Everyday Illuminations: Gemma Gorga’s “Book of Minutes,” Translated from Catalan by Sharon Dolin


By Mary Ann Newman


GemmaGorgaUnlike American poetry, Catalan poetry tends to shun the confessional or the directly personal. To revive a Lacanian phrase, Catalan poetry is always already political. A language and a literature that suffered continual interruptions owing to lost wars and various repressions—the 1714 War of Succession, the 1923 dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the 1936-1939 Civil War and its aftermath, all of which entailed suppression of the language—are inevitably self-conscious. The very vehicle of poetry, of survival, was always under attack.

The great resurrectors of Catalan poetry—in the 19th and early 20th century—had to be nation-builders, coaxing the language phoenix from the ashes to resuscitate the epic, like Jacint Verdaguer, or to celebrate and sing themselves and others, like Joan Maragall, Catalonia’s Whitman. Responsibility lay heavy on those first great restorers of the Catalan language, though they wore it with grace and joy. In the early 20th century, poets like J. V. Foix and Carles Riba were concerned with restoring classical influences where there had been no Enlightenment tradition. Those miraculous generations supplied new traditions to supplant the void between the early Renaissance lyricism of Ausiàs March and the 19th-century Renascence of the Catalan symbolic universe.

Despite the new hiatus of forty years of Spanish state repression of the Catalan language following the Civil War (1939-1975), generations of poets did, nonetheless, continue writing. They, too, were doomed to talk of their land: Pere Quart (the pen name of Joan Oliver) and Josep Carner wrote from exile and of exile; Salvador Espriu wrote of internal exile and imagined a land of freedom somewhere in the north. Joan Brossa, an extraordinary conceptual and visual poet, used his picture poems to denounce the dictator. They, too, were called upon to sustain the language and the land. Together, they guaranteed that the next generations would find a language to work with and a literature that envies none.

This summer in Brooklyn, Gemma Gorga and Ernest Farrés did a bilingual reading, orchestrated by Gorga’s translator, Sharon Dolin, at the beloved Berl’s Poetry Shop. Gorga and Dolin were reading from Book of Minutes, published this year in a bilingual edition by Oberlin Press; Farrés was reading from Lawrence Venuti’s translation of his 2006 collection, Edward Hopper, published in 2009 by Graywolf Press. The association of the two poets is significant. Gorga and Farrés, born respectively in 1968 and 1967, experienced the tail end of the Franco regime, when the avant-garde was flourishing, resistance was the order of the day, and Franco would soon be a thing of the past—he died in 1975 (though his legacy lingered).  As a democratic government emerged, their generation seemed to have left the syndrome of repression and reaction behind. It was not incumbent on them to save the language from oblivion, or to protect it from exile. So they were able to reinvent it from the perspective of the everyday, and not from the urgency of extinction. For a brief moment, Catalan poets seemed almost able to relax.

In his 2011 collection, Blitzkrieg, Ernest Farrés offers a useful emblem for this generational shift. The poem explodes the notion of a simple poetic “I”:

Let’s be real: the word

of the poet is

an objectivated word, the I

of the text need not

intersect with the real

I, poetry is a

bunch of lines

surrounded by white space. [1]

Gemma Gorga, too, eschews a simple “I,” taking the oblique approach of finding a vehicle to allow distance while writing of feelings and perceptions refracted through an impassioned, but objectivated, I.

In Gorga’s case, this vehicle is a Book of Minutes, the abbreviated structure of a “Book of Hours,” an illuminated manuscript (and never has the notion of illumination been more apt) containing liturgical texts, usually intended for noblewomen’s consumption.  Gorga’s background as a medievalist comes through here. Her Book of Minutes can indeed be seen as a book of devotions, daily meditations for the devout, which upends traditional devotion, substituting a passion for the details of intimate existence: the liturgies of household saints.

Sharon Dolin, a gifted, award-winning poet herself, has produced this translation as an act of love. She discovered a few poems from the Book of Minutes by chance in an anthology she encountered at an artists’ residency in Barcelona (shout-out to the Institut Ramon Llull for supporting Anna Crowe’s translation and Pere Ballart’s edition of Six Catalan Poets).  Dolin relates discovery, the intervention of chance, to her own translation and to Gorga’s own method, quoting a conversation with the author in her translator’s preface: “For me, poetry is a tool that opens things up and excavates, and a light that guides me into corners that I don’t know.” Gorga’s Book of Minutes references these intense illuminations, reducing them to their essence, which she calls “glimpses.” And yet, as Dolin observes, despite the medieval inspiration for its form, Book of Minutes “feels very 21st century in its range of diction: in one breath a poem talks about the soul, in the next, about diopters or benzodiazepine.”

The form of Gorga’s poems, her “minutes,” is perfectly adapted to producing these glimpses. In many poems, one image gives way to another and another, in an exercise of poetic displacement, as in poem #8:

A simple day, a transparent day, a unicellular day, a day composed only of vowels, a day that fits in the palm of your hand, a day that will not sing when it dies. One day, simply without foreseeable consequences. (19)

Un dia senzill, un dia transparent, un dia unicel·lular, un dia fet només de vocals, un dia que hi cap al palmell de la mà, un dia que no cantarà quan mori. Un dia, simplement, sense conseqüències previsibles. (18)

The succession of images—simple, transparent, unicellular, composed of vowels, fitting in the palm, not singing, without a future—remits the reader to categories that do not overlap: luminescence, biological composition, language, size/space, music/joy, finally circling back to simplicity, now defined as an absence of futurity. Dolin has rendered the sequence beautifully.

Still, there is a nuance that has not been reflected, which has to do with the synonym pair senzill, which modifies “day” in the first phrase, and simple/simplement, which appears as an adverb inflecting “dia/day” in the last sentence. Senzill and simple can both be translated as “simple” in English, but, as usual, they are not exactly the same. If you wished to reflect the difference between the two words, you might translate the first phrase as “An ordinary day” or “An unassuming day.” But if you decide to retain the coincidence in the target language, playing with the shift from the adjective “simple” to the adverb “simply”—a delightful and legitimate choice—it might have been more effective to place the adverb at the beginning of the phrase, modifying “day,” and not after the initial phrase, modifying “consequences.” It could work this way: “Simply a day, without foreseeable consequences.” Or “One simple day, without foreseeable consequences,” either of which would also pick up more effortlessly on the rhythm that Dolin has established previously.

This simple day is one of the oases in a collection also marked by great sensuality and passion, and much erotic anguish, still kept in check by the masterful use of images and, again, by the objectivated I.  The images are startling, as in poem #27, which opens “Tears shed at dawn are sharp as diamonds cut with anger’s chisel…” (57) [“Les llàgrimes que es vessen de matinada són cantelludes com diamants tallats amb el cisell de la ràbia…,” 56]. In this poem, everything is off-kilter; the intuited anguish of the narrator is deflected onto external objects: “canaries chirp out of tune/els canaris refilen, fora de pentagrama”, “coffee whistles off key/el cafè xiula, fora dels rails.” I might have preferred a more literal “the coffee whistles off the rails” here, as I believe the coffee/rails image is intended to be jarring. But Dolin’s elegant poetic sensibility and craft prevail over the quibbles of word choice, accomplishing a sweeping rendition of Gorga’s immense range of references contained in a sequence of minutes.

To conclude, Book of Minutes ultimately channels both the I and the eye of a medievalist, training its observations on the experiences of 21st-century women. To some extent it vindicates the long bloodlines of women whose senses were circumscribed by religious text and image, establishing the subtle tension between the deeply religious aesthetics and the intrinsic erotics of Catholicism. This tension is then carried over by Gorga and Dolin into more everyday observations, always delivered through the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing.

As is only right in an illuminated manuscript, sight often dominates, so I will leave you with poem #23, in which the most intrinsic characteristic of these prose poems is made manifest, literally brought to light:

I raise the blinds so light may enter. I part the curtains so light may enter. I close my eyes so light may enter. (p. 49)

Aixeco la persiana perquè pugui entrar la llum. Enretiro la cortina perquè pugui entrar la llum. Tanco els ulls perquè pugui entrar la llum. (48)

In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was Light. Captured by Gorga and Dolin.

 

Gorga, Gemma. Book of Minutes. Translated by Sharon Dolin, Oberlin College Press, 2019.


[1] Siguem francs: la paraula / del poeta és paraula / objectivada, el jo / del text no té per què / coincidir amb el jo / real, la poesia / és un manyoc de ratlles / envoltades de blanc. Taken from the web: http://www.editorialmeteora.com/libro/blitzkrieg/145. Translation mine.

 

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