THE CHRONOTOPE || Yvette Siegert on poetry + translation

Translating Alejandra Pizarnik

Posted in Language, Latin America, Literature, Pizarnik, Poetry, Translation by Yvette Siegert on Wednesday, 24 October 2012

It’s been ten years since I started translating the entire work of Alejandra Pizarnik. Maybe college is the best time to start such a project, when the exuberance of her unedited prose and the obsessions of her lyric resonate with the life-before-us ardor of being young and literary. Her work is Kerouac, Nietzsche, and J.D. Salinger bundled up into the one essential existential suitcase containing your Cixous, your Sartre, your Arendt, your diaries of Virginia Woolf. No more Plath comparisons, please.

I recently started going over my manuscripts, now that I can bear to. (The wonderful people at New Directions are publishing a collection in the spring.) Here’s what I’ve discovered all over again: Pizarnik’s Spanish is exquisite. It is not cringe-worthy the way it felt the first time I rebelled against her. Behind the syntactic flights of fancy is an artist willing to take greater risks than most, for the sake of writing about the impossible and the essential.

I don’t know how I translated Pizarnik the first time around, in that one intense and endless swoop during my senior year when I had finished my coursework but didn’t have enough money to escape to Berlin. Maybe it was because I didn’t know any better. And because she said things I couldn’t say. She gave me visitor’s access to the slimmest, most inaccessible mandorla of the intellect and imagination: a punishing metaphysical sector that I longed for, but that I wouldn’t know how to inhabit on my own or for very long.

Those manuscripts. They are the epitome of a college-dorm existence in the dot-matrix era. I had serious issues with typeface: “Vivaldi” and the smallest possible Garamond, with Spanish punctuation. I had no idea what it meant to be a translator. All I knew is that Alejandra wrote in my native language, so to speak, and that I should do right by her and by Spanish—by my family, by South America—by being faithful in the English. Unfortunately, my train of thought when it came to mimetic reasoning was about as foolhardy as my selection of fonts. Because what I wanted was for my translations to look the way Pizarnik’s poems looked in the Lumen edition. If I could make my translations resemble her poems, I thought, then that would indicate fidelity—a kind of mimetic alliance—while communicating to my advisor a praiseworthy sense of authorial advocacy and scholarly exactitude. It would succeed in embodying Pizarnik. It would soften the blow of her suicide. Alejandra would exist again. Translating, on some level, is less about a wish for transmission and communication as it is about a longing for linguistic synesthesia and alchemy, for bringing back the dead. (I think I translated because i was grieving.) What does it mean to translate her? It is like discovering the first writer who means anything to you, who helps you make sense of the world. It is like your first romantic experience of autumn. My translation drafts of Pizarnik’s diary entries are smudged with sauce from Ollie’s. “A Musical Hell” has all of Agueda Rayo’s patient, lucid edits in the margins, along with my indignant, neurotic, post-adolescent protestations. The draft of “Diana’s Tree” is embarrassing; the lines are accurate and they do not sing. Dios bendito, what is that line about wolves, and what was I thinking with those verbs? And I think “Extracting the Stone of Madness” is water-damaged from sitting under a plant in Columbia’s German department during the penniless summer of 2002, when I stored all my belongings in my thesis advisor’s office. The point is, these translations were as much a part of my daily life as my wallet and keys, long before I had a smartphone to distract me. Off they’d go on the subway to Carnegie Hall with me. Off they’d go in my notebooks to public lectures, to the park, and on dog-eared visits home. I would sit for hours in my studio on West 113th Street, looping songs by Alicia Keyes and rendering these lines into English and inhabiting Pizarnik’s depression with an energy that frightened and still baffles me. Sure, my best friend had to come rescue me from my studio in the afternoon so that I could laugh and get some sunshine, but that work sustained me and gave me permission to write. You can graduate from college and forget that tactile ardor for literature, or pay nervous lip-service to career practicality by pushing aside such poetry and its fanciful “excesses.” I put away childish things, and regretted it. Pizarnik’s poetry—flawed, outrageous, utterly difficult—has helped me remember why literature matters. Her work is vital and full of grace.


Posted in Literature, Music, Nonce, Theodor Adorno by Yvette Siegert on Sunday, 11 September 2011

Ten years ago, I was living not far from where I live today, a block away from Columbia in a modern high-rise residence hall between Broadway and the river. The fall semester had just started, and in my German intellectual history class we had been assigned Kant’s political writings, to lay the groundwork for studying his Critiques: “Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind,” “Conjectures on the Beginning of History,” and “What is Orientation in Thinking?” Grandiose titles, but this is what I was reading—poring over with great anxiety, in fact, while sitting by my coffeemaker in the dorm kitchen—on the morning that the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center towers:

Thus, the course which the human race follows on the way to fulfilling its destiny appears subject to incessant interruptions, with a constant risk of reverting to the original barbarism; and the Greek philosopher had some justification when he complained that it is a pity that we have to die just when we have begun to realise how we ought to have lived. (Cambridge, 1991: pp. 228-229, footnote)

In retrospect, that passage seems almost too neatly appropriate for that morning. When we saw the breaking news on TV, my neighbor and I reflexively looked out the window, then raced up to the ample study lounge on the top floor, which afforded panoramic views of the Hudson, Riverside Park, and midtown. His parents worked in one of the towers—they got to safety in time. We stood there staring as the second tower got hit, and we stayed until the north tower fell. On our right, the park and river seemed absurdly calm, as if that part of the landscape had fallen a day behind the southern view. I remember trying to read, and watch, and not quite believing, and trying to get through on my cell phone to my parents—my mother in Los Angeles, and my father in Mexico—to inform them of what was happening, as if everyone didn’t know already, and not being able to get through until after 9 AM, all the while feeling puzzled by the unforgiving glass windows and the jammed phone-line and the precise typeface of my Cambridge edition of the Kant. The orderly why-isn’t-everything-printed-in-me-clear-to-you? font of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought.

I also read and marked:

The third wish (which is in fact an empty yearning, for it knows that its object can never be attained) is a reflection of that golden age which poets have praised so highly. In it, we are supposedly relieved of all those imaginary needs with which luxury encumbers us, we are content with the bare necessities of nature, and there is complete equality and perpetual peace among men—in a word, there is pure enjoyment of a carefree life, frittered away in idle dreams or childish play…The vacuity of this wish for a return to the past age of simplicity and innocence is adequately demonstrated by the foregoing account of man’s original state. For as we have seen, man cannot remain in this state because it does not satisfy him, and he is even less inclined to go back to it once he had left it. Consequently, he must continue to ascribe his present condition and all its hardships to himself and his own choice. (Cambridge, 233)

War poems flooded my memory; death poems. I listed them in the margins, and circled my cursive exclamation of “Kleist!” Donne. Lycidas. Rupert Brooke. Alfonsina Storni. I lacked any kind of political vocabulary back then. Reading the newspapers after that day, in order to gain a cogent political worldview, seemed like the most tactile of challenges, something I still fail at miserably, and it began with that sense of disorientation, of not knowing how to articulate this event, or connect it to my studies in literature and philosophy, which suddenly felt so ephemeral. To be vital, I thought, was to live like the New York Review of Books. So I flailed around in Kant—in a stupor, with a kind of panicked reverence before class—looking for words that would floor me, or that I could at least understand. I skipped ahead. And was rewarded for reading out of order:

Hence freedom of thought, if it tries to act independently even of the laws of reason, eventually destroys itself. (Cambridge, 249)

Over the years I have inverted that phrase “freedom of thought” while grumbling over the rhetoric of the war on terror. I wish that I’d been older when the attacks happened, more aware of the world, less steeped in religion, more interested in America. I think I took many things for granted that day. Basic facts—the toxicity of the dust, the magnitude of the evacuations—only begin to sink in now, and they are linked emotionally to the incredible loss my family went that fall. At the time, I did not know enough about foreign policy to be worried; I was too recently out of my conservative high school to fully grasp the seduction of religious extremism; and I was more focused on reading “Uncle Vanya,” which was helping me understand the dominant narrative of my junior year, the rapid decline of my grandmother’s health. I didn’t care enough about the world. On 9/11, most classes at Columbia were cancelled, after a bomb threat in Butler Library led to an evacuation, and I felt too interrupted to do the German readings more carefully, though now I wish with all my heart that I had. It feels like an opportunity missed, a great loss that comes from not understanding the significance of events. But I went to class anyway. The lecture was taught by Michael Eskin, a kind and hyper-articulate member of the German faculty who felt that our reading was so relevant to the occasion that cancelling class would be tantamount to an act of capitulation. It would not be Kantian to stay home, he said. (A few weeks later, Jacques Derrida would come lecture on the emerging semantic power of the term “September the Eleventh.”) We spent the entire session analyzing the notion of the self-preservation of reason, and of holding on to the idea of reason as the “ultimate touchstone of truth.” A part of me wanted to ditch class and go witness the crowds of people heading north; another inchoate part of me grasped the intellectual significance of what had happened in our classroom, if not in the city, the sense that reading Kant was holding us together in Morningside Heights, or letting us be angry. Still another part of me felt a visceral love for New York unlike anything I’d ever felt for my hometowns, Los Angeles or Xalapa; but yet another part of me, the part that took over in the next few months, was too worried about my grandmother, or too stunned—not by the attacks, perhaps, but more by the imminence of her death—to do anything at all. Paradoxically, I was the one who had died, in the rubble. I’m not grasping at metaphorical or sentimental or empathic writing. The fact is that she thought that I was one of the victims in the attacks. Not even speaking with me on the phone over the next few months, as she herself was slowly dying, would relieve her of this conviction. I did not write poems about it. I did not make music. I threw myself into Latin speeches and Alejo Carpentier, instead. Why, I don’t know. Even with Kant’s admonitions fresh on my mind, I did not engage—or couldn’t, or wouldn’t let myself engage—in any intellectually or civically or politically mindful way, with the horror that unfolded downtown.

The Times ran a wonderful series this week on the items that people saved from 9/11. I deliberately bought a book that day, and saved the bookmark:

Adorno, Prisms, essay on Walter Benjamin


That afternoon, I met my friends Ben and Jamie for lunch at Amir’s Falafel, where we sat with Wa’el, the Lebanese owner, as he listened intently to news bulletins on Arabic-language radio. Ben talked about the incomprehensible lecture he’d just attended, on differential geometry. And he and I decided, rather numbly, to go buy books. We trekked down Broadway, past blocks of very quiet Euclidean space, to the Ideal Bookstore—at once aptly and laughably named, and now, sadly, defunct. About the trip, he writes:

Our book shopping was done at the erstwhile Ideal Bookstore. The owner was deep in a tome of kabbala and grumbled that the events of the day were quite ordinary for Israel. Later my sources in the Columbia Jewish History department told me the man was well known as a gonif.

The shop was located above Westside Market and the also-defunct Columbia Bagels. It smelled like a hardware store, and the inventory was stashed loosely in bins and shelves marked with unexpected, somewhat peculiar categories: “Poetry, World” and also “Physics for Poets”; “Zionism” and also “God”; “Botany” and “Bach.” Ben bought a severe English edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (we were in the same class), and I picked up a used copy of Theodor Adorno’s Prisms—a light-blue book, with white lettering on the cover and a blurb on the back by Susan Sontag. I didn’t know what to do with myself after we left. My hands felt too heavy to practice the piano back at the dorm, and I didn’t want to be inside, away from people. So I took the Adorno to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, up on Amsterdam, across the street from the Cathedral, and spent the rest of the afternoon reading it and occasionally looking up to observe the empty avenue.

I loved, and love, that Adorno calls Kafka an “information bureau of the human condition.” I underlined that and sailed down the page to mark this bit, where he argues that Kafka’s world is:

built on the strict exclusion of everything musical…By avoiding all musical effects, his brittle prose functions like music. It breaks off its meaning like broken pillars of life in nineteenth-century cemeteries, and the lines which describe the break are its hieroglyphics.”

Clearly I was on the lookout for something symbolic. The pen I used had electric light-blue ink that somehow made it easier to parse Adorno’s moody parataxis. It seems that the essay on Walter Benjamin is what gripped—or confused—me most, because most of the pages are blotched with blue:

The utopia of knowledge, however, has utopia as its content. Benjamin called it the ‘unreality of despair.’ Philosophy condenses into experience so that it may have hope. But hope appears only in fragmented form. Benjamin overexposes the objects for the sake of the hidden contours which one day, in the state of reconciliation, will become evident, but in so doing he reveals the chasm separating that day and life as it is. The price of hope is life: ‘Nature is messianic in its eternal and total transience,’ and happiness, according to a late fragment which risks everything, is its ‘intrinsic rhythm.’ Hence, the core of Benjamin’s philosophy is the idea of the salvation of the dead as the restitution of distorted life through the consummation of its own reification down to the inorganic level. ‘Only for the sake of the hopeless are we given hope,’ is the conclusion of Goethe’s Elective Affinities. In the paradox of the impossible possibility, mysticism and enlightenment are joined for the last time in him. He overcame the dream without betraying it and making himself an accomplice in that on which the philosophers  have always agreed: that it shall not be.

I didn’t understand the point entirely, it just made my heart ache. Like the duende, sometimes the most necessary books come when you least expect anything so brutal or perfect—this happens when you need them most, and when an idea that has always existed needs fresh blood to grapple with it. That encounter is more astonishing than a great poem. Or maybe it’s better to say that all poems respond to the magic of that encounter by trying to engineer it.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was Adorno’s birthday. Teddy would’ve been 98.

Spring planting, camphor, Ashbery

Posted in Literature, Poetry, Spring by Yvette Siegert on Saturday, 2 April 2011

I haven’t posted in nearly a year. Maybe now I can.

Starting with a quote makes it easier:


Or, to take another example: last month
I vowed to write more. What is writing?
Well, in my case, it’s getting down on paper
Not thoughts, exactly, but ideas, maybe:
Ideas about thoughts. Thoughts is too grand a word.
Ideas is better, though not precisely what I mean.
Someday I’ll explain. Not today though.

–John Ashbery, second stanza of “Ode to Bill,” in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Penguin: 1972).

N.B. A quote from Ashbery is easier than a quote from the other book on my desk, which happens to be Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment.


So, this is not writing. (No paper here.) Maybe not even a precursor to writing. (There is a cursor.) Although, then, maybe it is a convex precursor—to the impulse of going out to buy scallops and spring plants, to carrying thoughts out into the sunlight, as if thoughts were linens that had been stored for winter.


Posted in Alaida Foppa, Foreign Literature, Literature, Music, Religion, Roland Barthes, Stein, Uncategorized by Yvette Siegert on Wednesday, 26 May 2010

I did pick up The Grain of the Voice this week after Sunday’s post. The whole book is a collection of conversations with Barthes, translated into English. I opened to “The Phantoms of the Opera,” an interview with Hector Bianciotti that happens to contains the passages that explain the book’s title. Barthes starts out with an analysis of singers’ voices:

The voice has the very status of language, an object thought to be graspable only through what it transmits; however, just as we are now learning, thanks to the notion of “text,” to read the linguistic material itself, we must in the same way learn to listen to the voice’s text, its meaning, everything in the voice which overflows with meaning…

My voice teacher has a client in her 80s who consults her because she says that the elderly are treated as if they were invisible, and she wants to be seen and heard. I started taking lessons because I have always spoken—and sung—too softly, and because singing well makes me happy and helps me think.

The grain of the voice is not indescribable…but I don’t think that it can be defined scientifically, because it implies a certain erotic relationship between the voice and the listener. One can therefore describe the grain of the voice, but only through metaphors. *

Maria Callas’ is “tubular,” hollow with an off-pitch quality. Gundula Janowitz’s voice suggests to him a “milkweed acidity, of a nacreous vibration, situated at the exquisite and dangerous limit of the toneless.” I don’t really know what that means, but somehow, the very act of reading that description almost helps me hear her. A friend once described the grain of my voice as “lemon tea with rum,” which I’ve never had any interest in tasting.

I’m not interested in analyzing Barthes here. I simply love listening for the way his interviews, whether in French or English, usually manage to sound “translated,” but in a crisp, lapidary way. Even dry passages about Michelet sound nuanced and clear and suddenly whimsical, like a steady passage out of Haydn heard over the radio. Here is Barthes in conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévi (and, unwittingly, with Stein and Foppa):

I can’t manage to get excited over politics, and these days a discourse that is not impassioned can’t be heard, quite simply. There’s a decibel threshold that must be crossed for discourse to be heard. And I don’t cross it. Politics is not necessarily just talking, it can also be listening. Perhaps we lack a practice of listening and attention.

Then Lévi asks,

Did you know Gide? No, I never knew him. I saw him once, from a distance, at the restaurant Lutétia; he was eating a pear and reading a book. So I never knew him; but there were a thousand things about him that interested me, along with many other adolescents of the time as well…He was a Protestant. He played the piano. He talked about desire. He wrote.

BHL: What does being a Protestant mean to you? It’s difficult to say. Because when faith is gone, only the imprint, the image, is left. And the image belongs to other people. It’s up to them to say whether I “seem” Protestant…I might say, very cautiously, that a Protestant adolescence can provide a certain taste for or a certain perversion of inwardness, his inner language, the subject’s constant dialogue with himself.

I hear “Protestant” and remember playing the piano at church all through my childhood. I hear “Gide” and picture my graduate advisor’s dear, flatulent bulldog who wore the name well and slobbered all over my poems.

This makes me feel an impossible closeness with the bookish pear-eater.

Magritte pear

*(Le Nouvel Observateur, 17 Dec 1973; Hill&Wang: 1985, p. 183)

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Remarks are Not Literature, or, Does This Text Even Exist? Or, A Typo On East 41st Street?

Posted in Literature, Sighting of the Day, Stein by Yvette Siegert on Monday, 24 May 2010

Mondays are good for pilgrimages. On my way back to the office from a trip to Willner Chemists, I took a walk along Library Way and came across this:

According to the plaque, this is an excerpt from Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This is not mirror writing. Aside from the bold phrase in the middle of the passage (“…remarks are not literature”), which reads in the usual direction, every word is spelled backwards–the type is not reversed–while preserving the order that would make syntactical sense in a coherent sentence typed the conventional way.

I love “esoteric” backwards. Ciretose. “Pretentious” backwards is decidedly so. This” in reverse is begging to be shit. But then who am I to judge.

Now, find the typos.

My eye landed on the first one by accident. (In the picture above, the boot marks the spot.) At first I thought the slow, murky weather was making me foggy, but somehow “hsirebbir” seemed wrong. I deciphered the passage under my breath, and the word continued to announce its wrongness. It annoyed me. Wouldn’t the typesetter have been extra careful in a case like this? Surely the book-loving people at the Grand Central Partnership would’ve retained a proofreader who was on to Stein, or who at least specialized in bronze lettering. Or, scrapping that theory, I wondered if Stein could be playing a weird joke on the reader, bidding him or her to slow down (in New YORK) and read her experiment more carefully. It’s clear that “gibberish” spelled backwards is “hsirebbig”, not “hsirebbir”, as represented here, but maybe she was slipping in a typo at the end of a bewildering passage in order to drive home the point that “this is not gibberish,” or that maybe it is, and that “remarks are not literature,” or that maybe they are. After all, ribberish is a perfectly good example of gibberish (with a hint of ribaldry, though with an effect that’s maybe not as bawdy as what Tom Hulce does in the opening scenes of Amadeus: here, randomly, with Spanish subtitles that preserve the reversals.)

I checked, and Stein is not misspelling. In fact, I can’t even find this text. (Can there be a typo of a text if there is no original text?) But I do think that—regardless of whether Stein was actually involved—this plaque is asking us to pay attention.

Interjection: Can anyone help me find the actual passage from the Autobiography?

Let’s assume that the passage exists and that the error is unequivocal. If so, then it’s probably there for good. Some authors are disturbed by the sight of typos in their work. Can we tolerate mistakes? Stein would probably have been delighted by such an indelible blooper—by a typo in a very public tribute to the endurance of high literature (or the ability of literature to endure us as we walk past it). The thought could make you giddy. A typo that’s ignored only proves that we move too quickly for our own good, and that’s a hard lesson to remember while stalking past tourists in the East 40s.

If you need a break from midtown toil or are sick of your usual route to work along UN Way, consider taking the following detour: Walk westward along East 41st St. and pay a visit to this plaque (perhaps tell me what you think), then head around the corner, maybe with a cup of soup or a brioche, to the dining terrace behind the NYPL, where you’ll find a statuette of the writer seated like a quizzical Buddha above Bryant Park.

*Update on the other typo: “knowledge” is misspelled “sdelwonk”, or knowleds, which happily makes me think of being led through the city by a knowing, invisible guide. I’ll go for a walk to think about this.