writes, “thinking (as art) is a thing of the past,” a statement which not only functions as art, but performs exactly what it criticizes. Declaring a way of thinking “of the past” is precisely what Romantics, modernists, and postmodernists all do. The statement itself owes a debt to the past, a theme that builds and is complicated as the book progresses. In her poem “Ideal Occurrence,” Pato writes:

Without the mirrors
which are a heart which are waters
birds can’t emerge from the abysses
we’ll mend
we’ll mend sense
we’ll mend mirrors
we’ll mend borders
and in mending we’ll not mistake ourselves
for a this
for an I
for a concept

Her “thinking (as art)” arrives not at rejecting past aesthetics, but at clarifying vision. We writers, thinkers and readers won’t “mistake ourselves” for a metaphor because we will mend our lyric tools rather than discard them.

Pato writes in terse, powerful lines. Her book makes you think about your own relationship to the imagination and to metaphor. Sometimes that metaphor is the divine type, like the leviathan of the title, but there is always a deep sense of humanity grounding Pato’s verse. In her poem “Pleroma,” she writes:

Beauty takes leave (the wing of the crow resting on stone the wave of traffic the dawn the call of the crow) leaves it imperfect
In this time only this we’ve only this brief strait, us humans.

Her resonate voice echoes out of the Galician in this well-wrought translation. Plus, don’t miss Jen Hofer’s “unmending” forward: “where the word doesn’t fit is falling / is without measure without mend.”

photo credit: Zach Stern