Monday, August 29, 2011

Our Eerie U Our Ray

Yesterday, I wrote that an urge towards mimesis - that is, towards a sort of free-hand copying of the world's things and procedures - is one of the main impulses of my writing. Is this true? Well, I think it's true, though of course there's a very real possibility that I really only like the idea of myself as a mimetic writer, and that all this blogging vs. fiction writing crap that I'm trying to build up is really just another way for me to justify and entomb myself - to make myself feel right and secure and padded with the sofa-cushions of Truth when really I am as wandering and peripatetic as everyone else.

Still, I guess I can at least say truthfully that I am deeply in love with the word "mimesis" and the process of art that it seems to represent. Mimesis. Something small and squeaky and therefore incredibly mouse-like about its sounds; come to think of it, something mouse-like about the entire word, with its unmissable M-ears, then the "eek!" as it's seen, followed by the scurried disappearance of that tail-like "sis"... And do you, dear reader, remember when words used to do that? When they seemed, not just evocative but actually alive on the page, like tiny penned animals? Maybe that, more than the Greek stamp of approval, is what I'm looking for: a return to the kind of relationship with words that I remember having as a kid, when every letter seemed like an animal flush with its own integral, mysterious life.

The connection between words and animals is something that any child whose ever stared longingly into the large, pony-sad eye of a lower case "a" can tell you about. Here is David Malouf, who is not a child, but who is Australian, describing Ovid describing a wild Eurasian boy he's adopted mimicking, first bird-call, and then man-call :

I have begun to understand him. In imitating birds, he is not, like our mimics, copying something that is outside him and revealing the accuracy of his ear or the virtuosity of his speech organs. He is being the bird. He is allowing it to speak out of him. So that in learning the sounds made by men he is making himself a man. Speech is the essential. I have hit at the very beginning on the one thing that will reveal to him of what kind he is. In making those buzzing sounds he discovers his throat. In intoning through his nostrils he realizes that he has a nose, and behind it, caverns where the sound reverberates. And so on for lips, tongue, teeth. As he builds up the whole range of sounds that we make, he is building up in his own head the image of head, checking and rechecking with his fingertips against my throat, my jaws, my lips, that he is made as I am, that he is a man.

Paraphrased by Malouf (via his made-up Ovid), the process of mimicry transforms into something more than a game; but it is important to notice that there are actually two types of mimesis described here. In one - the kind practiced "by our [Roman, civilized] mimics" -the movement occurs from the outside in and so exerts only "accuracy" and "virtuosity": valuable skills, sure, but not exactly ground-breaking. The child's form of mimicry, on the other hand, is a sort of studied possession. It, too, is virtuosic - but it employs its virtuosity as a tool in its search for a deeper, essential identification with what it's trying to imitate. The point is not to "pass": the point (or dream, maybe) is to imaginatively enter another being, and then to speak, for as long as you can, from within that being. So the child becomes a man in the same way that he becomes a bird: imaginatively, meaning (in Malouf's formulation, at least) for real.

Writing it, I see it: mimesis as art is a door, an imaginative tunnel from the self into the world and then back again (loaded with riches). To borrow a phrase from the non-Maloufian Ovid (or at least, Arthur Golding's version of him), it's a "translation of bodies", in which the mimic's powers of observation, control and - perhaps most importantly - imaginative generosity are all used to ferry the spirit of his subject from one set of (temporal, linguistic, physical) circumstances into another.

In this way, the Child's mimesis resembles another sort of translation - the kind that I'm ostensibly more familiar with but really just as baffled by. In his wonderful study Translating Neruda, the essayist/translator John Felstiner describes it in terms that we might happily juxtapose with Malouf's:

To get from the poet's voice into another language and into a translator's own voice is the business of translation. It depends on a moment-by-moment shuttle between voices, for what translating comes down to is listening - listening now to what the poet's voice said, now to one's own voice as it finds what to say.

At first, superficial glance, Felstiner's description of literary translation sounds a little like the "copying of something outside" that Ovid attributes to his Roman contemporaries - but this doesn't do justice to the book in which we find the quotation. Translating Neruda is, as Felstiner himself says, an anatomy. It includes, not only Felstiner's wonderful translation of Paplo Neruda's "Alturas De Macchu Picchu", but also a 200-page description of the history and poetics that Felstiner studied in order to make the translation. Part biography, part ars poetica (or ars translatica...sorry, I couldn't stop myself), it is really a long, fascinating digression on, and demonstration of, translation's unique mode of "listening". It admits - as the Malouf quote perhaps does not - that even the most possessed and imaginative mimicry has limits. Two voices can never be the same, and this is both limit and opportunity, since it takes translation out of the goopy, table-floating realm of pseudo-literary seance, and puts it squarely where it belongs: in the house of art. John Felstiner is not Pablo Neruda, as "Heights of Macchu Picchu" is not "Alturas De Macchu Picchu", and to claim any differently is to paradoxically impoverish translation's possibilities. We try to copy, and fail to do so perfectly - but in our failure, we create something entirely new in both languages.

As an art built on the admission of limitation that is typically swept under the rug in other genres, translation gives us a unique place from which to consider literary success. It makes us understand what we can't do while at the same time exciting us by the possibility of what we can. As the Irish taxonomist Paul Muldoon says in his introduction to The Faber Book of Beasts, "It seems that in poetry, as in life, animals bring out the best in us. We are most human in the presence of animals, most humble, and it is only out of humility, out of uncertainty, out of ignorance, that the greatest art may be made."

Are Australians naturally humble? As someone who grew up (at least partially) on an island only a few hundred miles to their north, I am tempted to say "not especially". But then there is way that fat man/bard Les Murray becomes, not just a bat, but batness:

Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing
with fleas, in rock-cleft or building
radar bats are darkness in miniature,
their whole face one tufty crinkled ear
with weak eyes, fine teeth bared to sing.

Few are vampires. None flit through the mirror.
Where they flutter at evening's a queer
tonal hunting zone above highest C.
Insect prey at the peak of our hearing
drone re to their detailing tee:

ah eyrie-ire, aero hour, eh?
O'er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array,
err, yaw, row wry - aura our orrery,
our eerie u our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear our aery Yahweh.

This is taken from the sequence of poem/translations titled Presence: Translations from the Natural World. It is itself a paraphrase: in the book, the bat-speak is the part in italics, and that "u" in the second to last line should be an umlaut, which I can't seem to get blogger to write. Do these changes make a difference? Without a doubt. In my version, it is Murray's voice that is flying italicized through the air, and the bats' that comes to a stop as if jerked. This seems like an unfortunate confusion of effects - although who knows, maybe the stillness of the sonar is meant to suggest the platonic perfection of their voice, their true voices. And now it is "our eerie you": an address - to Yahweh? The reader? The ambiguity seems important, though I miss that umlaut and its ludicrously-small hat.

Murray's humbly-audacious translations are what I'm talking about. Reading them, I feel the same way as I did when I was four years old, leafing through my still favorite book, I'm as Quick as a Cricket. Through it's simple and inexhaustible magic, I transformed into animal after animal, simply by uttering those two words: "as a". The miracle of metaphor, which I found to my stunned amazement was portable and could open anything. Armed with it, I could not just wander, but inhabit the world, snuggling down into its nooks or soaring through its spaces. And with each transformation I wrote another line in what I come to see now was a riddle. I am you and you and you, which adds up, at the end of the day, to I am this, I am this, I am this, until inevitably we arrive at the question that all poems ask, the underquestion: What am I?

Writing, like translating, is riddling. Books are riddles with as many solutions as readers. In 1072, the Bishop of Exeter died, bequeathing to the Cathedral library the Codex Exoniensis (Exeter Book) that we can only hope gave him so much joy, thought, and consolation while he was alive. Here are two of its riddles, which most subsequent commentators agree are really separate versions with the same answer. Brilliantly translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland:

I stretch beyond the bounds of the world,
I'm smaller than a worm, outstrip the sun,
I shine more brightly than the moon. The swelling seas,
the fair face of the earth and all the green fields,
are within my clasp. I cover the depths,
and plunge beneath hell; I ascend above heaven,
highland of renown; I reach beyond
the boundaries of the land of blessed angels.
I fill far and wide all the corners of the earth
and the ocean streams. Say what my name is.


On the way a miracle: water become bone.

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