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JIM FEAST on Vincent Katz

published in the Pacific Rim Review of Books

I begin with a brutal thesis: You can only translate back one age. This means, for example, a postmodern translator can only go back to modernism, no matter what the ostensible date of what he or she is recasting. From this perspective, a translation by a modernist, whether Pound’s of a Tang China poet or H.D.’s of Euripides, is (in a basic way) a Romantic poem.

I will try to show this by examining Vincent Katz’s translation of the elegies of Propertius, but I should mention that his work has to be distinguished in its effect on him from that of most translators.   When Pope or Chapman translate Homer, their versions maintain the themes and tones of their other writing. Katz, unlike these illustrious predecessors, after his invaluable translation from the Latin, turns against his own poetry, radically revising its premises so that, as we’ll see, a book like Understanding Objects, done while the translation was in progress, differs in fundamental outlook from Rapid Departures, which was mostly written after the translation. 

Rather than moving chronologically, let’s look the features of Propertius’s elegies as they emerge in Katz’s hands, how its key features are modernist, not classical, and then at how his deep reflections cause him to alter the course of his writing.

Without reading him, but knowing his content, one might judge Propertius to be a guilty sensualist. Guilty, not because he is carrying on an illicit love affair or due to Puritan reservations about sex on his part, but because he is writing love poetry when his patron and the emperor are urging him to take up the weightier topic of creating imperial propaganda (a la Vergil). However, whatever else he was doing, he wasn’t wasting his talent, judging by Katz’s resilient, at times graceful, at times crude, always lyrical translations, which are filled with tonal and vivid undertows.

Reading him, it appears Propertius sought to clear himself of charges of effeminacy by writing love poems for his sometimes mistress Cynthia that were themselves highly warlike. Since their love is storm-tossed, filled with tiffs and rifts, every poem describes a skirmish. Indeed, as Propertius puts it, he and Cynthia have written their own epic, “When nude, her dress ripped away, she wrestles with me // then truly we compose lengthy Illiads.”

Further, if his heroic rivals in Rome filled their war poems with classical allusions to the Greeks, Propertius would give his poems stature and his own feelings girth by couching them within the same frame. When he is jealous, for instance, he says, “The same [jealous] dementia forced the Centaurs to smash // their rough cups on top of Pirithous.”

However, one of the love poet’s themes is even more provocatively bellicose. If battle often leads to death, so does love. In poem after poem, Propertius imagines his lover or himself gone, so he can picture the partner at the funeral. At his imagined obsequies, for example, he hears Cynthia wailing, “You were true, oh my god, though you lacked the distinction // of noble blood.”   He even imagines that, dead in Hades, he will think of Cynthia: “whatever I’ll be, I’ll always be called your image // a great love breaks through the shores of death.”

Now up to this point, I may have been misleading if I’ve been taken to mean that a translation like this doesn’t provide a real sense of Propertius’s concerns and diction, as well as some sense of the intimate flavor of the Roman’s times. I mean rather that, along with this, there is a problematic at play, and that, in such a translation, looking back one period, is Modernism’s.

If we follow Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, Modernism was plagued by alienation, brought on by the fact that those in the industrial West usually couldn’t interact with or experience the reality on which their life was based, the exploited colonies. Now, imperial Rome, we might say, faced an analogous situation, though it did so more consciously. Virgil applauded the ongoing colonial conquests, which leading citizens might participate in, as generals, so, we can guess, modern alienation was not general in the elite, but rather a specialized disease, reserved for those, like Propertius, who couldn’t “get with the program.” (I’ll return to this.)

Another step. Again, following Jameson, the central problem of Postmodernism is disconnection, attributable to a landscape of globalized finance and multinationals, which, for one, totally unlink near-term cause and effect, so, for instance, that a person may lose her or his job due to policies decided worlds away in shadowy offices of international agencies. On the ground, in poetry, dealing with this underlying sense becomes, in the New York school, for one, a struggle to find any kind of significance in the day to day. Take O’Hara’s  masterpiece “The Day Lady Died,” which, while filled with genuine feeling, is also emotionally grounded in the fact that Holiday’s death gives the poet’s day a kind of shape and closure it would otherwise lack.

Katz pre-Propertius writing, in books such as Understanding Objects, although tactically quite different, deals with the same problem of the quotidian’s meaninglessness. In the back of the poet’s mind is always the nagging question “I don’t know what’s expected of me nor by whom.” And he looks not (generally) in what O’Hara’s generation sought, days organized by a kind of immanent purpose, which arose naturally, unprovoked, from confluent circumstances. There are, still, some intimations of this quest, some seeking of “details // of a life, the fruit forms // a design on marble counter // now the Christ lights up the mist.”   In this passage and in poems such as “June In Progress” a haphazard but somehow eminently fitting grouping of events and objects round off a day.

However, moving beyond these concerns, Katz embarks on another, unprecedented search, as he looks for seamlessness, a life in which daily tasks, meetings with friends and moments of art-making would join in an unlooked-for, easy comradeship. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is something he finds existent in other artists’ lives more than in his own. In an elegy to James Merrill, he writes that he “Maintained contacts, found words perfect- // suited to his non-mission: simply // be Jim. … His life turned into books.” This captures in a broad way the coherence of Merrill, who appears to live in an effortless, multi-connected flow. The same insight is brought out anecdotally when Katz recalls a poet at a reading. “He’s // talking, // casually, // then, // introduced, // goes up // simply and // keeps speaking, // no // division.” 

It can be guessed that since the seamlessness that Katz highlights is always the possession of others, his own attainment of this state is frustrated. Whether for that or other reasons, his translation of Propertius provides him with the means to leap beyond this impasse. Let me explain, now why I think translators have a limited reach, in terms of an age’s problematic. If a writer is concerned, say, with the blocked progress to a more democratic, communal and convivial society (as is Katz), she or he may need a remove, but not too great of one, in which to get a grip on the historical axis.

I know this is getting a bit abstract, so let’s bring it to cases. Katz in translating the Roman author is asking himself what strategies Propertius used to fight against the alienation he felt in relation to his country’s imperialist project, which, we saw, basically consisted of placing a love affair as his central focus, but not as a way of withdrawing from the tides sweeping the day, since, with devices we have named, his portrayals of sex and affection are filled with martial echoes.

Something similar becomes a shaping force in Rapid Departures. Katz’s wife, Vivien, is Brazilian, and all these poems are written in her homeland, some being almost travelogues as they introduce the reader to various cities. They are faced on matched pages by Portuguese translations in a book filled with precise, evocative line drawings, and with a few color photos of Brazilian record sleeves on which poems have been inscribed. 

So what is the tie to the Elegies? For Katz, the city becomes part of a love affair with his wife. In other words, where Propertius fights his alienation by turning from war to love poetry, as I see it, to overcome disconnection, Katz structures his seemingly casual jottings about a day’s activities, one of the de rigueur forms of postmodern verse, so they appear as demi-homages. There are three basic cinching points that establish this direction, giving the sequence a tensile strength not found in his earlier poems or, indeed, in other poets’ use of this widespread postmodern form.   

Most obviously, there are a few, exquisite straightforward love poems, which, nonetheless, function also as evokers of the city. In “Quaresmeira,” as he stands with Vivien in the rain, he says, “I want to look at you.” He doesn’t mean, though, as Propertius might have, to admire her physical charms, but to see her integrated in the surroundings. “My emotions can’t keep // pace with the beauty, // drops of water on roses // in my wife’s hands.” It’s not that she is not the epicenter, but that it is only because she is part of the repertoire of rain, flowers and street that the scene suddenly becomes iron-ribbed or, as he says with heart-breaking lyricism

As she stands with me
in front of the world
in a tiny, private spot,
which passes instantly
and never goes out

Another cinching point involves what might be called in-lit animations of street life. People and objects are not simply passing in the crowd, as they might be in Objects, but engaging, interacting. In “Rua,” “a man begins attaching the rope // to a car behind the truck.” In “Today,” Katz notes, “[I] watched a woman // say goodbye to three men.” This last poem is summed up by this: “I simply stood there and watched // the unscripted scene unfold // every word, every action, a perfect take.”

The city is not a cabinet of unknowable curiosities, as it is in the conventional postmodern catalog, but a set of relationships opening to the observer; and I would argue that it’s as if, being connected at a heart level through his wife to a foreign city, he is able to offer a degree of humanized attention and responsiveness to the places, which would otherwise be difficult to muster. 

And building on this, there’s a third, even more inventive link discernible. If, as we saw, Vivien gives depth to the human interactions taking place, she also adds another layer to objects. Not that they are anthropomorphized, but, in a variation on the pathetic fallacy, it seems they naturally arrange themselves to notate or blend into any contiguous human situation. Katz puts this programmatically in “Bread and Sweets”: “friends, haircut, architecture // slide downhill where everything // meshes.”  More specifically, in poem after poem, he puts forward a scenario in which objects, landscapes and people engage in supportive interplay. In “City,” as he describes, “mosaic sidewalks // lit in pools // tree friendly murk // the body // loosed from northern // care // beach city rapid // languor.”  

Love, then, as a guiding device gives the poems of Rapid Departures a very tough fiber. By taking the measure of Propertius, Katz has been able to draw on the Roman in a way that enables him to make a breakthrough, pushing out from, without shirking, the problem of disconnection. To speak generally, current poetry is an art of flashes and unfinished gestures, which can be exciting and spottily lyrical, but is too often unfocused, as it falls away. In contrast, Rapid Departures gives postmodern city poems something they never possessed: a skeleton.