punctum books, 2012.
Reviewed by Jonathan Lohr
“[The wound of translation] becomes a multi-media site of entry: a site where media enters and where inside becomes outside, outside becomes inside. And it might be here that the real danger of translation can be found: the inner and the outer are confused; we can no longer have simplistic notions of representation or ‘witness.’”—Johannes Göransson, Deformation Zone
The idea of witness usually carries with it a sense of the personal within the political, where one attempts to convey an experience to those outside. The witness is often sought as a history within the political, and the personal to become part of a cohesive narrative. This of course points to translation, the attempted conveyance of the body (textual and authorial) across place to those outside. And this of course points to Beowulf, the attempted cohesion of disparate voices into narrative.
It is unsurprising that the discourse surrounding the text focused on a relation to national identity, given its casual mixture of historical and heroic mythologies. It is also unsurprising, given its lack of a singular cohesive voice, that the argument would be made for a discursive shift towards the poetics of the text. What is surprising, in relation to the critical focus on Beowulf as a cohesive text, is the poem’s refusal to to be easily placed within either the historical or aesthetic discourses or easily removed from them. David Hadbawnik wrote, “Beowulf is almost a sequence of competing texts — the ‘main story’ of heroism and monsters, but also side episodes and prophesies, told by different characters, including a scop, or poet… even the sword-hilt that Beowulf salvages from the monsters’ den tells a story” (“Kent Johnson is the Author of Beowulf” Primitive Information). This refusal of authorial cohesion is what allows the text to simultaneously fulfill and refuse the manifestos surrounding it.
Thomas Meyer’s translation of Beowulf, written as part of his senior thesis for Bard College in the 1970s and finally published by punctum books in 2012, bridges the historical and aesthetic drives inherent to the text by bringing them both to the forefront through his use of the visual in the translation. In a correspondence quoted in Daniel C. Remein’s introduction to the book, Meyer says that, “Deciding to use the page layout (recto/verso) as a unit… the project wound up being a kind of typological specimen book for the long American poems extant circa 1965. Having variously the ‘look’ of Pound’s Cantos, Williams’ Patterson, or Olson or Zukofsky, occasionally late Eliot, even David Jones.” Instead of focusing on Beowulf’s use of place to serve as a history, Meyer’s translation shows how this corresponds to the use of place within the Modernist long poem, replacing it within the history of 20th Century poetics.
In the same way that the text works to bridge the historical and aesthetic, Meyer’s translation works to bridge Olson and Zukofsky, separating the text into the stylistically-different sections: “Part 1 Oversea,” and “Part 2 Homelands.” The visual form of “Oversea” seems directly inspired by Olson’s ideas of Projective Verse, and the call to have the form be an extension of content:
Indeed, much of the section seems directly in correspondence with Olson, most apparent in the visual form, but also in the historical subject of place. Olson’s The Maximus Poems is an epic of American history, localized to Gloucester, MA, while Meyer takes Beowulf’s use of place to localize the history to within the poem.
Zukofsky’s Objectivism argued that the poem itself must be made an object, and not just used as the means to representation of a pre-existing object. Remein notes the visual inspiration Meyer takes from Zukofsky’s A, pointing to the use of short-lined couplets to convey descriptions of place, reducing them to a list of landmarks, or textual map.
“In doing so,” Remein says, “the concrete lines construct a slim column of text around which the passage to the lake and the lake itself coagulate together as a site charged with the energy of vertical movement” (25). By creating the visual context of a contemporary poetics within his translation, Meyer works to objectify the text, making it malleable, his translation a thing other than the original Beowulf.
Meyer’s project does this by raising questions about Projective Verse’s relation between content and source. By shifting the formal extension, Meyer makes overt the dramatic shift to content so that was downplayed in translation. It points to the shift from the original Beowulf, unable to be pinned more specifically than “a product of the centuries” (Edward Irving), to the Beowulf placed firmly within the tradition of late American Modernism, the text becoming a visual mapping to this placement.
In an interview included at the end of the book, Meyer further discusses the inspiration of the text’s visuality, “When I met Jonathan Williams in 1969 he was something of a kingpin in the International Concrete Poetry movement… although it wasn’t a completely conscious strategy, these visual elements from Jonathan and [Basil] Bunting’s “end of the long poem” tipped me over from oral to visual as the answer, how to put across an old (epic) poem in 1972” (270). In spite of Meyer’s assertion that concrete poetry is “too often clever and curious, risking cute,” his Beowulf works as a concrete poem, taking the shape of the long poem and creating the epic of place within the history of Modernist discourse. In doing this, Meyer replaces the incohesive gaps and fissures of the original text with the cohesive gaps and fissures of the translation. He removes the lack of central voice and replaces it with himself as translator, the author of the Modernist long poem.