At the dinner table he dissected the banana, examined it under a magnifying glass, weighed it/ Prelude to the massacre, to the years of rain/
—“Forever No Lo”
Where is their hive and why did you settle for mechanized translation as intentional language//
Think of it as a Rubik’s cube/ not a collection of random pieces//
—“Programs for Exceptional”
The book must be real: It’s going to the printer.
I’m thrilled to share the real cover—image by L.A. artist Augustine Kofie, design by Sidebrow editor Jason Snyder.
In thinking about why the cover resonates with the poems, I face the limits of prose in capturing non-narrative, non-linear experience. I want alternatives to translating an impression of his visual work into prose and then mapping it onto descriptions of my work.
In Chana Bloch’s literature seminar at Mills, I wrote an essay titled “Still/ in a body” about Jane Kenyon’s “Rain in January.” I said the enjambment at “still” describes motionlessness and temporal continuation, the context is her depression, the sum of the images a palpable experience of weather and season in a particular place, but also of her paralysis, her despair. I said the despair of depression leaves her trapped with herself inside her body, inside a house trapped on the earth beneath the rain.
I still enjoy the spare quality of that poem. The paper earned me a good grade—and then, as part of my teaching assistantship application, a full ride my second year. In exchange for my tuition remission, I worked twelve hours a week in the writing center, which eventually led to my marriage. The moral could be: Prose pays. None of my words lie—they relate to what Kenyon wrote—and because Kenyon’s unit of meaning is the prose sentence enjambed, the gap between her piece and the essay feels bridgeable.
But there remains an aspect of writing about art similar to murder and autopsy. We know what was inside this man that allowed him to live, speak, breathe because we’ve taken him apart and looked inside. See his parts strewn across the table and imagine how they must have worked together. Or to quantum physics: We can experience the image or analyze the image, but not both simultaneously.
Sidebrow asked me to write a page of input regarding copy for reviewers and distribution websites. I froze. Then I tried to dissect and weigh my own work. I deleted that and rambled. I looked up the Amazon summary of Hejinian’s The Fatalist—“delightful descriptions” and “humorous reflection upon … our human condition”—and I despaired.
If the most complete, compelling way to convey an experience is prose, then the original medium should be prose, not poetry. Translation loss, choosing what parts to overlook, is part of the exchange when expanding the conversation about creative work. Analysis feels worthwhile if it leads back to the source, if the original piece gains emotional weight from the intellectual overlay. It’s when the direction is reversed, when we forget that our hypotheses about the work are not the work itself, that I cringe.
I wanted to major in linguistics at Barnard, but they closed the department when Joe Malone retired. Columbia’s cultural anthropology department asserted that linguistics was irrelevant, the cultural language equivalent of anatomy versus physiology, all cataloging and no life. But it was Professor Malone, not my subsequent anthropology instructors, who taught me about the translation of poetic language. He said that beyond the fortuitous patches where form and meaning overlap between languages, the translator has to make line-by-line choices between the two.
SF’s White Walls Gallery said this of Kofie’s style:
In his quest for balance, Kofie harmonizes opposing and contradictory dynamics in his work by setting futuristic compositions against vintage earth-toned palettes, and creating organically complex formations through meticulously structured line-work and layering.
Haines Eason said this of “Forever No Lo,” the chapbook-length poem that became the first section of sped. I appreciate his review because he focuses on the shape, process, and implications of my poetry, not on transcribing The Message.
I’ll leave the parallels to the empty space.
(c) Teresa K. Miller 2013
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