"Selections" by Nicole Brossard [BTBA 2010 Poetry Finalists]

Over the next five days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.

Selections by Nicole Brossard. Translated from the French by Guy Bennett, David Dea, Barbara Godard, Pierre Joris, Robert Majzels and Erin Moure, Jennifer Moxley, Lucille Nelson, Larry Shouldice, Fred Wah, Lisa Weil, and Anne-Marie Wheeler. (Canada, University of California)

This guest post is by Idra Novey—poet, translator, executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University. Idra also served as chair of the poetry committee, and did an amazing job keeping things organized and on time. I know how hard this can be . . . But wow, the poetry committee seemed to run even smoother than the fiction one . . .

In a 1998 essay, the Canadian writer Nicole Brossard declared that she liked to keep herself in the untranslatable, at the limit between “I exist” and the poem on the page. For Brossard’s translators in this superb selected collection of her work, she presented the challenge of how to recreate that untranslatable voice in English and to assume that by “untranslatable” Brossard meant the impossibility of translating the full complexity of sensation into any language, as opposed to between languages.

The various translators who contributed to this book make a strong case for this interpretation. Throughout the selections, the translations recreate all the lively complexity and lyricism of Brossard’s investigation of language and its limits as she presents them in French. In an excerpt from Shadow: Soft Et Soif, translated by Guy Bennett, Brossard writes:

a few night syllables
through leafy words
let’s watch
our dream muscles move
our eyes outstripped by nostalgia
let’s watch
tears, palms and fists like thirst
the ever vague idea that living is
necessarily a plus dans le langage

Through the driving rhythm of the repetitions here and the lyrical specificity of “dream muscles” and “fists like thirst,” Bennett’s translation gives the reader a rich sense of the pleasure and mystery of Brossard’s work. Well-known as an essayist and novelist as well, the selections in this book include several essays and interviews along with a long series of prose poems translated by Lucille Nelson in which Brossard speaks in a section called Ultrasounds of “navigating at night by means of milky arms and igniters of syntax.”

As in the poem excerpted above, Brossard has a wonderful talent for mixing evocative bodily descriptions of milky arms with abstracts like “syntax.” Her poetry is avant-garde but not to the point that her experimentation makes any discernible meaning hard to grasp. Brossard is a poet, as she says in an essay at the end of collection, interested in “vision” rather than “subversion,” in speaking with clarity about where patriarchy, language, and sexuality converge and explode. That explosion, and the untranslatable place in which Brossard likes to keep herself, are wholly present in these excellent translations.

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