Academic journal article Field

Translating America

Academic journal article Field

Translating America

Article excerpt

(In light of renewed interest in Donald Justice's work, we're reprinting the following review, which first appeared in FIELD 72, Spring 2005.)

Donald Justice, Collected Poems (Knopf, 2004)

Donald Justice has gone, taking his piano. There is no more music left in North America. So might a lament run, paraphrasing his "Variations for Two Pianos," for the gracious, cranky, Iowa/Florida master of his art who turned out so many good poems and, during his years of famous teaching, so many good poets. But of course the music is still with us, embedded in this fine Collected Poems. And the teaching continues, for any careful readers of this volume, especially those curious to learn about the felicitous relationships that can develop between the textures and tones of American experience and the larger world of poetry in other languages.

Surely one of Justice's enduring accomplishments is that of a translator. Not in the sense in which we usually use that word, someone who translates Dante or Homer or Mallarmé, but indirectly, as one who took often unorthodox paths and methods to mediate between his world and the worlds of other poets, especially those poets of other times and other languages. Whatever the model for this behavior-Pound may be cited, certainly-the result has created possibilities for our poetry that we are probably just beginning to understand.

Here is a poem from the 1987 book, The Sunset Maker:

SEA WIND: A SONG

Sea wind, you rise

From the night waves below,

Not that we see you come and go,

But as the blind know things we know

And feel you on our face,

And all you are

Or ever were is space,

Sea wind, come from so far

To fill us with this restlessness

That will outlast your own-

So the fig tree,

When you are gone,

Sea wind, still bends and leans out toward the sea

And goes on blossoming alone.

after Rilke

When I mentioned I was reviewing Justice's Collected Poems, a friend of mine cited this as a favorite, a lyric of quiet perfection and astonishing grace. I found myself agreeing, and then grew curious about its relation to the original. In what sense is it "after"? How much of its excellence does it owe to the original?

In fact, Justice's poem can almost be said to improve on Rilke's. Curious readers can find the original German and a good translation in Edward Snow's New Poems [1908]: The Other Part, pp. 112-13. I'll illustrate what I mean by a glance at the ending. Rilke concludes with "O wie fühlt dich ein / tribender Feigenbaum / oben in Mondschein." Snow renders this quite well as "O how you're felt / by a burgeoning fig tree / high in the moonlight." That's good translation, something we can never have too much of. But Justice's handling of the ending is a kind of alchemy that shifts the image from a fairly static and predictable Symbolistera picture, the tree in the moonlight, to a dynamic realization of the world of process and change; he is importing insights from elsewhere in Rilke, particularly the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus, that transfigure the lyric and strengthen its power.

I emphasize this alchemy because I suspect that many readers approach this example and its implications blinded by certain stock prejudices: that translations are not as important as "original" poems; that "after" poems are a kind of oddity marred by a little cheating, an uneasy merger whereby we get neither a faithful version of the original nor an original poem that deserves respect. If you were selecting poems for an anthology, you would not, I suspect, include any "after" poems.

Such prejudices might then be strengthened by Justice's modest note, which mentions that this and another poem that follows "came out of an attempt to write a play" based on the period of Rilke's life in which those poems were written. Thus we have a poem that "fails" to be a translation and "fails" to be an "independent" or "pure" Donald Justice lyric, and that is left over from a "failed" attempt to write a play. …

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