Monday 29 December 2008

Monologues for two cats

One (Pearl) I partly understand. If she had a song to sing it would be this:

I am constantly hungry. Each time you move I think of my hunger.
I like your company. It assures me I will be fed.
I like your smell which is the smell of security,
But those other smells of those others, that now and then blow in,
They too hold the promise of food, of things at the edge of my imagination
Which delights in exploration, not only in food,
Because I am not a creature of one dimension only
As you can see in my eyes where other dimensions are moving,
Those I think of as ghosts, the ghosts of prey, the ghosts
Of sex, of moonlight and its homely territories,
The ghosts of comfort, closed spaces, of broods I might mother
Or might have once, who would then have required feeding,
So when I hunger, I hunger also for them.
Touch me, just there, at the neck, by the ears. Touch me
When I want to be touched, smoothing down my back
Especially at night when you speak to me and say: bed,
Which is not my favourite word or place but where
I welcome touch, the firm scratch at neck, by ears,
To see me through night when I hunger,
The hunger so sharp I could smash down the door
Which is always against me, every night locked against me.

The other’s state of being (Lily's) seems almost impenetrable. It is like picking up bits of burned paper near a recently put out fire. Occasionally a sentence with proper syntax seems ready to emerge, the rest of the time it's just fragments. Nothing but ghost.

Danger! Quiver. Hold. Creep. Hold. Flick. Lost. Danger. Hide. Hide now. Eat. Gut. Must out. Must. Dart. The sweet smell of scrunched chocolate wrapper. Bladder. The dangling feather. If I sit here a while… Dart! Danger! I am flame! I am lost! Burnt! Help! Hide! Hide away for ever!!

I think Lily is like Lucky in Waiting for Godot. One day she will make a very long speech that will go on for pages.


The Contentious Centrist said...

Pearl reminds me of my Mikoo. I'm in a state of semi torment because of her. I keep thinking about all the things she cannot get to have, like sex, or kittens, or climbing up trees. What kind of a cat's life that is?

Do you know this poem?

Le Chat / Guillaume Apollinaire

Je souhaite dans ma maison:
Une femme ayant sa raison,
Un chat passant parmi les livres,
Des amis en toute saison
Sans lesquels je ne peux pas vivre.

I've wrestled with its translation but still I cannot decide whether it's "les livres" which are the poet's "Des amis", or it's human "amis", without whom he cannot live.

George S said...

I think Apollinaire was a gregarious person, so because of that, and because each line seems to contain one object after the first article (une, un and des), and because the commas go some way to supporting that reading, I would go for human 'amis'. It's not a strong case. The second of my reasons (the syntactical structure being like a list) is the best argument for it.

The Contentious Centrist said...

I was inclined towards that version myself, and for the same reasons, but having discussed the ambiguity with a Prof. of French Studies, who tended towards the other interpretation, I lost my confidence.

How do you ever decide when a translation of a poem is done?

George S said...

That's a little like asking how do you know when a poem is done. I think it was Valery who suggested that poems were never finished, only abandoned, but I haven't really felt that. A poem is finished when it feels so. You row your boat across in the dark till you touch the other side. (In my case, it's often an archipelago...)

The same for translations. I think it is good to remember that there is never a perfect translation, only a voiced reading. Nor is there ever a perfect reading of a poem in the original language. Subjectivity is unavoidable. Reading a few reviews by very intelligent readers of my first few books disabused me of the notion of entirely non-subjective reading - that is for better AND worse.

That doesn't mean subjectivity overrides conscientious reading to the best of one's ability. There is an obligation to listen to what the other is saying and, more problematically, to some sense of general intent on their behalf. I don't mean specific local intent, but to tenor of intent.

I think professors can be very obtuse in this regard, which does not mean they are necessarily wrong, just that their opinion is worth not very much more than anyone else's. The poet, in all probability, was not a professor.

In any case, the professor would opt for the books, wouldn't he/she?

The Contentious Centrist said...

Yes, he would. And he was also a reclusive kind of fellow, impatient with other humans.

As a poet, you have direct access to that which generates the poem. As a translator, you don't have that unmediated connection. The translator's status is always ancillary to the poet's. Which is why translators (who are not poets) are always angst-ridden. Do I understand what is being expressed? Do I relay it correctly? Do I reproduce it aesthetically? All those decisions...

There is a joke about this man who comes to work for an orange packing factory. He is told he has to sort out the oranges according to size. The biggest go in this crate, the medium sized go into the second crate, and the smallest- into the third. Six hours later his supervisor comes to inquire how he is doing. The man replies that it is a very stressful job.

- How so?

- You know, decisions, decisions..

George S said...

I am not sure that a poet has 'direct access' to that which generates the poem. If there is direct access to anything it remains unarticulated and has to remain so for the poem to come into being. The poet has no clearer knowledge of the programme of the poem, of the poem's specific and local articulation of specific and local intentions, than the reader. The poet is, in effect, a reader on the run.

The poem is not so much a delicate machine in which ever lever has to be minutely and perfectly adjusted, as a course of events. There is a general tenor of intention, but the rest is, in my experience at any rate, an ad hoc journey through time and medium following some distant light.

The joke is good. But the man is clearly making problems for himself, wouldn't you say?

The best thing a translator can do is to set out on what he or thinks may be a parallel journey. The journey is not infinitely long, nor will anything dreadful happen in the course of it. It's not the end of the world.

Anonymous said...

Your cat portrayals are wonderfully sympathetic. Tell me, do you know what is going on when a cat sits interminably on a window sill, gazing out on a street in which nothing stirs?

George S said...

I don't know anything, Nicole. The stillness of animals is extraordinary. But maybe it is the kind of stillness and blank gazing we too can experience when in the right mood, but longer, thicker, denser, more attent.

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine thinking about nothing at all, the way cats seem to. But maybe you're right, with so much to be agitated about (Gaza, anti-semites all around, the preposterous Jeremy Bowen), blank gazing would be good to try.