Allison Grimaldi Donahue
The way I describe flesh and bone needn’t be cool or clean, the fat can seep out, the body can go out of bounds—the body is always going out of bounds for the sick. Because boundaries change. Poet Lisa Robertson The Office for Soft Architecture writes, “No one is old enough to die or love.”
Writing through and living through a work of art can be a way into translation. To let the piece inhabit you and somehow come to inhabit it. I set out to translate one of Petrarch’s sonnets each day for the year after my mother died, grief became method of translation and left me open to feelings and influences and pieces of myself that I had been ignoring for years while she was alive.
My perception of the human body, the female body in particular, is very different from my poet-guide, Petrarch’s perception. Time has changed things; I am a woman. To him the female body was an object to venerate, to me it is daily experience and my relationship to my mother’s dying body and her dying beauty lives in my poems and in my versions and translations of the Canzoniere. When Laura dies the language used to describe her is more luminous, closer to a heavenly creature; when my mother dies her body turns closer to earthly material. Elaborating his grief he came to associate Laura with the Virgin Mary; elaborating my own grief I had to face my mother’s imperfections, to honor her as she was, not as a nostalgic dream.
Ashamed sometimes that your beauty,
lady, is still silent in my verses,
I recall that time when I first saw it,
such that nothing else could ever please me.
But I find the weight too great for my shoulder,
a work not to be polished by my skill:
the more my wit exercises its force
the more its whole action grows cold.
Many times my lips have opened to speak,
but my voice is stilled in my chest:
who is he who could climb so high?
Many times I've begun to scribble verses:
but the pen, the hand, and the intellect
fell back defeated at their first attempt.
Vergognando talor ch'ancor si taccia,
donna, per me vostra bellezza in rima,
ricorro al tempo ch'i' vi vidi prima,
tal che null'altra fia mai che mi piaccia.
Ma trovo peso non da le mie braccia,
né ovra da polir colla mia lima:
però l'ingegno che sua forza extima
ne l'operatïon tutto s'agghiaccia.
Piú volte già per dir le labbra apersi,
poi rimase la voce in mezzo 'l pecto:
ma qual sòn poria mai salir tant'alto?
Piú volte incominciai di scriver versi:
ma la penna et la mano et l'intellecto
rimaser vinti nel primier assalto.
The translations, or versions I wrote and I am continuing to rewrite seek to reveal the unpleasant elements of death as well and the memories of the dead that we may prefer to forget.
My version of Sonnet 20:
it’s the soul-shame
we talk about
sitting shallow cold river
thinking how you would
never put yrself here
immobile in mirrors
of bright water
i continue to look
like a lost narcissus
wishing to see
Spending more time with Petrarch’s poems I think ofthese lines from Louise Glück’s poem, “End of Winter,”
You wanted to be born; I let you be born.
When has my grief ever gotten
in the way of your pleasure?
She could have said these lines to me at any point during her sickness. Feelings of jealousy and regret tinge each line. Her suffering never tried to hold me back, not consciously. Sometimes I would look at her and wonder if I should leave again, if I should go home to my life across an ocean. No matter her eyes, I always got on that plane—the necessary cruelty of being a daughter.
I first began to think about her as a body when her muscles diminished because of ALS, slowly and then ever quicker, the loss of control. Then the silent body, barely breathing, tearing involuntarily on the hospice bed, in the coffin, as ash. From warm to cold, from soft to powder.
The work of other artists began to reflect her suddenly vanished body back at me. It is aesthetic phenomenology, it is immersion. In the years following her death works of the body always signal towards her body and then towards mine, nothing is anonymous or general. I looked to her all of my life as the most womanly creature on earth, an ideal I would never live up to no matter what I did.
I needed a new guide and I found one in Petrarch; translation is a framework for conversation. My symbiotic relationship with my mother was working its way towards an end. That’s how relationships go, isn’t it? They work towards something, some change. Sometimes the relationships completely cease but if it is a close relationship it doesn’t seem to, not ever. In The Phenomenology of the Sprit Hegel writes, “[…] so it is not with the skull that we commit murder, steal, write poetry, etc.” Bones are rigid, hard, much more resistant than the other parts. The brain is soft and porous. The heart full of holes.
Last month I was at MoMA PS1, the contemporary art space in Queens, New York. Sascha Braunig’s paintings were being shown, a collection called “Shivers.” The paintings are three-dimensional, colorful in pinks and purples, yellows and greens and they are plush and slick, pulling and pushing the angular canvas into human form. I look at her paintings, they seem like weavings of flesh, new ways to make dead muscles work, to bend, to flex. In an interview Braunig calls the surface of these figures’ skin a “flimsy, mortifying kind of camouflage.” (http://hyperallergic.com/295873/a-painter-on-the-entangled-relationship-between-figure-and-frame/) My mother’s skin, a camouflage of health.
pour yourself into concrete
like your name written
in cursive beneath
the mixture drips
from thin fingers
the weight of your
they paint red and white
over you they blend
make pink like ground beef
your legs glisten in disuse
In an interview in that same this past May Braunig said: “Can figure and frame start to coexist in an interweaving, almost erotic relationship?” The same question applies to our human bodies. The same question applies to translation. Translation gives you a frame but then it is up to the translator to decide what else can fit into that space besides the original language, the original version. The work of painting and the work of translation require soft parts, elements that can change, ruin, seep. “Words are fleshy ducts,” writes Lisa Robertson in The Office for Soft Architecture. The flesh Braunig paints folds over itself. As my mother became weaker, as muscle deteriorated what once looked toned and useful became as limp as blanket.
The Quebecois poet Nicole Brossard, in her book Ardour, translated by Angela Carr and published in English in 2015 by Coach House Books, Toronto explores existence within and without a body and the violence that always accompanies human action.
it’s not wise
to say devour or burn
directly from our pink existence
it’s not wise
to join a civilization
of butchers and inquisitors
(Nicole Brossard, Ardour)
When I began to read Nicole Brossard’s poems in the book Ardour it felt like I’d been waiting for them.
They allowed me to explore the least comfortable parts of my own loss. My relationship to death is markedly different than Petrarch’s. My mother’s ashes lie in an urn. The death is not transcendent in my poems. Robertson and Brossard teach me to bury my hands down in my innards and search around.
unused flesh gets glossy
like a photo with a timestamp
glowing orange in one corner
yr feet round and red
glide across the floor
We live in a time where reason always seem to matter less. Truth has taken a backseat to sensationalism in politics. This only seems to be true, however, when we talk about things distant from ourselves. Talking about death, mourning in a family or community is still painfully difficult and confusing. In our personal lives, as much as we want to believe it we find it impossible to accept that feelings are facts. As Lisa Robertson writes in the weather, “Lurid conditions are facts.” Nothing could be more lurid than the condition of death, of shut-down, uncomfortably transformative to the living. To understand better why I felt so tied to these descriptions of the body and to feeling I looked to the beginnings of phenomenology, I wanted to know more about the lived experience, less about theoretical analysis of that experience. Edmund Husserl, writes in Ideas I:
Enough now of preposterous theories. No conceivable theory can mislead us with respect to the principle of all principles: that every originally giving intuition is a legitimating source of cognition, that everything that orders itself to us originarily in “intuition” (in its corporeal actuality, so to speak) is to be accepted simply as what it is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there.
Intuition legitimizes our experiences and actions. The first person perspective while remaining singular, does relate to some reality and does seek the essence of experience. The maps and traces I find in the Canzoniere, pieces left by Petrarch to centuries of readers. Because I longed to have a dialogue with places and people that are not here, no longer on earth, not in my present time or present place, I stayed with Petrarch day in and day out and sought to listen. Sometimes it seems like our reality, mine and the great poet’s, are closer to one another than my life to my own mother’s. Life took her away before we could have the back and forth Petrarch and I have been having thanks to his poems. I can listen for her, but she left only material objects, no diaries, no journals. Images, crafts, knitted cloth. Like Sascha Braunig’s paintings they drape as I hold them between my fingers; I think her flesh was once here holding the textiles instead of my own.
it’s that life devours
characters and carapaces
the whole dream
the capacity for dialogue
(Nicole Brossard, Ardour)
Lisa Robertson writes in The Weather, “Maybe a flesh that reverses.” I am struggling to grasp what this can mean. A flesh that turns itself inside out, reveals itself in a new form, a new use, a new life. I work to make my relationship with my mother better than it was in life, post-mortem mother-daughter understanding. Petrarch’s poems can take on new sensuality when combined with flesh. There is time for these things the new life, the new poems, no time for what I imagined, for living reconciliation, but time for something I never could.
Allison Grimaldi Donahue’s work has appeared in places like The Brooklyn Rail, Words Without Borders, Dead King Mag, Cosmonauts Avenue and Metatron. She is fiction editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse and a translation editor at Drunken Boat. Her chapbook Body to Mineral was published in October 2016 by Publication Studio Vancouver.