by Pierre Nepveu
ISBN: 1550651919

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A Review of: Mirabel
by David Solway

A bargain, Mirabell? With us as prize?
James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover

They're not only incredibly faithful, they're true poems in their own right.
A.B. Yehoshua, The Liberated Bride

>From time to time the Governor General's Award juries get it right. Not often, mind you, but every once in a while a jury manages to come up with an appropriate choice to salvage the institutional life of an organization known more for endemic cronyism than enlightened impartiality and astuteness. Recently, it might even have made the founder of the Award, John Buchan, rather proud with a number of worthy selections, fitfully abiding by our fifteenth Governor General's injunction to "provide that austere canon to which new idioms must conform if they are to endure" and to "inspire and dignify our own reading of life."
The 2004 Governor General's Award for Translation brings together two of the important talents on the Canadian literary scene, Pierre Nepveu and Judith Cowan. Essayist, translator, anthologist, novelist and poet, Nepveu is among the most respected figures in the Qubcois literary community and was elected in 1999 to L'Acadmie des lettres du Qubec in honour of his contribution to the cultural life of the province. Lignes ariennes, which garnered Nepveu his third GG in 2003 (the man makes a habit of it), has rapidly come to be acknowledged as one of the most moving and accomplished books of poetry to have appeared in Quebec, rivalling such predecessor works as Gaston Miron's L'Homme rapaill and Robert Melanon's Le paradis des apparences.
Judith Cowan lives and teaches in Trois-Rivires where she has been a longtime resident. Author of two collections of short stories, More Than Life Itself and Gambler's Fallacy, she is also one of Canada's foremost translators of Qubcois poetry, having introduced the work of Yolande Villemaire, Gerald Godin, Yves Prfontaine and Yves Boisvert to an English readership. With Mirabel, her retitling of Lignes ariennes, she has not only rendered Nepveu accessible to unilingual English Canadians but, as we will see in the ensuing, given us a book that can stand on its own as a viable and indeed authentic realization-that is, a book that reads as if it were an original production while remaining faithful in spirit and verbal adroitness to its source.
Lignes ariennes is a prolonged meditation on the evanescence of human concerns, commitments and projects for the future, especially in the densely bureaucratic and technologically-infatuated contemporary world we inhabit. The book is a veritable flight of imagination ("l'ore d'un improbable envol"), an aerial journey into a world of error, misapprehension, blindness, false destinations, loss and inevitable deception, based empirically on the sordid tale of Montreal's ill-fated Mirabel airport and the rampant expropriation of the surrounding farms and villages. The monumental political and technological blunder involved in building at exorbitant cost a state-of-the-art airport dedicated to obsolescence and adversely affecting the lives of thousands of people is transformed in Nepveu's poetic study into a resonant symbol (what he calls a "miroir cleste") of human rashness and stupidity, but also of human helplessness in the face of a resident susceptibility to illusion. For Nepveu, these zones of desolation we inflict upon ourselves can be ransomed only in virtue of "une forte transposition propre au mouvement de l'imagination potique," the poetic spirit acting as the only meaningful counterweight to the purely instrumental and one-dimensional cast of mind that characterizes the modern age. His title, of course, is a sort of implicit homily, a calembour that mimes precisely that sense of multiple awareness lacking in its subject, suggesting as it does airlines and their routes, a series of pneumatic verses recording the poignancy of the affair, indentations or bights ( la ligne) that cut into substance, and perhaps the notion of issues or results (lignes)-in this last case absurd and misbegotten.
The central theme, defined as "le nant qui avait la folie des grandeurs," is construed in an initial Approach, five median sections and a valedictory Return, involving journal entries, descriptive notes, observers' perspectives and historical reflections negotiated in a series of consummate lyrics alternating with vivid and impressionistic prose-poetic passages. Cowan's Mirabel is a matching tour de force, its title (like its theme) also meant to reverberate in the reader's mind, possibly echoing, as it seems to me, the second part of James Merrill's celebrated trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover, entitled Mirabell's Books of Number, which details, in Merrill's own volant lines, "where the fruit of infelicity,/Once glittering whole, has rotted away to this/Inky pit." (One thinks as well of Spenser's Mirabella from the Farie Queene, doomed to carry a leaky bottle constantly refilled with tears.) While Mirabel follows Nepveu's template arrangement and paranomastic subtlety to the letter, it achieves a syncretic and quite original transposition from the brooding and plangent modalities of the French into what is for the most part a limber and vigorous English that releases its own ripple effect of allusion and intimation.
In constructing a singular and yet absolutely proper form of verbal twinning, Cowan, so to speak, doubles Nepveu, and in the process makes him new yet once again, one text subtending the other. But at the same time the second text paradoxically establishes itself as a wholly independent work, a fresh beginning articulated in a changed voice, like the book and its reader mentioned in the last poem of the collection:

lamplight falls once more on a book of hours,
on gilt-edged pages and fertile images,
opened in the evenings by a weary man
seeking to hear his own voice in it,
reciting the end of a world
and its new beginning.
("The Book")

Cowan offers not only a dependable reproduction of the prior receuil but an autonomous creation which engages by the freshness of its diction and the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its metrics. Lignes ariennes is not simply Englished; it is English. Presented the two books minus information about the temporal frame, a reader would be hard put to determine precedence. Perhaps Nepveu has transferred Cowan into French? This is translation operating at the highest level, getting close from a binocular distance that still retains its authoritative and uncompromised coign of vantage, separate and distinct. I'm reminded of Octavio Paz praising Elizabeth Bishop for having produced a translation of his "Primero de Enero" which he thought better in English than in Spanish. Although the situation is obviously not identical, Nepveu must be delighted with Cowan's efforts at translating his poems and concurrently writing her own.
Thus, to take another instance from a myriad, consider, first, Nepveu's pivotal "Chant souterrain", a sorrowful and mellifluous litany of modern life's scalene displacements and uprootings-of undertakings that become undertakings-evoking "le vent/venu des lointains o les villages avaient une me" and concluding:

rien ne tient lieu de retour,
tout est trange comme si c'tait hier,
et le seigneur des lieux
sous le ciel frais lav par l'orage
n'entend des sources enfouies que le sanglot.

Then listen to Cowan's version of these lines:

for nothing resembles a return,
when all is as strange as if it were yesterday,
and the lord of these lands,
under the sky fresh-washed by a storm,
hears nothing from the buried springs but their sobbing.
("Underground Song")

Here is a fine example of a poem rendered into English not so much as a literal equivalent but as a literary counterpart unique in itself, a fortunate "displacement" into another language that, as I continue to stress, could well have been written in that language. The pattern of alliterations and assonances that she assembles, with each set of consonantal or vowel repetitions "buried" in its respective line like the springs we hear, however quietly, at the end, displays a subliminal artistry of great skill and cunning. Cowan's fidelity is founded in compatible difference, a mix of affinity and otherness, giving evidence of a sensibility that corresponds to its ground, or underground, yet is able to map that interior terrain in another dimension of representation that delights us aesthetically and with equal force. One thinks of the way maps can be as interesting as the landscapes they delineate, becoming autonomous and self-contained objects that intrigue, attract or compel on their own terms. Or of the way a well-crafted artifact or representation can assume the properties and the status of a natural feature. And once again, as in the original, an act of devastation is amortized only by an act of imagination which both records and transmutes, Mirabel ceding to Mirabel as the word is ironically inflected to suggest a positive signification, a visionary reclamation of meaning on the page and in the mind. That which named a catastrophe now designates an inspiration and the book repatriates the terminal. These are poems that are located in the threatened sectors of our own fragile lives, "here, in this corner of the world so close to parody, in this clearing where little groves of maples come to kneel in adoration before the vacant space of an industrial park" It is in this moment of illumination, of seeing what might have been and what might one day still come to pass in the struggle to replenish vacancy, that we can begin "to write the desert in the secrecy of rediscovered rooms." One is tempted to go back to Merrill. "Dear Mirabell," the poet exclaims, addressing the redemptive spirit and numinous carrier of imaginative energy, "How banal/Our lives would be, how shrunken, but for you"-lines which might have served as a befitting epigraph to Cowan's book had she chosen to append one.
All this is not to imply the Lignes ariennes and Mirabel are wholly impeccable performances. No work is without flaws and blemishes-in Nepveu's case a casual tendency to redundancy and the unmotivated simile or metaphor that might have been corrected by more stringent self-editing, and in Cowan's the occasional lapse into prosiness or a species of ecphrasis which, everything considered, scarcely detracts from the general tautness of her language. But these are mere cavils. Like Nepveu's, Cowan's work adds to that "austere canon to which new idioms must conform." Her award, I'm glad to say, is not only merited but casts a reciprocal aura of justification on the awarding body itself. For this, perhaps, we owe her more than one debt of gratitude.

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