Against Translation

Against Translation

by Alan Shapiro

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We often ask ourselves what gets lost in translation—not just between languages, but in the everyday trade-offs between what we experience and what we are able to say about it. But the visionary poems of this collection invite us to consider: what is loss, in translation? Writing at the limits of language—where “the signs loosen, fray, and drift”—Alan Shapiro probes the startling complexity of how we confront absence and the ephemeral, the heartbreak of what once wasn’t yet and now is no longer, of what (like racial prejudice and historical atrocity) is omnipresent and elusive. Through poems that are fine-grained and often quiet, Shapiro tells of subtle bereavements: a young boy is shamed for the first time for looking “girly”; an ailing old man struggles to visit his wife in a nursing home; or a woman dying of cancer watches her friends enjoy themselves in her absence. Throughout, this collection traverses rather than condemns the imperfect language of loss—moving against the current in the direction of the utterly ineffable.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226613642
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/02/2019
Series: Phoenix Poets
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 96
File size: 325 KB

About the Author

Alan Shapiro has published many books, including Reel to Reel, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Against Translation

The songs swept down from the northern steppes with cinerary horse and sword and vestment in the wake of battle suicidal for a bronze translation of flesh burnt to a vertical vapor trail of fame that, so they claimed,
would be undying,
by which they meant the dying would be just prolonged a little longer as on a ladder made of air each legendary smoke of name could only climb by thinning till it wasn't there.

And now as the steel tips of our devices dig, sort through and analyze what's left behind,
scant traces of berserk debris, dumb soot of ritual effaced by dumber ash,
beneath ghost towns the ghosts have all abandoned,
all we unearth intact now are the untranslated bones of babies,
inhumed at home in older dwellings on deeper strata under mud floors in pits — placed carefully on sides, knees drawn to chests,

skulls cupped in pebble bones of hand,
the dead nursling,
the stillborn,
the miscarried — unnamed,
as if the only grave goods buried with them were their perishing,
as if that were what the mothers wanted to keep close,
keep hidden, safe from the heroic stench of burning upward while their breasts still swelling, dripping freshened the black dirt sucking at their feet.


You were still too little for the new bicycle I'd gotten you but too big for the tricycle you still liked to ride, and so while the big bike stood unused in the driveway, you rode the tricycle around the cul-de-sac, knees banging on the handlebars, feet clumsily pedaling, happy to be too big for once for anything, laughing so goofily it made me laugh to see you laugh, which as I watched surprised me the way the plane-less silence in the skies that week surprised us all. 9/11 had just become itself. A new and heady unironic language you couldn't speak without and still be heard had overnight become our lingua franca, an Esperanto we woke up knowing, as if what tumbled down with the towers were the civic Babels of our separate lives, as if we had been blown by the explosions backward to a pre-Babel, nearly Edenic understanding, speaking the same tongue inside the same body politic that flexed its outraged muscle through the words we spoke, no matter whom we spoke them to. Our good neighbor Rob, the Vietnam vet, business school professor, church deacon, town council member, wandered over to where I stood. You were shouting "watch me daddy watch me," and as you pedaled by he said, "Big boy like you shouldn't ride a girl's bike." The barb of mockery was aimed at me, it seemed, not you. Yet you, not understanding what or why, you got it. Something wasn't right — something I hadn't told you about except perhaps in my too soft, understated, overnuanced way, conveyed without explicitly conveying, reluctantly, in stifled anger and impatience, in signals flashing by too quickly to notice even while they're felt. You looked at him and then at me, and in the look I saw inchoate bafflement, trace elements of shame, first inklings of an aura of the law that through him, at that moment, had finally found you out. And as you pedaled off, you were just like us now, not smiling, not laughing, serious and dutiful: you too had a job to do, so you did it.


To picture the infinitely knotted up and tangled ganglia of all life in reverse, receding like tipped over dominoes tipping back up to a first not yet tipped over into everything,

or back before that to that four-billion-year-old first billionth of a nanosecond of a ghost speck of no longer now about to be, of lowest entropy that being anything,
by virtue of being, could permit,

to imagine there inside it in its next to nothingness all possible combinations of all somethings — the past still in the future and the future in the just now not

even dreaming past now to itself —
and then to think how we too were there, how the sheer infinitesimal nano-chance of us was there already as the unlikeliest of crapshoots in that pre-coalescing of postnothing,
makes me wonder in the aftermath of yet new carnage if there isn't something of that nothing we began as even now inside us grown so tired of the attempt at waking

into something that it wants to just go back to what it was, to sleep, to have the whole thing over with already, tiredness so extreme it hardly feels

the tribal bolt lock sliding shut,
the finger itchy on the trigger and the shoulder against the buttstock braced for the automatic bang and recoil.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The pipe smoke as smell when Uncle Charlie smoked it, the blue-gray, lazy, undulating bands above his head like a visual expression of the burly sweetness in the nose, and the pipe as taste when I'd sneak a hit, the sickening oily ash now burning on the tongue and in the throat, and how, despite that, the smell and look of it still made me want to try again, as if the bad taste had been all my fault, and next time would be different, though it never was. The film clips of the atom bomb exploding — so beautiful on the outside, the concentric soft flash at the moment of the blast, and the way organically and slowly it would rise out of itself, pulsing up into a still tornado, colossally calm on the TV screen until you saw it from the inside where blizzard gales of ash incinerated houses, whole towns and cities, bodies vaporized to streaks of charcoal on the ground. Or the way aluminum siding turned our gray house in a single day so brightly white you had to think only a family of angels could have lived inside it while inside it on that day we were almost like angels, sitting in quiet all afternoon and evening before the TV as our warships encircled Cuba, halos of smoke from Charlie's pipe spreading out above us all, the fear a kind of closeness, the cramped rooms for once no longer spacious with disaffection. Outside the Soviets were coming; inside, nobody was at anybody's throat.


"I saw a man put together what was left of his son in a bag."

USA Today

The words as I read them looked up at me from the screen as if I had blundered in on a private meeting and everyone in the room at once stopped speaking, waiting for the dumb intruder to realize his mistake and leave.

The phrase I-saw-a-man looked up out of the aftermath of what had happened when words again could happen but only as mute marks speaking a Siri kind of sound, a put-together-what-was-left sound, sound of speaking dis-intoned, devocalized, and thus unable of-his-son to make its speaking in-a-bag heard or known.

When someone calls or knocks, we say, "Who is it?" The sexless, voiceless voice of the words was like an it too. More it than who. And the it of the voice was like the it of the bag — in that it wouldn't tell me if the bag was plastic, clear, and ziplocked. Or white, or black, or dark green, cinched like the giant kind we use to haul dead leaves away.

And the collection of its that was now all that was left of the son, that the father — machinelike, or like a zombie, or a howling zombie, a weeping, sleepwalking it? — tried to put back together in the bag, to make it less like it was now and more like what it had been when it was he, boy, son, what parts were those and how in the bag exactly were they put together, or does put-together just mean dumped higgledy-piggledy into the bag, jumbled by the bag into a heap?

The day had been like any other day until it wasn't, and before it would be again, the voice repeated what it saw. And maybe it shrugged, then, or wept, or howled, or just shook its head, but whatever it did, there was nothing else for it to do now but walk on to wherever it was going, namelessly and sexlessly, out of the words it spoke through into the empty screen.


for A. Van Jordan

Long before King or Selma, Du Bois or Baldwin; before I'd heard of minstrel; before there were words or concepts in my mind like white flight, Jim Crow, lynch, ghetto, slavery, or riot; before anyone or anything existed beyond the family and the neighborhood, and the only black person I knew firsthand was Melba, my mother's sixty-something-year-old maid, whom my mother referred to as her "girl," the only adult in my world I didn't have to call Miss or Mrs., who came by bus from nowhere to clean the house, then disappeared by bus until the next time when (I may have thought) we'd bring her back to life to clean for us; before there was news or history, even police, there was Amos 'n' Andy. Like everyone, I loved the big-jawed, ever-scheming Kingfish and his shrill wife Sapphire "the blue moon," and Mama, his shriller mother-in-law. I loved Lightning, too, the slow-as-molasses Stepin Fetchit knockoff, though back then I hadn't heard of Stepin Fetchit; and the lawyer whose name, Algonquin Calhoun, I'd say out loud because it made my parents laugh to hear me say it, though I never quite knew why because to me in my voice it expressed a kind of power, status, and exotic dignity even if Algonquin himself, as I recall, was short and thin and utterly ineffective. I even asked my parents, if they would, to please call me Algonquin, not Al — Algonquin Calhoun Shapiro — which of course they never did, though this too amused them greatly, so I continued asking. But what I couldn't wait to see each week was Calhoun's spare, neat office, no book anywhere in sight, and the desktop, massively stark with just a black phone in one corner, an inkwell with no pen in the other, and in the middle a giant blotter, so purely white against the dark wood of the desk that it embodied nothing if not total order and coherence, and thus became for me the calm eye of the hurricane of riotous mishaps, pratfalls, and entanglements that Kingfish whirled across the screen each week. Last week, in a different episode, in a different kind of weather, the police on my television screen, in black riot gear and standing shoulder to shoulder perfectly still in a straight line, faced a crowd restlessly coming and going in the street, a few on bikes, but most on foot: all shouting and shaking fists or now and then hurling something while behind them a CVS is burning, and a car overturned is burning too, and absurdly out of the maelstrom, as if both to hold it off and to answer for it, I'm back inside that eye where all you can hear is the laugh track, while outside in living color the windows implode into a whirlwind of screams and shattered glass as the blotter spirals off, and the inkwell too, and before it vanishes the fake phone, ripped from its cradle, is ringing as it goes round and round so that whoever's on the other end might hear.


Less for the murders than the smug face remorseless smirking on the screen all through the trial, when I heard how he had greased the floor with shampoo before he hanged himself so when his legs thrashed his feet would just keep slipping to increase the pressure they, despite him,
were frantic to relieve,
  when I pictured or tried to picture the cramped abyss of the dark cell in which his body jerked and kicked,
pissing itself till it finally hung limp, dripping,
it was as if I'd staged the suicide myself in a godly fantasy of payback, eye for eye, redress,
but the scales just wouldn't stop trembling,
quivering, off-kilter but barely, almost but never quite still, or even, like an undershirt I may have blindly put on backwards or inside out because now it fits and doesn't, isn't right and is.

Photograph of Neo-Nazi March through Skokie, Illinois, 1977
for Patricia Evans

How just like the shoelace no one ever sees untie itself the signifiers from the signified come loose and fray and drift away, promiscuous,
as if they had no past while promising to whatever they happen to alight on undying love and devotion.

The way the handsome teenage boy could be a Woodstock refugee,
if it weren't for the German cross dangling from his ear,
the swastika pinned to his beret,
just look at his goatee's shadowy scruff, its stylish unkempt nonchalance, as if it happened accidentally or naturally the way his ponytail cascades so liberally from the back of his beret,
and from the way his mouth half open almost smiling, his eyes half closed,
chin slightly raised is saying something in a blissed-out undertone to or about the old Jew screaming at him from across the barrier,
amused by how "uptight" the old Jew is,
that's maybe how a boy of that time would have put it,
what's maybe on his almost smiling lips.

Uptight, a word coined in the jazz dives of the nineteen forties and fifties, a compliment back then meaning at one with,
in synch with, as in that dude is uptight with his instrument.
But the signs loosen, fray, and drift;
the signified forlornly wait for what they'll be.

The boy is all composure, quietness, inner peace.
He's chill, one might say, today,
in coolness, reposing,
as Dr. Johnson says,
in the "stability of truth," a good looking boy (if you just go by appearances)
unravished and at peace like the quiet happy lover on an urn that some of us believed in its very stillness stood for truth and beauty,

whereas the old Jew with crooked wicks of white hair sticking out as if electrified,
or tasered (if this were nowadays),
his forehead wrinkled from the shock of screaming,
his mouth stretched wide disfigured by the scream,
neck veins engorged, he's all unquiet ravishment, uptight with the antithesis of what the boy is uptight with, each defining what the other means, or doesn't —
the signified, the hippie Nazi and the hate-warped Jew,
fixed there and looking on forever at each other as on an urn the signifiers falling into quietly as ash will never fill.



In the same way the sunglasses I'm wearing in the snapshot, the sunglasses I never failed to wear throughout my later years, could not prevent or slow the macular degeneration that made those later years so awful, so humiliating, so tedious for everyone, my wife especially, that when my death did come they all rejoiced, however guiltily, behind their show of grief, so you yourself should never think this snapshot of the two of us on the beach together more than sixty years ago, of me shirtless in long white pants, black socks, black shoes, holding you a naked toddler in my lap, neither of us smiling, enlarges you by linking you to me, or that it could in any way shorten the distance between here and there, or that these words in a language I never spoke, that you pretend I'm speaking now, might ever look out from behind the shades I'm wearing and see what I was seeing at the moment when the shutter closed.


To him, business was all that mattered. And in business you either gave a fucking or took a fucking. Unfortunately, he was almost always the one who took, not the one who gave, whereas according to him I was a chemist when it came to money: if I had it I turned it into shit. The few times he had it he invested in the stock market, and the investments mostly tanked or flatlined, until he sold them, then they rose. Still ever hopeful he'd explain: "You have to speculate to accumulate. The only thing that grows when you hold it is your pecker." Of a man who had no taste in clothes, he'd say his collar didn't match his cuff. Of a man he didn't trust, he'd say, "He'd fuck a snake if he could get down low enough." When I was twelve, and it was time, according to my mother, for me to know about the "birds and bees," he called me into the bedroom while he was cleaning his golf shoes with a knife, digging dried mud out from between the cleats and flicking the bits and pieces onto the newspaper at his feet. Head bent over the upturned shoes, he never looked up or paused in his work. "Al," he said, "you're almost a man now, so keep it covered. Now get lost." When I told him I wanted to be a poet, he asked me if I was queer. One Sunday afternoon, my brother and I were roughhousing with him on the floor of the den, which we often did and loved doing though it was frightening, which was part of the fun, how truly manic he would get, eyes crazed, mouth frothing, speaking some foreign tongue made of grunts and laughter as he threw us up and down against each other, tickling us just hard enough for us to feel what else he could do if he decided to, communicating through the play a violence way beyond the play, and from somewhere else in the house my mother came running, thinking we were screaming in earnest, which we may have been: "Get off them," she cried, "get off them!" and raised her hand as if to strike him and he scrambled up from the floor so quickly she fell back against a wall and now his hand was raised and she was cowering, arms up like a shield in front of her face — quietly he said, "Don't ever," and the menace in the quiet said playtime was over. If he saw a white woman with a black man in public walking arm in arm, he'd say under his breath, "Take him home to meet your mother." Then to us he'd say, "When you walk through a field of clover you smell like clover; when you walk through a field of shit you smell like shit." Yet on her deathbed he begged his own daughter, whom he'd disowned for marrying a black man, to forgive him for his stupid bigotry. What he never thought of didn't exist until he thought of it, which he seldom did. My mother called him the most selfish man she'd ever known. He called her a frigid bitch. If anything was wrong with any of us, he'd be sick with worry, but otherwise he didn't need to see us, often didn't want to see us, and when he did see us he couldn't wait for us to leave. Once he retired and until he went blind, he watched CNBC all day long, following the stock prices passing in the crawl bar at the bottom of the screen. We had almost nothing to say to each other. He was short-tempered, bullheaded, anxious, unreflective, handsome, loyal, charming, utterly miserable in his marriage but otherwise, as he would put it, "A-OK, copacetic, aces."


Excerpted from "Against Translation"
by .
Copyright © 2019 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Against Translation
Cuban Missile Crisis
Photograph of Neo-Nazi March through Skokie, Illinois, 1977




First Love
After Flossing
Late Desire
Letter to the Cemetery Owner


Turkey Vulture
Letter to Kathy

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