Jennifer Adams

Jennifer Adams is the associate director of production at The Atlantic.
  • Borrowing Weighty Words in Wisława Szymborska’s ‘Under One Small Star’

    In 1997’s “Poland’s Blithe Spirit,” our poetry editor David Barber perfectly describes the pleasure of discovering 1996 Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska—“a supremely lucid and sublimely beguiling poet, as accessible as she is ineffable”—and her poems in translation:

    With their brisk and bracing wit, vivacious intelligence, and buoyant sense of play, hers are poems of abundant charm—so charming, in fact, that it can take a while to realize just how disquieting they are.

    Szymborska in 1996 (Reuters)

    A wonderful teacher once broke down the word “translate” into its Latin parts: trans + latus, “to carry across,” to ferry meaning from one side to another. For me, this sparked an interest in how translations vary, how the shift of one word or an alternate choice of phrase can profoundly change the music of the poem, or its resonance.

    In one of my favorites, “Under One Small Star” (translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh), Szymborska serves as patron saint of serial apologizers, and of all those who labor with words.  In part:

    Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
    Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
    I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
    I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m.
    Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
    Pardon me, deserts, that I don't rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.

    I love the poet’s humility in the face of the great crushing world, while still asserting a place in it, and the mix of the concrete and the intangible, playful and serious:

    My apologies to the felled tree for the table's four legs.
    My apologies to great questions for small answers.

    Read the full poem here, or find it in Map: Collected and Last Poems.

    Compare the patterns and repetitions in English with the untranslated original (“Pod Jedną Gwiazdką”), with its thicket of Polish consonants.  In his essay, Barber precisely identifies the language as “briery,” the exact word for the stroked, accented, and curling-tailed letters, the spiky brambles of lines on the page, and the sweet/sharp images they evoke. I imagine it sounds thorny too, those wild consonantal roses.

    Then look at “Under a Certain Little Star,” translated by Joanna Trzeciak (who also translated Symborska’s poems for the Atlantic over the years), or this translation from Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts (Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire). (If you’re really invested, someone even compiled a table of four translations side by side.)

    These translators “borrow weighty words,” to use Szymborska’s own phrase, ferry them cross-language, “then labor heavily so that they may seem light.” In this sense all poetry is translation.

  • Remembering a One-of-a-Kind Poet

    Claudia Kilbourne Lux

    The poet Thomas Lux died on February 5. It seems fitting to honor him and his decades of Atlantic contributions with a brief history, but also with his own words in his own voice.

    Speaking about his craft in an Atlantic interview from 2004, Lux is both magpie of unusual facts (“Without the dung beetle we’d all be up to our clavicles in cow pies. They deserve an ode!”) and defender of poetry’s essential weirdness:

    I love mystery, strangeness, nuttiness, wildness, leaps across chasms, irreverence, all the crazy stuff we love about poetry. We don’t usually love poems because they are well made, or smart, or deep. We love them for their crazy hearts.

    In the nine poems Lux published in our pages, you’ll find wry humor—1984’s “Snake Lake” begins:

    My friends, I hope you will not swim here:
    this lake isn’t named for what it lacks.

    And you’ll find startling echoes of the present in “Henry Clay’s Mouth” (1999):

    He said: “Kissing is like the presidency,
    it is not to be sought and not to be declined.

    It was written, if women had the vote,
    he would have been President,
    kissing everyone in sight,
    dancing on tables (“a grand Terpsichorean
    performance ...”), kissing everyone,
    sometimes two at once, kissing everyone,
    the almost-President
    of our people.

    Years ago, as part of a series for poetry month, we gathered a selection of old Atlantic audio recordings of poets reading their works. My part was to convert the files from an obsolete, unplayable format to mp3. Among them was Lux’s reading of “Virgule,” an ode to “/” that begins:

    What I love about this little leaning mark
    is how it divides
    without divisiveness. The left
    or bottom side prying that choice up or out,
    the right or top side pressing down upon
    its choice: either/or,
    his/her.

    Listen to him read the entire poem:

    Far more qualified people can speak to his particular brilliance—I’m just someone who tried to rescue his voice, or a minute and 38 seconds of it, from the online abyss and deliver him to you.

    I asked my colleague David Barber, the Atlantic’s poetry editor, for his memories of the magazine’s long history with Lux. He writes:

    Tom Lux’s quirky, wily, incorrigibly uncanny poems left their mark far and wide from way back, but The Atlantic could be said to have a special claim on him.