In Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera, written for string quartet, pipa, water, stones, metal, paper, and breath, the composer draws from formal and natural instruments, along with Bach, Shakespeare, and Chinese folk-song. When I listen to this piece performed by the Kronos Quartet, I imagine the facing of our ancestors and each instrument’s, each material’s, desperation in that facing because no one material, instrument, or genre suffices. And so, each one seeks the other, like Orpheus who can’t bear to depend upon the sound of Eurydice without the sight of her. And then, with gaping mouth, we all inevitably face the definitive loss.
In Argentine poet Mercedes Roffé’s homonymous book, Ghost Opera, recently published by co-im-press and translated with a finely tuned ear by Judith Filc, the poet recalls Dun’s project. Like Dun, Roffé, of Sephardic-Jewish origins, draws from a range of philosophy, sacred texts, music and oral traditions, to develop a poetic trance that borders on otherworldliness. The transition from worldliness to other worldliness comes through Roffé’s careful tension between control and measured abandonment. Such a measured abandonment yields unexpected contours of meaning that emerge slightly out of reach, indeed, like ghostly figures we are just now capable of recognizing within the range of forms Roffé makes available to us.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mercedes Roffé about her foundations in music and medieval literature, her understanding of art forms and ghostliness, as well as her work in language, symbols, and sound.
Anna Deeny Morales: You move between your work as a poet, a translator, and editor of Ediciones Pen Press in New York City. Could you speak to the relationship between these three activities?
Mercedes Roffé: I think it is as a poet that I translate and publish other poets. It is my experience and expectation as a poet that are at work when I choose what to translate and what to publish. I aim to translate those poets who I feel may open up a new conception of poetry, especially for my Spanish-language contemporaries. I usually choose not to translate poetry I find too close to those already practiced in my own language.
A similar conception is behind my work as a publisher of contemporary poetry: I publish poets who open up the field, not exactly in the sense Robert Duncan gave to this expression, but in the sense of contributing a unique understanding of what poetry could be. That is, poets who maintain a strong relationship with their tradition but at the same time become a hinge, a bridge between that tradition and a somehow new conception of poetry; poets who contribute through their work some personal interpretation of what poetry is; something like “an opening of the range” of what the word “poetry” may contain without losing base with what I feel as its three main components—meaning, rhythm, and some (always open) sort of structure.
At least, these were the principles behind my translation of an anthology of Native North American poets, or the poetry of Anne Waldman and Lorand Gaspar, along with the publication in Pen Press of poets such as Amelia Rosselli, Dane Zack, Roberto Piva, Raúl Zurita, Ann Lauterbach, Marina Arrate, or Elsa Cross.
Deeny: Many of your works have been translated into Italian, French, Romanian, and English, the most recent of which is Ghost Opera, beautifully translated by Judith Filc.
Roffé: I feel particularly blessed by the way my work has always gotten to be translated. Except for the translation into Romanian, in which, obviously, I couldn’t participate in any way, my experience with my translators into English and French, and even Italian—a language I barely know—couldn’t have been more enjoyable. In the case of Judy’s translation, what surprised me the most was the incredible broad range of vocabulary options she had at hand. Sometimes I would ask her—as you know I would—“What about this word? Has it the same nuance as the Spanish term?” Or, “Please, read that line to me so that I can listen to the rhythm.” Both the accuracy of the terms chosen and the ability to never lose sight of the rhythm are the two elements that—in my view—make a great, desirable translation. That’s why I feel Judy’s version of my book is so perfect—so accurate and musical at the same time—as if the book had been written or rewritten in English.
Deeny: In Ghost Opera, like the opening sequence of Tan Dun’s musical piece, your language moves beneath water, but it does not dissolve there; it loosens in suspension to reveal its possible distinctive elements or mechanisms. For example, what you seem to work through is an idea of plentitude and then freedom (the loosening), as in the poem, “El jardín” [The Garden], in which you open up a concept of symbols.
Roffé: At the time of writing La ópera fantasma, I was feeling particularly close to Symbolist aesthetics. Not exactly that of the symbolist poets—Rimbaud, Verlaine or Verhaeren—but rather to that of the European symbolist painters.
As we know, for them, the symbol was an embodiment of meaning not even the artist was able to define or understand completely. As opposed to the traditional, mostly religious, conception of symbol as an element in an allegory easily understood by those who are familiar with that cultural system, Symbolist artists introduce the idea of symbol as an aggregation or mixture of meanings that are somehow untranslatable.
Understood in this way, the symbol becomes probably the most appropriate vehicle to suggest, to convey a meaning that is never closed, a cluster of meanings always reluctant to being imposed from the authority of the poet, the artist, tradition, or an institution of any kind.
Thus, when you refer to the symbols in Ghost Opera as a conjunction of plentitude and freedom you are giving—in some way—the exact meaning of “symbol” as I understood it and used it in everything I wrote particularly in that period.
Deeny: What is most striking to me about Ghost Opera is that in previous works your poems and books are closed and perfect circles that rarely, if ever, signal a letting go or lack of control. They are balanced reflections and meditations on a subject. Here however, in poems such as “Plegaria” [Prayer], even though you reference an ancient form, you also yield control. This yielding culminates in “desesperado / oscuro” [despair / darkness]. These are both words with which you might have created more assonance throughout the poem. However, you do not. In this way, through their meaning and their lack of assonance, you surrender complete control over understanding as well as poetic form. Could you speak about control and abandon, if that is how you would understand these energies, within a poem?
Roffé: It’s so interesting that you situate the moment when that change takes place in my work! Thank you also for referring to my initial poems as perfectly closed and balanced! I have always had the aspiration for a poetry that would find its own way, its own means and form. I would go as far as to say that that would be the main trait and condition of modern poetry as such, particularly of the free-verse poem.
But it is most illuminating for me that you mark Ghost Opera as the moment when something crucial happens in my relation to words and their own freedom. I think it was not before that book that I understood the importance of letting the words do their job, their dance, of letting them establish their own relations to one another, to seek and find each other in their own terms, without the poet’s constant interference, without our own need to be the active, conscious composers of the poem.
In the case of “Plegaria” [Prayer], I let the words choose to enter the poem, words that I may especially like or not, but in which I find some particular texture, materiality. That’s why when Judith Filc was working on the translation of the book and got to this poem, I asked her to please listen for her own words. Her version shouldn’t be a literal transposition of the words in my poem, but those English words that her mouth, her ears felt to have a unique quality or consistency.
But you are right. The first section of Ghost Opera, entitled “The Lake (Chances Are)”, to where poems such as “The Garden” and “Prayer” belong, may be said to mark the beginning of a novel stage in my poetics where words are acknowledged a new level of freedom.
Deeny:The last time we saw one another was at the New School for composer Theresa Wong’s extraordinary musical rendition of your book, Floating Lanterns. Could you speak about the movement you yourself establish between poetry and music, that is, not just sound in language, but musical forms themselves (such as opera) in language?
Roffé: That’s right. It was part of the series of the The Stone at the New School, with Theresa Wong premiering five new pieces, including one based on Floating Lanterns in your magnificent English version. It was great you could come.
As you know, I studied music for more than 10 years when I was young. But it was clear to me that being a musician was not my calling. So, when I graduated from the School of Music, I just quit playing. At that time, I had recently begun to study in the department of Modern Languages at the University of Buenos Aires, and was enrolled in the first writing workshops that opened in the city. It was the beginning of the 70s. For a while, I only felt the relief of not having to spend hours and hours at the piano. However, I did continue to perform Medieval and Renaissance vocal repertoire as part of a small ensemble.
Many years later, music came back to me from a different source, with a different quality, as if it were coming from my own silence. It became part of myself in a very different way, but of course, with the background of having devoted so many years of study to it.
Related or not to that experience, my poetry was always said to benefit from a musical ear. Even more, without giving up a minimum demand of meaning, I could think of an ideal form of poetry that would be very close to a sol-fa.
Deeny: Have you ever tried to structure a poem as a musical form?
Not really. What I did do, first in La noche y las palabras [Night and Words, 1996], and then—in a much more decisive way—in Ghost Opera, was to depart from some musical pieces to compose my poems, in the same way that in an ekphrastic mode I would write poems departing from visual art works.
What I also do pretty often is to indicate that a poem should be thought—at least vaguely—as related to or redolent of a musical form: Circle, Music, Chant, Cantata, Opera, Cantus, Song… these are words you can easily find in the titles of some of my poems.
Even Ghost Opera, the title of a poem and then of the entire book, was taken from a musical piece by Chinese composer Tan Dun. Tan Dun describes his own Ghost Opera as a particular Chinese musical form where the protagonist gets to face the ghosts of his own ancestors. In our case, our common ancestors were Bach and Shakespeare, to whom I added in my poem a third one—Paul Celan.
But I must say that the expression “ghost opera” refers not only to that homonymous work by Tan Dun, but also to that ideal work of “total art”—that confluence of all art expressions—that Wagner and, after him, most Symbolists poets and composers, wanted to achieve; an ideal so ambitious that it would necessarily end up to be a failure, a kind of ghostly, phantasmatic work.
Deeny: Do you think, then, that each genre or “art expression,” as you say, as it moves toward the other in this yearning for totality, is analogous to such a human desire? That is, the limit of a genre is also the limit of oneself. In this sense, when seek total confluence with the other we inevitably render our own ghostliness.
Roffé: I don’t know. Even if I quote in my poem that well-known Shakespeare’s dictum, “We are such stuff / as dreams are made on,” I don’t think I would state the ghostliness of the human condition as such. It was rather about what I would intuit as a hubris—a human ambition to reach something that would be humanly impossible to reach. In this sense, the ambition to reach such an extreme art form—a form in which all arts converged—would be parallel to other enormous human drives such as the one exemplified by the myth of Babel. I still resent that we, as human beings, were punished for that dream and divided into thousands of languages. I have a similar feeling toward the symbolist’s drive to accomplish a work of total art. I feel some kind of empathy for all those projects that couldn’t be achieved just because they were so radical, so extreme that they surpassed the limits of human nature. I think that the gap between that original desire and the final, predictable failure is what makes them ghostly. As if the memory of that failure had become their own shadow.
Deeny: I wonder if you contrast this “gap,” as you say, between an originating desire, a hubris, as an “enormous” human drive, with a nuanced, and perhaps, humble, way of using sound in particular, not musical forms, but language sounds, to place pressure on signifying relationships. For example, in Definiciones mayas [Mayan Definitions] (1999), a sequence also included in Ghost Opera, sound functions as a spine that orders the body of meaning in the poem. Also, although you first published this sequence in 1999, here you approximate Tan Dun’s tactile use of water in his Ghost Opera. Thus, sound and breath as tactile originating material undermines other structuring forms of meaning.
pasa seca / muy mayor
peisaj éxodo / a través de los caminos
pisa acción de pisar / porción de aceituno o uva que se estruja de una vez
en el molino o lagar / zurra o tunda de patadas o coces / Germ. casa de
mujeres públicas; mancebía
pasaje transición / camino estrecho, oscuro
Translated by Judith Filc as:
plane flat, level, even
pan any of many kinds of containers used for domestic purposes
lapse a slip of the tongue, pen or memory; small error; fault / a falling away
from a moral standard; moral slip / a gliding or passing away, as of time
or of anything continuously flowing
span the full amount or extent between any two limits
penal of, for, or constituting punishment, especially legal
Could you speak about the associations you establish between sound and meaning in these pieces?
Roffé: This quotation is another instance where I asked my translators—into English, French, and Italian—to reproduce the pun in their own language. Here what is at stake is a sort of anagram—we track down the words within the word “Landscape” in the same way that the original Spanish poem tracks down the words within the word “Paisaje.”
The relation I find most decisive in my Mayan Definitions are not, however, of this particular kind. I find a much more decisive relation between sound and meaning in what I may mime or reproduce of the orality in the original Mayan recordings. I think I was able to achieve that goal insofar as I was able to recreate the oral tradition behind my source—those texts that were never intended to be a piece of poetry and nonetheless they are some of the most beautiful—rhythmic, musical, essential—texts I ever came across.
Deeny: Similarly, as a medievalist, you investigate etymologies as well as ancient texts, and your poetry often functions as a meditation that works toward recuperating an idea of meaning. Could you comment upon your referencing of these works and the meditative qualities of your poetry?
Roffé: I feel that my background as a medievalist now plays a role similar to my background in music. They are forms of knowledge I devoted many years to, and which I feel have became both omnipresent and absent at the same time. They are like a basso continuo to everything else. They afford some kind of harmony and structure to my writing even when I don’t clearly refer to them.
But I agree. A kind of hidden, implied dialog with some ancient texts plays a role in my poetry, not only as a warrant to some non-waivable degree of meaning, as you rightly say, but also as a cultural frame in which my work becomes fully alive and intelligible.