The Poetry Project Newsletter, 191, 2002
David Cameron, Le Voyage [Photographs & design, Brenda Iijima], self-published 2000
Jordan Davis, From the Ground Up, Subpoetics Self-Publish or Perish, 2001
Brandon Downing, Lazio, Blue Books, 2001
Ed Friedman, Drive through the Blue Cylinders, Hanging Loose, 2001
Sue Landers, 28 mg, Yum Yum, 2001
Tim Parks, Hell and Back, Arcade, 2002
David Rosenberg, See What You Think: Critical Essays for the Next Avant Garde, Spuyten Duyvil, 2002
Douglas Rothschild, lit/writ 103 & Critical Theory: An Appendage, published as Birdcage Review, Volume 6, Issue 10, 1987
Jacqueline Waters, A Minute without Danger, Adventures in Poetry, 2001
Magdalena Zurawski, Bruised Nickelodeon, Hophophop, 2001
David Rosenberg eats myth raw. Among poets, he's not alone in this lifestyle choice, but as a numinous futurist and researcher in Hebraism and ecology, his writerly appetites have earned him bestseller status, attracting a more vociferous crowd of literati, for example, than many other poets. Rosenberg's previous efforts rereading and staring into the Kabbalah include A Poet's Bible and The Book of J, sinuous epics comprised of grand, genre-unsettling bits and pieces. In his new collection of dream-worked-collage, See What You Think: Critical Essays for the Next Avant Garde, Rosenberg performs as harlequin-seer-critic, transporting witty, argumentative stagecraft to such unexpected structures as celebrity memoir and field notes from the lecture circuit.
For his opening essay, Rosenberg recalls a weekend in Calais, Vermont in 1973 to reenact conversational lines of fellow vacationers Joe Brainard, James Schuyler, John Ashbery and Kenward Elmslie; Rosenberg manufactures these stray items as collaborations-in-the-making that wind up, a year later, seemingly, as components of Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." I stress "seemingly," because Rosenberg drops hints that he is fabricating, claiming that "Self-Portrait" appeared in The New Yorker, for instance, when in fact it was published in Poetry. In another chapter Rosenberg reruns a 1989 poetry colloquium at NYU where Ashbery shows up, cross-examined by Harold Bloom and outspoken poets in attendance, Allen Ginsberg and David Shapiro, among others. In two additional chapters, however, Rosenberg looks beyond New York School sets, focusing on translation as poetry's iron mask, singling out the Canadian poet bp Nichol, a student of Sumerian cuneiform and reinterpreter of Sumerian epics, as 20th-century exemplar of the "translator-in-disguise" (he calls Nichol "the greatest"). Rosenberg contends "the art of writing is founded on the act of translation." He commingles disguise and translation further: "The wildness beneath the disguise I have called the lost 'scene of writing,' where an ungovernable, or wild, form of translation had begun." More, the disguise entails
a new unity, the words forming a body of their own: a translation of the primal body. To recognize this new body is to be foretold the future of our species. In whatever way this translated body's story progresses -- and the story is largely irrelevant -- we become aware that we are listening as if to a new species. So that the real story is our listening and offering up our own bodies to be translated.
Rosenberg doesn't limit figures of the translated body to abstract constructs. Here's a homely example in recollection of an acid trip decades ago:
And then it was dark. As we scrambled for the car, it became apparent to me we had not brought a designated driver. It was my Rambler, but as I took the wheel it seemed to break off in my hands. I didn't tell anybody this; instead, I translated: We're going to have to wait here a couple of hours while the battery re-charges. Nobody challenged me. It was a perfect translation.
Rosenberg's apparatus feels spooky: the poet's hunt in disguise for lost scenes where a sacramental self observes by listening to and for what the future holds while ungovernable processes of translation commence. Nevertheless, as the Rambler incident shows, a wild lie-that-is-not-a-lie (a battery had to be recharged) resonates with the translator's art lurking underneath the lie, a wildness whose truth is so cleverly concealed it pops out at you as poetry after all. Lazio by Brandon Downing tells one such lie after another, informing you a bit about the translation process and how this process might maintain a stylized history-as-bitchin'-travelogue, even when one's gaze is limited to Milan, Naples, Venice, and those lutenist places in between. "I'm just a Rachel / With balls, smitten with Greek buildings." The transgendered will to cloak its own sex appeal and other kinds of "background anxiety" at the scene of observance -- this is something like what Rosenberg might say when retranslating his ideas into psychotherapist-speak, a register he deploys when appropriating Bloom. Caught in the wild, I assume, Downing has no time for therapy or for Bloom; he asks, smittenly, "Are not dead birds mushmouth color?" No argument. "Welder in debt does not fail," Downing snorts. Here's a scratched- and inked-upon passage (could the pen of Downing substitute for welder's torch?) that is reproduced as a graphic in the book's centerfold:
have been conserved
reduced in dimension dividing them
floor and erecting
1983 and 1985
it meant turning
in this wind in rotation.
Among the many
are the stalls
in wooden marquetry
"Crying Woman" [...]
It's pencilled-over vertically on the left margin: OH HEADLESS LIFE
Bruised Nickelodeon by Magdalena Zurawski calls up headlessness of different colors, weapons, noncombative violence, butts, and so forth, shakes them around until they all turn glowy in affect. And then Zurawski puts everything back like before, irrational. This is translation that only looks governable. A fourth 'Imaginary Love Poem' that mixes "hot metal objects" with "blue green tea" begins, "The thumb ran cold but we won..." and concludes nine lines and three line-breaks later, "how often we have kissed today." What Zurawski dishes out is headless irrationality, which Rosenberg tolerates and nicely distinguishes from incoherence. Rosenberg reasons:
Lost, one's coherence is found in the search for a future that can embody the loss. What might that coherence or visionary poetics be today? I believe it can be found in a love for the invisible.
The invisible is the center of the ecosystem, a master trope for Rosenberg to depict the interconnectedness of seen and unseen across an unclocked continuum past to future, "a visionary imagining of relationships over evolutionary time and space," in which a soul is created to show "the unknown about consciousness." Zurawski tells her lie this way:
What is time when I am not with my head?
I asked a bird in a concrete tree and it told me.
Time is what my head is not.
My head is only the wind that imagines me.
Haven't you once or twice been under the impression your head was the wind? Zurawski stole that thought, right? Or, as Tim Parks notes in Hell and Back that thought and its cadence could be something else. Park points to Borges citing Emerson's idea that much of literature appears as if it were created by an "all-seeing all-hearing gentleman" [sic]. Rosenberg suggests a more inclusive formulation: "Between the oral and the book is the translating mind's singular voice-in-the-head, a consciously species-wide voice." Rosenberg adroitly ties the voice-in-the-head to "time and space of our origin, 'the once voice vision,'" concluding that the vision "understands creation as the one addressee." He quotes bpNichol:
there is music in the moment comes together
joyce thot he knew or that insistence stein found
approximation of the once voice visionŠ
Marking the music and addressing creation can keep you on your toes, just a slip away from the snake pit in (a) being an original poet (for goodness sakes) and (b) translating that once voice vision. It's a high-wire occupation calling for self-conscious humor, I believe, or even better, overpowering wit. Ed Friedman in Drive through the Blue Cylinders finds a number of snaky moments coming together: "Write it down. Now take its picture. Carry the casserole on your head, then admireŠOh hello!" Friedman is having fun and keeping watch not to slip as he represents the translator in the act ("write it down") envisioning ("take its picture") and acknowledging ("admire") the arts of approximation. More, Friedman translates an immanence (somewhere within the ecosystem?) of those moments for the reader / listener experiencing the music now ("hello"). The battery gets recharged, the casserole admired when the translation is perfect.
How? When translation succeeds, the thot, insistence or tactical wit required for textual approximation feeds the spiritual imagination, demonstrating one potential of Rosenberg's "new unity, the words forming a body [Š] a visionary imagining" between poet and audience. Appeals to imagining also reveal the more stoic capacities beneath the smiley, nutty demeanor of New York School poetry: self-aware humor can be enlisted to address the tonic remorselessness of creation.
It all gets away from you
It gets you
Those lines are from Jordan Davis who xeroxes a pile of his New York moments from 1995 and calls it From the Ground Up. Now, a deep couplet, if it's stoically nuts, should foster new schools of belief, right? Davis' is a school of mock exuberance, hugely self-observant --
I'm a vandal. To nick and trip
The day job of countdowns.
What precisely is the translator's "day job" here? And where are we? Davis, like any other fire-breathing poet, locates himself in Eden, and since he's a guy, he speaks for Adam.
Follow the ball
The soccer game
In Tompkins Square
Is my biorhythm
Ball rolls on the lip of the stone
I believe in the pen on the page
We have just watched Adam in the act of losing himself but then finding he is still there; it was his sense of omniscience that was lost, leaving him to search among the plants and animals for his place.
Loss is another strong trope for Rosenberg. We noted earlier how he sees a writer's incoherence inspiring "search for a future" to embody loss. While we commonly mark passage from childhood with a loss of innocence, Rosenberg specifies this as loss of omniscience, which he equates with human "displacement from nature" and "unconscious spiritual dread of the future." This latter point is a popular topic for poetry.
It is hiatus at first, and you ride the elevator
Reassured by your aptitude. Even the elevator
Would compliment you on your assimilation of rote,
Of the singular methodology of personhood mit machinehood.
This is the start of Jacqueline Waters' poem "The Most Difficult Clock," which appears in A Minute without Danger. Conscious loss and dread resound in many of her poems' arched titles linked to emotional icons representing passings away and movements in clockworks: "John Donne," "And It Came to Pass (Not to Stay)," "Ghost," "Cars of the Future," "Basic History of the United States," "The Milos Line," "The Deserted Village of Feltville" and "A Minute without Danger." Waters plays with unnatural displacements ("assimilation of rote," "personhood mit machinehood"), yet her poems foretell no future. Nor do they address creation in search for a future, at least with regard to their exhibiting any irrationality or disorientation attending Rosenberg's sine qua non, loss of omniscience. In "The Most Difficult Clock" Waters undercuts and parodies, any sense of un conscious loss by means of a deadpan narrator summoning such walk-on imagery as a dresscutter whose pallor is marble, and a "woman described as / Cancelled postage, aging..." A line ending in the word "gray" rhymes, knowingly, with the next line ending in "gray." There's no need for further translation; the future has already arrived:
...It is you with your penchant for abstract boldness,
For forthright adventure, your desire to ride in the sketch
Of the equestrian statue on the file folder, the one you misfile
At some point every day.
Contrast the ease of absorbing Waters' penchant for boldness with the recklessness of Sue Landers, who in 28 mg insists a pink devil "hurts / her not." In correspondence, Landers says her one-poem piece is about "association of sounds -- stream of consciousness -- fucking -- all things connected." This is her patch through the ecosystem to 'create a soul' or 'form a body,' a vehicle that according to Rosenberg "represents the unknown about consciousness." In 28 mg there's some self-wetting, and there are a few cracked bones. But: "Girls don't listen / to little pill's loose / screws." Since we know Landers is translating and therefore lying, we can retranslate 'Girls don't listen...' to something like I'm listening so intently I've been transported to a new body in a new place of origin. Landers' atmosphere of the unknown is very much from a "6th sense," proprietarily enhanced by sheep, a Doctor and a sacred fish who goes "Pop." The poem itself is untamed and, by the way, whatever unease we have with 28 mg is furthered by the book's physical design proportioned like a pillbox, two inches by two and a half inches, restricting the reader's experience to a thumb-through, intimate but on-the-fly.
I would like to come back to dual themes for Rosenberg, disguise in loss and the role for translation in approximating what is lacking in the visible world. To do this I'll review two works of deliberate translation, David Cameron's Le Voyage and "The Steward Aweather of Us" found in Douglas Rothschild's lit/writ 103 & Critical Theory: An Appendage. I call these works deliberate, but both also fall into Cameron's category of 'false translation' in that they are processed by means other than close paraphrase of semiotic content. Le Voyage is Cameron's version of Baudelaire's sequence of the same title, and it is part of a decade-long re-imagining of the entire Les Fleurs du Mal, which Cameron translates as Flowers of Bad. Rothschild's poem is a rewrite of Frank O'Hara's "A Step Away from Them."
Both translators adopt elaborate approaches. In an unpublished "Afterword" to Flowers of Bad Cameron sketches no fewer than 16 methods for reworking Baudelaire's texts, including English dictionary and spell-checker substitutions (French 'Danse' translates as 'Dap'); phonetic transliteration ('Nous auron des lits' = 'Noose orange delete'); random substitution of French terms with items from English word lists; etc.
In sharp contrast, Rothschild sticks to one method that nonetheless produces highly convoluted resutls. For each lexical item in "A Step Away from Them" he chooses the next dictionary entry that follows alphabetically and shares exactly the same grammatical functions. In Rothschild's title, for example, "The" replaces O'Hara's "A" since "The" is the only other article in the English dictionary. "Step" becomes "Steward" because this is the first word following "Step" that operates as a noun with primary and secondary definitions, and as a transitive and an intransitive verb. Rothschild's keeping this similar-functions rule helps preserve the feel of O'Hara's syntax and narrative flow. Here is the third stanza of O'Hara's poem.
Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET'S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Frederico Fellini, e bell' attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
Rothschild translates this:
Neoteric off a deadeye has the
half pledge, as Deng Xiaoping could
writhe, as can lump bulgar off a deadeye.
It stores then the chequerboard during JULIUS'S
CORNICE. Andre duc de Rivioli Massena wig with
Francais de Salignac de la Mothe Fenelon, se belladonn' atabilita.
If the choice maneuvered. The laggard off the
fractures opposite which the deacon puzzles his poon
off the cabala.
Both pieces are behaviors in translation. O'Hara crops his New York moments into a bricolage of lunch-hour cognitive overload. Internal or mental processes are key to the poem's title and sense of purpose. Just a step away, external data like neon at noon trigger associations and memories of Edwin Denby, O'Hara's friend. A tabloid photo of Giulietta Masina at Juliet's Corner lunch counter translates into an outburst feigning joy; Masina seems to have dropped by for a snack, as if O'Hara's friend. When we read O'Hara we expect slick production values in disguise of the everyday, Denby writing on neon in the sun, for example. How much less expected to read a 'neoteric' like Rothschild and stumble across a half-pledged Deng Xiaoping writhing! If we feel pleasure in O'Hara's eruption in Italian, how much louder and wilder is Rothschild's se belladonn' atabilita? Rothschild's retranslation is so bizarre a complement to O'Hara it appears both to pursue and precede O'Hara chronologically, maneuvering by choice toward a wigged high deacon's rank at some Platonic chess tourney to take up with the Kabbalah.
From Rosenberg's perspective, the translator's disguise, that is, his methodology, got Rothschild to the chessboard. The poet is disarmed by the cheeky mechanics of rule-governed substitution. To follow Rothschild's rule and read the results will confirm Rosenberg's tip-off that a "lost or disarmed mind [is] required of a Kabbalist -- 'lost' in the sense of outside conventional civilization." Once parameters are set for Rothschild's game, the whole language gets to work on the translation! Rothschild takes on the role of an automaton-innocent cloaked in what Rosenberg characterizes as "the severe playfulness of an experimental writer."
When referencing recent translators of merit, Rosenberg recognizes Blake, Rimbaud, Thoreau, and Stein as geniuses. Why not Baudelaire? I suspect one problem is Baudelaire's songbook lexicon turning out myth too plainly undulant and neoclassical. From Le Voyage, iii:
Etonnants voyageurs ! quelles nobles histories
Nous lisons dans vos yeux profonds comme les mers !
Triumphantly attired in nautical pretext, could Baudelaire's boredom be too sheer a fabric for genius rank?
Nous voulons voyager sans vapeur et sans voile !
Faites, pour egayer l'ennui de nos prisons,
Passer sur nos esprits, tendus commne une toile [...]
David Cameron admits to knowing too little French to undertake a meta-analysis of Baudelaire's use of language, acknowledging in a footnote to his "Afterword" his command of vocabulary is "most lacking." Admission in hand, Cameron's disguise as meddler and irreverent mime is firmly established. With a toolkit of interloping methods at his disposal, Cameron begins to translate!
Stunning boy day traders aging seventeen or more! Quieting wheat fields
devoid of wheat no screaming or crying
We list on shoelaces your yew trees your horse tree pruners up comes
Should we labor over any license Cameron exercises in extending line lengths, shifting landscape with the sea? Not if we accept the translator as 'disarmed,' having 'lost' all ties to convention, submitting himself to a new primal body, this new species exploring the scene of writing. Listing, the translator arrives as though in a trance state of performers and dancing atmospheres spewing yew and you to upstage the mercenary and lustful tone of the Baudelaire original.
We take busses we I take you in my mouth stunning young going with no
smoke trail to swallow I turn around and but theres no more there it is you are
Made off, filling the whole crane the between us the in we or no prisons
Pass out before we hit the pillows legs and arms joints gone to tissue
Ungovernable in translation, the explorer's passions are passed out. The unsettled, remorseless voice in Cameron's head is hitched to a bus, addressing creation, taking it in the mouth. "Shape of thought is sexual," Rosenberg observes. "Exploration is a form of foreplay; problem-solving resembles intercourse." Blind imagination has been pitched into fortresses of heat by a done-in poet, as Frank O'Hara once wrote of John Wieners, "a poet exhausted by / the insight which comes as a kiss / and follows as a curse." Unmasked in isolation, Rosenberg says, as Cameron's once voice vision turns around to the ephemeral 'there' -- "theres no more there" -- and the ephemeral you -- "you are / Made off" -- a 'tissue' of lies, of course, but passionate lies that go on "filling the whole crane the between us."
Cameron's methods are at once preposterous and most convincing. Here is another of his approaches, called Blind Translation, outlined in his "Afterword":
At some point I decided that I'd translated enough of Baudelaire's poems that I felt as though I knew what he was doing, and I felt as though I understood what I was doing, so why not simply cut out the middle man? For Blind translations the poem is translated first, knowing nothing more than the line count, except perhaps the original's title [...] (Remarkably, the times that I employed this method I generally found that my translations were surprisingly accurate and required little correction!)
Whether we unreservedly believe the translator knows what he and Baudelaire are doing, we accept that Baudelaire's "visionary imagining" feeds Cameron's tonic desire. In turn, Cameron's love for his primary, invisible source compels him to get much closer, to embody his loss, and to "cut out the middle man" that holds up translation and the future it contains. This is progress in procedure at what Rosenberg calls the "scene of writing" which, in turn, parallels the original "scene of evolving":
[...] the point of utter isolation during which Homo sapiens looked into the eyes and listened to the circumscribed speech of whom he or she had been (Neandertal, Homo Habilus) and saw he must explore the world anew.
The poet's job, Rosenberg cautions, is nothing less than to foretell the species' next move. In Cameron's impassioned Le Voyage it looks like a wild ride.