The Language Issue

Posted by on Saturday, December 3rd, 2005

Okay, big disclaimer here. I realized as I wrote this that there was no way I had the time to write the 20+ pages that I would need to write to really discuss this work.  So basically, this is an effort to dip my toe in the discussion. As we go, I will post more, but I thought it was about time we started talking about some poetry around here. So here’s a little poetry talk. It’s not exactly a brilliant thesis or anything, but then, this is just a blog, not English 562, right?

It’s been a long time since I read much poetry in translation. I was for a long time fixated on a couple of Hebrew-language poets—namely Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch. I even studied a little Hebrew with the idea of someday being able to read the originals. (Ask me if I remember a single word of Hebrew—ha!) This is to say, I know how insanely different various translations can be. I would sometimes see multiple translations of certain poems, and they may as well have been different poems entirely. Some of my favorite poems were also some of my least favorites in a different translation. It’s an odd feeling, reading someone’s work, knowing that you’re not really reading their work, but more of a collaboration, or even a game of Exquisite Corpse. And Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill obviously realizes this herself, in the final poem of the collection, “The Language Issue:” (p. 155, trans. Paul Muldoon)

I place my hope on the water

in this little boat

of the language, the way a body might put

an infant

in a basket of intertwined

iris leaves,

its underside proofed

with bitumen and pitch,

then set the whole thing down amidst the sedge

and bulrushes by the edge

of a river

only to have it borne hither and thither,

not knowing where it might end up;

in the lap, perhaps,

of some Pharaoh’s daughter.

Using the story of Moses’ birth, Ní Dhomhnaill illustrates how sending her poetry out to be translated is an act of faith. A particularly poignant dilemma, I would imagine, for a poet who has chosen to write her poetry in a language that has largely fallen on deaf ears in contemporary Irish culture. While she has made the bold choice to write in the language she chooses, she realizes the necessity of sending it out to a wider audience, “not knowing where it might end up.”

On the translation issue, I find it interesting that time and again, when I would find a poem that I particularly liked in the collection, more often than not, it was translated by Medbh McGuckian. Perhaps I should seek out a collection of her original work? But I also wonder, if in part, she just happens to be drawn to similar themes as me. In truth, it is likely a little bit of both. But it does, I think, draw attention to the problem of reading poetry in translation. For the poems that I didn’t like as well—would I have loved them in a different translation? I’d be curious, if there are multiple translations of some of these poems available, to see the differences between versions.

There seem to be a lot of Judeo-Christian references in her poems (as above), but also what appear to be numerous mythological references. This is where I have no idea what I’m talking about, and will lead me to ask lots of questions. I don’t know my Celtic mythology or Irish folklore. So those of you that do (ahem–Lanea) please speak up as necessary. One of my favorite poems in the collection is the first one, “The Bond:” (p. 13, trans. Medbh McGuckian)

If I use my forbidden hand

To raise a bridge across the river,

All the work of the builders

Has been blown up by sunrise,

A boat comes up the river by night

With a woman standing in it,

Twin candles lit in her eyes

And two oars in her hands.

She unsheathes a pack of cards,

‘Will you play forfeits?’ she says.

We play and she beats me hands down,

And she puts three banns upon me:

Not to have two meals in one house,

Not to pass two nights under one roof,

Not to sleep twice with the same man

Until I find her. When I ask her address,

‘If it were north I’d tell you south.

If it were east, west.’ She hooks

Off in a flash of lightning, leaving me

Stranded on the bank,

My eyes full of candles,

And the two dead oars.

There is so much to look at in this poem, I hardly know where to begin. It seems to reek of mythical references that I can’t identify. (If I can’t identify them, how do I know they’re there? I don’t know, but can’t you just feel it?) First, there seems to be some significance to the use of the numbers: twin candles, two oars, three banns, two meals, two nights, sleep twice, and at the end, the two dead oars. Someone help me here—I love this poem, but I don’t think I’m getting all of the references. (I love poems I don’t understand. Yeah, I said it. The more obtuse the better—like the woman of the poem—“If it were north I’d tell you south. / If it were east, west.”) I’d also just like to point out that I love the way many of her poems end with a variation on the opening stanza. There’s something wonderfully lyrical about it.

Some of my favorite poems also deal with themes of “Irishness” vs. “Englishness.” Perhaps it’s the Post-colonial Studies gal in me. Can’t help it—if it has to do with race, class, ethnicity or nationalism, I’m there, baby! The best example of this, I believe, is the poem, “Night Fishing.” (p. 65, trans. Medbh McGuckian)

It’s high time I took myself

Up the throat of the sea, under the cliff,

One hand feeling the growth

Of seaweed on massive rocks,

The other a freebooter

Out to land a fish.

There’s a strange girl in my company

Speaks with a fine English accent.

‘You there with the book-learning,’

Puts in my aunt from the other side,

‘The likes of you ought to be able to follow her.’

‘Sometimes,’ I answer, ‘sometimes

I can understand, but mostly

There’s nothing there but as if you heard

The sigh of some bedraggled snow

Untidily fall from the sky.’

‘Well, here’s a book you should

Keep to hand whenever you are in danger.’

‘But how will I manage to land

A fish with the same hand?’

‘Never mind that, do as I bid.’

So I took the book from her.

Now here I am, up to my throat

In sea, under the cliff,

With my right hand clinging

To the seaweed. On my left,

A scintillating, red-gold fish,

The length of a lady’s hand,

Is radiating toxic waves

And pirouetting

In and out of my reach.

The poem begins, “It’s high time I took myself / Up the throat of the sea…” This journey is for the purpose of fishing—but this is not ordinary fishing—the person fishing makes me think of a mermaid, all the way in the water, clutching at seaweed with one hand, the other bare hand grabbing for fish. There is a very physical, almost mythical connection to the “land” (and by land, I mean water), and the sea itself has human characteristics—a throat. The narrator is a young woman, and I interpeted this fishing expedition to be a sort of cultural rite of passage.

This first stanza stands in stark contrast to the next, when there is suddenly a “strange girl…/ with a fine English accent.” It seems to me that both of these young women are the narrator, and that she is being torn between two worlds, one which to her seems like a more “authentic” life (or at least the one more familiar to her), and the other one that seems very pedantic (and English). This is the world of ‘book-learning.” The narrator protests as her aunt pushes her into this world, that with a book in one hand, “’…how will I manage to land / A fish with the same hand?’” In the end, the narrator is “up to [her] throat / in the sea”, while the fish seem to taunt her because she does not have a hand free to grab them. It seems that she is attempting to connect with both worlds at once, as ineffectual as it may ultimately be. In many ways, the poem seems to be speaking to the author’s own background, having been born in England, learning Irish after moving to an Irish-speaking community in Ireland as a child. The author is that child with the book (English education) in one hand and the seaweed (her Irish cultural heritage) in the other. What I find interesting, if not altogether problematic, here is that there seems to be an almost inflated romanticism of “Irishness,” the kind that I would more expect to find from a colonial, not a post-colonial text. It is interesting to me that she would equate “Englishness” and “book-learning”, almost as if to preclude any authentically Irish intellectualism. Or perhaps someone else has a different reading of the poem? Any mythological or folkloric references that might add a new dimension?

Okey dokey. I feel like I’ve already talked too much, and I’ve only disccussed, what? Three poems? Let’s open this up to other folks and see where it goes. If I try to write anymore here, I’ll never finish this post. (Attention Christmas shoppers, cleanup in aisle four. Rachel’s brain exploded.)

(Oh, and an aside: Lanea and I couldn’t have possibly picked two more different poets to start this blog, but I almost wet myself when I read “The Smell of Blood” (p.75, trans. Ciaran Carson). It’s eerie how similar it is thematically to Berryman’s Dream Song #29, one of my favorites. Eerie. Keep an eye out for this one when we discuss the next book.)

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