Saturday, March 08, 2014

Robert Sheppard: On Erin Moure's O Cadoiro

I am writing about the forms of translation and the translation of forms (to coin a phrase I could well adopt to describe what is going on in various works. The next up is Erín Moure’s O Cadoiro (2007), a book which explores the (literal) archive of the Galician-Portuguese troubadours, important for Moure for the reason that they were secular, and whose discourse was that of one person talking to another, or better: whose artifice was that of one person talking to another, for she constantly emphasises the formal. (See the ‘postface’ to the book which appears not at the end of the book but online,here.) 

I bought my copy of the book when Moure read at Edge Hill University where I work, on Thursday 25th October 2007, a reading I organised for her as part of the series that has been running since 1998. My diary states: ‘Waited in the afternoon, for Erin Moure. She arrived and we talked translation, poetry, peanut allergy … and stuff, before the event began…. Moure was as fantastic as Lee {Harwood, I assume} said she was. Marvellously gliding between languages and with so many fresh ideas, that don’t owe to language poetry.’

‘Marvellously gliding between languages,’ I wrote, before I’d come across her word ‘transelation’ or had read the purchased books, of course. (Why I thought she’d ‘owe’ to language poetry I don’t know. I had been reading, or perhaps mis-reading, her work in the days before the reading, but probably only excerpts on-line.)  

So now I am back admiring this work but a little hesitant before it. I’ve written an introduction which spells out the attitude to the project expressed in the ‘postface’, but the poems remain with their ‘frequency of lyric resistance’ as Simon Perril says of them in his Archilocus on the Moon (one of the next books I shall tackle).

Rob McLennan’s blog (here) has a post about the book (here), in which he describes it as ‘translating Galician-Portuguese into an argument about authorship’. That’s an interesting phrase and a description of the book that preserves the expanded sense of translation I’ve been taking on (The PetrarchBoys, Bergvall, see recent posts on this blog) that allows the term to stand for any transformative process. Thus poetry becomes an argument, but the argument of an aesthetic form like lyric (and Moure has no trouble with a term like lyric) cannot be established in syllogisms. If form is cognitive, if literary works embody knowledge, they do so in ways far distant from the knowledge of propositional knowledge, much closer to a Heideggerean notion of disclosed, unfolding, thought (though I can hear the armbands being tightened across the biceps as I admit as much, and it’s not a group of hypochondriacs checking their blood pressure). As Robert Kaufman argue

Lyric’s special formal intensity … arises from lyric’s historically constitutive need to stretch in semblance, via its musicality, the very medium of “objective” conceptual thought, language – to stretch language quasiconceptually, mimetically, all the way toward affect and song but without relinquishing any of the rigor and complexity of conceptual intellection, so that in a semblance-character vital to the possibility of critical agency, speech can appear as song and song can legitimately seem to be logical, purposeful speech-act’. (Modernist Cultures: 212)

If we amend McLennan’s phrase and typify Moure’s book as translating Galician-Portuguese lyric into an argument about authorship’ we may see how ‘Lyric songfully stretches the linguistic medium of conceptuality’ into its own formally cognitive saying. (MC 216) (See my book The Poetry of Saying for the full implications of that term ‘saying’ in the way I use it here.) Lyric doesn’t speak conceptual language, but sings it, and in thus doing so, severs its links to conceptuality while seeming to use its language. McLennan comments:

There is an interesting way that Mouré uses the language, weaving a kind of lightness and wide range of worked speech, even while incorporating the weight of theorists such as Foucault, Agamben, Lacan and others, without letting the weight take over. How do the poems not collapse from such theoretical weight? How does the theory not simply get in the way of the poetry? How does the weight not take over?
Scattering her work with quotations from Foucault, Derrida, Agamben (in various languages, not always the original language if not in English translation) oddly does not infuse the work with conceptuality, ‘weight’ in McLennan’s formulation. The lyrics abutted to the quotations symbiotically entune them, as it were, release them into the status of poetry itself, ‘to make thought sing and to make song think’, in Kaufman’s words again. (MC 212) This can be achieved by page space and type face but this is no more obvious way than in the beautiful photographic pages in ‘Befallen’ which present supposed translations with strips of text woven across them, one per poem, which is a literal materiality that matches the materiality of the archives of the cancioneiros themselves. Excerpts from another archive, as it were, are stitched across the Galician poems (or Moure’s deliberately fictional poems written out of them). The poems are thus interrupted by the prose texts, although it is possible to regard the interruption as being the other way round. The poems interrupt the strips of prose writing. (It will depend in which you are reading at any given moment.)

The text (at least in the case I will examine) is Derrida’s essay ‘Archive Fever’, delivered at the Freud Museum in London, in 1994, which considers Freud’s work as an archaeologist of the unconscious, an archivist of psychological data. He devises the term ‘archive fever’, on a par perhaps with cabin fever, and diagnoses this condition:

It is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for
the archive, right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it, right where something in it anarchives itself. It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement. (Archive Fever 91)

Does this describe Erín Moure in her falling into the cantigas de amor of the literal cancioneiros? She never lets us forget that she is approaching partial and damaged texts on occasion: ‘This folio much deteriorated, and it is clear that the copyist did not know the language’ an asterisked note ‘explains’ at the bottom of a poem, although the lack of a matching asterisk in the text signals that the note is false (as indeed the ‘afterword’ tells us that the attributions and scholarly archival numbers are often false, provided in transelational excess). (Moure 2007: 76) The ‘postface’, and the emphasis upon ‘falling’, does suggest that Moure experienced the passion before the literal archives in Lisbon, and the description of ‘archive fever’ holds until one reaches the word ‘nostalgic’. At that point we might say that Moure cures herself of the fever by overruling any desire ‘to return to the origin’ by fusing and confusing notions of the original and translation in a creative transformation and augmentation of the cantiga genre in general and its poems in particular. There is a desire to ‘return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement’ but Moure knows either that this is impossible, or she knows that when she gets there she is going to give vent to her transelational passions, where these archived forms will ‘seep… into my work, unseating forms, compelling variegated sounds and capacities, irregularities,’ as she elegantly puts it. (postface 142). There is some homesickness, by the way, but that is for Canada (in the section ‘Snowfall’, where falling becomes beneficent). Moure allows the archive to slip away, so that she may paradoxically get closer to the forms of the poems; her flagrant acts of disloyalty to the decorum of the archive, the fidelity of translation, are truer acts of love (for the poems are, of course, love poems, but, as Richard Zenith says of the cantigas de amor, ‘Courtly love becomes the occasion for an obsessive sadness in the Galician-Portuguese domain. (Zenith 1995: xxv)). It is this lyric resistance that precisely keeps the ‘weight’ of theory from its shoulders: its commitment to ceaseless acts of formal exploration. Moure makes her archival desire sing and she makes her writerly passion think in such resistance, to mashup Perril and Kaufman.
Part of the poem on page 106 is obscured by the French original of the sliver of Derrida’s text quoted above (or part of it; word order is quite different). The French slip is folded or creased at one point and it is not completely legible; neither is the poem: it has lost the equivalent of about four lines and the reader has to accept some (comparatively legible) half-words because of the fold. What remains does not feel particularly whole. Whereas some of the other poems in the book read like complete finished poems, this text looks like a draft of a poem (or its opposite, a poem falling to pieces). The first line with its italicised parenthetical first person throws into doubt the artifice of speech that is so essential to this artifice of yearning, of one person addressing another: ‘[I] live anguished in such ac-’. (Moure 2007: 106) The second line asserts the theme but has no syntactic connection with line one: ‘he of love. that yet without’. He. I. Love. Without. Anguished. The mood is clear linguistically; the genre is suggested by register. A lower-case i miniaturises the first person gesture that is both evoked and suppressed at the beginning of the poem (and in the genre), the enjambement separating the act of begging for its aim, a ritualised complaint of the cantigas: ‘i beg/ever for my death to go9,’ it reads, ending in a superfluous numeral. (This device happens throughout these photographic poems: usually a 9 suffixed to or a 7 prefixed to, a word: ‘7 ache much and weep emburdened’, for example.) What might be a reference to a footnote, a rhythmical marker, or even a typing error (the ‘o9’ could easily be that), seems to be none of those, and perhaps operates like the sheets of Letraset that traverse the late canvases of Francis Bacon, a formal registering of an act of impulsive abandonment that Deleuze calls ‘the diagram’, the writing across. Numbers are dropped into ‘the great ache in which i live to suffer’ and operate in the opposite way to the formal repetitions of the poem, the verbal echoes of the opening line and the frequent reference to ‘ache’ and ‘anguish’; they are non-semantic interruptions of what is still the genre talking to us (however fragmentarily). Like the nonsense sounds in haiku. Like grunting in a song. Indeed not unlike the slip of Derrida which threads across lines we cannot read. However, there is a recognisable chorus in this poem which begins coherently enough: ‘Knows not the hurt s.m.m.b.’ (where we might assume that the abbreviations stand for something like ‘she makes me bear’, but we can never be sure). Again, these pointers maintain the poem in a state of formal unfinish; it is choral-like in its repetition, but curiously foregrounding its material presence in a way disruptive of choral calm and decorum. The thinking is singing here. The singing thinks. Perhaps this represents the process that Derrida describes with his usual deconstructive neologistic play : ‘It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it, right where something in it anarchives itself.’ Anarchive, a verb evidently, operates as the opposite of the act to archive, but with its suggestion of anarchy. It is the point of disarray enacted in this poem’s trace; it is formally left undone. Of course that is partly what the stitched phrase is telling the reader (in French) and it is literally placed over the anarchived words, stitched slightly carelessly, with a touch of violation in the stitching’s assumed needlework, thus formally enacting some symptoms of ‘archive fever’ and of its cure. Part of ‘lyric resistance’ involves the adoption of unfinished forms (or of forms that look unfinished) with which to (literally) back up Derrida’s words. (Perril 2013: 92)
And my friends a foul day i was born/with so much ache i’ve always borne’ the poem complains, deliberately rhyming homophones in an ugly echo (‘right’ and ‘write’ would constitute a similar cacophony, though either word could rhyme with ‘slight’ adequately, as indeed either word in Moure’s poems could rhyme with ‘corn’ or ‘dawn’.) This ugliness is deliberate, it is worth emphasising. Elsewhere there are beautiful poems of ‘aching’ (as I shall show).
The signature of the poem runs ‘Vaasco Roderigues de Caluelo’ (the name under several poems in this section), but we are also aware of Moure’s confessed playing around with text (it is unlikely the presented index number ‘CCXCIII (243, 1 &2)’ (sic) will take us far in the actual archive) and her causal misattribution of the poets, her impulsive and feverish improvisation through the archive, renders the names fictive if not fictional. Though the names are the names of real troubadours, they are not the guilty parties as they are, say, in Richard Zenith’s anthology 133 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. But names, Moure’s own included, are mobile, are virtually heteronyms in their variant spellings, and she also appears as the translator ‘Calgarii Mourii’ in ‘Befallen’, so the very facticity of the poems may be to point us to this Latinate Canadian name (the final poems express that heteronym’s homesickness), and as ‘Ehrn Cihrij’ (with a ç) Moure 2007: 11)  Most curious amongst these names is her own, ‘Erín Moure’, legible but deleted, at the end of a whole and beautiful hymn of praise to the world, a corporeal love song (with one of the many references throughout the book to breath and breathing) to an absent but desired female lover:

In my honesty, and curve
of my ribs around such heart I have
or lung for breath, and alive
here, wanting world as she
to be in me (Moure 2007: 87)

Death is never far away in the tradition, as we have seen (‘Mourii’ itself sounds akin to death), and neither is the central concept of the fall:

A creased grave-shroud is my foreboding
A careen or fall, and would you want me ever
world, for it is world I feel such weight for.

Here careen (‘v.t. and v.i, to turn over on the side, esp. for repairing or cleaning,’ or ‘n. a heeling position’ is equated with fall: toppled over for heeling, or to be worked on (the word suggests etymologically keel rather than heel, from Latin: carina, keel). Creased and careen echo. ‘Poisoned, delicate world. I love you still,’ the poem ends, balanced in address between lover and world. (Moure 2007: 87) The fall is a falling into the world, a falling in love ‘as she/ to be in me’, which points to and from the deleted Erín Moure to her other poetical analogues. Besides all the names of the troubadours, from Pero de Veer to the one female troubadour, María Balteira, through to yet another alter ego, again deleted, ‘Cálghaij M.’ whose signature carries the following note in small letters, ‘(for I cannot call her)’ where the word ‘call’ means both to hail and to name. (Moure 2007: 54)
Twisting and turning through these changes of name, persona, alter ego and/or heteronym, the poems themselves are the formal tracings of a refined version of ‘archive fever’: ‘It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive, right where it slips away,’ as Derrida says (though Moure would have said falls away, I’m sure).

To see links to more extracts and excursions relating to my The Meaning of Form project, navigate here.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places