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reviewed by Douglas Messerli
Translated from the French by Guy Bennett
The coincidence of Nicole Brossard’s short book of poetry Shadow Soft et Soif being published at the same time as the Canadian poet and fiction writer’s three fictions, The Blue Book (Toronto: Coach House Press, 2003), gives joy to those, like me, who think Brossard is one of the most outstanding of North American writers.
Like many of her other works, the book is written in a voice that is at once highly lyrical and extremely private. The reader often has the feeling in Brossard’s work that he or she is a sort of voyeur, listening in to an immediate series of events and thoughts expressed by the poet to a loved one. But then, perhaps the reader can also feel herself or himself as the lover, and that creates a kind of sensual thrill in reading her work.
As in her other books, also, there is a feeling of “negotiation,” of the poet straddling worlds. As a French-speaking Canadian, her work in translation often contains both English and French lines. As the title indicates, the shadow about which Brossard is writing is both soft and “thirsty,” something both gentle (as if she had reversed Dylan Thomas’s plea to “not go gentle into that good night.”) yet slightly rapacious. As a poet and fiction writer, Brossard often crosses genres, and in this book she reminds the reader several times that, while it is a work of poetry, it is also a narrative:
we’re still narrating
night falls slowly
In order to create the “shadow” one must have the sun and such oppositions as the morning and evening, the fresh beginning of life and potential death. Love is often proffered and just as quickly pulled away. Order and precision alternate with “avalanches of shattered glass.” Indeed, Brossard’s world is pulled between “pleasure” and “gestures / bites, bedrooms with their shadowy, supple, hollow spaces, knotted brows.”
By the time the narrative is complete and, at the end of the series of short poetic sequences, “night falls,” the poet is left with no answers, only “questions,” lingering “bubbles of silence.” But the language she has used to get there has expanded her comprehension of life. And one perceives that even while the human experience has been utterly fragmented (“nights displace knees,” and “heads or tails” are “scattered”), at dawn once more life is put into motion, “the verb to be courses / in the veins, a heavenly body, it flies / after love or a grain of salt.” The cycle, the negotiation between self and lover, between reader and poet, will begin anew.
Originally published at: www.greeninteger.blogspot.com
reviewed by Barbara Maloutas
In a little a & a Norma Cole seems to be writing about anything but ideas. Reading Cole’s chapbook, however, the “wiley coyote” poet that she is surfaces. This work is all about idea from the title page to the pen and ink rendering on the last page.
Living in San Francisco, Cole has frequent views of “a” (Alcatraz) from its hills. Each view is a translation of the myth of security. There can be no questioning Alcatraz’s purpose, and so perhaps Cole is suggesting that we take a little r & r around language and translating, that we take the pleasure offered in abundance and action. Cole, long interested in the visual arts, weaves the “narrative” of an exhibition catalogue in which a poem in translation is rejected or not allowed. What power does writing have that it must be disallowed? Someone asks-is the poem disallowed because it is “too autobiographical?” Would it weaken the whole catalogue? Or is it possible that writing could overpower visual art? And where is the electricity between the two forms of art?
Then there is the question of translation, a big question for a thirty-two page chapbook. Cole confronts a world in which we would rather package sound bites than dig into language where there might be none. In the opening page there is a “schematic” of what initially might look like a distorted square root sign with six rectangular cells. After reading the text one realizes that it could be a cross section of cells for the inmates of Alcatraz, stacked as they are, inhuman but man-made. A square root sign and a cross section are both concerned with digging further, getting at the bottom.
Directions seem an important element for a little a & a. They are not stage directions but book layout directions – “[blank left hand page].” One could imagine that author or publisher let stand (stet) a direction in the production of the chapbook, that there was collaboration between them. Cole or the publisher uses the layman’s term (“blank left hand page”) on the first page of text. Later it turns to “recto” and “verso” as Cole designates that “house” is recto and “boat” verso in the formation of the word “houseboat.” This shifting back and forth in the making of a book may suggest an attempt to find the square root of a book by looking at its parts. These directions are the first bit of evidence that there is play between reader, writer and book.
The layout of the book adds both understanding and disorientation, and a sense of playfulness. The opening three lines (recto) are significant: “the circumstances / in which she / findsherself.” This is perhaps what all writing is “about.” Cole is certainly setting the page/stage for the catalogue argument that runs through the rest of the work. The argument is set in flush right italic prose-like lines beginning with an m-dash, the longer dash equivalent to the width of the letter m. The catalogue sections are a disjointed dialogue.
On page 8 (verso) we find the most bedeviling two words following each other, “story mind.” One is reluctant to assume only one possible reading: “—So there are these different translations of that story mind they change depending on point of view, historical moment, cultural placement....” It would be disappointing to learn that either a comma or hyphen was left out between the two words. There is the urge to translate “mind” as “beware” or “take note” or “keep in mind.” This richness of possibilities makes the text physical despite the fact that “mind” suggests otherwise. Later a “book of translated poetry” becomes the problem with the catalogue. What is the purpose of the catalogue – “how did it address the show,” and why the word address? Is a translation an explanation? Is Cole on page 12 remembering her visual work when the human figure became anathema? How would a painter paint a “story mind” of Susanna without the figure? Where is there “parallel play?”
The commercial world and world of commercials, “—That’s what we’ve got to work with, that’s our material.” Even a catalogue is intended as a sales pitch, and it is “the gallery owner” who rejects poetry, who disallows the poetry translation for commercial reasons. She allows no story, just motion. If there is no story, there is no recognizable gap. The “site of hope” is the gaps in poetry, in its openness. One starts minding the verso pages rather than the recto and wondering if Cole did something intentionally there. Was this text visualized as a book from the start? On page 18 there is the suggestion of adjusting the original text – “adjust the so-called original or first set of terms to match the so-called target language version.” To target an audience assumes a target language/code. Other leaps at play in Cole’s work are “baseline” = bottom line = where the type sits on a line.
Cole takes us on a journey that jumps between all the betweens that make up a negotiation, represented not in a human form, but in the rock/book of “a” or Alcatraz, her a little a & a.
Originally published in: The New Review of Literature 1.2
reviewed by C.J. Opperthauser
Emily Frey’s The New Planet is choc full of short, surprising poems, most no longer than four or five lines. These little bites of poetry are humble and bizarre, often starting on a topic we can all connect with and then branching into seemingly unrelated statements that somehow get to the heart of the matter. My favorite example of this is in “Pity”:
I feel sorry for people who fall in love with other people.
We wait on the boat’s deck to see a whale.
Dead-hearted tomatoes bobbing up and down.
Ocean of hearts.
Most of the poems in the book follow approximately the same structure: introduction to an idea, some possibly relevant statements, and then sometimes there is a quip at the end that may or may not tie everything together. The language, though, is deceptive. The words are well-chosen and often seemingly irrelevant but they always feel right. With the determined and quick statements Frey uses, there’s music in the simplicity of it all. It’s like if Hemingway was on some sort of drug and conversing with a nephew about the deepest life considerations. These poems can leave you wondering but the wondering is enjoyable.
Originally published at: http://www.h-ngm-n.com
reviewed by Kristin Prevallet
Translated from the French by Sarah Riggs
[Also reviewed here are This Nowhere Where by Valerie-Catherine Richez, and Close Quote by Marie Borel.]
I’m surrounded by chapbooks, so many that I hardly know what to do with them. They get lost on bookshelves, disappear in filing cabinets, vanish in stacks of papers and magazines. Yet they persist. I receive at least five in the mail each month. (I have come to treat them like correspondence, a letter to be responded to, in due time.) The slivery place they occupy in the poetry world here in the U.S. (is chapbook culture as big elsewhere as it is here?) represents a between. Not to get too Derrida, but chapbooks really are between books and loose pages of manuscript. They are thought bubbles that appear and disappear (they always seem to reappear); they resist easy categorization and filing systems. (Are they more retrievable if filed by poet, or by press? Should they be italicized, or put in quotes?)
So much has been written about the glorious “between” of translation:
The translator preserves something of the original with a gesture made out of another language. The original is veiled, but it doesn’t disappear. (Forrest Gander)
Translation makes poetry strange. Poetry makes language strange. I never set out to become a poet, but I was writing and it was strange and so then it was poetry. (Sawako Nakayasu)
The text that is presented is the enactment of two language experiences becoming one. Fusion. Verging and blending, post-binary blurring of overcoded infrastructure. (Norma Cole)
The above quotations come from a document assembled by poet and chapbook press artist Jerrold Shiroma called “Towards a Foreign Likeness Bent” (download available at: http://www.durationpress.com/poetics/translation.htm). The essays in this document point toward the question: What really happens when two languages (bodies, or forms) collide into poetic awareness? Basically, the appearance of a poem (or experience) that would not have existed otherwise. Poetry is one of the few translatable genres where the gap of translation is allowed to remain gloriously open. (In The Practice of Diaspora, Brent Hayes Edwards writes that translation is “décalage,” that is, work within “a difference or gap in time or in space.”) Not firm believers in singular meanings, poetry’s readers are, for the most part, comfortable with a poem that exists “between” two languages.
But the chapbook doesn’t seem to incite our theoretical imagination with such clarity, or such critical sexiness. Yet, it all comes together here, now. I am surrounded by chapbooks, all of which happen to be translations. The conversation these “between” books are having is loud – it’s incredible I never noticed it before now. All, in a plurality of ways, chart the terrain of what happens at the edge between language and thinking. Meaning, they all represent the tenuous attempt toward articulation, toward narrative, toward the revelation of an experience that happens only in the mind. In other words, toward poetry – and, most acutely, toward translation. They are all poems that seem in full knowledge of their future as an act of translation. And appearing as they do in chapbook form, they are making me think about chapbooks as themselves a form – of translation.
I am interested in questions that only poets are asking. Such questions seem located in these titles, which emphasize “the between” in its many manifestations. Valerie-Catherine Richez’s chapbook, This Nowhere Where, has a hot pink cover and block graffiti type – yet it exists nowhere but “here,” between writing and film. (Have you ever been there?) It reads like blocking instructions for mental images, the words moving the mind as if narrating a sequence of images that are happening beyond, or outside, the poem itself.
Sometimes the day associated with itself. Simple gestures of peace (all houses are once in the heart of the sky), like two rays cross and intertwine. And this region remained inhabited for quite some time.
At times the words cellurize into an image; other times they don’t. What’s left is a linger – there is a relationship, but between whom? Over what? The book’s question might be, “Can you touch me if I am made only of language?” This is the question that Marie Borel’s Close Quote also happens (it would seem) to be asking. Again the cues are coming from narrative, from cinema. Again the subtext (the movie that is happening behind the narration) seems to be about love. Again the skimming along the surface of language that, in its refusal to commit to a singular narrative, resonates with profound depth. In Borel’s writing, this skimming along the surface of language is hilarious, witty. The edge where we find ourselves mis-communicating with another person, fallen into the gap.
Any imbecile can stick his head in the sand, but nobody knows what the ostrich sees. I looked for something I had lost. Indeed I spend much of my time looking. Things don’t always turn out what they are. I don’t know why.
Nobody knows what the ostrich sees!
Borel has done a R. Waldropian cut-up of multiple texts, including journal excerpts. The jamming together of these multiple points of reference happen on the edge between writing and visual art. If you’re looking for meaning, keep your eye on the edge, the places where the tape encounters the collage, the place where the pieces of text are attached together. And through this splicing comes the wonderful hair-thread of a story, an internal monologue that is constantly being interrupted. A question this book seems to be asking: “Here is a point. Here is what is outside a point. Where am I? Where are you?”
And yet, it is Isabelle Garron, in Face Before Against, who is playing with points. Punctuation marks – periods and dashes, to be exact – carry the weight of words:
Now on their backgrounds
. the ancient masters speak
tongues made of roots
This chapbook takes the other two and chisels away at them. Its epigraph is a description of materials for a Louise Bourgeois piece: “Untitled, 1991 / ink and charcoal on blue paper / burnt, 21.5 x 27.9 cm.” Following the epigraph, the poems themselves become ink on paper – and the images they conjure, often accidentally, are a realization of the poem itself. This is a work of ekphrasis, the pronounced encounter between painting and poem, and it is done with an attention to form, not description. But manifesting form allows the artworks that the poems are mediating to come into view. Ekphrasis – yet another kind of translation. The question that this chapbook might be asking: “in facing the abstraction of ink and charcoal on paper, what is the equal form in language?”
There are many forms of translation: the chapbook in its nebulous zone between manuscript and book; ekphrasis in its wavering back and forth between image and word; and the poem itself that exists between genres, or between mental states. Translation: Walking the edge between the “things” of this world and the “game” of language. So who are these ethereal people? The ones who put themselves between themselves and the poet they are translating? These translators, who are, all themselves, writers? Keith Waldrop, Sarah Riggs, Michael Tweed. And how about the invisible people who produce, year after year, these chapbooks? These publishers who are themselves writers? John Yau and Black Square Editions, Guy Bennett and Seeing Eye Books, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop and Série d’Ecriture. These are people that only the ostrich sees.
Originally published in: Verse 24.1–3
reviewed by Ray Bianchi
In contrast to Joe Ahearns’ Poundian control, Lawless, by Jen Hofer is a virtual poetic Amazonic selva, wild and full of images, power and changes that make one wish there was a joke section in the middle and a place to rest, this work is powerful and upsetting at the same time and this makes it also challenging and excellent.
of present damage of lack of damage
no expectation, no exempt
dancing lessons brittle
no moment, no movement
in exhaustible pirouettes at a graveside
in the sense that they are evidence of the directions bullets may be taking
This is writing that asks allot of you and also opens up new ways language can be understood. Jen Hofer is at the edge of cutting in terms of poets. Sometimes her work moves so far over the edge that you feel as if you are riding a motorcycle on a tightrope at 1000 miles an hour but sometimes this is good. She always makes work new but this chapbook nears the kind of excellence we find only in later older work. There are echoes of Susan Howe, Pound, Paz and many other pillars here with a unique sense of self that make this a work worth reading and wishing it has a wider audience.
Originally published at: www.chicagopostmodernpoetry.com
reviewed by Antoine Cazé
Translated from the French by Guy Bennett
Do you speak Novarinese? The ultimate antagonist of Orwell’s infamous Newspeak (Novlangue in the French version), this fantastic avatar of French is – if one is to believe its author, the playwright VaIère Novarina – “the most beautiful language in the world, because it is a mix of clownish Greek, church Patois, arabesque Latin, latent English, courtier’s Argot, crumbled Saxont, Langue d’Oc, Dutch, sweet-German, and chopped-off Italian” (Le Théâtre des paroles). One can hardly imagine a more passionate declaration of love made to languages, which Novarina sets out to renova(rina)te by commingling them in the highly idiosyncratic theater plays he has been writing (crafting would probably be a better word) for almost half a century. His first, L’atelier volant, was written between 1958 and 1970 and first staged in 1974; it was to be followed by some thirty other texts, including theoretical pieces on the theater such as Pour Louis de Funès or Lettre aux acteurs. Novarina himself has directed some of his most famous plays such as Le Drame de la vie or La Chair de l’homme – both produced at the Festival d’Avignon – and L’espace furieux presented in 2006 at the Comédie Française, which stirred up quite a controversy in this temple of the French theatrical tradition. His texts have been translated into twelve languages, and one can only deplore the paucity of English translations among them. Thanks to Allen S. Weiss, however, American readers can now have access to The Theater of the Ears (Sun & Moon Press, 1996) as well as a couple of other texts published in various literary or critical journals – most importantly Letter to the Actors, in The Drama Review, 37.2 (1993).
More recently, Guy Bennett has published his breathtaking translation of Monologue d’Adramelech (1989), a relatively short but extremely dense block of words that may well be the quintessence of Novarina’s theater writing. Since Le Discours aux animaux (1987) – totaling 327 pages in the printed version! – Novarina has indeed made a specialty of extremely long soliloquies. Although it is of much more moderate length – sixteen pages only in the English version – Adramelech was first presented by its author as “the longest monologue in the world” when it was still part of Novarina’s second play, Le Babil des classes dangereuses (1978). As this last title indicates, Novarina’s concern was here to invent a Babel-like idiom whose babbling would be an orchestration of class struggle as linguistic strife. This explains why most of Novarina’s plays, even if they claim to be monologues, are in fact written with multiple voices, if not characters, in mind and ear. In this respect, Adramelech’s Monologue is no exception, starting as it does with a querulous apostrophe that quickly veers into a ping-pong game of questions and answers implying at least two speakers:
Adramelech: Sufferin’ sycophant! Sufferin’ sulfurous supine simian syllogist! The Adramelech’s toil’s hit its peak. Adramelech! ... Sire? I made you of clay. And I go where? To shelter ’neath your splint’ry coat and gnaw your soon-sluiced stump.
Soon, the character’s name itself undergoes mutations which grant him (?) a Protean identity, peopling the stage with as many daemons as these slanted names evoke: Ablamelion, Ablamelech, Adrameluce, Abliblalech, and so on – all of whom are promptly joined by a motley cast of dramatis personae whose fleeting presence is pure language. Thus we come across Miss Manlette, Harriet, “A.J. Burton, Crucious, and our Louises,” “Miriam mating with Lucious,” “Peter Pronto, son of Andy Pronto and Lynne his wife,” “old Ganglabedus,” “Melcher and Moocher,” and so many others that we might almost get the impression of being ensnared in a web of names only, were it not for the prevailing comic tone of it all, allowing distance and relief. “Look, there’s Willoughby in his Model T,” exclaims Adramelech, or maybe someone else, briefly conjuring up a quaint 1920s little man in a bowler hat chugging across stage. (Readers of French will appreciate Bennett’s wonderful sense of the language here by comparing with the original: “Tiens, voilà Ducot dans sa Deux Chevaux!” Later, another character is called “Lilbit” to translate “Dupeu”: the echo one can hear in Ducot / Dupeu is preserved in Willoughby / Lilbit, even as the meaning of Dupeu – literally, “of little” – is conveyed by its English equivalent.) No less than 65 names, including several saints, are mentioned in the course of the sixteen pages of the monologue, in keeping with Novarina’s habit of creating crowds of characters for his plays, the record being probably held by Le Drame de la vie, which has 2,587 characters, all of which were once hand-drawn by Novarina himself in the course of a single performance!
Naming is undoubtedly the hallmark of Novarina’s style, avowedly influenced in this by the Bible and its endless lists. Since Adramelech was “made of clay,” he like Adam must in turn name the beasts; but in Novarinese, language does not function properly anymore, the relationship between sound and meaning has been lost somewhere along the line, making words both foreign and strange:
Adramelech, you must now name these beasts. I have forgotten it exactly. One probably bore a name. Guangladeblibardegladon, but ’twas unbeknownst to us, so we called it Behemoth. Addressed it sharply by this name meaning Odette in Hebrew and Leon in Lapp, but not Leon of Abyssinia, the other one, of Greenland.
As can be seen, language is Novarina’s flood subject. Here it gushes forth in jubilant streams of alliterations (“Sufferin’ sulfurous simpering sinister supine simian syllogist!”); it overflows the rules of lexicon and grammar (“from whom shoots quick the rectangled violasson that croaks strangled by first click”); its furious sounds – such as the onomatopoeic transformation of a character’s name to imitate the “blah-blah” of endless, boring speech – threaten to drown the stentorian voice of an irate god calling for order (“Quiet! Your voice stops progress. Quiet! Your progress stops the vocassonic flight of my voxes! Quiet, Abliblalech, your babbling keeps me from counting your steps! The world’s sinking fast!”); and its torrent of words can only be arbitrarily brought to a halt by a final “Et cetera. And off you go!” Thus triturated, language has poetic as well as social functions, insofar as it challenges all conventions at once, including the theatrical ones. Novarinese puts the actors at extreme risk, firstly because it seems to exceed the capacity of memory and secondly, because it forces language down and back where it (im)properly belongs – the body. Exploring the materiality of language is a way for Novarina to body forth the tongues we keep repressing; it allows him to give voice to a profoundly Rabelaisian langue du bas (“bottom language”) through which true subversion can be effective.
Given these linguistic and political premises, one can measure how toweringly difficult it must be to translate texts like Novarina’s; even more so if one bears in mind the playwright’s warning, in Le Théâtre des paroles, about translation: “translating (i.e., mugging) speech into writing.” On this account, Bennett should be warmly congratulated for his tour de force. All the poetic resources of English have been called to the rescue in order to recreate the original, including the many refractions of its effects. Bennett’s ear, in particular, for hidden puns or poetic rhythms buried in the flow of speech is well-nigh faultless: thus, a standard French alexandrine like, “dans l’abus recommis du bramant d’Algibus,” becomes an equally standard English iambic pentameter, “in excessive use of belling Algibus,” while an expanded alexandrine such as, “Qui a osé Madame insulter nos satanés compas,” is turned into a pentameter with an added feminine ending, “Madame, who dared insult our sufferin’ compasses.” The translator also succeeds in conveying the flavor of Novarina’s contrived archaisms. When reading the French, one cannot but think of Rabelais – or more precisely, a blend of Rabelais and twentieth-century French vernaculars; Bennett’s English rather calls to mind Sterne and Swift, as well as the Angela Carter of Nights at the Circus, quite a fit model for so theatrical a text as Adramelech. This stylistic choice seems quite appropriate, for the translation thus avoids sounding like a parody of Shakespeare – which too careless an approach to theatrical archaism might have easily turned it into. Instead, Bennett’s prose models rightly convey one of the major subversive dimensions of Novarina’s texts, which is that their linguistic and referential universe leads us away from typically theatrical and dramatic procedures, plunging us instead into a narrative, almost novelistic, prose style. In such a transgression of generic conventions lies the idiosyncratic dimension of Novarina’s language, whose imaginary archaism enables us to rediscover a forgotten, repressed dimension of our speech: “Assemblage of squinty signs with transfixed signals.”
Let us hope that American stage directors and actors will not fail to give the breath of life to this masterpiece.
Originally published in: Verse 24.1-3
reviewed by Douglas Messerli
Translated from the Italian by Guy Bennett
For its sixth publication, Seeing Eye Books has presented the first American publication of the important Italian poet, Giovanna Sandri. The work here might be described as elegantly concretist in its approach. But Sandri’s work has none of the literalist tactics of many concrete writings. Certainly, the eye is led across or down the page in these works to denote meaning, as in the poem “reangling the axes”:
against the vigilant
What is not reproducable in this review, however, is the equally powerful facing page, which of various typological “o’” and blocks pour across space like a constellation of their own. The effect of this maneuver in most cases is to create a counterpart to the linguistic element which sometimes mirrors but just as often takes the reader in a different direction from the language, enriching the poem by creating several layers (visual and verbal) of meaning.
Originally published at: www.greeninteger.com
If you’d like to learn more about Mindmade Books, you may wish to read the essay “Some Thoughts about The Chapbook” by Guy Bennett. You can download it here.