Not Available in Translation:
Steve Parker reviews David Appelbaum’s new chapbook, Jiggerweed
Asked to review Jiggerweed by David Appelbaum, I feel rather like Howard Carter in 1923 squinting through the first hole in the wall of the tomb of Tut Ankh Amun. Voices from outside ask the damnable question: What can you see? Carter, unsure what to say, stammers, Things, I can see wonderful things. Like Carter, I can see wonderful things in here, in the jiggerweed, and I am unsure how to describe them, or even if I want to. After all, when those ‘wonderful things’ were dragged out into the light, they became diminished; they became things like a chair, a bed, a vase… Even a golden chair is, well, really, just a fancy chair… This is what I fear about the ‘translation’ or ‘explanation’ (or paraphrasing) of poetry, especially visionary poetry (and David Appelbaum writes visionary poetry): the wonder doesn’t survive the translation, the dragging into the light, the making-available…
In Jiggerweed, Appelbaum is uncompromising: he doesn’t leave gratuitous keys; he doesn’t explain himself in any language other than his own poetics. His poems are cryptic, lucid, and painstakingly straightforward. They don’t at all deserve the diminishing indignity of translating into some easier English. My proposal at the outset is that we read them, that we allow them, that we let them inhabit us on their own terms, that we let them survive. I say this because people have suggested something like the opposite: that David Appelbaum might be unnecessarily opaque, that he might require translating. He isn’t and he doesn’t.
In fact, we have no credible alternatives. Appelbaum is an arch-linguist. He uses a variety of anastrophe (and catastrophe) to create language events that can’t exist otherwise. There’s no point asking, ‘What is he saying here?’, as what he is saying is exactly what he’s said. Change anything and it collapses, being infinitely fragile, as poetry must be. You can’t ‘translate’ this jiggerweed stuff without writing entirely different poems in your own reading.
In Helpless in Gaza, Appelbaum writes:
a snare of gnats
I could write a lot about these images. I could attempt to decode them with reference to Palestine, to Milton’s Samson Agonistes and the scriptural Book of Judges, maybe even to Aldous Huxley, or I could just let them vibrate there in their little shaft of Gaza-light, with their referents swirling like gnats around them. My instincts are to let them vibrate and swirl rather than try to make them stop so I can measure them and examine them. There’s a variant of the Heisenbergian Uncertainty Principle in poetry too: you can’t tell what it’s doing or what it is unless it’s in motion. It’s always process and never fixity, except at its worst. These five tiny lines (combusted by the title) conjure for me all kinds of resonances of heat, of carnality, of intensity, of death and futility, of alienness, of survival, of the primitive, of transmutation. I don’t know where Appelbaum ends and I begin in this, which of these resonances are ‘his’ and which are ‘mine’, and the demarcation seems entirely irrelevant to the experience. There’s a big LANGUAGE element in all of this in 2012, and he’s pulling the strings. Who cares whose strings they are or where they begin and end? He gets what it is to pull strings.
Appelbaum also gets line-breaks. He gets enjambment. He gets the use of hinges. He knows how to use these things to make the language go to cumulative poem-places it can’t go to in straight narratives. Here is an example from Genesis:
the day the earth stood
still raining ice and stone
upon living hulk
the day before the world was
upon expired waters
it must float
The first line here could be another title. Or it could connect directly to the second line. Did the earth stand for a day, or was this the day that it finally got off its knees, or is this the day that it stood still? Or did it continue to rain ice and stone? Did it continue to rain ice and stone backwards in time into the day before it was? Is that the day before the world was born, or, being born upon expired waters, must it float? What is happening here is an unfurling, multi-directional cluster of poemlets opening out into doorways all around us as we read, acting backwards as well as forwards. It’s profoundly untranslatable, and its operation is at the very heart of what poetry is.
Appelbaum’s thematic sprinklings throughout Jiggerweed give us a potential insight into his poetic agenda. Myth references abound, many of them Biblical, and this is ultimately a collection of qualified religious/spiritual poems, with ‘God’ a recurrent figure and force throughout. The themes are big, ancient themes; the visions often feel like revelations; the language feels at times as though Appelbaum is coaxing and stoking it to perform little miracles in order to convey something of his own sense of the revelatory, his sense of the miraculous, his sense of what might be true—in the most poetic sense. There’s no spuriously clever wordplay happening: it’s careful, and it’s calculated towards offering up a series of personal (and untranslatable) truths. There are specifically Christian tropes here, to do with crucifixion etc. There are references to prayers and madrigals, to Saint Jerome (patron saint of librarians and translators)—though he is at once juxtaposed with ‘the Garcia band’.
The ‘Garcia band’, of course, feels appropriate here, as at times the religious force feels halfway between the Christian and the Pagan, and could almost be lifted straight from Beat poetry:
where the sea cracks
at wild basalt
mad with God
[from Flock of sheep]
I can’t help thinking that Appelbaum feels that ‘mad with God’, that somehow he knows what it is to feel that madness. It’s part of the sense of ‘God’ that he wants to convey. There are other varieties of ‘God’ here, but this one is maddening in the way that Dionysus is/was maddening. There’s a kind of ecstasy in all that, and ecstasy is as untranslatable as any other barbaric yawp, as Whitman once delighted in telling us from his rooftop.
I had to look up ‘jiggerweed’. I found this:
‘Kuku’ was the Cherokee term for the golden flowers … now called butterfly weed, jigger weed, or pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa)—From ‘Footsteps of the Cherokees: A Guide to the Eastern Homelands of the Cherokee Nation’, Vicki Rozema: 1995—page 108.
I don’t know exactly how it’s relevant, but it feels enlivening and appropriate to have the golden Native American rays of a healing plant shining from above as one reads. This feels like a healing book, almost a book of spells. I felt ushered in and welcomed by it, as though invited into a holy space and allowed to experience its unique, challenging, quirky, and ultimately benign, genius loci. This book wants you to look hard at its myths, but it’s not elitist about it. It wants to share its fascination, not pontificate. And, ultimately, that’s where the author is in all this: he’s fascinated in the classical, romantic, magical, intoxicated sense of ‘fascine’; and, like all concerned poets, he wants you to feel it too.
In (hoped-for) support of my argument for the untranslatable nature of this and all besotted and romantic poetry, I am giving David Appelbaum and Jiggerweed the last word:
back-hung it droops
God-glory a tongue
about to suffer speech
(from Once a lily).
(David Appelbaum’s Jiggerweed is available from www.finishinglinepress.com )