Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book 153, Luxembourg: “At the Edge of Night” by Anise Koltz

We’re at the last and the littlest of the Benelux countries now! Luxembourg’s got a weird history: its half a million inhabitants speak a mix of French, German and Luxembourgish (apparently almost a dialect of German), and its writers produce literature in all three languages.

Koltz, for instance, writes in French – as most of her fellow poets do. But she used to write in German before the death of her husband in 1971 (he was imprisoned during World War II, and she says he was a late victim of the Nazis). Plus, she still writes children’s books in Luxembourgish.

Critics even say Koltz’s French is very German-like – and certainly, in this bilingual compilation of her poetry from the 2000s, her French feels spare, almost schoolchild-simple. It’s full of these stark, Rimbaud-like invocations of hell - fire, bones, wolves, invocations of monstrous mothers and fathers and brothers.

But there’s no jumble – these are brief, devastating pieces of writing, focused on just a few images, like joined-up haiku. And it’s weird, because I don’t think I would advise my writing students to create stuff like this. The title of this collection, for example, comes from this poem


At the edge of night
my mother is seated
her clothes in tatters
two fangs
in her toothless mouth

She throws herself on me
and sucks out my marrow 

It’s a nightmare vision, but you can imagine an angsty adolescent writing it in a I-hate-my-mom kind of way. It does sound better in French, but doesn’t everything?


Au bord de la nuit
Ma mere est assise
ses vêtements en loques
deux crocs
dans sa bouche édentée

Elle se jette sur moi
et me suce la moelle

Some of her short stuff is fantastically clever and awesome, though:


Quand tu marches
tu sens terre
à tes semelles

Elle n’oublie pas de t’oublier


When you walk
you feel the earth
to your soles

It doesn’t forget to forget you

Damn, reading this stuff makes me miss translation work. There’s a marvelous alchemy that happens when poetic language passes from one tongue to another.

The only longish poems here might be the ones from her 2003 collection Fire-Eater/L’avaleur de feu, dedicated to her husband René – though for all I know, these are just glued-together untitled fragments, separated by rows of asterisks and arranged in columns of Roman numerals. It’s hard to digest continuity when you’re reading two versions at the same time: facing pages, parallel texts.

My favourite piece in here is from that collection, btw. I’ve included it below:

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:


Ma mémoire est lourde
comme un vaiseau qui coule

J’ai vogué
dans toutes les parties du mond
les dieux m’égorgeaient
je les égorgeais –

Ecrivant dans leurs bouches
dans leurs entrailles
j’ai oublié la poésie –

je suis devenue poète


My memory is heavy
like a sinking ship

I have wandered
all over the world
the gods slit my throat
I slit theirs –

writing in their mouths
in their entrails
I forgot poetry –

I became a poet

Next book: Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, from France.


Anonymous said...

Hi! I wanted to say, wow. I'm so very impressed by this reading feat of yours. It's a timely reminder to myself to read more internationally - I live in the US but am from Singapore so I've been rather guilty of reading mostly from the west. It's time to amend that!
I'm looking forward to see where your reading journey takes you!

Ng Yi-Sheng said...

Thanks! :)