Listening for Creeks under Manholes: The elations of Eirin Moure in “Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person”

Posted: March 28, 2011 in (Re)Memory, 19th century media, Adaptations, Art / History, Canadian Literature, Canadian Poetry, Canadian Politics, Critical Discourse Analysis, Gender, Love, Media, Pedagogy, Performance, Semiotics, Sovereignty, Theatre, Transatlantic Discourse

Imagine it’s two a.m. Eirin Moure sits in front of a second storey window in an empty house on Toronto’s Winnett Avenue.  It’s mid winter. The air is cold, the wind colder.  She opens the window a crack, to let in some air.   She sips from her glass as she sifts through Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s manuscript.  Translations into transelations into transcreations.

Maybe a little tipsy, maybe a little tired, absolutely a little cheeky, she begins to see, without thinking,  “What, me, guard sheep?” (3). Read further.  Pessoa’s long-ago pastoral countryside is transformed by an urban grid, as Moure makes accessible histories that were paved over.  When I finished reading Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, pen marked up the pages, dog-ears bent the corners, and I realized that Moure’s transelation is a process of unlearning – an allegory for poetic seeing.

Turning the pages, I’m reminded of a time when l peeled away layers of wallpaper in a room I rented in an old Toronto semi.  With history, patterns and poetry at my feet, I had to begin at the beginning to answer the question:  What is this?  Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person is a translation from the Portuguese book of poetry O Guardador de Rebanhos (1914) by Fernando Pessoa written through one of his heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro.  Moure translated each of Pessoa’s poem-lines in a chant-like response.  Several themes, including metapoetics, emerge in Moure’s translation/mediation/deflection.

Initially, I questioned Moure’s motives in translating another author’s work and then claiming an ownership.  Although, Moure has altered voice, as well as phrasing, the original meaning of Pessoa’s poetry remains.  However, Moure’s work is more than a translation – it’s her twenty-first century response to Pessoa’s twentieth century work; she had become a pupil of seeing, an apprentice of unlearning under Pessoa’s tutelage (viii).  For Moure, history and memory are bound to language and translation; for example, the Galician language, which refers to “a lost chunk of the Portuguese nation,” became Moure’s (125).

Moure insists that “I want this book to be judged not just as my poetry but as translations of Pessoa” (ix), translations that are whimsical with an urban, sharp-witted snap that contrasts Pessoa’s pastoral earnestness.  For example, Moure refers to Christ as “too urbane to fake out” (25); she twists nature “because sunlight is fab” (15), and she kicks-a-can at not-seeing because “thinking bugs me” (3). Moure’s transcreation urbanizes Pessoa; his lines become a grid guiding Moure to see outside her Winnett Avenue window.

While Moure does deflect from a direct translation, she is faithful to Pessoa’s vision in her refusal to translate the word choses (thing), which is central to Pessoa’s objectivism.  Sheep are like Pessoa’s thoughts; he doesn’t keep them, he sees them ¹.  In translating, Moure’s thoughts connect to Pessoa’s, and textually in the very object of the book, the poets live side by side, neighbours who call out to each other, across an alley, in a poetic banter.

“Rhymes get on my nerves, Rarely” is Moure’s transcreation of Pessoa’s metapoetics, questioning the methods, ethics, and aesthetics of the genre: “what do you think of those two trees rhymes?” (47). Moure recalls that “when they filled in the ravine, they buried the bridge too.  I unburied it with Pessoa” (ix).  Moure unburies the poetry’s infrastructure, as well as a poet’s “learning to unlearn” (67).  Pessoa sees things as concrete: “they have colour and form // and existence, barely” (71).  In response, Moure conveys the poet’s intimate struggle with the contours before them when writing concrete poetry: “how hard it is to shake off, and see only the visible!” (71), a struggle that keeps me wanting to know the buried bridges I cross over.

Some of Pessoa’s lines are translated verbatim, others are Moure’s deflection of what she sees and does not see; for instance, a manhole cover is not just a manhole cover, a foundry stamp gives it history and below it flow time and politics (vii).   Although Moure uses concrete imagism, she rattles Pessoa’s argument that “what we see of things are the things” (67).  Moure’s translation interrogates the geographical tensions that problematize what we see in historical and global narratives, such as “missiles // fired over high seas by satellite into Iraq” (33).

Urbanity for Moure and modernity for Pessoa distort the divinity in internal rhythms:  paving over its nature (23).  Poetic elation reached Pessoa and Moure in a divine form of ecstasy.  Moure observes how “it set my heart murmur going” (viii), and Pessoa wrote thirty of the forty-nine poems in a possessed fervor (vii).  For Moure, urban sprawl translates into non-seeing: “Downtown, huge mansions lock sight away // Obscure the horizon, flatten sight and wrench us far from the sky” (23).  But as Moure sees a neighbour throw lasagna to the crows (79), I wonder if a poet’s poetry would (be)come without the tension between traffic and pastures?

While reading Moure’s work, I was taken with the desire to see. I decided to use Moure’s “Rhymes get on my nerves” (47) as my guide.  I opened my winter window to let in some air:

What do I think of those two trees rhymes?
Like my two hands, rarely
equal, one beside the other
snow on branches has no colour but all colour
my way of writing is imperfect like trees, I am
just here, seeing two rhymes
two hands, that are mine

I realize that “the hard bit is to know how to see” (67); how to translate life’s details that get buried or wallpapered.  Sheep’s Vigil is a lesson in poetics to get over the “hard bit,” learning that “plunging into thought” (67) can confine poetry instead of opening a window to let in a bit of snow.   Moure’s final poem sits alone:  “everywhere I learned to see again” (123), illustrating a writer’s reawakening.  No longer with her guide, Moure is seeing, “sure of all, sure of nothing” (123).

¹ Jonathan Griffin, Selected Poems: Fernando Pessoa.  (Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1974) 75.

Erín Moure (Eirin Moure) is one of Canada’s most eminent and respected poets, and a translator from French, Spanish, Galician, and Portuguese. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Furious, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for Domestic Fuel, and the AM Klein Poetry Prize for Little Theatres(which has also been published in Spain in Galician translation as Teatriños), Moure has published twelve books of poetry, including A Frame of the Book, co-published in the U.S. by Sun and Moon Press, and five books of poetry in translation, including Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person by Fernando Pessoa, shortlisted for the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and the 2002 City of Toronto Book Prize. Moure lives in Montreal.

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