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Book Review: 'Rilke Shake,' by Angélica Freitas, translated by Hilary Kaplan

Rilke Shake is a delicate collection of sparse contemporary poems commenting lightly and incisively on life on planet earth. The title is perfect, alerting the reader to the fact that the work will be irreverent and humorous with wordplay and anachronistic comment on the classical poetry canon. Freitas has a distinctive style: sonic wordplay, devoid of punctuation. Kaplan has retained the original style with great fealty, often making delicate and informed decisions on how best to render the work in poetic English and retain the humor of the Brazilian Portuguese original. The phrase “eu penso no stradivárius/en nos vários empregos” is translated as “I think of the stradivarius and the sundry and various” (27), retaining the lovely chime of “stradivarius” and “various.” In the poem “love me,” Kaplan translates “na mesa uma gérbera dá o último/ suspiro” as “on the table a gerber daisy/expires” (37), retaining the important line break achieved by the half-beat before “expires” with its attendant suspense. Kaplan uses the term “gerber daisy” instead of “gerbera” in order to retain the rhythm necessary to get the line break before “expires,” as Freitas has done. At other times Kaplan knows when she is beaten, as when she transliterates “as bruxas de bruxelas” as “the witches of brussels” (51), not even trying to approximate the lovely etymological similarity between “bruxas” (witches) and “bruxelas” (Brussels) in the Brazilian Portuguese. At other times Kaplan uses alliteration in English to mimic Freitas’ Portuguese. An example is in the poem “casino”: Freitas writes, “você prefere o cru/ao creme,” rendered by Kaplan as “you prefer the raw to the refined” (53), which is nicely and delicately done.

There is a satirical suite of poems in the center of the collection in which literary luminaries of the early twentieth century appear in different locations in Paris. Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound, and Rainer Maria Rilke all make cameo appearances. Freitas imitates the distinctive style of Stein at times here, in an ironic but loving way. There is the tender anatomical dissection of a love relationship between two women in numbered stanzas in “siobhan 4” and the wonderful “ringue pôlifonicos” (polyphonic ringtones), which is very current in its content and manic in its execution.

This is a clever and profound collection, written with a light hand. It is translated as cleverly and as lightly.

Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated by Hilary Kaplan, Phoneme Media, Los Angeles: 2014.

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