In the Service of the Figure (I)

In the Service of the Figure: Marcella Durand on translating Michèle Métail (Part 1)

An Interview by Janet Lee

We’re starting to understand now, I think, that there’s a human-nature spectrum, that there are connections that we need to understand and still do not understand, like, what is our own ecological niche in the history of the world—the concept of the Anthropocene especially, that humans are an actual, geological event. We’re a thin layer of plastic.


I first came upon a selection from Marcella Durand’s translation of Michèle Métail’s Les horizons du sol (Earth’s Horizons: Panorama) in Asymptote’s July 2018 issue.

The text and accompanying collages were instantly striking, with an aggressive exactness on the part of the text, which is in all-caps in stark blocks, and a wonderful alienness to the dismembered maps Métail collaged with. As I read, the enormity of Marcella’s task as a translator came to the fore: “Les horizons du sol is written in an immediately visible constraint of forty-eight characters per line, twenty-four lines per page, and comprises one long sentence of continuous enjambment,” Durand writes in the introduction to the book later published by Black Square Editions in 2020. This is, in other words, an Olympian Oulipian constraint.

(Though one of the few female members of Oulipo, Métail has since distanced herself from the group, as she is more interested in tailoring constraints to the specificity of the text, rather than using one constraint to generate several texts.)

The importance of place in Les horizons du sol would be something that deeply resonated with Marcella—to the extent that she embarked on what would be over a decade researching and translating Earth’s Horizons. The book opens with an enigmatic line in the middle of an otherwise blank page: “AN OBSERVER LIMITS HER POINT OF VIEW TO THE LINE” before the Earth begins to fall away, so to speak, as unknowably ancient and large landmasses violently shift to form what will be Marseille. Within this shifting landscape, humanity emerges, along with their small attempts at understanding what has just, really, taken place here.

I invited Marcella to read at the Another Way to Say translation series shortly after the book was published in 2020, and was left, if possible, with more questions. On September 30th, serendipitously also International Translation Day, we got on the phone and talked at length about the text. That is, we talked about the text, certainly, but also Métail’s work with Chinese reversible poetry, Marcella’s own work as a poet, and a poet’s place in addressing environmental crisis. The following interview has been transcribed and edited for clarity.

Janet: It’s been a year since Earth’s Horizons was published. Beyond the wonderful blurbs on the back from Michael Palmer and Andrew Joron, what has reception been like? What have you been hearing from people who read it?

Marcella: I’ve gotten some great responses from poets—especially poets who are interested in this kind of rigorous form and constraint. But it’s difficult to say… with COVID, I don’t think it’s gotten the wider reading I would have liked. I was intending to approach the French-American literary community and venues such as Albertine bookstore, for example, until the pandemic hit. So I would like to pick up that effort again. Michelle Métail is not well-known in the States, apart from some American poets who are fairly well-acquainted with contemporary French poetry. I have a feeling that even in France, she’s not as well-known as she should be, so I definitely want to present her to a larger audience.

Janet: When you read for Another Way to Say, did you notice as you read the selection from, if I remember correctly, the beginning, as the earth is in its throes of becoming Earth, were there things that you noticed in reading aloud, and perhaps in subsequent readings, that jumped out at you, as if you hadn’t seen them before?

Marcella: That first page was probably the page I spent the most time on, because that was when I was really getting to know the constraint and how to work with it. So I have a special affection for that first page because it was the doorway to the rest of the work. I really, really polished and re-polished it—it was published in The Nation, which was exciting, where it could reach a wider readership. I did worry about what much of Earth’s Horizons was going to sound like read out loud… it’s such a dense and visual work. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I read it to an audience. I do think that it creates a kind of sonic effect, or so I hope. It’s hard to say from my end how it’s received on yours.

Janet: Yeah, there’s definitely something in it that calls for oration, for it to be read aloud. I found when I was reading Earth’s Horizons myself, there were a couple of methods that made it easier for me to understand, because, I mean, as you said in your introduction, it is a very abstract read, or it can be, and it was just impossible for me to approach it as I normally approach reading anything else, where I’m normally looking for a subject, an object, a verb. My solution was to either hold each image in my mind, and just let them replace each other, or to read it aloud, perhaps because the vocalizations better conveyed the movement and motion.

Marcella: Oh good! I’m glad to hear that.

Janet: How did you first come across Michèle Métail’s Les horizons du sol? Did you hear her read? Or did you read the text itself?

Marcella: I read the text first. I was working with a couple of poet friends, Kristin Prevallet and Olivier Brossard, back in 2000, to create a survey of contemporary French poetry. So we got this—it wasn’t a grant—we got permission to use the Wertheim Study at the New York Public Library, and read their entire collection, A to Z, of contemporary French poetry. What came out wasn’t the survey we had hoped for—we just started too big; I mean, we literally read contemporary French poets A to Z, and it was too much. We had divided everything up by letter, and I had the letter M. When I got to Michelle Métail’s work, I just connected to it immediately. I didn’t understand it… it was an incredibly dense and abstract work way beyond my level of French, but I loved it, and wanted to understand it. I started to translate it and it never let go… I had to finish. And then it was so difficult to translate that once I translated the first page, I felt like I had to keep going to justify the effort already spent.

Janet: When did you reach out to Michèle?

Marcella: I think I’d finished the first page… I contacted her fairly quickly because I just wanted that permission as soon as possible—as soon as I realized that this was going to be something more than me just messing around. Sometimes when I read French poetry, I do little translations to come to a fuller understanding of what I am reading. These translations are not ever meant for publication. But I recognized early on that this was going to be a serious translation and wanted to correspond with her.

And we connected as people. The more I read her work, and the more I learned about her life’s work—I admire her so much. She’s such a brilliant, fascinating thinker. She’s worked in Japan and China and Germany… she’s an amazing, global-international thinker. Her extensive work with classical Chinese reversible poetry is mind-blowing… very, very difficult work. She’s done so much to honor the 4th-century poet Su Hui, who developed these brilliant, absolutely mathematically brilliant, reversible poems, and who up until just recently was unrecognized by Anglo readers, although Jen Bervin has been doing some recent creative scholarship on her work, including a film collaboration with commentary from eight Chinese thinkers, Su Hui’s Picture of the Turning Sphere, that is wonderful. I was so happy to see when, in 2017, NYRB published Métail’s work, Wild Geese Returning, on Su Hui and Chinese reversible poems in a translation by Jody Gladding. Wild Geese Returning is not exactly a thesis or essay; instead, it pushes the boundaries of genre like everything else Métail does.

Janet: What’s the format of Chinese reversible poetry? How is it read?

Marcella: According to Métail’s introduction in Wild Geese Returning, reversible poems “were associated with an actual story of separation,” namely Su Hui embroidering a poem, “The Map of the Armillary Sphere,” that could be read on many levels, from all directions, in five colors, to be sent to her husband. So they are texts that can be read in two directions, which includes the sender and the receiver, so the poem really is formed as it is read. If you don’t have the reader at the other end, it loses much of its power. For Michèle to pick up the signal… it’s like H.D.’s idea of the poem being the transmitter, of the poet being the transmitter and the transmission, and the reader a receptor. Su Hui’s poetry, at its core, was written to connect in this way, like a love poem, to one specific reader (her husband) who would receive it with passion. That Michèle picked it up, hundreds of years later, is so moving and meaningful.

“The Map of the Armillary Sphere” by Su Hui, from Michèle Métail’s
Le vol des oies sauvages : poèmes chinois à lecture retournée (Tarabuste Éditions, 2011)

Janet: I love how that corresponds, in a way, to how you received her poetry when you came across it for the first time.

Marcella: Yes! I think everything she does is so intensely meant as a [point of] connection. We finally had the chance to meet in person about four or five years after I had first encountered her work. We met at a French poetry festival in Connecticut hosted by Fish Drum, and up until then, I hadn’t known what her performances were like and that performance is as important a form to her as the written text. She whispered, so that everyone had to lean in to hear her as she unrolled a scroll of infinite phrases. On so many levels what she’s doing engages you to sit with the poem and her performance in a different, very specific way. Her work is often site-specific and she explores publication outside of print too, seeing how a poem can be integrated into other forms, such as, say, a bank note. This was another reason why I wanted to make sure she was okay with my translation of Earth’s Horizons. She has pushed against traditional forms of publication throughout her career. I wanted to make sure she was okay with having a book that someone would sit at home alone with and read in another country.

Janet: In a general way, I do think we as translators working from another language into English need to be careful not to assume that the author wants their work to appear in English.

While we’re talking about Michèle as an artist who works with several different art forms, let’s look at the collages in Les horizons du sol. I really loved the collages. Did you find yourself referring to them as you were translating? Like a translator might refer to a map of the region their text is set in?

Marcella: Yes, they were definitely an essential visual part of the text. But what I felt rather anguished about was that I really wanted to visit Marseille to get a better sense of the geology and geography of the area. I didn’t get to visit until after the translation was finished. I wish I could do that over again somehow. Or maybe it was good, maybe that allowed my translation to be more of an imagined landscape, to conjure it more.

Janet: There is, on the last page, this idea of being unable to go back to “[…] a now extinct / past that does not persist in the minds of those / who aid the archiving […]”. That is, can we even see geological history from our perspective, so, I mean, it would of course have been amazing to visit Marseille, but then there’s the idea that even if you were there, would you be able to see what the text describes?

Marcella: She writes so much about the rawness and the fire and dryness of the area, and of these particular geological formations called calanques. When I was finally able to go to Marseille, I was like, oh man, I can’t wait to see these calanques that she’s written so much about. But ironically, I couldn’t. I was there in August, and couldn’t visit because of the wildfires. It’s a very dry landscape with wildfires. So the hiking trails were closed. It’s truly inaccessible—a raw, forbidding landscape. So it’s still this completely poetic landscape for me.

Janet: Earth’s Horizons, of course, describes at length the formation of the land, but to what extent does it convey an environmental-ecological concern?

Marcella: I think that that was the part of the poem I actually had the most trouble with, in a way. I was really delighted to find a poem that went deeply into geology because I’ve found that extremely rare in poetry and really in any genre. John McPhee and Clark Coolidge are, I think, some of the few writers who can really write about geology in a way that clarifies it, gets into it. So the part of the book I had trouble with is where the geological and botanical history evolves to the social and human history of Marseille. The changes in the latter half of the text refer, I think, to specific social movements and particular moments in Marseillais history. The transition [from the geological to the human] is interesting—it’s always interesting to me at what point humanity is joined to the environment, the continuum of that, since it’s so often set up as a binary: human [≠] nature.

We’re starting to understand now, I think, that there’s a human-nature spectrum, that there are connections that we need to understand and still do not understand, like, what is our own ecological niche in the history of the world—the concept of the Anthropocene especially, that humans are an actual, geological event. We’re a thin layer of plastic. It requires us to stand outside ourselves as a species and as existing in a physical space that has such a deep, deep, deep history well beyond our lifespan.

Janet: The transition is really subtle… I remember I had to go back, reverse my read, go back, and if I remember right, the transition occurs with the appearance of the mareograph, the device that measures the tides, and suddenly we’re in this digital interface and whatever the mareograph is measuring… suddenly we’re not in the earth anymore, we’re with humanity.

Marcella: You’ve got it, it’s exactly that: we move from earth to the water, to the sea, and sea history, and that mareograph… I definitely was struggling with that, how seemingly all of a sudden in the text there were these naval terms.

I spent a lot of time on those pages. The concept of terraqué was important in understanding the temporal/textual transition from the history and landscape prior to and without humans into one with and of humans—the concept of a world between earth and water. That’s also where I realized that she was referring to other poets, like Eugène Guillevic, he’s a Breton poet… the title of his first book is Terraqué. So I went out, found it and read it to understand the context of terraqué, and the background of this word. He writes about landscape similarly; the raw ocean, inflected geological landscapes of Brittany.

[Métail] had lots of these sorts of keywords, and I would spend time with them, researching them, because they were doorways into the larger work. Septentrional was another “keyword.” I spent ages puzzling over that one—every dictionary defined it, vaguely, as “north.” Then I found the English translation was… septentrional too. And then I discovered the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé had used the word in his classically mysterious work, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, the strangeness of which has led many to try to “decipher” it, rather like reversible poetry—perhaps it was meant for one reader to understand and one reader only! But its mystery and radical form of words set in emptiness lures so many others. Métail really led me to Mallarmé, who has turned into a major influence, particularly his concept of the “senseless splendor” of infinite stars being framed by the artist.

The mareograph, too, is like a little keyhole, that’s the first instance in which humans begin to measure the elements.

Janet: Yeah, and to force the Earth into a measurable sequence… that was really affecting. There’s a graph, now, imposed on the landscape.

Marcella: I’m looking at it now and I’m like, you know, I translated this for over 15 years, I adore it, and there are still parts where I honestly… I still have no idea what’s going on. But I like that, I’m still with it, it works. I don’t know that it actually even has a referent outside of the text. It remains a fascinating and incomplete mystery, one with which I will always be occupied.

“Sud-Sud-Sud-Sud” by Michèle Métail

Janet: It’s definitely something to be read over and over again, and you did read it over and over again. Fifteen years!

Marcella: I probably spent a year per page, you know, researching everything, trying to understand it, trying to put it together, and now I’m looking at it thinking, “I still don’t know what, say, ‘PROXIMITY’S BEACON’ is.” But I love it. And I spent all that time [in research], and then turning it into a 48-character line, 22 lines per page, per Michèle’s original constraint.

Janet: The tense of the piece is interesting. In the French there’s a lot of present participle, a lot of continuous present. It creates this sensation that everything is happening all at once, nothing is ever fully “past” or “future.” Were you thinking about tense as you were translating?

Marcella: I got that, pretty early on, she wanted to set this in a continuous present and inhabit something ahistorical. She has this little quote, let’s see, about time immemorial, the very last line, which I felt was pretty key to the whole thing: “…OPENING TO THE PERPETUITY OF AN IMMEMORIAL SOUTH.” Much of the last pages, the social history, is about fighting back against this idea of the monument or things being historicized, and instead, all of this is a part of this timelessness.

And this area [around Marseille] is really timeless. We saw Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire while we were there, and it was such a revelation, because I’d thought that Mont Sainte-Victoire was going to be this picturesque mountain, but when I actually saw the real thing… it’s this jagged mountain that you cannot access very easily at all. There are no real paths around it… it’s a serious geological monument. I feel like I understand his work better. Cézanne would talk about the timelessness of the colors, the ochre earth and the blue sky of Provence. I think that Michèle is getting at that too: that sense of a timeless environment beyond human-perceived landscape.

Janet: It definitely does force a different tense, and of course, it makes sense, that you can’t just use human ideas of past, present, future to talk about geological events. They’re so huge, you need a different tense—

Marcella: And there’s no punctuation in the whole thing! It’s one continuous sentence, hugely challenging. Sometimes I would have a lovely little sentence, but I’d have to break it up in order to connect it to the larger sentence of the entire work, all caps. It’s funny: Michèle did not give me much guidance when I was working on Earth’s Horizons. I’m currently working on some new work of hers, and she’s giving me more guidance. I think she wanted to see what I would do, first.

Janet: I had the sudden image of you carving away at this massive stone, and the scraps of all the lovely little sentences lying around it…everything that could not fit into the character constraint.

So the poem is, most overtly, setting topography in motion. Yet in moments, the poem seems to be observing itself, and in others it seems to be describing other events, like birth or the formation of language. What else did you see as you were translating? Beyond earth, beyond language?

Marcella: Are you thinking of page 30? That was one of the pages that took me some time to translate… there’s a lot of coding for sure. I thought of the computer term, steganography, which refers to the art of hiding signals inside other signals, and meaning within another meaning, so I’m not sure I received the hidden signals on this page.

I also started reading the Renaissance writer, Maurice Scève, and exploring the idea of the emblem. The Renaissance emblem poet has the same sort of flatness, and a visual aspect to it that’s similar in a way to Les horizons du sol. Within Scève’s Emblems of Desire, there’s this concept of coding as well, and it’s not necessarily coding that you’re meant to decipher either. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is another text I thought of—it’s an Italian Renaissance text, and one of the most mysterious books ever written. Joscelyn Godwin translated it, and I’m not sure if it’s an actual translation, and I’ll never know because few people can read the original. People have been fascinated by this book because they’re convinced that there are all these secret messages in it. The translation is actually a really peaceful read… there’s people moving though green, formal garden spaces as if in a dream, over and over again—

Janet: I love it already.

Marcella: But it’s also a completely mysterious, abstract work. Even though Michèle was really reticent about talking about the influences and references for Les horizons du sol, I feel that she must have been in some way influenced by this sort of Renaissance writing, the idea of the emblem, coding… but then it’s hard to say if there are references to specific events in history. There are hints of historical references, like on pg. 31, where something is going on with a rampart and walls and arrows—perhaps a reference to the Hundred Years’ War? But there’s nothing specific; it’s written in a language that is wonderfully looping. So I took it as a rather beautiful general sort of history—the hint of a castle and a war. I didn’t really need more than that.

Janet: Even here [on page 31] there’s language that is suggestive of computing and protocol.

Marcella: Exactly, so it’s just hard to say with any surety, “Oh this is definitely this particular war” here. At the top of pg. 30, the phrase “IN THE SERVICE OF THE FIGURE” was something that I struggled with for a long time because I just couldn’t figure out what “FIGURE” was meant to be. It has many meanings in both French and English. So there, in a way, by translating it, I’d conceded, “Okay, I’ll offer this to the world, and maybe someone will come to me and say, ‘So, THE FIGURE…’” I love how connotative it is, it can mean so many different things, where the French is more lucid. I left it as open as it seems to be in the original… I think when we translate, the desire is to clarify and answer questions, but when the text is open and experimental and abstract, I have to remind myself that I need to keep those qualities in the translation.

Janet: Yeah, I think that there’s a tendency, even when speaking among ourselves, to focus on the closest proximate correspondence of each word or phrase, but if the overall effect of the source text is actually quite abstract, there needs to be an effort to not nail anything down… to keep it open.

This conversation between translators Janet Lee and Marcella Durand
will conclude next week, right here at Hopscotch Translation.

Images used with the kind permission of Michèle Métail.

Janet Lee is a translator and editor living in Brooklyn. Her clients include Éditions Robert Laffont, Rizzoli Publications, and The French Publishers’ Agency. Her translations have been featured at Festival des Cinq Continents and US&THEM reading series, and she is the organizer of Another Way to Say reading series in translation. She is currently translating Joséphine by Jean Rolin and Vingt minutes de silence by Hélène Bessette. [Photo: Aysel Khrustina]

Marcella Durand is the author of To husband is to tender, Black Square Editions, 2021; The Prospect, Delete Press, 2020; Area, Belladonna*, 2008; and Traffic & Weather, Futurepoem, 2008. She is the 2021 recipient of the C.D. Wright Award in Poetry from the Foundation of Contemporary Art. Earth’s Horizons, her translation of Michèle Métail’s book-length poem, Les horizons du sol, was published by Black Square Editions in 2020. [Photo: Andrew Zawacki]

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, October 19, 2021

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