Watchword, Pura López Colomé, translated by Forrest Gander, (155pp,
How Abraham abandoned me, Bejan Matur, translated by Ruth Christie with Selçuk Berilgen, (146pp, Arc)
Both of these poets speak English, the first is Mexican and has translated Beckett, Heaney and more, the second, writing in Turkish, can be found on YouTube being interviewed in English. I have to imagine at the very least they had a look at the translations of their poems, although there is no note that says so.
Both poets are confessional, if that means writing their own subjective experience as an investigation; two lines from Pura López Colomé, 'I've clung to those voices / just to survive on this side of the enigma.' And from Selçuk, 'As the first sign came down / I heard the command / and voices/ and felt the desire /...
I read subjectively as subjectively they wrote, it's not an exact science, if even science is. Whereas Colomé intellectualises experience, or one might say stands back and considers and finds the images, Matur is explicitly and clearly in the writing smitten by a quest, in part the places she finds herself in, in part from memory.
My instinct is to follow Selçuk Berilgen where she leads and to re-enter Pura López Colomé's book as one might re-open a text book of calculations. The brief introduction to the former - of Kurdish Alevi origin - tells how during a period of a few years she was 'haunted by an impelling voice beyond her control' which eventually took her to Urfa and Diyarbakir in south-eastern Anatolia. There 'like a pilgim' she 'wandered among the excavations'. For all her book's title and her wanderings and her book's Islamic references she says, 'I'm not religious, I don't observe ritual, and I'm not a mystic.'
What a seminar might be held on this with her and friends and whatever array of poets and scholars! My feeling is trust this, she abandoned herself to questions innerly being asked of her.
Anyway, open the curtains
this flight of mine
is not a flight
or in the end an
A stone courtyard
history a river flowing away.
Only time which hasn't yet passed.
You spoke of the old ones
who stopped the sun in a mosque courtyard
of the men who gathered all the old beliefs
with little stones in their hands.
- and on for most of two pages more. I wanted to find a YouTube of her reading, I look at the Turkish on the page and it looks much more staccato, more stopping and starting line by line, each a little explosion of energy. But I am fantasising, and I do it because no sampling of the English can, I'm sure, convey the accumulated effect of the whole adventure. But meditate it or speak it out loud, even the English carries its need, its bother and blessing.
If the translation of Bejan Matur inevitably can't catch the spoken voice, and even on the page cannot be present quite, the poetry of Pura López Colomé seems to me may in translation not be catching well the quasi-philosophical thought. Or the thought itself in Spanish moves in something of a bland way. Or I have become sceptical about poetry that might as well be written, as this seems, as prose.
Spurred by irresistable forces,
I went to the window.
But nothing came clear from there.
I had to go out under the scattered
opals of night
painted in thick brushstrokes,
its horizons utterly gone,
no glimmer of electric light,
no silhouettes of houses, farms,
or human structures.
This is the opening section of 'Dreaming a music of the stars', a page and a bit long, and I would say is more or less typical of the style, the movement and the language. It could be the translator has turned something into English that is more fluent and fluid in Spanish. Maybe.
A book of the philosophical-personal here and the other a driven-meditative, hard tasks both of them, and beg questions about what is ordinary, clichéd even, over-used, and for what purpose (conversational, technical, and so on) in the original language and in that of the (for the Colomé American) translator. There are phrases in 'Watchword' that wouldn't, I think, be used by a sensitive English-speaking poet. 'Drinking and grazing / on the undulation of their silhouettes', for instance; but it may not be so simple. For instance, the lines, 'Across my gray matter/ and its salubrious/ deliquescence' - not great to read - come from 'por mi materia gris/ y su salutifera / delicuescencia'.
The flow of Matur's 'How Abraham abandoned me' seems to me much more assured, whether in the original or the translation or both. The whole of the first part of 'The sixth night /growing (up)':
My mother covered me last.
Her last kiss was for me.
Time after time I circled the column of darkness.
Sadder than the man who returned to his land
and caressed the wheat,
was darkness and the breath of departure.
I remember a night the bringer of deaths,
a night when the curse would cross the water.
She - Bejan Matur - is endorsed on the back cover by John Berger, while on the back cover of Pura López Colomé John Ashbery says she's brilliant.
© David Hart 2012