Pierre Joris is a poet and translator who teaches at the University at Albany-State University of New York. I got to know him in the mid-1990s when I taught graduate creative writing students at the university and did a weekly radio show called The Book Show (two years, over 80 interviews with famous and infamous writers from Europe, Canada and the United States) at WAMC, the Albany Public Radio affiliate. One of my interviews was devoted to Pierre who is not just a poet and teacher but a protean dynamo of translation, theory, criticism, editing, and international literary promotion. One of his many accomplishments is the massive multi-volume Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry which he co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg. In 2005 he won the PEN Poetry in Translation prize. Later this year ‘Exile is My Trade:’ The Habib Tengour Reader, edited, translated & introduced by Pierre Joris will be published by Black Widow Press.
Tengour is an Algerian poet, novelist and ethnologist, a post-colonial, surrealist, and self-described mestizo writer who has lived, worked and studied in Algeria and Paris. As Pierre Joris writes, Tengour is “one of the Maghreb’s most forceful and visionary francophone poetic voices of the post-colonial era. The work has the desire and intelligence to be epic, or at least to invent narrative possibilities beyond the strictures of the Western / French lyric tradition, in which his colonial childhood had schooled him.” Few of Tengour’s works are available in English, but a Joris translation of the narrative poem “The Old Man of the Mountain” was published in 4X1: Works by Tristan Tzara, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean-Pierre Duprey, and Habib Tengour by Pete Monaco & Sharul Ladue (a former student of mine) at Inconundrum Press (which was subsequently taken over by another former student and NC community member Nina Alvarez). Herewith I am pleased to present two new Tengour works translated by Pierre Joris.
“Five Movements of the Soul” and “Hodgepodge”
By Habib Tengour
Translated by Pierre Joris
Five Movements of the Soul (new version)
Gray this voice
goes to earth
body of evocation
at a loss
this did not last
in the dark
its voice empties itself
this soft listening
no echo sends back
the eye finds itself again
at the tournament
to let go of the instant
as day breaks
at day’s end
right then turns
At first sight, they are only incoherent games. Grotesque fillers. Show-off non-sense. Smacking of the platitudinous. Formal variations for the pleasure of an elite. An elixir! Today’s reader is bored faced with the complexity of the techniques put into play. He understands nothing of all these sassy-smart experiments with language. The newspaper speak differently to him. Each day a new catastrophe engulfs him in anguish. Blood all over the reported stories. A woof of unforeseeable elements where it is difficult to recognize the golden threads of the embroidery.
The practiced constraint falsifies syntax. Intervals insinuate themselves into the distortion of the vocabulary. The narrative obeys no causality. Events follow each other without any change. This amuses some stylists who see in it an exemplary freedom. But such juggling is incapable of silencing the empty bellies. Everywhere one bumps into a dubious meaning. One looks for words with an edge to get the upper hand. In fact, the choices remain limited. The nouns prevail over the verbs and adjectives. Terrible toponyms. Chiseled obscenities. Irremediable blasphemies. Unhealthy scatologies. Repugnant names of animals or people. Earmarking of certain body parts. All of which teems in a triviality that provokes a slight disgust.
It borders on a macabre polyphony. One doesn’t listen to one another anymore in the middle of the tableau. There’s something in it for everyone, he says. But it doesn’t add up. It is not a question of a simple stroke of the pen. You see how heavy the slightest word weighs down on language. To ferret it out hasn’t been a picnic. You suffer faced with the contradictions of the lexicon in the ever slighter hope of finding a way out. Language is never free or profuse despite signs of an opening up. It is a bleeding that can’t be staunched. A local color lacking the emphasis of time.
Beyond that, an apparent emptiness produces an effect of contrast.
—Habib Tengour. Translated by Pierre Joris.