Charles North works in many modes—conceptual architect, thingy neurographer, witty synthesist, maker of the poetic equivalent of very fine shirts—but I think I like him best when he gets all lucent and dreamy, as in “Clip from Francis Jammes.”
To translate is to carry across. The poem translates Jammes’s wordier one, but in North’s hands the original is carried across the river and then miles down the road. The nouns and colors and desire are still there, but they’ve been pared down, inverted, rendered sharper and more disparate. He hasn’t just boiled the soft edges off the source text; he’s cut out the connective tissue as well.
What’s left is new. Jammes’s “One would hear there, in the afternoon, the ringing of vespers,” becomes, simply, beautifully, “Late afternoon bells.” The swoon of “How I would love you there!” is snipped, and we get the daffier and far less obligatory “I would love you there!” In the original, the grapes—“the color of transparent stone”—are a little cloying; North’s grapes, in contrast, are “transparent as stone”—so that the opacity of stone, and by extension everything else we take for granted, is called into question.
I love how North makes a summery lyric out of talk and jargon like “all over” and “ventricle” and “I’m positive.” His effects feel pretty close to magic:
Shadows piled on all the leaves.
What I said about noise: the burning sun.
Shadows: from the hazel trees.
Here, the music—tinkly, falling, four-beat lines bookending a graver rising one—is joined to an associative logic in which shadows are massy, one speaks a sun in response to “noise,” and trees mysteriously generate shadows without necessarily casting them.
And the way the poem speaks the beloved into being! The conditionality of the scene—would, would,would—has by the end given way to a lush physicality. The poet says he “can’t make [her] come to life,” but his description of the taste of her lips belies the claim. In language, he builds himself a love.