Review of Dreaming My Animal Selves

SELF-TRANSLATING – The poetry of Hélène Cardona            by Fred Johnston

Salmon Poetry is to be praised for publishing this poetry collection in French with facing English translations by the author. Irish poetry in the main is conservative, clinging intensely to the legacy of Austin Clarke and, too often perhaps, the disquieting ruralism of Patrick Kavanagh. Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s Nobel Prize recipient, is a rural poet in this vein.

Irish poets who emigrated to Europe, to Italy, Spain or France or Germany, tended to stay there, sifting through the various literary influences impossible even to permit in Ireland in their time and producing a distinctly un-Irish literature. In spite of paid-for trips abroad in our own day, literary festivals worldwide and all kinds of access to non-Irish poetry, Ireland’s poets have continued to immerse themselves in the tried and true, such as Maurice Scully and Trevor Joyce being notable exceptions. This is not to say that European poets have not been translated and published here, both into Irish and English; there has even arisen, predictably, a ‘fashion’ for being associated with the ‘glamourous’ notion of translating, which has resulted in poets working from material already translated by others describing themselves as translators on book jackets, which I personally find abhorrent.

But a reluctance to indulge in serious translating and publishing translations continues to exist, in spite of the excellent efforts of the Irish Translators’ Association and small publishers such as Northern Ireland’s Lapwing Poetry. This is all very peculiar, considering that so many Irish novelists, for instance, are published in so many different languages around the world; only Dublin-based Lilliput Press has undertaken to a publish a novel in translation by a French writer.

Hélène Cardona is a US-based actress and translator whose work on both counts is wide-ranging and goes beyond her fine appearance in the movie, Chocolat. Her father, José Manuel Cardona, was also a poet. A first glance into this collection reveals the nuances and enigmas of the French language pitted against the equally nuanced English; if the reader is expecting straight meanings and an Anglo-Saxon basicness, he or she will be disappointed. One of the boons of this book is to distinctly define the borders of what language means and what it implies, and how language itself implicates the reader in its decoding. This is about imagism and unrestricted imagination, put plain; thus do the English poems read like interpretations of dreams, or dreams awaiting translation, rather than as black-and-white renderings of language and word-identity. Straightaway too the translator will have much to ponder on the use of the French language; ‘le songe’ rather than the more familiar ‘rêve,’ where ‘songe’ carries the implication of giving something consideration or thinking something through; or ‘âmes’ for selves, though its first meaning is souls. {It’s difficult too not to aline the French word here with ‘ami(e)’, meaning friend or even, coyly, lover.} Here we enter the realm of language-as-philosophy, something the French language takes too with relish. Translator and poet Willis Barnstone remarks in a jacket blurb on the ‘metaphysical experiences’ in the poems, but the metaphysics is arguably in the language already. Interesting in all of this to remember that the author wrote these poems in English and translated them afterwards, which leads one to ponder whether she thought in French while writing them originally in English. It is, however, inarguable, to my mind, that the poems in English are distinct and of themselves as against the translations into French; that is, a new poem is created in the translating, the moreso here because French is a uniquely tonic language, whose nasals, elisions and barely-breathed consonantly endings when required for rhyming purposes have no equivalent value in English. Only the French language here can, as it were, do justice to the French poem. Perhaps there is validity in the notion that poems cannot in a true sense accurately translated.

“Plonge au cœur de troisième œil, . . . .”

is infinitely more magical and song-like than

“Go deep into the third eye . . . . .”

in Cardona’s ‘A Mind Like the Sky’/’Un esprit comme le ciel.’ This value of sound in French allows a much greater leeway for creating the meaning and ‘spirit’ of a phrase than can readily be achieved in English.

With a short Prologue, the collection is cut into five distinct sections. One may suggest that, whereas Cardona is occupied extensively with the personal or family, she universalises her themes by permitting them to dream; to become transmuted into a universal Unconscious whose symbology is known to us. In this way we can interpret without difficulty poems that appear to be as different from our Anglo-Saxon derivatives as a Chagall from a Rembrandt. There are poems here that, of course, would do justice to a literary journal in England as well as one in France. But the total result in either case is a supreme summation of lived experience coupled with a determining of important life-metaphors in and through images; the poems are small abstract, or surreal, or impressionistic paintings, and we are free to ‘look’ at them without the restraint or demand of received ‘translatable’ understanding. How can one photograph a dream? Yet a painter has much less of a problem. Several of the poems make reference to the genre of journey upon which Cardona embarks and invites us to join, such as ‘Shaman,’ ‘In Dreams like Rain,’ (this last, translated as ‘En songes de pluie,’ might just as easily be translated back again as ‘Rain Dreams’) or ‘Dancing the Dream.’ The wonderful cover artwork by Jackie Morris depicts five archetypes, a swan, a horse, an owl, a fox and a wolf.

Irish poet Thomas McCarthy remarks in a blurb that Cardona’s work ‘travels across languages, in the manner of our own Micheál Hartnett, Paddy Bushe or, more lately, Fred Johnston,’ and I am grateful for and flattered by his mention. Language is an experience of travel, and certainly to employ two languages as gracefully and refreshingly as this collection does is to engage with a considerable poetic achievement of movement and reinterpretation. If this is a major introduction to Irish poetry of the work of Hélène Cardona, then we should embrace it and learn from it. This is a poet from whom we can learn to make the ordinary extra-ordinary. And if that is not the first essence of poetry, I do not know what is.

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