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Hence This Cradle
by Hélène Sanguinetti
English translation by Ann Cefola
Otis Books/Seismicity Editions
ISBN Number: 978-0-9755924-7-2
Reviewer: Eric Greinke
In Hence This Cradle (originally published in Paris, France in 2003 as Dísi, de ce berceau), Hélène Sanguinetti blurs the distinctions between poetry & fiction with a breath-taking variety of different voices which ultimately cohere into a single universal persona that is simultaneously no one & everyone. The collection functions primarily as a long poem composed of fragments of "MESSAGES ADDRESSED, SLIPPED, LEFT BEHIND, ONLY THOUGHT, NEVER READ, LOST, MESSAGES PRESERVED WITH FEVER, FEVER-DENIED-TORN TO PIECES, ONE DAY ONCE AGAIN A FRESH LUMP BEATING IN THE THROAT."
The above fragment appears at the beginning of the book, almost like an extra set of alternative titles. Sanguinetti lets her inner dialogue flow. One gets the impression that her compositional process is based in spontaneity. She provides the reader with numerous minute particulars, images of smallness (a cricket, a snail, a fly, a pebble, a bee) contrasted with images of vastness, the "brilliant sea that breathes," the stars, the timelessness of love. Sanguinetti utilizes odd phraseology, syntax, blended nouns and other devices that serve to create a stuttering, disjointed effect. On the surface, this effect is a distinctly non-linear expression. A more careful reading reveals an emotional coherence that carries throughout. Translator Ann Cefola does a heroic job dealing with the challenge of translating from one of the most evocative and connotative languages in the world to one of the least, without reducing the already reductive and evasive language of the original into nonsense language. By working closely with Sanguinetti, Cefola has preserved the integrity of the piece remarkably well, with a few notable exceptions.
Not far into the book, an association to another great book that approached similar territory (but from the fictional direction) asserted itself. This book also used a variety of voices to reveal a coherent persona at the end. It, like Hence This Cradle, also used different type styles to indicate shifts in point of view. The other book is Steps, which won Jerzy Kosinski the 1968 National Book Award. Both writers project their parts into their work, to see them integrated at the end of the book. Sanguinetti uses different typefaces and sizes, or all upper case or all lower case, to create the patchwork quilt of the poem. The "heart" of the poem is actually printed in red ink–the only red ink in the book.
Ultimately, the poem becomes a symbol of the struggle of love in a world of chaos, death, light, laughter, tears–the whole gamut of human experience. Then, there is the recurrent evocation of mystery. Here are a few examples: "It´s the mystery of this loss that´s important to me." (53); "Mystery of the lost Child, his Sandals/ Mystery mule!/ Mystery bonnet with small bells" (55); "have you an answer to this mystery which makes one slip and/ at the same time pushes with the horns´ tip down to the sea and/ it´s sun, ice or even sky/ or still night still more night, totally ignored?" (81); "In the garden,/ I met a snail: I greeted him,/ like a man. He too, too loaded with/ mystery to be ignored." (103).
Sanguinetti favors images that evoke the Mediterranean (Cypress trees, volcanic Mount Vesuvius, seascapes). She lived for a time at Arles, the countryside that inspired Van Gogh and Cèzanne. There are images of childhood juxtaposed with intimate notes between lovers, recurrent images of snails, approaching lava–all harmonically dissonant & ironic.
Finally, there is a recurrent reference to the mystery of death. Images of death, contrasted to images of life, recur:
Acrobat has such grace despite heavy
in one hour will have caught fire, die
Two tigers will also have burned without a clue.
Scents of great Africa,
mysterious Asia lingering
in their nostrils, oh! tigers, do not depart
Sanguinetti´s readers are faced with either participating in the poem or being left out completely. Interestingly, the poem is potentially all-encompassing as a symbol of the positive and negative forces that both play on, and are played with by individuals caught in a given place and time. Many interpretations are possible with this kind of open-ended, yet cumulative type of literature. The reader is invited to explore the mystery of its meaning, as a participant.
Born in 1951, Sanguinetti is a member of the post-post-modern baby boom generation. As with most of that generation (myself included), the aesthetic value of the deconstruction of established forms and conventions is apparent. Translator Ann Cefola is generally sensitive to our generation´s aesthetic post-post-modern sensibility in her choices of synonyms. There are a few places where she might have translated with more of a French accent. I believe that those aspects of the original that are universal, such as punctuation and line breaks, should be preserved intact. Because poetry allows for noun-verb inversions and highly personalized and idiosyncratic syntax, the inversions also can be preserved/translated, especially from Latin-based Romance languages such as French, Italian and Spanish. Also, some words, such as chamber/chamber could have been translated as themselves. While "chamber" is a bit archaic in English, it´s still much more evocative than "bedroom" (it evokes the many-chambered nautilus). Changes in syntax are serious in poetry. They can damage the poetic process as it is perceived in a certain order by a reader. For the most part, though, Cefola succeeds in keeping the tone and imagery of the original, no small feat in a work that poses the question of how "to drift with the debris of the world and not drown?"
I like this book very much and recommend it to those who read poetry for experience. It is a sensual time-trip that expands from magnifying glass to telescope, transcending the boundaries of space.