I emerge from the Metro tunnels into the Godiva-dark air of Paris. I remember this moment in slow motion: golden statues, Rococo building facades, the Seine, the luxurious sound of French all around me . . . I hail a taxi and listen in exhausted pleasure to the cab driver’s Arabic dance music as he drives me to my hotel in the Sixteenth Arrondissement. The next morning, I rise earlier than the rest of this quiet Paris neighborhood, it seems, and after a croissant and coffee at my fin de siècle hotel, I head out to find a flower shop. I can find only one open at this hour, and it is so chic, so minimalist, that few flowers are actually on display. With some temerity, I ask the florist for a bouquet, and in a few minutes she emerges from her back room with a nosegay of antique-yellow roses wrapped in creamy paper.
Several blocks later, I am standing at a Deco glass and wood door that’s wedged between a colorful produce market and a Lebanese restaurant. I press the button beside the name “Bancquart,” and Marie-Claire greets me over the intercom before buzzing me in. The building’s foyer is laid with cool marble tiles and its walls are paneled in dark oak. I walk over to the tiny elevator, pull aside its metal accordion door, open its wooden door, shut each one in turn, then ride up to her floor. She is wearing a long skirt and a loose floral blouse. A triple-stranded choker, close-cropped red hair, and dark lipstick completes my first impression of this elegant internationally-acclaimed poet, novelist, and scholar. After thanking me for the flowers and introducing me to her husband, the renown composer Alain Bancquart, she ushers me into her study, where tall narrow windows overlook a courtyard below and light beige cloth-bound books line one entire wall. Though she is walking with discomfort, she insists I take her upholstered desk chair, while she sits down on a metal chair with a thin brown corduroy cushion. We spend the morning engaged in a conversation that marks out new avenues of thought which will lead me outside the map of my familiar into landscapes beyond my native language and cultural perspective.
I first came across Marie-Claire Bancquart’s poems in a book my mother had given me for my 30th birthday, Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of French Poetry by Women, edited and translated by Martin Sorrell. I had recently finished my MA in English Literature and even more recently given birth to my second child. This book was my constant companion during the many nights I spent nursing my newborn. Marie-Claire’s poems struck a deep chord with me as I swam through that nocturnal dream-state of sleep deprivation into which graduate school, teaching, and early motherhood had launched me. Her poems were understated, and in this way generous to the reader. Some of them explored mythology and religion, which were particular interests of mine. At the time I first read these poems, I distinguished myth from religion, but have since come to understand the two as parallel, myths simply being, in the words of noted mythologist Joseph Campbell, “other people’s religions.” When I mentioned this quote of Campbell’s to Marie-Claire in her study that morning, she said, “You, who are a believer, think that you are in a mythology like any other mythology, and see one side’s beliefs and the other’s as equally respectable. It is different from being Christian in the strict sense of the term, and I see very well where your thoughts are. The difference between your thoughts and mine are that I think all these mythologies must be known and respected because myth was the manner in which people tried to explain their destiny, but I do not participate in mythology. I look at it from the outside.”
I am still a participant, albeit with a conscious awareness of the mythological structure of the belief system to which I subscribe. I read widely about world religions and ancient mythologies, and am fascinated by the rich variety of metaphorical manifestations of the nearly universal human desire for a connection to some notion of the sacred. This fascination is foundational for my own poetry, but had always been connected to the idea that “the sacred” involved a divine spirit. After delving more deeply into Marie-Claire’s poetry, I came across references she made to “the sacred” and became aware of a strong sense of it in her work—but this sacred clearly had nothing to do with divinity. So I sent her an email asking what the word meant to her. She responded, “For me, the ‘sacred’ refers, without any meaning of transcendence, to the sense of that which is at the origins of nature and life, and which appears to us in its force, without our being able to explain it. But the poet feels it and tries to express it, with words which do not refer to divinities, nor to philosophical concepts.”
Marie-Claire’s atheistic view of the sacred has, ironically, sharpened my own theistic view of it. While mine is nevertheless infused with ideas of transcendence and soul, I have under her influence gained a stronger sense of the physical interrelatedness of all things, and a firmer belief that this interrelation is at the very core of life’s—and death’s—meaning. I have gained a sense of what lies beneath mythological/theological iconography and metaphor but has more often than not only been expressed in language circumscribed by myth and religion. This was not merely the result of her poetry influencing mine. Rather, it was the alchemy enacted by translating her poetry (in my brain or fist-sized heart? in my irreducible soul or the ink I shed on the paper?)
In her keynote address at an American Literary Translator’s conference a few years ago, Canadian novelist Antonine Maillet said that the translator must get to where the writer of the original text started from in order to begin translating: she must, like the original writer, begin where there was no text, and write the same text in her own language that the original writer wrote in his. For me, this means writing poems from Marie-Claire’s atheistic perspective. This means trying to think like she thought in order to find the same words in my own language that her French words were expressing, and not only that, but the same diction, the same elliptical use of grammar, the same tone and voice. And so I began grounding my translations in her landscape, where the quotidian and the mythical are equal bearers of meaning, and exploring the physical, concrete aspects of a world rife with the myths of many cultures. I began to seek intersections where these cultures cross, and interstices where they leave openings for poets to fill. In doing this, I began to see how her poetry actually expressed the sacred, stripped of its mythological and theological trappings. Working with her poems this closely posed fundamental challenges to my own beliefs—always a good exercise—which in turn brought my own poetry out of its comfort zone. And it was at this point, halfway through my MFA, that a seismic shift occurred in my poetry: I began to demand more of it because I had, in my own way, experienced the writing of poetry from Marie-Claire’s perspective: I had tried to think her thoughts and write her words and in so doing, I saw how my own poetry was limited by traditional, even if prosodic, use of the single language in which I wrote, and the cultural perspective tied to that use of language. I began to see poetic structure as operating the same way mythological structure does: not as an end in itself, but rather as a semantic framework which the reader (or translator) is invited to move through, according to his or her unique life-experience and word-view, in order to arrive at an individualized meaning—and the more expansive the world-view, the more inclusive of the intricacies of other languages, the deeper the individualized meaning.
Joseph Campbell has said that it is up to the poets to reinvent ancient myths and invent new myths in ways which can speak to people living in contemporary society and help them create meaning in their everyday lives. By both respecting and reinventing traditional mythological figures, and by illuminating the concrete aspects of everyday life experience, Marie-Claire Bancquart has fulfilled Campbell’s call, and continues to do so with every book of poetry she writes.
Christina Cook holds an MFA from Vermont College and an MA from the University of Cincinnati. Her poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including, most recently, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Salzburg Review, and Sojourn: A Journal of the Arts. She has had a translation nominated for an AWP Intro Prize and another finished as a finalist for the Willis Barnestone Translation Prize. Christina lives and writes in New Hampshire. Her translation of a selection of Marie-Claire Bancquart's poems is forthcoming in Issue #44.