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Zack Rogow

Zack Rogow

Zack Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of nineteen books or plays. His seventh book of poems, My Mother and the Ceiling Dancers, was published by Kattywompus Press. He is the editor of an anthology of poetry of the U.S.A., The Face of Poetry, published by University of California Press. Currently he teaches in the low-residency M.F.A. in writing program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

What Poets Learn When They Translate

Here are three things I've learned in translating poetry from other languages.

Poetry in other languages is often much more overtly emotional and musical than poetry in English. English-language poetry tends toward reserve, both in sentiment and in musicality. In fact, poery in other languages is often downright mushy compared to writing in English. Translating poetry from French poets has given me permission as a writer to be as emotional and as musical as I feel I need to be in my own writing.

Here's an example: "Il pleure dans mon coeur" by Paul Verlaine (1844 1896). I first heard this poem at age fifteen when my high school French teacher, Janice Gerton, recited it to our class at the Bronx High School of Science. It was one of the first poems I ever fell in love with. The poem's unapologetic emotion and musicality has stayed with me all my life. I only translated it in the last year, forty-five years after I first got to know the poem. This is the French text:

      Il pleure dans mon coeur

      Il pleure dans mon coeur
      Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
      Quelle est cette langueur
      Qui pénètre mon coeur ?

       Ô bruit doux de la pluie
       Par terre et sur les toits !
       Pour un coeur qui s'ennuie,
       Ô le chant de la pluie !

      Il pleure sans raison
      Dans ce coeur qui s'écoeure.
      Quoi ! nulle trahison ?...
      Ce deuil est sans raison.

      C'est bien la pire peine
      De ne savoir pourquoi
      Sans amour et sans haine
      Mon coeur a tant de peine !

And here's my very free English translation, where I altered the meaning somewhat to try to capture more of the sentiment and sound of the original.

     "Tears fall through my heart..."
                            by Paul Verlaine

      Tears fall through my heart
      Like rain tears through this city;
      What's this anguish like a dart
      That lands in my heart?

  ,   Mmm, sweet refrain of the rain
      On the ground and on the roofs!
      For a heart that's in pain
      Oh, the ballad of the rain!

      Tears fall without reason
      Into this disheartened heart.
      There's no lover's treason.
      Damn, I wish I knew the reason!

      This is the worst painó
      With no love or hate,    
      Still this hurt never wanes.
      Why such a sharp pain?

      [translation Copyright © 2013 by Zack Rogow]

The following is a poem of mine that I feel was enabled by my translations of more emotional writing from other languages, poems such as Verlaine's:

      Skating Lessons

      I tug my six-year-old around the rink,
      shocked by the ice,
      how it isolates each individualó
      that yellow parka,
      those blue mittens,
      the red-knit cap
      against a backdrop white
      as a photographer's studio.

      My daughter flows along
      next to me, learning to skate
      as I hold her hand. She tightens
      her grip when she's frightened
      her feet will go off on their own.
      Our blades draw silver lines
      that criss and cross each other.

      Just yesterday I told her
      I was leaving her mommy.
      "How do you spell HATE?"
      she asked me afterwards,
      scribbling a note to me
      on a scroll of register tape.

      But today my daughter is really skating
      at my side, taking her first shaky
      steps on her own,
      without holding my hand. She explains
      how she'll do it:

      "When you're near me I'll pretend
      you're not here. When you're not here
      I'll pretend you are."

The raw emotion of this poem is on a topic quite different from Verlaine's "Il pleure dans mon coeur," but for me the similarity is that it dips into a domain of human experience that is rarely made public.

My work as a translator started in my twenties, when I was living in New York City. Inspired by experiments with various herbal substances that were not strictly legal (this was the early 1970s), I was translating the hallucinatory poetry of the founder of surrealism, André Breton. Since this was New York City, I found myself at a book party for John Ashbery's recently released The Vermont Notebook at the Gotham Book Mart, that amazing and chaotic store appropriately located in New York's diamond district on 47th Street. My girlfriend at the time knew that I had sent Bill Zavatsky—poet, translator, and then publisher of Sun Press—some of my translations for his magazine. I hadn't heard back. She recognized Bill in the crowd, and literally pushed me to speak to him.

I expected that Bill would say that he didn't think much of my fledgling translations, but in fact he said that he liked them and that he was actually translating some of the same work by Breton himself. He proposed that we collaborate, and I learned to translate through that time-honored artistic institution: apprenticeship. I soaked up all I could from those sessions with Bill Zavatsky when we worked on our joint translation of the book Earthlight by André Breton.

One thing that attracted me to Breton's work was his love poetry. He writes poetry using a stream of consciousness technique he helped invent called automatic writing. Automatic writing is almost like dreaming onto the page. To facilitate the flow of imagery, Breton uses no punctuation; long, Whitmanian lines; and often no stanza breaks. The result is almost as if he reached down into his unconscious and scooped the poem out. Here's one of my favorites of Breton's love poems. This is from a series of untitled love poems collected under the title The Air of the Water, which Bill Zavatsky and I translated.

      In the beautiful half-light of 1934
      The air was a splendid pink the color of red mullet
      And the forest when I prepared to enter it
      Began with a tree with cigarette paper leaves
      Because I was waiting for you
      And if you come for a walk with me
      No matter where
      Your mouth is the incredible all-spice
      From which the blue wheel diffuse and broken endlessly sets out and rises
      Turning pale in the rut
      All the marvels hurried to meet me
      A squirrel had come to press its white belly against my heart
      I don't know how he made himself do it
      But the earth was filled with reflections deeper than those in water
      As if metal had finally shaken off its shell
      And you lying on the frightening ocean of precious gems
      Were turning
      In a huge sun of fireworks
      I saw you slowly evolving from the radiolarians
      Even the shells of the sea urchins I was there
      Wait a minute I wasn't there any more
      I had raised my head because the living jewel box of white velvet had left me
      And I was sad
      The sky between the leaves was shining haggard and hard like a dragonfly
      I was going to shut my eyes
      When two wooden booms which had suddenly swung apart came crashing down
      Without a sound
      Like the two center leaves of an immense lily-of-the-valley
      Of a flower capable of containing the whole night
      I was where you see me now
      In the set-all-the-bells-a-ringing perfume
      Before they could return as they do each day to fickle life
      I just had time to place my lips
      On your glass thighs

I admire the way Breton uses a continual cascade of images to go further and further into his passionate dream of his beloved, climaxing with the frankly erotic passage of the ending. When I set out to write a book of love poetry of my own, that waterfall of dreamlike images of the beloved was very much in my mind. My own take on it could be called "Surrealism Lite." It's a surrealism grounded more in the WYSIWYG world, rooted in the here and now.

      A Map of You

      You've become my map, my geography:
      the Black Forest of your hair,
      your alpine lake eyes,
      fathom after fathom,
      your mouth red as turned Carolina earth,
      those shoulders like Dover's
      chalk towers, your Sugarloaf breasts,
      by your peninsular armsó
      and your fingertips
      when they touch meó
      Polynesian archipelagoes. Serengeti
      the temperature of your flesh.
      Your Panama waist
      flares to Venezuelan thighs
      and between them
      the Amazon, the delta, rare species
      of the Galapagos, coral reefs with ultraviolet fishó
      in just a few short months
      you've become the other planet I inhabit.
      And your legs taper
      like a continent headed south,
      one ending in Tierra del Fuegoó
      the Land of Fireó
      and the other
      in the Cape of Good Hope.

Much of my recent work in translation has involved my explorations in Urdu poetry. Inspired by a visit to the San Francisco Bay Area (where I now live) by the poet and translator Agha Shahid Ali, I got in touch with a group of Indian Americans who hold regular mushairas in the San Francisco Bay Area. A mushaira is a poetry event somewhere between a reading, a concert, and a slam. At these mushairas I encountered wonderful performers of Urdu poetry such as Hamida Banu Chopra, who teaches Urdu at UC Berkeley, and her students, including Anshuman Chandra, a software engineer in Silicon Valley who is also a talented singer and performer of ghazals.

The ghazal is a poetic form that began in Arabic in the 7th century, was refined in Persian in the age of Hafez and Rumi, and became a popular song form in the Indian subcontinent. When I started attending mushairas, I realized that poetry lovers from South Asia don't recite ghazals, they sing them. And when they recite or sing poems, they don't do it in the European way, where the audience sits still and quietly listens to each line being read in order. The audience participates in a mushaira, calling out during the reading, singing or reciting favorite lines along with the reader, demanding a performer repeat a particularly good couplet over and over till they get their fill of it, repeating the qafiyah and the radif of the ghazal along with the poet. And the performer does not necessarily recite a line just once. A performer will repeat lines, parts of lines, or whole couplets, sometimes out of order, often spontaneously. A good performer of Urdu poetry will make up his or her own melody for a ghazal that he or she likes. It's a very creative and active process for the poetry lovers as well. I think we in North America have a lot to learn from it.

One of the leading participants in the Bay Area mushairas is Anshuman Chandra. He is a gifted composer of melodies for ghazals, and performs them in a lilting and virtuoso voice. Unfortunately, I can't sing like that. My own take on the ghazal is through a more American current, the blues. The structure of the ghazal reminds me of the blues, and the way the performers at mushairas alter the lyrics is very similar, to my ear, to what blues singers do. According to Jonathan Curiel's Al' America: Travels Through America's Arab and Islamic Roots, the blues has its origins in West Africa, where a large percentage of the population chants prayers in Arabic, and where the music is also influenced by Arabic song and poetry. One quarter of the slaves who were taken to North America were Muslims who could chant prayers in Arabic. So here is a ghazal I wrote myself, which I perform as a blues. I use the same end phrase or radif in this poem that I used in helping Anshuman Chandra to translate a ghazal by the poet and Bollywood songwriter Shakeel Badayuni, "My heart longs to go beyond the obsession of love."

      Ghazal of the Sweet Waves
                              by Zack Rogow

      Get good and comfortable now. I'm going to tell of love.
      I'm going to squeeze my voice so small, and I'm going to yell of love.

      My mother used to whiskey and cry her way to sleep,
      But even so she used to kvell of love.

      They go on and on about the sweet waves of love.
      But Sister Billie, she could paint the hell of love.

      When I ache with age I won't miss the act of love
      But I'll still miss the taste and the smell of love.

      Don't forget the children with their wands and masks
      When you dive under the spell of love.

      If you're not ready for the O-V-E of LOVE
      Don't get started with the L of LOVE.

      I've made more than my share of love mistakes,
      Still, I hope my daughters will think well of love.

      Zack, you're a used poetry salesman,
      So good, so good at the hard sell of love.




Please note that some of the work in this essay has been previously published elsewhere. "Skating Lessons" was previously published in The Number Before Infinity from Scaarlet Tanager Books, and "Ghazal of the Sweet Waves" was published in Spillway Magazine.


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