6. Assassins in Love: Poets as Translators

by Paul Vangelisti
Otis College of Art and Design

I would like to note, at the start, that I don’t wish to offer any theories of intentionality or creativity in discussing translation. Let’s just say that, as a poet and translator, I have found both to be different as practices, and both fundamental to the health of poetic language. Also I must add that my own writing has been irrevocably shaped by my activity as a translator. In every way, at each stage of my career—over the more than forty years I’ve been engaged with both poetry and translation—what I’ve translated and why I’ve chosen to translate it has become more or less inseparable from the kind of poems I have been trying to write.

These intersections of poetry and translation are especially evident in the emergence of three figures in my formative years, who continue to influence my work.

Donald Davie (1922-1995). Besides being one of the most esteemed critics of his generation—his two books on Ezra Pound (Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor and Studies in Ezra Pound) are still classics in the field—Davie was an important member of the post-War British “Movement” school. He was a poet of discourse, what in his book on eighteenth-century verse he called “a poetry of statement.”

After taking his course on Ezra Pound at USC in the fall 1968, which got me through a terrifically disappointing first semester of graduate school, I signed up for what Davie called a “poetry course” for which he selected seven of us, graduates and undergraduates, to meet individually for one hour each week. It was like a shrink’s hour during which we could talk to him about anything we chose having something vaguely to do with writing. The only other ground rule for this curious “poetry course” was that we would, sometime during the semester, try our hand at translation.

It was the start of 1969, difficult and querulous times, indeed. Davie was not unsympathetic: he tolerated my political fervor and encouraged me to develop a practice as a poet-translator. He maintained, in true Poundian fashion, that translation would keep me honest, “keep my eye on the subject,” as old Ez was fond of saying, and allow me to bring into play poetic values not found in our language. Davie also noted that translation was “as close to doodling as poets can get, especially during those dry times.” He handed me an issue of Poetry Australia (Fall 1967), with a supplement on Italian poetry, edited by Frederick May, including poets from F. T. Marinetti to the then twenty-six-year-old Adriano Spatola, and I was off and running. I started translating pieces of Vittorio Sereni’s Algerian Diary (World War II prisoner-of-war poems), and ended up retranslating many of the poets in the Australian magazine. Besides Sereni, I would meet Adriano Spatola, Antonio Porta, Elio Pagliarani, Pier Paolo Pasolini and others in those pages. I would publish translations of all of these poets and eventually books by Sereni, Porta (Invasions and Other Poems) and Spatola (The Position of Things: Collected Poems 1961-1992). And on it went, Davie having sown several of the seeds for what would remain central in my life as a writer. It goes without saying that Davie also launched my life-long addiction to the work of Ezra Pound, certainly one of the greatest poet-translators in our literature, and one of the most influential in changing the poetic language of the twentieth century.

Parenthetically, an example of Pound’s and, in this case, T.S. Eliot’s experiments driven by translation is their use of nineteenth-century French rhymed verse to gain a certain chiseled, cameo-like effect in the kind of poetic language they were trying to introduce into the Anglo-American tradition. Soon after their meeting in London in 1915 they would get together and, in Pound’s words, “practice writing couplets” in the manner of, among others, the French Parnassian poet Theophile Gautier, whose 1852 volume Emaux et camees was much admired by the young Americans. The results of this may be most readily seen in Eliot’s Poems (1920) and Pound’s Lustra (1916) and Mauberly (1920).

A good deal of Pound’s groundbreaking work prior to 1915 was mostly the result of the young poet’s play with meters and forms adopted from renderings or imitations of such divergent poetries as Anglo-Saxon, Italian dolce stile nuovo, Greek and Roman epigrams, and nineteenth-century French decadents, not to mention the remarkable use of Chinese verse in his 1915 Cathay. Also, one has only to look at Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” particularly at its elegiac conclusion, to hear not only the music, but the images and manner of French poet Paul Laforgue come through this curious American poet’s verse. This was the poem that inspired Pound, after first reading it, to dash off a letter to Harriet Monroe of the then fledgling Poetry magazine in Chicago to implore her to publish this unknown young poet, saying that he was the first American to write a modern poem, both in style and subject matter. As Pound later noted, “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave”; and both poets were to do so before their thirtieth birthdays with the indispensible tools and models of translation.

Donald Davie’s critical opinions illuminated his poetry and translation, as here in a piece about Ezra Pound’s incarceration at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks near Pisa. Though not exactly a text to text translation, in a broader and perhaps more significant sense, the poet moves rather seamlessly here between his various practices as versifier, critic, translator, and those same practices of his master:

Ezra Pound in Pisa

Excellence is sparse
I am made of a Japanese mind
Concerning excellence:
However sparred or fierce
The furzy elements,
Let them be few
And spaciously dispersed,
And excellence appears.
Not beauty. As for beauty,
That is a special thing.
Excellence is what
A man who treads a path
In a prison-yard might string
Together, day by day,
From straws blown in his path
And bits of remembering.
Sun moves, and the shadow moves,
In spare and excellent order;
I too would once repair
Most afternoons to a pierced
Shadow on gravelly ground,
Write at a flaked, green-painted
Table, and scrape my chair
As sun and shade moved round.

One more thing about Donald Davie’s influence. When I founded the Graduate Writing program at Otis College of Art and Design in 1999, among the first things I instituted was a required course, for poets and fiction writers alike, called “History and Practice of Translation,” having in mind Davie’s (and Pound’s) insistence on translation as a vital source of education, as well as innovation. Today, twelve years later, this is the only required seminar that remains in our curriculum, and a class that students continue to point to as one of their most valuable experiences in our program.

 

In 1974, I met Mohammed Dib (1920–2003), and almost immediately he became more than a mentor, rather a lifelong friend and inspiration. He arrived in Los Angeles that January, a Regent’s Professor in French at UCLA for the spring semester. (Interestingly enough, Dib never had much university training, working as a weaver, teacher, accountant, interpreter, and journalist before being imprisoned and later expelled from Algeria by the French authorities in 1957.) We talked about anything and everything, and relished exploring the strangest and most incoherent pockets of an incoherent city that he liked to call “our Invisible City.” Years later in the mid-90s, during one of our annual year-end exchanges of books and greetings, he reminded me how important to his writing the “jazz music” I had introduced him to in Los Angeles had been. As we bumped along the streets listening to KKGO in my mustard-colored 1970 Datsun, Dib’s enthusiasm was contagious, wondering out loud what “petite histoire” we would be uncovering that day.

Filtered through two quite different registers of colonial French (his Algerian, mine elementary school with French-Canadian nuns), Dib spoke of his view of a cryptic, alternate space for literature outside the deadly pages of the New York Times or The New Yorker. He soon convinced me of what I had suspected having grown up in San Francisco, with its thriving alternative literary scene: literature and history are in the hands of those who write it, no matter how cryptic, subterranean, or fugitive the origins of that literature might seem to the promoters and enforcers of official culture. This invisible history, what Dib called the “cryptostasis” or “history’s shadow,” habitually coexists with, and may often outlive, however subversively, the history or literature he deemed “imperial-classical.”

The following year as I began translating—with Carol Lettieri—a selection he’d made of his poetry (Omneros, 1978), Dib’s conviction as to the telling silence of the book became an inescapable notion for me as a poet. As he wrote:

one step into the design and all space is surpassed there is no more space there is only the path you engrave in this paraphrase of calligraphy you must go search the writing that searches and writes you but

I visited him in Paris in 1975, a guest in his family’s apartment in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, and daily took the train with him to wander the streets of his quite visible city. Our excursions took us to his publisher’s (Seuil) offices, to the magazine Europe (Dib was translating my poem “The Tender Continent” for them), to the apartment of the poet Eugene Guillevic (1907–1997), to more than a few bookstores and cafés and, on one particularly soft Parisian afternoon, even into the dank basement workshop of an old gent Dib presented as “le maître du Camembert.” I’ll never forget the vigor with which that gruff, taciturn citizen, morsel of baguette in hand, attacked the fugitive crumbs of Camembert wiggling their way across his workshop table, translating them swiftly into his mouth. After that stay in Paris I never saw Dib again. We corresponded more or less regularly over the years, but through a series of mishaps we were never able to meet the three or four times I was in Paris during the 1980s.We sent each other our latest books of poems and occasionally there would also be a new novel or collection of stories in the mail from France.

Then, in December 1999, along with his holiday best wishes, came an unexpected request: would I work with him on a bilingual project, a series of poems about his visit to Los Angeles in 1974. He regretted his only payment could be in the form of granting me the English rights to the book, but he hoped I’d be willing as he considered our collaboration essential to revisiting those times. Flattered and a little mystified, I wrote back agreeing to embark on what Mohammed would call his “L.A. Trip.” In February 2000, the first thirty or so poems arrived with a note saying that his French poetry publisher, Éditions de la Difference, was interested in doing the book but that I might look for a U.S. publisher, or one that might be interested in doing a joint edition with France. As I began working on the poems, I talked to Douglas Messerli in Los Angeles and he was enthusiastic about the project for his Green Integer Books, since he and Dib had been in correspondence for some time about a collection of stories. Messerli also mentioned that Dib had written recently asking if he would be kind enough to send him a detailed map of Los Angeles, and that he had, just the week before, sent Dib that mainstay of Angeleno culture, the Thomas Bros. Guide.

Encouraged by both publishers, Mohammed and I kept at the project throughout the year, my translations going to his son Faiz’s e-mail, with Mohammed’s suggestions and corrections coming directly by post from La-Celle-Saint-Cloud. (After his death, his wife Colette wrote to say how much pleasure our work on the book—“all those pages filled with red and blue”—had given Mohammed at the end of his life.) We finished a first draft English version of the 102 poems by June 2001; Dib said that he would then compile a complete, corrected, bilingual version of “L.A. Trip” and send it to me for one last look. This “final draft” arrived from France in December 2001 with several remarkable additions. There were now 103 poems: the last poem, a kind of blues, composed in English, concluding the sequence:

Last words

You know, the man can’t help it
but feel bad, yes just feel bad.
So long, ma’am Jessamyn, so long,
Lord, I just couldn’t help it.
There ain’t use crying, yeh Sir,
that’s gospel true. Let’s us git.
So long, ma’am Jessamyn, so long.

There was also a subtitle, “A Novel in Verse,” along with a very brief introduction, a hundred words or so, underlining his unique form of realism, intending “to give body to a poetry come out of our ectoplasm days, languishing, exhausted by a breathless impressionism.” Looking through the manuscript I was awed by what, at 81, Dib had pulled off: an extraordinary testament to the exiled imagination set in verse form and in a city of ultimate displacement.

Soon, with Douglas Messerli, who was by now more than ever committed to the project, we planned Dib’s return to Los Angeles in February 2004, to mark the book’s publication and the 30th anniversary of his first and only visit. Mohammed’s health, after a serious fall in the summer of 2002, was not the best but he assured me that he wanted to be here to celebrate. In January 2003, he wrote suggesting that his hospital stay had been very trying, morally, perhaps, even more than physically, but he would see “L.A. Trip” through to the end. I wrote back that production on his book would soon be underway and that, after all, this “petite histoire” would finish in the place where it had all begun those many years before. On May 4, 2003, while I was on a fishing trip in Montana, my wife called to tell me that Mohammed Dib had died two days earlier. In December 2003, Green Integer published L.A. Trip: a Novel in Verse, in its complete, bilingual edition, some 270 pages.

A brief sample from L.A. Trip, chapter four, “Invisible City”:

One step. It’s all white
and one step, it’s all black.
L.A. Invisible City.

Plunging white, coma
in which wing all black
flutters and hushes and talks.

But the troubled air
it’s already tomorrow. It’s
the well-ordered ocean.

Far off where flutters
the wing, where flutters
the wing far off.

Invisible City.
They the travelers have not
come back.

One might wonder why, after such a long absence and only one visit in the first place, Mohammed chose to dedicate himself to such a taxing project late in life, focusing on a city, it might be said, he hardly knew. I was never compelled to ask this question while we were working on the book and now, eight years after his death, I have few theories to offer. The answers, of course, are in L.A. Trip, in that Invisible City with Miss Jessamyn, the Black Boy and the man who “can’t help but feel bad.” I suggest that, in the spirit of Mohammed’s work, one allows oneself to be read by the book, the complete bilingual experience as the poet envisioned it, navigating an exacting exile, between languages and continents.

In 2006, three years after his death, I published a book in Italy called Caper as part of a collaborative project with poet Ray DiPalma and visual artists Roy Dowell and Don Suggs. One of the poems in it is dedicated to Mohammed Dib. It is called “Pardon My French,” a phrase that was one of my mother’s favorites before she would say something particularly vulgar or scabrous. Besides alluding to and borrowing from my translations of Dib’s work, notions of exile and translation are, in seemingly endless mirroring effects, in the foreground of this piece. The poem, in fact, has a first line collaged from my translation of the opening of Leopardi’s “The Infinite”:

PARDON MY FRENCH

for Mohammed Dib

Ever dear to me these untold hills
where instruction bears coat and tie
as a lad of ten in the hotel lobby.
Essays, they say, are a middle-aged form,
pooling up quietly here and there.
Or a lad of ten or the thigh of a frog
and not the leg, luring ambition
to the colors of thought, coloratura
of a once upon a time refrigerator.
Take the goddamn Chippendale,
sitting and staring, listening to the wind
in the trees, or at the end of the bar
or on the back of a napkin. Please,
let me buy somebody a drink.
It’s historically improbable that we
(lifting my glass) understand each other,
hot brazen thing ailing so tenderly.
Too much like taste’s blague dispensation
replayed at least every five years or so
before the uprising, before the lily
was a tree and we and the CIA
invented abstract expressionism.

*

In tune with complete this or that
easy, simply lackadaisical as—
fill in the adjective and adore
the socks, the tomato,
the freshly planed tabletop,
most elegant green grasshopper
on the windowsill swarmed by ants.

Dawn, let me paint you
or something equally unlikely
.

While the aging enfant terrible
and terror of the 60’s now
proclaims everyone an ex-poet,
as in a dream on a bus
hurdling through traffic
saying to the person next to you
it is, after all, just a dream.

*

A range of constant dwelling
ever more whimsical than before
to reach a stranger place
absolutely abandoned to being read.

Do you mean Sunset & Alvarado
where this other small because
in place of a dance hall, a bracelet,
a hazy, barely visible sometime?

Or beyond exile where it belongs
lingering in the tease of circumstance,
the man not yet met or begun
lost one day on his way back home.

Is it them or is it here,
how far come around to becoming
what we had in other lazier,
more convivial days only reread?

*

Yes, the invisible, mon chèr, rippling through the sun as dolphins in their element. You once said that you had learned to write better than any of them, born to it and unable to hate without it. I laughed, having meant so too.

Time is what used to be
lost in appetite not silence
or this light upholding things
and things absent as birdsong
across the flat tar roofs at my feet.

Breeze beneath the wings,
night is what sleep was
untainted by song or leaky boat
or what the cemetery’s full of.

Adriano Spatola (1941–1988) is the third poet and last of these intersections of poetry and translation that I would like to discuss. “What is your program,” Adriano wrote in a letter in 1973, in response to my translation of his poem “Il boomerang” which appeared in the first issue of our literary magazine Invisible City (February 1971), and which he received almost two years after a copy was sent to his publisher in Milan. Answering this odd and formidable question, I took a less discursive approach, saying that in Los Angeles “what he might call ‘art’ was mostly by accident and one couldn’t afford a program or destination.” With this exchange began a friendship and collaboration, lasting until Spatola’s untimely death at age 47. In 1975, with his then partner and co-editor Giulia Niccolai, and my co-editor John McBride, we initiated a plan to translate and publish Italian and American poets in both our magazines Tam Tam and Invisible City, as well as collections of poetry in translation in our respective Edizioni Geiger and Red Hill Press. Soon we were also exchanging stays in each other’s houses in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and the Mulino di Bazzano near Parma.

Let me offer a brief example of the symbiosis we developed in those first ten years of translating and being close to Adriano and his work despite the more than 7,000 miles and the two very different languages and literary traditions separating us. First, taken from the opening of Adriano’s 1971 poem, “The Composition of the Text,” translated and published five years later:

an adjective breathing the window open
the insertion’s exact dimension in the rustling of pages
or see maybe how the text uses the body
see how the work is cosmic and biological and logical
in nocturnal voices in auroral explosions
in the croaking scratching scraping setting fire
here under the soft sky sticking all over the fingers
words that speak
And then the opening stanza from my poem “Yes,” written a couple of years later in 1978 and published in 1980:

and left with talking and space and
an uncertain intensity
between maybe and someone and
deep flies in the blaze and gusty
February of outfielding
and outfields want time and space and syntax and
a propinquity for being specific about what nobody’s
hands on the
foot on the
say hey can you see
who’s on first and

Certainly the sense of place—space and the sky, baseball and the linguistic context—are quite different; but the poetic language created by a shared notion of composition—call it parasurrealism, if you will—reveals a kinship in our practices.

In 1981, using a translation fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Adriano and I edited and translated the seminal volume, Italian Poetry 1960-1980: from the Neo to the Post-Avantgardes (Red Hill, 1982). In the intervening years we took part in literary festivals, book fairs, readings, and theatrical and radio productions in Italy and the U.S. Most importantly, we continued to publish translations of each other’s poetry. After his death, when one of the basic conditions of my writing definitely changed, I carried on our conversations by translating and, in many cases, re-translating his poems. Then, thirty-five years after Adriano’s first letter, there appeared The Position of Things: Collected Poems, 1961-1992 (Green Integer, 2008). Here is the poem from which this talk takes its name, “Assassins in Love,” with its startling opening image of a corpse fished out of the water, a corpse that begins taking on a life of its own as it starts to be examined by the poet, the reader, the translator, the coroner and, ultimately by our assassins in love. Adriano moves from the shock and outrage of his earlier parasurrealist poetry to this ludic vision inherent in that grandest of all modes, the all-encompassing comedy of his final posthumous collection. In the end is the beginning:

ASSASSINS IN LOVE

…and the sixth is Adriano Spatola
who never had a real job
except to print the songs
of his friends even the most tone-deaf

Nanni Balestrini

Pulled out of the water by the legs
recomposed like a compass on a rug
soaked with a slimy humidity
through the windows and doors
left ajar for his happiness
of a gasping intelligent fish
the glassy look is just fiction
a function of the typewriter
among books heaped along the hallway
for a correspondence devastated
by the physiological heat of the dark
that is also a system of laughing
or sneering in the emulsified face
splendid with liquid transparency
with an enraged inconsistency
of a slippery and illusive chord
tangled around the ankles
of the coroner swelling with activity
who whistles and sings out of tune
here we resume the theme of execution
the analysis of fate and circumstance
for the drowned man who erupts explanations
in front of the assassins in love
his alertness to neglecting nothing
of that which is yet to happen to him
Last year Adriano’s collected was chosen by the Academy of American Poets as the recipient of its Raizis/de Palchi Award for translation. Two weeks later my latest book of poetry appeared, Two (Talisman House), made up of two long poems, one of which is “A Capable Hand, or Maps for a Lost Dog,” a conversation with my deceased friend.

Let’s, for a moment, turn to the origins of this curious work. In the years immediately following Adriano’s death, I had a hard time comprehending his loss. Then, in 1990, I found myself engaged in a project, “ASAP” (referring to the injunction, “as soon as possible,” as well as to the initials of Adriano Spatola and Antonio Porta, a mutual friend and noted Italian poet and editor, who died the year after Adriano, in 1989at age 53). A poem in prose, I envisioned “ASAP” as a dialogue with Adriano—another, if more curious, “collaboration.” After about a year, it amounted to 34 sections but remained in my mind somehow unfinished. I circulated it among mutual friends but felt reluctant to publish it, until the poet Luigi Ballerini asked to use the piece as an “appendix” to a supplement he was editing on contemporary Italian poetry (Forum Italicum, 1992). And there “ASAP” remained, incomplete, I felt, and beguiling.

As I’ve mentioned, I continued to “collaborate” with Adriano, editing and translating his collected poems over a twelve-year period, until their publication in 2008. With the translation nearing completion, “ASAP” once again made its presence felt, suggesting a new form and resolution for itself. In Italy, in the summer of 2006, I began rewriting the entire manuscript, with each of the prose sections complementing and being complemented by the insertion of verse of varying lengths, in much the way the verse and prose function in Dante’s Vita Nuova. And in the way that the Vita Nuova is a beginning and an end, this would be similarly composed, allowing an approach to the particular origins of Adriano’s and my work as poets in and across two languages.

In rewriting, one of the features of the text I became most aware of is the basic tension, as in Dante’s poem, between the “book” (or prose) of memory and the verse or poem in action. Now working through the piece in the reverse of Dante’s explicating previously-written poetic set pieces revolving around the notion of earthly love, I set out to generate verse limiting myself to the words of the prose dialogues themselves, leading to a “new life” enacted within the territory of poetic speech. In essence, to generate multiple layers of text, a further country where what is dead or dying in us might be swallowed up by life.

Let me quote the second and last sections from “A Capable Hand,” to give some sense of how this text operates:

We always began carefully,
first settling on how many angels
and wine glasses in the deck,
how many stifling afternoons
before any posturing about
you, me or a household of words.

What was it Pasolini called death, “the alibi of Catholic slaves?” Writing must make you uncomfortable. So Catholic of me. And what about translation? Think of all the days and years: to fly 7,000 miles and ride several trains, to arrive at a river in a valley at the foot of mountains, to sit in a millhouse before a glass of wine and a poem and start translating. It was as if this game of meta-phrase and two-mindedness, played at your kitchen table or mine, continents and years apart, came before or sometimes even replaced how are you, what have you been doing, how does it feel to be living alone. Sure, Pasolini postured and exaggerated but don’t we all when we are alive? Did I mention, by the way, that I had been hired to teach creative writing at Occidental College? Where your “Seduction Seducteur,” if you recall, was done as a dance. It’s a private college, founded some 120 years ago, Presbyterian in intent, meant to spawn upright, successful young men and women. Robinson Jeffers attended in 1904, brought here by his father along with the rest of the family, which was settled in nearby Pasadena. The old man picked the college for moral reputation, as yet untainted by the new age of fast money and hungry multitudes. Switzerland, I read, was another possibility. Anyway, Jeffers attended though I don’t think graduated before running off with a friend’s wife. So we translated from a day or so after we first met, April 2, 1975, to that last stifling afternoon in Sant’Ilario, drinking Pernod and repairing someone else’s translation, Thursday, July 21, 1988. Time being at the moment parenthetical, I write in English without translation. Odd how in death a word seems more than what was available in life. Animal in the dusk, is it you or me with a house and a job and the right wine glasses finally?

By the way, did I mention the need
for parentheses, like the possibility
of running off with a friend’s wife,
untainted by time after time of
replacing how are you with what
are you going to do with that bottle?
And here is the final section of what is in many ways my ultimate collaboration with, and translation of Adriano. At this point in the poem it became difficult for me to determine where Adriano Spatola’s work ended and mine began. The perception, the knowledge one finds at the heart of poetry has engaged me as a poet and translator for all these years. It is what that grand critic Kenneth Burke remarked about poetry’s “keeping us from being hopelessly ourselves.” So the conversation in this new life concludes:

XXXIV

Her name     the jeep     again.
Despite our parentheses,
pronouns and their thirsty shadows
keep hovering all gussied-up
for their city of beauty.
Who in the previous sentence
revolves closer to a kiss?
Which brings me to two license plates I will see later this afternoon. After I finish a draft of your poem, “Assassins in Love,” for Luigi’s anthology. One reads: Aprill. I do hair. A Chaucerian, I gather, via a slippery T.S. Eliot. The other of a more elegiac mind: Lisa. Nails, Makeup & Music. In an earlier draft I had parentheses everywhere, unable to offer a given word. I just did it again—(earlier) (you) (given)—to the three in the (last, previous) sentence. But the parentheses don’t hold enough. They don’t (restrain) (delay) what I can’t say to you. The hummingbirds have fresh sugar water hanging from the bough. It came out this morning (very) close to the color of their throats. Other than that there is you, and my apology notwithstanding. I revolve around our intersection, as the shades around the pit Odysseus dug with his sword for you to drink from. It is he (I, me) who drinks last. So, we get all gussied-up for it. Or for me. Other than that, caro, I’ve been here it seems for months and I am still nine hours and eighteen years behind.

The water is beginning to darken,
trees looking solemn
in the late afternoon.
O animal in the dusk,
it isn’t you or me
but a stranger passing this way.
How will she know
if not for the breeze
up and down the arroyo?
It is a glum assassin who is not in love.
I turn the porch light on and sit.

 

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