kent johnson

   When I consider the night’s mystery, I imagine the mystery
of your body,
 

   which is only one of the forms of night’s being;
 

    I know beyond doubt the body that inhabits you is nothing
more than the darkness of your body;
 

   and this darkness is diffused under the night’s sign.
 

   In the countless concavities of your body there are multiple
kingdoms of darkness;
 

   and this is something worth reflection.
 

   This body, closed, secret, and forbidden; this body, other
and fearsome,
 

   neither foretold nor foreseen.
 

   And it is like resplendence or like shadow:
 

   it only allows itself to be sensed from afar, from the
indeterminate, charged with excessive loneliness which has
nothing to do with you.
 

   And it only allows itself to be sensed feelingly, through
temperature, and through a sorrow that has nothing to do
with you. 

 

Excerpt from The Night by Jaime Saenz (trans. by Forrest Gander & Kent Johnson)

What is the translation of poetry, anyway?

I, for one, don’t have the foggiest idea.

Do you?

No one knows what Poetry is:

So how could we ever grasp the nature of its shadow?

No, that’s already making a claim on it … [“its shadow”]

As if Translation came after, when maybe it’s Poetry that does …

And also, who knows about the Sun?

These past weeks, I’ve been writing emails to wonderful translators of poetry. [and here they are] [and I’m pleased to say] [and now they are gathered here] [the overwhelming response has been]

I read somewhere that you can tell how fast any sun is moving away from you by reading its “red shift” along a spectrum of light.

These works are spread across a spectrum of light–We call them all “translations,” and we are waving, as they grow smaller in the distance, and we grow smaller to them. [explain the “we”]

No doubt this is a bit much for some tastes.

[Benjamin on the Afterlife and royal robes. Spicer on the radio and transmission]

But I’ve been embroiled in controversies related to translation for many years now, and it’s made me somewhat eccentric, I guess.

Suddenly, now, I am forty-nine, and I find I’m as confused as ever!

There is even a warrant out in Greece for my arrest. [stress the charges of murder are false]

But who wants to read some long, narcissistic tale about a translator’s personal problems?

My son comes into the room, reading, as he does, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, the duct tape glistening on its spine.

He closes it and lays it down, softly, like a hurt moth, next to the lamp.

What are you doing, he says.

I’m trying to write an essay on the translation of poetry for the first issue of a magazine, I say, tossing back the last of my wine …

… and I just can’t figure out how to bring it to a close. [sigh]

Well, he says, beginning to roll a cigarette, why don’t you say this–it will be pretty melodramatic, but so what, the stakes in this are high
[pauses to lick cigarette and put between lips] and there’s not a whole lot of time, Dad, for euphemism [sound of Zippo clicking open, now shutting]:

“With Translation’s gasoline,” he says, in his changed voice, smoke issuing from his mouth, “Poetry sets itself on fire, so it might live by the light of its self-immolation.”

Wow, I say, that’s really good son. It’s in! [writing]

Thanks, he says. It’s kind of a free translation from Rexroth’s version of “Watching It Snow and Thinking of My Friend, the Hermit Hu.”

And then he picks his book back up and lets it fall open again, to wherever it mothy might.

I remember it just as it was, the sun through the screen behind him, the coiling smoke, the open book, the profile of his face, the sound of clanging, of someone hammering away, for whatever reason, at iron in the distance …

[representing nearly twenty languages and thirty nations] [most all of it in English for the first time] [no translation is intended for any reader, and so forth]

And the distance has grown so great and at such speed.

And he is in the darkness now from me and with such velocity, even the sadness of the space where he once stood, reading, is darkly beautiful for it.

And I can’t really say, looking at all these translations before me, what is faithfulness, nor what is so faithful it has flowered, without shame, into falsity.