Book Review: What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison by Camille T. Dungy

Lady, my one regret / is that we don’t have appetite enough / to make you break every damned plate inside this room.” As a person of color, I am undeniably drawn to works that discuss race in a way that does not skim over the harsh realities that we face every day. As someone who appreciates a little dark humor, I also appreciate a joke thrown in the face of a racist white person and I like imagining the sour looks on their faces. “The Preachers Eat Out” is the first poem I ever read by Camille Dungy, and it exemplifies what I like most about her style. Dungy manages to tie in racial themes, and tell stories not her own while still giving us true impressions of the people within the tales. Almost none of the people that she paints pictures of within her poems have names outside of the notes at the top of the poem, and she still gives us rich impressions of the characters within them.

We learn so much about the characters within “The Preachers Eat Out” just within the 14 lines. We know that the waitress who is serving them is not doing it because she isn’t racist – she is; she just wants the tips because she has children at home, presumably is a single mother, and needed tips in order to support them. She also breaks the plates, whether of her own volition or the restaurant’s, meaning that she works at a place that can afford to break plates and is therefore slightly upscale, meaning that the preachers have money enough to pay for a nice restaurant. She does the breaking behind the building however, meaning that she doesn’t want them to know she is breaking the plates, and is making an effort to be civil. The preacher also calls her ‘lady,’ which could be seen as either a measure of respect or disrespect, depending on tone, and makes it clear that he knows about her racist actions despite her trying to hide them

Dungy’s ability to call out racist actions in a subtle and artistic manner is a skill that I greatly admire. Someone who is not as familiar with the tensions that black folks face in the United States, or not as comfortable with seeking out material explicitly written about the struggles that we face, will find a book of poems such as Dungy’s much more approachable. Through Dungy’s poems, the statistics become not just statistics, but people. Though they are unnamed, the connections that Dungy sparks allow the reader to experience much more. One can read in a history book about the segregation of buses, but when reading Dungy’s “Greyhound to Baton Rouge” there is a much stronger feeling as the listener hears “Arm around his wife, the new father stood, / relieved to see his baby still sleeping. / Small piece.” Hearing the story of this small family, the tired mother, and the bus that was completely stopped because the driver refused to go on with a white woman holding a black child, brings things into focus for someone who might not have previously have understood how things were for the non-whites in America, and the racist attitudes that we face.

These two poems are some of the ones that stuck out to me the most of Dungy’s work, as they exemplify her talent for weaving a story into a lesson, and they are the ones that I enjoyed the most and feel I got the most out of. They taught me that it is possible to be both concise and yet rich in detail and that you can give everything and nothing away about the speakers and other participants in the action of the poem.

Another poem of Dungy’s that stuck out to me was “Requiem.” The idea of someone accepting their death, and being in love with their own crooked and broken bones; the horror of those surrounding them, witness to their untimely demise – it has a sort of macabre allure. I can identify with the speaker of the poem because even though I do not desire my own death, the idea of that moment – that teetering on the edge where one looks at everything around them in that final moment and finds it beautiful – is fascinating. I think that everyone is a little bit in love with death, and when Dungy’s line reads: “Will you believe me / when I tell you I had never been so in love / with anyone as I was, then, with everyone I saw?” I can’t help but think that, yes, I can believe that. As someone who has recently experienced the loss of someone who I know was suffering, I agree with the adage that death is much better for the one dying than for the ones left behind.

When the speaker in “Requiem” starts to talk about the woman who has witnessed her death, I can’t help but think about how well Dungy has captured this intrinsic human reaction. This other woman has no connection to the speaker, yet feels all of this grief, feels the pain that is what comes with the connection that humans have when life suddenly stops. Dungy shows us how as humans we react to death, how we see it, and how, while we cannot imagine life without it, we do not expect it. In the first stanza the speaker says: “I could have lived forever / under that sky.” And yet, when the speaker’s life does end, they accept that ending with love.

It is an admirable lesson that Dungy is giving us about how death is not something that one should fear, but something that happens when the time should come, and yet again we have her artistry shining through as she does it in such a subtle way, enchanting us with words.

I learned a lot about how to write from Dungy, as she writes many poems from a third person point of view and masterfully presents the characters that appear in those poems without going into arduous detail. It was not until I read several poems by Dungy written with such provoking figures that I even realized how many of my own poems were written in the first person. Overall, the lessons that Dungy teaches throughout the book are ones that I think anyone and everyone would benefit from, and I highly encourage people to read her works.

 

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

On Poetry and Translation

I think that poetry is a beautiful and important part of our history. Poetry allows us to express our thoughts and feelings in a therapeutic and elegant way. Poetry is important because it presents a way for people to connect with one another in with deeper expression than with prose. For me, the most important part of the poem is the flow. The form of expression can be just as important as the content when considering a poem whether you are writing it yourself or it is a work of translation. The form should match the content, because the tonality of the work can be utterly changed with format.

Take for example, the Irish folk song Green Fields of France. I am a firm believer that music is a vivid form of poetry, and this song is no exception. There are many versions, but my two favorites are both by The High Kings. In one, the song has a slow and graceful melody, that makes it a quite beautiful and meaningful song. The other version is no less meaningful, but has an upbeat tempo that makes the song bigger and more enthusiastic. Both takes on the poetry of this song are quite lovely, but the first time I heard them I didn’t even realize they were the same song until I examined the lyrics.

From this we can understand that tone and flow are some of the most important parts of a poem, and yet they are also malleable, depending on who composes the piece. Everyone writes poetry differently because poetry is a reflection. For some that means a reflection of the self, or of an experience, or of knowledge that the poet is comfortable with. My poetry contains my thoughts and hopes and dreams, and I make my own mark with everything I write.

Here is when I fully turn to translation, that delicate art. Aside from authors and poets who translate their own works, the translator is taking up someone else’s voice, and changing it into another tongue. The translation is a different entity from the original, because it requires a leap of faith towards oneself and one’s abilities to reimagine the work in a new context. In his essay An Act of Imagination Philip Boehm notes that “what allows us to summon a new creation from the original and give it a life of its own is our empathetic imagination.”[1] So when I translate a poem, I am not only shaping the words through varying amounts of linguistic prowess, but also putting myself and my imagined consciousness into the poem.

That said, every time I look at a poem that I have translated, or even more so poems I have written myself, there is always something I want to change. The poem is always forming itself, even as I go back to it again and again. During my independent study last semester, I was hesitant to share my poems with the professor because I never felt like what I had done was enough, and I was revising right up until hours before my selected poems were due. Maybe I was overdoing it a wee bit, but honestly, I don’t feel like I was.

Tomorrow I head off to Middlebury’s 3rd Annual Bread Loaf Translators’ conference, and I couldn’t be more excited. In preparation for my workshop I have been reading through The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Language in Translation as was directed by my workshop leader, Idra Novey. We only had to read part I, but I read all four because I’m a nerd and translation is my passion. Also, because I read ahead whenever possible, and sometimes even when it shouldn’t be. I already quoted one of the essays, but let me quote another. In Pierre Joris’ A More Complex Occasion he speaks quite a bit about poetry and translation, and one quote speaks out to me:

[W]hat many years of practicing (and thinking about) poetry and translation have lead me to is a sense that the often-stated difference in nature between the supposedly pure and unalterable ‘original’ poem and an always secondary ‘impure’ poem is much exaggerated. […] A poem is […] a variable thing: the poet’s hand-written poem is not the ‘same’ poem when first published in a magazine, which in turn is ever slightly different when published in a volume, then a selected collection, and later in a posthumous collected volume. The poet’s public readings of the poem, its being set to music by a composer, its translation into one or ten or however many languages ― all these events do change a poem, enriching it, making it into a more complex occasion.

If we acknowledge the poem to be such a mutable complex of occasions, then nothing is more translatable, nothing demands multiple translations more than a poem ― and nothing enriches the poem more than being translated.[2]

I realize that is a very long quote, so I’m going to stop this post here, giving you just a little food for thought.

Cheers,
Talia

Slower version: Green Fields of France
Fast-paced version: The Green Fields Of France

Sources

[1] Boehm, Philip. “An Act of Imagination.” In The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Language in Translation, 27. Washington DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2014. https://www.arts.gov/publications/art-empathy-celebrating-literature-translation

[2] Joris, Pierre. “A More Complex Occasion.” In The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Language in Translation, 68-69. Washington DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2014. https://www.arts.gov/publications/art-empathy-celebrating-literature-translation

Thoughts on Translation

When working on my translations I had trouble with the translation in terms of how to convey both the beauty and the message of the poem, which was difficult for me at first just from reading the Spanish, as Sor Juana uses syntax in ways that, as someone who is very familiar with, but not fluent in the language I struggle. It makes sense of course, because in English we also use complex syntax in poetry, but the difference here I feel is that the languages change syntax in slightly different ways. Sor Juana’s poetry contains many reflexive verbs, and because the third person and formal second person overlap greatly, I have to make judgement calls on who the poem is referring to in the context of the sentence. The verb forms are difficult because of this, and I have always had trouble with reflexive verbs, which compounds the problem. Furthermore, the poems often leave out a subject, or reference a subject that was in a previous line or stanza, and so keeping track of the persons can be difficult for me, especially since I am not a native speaker.

Another struggle I have with this poetry is that the poems do not have titles, and so I am in an ambiguous position in terms of creating one or sticking with just a number. The question of whether or not to title the poems is a conflict for me, because while I may wish to title the poems as my own, I wonder whether doing so would be claiming too much of what isn’t necessarily mine.

This of course comes back to the question of whether the translated work belongs to the translator, or the original creator. Then I wonder what Sor Juana would think about my translations, and I wonder again whether it is fair to change the words of someone long-dead.

Where is the line? Have I crossed it or am I just not there yet? Will I ever get there?

Or is it a line that doesn’t exist except in my mind?

These are questions that I think deserve further thought. I hesitate to say that the author is dead – especially as I am a creator of original works in addition to being a translator. So basically I’m not even sure what I think. I just have a lot of thoughts in a lot of places, and grappling with them is probably something I will be doing for a long time.