Monday, May 31, 2010

Jessica Goodfellow on Clocks and Chronospecies

“species: empty:” is the 18th of 30 poems in a cycle about a marriage. Both it and “clock: rules:” describe a period in the marriage when one partner has left temporarily and is incommunicado, and the other partner is in the unenviable state of waiting, but not sure for what.

One constraint I imposed on the cycle was that the title of each poem be two words: the first word being the second word of the previous poem’s title, and the second word being the first word of the title of the subsequent poem. This constraint had some unintended consequences. In particular, I reached the 18th poem and found that I had run out of things to write about species, having paid scant attention during biology courses in school. Consequently, I wrote a clumsy poem and moved on, ignoring the problem as much as possible.

When I had nearly completed the cycle and could no longer avoid the 18th poem, I was still flummoxed. I considered going through the 17th poem and finding a different keyword to put in its title, thus releasing myself from the necessity of thinking any further about species. But remembering the Paul Valery quote (as attributed by Reginald Gibbons), “poets are those to whom the difficulty of writing gives ideas, not those from whom it takes them away,” I started researching the meaning of species (with a heavy sigh, I might add).

When I found the definition of chronospecies, I saw that it fit into the cycle on at least two levels. First, since “clock: rules:”, the 22nd poem, was written chronologically before “species: empty:” due to the problems mentioned above, I knew the cycle was headed towards a consideration of timepieces. A clock is an instrument that measures the passing of time, and so a species is a clock, but really, I can’t think of many things that aren’t. Second, the missing marital partner has returned to the ancestral home in what feels to the left-behind partner like a turf war between allegiances and families, between the eras of childhood and adulthood, between hometown and current home, a schism strong enough to suggest even a difference in species across inhabitants of those times and places, even when one inhabitant is the same being.

It is easy to connect the dots between clocks and rules, between the calculations of time and the laws of nature. But since “clock: rules:” is more about waiting than about timepieces, I began to wonder about the rules of waiting: who makes them, and can they be broken, and if so, to whose advantage. The suspended state of waiting seems both continuous and endless, and yet the concurrent passage of time, as measured in hours and minutes, seems to be disjointed, ruptured. The list-like form of these poems I hope captures that tension.

My sincere thanks to the Beloit Poetry Journal for publishing these poems.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Nan Watkins on Translating Yvan Goll

The two poems of Yvan Goll’s that appear in the Spring 2010 issue of the BPJ are from his last manuscript, in German, called Traumkraut or Dreamweed. They are the inventions of a patient lying in European hospital wards, fighting the incurable leukemia that was diagnosed in New York in 1945 but would not take his life until 1950, in the American Hospital in Neuilly, near Paris.

I first came across Goll’s work when a friend showed me English translations of a few poems. Then I read Galway Kinnell's very beautiful translation, from the French, of Goll's Lackawanna Elegy. Goll was Alsatian and bilingual in French and German. I see translation as an act of liberation: freeing a work from the box, the prison, of one language and giving it life in another. Hence my desire to liberate Goll's work into English.

Goll specifically chose to write the fifty poems that comprise the volume Traumkraut in German rather than in French. The poems inhabit a world of fever, pain, lament, and finally tenderness and love. Goll becomes obsessed with a "Traumkraut," a strange hallucinatory plant that gives him a kind of "new birth" to confront his fatal illness. Immediately from the neologism of the title, the translator is confronted with finding an equivalent expression in English. "Traum" means "dream," and "Kraut" can mean "cabbage," "herb," "plant," "weed." The German word for weed is "Unkraut," so I decide to couple the English "dream" with "weed," thus preserving the rhythm and assonance of the German title as well as the paradoxical sense of the undesireable, the unwanted, linked with dream. Curiously, some earlier writers had used the term "Dream Grass," but since Goll refers to his Traumkraut's bloom and flower in various poems, I have rejected that translation.

Some of these same problems of "non-existent" words and compound nouns occur in the poem "Rosedom" as well. German has the creative facility of forging words together to make strong new compounds, but English is shy of that. In my translation of the many new compounds in "Rosedom," I want to retain the idea of a single word, rather than separate words, i.e., moon rose, so I hyphenate the English words to become moon-rose, brain-rose, etc. Somehow it does not work for me without the hyphens. Flowers and roses are a favorite metaphor for Goll, so it is a stunning reversal for him to include such harsh and negative imagery in the poem ("unrose," "raves in fevered fields," "blazes for the roseless").

English is a Germanic language, so when I seek word choices for these poems, I invariably begin with those with Germanic roots: In "Rosentum," for instance, the second line reads: "Die in Tierköpfen brennt," For "Tier" I choose the word "beasts" rather than "animals," both for its alliteration with "burns" and for the stronger monosyllable. In line 4, I want to convey the meaning, but also Goll's push of language, so "Aus Schädeln geschädelt," becomes "Skinned from skulls."

"Old Men" is Goll's glimpse of the dying men around him in the hospital ward, as well as the hint that he knows he is becoming one of those men. I try to use the force of monosyllables and the crunch of consonants to convey the harshness of the scene.