lenten journal: the imagination of language


    I was catching up on my Writer’s Almanac tonight and found yesterday was the shared birthday of Billy Collins and Edith Grossman. Billy Collins was the US Poet Laureate from 2001-2003 and holds the distinction of being a poet who actually sells books. Edith Grossman is a book translator, known best for her translations of Gabriel Garcia Marques’ books and what is for many the definitive translation of Don Quixote. Born five years apart, they share this day, as well as the ability to make language come alive for us, the readers.

    Grossman describes her vocation in this way:

    Thinking up characters and plot is not a problem translators have to face, but the imagination of language and how one says what one needs to say in the best way possible—the most effective way possible—that’s a problem that translators have to deal with constantly.

    Collins demonstrates the imagination of language brilliantly also, in his own way. Here is his poem, “Litany,” which he said came about because he “stole,” as he said, the opening two lines from another poem that needed to be improved. (He also said it with a rather wry smile on his face.)

    You are the bread and the knife,
    The crystal goblet and the wine . . .
    Jacques Crickillon

    You are the bread and the knife,
    the crystal goblet and the wine.
    You are the dew on the morning grass
    and the burning wheel of the sun.
    You are the white apron of the baker
    and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

    However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
    the plums on the counter,
    or the house of cards.
    And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
    There is just no way you are the pine-scented air.

    It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
    maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
    but you are not even close
    to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

    And a quick look in the mirror will show
    that you are neither the boots in the corner
    nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

    It might interest you to know,
    speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
    that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

    I also happen to be the shooting star,
    the evening paper blowing down an alley,
    and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

    I am also the moon in the trees
    and the blind woman’s tea cup.
    But don’t worry, I am not the bread and the knife.
    You are still the bread and the knife.
    You will always be the bread and the knife,
    not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.

    One of my favorite books on preaching is Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. Just the title kills me: poetry as a daring use of words. Perhaps he could write a sequel called Finally Comes the Translator, since both are working to find the mot juste, the right word to say it best.

    Spending most of my day in a bilingual kitchen where most of us know only a few words of the others’ language, I have a growing appreciation for what it would feel like to hear Abel or Tony speak and then actually to be able to know the right English words to choose to articulate what they said in Spanish. In real life, I’m the culinary equivalent of a hunt-and-peck typist, hitting a word here or there, but having no sense of how I might actually put a sentence together, much less a coherent thought.

    In that same kitchen, to make the shift from the prosaic actions of prep work to the poetry of putting a plate together to send out to a diner (at least I hope that’s what’s happening) makes the metaphor even more alive for me. Should we choose to live imaginatively, we are both translators and poets of this life of ours, seeking how we might say what needs to be said in the best way possible. To borrow words from King Lear:

    the weight of these sad times we must obey
    speak what we feel and not what we ought to say

    Those words still translate.


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    1. Good words, I have always wondered what exactly happened at Babel. It says we were one and God brought confusion. I wonder if that is why it is so hard to connect. Why language always seems to fall short. The closest I ever get is when my heart is knit to another. But then it’s not the words, it’s something more.

    2. Gosh, Milton, I’m going to have to come back and read you again, because I am so caught up in a tangle of emotions and sweet-scented memories (not the pine scented variety, definitely not those) that I’m sure I’ll spend the rest of the night and a good bit of tomorrow working my way through them. Ginger pointed me in your direction and I came sliding in to read your blog and ran smack into Billy Collins and a whole raft of now bittersweet memories of the Geraldine R Dodge poetry festival (we’re GRD groupies and in deep grief over its demise) and Collins reciting the very poem you featured. Well, I’ll be back when I get this jumble of memories sorted out. Just to say I’m glad I found you and your words here. Mark Grace

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