Jan 162011

Pierre Joris. Photo by Joseph Mastantuono


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

2 Sections from: Etats de chose suivi de Fatras.



Five Movements of the Soul (new version)

Gray this voice

goes to earth



has sung

has taken

body of evocation

In silence

at a loss

to stretch

stone                                river
a door


this did not last

in the dark

its voice empties itself


this soft listening

there where
no echo sends back

the eye         finds itself again


at the tournament

to let go of the instant
fate fixes

as day breaks

exhaust themselves

This soul
at day’s end

alone in
the store
its memory

shadow often

right then turns
away from



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.

  9 Responses to “Five Movements of the Soul and Hodgepodge: Poems — Habib Tengour, Translated by Pierre Joris”

  1. Dynamite! That last line of Hodgepodge is a hammer. Congratulations, Pierre. Thanks, as always, DG

  2. The spaciousness of “Five Movements of the Soul” embeds me even more deeply into its text. I know nothing of translation, but it seems that in a poem with this much room to wander among words and meaning, the need for its translator to navigate between the precision and poetry of words is of utmost importance: Pierre Joris traverses the spaces of Tengour’s work seamlessly. I was particularly struck by the lines, “its voice empties itself/ amphitheater/ saccade/ this soft listening/ there where/ no echo sends back.” Its precision carried me through (and into) the poem while its lyricism transported me entirely. Thank you, Pierre.

  3. “A woof of unforeseeable elements where it is difficult to recognize the golden threads of the embroidery.” I like that line so much.

    Like Mary, I wonder at the translator of poetry’s ability to seek and snag the best word from all the other less perfect words.

  4. I need to contact pierre personally to find out how peter passed away so young…also, I am absolutely elated that pierre is living his dream…what a talented, multilingual,multi-multi-multi…ad infinitum guy! also your picture speaks volumes…very deep thinker! pierre,let’s chat via email or give me a phone number to call you or some way to contact you. I have very much info about myself for you. Lots of luv-Ellen

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