On “White Blight” from Two Lines Online

Every print issue of Two Lines is accompanied by an online supplement—Two Lines Online—featuring prose and poetry that seems to us to have a character that would thrive in an online space.

Jennifer Hayashida’s translation of “White Blight,” by the Swedish writer Athena Farrokhzad, has a visual presence that pops, so the choice to include an excerpt from the long poem in Two Lines Online this fall came very naturally. The poem also answers the present discussion of how Europe will respond to migrants from the Middle East by foregrounding the voices of those who have broached European borders before.

Two Lines Online’s selection from the long poem, which will be published in full this year by Argos Books, captures the poem’s key concerns. In a long poem, the accretion of reference is always a vital part of the form, and in taking just a sliver it’s impossible to reproduce that effect. Yet, the poem’s vision of family as both accuser and provider of succor, its chorus of voices, and the repeated references to darkness, light, white, milk, and night, are all present in the excerpt we chose to share with Two Lines readers, which hopefully will intrigue and delight those unfamiliar with Farrokhzad’s daring and dashing writing.

As a reader, it is “White Blight”’s insistence on the visual and spatial element of poetry that is most enlivening. While rhyme and meter often must be adjusted or abandoned in translations of poetry, Farrokhzad’s yawning gaps of blank space and her innovative use of white text highlighted in black carry across to the English without change, showing the potential visual and spatial elements of literature have to infuse the text with more than the denotative power of the words can hold.

Farrokhzad’s poem brings the voices of outsiders to the fore, highlighting her family’s origins outside of Sweden in the language of the poem while the form conveys the material fact of their otherness as Middle Easterners in a sea of polar light. In Hayashida’s translation, family members order the writer to tell their story in the right way:

My mother said: Write like this
For my opportunities my mother sacrificed everything
I must be worthy of her
everything I write will be true

Yet, between demands. they also offer sustenance—milk, coffee, love, the warmth of a handmade sweater. They offer histories, access to the past, and protection—the speaker’s grandmother says, “Your mother named you after a warrior to prepare you for winter.” The speaker can thereby defend herself against the cold, the “White Blight,” through her name—through language.

In the play of ordinary family life and grander pronouncements about suffering, the past, and all that’s missing, Farrokhzad faces the challenge of trying to capture the experience of immigrant settlers in Sweden, which is so heavily politicized, as in much of Europe. She answers that by becoming the channel for the many voices of her family, and by marking out those voices in a dark otherness on the vast snowy expanse of the page so that the reader cannot ignore the slap of difference that the streaks of blackness convey.

The mother says telling family stories to outsiders requires “a particular desire to disfigure.” Translating experience, translating histories and translating languages, we always face what the mother calls “a muteness that cannot be translated.” Yet with empathy towards those stories, acknowledging the difference and the gaps, we can appreciate the shadows and the spaces that Farrokhzad and Hayashida call to our attention. “White Blight” fights against the cold by acting as bridge and translator, hearing the family’s pain, sharing their love, and yet claiming a place in Swedish literature for the poet and for the poem’s voices.

Two Lines 23 Spotlight: “The Piper” by Yoko Tawada


This post comes to us from Sarah Coolidge, who works with Poetry Inside Out, a program of Two Lines Press’s parent organization, The Center for the Art of Translation. In addition, Sarah helps evaluate pieces for the Two Lines journal during our editorial meetings, and she’s our de facto photographer for Two Voices events.

“One day, a strange man came along playing a flute, and all the children danced after him, drooling, their eyes wide and round as chrysanthemums.”

When I was in fourth grade, I decided to learn to play the flute. We had to choose an instrument to learn, and I thought that because it was the smallest of the orchestral instruments it must be the easiest. That’s how child logic operates sometimes. Needless to say, I was mistaken.

Unable to achieve the rounded notes of my teacher (and some of the naturals in my class that I copied with mounting desperation), I produced instead several squeaky, high-pitched peeps that must have been quite painful to listen to. With each breath of air, blown roughly through the “O” shape of my unnaturally pursed lips, I mastered the art of squeaking. Unfortunately, there was no place for squeaking in the school orchestra. The next year I gave it up.

Today, when I hear the rounded notes of a flute I remember the remarkable (dare I say magical?) way that our teacher guided us through a song, directing and obstructing air in a dizzying flurry of the fingers. This brings me to one of my favorite pieces from the upcoming 23rd issue of Two Lines. Told through 44 unique vignettes, Yoko Tawada’s “The Piper” is unlike any other fairytale I’ve read. Translated by Margaret Mitsutani, the story—if you can really call it a single story—is a contemporary and sharp-edged transformation of the tale of the Pied Piper.

Popularized by the Brothers Grimm, the Pied Piper has since been retold in verse and prose by Goethe and Robert Browning. The poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who lived through the “terrible years” of Russian history, which included civil war and famine, borrowed the tale as an allegory for Bolshevik propaganda. Fairytales are beautiful for their ability to adapt to their surroundings; authors consistently modernize them, and we delight in their soothingly universal relevance.

Instead, Yoko Tawada dives into the shockingly personal details left out by most fairytales. After all, in fairytales we speak in general terms. The community is grouped into vague cloisters of townsfolk and people, and even the protagonists fade into unanimity, often going by their titles alone: prince, fairy, piper, etc. And yet each character, under the thumb of the omnipotent narrator, hides a unique perspective behind his or her silence.

In “The Piper,” these perspectives are unleashed. Secrets are voiced that we almost regret having heard. The story of a mass kidnapping takes a carnivalesque twist. A pair of traveling entertainers is likened to a pair of fleas; children are continuously compared to rats; and the Piper, with his feathered red hat and magical flute, pops up across centuries and cultures. Tawada goes so far as to ask us to consider the rats: are they really guilty of carrying disease, or are they mere scapegoats for human filth and folly?

Yoko Tawada clearly enjoys the uncomfortable mixture of the personal and the traditional. She decides to set several of the vignettes specifically in Hamelin (the setting of the original), though she tells the tale in her native Japanese. Tawada, who lives in Germany, once explained in an essay that, rather than choosing a single language to write in, she prefers to “find that poetical ravine that divides the two and tumble into it.” I find her metaphor oddly perverse, verging on violence; tumbling suggests lack of control and will, while ravine, with its steep sides and rushing water, implies the impossibility of escape.

The story of a vengeful ratcatcher with a magical pipe is perhaps no less perverse. Like many fairytales revisited in adulthood, the Pied Piper has disturbing undertones. Essentially a story of seduction—both rats and children are powerless before the dizzying music of the piper’s flute—the original tale avoids the subject of sexual seduction like the plague. In “The Piper,” however, the dangerously seductive nature of sexuality is thoroughly unraveled.

Tawada is amazingly talented at tapping into a diverse set of voices, including a gender-confused child and parents who admit to disliking and fearing their children. Nothing is off limits. And perhaps most importantly, Margaret Mitsutani enchants us with the seductive nature of the prose, leading us along like mesmerized children.