Paol Keineg published Abalamour this past May. Abalamour: in the Breton language it means “because”, but when you say it in French, you hear the phrase à bas l’amour—down with love. When I tried to press Paol on the purpose of this double meaning, he was serene: “The whole purpose of poetry is to have a multitude of meanings. These poems are in a sort of perpetual hesitation between “because” and “down with love.”
We thought we would try to see what some of this poetry sounded like in English, and as we worked on the translations, I asked Paol to talk about how this newest book of poems came about. The genealogy of Abalamour reflects Paol’s lives as a Breton poet and playwright, a French poet, a professor of literature in the United States (at Brown and Duke Universities) and a translator of American poetry whose own work has been translated into many languages.
Two of the texts had already been published under different names and I didn’t know what to do with them. Not pseudonyms, where you hide your real name from your editor, your public. Instead I was inspired by Fernando Pessoa who invented the idea of the “heteronym.” Pessoa published poems using at least 100 different names. I wondered if I would write differently if I had a different name, but the result wasn’t very convincing since anyone who knew my poetry recognized it right away.
This was around 2004. When I came back to Brittany from Duke three years ago, a friend took me to a reading in Brest. There I met Alain le Saux (‘le Saux’ in Breton means ‘the Englishman.’). He wanted to publish my poems, and I wasn’t enthusiastic at first because these small editors can be unreliable. But I was won over by the quality of his books. The next year I took out a lot of poems I had been working on in the US—I thought I’d find about 40 and in fact I found 100 poems that I was able to rework. They became the part of Abalamour book called “Quatre à quatre” [four by four]—99 quatrains:
A few pages by Walter Benjamin
On the power of imitation,
a new dispute among the blue jays
whose cause I will never know.
The individual poem Abalamour was inspired by a letter I found—a letter in Breton written by my great uncle to his father in 1905. He criticized his father’s drunkenness, which was destroying the family. He didn’t want to be a peasant, he wanted to be a priest. I was overwhelmed by this letter, by its length and by the quality of the language—beautiful literary Breton in the style of the period. No one could explain to me where this uncle learned how to write in Breton! This was at a time when the whole of European peasantry was supposed to be illiterate and yet here was this boy writing a long letter in Breton to a father who was going to be able to read it. And the letter ends with three words I never heard during my own childhood—
Me ho kar
Je vous aime
A declaration of love. Whereas I never saw my parents so much as kiss. There was an extreme reticence in our world, a refusal of any emotion.
This great uncle’s name was Dennielou, so Yves Dennielou was the name I took for my poem, which I wrote following the death of my own father. (Yves Dennielou died very young, in 1913, when my mother was only a year old).
there won’t be any ghost, in the minority language there is no concept of minority, in the language of the majority people want to be loved, all the love songs talk about terror,
the huge noise of insects outside, the big, the marvelous North Carolina insects call out to one another in the night, a roar of judgment day, pressing my forehead against the window, I try to see through the multitude of sounds,
the telephone rings, and it’s Dublin, London, Paris calling, it took time to learn to live alone, where you say: that’s life, don’t know what that means, is it kiez ar bed*, one hell of a life,
probably you can hear it, a fluke, an accident, since every life is a failure how unrecognizable the faces are of all the women I’ve loved, they hide their faces in their hands,
the tracks we keep within are the marks of a creeping in the dust, a long green snake crossing the trail ahead, with one hop I avoided him, the sound he makes of dead leaves in the woods,
the little I have left of life, what can I make of it, no fear of death, no storm, no need to forget, no saintly wisdom, no fancy words, no exegesis, no agreement.
Durham, September 15 – October 5, 2005
*bitch of the earth
The second heteronym I took was Chann Lagatu. Chann is a Breton version of Sean. And Lagatu is the name of a family who lived near us in Quimerc’h; two of the daughters were great friends of my mother. They were a very very poor family with many children, some of whom went off to work in Paris. One of those girls, Catherine Lagatu, became a communist senator for the Seine, the region that included Paris. My father hated the communists, but he always spoke of her with the greatest respect.
From “Diary of a Hike Along the Southern Shore of the Bay of Brest in Winter” by Chann Lagatu:
“I’d like them to write on my grave: He Loved Potatoes.”
Finistère: Editions Les Hauts-Fonds, 2012
Translations by AK with PK