American Witches: The Millions Interviews Alex Mar

- | 1

Alex Mar is a non-fiction writer and film director based in New York City. Her documentary feature American Mystic premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and inspired her first book Witches of America (FSG 2015). We spoke over the telephone about her foray into present day paganism and witchcraft in the United States, her evolving friendship with the priestess and diviner Morpheus Ravenna, and the challenges presented by writing nuanced non-fiction accounts of rituals where the unseen occurs.

The Millions: As fascinating as I found Morpheus and the other characters who populate Witches of America, I remained most fascinated by you and your unfolding process as a curious observer and, eventually, a participant subject to bouts of skepticism and wonder. Are you a reliable narrator?

Alex Mar: Oh, that’s a great question. Go right for the jugular! Well, I can start first by saying when I took on this project I had no intention of becoming such a huge part of the book. I have never been someone who identified as some sort of confessional writer. It had not been part of my work until then. The conversation I had with my publisher had been, “I will be this relatable framing device for this project so the reader can journey along with me and mostly the spotlight will be on everyone I am meeting with.” What I discovered really quickly is that approach rang hollow. It just seemed incredibly unfair to be asking so many people to share with me all the intimate details about their faith and for me to hang back. I realized that I had to be honest with the reader about my own doubts, about my own completely embarrassing existential questions, all of that. And as time went by and these relationships deepened for me, you know, my participation became inevitable as someone who is a persistent and curious person. I mean, you can’t really be surrounded by people who are claiming to practice magic and not push that further and not want to know what might be behind the next curtain. And there is curtain after curtain after curtain in this community.

The question of being a reliable narrator is an interesting one. There is a long-standing very American tradition of a certain kind of memoir where someone who has a lot of self-doubt immerses herself in a new world and comes out the other side with all kinds of answers having had a transformative experience. That is an all-American literary form that comes with its own problems and complexities. I never assumed this would be a neatly structured experience for me. I really tried to be as transparent as possible — about the rituals that I was taking part in and the complicated friendships I was forming with some of the witches I met and my relationship with the occult society in New Orleans — all of it felt incredibly complicated and confusing after a certain point. I tried to be really accurate about the real messy feelings that came with my level of involvement as opposed to something that would be more easily digestible.

TM: And that seems to me to be in keeping with the topic at hand: belief and the occult and the unseen. It’s not math, you know, 1+1…

AM: Religion in general, faith, belief, I think it’s got to be some of the most humiliating stuff to write about. I mean I think it’s something that smart, savvy people are wary of talking about unless they are in a very intimate circle of friends. It’s very vulnerable and it exposes you to questions like how do you calculate the value of your life on a daily basis and are you satisfied with who you are when you wake up in the morning. And so to explore that was inherently challenging. And with a real constant awareness that my average reader may be very skeptical and that I can relate to that and yet how can I somehow explain to that person that this is a terrain that I think is worth exploring and worth getting closer to. Any human being who has a pulse has an excited response, on kind of a childhood level, to the word “witchcraft” or the word “magic” — and as an adult how do you give yourself permission to look at that and turn it over and try to figure out what this community might be about and what part of it might relatable and legitimate instead of easily dismissed.

TM: How many people in the United States consider themselves to be practitioners of witchcraft and has the number been growing?

AM: Yes, that’s something I include in the first chapter and it’s tricky because obviously you are accounting for a margin of error for people who are practicing in secret and who would not fill out a national survey about their religious preference. Based on the current research, you could responsibly get to between 850,000 and 1 million Americans who are practitioners.

TM: I have been thinking about what it means to practice in secret or not. I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that came out during Pope Francis’s visit to the United States and it talked about an increase in young people joining religious orders and wearing the traditional vestments and habits, and how that can create a lot of surprise among family and friends and the general public. And the sense of purpose and clarity this life choice, or calling, brings is expressed through the traditional dress…

AM: I wrote a piece for the Oxford American about a Dominican convent in Houston. I was really curious about why a woman around my age would decide to marry God. I also visited a cloistered community about two hours away. And they have a lot of young women in their 20s and 30s and that was so fascinating to me. And I completely agree that there is a through-line. The attraction very much seems to be discovering a belief system that comes with all these traditions and rituals that gives meaning to daily life. I think that people are, on the one hand, intimidated to have all these open-ended choices, and there is great comfort in being able to ascribe to a system. This is something I talk about in the book, that I have a genuine envy for people who are made of a constitution where this can bring them satisfaction. As much as I value my independence, fiercely so, at the same time the fact that I don’t subscribe to a particular religious system does not mean I have solved these questions about why I am alive and what purpose anything I do has in the world.

Meeting someone like Morpheus, who is one of the major characters in the book, and in the time that I knew her she really rose up as an important priestess on the West Coast, meeting her was really a turning point for me early on because here was someone who was hyper-smart and really articulate, very funny, who really took her practice seriously, but didn’t expect you to, and who when she wasn’t in the middle of a ritual was really a low-key, laid-back, normal person. And she was so highly relatable to me and we enjoyed each other’s company. There was a real surprise to that. At the same time, she had this spiritual double-life that was really fulfilling to her that seemed so foreign and alien to me.

TM: Can you say something about the individual versus the group in witchcraft practice?

AM: The thing about the witchcraft community that is so interesting is that witchcraft is a mystical tradition. There is no middleman. You don’t need to go to some priest to help you commune with your god. You can go direct to your source. I think that’s incredibly attractive to a lot of the younger generation. Some of the witches I met would argue that there shouldn’t be any congregants. You should either be a priest/ess or you are not serious enough about your practice. You can also decide which gods or goddesses you have more of a relationship with and that is dependent on the coven you train with or your personal exploration.

One of the reasons I called the book Witches of America is not only because it’s about witches in this country, but it’s also a uniquely all-American religious movement that just hasn’t been talked about in enough depth. It’s a new chapter in religious history in this country. Here is a religion that is all about self-realization, there is a kind of pioneer spirit to it, you can transform yourself to the high priestess of such-and-such. You don’t have to inherit the beliefs of your family.

A really big issue in this community is that there are so many people who are working class and lower-middle class who are mainly self-taught or who went to a community college and who have jobs where they work at the supermarket or as a receptionist at some office downtown — they are not people of means. And yet, at the same time, on the weekends, their co-workers have no idea that they have this other dimension to their lives. And I was really impressed by that because it was a way for a number of people who I met to take control of their identity and to have a life that was, in their minds, a lot more enigmatic and in touch with the capital “M” mystery in the universe, while knowing you will probably never be able to afford to rent a bigger apartment or get a bigger car. And that seemed to me so American. To find a way to work around the system to create a new version of yourself and the path doesn’t have to matter and certain factors of your background and upbringing don’t have to matter. You can jump past that and choose to have another dimension to your life. And while it isn’t universal, it was definitely a huge trend within the community.

TM: Can you talk a little about witchcraft as a movement, and specifically as a political movement?

AM: There are definitely ways in which the pagan movement intersects with politics in this country. It goes back to the 1950s in the south of England and Gerald Gardner, the godfather of Wicca. There were a number of English Royal Air Force vets who were part of the first wave of American witches. There was a bridge between England and the U.S. in that way. But when it really took off was with the rise of counter-culture in the 1960s and second-wave feminism in the 1970s. That is a very clear way in which witchcraft and liberal politics have always had a relationship in this country.

As a smart and independent woman, it’s total common sense to me that I would have so many issues with mainstream religion. There really haven’t been many options presented to me where I feel like I’ve been treated as an equal within a religious context. But the witchcraft movement is a totally different scenario. Pagans believe that male and female forces have equal sway in the universe. There was a strong goddess movement that got going in the 1970s around feminism with the idea that a female force had created the universe and that was really essential as a way of correcting social injustice at the time.

And moving away from gender, the money question is interesting. You have these various pagan practices and local communities built up around witchcraft traditions and there is no meaningful fundraising because there are no synagogues, there are no brick-and-mortar churches, there is a very firm belief that you have a tree and dirt and a rock, that is all you need for a place of worship. You can build an altar in your home as a serious place of personal worship. Morpheus for a while had a property out in Santa Clara County, in California, where she and a number of pagan volunteers had actually erected a physical henge made out of massive stones they dragged from all around their property. Everyone would get together on the major holidays and they would have rituals outside under the moon surrounded by these huge rocks, but otherwise it was just dirt and people would camp out there. It’s interesting when you remove big money from how you define religious practice because I think in this country that’s really antithetical to a lot of people. It’s a real equalizer. It means that you can be a huge part of how your religious practice is being realized.

TM: Can you say something about your transition from outside observer and chronicler to a student of Feri? And specifically can you talk about your struggle with prayer?

AM: There naturally came a point at which I couldn’t really hold myself at arm’s length anymore. I wasn’t going to get any closer to answering my own questions. There are rituals that people have in large groups and yet more intense intimate practice is saved for when people are within their own coven or within smaller groups in private. That’s a different kind of animal. And I wanted to understand better what was possible when people got together in these more intimate scenarios.

A big part of if was getting to know Morpheus so well. She’s a complicated witch. She’s a Feri initiate [and] over the course of me knowing her she started a brand new priesthood — she had this pagan sanctuary where she held rituals for all the pagans around the Bay Area who were able to come. I wanted to get closer to whatever it was she was tapping into. After a certain point, I just went for it and reached out to her and asked her to recommend a teacher to me, who I could study Feri with. It felt a little scary to me. There is a big difference between exploring witchcraft in an intellectual way as a writer, thinking about it terms of these great portraits I am creating of these pagan priestesses…there is a huge gulf, it turns out, between that and saying in a sentence that you would like to study witchcraft, that you would like to train in witchcraft. I was surprised because I am an incredibly open-minded person and I am not necessarily that conventional or traditional. I realized that the word “witch” has a lot of power for me. It’s a scary word to apply to yourself. There was a little shock to me in the realization that I wanted to go that far.

In terms of the prayer thing, it turns out that when you train with a serious pagan priestess you are expected to develop a relationship with the gods. And this was such a foreign concept. I really had to grapple with the fact that I was entertaining becoming a devout person. I was drawn in, to a great degree, by the flashy rituals and the daggers and chalices and the chanting under the moon, but at the end of the day it’s also asking the question of whether or not you are capable of being a devout person who believes that there are forces out in the universe that you can work with. And that was a kind of big leap for me. There are parts of that that are attractive. And parts where the skeptical New Yorker in me had trouble and wrestled with that.

TM: Where are you presently in terms of your journey with the occult?

AM: I am still very open to possibilities. I would not label myself anything in particular.

TM: Do you still have your David Koresh novel in the wings or have you abandoned that child?

AM: I kind of taught myself how to write by drafting a novel, which is not that unique as a process. At this point, I very much identify as a non-fiction writer. I don’t really see much of a distinction between the level of artistry that you can bring to fiction versus non-fiction. I do feel much more grounded in my work when I can draw from the lives of people who are living and breathing right now. To me it gives a kind of purpose and drive to the work that I don’t find in experimenting with fiction. And it’s exciting to realize that about yourself. To say, “this is my zone.” There was something wildly ambitious about saying I am going to write this book about this entire community and I am presuming a level of intimacy that doesn’t really exist yet and how am I going to make this happen. For me personally, there is great satisfaction in this book because I believe it’s a very real, palpable slice of the witchcraft community right now in this country. You can read this book and really be immersed in that world in an accurate way. And I love the scope and ambition of that and it’s very much a non-fiction process.

TM: I really enjoyed the juxtapositions present in the slice of contemporary witchcraft that you offer — the spare scene in nature where a ritual is about to unfold versus the big hotel where pagan practitioners gather for the annual PantheaCon conference.

AM: Writing about rituals in general I found to be one of the surprise, massive, mind-blowing, back-breaking challenges of writing this book. The onus is on you as the writer to put the reader in that space and that moment in time and give them the feeling of everything that was going on in that room in the dark with all those other people, and, at the same time, you can’t simply list everything that took place, every ritual gesture, every line that was chanted, what everyone was wearing. You really have to be incredibly selective. You kind of have to conjure up this event and truncate it and give the reader enough of a sense of why on earth this is happening, the fact that there is a logic to it, and also the ecstatic feeling of being in that room, that is sort of like the feeling of being at a concert or something — how do you convey all of that.

And, of course, there are a number of different kinds of ritual scenarios in the book, and each one brings something different. It goes from the ritual of about 400 people in a double ballroom in a DoubleTree Hotel in San José, where the floor is carpeted in a room that is usually used for corporate events, and then there are the kinds of really intimate initiation-type ceremonies that Morpheus told me about that I wasn’t even allowed to be part of. With her in particular, our relationship ended up spanning five or six years and to see her supposedly channeling a goddess in a room with 400 people and then to have her show me the scar on her arm from where she makes a cut to make the blood offering when she is alone with her priesthood, getting a sense of her whole range of experience was amazing. I am pretty grateful that she has the patience to stick with me and a sense of humor to put up with these long invasive conversations and also welcoming me into these scenarios.

TM: I read your article “Sky Burial” that appeared in Oxford American last year. I found it so interesting and unexpected and bizarre. I was very moved by your discussion about death and excarnation. Is that article connected to Witches of America?

AM: Yes. Later on in the book, I mention this question in the pagan community: how do we want our bodies handled when we die. Because this is a community that doesn’t feel necessarily connected to Christian traditions, let’s say. And going back historically there are different pagan communities that had very different funereal rites than what goes on in funeral parlors in America. Morpheus one day shared with me that she has always had this fantasy that when she dies she wants to be excarnated or have a sky burial performed, which is something mostly associated with certain Tibetan monks, where your body is left exposed to the elements or to birds of prey. And your bones are collected and your skull is collected and used in rituals. So her fantasy was to have her body laid out that way and eaten by ravens and other corvids and have her bones made into a beautiful and decorated altar where all the witches she had worked with over the years and had been close with could visit and use her bones to perform ritual and consult her skull as a sort of oracle. I thought this image was so completely amazing. It’s such an exalted way to be preserved, on the one hand, and very macabre, on the other. That actually led me to the question: is sky burial actually technically possible under any imaginable circumstance in this country.

Maybe this is one of the ways in which certain elements of the pagan community are more universal than we realize. There is something there that isn’t just about calling yourself a “pagan” or a “witch.” It’s a desire for a different way of connecting to life and to death.

TM: Can we talk about your chapter “Sympathy for the Necromancer,” which strikes a different, darker tone. Were you scared by your conversation with “Jonathan” at any point?

AM: It was very disturbing to realize that this was the reality of his practice. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being completely stunned by someone I have spent time with for my writing. The truth is that any religious community will have its extremists. I wanted to be able to address that in contrast to the majority of this community.

There is this larger existential questioning that all the people in this book are going through and I am going through and the dark side of that is that our fear of death can warp us. Part of what that chapter is about is a desire for control over life and death that isn’t human.

A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: ‘The Complete Stories’ by Clarice Lispector

- | 2


New Directions’ The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser, is a splendorous achievement. For the first time in any language, readers can turn to a single volume for all the short stories by the twentieth-century Brazilian writer affectionately known by her unusual first name, that enigmatic woman born in a small village in the Ukraine in 1920 to Jewish parents who fled the country when she was barely a year old. This is the sixth New Directions book by Clarice to appear in less than four years under the helm of series editor Moser, who is also the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press 2009). The other five are new translations of the novels Near to the Wild Heart, A Breath of Life, Água Viva, The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star. Each book has a different translator, which suits the multivalent spirit of Clarice’s strange and unsettling oeuvre.

Clarice is a writer obsessed with language, how it moves and breathes, how far it can be pushed and pulled apart, how it breaks down. Her prose, in the stories and novels and newspaper columns, follows overarching themes: how language is used to create identity, what is at stake when a narrator narrates, the reality of fiction, how words can be used to establish and maintain power, the failure of language when humans (and occasionally animals) want to communicate, silence and the unspeakable. Much of her writing features women whose lives unfold in domestic spaces, women who navigate traditional feminine duties such as housework and caregiving alongside the perils and pleasures of love, motherhood, romance, sex, money, and the mysteries of the world beyond the front door.

Men too populate Clarice’s stories: Marcel Pretre, the French explorer in “The Smallest Woman in the World”; Artur, the high school student who finds himself increasingly misunderstood by his parents in “Beginnings of a Fortune”; the bigamist Xavier and his two live-in girlfriends livid about the prostitute he favors for dirty talk in “The Body”; and the beggar who receives a five hundred cruzeiro banknote from high society wife Carla de Sousa e Santos because she doesn’t have change in “Beauty and the Beast or the Big Wound.” There are husbands, boyfriends, brothers, and sons, men in all manner of professions and affective arrangements. Clarice never considered herself to be a woman writer or a writer of women’s literature. Language, muscular and mystical, is her supreme concern, and language is universal.

“The Crime of the Mathematics Professor”: Clarice’s Debut in English
The first translation of Clarice’s work in English appeared in December 1961. William L. Grossman and José Roberto Vasconcellos’ version of “The Crime of the Mathematics Professor” debuted in the Odyssey Review, published by the Latin American and European Literary Society. It was later included in Grossman’s anthology Modern Brazilian Short Stories, published by the University of California Press in 1967. The story follows a mathematics professor, the dog he abandons when he moves to a new city with his family, and the dog he kills “in tribute” to the abandoned dog. Despite the professor’s careful calculations, a kind of moral mathematics he seeks to deploy, he fails to redeem his crime (of abandonment, of desire to rid himself of his original dog, of killing) by solemnly burying the dead creature before him. As translated by Grossman and Vasconcellos, in the final paragraph he decides to unbury the dead dog:

It looked unfamiliar with earth on its lashes and with its open, glazed eyes. Thus, the mathematics professor renewed his crime eternally. He looked to the sky and to the earth around him, asking them to witness what he had just done. Then he started down the hill toward the little city below.

Here is Katrina Dodson’s version from New Directions’ Complete Stories, which she titles “The Crime of the Mathematics Teacher”:

The dark dog at last appeared whole, unfamiliar with dirt in its eyelashes, its eyes open and glazed over. And thus the mathematics teacher renewed his crime forever. The man then looked around and to the heavens beseeching a witness to what he’d done. And as if that still weren’t enough, he started descending the slopes toward the bosom of his family.

In Clarice’s original, the final sentence is: “E como se não bastasse ainda, começou a descer as escarpas em direção ao seio de sua familia.” Dodson’s version is word for word in tune with the original.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Translations of “Three Stories by Clarice Lispector”
Elizabeth Bishop published her “Three Stories by Clarice Lispector” — “The Smallest Woman in the World,” “A Hen,” and “Marmosets” — in the summer 1964 issue of The Kenyon Review. For years these translations were somewhat hidden gems. Bishop never included them in any of her books the way she did with her poetry translations. Readers can now find the trio of stories in two recent Bishop compilations: Library of America’s Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Prose: Elizabeth Bishop (2011). The evocative triptych features three female creatures vying for agency, if not survival, in the face of human interaction: Little Flower, the smallest woman in the world, squares off against the French explorer Marcel Pretre who claims to have “discovered” her in the “depths of Equatorial Africa”; the Sunday hen is due to be killed for supper by the humans she lives with; and Lisette the marmoset is purchased by the narrator as a pet for her children one summer day in Copacabana. (For a sense of how Dodson handles her translations of these stories, it might suffice to say that she titles two of them differently: “A Chicken” and “Monkeys.”)

Clarice and Bishop were neighbors during the time Bishop shared an apartment with Lota de Macedo Soares in Leme, Rio de Janeiro. Bishop first arrived in Brazil in late 1951, while a freshly separated Lispector moved back to Rio in 1959 alone with her two sons after 15 years of living abroad with her diplomat husband. In late 1962, Bishop gave Lispector a selection of nine of her own poems — “Questions of Travel,” “Manuelzinho,” “Electrical Storm,” “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” “Song for the Rainy Season,” “The Armadillo,” “Sandpiper,” “The Riverman,” and “A Norther—Key West” — along with the following hand-written note: “For Clarice Lispector, from her admiring translator, Elizabeth Bishop; Rio, November 22, 1962.” When I first fixed my eyes on this sheath of papers at the Clarice Lispector Archive at the Museu Casa de Rui Barbosa in Rio’s Botafogo neighborhood, years ago as a graduate student, my hands shook with excitement upon recognizing Bishop’s small, slightly slanted handwriting in the upper-right hand corner of the first typed page.

Bishop’s translations of Clarice’s stories suggest overlapping thematic interests: questions of foreignness, the feminine, motherhood, language, identity, and the relationships between humans and animals. Questions of self-possession. In addition to this Clarice-as-rendered-by-Bishop prism, a kind of conversation between two great literary minds, the most important thing about the Bishop translations is the fact that their publication led to additional translations of Clarice’s work in English. Bishop considered taking on one of Clarice’s novels, but ultimately declined. In her May 26, 1963, letter to Robert Lowell, she wrote: “Knopf apparently is definitely interested in one of her novels. I’ve refused to do any of that kind of translating, however. It’s too boring & time-wasting.” The Apple in the Dark, the very un-boring novel translated by Gregory Rabassa and published by Knopf, appeared in 1967 and clocks in at well over 300 pages. That same year Bishop published an original trio of texts — the prose-poems “Giant Toad,” “Strayed Crab,” and “Giant Snail” — grouped under the title “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics” in The Kenyon Review. Bishop’s Sub-Tropic trio offers a kind of lyrical response to her 1964 Clarice translations.

Katrina Dodson’s Clarice: “A One-Woman Vaudeville Act”
I have always been fascinated by the fact that Clarice might have been an English language writer. I say this because when her family fled the Ukraine in 1921, they first landed in a refugee hostel in Bucharest, and from there they waited to see whether their relatives in the United States or Brazil would sponsor them. When they heard from Clarice’s maternal aunt and her husband in Brazil, they were issued passports by the Russian consulate in Bucharest and traveled to Hamburg where they would board the Cuyabá, a homeward-bound Brazilian ship. The Lispectors crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the northeastern port town of Maceió, which, as described in Moser’s Why This World, had a dock “graced with its own replica of the Statue of Liberty.” But it was no Manhattan. And if the Lispectors had heard from Clarice’s mother’s half-siblings in the United States first? In my mind, this twist of fate heightens the stakes for Clarice’s English-language translators. Many have tried to render her into what might have been her mother tongue: Grossman and Vasconellos, Bishop, Rabassa, Alexis Levitin, Giovanni Pontiero, Earl Fitz and Elizabeth Lowe. And there is the new crop of translators recruited by Moser, including Dodson, Idra Novey, Stefan Tobler, Alison Entrekin, and Johnny Lorenz.

In Clarice’s final work The Hour of the Star, a slim novel published in 1977 mere weeks before her untimely death of ovarian cancer at age 57, she dedicates “this thing here” to a number of composers including Schumann, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, Carl Orff, Schoenberg, and “to the twelve-tone composers, to the strident cries of the electronic generation — to all those who reached the most alarmingly unsuspected regions within me, all those prophets of the present and who have foretold me to myself until in that instant I exploded into: I.” I have no doubt that “all those prophets” include her translators, past, present, and future. She goes on to describe the “I” she “exploded into” and to invoke — provoke — her translators and readers, critics and champions: “This I is all of you since I can’t stand being just me, I need others in order to get by, fool that I am.”

Katrina Dodson, who recasts the Complete Stories into English with an energetic mastery that feels utterly contemporary while evoking the intoxicating dissonance of the original Portuguese prose, calls reading Clarice’s work “a disorienting experience” in her “Translator’s Note.” Dodson then candidly discusses her translation process:

Translating Clarice has meant growing attuned to the ways her sly surrealism, which can veer into the absurdist or fantastical, is embedded in her style. The logic of a deceptively simple narrative or series of declarations becomes distorted or ends in non sequiturs. … The most dizzying feature in Clarice’s writing are the surprises on the level of the sentence. Certain combinations seem contradictory or disproportionate like “delicate abyss,” or “horribly marvelous.” The usual expression takes a detour, as when an elderly matriarch scornfully calls her offspring “flesh of my knee” instead of “flesh of my flesh.” A comma trips up the pace where it doesn’t seem to belong, like a hair she’s placed in your soup. … In keeping up with Clarice’s shifting registers and translating nearly four decades of work in two years’ time, I’ve often felt like a one-woman vaudeville act, shouting, laughing, crying, musing, singing, and tap-dancing my way breathlessly across the stage.

I can attest that attempting to translate Clarice is no easy venture. I tried when I was a graduate student enrolled in the famed UCLA translation workshop with the late Michael Heim, indefatigable teacher, generous mentor, and formidable translator of Milan Kundera, Thomas Mann, Anton Chekhov, and Günter Grass, among others. He assigned us the task of finding an “impossible text” to translate, precisely so he could teach us how to make good choices as translators faced with worst-case scenarios. I settled on Clarice’s short story “Silence,” which I read as a statement on how to live and how to write. I figured that redeploying her “Silence” into English would help me better glean Clarice’s wisdom. Here is my scratchy version of the opening paragraph:

It is so vast, the silence of the mountain evening. It is so uninhabited. A vain attempt is made not to hear it, to think quickly in order to disguise it.  Or to create an agenda, the fragile stitch that barely ties us to the suddenly improbable tomorrow. How to transcend that peace that watches us. Silence so big that hopelessness is ashamed. Mountains so tall that hopelessness is ashamed. Both ears prick up, the head leans, the entire body listens: not a sound. Not a cock crows. How to be within reach of silence’s profound meditation. Of that silence without memory of words. If it is death, how to reach you.

And here is Dodson’s undoubtedly superior translation, where the connection between silence and death, and more specifically between the second-person narrator’s avoidance of silence and enchantment with death, is made much more clear while maintaining the edginess and multiple layers of the original:

The silence of the night in the mountains is so vast. It is so desolate. You try in vain to work not to hear it, to think quickly to cover it up. Or to invent some plans, a fragile stitch that barely links us to the suddenly improbable day of tomorrow. How to surmount this peace that spies us. A silence so great that despair is ashamed. Mountains so high that despair is ashamed. The ears prick, the head tilts, the whole body listens: not a murmur. Not a rooster. How to come within reach of this deep meditation on the silence. On that silence without memory of words. If thou art death, how to reach thee.

Dodson’s successful rendition of Clarice’s “Silence” and my long ago attempt both point to what Moser highlights in his “Introduction” to the Complete Stories:

Clarice undid reflexive patterns in grammar. She often had to remind readers that her “foreign” speech was not the result of her European birth or an ignorance of Portuguese. One of the most highly educated women of her generation was no more ignorant of the standard Brazilian language than Schoenberg was of the diatonic scale, or Picasso of anatomy.

In his “Translator’s Afterword” to The Hour of the Star, Moser says: “no matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds just as unusual in the original.” He assures us, however, that “her books are not untranslatable.” He believes that Clarice’s translators must “resist the temptation to explain or rearrange her prose, which can only flatten it and remove from it that ‘foreign’ aura that is its hallmark, and its glory.” The hair in one’s soup, as Dodson sees it. Glittering.

My Disease Feels Beautiful to Me: On the Work of Raúl Zurita

- | 10

Raúl Zurita, born in Santiago in 1950, has published more than 20 books of poetry and received countless honors and prizes including Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2000. When he was two years old, his father died, leaving him and his infant sister in the care of their mother and maternal grandparents, who immigrated to Chile from Italy. The morning of Zurita’s father’s funeral, his grandfather died of a heart attack. His mother worked long days as a secretary while his grandmother looked after him and his sister. She spoke to her grandchildren about Genova and the Rapallo Sea, the Italian painters and musicians she admired, and, most of all, The Divine Comedy. In a recent interview in Uruguay’s El País with Ilan Stavans, Zurita says, “Instead of stories, [our grandmother] told us passages from the Inferno, which both terrorized and fascinated us.”

Zurita’s first book of poems Purgatorio was published in 1979 during the early years of the Pinochet dictatorship. An engineering student at the University of Federico Santa María in Valparaíso when the coup took place in 1973, Zurita was arrested, detained, and tortured. He spent six weeks incarcerated aboard a military ship holding 800 prisoners cramped into a space with the capacity for 100. As told to Daniel Borzutzky in a 2009 Poetry Foundation interview, Zurita was carrying a file, the poems that would become the book Purgatorio, when he was arrested the morning of September 11, 1973, and the arresting officers suspected his papers might include coded messages. The senior military officer who made the final decision about Zurita’s potentially subversive writings threw the poems into the sea. The book begins with these lines:
my friends think
I’m a sick woman
because I burned my cheek
And a few pages later:
My name is Rachel
I’ve been in the same
business for many
years. I’m in the
middle of my life.
I lost my way.–
(translated by Anna Deeny)
Jeremy Jacobson’s 1985 translation of Purgatorio, published by the Latin American Literary Review Press, introduced Zurita to English language readers as “the most important young poet writing in Chile today,” and included an essay by Scott Jackson on “the union of mathematics and poetry” in Zurita’s work. The University of California Press issued a fantastic new translation of Purgatorio in 2009, at the hands of the poet and Latin American literature scholar Anna Deeny. C.D. Wright gives the following assessment in the new translation’s foreword: “with a mysterious admixture of logic and logos, Christian symbols, brain scans, graphics, and a medical report, Zurita expanded the formal repertoire of his language, of poetic materials, pushing back against the ugly vapidity of rule by force.”

Purgatorio is the first in a three-book sequence, including Anteparaíso (1982), and La Vida Nueva (1994), where post-1973 Chile appears in a Dante-esque frame. Zurita’s oeuvre extends beyond the page through his interventions in physical landscapes: the poet documents the burning of his own face in Purgatorio, Anteparaíso includes photographs of 15 lines of poetry written across the New York City skyline in 1982, and La Vida Nueva features sky drawings enhanced with handwriting, as well as a photograph of the 3-kilometer-long phrase composed in the Atacama desert in 1993, which is only legible from the sky: “ni pena ni miedo” (neither pain nor fear).

Once the millennium turned, Zurita published Poemas Militantes (2000), INRI (2003), Los Países Muertos (2006), and In Memoriam (2007), among others. Zurita (2011), an almost 750-page volume, unfolds from the evening of September 10 to the morning of September 11, 1973, and includes excerpts from the poet’s other books, for example: three pages of the electroencephalogram (EEG) embedded with text that closes Purgatorio, a few photographs of the New York City skywriting that appeared in Anteparaíso, and a middle section (starting on page 358 of Zurita) from his 1985 book Canto a Su Amor Desaparecido, translated in 2010 by Daniel Borzutzky as Song for His Disappeared Love. Zurita holds space, represented by the blocks of text arranged like the niches in a columbarium wall, for the disappeared during Chile’s Pinochet regime, as well as those lost during political upheaval in other countries and regions including Argentina, the Amazon, Haiti, Nicaragua, the United States, Cuba, and El Salvador. The first of the United States-related blocks of text reads as follows:
USA Niche. Found in Barracks 12. Northern countries and
dispatched to eat themselves up thanks to their dreams
of special shields, of murderers of blacks, of domina-
tion. They descended the sky and they called Hiroshi-
ma the country that blazed; Central countries, valleys
and Chilean gluttons. The graves are nights and every-
thing is night in the American grave. They rest in peace like
the bison. It was a Navajo phrase. As it was written, Amen.
(translated by Daniel Borzutzky)
Zurita is a rewriting, an epic translation, of the poet’s complete oeuvre. The book includes a handful of excerpts from previously published work alongside the new poems, all echoing each other. The disappeared and missing people of Chile and the Americas are at the core of Zurita, and the surrounding sequences reveal the searching and dreams of those reflecting on humanity’s failures all over the world, including Thomas Mann, Kurosawa, and Pink Floyd. Zurita’s mandate is that we must keep saying it (writing it, publishing it, reading it), over and over, so that we do not forget the horror of the past. Our past is with us in the present, and we will carry it forward, either as memory or repetition.

The closing pages of Zurita include a sequence of photographs from his latest project involving an intervention in the physical landscape, titled “Your Life Breaking.” The photographs of the sea cliffs in northern Chile have phrases typed out across them to show the kind of poetry installation Zurita would like to achieve there. The phrases, which correspond to the subsections in the table of contents of Zurita, include: “You Will See Soldiers at Dawn,” “You Will See the Snows of the End,” “You Will See Cities of Water,” “You Will See What Goes,” “You Will See Not Seeing,” and “And You Will Weep.” The final lines of the book are a short poem titled “Sky Below:”
The sun is rising and I am leaving, papá. Deep
is the well of time. The mountains remain
covered and perhaps it will rain at last. Can you imagine
the breakers crashing again on
these stones, papá? You never tell me anything, papá.
(translated by Magdalena Edwards)
At the moment, Zurita says he has nothing left to say or write by way of poetry. He is steadily at work on a translation of Dante’s Inferno, and he has decided to preserve the terza rima form in Spanish, which makes the project slow going. The first stanza goes (gorgeously) like this: “A mitad del camino de esta vida, / me encontraba en una selva oscura / pues la recta vía estaba perdida.” Zurita also recently translated Hamlet into Spanish for a stage production under the direction of Gustavo Meza that was such a hit in Santiago when it debuted in late 2012, a second production went up in mid-2013. He explained to me by email that while he is not writing original poems, “translation frees me from anguish.”

Zurita has two fascinating new books out this year, both collaborations with fellow poets, one a bilingual selection of poems from Latin America, and the other a conversation about death and life.

Pinholes in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America (Copper Canyon Press 2014), with Forrest Gander at the helm as editor, is a bilingual selection of 18 20th-century Spanish-language poems. The volume takes its title from Alejandra Pizarnik’s “Diana’s Tree:” “a pinhole in the night / invaded suddenly by an angel.” The 15-century Nahuatl poem “Nezahualcóyotl” opens the collection, a choice that highlights the problematic nature of Spanish as one of the imposed languages of Latin America, as Zurita explains in his introduction. What moves me most about Pinholes — more than the wonderful translation choices by Gander, including California poet Jen Hofer for Nicanor Parra’s “Soliloquy of the Individual” and Ernesto Cardenal’s “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” and Anna Deeny for Idea Vilariño’s “Not Anymore,” and more than Zurita’s exhilarating introduction, “written in a fever-dream between serious surgeries,” where he debates the impossible choice of one poem each by Mistral, Vallejo, and Neruda, notes which poems he would have chosen from the Portuguese (no doubt Ferreira Gullar’s “Poema Sujo”), and discusses why he includes Juan Rulfo’s short story “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” — is that the book is precisely not a poetry anthology. Pinholes in the Night is not exhaustively encyclopedic, but rather deeply personal and thus imperfectly brilliant, a light that helps us understand Zurita and his worldview, the lyrical landscape he treads, a little better.

Saber Morir: Conversaciones (Universidad Diego Portales 2014) is a book-length conversation about knowing how to die and how to live undertaken by Raúl Zurita and Ilan Stavans, the Mexican poet and translator who edited The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry (FSG 2011) (it bears noting that the FSG Book, a representative anthology of Latin America poetry, attempts to do everything Pinholes in the Night does not attempt, and vice versa, such that Pinholes and The FSG Book are fruitful companions). Saber Morir, which has not been translated into English yet, is intimate and rambling and covers life experience, books, music, film, history, and philosophy. We learn that both Zurita and Stavans have trepidations about closing their eyes when they go to sleep at night, as well as feel terrorized by the possibility of dying in a hospital. Both men embrace getting older. Stavans says, “I like feeling older, being less afraid of life, not doubting the way I used to.” Zurita says, “there are only two states: or you are young or you are old.” He goes on to explain: “I feel potent in my pains, in my curved spine, in the increasing difficulty of holding the pages when I read in public.” Of his day-to-day life with Parkinson’s, he intimates: “I might have a bizarre sense of beauty, but my disease feels beautiful to me. It feels powerful.”

I Found a Way to Enter: Diving Into Writing

- | 3

It’s like a heartbeat, the opening bars of Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” – the first song in the Canadian band’s new project, the one that sets the tone and the refrain: “It’s a reflection.” It’s the thirteenth song if you count backwards, the bridge between the two halves of the double album. It’s the mirror. My pulse quickens. I am alive. “We fell in love, alone on a stage / In the reflective age.” I am not alone here. I wait for it, the rhyme in the second stanza between the French and the English. This is the sublime: “Entre la nuit, la nuit et l’aurore. / Entre les royaumes, des vivants et des morts. / If this is heaven / I don’t know what it’s for / If I can’t find you there / I don’t care” (Between the night, the night and the dawn. / Between the realms, of the living and the dead). I drink the pairing of “morts” and “for” – I am giddily outside myself and deep in the beauty of the bond, if for a moment, between the two languages, the dead (“morts”) and the preposition of the future (“for”) – which in the fifth stanza transforms into the exquisite almost overlap of “morts” and “more.” I am free of the anxiety of not writing.

I love that this song is about trying to find “a way to enter” – to find a portal, a connector – which one can read as the passage to the Underworld that Orpheus seeks in order to attempt his rescue of Eurydice (there are two tracks in Reflektor that make this theme clear, one named for each ancient Greek figure). I also read the song as seeking the throughway for creativity, for getting on with the act of making something. But “Reflektor” does not promise safe passage: “I thought, I found a way to enter/…I thought, I found the connector.” But I didn’t. Even the false promise is assuring. I want to look for my entry onto the page, into a line, an image, a something. I am afraid. I am in the middle of a rough descent, choppy in the air and in need of a pocket of smooth, a glide. The seven-plus-minute “Reflektor” has become a ritual these days. Blast it louder and maybe the portal will appear. Will I dive in?

I am dancing in the backyard under the Brazilian pepper tree, the almost full moon keeping me company. But my movements are small, so I go inside, into the room where I work at my computer, and I dance around the desk – I turn up the music and it pulses through the wires into my ears – I am still too timid to blast the notes into the nakedness of night, or morning, the way I did when I was a teenager in my attic bedroom, or in college away from family and anything familiar. My new roommates knew what the Bjork loop meant. A litany of song to lift another day. Then I moved onto Radiohead. Then the Chilean hip hop band Tiro de Gracia and their first album Ser Humano (human being/to be human).

Many writers, those attempting to write, like to talk about what helps them get in the mood, the zone. The organization of the objects on the desk, a particular pen or writing machine, the ritual reading of a specific text, a stack of books at the ready, music playing in the background. Maybe it’s not working and everything must be reversed: no music, no books, no wireless connection, no flesh and blood people nearby, no. I am pulled in by pairings, duets, correspondences. Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell and his replies, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando doubled as male and female, Maria Bethânia’s covers of Vinicius de Moraes’s songs in the album Que falta você me faz (how I miss you, or, more literally, what an absence you do to me).

But beware! The guide to the portal of creativity could be unreliable, even dangerous. When I started to read the work of Clarice Lispector, I took in one book after another, after another – I became immersed in the modes of her tragic heroines, their epiphanies seismic, but rarely conduits to change. I needed an epiphany in my own life. Lispector, and Bishop, hurled me to Brazil – that was the portal, for a time. Then a Brazilian scholar of Fernando Pessoa warned me that those who study the Portuguese poet put themselves at risk of uncanny episodes, darkness that cannot be returned, not least of all in The Book of Disquiet. Home again, Wallace Stevens hypnotized me out of writing. James Merrill and his Ouija board made me nervous.

I mishear lyrics and when I realize that I am wrong, I keep singing them that way, an incantation gone slant, a twist that might do the trick. “Reflektor” begins: “Trapped in a prism, in a prism of light.” Over and over I sing: “Trapped in a prison, in a prison of love.” Is there a difference? My favorite misunderstanding lies in the middle of the song, the repeated refrain: “Just a reflection, of a reflection / Of a reflection, of a reflection, of a reflection / Will I see you on the other side? (Just a Reflektor) / We all got things to hide (Just a Reflektor).” And always, always, I sing in the spirit of how the phrase sounds when its iterations are layered on top of one another: “Just a reflection of of affection / of of affection / of of affection.” I am consistent, at least, in the theme of my misreading.

What kind of love is this? Who is the “you” sung to? “If this is heaven / I need something more / Just a place to be alone / ‘Cause you’re my home.” If it is Orpheus, then Eurydice is the recipient of song; or, vice versa. If I am the one to sing, then it’s the person or the thing, the book or the phrase, that will help me find the portal, dare me to dive in, to begin. In “Then Ends Where Now Begins” – an essay in the stunning collection Eros the Bittersweet – Anne Carson writes: “For Sokrates, the moment when eros begins is a glimpse of the immortal ‘beginning’ that is a soul.”

I am still here, now sitting at my desk, earbuds pressed into my ears. I have listened to the song too many times to say. Nothing yet. Let’s play again. I stand up to dance. I remember my Chinese teacher who made us do jumping jacks while counting to eight in unison. That’s what I remember, always eight, infinity: 一 二 三 四 五 六 七 八 She also told us that we had to be friends with our Chinese characters, spend time with them, talk to them, love them. Only then would they love us back, be there for us when we might need them instead of hiding in the silence. I begin a series of jumping jacks and they morph quickly, by number three, into something else all together. I shake my fists, I stretch my arms, I pull at the air above me. It seems that I am here now, I have fallen, I have entered. “Will I see you on the other side?”

Playing Telephone with Emily Dickinson and Paul Legault

- | 2

“Go forth! Translate.” – Michael Henry Heim
I 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.”

Smitten 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.

The 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.
Legault 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.”

The 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.

My Hour of the Star: On Clarice Lispector

- | 5

1. The Hour of the Star in American English

In this season of endings and beginnings, extended family gatherings and extensive loneliness, items ticked from last year’s list and new lists begun, this season of strawberries whether you are summering in South America or wintering in California, there is a new version of a well-loved and mind-blowing novel I must recommend — and it’s slim enough, under 81 pages, to carry in your pocket or pocketbook. The new translation by Benjamin Moser of The Hour of the Star (New Directions, Nov. 2011), the final novel published by the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) mere weeks before her death, is phenomenal. This is the novel that opens: “Everything in the world began with a yes.” This is the one that goes by 12 other titles, a number echoed in the “Author’s Dedication:” “Most of all I dedicate [this thing here] to the yesterdays of today and to today, to the transparent veil of Debussy, to Marlos Nobre, to Prokofiev, to Carl Orff and Schoenberg, to the twelve-tone composers, to the strident cries of the electronic generation — to all those who reached the most alarmingly unsuspected regions within me, all those prophets of the present who have foretold me to myself until in that instant I exploded into: I.”

It is no wonder that the French feminist critic, poet, and playwright Hélène Cixous embraced Lispector and quickly incorporated the Brazilian’s oeuvre into her own lectures and writings, as early as 1979 with her text “To Live the Orange,” a meditation on feminine writing including a lyrical depiction of her first encounter with Lispector’s work dated October 12, 1978, nearly one year after the publication of The Hour of the Star and the author’s untimely death at 56. Nor is it a surprise that the Brazilian filmmaker Suzana Amaral, who had her ninth child in film school and went on to earn a masters at New York University where she enrolled in 1976 thanks to a grant and was in the same class as Jim Jarmusch, made the film version of The Hour of the Star, a project begun in graduate school that was selected as Brazil’s official entry for the best foreign-language film Academy Award in 1987. For these and more reasons I will enumerate below, the new translation of Lispector’s story of the poor girl from northeastern Brazil named Macabéa and the writer Rodrigo S.M. who attempts to tell her tale, now in Benjamin Moser’s urgent, American English prose, is a boon to readers everywhere.

Lispector’s final novel, her most accessible (not a word typically associated with this writer), her most concretely grounded in a specific place, Rio de Janeiro, and time, the present, is a masterwork of interrogation: the author (indicated as Clarice Lispector herself in the “Author’s Dedication”), the narrator (the self-reflexive Rodrigo S.M., whose desire to tell Macabéa’s story is ever-interrupted by his own), the protagonist (Macabéa, the poor girl transplanted to Rio de Janeiro to eke out a pitiful living as a typist who doesn’t know how to spell and who loves to eat hotdogs, or more often dreams of them), and the reader (you!) are interrogated by a 12-tone narrative that bangs along and promises no tidy conclusion.

Whether through direct address or the urban intensity and flat out strangeness of the prose, the reader cannot lurk behind the book’s spine, but rather is constantly called upon, as we see in the opening pages: “This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity. It’s an unfinished book because it’s still waiting for an answer. An answer I hope someone in the world can give me. You? It’s a story in Technicolor to add a little luxury which, by God, I need too. Amen for all of us.” This call for an answer, for the reader’s participation in the act of storytelling, is all the more evident in Moser’s translation, which is truer to the original Portuguese than the version published by the esteemed British translator and scholar Giovanni Pontiero in 1986. While Pontiero’s version is at times dreamy, distant, even hyper-literary, Moser’s translation (I repeat myself with a bang!) is urgent, urban, and strange, which is how the original Portuguese feels. (New Directions will release additional retranslations of Lispector’s fiction under Moser’s editorship in May 2012, including Near to the Wild Heart, Água Viva,and The Passion According to G.H., as well as a A Breath of Life, which has never appeared in English before.)

Pontiero’s translation first appeared in the United Kingdom with Carcarnet Press and was later published in North America, simultaneously in the United States with New Directions and in Canada with Penguin Books Canada Limited, in 1992. These geographical details are of interest because Lispector’s family, originally from the Ukraine, moved to “America,” choosing between the US and Brazil, when she was two months old. This is how the family ended up in northeast Brazil and this is why Lispector became a Brazilian writer, an innovator of Brazilian Portuguese prose, though she could have become instead an American writer, one who would have injected American English with renewed forces that we can glimpse through her works in translation.

Lispector herself was aware of, even perplexed by, chance’s sleight of hand. She wrote the following in one of her weekly newspaper columns published between 1967 and 1973 in the Jornal do Brasil: “What will never be elucidated is my destiny. If my family had opted for the United States, would I have become a writer? In English, naturally, if I had been. I would have probably married an American and I would have American children. And my life would be completely different. What would I write about? What would I love? What party would I belong to? What kinds of friends would I have? It’s a mystery” (the translation here is mine). Though Lispector first questions if she would have become a writer in the United States, she then provides the answer with another question. What, indeed, would she have written about in her Lispector-inflected American English?

2. Moser versus Pontiero in Translation

To elucidate my point that Moser’s translation is both more accurate (in terms of the literal correspondence between a word in Portuguese and its paired word in English) and more effective as a narrative than the Pontiero version, I turn now to the 12 other titles of The Hour of the Star. The beauty of this exercise is that that 2011 edition includes a facsimile of Lispector’s manuscript page with the 13 total titles in the original Portuguese (a number that bears significance for Lispector as unveiled by Moser in Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector published in 2009 by Oxford University Press to great acclaim). In this way we can conduct a comparative analysis of the three texts, Moser’s, Pontiero’s, and Lispector’s original, with a small and meaningful sample of words.

I have grouped the titles into three categories: 1) identical translations; 2) differing translations; 3) translations where Moser corrects or supersedes Pontiero.

The first category is straightforward and consists of five of the 13 titles:

The Hour of the Star
.As for the Future.
Singing the Blues
A Sense of Loss
Whistling in the Dark Wind

The second category is where the translations differ. I have placed Pontiero’s versions on the left and Moser’s on the right:

The Blame Is Mine    
It’s All My Fault

Let Her Fend for Herself    
Let Her Deal With It

I Can Do Nothing    
I Can’t Do Anything

A Record of Preceding Events    
Account of the Preceding Facts

The first title in the original is “A Culpa É Minha” and though I find Moser’s version more compelling because it’s idiomatic, I appreciate Pontiero’s decision to keep the original’s word order, and thus keep the emphasis on “culpa” translated effectively by Pontiero as “blame.” The second title is “Ela Que Se Arrange,” an idiomatic expression in Brazilian Portuguese. The verb “arranjar” means to organize, pull together, do, get, achieve, or figure out. It can be used in all kinds of cases, from doing one’s hair to finding a boyfriend to getting out of a jam. Pontiero’s translation suggests a difficult situation where the protagonist is clearly out of her depth by using the word “fend” while Moser leaves the situation, the “it” she must deal with, a bit more neutral. I might have gone with something like “Let Her Figure It Out.” The third title is “Eu Não Posso Fazer Nada,” a double negative in Portuguese, which is grammatically correct and literally means “I Can’t Do Nothing.” Moser chooses to emphasize the lack of agency in “I can’t” while Pontiero sticks to the literal translation of “nada” or “nothing.” I go with Moser here, though I see Pontiero’s point.

The fourth pairing is an example of different choices made, correctly, by both translators. The “record” versus “account” of preceding “events” versus “facts” offers two ways of contrasting truth and point of view. In Pontiero’s translation, the word “record” indicates an official compilation of truths set against his choice of “events” as occurrences that can be told from varying points of view, i.e. “A Record of Preceding Events.” Moser’s choice of the word “account” points to a version told from a specific perspective, while his use of the word “facts” correlates to uncontestable truths, i.e. “Account of the Preceding Facts.” In this way both translators strike a juxtaposed balance between truth and narrative, a theme Lispector engages throughout The Hour of the Star.

The final category consists of cases where I believe that Moser corrects or supersedes Pontiero, whose translations are on the left while Moser’s remain on the right:

The Right to Protest    
The Right to Scream

She Doesn’t Know How to Protest    
She Doesn’t Know How to Scream

A Tearful Tale    
Cheap Tearjerker

A Discreet Exit by the Back Door    
Discreet Exit Through the Back Door

The first two examples hinge on the word “protest” versus “scream.” The original Portuguese is “gritar,” which literally means “to scream.” I am not sure why Pontiero uses “protest.” It is simply not correct and it misleads the reader into thinking about a more complex, or perhaps less complex, state than what Lispector indicates in the original. A scream is a straightforward action one does with one’s mouth and throat. A scream can come for many reasons: fear, joy, anger, sadness, all of the above, and more. A scream is a physical act as well as a sound. The protagonist of The Hour of the Star does not know how to scream under any circumstance, while the narrator Rodrigo S.M. tells the reader early on that he will scream: “…it’s my obligation to tell about this one girl out of the thousands like her. And my duty, however artlessly, to reveal her life. / Because there’s the right to scream. / So I scream.” The contrast between Rodrigo S.M.’s scream and Macabéa’s silence is what Lispector wants us to experience and digest.

The last two cases are examples of Moser superseding Pontiero’s translation. “Through” simply works better as the necessary preposition than “by” for the title “Discreet Exit By/Through the Back Door.” As for “A Tearful Tale” versus “Cheap Tearjerker,” both indicate the maudlin valence of the title. But, Moser’s choice is more specific and culturally grounded, which is a better fit with the original: “História Lacrimogênica de Cordel.” In Brazil the “histórias de cordel” are a staple of northeastern popular culture. They are self-published pamphlets or chapbooks written in rhymed verse by local poets who recite to passersby in order to entice them to buy a copy, as well as travel between towns to spread their tales of fiction — namely love, woe, adventure, and religious themes — as well as popular versions of current events.

3. My Hour of the Star As Told in 13 Paragraphs (With Clarice’s 13 Titles)

I first read Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, in Pontiero’s translation, in 2000 in Santiago, Chile, where I was teaching high school ESL part-time for a pittance at the international school. My fellow Ivy League college grads were back in the United States surfing the dot-com boom, immersed in law school, starting businesses, and paying their dues in publishing, academia, and the arts. My parents had no idea why they had paid so much tuition so I could “find my roots” in the still-developing country where I was born and that they had left for good. (It’s All My Fault)

In late August of 1977 I was one month old and whisked away to the United States where my parents would attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. In truth it was a little less dramatic than “whisked,” especially because my parents missed their original flight and had to return home with their suitcases and me for one more night in Salvador Allende’s Chile. Let me clarify: though Pinochet assumed power in 1973, the country still belonged to Allende and the people (people whose children have now grown up and are naming their newborn sons Salvador). The next day, our departure a success, we left my grandparents, cousins, and native soil behind. (The Hour of the Star)

During my early months in Hyde Park, I heard and learned Spanish first from my parents. The Sérgio Mendes and Maria Bethânia albums they loved even more after their honeymoon in Brazil played on the nights they had time to cook dinner together and share a stiff gin and tonic. I spent my first year of preschool mute while practicing my English at home every night, a show of verbal restraint that will surprise my present day colleagues and friends. The point is, I grew up in a stew of Spanish, Portuguese, and English, alongside smatterings of other languages spoken by my parents’ international classmates and their children. (Let Her Deal With It)

I was not even five months old when Clarice Lispector died and left The Hour of the Star hot off the presses. I doubt my parents knew her work, but maybe one of their Brazilian friends received the news with sadness and then waited for a copy of the novel to arrive via air mail, an extravagant gift sent from a loved one back home. This was the same year that Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the 39th President of the United States, that women were integrated into the regular Marine Corps, and that Elvis Presley died of heart failure at Graceland. (The Right to Scream)

When I read Lispector for the first time at 22 going on 23, my mother’s age when I was born, it was coincidence, or fate. A few of my ESL students were in Ms. Kerr’s English class at the Nido de Aguilas International School, and so I picked up the slim blue book with a drawing by Paul Klee on its cover. I buzzed while reading paragraph after paragraph that felt so intuitive and challenging, so open-ended while being direct. I realize now that I barely grazed the book’s contours. At the time I was most gripped by Macabéa’s boyfriend, Olímpico, who worked in a factory and called himself a “metallurgist,” though he really wanted to be a bullfighter, or a congressman, or a butcher. His speeches were both unbelievable and familiar. When he breaks up with Macabéa because he’s met another woman named Glória (who is Macabéa’s buxom coworker), he says: “You, Macabéa, are like a hair in my soup. Nobody feels like eating it.” (.As For the Future.)

Two years later I returned to The Hour of the Star, but this time in the original Portuguese. After completing two quarters of intensive Portuguese with Alessandra Santos, a teaching assistant from Porto Alegre, Brazil, who channeled Bjork and quoted “Clarice,” as I soon learned everyone called her, I took my first Brazilian literature seminar where we read all of Clarice’s novels and stories. It was the spring of 2002. I realized I had been focusing on the chicken and forgetting completely about the egg. I decided I had to go to Brazil to practice the language and start my field research on Clarice and Elizabeth Bishop, who published her translations of three of Lispector’s stories in the Kenyon Review in 1964. I applied for several grants, started making my espresso at home, and hatched plans to go first to Vassar College to visit Elizabeth Bishop’s archive. And I began to fall in love, again, with my college boyfriend whose name starts with a V and who would become my husband. (Singing the Blues)

I love my graduate school copy of Lispector’s novel in Portuguese, A Hora da Estrela, the one published by Editora Rocco in 1999, the one with my tidy underlining and handwritten notes in pencil, notes that give literal translations of Portuguese words, as well as paraphrases such as: “You, reader, do not have the right to be cold, but I do” (in reference to Rodrigo S.M.’s attitude towards Macabéa and followed by another note: “S.M. is read as sadomasochism by some critics”). Or: “Girl as white butterfly as page (words) as light, then, virginal.” Or: “M. encounters a beautiful man and wants to possess him like an emerald.” Or the delicate pencil circle around the final word in the novel: “Sim.” And the accompanying note: “Circularity — see beginning.” Yes. (She Doesn’t Know How to Scream)

That Macabéa, the skinny and silent girl from the northeast, could want to possess a man, a beautiful man, the way some would possess an emerald, is not something I thought about deeply when I first read the novel. But today I can make a connection between this notion of possession, which could never be executed in Macabéa’s case and suggests the impossibility of possession in general, and Lispector’s short story, translated by Elizabeth Bishop, titled “The Smallest Woman in the World.” The protagonists of this story are Marcel Pretre, the French explorer, and Little Flower, the indigenous woman he discovers and names (or so he thinks). At one point she says, in response to a question the explorer asks her: “‘Yes.’ That it was very nice to have a tree of her own to live in. Because — she didn’t say this but her eyes became so dark that they said it — because it is good to own, good to own, good to own. The explorer winked several times.” The verb Bishop translates as “to own” is “possuir” in the original, which can also be translated as “to possess.” Bishop’s translation of “The Smallest Woman in the World” coupled with her versions of Lispector’s stories “A Hen” and “Marmosets” function as a provocative trio, a meditation on questions of motherhood, possession, silence, and the encounter between the self and the other. (A Sense of Loss)

My first trip to Rio de Janeiro included several visits to Clarice Lispector’s archive at the Casa de Rui Barbosa, visits that provided nerdy ecstasy competing with the bustle of the streets with their popcorn vendors, juice bars on nearly every corner, men jogging barefoot towards the beach in nothing but their sungas (the Brazilian equivalent of speedos, though less tight-fitting in their cut and made in as many fashionable prints and colors as women’s bikinis), and the rituals of the beach itself, from the culinary delights of “quiejo coalho” grilled at your feet and served up on wooden skewers to the way the locals adjusted and readjusted their miniscule bathing suits upon arrival, pre-ocean dip, and post-dip while drip drying standing up and openly staring at one another. I loved that whenever I told people about my research on Elizabeth Bishop and Clarice Lispector, they would shout, “Clarice!” And then tell me a story. (Whistling in the Dark Wind)

In 2004 I spent a few weeks at the Houghton Library at Harvard, where Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell are held (this was before the publication of their complete correspondence Words In Air, which FSG released in 2008). I poured over the references Bishop made to Lispector in her 1963 letters to Lowell, a mixture of high praise and heavy criticism. Bishop says: “I have translated five of Clarice’s stories — all the very short ones & one longer one.  The New Yorker is interested — I think she needs money, so that would be good, the $ being what it is (almost twice as much already as when you were here) — then if they don’t know them, Encounter, PR, etc.  Alfred Knopf is also interested in seeing the whole book.  But at the moment — just when I was ready to send off the batch, except for one, she has vanished on me — completely — and for about six weeks!” I never did find Bishop’s translations of the other two stories. (I Can’t Do Anything)

Bishop borrowed, or stole, a snippet from Lispector’s story “The Smallest Woman in the World” and put it in one of her poems. In the story, there is a reference to the race Little Flower comes from: “The tiny race, retreating, always retreating, has finished hiding away in the heart of Africa, where the lucky explorer discovered it.” The final line of the final stanza of Bishop’s “Brazil, January 1, 1502” directly quotes Lispector’s story:
Just so the Christians, hard as nails,
tiny as nails, and glinting,
in creaking armor, came and found it all,
not unfamiliar:
no lovers’ walks, no bowers,
no cherries to be picked, no lute music,
but corresponding, nevertheless,
to an old dream of wealth and luxury
already out of style when they left home—
wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.
Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’Homme armé or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.
Rather than say Bishop borrowed or stole, which perhaps focuses on the question of possession more than necessary, one could say she echoes her Brazilian contemporary, the enigmatic writer who disappeared from time to time without a word or a trace, frustrating the American poet to no end. (Account of the Preceding Facts)

I was on my honeymoon when I met Benjamin Moser, the translator of the new version of The Hour of the Star. My husband V and I were married in Rio de Janeiro, the city where we got engaged and where we wanted our families and friends to meet each other, far from their everyday lives. We were supposed to begin our honeymoon on the island reserve called Fernando de Noronha off the northeast of Brazil, but in the days before our wedding the Brazilian airline Varig went bankrupt and so went our plans. We stayed in Rio and booked the biggest suite at our friend Denise’s bed and breakfast in the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa, which is where we met Mr. Moser, up to his chin in research for Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. I told him about Bishop’s letters that mention Clarice, and he shared stories of his research travails and victories. (Cheap Tearjerker)

The Hour of the Star is a book I know I will always return to. I am not sure how many times I have read it. I have had the privilege to teach it as an ESL high school teacher, as a graduate student teaching assistant, and as a university lecturer before an intimidating number of students. I hope to teach it again now that I have two English translations to analyze and compare with students, especially those who do not speak Portuguese and want a feel for how the translator shapes the translated text. I don’t think I will ever have an answer to the questions posed by Lispector’s final novel, all the more reason to read it again and again. Nor will I have a satisfactory explanation for the logic behind the final lines: “My God, I just remembered that we die. But — but me too?! / Don’t forget that for now it’s strawberry season. / Yes.” (Discreet Exit Through the Back Door)

Anniversaries, Anesthesia, and Elizabeth Bishop

- | 10

1. Awful But Cheerful
In my family we remember the birthdays, not the death days, of our lost ones. My father’s father passed away in early February 2010, but we remember him on July 4th. Don Hernán used to say, when we called him to wish him a happy birthday at his beach house in Chile’s coastal town of Zapallar — by then he had already written his morning’s reflections on the Lipton tea bag wrapper from his breakfast tea and was wearing his cream turtleneck and navy blazer with brass buttons over charcoal slacks, his white beard trimmed and his blue eyes a few shades lighter than the sea hitting the rocks below his house — that he loved the United States because that was a country that knew how to celebrate his birthday.

To celebrate the 100th birthday of American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Farrar, Straus and Giroux published three new Bishop volumes in February of this year: Poems edited by Saskia Hamilton, Prose edited by Lloyd Schwartz, and Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence edited by Joelle Biele.

Many critics and readers have welcomed the updated Poems and Prose, and I am especially grateful for the accompanying “Editor’s Notes” and “Notes on the Texts” clarifying which work Bishop published during her lifetime and which pertains to the other group of posthumously published prose pieces, incomplete drafts, and “manuscript poems.” The facsimiles of a handful of her manuscript pages are also helpful and will inspire pilgrimages to her archives at Vassar, Harvard, and elsewhere.

Bishop’s correspondence with The New Yorker is lively, not least because Elizabeth Bishop was a fantastic letter writer, as we know from the letters selected and edited by Robert Giroux in One Art, as well as from her correspondence with Robert Lowell collected in Words In Air. But I wish an appendix with a list of her New Yorker poems with publication dates had been included (for now the index will have to do). The rejection letters are wonderful, especially those with footnotes indicating where the piece was ultimately published, and they seem to increase steadily in word count as Bishop’s career unfolds.

Dissenters of the new Bishop volumes protest the hauling out of ever more material from her archives that she never meant for us to have on our nightstands. It is a distraction from her best work, the work she published, they argue. In preparation for this stance, Saskia Hamilton, the editor of Poems, includes a note to “Appendix I: Selected Unpublished Manuscript Poems” that begins:
Elizabeth Bishop foresaw that some of her uncompleted work might be published after her death. Her will grants her literary executors “power to determine whether any of my unpublished manuscripts and papers shall be published and, if so, to see them through the press.”
The debate will roar on in some circles, and meanwhile the 2011 FSG volumes will encourage renewed assessments of Bishop’s artistic development and the arc of her work. She is among our pillars of postwar, indeed twentieth-century, poetry, and new editions, biographies, and critical studies are to be expected.

What would Bishop say about all the fuss?

The concluding lines of her poem “The Bight” — first published in the February 19, 1949, issue of The New Yorker with the poet’s note “[On my birthday]” — offer a possible response regarding such commemorations, large and small:
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.
She is clearly not a fireworks and champagne kind of birthday girl. The image of boats piled up in the bight, “not yet salvaged, if they ever will be” and compared to “torn-open, unanswered letters” suggests the poetic voice’s weariness at marking another year when not having concluded, even confronted, the previous. “The bight is littered…” is a line that recalls Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” and the difficulty of using words as symbols to make poems that seek infinity in the face of nature’s triumphant reach. The final two lines, which Bishop chose as her epitaph, conclude with a twist and the beginnings of a smile: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” By choosing the last two lines of “The Bight” for her gravestone, Bishop, her humor and bite unflagging, closes the circle between her birthday and death day.

Another Bishopian centenary is on the horizon, the death of her father in September 1911 from Bright’s disease, an old-fashioned medical term referring to a catch-all of kidney dysfunctions. Bishop was eight months old. Her father’s death sent her mother into a tailspin of breakdowns and hospitalizations that landed her permanently in a mental hospital five years later. Bishop, suddenly parentless and of kindergarten age, lived mostly with her beloved maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia (a nine-month stretch with her father’s parents in Worcester brought on asthma, eczema, and other ailments) until she left for Walnut Hill boarding school in 1927 followed by Vassar College. She received a modest income from her father that allowed her to pursue poetry full time with the supplement of fellowships, paid writing jobs, and teaching stints.

Her father’s death coupled with his alcoholism, which ran in the family, loomed throughout Bishop’s life. On January 17, 1951, less than a month before her fortieth birthday, she wrote to Dr. Anny Baumman, her physician in New York to whom she dedicated her second collection A Cold Spring, about her recent struggles with drinking, “an emotional upset of some sort,” and her loneliness:
I am sorry this is such a stupid letter. I simply can’t seem to think very straight about this, except I know I want to stop. I am exactly at the age now at which my father died, which also might have something to do with it.
In February 1951, Bishop survived turning 40 years old, the age of her father at his death. By March things had taken a turn for the better: she was awarded the $2,500 Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellowship by Bryn Mawr — Katharine Sergeant Angell, her editor at The New Yorker, was “instrumental” to her winning the award — and in November she wrote a letter about “this crazy trip” to Robert Lowell from the Merchant Ship Bowplate stationed off the coast of Brazil, the country that would accidentally become her home for more than 15 years and would inspire a significant output of poems, stories, and translations.

2. The Terrible Thing
The not thinking straight that Bishop describes in her letter to Dr. Baumman, the fixating on being “now exactly at the age” or moment when, the anniversary of the terrible thing that happened or didn’t happen, I know this. The same week I received my copies of the new Bishop volumes edited by FSG, in early March 2011, I took my three-year-old son Théo to the emergency room.

It was a Friday afternoon, he had been fighting the stomach flu for a week, and when his eyes rolled back to their whites while his head nodded as if he were going to fall asleep, or lose consciousness, I called my husband Vlad at work. We left our younger son Max with my mother and drove the eight minutes to the hospital, the same one where Théo was born and where Vlad did his three-year family medicine residency and now works a monthly inpatient shift.

Vlad sat in the back of the car and held a small plastic trashcan next to Théo. As soon as we stopped, Vlad scooped Théo up. When I returned to the ER on foot from the parking lot, I found them in the small waiting area. Théo was still in his father’s arms, his limbs draped lifelessly, the perfect model for a child Pietà.

Once Théo was on his second bag of IV fluids and his cheeks had turned from grey-green to a dull pink, I realized — and said out loud — surprised and humbled that I had almost forgotten a date we usually commemorate with stiff drinks and hospital jokes: “It’s the three year anniversary of Théo’s heart surgery.”

Théo was one week old when he spent 13 hours in the operating theater with a South African cardiothoracic surgeon whose first name, Hillel, means “place of worship.” I was deeply comforted by this detail given that our son’s full name, Théodore, means “gift from God.” I believed that the two names, and as a consequence the surgeon and our child, were perfectly matched for a positive outcome. It was a clear sign.

Moreover, the surgeon’s last name, Laks, rhymed with the last name of the poetry professor, Peter Sacks (also a South African), whose lectures and writing workshops resuscitated my spirit during my cranky college years. Another obvious sign: the couplet of Laks and Sacks, the clear connection between the heart and the poetic line, the purveyors of beats that give us breath, life.

It will not surprise you that during my son’s hospital stay I dissected every shining detail I came across, and every shining detail proved full of meaning. These details became my religion and my religion kept me busy, sharp, on the borders of sane.

The surgery was two, three times as long as we had been promised. Dr. Laks put Théo on bypass twice — his coronary arteries were unusually placed and thus required unexpected tinkering — and the second time the operating team tried to take him off bypass, they had trouble starting his heart. At least that is what Vlad heard the nurse say to him when she called to give us an overdue update.

That phone call made my husband, nine months into his intern year in family medicine at the time, jump up and take action, any action he could. He wanted movement, agency in an impossible situation. He wanted to wait at the very door of the operating theater. He would have volunteered to go into the room if it had been allowed; in truth, he would have banged the door down. Instead, we drove to the hospital and paced outside her doors, in the open-air plaza with several water fountains and benches where patients, family members, and nurses sipped coffee and talked on cell phones.

We paced until the operating room nurse called again to say our son was out.

We rode the elevator to the third floor in silence. We rang the bell outside the cardiothoracic intensive care unit to request permission to enter. “Come in,” said the muffled voice and the man inside directed us to bed number seven. As we passed by the others, I noticed that Théo was the only baby, the only child, in a 12-bed unit of patients mostly over 70.

We introduced ourselves to Théo’s nurse with tense smiles and then walked towards him on tiptoe, afraid to speak or breathe. His infant hospital bed was small enough to make his “room” feel gigantic, like it could swallow us up. His eyes were closed and would continue to be for another week due to the sedation. His body was swollen and bruised, he had a monitor on his forehead to track his brain function, countless tubes and wires, and an open chest that would have to be coaxed together and sewn up, finally, five days later.

We agreed when the nurse offered to move the soft blanket covering Théo’s chest. We saw his fixed heart beating inside him, no larger than the size of his newborn fist, yellow-hued by the tint of the hospital plastic wrap that shielded his insides from the outside world. What we saw was more the movement of the heart than the heart itself, the pulsing up and down, the keeping going. I watched, mesmerized, and after a few moments I looked away and felt a throb in my gut, like I might be split in half.

Plastic wrap and all, I had not felt Théo closer to me in a long time. I had not yet sensed that the hospital might give him back soon, soon enough for me to stop being patient, to stop saying “we’ll see how he does and when we get to take him home.”

The fact that three years later Vlad and I sat on an ER bed with Théo as nurses triaged an ordinary stomach flu gone wrong was the strangest anniversary. We had him, but we had almost lost him. As we waited for Théo to finish the second bag of IV fluid and for the nurse to bring us the prescription for anti-nausea medication, Vlad and I looked at each other with the same two thoughts: how lucky we were to take him home (again), and the awful eventuality of another heart surgery to replace his leaky pulmonary valve, a sequel to his longer-than-expected newborn surgery.

3. “First Death in Nova Scotia” and “Travelling in the Family”
How does a dead child look? How do we look at him?

The closest I have come to these questions has been too close. For two weeks Théo’s eyes were sealed in deep sleep, one week before the surgery and one week after. For two weeks while he slept and did not move, I visited him for hours each day and night. I read and reread Goodnight Moon, I sang him our “Pickle Song,” I touched his head and his feet at the same time, which was the only way I could hold him. When he opened his eyes for the first time after two weeks, I was surprised by how dark they were and how intently he seemed to look at me.

Less than one year later, I saw Théo under sedation again, laid out on an exam table after a routine heart ultrasound (he will be followed by a cardiologist for the rest of his life though most ultrasounds will be unsedated). He looked beautiful, sweet, motionless — uncanny for our energetic boy who was learning to walk and nothing like the swollen and bruised baby we visited after heart surgery. Vlad and I took several photographs of him stretched out on the table with a bumble bee decorated muslin baby blanket covering him from the chest down, his surgery scar peeking out. We were giddy with nervousness and joy that he was not dead, just deeply asleep.

Théo will be put under sedation two more times this fall, for a catheter procedure and an MRI that will give his cardiologist better images of his pulmonary valve so that he can determine whether we need to replace it now, or whether we can wait. Maybe during the catheter procedure Théo, now three and half, will have stents inserted (is deployed a better word?) to relieve the narrowing of his coronary arteries. These will not be the last sedations, but for the first time Théo will talk to us when he wakes up. What will he say? Lately when we go to the doctor — for his younger brother’s vaccines, most recently — he says, “I don’t want to get fixed by the doctor.” I hear him and stop myself from making interpretations.

We have also seen our younger son Max sedated, only once, after his surgery at seven weeks old to release his Achilles tendons. He looked cherubic in his drug-induced sleep, and his new fiberglass casts to treat his clubfeet were perfectly white, almost haute couture. Max too was born with a defect, one far less dramatic and more easily treated. His foot surgery lasted less than an hour and was executed as planned. And even though Max’s nickname ends with “x” and his surgeon’s last name starts with “z,” the alphabetic proximity of their names did not leap into my mind as a shining detail that would get me through. I was simply confident that Dr. Zionts would be precise and gentle.

Théo and Max post-surgery and under heavy sedation, these are the moments when I have come the closest to seeing with my own eyes what a dead child might look like, what my dead child might look like, and I am grateful.

Elizabeth Bishop tells us what it is to see a dead child, from a child’s perspective, in “First Death in Nova Scotia.” This eerie and crushing poem was first published in the March 10, 1962, issue of The New Yorker. The poem comprises five stanzas, and the first line includes a comma that her editor Howard Moss proposed as an addition, to which Bishop agreed:
In the cold, cold parlor
my mother laid out Arthur
beneath the chromographs:
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
Below them on the table
stood a stuffed loon
shot and stuffed by Uncle
Arthur, Arthur’s father.
The poet’s mother takes her to see her two-month-old cousin in his coffin:
“Come,” said my mother,
“Come and say good-bye
to your little cousin Arthur.”
I was lifted up and given
one lily of the valley
to put in Arthur’s hand.
Arthur’s coffin was
a little frosted cake,
and the red-eyed loon eyed it
from his white frozen lake.

Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn’t been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever.

The gracious royal couples
were warm in red and ermine;
their feet were well wrapped up
in the ladies’ ermine trains.
They invited Arthur to be
the smallest page at court.
But how could Arthur go,
clutching his tiny lily,
with his eyes shut up so tight
and the roads deep in snow?
The final four lines are devastating: “But how could Arthur go…?” The child’s perspective is spot on, and one is frightened for her as her mother lifts her up to look inside the coffin. This is the only poem where Bishop’s mother appears in the flesh.

The title is a little strange too. “First Death in Nova Scotia.” Why “first”?

“First Death in Nova Scotia” is not an account of the first death Bishop experienced as a child. The first was the death of her father, who died in Worcester, Massachusetts, but she never wrote that poem. Instead, Bishop turned to translation. Indeed, for every four original poems Bishop published, she published one translation of a contemporary poet writing in Portuguese, Spanish, or French (she also published prose translations).

Bishop translated the major twentieth-century Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Travelling in the Family,” a poem where the poetic voice encounters “the shadow” of his dead father who takes him “by the hand,” but does not say anything to his son over the course of 12 stanzas. Seven of the stanzas end with the refrain, “But he didn’t say anything.” The speaker tries repeatedly to no avail, as we see in the ninth stanza:
Speak speak speak speak.
I pulled him by his coat
that was turning into clay.
By the hands, by the boots
I caught at his strict shadow
and the shadow released itself
with neither haste nor anger.
But he remained silent.
The poetic voice changes how he refers to his father, from “he” and “his” to addressing him directly with “you” and “yours,” in the tenth and eleventh stanzas. The two men connect through a “ghostly embrace”:
There were distinct silences
deep within his silence.
There was my deaf grandfather
hearing the painted birds
on the ceiling of the church;
my own lack of friends;
and your lack of kisses;
there were our difficult lives
and a great separation
in the little space of the room.

The narrow space of life
crowds me up against you,
and in this ghostly embrace
it’s as if I were being burned
completely, with poignant love.
Only now do we know each other!
Eye-glasses, memories, portraits
flow in the river of blood.
Now the waters won’t let me
make out your distant face,
distant by seventy years…
Bishop underscores the shift from “his” to “your” as the translator. There is no indication in Drummond’s original poem, no quotation marks or italics or other marks, to make explicit the shift in the poetic voice from speaking of his father in the literary third person to speaking to him in the colloquial second person (the original uses the possessive pronoun “seu” in both cases, but Bishop knew that in Brazilian Portuguese, specifically in the dialects of the Southeast including Rio, São Paulo, and Drummond’s native Minas Gerais, “seu” refers to the second person in everyday speech).

In her translation Bishop clarifies what the original leaves ambiguous and up to interpretation. Her choice, which Drummond could have protested in their correspondence about her work, also hinges on English not having a similarly flexible possessive pronoun that can mean “your” or “his” depending on the context. Her choice makes clear that Drummond’s poetic voice succeeds in speaking to his father directly. Because of this shift in intimacy, the final stanza of the poem is all the more satisfying: “I felt that he pardoned me / but he didn’t say anything. / The waters covered his moustache, / the family, Itabira, all.”

“Travelling in the Family” first appeared in the June 1965 issue of Poetry and got top billing on the cover of the magazine. Bishop also included it in the 1969 edition of The Complete Poems and in the 1972 anthology she co-edited with Emanuel Brasil for Wesleyan University Press, An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry.

Bishop read the translation during a number of her own poetry readings, including the one on May 6, 1969, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In his introduction, Robert Lowell called Bishop “the famous eye.” She read a few of her Brazilian poems, introducing each briefly: “Manuelzinho” was a true story; “The Armadillo” took place on St. John’s Day, the shortest day of the year in Brazil and the longest in the United States; and “House Guest” was set in Rio, but could have happened anywhere. She also noted that “Travelling in the Family” was about Drummond’s father. The poems had in common their “true” quality; they were all autobiographical in one way or other.

Bishop wrote to Drummond about her readings in her May 31, 1969, letter: “During the past year and a half, I have given six or seven public readings of poetry, most of them at universities, including Harvard and the University of California, and at all of them I have read my translation of your poem, “Viagem na família,” with a few explanatory remarks of my own.”

“Travelling in the Family” was significant to Bishop, significant enough for her to promote it as much as she did, and significant enough, in my mind, to function as an analog to the poem she never wrote about her father, which might have been called “First Death in Massachusetts,” where she too died on Lewis Warf in Boston in October 1979.

4. “Objects & Apparitions”
Bishop’s final book of poetry Geography III appeared three years before her death. The collection includes ten poems that delve into questions of memory and the passage of time. One translation appears in the sequence, the poem “Objects & Apparitions” by Octavio Paz, which is the only time Bishop included a translation among her original poems. (I wonder if her version of Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Travelling in the Family” might have been included in her collection Questions of Travel if she had translated it in time.)

“Objects & Apparitions” appeared in The New Yorker in the June 24, 1974, issue, the only translation of hers to be published in the magazine, though the story might have been otherwise given editor Howard Moss’ encouragement and interest. In his January 31, 1969, letter he tells Bishop how much he liked her translation of Drummond’s poem “The Table,” which appeared in The New York Review of Books earlier that month: “I did have to tell you how beautiful the translation of [Drummond de] Andrade is. I love it. And if you have any others, please do send them my way[…] I hope Farrar, Straus is smart enough to bring out a book of the translations.”

Bishop writes back thanking him and asking if the magazine’s policy on translations has changed: “ARE YOU interested in translations? In the past, a few of mine, both prose and poetry, were rejected and The New Yorker wrote me then that they never published translations. However, since then I did see that very nice poem by Borges, so perhaps the magazine’s policy has changed?” Indeed it had.

Dedicated to Joseph Cornell, an artist both Bishop and Paz admired, “Objects & Apparitions” attests to the translation-ship the two poets developed in the 1970s when they each translated and published a handful of the other’s poems. They first met in 1971 at Harvard where they both taught the fall term. Bishop attended Paz’s lectures and socialized with him and his wife Marie José. In her letters, she writes of the Pazes fondly. In her July 9, 1975, letter to Frani Blough Muser she tells of visiting them in Mexico City and of recording a poetry roundtable for television: “We were 4 languages: Octavio, Joseph Brodsky, Vasko Popa (his language is Serbo-Croatian) & me [….] it was all very interesting and novel, to me, and went on for hours.”

Paz participated in Bishop’s memorial service in Cambridge, which was held on October 21, 1979, in Radcliffe Yard: “He spoke of the love for modern art he shared with Elizabeth, and then he read his Spanish poem on Joseph Cornell; Frank Bidart followed with Elizabeth’s English transmutation.”

A “transmutation” is what Paz liked to call translations, which he considered as creative as the composition of original work. The term transmutation is one that Paz borrowed from Roman Jakobson, a contemporary who taught at Harvard and MIT, but Paz redefined it for his discussion of poetry. For Paz, a transmutation transforms the original poem, which is what a translation should do.

Bishop’s “Objects & Apparitions” transforms the original in an unquestionable, structural way. As she was translating the poem, she proposed a change in the order of stanzas, which Paz agreed to and then corrected in the original Spanish. In his March 16, 1974, letter he praises her version:
Your translation is perfect. Nothing needs to be changed, absolutely nothing. It is not only faithful, but rather at times better than the original. For example, I write — translating literally, “platement”, from French — “hacer un cuadro como se hace un crimen [“to do a painting like one does a crime”] but you say “to commit a painting the way one commits a crime.” Magnificent! I don’t know what I would give to have written that “to commit a painting.” I love it the way I love Thumbelina lost in her gardens of light. Yes, you are very right — how did I miss it? — stanza 10 should be stanza 13, the penultimate one. I have already made the change and will write to Dore Ashton [the art critic and editor of A Joseph Cornell Album] to make the correction. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Bishop’s suggested change in stanza order strengthens the poem’s closing by providing a two-stanza-long meditation on poetic language in the context of visual art, more specifically Paz’s poetry in the framework provided by Cornell’s boxes:
The apparitions are manifest,
their bodies weigh less than light,
lasting as long as this phrase lasts.

Joseph Cornell: inside your boxes
my words became visible for a moment.
The sequence of stanzas highlights a paradoxical message. The final line of stanza 13 says the apparitions last “as long as this phrase lasts,” which literally means as long as the phrase takes to read and suggests a mere instant, but also points to permanence in the way Shakespeare and others teach us that language fashioned into art is immortal. The final line moves into the past tense to emphasize that the phrase mentioned in the previous stanza did not last: the poetic voice’s words and lines “became,” and were, “visible” for a moment. And yet every time we read and reread the poem, the phrase endures once again.

The momentary visibility of Paz’s words inside Cornell’s boxes recalls the poem’s second stanza — “Monuments to every moment, / refuse of every moment, used: / cages for infinity” — as well as Bishop’s early poem “The Monument” (after Max Ernst’s frottages) with its artifact that seeks “to cherish something” and to “commemorate.” Again, the paradox: how can we make a monument to every single moment? And how can we possibly cage infinity? It makes no sense, though we try. The act of commemorating or cherishing or remembering cannot be continuous — if it were, it would be called “knowing.”

I know I will never forget certain anniversaries. The day my grandfather Don Hernán was born, which happens to be Vlad’s birthday. The day Théo had heart surgery, his almost death day that became his second birthday (and, by extension, I will always remember André Breton’s two birthdays, the second one chosen by him because of its more auspicious astrological coordinates). I will never forget the morning of Max’s surgery, the day I turned 33. And I will never, never forget the day Théo was taken from us, the day we found out something was terribly wrong with his heart, the day I expected to take him home.

5. I Lost My Mother’s Watch – March 6, 2008
“Let them do whatever tests they need. He’s fine.” I squeezed two-day-old Théo a little tighter against me and he mewed.

A few hours later the ultrasound technician named David took images of Théo’s heart with a small probe for newborns. Théo didn’t squirm during the echo. I held his arms down and Vlad paced behind me. I wanted it to end so I could feed him.

After, I sat with Théo in my arms and Vlad next to me. Vlad took photos of Théo, who still had EKG stickers on his chest. Théo looked into my eyes and started to fall asleep with a smile. He had just taken milk.

There was a knock at the door and three women walked in, our nurse and two doctors. At the same moment Vlad’s cell phone rang and our pediatrician told him that Théo had a problem, would need surgery. Vlad started to cry and handed the phone to me.

“We have to take your baby,” the head of the neonatal intensive care unit said. And she took him.

I don’t know how I handed him over.

I don’t know why I didn’t collapse, how I kept myself from screaming and pounding the walls and throwing everything at the windows of the room, to break every inch of glass, to break all of us out of there.

What I do know sounds like a digression, a distraction to keep myself going. It’s not.

What I do know is how sneaky Elizabeth Bishop can be.

Her poems first read like quiet and picturesque memoranda on the curious details of everyday life. Oh, but how she can be sly. In her villanelle “One Art” she repeats throughout that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” – yet there is one line I did not understand until Théo was taken from me.

In the tenth line, smack at the middle of nineteen lines on the art of losing, Bishop says: “I lost my mother’s watch.” She has already talked of losing keys, names, places one meant to visit, the wasted hour, and she will speak, in the second half of the poem, of losing houses, cities, rivers, and ultimately “you.”

I had never understood why her mother’s timepiece, a ticking mechanism held to her wrist, would anchor the poem. I had never understood that her mother’s watch also referred to her gaze, her presence, her watchful eye. Bishop lost her mother’s watch when she was a young child; her father died when she was an infant and by the time the poet was five years old her mother was sent to a mental hospital.

“I lost my mother’s watch,” screamed Théo without words but with flailing limbs as the transport team prepared to move him to the bigger hospital a few miles away. They put his arms and legs in restraints in order to “stabilize” him.

“I lost my mother’s watch,” he screamed as I packed my hospital bag with son-empty hands.


Image credit: Amy Bernier/Flickr