REVIEW by Caroline Stockford

NWR Issue 105

In Reality: Selected Poems

by Jean Portante, trans Zoë Skoulding

The translation of poetry can be likened to a heart transplant operation which, if unsuccessful, kills the poem stone dead. The poem in the new language must be alive and recover all its faculties of voice, rhythm, music and power. The poems in Portante’s In Reality, Selected Poems survived the operation: these poems have heart.

In Reality, Selected Poems is a collection from four of European poet Jean Portante’s previous collections, and opens with a selection of sonnets from the awkwardly titled, What Does and What Doesn’t Come to Pass, 2010. These were written after an earthquake destroyed the Italian village of Demetrio in 2009 and caused the local population to be displaced across the valley. In the translator’s preface, poet Zoë Skoulding writes that Portante is interested in ‘what happens to language when it’s subjected to the tremors of an earthquake’.

To translate the ‘broken architecture’ (to quote Portante on his own work) of this poetry requires courage to leave the English in as fragmented a state as the French and not be tempted to compromise through correction. Portante, who lives in Luxembourg, is writing in his non-native French and at the same time importing musical arrangements of the words from his native Italian.

The poetry resides in a state of displacement with many lines appearing to fracture grammatical rules and produce images that are more experimental; freer.

a flooder of afternoons
has set to work
and the swimmer of inside
like a pilot fish
saves what can be saved
he leads the remaining anecdotes
up to the edge of remembering.

I agree with the translator Skoulding (former editor of Poetry Wales and Senior Lecturer at Bangor’s School of English) when she states in her preface that the English language should be ‘inhabited in as many ways as possible to counteract its homogenising tendencies.’

Many of the poems in this collection offer up images one after another like balloons on strings with far more questions posed than answers offered: ‘tell me at which end you would begin
to erase the universe’.

Boris Pasternak once stated that ‘the usual reliable translator gets the literal meaning but misses the tone, and in poetry tone is, of course, everything.’ The translator here has been true to the poet’s tone, syntax and style even if there are some unnecessary inaccuracies in the translation such as ‘cloche’ (bell) being translated as ‘clock’ and omissions, as on pp 22-23 where ‘baisse les bras’ (kisses the arms) in reference to the wind, is left out. These poems are by no means easy to translate and contain many intra-lingual puns and plays on words between French and Italian.

Portante writes like a shaman – he feels the pain of the earth, understands the labour pains of this earthquake, and empathises fully with the forced migration of the villagers.

In the dust of what’s been when what sticks is
not flour but a thickness of days that neither
rain nor shadow knows how to decipher – in this
dust it survives at two steps from itself the village
that the mountain overhangs.

It may be best to dip in and out of this book instead of devouring it in one go, as I found the constant use of inverted sentences and unconventional grammatical structures tiring after a while. The images presented and questions posed in Jean Portante’s In Reality, Selected Poems, however, are haunting, magical and as fresh as at a first reading when revisited a second and third time.

In the sunset that reddens your hair the SNAKES OF
THE HORIZON tangle in each other’s skins: I mean:
there you are snaking in the incandescent air and nothing
of what makes day and night can dissipate you.

It’s thus that I dream of you and dream of you again
up to where the base elements join the quiet
and secret work of my private library.

Caroline Stockford is a translator from Turkish to English.

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previous review: He Wants
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