Saturday, April 27, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 27 with Alexis Levitin’s Translation of a Poem by Carmen Váscones

Language as sonic design comes across clearly in Alexis Levitin’s translation of Carmen Váscones’ “46).” In today’s trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet approaches a poem of language that depicts art without reference to painting or drawing. The original poem is in Spanish and the translator is a man who loves words without claiming to be a poet—yet you, Dear Reader, can judge this for yourself in the following video interview.

Here is the original poem:

Un punto blanco en un fondo negro
un fondo blanco en un punto negro
un punto negro en un fondo blanco
el fondo de un punto sin blanco y sin negro
el punto del fondo sin fondo
un blanco fuera del negro
un negro fuera del blanco
(un negro y blanco sin…)

Un punto sin punto.

--by Carmen Váscones

Here is the English translation:

46) [from Life without a Name]

A white spot in a black space
a white space in a black spot
a black spot in a white space
the space of a spot neither white nor black
the spot of a space without space
a white outside black
a black outside white
(a black and a white without .  .  .

A spot without a spot.

--translation by Alexis Levitin

The poem is organized in one eight-line stanza and one single-line stanza that rhymes exactly most of the lines in Spanish using these four words negro, blanco, fondo, punto (black, white, space, spot). To understand this minimalist poem that is heavily abstract, the Steiny Poet began drawing what each of the lines described. Easy for the first three lines. The fourth line put a spot, which the Steiny Poet chose to color black, placed in a space of gray. The spot without space narrowed to a tiny dot into a tiny perimeter. The last four lines presented conceptual challenges and the Steiny Poet chose to consider the undefined white and black as spaces versus dots. The last line of the octet presented the biggest challenge and seemed to negate the choice of space and spots. Finally a spot of white seemed like the best rendering for A spot without a spot. It also made the Steiny Poet think of the invisible dots she uses when formatting indented lines of poems for her posts on her blog. The entirety of the poem seems to suggest celestial space not on this planet.

The Steiny Poet thinks that this poem has talking points with Kathy Fagan’s “Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods behind Your Place.”  In Fagan’s poem, these lines pop into the Steiny Poet’s head:

So once went my habit of mind: poppies, paper, stars.
Tonight the tenderer planets take cover,

Bodies abuzz in their own demise.

Also there seems to be a correspondence in a Rimbaud-like way (try his poem “Voyelles” where he equates sound with color) between the words place (in Fagan’s title) and space (Levitin’s translation of Váscones’ poem). Fagan’s poem talks about what the narrator’s thinking habit might have been and since it is hard to tell who or what the narrator of Fagan’s poem might be (the sycamore? A cottonwood? Fagan herself?), the Steiny Poet stopped her 25th BPR lit trip analysis at this point in the poem. However, Váscones’ poem seems to concentrate abstract thinking that goes beyond poppies, paper, stars. Perhaps Fagan is referencing the sound stars make in the universe as they wear themselves out of existence— maybe a black and a white without .  .  .

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