Emma Ramadan on "Monospace": Part I [RTWBC]

Since I admittedly know very little about contemporary poetry, I asked translator Emma Ramadan if she would be willing to write something about this month’s Reading the World Book Club poetry title, Monospace by Anne Parian. What she sent back is posted below. It’s thoughtful, extremely helpful in approaching the text, and really interesting. After reading it, I had a few follow-up questions for her, which I’ll post separately later today.

And next week, with winter break over and the kids back in school, I’ll have some time to post about our other RTWBC book, On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes.

As always, anyone interested in participating in the Reading the World Book Clubs should feel free to email me their questions and comments. Or, if you’re more of a public sharer, feel free to post them in the comments section below, on Twitter at #RTWBC, or in the Facebook RTWBC Group. We’ll be talking about both of these books on our next podcast.

In this book of prose poetry, the narrator goes through the steps of making a garden, and then making a world within that garden. In the first section she describes the scenery: the specific types and colors of plants, her maps, the lines she draws, the mud, the streams, her materials, the breeze, the bugs, the foliage, the animals, the lighting. Throughout, she constantly references herself, her methods, her triumphs and her failures. She describes her choices meticulously, and comments on her refusal to comment on her choices. She keeps track of what others say about her project, about her garden. She is painfully self-conscious. She describes her strolls, where she reaches her deepest state of contemplation, even the kinds of chairs she sits in. She describes you, the reader, the observer in her garden, perhaps a lover. She tells you how to build a garden like hers, and what you feel as the observer, what you’re looking for, waiting for. She is simultaneously instructing us (Watch what I copy to better understand how to do what you, like me, still don’t know how to do) and seducing us (Waiting to see you in the rose bed). She makes sure you realize the effect of every stylistic move she makes. With each development she hones her craft. This garden is for her as much as it is for us, the observers running through the garden. She has thought of everything we might want (Where can we go for fun/you say), and throws out what gets in our way (asparagus, carafe, shoes, debris, stuffed poultry).

Parian’s garden is a fiction of her fantasy, but it is not a completely fantastical place. There is filth (to emphasize the disgusting nature of the most repulsive places), there is disorder (the shaky heap is a hell), there is doubt (the smallest doubt dispels all sense and I respond). Parian is constantly starting over, throwing out old designs, beginning anew (I make a clean sweep). In fact, the second section of the book is called “I Begin Again,” beginning again with I begin again. Within this section Parian repeats the phrase I start over again and again. She is less hopeful (future variations/no one says that they hinge/on a chance of success), more careful, more cautious and more suspicious. There are more limits, there is more confusion. She becomes the garden’s painter, repeatedly bringing it back to white. She erases, she crosses out, she struggles (I repeat/that it’s not going anywhere).

The third and final section of Monospace is called “Repetitions.” Each page has fewer words, less detail. She continues to build and rebuild her garden, all the while she is still raking up everything to begin again. She repeats herself, substituting this never-ending cycle of building and tearing down for the conclusion she doesn’t have. At once a garden, map, painting, photograph, and finally a stage, Parian lowers the “curtain” over her book when she senses that we feel trapped There’s nowhere else to stray you say, not expecting applause (Hurry     dim the lights). The book has no real end; instead, Parian allows her work to keep cycling, her last words I start over.

Mirroring the construction of her garden, she carefully designs the mise en page. Parian uses footnotes in the first section, often giving the reader more information about her personal state, or more specifics about the tools, the colors, the lines. The page becomes a kind of grid, a controlled space where Parian shows off her organizational structure, her plan for the page, paralleling her plan for her garden, showing the reader how well she exercises control over the written space, drawing us into a different kind of map where we can feel the effects of her garden more directly. Within the text Parian gives us an idea of what she’s doing, letting us in on the secret that “the scenery takes form from our desire to describe it alone/so flat.” The project and the writing of the project cannot be separated, because the project only exists in the writing of it. Parian gives life to this garden through describing it, through telling us about it.

The text poses a lot of problems for a translator. Feeling in the dark for every word, piecing together what I was able to scrounge up, I attempted a fairly literal first draft. The language was stunted, stiff, verbose, clumsy. Many of Parian’s lines plainly didn’t make sense. Every word was a wall, every phrase a maze. Parian decidedly does not put commas where they belong, and in their absence, her long lists come off at first glance as a sprawling nonsensical phrase until you mentally draw in the pauses yourself. I didn’t understand why the words wouldn’t come out into the light, why their meaning stubbornly remained hidden in dark corners. The language she uses is slippery and grammatically confusing, and as I slowly lured everything over into English, not only was it gibberish, but it was unelegant gibberish. I was groping.

Until finally: a light. Parian’s original French is meant to be real aloud. The language flows and dips, stretches and silks, and its noise is undeniably beautiful. The words sound so good laced together, even when their meaning isn’t clear, is blurred or isn’t there to begin with. Parian forms her phrases based on sound, and so when I was bringing the words into English, my goal was to translate the sound of the words, the smoothness and the rhythm, the rhyme and the flow. The meaning of the words, or keeping the exact words she had used, was not the only thing of importance. Some could even be left behind, as long as the effect of their sounds was present in the translation.

Apart from the sound of the language, I encountered a few other recurring difficulties while translating Monospace. Parian often piles on word after word in one sentence, and the English translation of these heavy, almost formal, Germanic words was not smooth, as it was in the French. Parian also purposely avoids commas throughout the vast majority of her book, which sets a very fluid and at times confusing rhythm, which I tried to preserve in my translation.

Another difficulty I encountered was how to convey the dual or multiple meanings of a word. Parian uses the word plan, which can mean plan, map, project, and design, to name a few, nineteen times in Monospace. In each situation, it’s unclear whether she is describing a map, or a design, or something else; it’s also not clear whether the meaning stays the same throughout, or if she switches between meaning a map, a design, or something else. What I ended up doing was picking one definition based on either the context, or, more often, based on what sounded best in a given sentence. However, there was a situation where I decided I needed to incorporate both meanings of a certain French word. Towards the end of the book, scattered throughout Parian’s phrases is the word rideau, or curtain. From the beginning, the theme of the book and her project as a stage set is very present, and towards the end it’s as if she’s lowering the curtain on herself, expecting no louanges/applause, but bringing her final act to a conclusion in whatever way she can as a creeping crumbling seeps into the pages. On page 105, Parian uses the word fonce, which can mean either to dim [lights], to darken, to charge into or rush at, to have drive, to hurry up, and more. All the different definitions seemed equally important and relevant, and so instead of depriving the English reader of half the word’s meanings, I decided to incorporate two encompassing words, separated by a block of empty space: “hurry     dim the lights.”

Another example of this is the word Décor, the title of the first section of Monospace. Décor can mean setting, scenery, set, decoration, et cetera. These alternate meanings may seem similar, but they set the tone for two very different interpretations of what’s going on in Monospace. Throughout the work, Parian sprinkles words that reference a stage set, allowing the reader to take away a sense of Monospace and its project as the unwinding of a play, with a plot and an audience. At other points there are words that reference the work as a painting (I am its painter), or as a photograph (Retouching the photographs). Parian seamlessly fuses together different forms. Her work is saturated with different media—there are even photographs included at the end of Monospace. This trend is visible in her other work as well, and Parian is known for not limiting herself to any type of form, or type of expression within a given form. Parian’s body of work includes photography, video, lectures, and twelve books, in which she explores poetry, fiction, and even nonfiction—bordering on autobiography— in her most recent book La Chambre du milieu, written from the first person perspective of a child.

Her writing may look sparse, but it’s unbelievably rich. Through her explorations of sound, Parian takes on the task of writer, photographer, painter, and director. When asked about this aspect of writing Parian has said:

As a general rule, I prefer to call myself a “poet” only . . . which is to say that I busy myself (I think) in re-making the world (giving shape to [possible] worlds), which is to say re-reading the world (that which is available to me). And so I think the word “poet” is the best word for “artist”… So I don’t want to distinguish between the state of writer, photographer, videographer, etc., but my states are infinite (I exaggerate).

Monospace is an example of the kind of contemporary, experimental writing coming out of France from writers such as Parian who are pushing the limits of the poetry genre.

Beyond the margin
I make a dock out of planks
jump to the other side
assuming you followed me

Parian steps outside of the supposed boundaries of the written space, constructs a path leading into some unknown potential area. She glances over her shoulder to see if she’s successfully taken us there, if we’re on board.

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