Fifteen pages devoted to a new translation of Jean de la Fontaine’s 17th century fables in verse (translated by Craig Hill)? How could these little tales of “country wisdom” interest me, I wondered? Wow, did I rush to a hasty and erroneous judgment! This is marvelous stuff. An impressive translation of work that is much more engaging and original than I remembered from college French classes. Difficult work, this example of “Revisitations,” as this section of the journal is called – verse that rhymes to mirror the original with precision, grace, and panache. And de la Fontaine’s little stories aren’t half bad either! These translations are from a full-length collection of the fables out this past fall from Arcade with illustrations – imagine! – by Edward Gorey.
De la Fontaine has some contemporary rivals. This issue features stories as sturdy, and hopefully as enduring as his, by Jon McMillan, Thomas Gough, Thea Goodman, Beverly Jensen, Rachel Cantor, and Dwight Allen. I favored Cantor’s “Tibet, New York.” Who wouldn’t want to read a story with the line “I gave up an audience with the Dalai Lama because you said I had to come home.” Cantor is a master of understatement and wry wit, and it works to her advantage here.
Nonfiction is equally impressive, with a moving autobiographical essay by Jay Scott Morgan; a dense, but deft essay from a forthcoming book about France in the age of Dreyfus by Frederick Brown; an analysis of travel writing by Robin Magowan; an astute essay contextualizing “War and Peace in our Time” by Michael R. Katz; and an odd, but pleasing little narrative about the theater by acclaimed British actress Fiona Shaw. Hard to know if some of what I like is good writing or purely British-isms: “By the time we opened at Britain’s National Theater I was a thing of worry.”
Eliot Khalil Wilson can give de la Fontaine a run for his money, too, with his poem “Origin Blues: An Elegy” (“I come from the leaning jack and the shattered rib, / the blasting cap and the phantom thumb; / I come from the chorus of pine, the boat ramp baptisms / and the great skillet of relentless June.”). Sara Johnson, too, has written a poem that should endure, titled “View From the Fence, on Which I Sit and Dangle My Legs” (“O the horses are silver. The horses are metal hearts. / The horses are the night’s blood congealed.”). And George Looney is more like de la Fontaine than he is, perhaps, like Wilson or Johnson, creating little daily philosophies out of thin air: “The world is // more what we think of ourselves than we’d be / comfortable admitting” he writes in his poem “How a Bus Terminal’s Like a Jukebox.” New England Review is a reminder that stories and words matter and can last centuries and still be brand new.