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A Poet in a Swamp Brings Politics to Mind

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'Marsh,' Ivan Shishkin, 1890.
'Marsh,' Ivan Shishkin, 1890.Credit: Wiki Commons


Emmanuel Moses

Decomposing into branches
large and small
or else reduced to a stump
that yet can learn at length
of climate and parasites
lured by the sodden season
he too decomposed
with a look mired by winter
into twigs furred black
those which snap first,
are useless to the woodcutter
but for the migratory bird,
it’s a different matter
dissolved bit by bit
into the mesh of leaves
transformation of a destiny
in a melodic exchange
lover and beloved
furtive shadows
kept apart by marshes
where skiffs roped to piles
rot at long intervals.

From “Le present,” Flammarion, 1999. Translated from French by Gabriel Levin.

A printed poem, a politician’s speech and a headline are all public language acts, serving different needs and any of them can be wonderful of its kind. A poem for these gray winter days is handy for examining some of the ways they diverge.

Emmanuel Moses. Selfie.Credit: Courtesy

1. Poems and political speeches approach personal pronouns from different places. In the 94 words of this poem (in English translation), the only personal pronoun is “he” – but who is “he?” Someone Emmanuel Moses has observed or imagined? The poet himself taking an “objective” pose?

And who is talking? There is no “I.” Of course poets from the Psalmist in “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” to the present also write in the first person but often they intentionally avoid it. They do this because the art of poetry enables ambiguity, in order to encourage people to question.

A politician prefers that his audience not question or wonder about who is talking and what he is talking about – and therefore will be fondest of the first person singular, with “we” as second best. (Think Churchill). For example, in the first 94 words of United States President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union speech, “I” occurs seven times – we know exactly who the person in question is, both speaker and subject.

2. Headlines sometimes use dead metaphors; poets (at their best) give metaphors life. The following headline in this newspaper, for example, does not conjure any actual wetlands: “As Arab Migrants Swamp Europe, Israel Also Needs to Take Stock,” and obliviously combines a dead metaphor about terrain and a dead metaphor about retail, yielding quite a funny picture if you imagine them visually. 

Moses takes familiar, overwhelming associations of swamps and marshes – depression, decay, a sense that it is difficult to move ahead – and creates a detailed, dynamic picture that reflects a mood by using concrete nouns like “stump,” “parasites” and “winter,” with evocative verbs: “decomposing,” “reduced,” “mired” and “dissolved.” At the same time he sets up a more positive possibility beginning with “learn,” and mid-poem, at “but for the migratory bird,” the mood swings – flies! – in a different direction, towards freedom of movement, the “melodic,” “transformation” and lovers, though “kept apart”  with “furtive shadows.”

3. Both a politician and a headline necessarily declare one thing at a time to ensure immediate comprehension and retention of sound bites. A poet, however, can delight in saying several things at once, leaving the boundaries unclear between what is and what is not – “content, dissolved.”

In an e-mail, poet, novelist and translator Moses – who was born in Morocco, lived as a boy in Israel and now lives in France – discusses the title: “Lied is the German for song; Leid, though, is pain or torment and there might be a subconscious play on the anagram. The Lied is also a musical genre, used by Schubert and Schumann mainly. So you have many keys to one lock.”

Perhaps the translation adds value in the fact that the title is also the past tense of the English verb for telling an untruth.

*Bonus: Peter Sellars makes a political speech

PETER SELLERS - 'Party Political Speech' - 1958Credit: YouTube


Se décomposant en branches
grosses et petites
sinon réduits à une souche
qui peut pourtant en apprendre long
sur le climat et les parasites
attirés par le temps ivre
lui aussi décomposé
d'un regard embourbé dans l'hiver
en brindilles feutrées de noir
celles qui cassent en premier,
ne valent rien au bcheron
mais pour l'oiseau de passage,
c'est une autre affaire
il s'en contente,
fondu petit à petit
au canevas des feuilles
transformation d'un destin
en échange mélodieux
l'amant et sa bien-aimée
ombres furtives
que séparent l'une de l'autre les marais
où pourrissent de loin en loin
des barques enchanées aux pilotis.