The Brittle Age and Returning Upland by René Char, translated by Gustaf Sobin
(Counterpath Press, Denver, 2009)
Because there is a strange point at which translation itself becomes a mode of elegy (and that point is a poet’s death), it makes sense to consider Gustaf Sobin’s posthumous double-book of translations from the French of the also-late poet René Char as a special, hyper-realized form of elegy. When Char died in 1988, we didn’t immediately know exactly how—but that wasn’t so concerning; he was, after all, 81 years of age. It might be redundant, and yet appropriate, just to always call the cause of death, with a shrug, ‘heart failure.’ It seems to me that that suffices. Gustaf Sobin’s heart failed in 2005. And now, four years later, comes this slender book of Sobin’s poems and aphorisms facing their French ghosts on every page, reminding us so conspicuously of Benjamin’s mystic formulation of the text and its afterlife, the ghost manifest in the wisps and trails of various translations and perjuries and dedications and anamneses through time.
When the poet becomes the metaphor, and the body becomes language, how do we approach him and it? Mary Ann Caws, who also translated René Char and moved her family to Vaucluse to be near him, spoke of the effect of his death on her work, during a lecture she delivered in a small classroom at Boston University in 2008. She had felt, afterwards, that no longer having the poet to consult, she was confined to definite interpretations; the authority of living inspiration left her when the poet’s body was laid to rest. Her translations could no longer be collaborative, but were perforce mnemonic. And in her brief introduction to this volume she remembers in quick succession her time with Char, and with Sobin. But time in the past tense is concentrated into a single dimension, with the book being the means of reconstituting its movement.
Char was obsessed with escaping death through aphorism, the logic of poetics. This is like the man who thinks he can confess his way into heaven, except the poet is like the confessor saddled/endowed with irony, ‘un saveur perfide’:
Death’s great ally, where its midges are best concealed, is memory.
He had, up to the last, a genius for escaping; but he escaped, suffering.
The poetry itself creates tension in this charged relationship. There is so much irony and affection in lines like these, from ‘Red Hunger,’ a poem from Returning Upland—
You were so lovely no one even noticed your death.
Later, it was night; you set out alongside me.
—that it almost makes you cry, and reveals a reciprocal tenderness and propheticism from Sobin. The book is beautiful, essential.
J.H. Stotts is a writer and photographer living in Boston and starting a family. His essays, poems, and translations have been published in Circumference, Hanging Loose, The Atlantic, and numerous e-zines. He's exhibited his photography and paintings in Boston, Russia, and Mexico. What he can't publish elsewhere he posts on his blog, The Fugue Aesthetics of J.H. Stotts. He finished an 'inauspicious' shotgun anthology of Russian poetry, from Fet to Esenin to Ryzhii, in formal and experimental translations and is currently at work on a selected poems of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, to come out in '09 from Whale and Star Press.