A Bit More Speaking

On poetry, witness and our difficult times: In response to my earlier post, A Bit of Speaking, on Carolyn Forché's "Elegy," Stephanie Bolster reached out with some thoughts on these topics, including a poem translated from the Dutch by Sadiqa de Meijer, and a conversation ensued.

Stephanie Bolster: Thank you for the moving post. I find it timely in two ways. Given that Carolyn Forché will be at Concordia in March, I've hauled out The Angel of History for a reread; it's been a long time, and that book has been hovering on the edge of my consciousness for the past few years as I’ve been working on my Long Exposure project about Polidori’s photographs, among other things. I imagine that rereading will corroborate my sense that Forché’s work has significantly influenced my approach to the long poem, not to mention, of course, informed my understanding of the complex implications of “witness.”

And the second timely aspect is that just the other night I watched that terrifying Fifth Estate program online (Silence of the Labs), which confirmed something much more alarming: that we really are living, largely obliviously, in a dystopian place. I've been writing about these things – witnessing, a dwindling sense of hope and a heightened sense of culpability and fear, the inseparability of the individual and the social, the personal and the political – in Long Exposure (though not this latest information about the ceasing of research funding . . . that belongs in the poem and will find its way in), but it's so hard to say anything convincing. How to say anything new about the sad state of the world? And how to make the attempt sufficient, in both the act and the larger gesture of making public?

Here's this, from a Dutch poem (by Herman de Coninck) cited and translated by Sadiqa de Meijer (with Kristien Hennerechts) in a wonderful anthology I've been reading. (More timeliness.) It's not an answer, but it's an affirmation of the value of the attempt and of the sharing:


The way you say to a sick little daughter:
my miniature human, my tiny homemade
sorrow, and it doesn't help;
the way you lay a hand on her hot forehead,
as thinly as snow lies down,
and it doesn't help:

so poetry helps.

Susan Gillis: This poem is a great example of what you are calling the inseparability of the personal and the political. It leaves open the question about helping: what, exactly does poetry help with? Whatever that is, it's compared with the daughter: the offspring, for which we are responsible in so many senses. On the surface the poem would suggest poetry helps by comforting, or attempting to comfort. But these gestures are comforting only to the giver, and only if the giver fails to acknowledge that they don't help the recipient. In fact, the gesture doesn't comfort: instead, it speaks. Sadiqa, what brought you to the poem and to the work of translating it?

Sadiqa de Meijer: I came across this Flemish poem almost ten years ago, when I was staying in Utrecht for a month – it was printed in the newsletter of a local women’s group. I loved it immediately: the peculiar and poignant addressing of the child (my miniature human, my homemade piece of sorrow), the incantatory quality, the perspective on apparent futility. I tore it from the paper, and carried it with me for a long time afterwards. 

More recently, I wanted to use the poem in an essay I wrote ("Stork Bite," published in the anthology How to Expect What You're Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood and Loss), and contacted the writer’s widow Kristien Hemmerechts for permission. She was generous with both the rights and a collaboration on the translation. 

I’ve written about poetry translation in a series of posts on another blog – partly about the question of what to retain and what to let go when translating. Sometimes the languages decide for you: in this poem, what I regret losing are the diminutives that are possible in Dutch (and Flemish): adding ‘je’ to a noun makes it small, and so ‘little daughter’ and ‘tiny sorrow’ are less cumbersome.

But the lovely thing is that the translation still seems to hold what matters – at least, its effect on many listeners and readers resembles that of the original version on me: people ask for it at readings, or request a copy of the text. It makes me feel, much more straightforwardly than my own writing ever could, that I’m passing along a gift.

Zoals je tegen een ziek dochtertje zegt:
mijn miniatuurmensje, mijn zelfgemaakt
verdrietje, en het helpt niet;
zoals je een hand op haar hete voorhoofdje
legt, zo dun als sneeuw gaat liggen,
en het helpt niet:

zo helpt poëzie.

 ~Herman de Coninck

Poem and translation reproduced by permission

Read my earlier post A Bit of Speaking here