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Review: Defying Fate, by Maurice Carème

Careme...a rewarding challenge, an addictive puzzle game

Existential anxiety is the blood that serves these three (Careme, Koltz and Jacqmin) significant collections from Arc's ever adventurous Visible Poets series. This series aims to bring those poets whose names have long foundered before English shores finally onto dry land. These latest three are native to Belgium or in one case Luxembourg. They all write in French and are European in their outlook, that is to say their work is still infected by the irrationally destructive historical traumas suffered by their continent and the existential questions this gives rise to. Philosophically poetic, yet avoiding leading their readers into thickets of unrestrained philosophising, all three of these poets are more or less grounded in what English poetry today serves as its unchanging menu du jour, that is the domestic, the everyday. But unlike much of the current English poetry of the everyday, which after a session with the self-appointed creative writing workshop surgeons, complacency sports acceptable levels of irony and seriousness, these Europeans manage something profound and truly excoriating downwind of all they have observed and privately endured. These poets are all transfixed by the void of the blank page, the nauseating underbelly displayed when language fails, when the beast rolls over. Even in the case of Maurice Careme, who appears to be at first glance a light playful poet, a stalwart with the nation's schoolchildren, there is a darkening undercurrent, a nervous scratching at the insubstantiality of belief systems as the imminent prospect of death alerts the mind to specify a final tolerable resolution.

Defying Fate is a late collection of poems, those distinctively vigilant and at the same time peculiarly reposeful vignettes of human frailty and miracle, one comes to recognise from the pen of the celebrated Belgian poet Maurice Careme. Christopher Pilling has taken on a challenging translation of Careme's rhymed poetry with mixed results. To pull off such a translation with the required consistency of transmogrification is asking much. Pilling admirably chips away at the infernal block and in an almost jocular foreword lays out his terms, but one can't help feeling as one reads these sometimes overly theatrical English doppelgangers decked in their new embroidering, that the French to the left is snoozing comfortably in its self-assurance. Take a line from the poem The Suicide, On le vit monter sur Le toit et se laisser choir dans Le vide. Pilling translates this as People saw him climb on the roof and throw himself off the top. Surely People / They saw him climb onto the roof and let himself drop into the void would have been closer to the original, more poetic and less rhetorical? First of all Pilling loses the significant image of dropping, and also the important word 'Le vide'. How many suicides dramatically throw themselves? Far more likely, as Careme states, they simply resignedly step off, let themselves drop. So in this one example Pilling needlessly squanders virtually all of Careme's power. Further on in this poem he translates those who witnessed the suicide surging in on the body des gens effares as frightened folk when surely they should be alarmed or aghast, the closer meaning of that verb. I don't wish to sound pedantic, because anyone can go through a translation and throw up minor faults, but such nuances really do matter in literary translation, especially of poetry, otherwise the translator is with amiable indifference stifling the poet. Translating a rhymed poem with equivalent rhymes into another language at any cost, often proves a disastrous stimulant to this end result of lopping and grafting. Unless there is adequate compensation for the transplant of these ungainly prosthetic limbs, (which in the case of the suicide there is not) we must ask ourselves if in the end, there is any point to this operation other than as a rewarding challenge, an addictive puzzle game.