To translate the spirit is an intention of such enormity, so phantasmal, that it can well turn out to be inoffensive . . . —Borges, “The Translators of The 1001 Nights”
by Jerome Keeler
I had Borges’s writings on translation in mind when I picked up Azure: Poems and Selections from the “Livre,” the recent translation of Stéphane Mallarmé by Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez. The book’s reputation preceded it. It aims to convey a sense of the peculiar energies a reader of Mallarmé’s time would have perceived in his work by rendering this work vital to our own time—that is, by creating translations that work as contemporary poems. Previous renderings, the translators feel—they single out the highly-regarded efforts of the Henry Weinfield (University of California Press, 1994) and E.H. and A.M. Blackmore (Oxford, 2006)—are too academic, too antiquated in their diction, and, most importantly, too occupied with preserving meter and end rhyme at the expense of other poetic qualities. The present version, as the translators’ note explains, “privileges a certain music—a striking music—that is integral to Mallarmé’s poetics.”
These are admirable aims. But they introduce a new set of challenges in tackling Mallarmé, who is justly considered the least translatable of French poets. This is all to say that Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez had their work cut out for them, and I confess I found it hard not to go in rather skeptical of the project.
To lend some concreteness to assessing the collection, I would like to focus on important parts of two of Mallarmé’s most representative poems. Here, then, is an excerpt from the early and relatively accessible “Azure,” in the more faithful rhyming translation of Weinfield as well as the present translation.
—The Sky is dead.—Toward you I run!
Bestow, O matter,
Forgetfulness of Sin and the cruel Ideal
Upon this martyr who comes to share the litter
Where the happy herd of men is made to kneel.
For there I long, because at last my brain,
Like an empty rouge-pot on a dressing stand,
Has lost the art of decking out its pain,
To yawn morosely toward a humble end . . .
In vain! The Azure triumphs [. . .]
—Sky’s dead.—Toward you I run. Give, o
Heaviness of all things, forgetfulness of the Ideal
And of sin, to this martyr who sojourns
Among the sweat of mortal cattle.
I want out. My empty brain, empty
As a pot of face paint at the wall’s foot,
Dry, empty, it can’t face paint, mask, a weepy idea
Shuttling some girth toward pinned eyes . . .
Vain! Azure triumphs [. . .]
There are many interesting points of comparison here. The most noticeable, I think, are the differences in the treatments of the second stanza. Certainly the longing and the morose yawning of Weinfeld’s rendering, and even the rouge-pot and the dressing stand, feel mannered by contrast to the touches of the present translation. The wordplay of “it can’t face paint,” for instance, strikes me as just the sort one might encounter in a contemporary poem. The enjambed free verse of the present translation feels fresher as well, especially in contrast to Weinfield’s base of rhymed iambic pentameter. The decision to abandon end rhyme and regular meter, in fact, seems much more significant to this collection as a whole than any updates in diction. But this brings me to what I find the more interesting points of comparison: the first stanza, and the thought that follows the second. Here, in terms of contemporary feel, there is, I think, little meaningful difference between the translations. This sort of unevenness from stanza to stanza and also from poem to poem reflects the general situation in the first half of this collection.
I intend this not as a major criticism but simply as an observation about the challenges in rendering a late nineteenth-century poet contemporary. Mallarmé was heavily influenced by Baudelaire, and his early verse, composed in the 1860s, has a decidedly Baudelairean atmosphere: “Ennui,” “the Ideal,” and “Azure,” often apostrophized and capitalized, are invoked repeatedly. Consider “Azure.” For Mallarmé, this is not simply a color that sounds like it belongs in a poem but a conception, an atheist alternative to “ciel,” which, in French, can mean both sky and heaven. This is lost on us. And if “Ennui” can’t necessarily be called antiquated, it’s hard to imagine anyone today blissfully cultivating it in the manner of Baudelaire and the Decadents. “Boredom” isn’t really an update, but it’s also not so intimately bound to a particular historical context. And it is, at least, a translation. I wondered why it, or something like it, did not appear. Occasionally, in fact, the translators conceive an ingenious solution—I particularly enjoyed “infinite whatever” as a rendering of “langueur infinie” (literally “infinite languor”) in the poem “Sigh.” It’s a wide departure from the original but a perfect expression of contemporary sensibility. For the most part, however, the vocabulary of the Symbolists and their precursors remains untouched. The presence of such content in one stanza or poem, then, with an update such as “night cinema,” “Oxys” (for Oxycontins), or “Gravitrons” in the next, seems an indication of an unfinished battle—or perhaps simply an unwinnable one. In any case, I found the issue intriguing, though sometimes distracting, and I wondered if more might have been done to address it.
I don’t wish to give the impression that nothing in Azure feels truly contemporary. The shorter poems toward the end of the collection are remarkably so. These are drawn from Mallarmé’s mature verse of the 1880s. The Baudelairean influence is diminished. The translators are in their element here, and they take more liberties in departing from the French. Certain gestures are masterful and can be appreciated without comparison to the originals, as in the final stanza of “Scrap, as for an Album”—
Such a raw, clear
—and the opening stanza of a section from “To you colonist”:
Can’t believe this incredible joy
And won’t ironize it, open
No more than a tossed mattress
And it would require a separate review to do justice to the 108-page selection from the “Livre,” Mallarmé’s manuscript notes toward a book-of-books that would reveal “all existing relations between everything.” This selection, translated into English for the first time, is a significant contribution to Mallarmé scholarship. But it is much more than that. I was pleased to find that these notes, fragmented and unfinished as they may be, and in fact precisely for that reason, read as a kind of postmodern concrete poem in the form of an outline for a book/stage play, complete with crossed out words, diagrams, arrows, and equations.
I would like to shift focus to the translators’ goal of conveying the music integral to Mallarme’s poetics. This seems to me a much more interesting aim. It is also one in which they largely succeed. For Weinfield and other translators, end rhyme is the most important property of Mallarme’s verse. It’s hard to say they are wrong in this. However, this is also the property most difficult to do any justice to. Mallarmé’s end rhymes are often far too complex, and too spectacular, to be transferred into English. The results are bound to be disappointing. This is particularly true of two of his greatest achievements, “Prose (for des Esseintes),” which contains a series of masterful homonymic end rhymes that cross word boundaries, and the delightfully inscrutable sonnet “Her pure nails,” also known as the “Sonnet en –yx.” The latter is far and away the most significant offering of Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez’s collection. To understand why, we must know a bit more about the poem.
The “Sonnet en –yx” consists of two quatrains followed by two tercets. It contains an intricate scheme in which end rhymes are “crossed” between the quatrains and the tercets, playing on the cross of the letter x itself and on the image of a cross that occurs at the beginning of the first tercet and that is central to the meaning of the poem. The crossing is achieved through an inversion of the gender of the rhymes between the quatrains and tercets: the first and third lines of each quatrain end with a rhyme in the masculine yx or ix (onyx, Phénix), while the second and fourth lines end with a rhyme in the feminine ore (sonore, s’honore). Each tercet contains one rhyme ending in the feminine ixe (fixe) and two rhymes ending in the masculine or (septuor). The centrality of the poem’s sounds to its meaning is signaled by the wordplay of its opening phrase, ses purs ongles (her pure nails). When said aloud in French, the sounds of the first three syllables of this phrase are nearly identical to the sounds of the phrase c’est pur son (it’s pure sound).
This feat is impossible to reproduce in the absence of gendered nouns. The best a translator can do is preserve the rhymes ending in x sounds and skip the other rhymes altogether or offer some less satisfactory substitute. Weinfield tries the latter, other translators the former. Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez realize that English allows for wordplay of other sorts.
Here is the final stanza of the poem in the original, followed by a fairly literal translation by Patricia Terry and Maurice Shroder, and then the present translation.
Elle, défunte, nue en le miroir, encor
Que, dans l’oubli fermé par le cadre, se fixe
De scintillations sitôt le septuor.
She, in the mirror, nude, defunct, although
Within the framed oblivion at once
Appears, all scintillation, the Septet.
She, stripped, dejected mist in the mirror, even
Though in this oblivion, frame-enclosed, is fixed
The coming cinquefoil, sext chiming, for our septet
The masterstroke here is the last line, which plays on the interactions among the sounds and appearances of French and English words. Most obviously, the line mirrors the sibilance of scintillations–sitôt–septuor through “cinquefoil,” “sext,” and “septet.” And it is not only the s sounds of “scintillation” and “sitôt” that are evoked but their initial vowel sounds: the san of “scintillations” is suggested through the visual “cinq” of “cinquefoil,” while the si of “sitôt,” is conjured, one might say, through substitution: the French six is pronounced cease, and “sext,” one of several ecclesiastical terms central to the poem, designates noon, the sixth canonical hour. The line goes even further when considered on a strictly visual level, playing on the French five, six, and seven (cinq, six, sept), openly through “cinquefoil” and “septet,” and obliquely, again, through “sext.” Thus the translation renders explicit a counting that is essentially subliminal in the French scin–si–sept. This counting is significant: it prepares for the culmination in “septuor,” the revelation that the “pure nails” referenced in the poem’s first line are the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major. In terms of the actual words, with the exception of “septet,” Bronson-Bartlett and Fernandez’s line is nowhere close to the meaning of the French. I can only imagine how long it took to conceive. I would not have minded more like it.
There are many more qualities that distinguish this collection from previous translations. This is a surprisingly visceral Mallarmé, still largely impenetrable except through close study or previous knowledge, yet easier to appreciate for the immediacy of its imagery and the beauty of its language. Those with purist tendencies are sure to object to the collection’s many departures, and those who have not read Mallarmé previously will need to turn to exegesis. But I think that, despite all of this, and rather miraculously, the translators accomplished much more than could reasonably have been expected.
Wesleyan University Press (2015): $17.95
Jerome Keeler is a freelance writer living in Princeton, New Jersey.
by Bethann Garramon Merkle
In weaving together contrasting memories, archived photographs, and contemporary fashion fetishes, Spring Ulmer stitches a narrative in which humanity’s closet is rifled through. “I am interested in how clothes fit us or don’t. I like to be able, for instance, to hide in my clothes,” she discloses.
Ulmer begins with fairly tranquil vignettes which share a fashion-as-identity theme; clothing is what makes the people on Ulmer’s pages vivid. After “trying on a few outfits,” Ulmer trades out a silk dress for her father’s sweatshirts plus pants with dragging cuffs. Her reverie accelerates into an imaginary triste with a rustically dressed Italian farmer she fancies from an old photograph. It is a subtle, mundane, romantic episode that doesn’t actually happen, though, thanks to Ulmer’s vivid prose, you can almost believe the encounter is real.
Ulmer walks an imaginary donkey down the pictured road, envisioning a liaison comes to be. In the vision, she writes, “My farmer lifts his arms and shakes off his coat…the ripped armpits endear me. He covers us both with it as we recline onto the cold, slightly damp ground.” Fixated on the photograph of her fellow and his companions’ clothing, Ulmer muses, “I find their unfitted wear beseeching. I want them in these ill-fitting suits, enjoying their outing, looking so ephemeral.”
And then, she drops you off an emotional cliff.
Abruptly, you land in the milieu of Spring Ulmer’s meditations on torture, slaughter, and the severity of so many human relationships. Epitomizing these nightmarish circumstances is her preoccupation with the ‘Made in the USA’ chairs that are used for controlling violent inmates (at prisons and mental institutions alike) and also for force feeding prisoners of war attempting hunger strikes. Driven to see for herself, Ulmer seeks out the retired military officer-turned county sheriff who makes these chairs in his basement workshop. In a poignant-yet-bile-inducing noninterview, Ulmer asks him:
“…the same questions I am asking myself about the roles we play in other peoples’ suffering, because I can’t sit in my room fearing that people are being tortured and not do something. I’m not sure I believe in a just war.”
Essay snippets reflect on lynching films, an array of war atrocities, and occasional rest stops near Ulmer’s non-reproductive status. Piled in amongst these recurrent themes are snapshots of a circus elephant deliberately fed cyanide-laced carrots, shod with copper shoes, and publicly electrocuted; a pet pig starving itself after being separated from its lifelong companion, an autistic boy anguished over the mutual loss; mass graves in Rwanda.
Ulmer builds jagged teetering stacks, bleak discomfiting moments of social unrest and individual trauma and tragedy layered upon each other. Through it all, Ulmer compels the reader – by herself unflinchingly facing a web of contemplation – to concede how powerless words are. Powerless in the face of tragedy. In the face of terror. In the face of blind violent patriotism. In the face of radioactive waste – waste tallied as much in sickened humans as in stores of nuclear byproducts.
Although she resists this impotence, trying to perpetuate the notion that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ Ulmer struggles mightily. Candidly. And, she fails. Fails to convince herself, never mind the reader, that words can change, that words can compel justice, that words can conjure empathy where only suspicion exists.
And yet, she advocates writing. Doggedly. In particular, Ulmer carries on a one-way correspondence with Jumah, a Guantanamo Bay detainee. In one of her many officially refused never-reached-the-prisoner letters, she maintains, “…my not writing would imply that writing doesn’t matter, and I cannot stand such a thought. Even if what I write is simply a record of barbarism […], it is still a record.”
In the wake of the walking-nightmare tone that dominates most of the book, Ulmer’s final chapter, “The age of numbing,” comes as the kind of relief she may be seeking. It is here, with the reader immobilized by the relentless desecration of decency Ulmer has exposed, that her parents’ role in the narrative becomes explicit. Throughout the book it seems Ulmer’s parents are equivalent to her dragon-and-pheasant emblazoned mug – moments of mundanity sprinkled in, not as respite, but to remind the reader that, yes, this whole wide world weighs down, even on the most ordinary souls.
However, in her final chapter, Ulmer’s parents evolve into a metaphor which reunites with the Walter Benjamin quote which prefaces her book: “There is no difference between a human life and a word.” If humans and words are no different, and words are powerless, where then does that leave Ulmer in her grieving and atrocity-grappling? Like her memory of her father, she, too is working “like a madman, hauling stone here and there, hammering, sawing.” And yet, as she says of her own mother, within Ulmer’s text “there’s something in her manic energy these days, though, that isn’t always practical.”
Ulmer’s book was published in 2009. That year, Barack Obama became a Nobel Laureate and president of the United States; Slumdog Millionaire won Golden Globe and Academy Awards; countries on every continent declared recessions. Bombings, assassinations, and powerful storms and tsunamis rocked the world. The Iraq war was not over.
Yes, the events leading up to The Age of Virtual Reproduction were grim. And yet, political and pop cultural events since have demonstrated the power of people and words to make change, which is why Ulmer’s concern about impracticality will likely stand out to contemporary readers. Although bleak events dominate the news, there may be more practical reasons to hope for change. Since 2009, diplomatic relations have been re-established with Cuba. Massive protests around the globe have demonstrated extensive citizen backlash against financial inequities in the US, corrupt governments, and other injustices. And, in keeping with Ulmer’s penchant for moments of mundane relief, since her book was published, Lady Gaga and Will and Kate became household names, and “Gangnam Style” reached 1 billion views on YouTube (the first such video ever). Still terrible things keep happening, including enough suicide bombings and mass shootings that these awful incidents have lost some of their urgency and claim to noteworthiness. 115 men are still imprisoned in Guantanamo. Garment factory collapses in southeast Asia graphically demonstrate how ugly fashion can be.
Through it all, words have had the last word, despite Ulmer’s articulate well-founded doubts about the efficacy of writing. Social media is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. WikiLeaks caused a massive whistleblower uproar, Edward Snowden leaked extensive US state secrets and went into exile in Russia, and Pope Francis continues shocking and thrilling the world with edicts and encyclicals.
We swim in a vast sea of words. According to one study cited by Forbes magazine in 2012, the average adult can read and comprehend 300 words per minute. Another, cited by The New York Times in 2009, reports we absorb 34 gigabytes of content (some 100,000 words) every day. At more than 5.5 hours of reading every day devoted to processing the horror and opportunities surrounding us, that’s no minor time commitment.
In the face of all this tragedy, joy, and banality, perhaps it is worth reinterpreting Ulmer (and the Benjamin quote she starts with). If a few of those daily reading hours were devoted to provocative witness prose like Ulmer’s, perhaps we readers would find words and humans are interchangeable because their very presence is power.
Essay Press: $13.95
By Kelsy Thompson
Barbara Tomash’s Arboreal is a study in the tensions of everyday life. Within its pages, Tomash has crafted a lyrical journey that asks unflinching questions about one’s existence, such as “isn’t living the tension between container and force?” and invites the reader to answer for herself.
Through the lens of sweeping, natural imagery, Tomash creates a fascinating counter narratives in her poems “Light Source” and “Against the Glass.” The former depicts an idyllic scene overcome by a storm.
wild lilies budding, tree bark striated
blue tufts of grass …
now she looks up into swirling …
sky not so much hidden as forbidden
This is a metaphor we can all relate to: the challenges and conflicts that go hand-in-hand with life’s best moments, the troughs that inevitable follow our highest peaks. Change is life’s only constant, whether you’re a budding lily on the cusp of its first storm or a human being chock-full of optimism and dreams. This reminds me of the adage, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass—it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
Look at any of those motivational quotes set against a grand, natural backdrop and you’ll see evidence of our visual biases. Storms equate with strife, while cloudless blue is a sign of better times. Tomash deconstructs these visual tropes in “Against the Glass,”
here comes a break in cloud cover …
a certain kind of happiness, or a different kind of pain
blue prevailing now, momentarily
Uncertainty reigns in this stanza. The break in the storm is ambivalent at best, and that brief peek of blue remains fleeting. In that moment of reprieve, there exists equal opportunity for pain and happiness, and both are conditional. Just as we cast the budding lily as a victim to nature’s contrariety, we like to see that shift from swirling storm to prevailing blue as a change for the better. The counter narrative in these two poems scrapes out a different kind of truth—that change is neither inherently good or evil. The pelting water that bruises one lily can, in different circumstances, bring it to full bloom.
There is so much of that uncertainty, that tension between hope and reality, within Aboreal’s pages. In “Relict” Tomash speaks to the innate strength that is required to survive life’s challenges while maintaining the hope that one’s situation can always improve.
when the wolves come into the city to keep warm
she has to go back to choosing words
the small watery ones, the narrow arrow slits
it is a time of bitter cold …
girdle of walls, tangle of reeking streets
In times of challenge, we are so careful with ourselves. We know how sharp and unyielding the world can be, and somewhere in our DNA we possess the survival skills necessary to weather those challenges. I know when I’m in the midst of my own bitter cold, I focus on the now, the necessary, those things that I cannot live without. The future can wait. But when that situation improves, as many situations do, I suddenly regain that sense of “what if?”, that desire for more and better and brighter things. Tomash echoes this sentiment in the next stanza:
she miraculously recovers the conditional tense
conical roofs with lacy ridges, pointed spires
and some glamour of spirit
It is that miraculous recovery of the conditional tense that makes being human so very wonderful. Perhaps reality is stark compared to one’s glamorous fantasy, but without the bridge between those two binaries, we could never hope for progress, for the blessed opportunity to land somewhere in between.
If the only constant is change, then the only inevitability is death. Tomash speaks to our terminal existence in “Floating Gardens,” “when we are called, we must go.” Despite the seemingly bleak message, this is where Aboreal shines brightest. “Leaving Eden” comes next and leaves us with this message:
she opens the book to the last page and reads the last paragraph—it makes
no sense to us, we who were not present at the perfect balance of the
beginning, absent at the cadence of the first sentence
Like this poetry collection, life is not about turning those final pages. It is about the journey between covers, between the first sentence and last paragraph. It’s not an easy path to travel, and it’s even harder to strike that balance between container and force, but life’s most poignant moments are found within those tensions, within those compromises between reality and fantasy, between budding lily and swirling storm.
Apogee Press (2014): $15.95
Kelsy Thompson lives in Ogden, Utah, where she spends her days worshipping the written word and wrangling her clowder of cats. Follow her on Twitter @kelsythompson.
by José Angel Araguz
…poetry was there for me as a refuge and as a way to channel and redirect neural energies. In terms of the book, it is a personal struggle, but also a family and a social one. I come from damaged hemispheres, both biographically as someone with epilepsy, and politically as the child of a colonized island.
The personal and social worlds of the poet as well as the implied agency of seeking “refuge,” “channeling,” and “redirecting” all come together in Urayoán Noel’s latest collection Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico to present a vision of poetry as (inter)active narrative. Yet, these pieces are born not only of personal experiences and their social implications but also how both of these factors are translated from language to language, moment to moment, and even technology to technology. Many of the pieces in this book were written via various smartphone apps (including word and anagram generators, Google Translate, etc.). Also, as the poet notes: “Certain poems were composed in English and Spanish simultaneously, while others are performative, experimental, or nonequivalent self-translations. In some cases, the line between translation and original is deliberately blurry.” Along with such rigorous structural framework and play, the collection is pleasingly grounded at each turn in a sensibility able to alternate not only between languages but also between personal and social purpose.
An example of the alternating current (pun on a book title by Octavio Paz intended) running through the collection can be found in the sequence “Décimas del Otro Mundo/Otherworldly Décimas,” in which the poet presents a series of décimas, a traditional Spanish form, in both Spanish and English, along with an Afro-Taíno refrain:
Revolución de las alas, Revolution of the wings,
revolución de las noches, revolution of the nights,
revolución sin derroches, revolution that unites
eufemismos, ni antesalas, with the clarity it brings,
revolución de las balas revolution of all things
en la cuna en que morí, in the death cradle that claimed me,
un abikú y su cemí an abikú and his cemí
en selvas neoliberales in neoliberal pastures
de retoños irreales: governed by unreal masters:
aguoro tente omi ki’. aguoro tente omi ki’. …
This combination of three languages within a traditional Spanish form by itself subverts tradition in order to evoke the kind of confluence of cultures that make up Latin America. Beyond this subversion, however, there is the poet’s use of bold type to bring forward a third poem from the English. In this particular décima, the world “revolution” is chanted in bold, insisted upon, only to open up to “the clarity it brings.” Noel’s use of language and type face here parallel the literal movement implied by the word “revolution”; the eye of the reader falls on the page and reads one poem, then returns and reads another. This kind of engagement with the text is of great value to this collection’s vision.
Another mode of drafting poems employed in this collection is that of the improvised oral poem. One such poem here is “Voz Quebrada/Voice Creaks” which the poet recorded “on a smartphone while walking along Cripple Creek Road in Tallahassee, Florida.” This mode of writing is compelling as it presents the poet embracing technology with the same kind of spontaneity and attention as anyone at their desks with a writing prompt. Instead of a word bank, there is the bank of a creek on a given date; yet, there is the poet in their solitude, working out such insights as:
This accident of voice
these surroundings unmarked
except for the trademarks I carry
remarks without recharging
this gadget defines my song
but no battery in the world
can power the promise
of this brown orange green
of this hazelnut pine
While one can see the influence of the performative mode of writing on the subject matter in a line like “this gadget defines my song,” there is also an indirect musical influence; the internal rhyming of “unmarked,” “trademark,” and “remarks” here show how thought and music alternate while at the same time following each other toward the purpose of song.
The narrative of struggle and understanding of what the poet terms above as his biographically “damaged hemispheres” also alternates throughout the collection. Early on, the piece “My Burning Hemisphere” presents the following scene:
The July fourth I spent at the hospital I woke up staring at the smudge of waterfront across the East River. That night the fireworks would crawl like serpents up my skin, matching the wires tangled in my head.
My epileptologist would later tell me, you’re lucky (to be a poet, he meant, and work with the language part of the brain, in school, at my own pace—or at least that’s how I heard it).
Trying to seem smart, I nodded, mumbling something about neurons and dominant hemispheres, but soon the fog had dominated me. It wasn’t river fog, it was the fog of self as it slogs through way stations, looking out smudged windows at cities for once festive.
He might have simply said “the sky, it clears for no one,” and I might have started to agree, had I had the strength, had the serpents not returned.
One notes right away that the narrative of this particular piece is carried less in the actual details of what occurs between the speaker and the epileptologist than in the sensations through which the speaker understands and remembers. The speaker tries a number of times to listen and hold onto the moment, only to mishear and drift into a “fog” of what “might have simply [been] said.” What is significant here is how the struggle against “fog” and “serpents” leads the speaker to a silence that they quickly turn into an imaginative space. While not able to clearly see what’s happening, the speaker is able to evoke in a poem what happens when they see that they are not seeing.
One of the more compelling pieces, “Scene Apps/Synapse,” a piece that Noel notes is half comprised of “free-form and selective translations of passages from father of modern neurology, Jean-Martin Charcot’s book Les démoniaques dans l’art (Demoniacs in Art, 1887)” picks up the “damaged hemispheres” narrative, albeit indirectly. The poet’s translations of Charcot alternate between word lists “generated with a random-word generator app for smartphone and then (mis)translated using Google Translate.” This mix of objective meditation and technological randomness evokes again the “fog” of the earlier poem as well as the project’s overall variations of the word “hemisphere” as having both a global and neurological meaning. The “fog” of the earlier poem is the poet’s own condition; to have an echo of that struggle derive indirectly from an alternation of texts such as in this piece is moving on both an aesthetic and human level.
Furthermore, the nature of the project, with its engagement with code-switching as well as embrace of mistranslation and self-translation, moved me as I read this particular piece to return to the title “Scene Apps/Synapse” and translate it into Spanish (“Sin Apps,” which in English would mean “Without Apps”) which also evokes an English variation (“Sin Apps,” meaning the apps of sin). Far from being immaterial, this train of thought is indicative of the kind of readings this project lends itself to. In reading the alternating text, moving from the coherent, articulate prose of Charcot to the technologically generated randomness of the word lists, the descriptions of the epilepsy-like episodes take on a more intimate verisimilitude; such involuntary episodes do leave a person split between coherence and intrusive chance, in a state “Without Apps” to help distinguish, navigate, or ground reality. The mistranslation into English “Sin Apps” also feels connected to the piece in the way that it mirrors how the father of modern neurology’s analogies and interpretations of these episodes are put in terms of demoniacs.
The fight against being pinned down, whether politically or biologically, is an American struggle (America here meaning not just the U.S. but all of the Americas). Noel responds to the forces, large and small, around him with movement: the movement of wordplay as well as the movement of his own voice on the wind. Through performance and chance, (mis)translation and mashup, this collection presents a poet willing to push and reach out in much the same way the speaker’s mother does in “Rumoreos/Her Hemisphere in Me”:
pensé en como siempre te lamentabas I thought about how you always regretted being de ser la única en tu familia que cantaba feo the only one in your family who couldn’t sing y en como siempre encontré tu voz linda and how I always found your voice pretty por el esfuerzo in its exertion por como te empujabas para llegarle a la nota in how you would strain to reach a note
Again and again, this book presents the kind of poetry that if you were to only hear it you would miss what there is to see; yet, if you were only to see this work, you know it would be worth it to hear it aloud. These poems, more than any I’ve read in a while, ask you to consider and read them in the languages you know, and to suss them out in the languages you can barely guess at, for these poems speak the languages we’re made of.
Noel ends the collection with “Signs of the Hemisphere/Letreros del Hemisferio,” a poem that evokes Whitman in its scope, and in which, like a 21st century Whitman, he strikes a note of communion and continuity:
who hears what I’m reciting? here’s what I’m reciting the echo and the wave’s crest I leave the rest to resigning politicians and the bankers who are gasping for heirs and so I leave the word in hopeful ruin I transcribe our reunion with your help I begin to transcribe I transscrub I transscrawl I transcry while holding ground over the missing tongue with your help I begin I’m reciting the cyst I’m resisting the sigh I’m restoring the song with your help I’m resetting the sky
Buy it from The University of Arizona Press: $16.95
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.
by Heather Lang
Do you remember the first time that you played pin the tail on the donkey? I do. I was blindfolded and had to trust my guide, my spinner, who twirled me around until I barely knew the ground from the ceiling, much less the location of that construction-paper donkey. It’s interesting what we can notice during these disorienting experiences. This was the moment that I first observed the soft-floral perfume of my mother’s best friend, and I discovered that my elementary-school crush giggled like Alvin, the chipmunk. I was the “lucky” one who could peek beneath my hand-towel blindfold, but I was disappointed to find that no matter how far back I tilted my head, I could only see my light-up high tops and the patch of chocolate-brown carpet beneath them. I remember hoping that the birthday cake would be vanilla.
These are the types of memories that come to mind as I read Jennifer Willoughby’s Beautiful Zero. In this debut poetry collection, Willoughby writes about all-of-the-things, or so it seems, but she does not write about pin the tail on the donkey. Rather, these poems remind me of this children’s game as they disorient me. The moment that we think we might have our feet on solid ground, she grabs us by the figurative shoulders and forces us in another direction, and it is through this disorientation that the poet can deconstruct and then reconstruct the world around us. We stumble our way through the collection gaining an appreciation for these new meanings and these deeper connections.
Beautiful Zero is a book of seemingly, but not actually, reckless juxtapositions, and this constant allows the reader to give herself over to the random sights, sounds, and feelings that are deliberately splattered throughout the collection. The title of the opening poem, “Come Close Then Back Away,” sets the tone for these connections and contrasts. Mid poem, for example, Willoughby writes, “My knee-socks nestle at my feet. / Then we create an adult situation.” The line containing these knee-socks, a clothing accessory that reminds me of my grade-school uniform, is pressed up against the more scandalous sentence, “Then we create an adult situation.” Despite the youthful tenor being pushed against a much more grownup matter, the pieces are glued together. They are not random because, combined, the lines suggests pre-coital clothing loss. With Willoughby as our guide, however, we’ll never head in one direction for more than a moment, oftentimes one line, and this is a great pleasure of Beautiful Zero. The poem moves on to the “record player [that] is skipping in the distance,” “a column of oxygen,” and trees which treat the speaker “like fire.” Within the context of the poem, together it all somehow makes sense.
Another part of Beautiful Zero’s disorientation tactic is relabeling. In “Do Not Be Broken By The Day,” Willoughby writes:
Take it from me, Caroline, a crisis of faith
is not as interesting as a dead pigeon
in the cistern after a long winter.
The world doesn’t want to see you
on your knees for more than a minute
when it could be inspecting a music
box that knew how to fly.
Although the poet does not literally state that this being “on your knees” is an act of prayer, the “faith” within the first line lends this suggestion. There are the more violent connotations of this image, as well. The command, “take it,” even within the context of giving advice, quietly hints at a violence, maybe even a sexual violence, as I ponder the image of a woman on her knees. This act of being “on your knees,” something that could clearly represent one thing, prayer; or another, a fall; or another, a sexual act, might be ever-so-subtly redefined each time that we read this complex and ambitious poem.
Another example of this relabeling, a literary device of sorts, falls within these same lines. Willoughby redefines the “dead pigeon” as a “music / box that knew how to fly.” Certainly, this sheds a new light on the pigeon, a species of bird that many consider to be an urban pest. As these lines are all tangled up within sentiments of prayer and brokenness, a hope for the rebirth of even the most shattered and downtrodden hearts comes to fruition. If this dirty creature might have been something so delicate and lovely as a music box, surely we can find hope in and for ourselves, as well.
Within the middle of the fifty-one-page collection, the reader will find ten poems titled “Kaiser Variation” followed by a number, 1 through 10. Each of these poems is set within Kaiser Permanente, but each one tackles a different ailment, sometimes literally. In “Kaiser Variations 3,” Willoughby employs an extended metaphor as she writes, “It was the fourth quarter of the Badger-Buckeye / game and I smashed the neutrality rule eleven / times in the psych ward at Kaiser Permanente.” Using humor, the poet disorients us, as “Vivian,” a member of the counseling session, is “defeated by a group hug.” The counselor says that the “speaking is easy but the feeling / is hard,” and the poem, as well as the football metaphor, continues:
I was stuck in throes of accuracy, unplugging
my childhood of unimproved love. Man down!
Man down on the field, Bucky oompa’s a cute
tuba player […]
This blend of tragedy, as the speaker contemplates how “emotions were cocaine,” with comedy, like the flirtatious badger mascot, distances the psych ward scene from its gravid reality. This gift of humor allows us to more fully contemplate these important narratives because we’re less likely to simply turn away. Moreover, the illness changes within each Kaiser variation, so we’re never forced to linger on any one tragedy for too long. This is a kindness, one that allows the reader to embrace the critical catastrophes, such as both the literal and the figurative broken hearts, of Beautiful Zero.
Beautiful Zero is strange, and it is important. If I had to liken this collection of poetry to a children’s game, I might suggest pin the tail on the unicorn, for its magic, or pin the tail on the mermaid, for its nod toward humanity. More likely, however, I’d hope that we might choose some bizarre-yet-real-life creature, perhaps a species that we have yet to discover. And, when the time comes to look for this striking new beast, I would only hope that we might find a guide who is as gracious and as wise as Milkweed Editions’ new poet, Jennifer Willoughby.
Milkweed Editions (2015): $16.00
Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming in diode, Pleiades, The Normal School, and Whiskey Island among other publications. Recently, she was awarded the Spain 2015 Murphy Writing Scholarship and the Fairleigh Dickinson University Baumeister Award. Heather, an FDU MFA graduate, is an editor for both The Literary Review and Petite Hound Press, and she will serve as an AWP16 moderator/panelist. http://www.heatherlangwrites.com
by Dennis James Sweeney
As the word “hybrid” comes into more frequent literary use, it has become important to figure out what the term means for contemporary writing. Without such attempts at definition, the term stands the chance of becoming a coverall applied to any and every work of literature that defies genre boundaries. Relatively speaking, this result would not be disastrous; it would, however, lead ideas of genre (primarily the categories fiction/poetry/nonfiction/drama) to become even more firmly entrenched while what falls between those categories remains amorphous, ephemeral, only vaguely “hybrid.”
Rose Metal Press’s new anthology, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, edited by Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov, works against that flattening of the term in two ways. In her preface, Sulak does the necessary work of disassembling the idea of genre, noting that genres are merely “a critical mass of reproducible structural patterns,” and, more interestingly, that the original source of literature was itself “hybrid,” the distinctions between genres having arisen only when they became politically and culturally useful. She goes on to acknowledges the inherent contradiction in labeling writing that transcends labels; as Eileen Myles put it in a personal email to Sulak, “It seems old fashioned to coin a term and worse to stick to it to describe a new diasporic state in which all genres are inadequate and fail.”
But the real work of the anthology occurs in the division of its creative pieces into eight sections: lyric essay, epistolary, poetic memoir, prose poetry, performative, short-form essay, flash fiction, and pictures made of words (i.e., writing that uses or consists of graphic elements). Each category features excerpts of five or six authors’ hybrid writing, preceded by an essay by the author on their own work. Sulak makes sure to note that these categories aren’t meant to be definitive in any way; instead, they’re to serve as “a place to start when we gather to examine the energies that are released when various genre fields are used and combined.” This is the second way the anthology works to enrich the term “hybrid”: by distinguishing between and examining some of its many manifestations.
It seems to me that this promise is fulfilled more in the creative excerpts gathered in the anthology than by the craft essays that precede them. Julie Carr blurs appropriation and prose poetry in her extremely topical 100 Notes on Violence. An excerpt from Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker’s excellent Home/Birth puts both collaborative writing and a mix of political and poetic goals on display. Khadijah Queen’s truly strange verse play “Non-Sequitur” takes the dramatic form to its limit in order to encourage “more awareness of (unconscious or conscious) participatory roles we all may take on in our own lives.” And Craig Santos Perez uses the unique layout of his writing on the page both to depict and to work against the violence done to his home’s traditional storytelling techniques by colonialism. The range of forms across the book is truly impressive; the diversity of its entries alone recommends this anthology.
But the majority of the essays that accompany these excerpts seemed to focus less on “the energies that are released” by particular hybrid forms and more on the energies that generate such forms. That is, the essays seem to focus more on what it is like to write hybrid work than what it is like to read it. This is reflected in their order: essay first, then creative work. Marcela Sulak even emphasizes the importance of the process of creation to hybrid writing in her preface: “Because authorial intent is such a large factor in determining hybrid affiliation…our representative authors are given nearly as much space for their artistic statements as they are for their art.” I worry that such a claim, and particularly the identification of the essays as “artistic statements,” tends toward a somewhat insular representation of hybridity.
For me, the anthology’s best essays were those that sought to explain artistic choices on the basis of the effect they would have on the reader. Craig Santos Perez, for example, alternates between (in Roman type) a discussion of Steven Edmund Winduo’s views on hybridity in Pacific Islander literature and (in italics) a personal story of what it was like to grow up in Guam, eventually applying Winduo’s discussion to his own story. Though Perez talks at length about his own life in his essay, he makes it clear that his ultimate goal is “to make the traces of our stories visible.” Khadijah Queen, as I mentioned before, writes that her “Non-Sequitur” intends to bring about a certain awareness in the reader of his or her own performativity. And Joe Wenderoth discusses the relationship of his Letters to Wendy’s with “a variation on a particular comedic skit…: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” He speaks with remarkable impartiality about his own work, and eventually describes the comedic effect such a sketch has on the reader. All three of these writers manage to explain the intentions of their creative work in terms that are relevant primarily to its audience, and not only to other writers.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking about craft, and certainly this tendency makes the anthology even more useful in the creative writing classroom. But to direct the book toward writers—even to presume that authorial intent is a central factor in distinguishing what hybrid writing is—runs the risk of rendering the term “hybrid” useful only for those who also write. Again: not a disaster, relatively speaking. But as many excerpts from this anthology show, hybrid writing is often in essence political; if we are to challenge readers’ assumptions not only of genre but of the world around them, we must recall (or at least hope) that our audience is not only ourselves.
All of this said, Family Resemblance is an ambitious and profoundly varied document from a press that has been publishing and advocating hybrid writing for nearly ten years. The book will be especially useful in the classroom, and to those who hope to discover writers who work outside of traditional genre distinctions. It is hard to find unity in hybridity. Sulak and Kolosov have done the opposite: identified the tremendous diversity of a term, “hybridity,” that is so often used to give a (false) sense of unity.
Rose Metal Press (2015): $17.95
Dennis James Sweeney’s stories and poems have appeared in places like Crazyhorse, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, and Passages North. He’s the Small Press Editor of Entropy and author of the chapbooks THREATS and What They Took Away. This year, he lives in Malta.
by Jerome Keeler
The writings of Henri Michaux (1899-1984) won the admiration of such figures as John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, and Octavio Paz. It was no small admiration: Michaux’s contemporaries understood him to be a genius. Yet Michaux’s major works, despite the fact that they have been available in authoritative French editions for decades, have for the most part not been translated into English.
Darren Jackson’s translation of Life in the Folds, originally published as La vie dans les plis (Éditions Gallimard, 1949) marks a small step toward rectifying this situation. Indeed, it is fair to call it something of an event. Quite apart from the quality of the translations, which are in large measure more lively than earlier efforts, Mr. Jackson has simply made a wise choice in translating a work in its entirety, rather than offering another volume of the selected-and-edited options already available. And he has chosen a particular type of Michaux work that, rather incredibly, has never been translated into English. One can easily find volumes describing Michaux’s mescaline experiments, or either of his travel journals, or works combining non-fiction, drawings, and verse, but until now there has been no way to access his more strictly poetic books except in selected form. This is a significant absence, for it is in such writings that Michaux’s artistry is on its fullest display.
Michaux is certainly not alone in such a fate—it is shared by any number of major twentieth-century poets who did not write in English. If we cannot really complain of this, then, we can at least note the results. These consist, I think, principally in an overselling of a certain side of Michaux: his quirkiness. If you’ve encountered any previous translations from Life in the Folds, such as those available in Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984 (University of California Press, 1994) or Someone Wants to Steal My Name (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2003), you might imagine Michaux to be some sort of comedian. In fact, throughout much of his work, and particularly in Life in the Folds, Michaux is primarily occupied with suffering.
The collection opens with a section titled “Freedom of Action.” Most of the selections from Life in the Folds that have previously been translated elsewhere are drawn from this section, and it is not hard to see why. The most memorable piece is certainly the first, “The Sack Session,” which begins with the sort of setup characteristic of Michaux:
It began when I was a child. There was a big cumbersome adult.
How to get revenge on him? I put him in the sack. There, I could beat him at my leisure. He cried out but I didn’t listen. He wasn’t interesting.
I sensibly kept this childhood habit. I don’t trust the possibilities for intervention one learns as an adult, and besides, they don’t work very well.
You don’t offer a chair to someone in bed.
“Freedom of Action” continues to explore such imaginative acts of violence. In “The Sausage Cellar,” the speaker swipes an enemy marshal and other personages from the streets and grinds them into sausages. Elsewhere, to deal with the family, he makes a rapid-fire “slapping gun” out of his hand. Such scenarios display the primary mechanism of Michaux’s art: the displacement of concepts, or psychological states, to literal situations. The immediate reaction of a new reader to this gesture, I believe, is likely to be, and perhaps should be, a smile, or a chuckle. But it is the smile one smiles when reading Beckett, or Kafka, for instance—an uneasy one. As the title “Freedom of Action” suggests, Michaux knows what we are really in for: freedom amounts to no more than the possibility of imagining such a notion. It is reassuring, perhaps, to use the imagination to achieve revenge, but in reality it is oneself who will become the sausage, the marshal who will do the grinding. It is encouraging, then, in a perverse way, to see that there is a lot less to laugh about as Life in the Folds progresses.
Michaux witnessed, among other horrors, the occupations of Belgium and France, the Nazi death camps, the destruction of the great centers of European culture. And he perceived, as intensely as any modernist master, the effects of these events on the individual historical subject. The extent to which the camps in particular are central to his work becomes clear in Life in the Folds in a manner never approached by previous selections. His particular insights are most evident in the tensions between the pieces in “Freedom of Action” and those in the book’s second section, “Apparitions.” Here, the weaponry is no longer in the subject’s hands. It remains largely in the imagination but as a threat rather than a means of revenge. Michaux explores this in chilling ways. “The Danger in The Associations of Thoughts” begins with the cool observation that beauty can be appreciated whether the subject of contemplation is a pair of human lungs or the violent cutting action of a saw. Then the fireworks begin.
But how miserable it is, a pair of lungs under a saw that approaches, imperturbably, how miserable it is, especially when these lungs are yours, and why did you start thinking of the saw when your body alone is what interests you, to which the saw, for this reason, will inevitably draw near? And in a time of blood such as ours, how could it not cling to it? And there it is, entering as if it were at home, sinking in thanks to its magnificent teeth, calmly cutting its furrow into the lungs that will be of use to no one, no one, isn’t that obvious?
For the imagination, the only element of the spirit that survives a near extermination, suffering is the only thing left to imagine. There is certainly nothing to smile about in this section, which occupies almost half of the volume. A catalogue of tortures is presented. Speakers envision being thermocautered, disembowled, trepanned, and assaulted with a sword so long that at the point of entry into the flesh it has tapered to the point of invisibility. To make matters worse, one simply gets used to it all: “A war comes. A war passes. Before passing it consumes a lot. It consumes enormously. So it’s natural that it crushes some skulls here or there.”
If Life in the Folds contained nothing but these sections, it would be a remarkable achievement. But Michaux has something more up his sleeve: “Portrait of the Meidosems,” a 28-page account of the aspirations and sufferings of an imaginary race of creatures who find themselves embodied fleetingly in a variety of forms. It is a dazzling, dizzying account, every bit as primitivistic and initially mystifying in French as in English (certain sections might give the impression that this is a clumsy translation, when in fact Jackson has simply chosen not to interfere with the effect of the original). When people describe Michaux as unclassifiable, “Portrait” is the kind of thing they have in mind:
The herd that’s coming, like slow pachyderms, advancing single file, their mass is and is not. What could they do about it? How could they carry it? That heaviness, that stiff gait is only something they’ve taken on to escape their lightness, which eventually terrifies them. And so goes the procession of enormous bladders, trying to deceive themselves.
A body of insightful French criticism exists on this poem, but much commentary in English seems to focus on the notion that the suffering of the Meidosems holds a mirror up to our own. But within the context of Life in the Folds, it seems more accurate to understand the Meidosems as unlike ourselves. If “Freedom of Action” and “Apparitions” are concerned with the sufferings of beings in the flesh, “Portrait” imagines the destiny of creatures who are, in terms of corporeality, neither here nor there. Shuttling between “the cold of Nothingness” and a variety of awkward bodies they cannot choose or control (knots, spears, bloated sponges, waterfalls, condensation on a mirror), the Meidosems pass their existence always on edge. They wouldn’t mind something a bit more permanent. Yet perhaps their fate is not so awful. For the embodied, as the speaker at one point breaks in to observe, there’s nowhere to go but down: “Scattered organs, broken races, intentions trapped in stone. The solid has you. In shards of yourself. The solid you so desired has you at last.”
Wakefield Press (2016): $14.95
First published as La vie dans les plis. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1949.
Jerome Keeler is a freelance writer living in Princeton, New Jersey.