Awash in Linguistic (and Intestinal) Doubt

  • Oana Avasilichioaei and Erín Mouré (Author)
    Expeditions of a Chimæra. BookThug
  • Priscila Uppal (Editor)
    The Exile Book of Poetry in Translation: 20 Canadian Poets Take on the World. Exile Editions
Reviewed by Christine Stewart


Recently, I found a moldy copy of Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev’s First Love in the free store on Denman Island. I liked its sentences and surfeit of tremulous feelings. But on the second to last page, when Vladamir watches an old woman die in his house, covered in rags, lying on bare boards, with a sack for a pillow, I was baffled. Who is that old woman? What is she doing dying in Vladamir’s house, on his bare floorboards? It wasn’t until I read the book’s foreword (after I had finished the story) that I learn that Turgenev’s own mother owned five thousand serfs, and that there could have been many old women lying about on the floors. In the original Russian, Turgenev uses the word dacha for a summerhouse and dom for the winterhouse in St. Petersburg. He also uses the German word Flϋgel (wing) for the lodges that Zinaida (Vladamir’s first love) and her mother (a Princess and a member of the declining aristocracy) rent from Vladamir’s father (a member of the rising middle class). (Thanks to Anton Nonin for the translations.) The English word house glosses over the social and political complexity of Russia in the mid 1800s. But the act of translation also opens language to its own foment. Which is precisely why, in Expeditions of a Chimæra, Avasilichioaei and Moure posit the practice of translation as central to a poetic citizenship. To translate is to read and write into both the stillness and the fury that constitutes meaning (and that meaning constitutes). And in such a practice, no house is innocent. That is, as Avasilichioaei and Moure inhabit the force of our persistent urge to mean, they send words spinning into the catastrophe of history and interpretation. There, in the eye of its storm, borders are un-bordered, language is a crumbling bridge, a crashing sky for a roost (a sack for a pillow). I have heard Avasilichioaei and Moure read together from Expeditions. It was fun—meanings collided, spiraled, concurred in a good-natured collaboration. But reading the text now it is the loss, disavowal, violence and rage that rise (strikingly) to the surface: Celan, Jabès, Notely, Roritoti, Stănescu, the OED. English, Romanian, Galscis. There are no innocent houses/no innocent words.

So, what would it mean to address the text’s central concerns: to unborder a border, to open our hands justly when some borders, and words might be both unjust and urgent with cultural and legal impact—borders that define spaces like Canada, words that define people, like Indigenous? Excessive curiosity and relentless translative play will not necessarily make us just and present to each other, nor will it resolve difficult cultural and legal legacies. But it is a practice, a kind of citizenship that wraps us up in the difficult arms of language, that reminds us to consider our own language practices; that is, there could be gas in that camp, poverty in that house; that roosts crash; that doubt and possibility remain.

Priscila Uppal’s collection, The Exile Book of Poems in Translation: 20 Canadian Poets Take on the World, also gathers itself around the activity and difficulty of translation. It is a wide selection of Canadian poets who translate a poet of their choice, simultaneously defining their own practice of translation. The book is complex in many ways: the notions of translation differ, as do ideas of what constitutes poetry and authorship—from Darren Wershler’s translation of Ezra Pound (from English to QR code) to Brossard’s French translation of the fictional writer Elisa Sampedrín to George Elliott Clarke’s not (really) translations of an English translations of Pushkin: Poet! Damn you if you crave public love! The book is eclectic and exciting. Like the speaker in Stevan Tontic’s translation of Goran Simic’s Border, we wake in new countries, the pieces move us towards places we have not known: Lightning fell out of the summer sky, like sparks on the earth from other shovels, working the horizon. Where are you taking me, ditch? (Barry Callaghan translation of Andrei Voznesensky’s The Ditch). The translated poetry declares what we can know and what we cannot know: pourquoi cet oignon passé-t-il tout droit? (Nicole Brossard’s translation of Elisa Sampedrín’s Théâtre de la poitrine). Overall, like Expeditions, this project bears witness to poetic attempts to make sense of the balance between that knowing and unknowing, and, as Uppal writes in the foreword, it is interesting to create a dialogue about translation, to consider the nature of translation, to create connections between diverse worlds. It is also to be awash in doubt and astonishment. Which is gorgeous and excruciating. Which is why the second half of the title of this collection is incongruous. Why are translations that shake us in our houses, Canadian poets taking on the world? Maybe something more in the spirit of the work in the collection and its foreword (and the translating citizenship of Moure and Avasilichioaei) might be more fitting. Perhaps, The Exile Book of Poetry in Translation: Canadian Poets Interestingly Awash in Linguistic (and Intestinal) Doubt. That is, Let[s] rampage [the house].

This review “Awash in Linguistic (and Intestinal) Doubt” originally appeared in New Work on Early Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 213 (Summer 2012): 189-191.

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