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When I asked him about the essay, he said, “In Germany, I’m sort of like one of those bands that had one hit record, and so I give readings and people ask me to read ‘Nacktmull,’ which is the naked mole-rat. This pretty girl said, ‘Last night, I was in bed reading it to my boyfriend.’ And I said, ‘Don’t you have anything better to read?’ ”Weinberger is better known abroad than he is in the United States; his work has been translated into more than thirty languages.“I realized I was kind of a lousy poet, but I could take all of these things I had learned about writing poetry and use it to write prose,” he told me.
It was, he told me, “the first modern poem I ever read and totally changed my life and made me decide that I wanted to be a writer.”He studied Spanish, too, and began to translate Spanish-language poetry as a way to learn to write verse.
When he was seventeen, he discovered the work of Ezra Pound, and he began following Pound’s prescriptions for becoming a poet.
His newest book, “The Ghosts of Birds,” is typically wide-ranging.
The first half, made up of nineteen connected pieces, continues a serial essay—an open-ended work with refracting images and motifs—the first part of which appeared in 2007’s “An Elemental Thing.” The pieces in “Ghosts” include a catalogue of dreams about people named Chang, accounts of burial traditions used to keep the dead at bay, and “A Calendar of Stones”—twenty-eight descriptions of rocks in different times and places, numbered in accordance with the phases of the moon.“You get a sense from his work of the extreme richness of global culture,” the writer Lydia Davis, whose work can be equally difficult to classify, told me. In 2013, New Directions published “Two American Scenes,” a poetry pamphlet, for which each writer contributed a piece based on obscure nineteenth-century American texts.
He saw that the poem was based on the Aztec calendar, and he thought, I know about the Aztec calendar, I’ll read this thing.
The poem is sexually charged and full of kaleidoscopic surfaces.“One dead-end branch of the tunnel is their toilet: they wallow there in the soaked earth so that all will smell alike.” The accretion of detail is a windup for a piercing moral observation.“Sometimes a naked-mole rat will suddenly stop, stand on its hind-legs, and remain motionless, its head pressed against the roof of the tunnel. Their hearing is acute.”In person, Weinberger is genial and self-contained; he smiles frequently and is prone to wisecracks.Eventually, Paz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, provided Weinberger with a formal introduction to New Directions, whose founder, James Laughlin, was the first person to publish Paz in translation.Weinberger was still writing poems then, but by the time he turned thirty he had grown discouraged with his compositions.Prescott’s “History of the Conquest of Mexico”—a little pamphlet.It was “Sunstone,” by Octavio Paz, translated by Muriel Rukeyser and published as part of the New Directions poetry series.I visited the writer Eliot Weinberger at his home, in the West Village, in Manhattan.Weinberger, who was born in 1949, in New York, is a translator, editor, political commentator, and, above all, an essayist.More have come since, among them Maggie Nelson, Wayne Koestenbaum, and John D’Agata.But when Weinberger first turned to essay-writing, it felt, he said, “like unexplored territory.” He has been investigating it ever since.