“Because English offers no feminine form of pelican”: A Portfolio of International Writing – Curated & Introduced by Eva Heisler

Mark Tardi’s “Poem Beginning with a Line by Katarzyna Szaulińska” offers a series of because-clauses: “because sidewalks in Berlin always looks wet / & the fonts too familiar” and “because Philip Larkin was a real motherfucker or / maybe it was Otto von Bismark.” Reasons, capricious and insolent, defy explanation. The poem ends: “because English offers no feminine form of pelican.” Yes! I’d like to borrow this as the retort to every why-ever and what-for thrown in the direction of poetry. At nineteen, curbed by family scowls, I asked a teacher, the poet Michael Burkard, “Why write poetry,” pen poised to take notes so I could formulate an answer for the grown-ups. His reply: “I’m not interested in that question.” It hadn’t occurred to me that I could dismiss a question—or answer with a poem, as does the speaker in Marcus Slease’s “In the Time of Saint Sweat.” When asked, “Can you explain your answers,” he responds: “There are so many kinds but the best kind is without knowing kind, just doing kind because it comes from somewhere kind, how do you get that kind, that’s the mystery kind.” The poems in this portfolio might be read as answers, to urgencies or absurdities, to questions like that posed by Laura Wetherington: “What if I had a good idea and spent years / not making it better?” The replies may be “heresies woven from question marks,” writes Tardi, “like roundels with a projecting tongue / the city within made of red porphyry.” Or the reply may be observation morphing into lament, as in Haukur Ingvarsson’s description of a collapsing city: “reinforcement bars / curled in the open air” and “steel rods / jutted like nerve endings.”  


The mouth as it shapes itself to unfamiliar tongues and habits is a motif throughout these poems. Wetherington, noting the Dutch word for “cyst” sounds like “kissed her,” riffs on the body’s anomalies as little mouths. Slease, transplanted from Ireland to Idaho as a child, explores the US imperative to smile, antic duplicitous Idahoan grins described as “little mouth grenades.” Jenny Drai mourns, “I don’t belong anywhere. I always have an accent. the body, a constant story of departure and arrival. muscles in our faces, speaking languages not our own.”


In Drai’s essay-poem “the arm in the case,” an encounter with a Saint Barbara reliquary in Prague sparks a reflection on fathers and daughters, displacement, medieval art, and the urge to “touch trajectory.” Stand-alone colons interrupt Drai’s meandering prose like abrasions or incisions moving across the page, perhaps mirroring the speaker’s internal wounding: “my shifting in space as one bruise spreading blue but this time on the inside.” The colons also remind me of the punctuation between hours and minutes; these markers of time, however, float free of measurement. Drai’s colons are not functioning grammatically but as visual texture; likewise, Marianne Holm Hansen’s typed characters disclose material traces of the body. An ongoing project since 2011, Typing (not writing)—the title a reference to Truman Capote’s dismissal of Jack Kerouac’s writing as nothing more than typing—does not chase meaning or privilege expression. Rather, the project unfolds as a series of notes, each page, like a drawing, slowly evolving as marks accrue. Typewriter marks bear the imprint of the hand—now a buoyant hand, now hurried, now heavy on that sticky key—and the field grows with the traces of Hansen’s hand.

Eva Heisler has published two books of poetry: Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic and Drawing Water. Honors include the Poetry Society of America’s Emily Dickinson Award and fellowships at MacDowell and Millay Arts. Poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Bomb, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, The Grist, Heavy Feather Review, The Ilanot Review, Indiana Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Poetry Northwest. She was co-winner of the 2021 Poetry International Prize.