[Ugly Duckling Presse; 2022]

Tr. from the French by Conor Bracken

In his book-length poem No Way in the Skin without This Bloody Embrace, Haitian poet Jean D’Amérique sets a solitary insomniac speaker adrift in cityscapes teetering on the edge of ruin. In lines that seep and clot, the “I” ventriloquizes on behalf of anonymous bodies, a “shanty of flesh” that escapes from vertigo only by grating against an all-embracing violence. In the face of this, Jean D’Amérique strikes a tone that’s anything but despairing, instead one of struggle, of defiance: “I aim for the language of rage’s lanes” (chemins de rage). It yearns for the erotism of a body-politic.

“The dreams sleep naked,” the speaker tells us, “so the graves have clothes.” Matter-of-fact syntax aside, it’s an enigmatic line but a signpost in the poem’s twisting passageways. For the speaker clings to dreams even as they forfeit their transformative vision to the opulence of death. Death is no mere glutton but a gourmand in D’Amérique’s native Haiti, ravaged by climate change and economically ostracized, to this day, for driving the logic of the American and French Revolutions far beyond their hypocritical conclusions by forging an autonomous state from a slave revolt in 1804. As D’Amerique writes, “There is no parenthesis for death.” It is not contained in a subordinate clause, it roves freely through living syntax. For all that, death’s “suicidal sidearm” cannot kill the dream. To express a displacement beyond the bounds of rationality, D’Amérique reanimates the Caribbean Surrealist tradition by furthering its anti-colonial expropriation of French poetics. He announces this heritage in an epigraph from Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land), which reads: “and the whip fought with the flies’ bombination / over the sugary dew of our wounds.” What we get in No Way in the Skin is an inverted surrealism. Its “systematic derangement of the senses,” in the words of Rimbaud, is a product not of sleep but its deprivation: “It’s not that I’m keeping vigil, / sweet grass in a field of insomnia, / every night I tally my flowers far off / unsure of how to kill time, I break clocks.” The speaker is not the detached yet self-contained flâneur of Baudelaire but an amputation, like something out of Ŝvankmajer: a tongue torn out and dragging itself along in search of contact and reintegration, streaking blood in its wake.

Structurally, No Way in the Skin mirrors the dialectic of severance and restoration that plays out in its content, taking shape as a series without titles or numerals to signal where one section ends and another begins. Even if, visually at least, each section gets a page to itself, themes frequently extend across white space over several pages. Several sections placed at the poem’s center, for instance, extol the influence on D’Amerique’s poetics of a community “united against convention.” Here and there a dedication stands in for (even as it disavows) a title. A line from the first section hints at the principle behind this serial organization: “The flower’s shattered name.” This rare end-stopped fragment occupies its own line, suggesting a paradoxical self-sufficiency. We are not told the flower’s name, only of its violation. The lack of specificity sets us up for a reticence to name that marks the poem, not only in the withholding of titles but also in the scarcity of proper nouns. The resulting ambiguity sharpens our sense of displacement. The pavements of a city that “binges on fresh cannons” could just as easily belong to Aleppo as Port-Au-Prince. And in a poem written “for Aleppo and other ruins,” it’s those other, unspecified ruins that “haunt the margins” of the poem and of history: voids awaiting names and palpable evocations of negative space. The “anonymous bodies [searching] for embraces to name” could be anyone’s. As suggestive of violence and historical amnesia as it is of ubiquity, this ambivalent erasure keeps us at a distance even as it invites us to solve for x, melting the shards (of the flower’s name, of the poem’s sections) into some new unity. Though its name may be broken, the flower itself may yet be intact.

As a series, No Way in the Skin sees in the translation process an accentuation, if anything, of its themes, as it comes to inhabit the gap (“this line pulled across the rip”) between the original and Bracken’s version. The arrangement of the book embodies this interplay, with each section on the recto page facing its translation on the verso. In his indispensable Translator’s Note placed after the text, Bracken expresses a desire for readers to “be mystified and stymied by [the poem], to research its contexts and references, to puzzle over its ambiguities and try to perceive within it the systems that structure and surround it. In short, I want everyone else to be a translator, too.” In this, he echoes Walter Benjamin’s demand, in “The Writer as Producer,” for writing to urge the transformation of the reader into a writer, becoming a producer, as opposed to passive consumer, of meaning. Even more so than usual when it comes to bilingual texts, Bracken’s translation draws a certain amount of attention to itself, not as flawed but contingent. Each choice is a compromise between two incommensurate languages and, inevitably, Bracken makes choices that are not inevitable. Though not by any means a French speaker, I did find myself on the hunt for alternate renderings, not because the translation felt insufficient, but as a means of interpretation.

Three words in the French title, Nul chemin dans la peau que saignante étreinte, repeat through the poem and telegraph thematic motifs—a detail in no way obscured by Bracken’s translation since we have the original at hand, but downplayed, presumably to bring out meaning in local as opposed to overarching context. While consistently translating peau as “skin” and étreinte as “embrace,” he finds a number of equivalents for chemin, which speaks not only to the manifold connotations of the word in French but to its significance in the poem. Perhaps to keep it unassuming in the context of an already (fittingly) convoluted title, Bracken renders it as “way.” Elsewhere, it takes on other guises: chemins de rage becomes “rage’s lanes”; chemins d’espoire becomes “hope’s byways”; mille chemins—“a thousand lanes”; frayent un chemin—“hacks a path.” Ingeniously, Bracken displaces the repetition onto other words, translating voie d’arcs-en-ciel as “rainbow lanes” and au passage as “by the way.” If we consult a French-English dictionary, we find that chemin may translate as “path,” “pathway,” “way” (including its connotation of “method”), and “lane.” It’s clear that Bracken has chosen his equivalents depending on context but with an effort to use “lane” where possible for sonic or imagistic reasons: thanks to assonance, “rage’s lanes” sounds better to the English speaker’s ear than “rage’s path” and is easier to visualize than “rage’s way.” The mechanical substitution of “way” for chemin in every instance might have been the safest means of capturing as many of the original connotations as possible, but it’s a ubiquitous and abstract enough word in English that this would run the risk of failing to draw the reader’s attention to resonances. Instead, we get a sense of the passageways, the thematic tunnels underlying the poem, surfacing here and there to reattach its sections.

As a series that cinches together in this way, the poem’s structure would seem to answer questions that the content poses but can’t directly answer. In its closing sections, No Way in the Skin shifts from desperate, flailing isolation to direct address. Here, this rhetorical mode, like a lovers’ discourse, carries with it an erogenous charge. A “you” that encompasses any number of referents has joined the “I”—though initially greeted with disavowal: “It wasn’t you . . . Your skin, restive province that dynamites the track of meaning. It wasn’t you . . . It was not your face.” The insistence on its absence across multiple sections only further instantiates the “you,” each repetition winding up the motor of address and drawing the “I” toward a new solidity in its relation to another self, other selves. The skin (peau) as a border of self takes on new meaning, trading the violence of severance for that of embrace (étreinte)— hardly less explosive—to become a crossroads of pleasure, not solely of pain. This erogeny is most distinct in the section dedicated to “a being mixed with my own” which, in “taking you for half,” dissolves the speaker’s alienation in such suggestive phrasings as: “the sky is a huge blue coffee from which dangles your warm metaphor . . .  the clouds are jealous.” If the “I” and the “you” only graze each other, sparking a glimpse of the unity still throbbing beneath the city’s ruins, the lattice of repetitions that structure the poem provide a tangible foothold to that solidarity. Dedicated to D’Amérique’s aunts, the poem’s final section makes explicit the consequences, should the oppressed fail to restore their bodies to wholeness and join in a greater unity modeled by the structure of No Way in the Skin, against the gear-toothed jaws of capitalism: “what can be seen peeling itself from the machinery’s savage gnash, these bodies that blend into the pedal’s invariable movement, is not a nod to the sublime but a factory, lips licked.”

William Repass lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where he works in a used bookshop. His poetry and fiction have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, Word For/Word, Hotel Amerika, Bennington Review, Denver Quarterly, Fiction International, and elsewhere. His other critical writing may be found at Slant Magazine.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.