Fresh Paint

Painters reuse their canvasses, new poems fill older forms, and cities get built over cities. Paol went to school here, in the center of Quimper, when it looked nothing like it does now. Today, the town is lovely—a medieval square with a cathedral, houses built with exposed beams, stone streets for pedestrians, bright pinwheels and cans of sardines in the windows of tourist shops. Despite its charm, the restored city feels a little too polished, the flowerpots and cobblestones a little too carefully placed.

Then, it had another aspect—the oldest neighborhood was one of the poorest, and the boarding school at the top of the hill had been occupied by the Germans in World War Two. They used it as a prison.

Walking around the square, Paol talks about the poem I’m currently translating as a puzzle. And like many of the best-loved puzzles, it’s not guaranteed that all of the pieces are still in the box. The temptation in English is to fill in these gaps, to make the sections of the poem fit tightly together.

But seeing the restoration of Quimper is a caution against that approach. Too much superficial polish can make the elliptical movement of a fascinating poem seem only clever. Like the city center with its fresh paint and chocolate shops, tidiness can present the past in a way that dissuades curiosity—to leave some things unexplained is to allow for more complexity of memory and interpretation.

To borrow an analogy from magnets, I want the connections in these poems to be close enough to attract, but not so close they’re already stuck. So I walk around the city, past the macaron seller, the carousel, the cafés with their white and orange chairs. And I think of ways to make the English of the translation a little stranger, to keep it in the realm of the untidy—where most of us actually live.