- Irving Layton (Author) and Michel Albert (Translator)
Layton, l'essentiel: Anthologie portative d'Irving Layton. Éditions Triptyque (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kevin McNeilly
In his preface to Michel Albert’s translation of a spate of Irving Layton’s poems (along with sections from the autobiography Waiting for the Messiah and Layton’s foreword to Balls for a One-Armed Juggler), Brian Trahearne argues that Layton is probably the architect of his own flagging critical reputation: "Jusqu’à un certain point, Layton fut lui-même l’artisan de l’oubli dans lequel il est tombé. Personne au cours du vingtième siècle n’évoqua avec plus de véhémence ni d’éloquence le dédain du poète à l’égard d’un public dépourvu d’imagination, ni n’évoqua mieux, à vrai dire, le désir instinctuel du public d’écrabouiller et de réduire au silence le poète dans son rôle d’ ’immense provocateur.’" The mix of stridency and eloquence that appear to have done in Layton’s reputation is largely what has also given his embittered public voice its drive. And, while I have my reservations, no doubt based on personal stylistic and ideological preferences, about some of Layton’s accomplishments—I don’t share Trahearne’s enthusiasm for "provocative" shock—I have to agree that Michel Albert’s finely attuned translations reanimate his fierce vitality.
Sometimes, only subtle shifts between languages—made possible by Layton’s often Gallic or Latinate diction—intensify the lyric density toward which Layton’s pre-1970 writing repeatedly aimed. This means that Albert’s translation is frequently more Layton than Layton. In Albert’s version of "The Mosquito," for example, Layton’s description of the insect’s blood-bloated thorax—"a minuscule bomb, a dark capsule" —loses the indefinite articles and the Anglo-Saxon-rooted "dark" to create a compact mesh of half-rhymes that could be only partially felt in the original: "minuscule bombe, sombre capsule." The effect is akin to what Walter Benjamin described in "The Task of the Translator" as an expansion of the original through translation, rather than its impoverishment: meaning is fleshed out, more often gained than lost. Such small but significant revisions occur throughout the collection. In his rendering of Layton’s early elegy "To the Girls of My Graduating Class," Albert offers "Impudiques pucelles, nonnettes passionnées" for the original "My saintly wantons, passionate nuns," suppressing Layton’s awkward Shakespearean knock-off in chias-mic word-pairs that are both sonically resonant and semantically rich; Albert gives such near-miss lines in the originals a coherence and a depth they want. That incoherence, however, is more or less deliberate in the later Layton, as his writing moves away from abstract intensity toward declamatory invective; the verbally unresolved character of a word like "dark" in the line I cited above points toward the shredding poetics Layton cultivated in the 1970s and 1980s. In the preface to Balls for a One-Artned Juggler, Layton laments the inability of poets to connect to our present—for him, a hellish, post-Auschwitz age—and blames the stylizations of poetic form for their disconnectedness: "La plupart d’entre eux [les poètes] ignorent que leur admirables vers, sautillants de demi-rimes, de rimes inclinées et de rimes internes, ont acquis le statut de charmant archaïsmes." Albert’s translations, however intent on mimicking Layton’s purported directness, actually restore and thicken those "rhymes," but rather than archaic quaintness, the effect is revitalizing. In a world of enervation, Layton has called on a generation of writers (in poems such as "After Auschwitz") to manifest a hard and energetic plainness: "My son,/ don’t be a waf fling poet;/ let each word you write/ be direct and honest/ like the crack of a gun." The difficulty, as Theodor Adorno once argued of Bertolt Brecht, is that claims of honesty are almost always symptomatic of false consciousness. Even in a passage such as this one, Layton falls back on the associative slippage of a simile to make his point. The refusal of style is also a stylistic choice and seems to kill the voice rather than to enliven it, making Layton’s poems, I think, so unpleasant and off-putting to "Canucky schmucks," readers like myself who’ve been suckled on "gentility." Such poetry may be satirically pointed, but it rarely works as poetry. Albert’s versions, I think, aspire to restore Layton’s voice to itself, to give it back the verbal push-and-shove he desired and renounced.
Earlier second-rate poems like "Elegy for Marilyn Monroe" (1962) are included among these translations, and seem to appeal to Albert for two reasons: they provide a straightforward, declarative text that lends itself to translation—which abstruse poems such as "Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom" (not among this selection) would not—and they also have a formal affinity to Albert’s own bilingual poetry, which tends toward declarative plainness. (See his Souliers neufs sur terres brûlées, Triptyque, 2000.) These conflicted tendencies—convolute lyricism and disdainful vehemence— find a rare balance in a poem like "The Improved Binoculars"/ "Longues-Vues Perfectionnées," where Layton discovers a fraught music in atrocity that is both honoured and clarified in Albert’s bitterly abstracted tones, so that the diffidence and detachment of vision is essentially hoist by its own artsy petard, refusing to become an agent of the very carelessness that enables its contrived sales pitch: "J’ai vu un agent tasser du pied les corps/ carbonisés des orphelins, et repérer/ avec soin le site pour d’éventuelles spéculations." How, the poem asks us, can specularity ever lead to care? How can we, as common readers, accept our complicity in the atrocious? Many times Layton gave up even trying. But this interdependency finds itself mimicked, or rather incorporated, in the work of translation itself. Albert’s task, I think, is to re-create that "soin," that care. In his version of "ï¿½? la Vue des Statuettes d’ï¿½?zéchiel et de Jérémie à l’ï¿½?glise Notre Dame," Albert’s French produces a reflexive turn that could not quite be realized in English: "On vous a affublés de noms français/ et faits captifs, mes rudes/ compatriotes, vous formenteurs de troubles." Layton wants to reforge an estranged Hebraic bond between his own Lazarovitch patrimony and the prophets’ names, to produce an honest liberty: "[je] vous remettrais tout deux en liberté/ non plus dans le faux-semblant/ d’un monde bâti de fautes." But he ends up able to daim only an "aching confraternity," or, as Albert puts it, to cast himself as the "frère de votre détresse." A distressed collusion, a fractured captivation, characterizes the cross-talk between Layton and Albert, and gestures toward their mutual project of liberating a visceral human presence into language.
The choice of poems in this selection is at times questionable, although Albert aims for a career retrospective rather than a "best of." Among those included are such essential early texts as "The Swimmer" and "The Bull Calf," although I could have done without a version of the later "Where Was Your Shit-Detector, Pablo." And I’d like to have seen what Albert might have done with "Butterfly on Rock," "Keine Lazarovitch," "Tall Man Executes a Jig," and other anthology chestnuts he has omitted. But these are surely matters of taste; the anthology, like the selections from the autobiography, offers an outline of a major poet’s sometimes tormented progress, his successes and shortfalls. Albert’s translations demonstrate an empathy for their subject that is rarely seen—Derek Mahon’s renderings of Philippe Jaccottet come to mind as works of coeval brilliance. As an overview and a vital reframing of Layton’s life’s work, these incisive and edgy poems come to speak again.
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- Worlds Within Worlds by Allan Brown
Books reviewed: A Random Gospel by David Helwig, Too Spare, Too Fierce by Patrick Lane, and Science Lessons by W. H. New
- Nouveautés théâtrales by Alain-Michel Rocheleau
Books reviewed: Les théâtres professionels du Canada francophonie by Hélène Beauchamp and Joël Beddows, Gratien Gélinas. Du naïf Fridolin à l'ombrageux Tit-Coq by Anne-Marie Sicotte, Jean et Béatrice by Carole Fréchette, and Rêves by Wajdi Mouawad
- New Francophone Writing by Louise H. Forsyth
Books reviewed: Thèmes et variations. Regards sur la littérature franco-ontarienne by Lucie Hott and Johanne Melançon, Appartenances dans la littérature francophone d'Amérique du Nord by Sophie Beaulé, Joëlle Cauville, and Larry Steele, and Transpoétique. éloge du nomadisme by E. D. Blodgett
MLA: McNeilly, Kevin. Trans Layton. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 159 - 161)
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