Sunday, January 11, 2015

Liberté - Egalité - Etre Français

Over the last few days of the terrorist attacks on Paris, I had many exchanges with friends in France, from all different parts of the country.  My dearest lifelong friend Denise lives not far from Montrouge, the Parisian suburb where a terrorist shot and killed a policewoman in the street. 

In fact, the site of that attack isn’t far from the famous spot where a native-born Frenchman attempted to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.  I was too young to remember that moment, but just old enough later to be profoundly affected by the assassination of Kennedy.

I grew up in a time when bullets were used against important figures, targeted as symbols of something greater than their personal, private selves.  In the United States, decades have gone by without any acknowledgment of the significance of Kennedy as a target.  We are told over and over that it was the work of a single fanatic, nothing more.

In reaction to the shootings in Paris this week, one of my friends in the South of France wrote to me that “all of the West has to go to war against these fanatics.”

My reaction to this remark was immediate.  “We Americans went down that path to war after 9/11 and it did not provide us with a very satisfactory resolution.  In fact, it was ruinous.”

I remember one cold spring day before the war, before Shock and Awe, when I had gone to a friend’s house to go horseback riding in the woods.  There were four of us in the barn:  three women tacking up our horses and the farrier who was fixing a shoe or trimming a hoof.  He had a Semper Fi patch on his jean jacket.  The conversation, usually very collegial in a barn, had turned to the looming prospect of war with Iraq.

I spoke up and said “Invading Iraq will be our greatest mistake since Viet Nam.” 

I quickly learned that this was not the sort of thing one should say, smack in the middle of Republican DuPage County.  The response to my outburst was on the order of “Do you want our way of life threatened?  Do you want to see gas go up to $4.00 a gallon, threatening our economy?”

I felt very alone that day.  But I have never regretted voicing my opinion.

Fast forward to a more recent time.  I received a Facebook message from a woman with whom I had worked and remained friends for thirty years.  “Politically we are on opposite sides but that is okay because that is why we vote our personal choices but don't shove it down anyone's throat. It is almost like you are an activist.”

The message here was that I should NOT discuss religion or politics, particularly my left-leaning French ideas.  In order to keep everything “friendly”, those subjects are taboo, and Political Correctness is more than ever a requirement for social survival.  Me? An activist?  Posting something pro-Obama on Facebook is activism?  He is the President.

While we in the U.S. are conditioned not to rock the boat with our opinions, the French relish a good heated discussion.  It is a national sport, on a par with soccer, except that nearly everyone plays.  

One way of understanding the differences between French and American thinking is to look at how students in each country are evaluated.  In the U.S., the SAT and the ACT are multiple choice exams where only one answer is right!  Unthinkable in France.  The baccalaureate exam in French is in essay form.  The grading system in French schools is on a severe numeric scale, where no one ever achieves a perfect 20 out of 20 points.  Americans strive for that A+, but in France, there is always “room for improvement”, and nothing is ever perfect.  If you want to pay a Frenchman a compliment, “pas mal” or “not bad”, uttered with the appropriate uplifted tone of voice, would be more prized and more believable to him than an exuberant outburst of “wonderful job!”

In a country where the esprit critique is the cultural heritage of the Enlightenment , where nothing escapes doubt and examination, an attack on freedom of expression is particularly hostile.  And yet, the French terrorists this week, unlike those who hijacked the planes on 9/11, were not foreigners attacking a nation who had invaded their homeland.  They were French nationals attacking what they perceived to be an invasion of their beliefs, which were not to be questioned.  They attacked the satirical press precisely for being French, with the sometimes biting, saucy, challenging components of French humor. 

These guys were attacking the very culture in which they lived. 

Is France “at war” as my friend suggested?  What happens when a culture is attacked from within?  In all wars, boundaries are disputed and set.  The boundary in France’s conflict is not geographic.  It is a fragile line between Fraternité and Political Correctness, secularism and religious indoctrination, cultural assimilation and cultural resistance. 

Americans are usually much more obvious than the French with flag-waving patriotism, but this week, I have seen countless French flags on the news, and everyone singing La Marseillaise at the top of their lungs. So I have been flying my French tricolor flag on my front porch, against the attack on the culture that gave me the literature, the poetry, the music, the pleasures of the table, the style, and, most of all, the people that I love.  My heart is with them.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A review of Co-ïncidences, by Dr. Cynthia Hahn

Probably the best compliment one writer can pay another is to admit to the pangs of jealousy I experienced upon reading a line I wish I had written:

Daybreak Harvest

Poised to sing spring, this
in-between hour when
poems are time’s pockets.

Obviously, Cynthia Hahn is herself justifiably proud of her stunning metaphor of “time’s pockets”, since this verse is repeated under her photo on the back cover of her newest collection, entitled “Co-ïncidences” (Editions alfAbarre, 2014;

In this collection, Cynthia Hahn and artist-illustrator Monique Loubet brush onto paper the delicate landscapes of a woman’s soul.  Dr. Hahn is at her poetic best in the spare precise Haiku of her art, like the delicate brush strokes of Chinese characters that convey multiple meanings.  Ms. Loubet’s art is in perfect balance with the words on the page, full of subjective and sensory impressions that re-create objective reality.

My greatest enjoyment of this bilingual collection, however, was trying to decipher which poetic version came first:  the English or the French?  As someone who can call Cynthia Hahn a friend, and as poet and translator myself, it was a great game for me (and perhaps for her students) to read back and forth between the French and English to seek out the original poetic inspiration from the poetic translation.  In testimony to her craft, this was never very obvious and my guesses are certainly influenced by personal preferences for certain sounds and images.

Comparing the English verse:

Copper bell sounds a
lake of yellow lotus,
sun’s grounded glow.

to the French

Une cloche de cuivre sonne un
lac de lotus jauni,
chimères de soleil tombé en terre.

makes me think that this poem was born in English first, while the vocalic harmonies in the poem Elle en arbre

Les oiseaux me fortifient
de leurs nids
de leurs dons de trilles

lead me to believe that this French rendition, with its strident bird songs, was written before the English.

As for Night Undresses

Sun and Moon lie
in a crimson suitcase
filled with ragged clouds.

I’m convinced that the beautiful evocation of this image had to have been first seen with Cynthia’s English-speaking eyes.  My impression is that Cynthia Hahn is a bit more “liberated” in English and more rigorous in French, but if that is true, she would only be acting in faithfulness to the distinct natures of those two languages.

Her collection is a bird’s eye journey, from Ascent, to Flight, to Landing, in a final contemplation of mortality at a poet’s favorite place for that:  the sea. 

I came back to a new reading of these poems over the Christmas holidays, and was again pierced through with lines written for the finality of another year in the cold of winter:

Who will sing new year
leaves onto the trees?

Softly falling angels.

Congratulations, Dr. Hahn, on an elegant, moving work.  I say that with both jealousy and admiration.