It goes without saying that the daily life one leads will affect the way one’s poetry will sound. When a writer has exceptionally acute feelings entwined with, and always engaging with, the infinite varieties of the way language affects heart and mind, the effects are devastating and profoundly necessary. These effects are everywhere in the poetry and translation of Erin Mouré, a prize-winning Canadian writer whose work includes eighteen volumes of her own poetry and sixteen volumes of poetry in translation, and who holds honorary doctorates from Brandon University in Canada, and from the University of Vigo in Spain.
Shannon Maguire, in her thoughtful introduction to Planetary Noise: Selected Poetry of Erin Mouré, notes that when Mouré was in Catholic grade school in the 1960s she was exposed to Latin, but girls were not allowed to learn it in the classroom. This is a form of violence, Maguire rightly suggests, and Mouré has been brilliantly laboring ever since to overcome and reconfigure the violence of lost time with Latin, as well as the violence of suppression and denial in other arenas. She has, for example, very directly addressed class and privilege in her work. She has done this by learning how to translate, and by insisting on fierce observation. She acknowledges the discomforts and instability this causes and she also insists that it feed her art.
Mouré doesn’t compose escape poetry, as her poem “Lunge” makes so beautifully clear:
All of a sudden you find out there isn’t enough time. You find out there was never enough time. You find out you shouldn’t have washed the dishes.
Over & over, so many dishes, the wet cloth, the spill across the counter, window, bird out there or not, the clean houdr, begin
& you find out you shouldn’t have bought the clocks. You shouldn’t have bothered buying clocks. You never had what they had to measure.
You leap & throw them facedown into the trash.
There is not enough time to cry about this. The pain in your back is very deep and pointless. You find out that all this time they said you were part of the working class there was no time. The real working class in this country was always unemployed, & you always had a job, the same one.
You find out there is no such thing as enough time & still you don’t have any of it. You shouldn’t have craved the arms of women. You shouldn’t have slept with men. You shouldn’t have dreamed Philosophy or the heart monitor screen in your apartment bedroom, just like Emergency. It’s all shit. Merde. This, & hey & you & others.
Time for the medicine. You fast cure. You fuck-up mad dog. You you. You lunge over the table. In mid- lunge. Going for the adrenaline again, going for keeps, prose, boots, sandwich you couldn’t eat, you bit & spit out, you thought it would make you sick again. Lunge for the dog’s stale portion of sleep, your legs straight off the chair, your hair stuck put, the clatter of the chair falling backward, zone five, zone six, the sound of
Your arms make
Amicus, object, referent
Points of or- der.
This poem was published more than thirty years ago, when Tillie Olsen—of “I Stand Here Ironing” fame—still walked this earth, working and observing. One imagines that, if Olsen knew Mouré’s “Lunge,” she’d have loved the way Mouré’s anger is detailed, and the profoundly political irony of the last line.
“The Beauty of Furs” and its companion, “The Beauty of Furs, a Site Glossary,” published in 1989, are no less devastating Both are free association prose poems that connect a discussion of wearable furs:
They talk about the pronunciation of coyote. I think of my brother catching muskrat. […]They are talking about the beauty of furs, and how so and so ‘s family is in the business. I remembered, I say, my mother had a muskrat coat, & when she wore it & you grabbed her too hard by the arm, fur came out. Eileen, fifteen years older than me, starts to laugh, & puts her hand on my shoulder, laughing. We both start laughing. I start to explain to her that it was old, that my mother wore it to church on Sunday and got upset if we grabbed her arm. We’re laughing so hard, now the young ones are looking at us, together we are laughing, in our house there was a beaver coat like that, Eileen said, then suddenly we are crying, crying for for those fur coats & the pride of our mothers[…] .
The last line of the second piece is piercing and inevitable:
If I could be born now, I am born, my snout warm smelling the wet earth of my mother’s fur.
The introduction also devotes space to hypertext and its importance to Mouré. This adds another way to appreciate what she accomplishes so well, and it would be wrong to not acknowledge it. But it is one of many ways to breathe in what is found in this generous collection.
In a piece called “documentary (differential plane)” Mouré declares:
The Basque philosopher Unamuno saying that what led Juan Teresa Ignatio to ‘mysticism’ was the perception of an intolerable disparity between the huge Ness of their desire and the smallness of reality.’
This is the core of Mouré’s manifesto, published a year after 9/11 and in it she asks the unanswerable:
What have I charged?
This existential dilemma is always present in Mouré’s work and she is always, as she puts it, in a state of living “reasons difficulty.” She is one who “acts differently” in the same piece so that, in another “document” we are reminded that we are in the presence of someone called “[t]o touch ceaselessly on the confines of the world.” Touching accomplishes countless events, many of which, like the movement of eyes as a reader is observed, are hiding in plain sight, suggesting that engagement with words is a kind of photosynthesis of the soul.
Mouré is a rigorous mystic, and her rigor keeps us expansively awake. “Splay with a Stone” is playful and deep:
Create voice with bone
tip voice with steel,
die voice with a journey,
clot voice with a word
and you unconditionally.
Plough with a stone from the pyramids plough with a stone
and don’t splay the earth
and don’t splay
it, gather singular
without make believe,
without making time.
The physicality here is yet another look at hard parts that are sometimes permeable. Many poems Mouré has composed over the years have been honestly inscrutable, not gratuitously so, because her vocation insists on facing the force of the tool, which is that “[w]riting is a language of insurrection.“ It is shaped speech that can move mountains.
We have doses of manifesto that bring us closer to selves in need of that “insurrection.“ We also also have an invitation, as in “Dear N.:“
You asked me if changing languages is as easy as changing passports. You asked this in our language.
(I read somewhere that an impostor is someone who takes the place of another person. That identity is like a cloud, conjured up from the ground.)
With this letter my answer in a passport. Tomorrow I once again become a citizen of airports. In this no place where I am not
please make use of it as you see fit.
Translating, in its widest meaning, is an attempt to accomplish what having a passport gives us permission to undertake. The “what“ is to get closer to the lives of humans who would be less reachable, less human without that undertaking. It’s an increasingly urgent task when so many world leaders are horrifically uninterested in “translating,” in crossing the borders of varied people in their own communities, their own countries, and other countries and continents.
Translation of every kind, then, is more necessary than ever, and Mouré and others who shed light on lives whose speakers use other languages become illuminators in this very dark time. “There would be no surcease until I did so,“ she says of encountering the poetry of Nichita Stanescu, a Romanian whose work is also daring and complicated. If many more people felt that compelling need to bring the other out of the shadows, into plain sight, making that other less alien, language would get closer to fulfilling its sacred charge.
“A poet spends a lifetime writing poems, just so that some line, some tiny fragment enters the memory and dream of the language.“ YES!!!, I wrote on a Post-it on that page, wishing Adrienne Rich were alive to embrace Mouré, as we are so privileged to do in these pages.