Subsisters: Selected Poems
Uljana Wolf, translated by Sophie Seita
Belladonna* Collaborative, $18 (paper)
Wilson Bueno, translated by Erín Moure
Nightboat Books, $15.95 (paper)
In daring new translations of Uljana Wolf’s Subsisters and Wilson Bueno’s Paraguayan Sea, linguistic playfulness and political acuity overlap in breathtaking ways. Both translations suggest that within the playground of the multilingual lyric, which crosses borders with the flick of a code-switch, the hierarchies around gender and nation-states enforced by a monolithic approach to language may be temporarily dismantled. At the same time, Subsisters and Paraguayan Sea are a delight to read—in no small way because translators Sophie Seita and Erín Moure see readerly delight as a productive state of being for considering, in an era of fantasy border walls and 140-character chauvinism, the open-ended political questions these books raise.
Within the playground of the multilingual lyric, the hierarchies around gender and nation-states may be temporarily dismantled.
In the introduction to Subsisters, “On the Ellis Island of Language,” Yoko Tawada writes that Uljana Wolf “questions precisely the concept of owning a language, which is called ‘mother tongue’ but in reality belongs to the ‘fatherland.’” This question animates the prose poem sequence “Fibel Minds (Von den Wortarten),” whose code-switching title Seita translates as: “On Classification in Language, A Feeble Reader.” As a form used repeatedly, prose poems anchor Subsisters, yet they exhibit fluid variation, images that transmute like the reflection of shifting water on the underside of a bridge. The first poem in the sequence includes this passage:
the bending of our gender words began early as a set
of pines near coastal dunes—lithe with level roots,
androgynously grown. a settlement of expansive sight,
in which we caressed, buffeted by creaky singsong
of der die das. cassettes of our childhood! i almost said
boyhood. we were more whorls than girls, you twirled
until my needles kneaded veins, compact, compass.
which way did they point. pee over there, or as far as you
can, truth—a high arc in this pale-hipped, scantly lifted
night. never-mind verandas, moss-soft as change is. this
used to be a camp for young pioneers, i said, another proj-
ect to diminish differences, or to disguise them. neck-
erchiefs, knots, a different kind of tip-envy ruled there!
my interior echo dates from this period. from this period,
in our hands, all articles were political, der cup, die ladle,
das beach towel, eins, zwei, drei. the things we hung to
dry between trunks that grew askew, they always blew in line
with the axis of the earth. even the wind pushed for direc-
tion, straightened them.
The word “needles” rapidly invites multiple images, from the “set of pines” to pins-and-needles in the “veins” of the arm needing to be “kneaded,” to the needle of a “compass.” This slippage typifies a Wolf prose poem, in which the multilingual dynamic of its form encourages a plurality of meanings even at the level of the individual word. Likewise a source of delight, “cassettes of our childhood!” is a joyous exclamation that slips into “i almost said boyhood.” In one sense, in the “settlement of expansive sight,” where “the bending of our gender words began early,” the speaker who includes themselves among the “whorls” has equal claim to the word “boyhood.” In another sense, “this used to be a camp for young pioneers”—that is, a project of uniformity dictated by the German Democratic Republic, “another project to diminish differences.” And so the speaker equally resists the linear “wind” that would subsume gender difference by universalizing “childhood” to mean “boyhood.”
Wolf herself is a well-known translator of John Ashbery and many others, and of Polish poetry. Thus, Subsisters can also be read as a textual conversation between co-translators, Wolf and Seita, in which their poetics of multilingual translation bends rigid borders. For example, Seita’s target poem, largely in English, includes a list of German words “der die das”—definite articles for masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns—that do not feature in Wolf’s source poem, largely in German. By refusing to make the source poem and target poem match up exactly, Seita’s addition of German words not actually in Wolf’s original resists the linear, monolingual “wind” of translation. “Translation theory,” writes Lisa Foran, often “assumes the unity of each of [the] departing and arriving languages, it assumes translation moves in a straight line from departure to arrival, and that each of these are enclosed with a sure and indivisible border enclosing them.”
Wolf was born in East Berlin in 1979. As a reader born in South Africa around the same time—“my interior echo dates from this period”—I recognize this fact of Wolf’s being as feeding the resistance of Subsisters to “sure and indivisible” borders. Seita’s subtly consonantal translation of “richtung, richtet” as “direction, straightened” echoes the way Wolf’s poetry as a whole skews the straight line between departing language and arriving language, and between the gendered word and gendered thing. For instance, in the sentence “in our hands, all articles were political, der cup, die ladle, das beach towel,” the word “articles” could mean the parts of speech that determine the gender of nouns, and also articles of clothing “we hung to dry between trunks that grew askew,” the same articles which “always blew in line.” This playful slippage casts doubt both on the gender of words and on the ability of words to point directly at things. Here, moreover, articles are political, because to see their ambiguity is to destabilize the way German and English tend to align the enclosure titled male “with the axis of the earth.”
Subsisters thrives on the textual collaboration—on the obvious friendship—between Seita and Wolf.
That many words in German and English are cognates—the noun “wind,” for example, differs in pronunciation but means the same—heightens the sense of collaborative play between Wolf and Seita, who both often use shared branches in the history of the two languages to sidestep expectations. In the title “Fibel Minds,” for instance, “Fibel” means a primer, or a reader, in German, but the English word “Minds,” placed alongside, introduces “Fibel” to its false friend “feeble.” Similarly, many of the titles in Subsisters don’t match up with their translations, complicated further by the fact that Wolf sometimes uses English titles for German poems. Seita translates the title “Dust Bunnies” as “Dust Bunnies vs. Wool Mice,” and offers an English-to-English translation for the title “‘Look on my Card’,” translating it with a pseudo-German accent as “‘Can You Show Me on Se Mappe’.”
The intricacy and fierceness of “Fibel Minds” is also evident in poems across Subsisters. “Method Acting with Anna O.” re-imagines the “free association” of Bertha Pappenheim, the Viennese woman whom Freud and Breuer mythologized as Anna O. This poem unfolds through a serial form Seita translates as “Annalogues,” in which English and German commingle and contest each other—Freud cited speaking English among Pappenheim’s symptoms. Pappenheim, who became a social worker and women’s rights activist after abandoning her treatment, also collected rare lace: in “Tatting,” the moving sequence that follows the “Annalogues,” Wolf’s lace-like, multilingual form pushes back against Freud’s glib linkage of “dispositional hypnoid states” with “the day-dreams … to which needlework and similar occupations render women especially prone.”
False friends, in German, are sometimes called “false brothers.” In the titular sequence “Subsisters,” which enacts the subtle disjunction between movie dialogue and its subtitles, Seita adds prose poems of her own invention, in English, that riff on Wolf’s. Implicitly, true “subsisters” are translators who make space for each other. In “Des Tours de Babel,” Derrida asks, “How is a text written in several languages to be translated?” Wolf and Seita re-pose this question with a multilingual joke: “Two heads are better than ohne,” where the false friend ohne in German means “none.” Are two translators who collaborate on translating a multilingual text better than n/one? Yes, and yes: Subsisters thrives on the textual collaboration—on the obvious friendship—between Seita and Wolf.
• • •
Wilson Bueno first published Mar Paruaguayo in the early 1990s in Brazil, and it became a cult classic across the southern realms of the Americas, with further editions published in the 2000s in Chile, Argentina, and Mexico. Erín Moure’s new translation expands the reach of this essential book, one that resists categorization—a book-length prose-poem? a novella? a lyric murder mystery? a confession?—and which offers the reader an unprecedented and radical pleasure. From Paraná, a southern state of Brazil, Bueno originally wrote Mar Paraguayo in an invented creole of Portuguese, Spanish, and Guaraní. Paraná borders Argentina and Paraguay, and it is not uncommon for Spanish speakers in Brazil to slip into Portunhol, an informal admixture of the Latin cousin languages, Spanish and Portuguese. Moure’s translation—nay, transmogrification—into English-French-Guaraní recaptures the way Bueno fosters not only a semantic but a “rhythmic binding” of its three languages. In effect, the reader gets to participate in the creation of a new language, a language that lasts for the duration of the book.
Paraguayan Sea enacts the natural history of a new language on fast-forward, so the reader may participate in the porousness of linguistic borders.
The joke of the title—landlocked Paraguay has no sea—turns both on the fact that Bueno’s literary creole doesn’t exist beyond the page, and that Guaratuba, its Brazilian beach town setting, has so many Paraguayan visitors to its beaches that the town has earned the titular nickname. As Néstor Perlongher writes in the introduction,
Paraguayan Sea is akin to Paraguayan Soup, a dish that, contrary to expectations, does not invite a soup spoon, but is a kind of sui generis omelet… The waves of the Sea are tottering: who knows where they’ll topple; they lack harbor and itinerary; everything in them bobs in baroque suspension between prose and poetry…
Paraguayan Sea, in Moure’s delicious version, includes just enough English for the Anglophone reader to gain alacrity: even with my limited French vocabulary, I rapidly processed the code-switches, almost without realizing it, following her syntactic and contextual clues. At the back of the book, Moure offers an “elucidictionary” of Guaraní, a border-crossing indigenous language spoken in Paraguay and Paraná. She lives in Montréal, that linguistic border city, and often translates the work of Galician poet Chus Pato—Galician itself a sororal twin of Portuguese—which results in a nimble, delightful “Frenglish-ish” as a basis for Wilson’s sui generis Portunhol-Guaraní creole. Despite this seeming complexity, the prose of Paraguayan Sea zips along, energized by its multilingual diction and syntax:
Cardiac arrest said the doctor whom I called on le téléphone, with urgency and fear exagerés, añaretã, añaretãmguá, with much fear I confide in you, you, inventive readers, more inventivist than any invention of my soul emprisonnée by these overflowings, these exaggerations of tangos and guarânias painfully arpeggiated in perfect solitude at the shore of lakes or in the deepest montagnes, in you, who decipher these words in another dimension, je confesse: there’s one doubt, one great doute, morangú, that pursues me around the house and, as I’ve already explained, drags me into hell every time, those moments that existent, añaretã, añaretãmguá…
Often in Paraguayan Sea, the Guaraní acts grammatically in parataxis, in phrases such as “añaretã, añaretãmguá,” the sentence extended between commas. In many ways, this additive syntax echoes the agglutinative nature of Guaraní itself, in which ñandu means spider, ñanduti, fine lace or the web of a small spider, and ñandutimichĩ, the tiny web of a tiny spider. Here, “morangu” means “fable” and “añaretã” means “hell.” As if a percussive counterpoint, the Guaraní in Paraguayan Sea often interrupts and repeats—a lyric ostinato.
This sentence continues for another half-page, lucid and playful. Its polyglossic narrator is of shifting gender, and identifies themselves as the “marafona floozy.” In Portuguese, “marafona” means a faceless rag doll, a fertility symbol, a man who dresses as a woman in Carnaval, as well as a turner of tricks. The word echoes its etymology from the Arabic—mara haina, or “trickster woman”—and trickster comes closest to describing the “marafona” narrator’s linguistic spirit: “One’s the error of the autre,” s/he says, in a meta-comment on the book’s multiple languages.
The narrator claims, “I was born deep in the deepest rural depths of my country—on a Guaraní ranch, all Guarania and solitude,” and this statement is largely true of Bueno, who died in 2010. In an interview included in Paraguayan Sea, Bueno steps aside from claiming any kind of “[i]ndigenous expertise.” Still, his great-grandparents were Guaraní or part-Guaraní and, for Bueno, “indigeneity and indigenous space are almost a second skin.” As the opening line of the book riffs: “Make no mistake: Guaraní is as essential to this story as the flight of the bird, the speck on the window, the cooing of French or the cascade of Nerudaesque outpourings in a single seule suicide of capacious English words.”
Though Moure has been working on Paraguayan Sea since at least 2003, this translation into the languages of North America couldn’t be more timely: Mar Paraguayo, Moure writes in her afterword, “irrepressibly, irrigorously and irreverently does not comply with immigration regulations.” In Moure’s translation, Paraguayan Sea reminds us that the languages we call Spanish or English are in flux, beholden neither to monolingual ethnic groups (“Speak American!”), nor to nation-states. Like Subsisters, Paraguayan Sea enacts the natural history of a new language—the way languages begin as creoles, absorbing and being changed by the vocabulary and syntax of its neighbors—but as if on fast-forward, so the reader may participate in the porousness of linguistic borders. Both texts conjecture a world in which language rewrites this one.