Valérie Rouzeau
Cold Spring in Winter

Book Reviews

translated by Susan Wicks
Published by Arc

Showing not Telling

Sue Hubbard finds what slips between languages in collections by Gillian Clarke, Valérie Rouzeau and Ciaran Carson.

In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin asks, ‘What does a literary work “say”?’. ‘No poem’, he suggests, ‘is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener’. In this statement he seems to be implying that a work of art is always a showing rather than a telling and goes on to add:

Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information – hence, something inessential.

Ultimately, translation, he suggests, serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. Benjamin appears to take Freud’s view that art, at its best, reveals the latent content behind what is manifest. Freud said of poets:

“… One may well sigh, when one realizes that it is nevertheless given to a few to draw the most profound insights, without any real effort, from the maelstrom of their own feelings, while we others have to grope our way restlessly to such insights through agonizing insecurity”.

Groping towards meaning is thus the role of psychologist, translator and poet alike. For as in psychoanalysis profound insights are reached through the revelation of what it is we really meant rather than what it is we have apparently said. A poem, thus, becomes an act of almost alchemical transformation, a translation between feeling, meaning and language. This reciprocal relationship between languages, this revelation of what exists in its gaps and spaces, is what these three books have in common. Meaning exists in the gaps between Clarke’s Welsh and English, between the French baby-talk, neologisms and translated English of Rouzeau and Wicks, and in the echoes of Irish, especially the genre of song known as sean-nós (‘old style’), which linger behind Carson’s terse English lines.

When Valérie Rouzeau’s poetic sequence about the death of her father, Cold Spring in Winter, was published in France a decade ago, under the title Pas Revoir, it was met with immediate critical acclaim. The French language has quite a different history to English. The Académie Française, started under Cardinal Richelieu, consists of forty members, known as ‘immortels’ who have the task of acting as a sort of language police to keep French pure and free of foreign influence. For English speakers and writers, used to a rich cauldron of American, Caribbean and Indian words, this purity can seem restrictive. For Valérie Rouzeau it has been an invitation to inject French with the vernacular ring of lived experience. Puns, slang, neologisms and baby-talk are all thrown into an eclectic postmodern mix like the piles of scrap metal once sorted by her father.

From the point of view of the translator her work poses many challenges. The mixed registers and arcane words meld with a variety of cadences, from adult speech to the lament of the little girl Rouzeau used to be, to create a singular voice. In the opening lines of her first text the reader is taken by surprise.

Toi mourant man au telephone per –
noctera pas voir papa.
Le train foncé sous la pluie dure pas
mourir mon père oh steu plait tends-moi
me dépêche d’arriver
Pas mouranrir déspespérir père infinir
Lever courir –

The multiplicity of tones is complex and, at times, destabilizing. Pernoctera is an arcane word taken from ‘pernocter’ (to pass the night). The register then shifts to that of wheedling baby talk ‘oh steu-plaît tends-moi’. The compressions of ‘steu-plaît’ and ‘tends-moi’ emphasize the child’s pleading, while ‘mots-valises’ and ‘mouranrir’ are invented words, which give the whole a disturbing insistence. Susan Wicks has not shied away from these problems in her translation:

You dying on the phone my mum he will
not last the night see Dad.
The train a dark rush under rain not last
not die my father please oh please give me
the get there soon.
Not deadying oh not desperish father
Everlast get up run fast –

It would be hard to imagine that an educated female French writer of Rouzeau’s generation had not been influenced by French feminist thinkers such as Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, particularly Cixous’s notion of l’écriture feminine; that is language defined by the feminine body and female difference, a language of deconstructed fragments rather than assured wholes. That Valérie Rouzeau undertook to translate Sylvia Plath’s Crossing the Water for her Masters degree comes as no surprise. Not only is her subject matter familiar from Plath’s writing, but there are also echoes in the passage quoted of Plath’s own muscular urgency in the first stanza of Daddy (‘You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe…’). The father is not a new subject for women poets. Both Plath and Sharon Olds have made paternal relationships the core or much of their work. But Rouzeau adds her own singular twist in a fragmented postmodern syntax. This is not just an exercise in verbal dexterity but a poignant sequence where the poet struggles to make sense of her loss, a state beautifully captured in Susan Wicks’s translation.

Ciaran Carson
On the Night Watch

Published by Gallery

The nuts and bolts of language are also of fundamental concern to Ciaran Carson. In perhaps his best known poem Belfast Confetti, the nitty-gritty of language, its fonts and letters, its question and exclamation marks become synonymous with the ammunition of riot squads during the troubles. Carson was brought up bilingual in Irish and English, and the sense that meaning lurks beneath perceived surfaces is everywhere in his new poems. The style is something of a departure from his previous long lines reminiscent of C K Williams. Made up of fourteen terse lines of two or three words each (a bow towards the sonnet form), each poem is written in couplets, with spaces in between each couplet. Their real subject is silence; the attempt to find meaning in the interstices and lacunae of what appears to have been said. Here, Carson demonstrates a sympathy with his compatriot Beckett who wrote of:

The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express. (Proust and the Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit.)

Written in three movements, the poems are full of darkness, illuminated only by tentative chinks of light in the small hours and the first flutters of birdsong. Meaning is elusive, seeping through slits and cracks, nooks and crannies. The dawn is full of the wail of sirens or as in ‘Between’:

two hoots
of a factory horn

an aperture
of silence two

puffs of smoke
an afterthought

against the blue
of night

becoming morning
as you stoop

below the lintel
to step out

into the street

Mortality overshadows these poems. In the first light ‘flickering / through the slats’, ‘we turn on / the radio for / but will not hear / about tomorrow’. They are infused with a sense of waiting, though for what is not made clear. The image of the common medicinal flower eyebright or euphrasia is scattered among these poems as a metaphor for clear-sightedness. Yet such clarity is only ever fleeting:

we speak in sign
language at times

not in so many words.

Remembering and forgetting, and the memories we choose, or are capable of hanging on to, are themes that run through this work like a refrain. At school Carson was influenced by Hopkins and Frost, both poets whose meaning lurks behind the heft and power of their language. He has said in the past that he is not interested in ideology, only in language. But these obdurately bleak poetic palimpsests reveal an endless search for a form of transcendence, which seems forever to be just out of reach.

Gillian Clarke
A Recipe for Water

Published by Carcanet

Gillian Clarke is one of the central figures in contemporary Welsh poetry, the third to take up the post of National Poet of Wales. Born in Cardiff, she currently runs an organic smallholding in Ceredigion; the Welsh landscape and language are the shaping forces behind her work, providing a framework for self-definition. She exemplifies this position in Pocket Dictionary. Finding a dictionary inscribed in her father’s hand she says:

Here the world
began, and then is now. I am searching
for definitions, ambiguities, way
down through the strata, topsoil, rubble
a band of clay, an inch or so of gravel…

As an archaeologist might search for an understanding of a lost civilization she excavates the dictionary looking for ‘a gleam of meaning, / a sudden uprise of remembering’. For Clarke memory is synonymous with language. In First Words, ‘the alphabet of the house’ was made up of her grandmother’s ‘Cariad, not Darling. / Tide and current are llanw, lli’. The sea speaks in tongues. It tells her forgotten stories, scattering fragments on the shore like longhand in half-remembered, often forbidden Welsh. Clarke’s world is full of the here-and-now, which makes her accessible to a wide range of readers. Whether she is describing a diving otter –

the surface closing over
as the sounding rings of a splash,
smashed the moonlight,

– or the women ‘heaving cloth into tubs, load after load’, in her series on Mumbai, her rich imagery is located in the physical, sensual and actual world. Yet, immediate as her poems are, something deeper and more complex lurks beneath their surface. The past is another country, inhabited by another speech, her mother’s. Clarke was the child of a tenant farm, where her mother’s Welsh tongue was suppressed, ‘spat out like a curse’, so that it didn’t sound to the daughter like ‘a language older than legend’. In her Glas y Dorlan, Gillian Clarke describes stopping in the Brecon Beacons for a picnic as a child with her father. ‘Let’s begin by naming the creatures’, he announces. Then, with ‘a sudden electric blue’ and ‘a shock through the heart’, they see a kingfisher. Pioden y Dŵr, Glas y Dorlan. Blue-by-the Riverbank. Heritage is experienced through this dual relationship to language and the world named through words, which become triggers of remembrance as much as any Proustian madeleine.

Throughout these poems memory and water are intertwined. Names of rivers run through them – the Severn, the Dyfi, the Neb and Ouse. A man ‘wrapped in a waterfall, / undressing himself of the city’s dirt’ in India lets the ‘bright rope of water’ run through his hands. Here water becomes an element of rebirth, through which he will become cleansed and ‘blameless as a newborn’. Elsewhere Clarke remembers her father passing the time with stories as they drove to the sea, teaching her words ‘the ‘gw’and ‘w’ of wind and water, / the ll-ll-ll of waves on the shore’. Here was a child for whom the lost mother tongue became synonymous with the deepest emotions, those of a daughter for her father. ‘Tell me the names for the hare!’, she commands. ‘Sgwarnog for its long ears. / Cochen for it red-brown fur’, he tells her, as if sharing a secret. Clarke’s work is characterized by it inclusiveness, its humanity and deep feeling towards the landscape and natural world. There is only ever the very occasional false note, where something is overstated, such as a river becoming a ‘water-dragon’ in an unnecessarily Gothic image.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright


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