Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Translating Pessoa: Winnett, Taddle, Garrison

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By rob mclennan

This article is a part of rob's personal essay series, "Sleeping in Toronto."

From Garrison Creek I see the earth to the antipodes of the Universe
In this, my street is as big as any planet
Because I am the same size as what I see
And not the size of my height ever...

When Montreal poet Erin Mouré (or Eirin Moure or Erín Moure) spent a year in Toronto as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto, she accidentally came on to a translation project, a transelation project, on her particular Toronto lake, writing sheep. Why sheep? Started, she writes, in Providence, Rhode Island on March 20, 2000, this was Mouré writing Alberto Caeiro / Fernando Pessoa's O Guardador de Rebanhos (1946) through her translator’s gaze, and the hidden creeks that flow under her temporary Winnett Avenue location — Garrison and Taddle (the only creek, it seems, with a literary magazine named after it) — in her poetry collection Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (2001). Writing for years and collections through what it means to be a “citizen,” this project holds up as an interesting sideline to an increasingly important body of work; a fervent person who becomes, thus. As she writes in her “Notes in Recollection” at the beginning of the collection:

The anonymity of the civic grid parallels the anonymity of fields. When I was a child, I was also a bird. A bird and a fisher. Then I spent a winter on Winnett Avenue in Toronto where a small creek crosses, nameless, flowing under the road into Cedarvale ravine near the Phil White Arena. A manhole cover, the real McCoy, marks its passage. A portal, round, of fer forgé. In Montréal these covers would say Montréal égouts, or aqueduc, or égout pluvial, in accordance with their function; in Toronto they read McCoy, after their foundry. Or just bear a year. 1965. Beneath them, I started to find creeks, riding my bike that spring; for on a bike, you can hear the water. Travelling up Wychwood past the old shut streetcar barns, the sound of Taddle Creek can be followed all the way up to Vaughan Road before it’s lost. And on a bike, you’re instantly aware of topography. At night from downtown, the craggy Lake Iroquois shore just above Davenport in Toronto is a dark line: to rise out of the vanished lake into it is to enter a lung. In such a place, I first translated the words of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Or, more properly, Alberto Caeiro.

From one citizen to the next, writing out one world across another, from Roo Borson and Kim Maltman’s borrowed house in the former City of York. This is Mouré herself in translation, writing her other out of his, and finding a place where the two correspond, and even become her Pessoa-esque Eirin, before writing and collaborating with her new Galician alter-ego Elisa Sampedrín in further collections, including Little Theatres (2005) and O Cadioro (2007). As she writes in the essay “Fidelity Was Never My Aim (But Felicity)” from my beloved wager: Essays from a Writing Practice (2009) about the project, “Translating was a gesture of excess person, of what exceeds the person.”

          Still in Toronto, I realized I had to translate the whole book quickly, before I left for my home in Montreal and lost my particular and replete loneliness, my readerly elation: the sitting that had driven the first pages of my translation. So I saw no one, buckled down, and work as Erin’s Eirin to bear Pessoa’s rural Caeiro into Toronto, into its suburbs of the 1950s built over creeks and ravines, an undulated landscape that buried all water underground, to be heard only in manholes, deep under:

I realized Pessoa had entered Toronto, living a pastoral life in Toronto’s not-quite-vanished original topographies. In me, there appeared my master. Finally I could feel joy. I found Taddle Creek in Wychwood Park. Then I found the creek that crosses Winnett Avenue just below where I lived. After I found the creeks, I lived alongside them.

And Alberto Caeiro came with me.

From 1940s Portugal into late '90s Toronto; from Pessoa writing as Caeiro to Erin Mouré writing as Eirin Moure. Is it as Sherry Simon wrote in her critical study, Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City (Montreal QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006):

Every act of translation is a statement about human relations, about the ways in which languages, cultures, and individuals are the same or different. To believe in the possibilities of full equivalence (which poets and anthropologists rarely have) is to embrace hopes of universalities. Those who refuse equivalence (in the name of the expressive power of language) put their hopes in the possibilities of unending difference. Translation is at the heart of these debates.

As a language gets translated, so too does a place, and she writes out a translation of this new geography, after years of her adult life in Montreal, after growing up in Calgary, and discovering, it seems, just what had been hidden. Garrison Creek, known as (according to John Bentley Mays) “Toronto’s most famous waterway never seen above ground,” is one of those that wanders underneath the routes of city, through Bay Street and High Park, Christie Street and Bloor West, eventually buried underground and lost, for the sake of ambitious city planners. In his Emerald City: Toronto Visited (1994), Mays talks about meeting Roy Wood, who may have been the last man alive to remember seeing Garrison Creek above ground:

          By the time Wood came along, the burying of shrinking of Toronto’s streams was, of course, far advanced. He recalls that, when he was small and Garrison Creek flowed openly across the Woods’ truck farm, it was only a skinny rivulet. Except, that is, during spring run-off, when it briefly remembered its ancient task of gathering melt water and early rains from atop the escarpment, and bringing the torrent tumbling and splashing down through the middle of the farm. You can’t have that sort of wild thing happening on a good farm, on the north-west edge of a rapidly growing city. And so it was, in 1913, when Wood was about seven, that the last visible trace of the old creek was put away underground.

Taddle Creek, a line heading south through the University of Toronto, with little more than the occasional basement leak to show for it, along with historical plaque. Garrison, south heading too, the former mouth by the garrison of Fort York that gave it once its own name, lines of open water the city has edited out, reduced to sewage. Garrison, once the largest link between the Humber and Don, buried through settlement, subways, sewage and subdivisions. One of two streams which originate off Vaughn Road at Wychwood and Valewood, near the setting of Mouré’s own Sheep. As she writes in the piece “XX The Humber is pretty fabulous, really”:

The Humber is more fabulous than the creek under my avenue.
And the Humber is no more fab than the creek under my avenue.
You can't mix up the two when on my avenue;
For that matter neither of them are very big…

It seems interesting that Mouré wouldn't take direct credit as author for her Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, instead insisting as overwriting her own poem over Pessoa as a translation, whereas George Bowering, for example, is very much the author of Kerrisdale Elegies (Coach House Press, 1986), which arguably “transelated” Bowering’s Vancouver neighbourhood over Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Where does the author end and the author begin? What exactly does it mean, this translation (transelation)? Mouré’s poem continues, writing:

You can take the Humber out almost to Niagara Falls;
Beyond the Humber is America
Where fortunes are made.
No one ever thinks about what's beyond
the creek under Winnett Avenue.

The creek under my avenue makes no one think of anything.
Whoever goes to the edge of it has only reached the curb.

Where is it the translations, the passageways, go? What is a transelation, a translation? As Mouré herself writes near the end of another essay on her Sheep’s Vigil from my beloved wager: Essays from a Writing Practice, “Subjectivities: An Approach Through Clarice and Fernando”:

Creeks are carried in buckets on women’s heads.
Subjectivity is a notion that does not hold water.
Just as creeks themselves are passages. What is a creek?

***

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

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