The PdS Black Voices Series Presents: KEITH DONNELL
The Gettysburg Address (Sound Translation 1)
Force door of heaven. Seers old as coppers sought forms of disquiet, enumerated cons, each iniquity, a den of cadence true and preposterous, thawed pen marks of fated inkwell.
Who’ll weed our graves? Ingrates? Evil wards tasting hot nail gun? Thorny Haitians in old slaveries, hands decapitated, calmed by chores? We charm eternal snakes, fables built of past lore. Weave some to dredge the lake. A fortune, a fat yield as a single resting page. For poets, true seers, their grave lies at abomination’s light mist. It is tar and feather, filthy proponents that weeds doresist.
Bet on a farther rest. We cannot medicate – we cannot obfuscate – we cast no shadow under ground. The Brahman, thinning sandalwood to loved powder, paste-consecrating forbearers, people house story too old to deter. Each word whittled, told, not log dismembered, not anymore, one inch can better forehead, what stays adheres. In this forest, bewildering matter, to be dead, cased in air, to come from it, wordage wrought clear, homes honed from snowy language. It is sour for us to be dear, dead-cased with a good asp, tamed to dust. That form bleeds ordered dread, sweet ache in bleak motion. Choose that pause for which they gave the lash. Sooth treasure with indecent poems, that water divinely re-soiled, that tested eggshell cracked in twain. That this Haitian, under trod, shall laugh a new curse of treason – and that gory scent troubles pupil, rides the pupil, corners pupil, shames all princes from their births.
The Gettysburg Address (Sound Translation 2)
Corner store better beers be cold. Our fathers built Fords, honest compliments, annunciations received in lit purity, handed cases to the opposition, that seesaw, hard crooked scale.
Now we are engorged with a greed evil tar, taking every fat ration of any bastion, soaked, weak, almost destroyed, cons de jure. We carve it on a great platter forged of their sword. We halve some to debt the cake with poison, salt the field, a spinal tapping plague or dose. Who dare give bare knives that fat? Nothing right lives in this alabaster city; only pepper weed shows truest.
Butting hard against weakens all delicate – weakens lost sacrament – weakens hot tallow – thistle-bound. The cave men, fixing the deck, troubling the air, have celebrated grift, pharaohs over poor pauper to app or distract. This world with bitter cold bore strong timber, what we made fire, what can never go out, what may again flare. As its core, trust the listening. Rather to bleed educated, near to the underworld, with they who bought quarters want boatly passage. It is ample fortune. Be here, dedicated to the Greek tragedy’s refraining chorus – platform these onward men, we pay in coin the boatman. To that calm for which they pay the ash dull pleasure of the boatman. Thankfully, here lightly salted, that these dead shall not have fried in vain. Fatten our patience until hog and save a new perch for bleeding. And that glowing scent of the meat, try the meat, tore the meat, shallots perfect on the hearth.
A few good words with Keith
PDS: I am so enthralled by sound translations as a form and wondered if you’d talk a little bit about how you created them--what did this work teach you about the way that you listen to/consume/understand, push against or towards this kind of historical writing? How was creating this text freeing or limiting? How has writing these poems changed your relationship to the text?
KD: Creating these sound translations was very much an improvisational exploration. I’d only recently begun to think about the possibilities/constraints of conventional translation, let alone homophonic. Much of what excites me about poetry writing is the prospect of finding new opportunities to push against and probe convention. However, I found the more traditional expectations around the act of translation to be a bit limiting. I have a great deal of respect, and even reverence, for the work that many translator’s perform. But, in order for me to really feel it in the marrow, I needed to prioritize my own creative instincts above considerations of another’s authorial intent. In terms of both claiming extreme creative liberties in the act of translation and exploring the different frequencies on which poetic language communicates meaning, The Zukovsky translation of Cattulus was hugely inspiring. But, doubling back to these sound translations as explorations, when I started, I really had no sense of a fixed endpoint--of what the final products would look like. It was improvisational in the sense that it was honest and process-oriented. I went with how I felt in the moment and flowed forward more or less linearly with minimal editing.
PDS: Part of what intrigues me about the act of translation is the way in which a literary translator inherently exerts their authority over a source text, over a preexisting voice. To declare, “This is what it means.” Obviously, this power dynamic, historically under the guise of objectivity, has contributed to the violation of marginalized voices, in all their intersectional possibilities. And, of course, the violations continue to accumulate. As a justice-minded act of reversal, I appreciate the audacity of this kind of translation work, the blasphemous, irrational nature of it. I’m not trying to validate the false claiming of objectivity. But to apply the label of translation to a poem, to evoke the assumptions that go along with the label, is an effective lens, a way for a marginalized voice to challenge a marginalizing text. These kinds of translations can force a text to engage in a critique of itself, to force into its frame what was denied inclusion, but always there. Homophonic translations can also make us more aware of the materiality of language. And, for me, the re-purposing of this language carries a healing dimension.
The Gettysburg Address is a political text, how do the poems (and their hearing/mishearing) reflect your own politics as a poet?
KD: I may have gotten ahead of myself some in my previous response. But again, I believe that homophonic or sound translations, as well as conventional translations concerned with lifting people up, have the power to turn an oppressive text, an oppressive voice, in on itself. The translation forces the source text into a critical discussion. The translation becomes a mirror in which the source must confront a truer reflection. And, to the extent that this is possible, a poet becomes facilitator of this discussion, holder of the mirror. In composing these two translations, I tried to keep as much original sound as I possibly could. This was such a huge concern for me because the more sound kept, in my thinking, the more language healed. And since language doesn’t just communicate meaning, but constructs it--shapes and reshapes our perceptions of the world around us--I want the language in my poetry to help push this reshaping in a more just direction.
BVS: Since this work is in many ways about listening, what songs/albums are in heavy rotation on your playlist these days?
KD: Lately, I’ve been listening to mostly slow jam/soul ballad kind of stuff--those singers with distinctive, generous (often overly so) voices. I’m talking about vocalists that seem to want to bring the house down every time. In terms of songs on heavy rotation: LaBelle’s “Isn’t It a Shame,” Phyllis Hyman’s “Meet Me On the Moon,” Teddy Pendergrass, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Earth Wind & Fire’s “Be Ever Wonderful,” and Kamasi Washington's "Askim."
Keith Donnell Jr., originally from Philly, currently lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area. He just received his MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and holds an MA in English from the University of Southern California. His work has appeared in journals, including Juked, Berkeley Poetry Review, Redivider, New American Writing, and LUMINA. He was the 2017-2018 Editor-in-Chief of Fourteen Hills Press.