Conjuring Merlín with an ‘í’: Shannon Maguire Interviews Erín Moure

By and | 1 October 2020

SM: Please speak more about Merlín and the connections you are making among the concepts of absolute other, dementia, and goodness.

EM: Merlín is a fierce figure in Galician literature especially in late Franco times (when finally, again, there could be literature published more readily in Galician). I think of my Dad (whose ancestry was in part Galician) and how he too was abandoned (by part of his neural network) and had to become ‘an adept of the woods’. The Merlín poem early in the book that begins ‘Son of a nun and a demon’, is structured in the form of one of the Galician War of Spanish Independence poems in that section (i.e. the resistance to Napoleon, very real in my family and in that area, as an ontological formation) but is dated not in 19th century Galicia, in battle towns, as are the others, but in Edmonton, Canada on the very day my father died. Watching over him in his last days of silence and calm, I realised he was Merlín, I was looking at Merlín. The story of Merlín, as recounted in the poem, is an allegory for my Dad dying. He is the person who came into the world to do bad and decided to do good. My Dad too. He didn’t start out as a very good Dad, but he grew into it. In his last months, before he lost his ability or wish to speak, he told me he’d accomplished all he could in his life, he thought. I asked him quietly what it was he’d accomplished, wanting to know what that was for him. He said: ‘All of my children love me’. I agreed with that, and I told him it was the greatest accomplishment possible in a life. And in his final days and hours, my Dad, became an adept at it, lying there, just quiet, so happy to be quiet at last … in the woods of his own rest and thinking, a man of magic and transformation.

SM: That is an astonishing transformation! Regarding the forest: as well as different languages in the book, there are non-human creatures. In ‘The Accidents (Merlín)’, there is a beautiful passage that reads: ‘Small insects rose up into the wave of / Openly // Ábreme a luzporta!’ According to Google Translate, that Galician phrase becomes ‘Open the light for me!’ in English. Later in the poem, Merlín says: ‘Give me nothing / Give me not this monstrance / The elements’. You’ve said elsewhere that your childhood self was astonished by words on the page, which you compared to ants, and here in these lines, I can’t help but read the insects as a kind of language that signifies beyond human concepts and that challenges Western assumptions about language use as a crucible of human exceptionalism.

EM: Yes, the insects speak Galician. ‘Open the lightdoor to me! ’ Galician was a language that Franco’s fascist regime tried to suppress from the late 1930s through the 1970s, and though it is a co-official language in Galicia today, it is still impossible to school your children completely in Galician, and in cities, it has been squelched except as a working-class language and, stubbornly and proudly, as the main language of culture. People in the 60s were told in school that Galician was a brutish language, a language only good for animals. Galician writer Manuel Rivas remembers this, and remembers thinking: wow, I can speak with animals!

SM: Ha! Speaking of transformation and the bending or morphing of forms and structures in another sense, translation is a major part of your writerly practice. Between the publication of Kapusta and the publication of The Elem:ents, you translated or, in one case, co-translated, six full-length collections of poetry from four different languages: François Turcot’s My Dinosaur (French), Chus Pato’s Flesh of Leviathan (Galician), Rosalía de Castro’s New Leaves (Galician, and a second version of that translation, In Leaf), Wilson Bueno’s Paraguayan Sea (Portunhol), Yuri Izdryk’s Smokes (Ukrainian, with Roman Ivashkiv) and Lupe Gómez’s Camouflage (Galician) – and you’ve published two more translations this year, from Galician and Spanish. You discuss your approach to language and translation in two poems from The Elem:ents. In ‘Articulating the Shaking’ you say: ‘If multilingual is to speak +one languages serially, polylingual is to speak +one languages concomitantly. It acts to induce or permit thought or affect not possible in a single and flattened linguistic realm. Did we try to dissipate what we knew or were to know? A ‘were’ to knowing is a plurality, where verbs move not bidirectionally (‘translation’) but across multiple differential planes (O Cidadán), thought out polylingually.’

This provokes the generative idea of ‘combinatorial improprieties’. Do you approach the poem (call it the absolute other or impossible or poetry inflected by the realm of the virtual or whatever) differently as a ‘poet’ versus ‘translator’? Does such a distinction exist in a meaningful way, especially for someone like you who is always listening across at least five languages at once?

EM: Well, it is different, as in translation I am listening to a text of one person, in one language, and bringing it through my body and my reading into another language, to be another text in that new language but to still be rooted in the first writer. I have to try to listen to what they were listening to, through them. In writing a poem, I am listening to insects, to the wind in leaves, the fan in the far room, the sound of the words in front of me. It’s a much more complex music to write your own poem and requires much more listening. But the listening of translation is wondrous and sure helps hone that skill!

SM: Nodding wildly. I am alert to your insistence that ‘the banality of power is already inscribed in the monolingual structure of our exchange today’ (The Elem:ents). In translating Wilson Bueno, you say that you are striving for ‘something unreadable, un-avoidable, un-a-voidable. And its relation to sea: a river is also the sea, infolded’.

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