This and That: A Note on Translating Valerie Mejer

Translation is collaborative, or as Marina Tsvetaeva put it: ‘by hand—–across the river.’ This image suggests two perils: in walking through moving water, and no less, in the intimacy of holding hands. (Particularly because, as Tsvetaeva wrote elsewhere, the hands of poets have minds of their own and tend to be slippery.)

This Blue Novel begins with insistence—–this. As in: not that. This Blue Novel begins with attention to itself as instance: one presence, present, in the great blue sea of poetry: ‘all of the names they could have named me.’ Thus, my English reads this autobiographical novel in verse as a personal journey into poetry’s ‘This-ness.’ Mejer’s language is self-possessed (hear: command, as well as domination by a spirit), the ‘I am’ that also, inversely, affirms otherness.

Story and history are one word in Spanish. Hold that thought for a moment under the inverted light of Mejer’s wavy lens, and you have verisimilitude turned on its head: ‘This Blue Novel invents nothing. Neither is everything true. The great improbability is life.’ Life is improbable, in part, because it brushes, always, with death. Like any work of art, it flirts with its own annihilation: ‘This was spared from a bonfire of books/(maybe by virtue of being blue).’

The blue, meanwhile, is azul, from azure, a word that comes from lapis lazuli and recalls, equally, stone and sea and sky: ‘Like when my hand stretched out to the blue mountain,/and the air wove through my fingers.’ Blue is its own state of matter, an impossible hybrid of rock and air and water. So maybe the novel’s blueness is its freedom, and the freedom of any poem, of any impossibility, to be (impossible).

Valerie Mejer is a poet, painter, and translator, resident here and abroad, inured to crossings of all sorts. Her collection Rain of the Future, translated by CD Wright, Forrest Gander, and Alexandra Zelman, came out from Action Books this year, and This Blue Novel is soon to follow.