I was teaching my poetry writing class at Mohawk college about alternate translation techniques and we discussed homophonic translation. I brought in a poem in German by Rilke and we set to 'translating' it.
For me, when using homophonic translation, it's possible to maintain the constraint of the original sound of the poem strictly, not allowing the poem to veer from the original phonemes. However, it's also possible to use the sounds and the associations of the words as a starting point, as a way of generating raw material which can then be revised.
I thought it might be interesting to post the original German stanza and then the various generations of edits stemming from this original, as I worked to create a working independent poem.
Seeing the various versions here, makes me think that I'd like to consider them all as stanzas of a longer poem—a series of variations with a kind of villanelle-like echo. I'll get back to you on that if I'm able to make something of the whole.
Homophonic translation of a stanza of Rilke
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehen der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Sign black is come to stab my eyes
so muddy and wordy, that the night stops me
It is obsessed with a thousand stabs
and winter stabs our world with bitter kindness
Black sky comes to stab my eyes
and wordy the night stops
I’m obsessed with these thousand stabs
for winter stabs our world with its bitter kindness
The black sky stabs my eyes
The warden, so angry, the night stops
I’m obsessed: it must be a thousand stabs
And winter stabs our world with its bitter kindness
windows break the eyes
fracture into night
a thousand stars
winter with its bitter kindness
I was asked to write a brief commentary about a piece of mine for an anthology engaging with our contemporary notion of animals. In my poem, deer and chairs are conflated. The following is brief, and, by the ending, fulminating, response.
I think about how our modern notion of what is 'other' blurs inanimate objects with animals and vice versa. For much of culture, outside the hospitable firecircle of the human, the light fades quickly, only a few animals allowed as pets or as marvellous outliers of the non-human to sit by us. (And this not to mention, the humans we leave out in the cold, which is another discussion.)
I have the idea that much of modern culture places animals into the same category as robots or other automatons-- task-accomplishing machines with only the illusion of agency and/or emotion.
Since the animal is commodified in the way of the inanimate, it is easy to place it in the same category as these other emotion-simulation machines.
But, further, we even look on our other non- objects with such love, intimacy, and affection. They may as well as living beings that we love. Our emotional connection, our heartaching being-longing for our shoes, toasters, chairs, designer table is often so palpable and powerful, that the categories between animate and in-animate often begin to blur.
And though our toaster doesn't have agency, we may feel that we love it like a non-human living thing. In the past, they gave names to swords that they loved. Names to ships. Now we feel some of our objects pass into our emotionally intimate world. How different is a deer leaping over the fence into the garden than a sullen, left-slouching shed, a silent chair, innocent and blinkless, forlorn, discovered in early morning in the shadow by the hedge?
This is the capitalist non-human spirit world. We are like consumer shamans, surrounded by the non-human ghosts of things we may love and own.
Chair. Coffeemaker. Car. Horse. Deer. Swallow.
They are more than arbitrary linguistic categories. We are able to colonize the animals and objects of the world with our tenderness, our hunger, our desire.
There was a call for visual work for banners on King William St. in Hamilton. I submitted these visual poems entitled "Quantum Punctuation (Speech)." They were selected and will be on display until some time in 2015. They are just across the street from the main police station at the south east corner of King William St and Mary St.
This is my first experience of having work as 'public art.' Interesting to see these images become part of the urban landscape. Perhaps one day, I'll hang around and see if anyone says anything about them. Maybe they'll just say, "Who's that strange guy hanging around listening to everyone?"
I have been creating numerous visual poems that engage with the visual traditions of a variety of indigenous cultures. For example, the distinctive black and red designs of traditional West Coast Canadian Native art (e.g. the Salish and Tlingit peoples.) These poems explore the visual connection between the Hebrew or Roman alphabet and these traditions.
Both of these alphabets have been part of my visual culture since childhood. I learned of some Canadian Native visual traditions when I moved as a child to Canada.
Is this engagement with Native traditions appropriation of voice? Are my explorations with elements of these traditions usurping what would better be left for Native artists? (I should state, that though I am riffing off elements of these Native art traditions, I'm not actually recreating it.)
I don't feel that I'm speaking for Native artists or, indeed, speaking about their experience. My exploration comes from a deep respect and delight in these traditions. I believe that art is deeply syncretic. I feel that these traditions are very strong and my explorations in the very marginal world of visual poetry, don't appropriate in the way, say, Elvis eclipsed some of the African American songs which he adapted, at least as far as mainstream, popular culture.) It would be like me trying to knock down a mountain with a feather.
I consider my explorations a means of uncovering the inherent design potential in language, but more importantly, how the elements of language are open signifiers, are carriers of culture as well as tools for looking and thinking that culture.
Simply put, language shapes our vision, therefore, by expanding our use of language, we can expand our vision.
Written language helps us look, helps us see. Making marks is about seeing. About uncovering. Making a map and then exploring it.
Further, to paraphrase Trevor Owen, the alphabet is not only an information technology but is also an interaction technology. I enter into a dialogue with these traditions, though, as this little note indicates, with trepidation and an awareness of my share in colonial guilt, or at least, my white privilege.
How do the tools that I know square with other visions of the world? How can I enter a dialogue with other traditions? Can the tools that I know teach me? I explore the tools and the tools lead me. Can I discover non-Eurocentric ways of seeing in the alphabetic traditions that I've received? Are there more than one way of reading these letters? What do other people bring to the reading of these alphabets? How does the normative way of reading the alphabet lead to a certain kind of thinking?
I remember being very struck, when I visited Iceland, that that island had no native peoples. The European Icelanders were it. They didn't settle an island that was already populated by an indigenous population, unlike in nearby Greenland, Canada, or Scandinavia. I found it hard to imagine a place that had no Native people.
I wonder how exactly, as a non-Native Canadian, my visual landscape is shaped by my experience of indigenous traditions? Indeed, more generally, how is my view of the world shaped by my knowledge and awareness of Native culture and its history in Canada and elsewhere? How does my language and its alphabet (and my experience with the Hebrew alphabet) shape me and locate me in the world? How can I detourn it to enter into new conversations?
When I was a child, my parents possessed only a few books of poetry. They’d moved to Northern Ireland in the early sixties and I was born there. We moved to Canada in the middle of The Troubles. Yeats. Halevi. And some books by Seamus Heaney. North. Death of a Naturalist. Wintering Out.
I first discovered North and was mesmerized by its small perfect blueness. The stylized Viking boat on the cover. I learned that my dad was at Queen’s University the same time as Heaney and remembered him. Our neighbours did, too.
As a young teen Heaney, was the most important teacher in my singing school. I revelled in the loamy richness of his words. To lean into language and what it could do. The intensity of sound. The peatiness of heard relations between words or their bright metal. Subtle rhymes. The line, like an eel in a basket of eels, amazed itself. The form, beaten into a shine. Or seemingly discovered.
And what unusual words, unearthed from the word-hoard could do. Rich. Resonant. Strange, yet Antaeus-grounded. The world is always a dialect of itself. History is etymology. A bog which transforms and preserves. Which makes myth. Keep your eye clear as the bleb of icicle. Trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.
My father was a gynaecologist, not exactly the rural farmer-father of Heaney. But I understood that when Heaney talked about land, he spoke about the land that we walked through. Traveled out to: its strands, fields, mountains, meadows, and fields. This wasn’t the out-of-focus misty-eyed Ireland of romance, but, as the words showed me, the bog-rich, palpable, visceral world. And it had its own stories.
I learned to listen to the words as words. I remember Heaney at York University reading the names of Irish towns. Speaking about the names in the fishing reports. (And I remembered that music from my childhood, and my new-learned music of names on late night CBC radio.) The specifics of one’s voice. That thick Ulster, the boy’s version which I used to have. Language, emotion, life, land and culture were snug together.
But I also learned about social engagement. When my father remembered Heaney, it was to recall him standing up at a student meeting and deliver an impassioned speech. The Troubles entered Heaney’s poems. Memory. Culture. Language. How poems expressed and investigated. Troubled. Thought and sang.
And our ethical engagement, our understanding of the world was rooted in both time and space. History and culture. Our myths, legends, and stories. In our language. Language, feeling, thought. And poetry: both tool and pleasure.
So thank-you and rest in piece, famous Seamus. History, the earth and the language receive you. I hope they treat you as well as you treated them.