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Fictions of Otherness

Peter Sirr

We carry poems around with us in our heads, part of the internal tradition we create for ourselves. Often these are translations, although that fact may not necessarily register. When something causes us to dwell on the poem as translation, the result can be troubling. To give just one example, Czesław Miłosz’s “Encounter” has been part of my own personal anthology for many years. Recently I had cause to dig it out again. Here, first of all, is the poem in the English version I remembered:


We drove before dawn through frozen fields,
The red wing was rising, yet still the night.

And suddenly a hare shot across our path.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago and both are dead:
The hare and the man who stretched his arm.

O my love, where are they, where do they lead,
The flash of a hand, the line of movement, the swishing icy ground?

I ask not in sorrow, but in contemplation.

Wilno, 1936

The translation is by Adam Czerniawski, and I liked the poem primarily for its central image of the hare shooting across the path of the travellers and the pointing hand, and the quiet registration of the disappearance of both, a moment in a rich tradition of such registrations of mortality. I also liked the opening line – “We drove before dawn through frozen fields” – maybe because of its simple directness, its alliterative forcefulness, and the sense that anything could follow. The early hour, the frozen fields, the purposeful journey – it seemed like the opening to a thousand evocative stories and poems. I was less happy with the phrase “yet still the night”, which seemed to have been lifted from an anthology of nineteenth century poetry, and the final line seemed a little weak: “contemplation” didn’t really do it, didn’t seem like a strong enough alternative to sorrow. However, Czerniawski’s is not the version sanctioned by the poet, as I discovered when I pulled down my copy of the Collected Poems. Here is the poem as translated by the poet himself and Lillian Vallee:


We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles?

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

I read this initially with a feeling of puzzled disappointment. Surely the opening line was extremely clunky? And why had it become necessary to specify the means of transport? Suddenly it’s as if the poem were being interrogated by a border guard. How did you get here? What time did you leave? Are you the registered owner of the vehicle? I found the original and took it into a class I was teaching and asked a Polish student to translate it. She verified that the means of transport hadn’t been specified, so clearly Miłosz and Vallee wanted the English-speaker to be in no doubt that the verb indicated a horse-drawn vehicle. Fair enough, but the specification distorts the line, provides, to my ear, an off-putting introduction to the poem. Maybe this doesn’t matter – I’ll come to that later.

There are other differences, and all are explained by the closer relation of the poet’s own version to the original Polish. Czerniawski’s single sentence “That was long ago and both are dead” versus the stricter accuracy of “That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive.” In English, I want to say to Miłosz/Vallee, it’s better to be dead than not to be alive, if you see what I mean. You’re dead. You’re not alive. One is blunt and to the point, the other is a grammatical variation on death. We might, if we were so inclined, go on to worry about “line of movement” versus “streak of movement” (I like “streak”); the “swishing icy ground” versus “the rustle of pebbles” (the latter is more literally accurate). Or we might consider the effectiveness of the last line. To me the Miłosz/Vallee is superior to the Czerniawski. My student had “reverie” rather than “contemplation” or “wonder”, and the fact is, as is often the case, there’s no exact equivalent. We might open things out a little and discuss the different translation strategies evident in both versions, teasing out the translators’ intentions and accomplishments, the constraints they worked within, the freedoms they allowed or forbade themselves. We may end up deciding that neither of these poems is entirely satisfactory in English. Having seen both, I’d now prefer a composite version, bits of Czerniawski and bits of Miłosz/Vallee. Not being a Polish speaker, my relationship is with the translation, not the original, which is to say that I understand the poem as a physical event in my own language, a sonic event in which certain words, certain syntactical arrangements, operate psychically and emotionally as well as physically. Yet of course I also realise that to consider these translations as texts painfully mediated from one space into another is to enter a domain of uncertainty, of variation, of doubt, of decisions taken by particular people at a particular time and place. It’s a provisional place, a place of dispute, of argument and counterargument, of compromise, contingent solutions rather than absolutes, a place where literal fidelity is, in all likelihood, farther from the truth than considered licence. The real impact of seeing multiple versions of a poem is the realisation that there are no innocent translations, no pure mediations; there’s always a sniff of cordite in the air, or the shape of a discredited magician packing up his box of tricks and sneaking down the fire escape … Or just a feat of small magic that leaves us enchanted and unquestioning in our aisles.

Why labour such an obvious point? We all know there are many ways to skin a cat, that equivalence is a fiction, that translation is an endless series of negotiations, an internecine mental bureaucracy that comes between its practitioners and their sleep. We know all the old saws about impossibility and the universalist idealism that believes poetry is itself an international language. Well, maybe we know all this. Or maybe not. Powerful languages tend to bury translation, so that the act is rarely acknowledged, let alone revealed. Lawrence Venuti and others have written eloquently about the cultural invisibility of the translator in English. Little enough gets translated into English compared with other languages, and what does get translated is often treated by publishers and critics as if it had originated in English, as if the language had somehow reached out and inhaled it. In many cultures translation is a celebrated art, an extension of the creative force that gives rise to fiction and poems. How many English-language novelists translate fiction from other languages? A long pause as we scratch our heads. Adam Thorpe has just translated Madame Bovary. It joins the other twenty English translations. Then there are … em, not very many. Michael Hofmann is one of the most distinguished translators from German into English, but he’s a poet. By contrast, novelists in other languages translate as a matter of course (random example number one: Murakami Haruki has translated into Japanese Raymond Carver, F Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, JD Salinger; Imre Kertész has translated into Hungarian Elias Canetti, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Joseph Roth; Arno Schmidt has translated into German James Fenimore Cooper, William Faulkner, Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, Edward Bulwer-Lytton; Sadeq Hedayat has translated into Persian Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre; French and Latin American examples: Borges translated Wilde, Poe, Kafka, Kipling, Melville and many others; Cortázar translated Poe, Yourcenar, Defoe.

In poetry things are a bit more fluid, and more complex. Fiction in English is business. Publishers think commercially. It is possible for writers (some writers) to live from their work. Poetry, on the other hand, in spite of odd moments of cultural prestige, a Nobel here and there flickering on the front pages, is marginal. Invisibility can be liberating: poets can take risks, and one of the fruitful risks is translation. There’s more to it than that (there always is). Poetry is in many respects a more international art than fiction; it is less tied to boundaries of culture and language. Again, all sort of complications interrupt this thought – poetry is, of course, deeply embedded in its host culture, deeply intertwined with the language that produced it. It is not some kind of internationalist Esperanto of the mind. Nonetheless, poets are curious, and tides of influence wash across borders from one culture to another. As the English poet and translator Christopher Middleton puts it:

I do think the poet’s growth comes through encounters with the alien, the foreign, the strange, and the unknown. And one of the simplest and most creative ways of considering the act of translation is to regard it as a minimal, perhaps vestigial, but still exemplary encounter with the other.

or Octavio Paz:

The history of the different civilisations is the history of their translations. Each civilisation, as each soul, is different, unique. Translation is our way to face this otherness of the universe and history.

Or as Ilan Stvans puts it in the introduction to The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry:

Then there’s travel as a poet’s lifestyle. Poets, like other moderns (maybe more?), constantly move back and forth, physically and figuratively, serving as communicating vessels. The dialogue that results from this exchange is substantial.

I think that’s true. Poets are magpies, collectors, instinctive and disorganised suitcase-packers. Moving back and forth is part of the poetic cast of mind. In English though, the sheer power of the language means that the influences that reach it are mediated by all kinds of forces before they operate on poets, and the encounter with otherness can be deceptive. One such force is the resistance to language-learning: English conditions people to think it is self-contained and self-sufficient. Foreign languages are marginalised in education and general culture. Monolingualism is the norm, even among writers. This means that, very often, the poet’s encounter with work in other languages amounts to a relationship with translation. And in a world where monolingual editions are increasingly the norm, that relationship is rarely a conscious or critical one. Otherness is therefore heavily localised. When people read translations they are often engaging with new tones, new nuances or modes of their own language, exploring its own borderlands without having to travel very far beyond.

There’s also the matter of what exactly these translations are. Curious poets if they’re monolingual will depend on what’s available. There are of course wonderful translators out there, both poets and non-poets, but there’s also a certain predictability about the kind of translations poets are drawn to. They will have consumed their Rilke, Rimbaud, Dante, Neruda, Ahkmatova, Montale, Miłosz, Szymborska and all the regular inhabiters of the anthologies of world poetry or the bookshop poetry shelves. But the pantheon can be strangely circumscribed. The football reports of poetry translation, if they existed, might read along the lines of Rainer Maria Rilke 10, Gottfried Benn 1; Eugenio Montale, 6, Andrea Zanzotto 1; Federico Garcia Lorca, 20, Joaquin O. Giannuzzi 0; Fernando Pessoa 7, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, 2, and so forth.

And what middle-aged English-language poet, feeling the chill of mortality, doesn’t find his thoughts drifting towards the selva oscura and shuffle dutifully from the sofa to settle down in front of the Inferno? Or perhaps it’s time for another go at Rimbaud’s Illuminations, or the sonnets to Orpheus. . .

In other words, the pull towards the other can be along well-established, predetermined paths. The other can be less than other, or it’s the other as it has been interpreted and modulated into English. Into this mix we have to stir the idea that what gets translated is the inherently translatable. It’s like those ads for the detergents that kill all known germs, leaving the unknown ones to flourish: translation always carries with it the whiff of the untranslated, the poems that got left behind under the rim, the poets who were just too gnarled, too difficult, too internally referential, too infected with Polish, Dutch, Armenian.

Another result of the culture of monolingual translation is the popularity of the Poundian or Lowellian model, where poets play freely with originals, or translated originals, breezily using originals as starting points for poems or intertextual games of their own, a practice encouraged by distance from the experience of the language in which the work originally occurred. Here, for instance is Goethe’s “Unvermeidlich” in Tom Paulin’s version, taken from The Road to Inver (Faber, 2004), his collected translations:

Who can say to the birds
shut the fuck up
or tell the sheep in the yow trummle
not to struggle and leap?

Goethe acquires an unlikely turn of phrase and a passing knowledge of Lowland Scots, or at least of Hugh McDiarmid’s “The Watergaw”, from where the “yow trummle” (sheep-shearing season) comes. Likewise Eugenio Montale wakes up and finds himself in a Donegal of the mind in this version of “La Casa dei Doganieri”.

Henry Snodden and me we’ve nearly forgotten
that scraggy coastguard station –
a ruin from the Black and Tan war
it stood on Tim Ring’s hill above the harbour
like an empty a crude roofless barracks
‑ same as the station in Teelin or Carrick
with the usual concrete harbour
like a berm built the century before last
to make a new fishing village with a slightly daft
name – in this case Portnoo –

One needn’t be too po-faced about this. We get the joke, but it is symptomatic of the way in which translation functions as material, as a kind of aesthetic strategy in its own right, a metapoetics in which poets play with the distance between their own voice and the voice of the translated. And sometimes, partly because of the cultural power of English, the relationship can be unequal.

Don Paterson’s versions of Machado and Rilke are good examples of the ambiguous status of translation amongst some practitioners in English. A clue to the ambiguity is suggested by the ways the books are presented. Both are offered, in terms of the visual impact of their front covers, as books by Don Paterson, so that it’s not initially clear that another author is involved. Once you pick up the books and turn them around the penny begins to drop, although the signals are pretty mixed:

In The Eyes, his third published collection, Don Paterson has used the work of the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939) to create what might be called a spiritual portrait. Lying somewhere between translation and imitation, these poems show Machado to have possessed a sensibility and philosophical bent strikingly pertinent to the problems of our own time. . . The Eyes is as ingenious in its conception and as direct in its impact as anything he has yet written.’
(The Eyes, Faber, 1999)

The book is offered as the poet’s third collection, but one which “uses” the work of Machado and occupies an interstitial space “somewhere between translation and imitation” but still very much the poet’s own work, “as direct in its impact as anything he has yet written”. In his afterword, Paterson makes a clear distinction between translations and versions, but his distinction relies on a drastically simplified definition of translation. Readers looking for an “accurate translation of Antonio Machado’s words” are directed to Paterson’s own main source, Alan Trueblood’s Antonio Machado: Selected Poems, with the caution that “although it isn’t poetry” it “at least gives a more reliable reflection of the surface life of Machado’s verse”. Reliability is not a central concern of Paterson’s method, which includes “mangling, shifts of emphasis, omission, deliberate mistranslation, the conflation of different poems, the insertion of whole new lines and on a few occasions the writing of entirely new poems”. One slightly bizarre instance of this is the following, from “A Memory of Childhood”, with its old schoolteacher and bleak classroom, where numeracy is one of the qualities dispensed with.

The children rise at his command
then intone the dismal lesson.
A hundred hundreds make a thousand.
A thousand thousands make a million.

Either that or the Faber calculator wasn’t working. (Machado simply has “mil veces ciento, cien mil”)

Paterson’s engagement with Machado is serious, or at least his engagement with Trueblood’s translation is. The poems are successful as poems, even if it’s less than clear whose poems they are. The tone, the idiom, the mannerisms, the voice are all Paterson’s, with an alien infusion supplied by the distant originals. In one sense this doesn’t matter. Poets are free to do what they want after all. But the method is disconcerting partly because it requires the disappearance of the original poet, whose exact contribution isn’t specified in this monolingual text without acknowledgements or reference to specific poems so we can never be sure which bits are invented, mangled, conflated with others, or relatively straight translations. It starts to feel like the kind of colonial gesture only a dominant language could sanction. Another difficulty arises when the results are presented not just as translation but a superior form of translation. For Paterson the default mode of translation as practised by non-poets is a pretty crude exercise, as indicated by the remark about Trueblood above. It’s the apparent impossibility of translation which, in fact, licenses his own freedom. “It should surely, by now, be axiomatic that poetry cannot be translated in a way that will preserve anything of the flavour of the original.” Translation, in this view, seems to mean literal translation, which is essentially how he characterises translation not performed by poets ‑ he refers to Trueblood’s as ‘solid literal translations’.

Readers who are not poets don’t get much credit either: “The non-poetry-writing reader is often possessed by the (perhaps necessary) illusion that the truth of a poem resides in its meaning.” All of this has the quality of special pleading about it, as if Paterson has summonsed himself before an imaginary translation inquiry. It gets even more defensively anxious in the afterword to the Rilke versions, where again the binary opposition between “translation” and “version” appears. A translation “glosses the original, but does not try to replace it. Versions, however, are trying to be poems in their own right.” For Paterson, knowledge of the source language is no advantage; in fact it’s an active disadvantage: “At least the ignorant monoglots tend to triangulate their versions from multiple cribs for fear of missing anything, for fear of missing everything; whereas the fluent tend to work from one, their own – which might be no better (and is often worse) than those available from other sources.”

Distrust of knowledge of the source can also extend, in the wider culture, to distrust of the source itself. If translation is suspect, poetry in other languages can somehow seem an affront. When Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize his victory was greeted with barely concealed hostility from a large section of the respectable English-language press. “A noble sentiment, but another Nobel error” screamed the headline of The Observer. “The Swedish Academy selected a Swedish poet on Thursday as the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, a development likely to elicit two reactions from American readers: Who? And huh?’, said the Washington Post, while the influential website Bloomberg commented “Literature’s newest Nobel laureate is widely read, reviewed and respected. In Sweden, that is. Despite having been translated into more than 50 languages, poet Tomas Tranströmer is best known internationally as one of those arcane names that draw perennial bets from Nobel-watchers fond of mocking the Swedish Academy.” But this is more an indication of the marginality of poetry than the narrow horizons of poets, many of whom rushed to defend Tranströmer.

Not everyone is so confident in the prowess of the monoglot or so distrustful of knowledge of the source poetry. Many poets use adaptive translation as part of their toolkits without the Poundian appropriation of Paterson. Derek Mahon, who has done “straight’ translations of Philippe Jaccottet and Gérard de Nerval, has turned increasingly to making versions of poem from other languages. Unlike Paterson or Paulin, Mahon is scrupulous in his identification of his methods and of his relationship with the originals:

These pieces aren’t translations, properly speaking, but versions of their originals devised, as often as not, from “cribs” of one kind or another. Some deplore this now common practice, insisting that the impersonation in English of poems from other tongues should be confined to those with a working knowledge of Greek or Russian, as the case may be – or indeed Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Ibo, Hindi or Chinese.
(from foreword to Adaptations, Gallery Press, 2006)

Mahon aligns himself with and is sustained by a specific practice, the use of translation as creation by other means: “the imaginative, recreative (and recreational) adaptation, making the original read like a poem in English, is an equally venerable tradition: poets use it to keep the engine ticking over”. Mahon’s ambition is to create versions which “will read almost like original poems in English, allowing their sources to remain audible”. Like Paterson, though, the beam of attention is firmly on poets from the past who have already been much translated: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Valéry, Rilke, Pasternak, Ovid etc.

In his most recent translation work Mahon takes the next logical step for a certain kind of poet-translator: the creation of an invented poet, in this case the Hindi “Gopal Singh” who sounds, in fact, not very unlike Derek Mahon. It’s a sort of sideways shift from his proper persona, a licensed ventriloquism with the quotation marks safely limiting the nature of the game. A slightly riskier version of this ploy is Michael O’Loughlin’s invented Latvian poet, Michaelis Norgelis, who is presented as an immigrant working in a pub in contemporary Dublin (named, inevitably, after a minor Irish writer), on which he casts a disenchanted eye.

Ireland is such a wet country.
Beer and vomit, semen and piss.
In the downstairs toilet an English woman
Is having sex with two Irish men.
Up here in the kitchen the Chinese giggle
And the Polish porters glower.
Me, I’m starting my coffee break
So I can return to Yeats’ A Vision.
I like to smoke and read a few lines
And let his words roll round my head.
(“A Latvian Poet Reads Yeats’ A Vision in the Oliver St. John Gogarty”, from In This Life, New Island 2011)

O’Loughlin doesn’t bother with quotation marks or any explicit acknowledgment of the ruse, and so found himself being invited to conferences on immigrant literature and asked for Norgelis’s address. Even though Norgelis sounded exactly like his creator, few read O’Loughlin’s own work closely enough to realise the invention and some of the conference organisers and other inviters were taken aback when the truth emerged.

Mostly, though, this kind of fake translation strategy is a way of creating a structure to produce poems, as with Christopher Reid’s Katerina Brac, (Faber, 1985), whose eponymous poet lives in a vaguely East European country, writes in a language never identified, but with slight elements of pretend linguistic interference to make the reader feel that the language of the poetry is a translation, and lives under the kind of political oppression guaranteed to awake the sympathy of liberal readers. This of course is part of the game. The book’s blurb plays along, even though there was no real pretence that Brac was real and no one buttonholed Reid looking for her address:

The testimony of Katerina Brac may strike readers as typical of the artist under pressure, but the way in which this still too-little known poet addresses her situation remains startlingly individual. In presenting a selection of her work, Christopher Reid demonstrates his awareness both of the translator’s special responsibilities, and of the paradox whereby a poet must become the creation of his or her translator.

Folk-tales, an atmosphere of oppression, a limpidly declarative style, as well as the reminders that this is a feminine voice, all add to the gently alienating effect. This is translation as fiction, where it’s the pure idea of otherness, untroubled by the interference of a language or an actual author that is the attraction. Like other enabling fictions, it can produce remarkable works. Reid’s poems are more than simply tricks; as often happens with this kind of self-invention, the poet manages to push enough of his own clutter out of the way to release a powerful force which has plenty to say and a new voice in which to say it, a bit like what happens in “An Angel”

An angel flew by
and the electricity dimmed.
It was like a soft jolt
to the whole of my being.

And here Katerina Brac plays with the imagined stories of her imagined tradition:

Shall I tell you the story about the ladybird
who wanted some new spots?
The old ones were working perfectly well,
but the ladybird decided they looked dowdy
and so she went to see the woman who makes
the pupils for children’s eyes –

No? Not that one?
(“Traditional Stories”)

The list of poets who have used translation as a conceptual framework for their buried selves is pretty extensive. One of my own favourite fictions is the late Roman poet Quintilius, whose elegies are “translated” by the English poet Peter Russell. (The Elegies of Quintilius, Anvil Press, 1975, 1996). The book comes freighted with cod scholarship: fragments from the purported Latin text, a note on the life of Quintilius, the account of the miraculous find by a Nicaraguan engineer while digging for potash of “a massive papyrus, in superb condition”. Among the poems included in the papyrus is a mock-heroic work, The Apotheosis of the Dildo and others so racy the “translator” has been obliged “to exscind several lines which are too raw even for these relaxed days”. Russell was in fact a real translator – he translated from all the European languages, as well as from Persian and Arabic, and was the first to translate Mandelstam into English, so apart from the fact that he had a keen understanding of the dynamics of translation it seems fitting that his original poetic achievement should be an act of self-translation. His elegies are full of echoes of Latin poetry; they relate to their tradition exactly as a real Latin poet would, but at the same time – again appropriate for a poem which is an act of high modernism – they send out lines to the revisioning of the classics by poets of his own era, calling up inter alia Pound’s Propertius or the tones of Eliot. As in Katerina Brac, the poems adopt a kind of translation voice, in this case the voice of a slightly fusty Victorian translation enlivened by gusts of ironic energy:

Generous wick with the oil of the coconut palm
Kindling each evening our own nuptial flame,
Witness you were of the love-act a number of times
Nightly, in the city of Sfax in my youthful days,
Till Daunia left me here to shiver in an empty bed.
(“The First Elegy”)

The anachronistic coconut palm turns out to be problematic and gets a whole appendix devoted to it: “Mr Robert Graves informs me that the coconut palm was not introduced into North Africa until the 7th or even 8th century . . .”

All this fake translation is in one sense a tribute to the power of the idea of translation, and maybe it’s true that the power of the idea is even greater in a culture where traditional modes of translation are increasingly the preserve of specialists. I’m in a poor position to comment in some respects. I have played these dubious games, after all, stitching together workings of an early Irish poem or Catullus to make peculiar patchworks of translation and not-translation. But translation still primarily means to me a relationship with the source language and the real alchemy still seems to me to take place when two languages rub up against each other in some kind of meaningful way. And there are of course poets for whom translation is less a projection of self than a conversation between friends. I think of Michael Hamburger’s Hölderlin or Celan, Michael Hofmann’s Gottfried Benn, Peter Robinson’s Luciano Erba or Vittorio Sereni, Eshelman’s Vallejo, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, Alistair Reid’s Borges, Edwin Morgan’s Sandor Weöres or Morgan’s anyone, in fact, Robert Garioch’s Giuseppe Belli … And wonderful translations into English by translators who are not poets outside of their translation work – Felstiner’s Celan, Galassi’s Montale. Jennie Feldman’s Jacques Réda …

Isn’t all this enough? What more do you want? The danger in English is always a tendency towards a too ready assimilation of an unmediated or insufficiently mediated otherness, where translation becomes a kind of world music, a licence to sample unthinkingly and to imagine that that sampling is a substitute for genuine engagement. I think poetry is richer the more genuinely curious poets are, and that means, among other things, engaging with translation as readers or, ideally, as practitioners. In conclusion let me offer two encounters from Poetry magazine’s special issue devoted to translation (March 2012). The first is that between Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine and Marina Tsvetaeva. The translator’s commentary returns us to the domain of uncertainty where this essay began, and is in effect a kind of hymn to that uncertainty, to unachievement, hesitancy, the realisation that translation is a partial gesture, always a note towards something rather than an absolute statement:

… we do not claim to have translated Tsvetaeva. If translation, as most translators are eager to claim, is “a closest possible reading,” then it is not translation, it is notation, midrash: to translate is to inhabit. The meaning of the word eros is to stand outside of one’s body. This we do not claim to have achieved. (We wish we could, one day!) No, we are simply two poets who fell in love with a third and spent two years reading her together. These are fragments, notes in the margin. (Erase everything you have written, Mandelstam says, but keep the notes in the margin.)

The second encounter is a poem of Quevedo’s, “Amor constante más allá de la muerte” as interpreted by John Mathias. He describes it as “more of a trespass than a translation”, a homage to the baroque master, but even if it falls outside the realm of translation it offers a wonderful example of a conversation across languages and time:

After Quevedo

In memory of Octavio Paz
not even lost in death the memory
of why we burned, and therefore still
a fire consuming all obsequious delay,
now polvo, dust, of a desire but still alive

          and aching, not even lost to you
within our common urn, urgent as an ash
still burning alma, soul, still
and moving toward you, la muerte, my amor ‑

          not even lost in death, memoria,
and feeling some reply, alma, memory and ash,
ash burning still, still
and moving toward you, dust and dust, ash

alma and amor constante
allá de la muerte, constant

even in our common urn, polvo enamorado.


Peter Sirr lives in Dublin where he works as a freelance writer and teacher. He teaches a course in literary translation for the Translation Centre in Trinity College, Dublin. His most recent collections of poems are Sway, Versions of Poems from the Troubadour Tradition (Gallery Press, 2016) and The Rooms, (Gallery, 2014), shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award and the Pigott Poetry Prize. The Thing Is, published by Gallery Press in 2009, was awarded the Michael Hartnett Prize in 2011. The Gallery Press has also published Marginal Zones (1984), Talk, Talk (1987), Ways of Falling (1991), The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange (1995), Bring Everything (2000), Selected Poems and Nonetheless (both 2004). A novel for children, Black Wreath, was published by O’Brien Press in 2014. He is a member of Aosdána.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Calista McRae’s 2015 essay on John Berryman, “I Am An Automobile”. Here is an extract:

The Dream Songs baffled, charmed and irritated its first readers. Robert Lowell’s early review ended in a rare admission of semi-appreciative bewilderment: “How often one chafes at the relentless indulgence, and cannot tell the what or why of a passage. And yet one must give in.” Spoken by an imaginary character named Henry, whose turbulent life often follows Berryman’s closely, the sequence describes problems with alcohol, marital fidelity, insomnia, an onslaught of bills, the suicide of a father, an alternating fear of and desire for death. The Dream Songs both made and circumscribed Berryman’s reputation: it won him recognition and a number of major awards, and it was taken by many readers as a straight transcription of his own thoughts and plights.

In a July 1967 issue of LIFE magazine, for example, Berryman is photographed repeatedly, holding forth in a pub in Dublin; the beard is on prominent display. “Whisky and ink, whisky and ink. These are the fluids John Berryman needs,” the accompanying profile begins. Soon it tells us that “His consumption of alcohol is prodigious and so is his writing.” While doing so it falls into a tradition, already congealing by the late sixties, of focusing somewhat gleefully and unreflectively on Berryman’s self-destructive tendencies. (Berryman himself played into his role as poète maudit, later echoing the whisky-and-ink cadence in a cartoonishly drunken couplet: “Madness & booze, madness & booze. / Which’ll can tell who preceded whose?”)

Berryman’s fame arrived a few years after ML Rosenthal coined the term “confessional” in a review of Robert Lowell’s 1959 volume Life Studies. Rosenthal himself later expressed misgivings about the term’s use, admitting that “very possibly the conception of a confessional school has by now done a certain amount of damage”. The term has furthered readings that reduce poems to unfiltered, exhibitionistic utterances: Life Studies as autobiography produced while Lowell was involuntarily confined to one mental hospital, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel as something similar to the patient histories she transcribed when working as a secretary in the psychiatric division of another.

While such conflations have become less common for other midcentury American poets, they have persisted for Berryman. “Maudlin” is one word frequently used of him; “egotistical” is another. One writer called The Dream Songs nothing but alcohol-fuelled emoting, saying that the poems “slide sideways into intellectualizing, pride, boredom, talk, obfuscation, self-pity and resentment”. Although such a summing-up is harsh and extreme, it has been echoed by a number of established readers. Harold Bloom, for example, has dismissed Berryman as a poet championed by critics who “like their American poets to be suicidal, mentally ill, and a touch unruly”. The cover on a recent edition of Berryman’s Selected Poems (that of Faber’s 2007 volume) is of six emptied shot glasses, stacked, tilting, on a table that shades off into dark blue; the glasses continue the representation seen in LIFE’s photos of the poet gesticulating at a pub.



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