385: A Translator Introduces “Me To The World” (Italo Calvino)

                “Without translation I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.” -Italo Calvino in conversation with Frank MacShane, 1983

                I’ve heard a lot about the difficulty of translating poetry, and lots of it is pretty absolute and fatalistic. (People quote Mark Twain as saying, “Poetry is what’s lost in translation,” though I’m not sure if he ever said). One common idea, as far as I can tell, is that there is something ineffable and irrational and sentimental and only itself about poetry, and no one could translate that.
                Over the last month’s I’ve been helping my friend Rachel Gu translate her poetry from Mandarin into English, and it’s absolutely wonderful. We sit side by side. Rachel reads the Mandarin out loud, and I don’t understand a word, but I listen. Then we talk about the poem in a general way, and each line, and different important words, and the experiences she’s thinking about. We play together with English words and phrases, approaches and forms. “What if we focused on what this character was doing? What if we described the scene a little more? What image is important here?” In a way, you could say Rachel and I have been translating these poems since before they were written. We’ve been friends for a while now. We’ve done art together. As we play together with another translation, Rachel laughs and says, “You already know me so well.” And some things we don’t know. Sometimes we don’t translate a key word, and instead add a translation note at the end, talking about that word and all the different things it can mean within the complex beautiful web of the language and experience it’s written in.
                For me, the whole “poetry can’t be translated” thing feels connected to a strict attachment to (and understanding of) self. As though something is itself and clearly itself and isn’t ever also something else,  and any letting go, any mixing or washing about of colors and sounds, takes away what “it” was. That feels connected to a Greek mereological essentialism that would say your car isn’t your car anymore if a single screw is replaced. (The Ship of Theseus). In my teens that kind of attachment, that attempted certainty, seemed enticing. Now I’m so much happier to sit next to Rachel laughing, wondering, confused, sometimes hurt, swapping words back and forth. The English “version” and the Mandarin “version” are not the same. The lines don’t line up. But Rachel reads the English and says, “Yes, that’s it,” and I listen to the Mandarin like an ocean I can’t quite touch, and then get to find the English, phrase by phrase, as a field where we wander together. The two poems aren’t the same. They change in our hands. They change in translation. And I absolutely love that. I love the opportunity to be otherwise, to be touched, to be held, to be different as we talk and learn together. I suppose something might be lost. So much more feels found.

384: “Hopefully, Ever After” (Roshani Chokshi)

                “The king and queen did not live happily, but hopefully, ever after. Which, in my opinion, is a far better compass by which to guide your life.” 
                -the witch in Once More Upon A Time, by Roshani Chokshi

                A friend told me once that it’s important to have something you’re looking forward to. The weekend, and some ice cream on the couch. Thursday night, and board games with friends. Camping over the summer. And when they told me that I thought, yes, that’s true. So I tried to make plans and ‘give’ myself something to look forward to.
                When I first read Chokshi’s book, I thought, well, what about hoping for what is? Hope for winter’s hush, and the snow gathering outside. Hope for spring, and thin shoots sprouting up where the snow melts. Hope for the rich dark that’s outside my window. And I like that, as a kind of guiding idea. A compass, Chokshi said.
                But what if the hopefully isn’t about the thing happening, but about the thing as it already is? Walking today with Chokshi in my mind, I tapped my knuckles on a big granite boulder outside the library and suddenly had the thought, there’s hope in that. Not “the boulder will be there tomorrow, hopefully,” not something reaching forward in time, but there is hope in this rock the same way there’s quartz and feldspar. Hopeful is what it is. It’s full of hope like a lake is full of water. I’m still not sure what that might mean, but for a moment it was like the wise witch had tapped my shoulder.

383: A Walk With Bees (Kleinman & Suryanarayanan)

                “The real-time, informal [epistemic forms of commercial beekeepers] provide knowledge that is meaningful and useful […] but is illegitimate in the worlds of professional honey bee toxicologists and government regulators.”
                -Daniel Kleinman and Sainath Suryanarayanan, “Dying Bees and the Social Production of Ignorance”

                A few weeks ago I was on a walk late at night, and my friend said we should stop by Blair Park with the zip line. During the day it’s packed with kids, but at night big kids like us can get a turn. I thought it was a fantastic idea. I turned to walk that way, heading north, and my friend paused behind me. They pointed east. “This way, right?” they said. And I paused.
                I paused because, after a moment of thinking, east was absolutely the way we should go. But when I walk to Blair Park I go through one neighborhood, and when I walk to my friend’s house I go through another neighborhood. I’d never walked from my friend’s neighborhood directly to the park. Without really thinking I’d turned to piece together the familiar roads where I always went, but now I turned to follow my friend. Looking back later, the moment made me think about Kleinman and Suryanarayanan.
                Their point with bees is not just about the paths we walk. It’s about what those paths show us, and what those paths encourage us to miss. It’s about knowledges that, in my mental landscape, have nowhere to be. Someone who spends a lot of time on zip lines knows something about momentum that a crash test operator might miss (and vice versa, I think). So I’ve been asking what knowledges I’ve been taught to listen to a lot. I’ve been thinking about what knowledges I’ve been taught aren’t even “there.” I’ve been following friends, and going back to the zip line, the rush of the night air.

382: “My Mother Is A Pool” (Kamau Brathwaite)

“The ancient watercourses of my island
echo of river.  trickle.  worn stone
the sunken voice of flitter inching its pattern to the sea
memory of foam. fossil. erased beaches high above the eaten

boulders of st philip  .  my mother is a pool

once there was trail glass. tinkle of stream into gullies
the harbour river navigable for miles […]

and my mother rains upon the island

w/ her loud voices
w/ her grey hairs
w/ her green love”
                -Kamau Brathwaite, in Ancestors

                I don’t like family trees. Family trees essentialize me. The way all the branches lead down through the generations, it feels (to me, at least) like the picture is suggesting I’m uniquely important. I’m somehow what previous generations were moving toward. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t like imagining it that way, with all the lives of my ancestors narrowing down to my life. And anyway, the family trees I’ve seen remove blood relationships from all the different kinds of love and family relationships. The story of my family, even if it was a story, wouldn’t be complete without Trystan and Jessalyn and Randy, without Nancy and Ali and Nina, without Michael and Roger and Fin and Dusty and Adrian, and, and, and, and none of them would ‘go’ on ‘my’ family tree.
                How else might I picture ancestors, family, community?
                Lately, instead of lineage—which suggests a line—my friend and I have been playing with the word “weaveage”—all the interwoveness through which I’m tied. I like that. And I love Brathwaite’s images. “My mother is a pool.” What if I picture a lake? Instead of solidly growing upward, water washes, mixes, moves, wraps all around. What if we picture ourselves as a ripple in the ocean, or better, a twist in deep currents, with other swirls of water above and below and sometimes going through us? “My mother rains upon the island / w/ her loud voices / w/ her grey hairs / w/ her green love.” What if the wash of our family community—a wash we’re always part of, as someone’s brother, sister, child, someone’s great-grandchild, someone’s friend, someone’s support—is more like the rain?

[If you want more thoughts about all the voices inside one voice, I have an article out this week over at The Collective.]

381: “Listening,” a “Revolutionary Resource” (Alexis Pauline Gumbs)

                “Listening is not only about the normative ability to hear, it is a transformative and revolutionary resource that requires quieting down and tuning in.” -Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals

                Tonight I’m curling up with Gumbs’ book, and I already love it. I’ve thought before about my sight-focused culture, about how I choose what to see and what to look away from. I’ve wondered (following Ursula Le Guin, I think?) about cultures that focus on touch, that felt insistence on closeness that’s hard to ignore, or that focus on hearing. The blurred murmurs of so much that’s inside me, stomach gurgling. Close to me, neighbors walking. Far away, a car that must have a steering wheel held in someone’s hands. I don’t wonder who they are. I sit with them a moment. Before, when I’ve thought about this, I’ve thought about power. I’ve thought about direction and choice. Reading Gumbs, I think about transformation and the “revolutionary resource” of listening.
                Today I wrote a poem with a friend, both of us muted on Zoom. I listened to the silence of her face turned down to her page on my screen. I listened to her read her lines out loud through the slight delay of our computers. I listened to her wondering and playing and circling back. Walking on campus, I listened to strangers laughing. A friend saying hello. A bike whirring past me. A squirrel in the fallen leaves, rustling. Quieting down. I listen to the keystrokes, the quiet after them. Hannah Rule writes about how writing brings us to the edge of silence and unknowing. I should write in response to that, sometime, but for now I’m with Gumbs. I’m with the marine mammals her book title brings close. Heavy shapes in deep ocean currents in the darkness outside my window. When I was a kid it was hard to leave the day’s fears behind, hard (or impossible?) to stop seeing the nightmares TV imagined for me, but now that darkness seems close. Woven. Like vines grown all through a wooden lattice. I’m glad for it, and for Gumbs.
                “Once upon a time there was a giant sea mammal,” the next page starts, and listening, I feel these words open into the sea.

380: “Moving Through Space” (Bonnie Ruberg)

                “To play a video game is to engage in ways of moving through space and time.” -Bonnie Ruberg, Video Games Have Always Been Queer

                I’ve been thinking about how I move through space. And sure, I can start by thinking about video games: I really liked Spider-Man on the PS4, mostly because I liked the mechanic of swinging through New York. I liked the rhythmic timing of when to let go of one web sling, and when to shoot another. I liked the huge arcs of each swing, down toward the cars and pedestrians, back up between the sky scrapers. Maybe a who we are is sometimes a how we move, and for a moment, I felt like the Spider-Man I remembered seeing on the screen.
                Video games are playing with something that happens all through our lives. One of the reasons I loved sledding as a kid is because it was a fundamentally different way of moving, of experiencing speed and myself, snow and slope and winter’s night. Crawling into a blanket fort changes the living room. Climbing under the table changes me. As an adult I’m usually more set in how I move through the world, and I usually only change the style of movement when there’s a ‘reason.’ A name. I’m going on a bike ride. I’m diving into the ocean. Ruberg reminds me the reasons are everywhere, or we don’t need them at all. These days trees have been reminding me of that, too. Looking up at their yellow leaves, I drift along beneath them. I kick my steps, scattering rustling colors. I spill myself out like a bucketful of warm caramel draped across the grass.

379: “The Seeing of Patterns” (Adrienne Rich)

                “Theory—the seeing of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees—theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to earth over and over. But if it doesn’t smell of the earth, it isn’t good for the earth.”
                -Adrienne Rich, “Notes Towards a Politics of Location”

                Last Saturday I went for a walk through nearby Carle Park, a neighborhood green with tall trees. Oaks, dawn redwoods, catalpas, maples, walnuts, ginkgo bilobas, lindens, birches, firs, pines, magnolias, chestnuts, dogwoods, serviceberries (which I’d never met before moving here). The leaves are changing in Illinois, and—and how can I say it? “That color,” my friend said, pointing at one of the trees, “That color is so itself that if I were trying to describe it I wouldn’t use a metaphor.” The yellows, reds, oranges, persistent greens—the browns of the trunk, beautiful in their contrast, and the way these colors moved, shifted, fell and gathered on the ground. There were three trees in particular, tall like bits of cloud come to earth, yellow like themselves. Looking at them my heart felt as open as their branches, as light as their rustling leaves, as easy as the wind that trickled through them. Like a breath of air that went all through me.
                I want to walk, barefoot in the grass. 
                I want the kind of thoughts that settle and gather and wisp away like dew, and return to the earth, here or somewhere else, over and over.
                I love the idea that theory is the seeing of patterns. I want to follow patterns that smell like fallen leaves and deep earth and sometimes like my own body, unshowered so far this morning, and sometimes like the gingko’s fruit (even though it stinks), and sometimes like rain, and sometimes like the bergamot that grows wild here.

378: “Muddle or Reposition” (Emerson, Glasby, & McRuer)

                “…and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance”

                “What if, instead, we asked writers to use methodologies that muddle or reposition the argument(s) at hand? In other words, what if composition functioned as a disordering agent (McRuer 2006)?” -Hillery Glasby quoting Robert McRuer in “Making It Queer, Not Clear”

                When I was sixteen or so, Emerson’s thought made so much sense. It seemed a lot like what I thought. I don’t know if I fully realized that it was a way I was being taught to think. Emerson’s saying: say what you believe, abide by your own “spontaneous impression,” or else someone else will come along and say it well and you’ll have to accept “with shame” your own opinion “from another.” I think that’s perspective that weaves through a lot of American individualism. Thinking about it now, I don’t understand why there’s shame in that. Or force.

                This morning, when I was reading Glasby, I was excited from the first sentence. It’s lovely to find someone saying things that make me dance about thinking, “Yes, yes, I thought so too!” Having someone else say it, and say it beautifully, wasn’t like having my thoughts stolen. It was more like coming home. Like finding a friend opening closets and unfolding blankets and making a pillow fort. And then I wasn’t watching them make: I was making with them, and unmaking, and throwing things around in this delightful disorder of make believe and make and believe. I don’t want to put that together. I don’t want to claim that as mine. I want to muddle around, and celebrate the together.

377: “A Handle On” What I’m Doing (Becky Chambers)

                “Despite these blessings, sometimes Dex could not sleep. In these hours, they frequently asked themselves what it was they were doing. They never truly felt like they got a handle on that. They kept doing it all the same.” -Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built

                A few days ago I was looking back and forth between a piece of writing I did about a year ago (nearish when I read A Psalm for the first time) and a piece of writing I did last month, and I noticed, huh. The more recent piece is happier. Lighter. More playful. That might be because last year I really worked to build community. That might be because of the mood I was in when I wrote each piece. That might be because the first piece was trying to prove something, and the second—well, the second’s trying to make something, too, but it’s less worried (though still worried) about what happens if the making doesn’t work. 
                It’s probably some of all three, and some of this, too: I’ve been wondering about doing. Sometimes I run through what I have to do in my head. I think that’s fairly common? For me it’s like a quick mental sprint across ‘have-tos,’ my mind bouncing from wash-dishes to get-sleep to grade-assignments to schedule-meeting. And for a long time I’ve sent my mind sprinting along those pieces pretty regularly. (I wonder how many times a day? It’s hard to guess). I think that’s useful. I mean, there’s a lot to do, and I’d like to keep track of it. But lately, sometimes, instead of running along the list of what I have to do, I’ve been trying to sit with what I’m doing. I’m doing dishes. I’m grading assignments. Doing one thing means I’m not doing another. Sometimes it means another doesn’t get done. Sometimes it means that I don’t understand the overall plan. I suppose this is the kind of thing that could be taken too far, but when I wake up in the middle of the night and it’s hard to fall back asleep—which has been rarer, lately—I get less worried about not sleeping. About what I have to do tomorrow. I try to notice what I’m doing. Laying in bed. Listening to my partner breathe. Feeling the weight of the blanket. At some point sleeping becomes part of the “it” I’m doing, and by that time, I’m not sure I need to have “a handle” on it. I’m not sure I need to understand. I have a cheek, resting against the pillow. A chest rising and falling. Another time I sit at my keyboard and type. Another time I go to the sink and pick up the sponge. This. This is what I’m doing.

376: Finding Time (Ross Gay)

“If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Thank you.”
                -Ross Gay, “Thank You”

                I love the grounding of the first six lines. That’s how the poem works, at least for me: by opening the time to find itself half naked and barefoot in the frosty grass, by listening to the earth’s moan, whether that’s wind or a mind’s misgivings, to feel the dust. Once it’s done that it can move on to telling us what to do. But before the telling there’s the being. So:
                I’m lying on my floor in my third story apartment, our one big window open at my feet, the night air eddying in. Outside there are—cicadas, I think? A regular, rhythmic touch, like night’s a bristled brush and someone’s twitching their fingers along it. Again. Again. I wonder if I can actually smell the basil on the windowsill. Then, because I was wondering, I got up to touch it. Now I’m back on the floor. Its pale green leaves were like the curled ears of some delicate creature. Listening. My partner shifts on the couch, reading. My fingers play out their staccato rhythm. The comparison reminds me of a jazz pianist I saw last semester, someone who held the little hammers from inside a piano and leaned into a grand piano, playing, not by tapping the keys but by tapping the strings themselves. Playing from inside. That brings me, in turn, to a hay barn at my friend’s farm when I’m nine or so, climbing up between the bales. Crawling and chasing each other, and a moment where I sat, quiet, all these gathered feels gathered around me. Like sitting inside summer. Like sitting inside a piano. I made up that I was nine: I don’t know how old I was. There were so many years when that didn’t seem to matter.
                The basil sits still while a little breeze curls in the window, promising the changing leaves, promising a frost, a winter. The floorboards scrape beneath my hair as I shift my head. Funny how, setting out to be here, I found myself in so many places. Opening the time. Funny how, being in so many places, I find myself here. More balanced in the being.
                And yes. Thank you.