Eleni Cay is a Slovakian-born poet living in the UK. Her first collection, “A Butterfly’s Trembling in the Digital Age,” was written in Slovak and translated into English. Her subsequent two collections were written in English and this is her third English collection.
Having worked on the Journeys in Translation project, the challenge of translating is something I’m interested in. In prose, there’s space for an explanatory translation. Poems don’t offer that luxury.
“A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words” takes 23 Japanese words considered untranslatable, although there is a line of English explanation for each word presented as an epigram to each poem which explores the concept behind each word. It begins with “Aiki (合気)” defined as ‘blending/harmonising opposing forces within oneself”. The narrator commands time to
“numb the deeply entrenched,
and yet, elusive, memory of you.
I would make love colourless, remove
all signs and symbols that denote the
pulsing space between two people.
But, alas, until the glory of Time departs,
we will set, we will rise,
like a phoenix from the ashes
of its counterparts.”
It captures the competing desires to forget a former love and move on whilst remembering how good it made you feel and whatever it was that attracted you in the first place (even if you can no longer see it). The long vowels in the opening part of the quote keep the rhythm slow underlining the poem’s sense of pondering around its subject until the final stanza where the rush of “s” sounds, “a” assonance and rhyme of “departs/counterparts” rightly feels like an intrusion as attempts to bury a memory fail and it refuses to become dormant.
“Ikigai 生き甲斐” is defined as ‘a reason for being; the sense that it is worthwhile to continue living.’
“Every night I present my body in soft Egyptian cotton,
together with the wild tangos I no longer dance.
Assuming a defenceless posture, I lay open my soul,
let the Moon, for a whimsical while, take me to the stars.
In the morning, when all the magic is returned to the sky,
I put on a clean shirt to protect me from having to relive
the sacrifice. With no time to grieve,
I accept that dreams promise more than life can give.”
The poem feels more like a resigned acceptance than a sense that shifting from the nightly world of dreams into daily living is a worthwhile thing. I confess I was distracted by the “wild tangos I no longer dance” because the poem leaves me having to speculate as to why and the question isn’t answered. I do like the echos in “relive/grieve/give” but it doesn’t really convey a sense of importance. More successful is “Seijaku 静寂” defined as ‘Literally quiet (sei) tranquility (jaku), silence, calm, serenity (especially in the midst of activity or chaos)’.
“The dawn surrenders to the sun,
personifying what we become
when we fuse into me.
A Maltese cat
folded in the windowsill
like a new-born child.”
A cat is perfect here: when not asleep, they are watchers, a patch of stillness amidst movement. Their natural independence and self-sufficiency creates a sense of aloofness and separation from what’s happening around them.
Over a book-length collection, the concept would grow weary, each poem becoming less of a surprise. But, constrained by being a pamphlet, the length is right. There are still surprises. It can also be read by dipping in and out at random. While the odd poem, e.g. “Ikigai” feels a little underdeveloped, there are far more successes.