Saturday, January 19, 2008

John Alter's new book of poetry is out


He turns the corner, at last, that brings him
to the land of translation. Three small steps
bring him down to where Alice-in-Wonder-
­land waits, who is now an old lady whose

stories are like an elderly rabbit.
No—she is older than that, now, and he
later; what he finds—a boot with buttons,
desiccated mushroom pieces, a door

so small he mistakes it for a playing
card—and what he hears—forlorn, a small wind
blowing... these things he can gather up and
bring back, but here, in this gentle garden

he finds no way back; the three steps loom now,
larger and earlier, and he sits down.

Many readers of this blog already know John Alter, and at least some of his poetry; they may have even heard him read his work at a Coffee House or on another occasion. There is now a selection of his poems available from Xlibris, entitled Hanuman’s Home; it is filled with verse that John has produced while living in Washington, CT for the past few years. The poem above immediately struck a chord with me; in the case of poems with references to India (where John was born and raised) and Hinduism, I’m more like an avid tourist − one leaning forward into the page, transported by the visions woven there. After having had the book here for several days, I can say that both the un- & the already-initiated are in luck, because the pleasures of reading these poems are many, and grow with each return to the page.

As I was beginning to read, or reread, the poems of Hanuman’s Home, I was also rediscovering the Mark Strand essay “Translation,” in Strand’s entertaining book of essays The Weather of Words (2000). Toward the end of this short essay, Strand has the apparition of Borges say to his poet-narrator: “It is you who must be translated…” – which is not, the reader understands, to disavow the multiple ‘problems of translation’ the essay veils in fictive translators who pop up in the unlikeliest of places and persons, beginning with the narrator’s four-year-old son, who (unbeknownst to the Strand-narrator) has been translating Palazzeschi – and encountering some difficulty, to which the son (four years old, I repeat) admits with an amusingly erudite admixture of shame and resentment. I read this essay when the book came out, and subsequently forgot about that oddball choice of Italian poet; now that I’ve been translating Palazzeschi myself, and somewhat inevitably thinking about translation & the myriad opinions written about it, my rediscovery of this essay brings with it an admixture of glee, identification, and embarrassment.

In any case, the Borges apparition confirms the Strand narrator’s surmise that translation should be thought of as “a transaction between individual idioms, between say the Italian of D’Annunzio and the English of Auden” − a notion that obviates or renders “irrelevant discussions of who has and who hasn’t done a correct translation.” Such a comment neatly curtails all debate, at least for the time being, and in fact the essay swiftly vanishes, along with Borges’s ghost. A plain-language sequential summary of this essay's implications might look like this: translation begins at home; its issues manifest themselves regularly in familiar (even literally members of the family) ways; disagreements and divisions will occur regarding translation choices; the imaginative work itself is elastic enough to handle all of this (i.e. the Kundera-esque narrative, in which the characters voice a broad range of opinions on the matter of whether translation is possible).

Anyway, John's book, and the poem above, got me thinking of these matters in a committed, but concentrated manner ("and he sits down"). Coincidentally, the other day John handed me a CD of Borges lectures from the 60’s that is truly transporting, to the point that I am convinced I was there, or that I heard Borges speak at some point, although the first is impossible and the second is probably a memory malfunction. In any event, all of these circumstances are at least reminders of the recurrence of the ineffable appearing in distinct yet fantastic forms. For me, John’s poem above operates like a fairytale equivalent, a metaphorical treatment of existential (life as translation) quandaries. I think of the three steps as stages in the work of translation, but the metaphor broadens as its language becomes more precise. This magic is typical of the poems in Hanuman’s Home – their scope emerges from their particulars and the subjectivity of the narrative, an only apparent paradox that will certainly be familiar to readers of poetry (I think of Whitman first of all). Most of the poems are more explicitly tied to time and place than the one quoted above, and some address religious and secular existential matters more explicitly. In one of his lectures Borges says "We all must put up with the mythology of our times," by which he meant not so much to dismiss it as to opine its poverty relative to the imaginative and conceptual wealth of other mythologies, of other times. In these poems, John calls on a wider world of meaning and association without stretching, and without ever distancing the reader. ‘Shantih shantih shantih,’ for example, commemorates and meditates on 9/11; others were written for family members, or on occasions of special import for the family, and others meditate on the meanings of rituals of the religious calendar, like ‘Advent, Ramadan.’

When you engage in a reading of this book, you begin a dialogue with an author whose presence is as unmistakable and generous in the poems as it has been in our midst for the past several years. It’s my hope that we’ll have a couple more (and lengthier) poems from Hanuman’s Home on the blog in the coming weeks, with comments from other readers and admirers of John’s poetry.

No comments: