Kit Kelen, Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes (Australian Esperanto Association 2022)
It was my great pleasure to launch the English part of this bilingual book today. The Esperanto part was launched by Jonathan Cooper from the Australian Esperanto Associaton, in an afternoon that also featured Kit Kelen’s’s exhibition of palimpsest works on paper with the same title, plus music, at the Shop gallery in Glebe, all MCd by Richard James Allen. There was music, and a conversation between Kit and Magdalena Ball. Here’s a version of my launch speech.
Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes is not the first bilingual poetry book Kit Kelen has been involved in, not even the first bilingual book of his own poetry. But it marks his debut as translator of his own work, both from English into Esperanto and in the other direction as well.
Mostly, unless you’re appropriately bilingual, you can ignore the language that’s not your own when you read a bilingual book. This one isn’t like that. The Esperanto isn’t an added extra. To read the book thoughtfully is to engage with Esperanto, maybe learn a word or two, discover some of its history, and glean some understanding of its underlying philosophy.
It’s easy to see why Esperanto is a good fit for Kit’s poetry. Esperanto, as I understand it, is all about opening channels of communication where none might otherwise have existed. Kit’s work shows a deep commitment to being open to other cultures, other languages, and to other minds. for example, when he asked me to give this talk, he didn’t say, ‘I hope you like the book,’ but ‘I’m interested to hear what you think of it.’
The English versions of many of poems in this book predate Kit’s interest in Esperanto. They cover a wide range of subjects, from the plight of refugees and the climate emergency, to simple celebrations of the natural world and poems about poetry itself. But there’s no great discontinuity between them and the poems dealing explicitly with Esperanto.
One example of these older poems is ‘here’s the story to save the world’, which includes these lines:
what is it keeps us alive?
I want to know how the story ends
You can draw a straight line from that to ‘Hitching my wagon to a green star’, a statement of allegiance to Esperanto, which has the lines, ‘we come here for a conversation / while we wait for states to wither away’.
There are poems about learning the language. ‘thank you poem for Trevor Steele’ is explicit:
these lines here are just to say –
thanks for the grammar
I know it must be very annoying –
all the stupid mistakes I make
but how can there be so many accusatives?
Or there’s this from ‘being a humble beginner’:
often I slip
sometimes I slip off the tongue together
This is the poem that most makes me wish I could read Esperanto. What’s the Esperanto equivalent of the mistake ‘slip off the tongue together’? ‘tute glitas de mia lango’ doesn’t tell me anything. It makes me wonder how many references there are that Esperantists get but just sail past me.
Beyond this interest in learning the language, the book engages with its underlying philosophy. ‘being a humble beginner’ again:
but I’m here for the conversation
I believe that is an art
like leaving the world better than found –
another impossible thing
L L Zamenhof, the language’s creator, is quoted in one of the book’s two epigraphs:
Rompu, rompu la murojn inter la popoloj!
Translation hardly seems necessary, but Google translates it as:
Break, break the walls between the peoples!
‘Bialystok dreaming’ tells how Zamenhof first thought of inventing a neutral second language in Russia in the late 19th century. ‘Suprasegmentals’ makes fun of Chomsky’s declaration that Esperanto is not a language. ‘samideanoj!’ spells out the vision with characteristic Kelenian paradox. It begins:
today we are building a dead language
syllable by syllable, from scratch
it is a tiny country
and never was at all
Esperanto, to paraphrase, has no currency except the people who speak it. Incidentally, this poem stands out for two reasons: the title, meaning ‘like-minded people’ isn’t translated, and the first one-word line – ‘kamaradoj’ – doesn’t appear in the English. The book is aware of its dual readership.
The poems about Esperanto don’t pull back from its utopian aspirations. In fact they endorse them, but there’s a feeling of astonishment, perhaps even with an edge of amusement, at the vastness of those aspirations. The poems are completely serious, but not self-important.
The two poems that for me are the guts of the book, are ‘shelter’ and ‘bung mazes’. The book has been described as ‘an abstract treatment of the situation of asylum seekers’. The poems celebrating our common humanity, and Esperanto as a way to sharing it, the poems about openness to the natural world and the value of conversation, create a version of the world in which the current treatment of asylum seekers is a cruel absurdity. In ‘shelter’ and ‘bung mazes’, the point is made explicitly.
The title poem ‘Bung Mazes’, begins with a line from the public debate about asylum seekers, ‘everyone knows there is no queue’, and goes on in fifteen short poems to create a kind of maze of its own. I found it the most difficult poem in the book. Sentences don’t finish, images rub up against each other, it’s hard – even maybe impossible – to grasp how some lines hang together. For example:
where you see desert’s edge
a labyrinth in canvas shook
lent to, how it blows off
who’s after you? can it be imagined?
their weapons and the names they call
crime of a clock, dreamt that too
There’s the image of a refugee camp, and a general anxiety is evoked, but it’s hard to pin down a clear meaning. If there is a meaning there, it’s just beyond my grasp (whose weapons? what clock committed what crime? who dreamt what?)
Generally if a poem grabs me, but I don’t understand why, I’ll sit with it, and let it brew in my mind. Sometimes a meaning becomes apparent in the brewing process. In this case, it’s not a meaning, but the effect created by the poem’s elusiveness. In effect the poem, made up largely of unparsable moments like this, gives me a faint inkling of the emotional impact of being lost in the dangerous maze of asylum seeking.
‘Shelter’ includes lines that cry out to be quoted:
now they are changing all the world’s weather
island here, river there, tents blow away
tanks shift borders out of the way
big bird flies where it will, drops its droppings
fire now flood now famine war
we were forced to flee
then where to shelter?
in the cave in my head?
but you’ll never get in
there’s never been a queue
there’s a maze
of rules and rights
of yours, not mine
and my turn
for the sixty million wandering
this world is a maze gone bung
Sixty million is the UNHCR’s 2015 estimate of the number of people displaced worldwide by wars, conflict, and persecution.
So this is a book about intensely serious subjects.
My mind goes to something Kit wrote almost 10 years ago. Speaking of the problematic nature of writing in the pastoral mode as a settler Australian, he said: ‘The challenge is to have fun while you problematise (otherwise please don’t write a poem).’
This book is fun. Even at its most serious, it avoids ponderousness. It delights in paradox, puns and syntactical playfulness. It always treats the English language – I can’t speak of the Esperanto – as an endlessly enjoyable and challenging playground (‘bung mazes’ is an example; it rejects the obvious English for Rompitaj Labirintoj, that is to say, Broken Labyrinths, in favour of something much less respectful). The poems are full of music, as I hope the bits I’ve read demonstrate.
In this context, fun can be many things. Take the short poem ‘parable’ for example. I loved it at first reading because I felt it brought a much needed lightness of touch to the climate emergency, a step back from the details of rising temperatures, collapsing ice sheets, greenwashing by corporations and governments, and so on. I read it as a kind of wistful fantasy. Then, while I was preparing for this talk, I read it to a friend who’s a climate activist, and it made us both cry – I think because it manages to strike a note of forgiveness along with terrible grief. Here it is. I don’t expect it to make you or me cry today, but just listen to it:
we came from the ice
and out of the trees
and wanted the whole world warmer
we lit fires
and at timber
we were the axe
we were the flame
as if winter were our own forever
we only wanted the whole world warmer
o fearful the dark
but we brought the firelight
the others we’ve eaten by now
we burnt till all of the forest was gone
we came to the clock
that’s where we are now
hard to hear anything
everyone’s in charge
we all follow orders
it’s hard to see how this will pan out
but I predict, in time to come
at the Court of All Spirits
our defence will simply be
we came from the dark
we came from the ice
we wanted the whole world warmer
[It didn’t make me cry when I read it out, and I don’t think anyone else shed a tear either.]
It’s my honour and privilege to commend this book to you. Buy a copy, and, as the poem ‘keep this book’ says with only a hint of over-selling:
walk with it
sleep with it
read it out loud
quote it at will
I declare Rompitaj Labirintoj / Bung Mazes, the English half, launched.
And here’s a pic of me talking, with Kit’s art in the background and Kit wearing a hat in the corner