Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Drawing a Face on the Balloon

My son brought a balloon home from school with him this week, bright yellow. He played punching bag with it, he made obnoxious noises with it, he bounced it against the ceiling and retrieved it again. The first night, he drew a face on it. Last night, he added hair. 

My bedtime reading last night was "More Than Gone," the first story in Ethel Rohan's collection, Cut Through the Bone. (I haven't read the rest of the book yet.) "More Than Gone" is about a widow who carries a balloon home after a child's birthday party. The balloon may be company of a sort, or another sign of absence, or both. And it gets a face, too. 

The other books I read this week were Room, by Emma Donoghue, and Voltaire's Calligrapher, by Pablo de Santis (translated by Lisa Carter).  I read the first third of Room and was hardly able to sleep, my mind running circles after Jack in his routines. What I most admire in the novel is the consistency of voice and of perspective. Donoghue's creation of a language for Jack--precocious in some ways, limited in others--is wholly persuasive, and absorbing. (There are balloons in Room, too.) And the world created is both real and unreal.

With my students, I've been reading short stories, rounding out the survey course as the term winds down--"Talpa," by Juan Rulfo, and "Los funerales de la Mamá Grande," by Gabriel García Márquez. Since one of the most common questions I get, if I happen to mention that I teach Latin American literature, is "Oh, do you work on García Márquez," I asked the class how many had read any of his work before. Not many, as it happened. A few hands went up, but only halfway. It's a big class, and some of them are shy. But more than that, they weren't sure if their reading counted: a number of them had read One Hundred Years of Solitude, but they hadn't read Cien años de soledad. "Only in English," one of them mumbled. Meaning, I read it, but I didn't really.

Gregory Rabassa's translation both is and is not García Márquez's novel.

Part of what continues to draw me to translation (as translator and as reader) is that unresolved tension, the copies of copies that both overlap and diverge. Voltaire's Calligrapher is a book continually preoccupied with copies, simulacra, masks, disguise, imitation. (Also, a serendipitous addition to my Argentina reading challenge list.)  No balloons there, but the company of reproductions that both shelter and betray their originals.

Presence and absence and empathy, even if illusory, and that squeaky marker sound drawing a face on a squishy balloon:  more reasons I read.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Found time (found poems, found stories)

If I'm careful on my class prep/writing days, I can just fit in a run between the time when I get too stiff to sit at the computer any longer and the time I need to pick my son up from school. (If I'm overwhelmed or disorganized, I end up working up to the last possible minute, skating in to retrieve a reproachful looking child--not quite the last one in the breezeway, but nearly.) I do a certain amount of lecture preparation and article revision in my head while running. Of course, I also soak up the sun or, more often, wave to the other zealots trudging through the steady northwest rain. Today I made it, class notes and run, on a perfect, sunny spring day, with the tulips just overheating into saucers and the sawdust path almost dry in places.

Two years ago, my aunt and uncle sent us one of Mimi Williams' wonderful linoleum prints for our anniversary. [check out some of her work here] Titled "Stolen Moments," it's perfect for us: a woman reading a book, one hip leaning against the counter, her back to a pile of dishes in the sink. The print hangs proudly above our fireplace, the woman's eyes permanently averted from our kitchen clutter as well as hers. It welcomes me home, directing my attention to where it properly belongs (reading, art, family).

But I want to think of those moments (hours?!) spent running or reading--and writing, and translating--as found, not stolen.   Alicia Yánez Cossío has talked in numerous interviews about writing at night, after her five children were in bed and her other obligations for the day concluded. Writing time then becomes escape time, treat time (though there's still the question of fatigue).

One of my daughter's assignments this week was to create found poems from the dialogue in the novel they're studying in school. I think of a found poem as more serendipitous--wow! look at that irresistible collection of words out of the blue!--but it's an intriguing thought, to come at the book from another angle, to see the words on the page as somewhat arbitrarily arrayed, and thus open to rearrangement.

My "found" poem for the week? The student who came up after a class on César Vallejo, bubbling over in her eagerness to show me and my teaching assistant the tattoo on her back dedicated to the Peruvian poet. A genuine fan, no revision required.

There's always a story waiting somewhere.