Blackbox Manifold

Issue 13: Adam Piette

Kelvin Corcoran, Radio Archilochos: Ραδιόφωνο Αρχίλοχος Teignmouth, Devon: Maquette Press, 2014.

Peter Hughes, Radioactive Relicts: Petrarch Sonnets 117-136. Litmus, 2014.

Simon Jarvis, Eighteen Poems. London: Eyewear, 2012.

The Text Festivals: Language Art and Material Poetry, edited by Tony Lopez. Plymouth: University of Plymouth Press, 2013.

Rod Mengham, Paris by Helen. Old Hunstanton, Norfolk: Oystercatcher Press, 2014.

Mary Noonan, The Fado House. Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2012.

The traductive perils and exhilarations of translation have exercised the minds of poets not simply as a thought experiment concerned with the losses and gains of linguistic exchange, but also because translation is always double: it transmits foreign culture across both time and space into the target home tongue. That transference from another chronotope can inspire traductive play – for Puttenham, translation engenders a translacing:

Then haue ye a figure which the Latines call Traductio, and I the tranlacer: which is when ye turne and tranlace a word into many sundry shapes as the Tailor doth his garment, & after that sort do play with him in your dittie […]  as one who much gloried in his owne wit, whom Persius taxed in a verse very pithily and pleasantly, thus.  

Scire tuum nihil est nisi te scire, hoc sciat alter.

Which I haue turned into English, not so briefly, but more at large of purpose the better to declare the nature of the figure: as thus,  

Thou weenest thy wit nought worth if other weet it not  

As wel as thou thy selfe, but a thing well I wot,  

Who so in earnest weenes, he doth in mine aduise,  

Shew himselfe witlesse, or more wittie than wise. 

Here ye see how […] in the latter rime this word wit is translated into weete, weene, wotte, witlesse, witty & wise: which come all from one originall.

The translacing spools out from the act of translation when the language of the past is given second life in the current new tongue with new generative energy. Persius’s line, from his first Satire – that so cruelly and savagely mocks the poetasters of Rome – releases a satirical rhizomatic germ in Puttenham’s English which multiplies and propagates according to codes of comedy from another time, another place.

            That transmission from the other spacetime language-event into the ‘here and now’ of the contemporary has a predictable range from faithfully fluent matchmaking to anarchically extreme difference – but it is this range which may reveal what really goes on when translacing occurs. The examples I have here provide the range, and generate the speculation. At the faithful end of the spectrum, we have Mary Noonan’s work; she is a lecturer in French at University College Cork, and in her 2012 collection The Fado House, there are examples of germinal translacing in two poems in the ‘after’ tradition, i.e. poems that translate, but confessedly loosely, with pointed epigraph, ‘after x’, as in ‘After Victor Hugo’. ‘City Twilight after Baudelaire’ translates ‘Recueillement’; ‘Disinherited after Gérard de Nerval’ translates ‘El Desdichado’.

The translations are mostly as faithful as they can be, and invite the loss and gain game; so we have losses: the last line of the Baudelaire takes the ‘marche’ of ‘entends la douce Nuit qui marche’ to mean marching (‘listen to the gentle night march’), when it must simply mean walking, as in ‘listen to sweet Night as she walks’. But then we have gains, gains, I would argue, that spool out of the openness and risk associated with the ‘after’-subgenre. Mary Noonan takes the line addressed to the poet’s ‘Douleur’ that asks ‘her’ (it is ‘Ma Douleur’) to see ‘Surgir du fond des eaux le Regret souriant’, and renders it as an imperative aimed at ‘sorrow’, telling her to look, for ‘regret drifts from the river bed , smiling’.

This is not quite right as a faithful act of Englishing since the French has the allegorical Regret surge forth from the waters like a nymph, like Venus suddenly rising. Yet the Irishing of the line has wonderful lyrical beauty, a dreamy floatiness, Ophelia as loving mermaid, matched close up by the softening of the French allegory down to quiet movement in the language, a lyricism that gently blossoms with that quite wonderful choice of verb, ‘drifts’. Noonan’s ‘after…’ allows for such new space and different time signature in the rendering: this gain is the very and only point of doing translation, and the two versions of the Baudelaire and Nerval poems sit within a collection that more variously travels around the world and dips in and out of European cities to create a ‘Fado house’ for a musicality that relishes the crossing over of the seas.

            A bolder play with the ‘After’-subgenre occurs in Simon Jarvis’s collection, Eighteen Poems: five of the eighteen poems have as titles ‘After Afanasy Fet’, ‘After Batiushkov’, ‘After Kuzmin’, ‘After Pushkin’, ‘After Khodasevich’. The five lyrics issue from five different chronotopes, all five Russian, of course, but from the Napoleonic Wars (Pushkin and Batiushkov), 1850s (Fet), Silver Age St Petersburg (Kuzmin and Khodasevich), so pre-Revolutionary. They are close to their originals, so step to the tune of the Russian source text. The Kuzmin version, for instance, tracks the Russian closely, as we can see if we set up the opening quatrain against Dalhousie’s Electronic Text Centre crib:

After Kuzmin                                                                         Fuji in a Saucer: The Poem

Tea’s steam disperses, and I see Mt. Fuji:                 Through tannic steam I catch a glimpse of Fuji:

a gold volcano on a yellow sky.                                     Against a yellow sky volcanic gold.

The dish compresses nature to a circle;                    A saucer narrows nature very strangely,

tea-ripples quiver;                                                               In shallow ripples lovely to behold.

Kuzmin’s poem itself ‘translates’ one of Hokusai’s Fuji series, ‘Mt. Fuji reflected in a Wine Cup’, which features a traveller hooting with drunken laughter at the image of the sacred mountain in his cup. Kuzmin sobers the image up, and adopts Hokusai’s point of view as personal image of the work of world-containment done by the ‘narrow’ lyric. As such, one is tempted to take the translator work here as merely matching images – and Jarvis’s correspondences invite one to do just that. Yet the opening gambit, taking ‘tannic steam’ as ‘tea’s steam’ has the ear/eye ‘hear’ the folding of ‘tea’s’ into ‘steam’, and how this noticing generates, as it were, ‘see Mt.’. The modernist imagist magic, succinctly captured in the gold on yellow image of Fuji, is accompanied by quivering sound ripples along the phonemes. Sound itself is foregrounded later in the lyric: Kuzmin (using Dalhousie crib) gazes at the reflection of the sky in his teacup, and smells almonds (‘There comes an air of almonds’), and hears the smell as a ‘blare of horns’ across the ‘gulf’ of the tea in its circle. Jarvis, superbly, renders this thus: ‘The almond breathes its perfume; one far horn / echoes across the china’. The horn echoes from Proust’s reworking of the shepherd’s pipe in Wagner’s Tristan as car horn, and ‘china’, briefly, shivers into a far off land, like China, ‘almond’ all world in a tiny space. What might strike one as acoustic accompaniment becomes the very means of transmission as translacing; so it comes as no shock when one realises that all five of the lyrics rendered in the ‘After–’ sequence have common motifs: they all feature sounds that float across space (and time) to interrupt an image,  both coalescing in complex fusion into text. So the Fet version has a sleepless poet seeing images ‘sustained in the dark’ yet hearing sounds as more ‘palpable’ when reading: a bell sounds and creates strange harmonies that generate ‘an invisible dream’, the poem we are reading. The Batiushkov features the poet waking, hardly seeing the dawn, then hearing ‘the horn which sounds / across the meadows or the bay’ which generates a poem on despair. The Kuzmin, as we have seen, hears the perfume of the tea, and it is this listening which interrupts the dominant image of the mountain and generates a poem as ‘branch of mimosa’ interrupting the sky. The Pushkin version begins with the bell which forces the poet to drop the book – the sound is like a car horn since it ‘comes from the parking strip’, but signals some menacing fusion of gaze and music. Finally the Khodasevich envisions the soul like the moon burning in the sky, but not looking at the poet – the image, one surmises, is indifferent to affect, will not reflect ‘on what I feel or undergo’. That feeling is there on the page, however, in the close rhyming of the tetrameter couplets; the sound of poetry as sign of lyric affect may be one of the ‘things it was not born to know’, yet the lyric knows and chooses affect over imagist soul.

            More adventurous still are Kelvin Corcoran’s translations of the seventh century BC lyric poet and satirist, Archilochos. If one reads these poems through, they hit with such vigour, such confident strident voicing, such Villonesque bravura and candour and braggadocio, that one is absolutely taken in. These must be careful renderings of this obscure poet. The more one finds out of Archilochos, however, the more perfect these translacings are. Archilochos only survives in the form of fragments, yet he was considered an absolute master by all poets afterwards, especially admired for the power of his invective (which was supposed to have driven a family to suicide), for his inventiveness as a poet (he was believed to have invented iambic measure, the elegy, etc.), and for having been the first poet to have used a recognizably first person address: all the more reason to regret the lack of whole poems. From the fragments and later accounts, one can conjecture that he was an illegitimate mercenary from the island of Paros who lived from C680 to C640 BC, who joined an invasion of mainland Greece colonizing Thasos, and who played an obscure role in the cult of Dionysus on Paros.

Many of the fragments explain why Corcoran is drawn to him: he is both satirist and lyric poet, working in these modes nearly as far back as Homer: so appealing to the satirist-lyrical Corcoran and his sustained championing of the Greece of the pre-state ‘ritual’ period (see Peter Riley’s extraordinarily good account of all this in his magisterial essay on Greece and Corcoran in the equally ground-breaking Reader edited by Andy Brown, The Writing Occurs as Song: A Kelvin Corcoran Reader [Shearsman, 2014]). He appeals, too, because of the burly way Archilochos mocked Sparta and its fascist war-cult; Sparta figures in Corcoran’s Greek work as equivalent to the Anglo-American war machine. He appeals, too, because of the extraordinary verve and loving eroticism of the lyrics, especially the only relatively recently (1970s) discovered whole poem translated by Guy Davenport, affectionately titled ‘P. Colon. 7511’ or ‘Fragment 18’. It was found, Davenport tells us in his introduction to his translations, 7 Greeks, used by Corcoran for his epigraph (New Directions, 1995, available through Diotima at, on a papyrus mummy wrapping, and is breathtakingly and happily obscene, unlike anything else in Greek literature. This appeals to the Roger Hilton in Corcoran, the relish of frank sexual desire and love of the other’s body. Across the airwaves of time and space, then, come the sounds of sexually explicit satirical lyric, on Radio Archilochos, and the renderings are quite simply unsurpassably superb. It has the unashamedly barrack-room brawly voice (‘I would be a sober border guard, walk the line. / What border? A nest of rats squeaking – mamma’); the great satirical yawp (‘So much for strollers and playboys, / the clueless pimps of the academy’); the Dionysian revelling (‘Here’s a secret, we’re smashed on Ismaric mesmeric / and in the bottom of every cup I find a poem waiting’); the spookily beautiful lyric from a lost ritual-rich musical culture (‘None of this is so, / just figures of air / for a theatre forgotten, / dust replaces ritual’); the luscious quiet love poem (‘In the dark of night / only regret is real. / I watch you sleep, the light / pools around your face’); the brave and fearless eroticism (‘Your tender breasts, belly and dark cunt, / shaping my tongue to our first language’): all fusing together as a political lyric which aims to find textual space and textual time for just such complex uses of Archilochos’s many voices: ‘Get up, get up Archilochos we need your bite’.

            Superb as all these versions are, they are not translations, but translacings out from the fragments, a dramatic monologue fusing with lyrical sequence recreation. Davenport reminds us that Archilochos only exists in bits and pieces of text:

‘the tattered version we have of Archilochos, some three hundred fragments and about forty paraphrases and indirect quotations in the Budé edition’. From those fragments, Kelvin Corcoran has summoned up a real, true ghost, made the dead man speak: a quite astonishing achievement.

            More radically still, we have Rod Mengham’s work with Homer, Paris by Helen, which seems to promise some translacing of Helen’s over-represented shade into counter-cultural voice. Yet the first poem has nothing ancient or Greek about it: ‘TO REPEAL THE SPOILS’ opens:

 They dream continually of enriched uranium.

Only the words are irreplaceable:

fixed languor and tardy dolour.

It then swerves, though, to Homer: 'While you were listening and not paying attention / Ulysses lashed himself to the mist’. The juxtaposition is comic and mystifying at the same time: the political gods of this world are obsessed with nuclear power, and against this are ranged the ‘irreplaceable’ words of poetry? If so, then this might be like Ulysses resisting the sirens of history by allying himself not to a usefully solid ship, but to the insubstantial mistiness of language. Mengham’s I-voice turns to Ulysses hoping to find a warrior poet (he has ‘an unreasonable desire for poetry while / swallowing blood’), but actually surprises himself as one of the suitors, playing cockerel dandy to Penelope, ‘unharmed in the debris / on a worn-out carpet’. The result is a lyrical voice that is unaware, thin-lippedly Mauberley-like, disabled of command over poetry-as-eros (fumbledly defined in ‘The occasion demands flight / with its opposite number’) or over poetry-as-elegy (‘I am on the verge of a steel vice / with a grief that spares nothing’). It is not just that the act of translation from the Greek discovers a failure of nerve in modern political and erotic art (Ulysses becoming Bloom); it is that translation itself refuses to work as a translacing, only gesturing to the death of art and an awkward comedy of its silencing.

            More radical still and we hit Peter Hughes’s Radioactive Relicts, a continuation of his Englishing of Petrarch. Yet none of the sonnets resemble their original one iota except as procedural trigger. For instance, the version of ‘Che fai alma? che pensi? avrem mai pace?’ begins:

 my golly was charred through forgetfulness

muffled in a feather bed of embers

embellishing rancid yellow patches

by a damp camp-fire in Thetford Forest

This purports to translate these lines, using A. S. Kline’s version []:

What do you think, my soul? Will I ever have peace?

Will I ever know truce? Or will I have endless war?’

‘I don’t know what will arise for us: but I think

that seeing our ills will not please her eyes.’

It clearly does nothing of the sort. The poem as a whole continues the camping theme, imagining the voice recording itself on a tape machine, and in the sestet speaking of how hard it is to run across a river on ‘jostling logs’, and turning to Yeats ‘inspecting his favourite knife’ forgetting his 'inner pixie’ and saying ‘let’s sit down here & whittle in the dark’. It’s a sumptuously funny poem, yet at what angle does it even glance at Petrarch? The answer comes as a radical translacing of the political uses of the Petrarchan lyric. There is a connection, one might argue, between Petrarch’s dialogue between body and soul about peace and war under the beloved’s gaze and Yeats’s significant fusion of the poet’s erotic gift (communing with his ‘inner pixie’) with (para)military politics (‘his favourite knife’), here scorned as boy scout wanking by the camp fire, and identified via the Petrarch as craven displacement activity. The dialogue of body and soul is similarly reduced to pointless Krapp-like self-recording. These are extraordinarily ‘musical’ reimaginings of what a lyric can safely and unsafely do now.

            More radically still, Alan Halsey translates current word/image fusions into a proliferation of text-graphic events. One such sequence he recorded for Tony Lopez in his very important record of the Bury language art festivals. He’d photographed a graffito discovered on a garage door beneath Castle Market in Sheffield featuring an androgynous figure standing beside the words ‘Memory Screen’, or, as he states in a note, possibly  ‘Memori Scheem’. This snapshot proliferated into a seemingly endless series of projects, sequences of graphics including word-fragments:

The verbal element sometimes detaches itself and becomes associated with a series of aphorisms which form as it were a sequence of parallel texts. The parallel texts sometimes appear to be poems but are arguably no such thing. Yet they are not, for the most part, captions. None of the versions is complete or completable.

This moved on to generate a breaking up of Quarles’s Emblems for collage as a result of this text:

Signals produced by the scanning of the picture are applied to the transmitter if Fortune fail or envious Time but spurn: he isn’t the poet who mentioned in passing that creation and reaction are as preach to a perch but a friend of the Quarles who wrote the emblems.

Like all the translacing work here, Alan Halsey conjures new work from a fusion of past and present (Sheffield graffitti artist meets Quarles through Halsey), political and lyric, word and image, sound and sense: and it is in that range of voicings and soundings that true translation thrives.

Adam Piette is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold, teaches at the University of Sheffield, and is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, and The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam.