Creative caprice

Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person

By Carmine Starnino

A review of Sheep's Vigil By A Fervent Person by Eirin Moure

Published on October 1, 2001

Sheep’s Vigil By A Fervent Person
Eirin Moure

House of Anansi
$16.95
paper
216pp
0-88784-6602

A few, no doubt, suspected something, but the full scope, ambition, and size of the project interrupted in 1935 with the death of a Portuguese office clerk named Fernando Pessoa wasn’t evident until the discovery, soon afterward, of a wooden steamer trunk stuffed with twine-tied sheaves of unpublished poetry. The material – Pessoa wrote on advertisement flyers, envelopes, company stationery, and café menus – added up to more than 25,000 documents which, when transcribed and collated, revealed that Pessoa used his anonymity to shelter a gallery of multiple identities. To be specific, it revealed that Pessoa – whose name translates into “person” – discreetly presided over the careers of three major alter-egos named Albert Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos (each possessing distinctive poetic idioms, aesthetics, and biographies), and made a serious go at conjuring up 70 other personalities. “To create, I’ve destroyed myself,” Pessoa once explained. “I’m the empty stage where various actors act out various plays.”

In the many-voiced spirit of this game, Erin Mouré recruited her own Galician doppelgänger – Eirin Mouré – when, holed up in Toronto during the winter of 2001, she decided to translate The Keeper of Sheep, Alberto Caeiro’s signature long poem. Caeiro (the first “voice” to seize Pessoa’s attention) was born in Lisbon in 1889, lived most of his life in the country with an elderly aunt, and had moved back to Lisbon for only a few months before dying of tuberculosis in 1915. The Keeper of Sheep, dashed off in 1914, is a cycle of 49 poems (in her version, Mouré appends a fiftieth) where Caeiro draws on his hardscrabble rural life and puts into practice a profound scepticism of conceptual thought. Caeiro is unique among the Pessioan trio because of how utterly he scorns metaphysics – it suggests realities that do not exist – and how fervently he embraces the antiepiphanic world of physical fact, where “stones are just stones,/And rivers nothing but rivers,/And flowers are only flowers.” Or, as Caeiro/Mouré put it in Section Five:

Just open your eyes and see the sun! If you do, you can’t think anymore about anything Because sunlight is fab, more than all the thoughts Of philosophers and poets lumped together. Sunlight doesn’t know what it does And, as such, doesn’t goof up, and is ordinary and good.

You’d think the above creed would be odious to any self-respecting deconstructionist; much less Canada’s foremost laureate of experimental verse. But Mouré thrives on Caeiro’s unsentimental, see-things-as-they-are shepherd-speak: “Mystical poets are ailing philosophers,/and philosophers are – excuse me – doughheads.” That “excuse me” is her own intervening addition, and a nice one. Those independent touches can get quite aggressive, though. Mouré’s obsessions – stray cats, winter, Winnett Avenue, a creek running under a manhole in terms of faithfulness, both can’t occupy the same space.

My point is that although Mouré’s humour creeps into her rendering of Caeiro’s poem with wonderful results – “Do we need a concept just yet, Mr. Derrida,/Can you wait one minute” – she also embellishes and exaggerates with such freewheeling confidence that the question becomes: how far can a translation pursue its own resourcefulness before erasing the original poem’s signature powers? Not very, I’d say. So if we judge this book as a translation, then Mouré wou- march into the original poem’s pastoralism and build themselves up into a fascinating sui generis artefact. But whose book is it? “I want this book to be judged not just as my poetry,” argues Mouré, “but as translations of Pessoa. Trans-e lations. Trans-eirin-elations. Transcreations.” That feels like a poet hedging her bets. A “translation” isn’t quite the same thing as, say, a “trans-eirin-elation.” Since each is defined by competing intentions ld seem to be sidestepping, rather than solving, the crucial difficulty of translation. The version, in other words, feels like a pretext for Mouré’s creative caprice, and I’d argue – old fashioned sod that I am – that a translation should never feel that way. If seen as a “trans-eirin-elation,” however, then the book is a terrific success, because what we are asked to admire isn’t the deft mimicry but the creative homage. So what hath Mouré wrought? She has given us a fun, hooligan effort of a book, one that gamely meets the spirit, rather than the letter of Caeiro’s poem. mRb

Carmine Starnino is a Montreal poet whose latest book of poems is "With English Subtitles" (Gaspereau 2004).

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