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Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Memoir as Self-Translation (Lecture Notes)

(On Wednesday, 6 November 2013, I gave the second lecture that week on Ngugi’s memoir, Dreams in a Time of War, for my first-year class at the University of British Columbia, English 111, which is an introduction to prose non-fiction, focused this year on the theme of “dislocations.” I have been developing what I want to think of as an “improvisational pedagogy,” which aims to foster as sense of engagement by trying to stage an on-your-toes critical thinking around texts, and their interpretation: the idea is to go into class well prepared, but to try and let the lecture unfold in situ, allowing the structure to emerge as you speak. When this kind of teaching works, the results (from my perspective) are really significant, and what I hope happens, right there in the classroom, is a more vital and compelling dialogue around the course material. However, this kind of improvising can also be a bit risky, in as much as it can also potentially fall apart on you. After my first lecture on Ngugi, I felt that I hadn’t brought the material together as fully as I had hoped, so I decided to script the second lecture more completely, which I did the night before, not to work at the last minute but still to preserve a few vestiges of that critical immediacy, if possible. The last paragraph of the script, along these lines, isn’t really a coherent paragraph, but consists of a set of claims about Ngugi’s memoir that I could then elaborate at that moment, which I did. Here is the script for that lecture, which I think turned out pretty well; this was intended as introduction to reading Ngugi for first-year students, not as particularly original criticism – work for which others are probably much better qualified than I am. But it does attempt to map out my own engagements with Ngugi’s texts, to model a potential critical practice for these students.)

Over this past summer, I read In the House of the Interpreter, a second recent volume of memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, published in November 2012. That reading prompted me to put the first volume of Ngugi’s memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War (2010), on the syllabus for this course. As in the earlier text, Ngugi offers a first-hand account of growing up in late colonial Kenya centred on his time as a student, in the latter volume his experience at Alliance, the first high school in the region aimed specifically at educating Africans – apparently modeled on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The New York Times “Sunday Book Review” (from February 8, 2013) praises Ngugi’s second memoir for  “eloquently telegraph[ing] the complicated experience of being simultaneously oppressed and enlightened at the hands of a colonial regime.” The double-bind of an imperialist cultural pedagogy, empowering the colonized by inculcating in them a reflexive deference to the literature and values of the colonizers, is a pervasive theme of both memoirs. The earlier volume also maps Ngugi’s peripatetic early experiences at several schools, from the fostering of Gikuyu language and identity at Kamandura elementary to the often violent suppression of native culture at the “new” Manguo school. In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi has recounted the punishments he and his classmates received at this latter school for speaking their own languages, or for not speaking English, and he replays that infamous scene for us in Dreams in a Time of War:
In the new Manguo school, English was still emphasized as the key to modernity, but, whereas in the Karing’a Manguo English and Gikuyu coexisted, now Gikuyu was frowned upon. The witch hunt for those speaking African languages in the compound began, the consequence rising to bodily punishment in some cases. A teacher would give a piece of metal to the first student he caught speaking an African language. The culprit would pass it to the next person who repeated the infraction. This would go on the whole day, and whoever was the last to have the metal in his possession would be beaten. Sometimes the metal was inscribed with demeaning words or phrases like “Call me stupid.” I saw teachers draw blood from students. Despite this we were proud of our English proficiency and eager to practice the new language outside the school compound. (177)
It’s important for Ngugi to recognize that the key moment in the colonization of selves and minds happens in and through linguistic violence, epitomized in the sharp-edged scrawl on that metallic shard. Ngugi traces his largely innocent and even “eager” complicity – and the complicity of his classmates – in the British colonial machine (and who, after all, wants to be beaten, or wants to be labeled stupid?), but his aim is often more diagnostic than imputing. He tries to describe and to understand how this fractious doubling of self and place emerges as a cultural symptom of colonization, and he wants to lay the groundwork for evolving a set of tactics and practices with which he can negotiate with that complicity, if not somehow manage to throw it off.
         The title page of his 2006 novel Wizard of the Crowbears a one-line epigraph: “A translation from Gīkūyū by the author.” Ngugi has been practicing self-translation from Gikuyu into English since the late 1970s. There is a deeply political commitment in self-translation that emerges when we know something of Ngugi’s biography, which I am reproducing from his own website; in 1977,
Kenya’s ruling dictatorship appears to have made a number of attempts to assassinate Ngugi in the decades following his release, and his work was often suppressed in Kenya; he has written and taught in exile, principally in the United States, to the present day. While in prison, he made a statement about his writing practices that has gained wide notoriety, remarking on what he felt was a necessary turn in his work toward indigeneity and autochthony, a reconnection to a genetic sense of place:
Dreams in a Time of War begins with Ngugi’s nostalgic imaginative return to the familial – in fact, largely maternal – “oral universe of story-telling,” shared around a fire (29). Going to school, and gaining a education for which he yearns palpably, also fractures that intimate connection to home, to place: “And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture” (Decolonising the Mind). English, and soon English literature, produced a seductively modern scission from the vitality of the oral, from its magic:
English became the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the sciences, and all the other branches of learning. English became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal education.
Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while also reinforcing that dominance. Orature (oral literature) in Kenyan languages stopped. In primary school I now read simplified Dickens and Stevenson alongside Rider Haggard . . . .
Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds. (taken from Decolonising the Mind)
Understanding Ngugi’s complex relationship to those “other worlds,” to globalization, is crucial to beginning to evolve a reading of his memoir that remains responsive and alert to the negotiations he undertakes with decolonization. It’s not a question, after all, of simply returning to Gikuyu; in many ways, Ngugi simply can’t go back, at least not unproblematically. His writing operates self-consciously from a position of exile, of geographic otherness. On the second page of Dreams in a Time of War, for example, he frames his hunger – as a child of poverty, he couldn’t afford lunch at school – analogically, thinking his life echoes a famous scene from Oliver Twist (“Please, sir, can I have some more?”), which, he says, he had read in an “abridged version” at school: “I identified with that question; only for me it was often directed at my mother, my sole benefactor, who always gave me more whenever she could” (4). The literature of forced displacement is also the literature of analogic return to the maternal hearth, to earthy genetics. The book opens, in fact, with a reflection on reading (“years later”) the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but Ngugi hears not only an arbitrary mimicry of the name of a colonial Kenyan governor, Sir Charles Eliot, but also the impossible echoes of a day in April 1954 in his hometown of Limuru, when his elder brother Good Wallace, a Mau Mau partisan, escapes police custody. Highbrow, canonical Anglo-American literature is reappropriated by Ngugi’s personal Gikuyu imaginary, and converted into raw material for popular local story. In his Wellek Library lectures published in 2012 as Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, Ngugi describes this re-appropriation of canon (itself framed by a reference to an exiled maverick of African-American literature, the novelist James Baldwin) as a necessary step for re-entering the debate – the dialectics, as he suggests (compare Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Marji’s comic book “Dialectic Materialism”) – that not only surrounds but actually informs the decolonizing self, a self not so much translated as continuously translating, negotiating its own terms:
This post-colonial catholicity – a kind of troubled but widely various universalism, perhaps a “humanism of the other” as one philosopher (Emmanuel Levinas) suggestively puts it – manifests itself in Dreams in a Time of War as young Ngugi’s enthusiasm for the poetic magic of words, both Gikuyu and English; “one day,” he writes, “I am able to read on my own the Gikuyu primer we used in class”:
I can hear the music. The choice and arrangement of the words, the cadence, I can’t pick any one thing that makes it so beautiful and long-lived in my memory. I realized that even written words can carry the music I loved in stories [. . .] (64-65)
Gikuyu transcribed in Latin-European orthography promises a return to that enlivening maternal hearth, but that return is only enabled by the acquisition of a literacy proffered by colonial culture. Biblical passages – re-purposed chunks of Christian liturgy – are also almost as resonant for him: “I committed . . . whole passages to memory. They were poetic. They were music” (69). Ngugi seems to unpack an Afrologicalcadence, a rhythmic sense, even from Western European literatures; they sing in his ear, in a manner that recalls Karen Blixen’s seduction by the landscape and culture of Kenya in the early pages of Out of Africa: “When you have caught the rhythm of Africa, you find that it is the same in all her music” (24). But for Ngugi, the point isn’t to parody the kind of cultural safari in which Blixen engages, trying to catch a vitality from that world that promises her some “magnificent enlargement of all [her] world” (25). The enlargement entailed by colonial modernity certainly catches up young Ngugi in its whelming sweep, but the cadences he uncovers in his languages, in translation, wants to reverse that flow, to push back at it, and to open other spaces.
         More often than not, that oral creativity finds itself beaten down or overwritten by imperialist literacies; space for articulating shared connections to place, to ground oneself, is not always made within the written, but is instead undone by it, as in the case of the double-sale of Ngugi’s father’s land. (See page 19.) The Gikuyu, by Ngugi’s account, are forced to re-appropriate resources, to squat, to inhabit their own spaces simultaneously as outsiders and native and to make subversive use of the scraps and shards of economic modernization, of globalization. Consider Ngugi’s description of how he and his brother constructed their own skewed version of a wheelbarrow, which they then market back to those in power – metonymically, the landlord’s children. (See pages 52-55.) His description of his circumcision (pages 196-203) counterpoints cultural inscription on the body – a Gikuyu ritual of initiation into the community of manhood – with the modern work of education, of self-writing. How are bodies tied to place, and how are they sites of displacement, of translation, of debate? Conflicting accounts of the Lari massacre (pages 180-81) seem aptly to frame, for Ngugi, the ironies – which he’ll later start to spin into dialectics, generative conflicts – of colonial discourse. And finally, Mzee Ngandi’s recounting of Jomo Kenyatta’s 1952 courtroom speech offers us, through the added filter of Ngugi’s memory, an instance of the creative misprisions and re-appropriations of story-telling, as the oral and the written collide and reshape one another. (See page 187 on.) This section concludes by giving the memoir its title, and suggesting something of the expansive power not simply of myth but of myth-making that Ngugi wants to take on in his own creative writing (195).

Robert Bringhurst and Anne Carson Translating Antigone (Audio)

Also on Sound Cloud, I have uploaded some audio of my paper, “Ecologies of Estrangement: Robert Bringhurst and Anne Carson Translating Antigone,” which I delivered at Beyond the Nature of Culture: Rethinking Canadian and Environmental Studies, a conference held at the University of British Columbia from 28-30 September 2012. It’s currently being expanded into a chapter, developing connections and contrasts between Carson and Bringhurst by assessing their work on Paul Celan (and Celan’s fraught relationship with Martin Heidegger’s poetic philosophy), and connecting their ideas on translation to Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.” In this conference paper, the focus was narrowed to an investigation of the tensions between concepts of poetic ecology and poetic economy. To set things up, here is the opening paragraph, which also works something like an abstract:
Finding intersections between the aesthetics of Anne Carson and of Robert Bringhurst, if you are at all familiar with their extensive bodies of translations, essays and poetry, might appear counter-intuitive at first. Carson’s bittersweet, media-savvy postmodernity seems obviously at odds with Bringhurst’s latter-day highbrow modernism. Her work weaves its genealogy through Gertrude Stein, while his lineage derives from Ezra Pound. Her interest tends to be drawn by the fraught epistemic terrains of language, his by its ontic capacities. Her default to a bittersweet wryness contrasts rather markedly with his typically mindful  seriousness. Still, a critical collision of their work – around their different translations of the “Wonders are many . . .” chorus from Sophokles’s Antigone (lines 332-375) – might prove educational as we try to think through the complexities of how we, as human speaking subjects, aspire to frame the natural. Both Bringhurst and Carson exploit the divagations within the process of translation to call radically into question the results of human technē, and use this foundational Western text to voice critiques of the limits and the reach of poetic and cultural craft, of what people have done and have failed to do for their world.

On Lydia Davis, Doing Flaubert Some Justice

I used to read faster than I do now. The decreasing velocity of my own literacy has become a bit of a pain, though, particularly when it comes to novels. I’ll admit I have preferred short stories, essays and poems because, when it comes to blocks of printed words, I know I’m impatient. I have always had the sense that I can get through a single poem or story in the discrete packets of reading time I seem to be granted. But I have to plod through novels, and often get mired. I keep restarting Proust and Dostoevsky, but I never finish. I read in pieces, in fragments and fractures.
Well, that might not be true exactly. I do read some big old novels, and do manage to finish after a stretch, but I no longer feel impelled to rush them, or to close things off. I don’t even appear to care if I finish a chapter or not at a sitting. I remember hating The Ambassadors because Henry James just kept taking way too long to make anything happen: middle-aged Lambert Strether hung excruciatingly in hiatus, suspended for page upon page at an apex of reflexive dithering. I like it better now, at least I think I do, but this shift is an effect of my own decreasing speed, that I’m much happier to take the reading experience sentence by sentence, and to try to enjoy the gradual unfolding of a declarative arc, the drift and cadence of James’s or whomever’s prose. I like to let words feel their way toward a period, to find their legs on a page.
Maybe this narrative viscosity offers a provisional antidote to the whelming blur of electronic media, their inherent speed. Fat novels slow you down. The fleetingness of screening text might be offset by the thickening materiality of words on a page, by verbal style. The stylist sine qua non for Henry James, his “novelist’s novelist,” was Gustave Flaubert, who also lamented, in his own era, an acceleration of reading to the detriment of the chewy experience – the degusting – of language. In a letter to Mme. Roger des Genettes dated May 27, 1878, he voices this exact complaint, this pretension:
Je crois que personne n’aime plus l’Art, l’Art en soi. Où sont-ils ceux qui trouvent du plaisir à déguster une belle phrase?” (I believe that no one loves art any more, art in itself. Where are those who find pleasure in savoring a beautiful sentence?) (Cited in the Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia 15).
He articulates not an abhorrence of the empirical or the technical, but a kind of delicious exactitude, famously encapsulated in the phrase attributed to him as “le mot juste,” the precise word. I’m no expert, no Flaubert scholar, but I can’t locate this exact phrase anywhere in Flaubert, though his insistence on directness and exactitude in writing – and on savouring that exactness in reading – permeates his letters. He wanted, as he put it, a style “as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science” (this from a letter to Louise Colet dated April 24, 1852, during the composition of Madame Bovary). Flaubert was a notoriously slow writer, and he makes a slow reader of me: sentence by sentence, word by word.
Reading Lydia Davis’s recent translation of Madame Bovary, I come across a famous passage at the end of the fifth chapter when Emma, a newlywed second wife for Charles Bovary, begins faintly to realize her romantic mistakenness:
Before her marriage, she had believed that what she was experiencing was love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from that love had not come, she thought she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words ‘bliss,’ ‘passion,’ and ‘intoxication,’ which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.
Avant qu’elle se mariât, elle avait cru avoir de l’amour; mais le bonheur qui aurait dû résulter de cet amour n’étant pas venu, il fallait qu’elle se fût trompée, songeait-elle. Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l’on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion et d’ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres.
By way of comparison, here is an earlier (1886) translation – now offered freely and electronically worldwide through Project Gutenberg – by Eleanor Marx Aveling, the English daughter of Karl Marx:
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.
Although contextually and historically more proximate to Flaubert (and also including unfortunate racial language of the time, for example), Marx Aveling’s version also misses a crucial resonance in this passage. That is, it’s here – for me, as an amateur rather than a trained reader of Flaubert – that the terms mot and juste actually appear, ghosted into his sentences. (I can’t be the first to notice this: I’m just ignorant of the reams of commentary on Flaubert.) Davis translates au justeas “just what,” I think, rather than as “exactly,” so we can still hear Flaubert’s mantra echoed in her English. Ironically, the passage surveys Emma Bovary’s infelicities, her poor calibre as a reader, unable to decode key words, or to know precisely what, if anything, they signify. Notice how Davis puts in scare-quotes the italicized romantic vocabulary Emma finds in her reading, in “books.” The passage, as translation, wants to slow us down, to invite its readers to consider how terms are invested with significance, and who does that investing. It puts at issue verbal seeming, the liminal apparition of words, as mere style: their ghostings. Davis, effectively translating here a moment when Flaubert indicates the vacuous untranslatability of words in books, their inherent paucity of meaning, produces – with concisely cadenced prose – an allegory of reading, a paradox that opens up from the demand for exacting language coupled with the refusal of all words, with their porosities and their unsettled and multiple definitions, ever to meet that demand. Her fine tuning of her own language to source text ends up exposing – I’ll say it again – its infelicities, which is what I think makes language interesting as language: its inherent dissimilarity from itself. That’s what meaning consists in, what it is (the strikeout’s intentional). Davis’s confident brilliance as a translator opens up the polysemous substance that Flaubert wants to hone and foreclose, even as the embedded ironies of his prose play against its definitive periodicity. Acknowledging this fracture at the level of the sentence, of the word, is a way of doing justice not only to Flaubert, as his translator, but to language as such, to languages.
Books and Such
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. 1856. Trans. Lydia
Davis. New York: Viking, 2010. Print.
Porter, Laurence M., ed. Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia.
Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 2001. Print.

VISI Art Song Lab 3, Compose

Tuesday afternoon, Jocelyn Morlock offered an open workshop intended to address some of the possibilities of art song from a composer’s perspective. Instead of examining work by any of the current participants in the Art Song Lab, she presented some of her own work for audition and scrutiny, describing the challenges she faced in composing for text and also inviting us to re-think with her some of the formal and conceptual choices she made in her work. She opened with a reconsideration of “Somewhere Along the Line,” a song she created recently with Tom Cone during the last months of his life, when he was ailing with cancer. “He never heard it,” she told us. It was first performed by Rena Sharon and mezzo-soprano Melanie Adams on April 29, 2012; as a circumstantially posthumous work, it became, Jocelyn Morlock said, “the collaboration I never wanted to happen.” But the recording she played also helped her and helped us to start to think about the tensions and convergences at play in the making of an art song, the ways for her – she suggested at a number of junctures – that the music both interprets and, with as much care and respect as makes sense (particularly in this song) for the perceived intention behind the text, misinterprets the words. All interpretations are, to some extend, inevitably misprisions and misdirections, but Jocelyn Morlock was particularly concerned with trying to find connections between the musical and verbal lines in “Somewhere Along the Line.” Her setting creates a gently constrained pathos – it’s a beautiful piece. But what makes it even more interesting from a compositional point of view – to a non-musician like me – is the way in which it exploits aesthetically the shortfall in meaning that the poem itself thematizes; that is, the text suggests a trajectory into uncertain space, which she identified with Tom Cone’s sense of his approaching death: in the poem, he is, she suggested, “completely on unknown ground.” For me, this uncertainty offers a potential egress into the formal and conceptual fissures between sound and sense, music and word, fissures that open in the idea of line, both melodic and poetic. “I try, but can’t,” the poem reads – but in that truncated half-stich, suggests not failure but a valuing of what it is to try, of asymptotic convergence, of the approach of declarative and performative. Music emerges in and as a kind of contingent suturing, not as closed concord but as carefully collided difference, as mutuality. (See the end of this post for the recording of “Somewhere Along the Line,” shared from her SoundCloud page.)
She played us another of her collaborations with Tom Cone, a less pietistic number for solo voice called “My Orange Thong,” as well as her own setting of Goethe’s Second Wanderer’s Nightsong (via Franz Schubert):
Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen in Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
Discussion about the composer as translator, as well as questions of deference and fidelity, came up around this piece. It seemed to me – although I’m not sure that everyone agreed – that what might be perceived as loveliness or even pathos in this lyric also leans, particularly in our own time, closer toward bathos and preciousness; how in or out of step is a Romantic impulse now? It’s a question worth asking, still, and worth addressing not just reflectively or critically, but also poetically, by translating. For me, who has only rudimentary and poor German, a word like “Vögelein” wants to be translated, deliberately, not as “little birds” but as “birdies” (or, someone suggested, “birdlets” – a bit like Chaucer’s “briddes” from The Parliament of Fowles:On every bough the briddes herde I singe, / With voys of aungel in hir armonye . . . ” [lines 190-1].) But such translation runs the risk of disrespect, and of puncturing the overly sweet lyricism (Chaucer says “ravishing sweetness”) of the text – a harmonious lyricism it appears many listeners still, 200-odd years later, expect and even demand of a poem. (While I’m on Chaucer, a few lines later in the poem, he describes a hybrid Ptolemaic-NeoPlatonic-Christian attunement of the spheres reproduced by that orchestra of birdies as a model for poetry, for art song:
Of instruments of strenges in acord
Herde I so pleye a ravisshing swetnesse,
That god, that maker is of al and lord,
Ne herde never better, as I gesse
But I also hear, no doubt anachronistically, a gentle prising open of high-blown seriousness in the playfully colloquial, mild irony [rather than stentorian certainty] of his last phrase, “as I guess” – not so much as discord, but as non-accord, as orchestrated difference. There was no reference to Chaucer, of course, in the discussion of Goethe and Schubert, but I’m digressing here to suggest the variously random and agnogenic resonances that emerged for me as I was listening and thinking about the respectful translation of text, from person to person, from setting to setting. I think that this playful uncertainty can offer a creatively energizing model – one path among many, perhaps – for translation, for collaborative intersections both within and among art-forms.) Her own resetting of the Goethe text, which she presented in a recording, was both lyrical and moving; but I also appreciated what I heard as Jocelyn Morlock’s willingness to embrace play in her music, not to undermine its aesthetic import but to sustain a non-exclusive openness that seems to me to be crucial to the collaborative work of art song in all of its styles and practices.
         Prodded by the session with Jocelyn, I took a stab at re-translating Goethe, with mild disrespect, I suppose, but also with an intention of opening up the text to other contextual and historical resonances, wanting to emphasize this brief lyric’s enmeshment in the allusive fabrics, the resonant polysemy, of our oversaturated and heavily mediatized brains; to me, the simplicity evoked not so much Chaucer (though “birdies” is still there) as Goethe’s near-contemporary, the rural wanderer John Clare, with his off-kilter homey syntax and his concision of diction around, of all things, the local Northamptonshire birds. So I tried a mash-up and re-mix as translation, a blurring of the particulate and the shared – still a little overcooked and thick, a little too adjective-heavy, I guess, I guess. But there you go. Thanks to Jocelyn Morlock for inspiration, and for an engaging and motivating workshop. (BTW, the word “exasperated” cut into the poem isn’t in Goethe, but it suggests breath and comes in this case from the annotations on Alex Mah’s score “Drift,” which was being rehearsed in the late morning before the workshop.)
The Vagrant John Clare’s Second Nightsong, Near Helpston, 1837  
Some kind of calm slouches
across these bald hillocks
Feeling stifles itself
in ruined choirs of trees
Exasperated birds
go mum, soon you will too
Soon enough you will too

VISI Art Song Lab 2, Practice

Betsy Warland conducted an excellent afternoon workshop on June 3 at the Canadian Music Centre focused on approaching art song from the vantage of a poet. She suggested moving beyond the poem as the genetic artifact for a song – as a source text that a composer then takes up and sets – and instead thinking more about the dynamic and nascent interrelationships between words and music, their interplay. Since the material coming out of the Art Song Lab is currently in development, participants are given a pretty much unprecedented opportunity to allow text and sound to intersect with and to reshape each other – a mutuality. Extending what Ray Hsu had said at our initial meeting the day before, Betsy Warland suggested that poet, composer, performer and even listener were engaged (both within and as a kind of network, I think) not merely in acts of interpretation but also in processes of mutual translation, a claim that for me gestures more fully toward the interplay of differences in the work, instead of encouraging a composer  to ferret out various hermeneutic cohesions between his or her composition and the poem and aspiring to make the musical and verbal likenesses. The emphasis on the creative potential of difference, tension and experimentation – trying out other things – really enlivened the collaborative aspects of compositional practice. Practice might be a resonant word here, in its temporally contrary senses both of praxis and of rehearsal.
         Betsy Warland also strongly suggested that we develop our art songs by focusing on emotional integrity, continuity and fidelity to experience – all of which will produce works that function as dramatic, communicative acts, as good songs. But I also hear a bit suspiciously in such very practical and excellent advice the ghosts of the kind of hermeneutic organicism I am  a little inclined to try to push through and to push aside in my own writing and thinking. She said she thought of art song as potentially negotiating a set of tensions (formal, conceptual, performative) in each song, on its own terms. Yes, exactly. So, the point might be not to discard the hermeneutic, but to tension it, to work at and through it.
         In the rehearsal sessions for the songs composed around my own poem, with soprano Phoebe MacRae and pianist Rachel Iwaasa, I found myself thoroughly impressed by the rhythmic sophistication both of the composers and of the performers. The poems on the page have very tight, specific syllabic rhythms (although the first section has been shifted out of an Emily Dickinson-ish small set of fourteeners and made into a brief prose-poem – though the folk-hymnal rhythms ought to still be ghostly there). Both  composers took up the words from different rhythmic angles; Alex Mah’s score seems fairly particulate, pulling at, and apart, individual words into their phonemic and syllabic components, working at the fragmentation of pulse at the level of the word, while David Betz has lifted phrases and segments from the poem, crossing over linear and spatial divisions (as I had arranged them, lineated them) to create what are still fragments, but which have more extension by enjambing – which has the effect of drawing out slightly longer cross rhythms from the language. I find I’m not especially attached to the poem as a verbal artefact, as something of mine anymore, or at all. I like the ways in which in these settings it takes itself apart, and reassembles as something else, someone else’s, but still linked to what I started with. Rachel also mentioned how she negotiated triplets and rhythmic clusters of fives and sevens, but overlaying them in her mind’s ear with words – a cluster of seven against four, for instance, can be felt by imagining saying the word “individuality.” Cool, I think. The abstraction of musical sound returns obliquely to the sematic loadings and rhythms of the colloquially verbal.

Welcome to Us 1

In recent, post-Olympic months, Carol Ann Duffy has published what appear to be two of her laureate poems in The Guardian, poems that I want to gloss here and in a subsequent post. “Translating the British, 2012” was printed on August 10, and is an in-country paeon to the multinational London Summer Olympics. “White Cliffs” showed up on November 9, and is a celebration (in the guise of a crumbling sonnet) of Britain’s famous stretch of channel shoreline.
Her Olympic poem presents a postmodern species of choric ode, counterpointing an almost – almost! – saccharine, hyperbolic nationalism (“we … we … we …”) with a set of incisive swipes at the contemporary British banking crisis. At first pass, her mixed, even duplicitous tone can seem confusing, although it’s not out of keeping with the antithetical form of the classical ode. Duffy deliberately mimics, I’d say, the confused and contradictory reception of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Games, openly gesturing at Boyle’s spectacularly over-the-top dramaturgy: “The queen jumped from the sky / to the cheering crowds.” Erik Simpson notes what he calls the “double-edged weirdness” of Boyle’s “presentation of British cultural history,” a presentation that both feted and (playfully) excoriated English accomplishment. Duffy’s poem zeroes in on the crux of this contrariety by pointing, slightly more obliquely, to Kenneth Branagh’s peculiar recitation during the ceremonies of Caliban’s “The isle is full of noises . . .” speech from The Tempest: “We speak Shakespeare here, / a hundred tongues, one-voiced.” She’ll return to the nationalistic textual iconography of Shakespeare in “Dover Cliffs,” but in “Translating the British, 2012,” name-checking him serves as a metonomy for the globalization of English language and culture, or, even further, for what Harold Bloom grandly names the “invention of the human.” Translation, from this angle, means the assimilation and absorption of all that is other, as we come to re-discover – while we watch and listen, and even read – the genesis of a universally propagated figure of humanity in our own proxied and simulated Englishness; Britannia still rules the airwaves: “Welcome to us.” Branagh’s elocution provoked uncertain reactions, particularly from the English-speaking – especially, American – cultural establishment; writing in USA Today on July 27, Michael Florek can’t decode what’s going on (“Well,” he shrugs, “at least [the words] sounded nice”) and turns to James Shapiro, Columbia University professor and Shakespeare expert, for an explanation, which he doesn’t really give. In the segment, Branagh is dressed as Victorian railroad builder Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and recites the speech from what appears to be a cloned pastoral hillside, visual evidence of some “green and pleasant land”; historical, dramatic and ideological frames seem to have collided and smeared:
“Why you would choose Caliban’s lines as — in a sense — a kind of anthem for the Olympics, I’m not sure,” Shapiro said. “If you gave those lines some thought, especially in the light of the British Empire, it’s an odd choice. . . .The lines are quite beautiful, and I guess they wanted to rip them out of context and talk about how magical a place the British Isles are.”
Shapiro is quoted, by way of clarification, inconclusively:
“Why give him the lines Shakespeare wrote for a half-man, half-beast about to try to kill off an imperial innovator who took away his island? I don’t know,” Shapiro said. “You would probably have to ask the people who designed the opening Games ceremony what their thinking was.”
Duffy’s apparent précis of the speech at her own poem’s outset seems intended to meld a welter of noises and voices into a univocal nationality, a definitive “we” that wants to collect a listening world attentive to their noise into a latter-day empire, the Anglo-human globe. But if that’s really the case, then, like Boyle, she has quoted Shakespeare badly, confounding literary-historical and cultural frames: in the play, Caliban remarks how “a thousand twangling instruments” hum at his ears, “and sometimes voices,” which is the text we might think we hear repurposed in Duffy’s lines. But it isn’t. Her thinking, like Boyle’s, is actually a bit crooked. The reference to a “hundred tongues” gestures at Cecil Day-Lewis’s version of Virgil’s Aeneid, not Shakespeare. Another nation-founding cultural hero, rendered by Day-Lewis in idiomatic English (and, notably, his translation was broadcast nationally over BBC radio in the early 1950s), Aeneas in Book VI of the epic is confronting the Sybil, asking for information about the horrifying noises – not the sweet sounds – he can hear coming from Tartarus:
                        Scared by the din, Aeneas halted; he could not move: −
                        What kinds of criminals are these? Speak, lady! What punishments
                        Afflict them, that such agonized sounds rise up from there?
This is, in many respects, the antithesis of Caliban’s speech, although it bears remembering that Caliban is also pinched and tortured by the very spirits who serenade him. The Sybil – and Duffy, it seems to me, positions herself wryly in her poem as a vatic “lady” – catalogues as many of the tortured cries as she can, but finds her speech limited when faced with describing atrocity after atrocity, and so breaks off:
                        No, not if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths
                        And a voice of iron, could I describe all the shapes of wickedness,
                        Catalogue all the retributions inflicted here.
The “hundred tongues,” that is, refers not to univocal plenitude but to the failure of the voice to be iron, its incapacities; these lines offer not a celebration of collective joy, but the refusal of pervasive and overwhelming agony. We should, in other words, be more afeard of what we see and hear, more than we are likely to be. But, like Boyle’s sensational kitsch, Duffy’s poem seems – seems – to want to smother our critical anxieties in swathes of triumphalism.
            Or does it? If Boyle’s staging of England was able to introduce a degree of historical-social critique, Duffy’s double edge is all the more forthrightly presented, as she deftly shifts registers between the descriptive and the metaphorical, around the intersections of political economy and participatory spectacle in sport. The London Olympics came on the heels of one more crisis for the English banking system, the so-called Libor scandal. For Duffy, the “we” into whose midst her readers are welcomed is a scandalized and angry body politic, a British version of the 99%:
                        We’ve had our pockets picked,
                                                                                    The soft, white hands of bankers,
                        bold as brass, filching our gold, our silver;
                        we want it back.
The subsequent medalling by the roll of British athletes she names in the poem becomes payback in a number of senses, both an affirmation of national muscle-fibre and metaphorical reimbursement, the filched sterling and Anglo-Saxon geld imagined returned to the people.
            It’s worth remembering that this return is linked to the translation evoked in Duffy’s title, which isn’t just a question of the – albeit, gently ironic – global dissemination of Britishness but also of the poetic work of metaphor. (Both trans- latio in Latin and μεταφέρω in Greek mean approximately the same thing, to move or to carry across.) Duffy’s text quickly recognizes the obfuscation inherent in all metaphor-making, particularly around the media language of the banking crisis: “Enough of the soundbite abstract nouns, / austerity, policy, legacy, of tightening metaphorical belts.” Even while her poem retains traces of Tennysonian bathos (in the smugly haughty, over-the-top “Enough . . .”), it also dismantles its own inclination to establishment-sanctioned poeticisms and substitutes for metaphor a strong claim on common reality, shared and propagated through in our investments in sports heroes: “we got on our real bikes, / for we are Bradley Wiggins, / side-burned, Mod, god.” The glancing nod to Quadrophenia(and The Who also performed in the Olympic closing ceremonies) suggests working-class disaffection and also images of natty mods on scooters, but this exaggerated haling of cyclist Bradley Wiggins is more than a sentimental investment in the distraction of sport. The reality of “our bikes” isn’t a hypostatizing of false consciousness, but a debunking of another of those bankers’ metaphors by actively literalizing, by a knowing public. The Telegraph on 11 July 2012 carried a story debunking the Bank of England’s absurd “idea for tackling the financial crisis: six bicycles”:
The Bank of England considered buying bicycles so that its officials could continue to move around in the event of a full-scale financial meltdown, the former City minister disclosed last night.
The national bank wants to appropriate another form of translation – the forward motion of the Olympic cyclists and of everyday people in bike lanes – to secure that its rarefied system of schemes and exchanges, its economy, keeps moving. Duffy’s poem, by re-appropriating the bicycle, converting it into nationalistic metaphor and then refusing its own tropes in favour of contingently returning to, of expressing something of the realities of daily life – “we want school playing-fields returned” – offers not an assimilative or appropriative nationalism, but an invitation to start again, better. Togetherness and community, even as they sometimes rely on a cliché-ridden and potentially reactionary language of public address, can also emerge from the revitalizing work of excavating that very language for the remaindered kernels of “our” historical realities at its core – for its cultural purchase. At her poem’s close, which is really an opening, a beginning again promised by the sensing of “new weather,” Duffy positions “us” (both the English and her English-speaking readers) “on our marks,” which is to say both in a position metaphorically identified with “our” athletes and in a critical relationship to the marks on her page, poised to write back to her text.

Illustrated with Photographs 2

When I teach Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, I like to use the “illustrated edition,” which includes a set of museum and archeological photographs assembled and collated by John D. Niles, along with some of Niles’s own landscape images. It works as a kind of populist-scholarly archive, and gives the students a good sense both of the context of the poem and, importantly for me, of the constructedness of our historical sense – the fact that that the feel of any past context has to be recovered, reconstructed and reshaped in the course of translating and disseminating the poem. There is a specific archival poetics, I think, at work in this volume in particular, indicated in no small measure by the font-size of Heaney’s name, his signature, on the cover:

This is not just any version of a big old poem: this is Seamus Heaney’s text. In his afterword on the illustrations, Niles of course and rightly praises Heaney’s “outstanding” translation, but remains often quaintly aware of Heaney’s presence, as poet and intervener, in the work; noting that the Beowulf poet “often stretches reality to its limits,” he remarks appositely how Heaney “never uses a cheap word when an extravagant one will do” (220). I’m not sure how to take that, given that I don’t hear Heaney’s voice in Beowulf, through Beowulf, as either extravagant or cheap.
In an essay called “The Impact of Translation,” re-published in The Government of the Tongue (1988), Heaney assesses what for him amounts to the challenging and difficult presence, in English, of translated poems from Eastern Europe and Russia. While post-war modern poets, through to Robert Lowell, were often able, he argues, to render non-English texts “with an unbroken historical nerve,” their voices cushioned, despite the dire social upheavals of the mid-century, “by the poetic tradition inside which they worked,” poems translated, carried across, from outside that zone of homeland confidence both disrupt its comforts and, with that shake-up, revitalize its poetic potentials: “the note sounded by translated poetry from that world beyond – pitched intently and in spite of occupation, holocaust, concentration camps and the whole apparatus of totalitarianism – is so credible, desolating, and resuscitative” (43-44). Poetically appropriating the suffering of others for aesthetic or emotional gain sounds troubling to me, but – not to excuse anything – I think such appropriations are probably what any serious translation undertakes and confronts. “We,” Heaney writes, “are all the more susceptible to translations which arrive like messages from those holding their own” amid desolation (44). That “we” proleptically looks forward, for me, to the porous “we gar-dena” of Beowulf‘s first line, which, notably, Heaney elides in his translation until we reach the community of listeners in the third line of his version, “We have heard . . . .”How exactly that ethic or national collective constitutes itself in the poem is to becomes an issue rather than a given.
Such inherently difficult if seductive claims for poetic translation pervade his Beowulf, and I mean the translation itself as much as its paratext. Heaney claims to concern himself as a translator with making the voice of the Beowulf-poet sound through him, but it’s important to recognize that he doesn’t understand himself, his voice, as either disinterested or transparent. He connects himself to the Anglo-Saxon Denmark of the poem, as he notes in his introduction, by adapting its language to the “big-voiced” colloquial speech of his Northern Irish rural boyhood, the idioms of aunts and uncles. He translates the recalcitrant “Hwaet!” with which the poem begins as “So.” He recasts the formal archaism of the original into what he calls “Hiberno-English Scullionspeak”: it’s the way in which one of his relatives might start a conversation, a pitch that’s neither cheap nor extravagant, but has a weighty plainness and a throaty aural loading to which his text aspires. He builds his own verbal genetics into the translation when it comes to the Old English verb tholian, to suffer. He confesses in his intro that when he heard an aunt use the word “thole” (and the resemblance to the “tundish” episode in Joyce’s Portrait is striking here), he found a homey Anglo-Irish equivalent to an entry in C. L. Wrenn’s Beowulf glossary, a small collision of the word-hoards. While it sounds as if a temporary sharing of linguistic ethnocentrisms were allowing Heaney essentially to bring the poem home, to find an imaginative correlative in what Tolkien among others remarks as its inherent nationalism, I feel more persuaded by Richard Kearney’s reading of Heaney not as a sentimentalist of place, of home, but as a anxious lyricist of displacement, of what he calls “homecoming,” a sustained deferral: “never the actuality of an event but the possibility of an advent.”
Kearney is more sanguine, I think, about the rather lush lyricism of that deferral, and makes of Heaney a kind of late Heideggerean aesthete, melopoeically embracing the open resuscitative draft of each successive nostos, but I feel this unsettlement in Heaney’s poems – perhaps against the grain of all of their seductive vowel meadows, to which I need to confess I am nonetheless susceptible – as much more fraught and troubling, a wounded word-music that concocts its own linguistic agon as much as it wants to salve it. It’s no coincidence, for me, that it’s the word thole that pries open a crack, for Heaney, in the foreign yet familiar Anglo-Saxon linguistic sphere. Poetic translation doesn’t find its equivalents and echoes unproblematically, but enacts, in its own textures and verbal substrata, a tholing, an agon.
The opening line of the first of his “Glanmore Sonnets,” from Field Work, counterposes chthonic (maybe turfy) nostalgia with a fraught, violent and particulate narrative: “Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground.” The internal, rounded assonances here – gleanings from an Ulster sound-palette (palate?) – are disturbed and unsettled by being ploughed together – o into o – and by plosives and nasalized dentals. The colon cuts a typographical furrow, a visual hiatus, off-centre, down an almost middle.The audible lyric tissue of a Heaney line, I mean, is both woven and sutured, a cut in the verbal turf, but also pulled together by being laid open, as wound, as unapprehended other. The patrilineal “digging” with which Heaney’s collected poems begins becomes here both a homing and a dehiscence.  I’d like to say that this doubled unsettling of the poetic line, the furrow traced by the pen, offers a means of coming to terms with the unstable nationalism that floats through his Beowulf, but for now I want just to point to a picture associated with the illustrated edition: an image of the Tollund Man. Niles obviously includes this close-up of the iron-age sacrificial victim’s preserved head as a shout out to Heaney’s poems of the 1970s that emerged from his reading of P. V. Glob’s The Bog People,  and the image both connects Heaney’s poetic to the Iron Age culture of Beowulf, giving his translation a kind of anthropological-archeological authority. Niles connects the image rather tenuously to a reference in Beowulf to Hrethel’s grief for Herebeald being “like the misery felt by an old man / who has lived to see his son’s body / swing on the gallows” (lines 2444-6). More significantly, the throat of the Tollund Man –whose tarry corpse has fused with the peat in which he was cast –  still bears an obvious slash wound. His voice, box iconically, has been cut open, like the turf of Heaney’s northern farmland. If he can be made to speak, can be translated, if he speaks at all, he can offer only one long, nearly inaudible, open vowel, a tenuous exhalation from the tear in his dark neck. A tholing wound.
Quoted Things
Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue. London: Faber, 1988. Print.
—. Field Work.London: Faber, 1979. Print.
—, trans. Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.
Kearney, Richard. Transitions: Narratives in Modern Irish Culture. Manchester:

 Manchester UP, 1988.

Poetry as Needed: David Solway’s Contraries

What follows is a lightly trimmed (from what was, in fact, an unfinished document) and revised version of a review-essay intended (in 2005) for publication in Canadian Literature, but which never made it (not for reasons of quality, I hope, but because – I’m assuming, I’m assuming – of space constraints and special-issue themes, which caused it to be bumped until it became too dated.) I think it still raises some relevant issues, though, and also engages with David Solway’s poetics and poetry in what I hope is a disinterested and rigorous manner. It also bears on current debates over negative reviewing in Canada.
David Solway was fast becoming our Alexander Pope. In the introduction to the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, W. B. Yeats disparaged T. S. Eliot as “an Alexander Pope, working without apparent imagination.” My intention with this echo isn’t some sort of elaborate literary name-calling, but to describe what I hear as divisiveness informing much of Solway’s work, both poetry and polemic. In the preface to Director’s Cut: Essays (Porcupine’s Quill), Solway acknowledges that his sharp-edged and aesthetically partisan writing may draw “charges of self-righteousness, presumption and pontifical imperiousness of temper” from academic critics who, in his view, immerse themselves in “diffidence and complicity” by praising and promoting the work of inferior or insubstantial writers; he excuses his often harsh, even vindictive tone by claiming the ethical superiority of the satirist, the judiciousness and balanced erudition of a witty man-of-letters — whose crafted, caustic voice is uncannily close to that of Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.” There are several direct and approving citations of the eighteenth-century poet in Solway’s essays, but their relation is more than occasional. Solway’s insistence on rationality and mastery, fitness and form, not just in his own poems but in any good writing, suggests on first pass a transplanted neo-classicism that draws heavily on both Pope and Eliot as its forebears.
            Separating the sheep from the goats, as narrowly and as rigorously as he can, appears to be what Solway understands as “responsible” criticism. To seek out “quality work,” he asserts, is to ply “the counter-discourse of antithetical discrimination,” by which he means to be thoroughly and carefully withering toward any Canadian poets whose work he dislikes — which, he openly admits, is most of it. To pull his punches would be “a way of evading responsibility,” and he strives “to cease trading in the usual velleities and placebos that double for criticism in today’s literary environment and embark on a process of audits and disclosures to reveal the real value of most of the work now being mass-produced.” The wool, in other words, needs to be pulled from most of our eyes, and the sloppy populism and prosaic flatness of what passes for poetry needs clearing: so we are invited, rather forcibly, to trust in the surety of Solway’s ear and eye, and in the acuity of his shit-detector. (Irving Layton’s deluded Neruda comes to mind.) And many times this trust pays off. Solway’s enthusiasm for his fellow poets of Anglo-Montreal and environs, including Michael Harris, Robyn Sarah, Peter van Toorn, Eric Ormsby and Carmine Starnino, is catching. And while much of his effusiveness smacks of nepotism and cliquishness — most of those he praises tend to be personal friends and acolytes, a network he openly acknowledges in “Double Exile and Montreal English-Language Poetry” — his exactitude and unflinching engagement with their texts nonetheless sustain his approval, and encourage mine. And while none these poets (perhaps with the exception of van Toorn) is as obscure or unlauded as Solway claims, the very fine poems he cites certainly call out for fuller critical engagement and a wider, thoughtful audience: as wide as poetry might have, these days. Solway makes me want to read more of them than I have, and to keep reading.
            There is, however, a backlash to the lauds, which I think is truly unfortunate and which detracts from all this well-deserved praise. Solway seems so invested in contrariety as to be unable to resist attacking, without serving any substantial critical purpose, those whose writing he cannot, usually for merely ideological reasons, abide. His thinking is antagonistic, and often casts him, as the apologist for his cohort, in the role of scrappy underdog. In “The Great Disconnect,” the long-winded ramble from poetry sample to sample that closes his prose collection, he contrives an extended set of duels between counterposed pairs of poets in order to prove the neglected worth of less famous but, in his view, more technically and imaginatively accomplished writers: Ricardo Sternberg defeats Margaret Atwood, Brent MacLaine out-writes Anne Michaels, Norm Sibum takes down George Elliott Clarke, Mary Dalton pins Christian Bök, Carmine Starnino routs Jan Zwicky and, in the final round, Rodney Jones conquers Michael Ondaatje. (There are other crucial matches, although it takes three poets — Ormsby, Harris and Sarah — to overcome Anne Carson, which doesn’t seem sporting, and the spectres of W. H. Auden and Al Purdy grappling for linguistic supremacy is patently absurd.) What strives to pass for critical acuity in such writing is, sadly, too contrived, too forced. Solway seems to me to displace his own need to wrestle with those “bad poets,” this “crowd of mountebanks” (he must have been feeling vaguely Shakespearean), as he tries to labour “in defiance of the aesthetic and political orthodoxies of the times,” and to produce, at times in spite of his contrarian rhetoric, a reactionary orthodoxy of his own; insisting on the artificiality of poetry — on the character of its making — leads him to insist that the poem is a “shapely utterance, . . . a constructed linguistic object irradiated by lexical joy no matter what its subject” (original italics), but I fail to see much of a critical point in such a truism. All of the writers he cites, both pro and con, surely recognize this assertion as a given, and find themselves called to their work by an irreducible love of language. And an insistence on “lexical” joy, while conceptually attractive, is also a troubling blurriness from a writer who insists on verbal precision; I hear next to no joy in Solway’s writing, which leads me to worry over what he might mean by it here, amid the smirking. Given, for example, Jan Zwicky’s pervasive desire to uncover joyous, vital ecologies in poetic metaphor, I can’t help but suspect Solway of being wilfully tone-deaf to the obvious virtues and to the achievement of her writing, and of covering his tracks in misleading mystifications. I still take his enterprise seriously and sincerely, and admire his astringent demand to hear, from any poet, words in their fullness, but I can only deplore the lack of humility or of any willingness to listen beyond his own narrowly drawn poetic confines. For instance, “The Trouble with Annie,” his extended attack on Anne Carson, whom he regards as a poetic imposter, comes off not as “a reality check” but as whiny petulance and petty jealousy at the success of another writer, trying in vain to justify itself as objective critique. (He tends to be hoist by his own pedantic petard, questioning the accuracy of Carson’s scholarship while — when he mistakes a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts for Carson’s fragmentary postmodernism, for instance — his own reading turns sloppy and uninformed.) Any possible joy in words ultimately gets reigned in by an astringent measure, his hard critical yardstick. Despite his acclaim for colleagues and mentors, Solway refrains too often from praise, from teaching us how to praise, a task Auden once assigned the poet — and, I think, the poet-critic. Instead, stymied amid so much critical potential, and so richly varied a national poetry, he finally strains to direct his considerable sensitivities toward an ignominious end: picking imaginary fights where he could be discovering imaginative vitalities.
            One last point on Solway’s criticism. I think that he would probably be unhappy with the possessive in the opening sentence of my remarks, that “our,” which implicates his work in a kind of cultural nationalism. His essay “The Flight from Canada” offers a cogent and persuasive alternative to what he calls the “Canadian content syndrome,” a canonizing of Canada’s national literature based not on qualitative discriminations but on the mere fact of its being Canadian. Still, Solway doesn’t actually refuse a national cultural thematics so much as re-think it, carefully and provocatively. It isn’t, for him, a question of poetically formulating, or adhering to, an identity but of inhabiting its negation: “it is precisely the comfortless absence of a secure identity, the rootlessness, the sense of radical alienation which is our greatest gift and blessing.” He wants, he asserts, identity “solidly founded in difference.” He becomes ours, in a sense, by refusing us. But claiming a solidness for that foundation also distinguishes his work from more openly alternative poetics; difference, for him, means “that each poet can work up the materials of place and language into that signature alloy we call individual style”; flight is predicated on a thoroughly conservative cosmopolitanism, a flight made radical, in other words, only by its rootedness in the solid ground of a distinctive poetic diction. This conceptual mix may be, at its base, self-contradictory, but surely Solway has managed at least to point up a viable means of confronting poetically, formally, the question of a late nationalism, of the differential ethos of the Canadian.
            This somewhat fraught cultural nationalism is inflected by historical narrative in Franklin’s Passage (McGill-Queen’s UP), a book-length sequence of poems by Solway that map out an attempt to re-discover and make sense of John Franklin’s doomed Victorian expedition through the fabled Northwest Passage. Much has been written on, and overwritten, Franklin — including Margaret Atwood’s recent lecture in Strange Things, in which the expedition becomes an archetype for the alienated Anglo-Canadian psyche, more finely developed than her early efforts at a national literary thematics in Survival, but still part of the same cultural project. Rather than contribute more of the same, Solway produces not so much countermyth as a series of reflections on the processes, both solitary and collective, of myth making. In the face of his professed distaste for postmodern antics of pastiche and self-consciousness, Solway appears to want to show us how it’s done: a finer tuned, better turned reflexivity. The collective first-person – some form of a communal Anglo-Canadian voice – shows up, despite Solway’s difficult nationalism, in the first line of the first poem, a “dedicatory” sonnet:
We voyage as companions in ships
                        there’s no way to abandon or desert – on
                        authority of Mowat and Berton
                        who chart our encounters with the weathers
                        that beset our soul. (2)
Almost emblematically, “Dedicatory” appears as the verso – the flipside – of the collection’s first page, which reprints a set of four epigraphs, as if this poetry were at its best an epigone commentary, an act of coming after if not too late.  Years earlier, in “A Poem for my Sons,” Solway cautiously thanks his children “for the rejuvenating faith in epigones” (Selected Poems 59), suggesting both the inevitability of his own position in whatever literary history may come as a late arrival, compelled to be retrospective and deferential, and the poetically empowering humility, of all things, of the afterword, overwhelmed but also revitalized by the long burden of a past. Here, too, faced with the task of retracing not only Franklin’s steps but the tracks of all those who have already written (populist historians like Farley Mowat and Pierre Berton, say), Solway nevertheless affirms the poetic necessity of rewriting, of continuing the process and of remarking the passage of his own work as a writer. He may suspect the tiredness of an thoroughly assimilated Canadian myth, of telling the same old story over again, but he also asserts, plainly, that we have no alternatives but to re-confront what we’ve been told, and to remake something vital of it.
The project, after all, never closes off, as succeeding generations of writers inherit, interpret and retell, driven by a desire for veracity that can never be satisfied by this or that brief hypostasis: “We are always at least one chronicle from the truth.” The need to rectify the fragmentary and unkempt details of human experience into pattern, into the fixity of form, is not predicated, for Solway, on the neatness of fictitious national, cultural or literary archetypes or on any claims of achievement; rather, his formalism remains projective and aspirant, a “dream,” a longing for a completion he recognizes that, however neat or succinct appearances may be, he cannot finally claim:
One way or another we are stuck here,
clenched in the dream that drove us far from home
to confront the narratives we’ve come from
and try to make asymmetries cohere.
Despite the enclosures of the envelope rhyme here, for example, the spectral chiasmus of rime riche and slant rhyme (“. . . from home / . . . come from”), alliteration, vowel echoes marks both an aspiration toward symmetry and the unfinished business of writing itself, as it traces a sustained counterpoint of formal elegance and common, loose chat, the promise of coherence set against “a process called decoherence.” For Solway, Franklin can only ever be “partially intelligible,” which is to say both interpreted and fragmentary; the poet wants to take what remains beyond account, “beyond the imagination / of the present moment,” a vague outside that slips from verbalizing, and give it an accounting: if he can’t ever confirm or uncover historical truth, converting the unknowable “into something / decipherable, / a legible report,” what he can do is account for himself as a mediating, intervening presence in that uncertain history. His measured verse, as he puts it, also “resists the illusion of measurement.”
Even if  “there is no way to tell” what happened, even if the writer can only strain to produce “a forced passage,” “as if listening for the sound / that no one else can hear” when faced with an insurmountable barrier of silence, “we can always,” Solway asserts “photograph ourselves,” acknowledging openly that history is never a given but is always made by – and inflected by, fabricated by – somebody doing the telling: “We can always tell another story.” This accounting becomes far more than deferential acknowledgement in Solway’s text; out of  “the kingdom of contingency” – a moniker, it sounds to me, for the postmodern condition and for an attendant dearth of cultural literacy and historical sense lamented by academics such as Fredric Jameson – Solway draws both healthy refusal, that inherent formal resistance, and a renewed vitality; even if poems appear to become “a casting of words / accounting for nothing but recurrence,” that accounting also finds its passage in the same “arc of discovery and loss” that Solway imagines in Franklin, a reflexive vacillation that “bear[s] us back, astonished, to ourselves.” Poetry can still astonish, even amid the self-involvement of a deprived and faltering present. There isn’t much of the historical Franklin in Solway’s book; it’s mostly about Solway, trying to compose for himself viable historical poetics, and to enact it. But, frankly, that’s the point: poetry as aspiration, effort, remaking – poetry as needed, as need.
Poet Yves Gosselin, despite his candid admission in his preface that “[il] connai[t] peu David Solway,” offers a fine and representative overview of Solway’s work, translating forty-odd poems as Poèmes choisis 1963-2003 (Éditions du Noroît). Solway had for some time published translations of Québécois poetry in Books in Canada – I am not sure if he has translated Gosselin’s work or not – but in some measure these translations return the favour. While Gosselin’s own poetry tends (to my ear, at least) toward concision and declarative rigour generally in a rather clipped short line – peruse such volumes as his Programme pour une mort lente and Les guerres sont éternelle, or the more recent La mort d’Arthur Rimbaud  (the latter also from Noroît) – his versions of Solway are much less compact or honed. For example, Solway’s “Pip” – a lyric from his 1979 collection Mephistopheles and the Astronaut that describes the “slow disintegration to his elements” of a man lost at sea, a figure, perhaps, for Solway himself as disillusioned poet-critic – loses much of its sonic craft, its carefully worked echolalia, when provocative and sharply edged conceits like “lonely in the frantic vatican of himself” get converted by Gosselin into prosaic précis: “solitaire au milieu de sa proper agitation.” The sense is there, but the poetry has fallen away. Compare
            Encompassed by the hard horizon, he pondered
            his gradual declination to the void,
            his northless destiny, his loony afternoons
            and slow disintegration to his elements
                        Cerné par l’horizon impityoable, il a pris la mesure
                        de sa derive progressive vers le néant,
de son destine sans direction, de ses après-midi de folie
et de sa disintegration lente, réduit à ses elements[.]
Cerné” – encircled or surrounded – is a nice choice here, and suggests, I think, a certain tightness or enclosure against the deathly limitlessness of the ocean, but it also elides the sustained metaphor that surfaces in Solway’s lines, that of magnetic north; Gosselin’s version is literally north-less, which essentially catches Solway’s drift here but loses its textures. While I can’t expect Gosselin to reproduce Solway’s phonemic music in French, I think it’s fair to ask, given Gosselin’s obvious verbal craft in his own work, for more than a crib or gloss on the original. The hardness of the poem is, I think, an essential aspect of its presentation, and something of that sculptural deftness needs to come across in translation. The opening of Solway’s earlier “New England Poets” – “New England poets grow tall and coniferous. / They are famous for their disciplined metres / and their evergreen intelligence.” – articulates with measured irony the uncompromised relationship to poetic discipline that Solway’s criticism also constantly pursues: he notes the poets’ metrical regularity in a line that both lightly and deliberately overwhelms its rhythmic containments. Gosslelin’s version, however, seems to lose its boundaries altogether:
                        Les poètes de la Nouvelle Angleterre sont grandes, ce sont des confères.
Ils sont célèbres pour leurs poésie bien sage
et leur esprit de conservation séduit toujours les generations d’étudiants.
Again, key tropes – “evergreen” – get dropped and over-reaching glosses – what students are those? – get introduced, but these things happen in any translation; what concerns me, though, is the rhythmic incoherence of the lines themselves, their relinquishing of muscle-tone or definition. To be fair, Gosselin’s translations offer moments of intensity, of thick poetic cross-pollination, but all too often the crisp edges of Solway’s lines are lost in Gallic sesquipedalian diction. Still, in returning the favour of translation, Gosselin gestures toward invigorating a key trajectory of Solway’s cosmopolitan cultural flight.