When J.H. Prynne gave his Keynote Speech at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on 18th April 2008 he referred to the art of translation in terms of poetic composition:
‘The activity of composing a poem in the first place shares some features with translation-work: pausing to consider exactly which words and expressions to use, building up the form and sound of a poem as if it already exists in your mind and as if you are translating this idea or process of thought into words on a page.’
‘Building up the form’ echoes the note Prynne made one year before that speech in China when he suggested that translation was ‘a noble art, making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world’. Those bridges may be made stone by stone, brick by brick, word by word, or, perhaps when the bridge connects a world of the present with a world of the past, drop by drop. The drop may suggest Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of weeping’ where ‘each tear / Which thee doth wear’ creates ‘a globe, yea world’. The drops of sorrow at the loss of someone close to one’s whole life may, in Donne’s terms, become
‘Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a diverse shore.’
That disyllabic adjective emphasizes the distance between the lovers, each on their separate shore.
Near the end of Robert Sheppard’s elegy to his father, the poet writes that the ‘Desire the task / Of the poet is elective translation’:
‘To transmute the nothing said
Into the nothing that could
That could talk itself
Into the world the
Shadow that casts wings between
The pillars the poem’s
Ear vibrates unthreads the
Quickens the sparkle-speech scattered
Among injured words love
Cannot resist too
Much in love with its own resisting
Earlier in this powerful elegy Sheppard had referred to the ‘longest story ladders / Up sides of tombs’ and the whole poem explores the ability of language to explore the inability of the past’s reconstruction. Words can never bring back the dead, never ‘talk’ themselves ‘Into the world’, but the ‘translation’ referred to is ‘elective’ and the stumbling forward of language in its climbing out of the past to reconstruct what can never bridge those distances is caught in the repetition of ‘that could’. That passage from near the poem’s end brims over with suggestion: the ‘Shadow that casts wings’ inevitably echoes the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23 and I found myself looking back at Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ where the poet links the present to the past through imagination. Duncan’s scene is ‘made-up by the mind’ but is definite enough in its concrete reality to be ‘a made place’. Although personal to the poet, it is a place to which he is permitted to return; it has mythological existence as the underworld to which Kora was taken. The architecture of the hall, the domain of the subconscious/past/underworld promotes the palpability of the present in which the poet lives: ‘Wherefrom fall all architectures I am’. Olson also wrote about the impossible distances and suggested that because love is so intense and alive in its feelings it ‘knows no distance, no place/is that far away’ (‘The Distances’).
Robert Sheppard’s elegy opens with two comments which are central to understanding the nature of this unbridgeable loss. The first page opens with the italicized phrase ‘Standing by’ and the fourth stanza concludes with a reference to ‘Elegy lost in action on the outskirts of an event’. The immeasurability of the gap between NOW and THEN, the living and the dead, means that all writers of elegies stand on the outskirts of an event. As Thomas Hardy recognized in the first of his poems about the death of his wife, ‘The Going’, her death was the closure of a term and the single word ‘gone’ on line five has a musical resonance of bell-like clarity. Hardy’s image of the swallow then emphasises the impossibility of bridging the distance between that past and this present. The past cannot ever be reached despite the ability of the migratory bird to fly swiftly over extraordinarily long distances.
Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape is one of the great elegies and as the recorder of events puts it, listening to himself on tape from a former year, ‘The grain, now I what I wonder do I mean by that, I mean…[hesitates]…I suppose I mean those things worth having when all the dust has—when all my dust has settled I close my eyes and try and imagine them.’ In Robert Sheppard’s world this has become
‘My mind mummified with emotion
I thought everything
On reels of tape piled into temple walls’
The walls of the temple, as Krapp is compelled to recognise, do not keep memory fresh and Robert Sheppard’s ‘drop mourns itself’ and it is not only morphine which will thicken the ‘glassy eye’. The Drop is an extraordinarily powerful poem which grows more lasting each time I read it.
Ian Brinton 8th January 2015