• Derangement and Estrangement: On Poetic Turbulence in Translation

    Joyelle McSweeney Considers Hussein Barghouthi's The Blue Light and Kim Hyesoon's Phantom Pain Wings

    First Parable on Turbulence

    I had a dream I got what I wanted: a baby, a silver necklace, and worldly success. That these gifts numbered three ensured this magic could be trusted. All I had to do in return for each was express gratitude. But each time, I failed that test. My voice clotted in my throat. The gifts turned like milk. The baby proved a weirdly heated rubber doll, the silver chain a hopeless tangle, and the performance of my play a mess of scenes that would not end.

    I tripped from the dream into morning, struck with early April light. The clearest of lights. From there, I tried to relate my “nightmare” to my husband: a baby, a necklace, success. Amid such beneficence, what could explain my dread? It was the gratitude I could not pull from my throat like a golden thread.

    The mandate for gratitude abounds in our current moment. Every throw pillow demands it, every coffee mug, every tee. For many, gratitude is a guiding star, allowing one to correctly orient past to future, to keep one’s preciously assembled raft moving forward toward some shore.

    But not for me. I cannot coax it from my throat.

    And so I remain at sea, in turbulence.


    In Lovely Blue

    The Blue Light, a newly translated memoir by the late Palestinian author Hussein Barghouthi, is both a thing of nervy beauty and a record of turbulence. Born in Ramallah, brought up between Palestine and Beirut, and educated in Europe and the US before returning to Palestine, the polymathic Barghouthi wrote in every genre, including poems, plays, songs, screenplays, and prose; to date, only two of his works may be read in translation. The Blue Light is brought from Arabic into English by Fady Joudah, the Palestinian American poet-doctor whose own poetry and translations of major Arabic-language authors have won wide recognition, including the Griffin Prize for international literature.

    The Blue Light burns with a lyric immediacy and a wiry charge. Summarized plainly, the memoir relates a period Barghouthi spent as a graduate student of comparative literature in Seattle, during which time he thought he was going mad. After a youth spent in constant transit, “I was looking for an area with reasonable weather and some downtime to organize my chaos,” Barghouthi relates at the bottom of page one.

    The signature motion here is not (yet) toward unity but toward an ever-broadening question. It is not placatory but turbulent.

    But, to evoke and invert the maxim from Casablanca, if you come to Seattle for the good weather, you’ve been misinformed. Just so, Barghouthi finds an inversion of his expectations during his sojourn in Seattle. His chaos will not become organized. Instead, he’s further inundated with turbulence. For nine months, he wanders in a dark wood around the university. Yet this nocturnal wood is thick with characters, from Bari the Turkish-military-brat-turned-Sufi to Don the can-collector-sage to Suzan, the hippie survivor who compulsively draws blue peacocks in white notebooks at the Blue Moon Tavern, the Grand Illusion Cinema, the Last Exit Café. He’s drawn to these joints by their names. Of the shady and the crazy, the dump and the dive, Barghouthi writes, “God surrounded me with the marginal world and all its gravitational pull….In this world of the margin, everyone transits.”

    Not surprisingly for a figure who has spent his life in transit and who is surrounded by transients, Barghouthi comes to see place not as a key coordinate of reality but as a “ruse.” Amid a world of transience, what is real? For Barghouthi, the real is not secured in a place but pointed toward, via a suggestive aesthetic-cum-spiritual pattern he calls “the blue light.” A good comparatist, he derives his color theory from various sources—the Naqshbandi Sufi, Tibetan Buddhism, European art and literature, African American blues, the Quran, his own life. Such eclecticism is both a method and a sign that one is on the right path:

    Blue is the color of the energy of creation within us. I remember how years ago I would shut my eyes and listen to Stravinsky, Beethoven, or Mozart. I used to imagine myself in a wadi in the mountains of my childhood. And the wadi was a bewildering dark blue, the rocks were dark blue and magical. Was that an awareness of suppressed creative energy or a longing for childhood? Or was it total estrangement?

    This transit from the firm ground of declaration to an eddy of interrogatives is typical for The Blue Light, as it is for the blue light, confirming that the movement of both Barghouthi and his memoir is not just aesthetic but mystical, pushing outward from the self into the “bewildering dark blue” of “total estrangement.” The signature motion here is not (yet) toward unity but toward an ever-broadening question. It is not placatory but turbulent. “And maybe there is, also, blueness to my ill wishes,” he later confides.

    Within a few pages, then, this book becomes less a memoir than a mystical inventory of color, a night-writing lit with blue. Of course, like a bower bird, Barghouthi keeps a catalog of blues: sky, sea, childhood-ice-cream-parlor awning, the pulsing vein in a proselytizer’s clenched jaw. This suggestive celestial hue receives its terrestrial counterpoint in green—“They buried my brother in Pistachio,” he relates in Joudah’s unnerving translation, referring to a cave with dirt of that color. When his mother claims “children don’t die, they become green birds in a paradise with flowing rivers,” the skeptical child-narrator decides to investigate:

    On an empty, spacious and moonlit night, I went to Pistachio. I wanted to get my brother out of there. I imagined all of the children coming out in white shrouds—if they were even shrouded—and flowing in moonlight before they began to walk in gardens, in the shade of olive trees, in silence. Moon color is evidence of the wakeful power of the imagination that refashions the world….In Palestine, the color of memory is lunar. The moon is the only nightlight that clarifies to the peasants the features of objects.

    In this luminous passage, the greenness of “Pistachio” is washed away by “moon color,” “lunar.” But what color is lunar? Do you know it when you see it? Is it ineffable? Is it of this world, the next, or somewhere in between? Perhaps “lunar” represents a color that has moved beyond anatomical human vision to an intensely mystical, and of course nocturnal, “nightlight.”

    This passage is also suggestive of the political content and context that forms the grounds of this memoir, triangulating the mystical and the aesthetic with the specific historical fact of the militarized dispossession, displacement, and diaspora of Palestinians decade after decade on a relentless, turbulent tide. On first meeting his Sufi interlocutor Bari, Barghouthi notes, “his form was that of an ancient pastoral warrior: a well-knotted military boot ready for an emergency, a green winter US naval poncho, and a rough wild wooden stick with a bracelet tied to it, completely out of context.” Similarly, Barghouthi himself, wandering in the woods of Seattle, thinks of himself as

    a secretive guard of myself on constant military alert. The near-endless rain, the tedious greenery was more a verdant hell than a fertile beauty, my skin that was used to sun and dryness became estranged. When early Arabs introduced the first palm tree to Europe, they called it “the stranger.” I was a stranger palm tree.

    The militarized and the pastoral meet in these displaced youths’ experience of nature, which, though emblematized in both cases by the color green, is not set off from human affairs but inflected with human tones, history, violence, and vigilance. To exist this way is to be “completely out of context,” like the palm tree, “the stranger.” It is no wonder that Barghouthi elsewhere describes the birds of Palestine as “hysterical”: “They evade any sign that points to a bond between them and humans,” he asserts, their avian hysteria ironically belying their contiguity with human turbulence.

    If to be “completely out of context” and “estranged” is the intolerable condition of those in diaspora; it is also the aspiration of the Sufi mystic—and of the visionary poet, as famously formulated by Rimbaud. When Joudah renders Barghouthi’s phrase as “total estrangement,” he creates for the Anglophone ear an unmissable rhyme with Rimbaud’s call for “dérèglement de tous les sens,” typically translated as “total derangement of the senses.” This allusion in turn conjures the great Syrian poet Adonis’s lecture “Rimbaud, Orientalist, Sufi.” For Adonis, Rimbaud may be read as Sufi because “when we abolish the action of the senses, we abolish what separates us from the profound essence of things.”

    Joudah’s doubly allusive translation sheds (blue) light on the text’s formal doubling of derangement and estrangement, confirming that turbulence is something that the poet-mystic must move through—not just for aesthetic but for spiritual reasons. The largest figure of such turbulent blueness is of course the sea. The sea itself is not free from politics—Barghouthi reports not being able to visit the sea from his mountain home in Ramallah due to blockades of the sea routes. He recounts stealing past guards for his first encounter with the sea and later, in Beirut, stealing with his mother down to the military club pool after nightfall to wash his baby sister’s hair in the sea. On this nocturnal outing, “I felt a hand grab the back of my shirt at the same time as a wave submerged me to my waist.” Though this anecdote literally relates how his mother saved him from drowning, by repetition it becomes inverted. He feels the sea is chasing him, a spot in time recollected not in tranquility but in turbulence: “In a chase there is movement, energy, vigor, anger, freedom, drama, flare, madness.”

    As the book rises toward its climax, this ultramarine tide begins to deliver Barghouthi to the first inklings of a new spiritual state—an intermediary level he identifies as barzakh:

    In the Quran, a barzakh partitions two seas that God has destined never to meet. I felt as if ecstasy is fresh water in the heart….And there’s another sea, salty with fear, pain, regret, sorrow, revenge, jealously and other negative feeling. A barzakh sits between the positive and negative seas that meet only when the world becomes brackish, unclear, as when a waterfall delivers itself to a salty sea that dominates it. I call this mixing of the two waters in the heart: overflow.

    This spiritual development entails a move away—or, at least, an intent to move away—from personal turbulence. But barzakh itself is not just one thing—it is mysterious, multiple, midway between the sensual world of humans and the purely abstract world of God. Adonis has described barzakh as the zone of the imagination, of the poet, “in which things are transformed, i.e., the site of images and revelations.” In this elevated-though-not-ultimate middle zone, the poet creates images that point mortals toward God. At the book’s close, it is the into the double sea of barzakh that the young man commits himself.


    Second Parable on Turbulence

    As our four-year-old son transforms from toddler to child, the weapons he raises against me go from intuitive, the chubby fist, to cultural, a cheap plastic flute reimagined as a gun. He stares down its invisible sights at me. When he’s in these moods, we take everything away from him and set him riding for the park.

    This time, as he arrives, a peregrine falcon flies over, just a few feet above his head. It is one of a pair currently nesting on the broadcast tower of our beleaguered local news station, and it bears in its talons something dark, wet, impossibly long and thick for its wingspan. At first I think it is the leg of a dead thing, a deer, a foal, some kind of omen, but then I realize it is just a branch. As falcon and child ride away from each other, the epic force is not lost on my son.

    “I am like that phoenix!” he exults as he rides away.


    Phantom Pain Wings

    Viewed from our current moment, that is, from its height, the career of Kim Hyesoon as a poet of global renown looks like a classic American-style success story: the supremely talented individual, the frictionless rise-and-rise. But that’s not her story. Kim Hyesoon released her first poetry collection into an intensely sexist literary culture and amid a notoriously turbulent year for Korean democracy: 1979. That year saw the assassination of the authoritarian leader Park Chung Hee, followed by a military coup by General Chun Doo-hwan and a curtailment of democracy that would last into the 1990s. A student protest movement in 1980 culminated in the May 18 massacre in Gwangju—opening an irreparable wound that continues to orient and destabilize Korean politics to this day.

    Kim’s translator Don Mee Choi is herself a poet, visual artist, and winner of many major prizes, including a National Book Award for poetry and the MacArthur “genius” award. Choi, whose father worked as a war photographer and who left Korea as a child, has related the following two parables about the inception of Kim’s career. As a young woman, it was Kim Hyesoon’s job to bring manuscripts to the military censors for review. On one occasion, Kim was slapped by the police for refusing to reveal the name of a feminist literary translator. On another, the censor returned to her a manuscript completely blacked out except for the title and the playwright’s name. As Choi has proposed, “it is from this blackened zone that, I believe, Kim Hyesoon’s poetry emerges.”

    The Gwangju massacre was itself psychically recapitulated in 2014 by the Sewol ferry disaster, in which 250 high school students and sixty others drowned. In its wake, Kim Hyesoon’s devastating book-length elegy, Autobiography of Death, was published. Translated into English by Choi (the eighth volume on which they collaborated), the work won them the 2018 Griffin Prize, the world’s most lucrative and visible prize for poetry. I am certain Kim would never wish to be thought of as a national poet, yet one could argue that in Autobiography of Death she has written a national epic—not of patriarchal milestones—battles, conquests, warriors, kings—but from the site of nation’s deepest wound, the wound at its midsection, the obliteration of its own children, which stops and deranges time.

    But if one could construe Autobiography of Death as a sublime anti-epic, Kim’s newest work, Phantom Pain Wings, blows the dome of that thought to pieces. Pain Wings follows Autobiography the way Yeats’s shattered, shattering poem “Byzantium” follows his elegiac “Sailing to Byzantium,” which opens with its famous backward glance: “That is no country for old men.” In “Byzantium,” the emperor’s palace collapses, yet, through this ecstatic destruction, its marble floors are at last translated to that which their swirls could only evoke: “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.”

    Pain is the signature of the feminine poet’s shamanic transit—not just to but through the subterranean zone of the dispossessed and the dead.

    Just so, in Phantom Pain Wings, both poet and poem are shattered as the dead and birds ventriloquize each other through the medium of the poet herself. As its very first lines acknowledge, “This book is not really a book / It’s an I-do-bird sequence.” Of course, as in all of Kim and Choi’s double oeuvre, this is a work of extreme virtuosity, or maybe even virtuosity-in-extremis—if virtuosity is the ability to endure such turbulent transmissions. “I-do-bird” distends the surface of both Kim’s poems and Choi’s translations. Like the Magnificat, Mary’s exultant time-place-and-status-deranging anthem whispered into the ear of her pregnant cousin, “I-do-bird” indicates directions of flight that are both sublime and bodily, physically inside and at the same time spatially or spiritually beyond:


    She says, The pain is killing me

    When my hands are tied and my skirt rips like wings

    I can finally fly

    I was always able to fly like this

    Suddenly she lifts her feet

    Translation-of-a-certain-bird’s-chirping record

    of I-do-bird-below-the-railing


    In Kim Hyesoon’s cosmology, long articulated through essays such as “Hearing” and “Princess Abandoned,” pain is the signature of the feminine poet’s shamanic transit—not just to but through the subterranean zone of the dispossessed and the dead. Pain is a feminine experience, exacted by the mystical phenomenon of hearing by which the voices of the dead enter and leave the body of the poet. In Phantom Pain Wings, more than any other volume to date, this mystical pain is insistently physical, rendered an ecstatic orthography:

    Therefore, I draw a line across my notebook




    Bird never sspeaks to anyone first

    Of course I’m the ssame way

    My face will grow feathers

    I’ll fly away

    For the Anglophone reader, the double s’s in Choi’s rendering create a hypnotic, ensnaring effect: the reader feels her own bird feet looped in the sonic spell of I-do-bird. But Choi’s note at the end of the book tells us more: the hangul consonants equivalent to the double-s sound, ㅆ, visually resemble bird feet—“they are the birds’ webbed feet, poet and bird swaddled as one.” These paired consonants reappear later in the book in the poem “A Blizzard Warning,” and this time Choi chooses to leave them in the English translation for their concrete effect. This time the bird explodes from the textuality of a letter into the poet’s world, rendering the poet herself a white page, the better to bear its birdy footprints:

    The flock of birds from your letter mashes my trees, my dense forest

    Birds pluck off and eat all my early-sprouted sore nipples

    I’ve become the whitest ruined field…


    All the ~ㅆ word endings that have left before me are falling

    They fall down like trousers, holding hands, in pairs, running through

    the blizzard ㅆㅆ ㅆㅆ ㅆㅆ


    Part ~ed

    Di ~ed

    Forgotte ~ed

    The presence of Korean as the bird language poking through the English translation is more than just an audacious feat of artistry and translation on the part of Kim and Choi. By calling attention to the written-ness—the punctuation, orthography, and hangul consonants and vowels in which the poems are recorded—the bird language calls attention to Phantom Pain Wings as a specifically written vision, a convulsing interface between the mundane and superhuman worlds that splits to reveal more of itself—a ripped seam marked by pain. Birdsong here does not serve, as it does in most Western canonical poetry, to represent naturalized “language,” toward which, in our fallen state, we humans can only aspire. Instead, Kim’s birds, like the dead, will thrust themselves through our human instruments, through any hole, and regardless of the cost.


    Bird Riders of the Barzakh

    In her alert, alarming afterword to Phantom Pain Wings, Kim expresses almost physical revulsion to the popular expectation that poetry be a medium of empathy or source of consolation:

    Startled, I get frightened. And, conversely, I become even more frightened when I’m asked who my poetry comforts. Therefore, when someone even utters the word comfort, I want to run and hide. I don’t think I’ve ever comforted anyone with my writing. Moreover, I think literature betrays the readers’ desire to be consoled. Perhaps literature crosses into a zone where consolation can’t intervene, evaporating any possibility of comfort.

    After that typically effacing “perhaps,” Kim shows the full scale and difficult magnanimity of her vision. Poetry can’t be the medium of podcasty keywords like empathy and consolation because it is already engaged in vast, exacting acts of mediumship, opening cosmic zones through the painful aperture of the poet’s self. To illustrate this model, Kim mobilizes an image taken from Korean folk culture— Bird Rider, an infant ghost who chirps, who must be ventriloquized and translated by multiple shamans, who can throw her voice into animate and inanimate objects, who “can fly like a bird to the past and look down at the scene of the crime,” and who “speaks in the untranslatable fragmented language of the wounded.”

    Bird Rider rides on turbulence; Bird Rider moves among orders, species, and states of matter; Bird Rider has an obligation to both the living and the dead that’s larger than consolation for either. In her mediumship, Bird Rider occupies an in-between zone that recalls the image of barzakh that occupies Barghouthi—a poet’s zone of making and variousness, a throng of images that point to a singular Ultimateness. Barghouthi and Kim both end their texts by envisioning their personal transformation into birds—not the wistful, subjunctive escape into nightingale form as ideated by Keats, for example, but a disfiguring process predicated on isolation and pain. Barghouthi declares—

    I will pile mask after mask on my face. Under all of those masks I will ascend naked to the blue light, naked and alone. And from a distance I will know in my heart for sure that other birds are headed to the same ascension, birds that I will greet from afar as I kill every sorrow inside me that breaks my soul and complains of the journey’s loneliness, and I will dance. Give me, please. What? Another mask, a sixth mask.

    Here the convivial Barghouthi, whose text has been flocked with comrades, flies alone and pecks his own breast, while Kim’s description unexpectedly picks up some of Barghouthi’s more habitual ecstasy. She writes,

    It’s the movement of my body, sending the ghost of extremity to its original place, to its inherent existential place, to my whole body. Jumping up and down, the ecstasy of rhythm and the dance combining to my aid. As if wings are sprouting from my limbs. As if disobeying my existence. As if arriving at the ocean.

    The ocean beyond the existence of self, where both these birds must ride—barzakh, perhaps.


    Conclusive Parable on Turbulence, with Lines by KH (Italics Mine)

    “I am like that phoenix!” my son exults as he rides away. His words are carried back to me on the wind of his own going.

    But there is no phoenix. There is just the word phoenix. Yet it rises, and it stays with me like a speck in the edge of my vision for days, so that I turn my face, so that now in my mind’s eye it rises up above the boy with his burden, the bird on its bike, indicating an invisible wind that rips like a seam between bird and boy and spills out a garrot of arterial time, so that I feel it on my face, a suprahuman coordinate, that must be borne, distended, convulsive, abdomen, April, the belly of a day, and me all at the bottom of that spasming ocean of wind and soaring, light and time. Phoenix, is what, is what is, is what is going to rise and maybe (re)birth itself as its own likeness in a spasm of pain, an arterial garrot of simile, dolphin-torn, gong-tormented, like is the ligature, which breaks, lets in the sea, to shake, the sea of faith, so turbulent, that region, that relation that relentlessly regathers to break, again, to break with me in it, to break with me in its gut, I cannot thank it, for I am like it, in its riding, as it breaks and breaks. If I am like it, how do I thank it? If I can’t thank it, how can I pray?

    Hit me

    Hit me

    The bird has already flown away


    What you have hit is

    just a void wearing an outfit


    It’s bright inside my outfit!


    “On Turbulence” by Joyelle McSweeney appears in the latest issue of Image Journal.

    Joyelle McSweeney
    Joyelle McSweeney
    Joyelle McSweeney is the author of eight books, most recently the play Dead Youth, or, the Leaks (Litmus, 2014) and the critical book The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults (U. of Michigan Poets on Poetry Series, 2015). She co-edits the international press Action Books and teaches at Notre Dame.

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