Contributor Spotlight: Dennis James Sweeney
For a recent month I read nothing but small press, experimental poetry, and I nearly fell apart. Not that the poetry wasn’t good, but my mind wanted so badly to translate the abstract and semantically uncertain into forms I could visualize that I found my brain starving for the more transparent narrative of, say, a novel. Of course, that’s the (or a) point of poetry: to redefine language, to blur its boundaries in favor of a more beautiful thing than we might have if we stuck to literal or everyday meanings. But the mind—my mind, at least—can only take so much of this blurring before boundaries begin to seem irrelevant altogether, and I find myself harping inwardly like a grouchy critic: “Word salad!” he declares.
As a “translation” of semantically unclear lyric post-it notes, “Notes from the Gillwood” negotiates the space between experimental writing/reading and more literal interpretations of words. The translator badly wants to discern the meaning of his lost friend’s notes; at the same time, the friend’s words deliberately resist clarification, not only by not making immediate “sense” but by being posted on random household appliances and even, sometimes, by being illegible. To me, the translator’s attempt at translating is laughable, almost cute, in the way of any interpretation of art that refuses to acknowledge mystery.
Hayden’s Ferry’s former International Editor Alex McElroy, without whom this piece would not exist as it does, phrased it this way in an email to me about an earlier draft:
Though you’ve added onto the analysis, that analysis seems, to me, a bit insecure, in its voice (like this very sentence). What I mean is that you include many clauses of subjectivity—“I think,” “it seems,” “if that makes sense,” etc.—that let the piece act as interpretation, but not as translation. I’m using the T word rather loosely. But, in this story, I see translation serving as a move beyond interpretation, a false security that one can understand what these things mean. Because that seems to me the inherent problem with translation (prepare for a riff), that we take for granted that the person who translates knows how to fully represent the feelings/thoughts from its original language…What I love about this piece is that it moves to express that sense of understanding, that dick-swinging (sorry) epistemological confidence that we so often strut around with, and it can do this without noting the inherent problem of that presumption, for we cannot know what Ron was thinking—yes, we can assert ideas, as the characters here do, but, for my money, the presumption of knowledge without knowledge is even more fascinating.
Alex revealed to me how I was trying to protect myself as a writer: my use of the language of subjectivity was actually an attempt to lessen the sharpness of that gap between poetic and literal languages. Saying “maybe” and “I think” and “it seems” creates the illusion of a bridge over the Grand Canyon of knowing-what-something-is-actually-supposed-to-mean, when in reality no bridge can be built.
The fun of creating this piece—and maybe, I hope, of reading it—was in the inhabitation of that empty, falling space, where we can’t discern the “meaning” of certain combinations of language no matter how hard we try. In that inhabitation there’s a remarkable agency, for the reader and for the translator: we can fill the canyon with whatever we want.
Then again, as Alex reminds me, in semantically uncertain writing
there is meaning, just not the logical meaning that translation wants to assert. Lyrical patterning, structuring. English thought and English writing can be without rational meaning while maintaining lyrical or acoustic meaning, right? The way music—I'm told, again, I too often try to understand it—exists beyond comprehension.
I didn’t know a Ronald Legrand, who this piece claims to be translated from, and I’ve never heard of a bar called The Frog, where the translations ostensibly take place. But I do recognize that sound, the rhythmless hum of kitchen appliances, that underlies “Notes from the Gillwood.” And what it means is, frighteningly enough, I’m home.
“Notes from the Gillwood” appeared in Issue 56 of Hayden's Ferry Review.