THEIR VOCAL SOUL DIN
Shrink guised terror’s flood or enact growth’s
vine-pelted stem. Slog grimly past success in spring,
then master vittles’ call. Rise, avoid crest’s
black-clad ink, attack limpid saga’s first part,
worn. Visage tomed, the paging sheltered, then your
cattle charge up for grass land sown in love,
creating valid history courses brought to copses
by lips’ smooth speech, coaxing tales borne
on spirit’s brood. Employ scuttling space about
land’s void – and lift past pains
therein. Enhance the parrot’s urge – seethe
on larynx’s fading, financing folly. Pepper
slurs at first oral sadness, bent at foiled
spleen – licks chair’s clues, shouts boasts shed via
classic argot by feigning ballad’s rhythmic blast.
As the back cover of American poet Gale Nelson’s This Is What Happens When Talk Ends (Providence RI: Burning Deck, 2011) writes:
There are 8 sets of 8 poems in This Is What Happens When Talk Ends. The poems within a set follow the vowel pattern of a particular passage from Shakespeare. They could be called homovocalic translations though they ignore Shakespeare’s content while trying to build their own coherence.
The sets are not presented in linear succession. Instead, the poems are arranged in a chess pattern, the earliest surviving knight’s circuit, attributed to al-Adli ar-Rumi of Baghdad and presumed to date from 840 AD.
There have been many over the years working their own flavours of bendy translations, poets less interested in straight translations than turning another’s poems into something more their own, from Erin Mouré working her Toronto transelation of Pessoa in her Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (2001), George Bowering rewriting Rilke into Vancouver in his Kerrisdale Elegies (1986; 2008), to New York poet Lisa Jarnot, more recently, reworking The Iliad. We could go further, to writers such as bpNichol, jwcurry, Steve McCaffery and plenty of others working their own versions and variations of homolinguistic translations, transelations and plenty more. We could even mention St. Catharine’s, Ontario poet Gregory Betts working “plunderverse,” something already picked up by a dozen or more poets around North America, including his own volume of poems from Shakespeare, his The Others Raisd in Me, 150 Readings of Sonnet 150 (2009). With all of that, what does Nelson bring to his own particular volume?
CLOSEST TO STARS UNSHINED
Hints trump brave bait lies held
long but tabled now. Shrug off fallow causes
and grow land’s tubers with inch-long tap-roots or
groan from table’s flop. Alone, stamp
enclosing chord as sandstone foments closet-space
panics. Damaged pansies can clamor the
arbor’s leaves or fuse any tree’s
hollow bend. Borrow thumb’s green bend, or shorten hoax
best laid as leaves blend into simple projects
simply found as snide comet loops planet’s
vast sky for all ladles’ instincts of stars gone, less
blasted as spent.
What immediately adheres to the ear is Nelson’s fine sense of sound, and fine sense of verbal play, rolling sharp turns combined into familiar shapes made new. As he writes in a short essay at the back of the collection, “I began this project by taking Shakespeare’s most famous passage, ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question.’ and rendering it in homovocalic variations.” How can one make something vigorously new out of something so impossibly familiar? In the same piece, he writes:
These poems were written with hopes of reaching toward some rigor, but in relation to Shakespeare’s originals, they are reminders that while in the sciences each generation can built upon the insights of those who came before, in literature, mastery such as Shakespeare’s leaves every generation spellbound – and by definition disappointed by any work that draws comparison. So while you might argue that as “translations” these poems shed little light on the works on which they were based, please consider that what they are translating is not the sense of the originals, but rather their vocalic structures.
I intended no clinamens within the poems – in the terms put forward by the OuLiPo: a swerve, a moment where the constraint is momentarily and consciously left aside. I apologize should any exist.
There are some magnificent turns in these poems, an array of real sound banging into each other in ways that make one wish these could be heard aloud, and it becomes very tempting to do. What really makes the collection is in the detail of repetition, working and reworking poems in true sets, eight sections each with eight poems that repeat their titles in different orders. Eight sets of eight poems, and as the repetitions bleed and blend into each other, the variations really come out to shine. Now that I’ve introduced you to the first poem under the title “CLOSEST TO STARS UNSHINED,” let me introduce you to the second, with six more to follow, again.
CLOSEST TO STARS UNSHINED
Tippy-cups are basic needs,
youths say, yet clouds grow vast on past cups spent.
Grand old prank cups mending in fog’s vast gloom, not
lost. Candor lacks venom. Clasp token asp
when vowing long and hard to evoke those phrases.
Tragic parade pains me. Fandango wells
alone can shed most muddy easements
long borne. So double these songs of terror’s vast
gleam in parents’ stave, their voices gone
in pout’s vapid den. Open tooth’s ardent
balm, soar after vivid cloaks of even
straw, then parse.