May 062016
 

Zsofia Ban by Dirk SkibaPhoto by Dirk Skiba

 

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I can see she’s unhinged the moment she gets in. She sits for long seconds on the back seat with eyes closed, pressing her head against the headrest. Breathing hard, with long sighs like one short of oxygen. She’s going to be sick in a second. The thought makes me panic a bit, not here of all places, in my cab.

Where can I take you?

I don’t care. Away from here, quick.

But is it Buda, or Pest?

Pest. That’s on the other side, isn’t it? The farther the better.

This is of course an invitation to dance, after two years of taxi driving I can tell that much. That is, that I should ask questions. “You had a bad day?”, “Did something upset you?” and the like. She’s expecting sanctimonious sentences, questions that should mean, “Come, sweetie, have a good hearty sob on my broad shoulder.” I’m not sure I want it. I’m not sure I want to hear the details of her emotional disaster. For that’s what it’s all about for certain. No, I’m not going to become a self-styled confessor or psychotherapist again. I’m tired of the vain, petty, endlessly repeating stories. I’d much rather touch her nape, which is reflected for an instant in the rear window, where her unruly black hair is severely cropped. This makes her look vulnerable and helpless. You could cut off her head smoothly with a guillotine any time. Her silky, surprisingly large and fleshy earlobes are curving strangely outward and upward, in a shape slightly reminiscent of a V. Perhaps she’s in the habit of twisting them when she’s nervous. Some fidget with their hair, some drum with their fingers, and there are some who keep twisting their earlobes. Sweet girl, stop twisting them, for you’ll end up with them twisted. If I bit them, a drop of her ruby-red blood would gush out at once. A gift of earrings. No, I’m really not saying anything. Her presence fills the car cabin like some strange material obtained through long experimentation, for NASA let’s say, it has the capacity to fill even the smallest and most hidden cavities, seeps in everywhere, into the trunk, ashtray, outer ear, bronchia, pores, Mari of course, at the Déli station at last the penny drops where this familiar feeling comes from, making those butterflies go off immediately in my stomach (when she got in they went off at once), it was Mari who could fill everything with her presence so, at the end I could hardly breathe, because her existence oozed into the nostrils and the mouth cavity and blocked the way of the air, making me breathe hard and staccatoed like this one in the back, I look into the mirror and she immediately looks back at me, looking for eye contact, looking for the thread of the conversation, she is clinging to my gaze like one drowning, begging me to throw her a rope, a word, anything that keeps her from sinking into the swamp of her trauma. No, sweetheart, I’m not going to be your Bruce Willis, your Stallone, you can safely sink in the back seat like the Titanic as far as I’m concerned, you are exactly what I needed in the night, exactly this convulsion of the stomach that is all Mari, I’m sure Mari has sent it just to remind me how useless to cod myself that, with a bit of cab-driving and white nights, I can wash her out of my system, that I shouldn’t believe I can atone so easily, although that chick didn’t mean anything, the whole affair barely lasted for two seconds, after five years I was simply curious what another skin smelled like, it was nowhere near Mari’s, I only wanted to try out for a second what it felt to be free, because Mari clutched me with her arms like a beautiful, fleshy octopus, a rare specimen, the likes of which you only meet in fairy tales. Seemingly fragile, frail, in need of protection, but once you’ve yielded she will crush you with her embrace sooner or later, and this one is splayed there on the back seat exactly like that, like one about to fall apart to atoms unless somebody helps her, she gives another well-audible sigh, hoping I will take pity on her at last, why me, why do these little monsters always pick me, why don’t they just leave me well alone to drive about in the night, so that in a suitably beaten moment I can feel I might manage to sleep again, because there is this strange physiological phenomenon, whenever somebody is released too abruptly from a too-tight embrace, they will not sleep for long, just keep shifting their body’s weight from one leg to another like a dog suddenly untied, looking around unsure, not knowing what to do with all this unexpected freedom, and it is not rare that they end up looking for someone else they might serve, rather than roaming together with the other discarded dogs.

We are on Chain Bridge already when she speaks again.

I’ve never traveled with a woman cab driver before. Aren’t you afraid?

Just like this. Aren’t you afraid, driver? Aren’t you afraid, woman? They’re going to kill you or worse, they’re going to fuck you.

And you? Aren’t you afraid to get in a stranger’s car, just like this?

I look into the rear mirror. I see she smiles faintly.

Well, there’s some truth in it.

We are stuck at the red light, József Attila street, an uncommonly balmy April night, silence. If she shut up now and would just stay put in the back until I drop her off somewhere, I could even enjoy this sudden spring.

But in all truth a stranger is better than someone you know. At least you don’t imagine you know him. With someone you know, you’ll always discover in the end that they are complete strangers. I’m being so fucking profound, sorry. I don’t want to burden you with my pearls of wisdom.

Well to this you just can’t say no. I have a heart too, even if a bit stony. Come now, here’s this stony, loving, cabby’s heart of mine. Take it. Shred it to pieces.

Just dumped?

Worse. I found out she has a husband.

Her look in the rear mirror is hard, provocative, she’s waiting for the effect. For the bafflement. She is preparing some grand statement to fling into my face. Sweet mother of mine. You have to get up earlier, darling. A cab driver who is not able to size up the client in half a second should go breed monchichis. My radar beeped in the first second, as it should. Hers is not yet functioning, as I see. After all, I’m sitting with my back to her, I have to grant her this. Some say though that you could tell from my nape alone. Anyway. Tears must obviously be blurring her vision. Do I have to say that by now they are rolling down in big fat drops on her freckled and strikingly white face. The turned-up collar of her black leather jacket surrounds it like an obituary announcement. I half turn around. Not without a touch of rancour, I must admit.

So, she screwed you.

For a moment she looks me in the eye, surprised. Then goes on relieved, like one who has unexpectedly gained absolution for a sin not committed.

Not only me. Her husband too. Her children. Everybody. The whole fucking world.

And how did you find out?

I can’t believe I’m asking this. Who the hell cares how she found out, who said what, who lied, how this or that one was caught, and what they said at that, and how she reacted to it, who cares about this pathetic little story, this scrap opera.

You won’t guess of course: Dad went off on a business trip, but Dad returned earlier than he should have, the airport workers were on strike, ha ha. I will never forgive her though for laying me in their marital bed. Only men would do such crap.

And, now you see, sometimes women too. Which is harder to recover from. This shows how nasty prejudice is. At least you’ve learnt something today.

This turned out lighter and harsher than necessary. That is, it turned out like this out of necessity. I just had to keep her at a distance. I had to try and wipe off her sad eyes’ burning, tattooing look from my skin. I had to air the sea, algae and seaweed smell of her breath out of my nose, I had to try to surface from the deep sea water and not let myself be caught by this stifling underwater garden; I had to try to erase her from my mind, I’m standing on the runway like Humphrey Bogart and don’t have to say anything, because the woman (who is also me) doesn’t get on the plane, but turns round slowly, comes up to me and takes my arm; I had to erase from my memory Mari standing in the corridor and shrieking into my face that she hopes someone will some day really break my heart into chips and smithereens, so it can never be put together again, and then I will learn what I did to her, because she can see I have no idea, callous brat that I am, I had to forget her thick lashes in the long first moment she closed them, her preternaturally dark eyes, the likes of which can only be seen in inner Congo, Tshad or Zambia, small wonder Dr Livingstone vanished for years on end because he set eyes on exactly such a pair of eyes, to his perdition, and this caught him so unprepared and off guard that it took Stanley, who went on an expedition, to drag him out of there. My goodness I thought, who on earth will ever start an expedition for me, who will ever find me and save me when everybody has long given up hope I am still alive, who will search this grimy urban jungle for me, who will be that fearless detective who decides to give the matter one last try, defying the explicit orders of his superior, and inspects that disused factory destined to be demolished, where he finally finds me, half dead. I obviously have to erase from my brain, like from a hard disk by pushing a single button, everything that passed my mind the moment I spotted her on the street corner where she got in; that this is like, this is precisely like when I watched the transit of Venus in front of the Sun two years ago and thought this was what people keep waiting for all their life, such a perfect constellation, which of course then slowly moves apart but as long as it lasts it is nothing but prolonged, perfect bliss.

Wouldn’t you like to have a drink after the fright you got?

I hear this sentence coming out of my mouth. It is my mouth, there’s no doubt about that, but I couldn’t tell who is speaking. I can see she is at least as much taken by surprise by the question as I am. Her face first shows the signs of surprise, then of recognition. At last her radar turned on, however late. I change gear, let the engine run out a bit, there is nobody on the streets, we are sweeping across the city like two survivors come from a different planet.

Why not, after all. It wouldn’t hurt to wash off this filth.

It’s only the street lamps’ light gliding past that gives some emphasis to her dull words.

But let’s not go to the Reflection. I don’t want to meet anyone.

Of course not there, I’m not in the habit of going to such fancy places. I switch off the taxi meter. By now the car must be going on the lead in the air, because the dashboard red light is on, showing there’s hardly any fuel. It feels like having been on the road for days, without food or drink, and now with our last strength we are reaching the oasis. Or rather, its mirage. We go next to Klauzál square, to Fater’s pub. That’s home territory, there I feel safe and there no one will know her, for sure. I take the corner on two wheels almost, a late dog-walker looks at us startled, what is this, not a chase scene again? Yes, a chase. I pull the hand brake and look into the mirror.

Shall we go?

I think I just felt a cool draught of air brush past my nape. In the mirror I can immediately see where it came from.

I’m sorry. I think I changed my mind.

A precise, professional blow to the heart, delivered with an iron bullet. I turn around to see her face, not only its reflection. She should shoot me face to face, properly.

What should we do now?

I’d like to… I’d like you to take me back.

She pulls her black leather collar closer around her neck. Her face is as small now as a shrunken Indian head.

Are you sure it’s a good idea?

I’m already sorry for saying it. I turn back and start the taxi meter again. I’ll have at least this satisfaction, of offering her to them on a plate. I can hear from the back:

No, but I must.

I switch on the radio and turn up the volume. Green wave all the way to Moszkva Square.

—Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

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Zsófia Bán was born in Rio de Janeiro and grew up in Brazil and Hungary. Her writing often addresses topics related to visuality, visual arts, photography, personal and cultural memory, historical trauma, as well as gender. Her short stories and essays have been widely anthologized and translated to a number of languages, including German, English, Spanish, Czech, Slovakian and Slovenian. Besides her volumes of essays, she has published two books of fiction. This story is from her book Amikor még csak az állatok éltek (When There Were Only Animals), 2012. She lives and works in Budapest, where she teaches American Studies, and is currently DAAD writer-in-residence in Berlin.

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Erika

Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Apr 072016
 

IMG-20160223-WA0005Photo by Sonia Quiñones

I first came across Óscar Oliva’s work a couple of years ago when Keith Payne came to visit me at my house in Cholula. He spoke of Óscar’s poetry with such enthusiasm that, as soon as he and his partner (the wonderful singer, Su Garrido Pombo—listen to her perform one of the poems below) left, I pulled out the massive anthology of Mexican 20th century poetry that sat guiltily on my shelf and went directly to the entry on Oliva. The first two poems intrigued me—El artista (The Artist) and El sufrimiento armado  (The Armed Suffering). El artista takes its cue from the famous Velazquez painting Las meninas, in which the artist chooses to place himself within the painting. The speaker of the poem states that his intention is similar to that of the Spanish painter, to become one with his art: ‘How to make myself and this book indivisible?/How to make this poem break free from the yoke of paper?’ In El sufrimiento armado Oliva visits the tomb of Marco Antonio Yon Sosa, a Guatemalan guerrillero killed by Mexican armed forces near the border with Chiapas. In the second half of the poem the speaker returns to his home in Mexico City to read about the event in the local papers. He notes how the minister for defense claims that the Guatemalan guerrilleros had fired first and that: ‘In these conditions…our soldiers will not reply with flowers and embraces.’ Oliva would reply with poetry, with music. From these two initial encounters it was clear to me this was a poet who gave equal importance to social matters as he did to ars poetica, singing for the sake of music. It was also clear that I would read more.

Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico and also one of the states with the highest portion of indigenous groups, is an important element of Oliva’s poetry, his love for his native land is palpable. In Keith’s excellent article for the Irish Times (Rebel Hearts Beat with the ‘Poetry of Vitality’) he charts the circumstances that brought Oliva back to Chiapas in the mid nineties: “In 1994 The Zapatista Army of National Liberation had asked Oliva and (Juan) Bañuelos to join its delegation for peace talks with the Mexican government …Hearing the declaration, Oliva returned to his native Chiapas.” But Chiapas, with its stunning natural beauty, armed struggles and social injustices, though a recurring presence, is not the sole location of Oliva’s work. As likely to reference Q’uq’umatz as Juvenal, his wide range of references weave a vast and varied tapestry. Oliva is a troubadour who travels far and wide, crossing spatial and temporal boundaries with ease, though always carrying with him the stones and soil of Chiapas. These four poems are testament to the variety, vitality and integrity of his work. Long may he continue.
— Dylan Brennan
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Óscar Oliva comments on “Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico”

Writing poetry always constitutes a journey that starts upon the arrival of the first line, which contains within itself the impulse to keep going. Sometimes we travel down these roads in the dark, like St. John of the Cross, and sometimes at great speed like Rimbaud, all in order to remember or imagine we are remembering, different aspects of situations. We were taught all this by the classic Chinese and Japanese poets. Also by Fernando Pessoa and the Provençal troubadours. I have never stopped making that journey, a journey into knowledge, an initiatory journey, one that is never the same—the landscapes change, the towns and cities also change. I and everyone else continue along this wheel that also changes.

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Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico

for Enrique González Rojo

From Tuxtla to the city of Mexico
is more than a thousand kilometres
more than a million metres
more than a hundred million centimetres

and so many more stones,
so many more trees that

I can neither measure nor count
what I’ve done so many times,
at so many kilometres an hour,
with the hot breath of wind blowing down the Isthmus,
torrential rains barrelling down the Veracruz stretch
that threaten to jack the car and drop it in a ditch,
I’ve picked up the names of all the bridges,
of all the throttled villages
buried in the curves and straights of the road
that I’ve driven down all the days and all the months of the year,
first light, late at night, and at that moment
when the evening is a cicada turning back
into its primitive shell, spinning back to larva,
the exhaustion hooks the mouth,
twists the shoulder and down
into the back of the foot,
and burrows with a spoon
deep into the head;
I still feel when I’m on the go
from one place to another
in this dread between life and death,
when language and anger pushes you on,
and I’m making my way with a pick and a trowel
or when I’m sat in a chair
or laid between the legs of the one I love,
this gearshift, the pulse of the engine
pulling up the mountain, heading up into
the knotty heart of it all
the gentle giddiness on the way back down
and the speed that makes us swallow the landscape
and our words;
the first time I came to Mexico city
I didn’t know which way to turn
which corner to round,
it was like beginning to write,
sat to the white sheet elbows on the table
alone, shoulders hunched forward
waiting for the pistol and the engine rev,
the race to be won
but you’re the only driver,
the page that burned in my hands
like the rubbish tips that burned in Santa Cruz Meyehualco,
and the trucks and trams that burned in the risings,
that screamed hunger,
I came down from the attic to campus,
books under my arm
rolling up spit balls and firing them
out of the bus window
polluting the city with Kant and Antonio Caso,
I dumped my books on the bus and jumped
into one of the greasy spoons on Academía St.
………….or a pub
then dancing all night in La Perla,
later on I’d feel the heat of the woman
who had brought me home,
a moisture spreading like an expanding universe
in a few square metres,
in a few cubic metres of air;
and I wrote across the city roofs,
I spread my reach, my turf
I wandered the hideous streets
where the people crawled
out of work with nothing to eat
gougers or thieves
who raised their eyes to my shirt
and it was like stepping back into the movies
back into Buñuel’s The Forgotten,
and on those ulcerated streets I saw for the first time
carfulls of police, mounted police
pick-ups of riot police
who closed the streets;
the power of the State
who charged full tilt
swinging batons
booting the rubbish bins,
shaking up the neighbourhood
shooting point blank
a blitzkrieg down on our heads,
then the silence of Chaplin’s Easy Street
and I wake up on the path
my eye cut, babbling
like a groggy boxer and they’ve stopped the fight in the third on a technical
and the howls of the crowd not there,
I gathered what was left of my books
without a cent in my pockets,
and back to my room
whistling the tune from The Graduate,
to write the poem I lost
like so many things you lose;
I.D. and women
strikes and chewing gum
faith and socks;
It gets cold in the mountains around Puebla
you have to roll the windows up,
turn on the heat and slow right down
to a regular speed, and later on the sunlight
through my bedroom window,
she’s coming in to wake me
taking off her school uniform
lying down on top of me sliding over me
kissing each other like something out of the movies,
caresses straight out the The tower of lust
Gone with the Wind’s big house,
it’s late, it’s late the sunlight tells us,
they’ve turned up the lights in the cinema,
It was time for a sup and head out across the Zócalo,
kiss her goodbye at the door
then up Guatemala St.,
two blocks take a right,
back into the new poem
back into the dream jaunt,
grab some stuff for the street again
to listen to the jangle and bounce of the trucks
…………loading and unloading,
the travelling salesmen’s banter,
the binmen,
the schoolkids,
hop up on a bus
in with the workers
the driver has the radio full blast,
it’s hard to get to the door, I ring the bell,
a red light flashes on the dash,
I take a wander up by San Lazaro station,
watch a train pass
as it pulls itself across the face of the earth
a letter on each of the six cars
that form the word STRIKE,
I measure these things in my pocket
against what’s on the street,
at the stand I grab an orange juice, the passing
railwaymen lift a finger in salute,
I salute them too, it’s as if we’re saying
reality is in those fingers
this train,
the orange juice lights up my whole body,
I arrive
and the five poets are sat around a table
someone reads a poem, I watch them:
they’re the same age I was when I first met them,
………….I think;
they haven’t moved, still as a photograph
hands in mid air,
pen in the hand,
a glass at their elbows,
they’re as old as our children are now,
it has all passed so fast
just like coming down out of the mountains in Oaxaca,
where it seems that the road breeds another road
where the slightest slip could send me over the edge,
where the brakes don’t seem to work,
where I’ve lost control of the car,
I come back to the photograph and hang it
…………on one of the walls at home,
I arrive for the first time in Mexico City,
I am just one more shoulder in the crowd marching through,
teargas fumes me,
derailed trains burnt out at the terminal
ripped up tracks and the attack
of the police, of the army, of the riot squad
all in battle formation,
the Zócalo is a rifle butt in the face,
there’ll be more battles
José Revueltas tells us,
the railway workers pass by and lift their fists
…………in salute
they walk out of one cell straight into another,
back down to the underworld, into their nooks,
take note, write all this down,
I’m nothing more than a chronicler
who has seen his friends fall,
who has buried his dead,
who has washed in the wind,
full of ghosts and contradictions,
demands and manifestos,
who has patched his back so many times
falling in love again and again, watching the future
so it’s hard to keep an eye on the telescope lens,
denying the future, hating it again,
starting over again, in the end
starting the journey, setting out from the same place,
going the same way,
coming down the highway, braking,
tooting the horn, the lights change,
gearshift, watch the tyres,
flick on the wipers,
and keep an eye on the gas,
barrelling down again till finally I pull in
and here I am writing this
at the end of the journey,
hopeful,
hitting the brakes
so I don’t run over everything I’ve written
or myself.
So I can keep on rising and falling.

Translation by Keith Payne/Audio reading by Ophelia Ellen McCabe

 

Al volante de un automóvil por la carretera panamericana de Tuxtla a la ciudad de México

A Enrique González Rojo

De Tuxtla a la ciudad de México
hay más de mil kilómetros de distancia
más de un millón de metros
más de cien millones de centímetros

mas las piedras,
mas los árboles,

que no se pueden medir, ni contar,
que he recorrido tantas veces,
a tantos kilómetros por hora,
con mucho calor y viento por el Istmo,
con lluvias torrenciales por el tramo de Veracruz
que tratan de detener el carro, derribarlo en un barranco,
que he aprendido los nombres de los puentes,
de los pueblos asfixiados, hundidos
en las curvas y rectas de la carretera;
que he recorrido por distintos días y meses del año,
en la madrugada, en la noche, en el momento
en que la tarde es una cigarra volviendo a su funda
primitiva, saltando al revés, a su condición de ninfa,
sintiendo ese cansancio que nos prende de la boca
………con un anzuelo,
que continúa en un hombro,
baja hasta el calcañar de los pies,
y escarba con una cuchara
el cráneo;
todavía siento, cuando voy caminando
de un lugar a otro, en esa trepidación de vida y muerte
a la que nos empuja la gramática o la cólera,
de regreso a casa, abriéndome paso
con un pico y una pala, o cuando
estoy sentado en una silla
o cuando acostado entre las piernas de la que amo,
ese cambio de velocidades, el esfuerzo del automóvil
al subir una montaña, entrar a ese nudo de raíces,
el leve mareo al descender
y la velocidad que nos hace tragar el paisaje
o nuestras palabras;
la primera vez que llegué a la ciudad de México
no sabía a dónde dirigirme,
qué esquina cruzar,
era como comenzar un escrito,
estar acodado en una mesa frente a un hoja en blanco,
solo, con los hombros colgados hacia adelante
esperando el disparo que inicia el arranque,
la carrera que hay que ganar
y donde se es el único competidor,
una hoja que ardía en mis manos
como a veces arden los tiraderos de basura de Santa Cruz
………Meyehualco,
o como los camiones y tranvías en tiempos de rebelión,
que aullaba, que tenía hambre,
iba de un cuarto de azotea a la ciudad universitaria,
con libros bajo el brazo,
haciéndolos pedacitos y tirándolos

por la ventanilla del camión,
contaminando más la ciudad con Kant y Antonio Caso,
y ya sin ellos me bajaba a la mitad del camino,
entraba en una cocina económica de las calles de Academia,
o a una cervecería
y en la noche a bailar a La Perla,
más tarde sentía la humedad de la muchacha
que se había acostado conmigo,
una humedad que iba creciendo
como un universo en expansión
en unos cuantos metros cuadrados,
en unos cuantos metros cúbicos de aire;

y yo escribía en las bardas de la ciudad,
ampliaba mi territorio, mi radio de acción,
entraba a calles espantosas
donde la gente se arrastraba,
desempleados que no tenías para comer,
rateros, tal vez criminales
que alargaban sus ojos hasta mi camisa,
y era como entrar de nuevo al cine
a ver Los Olvidados de Luis Buñuel,
y en esas calles ulcerosas vi por primera vez
carros llenos de policías, y también policías a caballo,
granaderos en camiones
que cerraban esas calles,
parte del poder del Estado,
que entraban empujando,
golpeando,
entraban a paso de carga
y arremetían contra todos,
tirando los botes de basura,
despertando al vecindario,
disparando a quemarropa,
acometiendo como en un juego de futbol americano
y después era el silencio de La Calle de la Paz de Chaplin
y yo despertaba tirado en la banqueta,
macaneado, con las cejas cortadas,
como un boxeador groggy que le han parado la pelea
por knock out técnico en el tercer asalto,
con la rechifla de un público que no existe,
levantaba los pedazos de libros que me habían quedado,
sin un quinto en los bolsillos,
y regresaba a mi cuarto
silbando el mambo de El Estudiante
a escribir el poema
que se perdió
como se pierden tantas cosas,
credenciales y mujeres,
huelgas y chicles,
buena fe y calcetines;
con mucho frío por la sierra de Puebla,
hay que subir los cristales de las ventanillas,
poner la calefacción, descender a una velocidad regular,
y luego la claridad entrando por la ventada de mi cuarto,
entrando ella a despertarme,
quitándose su uniforme de colegiala,
echándoseme encima, moviéndose,
besándonos como se besan el actor y la actriz en los filmes,
acariciándonos en La Torre de Nesle,
en la mansión de Lo que el Viento se llevó,
ya es tarde, ya es tarde, nos decía la claridad,
se hacía la luz en la sala de cine,
había que ir a cenar y atravesar de nuevo el zócalo,
despedir a la amiga en la puerta de su casa,
después subir a la calle de Guatemala,
a dos cuadras dar vuelta a la derecha,
llegar de nuevo al poema recién comenzando,
entrar de nuevo a la expedición del sueño,
ir recogiendo muestras de distintos materiales,
para bajar de nuevo a la calle
al escuchar el ruido de los camiones
de carga y descarga, las voces de los vendedores ambulantes,
de los recogedores de basura,
de los niños que van a la escuela,
subir a un camión de pasajeros
junto a obreros y obreras,
el chofer lleva el radio encendido a todo volumen,
es difícil llegar hasta la puerta de bajada del camión,
se toca el timbre, se prende un foco rojo al lado del volante,
caminar sin rumbo fijo por la estación San Lázaro,
ver pasar un tren
que a la tierra arrancara su estructura
en seis de sus vagones una letra
que conforman la palabra H U E L G A
esos materiales que llevo en el bolsillo
los comparo con los que voy viendo en la calle,
llego hasta un puesto de jugos y pido uno de naranja,
los ferrocarrileros al pasar levantan el puño y saludan,
yo los saludo,
parecen decirnos
la realidad son estos puños,
este tren,
el jugo de naranja ilumina todo mi cuerpo,
llego al sitio de reunión,
los cinco poetas están sentados alrededor de una mesa
alguien lee un poema, yo los observo:
“tienen la edad que yo tenía cuando los conocí”, pienso;
se han quedado inmóviles fijos como en una fotografía
en actitud de golpear la mesa,
con el lápiz en las manos,
con una copa al lado de cada uno,
tienen la edad de nuestros hijos,
edad que ha pasado vertiginosamente,
tal como el descenso por las montañas de Oaxaca,
donde parece que la carretera engendra otra carretera,
donde el menor descuido puede llevarme al precipicio,
donde parece que los frenos no responden,
se ha perdido el control del auto,
llego hasta la fotografía y la cuelgo en una de las paredes
………de mi casa,
llego por primera vez a la ciudad de México,
soy un hombro más de la multitud al dar un paso,
gases lacrimógenos me hacen rabiar,
trenes descarrilados o incendiados en las terminales,
las vías levantadas, y el ataque
del ejército, policías y granaderos
en formación a paso de batalla,
el zócalo reducido a un culatazo en la frente,
vendrán otras batallas, nos decía José Revueltas,
los ferrocarrileros pasan frente a mí levantan el puño y saludan,
salen de una cárcel para entrar en otra,
pasan a la ilegalidad, a sus escondrijos,
tomo nota, apunto todo esto,
no soy más que un cronista
que ha visto caer a sus amigos,
que ha enterrado a sus muertos,
que se ha bañado de viento,
lleno de contradicciones y fantasmas,
de asperezas y afirmaciones,
con la espalda remendada tantas veces,
de nuevo amando, avizorando el futuro
que es tan difícil retener en el lente del telescopio,
negando ese futuro, de nuevo odiando,
de nuevo comenzando, en fin
iniciando el viaje, partiendo del mismo lugar,
dirigiéndome al mismo lugar,
descendiendo por la carretera, frenando
tocando el claxon, haciendo cambio de luces,
cambiando de velocidades, atento
al deslizamiento de las llantas, poniendo
en acción los limpiadores del parabrisas,
vigilando la aguja que marca el contenido del tanque de gasolina,
bajando a gran velocidad, en fin
hasta llegar al lugar donde estoy sentado escribiendo,
al final de todo,
esperanzado,
frenando bruscamente
para no atropellar todo lo que llevo escrito
y a mí mismo.

Para continuar ascendiendo y descendiendo.

 

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Su Garrido Pombo Sings the Poem

Capture

Su Garrido Pombo via sugarridopombo.com

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§

Óscar Oliva comments on “For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez”   

It is a poem of circumstance, one in which I once again proclaim my love for Tuxtla, my hometown. I like to walk around Tuxtla because for walls it has mountains that have hardly moved since I was born. It is also a poem in which I speak of the evil machinations of the State and the Church, how they transform religious faith, with the 30 golden coins from the spotlights of mercenary publicity.

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For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez

In the water’s flow lies its fall
voices, faces beloved for having
survived rivers upon rivers:
………………………………..Tuxtla
is like amber under pooled waters;
so now, you’ll make it to my hometown,
Pontifex Maximus, and I would have
liked to have seen you with my 1947 eyes.

You will see that sky of almost solid light that there begins,
that continues in Guatemala like a wild boar’s head,
…………………………………carried on a shoulder,
that can be weighed by hands in all of Central America,
so battered by North American imperialism
………………………………..(that’s what we called it),
and on resting your workman’s hands upon my hometown,
you’ll hear the fluttering thoughts of Q’uq’umatz.

I don’t really know what your visit will bring,
under a sky with no eyelids; it will be astonishing,
tongues will mingle, you will stumble,
heads will bash against each other,
and your word will disseminate, your soul torn to shreds,
thousands will photograph you, shoot you in video and film,
and I will watch you so far away so close on the telly.

I would have liked to have been there in my doorway
……………………………….to have seen you pass by,
but, since many years ago,
a child that came running from the backyard,
not yet having received the Eucharist,
upon opening the door to the street, fell down in a faint.
My grandparents, parents, siblings, and I myself, all dead,
buried; all together, all shouting
……………………..Goodbye Holy Father! God Bless You!

Now then, I am writing these words down before
……………………..you arrive in Mexico, from where
news of your visit breaks
……………………………………………from the TV stations,
which we watch between adverts, which dirty
…………your robes upon which they play dice,
between political slogans from George Bush to the world
………………………………from the White House;
before you leave Rome, Sir John, Sir Paul,
before you open one of the gates of the Vatican Palace;
before I can establish that Rome really exists, the Vatican
Palace, Tuxtla,
because you know very well that all that I’m saying
………………………………………………………………..is possible,
especially between two poets who will not see each other, not now, not ever.

Upon arrival, you will see the trees, that cannot grow
………………………………………………………………..any longer.
You will not see the idols—nobody has seen them—that the Indians
…………hide behind the Catholic images.
You will see, just beside the arroyo, Brother Bartolomé de las Casas,
and you will kneel before him; the bishop of Chiapas
……………………………….will not know who you are.

I beg you not to lift the stone that trips you up
………………………………..on your way to Tuxtla,
………………………………..I do not want the wound to open.
In the place from which you’ll speak,
you will be able to see the Cañon del Sumidero
and the Río Grijalva which carries another river in its depths,
and you will feel there are more leaves under the breeze,
more amber under the light.

What word will be gathered by those poor
who will listen to you, who have survived so many stonings
…………………………………………and prisons?

I don’t know. What I do know is that Christ has not died with them,
that he’ll listen to their words, and when you are through,
He will return with them to where they live, and upon opening
……………………………….the door of one of those houses, will fall down in a faint.

……………………………………………………Safe journey home.

—Translation by Dylan Brennan

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Al Papa Juan Pablo II para cuando llegue a Tuxtla Gutiérrez

En el manar del agua está la caída,
algunas voces, rostros amados porque
han sobrevivido ríos sobre ríos:
…………………………………………………..Tuxtla
es como el ámbar bajo el agua empozada;
en fin, llegará usted a mi pueblo,
Sumo Pontífice, y me hubiera
gustado verlo con mis ojos de 1947.

Verá el cielo de luz casi sólida que ahí comienza,
que continúa en Guatemala como una cabeza de jabalí
………………………………….colgada al hombro,
que es una sola pisada de tapir en El Salvador,
que puede sopesarse con las manos en toda Centroamérica
ahora tan golpeada por el imperialismo norteamericano
………………………………….(así se decía antes),
y al posar sus manos de obrero en mi pueblo,
escuchará el aleteo y el pensamiento de Gucumatz.

No sé bien cómo será su visita,
bajo el sol sin párpados; será impresionante,
las lenguas se confundirán, se trastabillará,
las cabezas chocarán unas con otras,
y su voz será propagada, y su espíritu hecho girones.
Miles lo fotografiarán, le tomarán videos y películas.
Yo lo veré tan lejos, tan cerca, desde la TV.

Me hubiera gustado estar en la puerta de mi casa
………………………………..para verlo pasar,
pero desde muchos años atrás,
un niño que llega corriendo desde el traspatio,
que no ha recibido la eucaristía,
y al abrir la puerta de la calle, cae desmayado.
Mis abuelos, padres y hermanos, yo mismo, todos muertos,
enterrados; todos juntos, gritando:
…………………………“¡adiós, Santo Padre!” “¡Dios lo bendiga!”

Ahora bien, estas palabras las estoy escribiendo antes
………………..de que llegue usted a México, de que se desate
………………………………………….por los canales de televisión
………………..información sobre su visita,
de que lo veamos entre anuncios comerciales, de que ensucien
………su túnica y de que jueguen sobre ella a los dados,
entre consignas políticas de George Bush al mundo
……………….desde la Casa Blanca;
antes de que parta de Roma, don Juan, don Pablo,
de que abra una de las puertas del Palacio del Vaticano;
antes de que yo pueda constatar que existe Roma, el Palacio
del Vaticano, Tuxtla,
porque bien sabe usted que así como lo estoy diciendo
……………………………………………………………………es posible,
más entre dos poetas que no se verán ahora, ni nunca.

Al llegar, verá usted los árboles que ya no podrán
………………………..crecer más.
No verá los ídolos —nadie los ha visto— que los indios
………..esconden detrás de las imágenes católicas.
Verá, junto al arroyo, a Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas,
y se arrodillará ante él; el obispo de Chiapas
…………………………………no sabrá quién es usted.

Le ruego no levante la piedra con la que tropezará
……………………….en su camino a Tuxtla,
……………………….no quiero que se le abra la herida.
Desde el lugar donde va a hablar,
podrá ver el Cañón del Sumidero
y al río Grijalva que lleva en sus profundidades a otro río,
y sentirá que hay más hojas bajo el aire,
más ámbar debajo de la luz.

¿Qué palabra será recogida por esos pobres
que lo escucharán, que han sobrevivido a tantas pedradas
…………………………………y cárceles?
No sé. Lo que sé es que Cristo no ha muerto con ellos,
que estará atento a sus palabras, y cuando usted termine,
Él regresará con ellos por donde vinieron, y al abrir
……………………la puerta de cualquier casa, caerá desmayado.
…………………………………………Buen viaje de regreso.

§

Óscar Oliva comments on “Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys”

No, I cannot explain what this is about. A warning cry is nothing more than an open throat. Everyone knows about this atrocious crime, I am nothing more than a troubadour in a land where crime reigns supreme. Nobody is obliged to respond with poetry to these nameless occurrences. Poetry must fly with a freedom that is absolute and when it sounds must do so with a beauty with which, and, for which, we breathe. I do not like so-called political poetry, it too has been corrupted by ideologies. I do believe in rage in poetry. Poetry changes nothing, nor is change its function. It is only to be written and, from time to time, sung. For this reason I like for my poems to be sung, in other languages, other intonations, by popular artists.

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Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys

There are no limits for this country of crime.
There is no name for this country of crime.
There is no country with names for this crime.
There are no crimes for this country of crime.

Tell me, in what faraway land will they be found?

To Juvenal I’ll add François Villon
to compose this ballad, I’ll ask other troubadours

to lend an interrogative refrain: where, in which
crimeless country are those boys who only just
………….stripped naked for love?

Help me run along a river
that runs with so much strength.

Where are they? Encapsulated in which black house?

You won’t find them in the white house, nobody lives there anymore.
The time of new Sirens will come, of new sorcery,
and the lily whiteness will become a yellow shine

or a black lily at the whims of a new owner, a new Circe
of deceit, amongst lions and wolves of the same woods.

…………Our Lady of the Sorrows, where are they?

Where are the 43 tears of yesterday afternoon?

We won’t find out tomorrow where they are,
nor in the coming mornings or afternoons where they are,
nor in a whole year, in which we cannot but return
………………………………………….right back to this refrain:
Where again are the Ayotzinapa boys!?

There are no limits.
There are no names.
There is no country.
There are no crimes.

They run with so much strength.

………………………………Tuxtla, November, 2014.

Translation by Dylan Brennan

 

Balada por los muchachos de Ayotzinapa

No hay límites para el país del crimen.
No hay nombre para el país del crimen.
No hay país con nombres del crimen.
No hay crímenes para el país del crimen.

¿Díganme, en qué país lejano hallarlos?

A Décimo Junio Juvenal agrego a François Villon
para componer esta balada, y pido a otros cantores
añadan otro estribillo interrogativo: ¿dónde, en qué
país sin crímenes están los muchachos que apenas
……….se habían desnudado al amor?

Ayúdenme a correr junto a un río
que corre con demasiada fuerza.

¿En dónde están, en qué casa negra, encapsulados?

En la casa blanca no están, ahí ya no habita nadie.
Llegará el tiempo de otras sirenas, de otros sortilegios,
y la blancura como lirio será un resplandor amarillo
o un lirio negro al capricho de otra dueña, otra Circe
de engaño, entre leones y lobos del mismo bosque.

………¿Dónde están, Madre Dolorosa?

¿Dónde están las 43 lágrimas de ayer por la tarde?

No vamos a averiguar en esta mañana dónde están,
ni en las siguientes mañanas y tardes dónde están,
ni en todo el año, que a este estribillo no nos lleve:
¡Mas dónde están los muchachos de Ayotzinapa!

No hay límites.
No hay nombres.
No hay país.
No hay crímenes.

Corren con demasiada fuerza.
…………………………………..Noviembre/ 2014

YouTube Preview Image

§

Óscar Oliva comments on “A Ballad for François Hollande”

I did send this poem to Hollande. However, the carrier pigeon never made it to his window. Either that or it was devoured by the waters over which it crossed. Certainly Hollande forgot about Boris Vian’s song, one that he would have listened to with excitement in his youth. That was my reason for paraphrasing him, to remember the poet and his long trek along the paths of the Provençal troubadours.

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A Ballad for François Hollande

Monsieur le président
take this ballad
as I awaken ‘The Deserter’
………….by Boris Vian

don’t be surprised if a messenger
pigeon arrives at your window
– there’s all sorts falling from the Cloud

I see you’re busy making war
was I born to the world
for no more than this?

as down the French avenues sings Boris Vian
don’t go to war, we didn’t come here to kill

my mother suffered when I left
when they strafed the bus I was on
I was reading Guillaume de Poitiers’ poem
……………………..about I don’t know what about nothing

you and the terrorists you and the terror
………………………………………….let us
dream the three dreams of Decartes

………………………………………….let us
go into the cafes
the arenas
the football stadiums
I’m no member of either
sleeping or active cell

I’m better off in Agnes’ dream
like Guillaume who dreams
as he sleeps
………….on his horse

don’t make war
abroad
don’t make war
at home

I’m a deserter
sings Boris Vian
………….don’t obey them
don’t go to war
tell your police
Mr. President
that I am unarmed
on the road to peace
I’ve slipped off
my electronic tag
Boris Vian recorded ‘The Deserter’
the same day as his country’s
defeat at Diem-Bien-Phu

all down the Aquitaine roads
about I don’t know what about nothing
but early and almost unseen

I slip this ballad through your window.

–Translation by Keith Payne

 

Balada para François Hollande

Monsieur le président
le mando esta balada
paráfrasis de “El desertor”
………….de Boris Vian

no tendría nada de extraño que
una paloma mensajera llegara a su ventana
la nube cibernética da sorpresas

lo veo tan ocupado
en hacer la guerra
¿vino a este mundo
nada más para eso?

por los caminos de Francia Boris Vian canta
no vayan a la guerra no venimos a la vida para matar

mi madre sufrió tanto cuando me fui a otro país
cuando ametrallaron el autobús donde viajaba
leía el poema de Guillermo de Poitiers sobre no
…………………………sé qué sobre nada

usted y los terroristas usted y el terror
…………………………………….déjennos
tener los tres sueños de Descartes

…………………………………….dejénnos
entrar a las cafeterías
a las salas de conciertos
a los estadios de futbol
no pertenezco a ninguna
célula dormida o activa

mejor entro al sueño de Agnes
como Guillermo que la
sueña porque duerme
………sobre su caballo

no haga la guerra
en casa ajena ni
en su propia casa

soy un desertor
Boris Vian canta
……….no obedezcan
no vayan a la guerra
dígale a sus policías
señor presidente
que no llevo armas
camino desarmado
me quito el dispositivo
electrónico el brazalete
de geolocalización
Boris Vian grabó “El desertor”
el mismo día de la derrota
de su país en Diem-Bien-Phu

por los caminos de Aquitania
sobre no sé qué sobre nada
muy temprano casi invisible

dejo esta balada en su ventana

§

Óscar Oliva: Final words

I have not stopped writing. I no longer can stop. I have finished a new book, LASCAS, which is the continuation of this long race in which we all take part. It is also a journey through the mountains of Chiapas, alongside my grandparents and great-grandparents, alongside Li-Po, Rubén Darío, Juan de la Encina and others who have gazed upon the changing skies. Sturdy horsemen under torrential rains.

— Óscar Oliva, Dylan Brennan, & Keith Payne

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Óscar Oliva was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, on 5 January 1937. He belonged to the group of poets known as La Espiga Amotinada, encouraged by the Catalan poet Agustí Bartra. He has published extensively since the appearance of La Voz Desbocada in 1960 and has been widely recognized for his work as a cultural promoter. He has been honoured repeatedly for his work, winning an array of prizes including the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes (1971), Premio de Poesía Ciudad de México (1981), Medalla Rosario Castellanos (1990) and the Premio Internacional de Poesía Ramón López Velarde (2013). In addition to his literary work, Óscar was also a member of the Comisión Nacional de Intermediación (CONAI), between the Ejercito Zapatista de la Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and the Mexican government, eventually leading to the establishment of autonomous, indigenous communities in his home state of Chiapas.

Keith Payne is the Ireland Chair of Poety Bursary Award winner 2015-2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications, 2015) will be followed by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) in 2016.

Brennan

Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

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Mar 122016
 

jose_eduardo_agualusa_0

Present in this excerpt from A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn, are some of the recurring themes of the novel: rescue, rebirth, metaphysics, and an example of unexpected kindness alongside violence involving individuals, factions, and nations, as well as the hint of remorse, perhaps on the way to redemption. The language is relaxed and the details vivid. In the last lines those who engage in brutality are said to acknowledge the power of words. Put another way, Agualusa shows that civilization is held in regard even as vengeance, chaos, and an eternal thirst for more, threaten to swallow his country. —Jeff Bursey

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Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. Or occasionally, desistances. Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin. Jeremias Carrasco had something very like this happen to him. He awoke, after facing a careless firing squad, in a bed that was too short for his six feet, and so narrow that were he to uncross his arms they would both hang down with their fingers touching the cement floor, one on each side. He had a lot of pain in his mouth, neck, and chest, and terrible trouble breathing. He saw, on opening his eyes, a low ceiling that was discolored and cracked. A small gecko, hanging directly above him, was studying him curiously. The morning was coming in, wavy and scented, through a tiny window high up on the facing wall, just below the ceiling.

“I’ve died,” thought Jeremias. “I’ve died, and that gecko is God.”

Even supposing that the gecko was indeed God, he would appear to be hesitating about what fate to assign to him. To Jeremias this indecision was even stranger than finding himself face-to-face with the Creator and the fact that He had taken on the form of a reptile. Jeremias knew, and had known for quite some time, that he was destined to burn for all eternity in the flames of Hell. He had killed, he had tortured. And if he’d started off doing those things out of duty, obeying orders, he had later acquired a taste for it. He only felt awake, whole, when he was racing through the night, in pursuit of other men.

“Make your mind up,” said Jeremias to the gecko. Or rather, he tried to say, but all that came out of his mouth was a dull, tangled thread of sounds. He made a second attempt, and, as in a nightmare, the dark rush of noise came again.

“Don’t try to talk. Actually, you’re not going to talk ever again.” Jeremias believed, for some moments, that it was God who was condemning him to eternal silence. Then he turned his eyes toward the right and saw a hugely fat woman leaning against the door. Her hands, with tiny, fragile fingers, danced before her as she spoke:

“Yesterday they announced your death in the newspapers. They published a photograph, it was quite an old one, I almost didn’t recognize you. They said you were a devil. You died, you were reborn, and you have another chance. Make the most of it.”

Madalena had been working at the Maria Pia Hospital for five years. Before that she had been a nun. A neighbor had witnessed the shooting of the mercenaries at a distance and had notified her. The nurse drove to the site on her own. One of the men was still alive. A bullet had passed through his chest, on a miraculous, perfect course that hadn’t hit a single vital organ. A second projectile had gone into his mouth, shattering his two upper incisors, then perforating his throat.

“I don’t understand what happened. Were you trying to catch the bullet in your teeth?” She laughed, her body shaking. The light seemed to laugh with her. “Yes, sir, those are some good reflexes. And it wasn’t even such a bad idea, either. If the bullet hadn’t found your teeth, it would have taken a different direction. It would have killed you or left you paralyzed. I thought it best not to take you to the hospital. They would take care of you and then when you were recovered they’d only shoot you again. So be patient, and I’ll look after you myself with what little resources there are. I just have to get you out of Luanda. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hide you. If the comrades find you, they’ll shoot me, too. As soon as possible we’ll travel south.”

She hid him for nearly five months. By listening to the radio, Jeremias was able to follow the difficult progress of the government troops, supported by the Cubans, against the improvised, unstable alliance between the UNITA party, the National Front, the South African army, and mercenaries from Portugal, England, and North America.
Jeremias was dancing on the beach, in Cascais, with a platinum blonde, and he had never been in a war, never killed, never tortured anyone, when Madalena shook him:

“Come on, Captain! We go today or never.”

The mercenary sat up in bed, with some effort. The rain was crackling in the darkness, muffling the noise of what sparse traffic there was at that time. They were to travel in a little old van, a Citroën 2CV, its yellow bodywork badly worn, eaten away by rust, but with its engine in perfect working order. Jeremias was stretched out on the backseat, hidden by various crates of books.

“Books instill respect,” explained the nurse. “If you carry crates full of beer bottles, the soldiers will search every inch of the vehicle. Besides which, you’ll get to Moçâmedes without a single bottle left.”

—José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn

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Mar 102016
 

gayraud3-001Joël Gayraud

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Selections from La peau de l’ombre (The Shadow’s Skin)
by Joël Gayraud,
With permission of Editions José Corti, 2004. 239 pp.

Composed of 410 fragments [17 of which appear below], Joël Gayraud’s seductive work belongs to a grand tradition that stretches from seventeenth-century moralists like Baltasar Gracián to Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Arranged in agreeable disorder, following an approach that gives pride of place as much to reverie as to conceptual thought, to poetry as to revolutionary theory, the texts weave together themes as diverse as dreaming, revolt, utopia, death, childhood, telepathy, and atheism.

Inspired by Castiglione and Nietzsche, Leopardi and Bakunin, Fourier and Benjamin, Gayraud is at once a dreamer—“I am one of those who wake up only to continue dreaming”—and a rebel. An immoderate love of revolt courses through his maxims and inspires such sparkling formulations as: “No one ever revolts too much . . . . It is with revolt as with love: excess gives them life.” It is a logical revolt that comes from afar and “draws its legitimacy not only from the injustice that causes it, but from the immemorial past of rebellion that grounds the human in man”; a permanent revolt that, as soon as it “annexes all historical experience,” develops “into a revolutionary strategy”; a revolt, finally, that could not be reduced to narrow-minded quantitative causes: “The insurgents of 1848, the Communards, or the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square fought less for having (bread, work) than for being (communism, freedom).”

Claiming an ethics of “the internal subversion of the reality principle,” Gayraud does not hide his attraction for surrealism, “the only major attempt to reenchant the world on a secularized magical-mythical basis,” an effort consciously turned towards the future, and aimed at accessing the marvellous of things themselves “as a poiesis immanent to the world.”

Michaël Löwy
review of La peau de l’ombre published in S.U.RR.. 5 (2005)

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Gayraud (born 1953) has written on and translated both classical and modern authors, including Ovid, Giacomo Leopardi, Primo Levi, and Giorgio Agamben. His own, often loosely biographical writings, steeped in the double legacy of surrealism and situationism, comprise not only critical essays, fragments and aphorisms, but also poems and short stories as well as children’s books. These have appeared in collections (Clairière du rêve, 2010, Passage public, 2012, Ocelles, 2014) and in numerous radical and surrealist journals in France, French Canada, and the UK. He lives in Paris, where he taught classics until his retirement.

168. The development of sadomasochistic practices contributes more effectively than many revolutionary discourses to undermining the psychological foundations of power. When, in the intimacy of their bedroom, couples experimented with the game of submission and dominance—even where the sexual roles themselves remain uncriticized, the mere fact that this game took place enables the objectification of old fantasies of domination and slavery—fantasies that, as a consequence of the brutal and barbaric establishment of relations of domination, have been buried deep in the breast of humanity. Aggression, whose sublimation can only rarely be satisfying and whose repression perverts and turns it outward, against society, finds here its direct expression. Above all, however, the pleasure shared as much by the dominant partner as by the submissive one, who incidentally often swap roles, initiates them into a veritable communism of pleasure, experienced as a perfectly antagonistic representation of the social economy. It is then the exercise of exclusive power that appears as a sinister perversion, founded as it is on the capitalization of pleasure and its exclusive appropriation. Everyone who, thanks to sadomasochistic practice, each night purges their self of the libido dominandi by giving it playful satisfaction, albeit one leading to real mutual pleasure, cannot but find the pretension to social domination laughable, ridiculous, and a sign of frustration and mediocrity.

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1Paul Nash 1889-1946. Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump 1940 © Tate (2015).

244. When I first discovered the beautiful photographs by Paul Nash dating back to the Second World War and showing the carcasses of aircraft that had been shot down, it became clear to me that the inorganic often takes on the appearance of the organic in its obsolescence or destruction. A plane in working order only lets itself be perceived as a simple machine upon which we look with indifferent eyes, except when we are dealing with a new model, in which case it is the machine’s novelty, even its aesthetic, that attracts us. That attraction, however—except owing to highly particular affective connotations—remains wholly intellectual; in truth, we do not doubt for a second that we are in the presence of the purely inorganic. By contrast, in these images of machinery that had crashed to the ground, I saw not a simple heap of metal but an organic system fixed at an arbitrary moment of its decomposition, the twisted scrap iron, the battered cabins, the gaping and rusted motors, forever out of operation, resembling mangled flesh, eviscerated and mutilated bodies—which did not fail to silently stir through the keyboard of my sensibility the strings of a perfectly licit sadism.

In retrospect, I should clarify that, when looking at these images, I never for a moment thought of the crew that had perished in this mass of metal. And, as added proof that I was not guided by this idea even unconsciously, I remember having experienced similar jubilation before an old dismantled rotary press, a gutted piano, or, to go back even farther in my memory, a tube radio meticulously taken apart by a child’s hands. More recently, and this time on the scale of a landscape, I had an analogous impression of Coney Island, having wandered around the old amusement park entirely abandoned to the elements and wild vegetation: the scenic railway and roller coaster, come to a halt, their carcasses covered in a shroud of rust, had acquired a kind of organicity that one could never have attributed to them at the time of their functioning, when their full operation rendered them emotionally invisible. It is doubtless the attainment of irreparability that makes all these metal creatures approach the intimate sense of our own precariousness.

2Paul Nash 1889-1946. Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump 1940 © Tate (2015)

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181. Just as those seventeenth-century still lifes showing a bowl of fruit, fish fresh out of the water, or a table sagging beneath a heap of venison have only ever provoked my boredom and even repugnance, so, on the other hand, I have always taken pleasure in representations of inanimate objects of everyday life, such as can frequently be seen in the vanitas of the same period. It seems that, if the still life’s immediate effect is to reify the organic entities it depicts, it has the opposite effect on objects and things. The latter, appearing not simply juxtaposed as in a catalogue but, rather, assembled as parts of a whole delimited by the painting’s frame, are elevated to the dignity of organs in a new body, which is that of the painting itself. Such compositions break with the naturalism of their predecessors and, in their mannerism, foreshadow the symbolic function of objects in surrealism or in the boxes of a Joseph Cornell.

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204. Sometimes when fixing one’s gaze on a rock from a particular vantage point one sees emerge from it the head or the body of a human or an animal. Never, in my experience and in those I have heard recounted on this score, does one see objects that are manufactured or animal forms too removed from us, such as fragments of insects. There is, nevertheless, nothing in the form of the rock that would prevent one from finding them. Doubtless it is that we do not want to find them and hold on to a narcissistic mimetism that makes us search for our of own face or for animals most familiar to us, such as those we have domesticated or those that people our fantasies, our dreams, and especially our nightmares—lions, stags, bears, horses, dragons, and other monsters hailing from mythology enriched by the discoveries of paleontology. Man must no doubt have very quickly understood that nature liked to imitate itself, but that this mimesis was not worried about exactitude and realism in representation; rather, it deformed in stone what had been formed in the flesh, it stylized its features, practicing a kind of abstraction and fetishization of certain elements in detaching them from the whole, in treating them in isolation, in enlarging or shrinking them, in thus playing with the proportions of the different elements being represented. This representation, by nature radically alien to the idea of symmetry, is that of contours and profiles. It is, it seems, the first to have been tried by prehistoric artists. And if we began representing the human face only much later, it is probably because the mask was in use for a very long time.

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243. Unlike the dialectic of Plato, based on distinction (in the Phaedrus, the dialectician is modelled on the butcher skilled in carving up beasts following the joints of the meat), the dialectic of Heraclitus is based on analogy—on real analogy, which is to say one that grasps the relation of coming together that exists in being. Indeed, if the opposition of two forces lets the bow be drawn and to send an arrow, it must be that these two forces act simultaneously and without mediation. The author of this double action is the archer, but the analogy exists in the very structure of the bow independently of him. Every bow in good condition, thus true to its concept, is capable of shooting an arrow. Put differently, in every bow there already exists the analogy allowing it to actualize the arrow’s flight.

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259. Our inclination will be to accrue the implicit and the vague, to multiply paradoxes, but also to enhance the lenses of vision so as to make of the smooth surface of things a landscape deeply cut with valleys, bristling with wild mountain ranges, riddled with potholes and crevasses, in order to rediscover the labyrinth of the living beneath the cellophane of scientific certainty. This is precisely what Leopardi did when, in his Zibaldone, in a striking change of focus, he describes a charming garden in flower as a “vast hospital” or battlefield where all of life’s suffering and consubstantial violence are deployed.

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262. The bones of six million Parisians are piled pell-mell in the hollows of the catacombs, and in all of Paris’s twenty arrondissements there are at present just over two million souls. If all the dead rose to lead us in a danse macabre, each of us would have three skeletons as partners for a quadrille.

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248. When our parents tell us they had wanted us, they unwittingly deceive us, since first of all they deceive themselves. It is not us, the being whom they address today, that they desired; what they wanted was a child, not this child they then watched grow up. This one here, despite all the ultrasounds, amniocenteses, and karyotype tests that reassured them of its normality, they were utterly incapable of expecting. And so we are brought down to the level of the supposed unwanted unfortunate, which should cut our narcissism and self-confidence down to size. The desire for a child is always a desire for any child, a desire to create whatever entity, ens quodlibet. The scholastic category of quodlibetality, “whatever being,” is here eminently applicable: as wanted or unwanted beings, we are ontologically whatever.

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263. Historians are the eunuchs charged with guarding the seraglio of truth. Although they have the privilege of seeing it naked, they can never conjoin with it, and never let it go out without first wrapping it in its veil.

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267. The first Greek philosopher of atheism was called Theodorus, which means “gift of the gods.” For the best that the divine has to offer us is the capacity for negation, all the way to negating the divine itself.

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287. A dog plays with a man like a child, but its gaze is not that of the child, laughing and reaching for the next moment. The eyes of a dog engaged in child-like play seem, to the contrary, the bearers of an immemorial wisdom. Its gaze is the profound and melancholy one of a sage who has passed through the infinite series of necessary experiences, each time drawing lessons and, in the end, understanding that not one of them merits being retained. He has no other choice than to arrange them in his memory as in a museum display case. It is something like a reflection of such useless and suspended knowledge that can be read in the eyes of an animal drawn by man into one of his games.

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322. If memory is the condition of knowledge, oblivion is the condition of experience.

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184. There is no passion so naked that it is not dressed in language.

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311. One of the watchwords of May ‘68 in France, as of the sixties the world over, was freedom of speech. But, even more than freedom, it was about the uncontrollable necessity of speech for all. Yet, little by little, the paradoxical injunction to “express yourself” spread, becoming an authoritarian commonplace as the movement ebbed away. This paradox of an injunction to freedom did not escape notice and emphasis among the fiercest enemies of freedom in its anti-utilitarian form, who lie in wait for anything that could put back into the service of capital what was meant to contest it. What is most remarkable, however, is that the wretches ordered to express themselves could say nothing, not because they had nothing to say, not because they were totally lacking the faculty of thought, but because it was obvious that the command line between ideas and speech remained, for them, incurably blocked. The world revealed itself as aphasic, which moreover has often been the case among the poorest and most isolated classes, such as peasants. One discovered, in effect, the full extent of the general proletarization of society: access to expression, free at last, opened onto a void. This is why the greatest triumph of humor at the time came from a comedian in overalls narrating the story of someone who had nothing to say, a storyteller with no story to tell, while managing to hold his audience spellbound for a good quarter of an hour.

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342. As Elias Canetti saw clearly, in contrast to Georg Lukács, it is the masses and not the proletariat who were the subject of history in the twentieth century; in other words, a subject paradoxically deprived of attributes necessary for the definition of a subject; a subject without consciousness; a headless, acephalous subject or, just as good, one whose head is interchangeable. It is on this enormous body of the masses that the evil genius of history grafted the head of Mussolini, Lenin, Perón, Hitler, Nasser. There were, of course, a certain number of positive heroes like Makhno, Zapata, and Durutti, who precisely did not want to play this little role of head. We know what fate was reserved for them.

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213. Finding its roots is not a preoccupation of the wild plant—to which it never occurred it could lose them—but of the unhappy potted bonsai.

—Joël Gayraud, translated by S.D. Chrostowska

(NC wishes to thank Tate for permission to use the photographs included in the text — creativecommons@tate.org.uk.)

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chrostowka

Selected and translated from the French by S.D. Chrostowska

S.D. Chrostowska teaches at York University in Canada and is the author of Literature on Trial (UTP, 2012), Permission (Dalkey Archive, 2013), and MATCHES, a collection of critical fragments (punctum, 2015).

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Feb 112016
 
Domenico_di_Michelino_-_Dante_Illuminating_Florence_with_his_Poem_(detail)_-_WGA06422

Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem by Domenico di Francesco via Wikipedia

Divine Comedy

1595 Edition

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THERE IS A PHRASE coined by the critic Harold Bloom “the anxiety of influence,” which once raised the dust of a herd milling around its allure. Without paying Bloom, a prominent bad-boy, the compliment of either expounding or contradicting the truth of his book The Anxiety of Influence, his phrase “influences” me if only to retort upon it.

I draw my greatest satisfaction as a novelist and a writer of short stories, though the scholarship of others has been a major influence on both my fiction and non-fiction. As a novelist I have written three books that speak to two authors who have drawn the attention of scholarly critics and researchers, Shakespeare and Dante. This perhaps is a form of academic cross-dressing but in the past few months I have returned to think about Dante, since the editor of a literary journal asked me to interview the poet, who has been holed up in his grave for well over half a millennium. As I finished a first draft, I was struck by the coincidence of a note arriving from the wife of the novelist John Barth, saying that she had found my book, Dante Eros and Kabbalah on her husband’s shelf and was reading it. We printed in Fiction Barth’s story of Ulysses setting sail with the princess Nausicca for a new life to the west of Greece, excerpted from Barth’s novel Tidewater Tales. That particular tale was one of those that inspired me in speculating on Dante. Shelley Barth’s curiosity about Dante just as I was returning to the poet was a bit uncanny and it suggested my lecture’s real title.

Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man asks his audience, “But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure?

“Answer: Of himself.”

What follows is how I came to read Dante as closely as I could and returned to Dante’s Comedy influenced by a 13th century classic, by literary criticism, the scholarship of others and the way a work of literature often embodies the influence of texts that have preceded it, an enthusiastic if mischievous re-reading of texts that precede it. That sounds like a more generous way to put it than Bloom’s “anxiety.” I could call what follows as advertised “The Anxiety of Laughter,” or “The Generosity of Influence,” or but the title, which seems to ring right is, “The Coincidence of Influence.”

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I don’t know what the guiding principle of scholarship is but I feel that coincidence is what dictates the novel and the epic poem alike, since it is what sets the direction of the plot. I think that when one is drawn to a writer, a work of literature or scholarship, it is because one senses that coincidence has played its magical part. Your life and the life of the writer become entwined and you exchange identities. Isn’t that what happens when you fall in love? Dante talks about how he met Beatrice at nine years old and then nine years later Beatrice appears before him in a miraculous way; how nine seems to keep reoccurring as a magical number between them. This coincidence he assures us is a sign of Divine intention. And of course three times three makes nine, and the Comedy will be organized in the basis of three—even to its triple rhyme.

I first read Dante in high school. It was the first volume of the Comedy, the Inferno, and it was in John Ciardi’s translation. I read it out of curiosity—I was an omnivorous reader—but although I found it interesting, I did not find myself in it. The world of cruel punishments was repellant. As little boy I was more than once set upon and beaten by juvenile delinquents from the nearby streets of poverty stricken Irish for “killing Jesus” and paraded by canvases of Jesus crucified in the Museum of Fine Arts that made me cringe. The laughter and complexity of the poet descending his Inferno did not bleed through to an adolescent. Dante remained for me through college and graduate school a writer I could admire but not understand. In my mid twenties, however, I received a fellowship to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference presided over by the poet John Ciardi. Unexpectedly, since the young editor at Simon and Schuster, who procured the fellowship for me, did not like my novel, Thou Work Jacob, Ciardi did; praised it, and wrote several sentences for its publication that still make me blush with gratitude.

Ciardi’s generosity sent me back to Dante. I was now a disciple of Ciardi. He had endorsed me; given me hope that what I wrote would be touched by the poetry of language he said he had found in my first novel. I wanted to be influenced by Dante, the poet to whom Ciardi’s name was so prominently linked. I re-read Ciardi’s translation of Inferno, but decided I ought to read the whole of the Comedy and bought the Modern Library prose version, slowly making my way through Inferno again, then Purgatory and Paradise. The Comedy seemed to be about the three obsessions of my life; sex, politics, and religion, but its drama remained at a distance and though I read with more understanding, I felt no empathy.

At twenty-nine, my mother died. I took up a book that the rabbi at Harvard had given me as a junior or senior, Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. At twenty-one I had read three or four pages. It made no sense and I put it down. It was beyond me. Now I read it as a guide to the world beyond, a world to which my mother, abruptly, at fifty-six, and in a startling metamorphosis recovering her beauty as a slim adolescent before her final awful dissolution, had gone. I was left in nightmares and hallucination. Scholem’s lucid scholarship about the Jewish imagination seeking to read the “Other World” led me to the Zohar, the major mystical or Kabbalistic text of Jewish Spain in the 13th century, which Scholem’s volume explicates. Reading the Zohar’s abridged English translation I had just enough understanding of the Biblical world and the Talmud to respond to its flights of wild story telling. Scholem’s warning that there were elements of parody, and deliberate fiction, including the Aramaic, which was an artificial construct of the 13th century, not the 2nd century as it claimed, stimulated my own imagination and its details seeped into my fiction. I became a student of Scholem’s, a group that included I would learn, Harold Bloom and Jorge Luis Borges.

I was unaware what would happen when I tried again to read Dante. Suddenly the poet spoke to me. I had absorbed a language of imagery reading the Zohar, a language that made the barriers of Italian, Aramaic, the world of l3th century Spain and late 13th century Italy, seemingly sealed against each other, fall away as I recognized their common share in neo-Platonic philosophy. Scholem had taught me to hear the laughter in the Zohar as a vast hot spermatic flood burst out of the earth and drowned a hapless world of sex abusers; a world fathoms beyond Melville’s dreams of the White Whale. Now I heard Dante’s bitter self-laughter for the first time but I could not have gone many steps beyond the opening cantos of the Inferno if I had not found myself the beneficiary of coincidence and the generosity of influence. About this time I had several interviews with Professor Harry AustrynWolfson who was described at the time of his death in The NY Times obituary as the world’s greatest scholar. Wolfson’s unexpected friendship extended as a result of some articles I wrote about the Boston Jewish world in the Sunday Globe brought me the gift of his witty, mischievous presence, his extraordinary books, and their insights into the poetry of religious philosophy. In particular just at the moment when I was absorbing Gershom Scholem, I read in Wolfson’s short masterpiece, Religious Philosophy, a startling essay called “Immortality and Resurrection” which viewed the possibilities of the Afterworld from the perspective of the Church Fathers. To my father, Harry Wolfson, his freshman tutor at Harvard, was the final authority on Maimonides, Spinoza, Philo. Wolfson I would realize was also a pre-eminent scholar of the Church Fathers and the Islamic Kalam. An essay of Wolfson put what I believe was the key to Dante’s search for Beatrice in my hands and Wolfson was my guide through Purgatory and Paradise though I could never have turned the lock without the coincidence of reading Scholem roughly at the same time.

Now several figures step out of the shadows with their books and thoughts. For long before I met John Ciardi and decided to solve for myself the mystery of Dante’s authority, I was prepared by one of the two professors at Harvard who are responsible for my career. This was the critic, Albert Guerard, who wrote the first important critical study of Andre Gide in English, and is still an authority on Conrad. It was Albert who announced to me in his workshop that I was an important writer, who chastised, encouraged, drew me close, smacked me down. He shared his paranoia and his dreams, and I slowly assimilated his critical perspectives. Both as a teacher and in my three books on Shakespeare and Dante I find myself working out Albert’s dictum that one can always find the writer in his or her work. (A former City College chairperson, who wrote a single book on Shakespeare talking about the difference between the Folio and Quarto versions of plays, dismissed the first of mine, The Absent Shakespeare as “a book for the Humanities,” implying that it had nothing of scholarly value though I had found some value in his.) With the insights of Scholem, Albert Guerard, Wolfson in hand I went searching for Dante in the Comedy. I determined to try to read him in Italian encouraged by another coincidence. Speaking about my thoughts on Dante in Paris during a sabbatical to Andre Le Vot, who was a professor of American Literature at the Sorbonne on my way to Italy he urged me to try to read Dante in Italian. I protested that I knew no Italian. He asked if I could Chaucer in Middle English. “Yes, easily, ” I laughed and added that when I was required to basically memorize the whole of Troilus and The Canterbury Tales I found myself dreaming in Middle English. “Then you will be able to hear Dante in Italian,” Le Vot insisted. I had been sketching to him, the possibility of a radical revision of what I considered the “pious view” of the mass of critical literature on the poet. The text that suggested this to me was Max Frisch’s William Tell, in which the Swiss novelist using footnotes as his sly knife in the back lacerated the Swiss myth of William Tell as a hero, We had published Frisch’s William Tell in the magazine I edit Fiction. I was and remain in awe of Frisch and I decided to draw on his tactics writing about Dante. Max, his wife Marianne and I were seated in a sunny window of a restaurant outside Zurich, where I was his guest. Frisch smiled faintly when I outlined my project and that was enough of a blessing to continue.

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I found myself in Florence and above it in the Tuscan countryside at Bernard Berenson’s villa months later, with a copy of the Sinclair translation that has the Italian facing it on the other side of the page, walking with Dante. I began to understand him, hear him though I had the echoes of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s essay whistling in my ears, and Howard Nemerov’s (who had been as generous as Ciardi to me), thoughts on the Comedy as well. Albert Guerard showed a first draft to one of the deans of Dante studies in America, John Freccero who wrote that I was “the Philip Roth” of Dante scholarship, that I had treated Saint Augustine, shamefully, but that he would have loved to have me in his graduate seminar. Closer to home it was City College’s Renaissance scholar, Frederick Goldin, who confirmed that I was indeed on the “la diritta via,” Dante’s “right track.” I had become the director of the M.A. in Literature and Creative Writing at the college. After hearing a lecture by Professor Goldin I asked to sit in on his class on medieval romance. As he translated at will from the Provencal poets who had brought the neo-platonic notion of love into the vulgar languages and created the literature of Provence, Italy, France and Germany—I recognized the laughter and dreams that underlay Dante’s Comedy. Indeed Dante himself acknowledges the debt, but to feel it alive, leaping from one world to another, that would have been difficult without the aura of Frederick Goldin’s class in which scholarship made vivid the French Arthurian romances, the German Parsifal, their radical implications, texts that as he taught them became what one might call with sly appropriation, the true, the blissful “magical realism.” Frederick in one sentence about Dante confirmed an intuition that I felt but had not dared to give words to. At every turning in his descent through the tortures of Hell, Dante sees the punishment of his own sins. My own sins often coincided with Dante’s and this gave me a sense of how pride, covetousness, deception, if truly recognized has to haunt us all at some level of consciousness not to mention the deep sexual riddles to which our bodies seem to consign us regardless of human will. Dante keeps asking these questions in the Purgatory, and in Paradise, something that many readers do not recognize.

Finding the essay by Cecil Roth on Emannuel Ha-Romi the Italian-Jewish poet of the Renaissance who wrote a parody in Hebrew of the Comedy led me to think about a series of poems that Roth discussed. Dante’s contemporary and friend Cino da Pistoia, in an exchange with Bosone da Gubbio, put both Emmanuel and Dante in the same circle of hell with Alessio Unterminei, a truly filthy one where the condemned sit under caps of shit for using their talent as writers to seduce young women. That lit up the character of Dante, as seen by his contemporaries and it was an element of biography ignored by almost all conventional Dante scholars. It was funny and cruel and yet Dante and Emmanuel might have had a good laugh at their contemporaries’ exchange—one at least gave them hope of an escape from Hell. Another precious contribution came from a scholar at NYU who invited me to join a seminar on medieval philosophy, Professor Alfred Ivry. His lucid article on the degree to which Maimonides was influenced by the Shiite doctrine of concealment, was another proof for me that Dante too was concealing secrets. El-Farabi’s dictum, on which Leo Strauss built his remarkable book, Persecution and the Art of Writing, posits that poets in a society in which freedom of speech is not allowed, particularly doubt about a faith that the State endorses, learn to leave their real meaning concealed from the vulgar eye. Three times Gershom Scholem, whom I met in Jerusalem, then in Zurich, then again in Jerusalem, —not knowing anything about my manuscript on Dante asked me if I had read Strauss’s book When I finally read Strauss a shiver passed through me as if the master of Jewish mystical doctrine, Scholem, had read my secret. The coincidence was uncanny so was the Dante I found in the Comedy whose burning question to Beatrice was—what body will I find you with here in Heaven? Will I experience you in the body you had on earth. Isn’t that the question I had to ask my mother in the dreams that came after her death? Isn’t the hope of some extraordinary coincidence or its defeat what drives one great novel after another? The Dante I fell in love with was a poet who had secrets to whisper to those who could read between the lines and I found many, unconventional scholars, few of them however among the guardians of Dante as a Catholic puritan, willing to assist me. The footnotes of Dante, Eros and Kabbalah are crowded with such voices.

I was asked last year if I would interview Dante and the idea renewed my curiosity in associating anew with the poet. I tried through a fiction to make contact with him again, to hear his voice, and in pursuit of that took up the bi-lingual pages of the Hollanders, which some said had displaced the Sinclair as the best edition in that regard. I had a painful disagreement with Robert Hollander when I was invited by his wife Jean to their home in Princeton. I had no idea that Robert was a preeminent Dante scholar, but reading his notes on the Inferno now I understand how deep I put my foot in my mouth at supper suggesting that Dante had slept with Beatrice. The company laughed but Professor Hollander at the head of the table turned to ice and the atmosphere became glacial. Despite extraordinarily learned and witty notes on Dante’s Comedy, the poet’s sources and influences, Robert Hollander insists there that Dante has no real sympathy for the tormented. His Dante is a resolute Puritan, while mine is a laughing sinner. And yet my deeper quarrel now is with his wife, Jean’s translation, which however talented I feel misses the art of Dante in ignoring the frequent repetitions of words. And to introduce the uncanny into this story, I must add the coincidence of my friend, the Biblical scholar, Edward Greenstein’s lecture on the campus just a few weeks ago, which reacquainted me with his essay on Biblical translation. For Edward’s definition of “literal” translation, which he redefines as “literary” translation, is in fact the summation both of the rationale of my work on Dante, to lose myself in the Comedy, or rather, to find myself by finding Dante. Not to understand the “meaning” of the Comedy, which must finally be elusive, but to find oneself in the Comedy itself. To do that, however, one must enter the Comedy, enter its words, its associations, and I think every serious writer understands that this requires as literal an understanding as possible. I am going to quote Edward Greenstein at some length in this regard.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov . . . translated Pushkin “into a rigorously literal and consequently rather ugly English version” because he felt that only in this manner could one lead the reader to the poem itself . . . John Berryman, the lyric poet employed a fairly literal style of rendering the Book of Job into English, contending that such a translation would be “truer.” The early Twentieth century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke expressed a clear preference for a more literal translation of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic over a more recent but less literal one. It is hardly coincidental that many Biblicists, as well as some serious amateurs, who devote themselves to the literary analysis of Scripture tend toward the more literal styles of translation. A work of literary art is essentially an arrangement of words, as music comprises tones and silences and as sculpture comprises matter and space. If one loses the words, one loses the art, just as one loses the music if one loses the tones or the silences. But aside from a purist’s devotion to words, there are two other foundations supporting more literal translation. The one is stylistic. The meaning of a biblical passage may hinge on the repetition of a word or an allusion. For example, in 2 Samuel 7 the word bayit house’ interweaves three themes: King David had already established his kingship and was dwelling in a royal house: the Lord, his god, was then dwelling in a tent-shrine, not in stable house: David will build for the Lord a house and the Lord will assure the enduring prosperity of David’s dynasty, which is expressed in Hebrew by “bayit house.”: The more literal rendering of the King James (or Authorized) Version (KJV) of 1611 translates bayit consistently as ‘house’ so that the literary device of verbal repetition reaches the English reader. The more idiomatic rendering of the British New English Bible (NEB) of 1970 translates bayit as “house” when it refers to the king’s palace or the future temple but as ‘family’ when it refers to David’s dynasty. The super-idiomatic Today’s English Version (TEV, entitled the Good News Bible) of the American Bible Society (I976) renders bayit as “palace,” “temple,” and “dynasty” in its respective references, completely obliterating the thematic connections of the original.

I could go on and on here but my subject is Dante not the Bible. There are two more quotes, from Greenstein, however, relevant to my conclusion.

Walter Benjamin (d. 1940), in his “unequalled” essay on “The Task of the Translator,” insisted that “a literary work” does not in any essential way tell anything or impart information! It does, it is. In the “literary” view it is perhaps more crucial to convey the rhetorical features of the text and the manifold connotations of its words than it is to convey the denoted or ideational message of the text. Philological translation endeavors to pin down meaning while literary translation seeks, as in literary analysis, to proliferate meaning . . .

As the German Romantic Friedrich Schleiermacher put it, in his epoch-making essay “On the Different Methods of Translation”: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.”

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That is what the novelist or poet, reading Dante most often wants to do, on the one hand to “proliferate meaning”; on the other to “move towards” the author. I found myself frantic reading Jean Hollander’s translation as I watched her ignore the repetition of words in Dante’s Inferno in order to convey the different shades of meaning she thought they had in the varying context of specific cantos. In doing so, the subtle associations intended by Dante in repeating a word were lost. Long ago at Harvard I learned the tenets of New Criticism under Reuben Brower and Richard Poirier—one could decipher a work though the repetitions of key words by an author. (Shakespeare’s hammering at “nothing” in King Lear, as it is flung in her father’s face by Cordelia then by the Fool, taken up by Lear, Kent, Edmund, Edgar — echoed over and over in the action, Lear crying “the thick rotundity of the world” to “be struck flat” to nothing, and looking for a breath of life in the play’s last moments where there is no life, nothing). Jean Hollander by changing Dante’s deliberate repetition of a keyword was making it impossible to trace Dante’s intentions. Even her husband Robert became uneasy at this as I found when I read his notes to Jean’s translation — particularly in regard to one word that had caught my attention.[1] It was the word on which the whole of my book Dante, Eros and Kabbalah depended, smarrita or smarrito—which can be translated as I do “bewildered” but also “confused,” or “lost,” and which provided me with the understanding of what was happening throughout the Comedy as Dante groped his way down and up through the windings of the Other World. The way at the beginning is not so much “lost” as “confused” for the poet is, “bewildered” in life. Preparing these remarks, I wondered—could it be there at the very end of Paradise? I had not asked that question in my book. If Dante began with human bewilderment, however, surely before the final overwhelming vision of the Unknown in the whirling geometry of the Heavens “bewildered” would show up but in a very different context. Coincidence, the Divine laughing coincidence of plot assured me that the great poet would spin bewilderment into his resolution. Finding it there, I laughed with glee.

I think that from the keenness that I suffered
Of the living light that I would have been smarrito, bewildered
If my eye had been turned from it.

Paradise, 33, 76-78

This is the true laughter of the Comedy. Dante turns his confusion “smarrito,” upside down in a volley of geometrical fireworks. His verse implies that while once bewildered, lost, etc., and yet would be if he looked away, now absorbed in a vision, he never will be.

—Mark Jay Mirsky

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Mark Jay Mirsky

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See page 201, of The Inferno, A Verse Translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, Anchor Books, 2002, where Robert Hollander does acknowledge that Jean’s translation cannot convey the associations of “ “The word used by Virgil to describe Dante’s difficulty is smarrito, a word that has been associated with the protagonist’s initial lost and perilous condition (Inf I.3) and then occurs again (Inf XV.50) with specific reference to his lostness at the outset of the journey for the last time in the poem It is also used in such a way as to remind us of his initial situation in Inf. II, 64, V.72 and XIII.24; in the last two of these scenes the protagonist is feeling pity for sinners, emotion that the poet fairly clearly considers inappropriate.”

    I do not have the space here to challenge that remark about “pity” where Robert Hollander assumes (as he does throughout his notes) the role of Inquisitor who will not allow Dante or his readers to feel any sympathy for sinners against Catholic doctrine. I do however want to acknowledge Jean’s brilliance in her translating e sanza alcun sospetto, as “without the least misgiving” in the Fifth Canto and her catching the deadfall at the end of this canto (which a much praised translation by another contemporary poet makes a complete hash of) by exchanging the hard c’s of the Italian for the d’s of English, “E caddi come corpo morto cade, And down I fell as a dead body falls.” To return to smarrito, in line 72, in this Fifth Canto, where Dante earlier writes, pieta mi giunse, e fui quasi smarrito” and Jean translates, “pity over came me/ and I almost lost my senses.” Robert remarks (p. 105) “The repetition of the word smarrito to describe Dante’s distraught condition, also recalls the first tercet of the poem Here we can see his reuse of key words from previous contexts in order to enhance the significance of a current situation in the poem.” Yet how does “lost my senses” signify to the reader that the key word “smarrito” has been repeated. Even Robert’s “my distraught condition” is closer to the “bewildered” that I choose in my translation.

    Of course the reason for the Hollanders’ joint choices in translation are revealed in this note (as in others), “69-72 di nostra vita. The echo of the first line of the poem is probably not coincidental. Dante was lost “midway in the journey of our life,” and we will later learn, some of his most besetting problems arose from misplaced affection.” (p. 105) The Hollanders’ Dante is an author who is in their view, not Dante, the character; a character who is a benighted “lost” soul. This is not my Dante; a Dante who on the contrary as the author, chooses to reveal himself in the fiction of his character Dante, a Dante who is bewildered at the beginning but not at the end of the whole Comedy; not bewildered “smarrito” in the final canto, because he does feel sympathy, pity, throughout his journey, and because his affection was never “misplaced” but rather the source and rationale and end of his journey which brings him to its final laughing revelation.

Jan 112016
 

presentación jtJavier Taboada

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JAVIER TABOADA (Mexico City, 1982) is a translator and poet. He has translated the work of Alcaeus of Mytilene (Alceo, Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010) and Jerome Rothenberg (A Poem of Miracles and A Further Witness, forthcoming in 2016) amongst others. He is the author of a remarkable first collection of poetry, Poemas de Botica (La Cuadrilla de la Langosta, Mexico City, 2014). Dylan Brennan conducted this interview with Javier via email correspondence from October-December 2015.

DB: Tell us a bit about your early life, where you grew up, what you studied, how you first discovered poetry.

JT: I was born in Mexico City and grew up there. I studied at religious schools from primary through secondary before beginning a B.A. in Classical Literature at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where I also completed my M.A.

I suppose that my first contact with poetry was similar to that of most middle class children at that time. What I mean by that is, with rare exceptions, in every house you could find certain books by certain poets such as: Neruda (his 20 poemas de amor almost always featured), León Felipe, Sor Juana, San Juan de la Cruz, Amado Nervo, García Lorca, Jaime Sabines anthologies, amongst others. But there were also plenty of anthologies of what we call poemas de declamación (recital poems): in my house we had the Álbum de Oro del Declamador (The Orator’s Golden Album), I still have it now. It’s a collection of occasional poems, ready to be opened for a mother’s birthday (or for the anniversary of her death), poems that speak of heartbreak, lost loves, poems to scorn vices, to exalt familial and Christian love etc., all tinged with a moral outlook and an unbearable sentimentality. However, in the final section of this book, I found poems like Eliot’s Hollow Men, Lermontov’s The Cross on the Rock, Pasternak’s Night, The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter by Ezra Pound, Quasimodo’s Auschwitz, to mention just a few. The one I liked best from this book was Antonio Plaza’s A una ramera (To a Harlot) because the use of language made me laugh.

The other contact with poetry came from a source less bookish (for want of a better word), I mean popular Mexican music, especially the bolero. Then later, during puberty, rock music.

Beyond what I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t very interested in reading poetry until the age of about 16 or 17. And that had quite a bit to do with the so-called Contemporáneos poets. Xavier Villaurrutia, Salvador Novo, some of Carlos Pellicer’s stuff, José Gorostiza, Jorge Cuesta (his sonnets, of course, not his Canto a un Dios Mineral, which I could only begin to comprehend—years later—via an extraordinary book by Evodio Escalante). They astounded me. After a certain amount of time, I then began to buy poetry books or to read them in the school library, whenever I’d been kicked out of physics or mathematics class. My reading is completely disordered. I’m a trained Hellenist and I haven’t even been able to follow any kind of order with the Ancient Greeks.

DB: I know you translate quite a bit. Tell us about that. Does translation affect how you write, how you read? Do the poets you translate influence you much? Which poets have influenced you? How did you come into contact with them?

JT: Nowadays I read as a translator and this has become beneficial to me. In my current state of disorder I’m reading and translating Rosmarie Waldrop, Federico María Sardelli, Claudia Rankine and John Wilmot. I read them, then I attempt to translate a certain fragment, then I read them again, etc., until the job is done. Whether the translations get published or not, this permits me to be influenced in a way by their work, to assimilate something of their poetics, and, in some way, to redesign my own, to become re-moulded. I am in no way scared of continual influences (I don’t think they ever end) nor of revealing them to others. It is obvious that translation, as reading or as a constant act, not only modifies one’s own voice, but also changes literary traditions. One day, those who study the national poetry of certain regions will pay more attention to the translated works that their poets have read as opposed to the original versions. For example, I read Eliot translated by Ángel Flores and, in my memory, The Waste Land (La Tierra Baldía) is the one that Flores translated.

As I mentioned, I’ve been greatly influenced by the Contemporáneos. My reading of the classics, which I did almost exclusively for a period of about seven or eight years, has also left its mark. Fundamentally, the ancient lyrics: Alcaeus (whose work I translated almost in its entirety in 2010) but also Sappho and Alcman; and also Archilochus and Hipponax. The latter I consider the most modern due to his use of language and humour. His pugilistic poems are raw, his sexual references, explicit. For example, there is one poem in which the “poetic voice” attempts to cure his impotence with the assistance of a Lydian witch. Frankly, it’s hilarious, vulgar and ingenious. Among the Greek Classics I should also mention that I read Euripides and Aristophanes thoroughly.

There are common names such like Pound, Eliot, Wordsworth, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Hölderlin, Yeats. Of course, they have influenced me. More specifically, I can mention poets like Blake, H.D., Charles Wright, David Meltzer, William Carlos Williams, Lee Masters, Efraín Huerta, Rubén Bonifaz Nuño (I regards his Fuego de Pobres as a gem of Mexican literature) and Nicanor Parra.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the influence of Jerome Rothenberg. This is due, in part, to the fact that, in the last year and a half I have worked a lot with him. I’ve finished translating A Further Witness and A Poem of Miracles, two of his most recent collections. It looks like they’ll be published in bilingual editions this year (2016). I’ve also translated to Spanish and to Ladino (the language of the Sephardic Jews) his poem Cokboy which is, as you may know, written in a mixture of English and made-up Yiddish. This proximity (admirably generous) has transformed my understanding of his poetry. I will remain forever grateful to him.

DB: Is there a Mexican poetic tradition? Are there various? With which, if any, do you identify? What about the Mexico City cronistas (non-fiction chroniclers like Carlos Monsiváis or, most recently, Valeria Luiselli)? I ask because your book Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems) is very much steeped in the sights, smells, sounds of a particular part of the city.

JT: Everywhere, particularly during these years of globalisation, the borders between “national” literatures have begun to dissolve: they begin to respond to different stimuli and contact with other poetic tasks become more immediate. In Mexico right now I can see a conceptual growth as well as a turn towards new technologies. On the other hand I see an emerging interest in ethnopoetry, ecopoetry and colloquial poetry. Much of this owes to the incorporation of the North American poetic tradition or English language poetry in general.

As a tradition, I would have to mention the baroque. It’s still alive and has continued to adapt (in some instances, in other instances, frankly, it has not) to the times. In its use of language, for example, can be derived part of the metaphysical or mystical poetry that is composed in Mexico.

I don’t know to what extent I can associate myself with any “tradition”. It seems to me that that should be decided by others. I can only recognize some influences that are present in this book, but I cannot talk about belonging. Sophocles says that nobody should consider a person as being “happy” until the moment of his/her death. Other work will come, I hope. Then the time will come for me to cash out. Time will take care of putting everyone in their place. What I mean is, to answer your question, there are a wide variety of poetic traditions in this country. I’m sure there are others which I’ve forgotten, or am yet to have discovered.

Of the cronistas that you mention, I haven’t read Luiselli. I’ve read very little Monsiváis and a bit more of Novo. Honestly, the Mexico City chroniclers had very little influence in Poemas de Botica. I think that a much greater debt is owed to the Lyrical Ballads, to Huerta, Parra, Salvador Novo’s Poemas Proletarios, Fuego de Pobres by Bonifaz and Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. After the collection had been published I was introduced to Chetumal Bay Anthology—a very interesting collection by Luis Miguel Aguilar (winner of the 2014 Ramón López Velarde Prize)—and noted the similarities between my book and his (the focus on just one place, the style of language etc. which in turn is fed by the work of Masters). A fortunate coincidence.

Mexico City has a great deal of problems: brutal inequalities, violence, organized crime (though they claim it’s not there), racism and discrimination, misery belts, inefficient transport, unstoppable pollution etc. On the other hand there are the personal oases, those places that transform the city into your city, though you will always need to pass through chaos to get there. A bit like Milton’s Lucifer. This dichotomy is experienced by anyone who has lived in the D.F. In my case, I couldn’t stand it any more so I left.

DB: Tell us about how you write. Where does it all come from?

JT: I don’t have any particular schedule or discipline for writing. In reality, all my writing springs from obsession. After investigating a certain theme for a while, disposing of material, etc., ideas emerge. And then begins a process that is long. As you well know, there are texts that just jump onto the page and others that take forever. Then, when I believe that a certain text is speaking, I correct it, edit it. I throw away or erase what is no longer of use, without restraint. Usually, what I leave behind is the poem’s skeleton. When I’ve found—sometimes it’s just a few verses—the idea, the tone, the form of what I want to say, I begin to re-write it. In the end, I share it with some writers that I know and trust to be objective. Then, if the text passes this test, I think it’s ready. In general, I mistrust my own opinion. With regard to form, the form is dictated by the contents of the poem.

portada

DB: Poemas de Botica is an admirably solid collection. By that I mean that it possesses a wonderful unity, all the poems revolve around your grandfather’s apothecary and it’s a collection that feels more like a place than a book to me. I mean that in a good way, it’s remarkably vibrant, alive. Where did it come from? Did you always know how it would be structured?

JT: Poemas de Botica emerged from the Guerrero neighbourhood, one of the oldest and dodgiest in the city. But, to be more precise, from the area immediately surrounding the Dr. Medina pharmacy which was the property of my grandfather for almost 65 years. The pharmacy also operated as an old-style apothecary. I had to work there for about 4 or 5 years, selling medicines and mixing remedies (not many, in reality), while I studied at university. The apothecary is still open, even today.

No, actually, it’s strange. Some of those poems (which were then called de Botica in 2003), were more or less finished. But I didn’t know what to do with them. I thought they’d never be published. You know, I didn’t have any more material. There were 4 or 5 poems and that was it. Then, I stopped working there, and I stopped writing poetry and focused on my studies. I submitted, like we all do, to that sterile prose of academia. And, while it gave me other positive things, it dried up my literary work.

I found it really very difficult to start writing again. A few years later, I’d say it was around 2012, I started to re-write those poems, now with the readings I mentioned above in my mind. The key to the collection arrived with the (Homeric) Cantos del Señor Olivares: I glimpsed the possibility of orchestrating the whole book with an array of different voices: the historical voice of the city (Olivares), the lyrical voice (the Apothecary), the testimonial voices of the characters, all mixed up: humour, violence, colloquialisms, music and refrains. In other words, everything that I learned in Guerrero. And then I quickly discovered that the book was finished. Leticia Luna, the editor, insisted that the tone was not lost.

Finally came the business of unifying the collection. All the poems revolve around an apothecary. I understood that it was about the day-to-day running of the business. Working at an apothecary, you end up having to deal with the clients, with yourself, with those who promote the merchandise, with anything that was going on in the barrio. Outside and inside. And almost everything that happened in that small world is portrayed in the book. ‘The world is an apothecary of the depraved’ (El mundo es una botica de viciosos) says the book’s epigraph. The world or purgatory in which we all find ourselves. In fact, the first poem gives the physical location, the address of the pharmacy, but this also functions as a cosmic location of the Counter-Earth, according to an astronomy book by Giorgio Abetti, I think. That’s what the botica was for me.

DB: What do you think of contemporary Mexican poetry?

JT: Honestly, and this has a lot to do with my formative period, I’ve attempted to immerse myself in contemporary Mexican poetry only recently, in the last three or four years. For example, I have discovered fantastic works such as those of Francisco Hernández (Moneda de Tres Caras, La Isla de las Breves Ausencias), Elsa Cross (Bomarzo, Bacantes, Canto Malabar), Myriam Moscona (Negro Marfil and Ansina), Coral Bracho (Si ríe el emperador), José Vicente Anaya (Híkuri), Ernesto Lumbreras (Lo que dijeron las estrellas en el ojo de un sapo), Tedi López Mills (Muerte en la Rúa Augusta and Parafrasear) Gerardo Deniz (who had already passed away but his Cuatronarices was a major discovery for me), Luis Miguel Aguilar, as I already mentioned, the Mazateco poet Juan Gregorio Regino (No es eterna la muerte), Víctor Sosa (Nagasakipanema), amongst others.

There are some writers, a bit younger than the ones I just mentioned—often younger than I am—whose work I admire. Amongst these I can mention Alejandro Tarrab, Hugo García Manríquez, Balam Rodrigo, Inti García Santamaría, Heriberto Yépez, Hernán Bravo, Yuri Herrera, Óscar David López, Sara Uribe, Paula Abramo, Marian Pipitone, Eva Castañeda, Zazil Collins. So far. I know of many other names due to the renown they have earned but I haven’t read them, and that is a source of minor embarrassment. But that work is pending. The list will certainly grow.

DB: Personally, in Mexico, I’ve noticed a fair amount of literary cliques. As if the on-going feuds like the ones documented so memorably by Bolaño in his Savage Detectives are continuing today. Do you notice any of this? Does it hold interest?

JT: Yes, I suppose that, like everywhere else, there are. Regional, local, national, transnational. In general, I have very little time for personal disputes that always seem to mutate into group disputes. I read, ignoring the affiliations or ascriptions of an author. I’m only interested in the text. I can still identify the conflicts generated by the aesthetical (and political) differences between the Stridentists (Estridentistas) and the Contemporáneos or between the Infrarrealistas (the “Visceral Realists” from Bolaño’s Savage Detectives) and group of poets headed by Octavio Paz. Or the ongoing arguments between nationalism (whether that be criollo or mestizo) of Mexican poetry against its francophilia (afrancesamiento as Cuesta called it, extending the term to mean a sort of universalist ambition).

DB: There seems to be plenty of political poetry being written and disseminated in Mexico of late. What do you think of this? Should poetry be political?

JT: Yes, it is normal to see this emergence of political poetry. We live in tragic times. Some of these poems I simply don’t like: particularly those that seek to mythologize or ritualize that which has happened in Mexico. By so doing, they seem to engender a justification (myths and rites that outline a psychic, hegemonic and social mechanism a posteriori) in order to suggest some sense of destiny. Furthermore, I think that political poetry (as always) is at risk of turning into a simple instrument of affiliation, an occasional militancy that is of more benefit to the poet than to society.

A work that stands apart from these is Antígona González by Sara Uribe. Though she recycles the figure of Antigone, she refuses to justify suffering through the notion of myth.

DB: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

JT: Well this year (2016), as I mentioned, I hope to see the Rothenberg collections published. I also hope to publish Nacencia, a long poem dedicated to my son, which focuses on the processes of translation. It’s about the impossibility of translation. It’s also a unified piece, from the eve of his birth up until an event that seemed astonishing to me, which occurred when he was about four months old. He reached out to touch the shadow of his own hand on the wall. In other words he carried out his own process of translation: in four months he had interpreted the world, his surroundings, passing through a long phase of discovery and an awakening of the senses, until he could see that hand and touch it. From that point, everything became clear, the light of the allegory of Plato’s Cave. Nacencia is a poem that has nothing to do with, with regard to subject matter or form, Poemas de Botica. Which is something that pleases me greatly.

Furthermore, I want to continue with my translations of Claudia Rankine (her multi-prizewinning Citizen) and of Rosmarie Waldrop (The Ambition of Ghosts). I’d also like to keep translating some of Federico Maria Sardelli, who is real character (Vivaldi scholar, director of Modo Antiquo, painter, poet).

—Javier Taboada & Dylan Brennan

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taboada2

From Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems)
By Javier Taboada
Selected and translated by Jack Little.

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Visión

Aquí
las rameras
……….se canonizan en nueve meses
el diente de oro
es tatuaje de honor por las migajas
y el rito de la madre
es zumbarse al niño
y llevarlo a la escuela
cubriendo el látigo del marido.

Los boticarios
son los nuevos curas
que redimen
por menos del tostón.

La borracha canta
soy la Magdalena
revolcada en mierda
……….hay viejos oraculares
……….héroes y padrotes
y hasta los boxeadores rezan
que con la Virgen basta
y la piedra sosiega.

Aquí
la camisa de fuerza
espera por la señal de la cruz.

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Juanito

Nadie sabe que soy un súper héroe.

Piensan que estoy loco
pero en las noches vuelo
……….aunque todavía
no aprendo bien
y me azoto en la banqueta.

De día
enjuago los carros
que llevan a los reyes actuales.

Mas luego oscurece
……….y no sé quién
le sube el switch
a mis rosas eléctricas.

Ahí me da por encimarme
……….los calzones
……….la capa
mis botas negras de hule
y entonces VUELO

por la quijada brillante
del burro
la tripa de cristal
que se hace rollo
y se alarga.

Eso que dicen
que es la epilepsia.

Y con mi lengua
en la banqueta
me quedo dormido
……….como una coca de vidrio
vacía de la furia del mar.

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Crac

Un joven de quince años
pidió un gotero de cristal
para bajarle a su bebé la temperatura.

…………Mejor uno de plástico
…………que el vidrio es peligroso
…………si el niño tiene dientes.

No lo quiebra  no lo rompe.
Y besó una cruz
que hizo con los dedos.

………….Fui por su jarabe
y me dejó hablando solo
con la medicina.

Nunca había visto a un tipo tan flaco.

***

La piedra
el fumado
…………en papel
…………en lata de refresco
…………o gotero de cristal
es un tizón de sesenta pesos
…………llaga que arde viva
…………entre labios y garganta.

Hay que jalarle duro
…………fumarse hasta las burbujas
…………oír el crac en la piedra
y sentir cómo pega en putiza.

***

Pasadas las diez de la noche
chupando la mugre de las uñas
…………por si algo sobra
los muchachos del crac
…………ángeles de cera sobre una flama
salen a la calle
con todas las palabras
…………………en la manguera de la lengua
el sexo de fuera y erecto.

El barrio cierra sus ventanas
…………tapia sus puertas
porque los muchachos del crac
…………aúllan
y se rascan para quitarse los piojos
…………que inundan su piel
……………….pues es mejor dejarla en carne viva
…………a que se la coman los gusanos.

Los muchachos del crac
…………ejército de cadáveres sin camisa
…………pubertas embarazadas
caminan a ninguna parte
…………juegan volados o rayuela
…………cantan  bajo la pequeña luz del encendedor
y miran de reojo
buscándose el cuchillo.

Luego caen
uno por uno
bajo los dedos del alba.

***

Al abrirse las puertas del metro
los muchachos yacen en el piso
………………como pan con hongos
……………………..arcada del ebrio
……………………..viejo al que chupó el diablo.

—Javier Taboada

§

Vision

Here
the whores
………….are canonized in nine months
the gold tooth
a tattoo to honour crumbs
and the rite of the mother
is to hit her child
and to take him to school
to cover up her husband’s lash.

The apothecaries
are the new curates
redeeming
for less than fifty cents.

The drunk lass sings
I am Mary Magdalene
wallowing in shit
…………here old oracles
…………heroes and pimps

and even the boxers pray
that the Virgin alone will suffice
and the crack rock soothes.

Here
the straitjacket
waits for the sign of the cross.

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Juanito

Nobody knows that I am super hero.

They think I’m crazy
but at night I fly
……………even though still
I don’t learn all that well
and crash into the sidewalk.

By day
I wash the cars
that carry today’s kings.

After dark
………….I don’t know who
flicks the switch
on my electric roses.

I turn myself out in
……………underpants
……………the cape
my black rubber boots
and then I FLY
by the brilliant jawbone
of the donkey
the glassy guts
that roll
and lengthen.

That they say
……………is epilepsy.

And with my tongue
on the sidewalk
I sleep
……………like a glass bottle of coke
empty of the fury of the sea.

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Crack

A fifteen year old guy
asked for a glass dropper
to bring his baby’s temperature down.

……….Better a plastic one
……….glass is dangerous
……….if the kid already has teeth.

He won’t crack it won’t break it
and he kissed a crucifix
made with his fingers.

……….I went for the syrup
and he left me talking alone
with the medicine.

I had never seen such a skinny fella.

***

The stone
devilsmoke
……….on paper
……….in a can of pop
……….or a glass dropper
it’s a three buck ember
……….a sore that burns alive
……….between the lips and throat.

You have to pull hard
……….toke until it bubbles
……….hear the crack in the rock
and feel it like the smack in a brawl.

***

Past ten at night
sucking the muck on their nails
……….just in case there’s something left
the crack boys
……….wax angels over the flame
go out into the street
with all the words
…………..on the tube of their tongue
sex outside and erect.

The neighborhood closes its doors
……….shuts its windows
because the crack boys
……….howl
and scratch to get rid of the nits
……….that fill their skin
……………for it’s better to leave it raw
……….than let it be eaten by worms.

The crack boys
……….army of shirtless corpses
……….pregnant adolescents
walk nowhere
……….play coin toss or hopscotch
……….sing under the dim glow of a lighter
and gaze askance
looking for a knife.

Then they fall
one by one
under the fingers of dawn.

***

As the metro doors are opened
the boys are lying on the floor
………………..like moldy bread
…………………….drunk’s retch
…………………….an old man made rotten by the five-second rule.

—Javier Taboada translated by Jack Little

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Javier Taboada (Distrito Federal, 1982) traductor y poeta. Ha traducido a Alceo de Mitilene (Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010) y a Jerome Rothenberg (A Poem of Miracles y A Further Witness, de próxima aparición), entre otros. Es autor de Poemas de Botica (2014).

Jack Little Photo

Jack Little (b. 1987) is a British-Mexican poet, editor and translator based in Mexico City. He is the author of ‘Elsewhere’ (Eyewear, 2015) and the founding editor of The Ofi Press: www.ofipress.com

Dylan Brennan

Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

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Dec 112015
 

lescarbot2

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This poem in Alexandrine verses was written by a Parisian lawyer, Marc Lescarbot, who had joined the early French settlement at Port-Royal, near present-day Annapolis Royal on the Annapolis Basin of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. After a year of active engagement in its development he was obliged to leave again in July 1607, at which time he composed this extraordinary description of the country’s resources as an inducement for continued investment in the venture he so ardently supported. The reason for his departure and the abandonment of Port-Royal was the financial difficulty of Pierre du Gua, Sieur De Monts, and his associates, whose monopoly on the fur trade had been abruptly canceled by the King of France, Henry IV. The poem appears in a collection of similar occasional verse entitled Les Muses de la Nouvelle-France that was added to Lescarbot’s Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, written after his return to France. The writing of the poem was started just before departing the Port-Royal and continued at sea. It is, in effect, the first extensive poetic description of Canada. Whilst there are translations of the Histoire, I have yet to discover an English translation of this poem. The text of this translation is based on the third edition of the Histoire de la Nouvelle-France of 1617, published electronically in 2007 by the Gutenberg Project at www.gutenberg and produced by Rénald Lévesque.

champlain detail3Detail from Champlain map, Nova Scotia, Bay of Fundy, etc.

Why did Lescarbot decide to go overseas in the first place? The reason he gives for wanting to go to New-France is a set-back he suffered as a lawyer in court due to a corrupt judge. He was, therefore, personally predisposed to find a better, uncorrupted world.

The start of the poem (1-12) is highly rhetorical and polemical, with an expression of Lescarbot’s personal regret at having to leave this beautiful place (1, cf. 25, 33, 47, 59) and three indignant rhetorical questions intended to shame his compatriots for their lack of constancy in abandoning the new settlement and the investment and efforts already expended, as well as chiding them for their dishonorable failure in establishing a new province of France (2-12), combining personal, aesthetic, moral, economic, patriotic and imperial motives. The polemical element is raised to the highest level later on, when Lescarbot reminds the King of his duty as a Christian monarch to spread the faith (167-176); he even questions the Lord God directly as to why he left the Native peoples out of his divine plan (293-304). These are themes of the highest order in literature, the duty of Kings and the ways of God to man, typically treated in epic and drama, but here combined with the profit motive. Significantly, the religious mission of the King is linked directly to the bounty of the land specifically created by God, he maintains, to motivate the King and to attract the French to the exploitation of its resources (177-180), thus connecting commerce with the spread of the Christian faith. Moreover, Lescarbot expresses regret that his intended audience, i.e. the French generally but specifically present and potential investors, do not know the attractions of the country (13-16). The actual phrase used in line 14, the “attractive lures”, serves to whet the appetite by introducing the lure of profit to be gained from the exploitation of its resources. Admittedly, these investors had just suffered a great loss due to a Fleming (Flamen = Flamand, 15), who had acquired furs along the St. Lawrence ahead of the French and robbed theirs as well, along with their canon. Lescarbot suggests that the investors will make good on their losses with compound interest (usure, 16). These are the addressees referred as vous in lines 9, 10 and 13, whereas nous in lines 3, 5, and 7 refer to the French collectively, with all of them being accused of a lack of steadfastness (3).

After this highly charged opening aimed at the main addressees of the poem, and following a prayer for safe passage back to France that emphasises the danger of the journey and the physical as well as spiritual distance of the “new peoples”(19-24), Lescarbot launches into a description detailing all the attractive and productive features of Port-Royal and its topography: a secure harbour, protected on both sides by hills and mountains (25-26), alluvial flats along the shoreline providing grazing for the plentiful game (27-30), and springs and streams making for well-watered valleys (31-32), with plenty of rain mentioned later(351-354). The emphasis on the presence of water is significant, suggesting a frame of reference based on the Mediterranean, with a climate perennially short of sufficient moisture in summer. Significant also is the mention of an unnamed island hyperbolically said to be worthy of the greatest king on earth (54-55) and whose commanding role is foreseen through an epic simile (37-41) in that its elevated headland dominates the surrounding plain, again a Mediterranean and, more generally, European ideal for the location of a fortified city or citadel. This city is ready to be built from the rocks supplied by the sea shore (43-44). Lescarbot introduces here (53-56) and throughout a prospective element of development and a potential for growth seen in terms of urbanization and permanent occupation by married settlers (57-58), the physical, economic and social cornerstones of European society.

Next, he invokes the fertility of the place, based on his own experience in developing gardens and working the fields at Port-Royal (61-62). Working the soil seems to have endeared the country to him as well as giving him a sense of –collective- ownership. It is also rather unique for an early visitor-explorer to have actually mixed his sweat with the soil in this way to test its fertility. At the same time, there is an idyllic element in the description (47-52) of a lovely little stream amidst the young greenery of a little valley in the hollow of the island’s bosom to which he “has lent his side” many times because of its beauty. This is a gratuitous detail that escapes the preoccupation with turning nature into culture: it introduces, not just the literary commonplace of the locus amoenus, or plaisance, ultimately based on the description of the Vale of Tempe in ancient Greece, but also a personal and, in fact, sensuous experience. Lescarbot’s originality in this has been noted by the critics. Paolo Carile has pointed out that, whereas in Champlain, beauty of nature is identified with utility, in Lescarbot the natural environment is estheticised from personal experience. He notes other literary innovations as well. The Farewell poem was a known genre restricted to a sentimental good-bye to a woman loved: in Lescarbot’s version, the object of desire changes to a colony in North America, here personified by the lovely island. Similarly, regret at leaving a place is a known literary theme, usually combined with praise of its various features; Lescarbot extends this to the resources of the country and the profit to be gained from them. The new context, colonialism and mercantile capitalism, occasioned a novel and hybrid genre along with a new purpose. In terms of point of view, we may add here the novelty of a poetic eyewitness account based on first-hand experience, rather than an imaginary description of the New World with many fantastic features as we have them in earlier literature. The systematic observation of flora, fauna, and the four seasons, adds a scientific element.

After mentioning the products of nature that grow spontaneously (65-66) he starts his elaborate praise (los= laus in Latin, 63) of the natural resources with a catalogue of the countless types of fish providing nourishment in Spring (73-106), including well-known varieties such as herring (77-79), so plentiful, it alone could make a people rich (78) and, of course, cod, so abundant that it is said to provide sustenance for almost the entire universe (101-108). In all, 27 types are mentioned but there are a thousand more unknown varieties (99). Lescarbot’s catalogues have been linked by past commentators with the Natural History of Pliny the Elder and, more generally, with the encyclopedic tradition of Antiquity, Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with the enumeration of curiosities found in travel narratives, and with the scientific poets of the 16th Century. The catalogues can also be linked to Adam’s naming of God’s creatures (Gen. 2.19) as a form of appropriation, of taking possession of the earth and having dominion “over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air”(Gen. 1. 26, 28). I would like to suggest yet another connection. We are now solidly in the territory of hyperbole and idealisation, recurring stylistic features that elevate this potentially pedestrian description of resources into the realm of the epic paragon or nul-pareil, ultimately serving the promotional purpose of the poem. The association with the epic is suggested as well by Lescarbot’s use of Alexandrine verse which is typically associated with elevated diction and grand and dramatic themes. The poet chose the same verse form for his heroicising account of the raid of the Micmac chief Membertou against the Armouchiquois across the Bay of Fundy also found in Les Muses de la Nouvelle-France.

All the desirable natural wealth enumerated here will make the future settler of this other (promised) land more blessed with a miraculous food supply than the manna of the Hebrews in the desert or the nectar of the blessed spirits of Greek myth (106-12). Throughout, Lescarbot easily mixes mythologies, pagan with Christian, as in lines 167-172 where he invokes the eagles of Jupiter to bring the decree of the King of Kings to the French Monarch, commanding him to spread the Christian faith. God’s omnipotence is demonstrated by the presence of the biggest sea creature of all, the whale (113-119) that comes into the bay daily. Winter provides shellfish, giving nourishment even to the poor and the improvident (125-128), as well as an opportunity for hunting large game and fur-bearing animals, especially the beaver, whose dens Lescarbot finds a thousand times more admirable in their construction than European palaces (135-140). It is remarkable, though, that Lescarbot does not make more of the fur trade at this point. It was the most profitable enterprise, but also the most contentious and problematic because of the competition from the English and the Dutch as well as the opposition from other French merchants to the monopoly of De Monts and his associates. In the final analysis, Lescarbot personally preferred agriculture over trade. This is followed by a catalogue of 37 birds (184-232), including a description of the previously unknown humming bird, seen as another example of God’s omnipotence in creating the smallest bird of all (205-232).

It is not only in his creatures that Lescarbot sees the hand of God. The very bounty of nature and its pleasures have been created by God to attract the French to this land where their labours will be rewarded in proportion to their desires (177-180), in order to propagate the faith which, moreover, is the God-given duty of the French King (173-176). Colonisation is ultimately justified by the religious imperative. Lescarbot himself gave religious instruction on Sundays to le petit peuple, the French workers and artisans of the colony; the leader of the colony, Poutrincourt, likewise instructed the Micmac (305-310). Autumn brings the harvest of the fields and gardens, in particular corn (blé d’Inde) that grows to prodigious heights (251-256), a harvest Lescarbot regrets not seeing because of his premature departure (257-266). Surprisingly, the climate is said to be not as cold as that of NW Europe (269-274), mainly because Lescarbot happened to experience only one mild winter (no snow until December 31, 1606 which promptly melted, and continuous snow cover only in February) and because of the varied impact of the Little Ice Age which saw the river Thames frozen over during the winter of 1607. Incidentally, there is a detailed and delightful recent description of the seasons on Annapolis Basin by Harold Horwood, a Newfoundlander who took up residence there and who mentions surprisingly mild winters, entitled Dancing on the Shore.

After this elaborate praise of the natural resources and the proven potential for agriculture, Lescarbot turns to the native inhabitants, the Micmac, whom he presents as in many respects superior to the French morally (329-340), while asserting their common humanity (297-298). He also makes an argument based on cultural relativism comparing the culture of the native population with that of nations of antiquity elaborated in Bk. 6 of his Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, entitled “Description des Moeurs Souriquoises Comparées A Celles d’Autres Peuples” (M.-C Pioffet, Marc Lescarbot: Voyages 2007, pp. 241-471) and comparing Micmac hospitality with that of the ancestors of the French themselves, the Gaulois. (321-322, 339-340). This comparative approach and the implicit transfer of the prestige of antiquity culminate in the work of the Jesuit Lafitau comparing the Iroquois with the early Greeks, Romans and Hebrews. Lescarbot’s cultural relativism even extends to language when he chooses to retain a Micmac word rather than imposing a “foreign” French name on a creature unknown to him (223-224). And he actually makes the now familiar ethnological distinction between hunter-gatherers and (semi-)sedentary cultivators of the earth, while privileging the latter way of life, as all Europeans did (285-290). The only respect in which their condition is deplorable is the fact that they lack the faith which –he maintains- they are eager to receive (291-314, cf. 166; by contrast, the first Jesuit missionary, Pierre Biard, relates a few years later that the Micmac listened to him politely but did not change their views one iota. The native people he has come into contact with (321-328), in particular the Micmac, are “subtle,” skillful or intelligent, possess good judgement, and are not lacking in understanding (321-324). They only require a “father” to teach them to cultivate the earth and the vine, and to live civilly in permanent habitations(321-328; cf. 287-290), thus combining paternalism with agriculture, viticulture and urbanism, the basis of Mediterranean culture. The main vice that he attributes to them is the desire for vengeance (341-342), a vice actually shared by the poet himself (390-393), and he criticises them for being improvident when it comes to securing an adequate food supply (125-131; 327). Clearly, the hunter-gathers’ apparent pattern of feast or famine appears to him as a moral failing: Lafontaine’s fable of the ant and the cricket comes to mind here. Overall Lescarbot’s presentation reflects, on the one hand, Montaigne’s notion of the bon sauvage unspoilt by civilisation, and, on the other, the largely positive first encounter between the French and the Micmac. It also serves the promotional discourse by stressing the duty of the French king and higher clergy to introduce the faith to these model catechumens. In fact, Lescarbot sees conversion not as a side benefit of colonisation; rather, the prospective harvest of souls is the ultimate goal (162-166), supported by the mercantile venture and the country’s resources. His religious and utopian motives, focused on an agricultural community of French settlers flanked by Native agriculturalists (287-290), become increasingly evident through sheer repetition as the poem progresses ( 59-64; 181-183; 251-264; 287-290; 321-329; 396-411), culminating at its conclusion in lines 423-426.

Significantly, mineral resources are only introduced briefly toward the end of the poem (385-388).   Clearly none of these had been developed (Lescarbot speaks of nurseries or breeding grounds of mines, 385) and the poet only gives a sketchy account of them, mentioning bronze (actually an alloy as he probably meant copper), iron, steel (a man-made product) and silver as well as coal. In an earlier farewell poem, he still expresses the hope that silver and gold will be discovered (Adieu aux François, August 25, 1606), the two most desirable get-rich- quick minerals universally sought after by European rulers and their explorers in the Americas. In the original charter issued by Henry IV in 1603, De Monts was specifically charged to bring home any gold and silver. Clearly, Lescarbot has given up on this prospect, hence the emphasis on agricultural produce and the potential for settlement of French colonists. As if to compensate, he does add, at the very end (412-422), almost as an afterthought, a luxury product, the high quality “silk” worthy of kings and produced by local hemp which could lead to a textile industry manned by Native(?) workers who have chosen to become sedentary.

On balance we can assume that French investors would not have been impressed by this prospectus that mainly emphasises agriculture and settlement. The cod fishery was already established in Newfoundland waters, a location much closer to Europe, and De Monts’ monopoly on the fur trade had been cancelled by the King, although a final one-year extension was granted after the colonists’ return. Lescarbot must have sensed the weakness of his case as he finished his poem by extolling, in compensation, the moral superiority of agriculture as a pure, untroubled way of life far from poverty, the madding crowd of his French homeland, and its deceit (423-426), possibly reflecting his own motives for leaving France in the first place and recalling the idealisation of the simple farmer by the Roman poet Virgil. And the “victory” attributed by Lescarbot to De Monts (363-384) is therefore only a moral victory to compensate for the failure of the enterprise as well as its disastrous first winter on the Ile de Sainte-Croix off the coast of New Brunswick, saluted by Lescarbot in passing on his return journey (363-384).

The Church did not rush in either to fund missionaries. The first Jesuit missionary, Pierre Biard, had to wait for years before he could sail for Port-Royal in 1611, not until a private sponsor was found in the Marquise de Guercheville, who raised funds through a subscription and had to buy into the commercial enterprise in order to secure passage for Biard and his companion, Énemond Massé. She actually had to buy out the two Huguenot merchants from Dieppe who were unwilling to take the two Jesuits on board; similarly Maria de Medici, the widow of the late King Henry, assisted financially in bringing about this first Jesuit mission to Canada. However, financial support was to remain problematic. The actual practice of supporting the missionary activity through profits from the fur trade made the Jesuit missionaries into competitors and led to conflict, in France and in Port-Royal. The whole concept of directly supporting religion through commerce was misguided.

In essence, Lescarbot’s account idealizes Port-Royal, but occasionally, less attractive aspects of the colony do make an appearance: its distance from France (21-22, 381), loneliness (162), the absence of female company (57), the need to improve the agricultural land (249-250), and the dangers of the North Atlantic (6, 21, 358, 380), in particular fog (349-350). Yet, despite these drawbacks, the poem testifies frequently to his profound personal disappointment at its abandonment (1-2, 160-161, 164, 170, 257-264, 344) arising from his own involvement and labour (61-62). The poet is a convert to his own cause. As such, the poem represents a final, almost desperate attempt to “sell” Port-Royal to his fellow Frenchmen by appealing at one and the same time to their financial, patriotic, imperial, as well their esthetic, moral and religious instincts, enhanced by the affective quality of his poetry and carried by the poetic licence of hyperbole in a variety of voices: from lament to praise, and from prayer to adhortation. The purpose is rhetorical, to persuade others of the lawyer’s cause. In terms of genre, we can add polemic, commercial prospectus, natural history and ethnography to the epic and idyllic elements already mentioned. Pioffet and Lachance speak of a “hymn to diversity and abundance” (cf. 106-108, 110-113, 158-159). The modification of the poetic genre of the Adieu from animate to inanimate addressee entails the figure of personification in the direct address of the island (55-57, 61, 109, 111, 158) and of the Earth itself (403-411), suggesting the pronounced symbolic value of the “New World”.

Lescarbot never returned to Canada but his little-known poem marks a unique text in comparison with other French explorers to Canada who all wrote in prose and hence, by definition, are far more prosaic in their ideas and expression, all the more so since they regarded the land purely in terms of its utility, as Carile has pointed out. At the same time, Lescarbot’s text throws into high relief a period of early European colonisation when the motives of imperialism, early mercantile capitalism, religion, and utopian idealism were joined uneasily. What is not unique is the fact that ownership of the land and its resources is not brought up in the poem. Lescarbot does address contemporary criticism of the appropriation of Native land at the end of the chapter “À la France” in the Introduction to the third edition of his Histoire de la Nouvelle-France where he provides the following theological justification: God has created the earth for man to possess; the Natives have not fulfilled this mission; Christians are the privileged children of God and hence, presumably, entitled to take possession. In other words, Native land use is seen as an underutilisation of its resources, creating a God-given opportunity for European colonists. Land and sea are presented as virtually crying out to be exploited. The underlying pattern is one of undervaluing Native culture and overvaluing one’s own claim, along with the local resources, which, even where modest, are presented as fabulous and there for the taking. One is reminded how persistent these attitudes are and how recent the realisation of their consequences.

—Haijo Westra

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NOTES ON THE TRANSLATION

Only a verse translation would do justice to the rapturous tone and persuasive impact of the French original. The prose translation presented here inevitably falls short in these respects but makes available a unique text that offers some surprises in terms of its own conceptions of language, translation, and authenticity. Specifically, Lescarbot makes a point of maintaining the Micmac words of creatures he is unfamiliar with: Poulamou (= tomcod, line 89); Nibachés (raccoon, 155); and Niridau (=hummingbird, l. 223). In the last case he even considers the imposition of a French name to be inauthentic and he is able to conceive of his own language as foreign in this context (223-4). It should be kept in mind that the French names Lescarbot gives to native plants, birds and fishes derive from the other side of the Atlantic and are not necessarily accurate. For example, the laurier (laurel) of line 67 is not native to North America. The Joubar of line 95 is not a fish but the fin(back) whale, according to Ganong. See also Saunders, Speck, and Wallis in Deal’s bibliography for nomenclature. The Rivière de l’Équille (Sand Eel River, 91-92) already had its name changed to Rivière du Dauphin by Champlain; today, it is called Annapolis River. For a running commentary on all matters of translation, see the footnotes to the edition by Pioffet and Lachance.

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SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carile, Paolo.   Le Regard entravé. Littérature et anthropologie dans les premiers textes sur la Nouvelle-France. Septentrion, Sillery (Québec) 2000, pp. 68-82.

Deal, Michael. “ Paleoethnobotanical Research in the Maritime Provinces.” North Atlantic Archaeology 1 (2008) 1-23.

Ganong, W.F.   “The Identity of the Animals and Plants mentioned by the early Voyagers to Eastern Canada and Newfoundland.” Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Series 3, vol. 4, section 2 (1909) 197-242.

Lachance, Isabelle.   La Rhétorique des origines dans l’Histoire de la Nouvelle-France de Marc Lescarbot. Thèse de Ph.D. Université de McGill 2004.

Pioffet, Marie-Christine and Isabelle Lachance.   Marc Lescarbot. Poésies et opuscules sur la Nouvelle-France. Editions Nota Bene 2014, pp. 27-37, 99-120.

Pioffet, Marie-Christine.   Marc Lescarbot. Voyages en Acadie (1604-1607) suivis de La Description des moeurs souriquoises compares à celles d’autres peuples. Presses de l’Université Laval, 2007.

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champlain detail4Detail from Champlain map

MARC LESCARBOT, A-DIEU A LA NOUVELLE-FRANCE du 30 Juillet 1607/ Farewell to New France, July 30, 1607: English translation

  1. Must we abandon <all> the beauties of this place
  2. And bid Port-Royal an eternal farewell?
  3. Shall we then forever be accused of inconstancy
  4. In the founding of [a] New France?
  5. What use is it to us to have borne so many labours
  6. To have battled the assault of the vexed waves
  7. If our hope is in vain, and if this province
  8. Does not bend under the laws of Henry, our Prince?
  9. What use is it to you to have
  10. Incurred useless costs, if you take no care
  11. To harvest the fruit of a long-term expenditure
  12. And the immortal honour of your patience?
  13. Ah! How I regret that you do not know
  14. The attractive lures of this land
  15. And even though the Fleming has caused you damage,
  16. Loss is often made good with compound interest.
  17. So that is why we must leave and get ready <to sail>
  18. And go to drop anchor in the harbour of Saint-Malo.

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  1. FATHER OF THE UNIVERSE, who commands the waves,
  2. And who can cause the deepest sea to dry up
  3. Grant us to cross the watery abyss
  4. By which you have separated all these new<found> peoples
  5. From those who are baptized, and without shipwreck
  6. To soon see the shore of France’s Kingdom.

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  1. Farewell, thus, beautiful coasts and mountains as well
  2. Which, with a double rampart, gird this harbor here.
  3. Farewell grassy glens which Neptune’s flood
  4. Bathes generously, twice with every moon,
  5. And to the <wild> game as well, which in order to find pasture
  6. Comes hither from all sides, there is so much vegetation.
  7. Farewell my sweet pleasure, springs and brooks
  8. Which water the valleys and the mountains with your moisture.
  9. How can I forget you, beautiful forested isle
  10. Rich ornament of this place and its basin?
  11. I prize all the sweet beauties of your sister
  12. Yet I prize even more your outstanding features.
  13. For, just as it is fitting for him who holds command
  14. To display a majesty more august and grand
  15. Than his subordinate; just so, to command
  16. You have an elevated headland which allows you oversight.
  17. Around you is an undulating plain,
  18. And the land in the vicinity <is> subject to your dominion.
  19. Your shores consist of rocks <suitable> for your buildings
  20. Or for laying the foundations of a city.
  21. In other places there is a little beach,
  22. Where a thousand times a day my spirit abides.
  23. But amidst <all> your beauties I admire a little stream
  24. Which presses gently the fresh herbage
  25. Of a little valley that descends in the hollow of your breast
  26. Plunging its course into the waves of the sea:
  27. Little stream that has tempted me a hundred times with its waters,
  28. Its charm forcing me to lie down beside it.
  29. Having all that, Island high and deep,
  30. Island worthy dwelling place of the greatest King on earth,
  31. Having all that, I say, what more can be lacking
  32. To create over there the city we need
  33. Except for every man to have his sweetheart by his side
  34. In the manner which God and the Church command?
  35. For your soil is good and fertile and pleasing
  36. And never its cultivator will be displeased with it.
  37. We <ourselves> are in a position to speak of it who, of many seeds
  38. Sown there have had first-hand experience.
  39. What else can I say worthy of the praise of your beauty?
  40. What shall I add here than that inside your domain
  41. One finds in great measure products of Nature:
  42. Raspberries, strawberries, peas, without any cultivation?
  43. Or shall I mention as well your verdant laurel bushes
  44. Your unknown medicinal herbs, your red currant bushes?
  45. No, but without leaving your bounds,
  46. I will touch upon the numerous armies
  47. Of the scaly creatures that come every day
  48. Following the tidal flow to bid you good day.

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  1. As soon as the season of Spring returns
  2. The Smelt comes in abundance, bringing news
  3. That Phoebus, risen above your horizon
  4. Has chased far from you the wintry season.
  5. The Herring follows after with such multitude
  6. That it alone can make a people rich.
  7. My <own> eyes have witnessed this, and yours as well
  8. Who have had the care of our nourishment
  9. When, occupied elsewhere, your diligent hands
  10. Were unable to cope with the pleasing catch
  11. That the sluice of a mill sent into your nets.
  12. The Bass follows in the wake of the Herring
  13. And at the same time the little Sardine,
  14. The Crab, <and> the Lobster follow the sea shore
  15. With a similar result; the Dolphin, <and> the Sturgeon
  16. Arrive among the multitude together with the Salmon
  17. As do the Turbot, the Tomcod, <and> the Eel,
  18. The Shad, the Halibut, the Loach, and the Sand Eel:
  19. You, Sand Eel, although little, have impressed your name
  20. On that river whose renown I sing.
  21. But that is not all, for you have more
  22. Multitudes that pay you homage every day,
  23. The Pollock, the Finback Whale and the Squid and the Angler Fish,
  24. The Porpoise, The Blower Dolphin, the Sea Urchin, the Mackerel,
  25. You have the Grey Seal which, in a large pod
  26. Wallow in the light of day on your muddy bottom,
  27. You have the Dogfish, the Plaice , and a thousand other fish
  28. Which I do not know, nurselings of your waters.

 .

  1. Shall I not mention the happily fecund Cod
  2. Which abound throughout that sea everywhere.
  3. Cod, <even> if you are not one of those delicate dishes
  4. With which gourmets spice their plates,
  5. I will say nevertheless that by you is sustained
  6. Almost the entire universe. O, how content will be
  7. That person one day who will have at his doorstep
  8. That which a distant world will come to seek from it!
  9. Beautiful Isle, You therefore have that manna aplenty
  10. Which I love more than Taprobane’s
  11. Beauties that they deem worthy of the blessed ones
  12. Who go about drinking the fragrant nectar of the Gods.
  13. And to demonstrate one more time your supreme power
  14. Whales honour you daily, and come of their own accord
  15. To salute you every day, until the ebb leads them
  16. Into the wide Ocean where they have their pleasure.
  17. Of this I will render faithful testimony,
  18. Having seen them many times visit this shore
  19. And consort at their leisure inside this harbor.

.

  1. But all these animals, all these creatures <from> here
  2. Depart when Phebus is about to approach the boundary
  3. Of the celestial mansion, where dwells Capricorn,
  4. And go in search of the shelter of Thetys’s depth
  5. Or often seek out a milder region for their pasture.
  6. In this harsh season there only remain close to you
  7. Clams, Cockles, and Mussels
  8. To sustain the one who will not, in a timely fashion,
  9. (Either poor, or lazy) have done any harvesting,
  10. Such as the people here who take no care to hunt
  11. Until hunger constrains and pursues them,
  12. And the weather is not always favorable for the hunter
  13. Who actually does not wish for the mildness of good weather
  14. But strong ice, or deep snow
  15. When the Sauvage wants to catch from the watery depths
  16. The industrious Beaver (that builds its home
  17. On the lakeshore, where it fashions its lair
  18. Vaulted in a way incredible to man,
  19. And a thousand times more admirable than our palaces
  20. Leaving it only one exit towards the lake
  21. To cheer itself down in the watery element)
  22. Or when he wants to spy in the woods the lair
  23. Either of the Royal Moose or the fleet-footed Deer,
  24. Of the Rabbit, Fox, Caribou, Bear,
  25. Of the Squirrel, the Otter with its silken fur,
  26. Of the Porcupine, <and> the so-called wild Cat
  27. (Which rather has the body of a leopard)
  28. Of the Mink with its soft fur in which Kings clothe themselves
  29. Or the musk Rat, all dwellers of these woods,
  30. Or of that animal which, loaded with fat,
  31. Has the cunning skill to climb on high
  32. Building its lodge on an elevated branch
  33. To discourage the one who goes in pursuit of it
  34. And lives, by that ruse, in the greatest security
  35. Not fearing (as it seems) any violence:
  36. Nibachés <raccoon> is its name. Not that in spring
  37. He does not have occasion for that hunt
  38. But the catch from fishing is more reliable then.

.

  1. Farewell, therefore, I say unto you, Isle of abundant beauty,
  2. And you birds, too, of water and forest
  3. That will be the witnesses of my sad regrets.
  4. For it is with great regret, and I cannot pass over it in silence,
  5. That I leave this place, although rather solitary.
  6. For it is with great regret that now I see
  7. Shaken the subject of introducing our Faith here
  8. And the Name of our Great God hidden in silence,
  9. Who had touched the conscience of this people.
  10. Eagles that inhabit the tops of high pines
  11. Since Jupiter has entrusted his secrets to you,
  12. Go up to the heavens to announce this matter
  13. And how much suffering I have of this inside my soul,
  14. Then return swiftly to the French Monarch of France
  15. To relate to him the decree of the mighty King of Kings.
  16. For to him is given this inheritance from heaven
  17. In order that in his name hereafter <and> forever
  18. The Everlasting One be worshipped in a holy manner
  19. And that his great name be revered by a hundred nations.
  20. And to motivate him more to do this thing
  21. <God> has wanted to attract him by a hundred kinds of profit
  22. Having made our labours commensurate with our desires
  23. And having completed them with ten thousand pleasures.
  24. For the earth here is not as a fool would guess,
  25. <As> she produces copiously for him who has experience
  26. Of the pleasures of gardening and the labour of the fields.

.

  1. And if you want the sweet song of birds as well,
  2. <This land> has the Nightingale, the Blackbird, the Linnet,
  3. And many another not known that sings pleasantly
  4. In Spring. If you want fowl
  5. That go and feed on the water’s edge
  6. <This land> has the Cormorant, the Mallow, the Seagull,
  7. The Canada Goose, the Heron, the Crane, the Lark,
  8. And the Goose , and the Duck. Six types of Duck,
  9. Whose many colours make as many lures
  10. That rivet my eyes. Do you want also
  11. Those birds of prey with which the Nobleman distinguishes himself?
  12. <This land> has the Eagle, the Owl, the Falcon, the Vulture,
  13. The Saker Falcon, the Sparrow Hawk, the Merlin, the Goshawk,
  14. And, in short, all the birds of noble hawking
  15. And beyond these yet another infinite multitude
  16. Which we do not have in common. But <this land> has the Curlew
  17. The Egret, the Cuckoo, the Woodcock, and the Redwing,
  18. The Dove, the Jay, the Owl, the Swallow,
  19. The Woodpigeon, the Green Finch, with the Turtledove,
  20. The Hoopoe, the lascivious Sparrow,
  21. The multi-coloured Ptarmigan, and also the Crow.
  22. What more shall I say? Will someone <at least> be able to believe
  23. That God himself has wanted to manifest his glory
  24. By creating a little bird similar to a butterfly
  25. (That does not exceed the size of a cricket)
  26. Displaying on its back a green-golden plumage
  27. And a red and white colour on the rest of its chest.
  28. Amazing little bird, why then, <as if> envious,
  29. Have you made yourself invisible to my eyes a hundred times,
  30. While passing lightly by my ear
  31. You only left the marvel of a soft sound?
  32. I would not have been cruel to your rare beauty
  33. <Un>like others who have treated you fatally
  34. If you had deemed me worthy to come and portray you.
  35. But although you did not want to hear my wish
  36. I will not give up celebrating your name nevertheless
  37. And make that you be of great renown among us.
  38. For I admire you as much in your smallness
  39. As I do the elephant in its vast size.
  40. Niridau is your name which I do not wish to change
  41. In order to impose one that would be foreign:
  42. Niridau, delicate little bird by nature,
  43. That takes the sweet nourishment of bees
  44. Syphoning the fragrant flowers of our gardens,
  45. And the rarest sweets from the forest edge.

.

  1. To these dwellers of the sky may I add, without offending,
  2. The excellence of a tiny winged folk?
  3. These are fireflies, which at nightfall
  4. Shine with brilliant clarity among the trees
  5. Darting here and there in such great throngs
  6. That the luminous band of starry sky
  7. Itself seems to hold no greater wonder.
  8. Therefore, commemorating here
  9. <All> the beauties of this place, it is indeed reasonable
  10. That you be included and hold a fitting place among them.

.

  1. But since our sails are already set
  2. And <we> are going to see again those who believe us perished
  3. I say Farewell once more to your beautiful gardens
  4. That have nourished us with your medicinal herbs,
  5. Nay also relieved our need
  6. <And> more than the art of Paean have kept us healthy.
  7. You have certainly given back to us in abundance
  8. The fruit of our labours in accordance with our sowing.
  9. So what does it matter if it ever happens
  10. (And which it necessarily will do in the future)
  11. That the soil here needs to be made more appealing
  12. And improved sometimes by human labour?
  13. Who will believe that the rye, and the hemp, and the peas
  14. Have surpassed twice the height of a young man?
  15. Who will believe that the so-called Indian corn
  16. Rises up so high in this season
  17. That it seems to be carried by insufferable pride
  18. To make itself, haughty, resemble a woodland?
  19. Ah! What great sadness it is for me not to be able to wait for
  20. The fruit that in little time you promise to render!
  21. How disturbing it is for me not to see the season
  22. When the squash and the melon will ripen
  23. And the cucumber as well: And <I> also grieve
  24. At not seeing at all come to fruition my wheat, my oats,
  25. And my barley and my millet, since the Sovereign
  26. Has blessed me in this modest effort with his hand.
  27. And yet, here it is the thirtieth day of the
  28. Month that once used to be the fifth in rank.

.

  1. Nations of all parts far away from here
  2. Do not marvel at this
  3. And do not at all consider us as being in a cold region,
  4. <As> this is not at all <like> Flanders, Scotland, nor Sweden,
  5. The sea here does not freeze over, and the cold seasons
  6. Have never forced me to save the half-burnt firewood.
  7. And if in your country summer arrives earlier than here
  8. You experience winter’s inclemency earlier.
  9. But you are staying yet, Poutrincourt, waiting
  10. Until your harvest is ready: And we, nevertheless,
  11. We set sail for Canso where the ship awaits you
  12. Which from there is due to convey all of us to France.
  13. For now, beautiful ears of grain, ripen quickly,
  14. May God the Almighty give you growth
  15. In order that one day his glory may resound
  16. When we shall commemorate his blessings
  17. Among which we will count as well
  18. The care which he will have taken to gather into his mercy
  19. These vagabond peoples one calls Sauvages,
  20. Dwellers of these forests and marine shores,
  21. And a hundred peoples more who are located on all sides
  22. To the south, West and North settled in one place
  23. Who love to work and who cultivate the soil
  24. And who, in freedom, live more contentedly from their produce than we
  25. But their condition is deplorable in this respect
  26. That they have not been instructed about the world to come.

.

  1. Why, o Almighty one, why then have you
  2. Rejected this race from your face until now
  3. And why do you leave to hell to devour,
  4. So many human beings who ought to triumph over it,
  5. Seeing that they are, like us, <of> your work and making
  6. And have from you received our fragile nature?
  7. Open therefore the treasuries of your compassion[s]
  8. And pour out onto them your blessings
  9. In order that soon they may be your blessed heritage
  10. And intone aloud your goodness throughout all the ages.
  11. As soon as your sun will shine on them
  12. Just as soon we will see this people worship you.
  13. Witness be the true conversations
  14. Poutrincourt held with these pitiful people
  15. When he taught them our Religion
  16. And often showed them the ardent desire
  17. He had to see them inside the fold
  18. Which Christ has redeemed by the price of his life.
  19. Clearly moved, they on their part gave witness
  20. With their mouths and hearts of the desire they had
  21. To be more amply instructed in the teaching
  22. Within which it is proper for the faithful make their way.

.

  1. Where are you, Prelates, that you do not pity
  2. This people that makes up half the world?
  3. <Why> don’t you at least give aid to those whose zeal
  4. Transports them so far as if under His wing
  5. To establish here God’s holy law
  6. With so much hardship, care and emotion?
  7. These peoples are not brutal, barbaric or savage,
  8. If you <choose> not to call by such names the men of yore,
  9. They are subtle, clever and of very sound judgment
  10. And <I> have not known a single one who lacked understanding
  11. Only they need a father to teach them
  12. To cultivate the earth, to cultivate the vine,
  13. To live in an organized fashion, to be economical
  14. And to dwell in fixed habitations from here on.
  15. For the rest, in our opinion, they are full of innocence
  16. If <only> they had knowledge of their creator.
  17. <But> because they do not know Him, neither mouth nor heart
  18. Ravishes God’s honour through blasphemy.
  19. They do not know the work of the amorous potion
  20. Nor have they knowledge of the use of aconite,
  21. Their mouths do not vomit forth our curses
  22. Their spirits are not given over to our inventions
  23. For oppressing the other, <and> the cruel avarice
  24. of an all-consuming preoccupation does not torment their souls.
  25. But they have the hospitality of the Gaulois,
  26. Who valued it so highly in their days of old.
  27. Their greatest vice is the love of vengeance
  28. When their enemy has offended them in some way.

.

  1. Farewell unto you, then, poor people, and <I> am incapable
  2. To express the sadness I feel
  3. In leaving you thus, without having seen as yet
  4. One of you made to truly worship God.

.

  1. Let us depart, then, from this harbor, the East wind permitting,
  2. For on these coasts the West wind is prevalent
  3. <And> moreover, this sea is often covered by fog
  4. Which causes the total loss of incautious men.

.

  1. Farewell for the last time, Rocks rearing high,
  2. Proudly raising up your caverns
  3. From whence pour forth without end abundant showers
  4. Which are supplied by the waters coursing down the mountains.
  5. Farewell, then, to you as well, Caves, that have pleased me
  6. When beneath your halls in bright daylight I have seen outlined
  7. The attractive colours of the Rainbow.

.

  1. Now that we are in sight of the awesome waves
  2. Of the Ocean deep, will I be able to pass by
  3. Without saluting from afar, or leaving <without> a Farewell
  4. To the land that received our <country> France
  5. When she first came to establish herself here?
  6. Island, I salute you, Isle of Saint Croix,
  7. Island that was the first dwelling place of our poor <fellow> French
  8. Who suffered major hardships while dwelling with you,
  9. But <it is> our bad habits that often cause us these injuries.
  10. I revere, however, your pure antiquity,
  11. The scented cedars on your side
  12. Your workshops, your lodgings, your superb warehouse,
  13. Your gardens choked by new weeds:
  14. But I honour above all on account of our dead
  15. The place that holds their bodies in its keeping
  16. Which I have not been able to behold without a power of tears
  17. So much did these terrible exploits sadden my heart.
  18. Be at peace, then, and may you one day
  19. Find yourselves in glory in the heavenly mansion.
  20. But nevertheless, DE MONTS, you take with you the glory
  21. Of having obtained victory over a thousand deaths,
  22. A true witness to your great courage,
  23. Be it when you battled the fury of the waves
  24. While coming to visit this faraway province
  25. In order to follow the will of HENRY, our Prince,
  26. Or when in front of your eyes you watched <them> die
  27. Those <buried> there who followed you to that fateful location.

.

  1. Far behind I leave you, mines to be
  2. Which the massive rocks lodge deep in their veins,
  3. Mines of bronze, iron and steel, and of silver,
  4. And of pit coal, in order to salute the people
  5. Who cultivate their land by hand, the Armouchiquois.
  6. I salute you, then, quarrelsome nation
  7. (For you have failed us on account of treason)
  8. To say unto you that one day we will obtain satisfaction
  9. And with greater effect, of your presumptuousness,
  10. Just as your offspring will be accursed among us.
  11. But your earth I want to salute in all its goodness
  12. For she is sure to give us an ample return
  13. When she will experience French cultivation.
  14. For in her provident Nature has already
  15. Implanted the vine so copiously
  16. And with such beauty, that Bacchus himself,
  17. If invoked, would not know how to improve on it.
  18. But its people, unaware, do not know the use of its fruit.
  19. Earth, you also have, with beans and grain,
  20. Your subterranean silos filled in harvest time.
  21. But although you give your produce abundantly
  22. Producing other fruits without human assistance
  23. Such as the hemp, squash and nuts we have seen,
  24. Your beans, nor your grain, in any case, you do not
  25. Produce without work, but your populace, in great number,
  26. <Already> breaks you with a sharp cutting timber, and turns you over
  27. To plant its seed there, in the Spring.

.

  1. But one more thing I must mention
  2. Which obliges me to write about it because of its rarity,
  3. <And> that is the product produced by the stalk of the hemp plant
  4. <A> product worthy of being held precious by Kings
  5. <And> most delicious for the repose of the body:
  6. It is a white, thin and fine silk
  7. Which Nature produces in the hollow of a shell,
  8. Silk which one will be able to employ for many a use
  9. And which workers will turn into cotton
  10. When you <Earth>, inhabited by good artisans,
  11. Will be controlled by a willed sedentarism.

.

  1. May I see that thing arrive soon,
  2. And careful Frenchmen cultivate your fields,
  3. Away from the cares of a life of hardship
  4. Far from the noise of the common crowd, and from deceit.

.

  1. Seeking on Neptune’s bosom rest without rest,
  2. I have fashioned these verses on the swell of his waves.
  3. LESCARBOT

—Translated by Haijo Westra

Based on the Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, 1617 edition, produced by Rénald Lévesque and published by the Gutenberg Project (2007) at www. gutenberg

 §

champlain detail2Detail from Champlain map

A-DIEU A LA NOUVELLE-FRANCE
Du 30 Juillet 1607.

FAUT-il abandonner les beautez de ce lieu,
Et dire au Port Royal un eternel Adieu?
Serons-nous donc toujours accusez d’inconstance
En l’établissement d’une Nouvelle-France?
Que nous sert-il d’avoir porté tant de travaux,
Et des flots irritez combattu les assaux,
Si notre espoir est vain, & si cette province
Ne flechit souz les loix de HENRY notre Prince?
Que vous servit-il d’avoir jusques ici
Fait des frais inutils, si vous n’avez souci
de recuillir le fruit d’une longue depense,
Et l’honneur immortel de votre patience?
Ha que j’ay de regrets que ne sçavez pas
De cette terre ici les attrayans appas.
Et bien que le Flamen vous ait fait une injure,
L’injure bien souvent se rend avec usure.
Il faut doncques partir, il faut appareiller,
Et au port Sainct-Malo aller l’ancre mouiller.

PERE DE L’UNIVERS, qui commandes aux ondes,
Et qui peux assecher les mers les plus profondes,
Donne nous de franchir les abymes des eaux
Dont tu as separé tous ces peuples nouveaux
Des peuples baptizés, & sans aucun naufrage
Du royaume François voir bien-tot le rivage.

Adieu donc beaux coteaux & montagnes aussi,
Qui d’un double rempar ceignez ce Port ici.
Adieu vallons herbus que le flot de Neptune
Va baignant largement deux fois à chaque lune,
Et au gibier aussi, qui pour trouver pâture
Y vient de tous cotez tant qu’il y a verdure.
Adieu mon doux plaisir fonteines & ruisseaux,
Qui les vaux & les monts arrousez de vos eaux.
Pourray-je t’oublier belle ile forètiere
Riche honneur de ce lieu & de cette riviere?
Je prise de ta soeur les aimables beautés,
Mais je prise encor plus tes singularités.
Car comme il est séant que celui qui commande
Porte une Majesté plus auguste & plus grande
Que son inferieur; ainsi pour commander
Tu as le front haussé qui te fait regarder.
A l’environ de toy une ondoyante plaine,
Et la terre alentour sujette à ton domaine
Tes rives sont des rocs, soit pour tes batimens,
Soit pour d’une cité jetter les fondemens.
Ce sont en autres parts une menuë arene,
Où mille fois le jour mon esprit se pourmene.
Mais parmi tes beautés j’admire un ruisselet
Qui foule doucement l’herbage nouvelet
D’un vallon que se baisse au creux de ta poitrine,
Precipitant son cours dedans l’onde marine.
Ruisselet qui cent fois de ses eaux m’a tenté,
Sa grace me forçant lui prèter le côté.
Ayant dont tout cela, Ile haute & profonde,
Ile digne sejour du plus grand Roy du monde,
Ayant di-je, cela, qu’est-ce que te defaut.
A former pardeça la cité qu’il nous faut,
Sinon d’avoir prés soy un chacun sa mignone
En la sorte que Dieu & l’Eglise l’ordonne?
Car ton terroir est bon & fertile & plaisant,
Et oncques son culteur n’en sera deplaisant.
Nous en pouvons parler, qui de mainte semence
Y jettée, en avons certaine experience.
Que puis-je dire encor digne de ton beau los?
Qu’adjouteray-je ici que dedans ton enclos
Se trouvent largement produits par la Nature
Framboises, fraises, pois, sans aucune culture?
Ou bien diray-je encor tes verdoyans lauriers,
Tes Simples inconus, tes rouges grozeliers?
Non, mais tant seulement sans sortir tes limites,
Ici je toucheray les nombreux exercices
Des peuples écaillez qui viennent chaque jour,
Suivans le train du flot te donner le bon-jour.

Si-tot que du Printemps la saison renouvelle
L’Eplan vient à foison, qui t’apporte nouvelle
Que Phoebus elevé dessus ton horizon
A chassé loin de toy l’hivernale saison.
Le Haren vient apres avecque telle presse
Que seul il peut remplir un peuple de richesse.
Mes yeux en sont témoins, & les vostres aussi
Qui de nôtre pature avés eu le souci,
Quand, ailleurs occupez, vôtre main diligente
Ne pouvoit satisfaire à la chasse plaisante
Qu’envoyoit en voz rets l’ecluse d’un moulin.
Le Bar suit par-apres du Haren le chemin.
Et en un méme temps la petite Sardine,
La Crappe, & le Houmar, suit la côte marine
Pour un semblable effect; le Dauphin, l’Eturgeon
Y vient parmi la foule avecque le Saumon,
Comme font le Turbot, le Pounamou, l’Anguille,
L’Alose, le Fletan, & la Loche, & l’Equille:
Equille qui, petite, as imposé le nom
A ce fleuve de qui je chante le renom.
Mais ce n’est ici tout, car tu as davantage
De peuples qui te font par chacun jour homage,
Le Colin, le Joubar, l’Encornet, le Crapau,
Le Marsoin, le Souffleur, l’Oursin le Macreau,
Tu as le Loup-marin, qui en troupe nombreuse
Se vautre au clair du jour sur ta vase bourbeuse,
Tu as le Chien, la Plie, & mille autres poissons
Que je ne conoy point, de tes eaux nourrisons.
Tairay-je la Moruë heureusement feconde,
Qui par tout cette mer en toutes parts abonde?
Moruë si tu n’es de ces mets delicats
Dont les hommes frians assaisonnent leurs plats,
Je diray toutefois que de toy se sustente
Prèque tout l’Univers. O que sera contente
Celle personne un jour, qui à sa porte aura
Ce qu’un monde eloigné d’elle recherchera!
Belle ile tu as donc à foison cette manne,
Laquelle j’ayme mieux que de la Taprobane
Les beautez que lon feint dignes des bien-heureux
Qui vont buvans des Dieux le Nectar savoureux.
Et pour montrer encor ta puissance supreme,
La Baleine t’honore & te vient elle-méme
Saluer chacun jour, puis l’ebe la conduit
Dans le vague Ocean où elle a son deduit.
De ceci je rendray fidele temoignage,
L’ayant veu mainte fois voisiner ce rivage,
Et à l’aise nouer parmi ce port ici.

Mais tous ces animaux, mais tous ces peuples ci
S’écartent quand Phoebus veut approcher la borne
Du celeste manoir, où git le Capricorne,
Et vont chercher l’abri du profond de Thetys,
Ou d’un terroir plus doux vont souvans le pâtis.
Seulement pres de toy en cette saison dure
La Palourde, la Coque, & la Moule demeure
Pour sustenter celui qui n’aura de saison
(Ou pauvre, ou paresseux) fait aucune moisson,
Tel que ce peuple ici qui n’a cure de chasse
Jusqu’à ce que la faim le contraigne& pourchasse,
Et le temps n’est toujours favorable au chasseur.
Qui ne souhaite point d’un beau temps la douceur,
Mais une forte glace, ou des neges profondes,
Quand le Sauvage veut tirer du fond des ondes
L’industrieux Castor (qui sa maison batit
Sur la rive d’un lac, où il dresse son lict
Vouté d’une façon aux hommes incroyable,
Et plus que noz palais mille fois admirable,
Y laissant vers le lac un conduit seulement
Pour s’aller égayer souz l’humide element)
Ou quand il veut quéter parmi les bois le gite
Soit du Royal Ellan, soit du Cerf au pié vite,
Du Lapin, du Renart, du Caribou, de l’Ours,
De l’Ecureu, du loutre à peau-de-velours
Du Porc-epic du Chat qu’on appelle sauvage,
(Mais qui du Leopart ha plustot le corpsage)
De la Martre au doux poil dont se vétent les Rois,
Ou du Rat porte-muse, tous hôtes de ces bois,
Ou de cet animal qui tout chargé de graisse
De hautement grimper ha la subtile addresse,
Sur un arbre elevé sa loge batissant
Pour decevoir celui qui le va pourchassant,
Et vit par cette ruse en meilleure asseurance
Ne craignant (ce lui semble) aucune violence,
Nibachés est son nom. Non que sur le printemps
Il n’ait à cette chasse aussi son passe-temps.
Mais alors du poisson la peche est plus certaine.

Adieu donc je te dis, ile de beauté pleine,
Et vous oiseaux aussi des eaux & des forêts
Qui serez les témoins de mes tristes regrets.
Car c’est à grand regret, & je ne le puis taire,
Que je quitte ce lieu, quoy qu’assez solitaire.
Car c’est à grand regret qu’ores ici je voy
Ebranlé le sujet d’y entrer nôtre Foy,
Et du grand Dieu le nom caché souz le silence,
Qui à ce peuple avoit touché la conscience.

Aigles qui des hauts pins habitez les sommets,
Puis qu’à vous Jupiter a commis ses secrets,
Allez dedans les cieux annoncer cette chose,
Et combien de douleur j’en ay en l’ame enclose,
Puis revenez soudain au Monarque François
Lui dire le decret du puissant Roy des Roys.
Car à lui est du ciel donné cet heritage,
Afin que souz son nom ci-aprés en tout âge
L’Eternel soit ici sainctement adoré,
Et de cent nations son grand nom reveré:
Et pour mieux l’emouvoir à cette chose faire,
Par cent sortes de biens il l’a voulu attraire,
Ayant à noz labeurs fait selon noz désirs,
Et iceux terminé de dix mille plaisirs.
Car la terre ici n’est telle qu’un fol l’estime,
Elle y est plantureuse à cil qui sçait l’escrime
Du plaisant jardinage & du labeur des champs.

Et si tu veux encor des oiseaux les doux chants,
Elle a le Rossignol, le Merle, la Linote,
Et maint autre inconu, qui plaisamment gringote
En la jeune saison. Si tu veux des oiseaux
Qui se vont repaissans sur les rives des eaux,
Elle a le Cormorant, la Mauve, Ma Mouette,
L’Outarde, le Heron, la Gruë, l’Alouette,
Et l’Oye, et le Canart. Canart de six façons,
Dont autant de couleurs sont autant d’hameçons
Qui ravissent mes yeux. Desires-tu encore
De ces oiseaux chasseurs dont le Noble s’honore?
Elle a l’Aigle, le Duc, le Faucon, le Vautour,
Le Sacre, l’Epervier, l’Emerillon, l’Autour,
Et bref tous les oiseaux de haute volerie
Et outre iceux encore une bende infinie
Qui ne nous sont communs. Mais elle a le Courlis
L’Aigrette, le Coucou, la Becasse & Mauvis,
La Palombe, le Geay, le Hibou, l’Hirondelle,
Le Ramier, la Verdier, avec la Tourterelle,
Le Beche-bois huppé, le lascif Passereau,
La perdris bigarrée, & aussi le Corbeau.

Que diray-je plus? Quelqu’un pourra-il croire
Que Dieu méme ait voulu manifester sa gloire
Creant un oiselet semblable au papillon
(Du moins n’excede point la grosseur d’un grillon)
Portant dessus son dos un vert-doré plumage,
Et un teint rouge-blanc au surplus du corps-sage?
Admirable oiselet, pourquoy donc, envieux,
T’es-tu cent fois rendu invisible à mes ieux,
Lors que legerement me passant à l’aureille
Tu laissois seulement d’un doux bruit la merveille?
Je n’eusse esté cruel à ta rare beauté,
Comme d’autres qui t’ont mortellement traité,
Si tu eusses à moy daigné te venir rendre.
Mais quoy tu n’as voulu à mon desir entendre.
Je ne lairray pourtant de celebrer ton nom,
Et faire qu’entre nous tu sois de grand renom.
Car je t’admire autant en cette petitesse
Que je fay l’Elephant en sa vaste hautesse.
Niridau c’est ton nom que je ne veux changer
Pour t’en imposer un qui seroit étranger.
Niridau oiselet delicat de nature,
Qui de l’abeille prent la tendre nourriture
Pillant de noz jardins les odorantes fleurs,
Et des rives des bois les plus rares douceurs.

A ces hotes de l’air pourray-je sans offense
D’un petit peuple ailé adjouter l’excellence?
Ce sont mouches, de qui sur le point de la nuit
La brillante clarté parmi les bois reluit
Voletans ça & là d’une presse si grande,
Que du ciel etoilé la lumineuse bende
Semble n’avoir en soy plus d’admiration.
Faisant doncques ici commemoration
Des beautez de ce lieu, il est bien raisonnable
Que vous y teniez rang & place convenable.

Mais puis que ja desja noz voiles sont tendus,
Et allons revoir ceux qui nous cuident perdus,
Je dis encore Adieu à vous beaux jardinages,
Qui nous avez cet an repeu de vos herbages,
Voire aussi soulagé nôtre necessité
Plus que l’art de Pæon n’a fait nôtre santé.
Vous nous avez rendu certes en abondance
Le fruit de noz labeurs selon notre semence.
Hé que sera-ce donc s’il arrive jamais
(Ce qu’il est de besoin qu’on face desormais)
Que la terre ici soit un petit mignardée,
Et par humain travail quelquefois amendée?
Qui croira que le segle,& la chanve, & le pois,
Le chef d’un jeune gars ait surpassé deux fois?
Qui croira que le blé que l’on appelle d’Inde
En cette saison-ci si hautement se guinde
Qu’il semble estre porté d’insupportable orgueil
Pour se rendre, hautain, aux arbrisseaux pareil?
Ha que ce m’est grand deuil de ne pouvoir attendre
Le fruit qu’en peu de temps vous promettiez nous rendre!
Que ce m’est grand émoy de ne voir la saison
Quand ici meuriront la Courge, le Melon,
Et le Cocombre aussi: & suis en méme peine
De ne voir point meuri mon Froment, mon Aveine
Et mon Orge & mon Mil, pois que le Souverain
En ce petit travail m’a beni de sa main.
Et toutefois voici de ce mois le trentieme,
Mois qui jadis estoit en ordre le cinquième

Peuples de toutes parts qui estes loin d’ici
Ne vous emerveillez de cette chose ci,
Et ne nous tenez point comme en region froide,
Ce n’est point ici Flandre, Ecosse, ni Suede,
La mer ici ne gele, & les froides saisons
Ne m’ont oncques forcé d’y garder les tisons.
Et si chez vous l’eté plustot qu’ici commence,
Plustot vous ressentez de l’hiver l’inclemence.
Mais tu restes encor, Poutrincourt attendant
Que ta moisson soit préte: & nous nous cependant
Faisons voile à Campseau où t’attent le navire
Que de là doit tous en la France conduire.
Cependant beaux epics meurissez vitement,
Dieu le Dieu tout-puissant vous doint accroissement,
Afin qu’un jour ici retentisse sa gloire
Lors que de ses bien-faits nous ferons la memoire.
Entre lesquelz bien-faits nous conterons aussi
Le soin qu’il aura eu de prendre à sa merci
Ces peuples vagabons qu’on appelle Sauvages
Hotes de ces forèts & des marins rivages,
Et cent peuples encor qui sont de tous côtez
Au Su, à l’Oest au Nort de pié-ferme arretez
Qui aiment le travail, qui la terre cultivent,
Et libres, de ses fruits plus contens que nous vivent,
Mais en ce deplorable est leur condition,
Que du siecle futur ilz n’ont l’instruction.

Pourquoy, ô Tout-puissant, pourquoy donc cette race
As-tu jusques ici rejetté de ta face,
Et pourquoy laisses tu devorer à l’enfer,
Tant d’humains qui devroient dessus lui triompher
Veu qu’ilz sont comme nous ton oeuvre & ta facture,
Et ont de toy receu nôtre fraile nature?
Ouvre donc les thresors de tes compassions,
Et verse dessus eux tes benedictions,
Afin qu’ilz soient bien-tot ton sacré heritage,
Et chantent hautement tes bontés en tout âge.
Si-tot que ton Soleil sur eux éclairera,
Aussi-tot cet gent d’adorer on verra.
Temoins soient de ceci les propos veritables
Que Poutrincourt tenoit avec ces miserables
Quand il leur enseignoit notre Religion,
Et souvent leur montroit l’ardente affection
Qu’il avoit de les voir dedans la bergerie
Que Christ a racheté par le pris de sa vie.
Eux d’autre part emeus clairement temoignoient
Et de bouche & de coeur le desir qu’ilz avoient
D’estre plus amplement instruits en la doctrine
En laquelle il convient qu’un fidele chemine.

Où estes vous Prelats, que vous n’avez pitié
De ce peuple qui fait du monde la moitié?
Du moins que n’aidez-vous à ceux de qui le zele
Les transporte si loin comme dessus son aile
Pour établir ici de Dieu la saincte loy
Avecque tant de peine, & de soin & d’émoy
Ce peuple n’est brutal, barbare ni sauvage,
Si vous n’appellez tels les hommes du vieil âge,
Il est subtile, habile, & plein de jugement,
Et n’en ay conu un manquer d’entendement,
Seulement il demande un pere qui l’enseigne
A cultiver la terre, à façonner la vigne,
A vivre par police, à estre menager,
Et souz des fermes toicts ci-apres heberger.
Au reste à nôtre égare il est plein d’innocence
Si de son createur il avoit la science.
Que s’il ne le conoit, sa bouche ni son coeur
Ne ravit point à Dieu par blaspheme l’honneur.
Il ne sçait le metier de l’amoureux bruvage,
De l’aconite aussi il ne sçait point l’usage,
Sa bouche ne vomit nos imprecations,
Son esprit ne s’adonne à nos inventions
Pour opprimer autrui, l’avarice cruelle
D’un souci devorant son ame ne bourrelle
Mais il a du Gaullois cette hospitalité
Qui tant l’a fait priser en son antiquité.
Son vice le plus grand est qu’il aime vengeance
Lors que son ennemi lui a fait quelque offense.

Je vous di donc Adieu, pauvre peuple, & ne puis
Exprimer la douleur en laquelle je suis
De vous laisser ainsi sans voir qu’on ait encore
Fait que quelqu’un de vous son Dieu vrayment adore

Sortons donc de ce Port à la faveur de l’Est,
Car en ces côtes ci est ordinaire l’Ouest,
Puis, souvent cette mer est de brumes couverte
Qui des hommes peu cauts cause l’extreme perte.

Adieu pour un dernier Rochers haut elevés,
Qui orgueilleusement voz grottes soulevés,
D’où distillent sans fin des pluies abondantes
Que leur versent les eaux des montagnes coulantes.
Adieu doncques aussi Grottes qui m’avez pleu
Quand souz votre lambris au clair du jour j’ay veu
Figurées d’Iris les couleurs agreables.

Ores que nous voyons les flots épouvantables
Du profond Ocean, pourray-je bien passer
Sans saluer de loin, ou quelque Adieu laisser
A la terre que a receuë notre France
Quand elle vint ici faire sa demeurance?
Ile, je te saluë, ile de Saincte Croix,
Ile premier sejour de noz pauvres François,
Qui souffrirent chez toy des choses vrayment dures,
Mais noz vices souvent nous causent ces injures.
Je revere pourtant ta freche antiquité
Les Cedres odorans qui sont à ton côté,
Tes Loges, tes Maisons, ton Magazin superbe,
Tes jardins étouffez parmi la nouvelle herbe:
Mais j’honore sur tout à-cause de noz morts
Le lieu qui sainctement tient en depost leurs corps,
Lequel je n’ay pu voir sans un effort de larmes,
Tant mon navré le coeur ces violentes armes.
Soyez doncques en paix, & puissiez vous un jour,
Vous trouver glorieux au celeste sejour.
Mais cependant, DE MONTS, tu emportes la gloire
D’avoir sur mille morts obtenu la victoire,
Témoignage certain de ta grande vertu,
Soit quand tu as des flots la fureur combattu
En venant visiter cette étrange province
Pour suivre le vouloir de HENRY nôtre Prince
Soit lors que tu voiois mourir devant tes yeux
Ceux-là qui t’ont suivi en ces funestes lieux.

Je vous laisse bien loin, pepinieres de Mines
Que les rochers massifs logent dedans leurs veines,
Mines d’airain, de fer, & d’acier, & d’argent,
Et de charbon pierreux, pour saluer la gent
Qui cultive à la main la terre Armouchiquoise.
Je te saluë donc nation porte-noise
(Car tu as envers nous forfait par trahison)
Pour te dire qu’un jour nous aurons la raison
Avecque plus d’effect de ton outrecuidance,
Si qu’entre nous sera maudite ta semence.
Mais ta terre je veux saluer en tout bien,
Car un ample rapport elle nous fera bien
Quand elle sentira du François la culture.
Car en elle desja la provide Nature
A le raisin semé si plantureusement,
Et en telle beauté, que Bacchus mémement
Ne sçauroit invoqué lui faire davantage.
Mais son peuple ignorant ne sçait du fruit l’usage.
Terre, tu as encor de féves & de blés
Tes greniers souz-terrains en la moisson comblés.
Mais quoy que tes biens tu donnes abondance
Produisant d’autres fruits sans l’humaine assistance
Tes qu’avons veu la Chanve & la Courge & la Noix,
Tes féves tu ne veux ni tes blez toutefois
Produire sans travail, mais ta grand’ populace
D’un bois coupant ta brise, & en mottes t’amasse
Pour (sur le renouveau) sa semence y planter,

Mais une chose encor il me faut reciter
Qui pour sa rareté à l’écrire m’oblige,
C’est le fruit que produit la Chanve la tige,
Fruit digne que les Rois le tiennent precieux
Pour le repos du corps le plus delicieux:
C’est une soye blanche & menuë & subtile
Que la Nature pousse au creux d’une coquille,
Soye qu’en maint usage employer on pourra,
Et laquelle en cotton l’ouvrier façonnera,
Quand de bons artisans tu seras habitée
Par une volonté de pié-ferme arretée.

Puisse-je voir bien-tot cette chose arriver,
Et le François soigneux à tes champs cultiver,
Arriere des soucis d’une peineuse vie,
Loin des bruits du commun, & de la piperie.

Cherchant dessus Neptune un repos sans repos
J’ay façonné ces vers au branle de ses flots.

—M. LESCARBOT.

(This eBook excerpt is from Project Gutenberg’s Les Muses de la Nouvelle France by Marc L’escarbot produced by Rénald Lévesque. This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org.)

champlain detail1Champlain map detail

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haijo-sailing

Haijo Westra has taught Classics at the University of Calgary and wrote about topics in Greek and Latin literature. More recently, he has turned to the early accounts of the East Coast written in Latin by the Jesuit Pierre Biard and the role of classical ethnography in the description of Native peoples, in particular the Micmac. The present article is his first venture into a French text of the period.

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Nov 092015
 

SengesPierre Senges. Photo credit: Philippe Bretelle

 

Many ways to stuff a watermelon, many ways to fill a library — you can write one, as Pierre Senges seems to be doing, turning out about a book a year since 2000, along with countless radio plays; or you can buy (or steal) books to fill your library with; or, not really any easier, if you are able you can translate them, and perhaps get a small collection going. Slowly I am making some headway into Senges’s library, studiously Englishing it, and thus growing my own. There are lots of ways to farce up a library, and lots of ways to fill one too. Here are just a few.

                                                                     —Jacob Siefring

 

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Somewhere Jean-Paul writes: “I have forty odd libraries in my
possession that I myself — this strains credulity —
conceived and wrote in their totality.”

The library of Maria Wutz

In 1793, this same Jean-Paul brought his character the schoolmaster Maria Wutz into the world (he joins Fibel, the inventor of the abecediary, and the trader Vagel, who sold his pustules for a bargain when he contracted smallpox). Poverty has an important role to play in these adventures, it combines with the desire to read and the imaginative faculty (should one exist) to create a personal library in the style of Jean-Paul. Since he has not a single kopeck, nor a thaler nor a maravedis with which to buy the first chapter of the first volume of a popular anthology, Wutz decides to write the books of his literary patrimony himself. “Each new book whose title he assigned he was able to consider as belonging to him”: willful appropriation becomes the poor man’s revenge on the free market, the refutation of his wretched lot, making use of the means at hand.

By over a century, this schoolmaster anticipates the author of the Quixote invented by Borges: well before Pierre Menard, Wutz parasites a book, a title, and an author whenever he feels an urgent desire to compose, as soon as it is published, and on the double at that, The Philosophical Fragments of Lavater. No sooner has an editor announced the good news to booksellers, than Wutz the omnipotent sits down to his desk to start writing — as if his private library were the proof of his responsibility: the proof of little Wutz’s authority over every written thing: Wutz, at the center, as first cause, with his manuscripts for effects, and then, all around his Original Library, all the other books, displayed in bookstores as so many fraudulent editions.

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The library of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

The poverty of Maria Wutz is a poverty of fables, it calls to mind that of the shoemaker who goes off into the woods with his family to abandon there his seven children, born in a time of steady work; the poverty Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky inflicts on his character is that of Russia at the start of the twentieth century (chilly or freezing, most likely): split-soled shoes, queues, famine in the Ukraine, and artificial beets (and yet, not for everyone). An intellectual lives in a tiny room: in that room, a bed, a chair, a stove (a cold one), a bookcase, “four long boards running the length of a wall that sag beneath the burden of the manuscripts.” This cold-stove poverty apparently doesn’t preclude the possession of four shelves of books, but it’s a bliss that doesn’t last: for, in the middle of winter, Krzhizhanovsky requires his character to trade in all his books for four banknotes.

What comes next in this first chapter of The Letter Killers Club is a delicate variation on the theme of absence: with many repetitions, the dispossessed student reaches out his hand towards one of the four shelves to take down a book — a gesture implying familiarity, fraternity, and an almost leisurely routine. The first time the hand meets the absence, the effect is sad, not the less painful for the gesture’s banality — but by the twentieth time, it demands passionate spiritual exercises: now it becomes a question of inventing the vanished book. At that instant, the totally denuded library not only signifies poverty, it somehow asserts its force as library, it replaces the books’ actual presence with a potential presence, upheld by memory and experience; it permits the intellectual to pursue his work by means of his memory… oh well, so much the better if memory is approximative. The book that is present is always the exact copy, always fixed and unchanging unto itself; the absent book, like a poem in a dead language translated from other translations, or like the voyages of Ulysses, will yield various recombinations of itself from one day to the next, condescending to exist in many versions, all true, all flawed, all unfinished, still unstable, as if, by vanishing, it returned to an earlier stage of its development.

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The library of Giacomo Casanova

A century before Captain Nemo would find refuge among the books he kept aboard the Nautilus, another adventurer, representative of a certain society fashionable during a certain, superannuated century, also found refuge in a library: in Bohemia, at Dux, in Count von Waldstein’s castle. Giacomo becomes the librarian there at the ripe age of seventy: the exact opposite of adventure: sedentariness instead of stagecoaches, the rules of order instead of fugues, the status of a subaltern replacing the motto Follow your god, reading by candlelight replacing romantic caresses, the dusting of book bindings replacing theatrical bluffs proffered to young girls and Emperor Joseph II alike. Casanova did not fail to oversee his own decline (the brutal metamorphosis of the skirt-chaser into a bookkeeper), but he must have remembered having been tempted many times already, over the course of his youth, by libraries: he used them as rest stops. (He even once tried priesthood — but to be a priest is to wear a half-mask, as Da Ponte surely knew.)

No one knows whether the books in the library made it any easier for Casanova to pass the time, it would have had to contain an Orlando Furioso or maybe a Quixote for that; but we at least know how writing saved him from hanging himself from the Bohemian ceiling. The stay, not at all the first, was granted when he consented to be a provisory appendage to a giant book — namely, the twelve volumes of the Histoire de ma vie.

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The Library of the Congress

Borges postulates the existence in Buenos Aires of a Congress of the World representing all of humanity; the Congress is of course endowed with a library, a serious library, as serious as Argentinian intellectuals trying to compete with the letters of Old Europe — and because a library springs to mind when we need to represent the universe on a more practical scale (the size of a city block). During an initial phase, the library acquires only rare and serious books (Pliny’s Natural History); second, the library avid for totality fills up with “classical works of all genres from all countries”; finally, in the last act, when the library is overflowing, raising the principle of representation to an exact paraphrase (as impossible as a map existing at a 1:1 scale), it welcomes all books in without restriction, the good and the bad alike: the Prensa, 3,400 copies of Don Quixote, university theses (sic), account books, theater programs. Later, we will see how a library can be rich with books that do not yet belong to it — Borges, who knew how necessary forgetting is to the intelligence, recalls that a library finds its meaning in the items it lacks: lacunae without which librarians would be unable to breathe, or move.

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The library of Bouvard and Pécuchet

The one thousand five hundred books Gustave Flaubert read in Croisset, or at the Rouen library, or  at the Nationale in Paris, steadfastly devoured to the point of having one’s brain metamorphosed into soft cheese, are also the books in the Chavignolles library — Bouvard and Pécuchet preside over it, just as they preponderate over their vegetable garden, spades in hand: proud in anticipation of the duty done. For Gustave, the one thousand five hundred books meant afternoons of misery in poorly heated rooms; for these two gentlemen, one thousand five hundred books assembled in a farmhouse are the promise of knowledge, accession to knowledge, or, better yet, the promise of the layman’s conversion into a savant — they contain pedagogic virtue, they are receptacles for truths, before long they will be objects of critique and renouncement: little does it matter, venerated or tossed into the ditch, books are the attribute of comfortable people: yes, people who reflect on when they will nap and have the means to show off shelves of beautiful bindings to the neighbors.

To these two gentlemen, the contents of a library are: books to read and possess, authors to boo once deification is over (booing being the amateur’s free will in the professionals’ library), a mélange of indispensable classics and stupefyingly dull volumes, teeming with pignoufisms. Like the library of the Congress, Pécuchet’s farm simultaneously contains a Pantagruel, treatises on hygiene, and the sermons of some priest — and when it comes time to buy up paper by the kilo, the dream of universalism will be fulfilled tenfold: to choose, to weed out the good from the bad will require a nerve which, thanks to their intimate knowledge of failure, these gentlemen have learned to mistrust. In the end, this will be Everything, the admirable, consolatory, formless Everything, exhaustivity joined to nothing, if not to the right edition, and the eternity of unmoving things.

 

The library according to Émile Borel and Arthur Stanley Eddington

Exhaustivity in writing is a dream or a nightmare wrought in the Pécuchetian style, that of a totality abolishing judgment — or in the style of Maria Wutz, simultaneously obeying the desire to read and the desire to write. Those who dread Bouvard’s old papers as much as Wutz’s graphomania will always be able to fall back on the combinatorial arts when they want to access the Great All in one of its many forms. Many years before the library of Babel, built of hexagons and exhaustion, in 1913 in Le Journal de Physique (5th series, volume 3, pages 189-196, these details admitted with a librarian’s taste for precision), Émile Borel, the mathematician, invents a metaphor that will go on to enjoy a certain success: a million apes randomly typing away on the keys of a million typewriters for ten hours every day will eventually, “before the year is up,” compose “identical copies of books of every sort and in every language kept in the world’s best-stocked libraries.” Fifteen years later, in the mind of Arthur Stanley Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World), the million monkeys become an army and “the world’s best-stocked libraries” the singular library of the British Museum. It remains to be seen if the substitution of the British Museum for all the world’s libraries is a British riposte to the pretentions of the little Frenchman Borel, or if it’s  rather a question of the intrinsic plasticity of stories, which are passed along only by mutating (mutation being a consequence, and perhaps also a cause). In other versions of the fable, the British Museum becomes the work of William Shakespeare; in still others the work of Shakespeare becomes the ensemble of the sonnets, or a single sonnet, sometimes even a single line of verse — the monkey, for his part, is ever present.

 

The library of Thomas De Quincey

A library no single man could ever exhaust: it might become proverbial, it represents an infinity of books compared to the reader’s smallness — it belongs to the British Museum, it might be the equivalent of the library composed by a million chimpanzees over the course of a single year. Infinity signifies humanist generosity, the incontinence of editors, and the strike force of the public authorities (when libraries are a cultural affair of the State). The reader’s tininess signifies the brevity of our lives: it follows that the impossibility of reading everything takes the measure of our mortality, provoking frustration and vertigo at the same time — to Thomas De Quincey, in any case, one hundred thousand forever unknown volumes brought forth tears which he compared to those of Xerxes countenancing the death of his soldiers: not some “fanciful case of misery,” but “as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed.”

 

The library of Thomas Browne

Being a catalog, it must take the form of a book, but the library building could be deduced from a certain number of pages found between Urne Buriall (a meditation on death and funerary receptacles) and The Garden of Cyrus (in which it is the quincunx in question). Its title is Museum Clausum, its more explicit subtitle Bibliotheca Abscondita: the reader finds therein (to quote Browne himself) “some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living” — and among these remarkable books, a poem in the Getick language by Ovid, a detailed account of Hannibal’s march across the Alps, a fragment from Pytheas, instructions to create a demon, Seneca’s letters to Saint Paul, and many other marvels. (To add dubiousness to dubiety, a contemporary edition of the Museum includes a translator’s extrapolation: a fraudulent addition, the opposite of kleptomania.)

 

The library of Seleucos

According to an Armenian tradition passed down down to Mar Ibas and reported by the philologist historian Luciano Canfora, as Xerxes’ successor Seleucos “ordered all the books in the world to be burned, so that time could be reset to begin with him” (we recognize all the books in the world as an imperial or puerile exaggeration, just as we know that wiping the slate clean is in men of power a sign of weakness). To all the libraries assembled since Alexandria, small and large, authentic and spurious, we must then also add the many absent libraries: a perimeter traced in the soil, the residuum of a catalog, footprints of soldiers stamped in the ashes. Canfora notes that the idea of the library is inevitably tied to the idea of its destruction — or to put it more clearly, obliteration is part and parcel of our way of understanding libraries. He mysteriously adds that the conflagration arises “as if a greater force were intervening,” to destroy an organism that has become impossible to control: “uncontrollable, because it reveals an infinite capacity for growth, and also because of the equivocal (often forged) nature of the material that poured into them.” This hypothesis of an expiation of the fake by fire has a seductively romanesque quality to it, seductive like the apocalypse of Sardanapalus, as it links counterfeiting to the fires of ancient Rome and Alexandria — but it can also leave us feeling perplexed.

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The library of Don Quixote

Sardanapalus organized his own private apocalypse, dragging maids, mistresses, and gold pieces all into the same pyre — against his will Señor Quijano organizes one of these expiatory fires too, in his farmyard: his library was the occupation of his lone nights, it was the vehicle of his hallucination, it was his merchant marine and the description of Spain from a certain point of view, but then, it was consumed in a cloud of smoke. But, however unhinged he is, Don Quixote knows that books sometimes outlast their auto-da-fé: that’s the advantage of existing in numerous copies in various locations, the libraries repeating themselves here and there, with variations.

 

The library of Aristotle’s inheritor’s inheritors

By turns, conservation can prove destructive, even fatal: I’m referring to those elderly archivists who were suffocated under a mountain of books, and the paradoxes of conservation too: after a certain point has been passed, conservation runs counter to reading. The heirs of Neleus, who inherited Aristotle’s library, set out to save their master’s treasure, lest it should end up one day on the shelves of the royal library; those clever, obstinate fellows had the idea to dig a hole somewhere under the house, and to bury the scrolls there, then forget them, quite purposefully, with the sense of a job well done — the humidity, rodents, and other vermin hoarded the bequest, which is to say, reduced it to dust.

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The library of Diodorus

Bibliotheca historica is the title he gives his book, an honest way of owning that his chapters are a compilation of other chapters taken from elsewhere, and that Diodorus is one of those historians at the table, or geographers hunched over their atlases, a habitué of the libraries like the rest (Pliny, that other compiler of talent, gives Diodorus credit for not lying about his work’s contents as much as he did about his working methods).

 

The library of Moby Dick

Melville, we know, compares whales with books; he begins his Moby-Dick with ten pages of extracts taken from a universal patrimony. The white whale on one side, an entire library consecrated to cetalogy on the other, suffering from their distance, demonstrate the difficulty of establishing a link between a series of words and a thing. (Anyways, according to William Faulkner (William Faulkner according to Pierre Michon, that is), Moby Dick never read Sigmund Freud’s books, nor William Shakespeare’s  plays — to swallow them, contain them, that’s a whole other story, though.

 

The library of Réjean Ducharme

He used to visit the municipal library on his bicycle, or the bookstore rather, in a landscape singularly rare in books, so far from Alexandria (his inventions might be born from these hours spent sifting, these treasures for his island life). The extracts at the start of Le nez qui voque compete with, or parody, or pay homage to the library of Moby-Dick: we would think we were hearing a transcription of the New World Symphony for a single ukulele (the exact same ukulele played by Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, directed by Richard Fleisher).

 

The libraries of François Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, and Gilbert Sorrentino

The first is Saint-Victor’s in chapter VII of Pantagruel, it contains the Pantofola decretorum (The Slipper of the Decrees); the second belongs to Doctor Faustroll and contains the first; the third is in Mulligan Stew, and contains a 1001 Ways to Stuff a Watermelon (the character who catalogs it “makes no claim to completeness, since there may well be other materials in those rooms that do not exist”).

(The stuffing is contained in the watermelon, the watermelon in the 1001 Ways, the book of the 1001 Ways within the library, the library in a house of indefinite form, the indefinite house within a novel with the title Guinea Red — the novel Guinea Red floats in Mulligan Stew, Mulligan Stew takes its place on a library’s shelf, and the library, who knows, maybe among the ingredients for a watermelon stuffing.)

 

The library of Miklós Szentkuthy

Twenty-five thousand volumes, twice what the Nautilus’ library contained, were how Miklós Szentkuthy got through half a century of Hungarian Communism, with that manifest autarky which an abundance of reading secures — and to those twenty-five thousand volumes Szentkuthy had time to add the one hundred thousand pages of his journal, now preserved in the Archives of the literary museum of Budapest, entrusted to the conservators to guard their secrets and reveal them only a quarter-century after the death of its author, which is to say — now.

 

The other library of Alexandria

Ptolemy, who spent pharaonic sums to have masterpieces copied and fill up his library, was once informed by a man of letters, a half-idealist, half-jokester, that much of the world was still full of books to discover and hoard — which shows how a library is rich, too, with the books outside its walls.

—Pierre Senges translated by Jacob Siefring

“Plusieurs façons de farcir une pastèque” was originally published in French in fall 2013 in les écrits, a Québecois literary journal, issue 139.

 

Pierre Senges is the author of fourteen books and over sixty plays for radio. His erudite fictions often unfold in the margins of other texts as historical commentaries and hypothetical reconstructions. He is the recipient of prizes for Ruines-de-Rome (2002) and Veuves au maquillage (2000), as well as for his radio work. His longest novel, Fragments de Lichtenberg (2008), is forthcoming in English translation from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. His most recent book, Achab (séquelles), is published by Éditions Verticales and considers the lives of the white whale and Captain Ahab in the aftermath of Moby-Dick.

 

Siefring

Jacob Siefring is a Canadian-American translator. His translations have appeared in Gorse Journal, Hyperion, The Brooklyn Rail, and Vestiges. His criticism and reviews have been published in The Quarterly Conversation and Golden Handcuffs Review and other outlets. His first book-length translation, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges, is forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press. He keeps a blog at bibliomanic.com.

 

 

Oct 132015
 

Lumia Selfie alkalmazással készítve

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Zsolt Láng (born 1958, based in Tg. Mures, Romania) is one of the most original and critically acclaimed writers of the mid-generation of Hungarian prose, whose eleven volumes of short fiction, criticism and the tetralogy entitled Bestiarium Transylvaniae (Vol I, 1997; Vols. II-III, 2003; Vol. IV, 2012) have long propelled him among the most original hues of Hungarian postmodern writing. Both his short fiction and novels are suffused with literary, cultural references (sometimes faked arcania, as in the (post-)magic realist carnival of 16th-17th century histories, annals, verse lays and legends from Transylvania, Moldova and the Balkans), rich wordplay and language effects, as well as being characterized by a relentless exploration of the poetics and politics of language. His experimental fiction turns topoi of domestic and  world literature inside out and creatively explores the contextual, political and biographical undersides of the genesis of artworks, all these with an all-pervasive humour that is as subtle as it is warped.One of the volumes of Bestiarium Transylvaniae have been translated by Tim Wilkinson (award-winning translator of the novels of Imre Kertész, Miklós Mészöly and Miklós Szentkuthy among others), but not yet published in English. A review (in English) of Vol. IV of  Bestiarium Transylvaniae, centred on Ceausescu’s Romania and the events of 1989, can be read here. Still, Láng is probably best known as a short story writer. His last collection of short prose (Szerelemváros – Love City, Bratislava/Budapest: Kalligram, 2013) was reviewed by Hungarian Literature Online. Several of Láng’s short stories can be read online in World Literature Today (January 2015)World Literature Today (September 2015), The Missing Slate, B O D Y magazine, VLAKmagazine and Hungarian Literature Online.

—Erika Mihálycsa

§

IF THE MAN LEANING out of the third-floor window did not know the woman in the green dressing gown and wanted to find out her name, he could go out on the street and pick up the envelope dropped from the litter bin, but now he can spare the bowing down. Instead, he can get engrossed, for instance, in contemplating the soft naps of the green terry cloth, or can jot down the figment of song drolling from the fourth floor window, or he might just as well continue gazing motionlessly, so that the unopened letter may rest unread forever, because the sad-faced scavenger who is to pick it up the next day would shove it on his screeching handcart to take it to the paper recycling point at the farther end of town, from where it is to be shovelled onto a dump truck’s tipper and in less than two hours emptied into the chloride bath of the Réce papermill, where the whirlpools of destruction decompose it in a matter of seconds; in other words, the scavenger known as Gyuszi is illiterate, although he had been through mandatory 8-year primary education at district school nr. 10.

It must have been because of her intensifying migraine that Ildikó Halász did not notice the envelope slip over the litter bin’s edge. But for that headache, she would unquestionably have picked it up; not for reading it, but merely because she has always been a tidy person. Something that seems undercut by the fact that the envelope is unopened but, let us not forget, this is the fifth letter received within one month from the sender written in bold lettering on the bright red postmark, a craftsmen’s cooperative that has lately branched out and started a credit bank. Perhaps Ildikó is a stickler for orderliness. This is probably the reason why she has headaches so often. The windows do not close properly, there is permanent draught, and even though she spends the day cleaning up, whenever she goes to the toilet at night, her bare soles get grey with dust. Besides, it is no ordinary dust she inhales: if you turn towards the west end of the town, you can see it from afar in the shape of a threatening black cloud – the Girodan Holding Group Ltd. that produces the cheapest tyres in Europe precisely because it doesn’t invest a penny in air filters. Black rubber dust is more harmful than cement dust even. The only more harmful substance is ammonia, so one could call it a piece of luck indeed that back then they had built the artificial fertilizer plant in Lápos and not here, although a certain comrade Dulea had left no stone unturned in his efforts to secure it for the town, he being the first man in the county party committee, and incidentally also the farseeing father of two students of chemical engineering.

A further contribution to her nagging headache is the fact that Ervin Zakk has just left who, although quite fifteen years younger, nevertheless keeps calling on her and on not one occasion would stay into the small hours, until morning even, especially over the past few days, although nothing passed between them, however often Ildikó daydreams about ”taking him in” one day – and here as a rule a variation would follow on the same simile in the shape of the encounter between some straightforward article for personal use, an iron coin, a bar of soap, a sabre, or a flashlight for instance, and one of the elements, mostly earth or water.

To call Ervin a mere boy would be an exaggeration, he is 35 and works at the newspaper where a new editor-in-chief was recently appointed. The new editor-in-chief does not loathe Ervin quite as much as the former one used to, so Ervin sees the time ripe to be promoted to the position of columnist. It is for this reason he unleashed himself on Pista Tavi. Why on him of all people? Primarily because the new editor-in-chief from whom Ervin expects his promotion is known to hate Pista Tavi ”like the plague”.

When he was at school Ervin, just like his mates, used to have a theatre subscription. In those days the more well-meaning of their teachers used to collect money for theatre subscriptions, wishing to sponsor the theatre, ”the Hungarian word” (”ward”, as Ervin’s Hungarian teacher once said in an excess of zeal), which happened to be subsidized by the authorities too, in order that the more well-meaning of teachers lack not something to sponsor and would not end up sponsoring other things they had better keep off. Ildikó Halász was playing Eve in Madách’s The Tragedy of Man and one Sunday at the morning performance for pupils with Kölcsey subscription, in the eighth scene, the one about Kepler, she revealed, that is, completely bared, her right breast. The next Sunday Ervin went to see the performance again with his grandparents who had a pensioners’ Petőfi subscription, because against the unanimous view of his classmates he adamantly upheld that it must have been an accident, the slip’s shoulder strap having unintentionally slid down, but he had to revise his view upon watching the performance again. He was furious at Ildikó, at the whole theatre, at his grandparents and classmates, although this time, quite uncharacteristically for him, he paid for the factory-made ice cream, their wager with Feri Madaras, unprotesting. Now, 22 years later Ervin would have had ample occasion to take a closer look at that right breast. And he certainly did harbour some curiosity, but was uncertain as yet, because it seemed somewhat unsuited to the thing he kept badgering Ildikó with, and which sensibly touched upon that right breast, even on its twin sister on the left side in fact, since the aspiring columnist was trying to ascertain whether Pista Tavi had indeed organized that infamous orgy on May 1st in the Forget-me-not restaurant that had stood on a secluded spot in the middle of the vast orchards in the hills at the town’s edge. Not that the tiniest details of the orgy had not been long known to the whole town, including the crucial moment when the blue lace knickers of comrade Marika Bodoki, the secretary, believed by many to have been import goods from France, although in fact merely the Kászon lace manufacture’s produce, destined for export, to be sure, ended up proudly flaunted, wrapped around comrade Dulea’s unmentionables. But of course it was one thing to know this, and a horse of quite another colour to read the same thing inside out in the paper.

And indeed, the next instant Ildikó nearly spat out the whole thing or, more precisely, reached the point where, had Ervin’s hand touched her right breast, or the left one for that matter, ever so slightly, she would have told him everything about that breast and about its companion into the bargain – that is, nothing, nothing would she have withheld.

Standing on the curb side, litter bin in hand, she is waiting for the not overtly hectic, but not leisurely traffic to subside for a while, to cross to the other side to the unsavoury constellation of a dozen or so garbage dumpsters behind the block of flats opposite.

The sun is setting and Ildikó knows no more dreadful place on earth than the communal dumpsters, domed and made of aluminum, about a man’s height and looking rather like field-kitchen stew cauldrons. When it is dark she at least doesn’t see the shadows drifting by, and she doesn’t feel any pangs of conscience when emptying her litter bin right in front of her toes behind the corner. What stops her now from crossing over, however, is not her dread of the shadow: a numbness coming from a much more remote place, or time rather, penetrates her feet or, to be scrupulously specific, not her feet but the synapses commanding her muscles, but it is not numbness that she feels, it being at best a second-rate symptom of the disorder that makes the synapses melt like overcharged wires, incapable of transmitting further information. Yes, in Ildikó’s brain a certain instant of the past explodes, causing a neuronal block. The cause of the explosion is presumably Ervin who, although not having placed the bomb there himself, certainly brought the flame to the fuse. Even admitting that the explosion is not a genuine one, or if so, it is one turned inside out. Something that Ildikó associates with stumbling upon the keyword in a crossword puzzle, whose letters trigger off the chain reaction of the right answers, or much rather, with the next state that hits her on the head when, after having completed all the answers, above the paper pushed triumphantly aside all of a sudden the listless and lonely evening’s emptiness engulfs her and she can conjure up nobody on whom she could blame the mood devouring her. Now, on the other hand, she knows it is Ervin she should hold responsible, but the moment she thinks of Ervin, aiming several times in succession like a poor marksman, instead of Ervin’s face it is the face of Pista Tavi that emerges in front of her mind’s eyes, and a certain evening in a certain restaurant that people have insisted on calling Forget-me-not ever since, half jokingly of course, for who would not much rather forget. Forget-me-not is also a poor joke, for its official registered name is Număuita, since our story is set in Romania, but everybody in town, all the story’s characters, even comrade Dulea himself speak Hungarian, which is however of no significance worth mentioning whatsoever. It was a famed night, for she had hoped she would finally go through something that she need not dread thereafter, and in those days it was dread she wanted most to be rid of, at least as much as of the thick hairs growing on her legs, or of a wrinkle in the corner of her mouth, even if she instinctively intuited that the end to dread would not bring a much better state, for it would mean the loss of the one living in dread, of her surviving childhood self, but she would recoup her loss by playing the roles that Böby Derzsi was then getting, the most abysmally untalented actress that ever walked the face of the earth. Back then they did obviously not call such nights orgies, but ”meatballing”, which sounds as if it meant that they ate mincemeat balls, but of course did not mean that, the waiters, the drivers, the actors and actresses, even the comrades themselves described everything down to the smallest detail during coffee breaks, so that the secretaries could pass it on to the hairdressers, who then disseminated it with the distortions due to the buzz of beauty parlour hair dryers, like some contagious disease, mumps for instance that is particularly dangerous for grown-up men who had not contracted it in childhood, so that whenever there’s an epidemic of mumps in the kindergarten, the mothers of boys dutifully take their offspring to the sickbed to kiss the ailing child, all the while relating further savoury details of the meatballing feat. And the meatballing always started with a couple of glasses of cognac and ended with Pista Tavi ordering all knickers off the comrades, that is, those that still needed ordering, and then breaking Laji Rupi’s current violin on Jani Derzsy’s reputedly thick head, so that nobody could play on it again the beauteous folksong of his heart’s desire, ”The thrush builds its nest…” Ildikó gulped down a waterglassful of cognac that knocked her out almost immediately; she became like a sack of potatoes while, strangely, her consciousness cleared up, she was peeping out lucidly from her own inert body, albeit Pista Tavi was hardly bothered by this inertia, he shoved her into a half-lit pantry, made her squat in the corner, held her head with one hand and with the other unbuttoned his fly, as in those days zips were still relatively rare, started swearing out loud, perhaps partly because all he managed to produce was a child’s pecker, but soon became violent and poor Ildikó was thinking with all the lucid part of her consciousness she could muster how there was no-one in this world to protect her. But only the next day at noon, after having returned to the drama students’ dorm where she was still living at the time, not to mention the fact that in those days on the site of her present lodgings the peach orchards of the district called the Manor were still blooming for many years to come, and after having planted herself beneath the shower and from underneath her breast, the left one, a whiff of that horrendous smell of Pista Tavi slapped her, it was only then that she started throwing up convulsively. After that day she would be sick frequently. The last time a few days ago she woke up feeling sick, tore the window open hoping to get better, because those fits of vomiting could be dreadful, coming up directly from her womb, and she didn’t want to wake up the whole block of flats again, the wind was blowing from the direction of the sleeping town, she leaned out and felt instantly better, but as she turned round the room’s concentrated reek of Pista Tavi hit her again, making her throw up the first portion of her supper on the spot.

She should have taken revenge. There had been an occasion once, on that certain Christmas when the glorious regime’s men bled to death, that is, they appeared to be bleeding but recovered quickly enough. Now the most she can do is to satisfy the curiosity of a journalist sniffing for scandal, and she would gladly do it, were it not for the fact that as soon as she starts relating of Pista Tavi to Ervin, in place of Ervin’s face the face of Pista Tavi pops up, and it is Ervin’s face she wants to see, for she loves that face, so young and carefree, a face whose outlines would romp with the shadows of fatigue, quite unhampered even in the small hours, then start splashing about at the break of day and in a few seconds be smoothed out. She is in love with this boy, keeps thinking of him night and day, she is worried about him and keeps her fingers crossed that everybody would love him. And she tells everybody because it feels good to be talking of Ervin, how smart and well-read, how sensible and clean, what a beautiful, innocent child he is.

How finely one can play with him! She says to him things like, well slim jim, you’ve swallowed this whole, or that, now this is something to make your balls itch, with such sense of liberation as only children teasing each other can feel, and with what enthusiasm they go into planning their theatre: Ervin would write plays with a sharp political edge, the likes of which have never been seen on this stage…

Now all of a sudden she sees herself from the outside, as if she were perching on the willow on the corner or looking out from a window, as if she had exchanged places with that Peeping Tom, even if only for minutes. It would surely serve him right, to be able to feel the headache of Ildikó Halász for five minutes, to be standing on the street corner in a green terry cloth dressing gown and litter bin in hand, with nobody as much as looking at her. But the Peeping Tom is already looking elsewhere: a moment ago he was still counting the lights going up across the street, now he is staring at the bird’s carcass pressed onto the grey tarmac, how the wind flutters its ragged feathers, but there is hardly any breeze, at least nothing stirs the leaves. Later he gets engrossed in matters celestial, gazing out at the moon and the stars, so that he notices precious little of the swarming Pista Tavi-faced monsters, sensing nothing of the lonesome woman’s fears, although according to the rules of chivalry a man should on such occasions warn the freak-faces, at the very least with a thumping of the feet, that he is there and, should necessity present itself, would readily jump to the defence of the weak; what is more, he can certainly not be accused of liking Pista Tavi and would be glad to read at the tail end of the report on the Forget-me-not orgies that Pista Tavi resigned his seat in Parliament – although somewhat later he would impassively take cognizance of that deputy’s office in Strasbourg, with the same impassivity his eye would, with at most a light thrill due to the impending event, be caught the next morning by the patch of green terry cloth sticking to the tarmac like the dead bird, with a dark red stain hidden deep among its naps. In the meantime Ildikó has looked down from the window and found the way back to herself again, to the one who knows precisely how far she is from a creature Ervin might fall for. Because from up there she can see all too well even in the gathering dusk, that her hair is growing thin, that her hairdresser is not particularly skillful, that the crowns on her teeth are wearing off, she should replace them but doesn’t have the money, that she isn’t getting any roles at the theatre, she survives on hackwork and even such occasions are getting few and far between, she put together a few simple little programs that she takes to school and kindergarten festivities: last time she recited Petőfi poems at the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, next she would do In young hearts I live on at the graduation ceremony, provided they invite her and not some latter-day Böby to declaim some by-our-blood-and-soil-stalwart-we-stand Albert Wass. She has her apartment, her mother’s savings deposit with the small sum she had saved up for her funeral; her clothes are shabby, so she has no idea how she could possibly change her life, although she knows that if she doesn’t change it now she is finished for good, better and proper. She clings to Ervin, but he is becoming ever more selfish and whimsical.

And even if something more intimate were to develop between them, how long could it possibly last? In front of Ildikó’s mind’s eyes her own fifteen-year-old self emerges, a thin, dark-haired girl going in white knee socks and dark blue pleated skirt to the May 1st parade, and imagines Ervin would be there too, but Ervin is only a tiny toddler, all right, let it be the party at Zsuzsi’s place when they locked themselves up in the bathroom with Bandi Szepesi and she suffered him to deflower her, she imagines Ervin in Bandi’s place, what they would have said to each other back then, what the little boy with the big blond head, barely three, would have made of the occasion, how he would have stuck his tiny fingers into her body.

She is standing on the curb side with a headache that makes her dizzy, waiting to cross to the other side. The litter bin has grown so heavy that her right shoulder falls inches below the other. As though she were dragging the carved-up corpse of Pista Tavi in that bin. Sure she would be caught, although on the ground around the stew cauldrons there are always bones scattered about, all kinds of sickening nondescript things. Yes, on that Christmas it had occurred to her to grab the bread knife and ring Pista Tavi’s doorbell, shove aside his screaming wife – hard to imagine, as she was about one handspan taller and even then quite fifty kilos heavier than Ildikó – then make straight for the armchair in front of the TV, plant the knife in Pista Tavi’s heart, which he would have received with such resignation as if a vengeful revolutionary had leaped out directly of the TV set. For 25 years she has been living with Pista Tavi’s corpse, dragging it along wherever she goes; her husband, all her lovers and aborted children, her director, her partners on stage, the bus driver, the cantankerous cab driver, all of them have been that corpse.

What sacrifice has she not made? Surely, her whole life had been a sacrifice. On that forget-me-not night, since she had to be there anyway, she had planned to turn Pista Tavi’s head but he barely noticed her and, what is more, when she coyly addressed him with, Has comrade Tavi ever noticed that the comrade’s name is Tavi and mine, Halász, the one a lake, the other a fisher, Pista Tavi cloddishly asked, what it was he should have noticed. It was then she drank up the cognac, all of it.

Dusk is gathering slowly. The headlights of lorries rushing by awaken yet more shadows, as if they were splitting off from her body standing on the curb side, taking the shape now of an ass, now of a goat, now of a mountain goat preparing to jump, legs tensely balancing on one tiny spot of a palm’s width, then scurrying off behind the blocks but peeping out from behind the concrete walls. As the odd beam of light carves their muzzle out of the darkness, Ildikó instantly recognizes them. Yes, she should have called in at Pista Tavi’s place on that clean, snowless Christmas when for three days a warm southerly wind blew over the town, carrying the black rubber dust far away from them. She should at least have spat in his face; she should at least have given him an insistent look, should have asked him casually, well comrade, how’s things these days. Then she could still have gained admittance, for on the third day bodyguards were around him again. And today, even if she could get in with a piece of luck, she would only find a decrepit sick man with a broken look in his eyes, a man in pieces and all the more wicked for that, more wicked than ever.

Ildikó is standing on the curb side, counting the lorries rushing by. Not counting the lorries really, just uttering the numbers to herself, one after the other. What for? She doesn’t want to stop time, neither does she want it to run on. Or rather, she thinks soon it would be completely dark, then she can go to the garbage dumpsters and empty the litter bin right in front of her toes. It’s long been completely dark. Perhaps the soldiers from the nearby barracks are marching out for nighttime shooting, practicing for some secret sortie. Perhaps it is not even genuine lorries rushing by. In Ildikó’s head the pain is growing unbearable. It occurs to her she should turn around, go back up to her apartment, call Ervin to tell him straightaway that there is something more she needs to tell him about Pista Tavi that bears no delay, but which she will only tell if… Then something bursts in her head. With eyes wide open she acknowledges how the pain disappears at once. So suddenly as if it were a sign. A sign urging her not to go back, to leave Ervin alone, to forget everything, start a new life, step onstage again, play all the roles she had never played, to play as she alone can play.

—Zsolt Láng, Translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

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Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, william carlos williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator of various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of HYPERION, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

Sep 102015
 

Rossend_Collage

Vibrantly alive with the ancient spirit of the Mediterranean world, Rossend Bonás Miró is a Catalan poet, traveler, and teacher. For decades he has worked as a translator, interpreter, and lecturer in many countries, including Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, and Spain’s Ebro Delta region. Bonás is also the cofounder—along with fellow Catalan poet Arnau d’Oms—the pen name of Joan Vernet i Ribes (1952-2014)—of the independent press Els llibres del Rif (Rif Books). This press has been the imprint for several volumes by both poets.

Bonás published his first book of poems Preuat ostatge de les ciutats d’Orient (A Precious Hostage from Eastern Cities) in Barcelona in 1975. Another book of his poems El Emir de Tortosa (The Emir of Tortosa) (2003) was printed in the southern Catalan city of the same name where he lives when he is not making one of his regular trips to villages in the Moroccan Rif and Atlas Mountains. In fact, Bonás says that each of his books has been printed in a different city. Other volumes of poetry over the years have included Tothom ho sabia (Everyone Knew It) (1986) and Mercader d’essències (Essence Merchant) (1992). Summertime 2015 finds Bonás in northern Morocco, editing his forthcoming book of poems Perdut en la gentada (Lost in the Crowd), due to be printed in Tangier.

An artist of eclectic interests whose mission is to help build bridges of cultural understanding, Bonás uses both his Catalan given name Rossend and his adopted Arabic name, Rashid––as well as its Catalan cognate, Raixid.

In addition to his numerous books of poetry, Bonás has also collaborated on the creation of an illustrated Spanish-Arabic vocabulary book for students, about which he and the other authors write: “We hope that this book can be another channel for improving communication and understanding to build with the inherent richness of diversity, a better world where respect and peace hold sway.”

His ideals and poems echo the compassionate spirit of the great medieval Sufi poet Ibn Arabi (1165 – 1240) of Murcia, who wrote:

My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
a temple for idols and the circling pilgrim’s Kaa’ba,
the tables of the Torah and the scrolls of the Quran.

I follow the religion of Love:
whichever way Love’s camels turn,
that is my belief and the faith I keep.

In addition to a body of poems fascinated with the human spiritual journey towards union and understanding, and the non-human life of creation and the natural environment, Bonás is also a student of art, history, and culture both traditional and contemporary. He publishes his articles regularly in Fotent’s Blog (https://fotent.wordpress.com/). A son of Iberia, he is naturally fascinated with the intersection of European and Arabic influences that informs Spanish history, as shown in recent posts about the aesthetic power of Islamic art; the Spanish outpost city of Tétouan on the shore of North Africa; and the powerful, geometric compositions of glazed tile work of al-Andalus, ancient decorative art that influences Spanish and Portuguese design sensibilities down to the present day. Other postings by Bonás have focused on such important Catalan artists as the painter Joachim Patinir (1480-1524) whose landscapes were influenced by Hieronymous Bosch; the photographer Francisco García Cortés (1901-1976) who was a correspondent for the EFE Agency in Tetuan, a graphic collaborator on Diari d’Àfrica and an official photographer for the Spanish High Commission in Morocco; the great artist Antoní Clavé (1913-2005), a master painter, printmaker, sculptor and stage designer; and the painter and poster artist Josep Renau (1907-1982). Bonás’ fascination with the specific personality of different cities is evident in a recent post he wrote about the poetic symbolism of windows, with photographs of the many beautiful and different styles of windows in his city of Tortosa. His love of people and places also inspires a keen, clear, critical voice concerned with the problems of multinational socioeconomic policies that degrade life for many and prevent cultures from living healthy, progressive lives: https://fotent.wordpress.com/2015/04/26/la-menaca-del-sistema-economic-neoliberal/

As his friend and collaborator Arnau d’Oms (Joan Vernet i Ribes) said about him:

“Rossend Bonás’s poetic work goes hand in hand with his life, and thus, he has written poetry in the same way that some trees drip sap, and others provide us with lovely shade, while others give elderflower to clear our sight.

His books, published outside of commercial circles, are like rare jewels. Unusual discoveries. Simple, yes, but illustrated or designed by other artists.

Bonás is Catalan from Catalonia, where most people are not of any single race, although he claims to be among those with the deepest roots in this small country of transitions and permanences, with Iberian, Roman, and Saracen roots.

In his own style, he again mixes the unimagined with the unthinkable, the sacred with the profane, and recreates that time when the southern lands of Catalonia were Muslim and the northern frontier of Al-Andalus.”

On the matter of poetic composition, Bonás himself states: “The first raw material of poetry is sound, and that sound causes the reaction in the human brain. Over time, the reader knows that poetry, to capture all its nuances, should be read aloud. Or rather, should be recited or declaimed.” However, he affirms, there are those who read silently and “delight in pure literary love of the word, of the prosodic devices, of onomatopoeia, repetition and polysyndeton.” Either way, as far as the poet’s role in this relationship goes, Bonás contends that “When you finish a poem, you lose it, it’s no longer yours, you relinquish your authority over it to whoever reads it.”

In that spirit this article presents a generous offering of Bonás poems, selected by the poet himself, in their original Catalan and translated into English, which should provide readers with a splendid introduction to the verses of this timeless, visionary seeker.

— Brendan Riley


Als seus ulls

veig pregoneses
que no sé si hi són
ni si altres les veuen.

I see her eyes
deep proclamations
so deep I doubt
nor know if others see them.

* * *

Aquest vent que apareix
i desapareix sense avisar,
com els mals moments arriba
i, al cap de poc, se’n va.

Però torna,
insistent i regular,
i un bon dia fa tombar
la fulla més resistent
de garrofer o d’alzinar.

This wind that appears
and disappears without warning
comes like the worst moments
stays a while, flows away

But it returns
regular, insistent
and on any good day
it comes to tumble
the most resilient leaves
off the oak and carob trees.

* * *

Ígnia cabellera.
Encesa torxa
de rulls en cascada.
Volcànica lava.
El foc, semblava
que el diua per fora.
Però no, i ara!
És dins que cremava.

Her igneous hair
a burning torch
curling cascade
Lava from the volcano.
Like she was dressed
in a mantle of fire
But no, the perfect inversion
She was burning from the inside out

.

* * *

Wadi Lau I

Sota les palmeres de fulles remoroses
voldríem desxifrar el missatge del vent.
I a l’aigua de les sèquies, silenciosa,
espurnes de llum treu la lluna creixent.

.

Wadi Lau I

Under the palm trees’ murmuring leaves
we try to discern the wind’s message
And from the silent water pools
sparks of light engender the rising moon

.

* * *

.

—Si som en el temps,
que és moviment,
consiència pura;
si som consciència
en el còsmic moviment
i si és aquesta consciència
un privilegi…
¿per a què el vull, Senyor,
què n’haig de fer?—
rumia el pastor
mentre es bressola el ramat
amb la lenta i greu monotonia
dels cicles naturals.
-¿I no haguera pogut ésser
consciència d’ase o d’ovella,
i no haguera pogut ésser
atzavara, poniol, insecte
o la primera figa
que l’estiu madura?

If we reside in time
which is motion,
if we are consciousness
in the cosmic movement
and if this consciousness itself
constitutes a privilege
Why do I desire it, Lord
What business is it of mine?
Thus wonders the shepherd
while the flock meanders
with the slow solemn monotony
of the natural cycles.
And would not have been possible
consciousness of donkey or sheep
and would not have been possible
agave, mint, and insect
or the first ripening
fig of summer?

.

* * *

.

El pecador, que no en tenio prou amb el perdó, demanava, a més a més, l’esperança.

¿O hauré de veure com m’apago,
trista, anònima i lentament,
sense tan sols el comfort plaent
de l’esperança, resignant-me,
com el ruc corbat sota sa càrrega?

.

The Sinner, Not Satisfied with Being Forgiven, Asked For Hope As Well

Or will I have to pretend how I fade,
sad, anonymous, and slowly,
without even the pleasant comfort
of hope, resigned like the donkey
plodding beneath its heavy load?

.

* * *

.

Exposició col•lectiva d’Art basada en poemes de R. Bonàs

Aquesta exposició és el resultat d’una proposta en la que 12 artistes fan una lectura gràfica dels poemes de Raixid Bonàs.

1

Seguim en aquest món serè
enduts per remolins de passions
banals i no gens descabellades,
en un estiu accelerat que,
tot just començat, ja és ple.

2

La ment, ¿pot fer avinent
l’oblit de mi mateix
amb el ‘jo’ treballat
tan àrduament?

3

Seguint els cagallons
de les cabres de l’Olimp
pujàvem pels camins
flanquejats de margallons
baladres, atzavares i pins.

4

La realitat dels fets tossuts i quotidians
desafia, il•lògica, candor i fantasia.

5

Si simple titelles som
de la gran representació
al Teatre Universal…

moveu-nos els fils, Senyor,
que puguem representar
moltes funcions
en Vostre Honor
i per a satisfacció de tots!

6

Com descriure el dolor tens i larvat
després d’una separació definitiva?

S’endu el vent el lent treball dels anys
i l’íntim plaer de la mútua companyia.

.

Collective Art Exhibit based on the poems of R. Bonás

This exhibit is the result of a proposal in which twelve artists perform a graphic reading of the poems of Rossend Bonás.

1

We endure in this serene world
driven by whirlwinds of banal passions
still sane not at all hare-brained,
in an accelerated summer,
one freshly inaugurated
yet already teeming full

2

Can my mind be called
to recall my self-inflected
oblivion with the oh-so
arduously overwrought “I”?

3

Following the dark pellets dropped
behind by the goats from Olympus,
we pushed upwards along the paths
flanked closely by palmettos
oleander, agaves, and pines.

4

The reality of all
our stubborn daily deeds
illogically defies
candor and fantasy.

5

If we are merely marionettes
of the great representation
at the Universal Theater…

move our threads, Lord,
so we might mirror
a purposeful multitude
of movements
in Your Honor
meant to satisfy all!

6

How to describe the tense
and tightly wrapped pain
a dark cocoon
after a definitive separation?

The wind carries away the work of years
and the intimate pleasure of mutual company.

— Susana Fabrés Díaz & Brendan Riley

 

Rossend Bonas3

A native of Barcelona, Spain, Susana Fabrés Díaz is a teacher and artist. She wrote the first, working draft of these translations from the Catalan.

Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

Jul 082015
 

AUSSTELLUNG: DIE ERNST JANDL SHOWErnst Jandl  1925-2000

This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them… What Jandl’s wordplay accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too. — Julie Larios

reft and light

.

Ernst Jandl’s book Reft and Light opens with this word of warning from editor Rosemarie Waldrop: “Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate.” Notice that she doesn’t say “extremely difficult.” She says “impossible.” That doesn’t bode well for English-speaking readers who, like me, know only a few words in German – principally those used by fictional Nazis in old WWII movies – “Achtung! Verboten!” – or for readers who, also like me, have been puzzled by the long controversy over whether John Kennedy, in a 1963 speech, called himself a jelly donut or declared himself to be a citizen of Berlin (“Ich bin ein Berliner.”)

The jelly-donut controversy no doubt would have pleased Ernst Jandl, an Austrian poet and translator, whose work often explored the strange malleability of words. He was philosophically if not officially a member of  the Oulipo school of experimental poets (the moniker “Oulipo” formed from the French words Ouvroir  de Litterature Potentielle, meaning “Workshop of Potential Literature”) who played with formal constraints as a means of re-examining or re-awakening language. Inventive word-morphing, reconstructions, deconstructions and deliberately misdirected readings and soundings of words at the sentence, word and phoneme level – these were his strong suit, at least as far as Reft and Light is concerned. Waldrop’s note introducing the book helps explain why few people in the United States have heard of Jandl, despite his popularity among German-speaking readers. Reft and Light is one of only two collections translated into English (the other is Dingbat, translated by Michael Hamburger) and Jandl’s “poems” in this book are not lyrical in the traditional sense nor are they narrative. I’m not sure I would characterize most of them as poems; in fact, and I can’t recommend Jandl’s other work to you since I can’t speak German.  Reft and Light is not likely to satisfy people looking for poetry with a capital P. But for people looking at language at the word level and taking pleasure in innovation and experimentation, reading the book is like spending recess on a school playground.

I was handed Jandl’s book several years ago by Christine Deavel of Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore, Open Books. “You’re the perfect reader for this,” she told me, and she was right. I’m a recess junkie when it comes to poetry, which is not to say I can’t go back to the classroom and enjoy the quieter lessons when recess is over. But I admit to liking the dizziness of a ride on the dangerous Big Spinner, word-wise, especially if it creaks and groans at unnerving intervals, and even more so if I feel like I might just be thrown off by the G-forces at work, heels over head and away. Jandl’s book is for punsters, anagramists, riddlers, jumble solvers, Scrabble players, crossword addicts, and poets who respond to sound as much as they do to images and ideas. You get off the ride and don’t quite know which end is up.

So if his work is untranslatable, as Waldrop states, how successful is Reft and Light? The entirety of her Editor’s Note tries to explain:

Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate. But their procedures can be imitated. Here is an experiment: several American poets respond to each poem so that original is encircled by multiple English analogues. The responses (which range from close imitations to freewheeling versions that continue Jandl’s thinking into other semantic areas) form the first part of this book. The version that seems closest to Jandl’s text is usually the first to follow the German.

Part II presents, in roughly chronological order, poems by Ernst Jandl either left in their original form (including visual poems and poems that he wrote in English) or translated/adapted by Anselm Hollo or myself.

The characterization of the translations as “analogues” is a good one: they are comparable, but not equal to. They are not literal translations. They are re-interpretations; they “continue Jandl’s thinking” and find ways to express his thought-process in English. Take this short experiment (again, not what I would call a poem) where Jandl turns a simple counting list inside out:

reihe

eis
zweig
dreist
vieh
füllf
ächz
silben
ach
neu
zinc

The correct German numbers 1-10 would be ein, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn. Translated literally, the title means “series” and Jandl’s list reads (if I’ve got it right) ice, twig, fresh, cattle, fill, groan, syllables, oh, new, zinc. We hear the similarities in the German pairing – ein/eis, sieben/silben, etc.  But how to translate this into English when all the wordplay involves German sound variations? In Reft and Light, various poets try their best with a comparable English version of counting 1-10. The poet Keith Waldrop offers this basic possibility:

series

won
toot
treat
for
fife
sex
several
ate
nylon
tense

It’s a simple enough bit of play. I often asked my students at Vermont College of Fine Arts to give it a try, just to shake up the way they hear their own language (in the firm belief that we stop really hearing our own language because it’s too familiar – idiomatic speech is sometimes inaudible and metaphors are flattened by over-familiarity. Finding alternatives for the numbers is not hard. But if I asked my students to take it a step farther, to see if they could create a narrative of some kind out of the words, it became more difficult and more interesting. Here is an excerpt from Julie Patton’s extended variation on Jandl’s wordplay; her version incorporates both German and English equivalents and moves beyond sound imitation toward storytelling – it “sounds” like it could be counting from one to ten, but it’s not:

hide
wine
dry
for
fun
except
seepin’
out
‘nuf
said

Ray di Palma’s versions (five lists) even play with the title “series,” changing the title for each list to cherries, ceres, seers, jerries and cerise. This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them. In another example, “Otto Mops,” a univocalic, Jandl goes for the o’s to tie things together, sound-wise:

ottos mops trotzt
otto: fort mops fort
ottos mops hopst fort
otto: soso

otto holt koks
otto holt obst
otto horcht
otto: mops mops
otto hofft

ottos mops klopft
otto: komm mops komm
ottos mops kommt
ottos mops kotzt
otto: ogottogott

Okay: it’s not W.B. Yeats. But Jandl is not going for mystery and moonlight. He’s going for Abbot and Costello, in their classic skit, “Who’s on first?” He wants to make us sit up and make us notice how confusing and playful language is. With my meager German and a good dictionary, I can discern this loose story in the Otto poem: ottos pug defies / otto: away, pug, away / ottos pug hops away / otto: so so. // otto brings coke [can that be right?] / otto picks fruit / otto listens / otto: pug pug / otto hopes // ottos pug knocks / otto: come pug come / ottos pug comes / ottos pug throws up / otto: ohgodohgod.

Notice that the poem uses only the vowel “o.” And notice that the German words do more than rhyme, they morph in terms of sound: trotzt, fort, soso, koks, mops, obst, horcht, hofft, klopft, komm, kommt, kotzt, ogott. Elizabeth MacKiernan’s English version, below, uses only u’s and o’s, having changed Jandl’s o’s to ooh’s. Our Hero become Lulu rather than Otto – fair enough. MacKiernan loosely follows the narrative thrust of the original but her words rhyme a bit more, morph a bit less:

Lulu’s pooch droops
Lulu: scoot, pooch, scoot!
Lulu’s pooch soon scoots.
Lulu brooms room.

Lulu scoops food.
Lulu spoons roots.
Lulu croons: pooch, pooch.
Lulu broods.

Lulu’s pooch drools.
Lulu: poor fool pooch.
Lulu grooms pooch.

Lulu’s pooch poops.
Lulu: oops.

This play with vowels is typical of some of the best known work by Oulipo poets. The French writer Georges Perec made enough of a splash in 1969 with his 300-page lipogrammatic novel La disparition (in which the vowel “e” is never used) that a translation into English (The Void) was commissioned – the translator was Gilbert Adair.  This was followed three years later by a companion novel, Les revenentes in which no vowels other than “e” are used (it was translated by Ian Monk in 1996 and given the title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.) 

GeorgesPerecGeorges Perec

One of Jandl’s sound experiments is a little more haunting, less comedic; more zen, less Big Spinner:

canzone

ganz
ganz
……..ohne

völlig beraubt

canzone

ganz
ganz
……..ohne

völlig beraubt

Translated loosely, this says “all/ all / without // completely bereft // canzone // all / all / without // completely bereft.” Jandl arrives at this quiet moment by way of the original Italian word “canzone” (song, ballad) — to any German speaker, “canzone” sounds immediately like “ganz ohne,” which means “all without.” Gale Nelson offers up this English equivalent:

madrigal

sadly
sadly
………full

wholly undone

madrigal

sadly
sadly
……..full

wholly undone.

The English version doesn’t work quite as well because “sadly full” does not match “madrigal” quite as well as “canzone” matches “ganz ohne.” But it does continue Jandl’s thinking.  Jandl also offers up a form which changes how we see the relationship between two words when a single letter gets replaced by another. He places the words on the page so their similarity is clear (this isn’t rocket science: it’s easy to imagine a good elementary school language arts teacher having her students do the same):

….o
fr   sch
….i

In German, “frosh” means frog and “frisch” mean fresh. The Englsih translators do even better with this form:

…..i………………   is……………….o………………n…………..s
chmp   ||    poon   ||    str..ng   ||   bo   y ||  .re  . olve
….o……………….  ti……………….i……………….d…………..v

Occasionally, the serious side of play shines through, as in this poem:

tee……….:….ein stück
:
lieber…..:    tee
:
:
[egal]…..:
ich……….:   tee
:
:
fragt……:
[er nie].:tee

Craig Watson comes up with an excellent translation:

My…….:….T

:
liber…..:….tea
:
[fr]…….:
eterni:….tee
:
[equ]….:
all a…….:….tease

Is this a poem? I think this one is. Are some of the other, simpler experiments poems? Not in my opinion. What Jandl’s wordplay in Reft and Light accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. I was grateful that Christine Deavel put the book into my hands. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too.

Here’s one last Jandl poem, written in English late in his life and cited in the obituary the New York Times published when he died:

When born again
I want to be
a tenor saxophone
if it’s up to me,
theres gonna be
total promiscuity.

Ernst Jandl was born in Vienna in 1925 and died there seventy-five years later; he was called up into the German army during World War II but was strongly anti-Nazi and criticized the Austrian government for its cooperation with Germany during the war. I can’t tell you whether the majority of Jandl’s untranslated work consists of poems that play less and paint more. I’m only familiar with Reft and Light, which might be the sorbet in between other courses of a more substantial meal, serving to cleanse the palette. I do know that Jandl was voted one of the ten most important German-language poets of the 20th century by a group of 50 writers, scholars and critics; the fact that he has next to no name-recognition in this country makes him qualify as undersung by any standard.

As an experimental poet, Jandl is not to everyone’s taste – experimentation, by definition, is not mainstream, and to honor sound at the expense of image and meaning is dangerous. But an old-fashioned playground is dangerous, too.  At the very least, be brave, whether reader or writer or both: Climb up on the equipment and give it a spin. Try some of Jandl’s experiments: break up words, bend them. Above all, re-hear and re-fresh them. Meanwhile, keep the sound of that Abbot and Costello bit about “Who’s On First?” in your head. Why does that classic routine continue to appeal to us? Comedy is often located in miscommunication, and confusion makes us laugh, makes us wince, makes us listen more carefully and sends us new directions. Not a bad agenda for the creative spirit.

—Julie Larios

 

May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios  has contributed several Undersung essays to Numero Cinq over the last two years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.

Jun 302015
 

Julian Herbert

Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila, where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism.

         His English language debut came in February 2014, with the publication of “Mama Leukemia” (trans. Brendan Riley), a chapter from his novel Canción de tumba, which has been translated into Portuguese and Italian. 2014 also saw the publication of Jesus Libt Dich Nicht / Cristo no te ama (Christ Doesn’t Love You), a bilingual Spanish-German anthology of his poems translated and compiled by Timo Berger.

         In January 2015 Julián Herbert completed his novel La casa del dolor ajeno. Crónica de un pequeño genocidio en La Laguna. (The House of Someone Else’s Pain. Chronicle of a Minor Genocide in La Laguna ).

         La casa del dolor ajeno revisits a shameful event from Mexican history: the worst massacre of Chinese immigrants to have occurred in the Americas, which took place in the city of Torreón de Coahuila, in northern Mexico, between May 13th and 15th, 1911. As Herbert describes it:

         “The Chinese community that settled in that area were merchants. They even had their own bank. Part of the massacre had to do with resentment from the local people, but also envy from the Mexican businessmen. It was carried out at the behest of the bourgeoisie. After the Chinese were killed, their bodies were thrown into a common grave.”

         Herbert points out that some things have not changed in over a century:          

         “Mexico is full of pits filled with the bodies of people who disappeared. A few years ago in Coahuila, a whole town disappeared: 300 people were found buried in a common grave. And none of these cases ever get solved.”

         This includes the tragic events of September 2014, in which 43 Mexican student-teachers disappeared from Iguala, in the state of Guerrero.

         “In the case of the 43 students,” Herbert says, “the response from politicians shows an egregious level of cynicism and indifference,” and, in mordant summation adds, “I’m starting to get depressed.”

         Set in a hellish, crumbling Mexico City that refuses to die, Herbert’s story “Z” offers a wry psycho-sexual twist on the ever-popular zombie motif. The story, whose narrator might be the last sane man in Mexico, focuses on the tenuous trust between analyst and analysand, and ponders the problem of whether we are the engineers or willing victims of our own languid apocalypses.

         “Z” was originally published in Spanish in October 2014 in the multi-author collection Narcocuentos (Narco Tales) (Ediciones B).

—Brendan Riley

 

.

I SPEND THE MORNING talking on the phone with my analyst. My analyst’s name is Tadeo. Tadeo pretends to be an impartial judge but I think that he’d really prefer that I let him take a bite out of me. It couldn’t be any other way: they started slowly devouring him almost five months ago.

“This really isn’t a question of ethics,” he says. “This is about loneliness. What your increasing isolation means for you at an existential level.”

I almost burst out laughing: he talks about existentialism as if he were really alive. He’s a nice guy from UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I change the subject simply to avoid laughing about his condition.

“Y’know, it might be better if you come over and we can talk face to face. Or at least mouth to ear.”

“We’re already talking mouth to ear.”

“Through the door, I mean.”

“No, my friend,” he responds in a very sober tone, with the hypocritical tranquility instilled in him by his studies. “I’ve acquired the discipline of not sniffing my patients.”

“Except for Delfina,” I say, to rile him.

Tadeo guards a brief silence, then answers:

“Delfina doesn’t smell anymore. And she’s no longer my patient.”

For more than a year I’ve lived in a room on the fourth floor of the Majestic Hotel, overlooking the Zocalo, the great central square of Mexico City. Once a week, Tadeo comes over to my place and guides me through a session of psychoanalysis. At first he always came up to my room. We’d make ourselves comfortable ––he’d sit on the badly upholstered little armchair, I’d recline on my bed–– and chat with the television on low to make some background noise and to muffle the bloody carnivorous chomping sounds coming from my next-door neighbor’s room.

Tadeo was the most sensible man I’d ever met until Delfina (I’ve never seen her: I imagine that she’s quite pretty) seduced him and took, by way of tribute, several bites from his left forearm, infecting him and thereby destroying for me (without meaning to, I’m clear about that) six months of therapy.

Since then we’ve had to conduct our sessions through the insipid tones of the phone downstairs in the hotel vestibule.

“Human,” I say.

“Excuse me?”

“You mean that Delfina no longer smells like a human. Wouldn’t it be just the same if you phoned me from your office?”

“Human, yes . . . As far as coming over here, I swear I’m not doing it out of desperation. It’s a question of professionalism. Besides, who else was going to give you the message? There’s not a single soul left down here.”

He talks about professionalism but he’s had sexual relations with a number of his patients, and eventually fell for one of them. And now, for the sake of love, he’s let himself be transformed into a beast. Well, not entirely a beast: a transitional cannibal. I’ve said as much to him and he’s admitted it. Now he adds sadly:

“Maybe I should be your patient instead.”

It’s a polite thing to say. We both know that I’m a rotten person, a selfish and frightened master of ceremonies, incapable of helping anyone at all; never mind that half the world is currently mutating towards death or depression.

Tadeo says that it’s not a question of ethics but rather loneliness. What’s certainly true is that, lately anyway, it’s a question of food. I’ve been slipping out at night to look for some. That’s when there’s less of a chance of bumping into the ones I call mature sleepwalkers: they prefer to hunt by day, although their favorite time is sundown.

(There are no precise facts but it seems that the prolonged consumption of human flesh ends up destroying –among other things– their retina: the intense light damages them, and in the dark they’re as blind as moles. When they become completely blind they turn into carnivorous flowers: groaning invalids writhing about on the ground. They continue to be dangerous but being almost completely sedentary they’re relatively easy to avoid.)

At first I was frightened of going outside, so I lived on stale foodstuffs from the hotel kitchen: semi-rotten cutlets, rancid cheese, chocolate, frozen soups, dried fruit . . . . As the months went by, however, I gathered my courage, not only to undertake excursions in search of food in nearby stores, but also to have something resembling a social life. My greatest success in this area has been serving as master of ceremonies at the skateboard tournaments in Eugenia Alley.

My quests for food manage to provide me with everything from Pachucan empanadas to granola bars. From gallons of purified water to all the bottles of booze I could drink. The other day I found a bag of marijuana and another one stuffed with pills stashed behind the counter in an old printing shop. I put them back where I found them: I’m strongly opposed to any kind of illegal substances.

As long as nobody kills me, it’s all mine. The country has become a minefield of fangs and grinding molars but also a vast open air bargain. Thanks to the vain imaginings of some, whose willful denial impels them to keep performing their daily duties, I enjoy certain services formerly taken for granted, tasks that once made life with other humans unconsciously pleasant. For example, fresh milk in Tetra Briks in the morning. The truck keeps showing up, dropping off its deliveries and invoices at the 7-11 on the corner of Moneda and Callejón de Verdad; maybe they don’t notice that the store, which was looted four times in the last week alone, is a mere shadow of its former self. It has no regular workers anymore, only the occasional looters posing as cashiers. With their face like junkies and their backsides all bitten and gnawed away, they stand there, trembling like old boxers stricken with Parkinson’s, ringing up my selections even though they’ve only come around to steal the little that’s left on the shelves.

A few nights ago I found some excellent spoils: some nice packages of moldy falafel and humus, nearly two pounds of pistachios seasoned with garlic and chile de árbol, half a strip of Coronado caramel lollipops, a bottle of Appleton Estate, and an iPod that included –among some tolerably dark gems– Smetana’s From My Life string quartet… I waited until sunset on Friday to celebrate my discovery. My plan was to have a little picnic in the open air: I put on my headphones and, loaded with goodies from my raids, I went up to the Majestic’s observation deck.

When I relate all this to him, Tadeo returns to the line of analysis he’s been trying to use on me for the past month.

“Have you thought about why you did that?”

“I already told you why, to celebrate.”

“And you don’t think there’s any other reason? Some stubborn strain buried deep in your need to put yourself in danger?… You know that sunset is your riskiest time of day.”

I try to change the subject again but he insists:

“How do you think your neighbors took it? Have any of them followed you to the terrace?”

“A couple of them came up to catch a whiff of me, of course. It always happens. But they did it politely: they sat down several tables away from me.”

Except for Leah, a Jewish woman ––still perfectly human and healthy–– who lives on the second floor, and who only leaves the hotel to scrounge for pirate DVDs around the Bellas Artes Metro station, all my neighbors in the Majestic are bi-carnal. Although they’ve not yet decided to attack me, they’ll follow me anywhere with a desperately transparent look, the very look that used to belong exclusively to the brain-fried crystal meth smokers on the street.

Tadeo just keeps insisting:

“Did you say anything to them?”

He’s really starting to bug me.

“I didn’t really pay much attention to them. I was keeping my eye on the soldiers.”

“What soldiers?”

“The ones who show up every afternoon to take down the flag.”

Every day it’s the same routine: just before sunrise, a military squad marches along the esplanade of the Zocalo, unfolding an immense green, white, and red flag. They open it to its full size and then, after attaching it to a thick rope, they raise it up a giant metal and concrete flagpole, perhaps one hundred-fifty feet tall. This accomplished, they depart, marching away with the same gallantry as they arrived. The flag hangs there all day, fluttering and waving in the wind, magnificent, floating above thousands of shambling cadavers and hundreds of hungry carnivorous plants crammed together around the Metropolitan Cathedral. In the afternoon, shortly before sunset, the soldiers return to take down the gigantic flag: they perform their martial ballet in reverse motion, lowering, unhooking, and folding the linen of the motherland with exasperating solemnity. Part of their ordinance is to show up perfectly armed. It’s not just for show: almost every day they experience the tedious obligation of executing a few creatures that, completely out of their minds, attack the squad despite their uniforms. The soldiers usually fire at point blank range, directly above the temple: the .45 caliber slugs strike the flagstones with a dull crack, and the heads of the flesh-eaters, splitting wide open, rehearse the final Grand Slam of Mexico City. Even so, the soldiers find it quite difficult to completely avoid getting bitten; they rarely all escape unscathed. That must be why, invariably, more than one of them stumbles or tries to hide his stumps by readjusting the dirty bandages that cover his flaking, peeling flesh.

Almost the entire army suffers from some phase of the contagion. Who knows if this is due to their ceaseless patrols or their long, lonely nights in the barracks. While it’s true that the best vaccines are destined for the armed forces, it’s also true that on a daily basis (or at least that’s what CNN says: our own national media is completely extinct) cells of deserters appear, serving as security for roving bands of wormoisseurs. That’s how anything works that still works around here: corrupting everything in its orbit until it all becomes an allegorical mural of destruction.

However much these events resemble any other major epidemic, our situation began with a pair of isolated cases, indistinguishable from the furor usually caused by the sensational and now disappeared (or, depending how you see it: omnipresent) red line journalism. First, a construction worker murdered his lover and co-worker in the area near a building site. The authorities found fragments of intestines and human hearts roasted on a piece of sheet metal over some coals. During the trial, the suspect committed suicide. A year later, a young poet and professor from the University of Puebla was sent to jail when the authorities searched his refrigerator and found pieces of his dead girlfriend, which he used for masturbating. Although no one demonstrated that he’d killed her or consumed her flesh, the symptoms that this individual presented in the months to come left no room for doubt: he was ground zero for a new reality breaking out along the border, beyond the animal species and the plant and animal kingdoms: a walking virus.

The first person to come to Mexico to study the phenomenon was the English scientist Frank Ryan, a virologist whose theory proposed, in general, that humanity’s tremendous evolutionary leap forward was not owing to our DNA connection to other mammals but to the great percentage of viral information absorbed by the human genome. What at first seemed a polemical intuition capable of explaining sicknesses like AIDS or cancer turned into Ryan’s Evolutionary Law or the Clinamen of the Species: all organic entropy will eventually lead to the triumph of an entity neither alive nor dead, whose only activity will be to feed and reproduce itself by invading host organisms.

The most atrocious thing about our epidemic, and what makes it distinct from any other, is its irritating slowness. Once the sickness is contracted, the organism is defined by two characteristics: first, the unstoppable anxiety of having to feed on human flesh ––an impulse heightened by olfactory stimulation––; second, a gradual multiple sclerosis directly proportional to the quantity of human flesh consumed. It’s here where the individual willpower affects the processes, because one’s capacity for restructuring gluttony and administering consumption (such ridiculous but actual socioeconomic similes are issued daily by the Secretary of Health) define the speed at which the transformation will take place.

So far no formal catalog exists to describe the exact phases of the entity’s devolution. In my hours of leisure (which are many) I’ve derived four categories that I’ll here offer for the consideration of future carnivegetal realms:

The Transitional Cannibal: this refers to the phase in which my psychoanalyst currently finds himself. It can last from a week to a year, depending on the victim’s previous health, dietary habits, and experimental drug usage (“Retroviral and antipsychotic drugs have proven effective,” Tadeo told me the other day with a professorial thrill in his voice). In this phase, the infected person loses many of their vital functions, which allows them to stay alive while eating very little. Their interaction with his surrounding environment doesn’t change very much; for example, this group includes the President of the Republic and all his prominent detractors, opposition party leaders, many doctors and teachers, and almost all the business people that remain active. The only trait that distinguishes them from someone like me is that they show withdrawal symptoms ––nausea, dizziness, hyperventilation–– when they detect the smell of normal, healthy human beings.

The Bicarnal Beast: the individual suffering this phase is nearly unable to resist the temptation to take a bite out of you but, still governed by shame, delivers their overture with the classic exaggerated politesse of the well-bred Mexican: “Would you kindly allow me to accompany you, sir?” or some such courtesy. They turn out to be the most repulsive ones. I call them bicarnal because, to soften their anxiety, they deceive themselves by eating pounds and pounds of beef, pork, or lamb. I’ve come upon them in shattered minimarts, wolfing down frozen hamburgers straight out of the box. Once I even saw, from the terrace at the Majestic, the way in which a group of them sacrificed a fighting bull in the Zocalo (God knows where they managed to find it) and then devoured it’s raw flesh right there on the flagstones. I also call them junkies or wormoisseurs: their principal post-human activity is the buying and selling of cadavers. They are the lords and masters of what was once the Historic Center of the nation’s capital city.

The Mature Sleepwalker moves a little clumsily, with a crooked shambling gait, and is always filthy with bloodstains from eating any living thing that happens to cross its path. It’s blind and weak and doesn’t utter a single word; beyond its terrifying aspect, it’s simply a depressing creature. Not really very interesting. Relatively scarce, its condition represents the shortest stage of the infectious process.

Lastly, The Blossom: the immortal aspect of what we will all soon become: nascent vegetative man-eaters in a perpetual and pestilent state of putrefaction. As the sclerosis overtakes them, Blossoms, with their last remaining shreds of instinct, search for some place where they can drop down undead. Although I’ve occasionally seen these flesh-eating flowers on their own, you usually run into groups of them, almost as if the need for socialization was the last human trait to die. Once I saw one of these living cadavers remain standing on two feet. But normally they end up stretched out on the ground, whether it be in the street or locked inside rooms, or sometimes on benches, planter boxes, fountains, the hoods of cars . . . . More than actually moving about, they suffer from spasms. They clamber over one another, biting each other, snapping at anything that moves near them, ceaselessly opening and closing their jaws clack clack clack clack clack all night and day, the sound of a teletype in an insane asylum. At first it kept me from sleeping, and later gave me long nightmares, but lately it has become a sweet lullaby.

The largest garden of flesh-eating flowers that exists grew spontaneously around the Metropolitan Cathedral, along one side of the Zocalo, facing the patio of my hotel . . . . Could it really be any different in a Catholic country? Not only do the terminally ill in this epidemic keep arriving at all hours: every day also delivers an almost industrial quantity of the nourishment they require. Every morning finds rows of buses parked around the Zocalo. The buses disgorge groups of fervent pilgrims who pray to God for the world’s salvation and, as a test of their faith, try to pass through the bramble rows of teeth separating them from the doors of the cathedral. Nobody ever even makes it halfway through the atrium: they’re all devoured alive in just a few minutes. That keeps the garden well watered with fresh blood. If Mexico weren’t already the vast cemetery that it is, this perilous garden would be considered the country’s most peculiar tourist attraction.

As my session comes to a close, Tadeo asks:

“So, are you going to come over to install it? . . . . I live in La Condesa, really close to Avenida Amsterdam, a block and a half off Insurgentes, along Iztaccíhuatl. Just get off the metro at Chilpancingo. It’s on the sixth floor. You can’t miss it.”

I think it over a bit.

“You don’t even need to come see me,” he insists. “We can do the whole thing over the intercom.”

“It’s not about you. I just never go that far.”

“Come on, man. Nothing’ll happen. I go out every day and nothing happens.”

“Sure, but you have a car.”

“Consider it an exercise in socialization within the frame of therapy: one way or another you’ve got to go on living in our world.”

In the end he convinces me and we agree that next Monday (today is Thursday) I’ll go by his apartment to install a satellite television hookup.

“On one condition,” I clarify: “None of this shit about doing everything over the intercom. I want to see you. I want to see your house. And Delfina, too, of course.”

“What for?” he asks, suspicious.

“I don’t know . . . . To see what kind of beauty could get you to agree to become a human sirloin steak.”

Now it’s Tadeo who’s unsure. But 142 TV channels and 50 different music stations, as well as 10 hardcore porn sites and an all-access password for Pay Per View––all for free––is the kind of high quality blackmail that nobody, not even a Lacanian psychoanalyst and cannibal, could ever resist.

“It’s a deal,” he says.

He hangs up the phone.

I consider myself the ruler of this realm but once, up north, I was the ruler of a different one: regional maintenance manager for one of the most important satellite television companies in the world. For years I accumulated a huge assortment of things in my desk drawer: all kinds of keys, serial numbers, computer chips, cards, code numbers. After the first outbreaks of the epidemic, I moved to Mexico City and brought with me masses of tools and toys and doodads. These small bunches of talismans represent the multitasking treasure that I sometimes spend in place of money: for example, I can use them to place bets in the skateboarders’ casino on Eugenia Alley, where young skaters leap over long rows of the bodies of full-blossom cannibals lying side by side on the ground; the kind of thing you used to see at monster truck shows. We spectators bet to see who can jump the most bodies on their skateboard. Some, the best skaters, survive. Most of them end up with their calf muscles chewed to raw meat from the strong, virulent bites. I’m not complaining. Sometimes, in that hippodrome of cadavers and imbeciles, I win enough money to rent myself a toothless whore. And when things don’t go quite so well, I pay off my bets by installing residential satellite service in some building in the neighborhood: the worst thing that can happen in a day is that I end up having to scale a wall and cross over twenty yards of rotting flesh without a safety harness.

The thing is, everybody wants to keep on zapping: surfing a never-ending wave of 140 different channels even as they’re being ripped to pieces by the love of their life. Everybody, including the dead.

—Julián Herbert; Translated from the original Spanish by Brendan Riley, 2015

.

Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico.

§

Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuente

Jun 162015
 

Lady Rojas Benevente

 

Lady Rojas Benavente’s poetry fuses her countless — and sometimes clashing — identities as a Peruvian-Québecoise woman, who immigrated to Canada in the seventies and has lived in the interstices of various nations ever since. While some of her poems evoke a certain nostalgia for an idyllic childhood in Peru or describe the country’s history and its Incan culture, others are starkly candid about the realities of the immigrant experience and existence as the proverbial “Other.” In the poems chosen for Numéro Cinq, Lady Rojas Benavente playfully depicts her upbringing, schooling and first teaching jobs. Her meticulous manipulation of the sounds of the Spanish language is difficult to render into English so the translations are instead instilled with a teasing tone. These poems come from Rojas Benavente’s collection L’Étoile d’eau/Estrella de Agua published in 2006 by France’s prestigious L’Harmattan in a bilingual (Spanish and French) edition translated by Nicole Barré.

—Sophie M. Lavoie

.

Monterrico

Encierro interior
biblioteca redonda
leo a Rilke,
y me imagino
a Beauvoir
encima de Sartre.

Pasadizos circulares
donde recorren
mozas detrás de los monjes
y se les agria la leche
entre las piernas.

Confesionario barroco
he pecado padre,
peco con mi hermano,
y pecaré hijo mío.

Comedor gigante
saciamos
los vientres
cuartos que engordan
mañana,
tarde
y noche.

Auditorio inmenso
lucimos
la fe
en la música
la esperanza
en la religión
y la caridad
no me acuerdo para quién.

Patio al aire libre
se anuncia
que tomaron
a los guerrilleros
que cayó Heraud en su río
y todos los comunistas.

A santiguarse,
a comulgar,
a rogar por todos los maleados
y en especial por mí
pecadora entre los hombres.

.

Monterrico

Interior seclusion
round library
I read Rilke,
and imagine
Beauvoir
on top of Sartre.

Circular alleys
where lasses
run behind the monks
and the milk turns sour
between their legs.

Baroque confessional
father I have sinned,
I sin with my brother,
and I will sin, my son.

Gigantic dining hall
we sated
our tummies
rooms that get fatter
morning,
afternoon
and night.

Immense auditorium
we show off
our faith
in the music
the hope
in religion
and charity
I don’t remember who for.

Open air courtyard
it is announced
that they caught
the guerrilla fighters
that Heraud fell in his river
with all the communists.

Off to cross yourself,
to take communion,
to pray
for all the degenerate
and especially for me
sinner amongst men.

(Note: Javier Heraud Pérez was a guerrilla fighter and poet who died at the age of 21 (1963), fighting with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) in Perú.)

.

Chorrillos

Atrás el malecón de Chorrillos
y las jóvenes
se hechizan en sus mareas.
Sus bustos se mecen
y en el vaivén del agua
giran sus cometas.

Leemos Trilce
Vallejo les guiña abiertamente
“Y hembra es el alma de la ausente.
Y hembra es el alma mía”
les hace cosquillas
“Lavandera del alma…
que sí puede…
azular y planchar todos los caos.”

Cerca el bramido alocado
de todos los suspiros
una se ahogó de pena
y se lanzó en el corazón de la ballena
con un grito hembra
de tres agonías.

Las monjas rezan,
callan,
anotan,
sepultan,
ríen,
Cristo continúa
en su cruz.

La primera espina ajena
se grava
en el pizarrón inmenso
de mis veintiún años.

.

Chorrillos

Beyond Chorrillo’s pier
young girls
become bewitched by the tides.
Their busts rock
and with the water’s swaying
their comets swirl about.

We read Trilce
Vallejo winks at them openly
“And female is the soul of the absent-she.
And female is my own soul.”
he tickles them
“laundress of the soul…
yes she can…
blue and iron all the chaoses.”[1]

Not far the wild roar
of all the sighs
one girl suffocated from sorrow
and threw herself into the belly of the whale
with a feminine shriek
of three agonies.

The nuns pray,
hush,
take notes,
bury,
laugh,
Christ remains
on his cross.

The first foreign thorn
damages
the immense blackboard
of my twenty-one years.

.

Río Rímac

Tu agua golpea los pedrones
y corre veloz
por tu cintura limeña.
Coqueteas
silbando entre la maleza.

Colegio del Rímac
tu vaho de letrinas
me revuelve
la papa a la huancaína.
Los muchachos duermen
sobre las carpetas.
No hay psicología
ni lógica
que los despierte
después de ocho jornadas.

Visto minifalda
y me pifean,
les crece el macho.
Señorita
qué quiere decir
polución
y sueño latente
y sexo?

En un instante eterno,
la sierra calla
te seca la matriz
ya no hay cauce
sino un basural inmenso
que como gangrena
va borrando tu “fina estampa”.

Los chicos giran alrededor
de la loca,
la acorralan,
la pellizcan, la manosean.
Un día se desaparece.
Se cuelga
del cable del televisor
que le regaló su mecenas.

Lloro al joven-niña
mirándote Rímac
con tu pus a cuestas.

.

Rímac River

Your water hits the pebbles
and runs quickly
skirting Lima.
You dillydally
swishing through the brush.

Rímac middle school
a whiff of your latrines
shakes up
my Huancayo-style potatoes.
The children sleep
on their binders.
There is no psychology
nor logic
that will wake them
after eight workdays.

I wear a miniskirt
and they jeer at me,
their manliness grows.
Miss
what do wet dream
and suppressed desire
and sex
mean?

In an eternal instant,
the mountains are speechless
your spring dries up
there is no longer any riverbed
but a huge heap of garbage
like gangrene
gradually expunges your “elegant fascia.”

The boys encircle
the crazy lady,
corral her,
pinch her, grope her.
One day she disappears.
She hangs herself
with the television cable,
a gift from her benefactor.

I weep for the young girl
watching you, Rímac,
burdened by your purulence.

—Lady Rojas translated by Sophie M. Lavoie

.

Lady Rojas Benavente is a Professor at Concordia University. Her PhD (1991) is in Hispanic Literature from Laval University and her current research on Peruvian Women’s Narratives: Violence, Racism and Gender in National Post-Independence was funded by SSHRC (2011 – 2014). She has published 8 books (2 of which are poetry) and over 50 articles in Latin American women’s literary work, especially on Peruvian and Mexican authors. She is president of the Society for Literary Criticism of Spanish American Women Writers’ work (CCLEH) and has served as a Board member of several publications such as Alba de América, a literary journal from the US, and Voces, a Peruvian cultural magazine. She lives in Laval, QC.

sophie lavoie

Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Vallejo, César. The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition. Clayton Eshleman, Ed. & Trans. Berkely/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.
Jun 112015
 

game-for-real-web-294

Richard_Weiner2

Long recognized in Europe as one of the most important Czech writers of the twentieth century, Richard Weiner’s surrealistic fiction, often compared to Kafka’s, is now available for the first time in English with the publication of The Game for Real by Two Lines Press. Described by translator and Weiner scholar Benjamin Paloff as a “novel-in-two-novellas,” The Game for Real plumbs the subconscious mind through two metaphysical mysteries: The Game of Quartering and The Game for the Honor of Payback (read the Numéro Cinq review here.)

In the following excerpt from The Game for the Honor of Payback, the nameless protagonist travels aboard a train en route to Paris, a brief interlude between the principle settings in this tale of estrangement. Although the nameless man shares the train compartment with a jovial group of people, he remains isolated, the narrative style mimicking his feelings of alienation by juxtaposing the surreal landscape of his consciousness with a naturalistic description of the other travelers. Representative of Weiner’s prose and Paloff’s masterful translation, the third-person narration elucidates the nameless man’s anxious state of mind through symbolic, imagistic language, and in the world of Weiner’s psychological projections, we see the reflection of our own insecurities, our own fears.

The publisher Two Lines Press granted permission to publish this excerpt. The reviewer would like to thank Benjamin Paloff for his personal communication.

—Frank Richardson

From The Game for Real

Richard Weiner; Translated by Benjamin Paloff
Two Lines Press

THE TRAIN OF THIS auxiliary line ran daily, but it wasn’t used to it. It was a homebody. Three hundred sixty-five departures a year, and each one as tediously awkward as the frightened excursion of an antediluvian aunt. Express trains, which make sense to everywhere and nowhere, carry people whose yesterdays have all been shed behind them; they take them to tomorrows, which are innumerable. On express trains, everything is possible, express trains bar nothing. – This little train, however, was shambling in vain: it was already far out of town, and yet it couldn’t be rid of it. It drew it behind; the town was inside it,its presence petty, bespeaking sulkiness and hardship, and like them it lined the horizon, the little town calling itself importunately, pitifully to mind, like a dog barking behind a truck: nothing, but so puffed-up that what had been there could no longer find room for itself. Love, let’s say, had boarded the train; love, which might alter the world’s appearance; hatred had boarded the train, pledged to the same miracle; hostility toward life and death had boarded the train, or else it was a fidelity that depersonalized people into virtues—it was loaded with destinies, sins, and saintly deeds, invisible as atoms and heavy as worlds—but the train got the better of everything: it squeezed down everything that was within it, to the point of fussiness. A single chance remained: the transfer stop. The little train was carrying an impatience for the transfer stop.

There one awaits the express to Paris. The little train pulls into the station, still not entirely awake. Under a low, yet already promising sun, the chaotic optimism of a September morning, which befriends the sleepers returning to cities from their vacations. The tracks awaken to their infinitude with such enthusiasm it’s as though they’ve discovered it today for the first time. It has dawned on the warehouses that they are significant and anonymous, they’re even beginning to attain a barbarian beauty. A platform full of people. They marvel at the reassuring sense of their solidarity, but they marvel even more at the fact that they haven’t discovered the reason for this sureness: yet it’s as delectable as an ample vacation breakfast in the mountains. – So far, nothing has yet shattered this superhuman concord, but a spry inkling that there was worldly disorder nearby has already snuck in; it’s imponderable and pronounced. Heads turned to the right as if on command. The train was still far away down the ruler-straight track, so far away that they guessed its arrival not so much by the blackpoint into which it withered, but by the overbearing white plume with which it announced itself, and the immense din of this as-yet unheard announcement was such that it overpowered everything, everything and everything. It was the din of an obstinate and disciplined dominance that subjugates while reassuring and ennobling. You might think of the Pax Romana: that’s sort of how it was rushing, at the head of proud and perceptive legions. A throng of latecomers descended onto the platform. Boys and girls. They were laughing and shouting. One, large, proud, with straight chestnut hair, is next to him, dancing, stepping back. He was dancing his courage, but he was dancing it for one of the girls (you could immediately tell), and you could tell immediately which one. It was the one who, being too happy, was the only one brooding: her conquest was still a flower unto itself; it had happened last night. The platform was now entirely subject to the onrushing train-tyrant, beside whose arrival there was nothing in the universe at this moment that would be “worthy”; and on the platform the shouting throng, for whom the only thing “that’s worthy” was last night, because that’s when the two had met; this was a cluster of the free within a crowd of the enslaved. They alone were not waiting. They were going to meet the emperor, who was coming to meet them. The carefree among the solemn, the unhurried among the bustling, they roared and skipped all the more provocatively for being oblivious. The train! If they miss this one, they’ll catch the next. The nine-thirty train’s as good as the eight. They cared about the direction, which is invariable, not about the trains, which are innumerable.

The locomotive was coming in on the first track; it was only inadvertently—for the rambunctious group fascinated him—that he’d caught sight of the train’s eccentric, wheels, and rod. A fleeting dissatisfaction: that the relationship between the dizzying speed of arrival and the nearness of the goal, where that speed would be impressively renounced, seems incongruous to him, as always. – He’s lost sight of himself. The cluster dashed for the car it had arbitrarily selected; it dashed as though betting on a lottery number, knowing that there was no reason not to bet on any other number: that’s why, by all that is holy, it won on just the number it had bet on. The train exerted all its will and worked itself down to a spare trot. He saw it all, waiting for the door that would stop in front of him. Why run after the car he’s selected when there’s one, when there’s surely one that will stop right in front of him? Why bet if he knows for sure that he has to win something? He was standing here, waiting, disengaged, for it was to no purpose. And while he was waiting thus, that is, waiting while awaiting nothing, all of a sudden he discovered, just as we discover something that doesn’t concern us, that he was unhappy.

No, he didn’t discover his unhappiness so much as that he was unhappy. He beheld it with all his senses, each of which had as though assumed additional sight—perhaps to compensate for some enigmatic virtue of his.

He beheld it out of the blue, having anticipated anything but just this. It was a surprise for which amazement failed. He beheld that he was unhappy. He beheld it like a thing that is quite peculiar, though by no means awful; a thing apart from everyday reality, yet not at all imagined. It was a vision, but so cohesive that it outlasted even the shock of physical torpor, that is, the moment when he stepped forward to board. This thing—that is to say: that he was unhappy—gripped him, even though it accompanied him like a trusted friend, even though, like an atmosphere, it had became his environment, even though he carried it with care and respect.

The express had already departed again; with a tread each time more drawn out and pinioned. At last it took a shot at levitation, and a lucky one; it encouraged it with the bribes of intermittent bounces off its soles. The train became a self confident gale. Now, once again, there was nothing besides the rumbling that had begun somewhere where individual destinies had ceased, and that would become somewhere where any destiny could emerge. The travelers’ past had been obliterated, they had not yet arrived at the future that would sort them all out again: they were for the most part from among the favored, each one empowered by all the others, and their lack of skepticism was multiplied by their glee. –He, too, was aware of this, but only as information. Yet what he knew was that he was separate from that simultaneously destructive and unifying solidarity. There is no centrifugal force powerful enough to part him from the broodingly unexcited phantasm “I’m unhappy.” There is no centrifugal force that would pull him back into that forgotten self, like a Segner sprinkler spouting from a spinning wheel of destinies that had ceased being destinies. He is apart, unsociable, monstrous.

These monotonous testimonies! He’s asked his neighbor whether he might place his attaché on top of his thick rucksack. He has to depend on someone: he was coming off as affable, he even borrowed a smile (from where?); he sought his neighbor’s eyes so obtrusively that he found them, but in vain: consent was mumbled; the eyes, averted. And the person opposite him, a lady whose lips prepared so many times to ask a question, which she finally took to the adolescent, though he was sitting so far away! (It was just the one who’d been dancing for that happy throng; he replied—astonishingly!—so politely, obligingly, and almost sadly.) And the talkative conductor who misheard his query, as though professionally; his query alone . . . Right . . .

That he’s unhappy is a limpid phantasm, and it is also he: the two, inseparable. He’s not scared of it. As a companion it is seldom encouraging, but that it would weigh him down: no! –It searches patiently, ransacks itself, digs into itself, thinking itself simultaneously both the soggy finger and the fisherman who wants to find earthworms in there, and the more, the better; it searches the worm-soil, and with so certain a certitude finding itself that it has to guard against self-congratulation for so great an ardor: well no, not really, as many worms as it seems it finds there, it’s nothing against how many it won’t find; not even close. It’s just: where, where do they come from, all these misunderstandings, disagreements, losses? Where is it from, that unbridgeable hiatus between what he says and actually does and what can be heard and seen from his words and actions? Between what he’s intended and what he’s expressed? Between what he’s wanted to do and what he’s had to do? Where? From this thing that materialized so suddenly, transparently, and convincingly amid the screeching of the axles and the racket of cheerful country youths, from this thing so immaterial yet existing, from this thing shining with a kind of faint, stable, and interior moonlight, from this serious, real, calm, and collected thing. How to begrudge, how to bemoan an attribute so loyal, constant, and innocent! More and more he sees that he is unhappy. But no, that’s not really how it is; the fact that he’s unhappy—this thing made for his sake already long ago and decreed once and for all—he sees with increasing clarity, subtlety, persistence, and bitterness, but astonishingly he sees it bitterly without having experienced its bitterness, without a grudge, without bemoaning or lamenting.That’s how it is. It is neither weirder, nor more unfair, nor more hopeless than being happy, deserving, or famous, it’s pretty much like being loved by someone. That’s how it is. That’s how it is: this is his world, his share, his reward. The sun of his day and the stars of his night. And because it is so, all he needs now is to make a rather slight effort: to say “yes,” and from the fact that that’s how it is something even more cosmically positive will emerge, something that could not and cannot be anything else . . . and that’s all there is to say.

Benedictine Mill and its ignominy, and the spiteful and insidious town, and the frenzied circuit closed the previous night by that monstrous and unadulterated calm: to be compensated with money for a loved one’s ugliness (how majestically foul this love is!)—what remains of ignominy, spitefulness, and frenzy if we know that we are under the protection of this eternally present, broody-looking attribute, next to this thing whose unwittingly evil eye no prank will cheer up, nor deflect from us? That’s how it is. Why say that it could just as well be some other way if—and who cares if it is—we’re the only ones who know, we and no one else, that now and then we maybe feel like something else? Perhaps something better? But if there’s no choice, then what’s worse, and what’s better? –“I’m unhappy” isn’t threatening, it’s not scary; it simply is, and it’s one of those rare things that doesn’t go sit somewhere else. How loyal it is, how self-sacrificing this inscrutable and indiscernible thing outside us is, to which we have no obligations. It answers for mistakes and blunders, it shields from wrongs, it assumes failures and shame upon itself. It’s the screen he is safe behind; and right away, again, the sacrificial lamb he redeems himself with; and right away, again, the confessor with absolution. That he’s despised by them? But out of ignorance! That he’s treated unfairly? But out of misunderstanding! That he’s unappreciated and deprived? What does it matter, so long as there’s this “I’m unhappy” of his, behind which and within which his innocence, his human worth, and his unrecognized right have found refuge? – “I’m unhappy” is broody, but not dismayed; poor, but tidy; weak, yet not cowardly. To him it imparted so suspiciously great a respect that he was awash in anxiety as to whether he might have started to love sinfully. He was seized with some puritanical fear that he might be flirting with incest.

They were alone; that is, he was alone. In the unifying whoosh of the express train, slavishly and proudly alone. The rest had already lent themselves out to each other; they deserved each other, they communicated, they understood each other. They understood, without talking it out, all the way to the point of collaborating on that circle with which they circumscribed the solitude they’d assigned to him. Each one did only a section, but it fit the sections entrusted to the others so precisely that a literal circle emerged, a circle in the middle of which were him and his exclusion and his “I’m unhappy,” which he looked in the eye with suspicious pride. It was a circle of the spontaneously formed and colloidally diffuse tale of his leprosy, it was the guard of the healthy against the plague. He knew this, he didn’t suffer for it; he asked his “I’m unhappy” questions; it answered him with a melancholic, yet encouraging, smile. He was alone, he was grieving, he was dejected but—no, he wasn’t dejected; “I’m unhappy” was a sanctuary. What more can we ask for if we have a refuge?

A jolly, corpulent gentleman was telling a story; he was dumping it onto the person sitting opposite him (again, the inspiring youth from the platform). He began intimately; his neighbor added the punctuation with guffaws that, though sparing and concisely courteous, were getting longer and taking on an infectious virulence. The storyteller didn’t take his eyes off them, he was sizing them up, and then, as though having judged that they had grown to a size worthy of a counterpoint, he encouraged them and himself, and the slapping of the neighbor’s thigh became more frequent and substantial. The express train, too, finally eased off its enthusiastic levitation; it landed and dashed now only with attenuated, hulking strides. – The private joke was slowly being made public, admiring itself, reveling in its increasing gravity. And suddenly—as if it had remembered that it was actually that tiny crystal in which a helpless supersaturated solution had found its purpose—the sundry laughs ran to and fro like crazy shuttles and wove a net that no one wanted out of. But despite its having been woven with a speed that was utterly insane, it was careful not to miss him. The entire compartment had been as though gathered into a corner, where the overstuffed words were gushing, along with the youthful laughter that had been patronizingly surrendered: a fairy-tale prince, too happy to shy away from a graceless woodsman’s joy. – He, the whole time alone with himself, he, the whole time sad and with a torturously senseless dignity, for he was boasting of something (and knew it) that hurt. He didn’t surrender, not even when they started to dance the belly laugh, whipping into the walls like a downpour onto a slapdash rooftop, a shower as well as steam, both water and its benefaction. –

And just then, a settling down: a sudden, swift, noise pregnant silence. He looked up: the dancer had stretched out his hands, on the fingers of which—like puppet strings—was the travelers’ unbounded attention.

“He’s going to sing! Attention!”

And a solo, as notarially somber as hushed laughter:

“Dans le jardin de mon père …”

The refrain and chorus buried the solo, as the masquerade procession buries the buffoon’s monologue.

“Auprès de ma blonde …”

The refrain, a good-natured rascal, ruminated over what might be left of the individuals.

The people in this train compartment got along as no one had gotten along before, as no one would get along again: through words that were not the words of any of them.

And he suddenly understood that a great happiness had burst in here, that in which each would lose his trace, finding the trace of those similar to himself, and he is following it greedily.

His defiance broke into torrential relief: this is happiness! –Now he wanted it.

“Qu’il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon …”

He joined in, he felt like a fish in water.

“Qu’il fait …”

He shrieked into silence, into a silence ordered by the dancer’s outstretched hands.

“Hold on! That sounded off. . .Who’s spoiling it?” The eyes of the entire compartment are simultaneously upon him; halberdiers clearing the way; and behind them, the dancer’s finger, like the finger of a public prosecutor:

“It’s that gentleman there! Please, don’t spoil it for us . . .”

The song rolled out again like a ball in a steep trough; if only it could know what it was rolling through!

He, however, cast a timid glance to the side, where his encouraging “I’m unhappy” had still been sitting a moment before. Something shabbily diaphanous was sitting there. It had long, groomed eyelashes over ashamedly downcast eyes. It had the attractive and sticky-sweet smile of the fine-looking man from yesterday. It was only now that this yesterday was making itself manifest in its hidden truth. It was like a morsel that he couldn’t get rid of, and that tasted like a purgative.

—Richard Weiner, translated by Benjamin Paloff

Jun 072015
 
Photo: Focus Information Agency

Photo: Svoboda Tsekova

Individuals move against history’s current throughout Georgi Gospodinov’s fascinating, quixotic novel, newly translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. In this excerpt, a memory of the narrator’s father becomes the catalyst for an imaginary Socratic spat, a tribute to the ephemeral, and a demonstration of how a writer’s sense of control on the page can evaporate in human interaction. Gospodinov expands and contracts time and drapes layers of self-consciousness over the narrative to amplify the internal conflict that powers the novel. The reader is rewarded with passage through an enthralling maze that pivots and advances in a nonlinear trajectory and conveys experience of a life filtered through fiction.

See my review here.

—Geeda Searfoorce

Physics_of_Sorrow_Cover_2

From The Physics of Sorrow
Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Open Letter Press

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Buffalo Shit, or The Sublime Is Everywhere

I remember how we walked through a historical town famous for its Revival Period architecture, uprising, fires, cannons made from cherry-tree trunks, history rolled down the narrow streets but my father was impressed mainly by the geraniums on the window sills, praising aloud those who had grown such flowers. Suddenly he stopped in a street and started hovering over something on the ground. I went to see what he had discovered. A pile of buffalo shit. It was standing there like a miniature cathedral, a church’s cupola or a mosque’s dome, may all religions forgive me. A fly was circling above it like an angel. It is very rare to see buffalo shit nowadays, my father said. No one breeds buffalos here anymore. And he spoke with such delight about how one could fertilize pumpkins with it, plaster a wall, daub a bee hive (of the old wicker type), how one could use it to cure an earache—you should warm it well and apply it to the ear. At that moment I would have agreed that the Revival-Era houses we were touring and the pyramids of Giza were something much less important than the architecture, physics, and metaphysics of buffalo (bull?) shit.

Even if you weren’t born in Versailles, Athens, Rome, or Paris, the sublime will always find a form in which to appear before you. If you haven’t read Pseudo Longinus, haven’t heard of Kant, or if you inhabit the eternal, illiterate fields of anonymous villages and towns, of empty days and nights, the sublime will reveal itself to you in your own language. As smoke from a chimney on a winter morning, as a slice of blue sky, as a cloud that reminds you of something from another world, as a pile of buffalo shit. The sublime is everywhere.

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Socrates on the Train

If everything lasted forever, nothing would be valuable.
—Gaustine

The world is set up in such as way that it looks obvious and irrefutable. But what would happen if for a moment we turned the whole system upside down and instead of the enduring, the constant, the eternal, and the dead, we decided to revere that which is fleeting, changeable, transitory, yet alive?

The train was passing through the hot stubble fields in late August, where they still use that barbaric method of stubble burning. The fields had been reaped and to make for easier plowing afterward, someone had set a match to them. I imagined the meadow birds’ scorched wings, the running and squealing mice and rats, the burned up lizards and snakes. Storks were anxiously circling above the burning fields—we’ve got to get out of here ASAP, ASAP . . . Everyone wanted to run away, the world was heading toward autumn. At the same time, I was returning to the town of T.

In the end, man, if we still insist on seeing him as the measure of all things, is closer to the parameters of the fleeting—he is changeable, inclined toward death, alive, but mortal, perishable, constantly perishing.

I sensed that my imagination was running wild, I needed an opponent. I invented an opponent, clever, with a sharp rhetorical bite, I generously endowed him with qualities and gave myself over to my favorite pastime, Socratic spats.

“So, my dear sir, you propose that we replace the lasting with the fleeting,” my opponent began.

“I suggest that we examine this possibility.”

“Very wellll . . . Just say it aloud and you will hear how absurd it sounds—to replace the lasting with the fleeting. Illustrate it with a concrete example, isn’t that what you always love to say, my dear fellow? Now then, imagine a nice, sturdy house on the one hand, and a tumbledown hut on the other. Would you exchange the house for the hut? In one hand, I’m holding gold, in the other straw. Which would you choose? Won’t the straw grow moldy after the first rain?”

“Wait, wait, my most noble opponent . . . You speak wisely and take shameless advantage of your right to peek into my own misgivings. Yet let us look at the other side as well. Imagine a world, in which everyone agrees to a new hierarchy. In which the Fleeting and the Living are more valuable than the Eternal and the Dead. The opposite of the usual world, which we share today. And so, let us imagine what consequences this might have. Immediately many of the reasons for war and theft fall away. That which entices one to theft is that which is eternal or at least lasting, like a bar of gold, for example, or sturdy houses, cities, palaces, land . . . That is what’s ripe for the taking. No one goes to war over a pile of apples or lays siege to a city for its fragrant, blossoming cherry trees. By the time the siege is over, the cherry trees will have lost their blossoms, and the apples will have rotted.

“And since gold will have lost all of its agreed-upon value (because that’s exactly what it is, a contract value), it’ll just be rolling around on the ground and no one will think to up and go on a crusade for it.

“And speaking of crusades, let’s look at that side of the question as well. The religions that stand behind every crusade or holy war will suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them. The old gods were the Gods of the Eternal in all of its aspects. Is there a God of the Ephemeral? If there are Gods in the new constellation—and why not?—they will be exactly that: Gods of the Ephemeral. Gods of the Fragile and the Perishable. And hence fragile and perishable gods. Sensitive, feeling, empathizing. What more can we say? Mortality raises the price and opens our eyes.”

“But isn’t all of that so fleeting and unstable . . .”

“You’re fooling yourself. Let’s take that straw, which you’ve been clutching in your left hand since the very beginning of our debate. That straw used to be wheat, which used to be seeds, which used to be wheat, which used to be . . . And here, nota bene: the perishable reproduces itself. And that is its first advantage. While the gold, which you’ve been holding in your right hand, is made once-and-for-all, it won’t give birth to gold even if you plant it and water it every day for two hundred years. Let me put it like this, paradoxically—the perishable is more enduring, precisely because of its death, than that which is imperishable and cannot reproduce itself.” (I’ve completely forgotten about the opponent I created.) “What do you say to that, my friend?”

“Wellll, what happens to tradition then? To all of art, to your own pathetic scribbling?” (We’ve left politesse behind, my opponent is pissed off.) “Let me ask you this—that book you’re writing, is it on the side of the ephemeral, or does it uphold the values of the eternal? How long do your own words last?”

“How long do words last?” I repeat this, because I don’t know the answer. “Let us assume that they last as long as the breath with which you utter them. You exhale the word, it’s so light, you fill its sails and send it toward the harbor of the Other. It might perish before reaching shore, it might sink along the way, shipwrecked against the flotilla of another’s words. Whether that is fragility or unfathomable endurance, I cannot say.” (I won’t apologize for this outburst of lyricism here.)

“I’ll ignore the lyrical explanation. So where does that leave your own identity, if you set store by the changeable?” He refuses to give in. “Where does that leave your forefathers, traditions, culture? All of that which was created from constancy? All of that which you call up so as not to forget who you are and where you come from?”

“And what has that identity of yours ever given you, ass-hat?” (Politesse has now definitely been left in the dust.) Blood and wars, busted butts, suicide bombers—there’s your inheritance. There’s only one true identity—to be a living creature among living creatures. To be ephemeral and to value the Other, because he is ephemeral as well.”

“Man is the measure of all things, thus what man creates must endure so as to outlive him.”

(Now I’ve got him—I invented him after all, I have the right to push him into a trap.)

“Exactly, man is the measure of all things. And everything that exceeds this measure and lasts longer and remains after his death is inhuman by its very nature, a source of sorrow and discord as a rule.” (Are you listening to me now? He’s listening, that’s what I invented him for.)

“But . . .”

“We live in houses that will continue to live on even after we die. We go into cathedrals, where long lines of people and generations who are no longer with us have trod, as if on Judgment Day. All of this tells you: you pass on, but we remain. We’ve buried plenty before you, we’ll take care of the ones you’ve sired as well. Think up at least one good reason why that which is built of stone should last longer than that built of flesh. I don’t see any particular point or justice in that. We can only wonder what sense of time and the eternal the ones who came before us had, in the dark night of the primeval, living in their flimsy huts, outliving their flimsy huts, outliving their hearths, moving from place to place, measuring out their lives in days and nights, in lighted and extinguished fires . . . They truly lived forever, even if they died at thirty.”

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Things Unsuited to Collecting
(a list of the perishable)

cheeses – start to stink
apples – shrivel up and rot
clouds – constantly change their states of aggregation
quince jam – gets moldy on top
lovers – get old, shriveled up (see apples)
children – grow up
snowmen – melt
tadpoles and silkworms – anatomically unstable

If we draw the line, it turns out that nothing organic is suitable for collecting. A world with a permanently expiring expiration date. A perishable, shriveling, rotting, deteriorating (and thus) wonderful world.

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A Place to Stop

I can imagine the look on the face of the first person to find these notes. He’ll probably think that some monster lived here. Indeed, inside me, the Minotaur shivers, afraid of the dark, but otherwise I look completely normal, I wear the body of a white, middle-aged man, a woman is carrying my child, I sometimes go to the seaside, alone, or travel abroad. I keep up what they call “a normal life” in the upper world. OK, fine, I do pass as quite withdrawn and reticent, but in my line of work, that absolutely goes with the territory. My books sell relatively well, which allows me the time and space to do my own things and guarantees me much-needed tranquility. I don’t give interviews.

I used to be able to take part—a bit sluggishly, true—in lively conversations and at the same time to be somewhere else entirely, in a different body or memory. Sometimes this would show ever so slightly, one or two women with whom I was in closer contact always caught me. I got off the hook using the alibi of a writer. You can be absent as much as you like, they’ll always understand when you want to be left alone or when you don’t respond to repeated invitations. At first they keep calling, then they quickly forget you. Here people forget quickly, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that already.

—Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel

May 022015
 

karl ove
The fraught interplay between the teenage Karl Ove and his father, who is now divorced and living a different life with Unni, his girlfriend, is caught in this extract. One of the first changes the sixteen-year-old notices is the informal way of dress for a formerly carefully put-together man; the second is the steady drinking; the third is that infractions he commits that would have been punished before, such as spilling a drink, smoking, or having another glass of wine, pass by unremarked. The narrator’s disorientation is clear; this is not the father he once knew. However, everything can change back quickly, and the alcohol-induced state of cheerfulness on the part of both adults descends into anger once Karl Ove’s mother is brought up too many times for Unni’s comfort. Abruptly dismissed from their home, Karl Ove boards a bus. He doesn’t dwell on the mood shift any more than we consciously think of the air we breath. The narrative jumps forward a quarter century to when he has possession of his dead father’s notebooks that indicate Karl Ove’s visits, along with other matters.

—Jeff Bursey

 

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From My Struggle: Book Four
Karl Ove Knausgaard; Translated by Donald Bartlett
Archipelago Books

The following afternoon I went to Dad’s. I had put on a white shirt, black cotton trousers, and white basketball shoes. In order not to feel so utterly naked, as I did when I wore only a shirt, I took a jacket with me, slung it over my shoulder and held it by the hook since it was too hot outside to wear it.

I jumped off the bus after Lundsbroa Bridge and ambled along the drowsy, deserted summer street to the house he was renting, where I had stayed that winter.

He was in the back garden pouring lighter fluid over the charcoal in the grill when I arrived. Bare chest, blue swimming shorts, feet thrust into a pair of sloppy sneakers without laces. Again this getup was unlike him.

“Hi,” he said. “Hi,” I said. “Have a seat.”

He nodded to the bench by the wall.

The kitchen window was open, from inside came the clattering of glasses and crockery.

“Unni’s busy inside,” he said. “She’ll be here soon.” His eyes were glassy.

He stepped toward me, grabbed the lighter from the table, and lit the charcoal. A low almost transparent flame, blue at the bottom, rose in the grill. It didn’t appear to have any contact with the charcoal at all, it seemed to be floating above it.

“Heard anything from Yngve?”

“Yes,” I said. “He dropped by briefly before leaving for Bergen.” “He didn’t come by,” Dad said.

“He said he was going to, see how you were doing, but he didn’t have time.”

Dad stared into the flames, which were lower already. Turned and came toward me, sat down on a camping chair. Produced a glass and bottle of red wine from nowhere. They must have been on the ground beside him.

“I’ve been relaxing with a drop of wine today,” he said. “It’s summer after all, you know.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Your mother didn’t like that,” he said. “Oh?” I said.

“No, no, no,” he said. “That wasn’t good.” “No,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, emptying the glass in one swig.

“Gunnar’s been round, snooping,” he said. “Afterward he goes straight to Grandma and Grandad and tells them what he’s seen.”

“I’m sure he just came to visit you,” I said. Dad didn’t answer. He refilled his glass.

“Are you coming, Unni?” he shouted. “We’ve got my son here!” “OK, coming,” we heard from inside.

“No, he was snooping,” he repeated. “Then he ingratiates himself with your grandparents.”

He stared into the middle distance with the glass resting in his hand. Turned his head to me.

“Would you like something to drink? A Coke? I think we’ve got some in the fridge. Go and ask Unni.”

I stood up, glad to get away.

Gunnar was a sensible, fair man, decent and proper in all ways, he always had been, of that there was no doubt. So where had Dad’s sudden backbiting come from?

After all the light in the garden, at first I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face in the kitchen. Unni put down the scrub brush when I went in, came over and gave me a hug.

“Good to see you, Karl Ove.” She smiled.

I smiled back. She was a warm person. The times I had met her she had been happy, almost flushed with happiness. And she had treated me like an adult. She seemed to want to be close to me. Which I both liked and disliked.

“Same here,” I said. “Dad said there was some Coke in the fridge.”

I opened the fridge door and took out a bottle. Unni wiped a glass dry and passed it to me.

“Your father’s a fine man,” she said. “But you know that, don’t you?”

I didn’t answer, just smiled, and when I was sure that my silence hadn’t been perceived as a denial, I went back out.

Dad was still sitting there.

“What did Mom say?” he asked into the middle distance once again. “About what?” I said, sat down, unscrewed the top, and filled the glass so full that I had to hold it away from my body and let it froth over the flag- stones.

He didn’t even notice!

“Well, about the divorce,” he said. “Nothing in particular,” I said.

“I suppose I’m the monster,” he said. “Do you sit around talking about it?” “No, not at all. Cross my heart.”

There was a silence.

Over the white timber fence you could see sections of the river, greenish in the bright sunlight, and the roofs of the houses on the other side. There were trees everywhere, these beautiful green creations that you never really paid much attention to, just walked past; you registered them but they made no great impression on you in the way that dogs or cats did, but they were actually, if you lent the matter some thought, present in a far more breath- taking and sweeping way.

The flames in the grill had disappeared entirely. Some of the charcoal briquettes glowed orange, some had been transformed into grayish-white puffballs, some were as black as before. I wondered if I could light up. I had a packet of cigarettes inside my jacket. It had been all right at their party. But that was not the same as it being permitted now.

Dad drank. Patted the thick hair at the side of his head. Poured wine into his glass, not enough to fill it, the bottle was empty. He held it in the air and studied the label. Then he stood up and went indoors.

I would be as good to him as I could possibly be, I decided. Regardless of what he did, I would be a good son.

This decision came at the same time as a gust of wind blew in from the sea, and in some strange way the two phenomena became connected inside me, there was something fresh about it, a relief after a long day of passivity.

He returned, knocked back the dregs in his glass and recharged it.

“I’m doing fine now, Karl Ove,” he said as he sat down. “We’re having such a good time together.”

“I can see you are,” I said. “Yes,” he said, oblivious to me.

***

Dad grilled some steaks, which he carried into the living room, where Unni had set the table: a white cloth, shiny new plates and glasses. Why we didn’t sit outside I didn’t know, but I assumed it was something to do with the neighbors. Dad had never liked being seen and definitely not in such an intimate situation as eating was for him.

He absented himself for a few minutes and returned wearing the white shirt with frills he had worn at their party, with black trousers.

While we had been sitting outside Unni had boiled some broccoli and baked some potatoes in the oven. Dad poured red wine into my glass, I could have one with the meal, he said, but no more than that.

I praised the food. The barbecue flavor was particularly good when you had meat as good as this.

Skål,” Dad said. “Skål to Unni!”

We held up our glasses and looked at each other. “And to Karl Ove,” she said.

“We may as well toast me too then.” Dad laughed.

This was the first relaxed moment, and a warmth spread through me. There was a sudden glint in Dad’s eye and I ate faster out of sheer elation.

“We have such a cozy time, the two of us do,” Dad said, placing a hand on Unni’s shoulder. She laughed.

Before he would never have used an expression such as cozy.

I studied my glass, it was empty. I hesitated, caught myself hesitating, put the little spoon into a potato to hide my nerves and then stretched casually across the table for the bottle.

Dad didn’t notice, I finished the glass quickly and poured myself another. He rolled a cigarette, and Unni rolled a cigarette. They sat back in their chairs. “We need another bottle,” he said, and went into the kitchen. When he returned he put his arm around her.

I fetched the cigarettes from my jacket, sat down and lit up. Dad didn’t notice that either.

He got up again and went to the bathroom. His gait was unsteady. Unni smiled at me.

“I teach my first course at gymnas in Norwegian this autumn,” she said. “Perhaps you can give me a few tips? It’s my first time.”

“Yes, of course.”

She smiled and looked me in the eye. I lowered my gaze and took another swig of the wine.

“Because you’re interested in literature, aren’t you?” she continued. “Sort of,” I said. “Among other things.”

“I am too,” she said. “And I’ve never read as much as when I was your age.” “Mm.”

“I plowed through everything in sight. It was a kind of existential search, I think. Which was at its most intense then.”

“Mm.”

“You’ve found each other, I can see,” Dad said behind me. “That’s good. You have to get to know Unni, Karl Ove. She’s such a wonderful person. She laughs all the time. Don’t you, Unni?”

“Not all the time.” She laughed.

Dad sat down, sipped from his glass and as he did so his eyes were as vacant as an animal’s.

He leaned forward.

“I haven’t always been a good father to you, Karl Ove. I know that’s what you think.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Now, now, no stupidities. We don’t need to pretend any longer. You think I haven’t always been a good father. And you’re right. I’ve done a lot of things wrong. But you should know that I’ve always done the very best I could. I have!”

I looked down. This last he said with an imploring tone to his voice. “When you were born, Karl Ove, there was a problem with one of your legs. Did you know that?” “Vaguely,” I said.

“I ran up to the hospital that day. And then I saw it. One leg was crooked! So it was put in plaster, you know. You lay there, so small, with plaster all the way up your leg. And when it was removed I massaged you. Many times every day for several months. We had to so that you would be able to walk. I massaged your leg, Karl Ove. We lived in Oslo then, you know.”

Tears coursed down his cheeks. I glanced quickly at Unni, she watched him and squeezed his hand.

“We had no money either,” he said. “We had to go out and pick berries, and I had to go fishing to make ends meet. Can you remember that? You think about that when you think about how we were. I did my best, you mustn’t believe anything else.”

“I don’t,” I said. “A lot happened, but it doesn’t matter anymore.” His head shot up.

“YES, IT DOES!” he said. “Don’t say that!”

Then he noticed the cigarette between his fingers. Took the lighter from the table, lit it, and sat back.

“But now we’re having a cozy time anyway,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “It was a wonderful meal.”

“Unni’s got a son as well, you know,” Dad said. “He’s almost as old as you.” “Let’s not talk about him now,” Unni said. “We’ve got Karl Ove here.” “But I’m sure Karl Ove would like to hear,” Dad said. “They’ll be like brothers. Won’t they. Don’t you agree, Karl Ove?” I nodded.

“He’s a fine young man. I met him here a week ago,” he said. I filled my glass as inconspicuously as I could.

The telephone in the living room rang. Dad got up to answer it. “Whoops!” he said, almost losing his balance, and then to the phone, “Yes, yes, I’m coming.” He lifted the receiver. “Hi, Arne!” he said.

He spoke loudly, I could have listened to every word if I’d wanted to. “He’s been under enormous strain recently,” Unni whispered. “He needs to let off some steam.” “I see,” I said.

“It’s a shame Yngve couldn’t come,” she said. Yngve?

“He had to go back to Bergen,” I said.

“Yes, my dear friend, I’m sure you understand!” Dad said. “Who’s Arne?” I said.

“A relative of mine,” she said. “We met them in the summer. They’re so nice. You’re bound to meet them.”

“OK,” I said.

Dad came back in and saw the bottle was nearly empty. “Let’s have a little brandy, shall we?” he said. “A digestif?” “You don’t drink brandy, do you?” Unni asked, looking at me. “No, the boy can’t have spirits,” Dad said.

“I’ve had brandy before,” I said. “In the summer. At soccer training camp.” Dad eyed me. “Does Mom know?” he said.

“Mom?” Unni said.

“You can have one glass, but no more,” Dad said, staring straight at Unni. “Is that all right?”

“Yes, it is,” she said.

He fetched the brandy and a glass, poured, and leaned back into the deep white sofa under the windows facing the road, where the dusk now hung like a veil over the white walls of the houses opposite.

Unni put her arm around him and one hand on his chest. Dad smiled. “See how lucky I am, Karl Ove,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, and shuddered as the brandy met my tongue. My shoulders trembled.

“But she has a temper too, you know,” he said. “Isn’t that true?” “Certainly is,” she said with a smile.

“Once she threw the alarm clock against this wall,” he said. “I like to get things off my chest right away,” Unni said. “Not like your mother,” he said.

“Do you have to talk about her the whole time?” Unni said.

“No, no, no, not at all,” Dad said. “Don’t be so touchy. After all, I had him with her,” he said, nodding toward me. “This is my son. We have to be able to talk as well.”

“OK,” Unni said. “You just talk. I’m going to bed.” She got up. “But Unni . . .” Dad said.

She went into the next room. He stood up and slowly followed her with- out a further look.

I heard their voices, muted and angry. Finished the brandy, refilled my glass, and carefully put the bottle back in exactly the same place.

Oh dear. He yelled.

Immediately afterward he returned.

“When does the last bus go, did you say?” he said. “Ten past eleven,” I said.

“It’s almost that now,” he said. “Perhaps it’s best if you go now. You don’t want to miss it.”

“OK,” I said, and got up. Had to place one foot well apart from the other so as not to sway. I smiled. “Thanks for everything.”

“Let’s keep in touch,” he said. “Even though we don’t live together any- more nothing must change between us. That’s important.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes. It’s important we keep in touch,” I said.

“You’re not being flippant with me, are you?” he said.

“No, no, of course not,” I said. “It’s important now that you’re divorced.” “Yes,” he said. “I’ll ring. Just drop by when you’re in town. All right?” “Yes,” I said.

While putting on my shoes I almost toppled over and had to hold on to the wall. Dad sat on the sofa drinking and noticed nothing.

“Bye!” I shouted as I opened the door.

“Bye, Karl Ove,” Dad called from inside, and then I went out into the darkness and headed for the bus stop.

***

I waited for about a quarter of an hour until the bus arrived, sitting on a step smoking and watching the stars, thinking about Hanne.

I could see her face in front of me.

She was laughing; her eyes were gleaming. I could hear her laughter.

She was almost always laughing. And when she wasn’t, laughter bubbled in her voice.

Brilliant! she would say when something was absurd or comical.

I thought about what she was like when she turned serious. Then it was as if she was on my home ground, and I felt I was an enormous black cloud wrapped around her, always greater than her. But only when she was serious, not otherwise.

When I was with Hanne I laughed almost all the time. Her little nose!

She was more girl than woman in the same way that I was more boy than man. I used to say she was like a cat. And it was true there was something feline about her, in her movements, but also a kind of softness that wanted to be close to you.

I could hear her laughter, and I smoked and peered up at the stars. Then I heard the deep growl of the bus approaching between the houses, flicked the cigarette into the road, stood up, counted the coins in my pocket, and handed them to the driver when I stepped on board.

Oh, the muted lights in buses at night and the muted sounds. The few passengers, all in their own worlds. The countryside gliding past in the dark- ness. The drone of the engine. Sitting there and thinking about the best that you know, that which is dearest to your heart, wanting only to be there, out of this world, in transit from one place to another, isn’t it only then you are really present in this world? Isn’t it only then you really experience the world?

Oh, this is the song about the young man who loves a young woman. Has he the right to use such a word as “love”? He knows nothing about life, he knows nothing about her, he knows nothing about himself. All he knows is that he has never felt anything with such force and clarity before. Everything hurts, but nothing is as good. Oh, this is the song about being sixteen years old and sitting on a bus and thinking about her, the one, not knowing that feelings will slowly, slowly, weaken and fade, that life, that which is now so vast and so all-embracing, will inexorably dwindle and shrink until it is a manageable entity that doesn’t hurt so much, but nor is it as good.

***

Only a forty-year-old man could have written that. I am forty now, as old as my father was then, I’m sitting in our flat in Malmö, my family is asleep in the rooms around me. Linda and Vanja in our bedroom, Heidi and John in the children’s room, Ingrid, the children’s grandmother, on a bed in the liv- ing room. It is November 25, 2009. The mid-’80s are as far away as the ’50s were then. But most of the people in this story are still out there. Hanne is out there, Jan Vidar is out there, Jøgge is out there. My mother and my brother, Yngve – he spoke to me on the phone two hours ago, about a trip we are planning to Corsica in the summer, he with his children, Linda and I with ours – they are out there. But Dad is dead, his parents are dead.

Among the items Dad left behind were three notebooks and one diary. For three years he wrote down the names of everyone he met during the day, everyone he phoned, all the times he slept with Unni, and how much he drank. Now and then there was a brief report, mostly there wasn’t.

“K.O. visited” appeared often. That was me.

Sometimes it said “K.O. cheerful” after I had been there. Sometimes “good conversation.”

Sometimes “decent atmosphere.” Sometimes nothing.

I understand why he noted down the names of everyone he met and spoke to in the course of a day, why he registered all the quarrels and all the reconciliations, but I don’t understand why he documented how much he drank. It is as if he was logging his own demise.

—Karl Ove Knausgaard

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Apr 032015
 

cid corman and gregory dunneCid Corman & Gregory  Dunne

Cid Corman was born in Roxbury, Boston, in 1924. His seminal magazine Origin was one of the first to publish poets such as Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. In addition to the magazine, Cid, a poet and translator, organized poetry events around Boston and started the country’s first poetry radio program, This Is Poetry at WMEX featuring readings by Creeley, Stephen Spender and Theodore Roethke amongst others.  In 1958 he moved to Japan where he continued to edit Origin and in 1959 published Gary Snyder’s first collection Riprap. He began to translate Japanese poetry, in particular work by Basho and Kusano Shimpei. A prolific poet, he published over a hundred books and pamphlets. In 1990 he published the first two volumes of his selected poems Of. In all there are five volumes each containing 750 poems. Volumes 4 and 5 were just published in January of this year. Although described as a selected poems, Corman did not necessarily see it that way. He saw it as a single book that told his life in passing. Cid Corman died in Kyoto on March 12, 2004.

cid-corman

I am grateful to Greg Dunne, not just for the extract from his new book but for the wonderful opportunity he gave me back in 2000 to spend an afternoon visiting with Corman in his home in Kyoto. I had been travelling with my wife and young children in China for several months and stopped off in Japan on the way back to visit Greg. Over the years I had heard the story many times of how after moving to Kyoto Greg had stopped in at a coffee shop, CC`s, that sold western style ice-cream and cakes. The shop turned out to be Corman’s and Greg soon joined with a small group that met with him every two weeks for gatherings that lasted five hours or more. Cid read and talked poetry with them, discussed their work.

That afternoon, however, we talked to Corman about his work and his life. I got the feeling that he liked visitors so that he could relate the stories of his past to them, and through those stories reaffirm his true relevance to American poetry. This seemed to me to be borne of disappointment, sadness even – an awareness that his decision to live in Kyoto had left him largely forgotten in his home country. Nevertheless, it was evident that deep-down he knew that the poet’s life was exactly that – a life, a way of living. And he talked that day too of not even wanting his name on his poems at all, at refusing publicity when it occasionally came his way.

He excused himself at one point and left the room briefly returning with a copy of the first issue of Origin. He was proud of it, and rightly so. He spoke then of his writing routine. His morning began by writing letters, long letters to anyone who had taken the time to write to him. “If you write to me,” he told me, “I will write back.” After his letter writing he began work on his poems. He took me in to see his study. It was stacked high with manuscripts, heaps of paper across his desk and all around the room. “I write a book of poems a day,” he said. Most of these pages would probably never see the light of day. The act of writing to him, it appeared, was akin to the act of breathing – a breath in/a breath out, a word given/a word taken. This was not a rushed process; it was not a mountain of first drafts, of beginnings, but an ongoing expression of self.

Cid Corman

Later we took a pleasant walk to the post-office to mail off his letters and then said our goodbyes.  Despite his generous offer, I never did write to him. I regret it enormously of course but, in some ways these feelings of regret seem apt – a more fitting response to our short afternoon together.

—Gerard Beirne

quiet accomplishment cover

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What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. …….~ Homi Bhabha

A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.…..~ Martin Heidegger

IN 1990, CID CORMAN PUBLISHED the first two volumes of this five-volume magnum opus book of poetry, of. The work was monumental in scope – each volume consisted of 750 pages of poetry. The book included many translations of poetry from around the world and from many different time periods that stretched from the earliest of times – Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese texts – up through contemporary poetry translations. In an unusual move, Corman left his translations un-sourced, that is, he did not attribute his translations to their original authors openly. Some fellow writers, notably Clayton Eshleman, found Cid’s practice suspect and wrote to Cid concerning it. Eshleman explained his dismay in the following way: “I was shocked to find Cid’s translations here, of Homer, Sophocles, Catullus, T’ao Ch’ien, Montale, Villon, Rimbaud, Basho, Malarlarme, Rilke, Ungaretti, Char, Celan, Artaud, and Scotellaro, treated as Corman poems. So I wrote to him questioning such appropriation” (Eshleman).

To do justice to the book, a book of this size and scope, and a book that is the culminating event in the life of a significant American poet, more attention is warranted in exploring the act of his incorporating un-sourced translations into the book – how it was accomplished – and what rationale there may have been for the move, assuming the act is not simply one of appropriation. To understand, appreciate, and comprehend more fully what Corman was up to then, one needs to begin with his poetics, with what informs them – his sense of poetry and its role and place in culture, society and life.

Translation came early to Corman and through the activity – within it – he found himself drawn into a larger community of poetry that would sustain his interest and attention throughout his life. For Corman both the writing of poetry and the translating of poetry developed at about the same time when he was in high school. Here he began translating Greek and Latin poetry. Later, during the war years (World War II), when he stayed home from the war due to his youth and illness, he went deeper into translation. In conversation, some years ago (1994), at his home in Kyoto, he told me about his start in poetry and how intertwined it was with his activities in translation:

…The first quatrain I wrote one Sunday two weeks after Pearl Harbor was… (shakes his head in disapproval)… almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time. I had studied Greek in high school, and I was very interested still in Greek literature and read quite a bit at University, mostly on my own, this was not for any course. is was just for my own satisfaction. I had read no translation of Aeschylus that struck me as being accurate or true to the thing…. when I started out… I wanted to know about meter. I wanted to understand how poetry was structured, why they used rhyme, the way poetry moved. (Corman, APR 25)

The translation of poetry affects his poetry. Even as a young man, he was able to see the effect that translation was having on his poetry. The force, or influence, is so strong that he seems to recognize a need to disassociate the two: he is unsatisfied with his own poem because it reads too much like the work he has been translating: “. . . almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time.” The translating of poetry is shaping this poet – the translation work is exerting an influence that Corman recognizes and understands as becoming a part of him. Though he seems to understand the influence can be negative at times, he does not disavow the overall positive influence that the practice is having in teaching him how to become a better poet. In our conversation that day, he went on to make the following points:

By the time I was a sophomore, I was studying Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. And those poets struck me very strongly. They were new to me, and they were different than American poetry. But, I figured by translating I had a way of getting closer to what they were doing, and by doing that, I could learn.

So… it was the beginning for me. So I translated almost all of Les Fleurs du Mal for myself. They weren’t meant for publication. To learn. So it was for me, my education. (Corman, APR 25)

One sees from these comments that Corman understands his beginnings as a poet to be closely associated with his beginnings as a translator. We see also his passionate interest in non-English poetries, and his interest in translating as a means of education, of educating himself as a poet. In looking at the poetry of others, at other poetries, and translating that poetry into his own language, Corman put himself in conversation with other poets, and more importantly found himself within a conversation of sorts that involved poetry – a community of poets that carried him beyond the borders of language, state, and time. In this community, poetry itself became a unifying force –– a center that actually did hold, at least for Cid Corman.

We see further evidence of Corman viewing himself as working within a tradition and within a community when he collects his prose writings and publishes them as one book in two separate volumes. The first volume, Word for Word: Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), contains essays related directly to his own poetry and poetic theory. The second volume, At Their Word/Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow, 1978), concerns itself with translation, and with the work of other writers: “At Their Word.” The two volumes make for a whole; with each volume informing what is said in the companion volume. Corman knows how essential translation has been in helping him to shape and refine his own understanding of poetry and how, in turn, his poetics have informed his translations of other’s poems.

And as it turns out, the first two essays in the second volume take up the topic of translation. Here, in the first essay, Corman offers five translations and commentary upon those translations: “translator’s notes.” The poems he offers are from Rilke, Baudelaire, and Montale. In his prefatory comments at the start of the essay, he offers the following explanation:

The versions here offered (my emphasis) are representative of different approaches possible. In all cases, however, the poems are pieces that have been savored and put into English originally for no other purpose than to prolong the translator’s own pleasure and perhaps to discover some possibility in them for his own tongue. Only where the results seem felicitous poems too (my emphasis) have offerings (my emphasis) been made to a larger audience. (Corman, ATW 10)

Corman’s use of the term “offer,” underscores his sense of giving – or gifting – the translations to the reader with humility – he makes no claim that the translations are definitive. They are offered – the reader can take them, or leave them: “The versions here offered . . .” They are being offered because the original poems were poems that he appreciated so deeply that he was moved to translate them, poems he “savored and put into English to prolong his own pleasure.” His versions of the poems, and only those versions that have become poems in English, and thus deemed worthy of being shared, become “offerings” to a wider audience. Corman’s explanation, particularly his use of the word “offerings,” implies both his giving something of himself to the reader – his work as a translator – and also – and more to the point here – his gratitude for the gift of the original poems. In this gesture and use of the word “offerings,” he implies his awareness of being part of a community that has involved many others over time.

He shows this attitude of gratitude towards the original poets and those who have translated the poem when he speaks of titling one of his translations, in this case the Baudelaire’s poem, “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie.” Unlike other translators who have tried to approach the untitled poem by translating the poem’s first line as the title and coming up with titles such as “The Servant” or the “The Kind-Hearted Servant of Whom You Were Jealous,” Corman titles his translation simply “after Baudelaire.” In his “translator’s notes,” he explains that “’After’ . . . is quite honest, for countless versions over many years achieved this result – which is finally a sort of homage to feeling shared.” The word “homage” as in the case of the word “offering” suggests an awareness on Corman’s part of being involved in a community – a world poetry – and a world that can be shared across time, space, and culture. Here is Corman’s version of Baudelaire’s “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie:”

after Baudelaire

The bighearted nurse
you envied, buried
sod, merits flowers.
The living thankless
rest between warm sheets
while the poor dead feel
all alone, no one
to bring them fresh trash.

If, at the good fire,
I saw her sitting,
some December night
found her in my room
crushed from the long bed
gazing at this child,
what cold worlds tell her
tears filling those eyes?
(Corman ATW 10)

Corman felt a need to translate, as well as a need to share his translations of poetry with others: To make “offerings” to a larger audience. We see further evidence of this in the story of his coming to translate the poetry of Paul Celan and to publish that poetry in his magazine Origin.

After leaving the University of Michigan, and after a few years back in Boston where he hosted a weekly poetry radio program, Corman was awarded a Fulbright and traveled to France to study at the Sorbonne. In Paris, Cid wrote poetry and immersed himself in translation. During this time, in 1955, he met the poet Paul Celan, virtually unknown in North America at the time, and began translating his work into English. Some years later, when Corman wanted to publish his Celan translations in his magazine Origin, he contacted Celan to ask permission. Celan refused to give permission and threatened litigation against Corman if he pursued publication. After some consideration, Corman went ahead and published the poems in Origin and, as promised, Celan wrote an angry letter to Corman threatening “persecution” – an ironic typographical error, as Corman would later remark to me, considering Celan’s persecution by the Nazi’s during the Second World War. Celan had meant to write “prosecution,” of course.

In 1994, when I asked Corman how he first meet Paul Celan, he told me the following story:

My friend. I was living with her at the time: 1955, in Paris. Edith Aron (German, but reared mostly in Argentina, of Jewish descent too) who had helped Paul Celan get a job with UNESCO introduced me personally to him one day. He seemed very dour to me and they did most of the talking. Both near my age – early 30s. And she gave me his first two books and suggested we translate from them together. We did. And I did the first English versions ever and a few were published in Toronto by Ray Souster at once. I didn’t like those first two volumes as much as what followed. And I bought each of his books as they occurred thereafter and translated each – with someone native to German assisting. I met him just as he was really coming into his own. And I have translated all his work – much of it still unpublished.

I asked Corman what specifically attracted him to Celan’s work, and he answered in the following way:

His depth of language use – not as technics (cf. Zukofsky) but as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me. I couldn’t /wouldn’t be as obscure and “difficult” as he allowed himself/his language to be, but I could feel the truth of what he was doing, or trying to do. And that moved me. To want to share that work – despite his challenging me. (Corman, APR 26)

Corman speaks in terms of feeling “moved” to translate the work, feeling compelled to share the work of Celan with others. He decided to publish the translations despite Celan’s “challenging” him. His rationale being, in so many words, that he felt compelled to share it – that he could feel “the truth” of what (Celan) was doing: “His depth of language use . . . as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me.”

One might find fault with Corman’s rationale as stated here. Is his desire to share the work reason enough to publish his translations without Celan’s permission? But in questioning Corman rationale, one would also do well to consider Corman’s passion and sincerity to share the work. Every- thing about Corman’s life in poetry suggests that his reply to Celan was sincere. Of course, I do not mean to assert that passion and sincerity, in and of themselves, make Corman’s actions right or absolve him of honoring the wishes of Celan. What I do want to point out is that Corman was deeply motivated to act in the way that he did act, and that his action speaks to his understanding of poetry in the world, and per- haps also to questions of ownership of it.

Corman felt Celan’s work should be shared – that it needed to be shared. This desire to share poetry has remained consistent throughout Corman’s life: his poetry radio program in Boston was a way for him to share poetry with a wider community. It was a way of creating a community around poetry, for poetry. His founding of the magazine Origin was another way in which he worked to share poetry with a larger community: he wanted to get poetry into the world, particularly the kind of poetry that mainstream poetry magazines were not taking seriously, at least not taking seriously enough to publish.

Written correspondence was a further way in which Corman shared poetry with others. Correspondence, i.e. letter writing, was a central part of his life as a poet. In conversation once, he referred to it as his “life-line.” When I asked him if there was anything that stood out in the letters that he received – anything remarkable? He told me, “Everything. Every letter is my news. Is poetry” (Corman APR 26). At the time, I didn’t think he meant that the letters were themselves really poetry – but over the years I have come to doubt that first understanding – maybe he did mean it, literally. After all a letter, like poetry, involves the experience of one person sharing news, to use Pound’s word for poetry – news that stays news with another. Letters and poetry are correspondences, if you will, that share an experiential quality about them: the words of the writer being shared with the reader in an intimate way. So for Corman, this idea, of letters being “poetry,” is not as far fetched as it might at first sound. Perhaps his feeling on this accounts for his publishing letters right alongside poetry in his magazine Origin. In the first series of Origin (1951-1957) Volume XIV/Autumn, for example, he published the following section of letter by the Canadian poet Irving Layton:

Letter to Cid Corman

Lac Desert, County Lab
Quebec
August 5, 1954

Dear Cid,…

In all these poems I’ve tried to express the idea “in the image,” for although as a rule I leave theorizing about poetry to others, there are one or two work-a-day rules I try to govern myself by when writing verse. For me, rhythm and imagery usually tell the story; I’m not much interested in any poet’s ideas unless he can make them dance for me, that is embody them in a rhythmic pattern of visual images, which is only another way of saying the same thing in different words. If I want sociology, economics, uplift, or metaphysics; or that generalized state of despairing benevolence concerning the prospects of the human race which seems to characterize much of present-day poetic effort, I know my way around a library as well as the next man. Catalogues are no mystery to me. I regard the writing of verse as a serious craft, the most serious there is, demanding from a man everything he’s got. Moreover, it’s a craft in which good intentions count for nil. It’s how much a man has absorbed into his being that counts, how he opens up continuously to experience, and then with talent and luck communicates to others (my emphasis) without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply …

Yours, Irving

This letter appeared in Origin alongside Layton’s poems. It was not set off as a prefatory statement of any kind but appeared on the page as if a poem, in the flow of the poems presented there, with several poems preceding it and several poems following it.

Poetry is a craft, according to Layton, that demands much of the poet: “demanding from a man everything he’s got.” It is also a craft that demands the poet open up “continuously to experience,” a craft that calls upon the poet to communicate to others “without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply . . .” These ideas are all in sympathy with Corman’s own poetics, as editor and as poet. Certainly, an open- ness to experience, and a direct form of communication/address are characteristic of Corman’s poetry. Here, Layton’s letter may be seen to be a poem in Corman’s eyes in so far as it achieves a rhythmic liveliness in its prose while communicating in a direct, unaffected and sincere way. A piece of writing that opens up to experience and communicates with others. In publishing the letter, we see Corman, the publisher, opening up to the experience of the letter and sharing that experience with others. In placing poes and letters in the magazine in such away, Corman seems to ask, “Why can’t a letter such as this be read as a poem?” Corman opens himself to the possibility of the letter being read in such a way – opens himself to that experience. In publishing the letter, Corman participates then in a reciprocal gesture of gift giving, and communicating with others – he shares Layton’s letter with a wider audience.

Corman’s active life as a correspondent is legendary, and the books of correspondence that have been published over the years indicate this – no doubt more books will follow.  The many letters between Corman and Charles Olson, for example, were edited and published in 1987 and in 1991 (Charles Olson & Cid Corman, Complete Correspondence 1950 –1964 Volume 1 and Volume II. Ed. George Evans, National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine Press); Olson’s letters to Corman were published earlier in 1970 (Charles Olson, Letters for Origin, Cape Goliard [London] and Grossman [New York] Ed. Albert Glover); a collection of Lorine Niedecker’s letters to Corman was published in 1986 (Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 – 1970, Ed. Lisa Pater Faranda, Duke University Press); a more recent volume of Corman Letters was published in 2000 (Where to Begin, Selected Letters between Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, Ed. Keegan Doyle. Ekstasis Editions).

The contemporary American poet and translator, Andrew Schelling provides a telling and instructive story of his coming into correspondence with Corman through the aegis of Clayton Eshleman, who had known Corman in Kyoto years earlier and knew first-hand of his approachability, and his willingness to help younger poets. As Schelling recalls in a tribute that he wrote after Corman’s passing in 2004, he was a “fledgling poet . . . just beginning to publish . . . in the early to mid eighties” when he first corresponded with Cid Corman. Clayton Eshleman told him he had “to get in touch with Cid Corman.” Eshleman’s suggestion was a piece of “true counsel,” and not simply “a piece of advice.” Schelling listened to Eshelman and contacted Corman and they began corresponding. In short order, Schelling and Corman became correspondents. Corman replied “to every letter instantly,” Schelling says, expressing wonder at Corman’s generosity and attentiveness: “his aerograms usually leaving the day my own had arrived. Always an aerogram, always every patch of space on it filled with typewritten words—almost always a small poem or two or three typed onto the outside.” (Schelling)

As a poet living far from the American scene, one might expect Corman to have less to offer Schelling than an elder poet based in the U.S. and familiar with contemporary American poetics. Schelling however did not find this to be the case. While it was true, Schelling concedes, that Corman was not always up to date on the latest developments on the American scene, and that poetry news reached him “in curiously winnowed ways,” Schelling felt that Corman had something special to offer. According to Schelling, Corman’s “expatriate status gave him an in-touch status hard to qualify but completely visible to all who knew him. He was more a citizen of the world than are most American poets. His correspondence permitted him equal access to friends in Japan, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Mexico.” Corman was in his own curious way at the center of things – his correspondence had him in touch with poets around the world. For a young poet like Schelling, a poet interested in translation, Corman’s international contacts and his active engagement with translation had much to offer Schelling.

Corman wrote tens of thousands of letters to contacts around the world during his lifetime. His correspondents included friends, family members, and poets, as well as politicians, philosophers, artists, and religious figures. His correspondence with others was something that he wanted to share, that is, he wanted not only to connect with others through correspondence, but he wanted to connect others to others through correspondence. If he thought that one of his correspondents would benefit from getting to know another of his correspondents, he would try to put them in touch with one another. Through his correspondence then, Corman tried to introduce different writers to each another. When I first began corresponding with Corman on a regular basis, he frequently went out of his way to send me contact information about writers he thought I should connect with.

When one looks at the sum of Corman’s life then, one feels convinced that Corman felt poetry was, in large measure, about sharing and community. He felt that one of the most fundamental qualities of poetry was found in its ability to bring two individual lives together – to create a community of two: a conversation between the reader and the poet. This sentiment is found throughout his oeuvre. Here are four poems that demonstrate some of this:

Poetry becomes
that conversation we could
not otherwise have.
(Corman, ND 86)

Assistant

As long as you are here –
Would you turn the page?
(Corman, APR 23)

The Call

Life is poetry
and poetry is life — O
awaken — people!
(Corman, APR 21)

There’s only
one poem:
this is it.
(Corman, ND 121)

In elegant and conversational language, Corman asserts the primacy of poetry in human relations in these poems: “Poetry becomes / that conversation we would / not other- wise have.” Poetry is unique and solitary in what it offers – nothing else is quite like it.

In the second poem we see a humorous and yet quite serious invitation for the reader to participate actively in the reading of the book. It is as though Corman himself were reaching out through the poem to make contact with the reader and participate in the reading of the book: “Would you mind turning the page?” The poet shows up and speaks directly to the reader – let’s the reader know that he, the poet, has thought of him. The poet has envisioned the reader one day finding himself on the page and reading. This is the community that Corman values – the interaction of one person conversing with another through the medium of poetry. Corman moves through time and space in doing this, he is aware of the poem’s ability to transcend time and space and remain relevant – to still speak. Here he quietly alludes to times’ passing and to the ephemeral nature of life: “As long as you are here.” This conversational line, a line we commonly hear, is brought to bear its full measure of import within the poem: the weight of intonation and stress falls precisely on the word “are:” “As long as you are (my emphasis) here.” If Corman were not the poet that he is, he might have written “you’re” instead of “you are.” Corman wants the reader to sound “are:” “As long as you are . . .” In other words, as long as you are here, and alive, will you turn the page?

This subtle gesture points to one of the enduring qualities and strengths of poetry: the poem speaks to the reader even when the poet is gone. It speaks to the movement of time, the movement within a lifetime, to the human condition of being here now and knowing we will not always be. The poet after all, is not really with the reader on the page in the present moment of reading. He has passed on. The reader in reading the poem understands this, feels it through the poem.

The final two poems cited above get at similar notions as the first two poems. “The Call,” again announces the primacy of poetry, equating it with life itself: “Life is poetry/and poetry is life – O.” And the final poem makes the playful and, at first glance, seemingly audacious statement, that “There’s only/one poem:/this is it.”

Of course, in a real sense, Corman means exactly what he says, and that is, that the impulse behind the writing of a poem, the engine of the poem, the origin of any poem, of all poems, is the same at its source – it is the impulse to speak, it is the “O” of breath and being – the reaching out of one to another through language – the poet and reader together – the song that brings one to another. It is at base a connectivity, and communication, a form of communion, or community: ”the conversation/we could not otherwise have.” Seen in this light, we understand the claim that the poem makes: there is one poem and it resides in our very breathing and breath. It is life.

This poem, this last one, is an especially helpful poem to consider in relation to Corman’s book of and his questionable act of incorporating un-sourced translations into the book alongside his own poems. I say this because in this poem, we see a clear statement which may be seen as supporting what Corman has done in the book; that is to say, he makes his poems and his translations one book, one unified book, one poem: “There is /only one poem:/ this is it.”

***

Of is, at first glance, a strange title for a book. How many books can one think of that contain a preposition for a title? Strange as it is, it is a title that is precise and telling, and one meant to draw attention. When one opens the book, one finds a preface that immediately addresses the rationale behind the titling of the book:

for those who find themselves here
and sounding the words care to be

this is a book of a life as exacting as any
other, not in chronological order, but
through as for all time: a small proportion of
what has occurred to me and to which the work
unseen is complementary

the title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics:
the meta the indissoluble unfathomable fact: the
genitive case: to which we are all beholden and
within which we remain hopelessly particular

and to the extent that a poetry can, these poems
articulate it – which humbly (meaning – aware
of there being no choice) reveals transparently,
whatever else may be felt, I trust (trust implying
you), wonder, gratitude, pain, and love.

(Corman, of Vol. I, 2)

The Preface begins by immediately engaging the reader: “for those who find themselves here/and sounding the words care to be.” The reader is said to be “sounding” the words, suggesting that the reader is actively involved in both sounding the depth of the words – the depth of their various and associative meanings – as well as physically making the sound of the words in their mouths – “sounding” them. The words themselves are said to be things that “care to be,” underscoring Corman’s emphasis on our appreciating “words” as having an existence beyond the individual’s control – emphasizing, reminding the reader that words exist independent of the individual speaker – that they are thus shared within a larger community. If words did not possess this characteristic capacity, of what use would they be? To the extent that words are shared, they carry meaning and significance for us, and they bring us together, allow us to communicate with each other. Readers can “find themselves here” (my emphasis) precisely because the words on the page belong to the reader as much as they belong to the writer.
 As Corman says, “The title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics,” that is, it attempts to underscore the existent relationship between the individual and the world beyond the individual to which the individual is both separate from and a part of: “the genitive case: to which we are all beholden and/within which we remain hopelessly particular.” Language is thus the bridge, or the “connectivity,” as the post-colonial scholar Inderpal Grewal refers to it (Grewal 236).

Corman continues to elaborate upon this theme on the following page of the book with another epigraph. Here he translates the Greek of Philo of Alexandria (20 B. C. E. ~ 50 C. E.). It is salient to note that Philo himself was writing a literary work in Greek that was based on the older Hebraic writings of the Bible (Genesis), namely the Old Testament. Thus Philo too, like Corman, was involved in translation – the crossing of linguistic borders. Corman translates the epigraph as follows:

The soul of the most perfect is fed by the word as a whole; we may well be content should we be fed even by a portion of it.

PHILO: Allegorical Interpretations of Genesis. III, Ixi, 176.(Corman, of, Vol. I. 1)

In this epigraph, Corman once more alludes to there being a whole to which we belong: “the word as a whole.” With my layman’s knowledge of ancient texts, I cautiously interpret Philo in the following way: I take the “most perfect” as referring to God. Following upon this, I understand God is fed “by the word as a whole.” I read “the word as a whole” to refer to the whole of humanity, and that humanity’s offering God prayers, songs, poetry – praise feeds God. If the word as a whole is what God – “the soul of the most perfect” – is nourished by then we lesser ones might be sustain by, and should be “content” with, even a portion of it, the word: our own individual languages. The divine world and the human world are bound by, and through, the word. For Corman then, poetry is nothing less than manna – an essential thing – meant to be shared. Further, it is the diversity of languages that Corman is signaling as being of importance. It is not one particular language but the word as a whole – all poetries contributing to the whole that feeds the most perfect.

With this title, preface, and epigraph, Corman makes the case, rhetorically, for including un-sourced translations from many different languages and time periods into the book. His gesture is to say that we are OF this material – that the poetry of the world belongs to all of us. Moreover, he means to suggest that we are shaped by our inheritance of these languages, poetries, and cultures. We are of them – born into a scene and situation that we did not ourselves wholly create. He honors the inheritance.

In 2000, Corman responded to the charge of appropriation – whether or not his use of un-sourced translations in of was a form of appropriation. Did he deliberately leave the names of the original authors of his translations off the page? In his characteristically frank way, he acknowledged that he had done so while emphasizing that he did so with a purpose:

Yes, of course. Take Eshleman, who I know very – have known very well: very angry at me for doing that, not to give the credits. But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize… Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is. Anyone who’s really interested could easily find out. But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous; and if you look at my books that I myself designed without fail, my name is not on the title page. This is unique: there’s nobody else that ever has done this and I do it deliberately. My name is put as a signature at the end, but actually, I would rather have my name not in the book at all…

(Corman, ICPR 1)

“But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced.” Corman doesn’t want the names introduced because he wants the work, of, to be that whole that he alludes to in the epigraphs. His own poems will be part of the book, but they will find themselves within a community of poetry – his poems will be at home within a greater whole.

While I think it is understandable how the charge of appropriation could be leveled at Corman – for he does incorporate translations of others’ poems into his book – I believe under close analysis the assertion of appropriation does not stand up. “Appropriation” doesn’t adequately come to terms with the nuanced complexity of Corman’s gesture, and it is in the nuance and carefully balanced aesthetic manner in which the translations are brought into relationship with Corman’s own poetry that matters. The manner in which the translations are incorporated allows for them to be felt as translations, known as such, while not overtly crediting them as translations nor naming the authors.

Corman asserts in the interview that anyone really interested in finding out the source of a poem can easily do so because the poems are well known, or they are tagged in a way that allows them to be identified: “But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize . . . Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is.” In other words, Corman maintains that the translated poems remain in some fashion distinct and particular, in some way known and sourced.

This is in keeping with what he announces in the Preface and through his use of epigraphs. In some measure, “a precisely physical metaphysics” is enacted in the book: the translated poems remain particular within a constellation of other poems, including Corman’s own. The ability of Corman to translate poems and incorporate them so that they become both distinct and a part of the whole is one of the signal achievements of the text. And in so much as readers experience the poems as translations within the book, that is, poems different from Corman’s own poems, a multitude of voices are allowed to enter the book and circulate through and between Corman’s own poems.

For Corman to insert the names of the original authors on every page where a translation appeared would be to break (brake) the resonant play of the poems echoing off each other. It would be, in short, contrary to the aesthetic intentions suggested in the titling of the book. This is to say that the listing of sources would break the text into discrete parts and detract from the whole that Corman is trying to create.

When readers encounter translations in the text, the readers should understand that the poetry is other than Cor- man’s own. When Corman’s friend and fellow poet, Clayton Eshleman read the book, he had precisely this experience – he recognized certain poems as translations despite their lack of citation. The first poem, for example, is entitled Shingyo; as such, it immediately signals a foreign language – in this case Japanese. The poem is actually a translation of an ancient prayer, a sutra that comes from India. Just as Philo’s use of the Genesis story demonstrates his awareness of precedent, Corman too chooses a work that demonstrates his awareness of precedent, and the way in which languages and ideas cross borders and are shared among and within communities. The sutra, which is well known in Asia and in- creasing in the West, was written in Sanskrit at around 350 C. E. Later, Buddhist monks brought the sutra to China where it was translated into Chinese. Then the Japanese brought the sutra to Japan, and translated it into Japanese. Here, the sutra, known in English as “The Heart Sutra” is a work that has passed over and through many national borders, languages, and cultures to be shared anew through further translations. Interesting to note, and apropos to what Corman has said about his own wish for anonymity in poetry, the poem he begins the book with – his magnum opus – is an anonymous work, a poem that has been chanted by many different people of various cultural backgrounds for ages.

Beginning the book with this poem amplifies the theme struck by the epigraphs and the Preface, that is to say, the poem moves us to confront the paradox that we find ourselves in – we are particular and yet each exists within a community – in relationship with others – our shared language tells us as much: no one person invented the language, and no one owns it. It is shared. Shingyo speaks to a condition of enlightenment, which would have us acknowledge being both a part and a whole, a poem that celebrates non-duality:

SHINGYO

Seeing reflecting sense nonsense
Friend – here is emptiness here is form
Unborn undying – untainted
unpure – no more no less – therefore
Friend – nothing to know or not to
to come to this – the suffering
reaching where it is and is not
Come – body – and go – body – no
body – gone to the other – gone.
(Corman, of, Vol. 1. 5)

The poem speaks to a sensibility that is unified, a non- dualistic sensibility – one that recognizes both the part (“body”) and the whole (“gone to the other”). It reaches through both – goes beyond opposites – to locate a site of commonality in a singular word of compassion “Friend.”

It is not only by titling the poems carefully then, as in the case of “Shingyo,” and by including well-known translations that Corman indicates which poems are translations: Corman also employs other techniques that quietly signal translation. The entire first section of the second volume of the book, for example, is indexed in the back under the title “Offered,” echoing the title of the book, of. Indexing the poems in this way, suggests that the majority of the poems in the section are translations, as they indeed are.

And it is not only by his unobtrusively marking the poems as translations that Corman succeeds in building the polyphonic quality of the text; He also succeeds through skillful translation. Corman is careful to honor the text, to honor the rhetoricity of the original. This is to say that his translations are distinguished by what the post colonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as “fraying,” a manner of translating that eschews the long searched-for equivalency between the original and the target language in favor of acknowledging qualities of the original that may be better left un-translated, giving the text a frayed or roughened feel. As Spivak puts it, “The task of the translator is to facilitate love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay.”

Corman’s translations leave the text open and rough with possibility. When balanced between the translator’s agency and the reader’s expectation, Corman honors the rhetoricity of the text. In 1964, long before the term of fraying came into use in translation studies, Corman spoke about his willingness to retain Japanese words in his translations. For example, in the Preface to his translation of Basho’s Oku-No-Hosomichi, (Back Roads to Far Towns, Munjinsha 1964) he and his fellow translator decided to retain original Japanese words in the translation. Corman expressed their decision this way:

If the translators have often not accepted Western approximations for particular Japanese and/or Chinese terms, it is not to create undue difficulties for readers, but rather to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible. As a result, notes may be needed in greater profusion than before. (Basho, BRFT 10)

Corman is not going to smooth the text out so that it reads comfortably in English if that means compromising too much of the complexity of the original. The original words, rich in associative meanings, may offer a complexity that the English words cannot adequately represent, that is, the English equivalent is not accurate enough. This decision on the part of translators (Corman and Kamaike Susumu), make it is necessary for them to use original Japanese words in the translation. In translating Basho’s Oku-no-Hosomichi, Corman and Kamaike retain original Japanese words in both the prose and the poetry. Here is some of their translation work – the poetry following the prose:

Afterwards off to the Sesshoseki on horse sent by
the kandai. Man leading it by halter asked for a
tanzaku. Beautiful he wanted one:

across the meadow
horse take your lead now from the
hototogisu
(Basho BRFT 25)

In this brief passage, Corman and Kamaike retain four Japanese words. Their notes in the back of the book relate the following:

kandai: Castle overseer
Sesshoseki: Still exists, though fenced about. The legends associated with it are told in Noh of the same name.
tanzaku: Narrow strip of fine paper to write poetry on; a poem
hototogisu: Japanese cuckoo, whose name is its song.
(Basho BRFT 122)

In using original words the translators intend “to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible.” They bring the Japanese flavor of the original in – they “admit” it – because English does not have similar words that are reliably precise. By retaining the Japanese words the translators allow the shadow of the original to be felt and appreciated. By “shadow” I mean to suggest that Corman and Kamaike’s translation emphasizes that while it is not the original it does retain some of the original’s defining qualities. Hototogisu, for example, is the Japanese cuckoo, but more to the point – and the point Corman and Kamaike want the reader to experience – is the fact that the name of the bird IS the bird’s song. When the reader reads “hototogisu” the reader hears what the Japanese themselves believe the bird sounds like when it calls. And it just so happens that this has a further meaning (or possibility of meaning) – the sound of the song is imaginatively thought to be the sound of a Buddhist sutra. Thus, the bird is thought to be, figuratively speaking, chanting a sutra. The bird and its call are steeped in the folklore of Japan, and its literary history and culture. The reader gets the onomatopoetic sound that the Japanese themselves feel best represents the sound of the bird. The reader is thus connected in this way with Japan: its animals, culture, language, and people.

Corman frays many of his translated texts in of in similar ways. When he translates Catullus, for example, he uses the Latin title of the poem and translates the poem in the following way:

IUCUNDUM, MEA VITA

Happy, my life, to me you propose love
This ours between us perpetual be.

Great gods, see that she really can promise
And she say so honestly and from heart,

So that it be ours all life to continue
Eternal this trust of blest affection.

I will tell you the secret.

(Corman, of, Vol. II, 30)

Encountering a poem such as this would lead any observant reader to conclude that she is indeed reading a translation. Why else would the poem be titled in Latin? If this doesn’t wake the reader to the fact of the poem being a translation, the reader could Google the title and find the poem ascribed to Catullus. In other worlds, the poem calls out to be understood – read – as a translation. The fraying one finds in the translation makes this even more abundantly clear. This translation is not rendered in Corman’s contemporary American English, but in a distinctively textured, tonal, and syntactical manner quite foreign to it, resulting in a poem that sounds ancient. Some of the ancient sounding qualities of the translation come from Corman’s mining the possibilities of the original Latin poem. Corman draws our attention to the word “ours:” “Happy, my life, to me you propose love/this ours between us perpetual be.” Here, “ours” functions as a noun and retains its Latin sense of something not only as something shared between people but something alive and living, and “ours” that is, “perpetually to be, a love that comes “honestly” and “from heart.” The word “ours” is struck again in the penultimate line with stress and weight – “So that it be ours all life to continue.”

Beyond the polyphonic and the symphonic qualities that the book achieves by bringing in such a rich variety of voices from various cultures, languages, and time periods, Corman’s book, of, reminds us that we come from this stuff – from this poetry – and that our languages and poetries have played a role in shaping the world we live in – the way in which we see and understand ourselves and the world.

Homi K. Bhabha, the literary scholar and cultural theorist, in commenting upon the contemporary Mexican American musical artist Guillermo Gomex-Pena, who travels between Mexico and American to sing songs on both sides of the border, both old and new songs – a man who sings to different audiences – Spanish-speaking audiences and English-speaking audiences, may provide us with the clearest lens yet by which to discern and appreciate what Corman achieves in his own crossing of boundaries – the boundaries of time, space, languages, cultures, and poetries – not to mention his crossing back and forth between his own poems and his translations.
 According to Bhabha, Gomez-Pena’s actions of performing songs in both languages on both sides of the Mexican and U.S. border – songs that are traditional as well as new – creates a generative “inbetween space” that allows for the artist to elaborate “strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity . . .” This “inbetween space,” he asserts, is a site of “collaboration, and contestation.” (Bhabha LC 336) Corman’s work too creates such an inbetween space. It also creates a site of collaboration and contestation in so far as we see him collaborating with other poets through the act of translation, taking their poems and translating them into English. We can see the contestation in terms of his own voice, his poems, asserting themselves through the surrounding poems, many voices vying, if you will, to be heard.

In fact, Bhabha prefaces the above comments by saying that what is “theoretically innovative and politically crucial is the need to think beyond narratives of “originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is precisely this activity that opens up what he terms “the inbetween space which leads to new signs of identity . . . in the act of defining society itself:”

What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of sellfood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.” (Bhabha, LC 337)

Corman’s inclusion of poems from many languages – translations – poems both old and new – creates an “inbetween space” that is at once familiar and de-familiarizing – Corman’s own poems written in vernacular contemporary American English sound familiar to the American ear, whereas the translations, such as a poem like “Shingyo,” sound much less familiar because they are sourced in different languages, time periods, or cultures and because Corman’s renderings in English of those translations tend to be deliberately marked or frayed, creating a degree of dissonance between his own poetry and the translated poetry. In this way, Corman creates a gap, a space, and in-between, that allows, admits, a larger world of poetry to enter. He gets beyond, as Bhabha would have us do, “originaries and initial subjectivities” and allows the reader to experience a larger world of poetry by allowing her “to focus on moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is through this performance, this act, that Corman succeeds in initiating “new signs of identity,”which would lead to “the act of defining the idea of society itself ” (337).

The new identity that Corman wants us to embrace says that WE are OF this stuff, this material, this poetry. It is an identity that includes others – other languages, other poetries, other stories, and it accepts them graciously and identifies with them as human stories, familial stories. The new identity implies that the poetry of the world is gifted – offered – in the way that language itself is gifted to each of us, that is, handed down to us by our mothers and fathers, freely given. Corman’s move is deliberate and provocative – an insurgent act – and we should understand it as such and appreciate it as such. Rather than apologize or become defensive in responding to Eshleman’s question regarding appropriation, he becomes more assertive: “. . . the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous” (Corman, ICPR).

In placing translation directly beside his own poems, Corman forces us to ask questions about poetry and poetry’s role and place in the world at a time when cultures and languages are crossing borders more rapidly than ever before. He asks us if we are ready to hear what a world of poetry has to tell each of us about the nature of our existence on the planet. Do we understand the generous loving gesture that the poem itself is offering each of us? Can we approach not only poetry but each other with a larger sense of gratitude, or, as he would say in another poem, can we listen to the poem and each other?


Listen.
What is it – you ask?
I keep telling you:
Listen.

(Corman, ND 64)

Corman wants us to understand that poetry is as important now as it’s ever been in helping us through the night in helping us understand who we are, and what we are – even if poetry is nothing but cry in the night, even if it’s simply one person reaching out to another. Corman is not concerned with copyright issues, or questions of appropriation. It is as though he deliberately pushes these concerns aside in order to get at something more elemental and vital, and that is to remind us that poetry bring us together into a conversation – that language itself comes before ownership, that it is held in trust and commonly constructed. What ever it is that compels a person to write a poem, or for a person to read a poem, gestures toward shared community.

Corman’s magnum opus, of, by combining both translations from other poetries and placing them beside his own poems in a single book allows us to think beyond boundaries into new spaces that allow for a world of poetry to open up, a large world we find ourselves a part of. In doing this, the book reminds us that poetry, to be worthy of the name, to remain vital in our lives, must remain within the community as something offered and shared.

Family

We know it is love
Because we are – as
The stars are – because

Dante and Shakespeare
And Homer were and
So many others

Who never leave us
Alone – light shining
Under the closed door.

(Corman, of Vol. II 378)

—Gregory Dunne

§

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “Locations of Culture.” The Transnational Studies Reader: Interdisciplinary Intersections and Innovations. Ed. Peggy Levitt. New York: Routledge, 2007. 233-237. (Print)

Corman, Cid. At Their Word: Essays on the Arts of Language. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, California. Black Sparrow. 1978. (Print)

Corman, Cid. Back Roads to Far Towns. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press. 2004. (Print)

Corman, Cid. “Cid Corman in Conversation.” Interview with Philip Rowland. Flash Point Magazine, 16 Sept. 2000. (Web) 06 May 2013. <http://www.flashpoint mag.com/corman1.htm>.

Corman, Cid. Interview. “An Interview with Gregory Dunne. “American Poetry Review. (July/August 2000): 25. (Print) Corman, Cid, Mike Doyle, and Kegan Doyle. Where to Begin: Selected Letters of Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, 1967-1970. Victoria, B.C.: Ekstasis Editions, 2000. (Print) Corman, Cid. Nothing Doing. New York: New Directions,

  1. (Print) Corman, Cid. of. Vol. 1 and 2. Venice, California: Lapis. 1990.

(Print) Corman, Cid. The Gist of Origin, 1951-1971: An Anthology.

New York: Grossman, 1975. (Print) Dunne, Gregory. “Getting the Secret Out of Cid Corman.” Poetry East: 44 (Spring 1997): 9 – 23. (Print) Eshleman, Clayton. “Cid,” Cipher Journal. 12 June 2004. <http://www.cipherjournal.com/html/eshleman_cid_ii.

html> (Web) Grewal, Inderpal. Transnational America. Durham and London: Duke. 2005. (Print)
Heidegger. Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Harper Colophon Books, New York:1971.

(Print) Niedecker, Lorine, Cid Corman, and Lisa Pater Faranda. “Between Your House and Mine”: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970. Durham [N.C.: Duke UP, 1986. (Print)

Olson, Charles, Cid Corman, and George Evans. Charles Olson & Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence 1950- 1964. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, Univer- sity of Maine, 1987. (Print)

Schelling, Andrew. “Schelling CC Death Notes.” Web log post. Schelling CC Death Notes. Cipherjournal, 28 Mar. 2004. (Web) 03 May 2013.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Politics of Translation.” Destabilizing Theory. Eds. Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips. London: Polity Press, 1982. (Print)

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Gregory Dunne is the author of two collections of poetry: Home Test (Adastra Press, 2009) and Fistful of Lotus (a handmade book by Canadian printmaker Elizabeth Forrest, 2000). He has contributed to Strangest of Theaters: Poets Writing Across Borders (McSweeneys and the Poetry Foundation, 2013). His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous magazines, including the American Poetry Review, Manoa, Poetry East, and Kyoto Journal. He lives in Japan and teaches in the Faculty of Comparative Culture at Miyazaki International College. Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman was published by Ekstasis Press in 2014.

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Mar 042015
 

perec

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions. As translator David Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. –Jeff Bursey

il condottiere

Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
Georges Perec
Trans. David Bellos
University of Chicago Press
Cloth, 144 pp., $20.00
ISBN: 9780226054254

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1. OVER THE LAST number of years small presses have been addressing gaps in the knowledge of English-language readers when it comes to the shorter works of the acclaimed French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982), best known for his novel Life A User’s Manual (1978; translated into English in 1987), by issuing An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (2010), The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise (2011), La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams (2013), and I Remember (2014). Now we have his first novel, Portrait of a Man. In 1960 it was rewritten for the publishing house Gallimard, who had issued a contract and paid royalties ahead of receiving the completed work. According to David Bellos, when Perec finished revising it he affixed these words to the typescript: “YOU’LL HAVE TO PAY ME LOADS IF YOU WANT ME TO START IT OVER AGAIN.” Even after that effort the manuscript failed to succeed, and it gradually fell out of sight until rediscovered by Bellos while he wrote Georges Perec: A Life in Words (1993; rev. 1995). In 1960 Perec predicted that his first novel would experience one of two fates: either he would revisit it in later years and turn it into a “‘masterpiece’” or he would “‘wait in my grave until one of my faithful exegetes comes across it in an old trunk… and brings it out.’” There’s no word on if the former approach was tried, but as Bellos says, “it’s not like anything else that he wrote,” and perhaps there was no way for the Perec we are more familiar with to venture back to that earlier version of his writer self. (What goes unexplained is why it took until 2012 for the novel to appear in French.)

The plot of the book is simple. Gaspard Winckler, a forger of painters, works for a group run by the shadowy Anatole Madera. After 12 years in this occupation, preceded by four as an apprentice to Jérôme, an older forger who also works for Madera, Winckler chooses, as his next task, to create a painting supposedly by Antonella da Messina, based on the latter’s Portrait of a Man known as Il Condottiere (1475). This new work would have to come from Winckler’s soul and not be a technical exercise, yet having inhabited for years the habits and work of other painters, it is not going to be easy for him to find out who he really is. In addition to burying himself in studies of the esoteric natures of painting, wood, and visual perspectives over the ages, Winckler has been cut off from people and world events since he started his career as a posturer in 1947. What he runs into is a blunt fact: masterpieces can’t be willed into existence, and originality doesn’t emerge based on wishes. The failure of his attempt leads him—or rather, it may be one of the reasons—to rebel against his employer, and to do that he must commit an act that irrevocably cuts him off from his former life. He kills Madera, and then flees the isolated house that contained his laboratory.

Portrait of a Man is divided into two parts: the first describes Gaspard’s attempt to escape from his past; the second is comprised of a set of chapters where he tries to describe, to an inquisitive friend named Streten who is sheltering him, what he had done and why, how he entered into a lucrative career, and what propelled him out of it. Part I is filled with action and pell-mell sentences, and for a while it seems like this novel will fall into a pattern found in the “detective novels” Winckler reads now and then for mental release from the pressures of work. (This puts in mind We Always Treat Women Too Well [1947] by Raymond Queneau, written under a pseudonym, Sally Mara. Apart from being set in Dublin in the mid-1910s and using names found in James Joyce’s Ulysses, this novel ramped up, in protest and with deliberate irony, the violence and sex present in gangster novels then popular in France. Perec and Queneau were friends and members of Oulipo.) The opening lines of Portrait of a Man are startling for their pulpiness:

Madera was heavy. I grabbed him by the armpits and went backwards down the stairs to the laboratory. His feet bounced from tread to tread in a staccato rhythm that matched my own unsteady descent, thumping and banging around the narrow stairwell. Our shadows danced on the walls. Blood was still flowing, all sticky, seeping from the soaking wet towel, rapidly forming drips on the silk lapels, then disappearing into the folds of the jacket, like trails of slightly glinting snot side-racked by the slightest roughness in the fabric, sometimes accumulating into drops that fell to the floor and exploded into star-shaped stains. I let him slump at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the laboratory door, and then went back up to fetch the razor and to mop up the bloodstains before Otto returned.

On the novel’s cover a cascade of crimson obscures the top half of the Antonella painting that gives the novel its title; and that passage, with its shadows, the descent, and that dance, brings to mind the fondness the French have for murder mysteries and Edgar Allan Poe.

2.

As Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. The figure of the forger bundles that thorny topic together with Perec’s “extensive learning” in art history, the controversy in 1945 surrounding the arrested Dutch art dealer and forger Han van Meegeren (readers of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions [1955] will recall that name and his importance in the creation of that novel), and, to my mind, looks directly at uncomfortable historical events: in the 16 years covered by Winckler’s training and output to his abrupt retirement—so, beginning in 1943—France endured, among other things, the Occupation, collaboration with Nazi Germany, the role of its citizens in sending Jews to death camps, the Resistance, and the violence of the Algerian War (1954-1962). In these atrocities, state scandals, and actions some Frenchmen led false lives. Also, during the Second World War Perec’s father was killed in battle and his mother died either in Auschwitz or on the way to it. It’s impossible to read this book, which in the second half turns into a confession-cum-self-exculpation, without wondering, in a cautious and limited way, how Winckler’s half-life symbolizes an absence within Perec (what he might have been like if his parents had lived) and within the soul of his country.

Unlike the bloody events and fevered prose of Part I, the second part is hesitant and revolves around a set of intellectual and emotional questions. Asked by Streten why he killed Madera, Winckler replies: “‘But I had to wake up one day … It didn’t matter when or where … It happened, it had to. It happened because of Mila [a girl he had some interest in], but it could have happened because of something else. It doesn’t matter.’” Further along Winckler will say: “‘My own story written down once and for all, in a closed circle, with no way out other than dying ten or twenty or thirty years on. Needing to go on to the end without meaning, without necessity …’” Streten, in his search for precise answers—he comes off as a character who has been placed in the wrong novel—pursues what he sees as a vital question:

“Why did you kill Madera?”

“I don’t know … If I knew, I wouldn’t be here … If I’d known, I suppose I wouldn’t have done it … You think it’s easy … You commit an act … You don’t know … you can’t know … you don’t want to know … But after a while it’s behind you … You know you did it … and then …”

“Then what?”

“Then nothing.”

“Why do you say ‘you’?”

“No reason … It doesn’t matter … I killed Madera … And then? It doesn’t make things any simpler … A last act, the least act of all …”
“Just to see …”

“As you say … Just to see what would happen …”

“And what did happen?”

“You can see for yourself … Nothing yet … Perhaps one day something will happen … Something worthwhile …”

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions (Bellos points out that Winckler reappears in Life A User’s Manual)—these are themes returned to, with variations, particularly in Part II. Streten insists this or that “‘doesn’t make sense,’” acutely observes that Winckler “‘pretend[s] to be a victim,’” and repeatedly demands that there be explanations for why his friend behaved as he did, which Winckler argues against: “‘You’d like there to be a solid point of departure, a sudden insight […] There wasn’t any turning point in my existence … There wasn’t a story … There wasn’t even an existence … Of course, if things had been logical […]’”

(As an aside, Perec uses ellipsis to slow the momentum of the second part of Portrait of a Man, and it’s worth noting how the same device, in the hands of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, achieves the complete opposite: in his books those three dots act like stones that trip you down an endless set of stairs at breakneck pace, leaving you breathless, dizzy, and bruised at the fall of the last line.)

Inside the “false world… a world without sense…” occupied by Winckler, where there are no narrative arcs, where he is cocooned from national and world events, where other countries exist as study locations (galleries, libraries, museums) or vacation resorts, where nothing is connected, where the insignificant and the significant weigh the same, and where fate is first invoked and then denied, the forger fitfully dreams of the possibility of a cohesive existence: “To be at long last, in your own right, the captain of your soul and the world in an irrefutable ascent, a single movement towards unity.” Winckler believes he can achieve those aims by painting a new Antonello, with its subject a man who is kin to the Condottiere—a figure who “…has nothing to lose: no friends, no enemies. He is brute force.”—yet who is sufficiently distinct so that experts will accept the forgery. How the painting turns out is not predictable (like so much else in a novel that relies on the words logical, perhaps, nothing, and so on), and the result shows Winckler what he needs to know about himself:

I looked at myself in the mirror in the middle of the night. That was me. That was my face, and my year of struggle and sleepless nights, that oak board and that steel easel, that was my face too, and so were those pots and those hundreds of brushes and the rags and the spots. My story. My fate. A fine caricature of a fate. That was me: anxious and greedy, cruel and mean, with the eyes of a rat. Looking like I thought I was a warlord.

It might be this revelation that is the impetus for the murder and the escape, but as Winckler states numerous times, it could be any reason, or simply something that just happens; even the notion of fate, shaky though it is, could be why his life went along as it did. No final justification or motive will be found, and that debate is a sizeable portion of the content. What is easier to conclude is that in this novel Perec, via Winckler, tends to explain everything (while answering little), leaving less of the pleasurable ambiguity readers might prefer. As Bellos observes: “This is a novel, not an essay. Almost.” The action of the first part is replaced by rambling talk in the second, yet nevertheless, Portrait of a Man is at times an engrossing read, with early hallmarks of the later author—a fascination with exactitude, on painting techniques and on numbers, an intellectual apparatus that undermines the structure of the novel—as well as unusual features that Georges Perec fans will want to encounter for themselves.

—Jeff Bursey

 

Excerpt from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
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Bellos makes clear that Perec started educating himself in visual art in the mid-1950s, and proceeded from there. He “visited exhibitions and galleries in Paris and made a trip to Berne to see a large collection of works by Paul Klee,” studied general and scholarly works and catalogues, and engaged in discussion with “Yugoslav art historians he had befriended in Paris…” Using these sources and his imaginative powers, he invested Gaspard Winckler with the language and thought processes that get across the practical, physical, and mental aspects that lie underneath the act of painting, as this extract shows.

—Jeff Bursey

The hardest part obviously was that celebrated tautness in the jaw. It was impossible to pastiche without creating a double, and there was no sense in that. In the end I settled for using Memling’s portrait as my model: a very thick and powerful neck, with the first minute signs of a double chin, very deep eyes, a line on each side of the nose and a fairly thick mouth. I would put the strength into the neck, into the articulation of the head, in the very high and straight way it was held, and in the lips. It was all fine on the drafts. On the trial paintings in gouache it even turned out rather splendidly: a complex melange of Memling and Antonello sufficiently corrected, with a very pure look in the eyes, immediate contours that yielded easily at first and then thickened, became impermeable, turning hard and merciless. No cruelty, no weakness. What I wanted. Pretty much exactly what I was after . . . It was another month before I started really painting. I had to get my pots, brushes and rags ready. I took three days’ rest. I began to paint sitting in the armchair, with my palette within easy reach, and the panel set on the easel with its four corners wrapped in cotton wool and rags so that the metal angles that held it in place would leave no mark. I had an elbow support and a crutch to keep my hand steady, a huge visor to keep the glare of the spots off my eyes, and wore magnifying goggles. An extraordinary set of safety devices. I would paint for twenty minutes and then stop for two hours. I sweated so much I had to change three or four times a day. From then on fear never left me. I don’t know why but I had no confidence at all, I never managed to have a clear vision of what I was trying to do, I couldn’t say what my panel would be like when I’d finished painting it; I wasn’t able to guarantee that it would look like any of the dozens of more or less completed drafts lying around the room. I didn’t understand some of my own details, I was unable to get a grip on the overall project, to recognise it in the smallest touch, to feel it taking shape. I was stumbling onwards, despite the innumerable safeguards I’d set up. Previously, I’d been able to paint any Renaissance picture in a couple of months, but now, after four months’ work, in mid- September, I still had the whole face to do . . .

Reprinted with permission from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere by Georges Perec. Published by the University of Chicago ©. © 2012 by Éditions du Seuil Introduction and English translation © 2015 by David Bellos. All rights reserved. Published 2015.

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NC
jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010). He is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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Dec 042014
 

139056374STranslator David Need

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When poet and translator David Need began translating Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poetry in 2001, it was in part an attempt to get closer to one of his favorite writers, to fashion a “close workshop with someone” of remarkable ability. Rilke’s often-overlooked second-language work presented a convenient inroad for Need, whose proficiency in French at the time exceeded his knowledge of German, the poet’s first language. This practicality proved fortuitous as he began to focus his attention on a discreet series of short “rose poems,” written by Rilke in 1924. Need felt the rose poems constituted a unique arm of Rilke’s oeuvre, one that if considered on its own terms can be found to contain the generous whole of the poet’s vision in miniature. As he continued to translate Rilke, completing work on the rose poems and moving on to the German material, he began to incorporate his ideas on Rilke’s aesthetic into a book that would present a variety of the poet’s German and French pieces along with an essay and commissioned ink drawings, all serving to support a thesis embodied by the heart of collection: the rose series.

Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is first and foremost a set of fine translations. Each two-or-three-stanza poem in the rose series is given its own page opposite the French original, which encourages the reader to proceed slowly and attentively. If one wants to stop there, satisfied with Need’s fresh take on these under-read poems, the book is a worthwhile read, an enlivening encounter with one of modernity’s greatest poets. But a patient reader eventually realizes that Roses, like the flower that inspired Rilke’s meditations, is constantly seeking to open up for us toward a more potent aesthetic revelation. This is because Need has invested the book with a varied and generative infrastructure that forwards a larger argument through a series of dialogues. Most conspicuous in this regard are the 27 sketches by artist Clare Johnson that react to each brief rose poem with an image that engages the text, but does not attempt to “portray” its content in an overtly literal or didactic way. The images, which range from atmospheric depictions of silhouettes on a city street, to rain-streaked windows, to abstract patterns, act out of Johnson’s response to widen the confines of the multi-media dialogue. The sketches echo the poems and in so doing help us to reconstrue their meaning. Another important interlocutor in Roses is Need’s essay, “The Room Next Door: The Impossible Affordance of the Rose.” The essay is a convincing distillation of the translator’s ethos that considers the influence of Aestheticism and figures like Rodin and Cezanne on Rilke’s vision and situates the poet’s artistic response within a millennia-old incantatory tradition in poetry that goes back to the Rgveda, India’s pre-Hindu epic written around 1400 BCE. Need argues that Rilke uses the rose motif to take a firm stand against the reduction of the material to a kind of impenetrable surface, urging us to consider the ways in which nature creates room, or “affordances,” for the various—at times contradictory—facets of our being. The combined effect of the essay, sketches, and poems is one that collaborators across genre and medium strive for: a ringing of distinct yet concordant tonalities that elevate the piece to something more than the sum of its parts.

David Need teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. A specialist in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, he sees confluence in philosophies of religion and art and often speaks of them in overlapping terms. It’s a point of view I found instructive when I was his student at North Carolina State University in 2003. We’ve kept in touch over the years and, upon learning of the publication of Roses, I was eager to set up an interview. He invited me to his home in Durham, North Carolina, where we talked at length about Rilke, translation, and the implications of an existence that might somehow be, in the poet’s words, “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.”

—Dan Holmes

 

Dan Holmes (Holmes): What brought about this turn toward translating in earnest? How is this situated in your creative development?

David Need (Need): There are two parts to that. One is that I think it’s always good for an artist to be working in two modalities. It’s important to think about your medium in a couple of different ways, or to think about a problem in a couple of different ways. I’ve noticed that when I spend time doing a lot of singing, I start to have ideas about writing that are new and fresh. There’s something about the singing that presents a set of problems to me, like problems of rhythm or problems of shape, but it presents them in this other form. Then when I come back to write, the music of the writing is being informed by what I’m doing with the other thing. For me it doesn’t happen just by listening, I have to be involved in some kind of making. Same thing with translating. Translating gives you this really close workshop with a particular writer’s language. When you translate really good writers you’re getting a close workshop with someone whose ambitions or skills in poetry is extraordinary. In translation, you get what’s going on completely, but you have to make some decisions about it. And in some ways those are the same problems you have with respect to your own gestures and skills. When working on my poetry, I can pull out an image and put it down, but I learn something from working with Rilke about how heavily to weight that image. And I learn other things, like, reading him I’ve learned he leaves messy things in his poems sometimes deliberately. He just leaves little thumbprints and you know he’s clearly got an ability to be smoother and it hasn’t happened there. That was an important lesson for me: that I didn’t always have to smooth and that I could mix diction at times if that was the way the poem was emerging.

The other thing is that I think any art is basically translation. Talking now, I’m translating. When I’m teaching I’m constantly translating—that’s all I’m doing. I’m standing in front of a class, I’ve got this body of information I’ve been interpreting, then I’m putting it into forms for the students, and their ability to understand this stuff is related to the reading they’ve done, and what they bring to the class, how old they are, the ideas they already have about spirituality. I have to see those and figure those out and translate to them. Also when I’m working with different religious traditions I’m constantly needing to translate, from talking within a Christian context to talking within a Buddhist context to talking within our context here—it is a lot like translating. “Now I’m in this field. Now I’m in this location. And this is the way you think inside this situation.” I have a sense of the world, or music in the world, and I’m trying to get that vision or image to happen for you. There’s a translation or a telepathy there that happens in the reading. I know as a reader and writer that’s what I’m looking for—to make other people see things that aren’t visible commonly but might be common in our imaginations.

Holmes: I can imagine two approaches to translation: one is to render as clearly and accurately as possible what you’re seeing within the context that you understand the writer wrote it, and one is to draw out the germ of it and further express it.

Need: I’m a really more the first kind of translator. A lot of times when I’m looking at other people’s translations, I’m impatient if I see they’re getting away from the word count, the words that are there in the original. If there is any “thing” that the poem is, I don’t think it’s the ideas, or only the ideas—I think it’s the words. The words are these little material edges that are the latticework of the poem that the reader catches on. Some people that have their own lyric sensibility take a poem and say, “I see the image and I’m going to render that image in my own lyric terms.” I’m not comfortable with that. I think it brings too much of your own reading to the material and doesn’t leave the material open enough in something like its original form.

The people that I’ve translated so far are good for the kind of translation I do. I have a lyric sensibility, so when I’m faced with choosing some words, I go for a quiet music that will work as a poetics for the reader, so it will read lyrically. But the word count and the grammar I’ve almost always just transformed it into an English word count, and grammar and line count, and things like that. Rilke is not a poet where there’s a lot of punning. He tends to use words directly and simply so he’s easier to translate. I can establish a word without worrying about the fifteen meanings the word Rilke chose in German has that a reader might pick up. Celan has been more challenging for me because there’s a lot more play going on and what’s worse, or better, is that Celan is a translator, so the puns aren’t even just in German. He’s constantly making these really wicked puns with English and English phonemes that are buried in German and French. So sometimes I find that I actually leave the third language or fourth language that he’ll use, and I don’t translate it. I’ll run into objections with readers who don’t want to put the time in. But if that person is interested and curious then that little thing—which is like a little smear that Celan has left there because he shifted into the other language—will look like a smear instead of being fixed out of being a smear. There is a way in which that multilingual capacity can grow in a reading and still be connected to the writing that he does.

551-12.jpgRainer Maria Rilke

Holmes: Rilke wrote these poems in French, which was a second language for him. Is that different for you than translating a German Rilke poem?

Need: Not in the end. When I first sat down and did it I didn’t have German yet. I had the sense that the French was a little strange, but I didn’t try to do anything to make the strangeness apparent. I just translated the weight of the language. My approach is the same with German. I’m not as comfortable in German so I have to do more dictionary work and I have to go, “Okay, that’s a dative” and work out what all the grammar is, but my approach isn’t that different. He’s not a completely different person in French.

Holmes: Like Beckett’s French. It feels to me like a second language.

Need: Yeah. And there’s been some great second language writers like Conrad, who are just unbelievable, but there’s a little bit of the haunt of it, that fact that it’s a second language. Or Kerouac. People are starting to focus on that, that he is actually a second language writer.

Holmes: What drew you to the rose poems? Have they been neglected? Are they emblematic of your aesthetic in some way?

Need: I did work with them because they were in French, and they were a discreet set, and because I like flowers and they haven’t been translated that much. So French because back then I didn’t have German and I wanted to work with some Rilke. Roses because it’s a discreet set and kind of simple. And I have a bit of a disposition to the pastoral. So the rose works for me at the level of motif. I’m similar enough for finding floral or seasonal things as the beginnings for certain kinds of meditations. There was a rapport there.

I translated them back in 2001 and even then I was beginning to develop an argument about Rilke in relation to contemporary poetics. So there is actually an aesthetic argument that I’m using Rilke to make. I think when it comes down to it it’s the idea that post-60’s and 70’s there was this turn to the surface in poetry. To lots of attention to the surface and a distrust of any kind of depth at all… a criticism of depth as always referring to the romantic subject that we were supposed to dispel as good progressives, because somehow the romantic subject was this feudal encrustation that could only create bad things in our relationships with other people. So I already knew that in Rilke I had somebody that I could use to argue for interiority—for the aesthetics of interiority. In the writing itself, right from the first one he says, “Rose you’re this thing that’s infinitely unfolded and absolutely withdrawn at the same time.” That really fit with ideas that I was having at the time about the human situation, that the human is a being who has this exteriority that continues to unfold; there continues to be this play on the surface, but there is also this interiority that never gets completely seen by anyone else or even by the person, or gets completely exhausted. That seemed to be really important in terms of arguing for a place of freedom despite the way people were thinking about language and culture, because so many people felt that we were in this hegemonic era with commercial culture dominating all production and value and I felt: no, that’s not quite true. We’re buying into and shutting off access to something within ourselves that we shouldn’t cut off access to, that actually is freer that we imagine, but also at stake. And what people who want freedom can never quite understand is—and obviously this reflects a kind of commitment but—we don’t have some kind of “drive your car in all directions without ever having to be accountable to anything” kind of freedom. We have life, but we’re in relation to others and we’re always at stake in those relationships.

Rilke just seemed to be another person coming out of modernity—early on in modernity—who seemed to be really caring about the world, and arguing that the lyrical and what we feel as beauty and desire are not to be shut off, or cut apart, or dismantled because of the harm we do each other. We have to work hard to make the choice not to harm each other. And I felt like a lot of peoples’ construction of interiority and the unconscious has been wrong, so I felt that the rose poems were a good small vehicle, a simple study, that were themselves making an argument that was consistent overall with the way Rilke used the trope of the rose in his work. The idea I’m arguing I think is an idea that was Rilke’s, actually rooted in what he was doing with the rose.

cover

Holmes: Do you see the Rose poems as a culmination in miniature of Rilke’s vision? Or an anamoly?

Need: I think it’s a miniature. He finishes the Duino Elegies and writes the Sonnets to Orpheus in 1922 and he spends a lot of the rest of the year finishing a translation from French of Paul Valery. There are two things that are going on: he’s already starting to work on ongoing lyric projects in German. One of the things I translated (for the book) was actually a suite. Most of the poems are from ’23 and ’24 in German and he put it together at the end of his life and gave it to his publisher as something to bring out for the estate. And there are about 80 poems there. He was working in German but I also think he got the idea from working with Valery to do some studies in French. And he had started doing the Valais Quatrains within about a two-week period. They were studies. I think he was a good enough artist to apply himself to a material. But not just any material; it was one of his leitmotifs, something he’d brought up at different times to try and make a certain kind of argument. And that argument is there again in miniature. It’s almost like somebody who had been painting larger scale paintings of roses decided to do a series of line drawings. That’s not because he doesn’t want to do the big project. It’s because he’s decided to do a setting that’s a line drawing setting. So I see this as yet another setting.

A lot of them are what I call—and I think this is important regarding surface and depth—a lot of them are half-sonnets. Not “half,” but what you can call broken sonnets. He wrote often in the Italian sonnet throughout his life, and once he found the Italian sonnet it appears in all the published books. Not all of the Rose poems are broken sonnets, but many of them are just two quatrains, which means for the Italian sonnet he didn’t add the two tercets at the end. But I feel like he was still thinking “sonnet”. He just drew the sonnet that far and then left it blank, so it feels to me like he drew in the visible part of the sonnet and left the turn part not visible. They weren’t casual at all. He was still working and thinking on a project that was related to the ideas he was working on in his life.

Holmes: Rilke describes the rose in #3 as “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” He’s always showing us the rose as paradox, as something interior that is inseparable from its surroundings. He considers the relational nature of “features” and forms in order to glean something of their essence. Can you talk about what you think he’s doing by setting up and undermining these dualities?

Need: Thinking in terms of antimonies is characteristic of human thought. Certainly in Europe post-Hegel, thinking in terms of antithesis tended to be a mode of thought that people thought was a real structure. Any kind of opposition you found, its resolution would be in this dialectical process. That’s how you worked with problems like the tension between mind and body, or spirit and body, or life and death—any thing that you could think of in those terms. I think lyric poetry in general, and post-Romantic poetry, was trying to argue for a different status. To actually argue for “both/and” rather than a conflict. Even though Hegel’s model—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—moves towards a “both/and,” the synthesis actually erases the difference. I think Rilke was really interested in the fact that another way of thinking would say that impossibly we were “both/and.” So his problem is how to get us to break the Hegelian way of reading, or to recognize that there’s another way to resolve that kind of antithesis.

Hegel’s model is a very combative model. It’s a model of unresolvable antagonisms. It can’t imagine the resolution. Rilke is trying to say “I want to have a relationship to the world that doesn’t erase it. I want to have a relationship to other people where I’m not taking away the space or being taken over. I want to somehow be in a situation where impossibly this difference can exist, together.” So I think he’s presenting us over and over again with a problem, but also trying to get us through contradictions to consider impossible things, such as the possibility of being “infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” We’re encouraged to think of both of those at the same time. And we could be like that. We are fundamentally limited by being incarnate at the same time we have openness in us. It’s not that one or the other wins, but that we’re impossibly both of those things.

Holmes: Had he read into Eastern religions at all? That cutting away of dichotomies is an insight that I associate with that kind of thinking and it’s interesting if he had that insight on his own. Had he read any of that?

Need: No. The stuff he writes about the Buddha is not…it doesn’t look to me like he read the material about Buddhism. I take Buddhism as arguing for both/and but a lot of people take Buddhism as arguing for just one. Just this. I think Buddhism is saying that impossibly there is both form and emptiness at the same time. And that it isn’t possible to work it out, but you can bear or realize that, impossibly, appearing forms are what they are without any grounding and it doesn’t hurt.

pic1Illustration by Clare Johnson

Holmes: These poems feel linked to me, almost like a single poem of many stanzas. Some of the most gratifying reading I had was when I would read it for a long time and feel the perspective shift just enough; it starts to mount and become a larger aesthetic experience.

Need: He’s a suite poet. He composes suites. All of his books are set up—this one feels musical to me—but other ones are set up as picture galleries, where you’re supposed to walk through and see this image and then that image and then that image. Each poem has a setting in relation to the other ones. He thought a lot about that. And it is really gratifying. There is an intelligence about theme and variation that I’ve been moved by in my own life. I can’t imagine trying to write any longer except in that way. He recognizes that any poem is a version, and therefore what links the poems is the project of starting out. The series of poems don’t have to be about a particular argument. They’re essays, and they can be linked essays by which you don’t just tell people there is a series of infinitely repeating moves. The one freedom we have is that when we’re crossing the street, and we’re doing the street-crossing routine, we can shape through “crossing the street” in different kinds of ways. In the same way, when you’re working with “the motif” you can show an interesting aesthetic freedom by showing there are a number of different aesthetically valid ways through this space. Like when you go through a well-hung show at a museum, you feel instructed by it. It’s an experience that has informed you beyond what any one poem could do.

Holmes: There seems to be a larger ontological inquiry happening here, something beyond the Rilke poems (or perhaps a continuance of their gesture) that is uniquely yours. Are you conscious of employing the poems, the drawings and the essays toward the end of a personal aesthetic statement?

Need: Yes. I think it would be hard not to. I’m pursuing a line and Rilke is a co-conspirator. I don’t feel I’m being unfaithful to him. It is part of a larger aesthetic related to looking for beauty or care, and an argument about beauty and care in the face of other arguments about freedom or power that other people have.

Holmes: And if you just read the poems themselves, that’s one thing, but if you read the whole book there is a kind of collaboration. You mention in “The Room Next Door” that Rilke thought of the poems as sketches or “brief drawings.” Did this provide the impetus to commission the sketches? How did your collaboration with Clare Johnson come about?

Need: Right from the beginning the poems seemed like little line drawings—very careful line drawings that I saw right from the beginning. I wanted to bring that plastic quality out by having a series of images commissioned. I wanted someone who would create a set of images that weren’t illustrations of the poems; I wanted them to have their own integrity as a suite and yet somehow have a relationship to the poems, and Clare got that. She thought it was an interesting project and wanted to try her hand to it. I was grateful and Clare’s been doing other kinds of projects in this post-it note series, working in a small space, and also doing black and whites on a larger field.

When you work with somebody you’re looking for a kind of intelligence. You could, I guess, be looking for someone that had precisely your sensibility of the beautiful. I had a sense of Clare’s commitment and her effort. She had serious standards about beauty; she has graphic problems that she’s working on. The actual images might or might not be the first thing that would come out of my mind, but when you’re working collaboratively, what’s more important is that there has to be a common agreement about that workshop practice side of it. That the person is actually thinking about the work, and has a project going on in which they are thinking again and again about certain kinds of problems. She seemed to connect with the project.

One thing to add to that is that Rilke was planning to bring out another one of his French suites that would have drawings that were commissioned in exactly that kind of “Not an illustration, but alongside.” His partner who was an artist was going to do that. So I felt like this wasn’t far from what Rilke was thinking at that time anyway.

Holmes: The multimedia approach feels apt here, because the poems themselves are dialogical. One way to look at this book is as a framing of dialogues: of the rose with its surroundings, of Rilke with the rose, of you with Rilke, of Clare with Rilke, and of you with Clare. Even the way the print interacts with white space. To what extent was it a conscious structural decision to embed a series of dialogues within the book?

Need: One of my fundamental principles—and I don’t know if it’s one of Rilke’s fundamental principles, but I think we might agree—starts from this idea of “impossible doubledness.” One correlate of that for me has been the idea that things acquire resonance and open up for the reader in ways that are hard for us to talk about, like a dream that we have that somehow has an affordance for us. So I have some kind of—I don’t know if it’s metaphysics—some sort of desire in general in my work to try to create things that have the possibility of opening up these affordances for others. Right now my guiding thought has been that you do that by establishing dialogue and difference, and what happens because of that isn’t that you just keep bouncing, but that actual resonance happens. And if resonance happens then the imagination can come alive.

It’s deliberate about keeping the difference there, especially in America where there’s so much pressure all the time to make everything common, or to erase difference, or to act as if difference doesn’t exist. And I feel like, “No.” We actually deprive ourselves of some of our dignity and some of our real worth by doing that. We don’t actually become common with each other and we lose the ability to talk about our differences. Our whole economy is based on a zero-sum game. So how do you make money that’s not there? How do you make energy that’s not there? What I’m curious about is, if you’re rigorous about doing this, is it possible to create this thing-that-isn’t-there for other people? So that they actually have energy they didn’t have before, because of paying attention to the dialogical structure. I don’t know if that’s for real or not.

Holmes: I think it is. I’ve read multi-genre books before but this one really popped for me and I think it’s because it’s so well thought out and holistic.

Need: And you know that thing when people get together and they want to go a multimedia thing, so they get some musicians and they throw some images on the wall and they do a couple of other things. But nobody is actually thinking about those things as being different, the idea is that they’re just kind of letting them loose in there. I think that’s a dead end. It doesn’t produce what people would hope a multigenre or multimedia thing would do.

It was hard at times. Dave (Wofford of Horse & Buggy Press), Clare, and I have really different ideas at times and I had to make some decisions. For the image weight and the image layout, Clare’s the boss. It just doesn’t matter if I like it. In terms of finally being the person that was paying for it, there was some level at which I got to make decisions like that—some of the decisions were actually not to make decisions, which ended up sometimes being frustrating for me and for the other people too.

Holmes: When you ran into those difficulties, what was your guiding light? Was it always back in the poems or in your larger aesthetic project?

Need: My aesthetic. I keep talking. This is the kind of directorial move that is consistent with the overall project. We did talk about that and just sort of set that out intellectually at the beginning. But when it got down into it, with actual material things…it’s easy to have an idea, but it’s harder when you’re deciding “is the book going to be blue? Red? What’re your color choices?” I’m not very good at those decisions. You could show me a blue one and a beige one and a yellow one and a red one and I’d find ways to like each one. So I’m not great at that. I had to make decisions at times with what that person has generated. But I also felt that was consistent with my overall practice there. If you thought about it as a bandleader, I really did have to let this person bring this kind of music out. I couldn’t get in the way of that because they couldn’t be a part of it unless they could do what they do. I had to go with their notes.

Holmes: That’s the only way to make it strong I think.

Need: I think so. I got that from Miles Davis actually. I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis when I was working out these principles. I was listening to the Columbia session recordings.

Holmes: That’s how he put those great bands together. He was a nurturer of talent, not just the bandleader.

Need: Right. And that’s consistent. My goal is to bring out the possibility of each person’s capacity but in a structured way, not just “here is the thing, now run.”

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Holmes: Translation is perhaps often misunderstood in its creative potential. Can you say something about what happens in this dialogue between poet and translator?

Need: When people think about artists, they tend to like the idea of “out of nowhere” creation, but I don’t think that’s how creativity works. I think we’re playing along with the reading that we’re already doing. We’re already reading in the world and we’re reading the options that people are presenting to us, whether it’s music, or reading a lot of books, or looking at paintings. We have seen options. Some people have this idea, kind of a Platonic idea, that the real poem is there somewhere. I might say that the real painting is there in a way that the real poem isn’t ever there. And I feel like maybe the real song isn’t ever there. We have these different ways that we mark the song; we write down music, we make “a” record of the song. But even when we write down music there’s a gap that exists between the piece and the various performances of the piece. Even for the author of the music itself.

If we’re talking about a piece where the author sits down and writes a piece of music out and then plays it, I bet that something happens that’s not recorded in the writing down of the music. And I know as a writer, one of the things that happened for me was, in the beginning, I was more of an oral poet than a written poet; I would write and I would hear it when I wrote, so it wasn’t that I wasn’t having the performance when I was writing. When I would read it out loud, it would come alive, but I was trying to perform again that thing that I was hearing, and sometimes that meant that I would do things that we’re not that reproducible on the page. A page only has a line break. It’s hard to create a word that somehow gets suspended. Type doesn’t give you the ability to create that sense of suspension easily. But suspension can be done in music. You can create these kinds of suspended turns. So I would look at that and see there’s a suspension happening there, but how do I mark that? So from the very beginning I never was bothered by the idea that my translation of the poem wasn’t the real poem, because I’ve always felt that the poem exists in reading anyway, and I’m in a sense creating a translation of some kind, or I’m doing a reading of it that heads toward being a translation. And I have my own sense of music and a sense of the music that I see some echoes of in Rilke’s work but I never try to go beyond, or ambitiously try to get some fine move he made if it didn’t come simply in my own language. I never got hung up on those.

Holmes: Like you were saying with the Celan, “that’s a fourth language, I’m not going to be able to tackle that.”

Need: Right. So I’ll just leave it. Because I want to create a text that does something of what the original text does in some way. Or not the original, but the one that we have. Because they are all how people set them as printed texts. So to some degree I have decided to commit to printed settings.

The other things I’ve felt—and this is probably just my own romantic imagination—I really felt with Rilke that his poetry had interceded in my life; it had given me a possibility that didn’t exist before I read it, when I really read it in grad school. I sat down and it was just “Oh my God, there’s more. And there’s somebody with me.” And I was stunned by the sense of “This is somebody who knows some of the things that I experience that are so hard to talk about to other people.” He’s made a place where we are laughing across the surface of the poem together in the way that people that are chronically sick nevertheless have joy. When I did the translations I felt, “I’m being allowed into the room where I’m getting to sit down with this poet and his intelligence is still present in the poems, even though he’s dead. This isn’t just somebody who’s teaching me how to think, but is somehow making a place for me.” So you can make art that isn’t just an artifact, but actually has energy and can come to life years after you’re dead. The translations are a way of trying to do that, of trying to make settings or versions. It’s not going to work for everybody but there is some of that, “Wow, this medicine really worked for me; I hope it works for you.” It was about the pleasure of being taught by this profoundly caring intelligence whose instincts I wanted to get something from.

Holmes: Was it in part the encounter with that intelligence and the intimacy of it that made you feel the existing translations were not quite adequate?

Need: Sure. The existing French translation, it wasn’t quite…I felt that there was only one and I wanted to try my hand at it. It wasn’t that I wanted to cancel it or erase it, but I felt like I could try my hand at it and not be too influenced by all the other translations and the whole process. It was still simple enough for me to take a swing at it. (Translator A. Poulin) had made some choices that seemed less musical than the French. I thought I might have slightly better instincts at the level of music in some cases. There’s only so far the translation can go. I didn’t struggle to not use words that he used and things like that. I made decisions so that I could feel it was my own, but I didn’t try to force that either.

Since I’ve been translating the German, I’ve been trying to place the German within the larger project of me ventriloquising Rilke. At this point, I feel like I’ve developed a voice that is my voice-language in which Rilke is translated. So when I now turn to things like A Sonnet to Orpheus, or things that have been translated a lot, what I’m doing is my Sonnets to Orpheus based on the voice and practice that I’ve already established. I’m hoping that the passion I feel in the voice produces a poem that has more of that passion in English.

I really want to see if I can bring out these two unpublished German sequences that Rilke put down (before Orpheus). They haven’t been worked over that much, so they’re like Rilke exhibits that people haven’t been taken through yet. I remember a couple of years ago I was thinking, “God I wish there was just one more thing by Rilke that I’ve never read.” Then somebody brought something out that I hadn’t read and that was exciting. But I can’t be the only person who’s read Rilke enough that it would be cool to see one more film by him.

rilke baby

Holmes: Can you tell me about your work translating the Rgveda and how that informed this work?

Need: I learned translation working on the Rgveda and Buddhist texts, and early Sanskrit material. There is some connectivity there. It was one body of literature that I worked closely with, that I thought was actually still relevant, looking at the way poetry and art are working now. I don’t think our relationship to the world or language is in certain important ways that different. It’s not clear to me that we’ve solved the problem they were working on. A lot of that has to with the imagination, with understanding the relationship of the imagination to the world. I think that we have this radical capacity to amplify the world for ourselves through weaving our imagination into physical forms and the kind of amplification that occurs through doing that—I think human beings have been using and then refining a whole range of media for staging their imaginations and that it’s always been important.

Holmes: Like what you said earlier about the reaction toward poetry that is more surface… Rilke seems to be unapologetic about what he thinks poetry can do, and there’s that link to the Rgveda, or other religious scriptures, where there’s a willingness to go further with it.

Need: Yeah. I know some people feel that they can’t go there but I don’t know what else we can do. We have not solved it by just becoming secular creatures or by killing the romantic subject in ourselves. We’re just as hostage to the violence that we do each other. I think that in doing that we rob ourselves of a great deal of possibilities that we might bring to bear in our relation to each other.

I think World War II and everything since then indicated that we do tremendous violence to each other and certainly one response to that would be to want to have a huge revolution to change that, or to become deeply suspicious of any desire that you have. You can almost see that as a coherent trauma reaction if you were dealing with things on a smaller scale. But I think we would get a lot more if we really understood that it’s not just what we’ve done but that we continue to be at stake in our relationships now. And we still desperately need to finds ways to nurture, to create affordances for each other, to create impossible economy and space for each other. And we can’t do that just through strict rational means. The 20th century has pretty much proven that just getting grain someplace is not what makes culture happen or nurtures people. Not that art necessarily does it, but at least art is making the argument that it should be our goal.

—David Need & Dan Holmes

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David Need is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.

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DanHolmes

Dan Holmes lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Numéro Cinq, Paste, and Digital Americana.

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Dec 032014
 

551-12.jpg

The following selections from David Need’s Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke provide an illuminating glimpse into the ways Rilke uses the rose as motif. The poems seek to elucidate how time’s ceaseless transformations do not rectify or allay the contradictions they invoke. The living rose is “fully awake” but discreet, possessing “many pages / of detailed happiness / we will never read.” Rilke is fascinated by these irreducible relationships: the flower’s vitality belies its eventual death; its blooming won’t diminish the impenetrable density of its petals. Clare Johnson’s attending illustrations reinforce Rilke’s assertion that the rose of these poems is “a supple spoken word / framed by the text of things” and that this “framing” constitutes a relationship binding our transitory hopes to “the tender moments / in the continual departure.”

—Dan Holmes

cover

Roses
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation by David Need
Illustrations by Clare Johnson
Horse & Buggy Press, 2014
224 pages, $27.34

 

I

Si ta fraîcheur parfois nous étonne tant,
heureuse rose,
c’est qu’en toi-même, en dedans,
pétale contre pétale, tu te reposes.
 
Ensemble tout éveillé, dont le milieu
dort, pendant qu’innombrables se touchent
les tendresses de ce coeur silencieux
qui aboutissent à l’extrême bouche.

 

I

If your blooming sometimes so astonishes us,
happy rose,
it’s that, petal against petal, you rest
within yourself, inside.

Fully awake, your petals, whose surroundings
sleep, though numberless, meet
this silent heart’s tendernesses
which end in these urgent lips.

Untitled1

II

Je te vois, rose, livre entrebaîllé,
qui contient tant de pages
de bonheur détaillé
qu’on ne lira jamais. Livre-mage,
 
qui s’ouvre au vent et qui peut être lu
les yeux fermés…,
dont les papillons sortent confus
d’avoir eu les mêmes idées.

 

II

I see you, rose, book half-opened,
having so many pages
of detailed happiness
we will never read. Mage-Book,

which is opened by the wind and can be read,
eyes shut …
from which butterflies scatter, confused
to have had the same ideas.

Untitled2

VI

Une rose seule, c’est toutes les rose
et celle-ci: l’irremplaçable,
le parfait, le souple vocable
encadré par le texte des choses.
 
Comment jamais dire sans elle
ce que furent nos espérances,
et les tendres intermittences
dans la partance continuelle.

 

VI

A single rose, it’s every rose
and this one—the irreplaceable one,
the perfect one—a supple spoken word
framed by the text of things.

How could we ever speak without her
of what our hopes were,
and of the tender moments
in the continual departure.

Untitled3

XIV

Été: être pour quelques jours
le contemporain des roses;
respirer ce qui flotte autour
de leurs âmes écloses.
 
Faire de chacune qui se meurt
une confidente,
et survivre à cette soeur
en d’autres roses absente.

 

XIV

Summer: to be for a few days
the contemporary of roses;
to breath what drifts about
their blooming spirits.

To make of each who dies,
a confidant,
and to outlive this sister
among the other, wandering roses.

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XVIII

Tout ce qui nous émeut, tu le partages.
Mais ce qui t’arrive, nous l’ignorons.
Il faudrait être cent papillons
pour lire toutes tes pages.
 
Il y en d’entre vous qui sont comme des dictionnaires;
ceux qui les cueillent
ont envie de faire relier toutes ces feuilles.
Moi, j’aime les roses épistolaires.

 

XVIII

All that we feel, you share,
yet we ignore what happens to you.
There would have to be a hundred butterflies
to read all your pages.

There are ones among you like dictionaries;
those who gather these
are tempted to bind all the pages.
Me? I like the roses which are letters.

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David Need (translator) is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.

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