E. Tracy Grinnell: From 'body of war / songs' with a note on the process

After Danielle Collobert

the crowds
evisceral subjects         sun-setting
in the sun
clashes waste
                depopulating fray







                                              the revolt


                                              in spasms



                                                                     human or plastic



                                                  shadows grounding


                                              in flashes of emptiness, rhetoric


galleries of disaster
so the remove
of frozen images


habitation of
because earth absorbs shock

hands absent horizons
impotently against
the walls



                          the deep tombs, sink under

                          stones arranged

                          the stones and gold



                                           from another source

                          pierces the front

                          of solitude


the passage



the reflection of an abyss
in the morning



          futility mirrors

          the inertia

          of the face filtered

          through an obsolete



          the wind


          hands, raised

          carries off voices



          what we hear of it

          the nightmare

          sounds off


the infant is born

into an aging infantry
carried aloft
against the earth


on again
against a cliff’s edge

the fire nourishes

by what it consumes



                          attention of destruction to

                                        cradled into uncertainties

                          the corpsman logs

                          what lays before



                          torrential forces

                          force of machinery’s

                                         hard certainty


                          searches the seas

                          peopled with the coins

                          of our present



are erasures of

immovable figure


of heros
who are



errant mutations



Note. Onbody of war / songs


In 1961 Danielle Collobert self-published an edition of poems titled Chants des guerres. Some years later, she attempted to destroy all copies of the book. I came to these particular poems via It Then, via her Notebooks 1956-1978, and recently Murder, first as reader and then as editor/publisher. After the recent release of Murder (translated by Nathanaël, published by Litmus Press), I went back to Chant des guerres to read them in the original French (they are not translated into English). “body of war / songs” is that foray into reading her early poems.


As with my other explorations/experiments in translation, I consider translation a mode of reading, and/or reading a mode of translating, and both as a mode of writing. “body of war / songs” is very much after Collobert, temporally, as homage, but also as exploratory translation. Initially, I ‘faithfully’ translated the terse minimalist poems, leaving spaces for words I did not know. Then I translated some of these spaces, using a dictionary, or making a homophonic translation. Then I simply wrote through the text as if it were my own. Words shifted, altered, moved across the page, filled in, departed.


There are a couple things that interested me about this process of translating/creating – that Collobert’s writing was so familiar to me, that the words, the syntax itself, felt familiar. Not just because I have known her work since 1998 or so but because of poetic affinity, of writing the body in/into the poems. The sense of body, of the alienation of our bodies even in community. A sense of bodies moving through the world and touching / not touching. The remove. Also, it struck me that these poems written in 1961 could have been written now, or at any time in the last 50 years: what has actually changed? War is an ongoing, perpetual, mode. How pressing that these poems – Collobert’s – know this. It presses, as relevant, but also as pressure to write it, rewrite it.


In some ways, the distance between my poem and hers, the distance in time, in language, in other removes, between our poems and the wars they address, is also the distance between ‘zone’ and war zone. The remove of the U.S. from the carnage it enacts, the remove under which we in the U.S. are able to move about. Under drones, yes, fearful in the face of a lack of agency or ability to alter, yes, but with a very different sense of security. So when the carnage punctuates the remove, as it did in Boston most recently, we must translate this proximity into compassion, empathy – a deeper level of comprehension.


[E. Tracy Grinnell is the author of Some Clear Souvenir (O Books, 2006), and Music or Forgetting (O Books, 2001). An excerpt from Helen: A Fugue was published alongside Leslie Scalapino’s A Pear / Actions Are Erased / Appear in volume #1 of Belladonna’s Elder Series (2008). New and recent work is collected in the manuscripts Hell Figures, portrait of a lesser subject, and All the Rage. She is the founding editor and director of Litmus Press.]