‘A Writer’s Statements on Beauty’ by Wally Swist’; translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Mulatto’ and “The Moorsh Girl’ by Frank Hugus

A Writer’s Statements on Beauty

by Wally Swist, Shanti Arts Publishing

Valley poet Wally Swist has been nothing short of prolific during his career, penning over 40 books and chapbooks of poetry and nonfiction, and he’s been particularly productive in the past decade or so.

In 2018, Swist published “Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir,” a mix of essays, journalism, book reviews and other prose that offered a road map to his thoughts on writing and the books that have been an important part of his writing. life. He followed that in 2019 with “On Beauty,” an additional collection of nonfiction that examines books, movies and other artistic work that has enriched his world.

In his newest collection, “A Writer’s Statements on Beauty,” Swist, of South Hadley, offers a follow-up to both books, a collection of essays and reviews that focus on poetry, fiction and other writing that has especially moved him over the years.

Much of the material dates from the past decade, including the last three years, Swist notes, such as an essay he penned during the worst of the pandemic on ways to remain positive. One basic step, he noted, is “listing our gratitude” for the things now missing from our lives, from being unable to visit a local library, missing familiar faces in a favorite local store, and not being able to walk through a public park or across a local college campus.

Swist examines the work of some favorite poets such as Rainer Maria Rilke, the early 20th-century Austrian writer who won praise for the lyricism of his poems and a novel. He also analyzes the writing of Art Beck, an American poet and translator (including translations of Rilke’s work). Beck’s work helped inspire Swist’s own efforts to translate poetry, including Rilke’s.

Closer to home, Swist offers high praise for Amherst poet Michael Miller, a late bloomer who has published several volumes of work in the past decade, winning praise for the clarity and phrasing of his lean, free-verse poems. Swist calls Miller’s “Darkening the Grass,” the poet’s third full collection of poetry, a “perfect definition of what a synecdoche is: a part that is reflective of the whole, or a whole reflecting each part.”

Miller writes with particular power and feeling about aging and being in combat, Swist adds (Miller served in the Marines as a young man). “When we may next make a list of our poets who have written memorably of war,” writes Swist, “may we be sure to include the war poems and poetic tributes to soldiers by Michael Miller.”

Aside from its look at other poets, one of the bigger appeals of Swist’s new book is his take on a wide range of fiction, from DH Lawrence’s “Women in Love” to Margaret Atwood’s “Life Before Man” to short story collections by Jayne Ann Philips and Raymond Carver. Writing about Phillips’ 1979 collection “Black Tickets,” which earned that author national attention, Swist says “Phillips writes with the poise and energy of Diane DiPrima and the force of Jack Keouac.”

And again looking locally, Swist is impressed with the translation that Frank Hugus, a professor of German and Scandinavian studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, did in 2018 of “The Improvisatore,” the first novel by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. The book, published in Denmark in 1835, had not received an English translation since 1845 until Hugus offered his fresh take from it.

“Although this novel does not appear on either The New Yorker or The New York Times’s summer reading lists, it should,” writes Swist. “The subtitle of this work, A Novel of Italysays it all, and not one but Hans Christian Andersen, in Frank Hugus’s new translation, says it any better.”

Two dramas: The Mulatto and The Moorish Girl

by Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Frank Hugus, Agarita Press

Frank Hugus, the UMass professor who translated “The Improvisatore” by Hans Christian Andersen a few years ago, has now translated two of Andersen’s plays, “The Mulatto” and “The Moorish Girl,” which were both first performed in Denmark in 1840.

Plays, you say? Yes — Hugus notes that though Andersen is best known for his seminal fairy tales such as “The Princess and the Pea” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” he was also a busy novelist, poet, travel writer, and playwright, penning some 40 works for the stage including dramas, comedies, and musicals.

Andersen also loved attending the theater, Hugus notes, and he was writing plays and submitting them for consideration by the Danish Royal Theater in the early 1820s when he was still a teenager. Many of Andersen’s later plays proved popular with Danish, Swedish and Norwegian audiences during his lifetime, Hugus adds, but they largely disappeared from view following the author’s death in 1875.

And few if any of these works have ever been translated into English, Hugus says, which prompted him to do that work for “The Mulatto” and “The Moorish Girl.” In addition, he says, both dramas embody a key characteristic of much of Andersen’s work — observation and criticism of social injustice and inequity — making them relevant for a modern audience.

“The Mulatto,” which Andersen based on a French novella from 1837, is set on an 18th century sugar-cane plantation worked by black slaves on French-controlled Martinique; the plot involves a friendship between two white French women and a mulatto man, Horatio. That relationship is threatened when the plantation’s vicious owner rounds up runaway slaves, as well as free blacks and mulattos without proper papers, and threatens to whip Horatio to death.

“The Moorish Girl,” in turn, speaks to religious intolerance, Hugus says. It’s set in Spain in during the late Middle Ages and considers the battles between Spanish and Moorish forces. He notes that he’s retained the play’s “pejorative references to ‘Moorish hordes’ swarming over Christian Spain” because to do otherwise “would vitiate the socially critical impact that Andersen was endeavoring to impart” to the drama.

Both these plays were written mostly in rhyming verse, Hugus says, making a direct translation to English especially challenging, since finding comparable English rhymes would likely have disrupted the original meter of the verse as well as its structure and meaning. Hugus opted to reproduce the meter of the verse but dispense with any rhymes when translating to English.

He’s full of admiration for Andersen’s skill in both plays: “[He] demonstrates an admirable ability to adapt verse form to the dramatic situation.” And “The Moorish Girl,” though not considered a great success when originally staged, “has much to offer readers and audience members,” Hugus adds. “[I]t clearly deserves a reappraisal — as well as a restaging!”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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