a thrice-yearly magazine of poetry, fiction, essays, and reviews

Thus Oberman sets us riding, searching for stillness. His affinity for kennings, the prefix “un,” and, like Ford, a deep knowledge of the ancient bones of the English language follow the reader across all the poems in this collection. As do horses, as does grief and love and pleasure. While Oberman’s skill with Old English (of which he is a translator and scholar) affords his language a particular beauty, his grief is contemporary, punctuated or perhaps adorned with a certain un-still fact declaimed in the book’s masterpiece, the poem “On Trans”: “The process of through is ongoing.”

The “process of through” is a trans process (“through” being one definition of the prefix), a process in which things change. “I was just leaving, / which is to say, coming / elsewhere. Transient. I was going as I came, the words / move through my limbs, lungs, mouth, as I appear to sit // peacefully at your hearth transubstantiating some wine.” The pleasure Oberman takes here in the many facets of the prefix is palpable. It is by this pleasure that we come to feel the heat of the hearth, the heat of the change. It is not necessarily a change readers, even trans readers, might be familiar with. Or it is, but the poem’s goal is to queer even this queerness. Here, transgender is a verb: “I was / transgendering and drinking […] The translucence of flames beat against the air / against our skins. […]

I felt heat changing me.  The word for this is
transdesire, but in extreme cases we call it transdire
or when this heat becomes your maker we say
transire, or when it happens in front of a hearth:

We watch the poet-speaker move from desire to dire to sire to fire and this movement feels, although wobbly, precise. The language changes as we do, as the speaker does, drinking wine in front of a hearth admiring the “transcendent” beauty of another. Interesting, the word that would follow in this lexical process, a word as present as it is unannounced: the maker’s ire. The transfire that makes this speaker and is made by him ignites this collection. (Is it also of his ire, and will it consume, propel, or illuminate him?)

The process of through is ongoing. Language changes, but doesn’t leave. Or by leaving, Oberman reminds us, it is only “coming / elsewhere.” This is an apt a description of Oberman’s translation poetics. One of the pleasures of this book is the pairing of conventional translations of Old English poems (many of which come from the tenth-century Exeter Book) with more transgressive poems written “after” the original, what Oberman in his notes calls poems he both “translated and reacted to.”

For example, consider Oberman’s dual treatment of the Exeter Book poem “Wulf and Eadwacer.” Oberman in his notes points out how no one is really sure what this poem is about. His translation seeks to smooth out this strangeness, to make arguments about its coherence; Oberman’s translation is not a story about wolves, as some apparently think of the original, but of a woman elegizing a lover named Wulf from whom she is separated. Here is a stanza from his translation:

Wulf is on one island  I am on another
That island is fixed fast  cast about by fens
There are carnage-covered  men on that island
They will consume him  in violence if he comes

Whereas, in the poet’s reaction, he permits strangeness, uncertainty—an important openness for which the word thing is essential—and we are given not a version of the original but access to an experience of reading it, which I find much more valuable. Here is an excerpt of the poet’s reaction, given the same title:

Then there is either
an eagle or a cruelty, or cruelty
to the woman has always seemed
inseparable from eagles, or the
one who copied her poem
suffered from partial blindness
and wrote the wrong word
entirely. Certainly sharp-edged
things, carnage, slaughter.

The gap between translation and reaction is wide and sharp-edged. As is the gap between the translation of and reaction to “The Ruin.” The tenth-century original remembers, or imagines, the life that went on in a castle city before “death swept away all the sword-brave men.” Oberman’s reaction instead remembers the life of a twenty-first-century ruin: an abandoned warehouse next to a polluted canal, location of a queer dance party, where “Someone with hair made entirely / of peacock feathers starts the generator, / plugs a mic into an amp, and after the electric squeals the cord, rasps / we are here, we are here // We open the cathedrals of our chests and roar.”

The collection’s moments of queer intimacy and pride, like this, are beautiful and heartwarming, but often more subtle. In the Hart Crane-invoking “Voyages” at the end of the collection, it is the poet-speaker’s own body that inspires this intimacy. It is the first time the book makes explicit (or, as Oberman might phrase it, unsubtle) the “transgendering” of “On Trans”:

What my mother and father,
body together with body,
made, I can not. Can jet
no living material. Too
private, too lowly to write?

It is a moment of powerful vulnerability, not because of what the speaker discloses, but because he does it with fidgety enjambment, the awkward space between “can” and “not” and the brilliant adverb “lowly,” hedged with self-consciousness. No, it is not lowly; it is—also a brilliant word—jetting, transcendent. The speaker comes to this conclusion himself:

If what
comes from me is not life, it is
also not not life. Let me be
open as a vowel, wave-glazed.

To be “open as a vowel,” for this poet so attentive to the emotional resonances in the material of language, is “a kingly thing” (“The Ruin”). It is to be expressible, open to the intimacy of another’s breath, able to be taken up and spoken. Spoken language cannot exist without vowels. In that way, maybe to be “open as a vowel” is to move out of a thingly existence, if a thing is, as Latour says, “out of language.” I have tried in this review to make the word thing interesting as a choice of language, but maybe Oberman here rebukes me. Or maybe he offers me a way out of my obsession. There are other ways, other words, with which to open.

C.J.A. is a California-based poet, critic, and essayist. His writing has appeared in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and publications including ZYZZYVA, Boston Review, and Columbia Journal. He is a regular reviewer for this magazine.