Review of Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem)

Sylvain Galais and Cynthia Hogue’s recent translation of this collaboration between poet Virginie Lalucq and philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy is a book that, as its sub-title says, overflows its bounds. A co-authored, interdisciplinary work in which poem responds to image, philosophy to poetry, Fortino Samano is arguably even more richly layered in this (co-)translated edition wherein the translated text responds to—converses with—its facing-page original.

Lalucq’s poetic inquiry was inspired by an exhibit of Augustin Victor Casasola’s photographs of the Mexican Revolution. The entire sequence of nearly 40 short poems meditates on a single image from that exhibit, a photograph in which a little-known Zapatista lieutenant, Fortino Sámano, nonchalantly smokes his last cigar moments before his death by firing squad. How is this frozen moment altered by our knowledge of what proceeds from it? What does the photographic image “say” about the man, Fortino Sámano? How does the image interrogate the viewer—what can she say in response? And can the image be captured by “the long / unwound ink of words,” even as these words dismantle themselves? These questions are among Lalucq’s meditations, in a poem that escapes genre expectations, overflowing into the realms of philosophy and new media theory. The photograph itself is absent from the book; instead, the reader must rely on its “translation” from visual to poetic image.

In the second half of the book, Nancy contemplates Lalucq’s poem and, through it, the poetic image and its linguistic medium. Nancy’s beautiful commentary, often highly lyrical, reflects on “the darkness in the middle of meaning.” Just as the photograph of Sámano is forever still (the “spilling over” of the execution forever suspended), so also, says Nancy, the poem is always on the edge of meaning. Language, he writes, deconstructs itself “like the poem tumbling down its own scaffolding.” Yet, even while language is like a “flint” that chips at the poem, so also the poem sharpens language. Together with Laluq’s sequence, Nancy’s meditations on the poetic image, so often themselves expressed through metaphor and image, make for a highly pleasurable read that leaves us—poets, scholars, and all lovers of language—with much to think on.

Gallais and Hogue’s translation manages to capture much of the nuance and musicality of the original. The original text poses the extraordinary challenge not only of Lalucq’s experimental poem, but also of Nancy’s close reading of that poem. The close reading of any poem, of course, cannot be applied meaningfully to its translation because etymologies, sounds, figures of speech, and other aspects of the language are altered. However, Gallais and Hogue perform the balancing act of addressing the demands of both poem and commentary with admirable dexterity. Lalucq’s léger liséré du sang, for instance, becomes the well-wrought “light brim of blood.” And for Nancy’s observation on the repeated accents—accents aigus—of that line, Gallais and Hogue find a satisfying substitute in the alliterative, doubled plosives of “brim” and “blood” in the (unaccented) English.

The translation abounds with such elegant solutions to some of the book’s knottier challenges. Often, where exact sound or word play cannot be recreated in the English, Gallais and Hogue compensate for it by new assonances, internal rhymes, or homophonic resonances. Nancy’s Cést la langue qui défaille, le langage qui faute becomes in Gallais and Hogue’s hands “It is language that falters, language at fault.” Here, while the complexity of langue—meaning both “tongue” and “language”—has no English equivalent, the sonic echo of “falters” and “fault” rings out instead.

There are moments, though very few, when the poeticism of the original is sacrificed to accuracy, when I wanted a greater musicality in the translation. Consider Lalucq’s rather fluid  afin qu’ils/ n’introduisent pas leur patrimoine génétique, which in its English version becomes the more mechanical “so that they/ can never introduce their genetic code.”  However, any objections I might have about these rare moments are satisfied by the book’s afterword in which the translators explain that their choices were often guided by a consideration for the living authors, who preferred “exact translation” whenever possible.

In his meditation Nancy writes “I must understand that, in effect, the poem—and this is why it overflows—makes us speak more than it says.” There is much to be admired in Gallais’ and Hogue’s thoughtful and well-crafted translation. If Nancy’s commentary on the poem is one response, Gallais and Hogue’s translation is another, highly compelling one that has much to say about the elusiveness of meaning and the generative power of the poet’s language.

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