THE CHRONOTOPE || Yvette Siegert on poetry + translation

Bakhtin, because it’s spring

Posted in Bakhtin, Language, Poetry, Sheer Happiness, Spring by Yvette Siegert on Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Let’s try this again.

It’s odd how time and space can get in the way of blogging. In the spirit of spring (and thank goodness for the relief, however impermanent, from the bleak March cold), I am re-introducing The Chronotope, which I’ve missed, with the famous passage that gave it its name. The Dialogic Imagination is made up of a series of long essays in literary criticim that M.M. Bakhtin completed in the 1930s and 1940s, but it was not published in English until the 1970s. The essay from which this blog gets its name, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” was written in the late 1930s. This is how he defines the Chronotope:

We will give the name chronotope (literally, “time space”) to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature. This term [space-time] is employed in mathematics, and was introduced as part of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The special meaning it has in relativity theory is not important for our purposes; we are borrowing it for literary criticism almost as a metaphor (almost, but not entirely). What counts for us is the fact that it expresses the inseparability of space and time (time as the fourth dimension of space). We understand the chronotope as a formally constitutive category of literature; we will not deal with the chronotope in other areas of culture.’ In the literary-artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.

The chronotope in literature has an intrinsic generic significance. It can even be said that it is precisely the chronotope that defines genre and generic distinctions, for in literature the primary category in the chronotope is time. The chronotope as a formally constitutive category determines to a significant degree the image of man in literature as well. The image of man is always intrinsically chronotopic.

At first, I called this blog The Chronotope simply because I loved the very idea of timespace that Bakhtin describes. But it is from this definition that I would now like to re-conceive the project of this blog. I would like to look at how time and space operate in various works of literature. Although Bakhtin’s theory operates primarily within the scope of fiction and epic and theatre, I’m actually more curious to draw on chronotopic analysis in my readings of poetry collections, many of which, in contemporary American letters, oftentimes seem to adhere to the emergent aesthetic of a “narrative arc” in the way they are structured and organized. How does space operate in contemporary poetry? How does time move in it? This is not going to be a theory-heavy operation. But maybe all this reading will develop into a theory. We’ll see how it goes. We’ll see how long–or even if–I can sustain this practice. Many writers and translators I know keep a blog in order to maintain a record of their responses to literature. Saying something so altogether obvious doesn’t mean it’s an easy practice to maintain, though, nor does it in any way diminish my longing to join the whimsical fray of those who document the things they read. We’ll see.

Os profetas do Aleijadinho--Minas Gerais, Brasil

Os profetas do Aleijadinho–Minas Gerais, Brasil

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.

Horror #69, by Efraín Huerta (trans. Yvette Siegert)

Posted in Efraín Huerta, Latin America, Nonce, Poetry, Sheer Happiness, Taxonomy by Yvette Siegert on Sunday, 21 October 2012
Horror #69
The quetzal
To the
—Efraín Huerta, Poeminimae
(Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2005)

Poem, by Emilio Westphalen (trans. Yvette Siegert)

Posted in Foreign Literature, Latin America, Poetry, Sheer Happiness, Westphalen by Yvette Siegert on Friday, 19 October 2012
Here is one of my favorite short poems by the great and delightful Peruvian Surrealist Emilio Westphalen (1911–2001): 
Perhaps nothing
can ever compare
to making love
on a bed
of tomato sauce,
unless it involves
doing it while lying
on low-grade cuts
of red meat fresh
from the temple.
Tal vez nada
pueda compararse
a hacer el amor
en un lecho
de salsa de tomate,
si no es hacerlo en uno
de trozos menudos
de carne de res
recién sacrificada.
Emilio Westphalen, from “Cual es la risa”
(Poesía completa y ensayos escogidos, Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 2004. Con permiso de los Herederos de Emilio Adolfo Westphalen.) 

Disconcerted, by Efraín Huerta (trans. Yvette Siegert)

Posted in Latin America, Marxism, Poetry by Yvette Siegert on Friday, 19 October 2012
My former
Of Marxism
Have gotten
Harder to
Some are
Sitting now
In prison,
Others with
A scepter
In their hand.
A mis
De Marxismo
No los puedo
Unos están
En la cárcel,
Otros están
En el
–Efraín Huerta, Poemínimos
(México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2005)
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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.