Poetry International Poetry International

Guest Curator: Stefania Heim

Poems and bodies in time
July 09, 2015
Quite high on those lists that compile evidence for the alleged impossibility of translating poetry is the pesky little issue of time. Just as time is inseparable from space in the woven fabric of the space-time continuum, our understanding of time is tethered to language – Special Relativity meets Linguistic Relativity. The second proposition is probably even more practically urgent, or at least more tangible, than the first: though it is reasonable in our daily lives on this planet to act as though we are inhabiting Euclidean space (where time is a separate dimension, operating for all of us at about the same rate), you can’t easily say ‘I went’ or ‘she flew’ in Chinese – there simply is no past tense verb for it.
Recently, cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky has shown how the language we speak dictates our metaphors for, and therefore our physical understanding of, time: In English we imagine the future in front of us, but in Aymara (spoken in the Andes) it is behind; speaking Hebrew, we place cards in order by representing temporal progression from right to left. These different instances show us inhabiting time differently. ‘Does [time] move past us, or do we move through it?’ asks Boroditsky. Our widely varied apparati for conceiving of time are all a kind of division or translation, whether into more manageable units (a century, a year, a day, a second) or into metaphor. Poetry, which is so frequently concerned with making the abstract tangible, abounds with examples of time rendered through the concrete: Emily Dickinson’s ‘Noon – is the Hinge of Day’; Charles Olson’s ‘leak in the faucet which makes of the sink time’. Not to mention the rhythm of a line, like Fred Moten’s, which, ‘tapping and wobbling,’ keeps, propels, complicates, negotiates, sometimes even merges its and our time. 

Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden that ‘in a perfect work time does not enter’ (though the self he celebrates as not being bound and minced ‘by the ticking of a clock’ describes its time via (impossible) translation: ‘for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow they have only one word”’). Thoreau’s assertion prefigures Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s argument with lyric poetry for its apparent desire to transcend or exist outside of time. A poem’s ‘time signature’ necessarily tracks its relationship to politics and history and culture and philosophy and other people and science and all the mess of being on and in and of this world. As one way of grappling with Poetry International’s extensive, wide-ranging, multi-lingual collection of poems, I begin with a node of impossibility: What time is it in these poems? How and where and when are these poems in time?


Croatian poet Tatjana Gromača’s ‘A screwed-up broad’ seems to play time straight. Gromača gives us what at first appears to be a direct – unmediated, unmetaphoric – representation of one day in one woman’s life: ‘She leaves in the morning, comes back shortly before the evening news. / Work hours just like those in the West’. But with this opening, she also subtly underscores our experience and understanding of time as culturally circumscribed: the potential of this ‘broad’s’ day is bound by the Western work schedule and all the aspiration and dehumanization it carries. The poem’s following 12 lines delineate what transpires when ‘she’, ‘long black coat, gray light on her face’, comes home in the evening. You don’t have to watch all of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman to know about the violent potential that inheres in the mind-numbing repetition of the everyday. The poem’s understated denouement achieve gravitas and looming terror, and, with those emotions, its trenchant critique of the systems that constrain her speaker. ‘Finally’, begins Gromača’s understated last line, ‘she goes to bed’.
The title of Rae Armantrout’s ‘Will’ creates the future multiply: for ‘will’ is the ‘noun / meaning fixed purpose’ that we place before verbs to construct the simple future tense; and it is also the emotional chutzpah, inclination, or push that it takes to propel us there. (‘Where there’s a will’, etc. . . . . ). By pointing variously to time’s grammatical and cultural constructedness -- including a punny take on the ‘past / perfect’ with its nostalgic agitation for a perfect past and the ending gong’s ‘pink slip’ doubling as a piece of negligee – Armantrout performs the ways in which emotion is captured and invoked by these specifics. Such associations are powerful, but they are also frequently unconsidered. Beginning her first two stanzas by repeating ‘in’ – ‘In English’ and ‘Here, in the private life’ – she makes language and intimate experience into spaces her reader can enter. Further, she shows how they are spaces with their own laws of gravity (and grammar). Imagine the mechanics and acrobatics and imagination required to translate this poem from the American English, whose grammar and slang it embodies and flashes.   
Nowhere is a time signature a more readily rendered noun than on a train station’s board of arrivals and departures. Jay Bernard’s ‘11.16’ sets duration against the symbolic time of the clock in its invocation of the recurrent experience of waiting: ‘Sometimes, I’m caught short at the station whilst waiting / For the 11.16’. Here we find repetition, memory, the accumulated actions that make up a life. Bernard also sets the clock against the body’s time: waiting for the set, standard, possible to predict 11:16 (more cultural boundedness – I wonder what would happen to the tension of Bernard’s line if her poem was not set in England but in a country whose transportation schedules were more like a body’s rhythms in their departures from fixity or prediction), she feels ‘an urgent bowel’. ‘I think, I think, I think’, her speaker sputters like a Little Engine that Could, ‘I’d better go’, wrenching her out of waiting and into the filthy, familiar ‘lav’ where the rest of Bernard’s poem takes place, in an encounter that is both particular and ongoing.
Moroccan poet Hassan Najmi’s ‘The train yard’ also transpires in a station – that purgatory where we are so frequently captured in anticipation, too rushed or too late, willing ourselves, understanding our lives to be everywhere outside of that place which is a container for anticipating and watching and interpreting time. In Najmi’s train yard, nouns accumulate like sediment, encompassing the most quotidian: ‘A kiosk for newspapers . . . Two hands with an extinguished cigarette . . . Bare legs’, and the most abstract, ‘An admirable rising . . . Emotions filling . . . Silence seeping from human pores’.  These nouns ‘settle’ ‘heavily’ on the speaker’s body; they are transformed into the captured but fleeting ‘night’ the poem inhabits (or, the night is transformed into them); they are time and a time: deviant and distorted.
Idly, we can measure time’s passage by its effects on our bodies: growing hair, slackening skin. In a morgue, scientists of decay read those frozen signs as potential evidence of foul play, tragedy, human cruelty. Italian poet Elisa Biagini’s ‘Morgue’ confronts these images, setting ‘natural’, ongoing processes and information starkly against the traumatic shock of frozen, concluded time. In one section the body’s processes continue – ‘the nails, / deaf to silence / keep on working / because they know / that darkness has no grips’ – a kind of refusal to be in abstractness, to experience time as anything other than mechanical or functional. In her poem’s most affecting moments, Biagini turns the murdered body into its own timepiece, a transformation that is not theoretical in the least: ‘Poison-dried, not a drop. / A desert in the body: // the very blood is dust / from the wound / like grains from a sandglass // lost outside of the clockwork’. In this poet’s act of intense looking, time – and with it, clear meaning – begins to ‘dissolve’: ‘Years sunken / in the emptiness / of the ear’.

In the ongoing warscape of Lebanese poet Wadih Sa’adeh’s ‘In the tunnel, in the bone’, time is also murdered: ‘Soon time will end . . . Time cracked open. It hangs from only one stitch. / I await its decline, its resounding fall to earth’. Sa’adeh’s long, spooling, careening poem joins cosmic, atomic, political, intimate, and quotidian registers and scales in its tracking of the end of time: ‘The galactic swishings, the dust of stars, the air born / a million years ago crossing silently an immense / space in order to reach me. / I say farewell to gasping volcanoes, to the drizzle of / far-away swamps, to the pictures, the chairs, the / mirrors, the clocks, my children’s eyes, their shoes / scattered carelessly on the floor’. The relentless specificity of the horrors experienced (‘During the war my father looked for a bone in the / wilderness to crush it with a stone and satisfy his hunger’) is met with a rejection of the significance or transcendence of that specificity (‘I can’t describe the day, I can’t describe anything. / Speaking is nothing but betrayal. They don’t speak / on the last day. They just shut up and leave’). In Sa’adeh’s poem, the speaker’s death is not his alone; it leads to a place outside of the ravages and pleasures of time: the dark tunnel which is outside and also inside, in the place of the marrow, within the bone.
Finally, Korean poet Kim Hyesoon’s ‘Horizon’, also plays inner against outer, structural time against fantasy time. Here, evening is everything that keeps seeping – blood, tears, wounds, the gelatinous substance of our eyes – through the clear lines we draw to demarcate day from night, land from sky, inner from outer. ‘Who divided them – ’, the speaker asks, insistent. Kim doesn’t investigate how we parcel and live in time, but, like Sa’adeh, she makes their conjunction into a portal:  ‘She is a hawk by day. / He is a wolf by night. / Inside the crack, the evening we met / Scrapes like a blade’. 
Stefania Heim is author of the poetry collection A Table That Goes On for Miles (Switchback Books 2014). She is a Poetry Editor at Boston Review and a founding editor of CIRCUMFERENCE: Poetry in Translation. Her translations of artist Giorgio de Chirico's Italian poems are forthcoming in A Public Space.
© Stefania Heim
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