Poesis and Translation

  • Pierre Nepveu and Donald Winkler (Translator)
    The Hardness of Matter and Water. Véhicule Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Émile Nelligan and Marc di Saverio (Translator)
    Ship of Gold: The Essential Poems of Émile Nelligan. Signal Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)

The deeply personal poetry of Émile Nelligan (1879-1941), rooted in the Symbolist movement, reveals the poetic aspirations and profound longings of a young man destined for greatness. His Poésies complètes (1896-1899) encapsulates the fervour and power of his creativity, from before he was institutionalized in his twentieth year until his death, due to what was in all probability bipolar disorder. “Ship of Gold,” the eponymous first poem in Ship of Gold: The Essential Poems of Émile Nelligan, begins: “She was a massive ship, hewn in heavy gold, / with masts that fingered heaven, on seas unknown.” Running aground on a huge reef “in waters where the Siren sings,” then descending into “Dream’s abyss,” this sinking image, with its “diaphanous flanks” and treasures disputed by “Spite,” “Nausea,” and “Madness,” is the unmistakable metaphor for the young poet’s identity. “Castles in Spain” reflects the poet’s idealistic but doomed quest for supreme self-affirmation and love. Like a dictator “[s]torming the towers of bronze and gold,” or a regal bird soaring “on wings of glory singed by the sun, / trying to steal heaven’s treasure,” he dreams of “that hundred-walled eternal Troy,” but like candles and the wings of Icarus, the wings melt. Ultimately, although Nelligan’s conception of the poet is romantic and tragic, it is neither facile nor a caricature. A trope characteristic of nineteenth-century French literature, this figure strikes a resolutely personal pose in Nelligan’s work: “I’m just a slaving dreamer passing by, / a sail-white soul that speaks eternally, / bearing, inside me, the spring dawn sky.”

In the afterword, Marc di Saverio offers a compelling and moving perspective on the presciently confessional nature of Nelligan’s poetry, and on his own personal attachment to its vitality and vulnerability. The midsection is marred, however, by regrettable copy-editing that allowed inconsistent use of French accents, misplaced words and punctuation marks, and two references to “Le [sic] Romance du Vin.

Poet, novelist, essayist, and professeur émérite at l’Université de Montréal, Pierre Nepveu is a stalwart supporter of Québécois literature, and in particular of poetry, most notably as indefatigable biographer and pre-eminent specialist of Gaston Miron. The Hardness of Matter and Water presents an evocative and sensual walk among urban landscapes, outdoor art, memories, longing, and history, with the St. Lawrence River omnipresent, through a series of four prose poems: “Meditations by the River,” “Short Winter Journeys,” “Lachine Stations,” and “Endings.” Donald Winkler’s elegant translation captures Nepveu’s skilful use of language, alluring tempo, and introspective imagery: “Spare us time turned inside out, running backwards like a crazed steed, windswept time that topples fences and leaves behind only dust and ash in our meadows and yards.” This present-day flâneur wanders through nostalgic scenes where melancholy and emptiness prevail: “The lone bird overflies the dark water. The book is closed, all that’s left is the sky’s ignorance and the riverbank’s indolence. The way is marked only by grey trees, emptied of life, drained of memory.” Nepveu’s wanderings and musings wrap us in a cloak of respectful wonderment.

Nelligan and Nepveu bestow upon us profoundly sensitive and human stories. That their poetry is available in English is indeed a gift to the larger literary world.

This review “Poesis and Translation” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 157-158.

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