Playing Telephone with Emily Dickinson and Paul Legault

November 14, 2012 | 7 books mentioned 2 11 min read

“Go forth! Translate.” – Michael Henry Heim

coverI traveled to Brooklyn in early October in hopes of sighting the poet-translator Paul Legault in his natural habitat. I left my copy of his third book The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems back home because I feared the gold-edged volume with its golden yellow ribbon bookmark and queen’s blue hardcover would make me too conspicuous. Only later did I discover that blue and gold are the borough’s official colors.

As I waited to catch a glimpse of Legault in situ, I noted hipsters and normals carrying books with their bare hands, but none were the blue and gold volume I speak of. Members of all the tribes, including tourists, read on the subway: e-readers sheathed in leathery sleeves alongside yellowing paperback copies of lesser-known works by Vonnegut and Murakami. I also sighted two pairs of unicorn skinny jeans in the same afternoon (one pair boasted an army of tiny silver unicorns scattered evenly across the fabric, and the other featured a lone faded unicorn prancing across the wearer’s lap). I entered cafés, apothecaries, bookstores, hat shops, vintners, and corner bodegas stocked with organic everything. I overheard pods of Parisians arguing about who discovered Williamsburg first. I encountered languages, ages, skin tones, and walking styles as varied as I have seen back home, yet not a single pair of flip-flops. My thoughts always returned to Legault and his Emily, who – he says – “if she were still alive, I would attempt, and inevitably fail, to be her best friend.”

coverSmitten and unrequited, Legault offers up translations of Dickinson’s “complete poems” – all 1,789 of them as presented in R.W. Franklin’s definitive edition. He transports Dickinson into mostly fortune-cookie length snippets of contemporary English, more specifically into a dialect of American English spoken widely in urban pockets like Brooklyn, where increasing numbers of the highly educated and literary classes live, procreate, keep each other amused, and make their own cheese. Whether his exuberant game should be called a triumph that reignites our Dickinsonian fires, as the reviews thus far have concluded, or whether one should call Legault’s Dickinson Reader a joke he might have taken more seriously is a question best answered, I think, with another question: Are these among Legault’s strongest poems? I am not sure, though I find the project as a whole admirable and exciting. And I suspect that Legault, as a poet-translator and editor of ambitious translation projects, would want the answer to be an unequivocal yes.

covercoverThe Emily Dickinson Reader is Legault’s third book in as many years and his first composed exclusively of translations. His debut The Madeleine Poems received the Omnidawn Poetry Prize in 2009 for its series of invocations of the figure Madeleine in her various guises (poems include “Madeleine as Travelogue,” “Madeleine as Matador,” and “Madeleine as Forest Gospel”). His second book The Other Poems earned distinct praise from Marjorie Perloff, who describes the collection as “seventy-five taut and dazzling sonnets” that break “genuinely new ground for the lyric.” I would like to compare lines from all three books, and the translation in question to its original, to suggest that Legault’s Dickinson lacks some of what we have come to expect of him.

Legault translates Dickinson’s 20-line five stanza poem #340 “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” as follows: “Suddenly it is as if all plurality became one thing, and in / becoming so died. Or else just I died.” He distills, or collapses depending on your point of view, a poem built with more than 100 words on a frame of slant rhyme and hymn-meter into two colloquially phrased sentences of 20 words total. Let us agree that Legault’s version cannot, and is not meant to, rephrase Dickinson’s original, but rather seeks to recreate the spirit of the poem in a style and length that speak to today’s readers (who tweet and text while reading multiple books on a single flickering screen). Let us ask, then, if Legault’s 20 words do enough to be called a felicitous or persuasive version of Dickinson’s poem #340 with its “Mourners to and fro” and “beating – beating –” of a funeral service in the speaker’s brain that leaves her “and Silence – some strange Race / Wrecked, solitary, here –”.

Before we answer the question, let us consider how much Dickinson achieves in the final four lines, a stanza that was not included by the editors of the 1896 edition of her work possibly for being “entirely too explicit” in its description of a “mental breakdown” (see Helen Vendler’s Dickinson):

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And finished knowing – then –

The reader is left hanging with “then” suspended by two dashes in the final line. The vertigo and shattering of worlds, and the ambiguous possibility of a new world or worlds that might follow “- then -”, are not elicited by Legault’s translation, which produces an almost opposite effect through the portrait of a rational mind calmly questioning its perception of reality/plurality and being. If Legault meant to give us an anti-Dickinson poem #340, all understatement and twenty-first century ennui, then he succeeds in his intent, but his translation of the poem does not have a pulse (and what is poetry without the lyric beat).

Now let us compare Legault’s version of Dickinson’s #340 to poems, from his first two books, that offer strange and lyrical worlds in transition where vertigo and ambiguity have a place. First, Legault’s #340: “Suddenly it is as if all plurality became one thing, and in / becoming so died. Or else just I died.” Next, we can weigh in his “Madeleine poem,” two lines in its entirety, titled “Madeleine As Stone, What Is To Die of You?”:  “Dolls seldom have teeth. Still, I want a doll’s tooth / for my wedding ring. After all, it is my birthstone.” Finally, the opening two lines from his “Other Poem” titled “The Things You Find Underwater”: “Now that we’re on the level, / I’m unsure of where we were before.” I suggest, if it’s not too brazen, that we take the first two lines of “The Things You Find Underwater” as a stronger version, by Legault, of Dickinson’s #340. That is to say, when the plank in reason breaks, the speaker enters an underwater world that calls into question everything she was and knew before.

While Legault’s Dickinson translations may vary in persuasiveness, their presentation on the page is beguiling. The text is centered and many of the translations are short enough to fit on one line; at first glance, one may think that these poems are prose poetry, or simply prose, laid out on the page the way a book of proverbs or witticisms or a line-a-day of self-help might be. But they do more. The sequence of translations on page 158, for example, includes several poems of multi-line length that display how Legault’s lineation works.


I was happy until I was actually happy at which point
I wasn’t happy.


I remember all kinds of useless shit.


I’m not afraid of swimming. I just don’t like to get wet.


Little boys are kind of like puppies. I guess that makes
me an old, bitter cat.


Sometimes it’s hard to see where I’m going and I stop so
I don’t trip but it takes me longer to get where I’m going
because I keep stopping.


The best way to break up your routine is by meeting a stranger and
getting them to kill you.


People look better when you can’t see them.


There are a lot of turtles in Heaven.


Apples keep well.

coverLegault calls his translations “personal” in his introduction, and explains further: “If Emily Dickinson were a church, I would be inside of her right now, writing this. If she were a bee, I would buy a flower costume. […] Instead, I’ve settled on being her humble translator.” But he is not, I would argue, Dickinson’s “humble translator” at all. His translation of her complete oeuvre, or “distranslation” – the word Legault uses in reference to “In the Zone,” his version of Apollinaire’s first poem in Alcools – positions him as the opposite, as Dickinson’s twenty-first century fan in search of hyper-intimate status (he wishes “to be her best friend”) by poking the maximal amount of fun possible at her and the machine of academic scholarship behind her poetry. The Q&A between Legault and Legault-as-Emily published on the McSweeney’s website on August 13, 2012, the day before the book was released, reveals more about the impetus for his project:

ED: How did the idea of translating my work come about?

PL: I was in a seminar about you in which we would sit around reading your most private thoughts, trying to disassemble your psyche like a time-bomb.

At first I got defensive. It seemed ok to interpret the love letters you wrote to your sister-in-law, but I thought your poems couldn’t be reduced to simple ideas—without removing their lyric intensity / ruining them; i.e. my version of #72:

It’s my birthday!

But then I thought it’s nice that you have a birthday. It’s nice that you were a human and would be one if you weren’t dead. That you would get a twitter account were you alive — and not tend to it. That you wrote a poem about every idea I’ll ever have. That some of those ideas are stupid (but true); i.e.:

485. Death is mean.

Why not say it two ways? #485 [“The Whole of it came not at once”] is still a poem — no matter what I do to it.

And death is mean. So I wrote that down.

Though Legault is right – death is mean – his translations nonetheless upset some readers who, like Legault, get “defensive” and want to protect the poems and Dickinson’s legacy. Meanwhile, the book provides titillation to others who appreciate Legault’s humorous take on the originals and who might use his versions to have more fun with Dickinson, perhaps for after-dinner games of fortune-telling and eurythmy. The nerds (like me) will debate both sides and conduct comparative analyses of the translations to the originals. In slant rhyme. Everybody wins, to Legault’s delight, because everybody ends up talking about Dickinson anew.

The love song flowing through Legault’s Dickinson Reader is not, however, to Dickinson, but rather to all the perversities and pitfalls of our poet-translator’s true mistress and muse, translation. We can read his sequence of Dickinson-inspired meditations as an extended ars poetica to twenty-first century translators of poetry and to poets themselves, as a manifesto-in-disguise in an age when the remix replaces the political treatise. Legault’s (per)versions of Dickinson’s poems, renditions without a dash or hymnal beat in sight, are a call to consider how we cast and recast language, not just from English to [English/Polish/Spanish/Chinese/Russian/etc.], but also from one person to another, from silence to word.

Legault’s commitment to translation is evident in his work as co-founder and co-editor of Telephone Journal, which debuted with the Fall 2010 issue featuring translations of poems by the German poet Uljana Wolf. Legault and co-editor/founder Sharmila Cohen describe the framework for each issue of Telephone Journal:

The journal is called Telephone, like the children’s game in which phrases change as you whisper them from one person to the next. We are featuring four to five poems from one foreign poet in each issue, which are then translated roughly ten times by multiple different poets and translators. There are no rules about how each poem should be translated and we are soliciting a variety of interpretations.

Thus far Telephone Journal has appeared three times, each issue published as a physical book-object, though a few examples of translations can be read online. The Spring 2011 issue centers on the work of Montréal poets Renée Gagnon and Steve Savage, and the Fall 2011 issue revisits the word-things of the Brazilian poet, translator, critic, and artist Augusto de Campos.

The de Campos issue appeared in conjunction with an exhibition at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space in New York City that included lectures, performances, live collaborations, and a closing night featuring a game of telephone where participants whispered down the line, and thus reconstructed, the original “Concrete Poetry Manifesto.”

Written by Augusto de Campos, founding member of the Noigandres Group based in São Paolo along with his brother Haroldo de Campos and their partner in poems Décio Pignatari, and first published in 1956, the manifesto contains 11 key points about a new kind of poetry that is dynamic, built on the “tension of word-things in space-time.”

The concrete poet should approach each word as “a magnetic field of possibilities – like a dynamic object, a live cell, a complete organism, with psycho-physico-chemical properties, touch antennae circulation heart: live.” If words are living organisms, then poems are ecosystems: “the poetic nucleus is no longer placed in evidence by the successive and linear chaining of verses, but by a system of relationships and equilibriums between all parts of the poem.” The reconstruction of the manifesto through a game of telephone is the enactment of a lyrical ecosystem ruled by the “tension of word-things in space-time.”

coverThe de Campos issue of Telephone Journal was sadly the last, but the spirit of the project moves forward with Legault and Cohen’s current venture, a new publishing arm called Telephone Books expected to launch in late 2012 with The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare. This project pairs each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets with a different poet-translator who creates an English-to-English translation. Participating poet-translators include Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, Jen Bervin, Paul Celan, Tan Lin, Harryette Mullen, Ron Padgett, Donald Revell, Jerome Rothenberg, Juliana Spahr, and many more.  In the introduction to The Sonnets, Legault and Cohen explain what makes these rewritings of Shakespeare necessary:

Of course, we are aware of the many translations of Shakespeare’s works into modern English… We also want to offer a new and contemporary understanding of Shakespeare, but something beyond that of simply breaking through the boundaries of an ever-changing lexicon — our hope was that the contributors would approach the original texts from their multitude of vantage points, that they would board the ship, loot and pillage, break things down, and reconstruct it all in a fashion that would allow us to view multiple dimensions of the original work in a new light, as a new structure.

The homepage of Telephone Books boasts the tagline: “Telephone Books publishes works of radical translation” and offers a link to the “Manifesto of the New Translation”. The manifesto is made up of 11 points, like Augusto de Campos’s “Concrete Poetry Manifesto.” However, the “Manifesto of the New Translation,” unlike de Campos “Concrete Poetry Manifesto,” is embedded within a long poem that opens with the line, “We can’t sleep, me and @everyone being / in this digital light whose pixellation glows as live-streamedly as / a charge that can think – ” The text of the manifesto’s 11 points folded into the long poem and set off in bold print suggests that while the manifesto is at the core of the poem, it requires the poem to exist. The interrelationship between the poem and the manifesto-within-the-poem attests to the word as a living organism and the poem as an ecosystem. The manifesto’s first point is clear and sets the tone for the other ten: “1. We want to sing the love of translation, the habit of renewable energy and reconstitution.” The “Manifesto of the New Translation” is an echoing chamber with hyperlinks, tiny urls, yawps, quotes, hashtags, and a call to the future: “When we are gone let younger and stronger remakers than we translate us like ancient fragments.” The poem’s closing refrain is repeated in many languages: “The new is made of itself.”

Recycling, of course! Make it new. Make it alive.

Augusto de Campos recently published his translations of 45 of Emily Dickinson’s poems in the volume Não sou ninguém. We can read a few en face translations in issue #4 of the online literary journal Mnemozine, which is devoted to de Campos’ oeuvre as a poet, translator, artist, and musician. In his introduction to Não sou ninguém, de Campos admits that he does not expect his versions of Dickinson to “always get it right,” but nonetheless he “hopes that the original poem continues to be original in Portuguese.”

In the spirit of dynamic translation and concrete poetry, in celebration of the “tension of word-things in space-time,” I would like to call special attention to de Campos’ rendition of Dickinson’s “A word is dead, when it is said.”


A word is dead
When it is said
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

De Campos:

A palavra more
Quando ocorre,
Se dizia.
Eu digo que ela
Se revela
Nesse dia.

My translation from de Campos’ Portuguese version back to English:

The word dies
When it arrives,
Some said.
I say that she
Reveals herself
On that day.

I never found Legault, or Legault-as-Emily, in Brooklyn. (How silly of me to expect that a poet-translator born in Canada, raised in Tennessee, and trained in screenwriting at the University of Southern California and in poetry writing at the University of Virginia would stay put in his current place of residence; of course he travels constantly, everywhere and nowhere, and you can always find him here.) Before I returned home, I stapled a poem onto a half-dozen telephone poles scattered throughout the blue and gold borough. My missive takes the literary form of an “other poem” as coined by Legault, which per Marjorie Perloff’s definition “begins with a cryptic couplet, follows with a four-line dialogue […], and then puts four more couplets to work, analyzing what we have just heard or spinning variations on its tense, absurdist drama.” A detailed formula for how to construct such a sonnet appears on page 77 of Legault’s The Other Poems. It’s not a formula, actually. It’s an invitation.

by Madeleine as Reviewer (aka the other Magdalena)

To cast the rod into the sky and find no
lark, no star, but an expanse of dark.

WHITMAN: I sing my body eclectic.
LEGAULT: Knock knock…
DICKINSON: The stitch to sew – I straight the dash –
DE CAMPOS: I am Augusto.

I catch poems scattered for squirrels racing
winds carrying poems to future squirrels.

A sound tied to syllable, untied, to split infinity.
VEGETABLE: I am a vegetable.

1571: Asterisks are stars too.

The book is a rectangle a diamond a boomerang
slicing my heart, open to ooze, we drink.

was born in Santiago, Chile, and raised in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Her thesis on Raúl Zurita's Purgatorio (1979), written while an undergraduate at Harvard, led to a stint with the “Artes & Letras” section of Chile's leading newspaper El Mercurio. She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA with a dissertation on Elizabeth Bishop. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review, The Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rattle, The Critical Flame, Rewire Me, and The Millions. She lives in Santa Monica, California, with her husband and three small children. More at


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