I’m translating “The Wife’s Lament,” from the Anglo-Saxon (among other poems), and—though I am in the habit of calling my drafts “transgressions”—there is a palpable sense of longing breaking through which I think may be possible to understand. What I mean by “even now,” has to do with the ideas of immediacy prevalent (one could say saturated) in the current collective consciousness.
I just read an article eulogizing the long email. And who even talks on the phone anymore. We interact in quick bursts, with no breaks. Both of these things being, of course, enemies of longing. We do not allow ourselves the luxury of longing. For to long, literally, takes “length.” Long stretches of absence and time—for which nobody has time for anymore.
The girl I’m trying to write (the wife lamenting) gets left to long by herself under an oak tree. This oak tree intrigues me. There is so much symbolism here. Pagans had their sacred groves. Druids had oak knowledge. I have also read about the linguistic link between the Celtic word for oak and the Sanskrit word for door—the connection between knowledge and doors apparently reaches pretty far back, but the other thing has to do with the oak as a portal, a door to another world. In the text the girl sings: This earth cell is old—I am full of longing. She is under the oak. There is ambiguity. Is she even alive?
More on the texture of longing: it creates its own language—even the length of the L enacts the length of longing. I’m wondering now if language didn’t come from longing, from its length—an internal space for all manner of things, mainly love, friendship, and pain:
……………Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I ……………had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. ……………My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a ……………double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse ……………discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is ‘I ……………desire you’, and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of ……………explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); ……………on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush
……………against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the ……………commentary to which I submit the relation endure (Bataille, p.79).
The Old English word for oak tree is actreo. The letters not much changed in over two thousand years. The oldest living tree is a Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains of California. It’s over five thousand years old.
When I am translating I experience unspecific, vague feelings of longing, as if triggered by the memory of an absent friend. I think about my friend Sarah Maria in Mexico City, I have an image of her there. Her full skirts, her flowers—the buildings there, done up in broad washes of pastels. I dream in full color. I look at the old words on the page, I flip through my dictionary and drag my finger over the various spellings. Nothing is precise. I find something. An image is illuminated and the possibilities for clean fresh language, fat with metaphor and a little tipsy with irony but still full of serious intentions, startle me. I know that girl. She may be stronger than I am, she may have wielded an ax and slit the throats of animals for sacrifice, she may have swept floors of earth, or made food over a fire, she probably fished, hunted, and collected her own berries, but something about her is familiar. So I think: maybe I’ll eventually be able to transcribe the song she sang all those years ago, just maybe—
It all started with her lord leaving his people for the whim of the waves, and her white nights spent wondering where in the world he was. What was a girl to do. She set out to seek him. But after all she went through on that friendless flight, her lord’s lackeys were percolating plans to put those kids asunder. Bastards.
In absence, in the space that creates the length needed to long, the not-being-there-ness of the loved one is felt (materiality of absence). In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes gives that space the creative ability to incubate.
He says manipulate:
…………..Absence persists—I must endure it. Hence I will manipulate it: ……………transfer the distortion of time into oscillation, produce rhythm,……………make an entrance onto the stage of language (language is ……………born of absence: the child has made himself a doll out of a spool, ……………throws it away and picks it up again, miming the mother’s ……………departure and return: a paradigm is created). Absence ……………becomes an active practice, a business (which keeps me from ……………doing anything else) ; there is a creation of fiction which has many ……………roles (doubts, reproaches, desires, melancholies). This staging of ……………language postpones the other’s death: a very short interval, ……………we are told, separates the time during which the child still believes ……………his mother to be absent and the time during which he believes her ……………to be already dead. To manipulate absence is to extend this ……………interval, to delay as long as possible the moment when the other ……………might topple sharply from absence into death (p.16).
The child’s voodoo doll is an imago (a Jungian and entomological puppet). We forget that pain is the destruction we need for the metamorphosis that is later, language. In Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Hannibal Lector on the television series “Hannibal,” he questions his friend and patient, Will Graham: “Do you know what an imago is Will?”
The relationship between the two is fraught with longing. Both doctor and patient, serial killer and killer catcher, alternate between sweet and dark. They never quite meet one another but hold their individual ideas of each other at once distant and dear. In that space created by longing, other more sinister things come to life ironically, culminating in the man-shaped imago strung up by Graham on the gothic fairytale stage of Lector’s childhood home, oozing with escargots and sparkling fireflies—a dark beauty.
In her Field Guide To Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit also emphasizes this ironic creation:
………….…the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay. ………….We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, ………….ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of ………….metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as ………….graceful as a flower blooming (p.81).
This makes me think of how, during pregnancy, both mother and child become imagoes to each other, no longer is just one just one, they are each one and also the space between the other, with infinite combinations of both pain and pleasure that are made possible to erupt at any given moment, in that space of longing.
At nine to ten weeks, a developing fetus is about an inch—bean-size, hard candy, an acorn.
And the ontology of translation can be so similar to the serendipity of a particular birth.
The thing about capturing a lost orality is that you must somehow begin to fit it into a grammar—your own personal grammar. You get a glimmer of recognition. A sense. And then there is the joyous discovery of a familiarity in the text. Still, you do not fully understand what relationship you will have with it. But now you have a new pride of intimacy. This is what nudges you on: to explore, to uncover with loving research and with wonder, what you desire most of all. To unearth a vision of yourself in a distant past.
You (the translator) become the great defender of the text. For you, it is a precious object, its flaws are charming and hint at history—you love it. You are a devout archeologist seeking to honor the foundling with a spit shine—a little careful dusting with your humble brush, holding it to the light, wanting the world to see what you see. You take your time to make sure all of the potshards are in place, without any unseemly peeking of seams.
And though it can never be what it was in its first flush, you hope the oblique glimmer as you tilted each piece to the light, something akin to a hand stretching itself through time and curling “come,” will be the thing that thinking people fall in love with. Two writers working together through time. Time is a kind of distance and longing unfurls it. We scribes delineate a linear reckoning in a commingling of hearts, even if the twin consciousnesses continue twain.
The pain of translation. It is hard work hearing what they have to say. Did you write the right thing? Would she be mad at you? You see her in a hobbit house humming The Smiths’ “Jeane” (We tried and we failed, we tried and we failed).
You try to tell her story in so far as—in so far, and you’ve made it your own. YOU pace under the acorn tree. YOU are trapped. YOU feel the earth around you and hear your own heart beat. Does he know I’m here? Does he await my reemergence into the open air? Is it only that I have a little seed inside—the acorn under the oak. A metaphoric gesture meant to suggest germination? How does the meaning match the mechanism, and is it meant to elicit an emotional response? The text is simple. The text is complex.
I imagine an acorn splitting open. A painful pushing up through all of this earth. I elongate in a singular direction. An anomaly suspended across an intimate distance, a dendrochronologist’s dream, a juggernaut in a nutshell, a jusqu’auboutiste.
Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess, Selected Writings, 1927-1939. University of Minnesota Press. USA,1985.
Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse. Translated by Richard Howard. Hill and Wang, A division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, 2010.
Clark-Hall, J.R. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Wilder Publications. USA, 2011.
Fuller, Brian. “Hannibal.” Dino De Laurentiis Company. USA, 2013-
Muir, Bernard J. The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. Vol. 1. University of Exeter Press. UK, 1994.
Solnit, Rebecca. A Feld Guide To Getting Lost. Penguin Books. New York, 2006
Gnaomi Siemens has a BA from Columbia University and is an MFA candidate at Columbia University’s School of The Arts, in poetry and literary translation. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming at thethepoetry.com and Slice Magazine. She lives in New York City with her son.
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