It’s odd to see what another writer has seen, and stranger still to re-envision their imaginings. Even poetry critics who get under the skin of a text and construct an argument don’t always suppose they see the images of the work exactly as the author did. But when you’re translating an author and you get to visit his house, you get a closer look at the sources of his visions.
Paol Keineg, the Breton poet, playwright, and translator whose poems I’ve been working on, was generous enough to invite me to stay with him for the past few days at his home in the village of Kimerc’h. He grew up in this village, going to school ten yards from his house. After living in the US for many years, he has returned here after retiring from Duke.
The house, with its impressive library of French and American poetry, looks out over the hills toward the tip of the Finistère. If Tréguier is a town of vacationers, Kimerc’h is the opposite—families have been living here for centuries. But there are not so many young people in the village anymore, and when we go to dinner at a café (for some of the best scallops I’ve ever tasted, dipped in beurre blanc) the owner says he’s closing soon. His plan: to move to LA.
And the physical landscape is also changing. Brittany used to have many small farmers, but now large-scale agrobusiness is putting a strain on the area. In some places, runoff from the farms makes the tap water undrinkable.
As Paol shows me around the village, he tells me about the school and their repression of the Breton language—a universalism à la Française from which Breton was (and often still is) excluded. Before Paol ever went to school, he saw a teacher hanging a student out the window by his feet as the blood rushed to his head. Speaking the French language was strictly enforced. Now there is a system of schools called Diwan that teach students in both Breton and French.
The more I listen to French, the more my feeling of being in a foreign place is defined by language, by feeling isolated in my American thoughts because I don’t always know what the words around me mean. As Paol and I sit under the mulberry tree in his garden and he (very patiently) answers my questions about his poems, I feel the split between words and places lessen. When I translate the lines,
the crow sinks
clouds behind the apples
of poetic frippery...
I look up to see crows in his neighbor’s apple trees, the boughs heavy with unripe fruit. White clouds pass over the sun. Are these the same crows, and clouds, and apples? The answer doesn’t really matter. What matters is the beauty of the landscape, a beauty that is not to be used lightly, that is not for decoration.