'A Handful of Blue Earth' Marilyn Hacker on her translation of the poems of Vénus Khoury-Ghata
Marilyn Hacker has translated several of the works of Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Here to celebrate her latest translation A Handful of Blue Earth, Marilyn discusses the translation process and what inspires her about Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Read on for a poem from A Handful of Blue Earth.
A Handful of Blue Earth is your translation of the poems written by Vénus Khoury-Ghata. When did you first read these poems and what initially drew you to them?
This is the sixth book of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s that I have translated since 2000. I had read collections of her poetry in French, and been intrigued by how much implied history there was – history in the macro-historical and in the tale-telling sense –informing them. I was asked, back in 2000, by an editor to give a reader’s report on an anthology of French and Francophone women’s poetry scheduled for publication. There were a couple of poems of Vénus’ that were so full of howlers of mistranslation – which I signalled to the editor – that I was impelled to re-translate them. Some months later, I met Vénus through a mutual writer friend, and knowing her, knowing the person and the personality behind the work, was another impetus to engage with it.
Throughout the collection, there are a range of poetic forms and styles. Is there any particular form that you would say presents a particular challenge as a translator?
There are no actual metrical /rhymed/stanzaic ” fixed poetic forms” -- either coming from the French (or Arabic) literary canon or invented by the poet – in this book, or in any of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s poetry, though there is a difference between the short-lined verse of the “Lady of Syros” and the more surreal prose-poem-like paragraph-stanzas from the “Book of Petitions” , while the long “Mothers and the Mediterranean” poem partakes of both. The rhythms and the breath of the short-lined poems are quite different from the marvellously meandering sentences of that border on prose. It’s not hard to keep them apart.
There are not as many formal - in the sense of metrical/syllabic , etc. forms – virtuosos working currently in French poetry as there are in contemporary poetry in English -- thinking of George Szirtes, Mimi Khalvati, Derek Mahon, Patience Agbabe , for example , though Jacques Roubaud is an exception. I once translated a series of (also surreal ) sequences in decasyllabic dixains - ten-line stanzas of ten syllables each – by another poet, Marie Etienne, which was surprisingly easy, given how much iambic pentameter I had written myself – and even led me to write something using the same form.
Do you have a particular process when translating poetry?
No…I often find myself reading a poem in French and “recreating” it in English, and that’s the impulse to translate it. If there’s a book of translations to complete, the process is less meandering than that.
This poetry collection deals with a variety of themes such as exile, warfare and female relationships. Is there any motif in particular that stands out to you as the defining theme of the collection?
Oddly, the only relationship between women I noticed in this collection was that of the daughter who “becomes” the pre-Cycladic statue to her mother. It’s a subject that has been primary in my own work, and an intense ,conflicted mother/ daughter relationship is central to another book of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s that I translated , Nettles, published by Graywolf Press in the U.S. in 2008. Exile and expatriation, though, are themes that run through all this poet’s work - quoting from “The Book of Petitions”:
How can you weep in a language no longer your own
what can you call walls not imbued with your sweat
In both the “Lady of Syros” and “The Book of Petitions,” death itself is seen as a kind of exile or expatriation - which, paradoxically, makes it seem less final and inexorable: exiles sometimes return. Whereas the state of war evoked in “The Mothers and the Mediterranean” seems almost more permanent than death – and I think it was the persistent murderous state of war now in Syria, in Iraq, that brought the civil war in Lebanon so urgently back to the poet’s imagination…as well as the city of Beirut, where she grew up, very specifically evoked in that sequence.
Would you say that reading and translating Vénus’ poems has influenced your own poetry?
I’ve translated extensively from the work of about ten French or Francophone poets in the last going-on-twenty years, and there has been, intentionally or inadvertently, dialogue with several of them in my own work. Here is a glosa, a Spanish form in which the poet takes 4 lines from a poem by another poet, and composes 4 ten line stanzas, each ending with one of those four lines in turn -- this was written elaborating on four lines of the poem by Vénus Khoury-Ghata that is given in its entirety, following.
The death of a sparrow has blackened the snow
But nothing consoled her
Who is the night among all nights ? she asked the owl
But the owl doesn’t think, the owl knows
Vénus Khoury-Ghata : “Borderland”
Dumb heat, not snow, sheathes Paris in July
and sheathes suburban Washington.
Planes rip through the fabric of a frayed
afternoon torn open
by words no afterwards will clarify.
Knowing what happened, no one will know.
We had a friend ; she had a young son.
There was exile, its weight on a day.
There was the heart’s ice, its insistent glow.
The death of a sparrow has blackened the snow.
Trope upon silvered trope, of what might a mirror
remind her : copper, black silk , the eloquence
intelligence gives eyes ? Reflected terror
that conscripted all intelligence.
I am a great way off and cannot come nearer.
I do not know what the night or the mirror told her
or the sense of the words she wrote when nothing made sense,
or if they made a sense that seemed clearer and clearer.
The child raised his arms to be lifted, to be held, to hold her,
but nothing consoled her.
Put the morning away in the murk of myth :
not the unthinkable, but Radha’s dance
breaking her bangles, imploring the dark god with
metered and musical lamentations,
repeated measures meant to distance death
suggest a redemptive spiral for the soul
(child, child bleeding to death, no second chance)
in the containment of despair and wrath
within the peopled descent of the ritual.
(Who is the night of all nights she asked the owl.)
No dark god was there, and no god of light .
There are women and men, cruel or fallible.
No mild friend picked up the telephone at the right
moment ; some Someone was unavailable.
The morning which paled from an uneventful night
would have been ordinary, except that she chose.
Interrogate the hours, invent some oracle
flying overhead , read fate into its flight.
We think the snow was blackened by dead sparrows,
but the owl doesn’t think; the owl knows.
it should have been beautiful and it was merely sad
gardens departed this life more slowly than men
we would eat our sorrow down to the last drop then
belch it in splinters in the face of the cold
the sun’s spirit kept the sun from warming us
a sun that eventually ran dry from so much concentration
It was elsewhere
it was a very long time ago
tired of calling us the mother left the earth to enter the earth
seen from above she looked like a pebble
seen from below she looked like a flaking pine-cone
sometimes she wept in sobs that made the foliage tremble
life, we cried out to her, is a straight line of noises
death an empty circle
outside there is winter
the death of a sparrow has blackened the snow
But nothing consoled her
who is the night among all nights? she asked the owl
but the owl doesn’t think
the owl knows
Translated by Marilyn Hacker
(from Names, W.W. Norton and Co., 2010)
Marilyn Hacker is the author of thirteen books of poems, including A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton, 2015), Names (Norton, 2010), Essays on Departure (Carcanet, 2006), an essay collection, Unauthorized Voices (Michigan, 2010), and fourteen collections of translations of French and Francophone poets including Emmanuel Moses, Marie Etienne, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Habib Tengour and Rachida Madani. DiaspoRenga, a collaborative sequence written with the Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi, was published by Holland Park Press in 2014. She lives in Paris.