Review of Harry Thomas’ The Truth of Two

/ /

The Truth of Two: Selected Translations
by Harry Thomas
(Un-Gyve Press, 2017, $16)

Rightly observing that translators usually pay more attention to the how of their translation practice than to the why, Harry Thomas devotes some space to the latter as well. In the Preface to his radiant The Truth of Two: Selected Translations (2017), Thomas lists five reasons why he translated the poems in the book. Money, for one – a small reason, “for the money was small,” news which will not come as a surprise to other translators of poetry. Secondly, friendship: “the pleasure of sitting at tables with friends, colleagues, and one student who either knew a language I didn’t know…or knew one much better than I did.” Thomas’s third motive was “to bring over into English a kind of poem that English lacks; this was especially the case with Montale, Levi, and Brodsky.” A fourth motive: “several times I thought, immodestly, that I could do better than previous translators.” A fifth motive “was to say something about myself under the cover of a translation, a device I discovered in Pound…”. Thomas cites only two such imitations or cloaking device poems in this collection, one after Catullus’s elegy for his brother and one after the Anglo-Saxon poem “Deor,” both of which in their different ways work exceedingly well. Then there is the overriding motive, more like an impulse or an instinct, that one hopes all translators of poetry share: “I translated these poems because I liked them and wanted to convey that feeling and the emotions of the poems themselves in my language.”

“Liked” is surely an understatement. The Truth of Two feels like a small anthology of poems that Thomas has loved; the title encompasses various kinds of face-to-face intimacy, from love or friendship to the way poetry reaches across time to engage in dialogue with the reader – or the translator. Not all the poems

Thomas has included radiate that kind of intimacy, but enough do so that readers of this Selected should feel a compelling sense of correspondence across languages and centuries.

Though we also get strong tastes of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French, Chinese, and Russian, most of the poems in The Truth of Two were originally written in either Italian (Leopardi, Saba, Ungaretti, Montale, and Levi) or Spanish (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Salvador Díaz Mirón, Machado, Salinas, Borges, and Neruda). Is it too much of a stretch to claim that a crystalline Mediterranean clarity emanates from many of these two groups — a wrung-out, utterly unsentimental radiance? These poems are dry: etched, precise, wry. In the case of Levi, the dryness edges over into bitterness and despair but retains its sprezzatura, though in a poem like “The Elephant” this acerbic tone deepens to a trumpeting moan:

Would you like to hear my story? It’s brief. The clever Indian lured and tamed me, The Egyptian shackled and sold me, The Phoenician covered me with weapons And built a tower on my back. It was absurd that I, a tower of flesh, Invulnerable, mild, and intimidating, Confined in these hostile mountains, Slipped on your ice that I’d never seen before. For us, when we fall, there is no salvation. Some blind hero kept on trying to find My heart with the point of his lance. To these mountaintops, lurid in the sunset, I trumpeted my useless Dying bellow: absurd, absurd!

Montale has been translated often; Levi, who is of course best known for his prose, less often, at least to my knowledge. But whether or not Thomas does better than other translators with these poems (the fourth motive he lists in his Preface), his translations from Italian and Spanish are confident, precise, and graceful. Many of the poems by Levi (Thomas includes twenty here) I hadn’t known, and I am grateful for all of them, whether Levi is writing about Passover, Pompeii (and Anne Frank and Hiroshima), an elephant, a dromedary, a mole, or a pedantic mouse. I had read a good deal of Montale and always liked what I read. But this passage, from his “Sorapis, 40 Years Later,” was a revelation. It would be tempting to quote the entire poem, but here is how this poem about revisiting a lake concludes:

Then holding you by the hand, I guided you up to the top, an empty hut. That was our lake: a few spans of water, two lives much too young to be old and much too old to feel we were young. We discovered then what age is. It has nothing to do with time, but is something that says, that makes us say we are here, a miracle that cannot repeat itself. By comparison, youth is the vilest of deceptions.

I’m reminded of what a wonderfully ageless man in Jamaica said to my beloved and me a few years ago: “Hage [as he pronounced it] is just a number.” Another Montale poem I didn’t remember having read is the crusty and chewy “Venetian Prose,” an account, presumably accurate, of the poet’s interviewing Hemingway two months after false reports of the novelist’s death: “He’s still in bed. In his hairy head / the eyes and eczema are glistening holes.”

“Venetian Prose” concludes “He lived for a few more years and dying twice / had a chance to read his obituaries.” This sense of a second chance, of revisiting a place (as in “Sorapis, 40 Years Later”), a person, or a text, seems to be a recurrent one in The Truth of Two, though it is also probable that as I approach the age of seventy I’m growing more attuned to patterns of recurrence. Then, too, the devoted reading and rereading, writing and revising, that inhere in the process of translating a beloved poem, constitute another kind of recurrence. Sometimes the echo of a previous text or meaning is an uncanny one, as in Yves Bonnefoy’s “Hopkins Forest,” a poem that sounds at the outset like a simple description but melts or morphs into a phantasmagoric vision. Again, I’d read a good deal of Bonnefoy, but I didn’t remember these stanzas:

I went back inside and re-opened the book on the table. Page after page there were only indecipherable signs, clusters of forms without any sense, although vaguely recurring, and beneath them an abyssal white as if what we call the spirit were falling there, soundlessly, like snow. Still, I went on turning the pages.

Many years earlier, in a train at the moment when the day rises… the passengers were reading, silent in the snow that was sweeping the gray windows, and suddenly, in a newspaper open next to me – a big photograph of Baudelaire, a whole page, as if the sky were emptying at the world’s end in recognition of the chaos of words.

This mysterious epiphany is composed, Bonnefoy tells us in the next stanza, partly from dream and partly from memory. But the moment of recognition transcends both dream and memory. The epiphanic experience is almost ineffable – it’s neither simply an event that can be narrated nor an image that can be described. Still, the poets to whom Thomas is drawn can’t help attempting to evoke what they have experienced. It’s paradoxical that the dry precision I’ve referred to maintains its sharp particularity even when what’s being evoked seems impossibly abstract. Yet these poets manage it – and Thomas delivers their vision intact. The following passage from the Spanish poet Pedro Salinas, whose work I hadn’t known, is the source of this entire collection’s title, which is also the title of Salinas’s poem. “Error,” “truth,” “earth,” “love,” “destiny” — we might seem to be wallowing in a bog of unvisualizable abstractions. But in Thomas’s rendering, the immediacy of a love poem lights up what might equally be allegory or prayer:

You, deceived by clarity, and I by darkness, so long as we walked alone, have delivered ourselves, in exchanging error for error, to the tragic truth called the world, earth, love, destiny. And the fatal face of it all we can see in what I have given you and you given me. At our love’s birth there was born for each the other’s terrible, necessary side, the light, the darkness. The two of us go towards it. Never again alone. The world, the truth of two, the fruit of two, the paradisiac truth, the bitter apple, attained only in the total tasting when all innocence ends, both of the day itself and the night by itself.

As I savor this book, a minor cavil remains, or a couple of intertwined observations. The most successful (and often excellent) translations here are usually of poems in free verse, which Thomas handles with great poise and subtlety. Rhymed, metered poems generally also work very well, but there are some notably awkward spots. In Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s “Hope,” for example, the second and third lines could surely have been rethought: “Mad hope! The gilded frenzy every man/Is swept away by day by day” calls for a second and third reading and still sounds odd. The final line of Leopardi’s classic poem “The Infinite” also reads oddly, with what seems an unnecessarily awkward use of a contraction: “And going under’s easeful in this sea.” Another 0btrusive contraction mars the entire final stanza of Montale’s beautiful “To pass the noon, intent and pale”:

And walking in the dazzling sun to feel with sad amazement how all we are and go through’s in this following a wall up on

the top of which jagged bits of bottles run.

Are these among the poems which Thomas “immodestly” (his word) thought he could “do better than other translators”? One wonders. After all, Leopardi and Montale have been much translated.

In fairness, Thomas does beautifully with some rhymed poems. I’m thinking in particular of the selections from Brodsky with which The Truth of Two ends, especially “The wind abandoned the woods,” which has a distinctively Frostian ring, and the final piece in this volume, “What do the bushes say to the wind?”

The final couplet of “What do the bushes say?” might serve as an epigraph to this book which is so concerned with loneliness and communication, solitude and intimacy, silence and utterance: “The dialogue’s incomprehensible/when you’re alone.” And the dialogue throughout The Truth of Two is a memorable one. Not every collection of translations of various lyric poems from various times and places has so thoroughly coherent and compelling a theme.