Hard work. Close reading. In translation.

What is translation in poetry? Some poets seem quite translatable: Pablo Neruda; Valérie Rouzeau? I don’t know. Hard work. Close reading. In translation.

  • Valérie Rouzeau, Pas Revoir (2003), translated by Susan Wicks as Cold Spring in Winter (2009). With an Introduction by Stephen Romer. Arc Publications, Todmorten, UK, 2009.

The poem, or collection of poems is like an artist’s sketchbook. I wonder what might be distilled or worked up into, say, 50 lines? I was reminded early-on of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. And, later I read in a biographical endnote that Rouzeau is also a translator and has translated Williams. The gaps, cesurae, ambiguities and ellipses are what gives her poetry the universality in which I find truth, fear and solace. I like a narrative, but it doesn’t need to be on the surface. There must be a back-story, or several.

So what does it mean? Is it a Howl with nod to Ginsberg? Archival, like Paterson? Is it impressionism in verse? There are a few places where maybe she draws on contemporary counter-culture in the rhymes and rhythms. The language is very compressed.

How it looks: do we make anything of the right-justified lines? The scansion of much of the French punctuates the verses. There is frequent musicality in the French. I cannot see that the translation makes use of English prosody. It is as though Susan Wicks decided to skip the sound in order to deal with the semiotics, which are, well, complicated enough.

But, what is the purpose of the variable length verses? Are they correctly called “verses”? And, the right justification? The word-units: sentences – sometimes it is syntax – are ambiguous; many offer two or more readings: subject and object shift. Each verse begins with an indented line. Most verses run to about a line and a half or two lines. But, some go to three and occasionally four lines. One, on page 87, has five and one, on page 44, has six. The line breaks seem to have no prosodic or syntactic function but are driven by typography only. Sometimes there is serendipity. The grammar is stretched but arguably each word-unit of however many lines is a grammatical sentence or an intentional fragment.

I wish I had had the courage to approach it without first reading the introduction and biographical notes. I wish I hadn’t known the occupation of her father until it slowly reveals itself. The poem/s consist of many, many impressionistic vignettes, which accumulate, like a sketchbook, becoming a life of a daughter in a moment of grief. A very domestic poem, it moves through the formalities of death to the funeral and on without mentioning any explicit narrative. I am reminded of Escher’s two hands drawing each other.

But I have many wishes. I wish she had done more with the allegorical metallurgy. Nothing so obvious as base metal into gold,