Clayton Eshleman and the practice of translation: A tribute

[The following is an essay I wrote in the course of judging the 2007 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for the Academy of American Poets. It was originally published by the Academy in American Poet, volume 35, Fall 2008, but never appeared in Jacket2. At this later stage in his life (and mine), I’m posting it here, along with a poem of Eshleman’s that shows the intensity of his relation to Cesar Vallejo in the course of his Vallejo translations as a life’s work. (j.r.)]


Translation alongside original creation is the great conduit for bringing new language and thought into a culture. It is also, for some of us who practice it, but particularly for those who practice it as poets, a way of making poetry not unrelated to our ways of making poetry in any case. It is a testimony as well to the collective nature of the poetry project and to the desire on the part of many poets, contemporary and historical, to form against all odds a kind of visionary company. All of this, for those of us who approach translation in this way, enters into an assessment of any particular translation as an example of the translator’s art and practice.


In judging this year's submissions, I have chosen from a small wealth of poetry books in translation, any number of which could have justifiably been selected for the Landon Translation Award. Yet if the award is to honor the translator alongside the poet being translated, one of the books published last year stands out from the rest in ways that are difficult to emulate. In The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, the poet and translator Clayton Eshleman marks the end of a nearly fifty-year encounter with the work and life of one of the truly giant figures of twentieth-century poetry. That encounter, however, is far different from the lifetime work of a devoted scholar or even of many a poet who takes to translation as a kind of secondary profession. Such work can be of the utmost importance, and yet with Eshleman something else is going on for which I can find no easy equivalent. More than any poet I know, he has pursued a dangerous path for a translator, a path on which the translation itself can be wrecked, diverted at best, by too close an identification with the translated poet. Yet Eshleman evades those pitfalls, while creating a narrative of interactions with his subject that is without precedent and with a deliberate consciousness of what he’s doing and why, and of how he may fail in that effort. Toward this awareness an important feature of The Collected Poems is his Afterword, subtitled A Translation Memoir. This is the account — and not for the first time — of his struggle with Vallejo, not in the usual sense of a translator working on a difficult text but in a way reminiscent of Lorca’s intuition that the greatest poetry results from a struggle with the Duende, the more-than-muse for poetry. 


The description in Eshleman’s Memoir goes back over forty years and describes, convincingly enough, “violent and morbid fantasies” and a dreamlike struggle with “a figure who possessed a language the meaning of which I was attempting to wrest away.” Of those early imaginings, he writes later: “I thought Vallejo day and night, dreamed Vallejo,” and in his poem “The Name Encanyoned River” (the title taken from Vallejo): “For fifteen years you have rivered my sleep, / as if I slept under your gun, / as if my dreams took place in the pipe / you flowed through.” Or again and more vividly in the Memoir: “Now I was having dreams in which Vallejo’s corpse, wearing muddy shoes, was laid out in bed between [Eshleman’s first wife] Barbara and me.”


This is hard-core poetry and may currently be unfashionable, but it makes of Eshleman’s Vallejo translations an action story and the work of the translator an adventure in poetry. At the same time, and more than many, Eshleman is scrupulous in his working and goes to great lengths to get Vallejo right. As he tells it, speaking of advice given him by Cid Corman, an older poet/mentor, whatever the relationship might be to Vallejo or other translated poets, the act of translation was not to be an act of “interpretation,” a freewheeling remake of the original poem. Rather: “Corman taught me to respect the original at every point, to check everything (including words I thought I knew), to research arcane and archaic words, and to invent English words for coined words — in other words to aim for a translation that was absolutely accurate and up to the performance level of the original (at times, quite incompatible goals).”


Take Eshleman’s translation of Vallejo’s short early poem, “The Spider,” a figure central to Eshleman’s own imagination, and see how authentic and close to Vallejo the language is, as if to prove that poet and poet-translator have made a (nearly) perfect fit:


It is an enormous spider that now cannot move:

a colorless spider, whose body,

a head and an abdomen, bleeds.


Today I watched it up close. With what effort

toward every side

it extended its innumerable legs.

And I have thought about its invisible eyes,

the spider’s fatal pilots.


It is a spider that tremored caught

on the edge of a rock;

abdomen on one side,

head on the other.


With so many legs the poor thing, and still unable

to free itself. And on seeing it

confounded by its fix

today I have felt such sorrow for that traveler.


It is an enormous spider, impeded by

its abdomen from following its head.

And I have thought about its eyes

and about its numerous legs...

And I have felt such sorrow for that traveler!


The resultant translations are quite remarkable as poetry and, even without the accompanying narrative/memoir, give a chilling sense of Vallejo’s power. Yet Eshleman, who has translated other strong poets such as Césaire, Artaud and Holan (he is by now Césaire’s principal translator) is here at the height of his powers as a poet-translator. If Vallejo truly found him in a dream and led him into poetry, the response as translation more than requites it.


[What follows here is a poem by Clayton Eshleman that touches on some of the preceding]




I have César Vallejo positioned in my being.
I have turned him into my Spectre.
He now labors at my forge.
He flows through each containing wall, a bifurcating
maze, filthy with unwashed adhesiveness.

What call this transmigration from a text
via translation into another,
the translator? Is not the site of transfer a kind of purgatorium,
a place of cleansing?

On girders of black lightning black maggots are frying.

Psyche rises from the void. An elk is my Cro-Magnon mother.

The blow of creation at Chauvet: a 30,000 year old “minotaur”
hovering on a fang-like rock overhang above
a fierce black vulva dabbed there like a feedbag.
If they knew to hover this metempsychotic hybrid over a vulva
they probably had extraordinary semen fantasies,
possibly would have connected testes
via spinal marrow to the termite queen of the brain.

There’s a pouch of menstrual blood & semen
attached to the back wall of imagination.
In it a dye called redemption, trying to reach rose,
keeps going sukra ratka sukra ratka sukra ratka.

March to this thunderstroke beat: God can only be tasted by angels.

Thus is there a sarcophagal taint in every hierarch.

The rootstalk of paradise is to be found in one’s trouser-like tongue.

I am entombed in womb-like fortitude, expanded to curtailment.

[I began this transmigralation after having spent three days in the British Museum, April, 2007, having flown to London for the English “launch” of The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo. I had been reading and admiring Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife. Saturated with museum “afterlife,” I realized that in the spirit that Blake’s Los compelled his Spectre to work with him at the forge, with my 48-year translation saga completed, Vallejo’s “afterlife” was (as far as I was concerned) to labor in my being. He was now part of my own intuitive machinery. Rather than cast him in the lake (as Blake elsewhere advises), I determined to include his cravings and revelations as implementations for my own “grindstone of rapport.”]

Will man ever fall out of himself,
slip his mummy,
split his background,
discard his salvation cartoon?

Never is oneself.
An astronomical amount of absence is loaded into every conscious being.

Do all questions concerning the continuing existence of the soul
make up a constellation called “the afterlife?”

In the poem “He who will come has just passed,” Vallejo implies that the resurrectional spirit of Christ, now neither of the past nor of the future but part of the air we breathe, is displayed in humankind’s ontological contradictions.

6 AM. Caressing Caryl’s cramped hand,
I see the two of us seated
facing outward like Egyptian King and Queen,
Caryl holding my head in her lap,
me holding Caryl’s head in my lap.
Our faces calm, archaically smiling.

Behind this scene: Golgatha at full tilt.
Three loaded swaying crosses
surrounded by thousands, as at a 1905 Alabama lynch picnic.
I lock onto the eyes of one man in the crowd
staring voluptuously at the middle nailed man
—to realize that He is Christ!

Then who is that up on the cross?

“I am.