Thursday, August 25, 2022

Nicole Brossard, Distantly: translated by Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue


            Brossard does not write in autobiographical or narrative detail, although it is clear that the speaker of her poems in Distantly is writing out of the specificity of lived experience, from the sensual impressions and responsive articulations of a particular embodied life. The poems are linked through the theme of life in cities (every poem title begins with “cities” or “city”). The poems are gorgeously lyrical in style, and the series as a whole is based loosely on the observations, emotions, perceptions, and dreams of a female speaking subject. The cities of the individual poems are not described realistically, although they are full of reality-based distillations rather than “thick” descriptions of postmodern urban life, with a sharp awareness, hovering at the edges, of social, cultural and gendered histories of violence and beauty, personal and political struggles for survival and intimacy. (“Translators’ Foreword”)

I was gratified to see Quebecoise writer Nicole Brossard’s latest English-language poetry title, the bilingual edition Distantly (Oakland CA: Omnidawn, 2022), translated from French by Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue. This is, I think, Brossard’s first solo poetry title since the appearance of the expansive and essential Avant Desire: A Nicole Brossard Reader, eds. Sina Queyras, Geneviève Robichaud and Erin Wunker (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2020) [see my review of such here]. This is also the first Brossard title to be translated by this particular pair of translators, and it is curious to go through my own archives and realize that Cynthia Hogue was also the judge of the “Poets Out Loud Prize” for the year it was awarded to Washington State poet Sarah Mangold, which resulted in the publication of Mangold’s Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners (New York NY: Fordham University Press, 2021) [see my review of such here].

Given Brossard is a poet, novelist and essayist so extensively published in English, a language beyond her original language of composition, it would be rather interesting, I would think, to hear from a potential round-table of her numerous translators-to-date on their processes of each working on a different element of the same author’s work. Are there some translators that prefer to work on Brossard’s poetry over her prose, or prose over her poetry? Are there translators preferring to translate her earlier work over her later? Are there two translators that might disagree on a particular word choice by another? I know Lydia Davis has discussed this, how different translators can often highlight different elements of structure, tone or even content of the same source text: what might these particular grouping of translators, all having worked on the same living author, have as a discussion?

“always I take up my cities again,” Brossard writes, to open her poem-shaped “Author’s Note,” “the same one, or another and its plural / with a taste of seafood, a painting by / Caravaggio, a suspension bridge, taste of / a foreign tongue that forces me to breathe / in the slowness and speed of my other / body of vertigo [.]” Distantly is a book of cities, as Brossard writes her lyric as slant points along an extensive and expansive grid, of thinking, feeling and allowing the world to exist within the body. “little by little we’ll say,” she writes, as part of “Cities with a face,” “the count of eternity’s / crossing our faces [.]” Distantly writes of cities and silence, location and dislocation, and the distances one travels between, amid and through. Her poems extend across sequential, stand-alone stanzas, stretching her line across the page and multiple pages, something Ottawa poet Monty Reid is known for as well: allowing the sentence a particular kind of opening—not open-ended per se, such as Robert Kroetsch or bpNichol—but extended. Her poems, long and short, sequence and sit together as a kind of suite or collage accumulation; less in sequence per se than around the central core of an image, an idea, as she writes between and amid cities, of cities, and a dream of cities, and their inherent elements of beauty and violence. As the second fragment of the five part “Cities really” reads:

in the distance with their yellow circles
or the closer tap tap of daily boredom
lap of fountain fairy-neons of night

cities with their tall vertical cabinets
Martinis 4 olives and murmurs

in the distance cities wooed by the haze of civilizations
our hands between supple joys

walls of mirrors and melancholy
electricity which falls through our hair

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