Aufgabe is a tome. It weighs 1.5 pounds on my bathroom scale, and that’s a paperback without any glossy pages. The journal publishes once a year, and the 2012 issue contains American poetry, a section of poems by poets from El Salvador in the original and in translation edited by Christian Nagler, other poems in translation, essays, reviews, and “notes.”
The heft of the physical journal extends to its contents. Aufgabe is not an easy read; it is a lot of work. You read it because you’ve made up your mind to educate yourself and to become the literature nerd among literature nerds, not because you want to relax or have some fun. It seems to aim for an audience that has a background in—I’m trying to decide whether I dare to use the words “modern,” “postmodern,” “avant-garde” without having written a paper about any of them, but you catch my drift—poetry, or literary history. In any case, I come away from this issue feeling excluded from the MFA or perhaps the MA-in-comp-lit-plus-critical-theory club; but then, if that’s your crowd (literally or literarily), Aufgabe may just be your cup of tea.
Often, when I begin to read a poem, I feel as if I’d been dropped into the middle of nowhere with a garbled map. The map I have in mind is grammar and common usage. A noun is no longer a noun; an adjective is now a noun; a verb, not known to take an object, now takes three. The fragments that follow the sentence seem to bear no relationship to each other. An extreme example:
DOLE will not allow
epileptics. Flaneurs waiver National
Interest. What sleepwalker waits
promotion when competition is lexical
when panic is lexical when prophecy
is lexical when flesh makes ligation
possible . . .
This is from Radical Co-prosperity: an Illokano sonnet duplo by Sean Labrador y Manzano (“a pun made possible by the 1898 Treaty of Paris,” says the contributor’s note). I have no idea what is going on, or where I am physically, grammatically, emotionally, or sonically. Flaneurs might be able to waive National Interest, but then what is and whose National Interest? What is the DOLE—with its small heart, or perhaps a lack of funds or imagination—that refuses epileptics?
After about fifty pages of these, my brain hits a wall. Certainly, as reader of poetry, I don’t expect to be spoon-fed. In fact, I would have just gone and read an essay or a newspaper if that’s what I’m in the mood for, but most of the poems in Aufgabe don’t extend an invitation, in the form of context, or continuity of sense or metaphor or even mood; they assume that you’ve been told the password in advance. There may be pleasure in these poems, but it is meant for a select crowd.
The more accessible poems are those in the El Salvador portfolio. The tiny “Freedom” by Otoniel Guevara overflows with lyricism, despite a puzzling choice in the translation of the last line:
A full moon was the most erotic flower that could hang the night
Each time the fireflies unroofed the darkness
I remembered you with your dress of exploding full moons
Such and as it will be
The last word in the original, serás, is literally “you will be.” With the previous line addressed to a singular second person, its translation into the third-person “it will be” keeps me wondering whether this is a glaring error or a deliberate choice.
For the casual reader, many of the poems may have been better understood and enjoyed if they had included a short introduction. When I come to the last poem, Hugo García Manríquez’ s rendition of an excerpt of the North American Free Trade Agreement in Spanish and English, I wonder if there might be context I can hang on to: this would be political, this would be about how the NAFTA depressed workers’ wages, etc. Most of the piece is printed in gray; certain words are in black. After Googling for the text of the NAFTA and figuring out the words in black are in the original treaty—and not added by García Manríquez—I find out from his note that his decisions are driven by textual and sonic concerns. Which is interesting and enlightening, even though the choices I might have made with the text within the same framework would have been different from his.
Aufgabe prefers density and experimentation over clarity and has a high tolerance for the unconventional. If you’re looking for the avant-garde, poetry without “suburban epiphanies”—as I once heard a panelist say dismissively about certain types of poetry at a conference—this may be for you.