Monday, April 4, 2011
Poetry and Architecture: Part 3, Bronwen Tate's Scaffolding My Proust Vocabulary
The first time I read Bronwen Tate's Scaffolding My Proust Vocabulary was on the N train heading toward the 57th Street stop from Queens. Across from me on the train was an extremely tall man with a terrapin neck and huge bulging hyperthyroid eyes in a tattered corduroy coat and carrying some kind of mid-size instrument in a battered case. His physical countenance was suggestive of Icabod Crane from the old Disney "Legend of Sleepy Hollow." In his hands was a likewise disheveled copy of the score of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherezade," which he was scrutinizing closely, keeping time with one hand and humming/mumbling the score to himself. I was grateful for his presence, and felt a kinship to him because I was likewise lost in a work that felt equally alienating from the muffled strains of "Poker Face" emanating from someone's too-loud MP3 player and Jameson's ads plastered all over the train. Loving both etymology and Proust as I do, I probably cut a likewise oblivious and manic figure.
From the title alone, one might surmise that this chapbook is a likely subject for discussion when thinking about poetry and architecture. Despite its lyric and disassociating qualities, the title of the book is actually entirely literal--the poems in the book are entirely comprised of sections, presumably from À La Recherce Du Temps Perdu, that have undergone a process of erasure, leaving only isolated words in French on the left hand side of the page, accompanied by a justified prose-paragraph on the right hand side of the page. The format is not reproducible in the Blogger application, so I have included a scan below. The entire chapbook can be found in .pdf form, for free, on the Dusie website, as this chapbook comes from the 2009 Dusie Kollectiv project. The rest of the chapbooks from the project may be found there as well.
Like Elizabeth Bryant's (Nevertheless Enjoyment, which I discussed yesterday, Scaffolding My Proust Vocabulary concerns the lexical process and the process of translation; instead of foregrounding the difficulties of same, Tate's book opens up the process to possibility.
What makes the process of translation so difficult is that words do not simply contain discrete meanings, but rather are built from layers and layers of association, idiom, culture and drift from other languages and culture. Words have histories, which are difficult to convey in the confines of a lexicon, even when the etymological history of a word is indicated. Words are built; what Scaffolding My Proust Vocabulary does is provide just that, the scaffolding upon which a reading (the author's) of Proust's work in French is built. Not so much a process of translation, but a process of trying to distill the air and water around a word, which contains meaning, but also so much else. Consider the poem "You Recognize Your Roses" below:
The reader gets the sense that the French words being scaffolded are those that proved troublesome for the author during the process of reading or translating from the French; they are also language-less poems in their own right, having sonic and associative relationships both to one with some reading ability in French and also one without. This is illustrative of the lexical process as one looks to the collected internal lexicon in order to shed light of the definition of the opaque term; one scurries from definition to word to definition and back, a builder above the precipice of unintelligibility. The two sections interact with one another, allowing, an obscured word to become transparent (or is it?) or the funhouse-mirror trick of borrowed words to become apparent. And this book is indeed a funhouse, a grand guignol.
A third strata of the text exists as well, insofar as it is vaguely ekphrastic, with the occasional moments highlighting the author's own relationship to Proust are foregrounded ("You wore violets," "Either you are unfaithful or you are dipping a biscuit into a cup of tea again"); the "you" of the poems seems to be Proust himself, or a lexically-scrambled version of him, as in the anagrammatic paean: "Sprout, I'll sip your nectar."
What occurs in this text is a singular variety of reading that transcends the usual humdrum of said process. While some familiarity of French, Proust and À La Recherce Du Temps Perdu will enhance the appreciation of the book, they are by no means necessary. The reader is encouraged, though, to sound out the French in order to have a clearer window on what transpires in the English paragraphs, which are complex and fulfilling as discrete entities.
When I got off the train that day, I followed Icabod as he scurried up Broadway. At Lincoln Center he bore a sharp left and disappeared abruptly into one of the side doors of the Metropolitan Opera.
Tate, Bronwen. Scaffolding My Proust Vocabulary. Chicago: Ragamuffin Press, 2009. Available here.