From Elsewhere is the latest reach into another source by the ingenious translator of The Inferno of Dante Alighieri, The Táin, The Midnight Court and poems by Mallarmé, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. From what he calls Follain’s ‘humble, resonant and mysterious’ poems, Ciaran Carson, one of the outstanding poets of our time, fetches glories from the ‘elsewhere’ of another territory and another language. The outcome is brilliantly original in every sense.
This book consists of translations from the French poet Jean Follain [1903-1971], faced by ‘original’ poems inspired by those translations: spins and takes on them in other words. Translations of translations as it were.
— from the author’s introduction
New and classic translations bring clarity to medieval poems
Ostensibly a translation of the work of the French poet Jean Follain (1903-1971), [From Elsewhere] includes alongside each translation an original poem of Carson’s own that “arose” as a response to the translation. Formal devices like this have defined, along with his stylistic spareness, Carson’s recent books. Formally, From Elsewhere most resembles Carson’s haunting 2010 diary of loss and illness, Until Before After (2010), with its box-within-a-box structure, underpunctuated run-on lines, repetitions and keenly attuned ear for the sounds of things falling apart.
While the book is an intriguing new example of Carson’s formal method, it also offers a distinctive reading of Jean Follain: the French poet has previously been translated into luminous English poems by WS Merwin, but Carson presents him, very differently, as a poet of aftermath. For Carson, everything Follain observes is written in the tattered shadows of European wars. ‘Pensées d’octobre’: ‘October Thoughts’ is typical:
How good it is
to drink this fine wine
all by oneself
when evening illuminates the coppery hills
no hunter any longer sets his sights
on the lowland game
our friends’ sisters
look lovelier than ever
regardless of the threat of war
an insect stops then starts again
Carson’s own “response” poems show exactly how much his work chimes with Follain’s, picking up on the French poet’s images and resituating them in a city still marked by the Troubles, where a helicopter “circles overhead / in the haze of its night” (‘Ritual’). Follain’s poems in fact seem to foreshadow Carson’s instinctive sense of the ephemeral, his feeling that nothing will last in the world he sees and hears around him, except occasional traces of the vanished world he knew as a child.
And the long sentences that Carson breaks up across short, occasionally abrupt or gasped-out lines create beautiful musical effects, as when ‘Empire’ notes: “The drop-leaf of the escritoire is all blots / beyond the tumult / the sun already well up in the sky.“
These “translations” may not be exactly faithful or historical, but Carson uses the freedom of his method to illuminatingly link Follain and his own poems to other poets’ work: Elizabeth Bishop, WB Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Jorge Luis Borges and Seamus Heaney appear, the latter the subject of an elegy, In ‘Memory’, that is also a meditation on translation and a homage to Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’:
leaning over the rim
the two syllables
of his name
deep down into it
to hear his echo.
— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
Ciaran Carson – prolific, compulsive, and protean in his interests and ambitions ‑ brings us a by-now annual collection. This time it’s ‘From Elsewhere’ – poems from the French of Jean Follain. But it’s not a straight collection of translations. Nothing is what it seems in a Carson book. Follain’s poems and the translations Carson makes of them offer him something of a “rabbit hole” to another world. In other words, he has reacted to his own translations with a response poem and created a strange wavering, living mirror of a poem.
Carson calls the poems he’s based on his own translations “spins” or “takes”: translations of translations . . .
It’s another extra dimension to the playful ‑ and deadly serious ‑ enterprise: the poem behind the poem.
There’s no doubting the technical mastery and the imaginative invention of Carson’s work. I found the introduction so illuminating, but brief, that I yearned for more from Carson the critic and essayist.
— Paul Perry, Dublin Review of Books
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Signes: A Review of Ciaran Carson’s ‘From Elsewhere’
For a poet, there are easier things than translations. The translating poet inevitably has to face the gnawing burden of writing for two people. “It’s a desperate system of double-entry bookkeeping,” Howard Nemerov lamented. The spectral presence of the author is always hovering somewhere, ready to strike whenever the nuance of a word or phrase falters. Even then, the process of translation is seductive. It provides a poet with the rare opportunity to examine the art of another writer, often with intriguing results. The cryptologist’s glee at unveiling messages and new lines of thought converge into the creation of a new kind of work that is as dependent on the translator’s moment in time as much as it is to the author’s.
Many readers may be familiar with Ciarán Carson’s work as translator. His versions of seminal Irish texts Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and Cúirt An Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) have a robust freshness and vitality that readily appeals to contemporary audiences. Reading Carson’s Táin, one can sense the sounds, smells, and voices of that particular world of pre-Christian Ireland (now so heavily appropriated into the pop-culture fabric of Game of Thrones).
His newest work, From Elsewhere (Gallery Books, 2014), is a collection of 81 short poems by the French poet Jean Follain (1903-1971), each accompanied by a short poem of Carson’s, an original work inspired by the Follain poem, or, as Carson describes it: “a translation of the translation.” From Elsewhere is certainly not Carson’s first foray into French translation. In 1998 he translated an array of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé in The Alexandrine Plan and in 2012 he published his translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, In the Light Of (both published by Wake Forest University Press). Carson brings a certain sharp vitality and contemporaneity to his translations compared to those of Oliver Bernard and John Ashbery. He transposes his experience of Belfast, in its own way, a heaving, Gothic, ghostly metropolis, into his vision of nineteenth-century Paris, and his memories of Belfast shattered by the Troubles into Follain’s haunted visions of his native Normandy, scarred by the Second World War.
Carson is a skilled formalist. His poetry collection, Belfast Confetti (Wake Forest University Press, 1989), famously showcased his adroitness with the long line (partly in homage to C.K. Williams). The opening poem of that collection, “Loaf,” involving Carson’s memories of food, heady conversation, and the onus of writing in Belfast in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, is a tour-de-force of expansive energy and rhythm. Even today, in From Elsewhere, we’re shown what Carson can do with concision, which is a great deal indeed.
The Follain poems, supplied with their original French titles (though the poems themselves only appear in the translated English, not in French) are the sounding-board for Carson’s poems, which range from his memories of Belfast during the Troubles to his meditations on light, landscape, and the endurance of art.
— Farisa Khalid, Asymptote Journal
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