I wanted it to be. But I don’t feel qualified to write reviews of translated texts. Especially when the work is published in English only. Or I don’t fully comprehend the second language. So instead, I will discuss what I can of these new books of translated
poems, one THE ISLANDS by Louise Cotnoir as translated by Oana Avasilichioaei (Wolsak & Wynn 2011) and the other two by Ludwig Zeller as translated by AF and Theresa Moritz: THE RULES OF THE GAME (Quattro Books 2012) and For a Savage Love (Ekstasis Editions, 2012) in order to offer a few entrances into these vital works.
#1- The Islands is a spare, smaller format text with a lined grey cover, the poems appearing in four sections. Louise Cotnoir’s work, originally in French, is here presented only in English. As I can read French fairly well, this was a disappointment to me. When I can access the original language, I enjoy observing the process of selection as the translator re-shapes the initial poems, taking into consideration such a vast amount, from form, to diction, to rhythm/rhyme, to connotations and the work’s particular musics. However, when only the English is provided, the joy is in pretending the work is more transparent and allowing it to move you for the traces that remain of the unknown other, the shadow text. I adored the Necropolis section most, perhaps because, in the prose segments on grieving, I wasn’t as snagged by the short, capitalized line breaks of the lyrics. The next section, Archipelago, also stirred me for how different the French Canadian sensibility often seems, able to rest in the quivering, surreal, fragmentary edges of being in the world: “To write Mare Island/As if inhabiting my name/Convinced/That I invent nothing.” I want to read more Cotnoir and thank Oana for this opening.
#2 – The Rules of the Game is compellingly designed with its narrow format and a cover sporting one of Ludwig Zeller’s own surreal collages in black & white. This book is also only presented in English as a selection of lyrics from a wide range of Zeller’s texts, spanning sixty years. Having heard Moritz recite from this book and the other I will consider in Toronto recently, I felt it was harder for me to judge the efficacy of the texts on the page as his reading of them lingered in my blood, the lexical resonances so effective in performance. I couldn’t help but think though, if these were poems by a North American (and could they ever be?), would we receive them with such reverence and hunger or would we resist them as “too romantic, too excessive.” This quandary reminded me of Robert Bly’s little book Leaping Poetry (1975) and his thesis surrounding the deep image, the duende, the unconscious and how such techniques that manifest so readily in poets like Lorca and Neruda should be brought into American verse. Let me just give one stanza in a random piece, “Woman under the Lindens” as an example of this unlikelihood: “I drowned myself in you and at the bottom of your eyes/Half saw the dream we never can decipher:/Across your face a swarm of petals,/Music of the desire to be: to be with you,/To be the sun in the blood.” Lush, emotional, dark, exquisite. The language and its experiences provides the context, the ethos, the atmosphere; such factors can never be translated wholly. Hints of how to follow is all we have.
#3 – Which brings me to the other Zeller offering, For A Savage Love, a collection that offers us three of his books, including his long poem Woman in Dream. This version, featuring Zeller’s partner Susana Wald’s chaotically colourful art on the cover, does offer the Spanish texts of the poems, an inclusion I welcome, even though I don’t comprehend all the Spanish words. Not only is it more respectful to include the pieces in their original language (though I certainly understand why they aren’t in terms of space considerations), it also assists the reader to enter the world of the poems at a greater depth. Even if all words are not understood, reciting the piece in the original then reading the translation provides a shimmer beneath the surface of the rolls, vocables, burrs, fricatives, sibilants and other implications and intimacies of rhythm. Translations are essentially impossible and yet, a miracle. They gift us with writers we would never otherwise know while still whispering, we cannot be known. Moritz appears to have accomplished a series of deep engagements with Zeller’s oeuvre. And yet, one cannot ever entirely allow, in English, the ecstasy that Spanish yields itself to, so that the cry of “Nacer, nacer de nuevo!” flattens out into the declarative statement, “To be born, to be born again -“.