The poetics and politics of refraction
In some ways, all language is errant translation. Language wanders from its intended assignments, language is slippery, and what makes the desire to communicate so beautiful is its desperation and inevitable failure; it revels in something basic and intrinsic to humanity, a primal longing, like Sisyphus and his round boulder, Wu Gang and his moon tree. In some ways this is every writer’s and artist’s ongoing work: to continuously rename the world anew, and in this renaming we attempt to grasp it while also giving it up to the ether.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant is the famous dictate from Emily Dickinson, and whether intrinsically or in aesthetic pursuit, language as a project of translation becomes refraction: never a perfect transference of concepts but instead a mediated articulation of the world. The color, shape, and texture of meaning travels along wavering, unstable trajectories. Poets and artists navigate by way of this refraction, intentionally turning their glances askew.
It is this notion of refraction that I would like to explore in particular relation to the work of artists who engage in “translating” a specific concept, experience, or form—moving from an exterior location to an interior one—and in doing so take a normative baseline of meaning/-making and then distort it.
Refraction: as if new light cast into the folds between viewer and object.
Refraction: an angle of approach, a transmission medium, and suddenly wavelengths metamorphose, change direction.
Refraction: we are momentarily entrusted to an unfamiliar axis of this spinning earth, shifting the boundaries and shapes by which we live.
Refraction: the experience of looking from a peripheral location.
Refraction: [O/o]ther ways of seeing.
As they engage in translating the world, why, rather than resisting refraction, do poets and artists move toward it, compelled by its disparate angles and bending lines? How are certain truths and beauties revealed in such blurry distortions? Moreover, what is at stake in this moment of refraction for poets and artists who identify in some way with the margins?
Rather than strictly literary art, I have lately been drawn to visual and mixed media—artwork that function as poems in miraculous ways—and I am interested in examining Dickinson’s maxim though this lens with the belief that these works of art shed light on the poetics of refraction by manifesting it viscerally and tangibly. Indeed, they incorporate the notion of translation/refraction in vibrant and moving ways, challenging dominant spaces of meaning and the boundaries of their realities. Each artwork I examine is one that has permeated and riveted my body like water, and in giving language to their underlying refractive motions, I hope also to immerse in their evocative vocabularies.