by on Apr.27, 2012

I went to an interesting talk the other day. The medievalist Chris Abrams talked about Beowolf, arguing for a reading of it not as an “Old English” text, but as a Scandinavian text. But not exactly: more like a text in a “hyperspace” that might be “Scandinavia,” a space of cultural translation. Abrams argued that Beowolf is a text that “is not itself,” but rather a constant result of various kinds of framings and interpretive strategies, translation. His question was: What happens if we read this text as a Scandinavian text? But also: What if “Scandinavian” was not a stable entity but the result of crosscultural imaginations?

There are of course some direct, tangible results in the interpretation, but I think his “hyperspace” is an interesting model for all of poetry. Rather than poetry that is lost in translation, that must be kept within national traditions and lineages, that must be determinable, we can read poetry as “hyperspace”, as texts that are not themselves.

The other day I wrote about liking “contextual” book reviews – but contexts that move across time, language and media, a translational lineage that may be said to be “hyperspace.”


It was interesting that when I posted about the general shying away from context in US poetry reviews, one of the most dominant responses was that context stabilized readings, strangled the poetry, overdetermined it. It seemed people who had this response assumed I meant: classifying poets according to school, formal features etc. In essence: lineage-making.

There is of course a very prominent context that people have all kinds of problems dealing with: American Poetry. This is of course a context that I – in part because I’m an immigrant writer – have been rubbing up against my entire writing life. But in some sense, it’s an overbearing context that most writers rub up against – to invoke Bakhtin, the centripedal force of a monoglossic lineage that makes a claim for a unified American Poetry.

The question the responses to my last post raised was that if contexts are necessarily national/constricting or oppressive in an international-hegemonic way that doesn’t account for translations, transmissions and its noises.

Part of the problem is the model of poetry as that which is lost in translation; that kind of definition of an isolated artwork, which doesn’t actually want to acknowledge a context outside of the strictly literary, can’t allow for translation. According to this model, the poem is just itself, a tautology. Once you start reading translations, poems become what they are not, so to speak, a logical flaw. It opens up the reading process, destabilizes it.

That is why Joyelle and I have been writing about poems and literary encounters and contexts as “deformation zones”. In her part of our book, Deformation Zone (Ugly Duckling, 2012), Joyelle points out, discourses around translation tends to be about “self-mastery” as well as “mastery.” You have to be tasteful. But the problem is exactly the “self” part of that equation. How can a translator exist? Isn’t art about mastery, self-mastery? Fending off the “anxiety of influence” to be a coherent self? No, art is constantly tampering with texts, with illusory “selves,” and especially “mastery.” Art is contagion. Art proliferates. Art influences. Art translates.

But “contexts” can of course push across national boundaries, and that’s what I’ll talk about in my next post which I probably will write next week.

Here’s Ebba Grön and Mick Jones of The Clash (gathered to celebrate/mourn Joe Strummer – ie punk, death, pop culture as transnational…):

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