Possession, Utterance, Trance-lation: On Translating Édith Azam by Zack Anderson

“I’m afraid Jerome.” The speaker in Édith Azam’s poetry collection Tellement Belle Garçon-Belle (Éditions du Frisson Esthétique, 2007) is compelled to speak, and what is spoken is a name. The traumatic repetition of “Jerome” echoes on every page of this slim book in which the figure of Jerome is simultaneously the speaker’s tormentor and romantic obsession. Each utterance of the name spawns another level of estrangement. As the collection progresses, it becomes clear that the speaker is entranced by Jerome. The speaker compulsively invokes his name, wrecking their syntax. In the throes of possession, they have lost control of their own language; it is contaminated. For this reason, Azam’s book is a fitting text through which to consider the act of translation as a kind of ecstatic possession or trance. In doing so, I hope to address what Rudolf Pannwitz calls the “basic error of the translator,” the mistake of protecting “the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.”

To translate is to be possessed by another. As an intensified form of reading, it involves the “contamination” of the reader’s interiority with words arranged by an external consciousness. I am thinking of Johannes’ key observation in Transgressive Circulation that “[i]n this excess of translation, we are not masters; we are as much mastered by the art as we master it.” So Pretty, Pretty-Boy provides an interesting case study because it is already about translation, in a sense. The traumatic, violent encounter between the speaker and Jerome is mediated through obsessive comparisons of writing with the exchange of fluids and the language of contamination. In other words, it enacts Johannes’ concept of “transgressive circulation.” The boundaries of the self become increasingly unstable as blood and discourse circulate between two subjects. This leads to a kind of physical and metaphysical contamination as the speaker and Jerome begin to bleed into each other. Jerome’s compulsive letters indicate this: “Jerome shows me his veins, Jerome takes my blood for his own, uses all my blood in his writing.” Jerome’s letters become an interesting comparison to translation. His texts are not self-contained, stable objects, but are literally constituted from the residue of the violent encounter between subjectivities:

“Jerome writes things, he writes them with his blood, I’m afraid of him sometimes Jerome, when he stays tense for me, when he wants to open my belly, when on his letters it’s my blood.”

Jerome’s sexualized violence toward the speaker is certainly an unsettling aspect of this collection. The speaker never refers to their own gender identity, although the speaker’s perceived gender fluidity and sex become obsessions for Jerome. However, Azam complicates the relation by folding the act of possession back on itself. As the collection advances, it becomes gradually clear that the speaker exerts an equal and opposite occult influence on Jerome as the two figures struggle for mastery. As this struggle plays out, Jerome’s limits of body and selfhood become increasingly porous: “Jerome is not himself, unbearable angel in his head.” Once again, Azam links writing to Jerome’s loss of self. Where before it is the speaker who is injured by a text (“reading Jerome hurts me”), now “Jerome spits, spits my name but again it burns him. His burned-up bones Jerome: Jerome’s bones burned from my name written on them.” This line mirrors the despotic writing that we have seen in Jerome’s letters. The roles are reversed, and now it is Jerome who is contaminated and possessed by a foreign text.

So Pretty, Pretty-Boy is also a gothic text, if we take the key indicator of the gothic mode to be the secret—a buried element that cannot be voiced but nevertheless finds expression in other forms. In Azam’s collection, this unspeakable element takes the form of Jerome’s cryptic letters: “It doesn’t matter, his letters, his letters Jerome, so beautiful his letters, but too violent to read.” In fact, throughout the collection, we are rarely allowed to access the content of these letters. In the few instances that this occurs, the speaker only paraphrases his writing. Jerome’s letters are unspeakable because the reader is never able to engage without the speaker’s mediation: “Jerome writes and it’s terrible: take me in your arms and kill me, this is what he wrote me Jerome, and it’s with my blood that he did it.” Jerome’s letters are always described as ruins or as secrets, “his broken letters” that “are made of night.”

Commenting on John Durham Peters’ study of the idea of communication, Johannes remarks that “‘[c]ommunication failure’ both threatens ideal communication and justifies that ideal. The threat derives from the sense that communicating one’s interiority inherently creates a risk of corruption. In order to communicate one’s interiority, one must translate it, but that very act makes one’s interiority vulnerable to deformation and miscommunication.” Similarly, Jerome’s letters are doubly abject, not only because of their unspeakable violence, but because they fail to communicate, taking over Jerome’s body in the process: “With drool on his face, Jerome keeps writing, hiccups sobs, Jerome his letters, axe-blows: like breathing.” On the other hand, the speaker’s poems communicate too successfully, collapsing aesthetic distance and taking over Jerome’s body. Jerome’s final descent into madness begins around the time that he “talks about poems, Jerome burns up all of mine and then my voice, it drives him mad.” Additionally, the allusions to the speaker’s poems constitute another gothic feature of the text in themselves. They become uncanny doubles, since it is never clear if Azam’s poems are the speaker’s poems, or if these poems exist somewhere else in the world of the text but are withheld from the reader’s view.

On the level of form, Azam’s choice to work in prose poems is important. Like translation, prose poetry occupies a boundary zone, a marginalized territory between established categories. Azam uses the form to foreground the speaker’s fractured syntax, which stutters, collapses, repeats, stacks nouns, and elides articles and pronouns. In “The Translators of The One Thousand and One Nights,” Jorge Luis Borges notes that “poetry presupposes an intensity that is not tolerated in prose.” Azam’s syntax possesses this intolerable intensity. It is ruined and excessive—the charges frequently aimed at both poetry and translation. The prose poem form also allows Azam to disrupt the rigidity of French syntax with assonance and internal rhyme: “Jérôme blême, Jérôme vieux, Jérôme la vie ça le tue, a les bras maigres Jérôme, a les yeux bleus, les yeux, un peu, qui se livident.” My translation attempts to retain the meter and internal rhymes, although the rhymes necessarily shift and therefore emphasize different words: “Jerome pale, Jerome gray, Jerome life makes you pay, he has skinny arms Jerome, has eyes of blue, of blue, it’s true, they bruise.”

Whether it appears in Jerome’s unreadable gothic letters, in the fractured and excessive syntax, or the slow seep of blood, Édith Azam’s poetry firmly rejects purity, containment, and borders. The dialectical struggle of So Pretty, Pretty-Boy culminates in the spectacularly violent collapse of the self-other boundary: “Jerome goes nuclear, Jerome goes nuclear and he plants his mutilated fingers on my throat, his hands Jerome: his hands slash my throat, Jerome howls… and his face on mine: he has eyes of blue Jerome, Jerome howls, Jerome yells, Jerome’s eyes are blue from drinking all my blood.” I want to draw particular attention to the final line, which exemplifies Johannes’ idea of “transgressive circulation” in which “translations deform: in acts of translation, there is violence done to the original, but there is also violence done to the target culture, to the translator.” Jerome has ingested the occult substance, the drug of art, and he is permanently altered. The translating operation works in a similar way: the translator takes in a foreign substance and is taken over by its intoxicating effects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zack Anderson holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. His book reviews appear in American Microreviews & InterviewsHarvard Review, and Kenyon Review. His poems have recently been published in Fairy Tale ReviewThe EqualizerWhite Stag, and others. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia where he is a PhD student at the University of Georgia. @ZackAanderson

July 16th, 2020|