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Self-Shadowing Prey just brought out by Contra Mundum is one of the final texts by Ghérasin Luca, a poet and surrealist thinker I had not heard of before receiving this book. He was born in Bucharest in 1913, and spoke a number of languages including German, French and Romanian. In 1952 he was forced to leave Bucharest for Paris where he had connections in Surrealist circles. He committed suicide in 1994 by throwing himself into the Seine, having been evicted from his home apparently for “hygiene reasons.”
As well as being a poet he worked on collages and drawings also performing his works in many countries. I mention this, because it also gives some clues about the text. The book itself has been stylishly produced. It has an elegant cover in a black and white design, with a hint of red on the lettering and has been translated from French into English by Mary Ann Caws, who has previously done translations of French surrealist, and surrealist influenced poets including Paul Eluard, René Char and the “pope of surrealism” himself, André Breton.
The presentation also has significance with regard to the text. Whilst none of the poems in Self-Shadowing Prey are concrete poems as such, there is considerable play with the layout of lines words and stanzas. Even empty pages are used to convey pauses and silences. This may also account for the fact that the English translation and the French original do not appear side by side. They are set out sequentially, which may create some difficulties cross referencing the two, but does give both versions the full flavour of Luca’s layout. This especially applies to a section titled GENERAL sTRIKE which stretches  an almost haiku-like poem over several pages with empty ones breaking the words up further:  “GENERAL/ sTRIKE/ without end/ or beginning/ POETRY/ WITHOUT TONGUE/ REVOLUTION/ WITHOUT ANYONE/ LOVE/ END/ LESS.”
This short section/poem is about the nearest we get to a direct expression of what the work is about. As Caws explains in her introduction this text centres round the problems of language and what it can express. There is also a very strong surrealist flavour. Surrealist poetry can use strange juxtapositions of words and ideas requiring readers to make associative leaps in the imagination- and there are plenty of these here. Yet there is also a degree of narrative line in the sequence if the poems. The first, title poem begins as follows:

at the edge of a forest
whose trees are slender ideas
and each a thought at bay
the vegetal reveals to us
the damned depths of an animal sect”

Immediately, there are questions. What ideas? What thoughts? What are the “damned depths of an animal sect?” These are not directly answered. But I can’t help hearing echoes of Dante wandering into the forest at the start of The Divine Comedy, suggesting the reader is meant to make their own journey into an underworld of unconscious elements that underpin all languages. The “damned depths” suggest this, and the journey leads to what Luca describes as:

 “all these yes and nos that
outside outside of time
of space and weight”

One other point of comment here is also the repetition of outside. Luca is coining a verb “to outside” and the act outside of time.

There is not sufficient space to examine all the twists and turns that this sequence of poems takes. A difficulty that Surrealist poetry can create is that its lines are difficult to parse. But this of course is be deliberate. Some poets relay heavily on the sounds of words as much as their meaning. There certainly is a Joycean relish in the words sounds, repetitions, puns, the creation of neologisms, and homophonous words on display here, and even of parts of words, that are described on the back of the book as “stupors.”
Interestingly, there some examples of Luca reading his work on the web, including a film of the final poem, Uninitialed Crimes. The performance resembles an avant-garde composition. There is huge exuberance in the way Luca reads and even stammers out some of his work which comes through in this text which the translator describes as “linguistically joyous.” The words themselves are largely names of real and fictional ideologies and artistic movements until a turn twelve pages later when the poem concludes with a statement that all these words are “are synonyms” and “homophones.”
Yet before we reach this conclusion Luca has taken the reader on the journey hinted at in the first poem. The poems in this book follow a sequence, from the forest into what Luca calls the Restless Whirlwind, telling us:

“What passes us perfectly immobile
pushes what seems strangely mobile
to pretend it’s fixed and unmoving”

We are in a world of flux, of self-reflecting mirrors and shadows which is what the title has already hinted at. In a number of other poems he describes a woman, perhaps his lover, mentioning movements of her foot and arm. Yet capturing her presence eludes him, as he concludes in a poem titled Madeleine:

without arm or face
                                      arm in arm
                                Madeleine hides Madeleine

In other poems he alludes to whatever lies beyond words heading in a direction Towards the Non-Mental. In a visionary section titled  The Key, Luca moves through visionary experiences that include what he calls “the range of self,” “movements of atoms,” “exploding planets” and his vocation as a poet stating:

                “and you don’t get out of the absurd
                 except through the absurd itself”

The next poem, Ox Nerve moves into the cortex of the brain, explaining  “The Ox Nerve is at the  origin of the information/ which has recently circulated/ as to the polls/ taken by the brain/ from certain torso nerves.” In this phrase again we note self-shadowing words being distorted and perhaps inadequate to experience.
So where are we left at the end of all this strange, playful work? In some ways, it remains baffling and bewildering. There are no answers. Yet like when reading some of the most difficult poems of Paul Celan (who Luca associated with) I keep returning to the pages of this book ponder on the phrases and images in the work, to try an make a sense of what its convoluted and experimental phraseology . Something deep in my psyche has been moved . If that is a problem for readers, it should not be laid at the door of the translator, who confesses in her introduction to a fascination with “the obvious impossibility” translating this work. It is the difficulties of the original that have been brilliantly brought into English here.
Self-Shadowing Prey is a linguistic experiment. English readers might see parallels with Finnegans Wake, another “impossible” work on which the impossible has been done recently when it was translated into Romanian. The difficulties of Luca’s French are perhaps not as extreme as in that work by James Joyce. It is the leaps of imagination that Luca demand of his reader here. Both works confront the impossibility of language, how it can both reflect and distort experience. Whether this experiment succeeds or fails I leave for readers. I suspect any confusions it generates are what we are meant to feel to  inspire further reflection as we move though its paradoxes and distortions. If it does this, it has succeeded.
Self-Shadowing Prey is a book to live with and ponder on. In a while, its secrets may yield, or maybe the real secret is in living with the possibility that the real nature of things always remains hidden.                            Graham Mummery

Graham Mummery lives in Sevenoaks, Kent. His poems have appeared in various UK magazines and he is currently working towards his first full collection. His own pamphlet, The Gods Have Become Diseases appeared in 2006. He also has translated poems from French (by René Char, Yves Bonnefoy and Paul Eluard), from German (Goethe and Rilke) and Norwegian (André Bjerke). Some of these have also appeared in magazines and the anthology of translations from French and German Over the Water (Hearing Eye Press). He collaborated in translating from Romanian into English Deepening the Mystery (EdituraSemene)  by Christiana Maria Purdescu.


New Publications:   The New York based publisher Contra Mundum is bringing out some interesting new books, notably a bi-lingual (French/English) edition of Self-Shadowing Prey by the surrealist Romanian poet Ghérasim Luca (to be reviewed in these pages), a new translation fo Gilgamesh, also a “long out of print study on Keats Negative Capability :the Intuitive Approach in Keats by W. J. Bate.  See

Internet and Language :  Debate rages as to whether the Internet will have or has already had a net good or bad effect on the English language.  Alexa Russel who writes for an English website has sent in the following article: .

The Profound Effect the Internet Has Had on the English Language   by Alexa Russell

Spelling errors abound on the Internet, where individuals can publish any amount of content without using an editor or spell-check software. This concerns many who feel that we already have too much difficulty discerning “too,” “two” and “to” or “their” from “they’re.” For others, however, the Internet is proving that the rules of the English language are almost secondary to its usage and can be simplified for effective communication. This debate will only intensify as shortened forms of communication through digital means become more ubiquitous.
Some have found that the development of Internet-based communication has only served to cause greater confusion when trying to communicate through those avenues. A personal piece printed by the Hamilton Spectator in June 2012 discusses the author’s attempts to follow the seemingly ever-changing rules of Internet communication. “Now,” Jeff Mahoney writes, “for the first time in my experience, I’m getting corrected on my emoticons.”
One of the problems with looser grammatical rules for Internet communication is the lack of a formal set of rules. Without realizing it, an individual can look unhip by adding a nose to her emoticon or using the wrong acronym to indicate a personal state. This can add to the anxiety of trying to draft a message to others.
Others argue that lax spelling standards should be embraced as they don’t hinder actual communication; rather, they make communication more efficient. In January 2012, Wired Magazine announced that it was “Tyme to Let Luce” in a feature article on the effects of autocorrect on texting. The piece argues that attempts to improve writing with autocorrect software hampers the ability to communicate more than improper spelling.
“Autocorrect and spellcheckers are wrongheaded because they reinforce a traditional spelling standard,” writes Anne Trubeck for Wired. Although consistent spelling was necessary in the traditional print era, where publishing was consolidated to a small amount of companies and individuals, spelling rules today get in the way of digital communication between any two parties.
Advocates of lax restrictions on spelling believe that letting individuals figure out how to spell certain words while in active communication is a much more organic form of language development than commitment to archaic grammar rules. Instead of autocorrect, language-recognition software programs like Siri are the future of clarity in communication to them.
Still, the development of casual forms of communication has created a gap between the technically illiterate and chronic texters. In some cases, special classes are used to close this communication gap, which is most prevalent between young adults and the elderly. In 2010 the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand sponsored a texting workshop aimed at informing elderly individuals about the different rules of communication used in texting and other digital forms. The workshop was exalted for promoting improvement of mental health and wellbeing for entire communities by improving communication.
Language rules which were impenetrable for centuries are now different from generation to generation. This often requires more work to communicate across different age groups, which may respect entirely different sets of grammatical rules. However, the efficiencies created when both parties are familiar with the spelling rules used can make casual communication a highly efficient method of sharing information.

(Alexa Russell writes for an English website that discusses how these and other issues are being taught at English colleges and universities around the globe.)

Queries for a Practising Translator :   John Dewey and Graham Mummery have already sent in completed ‘questionnaires’ for which many thanks (see previous posts). But maybe I ought to add to this by answering my own questions :

Q1. Do you only ever translate from a language you  know well? (If “No” Do you get help from a native speaker? )  Yes. Even for this language (French) I consult native speakers as well.  

Q2.  Do you prefer to read other translations of the piece you are translating?  (a) Before starting  (b) After making a first draft (c) Never  ?      (b) Only to check what someone else has made of an obscure passage.

 Q3.  Do you use a dictionary?  If “Yes”, do you use a foreign language/English dictionary or a dictionary in the source language itself?  Both. I recently resolved only to use the Robert French/French dictionary but I soon found I had to compromise on this.

 Q4. Do you show your translation to anyone before sending it off?  Prose, yes; poetry, no, as a rule.

 Q5. Do you ever translate books or poems you don’t like?  If “Yes”, does this bother you when translating? Only time I did this was a disaster : the publisher to be got a lousy translation and I was lucky to get paid anything at all.  

Q6.  Do you work regular hours or in spurts ‘when you feel like it’?  Regular spurts aided by Bacchus.

Q7. Do you use stimulants (e.g. coffee, alcohol, drugs) to ‘get started’?   Red wine is essential for lyric poetry and poetic prose. When my doctor banned alcohol completely I stopped translating or writing poetry and have not gone back to it (transalting poetry I mean).  A study conducted by the New Scientist came to the conclusion that alcohol “does not make you more creative but can make you feel more creative”. But ‘feeling’ more creative is often what you need : it unlocks the word-hoard.

Q8. Could you give examples of particular difficulties in translating poems or prose from a specific language ? Have you any tips about how to get round these difficulties? Chief difficulty with French is when you have a highly stylized author such as Jouhandeau whom I am currently translating : does one imitate the somewhat old-fashioned diction or modernize for comprehensibility? Scott Moncrieff’s (already ancient) translation of Proust is much less stylized than the original mainly because Proust makes copious use of the subjunctive, though Scott does imitate Proust’s rec0rd-breaking long sentences.

Q9.  Do you see yourself as a ‘literal’ translator or a ‘free’ one?  Free. Prefer to ‘get the spirit’.

Q10. When translating rhymed poetry, do you try to imitate the rhyme scheme and metre?  (a) always; (b) sometimes; (c) never ?  (b) If the rhyme/stamza form seems important as in the case, say, of a sonnet, I always try to keep to the form though I allow myself to make slight changes in the rhyme scheme if necessary. Also, curiously, I find a twelve syllable line comes more naturally to me than the usual English ten-syllable line so this helps when translating French poetry in (twelve syllable) alexandrines.

Sebastian Hayes is the author of Rimbaud Revisited & Une Saison en Enfer A New Translation (Brimstone 2010) and of The Trace I Wish to Leave translations from the French of Anna de Naoilles and Six Poems from the French of Catherine Pozzi (Hague Press Limited Edition).  S.H. 11/08/12

for my father

 Now you’re preparing for that longest of journeys,
deciding how best to take your leave;
choosing the clothes that you’ll wear on departure,
your spirit clinging to the air you still breathe.

For you, death seems almost a sporting thing,
though desire wanes with your body’s decline.
Holding on to the light that’s fast retreating,
you rescue last thoughts from a drowning mind.

Having kept a tight vigil, your path’s become clear,
though dreams fade away into wandering.
A longing for life only briefly returns
as you ready yourself for eternity,

but wisdom, holding itself in reserve,
courageously helps you subdue your cries.
You seem to extend your hand to the darkness,
a sweet resignation lighting your eyes.

You’re preparing now for that longest of journeys.
Its vision draws you away too soon.
Sadly we see, as you’re dressing to leave,
your eyes have the look of one already gone.

from Deepening the Mystery by Cristiana Maria Purdescu,
translated by Leah Fritz from the literal translation of Alina-Olimpia Miron

I first became aware of Sorescu when exploring poets from former Iron Curtain Countries, especially Miroslav Holub, who I’d say Sorescu resembles in some respects. They share economy of language (Sorescu once said “Poetry must be concise, almost algebraic“), and a deadpan sense of humour. Both resort to fable, with oblique references to political matters satirizing the Communist regimes they lived under. Where Sorescu differs is in his poetic persona: Holub is the objective scientist: Sorescu is a clown. Like Charlie Chaplin, a bemused everyman confronting the monsters of life. Like his compatriot, the playwright Eugene Ionescu, he is an Absurdist. Here is a poem in which Sorescu uses this sense of existential absurdity:


Between our ideals and their fulfilment
There’s always a bigger drop
Than on the highest waterfall.

But we can use it rationally
By building a hydro-electric station there.
Even if its energy
Can only light our cigarettes,
It’s quite something.
Because while smoking, we can dream up
Even greater ideals.                     
(version by Graham Mummery)

I love the absurdity of building a hydro-electric station on our ideals. It makes the poem a “cod inspirational” verse. The way he manages both to affirm human spirit in the face of absurdity, while ridiculing it is amazing. Plus it also mocks pomposity of propaganda, taking a sly swipe at the Ceauscescu regime, and rhetoric that exhorts people to greater efforts, which is hidden in Sorescu’s self deprecation and mockery.

He uses the self-deprecation to good effect in this next poem. Here, I believe he is mocking officials who claim to be benevolent, yet whose generosity is humbug. His audiences would have recognized this.


It’s getting late
in my soul’s garden.
Look at the growing dark
in my right hand palm
in the acacia in front of my house.

I have to
get rid of everything
that is lit up,
my bedroom slippers:
my wardrobe, pictures on the wall…
As for the rest of my effects
that I piled up
to the stars
I can’t take them with me
so I’ll leave them shining on.

In my will I have requested
in my honour
as my memorial
at least on solemn remembrance days
that the whole universe
be distributed amongst the poor.     
(version by Graham Mummery)

Marin Sorescu was born in southern Romania on February 29, 1936. When he was three, his father died. In 1955 Sorescu entered the University of Iasi, and received his B.A. in philology in 1960. After moving to Bucharest, Sorescu married Virginia Seitan. In 1963 he became the editor of the literary journal Luceafarul, where he published his first poems, a book of poetic parodies.
Between 1966 and 1972 Sorescu served as editor-in-chief in a film studio. In 1971-72 Sorescu participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Over the years he took part in a large number of other poetry events world wide including Poetry International, which has contributed to his being widely translated. There is a delicious absurdity about how the first book of poems came to be published in the UK from German translations of Sorescu’s poems.
In Romania Sorescu enjoyed huge popularity. His readings apparently filled football stadiums which probably helped prevent his being arrested, though he did have a period of being under house arrest in the 1970’s because he knew people in a “meditation class” which the Communists took as being a vehicle for spreading subversive thoughts — an absurdity characteristic of his poetry. An absurdity compounded when under the House arrest as he and his wife were allowed out to slip out of their house to do the shopping!
After the Ceauscescu regime fell Marin Sorescu was asked to become Minister for Culture. Another absurdity, just like in the poems. Though unsuited to the role, he served in this position 1993-5. Holding this position caused him to attract a great deal of criticism, not least from fellow poets. Whether he resigned from these criticisms or ill health I don’t know. In 1996 he was diagnosed with liver cancer. In his last month he wrote a long sequence of wry quizzical poems in which he faces and pain. His comic persona remains even into death. The book is dedicated “To those who suffer.” There is a sense of inevitability in it as he confronts it. But it contains some astonishing poems, in which he still affirms life and creativity. Here are two:

A Ladder to the Sky

A spider’s thread
Hangs from the ceiling
Directly over my bed.

Every day I keep track
How much closer it descends
“Look” I say to myself,
“I’m being sent a ladder to the sky
Lowered from above.”

 I’ve grown dreadfully thin,
A mere ghost of what I used to be,
Yet I think my body
Is too heavy still
For this delicate ladder.

 Soul, you go ahead.
Shhh! Shhh!
(translation by Lidia Vianu and Adam J. Sorkin from The Bridge published by Bloodaxe)

And another dated the day before Marin Sorescu died:

I’ve turned my subconscious towards the plus.

I’ve turned my subconscious towards the plus.
It had faced the minus
enclosed in a circle
Exactly at the core of the earth.

Daily it irradiated me
With pulses of grief.
“Stop this nonsense all at once” I told it.
I’m a solar man,
I need emanations from above.
I felt good in the air,
In the joy
Of a fulfilled life.

 There’s an attraction for Thanatos too,”
A fascination replies.
“Always farther and farther thresholds to cross.
Leave things for later.
Come out into the light,
We’ll do fine old fellow.”


Note: Unless otherwise acknowledged, the poems come from Marin Sorescu The Bridge (translated by Adam J Sorkin and Lidia Vianu) published by Bloodaxe. It won the 2005 Corneliu M Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation.