The Red Mittens: A Translation of the Cheremis by Anselm Hollo
[Sin título] Del cheremis
In translation by Anselm Hollo
I shouldn’t have started knitting these red mittens.
they are already finished,
but also my life.
Poems rarely make me cry. Perhaps it is easier for me to cry when the text is not the best, when the feelings are very evident, very frank, completely devoid of subtlety and elegance. Sometimes, naivety relaxes the reader and it may be easier to cry in this state or when a lot of sharpness is not demanded of the brain. When I read a poem that is really good and moves me, at the same time I am distracted, in part, because it is very good and because I analyze what makes it that good. I am so interested in discovering how it works that my thinking brain engages with the task as much as my heart. Of course: sometimes the brain intervenes first and then, only later, the heart, and part of the emotions that I experience are born simply of how good the poem is. But in those cases I don’t cry either, but rather I am happy. When they are good, even sad or serious poems can make me very happy, or very happy while moving me, almost to tears.
the brain intervenes first and then the heart, and part of the emotions I experience are born simply of how good the poem is.
I want to talk about this very short poem, translated by Anselm Hollo (who died not long ago, in 2013), because it has moved and baffled me for the last thirty years or so that I have had it close, sometimes in front of my eyes in a billboard and other times in my memory, although then I do not remember it completely well, however short it may be. On physical media, I have a postcard published in 1980 that has the poem in print and has suffered over the decades: two worn corners, one of the edges barely torn, the front still quite white but with black spots, the back no longer yellowish but golden, practically burned by the years.
Anselm Hollo was born in 1934 in Finland, and after living in Germany, Austria and England, he decided to settle in the United States in the late 1960s. He had a long career and dedicated himself to writing eccentric and rebellious poems (“stop being ampersands & ‘I’ with a lowercase / if you are not going to like it / the heads of the official poetic culture ”) and to translate (from no less than five languages). I don’t recall seeing him in person, but we corresponded for a short time. I have just reread the only letter from him that I found, and from its content I can affirm that I wrote to him twice about this poem, the second time because I forgot that I had already written to him about it. He did not reply to the first letter, but the second did. And he told me: “The little poem is a translation of the traditional popular sayings of the cheremis or mari, and I still like it too.”
Several things in the poem perplex me. One is that in a very limited space (sixteen words) many contradictory emotions are transmitted: it is pathetic and funny, absurd and serious, it is a frank and sincere statement apparently, but also and from now on a fictitious narrative. A part of the fiction resides in the narrator: who is the “I”? Surely not the poet. The other part is in the red mittens: surely, the poet did not knit them, and surely no one has knitted them, not even the fictional “I”. They are a fiction. (Of course, he may not be right in anything I say! But then the poet has managed to fool us again: he made us believe in his exaggeration).
In addition, there is the false monumentality of the project, as it is transmitted: it has taken a whole life to weave the mittens; they were the project of a whole existence; someone had the intention of weaving them and they did, but at what cost! That is the absurdity. The project was monumental and absurd. But, more importantly, the voice of the narrator of the fiction is not absurd. The voice is simple, serious, direct, and experiences fear and loneliness at the end. There is nothing fictional about a life ending. In fact, Hollo’s own life came to an end, albeit long after he translated the poem.
That life is over is partly what I find poignant, especially when there is only one achievement, as can be deduced from the poem: the red mittens. It is a task that, it seems, consumed so much attention, that perhaps it consumed many other things (time, dedication, devotion) that life itself went almost unnoticed. An achievement was made, yes, but life is over. And after all, that single achievement wasn’t anything monumental.
How does a three-line poem, which on the surface is very simple and direct, does it continue to surprise me for some reason every time I read it?
What puzzles me is also something that I find deeply satisfying. The question is the following: how do you make a three-line poem, which on the surface is very simple and direct (made of three simple and everyday phrases), to continue surprising me for some reason every time I read it? It does not have to do with the content, which I do not forget, but with something different. You may have a tentative answer: it may be due to the change of register within the poem. The opening verse contains a phrase that most of us have probably repeated, with irritation or regret, for one reason or another: that we should never have started doing one thing, whatever it is. The second statement is also familiar, and we could make it on top of the first, no matter what the project is about. We are tired, upset, impatient … and it is late, but we regret it. But the third statement is out of proportion to the above: it is tremendous, devastating, much more serious and with a completely different meaning than the first two. The disproportion or incongruity becomes the source of the humor of the last line, but also of its pathos. It is comically disproportionate, but distressingly true, as if, in reality, the poet was saying: I shouldn’t have been born, because I lived my days, but now they are over.
Or perhaps the poem continues to surprise me because it always eludes me a little; no matter how hard I try, I never quite assimilate it. For me, this characteristic is exemplary, because the poem does what every good text tries and rarely succeeds: never dying, never becoming stagnant and repeated, perpetually renewing itself; to be born and live again and again; begin, continue and end, without losing its freshness or its ability to amaze, without ceasing to cause effect. As intelligent and capable as readers are, the poem eludes memory, resists assimilation.
It may be too much to say about such a short poem, but it seems to be what it asks of us.
Translation by Eleonora González Capria.
Eternal Cadence, 2021.
540 pages. 23.90 euros
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