The Erotics of Choice: On John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations: Poetry and Prose
John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations: Poetry and Prose have all the life of love’s choices: practical but complex, delightfully ambiguous and suddenly clear by turns. Without being about him, they comprise his most autobiographical work yet. Together the two volumes develop a series of richly embedded histoires d’amour that, like the many hands that formed them, collaborate to structure a possible world.
The work is divided first into two volumes, one of prose and one of poetry, and within these by author. These include well-known names such as Mallarmé, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, and other less-known (but soon to be loved) writers such as Jules Supervielle, Jean Follain, and Serge Fauchereau, among many others. The volumes contain twenty-eight prose pieces by seventeen writers and 171 poems written by twenty-four poets; a mixed bag of the best variety. Pierre Reverdy, Marcelin Pleynet, and Pierre Martory appear in both volumes. The poetry volume includes the French originals, deepening both its beauty and usefulness. As a collection the work serves as a documentary of Ashbery’s development as writer—with poems (some never before published) from his Fulbright project, passages from his years of magazine work, and pieces by those he knew and admired. “I had no idea I had translated so much…,” Ashbery demurs when asked about the work in an interview last year. The effect is as magnificent as it was unexpected.
One love story begins in the music room. In an excerpt from an interview included in the preface introduction of the volumes, Ashbery compares English and French to a piano and violin: a difficult match but worthy of the challenge. This pairing becomes a dynamic essential as you move through the work. A curious listener can hear it well by looking up Elliott Carter’s Duo for Violin and Piano, as it figures the concept of two characters who converse—the piano implacably private, the violin passionate and fluid—but who cannot really understand each other. Throughout the course of the piece the instruments run through the possibilities of their dialogue. To model the rift further, the piece is sometimes performed with the musicians standing fifteen feet apart. One cannot help but think of Martory’s question in the poem “Toten Insel” [“Isle of the Dead”]: “Especially since, are we even speaking the same language?” A listener feels frustrated and moved, carried on by the comic momentum of catastrophe but bruised by it.
Accomplished translator Richard Sieburth extends the metaphor of language as instrument by comparing a poet who translates to a musician who chooses to be a pianist rather than a composer. They must have more than the hands for it, since only thinkers versed in the language of thought can help us with translation (as Heidegger reminds us) because they must imitate the complex and for some indecipherable rhythms of living. The shoe of pre-poetic thought fits music easily—a subject in which Ashbery is both a lover and expert. He is, in pianist Sarah Rothenberg’s words, unusually involved in new classical music. His writing (perhaps too often compared to painting) grasps that ephemeral architectonics with aural grace, giving it a language that retains the prints of cognition. This practice has well prepared him for the task of being our ear to the door of another language.
Ashbery’s attentiveness and accuracy bring dimension to his translations as they do to his own work; he refuses to smooth out the bumps, as he calls the unexpected words that turn familiar phrases on their heels. “But you can’t say that in French,” Ashbery’s French translators tell him when translating his work. “You can’t say it in English either,” he says. While it is impossible to translate Roussel’s fully rhyming lines, his concision, or his enabling homophonic constraints, Ashbery uses any means possible to bring his work into its life in English. With the thoughtful feedback from friends, such as his French translator Anne Talvaz, in occasional matters of idiomatic acrobatics, Ashbery finds ways for us to encounter words like smithereens, ding-a-ling, deliciousness, anew. His demands on English to perform past its limits brings to mind Apollinaire’s description of (Giorgio de Chirico’s younger brother) Alberto Savinio’s performance style: of such intensity that the instrument would need to be cleared of splinters and broken pieces afterwards. In Gertrude Stein’s words, if it can be done, why do it? Ashbery echoes this dare with the same dramatically ambitious will but brings to the performance of translation a gentleness and humor likely learned from failure and love.
A translator, like a pianist, is evaluated not just on precision, but also on her ‘heart’, a quality that comes through in the brilliance of the performance. The heart of this work struck its first chord in March of 1956, at a café in Saint-Germain-de-Prés in Paris, where the French critic Henri Hell asked Ashbery what he wanted out of living in the city. “I want to have an affair with a French writer,” he said (probably joking)—and at that moment Pierre Martory materialized in the bar. Happily, Ashbery believes in coincidence and the value of what happens when it happens, and so began a long and intimate relationship. They would live together nine of the ten years Ashbery spent in Paris. They translated each other and remained close until Martory’s death in October of 1998.
Love and French go even further back for Ashbery—to a time when he’d write his diary in French so his mother couldn’t decipher it. French then may have held that private but fierce affection young people have for their refuges of fantasy—where you get all you want and more, as well as what you need to please, say, a difficult parent. And we can well imagine a young Ashbery sensing in his use of French some way into the magical world of Madame d’Aulnoy’s The White Cat, which he read as a boy and which opens the prose volume. In high school a neighbor friend introduced him to Rimbaud. Later, he would be intrigued by Roussel’s textual contortions and even (at the suggestion of his friend Kenneth Koch) determined to finish learning French on a Fulbright in order to read him. In fact, he was considering a dissertation on Roussel. But this wasn’t meant to be.
“I return to Pierre—most of my knowledge of France and things French comes from him,” Ashbery tells Peter Stitt in an interview. He elaborates in the introduction to Martory’s The Landscapist: “After I began translating [him], that is, after I began to realize that his marvelous poetry would likely remain unknown unless I translated it and brought it to the attention of American readers, I have begun to find echoes of his work in mine. His dreams, his pessimistic résumés of childhood that are suddenly lanced by a joke, his surreal loves, his strangely lit landscapes […] have been fertile influences for me.” He describes Martory’s work as “sui generis”, in a class by itself. That he exists for us in translation places the work yet further as elsewhere, as in the world of dreams. This feeling of being one-of-a-kind once removed applies to many of the authors in the collection. And, like dreams, they manage to say a great deal that is useful and familiar.
Each work here is included not just for its quality of being ‘of its own genus’, but also for its liveliness and independence. Though he has other pieces in the collection, a poem by Salvador Dalí was not included, as Mr. Ashbery did not find it interesting enough. And so it was trimmed out with a number of pieces—mostly prose—t--that were too dry or technical. ”He wanted it to be all by people in the arts,” explains his editor Eugene Richie, “He shares an anti-academicism with others of the ‘New York School’ that goes way back.” One can easily fill in one’s own personal reasons for why. Ashbery by all signs has no wish to organize or lead a canon, in this collection or elsewhere. If they have a leaning, his choices for inclusion favor those otherwise left out of such groups—hardly a limit since these exist of good quality and in relative plenty. His subjects then are not writers of the center stage: they are diversely off-center, as he is. One feels slightly bemused among them but not excluded.
The writers that remain are, in one way or another, part of Ashbery’s elliptical circle. “You can really see this in his letters,” his editor Rosanne Wasserman adds, “as he was always asking his friends to send him more material to translate for his magazines. He wasn’t able to do all that discovery himself.” What results is an esoteric consistency, a kind of literary family album: some chosen and some given, by chance or love. And the collaborative exploration did more than fill the pages of the magazines that Ashbery happened to be editing. It helped build a common ground and architecture of ideas around those near to him.
Together the volumes constitute a collection of places that itself becomes a place. It has at once the strange exhibitions of Roussel’s sculpture garden and the light of metaphysical interiors in de Chirico’s courtyards, the glass-cased acoustics of Martory’s crystal ball, and the scents of New York and Paris. Or else you find yourself one moment in the fairies’ cloistered orchard of The White Cat, and the next in Reverdy’s haunted house—heavy with the sense of motion in Rimbaud’s streets, thick with milk and blood and sound.
You encounter the collection—like that of postcards or records—in which each piece begins its life as a thing among things, speaking mutely of its curator. And then your attention is drawn from them by a light draft coming through a window, where looking out into a landscape you find a garden in the near distance with people walking around in it. Ashbery and Martory observe some hummingbirds; Roussel draws in the dirt with a stick (an elaborate pagoda with no visible entrance). Bataille drinks lustily from the same fountain where de Chirico sits addressing his disciples, Xenakis and Pleynet engage in the animated narration of plans for a new city and its art. A dog painted by Courbet noses the air…and all have the vague resemblance of people we’ve known somewhere before in the strange clarity of that light.
Like a close group of friends at a party in the country (some of whom may be lovers), the translations speak like people: they sometimes speak to each other and sometimes do not, sometimes make sense, others not. Or they seem to stop short and wander away—leaving us alone with the flowers, weather, and proper nouns of the physical world. This landscape they appear in is like an ordinary place with one ravishing exception: everything is permitted there, such that it is impossible to get lost and pointless to worry.
The myriad contents of the translations surround you the way a place does at dusk. The light like water folds around with the litany-like practice of the translator’s echo luring you on. Martory through Ashbery gives you “Paris, its pairs of hearts and eyes each as big as a boxer’s fists. Listen. They are synchronizing their heartbeats in the hum of silence. I give you, adding speech to speech, the billions of words pronounced this instant.” You are not obliged to take notice of every detail—you can’t. You dimly perceive changes and at moments you emerge as in a clearing to see the whole distance you’ve come. You feel then the pleasant surprise of a celebration that the world exists, that things happen.
Such a place lends itself very well to developing the intimacy inherent in translation. The delicate erotics of choice within bounds softly explode all around you. Ashbery says lightly of translating de Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros: “I wanted to get in bed with it. And that is what I did, pretty much.” But this rendezvous has a more serious dimension--de Chirico died just days before Ashbery’s first reading of his work in English in March of 1979. Pierre Martory, who shared his poems only with a few people close to him, died ten years before Ashbery was able to translate and publish an award-winning collection of his poems, The Landscapist. Translation is (as Kafka describes letter-writing) an intercourse with ghosts. It has all the metamorphic potential, suspense, and impossibility of love.
Fauchereau’s “two hearts knocking at a wooden door” speak to what is gained in translation, while the Italian saying traduttore, tradittore (translator, traitor) speaks to what is lost. After depriving a poem of the native sweetness of its language Ashbery works to replace it with something closely resembling that sweetness, to speak like Mercury of what is far in the language of what is near. In order to do so, our translator, as ever when no single idea fits, finds the word large enough to contain several meanings. For an instant the word day hovers between its several meanings as in entre chien et loup, the hour between dog and wolf. Ambiguity in such circumstances seems kin to that lost sweetness.
Speaking of love and betrayal, these pieces together make what some may see as Ashbery’s sacred fount--in the sense of Henry James’s novel of that title in which lovers draw vitality from each other as from water. A close reader will recognize in these authors many of the strategies, passions, and tricks we love Ashbery for—such as his jump-cuts, his easy commerce between high and low, his casual but delicately orchestrated pacing—in these authors. Critics and enthusiasts alike are already hard at work to trace the influences, to dig to the core of the enigma. They may find themselves—as a person who travels immense distances in a dream and then wakes up a few minutes later—in the same place with sore legs: studying their startled reflections in gasoline puddles and sifting the April sunlight for clues.
Martory’s introduction to Henry James’s Washington Square, the most recent translation included in the volumes, uncannily reflects the experience of reading its translator’s work: “Once we close the book, however, we have the feeling of not having understood the imperious reasons that have made the characters act as they do. The explanation our minds supplied in the course of reading isn’t enough for us. I think that the author hasn’t dared dig too deeply into the hearts of his protagonists, that he has respected their most important secrets. Our intelligence and curiosity require that the last veils be lifted. And just as in a discussion that fascinates us we have no way of understanding our interlocutor, other than by putting ourselves in his place…we force ourselves to reconstitute the entire psychological evolution that has been described for us, adding the resources of our own sensibility and experience.” Martory explains that James does so understanding that his characters’ true inner language is incommunicable, but that its existence within them must be known.
The translations offer all the pleasures of experiment and craftsmanship drawn from such an acknowledgement. They throb with potential both above and below the surface of language, like eggs covered with ideograms. Ashbery handsomely plays out the philosopher E.M. Cioran’s claim that nothing is as profitable as keeping one’s secret, with a levity all his own. His work for meaning without message is shared by Martory and many others in these volumes. They evade the finality of that which is thought to be understood; they are like the cherry of Mallarme’s lessons that has no stone, because it is in bloom.
The result is writing plastic enough to include those who cannot live within conventional aesthetics, while ‘major’ poetry and novels may wring their hands or crack a joke. But this plasticity is demanding: each author needs a certain special handling or different tuning. They must in one way or another be completed by the listener, who translates them into the language of her own life. The voices though diverse—some much more naked or dramatic than Ashbery’s—share quiet marks of his tone of engaged acceptance. Nothing more, nothing less. This tone generates excitement as water flowing monotonously over a dam generates energy. For those who need it a single generous phrase suddenly irrigates the desert of difficult and strange lines. In reading (as in life) these brief moments of recognition lift you onward the way a passing bird in song lifts your face toward the light.
Ashbery’s ability to draw out that special phrase—the telling detail or gnomonic character of seemingly closed works--has often been attributed to his status as voyant, as seer. A good deal could be said about the mystical qualities of translation, of poetry, and of the joining of the two practices. Max Jacob, part of Ashbery’s Fulbright work and included at length in the poetry volume, was very interested in the workings of mysticism. And he isn’t alone; Artaud, Reverdy, Jarry, and Eluard also meddle in stars and spirits. But for practitioners it is not the revelations of clairvoyance but magic that pays the bills, sort of—or at least makes up for the disappointments of spiritual rigor with a dazzling orgy of light and sound in this world. Its ritual of make-believe as long as possible at its weakest embellishes the surface of experience, and at its best offers a beautiful relief.
Much like Vogler in Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician (also known as The Face) Ashbery the translator is at times conspicuously silent and vulnerable to self-doubt, performing on one level for a living but also for…some other reason. You can see him more or less invested in a trick, applying equally the dignity of his strong work ethic and wit to the task. You hear him as the artist carried by the mysteries of his private life, unaware of the nature of his power as he builds on a void. He is endlessly asked to explain himself before arbiters of reason. But it is his quality of self-doubt that makes it possible to love him. Like that of the magician, Ashbery’s work as a translator is richly contingent—not just on the possible worlds within this one but also on other people. Alone facing the secret of his art (that there is none), he is nonetheless a player among a troupe in which someone else must light the lamps, haul the false-bottomed casket, make recommendations to the royal court.
His editors attribute his skills as a voyant and translator partially to his dual citizenship in art criticism and poetry, transmuting the mysteries of his subjects into a language more legible to the senses. “It also helped for him in other ways…it gave him confidence and deadlines,” Eugene Richie says, “He has always needed deadlines…except for his poetry of course.” Indeed, Ashbery’s Norton lectures sat ungathered and uncited for ten years until Rosanne Wasserman completed the work. As they made the final changes to this project, she and Richie would take him for drives to help him focus. He had a good number of changes to make, as he knows a different French than he knew when he first translated some of these pieces, and as he’s made a different American English. Wasserman describes how “Gene would be driving and John would be talking and I’d be leaning forward, trying to write things down, the scenery flying by.” It was in the car with Martory many years earlier that they all had the idea to publish a first book of his poems. This work between places is fitting, as Ashbery beautifully transcribes the feeling of passage in much of his writing. . His crafty procrastination often brings him to a sudden need to write in the late afternoon--to save the day before the deadline of dinner. In his life as in his work, timing is almost everything.
Ashbery’s eternal preoccupation with time is present here. Chassignet’s Sonnets on the Vanity of Life and Consolation Against Death address its cycles in the lines “What seems to perish only changes itself […] Do we see the night darken? The next light/ Rebuilds at once the azure firmament.” Or, as Martory puts it in “Ma Chandelle est morte,”, “An evening hides a day./ A morning is never anything but a tired evening.” Maurice Blanchard in his prose poem “The Cloud Distributes Its Rain Impartially” places time in terms of music and weather: “And so this alternating chorus of a world made, a world rejected, this battle in shadows, this irresolvable symphony, these renderings and these smiles will pass slowly into darkness and solitude.” Again you may hear the irresolvable duo of the piano and violin. Different temporal and spatial registers layer back on themselves in a confluence of invocations and efforts.
The attractively published edition is as much a monument to the discipline and passion of those close to Ashbery and his work as to his translations themselves. It belongs to the person who quietly passed over Ashbery’s incomplete knowledge of French to recommend him for his first Fulbright, and the handful of people who welcomed him in Paris, to Martory who kept him company, at home on walks and at the movies; to those who sent him letters, and whoever rented him and Martory poorly appointed apartments in the fashionable neighborhoods of Paris so that authors would write back to him. (It does not belong to whoever wrote ‘boring’ across the top of some translations Ashbery submitted for publication early in his career.) It could not have happened without David Kermani, Ashbery’s longtime companion and thorough bibliographer. Perhaps most of all, this project is a tribute to Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie, who made copies, trips, and arrangements (for instance, for the student who typed each line of the xeroxed French originals). A great share of credit is also due to Jonathan Galassi of FSG who had the idea for a bilingual edition of the poetry volume, took care of the foreign rights when other publishing houses backed out, and in many other ways made the Collected French Translations possible.
This literary inheritance has been long since needed not just by poets not yet versed in the French language but by anyone seeking material with which to make a life. It is a set of completely new objects that matters to those curious about Ashbery’s circles of influence, more generally to those interested in the crossing of French and English, in cultural dialogue, and in fact to anyone at present attempting to make art, or love, in new ways. A reader will find herself wishing for more. Just as in the end the dancer on the stage does not itself satisfy us (though her performance leaves an aftertaste of such a contentment), poets who read these translations may find themselves compelled to learn a new language; casual readers may suddenly have the urge to write.
Ashbery’s pragmatic inclusiveness opens the completion of this project, finally, to those who will read it. “Art,” writes Raymond Mason in “Where Have all the Eggplants Gone?”, “What is one to put in it? [...] Everything.” Each of these pieces, stuffed with life, has the vacillating strangeness and familiarity of objects encountered in dreams and belongs to whoever is willing to pay attention. And in the words of Richard Sieburth, Delmore Schwartz, and W.B. Yeats: in dreams begin responsibilities. The title to Martory’s ten-page (as yet untranslated) autobiography seems to speak through the entire work to that responsibility: ne m’oubliez pas, don’t forget me. For readers, as for Ashbery, the imminence of this lively interleaving of memory and reality starts at home.
Many will be happy to know Ashbery has more translations where this came from and another book’s worth of his own poetry. Karin Roffman is hard at work on a biography (using those early French diary entries and making Ashbery nervous), and Rosanne Wasserman has started a project with him gathering his letters. As with much of Ashbery’s work you may leave the Collected French Translations with questions hanging around you like bees that have followed you out of the garden. “Whence does all this come? and again:/ Shall I some day be a part of all this fullness?” (Ashbery, “French Poems”). At such moments it will be useful to recall de Chirico’s one-line letter responding to Ashbery’s request to translate some of his work: “Sì, è possibilile.” [“Yes, it’s possible”].