A Crack in the Wind — Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char
Translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson

Stone Lyre

Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char
BY René Char
BY Nancy Naomi Carlson
(Tupelo Press, 2010)

The sepia photograph on the cover of Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char is of the underside of a stone spiral staircase as it reaches upward around a small circle of light many floors above. It is reminiscent of the scroll of some instruments, including the lyre, which characteristically has two such features carved in wood. The title of this collection of Char’s poems was chosen by the translator, Nancy Naomi Carlson, who sought “the dynamic quality of a balancing of opposites” and juxtaposed two reoccurring symbols. Char did include an oxymoron in the title of his work, À une sérénité crispée (1951), which would seem to support this choice, even though the image of a heavy, lifeless lyre — a symbol of the muse and poetry — might be a ponderous description of Char’s work.

The choice of over forty poems offers the reader a rich insight into Char’s thinking on love, life, landscape, and human nature, such as in the poem “Inebriation” with its portent of death:

While the harvest engraved itself on the sun’s copper face, a skylark’s song filled cracks in the great wind. She trilled her youth as it fell away. In three months’ time, frosted dawn, mirrors laced with birdshot, would resound.

— p. 31

Carlson’s translations flow easily, rhythmically, and are a pleasure to read. They are a reflection of Char’s energy and complexity and the literary register is just. An excellent example is the prose poem “Magdalene Keeping Watch,” in which the poet finds the highest sensibilities of human experience in the chance meeting with a young woman in the metro:

Noble reality doesn’t retreat from those who meet her to hold her dear — not to offend or confine her. That is the sole condition we’re not always pure enough to fulfill.

— p. 39

Translation, however, has its issues, and the author in her introduction discusses some of the more salient. In “Lightning Victory,” the poet describes a moment in a relationship when, with the cooling of love, “alone. / Insane and deaf” in the “season of shade,” the lovers become gradually deformed: “Lepers descend with the slow snow” (p. 7). The translator describes this line as “mysterious and puzzling,” saying that she did not make any attempt to make it “more understandable.” The discussion might have benefited from an exploration of why she did not seek a personal understanding of this line before translating it, and to what extent understanding is a necessary aspect of translation.

Carlson’s translations flow easily, rhythmically, and are a pleasure to read. They are a reflection of Char’s energy and complexity and the literary register is just.

In “Allegiance,” Char once said that he wrote about the experience of the poet in delivering a finished poem to the public. The poet, the lover of the poem, having let it go, suffers as the poem knows not its creator and risks being misunderstood. The poet is alive in the poem always, unbeknown to the creation: “I live in her depths — blissful sunken wreck — my aloneness her unknown treasure” (p. 17). Carlson has chosen to translate the abstracted “poet’s love (which is the poem he has let go),” which Char refers to as “il” (love is masculine in French), as “she,” as if there were a female object of the poet’s love, positioning the poem as a love poem between the poet and a woman. The poem works as a heterosexual love poem; but only in Char’s meaning, or in the case of homosexual love, does the “il” make sense.

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