Father’s on the Phone with the Flies: Herta Müller
Translated by Thomas Cooper
Even if we know why people read poetry—nobody can ever possibly tell us where exactly poetry exists—in the words or somewhere beyond it? Interestingly enough, it is easier for us to imagine an idea in its nascent stage inside a tranquil mind of a poet preceding its journey to a lonely desk and then to the publishable version through several conflicting drafts. We have to believe, one reads poetry for oneself; it enriches them emotionally. They read poetry primarily for the feelings the piece conveys; the images the words construct start communicating with them directly. The words supposedly shed their previous associations to assume newer significance, or even connotations when they reach the readers through a text. There is an age-old traditional idea that poetry in its true form is always in transit, from one point to another infinite one.
Herta Müller’s Father’s on the Phone with the Flies (2018) reverses the direction of this journey. And, it is also a book that introduces the idea that poems can aggressively complement the production of the book they inhabit. This bilingual edition of a book by a poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 as a novelist makes a reader, unversed in German, treat the original poems—even the words, alphabets, as stunning visuals. And then, there are translations that accompany the originals put in thin fonts on bare white pages facing them. Müller, as the blurb reads, “…cut up countless newspapers and magazines in search of striking phrases, words, or even fragments of words which she then arranged in a form of a collage.”
Shuffling through the pages one may wonder if the original pieces are technically “written” at all. This looks like sheer fun, or to be more accurate—serious fun. Any single page in the book appears like a restless idea, yet to be arrested and domiciled in words, has chosen to show itself to us. In this way, the book becomes nonetheless a special occasion where we get to witness a poem in its gestation period caught, as if, in a still picture. Now, is everything designed here to give the readers the raw orgasmic feeling of writing rather than only the taste of the text? If so, we have to admit, the book is quite successful in making almost a nihilistic argument about the limitations and scopes of translation.
The original poems, being born in such a gorgeous, resplendent draft are translated and put in dry, bland whiteness from where all we can take away is just, the essence of the “meaning.” It is a completely different question whether poetry, being the absolute expression of the abstraction in the poet’s mind, does at all produce “meaning” or not. What is more important for us here is to question how much of a text can translation carry to a different language. Müller’s original texts, all of which are untitled fragments, bearing the impact of visual art expose the paucity in the possibilities of translation. For instance, the poem:
Fields of corn sing longer
than the wind clouds
fly colder peaches
reign yellower than
they are (I grow older)
is important for the pleasure of the content, whatever of it here has seeped in through the translation of words. The poem is short, abrupt, and tight; and it flashes like a quick flicker in the dark. It works like a sudden fleeting moment of realization. If we focus on the poem, we will see the color yellow in the word “yellower” instinctively corresponds with the impression of old age—old age of human beings, and nature. This brilliant stroke of expression must have flourished brighter in the original text. We must remember each word it uses is plucked out of different printed texts and transplanted here in the poem. This act of “transplantation” of words carries the seed of the basic composition of poetry. Ideally, each word in a rich poem is reborn in the newer context. Does it not remind us that in life, our identities are also nothing but what the big structure called society interprets us to be? The poem exercises similar power to give the words a new implication. They are freed from the backgrounds they shared earlier while lurking in our emotions and daily lives before being written. Müller, in a way, presents a unique visual demonstration of this journey.
The making of the poem here is akin to an artist’s style of work. And, the translation visibly suffers a significant loss of poetry, being displaced from a far more attractive “original” text. The simple attraction that is not dependent on our knowledge of a certain language stands for the authentic one we have for art in our lives.
The book also presents a brilliant metaphor of the reverse journey of a poem in the readers’ minds. Is it now possible to reconstruct (from the poems) the articles or the news items from which Müller lifted the cuttings, words, phrases? No. but, we don’t need to know it either, in the first place. Yet, Müller chooses to make us aware of their different sources. Why? Probably, that is done to tickle the mechanism of the very act of writers’ decision, of the role imagination plays in poetry. Our curiosity about the political weight of the phrase (figure 1) “the abolition of the queen” carried in the article where it was originally used will never be quenched. We will never know in what context of violence the word “knife” originally occurred (figure 2). Moreover, the juxtaposition of different fonts with different colors visually manifests the coming together of different ideas, some of them conflicting even, trying to fit in a poem. A poem itself is so solid that it can have no meaning; it is meaning itself. But will we ever know the original backgrounds of the words used here? No, because we will probably never know each other.