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Both Sides of the Niger

By Andrew Kaufman

80 pp

Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2013

Some forewords are window dressing and some are necessary. This one sets the important tone for a poet who entered what used to be called the “dark continent” Africa. Kaufman’s book is a stunning and detailed network of his travels—the frame of reference for this poet is as investigative reporter, registering an awareness of the suffering and joys of an indigenous people. It is the village hut he enters, not the tourist center, and the Niger is his vehicle winding through Africa’s imagery. What tips each poem is the transactional behavior of the people Kaufman meets. If only travelogues were in such poetics we’d have the true inspired boldness of a geography and its people. Kaufman faces conflicting beliefs in a battered land and the main asset is his humanity which overviews each poem. Excerpts from a 3-page poem below:

Girls and Women of Benin

As I crouch before an altar at Temple Yoho,

an old woman appears, offering me

a bowl of rice and a cup of sacred water.

*  *  *

A ten-year-old girl slams her forehead

over and over into the asphalt road

leading out o Parakou,

Screaming, I sold fruit all day

then someone stole my money.


*  *  *


Five girls in their teens

wait day and night

between a speed bump and a check point

on the road to Cotonou,

so they can race after bush taxis

to sell small plastic bags of water.

*  *  *

One woman makes loud animal cries

into the forest, and listens

for her companions

to gauge how far they are f

from her.




Earth’s Ends
By Andrew Kaufman
81 pp.
Pearl Editions, 2005

A Poet Compelled
By Tsipi Keller

Andrew Kaufman is a seer and listener. Reading the list of titles on the Contents page, and even before getting to the poems themselves, the reader has already been transported to another plane. Kaufman visits villages from the Himalayas to the Andes,
regions which are more remote than remote, and gives a voice to the perennially voiceless, to legless and armless beggars, to child prostitutes, to those who may briefly exist at the periphery of our NewsHour vision, and then vanish. These people are far away, in
places such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Bolivia, places most of us are content not to visit, prudently following the advice of travel guides, such as the one Kaufman cites in the poem, “Fodor’s Travel Guide: Southeast Asia, 1994:”

Do not go to Cambodia.
Six million land mines are still scattered –
Bones lie in fields, like broken cacti

But Kaufman is a poet compelled, insatiable and inquisitive, possessed of a strange kind of “tourist” logic. The poem, “Upriver from Hoi An,” begins:

If there’s a river, I thought, there must be villages,
if there are boats, there must be a way
to reach them. If they are not on the map,
not in the guidebook, if the police
and the tourist office insist they know nothing
about villages not on the map,
then I had to see them.

He hires a boat and, sure enough, finds the village, and is soon surrounded by children who clamor for his attention, and even speak a few words of English: How-are-you?/ How-are-you? Here, as elsewhere, children are his guides, they take him to the shrine, and later, one of the girls takes him to her home for
tea –

her father placed a thermos of tea
before me and another by the photos
of her mother and brother and grandparents,
so they would not become thirsty or sick
in the next world.
In most of these poems, the lone American poet, traveling to earth’s ends, manages to make contact, all the while aware that:
I am powerless here—
forgive the notes I take.

He is as powerless as they, and one assumes it is the poet’s humility, his compassion, his lack of sentimentality, that allow him access to people’s homes and hearts. Still, there’s also the question of money, the lack of it, the distant glamour of it, and even in the remotest village, money is God:

The temple has filled with sparrows

flying among golden demons and gods:
God of Money, God of War, God of Orphans,
God of the Poor. And from outside, the toddlers
keep calling, Hel-lo, Hel-lo.

For all his affinity with the people and their harsh conditions, the poet, hardly well-off by American
standards, has suddenly and unwittingly become a self-conscious millionaire, “smiling dumbly” in

So you get to the bank,
and, 11,000 dong to the dollar, you leave
a millionaire, though with an ungainly
bag of cash, looking around, nervous

that people are watching, like a guy
leaving a whorehouse.

Whorehouses, temples, shrines and mausoleums abound in these poems. And cemeteries. And former tyrants and emperors. And armed soldiers. But, there’s a subtle humor, too, a humor that comes from pain and, yes,powerlessness. In “The Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh,” we find:

His brown eyes,
empty, the thin fingers, pointed toward his feet,
suggest a praying mantis. He spends two months a year
in Moscow, “for maintenance.”
Alongside poems that center on child prostitutes, there is a poem about a child Goddess, the Kumari, confined to her palace until her first menstrual blood, at which time a new Kumari will be sought out and installed. Kaufman puts himself in her shoes, asking, Are other small girls/ brought to  play with her?/ Is she moody? Too impertinent/ to ask. For a 20-cent tip, he is led by a guard to the palace, and, following the guard’s whistle, the face of the Goddess floats in a window for a few seconds, and is gone. One wonders if all the guards have this peculiar arrangement with her, or if this particular guard is
her brother or uncle – yet another instance of child prostitution, with a twist.  And, Kaufman tells us, once released from her Goddesshood, the Kumari is not likely to marry, as it is considered bad luck to marry
a former Goddess. For all her present – and doubtful –glory, she may well end up impoverished, wretched, and forgotten.

Alongside poverty and exploitation, there is a kind of touching, primal purity. In the beautiful, “Daybreak, Northern Thailand,” the poet is waking, trying to write a couple of lines, when two small girls come into his hootch:

If the one without clothes were ten years older,
I’d swear she had come to seduce me,
stretching, supine on the mat,
laughing mischievously, like her older sisters.
A grain of rice is stuck between the lips
of her vulva.

In theme and style, “Earth’s Ends” stands alone. The book won the Pearl Poetry Prize, and, in the words of Fred Voss, who had selected it: “[W]ith all the degradation suffered by these people… there is always survival.” And so for the poet, too, survival is often a solitary path, late at night, going back to his bed in a guesthouse, to his mat in a hooch, or, back in New York, wandering, half lost,

having outwalked the farthest city light,
to return pre-dawn across soot-flecked frost,
my lusts bright domes of gold in the sun,
my terrors beggars with stumps for hands.

The above quote is from “Myself” – the only poem in “Earth’s Ends” in which the poet seems to reflect about the poems he writes, a kind of ars poetica or manifesto, prompted by the urging of an older poet: “Write about yourself,” the white-haired poet said/ bored with my toddler-beggars and drunk shamans.  What the well-meaning poet seems to have missed is that Kaufman is writing about himself, he is the armless beggar, the drunk shaman, the child
prostitute, and herein lies the strength of this unique book.

Tsipi Keller is a novelist and translator. She is the
recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts
Translation Fellowship, of CAPS and NYFA awards in
fiction, and is the author, most recently, of the
novel Jackpot (Spuyten Duyvil, 2004).

*                               *                           


By Andrew Kaufman
Spuyten Duyvil Press
1341 Seventh Street, Berkeley, CA, 94710
2013, 80 pp., $15, softcover

There are noteworthy travelogues that read like poetry (W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Gentleman in the Parlour” and Basho’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” come to mind) and books of poetry that read like travelogues (such as Ferlinghetti’s “A Far Rockaway of the Heart” or Pablo Neruda’s “The Sea and the Bells”) but Andrew Kaufman’s Both Sides of the Niger (Spuyten Duyvil, NY, 2013) is a recent addition to the canon of such dualistic work, and noteworthy for its excellence.

First of many reasons that Kaufman’s newest poetry collection seems so superb is the quality of the printing; the lush color cover features two photographs – one (by Chris Manders) of women fishing in small pirogues, with net traps, in the dark waters of the Niger River; the other one, by the author, of women (including a young woman, seen topless) posing at an African marketplace. Both are evocative of the beauty and the poverty we encounter as we read the poems.

The well-wrought arc of the poems leads us into the Dark Continent, as if a travel article. We see the river, as did the author, snaking through the countryside from an airplane. Then, in a villanelle that gives the collection its title, we watch women washing clothes in those waters, which are infested with numerous diseases. Kaufman catalogues the sicknesses: typhoid, bilharzia, cholera, dengue fever, malaria…in a poem that is starkly chilling in its commingling of beauty and subtle horror.

The Africa that Kaufman has come to know, and shares in these twenty-five poems, is one of post-colonial government and medieval medicine men, of people who gather cow dung to make cooking fires and have little awareness of modern medicine or hygiene. Their naturalistic state gives Kaufman a chance to revel in the simplicity of their lifestyle, and the uncomplicated ways they deal with birth and death. Yet he clearly shows us the fact that these are people living in a manner so primitive that their witch doctors still read auguries to determine if they need “a spirit….to fight the spirit of a curse…(or use) bone or blood” to cure the illness.

Kaufman’s generosity of heart doesn’t allow him to either praise or condemn the same people for their lifestyle. He merely presents, in poem after poem, images of a world where food is caught and killed by hand, grown by hand, where harvests are made by families and villages, where modern medicine is largely absent, and diseases run rampant.

And yet, amid all the poverty and illnesses, Kaufman repeatedly sees small moments of magic wherever they flourish. In “Want,” he writes: When the scars / that were hints / of a road turned / to nothing, / I found the dark insect / that is the plane’s shadow. And later: A wind-wrecked ridge / turned to spires / of a ruined city. Kaufman not only sees the magic all around him, he creates much of it with his formal poems. Moreover, his work is so skillfully wrought that we almost don’t realize that we are scanning sonnets, villanelles, and dialogues – all perfectly crafted so that the forms are subsumed within the rich imagery.

And this imagery fills our senses: we hear people singing and drumming; hear the buzz of insects. We see the sirocco wind blow across the desert, watch the Niger roll and flow, observe shadows that flare in lantern light. We can smell the kerosene used to immolate a hapless victim; elsewhere, the smells of cooking beneath a baobab tree. Not all the poems are in form; most of the work is actually free-form, although several seem to be permeated with what might be called accidental haiku. Another scene from the poem “Want”:

What I took
for dwellings turned to
shadows of rock

and from “Fumes”:

a frigate captain’s
pyramid-shaped tomb
embossed with an anchor

One of the most lyrical of Kaufman’s poems is Sounding the Names, a piece in which he catalogs the words he’s learned from people of the desert, who have no schools, and no vocabulary lists. They have a life so simple (and uncomplicated by computers and Western habits) that they seem relics of the Stone Age. The people he stays with teach him their words for teeth, water, lips, three kinds of bowls, and for bracelet, but – as Kaufman concludes – there are no words:

for happy or sad, yesterday
or tomorrow, none for the sea
between talk and fuck,
nor the desert between gone and here.

Kaufman’s work has been described as “earthy and spiritual” by Hal Sirowitz, and as “emotionally resonant and discordant” by Stephanie Dickinson, and it is all these. The problem of his reportage is that – while it strives for truth amid the beauty and squalor – it also leaves much out. There is an elliptical eye at work here that sees both privation and loveliness, and yet seems to ignore (or skew) their roots and causes. In “Cotonou at Night,” for example, Kaufman relates how the villagers attacked someone because they believed an act of voodoo (via a handshake) had caused someone to lose his penis – but he leaves unspoken the ignorance and lack of education that underlies such beliefs. We observe the difficulty of life for women of the Niger, yet, in “Fumes,” he describes the “half-drunk” Moslem who shoos away a girl he’d been sitting with at a bar, calling her, “just my friend,” then, “my little sister,” and then “a whore” – again, leaving the man’s misogynistic attitude unmentioned – but obvious. (I found this far more problematic than another reviewer found the nude in the cover photo – a photograph which I found sensitive and innocent.)

Kaufman’s good-hearted perspective serves him (and the reader) well when he fills our vision with images of dancing women of Benin, or of the “hello song” of a turtle dove or crocodile – yet he also serves up a soup of images of a people who have been down- trodden by wars and conquest by islam, and yet omits any mention of these in “The French Military Cemetery of Ouidah, Benin.” Here, he describes the crumbling ruins of what was once the Ouidah slave market – a market that was part of the world-wide islamic slave trade, yet Kaufman delicately omits any mention of this, writing only of the French soldiers’ graveyard:

so different / from Ouidah’s largest graveyard, / the sea,
on which most slaves / sold here / died in transport,
or in the holds / of ships / awaiting transport,
the white of the waves, / their markers / and epitaphs,
the white of the waves / likewise as clean / as the sun.

In summary, this collection is mesmerizing and image-rich. It is a view of a people, a continent, and nations living without most of the comforts of modern life, a people living under the yoke of dictatorships either communist or islamic – and from which Kaufman generously omits mention of blame – yet should. But his Both Sides of the Niger is also infused with the poet’s intense and beautiful descriptions of poverty – for which he offers no answers, yet somehow forces us to ask all the right questions.

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From HOME PLANET NEWS, #55, 2006

Reviewed by Melinda Thompsen

Earth’s Ends
By Andrew Kaufman

Pearl Editions, 3030 E. Second Street, Long Beach, CA 90803, 2005, 83 pp., $11.95 paper.

Often we hear poets described as “poets of place” as if that were some lofty ideal to aspire to, and American poets like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, James Wright, and Philip Levine immediately come to mind.  Of course, their poems were grounded from years of living in specific regions, but are more than observations.  Their poetry came from snapshots of geographical places filtered through the view of their “inner place,” where observations moved to poems that rang with their unique voice of words, rhythm, and thought.  The poetry that most surprises and delights comes from this place.

This is where Andrew Kaufman wrote from when he traveled through Asia and South America.  A poet of the “inner place,” he has observed regions (both geographical and spiritual) where we might not want to go.  The opening line of “Fodor’s Guide: Southeast Asia, 1994” says, “Don’t go to Cambodia”; but of course, that’s the kind of place that attracts us and arouses our curiosity.  This book of poetry, with its gorgeous front-cover picture of a red-cloaked monk ascending Mount Nimbur in Nepal, reflects the edges of the world from where Kaufman is the outsider, the traveler, visiting places far from where he was born.  That’s why the “inner place” is so important, and when Kaufman writes from there, his poems are startling and arresting.  “Tham Lot Spirit Cave” is an excellent example.  The opening stanzas combine observations that move to art:
At dusk, the sign
at the thatch and rattan “lodge” says,
Half a million sparrows enter the mouth

of the Spirit Cave, while as many bats

out and all of both,
it seemed, swirled in a cloud
as if half the departed souls and dust in Thailand
were caught in a whirlwind.

Someone put it out

of  its misery! screamed the fat,
half-educated daughter of a California
sociologist.  A dying sparrow

thrashed on the rocks
by her feet.  The only someone
around was me. …

This poem masterfully combines observation with the voice of the poet, moving it into its own artful rhythm. The first stanza sets up with a quote from a sign, and then the poet comments: “it seemed, swirled in a cloud / as if half the departed souls and dust in Thailand/ were caught in a whirlwind.”  The music emanates from the three beats of first, second, and fourth lines of the stanza, as opposed to the five beats of the third, and complements the vivid image as do the mellifluous words “seemed,” “swirled,” and “whirlwind.”  The entire poem goes back and forth from observation to observation, creating a beautiful piece that sings with the poet’s voice.  It is wonderful.  There are numerous poems that break through from the “inner place,” such as “Late Afternoon,” “The Coffin Sellers of Viaja, Bolivia,” “The Story of the Universe,” “Signs of the Cross,” “The Temple of the Jade Emperor, Ho Chi Minh City,” and “Up River from Hoi An.”   The book’s first poem, “Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, 1999,” is skillfully written but doesn’t have this quality.  It seems merely a series of observations; I didn’t detect the poet’s voice.  But the second poem, “Fodor’s Travel Guide: Southeast Asia, 1994,” hooked me.  I love the brashness of the first line, “Do not go to Cambodia,” and of course, when someone says don’t do something, that’s all we want to do.  This is where the poet takes charge of our trip.  Earth’s EndS is organized with long poems at the beginning, middle (“Signs of the Cross”), and end (“The Story of the Universe”), but it is that second poem that jump-starts the book.

The only other problem I encountered was that I didn’t find the women or girls fully developed.  Of course, the poet is visiting “earth’s edges,” and one of these places is human trafficking, but these girls seem lifeless.  I kept looking for a poem in which a girl or woman was treated with the same steady observation as in “Past the Floating Market of Can Tho,” a beautiful lyric that starts:
From thatch, rattan, and bamboo stilts
children run to the banks waving
as though we are famous. Some play in our wake
like dolphins. In a silk ao dai
alone in a boat under tow,
a young woman sits serene
in the vaguely sad heaven
of the beautiful. …

The women appear within the landscape or cityscapes — in “The Child Goddess of Kathmandu,” one appears as a goddess — but not as individuals.  The poems are from an outsider’s viewpoint, but I wanted to know these inhabitants better, to see them described with the same beautiful lyric intensity with which he writes about places like the Market of Can Tho and the Tham Lot Spirit Cave.

Earth’s Ends is an extremely rich book, written by an accomplished poet who is the deserving winner of the 2003 Pearl Poetry Prize.  It is a book that fulfills the promise of its lovely cover.  Kaufman has crafted his observations into poems with an honest voice that we can all recognize and won’t forget.

* *
From The Smart Set, “World View: Advice and Insight from a Professional Poet, Kristen Hoggatt, March 16, 2009

I recently attended a panel discussion at a writer’s conference on using the lyric mode to capture global injustices. In order to not be completely self-serving, to not use the suffering of others completely to your advantage, most poets on the panel agreed that you must abstain from abject judgment, presenting the situation as objectively and honestly as you can. If your work focuses on Vietnam, for example, you could analyze “Upriver from Hoi An” by Andrew Kaufman, who was on that panel.

One god can hear a thousand miles,
an older boy labored in English,
One god can see a thousand miles.
Together they guard the temple.
Now there were forty children,
and some adults watching, shyly. Then
Huynh Le Phuong, who was beautiful,
asked me to her home for tea,
and as we walked boys grabbed my arms,
pulled hard as they could, pulled
the hairs and laughed,
and she told me, They like you,
they never before touch American man, and tried
to smile. I walked with my hands above my head
so they could not reach them. At her home
her father placed a thermos of tea
before me and another by the photos
of her mother and brother and grandparents,
so they would not become thirsty or sick
in the next world. You like
Vietnamese girls? she wanted to know.
Do you fall for me? Will you take me
to the Himalayas? The big, big mountains? When you go
back to New York, will you remember me?
Will you write a poem for me, just for me,
and send it?

*                             *


The Mt. Annapurna region of Nepal

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