In The Task of the Translator Walter Benjamin says that what gives a language translatability is its distance from the host language. Eda is this distance.
The otherness of eda has three aspects, thematic, linguistic and metaphysical, together forming its core, essence:
a) Thematic: Istanbul, Mistress - Constantinople, Ward of The Virgin Mary
Istanbul, the city of unspeakable beauty; the city of stench, crooked streets, endless vice; the long coveted prize of the Islamic Ottoman Empire; the vulnerable, beloved, cherished spiritual center of Eastern Christianity; the site of the rational, tent-like simplicity of Turkish Imperial architecture; the awesome interior space of the Hagia Sofia; the European and Asian city; the city of crossings and bridges and double crosses; the city gorgeous to the eye, even more beautiful in its secrets; the city of spiritual yearning and impulse murder; the city of disco bars whose basement forms a Byzantine palace; the city of violet water; the city of trysts; the city where place names gain fetishistic value; the city where life and history are cheap, and they are both everywhere.
The paradoxical nature of Istanbul is the obsessive reference point of 20th-century Turkish poetry. Almost no poem is untouched by it - its shape, its street names, its people, objects and activities, its geographic and historical locus. As the city evolves, the poetry responds, trying to re-organize, make sense of the changes. This interplay between city and language resonates spiritually, erotically, politically, philosophically.
b) Linguistic: "am am a sea vermin, so human goose the block of ice on which i fly is" [souljam]
Turkish is an agglutinative language, that is to say, declensions occur inside the words as suffixes. Words need not be attached to either end of prepositions to spell out relationships, as in English. This quality gives Turkish total syntactical flexibility. Words in a sentence can be arranged in any permutable order, each sounding natural.
The underlying syntactical principle is not logic, but emphasis: a movement of the speaker's or writer's affections. Thinking, speaking in Turkish is a peculiarly visceral activity, a record of thought emerging. The nearer the word is to the verb in a sentence, which itself has no fixed place in the sentence, the more emphasis it has. This ability to stress or unstress -not sounds or syllables; Turkish is syllabically unaccented- but words (thought as value-infested proximity) gives Turkish a unique capability for nuance, for a peculiar kind of intuitive thought.
Eda is the play of ideas through the body of Turkish. Not only is it the poetics of Turkish poetry in 20th century, it is the extension of the language itself, the flowering of its inherent potentials.
The otherness of eda is the distance which separates Turkish from English. English is an amazingly plastic language in terms of analytic thought, must spell out the relations between objects, between thoughts. A word like "from" or "to" predetermines the words which must precede and follow it. English permits a thought to be sayable only after being analyzed, socialized, objectified. This is the mystery of its rigid syntax after the Enlightenment. It resists, syntactically ostracizes -by being unnatural- pre-analytic thought, encouraging, recording the objective, tradition, socialized thought.
Eda is the alien other. What is this alien ghost, the way of moving and perceiving which must enter and possess English? It is Sufism, the Asiatic mode of perception which contains an intense subjectivity at its center. The pre-Islamic origins of Sufism is in Central Asian Shamanism. Turkish was the language of that area; its grammar is the quintessential Sufi language.
Before going any further, Turkish has no gender distinctions, either he or she or it. Though one may assume that the specificity of the situation would make it clear, this is not quite so. In Sufism (and the poetry of eda) the distinction (any distinction) does not truly exist; "it" (a bird, for example) is a link between the divine (he/she/it) and human (he/she), with the constant possibility of movement among them. Pronouns are fungible, conceptionally their references unstable. Suppose an English sentence where the pronoun (so gender and reference specific) shifts in the middle, lopsiding the syntactical balance.
[c) Metaphysical: Sufi Contradictions and Arcs of Ascent and Descent
In its pre-Islamic origins, Sufism unifies contradictions, more precisely, perceives, intuits experience before its splits into opposites. The Islam introduces a mathematical language into this intuition. God, the lover, and the human lover are one, turning to and into each other, through a process both violent and loving.
Arcs of Descent and Ascent describe this process, movements from the unity of God to phenomenal multiplicity and the reverse, from multiplicity to unity. These movements are simultaneous, not sequential -two aspects of one divine essence. The supreme moment in Sufism is the sudden shift in perception when a state (in its multiple senses) of exile, of accelerating multiplicity and distance, is experienced as yearning, a re-unifying movement, yearning, towards home, God. The shift is in perception, that is, in the mind. Everything, every object in existence, particularly physical love, move towards this moment. That is the radical subjectivity - love as objective subjectivity- at the heart of Sufism.
Sufism embodied in eda is different from Mevlana Jalaloddin Rumi's, with which the West is more familiar. Rumi's supreme process is ecstasy, reached through wine and dancing. On a linguistic level God and the speaker remain distinct, "You" and "I." Sufi union with God is expressed philosophically, metaphorically, harmonically.
In the Turkish tradition the supreme Sufi act is weeping, the dissolution of the individual ego by suffering through love, loss, the liquid of tears. What is ecstatic in eda involves a blurring of identities, in pain, at the same time, moving from object to object, unifying them in a mental movement of yearning, dance of dispossession. Wine has to be bought; tears are for free. No gendered pronouns, no stable word order, Turkish is a tongue of radical melancholia.
Distinctions dissolve into union. Here is the paradox of simultaneity in the arcs of descent and ascent. A waking state enters another's dream, and vice versa, creating a continuum. The objective becomes subjective. Physical desire ends in spiritual satiation. Weakness is also an expression of power. Pain is also pleasure. The Istanbul harbor with its crossing boats is a site of extreme beauty, paradise, and Styx, a separator and joiner of Europe and Asia, etc. The central sphere in eda is the moon, the prevailing light, moonlight: visible dark.
In its essence, this poetry has no metaphors (but creates spiritual stations of which Istanbul is the center) because no distinctions. Every image is a station, a physical sight in a spiritual progress of reincarnations, of yearning. Images and thoughts collapse towards each other, in love: "The rough man entered the lover's garden/It is woods now, my beautiful one, it is woods," says the 16th century poet Pir Sultan Abdal. What is the garden? The lover's pubic hair or a divine garden, "it"? Who is the "rough man"? The speaker, the speaker's lover or a third? To whom, by whom are the words uttered? In Turkish Sufism consciousness (love) is not a matter of "You" and "I"; but a triangle: you, I and he/she/It.
[The foregoing is the start of Murat Nemet-Nejat’s remarkable gathering, Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry (Talisman, 2004), which establishes “eda” as a marker of poetic process much as Lorca’s duende or the Japanese concept of yugen had ignited similar interests in the century now behind us. The rootedness of mysticism in language is central to the poetics in question, a point he hammers home with great intelligence & passion.]
The word diaspora arises in my mind, triggers a series of connections to which I had been late in coming, & colors the range of these poems as I now look back at them. That is what makes a postface, the chance to remember for myself what no one else can think or say for me. I am among the dispersed, the dispossessed – like all of us – not from any particular homeland but feeling the scattering-abroad inside me, the meaning of diaspora coursing through my veins. Along with that – as it did for our friend & brother-poet Edmond Jabès – the word Jew came out of the depths, where it had lain hidden, some three or four decades ago. In 1967, following a curious interlude & meeting with Paul Celan in Paris (I had been the first to translate him into English), I felt a rush of words & images (spent images, I thought) that wove themselves around a distant Poland peopled by Jewish specters that I first imagined & then fleshed out from others’ memories & writings. The opening poem came almost by itself but for the rest I used whatever tactics – experimental/avant-garde & otherwise – that were then at my disposal. I was deeply aware of holocaust but almost never spoke ot it as such, knowing that I had it anyway & that I couldn’t dislodge it as a hidden subtext. Another subtext, coming to surface in my mind, was a running translation into Yiddish – not a real translation but a pretended voicing in which I dreamed of myself as “the last Yiddish poet.” And for what David Meltzer later called my “surrealist Yiddish vaudeville” & what I spoke of on my own as “a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, & madmen,” I took 1931, my birth year – in New York, not Poland – as the imagined time in which to set an equally imagined “Poland.”
Over the next two decades & into the present, that world continued to shadow my work, which simultaneously drove me into other geographies & ethnicities, both real & imagined. I had in that process almost successfully evaded what was, after all, the dark side of diaspora, letting some of its blackness seep through in A Big Jewish Book (a.k.a. Exiled in the Word) & in poems & experiences among & about American Indians & those Dada fathers who foretold a new poetry & art between the ruins of the two world wars. I had as yet no outlet & no voice for holocaust, & I felt that my most radical/experimental means, as I employed them elsewhere, gave me no license here.
It was only in 1987, when I made the first of two trips to Poland, that the horror of the Jewish holocaust, which had been gnawing at me from childhood, sprang up from the Polish ground, or so it seemed, & took hold of me against all inclination to resist it. As the earlier work had issued from the key words “Jews” & “Poland,” what began to speak through me now was incited by the Yiddish/Hebrew word “khurbn” – the familiar/familial word remembered from childhood for what later & more universally came to be called holocaust. This seemed more particular to my own sense of it, & it gave me, more than I had ever known it before, the feeling that I was only a vessel through which a voice or voices other than my own were speaking. What was needed further, once the work had started, was a way to channel – in no mystical sense – other voices that would help to tell the fuller story. As with Poland/1931, I entered on a kind of investigative poetry – the words of the true witnesses mixed with my own – & a turn to collage to put it all in place. It was this attempt at objectification – along with the poems’ common themes – that marked the segue between the two works – the first one in the late 1960s & the other in 1987 & 1988.
By now another two decades have passed, & what was then close to surface has found a deeper place in my mind. Moving into the new century, I haven’t lost sight of diaspora & holocaust but come to feel them now as exile & suffering not only Jewish but on an almost universal scale. In no sense religious I had drawn freely in Poland/1931 on the figure of God’s exiled female aspect – Shekinah – while in Khurbn the overwhelming imagery for me was that of emptiness & silence. With Poland, looking back, I could indulge a high degree of play in a way I couldn’t or wouldn’t in the case of Khurbn. The years after Khurbn brought that back to me, but the central image this time was the Babe – the infant, like Christ, as god & victim. I began to feel this too – to feel the poems in which it issued – as the climax to what had come to me with Poland & again with Khurbn – the absurdity & horror of the god-child as that figure entered my imaginings.
The weirdness came first & drew me to a history of images whose power & sometime sensuality were still present at both the margins & center of the Christian world. These I found in wanderings through churches & museums & monasteries – babes in marvelous configurations: crowned & armored, swollen, bleeding. blind, bejewelled, feathered & recumbent, wedded often to a saint, in one uncanny instance to a serpent. But stranger (stronger) still – for me, for others – was the deformation of the Babe when set into a Jewish focus or pictured through the fearsome words of certain Christian poets – Blake in The Mental Traveller, Southwell in The Burning Babe, others like Levertov & Duncan from then to now. That much was literature, but the other, more awful reality was in the world outside the poem. Here, as with Khurbn, my impulse to play came up against what denies & murders play – the burnt & mutilated babe(s) not only as the Jewish horror but in the wreck of the divine when brought low anywhere by murder & by “holocaust” (itself a death by burning) that has haunted us down to the very present. For the depiction of these the Babe is a spent image & a companion as such to the spent images that life & the life of poetry must constantly absorb. The terminal point for me was the 2001 devastation in New York, to which I was a nearby witness, but fused here with a memory of Kurt Schwitters’ sculptural Merzbau, destroyed (also by fire) in World War Two. The column at its center, on top of which a babe’s head was implanted, serves me for a reprise & a coda.
I want to know all the secrets!
I have turned him into my Spectre.
He now labors at my forge.
He flows through each containing wall, a bifurcating
maze, filthy with unwashed adhesiveness.
What call this transmigration from a text
via translation into another,
the translator? Is not the site of transfer a kind of purgatorium,
a place of cleansing?
On girders of black lightning black maggots are frying.
Psyche rises from the void. An elk is my Cro-Magnon mother.
The blow of creation at Chauvet: a 30,000 year old “minotaur”
hovering on a fang-like rock overhang above
a fierce black vulva dabbed there like a feedbag.
If they knew to hover this metempsychotic hybrid over a vulva
they probably had extraordinary semen fantasies,
possibly would have connected testes
via spinal marrow to the termite queen of the brain.
There’s a pouch of menstrual blood & semen
attached to the back wall of imagination.
In it a dye called redemption, trying to reach rose,
keeps going sukra ratka sukra ratka sukra ratka.
March to this thunderstroke beat: God can only be tasted by angels.
Thus is there a sarcophagal taint in every hierarch.
The rootstalk of paradise is to be found in one’s trouser-like tongue.
I am entombed in womb-like fortitude, expanded to curtailment.
[I began this transmigralation after having spent three days in the British Museum, April, 2007, having flown to London for the English “launch” of The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo. I had been reading & admiring Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife. Saturated with museum “afterlife,” I realized that in the spirit that Blake’s Los compelled his Spectre to work with him at the forge, with my 48 year translation saga completed, Vallejo’s “afterlife” was (as far as I was concerned) to labor in my being. He was now part of my own intuitive machinery. Rather than cast him in the lake (as Blake elsewhere advises), I determined to include his cravings and revelations as implementations for my own “grindstone of rapport.”]
Will man ever fall out of himself,
slip his mummy,
split his background,
discard his salvation cartoon?
Never is oneself.
An astronomical amount of absence is loaded into every conscious being.
Do all questions concerning the continuing existence of the soul
make up a constellation called “the afterlife?”
In the poem “He who will come has just passed,” Vallejo implies that the resurrectional spirit of Christ, now neither of the past nor of the future but part of the air we breathe, is displayed in humankind’s ontological contradictions.
6 AM. Caressing Caryl’s cramped hand,
I see the two of us seated
facing outward like Egyptian King and Queen,
Caryl holding my head in her lap,
me holding Caryl’s head in my lap.
Our faces calm, archaically smiling.
Behind this scene: Golgatha at full tilt.
Three loaded swaying crosses
surrounded by thousands, as at a 1905 Alabama lynch picnic.
I lock onto the eyes of one man in the crowd
staring voluptuously at the middle nailed man
—to realize that He is Christ!
Then who is that up on the cross?
[For a discussion of Clayton Eshleman as translator & with a particular emphasis on his translations of César Vallejo, see the preceding entry on this blog.]
Translation alongside original creation is the great conduit for bringing new language and thought into a culture. It is also, for some of us who practice it but particularly for those who practice it as poets, a way of making poetry not unrelated to our ways of making poetry in any case. It is a testimony as well to the collective nature of the poetry project and to the desire on the part of many poets, contemporary and historical, to form against all odds a kind of visionary company. All of this, for those of us who approach translation in this way, enters into an assessment of any particular translation as an example of the translator’s art and practice.
In judging this year's submissions, I have chosen from a small wealth of poetry books in translation, any number of which could have justifiably been selected for the Landon Translation Award. Yet if the award is to honor the translator alongside the poet being translated, one of the books published last year stands out from the rest in ways that are difficult to emulate. In The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, the poet and translator Clayton Eshleman marks the end of a nearly fifty-year encounter with the work and life of one of the truly giant figures of twentieth-century poetry. That encounter, however, is far different from the lifetime work of a devoted scholar or even of many a poet who takes to translation as a kind of secondary profession. Such work can be of the utmost importance, and yet with Eshleman something else is going on for which I can find no easy equivalent. More than any poet I know he has pursued a dangerous path for a translator, a path on which the translation itself can be wrecked, diverted at best, by too close an identification with the translated poet. Yet Eshleman evades those pitfalls, while creating a narrative of interactions with his subject that is without precedent and with a deliberate consciousness of what he’s doing and why, and of how he may fail in that effort. Toward this awareness an important feature of The Collected Poems is his Afterword, subtitled A Translation Memoir. This is the account – and not for the first time – of his struggle with Vallejo, not in the usual sense of a translator working on a difficult text but in a way reminiscent of Lorca’s intuition that the greatest poetry results from a struggle with the Duende, the more-than-muse for poetry.
The description in Eshleman’s Memoir goes back over forty years and describes, convincingly enough, “violent and morbid fantasies” and a dreamlike struggle with “a figure who possessed a language the meaning of which I was attempting to wrest away.” Of those early imaginings, he writes later: “I thought Vallejo day and night, dreamed Vallejo,” and in his poem “The Name Encanyoned River” (the title taken from Vallejo): “For fifteen years you have rivered my sleep, / as if I slept under your gun, / as if my dreams took place in the pipe / you flowed through.” Or again and more vividly in the Memoir: “Now I was having dreams in which Vallejo’s corpse, wearing muddy shoes, was laid out in bed between [Eshleman’s first wife] Barbara and me.”
This is hard-core poetry and may currently be unfashionable, but it makes of Eshleman’s Vallejo translations an action story and the work of the translator an adventure in poetry. At the same time, and more than many, Eshleman is scrupulous in his working and goes to great lengths to get Vallejo right. As he tells it, speaking of advice given him by Cid Corman, an older poet/mentor, whatever the relationship might be to Vallejo or other translated poets, the act of translation was not to be an act of “interpretation,” a freewheeling remake of the original poem. Rather: “Corman taught me to respect the original at every point, to check everything (including words I thought I knew), to research arcane and archaic words, and to invent English words for coined words – in other words to aim for a translation that was absolutely accurate and up to the performance level of the original (at times, quite incompatible goals).”
Take Eshleman’s translation of Vallejo’s short early poem, “The Spider,” a figure central to Eshleman’s own imagination, and see how authentic the language is and how close to Vallejo, as if to prove that poet and poet-translator have made a (nearly) perfect fit:
It is an enormous spider that now cannot move:
a colorless spider, whose body,
a head and an abdomen, bleeds.
Today I watched it up close. With what effort
toward every side
it extended its innumerable legs.
And I have thought about its invisible eyes,
the spider’s fatal pilots.
It is a spider that tremored caught
on the edge of a rock;
abdomen on one side,
head on the other.
With so many legs the poor thing, and still unable
to free itself. And on seeing it
confounded by its fix
today I have felt such sorrow for that traveler.
It is an enormous spider, impeded by
its abdomen from following its head.
And I have thought about its eyes
and about its numerous legs . . .
And I have felt such sorrow for that traveler!
The resultant translations are quite remarkable as poetry and, even without the accompanying narrative/memoir, give a chilling sense of Vallejo’s power. Yet Eshleman, who has translated other strong poets such as Césaire, Artaud and Holan (he is by now Césaire’s principal translator) is here at the height of his powers as a poet-translator. If Vallejo truly found him in a dream and led him into poetry, the response as translation more than requites it.
. . . . . . .
A FINAL NOTE
There was some difficulty for me in choosing to award a poet-translator who has already been greatly honored and honored largely and rightfully for other aspects of his ongoing Vallejo translations. It has seemed to me too, in going over the range of translations submitted for the current Landon Award, that 2007 was a banner year for large-scale and highly ambitious translations. These include work from a number of major contemporary poets, some of them (Zanzotto, Darwish, Saenz) long overdue for extensive representation in English. In particular I want to cite I Am a Beautiful Monster, Marc Lowenthal’s translation of the bulk of the poetry and other writings of Francis Picabia, and Peter Cole’s ambitious and largely unprecedented anthology of Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, The Dream of the Poem. Markedly different in their subjects, both of these books make visible work that has rarely been seen or rarely in such readable form in English. Cole’s book, impressively and painstakingly presented, opens up a distant poetry through a number of greater and lesser poets writing between 950 and 1492, the golden age of Jewish diasporic poetry in Hebrew. With Picabia the presentation is of an experimental painter-poet, whose work can now stand for us alongside the poetry of Arp, Schwitters, Picasso, and Kandinsky, as a testimony to what Schwitters spoke of as “the erasure of the boundaries between the arts.” Lowenthal’s translation of Picabia’s often elusive writings never get in the way of the original, and the impressive structuring of the book gives a brilliant typographical representation of Picabia’s work as it relates to that of his Dada and Surrealist contemporaries.
And finally, while it’s on a smaller scale than I Am a Beautiful Monster, I would call attention to oceans beyond monotonous space, translated by John Solt, a first booklength selection from Kitasono Katue, a remarkable experimentalist and avant-gardist whose poems in Japanese were early explorations of new forms and modes of expression. That bringing such experimental and often neglected work to light is another major function of translation is a matter of singular importance for many of us writing and translating today.
on the ground
convulsed her hand
in rapid motion
earth against her back
her body hidden under
without a tooth
left in his mouth
the man is prey
to hunger he is cold
but the small bell
in his hand
the more it rings
the more the flies
& seal his eyes
& fill your streets
when the night
has made them
they hurry back
into the earth
true to their faith
the poem of begging
still eludes us
let us all address
waiting for a hand
to pull us back
cut like swords
above the city
amplified & roaring
from a hundred turrets
like the bim bom
in the polish air
crawling on his knees
over the metro floor
I have a hunger
& the others
stare him down
petals on a wet black bough
all beggars all thieves
all eager to escape the world
all locked in ice
all prisoners of their minds
[This poem was recovered, along with numerous others, in the process of assembling a volume of otherwise Uncollected Poems, scheduled for publication by Mark Weiss & Junction Press.]
[Originally published in Dialectical Anthropology : Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, edited by Christine Ward Gailey, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992. Copies of Diane Rothenberg’s book, Mothers of the Nation, in which this essay also appeared, are still available through Ta’wil Books, firstname.lastname@example.org. Another essay, "Corn Soup & Fry Bread," was posted earlier on December 5, 2008, & parts one and two of the present essay appeared on March 12 & 24. Part Two is from Harry Watt's oral autobiography, as recorded & transcribed by Diane Rothenberg.]Had I been listening, I would have realized that what Harry Watt was describing in his own life coincided with my interpretation of what the Seneca Indians had been doing a hundred years earlier – that is, adapting as well as they could to changes being imposed by the colonizers, while attempting to retain social cohesion, some measure of significant cultural content, and a sense of control.
My own investigation focused on a reexamination of the interaction of the Allegany Senecas and the Quaker missionaries who arrived in 1798 in response to the Seneca invitation to establish a mission. The Quakers came to “civilize” the Senecas and understood by civilization the eventual necessary goal of a commitment to “distinct property.” From a matrilineal, communal society in which economic viability was achieved through a complementary division of labor, in which female horticulturalists produced subsistence crops while men engaged in cash derivative activities (we are, after all, talking about several hundred years of world market extensions into the American continent}, the Quakers hoped to forge a society in which men would farm private property to be inherited by sons while women would engage in household tasks appropriate to the “gentle sex.”
The Quaker goal of civilization through male agriculture and private property was not only an expression of an eighteenth-century agrarian idealism. It was specifically an imperialist governmental policy designed to open western lands for sale to settlers in order both to satisfy land hunger and to raise money to pay war debts. If Indians could be induced to farm, they would both be pacified and reconciled to drastic land reductions. But the federal government could not afford to fund the program, and so the Quakers undertook, as a private society, to accomplish these goals. I believe their willingness to do so was related to their need to restore their former position of influence, which had been diminished by their reluctance to participate in the American Revolution.
Because the Quakers were a birthright society proscribed from seeking converts, their emphasis was on assisting Senecas in this world rather than in the next. Their emphasis, like Harry Watt’s, was on appropriate work as a measure of human worth. They were critical of “idlers” and eager to reduce economic reciprocity and resource distribution. And they were very eager to move women into an exclusive domestic sphere. Harry Watt strongly objected to this orientation and used to say that he believed a scrupulously clean house would indicate that a woman had wrong values. He recognized the important contribution of women to the life of the community in general and to the management and continuation of the Longhouse, and he predicted that it would be the energy and effort of the women upon which a continuation of traditional Seneca life would depend.
The centrality of the nuclear family reflected in Harry Watt’s narrative was prompted by the Quakers and endorsed by the prophet Handsome Lake. The prophet’s visions established the terms of social restructuring that are now the foundation of the contemporary Handsome Lake Longhouse Religion and of the conservative “old way” among the various groups adhering to that religion. Unlike the Quakers, Handsome Lake encouraged the establishment of clustered settlements, following the older residence patterns, and he rejected the Quakers’ urging that the economic reciprocity be abandoned, a goal to be accomplished through dispersed agricultural homesteads. Developments during the nineteenth century resulted in what William Fenton has called a “rural neighborhood” pattern, with nodes of settlement occurring between dispersed homesteads. Osteological evidence from nineteenth century cemeteries indicates that these homesteads were patrivirilocal by contrast with the normative past of a matriuxorilocality which was probably situationally variable over time anyway.
The issue of whether males engaged primarily in agriculture as a result of the Quaker influence was a crucial point in my investigations. Harry Watt’s father Hiram was, in fact, a farmer, although, as the narrative indicates, “What money he got, he went to work for others for a day or so at a time.” According to his daughter Effie Johnson, Hiram Watt was a first generation farmer who as a destitute boy of twelve began to clear, and hence claim, available reservation land to support himself and his widowed mother. He did this after the 1860’s when dairy farming had become a viable industry for both whites and Indians. The coming of the railroads made possible the shipping of cheese produced in the local factories, which bought fluid milk. As Harry Watt says, “But he had milk and from the milk he had an income.”
The Quakers made much of the cultural inhibitions that men felt to farming, and the story of women mocking men who took up a hoe by themselves taking up a gun is often repeated. The evidence, however, reveals reasons more economic than cultural for men to resist farming. With an absence of access to markets for agricultural products, men could not generate the cash the community needed. Men engaged in whatever work they could find, which included farm work for wages – “it’s that payday.” Although dairy farming had become a viable cash activity, Hiram Watt’s almost total dependence on farming was unusual among the Senecas. Harry remarks this when he contrasts his responsibilities with those of his friends who “didn’t have the farm like we had.”
Harry Watt’s remarks about horses (“I wanted them because if I had big horses I could do this and that. If I had big horses I could go and skin logs, go and haul lumber; I could go and haul wood…”) reflects a long tradition of the use of horses in the Seneca community. It was an ongoing source of friction with the Quakers. They encouraged livestock production but complained that cattle were neglected in the winter when men were away hunting. They also complained that horses proliferated in a way that was of no use to the community. Horses were of no use in such numbers if men were to concern themselves with agriculture, but they were of great use if the men were to engage in lumbering. Much to the Quakers’ disapproval, this was what men did after 1812 and what the first white settlers did as well. The Seneca word for horse translates as “he hauls logs,” and such crops as men raised, e.g. oats and hay, were associated with horses. The activities of the Indian and white loggers were intermeshed both in terms of labor and of access to the natural resource. Jurisdiction over the sale of logs from communal reservation land became a source of tension within the community, and conflicts over authority to alienate both land and natural resources were central to the displacement of the traditional political system of lifetime chiefs (elevated to their position by clan mothers) by the creation in 1848 of the Seneca Nation with its elected government (and with women disenfranchised.)
Harry Watt’s experiences as a laborer in western New York at the beginning of the twentieth century reflect the history of that region. Settlement of the area began late and slowly and relied on lumber. The convergence of three railroads, the Atlantic and Great Western, the Erie, and the Rochester and State Line, established the conditions for more rapid growth of the area around Salamanca after 1860. It was the route by which local products could be transported out and also the conduit through which oil from Pennsylvania was distributed (Ellis 1879.) Employment was available not only in laying and maintaining track, but also in the repair shops, the car shops, and in the stockyards maintained by the railroads. Small factories with loading platforms facing the tracks were established. Although the area had been deforested by the late nineteenth century, bark stripping for local tanneries continued to provide work in the former forests. Wage labor employment was available in the expanding economy. Seneca women, using the skills they had learned at the Quaker School, were employed as domestics by local families. Indian workers provided a steady and reliable source of cheap labor. More highly skilled work paid better, but this was rarely available to Indians. As a result, many young adults left the local area to seek employment elsewhere and frequently returned, if at all, only after retirement. Harry Watt’s life followed this pattern, and while he didn’t get to speak about it in his narrative, he returned to the Seneca society as a retired man who felt a need to commit himself to Seneca cultural preservation.
When Harry Watt remarked that he regretted that he hadn’t gone back to school. he did not add what he so often did, that he also envied those who had never gone to school. In his later years, he came to believe that school learning was a distraction from learning the intellectual content and practice of the traditional Seneca culture and particularly of the religion. He could speak Seneca, although not as well as he would have wanted, and he would note that speaking Seneca was a punishable offense at the Quaker school.
A formal school for children was established at Tunesassa, the Quaker farm, in about 1816, and there were problems and opposition to it from the beginning. The school became the central symbol around which fundamental divisions in the community expressed themselves. The situation became so tense that by 1821 the schoolmaster felt his life threatened. There were several abortive openings and closings and locational shifts until the middle of the 1840’s, when the Quakers concluded that only a boarding school would reduce community and home influences on students and permit the program of acculturation they were advancing. This school was a significant experience in the lives of many now elderly Allegany Senecas, remembered with both the pleasure and pain of most Indian boarding school experiences.
Finally, Harry Watt’s experiences with representatives of the white world were ongoing and varied. So it has been from the inception of the reservation in 1798. The reserved land is a strip forty miles long and half a mile wide on each side of the Allegheny River. Although they did not stay, emigrants passed through on the river on their way west, and the Senecas used it as a highway to bring trade goods to Pittsburgh and other centers. The shape of the reservation made the Seneca country all boundary with no interior, affording no place to avoid contact with whites and the influences of white society. Harry Watt’s early observations of the automobile and the desires it provoked in him is an example of that influence. The Quakers looked with favor on Allegany as the site of a mission, because they believed it stood outside of the area of white influence, and Handsome Lake had hoped to shape his people into an encapsulated and protected community. Both views were shortsighted; there would be no place to escape white expansion. Colonization from the beginning necessitated continual readjustments. That the Senecas have remained a vital social unit for so long is a testament to their adaptability.
But Harry Watt was always concerned with the loss of cultural content, a loss which he saw intensifying with technological development and language loss. The viability of the social unit itself he felt to be tied to and protected by the intellectual content of the culture. He used to say that at that time when white men come around asking what it is to be a Seneca and no one can tell them, then that will be the signal for the reservation to be terminated. For Harry Watt, the final defense of Indian life depended on what people had in their heads and in their hearts.
Q: I’d like to follow up on the question of translation. All of your poetry is so musical; do you feel any of that gets lost in the translations that you’ve heard? How much does it change, do you think?
A: Well, I think it probably changes a great deal. I can’t tell because when something of mine is translated into a language that’s not my language, I don’t know it enough to feel myself inside it. I can kind of understand what’s being said because it’s my poem that’s being translated, but I don’t know that I can judge the “musicality” of it in another language. Sometimes when I’m at a poetry reading of my work in France or Spain or South America, people who are native to the other language will come up and whisper to me, “Those translations really missed the mark.” What can I do – especially when others tell me that they’re okay?
Q: So we just have to learn every language, if we want to translate our own poems.
A: Well, recently on a trip to South America, I was doing my own reading of the Spanish translations. Could I follow while I was doing my own reading? No, I really couldn’t. It definitely sounded pretty good. And often too I work very closely with the translators. That works out better, for instance, in Spanish than Chinese. In Chinese, I can’t in any sense become a reader. I can answer questions, but I can’t otherwise work too closely. Sometimes it becomes very strange. Somebody, maybe even now, is working, trying to do a translation of “Cokboy,” which is very culturally specific, both Jewish and American in its language and thematics, and that makes translating wildly difficult. For example, in “Cokboy,” I play for a few lines with a kind of fake Yiddish accent, trying to imitate it or pretending to: “vot em I doink in dis strange place,/ mit deez pipple mit strange eyes.” The Chinese translator asked me, “Why does Cokboy resort to African-American dialect?” [laughter] I don’t know in what way dialect is expressed in Chinese writing, whether the written system is flexible enough to duplicate that peculiarity of sound that we think of as a dialect.
I can remember a couple of other translation stories. There’s a little manifesto of mine from the 1960s that starts out with the sentence, “I will change your mind.” That’s very playful, you know: I’ll change your mind as in mind-altering, or just I will change your mind in the ordinary sense of that: "I'll change your opinions." But what do you do with it in French? I don’t remember what my translators did, but there’s really no way of catching or matching it. It becomes a very serious statement: “I will transform your esprit.” But then esprit is itself a problem, a single and very common French word that covers both mind and spirit. So I don’t know how it works for the French when I talk about the esprit — are they hearing mind, which is a rather secular term, or are they hearing spirit, which is a rather non-secular, religious term? I’m writing a poem right now in which I think about and juxtapose, mind and spirit. This is something I’ll spring on a translator in another language. German runs into the same problem, where Geist is both mind and spirit, a philosophical word used by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Mind or the Phenomenology of Spirit, depending upon your mood on any given day. German can distinguish mind and spirit, but not in the common everyday language – not in the way we do in English. But then I do a lot of translating, too, so I work on situations where English can’t really handle what’s in French or German.
Q: When you read from Shaking the Pumpkin, you mentioned that there’s only one word underlying the four words from the song-poem “the animals are coming.”
A: In the opening song of the ritual poems that I translated, there’s only one word in the Seneca – a word that means something like “come” or “coming.” But it’s got a number of syllables, five syllables to be exact. “Coming” would be two syllables; “come” would be one syllable. That’s a little bit of the problem in translating it – particularly when I come to sing it in English. To the Senecas, I assume it’s quite clear what the coming refers to, what the arriving refers to – the sacred animals being called to join the ceremony. But the translator in English has several options – both for sound and meaning. The first possibility is “they are coming,” or to get it down more precisely, “the animals are coming.” That’s a question that comes up in translation: how much should you add by way of explanation to a text? How faithful, how minimal or maximal, should a translation be?
Q: I’d like to ask you about sequences, because so many of your poems are part of sequences. Do you begin with the over-arching idea, or does the theme emerge as you write?
A: Different poems happen in different ways. With some of the sequences, there is, at least, once you’ve gotten into it, some definite idea of what you’re doing, what, even in a formal or thematic sense, has to follow in subsequent poems. With A Book of Witness, say, taking that as a sequence, I had been interested for a long time in a form of poetry that takes the grammatical first person (the “I”) and then repeats it through a number of changes. Sometimes in magical poetry, the shaman or the magician or the sorcerer reiterates the “I,” thus thrusting himself or herself into the poem – or seeming to, since the “I” is sometimes identified with an outside force.. In the case of the Mazatec shamaness Maria Sabina: “I am the woman of the principal fountain, I am the woman of the mighty river, I am the woman of the sun, I am the woman of the stars.” I, I, I, I, I. In Technicians of the Sacred, I say something about this as a form, a form of poetry. But I was not – in A Book of Witness – writing that kind of heavily repetitive poetry.
Actually, to give some credit, I had been looking at a series of, not poems so much as verbal texts by the artist Jenny Holzer, a series that she calls Laments and that appears to be a little like Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, voices of the dead speaking and always speaking in the “I” voice, but more nervous, harder to pin down than Masters is. I did one or two poems modeled on that but with big gaps between the “I” statements and with changing voices … with a range of “I”s, my own and others'. And having started with that – one or two to start with – I did three or four more and decided that I wanted to do many of them. I had no idea how many, but it began to push along, and pretty easily at first. I found after thirty, I did forty; I didn’t seem to be running out of steam; I did fifty. And then, as it turns out, I think serendipitously, the fifty-first rounded the corner of the century mark. The fifty-first poem was written on New Year’s Day 2000. So then I began to think: well, I just crossed over from one century to another, maybe I’ll push on for another fifty poems in the 21st century – in other words, a century of poems. Over a period of time, maybe a year, year and a half, I had another fifty written. And then I thought, that’s the true terminal point for the century. A hundred.
So again: I had not at the beginning said, hmm, we’re coming toward the end of the century, I think I’ll write a hundred poems and I think I’ll do something with the first person pronoun, but as I got into it, at a certain point I knew I was going to do a long series. At another point I began pushing toward fifty poems and at another point toward a hundred poems. It was already marked out, you know, in a formal sense, what the poetry was going to be.
With Poland/1931, if you take that as a series of poems, a book of poems as it were, I wanted to take what I thought of, rightly or wrongly, as a debased form of ethnic writing and see how I could work with it. (I think a lot of this was in the air then.) I started out playing with a poem by Gertrude Stein called “Dates,” which you can find in a volume of the Yale Gertrude Stein series called Bee Time Vine. It’s very Steinish. I don’t have it here in front of me, but I think there are twelve or thirteen short sections to it, and one of them reads “Pass Over. / Pass over. / Pass. / Pass. / Pass. / Pass. / Pass pass.” So I said, Oh, that’s very nice, Gertrude Stein is writing a Jewish poem. Then I did a little take-off on it in which I added the phrase “pass water” at the end. I had been reading a novel Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was not as famous back then as he would become a year or two later – but not thanks to me, let me add – and there was a wholly different vocabulary, mystical, magical, Kabbalistic, you know, different in source and tone from Gertrude’s. So I systematically substituted Singer vocabulary for Stein vocabulary, closely following her sounds and rhythms. I can easily remember, there’s one little numbered section consisting of two words in Stein “college extension” and that – because the central character in Singer’s novel is a Jewish “messiah” who converts to Islam – became “holy Mohammed” in my poem “Satan in Goray.” (Same rhythm, you see, in one and the other.)
Starting from there I drew on a variety of experimental forms (and some not so experimental) that I had been developing over the previous decade – the change in this case being basically thematic. The book grew very much as did the time that went into it – both the writing and the research. I had definitely to research for this one because the material didn’t come to me automatically. So there’s a strong presence there of Singer and other Yiddish writers, and I was also looking over folklore texts, religious writings, memoirs, archives of Jewish life and lore, and talking to people, as much as I could, for whom that older Poland was a reality. I did not set foot in Poland until 1988, whereas Poland/1931 was written at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. I didn’t know the extent of what I would be doing when I started, but it became clear to me soon afterwards.
Q: I’d like to ask about the performance aspect of poetry. Because your work is so musical, I’d like to hear your ideas on how close music is to poetry, not necessarily just performance poetry, but poetry in general. Do the sounds come first to you or the subject, or is that different all the time?
A: It depends on what poem I’m writing. Poetry is musical in so far as it takes into account certain questions of timing and rhythm that are common both to poetry and to musical composition. We make assumptions that at least one of the origins of poetry is in musicalized words, sung words, song — that’s one basic root source (and pretty much a platitude, however true). Speech is another source, but speech has musical qualities to it also. Poetry, in a way, is a form of writing that almost always demands to be spoken or to be made audible, to hear or to read out loud, to chant, to do something with it beyond the reading (silent) on the page. With prose … some of the best prose demands, in a way, to be erased in the process of reading. You read good prose and you’re carried by what’s being said, but you’re not necessarily tuned into the language; in some ways the language almost disappears. The language doesn’t become an interference. With poetry the language is an interference. I would think of it as a demand to be heard.
For my generation, the poetry reading, which had been a very occasional thing before and I think did not exist at certain times and places, seems to have become a common practice of all poets. There may be some poets today who actively write poetry without getting into the reading of poetry, but not very many. Once that happened, some of us began to think seriously about the nature of the performances that we were doing. I found as a reader or performer of poetry that I was most assisted or enhanced by working with musicians, particularly with Bertram Turetzky, a very wonderful contrabassist, who helped me understand better the rhythmic possibilities of what I was doing. The bass in that sense is so much a rhythm instrument – a catalyst bringing your own rhythms forward. I think working with musicians – and not only bassists – enhanced the musicality of the performance even when the musicians were not there. I don’t always have to have my bassist with me, you know, to perform poetry. [laughter]
Over the years, I’ve worked on getting a certain amount of nervousness out of the performance. There will always be a degree of nervousness, and that’s positive because it’s high energy and so forth, but extreme nervousness for me had the drawback of speeding up and otherwise distorting the reading so much that I lost control. You need just enough nervousness to lead to a charged performance but not so much nervousness that you lose track of what you’re doing. I remember early on having experiences like: what am I saying? what am I doing? how do I keep my hand from shaking? Over the years, I think I managed to work most of that out.
Now also it’s possible to do still more expanded readings, bringing in visual elements and so on. On a couple of occasions poems of mine, Poland/1931 once and That Dada Strain once, were turned into theatrical performances. Ensembles of people were moving and dancing and taking roles, acting out the words as theatre people will do, making me nervous sometimes by the way they read the poems. There’s a kind of snobbish, a kind of exclusive attitude many of us poets have. For us the poetry reading explosion of the 50s and 60s was really a question of poets reading, not just of poetry readings. In certain cultures, Hispanic cultures for example, it was common to have poets do the writing and then other professionals, generally actors, do the reading. We gave that up or started to look down on actors as readers … and probably lost most of our audience as a result. I mean, I love going to a reading and hearing a poet read, even if the poet is a lousy reader, but I can’t insist on that being the case for everybody. Conceivably, somewhere along the line there’ll be a return to professional readers. I remain of the generation that prefers to have the poet read, and I’m also apprehensive about the way that actors read poetry, you know, the tendency to try to play in character, to perform a character in the reading, and therefore to get away from the language.
[Following a reading at the campus of Louisiana State University in 2004, I sat down with members of the campus community & the staff of the student-run magazine, New Delta Review, for a question-and-answer session. The interview was published in the summer 2005 issue with the title “The Synthesizing Mind,” and the the first part was republshed in this blog on March 18, 2009.]
Translation from French by Matthew Rothenberg
this is the song of a dadaist
who had dada in his heart
he tore his motor apart
he had dada in his heart
the elevator lugged a king
he was a lumpy frail machine
he cut his right arm to the bone
sent it to the pope in rome
that’s why later
had no more dada in its heart
eat your chocolate
wash your brain
gulp some rain
this is the song of a bicyclist
who loved dada from the start
she therefore was a dadaist
like all with dada in their heart
but her husband on new year’s day
learned everything & in a crisis
sent to the vatican right away
their two bodies in two suitcases
nor the bicyclist
nor the man
was ever happy or sad again
drink some bird’s milk
wash your sweets
eat your meat
[Performance by Noise 292 at http://cheunderground.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/02/chanson_dada.mp3 with Kristin Martin (rhythm guitar), David Rives (lead guitar), Wendell Kling (trash percussion), Joanne Norris (drums), Matthew Rothenberg (bass, vocals). Translation originally published in J. Rothenberg & P. Joris, Poems for the Millennium, volume 1 (University of California Press, 1995).