If I Were a Suicide Bomber - Excerpt
After almost ten years of translating the poetry of Per Aage Brandt, my conviction that he is unique—or at the very least, highly unusual—has only grown stronger. Start with the surface elements: how many poets end their poems with titles, as Per Aage often does? And even among those rare poets who employ “post-titles,” Per Aage must be considered singular because of his varied and inventive uses of it—as an aside, or an allusion, or an opportunity to switch from his native Danish into one of the many other languages he speaks, including English, French, German, and Latin. Or what about his close attention to the right-hand margin of his poems? In most of his poems, each line ends within a space or two of the others, giving his work a machine-like appearance. The same effect occurs when he stretches or shrinks the line by uniform increments, and to preserve this important formal feature I have sometimes taken liberties, even breaking up words not broken in the Danish, in order to give the translation the same shape as its original. Then there is his use of the Danish word Poesi instead of the more common Digte in the titles of his many collections of, well . . . not poems, but poetry; or maybe better yet, verse, since that word originally meant “turn,” as a plow turns at the end of a furrow and as Per Aage does with great precision at the ends of his lines.
You might expect such a rigid artistic program to become increasingly restrictive and for the poet either to move onto different forms or to run out of things to say with the old. But that just isn’t the case with Per Aage. After more than forty years and thirty volumes, his work maintains its original principles and continues to show inventiveness. I think this freshness comes from his being as unbounded with the content of his work as he is bounded by its forms. A note on the back cover of one of his most recent collections lists the subjects covered as “anxiety, consciousness, death, dreams, ecology, economics, existence, aberration, the everyday, identity, irony, intimacy, cats, catastrophes, communication, war, the body, art, love, desire, power, nature, poetry, politics, religion, the soul, writing, disturbance, surrender, spirit, and certain other matters.” There’s hardly anything in the world that fails to interest this poet, and nothing that he fails to make more interesting once he’s written about it.
While it wouldn’t be wrong to describe Per Aage as a philosophical poet, as the list above suggests, it would probably send the wrong message, or not enough messages; not enough slightly contradicting messages. Professionally, he is a cognitive scientist with many books and scholarly articles to his name, and his work engages several branches of philosophy. But he is also a jazz pianist. He is also a concerned and at times bewildered cat owner. He has lived in Denmark, but also for long stretches in the USA, Argentina, and France. He writes poems about ideas, but also about the baby rabbit his cat brings into the house; poems about musical composition, but also about the composer relaxing in front of his fireplace. As one critic put it, “Per Aage Brandt’s poetry is paradoxical: it is intellectual and stringent, but also playful and nutty . . . it is disarmingly human.”
It’s those last two words that I find especially true of Per Aage’s poetry, and what I most hope to convey through these translations.
I close my eyes and play a ghost sonata on
the bone flute, a long thigh bone, I dream-
play, spirits rise from the dust like columns,
their voices sound like laundry snapping in
the breeze, just consonants, but the thoughts go
into marrow, suck and spit, turn into long vowels
behind the next street corner hilltop bookcase
a deadly enemy is waiting for dusk to arrive
in order to strike out or perhaps not waiting but
even now brandishing a knife at your appearance
and one is obliged to present oneself as visible
that’s the price for coming and going and being
(I can hop I can run)
there is nothing one can do so you might as well
just go home where there is also nothing you can
do to things for they stand where they stand and
they cannot be moved so you don’t get far with
that my friend see how and whither the weather
blows its winds and just fall if you cannot stand