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Lost in Translation: Thoughts on Poetry After My Stroke

April 18, 2023

When I signed up for an MFA class on non-English poetry, I was concerned about how, with only a little high school Latin, French and Spanish, I would be able to understand poetry written in other languages.  Were we actually going to have to translate from languages with totally different linguistic structures? As a late, or more honestly, very late bloomer in academic poetry, I was still feeling my way through the language, rhythms, and forms that students, half my age and less, had already studied in their English coursework, whereas my college years only contained one English course (Shakespeare—probably my favorite undergraduate class), with the rest concentrated on science and mathematics.  Yet, this late-to-the-academic-poetry-table dilemma did not turn out to be my biggest challenge.  

On January 1, 2022, I suffered a stroke that erased names and dates, recent memory, enough of my vision to eliminate driving, and left me wondering what remained of me. 

Translation took on a whole new meaning. Language can define who we are.  Is the writer in Arabic aware of more thoughts or emotions because of the vastness and beauty of that language?  Are there emotions I could access if I only had the words to express them? Are linguistic groups predisposed to more positive or negative emotions based on their access to words to articulate them? Does the loss of function in the left brain cause the right hemisphere to gain dominance? 

How much of poetry is generated by the right brain in all its messiness and art and how much depends on the left brain’s ability to pull together the abstract and make that messiness cohere into something meaningful to another human being?

 Obviously, my old scientific left brain still has the questions, but just trying to make sense of thoughts that are escaping intellectual holding pens, wriggling and rushing off screaming in all directions, is new and frightening.  Was I a fraud?  Did I observe the beauty of right brain poetic art and then counterfeit it through the plodding, calculations of my left brain, or is much of the beauty and creativity of the right brain lost if not captured and controlled by the left brain? In reviewing the syllabus, perhaps my stroke provided a deeper, differently interpreted, version of the class purpose:

By the end of the semester, we will have built upon what we already know while challenging ourselves to write the foreign, the unfamiliar, with the hope of ultimately expanding the range of what we can say and how we say it.

It turned out, the semester for me was not so much “building upon,” because I lost a lot of that foundation of what I already knew. Although some of that “building upon” was still present, I was dealing more with the “foreign, the unfamiliar,” not because of an internal challenge, but more an external imperative from the internal brain.  

Perhaps I need to say that differently.  The change was internal, the lack of oxygen that killed neural pathways was in the brain, but it appeared to the I, the me, the ongoing person I perceive as myself, as an external change, a differentiation between persona and the physical stuff of the body.  I am not a philosophy student, but there is now a dichotomy between the thinking me and the thinking me.  On one hand, the thinking me one is wounded.  The thinking me one cannot remember names, or dates or, in some cases, recent events), yet the thinking me two can profoundly miss names, dates, and events, can look at the first thinking me as another entity and go about trying to write a poem only to find it is different, changed, because the thinking me one is wounded and ultimately inseparable from the thinking me two. 

I fear that the wounded me, the logical me, is doing a botched-up job of trying to explain the newness in this old head, but suffice it to say the translation of poetry, mine and others, during the semester took on greater significance than I envisioned in my pre-stroke imaginings.

That semester I immersed, bathed, luxuriated in poetry that was originally written in languages other than English.  I felt/saw/heard beauty in multiple translations of the same poem even as meaning wriggled through in different ways.  I have learned how the poetic sense of the translator can change understanding at intellectual and emotional levels through choice of words, to adherence or divergence from form, rhyme, rhythm, and how much those dimensions depend on the original form in the original language. This search for understanding is why I joined an MFA program late in life and that did not change with the rerouting in my brain, even as my perception and appreciation were different than they were six months earlier.

One serendipitous exercise that affected me profoundly came from Against Assimilation: A Workshop on Estranging Language, an online workshop I watched to report on for credit in the class.  In it, we wrote a short poem, translated it to another language through Google Translate, and then back into English.  In some cases, the words were the same.  In others, they did not make sense or gain any value for me in the returned English. But in the third case, they stretched beyond original meaning or caused me to wonder why I had not chosen those words originally since they seemed to fit better. Working with the richness of more than one language caused me to see the aesthetic shifts promised in the class syllabus.  

 One mechanism I had not really understood or appreciated from my class, and other classes, was erasure poems.  They felt like fun, a game, but seemed gimmicky, an imposition of mechanical overlay versus creativity.  

Then I became an erasure poem.  From the scans of my brain that showed large white areas where thought, or at least facts, used to hang out, to the necessity to work around thoughts and words that were no longer present, to my poems suddenly needing/requiring/demanding more white space, I now feel an intuitive appreciation, if not yet an intellectual one, for erasure poems. (But then the left brain is not quite so dominant as it used to be, so the battle may yet be won.) 

And then there is form.  It wasn’t until I started the MFA program, that I became enamored with more than the most simplistic forms.  My younger self liked end rhyme because that was how I was introduced to poetry. I was actually jolted by, and looked down on, slant and internal rhyme until I was reintroduced to Emily Dickenson.  

How much appreciation of poetry is learned?  How much is lost through the learning? How much regained? I recently found an old volume of Samuel Hoffenstein and remembered how much I loved his irreverent verse. Doggerel?  

 In the first few semesters of the MFA program, I learned about poetry forms I had never heard of or at least never recognized before.  What joy to create a poem within those rigid structures!  It felt like collecting random fireflies and bringing them together to create light—a concept that does not come from personal experience, but one I can imagine.  This was where my left brain could be its stodgy self and still come up with a poem that contained the ephemeral dancing silk scarves of the scattered right brain.  “Hold still and let me tack that scarf to that villanelle over there.” “That line needs to be tightened to fit this haiku lantern. Let’s just take a few syllables off that mountain.”

Of course, the course was most precious to me in the poems themselves.  How can I be so lucky, an old crone, so caught up in work and family that she spent a lifetime escorting premedical students through the dangerous shoals of medical school application without looking up to see the mountains and music of the world she hoped they would save?  Each introduction to a poet, to a poem, became the more precious as I finally, through force of a stroke, consented to view my mortality. I look around at other wrinkled beings and see stroke, heart attack, cancer. Even just realizing I am the old woman complaining about aches and pains, the old woman I swore I would never be, all these damn frailties folded into awareness, finally forces acknowledgement that there really is an end, one that could have happened anytime, but I had my fingers in my ears, my eyes on an oblong with buttons and blinking lights and shiny apps. Suddenly, finally, that teenage belief that I am invincible is crumbling and I can’t drive and I can’t climb up that mountain to look at a flower, and mirrors no longer accurately reflect the young, lithe, pretty being that is me. 

But there is poetry.  And there is still enough intellect and grey matter in both sides of the brain to appreciate and love and treasure it. And the left brain sees beauty in the organization and intricacy, the turning of pictures and vibrations into words, the words forming on the page in a dance with sounds and sight, to turn back into pictures in a different person’s brain–different, but still finding a common path, shared emotion, and the right brain dances and sings and cares not for form or intellect but somehow connects to others in its own way.

I am looking again at my course syllabus, the part that says, “recognize our own place within the literary tradition.”  Aye, there’s the rub.  Where do I fit?  I suppose a poet, more confident of their own worth, would say, “I am unique, I don’t need to fit neatly into your literary tradition.  I make my own tradition.” 

Yet, there is death again. Slouching against the wall, cigarette in hand, “Ya wanna be remembered? Folks are gonna need a way to fit you into a slot so teachers can say, ‘we are now going to study the blah blah poets.’  Don’t fit with the blah, blah poets?”  He pokes his bony figure at me and sneers, “Who’s gonna write a special section just for you?  Huh?” 

A poem I wrote not too long after the stroke, is probably a song.  Predictable rhyme, repetition, three quarter time, irreverent, probably irrelevant.  But it poured out and felt right and that’s when I felt the need to go find Samuel Hoffenstein.  My lost-its-hard-cover volume was published by the Modern Library so he wasn’t totally ignored (1954 edition with copyrights back to 1923) and damn it, I like his doggerel.

My place within the literary tradition illudes me. Rhyme, no rhyme?  Usually, some sort of musicality and rhythm but not always. And now the stroke has presented me with…ta da!  Holes!  Holes in my head– big spaces in my verse.  Is it better or worse? Damn! (Hits right hand with left.) Stop with the rhyme already.  And before the stroke I had so much fun with intricate structures—villanelle, haiku, sonnets.  Have they taken a powder or are they just lying low? (I tried and failed to remove this next line.)  And where did they go?

But what of the specific poems from that after-the-stroke semester?  I read them and cried because most expressed sorrow and pain and somehow, I have permission to cry when the pain is not mine. I have always cried at poems and stories when others held their tears back, but remained dry-eyed when the loss of spouses, parents, friends was too terrible to allow myself to cry because who knew if I would ever be able to stop?  Pain is where I (and I suspect many) come together with other poets. 

Aside: (Why do I flinch when I lump myself with poets? Why do I have trouble with the words, other poets? Why do I suspect myself and assume others question my right to call myself a poet?)  

I have suffered sadness and loss as has everyone else.  The difference I see is I usually couch my pain in terms of black humor.  Is that the coward’s way out?  Does it really make pain easier to bear?  Is it a way to not glance directly at the clarity that hurts my eyes?

And now I finally come to considering specific poems from that weird semester. To review I went to the modules online and discovered that although I read and reflected on all the poems throughout the semester, they were again new for me.  There is a special shiver on reading a poem for the first time and I went through, reading a poem here, one there–at first wondering how I missed so many.  But all of them?  Damn, the stroke reared its ugly head (er, head minus neurons.)   But now I relive the shivers, Milosz’s Child of Europe–how could anyone forget that?  Yet I shudder on first reading—first reading, I assume, again. Perhaps that one speaks first because there is a horrible irony, and I am a connoisseur of horrible irony. And Abani’s Aphasia.  “My language is dying…” I read this with the most personal assumptions, even as I cannot find the meaning of Uwa’m.  Then Well Meant—So simple, so ironic.  I write (less perfectly) this way. A fellow traveler, I hungrily devour more Abani and wonder how I could have forgotten it and wonder if I will forever read after-stroke poems for the first time.

So, in the spirit of a limping left brain, I find myself having written something I hope speaks to someone outside of my head. It is an adventure, finding this new me.  I will have to remember to develop a new system to remember to go to these poems again, to remember to remember to find new ways to write poetry by looking at translations as well as the volumes of before stroke, more familiar poems, that line my office.  I know I will find among the familiar tomes, little books of poetry whose authors I discovered after the stroke.  Will they always be new discoveries?  Again? And again?

From → Thoughts

  1. Janice Alper permalink

    Barb, you are more articulate with ‘missing neurons’ than most people who have it all together. What an inspiration. You know I pray for you every day and treasure our friendship and how you mentor me.

    Love you, pal.

  2. Deborah permalink

    I agree with Janice, your brilliant brain with a stroke is still more brilliant than most brains without a stroke! Like my stupid brain!! Love your words dear friend.

  3. louisehawes permalink

    Crone? If that means seasoned, wise, tender, and attentive, why, yes indeed! And I only hope I’m half the crone you are!

  4. Mike Vargo permalink

    This is awesome. You have inspired me.

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