Culture | Found in translation

Erin Moure's poetry transverses linguistic boundaries

It’s a night typical of a Montreal Indian summer – warm and rainy, the buildings hidden in fog and the streets slick from an unending downpour. The setting is the upper stretches of St. Laurent, inside the small venue Casa Del Popolo. This buzzing local cafe is never lacking in cultural entertainment – their calendar of events, a blackboard on the wall, is covered with chalk marking the presence of local artists, singers, and writers. Tonight is no exception – many have gathered in this small, comfortable room to hear some of the voices of Canadian poetry, particularly that of the internationally-acclaimed writer Erin Moure.

Moure, now a resident of Montreal, was born in Calgary. After attending the University of Alberta and later British Columbia, she made her entrance into the world of poetry in 1979 with the publication of her first collection, Empire, which was nominated for the Governor General’s Award. Her earlier works would prove to be some of her most lyrical, while continuously transforming and experimenting with the boundaries of language. As her career progressed, her work continued to lean toward obscurity, becoming less rooted, written words contained only by the cover of their book.

Moure’s poetry joined forces with the feminist movement when the collection Furious, winner of the 1988 Governor General’s Award, was published. The book makes powerful use of feminist literary theory, displaying a range of emotions that evoke anger toward a language reflective of male values. In one of the poems, “Snow Door,” she compares language’s disempowerment of women to the plight of flies trapped in window panes over the winter; “Us too, we don’t know we’ve been frozen, or if we have, & if we know, don’t ask questions.”

Rules of language that Moure considers restrictive are cast aside in most of her works. It is through the destruction of language’s barriers that she conveys her strongest meanings, or sometimes lack of meaning. In Furious, she asserts, “I want to write these things…that can’t be torn apart by anybody, anywhere, or in the university…I don’t want the inside of the poem to make sense of anything.”

Robert Lecker, a professor of Canadian poetry in McGill’s English department, explained in an interview that he believes that Moure’s many transformations, or what he refers to as “translations” – into experimentalism, post modernism, feminism, and translations of English, French, Portuguese, and Galician – have allowed her to appeal to a diverse readership.

Moure herself wrote in an email to The Daily that her target audience is “readers, nothing more specific than that.” Her refusal to be limited by language or cultural oppression seems to hold strong with young and old alike. Lecker teaches Moure’s works in his poetry classes, and sees McGill students taking a strong interest in the political and feminist messages ingrained in her words.

Lecker draws an interesting parallel when he points out that after all the translations in her life, Moure’s works have for more than a decade centred almost entirely on translations in the literal sense. But is it really so literal? Translation, the act of changing one person’s words into your own, can be another way of breaking free of the confines of any one language, opening up words to other dialects while breaking down any rules spelled by such dialects. This breakdown, this liberation of the written word, seems to be what Moure has been striving for in her work since the very beginning.

Moure herself explained that translation has really been with her for decades. “Reading works in translation – Mallarme, Rilke, Vallejo – has allowed me early on to alter and challenge my own relationship to English. ‘Twas only a small step from there to move to Montreal and learn French, and to work in a field that required me to use both languages in writing. And to want to translate poetry. To be wildly impatient to translate poetry. Learning French, then Galician, opened to me the possibility of bringing works, astounding works, into my first language, English… to share them with other readers in my own communities in English….when I realized I could do this, I finally knew what I wanted to do when I grow up!”

Fittingly, Moure’s Montreal is not one restricted by dualistic language barriers. “Montreal for me is the buzz of languages, the ability to live and read in French while writing in English, the marvellous theatre scene in French (that makes London and NY just seem like “other cities”; we have astounding theatre here in French). Where I live I can speak English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, all in public and all before noon! And it’s close to Europe…why live anywhere else?” Through her writing she is internationally committed, yet through choice she has remained locally nested. She has become an accepted, dual citizen of the Montreal community, something, as Lecker pointed out, that is not easily achieved: “The first step toward becoming accepted in Montreal is obvious – become bilingual. The second step would be… well, to get a French lover.”

Regardless of her method, Moure has certainly integrated herself into this dualistic society. At Casa del Popolo, she seems perfectly at home. As she makes her way through the brightly-lit room, she mingles with friends, acquaintances, fans and fellow poets Jacob Wren, Phil Hall, Mark Goldstein, and Jay Millar, all Canadians who will also be speaking tonight. Moure’s turn approaches, and the gentle buzz of English and French dies as local residents prepare to hear her speak. She is reading from her latest collection of poems, O Resplandor, a rich intertwining of translations that leaves the reader questioning who is speaking as she moves from one text to the next. “Air’s loveliness crowns her, and i am made to know / this, though it is something i so rarely know, / unless…” Many close their eyes as they allow the careful collection of words to invoke memories and thoughts that only creative genius has the power to retrieve.

There is familiarity in this scene, there is comfort. The division one often witnesses in Montreal society is strikingly lacking. Both young and old are present, French and English. Yet these differences do not seem to be creating their usual boundaries in this intimate café on St. Laurent. Poetry, it seems, has transgressed such boundaries.


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