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Lyric Hewn from Language
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Lyric Hewn from Language
Green Oil
Jean Donnelly
Further Other Book Works
www.furtherotherbookworks.com/index.php
106 Pages; Print, $15.95

inline graphic Jean Donnelly never claims the poems in Green Oil, her second full-length collection (and third in an impressive run of titles from new-ish Colorado-based press Further Other Book Works), are translations of Francis Ponge’s poems. This is a good thing: her “project” in this book (and, yes, what she attempts here really does deserve that often-abused term) is subtly unlike any other act of translation I can think of. It isn’t a loyal/academic version that sacrifices poetic “bounce” to fidelity, nor is it what Dryden (followed by Robert Lowell) termed an “imitation,” spinning a more-or-less new poem from the same topic and/or mood as the source. Neither is it a strictly homophonic translation, à la Zukofsky’s Catullus (1969), because it doesn’t attempt to convey, at any degree of remove, the meaning of the original. Nor is it quite like recent examples of “method” translation, such as Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl (2010) and Sawako Nakayasu’s Mouth: Eat Color (2011), in that, while Donnelly’s versions do seek a kind of communion between her English and Francis Ponge’s French, it remains very much an issue of language and is not about trying to invest in or identify with the personality of the author. In its use of homophony to create new, counter-intuitive meaning, it is perhaps closer in spirit to David Melnick’s Men in Aida (1983), but Green Oil is neither as systematic nor as thematically unified as that work’s flights of parodic fantasy. Instead, the original French is used more as subliminal trigger than as something possessing its own individual agency. Overall, the book has the feel, charmingly, of a whim that gained traction, momentum, then grew into a book….

Even a brief example demonstrates how idiosyncratic Donnelly’s method is. Here is the first poem of the book’s opening sequence, “atoms”:

insidewe are

masonson view

declassifiednumbers &

all downour armoris a lit placardthat says so

The composite image is both funny and menacing. We are (apparently) “masons,” “inside” a structure; we are perilously “on view,” subject to some unidentified authority that can strip us of our identity (turn us into “numbers”) and announce that we are no longer a risk (“declassified”). Given the threat we (apparently) represent is now (apparently) neutralized, our “armor” may or may not be obsolescent—either way, we are conspicuously advertising our status via “a lit placard.” A conflict is implied between essential privacy (“inside/we are”) and public visibility, surveillance seemingly having the upper hand.

The French source could not be more different: “Il y a dans la maison une vieille paysanne de quarte-vingt-cinq ans dans son armoire-lit (lit-placard)” (in John Montagne’s translation, “in the house there is an old peasant woman of eighty-five years in her settle bed [cupboard couch]”). The combination of detached observation and revisionist precision (that parenthetical alternative!) is typical of Ponge’s style (which Donnelly accurately labels “precise, nearly clinical, and often wry”), but unless you want to see that style as a form of surveillance (it is, arguably) there is very little to connect the original words to what Donnelly has mined from them. Aside from odd moments of direct translation (“inside” for “dans”), the English words stem as much from visual cues as acoustic ones: “maison une vieille” becomes “masons / on view,” “de quartre” suggests “declassified,” “vingtcinq” gets rendered generically as “numbers,” “ans dans son armoire” becomes “& // all down / our armor” and, finally, “lit-placard” was clearly too tempting not to transfer whole. Donnelly has thus leapfrogged over Ponge into an entirely new poem.

She calls this method a “listening at the threshold of the material traces” and it represents both a continuation and intensification of her earlier work. One common thread is an implied staking out—firm but not didactic—of a “lyric freedom,” be it in the realm of erotic verse (the julia set), cataloguing travelogue (“Anthem”), freewheeling memoir of pregnancy...