Book Reviews

Pruned and Abundant

by Patty Nash | Contributing Writer

The Art of the Topiary
Jan Wagner
translated by David Keplinger
Milkweed Editions, 2017

A chameleon drags a bishop’s staff with its tail. The chameleon sticks out its tongue and eats an insect, a “constellation’s butterfly.” It ignores its observers’ repeated pleas to come closer, and instead withdraws from sight, camouflaged and “hiding in the world.”

This is “chameleon,” an early poem in The Art of the Topiary, a collection by German poet Jan Wagner and his translator/collaborator David Keplinger (Keplinger himself is a poet and professor at American University in Washington, D.C.). In sixteen lines, the chameleon does very little besides emerge, swallow an insect, and retreat. Yet for Wagner, the simple act of observation is consequential. In “chameleon,” the titular reptile is distinguished by its observer’s mode of accessing it. The chameleon’s tongue is “a telescope,” the “eye’s cupola” is “a fortress” behind which “only the pupil moves, a nervous glittering.”

The poems in The Art of the Topiary are energized not by narrative or emotion, but by perception. This isn’t to say that they are detached or unemotional. On the contrary, one gets the sense that Wagner’s speakers desperately crave a time before language impinged itself on both perceiver and perceived. In grappling with language, they create sensorial experiences of their own. Wagner’s poems are less interested in depicting than in realizing.

The Art of the Topiary is Jan Wagner’s first book-length publication in English. In Germany, Wagner is one of the most well-known German-language poets: he has won practically every major German-language literary prize and was the first poet to win the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in 2014 for Regentonnenvariationen, or Rain Barrel Variations (sections of which appear in The Art of the Topiary). I can reliably find Wagner’s latest, Selbstportäit mit Bienenschwarm (or Self-Portrait with Bee Swarm), a thick selection of Wagner’s work published between 2001 and 2015, in most German bookstores. The Art of the Topiary doesn’t have an exact German parallel: this constellation of poems exists only in this translation, an attempt to introduce the English-reading public to a poet of international acclaim.

In his introduction, David Keplinger speaks to the difficulties of translation, insisting that he considers himself Wagner’s collaborator rather than his translator. Keplinger himself “speaks no German,” while Wagner has translated poets such as Charles Simic and James Tate into German (as well as studying English at Trinity College Dublin). In the introduction, Keplinger’s stated translational (or collaborative) concerns focus on striking a balance between connotative, denotative, and formal fidelity. The poems themselves were accomplished through correspondence with Wagner between 2009 and 2016 (Keplinger characterizes the final drafts as “crystalline”).

Wagner often makes use of received poetic forms, such as sonnets or haikus, in addition to self-imposed ones. Rhymes, alliterations, and acoustic patterns both embroider and constrain the poems’ descriptive melodies, and Keplinger quotes Wagner in his introduction, saying that form behaves as a “corset the poem is trying to undo.” In reading The Art of theTopiary, I was astonished at how often and how well the English-language versions could incorporate the additional formal requirement of translation while developing their own compelling sonic and syntactical English-language structures.

In the introduction, Keplinger attests that “free verse remains as difficult to translate . . . as the formal poems.” Even the poems that allude to prose formats—such as the several “essays” on “gnats,” “soap,” and “napkins”—lodge their argumentation in accruing images, both sensory and rhetorical, over events. These poems are finely attuned to the sentence as a vehicle for discovery, and often protract the moment in which an image becomes intelligible (period). In “essay on gnats,” for example, the speaker both invokes and revokes a metaphor to realize the gnats in a swarm:

as if every character had fled
all at once from the newspaper
and hovered as a swarm in the air,

they hover as a swarm in the air,
transmitting from the awful news

The swarm becomes clear by denotative insistence: as if they “hovered as a swarm in the air,” they do precisely that. Later, the speaker bridges the semantic gap: the gnats are “rosetta stone, without the stone.” Though they transmit “from the awful news / nothing,” the anxiety behind Wagner’s poems is in the fact that time is passing/has passed, and that each ephemeral moment of present-tense perception can’t be relayed but through language, after the fact.

Many of Wagner’s speakers seem disturbed by the passage of time, and how time manipulates the objects of the world. In “December 1914,” the speaker describes the Christmas truce of World War I; the voice of the poem “the west” fixates on the imaginations of Manifest Destiny; and “wejherowo” recalls “the name, at any rate” whereon “the landscape hastened.”

These poems are often so interested in fixing perception that their referents often elude context. In The Art of the Topiary’s second poem, “gecko,” a gecko “suddenly stands there when the light snaps on” in variously accelerating states of activity and demise. But the gecko himself is lost in his description. We are given images “told in the shadow of etna,” a volcanic eruption: “[the gecko’s] translucent belly on the gravel path” days later, or, hours after that, “a seething of ants, exactly imitating [the gecko’s] form.” These images are presented independent of verbs to indicate their association with the speaker. And though the gecko is a product of history, the activity of history is often only apprehended in the present progressive: “running,” “throbbing,” or in the ants’ “teeming mimicry.”

By the end of the poem, it’s unclear whether the concluding image (that of a “a mere toothpick in the maw of august”) corresponds to the gecko or to “this sicilian skiff on the beach, wrecked.” The deictic center of the poem is unstable: is this a real skiff, or a description of the gecko? Where is the real gecko, and where are its equivalences (the “seething of ants” imitating its form)?

The Art of the Topiary’s title itself nods to the collection’s construction: it is both pruned and abundant. Still, the “greatest-hits” approach, which this book takes, isn’t always effective for a poet like Wagner. Many of the poems in this collection were compiled from his six existing poetry books, which means there are movements and patterns here that aren’t fully developed, simply because they’ve been edited out or placed together in an order unlike those of their initial publication. I understand the ambition: Wagner is an important German poet, and poetry in translation is a hard sell. But I wish this project would have translated several of his books, as many of the stand-alone poems shine best in their original serial context.

To be sure, Wagner is a poet of abstraction, but you get the sense he’d rather not be. Language is insufficient, and Wagner will take what he can get. Still, his language is so vivid it’s almost tangible. Wagner’s English “versions” in The Art of the Topiary both evoke and enact a sensory universe, a place that is at once ephemeral and permanent. If the language of description is all we have as writers, then we, like Wagner’s chameleon, can slowly disappear “between the colors, hiding in the world.” We can enter grammar itself.

Patty Nash is a poet and translator. She received MFAs in creative writing and translation from the University of Iowa. She lives in Berlin.