Local tradition held that on a clear day you could, from a rickety lookout at the summit of Big Walker Mountain, see five states. By the time you entered fifth grade, you wised up to know that North Carolina lay past the Grayson Highlands, Tennessee was on the other side of Mt. Rogers, and Kentucky began somewhere beyond Norton, all inescapably beyond your gaze. Remaining were West Virginia, over the next ridge, and Virginia, under your feet. But the powerful sense of a topographical map made tangible in the rise and fall of Appalachian green punctuated by limestone outcrops resonates through miles and years of distance.
The odd thought that at some point a black locust was situated in Virginia and the hickory beside it was across a mandated line marked as West Virginia generated the idea of a border limned primarily by the imagination. This sense of a geography that can be portable in the mind’s eye and that can be inhabited apart from time, space, and culture reverberates particularly in much of the work gathered here, whether in a postcard aimed at other mountains in Aix, France, a cave painting in Spain, a poem from a parched emirate, or a vineyard in California. The work in this issue translates landscapes into language.
That distinctly San Joaquin Valley landscape native to the late Larry Levis was only one of the subjects addressed in the recent three-day conference, Larry Levis: A Celebration, hosted by VCU. This event brought together poets from around the country to explore and discuss Larry Levis’s life and work and culminated in the 13th Annual Levis Prize Reading. Blackbird features materials from the conference, including work and a reading by this year’s winner, Peter Campion, readings by David St. John and Philip Levine, and critical essays by Nicky Beer, Peter Campion, Matt Donovan, James Hoch, and Anna Journey.
Also featured is David Wojahn’s “Ochre,” an ekphrastic poem in twenty-five sections that explores both memory and actual places, traveling between sites like Naco, Arizona and Vedbaek, Denmark. Each of the poem’s sections appears alongside at least one image that plays the role of subject and conversant partner with the text.
For the first time, a large section of our poetry offering consists of work in translation, particularly in a suite of poems from the forthcoming book Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Gulf Poetry, the first such collection of poetry from the region of the Arabian Gulf. Most of the poems were written in Arabic, and this anthology represents their first translation into English. Edited by Patty Paine, Jeff Lodge, and Samia Touati, it contains over two hundred poems, the work of forty-eight poets and fifty translators. Our featured Gulf Poet’s Suite, introduced by the editors and contributor Nimah Ismail Nawwab, is a sampling of that work. Nawabb writes:
Gulf poets . . . encompass themes that are uniquely Arab, and uniquely Khaliji, or Gulf-related. The role of faith in the lives of Gulf poets cannot be separated from our work, as religion forms a major aspect of our identity and voice. Even with evolving spirituality and the rise of liberalism, faith still remains an irrefutable aspect of who we are. Our sense of identity is also influenced by nationalism, political circumstances, and the complexity of life in this volatile region.
Another point of view from the Arab world appears in the work of Lalla Essaydi, whose recent show at the VCU Anderson Gallery is recorded in Gallery. She has received international attention for large-scale photographs of tableaux enacted by Moroccan women. The show’s curators say of her work:
Essaydi acknowledges, and turns to her own devices, the power of writing in the Muslim world. Despite the traditional restriction of Arabic calligraphy to male practitioners, she inscribes every element in her photographs—women, clothing, furnishings—with elegant North African maghribi calligraphy.
Additional translations in the issue include a selection of Patrice de la Tour du Pin’s Psalms, translated by Jennifer Grotz; a prose poem by Philippe Jaccottet; and work by Slovene poets Tomaž Šalamun and Aleš Debeljak.
Other poems in this issue demonstrate how metaphor itself enacts a type of radical translation, fusing the fleeting geographies of physical reality with spiritual urgencies that render location, perspective, and point of view luminous and durable. The “star-spit of the rifle and fuse” which lights up Bruce Bond’s lost cathedral, the dented dog bed taking up space in Collier Nogues’s heirloom Airstream trailer, and the “clink / and kick” of dirty “butter knives” which Cori Winrock’s iconic levitating house/wife refigures as “flat shining femurs” complaining from inside their dire dishwasher become compass points we track toward then veer away from on our own quest for meaning.
In Fiction, stories by Casey Clabough and Wendy Wimmer dissect supernatural terrors that take root in a fevered imagination and very real terrors that are revealed in small and unassuming spaces. Jamie Quatro, Nicola Mason, and Paul Silverman discern pointed revelations in the familiar interactions of families and friends. Rachel Maizes shows that a therapist’s couch can demonstrate a power of transformation and a peculiar independence.
In Nonfiction, Charles Martin provides some notes on the translation process itself in an essay developed originally as a craft lecture and an introduction to its theory and method. The offered reviews deliver finely tuned impressions of new work by Jehanne Dubrow, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Mathias Svalina, Allison Titus, and Michele Young–Stone and underline that the masks and the mythologies we encounter in their work appear familiar and strange all at once.
In Gallery, Yasmine Rana’s monologue “Rooftops” provides another chapter in her continuing witness to the Bosnian conflict and its echoing trauma, and Sebastian Matthews charts his experience as a curator for a Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center exhibition of the collagist Ray Johnson’s tutelary work. John Ravenal returns with an introduction to recently acquired work by Fred Tomaselli at the VMFA.
And finally, Richard Carlyon’s Postcards to Aix chronicle a correspondence of one hundred and forty postcards from Carlyon’s home in Richmond to a sister-in-law temporarily living within sight of Mt. St. Victoire in Cezanne’s Provence. Cezanne’s landscapes and their radical upending of point of view resonate in Carlyon’s communications, notes that set out as illustrated jottings on postcards and, over the duration, transform into small paintings that reflect a lively intelligence transcribing an imagined topography in image and word.