Mostly, I Like Sitting Still

January 10, 2010 at 5:28 pm (Book Reviews Yum) (, , )

So many things to read . . . and to read about reading, and to mull over, reread, and re-reread. More than one famous author did not read much–Nabokov said something to the effect of finding most novelists, save for Flaubert, not measuring up, not worth his time. I-know-I-know, he may have read other things, but Nabokov and his particular habits are not the point. A writer named Francis Wyndham is the point. Reading about Francis Wyndham in a recent issue of Bookforum is the main point.

Like Nabokov, I do not read everything.:) [Hmm…”like Nabokov, I . . . ”  there’s a comparison I never thought I would be making.] However, I am pleased that I decided to read an unpresuming-looking review in the Summer 2009 issue of Bookforum. The reviewer is Peter Terzian, and the reviewed is The Complete Fiction by Francis Wyndham. The review is entitled English Patience: Francis Wyndham waited nearly thirty years to publish his first book of stories and my two favorite quotes from the review are:

a. “I believe that a lot of writers write too much,” Wyndham has said.

[something tells me Wyndham is not blogger material; and I am in the seat right next to him]

b.  “Mostly he [Wyndam] likes ‘sitting still.'”

[again, I say dibs on the next “sitting still” seat]

Which is exactly what the accompanying photo of Wyndham suggests One couldn’t very accurately call the picture a portrait: Wyndham’s head takes up only the lower left-hand quadrant of the whole, the rest is taken up with a dark railing, and the shadows of the railing, and some blurry-dim squares of light (it’s got to be England) that just-might-be windows. He’s not looking anywhere in particular; he doesn’t even look like he’s daydreaming. He looks like someone who is thinking about the ham sandwich he will make. At some point. Today, or the next.

“Francis Wyndham”–I believe the name rang a vague, distant bell when I first flipped the page to the review. Who knows why I took the plunge (well, I’m always attracted to someone who “waited” till the twilight years before publishing/being published). But tickled I am because Peter Terzian in highlighting what he does about Wyndham has made my sense of things so perfectly manifest that I feel less alone. I may not ever read any of Wyndham’s writing (that is not the point); then again, I may–after I raid the refrigerator, or take a bath, or sit and gaze out the window, doing nothing but being.

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Which one, Akhmatova?

January 8, 2010 at 4:05 am (Poetry) (, )

Palaces; or Mansions—

One of Anna Akhmatova’s poems in her collection White Flock begins —

We don’t know how to say good-bye–

We keep wandering arm in arm.

and ends two quatrains later:

And with your walking stick you’ll outline palaces

Where we will be together always.

At least this is the way Judith Hemschemeyer translates it in her gray-covered collection of Akhmatova translations (2000).

Stanley Kunitz (with Max Hayward), says the four lines this way:

We don’t know how to say good-bye:

we wander on, shoulder to shoulder.

and two stanzas later:

That stick in your hand is tracing mansions

in which we shall always be together.

Four short lines of a twelve line poem – yet what small, vast differences*** they contain.

The notion, the acknowledgment, that translation is an act of creation, itself–is, in essence, writing a new poem–is not a new notion. I know the concept; it makes sense to me. But when I am confronted with two “different” utterances** that are the same thing (or, rather, from the same mother-poem, mother-voice), it jolts me: I have read enough Akhmatova over the years to feel like I could claim a certain comfortableness, like a neighbor whose weekly habits, whose distant voice calling the dog, are familiar to me; I know her. Her moods, her style; her tone. Her colloquy. And, yet, these two versions sound like two different people talking. Because they are. And I realize I do not know Akhmatova; I have never really read her. But I’ve caught the trail of a breeze, know the corner of her scarf.

***Three examples of vast difference between Hemschemeyer’s and Kunitz’s “Akhmatova”:

a) In Hemschemeyer, we have a dash after the “good-bye” of the first line: goodbye– In Kunitz, we have a colon:  goodbye: For what it’s worth, Akhamtova has a comma and a dash after the last word of the first line, which I will not attempt to reproduce; I cannot even be certain that word that looks like English letters tipped upside down and/or turned backwards is the Russian equivalent of “goodbye”; maybe the Russian pattern of talking this thought is “Goodbye we do not know how to say.” (Oh, probably not; I’m just admitting/describing my level of ignorance here).

b) The syntax of the last line: Kunitz’s “in which we shall always be together” sounds more natural to me. Hemschemeyer’s “Where we will be together always” seems more formal, of an earlier time. But perhaps Kunitz’s treatment would hit Akhmatova’s own, early twentieth century ear wrong. Like a nouveau version of a Frost line: “Whose woods are these, anyway?”

c) “Mansions” / “Palaces”: each has its pleasures. In the context of the sentence’s meaning, both appeal to me in ethereal ways; the “mansion” is not one of the stuffy, ostentatious mansions of Beverly Hills; the “palace” is not flat and boxy-Buckingham-Palace-like (note how my examples are about as far from Russia as you can get; I have never been to Russia).

The “Palace” feels more pointy. In an interesting way, visually.

I’d vote for the word “tracing” over “outline.”

“Tracing palaces” sounds better than “Tracing mansions.”

And “outlining palaces” would be too much of a mouthful.

However, a “mansion” strikes me as less outline-able. Something more amorphous than a palace. Or less interesting to outline. On the other hand, “mansions” sounds like something we can claim/not claim, both at the same time; I can hold it, not hold it. And something of this paradoxical sensibility – this reaching after the impossible – hovers in the background of both lines. A translation is also an act of tracing. Tracing the mansion of sound-shape-idea-perspective-attitude-tone that the original poem becomes inside the body (which includes, but is not limited to, the brain) of the translator.

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Paul Celan

January 7, 2010 at 1:53 am (Poetry) (, , )

A long (long) time ago, I read, or tried to read, some poems by Paul Celan. I didn’t “get” them; I failed to slip through the crack of the light at the center of them. I was young. And I don’t remember . . . .And, maybe they were the wrong translation.

Recently, what tipped me back towards and into Celan’s words are the lovely, troubling, translucent “handlings” by Jack Hirschman in the September/October 2008 issue of the American Poetry Review:

Bolt the door: There
are roses in the house.
There are
seven roses in the house.
There is
the seven-branched candle in the house.
knows it and sleeps.

So begins Hirschman’s moving rendition of Celan’s long work “Wolfsbane,” which is, at its heart, a lovesong and a mourning-song to the poet’s mother. (Among other things, I love how Celan pushes words together to make new language, and though spellcheck chides me otherwise, I will keep “lovesong” as one.)

Mother, I’ve written
Mother, no response arrived.
Mother, there was only one answer.
Mother, I’ve written
letters to—
Mother, they write poems.
Mother, they didn’t write them . . .

Celan’s phrases still me. In the center.

He, an only child whose parents were taken in the night and eventually murdered in a German camp.

Paul Celan: for years, I had mistakenly thought of him as French; he was Romanian.

Reading Celan’s poems in APR led me, as reading stray poems in a journal always does, to track down books. Luckily, the library I haunt has many wonderful books of (and on) Celan.

The ones I have read, so far, are

Last Poems, by Paul Celan, translated by Katharine Washburn and Margret Guillemin. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986.

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew  by John Felstiner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth, by Israel Chalfen. New York: Persea, 1991.

Other books that are currently sleeping in various places in my house (though they belong to the library):

Word Traces: Reading of Paul Celan, edited by Aris Fioretos. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994.

Poems of Paul Celan by Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger.  New York: Persea, 1988.

Breathturn by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995.

There are a couple of other ones, too, but “Sun & Moon” is un-toppable, I think, in the “great names for poetry presses” category. So, I will stop here. Besides, I am a little bit embarrassed to reveal the extent of my monopolization of the collection of all things “Celan.”

Poems. Translations. Libraries. The library of the house. The library of the heart. The heart-house, heart-home that a book is. Thank you, Paul Celan.

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