Here is a selection of short book reviews that I wrote for the Los Angeles Review.
Dreamweed/Traumkraut – poems by Yvan Goll, translated by Nan Watkins. Black Lawrence, 2012
Reviewed by Stephanie Barbé Hammer
German-speaking countries have produced poets of enormous range and power for centuries. Walter von der Vogelweide crafted beautiful love poems in the Middle Ages, while Paul Fleming and Gryphius gave meaning, wit and spiritual power to the sonnet during the Baroque period. Historian/philosopher Friedrich Schiller’s seminal “To Joy” is later set to music in Beethoven’s famous 9th Symphony. Avant-garde poetry in particular gathers force with German speakers, Hugo Ball, Paul Celan, and the poet/visual artist Jean (also known as Hans) Arp are important contributors to poetic innovation.
Like Arp, Yvan Goll (1891-1950) was bilingual – he spoke and wrote both French and German. Also like Arp, Goll wrote increasingly in French. Yet, at the end of his life, he re-discovered his love for German in exile: first in New York (where he had spent some of the war years) and then in Paris, where he died after a struggle with leukemia. During this period Goll composed the poems that make up Dreamweed (the translation of Traumkraut).
A ghostly linguistic longing haunts the poems of the collection – offered both in German and in Nan Watkins’ adept English translation. Language is at once a canine hunter in the heart of the poet (“Bluthund/Bloodhound”), trees that attach to his limbs (“Die Kastanienhand/The Chestnut Hand,” “Die inneren Baume/The inner Trees”), and the call of an unnamed “brotherly” southern direction (“Süd/South”). Watkins works to approximate the alliterative and surprising melodic capabilities of German, and she succeeds brilliantly in moments such as these:
South brotherly South
Brush the question from my brow
Thaw this loner free
From the grieving glaciers (“Süd/South”)
Poems towards the end of the collection gesture towards Goll’s complicated identity/stance as a Jewish poet.
We had no house like the others on a safe mountain slope
We always had to keep wandering (“Die Aschenhütte/The Ash Hut”)
Appropriately, the collection ends with the trees of the earlier poems becoming themselves a dangerous forest of dust, against which the poet pits his language and his love, which he will celebrate and transport to a desert that hints at a different geography altogether than that of cold Europe or cold America:
I’ll have our saga of our love preserved in quartz
The gold of our dreams buried in a desert
(“Der Staubbaum/The Tree of Dust”).
Through these translations, Watkins offers American readers and writers access to an important writer, whose work has been lost for too long in the dust forest of forgetting.
(LAR, Fall 2013)
The Girl with Brown Fur
Fiction by Stacey Levine
Starcherone Books, 2011
Reviewed by Stephanie Barbé Hammer
There is an abundance of beautiful strangeness in this collection of twenty-eight tales, as if Kafka, Beckett, Perec, and Pinter met George Saunders and Aimee Bender in some neglected American suburban center and they all decided to be- come neighbors and adopt cats. Some stories self-consciously employ the strata- gems of the fairy tale, riffing on Jack’s Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood’s fears of wolfish intruders. Other stories employ metafictional interjections to comment on their own creation and artificial structuring. A last group resemble prose-poem sketches, which focus predominantly on trembling, hurtling, and/or hysterically legalistic men.
The narrative language throughout The Girl with Brown Fur is crystalline and intensely elegant, often at comic odds with the terse speech of the characters themselves. But Levine’s invented people are always compelling, no matter how they talk. The most effective of these tales—and the most oddly uplifting—fea- ture two women of different ages. Janice-Katie and her former babysitter, Mrs. Beck, squabble as only women can, but in one sublime instance they achieve a surprising emotional (and physical) velocity. At such moments, Levine’s work is not only unique, but delivers a uniquely stirring narrative, providing us with ac- cess to feelings and possibilities we did not know we had.
(LAR, 12, Fall 2012)