Ewa Chrusciel: “Are her verses alive? How to translate the semblance of felt life.”

Norman Davies, a historian, the author of Europe, said that translation is like a melody of an original played on a different instrument or in a different key. “Bach’s Air on a G string. which was written for a violin, will remain recognizable, even if played on a trombone and in the key of B flat. But they can never produce exactly the same sound (7).”

We cannot produce the same sound and image because every language conceptualizes the reality differently. The search for equivalence between the two texts takes place at the level of conceptualization. That is why Goethe used to say: “he who wants to understand a poet has to go to a poet’s homeland.”

The act of translation gives us insight into cognitive processes underlying each language.

When Emily Dickinson sent her poems to Higginson – the editor of Atlantic Monthly – she asked whether her verse was alive.

How do we translate the aliveness?

In Feeling and Form Susanne K. Langer says: “The poet’s business is to create the appearance of ‘experiences,’ the semblance of events lived and felt, and to organize them so they constitute a purely and completely experienced reality, a piece of virtual life.” (212). That is to say, literature need not be ‘subjective,’ in the sense of reporting the impressions or feelings of a given subject, yet everything that occurs in the frame of its illusion has the semblance of a lived event. (245). In “Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling,” Susanne K. Langer, writes: “artistic form is always the form of felt life (64).”

But how do we translate “the semblance of felt life”?

How do we translate what cognitive linguists would call iconicity of the poem? In poetry “felt life” is carried by prosody; in other words, meter, rhythm, and sound. This working of all of the elements together in a poem in order to lead to a formulated feeling is called poetic iconicity.

In her essay “Some Notes on Silence,” Jorie Graham explains that her poems are events, enactments of experience and not just containers for understood experience. This is why her poems are never that traditional hallmark experience of poetry. Instead, they demand an arduous effort of “digging” from readers. Consequently, as Brian Henry claims in his essay “Exquisite Disjunctions, Exquisite Arrangements,” Graham’s poems are memorable:

Their memorability resides not just in the various enactments—physical, philosophical, spiritual, visual—in them, but in the reader’s experience of sifting through, struggling with, succumbing to—experiencing—the poems. Graham privileges enactment over mimesis, and Stevens’ adage ‘To read a poem should be an experience, like experiencing an act’ seems especially pertinent to her poems. (104)


The task of a poet for Graham is to take the risk of constant transformation and change. She is the action poet. Her poems also take place in the present tense and, as Ann Shiffer notes, Graham “tries to make a present-tense transformative experience available for readers” (68).

The semblance of felt life is created in her poems through gaps, fissures, spaces in-between, through brackets and m-dashes, use of blanks and the presence of birds! As Willard Spiegelman notices, birds become a metonymy for the soul in Graham’s work. I would add that birds become a metonymy for truth “that is reserved for silence/ a butress in silence’s flying, its motions/ always away from source;/that is re-/served for going too” (12). This is the way Graham describes watching a bird:

lift and twist a beak sunlight made burnt-silver
as he tossed it back—not so much to let
anything out but more to carve and then to place firmly in the
listening space
around him
a piece of inwardnesss
(Never 12)

How do we translate “inwardness” into Polish? Because English is an analytic1 (or also called isolating) language which conveys grammatical relationship syntactically via unbound morphemes and in which meaning is often determined by the morphemes (for example the meaning of phrases: “go in,” “go up,” “go out” depend on these unbound morphemes: “in,” “up,” “out.”)

Polish, on the other hand, is a synthetic language, heavily inflectional. Prefixes and suffixes will very often determine the meaning of the verb or noun. In case of English “inwardness” we already have the transference of simulation of the analytic construction into synthetic one.

So when I translate “inwardness” into Polish “wgłębność,” I am not that far from the original conceptualization, except “wgłębność,” sounds to me a bit more grounded in Polish than “inwardness” in English. Nevertheless, we translated analytic construction into another analytic construction.

I think one of the reasons Graham’s poetry is avant-garde in English is her conceptualization of the world in Italian and French. Polish, just like Italian and French, has very Latin syntax. What seems non-Anglo-Saxon in Graham’s originals is sometimes rendered into clear Polish.

Do we domesticate or preserve “the otherness”? What is the true measure of foreignness? For example, how do we translate English m-dash into Polish, which does not have an m-dash? Do we invent it? In Polish we use a dash (or half-em-dash) which shortens the process of thinking or lingering. But as opposed to English, we put a space between the words and the dash. Would that be a compensation? I and my co-translator decided to stick to Polish dashes. I checked the Italian translation and the Italian translator made the same decision.

How do we tackle, however, the poem’s “inwardness”? In her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” Ann Carson writes, “metaphysical silence happens inside words themselves. And its intentions are harder to define.”
What language does Jorie Graham conceptualize the silence?

This is/ what the living do: go in.

Here is another example of translating analytic (or also called isolating) English “go in” into synthetic,2 or fusional Polish: “wchodzić” in the poem San Sepolcro. The poem revolves around the image of “going in.”

This is
what the living do: go in.

In Polish we do not have a phrasal verb that would be a direct equivalent. Instead, we have a synthetic verb with a prefix: “wchodzić.” “W” delinetaes the trajectory “in.”
„To właśnie robią żywi: wchodzą.”

Similarly, in the Italian translation by Antonella Francini, we have:

Questo fanno i vivi: entrano.

But in Italian, “go in” could be rendered through a prepositional, more colloquial phrase: vai dentro. Why not then:

Questo fanno i vivi: vanno dentro


Questo fanno i vivi: fanno ingresso

Both vanno dentro and fanno ingresso sound heavier and longer than in brisk English: go in.
Entrano seems a better equivalent, as it is a quicker word than the other two choices in Italian. Thanks to that quickness, a reader can delve right away into silence.

English “go in,” however, introduces a space, gap, lingering. It is in-between. It is through the crack we enter. Thanks to such analytic choices, Graham’s is the poetics always in action, always away from the source: “reserved for going” (In/Silence). Through the choice of phrasal: “going in” Graham conveys the movement of continuity with no closure. “There is no/ entrance/ only entering,” Graham writes in the poem “At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body” (75).

I think the brilliance of Graham’s vocabulary is that she navigates between both analytic (go in, go out, etc) and synthetic language constructions. In an interview with Milosz Biedrzycki (my co-translator of Graham’s book in Polish) and me when asked about the experience of having more than one language for a word, Graham responded:

One kind of slithers around in various skins. What this leads to–and I am trying to describe the experience from the inside of the compositional process—( because I so like this question!)—is a feeling of not only hunting around as if with a sixth sense for the right word. how the poem’s arc will unfold—in others words: where is the experience the poem is undertaking going to go? That is often, in some unconscious way, dictated by which piece of linguistic strata I am operating in—however briefly—if my English is “invaded”. I always write in English, but these other languages carry in their marrow, for me, ages of my life when I was not an American, as it were, when “home” was a very different kind of time, when history, for example, operated as a very different experience—one of much greater duration and importance. If I suddenly stray into that place where the Italian or French are dominant, my sense of “what the issues are”, for example, is affected. I might not even know it while it is happening, but it is happening.

San Sepolcro

In this blue light
              I can take you there,
Snow having made me
              A world of bone
Seen through to. This
              Is my house,

My section of Etruscan
              wall, my neighbor’s
Lemontrees, and, just below
              The lower church,
The airplane with factory.
              A rooster

Crows all day from mist
              Outside the walls.
There’s milk on the air,
              Ice on the oily
Lemonskins. How clean
              The mind is,

holy grave. It is this girl
              by Piero
della Francesca, unbuttoning
              her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,
              to go into

labor. Come, we can go in.
              It is before
The birth of god. No-one
              Has risen yet
to the museums, to the assembly
and wings—to the open air
              market. This is
what the living do: go in.
              It’s a long way.
And the dress keeps opening
              From eternity

To privacy, quickening.
              Inside, at the heart,
Is tragedy, the present moment
              forever stillborn,
but going in, each breath
              is a button

coming undone, something terribly
finding all the stops.

San Sepolcro

W tym błękitnym świetle
              mogę cię tam zaprowadzić
teraz, gdy śnieg mnie
              przeszył na wylot,
do kości. To
              jest mój dom,

moja część etruskiego
              muru, drzewka cytrynowe
sąsiada i, zaraz poniżej
              dolnego kościoła,
fabryka samolotów.

przez cały dzień pieje z mgły
              na zewnątrz murów.
W powietrzu jest mleko,
              lód na oleistych
skórkach cytryny. Jak czysty
              jest umysł,

święty grób. To ta dziewczyna
              u Piero
della Franceski, rozpinająca
              niebieską sukienkę,
płaszcz pogody,
              żeby zaczął się

poród. Chodź, możemy wejść.
              Bóg jeszcze się
nie narodził. Nikt jeszcze
              nie zmartwychwstał
do muzeów, do pracy
              przy taśmie – kadłuby

i skrzydła – do placu
              targowego. To właśnie
robią żywi: wchodzą.
              To daleka droga.
A sukienka wciąż rozsuwa się
              od wieczności

do osobności, czuć już ruchy.
              Wewnątrz – w sercu –
tragedia, teraźniejszość
              poroniona na wieki,
a jednak wchodzi, każdy oddech
              jest rozpinanym

guzikiem, czyjeś przeraźliwie
              zwinne palce
odnajdują wszystkie otwory.

Via negativa of translation

Next poem I wanted to mention is “Via Negativa” from the collection Never.

An interesting issue arose while translating “to see” in original into Polish. In English we read:

Does it only feel if you make “sense” of me?
Can it, for example, make me “see”?
Can it make me not see?
That we shall never know, of each other now, more.

In Polish:

Czy czuje tylko, kiedy mnie “pojmujesz?”?
Czy może, na przykɫad, pomóc mi “ujrzeć”?
Czy może mi pomóc nie widzieć
Że już się nigdy bardziej nie poznamy

Seeing is understanding, so how do we convey that cognitive metaphor in Polish? In Polish we have two separate, more unrelated semantically images for knowing and seeing: “widzieć” i “poznać.” Even though when we ask in Polish: “No widzisz?,” we also imply: “Rozumiesz?” (“do you understand”?), so seeing is also understanding in Polish. However, the verb “widzieć” does not sound reasonable in the below line, because it is incomplete. On the other hand, when we render it into complete verb, the word and the metaphor change.

Can it, for example, make me “see”?

In Polish:

Czy może, na przykɫad, pomóc mi widzieć


Czy może, na przykɫad, pomóc mi “ujrzeć”?

The complete verb to see in Polish “ujrzeć” does no longer emphasize cognition. It emphasizes vision. We ended up compensating by brining incomplete verb to see in Polish (widzieć) which implies cognition into the next line of the poem. We also chose verb poznawać (to know) which
alludes strongly to cognition.

Yet, another issue was the translation of idiomatic expression “to know by heart,” which in Polish translates into another image: “to know by memory” (literally speaking).

In Polish we do not know things by heart; we use the word memory, instead, literally: “I know you by memory.” The result: the metaphor and the conceptualization of the world here is different. In other words, heart remains silent, untranslatable.

But I do know you by heart.
Also know other things by heart.
Interior, spiral, damnation, your name.

In Polish:

Ale znam cię przecież na pamięć
Znam też inne rzeczy na pamięć.
Wnętrze, spiralę, potępienie, twoje imię.


Gracious will. Gracious indistinct.
Everything depends on the point where nothing can be said.
From there we can deduce how
From now on nothing will be like.
Here lies: a border then the un-
Just. Do I have, for example,
A heart? Does it only feel if you make “sense” of me?
Can it, for example, make me “see”?
Can it make me not see?
That we shall never know, of each other now, more.
That there is a no more. Hot and singular.
Surrounded by our first-persons: the no-more.
Before death’s obligatory plurality.
But I do know you by heart.
Also know other things by heart.
Interior, spiral, damnation, your name.
What would be the opposite of “you”?
When I “think,” it is near the future, just this
                                                    side of it.
Something I can’t conceive of without saying you.
The desert is fueled.
Daybreak a chaos in which things first come forth
                                                    then mix
as in an oasis, thirsty
for distinguishment.
Then the angels who need bodies to walk in.
Then something breaking light further as in: “it came to
                                                                 pass,” or
the way my words, encountered, are canceled,
especially if true, and how they insist on encounter:
finally: in the world: “the impossible”: “the little”
“in the house over there”: “elsewhere than here”:
what is this (erasure)(read on) is it a warning:
omit me: go back out: go back in: say:
no way to go in: go in
: measure:
the little fabric vanishes, ascends, descends, vanishes,
say twenty seconds, say wall
(at the same time there is a specific temperature)
(so that eventually the light goes down all the lights go out
(till the level is reached where a fall begins)(more or less

Via Negativa

Łaskawa wola. Łaskawa nieostrość.
Wszystko zależy od punktu gdzie nie można nic rzec.
Stamtąd możemy wywnioskować jak
od tego momentu nic nie będzie tak samo.
Tu leży: granica potem nie-
sprawiedliwe. Czy mam,
na przykɫad, serce? Czy czuje tylko, kiedy mnie “pojmujesz?”?
Czy może, na przykɫad, pomóc mi “ujrzeć”?
Czy może mi pomóc nie widzieć
Że już się nigdy bardziej nie poznamy
Że jest jakieś nigdywięcej. Gorące i pojedyncze.
Otoczone przez nasze zaimki osobowe: to nigdy więcej.
Przed konieczną mnogością śmierci.
Ale znam cię przecież na pamięć
Znam też inne rzeczy na pamięć.
Wnętrze, spiralę, potępienie, twoje imię.
Co byɫoby przeciwieństwem: “ty”?
Kiedy ja “myśli” jest blisko przyszɫości, po
                                                    jej stronie
Coś czego nie da się wyobrazić bez powiedzenia “ty.”
Pustynia jest nasączona .
Świt, chaos w którym to rzeczy najpierw wyraźnieją
                                                    a potem zamazują się
tak jak w oazie, spragnione
Potem anioɫowie, którzy potrzebują ciaɫ, w których się chodzi.
Potem coś ɫamiącego światɫo dalej jak w: “i tak się
                                                                 stało,” lub
sposób w jaki moje sɫowa, spotykane, są odwoɫywane
szczególnie jeśli są prawdziwe i domagają się spotkania:
w końcu: w świecie: “niemożliwe”: “maɫe”
“tam w tym domu”: “gdzie indziej niż tu”:
co to jest (wymazanie) (czytaj dalej) czy to ostrzeżenie:
pomiń mnie: wyjdź z powrotem: wejdź z powrotem: powiedz:
“nie ma jak wejść”: wejdź: mierz:
maɫa tkanina znika, unosi się, spada, znika,
powiedzmy dwadzieścia sekund, powiedzmy ściana
(równocześnie temperatura jest określona)
(więc w końcu światɫo gaśnie, wszystkie światɫa gasną
(aż do poziomu gdzie zaczyna się spadanie) (krócej lub

Graham’s poem exemplifies well the relation between the form of broken, twisted, and interrupted syntax and storming the walls of Mystery. When asked about that relation in an interview with me and my co-translator Miłosz Biedrzycki, Graham responded:

As for “twisted”: well that is the crooked path, the one that takes you off the expected path–the one Mercury, or Hermes leads you towards–“off road”, “off coarse”, the left-handed path the mystics would call it. Beginning and then the re-beginning that occurs at each step once one is “in” the beginning. That’s what branchings are, and secondary limbs, and all the foliage.

To follow up on the question of relation between “twisted,” “broken” and multilingual, she said:

if you grow up multilingual, as opposed to learning languages later in, in sequence. I do see the effect as dizzying. Spiritually vertiginous, even.But also, I think, besides making me aware of the essential reality, or priority, if you will, of the thing over the linguistic event of its “capture”–it also makes me feel the word very physically, as I end up trusting the substratum beneath the linguistic, perhaps,more than if I had been raised with an automatic sense that the word and what it signifies are one and the same. That belief would have, of course, come open to scrutiny later in life, for anyone having experience. But I have felt the skin of language both wrap itself round tight, and pull itself off quite suddenly, in my experience of the realia–does this make sense? Even as a small child. In my practice it has made me perhaps more obsessed with some kind of massive faithfulness to sense data, as I “force” my senses through experiences I might have otherwise bypassed by using the easier ( because less complex, less filled with contradiction) instrument of the conceptual intellect. This is very deep in my practice. I would almost say it is what drives me to write at all: to make contact, to force my self physically, sensorially, into presence. I do think this has to do with the way in which multilingual early experience bewilders the soul and makes it wonder: where it the real, or, perhaps, where is the “given” real? And why do we have to speak about it all. One senses, as a child, very quickly the feeling that any word seems to somehow “betray” or “lie about” the thing it means to embrace. That there is a trespass here. A strangeness that will not peel off….

Special today: No ice-creams

How do we translate the strangeness that will not peel off?

Can we translate the semblance of felt life? Do we translate it into semblance of semblance or maybe another semblance or maybe new semblance of new life or new semblance of old life?

How do we not lie?

1. An analytic language uses unbound morphemes, which are separate words, rather than bound morphemes which are inflectional prefixes, suffixes or infixes. If a language is isolating, with only a single morpheme per word, then by necessity it must convey grammatical relationships analytically back

2. synthetic languages, where words often consist of multiple morphemes back

Works Cited:

Carson, Ann, “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” from A Public Space, Issue 7 / 2008. Poetry Daily. http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_carson.php

Davies, Norman in E. Tabakowska. O przekładzie na przykładzie. Znak, Kraków 2003.

Freeman, Margaret. “The Aesthetics of Human Experience: Minding, Metaphor, and Icon in Poetic Expression,” Poetics Today 32.4, 2011.

Francini, Antonella. L’angelo custode della piccola utopia. Poesie scelte 1983-2005: Italy, Luca Sossella Press, 2009.

Graham, Jorie. “Some Notes on Silence,” By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry. Ed. Molly McQuade. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2000.
____________ Erosion: Princeton UP, 1983.
____________ Never: Ecco P, 2002.

Graham, Jorie. Interview with Ewa Chruściel and Miłosz Biedrzycki. Biuro Literackie. 2013

Henry, Brian. “Exquisite Disjunctions, Exquisite Arrangements.” in Gardner, Thomas. Ed. Jorie Graham: Essays on the Poetry. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2005.

Langer, S. K. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1953.

Shiffer, Ann. in Gardner, Thomas. Ed. Jorie Graham: Essays on the Poetry. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2005.

Spiegelman, Willard. in Gardner, Thomas. Ed. Jorie Graham: Essays on the Poetry. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2005.

Admissions PublicationsEwa Chrusciel has two books in Polish: Furkot and Sopilki and one book in English, Strata, which won the 2009 international book contest and was published with Emergency Press in 2011. Her second book in English Contraband of Hoopoe is forthcoming with Omnidawn Press in September 2014. Her poems were featured in Jubilat, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Lana Turner, Spoon River Review, Aufgabe among others. She translated Jack London, Joseph Conrad, I.B. Singer as well as Jorie Graham, Lyn Hejinian and Cole Swensen into Polish. She teaches at Colby-Sawyer College.