The ocean never finishes in the wake of boats.
An unceasing torment infinitely prolonged
that I would not wish on my worst enemy.
Especially since my worst enemy is myself.
Amid a vast ocean, in the belly of a ship, a voyager contends with his own solitude and seasickness in the opening of USC professor Alain Borer’s poem “Sleep Log.” As the vessel crawls across the South Pacific, the protagonist verges on derangement.
I cross the South Pacific like a deserted countryside
on a winter’s night: not even a beast in sight.
Reduced to its own insularity, I becomes island.
“Sleep Log” is an excerpt from Borer’s book Le ciel & la carte: Carnet de voyage dans le mers du Sud á bord de La Boudeuse (Seuil, 2010), a hybrid text that combines historical narrative, travelogue and poetry. This month, the selection appears in Poetry magazine, translated into English from its original French by Mark Irwin, associate professor of English at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
In part, “Sleep Log” is based on Borer’s own experiences. Borer, professor of the practice of French at USC Dornsife, traveled as a passenger from France to Tahiti on a replica of La Boudeuse, a three-masted 18th century schooner, recalling the journey of artists like Paul Gauguin.
“‘Sleep Log’ is a section at the center of the novel in which the speaker, bunking near the engine room, is sick and kind of delirious,” Irwin explained. Borer endured illness on his own journey in the South Pacific. “In a way, Alain is also reenacting the voyages of writers like Joseph Conrad, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, who sailed before him,” Irwin said.
A first for Poetry, “Sleep Log” will be printed in reverse text – white type on a black background. The effect heightens the hallucinatory nature of the narrator’s experience, which is a kind of a nightmare dreamscape that expands the spaciousness of the text, Irwin said.
However, in the midst of these terrifying, semi-suicidal passages, there also is humor, Irwin noted. Lines declaring “The universe is curved like a banana” and “To write is to leave the world’s surface, to descend / under the sea; the smallest pencil is my tuba” evince Borer’s singular voice.
For the translation of “Sleep Log,” Irwin went through a series of drafts. Sitting down with Borer and his wife, Claudia Moatti, professor of the practice of classics at USC Dornsife, who also is fluent in English and French, they talked about Irwin’s versions – making corrections and approximating the French idioms.
In translation, some of the nuances of the original language might be lost, but it’s up to the translator to make decisions that maintain the integrity of the poem while maybe altering it slightly, Irwin explained. “Ezra Pound said that translating poetry is like kissing a woman through a veil,” he added.
Irwin and Borer have translated each other’s work over the past few years. The two met in 2005 at a USC party, hosted by then-president Steven B. Sample, where they quickly learned of their mutual love for the work of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. They spent the evening reciting lines from his poem “Le Bateau Ivre.”
Borer is an internationally known authority on the works of Rimbaud. He has published a number of books on his poetry and life, including Rimbaud en Abyssinie (Seuil, 1984) and Rimbaud l’heure de la fuite (Gallimard, 1991).
In 2011, Borer was honored for Le ciel & la carte with the annual literary award Prix Maurice Genevoix by the Académie Française, France’s preeminent language governing body. In 2008, he was awarded the Prix Guillaume Apollinaire, considered France’s highest honor in literature, for his play Icare & I Don’t (Seuil, 2007).
Borer, who is on sabbatical in France this semester, is the author of several collections of poetry. He also is a novelist, art critic, playwright and mixed-genre writer.
Irwin is the author of six collections of poetry; the last three include White City (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2000), Bright Hunger (BOA Editions Ltd., 2004) and Tall If (New Issues, 2008). Recognition for his work includes four Pushcart Prizes, two Colorado Book awards and fellowships from the Fulbright, Lilly, NEA and Wurlitzer foundations.
Irwin also has translated two volumes of poetry, one from French and the other from Romanian. Next year, he will have two new books of poetry published: American Urn: New & Selected Poems (1987-2011) by Ashland University Poetry Press and Large White House Speaking from New Issues/Western Michigan University Press.