Online Edition: Summer 2003

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Tristan Tzara, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean-Pierre Duprey and Habib Tengour

translated by Pierre Joris

Inconundrum Press ($11.95)

by Dale Smith

The translations here form a kind of hieroglyph of 20th-century modernism, a signal of dynamic forces drawing from diverse threads of tradition and cultural interrogation. Written by four masters of European tongues and rendered into English by a masterful translator, this unique gathering contributes to what the vast field of contemporary poetics has become: a complex occasion of forces.

"I read to write," says Pierre Joris in his introduction. "The closest reading I have yet discovered is translation. Which is writing. And thus a circle or, hopefully, a spiral is set in motion."

Editor with Jerome Rothenberg of Poems for the Millennium, author of 20 books of poetry, and translator of numerous writers into both French and English, Joris practices the art of writing with unique sensitivity to issues of cross-cultural importance; recent books such as Poesis, h.j.r. and Towards a Nomadic Poetics reveal an engagement with poetry that draws on diverse ethnopoetic roots. Born in Luxembourg, he has lived variously in Britain, North Africa and the United States since he was 19. His intimate understanding of both American and European models of modernism makes the translations here all the more useful. Together, they show new perspectives on four influential writers. Rilke's cold retreat into his blessed solitude is presented against Tzara's inspired Poèmes Nègres and the Algerian poet Habib Tengour's devastating relation of colonial rule in The Old Man of the Mountain.

Tzara's work opens the book with his Dadaist renditions of African and Australian aboriginal songs, chants, spells and poems. Instead of being "a great negative work of destruction" in the Dadaist vein, these ethnopoetic re-visions constitute "a positive work of recovery & a return to the lost basis of human poesis," to use the words of Jerome Rothenberg. Found in notebooks after his death, they were translated into French. Now, as Joris notes, these "English versions are up to four times removed from the originals." The results in English are wonderful, colloquial, and vivid. Here's a "Hacking song" from Tanzania: "When it comes to working I'm lazy but when it comes to eating ah / when it comes to eating I'm fast." And from Botswana we read: "These white birds / flecked with black / what do they eat up above / They eat the fat / the fat of the zebra / of the zebra with / the mottled colors."

Rilke's Testament is translated here for the first time. Resulting from intense anguish over the self-imposed exile from his lover, Baladine Klossowska, these esoteric meditations attempt to justify for Rilke his intense need for solitude. The tension between his desire for a sensual life of the flesh underscored by monastic desires of isolation give these prose fragments a peculiar edge and fevered grasp of a kind of creative violence. Still, many readers' patience for the high tone and spiritual invocations of this piece will be limited; why must Rilke be removed from the world of the spirit to perceive it so intensely? "Occasionally," he writes, "in the incessantly probing misery of these days, I am surprised by something like the prescient shimmer of a new spiritual joy: as if everything had indeed become simpler, and an ineffable fate made itself more graspable in its approximations.... This is, so to speak, the minimum of my piety: if I gave it up I would have to return behind the first Cross Road of my life--behind its earliest, quietest, freest decision. Behind my self."

The too-short life of poet, painter, and sculptor Jean-Pierre Duprey ended tragically with suicide in 1959. In cahoots with Breton and other Surrealists, he kept a distance too, writing prose and verse poems of extraordinarily vivid relations. In "Rose of Ashes," he writes:

      What remains, what remains?
      Of the sky only a large cloth creased with ghosts and the eyes fill only the sockets of emptiness.
      A spider dislodges night; she is the dream of a dead woman.
      She has in herself the open sex of night and her little ones will go forth and blacken the sleep of the living.
      A secret step closes the hole of silence.
      And the star turns pale.

Perhaps his greatest creative act, quietly pissing on the eternal flame under the Arc de Triomphe, proved to be his undoing. Beaten in jail for the act, he returned home, set his affairs in order then hanged himself. Luckily, his written record survives: "Me, I mysterize myself, I mysterize myself," he wrote. "Explaining myself to the forest, to the intaglioed trees, to the empty birds, howling with the skin of the wolf whose teeth I dream..."

Habib Tengour's The Old Man of the Mountain is one of "a cycle of poetic narratives... that re-imagines through contemporary Maghrebian characters in their Occidental exile in Paris the story of that most famous Arab triumvirate of Omar Khayyam, Hassan as-Sabbah and Nizam al-Mulk." Born in Eastern Algeria in 1947, Tengour's vivid interrogation of post-colonial Arab states achieves a "successful relay between modernist Euro-American experiments and local traditions of sociopolitical and spiritual narrative explorations." Coincidentally, in this short work it is the Mongol invasion of Baghdad that preoccupies the attention of many characters. "The Mongols were the torment of our wanderings," writes Tengour, "a narrow tumult. I knew the vanity of this clamor that came to us held back by the distances. The exaggerations rendered the facts ridiculous. Free and accurate information would have taught us to overcome such childish fears." The tale here relates various measures. There are those of state and individual, East and West, the lover and the beloved. Behind it all, The West rumbles, threatening with its freedom, something denied Arab intellectuals living under their Mullah masters: "We had to be on guard against freedom which was a need foreign to our culture, an imported model. More subtle analyses presented it as a danger, given the priorities."

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Summer 2003 Table of Contents