The Bar is Set

The Jaguar's Dream
, John Kinsella (251p, Herla)

My reviews of translations in this space have been various in their enthusiasm or otherwise. My recollection tells me my response has turned on how well the poems read in English; obviously enough, it might be thought, only one wants also to do justice to the task: something comes through perhaps with less of a flow but more of a bite, or one might sense the presence of a significant poet if only one could read the original.

Now comes John Kinsella's The Jaguar's Dream
and, in my reading of him, the bar is set high and he reaches it; the wrong metaphor: whatever the state of the river he flows with it. I mean this is a very fine book of poems in its own right.

There is a caveat. The translations in the main are freer than an attempt at basic accuracy - itself a contentious way of putting it on my part, but I do mean the contrast - as he sets it out in his Introduction. "My methods for translating and creating responses, versions, distractions, adaptations and interpolations vary greatly." Not by default but because this was always the intention.

My one moan is that there isn't an index of poets, the Contents page does list Virgil (from the Aeneid
), Villon ('Les Ballades en jargon') and Rimbaud (various) while also 'Classical Verse I and II', 'Verse from the 16th to 19th Centuries', and further 19th plus 20th and 21st. There is an Index of Titles if you know the book well enough to track authors from it.

You can see the breadth amd my reading of him says also trust the depth.

It isn't another caveat, but rather the book's pleasure, that the whole is a unity, these in English now are consistently Kinsella's poems and all praise, I say, for that achievement. To make a clear statement of what his style is, is not so easy. Something to do with flow, which has in turn something conversational about it; something to do with freshness of language as it applies itself to the task in hand - I mean with clear focus and very far from chat. But again, if someone started chatting to me like this, I'd be spellbound. Profound chat.

What to quote to show this, to show his work? One consequence of what he's done is that while the best poets through the centuries have done their own thing in their own or in an adopted culture, the book shows a consistency: this is, let's say, what a poet was always and always will be. And that it matters.
     I get that shock of abstinence
     every now and again, though
     I pray silently each night,
     mentioning friends and enemies
     in equal stead, hoping for the best
     for each of them: they play outside
     my entanglements.                 
            [Virgil, Aeneid
, Book VI]

     Who jiggers a pun of drink, a tanglehead,
     tackle on table, a ball that clicks;
     barmaid plays "sink the pink";
     what bottle of lyric restrains
     employment, maintains the joke?  
           [Villon, Graphology 844]

His introduction tells in more detail than I can convey here the languages he knows, partially knows, or doesn't, and his varieties of 'translation' or 'version' in the book. From the French, he says, "I am usually concerned with creating as accurate a text as possible,...", and from his long familiarity with that language it is not surprising to find here Rimbaud's 'The Drunken Boat (Le Bateau Ivre)', translated many times so that any new bringing-over comes familiarly:

     As I was drifting down impassive Rivers,
     I no longer felt guided by the haulers:
     The yowling redskins had taken them as targets,
     Having nailed them naked to painted stakes.

The most free version here, he says, is from Tzara, which opens

     Debauched lords of clavicles surely boil lids of blood
     in pods of hepatitis accruing vats of muscle
     and tombs of sour interiors and retried memories
     chime clutched as lost bells of reason and we too
     we delight we of lost reason who yank the chain
     to make bells ring in us and we too will chime.       

This is referred to by Kinsella as 'an original poem "on the idea of"',  This does indicate a less freewheeling approach in the rest of the book; and it's an open question anyway what really constitutes translation and why
. This book - and I haven't even mentioned his versions from Celan, Rilke and 'After Mayakovsy' - the latter's long poem titled here 'Bedenimed Cloud: An Apostasy? / Tetrapak', and more - is its own answer, just make it good enough to open its way refreshingly, profoundly, into our today's language.

And I reckon, from what John Kinsella tells us, we as readers should also thank Tracy.

     David Hart 2012