Tuesday, 26 April 2011

WHAT WORDS CANNOT EXPRESS

The formal requirements of a heroic crown of sonnets (or sonnet redoublé) is a sequence of sonnets, each of which explores one aspect of the theme, and is linked to the preceding and succeeding sonnets by repeating the final line of the preceding sonnet as its first line, and by having its final line be the first line of the succeeding sonnet, and with the final binding sonnet made up of all the first lines of the preceding fourteen, in order.

In other words, each sonnet obeys the conventions normally imposed on the sonnet; each first line of a succeeding sonnet is a repetition of the last line of the former; and the final sonnet is made up of all fourteen of the first lines.

This is the starting point of Inger Christensen’s Sommerfugledalen (The Valley of the Butterflies). This verse form has a precedent in Danish literature: Klaus Høeck’s ‘Ulrike Marie Meinhof. Winterreise’.

What conventions does each Christensen sonnet observe? She writes a 11-10-11-10-11-10-11-10 octet. the sestet varies between 10 and 11 syllables. The rhyme scheme is always: ABAB CDCD EFE GFG.

These are the formal conventions Inger Christensen observes. They follow closely those invented by the Siena Academy of 1460.

Such are the restraints within which any translation of Inger Christensen’s poem must operate. And, as far as I know, no one has ever attempted to translate her poem cycle on these terms.

Here is the first (fairly) faithful translation of Sommerfugledalen, as printed in Leviathan Quarterly, Number 8, June 2003. I have felt free to shorten lines of 11 syllables to 10 in certain cases. This is a reflection of the difference between Danish and English, and in line with the English tradition of nearly always using 10 syllables in a sonnet.

And here is the final sonnet:

Skywards they swirl, the planet’s butterflies
in Brajchino valley’s searing midday air,
up from the bitter cavern’s sombre dyes
that mountain scrub hides with a scent so rare.

As admiral and camberwell and blue,
as peacock butterflies they flutter by
and make believe the universe’s fool
a life that does not simply choose to die.

Who is it that transforms this meeting stead
with hint of peace of mind and honeyed lies
and summer visions of the vanished dead?

My ear responds to this with its deaf ringing:
It is no less than death with its own eyes
looking at you from butterflies when winging.

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