Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue
(Salmon Poetry, 2016)
Generally speaking, poems are monolingual. That is, what a poem has to say is generally held to be specific enough to be fixed to a singular language event. If it’s lucky, it will get translated into another language, perhaps even by the poet, but the translation will be understood to be an approximation of the original, and if you’re a Frosty bent (he of the claim that the essence of poetry perishes in even the smoothest of transits from one language to the next) you’ll read these translated poems with an awareness that even a great poem would be better still if you could read it in the original Russian (most of the time).
Surely one of the most prominent features of Hélène Cardona’s latest, Life in Suspension, is the way it denies us this all-too-simple assumption, the way it leaves us, as it were, suspended between languages. I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to describe this, because while it would be easy to say that each poem in the volume has a French and an English version, with one language on the left side of the book and one on the right, as is typical of facing page translations, that’s not entirely accurate because in facing page translations you know which was the original and which the translation. But here, a “bilingual collection” in which both appear for the first time together, how would you determine which is which? Who’s to say they’re not actually separate poems? Technically speaking, a note at the front tells us the English came first, but Cardona was born in Paris, so perhaps even their original composition was a sort of translation.
All this creates a particular dilemma for a reader, but a pleasant one, it turns out, because I found myself toggling back and forth between the French (of which I have juste un peu) and the English (a little better) much more than I normally would, not to second guess the translations (which I suppose is the whole purpose of those facing page deals), but because my eye kept catching peripherally on moments when the translation—if we can even still call it that—wasn’t perfect. That is, moments when the poet decided that a line break in one language wasn’t the right line break for the other. If you’d told me about this in advance, I would have thought that this bouncing back and forth would have totally screwed up the poems for me, breaking their flow and all that, but it turned out to be an added joy because of course it was the poet who was making these decisions too, and therefore even the dual-language aspect of this surprising volume, which just as often will have you thinking of Rumi and Rilke and Neruda, offers a unique archaeology-style pleasure of penetrating a psychic poetic cavity that generally remains undisturbed.
To make matters worse—by which I mean better—Cardona is one of those writers, one of those people really, who are better described as being talented rather than having a talent because their unlikely lives seem suspended between talents, nations, cultures, media. What can you really say about a poet who holds three passports, speaks god knows how many languages, and appears to have mastered a number of arts? In addition to the two books of poetry, Cardona produced a thesis on Henry James, published translated works by Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac and Dorianne Laux, and, most prominently, has an extensive acting career that includes speaking roles in Chocolat and Jurassic World.
To be sure, I generally don’t go in for this sort of thing. I’m not dying for the next Ethan Hawke novel. Or James Franco. Or Aragorn, or the woman from Weeds and The West Wing. And to be honest, when I hear about these people, part of me wants to say come on, man, enough is enough. Too much limelight burns as surely does a summer sun. Even Dylan thought his Nobel was weird.
But Cardona is different, I think, and that dissertation on James is the clue. In both letters and fiction, James asserted that all the arts are one, and what he meant was that a novel can aspire to do what the gigantic Tintorettos in the Louvre do. In short, we should no sooner segregate media than people.
Anyway, any reservations one might have about a poet spread too thin across the culture dissolve at once in the experience of Cardona’s poems, which often, like James’s sentences, withhold their core image until the final word, when it crystallizes like something flash frozen, caught in motion. This might be critical to Cardona’s macro mission of suspension, in that the poems compile to form the chronicle of a traveler, without fixed language, without fixed nationality or profession, moving physically from Bar Harbor to Chalkidiki (it’s Greece), and emotionally from the calm of floating alone on a lake to the inner hurricane of watching a loved one slip from this world to the next. En route, there are these poetic hesitations, the vibrancy of life trapped in amber.
As well, Cardona surprises with jarring aphorisms. Quoting aphorisms is dangerous, I know, because a poem’s stirring phrase is like the flower of its plant, and while you can yank the flower up and admire its beauty, it will, yanked, wither and die, and you might just as well have chosen to leave it alone. Nevertheless, here is a bouquet plucked from Cardona’s flowerbed of a book:
To live is to persist in pain
Life works out better later/like a cactus eventually blooms
We have the same ear for reading/the bones in the wind/and breaking down the sun.
I dream for a living —
Every wall is a beginning.
I want/to die remarkably
Art is perpetual rebirth/…the way we receive counsel from God.
These simple blooms will stay with you for a time. But then they will fade, because ultimately a poet is not a voice or an image or a phrase. A poet is a mood. And what you will recall of this book at a distance—like the aphorism from Whitman, epigraphically borrowed here—is that though you’ve lost the rest, you remember being with the poet for these moments stolen from an unlikely life.
ContributorJ. C. Hallman
J.C. HALLMAN's most recent book is B & ME: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a work of "creative criticism." He sort of lives in New York City.