Burning for peace

Erín Moure's O Cidadán

Erín Moure
Erín Moure

In preparation for this week’s commentary, I was flipping through TCR’s recent special issue on multilingualism, and I came across a very interesting essay on translation by Erín Moure. The essay is structured as a kind of journal or daybook recording the process of translating Québecois poet François Turcot’s Mon dinosaure into English. Mouré describes translation not as “bearing across” (get it?!), but as “a poiesis,a making. Each small piece of the Turcot poem, in English, takes hours of building, forming syllables, seeing how they interact.”

As I read through her meditations on the use of possessives shifted into English (they “lift reading onto a plane that doesn’t exist in English at all”), how grammatical gender interacts with ownership, and the conditional tense (which seems to have “fewer conditions (perhaps)” in French), I was reminded that it was a book of Moure’s that first got me excited about multilingual writing lo these many years ago.

When I was a Master’s student at Temple University in Philadelphia, Moure came to visit our class, and we were all assigned to read O Cidadán, which at that time, I believe, was her most recent book. Immediately, from the first page, the book flung itself wildly among English, French, Latin, Galician, and Spanish, all under the rubric of a Judith Butler-inspired rethinking of citizenship. I was entranced: prior to enrolling at Temple I had lived in Québec, and Moure’s deftness in sliding the articulation of citizenship out of the masculine neuter and into the feminine, out of majority languages and into minority ones, felt familiar and resonant but also bold, exciting.

I also appreciated the humor in O Cidadán. While much of the book is structured as short, essayistic texts, there are also lyric poems addressed to Georgette. These use an overblown, archaic diction that manages to be funny and sincere at once:

Georgette, thou burstest my deafness

because I am not yet full of thee I am a burthen

to myself


Thou breathedst odours, and I drew in breath and

did pant for thee, tasted and did hunger, where thou

had touchedst me I did burn

for peace (3) 

These poems seem to burst with the force of desire, with the “burn[ing] / for peace,” and with the thickness of language itself. In moving among Englishes and across many languages, O Cidadán asks that we imagine other ways of relating to history, to nationality, to the category of citizenship, to each other. Breathing the odors of this book made me burn for multilingual poetry, and in reading Moure’s essay in TCR I was reminded of that burn, sometimes bright and sometimes slow. I’m reading O Cidadán again.