This essay “The Edge Between: Chapbooks caught in the Translation Game” appeared in a special issue of Verse (Vol 24) on French Poetry & Poetics.
I’m surrounded by chapbooks – so many that I hardly know what to do with them. They get lost on bookshelves, disappear in filing cabinets, vanish in stacks of papers and magazines.
Yet they persist. I receive at least 5 of them in the mail each month. (I have come to treat them like correspondence – a letter to be responded to, in due time.) The slivery place they occupy in the poetry world here in the U.S. (is chapbook culture as big elsewhere as it is here?) represents a between. Not to get too Derrida, but chapbooks really are between books and loose pages of manuscript. They are thought bubbles that appear and disappear (they always seem to reappear); they resist easy categorization and filing systems. (Are they more retrievable if filed by poet, or by press? Should they be italicized, or put in quotes?)
So much has been written about the glorious between of translation:
“The translator preserves something of the original with a gesture made out of another language. The original is veiled, but it doesn’t disappear.” (Forrest Gander)
“Translation makes poetry strange. Poetry makes language strange. I never set out to become a poet, but I was writing and it was strange and so then it was poetry.” (Sawako Nakayasu)
“The text that is presented is the enactment of two language experiences becoming one. Fusion. Verging and blending, post-binary blurring of overcoded infrastructure.” (Norma Cole)
All of the above quotes come from a document assembled by poet and chapbook press artist Jerrold Shiroma called “Towards a Foreign Likeness Bent.” (download available at: http://www.durationpress.com/poetics/translation.htm). The essays in this document point towards the question: So, what really happens when two languages (bodies, or forms) collide into poetic awareness? Basically, the appearance of a poem (or experience) that would not have existed otherwise. Poetry is one of the few translatable genres where the gap of translation (décalage) is allowed to remain gloriously open. Not firm believers in singular meanings, poetry’s readers are, for the most part, comfortable with a poem that exists between two languages.
But the chapbook doesn’t seem to incite our theoretical imagination with such clarity, or such critical sexiness. Yet, it all comes together here, now. I am surrounded by chapbooks, all of which happen to be translations.
The conversation these between books are having is loud – it’s incredible that I never noticed it before now. All, in a plurality of ways, chart the terrain of what happens at the edge between language and thinking. Meaning, they all represent the tenuous attempt towards articulation, towards narrative, towards the revelation of an experience that happens only in the mind. In other words, towards poetry – and most acutely, towards translation. They are all poems that seem in full knowledge of their future as an act of translation. And appearing as they do in chapbook form, they are making me think about chapbooks as themselves a form – of translation.
I am interested in questions that only poets are asking. Such questions seem located in these titles, which emphasize the between in its many manifestations. Valérie-Catherine Richez’s chapbook, This Nowhere Where has a hot pink cover and block graffiti type – yet, it exists nowhere but here between writing and film. (Have you ever been there?) It reads like blocking instructions for mental images, the words moving the mind as if narrating a sequence of images that are happening beyond, or outside, of the poem itself.
“Sometimes the day associated with itself. Simple gestures of peace (all houses are once in the heart of the sky), like two rays cross and intertwine. And this region remained inhabited for quite some time.”
At times the words cellurize into an image; other times they don’t. What’s left is a linger – there is a relationship, but between whom? Over what? The book’s question might be, “can you touch me if I am made only of language?”
This is question that Marie Borel’s Close Quote also happens (it would seem) to be asking. Again the cues are coming from narrative, from cinema. Again the subtext (the movie that is happening behind the narration) seems to be about love. Again the skimming along the surface of language, that in it’s refusal to commit to a singular narrative, resonates with profound depth. In Borel’s writing, this skimming along the surface of language is hilarious. Witty. The edge where we find ourselves mis-communicating with another person, fallen into the gap.
“Any imbecile can stick his head in the sand, but nobody knows what the ostrich sees. I looked for something I had lost. Indeed I spend much of my time looking. Things don’t always turn out what they are. I don’t know why.”
Nobody knows what the ostrich sees!
In this chapbook, Borel has done a R. Waldropian cut up of multiple texts, including journal excerpts. The jamming together of these multiple points of reference happen on the edge between writing and visual art. If you’re looking for meaning, keep your eye on the edge, the places where the tape encounters the collage, the place where the pieces of text are attached together. And through this splicing comes the wonderful hair-thread of a story, an internal monologue that is constantly being interrupted. A question this book seems to be asking: “Here is a point. Here is what is outside a point. Where am I? Where are you?”
And yet, it is Isabelle Garron, in Face Before Against, who is playing with points. Punctuation marks – periods and dashes to be exact — carry the weight of words.
Now on their backgrounds
. the ancient masters speak
– before my eyes
tongues made of roots
This chapbook takes the other two and chisels away at them. The epigraph is a description of materials for a Louise Bourgeois piece: “Untitled, 1991 / ink and charcoal on blue paper / burnt, 21.5 x 27.9 cm” Following the epigraph, the poems themselves become ink on paper – and the images they conjure, often accidentally, are a realization of the poem itself. This is a work of exprhasis – the pronounced encounter between painting and poem – and it is done with an attention to form, not description. But manifesting form allows the art works that the poems are mediating to come into view. Exphrasis – yet another kind of translation. The question that this chapbook might be asking: “in facing the abstraction of ink and charcoal on paper, what is the equal form in language?”
There are many forms of translation – the chapbook in its nebulous zone between manuscript and book; exphrasis in its wavering back and forth between image and word; and the poem itself that exists between genres, or between mental states.
Translation: Walking the edge between the “things” of this world and the “game” of language. So who are these ethereal people? The ones who put themselves between themselves and the poet they are translating? These translators, all themselves, who are writers? Keith Waldrop, Sarah Riggs, Michael Tweed.
And how about the invisible people who produce, year after year, these chapbooks? These publishers who are themselves, writers? John Yau and Black Square Editions, Guy Bennett and Seeing Eye Books, Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop and Serie d’Ecriture.
These are the people that only the ostrich sees.
This essay discusses:
Marie Borel. Close Quote. Translated by Keith Waldrop. Serie d’Ecriture #4, 2003.
Isabelle Garron. Face Before Against. Translated by Sarah Riggs. Seeing Eye Books, 2004.
Valérie-Catherine Richez. This Nowhere Where. Translated by Michael Tweed. Black Square Editions, 2004.
 Brent Hayes Edwards writes that translation is “décalage” – that is, work within “a difference or gap in time or in space.” (The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism, Harvard UP).