where all the ladders start
November 28, 2012

“Now that my ladder’s gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” – from “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” by W. B. Yeats

For the 2 weeks of vacation that French schools have for All Saint’s Day, I took the train an hour south to Paris and spent time living and working at Shakespeare and Company, a little literary, anglophone bubble just across the river from Notre Dame. It is impossible to spend any amount of time in this shop without meeting extremely talented people who are passionate about reading and writing, and so living there is essentially a constant motivation to write (or to at least appear to do so). One of my fellow Tumbleweeds was Pat Cash, spoken word artist, journalist, and all-around lovely person. I also had the extreme pleasure of attending a reading by Aja Monet, another spoken word artist. She read from her first collection of poems, The Black Unicorn Sings, as well as Chorus, a recently released collection of spoken word poems that she and Saul Williams edited together. I still regret not getting a copy of Chorus when I was at the shop. Continuing on the spoken word theme, I would highly suggest attending and participating in the spoken word nights at Le Chat Noir, a weekly event organized by Spoken Word Paris. The group, though mostly anglophone expats, welcomes any and all readers, regardless of language or renown.

While in Paris, I also trekked out past my usual stomping grounds in the Latin Quarter and the Marais to visit a small lesbian-owned bookshop in the 11th arrondissement called Violette and Co. One of the shop workers was more than happy to help me fish through the poetry section, for despite the fact that I speak French, I have little to no knowledge of francophone queer poetry, and so after many suggestions, I ended up choosing a collection by Nicole Brossard called Langues obscures. Brossard’s collection is an interesting mix of prose, poetry, and philosophy of self, making it the perfect thing for me to read, or rather, attempt to read; I cannot boast that poetry in French is particularly accessible to me, even after ten years of learning the language. Nonetheless, it can be stunning, even for the non-fluent:

“Plus tard, à mille lieux de l’éternité, quand nous pensons mouvement des paupières ou nuit pharaonne ou parce que c’est beau, je m’intéresse aux nuits les plus simples, sans nuage, les nuits de bonne odeur où la culture accepte de se taire. Nuits sans légende au bas de l’image pendant qui nous regardons les étoiles et laissons le chien de l’âme en profiter démesurément.”

Later, miles away from eternity, when we think of the eyelids’ movement or pharaonic night or because it is beautiful, I am interested in the simplest nights, without clouds, the sweet smelling nights when culture lets itself be silenced. Nights without a caption below the image when we look at the stars and let the dog of the soul thrive immeasurably.


Je t’aime d’être faible…
January 15, 2012

Poème original de Renée Vivien
Traduction anglaise d’ Hannah Trees

Je t’aime d’être faible…

Je t’aime d’être faible et câline en mes bras
Et de cherche le sûr refuge de mes bras
Ainsi qu’un berceau tiède où tu reposeras.

Je t’aime d’être rousse et pareille à l’automne,
Frêle image de la Déesse de l’automne
Que le soleil couchant illumine et couronne.

Je t’aime d’être lente et de marcher sans bruit
Et de parler très bas et de haïr le bruit,
Comme l’on fait dans la présence de la nuit.

Et je t’aime surtout d’être pâle et mourante,
Et de gémir avec des sanglots de mourante,
Dans le cruel plaisir qui s’acharne et tourmente.

Je t’aime d’être, ô sœur des reines de jadis,
Exilée au milieu des splendeurs de jadis,
Plus blanche qu’un reflet de lune sur un lys…

Je t’aime de ne point t’émouvoir, lorsque blême
Et tremblante je ne puis cacher mon front blême,
O toi qui ne sauras jamais combien je t’aime !

I love you in being weak…

I love you in being weak and affectionate in my arms
And in looking for the sure refuge of my arms
Where you will rest as in a warm cradle.

I love you in being red and like the autumn,
Frail image of the Goddess of autumn
That the setting sun lights and crowns.

I love you in being slow and in walking without noise
And in speaking low and in hating noise,
As does the presence of the night.

And I love you most of all in being pale and dying,
And in moaning with sobs of dying,
In the cruel pleasure that perseveres and torments.

I love you in being, oh sister of the queens of the past,
Exiled amidst the splendors of the past,
More white than the reflection of moonlight on a lily…

I love you not to move you, when pale
And trembling I cannot hide my face so pale,
Oh you who will never know how much I love you!

Ce poème est de la collection de Vivien, A l’heure des mains jointes.  Lisez-la ici (sans traduction en anglais).  Et trouvez ici son œuvre complète.

Ton Ame
December 20, 2011

Poème original de Renée Vivien
Traduction en anglais d’ Hannah Trees

Ton âme
Pour une amie solitaire et triste

Ton âme, c’est la chose exquise et parfumée
Qui s’ouvre avec lenteur, en silence, en tremblant,
Et qui, plien d’amour, s’étonne d’être aimée.
Ton âme, c’est le lys, le lys divin et blanc.
Comme un souffle des bois remplis de violettes,
Ton souffle rafraîchit le front du désespoir,
et l’on apprend de toi les bravoures muettes.
Ton âme est le poème, et le chant, et le soir.
Ton âme est la fraîcheur, ton âme est la rosée,
Ton âme est ce regard bienveillant du matin
Qui ranime d’un mot l’espérance brisée…
Ton âme est la pitié finale du destin.

Your soul
For a sad and solitary friend

Your soul is a thing exquisite and fragrant
that opens slowly, silently, trembling,
and that, filled with love, is surprised to be loved.
Your soul is a lily, divine and white.
Like a breeze from violet-filled forests,
your sigh cools the despairing brow,
and one learns from you a muted bravery.
Your soul is poetry, and song, and night.
Your soul is coolness, your soul is dew,
Your soul is the benevolent gaze of morning
That revives shattered hope with a word…
Your soul is the final mercy of destiny.

lost in translation
October 21, 2011

Here’s something I’ve never tried before: translation.  This is a new and exciting poetic frontier for me.  I recently came across the work of Renée Vivien, a lesbian poet writing in Paris at the turn of the century.  I wasn’t able to find many translations of her work, and obviously Google translate doesn’t really do a good job of translating “normal” prose, let alone poetry.  So here is one of her poems, in the original French and followed by my (admittedly amateur) translation.  In the French, there is an abab rhyme scheme, which I did not even remotely try to conserve in the translation.  There is also a hendecasyllabic meter (meaning that there are 11 syllables per line) in the original, which I also did not make an attempt at in English.  And lastly, the line that gave me the most trouble just in terms of preserving the meaning and the sense of it was “Toi qui ressembles aux royales amoureuses.”  If anyone with a greater fluency in French has a better translation than what I have rendered, please feel free to correct me!

Où donc irai-je ?…

Nul flot ne bouge, nul rameau ne se balance…
Le gris se fait plus gris, le noir se fait plus noir,
Et le chant des oiseaux ne vaut pas le silence…
Où donc irai-je, avec mon cœur, par ce beau soir ?

Dans le ciel du couchant triomphal, les nuages
Roulent, lourds et dorés comme des chariots…
Je suis lasse des jours, des voix et des visages
Et des pleurs refoulés et des muets sanglots…

Toi qui ressembles aux royales amoureuses,
Revis auprès de moi les bonheurs effacés…
A l’avenir chargé de ses roses fiévreuses
Je préfère la pourpre et l’or des temps passés…

Soyons lentes, parmi les choses trop hâtives…
Il ne faut rien chercher… Il ne faut rien vouloir…
Allons en pleine mer, sans aborder aux rives…
Me suivras-tu, vers l’infini, par ce beau soir ?…

So where will I go?…

No stream flows, no branch falls…
The grays become grayer, the blacks become blacker,
And the song of birds does not break the silence…
Where, then, will I go with my heart in this beautiful night?

Above the triumphant setting sun, the clouds
Roll, heavy and golden like chariots…
I am tired of the days, the voices and the faces
And the stifled tears and the silent cries…

Seeming to be royal love itself,
You, next to me, saw all happiness snuffed out…
I prefer the crimson and gold of times passed
To the future heavy with its feverish pink hues…

Let’s be slow amidst too-hurried things…
We need not search…we need not want…
Let’s sail the high seas, never reaching the shore…
Will you follow me to the infinite in this beautiful night?

medium and meaning: an argument for poetry
August 2, 2011

I recently came across this article in the New York Times and wanted to share it.  In a sense, it is a defense of poetry.  And why does poetry need defending?  Because people are always asking why it is that what is said in a poem can’t be said more simply and clearly in another way.  Poetry is unclear and inaccessible, or so it would seem to many people.  And even philosophers and linguists ask (according to Ernie Lepore, the author of this article), “How do we figure out what a poem means if its words do not carry familiar learned meanings?”  So many of these cultured despisers (to borrow a term of Kierkegaard) of poetry seem to think that a poem can be turned in prose – translated and paraphrased into a more easily understandable summary.  Why not just say exactly what you mean, they all seem to ask.

The problem with asking most poets to answer this question is that they will go out and write a poem in response and leave the philosophers and linguists just as confused as before (perhaps I exaggerate, but you get the idea).  Lepore makes an appeal to the poetic authority of TS Eliot to answer this infuriating question that gets to the heart of why paraphrasing poetry defeats the purpose of poetry entirely.  Eliot was asked to interpret the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…” His response? “It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.”  The point here is that poets do say what they mean; a poem says something that can be said in no other way and through no other medium.

Poetry shows us the power of the medium itself – the very articulations and presentations of the words and the meanings attached to them.  These articulations themselves can take on meaning, and this extra layer of meaning would be lost in a translation to another form of language.  Lepore gives the example of italicization: this practice allows the poet to present a word in a manner that cannot be carried over into the medium of the spoken word.  The full force of the italicized word is only there when we can see the word on the page, untranslated.

All this is to say that some things can only be said with poetry (and that you should read this article).  In Lepore’s words, “it is…in and through a chosen medium that the poet intuits the object in the first place,” and if the medium of the poet’s intuition is poetry and is articulated in a poem, paraphrasing this expression of the poet’s intuition through the use of a different medium can never do justice to the full force and meaning of the original expression.  Not everyone intuits their lives poetically (and indeed, even poets are never constantly thinking and feeling poetically…or perhaps there are some who do, but that is  a different blog post in the making), and those disinclined to poetry may not be able to appreciate the beauty or harshness or tragedy or joy in a perfect rhyme scheme or a surprising word choice.  But that does not change the fact that there is so much more unspoken meaning in saying, “My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night,” than a “translation” of these two lines into “I’m getting tired” or “I’m wearing myself out.”  It is generally accepted that the sense and meaning of photographs and music are never fully re-expressed in words, and what skeptics of poetry must fully realize is that like these other forms of expression, poetry is communicating something that relies on the very medium itself to be revealed.