COLIN LEE MARSHALL Reviews
Petrarch Collected Atkins by Tim Atkins
(Crater Press, U.K., 2014)
While reading Tim Atkins’ 2014 opus Petrarch Collected Atkins, I found myself thinking about the Borges short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. Borges’ story hinges on a fascinating antimony: namely, that something as protean as a work of narrative fiction can be preceded by the definite article. Thus Menard, according to the narrator, undertakes the appropriately quixotic task of composing not simply ‘another’ Quixote, but ‘the’ Quixote. The culmination of this bizarre conceit is a frisson-inducing juxtaposition of excerpts from the respective Quixotes (Cervantes’ and Menard’s), excerpts which – while being apparently identical with each other – are then subjected by the narrator to divergent exegeses and value judgments. This moment in the text not only opens up a spiracle in the wall of its own narrative, but also, perhaps, unsettles our very understanding of narrative in general. Indeed, the effect is so powerful that it would seem to render Gerard Genette’s threefold classification of narrative level – extradiegetic (the level of the narrator); intradiegetic/diagetic (the level of the principal characters); and metadiegetic (the level of all embedded or interpolated narratives) – in some way inadequate. Certainly, all three of these levels are at play in Borges’ story; but we are also encouraged to see another level, one that could perhaps be described as the idiodiegetic level. What I shall thus here expediently call ‘idiodiegesis’ (perhaps in ignorance of an already existing term) bifurcates so as to apply in mutually distinct ways to the reader and the writer. Because the conditions for each of these idiodiegetic prongs are, properly speaking, ineffable, they must be distinguished from the text as it is considered publicly (if perhaps contentiously) ‘open to interpretation’. Such a distinction should come more clearly into focus if one considers the absurdity of treating two identical pieces of text as though they are different. But what if the two excerpts of text in “Pierre Menard” really are different?
Regardless of the extent to which poetry in general, and Petrarch Collected Atkins in particular, may or may not fall under the umbrella of ‘narrative’, idiodiegesis strikes me as a potentially useful heuristic (even if to no one other than myself) when approaching translated poetry that, like Atkins’, deviates from the original with such abandon. Hegel’s claim that all works of art conceal themselves, given that we know “not the tree that bore them, not the earth and the elements which constituted their substance, not the climate which gave them their peculiar character” (Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller) is precisely the kind of thinking that Menard had at first hoped to confound in his attempt to write the Quixote. Atkins, on the other hand, is situated on the opposite pole, openly flaunting the fact that the tree, earth, and elements that gave Petrarch Collected Atkins its peculiar character are almost entirely different to those in Petrarch’s Canzoniere (just as those that give my own Petrarch Collected Atkins its peculiar character are entirely different to Atkins’ when he was writing the book). I use the term ‘idiodiegesis’, then, to refer to the unique architectonic co-ordinates that enable a text’s production, which co-ordinates can never be recovered in the act of reading, but which must, in their re-creation, snap each time to a differently unique grid. Atkins’ project seems to use translation as a pretext not merely to foreground the porous and refractive properties of language, but as a means to imagine what it might be like if he could pierce the membrane of his own private reading, so as to share the idiodiegetic spillage.
Appropriately, Cervantes is mentioned (and with almost uncanny relevance to this review: “Petrarch by Tim Atkins as written by Miguel de Cervantes”) during Laird Hunt’s preface to the book, and Borges is invoked (via reference to his short story “The Aleph”: “‘a nutshell that concentrates space in simultaneity”) during Jèssica Pujol i Duran’s introduction to it. Both of these allusions – given the authorial and spatio-temporal interrogations that they respectively imply – seem highly congruent with my own impressions of Atkins’ book. Indeed, I am even tempted to graft Cervantes and Borges into the body of Petrarch Collected Atkins post-reading—or, at the very least, to posit their absence as being merely incidental to a text for which poets and writers constitute a foremost obsession. Unsurprisingly, Atkins’ obsessive conjuring of literary figures often becomes reflexive, manifesting in references either to Petrarch himself, or to the poems from which Petrarch Collected Atkins is ostensibly derived. Not infrequently, these reflexive turns display a marked irreverence towards their putative wellspring. It is thus necessary to emphasize that the poems in Petrarch Collected Atkins offer something signally different from the kind of ‘loose’ translations that purport (according to that well-worn and crude binary) to ‘capture the spirit of the originals’ more faithfully than their etiolated ‘literal’ counterparts; indeed, if Atkins’ poems might be thought at times to approximate Petrarch’s originals, the reader would do well to consider such harmony at least as adventitious as it is essential.
Certainly, the derivation of Atkins’ poems from the originals in Petrarch’s Canzoniere is at times easily traceable; but even where this is the case, the former always remain singularly estranged from the latter, being at no point espaliered against the wall of a master text, but instead branching out in ever more unruly and idiosyncratic ways. Petrarch’s fifth sonnet, for example – notable in the original for teasing Laura’s name into relief though its occasional capitalizations (e.g. “Cosí LAUdare et REverire insegna”) – has left a clear, yet at the same time pseudomorphic residue on poem “5” of Petrarch Collected Atkins: “On WH & WB TS WCW ee & HD”. The inheritance here is thus purely visual, a token hat-doff, sonically and semantically eviscerated, utterly limp and pallid in its approximation of the original. And yet, considered in terms of Atkins’ own creativity, it is a rich and vital tissue of text, one whose siphoning of Petrarch’s capitalizations into the initials of well-known poets engenders something distinctively Atkinsian. Even more obviously indebted to Petrarch’s original is Atkins’ poem “234.1” (decimals are a frequent recurrence in Petrarch Collected Atkins), which is, nonetheless, simultaneously just as deviant. Highly reminiscent of Tom and Val Raworth’s reverse translations in From the Hungarian, the poem forgoes intelligibility, and instead tries to wrench Petrarch’s original Italian into homophony with English:
O Comrade check here first importance
O cameretta che gia fosti un porto
All the gravy tempest my journey
a le gravi tempeste mie diurne
“Perhaps it’s time to learn / Italian”, writes Atkins in poem “43”. In light of the above excerpts, the reader might conversely wonder whether Atkins’ doing so would have been inimical to his project.
One could spend a great amount of time searching for the various matrices of Atkins’ poems in Petrarch’s Canzoniere; but they might equally instead choose to give precedence to different frameworks (intertextual or otherwise). Atkins does something like this himself in the antepenultimate poem of the collection, number “364.2”, wherein he presents an itemized list of fourteen (note the atavistic sonnetary faithfulness) of his book’s various motifs: “6 x Marx / 10 x Buddha / 60 x Sex / 93 x Poetry/Poet / 4 x Jeff”, etc. This list is at once highly revealing and highly arbitrary. Why, we might wonder, is there no mention of Shakespeare, or ants, or Barcelona (let alone of Petrarch or Laura)? Many of my own moorings for Petrarch Collected Atkins – whether they be geographical (Clapham, Colliers Wood, Tokyo), political (capitalism, revolution, landmines), or artistic (Shakespeare, Rimbaud/Rambo, Wallace Stevens) – have been either overlooked by Atkins, or deliberately elided from his list. And yet, given the book’s many and variegated obsessions, such an indexical shortfall shouldn’t be surprising; for the reader’s attention might just as easily be trained to any number of other elided motifs: bees, marriage, cowboys, curry, clouds, etc. Certainly, Petrarch Collected Atkins seems an exemplary text for eliciting multiple reader idiodegeses, an insidiously Borgesian narrative (and I personally do respond to the book in no small degree as a narratee) with infinite, unpredictable arcs. That we might consider Petrarch Collected Atkins a book that is teeming with other books stands to reason; for in another, far less abstract way, it is demonstrably that: a receptacle for a staggering number of literary italicizations, including books of poetry (Paradise Lost), poetry anthologies (The New Directions Anthology of Chinese Poetry), sex manuals (The Joy of Sex), novels (The Poisonwood Bible), New Age texts (The Road Less Travelled), and all manner of other publications.
Given so unashamed a surfeit, one might feel tempted to decry the book as unfocussed, perhaps even irresponsible—a delegatory choose-your-own-adventure of anagnorises and peripeteias. But even if such charges are true (and that might not be a bad thing), this ought not to belie the fact that there are a great number or conceptual and linguistic inspissations in Petrarch Collected Atkins that seem to be anything but accidental. Take, for instance, the above-mentioned Wallace Stevens. Not only does Stevens appear several times in Petrarch Collected Atkins, he does so in ways that are often highly specific, perhaps even borderline obsessive. To illustrate this point, I wish to home in on the recurrence of a single word (or inflections thereof) in Petrarch Collected Atkins: “concupiscent”. In his essay, “Some Thoughts on Refrigeration” (published recently in News From Afar: Ezra Pound and Some Contemporary British Poetries) Sean Pryor opens with the following gambit: “If Shakespeare owns incarnadine, Milton pandemonium, and Keats sedge, Ezra Pound ought to own frigidaire.” Wallace Stevens, I would suggest, has a similar poetic claim on the word ‘concupiscent’. The adjective ‘concupiscent’ occurs twice in Petrarch Collected Atkins – once in faithful Stevensian parlance (“Concupiscent curds”), and once with the accompanying noun consonantally modified (“Concupiscent Cups”) – while the noun ‘concupiscence’ (whose appearances in the King James Bible, The Parson’s Tale, and Paradise Lost, amongst others, bestow upon it a more illustrious literary heritage) appears twice (“Concupiscence for absent things” and “puddly concupiscence of the flesh”). For a stem so tumidly Latinate, its frequency of appearance in a modern work of poetry seems unusually high (as any corpus-based search would surely attest). Thus, it all but announces itself as chosen; and not simply chosen, but appropriated from another poet—a poet, moreover, who seems in many ways to have very little to do with Petrarch. We might therefore claim to discern in ‘concupiscent/concupiscence’ one of the ganglia of Atkins’ particular Stevens. Such a contention probably says as much about my own Stevens (and my own Atkins) as it does about Atkins’ Stevens (although admission of a possible reader-response excess certainly aligns with what I have so far postulated about Petrarch Collected Atkins).
In any case, there is much more at play here than a mere fondness of Stevensian colour: Atkins’ apparent predilection for ‘concupiscent/concupiscence’ is also a deliberate requisitioning, not just for himself, but also for Petrarch, a lexical grafting onto the old/new as a way of highlighting the cupidity that subtends the ostensibly more exalted love of the Canzoniere. Admittedly, Petrarch himself was hardly unaware of a priapic undertow to a life largely characterised (according to him) by “pure love”: as he wrote in his Letter to Posterity:
In my younger days I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love-affair—my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames. I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did. [trans. Mark Musa].
But where Petrarch alludes only modestly to such priapism (and moreover tempers it with an asseveration of his earlier “pure love-affair”), Atkins (who actually uses the word ‘priapic’ twice in the collection) jettisons any such decorum, choosing to foreground the prickling sexual desire: “An unwanted erection is known as Jehovah’s stiffness these / days” (“27); “My balls are still big in this” (“266”); “For the nature of life is / Pressing hard on my pencil / Because it fills up the sump / Under the trees in autumn / Of all woman & want” (“270”). Atkins’ “Pressing hard on” is the peremptory phallus (thereafter sublimated into “[his] pencil”) that he is too honest to expunge from his translation, and whose inclusion also betokens a retroactive writing into Petrarch, a recasting of the latter’s “pure love-affair” into a poetry that is “Romantic with hard-on” (“130”). But “Pressing hard on” can also be read as a tmetic phrasal verb (‘pressing [hard] on’), a way of trying to move beyond the swamp (“sump”) of Atkins’ masculine heritage, about which he writes witheringly in poem “74”:
I learned everything there is to know about politics from The
Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry […]
The overriding fashion being misanthropy & misogyny for
nine or ten centuries
Getting your cock out in order to inform or instruct
Poetry as honest as this recognizes the anachronistic absurdity of a contemporary male poet’s attempting to inhabit the voice of a “14th century male addressing himself to / A woman or god” (“266”), just as it recognizes the absurdity and subterfuge of the original poet. Thus, Atkins doesn’t attempt to exonerate himself (or Petrarch, or any other male poet), but neither does he wallow in a dead-end culpability. Instead, he seeks to offset the atavistic tendency to male poetic rapture through the injection of contemporary jadedness into history: “My eye in fine frenzy rolling met Laura’s & I saw hers was / rolling too” (“227”).
At the same time, Atkins has stacked the deck heavily against his nobler aims by peopling Petrarch Collected Atkins with a strident litany of male voices. He quotes or paraphrases men relentlessly: “Leonard Cohen says” (“1”); “Herodotus said” (“7”); “Arthur Rambo said” (“18”); “The men of the secret police said” (“24.2”); “Dr Johnson said” (“70”); “Derrida said” (“95”); “Alexander Pope said” (“110”); “Walt / Whitman or Euripides or somebody said” (“112.2”); “Rabelasian proportion says” (“140”); “Reverdy wrote […] Petrarch wrote” (“159”); “Rilke says” (“210”); “Plato said” (“236”); “Klee said” (“293”); “Neil Young said” (“338”), etc. Some of the quotes/paraphrases that I have elided are accurate, some uncertain, and some pure fabrications. But regardless, the list (which, bereft of a single female voice, grows into a dolmen of male thought) is damning. Atkins also makes sure to inculpate himself in this litany: “Also Sprach Tim Atkins” (“299”). These men are perhaps Atkins’ equivalent of Lisa Roberston’s ‘The Men’ from her poetry collection of the same name (which collection Atkins mentions in poem “273”); that is to say, they are misdirected hypostasizations, ‘great men’ whose mere names have calcified into literary or philosophical monoliths.
But the Atkins that has been collected by Petrarch, Shakespeare, and a whole host of other male flocculants is also contingent (however ineffably) on women. In poems “23”, “123”, and “223 23.3” (which are in fact progressively more periphrastic versions of the same poem), Atkins writes of men
Dreaming of what it would be like if we really were women
& could write like them (“23”);
Dreaming of what it would be like if we really were n. pl of
woman & could write like them (“123”)
Dreaming of what it would be like if we really were a
word used as the designation or appellation of a creature or
in fact or in thought
which expresses or denotes more than one
a female person who plays a significant role (wife or mistress
in the life of a particular man
& could compose or produce, as an author
like them (“223 23.3”).
The women whom the men can only dream about being (and like whom they can only dream of writing), become more and more entropic as these poems progress. For however important these women are to Atkins, they are also shown to be inaccessible. The attempted atomization fails miserably, devolves into a subreption whereby women are intelligible according to the role they play (“wife or mistress / or girlfriend”) in the “life of a particular man”. But elsewhere, the loss cannot be mitigated by sophistical language. Amy Lowell and Emily Dickinson are mentioned by name in poem “23” (“He [Jeff Hilson] is not Amy Lowell & I am not Emily Dickinson”), only to become more diffuse in poem “123” (“an American poet of the Imagist school from / Brookline Massachusetts […] an American poet / born in Amherst, Massachusetts”), then seemingly to disappear altogether in poem “223 23.3”. But such slipperiness and disappearance turns out to be far more revealing of Atkins’ achievement than the confident (and largely uninterrogated) deployment of men’s names. The parodically strenuous search for the subatomic particles of women or of language – and the resultant obfuscating of the very object that one had hoped to illumine – can be extrapolated to act of translation itself.
The dream of writing begins with a lack / engagement is an
illiterate's X / upon a forged prescription Laura— (“244”)
Atkins knows that failure is entailed not just by the act of translation, but by the very act of reading. However, he also knows that how we fail is up to us. He could have chosen to scrub away the verdigris of old translations, to polish up Petrarch’s statue to a ‘faithful’ modern sheen; instead, he chose to create an almost entirely new statue, one that is contrarily hewn, defaced with pasquinades, and covered in wonderful, idiodiegetic birdshit.
Colin Lee Marshall is an Englishman based in South Korea. Other reviews have appeared in Hix Eros and Intercapillary Space.