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Friday, 5 August 2011

Henry King on James Womack's 'Complaint'

Complaint by James Womack

Death is not the end; some doors are never fully closed,
and hollow ghosts escape their coffins and ovens.
She had been—she is—buried in rowdy Madrid,
but last night, as I held myself in a breaking sleep,
Carlota came to me and leant over my uneasy bed.
She was like her photographs, the same steady eyes;
her right ankle still had its tattoo. But her skin was broken,
and her clothes were rags covered with dirt and clay.
She was there, she could speak, I knew it was her,
though the thumb-bones creaked in her fragile hands.
‘How can you sleep,’ she said, ‘how can you sleep?
I knew this would happen, that you’d forget it all:
the window-sill where my arms wore two smooth dents,
the code to my staircase, the heavy metal doors.
We broke into a fire-watchers’ tower and saw the city—
do you remember?—saw the city and made promises.
Were those light promises, are you allowed to forget?
Where were you when I died? Did you do anything?
If you had cried out for me to come back, I could have
at least for one day, I could have held myself alive,
but nobody, not you, not Julius, Arima, nobody...
None of you even knows where I am buried.
Would it cost you too much to find out, find me?
Is there anybody who talks about me with love,
who remembers me as I was, not just as someone
who died, who died young, who died too young?
You deserve to have me haunt you, keep you awake,
hurt you... but what’s the use? You’ll write your poems
which turn me into some amalgam of memory
and adolescent hard-on: I’m safe for you to use now.
Even these hands that grasp you, even these hands,
they’ll just be one more image among the others.
At least I have been faithful, I haven’t forgotten,
I remember you well and keep my mouth shut.
You can’t negotiate with me: my arguments are fixed,
and I will keep my counsel.’
                                              She touched my shoulder
and I reached up to her, those remembered arms
and her torso cold and so thin. But she twisted away,
propped herself on her elbows and looked into my face.
‘Find me. Do what you can for me, for my body.
Stop writing about me. I am not, I am not material
for you to appropriate and employ. Clean my grave,
lay some flowers there, give me an epitaph:
not one of your self-indulgent look-at-mes,
but something simple and worthy, for visitors
to read and understand. Of course, keep writing
but leave me out of it. And find other women
while you live: when you are dead you will be mine
alone, and we together shall be dust and ashes.’
She stopped talking, and lay down beside me,
but when I opened my eyes, my arms were empty.  
                                                    after the Latin of Propertius
from New Poetries V © James Womack

In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner takes the episode recounted in Canto I – the nekuia, the interview with Tiresias – and interprets it in part as an allegory for translation: bringing living language to an ancient text, as Odysseus brings blood to ghosts. Of course, this doesn’t work so well for translation across living languages as it does for translation from a dead language, such as Propertius's Latin – which is more dead now, when few people are inclined or made to learn it, than ever before. In 'Complaint', then, James Womack brings fresh blood to the ghost of Propertius's text.

But Propertius's poem is itself about a revenant, Carlota (as Womack calls her, instead of Cynthia), who returns to berate her former lover for both getting over her too easily, and making too much of her in poems. Robert Lowell described her as 'hell on wheels', and she's pretty fierce: she repeats herself for emphasis, and accuses him of not even knowing where she's buried. He's already told us she's buried in Madrid; the point is, she doesn't let him get a word in edgeways. Paradoxically, the poet subtly implies that their relationship was always based on melodrama and exaggeration.

Pound himself wrote versions of Propertius, famously using deliberate mistranslations and anachronisms, about which critics disagree – because he didn't know any better, as some thought? To poke fun at more literal-minded translators? To critique British colonialism, as he explained to Thomas Hardy? Womack's anachronisms (photographs, electronic locks) work differently though, reprising the poem in the modern world. But this itself is an ancient practise: Dr. Johnson did it for Juvenal, Pope for Horace, and one can argue that Horace recommends it in his Ars Poetica. It's not just Propertius who's being conjured up, but generations of poets, the impetuous impotent dead.

Womack does add a genuinely modern touch to his version: a self-debunking reflexivity, as when Carlota says, 'Even these hands that grasp you, even these hands, / they'll just be one more image among the others'. This is not just modern language, but a modern concern about language, the fear that the sign abolishes its referent – and thus that in saying 'I', one is ventriloquized by the language itself. Carlota speaks through the poet; Propertius through Womack; Womack, and I, all of us, through the language that we've inherited from the dead, and will bequeath to others when 'we together shall be dust and ashes'.

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