In English, please!

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 09.11.2018

After the embarrassingly parochial election campaigns run by most political parties and their almost obsessive foregrounding of our national language, the latest publication under the Black Fountain logo feels like a more than welcome breath of fresh air. It is a tapestry of poetry and prose that brings 29 authors together. Some are Luxembourgers born and bred, the others are expats that are living here now or lived here at some point. Some always write in English, others don’t. It makes for a lively mix of voices, especially as the authors were free to pick both their topic and their genre.

You move from sharp observations to postmodern subjectivity, from slightly naive musings to striking portrayals of urban anonymity.

The opening poem by Pierre Joris has beautiful fluidity and glorious self-irony. The Cormorant also introduces the themes of time and loss, which are key to so many of the other texts. It is followed by On Bridges Red, a poem by Cecile Somers, who was born in the Netherlands but grew up here. As you might guess from the title, what she refers to as “this big red beast” and the K’Berg plateau loom large in lines that rely on echoes and repetition to create a mood that is both tongue-in-cheek and serious.

In fact, Kirchberg will appear throughout the collection! It might be the one place that most Luxembourgers just pass through most of the time, but it is clearly central to the lives of many expats, the one part of town that has a genuine cosmopolitan feel to it.

In this context Jeffrey Palms’s text entitled Wham! A Tram describes what having words you do not understand explode on you during your daily bus journey feels like. The day “the shiny metal people machine, the tram” starts running, his narrator’s commute is being messed up for good.

Perhaps the most moving text in the collection is A & E by James Leader, a poem about an elderly couple standing “purged of their futures/Raw and essential”. They draw everyone’s gaze the moment they enter a hospital waiting room and become an embodiment of what all of us will face one day – should we be lucky enough to live that long. Leader succeeds in evoking the pain of being human in sober, uncompromising lines.

Ruth Dugdall’s Mother of the Groom is another of my favourites, a story about a friendship that slowly unfolds over meals at the Palais de Chine. It offers a welcome combination of the exotic and the local as well as the mundane. And then there is Jean-Marc Lantz’s Finn’s Viewing. Set in Ireland, this is a conversation between two former university mates that is full of nostalgia and dark humour. An intricate, tightly woven text, it demands re-reading as it goes off in all sorts of directions.

Shehzar Doja’s Inside the Haveli is also worlds away from Kirchberg and adds an intriguing visual richness to the collection. The poem evokes growing up in Bangladesh and the overwhelming presence of an ayya whose voice was “like the melancholic croak of a frog”. The speaker knows that catching those ghosts again is impossible, yet remains haunted by presences that refuse to ever go away for good.

As a contrast, Pequeño – A Brief History is about a world of Wall Street cowboys and hedge funds. Susan Alexander’s story bristles with energy and has a sleek urban modernity to it. Reading it allows for the perfect immersive experience as different strands are brilliantly drawn together by the first-person narrator. Meanwhile, Joanna Easter’s 5AM is sparser and much quieter. Its neat monotone sentences are low-key and full of echoes, but equally well-balanced.

No doubt, the most appealing aspect of Fresh from the fountain is the great variety of voices, though this is also where matters become slightly more complicated since you are bound to compare and contrast. In fact, you may end up feeling that a few texts could have done with more muscular editing and some serious rewriting. Getting rid of the odd laborious metaphor would have given them greater tightness and made them punchier and more powerful. Still, all in all, there are many more treats than flops in this mixed bag as numerous twists and turns make for a delightful reading experience. And then, you should not forget to have a look at the Appendix, in which over half of the authors explain why they write in English in the first place. Compelling food for thought.

Fresh from the fountain, Black Fountain Press, 2018; ISBN 978-999959-998-2-7.

Janine Goedert
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