Scham / Shame by Robert Kelly
Picture a composite face divided down the centre, uniting a beautiful German muse to a fierce-looking, white-haired Celtic bard, and, behind the face, a literary collaboration between one of the finest of contemporary German writers and the American poet who for many is the greatest English-language poet since Ezra Pound, writing alternate sections on a common theme. This theme is shame. Muse and bard hold between them, like a bedsheet that must be folded, their theme and their shame at veiling and unveiling it. With each act of folding the two authors come closer and closer to each other and their most intimate pain. Moreover, the sheet is double-sided. On one side is Schande, German for shame, since Birgit Kempker writes her mostly prose sections in German in this remarkable book; on the other side, in alternating passages of no less poetic prose, Robert Kelly responds by addressing shame in English. Meanwhile either author translates the other's confessional outbursts into his/her native tongue, so that Shame/Schande, the book, consists of facing pages in German and English, respectively. The book is thereby present twice: all of Kelly and Kempker's meditations face each other across the seam, on one side in German and on the other in English.
Composed in an exchange of emails (the co-authors did not met until after the work was completed), Shame/Schande is less a collaboration than a conversation, a correspondence not unlike the letters between prospective marriage partners in the age before instant communication. Here we have a prince, and a princess, as it might be, who have never met and yet are risking everything on a life together. Who are they, and how much dare they tell each other of who they are? On the other hand, how much dare they hide?
As a topic for an exchange of poetic meditations, shame compels a narrative: first, evasion and disguise, then a disrobing, and at last, the shameful truth. Being poets — Kempker, the sphinx of Basel, is also a prose writer and media artist, Kelly a novelist as well as a poet — they long to tell the truth, or more precisely to be told by the truth, so it isn't long before we penetrate the mine of excuses and reach the coal-face. There, like an ancient devise, we find man and woman, face to face. I put a spell on you are the opening words of the book, written by Kempker, for whom the heart of shame is her experience of unfreedom, the unfreedom of the captive heart. For Kelly, it is freedom that lies at the heart of shame, the ruthless freedom of the errant heart. Can these two shames ever hear each other? Reading Shame is like listening in on a terrible domestic confrontation couched in allusion. You left me! Cries the woman. I had no choice, cries the man.
Shame is sudden, always lurking, and little altered by circumstance. Shame is a recurrence; a short, painful story. Shame is a long one, 235 pages. How will our collaborators maintain the confessional trajectory? Mystery is intrinsic to the process, and our twinned authors are mystagogues by calling. Shame is a mystery, in the sense of a rite; it is not a darkness, and we know all too clearly what it is that binds us in shame; as we know that light alone will not release us.
The narrative of Shame and its repeated alternating returns to the confessional — to each contribution could easily be added an initial "Bless me, father…" — proves to lie in the doubled dialogue the book offers us, a dialogue not only between alternating riffs but also between author-as-translator and his/her victim, the author being translated. The fact that Kempker and Kelly not only write their section but translate each other's utterances provides the book with its richest intertextual as well as intratextual matter. For monoglot readers, both sides of the conversation lie on the page, entire, German on the left-facing pages, English on the right, like a perpetual dialogue des sourds. For the polyglot, the book discloses a second conversation, since Kempker and Kelly translate each other's contributions with an author's élan no less than a translator's solicitude. As translators both authors attend to each other's musings with love and attention; at the same time, both tangle their own motifs with their correspondent's, and permit the bilingual reader to study a further, secret confessional text to be found by comparing the original and the translated versions.
Kempker plumbs the pain of being left, Kelly of leaving. How well do they hear each other? How, when not only two souls but two languages are communing, will they overcome the obstacles to communication? First there is the necessary, fertile imperfection of all translation from one language into another, a process not so much cursed as blessed by loyal and devoted alteration. (What would an exact rendering be, if it were feasible, but an oxymoron, a black hole, an evacuation of meaning and a self-denial of the translating language? Happily it isn't possible, except in sad dreams of monoculture.) We look gratefully, then, to the willed and wilful inappositeness in Kelly's Kempker and Kempker's Kelly. It is a continuation of the conversation; and a continuation of the not-quite-hearing-right that is all conversation. Secondly, there arises the question of deliberately not hearing. Did one K misread, misunderstand the other K, or prefer, as we all do, to speed the chase by rewriting the other's thoughts, the better to address their real substance? How like a court of love, a you-first mutual accounting of the heart, this book is! And the third veil that hovers between the reader and the twin texts is the restraint that either K shows, when translating, when resisting the urge to dance off with the text, when curbing the harmonics which the very process of translation rouses; when admonishing him and herself, in turn, to be faithful!
What a deal of shame, in the very process of translation!
At last transgression gets the upper hand, and we glimpse the genesis of future shame as the translator makes amorously free with the interlocutor's words. Ich hoppel im Liebesfeld, writes Birgit Kempker, throwing open (perilously vulnerable Kempker!) the singular range of hoppel, a word with close relatives in English, ranging from hop —more often in discomfort than delight, in German — to hobble. Robert Kelly translates: I lollop around the field of love, a delicious image, with a sound to match. But Kelly has yielded to the enticements of a passing verb-maiden, and run off with the lady. Lolloping love is no closer than cousin to hoppel-ing love, and aptly so: rather than expressing Kempker's hobbled love, Kelly juxtaposes Kempker's love and Kelly's love, Kemper's hoppel-ing shame and Kelly's helplessly lolloping shame. Buried in Shame, tracing Kempker and Kelly's modulations not only in the way they address the theme when it's their 'turn' but in the way they re-dress each other's meditation, in translation, lies the conversation a listener holds with the material or he or she hears.
Shame belongs on every reader's shelf — and no-one will easily set it aside who sees the book's remarkable cover, on which one half of a Kempker-face meets the other half of a Kelly-face to form, out of two strikingly disparate physiognomies, a startlingly homogenous (if implausible) face, one that somehow suggests that each of us is really like this, if only we could peel back one hemisphere of skin to show our twin within. And who could let pass this opportunity to read the oracular, multitudinous Birgit Kempker, the very spirit of German culture resurgent, peerless, as it always was, in its breadth and depth, as the agile Kempker returns the ball, confession by confession and invention by invention, while the incomparable Robert Kelly, whose song only acquires greater sparkle and deeper resonance with each passing year, obliges Kempker to reach deep and draw high and wide in her voluminous imagination. Sometimes it's a duel, sometimes a duet. Now their song is antiphonal, at other moments it's like listening to Chet Baker's trumpet winding itself, vine-like, around the trellis-staves of Gerry Mulligan's baritone. It is the best volume of poetic prose I have read in a long time, beautifully presented by the publisher, and it will endure.