“Translating Is Pulling at the Teats of Literature”
Here’s an experiment (I am an “experimental” poet, quand meme!) Back in my scuffling days I translated a tiny batch of poems by Pierre Reverdy. Execrable, my French. Lazy, my ass. I “did” an independent study with a man named Ephim Fogel, a large and rather off-putting man, though I couldn’t say exactly why, something fierce about him, intimidating, sour, though he did, after all, kindly agree to work with me. I think I barely discuss’d my shabby clutch of Reverdy’s (I stuck to the tiniest “cubist” lyrics, avoiding the prose). Expeditious, my ploy. (Undoubtedly I’d finagled the independent study to replace credits lost through failing another course, likely that Bloomsbury one with the overly punitive not to say S / M professor?) Renovating, my memory. Why Reverdy? Because Ron Padgett’d written a poem call’d “Reading Reverdy” and put it in Great Balls of Fire? Shit-eating, my grin. Is that it? What about Frank O’Hara’s “My heart is in my / pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy”? Or is that “merely” the reason Ron Padgett commenced to reading Reverdy and wrote that poem?
Reading ReverdyNot my prefer’d Padgett poem, I’d never say that. Though I liked the idea of writing “reading” and I liked the stringing (up) together of tiny units. Today something like “The half-erased words on the wall of bread” reminds me of Charles Simic of a couple of years later, or the knockoffs of that “era”’s Simic (and boy, there were plenty!) even later than that. Which is the kind of funny thing unperturb’d time “does,” screwing around with memory and sequence: no reading the same “Reading Reverdy” twice. Today I rather attune myself to the ricochet-syntax of “She looks like and at her.”
The wind that went through the head left it plural.
The half-erased words on the wall of bread.
Someone is grinding the color of ears.
She looks like and at her.
A child draws a man and the earth
Is covered with snow.
He comes down out of the night
When the hills fall.
The line part of you goes out to infinity.
I get up on top of an inhuman voice.
Anyhow, my experiment. I dug out my copy of Plupart du temps, I: 1915-1922, lovely little Poésie / Gallimard pocket-sized edition, manufactured prior to the turn to yellowish newsprint. It contains the Poèmes en Prose that Padgett’s work’d up in the new Prose Poems (Black Square Editions / The Brooklyn Rail, 2007), Pierre Reverdy’s first book. I translated two rapidly-select’d pieces without looking into the Padgett. Here’s one:
Bruits de NuitHere’s the other:
Au moment où les chevaux passaient, la suspension trembla. Le plafond menaçait de se pencher à droite, contre nos têtes; mais les fenêtres restaient d’aplomb avec le ciel, et l’on voyait le paysage nocturne.
Il n’y avait plus de hiboux dans les ruines, plus de rayon de lune parmi les arbres, mais une cheminée d’usine et—autour—des maisons dont les toits avaient l’air de grandir.
Et les chevaux—dont on entendait les pas précipités—transportaient dans la nuit complice des fourgons de mort en métal.
Just when the horses went by, the foundation shook. The ceiling threatened to lean right, right against our heads, but the windows stayed plumb against the sky, and we saw the nightscape.
No more owls in the ruins, no more moonlight through the trees, only one factory smokestack and—around about—houses whose roofs seemed to grow bigger.
And the horses—whose quick hoofbeats we heard—dragged along with the complicity of night the clanking carriers of the dead.
NocturneOkay. Rush’d, and larking a tinch. (Larking, my weakness.) Now to examine the Padgett translations:
La rue est toute noire et la saison n’a pas laissé de traces. J’aurais voulu sortir et l’on retient ma porte. Pourtant là-haut quelqu’un veille et la lampe est éteinte.
Tandis que les becs de gaz ne sont plus que des ombres, les affiches se poursuivent le long des palissades. Écoute, l’on n’entend le pas d’aucun cheval. Cependant un cavalier géant court sur une danseuse et tout se perd en tournant derrière un terrain vague. La nuit seule connaît l’endroit où ils se réunissent. Dès le matin ils auront revêtu leurs couleurs éclatantes. A présent tout se tait. Le ciel cligne des yeux et la lune se cache entre les cheminées. Les agents muets et sans rien voir maintiennent l’ordre.
The street’s completely black and the season’s left no trace. I’d’ve liked to go out and someone slammed my door. Plus, someone up there’s doing surveillance and the light’s out.
As long as the streetlights stay dark, the show posters’ll continue down the length of the fence. Listen: there’s not the hoofbeat of a single horse. Even so, an enormous cavalier runs off after a dancer and everything ends up pell-mell turning behind an empty lot. Only night knows the rendezvous spot. By morning they’ll’ be dressed again in the usual explosive colors. For now, everything stops. The sky shuts its eyes and the moon hides behind the chimneys. Mute cops who see nothing maintain order.
Night SoundsA couple of boners, natch. Scanning Padgett’s remarks about translating Reverdy, I note two things. He writes (encountering Reverdy’s work in France in 1965) “I loved its austerity, its spookiness, and what I imagined to be its cubism.”If there’s an obvious first failure to my experiment, it’s in choosing the spooky over the austere. (I like that “imagined to be its cubism.” For thirty years, say, I have heard people talk about Reverdy as a “cubist” poet, and for thirty years I have inwardly reject’d that as buncombe. Due to my total ability to fathom what it could possibly mean.) Too, Padgett notes (usefully) that “Reverdy was a modernist, but he was not one for giving effects.” So: “silent policemen,” not “mute cops.” So, the necessary humility of the translator. So, a note I made earlier in the evening—“Isn’t that what translating is for, to “get up on top of an inhuman voice”?—may need a dressing down.
Just as the horses went by, the ceiling lamp shook. The ceiling threatened to tilt to the right, against our heads, but the windows remained plumb with the sky and you saw the nocturnal countryside.
There were no more owls in the ruins, no more moonbeams along the trees, but a factory chimney and—all around—the houses whose roofs seemed to get bigger.
And the horses, whose quick hoofs were heard, were pulling the metal trailers for corpses through the conspiring night.
The street is completely dark and the season has left no trace. I would have liked to have gone out and my door was held. Nevertheless up there someone is up late and the lamp is out.
When the gas jets are just shadows, the posters follow each other along the fence. Listen, you hear not one horse. Nevertheless a giant horseman races along on a dancing woman and it’s all lost turning behind an empty lot. Only the night knows the place where they are reunited. First thing in the morning they will be dressed again in their bright colors. Right now everything is quiet. The sky blinks and the moon is hiding between the chimneys. The silent policemen maintain order and see nothing.