A Read (and re-read) of re/translate


By Stephen Hines

40 pages

Bottle of Smoke Press


Let’s say that language is an abstract, subjective system of signs, with different languages built in different systems. Let’s add that poetry may involve a warmer, more musical system, but one that is still built in an equally subjective way atop the first set of signs. The act of translating verse from one language into another, then, can be like arranging a whole new song in a completely new genre. Or, at least, giving the original an extensive remix.

At first read, re/translate isn’t quite that musically inclined. Poet Stephen Hines suggests he is working in the spirit of the time-honoured kids’ game of “Pass it On”, where a phrase repeated at one end of a line-up comes out the other end processed into linguistic hamburger by the giggly minds of early learners. But playing this game with poetry offers a bit more adventure than spitting a phrase along from one ear to the next can.

Here, the phrase is a full-grown piece of literature, and the processor, an on-line translation system. Hines’ rather unpoetic technique is to run the text of a previously-published poem of his (“revision”) through a translation algorithm numerous times, from English to, say, Russian, then back to English. He reveals the transformation, then moves on to the next language, and the return to English, and the further remix.

Although Hines claims not to have tinkered with or edited the translations, the results have a surprising flow. Through the accretion of idiosyncrasies from each language, the words gather additional meaning from translation to translation, like a well-worn piece of luggage building up a facade of travel stickers. 

And it’s a battered piece. For Hines, language is an almost physical medium, and reading his work becomes a visceral experience. The text takes an anoraphic pounding, such as when, in the initial poem, “these words [become] raw from rereading/raised bloodred from rereading”. Hines’ style is prosaic, direct and merciless.

Translation, though, rips the poem from his grasp. When, a few versions in, the poem returns to English from German, it has been tuned more lyrical: “Rereading these words makes swollen/saturated beads, raw red raised/wounds.” By the time the last version is reached, landing from Bengali as “Format”, the text is a minimalist knot of potential meaning that seems exhausted by all the efforts, gradually collapsing at the end into the infinity of a hanging conjunction:




Of course, there are other variables at work in this literary experiment (which translator is used?; which languages are chosen and in which order? etc.). But the satisfaction from the results, the way in which the collection actually hangs together as a piece of literature rather than just the raw products of an experiment, comes from the dramatization of language as a constantly mutable system. Here, meaning is as much layered on as also dug up, with the reader rearranging their approach to the poem with each fresh presentation: a remix and a new genre from each mouth to each ear.

Go to the front of the line.


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Dusting Off: King Dork, the novels

(An occasional series in which we dust off some slightly older but relevant material that has been sitting on the shelf, metaphorical or otherwise)

The (notionally) youth-oriented King Dork series is an example of art imitating art. Author Frank Portman is (slightly) better known as “Dr. Frank” of long-running punkers MTX (aka The Mr. T. Experience), a band (mildly) famous for blending romantic angst, pop culture references, witty wordplay and breezy, loudly anthemic musicKing Dork and King Dork Approximately feature angst-ridden young rebels who favour anthemic music told via a snappy mix of pop culture references, witty wordplay and breezy prose. These are entertaining stories that also happen to be smart interrogations of youth culture and the art it is based in. Throughout the books, our anti-hero, Tom Henderson, tries to make sense of his world and Western youth culture while looking at, but not necessarily using, best practices from classic rebellion-based books (Catcher in the RyeBrighton RockNaked Lunch), and a large ‘desert island disc’ list of music (from at least AC/DC to Nirvana). It all sounds ordinary enough, but Portman brings just the right mix of irony and earnestness to the production to offer something to those of the younger demographic who are navigating adolescence (a bit too seriously), and those of the older set looking back at those days with some (undue) nostalgia.

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A Read of Fante Bukowski

Fante Bukowski
By Noah Van Sciver
Graphic Novella
80 pgs
Fantagraphics Books

The most direct leap to satire is through the cartoon frame. Take a figurative blowhard, morph him or her into a literal one through exaggeration of specific physical traits, push ’em out et voilà: instant ridicule.

In Fante Bukowski, Noah Van Sciver blows the parodic target of a struggling, self-centered, and self-stylized writer up into a bearded buffoon with all the pretension and faux-suffering accoutrements – albeit a genuinely earnest one who still retains some soul.

Twenty-three year-old would-be poet Fante Bukowski (née Kelly Perkins) presents a figure familiar to anyone who has been driven to pen/pencil and/or typewriter/keyboard by the existential need to express themselves, but with no real idea of what that self is, past a template of their favourite writer. The protagonist here is, obviously, going for the stylized Skidrow Bard image his namesake, the poet Charles Bukowski, created for himself, with a little John Fante-spice on top. However, this Bukowski lacks the actual talent and, having just (perhaps ill-advisedly) quit his dad’s lawfirm, actual experience of living a back-alley existence.

Narcissistic would-be artists aren’t exactly slippery targets. But Van Sciver isn’t interested in barn-broadside shooting practice. His characters, while flaunting the requisite exaggerated traits, and despite being literally two-dimensional in this graphic novella form, also show more depth than stooges in a drawing room farce. Van Sciver is more interested in exploring the growth of the artist figure, rather than in excoriating artists.

“[H]ighly-respected” literary agent Ralph Bigsburg is played partly for pretension but also as an honest (if hyperbolically) exasperated foil for runaway, untamed and untrained enthusiasm. Fante’s new girlfriend, Audrey, is a writer with an actual publication track record and alternative press image (razored-bald head and razor attitude) but reacts to his primitive approach to literary rebellion with delighted amusement rather than scorn. Fante himself, who beer-sweats the same youthful naievte as anyone who has first cracked the spine of a Black Sparrow Press book, is more sympathetic symbol than simple strawman. And Fante’s main barroom companion, an utterly banal example of someone whose simple dreams have let him down, meets an utterly banal but tragic end, in a scene that punctures any pretension and lets the dirty realism whistle sharply in.

As satires go, Fante Bukowski is more gentle Horatian than barking Juvenalian. Van Sciver uses stark, simple drawings and a very earthy colour palette. These subtle tools ease the reader into Fante’s abrupt awakening to a more expansive existence after his failures in the artistic urban jungle quickly grind him down. An ending which marks, perhaps, his real beginning, as both artist and individual.

Read more on Fante Bukowski (and more from Fante Bukowski).

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Reading (A Vandal’s) Confession

Vandal Confession
Mitchell Gauvin
Now or Never Publishing
153 pages

The romance of the road has long entranced the more rebellious side of the North American literati, though the ditch on the side of the post-Beat literary highway is crowded with Jack Kerouac’s poet-hobo descendants, stranded on their own would-be quixotic destinies. So, literally, is Xavier Bernard, the burnt-out-before-his-time narrator of Mitchell Gauvin’s Vandal Confession.

The On the Road echo may be a faint one here, but it is an apt shotgun partner for the reader who meets Xavier in transit with his friend Felix in Felix’s beat-up Jaguar. The pair stalls on a nondescript rural route in a nondescript part of Central Ontario and, to kill time while waiting for a tow, Xavier hands Felix a copy of the autobiographical novel he has been working on, based on his own nondescript life cruising the boundaries of the Greater Toronto Area.

Vandal Confession, though, is actually an anti-road novel. As the post-Gen Xer/pre-Millenial unheroes wait for assistance on the side of the highway, Xavier’s meandering recount of a standard suburban life takes over. In typical Late-Slacker fashion, he is all snark, nicknaming his nondescript residences (his boyhood home, “Slanty McGee”; his later bachelor pad, “Whitey McConcrete”) and casually tossing off interactions with a set of interchangeable directionless friends and hapless authority figures.

Subtle angst riffs with his constant cultural observations. He notes that “[w]hen built, Whitey McConcrete proposed that living further from the ground translated somehow into being worthy and unique. No one foresaw plumbing problems, flooding fountains, elevator malfunctions – the hamsters in their little wheels would go hungry.” He describes his father as “full of movie quotes and recanted scenes, mementos to simplified truths and rewritten familiar stories that were increasingly irrelevant. He thought he was speaking sincerely of sacred teachings and essential social lessons, but watching Rambo never taught anyone life lessons; watching Wall Street never taught anyone how to do business; although watching Crocodile Dundee will teach you why no one likes the 1980s.” 

These observations may not be the stuff of philosophy but serve double-duty: showcasing Xavier’s sitcom-sidebar wit while also turning out the lining of a consciousness nurtured by Friends rather than the literary Canon.

At the lightly-balanced centre of this short book is a tension between creative and destructive impulses. Xavier’s desire to build meaning into his life and give it some sort of direction is evident from the names he’s tagged his homes with, to the fictional liberties that, as Felix points out, glare vividly from various sections of the manuscript. But Xavier can’t quite hide (or doesn’t quite want to hide) a latent impulse to violence that fractures his milquetoast image. Bold acts of arson (the literal vandalism in the book), threats to old acquaintances with firearms, and spray-painting over the truth (the figurative vandalism) are at odds with his placid self-portrait, and start to twist the reader’s perception with what has gone on before.

As a confession, this vandal’s is couched in a compact hymn to early 21st century existential angst rooted in the detritus of pop culture. But this isn’t about the artistic impulse so much as what can coil behind it. Reconciliation comes with a sinister change of tone when Xavier doesn’t smash the mirror but, rather, welcomes another image of himself into his own confession in what seems an ominous acceptance of his darker side.

Which enforces the notion that you should always be wary of who you pick up at the side of the road…

Pull up here.

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A Flash of Unbroken: A Journal of Prose

Unbroken: A Journal of Prose (Jan/Feb 2016 issue)

So simple and straightforward, but still substantial, Unbroken connects a rich read in brief stories, flips of imagery, and quick hits of literary vandalism. A mix of pictures and prose laid along short, sharp arcs of narrative and verse, with the concrete poured in-between. The collection seems to sort out its own internal rhythm: word into word; sentence through sentence; paragraph and paragraph. Or, you could just scatter them all over, and pick up each one on its own.

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Afloat with Domanski

Fetishes of the Floating World
Don Domanski
18 poems

Sometimes, it spellbinds you like an old fairy tale focussed through a spyglass that zooms in and out with meditative rhythm. Other times, it fastens your attention down firm like an electron microscope drilling into the atomic level. However you experience it, Don Domanski’s Fetishes of the Floating World serves as both mystical work of art and exploration of modern poetic consciousness.

These 18 tightly interwoven poems are based in a postmodern pastoral setting – that is, both a walk in the woods and a step outside the mind. Fetishes provides a base for the poet to play with a Whitmanesque dialogue on the universal and the particular. But Domanski’s is a Whitman for the newest century, where we are awash in and overwhelmed by information and experience.

This is complex yet primordial stuff. The lyrics flow in dense waves from the narrating poetic consciousness. The instinctive will at its centre casts for a reprieve from mortality in science, nature and religion. At the same time, it attempts to, at first subsume, then simply coexist with, the universe as it draws in and out of its surroundings, as well as in and out of itself. At one point, the poet spies, in the heart of the landscape,

“[a]n old chevy convertible lying in a ditch
two maple saplings growing up through
its frame  one in the driver’s seat   one
in the back   the road ahead filled with

and, shortly after, will be hauled further in, towards “the place just beyond language…where the keening starts”.

At other moments, the poet abruptly backs himself out to focus on traditional muses like “the waning moon sleeved with a thin cloud” or leaps out further still to “exoplanets/and constellations” and “the scaffolding/to hang them on”.

This pulsing perspective, continually mixing subjective and objective, earthly and extraterrestrial, provides the overarching structure for the chapbook. Sometimes, the poet is transforming the scenescape into his own story; other times, he finds that he has been swallowed and tries to negotiate his way out and up again to a higher plane.

Domanski matches this constant shifting with a roiling imagery, stirring the fabulist in with the scientific (“watching/dark and votive chromosomes slowly drift/across the pond’s surface”) and the mundane with the hyper-modern (“flash mob of ants”).

Whitman, in another age, wrote about leaning, loafing, finding both the infinite and transient in blades of grass, sharing atoms, weaving the song of himself through them all, and becoming a veritable “kosmos” that contains it. Here, the 21st century bard has happily lost that battle and thrown himself into a universe where subject and object almost inextricably blend.

Float in through here.

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A Rollercoaster Read of A Free Man

A Free Man or, #6ix
By Michel Basilières
ECW Press
215 pages

A Free Man is pretty close to an indescribable blend of way-post postmodernist art. At its most frameable, the structure is a whirling literary dervish that slips descriptors beyond such PoMo nomenclature as: Chinese puzzlebox; deep collection of nested narratives; onion with multiple layers of meaning; text of infinite regression, etc. etc. etc. But it’s also pretty fresh and fun.

The basic outline is conventional. A writer recounts a friend’s everyday travails that are filled with comic and sexual misadventures. The entertainment, however, is all in the dizzying execution that marks the book as a riddle wrapped in an enigma slapped silly.

The skeletal plot is based on the anti-picaresque adventures, as told to the narrator, of one “Skid Roe”. These involve a variety from garden to scifi, and include, more specifically: failed romance; the 9 to 5 working grind; internet porn addiction; a robot from the future named Lem; and time travel. And none of which are really to the benefit the aforementioned Mr. Roe.

The beauty here is in the anarchic entanglement of genre, intertextual references and dry humour, especially when primary recounter Michel Basilières fluffs the language up to describe the mundane, everyday activities that make up our social and commercial interactions. For example, Skid’s purchase of drugs at the pharmacy becomes a more profound sensory experience:

“I slipped my card into the slot under the keypad on the counter. I entered my number, pressed buttons. Machines communicated with each other, made a decision. The register let out a joyful chime, the cashier handed me my prize, and we waited while the keypad transcribed a record of its conversation with my bank’s computer and printed it. She tore it out of the slot like an old-fashioned tickertape stock quote and handed it to me.”

Such imagery strengthens the novel’s main discernable theme: an exploration of existential alienation in an increasingly connected yet disconnecting world.

Well, probably.

Basilières draws on pastiche, parody and wiseacrey from fellow literary piss-takers – such as when the footnotes take the story hostage from the main narrative à la Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Everything is just slightly off-kilter from the real world: “Toronto” becomes “toronto”; “America” is “Amerika”. One of Basilières’ antecedents in the literary-self-destruction genre even makes a cameo appearance, when former author/publisher/street-vendor Crad (here Krad) Kilodney shows up to add a little extra pontificatorial madness.

Whether you want to make sense of it or not is your decision, but A Free Man is an enjoyable literary wild-ride.

Line-up here for departure.

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