I REMEMBER MANY things about the evening when the Cuban poet Roberto Manzano read his poems at Youngstown State University in the spring of 2003. First, perhaps, was his own personal energy, which was at times so emphatic that our translator had to remind him to slow down and leave space so that she could convey his energies in English. Second was his complete sense of conviction — in writing what he’d written, in being with us to read, in delivering the poems to his audience. Third, was that audience’s brand of attention, truly “undivided,” right up to the last word when they instinctively and immediately rose to their feet in applause. And I remember, in a bar afterwards, a colleague of mine and an excellent poet, trying to tell Manzano (through an interpreter) that so much American poetry felt “constipated” in light of what he’d just heard that evening. As I recall, Manzano, generously and anxiously, scanned the premises for the men’s room to aid his new American friend.
What my colleague meant, of course, was that Manzano’s poems went beyond the traditionally circumscribed lyric, beyond the often humble and household range of so many contemporary poems. They smacked of Whitman. They outsoared anything pedestrian, even in celebrating the here and now and close-to-hand. Translating those poems, and talking with Manzano about his work, was to experience that energy and ambition at close range, too close indeed to avoid being affected by it permanently. Which is one of the great gifts of the opportunity of translating — to be changed oneself in the process of that other, impossible change: moving a poem out of one language into another.
Roberto Manzano was born in Ciego de Avila in 1949, spent much of his life in Camagüey, and now resides in Havana. A teacher and critic as well as a poet, he is also founder of Los Talleres Literarios (the Literary Workshops). A member of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, in 1995 he received the Emilio Ballagas Prize for his essay “Mito y texto de José Martí” (“Myth and Text of José Martí”), and his other work has won or been nominated for some of the most distinguished awards in the world of Cuban letters. His books include El racimo y la estrella (Cluster and Star), Tablilla de barro (Tablet of Clay), and his most recent collection, Synergos (Synergies).
Another Cuban poet — Rafael Almanza Alonso — was to visit Youngstown State this year, but the American government felt the risk was too great and denied his visa application. But we’ll be having the reading anyway, convinced–after our experience with Roberto — that the consequence of missing such a chance would be a threat to poetry everywhere.
—Youngstown, Ohio, December, 2003
Henri Michaux in Transit
THE LOVERS OF movement, of motion — I’m with them. That’s what Henri Michaux said, and any reader of his work is bound to be struck by how immediately stasis emerges as the villain there. If you meet a statue, the poems say, teach it to walk; if you endorse the adult, family values of patience and tolerance, the great static virtues, do it only to smokescreen the beatings you give to bores and idiots, whether you stuff them in a sack first or simply lash out with the slap-a-tat-tat of your free and rapid-fire hand. Everything in a Michaux text is energized by motion, by the crossing of moral, aesthetic (are these poems?), and psychological borders. My favorite figure for the first-time reader of Michaux is his own baffled and apologetic character, Plume, who finds himself inexplicably walking the ceiling and wondering how the familiar could look so suddenly alien.
By now, the etymological sense of translation as movement has become a cliché, but to “English” a Michaux poem is to feel the reality of that understanding again. This is true, I think, because a writer like Michaux emphasizes the ways in which language is already a translation of what we experience — and the ways in which language, for better or worse, has already framed what we are able to experience. Michaux is plainly obsessed and distressed and delighted with this predicament, and translators cannot help but feel that, in moving the text out of French into English, they are participating in that same distress and delight. For me, the distance over which the original text must be moved in this case feels especially great since not only the language but the whole angle of vision (and the style that results) are foreign to me and my own writing habits.
On the other hand, with Michaux’s attention to — and endorsement of — movement, I feel much more at home. “Red-Letter Words,” my own poem in this issue of Artful Dodge, is set at a Holiday Inn, the quintessence of stasis-in-transit. And its speaker is a young man for whom the world is happening, going past, at an ever-accelerating rate — while he seeks that momentary stay against confusion that Frost calls poetry. His precarious climb up to the marquee is an emblem (it seems to me now) of that sometimes uncertain and bewildering drive some of us have to translate experience into a shared language. I like to think that this young man, twenty-some feet in the air with no language-ladder connecting him to the world, would find a companionable presence in Plume (“Pen”) walking the ceiling, his wonder and distress. —Youngstown, Ohio, December 4, 2001