[Ariel Resnikoff is best known at this point for his translations from the Yiddish poetry of Mikhl Likht & others, but with “Avoidances” he clearly sets out as a composer of poems in his own right & in a line as well with other poets with whom he shares a lineage or name. His Likht translations & his writings on Likht & Zukofsky have appeared several times on Poems and Poetics, & he has been resident since last September in the doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, where his good works continue. (J.R.)]
Teachings of the Magic Kohl-Rabi
—a substance fixed. For
chaos into things
the magic Kohl-Rabi speaks:
ex | peri | ment
from danger in
& the question of not
whether it is
but if you can see by it.
The glowing speech made
from Ellis Island
out of necessity
by law of broken mirror
made all things true
we can-not read
Still or text
four or five
leaving Athens. Those
were the “tr” b/w
ship & water
says the Kohl
-- the thick, coarse
in upper foods called
Grinded ash (from gold)
drunk on bullion
1 present aim
‘s to avoid
what it asks
things it forgets
in circle I
my mouth &
I I am am
stabbed on the gold
4 lives tell
[AUTHOR'S NOTE. The title of the cycle, Avoidances, has multiple connotations across English-Yinglish-Yiddish-Hebrew. In English, "avoiding" solidity, conclusion, paraphrase; producing meaning which does not close on itself but opens outward onto multiple potentials; the avoid-dance of never settling on both feet at once for very long. In this way, I'm interested also in a legacy of nomadic poetry, both modern Jewish & pre-islamic Qasida, which is always on the move, tho not linearly, but, rather, by a process of encircling. In Hebrew "Avoda"; in Yinglish & Yiddish, "Avoyda": understood in modern terms as "work" either in the external world or on the internal self; in the ancient context, Avo(y)da as sacrifice, a ceremony of giving away something precious to God. Also associated with "avo(y)da-zara" or idol worship: sacrifice to the wrong source. Avoidances as a process of vast & contradictory containment, multilingual meaning, which is constantly pivoting toward plurality.
The Magic Kohl-Rabi, whose teachings begin the cycle & reappear thru-out, also crosses a number of language/meaning boundaries. From a Germanic standpoint, a "Cabbage-Turnip" vegetable; From a Hebraic vantage, the Kohl (=voice) of the Rabi (=Rabbi, sage, elder). The idea of playing on the name came first from my glee at stumbling upon the kabbalistically-infused artichoke & emerald lettuces of Duncan's "What Do I Know of the Old Lore." I find something extremely exciting & powerful in Duncan's ability to attach spiritual/mythic potency to things as banal, but also, as essential, as garden vegetables. The Kohlrabi is a favorite among the group of poets I spent time with in Israel/Palestine, especially the American Hebrew poet, Harold Schimmel, who ceremoniously prepares & eats it daily & would often comment to me about its unique characteristics. The most important aspect of the Kohlrabi for Schimmel (who, at times, speaks thru the MK"R in the poems) is that the vegetable is a root that takes on visible scars when it is cut from the ground. Its skin tells a story then, (the first taste is with your eyes!) of a cut, thru the strange & beautiful scarring patterns that manifest. The poems in Avoidances are all dealing in some way with the implications of "cutting" -- from place, history, language, etc. -- & the multifarious ways these cuttings become scarred (or scored). The Magic Kohl-Rabi is the muse of the cut: not a singular voice but a constellation of teachings which speaks to the poetics & aesthetics of dis-location. (A.R.)]
Justin Quinn and the gift of the translator
In his late work On Translation (2005), the French phenomenologist and literary theorist Paul Ricoeur brings together his lifelong investigations into ethics with a re-reading of Walter Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator" (1923). Ricoeur theorizes translation as a "correspondence without adequacy," urging us to give up on the idea of a perfect translation:
And it is this mourning for the absolute translation that produces the happiness associated with translating. The happiness associated with translating is a gain when, tied to the loss of the linguistic absolute, it acknowledges the difference between adequacy and equivalence, equivalence without adequacy. There is its happiness. When the translator acknowledges and assumes the irreducibility of the pair, the peculiar and the foreign, he finds his reward in the recognition of the impassable status of the dialogicality of the act of translating as the reasonable horizon of the desire to translate. In spite of the agonistics that make a drama of the translator's task, he can find his happiness in what I would like to call linguistic hospitality. (10)
Justin Quinn is an Irish poet, scholar, and translator who teaches at Charles University in the Czech Republic. Most recently, his monograph Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry came out from Oxford University Press; a new poetry collection, Early House, will be out this spring from Gallery Press. He's also translated the work of contemporary Czech poet Petr Borkovec, whose reception had been primarily confined to European readers.
"Temporary Elegy for Petr Borkovec," from the collection Close Quarters (2011), dramatizes the work of translation as the work of mourning. The title contains an obvious paradox: how can an elegy, the genre that most often examines permanence, be temporary? A kind of wish fulfillment, perhaps—or a nod to the conventional impulse, within elegy, to repeat the work of mourning over and over as a way of deferring the finality of consolation (and thus the end of the poem)? Or maybe something more mundane and more interesting: the insertion of elegy into the gaps and passages of dailiness. The poem's about an absence from a friend, not the death of a friend. The stations undergone by the mourner must be revised accordingly.
"Temporary Elegy" charts the effects that translation, as a meeting between the poets, has on the world around the translator:
I'm bringing you some stuff I found
while I was walking through the woods,
along the river and around
the villas still marked by the floods—
inertias, patterns, ratios
I never noticed in the days
before I read your texts up close
to every queried word and phrase
and which I now see everywhere
the signatures of things your hand
was moved to write, as though the air
of birdsong had become the land.
As in most elegies, the poet's relation to the physical world is altered by loss. But this particular loss is one peculiar to the scene of translation. The elegized figure is a poet himself and, more important, party to the composition of the mourner's poetry, half of the pair of translators. Quinn imagines bringing Borkovec, in his absence, something of comparable value to the hospitality Borkovec has shown to Quinn. These are, in the poem's language, the "signatures." Translation, or the process of generous admittance to Borkovec's language and poetic making, has fundamentally changed the poet's perception and behavior, which would otherwise be mediated through and partially constructed by his own language and style. In this way, "Temporary Elegy" is an allegory for translation, with the two figures, Borkovec and Quinn, standing in for the two languages: opened hospitably to each other, yet separated from each other, non-identifiable with each other.
Quinn winds thought, and complete sentences, around his tetrameter quatrains. This task of following a complex thought is typically given to blank verse, but it is here rendered into the more everyday idiom of the quatrain's rhythms. Quinn's cadences recall Larkin, especially the final lines, in which all but one of the words are monosyllabic: "Sit here. Light up a cigarette / and talk me through it all once more." [I think of the end of Larkin's devastating "To Failure": "You have been here some time."] And the point of the poem is in the gentle doubling act that concludes it. To talk oneself through something difficult is precisely what the elegy does; the desire to have the dead talk you through it instead is a desire that the elegy weaves itself around. But of course, by imploring Borkovec to talk him through it all once more, the poet refers to the incessant queries and checks that make up the work of translating with someone else. In this way, the encounter with difference is rendered in the hospitable guise of attunements and of invitations and of the transmutation of the bird's song into a new place to stand.
Quinn, Justin. Close Quarters. Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 2011.
Ricoeur, Paul. On Translation. trans. Eileen Brennan. New York: Routledge, 2006.
New at PennSound
Thanks to PennSound staffer Hannah Judd, we are now making available the poem-by-poem segmentation of C. S. Giscombe's September 24, 2002, reading for the Line Reading Series. To hear many more readings by Giscombe, consult his PennSound author page.
- Introduction (1:29): MP3
- Favorite Haunt (1:57): MP3
- Fever (2:14): MP3
- A Train at Night (2:00): MP3
- Prairie Style (1:47): MP3
- Nature Boy (1:43): MP3
- Ballad Values (0:34): MP3
- Indianapolis, Indiana (8:38): MP3
- The Negro in Indiana (0:52): MP3
- Wild Cards (0:49): MP3
- The Traveling Public (5:17): MP3
complete reading (30:31): MP3
For many, Calgary poet Nikki Sheppy appeared out of nowhere when she won the 2013 John Lent Poetry-Prose Award, the result of which was published as the limited edition letterpress chapbook, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (Kalamalka, 2014). A selection of Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite writes:
WINDFALL is grrrrlhood. Bone of hair braided over and under the root system. That felled lock rocking its origin grew there without me. To go back is to fume quietly into the air, sound stolen by the gale-force spurred into lung. Of scent there is only chlorophyll (buds of a lost mitten, bathed organelles). It wakes like growth spurt. Bodes no futility, green verging on blue. I’m stippled with sense: voluble and inchoate. Not triste, no, but fire-breathing. Pit of the mouth scorched open, innards systemic with coal.
As she admitted recently, the manuscript deadline was not only one she used to force her to complete the project, but became her first poetry submission of any sort. In her “12 or 20 questions” interview, she discusses the chapbook and her math-translations, writing: “The chapbook itself was an opportunity to play. When I wrote it, my goal was to have fun and try a few things I hadn’t done before. So ‘translating’ the math-like poems, for instance, was born of my wish to experiment with an irreverent, figural engagement with science, converting the rules of math into the puns, slippages and gamesmanship of language.” Published the same year, her three poems in the spring 2014 issue of EVENT magazine (43/1, May 2014) was her first publication in a literary magazine.
An editor, reviewer and arts journalist, she completed her PhD at the University of Calgary, and currently serves as President of the Board of filling Station, Calgary’s experimental literary and arts magazine. Unbeknownst to those around her, she had been writing quietly for years, tossing out more work than most might publish throughout a lifetime, something she shares with Canadian expat Suzanne Buffam. Buffam deflected book publication for years, even after her CBC Literary Award for Poetry in 1998, before the publication of her first volume, Past Imperfect (Anansi, 2005). It was also said that while his peers published a variety of works around him, the late poet John Newlove waited to publish, emerging “fully formed” in Vancouver in the early 1960s.
Beautifully designed and produced, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite, according to the colophon was “hand-set in Monotype Bembo with Centaur for display, then proofed, corrected, printed, folded, collated and bound in ‘The Bunker,’ Okanagan College’s letterpress print shop, by students of the Diploma in Writing & Publishing, 2014.” The list of the “Bunker crew” is listed as well, making quite a nice touch, and includes Jason Dewinetz, who is also editor, publisher and printer of Greenboathouse Press, one of the finest literary letterpress publishers/printers in the country.
What strikes about Sheppy’s Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite is the brashness of her text, a daring series of forceful, bold and playful engagements with expectations of language, sound and the notion of “grrrrlhood,” portions of which are reminiscent of some of the electric lyrics of poets Emily Carr, Christine McNair, Brecken Hancock and Sandra Ridley. As Sheppy opens the first poem, “GRRRRL”: “(n.) a style of primitive ape, sub-adult and / female, in ringlets and pluck, about to slip / her tongue into you without first seeking / permission [.]” Sheppy also manages to play with the language and concepts of mathematics, making some of her titles impossible to replicate in a form such as this. Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite is a smart and powerful mix of lyric extraction, mathematical formulae, angry questioning and Riot Grrl bravado, wrapped up in a striking accumulative suite of poems. As she speaks of her current project in an interview recently posted at Touch the Donkey:
In Grrrrlhood, I included a series of mathematical formulae in which words replaced numbers. Following each equation, I wrote a poem that deliberately mistranslated the math in ways that undermined the literal, discipline-specific concepts by forcing them into an emotional and psychological field. For example, if mathematically, the root of a quantity might be expressed as that quantity raised to the power of a fraction, I used this idea to contemplate the origins of thwarted power.
Similarly, the project I’m working on now deliberately breaks faith with classical mythology to interrogate power. It rewrites the myth in order to rewire gender and to challenge male-dominated canonicity as a productive literary mode, by revising or resignifying the narrative, the better to express the repressed story of Eurydice. In Ovid and Virgil, Eurydice dies in order to provide a story for Orpheus (who must mourn her in the beautiful song that helps found the canon) and a story for Aristaeus (who must make amends for his role in her death if he is to save his bees). Aristaeus is a sexual predator and small-time feudal lord, whose affluence is realized through the labour of bees, but the myth curiously connects his intention to rape Eurydice with the curse of poverty. Her assault thus refuses to go unmourned. By investing Eurydice’s story with its own coherence and significance, in the wake of other feminist writers, I hope to explore women’s trauma narratives on their own terms, as well as in cultural context. These narratives are often used in problematic ways: to assert that a ‘damaged’ woman has no power, or to convert her story into the dilemma from which she might be rescued by a male actor or used by him for the production of opportunity or capital. My project strives to relieve Eurydice of the role of perpetually embodying loss, and liberate Orpheus from the task of endlessly grieving female powerlessness and his own complicity in it.
This may seem idealistic, given the persistence of gender inequities, but it responds to the symbolic possibilities of mythology, rather than its literal content. I view this myth as an object lesson in emancipation from the archetypal traps of narrative itself: of a gendered narrative fate, if you will. Myths often safeguard criticism, and secrete transformational potential. By looking back, Orpheus agrees that Eurydice will free herself: acknowledges that only she can do so. Indeed, this may be a truth encrypted in the myth. What happens next, in the Underworld (a kind of un-language lab), is Eurydice’s story.
from words for use in hell
rescinded blunderbuss my proprioception
grubs pearlescent majestically fur-stained
but pheromones sand knowing virulence
emulsions hastening pericardium rustling
ghostly willow foam sweetly upchucking
its portico boiling varroa blisterpacks i
flowingly squab forms dissolute demesne
spayed by lack fastening humveed burls
catabolism synaptic monarchy bleeding o
wing ached diminishment our loneliness
creosote needles gently happening crow
incipience booking up the siphon phased
muscle roar spasmed remembering growl
fanged fluencies harrow hot sipping glad
ioli in pale powders fervencies caterwaul
cloud dumb oneirism above and aswarm
suffusion’s translucent thoughts cave surf
flak-jacketed drone in choric resplendence
wax scaffolds amassed idea hats uttering
fused allusion between our becoming un
depth kissing cask hustling derangements
can i sound planets of hollyhock pollens
ark saturation tumultuous rainfall in boa
shaped huzzah we drip into criticality b
loom myths of surgery blood contagions
the starlife exponential our dutiful work
of tenderness explosively unmaking signs
to signal rupture load bodies and radio
the evolved awfulling inside our listeners
dragon’s agon our future struggling gem
it’s a sickness cloisonné sky for colours
consumed moon a glitterbug hoard soul
gussie up in body velvet tenderize milk
the understifle, cray wallingly
of the cooan & milch.
silocean so many leafishly prine.
what oured queereth moves
dinward to easement.
* * *
i louver a stuffment
in our bullience of lin.
smoke a surgeoning blue
washell. smoke a sign-apse
on behack of me. the days
belletristically astrid. the nights
* * *
an aquial sayso quiles
the oundless & evering
afoalment. bodely beluck to grow.
* * *
i loffe an offen howren.
i strophellize demurment
with klep bassos—& finfully encyster.
loffenip, ursip & athroe.
his ilked-up boyurge elking
into cruck & rotion.
* * *
kroves a loquid hawfish.
greckend linqueous between
this once anon bevoweling.
inscursively aflix as if
its prisk now hyns
Benjamin, Translation, and the Sacred Sound
It is a common misconception that Walter Benjamin’s writings on translation, specifically “The Task of the Translator,” support and even found a translation practice that calls itself “experimental.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. With regards to translation, Benjamin was a fundamentalist in more ways than one. Benjamin was searching for a sacred language, the true Word of God, in a translation — although it is perhaps paradoxical that his searches were inspired as much (if not more) by writers like Baudelaire as by Holy Writ. Perhaps for this reason he remains interesting for contemporary readers, this imposition of prelapsarian oddities into the modern purview which characterizes Benjamin’s method in general, and makes him less an ideologue than a magician who can coax out of centuries of cultural detritus the sacred sound.
There are two categories of this sacred language that need to be parsed to get some sort of idea of what he was after. First, there was the language of God— the Word or Logos, the set patterning of the world which guaranteed that Scholastic inquiries into the Book of Nature, the catena aurea or “great chain of being,” would not come up empty handed (and it was to these older theories of the relation of nature to a holy grammar that Baudelaire referred back in his poem “Correspondences,” which has been translated more manically by Brandon Brown and Marie Buck, among others). These correspondences were set in play by God’s naming—names which are now unavailable to us, unnameable. However, the second layer of sacred language is the Adamic — this blissful, effortless bestowing of language to things that Adam engaged in before the Fall, and which we can imagine remained somewhat operative, albeit compromised, until the catastrophe of Babel. Adam, as the first translator, is not “making shit up,” when he names the world— rather, as Benjamin points out in an early essay on translation, Adam’s spontaneous coding of the world is receptive to “the conception of the nameless in the name.” He picks up, in a sense, on God’s radiant intention, and as such is the archetype of the blameless translator. For Benjamin, Adamic perfection in the face of the thing itself is the deepest foundation of any theory of translation, and explains the convertibility of all languages (even though most proponents of machine translation would say that this deep connection to a common meaning is beside the point).
But it is precisely Benjamin’s rebellion against translation-as-information (and against new information economies in general) that gives him contemporary applicability. It is in his critique of a literary work as “information,” and translation as a mere transmittal of content, where experimental translators find an ally. What’s essential in a poem is the non-communicable, the non-translatable; in fact, he implies that it is precisely the most “untranslatable” poems that have, paradoxically, a higher “translatability”: “The higher the level of a work, the more does it remain translatable even if its meaning is touched upon only fleetingly.” His critique of bad translations (and, by association, bad all-too-translatable poetry) is isomorphic with his notion of the loss of “aura” in the age of mechanical reproduction. In reinstituting the proper strangeness of translation, a translator may be restoring the aura of the inexplicable in the act of translating the world.
~NEXT WEEK: THE NOBLE SHIPWRECKS OF TRANSLATION!~
1. Forthcoming in the Winter 2015 issue of the Western Humanities Review is a selection of experimental translations of Baudelaire's "Correspondences," including work from Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson, Bob Perelman, Orchid Tierney, Maria Damon, Danny Snelson, Marcella Durand, Sandra Simonds, Stephanie Barber, Evan Peterson, Marie Buck, Brandon Brown, John Tranter, Christopher Vandegrift, Mark Johnson, Amaranth Borsuk, Gabriela Jauregui, Sean Bonney, Robert Mittenthal, Clark Lunberry, David Reisman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Joseph Mosconi, and Kalan Sherrard.