Translated by Cole Swensen with seven photographs by Suzanne Doppelt
Burning Deck ($10)
by Jefferson Hansen
The book is divided into seven sections. Each section is divided into seven poems. And each poem describes some aspect of modern Paris in seven short lines (plus an italicized coda which announces the noun or phrase that is described in the poem proper). What's more, each line is seven syllables long.
Pierre Alferi describes his rigid form as a “grunge idea… almost as good as compacting the trash.” Should we take him seriously? Yes and no. The rigid boundaries he sets for himself prove surprisingly malleable. He moves easily from topic to topic in no particular order: the border between poems is quite permeable. But the formal rigidity contains wild comparisons and abrupt shifts of focus.
Cole Swensen's translation of this book is amazing: she adheres strictly to Alferi's demanding originality and formal constraints while at the same time making the English sing. At no time does this translation feel literal, even though it is literal on the formal level. Swensen always manages to write fluidly, in part because she uses no punctuation.
One poem reads as follows:
no what'll get you are the
smoke machines just kill you kill
the thrill let's skip over the
swaying fan and go on to
the best part the way he tunes
the strings then adopts the pose
of ulysses with ear plugs
This poem offers an appreciative perspective on the kitsch and melodrama of rock music. There is no condemnation; the poem almost sounds as if mouthed by an excited fan anticipating the concert. We leave the poem with the ridiculous comparison of a mythological epic hero to a mere rock star. The psychology and philosophy explored by the Homeric tales outsizes the rock star to an absurd degree. But of course, the rock star is drawing on Homeric mythology, even perhaps without awareness of the historical context. He takes himself very seriously, which is what makes him so fun.
Another poem reads:
it's the bubbles that come in
advance like the whiff that sweeps
the whole cup to your lips the
spirit of the coffee that
bursts in your face and it's the
fore-kiss of pepsi that's the
best part says the customer
It seems that every few lines Alferi changes the expertise of the connoisseur, from “bubbles” (champagne) to coffee to Pepsi . . . but what is the relationship between the customer and the connoisseur? Is there snobbery here? Or is there no reference to champagne—could the entire poem be about Pepsi, which has its own “bubbles” and “spirit of coffee”? All we can be certain of is the pleasure exuded by this poem.
There are two reasons to read this book. One is Alferi's off-beat sensibility: rarely have I encountered a poet more delighted by the minutiae of life. Unlike William Carlos Williams, who presents the overlooked aspects of life in as natural a form as possible, for Alferi the formal specifics of the poems emphasize how stylized the detritus of life can be. The second reason to read the book: to revel in the triumph that is Cole Swensen's translation.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005