"Translating Fire" with Poet Clayton Eshleman
“A poet translating a poet is like a Prometheus figure, stealing fire from the Gods,” Clayton Eshleman told the audience gathered before him at the Soda Center. He offers it to the people, but also uses the fire to feed his own furnaces, to study his own poetry and mind. Eshleman spoke on Nov. 3 in the final installment of the Creative Writing Reading Series.
“Fire” is a fitting descriptor for the poetry in Solar Throat Slashed, written by French surrealist Aimé Césaire and translated by Eshleman; it is explosive, “volcanic,” to use Eshleman's own words, akin to “solar dynamite.” The majority of the poems Eshleman presented at the reading exhibited a striking use of repetition, as in “Transmutation,” in which the words flow like music:
“... righteous hands which affected by mildew never become mature my incendiary hands my bicolored hands my miliary fever hands my generally insignificant hands my pearl-diver hands that are accustomed to the depths ...”
Again in “All the Way from Akkad, from Elam, from Sumer” – my personal favorite – the titular phrase reappears in the text, over and over, with increasing insistence, like an “incantatory buildup” as Professor Brenda Hillman so aptly described it. Indeed, there is a certain religious quality to the poems, coupled with a sense of urgency, of pushing forward. As Eshleman put it, it evokes “the voice of the Third World” pushing forward “into the 20th century.”
Eshleman did a tremendous job of translating the works and preserving the “performance level of the original,” the “personality of tonality.” What the audience was perhaps most impressed by was the respect he showed Césaire by remaining as faithful as he could to the original poems. He had no desire to “make them new,” to play with the text, or to impose his own personality onto the pieces. Solar Throat Slashed is the genuine article, translated by a very genuine poet.