Poetry

Florencia Milito:
“Villanelle for Henry Darger/Oda a Henry Darger”

 

Villanelle for Henry Darger

He carries dandelions in his head,
a whole expansive field of them.
By day a janitor, they said.

Fluffy clouds to count like sheep in bed,
glorious lions’ manes to crown the stems.
He carries dandelions in his head.

He swept and scrubbed, polished for his bread.
The children played, hid behind their mothers’ hems.
By day a janitor, they said.

At night a secret, lone mission led
to pleat the folds of sky, to stitch its gems.
He carries dandelions in his head.

A celestial housekeeper instead,
writes now among the dandelions, nibbling on their stems.
He was a janitor, they said.

No one knew he drew and wrote and read,
polished the bright moon, pleated the sky’s hem.
He carries dandelions in his head.
By day he was a janitor, they said.

 

Oda a Henry Darger

Lleva dientes de león en la cabeza,
un campo expansivo, bello.
De día un portero, decían ellos.

Nubes de algodón para contar como ovejas en la cama,
melenas para coronar los tallos.
Lleva dientes de león en la cabeza.

Barrió y fregó, pulió para ganarse el pan.
Los chicos jugaban, se escondían detrás de sus madres.
De día portero, decían ellos.

De noche, una misión secreta lo llevó
a plegar las tablas del cielo, coser sus gemas.
Lleva dientes de león en la cabeza.

Amo de casa celestial,
escribe ahora entre los dientes de león, mordisquea sus tallos.
Fue portero, decían ellos.

Nadie supo que dibujó, escribió y leyó,
pulió la luna brillante, plegó el ruedo del cielo.
Lleva dientes de león en la cabeza.
De día fue portero, decían ellos.

 

From Ituzaingó: Exiles and Reveries (Nomadic Press 2021). Used with permission of the press and available for purchase on its website.

 

Listen to the poet read both versions of the poem here.

Born in Argentina, Florencia Milito spent part of her childhood in Venezuela and has lived in the United States since she was nine. She’s a bilingual poet, essayist, and translator, and her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Indiana Review, Catamaran, Entremares, Digging through the Fat, Diálogo, 92nd Street Y, Quiet Lightning, Ninth Letter, and Latinas: Struggles & Protests in 21st Century USA, among others. She’s a Hedgebrook and Community of Writers alumna, CantoMundo fellow, and former San Francisco Grotto fellow. Her bilingual collection Ituzaingó: Exiles and Reveries / exilios y ensueños was recently published by Nomadic Press.

 

Poet’s Note

I wrote this villanelle after watching In the Realms of the Unreal, a documentary about Henry Darger. I was captivated by Darger’s compulsive need to create, particularly because at the time I was struggling with writing blocks. I didn’t originally set out to write a villanelle, but noticed the repetition that was emerging organically as I began writing the poem; the repetition inherent in the form seemed to mirror something of Darger’s obsessive quality. I had the distinct sense that the restrictions imposed by the form would lead to certain leaps that wouldn’t otherwise present themselves.

For this Spanish translation, I stuck close to the imagery of the original, and eschewed rhyme scheme. Of course, this is only one possible version; I can imagine others that would center rhyme scheme instead and potentially eschew some of the original imagery.

 

Commentary by Amanda Moore

Emily Wilson’s “Translator’s Note” for her phenomenal translation of The Odyssey outlines several decisions she made to bring Homer’s original text alive for contemporary English language readers: “Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original.” She goes on to highlight some of her translation decisions, such as using iambic pentameter, “the conventional meter for regular English narrative verse,” instead of the original Greek dactylic hexameter. These interpretations approximate the experience of the original text rather than simply making an exact replica of the original text in a new language. In my estimation, this is what good translations do: They take into account aspects of both the original text and the target language in order to translate the text’s feeling and meaning into a new context.

It is within this thinking about translation that I was lucky to discover Florencia Milito’s new bilingual collection, Ituzaingó: Exiles and Reveries, from which today’s poem is taken. Milito’s work explores the intergenerational effects of state terror after the poet and her family fled the US-supported military dictatorship in Argentina in 1976. The poems vary in structure, from fixed form to hybrid prose pieces, and in addition to political history, explore landscapes, render portraits of loved ones, relay anecdotes, and consider artwork. In the introduction to the collection, Milito says, “I wrote my first poem in Spanish before I knew English,” yet this collection was written first in English and then translated, in order to honor “the lifelong debt to the Spanish of my first poem, of my nuclear and extended family, of my childhood.”

Without the intermediary of a separate translator who, as Wilson reminds us, necessarily brings her own interpretive lens to a text, Milito’s bilingual poems offer a unique opportunity to experience a singular poetic vision in two different languages. In these auto-translations, she of course makes decisions and sacrifices, acknowledging that “some of the rhythms of the original have been lost in the translation.” That these decisions are made by the poet herself makes for an unusually high consistency of vision and purpose across both idioms.

Today’s poem—I will refer to it as a singular work here, albeit one with two versions—offers tribute to outsider artist Henry Darger, whose epic illustrated fantasy novel, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, the product of a lifetime of work, was famously discovered in his apartment shortly before his death in 1972. Several ekphrastic poems in Milito’s collection address specific works of art, but this piece is more about the artist himself, employing imagery from his visual work and details from his writing to account for the duality of his life: Darger worked as a janitor in a hospital, where no one knew of his secret, prolific creations. Incidentally, this is not the first time Darger’s life and work have figured in poetry—John Ashbery’s “Girls on the Run” is a book-length poem inspired by the Vivian Girls.

The English version of Milito’s poem is a villanelle, a particularly ingenious choice because the poet makes use of the form’s inherent repetition to highlight repeated imagery from Darger’s watercolors featuring hordes of pubescent children—often naked and sometimes transformed into fantastic beasts with horns and wings—along with flowers, trees, and clouds. Though his artwork takes dark turns and incorporates violent and disturbing scenes, the poem focuses on his more pleasant imagery such as “dandelions” and “fluffy clouds.” Milito has a strong visual sensibility, however, and uses juxtaposition and figurative language along with these pleasant images to hint at the darker conflicts in Darger’s life and work, comparing the clouds to “sheep,” for example, and then evoking “glorious lions,” a natural predator of such innocence. The poem’s children hide “behind their mothers’ hems,” betraying their sense of vulnerability and danger. None of these threats or tensions lead the poem to darkness, but their presence in the background mimics the tonal variance in Darger’s work.

Milito’s poem paints a sympathetic portrait of the complicated artist and his work as “a celestial housekeeper” whose mission was “to pleat the folds of sky” and “stitch its gems,” in lines that communicate tenderness and awe. “[C]arries dandelions in his head” hints at Darger’s eccentricities, documented in films and books, but the poem doesn’t judge him. The present tense of the phrase, which morphs toward the end to “now among the dandelions, nibbling on their stems,” showcases his legacy, extending his reach beyond the secret artistic life lived as he “polished bright the moon.” The affection the poem has for its subject is key as Milito brings the poem into Spanish, abandoning enough of the villanelle’s structure to drop the form’s name from the poem’s title and adopting “Oda,” or ode, instead.

The villanelle is a sixteenth-century French fixed form embraced by English-speaking poets with verve, particularly in the twentieth century, which saw some of the most celebrated examples, such as Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Previous Poetry Sunday columns discuss the elements of this fixed form, and you can find them here by searching for the names of the poets who wrote them—Lucille Lang Day, Caitlin Doyle, Moira Egan, Jennifer Nelson, Deborah Paredez, Margaret Stawowy, and Jane Underwood.

Milito’s is a traditional version, using both the repetition and rhyme scheme. Certainly, a poet as adept as Milito can write a villanelle in Spanish, but in this translation, she chooses to let go of the form’s tight rhyme scheme in order to preserve the imagery and overall experience of the poem. Her book’s introduction explains how her auto-translation process prioritizes certain poetic elements over others: “When forced to choose, I decided to eschew syllabic counts and rhymes in order to center images.” Unlike a villanelle, an ode has no formal constraints, but it is a recognizable poetic mode that pays homage to Darger and so makes for a worthy substitute in the poem’s title.

What remains of the villanelle structure in “Oda a Henry Darger” is the repetition, and the dandelions find new resonance in the poem’s second language. “Dandelion” in Spanish is “diente de león,” a phrase which derives from the same Latin root, “lion’s tooth,” as the English. The Spanish phrase, however, carries forward the word for tooth, “diente,” creating a fun—or maybe disturbing—irony in “He carries dandelions in his head.” The Spanish offers figurative flowers and literal teeth and evokes, as the English version does, a lion in contrast or conflict with innocent sheep (“ovejas”) compared to fluffy clouds (“nubes de algodón”).

Although Milito’s “Oda” doesn’t try to follow the strict rhyme scheme of the villanelle form, the poem is replete with repeated sounds and internal rhymes that approximate the experience of the villanelle. The past-tense, third-person verbs, for example, carry a long “o” sound (“Barrió y fregó, pulió”) that rhymes with the poem’s masculine articles (“los”) and several other words (“bello,” “como,” “portero,” “noche,” etc.). This repeated long “o” sound carries an echo of the titular “Oda” throughout the poem, creating the same effect as the “head,” “bed,” and “bread” end rhymes in English.

As a novice translator myself, I pore over translations and translator’s notes like Emily Wilson’s and Florencia Milito’s to learn from the decisions they make to strike the right balance between original and target languages. I recognize there is no “right” way to translate (though there may well be several “wrong” ways), but Milito’s translations of her own work shed a new light on the process for me. Translation may indeed involve sacrificing certain beloved parts of the original, but it can also offer a way to open up exciting new paths and meaning in a work.

 

 

Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.

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